A quick follow-up to Friday’s post with one more read from 1954, plus a skim. The one is a series of comic portraits set on a women’s college campus, and the other is the story of a preacher’s son in 1930s Harlem. (Both: University library; )
Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell
I have a real soft spot for novels set on college campuses. Any time I’ve looked through lists of options, Jarrell’s has been there. Still, it took the 1954 Club for me to finally pick up a copy. For about the first half, I was fully engaged with this academic comedy even though it doesn’t have a plot as such. The stage is Benton women’s college; the cast includes various eccentric professors and other staff, from President Robbins on down. Gertrude Johnson, a visiting writer, is writing a novel about Benton. The problem for her – and for us as readers – is two-fold: the characters are almost too eccentric to be believed, and nothing happens here.
The narrator, a poetry professor at Benton, knew Gertrude socially back in New York City. His descriptions of his fellow faculty are often hilarious. For instance, here’s his picture of Flo Whittaker:
Mostly she wore, in the daytime in the winter, a tweed skirt, a sweater-set, and a necklace. The skirt looked as if a horse had left her its second-best blanket; the sweaters looked as if an old buffalo, sitting by a fire of peat, had knitted them for her from its coat of the winter before
The Whittakers’ house is so full of kitschy knick-knacks that “Jeremy Bentham’s stuffed body would not have been ill at ease.” And then there’s the Robbinses’ ill-behaved pair of Afghan hounds, and Dr. Rosenbaum the music professor, whose German accent is rendered over-the-top.
Funny as parts of the novel can be, the humour can feel dated and sometimes relies on niche cultural references. The very first line, for example: “Half the campus was designed by Bottom the Weaver, half by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe”. However, elsewhere Jarrell mocks the pretentiousness of modern art and of the Benton set, who also seem woke avant la lettre:
Most of the people of Benton would have swallowed a porcupine, if you had dyed its quills and called it Modern Art; they longed for men to be discovered on the moon, so that they could show that they weren’t prejudiced towards moon men; and they were so liberal and selfless, politically
Amusing pen portraits and witty lines made this pleasant to spend time with, but not a read that will stick with me.
As usual for any reading challenge, I bit off more than I could chew and started a fourth book but couldn’t get through it in time and, in all honesty, wasn’t finding it compelling. I’ll have to give it a better try on another occasion.
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
I’ve enjoyed Baldwin’s work before (The Fire Next Time, Giovanni’s Room), but didn’t make it much past page 30 of this novel about John Grimes, a preacher’s son in Harlem, before starting to skim. The central section contains long flashbacks to the backstory of three secondary characters, whereas I was more interested in John’s story (semi-autobiographical for Baldwin, apparently). Mostly I thought of how the content and narrative style must have influenced the following generations of African American writers, including Toni Morrison and Catherine Adel West – both of whom I was reading at the same time.
Another in an ongoing series as I catch up on the current and previous year releases I’ve been sent for review. Today I have four books by women: a poetry collection about living between countries and languages, a magic realist novel about vengeful spirits in Vietnam, a memoir in verse about the disabled body and queer parenting, and a novel set in gentrifying Puerto Rican neighbourhoods of New York City.
From the Jhalak Prize longlist:
Honorifics by Cynthia Miller (2021)
Miller is a Malaysian American poet currently living in Edinburgh. Honorifics was also shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Its themes resonate with poetry I’ve read by other Asian women like Romalyn Ante and Jenny Xie and with the works of mixed-race authors such as Jessica J. Lee and Nina Mingya Powles: living between two or more countries and feeling like an exile versus finding a sense of home.
Nightly, you rosary American synonyms for success learned the hard way: suburb – 10-year visa – promotion – carpool – mortgage – parent-teacher conference – nuclear family – assimilation … Homecoming is the last, hardest thing you’ll ask yourself to do.
“Loving v. Virginia” celebrates interracial love: “Look at us, improper. Look at us, indecent. Look at us, incandescent and loving.” Food is a vehicle for memory, as are home videos. Like Ante, Miller has a poem based on her mother’s voicemail messages. “Glitch honorifics” gives the characters for different family relationships, comparing Chinese and Hokkien. The imagery is full of colour and light, plants and paintings. A terrific central section called “Bloom” contains 10 jellyfish poems (“We bloom like nuclear hydrangea … I’m an unwound chandelier, / a 150-foot-long coil of cilia, // made up of a million gelatinous foxgloves.”).
Miller incorporates a lot of unusual structures, some of them traditional forms (“Sonnet with lighthouses,” “Moon goddess ghazal,” “Persimmon abecedarian”) and others freer forms like a numbered list, columns, dictionary definitions or prose paragraphs. Six of the poems cite an inspiration; I could particularly see the influence in “The Home Office after Caroline Bird” – an absurdist take on government immigration policy.
