An unexpected opportunity to contribute another post for Nordic FINDS this week (after my skim of Sophie’s World): yesterday we went into London – for just the second time since the pandemic started – and I took along a couple of novella-length books, one of them this Swedish nonfiction work that I picked up from a charity shop the other week. As it was released by Canongate in 2017, it also fits into Karen and Lizzy’s Read Indies challenge.
Our previous London trip was to see Bell X1 play at Union Chapel back in December. Yesterday was also for a gig, this time The Lost Words: Spell Songs playing Cadogan Hall. I’d been dubious about this ensemble project based on Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’s The Lost Words and The Lost Spells but ended up loving both books as well as the two albums of folk/world music based on them, and it was a brilliant evening of music.
Anyway, on to the books. I also reread a novella in advance of book club, so afterwards I’ll take a quick look at the rereading I’ve done so far this year.
Döstädning: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson
This is not about trauma cleaning, but downsizing and culling possessions so that the burden doesn’t fall to your children or other relatives after your death. Magnusson, who is in her 80s, has experience with death cleaning: first after her mother’s death, then after her mother-in-law’s, and finally after her husband’s, when she decided to move from the family home to a small flat. I enjoyed the little glimpses into her life as a mother of five and an artist. The family moved around a lot for her husband’s work, living in the USA and Singapore. She makes more of an allowance for possessions that hold sentimental value (especially photos and letters), being more concerned about the accumulation of STUFF.
As for general strategies, she suggests starting the process c. age 65 and beginning with the big things, from furniture on down, so that you make visible progress right away. “I’ve discovered that it is rewarding to spend time with these objects one last time and then dispose of them.” She goes category by category through her possessions. Clothing and cookbooks are pretty easy to shed: get rid of whatever doesn’t fit or suit you anymore, and only keep a couple of much-used cookbooks; you can find most any recipe on the Internet these days, after all. Leave the emotional material for last or you’ll get bogged down, she advises – you can take your time and enjoy reminiscing as you look through mementoes later on. She even considers what to do about old pets.
To let things, people and pets go when there is no better alternative is a lesson that has been very difficult for me to learn, and it is a lesson that life, as it goes further along, is teaching me more and more often.
Magnusson writes that she does not intend this to be a sad book, and it’s mostly very practical and unsentimental, even funny at times: on disposing of secret stuff, “save your favourite dildo but throw away the other fifteen!”; a little section on the perils of “man caves” and her memories of her clumsy cat Klumpeduns. I also laughed at the concept of a fulskåp (“a cabinet for the ugly”) for unwanted gifts that must eventually be rehomed or disposed of.
One problem that I have with decluttering books in general is that there isn’t enough of an anti-consumerist and green message. One, don’t accumulate the stuff in the first place (and reuse and buy secondhand wherever possible); two, possessions should almost never be thrown away, and only as an absolute last resort after doing everything possible to repair, refurbish, rehome or recycle them.
This was an enjoyable little book that I’ll pass on to someone else who might find it useful (so long as it’s not considered too on the nose as a book recommendation!), but it didn’t necessarily add anything for me beyond what I’d encountered in Outer Order, Inner Calm by Gretchen Rubin and Year of No Clutter by Eve O. Schaub. (Secondhand purchase)
[I’m a little confused as to whether this is in translation or not. It first appeared in Swedish, but as no translator is listed anywhere in the copyright info, I assume that Magnusson translated it herself. Apart from some wrong number/amount and during/over choices, it reads like a native speaker’s work.]
I’ve reread three books so far this year, which for me is pretty good going. It helped that all three were novella length, and I had book club as an excuse to return to the two novels.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes was the other book I popped in the back of my purse for yesterday’s London outing. Barnes is one of my favourite authors – I’ve read 21 books by him now! – but I remember not being very taken with this Booker winner when I read it just over 10 years ago. (I prefer to think of his win as being for his whole body of work as he’s written vastly more original and interesting books, like Flaubert’s Parrot.) It’s the story of an older man looking back on his youth, and his friend’s suicide, in the light of what he learns after a somewhat mysterious bequest. The themes of history, memory and regret certainly mean more to me now in my late 30s than they did in my late 20s, but I still find this work a little lightweight; sordid, too. (Free from mall bookshop)
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark was January’s book club selection. I had remembered no details apart from the title character being a teacher. It’s a between-the-wars story set in Edinburgh. Miss Brodie’s pet students are girls with attributes that remind her of aspects of herself. Our group was appalled at what we today would consider inappropriate grooming, and at Miss Brodie’s admiration for Hitler and Mussolini. Educational theory was interesting to think about, however. Spark’s work is a little astringent for me, and I also found this one annoyingly repetitive on the sentence level. (Public library)
Brit-Think, Ameri-Think: A Transatlantic Survival Guide by Jane Walmsley: This is the revised edition from 2003, so I must have bought it as preparatory reading for my study abroad year in England. This may even be the third time I’ve read it. Walmsley, an American in the UK, compares Yanks and Brits on topics like business, love and sex, parenting, food, television, etc. I found my favourite lines again (in a panel entitled “Eating in Britain: Things that Confuse American Tourists”): “Why do Brits like snacks that combine two starches? (a) If you’ve got spaghetti, do you really need the toast? (b) What’s a ‘chip-butty’? Is it fatal?” The explanation of the divergent sense of humour is still spot on, and I like the Gray Jolliffe cartoons. Unfortunately, a lot of the rest feels dated – she’d updated it to 2003’s pop culture references, but these haven’t aged well. (New purchase?)
