Sun, warmth and rival feelings of endlessness and evanescence: here were three reads that were perfect fits for the summer setting.
Sunburn by Laura Lippman (2018)
While on a beach vacation in 1995, a woman walks away from her husband and daughter and into a new life as an unattached waitress in Belleville, Delaware. Polly has been known by many names, and this isn’t the first time she’s left a family and started over. She’s the (literal) femme fatale of this film noir-inspired piece, as bound by her secrets as is Adam Bosk, the investigator sent to trail her. He takes a job as a chef at the diner where Polly works, and falls in love with her even though he may never fully trust her. Insurance scams and arson emerge as major themes.
I liked the fact that I recognized many of the Maryland/Delaware settings, and that the setup is a tip of the hat to Anne Tyler’s excellent Ladder of Years, which was published in the year this is set. It is a quick and enjoyable summer read that surprised me with its ending, but I generally don’t find mysteries a particularly worthwhile use of my reading time. Put it down to personal taste and/or literary snobbery.
Heat Wave by Penelope Lively (1996)
My fourth Lively book, and the most enjoyable thus far. Pauline, a freelance copyeditor (“Putting commas into a novel about unicorns”) in her fifties, has escaped from London to spend a hot summer at World’s End, the Midlands holiday cottage complex she shares with her daughter Teresa, Teresa’s husband Maurice, and their baby son Luke. Maurice is writing a history of English tourism and regularly goes back to London for meetings or receives visits from his publishers, James and Carol. Pauline, divorced from a philandering husband, recognizes the signs of Maurice’s adultery long before Teresa does, and uneasily ponders how much to hint and how much to say outright.
The last line of the first chapter coyly promises an “agreeable summer of industry and companionship,” but the increasing atmospheric threats (drought or storms; combine harvesters coming ever nearer) match the tensions in the household. I expected this to be one of those subtle relationship studies where ultimately nothing happens. That’s not the case, though; if you’ve been paying good attention to the foreshadowing you’ll see that the ending has been on the cards.
I loved the city versus country setup of the novel, especially the almost Van Gogh-like descriptions of the blue sky and the golden wheat, and recognized myself in Pauline’s freelancer routines. Her friendships with bookseller Hugh and her client, novelist Chris Rogers, might be inconsequential to the plot but give Pauline a life wider than the confines of the cottage, and the frequent flashbacks to her marriage to Harry show what she had to overcome to earn a life of her own.
This was a compulsive read that was perfect for reading during the hottest week of our English summer. I’d recommend it to fans of Tessa Hadley, Susan Hill and Polly Sansom.
Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls (2019)
The title is a snippet from Romeo and Juliet, which provides the setup and subject matter for this novel about first love during the golden summer of 1997, when Charlie Lewis and Fran Fisher are 16. Charlie thinks he’s way too cool for the thespians, but if he wants to keep seeing Fran he has to join the Full Fathom Five Theatre Co-operative for the five weeks of rehearsals leading up to performances. Besides, he doesn’t have anything better to do – besides watching his dad get drunk on the couch and scamming the petrol station where he works nights. Charlie starts off as the most robotic Benvolio imaginable, but Fran helps bring him up to scratch with her private tutoring (which is literal as well as a euphemism).
Glimpses of the present day are an opportunity for nostalgia and regret, as Charlie/Nicholls coyly insists that first love means nothing: “love is boring. Love is familiar and commonplace for anyone not taking part, and first love is just a gangling, glandular incarnation of the same. … first love wasn’t real love anyway, just a fraught and feverish, juvenile imitation of it.” I enjoyed the teenage boy perspective and the theatre company shenanigans well enough, but was bored with the endless back story about Charlie’s family: his father’s record shops went bankrupt; his mother left him for another golf club colleague and took his sister; he and his depressed father are slobby roommates subsisting on takeaways and booze; blah blah blah.
It’s possible that had I read or seen R&J more recently, I would have spotted some clever parallels. Honestly? I’d cut 100+ pages (it should really be closer to 300 pages than 400) and repackage this as YA fiction. If you’re looking for lite summer fare reminiscent of Rachel Joyce and, yes, One Day, this will slip down easily, but I feel like I need to get better about curating my library stack and weeding out new releases that will be readable but forgettable. I really liked Us, which explains why I was willing to take another chance on Nicholls.
Note: There is a pretty bad anachronism here: a reference to watching The Matrix, which wasn’t released until 1999 (p. 113, “Cinnamon” chapter). Also a reference to Hobby Lobby, which as far as I know doesn’t exist in the UK (here it’s Hobbycraft) (p. 205, “Masks” chapter). I guess someone jumped the gun trying to get this ready for its U.S. release.
Favorite summery passage: “This summer’s a bastard, isn’t it? Sun comes out, sky’s blue if you’re lucky and suddenly there are all these preconceived ideas of what you should be doing, lying on a beach or jumping off a rope swing into the river or having a picnic with all your amazing mates, sitting on a blanket in a meadow and eating strawberries and laughing in that mad way, like in the adverts. It’s never like that, it’s just six weeks of feeling like you’re in the wrong place … and you’re missing out. That’s why summer’s so sad – because you’re meant to be so happy. Personally, I can’t wait to get my tights back on, turn the central heating up. At least in winter you’re allowed to be miserable” (Fran)
Plus a couple of skims:
The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton with Lara Love Hardin (2018)
I’d heard about Hinton’s case: he spent nearly 30 years on death row in Alabama for crimes he didn’t commit. In 1985 he was convicted of two counts of robbery and murder, even though he’d been working in a locked warehouse 15 miles away at the time the restaurant managers were shot. His mother’s gun served as the chief piece of evidence, even though it didn’t match the bullets found at the crime scenes. “My only crime was … being born black in Alabama,” Hinton concludes. He was a convenient fall guy, and his every appeal failed until Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative (and author of Just Mercy, which I’d like to read) took on his case.
