I conceived of the idea to read all of the Bellwether Prize winners because I loved Lisa Ko’s The Leavers so much. The PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction is a biennial award given since 2000 by PEN America and Barbara Kingsolver, who created and funds the prize, “to a U.S. citizen for a previously unpublished work of fiction that addresses issues of social justice.” (More information can be found here.) Earlier this year, I found secondhand or cheap new copies of two of the winners and tried another one from the library.
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow (2010)
This review is ALL SPOILER because there isn’t really a way to discuss the book otherwise, so skip onwards if you think you might want to read this someday. Durrow was inspired by her own family history – she is biracial, her father a Black serviceman and her mother from Denmark – and by a newspaper story about a woman who jumped off the top of a multi-story building with her small children. Only one daughter survived the fall. Durrow was captivated by that girl’s story and wanted to imagine what her life would be like in the wake of tragedy.
In 1982, Rachel has come to live with her father’s mother in Portland, Oregon. She’s starting a new life there after a long time in the hospital. She survived her mother Nella’s leap from their Chicago apartment building because she landed on the top of the heap of three siblings. As her teen years unfold, she struggles to incorporate her European heritage with her African American identity and turns to promiscuity. Details of what happened that day in Chicago unfold gradually.
The secondary characters are more interesting than Rachel herself, even though she narrates, and I felt more sympathy for her when she was a child. I would have liked more of the mother’s journal entries, showing how her depression and alcoholism developed. The coincidence of the one eyewitness to the jump ending up in Portland was too much for me. Overall, this was fairly dismal and didn’t make enough of its compelling premise. It was an easy read, but had it been much longer than 260 pages I would likely have DNFed.
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan (2008)
1946: Two servicemen return from fighting in Europe, headed to the same Mississippi farm. Jamie McAllan was a fighter pilot and Ronsel Jackson was part of a tank division. Both are dependent on alcohol to help them cope with the memories of what they have seen and done. But Jamie can get away with drunk driving and carousing with local women, knowing that his big brother, Henry, will take him back in no matter what. Ronsel, though, has to keep his head down and be on his guard at every moment: war hero or not, no one in Mississippi is going to let a Black man walk in through the front door of a store or get a lift home in a white man’s truck. His sharecropping family’s position at the McAllan farm, Mudbound, is precarious, with the weather and the social hierarchy always working against them.
This story of love, betrayal, and the obsession with land is told through rotating first-person narration from six key players, three McAllans and three Jacksons. Each voice is distinct and perfectly captures the character’s personality and level of education. Jordan uses this kaleidoscope view to explore how fateful decisions bind the two families together. I particularly loved the two female voices: Laura, Henry’s wife; and Florence, Ronsel’s mother. Though they’re often stuck inside cooking and delivering babies, they still play their roles in the farm’s drama. The novel opens with a burial scene, but readers get faked out not once but twice about how the character died. I raced through the last three-quarters, and the final 50–100 pages are a real doozy. This feels like a modern classic of the segregated South and I’d recommend it for those looking for a follow-up to The Vanishing Half.
And a DNF:
Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron (2010)
I read 25 pages and didn’t feel drawn into the characters’ story. When the main characters are from a persecuted ethnic minority and one boy is a star runner, you sort of know where things are heading. (I’m also perhaps too familiar with Rwandan history from We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch.)
Remaining Bellwether Prize winners:
2019 Katherine Seligman, If You Knew [retitled At the Edge of the Haight – publication forthcoming in January 2021]
2014 Ron Childress, And West Is West
2012 Susan Nussbaum, Good Kings Bad Kings
2004 Marjorie Kowalski Cole, Correcting the Landscape
2002 Gayle Brandeis, The Book of Dead Birds
2000 Donna Gershten, Kissing the Virgin’s Mouth
Have you read one of these winners? Do any tempt you?
September is always a big month in the publishing world, but even more so this year because of all the titles delayed from the spring and summer – apparently 600 books were published in the first week of September in the UK alone.
Still, I only ended up with my usual, manageable five new releases (with a few more on the way from the library). I read a beautiful novel about addiction and religion in contemporary America, speculative fiction about communication with wildlife in mid-pandemic (!) Australia, everything you ever wanted to know about fungi, historical fiction about outsiders in England and Borneo, and a study of our broken relationship with other animals.
