Tag Archives: novella

Barbellion Prize Shortlist Reviews: Ultimatum Orangutan & What Willow Says

The shortlist for the second annual Barbellion Prize was announced earlier this month. I had already read one of the books, and publishers have kindly sent me two of the others for review. Still in the running this year are two novels, a poetry collection and a memoir (you can read a bit more about the longlist here).

 

Ultimatum Orangutan by Khairani Barokka (2021)

Barokka is an Indonesian poet and performance artist based in London. The topics of her second collection include chronic pain, the oppression of women, and the environmental crisis. While she’s distressed at the exploitation of nature, she sprinkles in humanist reminders of Indigenous peoples whose needs should also be valued. For instance, in the title poem, whose points of reference range from King Kong to palm oil plantations, she acknowledges that orangutans must be saved, but that people are also suffering in her native Indonesia. It’s a subtle plea for balanced consideration.

An early sequence about a visit to a Natural History Museum exemplifies the blend of themes. From her wheelchair, the poet ponders “the event” that killed the dinosaurs and human bias towards fellow vertebrates. Why can’t we appreciate a tiger for its own sake rather than its cultural and metaphorical associations? she asks in the following poem.

Medical realities aren’t as prominent as in some nominees – nowhere is it made clear what condition Okka has – but illness haunts certain lines: “my pills lie as armor with so many / glasses of water, upright and tensile / to save life against terrors by way / of circulatory relief” (from “on lying down, apocalyptic”). Concern about the environment also tips over into the apocalyptic in “situation report” and below:

“Fence and Repetition” sets out a palindrome of lines, and later on there are a golden shovel and an abecedarian, with tips of the hat to other poets. This more formal verse is in contrast with looser poems lacking capitalization or articles; in places the language even reads like pidgin. I found the phrasing unusual, forcing close attention to what’s actually going on. This wasn’t generally my cup of tea, but makes a striking entry on this year’s shortlist, and was a good chance to add my first Indonesian writer to my internal library.

With thanks to Nine Arches Press for the free copy for review.

 

What Willow Says by Lynn Buckle (2021)

This is a delicate novella about the bond between a grandmother and her eight-year-old granddaughter, who is deaf. After the death of the girl’s mother, Grandmother has been her primary guardian. She raises her on Irish legends and a love of nature, especially their local trees. They mourn when they see hedgerows needlessly flailed, and the girl often asks what her grandmother hears the trees saying. Because Grandmother narrates in the form of journal entries, there is dramatic irony between what readers learn and what she is not telling the little girl; we ache to think about what might happen for her in the future.

Yet Buckle takes care not to let the mood get too sombre, even though there is disquiet aplenty: empty housing blocks from the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger, rage at the stereotypes and ableism that the granddaughter faces, and the darkness of the myths surrounding the peat bogs and those who drown. This is mostly thanks to the lyrical writing wrapped around the six months or so of the action. Focusing on the relationship between these two, a lot of what happens is quiet and seasonal, from a picnic in the park to preparations for Christmas, but there is also a sign language class that introduces some other characters.

At points I found the prose too thick – it’s rare for me to come across vocabulary I don’t know and, especially in such a short book, terms like “ombrogenous mires,” “chironomy” and “sestude” stood out, not necessarily in a good way. But, overall, I enjoyed this study of other forms of communication – with hands, in writing, between humans and more-than-human nature, and perhaps even beyond the grave.

A favourite passage:

We struggle to hear in our household. Age, degeneration, aural complications and congenital conditions. Ignorance. We have confusing discussions, mistaken arrangements, and fights over hearing aid batteries. Plus, the convenience of not hearing when it suits us. Now we are trying to listen, to each other, and to trees. There is so much that we have never heard, so little time to hear it.

With thanks to Époque Press for the free copy for review.

 

The other two books on the shortlist are:

A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George (Bloomsbury)
My TLS review excerpt: Chronic illness long ago reduced her territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto George’s quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons.

Duck Feet by Ely Percy (Monstrous Regiment)
From the synopsis: “A coming-of-age novel, set in the mid-noughties in Renfrew and Paisley, Scotland. … This book is a celebration of youth in an ever-changing world. It uses humour to tackle hard-hitting subjects such as drugs, bullying, sexuality, and teenage pregnancy.”


I haven’t had a chance to read Duck Feet, so it’s hard to make any predictions about the winner. Last year a memoir by a woman won, so I’m not sure A Still Life will win, even though it’s my clear favourite of the three I’ve read. Perhaps it will be a novel this year?


The Barbellion Prize, awarded “to an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability,” will be announced on 12 February.

Do any of the shortlisted books appeal to you?

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (#NovNov Classics Week Buddy Read)

For the short classics week of Novellas in November, our buddy read is Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (1911). You can download the book for free from Project Gutenberg here if you’d still like to join in.

Did you have to read Ethan Frome in school? For American readers, it’s likely that it was an assigned text in high school English. I didn’t happen to read it during my school days, but caught up in 2006 or 2008, I think, and was impressed with this condensed tragedy and the ambiance of a harsh New England winter. It struck me even more on a reread as a flawless parable of a man imprisoned by circumstance and punished for wanting more.