It took another 16 years and an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but Hinton was finally released and now speaks out whenever he can about justice for those on death row, guilty or innocent. Almost the most heartbreaking thing about the book is that his mother, who kept the faith for so many years, died in 2012 and didn’t get to see her son walk free. I love the role that literature played: Hinton started a prison book club in which the men read Go Tell It on the Mountain and To Kill a Mockingbird and discussed issues of race and injustice. Although he doesn’t say very much about his life post-prison, I did note how big of an adjustment 30 years’ worth of technology was for him.
I don’t set a lot of stock by ghostwritten or co-written books, and found the story much more interesting than the writing here (though Hardin does a fine job of recreating the way a black man from the South speaks), so I just skimmed the book for the basics. I was impressed by how Hinton avoided bitterness and, from the very beginning, chose to forgive those who falsely accused him and worked to keep him in prison. “I was afraid every single day on death row. And I also found a way to find joy every single day. I learned that fear and joy are both a choice.” The book ends with a sobering list of all those currently on death row in the United States: single-spaced, in three columns, it fills nine pages. Lord, have mercy.
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk (2009)
Having moved away from Bristol, Cusk and her family (a husband and two children) decided to spend a summer in Italy before deciding where to go next. They took the boat to France then drove, made a stop in Lucca, and settled into a rented house on the eastern edge of Tuscany. It proceeded to rain for 10 days. Cusk learns to speak the vernacular of football and Catholicism – but Italian eludes her: “I too feel humbled, feel childlike and impotent. It is hard to feel so primitive, so stupid.” They glory in the food, elemental and unpretentious; they try a whole spectrum of gelato flavors. And they experience as much culture as they can: “we will learn to fillet an Italian city of its artworks with the ruthless efficiency of an English aristocrat de-boning a Dover sole.” A number of these masterpieces are reproduced in the text in black and white. In the grip of a heatwave, they move on to Rome, Naples and Capri.
If I’d been able to get hold of this for my trip to Milan (it was on loan at the time), I might have enjoyed it enough to read the whole thing. As it is, I just had a quick skim through. Cusk can write evocatively when she wishes to (“We came here over the white Apuan mountains, leaving behind the rose-coloured light of the coast … up and up into regions of dazzling ferocity where we wound among deathly white peaks scarred with marble quarries, along glittering chasms where the road fell away into nothingness and we clung to our seats in terror”), but more often resorts to flat descriptions of where they went and what they did. I’m pretty sure Transit was a one-off and I’ll never warm to another Cusk book.
DNFs: Alas, One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson and The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley were total non-starters. Maybe some other day (make that year).
Have you read any summer-appropriate books lately?
The wedding of a college friend – who I calculated I’ve known at least half my life – was the excuse we needed to book a trip back to the States for the last two weeks of May. Along with the classy nuptials in the Fell’s Point area of Baltimore, we enjoyed a day’s sightseeing in Philadelphia, a couple of outings to watch birds and other wildlife on Cape May (a migration hotspot in New Jersey), two meet-ups with other friends, and plenty of relaxation time with my mom and sister, including a Memorial Day picnic at my mom’s retirement community and a tour of Antietam Battlefield. It was much hotter than anticipated, including some days in the high 80s or even 90s, and the hayfever, ticks and mosquitoes were bad, too, but we survived.
While back in Maryland I continued the intermittent downsizing process I’ve been going through for a while now. After being on the market for nearly a year, my family home finally sold and went to closing while we were over there. So that provided a scrap of closure, but my current estrangement from my father (we don’t even know where he’s living) means there’s a lot of continuing uncertainty.
In any case, I managed to reduce the number of boxes I’m storing with my sister from 29 to 20 by recycling lots of my old schoolwork, consolidating my mementos, reselling one box of books and donating another, donating a box of figurines and decorative bottles to a thrift store, displaying some at my mom’s place, giving away a few trinkets to a friend’s kids, and packing a bunch of stuff – photo albums and decorations as well as 64 books – in our various suitcases and hand luggage to take back to the UK.
And I also acquired more books, of course! A whopping 46 of these were free: eight review copies were waiting for me at my mom’s place; three were from the outdoor free bin at 2nd & Charles, a secondhand bookstore; one was found in a Little Free Library near our friends’ place in New Jersey (Emerald City by Jennifer Egan, not pictured); and the rest were from The Book Thing of Baltimore, a legendary volunteer-run free bookshop. I mostly raided the biography section for an excellent selection of women’s life writing; the fiction is unalphabetized so harder to find anything in, but I picked up a few novels, too. My only purchases were new (remainder) copies of one novel and one memoir from Dollar Tree. Total book spending on the trip: just $2.12.
What I Read:
Two that I’d already started but finished on the plane ride over:
- The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl: (As featured in my spring reading list.) “Love and flowers, death and flowers.” Poetic writing about small-town Minnesota life, a tense relationship with her late mother, and her late father’s flower shop.
- The Girls by Lori Lansens: I love reading about sister relationships, and the Darlen girls’ situation is an extreme case of love and jealousy given that they literally can’t get away from each other. Not as good as the two other conjoined-twin novels I’ve read, Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, but I would read more from Lansens, a solid Oprah Book Club sort of author.
Three review books that will be featuring here in the near future:
- Goulash by Brian Kimberling
- Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come: An Introvert’s Year of Living Dangerously by Jessica Pan
- Mother Ship by Francesca Segal
A few quick reads:
- A Certain Loneliness: A Memoir by Sandra Gail Lambert: (A proof copy passed on by an online book reviewing friend.) A memoir in 29 essays about living with the effects of severe polio. Most of the pieces were previously published in literary magazines. While not all are specifically about the author’s disability, the challenges of life in a wheelchair seep in whether she’s writing about managing a feminist bookstore or going on camping and kayaking adventures in Florida’s swamps. I was reminded at times of Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson.
