Review Catch-Up: Capildeo, Castillo, Nagamatsu & Wedlich
A second catch-up for April. Today I have a sprightly poetry collection about history, language and nature; a linked short story collection that imagines funerary rituals and human meaning in a post-pandemic future; and a wide-ranging popular science book about the diverse connotations and practical uses of slime. As a bonus, I have a preview essay from a forthcoming collection about how reading promotes empathy and social justice.
Like a Tree, Walking by Vahni Capildeo (2021)
Capildeo is a nonbinary Trinidadian Scottish poet and the current University of York writer in residence. Their fourth collection is richly studded with imagery of the natural world, especially birds and trees. “In Praise of Birds” makes a gorgeous start:
“In praise of high-contrast birds, purple bougainvillea thicketing the golden oriole. … In praise of grackles quarrelling on the lawn. / In praise of unbeautiful birds abounding in Old Norse, language of scavenging ravens, thought and memory, a treacherous duo”
and finds a late echo in “In Praise of Trees”: “If I could have translated piano practice into botany, the lichen is that Mozart phrase my left hand trialled endlessly.”
The title section (named after a moment from the book of Mark) draws on several numbered series – “Walk #2,” “Nocturne #1,” “Lullaby 4,” and so on – that appeared in a pamphlet they published last year. These are not uncomplicated idylls, though. Walks might involve dull scenery and asthma-inducing dust, as well as danger: “If nobody has abducted you, I’ll double back to meet you. … Before raper-man corner and the gingerbread house.” Lullabies wish for good sleep despite lawnmowers and a neighbour shooting his guns. There’s more bold defiance of expectations in phrases like “This is the circus for dead horses only”.
Language is a key theme, with translations from the French of Eugène Ionesco, and of Pierre de Ronsard into Trini patois. There are also dual-language erasure poems after Dame Julian of Norwich (Middle English) and Simone Weil (French). Much of the work is based on engagement with literature, or was written in collaboration with performers.
“Death is a thief in a stationery shop. He strolls out. The shopkeeper, a poor man, runs after, shouting. – I saw you! Give that back! – Give back what? Death says, strolling out. Hermes is a tram attendant who holds your coffee, helping you find the coin you dropped; it rolls underfoot.” (from “Odyssey Response”)
“Windrush Reflections” impresses for its research into the situation of Caribbean immigrants to Britain. It’s one of a number of long, multipart pieces, some of them prose poems. The verse relies mostly on alliteration and anaphora for its sonic qualities. Along with history, there is reflection on current events, as in “Plague Poems.” Experiences of casual racism fuel one of my favourite passages:
“the doorbell was ringing / the downstairs american oxford neighbours / wanted to check / by chatting on the intercom / if i was doing terrorism / i was doing transcriptions” (from “Violent Triage”)
Honorifics by Cynthia Miller, which I reviewed last week, had more personal resonance for me, but these are both powerful collections – alive to the present moment and revelling in language and in flora and fauna. However, only Capildeo progressed from the Jhalak Prize longlist onto the shortlist, which was announced yesterday.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.
How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu (2022)
“Things are bad in every generation. But we still have to live our life.”
This linked short story collection was one of my most anticipated books of the year. Like two of its fellow entries on that list, Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel and To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara, it’s just the right blend of literary fiction and science fiction – an Octavia E. Butler level of the latter that I can handle. Opening in 2031 and stretching another 70 years into the future, it imagines how a pandemic reshapes the world and how communication and connection might continue after death. In the first story, Cliff is on the ground at the start of the Arctic plague, which emerges from a thawing Siberia (the same setup as in Under the Blue!), where his late daughter, Clara, had been part of a research group that discovered a 30,000-year-old Neanderthal girl they named Annie.
The virus is highly transmissible and deadly, and later found to mostly affect children. In the following 13 stories (most about Asian Americans in California, plus a few set in Japan), the plague is a fact of life but has also prompted a new relationship to death – a major thread running through is the funerary rites that have arisen, everything from elegy hotels to “resomation.” In the stand-out story, the George Saunders-esque “City of Laughter,” Skip works at a euthanasia theme park whose roller coasters render ill children unconscious before stopping their hearts. He’s proud of his work, but can’t approach it objectively after he becomes emotionally involved with Dorrie and her son Fitch, who arrives in a bubble.
All but one of these stories are in the first person, so they feel like intimate testimonies of how a pandemic transforms existence. Almost all of the characters have experienced a bereavement, or are sick themselves. Relatives or acquaintances become protagonists in later stories. For instance, in “Pig Son,” Dorrie’s ex, David, is a scientist growing organs for transplantation. Bereavement coordinator Dennis and his doctor brother Bryan narrate #5 and #8, respectively. Six years on, Cliff’s wife Miki takes their granddaughter on a space mission. My other two favourites were “Through the Garden of Memory,” in which patients on a plague ward build a human pyramid and plot a sacrifice, and “Songs of Your Decay,” about a researcher at a forensic body farm who bonds with her one live donor over rock music.
Some stories are weaker or less original than others, but this is one case where the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. The focus on illness and death, but also on the love that survives, made this a winner for me. I’d be especially likely to recommend it to fans of Kazuo Ishiguro and Karen Russell.
With thanks to Bloomsbury for the free copy for review.
Slime: A Natural History by Susanne Wedlich (2021)
[Translated from the German by Ayça Türkoğlu]
This is just the sort of wide-ranging popular science book that draws me in. Like Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, a work I’ve had many opportunities to recommend even to those who don’t normally pick up nonfiction, it incorporates many weird and wonderful facts about life forms we tend to overlook. Wedlich, a freelance science journalist in Germany, starts off at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, where she seeks a sample of the “primordial slime” collected by the HMS Challenger in 1876. “It seems to be an unwritten rule of horror: slime sells!” she remarks – from H. P. Lovecraft to Ghostbusters, it has provoked disgust. Jellyfish, snails, frogs and carnivorous plants – you’re in for a sticky tour of the natural world.