I had forgotten that the novella is presented as a part-imagined reconstruction of the sad events of Ethan Frome’s earlier life. A quarter-century later, the unnamed narrator is in Wharton’s fictional Starkfield, Massachusetts on business, and hears the bare bones of Ethan’s story from various villagers before meeting the man himself. Ethan, who owns a struggling sawmill, picks up extra money from odd jobs. He agrees to chauffeur the narrator to engineering projects in his sleigh, and can’t conceal his jealousy at a technical career full of travel – a reminder of what could have been had he been able to continue his own scientific studies. A blizzard forces the narrator to stay overnight in Ethan’s home, and the step over the threshold sends readers back in time to when Ethan was a young man of 28.

 

*There are SPOILERS in the following.*


Ethan’s household contains two very different women: his invalid wife, Zeena, eight years his elder; and her cousin, Mattie Silver, who serves as her companion and housekeeper. Mattie is dreamy and scatter-brained – not the practical sort you’d want in a carer role, but she had nowhere else to go after her parents’ death. She has become the light of Ethan’s life. By contrast, Zeena is shrewish, selfish, lazy and gluttonous. Wharton portrays her as either pretending or exaggerating about her chronic illness. Zeena has noticed that Ethan has taken extra pains with his appearance in the year since Mattie came to live with them, and conspires to get rid of Mattie by getting a new doctor to ‘prescribe’ her a full-time servant.

The plot turns on an amusing prop, “Aunt Philura Maple’s pickle-dish.” While Zeena is away for her consultation with Dr. Buck, Ethan and Mattie get one evening alone together. Mattie lays the table nicely with Zeena’s best dishes from the china cabinet, but at the end of their meal the naughty cat gets onto the table and knocks the red glass pickle dish to the floor, where it smashes. Before Ethan can obtain glue to repair it in secret, Zeena notices and acts as if this never-used dish was her most prized possession. She and Ethan are both to have what they most love taken away from them – but at least Ethan’s is a human being.

I had remembered that Ethan fell in love with a cousin (though I thought it was his cousin) and that there is a dramatic sledding accident. What I did not remember, however, was that the crash is deliberate: knowing they can never act on their love for each other, Mattie begs Ethan to steer them straight into the elm tree mentioned twice earlier. He dutifully does so. I thought I recalled that Mattie dies, while he has to live out his grief ever more. I was gearing myself up to rail against the lingering Victorian mores of the time that required the would-be sexually transgressing female to face the greatest penalty. Instead, in the last handful of pages, Wharton delivers a surprise. When the narrator enters the Frome household, he meets two women. One is chair-bound and sour; the other, tall and capable, bustles about getting dinner ready. The big reveal, and horrible irony, is that the disabled woman is Mattie, made bitter by suffering, while Zeena rose to the challenges of caregiving.

Ethan is a Job-like figure who lost everything that mattered most to him, including his hopes for the future. Unlike the biblical character, though, he finds no later reward. “Sickness and trouble: that’s what Ethan’s had his plate full up with, ever since the very first helping,” as one of the villagers tells the narrator. “He looks as if he was dead and in hell now!” the narrator observes. This man of sorrow is somehow still admirable: he and Zeena did the right thing in taking Mattie in again, and even when at his most desperate Ethan refused to swindle his customers to fund an escape with Mattie. In the end, Mattie’s situation is almost the hardest to bear: she only ever represented sweetness and love, and has the toughest lot. In some world literature, e.g. the Russian masters, suicide might be rendered noble, but here its attempt warrants punishment.

{END OF SPOILERS.}

 

I can see why some readers, especially if encountering this in a classroom setting, would be turned off by the bleak picture of how the universe works. But I love me a good classical tragedy, and admired this one for its neat construction, its clever use of foreshadowing and dread, its exploration of ironies, and its use of a rustic New England setting – so much more accessible than Wharton’s usual New York City high society. The cozy wintry atmosphere of Little Women cedes to something darker and more oppressive; “Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters,” a neighbor observes of Ethan. I could see a straight line from Jude the Obscure through Ethan Frome to The Great Gatsby: three stories of an ordinary, poor man who pays the price for grasping for more. I reread this in two sittings yesterday morning and it felt to me like a perfect example of how literature can encapsulate the human condition.

(Secondhand purchase) [181 pages]

 

My original rating (c. 2008):

My rating now:

 

Keep in touch via Twitter (@bookishbeck / @cathy746books) and Instagram (@bookishbeck / @cathy_746books), using the hashtag #NovNov. We’ll add any of your review links in to our master posts.

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (#NovNov Translated Buddy Read)

With well over 100 posts, you all have already smashed last year’s totals for Novellas in November, and there’s still a week and a half to go! We’re grateful for your participation and hope some of you have been enjoying the buddy reads.


For literature in translation week, our readalong book has been Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima. As much a linked short story collection as a novella, it first appeared in monthly instalments in the Japanese literary magazine Gunzō in 1978–9 but wasn’t translated into English (by Geraldine Harcourt) until 2018, two years after Tsushima’s death. The translation was critically acclaimed, earning nominations for the 2019 Kirkus Prize and the 2020 BTBA Best Translated Book Award for Fiction.

The apartment had windows on all sides. I spent a year there, with my little daughter, on the top floor of an old four-storey office building.

Dark and carefully chiselled, the chapters are like tiny diamonds that you have to hold up to the light to see the glitter. Newly separated from her husband, the unnamed narrator, who works at a music library, entrusts us with vignettes from her first year of single parenthood. She is honest about her bad behaviour – the nights she got falling down drunk and invited men back to the apartment; the mornings she missed the daycare dropoff deadline and let her two-year-old fend for herself while she stayed in bed. Alongside the custody battle with her ex are smaller feuds, like with her neighbour, who’s had enough of the little girl dropping things onto his roof from the windows above and gets the landlord to do something about it.