Any Nordic reads, or rereads, for you lately?
My first few wintry reads for the season included a modern children’s classic, a wonderful poetry collection, and a so-so Advent-set novella. For my pre-Christmas reads, I have a couple of story-length classics and two recent novellas.
Winter Story by Jill Barklem (1980)
My favourite of the series so far (just Spring still to go) for how nostalgic it is for winter traditions.
“Tobogganing tomorrow,” said Wilfred.
“Snow pancakes for tea,” said Clover.
“We’ll make a snow mouse,” said Catkin.
The mice host a Snow Ball at the Ice Hall, with outfits and dances out of Austen and victuals out of Dickens. As always, the tree-trunk interiors are lit up like doll’s house tableaux with cosy rooms and well-stocked larders. Nothing much happens in this one, but that was fine with me: no need for a conflict and its resolution when you’ve got such a lovely, lucky life. (Public library)
The Winter Orchards by Nina Bogin (2001)
After enjoying Thousandfold in 2019, I was keen to catch up on Bogin’s previous poetry. Themes I’d noted in her latest work, nature and family, are key here, too. There is an overall wistful tone to the book, as in the passages below:
I didn’t like lungwort at first,
its spotted leaves, its furred
flowers, and I didn’t like its name.
But now I want to gather lungwort again,
now that I can’t return
to the brook meadow I picked it in (from “Lungwort”)
I’ll love the fallow and forgotten fields
because I have no choice, and woods
whose paths have been erased. (from “Landscape”)
The losses responded to are sometimes personal – saying Kaddish for her father – and sometimes more broadly representative, as when she writes about a dead bird found on the road or conflicts like the Gulf War and former Yugoslavia. Alongside beautiful nature poetry featuring birds and plants are vignettes from travels in France, Sweden, and upstate New York. (New purchase)
An Advent Calendar by Shena Mackay (1978)
I smugly started this on the first day of Advent, and initially enjoyed Mackay’s macabre habit of taking elements of the Nativity scene or a traditional Christmas and giving them a seedy North London twist. So we open on a butcher’s shop and a young man wearing “bloody swabbing cloths” rather than swaddling clothes, having lost a finger to the meat mincer (and later we see “a misty Christmas postman with his billowy sack come out of the abattoir’s gates”). In this way, John Wood becomes an unwitting cannibal after taking a parcel home from the butcher’s that day, and can’t forget about it as he moves his temporarily homeless family into his old uncle’s house and continues halfheartedly in his job as a cleaner. His wife has an affair; so does a teenage girl at the school where his sister works. No one is happy and everything is sordid. “Scouring powder snowed” and the animal at this perverse manger scene is the uncle’s neglected goat. This novella is soon read, but soon forgotten. (Secondhand purchase)
And so to Christmas…
“The Christmas Dinner” by Washington Irving (1820)
An evocative portrait of an English Christmas meal, hosted by a squire in the great hall of his manor, originally published in Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. A boar’s head, a mummers’ play, the Lord of Misrule: you couldn’t get much more traditional. “Master Simon covered himself with glory by the stateliness with which, as Ancient Christmas, he walked a minuet with the peerless, though giggling, Dame Mince Pie.” Irving’s narrator knows this little tale isn’t profound or intellectually satisfying, but hopes it will raise a smile. He also has a sense that he is recording something that might soon pass away:
I felt also an interest in the scene, from the consideration that these fleeting customs were posting fast into oblivion. … There was a quaintness, too, mingled with all this revelry, that gave it a peculiar zest; it was suited to the time and place; and as the old Manor House almost reeled with mirth and wassail, it seemed echoing back the joviality of long-departed years.
A pleasant one-sitting read; so much better than a Christmas card!
This Renard Press pamphlet is in support of Three Peas, a charity providing food and medical care to refugees in Europe. Thanks to Annabel for my gifted copy!
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (2021)
Always, Christmas brought out the best and the worst in people.
This was our second most popular read during last month’s Novellas in November challenge. I’d read a lot about it in fellow bloggers’ posts and newspaper reviews so knew to expect a meticulously chiselled and heartwarming story about a coal merchant in 1980s Ireland who comes to value his quiet family life all the more when he sees how difficult existence is for the teen mothers sent to work in the local convent’s laundry service. Born out of wedlock himself nearly 40 years ago, he is grateful that his mother received kindness and wishes he could do more to help the desperate girls he meets when he makes deliveries to the convent.