The technical blanket term for slimy substances is “hydrogels,” which are 99% water and held together by polymers. Biological examples have been inspiring new technologies, like friction reducers (e.g. in fire hoses) modelled on fish mucus, novel adhesives to repair organs and seal wounds, and glue traps to remove microplastics. Looking to nature to aid our lives is nothing new, of course: Wedlich records that slugs were once used to lubricate cart wheels.
The book branches off in a lot of directions. You’ll hear about writers who were spellbound or terrified by marine life (Patricia Highsmith kept snails, while Jean-Paul Sartre was freaked out by sea creatures), the Victorian fascination with underwater life, the importance of the microbiome and the serious medical consequences of its dysfunction, and animals such as amphibians that live between land and water. At times it felt like the narrative jumped from one topic to another, especially between the biological and the cultural, without following a particular plan, but there are enough remarkable nuggets to hold the interest.
With thanks to Granta for the free copy for review.
And a bonus:
I was delighted to be sent a preview pamphlet containing the author’s note and title essay of How to Read Now by Elaine Castillo, coming from Atlantic in August. This guide to cultural criticism – how to read anything, not just a book – is alive to the biased undertones of everyday life. “Anyone who is perfectly comfortable with keeping the world just as it is now and reading it the way they’ve always read it … cannot be trusted”. Castillo writes that it is not the job of people of colour to enlighten white people (especially not through “the gooey heart-porn of the ethnographic” – war, genocide, tragedy, etc.); “if our stories primarily serve to educate, console and productively scold a comfortable white readership, then those stories will have failed their readers”. This is bold, provocative stuff. I’m sure to learn a lot.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Short Classics Week of #NovNov: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead
Can you believe it’s the last week of Novellas in November?! I’m hosting our final theme, short classics, and my first review is of a strange, mesmerizing 1950s novella.
We hope some of you will join in with our last buddy read, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (free to download here from Project Gutenberg if you don’t already have access). I’m looking forward to rereading it – in one sitting, if I can manage it – on Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning and will review it on Thursday. This list of 10 favourite classic novellas I put together last year might give you some more ideas of what to read this week.
Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns (1954)
I’d heard about this via its recent Daunt Books reissue and was attracted to the plague theme. The spark for the story was a real-life event in France in 1951, but Comyns takes imaginative liberties. In 1911, a Warwickshire village is overtaken by calamity: first a flood and then a mysterious sickness. The first line – “The ducks swam through the drawing-room window” – sets up a jolly, fable-like atmosphere as the Willoweed family go rowing through their garden. And yet there’s death all over the place. The multitude of drowned animals soon cedes to a roll call of human casualties. Some deaths are self-inflicted and others result from rapid illness, but all are gruesome. The general pattern of the sickness seems to be stomach pains, fits, bleeding and death, all within a few days. At first, we don’t know if what we’re looking at is a medical phenomenon or a case of mass hysteria. Either is rich fodder for fiction.
Ebin Willoweed writes it all up for the newspapers, leaving his motherless daughters to do the hard work of cleaning up from the flood damage and looking after their little brother. Meanwhile, Ebin’s brutal, selfish mother presides over the household like some ogre in a fairy tale. The title (which comes from Longfellow) makes it clear that even those who survive this epidemic will not escape totally unscathed.
Comyns is entirely unsentimental in this, her third novel; those characters who are not horrible are typically passive, and the humour is very black indeed. It’s illuminating to observe how each figure responds to tragedy and what their priorities are. In general, though, it’s not a rosy picture of human nature. While I was initially reminded of H.E. Bates’s The Darling Buds of May and Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, this feels darker. There is some casual racism and the morbidness probably won’t be for everyone, but I remained gripped, wondering how on earth this would conclude. I liked it enough to try more by Comyns – my library has a copy of the brilliantly titled Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, but I’m also open to other suggestions. (Secondhand purchase)
Keep in touch via Twitter (@bookishbeck / @cathy746books) and Instagram (@bookishbeck / @cathy_746books). We’ll add any of your review links in to our master posts. Feel free to use the terrific feature image Cathy made and don’t forget the hashtag #NovNov.
Any short classics on your reading pile?
#NonFicNov: Being the Expert on Covid Diaries
This year the Be/Ask/Become the Expert week of the month-long Nonfiction November challenge is hosted by Veronica of The Thousand Book Project. (In previous years I’ve contributed lists of women’s religious memoirs (twice), accounts of postpartum depression, and books on “care”.)
I’ve been devouring nonfiction responses to COVID-19 for over a year now. Even memoirs that are not specifically structured as diaries take pains to give a sense of what life was like from day to day during the early months of the pandemic, including the fear of infection and the experience of lockdown. Covid is mentioned in lots of new releases these days, fiction or nonfiction, even if just via an introduction or epilogue, but I’ve focused on books where it’s a major element. At the end of the post I list others I’ve read on the theme, but first I feature four recent releases that I was sent for review.
Year of Plagues: A Memoir of 2020 by Fred D’Aguiar
The plague for D’Aguiar was dual: not just Covid, but cancer. Specifically, stage 4 prostate cancer. A hospital was the last place he wanted to spend time during a pandemic, yet his treatment required frequent visits. Current events, including a curfew in his adopted home of Los Angeles and the protests following George Floyd’s murder, form a distant background to an allegorized medical struggle. D’Aguiar personifies his illness as a force intent on harming him; his hope is that he can be like Anansi and outwit the Brer Rabbit of cancer. He imagines dialogues between himself and his illness as they spar through a turbulent year.
Cancer needs a song: tambourine and cymbals and a choir, not to raise it from the dead but [to] lay it to rest finally.
Tracing the effects of his cancer on his wife and children as well as on his own body, he wonders if the treatment will disrupt his sense of his own masculinity. I thought the narrative would hit home given that I have a family member going through the same thing, but it struck me as a jumble, full of repetition and TMI moments. Expecting concision from a poet, I wanted the highlights reel instead of 323 rambling pages.