Her daughter is a typical toddler, stubborn and impetuous, yet there are moments of intimacy between them that make your breath catch. Sometimes their roles even become reversed: the daughter nurses her mother through a bout of fever, and after the neighbour incident comforts her with words she’s received: “Mommy…are you all right? Don’t cry, there’s a good girl.”

The narrator describes her dreams, employing the imagery of fire and flight to capture her occasional hopelessness and longing for escape. Cherry trees are blossoming as they move into the apartment, and by the time they’re ready to move on again the spring is coming back. Details of sound and light make her observations zing. The clean, precise style – no frills, no tricks – reminds me of other autofiction in translation I’ve read. Others mention Elena Ferrante as a readalike, but what came to mind for me was Tove Ditlevsen’s trilogy, especially Dependency with its addiction theme. No doubt Harcourt should also be thanked for her crystal-clear rendition. It’s such a beautiful book, though perhaps already slipping from my grasp; I’m glad Cathy suggested it as our buddy read. (New purchase)

[122 pages]

 

Other reviews:

Annabel

Cathy

Jacqui

Laura

Rachel

 

Keep in touch via Twitter (@bookishbeck / @cathy746books) and Instagram (@bookishbeck / @cathy_746books). We’ll add any of your review links in to our master posts. Feel free to use the terrific feature image Cathy made and don’t forget the hashtag #NovNov.

The Fell by Sarah Moss for #NovNov

Sarah Moss’s latest three releases have all been of novella length. I reviewed Ghost Wall for Novellas in November in 2018, and Summerwater in August 2020. In this trio, she’s demonstrated a fascination with what happens when people of diverging backgrounds and opinions are thrown together in extreme circumstances. Moss almost stops time as her effortless third-person omniscient narration moves from one character’s head to another. We feel that we know each one’s experiences and motivations from the inside. Whereas Ghost Wall was set in two weeks of a late-1980s summer, Summerwater and now the taut The Fell have pushed that time compression even further, spanning a day and about half a day, respectively.

A circadian narrative holds a lot of appeal – we’re all tantalized, I think, by the potential difference that one day can make. The particular day chosen as the backdrop for The Fell offers an ideal combination of the mundane and the climactic because it was during the UK’s November 2020 lockdown. On top of that blanket restriction, single mum Kate has been exposed to Covid-19 via a café colleague, so she and her teenage son Matt are meant to be in strict two-week quarantine. Except Kate can’t bear to be cooped up one minute longer and, as dusk falls, she sneaks out of their home in the Peak District National Park to climb a nearby hill. She knows this fell like the back of her hand, so doesn’t bother taking her phone.

Over the next 12 hours or so, we dart between four stream-of-consciousness internal monologues: besides Kate and Matt, the two main characters are their neighbour, Alice, an older widow who has undergone cancer treatment; and Rob, part of the volunteer hill rescue crew sent out to find Kate when she fails to return quickly. For the most part – as befits the lockdown – each is stuck in their solitary musings (Kate regrets her marriage, Alice reflects on a bristly relationship with her daughter, Rob remembers a friend who died up a mountain), but there are also a few brief interactions between them. I particularly enjoyed time spent with Kate as she sings religious songs and imagines a raven conducting her inquisition.

What Moss wants to do here, is done well. My misgiving is to do with the recycling of an identical approach from Summerwater – not just the circadian limit, present tense, no speech marks and POV-hopping, but also naming each short chapter after a random phrase from it. Another problem is one of timing. Had this come out last November, or even this January, it might have been close enough to events to be essential. Instead, it seems stuck in a time warp. Early on in the first lockdown, when our local arts venue’s open mic nights had gone online, one participant made a semi-professional music video for a song with the refrain “everyone’s got the same jokes.”

That’s how I reacted to The Fell: baking bread and biscuits, a family catch-up on Zoom, repainting and clearouts, even obsessive hand-washing … the references were worn out well before a draft was finished. Ironic though it may seem, I feel like I’ve found more cogent commentary about our present moment from Moss’s historical work. Yet I’ve read all of her fiction and would still list her among my favourite contemporary writers. Aspiring creative writers could approach the Summerwater/The Fell duology as a masterclass in perspective, voice and concise plotting. But I hope for something new from her next book.

[180 pages]

With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.

 

Other reviews:

More Ideas of Novellas to Read for #NovNov

Still in need of ideas for what to read in November? Here are our novella-friendly lists of authors and publishers that fit the bill!

Authors who tend(ed) to write short books:

  • James Baldwin
  • J.L. Carr
  • Barbara Comyns
  • Alice Thomas Ellis
  • Penelope Fitzgerald
  • Paul Gallico
  • Kaye Gibbons
  • Susan Hill
  • Denis Johnson – Train Dreams was one of our most-reviewed books last year
  • Gabriel Josipovici
  • Claire Keegan
  • Shena Mackay
  • Ian McEwan
  • Sarah Moss’s three latest
  • Jean Rhys
  • Georges Simenon
  • Muriel Spark
  • John Steinbeck
  • Nathanael West
  • Jacqueline Woodson

 

In nonfiction – nature books:
  • Jim Crumley
  • John Lewis-Stempel

 

In nonfiction – animal/pet books:
  • Derek Tangye
  • Doreen Tovey

 

UK publishers that specialize in novellas:

Fairlight Books

Fitzcarraldo Editions (especially their early releases)

Holland Park Press

Penguin’s Little Black Classics series

Pushkin Press

 

Worldwide publishers that specialize in novellas:

Fish Gotta Swim Editions (Canada)

Melville House – “The Art of the Novella” series (USA)

Nouvella (USA) – Take a look at the last couple of rows on their merchandise page!

