(A rare second post in a day from me, to make way for tomorrow’s list of the best books of the first half of the year.) My four new releases for June are a novel about the complications of race and sexuality in 1950s–80s America, a novella in translation about a seabird researcher struggling through a time of isolation, and two new poetry books from Carcanet Press. As a bonus just in time for Pride Month, I finish with a mini write-up of The Book of Queer Prophets, an anthology of autobiographical essays that was published late last month.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Like some lost mid-career gem from Toni Morrison, this novel is meaty with questions of racial and sexual identity and seems sure to follow in the footsteps of Ruby and An American Marriage with a spot in Oprah’s book club and on Barack Obama’s summer reading list.
It’s the story of light-skinned African American twins Stella and Desiree Vignes, and how their paths divide in 1954. Both are desperate to escape from Mallard, Louisiana, where their father was lynched and their mother cleans white people’s houses. Desiree works in fingerprinting for the FBI in Washington, D.C., but in 1968 leaves an abusive marriage to return to Mallard with her dark-skinned daughter, Jude Winston. Stella, on the other hand, has been passing as white for over a decade. She was a secretary for the man who became her husband, Blake Sanders, and now lives a life of comfort in a Los Angeles subdivision.
The twins’ decisions affect the next generation, too. Both have one daughter. Jude goes to college in L.A., where she meets and falls in love with photographer Reese (born Therese), who is, in a different sense, “passing” until he can afford the surgery that will align his body with his gender. In a coincidence that slightly strains belief, Jude runs into Stella’s daughter, Kennedy, and over the next seven years the cousins – one a medical student; the other an actress – continue to meet occasionally, marvelling at how two family lines that started in Mallard, a tiny town that doesn’t even exist anymore, could have diverged so dramatically.
This is Bennett’s second novel, after The Mothers, which I’m keen to read. It’s perceptive and beautifully written, with characters whose struggles feel genuine and pertinent. Though its story line ends in the late 1980s, it doesn’t feel passé at all. The themes of self-reinvention and running from one’s past resonate. I expected certain characters to be forced into moments of reckoning, but the plot is a little messier than that – and that’s more like real life. A shoo-in for next year’s Women’s Prize list.
My thanks to Dialogue Books for the free copy for review.
Ankomst by Gøhril Gabrielsen (2017)
[Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin]
The unnamed narrator of Gabrielsen’s fifth novel is a 36-year-old researcher working towards a PhD on the climate’s effects on populations of seabirds, especially guillemots. During this seven-week winter spell in the far north of Norway, she’s left her three-year-old daughter behind with her ex, S, and hopes to receive a visit from her lover, Jo, even if it involves him leaving his daughter temporarily. In the meantime, they connect via Skype when signal allows. Apart from that and a sea captain bringing her supplies, she has no human contact.
Daily weather measurements and bird observations still leave too much time alone in a cramped cabin, and this starts to tell in the protagonist’s mental state: she’s tormented by sexual fantasies, by memories of her life with S, and by the thought of a local family, the Berthelsens, who experienced a disastrous house fire in 1870. More and more frequently, she finds herself imagining what happened to Olaf and Borghild Berthelsen. Solitude and this growing obsession with ghosts of the past make her start to lose her grip on reality.
I’d encountered an unreliable narrator and claustrophobic setting before from Gabrielsen with her second novel, The Looking-Glass Sisters. Extreme weather and isolation account for this being paired with Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini as the first two books in Peirene’s 2020 “Closed Universe” trilogy. I was also reminded of Sarah Moss’s Night Waking. However, I found this novella’s metaphorical links – how seabirds and humans care for their young; physical and emotional threats; lowering weather and existential doom – too obvious.
My thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.
Moving House by Theophilus Kwek
This is the first collection of the Chinese Singaporean poet’s work to be published in the UK. Infused with Asian history, his elegant verse ranges from elegiac to romantic in tone. Many of the poems are inspired by historical figures and real headlines. There are tributes to soldiers killed in peacetime training and accounts of high-profile car accidents; “The Passenger” is about the ghosts left behind after a tsunami. But there are also poems about the language and experience of love. I also enjoyed the touches of art and legend: “Monologues for Noh Masks” is about the Pitt-Rivers Museum collection, while “Notes on a Landscape” is about Iceland’s geology and folk tales. In most places alliteration and enjambment produce the sonic effects, but there are also a handful of rhymes and half-rhymes, some internal.
My individual favorite poems included “Prognosis,” “Sophia” (made up of two letters Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles writes home to his wife while surveying in Singapore), and “Operation Thunderstorm.” As an expat and something of a nomad, I especially loved the title poem, which comes last and explains the cover image: “every house has a skeleton – / while the body learns it must carry less / from place to place, a kind of tidiness / that builds, hardens. Some call it fear, // of change, or losing what we cannot keep. / Others, experience.” Recommended to fans of Mary Jean Chan, Nausheen Eusuf, Kei Miller and Ocean Vuong.
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the PDF copy for review.
