I read these three collections one at a time over three and a half months of last year, initially intending to write them up as part of my short story focus in September but ultimately deciding to spend more time with the latter two (and then falling ill with Covid before I could write them all up in 2022). They topped my Best Backlist Reads.
The word from the title is incidental, really; the books do have a lot in common in terms of theme and tone, though. The environment, fidelity and motherhood are recurring elements. The warmth and psychological depth are palpable. Each story feels fleshed out enough that I could happily read an entire novel set in its realm, but also complete unto itself.
Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman (2012)
I knew Bergman from her second of three collections, Almost Famous Women; this was her debut. As is common for a first book, it incorporates autobiographical characteristics: North Carolina settings, a preponderance of animals (her husband is a vet), and pregnancy and early motherhood. Eleven of the 12 stories are in the first person, there are no speech marks, and the protagonists are generally women in their twenties or thirties coping with young children, crumbling households, ageing parents, and ethical dilemmas at work.
Creatures are companions or catalysts here. In “Housewifely Arts,” a single mother and her son embark on a road trip to rescue her late mother’s African gray parrot. In the title story, Mae accompanies her father and her new beau on a search for the ivory-billed woodpecker. Fear grapples with openness to change for many of these characters, as expressed in the final lines: “I wished for things to stay the same. I wished for stillness everywhere, but I opened up the rest of the bedroom windows and let the world in.”
Environmental threat blares in the background, but usually fades in comparison to everyday concerns; the 2050-set “The Artificial Heart” is more alarmed about her aged father’s bionic existence than about a dying planet. In “Yesterday’s Whales,” the overall standout for me, ambivalence about motherhood meets climate catastrophism. The narrator’s boyfriend, Malachi, founded a nonprofit called Enough with Us, which asks members to vow not to reproduce so the human race can die out and nature can take over. Embarrassing, then, that she finds herself pregnant and unwilling to tread the hard line he’s drawn. This one is funny and poignant, capturing so many of my own feelings, and seems 10 years ahead of its time.
When someone’s ideal is the absence of all human life, romance is kind of a joke.
I wanted, then, to become what I most admired, what now seemed most real to me. I wanted to be that exalted, complicated presence in someone’s life, the familiar body, the source of another’s existence. But I knew what I wanted was not always what I needed.
I envied my mother’s childhood, the awe with which she’d turned to her country and the world, the confidence she’d had in her right to exist and bear children. The world and mothers alike, I knew, had lost a little freshness.
(Secondhand, a gift from my wish list a couple of years ago)
Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff (2009)
What a clever decision to open with “Lucky Chow Fun,” a story set in Templeton, the location of Groff’s debut novel – it forms a thread of continuity between her first book and her second. Elizabeth, the only girl on the varsity swim team, comes to a number of realizations about her family and her community, including that the title Chinese restaurant is a front for a brothel that exploits trafficked women. The story becomes a wider parable about appearances and suspicion. “In these dark days, there is so much distrust in this town. … You never know quite what to think about people”. And what a brilliant last line: “I like to think it’s a happy ending, though it is the middle that haunts me.”
“L. DeBard and Aliette” recasts in the notorious Héloïse and Abelard romance an Olympic swimmer and a schoolgirl in Spanish flu-plagued New York City. The other seven stories alternate between historical fiction and contemporary, the USA and abroad, first person and third person, speech marks or none. Desire and boundaries, accomplishment and escape, fear and risk are contradictory pulls. While the details have faded for me, I remember that, while I was reading them, each of these stories enveloped me in a particular world – 30 pages seems like the ideal length here to fully explore a set of characters and a situation. If I had to choose a favourite, it would be “Blythe,” about a woman who feels responsible for her alcoholic best friend. (From my birthday book haul last year)
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore (1998)
Life: what an absurd little story it always made.
I’d read a few of Moore’s works before (A Gate at the Stairs, Bark, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?) and not grasped what the fuss is about; turns out I’d just chosen the wrong ones to read. This collection is every bit as good as everyone has been saying for the last 25 years. Amy Bloom, Carol Shields and Helen Simpson are a few other authors who struck me as having a similar tone and themes. Rich with psychological understanding of her characters – many of them women passing from youth to midlife, contemplating or being affected by adultery – and their relationships, the stories are sometimes wry and sometimes wrenching (that setup to “Terrific Mother”!). There were even two dysfunctional-family-at-the-holidays ones (“Charades” and “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens”) for me to read in December.
I’ll single out four of the 12 as favourites, though, really, any or all would be worthy of anthologizing in a volume epitomizing the art of the short story. “Which Is More than I Can Say about Some People” has a mother and daughter learning new things about each other on a vacation to Ireland. “What You Want to Do Fine,” another road trip narrative, stars an unlikely gay couple, one half of which is the flamboyant (and blind) Quilty. “People Like That Are the Only People Here” is so vivid on the plight of parents with a child in the paediatric oncology ward that I feel I should check whether Moore lived through that too. And the best of the best: “Real Estate” (not least because she dared to print two full pages of laughter: “Ha!”), which turns gently surreal as Ruth and her philandering husband move into a house that turns out to be a wreck, infested by both animal and human pests.
Moore is as great at the sentence level as she is at overarching plots. Here are a few out-of-context lines I saved to go back to:
She was starting to have two speeds: Coma and Hysteria.
In general, people were not road maps. People were not hieroglyphs or books. They were not stories. A person was a collection of accidents. A person was an infinite pile of rocks with things growing underneath.
Never a temple, her body had gone from being a home, to being a house, to being a phone booth, to being a kite. Nothing about it gave her proper shelter.