(Carcanet Press, August 26.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
100 Days by Gabriel Josipovici
Beginning in March 2020, Josipovici challenged himself to write a diary entry and mini-essay each day for 100 days – which happened to correspond almost exactly to the length of the UK’s first lockdown. Approaching age 80, he felt the virus had offered “the unexpected gift of a bracket round life” that he “mustn’t fritter away.” He chose an alphabetical framework, stretching from Aachen to Zoos and covering everything from his upbringing in Egypt to his love of walking in the Sussex Downs. I had the feeling that I should have read some of his fiction first so that I could spot how his ideas and experiences had infiltrated it; I’m now rectifying this by reading his novella The Cemetery in Barnes, in which I recognize a late-life remarriage and London versus countryside settings.
Still, I appreciated Josipovici’s thoughts on literature and his own aims for his work (more so than the rehashing of Covid statistics and official briefings from Boris Johnson et al., almost unbearable to encounter again):
In my writing I have always eschewed visual descriptions, perhaps because I don’t have a strong visual memory myself, but actually it is because reading such descriptions in other people’s novels I am instantly bored and feel it is so much dead wood.
nearly all my books and stories try to force the reader (and, I suppose, as I wrote, to force me) to face the strange phenomenon that everything does indeed pass, and that one day, perhaps sooner than most people think, humanity will pass and, eventually, the universe, but that most of the time we live as though all was permanent, including ourselves. What rich soil for the artist!
Why have I always had such an aversion to first person narratives? I think precisely because of their dishonesty – they start from a falsehood and can never recover. The falsehood that ‘I’ can talk in such detail and so smoothly about what has ‘happened’ to ‘me’, or even, sometimes, what is actually happening as ‘I’ write.
You never know till you’ve plunged in just what it is you really want to write. When I started writing The Inventory I had no idea repetition would play such an important role in it. And so it has been all through, right up to The Cemetery in Barnes. If I was a poet I would no doubt use refrains – I love the way the same thing becomes different the second time round
To write a novel in which nothing happens and yet everything happens: a secret dream of mine ever since I began to write
I did sense some misogyny, though, as it’s generally female writers he singles out for criticism: Iris Murdoch is his prime example of the overuse of adjectives and adverbs, he mentions a “dreadful novel” he’s reading by Elizabeth Bowen, and he describes Jean Rhys and Dorothy Whipple as women “who, raised on a diet of the classic English novel, howled with anguish when life did not, for them, turn out as they felt it should.”
While this was enjoyable to flip through, it’s probably more for existing fans than for readers new to the author’s work, and the Covid connection isn’t integral to the writing experiment.
(Carcanet Press, October 28.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
A stanza from the below collection to link the first two books to this next one:
Have they found him yet, I wonder,
whoever it is strolling
about as a plague doctor, outlandish
beak and all?
The Crash Wake and Other Poems by Owen Lowery
Lowery was a tetraplegic poet – wheelchair-bound and on a ventilator – who also survived a serious car crash in February 2020 before his death in May 2021. It’s astonishing how much his body withstood, leaving his mind not just intact but capable of generating dozens of seemingly effortless poems. Most of the first half of this posthumous collection, his third overall, is taken up by a long, multipart poem entitled “The Crash Wake” (it’s composed of 104 12-line poems, to be precise), in which his complicated recovery gets bound up with wider anxiety about the pandemic: “It will take time and / more to find our way / back to who we were before the shimmer / and promise of our snapped day.”
As the seventh anniversary of his wedding to Jayne nears, Lowery reflects on how love has kept him going despite flashbacks to the accident and feeling written off by his doctors. In the second section of the book, the subjects vary from the arts (Paula Rego’s photographs, Stanley Spencer’s paintings, R.S. Thomas’s theology) to sport. There is also a lovely “Remembrance Day Sequence” imagining what various soldiers, including Edward Thomas and his own grandfather, lived through. The final piece is a prose horror story about a magpie. Like a magpie, I found many sparkly gems in this wide-ranging collection.
(Carcanet Press, October 28.) With thanks to the publisher for the free e-copy for review.
Behind the Mask: Living Alone in the Epicenter by Kate Walter
[135 pages, so I’m counting this one towards #NovNov, too]
For Walter, a freelance journalist and longtime Manhattan resident, coronavirus turned life upside down. Retired from college teaching and living in Westbeth Artists Housing, she’d relied on activities outside the home for socializing. To a single extrovert, lockdown offered no benefits; she spent holidays alone instead of with her large Irish Catholic family. Even one of the world’s great cities could be a site of boredom and isolation. Still, she gamely moved her hobbies onto Zoom as much as possible, and welcomed an escape to Jersey Shore.
In short essays, she proceeds month by month through the pandemic: what changed, what kept her sane, and what she was missing. Walter considers herself a “gay elder” and was particularly sad the Pride March didn’t go ahead in 2020. She also found herself ‘coming out again’, at age 71, when she was asked by her alma mater to encapsulate the 50 years since graduation in 100 words.
There’s a lot here to relate to – being glued to the news, anxiety over Trump’s possible re-election, looking forward to vaccination appointments – and the book is also revealing on the special challenges for older people and those who don’t live with family. However, I found the whole fairly repetitive (perhaps as a result of some pieces originally appearing in The Village Sun and then being tweaked and inserted here).
Before an appendix of four short pre-Covid essays, there’s a section of pandemic writing prompts: 12 sets of questions to use to think through the last year and a half and what it’s meant. E.g. “Did living through this extraordinary experience change your outlook on life?” If you’ve been meaning to leave a written record of this time for posterity, this list would be a great place to start.
(Heliotrope Books, November 16.) With thanks to the publicist for the free e-copy for review.
Other Covid-themed nonfiction I have read:
- Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke
- Intensive Care by Gavin Francis
- Every Minute Is a Day by Robert Meyer and Dan Koeppel (reviewed for Shelf Awareness)
- Duty of Care by Dominic Pimenta
- Many Different Kinds of Love by Michael Rosen
+ I have a proof copy of Everything Is True: A Junior Doctor’s Story of Life, Death and Grief in a Time of Pandemic by Roopa Farooki, coming out in January.