Quattro Books (Canada)

 

UK publishers that specialize in novellas in translation:

And Other Stories

Charco Press – contemporary Latin American literature

Fitzcarraldo Editions

Holland Park Press

Les Fugitives – translations from the French

Lolli Editions (thanks to Annabel for this one)

Peirene Press – Cathy will be hosting an interview with them during translation week!

Pushkin Press

 

UK sources of short nonfiction:

Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series

Fitzcarraldo Editions – some of their longform essays are under 200 pages

Penguin’s Great Ideas series

Little Toller Books – mostly nature and travel monographs

The School of Life – most of the ones in this particular series are under 200 pages

Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introductions series

Wellcome Collection Books – a number of their recent releases are under 200 pages

 

You could also check out some of last year’s Novellas in November content: 89 posts from 30 bloggers, including single reviews, multi-reviews and favourites lists.

 

Still stumped? Try these articles:

(Note: not all of the suggestions stick to our definition of a novella.)

 

And, if you’re looking for a bit of context, the other year Laura F. put together a history of the Novellas in November challenge.

Review Book Catch-Up: Ante, Evans, Foster and White

Today I have a book of poems about the Filipinx experience in the UK, a collection of short stories reflecting on racial injustice, a monograph on a bird that spells summer for many of us, and a biographical investigation into a little-understood medical condition.

 

Antiemetic for Homesickness by Romalyn Ante

I was drawn to this debut collection by the terrific title and cover, but also by the accolades it received: it was on the Dylan Thomas Prize longlist and the Jhalak Prize shortlist. I hope we’ll see it on the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist, too. Ante grew up in the Philippines but at age 16 joined her mother in the UK, where she had moved years before to work as a nurse in the NHS. She has since followed in her mother’s footsteps as a nurse – indeed, overseas Filipinx workers (Jamaicans, too) are a mainstay of the NHS.

Ante remembers the years when her mother was absent but promised to send for the rest of the family soon: “You said all I needed to do was to sleep and before I knew it, / you’d be back. But I woke to the rice that needed rinsing, / my siblings’ school uniforms that needed ironing.” The medical profession as a family legacy and noble calling is a strong element of these poems, especially in “Invisible Women,” an ode to the “goddesses of caring and tending” who walk the halls of any hospital. Hard work is a matter of survival, and family – whether physically present or not – bolsters weary souls. A series of short, untitled poems are presented as tape recordings made for her mother.

Food is inextricably entwined with memory (reminding me of Nina Mingya Powles’s approach in Tiny Moons) and provides some of the standout metaphors, especially in “Patis” and “Ode to a Pot Noodle.” Ante uses a lot of alliteration and adapts various forms. I especially liked “Tagay!”, a traditional drinking song, and “Mateo,” printed in the shape of a pound sign. The nuanced look at the immigrant experience reminded me of Jenny Xie’s Eye Level. Movement entails losses as well as benefits. The focus on the Filipinx experience also made me think of America Is Not the Heart. My favourite single poem was “The Making of a Smuggler,” which opens “Wherever we travel, we carry / the whole country with us – // our rice terraces are folded garments, / we have pillars of trees, a rainforest // on a hairbrush.”

Favourite lines:

“Gone are the nights he steals / the moon with a mango picker / and swaps it for her pocket mirror”

“The yellow admission papers in my hands escaped / flustering at my face into a flight of orioles.”

“I am halved in order to be whole – / I rebuild by leaving / everything I love.”

With thanks to Chatto & Windus for the free copy for review.

 

The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans

To boil these six stories and a novella down to the topic of race in America risks painting them as solemn or strident – more concerned with meaning than with art – when the truth is that they are playful and propulsive even though they keep cycling back to bereavement and injustice. Several of the protagonists are young Black women coming to terms with a loss.

In “Happily Ever After,” Lyssa works in the gift shop of a Titanic replica and is cast as an extra in a pop star’s music video. Mythical sea monsters are contrasted with the real dangers of her life, like cancer and racism. “Anything Could Disappear” was a favourite of mine, though it begins with that unlikely scenario of a single woman acquiring a baby as if by magic. What starts off as a burden becomes a bond she can’t bear to let go. A family is determined to clear the name of their falsely imprisoned ancestor in “Alcatraz.” In “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain” (a mnemonic for the colours of the rainbow), photojournalist Rena is wary about attending the wedding of a friend she met when their plane was detained in Africa some years ago. The only wedding she’s been in is her sister’s, which ended badly.

Mistakes and deceit seem to follow these characters. In the title novella that closes the book, Cassie and her colleagues combat fake news, going around putting correction labels on plaques that whitewash history. When she and her former colleague meet up in Wisconsin to find the truth behind a complex correction case, a clash with a white supremacist group quickly turns pedantry into a matter of life and death. The story I’d heard the most about beforehand was “Boys Go to Jupiter,” about a college girl who dons a Confederate flag bikini, not caring what message it sends to others in her dorm. It turns out she has history with a Black family, but has chosen to airbrush this experience out of her life.

