Tag Archives: science fiction

The Best Books from the First Half of 2022

Yes, it’s that time of year already! At first I thought I wouldn’t have enough 2022-released standouts to fill a post, but the more I looked through my list the more I realized that, actually, it has been a pretty good reading year. It remains to be seen, of course, how many of these will make it onto my overall best-of year list, but for now, these are my highlights. I made it up to an even 20 by including one that doesn’t release until July. Fiction is winning thus far! I give review excerpts below and link to the full text here or elsewhere.

 

Fiction

Our Wives under the Sea by Julia Armfield: Miri is relieved to have her wife back when Leah returns from an extended deep-sea expedition. Something went wrong with the craft when it was too late to evacuate, though. Chapters alternate between Miri describing their new abnormal and Leah recalling the voyage. As Miri tries to tackle life admin for both of them, she feels increasingly alone. This is a sensitive study of love, grief and dependency. Armfield gives an increasingly eerie story line a solid emotional foundation.

 

These Days by Lucy Caldwell: A beautiful novel set in Belfast in April 1941. We see the Second World War mostly through the eyes of the Bell family – especially daughters Audrey, engaged to be married to a young doctor, and Emma, in love with a fellow female first aider. The evocation of a time of crisis is excellent. The lack of speech marks, fluid shifting between perspectives, and alternation between past and present tense keep the story from seeming too familiar or generic. All of the female characters have hidden depths.

 

Groundskeeping by Lee Cole: In Cole’s debut novel, two aspiring writers meet on a Kentucky college campus and form a romantic connection despite very different backgrounds. There are stereotypes to be overcome as Owen introduces Alma to Kentucky culture and slang. Trump’s election divides families and colleagues. The gentle satire on the pretensions of writing programs is another enjoyable element. Three-dimensional characters, vivid scenes ripe for the Netflix treatment, timely themes and touching relationships: alright!

 

Days of Sand by Aimée de Jongh: This Great Depression-era story was inspired by the work of photographers such as Dorothea Lange. John Clark is following in his father’s footsteps as a photographer, leaving NYC for the Oklahoma panhandle. Locals are suspicious of John as an outsider, especially when they learn he is working to a checklist. Whether a cityscape or the midst of a dust storm, de Jongh’s scenes are stark and evocative. It’s rare for me to find the story and images equally powerful in a graphic novel, but that’s definitely the case here.

 

Dance Move by Wendy Erskine: The 11 stories in Erskine’s second collection do just what short fiction needs to: dramatize an encounter, or a moment, that changes life forever. Her characters are ordinary, moving through the dead-end work and family friction that constitute daily existence, until something happens, or rises up in the memory, that disrupts the tedium. Erskine being from Belfast, evidence of the Troubles is never far away. Her writing is blunt and edgy, with no speech marks plus flat dialogue and slang.

 

Antipodes by Holly Goddard Jones: Riveting stories of contemporary life in the American South and Midwest. Some have pandemic settings; others are gently magical. All are true to the anxieties of modern careers, marriage and parenthood. Endings elicit a gasp, particularly the audacious inconclusiveness of “Exhaust,” a tense tale of a quarreling couple driving through a blizzard. Worry over environmental crises fuels “Ark,” about a pyramid scheme for doomsday preppers. Nickolas Butler and Lorrie Moore fans will find much to admire.

 

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel: This dazzlingly intricate novel blends historical fiction, up-to-the-minute commentary and science-fiction predictions. In 2401, the Time Institute hires Gaspery-Jacques Roberts to investigate a recurring blip in time. Fans of The Glass Hotel will recognize some characters, and those familiar with Station Eleven will find similarities in a pandemic plot that resonates with the Covid-19 experience. How does Mandel do it? One compulsively readable hit after another.

 

Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso: The aphoristic style of some of Manguso’s previous books continues here as discrete paragraphs and brief vignettes build to a gloomy portrait of Ruthie’s archetypical affection-starved childhood in the fictional Massachusetts town of Waitsfield in the 1980s and 90s. The depiction of Ruthie’s narcissistic mother is especially acute. So much resonated with me. This is the stuff of girlhood – if not universally, then certainly for the (largely pre-tech) American 1990s as I experienced them.

 

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu: Just the right blend of literary fiction and science fiction. Opening in 2031 and stretching another 70 years into the future, this linked short story collection imagines how a pandemic reshapes the world and how communication and connection might continue after death. All but one story are in the first person, so they feel like personal testimonies. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The focus on illness and bereavement, but also on the love that survives, made this a winner.

 

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka: Otsuka’s third novel of the Japanese American experience again employs the first-person plural, as well as the second person – rarer perspectives that provide stylistic novelty. The first two chapters are set at a pool that, for the title swimmers, serves as a locus of escape and safety. On the first page we’re introduced to Alice, whose struggle with dementia becomes central. I admired Otsuka’s techniques for moving readers through the minds of the characters, alternating range with profundity and irony with sadness.

 

French Braid by Anne Tyler: My 17th from Tyler, and easily her best new work in 18 years. It joins my other favourites such as Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant which reveal a dysfunctional family’s quirks through a close look, in turn, at the various members. Mercy is a painter and essentially moves into her studio, but without announcing it, and her husband Robin spends the next 25+ years pretending they still share a home. Other surprises from Tyler this time: a mild sex scene and a gay character. A return to form. Brava!

 

Nonfiction

In Love by Amy Bloom: Bloom’s husband, Brian Ameche, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in his mid-60s, having exhibited mild cognitive impairment for several years. Brian quickly resolved to make a dignified exit while he still, mostly, had his faculties. This achieves the perfect tone, mixing black humour with teeth-gritted practicality as Bloom chronicles their relationship, the final preparations, his assisted suicide at Dignitas in Switzerland, and the aftermath. An essential, compelling read.

 

Everything Is True by Roopa Farooki: Second-person, present-tense narration drops readers right into the life of a junior doctor. In February 2020, Farooki’s sister Kiron died of breast cancer. During the first 40 days of the initial UK lockdown, she continues to talk to Kiron. Grief opens the door for magic realism. There is also wry humour, wordplay, slang and cursing. A hybrid work that reads as fluidly as a novel while dramatizing real events, this is sure to appeal to people who wouldn’t normally pick up a bereavement or medical memoir.

 

Body Work by Melissa Febos: A boldly feminist essay collection that explores how autobiographical writing can help one face regrets and trauma and extract meaning from the “pliable material” of memory. “In Praise of Navel Gazing” affirms the importance of women airing their stories of abuse and thereby challenging the power structures that aim to keep victims silent. “A Big Shitty Party” warns of the dangers of writing about real people. “The Return” employs religious language for the transformation writing can achieve.

 

All Down Darkness Wide by Seán Hewitt: This poetic memoir about love and loss in the shadow of mental illness blends biography, queer history and raw personal experience. The book opens, unforgettably, in a Liverpool graveyard where Hewitt has assignations with anonymous men. His secret self, suppressed during teenage years in the closet, flies out to meet other ghosts: of his college boyfriend; of men lost to AIDS during his 1990s childhood; of English poet George Manley Hopkins; and of a former partner who was suicidal. (Coming out on July 12th from Penguin/Vintage (USA) and July 14th from Jonathan Cape (UK). My full review is forthcoming for Shelf Awareness.)