There’s much variety here, and so many beautiful lines and evocative images. “Malaysiana,” a tour through everything she loves about the country of her birth, was my single favourite poem, and a couple more passages I loved were “the heart measuring breaths like levelling sugar / for a batter, the heart saying / why don’t you come in from the cold.” (from “The impossible physiology of the free diver”) and the last two stanzas of “Lupins”: “Some days / their purple spines // are the only things / holding me up.” Flora and fauna references plus a consideration of the expat life meant this was custom made for me, but I’d recommend it to anyone looking to try out different styles of contemporary poetry.
With thanks to Nine Arches Press for the free copy for review.
From the Women’s Prize longlist:
Build Your House around My Body by Violet Kupersmith (2021)
Back in 2014, I reviewed Kupersmith’s debut collection, The Frangipani Hotel, for BookBrowse. I was held rapt by its ghostly stories of Vietnam, so I was delighted to hear that she had written a debut novel, and it was one of my few correct predictions for the Women’s Prize nominees. The main action takes place between when Winnie – half white and half Vietnamese – arrives in Saigon to teach English in 2010, and when she disappears from the house she shared with her boyfriend of three months, Long, in March 2011. But the timeline darts about to tell a much more expansive story, starting with the Japanese invasion of Vietnam in the 1940s. Each date is given as the number of months or years before or after Winnie’s disappearance.
Winnie starts off living with a great-aunt and cousins, and meets a family friend, Dr. Sang, who’s been experimenting on a hallucinogenic drug made from cobra venom. Long and his brother, Tan, a policeman, were childhood friends with a fearless young woman named Binh – now a vengeful ghost haunting them both. Meanwhile, the Saigon Spirit Eradication Company, led by the Fortune Teller, is called upon to eradicate a ghost – which from time to time seems to inhabit a small dog – from a snake-infested highland estate. These strands are bound to meet, and smoke and snakes wind their way through them all.
I enjoyed Kupersmith’s energetic writing, which reminded me by turns of Nicola Barker, Ned Beauman, Elaine Castillo and Naoise Dolan, and the glimpses of Cambodia and Vietnam we get through meals and motorbike rides. What happens with Belly the dog towards the end is fantastic. But the chronology feels needlessly complex, with the flashbacks to colonial history and even to Binh’s story not adding enough to the narrative. While I’d still like to see Kupersmith make the shortlist, I can recommend her short stories that bit more highly.
With thanks to Oneworld for the free copy for review.
Handbook for the Newly Disabled: A Lyric Memoir by Allison Blevins (2022)
Allison Blevins, a poet, has published five chapbooks or collections and has another forthcoming. Based in Missouri and the director of an indie press, she tells her story of chronic illness and queer parenting in 10 “chapters” composed of multi-part poems. She moves through brain fog and commemorates pain and desire, which cannot always coexist (as in “How to F**k a Disabled Body”).
ride a bike again, hike, carry my children. I’m learning to number what I’ve lost.
Because of the pills, I no longer fall into sleep, I stop. I used to hate queer at 19
when I was a dyke. I can’t be disabled. I need a better word. I need a body that floats—
translucent and liquid—to my daughter’s bed, to cover her like cotton-red quilted stars.
(from “Brain Fog”)
Sometimes the title is enough: “My Neurologist (Who Doesn’t Have MS) Explains Pain Is Not a Symptom of MS.” Other times, what is left out, or erased (as in “Five by Five”) is what matters the most. For instance, the Photo Illustrations promised in the titles of two chapters are replaced by Accessibility Notes. That strategy reminded me of one Raymond Antrobus has used. Alliteration, synesthesia and the language of the body express the complexities of a friend’s cancer, having a trans partner, and coming to terms with sexuality (“I think now that being queer was easy, easy as forgetting / being born”). A really interesting work and an author I’d like to read more from.
Published by BlazeVOX [books] on 22 March. With thanks to the author for the e-copy for review.
Olga Dies Dreaming by Xóchitl González (2022)
This was on my radar thanks to a starred Kirkus review. It would have been a good choice for the Women’s Prize longlist, with its bold heroine, Latinx and gay characters, and blend of literary and women’s fiction. The Puerto Rican immigrant community and gentrifying neighbourhoods of New York City are appealing locales, and Olga is a clever, gutsy protagonist. As the novel opens in 2017, she’s working out how best to fleece the rich families whose progeny’s weddings she plans. Today it’s embezzling napkins for her cousin Mabel’s wedding. Next: stockpiling cut-price champagne. Olga’s brother Prieto, a slick congressman inevitably nicknamed the “Latino Obama,” is a closeted gay man. Their late father was a drug addict; their mother left to be part of a revolutionary movement back in PR and sends her children occasional chiding letters when they appear to be selling out.
The aftermath of Hurricane Maria coincides with upheaval in Olga’s and Prieto’s personal and professional lives. The ins and outs of Puerto Rican politics went over my head somewhat, and the various schemes and conspiracy theories get slightly silly. The thread that most engaged me was Olga’s relationship with Matteo, a hoarder. I hoped that, following the satire of earlier parts (“Olga realized she’d allowed herself to become distracted from the true American dream—accumulating money—by its phantom cousin, accumulating fame. She would never make that mistake again”), there might be a message about the emptiness of the pursuit of wealth. So I ended up a little disappointed by a late revelation about Matteo.