Red Gloves by Rebecca Watts
I noted the recurring comparison of natural and manmade spaces; outdoors (flowers, blackbirds, birds of prey, the sea) versus indoors (corridors, office life, even Emily Dickinson’s house in Massachusetts). The style shifts from page to page, ranging from prose paragraphs to fragments strewn across the layout. Most of the poems are in recognizable stanzas, though these vary in terms of length and punctuation. Alliteration and repetition (see, as an example of the latter, her poem “The Studio” on the TLS website) take priority over rhymes. I was reminded of Elizabeth Bishop in places, while “Whereas” had me thinking of Stephen Dunn’s collection of that name (Layli Long Soldier also has a poetry book of the same title). A few of my individual favorite poems were “Surveillance,” “Building” and “Admission” (on a medical theme: “What am I afraid of? / The breaching of skin. / Violation of laws that / separate outside from in. / Liquidation of the thing / I call me.”).
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the PDF copy for review.
And a bonus for Pride Month:
The Book of Queer Prophets: 24 Writers on Sexuality and Religion, edited by Ruth Hunt
There isn’t, or needn’t be, a contradiction between faith and queerness, as the authors included in this anthology would agree. Many of them are stalwarts at Greenbelt, a progressive Christian summer festival – Church of Scotland minister John L. Bell even came out there, in his late sixties, in 2017. I’m a lapsed regular attendee, so a lot of the names were familiar to me, including those of poets Rachel Mann and Padraig O’Tuama.
Most of the contributors are Christian, then, including ordained priests like Desmond Tutu’s daughter, Mpho, and LGBT ally Kate Bottley, but we also hear from Michael Segalov, a gay Jewish man in London, and from Amrou Al-Kahdi (author of Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen), who describes the affirmation they found in the Sufi tradition. Dustin Lance Black tells of the exclusion LGBT Mormons still encounter.
Jarel Robinson-Brown addresses his lament on mistreatment to his nephew, as James Baldwin did in “My Dungeon Shook” (in The Fire Next Time). Tamsin Omond recounts getting married to Melissa on a London bridge in the middle of an Extinction Rebellion protest. Erin Clark, though bisexual, knows she can pass as straight because she’s marrying a man – so is she ‘gay enough?’ Two trans poets write of the way cathedrals drew them into faith. The only weaker pieces are by Jeanette Winterson (there’s nothing new if you’ve read her memoir) and Juno Dawson (entirely throwaway; ‘I’m an atheist, but it’s okay to be religious, too’).
Again and again, these writers voice the certainty that they are who God means them to be. A few of them engage with particular passages from the Bible, offering contextual critiques or new interpretations, but most turn to scripture for its overall message of love and justice. Self-knowledge is a key component of their search for truth. And the truth sets people free.
I read an e-copy via NetGalley.
What recent releases can you recommend?
“The fallen Congo came to haunt even our little family, we messengers of goodwill adrift on a sea of mistaken intentions.”
You may have gathered by now that I struggle with rereading. Often I find that on a second reading a book doesn’t live up to my memory of it – last year I reread just four books, and I rated each one a star lower than I had the first time. But that wasn’t the case with my September book club book, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which I’ve just flown through in 11 days. I first read it in the spring of 2002 or 2003, so maybe it’s that I’d allowed enough time to pass for it to be almost completely fresh – or that I was in a better frame of mind to appreciate its picture of harmful ideologies in a postcolonial setting. In any case, this time it struck me as a masterpiece, and has instantly leapt onto my favorites list.
Here’s what I’d remembered about The Poisonwood Bible after the passage of 16–17 years:
- It’s about a missionary family in Africa, and narrated by the daughters.
- One of the sisters marries an African.
- The line “Nathan was made frantic by sex” (except I had it fixed incorrectly in my mind; it’s actually “Nathan was made feverish by sex”).
Everything else I’d forgotten. Here’s what stood out on my second reading:
- Surely one of the best opening lines ever? (Though technically there’s a prologue that comes before it.) “We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle.”
- The book is actually narrated in turns by the wife and four daughters of Southern Baptist missionary Nathan Price, who arrives in the Congo with his family in 1959. These five voices are a triumph of first-person narration, so distinct and arising organically from the characters’ personalities and experiences. The mother, Orleanna, writes from the future in despondent isolation – a hint right from the beginning that this venture is not going to end well. Fifteen-year-old Rachel is a selfish, ditzy blonde who speaks in malapropisms and period slang and misses everything about American culture. Leah, one of the 13-year-olds, is whip-smart and earnest; she idolizes their father and echoes his religious language. Her twin, Adah, who was born with partial paralysis, rarely speaks but has an intricate inner life she expresses through palindromes, cynical poetry and plays on words. And Ruth May, just five years old, sees more than she understands and sets it all across plainly but wittily.
- Nathan’s arrogant response to the ‘native customs’ is excruciating. His first prayer, spoken to bless the meal the people of Kilanga give in welcome, quickly becomes a diatribe against nakedness, and he later rails against polygamy and witch doctors and tries to enforce child baptism. When he refuses to take their housekeeper Mama Tataba’s advice on planting, all of the seeds he brought from home wash away in the first rainstorm. On a second attempt he meekly makes the raised beds she recommended, and keeps away from the poisonwood that made him break out in a nasty rash. This garden he plants is a metaphor for control versus adaptation.