 

Poetry

Thorpeness by Alison Brackenbury: This tenth collection features abundant imagery of animals and the seasons. Alliteration is prominent, but there is also a handful of rhymes. Family history and the perhaps-idyllic rural underpin the verse set in Lincolnshire and Gloucestershire as Brackenbury searches for ancestral graves and delivers elegies. I especially loved “Aunt Margaret’s Pudding,” a multipart poem about her grandmother’s life. There are also playful meetings between historical figures.

 

Some Integrity by Padraig Regan: The sensual poems in this debut collection are driven by curiosity, hunger and queer desire. Flora and foods are described as teasing mystery, with cheeky detail. An unusual devotion to ampersands; an erotic response to statuary; alternating between bold sexuality and masochism to the point of not even wanting to exist; a central essay on the Orlando nightclub shooting and videogames – the book kept surprising me. I loved the fertile imagery, and appreciated Regan’s exploration of a nonbinary identity.

 

Love Poems in Quarantine by Sarah Ruhl: Having read Ruhl’s memoir Smile, I recognized the contours of her life and the members of her family. Cooking and laundry recur: everyday duties mark time as she tries to write and supervises virtual learning for three children. “Let this all be poetry,” she incants. Part 2 contains poems written after George Floyd’s murder, the structure mimicking the abrupt change in focus for a nation. Part 3’s haiku and tanka culminate in a series on the seasons. A welcome addition to the body of Covid-19 literature.

 

Rise and Float by Brian Tierney: Although it tackles heavy subjects like grief and mental health, the collection’s candor and stunning images transform the melancholy into the sublime. Much of the verse is in the first person, building an intimate portrait of the poet and his relationships. A family history of mental illness and electroshock treatment occasions a visit to a derelict psychiatric hospital. Recurring metaphors of holes dramatize a struggle against the void. Tierney’s close attention lends beauty to bleak scenes.

 

Vinegar Hill by Colm Tóibín: I didn’t realize when I started that this was Tóibín’s debut collection; so confident is his verse, I assumed he’d been publishing poetry for decades. There’s a wide range of tone, structures and topics. Bereavements and chemotherapy are part of a relatable current events background. Irish-Catholic nostalgia animates a witty sequence from “The Nun” to “Vatican II.” Come along on armchair travels. Poems are based around anecdotes or painterly observations. The line breaks are unfailingly fascinating.

 

What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?

What 2022 releases do I need to catch up on right away?

Review Catch-Up: Capildeo, Castillo, Nagamatsu & Wedlich

A second catch-up for April. Today I have a sprightly poetry collection about history, language and nature; a linked short story collection that imagines funerary rituals and human meaning in a post-pandemic future; and a wide-ranging popular science book about the diverse connotations and practical uses of slime. As a bonus, I have a preview essay from a forthcoming collection about how reading promotes empathy and social justice.

 

Like a Tree, Walking by Vahni Capildeo (2021)

Capildeo is a nonbinary Trinidadian Scottish poet and the current University of York writer in residence. Their fourth collection is richly studded with imagery of the natural world, especially birds and trees. “In Praise of Birds” makes a gorgeous start:

“In praise of high-contrast birds, purple bougainvillea thicketing the golden oriole. … In praise of grackles quarrelling on the lawn. / In praise of unbeautiful birds abounding in Old Norse, language of scavenging ravens, thought and memory, a treacherous duo”

and finds a late echo in “In Praise of Trees”: “If I could have translated piano practice into botany, the lichen is that Mozart phrase my left hand trialled endlessly.”

The title section (named after a moment from the book of Mark) draws on several numbered series – “Walk #2,” “Nocturne #1,” “Lullaby 4,” and so on – that appeared in a pamphlet they published last year. These are not uncomplicated idylls, though. Walks might involve dull scenery and asthma-inducing dust, as well as danger: “If nobody has abducted you, I’ll double back to meet you. … Before raper-man corner and the gingerbread house.” Lullabies wish for good sleep despite lawnmowers and a neighbour shooting his guns. There’s more bold defiance of expectations in phrases like “This is the circus for dead horses only”.

Language is a key theme, with translations from the French of Eugène Ionesco, and of Pierre de Ronsard into Trini patois. There are also dual-language erasure poems after Dame Julian of Norwich (Middle English) and Simone Weil (French). Much of the work is based on engagement with literature, or was written in collaboration with performers.

“Death is a thief in a stationery shop. He strolls out. The shopkeeper, a poor man, runs after, shouting. – I saw you! Give that back! – Give back what? Death says, strolling out. Hermes is a tram attendant who holds your coffee, helping you find the coin you dropped; it rolls underfoot.” (from “Odyssey Response”)

“Windrush Reflections” impresses for its research into the situation of Caribbean immigrants to Britain. It’s one of a number of long, multipart pieces, some of them prose poems. The verse relies mostly on alliteration and anaphora for its sonic qualities. Along with history, there is reflection on current events, as in “Plague Poems.” Experiences of casual racism fuel one of my favourite passages:

“the doorbell was ringing / the downstairs american oxford neighbours / wanted to check / by chatting on the intercom / if i was doing terrorism / i was doing transcriptions” (from “Violent Triage”)

Honorifics by Cynthia Miller, which I reviewed last week, had more personal resonance for me, but these are both powerful collections – alive to the present moment and revelling in language and in flora and fauna. However, only Capildeo progressed from the Jhalak Prize longlist onto the shortlist, which was announced yesterday.

With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.

 

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu (2022)

“Things are bad in every generation. But we still have to live our life.”

This linked short story collection was one of my most anticipated books of the year. Like two of its fellow entries on that list, Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel and To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara, it’s just the right blend of literary fiction and science fiction – an Octavia E. Butler level of the latter that I can handle. Opening in 2031 and stretching another 70 years into the future, it imagines how a pandemic reshapes the world and how communication and connection might continue after death. In the first story, Cliff is on the ground at the start of the Arctic plague, which emerges from a thawing Siberia (the same setup as in Under the Blue!), where his late daughter, Clara, had been part of a research group that discovered a 30,000-year-old Neanderthal girl they named Annie.

The virus is highly transmissible and deadly, and later found to mostly affect children. In the following 13 stories (most about Asian Americans in California, plus a few set in Japan), the plague is a fact of life but has also prompted a new relationship to death – a major thread running through is the funerary rites that have arisen, everything from elegy hotels to “resomation.” In the stand-out story, the George Saunders-esque “City of Laughter,” Skip works at a euthanasia theme park whose roller coasters render ill children unconscious before stopping their hearts. He’s proud of his work, but can’t approach it objectively after he becomes emotionally involved with Dorrie and her son Fitch, who arrives in a bubble.