- No Happy Endings: A Memoir by Nora McInerny: (Borrowed from my sister.) I didn’t appreciate this as much as the author’s first memoir, It’s Okay to Laugh, though it’s in the same style: lots of short, witty but bittersweet essays reflecting on life’s losses. Within a year of being widowed by cancer, she met a new partner and soon was – surprise! – pregnant with his baby. Together they formed a blended family of four children ranging from 0 to 15 and two wounded adults. McInerny also writes about her newfound spirituality and feminism. The problem with the essay format is that she cycles through aspects of the same stories multiple times.
- Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey: (Free from 2nd & Charles.) Trethewey writes beautifully disciplined verse about her mixed-race upbringing in Mississippi, her mother’s death and the South’s legacy of racial injustice. She occasionally rhymes, but more often employs forms that involve repeated lines or words. The title sequence concerns a black Civil War regiment in Louisiana. Two favorites from this Pulitzer-winning collection by a former U.S. poet laureate were “Letter” and “Miscegenation”; stand-out passages include “In my dream, / the ghost of history lies down beside me, // rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm” (from “Pilgrimage”) and “I return / to Mississippi, state that made a crime // of me — mulatto, half-breed” (from “South”).
I also read the first half or more of: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce, my June book club book; Hungry by Jeff Gordinier, a journalist’s travelogue of his foodie journeys with René Redzepi of Noma fame, coming out in July; and the brand-new novel In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow – these last two are for upcoming BookBrowse reviews.
But the book I was most smug to have on my reading list for the trip was the recent novel Cape May by Chip Cheek. What could be more perfect for reading on location? I asked myself. Unfortunately, it stood out for the wrong reasons. In October 1957 a young pair of virgins, Effie and Henry, travel from Georgia to New Jersey for an off-season honeymoon in her uncle’s vacation home. They’re happy enough with each other but underwhelmed with the place (strangely, this matched my experience of Cape May), and even consider going home early until they fall in with Clara, a friend of Effie’s cousin; Clara’s lover, Max; and Max’s younger sister, Alma. Effie and Henry join the others for nightly drunken revelry.
[SPOILERS!] As the weeks pass Effie, ill and dejected, almost seems to disappear as Cheek delves into Henry’s besotted shenanigans, described in unnecessarily explicit sexual detail. When Effie makes a bid or two for her own sexual freedom late on, it only emphasizes the injustice of spending so much time foregrounding Henry’s perspective. Despite the strength of the period atmosphere and seaside location, this ends up being dull and dated. If you’re after a typically ‘trashy’ beach read and don’t mind lots of sex scenes, you may get on with it better than I did.
Vineland, New Jersey was on the way from our friends’ house to Cape May, so we stopped to take my proof copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered to its spiritual home. Alas, Vineland is an utterly boring small American town. However, Mary Treat at least appears on a painted mural on a building on the main street. The Historical Society, where Kingsolver did her research, was closed, but we photographed the outside.
What’s the last book you read ‘on location’? Did it work out well for you?
With part of my birthday book token I treated myself to the new paperback edition of Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas Days, which I’ll read off and on over the holidays this year and next, probably. I recently finished Rachel Joyce’s wintry short story collection and started Madeleine L’Engle’s third Crosswicks Journal, An Irrational Season. The first two chapters are set at Advent and Christmas and the rest later in the liturgical year; I’ve set the book aside to come back to in January. L’Engle is a great author to read if you’d like some liberal, non-threatening theology at this time of year. I particularly recommend her Christmas-themed book that I read last year. (Mini-reviews of the Joyce and L’Engle are below.)
I also have a signed copy of Ian Sansom’s December Stories I that I won in a giveaway on Cathy’s blog, so I’ll be dipping into plenty of seasonally appropriate short stories this year. Earlier this year I picked up copies of the G.K. Chesterton collection (signed by the anthology editor) and the Robert Louis Stevenson volume (which contains prayers plus a sermon written during his time in Samoa) free at church from the theological library of a woman who’d died and donated her books to the church family.
A Snow Garden and Other Stories by Rachel Joyce
Two stand-outs were “The Boxing Day Ball,” a prequel to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, describing how Harold and Maureen met, and “A Faraway Smell of Lemon,” in which a woman mourning the end of her relationship wanders into a cleaning supplies store and learns the simple lesson that everybody hurts. (“Life is hard sometimes” – fair enough, but can we say it without a cliché?) “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is about the boy formerly known as Tim, now the mega pop star X. All he wants is a quiet few days back home, but he can’t seem to escape his reputation. Characters and little elements from previous stories reappear in later ones. My favorite was probably the title story, about a father trying to make the holidays perfect for his sons after his breakdown and divorce.
Joyce chooses to write about ordinary and forgotten people, but sometimes her vision of chavvy types doesn’t quite ring true, and when she isn’t being melancholy she’s twee. “Christmas Day at the Airport” was so contrived it made me groan. While I don’t think any of her books are truly great, they’re pleasant, relatable and easy to read.
“There is much to do, much to prepare, much to mend, but it cannot be done in a day and sometimes it is better to do one small thing.” (from “A Faraway Smell of Lemon”)
“The truth was, there were no instructions when you got married. There was no manual in the birthing suite that explained how to bring up a happy child. No one said, you do this, and then you do this, and after that this will happen. You made it up as you went along.” (from “The Marriage Manual”)
Bright Evening Star: Mystery of the Incarnation by Madeleine L’Engle
“The story of Jesus’ birth has been oversentimentalized until it no longer has the ring of truth, and once we’d sentimentalized it we could commercialize it and so forget what Christmas is really about.” L’Engle believes in the power of storytelling, and in this short volume of memoir she retells the life story of Jesus and recalls her own experiences with suffering and joy: losing her father young (his lungs damaged by poison gas in WWI) and the death of her husband of 40 years versus the sustaining nature of family love and late-life friendships. Chapters 4 and 5 are particular highlights.