- Brother Fowles, Nathan’s predecessor at the mission, is proof that Christianity doesn’t have to be a haughty rampage. He respects Africans enough to have married one, and his religion is a playful, elastic one built around love and working alongside creation.
- The King James Bible (plus Apocrypha, for which Nathan harbors a strange fondness) provides much of the book’s language and imagery, as well as the section headings. Many of these references come to have (sometimes mocking) relevance. Kingsolver also makes reference to classics of Africa-set fiction, like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
- Africa is a place of many threats – malaria and dysentery, snakes in the chicken house, swarms of ants that eat everything in their path, corruption, political coups and assassinations – not least the risk of inadvertently causing grave cultural offense.
- The backdrop of the Congo’s history, especially the declaration of independence in 1960 and the U.S.-led “replacement” (by assassination) of its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, with the dictator Mobutu, is thorough but subtle, such that minimal to no Googling is required to understand the context. (Only in one place, when Leah and Rachel are arguing as adults, does Kingsolver resort to lecturing on politics through dialogue, as she does so noticeably in Unsheltered.)
- Names are significant, as are their changes. With the end of colonialism Congo becomes Zaire and all its cities and landmarks are renamed, but the change seems purely symbolic. The characters take on different names in the course of the book, too, through nicknames, marriage or education. Many African words are so similar to each other that a minor mispronunciation by a Westerner changes the meaning entirely, making for jokes or irony. And the family’s surname is surely no coincidence: we are invited to question the price they have paid by coming to Africa.
- We follow the sisters decades into the future. “Africa has a thousand ways to get under your skin,” Leah writes; “we’ve all ended up giving up body and soul to Africa, one way or another.” Three of the four end up staying there permanently, but disperse into different destinies that seem to fit their characters. Even those Prices who return to the USA will never outrun the shadow the Congo has left on their lives.
What an amazing novel about the ways that right and wrong, truth and pain get muddied together. Some characters are able to acknowledge their mistakes and move on, while others never can. As Adah concludes, “We are the balance of our damage and our transgressions.”
I worried it would be a challenge to reread this in time to hand it over for my husband to take on his week-long field course in Devon, but it turned out to be a cinch. That’s the mark of success of a doorstopper for me: it’s so engrossing you hardly notice how long the book is. I think this will make for our best book club discussion yet. I can already think of a few questions to ask – Is it fair that Nathan never gets to tell his side of the story? Which of the five voices is your favorite? Who changes and who stays the same over the course of the book? – and I’m sure I’ll find many more resources online since this was an Oprah’s Book Club pick too.
English singer-songwriter Anne-Marie Sanderson’s excellent Book Songs, Volume 1 EP includes the song “Poisonwood.” The excerpted lyrics are below, with direct quotes from the text in bold.
Our Father speaks for all of us
Our Father knows what’s best for us as well
He planted a garden where poisonwood grew
He cut down the orchids cos none of us knew
that the seeds that filled his pockets
would grow and grow without stopping
his beans, his Kentucky Wonders
played their part in tearing us asunder.
Our mother suffered through all of this
Our mother carried the guilt
Carry us, marry us, ferry us, bury us
Carry us, bury us with the poisonwood.
Page count: 615
I finished off strong with a few books I’ve been meaning to read for months or years.
Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay (2007)
(This was a Twitter buddy read with Naomi of Consumed by Ink and Penny of Literary Hoarders.) I read my first novel by Hay, A Student of Weather, last year. It was wonderfully rewarding even though it took me a month to read. By contrast, I read the Giller Prize-winning Late Nights on Air in half that time. Most of it is set in 1975–7 in Yellowknife, a small city in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Here winter lasts for eight months and you can still meet with snow and frozen lakes in early July. A tight-knit cast gathers around the local radio station: Harry and Gwen, refugees from Ontario starting new lives; Dido, an alluring Dutch newsreader; Ralph, the freelance book reviewer; menacing Eddie; and pious Eleanor.
Everyone is in love with everyone else, so you get these layers of unrequited romance and a sense of exposure: not just to the elements, but to the vulnerabilities of admitting one’s feelings and risking professional failure. The novel is also about appearances and assumptions – “You don’t look anything like how you sound,” Gwen says to Harry – and the dangers of obsession. Four of the station employees set out one summer to recreate the six-week journey of Arctic explorer John Hornby, a trip that ends up being as wondrous as it is fraught. Hay’s foreshadowing is a bit heavy-handed, and I found the final chapters after the expedition a slight letdown, but overall this is a marvellous story of quiet striving and dislocation. I saw bits of myself in each of the characters, and I loved the extreme setting, both mosquito-ridden summer and bitter winter. I need to read the rest of Hay’s oeuvre stat.