I found this a fairly predictable narrative, and the nuns are cartoonishly villainous. So I wasn’t as enthusiastic as many others have been, but still enjoyed having this as one of my reads on my travel day to the USA. I was familiar with the Magdalene Laundries from the movie The Magdalene Sisters and found this a touching reminder to be grateful for what you have while helping those less fortunate. A perfect message for Christmas. (NetGalley)
Miss Marley by Vanessa Lafaye (2018)
Lafaye was a local-ish author to me, an American expat living in Marlborough. When she died of breast cancer in 2018, she left this A Christmas Carol prequel unfinished, and fellow historical novelist Rebecca Mascull completed it for her. Clara and Jacob Marley come from money but end up on the streets, stealing from the rich to get by. Jacob sets himself up as a moneylender to the poor and then, after serving an apprenticeship alongside Ebenezer Scrooge, goes into business with him. They are a bad influence on each other, reinforcing each other’s greed and hard hearts. Jacob is determined never to be poor again. Because he’s forgotten what it’s like, he has no compassion when Clara falls in love with a luckless Scottish tea merchant. Like Scrooge, Jacob is offered one final chance to mend his ways. This was easy and pleasant reading, but I did wonder if there was a point to reading this when one could just reread Dickens’s original. (Secondhand purchase)
A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas (1952)
(Illus. Edward Ardizzone, 1978)
It’s a wonder I’d never managed to read this short story before. I was prepared for something slightly twee; instead, it is sprightly and imaginative, full of unexpected images and wordplay. In the Wales of his childhood, there were wolves and bears and hippos. Young boys could get up to all sorts of mischief, but knew that a warm house packed with relatives and a cosy bed awaited at the end of a momentous day. Reflective and magical in equal measure; a lovely wee volume that I am sure to reread year after year. (Little Free Library)
A favourite passage:
Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely white-ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards.
If there’s been one adjective linking most of these books, it’s been “nostalgic.” There’s something about winter in general, and the holiday season in particular, that lends itself to thinking back to the past and trying to preserve traditions, isn’t there?
What’s on your holiday reading pile this year?
Last year, our first of hosting Novellas in November as an official blogger challenge, we had 89 posts by 30 bloggers. This year, Cathy and I have been simply blown away by the level of participation: as of this afternoon, our count is that 49 bloggers have taken part, publishing just over 200 posts and covering over 270 books. We’ve done our best to keep up with the posts, which we’ve each been collecting as links on the opening master post. (Here’s mine.)
Thank you all for being so engaged with #NovNov, including with the buddy reads we tried out for the first time this year. We’re already thinking about changes we might implement for next year.
A special mention goes to Simon of Stuck in a Book for being such a star supporter and managing to review a novella on most days of the month.
Our most reviewed books of the month included new releases (The Fell by Sarah Moss, Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, Assembly by Natasha Brown, and The Writer’s Cats by Muriel Barbery), our four buddy reads, and The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy.
Some authors who were reviewed more than once (highlighting different works) were Margaret Atwood, Henry James, Elizabeth Jolley, Amos Oz, George Simenon, and Muriel Spark.
Of course, novellas are great to read the whole year round and not just in November, but we hope this has been a good excuse to pick up some short books and appreciate how much can be achieved with such a limited number of pages. If we missed any of your coverage, let us know and we will gladly add it in to the master list.
See you next year!
We’ll be wrapping up Novellas in November and giving final statistics on Tuesday. Today, I have mini reviews of another seven novellas I’ve been working on, some of them for the whole month. I’ll start with some short nonfiction and then move on to the fiction.
Barn Owl by Jim Crumley (2014)
I reviewed Kingfisher and Otter, two other titles from Crumley’s “Encounters in the Wild” series for the publisher Saraband, earlier in the month. Barn Owl follows the same pattern, traveling the Scottish islands in search of close encounters (with badgers and ospreys, too) but also stretching back to a childhood memory from 1950s Dundee, when there was an owl-occupied derelict farmstead a quarter-mile from his home. This is a lovely little full-circle narrative in that the book closes with “the barn owl, unlike all other night-flying owls, is the one that we can see in the dark … its inarguable beauty is layered with mystery, and …all of us have a place in our hearts and minds for mysterious beauty. I have known that to be an essential truth since I was about eight years old.” (Public library)
Conundrum by Jan Morris (1974)
A reread of a book that transformed my understanding of gender back in 2006. Morris (d. 2020) was a trans pioneer. Her concise memoir opens “I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl.” Sitting under the family piano, little James knew it, but it took many years – a journalist’s career, including the scoop of the first summiting of Mount Everest in 1953; marriage and five children; and nearly two decades of hormone therapy – before a sex reassignment surgery in Morocco in 1972 physically confirmed it. I was struck this time by Morris’s feeling of having been a spy in all-male circles and taking advantage of that privilege while she could. She speculates that her travel books arose from “incessant wandering as an outer expression of my inner journey.” The focus is more on her unchanging soul than on her body, so this is not a sexual tell-all. She paints hers as a spiritual quest toward true identity and there is only joy at new life rather than regret at time wasted in the ‘wrong’ one. (Public library)
Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg by Emily Rapp Black (2021)
This was my third memoir by the author; I reviewed The Still Point of the Turning World and Sanctuary earlier in the year. Like Sinéad Gleeson does in Constellations, Rapp Black turns to Frida Kahlo as a role model for “translating … pain into art.” Polio, a streetcar accident, 32 operations, failed pregnancies and an amputated leg – Kahlo endured much suffering. It was this last particular that especially drew Rapp Black (who has had a prosthetic leg since early childhood) to her. On a visit to Kahlo’s Mexico City home, she can hardly bear the intimacy of seeing Kahlo’s prostheses and corsets. They plunge her back into her own memories: of passing as normal despite a disability, having an eating disorder, losing her son Ronan to Tay-Sachs disease, and starting over with a new marriage and baby. Rapp Black weaves this all together artfully as well as effectively, but for someone like me who is already conversant with her story, there wasn’t quite enough in the way of new material.