However, I did appreciate the picture of how Olga is up against it as both a woman and a person of colour (“no person of color serious about being taken seriously was ever late to meet white people”). This debut was perhaps a little unsure of what it wanted to be, but the novelty of the main elements was enough to make it worth reading.
With thanks to Fleet for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
This is a bimonthly feature of mine. I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something in common – the more bizarre, the better. Because I usually 20–30 books on the go at once, I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. (I’ve realized that, of course, synchronicity is really the more apt word, but this branding has stuck.) I always like hearing about your bookish coincidences, too!
The following are in roughly chronological order.
- The author takes Valium to cope with fear of flying in two memoirs I read at the same time, I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg and This Boy We Made by Taylor Harris.
- The fact that the Spanish brought wild horses to the USA is mentioned in the story “The Team” by Tommy Orange (in The Decameron Project) and the poetry collection Rise and Float by Brian Tierney – this also links back to a book I reread in late 2021, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry.
- There are roaches in a New York City apartment in I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg and the story “Other People’s Lives” in Loss of Memory Is Only Temporary by Johanna Kaplan.
- The same Dostoevsky passage from The Brothers Karamazov, about loving everything (“Love all the earth, every ray of God’s light, every grain of sand or blade of grass, every living thing. If you love the earth enough, you will know the divine mystery” and so on), is quoted in Faith after Doubt by Brian McLaren and Reflections from the North Country by Sigurd Olson.
- A description of nicotine-stained yellow fingers in What I Wish People Knew About Dementia by Wendy Mitchell, The Cure for Sleep by Tanya Shadrick, and Free by Lea Ypi.
- Joni Mitchell’s music is mentioned in The Reactor by Nick Blackburn and The Cure for Sleep by Tanya Shadrick, two memoirs I was reading at the same time.
- From one summer camp story to another … I happened to follow up The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer with Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash.
- Audre Lorde’s definition of the erotic is quoted in Body Work by Melissa Febos and Heaven Is a Place on Earth by Adrian Shirk, both of which are March 15, 2022 nonfiction releases I’ve reviewed for Shelf Awareness.
- The 2017 white supremacist terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia is mentioned in This Boy We Made by Taylor Harris (who lives there), Faith after Doubt by Brian McLaren (who was part of the clergy counterprotest group that day), and Heaven Is a Place on Earth by Adrian Shirk (she went there for a literary event a few months later).
- The Salvador Dalí painting The Persistence of Memory (that’s the one with the melting clock) is described in The Reactor by Nick Blackburn and This Boy We Made by Taylor Harris.
- On the same day, I came across the fact that Mary Shelley was pregnant while she wrote Frankenstein in two books: Linea Nigra by Jazmina Barrera and Smile by Sarah Ruhl.
- The fact that cysts in female organs can contain teeth comes up in Heaven Is a Place on Earth by Adrian Shirk and I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins.
- Reading two novels by Japanese-American authors who grew up in Hawaii at the same time: How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu and To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara.
- Twins are everywhere! Including, just in a recent reading pile, in Hands by Lauren Brown (she’s a twin, so fair enough), Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell, The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall, Smile by Sarah Ruhl (this and the Cornwell are memoirs about birthing twins, so also fair enough), Ordinary Love by Jane Smiley, and The Priory by Dorothy Whipple. For as uncommon as they are in real life, they turn up way too often in fiction.
- Bell’s palsy AND giving birth to twins are elements in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell and Smile by Sarah Ruhl.
- There’s a no-nonsense maternity nurse in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell and The Priory by Dorothy Whipple.
- U.S. West Coast wolves (a particular one in each case, known by a tracking number) are the subject of a poem in Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz and The Necessity of Wildfire by Caitlin Scarano.
- Herons appear and/or have metaphorical/symbolic meaning in Thorpeness by Alison Brackenbury, What Willow Says by Lynn Buckle, Maggie Blue and the Dark World by Anna Goodall, and The Priory by Dorothy Whipple.
- There’s a character named Edwin in Booth by Karen Joy Fowler and Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel.
- The use of “hoard” where it should be “horde” in Maggie Blue and the Dark World by Anna Goodall and Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan – both errors were encountered in the same evening.
- I read about Lindisfarne in Jini Reddy’s essay in Women on Nature (ed. Katharine Norbury) and The Interior Silence by Sarah Sands in the same evening.
- “Flitting” as a synonym for moving house in Thorpeness by Alison Brackenbury and Nature Cure by Richard Mabey.
- A brother named Paul in Tides by Sara Freeman and Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel.
- A woman knows her lover is on the phone with his ex by his tone of voice in Tides by Sara Freeman and Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan.
- In two novels I’ve read so far this year – but I won’t say which ones as it’s a spoiler – the big reveal, towards the very end, is that a woman was caught breastfeeding someone who was not her baby and it caused a relationship-destroying rupture.
- Reading a second memoir this year where the chapters are titled after pop songs: Dear Queer Self by Jonathan Alexander (for a Foreword review) and now This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps.