Harry’s professional advice to Gwen: “Radio was like poetry, he told her. At its best it could be, while television was like a blockbuster novel: one made you think and feel, the other dulled your mind. … ‘To be any good you have to believe it’s hard. It’s called creative tension. … And you won’t be any good until you’re dedicated to something outside yourself.’ … I learned that a mistake is just something you go on from.”
“Something blossoms in an unlikely place. An oasis of trees miles above the treeline. An arctic river warmer than any other water they’d come upon. The four of them bathed in the waters of the Thelon, wading out into it, almost swimming. On shore they towelled themselves dry and dressed, and there was no feeling to equal the splendour of warm clothes on river-cold skin.”
I ran out of time for Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so substituted in…
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (2018)
(If it’s good enough for Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, it’s good enough for me!)
The title feels like an echo of An American Tragedy. It’s both monolithic and generic, as if saying: Here’s a marriage; make of it what you will. Is it representative of the average American situation, or is it exceptional? Roy and Celestial only get a year of happy marriage before he’s falsely accused of rape and sentenced to 12 years in prison in Louisiana. Through their alternating first-person narration and their letters back and forth while Roy is incarcerated, we learn more about this couple: how their family circumstances shaped them, how they met, and how they drift apart as Celestial turns to her childhood friend, Andre, for companionship. When Roy is granted early release, he returns to Georgia to find Celestial and see what might remain of their marriage. I ached for all three main characters: It’s an impossible situation. The novel ends probably the only way it could, on a realistic yet gently optimistic note. Life goes on, if not how you expect, and there will be joys still to come.
This would make a great book club pick: there’s a lot to probe about the characters’ personalities and motivations, and about how they reveal or disguise themselves through their narration. I found it remarkable how the letters, which together make up not even one-fifth of the text, enhance the raw honesty of the book. There are other marriages on display besides Roy and Celestial’s, their range providing a snapshot of African-American lower-middle- and upper-middle-class life in the South. I especially liked the use of two totem objects, Roy’s tooth and the hickory tree outside Celestial’s childhood home (what you see on the cover).
Celestial: “I believed that our marriage was a fine-spun tapestry, fragile but fixable. We tore it often and mended it, always with a silken thread, lovely but sure to give way.”
Andre: “I don’t believe that blood makes a family; kin is the circle you create, hands held tight.”
Celestial: “Our marriage was a sapling graft that didn’t have time to take.”
Roy: “mostly my life is good, only it’s a different type of good from what I figured on.”
An American Marriage was published in the UK by Oneworld on April 5th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
West With the Night by Beryl Markham (1942)
(Another Twitter buddy read, with Laila of Big Reading Life.) I’ve meant to pick this up ever since I read Paula McLain’s fantastic novel about Beryl Markham, Circling the Sun. I loved Markham’s memoir even more. She writes so vividly about the many adventures of her life in Africa: hunting lions, training race horses, and becoming one of the continent’s first freelance pilots, delivering mail and locating elephant herds.
It took me a while to get used to the structure – this is a set of discrete stories rather than a chronological narrative – but whether she’s reflecting on the many faces of Africa or the peculiar solitude of night flights, the prose is just stellar. Ernest Hemingway once asserted in a letter that Markham could “write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers,” and I certainly enjoyed this more than anything I’ve read by Hemingway.
The text is bookended by two momentous flights: it opens with Markham scrambling to deliver oxygen to an injured miner, and ends with her completing the first east–west solo flight across the Atlantic in 1936. Her engine cut out multiple times; it’s no less than a miracle that she survived to crash land in Nova Scotia. Laila and I agree that Markham’s life is so exciting it’s crying out for a movie version. In the meantime, I’d like to read some more about her circle – Denys Finch Hatton; and Baron von Blixen and his wife Karen (aka Danish writer Isak Dinesen, famous for Out of Africa). In my Circling the Sun review for BookTrib, I wrote that “Markham was the kind of real-life action adventure heroine you expect to find in Indiana Jones movies,” and that sense was only confirmed by her own account.
“to fly in unbroken darkness without even the cold companionship of a pair of ear-phones or the knowledge that somewhere ahead are lights and life and a well-marked airport is something more than just lonely. It is at times unreal to the point where the existence of other people seems not even a reasonable possibility. The hills, the forests, the rocks, and the plains are one with the darkness, and the darkness is infinite. The earth is no more your planet than is a distant star—if a star is shining; the plane is your planet and you are its sole inhabitant.”
“I saw how a man can be master of a craft, and how a craft can be master of an element. I saw the alchemy of perspective reduce my world, and all my other life, to grains in a cup. I learned to watch, to put my trust in other hands than mine. And I learned to wander. I learned what every dreaming child needs to know—that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it.”
So how did I do on my first-ever #20BooksofSummer challenge? In that I read and reviewed (more than) 20 books by women that I owned in print, it was a smashing success. However, I only read 7 of the books I’d intended to, substituting in the rest from my review pile, books I owned in America, and others that grabbed my attention more than those I’d picked out in early June. Looks like I’m not great at sticking with the specific reading plans I set!