Two of these are from my most anticipated list for the second half of 2020. Four of the five can be linked by the tenet that humans are only one species among many others necessary to life on this Earth, and not in some way above and beyond.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
This follow-up to Gyasi’s dazzling, centuries-spanning linked story collection, Homegoing, won’t be out in the UK until March 2021, but I couldn’t resist reading an e-copy of the American edition (Knopf) from Edelweiss. It’s altogether a more subdued and subtle book, but its treatment of themes of addiction, grief, racism and religion is so spot on that it packs a punch. Gifty is a PhD student at Stanford, researching pleasure and reward circuits in the mouse brain. She gets mice hooked on a sugary drink and then performs experiments to see if she can turn off their compulsion to keep pressing a lever for more. Sometimes when they press the lever they get an electric shock. Certain mice give up; others never will. Why?
People who know Gifty well assume she chose her field because of a personal tragedy. When she was 10, her 16-year-old brother, Nana, a high school basketball star in this Ghanaian-American family’s Alabama town, died of an opiate overdose. He’d gotten addicted to prescription drugs after a sports injury. At one level, Gifty acknowledges she is trying to atone for her brother’s death, but she won’t see it in those terms. An intensely private person, she shoulders almost impossible burdens of grief and responsibility for her mother, who has plunged into depression and, when she comes to live with Gifty, spends all her time in bed.
The most compelling aspect of the novel for me was Gifty’s attitude towards the religion of her childhood. Though they were the only black family at their Pentecostal church, she was a model believer, writing prayers in her journal, memorizing scriptures, and never doubting that everything happens for a reason. Nana’s death shattered it all. Though she now looks to science for answers, she misses the certainty she once had: that she was saved, that humans are special, that someone was looking out for her and her family, that it all mattered. I highlighted dozens of passages, but it’s possible the book won’t mean quite as much to readers for whom there’s no personal resonance. The complex mother–daughter relationship is an asset, and musings on love and risk are tenderly expressed. I wanted a more climactic conclusion to take this into 5-star territory, but I’ve still added it to my Best of 2020 shelf.
the species Homo sapiens, the most complex animal, [is] the only animal who believed he had transcended his Kingdom, as one of my high school biology teachers used to say.
At times, my life now feels so at odds with the religious teachings of my childhood that I wonder what the little girl I once was would think of the woman I’ve become … I am looking for new names for old feelings. My soul is still my soul, even if I rarely call it that.
the more I do this work the more I believe in a kind of holiness in our connection to everything on Earth. Holy is the mouse.
I read an advanced e-copy via Edelweiss.
The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay
McKay has a PhD in literary animal studies and serves as an animal expert and presenter on Australia’s ABC radio show Animal Sound Safari. Pair her academic background with the fact that this shares a title with a Margaret Atwood poetry collection and you’ll have some idea of what to expect here: mysterious but mostly believable speculative fiction that hinges on human communication with animals.
Jean Bennett isn’t your average grandma: a wise-cracking alcoholic, she drives the tourist train through the Australian wildlife park her daughter-in-law manages but wishes she could be a fully fledged ranger. Her ex-husband, Graham, left her and went down south, and eventually their only son Lee did the same. Now all Jean has left is Kim, her six-year-old granddaughter. Jean entertains Kim by imagining voices for the park’s animals. This no longer seems like a game, though, when news filters through of the “zooflu,” which has hit epidemic levels and has as a main symptom the ability to understand what animals say.
When Kim is kidnapped, Jean steals a camper van and takes Sue the dingo along to help her find her granddaughter. “There’s a new normal now,” a bus driver tells her. “And around here, not wearing a mask means you’ve gone animal. I’d put on my protective if I was you. Put that mutt in a cage.” It was uncanny reading this in the midst of a pandemic, but the specifics of McKay’s novel are hard to grasp. The animal language isn’t audible, necessarily, but a combination of smells, noises and body language. For a long time, they seem like pure nonsense, but gradually they resemble a sort of rough poetry. Here’s one example from Sue:
My front end
takes the food
for the Queen
(Sue usually calls Jean “Queen” or “Mother,” showing that she respects her authority, and “Yesterday” is frequently used to suggest a primitive sense of the past or of an older person.)
As entertaining a protagonist as Jean is, I lost interest in her road trip. If you focus on the journey into the wilderness and don’t mind a sudden ending, you may find this a worthwhile heir to Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton and The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
I read a proof copy for a Nudge review, but it’s never shown up on their website.
