I’m sneaking in under the wire here with a couple more reviews for the literature in translation week of Novellas in November. These both happen to be translated from the French, and attracted me for their medical themes: the one ponders the Ebola crisis in Africa, and the other presents a soldier who returns from war with disfiguring facial injuries.
In the Company of Men: The Ebola Tales by Véronique Tadjo (2017; 2021)
[Translated from the French by the author and John Cullen; Small Axes Press; 133 pages]
This creative and compassionate work takes on various personae to plot the course of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014–16: a doctor, a nurse, a morgue worker, bereaved family members and browbeaten survivors. The suffering is immense, and there are ironic situations that only compound the tragedy: the funeral of a traditional medicine woman became a super-spreader event; those who survive are shunned by their family members. Tadjo flows freely between all the first-person voices, even including non-human narrators such as baobab trees and the fruit bat in which the virus likely originated (then spreading to humans via the consumption of the so-called bush meat). Local legends and songs, along with a few of her own poems, also enter into the text.
Like I said about The Appointment, this would make a really interesting play because it is so voice-driven and each character epitomizes a different facet of a collective experience. Of course, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels with Covid – “you have to keep your distance from other people, stay at home, and wash your hands with disinfectant before entering a public space” – none of which could have been in the author’s mind when this was first composed. Let’s hope we’ll soon be able to join in cries similar to “It’s over! It’s over! … Death has brushed past us, but we have survived! Bye-bye, Ebola!” (Secondhand purchase)
Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve (2014; 2021)
[Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter; 172 pages]
With Remembrance Day not long past, it’s been the perfect time to read this story of a family reunited at the close of the First World War. Jeanne Caillet makes paper flowers to adorn ladies’ hats – pinpricks of colour to brighten up harsh winters. Since her husband Toussaint left for the war, it’s been her and their daughter Léonie in their little Paris room. Luckily, Jeanne’s best friend Sidonie, an older seamstress, lives just across the hall. When Toussaint returns in October 1918, it isn’t the rapturous homecoming they expected. He’s been in the facial injuries department at the Val-de-Grâce military hospital, and wrote to Jeanne, “I want you not to come.” He wears a white mask over his face, hasn’t regained the power of speech, and isn’t ready for his wife to see his new appearance. Their journey back to each other is at the heart of the novella, the first of Villeneuve’s works to appear in English.
I loved the chapters that zero in on Jeanne’s handiwork and on Toussaint’s injury and recovery (Lindsey Fitzharris, author of The Butchering Art, is currently writing a book on early plastic surgery; I’ve heard it also plays a major role in Louisa Young’s My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You – both nominated for the Wellcome Book Prize), and the two gorgeous “Word is…” litanies – one pictured below – but found the book as a whole somewhat meandering and quiet. If you’re keen on the time period and have enjoyed novels like Birdsong and The Winter Soldier, it would be a safe bet. (Cathy’s reviewed this one, too.)
With thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.
(In a nice connection with a previous week’s buddy read, Villeneuve’s most recent novel is about Helen Keller’s mother and is called La Belle Lumière (“The Beautiful Light”). I hope it will also be made available in English translation.)
I’m catching up on blogs and getting back into the swing of work after a week’s staycation hosting my mom and stepdad and taking them on daytrips to lots of local sites: Highclere Castle (“Downton Abbey”), Bath, Avebury, the south coast, Sandham Memorial Chapel, the Kennet & Avon canal, and Mottisfont Abbey.
Today’s contributions to my colour-themed summer reading are both nonfiction: a forthright memoir from a female surgeon and a light-hearted record of multiple seasons of hawk-watching in Central Park.
Direct Red: A Surgeon’s Story by Gabriel Weston (2009)
Trying to keep herself alert seven hours into assisting with a neck surgery, Weston recites to herself a list of dyes used to stain tissues for microscopy: methylene blue, acridine orange, saffron, malachite green, Tyrian purple, Hoffman’s violet, direct red. This is how the book opens, and of course, red being the colour of blood, it shows up frequently in what follows. She tells (anonymized) stories of people she has treated, of all ages and from all backgrounds, both during her training and after she specialized in ear, nose and throat surgery.
Like Henry Marsh in Admissions, she expresses regret for moments when she was in a rush or trying to impress seniors and didn’t give the best patient-focused care she could have. Some patients even surprise her into changing her mind, such as about the morality of plastic surgery.