L’Engle was not at all your average American Christian: raised in the Episcopal tradition, she didn’t even encounter Evangelicalism until her mid-forties, and she doesn’t understand the focus on creationism and sexual morality. She also writes about free will and the adoration of Mary and how A Wrinkle in Time (rejected by many a publisher) was her fable of light in the midst of darkness. The title comes from The New Zealand Prayer Book, which also gives helpful alternate names for the persons of the Trinity: Earth Maker, Pain Bearer, Life Giver. This isn’t a particularly Christmas-y book, but it still lends itself to being read a chapter at a time during Advent.
Some other favorite lines:
“Christ, in being born as Jesus, broke into time for us, so that time will never be the same again.”
“Family can be a movable feast. It can be a group of friends sitting around the dining table for an evening. It can be one or two people coming to stay with me for a few nights or a few weeks. It should be the church, and I am grateful that my church is a small church.”
Are you reading any particularly wintry or Christmasy books this year?
I abandon about 15% of the books I start. I try not to go on too much about the books I don’t finish, partially because a DNF still feels like something of a failure on my part (to choose the right book; to stick with what I’ve started) and partially because a book blog would ideally be a place where you just wax lyrical on the books that you love. But every time I have written abandoned books posts they have been absurdly popular, so if you need encouragement to ditch the books that aren’t working out for you right now, do take this as my blessing!
If there are books on my list that you have finished and loved, I’d be glad to hear from you. Equally, if there are some here that you also abandoned, do reassure me that I’m not totally off base. I know I can be inconsistent in how I deal with DNFs: how many pages I give them, how much I write about them, and whether I choose to rate them. If I feel I gave a book enough of a try to know what I would have thought of it overall, I go ahead and rate it. Others will almost certainly think that this is unfair to the author and their hard work. Thoughts?
These are in chronological order of my attempted reads, with the pages or percentages read in parentheses. I’ve omitted any books I’ve already written about on the blog.
The Light of Amsterdam by David Park: This is the second time I’ve been seduced by Park’s amazing-sounding plots – the blurb for this one and The Poets’ Wives are ever so appealing – but ended up unable to engage with them. Here, not one of the characters interested me. Park’s writing is noteworthy, but a bit belabored: there are more words and images there than you really need to make the point (“The solace he tried to take in his intellectual superiority was thinning in spiteful synchronicity with the thinning of his hair”; “in this game, intensity or passion were the illegitimate children of commitment”). (32 pp.)
Census by Jesse Ball: I’d enjoyed Ball’s previous novel, How to Start a Fire and Why. This one is very different, though – probably closer to his usual style, based on accounts I’ve read from others. It’s strange, dreamy, and philosophical. With its flat, simple, repetitive language; short sentences and paragraphs; and no speech marks, it is fable-like and oblique, and altogether hard to latch onto. The author opens by saying this is a tribute to his brother, who had Down’s syndrome and died 20 years ago. But in the portion that I read, the character with Down’s syndrome has no apparent presence or personality. People who like dystopian allegories (Saramago and the like?) may well enjoy this, but it wasn’t for me. (10%)
Exodus: A Memoir by Deborah Feldman: A memoir about a woman’s loss of faith – here, that involved leaving her marriage and her Hasidic Jewish community – should be right up my alley, but I had trouble connecting with Feldman’s voice. I didn’t sense honest wrestling, just hipster angst. Should I bother trying her previous memoir, Unorthodox? (20 pp.)
Tender by Belinda McKeon: I could relate to Catherine, an awkward and initially unconfident university student who doesn’t know what she’s good at. Perhaps because I’ve never had close male friends, though, I found it harder to understand her intimate friendship with James. I liked their snappy conversations, but the run-on nature of the narration was slightly off-putting. I would try other work by McKeon, or possibly even give this one another go some years in the future. (140 pp.)
The Man on the Middle Floor by Elizabeth S. Moore: Initially I enjoyed the first-person voice of Nick, who is on the autism spectrum and relies on careful weekly schedules and lists of rules of how the world works to fit in. However, the second section featuring him is ill-advised and damaging, branding ASD people as violent and horny. All really rather unpleasant, with two of the main characters walking stereotypes and undistinguished writing. (16 pp. plus some further skimming)
Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively: This is a gorgeous physical book, but inside it’s writing by numbers: It feels so stiff you can see how Lively filled in an outline. One chapter even ends with “This has been a discussion of the written garden”. Early chapters are on the history of gardens, gardens as metaphors, and gardens in literature (Vita Sackville-West, Elizabeth von Arnim, the Sitwells, et al.). I think you’d have to be much more of a gardening enthusiast than I am – I’m a lazy, frustrated amateur at best – to get a lot out of this. (79 pp.)
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar: Gowar has an accomplished and knowing narrative voice, and the historical setting is totally convincing. But I didn’t get drawn into the story. A merchant unwittingly acquires a hideous fish-like creature and decides to make as much money from displaying it as he can. Meanwhile, a high-class madam decides she needs a new gentleman protector for one of her best whores. Given the title, I think I know what we can expect. The scenes set in the brothel particularly bored me, and the thought of another 350+ pages appalled me. (70 pp. plus some further skimming)
Things Bright and Beautiful by Anbara Salam: I had been looking forward to this historical novel about a missionary marriage in the South Pacific. Unfortunately, I did not find it compelling in the least. Even the twist in the last line of the prologue was not enough to keep me reading. You might try Euphoria by Lily King instead. (6%)
Leap In: A Woman, Some Waves and the Will to Swim by Alexandra Heminsley: I really enjoyed Part 1, which is about leaping into life, whatever that means for you. For her it was learning to swim, undertaking outdoor swimming challenges everywhere from her hometown of Brighton to Ithaca, Greece, but also getting married and undergoing IVF. I especially appreciated her words on acquiring a new skill as an adult and overcoming body issues. But then it seems like her publishers said, “Meh, too short; add in more stuff!” and so we get the history of swimming, what gear you should buy, FAQs, etc. – boring! (Part 1)
The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore by Kim Fu: We get a brief introduction to a set of nine- to eleven-year-old campers from the early 1990s on an isolated overnight adventure – they’re pretty hard to keep straight – before diving deep into one’s life for the next 20+ years. The long interlude means Fu doesn’t sustain suspense about whatever bad thing happened when the girls were campers. A disappointment after For Today I Am a Boy. (86 pp.)