At any rate, as bonuses, here are the additional books by women that I read in print from my own shelves over the summer, not counting ones already reviewed on the blog (in chronological order, with ratings and links to any Goodreads reviews):
- Blue Horses, Mary Oliver
- The Egg and I, Betty Macdonald
- Eye of the Shoal: A Fish-watcher’s Guide to Life, the Ocean and Everything, Helen Scales
- The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Sarah Vowell
- Talk before Sleep, Elizabeth Berg
- The Incendiaries, R.O. Kwon [blog tour review coming on Monday]
- The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, Julia Cameron
- Gross Anatomy: My Curious Relationship with the Female Body (The Top Half and the Bottom Half), Mara Altman [Glamour UK review coming soon]
- Questions of Travel, Elizabeth Bishop
- Writers & Company, Eleanor Wachtel
- Help Me!: One woman’s quest to find out if self-help really can change her life, Marianne Power
- Mrs Gaskell & Me: Two Women, Two Love Stories, Two Centuries Apart, Nell Stevens
I’d call that a result!
What have been the best books of the summer? Of the final 20, The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer was the winner, followed closely by The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr, Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay, and West With the Night by Beryl Markham. There were no real duds. I’m still very interested in all but one of the books I chose back in June, so I’ll see how many of the rest I can fit into this autumn and winter’s reading.
How was your summer of reading? Did you meet any goals you set?
I fly back to the UK later today after a fairly busy few weeks of packing, unpacking, and more packing as I got my mom settled into her new home and dealt with the substantial amount of stuff I still had in storage with my parents. I’ll post later in the week about book culling versus acquisitions. For now, here’s a quick look at the books by women I’ve been reading in print towards my summer challenge: everything from a memoir of infertility to a perfectly summery novel set at a Vermont lake resort.
Crossing the Moon by Paulette Bates Alden (1998)
I first read this nearly four years ago (you can find my initial review in an early blog post that rounds up three of Alden’s works), and was moved to reread it this summer as a follow-up to Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. The book focuses on Alden’s uncertainty about having children all the way up to her late thirties, when she underwent three years of somewhat desperate, and ultimately unsuccessful, infertility treatment. “From the very start, I had seen writing and motherhood as mutually exclusive,” she writes, an attitude very similar to Heti’s. Yet she feared missing out on the meaning and love a child could bring to her life.
More broadly, the memoir is about the search to integrate the different aspects of a life – including family history and the fateful decisions that seem to have been made for you – into a realistic vision of the future. I didn’t find the book quite as profound this time around, but I noticed that I marked many of the same passages I did four years ago, about the dearth of childless role models and the struggle to accept the life that has become yours, even if it’s not what you predicted for yourself. That proves how influential and comforting it’s been for me.
“About the closest I can come to imagining what it would be like to have a child is with our cat, Cecil. For Cecil I feel the most delicious love, but also the most anxious responsibility.”
“It came to me that it really was a choice between two good things—having a child and not having a child. Our life without a child seemed good to me. I caught a glimpse that it was what was right for us, for the best. But who can say what is ‘best’? Maybe it’s possible to get to a place where what is best is simply what is.”
Passion and Affect by Laurie Colwin (1974)
I mostly know Colwin as a food writer, but she also published fiction. This subtle story collection turns on quiet, mostly domestic dramas: people falling in and out of love, stepping out on their spouses and trying to protect their families. I didn’t particularly engage with the central two stories about cousins Vincent and Guido (characters from her novel Happy All the Time, which I abandoned a few years back), but the rest more than made up for them.
Several stories reveal the hidden depths of a character who’s only been a bit player in a protagonist’s life: a family friend who suddenly commits suicide, a Hispanic cook who has a rich boyfriend, a widowed piano teacher whose young student’s accomplishments buoy him up, and a supermarket employee whose ordinary life doesn’t live up to the fantasy background her manager, an art history PhD student, dreams up for her. In “The Water Rats” and “Wet,” water symbolizes all that we can’t control and understand, whether that’s our family’s safety or the inner life of a spouse.
Colwin writes funny, sharp descriptions, like “he was greeted by a young man wearing his hair in the manner of John Donne, a three-piece suit, and cowboy boots” and “she windowshopped, staring with rapt depression at rows of mannikins in glossy trousers.”
“She was three years married and when she looked at herself in the mirror, she did not see that she had become any more serious, any less young and heedless, or any more willing to get down to what Richard called ‘the things of life.’ He was right when he said that she had not made up her mind about anything.”
“He looked at his dissertation, or the heap that was to become his dissertation, and sighed again. He was of two minds about this Vermeer business, and he was of two minds about this supermarket business. That accounted for four minds in all, and it made life painful for him.”
