Tag Archives: novella

Recommended April Releases by Amy Bloom, Sarah Manguso & Sara Rauch

Just two weeks until moving day – we’ve got a long weekend ahead of us of sanding, painting, packing and gardening. As busy as I am with house stuff, I’m endeavouring to keep up with the new releases publishers have been so good as to send me. Today I review three short works: the story of accompanying a beloved husband to Switzerland for an assisted suicide, a coolly perceptive novella of American girlhood, and a vivid memoir of two momentous relationships. (April was a big month for new books: I have another 6–8 on the go that I’ll be catching up on in the future.) All:

 

In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss by Amy Bloom

“We’re not here for a long time, we’re here for a good time.”

(Ameche family saying)

Given the psychological astuteness of her fiction, it’s no surprise that Bloom is a practicing psychotherapist. She treats her own life with the same compassionate understanding, and even though the main events covered in this brilliantly understated memoir only occurred two and a bit years ago, she has remarkable perspective and avoids self-pity and mawkishness. Her husband, Brian Ameche, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in his mid-60s, having exhibited mild cognitive impairment for several years. Brian quickly resolved to make a dignified exit while he still, mostly, had his faculties. But he needed Bloom’s help.

“I worry, sometimes, that a better wife, certainly a different wife, would have said no, would have insisted on keeping her husband in this world until his body gave out. It seems to me that I’m doing the right thing, in supporting Brian in his decision, but it would feel better and easier if he could make all the arrangements himself and I could just be a dutiful duckling, following in his wake. Of course, if he could make all the arrangements himself, he wouldn’t have Alzheimer’s”

U.S. cover

She achieves the perfect tone, mixing black humour with teeth-gritted practicality. Research into acquiring sodium pentobarbital via doctor friends soon hit a dead end and they settled instead on flying to Switzerland for an assisted suicide through Dignitas – a proven but bureaucracy-ridden and expensive method. The first quarter of the book is a day-by-day diary of their January 2020 trip to Zurich as they perform the farce of a couple on vacation. A long central section surveys their relationship – a second chance for both of them in midlife – and how Brian, a strapping Yale sportsman and accomplished architect, gradually descended into confusion and dependence. The assisted suicide itself, and the aftermath as she returns to the USA and organizes a memorial service, fill a matter-of-fact 20 pages towards the close.

Hard as parts of this are to read, there are so many lovely moments of kindness (the letter her psychotherapist writes about Brian’s condition to clinch their place at Dignitas!) and laughter, despite it all (Brian’s endless fishing stories!). While Bloom doesn’t spare herself here, diligently documenting times when she was impatient and petty, she doesn’t come across as impossibly brave or stoic. She was just doing what she felt she had to, to show her love for Brian, and weeping all the way. An essential, compelling read.

With thanks to Granta for the free copy for review.

 

Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso

I’ve read Manguso’s four nonfiction works and especially love her Wellcome Book Prize-shortlisted medical memoir The Two Kinds of Decay. The aphoristic style she developed in her two previous books continues here as discrete paragraphs and brief vignettes build to a gloomy portrait of Ruthie’s archetypical affection-starved childhood in the fictional Massachusetts town of Waitsfield in the 1980s and 90s. She’s an only child whose parents no doubt were doing their best after emotionally stunted upbringings but never managed to make her feel unconditionally loved. Praise is always qualified and stingily administered. Ruthie feels like a burden and escapes into her imaginings of how local Brahmins – Cabots and Emersons and Lowells – lived. Her family is cash-poor compared to their neighbours and loves nothing more than a trip to the dump: “My parents weren’t after shiny things or even beautiful things; they simply liked getting things that stupid people threw away.”

The depiction of Ruthie’s narcissistic mother is especially acute. She has to make everything about her; any minor success of her daughter’s is a blow to her own ego. I marked out an excruciating passage that made me feel so sorry for this character. A European friend of the family visits and Ruthie’s mother serves corn muffins that he seems to appreciate.

My mother brought up her triumph for years. … She’d believed his praise was genuine. She hadn’t noticed that he’d pegged her as a person who would snatch up any compliment into the maw of her unloved, throbbing little heart.