(From Oxfam Books, Hexham – a stop on our Northumberland trip last year)
Two of these writers are best known for their short stories; the third (Groff), to my mind, should be. Unusual for me to fall so wholeheartedly for short stories – these all earned my rarest rating:
I’m old-fashioned and still use a desk calendar to keep track of appointments and deadlines. I also add in notes after the fact to remember births, deaths, elections, and other nationally and internationally important events. A look back through my 2021 “The Reading Woman” calendar reminded me that last January held a bit of snow, a third UK lockdown, an attempted coup at the U.S. capitol, and the inauguration of Joe Biden.
Activities continued online for much of the year:
- 15 music gigs (most of them by The Bookshop Band)
- 11 literary events, including book launches and prize announcements
- 9 book club meetings
- 3 literary festivals
- 2 escape rooms
- 1 progressive dinner
We were lucky enough to manage a short break in Somerset and a wonderful week in Northumberland. In August my mother and stepfather came to stay with us for a week and we showed off our area to them on daytrips.
As we entered the autumn, a few more things returned to in-person:
- 5 music gigs
- 2 book club meetings (not counting a few outdoor socials earlier in the year)
- 1 book launch
- 1 conference
I was also fortunate to get back to the States twice this year, once in May–June for my mother’s wedding and again in December for Christmas.
On this most recent trip I had some fun “life meeting books” moments (the photos of me are by Chris Foster):
- An overnight stay on Chincoteague Island, famous for its semi-wild ponies, prompted me to reread a childhood favorite, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry.
- Driving from my sister’s house to my mother’s new place involves some time on Route 30, aka the Lincoln Highway, through Pennsylvania. Her town even has a tourist attraction called Lincoln Highway Experience that we may check out on a future trip. (The other claims to fame there: it was home to golfer Arnold Palmer and Mister Rogers, and the birthplace of the banana split.)
- At the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, we met the original “Dippy” the diplodocus, a book about whom I reviewed for Foreword in 2020.
- I also took along a copy of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon and snapped a photo of it in an appropriately mysterious corner of the museum. Unfortunately, I didn’t get past the first few chapters as this debut novel felt dated and verging on racist.
No matter, though, as I donated it at a Little Free Library.
We sought out a few LFLs on our trip, including that one in a log at Cromwell Valley Park in Maryland, where I picked up a Margot Livesey novel and a couple of travel books. My only other acquisition of the trip was a new paperback of Beneficence by Meredith Hall (author of one of the first books to turn me on to memoirs) from Curious Iguana in Frederick, Maryland, my college town. No secondhand book shopping opportunities this time, alas; just lots of driving in our rental car to visit disparate friends and relatives. However, this was my early Christmas book haul from my husband before we set off:
Another fun stop during our trip was at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, where we admired wreaths made of mostly natural ingredients like fruit.
The big news from my household this winter is that we have bought our first home, right around the corner from where we rent now, and hope to move in within the next couple of months. Our aim is to do all the bare-minimum renovations in 2022, in time to put up a tree in the living room bay window and a homemade wreath on the door for next Christmas!
Despite these glimpses of travels and merriment, Covid still feels all too real. I appreciated these reminders I saw recently, one in Bath and the other at the museum in Pittsburgh (Covid Manifesto by Cauleen Smith, which originated on Instagram).
“We all deserve better than ‘back to normal’.”
It’s the fourth annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month (#MARM), hosted by Canadian blogger extraordinaire Marcie of Buried in Print. In previous years, I’ve read Surfacing and The Edible Woman, The Robber Bride and Moral Disorder, and Wilderness Tips. This year Laila at Big Reading Life and I did a buddy reread of The Blind Assassin, which was historically my favourite Atwood novel. I’d picked up a free paperback the last time I was at The Book Thing of Baltimore. Below are some quick thoughts based on what I shared with Laila as I was reading.
The Blind Assassin (2000)
Winner of the Booker Prize and Hammett Prize; shortlisted for the Orange Prize
I must have first read this about 13 years ago. The only thing I remembered before I started my reread was that there is a science fiction book-within-the-book. I couldn’t recall anything else about the setup before I read in the blurb about the suspicious circumstances of Laura’s death in 1945. Indeed, the opening line, which deserves to be famous, is “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”
I always love novels about sisters, and Iris is a terrific narrator. Now a cantankerous elderly woman, she takes us back through her family history: her father’s button factory and his clashes with organizing workers, her mother’s early death, and her enduring relationship with their housekeeper, Reenie. Iris and Laura met a young man named Alex Thomas, a war orphan with radical views, at the factory’s Labour Day picnic, and it was clear early on that Laura was smitten, while Iris went on to marry Richard Griffen, a nouveau riche industrialist.
Interspersed with Iris’s recollections are newspaper articles that give a sense that the Chase family might be cursed, and excerpts from The Blind Assassin, Laura’s posthumously published novel. Daring for its time in terms of both explicit content and literary form (e.g., no speech marks), it has a storyline rather similar to 1984, with an upper-crust woman having trysts with a working-class man in his squalid lodgings. During their time snatched together, he also tells her a story inspired by the pulp sci-fi of the time. I was less engaged by the story-within-the-story(-within-the-story) this time around compared to Iris’s current life and flashbacks.
In the back of my mind, I had a vague notion that there was a twist coming, and in my impatience to see if I was right I ended up skimming much of the second half of the novel. My hunch was proven correct, but I was disappointed with myself that I wasn’t able to enjoy the journey more a second time around. Overall, this didn’t wow me on a reread, but then again, I am less dazzled by literary “tricks” these days. At the sentence level, however, the writing was fantastic, including descriptions of places, seasons and characters’ psychology. It’s intriguing to think about whether we can ever truly know Laura given Iris’s guardianship of her literary legacy.
If you haven’t read this before, find a time when you can give it your full attention and sink right in. It’s so wise on family secrets and the workings of memory and celebrity, and the weaving in of storylines in preparation for the big reveal is masterful.