There was only one story I didn’t care for, “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” about a celebrity who turns apologizing into performance art. Overall, this is a very strong collection I would recommend to readers of Brit Bennett and Raven Leilani, with some stories also reminding me of recent work by Curtis Sittenfeld and Mary South. I’ll be sure to seek out Evans’s previous book (also short stories), too.

With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.

 

The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster

The other week I was volunteering at our local community garden and looked up to see a dozen common swifts wheeling over the Kennet & Avon canal and picking off insects among the treetops. I hope this fellow Foster (for whom my husband was once confused on a nature conference attendee list) would be proud of me for pausing to gaze at the birds for a while. My impression of the author is as a misanthropic eccentric. A Renaissance man as well versed in law and theology as he is in natural history, he’s obsessed with swifts and ashamed of his own species: for looking down at their feet when they could be watching the skies; for the “pathological tidiness” that leaves swifts and so many other creatures no place to live.

The obsession began when he was eight years old and someone brought him a dead swift fledgling for his taxidermy hobby. Ever since, he’s dated the summer by their arrival. “It is always summer for them,” though, as his opening line has it. This monograph is structured chronologically. Much like Tim Dee does in Greenery, Foster follows the birds for a year: from their winter territory in Africa to the edges of Europe in spring and then to his very own Oxford street in high summer. When they leave, he’s bereft and ready to book a flight back to Africa.

Along the way, Foster delivers heaps of information: the fossil evidence of swifts, how they know where to migrate (we have various theories but don’t really know), their nesting habits and lifespan, and the typical fates of those individuals that don’t survive. But, thumbing his nose at his “ex-friend” (a closed-minded biologist he repeatedly, and delightfully, rails against), he refuses to stick to a just-the-facts approach. Acknowledging the risks of anthropomorphizing, he speaks of swifts as symbols of aspiration, of life lived with intensity. He believes that we can understand animal emotions analogously through our own, so that, inappropriate as such words might seem, we can talk about what birds hope and plan for. He scorns reductive ecosystem services lingo that defines creatures by what we get out of them.

Also like Dee, Foster quotes frequently from poetry. His prose is full of sharp turns of phrase and moments of whimsy and made me eager to try more of his work (I know the most about but have not yet read Being a Beast).

Swifts know the roar of lions better than the roar of the M25, the piping of hornbills better than the Nunc Dimittis of parish Evensong … Are memories of our eaves spiralling high above the Gulf of Guinea? … They don’t seem to prevaricate. One moment they’re there, the next they’re off, diving straight into the journey. It’s the way we should run into cold water.

As I’ve found with a number of Little Toller releases now (On Silbury Hill, Snow, Landfill), knowledge meets passion to create a book that could make an aficionado of the most casual of readers. Towards the close I was also reminded of Richard Smyth’s An Indifference of Birds: “When Homo sapiens has gone there will be lots of ideal swift holes in the decaying buildings we’ll leave behind.” It’s comforting to think of natural cycles continuing after we’re gone … but let’s start making the space for them now. Jonathan Pomroy’s black-and-white illustrations of swift behaviour only add to this short book’s charms.

With thanks to Little Toller Books for the free copy for review.

 

Waiting for Superman: One Family’s Struggle to Survive – and Cure – Chronic Fatigue Syndrome by Tracie White

Like Suzanne O’Sullivan’s books (most recently, The Sleeping Beauties), this is presented as an investigation into a medical mystery. White, a Stanford Medicine journalist, focuses on one family that has been indelibly changed by chronic fatigue syndrome – now linked with myalgic encephalomyelitis and termed ME/CFS for short. Whitney Dafoe was a world traveller and promising photographer before, in 2010, a diagnosis of ME/CFS explained his exhaustion and gastrointestinal problems. By the time White first met the family in 2016, the thirtysomething was bedbound in his parents’ home with a feeding tube, only able to communicate via gestures and rearranging Scrabble tiles. He couldn’t bear loud noises, or to be touched. At times he was nearly comatose.

Whitney’s father, Ron Davis, is a Stanford geneticist whose research has contributed to the Human Genome Project. He has devoted himself to studying ME/CFS, which affects 20 million people worldwide yet receives little research funding; he calls it “the last major disease we know nothing about.” Testing his son’s blood, he found a problem with the citric acid cycle that produces ATP, essential fuel for the body’s cells – proof that there was a physiological reason for Whitney’s condition. Frustratingly, though, a Stanford colleague who examined Whitney prescribed a psychological intervention. This is in line with the current standard of care for ME/CFS: a graded exercise regime (nigh on impossible for someone who can’t get out of bed) and cognitive behavioural therapy.

White delves into Whitney’s past, looking for clues to what could have triggered his illness (having mono in high school? a parasite he picked up in India?). She also goes back to the mid-1980s to consider the Lake Tahoe outbreak of ME/CFS, whose victims “looked too healthy to be sick and were repeatedly disbelieved.” The media called it “yuppie flu,” downplaying the extreme fatigue involved. White also meets Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit, who suffers from ME/CFS and managed to write her bestselling books from bed. Like Whitney, she only has a certain allotment of energy and mustn’t use it up too fast.