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake
I first heard about Sheldrake through Robert Macfarlane’s Underland. He struck me as a mad genius – an impression that was only strengthened by reading his detailed, enthusiastic book about fungi. Sheldrake researches fungal life in the tropical forests of Panama, accompanies truffle hunters in Italy, takes part in a clinical study on the effects of LSD (derived from a fungus), observes lichens off the coast of British Columbia, and attends a conference in Oregon on Radical Mycology. But more than a travel memoir, this is a work of science – there are over 100 pages devoted to notes, bibliography and index.
Basic information you’ll soon learn: mushrooms are only the fruiting bodies of fungi; under the ground is the material bulk, the mycelium, a sprawling network of hyphae. In what’s sometimes called the “Wood Wide Web,” fungal networks link the trees in a forest, and join up with plants, such as in lichens. “I feel a … sense of vertigo when I think about the complexity of mycorrhizal relationships – kilometers of entangled life – jostling beneath my feet,” Sheldrake confesses. He gives examples of fungi navigating and solving problems – what of our concept of intelligence if a creature without a brain can do such things?
Fungi are very adaptable to extreme conditions. Research is underway to grow edible mushrooms on some of our most troublesome waste, such as used diapers (nappies) and cigarette butts. And, of course, for millennia we’ve relied on certain fungi – yeasts – to create products like bread and beer. Sheldrake is a very hands-on writer: When he wants to know something, he does it, whether that’s scrumping Isaac Newton’s apples in Cambridge and fermenting the juice into cider at home or growing mushrooms on a copy of this very book.
During the month I was reading this, I felt like I kept coming across references to fungi. (I even had a patch of ringworm!)
It’s a perspective-altering text, but one that requires solid concentration. I’ll confess that at times it went over my head and I wished for a glossary and diagrams. A greater than average interest in biology and/or botany would thus be a boon to a potential reader. But if you can keep up, the book will elicit many a cry of “wow!” and “what?!” I kept launching “did you know?” questions at my husband, especially about the zombie fungi that parasitize insects. What a strange and wonderful world.
Favorite lines: “Paying more attention to animals than plants contributes to humans’ plant-blindness. Paying more attention to plants than fungi makes us fungus-blind.”
My thanks to Bodley Head for the free copy for review.
Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain
I read this back in June to prepare for writing a profile of Tremain for a forthcoming issue of Bookmarks magazine. Here’s the summary I wrote: “In Bath, England in 1865, 24-year-old nurse Jane Adeane is nicknamed ‘The Angel of the Baths’ for her healing touch. If she marries Dr. Valentine Ross, a colleague of her surgeon father, she can earn respectability – but will have to hide her love for Julietta, a married woman. Meanwhile, Dr. Ross’s brother, Edmund, a naturalist following in the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace, has journeyed to Borneo. Ill with malaria, he is taken in by British eccentric Sir Ralph Savage, a lover of native men and benevolent local rajah who funds infrastructure projects like a paved road and a hospital. Exiled or inwardly tortured for loving the wrong people, Tremain’s characters search for moments of wonder and comfort – whether those come in a primitive hut in the Malay Archipelago or in a cozy tearoom in Bath.”
It’s a slightly odd title, but tells you a lot about what Tremain is doing in this 14th novel. Often at the mercy of forces internal and external, her outcast characters look for places where they can find rest and refuge after a time of suffering. Will they, in turn, extend mercy? The split perspective and the focus on people who have to hide their sexuality are most similar to Sacred Country. The Victorian tip of the hat is mostly directed, I think, to George Eliot; of recent work, I was reminded of The Doll Factory and The Essex Serpent. I especially liked Jane’s painter aunt, Emmeline, and Clorinda, the Irish woman whose opening of a tearoom sets the plot going. The settings are surprising and vivid, and if Tremain doesn’t quite bring them and their story lines together seamlessly, she is still to be applauded for her ambition. This is probably my joint favorite of her novels that I’ve read so far, with The Road Home.
We must be unconventional in our joys and find them wherever we can.
life, so often so cruel in the way it thrust the human soul into prisons from which there seemed to be no escape, could sometimes place it athwart an open door.
I read an advanced e-copy via NetGalley.
Between Light and Storm: How We Live with Other Species by Esther Woolfson
If you’ve read Woolfson’s Corvus, you’ve already met Chicken, an orphaned rook she raised. For over 31 years, Chicken was a constant presence in her home. The recently departed bird is the dedicatee of her new book, feted as “Colleague, companion, friend.” (No mere pet.) Relationships with these creatures with whom she shared her life led her to think differently about how we as humans conceive of the animal world in general. “If I had ever believed humans to be the only ones to live profound and interconnected lives, I couldn’t any more. … If we’re the gods now, shouldn’t we be better than we are?” From her introduction, it’s clear that her sympathy toward the more-than-human world extends even to spiders, and her language throughout – using words like “who” and “his” in reference to animals, rather than “that” or “its” – reinforces the view that all species are equally valuable.
