Back in January I had the idea to catch up as much as I can on previous Wellcome Book Prize long- and shortlists while the Prize is on hiatus. I decided to start with a pair of novels about polio from my public library system: The Golden Age by Joan London and Nemesis by Philip Roth. The latter, especially, has taken on new significance due to its evocation of a time of panic over a public health crisis (see this article, but beware spoilers). On a fellow book reviewer’s recommendation, I also took Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks off the shelf and read it at the same time as the Roth.
The Golden Age by Joan London (2014)
[First published in the UK in 2016; on the Wellcome Book Prize 2017 longlist]
The Golden Age was a real children’s polio hospital in Western Australia, but London has peopled it with her own fictional cast. In 1953–4, Frank Gold and Elsa Briggs, polio patients aged 12 going on 13, fall in love in the most improbable of circumstances: “The backs of their hands brushed as they walked side by side on their crutches. Their bloodstreams recharged by exercise and fresh air, they experienced a fiery burst of pleasure.”
Frank is much the more vibrant character thanks to his family’s wartime past in Hungary and his budding vocation as a poet, which was spurred on by his friendship with Sullivan, a fellow inmate at his previous rehabilitation center. The narrative spends time with the nurses, parents and other patients but keeps coming back to Frank and Elsa. However, Chapter 7, with Frank and his mother Ida still back in Budapest, was my favorite.
I was reminded of Tracy Farr’s work (The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt), especially the look back from decades later. This has a strong premise and some great lines, but for me there was something slightly lacking in the execution.
There was beauty everywhere, strange beauty, even—especially?—in a children’s polio hospital.
Polio is like love, Frank says … Years later, when you think you have recovered, it comes back.
Nemesis by Philip Roth (2010)
[On the Wellcome Book Prize 2011 shortlist]
In the summer of 1944 Newark, New Jersey is hit hard by polio. As a local playground director, 23-year-old Bucky Cantor is distressed when several of his charges become ill; a couple of them even die within a matter of days.
At first Bucky, whose poor eyesight kept him out of the War, sees his job as his own field of duty, but gradually fear and helplessness drive him away. He escapes to the Pocono Mountains to join his fiancée, Marcia, as a summer camp counselor, but soon realizes the futility of trying to outrun a virus. Unable to accept the randomness of bad luck, he blames God – and himself – for the epidemic’s spread.
Despite our better general understanding of epidemiology today, there were still many passages in this novel that rang true for me as they picture life proceeding as normal until paranoia starts to take hold:
Despite polio’s striking in the neighborhood, the store-lined main street was full of people out doing their Saturday grocery shopping…
(Bucky) Look, you mustn’t be eaten up with worry … What’s important is not to infect the children with the germ of fear. We’ll come through this, believe me. We’ll all do our bit and stay calm and do everything we can to protect the children, and we’ll all come through this together.
The important thing, he said, was always to wash your hands after you handled paper money or coins. What about the mail, someone else said … What are you going to do, somebody retorted, suspend delivering the mail? The whole city would come to a halt. Six or seven weeks ago they would have been talking about the war news.
Roth really captures the atmosphere of alarm and confusion, but doesn’t always convey historical and medical information naturally, sometimes resorting to paragraphs of context and representative conversations like in the last quote above. I also wasn’t sure about the use of a minor character (revealed on page 108 to be one of Bucky’s playground kids and a polio patient) as the narrator. This seemed to me to make Bucky more of a symbolic hero than a genuine character. Still, this was a timely and riveting read.
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (2001)
In 1665, with the Derbyshire village of Eyam in the grip of the Plague, the drastic decision was made to quarantine it. A benevolent landowner arranged for regular deliveries of food and other supplies to just outside the parish boundaries. The villagers made an oath that no one would leave until the pestilence was eradicated. One year later, two-thirds of its residents were dead. Brooks imagines that the “plague seeds” came to the village in a bolt of cloth that was delivered from London to the tailor George Viccars, who lodged with widow Anna Frith. Viccars is the first victim and the disease quickly spreads outward from Anna’s home.
Anna barely has time to grieve her own losses before she’s called into service: along with the minister’s wife, Elinor Mompellion, she steps in as a midwife, herbal healer and even a miner. The village succumbs to several sobering trajectories. Suspicion of women’s traditional wisdom leads some to take vigilante action against presumed witches. Unscrupulous characters like Anna’s father, who sets up as a gravedigger, try to make a profit out of others’ suffering. Frustration with the minister’s apparent ineffectuality attracts others to forms of religious extremism. Like Bucky, people cannot help but see the hand of God here.
Perhaps what I was most missing in the London and Roth novels (and in Hamnet, which bears such striking thematic similarities to Year of Wonders) was intimate first-person narration, which is just what you get here from Anna. The voice and the historical recreation are flawless, and again there were so many passages that felt apt:
Stay here, in the place that you know, and in the place where you are known. … Stay here, and here we will be for one another.
the current times did seem to ask us all for every kind of sacrifice
(once they start meeting for church in a meadow) We placed ourselves so that some three yards separated each family group, believing this to be sufficient distance to avoid the passing of infection.
Yet it is a good day, for the simple fact that no one died upon it. We are brought to a sorry state, that we measure what is good by such a shortened yardstick.
I’ve docked a half-star only because of a far-fetched ending that reminded me of that to The Wonder by Emma Donoghue. Apart from that, this is just what I want from my historical fiction.
Are you doing any reading about epidemics?
If you’ve been spending time blog-hopping or on Twitter over the last few weeks, you will have seen countless riffs on this topic. Everyone’s pondering what’s best to read in these times. All we can get our hands on about plagues (Boccaccio, Camus, Defoe)? Allegories of similarly challenging worldwide disasters (WWII, 9/11)? Childhood favorites? Comfort reads? Funny books? Light, undemanding stuff? Rereads?