- A second short novel entitled The Swimmers this year: the first was Julie Otsuka’s, recently reviewed for Shiny New Books; a proof copy is on the way to me of Chloe Lane’s, coming out from Gallic Books in May.
- Reading a second memoir this year whose author grew up in the Chicago suburbs of Illinois (Arlington Heights/Buffalo Grove vs. Oak Park): I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg and This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps.
- The linea nigra (a stripe of dark hair down a pregnant woman’s belly) provides the title for Linea Nigra by Jazmina Barrera and is also mentioned in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell.
- The famous feminist text Our Bodies, Ourselves is mentioned in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell and I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins.
- Childbirth brings back traumatic memories of rape in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell and This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
This year the Be/Ask/Become the Expert week of the month-long Nonfiction November challenge is hosted by Veronica of The Thousand Book Project. (In previous years I’ve contributed lists of women’s religious memoirs (twice), accounts of postpartum depression, and books on “care”.)
I’ve been devouring nonfiction responses to COVID-19 for over a year now. Even memoirs that are not specifically structured as diaries take pains to give a sense of what life was like from day to day during the early months of the pandemic, including the fear of infection and the experience of lockdown. Covid is mentioned in lots of new releases these days, fiction or nonfiction, even if just via an introduction or epilogue, but I’ve focused on books where it’s a major element. At the end of the post I list others I’ve read on the theme, but first I feature four recent releases that I was sent for review.
Year of Plagues: A Memoir of 2020 by Fred D’Aguiar
The plague for D’Aguiar was dual: not just Covid, but cancer. Specifically, stage 4 prostate cancer. A hospital was the last place he wanted to spend time during a pandemic, yet his treatment required frequent visits. Current events, including a curfew in his adopted home of Los Angeles and the protests following George Floyd’s murder, form a distant background to an allegorized medical struggle. D’Aguiar personifies his illness as a force intent on harming him; his hope is that he can be like Anansi and outwit the Brer Rabbit of cancer. He imagines dialogues between himself and his illness as they spar through a turbulent year.
Cancer needs a song: tambourine and cymbals and a choir, not to raise it from the dead but [to] lay it to rest finally.
Tracing the effects of his cancer on his wife and children as well as on his own body, he wonders if the treatment will disrupt his sense of his own masculinity. I thought the narrative would hit home given that I have a family member going through the same thing, but it struck me as a jumble, full of repetition and TMI moments. Expecting concision from a poet, I wanted the highlights reel instead of 323 rambling pages.
(Carcanet Press, August 26.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
100 Days by Gabriel Josipovici
Beginning in March 2020, Josipovici challenged himself to write a diary entry and mini-essay each day for 100 days – which happened to correspond almost exactly to the length of the UK’s first lockdown. Approaching age 80, he felt the virus had offered “the unexpected gift of a bracket round life” that he “mustn’t fritter away.” He chose an alphabetical framework, stretching from Aachen to Zoos and covering everything from his upbringing in Egypt to his love of walking in the Sussex Downs. I had the feeling that I should have read some of his fiction first so that I could spot how his ideas and experiences had infiltrated it; I’m now rectifying this by reading his novella The Cemetery in Barnes, in which I recognize a late-life remarriage and London versus countryside settings.
Still, I appreciated Josipovici’s thoughts on literature and his own aims for his work (more so than the rehashing of Covid statistics and official briefings from Boris Johnson et al., almost unbearable to encounter again):
In my writing I have always eschewed visual descriptions, perhaps because I don’t have a strong visual memory myself, but actually it is because reading such descriptions in other people’s novels I am instantly bored and feel it is so much dead wood.
nearly all my books and stories try to force the reader (and, I suppose, as I wrote, to force me) to face the strange phenomenon that everything does indeed pass, and that one day, perhaps sooner than most people think, humanity will pass and, eventually, the universe, but that most of the time we live as though all was permanent, including ourselves. What rich soil for the artist!
Why have I always had such an aversion to first person narratives? I think precisely because of their dishonesty – they start from a falsehood and can never recover. The falsehood that ‘I’ can talk in such detail and so smoothly about what has ‘happened’ to ‘me’, or even, sometimes, what is actually happening as ‘I’ write.
You never know till you’ve plunged in just what it is you really want to write. When I started writing The Inventory I had no idea repetition would play such an important role in it. And so it has been all through, right up to The Cemetery in Barnes. If I was a poet I would no doubt use refrains – I love the way the same thing becomes different the second time round
To write a novel in which nothing happens and yet everything happens: a secret dream of mine ever since I began to write
I did sense some misogyny, though, as it’s generally female writers he singles out for criticism: Iris Murdoch is his prime example of the overuse of adjectives and adverbs, he mentions a “dreadful novel” he’s reading by Elizabeth Bowen, and he describes Jean Rhys and Dorothy Whipple as women “who, raised on a diet of the classic English novel, howled with anguish when life did not, for them, turn out as they felt it should.”