The Underneath by Melanie Finn: I requested this on the strength of Finn’s previous novel. Jumping between italicized passages set in Africa and Kay and Michael’s troubled marriage playing out its end in Vermont 10 years later, the narrative feels fragmented. Another strand is about Ben of Comeau Logging and his drug-addicted friend Shevaunne. It’s clear these subplots will meet up at some point, but I didn’t have the patience to hang around. There is a lot of gritty violence towards animals, too. (15 pp. plus some further skimming)
Carry On, Warrior: The real truth about being a woman by Glennon Melton: Melton was an alcoholic and bulimic for nearly 20 years until she found herself pregnant and cleaned up her act, fast. Her approach here is like a cross between Brené Brown, Elizabeth Gilbert and Anne Lamott: generically Christian encouragement to be your authentic self, do your best work, and choose love. But something about the voice grated, and the short essays felt repetitive. (37 pp.)
Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee: I should know by now that this is just the sort of book I hate: a spare, almost dystopian allegory that’s not rooted in time or place and whose characters are symbols you hardly care about. The Childhood of Jesus was similar. This starts off as Michael K’s quest to get his ailing mother to Prince Albert, but that’s very soon derailed, and with it my interest. (20 pp. plus some further skimming)
The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer: Alas, I was 0 for 2 on South African Booker Prize winners. Nice landscape descriptions, but despite the discovery of a body there’s no narrative momentum, and one doesn’t warm to Mehring. My favorite passage, with ironically apt adjectives in bold, was “The upland serenity of high altitude, the openness of grassland without indigenous bush or trees … A landscape without theatricals except when it became an arena for summer storms … – a typical Transvaal landscape, that you either find dull and low-keyed or prefer to all others (they said).” (44 pp.)
The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal: There’s nothing wrong with the book per se; I just wasn’t compelled to read more. Mona is a lonely 60-year-old who runs a toy shop in a seaside town and makes custom-designed dolls. There are some major losses in her past, at first just hints and then whole stories. In memory Mona can relive the limited moments she had with her loved ones. I could recommend this to fans of Rachel Joyce – the story line is particularly reminiscent of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Snow Garden – but wonder if de Waal’s previous book would feel more original. (70 pp.)
The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe: I had a weird reverse case of déjà vu: this is awfully similar to Mad Men, Suzanne Rindell’s Three-Martini Lunch, and A.J. Pearce’s Dear Mrs Bird, though of course they would have been based on Jaffe’s novel rather than the other way round. Caroline Bender, fresh out of a broken engagement, arrives for her first day as a typist at a New York City publishing house and has to adjust to catty office politics. I think I’ll enjoy this, but need to find another time when I can give it my full attention. (Ch. 1)
The Day that Went Missing: A Family Tragedy by Richard Beard: In August 1978, when the Beard family was on holiday at the beach in Cornwall, nine-year-old Nicholas was taken by the undertow and drowned. Eleven-year-old Richard was the last person to see him alive. He digs up evidence and stories of who Nicky was in his brief life and what exactly happened on that fateful day. The matter-of-fact, even cavalier, tone detracts from any potential emotional power. The other problem is there’s simply not very much to say about a nine-year-old and his rather average English family. (28 pp. plus some further skimming)
The Lido by Libby Page: The kindest word I could apply to the prose is “undemanding.” I’d hoped the charm of a story about a lonely twentysomething journalist and an octogenarian who band together to rescue their local swimming pool would outweigh the dull writing, but not so. Comparisons with Eleanor Oliphant didn’t fill me with confidence, either. (25 pp.)
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai: There’s a near-contemporary story line that’s not very compelling; while I enjoyed the 1980s strand about a group of gay friends in Chicago, there are a lot of secondary characters we don’t get to know very well, plus the details of Yale’s art deal slow down the narrative. I really wanted to appreciate the book more because I loved Makkai’s two previous novels so much, but I didn’t feel the impetus to continue. (50 pp. plus some further skimming)
A Long Island Story by Rick Gekoski: I loved Darke, so jumped at the chance to read Gekoski’s second novel. I liked our introduction to mother Addie and father Ben, who works for the Department of Justice but has ambitions as a writer so stays up until all hours typing. They drive out with kids Becca and Jake one summer morning to Long Island to stay with Addie’s parents, Maurice and Perle, at their bungalow. I didn’t sense a lot of promise. It’s interesting to see in the acknowledgements that Gekoski originally tried writing this as a memoir of his 1950s childhood. I think that could have been much more interesting. (35 pp.)
An Actual Life by Abigail Thomas: Thomas writes terrific memoirs-in-essays, so I was intrigued to try her fiction. Nineteen-year-old Virginia got pregnant the first time she slept with Buddy; now she’s married to him and a stay-at-home mother to Madeline. This reads like a cheap knockoff of Anne Tyler, and the shortage of punctuation is maddening. (46 pp.)
The Book of Salt by Monique Truong: I never warmed to the voice of Bình, the Vietnamese cook for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in 1930s Paris, nor was I interested enough in what I read about the “Mesdames” to continue getting to know them. I found the narration overwritten: “This language that I dip into like a dry inkwell has failed me. It has made me take flight with weak wings and watched me plummet into silence.” I couldn’t resist the terrific setup, but the delivery was ever so slightly dull. (31 pp.)
The Bookshop Band played in an Oxfordshire village 35 minutes’ drive from us yesterday evening. I’ve now seen them four times; I don’t think that quite qualifies me as a groupie, though I do count them among my favorite artists and own their complete discography.
The small church provided great acoustics and an intimate setting, and the set list was a fun mixture of old and new. All of their songs are based on literature: When they were the house band at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, they would write two songs based on an author’s new book on the very day that s/he would be making an appearance at the shop in the evening. A combination of slow reading and procrastination, I suppose. You’d never believe it, though, because their songs are intricate and thoughtful, often pulling out moments and ideas from books (at least the ones I’ve read) that never would have occurred to me.
