I’m attempting to get through all my 2019 review books before the end of the year, so expect another couple of these roundups. Today I’m featuring a work of poetry about one of Picasso’s mistresses, a thorough yet accessible introduction to how the human body works, a memoir of personal and environmental change in the American West, Scandinavian autofiction about the sudden loss of a partner, and a novel about kids who catch on fire. You can’t say I don’t read a variety! See if one or more of these tempts you.
The Woman Who Always Loved Picasso by Julia Blackburn
Something different from Blackburn: biographical snippets in verse about Marie-Thérèse Walter, one of Pablo Picasso’s many mistress-muses. When they met she was 17 and he was 46. She gave birth to a daughter, Maya – to his wife Olga’s fury. Marie-Thérèse’s existence was an open secret: he rented a Paris apartment for her to live in, and left his home in the South of France to her (where she committed suicide three years after his death), but unless their visits happened to overlap she was never introduced to his friends. “I lived in the time I was born into / and I kept silent, / acquiescing / to everything.”
In Marie-Thérèse’s voice, Blackburn depicts Picasso as a fragile demagogue: in one of the poems that was a highlight for me, “Bird,” she describes how others would replace his caged birds when they died, hoping he wouldn’t notice – so great was his horror of death. I liked getting glimpses into a forgotten female’s life, and appreciated the whimsical illustrations by Jeffrey Fisher, but as poems these pieces don’t particularly stand out. (Plus, there are no page numbers! which doesn’t seem like it should make a big difference but ends up being annoying when you want to refer back to something. Instead, the poems are numbered.)
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review. Published today.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson
Shelve this next to Being Mortal by Atul Gawande in a collection of books everyone should read – even if you don’t normally choose nonfiction. Bryson is back on form here, indulging his layman’s curiosity. As you know, I read a LOT of medical memoirs and popular science. I’ve read entire books on organ transplantation, sleep, dementia, the blood, the heart, evolutionary defects, surgery and so on, but in many cases these go into more detail than I need and I can find my interest waning. That never happens here. Without ever being superficial or patronizing, the author gives a comprehensive introduction to every organ and body system, moving briskly between engaging anecdotes from medical history and encapsulated research on everything from gut microbes to cancer treatment.
Bryson delights in our physical oddities, and his sense of wonder is infectious. He loves a good statistic, and while this book is full of numbers and percentages, they are accessible rather than obfuscating, and will make you shake your head in amazement. It’s a persistently cheerful book, even when discussing illness, scientists whose work was overlooked, and the inevitability of death. Yet what I found most sobering was the observation that, having conquered many diseases and extended our life expectancy, we are now overwhelmingly killed by lifestyle, mostly a poor diet of processed and sugary foods and lack of exercise.
With thanks to Doubleday for the free copy for review.
Surrender: Mid-Life in the American West by Joanna Pocock
Prompted by two years spent in Missoula, Montana and the disorientation felt upon a return to London, this memoir-in-essays varies in scale from the big skies of the American West to the smallness of one human life and the experience of loss and change. Then in her late forties, Pocock had started menopause and recently been through the final illnesses and deaths of her parents, but was also mother to a fairly young daughter. She explores personal endings and contradictions as a kind of microcosm of the paradoxes of the Western USA.
It’s a place of fierce independence and conservatism, but also mystical back-to-the-land sentiment. For an outsider, so much of the lifestyle is bewildering. The author attends a wolf-trapping course, observes a Native American buffalo hunt, meets a transsexual rewilding activist, attends an ecosexuality conference, and goes foraging. All are attempts to reassess our connection with nature and ask what role humans can play in a diminished planet.
This is an elegantly introspective work that should engage anyone interested in women’s life writing and the environmental crisis. There are also dozens of black-and-white photographs interspersed in the text. In 2018 Pocock won the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize for this work-in-progress. It came to me as an unsolicited review copy and hung around on my shelves for six months before I picked it up; I’m glad I finally did.
With thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for the free copy for review.
Let’s Hope for the Best by Carolina Setterwall
[Trans. from the Swedish by Elizabeth Clark Wessel]
Although this is fiction, it very closely resembles the author’s own life. She wrote this debut novel to reflect on the sudden loss of her partner and how she started to rebuild her life in the years that followed. It quickly splits into two parallel story lines: one begins in April 2009, when Carolina first met Aksel at a friend’s big summer bash; the other picks up in October 2014, after Aksel’s death from cardiac arrest. The latter proceeds slowly, painstakingly, to portray the aftermath of bereavement. In the alternating timeline, we see Carolina and Aksel making their life together, with her always being the one to push the relationship forward.