My general answer would be: as always, read whatever you want or can – anything that captures your attention is worthwhile. We’re under so much stress that our reading should be entirely unpressured. But to be a little more specific, I’ve gathered reading recommendations on a variety of topics, drawing on lists that others have made and linking to my own blog reviews where applicable.
(Some of these ideas are less serious than others.)
If you are brave enough to learn about zoonotic diseases:
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen: This is top-notch scientific journalism: pacey, well-structured, and gripping. The best chapters are on Ebola and SARS; the SARS chapter, in particular, reads like a film screenplay, if this were a far superior version of Contagion. It’s a sobering subject, with some quite alarming anecdotes and statistics, but this is not scare-mongering for the sake of it; Quammen is frank about the fact that we’re still all more likely to get heart disease or be in a fatal car crash.
If you can’t look away from pandemic stories, historical or imagined:
I already had Philip Roth’s Nemesis (set in 1940s New Jersey amid a polio epidemic) out from the library because it was on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist in 2011. I was also inspired to take Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (set in the 1660s and featuring an English village that quarantined itself during the Plague) off the shelf. I’m nearing the end of these two and should have my reviews up next week.
You will see no one book referenced more than Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s a wholly believable dystopian novel in which 99% of the population has been wiped out by a pandemic. The remnant bands together not just to survive but to create and preserve art. “What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.” (My full BookBrowse review from December 2014.)
See also this Publishers Weekly list of “13 Essential Pandemic Novels.”
If you’re feeling cooped up…
Infinite Home by Kathleen Alcott: “Edith is a widowed landlady who rents apartments in her Brooklyn brownstone to an unlikely collection of humans, all deeply in need of shelter.” (I haven’t read it, but I do have a copy; now would seem like the time to read it!)
…yet want to appreciate the home you’re stuck in:
Years ago I read and loved At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson and Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin. I can’t tell you anything more than that because it was before the days when I reviewed everything I read, but these are both reliable authors.
I love the sound of A Journey Around My Room by Xavier de Maistre: “Finding himself locked in his room for six weeks, a young officer journeys around his room in his imagination, using the various objects it contains as inspiration for a delightful parody of contemporary travel writing and an exercise in Sternean picaresque.”
I’m also drawn to Home: The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived in Our House by Julie Myerson, who combed archives for traces of all the former residents of her 1870s terraced house in Clapham.
If you’re struggling with being on your own:
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing: This remarkable book on outsider artists interweaves biography, art criticism and memoir. Laing is a tour guide into the peculiar, lonely crowdedness you find in a world city.
How to Be Alone by Sara Maitland: Maitland argues that although being alone is easy to achieve, there is an art to doing it properly, and solitude and loneliness are by no means the same thing. Profiling everyone from the Desert Fathers of early Christianity to the Romantic poets, she enumerates all the benefits that solitude confers.
Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton: A one-year account of her writing life in New Hampshire, this is Sarton’s best. The book dwells on the seasonal patterns of the natural world (shovelling snow, gardening, caring for animals) but also the rhythms of the soul – rising in hope but also falling into occasional, inevitable despair.
See also this Penguin UK list of books to read in self-isolation.
If you’ve been passing the time by baking…
The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living by Louise Miller: As chief baker at the Sugar Maple Inn in Guthrie, Vermon, Olivia Rawlings settles into a daily routine of baking muffins, bread and cakes. This is a warm, cozy debut novel full of well-drawn secondary characters and romantic possibilities. There’s nothing clichéd about it, though. Livvy is a sassy narrator, and I loved how Miller documents the rhythms of the small-town country year, including tapping the maple trees in the early spring and a pie baking contest at the summer county fair.
Sourdough by Robin Sloan: Lois Clary, a Bay Area robot programmer, becomes obsessed with baking. “I needed a more interesting life. I could start by learning something. I could start with the starter.” She attempts to link her job and her hobby by teaching a robot arm to knead the bread she makes for a farmer’s market. Madcap adventures ensue. It’s a funny and original novel and it makes you think, too – particularly about the extent to which we should allow technology to take over our food production.
…but can’t find yeast or eggs in the shop:
Yeast: A Problem by Charles Kingsley (1851). Nope, I haven’t read it, but our friend has a copy in his Everyman’s Library collection and the title makes us laugh every time we see it.
The Egg & I by Betty Macdonald: MacDonald and her husband started a rural Washington State chicken farm in the 1940s. Her account of her failure to become the perfect farm wife is hilarious. The voice reminded me of Doreen Tovey’s: mild exasperation at the drama caused by household animals, neighbors, and inanimate objects. “I really tried to like chickens. But I couldn’t get close to the hen either physically or spiritually, and by the end of the second spring I hated everything about the chicken but the egg.” Perfect pre-Easter reading.
And here are a few lists I put together for Hungerford Bookshop:
If you need a laugh:
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
The Darling Buds of May (and sequels) by H.E. Bates
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
Heartburn by Nora Ephron
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Anything by Nick Hornby
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
Anything by David Lodge
Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
The Rosie Project (and sequels) by Graeme Simsion
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
Anything by Bill Bryson
21st-Century Yokel by Tom Cox
Anything by Gerald Durrell
Anything by Nora Ephron (essays)
This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood
Dear Lupin by Roger Mortimer
Anything by David Sedaris
Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart
If you want to disappear into a long book:
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Nix by Nathan Hill
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
If you’re looking for some hope:
Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott
Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit
Hope Dies Last: Making a Difference in an Indifferent World by Studs Terkel
I’ve been doing a combination of the above strategies, reading about historical plagues in fiction and nonfiction but also doing some rereading and consuming lighter genre stuff like mysteries. I continue to dip into new releases, and I enjoy the ongoing challenge of my reading projects. Right now, I’m working through a few current Women’s Prize longlistees, as well as some past Wellcome Book Prize nominees and Women’s Prize winners, and I’m about to start a third #1920Club title. Plus I’m already thinking about my 20 Books of Summer (I’m considering an all-foodie theme).