All but one of these stories are in the first person, so they feel like intimate testimonies of how a pandemic transforms existence. Almost all of the characters have experienced a bereavement, or are sick themselves. Relatives or acquaintances become protagonists in later stories. For instance, in “Pig Son,” Dorrie’s ex, David, is a scientist growing organs for transplantation. Bereavement coordinator Dennis and his doctor brother Bryan narrate #5 and #8, respectively. Six years on, Cliff’s wife Miki takes their granddaughter on a space mission. My other two favourites were “Through the Garden of Memory,” in which patients on a plague ward build a human pyramid and plot a sacrifice, and “Songs of Your Decay,” about a researcher at a forensic body farm who bonds with her one live donor over rock music.

Some stories are weaker or less original than others, but this is one case where the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. The focus on illness and death, but also on the love that survives, made this a winner for me. I’d be especially likely to recommend it to fans of Kazuo Ishiguro and Karen Russell.

With thanks to Bloomsbury for the free copy for review.

 

Slime: A Natural History by Susanne Wedlich (2021)

[Translated from the German by Ayça Türkoğlu]

This is just the sort of wide-ranging popular science book that draws me in. Like Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, a work I’ve had many opportunities to recommend even to those who don’t normally pick up nonfiction, it incorporates many weird and wonderful facts about life forms we tend to overlook. Wedlich, a freelance science journalist in Germany, starts off at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, where she seeks a sample of the “primordial slime” collected by the HMS Challenger in 1876. “It seems to be an unwritten rule of horror: slime sells!” she remarks – from H. P. Lovecraft to Ghostbusters, it has provoked disgust. Jellyfish, snails, frogs and carnivorous plants – you’re in for a sticky tour of the natural world.

The technical blanket term for slimy substances is “hydrogels,” which are 99% water and held together by polymers. Biological examples have been inspiring new technologies, like friction reducers (e.g. in fire hoses) modelled on fish mucus, novel adhesives to repair organs and seal wounds, and glue traps to remove microplastics. Looking to nature to aid our lives is nothing new, of course: Wedlich records that slugs were once used to lubricate cart wheels.

The book branches off in a lot of directions. You’ll hear about writers who were spellbound or terrified by marine life (Patricia Highsmith kept snails, while Jean-Paul Sartre was freaked out by sea creatures), the Victorian fascination with underwater life, the importance of the microbiome and the serious medical consequences of its dysfunction, and animals such as amphibians that live between land and water. At times it felt like the narrative jumped from one topic to another, especially between the biological and the cultural, without following a particular plan, but there are enough remarkable nuggets to hold the interest.

With thanks to Granta for the free copy for review.

  

And a bonus:

I was delighted to be sent a preview pamphlet containing the author’s note and title essay of How to Read Now by Elaine Castillo, coming from Atlantic in August. This guide to cultural criticism – how to read anything, not just a book – is alive to the biased undertones of everyday life. “Anyone who is perfectly comfortable with keeping the world just as it is now and reading it the way they’ve always read it … cannot be trusted”. Castillo writes that it is not the job of people of colour to enlighten white people (especially not through “the gooey heart-porn of the ethnographic” – war, genocide, tragedy, etc.); “if our stories primarily serve to educate, console and productively scold a comfortable white readership, then those stories will have failed their readers”. This is bold, provocative stuff. I’m sure to learn a lot.

 

Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

The Blind Assassin Reread for #MARM, and Other Doorstoppers

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.

See my full review for BookBrowse; see also my related article on Studebaker cars.

With thanks to Hutchinson for the free copy for review.

 

Anything by Atwood, or any doorstoppers, on your pile recently?

The 1976 Club: Woman on the Edge of Time & The Takeover

It’s my fourth time participating in one of Simon and Karen’s reading weeks (after last year’s 1920 Club and 1956 Club and April’s 1936 Club). I start with a novel I actually read for my book club’s short-lived feminist classics subgroup way back in March but didn’t manage to review before now, and then have another I picked up especially for this challenge. Both were from the university library.

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

An unusual and fascinating novel with hints of science fiction, but still grounded in the real world (in a way that would attract fans of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred and Parable duology), this contrasts utopian and dystopian scenes experienced by a Latina woman who’s been confined to a mental hospital. At 37, Connie Ramos has had a tough life marked by deprivation and domestic violence; “it was a crime to be born poor as it was a crime to be born brown.” She finds herself in conversation with Luciente, a plant geneticist who claims to be visiting from the future – coastal Massachusetts in 2137 – and has heard rumors of this prior Age of Greed and Waste. Luciente senses that Connie is a “catcher,” receptive to the wavelength of other times and places.

When drawn into Luciente’s future, Connie thinks of it more as a peasant past because of the animal husbandry and agriculture, but comes to appreciate how technology and gender equality contribute to a peaceful society and environmentally restored landscape. I was intrigued by the dynamic Piercy imagines: everyone is of indeterminate gender (the universal pronouns are “person” and “per” – how about it? Both less confusing and more aesthetically pleasing than they/them!); embryos are cultured in machines and the resulting children raised communally with three honorary named “mother” figures. People choose their own names and change them in response to rites of passage. There’s no government or police. Free love reigns. “Our notions of evil center around power and greed” rather than sex, Connie is told.

With Connie and her fellow inmates facing mind-altering surgery in the ‘real’ world, Luciente’s community becomes a blessed escape. But on one of her time travels, she ends up in a dystopian future New York City instead. From 126 floors up, all that’s visible through the smoggy air is other towers. Everyone is genetically modified and everything is owned by corporations. Which scenario represents the authentic evolution of human society?

The way Piercy intersperses these visions with life at the mental hospital, and closes with excerpts from Connie’s patient notes, forces you to question whether they might all be hallucinations. We didn’t come to any firm conclusion during our Zoom discussion. The others found Connie’s life unremittingly bleak, but I love me a good mental hospital narrative. While I wearied a bit of the anthropological detail as the novel went on, I thought it an intense cultural commentary from a writer ahead of her time on gender roles and the environment (small-scale food production, foraging, renewable energy and reusing/recycling are givens in her utopia, and she questions the nonsensical reliance on cars. Why didn’t we listen to the prophets of the 1970s when we maybe had a chance to turn things around?!).

My rating:

 

The Takeover by Muriel Spark

Had I read this in manuscript with no author name attached, I might have declared it to have been written by Iris Murdoch for the clutch of amoral characters, the love triangles, the peculiar religious society, the slight meanness of the attitude, and the detachment of the prose. Maggie Radcliffe is a rich American who owns three houses in the vicinity of Rome, one of which she rents out to Hubert Mallindaine, an effete homosexual who alleges that he is descended from the goddess Diana and founds a cult in her honour. He holds to this belief as fiercely as he defends his right to remain at Nemi even when Maggie decides she wants him out and employs lawyers to start eviction proceedings. There are odd priests, adulterous family members, scheming secretaries, and art and jewellery thieves, too. I wouldn’t say I’m a fan, but I liked this, my fourth novel by Spark, better than the rest. Italian bureaucracy makes for an amusing backdrop to what is almost a financial farce with an ensemble cast.

My rating:

 

Another 1976 release I’ve reviewed this year: The Easter Parade by Richard Yates.