- Goshawk Summer by James Aldred
- The Heeding by Rob Cowen (in poetry form)
- Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt
- The Consolation of Nature by Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren
- Skylarks with Rosie by Stephen Moss
- Hold Still (a National Portrait Gallery commission of 100 photographs taken in the UK in 2020)
- The Rome Plague Diaries by Matthew Kneale
- Quarantine Comix by Rachael Smith (in graphic novel form; reviewed for Foreword Reviews)
- UnPresidented by Jon Sopel
+ on my Kindle: Alone Together, an anthology of personal essays
+ on my TBR: What Just Happened: Notes on a Long Year by Charles Finch
If you read just one… Make it Intensive Care by Gavin Francis. (And, if you love nature books, follow that up with The Consolation of Nature.)
Can you see yourself reading any of these?
Review Book Catch-Up: Fox, Le Riche, Nunez, and Thammavongsa
Today I have a book of poems about Covid lockdown and being autistic, a reprint of a vintage cookbook with a difference, the pinnacle of autofiction that I’ve found thus far, and a prize-winning collection of short stories about immigrants’ everyday challenges.
The Oscillations by Kate Fox (2021)
The first section, “After,” responds to the events of 2020; six of its poems were part of a “Twelve Days of Lockdown” commission. Fox remembers how sinister a cougher at a public event felt on 13th March and remarks on how quickly social distancing came to feel like the norm, though hikes and wild swimming helped her to retain a sense of possibility. I especially liked “Pharmacopoeia,” which opens the collection and looks back to the Black Death that hit Amsterdam in 1635 – “suddenly the plagues / are the most interesting parts / of a city’s history.” “Returns” plots her next trip to a bookshop (“The plague books won’t be in yet, / but the dystopia section will be well stocked / … I spend fifty pounds I no longer had last time, will spend another fifty next. / Feeling I’m preserving an ecology, a sort of home”), while “The Funerals” wryly sings the glories of a spring the deceased didn’t get to see.
The second section, “Before,” is more wide-ranging, responding to artworks, historical events, family situations, and more. Fox has been vocal about her ASD, which is the subject of “What Could Be Called Communication,” about some habits of the neurodivergent that you might recognize. I also liked “The Fruits,” which narrates the end of a pregnancy, and the closing poem, “Emergency” (“between us, / sometimes despite us / love spreads like a satellite signal, / like sea foam, / like spilt coffee on a counter top, / like home.”). That was one of the few places in the whole book where the language (alliteration and an end-rhyme) struck me; elsewhere, the themes felt more notable than the poetic techniques.
With thanks to Nine Arches Press for the proof copy for review.
Eating Alone by Kathleen Le Riche (1954)
Recently reprinted as a facsimile edition by Faber, this was Le Riche’s third cookbook. It’s like no other cookbook I’ve read, though: It doesn’t list ingredients or, generally, quantities, and its steps are imprecise, more like suggestions. What it reads like is a set of short stories with incidental recipes. Le Riche had noted that people who live alone some or all of the time, for whatever reason, often can’t be bothered to cook for themselves properly. Through these old ladies, bachelors, career girls, and mothers with children off at school, she voices her ideas on shopping, food storage, simple cooking, and making good use of leftovers, but all through the medium of anecdote.
For instance, “The Grass Widower,” while his wife is away visiting her mother, indulges his love of seafood and learns how to wash up effectively. A convalescent plans the uncomplicated meals she’ll fix, including lots of egg dishes and some pleasingly dated fare like “junket” and cherries in brandy. A brother and sister, students left on their own for a day, try out all the different pancakes and quick breads in their repertoire. The bulk of the actual meal ideas come in a chapter called “The Happy Potterer,” whom Le Riche styles as a friend of hers named Flora who wrote out all her recipes on cards collected in an envelope. I enjoyed some of the little notes to self in this section: appended to a recipe for kidney and mushrooms, “Keep a few back for mushrooms-on-toast next day for a mid-morning snack”; “Forgive yourself if you have to use margarine instead of butter for frying.”
I don’t think there are any recipes here that I would actually try to reproduce, though I may one day attempt the Grass Widower’s silver-polishing method (put a strip of aluminium foil and some “washing soda” (soda crystals?) in the sink and pour over some boiling water from the kettle; dip in the silver items, touching them to the foil, and watch the tarnish disappear like magic!). This was interesting as a cultural artefact, to see the meals and ingredients that were mainstays of the 1950s (evaporated milk, anyone?) and how people coped without guaranteed refrigeration. It’s also a good reminder to eat well no matter your circumstances.
With thanks to Faber for the free copy for review.
A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez (1995)
My third from Nunez, after The Friend and What Are You Going Through, and my most loved of her books thus far, cementing her as one of my favourite authors. Like the other two, it’s narrated by an unnamed woman who defines herself by the people she encounters and the experiences she has in an unforgiving but still somehow beautiful and funny old world. From the little I know of Nunez, this seems the closest to autofiction, especially in terms of her parental origins. The father, Chang, born in Panama and raised in China, immigrated to the USA at age 12. In Germany for war service, he met her mother, Christa, just after VE Day.
Chang and Christa, the subjects of the book’s first two sections – accounting for about half the length – were opposites and had a volatile relationship. Their home in the New York City projects was an argumentative place the narrator was eager to escape. She felt she never knew her father, a humourless man who lost touch with Chinese culture. He worked on the kitchen staff of a hospital and never learned English properly. Christa, by contrast, was fastidious about English grammar but never lost her thick accent. An obstinate and contradictory woman, she resented her lot in life and never truly loved Chang, but was good with her hands and loved baking and sewing for her daughters.
Growing up, the narrator never knew quite what to make of her mixed, “exotic” background. For a time, she escaped into ballet, a tantalizingly female discipline that threw up a lot of issues: class pretensions, the eroticization of young girls and of pain, and eating disorders. When she went without solid food for days at a time, she felt she was approaching the weightlessness Saint Hildegard likened to being “a feather on the breath of God.” The final chapter, “Immigrant Love,” jumps ahead to when the narrator taught English as a foreign language and had an affair with Vadim, a married Russian taxi driver full of charisma but also of flaws. This finale is a brilliant twist on her parents’ situation, and a decision to teach English in China brings things full circle, promising a connection to her late father’s heritage.