- Book Riot pinpoints seven categories of books to read during a pandemic.
- Clare surveys the post-pandemic literary landscape.
- Elle logs her pandemic reading and viewing.
- Laura discusses pandemic reading strategies and distraction reading.
- Literary Hub looks at parallel situations, including post-9/11 reads, to make predictions, and asks what your “go-to quarantine read” says about you. (I’ve read Kindred most recently, but I wouldn’t say that describes me.)
- Simon thinks about what we can and should read.
- Susan highlights some comfort reads.
What are your current reading strategies?
I call it serendipitous when two or more books that I’m reading at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once – usually between 10 and 20 – I guess I’m more prone to such incidents. I also post these occasional reading coincidences on Twitter. (The following are in rough chronological order.)
- A Wisconsin setting in three books within a month (Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler, This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel and Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner)
- I came across a sculpture of “a flock of 191 silver sparrows” in Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano while also reading Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones.
- Characters nearly falling asleep at the wheel of a car in Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner and In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
- There’s no escaping Henry David Thoreau! Within the span of a week I saw him mentioned in The Library of Ice by Nancy Campbell, The Snow Tourist by Charlie English, Losing Eden by Lucy Jones and Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. Plus I’d just read the whole graphic novel Thoreau and Me by Cédric Taling.
- Discussions of the work of D.H. Lawrence in Unfinished Business by Vivian Gornick and The Offing by Benjamin Myers
- That scientific study on patient recovery in hospital rooms with a window view vs. a view of a brick wall turns up in both Dear Life by Rachel Clarke and Losing Eden by Lucy Jones.
- The inverted teardrop shapes mirror each other on these book covers:
- Punchy, one-word titles on all these books I was reading simultaneously:
- Polio cases in The Golden Age by Joan London, Nemesis by Philip Roth and Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
- An Italian setting and the motto “Pazienza!” in Dottoressa by Susan Levenstein and Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
- Characters named Lachlan in The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson and The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts
- Mentions of the insecticide Flit in Nemesis by Philip Roth and Sacred Country by Rose Tremain
- A quoted Leonard Cohen lyric in Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott; Cohen as a character in A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson
- Plague is brought to an English village through bolts of cloth from London in Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell; both also feature a woman who is a herbal healer sometimes mistaken for a witch (and with similar names: Anys versus Agnes)
- Gory scenes of rats being beaten to death in Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell and Nemesis by Philip Roth
- Homemade mobiles in a baby’s room in A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson and Sacred Country by Rose Tremain
- Speech indicated by italics rather than the traditional quotation marks in Pew by Catherine Lacey and Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
My pre-Valentine’s Day reading involved a lot of books with “love”, “heart”, “romance”, etc. in the title (here’s the post that resulted). I ended up with a number of leftovers, plus some incidental reads from late in 2019, that focused on marriage – whether it’s happy or troubled, or not technically a marriage at all.
Marriage: A Duet by Anne Taylor Fleming (2003)
Two novellas in one volume. In “A Married Woman,” Caroline Betts’s husband, William, is in a coma after a stroke or heart attack. As she and her adult children visit him in the hospital and ponder the decision they will have to make, she remains haunted by the affair William had with one of their daughter’s friends 15 years ago. Although at the time it seemed to destroy their marriage, she stayed and they built a new relationship.
I fully expected the second novella, “A Married Man,” to give William’s perspective (like in Carol Shields’s Happenstance), but instead it’s a separate story with different characters, though still set in California c. 2000. Here the dynamic is flipped: it’s the wife who had an affair and the husband who has to try to come to terms with it. David and Marcia Sanderson start marriage therapy at New Beginnings and, with the help of Prozac and Viagra, David hopes to get past his bitterness and give in to his wife’s romantic overtures.
Fleming is a careful observer of how marriages change over time and in response to shocks, but overall I found the tone of these tales abrasive and the language slightly raunchy.
Not quite about a marriage, but a relationship so lovely that I can’t resist including it…
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (2015)
Understated, bittersweet, realistic. Perfect. I’d long meant to try Kent Haruf’s work and even had the first two Plainsong trilogy books on the shelf, but this novella, picked up secondhand at a bargain price from a charity warehouse, demanded to be read first. Fans of Elizabeth Strout’s work will find in Haruf’s Holt, Colorado an echo of her Crosby, Maine – fictional towns where ordinary folk live out their quiet triumphs and sorrows. From the first line, which opens in medias res, Haruf draws you in, making you feel as if you’ve known these characters forever: “And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters.” She has a proposal for her neighbor. She’s a widow; he’s a widower. They’re both lonely and prone to melancholy thoughts about how they could have done better by their families (“life hasn’t turned out right for either of us, not the way we expected,” Louis says). Would he like to come over to her house at nights to talk and sleep? Just two ageing creatures huddling together for comfort; no hanky-panky expected or desired.
So that’s just what they do. Before long, though, they come up against the disapproval of locals and family, especially when Addie’s grandson comes to stay and they join Louis to make a makeshift trio. The matter-of-fact prose, delivered without speech marks, belies a deep undercurrent of emotion in this story about the everyday miracle of human connection. There’s even a neat little reference to Haruf’s Benediction at the start of Chapter 34 (again like Strout, who peppered Olive, Again with cameo appearances from characters introduced in her earlier books). I also loved that the characters live on Cedar Street – I grew up on a Cedar Street. This gets my highest recommendation.