Here’s what they played last night, and which books the songs were based on:
- “Once Upon a Time” – For a radio commission they crafted this compilation of first lines from various books.
- “Cackling Farts” – A day-in-the-life song featuring archaic vocabulary words from Mark Forsyth’s The Horologicon.
- “You Make the Best Plans, Thomas” – Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (one of my absolute favorites of their songs).
- “Why I Travel This Way” – Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal (I have heard this live once before, but it’s never been recorded).
- “Petroc and the Lights” – Patrick Gale’s Notes from an Exhibition (which reminds me that I really need to read it soon!).
- “Dirty Word” – A brand-new song based on Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; it stemmed from their recent commission to write about banned books for the V&A.
- “How Not to Woo a Woman” – Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (it must be a band favorite as they’ve played it every time I’ve seen them).
- “Curious and Curiouser” – Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
- “Sanctuary” – A new song they wrote for the launch event at the Bodleian Library for Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, #1).
- “Room for Three” – The other song they wrote for the Pullman event
- “We Are the Foxes” – Ned Beauman’s Glow.
- “Edge of the World” – Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James.
- “Faith in Weather” – The only one not based on a book; this was inspired by a Central European folktale about seven ravens (another of my absolute favorites).
- “Thirteen Chairs” – Dave Shelton’s Thirteen Chairs (another one they’ve played every time I’ve seen them).
I’m always impressed by Ben and Beth’s musicianship (guitars, ukuleles, cello, harmonium and more), and I also admire how they’ve continued touring intensively despite being new parents. They’re currently on the road for two months, and one-year-old Molly simply comes along for the ride!
It’ll be a busy week on the blog. I have posts planned for every day through Saturday thanks to Library Checkout, the Iris Murdoch readalong, and various features reflecting on the first half of the year and looking ahead to the second half.
It turns out I’ll be in America for three weeks of July helping my parents pack and move, so I may have to slow down on the 20 Books of Summer challenge, and will almost certainly have to substitute in some books I have in storage over there. (I’m pondering fiction by Laurie Colwin, Hester Kaplan, Antonya Nelson and Julie Orringer; and nonfiction by Joan Anderson, Haven Kimmel and Sarah Vowell.) I have a few books lined up to review for their July release dates, but it’ll be a light month overall.
In 2015 and 2017 I came up with some appropriately theological reading recommendations for Easter. This year I’m going for a more tongue-in-cheek approach, as befits the unfortunate conjunction of Easter with April Fools’ Day.
Currently reading or reviewing:
The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald
I bought this on a whim from a local charity shop, based on the title, cover and blurb. I’m about one-third of the way through so far. MacDonald and her husband started a chicken farm in a mountainous area of the Pacific Northwest in the 1940s. Her account of her failure to become the perfect farm wife is rather hilarious. My only hesitation is about her terrible snobbishness towards rednecks and “Indians.”
A representative passage: “Gathering eggs would be like one continual Easter morning if the hens would just be obliging and get off the nests. Co-operation, however, is not a chickenly characteristic and so at egg-gathering time every nest was overflowing with hen, feet planted, and a shoot-if-you-must-this-old-grey-head look in her eye.”
The Sheep Stell by Janet White
I’m reviewing this reissued memoir for the TLS. It’s a delightful story of finding contentment in the countryside, whether on her own or with family. White, now in her eighties, has been a shepherd for six decades in the British Isles and in New Zealand. While there’s some darker material here about being stalked by a spurned suitor, the tone is mostly lighthearted. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s enjoyed books by Gerald Durrell, James Herriot and Doreen Tovey.
Representative passages: “Shepherding is a strange mixture of tremendous physical work alternating with periods of calm, quiet indolence.” & “A dare, a dream and a challenge. I could have hunted the whole world over and never in a lifetime found anywhere so right: warm, high, pastoral and severed by the sea.”
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon
Mrs. Creasy disappears one Monday in June 1976, and ten-year-old Grace Bennett and her friend Tilly are determined to figure out what happened. I have a weakness for precocious child detectives (from Harriet the Spy to Flavia de Luce), so I enjoyed Grace’s first-person sections, but it always feels like cheating to me when an author realizes they can’t reveal everything from a child’s perspective so add in third-person narration and flashbacks. These fill in the various neighbors’ sad stories and tell of a rather shocking act of vigilante justice they together undertook nine years ago.
Sheep are a metaphor here for herd behavior and a sense of belonging, but also for good versus evil. Grace and Tilly become obsessed with a Bible passage the vicar reads about Jesus separating the sheep from the goats. But how can he, or they, know who’s truly righteous? As Grace says, “I think that’s the trouble, it’s not always that easy to tell the difference.” It’s a simplistic message about acknowledging the complexity of other lives and situations rather than being judgmental, and matches the undemanding prose.
Reminiscent of Rachel Joyce, but not as good.
Vita Nova by Louise Glück
My first collection from the prolific Pulitzer winner. Some of the poems are built around self-interrogation, with a question and answer format; several reflect on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The first and last poems are both entitled “Vita Nova,” while another in the middle is called “The New Life.” I enjoyed the language of spring in the first “Vita Nova” and in “The Nest,” but I was unconvinced by much of what Glück writes about love and self-knowledge, some of it very clichéd indeed, e.g. “I found the years of the climb upward / difficult, filled with anxiety” (from “Descent to the Valley”) and “My life took me many places, / many of them very dark” (from “The Mystery”).
Best lines about spring:
“The spring of the year; young men buying tickets for the ferryboats. / Laughter, because the air is full of apple blossoms.” (from “Vita Nova”)
“Spring / descended. Or should one say / rose? … yellow-green of forsythia, the Commons / planted with new grass— // the new / protected always” (from “Ellsworth Avenue”)
Plucked off the shelf for their dubious thematic significance!