With thanks to Notting Hill Editions for the free e-copy for review.
These first two ended up having a major arc in common: desperate preservation of key family relationships against the backdrop of a believably falling-apart near-future world.
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter (2017)
A woman, her partner (R), and their baby son flee a flooded London in search of a place of safety, traveling by car and boat and camping with friends and fellow refugees. “How easily we have got used to it all, as though we knew what was coming all along,” she says. Her baby, Z, tethers her to the corporeal world. What actually happens? Well, on the one hand it’s very familiar if you’ve read any dystopian fiction; on the other hand it is vague because characters only designated by initials are hard to keep straight and the text is in one- or two-sentence or -paragraph chunks punctuated by asterisks (and dull observations): “Often, I am unsure whether something is a bird or a leaf. *** Z likes to eat butter in chunks. *** We are overrun by mice.” etc. It’s touching how Z’s early milestones structure the book, but for the most part the style meant this wasn’t my cup of tea. (Secondhand purchase)
My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson (2021)
[For novella only: 182 pages?]
Pick this up right away if you loved Danielle Evans’s The Office of Historical Corrections. After “the unraveling,” Da’Naisha and fellow escapees from racial violence in Charlottesville – including her former and current boyfriends, the one Black and the other white; and her ailing grandmother, MaViolet – shelter at Thomas Jefferson’s famous Virginia estate. At first they stay by the visitor’s center, but as weeks pass and they fear a siege, they retreat to the mansion itself. Da’Naisha, our narrator, becomes the de facto leader of the motley crew, spearheading a trip out for supplies. She harbors two major secrets, one about her heritage and one about her future. Although this is a bit too similar to Parable of the Sower, against which I judge just about any dystopian fiction, the setting and timeliness can’t be beat. I read the U.S. ebook edition, which includes five short stories that also explore race issues and employ the first person plural and second person to good effect; “Buying a House Ahead of the Apocalypse” encapsulated my whole autumn mood. (Read via Edelweiss)
The Cemetery in Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici (2018)
After reviewing Josipovici’s 100 Days earlier in the month, I wanted to get a taste of his fiction. The protagonist is a translator who has lived in London, Paris and now rural Wales. He’s been married twice but, whatever his living situation, he’s always prized the solitude and routine he needs for his work. Passages from Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo and Joachim du Bellay’s poetry – in the original language, sometimes but not always translated for us – drift through the novella, which also prioritizes the sort of repeated phrases that constitute a long-cohabitating couple’s domestic vocabulary. References to cemeteries and to du Bellay’s Regrets are hints of something hasn’t isn’t being revealed to us up front. I think I worked out what it was. Clever and interesting, but I’d like a bit more grounding detail. A favorite line: “for one’s life not living up to expectation there is no excuse, except for the paltry one that this is true of everybody’s life.” (University library)
When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka (2002)
Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, about Japanese mail order brides in early 1900s San Francisco, was one of my first encounters with the first person plural, which I’ve come to love. It also serves as a prequel to this, her debut novel. In Berkeley, California in 1942, a Japanese man is arrested as a potential enemy combatant. His wife, son and daughter are given just a matter of days to pack their things and evacuate to an internment camp in the desert. Otsuka takes us along on the train journey and to the camp, where small moments rather than climactic ones reveal the children’s sadness and the injustice of what they’re missing out on. I most enjoyed the last section, when they all return to their home after over three years away and start to piece life back together. I’d already read a few novels featuring Japanese internment (e.g. The Japanese Lover and Snow Falling on Cedars) but, more than that, Otsuka’s writing is a tad too subtle for me. (Secondhand purchase)
In total, I read 29 novellas this November – a new record for me! I didn’t set out to read the equivalent of nearly one per day, but it happened to pan out like that. Some of my selections were very short indeed, at under 100 pages; multiple volumes of Garfield comics also helped. Three were 5-star reads: The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy plus two rereads, Conundrum by Jan Morris (above) and our classics buddy read, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.
I also had a couple of DNFs:
Gone by Michael Blencowe: (45 pages) I made a second attempt on this essay collection about extinct species this month. Maybe I’ve just read too much around the topic recently. (Review copy)
Inside the Bone Box by Anthony Ferner: (50 pages) I loved the idea of a novella about a neurosurgeon, but mostly this concerns Nick’s fatness and his family members’ various dysfunctions. (New purchase)
Reviews of books about cats have been a regular element on my blog over the years, though not for quite a while. I happen to have amassed a number of illustrated novelty cat books recently, all of them under 150 pages, so Novellas in November is my excuse to feature them together. All six were enjoyable and a nice break from heavier reads on my stacks: .
The Writer’s Cats by Muriel Barbery; illus. Maria Guitart (2020; 2021)
[Translated from the French by Alison Anderson; 80 pages]
I could have included this in a translated literature post, but decided to go by theme instead; I also considered reviewing it during nonfiction week as I thought it was a brief memoir. As it turns out, it’s a whimsical tale I’d be more likely to classify under fiction. Barbery has four Chartreux cats – two pairs of siblings: Ocha and Mizu, and Kirin and Petrus. Kirin, one of the younger pair, narrates the book, giving the cats’ view of the writer (and the musician she lives with). They diagnose her as being afflicted with restlessness, doubt and denial, and decide to learn to read so that they can act as literary advisors and comment on her work in progress. Naturally, they’d like to receive royalties for this service. “Yes, we are – in all modesty – decorative, protective deities watching over her rigid little aesthetic world”. Barbery is a Japanophile, so Guitart’s illustrations mix Japanese minimalism with Parisian chic and use as a palette the grey and orange colouring of the cats themselves. This was cute! (Also reviewed by Annabel and Davida.) A favourite illustration:
With thanks to Gallic Books for the free copy for review.