The strategy of identifying the self by the key relationships and obsessions of a life struck me as spot on. This short novel punches above its weight, with profound observations on every page. Its specific situations are engaging, yet it speaks to the universals of how we cope with a troublesome past. “One wants a way of looking back without anger or bitterness or shame. One wants to be able to tell everything without blaming or apologizing,” Nunez writes, crystallizing her frank, wry approach. I’m eager to read all the rest of her oeuvre.
First published in the UK in 2021. With thanks to Virago Press for the free copy for review.
How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa (2020)
Thammavongsa pivoted from poetry to short stories and won Canada’s Giller Prize for this debut collection that mostly explores the lives of Laotian immigrants and refugees in a North American city. The 14 stories are split equally between first- and third-person perspectives, many of them narrated by young women remembering how they and their parents adjusted to an utterly foreign culture. The title story and “Chick-A-Chee!” are both built around a misunderstanding of the English language – the latter is a father’s approximation of what his children should say on doorsteps on Halloween. Television soaps and country music on the radio are ways to pick up more of the language. Farm and factory work are de rigueur, but characters nurture dreams of experiences beyond menial labour – at least for their children.
The stories are punchy: perfect snapshots of lives lived on the tightrope between expectation and despair. In “Mani Pedi,” Raymond is a former boxer who starts working at his sister’s nail salon and falls in love with a client. His sister warns him, “Don’t you be dreaming big now, little brother. Keep your dreams small. The size of a grain of rice.” In “Slingshot,” an older woman loses touch with her much younger lover, while in “The Gas Station,” Mary, a prim tax accountant, opens herself to love but ends up disappointed. The great-grandmother in “Ewwrrrkk” warns an eight-year-old that “I love you” pries open one’s legs like nothing else. “Randy Travis” and “Picking Worms” were probably my two overall favourites. Looking back, I have trouble remembering some of the individual stories. It’s not so much that they all blend into one, but that they form a cohesive whole. I’d recommend this even to readers who don’t normally pick up short stories, and will look out for more from this author.
Out in paperback on Thursday the 18th. With thanks to Bloomsbury for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Review: Intensive Care by Gavin Francis
I finally finished a book in 2021! And it’s one with undeniable ongoing relevance. The subtitle is “A GP, a Community & COVID-19.” Francis, a physician who is based at an Edinburgh practice and frequently travels to the Orkney Islands for healthcare work, reflects on what he calls “the most intense months I have known in my twenty-year career.” He draws all of his chapter epigraphs from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and journeys back through most of 2020, from the day in January when he and his colleagues received a bulletin about a “novel Wuhan coronavirus” to November, when he was finalizing the book and learned of promising vaccine trials but also a rumored third wave and winter lockdown.
In February, no one knew whether precautions would end up being an overreaction, so Francis continued normal life: attending a conference, traveling to New York City, and going to a concert, pub, and restaurant. By March he was seeing more and more suspected cases, but symptoms were variable and the criteria for getting tested and quarantining changed all the time. The UK at least seemed better off than Italy, where his in-laws were isolating. Initially it was like flu outbreaks he’d dealt with before, with the main differences being a shift to telephone consultations and the “Great Faff” of donning full PPE for home visits and trips to care homes. The new “digital first” model left him feeling detached from his patients. He had his own Covid scare in May, but a test was negative and the 48-hour bug passed.
Through his involvement in the community, Francis saw the many ways in which coronavirus was affecting different groups of people. He laments the return of mental health crises that had been under control until lockdown. Edinburgh’s homeless, many in a perilous immigration situation thanks to Brexit, were housed in vacant luxury hotels. He visited several makeshift hostels, where some residents were going through drug withdrawal, and also met longtime patients whose self-harm and suicidal ideation were worsening.
Children and the elderly were also suffering. In June, he co-authored a letter begging the Scottish education secretary to allow children to return to school. Perhaps the image that will stick with me most, though, is of the confused dementia patients he met at care homes: “there was a crushing atmosphere of sadness among the residents … [they were] not able to understand why their families no longer came to visit. How do you explain social distancing to someone who doesn’t remember where they are, sometimes even who they are?”
Francis incorporates brief histories of vaccination and the discovery of herd immunity, and visits a hospital where a vaccine trial is underway. I learned some things about COVID-19 specifically: it can be called a “viral pneumonia”; it has two phases, virological (the virus makes you unwell) and immunological (the immune system misdirects messages and the lungs get worse); and it affects the blood vessels as well as the lungs, with one in five presenting with a rash and some developing chilblains in the summer. Amazingly, as the year waned, Francis only knew three patients who had died of Covid, with many more recovered. But in August, a city that should have been bustling with festival tourists was nearly empty.
Necessarily, the book ends in the middle of things; Francis has clear eyes but a hopeful heart. While this is not the first COVID-19 book I’ve encountered (that was Duty of Care by Dominic Pimenta) and will be far from the last – next up for me will be Rachel Clarke’s Breathtaking, out at the end of this month – it is an absorbing first-hand account of a medical crisis as well as a valuable memorial of a time like no other in recent history. A favorite line was “One of the few consolations of this pandemic is its grim camaraderie, a new fellowship among the fear.” Another consolation for me is reading books by medical professionals who can compassionately bridge the gap between expert opinion and everyday experience.
Intensive Care was published by the Wellcome Collection/Profile Books on January 7th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Gavin Francis’s other work includes:
Previously reviewed: Shapeshifters
Also owned: Adventures in Human Being
I’m keen to read: Empire Antarctica, about being the medical officer at the British research centre in Antarctica – ironically, this was during the first SARS pandemic. (In July 2020, conducting medical examinations on the next batch of scientists to ship out there, he envied them the chance to escape: “By the time they came home it would be 2022. Surely we’d have the virus under control by then?”)
