Review Books Roundup: Blackburn, Bryson, Pocock, Setterwall, Wilson
I’m attempting to get through all my 2019 review books before the end of the year, so expect another couple of these roundups. Today I’m featuring a work of poetry about one of Picasso’s mistresses, a thorough yet accessible introduction to how the human body works, a memoir of personal and environmental change in the American West, Scandinavian autofiction about the sudden loss of a partner, and a novel about kids who catch on fire. You can’t say I don’t read a variety! See if one or more of these tempts you.
The Woman Who Always Loved Picasso by Julia Blackburn
Something different from Blackburn: biographical snippets in verse about Marie-Thérèse Walter, one of Pablo Picasso’s many mistress-muses. When they met she was 17 and he was 46. She gave birth to a daughter, Maya – to his wife Olga’s fury. Marie-Thérèse’s existence was an open secret: he rented a Paris apartment for her to live in, and left his home in the South of France to her (where she committed suicide three years after his death), but unless their visits happened to overlap she was never introduced to his friends. “I lived in the time I was born into / and I kept silent, / acquiescing / to everything.”
In Marie-Thérèse’s voice, Blackburn depicts Picasso as a fragile demagogue: in one of the poems that was a highlight for me, “Bird,” she describes how others would replace his caged birds when they died, hoping he wouldn’t notice – so great was his horror of death. I liked getting glimpses into a forgotten female’s life, and appreciated the whimsical illustrations by Jeffrey Fisher, but as poems these pieces don’t particularly stand out. (Plus, there are no page numbers! which doesn’t seem like it should make a big difference but ends up being annoying when you want to refer back to something. Instead, the poems are numbered.)
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review. Published today.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson
Shelve this next to Being Mortal by Atul Gawande in a collection of books everyone should read – even if you don’t normally choose nonfiction. Bryson is back on form here, indulging his layman’s curiosity. As you know, I read a LOT of medical memoirs and popular science. I’ve read entire books on organ transplantation, sleep, dementia, the blood, the heart, evolutionary defects, surgery and so on, but in many cases these go into more detail than I need and I can find my interest waning. That never happens here. Without ever being superficial or patronizing, the author gives a comprehensive introduction to every organ and body system, moving briskly between engaging anecdotes from medical history and encapsulated research on everything from gut microbes to cancer treatment.
Bryson delights in our physical oddities, and his sense of wonder is infectious. He loves a good statistic, and while this book is full of numbers and percentages, they are accessible rather than obfuscating, and will make you shake your head in amazement. It’s a persistently cheerful book, even when discussing illness, scientists whose work was overlooked, and the inevitability of death. Yet what I found most sobering was the observation that, having conquered many diseases and extended our life expectancy, we are now overwhelmingly killed by lifestyle, mostly a poor diet of processed and sugary foods and lack of exercise.
With thanks to Doubleday for the free copy for review.
Surrender: Mid-Life in the American West by Joanna Pocock
Prompted by two years spent in Missoula, Montana and the disorientation felt upon a return to London, this memoir-in-essays varies in scale from the big skies of the American West to the smallness of one human life and the experience of loss and change. Then in her late forties, Pocock had started menopause and recently been through the final illnesses and deaths of her parents, but was also mother to a fairly young daughter. She explores personal endings and contradictions as a kind of microcosm of the paradoxes of the Western USA.
It’s a place of fierce independence and conservatism, but also mystical back-to-the-land sentiment. For an outsider, so much of the lifestyle is bewildering. The author attends a wolf-trapping course, observes a Native American buffalo hunt, meets a transsexual rewilding activist, attends an ecosexuality conference, and goes foraging. All are attempts to reassess our connection with nature and ask what role humans can play in a diminished planet.
This is an elegantly introspective work that should engage anyone interested in women’s life writing and the environmental crisis. There are also dozens of black-and-white photographs interspersed in the text. In 2018 Pocock won the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize for this work-in-progress. It came to me as an unsolicited review copy and hung around on my shelves for six months before I picked it up; I’m glad I finally did.
With thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for the free copy for review.
Let’s Hope for the Best by Carolina Setterwall
[Trans. from the Swedish by Elizabeth Clark Wessel]
Although this is fiction, it very closely resembles the author’s own life. She wrote this debut novel to reflect on the sudden loss of her partner and how she started to rebuild her life in the years that followed. It quickly splits into two parallel story lines: one begins in April 2009, when Carolina first met Aksel at a friend’s big summer bash; the other picks up in October 2014, after Aksel’s death from cardiac arrest. The latter proceeds slowly, painstakingly, to portray the aftermath of bereavement. In the alternating timeline, we see Carolina and Aksel making their life together, with her always being the one to push the relationship forward.