Some favourite passages:
“What fabrications they are, mothers. Scarecrows, wax dolls for us to stick pins into, crude diagrams. We deny them an existence of their own, we make them up to suit ourselves – our own hungers, our own wishes, our own deficiencies.”
“Beginnings are sudden, but also insidious. They creep up on you sideways, they keep to the shadows, they lurk unrecognized. Then, later, they spring.”
“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it. Impossible, of course.”
My original rating (c. 2008):
My rating now:
What to read for #MARM next year, I wonder??
In general, I have been struggling mightily with doorstoppers this year. I just don’t seem to have the necessary concentration, so Novellas in November has been a boon. I’ve been battling with Ruth Ozeki’s latest novel for months, and another attempted buddy read of 460 pages has also gone by the wayside. I’ll write a bit more on this for #LoveYourLibrary on Monday, including a couple of recent DNFs. The Blind Assassin was only my third successful doorstopper of the year so far. After The Absolute Book, the other one was:
The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles
In Towles’ third novel – a big, old-fashioned dose of Americana – brothers and pals set out from Nebraska on road and rail adventures to find a fortune in 1950s New York. The book features some fantastic characters. Precocious Billy steals every scene he appears in. Duchess is a delightfully flamboyant bounder, peppering his speech with malapropisms and Shakespeare quotes. However, Emmett is a dull protagonist, and it’s disappointing that Sally, one of just two main female characters, plays such a minor role. A danger with an episodic narrative is that random events and encounters pile up but don’t do much to further the plot. At nearly 200 pages in, I realized little of consequence had happened yet. A long road, then, with some ups and downs along the way, but Towles’ fans will certainly want to sign up for the ride.
With thanks to Hutchinson for the free copy for review.
Anything by Atwood, or any doorstoppers, on your pile recently?
This latest batch of colour-themed summer reads took me from a depleted post-pandemic landscape to the heart of dysfunctional families in Rhode Island and California.
Under the Blue by Oana Aristide (2021)
Fans of Station Eleven, this one’s for you: the best dystopian novel I’ve read since Mandel’s. Aristide started writing this in 2017, and unknowingly predicted a much worse pandemic than Covid-19. In July 2020, Harry, a middle-aged painter inhabiting his late nephew’s apartment in London, finally twigs that something major is going on. He packs his car and heads to his Devon cottage, leaving its address under the door of the cute neighbour he sometimes flirts with. Hot days stack up and his new habits of rationing food and soap are deeply ingrained by the time the gal from #22, Ash – along with her sister, Jessie, a doctor who stocked up on medicine before fleeing her hospital – turn up. They quickly sink into his routines but have a bigger game plan: getting to Uganda, where their mum once worked and where they know they will be out of range of Europe’s at-risk nuclear reactors. An epic road trip ensues.
It gradually becomes clear that Harry, Ash and Jessie are among mere thousands of survivors worldwide, somehow immune to a novel disease that spread like wildfire. There are echoes of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in the way that they ransack the homes of the dead for supplies, and yet there’s lightness to their journey. Jessie has a sharp sense of humour, provoking much banter, and the places they pass through in France and Italy are gorgeous despite the circumstances. It would be a privilege to wander empty tourist destinations were it not for fear of nuclear winter and not finding sufficient food – and petrol to keep “the Lioness” (the replacement car they steal; it becomes their refuge) going. While the vague sexual tension between Harry and Ash persists, all three bonds are intriguing.
In an alternating storyline starting in 2017, Lisa and Paul, two computer scientists based in a lab at the Arctic Circle, are programming an AI, Talos XI. Based on reams of data on history and human nature, Talos is asked to predict what will happen next. But when it comes to questions like the purpose of art and whether humans are worth saving, the conclusions he comes to aren’t the ones his creators were hoping for. These sections are set out as transcripts of dialogues, and provide a change of pace and perspective. Initially, I was less sure about this strand, worrying that it would resort to that well-worn trope of machines gone bad. Luckily, Aristide avoids sci-fi clichés, and presents a believable vision of life after the collapse of civilization.
The novel is full of memorable lines (“This absurd overkill, this baroque wedding cake of an apocalypse: plague and then nuclear meltdowns”) and scenes, from Harry burying a dead cow to the trio acting out a dinner party – just in case it’s their last. There’s an environmentalist message here, but it’s subtly conveyed via a propulsive cautionary tale that also reminded me of work by Louisa Hall and Maja Lunde. (Public library)
Ruby by Ann Hood (1998)
Olivia had the perfect life: fulfilling, creative work as a milliner; a place in New York City and a bolthole in Rhode Island; a new husband and plans to try for a baby right away. But then, in a fluke accident, David was hit by a car while jogging near their vacation home less than a year into their marriage. As the novel opens, 37-year-old Olivia is trying to formulate a letter to the college girl who struck and killed her husband. She has returned to Rhode Island to get the house ready to sell but changes her mind when a pregnant 15-year-old, Ruby, wanders in one day.
At first, I worried that the setup would be too neat: Olivia wants a baby but didn’t get a chance to have one with David before he died; Ruby didn’t intend to get pregnant and looks forward to getting back her figure and her life of soft drugs and petty crime. And indeed, Olivia suggests an adoption arrangement early on. But the outworkings of the plot are not straightforward, and the characters, both main and secondary (including Olivia’s magazine writer friend, Winnie; David’s friend, Rex; Olivia’s mother and sister; a local lawyer who becomes a love interest), are charming.
It’s a low-key, small-town affair reminiscent of the work of Anne Tyler, and I appreciated how it sensitively explores grief, its effects on the protagonist’s decision-making, and how daunting it is to start over (“The idea of that, of beginning again from nothing, made Olivia feel tired.”). It was also a neat touch that Olivia is the same age as me, so in some ways I could easily imagine myself into her position.