Short Stories in September, Part III: Butler, Costello, MacLaverty, Washington

Today I have a third set of terrific and varied short story collections. Between this, my Part I and Part II posts, and a bonus review I have coming up on Friday, I’ve gotten through 12 volumes of stories this month. This feels like a great showing for me because I don’t naturally gravitate to short stories and have to force myself to make a special effort to read them every September; otherwise, they tend to languish unread on my shelves and TBR.

From science fiction and horror tales set in alternate worlds to gritty slices of real life in Texas via two sets of quiet Irish relationship studies, this quartet of books showcases a range of tones and genres but fairly straightforward story structures and points of view. This was such a strong batch, I had to wonder why I never call myself a short story fan. All:

 

Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler (2005)

My first R.I.P. selection and one I can heartily recommend – even if you’re normally wary of dystopias, horror and science fiction. Butler makes these genres accessible by peopling her plots with relatable protagonists and carefully accounting for their bizarre predicaments without wasting time on extraneous world-building. The way in which she explores very human issues alongside the existence of alien beings reminds me of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, another of my rare forays into sci fi.

Along with the original five stories Butler published in 1970s and 1980s magazines and anthologies, this second edition contains two essays on her writing process and two new stories that date to 2003. In “Bloodchild,” a small band of humans live on another planet ruled by the Tlic, which sound like giant spiders or scorpions. Gan learns he is expected to play his part by being a surrogate for T’Gatoi’s eggs, but is haunted by what he’s heard this process involves. In a brief afterword (one is included with each piece here), Butler explains that the story arose from her terror of botflies, which she knew she might encounter in the Peruvian Amazon, and that she has always faced what scares her through her writing.

My other favorite story was “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” about a subclass of people afflicted with Duryea-Gode disease. A cruel side effect of a parent’s cancer treatment, the illness compels sufferers to self-harm and they are often confined to asylums. Lynn and Alan visit his mother in one such institution and see what their future might hold. “Speech Sounds” and “Amnesty” reminded me most of the Parable novels, with the latter’s Noah a leader figure similar to Lauren. After an apocalyptic event, people must adapt and cooperate to survive. I appreciated how the two essays value persistence – more so than talent or inspiration – as the key to success as a writer. This was my fourth book by Butler and I don’t see why I shouldn’t keep going and read her whole oeuvre. (University library)

 

The China Factory by Mary Costello (2012)

Academy Street is a near-perfect novella and I also enjoyed The River Capture, so I wanted to complete the set by reading Costello’s first book. Its dozen understated stories are about Irish men and women the course of whose lives are altered by chance meetings, surprise liaisons, or not-quite-affairs that needle them ever after with the could-have-been. The mood of gentle melancholy would suit a chilly moonlight drive along the coast road to Howth. In the opening title story, a teenage girl rides to her work sponging clay cups with an oddball named Gus. Others can’t get past things like his body odour, but when there’s a crisis at the factory she sees his calm authority save the day. Elsewhere, a gardener rushes his employer to the hospital, a woman attends her ex-husband’s funeral, and a school inspector becomes obsessed with one of the young teachers he observes.

Three favourites: In “And Who Will Pay Charon?” a man learns that, after he rejected Suzanne, she was hideously attacked in London. When she returns to the town as an old woman, he wonders what he might have done differently. “The Astral Plane” concerns a woman who strikes up a long-distance e-mail correspondence with a man from New York who picked up a book she left behind in a library. How will their intellectual affair translate into the corporeal world? The final story, “The Sewing Room,” reminded me most of Academy Street and could be a novel all of its own, as a schoolteacher and amateur fashion designer prepares for her retirement party and remembers the child she gave up for adoption. (Secondhand, gifted)

 

Blank Pages and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty (2021)

I knew from The Great Profundo that I liked MacLaverty’s stories, and I also enjoyed his latest novel, Midwinter Break, so I was delighted to hear news of a new collection. A number of the longer stories are set at turning points in twentieth-century history. In 1940, a mother is desperate to hear word of her soldier son; in 1971 Belfast, officers search a woman’s house. Two of the historical stories appealed to me for their medical elements: “The End of Days,” set in Vienna in 1918, dramatizes Egon Schiele’s fight with Spanish flu, while “Blackthorns” gives a lovely picture of how early antibiotics promoted miraculous recovery. In the title story, a cat is all a writer has left to remind him of his late wife. “Wandering” has a woman out looking for her dementia-addled mother. “The Dust Gatherer” muses on the fate of an old piano. Elderly parents and music recur, establishing filaments of thematic connection.

Three favourites: In “Glasshouses,” a man temporarily misplaces his grandchildren in the botanical gardens; “The Fairly Good Samaritan” is the fable of a jolly drunk who calls an ambulance for his poorly neighbour – but not before polishing off her brandy; and in the gorgeous “Sounds and Sweet Airs” a young woman’s harp music enthrals the passengers on a ferry.

With thanks to Jonathan Cape for the free copy for review.

 

Lot: Stories by Bryan Washington (2019)

The musical equivalent of Lot might be a mixtape played on a boombox or blasted from an open-top Corvette while touring the streets of Houston, Texas. Most of this Dylan Thomas Prize-winning linked collection follows Nic, a mixed-race Black/Latino boy who works in the family restaurant. As his family situation realigns – his father leaves, his older brother Javi enlists, his sister Jan has a baby – he’s trying to come to terms with his homosexuality and wondering if this gentrifying city suits him anymore. But he knows he’ll take himself wherever he goes, and as the book closes with “Elgin” (the most similar in mood and setup to Washington’s debut novel, Memorial) he’s thinking of taking a chance on love.

Drug dealers, careworn immigrants and prostitutes: Even the toughest guys have tender hearts in these stories. Eleven of 13 stories are in the first person. Where the narration isn’t Nic’s, it’s usually the collective voice of the neighbourhood boys. As far as I can tell, most of the story titles refer to Houston sites: particular addresses or neighbourhoods, or more vague locations. Like in Memorial, there are no speech marks. Washington’s prose is earthy and slang-filled. The matter-of-fact phrasing made me laugh: “He knocked her up in the usual way. For six minutes it looked like he’d stick around”; “He’d been staying there since the Great Thanksgiving Rupture, back when his brother’d found the dick pic in his pillowcase.” With the melting pot of cultures, the restaurant setting, and the sharp humour, this reminded me of Elaine Castillo’s America Is Not the Heart.

Three favourites: In “Shepherd,” the narrator emulates a glamorous cousin from Jamaica; “Bayou” is completely different from the rest, telling the urban legend of a “chupacubra” (a mythical creature like a coyote); “Waugh,” the longest story and one of just two told in the third person, is about a brothel’s worth of male sex workers and their pimp. Its final page is devastating. Despite their bravado, Washington’s characters are as vulnerable as Brandon Taylor’s. I think of these two young gay African American writers as being similar at root even though their style and approach are so very different. (New purchase)

 

A side note: I’m wondering how an author chooses primarily first person or third person POVs for short stories. MacLaverty and Taylor write exclusively in an omniscient third person; Washington and Eley Williams almost always plump for the first person. (Here, Butler was about half and half and Costello only used first person in three stories.) Is the third person seen as more impartial and commanding – a more elevated form of fiction? Is first person more immediate, informal and natural, but also perhaps too easy? I wouldn’t say I prefer one or the other (not in my novels, either); it all depends on the execution. Notably, none of this year’s stories were in the second person or employed experimental structures.