Setterwall addresses the whole book in the second person to Aksel. When the two story lines meet at about the two-thirds point, it carries on into 2016 as she moves house, returns to work and resumes a tentative social life, even falling in love. This is a wrenching story reminiscent of In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist, and much of it resonated with my sister’s experience of widowhood. There are many painful moments that stick in the memory. Overall, though, I think it was too long by 100+ pages; in aiming for comprehensiveness, it lost some of its power. Page 273, for instance (the first anniversary of Aksel’s death, rather than the second, where the book actually ends), would have made a fine ending.
With thanks to Bloomsbury UK for the proof copy for review.
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson
I’d read a lot about this novel while writing a synopsis and summary of critical opinion for Bookmarks magazine – perhaps too much, as it felt familiar and offered no surprises. Lillian, a drifting twentysomething, is offered a job as a governess for her boarding school roommate Madison’s stepchildren. Madison’s husband is a Tennessee senator in the running for the Secretary of State position, so it’s imperative that they keep a lid on the situation with his 10-year-old twins, Bessie and Roland.
You see, when they’re upset these children catch on fire; flames destroy their clothes and damage nearby soft furnishings, but leave the kids themselves unharmed. Temporary, generally innocuous spontaneous combustion? Okay. That’s the setup. Wilson writes so well that it’s easy to suspend your disbelief about this, but harder to see a larger point, except perhaps creating a general allegory for the challenges of parenting. This was entertaining enough, mostly thanks to Lillian’s no-nonsense narration, but for me it didn’t soar.
With thanks to Text Publishing UK for the PDF for review. This came out in the States in October and will be released in the UK on January 30th.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Three Recommended July Releases
Here are three enjoyable reads due out next month that I was lucky enough to get a hold of early. These are all first books by women authors, with subjects ranging from twentieth-century artists to a parent’s dementia. I’ve pulled 200–250-word extracts from my full reviews and hope you’ll be tempted by one or more of these.
The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber
(Coming on July 11th from She Writes Press)
The name Margery Williams Bianco might not seem familiar, but chances are you remember her classic children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit. This lovely debut novel is about Margery and her daughter, Pamela Bianco, a painter and child prodigy troubled by mental illness. The main thread of the novel is set on one day in 1944, and the first-person narration alternates between Margery and Pamela, who through memory and imagination drift back through vivid scenes from their lives in Turin, London, Wales, and New York City.
Themes of creativity, mental health and motherhood are nestled in this highly visual book full of cameos by everyone from Pablo Picasso to Eugene O’Neill. I love reading fictional biographies of writers and other creative types, and this one gives such an interesting window onto lesser-known twentieth-century figures. I especially appreciated Huber’s endnotes explaining what was fact (almost everything) and what was fiction here, and her discussion of the letters and archives she used.
As The Velveteen Rabbit teaches, we truly come to life when we are loved, and you can see how for Pamela it was a lifelong struggle to be loved for who she was. The artist’s tortured journey and the mother’s tender worry are equally strong. Had I finished it a few days earlier I would have included this in my write-up of the best books of 2017 so far. It would be a great choice for book clubs, too – a set of questions is even included at the end of the novel.
A favorite line (Pamela describes her mother): “Mam’s eyes are vast almond-shaped seas, liquid navy, flowing with an endless depth of understanding and compassion.”
Readalike: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
My thanks to publicist Caitlin Hamilton Summie for granting me early access via NetGalley.
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
(Coming on July 11th from Henry Holt and Co. [USA]; already available from Scribner UK)
Reeling from a broken engagement, Ruth Young returns to her childhood home in California for a year to help look after her father, who has Alzheimer’s. She tries feeding Howard every half-cracked dementia health cure (cruciferous vegetables are a biggie) and, with his teaching assistant, Theo, maintains the illusion that her father is still fit to teach by gathering graduate students for a non-credit History of California class that meets in empty classrooms and occasionally off-campus – wherever they can be away from the watchful eye of Dean Levin.
As these strategies fail and Howard’s behavior becomes ever more erratic, Ruth realizes the best thing she can do is be a recorder of daily memories, just as Howard was for her when she was a little girl: “Here I am, in lieu of you, collecting the moments” – “Today you…”
This is a delightfully quirky little book, in the same vein as Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen. I marked out a bunch of funny metaphors:
This morning’s [hangover] is a rodent: pesky but manageable.
It was grotesque, the way I kept trying to save that relationship. Like trying to tuck an elephant into pants.