Setterwall addresses the whole book in the second person to Aksel. When the two story lines meet at about the two-thirds point, it carries on into 2016 as she moves house, returns to work and resumes a tentative social life, even falling in love. This is a wrenching story reminiscent of In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist, and much of it resonated with my sister’s experience of widowhood. There are many painful moments that stick in the memory. Overall, though, I think it was too long by 100+ pages; in aiming for comprehensiveness, it lost some of its power. Page 273, for instance (the first anniversary of Aksel’s death, rather than the second, where the book actually ends), would have made a fine ending.
With thanks to Bloomsbury UK for the proof copy for review.
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson
I’d read a lot about this novel while writing a synopsis and summary of critical opinion for Bookmarks magazine – perhaps too much, as it felt familiar and offered no surprises. Lillian, a drifting twentysomething, is offered a job as a governess for her boarding school roommate Madison’s stepchildren. Madison’s husband is a Tennessee senator in the running for the Secretary of State position, so it’s imperative that they keep a lid on the situation with his 10-year-old twins, Bessie and Roland.
You see, when they’re upset these children catch on fire; flames destroy their clothes and damage nearby soft furnishings, but leave the kids themselves unharmed. Temporary, generally innocuous spontaneous combustion? Okay. That’s the setup. Wilson writes so well that it’s easy to suspend your disbelief about this, but harder to see a larger point, except perhaps creating a general allegory for the challenges of parenting. This was entertaining enough, mostly thanks to Lillian’s no-nonsense narration, but for me it didn’t soar.
With thanks to Text Publishing UK for the PDF for review. This came out in the States in October and will be released in the UK on January 30th.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
It’s been a frigid start to March here in Europe. Even though it only amounted to a few inches in total, this is still the most snow we’ve seen in years. We were without heating for 46 hours during the coldest couple of days due to an inaccessible frozen pipe, so I’m grateful that things have now thawed and spring is looking more likely. During winter’s last gasp, though, I’ve been dipping into a few appropriately snow-themed books. I had more success with some than with others. I’ll start with the one that stood out.
Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg (1992)
[trans. from the Danish by Felicity David]
Nordic noir avant la lettre? I bought this rather by accident; had I realized it was a murder mystery, I never would have taken a chance on this international bestseller. That would have been too bad, as it’s much more interesting than your average crime thriller. The narrator/detective is Smilla Jaspersen: a 37-year-old mathematician and former Arctic navigator with a Danish father and Greenlander mother, she’s a stylish dresser and a shrewd, bold questioner who makes herself unpopular by nosing about where she doesn’t belong.
Isaiah, a little Greenlander boy, has fallen to his death from the roof of the Copenhagen apartment complex where Smilla also lives, and she’s convinced foul play was involved. In Part I she enlists the help of a mechanic neighbor (and love interest), a translator, an Arctic medicine specialist, and a mining corporation secretary to investigate Isaiah’s father’s death on a 1991 Arctic expedition and how it might be connected to Isaiah’s murder. In Part II she tests her theories by setting sail on the Greenland-bound Kronos as a stewardess. At every turn her snooping puts her in danger – there are some pretty violent scenes.
I read this fairly slowly, over the course of a month (alongside lots of other books); it’s absorbing but in a literary style, so not as pacey or full of cliffhangers as you’d expect from a suspense novel. I got myself confused over all the minor characters and the revelations about the expeditions, so made pencil notes inside the front cover to keep things straight. Setting aside the plot, which gets a bit silly towards the end, I valued this most for Smilla’s self-knowledge and insights into what it’s like to be a Greenlander in Denmark. I read this straight after Gretel Ehrlich’s travel book about Greenland, This Cold Heaven – an excellent pairing I’d recommend to anyone who wants to spend time vicariously traveling in the far north.
Favorite wintry passage:
“I’m not perfect. I think more highly of snow and ice than of love. It’s easier for me to be interested in mathematics than to have affection for my fellow human beings.”
One that I left unfinished:
Snow by Orhan Pamuk (2002)
[trans. from the Turkish by Maureen Freely]
This novel seems to be based around an elaborate play on words: it’s set in Kars, a Turkish town where the protagonist, a poet known by the initials Ka, becomes stranded by the snow (Kar in Turkish). After 12 years in political exile in Germany, Ka is back in Turkey for his mother’s funeral. While he’s here, he decides to investigate a recent spate of female suicides, keep tabs on the upcoming election, and see if he can win the love of divorcée Ipek, daughter of the owner of the Snow Palace Hotel, where he’s staying. There’s a hint of magic realism to the novel: the newspaper covers Ka’s reading of a poem called “Snow” before he’s even written it. He and Ipek witness the shooting of the director of the Institute of Education. The attempted assassination is revenge for him banning girls who wear headscarves from schools.