The accounts of individual surgeries are detailed and sometimes gory: morbidly delicious for me, but definitely not for the squeamish.
Blood trickled in a stream down the inside of my wrist onto the plasticky gown, and then dripped off me and onto the drape. It collected in a green valley and was congealing there like a small garnet jelly. I lost my balance slightly as the breast was cut off.
Surgery is still a male-dominated field, and I’ve sensed unpleasant machismo from surgeon authors before (Stephen Westaby’s The Knife’s Edge). As a woman in medicine, Weston is keenly aware of the difficult balance to be struck between confidence and compassion.
To be a good doctor, you have to master a paradoxical art. You need to get close to a patient so that they will tell you things and you will understand what they mean. But you also have to keep distant enough not to get too affected.
It is no longer enough to be technically proficient; nowadays, we need to be nice. And this presents the modern surgeon with a great challenge: how to combine a necessary degree of toughness with an equally important ability to be gentle.
Initially, her bedside manner is on the brusque side, but when she becomes a mother this changes. Treating a sick baby in the ITU, she realizes she barely sees her own child for more than five minutes per evening. In the final paragraphs, she quits her career-track consultant job to work part-time. “I chose a life with more home in it.” It’s an abrupt ending to a 180-page memoir that I thoroughly enjoyed but that left me wanting more. (Secondhand purchase from Oxfam Books, Reading)
Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park by Marie Winn (1998)
In the early 1990s, Wall Street Journal columnist Winn fell in with an earnest group of birdwatchers who monitor the daily activity in New York City’s Central Park, a haven for wildlife. Through the Register, a logbook stored in a boathouse, they share sightings and track patterns. Relative rarities thrive and breed each year. Before long the book zeroes in on a famous pair of red-tailed hawks, “Pale Male” and a series of females. Winn emphasizes the “drama” of her subtitle, arranging the content into Acts and Scenes that span about five years.
Wild birds face many risks, most of them the fault of humans, and there are some distressing losses here. It is thus a triumph when Pale Male and his mate successfully raise three chicks on the façade of a Fifth Avenue apartment building (home to Mary Tyler Moore, with Woody Allen across the street). The birdwatchers are vigilant, sending letters to the apartment manager and calling park staff to ensure the birds are left in peace. No doubt it’s easier to disseminate information and assign responsibility now what with WhatsApp and Twitter. Indeed, I found the book a little dated and the anthropomorphizing somewhat over-the-top, but Winn makes a sweet, rollicking yarn out of people getting invested in nature. (Secondhand purchase from Clock Tower Books, Hay-on-Wye)
Coming up next: Three green, one black, one gold (and maybe a rainbow bonus).
Would you be interested in reading one of these?
Here are excerpts from (and links to, where available) some of my recent reviews for other places. A few of these books will undoubtedly be showing up on my end-of-year best lists in a couple weeks’ time.
I was pleased to have three of the books I reviewed show up on BookBrowse’s list of the top 20 books of the year, as voted for by the site’s readers. What’s more, Educated was voted their top nonfiction book of the year and Where the Crawdads Sing (below) their #1 debut novel. (The third on the list was Unsheltered.)
Beauty in the Broken Places by Allison Pataki: Ernest Hemingway wrote that we are strong at the broken places, and Allison Pataki found that to be true when her husband, David Levy, a third-year orthopedic surgery resident in Chicago, had a near-fatal stroke at age 30. On June 9, 2015, Dave and five-months-pregnant Allison were on a flight from Chicago to Hawaii for their babymoon, planning to stop in Seattle to visit Dave’s brothers. But they never made it there. On the plane Dave told her he couldn’t see out of his right eye.The plane made an emergency landing in Fargo, North Dakota and Dave was rushed to a hospital for testing. Doctors found he had suffered a bithalamic midbrain ischemic stroke, even though he’d had no risk factors and this stroke type was virtually unknown in patients of his age. Pataki goes back and forth between the details of this health crisis and her past with Dave. Hers is a relatable story of surviving the worst life can throw at you and finding the beauty in it.