While this was enjoyable to flip through, it’s probably more for existing fans than for readers new to the author’s work, and the Covid connection isn’t integral to the writing experiment.
(Carcanet Press, October 28.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
A stanza from the below collection to link the first two books to this next one:
Have they found him yet, I wonder,
whoever it is strolling
about as a plague doctor, outlandish
beak and all?
The Crash Wake and Other Poems by Owen Lowery
Lowery was a tetraplegic poet – wheelchair-bound and on a ventilator – who also survived a serious car crash in February 2020 before his death in May 2021. It’s astonishing how much his body withstood, leaving his mind not just intact but capable of generating dozens of seemingly effortless poems. Most of the first half of this posthumous collection, his third overall, is taken up by a long, multipart poem entitled “The Crash Wake” (it’s composed of 104 12-line poems, to be precise), in which his complicated recovery gets bound up with wider anxiety about the pandemic: “It will take time and / more to find our way / back to who we were before the shimmer / and promise of our snapped day.”
As the seventh anniversary of his wedding to Jayne nears, Lowery reflects on how love has kept him going despite flashbacks to the accident and feeling written off by his doctors. In the second section of the book, the subjects vary from the arts (Paula Rego’s photographs, Stanley Spencer’s paintings, R.S. Thomas’s theology) to sport. There is also a lovely “Remembrance Day Sequence” imagining what various soldiers, including Edward Thomas and his own grandfather, lived through. The final piece is a prose horror story about a magpie. Like a magpie, I found many sparkly gems in this wide-ranging collection.
(Carcanet Press, October 28.) With thanks to the publisher for the free e-copy for review.
Behind the Mask: Living Alone in the Epicenter by Kate Walter
[135 pages, so I’m counting this one towards #NovNov, too]
For Walter, a freelance journalist and longtime Manhattan resident, coronavirus turned life upside down. Retired from college teaching and living in Westbeth Artists Housing, she’d relied on activities outside the home for socializing. To a single extrovert, lockdown offered no benefits; she spent holidays alone instead of with her large Irish Catholic family. Even one of the world’s great cities could be a site of boredom and isolation. Still, she gamely moved her hobbies onto Zoom as much as possible, and welcomed an escape to Jersey Shore.
In short essays, she proceeds month by month through the pandemic: what changed, what kept her sane, and what she was missing. Walter considers herself a “gay elder” and was particularly sad the Pride March didn’t go ahead in 2020. She also found herself ‘coming out again’, at age 71, when she was asked by her alma mater to encapsulate the 50 years since graduation in 100 words.
There’s a lot here to relate to – being glued to the news, anxiety over Trump’s possible re-election, looking forward to vaccination appointments – and the book is also revealing on the special challenges for older people and those who don’t live with family. However, I found the whole fairly repetitive (perhaps as a result of some pieces originally appearing in The Village Sun and then being tweaked and inserted here).
Before an appendix of four short pre-Covid essays, there’s a section of pandemic writing prompts: 12 sets of questions to use to think through the last year and a half and what it’s meant. E.g. “Did living through this extraordinary experience change your outlook on life?” If you’ve been meaning to leave a written record of this time for posterity, this list would be a great place to start.
(Heliotrope Books, November 16.) With thanks to the publicist for the free e-copy for review.
Other Covid-themed nonfiction I have read:
- Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke
- Intensive Care by Gavin Francis
- Every Minute Is a Day by Robert Meyer and Dan Koeppel (reviewed for Shelf Awareness)
- Duty of Care by Dominic Pimenta
- Many Different Kinds of Love by Michael Rosen
+ I have a proof copy of Everything Is True: A Junior Doctor’s Story of Life, Death and Grief in a Time of Pandemic by Roopa Farooki, coming out in January.
- Goshawk Summer by James Aldred
- The Heeding by Rob Cowen (in poetry form)
- Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt
- The Consolation of Nature by Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren
- Skylarks with Rosie by Stephen Moss
- Hold Still (a National Portrait Gallery commission of 100 photographs taken in the UK in 2020)
- The Rome Plague Diaries by Matthew Kneale
- Quarantine Comix by Rachael Smith (in graphic novel form; reviewed for Foreword Reviews)
- UnPresidented by Jon Sopel
+ on my Kindle: Alone Together, an anthology of personal essays
+ on my TBR: What Just Happened: Notes on a Long Year by Charles Finch
If you read just one… Make it Intensive Care by Gavin Francis. (And, if you love nature books, follow that up with The Consolation of Nature.)
Can you see yourself reading any of these?
It’s my fourth time participating in one of Simon and Karen’s reading weeks (after last year’s 1920 Club and 1956 Club and April’s 1936 Club). I start with a novel I actually read for my book club’s short-lived feminist classics subgroup way back in March but didn’t manage to review before now, and then have another I picked up especially for this challenge. Both were from the university library.