This was the ninth book I’ve read by Hood, an author little known outside of the USA – everything from grief memoirs to a novel about knitting. Ironically, its main themes of adoption and bereavement were to become hallmarks of her later work: she lost her daughter in 2002 and then adopted a little girl from China. (Secondhand purchase, June 2021)
[I’ve read another novel titled Ruby – Cynthia Bond’s from 2014.]
Blue Shoe by Anne Lamott (2002)
I’m a devoted reader of Lamott’s autobiographical essays about faith against the odds (see here), but have been wary of trying her fiction, suspecting I wouldn’t enjoy it as much. Well, it’s true that I prefer her nonfiction on the whole, but this was an enjoyably offbeat novel featuring the kind of frazzled antiheroine who wouldn’t be out of place in Anne Tyler’s work.
Mattie Ryder has left her husband and returned to her Bay Area family home with her young son and daughter. She promptly falls for Daniel, the handyman she hires to exterminate the rats, but he’s married, so she keeps falling into bed with her ex, Nicky, even after he acquires a new wife and baby. Her mother, Isa, is drifting ever further into dementia. A blue rubber shoe that Mattie finds serves as a totem of her late father – and his secret life. She takes a gamble that telling the truth, no matter what the circumstances, will see her right.
As in Ruby, I found the protagonist relatable and the ensemble cast of supporting characters amusing. Lamott crafts some memorable potted descriptions: “She was Jewish, expansive and yeasty and uncontained, as if she had a birthright for outrageousness” and “He seemed so constrained, so neatly trimmed, someone who’d been doing topiary with his soul all his life.” She turns a good phrase, and adopts the same self-deprecating attitude towards Mattie that she has towards herself in her memoirs: “She usually hoped to look more like Myrna Loy than an organ grinder’s monkey when a man finally proclaimed his adoration.”
At a certain point – maybe two-thirds of the way through – my inward reply to a lot of the novel’s threads was “okay, I get it; can we move on?” Yes, the situation with Isa is awful; yes, something’s gotta give with Daniel and his wife; yes, the revelations about her father seem unbearable. But with a four-year time span, it felt like Mattie was stuck in the middle for far too long. It’s also curious that she doesn’t apply her zany faith (a replica of Lamott’s) to questions of sexual morality – though that’s true of more liberal Christian approaches. All in all, I had some trouble valuing this as a novel because of how much I know about Lamott’s life and how closely I saw the storyline replicating her family dynamic. (Secondhand purchase, c. 2006 – I found a signed hardback in a library book sale back in my U.S. hometown for $1.)
Hmm, altogether too much blue in my selections thus far (4 out of 8!). I’ll have to try to come up with some more interesting colours for my upcoming choices.
Next books in progress: The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames and God Is Not a White Man by Chine McDonald.
Read any of these? Interested?
This year I’m joining in Liz’s readalong for all of the Anne Tyler novels that I own and haven’t read yet – or at least the ones I can access; others are marooned in a box in the States. Earthly Possessions was Tyler’s seventh novel and is refreshingly different from the 12 of her books I’d read previously. (Liz’s review is here, and Cathy has also recently reviewed it here.) The action begins in a typical Maryland setting but soon hits the road. After years of coasting along unhappily, Charlotte Emory, 35, has finally decided to leave her preacher husband and their two children, and is at the bank in Clarion (a fictional town) to withdraw money for the journey. Jake Simms, recently escaped from the county jail, is here to get cash, too, and Charlotte is his sole hostage in the bungling robbery that follows.
The first-person narration struck me as rare for Tyler – though I’d have to go back to all the others I’ve read to confirm that they’re in the third-person omniscient, as in my memory – and the structure is very effective, alternating chapters about Jake and Charlotte’s hapless road trip to Florida with extended flashbacks to Charlotte’s earlier life, from childhood right up to the moment she decided to leave Saul. Her family background is similar to Daisy’s in Carol Shields’s The Stone Diaries: both characters had an overweight mother who didn’t realize she was pregnant until all of a sudden she gave birth to a daughter. After her father’s death, Charlotte felt obliged to take over his photographic studio and she and her mother had lodgers in their unusual turreted home beside a gas station. One of these lodgers was Saul.
The title contrasts Saul’s heavenly concerns with the mess of life on earth. Charlotte is a Marie Kondo disciple avant la lettre, purging her home of superfluous furniture and cutting herself off from unnecessary people.
“My life has been a history of casting off encumbrances, paring down to the bare essentials, stripping for the journey. Possessions make me anxious.”
“I gave up hope. Then in order not to mind too much I loosened my roots, floated a few feet off, and grew to look at things with a faint, pleasant humorousness that spiced my nose like the beginnings of a sneeze. … My world began to seem…temporary. I saw that I must be planning to leave, eventually.”
A passive woman reaching a breaking point and leaving the life she’s been stuck in is a setup that anticipates Ladder of Years, one of my favourites from Tyler, and the protagonists’ emotional circuit and eventual destination are similar. Themes from The Clock Winder, and from her work in general, recur: a big, quirky family; mental illness; brothers squabbling over a woman; secrets; and bereavement. I enjoyed the touch of reverse Stockholm syndrome as Jake comes to rely on Charlotte for help with placating his pregnant girlfriend. And I was delighted to see a little mention of a character who “suffered one of his lapses and lost three hundred dollars at the Bowie Racetrack” – I grew up in Bowie and my parents lived on Race Track Road, just down from the (now derelict) track, for 13 years.
I’d never heard of this novel before I found it at a charity shop a few years ago. It ended up being a real gem, covering a lot of literal and psychological ground in its 200 small-format pages and doing something a bit different from the standard Tyler narrative while still staying true to her trademark themes and bittersweet sense of humour. I heartily recommend this one.
“I saw that all of us lived in a sort of web, criss-crossed by strings of love and need and worry.”