Four Garfield comics anthologies by Jim Davis:
Two’s Company (#5, 1984), We Love You Too (#10, 1985), Here We Go Again (#11, 1986), Flying High (#16, 1988)
[Each: 128 pages]
When these came into our temporary Little Free Library at the end of the summer I snapped them up, remembering happy times reading the syndicated comic in the Washington Post and watching the animated TV show on weekends growing up. I could even hear the actor who voices Garfield in my head on some lines.
In a sense, if you’ve read one of these volumes you’ve read them all, because the same sorts of set pieces repeat. Garfield’s gluttony and laziness know no bounds, so in between naps, he’ll snatch lasagnes and whatever other people food he can get. He’ll mock owner Jon, bait Odie the dog, ignore the mice in the house, terrorize Nermal the cute kitten, and flirt with Arlene. For the most part, the plots don’t leave the house, though in Two’s Company Jon and Garfield fly to Hawaii on vacation.
Garfield was the original grumpy cat, with smugness the only other emotion you’ll regularly see on his face. His ways will remind you of your own feline acquaintances (except he also drinks coffee and hates Mondays). The sense of humour is sarcasm par excellence. A favourite page from Flying High:
The Calculating Cat Returns by Nancy Prevo; illus. Eric Gurney (1978)
A tongue-in-cheek book mostly composed of black-and-white cartoons. The “calculating cat” is a bit like Terry Pratchett’s “real cat” from The Unadulterated Cat, but comes in a few varieties (or “CAT-egories,” as they’re called here): Pampered Cats, Working Cats, and Tramp cats. My cat was apparently the third type, living on the streets, for a short time, though you’d never know it to look at him now. During his 10th summer he tried working as a hunter, but quickly retired. He’s now solidly of the pampered class.
There are chapters here on playtime, eating habits, sleep, travel, and mating (not something many of us cat owners have to worry about these days). This remains reasonably undated because cats don’t change; it’s the human fashions that evolve and would look different in a book published today. (Free bookshop)
A favourite drawing:
Any cat (or dog) books among your recent reading?
Can you believe it’s the last week of Novellas in November?! I’m hosting our final theme, short classics, and my first review is of a strange, mesmerizing 1950s novella.
We hope some of you will join in with our last buddy read, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (free to download here from Project Gutenberg if you don’t already have access). I’m looking forward to rereading it – in one sitting, if I can manage it – on Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning and will review it on Thursday. This list of 10 favourite classic novellas I put together last year might give you some more ideas of what to read this week.
Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns (1954)
I’d heard about this via its recent Daunt Books reissue and was attracted to the plague theme. The spark for the story was a real-life event in France in 1951, but Comyns takes imaginative liberties. In 1911, a Warwickshire village is overtaken by calamity: first a flood and then a mysterious sickness. The first line – “The ducks swam through the drawing-room window” – sets up a jolly, fable-like atmosphere as the Willoweed family go rowing through their garden. And yet there’s death all over the place. The multitude of drowned animals soon cedes to a roll call of human casualties. Some deaths are self-inflicted and others result from rapid illness, but all are gruesome. The general pattern of the sickness seems to be stomach pains, fits, bleeding and death, all within a few days. At first, we don’t know if what we’re looking at is a medical phenomenon or a case of mass hysteria. Either is rich fodder for fiction.
Ebin Willoweed writes it all up for the newspapers, leaving his motherless daughters to do the hard work of cleaning up from the flood damage and looking after their little brother. Meanwhile, Ebin’s brutal, selfish mother presides over the household like some ogre in a fairy tale. The title (which comes from Longfellow) makes it clear that even those who survive this epidemic will not escape totally unscathed.
Comyns is entirely unsentimental in this, her third novel; those characters who are not horrible are typically passive, and the humour is very black indeed. It’s illuminating to observe how each figure responds to tragedy and what their priorities are. In general, though, it’s not a rosy picture of human nature. While I was initially reminded of H.E. Bates’s The Darling Buds of May and Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, this feels darker. There is some casual racism and the morbidness probably won’t be for everyone, but I remained gripped, wondering how on earth this would conclude. I liked it enough to try more by Comyns – my library has a copy of the brilliantly titled Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, but I’m also open to other suggestions. (Secondhand purchase)
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.
Any short classics on your reading pile?
I’m sneaking in under the wire here with a couple more reviews for the literature in translation week of Novellas in November. These both happen to be translated from the French, and attracted me for their medical themes: the one ponders the Ebola crisis in Africa, and the other presents a soldier who returns from war with disfiguring facial injuries.