  • A neat connection: Stephanie Land, author of Maid, was Whitney’s ex-girlfriend when he was 19 and living in Alaska; she wrote a Longreads article about their relationship.
  • The title is from a Flaming Lips lyric and expresses Whitney’s trust in his dad’s ability to cure him; the U.S. title is The Puzzle Solver and the working title was The Invisible Patient.

With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.

 

Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

Mrs. Shields & Me: (Re)reading Carol Shields in 2020

It’s pure happenstance that I started reading Carol Shields’s work in 2006.

2005: When I first returned to England for my MA program at Leeds, I met a PhD student who was writing a dissertation on contemporary Canadian women writers. At that point I could literally name only one – Margaret Atwood – and I hadn’t even read anything by her yet.

2006: Back in the States after that second year abroad, living with my parents and killing time until my wedding, I got an evening job behind the circulation desk of the local community college library. A colleague passed on four books to me one day. By tying them up in a ribbon, she made a gift out of hand-me-downs: The Giant’s House, The Secret History, and two by Shields: Happenstance and The Stone Diaries. I’ve gone on to read most or all of the books by these authors, so I’m grateful to this acquaintance I’ve since lost touch with.

The inspiration for my post title.

Starting in June this year, I joined Marcie of Buried in Print in reading or rereading six Shields novels. She’s been rereading Shields for many years, and I benefited from her insight and careful attention to connections between the works’ characters and themes during our buddy reads. I’d treated myself to a secondhand book binge in the first lockdown, including copies of three Shields novels I’d not read before. We started with these.

 

Small Ceremonies (1976)

Shields’s debut ended up being my surprise favorite. A flawless novella, it brings its many elements to a satisfying conclusion and previews the author’s enduring themes in 180 pages. Judith is working on a third biography, of Susanna Moodie, and remembering the recent sabbatical year that she and her husband, a Milton scholar, spent with their two children in Birmingham. High tea is a compensating ritual she imported from a dismal England. She also brought back an idea for a novel. Meanwhile family friend Furlong Eberhardt, author of a string of twee, triumphantly Canadian novels, is casting around for plots.

What ensues is something of a sly academic comedy à la David Lodge, laced with Shields’s quiet wisdom on marriage, parenting, the writer’s vocation, and the difficulty of ever fully understanding another life. Specific links to her later work include a wonderful dinner party scene with people talking over each other and a craft project.

 

The Box Garden (1977)

The companion novel to Small Ceremonies is narrated by Judith’s sister Charleen, a poet and single mother who lives in Vancouver and produces the National Botanical Journal. I imagined the sisters representing two facets of Shields, who had previously published poetry and a Moodie biography. Charleen is preparing to travel to Toronto for their 70-year-old mother’s wedding to Louis, an ex-priest. Via flashbacks and excruciating scenes at the family home, we learn how literally and emotionally stingy their mother has always been. If Charleen’s boyfriend Eugene’s motto is to always assume the best of people, her mother’s modus operandi is to assume she’s been hard done by.

The title comes from the time when a faithful Journal correspondent, the mysterious Brother Adam, sent Charleen some grass seed to grow in a window box – a symbol of thriving in spite of restrictive circumstances. I thought the plot went off in a silly direction, but loved the wedding reception. Specific links to Shields’s later work include a botanical hobby, a long train journey, and a final scene delivered entirely in dialogue.

 

A Celibate Season (1991)

“We’re suffering a communication gap, that’s obvious.”

This epistolary novel was a collaboration: Blanche Howard wrote the letters by Jocelyn (“Jock”), who’s gone to Ottawa to be the legal counsel for a commission looking into women’s poverty, while Shields wrote the replies from her husband Charles (“Chas”), an underemployed architect who’s keeping the home fire burning back in Vancouver. He faces challenges large and small: their daughter’s first period versus meal planning (“Found the lentils. Now what?”). The household starts comically expanding to include a housekeeper, Chas’s mother-in-law, a troubled neighbor, and so on.

Both partners see how the other half lives. The misunderstandings between them become worse during their separation. Howard and Shields started writing in 1983, and the book does feel dated; they later threw in a jokey reference to the unreliability of e-mail to explain why the couple are sending letters and faxes. Two unsent letters reveal secrets Jock and Chas are keeping from each other, which felt like cheating. I remained unconvinced that so much could change in 10 months, and the weird nicknames were an issue for me. Plus, arguing about a solarium building project? Talk about First World problems! All the same, the letters are amusing.

 


Rereads

 

Happenstance (1980/1982)

This was the first novel I read by Shields. My Penguin paperback gives the wife’s story first and then you flip it over to read the husband’s story. But the opposite reflects the actual publishing order: Happenstance is Jack’s story; two years later came Brenda’s story in A Fairly Conventional Woman. The obvious inheritor of the pair is A Celibate Season with the dual male/female narratives, and the setups are indeed similar: a man is left at home alone with his teenage kids, having to cope with chores and an unexpected houseguest.

What I remembered beforehand: The wife goes to a quilting conference; an image of a hotel corridor and elevator.

Happenstance

Jack, a museum curator in Chicago, is writing a book about “Indian” trading practices (this isn’t the word we’d use nowadays, but the terminology ends up being important to the plot). He and his best friend Bernie, who’s going through a separation, are obsessed with questions of history: what gets written down, and what it means to have a sense of the past (or not). I loved all the little threads, like Jack’s father’s obsession with self-help books, memories of Brenda’s vivacious single mother, and their neighbor’s failure as Hamlet in a local production. I also enjoyed an epic trek in the snow in a final section potentially modeled on Ulysses.