 


Two more collections I’m reading are spilling across into October for R.I.P., but will I keep up the short story habit after that? I still have a shelf full of unread story collections, and I have my eye on My Monticello, which I got from NetGalley…

Six Degrees of Separation: Second Place to Woman on the Edge of Time

The last Six Degrees of Separation post I did was back in April; I’ve fallen out of the habit since then. But this month an idea seized me and I’m back! This time we begin with Second Place by Rachel Cusk, which is on the Booker Prize longlist. (See Kate’s opening post.)

When I saw Cusk speak at the online Hay Festival, I learned that Second Place (my review) was loosely inspired by Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir Lorenzo in Taos, about the time when D.H. Lawrence came to visit her in New Mexico. Thoughts of Lawrence in Taos inevitably take me back to my first (and only) academic conference in 2005, hosted by the D.H. Lawrence Society of North America in Santa Fe, with a fieldtrip out to his Taos ranch.

 

#1 One of the books I read ‘in preparation’ for attending that conference was Small World by David Lodge, a comedic novel about professors on the international conference circuit. I’ve included it as one of the Landmark Books of My Life.

 

#2 Flights and “small world” connections also fill the linked short story collection Turbulence by David Szalay.

 

#3 If you can bear to remember the turbulence of recent history, UnPresidented by Jon Sopel is a breezy diary of the 2020 U.S. election. We were lucky enough to have the author, a BBC presenter and brother of one of our members, join our book club discussion on Zoom.

 

#4 That punning title reminded me of A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson, his first and probably best work of popular science – all of his books since have been very similar, but that’s no problem because his enthusiasm for insect life is infectious and he writes with the wit and charm of Gerald Durrell.

 

#5 Goulson’s latest book, which I’ve recently reviewed for Shelf Awareness, is called Silent Earth, about the grave threats that insects face (pesticides, invasive species, climate change and much more). It’s the second book I’ve read in recent years (the first was Losing Eden by Lucy Jones) that is explicitly based on or inspired by Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Like Carson’s book, these seek to effect real societal change.

#6 Carson, Goulson and Jones all conjure up dystopian scenarios of unimaginable natural loss to spur readers into action. A feminist classic my book club read earlier in the year, Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, contrasts utopian and dystopian scenes experienced by a Latina woman who’s been confined to a mental hospital. Will society evolve into a utopian vision of subsistence living and absolute gender equality, or move towards further isolation and urban barrenness? It’s an unusual and fascinating novel with hints of science fiction, but grounded in the real world. I still haven’t managed to review it, but next month’s 1976 Club may be just the excuse I need. Do give it a try!

Cycling round from one feminist novel to another, I’ve also featured a couple of personal favourites, some recent works, and a classic of nature writing.

Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.) Next month’s R.I.P.-appropriate starting point is the short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson.

Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?

Adventures in Rereading: Madeleine L’Engle and Posy Simmonds

I’m not doing as well with my rereading goal this year as I did in 2020. So far I’ve gotten to The Republic of Love by Carol Shields and the two below (with another DNF). Considering that I completed 16 rereads last year, I’m looking seriously behind. I still have a bulging shelf of books I’d like to reread, but they never seem to make it onto my current reading stack…

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)

I probably picked this up at age seven or so as a natural follow-on from the Chronicles of Narnia – both are well-regarded children’s sci fi/fantasy from an author with a Christian worldview. In my memory I didn’t connect with L’Engle’s work particularly well, finding it vague and cerebral, if creative, compared to Lewis’s. I don’t think I ever went on to the multiple sequels. As an adult I’ve enjoyed L’Engle’s autobiographical and spiritual writing, especially the Crosswicks Journals, so I thought I’d give her best-known book another try.

On a proverbially dark and stormy night, Meg Murry and her precocious little brother Charles Wallace come down to the kitchen to join their mother for a snack. In blows Mrs. Whatsit with the promise of a way of rescuing their missing scientist father through a “tesseract,” or wrinkle in time. Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, rounding out a trio of Macbeth-like witches, accompany the children and their friend Calvin on a perilous journey to face up to cosmic darkness in the form of a disembodied brain called IT that keeps their father hostage and tries to entrance Charles Wallace as well.

Interplanetary stories have never held a lot of interest for me. (As a child, I was always more drawn to talking-animal stuff.) Again I found the travels and settings hazy. It’s admirable of L’Engle to introduce kids to basic quantum physics, and famous quotations via Mrs. Who, but this all comes across as consciously intellectual rather than organic and compelling. Even the home and school talk feels dated. I most appreciated the thought of a normal – or even not very bright – child like Meg saving the day through bravery and love. This wasn’t for me, but I hope that for some kids, still, it will be pure magic.

Favorite lines:

“The only way to cope with something deadly serious is to try to treat it a little lightly.”

“we can’t take any credit for our talents. It’s how we use them that counts.”


Original rating (as remembered from childhood):

My rating now:

 

Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds (2007)

This must be one of the first graphic novels I ever read. Hearing that it was an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, one of my favorite novels, was enough to attract me. During the years that I worked at King’s College London, I took full advantage of Lambeth Library’s extensive graphic novel collection and would pick up big piles of all sorts of books on my lunch breaks – I got a gentle ribbing from library staff nearly every time I showed up. Anyway, this is all backstory to me finding a severely underpriced secondhand copy (99p! the dear old ladies pricing things couldn’t have known what they had) in the Hay-on-Wye Oxfam shop in April 2017. It took me until earlier this year to reread it, though.

Simmonds recreates the central situation of FFTMC – an alluring young woman returns to her ancestral village and enraptures three very different men – but doesn’t stick slavishly to its plot. Her greatest innovation is in the narration. Set in and around a writers’ retreat, the novel is told in turns by Dr. Glen Larson, a (chubby, Bryson-esque) visiting American academic trying to get to grips with his novel; Beth Hardiman, who runs the retreat center and does all the admin for her philandering crime writer husband, Nicholas; and Casey Shaw, a lower-class teenager who, with her bold pal Jody, observes all the goings-on among the posh folk from the local bus shelter and later gets unexpectedly drawn in to their lives.

Tamara is a hotshot London journalist and, after a nose job, is irresistible to men. Andy Cobb, the Hardimans’ groundsman, runs a small organic food business and is a clear stand-in for Hardy’s Farmer Oak. He’s known Tamara nearly all their lives, and isn’t fussed about her new appearance and glitzy reputation. But she certainly turns Nicholas’s head, and also draws the attention of Ben, former drummer for a washed-up band. Tamara and Ben are a power couple in this sleepy village, and stir up jealousy. Ben is closest to Sergeant Troy, but he and Nicholas (who’s most like Boldwood) aren’t one-to-one equivalents. Casey and Jody fill the role of the servants and rustics, with chavs serving as the early 21st-century peasantry.