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
An unusual and fascinating novel with hints of science fiction, but still grounded in the real world (in a way that would attract fans of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred and Parable duology), this contrasts utopian and dystopian scenes experienced by a Latina woman who’s been confined to a mental hospital. At 37, Connie Ramos has had a tough life marked by deprivation and domestic violence; “it was a crime to be born poor as it was a crime to be born brown.” She finds herself in conversation with Luciente, a plant geneticist who claims to be visiting from the future – coastal Massachusetts in 2137 – and has heard rumors of this prior Age of Greed and Waste. Luciente senses that Connie is a “catcher,” receptive to the wavelength of other times and places.
When drawn into Luciente’s future, Connie thinks of it more as a peasant past because of the animal husbandry and agriculture, but comes to appreciate how technology and gender equality contribute to a peaceful society and environmentally restored landscape. I was intrigued by the dynamic Piercy imagines: everyone is of indeterminate gender (the universal pronouns are “person” and “per” – how about it? Both less confusing and more aesthetically pleasing than they/them!); embryos are cultured in machines and the resulting children raised communally with three honorary named “mother” figures. People choose their own names and change them in response to rites of passage. There’s no government or police. Free love reigns. “Our notions of evil center around power and greed” rather than sex, Connie is told.
With Connie and her fellow inmates facing mind-altering surgery in the ‘real’ world, Luciente’s community becomes a blessed escape. But on one of her time travels, she ends up in a dystopian future New York City instead. From 126 floors up, all that’s visible through the smoggy air is other towers. Everyone is genetically modified and everything is owned by corporations. Which scenario represents the authentic evolution of human society?
The way Piercy intersperses these visions with life at the mental hospital, and closes with excerpts from Connie’s patient notes, forces you to question whether they might all be hallucinations. We didn’t come to any firm conclusion during our Zoom discussion. The others found Connie’s life unremittingly bleak, but I love me a good mental hospital narrative. While I wearied a bit of the anthropological detail as the novel went on, I thought it an intense cultural commentary from a writer ahead of her time on gender roles and the environment (small-scale food production, foraging, renewable energy and reusing/recycling are givens in her utopia, and she questions the nonsensical reliance on cars. Why didn’t we listen to the prophets of the 1970s when we maybe had a chance to turn things around?!).
The Takeover by Muriel Spark
Had I read this in manuscript with no author name attached, I might have declared it to have been written by Iris Murdoch for the clutch of amoral characters, the love triangles, the peculiar religious society, the slight meanness of the attitude, and the detachment of the prose. Maggie Radcliffe is a rich American who owns three houses in the vicinity of Rome, one of which she rents out to Hubert Mallindaine, an effete homosexual who alleges that he is descended from the goddess Diana and founds a cult in her honour. He holds to this belief as fiercely as he defends his right to remain at Nemi even when Maggie decides she wants him out and employs lawyers to start eviction proceedings. There are odd priests, adulterous family members, scheming secretaries, and art and jewellery thieves, too. I wouldn’t say I’m a fan, but I liked this, my fourth novel by Spark, better than the rest. Italian bureaucracy makes for an amusing backdrop to what is almost a financial farce with an ensemble cast.
Another 1976 release I’ve reviewed this year: The Easter Parade by Richard Yates.
Like the assassination of John F. Kennedy for a previous generation, September 11, 2001 was a landmark day in our shared history. I was two weeks into my freshman year of college and getting ready to head out to a 9:30 seminar when my roommate returned early from her first class. “All these planes flying into buildings – I’m freaking out!” she cried, and turned our tiny desktop TV set to a news station.
At that point it was unclear what was going on, so I dutifully trudged out across the quad linking the residence halls to the academic buildings, anticipating a normal day of classes. On the way I encountered small groups of somber students, and was alarmed to see my friend and “Big Sister” from the junior class weeping onto her boyfriend’s shoulder – her dad worked at the Pentagon, and she hadn’t yet heard that he was okay. When I entered the lecture hall it was clear no regular work was going to happen that day; I was one of only a handful of students who’d shown up, and our English professor, too, was engrossed by the rippling montage of rubble and smoke being projected onto a screen behind him.
As the anniversary approached this year, I picked up a coffee table book of photos, Reuters’ September 11: A Testimony from the library and was struck by how dated everything appeared. For an event so fresh in my memory, it actually looks like something that happened a long time ago thanks to everything from the fashions and car designs to the photographic quality. You also get the sense that, even in the early Internet age, things like missing person posters and public tributes to the dead were primarily paper-based then. The photos barely capture the scope of the devastation. One image of firefighters among the wreckage looks like a film set or architect’s model, the human figures like ants among the dusty girders. This was published in late 2001, so it was put together quickly. Photographs tell the story, with extremely brief captions on facing pages. Nearly half of the length is devoted to documenting the three crash sites, with the rest chronicling memorial services, national and international commemorations, and New York City gradually returning to business as usual.
On the way back from our mother’s wedding this summer, my sister and brother-in-law and I passed the entrance to the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania so drove in for a look. The 1,000-acre site is administered by the National Park Service. On the airless June day we were there, the Tower of Voices was not making its eerie music, but it was still a peaceful spot for reflection. You can listen to a recording of the windchimes on the website. There is also a visitor center with a permanent exhibition that we will have to go back and see another time.