State of the Union: A Marriage in Ten Parts by Nick Hornby (2019)
Hornby has been making quite a name for himself in film and television. State of the Union is also a TV series, and reads a lot like a script because it’s composed mostly of the dialogue between Tom and Louise, an estranged couple who each week meet up for a drink in the pub before their marriage counseling appointment. There’s very little descriptive writing, and much of the time Hornby doesn’t even need to add speech attributions because it’s clear who’s saying what in the back and forth.
The crisis in this marriage was precipitated by Louise, a gerontologist, sleeping with someone else after her sex life with Tom, an underemployed music writer, dried up. They rehash their life together, what went wrong, and what might happen next in 10 snappy chapters that are funny but also cut close to the bone. What married person hasn’t wondered where the magic went as midlife approaches? (Tom: “I hate to be unromantic, but convenient placement is pretty much the definition of marital sex.”)
Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage by Madeleine L’Engle (1988)
The fourth and final volume of the autobiographical Crosswicks Journal. This one focuses on L’Engle’s 40-year marriage to Hugh Franklin, an actor best known for his role as Dr. Charles Tyler in All My Children between 1970 and 1983. In the book’s present day, the summer of 1986, she’s worried about Hugh when his bladder cancer, which starts off seeming treatable, leads to every possible complication and deterioration. Her days are divided between home, work (speaking engagements; teaching workshops at a writers’ conference) and the hospital.
Drifting between past and present, she remembers how she and Hugh met in the 1940s NYC theatre world, their early years of marriage, becoming parents to Josephine and Bion and then, when close friends died suddenly, adopting their goddaughter, and taking on the adventure of renovating Crosswicks farmhouse in Connecticut and temporarily running the local general store. As usual, L’Engle writes beautifully about having faith in a time of uncertainty. (The title refers not just to marriage, but also to Bach pieces that she, a devoted amateur piano player, used for practice.)
A wonderful passage about marriage:
“Our love has been anything but perfect and anything but static. Inevitably there have been times when one of us has outrun the other and has had to wait patiently for the other to catch up. There have been times when we have misunderstood each other, demanded too much of each other, been insensitive to the other’s needs. I do not believe there is any marriage where this does not happen. The growth of love is not a straight line, but a series of hills and valleys. I suspect that in every good marriage there are times when love seems to be over. Sometimes these desert lines are simply the only way to the next oasis, which is far more lush and beautiful after the desert crossing than it could possibly have been without it.”
The Wife by Meg Wolitzer (2003)
My latest book club read. On a flight to Finland, where her supposed genius writer of a husband, Joe Castleman, will accept the prestigious Helsinki Prize, Joan finally decides to leave him. When she first met Joe in 1956, she was a student at Smith College and he was her (married) creative writing professor, even though he’d only had a couple of stories published in middling literary magazines. Joan was a promising author in her own right, but when Joe left his first wife for her and she dropped out of college, she willingly took up a supporting role instead, and has remained in it for decades.
Ever since his first novel, The Walnut, a thinly veiled account of leaving Carol for Joan, Joe has produced books “populated by unhappy, unfaithful American husbands and their complicated wives.” Add on the fact that he’s Jewish and you have a Saul Bellow or Philip Roth type, a serial womanizer who’s publicly uxorious.
Alternating between the trip to Helsinki and telling scenes from earlier in their marriage, this short novel is deceptively profound. The setup may feel familiar, but Joan’s narration is bitingly funny and the points about the greater value attributed to men’s work are still valid. There’s also a juicy twist I never saw coming, as Joan decides what role she wants to play in perpetuating Joe’s literary legacy. My second by Wolitzer; I’ll certainly read more.
Plus a DNF:
The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer (2008)
In 1953 in San Francisco, Pearlie Cook learns two major secrets about her husband Holland after his old friend shows up at their door. Greer tries to present another fact about the married couple as a big surprise, but had planted so many clues, starting on page 9, that I’d already guessed it and wasn’t shocked at the end of Part I as I was supposed to be. Greer writes perfectly capably, but I wasn’t able to connect with this one and didn’t love Less as much as most people did. I don’t think I’ll be trying another of his books. (I read 93 pages out of 195.)
Have you read any books about marriage recently?
Two very different but equally enjoyable selections for you this month:
American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee
(Coming from Crown on the 17th)
By the 1920s, wolves had almost been eradicated from the Lower 48 states. In 1995–6, though, two rival packs were brought in from Canada to repopulate Yellowstone National Park. Blakeslee gives a panoramic overview of the reintroduction project and the recurring clashes between hunters and biologists about whether wolves should be a protected species. He keeps his account relatable by focusing on particular family groups of wolves and bringing out the animals’ individual personalities.
One important wolf pack was the Druids, which “were like the Kennedys, American royalty.” O-Six, an alpha female of the third generation so named because she was born in 2006, is one of the main animal characters here, with two central human characters being Rick McIntyre, a long-time National Park Service ranger and wolf expert, and Steven Turnbull (an alias), an elk hunter from Crandall, Wyoming.
The 2011 federal budget snuck in a rider removing wolves from the endangered species list in Montana and Idaho. The same followed for Wyoming, heralding an open hunting season on wolves for the first time in 50 years. Though his sympathies are clear, Blakeslee doesn’t demonize those who killed Yellowstone wolves that strayed beyond the park boundaries. He also emphasizes that the battle over this species reflects a wider struggle “over public land—what it should be used for and who should have the right to decide.”