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat (1994)
Like her protagonist, Sophie Caco, Danticat was raised by her aunt in Haiti and reunited with her parents in the USA at age 12. As Sophie grows up and falls in love with an older musician, she and her mother are both haunted by sexual trauma that nothing – not motherhood, not a long-awaited return to Haiti – seems to heal. I loved the descriptions of Haiti (“The sun, which was once god to my ancestors, slapped my face as though I had done something wrong. The fragrance of crushed mint leaves and stagnant pee alternated in the breeze” and “The stars fell as though the glue that held them together had come loose”), and the novel gives a powerful picture of a maternal line marred by guilt and an obsession with sexual purity. However, compared to Danticat’s later novel, Claire of the Sea Light, I found the narration a bit flat and the story interrupted – thinking particularly of the gap between ages 12 and 18 for Sophie. (Another Oprah’s Book Club selection.)
“She cannot stay out of duty. The things one does, one should do out of love.”
“I knew my hurt and hers were links in a long chain and if she hurt me, it was because she was hurt, too.”
A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel (2001)
Maybe you grew up in or near a town like Mooreland, Indiana (population 300). Born in 1965 when her brother and sister were 13 and 10, Kimmel was affectionately referred to as an “Afterthought” and nicknamed “Zippy” for her boundless energy. Gawky and stubborn, she pulled every trick in the book to try to get out of going to Quaker meetings three times a week, preferring to go fishing with her father. The short chapters, headed by family or period photos, are sets of thematic childhood anecdotes about particular neighbors, school friends and pets. I especially loved her parents: her mother reading approximately 40,000 science fiction novels while wearing a groove into the couch, and her father’s love of the woods (which he called his “church”) and elaborate preparations for camping trips an hour away.
The tone is light-hearted despite hints of unpleasantness around town: open hostility towards people of color, a lecherous music teacher and a kid who abused animals. The more exaggerated stories are reminiscent of David Sedaris’s work – did she really cut hippies’ hair in exchange for an Irish Setter puppy?! Mostly, the book made me think about my mother’s small-town childhood versus my own suburban one, and how I would try to put all my early experiences together in a funny, nostalgic but honest way. It wouldn’t be easy at all, which makes Kimmel’s a noteworthy achievement.
“I figure heaven will be a scratch-and-sniff sort of place … I will ask for the smell of my dad’s truck, which was a combination of basic truck (nearly universal), plus his cologne (Old Spice), unfiltered Lucky Strikes, and when I was very lucky, leaded gasoline.”
“Mom used to say that my dad was a mountain man, which was obviously just a figure of speech, since most of Indiana is flat as a pancake. Her point was that Dad is a wild man, which was certainly true.”
The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman (1998)
This was a breezy, delightful novel perfect for summer reading. In 1962 Natalie Marx’s family is looking for a vacation destination and sends query letters to various Vermont establishments. Their reply from the Inn at Lake Devine (proprietress: Ingrid Berry) tactfully but firmly states that the inn’s regular guests are Gentiles. In other words, no Jews allowed. The adolescent Natalie is outraged, and when the chance comes for her to infiltrate the Inn as the guest of one of her summer camp roommates, she sees it as a secret act of revenge.
In fact, in the years to come, after she trains as a chef, Natalie will become further entwined in the inn’s life, helping the family recover from a tragedy, falling in love with one of the Berry sons, and unwittingly contributing to a livelihood-threatening accident. Natalie’s voice drew me in right from the start. Lipman’s comedies of manners have been compared to Jane Austen’s, and you can see that likeness in the witty dialogue. I’ll certainly read more by her.
Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman by Alice Steinbach (2000)
In 1993 Steinbach, then in her fifties, took a sabbatical from her job as a Baltimore Sun journalist to travel for nine months straight in Paris, England and Italy. As a divorcee with two grown sons, she no longer felt shackled to her Maryland home and wanted to see if she could recover a more spontaneous and adventurous version of herself and not be defined exclusively by her career. Her innate curiosity and experience as a reporter helped her to quickly form relationships with other English-speaking tourists, which was an essential for someone traveling alone.
I enjoyed spotting familiar sites I’ve visited, but I don’t think you need to know these countries or even have a particular interest in them to appreciate the book. Whether she’s attending a swanky party or nearly getting mugged, Steinbach is an entertaining and unpretentious tour guide. Her attitude is impressive, too: “I had surprised myself this year by jumping in to reshape my life before life stepped in to reshape it for me.” You might not be willing to give up your normal existence for nine months, but I suspect that this travel memoir might make you consider how you could be more daring in your daily life.
I’ve been reading a feminist memoir set on Cape Cod, a subtle novel about the inner life and outward experiences of a writer, a soapy literary thriller about a troubled mother and teen daughter, and a slightly melancholy reminiscence of an aged mother succumbing to dementia.
A Walk on the Beach: Tales of Wisdom from an Unconventional Woman by Joan Anderson (2004)
This is the third volume in a loose autobiographical trilogy about Anderson’s experiment with taking a break from her marriage and living alone in a Cape Cod cottage to figure out what she really wanted from the rest of her life. Specifically, this book is about the inspirational relationship she formed with Joan Erikson, who moved to the area in her eighties when her husband, the famous psychologist Erik Erikson, was admitted to a care home. Joanie was a thinker and author in her own right, publishing books on life’s stages, especially those of older age. She encouraged Anderson to have the confidence to write her own story, and to take up challenges like a trip to Peru and learning to weave on a loom. Joanie’s aphoristic advice is valuable, but there’s a fair bit of overlap between this book and A Year by the Sea, which I would recommend over this.