So Simmonds takes what she wants from Hardy, but adapts it as it suits her. There are a lot of words on the page compared to some graphic novels, so this would be a good halfway house for someone who’s new to comics for adults and still wants a good story to get the teeth into. At nearly 150 pages, there’s plenty of time for Simmonds to spin an involved, dramatic tale and give insight into her characters and their interactions. One ends up feeling, perhaps inevitably, more sympathy for the narrators than for the other characters, but all are well drawn. There’s a surprise ending, too. Back in 2010 I was probably more interested in getting a straight Hardy remake, so might have been disappointed when Simmonds strayed from the source material, but now I thoroughly enjoyed this for its own sake.


Original rating (2010?):

My rating now:

And a DNF:

I’ve long considered A.S. Byatt a favorite author, and early last year my reread of one of her story collections was successful. But trying again with The Biographer’s Tale (2000) – which I remember reading in an airport as I traveled to or from Leeds, where I was doing a Master’s degree, to see my family for Christmas in 2005/6 – was a lost cause. I remembered an intricate, clever, witty take on the biographer’s art, but couldn’t have recited any details for you. I managed about the first 100 pages this time. Phineas G. sets out to write a biography of famous biographer Scholes Destry-Scholes, whose subjects included Francis Galton, Henrik Ibsen, and Carl Linnaeus. The novel quotes extensively from Destry-Scholes’s writing on these three, and his general notes on writing biography. I got lost somewhere in the documents. I think in my early twenties I was more impressed by virtuoso faux-scholarly writing like you often get in Byatt or Julian Barnes. Alas, it engages me less now.

Done any rereading lately?

The Best Books of 2020: Some Runners-Up

I’ve chosen 25 more cracking reads that were first released in 2020. (Asterisks = my hidden gems of the year.) Between this post and my Fiction/Poetry and Nonfiction best-of lists, I’ve now highlighted about the top 12% of my year’s reading.

 

Novels:

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: Like some lost mid-career gem from Toni Morrison, this novel is meaty with questions of racial and sexual identity. Light-skinned African-American twins’ paths divide in 1950s Louisiana. Perceptive and beautifully written, this has characters whose struggles feel genuine and pertinent.

 

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: To start with, Piranesi traverses his watery labyrinth like he’s an eighteenth-century adventurer, his resulting notebooks reading rather like Alexander von Humboldt’s writing. I admired how the novel moved from the fantastical and abstract into the real and gritty. Read it even if you say you don’t like fantasy.

 

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan: At 22, Ava leaves Dublin to teach English as a foreign language to wealthy preteens and almost accidentally embarks on affairs with an English guy and a Chinese girl. Dolan has created a funny, deadpan voice that carries the entire novel. I loved the psychological insight, the playfulness with language, and the zingy one-liners.

 

*A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler: Issues of race and privilege undermine a teen romance in a perfect-seeming North Carolina community. This is narrated in a first-person plural voice, like the Greek chorus of a classical tragedy. If you loved An American Marriage, it should be next on your list. I’m puzzled by how overlooked it’s been this year.

 

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi: A more subdued and subtle book than Homegoing, 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 reward circuits in the mouse brain. There’s also a complex mother–daughter relationship and musings on love and risk. [To be published in the UK in March]

 

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: A rich, natural exploration of a place and time period – full of detail but wearing its research lightly. Inspired by a real-life storm that struck on Christmas Eve 1617 and wiped out the male population of the Norwegian island of Vardø, it intimately portrays the lives of the women left behind. Tender, surprising, and harrowing.

 

Sisters by Daisy Johnson: Teenagers September and July were born just 10 months apart, with July always in thrall to her older sister. For much of this short novel, Johnson keeps readers guessing as to why the girls’ mother, Sheela, took them away to Settle House, her late husband’s family home in the North York Moors. As mesmerizing as it is unsettling.

 

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd: Kidd’s bold fourth novel started as a what-if question: What if Jesus had a wife? Although this retells biblical events, it is chiefly an attempt to illuminate women’s lives in the 1st century and to chart the female contribution to sacred literature and spirituality. An engrossing story of women’s intuition and yearning.

 

*The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson: Intense and convincing, this balances historical realism and magical elements. In mid-1850s Scotland, there is a move to ensure clean water. The Glasgow waterworks’ physician’s wife meets a strange minister who died in 1692. A rollicking read with medical elements and a novel look into Victorian women’s lives.

 

*The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting: In this first book of a magic-fueled historical trilogy, progress, religion, and superstition are forces fighting for the soul of a late-nineteenth-century Norwegian village. Mytting constructs the novel around compelling dichotomies. Astrid, a feminist ahead of her time, vows to protect the ancestral church bells.

 

What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez: The narrator is called upon to help a terminally ill friend commit suicide. The voice is not solely or even primarily the narrator’s but Other: art consumed and people encountered become part of her own story; curiosity about other lives fuels empathy. A quiet novel that sneaks up to seize you by the heartstrings.

 

Weather by Jenny Offill: A blunt, unromanticized, wickedly funny novel about how eco-anxiety permeates everyday life, written in an aphoristic style. Set either side of Trump’s election in 2016, the novel amplifies many voices prophesying doom. Offill’s observations are dead right. This felt like a perfect book for 2020 and its worries.

 

Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward: An intriguing set of linked short stories that combine philosophy and science fiction. Rachel and Eliza are preparing to have a baby together when an ant crawls into Rachel’s eye and she falls ill. I was particularly taken by the chapter narrated by the ant. It’s well worth making a rare dip into sci-fi for this one.

 

*The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts: The young female narrator of this debut novel lives in Sydney and works for Australia’s emergency call service. Against a backdrop of flooding and bush fires, a series of personal catastrophes play out. A timely, quietly forceful story of how women cope with concrete and existential threats.

 

 

Short Stories:

To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss: These 10 stories from the last 18 years are melancholy and complex, often featuring several layers of Jewish family history. Europe, Israel, and film are frequent points of reference. “Future Emergencies,” though set just after 9/11, ended up feeling the most contemporary because it involves gas masks and other disaster preparations.

 

*Help Yourself by Curtis Sittenfeld: A bonus second UK release from Sittenfeld in 2020 after Rodham. Just three stories, but not leftovers; a strong follow-up to You Think It, I’ll Say It. They share the theme of figuring out who you really are versus what others think of you. “White Women LOL,” especially, compares favorably to Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age.

 

You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South: In this debut collection, characters turn to technology to stake a claim on originality, compensate for losses, and leave a legacy. These 10 quirky, humorous stories never strayed so far into science fiction as to alienate me. I loved the medical themes and subtle, incisive observations about a technology-obsessed culture.

 

 

Poetry:

*Survival Is a Style by Christian Wiman: Wiman examines Christian faith in the shadow of cancer. This is the third of his books that I’ve read, and I’m consistently impressed by how he makes room for doubt, bitterness, and irony – yet a flame of faith remains. There is really interesting phrasing and vocabulary in this volume.

 

 

Nonfiction:

Inferno: A Memoir by Catherine Cho: Cho experienced stress-induced postpartum psychosis after the birth of her son. She alternates between her time in the mental hospital and her life before the breakdown, weaving in family history and Korean sayings and legends. It’s a painstakingly vivid account.