It’s especially interesting to read about the animals’ behavior: a wolf uncle hanging around to help raise the pups, O-Six fighting off grizzlies near her den, showdowns between packs, and pups hunting mice and ravens for fun.
With thanks to the publisher for the free review copy.
Love and Laughter in the Time of Chemotherapy by Manjusha Pawagi
(Coming from Second Story Press on the 10th)
It’s a rare book that can wring both laughs and (mostly happy) tears out of a cancer ordeal. I read a lot of books about illness, death and dying – subjects I can appreciate aren’t for anyone. Nevertheless, I can heartily recommend this to you for the Everywoman perspective on the cancer experience and rebuilding life on the other side. Pawagi is a family court judge and mother of twin teenagers in Toronto. She was diagnosed with leukemia in April 2014, went through two intensive rounds of chemotherapy, and then had a stem cell transplant from a donor from the South Asian immigrant community six months later.
This is a warts-and-all account of the treatment process – if it hurt like hell, if she wept into her pillow at night, if she felt like crap, she says so. Though not entirely without self-pity, the book transforms such feelings through a wry, atheist’s “why not me?” approach. In the lovely last chapter, the author meets her donor, a young man in New York City, and his relatives two years after her transplant and realizes that she’s unwittingly acquired not just a blood brother but a whole new extended family.
They may be clichés but they’re completely true in this case: this is a heart-warming and life-affirming read, and with any luck will encourage more people to become blood and organ donors. (See also this interview with Pawagi from Foreword Reviews.)
Some favorite lines:
“I want to wake up and be a judge again, not an overgrown diapered baby.”
“Hell is other people…in the hospital bed next to yours.”
I read an e-ARC via NetGalley.
I also won an advanced Goodreads giveaway copy of a novel that came out in the States in June and will be released in the UK by Borough Press on the 5th, but I’m not sure it’s one I’d wholeheartedly recommend…
Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash
You might think of Stephen Florida as an heir to Alexander Portnoy and Holden Caulfield (“I guess I should describe myself. No, I don’t want to do that”). A senior at North Dakota’s Oregsburg College, he’s obsessed with becoming a champion wrestler for the 133 weight class. He’s a loner, and his every attempt at connection with others falters. Stephen acts and speaks like a crazed preacher, and the more he goes off the rails the harder it is to figure out exactly what’s going on and how much you can trust this narrator. This struck me as a very male story that doesn’t have the same crossover appeal as works by John Irving or Chad Harbach. I would have enjoyed a short story or novella about this character and his self-destructive single-mindedness, but spending a whole novel with him creeped me out.
Other October releases I’m planning to read:
- In Shock by Rana Awdish (St. Martin’s, 17th)
- A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives by Lisa Congdon (Chronicle Books, 3rd)
- Eco-Dementia [poetry] by Janet Kauffman (Wayne State University Press, 2nd)
- Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer by Antoinette Truglio Martin (She Writes Press, 3rd)
What October books do you have on the docket? Have you already read any that you can recommend?
On Tuesday we leave for two weeks in America. It’s nearly a year and a half since our last trip – much too long – so we’ll be cramming in lots of visits with friends and family and doing a fair bit of driving around the Mid-Atlantic states. I’m giving myself the whole time off, which means I’ve been working flat out for the past two weeks to get everything done (including my U.K. and U.S. taxes). I’m nearly there: at the 11-day countdown I still had 12 books I wanted to finish and 12 reviews to write; now I’m down to five books, only one of which might be considered essential, and all the reviews are ready to submit/schedule. What with the holiday weekend underway, it should all be manageable.
I’m a compulsive list maker in general, but especially when it comes to preparing for a trip. I’ve kept adding to lists entitled “Pack for America,” “Do in America,” “Buy in America,” and “Bring back from America.” But the more fun lists to make are book-related ones: what paper books should I take to read on the plane? Which of the 315 books on my Kindle ought I to prioritize over the next two weeks? Which exclusively American books should I borrow from the public library? What secondhand books will I try to find? And which of the books in the dozens of boxes in the closet of my old bedroom will I fit in my suitcase for the trip back?
I liked the sound of Laila’s habit of taking an Anne Tyler novel on every flight. That’s just the kind of cozy reading I want, especially as I head back to Maryland – not far at all from Tyler’s home turf of Baltimore. I browsed the blurbs on a few of her paperbacks I have lying around and chose Back When We Were Grownups to be my fifth Tyler and one of my airplane reads.
I’m also tempted by Min Kym’s Gone, a memoir by a violin virtuoso about having her Stradivarius stolen. I picked up a proof copy in a 3-for-£1 charity sale a couple of weeks ago. And then I can’t resist the aptness of Jonathan Miles’s Dear American Airlines (even though we’re actually flying on Virgin). I’ll start one or more of these before we go, just to make sure they ‘take’.
I almost certainly won’t need three print books for the trip, particularly if I take advantage of the in-flight entertainment. We only ever seem to watch films while we’re in America or en route there, so between the two legs I’ll at least try to get to La La Land and The Light between Oceans; I’m also considering Nocturnal Animals, Silence, and the live-action Beauty and the Beast – anyone seen these?
However, I’ll also keep my Kindle to hand, as I find it easier to pick up and put down on multi-part journeys like ours to the airport (train ride + coach ride). Some of the books on my Kindle priority list are: The Day that Went Missing by Richard Beard, Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta (out in August), The Power by Naomi Alderman, Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy, See What I have Done by Sarah Schmidt, You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann … and the list continues, but I’ll stop there.