Random 2020 Superlatives and Statistics
My top ‘discoveries’ of the year: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (4 books), Octavia E. Butler, Tim Dee (3 books each, read or in progress), and Louise Erdrich (2 books, one in progress).
Also the publisher Little Toller Books: I read four of their releases this year and they were fantastic.
The authors I read the most by this year: Carol Shields tops the list at 6 books (3 of these were rereads) thanks to my buddy reads with Buried in Print, followed by Paul Auster with 5 due to Annabel’s reading week in February, then Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with 4, and finally Anne Lamott with 3 comfort rereads.
Debut authors whose next work I’m most looking forward to: Naoise Dolan, Bess Kalb, Dara McAnulty, Mary South, Brandon Taylor, and Madeleine Watts
My proudest reading achievement: 16 rereads, which must be a record for me. Also, I always say I’m not really a short story person … and yet somehow I’ve read 19 collections of them this year (and one stand-alone story, plus another collection currently on the go)!
My proudest (non-reading) bookish achievement: Conceiving of and coordinating the Not the Wellcome Prize blog tour.
Five favorite blog posts of the year: Love, Etc. – Some Thematic Reading for Valentine’s Day; Polio and the Plague: Epidemics in Fiction; Thinking about the Future with David Farrier & Roman Krznaric (Hay Festival); Three Out-of-the-Ordinary Memoirs: Kalb, Machado, McGuinness; Asking What If? with Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld (I had a lot of fun putting the current post together, too!)
The bookish experience that most defined my year: Watching the Bookshop Band’s live shows from their living room. Between their Friday night lockdown performances and one-offs for festivals and book launches, I think I saw them play 33 times in 2020!
Biggest book read this year: Going by dimensions rather than number of pages, it was the oversize hardback The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris.
Smallest book read this year: Pocket-sized and only about 60 pages: No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg.
Oldest author read this year: Peggy Seeger was 82 when her memoir First Time Ever was published. I haven’t double-checked the age of every single author, but I think second place at 77 is a tie between debut novelist Arlene Heyman for Artifact and Sue Miller for Monogamy. (I don’t know how old Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren, the joint authors of The Consolation of Nature, are; Mynott may actually be the oldest overall, and their combined age is likely over 200.)
Youngest author read this year: You might assume it was 16-year-old Dara McAnulty with Diary of a Young Naturalist, which won the Wainwright Prize (as well as the An Post Irish Book Award for Newcomer of the Year, the Books Are My Bag Reader Award for Non-Fiction, and the Hay Festival Book of the Year!) … or Thunberg, above, who was 16 when her book came out. They were indeed tied for youngest until, earlier in December, I started reading The House without Windows (1927) by Barbara Newhall Follett, a bizarre fantasy novel published when the child prodigy was 12.
Most As on a book cover: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Most Zs on a book cover: The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi. I haven’t read it yet, but a neighbor passed on a copy she was getting rid of. It was nominated for both the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize.
The book that made me laugh the most: Kay’s Anatomy by Adam Kay
Books that made me cry: Writers and Lovers by Lily King, Monogamy by Sue Miller, First Time Ever by Peggy Seeger, and Catalogue Baby: A Memoir of (In)fertility by Myriam Steinberg (coming out in March 2021)
The book that put a song in my head every single time I looked at it, much less read it: I Am an Island by Tamsin Calidas (i.e., “I Am a Rock” by Simon and Garfunkel, which, as my husband pointed out, has very appropriate lyrics for 2020: “In a deep and dark December / I am alone / Gazing from my window to the streets below … Hiding in my room / Safe within my womb / I touch no one and no one touches me.”)
Best book club selections: Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale and The Wife by Meg Wolitzer tied for our highest score ever and gave us lots to talk about.
Most unexpectedly apt lines encountered in a book: “People came to church wearing masks, if they came at all. They’d sit as far from each other as they could.” (Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Describing not COVID-19 times but the Spanish flu.)
Most ironic lines encountered in a book: “September 12—In the ongoing hearings, Senator Joseph Biden pledges to consider the Bork nomination ‘with total objectivity,’ adding, ‘You have that on my honor not only as a senator, but also as the Prince of Wales.’ … October 1—Senator Joseph Biden is forced to withdraw from the Democratic presidential race when it is learned that he is in fact an elderly Norwegian woman.” (from the 1987 roundup in Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits – Biden has been on the U.S. political scene, and mocked, for 3.5+ decades!)
Best first line encountered this year: “And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters.” (Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf)
Best last lines encountered this year:
- “my childhood falls silently to the bottom of my memory, that library of the soul from which I will draw knowledge and experience for the rest of my life.” (Childhood by Tove Ditlevsen)
- “What I want to say is: I misremember all this so vividly it’s as if it only happened yesterday.” (Other People’s Countries: A Journey into Memory by Patrick McGuinness)
- “these friends would forever be her stitches, her scaffold, her ballast, her home.” (The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall)
My favorite title and cover combo of the year: A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth by Daniel Mason
The book I wish had gotten a better title and cover: Tennis Lessons by Susannah Dickey – I did enjoy this second-person novel about a young woman who is her own worst enemy, to the tune of 3.5 stars, but the title says nothing about it and the cover would have been a turnoff had I not won a signed copy from Mslexia.
The most unfortunate typos I found in published works: In English Pastoral by James Rebanks, “sewn” where he meant “sown” (so ironic in a book about farming!) versus, in Mr Wilder & Me by Jonathan Coe, “sown” in place of “sewn.” Also “impassible” where it should read “impassable” in Apeirogon by Colum McCann. This is what proofreaders like myself are for. We will save you from embarrassing homophone slips, dangling modifiers, and more!
The 2020 books that everybody else loved, but I didn’t: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, and Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
The year’s biggest disappointments: I don’t like to call anything “worst” (after all, I didn’t read anything nearly as awful as last year’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull), but my lowest ratings went to A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne and At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison, and I was disappointed that When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray was misleadingly marketed.