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas
Happy Easter to all those who mark it, and have a good week. I have a few review-based posts scheduled for while we’re in Wigtown, a trip I hope to report on next Monday, when I will also attempt to catch up on blogs and comments.
Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist review #1
Sara Taylor’s debut, The Shore, was a gritty and virtuosic novel-in-13-stories that imagined 250 years of history on a set of islands off the coast of Virginia. It was one of my favorite books of 2015, and earned Taylor a spot on that year’s Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist as well as the Baileys Prize longlist. Her second book is a whole different kettle of fish: a fairly straightforward record of an extended North American road trip that 13-year-old Alex took with his/her mother 30 years ago.
Alex and Ma have run off from their home in Virginia and left Alex’s father behind. They travel, seemingly at random, all over – North Carolina, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, California – stopping for weeks at a time for Ma to earn enough to move on again. On the way they visit various sites from Ma’s past, mostly foster homes where she lived as a runaway teen and made fleeting connections with friends and lovers. Her five best friends were all apparently named Laura. Sometimes it seems Ma is after revenge; other times she’s making amends for mistakes from her past or attending to unfinished business. One thing gradually becomes clear: this is no arbitrary journey but a quest with a destination. It even has a Harold Fry element, though Taylor avoids Rachel Joyce’s schmaltz.
The Lauras is more complex than your average coming-of-age tale, largely because of Alex’s deliberate androgyny: a whole novel passes without us figuring out whether the narrator is male or female. “I suppose I was forgettable, came across still as whichever gender a person expected to see … being either and neither and both at once fit me more closely than the other options on offer,” Alex writes. But this chosen indeterminateness is not without consequences: there are a couple of disturbing scenes of bullying and sexual assault.
I enjoyed the mother-and-teen banter and the depiction of characters who are restless and rootless, driven on by traumatic memories as much as by uncertainty about the future. However, I had a few problems with the book. A road trip is generally a fun fictional setup, but here it tends towards the episodic and the repetitive. Moreover, Ma’s past is generally conveyed by secondhand stories rendered in Alex’s voice, which subordinates Ma’s perspective to her child’s and relies on somewhat dull reportage. Also, the metaphorical language and level of psychological understanding seem too advanced for a young teen, which only emphasizes the disjunction between the events being recounted (perhaps from the 1990s?) and the supposed present day three decades later. Those niggles explain why I abandoned this book a third of the way through on my first attempt in December 2016, and why, for me at least, it overall pales in comparison with the originality of The Shore.
Bearing in mind that I might be meeting these authors at the shortlist event or prize-giving ceremony, I’m not going to rate the five ST Young Writer books. (It wouldn’t take much sleuthing to find my Goodreads ratings, but never mind.) I’m still a huge fan of Sara Taylor’s work and look forward to her next book; were this to be the consensus of the rest of the shadow panel I would happily recognize it, but it’s unlikely to be one of my top two.
Other reviews of The Lauras:
Postscript: Taylor and I have a few neat connections: she graduated from Randolph College (formerly Randolph-Macon Women’s College), whose study abroad program in Reading, England brought me over here for the first time, and when not working on her PhD at UEA lives with her husband in Reading. Plus a tiny mention from The Lauras made me cheer: Ma went to Hood College, my alma mater!
On Saturday my husband and I headed to Hungerford to see The Bookshop Band for the second time. A year and a half ago I first had the chance to see them live at the 2014 Hungerford Literary Festival, when they gave a performance tied in with Rachel Joyce’s release of The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy.
The band formed about five years ago to provide music for author events at their local bookshop, Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, England. Since then they’ve written somewhere between 120 and 150 songs inspired by books. Their basic genre is indie folk, with plenty of guitar, ukulele and cello as well as a bunch of improvised percussion and three intermingled voices. Depending on the book in question, though, the feel can vary widely, ranging from sweet to bizarre or haunting. Especially when I’ve read the book being sung about, it’s intriguing to see what the musicians have picked up on – often something very different from what I would as a reader and reviewer.
This year the band (now down to two members) is making an effort to record and release all their songs in 10 albums. I participated in a crowdfunding project so am lucky enough to receive all their new releases in digital format before they’re available as printed CDs. The first album is Curious and Curiouser, the title track of which was inspired by Alice in Wonderland. Other sets of songs are based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the steampunk novel The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder, while “Once Upon a Time,” a commission for radio, strings together famous first lines from fiction.
My favorite Bookshop Band song (so far) is “Bobo and the Cattle,” inspired by Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. Two great ones new to me from Saturday’s performance were “Faith in Weather,” based on Central European fairy tales, and “You Make the Best Plans, Thomas,” about Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.
You can listen to lots of their songs on their Bandcamp page and dozens of videos of their performances are on YouTube and Vimeo (I’ve linked to several above). When performing events they often get the authors to play with them: Louis de Bernières pitched in with mandolin on a song about The Dust that Falls from Dreams, and Yann Martel played glockenspiel while promoting The High Mountains of Portugal.
We had started off the day with lunch at a Berkshire country pub, The Pot Kiln, where we didn’t mind the 40-minute wait for food because we had books and half-pints of beer and cider to while away the time over as sunshine poured through the windows. The menu is mostly based around game shot by the chef himself in the fields opposite the pub, so we indulged in a venison and wild boar hot dog and venison Scotch eggs before setting off on a windy several-mile walk near Combe Gibbet and then continuing on to Hungerford.
Now for the goody bag: on the venue tables the owner of Hungerford Bookshop had placed a ten-question literary quiz to work on and hand in during the intermission. I was fairly confident on some of my answers, had a guess at the others, and after literally about 45 minutes of wrestling with anagrams finally figured out that “Lobbing Slates” gives the name of novelist Stella Gibbons. We won with 7 out of 10 correct; an elderly lady joked that we’d Googled all the answers, but I pointed out that we don’t own a smartphone between us! Now, I suspect we were actually the only entry, but that doesn’t diminish our accomplishment, right?! I was delighted to win a couple of free books I hadn’t necessarily intended on reading but now certainly will, plus a metal bookmark and a notebook, all in a limited-edition “Books Are My Bag” tote designed by Tracey Emin.