My book shopping list is an ongoing one, as the many cross-outs and additions on this sheet show. Finding specific books at my beloved Wonder Book can be a challenge, so I usually just keep in mind the names of authors I’d like to read more by. This time that might include Arnold Bennett, Geoff Dyer, Elizabeth Hay, Bernd Heinrich, W. Somerset Maugham, Haruki Murakami and Kathleen Norris. In addition to the couple of secondhand bookstores we always hit, I hope to visit a few new-to-me ones on stays with friends in Virginia.
As for those poor books sat in boxes in the closet, I have plans to unearth novels by Anita Brookner, Mohsin Hamid, Kent Haruf, Penelope Lively, Howard Norman and Philip Roth – for reading while I’m there and/or bringing back with me. I’m also contemplating borrowing my dad’s omnibus edition of the John Updike “Rabbit” novels. From my nonfiction hoard, I fancy an Alexandra Fuller memoir, D.H. Lawrence’s travel books and more of May Sarton’s journals. If only it weren’t for luggage weight limits!
On Monday I’ll publish my intercontinental Library Checkout, on Tuesday I have a few June releases to recommend, and then I’m scheduling a handful of posts for while I’m away – a couple reviews I happen to have ready, plus some other lightweight stuff. Alas, I read no doorstoppers in May, but I have a list (of course) of potential ones for June, so will attempt to resurrect that monthly column.
Though I may be slow to respond to comments and read your blogs while I’m away, I will do my best and hope to catch up soon after I’m back.
I had high hopes for all of these: long-awaited novels from Jonathan Safran Foer (10 years after his previous one), Maria Semple and Zadie Smith; a Project Gutenberg download from the reliably funny Jerome K. Jerome; a brand new psychological thriller from James Lasdun, whose memoir and poetry I’ve loved; and a horse racing epic that generated Great American Novel buzz. But they all failed to live up to expectations.
Here I Am
By Jonathan Safran Foer
Is it a simple account of the implosion of two Washington, D.C. fortysomethings’ marriage? Or is it a sweeping epic of Judaism from the biblical patriarchs to imagined all-out Middle Eastern warfare? Can it succeed in being both? I didn’t really think so. The dialogue between this couple as they face the fallout is all too real and cuts to the quick. I enjoyed the preparations for Sam’s bar mitzvah and I could admire Julia’s clear-eyed capability and Sam, Max and Benjy’s almost alarming intelligence and heart at the same time as I wondered to what extent she was Foer’s ex-wife Nicole Krauss and they were the authors’ kids. But about halfway through I thought the book got away from Foer, requiring him to throw in a death, a natural disaster, and a conflict with global implications. This feels more like a novel by Philip Roth or Howard Jacobson, what with frequent masturbation and sex talk on the one hand and constant quarreling about what Jewishness means on the other. The central message about being present for others’ suffering, and your own, got a little lost under the flood of events.
Three Men on the Bummel
By Jerome K. Jerome
Jerome’s digressive style can be amusing in small doses, but this book is almost nothing but asides. I did enjoy the parts that most closely resemble a travelogue of the cycle trip through Germany, but these are drowned under a bunch of irrelevant memories and anecdotes. I much preferred Diary of a Pilgrimage.
The Fall Guy
By James Lasdun
This is a capable psychological thriller about an out-of-work chef who becomes obsessed with the idea that his wealthy cousin’s alluring wife is cheating on him during a summer spent with them in their upstate New York bolthole. I liked hearing about Matthew’s cooking and Chloe’s photography, and it’s interesting how Lasdun draws in a bit about banking and the Occupy movement. However, the complicated Anglo-American family backstory between Matthew and Charlie feels belabored, and the fact that we only see things from Matthew’s perspective is limiting in a bad way. There’s a decent Hitchcock vibe in places, but overall this is somewhat lackluster.
The Sport of Kings
By C.E. Morgan
I found this Kentucky-based horse racing novel to be florid and overlong. The novel doesn’t achieve takeoff until Allmon comes on the scene at about page 180. Although there are good descriptions of horses, the main plot – training Hellsmouth to compete in the 2006 Derby – mostly passed me by. Meanwhile, the interpersonal relationships become surprisingly melodramatic, more fit for a late Victorian novel or maybe something by Faulkner. My favorite character was Maryleen, the no-nonsense black house servant. Henry himself, though, makes for pretty unpleasant company. Morgan delivers the occasional great one-liner (“Childhood is the country of question marks, and the streets are solid answers”), but her prose is on the whole incredibly overwritten. There’s a potent message in here somewhere about ambition, inheritance and race, but it’s buried under an overwhelming weight of words. (See my full Nudge review.)
Today Will Be Different
By Maria Semple
Bernadette fans, prepare for disappointment. There’s nothing that bad about the story of middle-aged animator Eleanor Flood, her hand-surgeon-to-the-stars husband Joe, and their precocious kid Timby, but nor is there anything very interesting about it. The novel is one of those rare ones that take place all in one day, a setup that enticed me, but all Eleanor manages to fit into her day – despite the title resolution – is an encounter with a pet poet who listens to her reciting memorized verse, another with a disgruntled former employee, some pondering of her husband’s strange behavior, and plenty of being downright mean to her son (as if his name wasn’t punishment enough). “In the past, I’d often been called crazy. But it was endearing-crazy, kooky-crazy, we’re-all-a-little-crazy-crazy,” Eleanor insists. I didn’t think so. I didn’t like being stuck in her head. In general, it seems like a bad sign if you’re eager to get away from a book’s narrator and her scatty behavior. Compared to Semple’s previous novel, it feels like quirkiness for quirkiness’ sake, with a sudden, contrived ending.