I also recently reread Rowan Williams’s superb book-length essay Writing in the Dust (2002), which I’d read twice before. Williams, then Archbishop of Wales and soon to become Archbishop of Canterbury, was in New York City on 9/11. He was, in fact, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center, at Trinity Church, Wall Street, where he was part of a group recording theological conversations to be used for educational purposes. When the planes hit and the air filled with dust and smoke, he did the same as everyone else: he quickly evacuated, ensured everyone was safe, and then watched, listened, and prayed. And in the months that followed he thought about what he’d seen that day, and what his experience had taught him about suffering, peacemaking, and the ways of God.
Writing well before military action against Iraq began, Williams cautioned against labeling the Other as Evil and responding in a simple spirit of retribution. Prophets’ words are never welcome, of course, and time has shown that Western policies have only made things worse. I must have read this from a university library; I then did a peculiar (and probably illegal, in copyright terms) thing and typed out every single word of it into a Word file so I could keep it forever.
Here are some of Williams’s words of wisdom:
“The hardest thing in the world is to know how to act so as to make the difference that can be made; to know how and why that differs from the act that only releases or expresses the basic impotence of resentment.”
My original rating (2013):
My rating now:
Other 9/11-themed reading I have done:
The Second Plane by Martin Amis (2008)
A famously bad-tempered English novelist who now lives in New York, Amis here presents a collection of 14 fictional and factual responses to 9/11. The essays are much stronger than the stories (a tale about Saddam Hussein’s son’s body double is downright weird), although it might be argued that Amis’s general understanding of Islam is fatally skewed. Opinionated, bold, and polarizing, these pieces ponder the symbolism and ideology of a day that changed the world.
The wonderful Annie Dillard’s post-9/11 essay “This is the Life,” available to read here, is another perceptive look at our response to tragedy, asking whether we are going to accept what “everyone” thinks about us vs. them and the value of human lives: “Everyone knows…the enemies are barbarians [but] our lives and our deaths count equally.”
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (2005)
Oskar Schell is a tremendously precocious nine-year-old who’s trying to come to terms with his father’s death in the World Trade Center on 9/11. He sets off on a quest to find the lock that takes the key he found in his dad’s closet. This light-hearted search takes him all over New York’s five boroughs, but in the end Oskar is little closer to discovering who his dad really was or how exactly he died. All he has left of him is that same panicked message on the answering machine, left sometime during the morning of September 11th. By denying neat narrative closure, Foer avoids sentimentality at the same time as he affirms the tragedy’s effect on a nation and on individuals.
Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver (2002)
On September 12th, 2001, Kingsolver sat down at her computer to write up some thoughts about the previous day’s tragedy. A newspaper had asked her for a short response, but as she sat and typed she found that the words kept coming, in essay after essay. The title piece in this collection, and several others like it, might make for occasionally uncomfortable reading, as Kingsolver questions automatic all-American responses like indiscriminate flag-waving and “we’ll hunt those terrorists down” vigilante justice. She asks how someone who loves her country can criticize its tenets and actions without being branded a traitor. “My country, right or wrong,” the saying goes – fair enough, but the truest patriot is one who loves her country enough to hold it to the highest moral standards, demanding it live up to its democratic ideals.
The Submission by Amy Waldman (2011)
Waldman’s debut imagines what would have happened had New Yorkers chosen a 9/11 memorial design as soon as 2003 and – crucially – had the anonymous selection turned out to be by a Muslim architect named Mohammad Khan. His memorial garden is rich in possible meanings and influences. When a member of the memorial selection jury leaks the information about the designer’s name to the press, however, all hell breaks loose, and perfectly nice, reasonable people start to display some ugly bigotry. As the clever double meaning of the title suggests, Waldman has educated herself about Islam’s doctrines. She includes an impressive range of characters and opinions in this canny psychological exploration.
(Most of the above text is recycled from an article I wrote for Bookkaholic web magazine (now defunct) in 2013.)
I can think of at least six more novels I’ve read that would be appropriate for this list, yet even including them here would be a spoiler. Generally, if you’re reading a novel set in New York City in 2000 or so, you should be prepared…
This year I meant to read Mitchell Zuckoff’s comprehensive journalistic study, Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11, but ran out of time. Eleanor highly recommends the audiobook of the oral history The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett M. Graff. This Kirkus list has two additional nonfiction suggestions.
Where were you on 9/11?
Have you read anything related to it?
I’m catching up on blogs and getting back into the swing of work after a week’s staycation hosting my mom and stepdad and taking them on daytrips to lots of local sites: Highclere Castle (“Downton Abbey”), Bath, Avebury, the south coast, Sandham Memorial Chapel, the Kennet & Avon canal, and Mottisfont Abbey.
Today’s contributions to my colour-themed summer reading are both nonfiction: a forthright memoir from a female surgeon and a light-hearted record of multiple seasons of hawk-watching in Central Park.