Or, at least, should be. But our attitudes are fundamentally distorted, Woolfson believes, and have been since the days of Aristotle (whose Ladder of Nature is an origin of the ideas that nature is there for man to use) and the Old Testament writers (one of the two creation accounts in Genesis established the idea of “dominion”). From cave paintings to animal sacrifice, intensive farming to fur coats, taxidermy to whaling, she surveys what others have thought and said about how animals are, or should be, perceived. There was more of an academic tone to this book than I expected, and in early chapters I found too much overlap with other works I’ve read about deep time (Time Song, Surfacing, Underland again!).
I most appreciated the fragments of nature writing and memoir and would have liked more in the way of personal reflection. Woolfson’s perspective – as a Jewish woman in Scotland – is quite interesting. She is clearly troubled by how humans exploit animals, but mostly recounts others’ reasoning rather than coming to conclusions of her own. (Though there is a brilliant takedown of the gender politics of Watership Down.) It’s a book that demands more time and attention than I was able to give just now. As I only skimmed it, I’m going to refrain from assigning a rating and will pass this on to my husband and return to it one day. [I do wish the title, on its own (subtitle aside), was more indicative of the contents.]
My thanks to Granta for the free copy for review.
Which of those 600+ September releases can you recommend?
Finishing off my summer reading project with a stellar biography-cum-travel book about Italian cuisine and a family memoir about missionary work in Haiti in the 1980s.
Heat by Bill Buford (2006)
(20 Books of Summer, #19) The long subtitle gives you an outline of the contents: “An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany.” If Buford’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he was the founding editor of Granta magazine and publisher at Granta Books, but by the time he wrote this he was a staff writer for the New Yorker.
Mario Batali is the book’s presiding imp. In 2002–3, Buford was an unpaid intern in the kitchen of Batali’s famous New York City restaurant, Babbo, which serves fancy versions of authentic Italian dishes. It took 18 months for him to get so much as a thank-you. Buford’s strategy was “be invisible, be useful, and eventually you’ll be given a chance to do more.”
In between behind-the-scenes looks at frantic or dull sessions of food prep (“after you’ve made a couple thousand or so of these little ears [orecchiette pasta], your mind wanders. You think about anything, everything, whatever, nothing”), Buford traces Batali’s culinary pedigree through Italy and London, where Batali learned from the first modern celebrity chef, Marco Pierre White, and gives pen portraits of the rest of the kitchen staff. At first only trusted with chopping herbs, the author develops his skills enough that he’s allowed to work the pasta and grill stations, and to make polenta for 200 for a benefit dinner in Nashville.
Later, Buford spends stretches of several months in Italy as an apprentice to a pasta-maker and a Tuscan butcher. His obsession with Italian cuisine is such that he has to know precisely when egg started to replace water in pasta dough in historical cookbooks, and is distressed when the workers at the pasta museum in Rome can’t give him a definitive answer. All the same, the author never takes himself too seriously: he knows it’s ridiculous for a clumsy, unfit man in his mid-forties to be entertaining dreams of working in a restaurant for real, and he gives self-deprecating accounts of his mishaps in the various kitchens he toils in:
to stir the polenta, I was beginning to feel I had to be in the polenta. Would I finish cooking it before I was enveloped by it and became the darkly sauced meaty thing it was served with?
Compared to Kitchen Confidential, I found this less brash and more polished. You still get the sense of macho posturing from a lot of the figures profiled, but of course this author is not going to be in a position to interrogate food culture’s overweening masculinity. However, he does take a stand in support of small-scale food production:
Small food: by hand and therefore precious, hard to find. Big food: from a factory and therefore cheap, abundant. Just about every preparation I learned in Italy was handmade and involved learning how to use my own hands differently. … Food made by hand is an act of defiance and runs contrary to everything in our modernity. Find it; eat it; it will go.
This is exactly what I want from food writing: interesting nuggets of trivia and insight, a quick pace, humor, and mouthwatering descriptions. If the restaurant world lures you at all, you must read this one.
- Nice connections with my other summer reading: there are mentions of both Eric Asimov and Ruth Reichl visiting Babbo in their capacity as food critics for the New York Times.