By Zadie Smith
Smith’s fifth novel spans 25 years and journeys from London to New York City and West Africa in tracing the different paths two black girls’ lives take. The narrator (who is never named) and Tracey, both biracial, meet through dance lessons at age seven in 1982 and soon become inseparable. The way this relationship shifts over time is the most potent element of the novel, and will appeal to fans of Elena Ferrante. The narrator alternates chapters about her friendship with Tracey with chapters about her work for pop star Aimee in Africa. Unfortunately, the Africa material is not very convincing or lively and I was impatient for these sections to finish. The Aimee subplot and the way Tracey turns out struck me as equally clichéd. Despite the geographical and chronological sprawl, the claustrophobic narration makes this feel insular, defusing its potential messages about how race, money and class still define and divide us. A new Zadie Smith novel is an event; this one is still worth reading, but it definitely disappointed me in comparison to White Teeth and On Beauty. (Releases Nov. 15th.)
Have you read any of these? What did you think?
What’s the last book that really let you down?
I keep an ongoing Word file with details on my year’s reading: books finished with the date, number of pages, and source – similar information to what’s recorded on Goodreads – plus any quotations that particularly stood out to me. It occurred to me that by looking back through these annual book lists for the quotes that meant the most to me I could probably narrate my recent years. So here are the 2015–2016 quotes that tell my story.
“I’m learning that what’s important is not so much what I do to make a living as who I become in the process. … the heroine, when at a juncture, makes her own choice—the nonheroine lets others make it for her.”
(A Year by the Sea: Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman, Joan Anderson)
“The dishes. The dishes! The goddamn dishes! No wonder women don’t succeed.”
(The author’s mother’s explosion in The Year My Mother Came Back, Alice Eve Cohen)
“Success says, What more can I get?
Craft says, Can you believe I get to do this?”
(How to Be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living, Rob Bell)
“Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
(Everyman, Philip Roth)
Finding a Home
“In Orcadian, ‘flitting’ means ‘moving house’. I can hear it spoken with a tinge of disapproval or pity: the air-headed English couple who couldn’t settle.”
(The Outrun, Amy Liptrot)
“Where, after we have made the great decision to leave the security of childhood and move on into the vastness of maturity, does anybody ever feel completely at home?”
(A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle)
“there is no such thing / as the right route or a clear passage / no matter where you start, / or how you plan it.”
(from “Aneurysm,” Selected Poems, Kate Clanchy)
Life vs. Books
“He had accepted that if you were a bookish person the events in your life took place in your head.”
(Golden Age, Jane Smiley)
“my way of seeing has always been different, shyer. To see the world I’ve always opened a book.”
(The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End, Katie Roiphe)
“Other people’s lives, and the lives I read about in books, seem richer, mine seems so threadbare.”
(The Past, Tessa Hadley)
“She remembered finding her first white hair somewhere near her thirtieth birthday and it had sent her on a tailspin for half a day. It’s starting, she’d thought then. The follicle that produced that hair is dying. I’ve reached the tipping point and from now on it’s nothing but slow decline.”
(Dog Run Moon: Stories, Callan Wink)
“All the most terrifying Ifs involve people. All the good ones do as well.”
(A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara)
“I wished then, and still do, that there was something in me also that would march steadily in one road, instead of down here or there or somewhere else, the mind running a net of rabbit-paths that twisted and turned and doubled on themselves, pursued always by the hawk-shadow of doubt.”
(Now in November, Josephine Johnson – to be reviewed here within next couple weeks)
Last night I was lucky enough to see 98-year-old literary legend Diana Athill in conversation with Erica Wagner at Foyles bookstore in London. Athill, born in 1917, has been an inspiration to me ever since I discovered her work five or so years ago. She didn’t publish anything until she was in her forties, and didn’t reach true acclaim until her eighties, when she released an incredible series of memoirs. Hers is an encouraging story of late-life success and what can be achieved with diligence and good fortune.
What strikes you immediately about Athill is her elegance. Although her hair is thinning and she speaks with a slight slur out of the left side of her mouth, she retains her eagle eye and hawkish profile. That cut-glass BBC pronunciation is not just “the Queen’s English” but a voice just like the Queen’s – she even occasionally used “One” to speak about her own experience. Her look, too, was perfectly put together: a beautiful, multicolored Nehru jacket over a blue silk blouse, accessorized with chunky blue and silver jewelry. Though she was brought in by wheelchair and needed a lot of help getting on the podium – she apologized for her belabored entry – she hardly seems on the brink of death.
Erica Wagner, too, is one of my heroes: an American expat who served as literary editor of the London Times from 1996 to 2013 and is now a contributing writer with New Statesman and a Harper’s Bazaar consulting literary editor. She drew Athill out on many of the topics from her latest memoir, Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things that Matter, including the unexpected pregnancy and miscarriage she experienced in her forties, memories of visiting Tobago, and the downsizing that preceded her move into a retirement home.
Athill recalled the absolute joy she felt upon waking up from her miscarriage, a medical emergency that could well have ended in her death. It was a feeling that started in her stomach and rose up through her body – “I’m alive!” she remembered exulting. Losing her chance at motherhood was not a haunting sadness for her, she remarked; to her surprise, she got over it easily. Part of it was that she had never felt maternal yearning; she vividly pictures being 19, looking at someone’s baby lying on a bed and wondering to herself how she should feel about this creature. Ultimately, she decided, “I’d much rather pick up a puppy!”
That sort of forthrightness was evident in a number of pithy responses Athill gave to audience members’ questions. Asked “is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved?” she replied with a simple, emphatic “YES!” Does she have anything planned for her 100th birthday? “I choose not to think about it,” she quipped. Has age mellowed her? “A bit,” she hedged, before adding that she is now more tolerant and minds less what others think of her.
One of her key pieces of advice is to avoid romanticism and possessiveness. That certainly played out in her unconventional personal life: she never married but was with her partner, a black man, for some four decades, and after he divorced his wife they formed an unusual household arrangement with his new lover and her family.