U.S. cover

At school, as in her home life, Ruthie dissociates herself from every potentially traumatic situation. “My life felt unreal and I felt half-invested. I felt indistinct, like someone else’s dream.” Her friend circle is an abbreviated A–Z of girlhood: Amber, Bee, Charlie and Colleen. “Odd” men – meaning sexual predators – seem to be everywhere and these adolescent girls are horribly vulnerable. Molestation is such an open secret in the world of the novel that Ruthie assumes this is why her mother is the way she is.

While the #MeToo theme didn’t resonate with me personally, so much else did. Chemistry class, sleepovers, getting one’s first period, falling off a bike: this is the stuff of girlhood – if not universally, then certainly for the (largely pre-tech) American 1990s as I experienced them. I found myself inhabiting memories I hadn’t revisited for years, and a thought came that had perhaps never occurred to me before: for our time and area, my family was poor, too. I’m grateful for my ignorance: what scarred Ruthie passed me by; I was a purely happy child. But I think my sister, born seven years earlier, suffered more, in ways that she’d recognize here. This has something of the flavour of Eileen and My Name Is Lucy Barton and reads like autofiction even though it’s not presented as such. The style and contents may well be divisive. I’ll be curious to hear if other readers see themselves in its sketches of childhood.

With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.

XO by Sara Rauch

Sara Rauch won the Electric Book Award for her short story collection What Shines from It. This compact autobiographical parcel focuses on a point in her early thirties when she lived with a long-time female partner, “Piper”, and had an intense affair with “Liam”, a fellow writer she met at a residency.

“no one sets out in search of buried treasure when they’re content with life as it is”

“Longing isn’t cheating (of this I was certain), even when it brushes its whiskers against your cheek.”

Adultery is among the most ancient human stories we have, a fact Rauch acknowledges by braiding through the narrative her musings on religion and storytelling by way of her Catholic upbringing and interest in myths and fairy tales. She’s looking for the patterns of her own experience and how endings make way for new life. The title has multiple meanings: embraces, crossroads and coming full circle. Like a spider’s web, her narrative pulls in many threads to make an ordered whole. All through, bisexuality is a baseline, not something that needs to be interrogated.

This reminded me of a number of books I’ve read about short-lived affairs – Tides, The Instant – and about renegotiating relationships in a queer life – The Fixed Stars, In the Dream House – but felt most like reading a May Sarton journal for how intimately it recreates daily routines of writing, cooking, caring for cats, and weighing up past, present and future. Lovely stuff.

With thanks to publicist Lori Hettler and Autofocus Books for the e-copy for review.

Will you seek out one or more of these books?

What other April releases can you recommend?

Winter Reads, Part II: Au, Glück, Hall, Rautiainen, Slaght

In the week before Christmas I reviewed a first batch of wintry reads. We’ve had hardly any snowfall here in southern England this season, so I gave up on it in real life and sought winter weather on the page. After we’ve seen the back of Storm Franklin (it’s already moved on from Eunice!), I hope it will feel appropriate to start right in on some spring reading. But for today I have a Tokyo-set novella, sombre poems, an OTT contemporary Gothic novel, historical fiction in translation from the Finnish, and – the cream of the crop – a real-life environmentalist adventure in Russia.

 

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au (2022)

This slim work will be released in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions on the 23rd and came out elsewhere this month from New Directions and Giramondo. I actually read it in December during my travel back from the States. It’s a delicate work of autofiction – it reads most like a Chloe Aridjis or Rachel Cusk novel – about a woman and her Hong Kong-raised mother on a trip to Tokyo. You get a bit of a flavour of Japan through their tourism (a museum, a temple, handicrafts, trains, meals), but the real focus is internal as Au subtly probes the workings of memory and generational bonds.