Sick by Porochista Khakpour: Khakpour can’t remember a time when she didn’t feel unwell and like she wanted to escape. “I had no idea what normal was. I never felt good,” she writes in her bracing memoir. Related to this sense of not being at home in her body was the feeling of not having a place where she fit in. Throughout Sick, she gives excellent descriptions of physical and mental symptoms. Her story is a powerful one of being mired in sickness and not getting the necessary help from medical professionals. Lyme disease has cost her $140,000 so far, and a lack of money and health insurance likely delayed her diagnosis by years. There is, unfortunately, some inherent repetition in a book of this nature. At times it feels like an endless cycle of doctors, appointments, and treatment strategies. However, the overall arc of struggling with one’s body and coming to terms with limitations will resonate widely.
Southernmost by Silas House: In Silas House’s sixth novel, a Tennessee preacher’s family life falls apart when he accepts a gay couple into his church. We go on a long journey in Southernmost: not just a literal road trip from Tennessee to Florida, but also a spiritual passage from judgment to grace. Reconciliation is a major theme, but so is facing up to the consequences of poor decisions. I found the plotting decisions rewarding but also realistic. The pattern of a narrow religious worldview ebbing away to no faith at all and eventually surging back as a broader and more universal spirituality truly resonates. I loved House’s characters and setups, as well as his gentle evocation of the South. His striking metaphors draw on the natural world, like “She had the coloring of a whip-poor-will” and “The sky is the pink of grapefruit meat.” It’s a beautiful, quietly moving novel of redemption and openness to what life might teach us.
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: Kingsolver’s bold eighth novel has a dual timeline that compares the America of the 1870s and the recent past, revealing how they are linked by distrust and displacement. The book’s themes and structure emphasize similarities between two time periods that might initially appear very different. Chapters alternate between the story lines, and the last words of one chapter form the title of the next. It’s a clever and elegant connecting strategy, as is the habit of using variations on the title word as frequently as possible – something Jonathan Franzen also does in his novels. (I counted 22 instances of “shelter” and its variants in the text; how many can you spot?) Kingsolver can be heavy-handed with her messages about science, American politics and healthcare, etc. All the same, Unsheltered is a rich, rewarding novel and an important one for our time, with many issues worth pondering and discussing.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens: It’s easy to see why so many have taken this debut novel into their hearts: it’s a gripping mystery but also a tender coming-of-age story about one woman’s desperately lonely upbringing and her rocky route to finding love and a vocation. Not only that, but its North Carolina marsh setting is described in lyrical language that evinces Delia Owens’s background in nature writing, tempered with folksy Southern dialect. The title refers to places where wild creatures do what comes naturally, and throughout the book we are invited to ponder how instinct and altruism interact and what impact human actions can have in the grand scheme of things. In Kya, Owens has created a truly outstanding character. The extremity of her situation makes her a sympathetic figure in spite of her oddities. Crawdads is a real treat.
Shiny New Books
Under the Rock by Benjamin Myers: When Myers moved to the Calder Valley of West Yorkshire from London over a decade ago, he approached his new patch with admirable curiosity, and supplemented the observations he made from his study window with frequent long walks with his dog (“Walking is writing with your feet”) and research into the history of the area. The result is a divagating, lyrical book that ranges from literature and geology to true crime but has an underlying autobiographical vein. This isn’t old-style nature writing in search of unspoiled places. Instead, it’s part of a growing interest in the ‘edgelands’ where human impact is undeniable but nature is creeping back in. Interludes transcribe his field notes, which are stunning impromptu poems. I came away from this feeling that Myers could write anything – a thank-you note, a shopping list – and make it profound literature. Every sentence is well-crafted and memorable. “Writing is a form of alchemy,” he declares. “It’s a spell, and the writer is the magician.” I certainly fell under his spell here.
Nine Pints by Rose George: Nine Pints dives deep into the science and cultural history of blood. George’s journalistic tenacity keeps her pushing through the statistics to find the human stories that animate the book. In the first chapter we track the journey of a pint of blood that she donates in her hometown of Leeds. I was particularly interested, if morbidly so, in the chapter on leeches and bloodletting. Other sections journey further afield, chiefly to South Africa and India, to explore AIDS and menstruation taboos. The style can be choppy and repetitive, given to short sentences and identical paragraph openers, and there are a couple of places where the nine-chapter structure shows its weaknesses. While Nine Pints is quite uneven, it does convey a lot of important information about the past, present and future of our relationship to blood.