If Athill was never possessive in love affairs, however, she did struggle with it in terms of belongings. It was agonizing, she noted, to give up most of her things – especially her books – when moving into a tiny room in a Highgate retirement home. Now, though, she doesn’t mind at all. “When you get very old you really don’t need much,” she insisted. Early on she adopted Montaigne’s practice of thinking about death once a day to get used to the idea. None of the 40 residents at her home minds the thought of being dead; what they don’t like is the idea of dying. Each one hopes to bypass the horrid death and have the easy one instead.
Writing started as a therapeutic exercise for Athill. She wrote Instead of a Letter, about a painful love affair from her youth, because she had a deep sense of failure as a woman. After writing about it, though, she felt completely better, like a new person. Several of her other nonfiction books had a similar motivation: they were a way of getting rid of sad experiences, her own or others’ that she was close to.
When encouraged to write about her long career as a literary editor, she initially thought she couldn’t do it; she only wrote to “cure nasty things” by getting to the bottom of them as honestly as possible. However, she managed to convince herself she could also write for fun, and Stet, about her work with André Deutsch, was the delightful result. Asked for some of her favorite authors, she named Molly Keane (as a person as well as a writer), Jean Rhys, and Philip Roth (not as a person, she hastened to add!). Rhys and V.S. Naipaul, two of her illustrious clients, never needed a word editing, she recalled; however, they did occasionally need a nanny.
Having seen publishing from the other side now, as an author, Athill believes that being read with absolute attention by an editor – as opposed to getting halfway through a review and finding one’s work hasn’t been understood at all – is heaven. So although she was initially surprised that she would be given an editor, she joked, in the end she was grateful. Publishing is now much more of a business, she acknowledges, but she still feels that many people are in it for the right reason: simply because they love books.
In the wider world, so much has changed for the worse over the past near-century she’s been alive, but medicine and education are two things that have gotten better. “Long live the National Health!” she cried. (Hear, hear!) On the other hand, it was particularly interesting to hear Athill sigh that she hasn’t been a very good feminist; although she supports the idea, she feels she should have been more engaged. For example, she knew very well that she earned less than a man in her position would have at André Deutsch, but never made anything of it.
In the end, Athill thinks of luck as what’s given to you rather than something you make. “On the whole, I have been so lucky in my life,” she marveled towards the close of last night’s wonderful event. “I can’t really complain about anything.”
I’ve now read all Athill’s work, even her rather obscure novel and short story collection. Her latest book doesn’t live up to her few best memoirs, but it’s an essential read for a devoted fan. For readers new to her work, I’d recommend starting with Somewhere Towards the End, followed by Stet. From there you might try her book of correspondence with American poet Edward Field, Instead of a Book, or her memoir of childhood, Yesterday Morning.
Psssssst! I have the dirt on a forthcoming Athill publication – and here I thought Alive, Alive Oh! would be her last book for sure. It will be the diary of a trip she took to Florence in 1948. Italy seemed to have bounced back from six years of wartime much more quickly than England, so after that sense of imprisonment it was a chance to enjoy life once again. I’ll be keen to read this rare ‘found document’.
It’s been a slow period for reviewing; I was mostly focusing on ongoing projects and year-end lists, and didn’t take the time to review a lot of the books I borrowed from libraries while in the States visiting family. Enjoy the respite! And I promise more productivity next month. There’s a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to read more.
Fig Tree Books
Everyman by Philip Roth: It has now been about three years since Philip Roth, then 79, famously announced his retirement from fiction writing. In a look back over Roth’s career—spanning half a century and 30 books—Everyman (2006) might fade into the background, especially given the book’s novella length. But to overlook it would be a mistake: This is a near-perfect fable about the life we build through decades of small choices and the death that is always lying in wait, whether we feel ready or not.
(Have a look around at the great work this publisher does in highlighting the American Jewish Experience; for instance, they released Safekeeping by Jessamyn Hope, which I loved this past summer.)
A Smile at Twilight by Robert Loyst and Wayne Yetman: Loyst gives a candid account of the joys and difficulties of helping to care for Poppy, an Alzheimer’s patient he met through a Toronto-based “Seniors Helping Seniors” organization. It’s an appealing “opposites attract”/“odd couple” scenario: Poppy was a perfectionist with a foul mouth and a withering glare of disapproval, while Loyst describes himself as “more of a take-it-as-it-comes type of guy.” Those who have family members or friends struggling with dementia will probably benefit most from the memoir, but readers of Still Alice might enjoy trying a real-life story.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: Lucy Barton is in the hospital for nine weeks following an appendectomy. The novel zeroes in on the five days her mother comes to stay by her bedside, a pinnacle in their often difficult relationship. For a short book, this packs a lot in: an artist’s development, the course of a marriage, poverty and class distinctions. Lucy grew up in rural Illinois, where words like “cheap” and “trash” could easily have been applied to her family. I read this in one sitting on a plane ride and found it to be a powerful portrayal of the small connections that stand out in a life.
Eligible: A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld: Pride and Prejudice transplanted to Cincinnati in 2013? That might sound like a stretch, but Sittenfeld pretty much pulls it off. The characters and underlying plot are virtually identical to the original, with just a few tweaks here and there. What Sittenfeld does update are the particular scenes and situations, as well as the cultural norms and sexual practices. My main problem is how slavishly Sittenfeld replicates Austen’s third-person voice and vocabulary. Sittenfeld is the queen of first-person female narration; this is the first time in my memory that she has attempted an omniscient voice. To me it felt like the book was crying out to be told from Lizzy’s perspective. Releases April 19th.