The woman and her mother engage in surprisingly deep conversations about the soul and the meaning of life, but these are conveyed indirectly rather than through dialogue: “she said that she believed that we were all essentially nothing, just series of sensations and desires, none of it lasting. … The best we could do in this life was to pass through it, like smoke through the branches”. Though I highlighted a fair few passages, I find that no details have stuck with me. This is just the sort of spare book I can admire but not warm to. (NetGalley)

 

Winter Recipes from the Collective by Louise Glück (2021)

The only other poetry collection of Glück’s that I’d read was Vita Nova. This, her first release since her Nobel Prize win, was my final read of 2021 and my shortest, at 40-some pages; it’s composed of just 15 poems, a few of which stretch to five pages or more. “The Denial of Death,” a prose piece with more of the feel of an autobiographical travel essay, was a standout; the title poem, again in prose paragraphs, and the following one, “Winter Journey,” about farewells, bear a melancholy chill. Memories and dreams take pride of place, with the poet’s sister appearing frequently. “How heavy my mind is, filled with the past.” There are also multiple references to Chinese concepts and characters (as on the cover). The overall style is more aphoristic and reflective than expected. Few individual lines or images stood out to me.

With thanks to Carcanet Press for the e-copy for review.

 

The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall (2020)

Henna is alone in the world since her parents and twin sister disappeared in a boating accident. She lives a solitary existence with her sister’s basset hound Rembrandt in a New England village, writing encyclopaedia entries on the Arctic, until she stumbles on a corpse and embarks on an amateur investigation involving scraps of 19th-century correspondence. The dead woman asked inconvenient questions about a historical cover-up; if she takes up the thread, Henna could be a target, too. Her collaboration with the police chief, Fletcher, turns into a flirtation. After her house burns down, she ends up living with him – and his mother and housekeeper – in a Gothic mansion stuffed with birds of prey and historical snow samples. She’s at the mercy of this quirky family and the weather, wearing ancient clothing from Fletcher’s great-aunts and tramping through blizzards looking for answers.

This is a kitchen-sink novel with loads going on, as if Hall couldn’t decide which of her interests to include so threw them all in. Yet at only 221 pages, it might actually have been expanded a little to flesh out the backstory and mystery plot. It gets more than a bit ridiculous in places, but its Victorian fan fiction vibe is charming escapism nonetheless. What with the historical fiction interludes about the Franklin expedition, this reminded me most of The Still Point, but also of The World Before Us and The Birth House. I’d happily read Hall’s 2010 short story collection, too. (Christmas gift)

 

Land of Snow and Ashes by Petra Rautiainen (2022)

[Translated from the Finnish by David Hackston]

In the middle years of World War II, Finland was allied with Nazi Germany against Russia, a mutual enemy. After the Moscow Armistice, the Germans retreated in disgrace, burning as many buildings and planting as many landmines as they could (“the Lapland War”). I gleaned this helpful background information from Hackston’s preface. The story that follows is in two strands: one is set in 1944 and told via diary entries from Väinö Remes, a Finnish soldier called up to interpret at a Nazi prison camp in Inari. The other, in third person, takes place between 1947 and 1950, the early years of postwar reconstruction. Inkeri, a journalist, has come to Enontekiö to find out what happened to her husband. An amateur photographer, she teaches art to the local Sámi children and takes on one girl, Bigga-Marja, as her protégée.

Collusion and secrets; escaped prisoners and physical measurements being taken of the Sámi: there are a number of sinister hints that become clearer as the novel goes on. I felt a distance from the main characters that I could never quite overcome, such that the reveals didn’t land with as much power as I think was intended. Still, this has the kind of forthright storytelling and precise writing that fans of Hubert Mingarelli should appreciate. For another story of the complexities of being on the wrong side of history, see The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck.

With thanks to Pushkin Press for the proof copy for review.

Winter words:

“Fresh snow has fallen, forming drifts across the terrain. White. Grey. Undulating. The ice has cracked here and there, raising its head in the thawed sections of the river. There is only a thin layer of ice left.”