In the Company of Men: The Ebola Tales by Véronique Tadjo (2017; 2021)
[Translated from the French by the author and John Cullen; Small Axes Press; 133 pages]
This creative and compassionate work takes on various personae to plot the course of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014–16: a doctor, a nurse, a morgue worker, bereaved family members and browbeaten survivors. The suffering is immense, and there are ironic situations that only compound the tragedy: the funeral of a traditional medicine woman became a super-spreader event; those who survive are shunned by their family members. Tadjo flows freely between all the first-person voices, even including non-human narrators such as baobab trees and the fruit bat in which the virus likely originated (then spreading to humans via the consumption of the so-called bush meat). Local legends and songs, along with a few of her own poems, also enter into the text.
Like I said about The Appointment, this would make a really interesting play because it is so voice-driven and each character epitomizes a different facet of a collective experience. Of course, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels with Covid – “you have to keep your distance from other people, stay at home, and wash your hands with disinfectant before entering a public space” – none of which could have been in the author’s mind when this was first composed. Let’s hope we’ll soon be able to join in cries similar to “It’s over! It’s over! … Death has brushed past us, but we have survived! Bye-bye, Ebola!” (Secondhand purchase)
Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve (2014; 2021)
[Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter; 172 pages]
With Remembrance Day not long past, it’s been the perfect time to read this story of a family reunited at the close of the First World War. Jeanne Caillet makes paper flowers to adorn ladies’ hats – pinpricks of colour to brighten up harsh winters. Since her husband Toussaint left for the war, it’s been her and their daughter Léonie in their little Paris room. Luckily, Jeanne’s best friend Sidonie, an older seamstress, lives just across the hall. When Toussaint returns in October 1918, it isn’t the rapturous homecoming they expected. He’s been in the facial injuries department at the Val-de-Grâce military hospital, and wrote to Jeanne, “I want you not to come.” He wears a white mask over his face, hasn’t regained the power of speech, and isn’t ready for his wife to see his new appearance. Their journey back to each other is at the heart of the novella, the first of Villeneuve’s works to appear in English.
I loved the chapters that zero in on Jeanne’s handiwork and on Toussaint’s injury and recovery (Lindsey Fitzharris, author of The Butchering Art, is currently writing a book on early plastic surgery; I’ve heard it also plays a major role in Louisa Young’s My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You – both nominated for the Wellcome Book Prize), and the two gorgeous “Word is…” litanies – one pictured below – but found the book as a whole somewhat meandering and quiet. If you’re keen on the time period and have enjoyed novels like Birdsong and The Winter Soldier, it would be a safe bet. (Cathy’s reviewed this one, too.)
With thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.
(In a nice connection with a previous week’s buddy read, Villeneuve’s most recent novel is about Helen Keller’s mother and is called La Belle Lumière (“The Beautiful Light”). I hope it will also be made available in English translation.)
As literature in translation week of Novellas in November continues, I’m making a token contribution to German Literature Month as well. I’m aware that my second title doesn’t technically count towards the challenge because it was originally written in English, but the author is German, so I’m adding it in as a bonus. Both novellas feature an insular perspective and an unusual protagonist whose actions may be slightly difficult to sympathize with.
The Pigeon by Patrick Süskind (1987; 1988)
[Translated from the German by John E. Woods; 77 pages]
At the time the pigeon affair overtook him, unhinging his life from one day to the next, Jonathan Noel, already past fifty, could look back over a good twenty-year period of total uneventfulness and would never have expected anything of importance could ever overtake him again – other than death some day. And that was perfectly all right with him. For he was not fond of events, and hated outright those that rattled his inner equilibrium and made a muddle of the external arrangements of life.
What a perfect opening paragraph! Taking place over about 24 hours in August 1984, this is the odd little tale of a man in Paris who’s happily set in his ways until an unexpected encounter upends his routines. Every day he goes to work as a bank security guard and then returns to his rented room, which he’s planning to buy from his landlady. But on this particular morning he finds a pigeon not a foot from his door, and droppings all over the corridor. Now, I love birds, so this was somewhat difficult for me to understand, but I know that bird phobia is a real thing. Jonathan is so freaked out that he immediately decamps to a hotel, and his day just keeps getting worse from there, in comical ways, until it seems he might do something drastic. The pigeon is both real and a symbol of irrational fears. The conclusion is fairly open-ended, leaving me feeling like this was a short story or unfinished novella. It was intriguing but also frustrating in that sense. There’s an amazing description of a meal, though! (University library)
The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer (2020)
This debut novella was longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize – a mark of experimental style that would often scare me off, so I’m glad I gave it a try anyway. It’s an extended monologue given by a young German woman during her consultation with a Dr Seligman in London. As she unburdens herself about her childhood, her relationships, and her gender dysphoria, you initially assume Seligman is her Freudian therapist, but Volckmer has a delicious trick up her sleeve. A glance at the titles and covers of foreign editions, or even the subtitle of this Fitzcarraldo Editions paperback, would give the game away, so I recommend reading as little as possible about the book before opening it up. The narrator has some awfully peculiar opinions, especially in relation to Nazism (the good doctor being a Jew), but the deeper we get into her past the more we see where her determination to change her life comes from. This was outrageous and hilarious in equal measure, and great fun to read. I’d love to see someone turn it into a one-act play. (New purchase)
A favourite passage:
But then we are most passionate when we worship the things that don’t exist, like race, or money, or God, or, quite simply, our fathers. God, of course, was a man too. A father who could see everything, from whom you couldn’t even hide in the toilet, and who was always angry. He probably had a penis the size of a cigarette.