Some of Joan Erikson’s words of wisdom:
“Doing something with your hands, rather than your head, is often the best route to clarity.”
“wisdom comes from life’s experiences well digested. Stop relying so much on your mind and get in touch with experience.”
“The struggle is to try and obtain a sense of participation in your life the whole way through. We must treasure old age, but not wallow in nostalgia.”
Transit by Rachel Cusk (2016)
I finally made it through a Rachel Cusk book! (This was my third attempt; I made it just a few pages into Aftermath and 60 pages through Outline.) I suspected this would make a good plane read, and thankfully I was right. Each chapter is a perfectly formed short story, a snapshot of one aspect of Faye’s life and the relationships that have shaped her: a former lover she bumps into in London, a builder who tells her the flat she’s bought is a lost cause, the awful downstairs neighbors who hate her with a passion, the fellow writers (based on Edmund White and Karl Ove Knausgaard?) at a literary festival event who hog most of the time, the jolly Eastern European construction workers who undertake her renovations, a childless friend who works in fashion design, and a country cousin who’s struggling with his new blended family.
Like in Outline, the novel is based largely on the conversations Faye overhears or participates in (“I had found out more, I said, by listening than I had ever thought possible”), but I sensed more of her personality this time, and could relate to her questioning: Why do her neighbors hate her so? How much of her life is fated, and how much has she chosen? I doubt I’ll read another book by Cusk, but I ended up surprisingly grateful to have gotten hold of this one as a free proof copy of the new paperback edition from the Faber Spring Party.
Some favorite lines:
“we examine least what has formed us the most, and instead find ourselves driven blindly to re-enact it.”
“Without children or partner, without meaningful family or a home, a day can last an eternity: a life without those things is a life without a story, a life in which there is nothing – no narrative flights, no plot developments, no immersive human dramas – to alleviate the cruelly meticulous passing of time.”
White Oleander by Janet Fitch (1999)
Man, that Oprah knows how to pick ’em! This was a terrific read; I’m not sure why I’d never gotten to it before. I read huge chunks during my travel to the States and then slowed down quite a bit, which was a shame because it meant I felt less connected to Astrid’s later struggles in the foster care system. It’s an atmospheric novel full of oppressive Los Angeles heat and a classic noir flavor that shades into gritty realism as it goes on, taking us from when Astrid is 12 to when she’s a young woman out in the world on her own.
Astrid’s mother Ingrid, an elitist poet, becomes obsessed with a lover who spurned her and goes to jail for his murder. Bouncing between foster homes and children’s institutions, Astrid is plunged into a world of sex, drugs, violence and short-lived piety. “Like a limpet I attached to anything, anyone who showed me the least attention,” she writes. Her role models change over the years, but always in the background is the icy influence of her mother, through letters and visits.
Fitch’s writing is sumptuous, as in a house “the color of a tropical lagoon on a postcard thirty years out of date, a Gauguin syphilitic nightmare.” I might have liked a tiny bit more of Ingrid in the book, but I can still recommend this one wholeheartedly as summer reading.
Some favorite lines:
The knock-out opening two lines: “The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blossoms, their dagger green leaves.”
“I couldn’t imagine my mother in prison. She didn’t smoke or chew on toothpicks. She didn’t say ‘bitch’ or ‘fuck.’ She spoke four languages, quoted T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas, drank Lapsang souchong out of a porcelain cup. She had never been inside a McDonald’s. She had lived in Paris and Amsterdam. Freiburg and Martinique. How could she be in prison?”
The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle (1974)
L’Engle is better known for children’s books, but wrote tons for adults, too. In this second volume of The Crosswicks Journal, she recounts her family history as a way of remembering on behalf of her mother, who at age 90 was slipping into dementia in her final summer. “I talked awhile, earlier this summer, about wanting my mother to have a dignified death. But there is nothing dignified about incontinence and senility.” L’Engle found herself in the unwanted position of being like her mother’s mother, and had to accept that she had no control over the situation. “This summer is practice in dying for me as well as for my mother.”
One of the reasons L’Engle was driven to write science fiction was because she couldn’t reconcile the idea of permanent human extinction with her Christian faith, but nor could she honestly affirm every word of the Creed. Hers is a more broad-minded, mystical spirituality that really appeals to me. (Her early life reminds me of May Sarton’s, as recounted in I Knew a Phoenix: both were born right around World War I, raised partially in Europe and sent to boarding school; a frequent theme in their nonfiction is the regenerative power of solitude and of the writing process itself.)
Some favorite lines:
“I said [in a lecture] that the artist’s response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, not to impose restrictive rules but to rejoice in pattern and meaning, for there is something in all artists which rejects coincidence and accident. And I went on to say that we must meet the precariousness of the universe without self-pity, and with dignity and courage.”