 

Owls of the Eastern Ice: The Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan C. Slaght (2020)

Slaght has become an expert on the Blakiston’s fish owl during nearly two decades of fieldwork in the far east of Russia – much closer to Korea and Japan than to Moscow, the region is also home to Amur tigers. For his Master’s and PhD research at the University of Minnesota, he plotted the territories of breeding pairs of owls and fit them with identifying bands and data loggers to track their movements over the years. He describes these winter field seasons as recurring frontier adventures. Now, I’ve accompanied my husband on fieldwork from time to time, and I can tell you it would be hard to make it sound exciting. Then again, gathering beetles from English fields is pretty staid compared to piloting snowmobiles over melting ice, running from fire, speeding to avoid blockaded logging roads, and being served cleaning-grade ethanol when the vodka runs out.

The sorts of towns Slaght works near are primitive places where adequate food and fuel is a matter of life and death. He and his assistants rely on the hospitality of Anatoliy the crazy hermit and also stay in huts and caravans. Tracking the owls is a rollercoaster experience, with expensive equipment failures and trial and error to narrow down the most effective trapping methods. His team develops a new low-tech technique involving a tray of live fish planted in the river shallows under a net. They come to know individuals and mourn their loss: the Sha-Mi female he’s holding in his author photo was hit by a car four years later.

Slaght thinks of Russia as his second home, and you can sense his passion for the fish owl and for conservation in general. He boils down complicated data and statistics into the simple requirements for this endangered species (fewer than 2000 in the wild): valleys containing old-growth forest with large trees and rivers that don’t fully freeze over. There are only limited areas with these characteristics. These specifications and his ongoing research – Slaght is now the Northeast Asia Coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society – inform the policy recommendations given to logging companies and other bodies.

Amid the science, this is just a darn good story, full of bizarre characters like Katkov, a garrulous assistant exiled for his snoring. (“He fueled his monologue with sausage and cheese, then belched zeppelins of aroma into that confined space.”) Slaght himself doesn’t play much of a role in the book, so don’t expect a soul-searching memoir. Instead, you get top-notch nature and travel writing, and a ride along on a consequential environmentalist quest. This is the kind of science book that, like Lab Girl and Entangled Life, I’d recommend even if you don’t normally pick up nonfiction. (Christmas gift)

 

And a bonus children’s book:

If Winter Comes, Tell It I’m Not Here by Simona Ciraolo (2020)

The little boy loves nothing more than to spend hours at the swimming pool and then have an ice cream cone. His big sister warns him the carefree days of summer will be over soon; it will turn cold and dark and he’ll be cooped up inside. Her words come to pass, yet the boy realizes that every season has its joys and he has to take advantage of them while they last. Cute and colourful, though the drawing style wasn’t my favourite. And a correction is in order: as President Biden would surely tell you, ice cream is a year-round treat! (Public library)

 

Any snowy or icy reading (or weather) for you lately?

Three on a Theme for Valentine’s Day: “Love” Books by Natalie Diaz, Maile Meloy and Jane Smiley

This post is an annual tradition for me, somehow.* Love, whether erotic, romantic or familial, turns up in the titles of these three works by women writers: poems, short stories and a novella.

 

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (2020)

Diaz, raised on a Mojave reservation in California, won a Pulitzer Prize for this honey-thick exploration of queer Native American identity. There are lustful moments aplenty here—

My lover comes to me like darkfall—long,

and through my open window. Mullion, transom. […]

I keep time on the hematite clocks of her shoulders.

(from “Like Church”)

—but the mineral-heavy imagery (“the agate cups of your palms …the bronzed lamp of my breast”) is so weirdly archaic and the vocabulary so technical that I kept thinking of the Song of Solomon. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s just not the model I expected to find.

So I ended up preferring the forthright political poems about contemporary Native American life. Police shootings, pipeline protests: it’s a fact that her people are disproportionately persecuted (see “American Arithmetic”). Her brother’s drug abuse and mental illness also form a repeating subject (e.g., “It Was the Animals”).

The collection is as much of a love poem to land as it is to a woman, with water bodies described as affectionately as female bodies. “The Colorado River is the most endangered river in the United States—also, it is a part of my body” is the opening line of “The First Water Is the Body”; see also “exhibits from the American Water Museum.”