As in Elif Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve, the emphasis is on Turkey’s split personality: a choice between fundamentalism (= East, poverty) and secularism (= West, wealth). Pamuk is pretty heavy-handed with these rival ideologies and with the symbolism of the snow. By the time I reached page 165, having skimmed maybe two chapters’ worth along the way, I couldn’t bear to keep going. However, if I get a recommendation of a shorter and subtler Pamuk novel I would give him another try. I did enjoy the various nice quotes about snow (reminiscent of Joyce’s “The Dead”) – it really was atmospheric for this time of year.
Favorite wintry passage:
“That’s why snow drew people together. It was as if snow cast a veil over hatreds, greed and wrath and made everyone feel close to one another.”
One that I only skimmed:
The Snow Geese by William Fiennes (2002)
Having recovered from an illness that hit at age 25 while he was studying for a doctorate, Fiennes set off to track the migration route of the snow goose, which starts in the Gulf of Mexico and goes to the Arctic territories of Canada. He was inspired by his father’s love of birdwatching and Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose (which I haven’t read). I thought this couldn’t fail to be great, what with its themes of travel, birds, illness and identity. However, Fiennes gets bogged down in details. When he stays with friendly Americans in Texas he gives you every detail of their home décor, meals and way of speaking; when he takes a Greyhound bus ride he recounts every conversation he had with his random seatmates. This is too much about the grind of travel and not enough about the natural spectacles he was searching for. And then when he gets up to the far north he eats snow goose. So I ended up just skimming this one for the birdwatching bits. I did like Fiennes’s writing, just not what he chose to focus on, so I’ll read his other memoir, The Music Room.
Considered but quickly abandoned: In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende
Would like to read soon: The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen – my husband recently rated this 5 stars and calls it a spiritual quest memoir, with elements of nature and travel writing.
What’s been your snowbound reading this year?
It occurred to me that I’ve read three novels with “November” in the title. They’re extremely different from each other: one’s a melancholy 1930s American classic; one’s a quirky Icelandic road trip; and the last is a darker entry in a beloved Scandinavian children’s series. All are interesting books, though, and worth reading if you’re in the right mood.
Now in November by Josephine Johnson
(Reviewed here in full back in May.)
Missouri-born Johnson was just 24 years old when she published Now in November, which won the 1935 Pulitzer Prize. The novel is narrated by the middle Haldmarne daughter, Marget, looking back at a grueling decade on the family farm. The arrival of Grant Koven, a neighbor in his thirties hired to help with hard labor, seems like the only thing that might break the agricultural cycle of futile hope and disappointment. Marget quickly falls in love with him, but it takes her a while to realize that her two sisters are smitten too. They all keep hoping their fortunes will change, but as drought settles in, things only get worse. This is an atmospheric and strangely haunting novel. The plot is simple enough, but the writing elevates it into something special. The plaintive tone, folksy metaphors, and philosophical earnestness all kept me eagerly traveling along with Marget to see where the tragic story might lead.
Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
This is a whimsical, feminist road trip novel. The unnamed narrator is a translator based in Reykjavík. When her best friend slips on an icy sidewalk and breaks her arm, it falls to the narrator to care for the friend’s deaf-mute four-year-old son, Tumi. Leaving behind romantic troubles and boosted by not one but two lottery wins, she and the boy set off on a snowy voyage around Iceland’s Ring Road, with plenty of madcap adventures ahead. The plot is rather scattered and uneven, with uproarious mishaps followed by tedious passages. However, in this kooky fictional world where “nothing is as it should be any more,” where butterflies are still flying in November, the narrator’s tragicomic travels should still strike a chord. Recommended for fans of zany Scandinavian fiction such as The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, or Doppler by Erlend Loe. (See my full review at For Books’ Sake.)
Moominvalley in November by Tove Jansson
Jansson said that after the Second World War she was depressed and wanted to write about something naïve and innocent. She wrote the first book of the Moomins series in 1945, about a family of hippo-like white trolls. But the Moomins do not appear in this book at all. It is November, the days are closing in, and no one knows where they have gone and when they might come back. A series of visitors journey to Moominvalley and find the house empty, cold and strange; these interlopers try to make their own merriment with a picnic and a party, but it all falls flat. The book felt unique to me for its Scandinavian qualities: the strange sprite-like creatures, woodland settings and short winter days, and the slight air of depression. As with the best children’s fiction, there is much here to entertain adults. Perhaps the most fun aspect of the book is Jansson’s original black and white line drawings of her peculiarly loveable creations.
Favorite passage: “The quiet transition from autumn to winter is not a bad time at all. It’s a time for protecting and securing things and for making sure you’ve got in as many supplies as you can. It’s nice to gather together everything you possess as close to you as possible, to store up your warmth and your thoughts and burrow yourself into a deep hole inside, a core of safety where you can defend what is important and precious and your very own. Then the cold and the storms and the darkness can do their worst. They can grope their way up the walls looking for a way in, but they won’t find one, everything is shut, and you sit inside, laughing in your warmth and your solitude, for you have had foresight.”