“Oh, I’ve never had the knack of knowing I was happy right while the happiness was going on.”
The 13 Tyler novels I’ve read, in order of preference (greatest to least), are:
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
Ladder of Years
The Accidental Tourist
Digging to America
Back When We Were Grown-ups
A Blue Spool of Thread
The Beginner’s Goodbye
Redhead by the Side of the Road
The Clock Winder
Next up for me will be Saint Maybe in late June.
September is always a big month in the publishing world, but even more so this year because of all the titles delayed from the spring and summer – apparently 600 books were published in the first week of September in the UK alone.
Still, I only ended up with my usual, manageable five new releases (with a few more on the way from the library). I read a beautiful novel about addiction and religion in contemporary America, speculative fiction about communication with wildlife in mid-pandemic (!) Australia, everything you ever wanted to know about fungi, historical fiction about outsiders in England and Borneo, and a study of our broken relationship with other animals.
Two of these are from my most anticipated list for the second half of 2020. Four of the five can be linked by the tenet that humans are only one species among many others necessary to life on this Earth, and not in some way above and beyond.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
This follow-up to Gyasi’s dazzling, centuries-spanning linked story collection, Homegoing, won’t be out in the UK until March 2021, but I couldn’t resist reading an e-copy of the American edition (Knopf) from Edelweiss. It’s altogether a more subdued and subtle book, but its treatment of themes of addiction, grief, racism and religion is so spot on that it packs a punch. Gifty is a PhD student at Stanford, researching pleasure and reward circuits in the mouse brain. She gets mice hooked on a sugary drink and then performs experiments to see if she can turn off their compulsion to keep pressing a lever for more. Sometimes when they press the lever they get an electric shock. Certain mice give up; others never will. Why?
People who know Gifty well assume she chose her field because of a personal tragedy. When she was 10, her 16-year-old brother, Nana, a high school basketball star in this Ghanaian-American family’s Alabama town, died of an opiate overdose. He’d gotten addicted to prescription drugs after a sports injury. At one level, Gifty acknowledges she is trying to atone for her brother’s death, but she won’t see it in those terms. An intensely private person, she shoulders almost impossible burdens of grief and responsibility for her mother, who has plunged into depression and, when she comes to live with Gifty, spends all her time in bed.
The most compelling aspect of the novel for me was Gifty’s attitude towards the religion of her childhood. Though they were the only black family at their Pentecostal church, she was a model believer, writing prayers in her journal, memorizing scriptures, and never doubting that everything happens for a reason. Nana’s death shattered it all. Though she now looks to science for answers, she misses the certainty she once had: that she was saved, that humans are special, that someone was looking out for her and her family, that it all mattered. I highlighted dozens of passages, but it’s possible the book won’t mean quite as much to readers for whom there’s no personal resonance. The complex mother–daughter relationship is an asset, and musings on love and risk are tenderly expressed. I wanted a more climactic conclusion to take this into 5-star territory, but I’ve still added it to my Best of 2020 shelf.
the species Homo sapiens, the most complex animal, [is] the only animal who believed he had transcended his Kingdom, as one of my high school biology teachers used to say.
At times, my life now feels so at odds with the religious teachings of my childhood that I wonder what the little girl I once was would think of the woman I’ve become … I am looking for new names for old feelings. My soul is still my soul, even if I rarely call it that.
the more I do this work the more I believe in a kind of holiness in our connection to everything on Earth. Holy is the mouse.
I read an advanced e-copy via Edelweiss.
The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay
McKay has a PhD in literary animal studies and serves as an animal expert and presenter on Australia’s ABC radio show Animal Sound Safari. Pair her academic background with the fact that this shares a title with a Margaret Atwood poetry collection and you’ll have some idea of what to expect here: mysterious but mostly believable speculative fiction that hinges on human communication with animals.
Jean Bennett isn’t your average grandma: a wise-cracking alcoholic, she drives the tourist train through the Australian wildlife park her daughter-in-law manages but wishes she could be a fully fledged ranger. Her ex-husband, Graham, left her and went down south, and eventually their only son Lee did the same. Now all Jean has left is Kim, her six-year-old granddaughter. Jean entertains Kim by imagining voices for the park’s animals. This no longer seems like a game, though, when news filters through of the “zooflu,” which has hit epidemic levels and has as a main symptom the ability to understand what animals say.
When Kim is kidnapped, Jean steals a camper van and takes Sue the dingo along to help her find her granddaughter. “There’s a new normal now,” a bus driver tells her. “And around here, not wearing a mask means you’ve gone animal. I’d put on my protective if I was you. Put that mutt in a cage.” It was uncanny reading this in the midst of a pandemic, but the specifics of McKay’s novel are hard to grasp. The animal language isn’t audible, necessarily, but a combination of smells, noises and body language. For a long time, they seem like pure nonsense, but gradually they resemble a sort of rough poetry. Here’s one example from Sue:
My front end
takes the food
for the Queen
(Sue usually calls Jean “Queen” or “Mother,” showing that she respects her authority, and “Yesterday” is frequently used to suggest a primitive sense of the past or of an older person.)
As entertaining a protagonist as Jean is, I lost interest in her road trip. If you focus on the journey into the wilderness and don’t mind a sudden ending, you may find this a worthwhile heir to Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton and The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
I read a proof copy for a Nudge review, but it’s never shown up on their website.
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake
I first heard about Sheldrake through Robert Macfarlane’s Underland. He struck me as a mad genius – an impression that was only strengthened by reading his detailed, enthusiastic book about fungi. Sheldrake researches fungal life in the tropical forests of Panama, accompanies truffle hunters in Italy, takes part in a clinical study on the effects of LSD (derived from a fungus), observes lichens off the coast of British Columbia, and attends a conference in Oregon on Radical Mycology. But more than a travel memoir, this is a work of science – there are over 100 pages devoted to notes, bibliography and index.