Times Literary Supplement
Face to Face: True stories of life, death and transformation from my career as a facial surgeon by Jim McCaul: Eighty percent of a facial surgeon’s work is the removal of face, mouth and neck tumors in surgeries lasting eight hours or more. McCaul also restores patients’ appearance as much as possible after disfiguring accidents. Here he pulls back the curtain on the everyday details of his work life: everything from his footwear (white Crocs that soon become stained with blood and other fluids) to his musical choices (pop for the early phases; classical for the more challenging microsurgery stage). Like neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, he describes the awe of the first incision – “an almost overwhelming sense of entering into a sanctuary.” There’s a vicarious thrill to being let into this insider zone, and the book’s prose is perfectly clear and conversational, with unexpectedly apt metaphors such as “Sometimes the blood vessels can be of such poor quality that it is like trying to sew together two damp cornflakes.” This is a book that inspires wonder at all that modern medicine can achieve.
On Sheep: Diary of a Swedish Shepherd by Axel Lindén: Lindén left city life behind to take on his parents’ rural collective in southeast Sweden. This documents two years in his life as a shepherd aspiring to self-sufficiency and a small-scale model of food production. Published diaries can devolve into tedium, but the brevity and selectiveness of this one prevent its accounts of everyday tasks from becoming tiresome. Instead, the rural routines are comforting, even humbling, as the shepherd practices being present with these “quiet and unpretentious and stoical” creatures. The attention paid to slaughtering and sustainability issues – especially as the business starts scaling up and streamlining activities – lends the book a wider significance. It is thus more realistic and less twee than its stocking-stuffer dimensions and jolly title font seem to suggest.
Since May I’ve been posting my occasional reading coincidences on Twitter and/or Instagram. This is 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 serendipitous incidents. What’s the weirdest one you’ve had lately? (The following are in rough chronological order.)
- Two historical novels set (partially) among the slaves of Martinique and featuring snippets of Creole (Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man and Jane Harris’s Sugar Money)
- A book about epilepsy and a conductor’s memoir, followed by a novel with a conductor character and another who has seizures (Suzanne O’Sullivan’s Brainstorm and Lev Parikian’s Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? to Caoilinn Hughes’s Orchid & the Wasp)
- Two characters mistake pregnancy for cholera (in Alexandra Fuller’s Leaving Before the Rains Come and W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil)
- Two characters are reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (in Lily Brooks-Dalton’s Good Morning, Midnight and Julie Buntin’s Marlena) … I’ve since tried again with Le Guin’s book myself, but it’s so dry I can only bear to skim it.
- Two memoirs by Iranian-American novelists with mental health and drug use issues (Porochista Khakpour’s Sick and Afarin Majidi’s Writing and Madness in a Time of Terror)
- References to the blasé response to Martin Luther King’s assassination in North Carolina (in Paulette Bates Alden’s Crossing the Moon and David Sedaris’s Calypso)
- The Police lyrics (in Less by Andrew Sean Greer and Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard [a whole essay called “Sting”])
- Salmon croquettes mentioned in Less by Andrew Sean Greer and An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
- I’m reading Beryl Markham’s West with the Night … and then Glynnis MacNicol picks that very book up to read on a plane in No One Tells You This
- Starting two books with the word “Ladder” in the title, one right after the other: Ladders to Heaven by Mike Shanahan and Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler (followed just a couple of weeks later by A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne!)
- Two books set in Dunedin, New Zealand, one right after the other – I planned it that way, BUT both have a character called Myrtle (To the Is-Land by Janet Frame and Dunedin by Shena Mackay). Then I encountered Harold Gillies, the father of plastic surgery, in Jim McCaul’s Face to Face, and guess what? He was from Dunedin!
- Then I was skimming Louisa Young’s You Left Early and she mentioned that her grandmother was a sculptor who worked with Gillies on prostheses, which was the inspiration for her WWI novel, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You.
- Two novels featuring drug addicts (Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin and Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn)
- The same Wallace Stevens lines that appear as an epigraph to Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered are mentioned in Elaine Pagels’s Why Religion? – “After the final no there comes a yes / And on that yes the future world depends.”
- “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is mentioned in Little by Edward Carey and Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy
- Reading Nine Pints, Rose George’s book about blood, at the same time as Deborah Harkness’s Time’s Convert, which is partially about vampires; in this it takes 90 days for a human to become fully vampirized – the same time it takes to be cured of an addiction according to the memoir Ninety Days by Bill Clegg.