My favourite single poem, “If I Should Come Upon Your House Lonely in the West Texas Desert,” is sexy but also, charmingly, features echoes of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”:

I will swing my lasso of headlights

across your front porch,

 

let it drop like a rope of knotted light

at your feet.

 

While I put the car in park,

you will tie and tighten the loop

 

of light around your waist—

and I will be there with the other end

 

wrapped three times

around my hips horned with loneliness.

 

[…]

 

I will lie down in you.

Eat my meals at the red table of your heart.

 

Each steaming bowl will be, Just right.

I will eat it all up,

 

break all your chairs to pieces.

(New purchase, Awesomebooks.com)

 

Half in Love by Maile Meloy (2002)

Meloy’s was a new name for me when I picked this up as part of a bargain secondhand book haul last year, but she’s actually published 10 books and is esteemed in literary circles; Ann Patchett even dedicated her latest release, These Precious Days, to her.

Meloy is from Montana and most of the 14 stories in this, her debut collection, are set in the contemporary American West among those who make their living from the outdoors, diving to work on hydroelectric dams or keeping cattle and horses. However, one of the more memorable stories, “Aqua Boulevard,” is set in Paris, where a geriatric father can’t tamp down his worries for his offspring.

The few historical stories have a melancholy air, with protagonists whose star has faded. There’s the brief, touching portrait of an outmoded career in “The Ice Harvester” and the secondhand reminiscences of being in late-colonial diplomatic service in the Middle East in “Last of the White Slaves”; “Red” is about an American soldier stationed in London during the Second World War.

Crime and its consequences recur. I loved the opening story, “Tome,” about a lawyer whose client wants her to keep in touch after he goes to jail. Teenage girls are the title characters in a couple of stories; “Ranch Girl” is in the second person. “Kite Whistler Aquamarine” is a heartbreaker about a filly born premature one winter. “Paint” was the standout for me: it’s pretty terrifying what a wife’s temporary attitude of neglect leads to when her luckless husband undertakes some DIY.

As is usual with a collection, a few of the stories left little impression on me. But there’s sufficient range and depth here to induce me to seek out more of Meloy’s work. I can recommend this to readers of Claire Boyles, David Guterson, Lily King, Jane Smiley (see below!) and David Vann. (Secondhand purchase, 2nd & Charles)

Favourite passages:

“Be interesting in your twenties,” Suzy says. “Otherwise you’ll want to do it in your thirties or forties, when it wreaks all kinds of havoc, and you’ve got a husband and kids.”

Eugénie invited my husband to Greece every summer because she wanted him to publish her memoir. She had lived a remarkable life but didn’t have a remarkable book, and it dragged through slow ghostwritten revisions. Every year, at work in the hot city, I thought of blue water and white bougainvillea and forgot how exhausting it was to be her guest, to stay in favor and say the right things. So each summer we would arrive, look at the new draft, give careful suggestions that would not be taken, and find ourselves on the terrace waiting for her to trip mercifully off to bed.

 

Ordinary Love by Jane Smiley (1990)

This is one of Smiley’s earlier works and feels a little generic, like she hadn’t yet developed a signature voice or themes. One summer, a 52-year-old mother of five prepares for her adult son Michael’s return from India after two years of teaching. His twin brother, Joe, will pick him up from the airport later on. Through conversations over dinner and a picnic in the park, the rest of the family try to work out how Michael has changed during his time away. “I try to accept the mystery of my children, of the inexplicable ways they diverge from parental expectations, of how, however much you know or remember of them, they don’t quite add up.” The narrator recalls her marriage-ending affair and how she coped afterwards. Michael drops a bombshell towards the end of the 91-page novella. Readable yet instantly forgettable, alas. I bought it as part of a dual volume with Good Will, which I don’t expect I’ll read. (Secondhand purchase, Bookbarn International)

 

If you read just one … It’s got to be Postcolonial Love Poem, the most Eros-appropriate of the three by far.

 

*I’m really not a Valentine’s Day person, yet this is the sixth year in a row that I’ve put together a themed post featuring books that have “Love” or a similar word in the title in the run-up to mid-February (2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021).

 

Read any books about love lately?

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.