Basic information you’ll soon learn: mushrooms are only the fruiting bodies of fungi; under the ground is the material bulk, the mycelium, a sprawling network of hyphae. In what’s sometimes called the “Wood Wide Web,” fungal networks link the trees in a forest, and join up with plants, such as in lichens. “I feel a … sense of vertigo when I think about the complexity of mycorrhizal relationships – kilometers of entangled life – jostling beneath my feet,” Sheldrake confesses. He gives examples of fungi navigating and solving problems – what of our concept of intelligence if a creature without a brain can do such things?
Fungi are very adaptable to extreme conditions. Research is underway to grow edible mushrooms on some of our most troublesome waste, such as used diapers (nappies) and cigarette butts. And, of course, for millennia we’ve relied on certain fungi – yeasts – to create products like bread and beer. Sheldrake is a very hands-on writer: When he wants to know something, he does it, whether that’s scrumping Isaac Newton’s apples in Cambridge and fermenting the juice into cider at home or growing mushrooms on a copy of this very book.
During the month I was reading this, I felt like I kept coming across references to fungi. (I even had a patch of ringworm!)
It’s a perspective-altering text, but one that requires solid concentration. I’ll confess that at times it went over my head and I wished for a glossary and diagrams. A greater than average interest in biology and/or botany would thus be a boon to a potential reader. But if you can keep up, the book will elicit many a cry of “wow!” and “what?!” I kept launching “did you know?” questions at my husband, especially about the zombie fungi that parasitize insects. What a strange and wonderful world.
Favorite lines: “Paying more attention to animals than plants contributes to humans’ plant-blindness. Paying more attention to plants than fungi makes us fungus-blind.”
My thanks to Bodley Head for the free copy for review.
Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain
I read this back in June to prepare for writing a profile of Tremain for a forthcoming issue of Bookmarks magazine. Here’s the summary I wrote: “In Bath, England in 1865, 24-year-old nurse Jane Adeane is nicknamed ‘The Angel of the Baths’ for her healing touch. If she marries Dr. Valentine Ross, a colleague of her surgeon father, she can earn respectability – but will have to hide her love for Julietta, a married woman. Meanwhile, Dr. Ross’s brother, Edmund, a naturalist following in the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace, has journeyed to Borneo. Ill with malaria, he is taken in by British eccentric Sir Ralph Savage, a lover of native men and benevolent local rajah who funds infrastructure projects like a paved road and a hospital. Exiled or inwardly tortured for loving the wrong people, Tremain’s characters search for moments of wonder and comfort – whether those come in a primitive hut in the Malay Archipelago or in a cozy tearoom in Bath.”
It’s a slightly odd title, but tells you a lot about what Tremain is doing in this 14th novel. Often at the mercy of forces internal and external, her outcast characters look for places where they can find rest and refuge after a time of suffering. Will they, in turn, extend mercy? The split perspective and the focus on people who have to hide their sexuality are most similar to Sacred Country. The Victorian tip of the hat is mostly directed, I think, to George Eliot; of recent work, I was reminded of The Doll Factory and The Essex Serpent. I especially liked Jane’s painter aunt, Emmeline, and Clorinda, the Irish woman whose opening of a tearoom sets the plot going. The settings are surprising and vivid, and if Tremain doesn’t quite bring them and their story lines together seamlessly, she is still to be applauded for her ambition. This is probably my joint favorite of her novels that I’ve read so far, with The Road Home.
We must be unconventional in our joys and find them wherever we can.
life, so often so cruel in the way it thrust the human soul into prisons from which there seemed to be no escape, could sometimes place it athwart an open door.
I read an advanced e-copy via NetGalley.
Between Light and Storm: How We Live with Other Species by Esther Woolfson
If you’ve read Woolfson’s Corvus, you’ve already met Chicken, an orphaned rook she raised. For over 31 years, Chicken was a constant presence in her home. The recently departed bird is the dedicatee of her new book, feted as “Colleague, companion, friend.” (No mere pet.) Relationships with these creatures with whom she shared her life led her to think differently about how we as humans conceive of the animal world in general. “If I had ever believed humans to be the only ones to live profound and interconnected lives, I couldn’t any more. … If we’re the gods now, shouldn’t we be better than we are?” From her introduction, it’s clear that her sympathy toward the more-than-human world extends even to spiders, and her language throughout – using words like “who” and “his” in reference to animals, rather than “that” or “its” – reinforces the view that all species are equally valuable.
Or, at least, should be. But our attitudes are fundamentally distorted, Woolfson believes, and have been since the days of Aristotle (whose Ladder of Nature is an origin of the ideas that nature is there for man to use) and the Old Testament writers (one of the two creation accounts in Genesis established the idea of “dominion”). From cave paintings to animal sacrifice, intensive farming to fur coats, taxidermy to whaling, she surveys what others have thought and said about how animals are, or should be, perceived. There was more of an academic tone to this book than I expected, and in early chapters I found too much overlap with other works I’ve read about deep time (Time Song, Surfacing, Underland again!).
I most appreciated the fragments of nature writing and memoir and would have liked more in the way of personal reflection. Woolfson’s perspective – as a Jewish woman in Scotland – is quite interesting. She is clearly troubled by how humans exploit animals, but mostly recounts others’ reasoning rather than coming to conclusions of her own. (Though there is a brilliant takedown of the gender politics of Watership Down.) It’s a book that demands more time and attention than I was able to give just now. As I only skimmed it, I’m going to refrain from assigning a rating and will pass this on to my husband and return to it one day. [I do wish the title, on its own (subtitle aside), was more indicative of the contents.]
My thanks to Granta for the free copy for review.
Which of those 600+ September releases can you recommend?