“Our lives are given a certain dignity by their very evanescence. If there were never to be an end to my quiet moments at the brook, if I could sit on the rock forever, I would not treasure these minutes so much. If our associations with the people we love were to have no termination, we would not value them as much as we do.”
This is my first year joining in with the 20 Books of Summer challenge run by Cathy of 746 Books. I’ve decided to put two twists on it. One: I’ve only included books that I own in print, to work on tackling my mountain of unread books (300+ in the house at last count). As I was pulling out the books that I was most excited to read soon, I noticed that most of them happened to be by women. So for my second twist, all 20 books are by women. Why not? I’ve picked roughly half fiction and half life writing, so over the next 12 weeks I just need to pick one or two from the below list per week, perhaps alternating fiction and non-. I’m going to focus more on the reading than the reviewing, but I might do a few mini roundup posts.
I’m doing abysmally with the goal I set myself at the start of the year to read lots of travel classics and biographies, so I’ve chosen one of each for this summer, but in general my criteria were simply that I was keen to read a book soon, and that it mustn’t feel like hard work. (So, alas, that ruled out novels by Elizabeth Bowen, Ursula K. LeGuin and Virginia Woolf.) I don’t insist on “beach reads” – the last two books I read on a beach were When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi and Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin, after all – but I do hope that all the books I’ve chosen will be compelling and satisfying reads.
- To Throw Away Unopened by Viv Albertine – I picked up a copy from the Faber Spring Party, having no idea who Albertine was (guitarist of the all-female punk band The Slits). Everyone I know who has read this memoir has raved about it.
- Lit by Mary Karr – I’ve read Karr’s book about memoir, but not any of her three acclaimed memoirs. This, her second, is about alcoholism and motherhood.
- Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi by Pamela Timms – I bought a bargain copy at the Wigtown Festival shop earlier in the year. Timms is a Scottish journalist who now lives in India. This should be a fun combination of foodie memoir and travel book.
- Direct Red: A Surgeon’s Story by Gabriel Weston (a woman, honest!) – Indulging my love of medical memoirs here. I bought a copy at Oxfam Books earlier this year.
5. May Sarton by Margot Peters – I’ve been on a big May Sarton kick in recent years, so have been eager to read this 1997 biography, which apparently is not particularly favorable.
6. Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy – I bought this 1960s hardback from a charity shop in Cambridge a couple of years ago. It will at least be a start on that travel classics challenge.
7. Girls on the Verge: Debutante Dips, Drive-bys, and Other Initiations by Vendela Vida – This was Vida’s first book. It’s about coming-of-age rituals for young women in America.
8. Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly by Sue Halpern – Should fall somewhere between science and nature writing, with a travel element.
9. The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle – L’Engle is better known for children’s books, but she wrote tons for adults, too: fiction, memoirs and theology. I read the stellar first volume of the Crosswicks Journal, A Circle of Quiet, in September 2015 and have meant to continue the series ever since.
10. Sunstroke by Tessa Hadley – You know how I love reading with the seasons when I can. This slim 2007 volume of stories is sure to be a winner. Seven of the 10 originally appeared in the New Yorker or Granta.
11. Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore – I’ve only ever read Dunmore’s poetry. It’s long past time to try her fiction. This one comes highly recommended by Susan of A life in books.
12. We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates – Oates is intimidatingly prolific, but I’m finally going to jump in and give her a try.
13. Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto – A token lit in translation selection. “This is the story of [a] remarkable expedition through grief, dreams, and shadows to a place of transformation.” (Is it unimaginative to say that sounds like Murakami?)
14. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – How have I not read any of her fiction yet?! This has been sitting on my shelf for years. I only vaguely remember the story line from the film, so it should be fairly fresh for me.
15. White Oleander by Janet Fitch – An Oprah’s Book Club selection from 1999. I reckon this would make a good beach or road trip read.
16. Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz – Another Oprah’s Book Club favorite from 2000. Set in Wisconsin in the years after World War I.
- Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler – Tyler novels are a tonic. I have six unread on the shelf; the blurb on this one appealed to me the most. This summer actually brings two Tylers as Clock Dance comes out on July 12th – I’ll either substitute that one in, or read both!
18. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay – I’ve only read Gay’s memoir, Hunger. She’s an important cultural figure; it feels essential to read all her books. I expect this to be rough.
19. Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay – This has been on my radar for such a long time. After loving my first Hay novel (A Student of Weather) last year, what am I waiting for?
20. Fludd by Hilary Mantel – I haven’t read any Mantel in years, not since Bring Up the Bodies first came out. While we all await the third Cromwell book, I reckon this short novel about a curate arriving in a fictional town in the 1950s should hit the spot.
I’ll still be keeping up with my review books (paid and unpaid), blog tours, advance reads and library books over the summer. The aim of this challenge, though, is to make inroads into the physical TBR. Hopefully the habit will stick and I’ll keep on plucking reads from my shelves during the rest of the year.
Where shall I start? If I was going to sensibly move from darkest to lightest, I’d probably start with An Untamed State and/or Lit. Or I might try to lure in the summer weather by reading the two summery ones…