For nonfiction week of Novellas in November, our buddy read is The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (1903). You can download the book for free from Project Gutenberg here if you’d still like to join in.
Keller’s story is culturally familiar to us, perhaps from the William Gibson play The Miracle Worker, but I’d never read her own words. She was born in Alabama in 1880; her father had been a captain in the Confederate Army. An illness (presumed to be scarlet fever) left her blind and deaf at the age of 19 months, and she describes herself in those early years as mischievous and hot-tempered, always frustrated at her inability to express herself. The arrival of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, when Helen was six years old transformed her “silent, aimless, dayless life.”
I was fascinated by the glimpses into child development and education. Especially after she learned Braille, Keller loved books, but she believed she learned just as much from nature: “everything that could hum or buzz, or sing, or bloom, had a part in my education.” She loved to sit in the family orchard and would hold insects or fossils and track plant and tadpole growth. Her first trip to the ocean (Chapter 10) was a revelation, and rowing and sailing became two of her chief hobbies, along with cycling and going to the theatre and museums.
At age 10 Keller relearned to speak – a more efficient way to communicate than her usual finger-spelling. She spent winters in Boston and eventually attended the Cambridge School for Young Ladies in preparation for starting college at Radcliffe. Her achievements are all the more remarkable when you consider that smell and touch – senses we tend to overlook – were her primary ones. While she used a typewriter to produce schoolwork, a teacher spelling into her hand was still her main way to intake knowledge. Specialist textbooks for mathematics and multiple languages were generally not available in Braille. Digesting a lesson and completing homework thus took her much longer than it did her classmates, but still she felt “impelled … to try my strength by the standards of those who see and hear.”
It was surprising to find, at the center of the book, a detailed account of a case of unwitting plagiarism (Chapter 14). Eleven-year-old Keller wrote a story called “The Frost King” for a beloved teacher at the Perkins Institution for the Blind. He was so pleased that he printed it in one of their publications, but it soon came to his attention that the plot was very similar to “The Frost Fairies” in Birdie and His Friends by Margaret T. Canby. The tale must have been read to Keller long ago but become so deeply buried in the compost of a mind’s memories that she couldn’t recall its source. Some accused Keller and Sullivan of conspiring, and this mistrust more than the incident itself cast a shadow over her life for years to come. I was impressed by Keller discussing in depth something that it would surely have been more comfortable to bury. (I’ve sometimes had the passing thought that if I wrote a memoir I would structure it around my regrets or most embarrassing moments. Would that be penance or masochism?)
This short memoir was first serialized in the Ladies’ Home Journal. Keller was only 23 and partway through her college degree at the time of publication. An initial chronological structure later turns more thematic and the topics are perhaps a little scattershot. I would attribute this, at least in part, to the method of composition: it would be difficult to make large-scale edits on a manuscript because everything she typed had to be spelled back to her for approval. Minor line edits would be easy enough, but not big structural changes. (I wonder if it’s similar with work that’s been dictated, like May Sarton’s later journals.)
Keller went on to write 12 more books. It would be interesting to follow up with another one to learn about her travels and philanthropic work. For insight into a different aspect of her life – bearing in mind that it’s fiction – I recommend Helen Keller in Love by Rosie Sultan. In a couple of places Keller mentions Laura Bridgman, her less famous predecessor in the deaf–blind community; Kimberly Elkins’ 2014 What Is Visible is a stunning novel about Bridgman.
For such a concise book – running to just 75 pages in my Dover Thrift Editions paperback – this packs in so much. Indeed, I’ve found more to talk about in this review than I might have expected. The elements that most intrigued me were her early learning about abstractions like love and thought, and her enthusiastic rundown of her favorite books: “In a word, literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourse of my book-friends.”
It’s possible some readers will find her writing style old-fashioned. It would be hard to forget you’re reading a work from nearly 120 years ago, given the sentimentality and religious metaphors. But the book moves briskly between anecdotes, with no filler. I remained absorbed in Keller’s story throughout, and so admired her determination to obtain a quality education. I know we’re not supposed to refer to disabled authors’ work as “inspirational,” so instead I’ll call it both humbling and invigorating – a reminder of my privilege and of the force of the human will. (Secondhand purchase, Barter Books)
Also reviewed by:
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#NovNov meets #NonfictionNovember as nonfiction week of Novellas in November continues!
Tomorrow I’ll post my review of our buddy read for the week, The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (free from Project Gutenberg, here).
Today I review four nature books that celebrate marvelous but threatened creatures and ponder our place in relation to them.
Aurochs and Auks: Essays on Mortality and Extinction by John Burnside (2021)
I’ve read a novel, a memoir, and several poetry collections by Burnside. He’s a multitalented author who’s written in many different genres. These four essays are rich with allusions and chewy with philosophical questions. “Aurochs” traces ancient bulls from the classical world onward and notes the impossibility of entering others’ subjectivity – true for other humans, so how much more so for extinct animals. Imagination and empathy are required. Burnside recounts an incident from when he went to visit his former partner’s family cattle farm in Gloucestershire and a poorly cow fell against his legs. Sad as he felt for her, he couldn’t help.