Direct Red: A Surgeon’s Story by Gabriel Weston (2009)
Trying to keep herself alert seven hours into assisting with a neck surgery, Weston recites to herself a list of dyes used to stain tissues for microscopy: methylene blue, acridine orange, saffron, malachite green, Tyrian purple, Hoffman’s violet, direct red. This is how the book opens, and of course, red being the colour of blood, it shows up frequently in what follows. She tells (anonymized) stories of people she has treated, of all ages and from all backgrounds, both during her training and after she specialized in ear, nose and throat surgery.
Like Henry Marsh in Admissions, she expresses regret for moments when she was in a rush or trying to impress seniors and didn’t give the best patient-focused care she could have. Some patients even surprise her into changing her mind, such as about the morality of plastic surgery.
The accounts of individual surgeries are detailed and sometimes gory: morbidly delicious for me, but definitely not for the squeamish.
Blood trickled in a stream down the inside of my wrist onto the plasticky gown, and then dripped off me and onto the drape. It collected in a green valley and was congealing there like a small garnet jelly. I lost my balance slightly as the breast was cut off.
Surgery is still a male-dominated field, and I’ve sensed unpleasant machismo from surgeon authors before (Stephen Westaby’s The Knife’s Edge). As a woman in medicine, Weston is keenly aware of the difficult balance to be struck between confidence and compassion.
To be a good doctor, you have to master a paradoxical art. You need to get close to a patient so that they will tell you things and you will understand what they mean. But you also have to keep distant enough not to get too affected.
It is no longer enough to be technically proficient; nowadays, we need to be nice. And this presents the modern surgeon with a great challenge: how to combine a necessary degree of toughness with an equally important ability to be gentle.
Initially, her bedside manner is on the brusque side, but when she becomes a mother this changes. Treating a sick baby in the ITU, she realizes she barely sees her own child for more than five minutes per evening. In the final paragraphs, she quits her career-track consultant job to work part-time. “I chose a life with more home in it.” It’s an abrupt ending to a 180-page memoir that I thoroughly enjoyed but that left me wanting more. (Secondhand purchase from Oxfam Books, Reading)
Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park by Marie Winn (1998)
In the early 1990s, Wall Street Journal columnist Winn fell in with an earnest group of birdwatchers who monitor the daily activity in New York City’s Central Park, a haven for wildlife. Through the Register, a logbook stored in a boathouse, they share sightings and track patterns. Relative rarities thrive and breed each year. Before long the book zeroes in on a famous pair of red-tailed hawks, “Pale Male” and a series of females. Winn emphasizes the “drama” of her subtitle, arranging the content into Acts and Scenes that span about five years.
Wild birds face many risks, most of them the fault of humans, and there are some distressing losses here. It is thus a triumph when Pale Male and his mate successfully raise three chicks on the façade of a Fifth Avenue apartment building (home to Mary Tyler Moore, with Woody Allen across the street). The birdwatchers are vigilant, sending letters to the apartment manager and calling park staff to ensure the birds are left in peace. No doubt it’s easier to disseminate information and assign responsibility now what with WhatsApp and Twitter. Indeed, I found the book a little dated and the anthropomorphizing somewhat over-the-top, but Winn makes a sweet, rollicking yarn out of people getting invested in nature. (Secondhand purchase from Clock Tower Books, Hay-on-Wye)
Coming up next: Three green, one black, one gold (and maybe a rainbow bonus).
Would you be interested in reading one of these?
The New York City publishing world was an irresistible draw of this historical novel, my first fiction read from Francine Prose. In June 1953, Simon Putnam, newly graduated from Harvard with a degree in folklore studies, is living at home with his parents on Coney Island when the Rosenberg execution appears on television. The whole country has been caught up in this sordid real-life spy drama, but his family has an unusual connection that makes them feel they have more of a stake: Simon’s mother grew up in the same tenement building as Ethel Rosenberg and they attended high school together. The Putnams feel the execution was a disgrace, and Simon’s mother has even created a sort of shrine to Ethel in their apartment.
This puts Simon in a tricky situation when his uncle gets him an editorial job with a publisher whose next project – intended to keep the struggling firm afloat – is the potboiler The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic, a thinly veiled version of the Rosenberg story that relishes in their demise, turning them into “Soviet sex zombies.” Besides being in poor taste, it’s atrociously written. Can Simon turn it into something more in line with his values without displeasing his boss? Complicating matters is his crush on the book’s author, Anya Partridge, a vamp who wears a fox stole and happens to be confined to a mental asylum.
Nothing is what it seems in a suspenseful narrative inspired by the events of the Red Scare. Characters who initially embody stereotypes end up surpassing expectations. I have trouble putting my finger on why I found this novel underwhelming on the whole. Maybe it was something to do with the far-fetched turns and Simon’s impassive narration. Or one too many references to his sex fantasies about Anya. I don’t see myself seeking out more fiction by Prose. But if you’re a fan of Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell and especially The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott, you may well find this a pleasant summer diversion.
My thanks to Harper360 UK and Anne Cater for arranging my proof copy for review.
I was delighted to be part of the blog tour for The Vixen. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.