The moon, tonight, looks like a cut zucchini coin.
But you may well read this with a lump in your throat, too. From one Christmas to the next, we see how much changes for this family – a reminder that even though the good times are still worth celebrating, they’re gone before you know it.
Readalike: Not Working by Lisa Owens
A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal by Jen Waite
(Coming on July 11th from Plume Books [USA] and Prentice Hall Press [UK])
Jen Waite had been in New York City pursuing her dream of becoming an actress for two years when she started working at a restaurant for extra cash. It was here that she met Marco Medina, a handsome Argentinian bar manager, and they fell head-over-heels in love. All the clichés: a green card, a successful business venture, a baby on the way, an idyllic wedding on the beach in Maine. And then the whole thing fell apart. “Marco was always an illusion; the best magic trick I’ve ever seen,” Waite marvels.
She’s written her story up like a thriller, full of gradual revelations and the desire to get even. Chapters alternate between “Before,” when she still had what she thought was the perfect existence, and “After,” when she started to suspect that Marco had a secret life. I use the term “thriller” as a compliment: the dialogue is spot-on and this is a remarkably gripping book given that the title and blurb pretty much give the whole game away. More than that, it’s a fascinating psychological study of the personality of a sociopath and pathological liar. Surviving to tell her story and perhaps train to become a therapist for women who have been in her situation is Waite’s apt revenge.
Readalike: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Have you read any July releases that you would recommend?
Gauguin Gets the Graphic Novel Treatment
Fabrizio Dori’s Gauguin: The Other World is the third graphic novel I’ve reviewed from SelfMadeHero’s “Art Masters” series, after Munch and Vincent. Like those previous volumes, it delivers salient snippets of biography alongside drawings that cleverly echo the subject’s artistic style. Here the focus is on the last 12 years of Paul Gauguin’s life (1848–1903), which were largely spent in the South Pacific.
The book opens with a macro, cosmic view – the myth of the origin of Tahiti and a prophecy of fully clothed, soulless men arriving in a great canoe – before zeroing in on Gauguin’s arrival in June 1891. Although he returned to Europe in 1893–5, Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands would be his final homes. This is all covered in a whirlwind Chapter 1 that ends by, Christmas Carol-like, introducing a Spirit (as pictured in his 1892 painting Manaó Tupapaù (Spirit of the Dead Watching)) who will lead Gauguin – in a morphine haze on his deathbed in 1903 – and readers on a tour through his past.
Gauguin grew up in Peru and Paris, and at age 17 joined the crew of a merchant marine vessel to South America and the West Indies. Back in Paris, he tried to make a living as a stockbroker and salesman while developing as a self-taught artist. He married Mette, a Danish woman, but left her and their children behind in Copenhagen when he departed for Tahiti. The paintings he sent back were unprofitable, and she soon came to curse his career choice.
The locals called Gauguin “the man who makes men” for his skill in portraiture, but also “the woman man” because he wore his hair long. He moved from Papeete, Tahiti’s European-style colonial town, to a cabin in the woods to become more like a savage, and also explored the ghost-haunted island interior. Teura came to live with him as his muse and his lover.
The book is full of wonderful colors and spooky imagery. The palette shifts to suit the mood: dusky blue and purple for the nighttime visit of the Spirit, contrasting with lush greens, pinks and orange for other island scenes and simple ocher and black for the sequences where Gauguin is justifying his decisions. The black-robed, hollow-faced Spirit reminded me of similar figures imagined by Ingmar Bergman and Hayao Miyazaki – could these film directors have been inspired by Gauguin’s Polynesian emissary of death?
Overall this struck me as a very original and atmospheric way of delivering a life story. Although the font is a little bit difficult to read and I ultimately preferred the art to the narration, they still combine to build a portrait of a brazen genius who shunned conventional duties to pursue his art and cultivate the primitive tradition in new ways. Gauguin ends with a short sequence set in Paris in 1907, as Pablo Picasso, fired up by a Gauguin retrospective show, declares, “We must break with formal beauty. We must be savages.”
I appreciated this brief peek into the future, as well as the five-page appendix of critical and biographical information on Gauguin contributed by art critic Céline Delavaux. What I said about Vincent holds true here too: I’d recommend this to anyone with an interest in the lives of artists, whether you think you’re a fan of graphic novels or not. It will be particularly intriguing to see how Dori’s vision of Gauguin compares to that in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, which I plan to start soon.
With thanks to Paul Smith of SelfMadeHero – celebrating its 10th anniversary this year – for the review copy. Translated from the French by Edward Gauvin.