 

*The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland: DNA tests can find missing relatives within days. But there are troubling aspects to this new industry, including privacy concerns, notions of racial identity, and criminal databases. A thought-provoking book with all the verve and suspense of fiction.

 

*Signs of Life: To the Ends of the Earth with a Doctor by Stephen Fabes: Fabes is an emergency room doctor in London and spent six years of the past decade cycling six continents. This warm-hearted and laugh-out-loud funny account of his travels achieves a perfect balance between world events, everyday discomforts, and humanitarian volunteering.

 

Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild by Lucy Jones: Nature’s positive effect on human mental health is something we know intuitively and can explain anecdotally, but Jones wanted to investigate the scientific mechanism behind it. Losing Eden is full of common sense and passion, cramming in lots of information yet never losing sight of the big picture.

 

*Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (As Told to Me) Story by Bess Kalb: Jewish grandmothers are renowned for their fiercely protective love, but also for nagging. Both sides of the stereotypical matriarch are on display in this funny, heartfelt family memoir, narrated in the second person – as if from beyond the grave – by her late grandmother. A real delight.

 

Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty: McAnulty is a leader in the UK’s youth environmental movement and an impassioned speaker on the love of nature. This is a wonderfully observant and introspective account of his fifteenth year and the joys of everyday encounters with wildlife. Impressive perspective and lyricism.

 

Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey: Trethewey grew up biracial in 1960s Mississippi, then moved with her mother to Atlanta. Her stepfather was abusive; her mother’s murder opens and closes the book. Trethewey only returned to their Memorial Drive apartment after 30 years had passed. A striking memoir, delicate and painful.

 

(Books not pictured were read digitally, or have already gone back to the library.)

 

Coming tomorrow: My best backlist reads of the year.

Booker Prize 2020: Two More Shortlist Reviews and a Prediction

The 2020 Booker Prize will be announced on Thursday the 19th. (Delayed from the 17th, the date on my commemorative bookmark, so as not to be overshadowed by the release of the first volume of Barack Obama’s presidential memoirs.) After I reviewed Burnt Sugar and correctly predicted half of the shortlist in this post, I’ve managed to finish another two of the novels on the shortlist, along with two more from the longlist. As sometimes happens with prize lists – thinking also of the Women’s Prize race in 2019 – this year’s shortlist fell into rough pairs: two stark mother–daughter narratives, two novels set in Africa, and two gay coming-of-age stories.

 

The New Wilderness by Diane Cook

In a striking opening to a patchy novel, Bea goes off to the woods to give birth alone to a stillborn daughter. It’s such a different experience to when she birthed Agnes in a hospital eight years ago. Now, with coyotes and buzzards already circling, there’s no time for sentimentality; she turns her back on the baby and returns to the group. Bea is part of a wilderness living experiment that started out with 20 volunteers, but illness and accidents have since reduced their number.

Back in the toxic, overcrowded City, Bea was an interior decorator and her partner a professor of anthropology. Bea left to give Agnes a better chance at life; like so many other children, she had become ill from her polluted surroundings. Now she is a bright, precocious leader in the making, fully participating in the community’s daily chores. Settlement tempts them, but the Rangers enforce nomadism. Newcomers soon swell their numbers, and there are rumors of other groups, too. Is it even a wilderness anymore if so many people live in it?

The cycles of seasons and treks between outposts make it difficult to get a handle on time’s passing. It’s a jolt to realize Agnes is now of childbearing age. Only when motherhood is a possibility can she fully understand her own mother’s decisions, even if she determines to not repeat the history of abandonment. The blurb promised a complex mother–daughter relationship, but this element of the story felt buried under the rigor of day-to-day survival.

It is as if Cook’s primary interest was in how humans would react to being returned to primitive hunter–gatherer conditions – she did a lot of research into Native American practices, for instance, and she explores the dynamics of sex and power and how legends arise. As a child I was fascinated by Native cultures and back-to-the-land stories, so I enjoyed the details of packing lists, habits, and early rituals that form around a porcelain teacup.

But for me some nuts and bolts of storytelling were lacking here: a propulsive plot, a solid backstory, secondary characters that are worthwhile in their own right and not just stereotypes and generic roles. The appealing description induced me to overcome my usual wariness about dystopian novels, but a plodding pace meant it took me months to read. A lovely short epilogue narrated by Agnes made me wonder how much less tedious this chronicle might have been if told in the first person by Bea and Agnes in turn. I’ll try Cook’s story collection, Man V. Nature, to see if her gifts are more evident in short form.

My rating:

My thanks to Oneworld for the free copy for review.

 

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Over the course of one late summer weekend, Wallace questions everything about the life he has built. As a gay African American, he has always been an outsider at the Midwestern university where he’s a graduate student in biochemistry. Though they vary in background and include several homosexuals, some partnered and some unattached, most of his friends are white, and he’s been so busy that he’s largely missed out on evening socializing by the lake – and skipped his father’s funeral (though there are other reasons for that as well).

Tacit prejudice comes out into the open in ugly ways in these few days. When he finds his nematode experiments sabotaged, a female colleague at his lab accuses him of misogyny, brandishing his identity as a weapon against him: “you think that you get to walk around because you’re gay and black and act like you can do no wrong.” Then, in a deliciously awkward dinner party scene, an acquaintance brings up Wallace’s underprivileged Alabama upbringing as if it explains why he’s struggling to cope in his academic career.

Meanwhile, Wallace has hooked up with a male – and erstwhile straight – friend, and though there is unwonted tenderness in this relationship, there is also a hint of menace. The linking of sexuality and violence echoes the memories of abuse from Wallace’s childhood, which tumble out in the first-person stream of consciousness of Chapter 5. Other male friends, too, are getting together or breaking apart over mismatched expectations. Kindness is possible, but built-in injustice and cruelty, whether vengeful or motiveless, too often take hold.

There are moments when Wallace seems too passive or self-pitying, but the omniscient narration emphasizes that all of the characters have hidden depths and that emotions ebb and flow. What looks like despair on Saturday night might feel like no big deal come Monday morning. I so admired how this novel was constructed: the condensed timeframe, the first and last chapters in the past tense (versus the rest in the present tense), the contrast between the cerebral and the bodily, and the thematic and linguistic nods to Virginia Woolf. A very fine debut indeed.

My rating:

 

I also read two more of the longlisted novels from the library:

 

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such a fun book! I’d read the first chapter earlier in the year and set it aside, thinking it was too hip for me. I’m glad I decided to try again – it was a great read, so assured and contemporary. Once I got past a slightly contrived first chapter, I found it completely addictive. The laser-precision plotting and characterization reminded me of Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith at their peak, but the sassy voice is all Reid’s own. There are no clear villains here; Alix Chamberlain could easily have filled that role, but I felt for her and for Kelley as much as I did for Emira. The fact that I didn’t think anyone was completely wrong shows how much nuance Reid worked in. The question of privilege is as much about money as it is about race, and these are inextricably intertwined.