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation (see Kate’s introductory post) starts with Cormac McCarthy’s bleak dystopian novel The Road (2006).
I’ve read several of McCarthy’s novels, including this one. Believe it or not, this is not the darkest – that would be Blood Meridian.
#1 Sticking with the road trip theme, I’ll start by highlighting one of my favorite novels from 2018, Southernmost by Silas House. Tennessee preacher Asher Sharp’s family life falls apart when he welcomes a homosexual couple into his church. After being voted out of his post, he kidnaps his son and drives to Key West, Florida, where his estranged gay brother lives.
#2 A minister is also the main character in Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout (2006). I finished this one, my fourth novel from Strout, a couple of weeks ago. She tenderly probes the dark places of a mid-twentieth century Maine community and its pastor’s doubts, but finds the light shining through. From first line to last word, this was gorgeous.
#3 “Abide with Me,” Reverend Tyler Caskey’s favorite hymn, gives the novel its title. Also named after a song is Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (1987/2000). I have a copy on the shelf and tried the first 20 pages a couple of months ago, but it was so normal – compared to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, anyway – that I felt disoriented and set it aside.
#4 Returning to bleakness … the Norwegian reference takes me one of the first books from Norway I remember reading: Hunger by Knut Hamsun (1890). It’s a spare story of a starving writer who wanders the streets of Oslo looking for opportunities for food and publication, tramping about simply to keep warm at the onset of a bitter Scandinavian winter.
#5 Same title; rather different contents: Hunger by Roxane Gay (2017) is a collection of short autobiographical essays that riff on weight, diet, exercise and body image. The writing style is matter-of-fact and never self-pitying. This is still the only thing I’ve read by her, but I mean to read more, starting with her novel An Untamed State.
[#5.5 Her surname takes me to the title of my cheaty half-step, A Gay and Melancholy Sound by Merle Miller (1962), a semi-autobiographical novel about a man from Iowa who helps free the concentration camps and then has a career as a theatrical producer. It was Nancy Pearl’s first Book Lust Rediscoveries reprint book and is on my TBR.]
#6 While it’s not implied by that title, Miller was, er, gay, which leads to another of his books, On Being Different. I have Pearl to thank for leading me to this 1971 essay, which was republished in book form in 2013. It’s an insider’s view of what it is like to be a homosexual. A period piece now, it feels like a precursor to the revolution in gay rights. It’s one of the books (along with Straight by Hanne Blank and Conundrum by Jan Morris) that have most boosted my tolerance and compassionate understanding.
(This loops nicely back to #1 and the story of a preacher accepting homosexuality in his family as well as in his church congregation.)
Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already!
Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
With bare trees leading down to the canal and frosty temperatures forecast for the weekend, it’s starting to feel more like winter here. I journeyed through a fine autumn with two obscure classics that ended up being gems.
Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice (1939)
MacNeice, a poet and man of letters from Northern Ireland, wrote this long verse narrative between August 1938 and the turn of the following year. It’s simultaneously about everything and nothing, about everyday life for the common worker and the political rumblings that suggest all is not right in the world. As summer fades and Christmas draws closer, he reflects on his disconnection from Ireland; and on fear, apathy and the longing for purpose.
Two in every four lines rhyme, but the rhyme scheme is so subtle that I was far into the book before I recognized it. I tend not to like prose poems, but this book offers a nice halfway house between complete sentences and a stanza form, and it voices the kinds of feelings we can all relate to. How can this possibly be 80 years old? It is so relevant to our situation now.
we think ‘This must be wrong, it has happened before,
Just like this before, we must be dreaming…’
now it seems futility, imbecility,
To be building shops when nobody can tell
What will happen next.
There are only too many who say ‘What difference does it make
One way or the other?
To turn the stream of history will take
More than a by-election.’
Still there are … the seeds of energy and choice
Still alive even if forbidden, hidden,
And while a man has voice
He may recover music.
The university library copy I borrowed smells faintly of incense, so reading it was rather like slipping into the back pew of an old church and pondering timelessness.
Autumn Across America by Edwin Way Teale (1950)
Teale is a lesser-known naturalist who specialized in insects and edited or introduced works by famous natural historians of a previous era like Thoreau, Fabre, Hudson and Muir. In the late 1940s he and his wife Nellie set out on a meandering 20,000-mile road trip from Cape Cod on the Atlantic coast to Point Reyes on the Pacific to track autumn from its first hints to its last gasp. It was the third of four seasonal journeys the Teales undertook in part to distract them from their grief over their son David, who was killed in Germany during WWII. Their route passes through about half the states and experiences nearly every landscape you can imagine, some that are familiar to me and others that would be totally new. They delve in rockpools; observe bird and monarch migration; cross desert, mountains and prairie; and watch sea otters at play.
Although there is a sense of abundance – they see a million ducks in one day, and pass dozens of roadkill jackrabbits – like Aldo Leopold, Teale was an early conservationist who sounded the alarm about flora and fauna becoming rarer: “So much was going even as we watched.” His descriptions of nature are simply gorgeous, while the scientific explanations of leaf color, “Indian summer” and animal communication are at just the right level for the average reader. This was a lucky find at the Book Thing of Baltimore this past spring, and if I ever get the chance, I will delight in reading the other three in the quartet.
Some favorite lines:
“The stars speak of man’s insignificance in the long eternity of time; the desert speaks of his insignificance right now.”
“Those to whom the trees, the birds, the wildflowers represent only ‘locked-up dollars’ have never known or really seen these things. They have never experienced an interest in nature for itself. Whoever stimulates a wider appreciation of nature, a wider understanding of nature, a wider love of nature for its own sake accomplishes no small thing.”