- This also induced a weird case of reverse déjà vu: a book I reviewed last summer for BookBrowse, Hungry by Jeff Gordinier, is so similar that it must have been patterned on Heat: the punchy one-word title; a New York journalist follows an internationally known chef (in that case, René Redzepi) and surveys culinary trends.
I was delighted to learn that this year Buford released a sequel of sorts, this one about French cuisine: Dirt. It’s on my wish list.
Source: From my dad
The Gospel of Trees by Apricot Irving (2018)
(20 Books of Summer, #20) Irving’s parents were volunteer missionaries to Haiti between 1982 and 1991, when she was aged six to 15. Her father, Jon, was trained as an agronomist, and his passion was for planting trees to combat the negative effects of deforestation on the island (erosion and worsened flooding). But in a country blighted by political unrest, AIDS and poverty, people can’t think long-term; they need charcoal to light their stoves, so they cut down trees.
Along with an agricultural center, the American Baptist missionaries were closely associated with a hospital, Hôpital le Bon Samaritain, run by amateur archaeologist Dr. Hodges and his family. Although Apricot and her two younger sisters were young enough to adapt easily to life in a developing country, they were disoriented each time the family returned to California in between assignments. Their bonds were shaky due to her father’s temper, her parents’ rocky relationship, and the jealousy provoked over almost adopting a Haitian baby girl.
Irving drew on letters and cassette tape recordings, newsletters, and journals (her parents’ and her own) to recreate the decade in Haiti and the years since. This debut book was many years in the making – she started the project in 2001. “I inherited my father’s anger and his perfectionism. Haiti was a wound, an unhealed scab that I was afraid to pick open. But I knew that unless I faced that broken history, my own buried grief, like my father’s, would explode ways I couldn’t predict.”
She and her parents returned to the country after the 2010 earthquake: they were volunteers with a relief organization, while she reported for the This American Life radio program. I loved the ambivalent portrait of Haiti and, especially, of Jon, but couldn’t muster up much interest in secondary characters, hoped for more discussion of (loss of) faith, and thought the book about 80 pages too long. Irving writes wonderfully, though, especially when musing on Haiti’s pre-Columbian history; I’d gladly read a nature book about her life in Oregon, or a novel – in tone this reminded me of The Poisonwood Bible.
Some favorite lines:
If, like my father, you suffer from a savior complex, Haiti is a bleak assignment, but if you are able to enter it unguarded, shielded only by curiosity, you will find the sorrows entangled with a defiant joy.
My family had moved to Haiti to try to help, but instead, we learned our limitations. Failure can be a wise friend. We felt crushed at times; found it difficult to breathe; and yet the experience carved into each of us an understanding of loss, the weight of compassion. We learned how small we were when measured against the world’s great sorrow.
Source: Bargain book from Amazon last year
And a DNF:
We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates (oats!)
I gave up after 38 pages. I’ve long meant to try Oates, but her oeuvre is daunting. An Oprah’s Book Club selection seemed like a safe bet. I found the quirky all-American family saga approach somewhat similar to John Irving or Richard Russo, but Judd’s narration is annoyingly perky, and already I was impatient to find out what happened to his sister Marianne on Valentine’s Day 1976. I’ll give it a few years and try again. In the meantime, maybe I’ll try Oates in a different genre.
Looking back, Heat was the clear highlight of my 20 Books, closely followed by My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki. I also really enjoyed the foodoirs by Anthony Bourdain, Nina Mingya Powles and Luisa Weiss. It’s funny how much I love foodie lit given that I don’t cook. As Alice Steinbach puts it, “while we all like to eat, we like it more when someone else does the cooking.”
Of course, not all of my selections were explicitly food-related; others simply had food words in their titles (or, as above, in the author’s name). Of these, my favorite was a reread, Ella Minnow Pea. Ideally, I would not have had to include my two skims and one partial read in the total, but I ran out of time in August to substitute in three more books. I’m happy enough with my showing this year, but next time I plan to build in more flexibility – or cheating, whichever you wish to call it – to ensure that I manage 20 solid reads.
I already have a color theme planned for 20 Books of Summer 2021! Here are 15 books that I own, mostly fiction, that would fit the bill:
As wildcard selections and/or substitutes, I will also allow:
- Books with “light”, “dark”, or “bright” in the title
- Kindle or library books, though I’d like the focus to remain on print books I own.
- If I’m really stuck, book covers/jackets in a rainbow of colors. I’ll skip orange because Penguin paperbacks are too plentiful in my book collection, but I have some nice red, yellow, green, blue, purple and pink covers to choose from.