 

Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward

An intriguing set of linked short stories that combine philosophy and science fiction. Rachel and Eliza are preparing to have a baby together when an ant crawls into Rachel’s eye and she falls ill. Eliza wants to believe her partner but, as a scientist, can’t affirm something that doesn’t make sense (“We don’t need to resort to the mystical to describe physical processes,” she says). Other chapters travel to Turkey, Brazil and Texas – and even into space. It takes 60+ pages to figure out, but you can trust all the threads will converge around Rachel and her son, Arthur, who becomes an astronaut. I was particularly taken by a chapter narrated by the ant (yes, really) as it explores Rachel’s brain. Each section is headed by a potted explanation of a thought experiment from philosophy. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the alternative future of the two final chapters. Still, I was impressed with the book’s risk-taking and verve. It’s well worth making a rare dip into sci-fi for this one.

 


Back in September I still thought Hilary Mantel would win the whole thing, but since her surprise omission from the shortlist I’ve assumed the prize will go to Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. This was a DNF for me, but I’ll try it again next year in case it was just a matter of bad timing (like the Reid and The Go-Between – two books I attempted a second time this year and ended up loving). Given that it was my favorite of the ones I read, I would be delighted to see Real Life win, but I think it unlikely. My back-up prediction is The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, which I would consider reserving from the library if it wins.

 

Have you read anything from the Booker shortlist?

Which book do you expect to win?

Short Stories in September, Part I

Each September I make a bit more of an effort to read short stories, which otherwise tend to sit on my shelves and Kindle unread. I’ve read three collections recently, all of them released this August or September, and I have a few more on the go to report on later in the month.

 

Likes by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

This was a hit and miss collection for me: I only loved one of the stories, and enjoyed another three; touches of magic realism à la Aimee Bender produce the two weakest stories, and there are a few that simply tail off without having made a point. My favorite was “Many a Little Makes,” about a trio of childhood best friends whose silly sleepover days come to an end as they develop separate interests and one girl sleeps with another one’s brother. In “Tell Me My Name,” set in a post-economic collapse California, an actress who was a gay icon back in New York City pitches a TV show to the narrator’s wife, who makes kids’ shows.

“Julia and Sunny,” about two couples – one that makes it and one that doesn’t – who all met in medical school, reminded me of a Wallace Stegner plot. “The Bears” has a wispy resemblance to Goldilocks and the Three Bears and stars a woman convalescing from a miscarriage at a retreat center while writing a chapter on William James. In James’s famous metaphor involving a bear, bodily action precedes emotion – we are afraid because we flee; not vice versa. The touch of magic in this story is light enough to not be off-putting, whereas “The Erlking” and “The Young Wife’s Tale” take their fairy tale similarities too far.

The title story, about a father trying to understand his 12-year-old through her Instagram posts either side of the Trump election, is promising but doesn’t go anywhere, and “The Burglar” and “Bedtime Story” struck me as equally insubstantial, making nothing of their setups. Seven of these nine stories had been previously published in other publications in some form.

My rating:

Published in the USA by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I read an advanced e-copy via Edelweiss.

 

Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons

Parsons’s debut collection, longlisted for the U.S. National Book Award in 2019, contains a dozen gritty stories set in or remembering her native Texas. Eleven of the 12 are in the first person, with the mostly female narrators unnamed or underdeveloped and thus difficult to differentiate from each other. The homogeneity of voice and recurring themes – drug use, dysfunctional families, overweight bodies, lesbian or lopsided relationships – lead to monotony.

“Glow Hunter” and “We Don’t Come Natural to It” are representative: in the former, Sarah and her girlfriend Bo have sex and go for a drive while tripping on magic mushrooms; in the latter, the narrator has a crush on her co-worker Suki, who has lost 200 pounds, and they remain obsessed with their and others’ fat bodies (the references are inescapable: “a pudgy,” “the fatty,” “some cow,” “thinspiration”). The opening story, “Guts,” is uncomfortable for the way that it both fetishizes fat and medicalizes sex: when unreliable, alcoholic receptionist Sheila turns up at her boyfriend Tim’s hospital saying there’s something wrong with her internally, he performs an examination that’s part striptease and part children playing doctor.

“The Light Will Pour In” is refreshingly different for its Lolita-type situation. “Into the Fold,” set at a girls’ boarding school, reminded me of Scarlett Thomas’s Oligarchy. In “Fiddlebacks,” my favorite, siblings on a night hunt for creepy-crawlies come across their newly religious mother and the handyman trysting in a car. “Starlite,” the only one in the third person, has colleagues, one a supervisor and both married, meet up in a seedy motel for drugs and junk food. The shortest stories at just a few pages each, “In Our Circle” and “The Animal Part” animate art therapy in a mental hospital and urban legends told while camping (though I’d forgotten it, I’d encountered the former in The Best Small Fictions 2017).

These stories engaged me at neither the sentence level nor the plot level, but many readers (and critics) have felt otherwise. Here are two lines I liked, from “Glow Hunter”: “Bo says everything that scares you is something to poke at with a stick, to pick up and turn in your hands” & “I’m very aware that we are organisms on the surface of a rock, orbiting a burning star.”

My rating:

My thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.

 

You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South

“In the modern world, you might be easily forgotten, but you could also carve out your own niche.”

In the 10 stories of this debut collection, characters turn to technology to stake a claim on originality, compensate for their losses, and leave a legacy. In “Keith Prime,” a widowed nurse works at a warehouse that produces unconscious specimens for organ harvesting. When her favorite Keith wakes up, she agrees to raise him at home, but human development and emotional connection are inconveniences in a commodity. The narrator of “FAQs about Your Craniotomy” is a female brain surgeon who starts out by giving literal answers to potential patient questions and then segues into bitterly funny reflections on life after her husband’s suicide.

In “Architecture for Monsters,” a young woman interviews Helen Dannenforth, a formidable female architect whose designs are inspired by anatomy, specifically by her disabled daughter’s condition. The narrator’s mother, a molecular biologist, was assaulted and murdered by a lab technician. Dannenforth is a hero/replacement mother figure to her, even after she learns about the complicated situation with the architect’s sister, who was the surrogate for her niece but then got cut out of the child’s life.

I particularly liked “The Age of Love,” a funny one in which the nurses at a nursing home listen in to their elderly patients’ calls to phone sex lines. Their conversations aren’t about smut so much as they’re about loneliness and nostalgia. Another favorite of mine was “Camp Jabberwocky for Recovering Internet Trolls,” about a Martha’s Vineyard camp for teens who need a better relationship with social media. When camper Rex Hasselbach, who had posted foul content in his father’s name to get revenge on being beaten up at home, goes missing, three counselors with guilt or identity issues of their own go looking for him. The title story also engages with social media as a woman obsessively tracks her rapist and works as a “digital media curator” deleting distressing video content.

All of the characters have had a bereavement or other traumatic incident and are looking for the best way to move on, but some make bizarre and unhealthy decisions – such as to restage events from a dead daughter’s life, to breastfeed grown men, or to communicate by text with a deceased wife. These quirky, humorous stories never strayed so far into science fiction as to alienate me. I loved the medical themes and the subtle, incisive observations about a technology-obsessed culture. I’ll be looking out for what Mary South does next.

(Note: The cover image is a creepily pixelated version of the author’s photo.)

My rating:

My thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.

 

Are you a short story fan? Read any good ones recently?