The downright strangest books I read this year: Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony, A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne, The House Without Windows by Barbara Newhall Follett, and The Child in Time by Ian McEwan
The people and themes that kept turning up in my reading: Rachel Carson and Henry David Thoreau; curlews and plagues; how we define and relate to history; childhood memoirs (seven of them).
Some statistics on my 2020 reading:
(Fiction reigned supreme this year! Last year my F:NF ratio was roughly 1:1. Poetry was down by ~5% this year compared to 2019.)
Male author: 34.1%
Female author: 63.8%
Nonbinary author: 0.3% (= 1 author, Jay Bernard)
Multiple genders (anthologies): 1.8%
(Women dominated by an extra ~5% this year over 2019. I’ve said this for four years now: I find it intriguing that female authors significantly outweigh male authors in my reading because I have never consciously set out to read more books by women; it must be a matter of being interested in the kinds of stories women tell and how they capture their experiences in nonfiction.)
Print books: 89.4%
(Almost exactly the same as last year. My e-book reading has been declining, partially because I’ve cut back on the reviewing gigs that involve only reading e-books and partially because I’ve done less traveling. Increasingly, I prefer to sit down with a big stack of print books.)
Books by BIPOC: 14.7%
Literature in translation: 6.6%
(Down from last year’s 7.2%; how did this happen?! This will be something to address in 2021.)
Where my books came from for the whole year:
- Free print or e-copy from publisher: 25.6%
- Public library: 25.6%
- Free (giveaways, The Book Thing of Baltimore, the free mall bookshop, etc.): 14.9%
- Secondhand purchase: 11.6%
- Downloaded from NetGalley, Edelweiss or Project Gutenberg: 6.7%
- New purchase (sometimes at a bargain price): 6.3%
- Gifts: 5.5%
- University library: 3.8%
I promised to scale back on review copies this year, and I did: last year they accounted for nearly 37% of my reading. My library reading was higher than last year’s, despite the challenges of lockdowns; my e-book reading decreased in general. I bought more than twice as many new books as usual this year, and read lots that I either bought secondhand or got for free.
Number of unread print books in the house: 435
At the end of last year this figure was at 440 after lots of stock-ups from the free mall bookshop, which has since closed. So even though it might look like I have only read five books of my own, I have in fact read loads from my shelves this year … but also acquired many more books, both new and secondhand.
In any case, the overall movement has been downward, so I’m calling it a win!
April Releases: Motherhood, Medicine, Wine … And an Aardvark
I’m averaging four new releases a month: a nicely manageable number. In April I read a memoir about a mother’s dementia, a bizarre little novel about a stuffed aardvark linking two centuries, a history of medicine in graphic novel form, and a sommelier’s memoir.
My top recommendation for the month is:
What We Carry by Maya Shanbhag Lang
Maya Lang’s novel The Sixteenth of June* was one of my top three novels of 2014, so I was eager to read her next book, a forthright memoir of finding herself in the uncomfortable middle (the “sandwich generation”) of three generations of a female family line. Her parents had traveled from India to the USA for her mother’s medical training and ended up staying on permanently after she became a psychiatrist. Lang had always thought of her mother as a superwoman who managed a career alongside parenthood, never asked for help, and reinvented herself through a divorce and a career change.
When Lang gave birth to her own daughter, Zoe, this model of self-sufficiency mocked her when she had postpartum depression and needed to hire a baby nurse. It was in her daughter’s early days, just when she needed her mother’s support the most, that her mother started being unreliable: fearful and forgetful. Gradually it became clear that she had early-onset Alzheimer’s. Lang cared for her mother at home for a year before making the difficult decision to see her settled into a nearby nursing home.
Like Elizabeth Hay’s All Things Consoled, this is an engaging, bittersweet account of obligation, choices and the secrets that sometimes come out when a parent enters a mental decline. I especially liked how Lang frames her experiences around an Indian folktale of a woman who enters a rising river, her child in her arms. She must decide between saving her child or herself. Her mother first told this story soon after Zoe’s birth to acknowledge life’s ambiguity: “Until we are in the river, up to our shoulders—until we are in that position ourselves, we cannot say what the woman will do. We must not judge. That is the lesson of the story. Whatever a woman decides, it is not easy.” The book is a journey of learning not to judge her mother (or herself), of learning to love despite mistakes and personality changes.
*One for me to reread in mid-June!
Published by Dial Press on the 28th. I read an e-copy via NetGalley.
Full disclosure: Maya and I are Facebook friends.
Other April releases to look out for:
Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony
On a scoreboard of the most off-the-wall, zany and fun novels I’ve read, this one would be right up there with Ned Beauman’s Boxer, Beetle and Alex Christofi’s Glass. The two story lines, one contemporary and one set in the 1870s, are linked by a taxidermied aardvark that makes its way from Namibia to the Washington, D.C. suburbs by way of Victorian England.
The aardvark was collected by naturalist Sir Richard Ostlet and stuffed by Titus Downing, his secret lover. Ostlet committed suicide in Africa, but his wife could still sense him walking up and down outside her London home. In the present day, Republican congressman Alexander Paine Wilson, who emulates Ronald Reagan in all things, gets a FedEx delivery of a taxidermied aardvark – an apparent parting gift from Greg Tampico before the latter committed suicide. To keep his gay affair from becoming public knowledge, Wilson decides it’s high time he found himself a trophy wife. But the damned aardvark keeps complicating things in unexpected ways.
A scene where a police officer stops Wilson for texting and driving and finds the stuffed aardvark in the back of his SUV had me laughing out loud (“Enter the aardvark, alight on its mount. Enter the aardvark, claw raised, head covered with a goddamned gourmet $22 dish towel that suddenly looks incredibly suspicious hanging over the head of an aardvark, like it’s an infidel”). History repeats itself amusingly and the aardvark is an entertaining prop, but Wilson is too obviously odious, and having his narrative in the second person doesn’t add anything. This is not a debut novel but reads like one: full of bright ideas, but falling a bit short in the execution.
Published by Doubleday on the 23rd. I won a proof copy in a Twitter giveaway.