“Auks” tells the story of how we drove the Great Auk to extinction and likens it to whaling, two tragic cases of exploiting species for our own ends. The second and fourth essays stood out most to me. “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood” links literal species extinction with the loss of a sense of place. The notion of ‘property’ means that land becomes a space to be filled. Contrast this with places devoid of time and ownership, like Chernobyl. Although I appreciated the discussion of solastalgia and ecological grief, much of the material here felt a rehashing of my other reading, such as Footprints, Islands of Abandonment, Irreplaceable, Losing Eden and Notes from an Apocalypse. Some Covid references date this one in an unfortunate way, while the final essay, “Blossom Ruins,” has a good reason for mentioning Covid-19: Burnside was hospitalized for it in April 2020, his near-death experience a further spur to contemplate extinction and false hope.
The academic register and frequent long quotations from other thinkers may give other readers pause. Those less familiar with current environmental nonfiction will probably get more out of these essays than I did, though overall I found them worth engaging with.
With thanks to Little Toller Books for the proof copy for review.
Kingfisher and Otter by Jim Crumley (2018)
[59 pages each]
Part of Crumley’s “Encounters in the Wild” series for the publisher Saraband, these are attractive wee hardbacks with covers by Carry Akroyd. (I’ve previously reviewed his The Company of Swans.) Each is based on the Scottish nature writer’s observations and serendipitous meetings, while an afterword gives additional information on the animal and its appearances in legend and literature.
An unexpected link between these two volumes was beavers, now thriving in Scotland after a recent reintroduction. Crumley marvels that, 400 years after their kind could last have interacted with beavers, otters have quickly gotten used to sharing rivers – to him this “suggests that race memory is indestructible.” Likewise, kingfishers gravitate to where beaver dams have created fish-filled ponds.
Kingfisher was, marginally, my preferred title from the pair. It sticks close to one spot, a particular “bend in the river” where the author watches faithfully and is occasionally rewarded by the sight of one or two kingfishers. As the book opens, he sees what at first looks like a small brown bird flying straight at him, until the head-on view becomes a profile that reveals a flash of electric blue. As the Gerard Manley Hopkins line has it (borrowed for the title of Alex Preston’s book on birdwatching), kingfishers “catch fire.” Lyrical writing and self-deprecating honesty about the necessity of waiting (perhaps in the soaking rain) for moments of magic made this a lovely read. “Colour is to kingfishers what slipperiness is to eels. … Vanishing and theory-shattering are what kingfishers do best.”
In Otter, Crumley ranges a bit more widely, prioritizing outlying Scottish islands from Shetland to Skye. It’s on Mull that he has the best views, seeing four otters in one day, though “no encounter is less than unforgettable.” He watches them playing with objects and tries to talk back to them by repeating their “Haah?” sound. “Everything I gather from familiar landscapes is more precious as a beholder, as a nature writer, because my own constant presence in that landscape is also a part of the pattern, and I reclaim the ancient right of my own species to be part of nature myself.”
From time to time we see a kingfisher flying down the canal. Some of our neighbors have also seen an otter swimming across from the end of the gardens, but despite our dusk vigils we haven’t been so lucky as to see one yet. I’ve only seen a wild otter once, at Ham Wall Nature Reserve in Somerset. One day, maybe there will be one right here in my backyard. (Public library)
World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (2020)
Nezhukumatathil, a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Mississippi, published four poetry collections before she made a splash with this beautifully illustrated collection of brief musings on species and the self – this was shortlisted for the Kirkus Prize. Some of the 28 pieces spotlight an animal simply for how head-shakingly wondrous it is, like the dancing frog or the cassowary. More often, though, a creature or plant is a figurative vehicle for uncovering an aspect of her past. An example: “A catalpa can give two brown girls in western Kansas a green umbrella from the sun. Don’t get too dark … our mother would remind us as we ambled out into the relentless midwestern light.”
The author’s Indian/Filipina family moved frequently for her mother’s medical jobs, and sometimes they were the only brown people around. Loneliness, the search for belonging and a compulsion to blend in are thus recurrent themes. As an adult, traveling for poetry residencies and sabbaticals exposes her to new species like whale sharks. Childhood trips back to India allowed her to spend time among peacocks, her favorite animal. In the American melting pot, her elementary school drawing of a peacock was considered unacceptable, but when she featured a bald eagle and flag instead she won a prize.
These pinpricks of the BIPOC experience struck me more powerfully than the actual nature writing, which can be shallow and twee. Talking to birds, praising the axolotl’s “smile,” directly addressing the reader – it’s all very nice, but somewhat uninformed; while she does admit to sadness and worry about what we are losing, her sunny outlook seemed out of touch at times. On the one hand, it’s great that she wanted to structure her fragments of memoir around amazing animals; on the other, I suspect that it cheapens a species to only consider it as a metaphor for the self (a vampire squid or potoo = her desire to camouflage herself in high school; flamingos = herself and other fragile long-legged college students; a bird of paradise = the guests dancing the Macarena at her wedding reception).
My favorite pieces were one on the corpse flower and the bookend duo on fireflies – she hits just the right note of nostalgia and warning: “I know I will search for fireflies all the rest of my days, even though they dwindle a little bit more each year. I can’t help it. They blink on and off, a lime glow to the summer night air, as if to say, I am still here, you are still here.”
With thanks to Souvenir Press for the free copy for review.