 

A Fairly Conventional Woman

“Aside from quiltmaking, pleasantness was her one talent. … She had come to this awkward age, forty, at an awkward time in history – too soon to be one of the new women, whatever that meant, and too late to be an old-style woman.”

Brenda is in Philadelphia for a quilting conference. Quilting, once just a hobby, is now part of a modern art movement and she earns prizes and hundreds of dollars for her pieces. The hotel is overbooked, overlapping with an International Society of Metallurgists gathering, and both she and Barry from Vancouver, an attractive metallurgist in a pinstriped suit whom she meets in the elevator, are driven from their shared rooms by roommates bringing back one-night stands. This doesn’t add anything to the picture of a marriage in Jack’s story and I only skimmed it this time. It’s a wonder I kept reading Shields after this, but I’m so glad I did!

 

I reviewed these last two earlier this year. They were previously my joint favorites of Shields’s work, linked by a gardening hobby, the role of chance, and the unreliability of history and (auto)biography. They remain in my top three.

The Stone Diaries (1995)

What I remembered beforehand: a long train ride, a friend who by the feeling ‘down there’ thought that someone had had sex with her the night before, and something about the Orkney Islands.

My full review:

Larry’s Party (1997)

What I remembered beforehand: a food poisoning incident (though I’d thought it was in one of Shields’s short stories), a climactic event involving a garden maze, a chapter entitled “Larry’s Penis,” and the closing dinner party scene.

My full review:

 

Looking back: Fortunately, in the last 15 years I’ve done something to redress my ignorance, discovering Canadian women writers whom I admire greatly: Elizabeth Hay, Margaret Laurence, Mary Lawson and especially Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields.

Looking out: “I am watching. My own life will never be enough for me. It is a congenital condition, my only, only disease in an otherwise lucky life. I am a watcher, an outsider whether I like it or not, and I’m stuck with the dangers that go along with it. And the rewards.”

  • That’s Judith on the last page of Small Ceremonies. It’s also probably Shields. And, to an extent, it seems like me. A writer, but mostly a reader, absorbing other lives.

Looking forward: I’m interested in rereading Shields’s short stories and Mary Swann (to be reissued by World Editions in 2021). And, though I’ve read 13 of her books now, there are still plenty of unread, lesser-known ones I’ll have to try to find secondhand one day. Her close attention to ordinary lives and relationships and the way we connect to the past makes her work essential.

A Hundred Million Years and a Day by Jean-Baptiste Andrea

Stanislas Armengol remembers finding his first trilobite at the age of six. His fossils and his dog were his best friends during a lonely childhood dominated by a violent father nicknamed “The Commander.” Now, in the summer of 1954, Stan is a 52-year-old paleontologist embarking on the greatest project of his career. He sold his apartment in Paris to finance this expedition to the French/Italian Alps in search of a “dragon” (perhaps a diplodocus) said to be buried in a glacier between three mountain peaks.

“A scientist does not unquestioningly swallow a tall tale without demanding some proof, some concrete detail,” Stan insists. “Doubt is our religion.” But he’s seen a promising bone fragment from the region, and his excitement soon outweighs his uncertainty. This is his chance to finally make a name for himself. Arriving from Turin to join Stan are his friend and former assistant Umberto, and Umberto’s assistant, Peter. Gio, a local, will be their guide. It’s a tough climb requiring ropes and harnesses. As autumn approaches, and then winter, the hunt for the fossil becomes more frantic. The others are prepared to come back next year if it’s no longer sensible to continue, but Stan has staked everything on the venture and won’t quit.

Stan’s obsession puts him in touch with deep time – he’s “someone whose profession forces him to think in terms of millions of years” – but his thoughts keep returning to moments of joy or distress from his childhood. Although she died when he was nine years old, his beloved mother still looms large in his memory. Even as the realities of cold and hunger intensify, his past comes to seem more vivid than his present.

This French bestseller was shortlisted for the Grand Prix de l’Académie Française last year. Sam Taylor’s translation is flawless, as always (I only noted one tiny phrase that felt wrong for the time period – “honestly, what a brat” – though for all I know it’s off in the original, too). However, I found the novella uncannily similar to Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini, which is about a hermit in the Italian Alps whose mental illness is exacerbated by snowy solitude. I found Morandini’s witty, macabre story more memorable. Although A Hundred Million Years and a Day is well constructed, there’s something austere about it that meant my admiration never quite moved into fondness.

My rating:


A Hundred Million Years and a Day will be published in the UK tomorrow, the 11th. My thanks to Gallic Books for the free copy for review.

 

I was delighted to be invited to participate in the blog tour. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.

20 Books of Summer 2020 (Food & Drink Theme): #1 Tiny Moons

It’s my third year participating in Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer challenge. Two years ago I read only books by women; last year I did an animal theme. This year, my 20 books will all tie into a food and drink theme. This includes recognizable foodie lit, memoirs and travel books that have a food element (such as Dave Gorman seeking out non-chain restaurants in America Unchained and Alice Steinbach taking French cooking lessons in Educating Alice), and fiction or nonfiction works that just happen to have a food word in the title. To avoid being grisly, I’ll try not to include any animal books left over from last year!