All in all, a fantastic and mostly bookish day out!
If you live in the UK and get the chance, don’t hesitate to go see The Bookshop Band play; they’re touring widely this year.
The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas
“I have no idea why everyone thinks nature is so benign and glorious and wonderful. All nature is trying to do is kill us as efficiently as possible.”
This offbeat novel about obsession, sex and inheritance is set in Kent in 2011 and stars an extended family of botanists. The concept of a family tree has a more than usually literal meaning here given the shared surname is Gardener and most members are named after plants. We have Great-Aunt Oleander, recently deceased; cousin Bryony and her children Holly and Ash; siblings Charlie and Clem (short for Clematis); and half-sister Fleur, who has taken over Oleander’s yoga center, Namaste House. The generation in between was virtually lost, perhaps to a plant-based drug overdose, on a seed collecting expedition to the South Pacific. Oleander has left each motherless child one of these possibly deadly seed pods.
Did I mention the book is saturated with sex? Incest, adultery, illegitimate children, S&M, Internet porn, you name it. But beyond that, the metaphorical language is highly sexualized – bursting with seeds, fertility and genital-like plants. I can’t think when I’ve encountered such oversexed vocabulary since D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. Here’s a sampling:
Dave seems to be avoiding the clouds as he works the little plane up into the sky, penetrating it slowly, and really quite gently.
A surprising amount of plants look like dicks.
(of peat) It’s like walking on a giant’s pubes.
All lettuce wants is sex. And violence. Just like all plants. It wants to reproduce, and it wants to kill or damage its rivals so they don’t reproduce.
So many flowers are basically little sex booths.
And she was pulling him towards her, deeper into her, as if he were a flower and she an insect desperate for his cheap, sugary nectar.
Connections between characters morph and take on new dimensions as the book goes on. A few characters are unrealized, such as Fleur, which meant I felt slightly disconnected from them. (My ‘favorite’ in a book stuffed full of unlikable figures was probably Bryony, whose hunger for food, alcohol and shopping seems to be endless.) Likewise, not all the storylines are truly essential, so the book seems aimless for its final third; it definitely could have been shorter and tied together better, perhaps with some flashbacks to the previous generation’s experiences on the island to make the past feel more alive. The spiritual element remains vague, although there is a pleasant touch of magic realism along the way.
Despite these reservations, I truly enjoyed Thomas’s unusual writing. She moves freely between characters’ perspectives but also inserts odd second-person asides asking philosophical questions about wasted time and what is truly important in life. One peculiar little section even imagines the point-of-view of a robin in the garden of Namaste House, with made-up words fit for “The Jabberwocky”: “The man is, as always, incompt and untrig. He sloggers around his rooms in his black and grey ragtails like an elderly magpie.”
I like the range of questions you’re left with as a reader: Is nature malicious? Can we overcome our addictions? How much of who we are is down to our parentage? Does life really just come down to sex? The content of the novel might be reminiscent of A.S. Byatt and Andrea Barrett’s science-infused fiction or The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter, but the style is totally different. I can’t even think who it reminds me of; it feels pretty one of a kind to me. Luckily this is Thomas’s sixth novel, so there’s plenty more for me to explore.
With thanks to Canongate for the free copy, won in a Goodreads giveaway.
The A to Z of You and Me by James Hannah
Lying in a hospice bed, 40-year-old Ivo looks back on his life. Even after just four short decades and a modest career at a garden center, he has plenty to regret. Hard partying and drug use exacerbated his diabetes and prompted kidney failure. His lifestyle also led indirectly to his girlfriend, a nursing student named Mia (the “you” whom he often addresses directly), leaving him. He’s estranged from his sister and the friends he’d been close to since school days, especially Mal. How did he mess up so badly and cut himself off so completely that he’s now dying alone? And how much can he put right before he goes?
There’s plenty of affecting writing in Hannah’s debut novel, as in one of my favorite passages: “The sun chooses this moment to radiate through to me, through me. It feels like – it feels like life. I can sense my corrupt blood bubbling and basking beneath the surface.” I also love how Hannah captures the routines of institutional life – the sights, smells and sounds that come to define Ivo’s circumscribed life:
Round the corner now. Noticeboard up on the right, pinned every inch over with flyers and leaflets. The papers at the bottom lift and flutter in the convection of the heater beneath.
I am lost in a world of regular hums, distant beeping, the periodic reheating of the coffee machine in the corridor, and that steady kazoo [of his next-door neighbor’s breathing].
Nurse Sheila and Amber, the daughter of another hospice patient, are great supporting characters. Sheila’s A to Z game, encouraging Ivo to think of a memory attached to body parts starting with each letter of the alphabet, provides a hokey but effective structure. As Ivo’s condition deteriorates and his thoughts are scrambled by morphine, his narration gradually becomes less coherent and more insular. This means that by the time we reach the conclusion (which somehow manages to be both predictable and shocking at the same time), we aren’t sure whether he’s giving a reliable account of events or imagining things.
Ultimately, I felt confused about what Hannah meant for the book to be. Is this Irvine Welsh lite? Or a Rachel Joyce style tear-jerker? It’s similar in setup to The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, you see, and the remembered relationship with Mia is rather sappy. However, keep in mind that in British English the letter Z is pronounced ‘zed’, so the title doesn’t rhyme, which keeps it from being overly twee. Another barrier to my appreciation of the novel was that I never understood why Ivo was dying. People don’t die of kidney failure nowadays, thanks to dialysis and transplantation. (I have a kidney disease, so I should know!)
I’d recommend this book to fans of Mark Haddon, David Nicholls and Donal Ryan. I’ll follow Hannah’s career and hope he can avoid melodrama and a contrived structure – the two near-pitfalls of this one – in the future.
With thanks to Transworld Books for the free copy, won in a Goodreads giveaway.