I’m also still reading Led by the Nose: A Garden of Smells by Jenny Joseph, a book about what you see and smell in the garden month by month. I only have the December chapter still to read, followed by some lists of plants set out by ‘when they smell’ and when you plant them. I’ve also been slowly working through A Country Year: Living the Questions by Sue Hubbell, another Book Thing find. After her divorce, Hubbell lived alone on her 90 acres in the Ozarks of Missouri, keeping bees and conscientiously rebuilding a life in communion with nature. I still have the final two sections, “Winter” and “Spring,” left to read.
How’s the weather where you are?
Have you read any “Autumn” books lately?
I happened to read two books with the word moon in their titles within a couple of weeks in September, which prompted me to ransack my shelves and find two more. While these four are in completely different genres – one women’s fiction, one poetry, one memoir and one Booker-winning literary novel – they are all by women (naturally more in touch with the moon?) and all worth reading. In the weeks that I was undertaking this mini reading project, I couldn’t get Krista Detor’s song “All to Do with the Moon” out of my head (on this video, a live recording of the entire “Night Light” suite of three songs, it starts at about 6:15). She’s one of our favorite singer-songwriters, though, so this was no problem.
The Pull of the Moon by Elizabeth Berg (1996)
This is my second contemporary novel from Berg. I find her work effortlessly readable. She’s comparable to those other Elizabeths, McCracken and Strout, but also to Alice Hoffman and Anne Tyler. This one reminded me most of Tyler’s Ladder of Years in that both are about a middle-aged woman who takes a break from her marriage to figure out what she wants from life. Nan, “a fifty-year-old runaway,” takes off from her suburban Boston home and drives west, stopping at motels and cabins, eating at diners, and meeting the locals; eventually she gets as far as South Dakota. Her narration is in the form of letters to her husband, Martin, alternated with italicized passages from her journal. She reflects on everything that has made up her life – her upbringing, her marriage and other sexual encounters, raising her daughter, Ruthie – as well as on the small-town folk she meets in Iowa and Minnesota. The moon is a symbol of the femininity Nan fears she’s losing through menopause and hopes to reclaim on this journey.
The Moon Is Almost Full by Chana Bloch (2017)
This was a lucky find in the clearance section at Blackwell’s on my Oxford day with Annabel. It’s a beautifully produced book from Autumn House, the small Pittsburgh press that released my favorite poetic work of last year: The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain. This was Bloch’s sixth and final book of poetry, published in the year of her death. She writes in the awareness that this cancer will be her end and doesn’t gloss over losses of function and dignity, but still finds delight in life through her family, writing and Jewish rituals: “Never forget / you were put on earth to gather joy // with melancholy hands” (from “Instructions for the Bridegroom”). A favorite poem was “The Will,” in which she imagines how the physical and intangible relics of her life will be distributed (“My plans and projects I hereby bequeath to the air / of which they were conceived. … Let the doctors pack up my heart / and keep it humming for the right customer.”).
Off-topic note: This was typeset in Mrs Eaves, which may well be one of my favorite fonts.
To the Moon and Back: A Childhood under the Influence by Lisa Kohn (2018)
My special interest in women’s religious memoirs led me to list this among my most anticipated titles of 2018. I had it on my wish list for quite a while and then, when I saw it available for a bargain price online, snapped it up for myself. Lisa Kohn grew up in the New York City environs, the child of hippie parents she called Mimi and Danny rather than Mom and Dad. After their parents divorced, she and her brother lived in New Jersey with their mother and went into the City to visit their father, who was very lax about things like drugs. By the time Kohn was 10, her mother had gotten caught up in Reverend Moon’s Unification Church.
I knew next to nothing about the “Moonies,” so I found it fascinating to learn about this cult led by a South Korean reverend who let it be assumed that he was the new incarnation of Jesus Christ and the flourishing of his family on Earth would usher in God’s Kingdom. The Church became Kohn’s whole life until internal questioning set in during high school, and by the time she went to college she was adrift and into drugs instead. The book recreates scenes and dialogue well, but I found myself losing interest once the cult itself stopped being the main focus.
Readalikes: Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs and In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (1987)
Seventy-six-year-old Claudia Hampton, on her deathbed in a nursing home, determines to write a history of the world – or at least, the world as she’s seen it. She’s been an author of popular history books (one of which, on Mexico, was made into a film), but she’s also been a daughter, a sister, a lover and a mother. As the book shifts between the first person and the third person, the present and the past, we learn volumes about Claudia and how her memory has preserved the layers of her personal history. There are a couple of big reveals, about her relationship with her brother Gordon and her time as a Second World War correspondent in Egypt, but what’s more impressive than these plot surprises is how Lively packs the whole sweep of a life into just 200 pages, all with such rich, wry commentary on how what we remember constructs our reality.
I made the fine choice to start reading this on holiday at the Jurassic coast in Dorset, which was fitting because Claudia grew up in Dorset and uses ammonites and rock strata as recurring metaphors. This won a well-deserved Booker Prize and is the best of the five Lively books I’ve read. I wasn’t particularly taken with the first couple I read by her, so I’m glad I tried again this year (with Heat Wave and then this). It’s just a shame that the copy I found in the free bookshop where I volunteer has such a dreadfully inappropriate cover, making it look like contemporary chick lit rather than serious literature.
Some favorite lines:
“Argument, of course, is the whole point of history. Disagreement; my word against yours; this evidence against that. If there were such a thing as absolute truth the debate would lose its lustre. I, for one, would no longer be interested.”
“In life as in history the unexpected lies waiting, grinning from around corners. Only with hindsight are we wise about cause and effect.”
“Once it is all written down we know what really happened.”
A note on the title: From the context, it seems that a moon tiger was a special inflammatory device, maybe like a citronella candle, used to repel mosquitoes and other insects.
Other ‘Moon’ books I have happened to review:
Crossing the Moon by Paulette Bates Alden
The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham
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!