Medicine: A Graphic History by Jean-Noël Fabiani
[Illustrated by Philippe Bercovici; translated from the French by Edward Gauvin]
From prehistory to nanotechnology, this is a thorough yet breezy survey of what people have learned about the body and how to treat it. (In approach it reminded me most of another SelfMadeHero graphic novel I reviewed last year, ABC of Typography.) Some specific topics are the discovery of blood circulation, the development of anesthesia, and the history of mental health treatment.
Fabiani, a professor as well as the head of cardiac surgery at Georges Pompidou European Hospital in Paris, focuses on the key moments when ideas became testable theories and when experiments gave groundbreaking results. While he provided the one-page introduction to each chapter and the expository writing at the head of each comic pane, I suspect it was illustrator Philippe Bercovici who added most of the content in the speech bubbles, including plenty of jokes (especially since Fabiani thanks Bercovici for bringing his talent and humor to the project).
This makes for a lighthearted book that contains enough detail so that you feel like you are still getting the full story. Unsurprisingly, I took the most interest in chapters entitled The Great Epidemics and A Few Modern Plagues. I would especially recommend this to teenagers with an interest in medicine.
Published by SelfMadeHero on the 9th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Wine Girl by Victoria James
In 2012, at age 21, Victoria James became America’s youngest certified sommelier. Still in her twenties, she has since worked in multiple Michelin-starred restaurants in New York City and became the only American female to win the Sud de France Sommelier Challenge. But behind all the competition wins, celebrity sightings, and international travel for wine festivals and conferences is a darker story.
This is a tell-all about a toxic restaurant culture of overworked employees and casual sexism. James regularly worked 80-hour weeks in addition to her wine school studies, and suffered multiple sexual assaults. In addition, sexual harassment was common – even something as seemingly harmless as the title epithet a dismissive diner launched at her when he ordered a $650 bottle of wine for his all-male table and then told her it was corked and had to be replaced. “Wine girl” was a slur against her for her age, her gender and her presumed lack of experience, even though by that point she had an encyclopedic knowledge of wine varieties and service.
That incident from the prologue was my favorite part of the book; unfortunately, nothing that came afterwards really lived up to it. The memoir goes deep into James’s dysfunctional upbringing (her parents’ bitter divorce, her mother’s depression, her father’s alcoholism and gambling, her own battle with addictions), which I found I had little interest in. It’s like Educated lite, but with a whiney tone: “I grew up in a household of manipulation and neglect, left to fend for myself.”
For those interested in reading about wine and restaurant culture, I’d recommend Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker and Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler (one of my pairings here) instead.
A favorite line: “Like music, the wonders of art, food, and beverage can transcend all boundaries. … I wanted to capture that feeling, the exhilaration of familiarity, and bring people together through wine.”
Published by Fleet on the 16th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
What recent releases can you recommend?
Polio and the Plague: Epidemics in Fiction
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?
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (Blog Tour Review)
I’ve been a huge admirer of Maggie O’Farrell’s work ever since I read The Hand that First Held Mine, which won the Costa Novel Award, in 2011. I was intrigued by the premise of her new book, in which she delves further back into history than she has before to imagine the context of the death of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet and the effect it had on the playwright’s work – including, four years later, Hamlet.
Curiously, O’Farrell has decided never to mention Shakespeare by name in her novel, so he remains a passive, shadowy figure seen only in relation to his wife and children – he’s referred to as “the father,” “the Latin tutor” or “her husband.” Instead, the key characters are his wife Agnes (most will know her as Anne, but Agnes was the name her father, Richard Hathaway, used for her in his will) and Hamnet himself.
As the novel opens, 11-year-old Hamnet is alone in his grandfather’s glove workshop. His twin sister Judith has a fever and lumps at her neck and he is frantically trying to find an adult. But with his father in London, his mother off tending her bees and his grandfather’s indifference all too ready to shade into violence, there is no one to help. Although it’s Judith who appears to be ill with the Plague, readers know from the scant historical record that it is Hamnet who dies. Somehow, even though we see this coming, it’s still a heavy blow. Hamnet is a story of the moments that change everything, of regrets that last forever: Agnes will ever after be afflicted with a sense of having neglected her children just when they needed her.
Short chapters set in that summer of 1596 alternate with longer ones from 15 years before, when WS was engaged as a Latin tutor to the sons of a sheep farmer to pay off his father’s debts. Soon he became captivated by a young woman with a kestrel whom he assumed to be the family’s maid but learned was actually the unconventional daughter of the household, Agnes. She had a reputation as a herbal healer and was known to have second sight – just by holding someone’s hand, she could see into their past or predict their future.
There are some wonderfully vivid scenes in this earlier story line, including a tryst in the apple shed and Agnes going off alone into the forest to give birth to their first child, Susanna. My favourite chapter of all, though, is the central one that traces the journey of the pestilence from a glassmaker’s studio in Italy to the small Warwickshire village. The medical subplot of Hamnet has taken on a new significance that O’Farrell surely never predicted when she was immersing herself in the time period by undertaking falconry and mudlarking.
Although I remain a big fan, Hamnet is the least successful of the six books of O’Farrell’s that I’ve read. Her trademark third person omniscient voice and present tense narration, which elsewhere exude confidence and immediacy, here create detachment and even vagueness (“A boy is coming down a flight of stairs”; “Look. Agnes is pouring water into a pan”). The strategy for evoking the 16th century seems to be to throw in the occasional period prop, but the dialogue and vocabulary can feel anachronistic, as in “Boys! Stop that this instant! Or I’ll come up there and give you something to wail about”.
In comparison with historical fiction I’ve read recently by Geraldine Brooks and Hilary Mantel, this fell short. Overall, I found the prose flat and repetitive, which diluted the portrait of grief. My reaction was lukewarm, but this should not deter readers from trying this wonderful writer – if not this book, then any one of her previous five.
My thanks to Midas PR and Tinder Press for the free copy for review.
Pandemic Reading Strategies & Recommendations, Serious or Tongue-in-Cheek
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.