I have around 30 books to choose from, including these slightly cheaty selections whose authors’ names bring food to mind.

The one constant in my three summers’ selections is that all the books have to be from my own shelves – it’s my way of trying to tackle my hundreds-strong physical TBR. I also have a few classics and two rereads (Dunn and Kingsolver) in the mix here, which would contribute to other ongoing reading goals.


I’m kicking off #20BooksofSummer20 with a quick win, only 85 pages long and read in a single sitting this morning. It was a great start to the project and had my mouth watering for elevenses two hours early…

 

Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai by Nina Mingya Powles (2020)

This lovely pamphlet of food-themed essays arose from a blog Powles kept while in Shanghai on a one-year scholarship to learn Mandarin. She’d lived in the city as a teen, attending an international high school, so it was somewhat familiar – yet she struggled with homesickness. From one winter to another, she explores the city’s culinary offerings and muses on the ways in which food is bound up with her memories of people and places.

As a child in a mixed-race household in New Zealand, she only knew food words in her Malaysian Chinese mother’s native languages. “My earliest childhood impressions are ones where I am just about to eat something,” she writes. That something might have been Western or Asian food – they coexist in the book (most delightfully on a long-distance train ride she takes: you can buy noodles and dried chicken feet, but also Oreos and Pringles).

As a student in Shanghai, she has dumplings and soup for lunch almost every day. She could live off of spring onion oil noodles and pineapple buns (named for their cross-hatched top rather than their flavour). Messy foods, greasy foods, comfort foods – “It is tiring to be a woman who loves to eat in a society where hunger is something not to be satisfied but controlled.” She and her classmates know that their time here is limited, and they’re going to make the most of these flavours you can’t find every day.

Two sets of cooking lessons add dishes like sticky rice dumplings and stir-fried aubergines to her repertoire. She learns about the traditional foods associated with Chinese festivals, and about the country’s north/south divides: wheat noodles versus rice and thick-skinned dumplings versus thin ones. Street food and snacks abound, including savoury and sweet buns, filled pancakes, tofu bowls and mooncakes.

This is a book about how food can help you be at home, despite loneliness or a language barrier: “In any city anywhere, if there’s a Chinatown I’ll feel at home,” Powles concludes. I love how she uses the senses – not just taste, but also smell and sight – to recreate important places in her life. A fresh banana fritter eaten at her grandparents’ home in Borneo brings it all back, with the senses mingling synaesthetically: “I taste tropical heat. I can taste the slow hours spent in the back garden beneath the mango tree … I taste the fierce sun on my neck”.

My rating:


Readalikes: Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop & Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan by Jessica J. Lee

Note: Last year Nina Mingya Powles won the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize for underrepresented voices in nature writing, earning a publishing contract with Canongate for a nature/travel memoir that will be released in August 2021. I’m looking forward to it already.

Tiny Moons was published on February 27th. My thanks to Emma Dai’an Wright of The Emma Press, a small press based in Birmingham, UK, for the free copy for review. (Emma also illustrated the book!)

 

Are you joining in the summer reading challenge? What’s the first book on the docket?

Do you spy any favorites on my piles? Which ones should I be sure to read?

Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini: A Peirene Press Novella

Who could resist the title of this Italian bestseller? A black comedy about a hermit in the Italian Alps, it starts off like Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life and becomes increasingly reminiscent of Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead with its remote setting, hunting theme, and focus on an older character of dubious mental health.

Adelmo Farandola hasn’t washed in years. Why bother since he only sees fellow humans every six months when he descends to the valley to stock up on food and wine? When he arrives at the general store at the start of autumn, though, he gets a surprise. The shopkeeper laughs at him, saying he nearly cleared her out the week before. Yet he doesn’t remember having been there since April. Sure enough, when he gets back to the cabin he sees that his stable is full of supplies. He also finds an old dog that won’t go away and soon starts talking to him.

Estranged from his brother, who co-owns the property, and still haunted by the trauma of the war years, when he had to hide in a mine shaft, Adelmo is used to solitude and starvation rations. But now, with the dog around, there’s an extra mouth to feed. Normally Adelmo might shoot an occasional chamois for food, but a pesky mountain ranger keeps coming by and asking if Adelmo has a shotgun – and whether he has a license for it.

When winter sets in and heavy snowfall and then an avalanche trap Adelmo and the dog in the cabin, they are driven to the limits of their resilience and imagination. The long-awaited thaw reveals something disturbing: a blackened human foot poking out of a snowdrift. Each day Adelmo forgets about the corpse and the dog has to remind him that the foot has been visible for a week now, so they really should alert someone down in the village…

The hints of Adelmo’s dementia and mental illness accumulate gradually, making him a highly unreliable point-of-view character. This is a taut story that alternates between moments of humor and horror. I was so gripped I read it in one evening sitting, and would call it one of the top two Peirene books I’ve read (along with The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen).

My rating:

 

Snow, Dog, Foot will be published in the UK on the 15th. It was translated from the Italian by J. Ockenden, who won the 2019 Peirene Stevns Translation Prize for the work in progress. With thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.

 

 

Peirene Press issues its novellas in thematic trios. This is the first in 2020’s “Closed Universe” series, which will also include Ankomst by Gøhril Gabrielsen, about a Norwegian climatologist who has left her family to study seabird parenting and meet up with a lover; and The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili, set at a Georgian orphanage. (I’m especially keen on the former.)