There was a phenomenal program for this year’s digital Hay Festival. I signed up to a whopping eight events and enjoyed them all. If you missed watching live, it’s not too late to donate and catch up on the archived talks. For three of these, the host-cum-interviewer appeared in person on a studio stage, with the guest(s) joining, perhaps from thousands of miles away, on a large screen mounted on the wall behind them. I thought this was a neat hybrid approach. The rest of my sessions had interviewer and interviewee appearing remotely on a split screen. Let me know which, if any, events you attended and how you found them.
Flanagan’s The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is my novel of 2021 so far (my review), so it was a delight to hear him say more (and in that fantastic accent) about it in the course of a conversation with Stephanie Merritt. Tasmania, where he lives, had always seemed like an ark for species, but now they are vanishing. Ninety percent of the kelp forest has disappeared within the last 20 years because of warming oceans; there are only 300 swift parrots remaining; and the bushfires of 2018–19 were unprecedented in severity. Although he had already roughed out the novel by the time of the fires, Flanagan said he rewrote it in response to the sense of accelerating environmental collapse.
The novel’s twin themes are species extinction and personal extinction, with an elderly family matriarch being kept alive at all costs. Flanagan spoke of the “evasions of the soul” that make us ignore the environmental losses around us and refuse to die – “the final avoidance of life.” He thinks the pandemic has forced people to rethink these ideas and ponder the meaning of life. At age 21, he nearly drowned while kayaking, and ever since he has been frightened not of death, but of the pain of dying. He is not optimistic per se, but hopeful because the world is still so beautiful – on the island he goes to for writing, he is surrounded by wild creatures.
Merritt asked about the novel’s magic realist element and how stylistically different his novels have been from each other. He was glad she found the book funny, as “life is tragicomic.” In an effort not to get stuck in a rut, he deliberately ‘breaks the mould’ after each book and starts over. This has not made him popular with his publisher!
- The one obligation of a writer? “Not to be boring.”
- Novels are not about messages; “that’s what Twitter is for.”
- “To despair is rational, but to hope is the very essence of what it means to be human.”
Rachel Clarke interviewing Jim Down and Michael Rosen
All three authors have written books about the coronavirus pandemic (I have reviewed Clarke’s Breathtaking and Rosen’s Many Different Kinds of Love). Clarke said that the belief foundational to the NHS is that all lives have equal value, but as an ICU doctor Down found that the question of who would benefit most from the use of ventilation was creeping in as there was a risk that there would be more patients than there was equipment to treat them with. With decisions needing to be made very quickly, his hospital adopted the “three wise people” collaborative method. The element that often felt lost, however, was the patient’s wishes, since they might be unresponsive and no family or other visitors were around.
Rosen, who contracted Covid-19 in March 2020 and was in an induced coma for six weeks, included letters from his medical team in his book to give a 360° view of NHS treatment. He thinks of the NHS as being almost in the role of parents, giving altruistic care and support. “Tell the truth about herd immunity” was his pithy message to the government. He read the poem “These Are the Hands,” which he wrote for the 60th anniversary of the NHS, to close.
Bryan Washington and Raven Leilani
Last year’s Dylan Thomas Prize winner interviewed this year’s winner, and it was clear that the mutual admiration was strong. Though I had mixed feelings about Luster (my review), I was blown away by this high-level intellectual discussion. Both authors are invested in the debate around what it means to be a Black artist. Leilani said she did not want to make concessions in the form of Edie comporting herself better; this character is open about her wants, giving the novel a libidinal flavour. She said she almost envies her protagonist her autonomy, and thinks of the novel as a letter to her old self, granting permission and reassuring herself that “the mess has merit.”
- Writing offers Leilani a sanctuary or sense of control.
- While Washington sees works full of strife, grief, and malice as most likely to be considered the pinnacle of American literary fiction, he admires Luster for its theme of communion (especially via the character Akila).
- Leilani sees her novel as being in conversation with Queenie, Sula, The New Me, and Detransition, Baby.
Shipstead (also a Dylan Thomas Prize winner) echoed something Leilani had said: that she starts a novel with questions, not answers. Such humility is refreshing, and a sure way to avoid being preachy in fiction. Her new novel, Great Circle, is among my most anticipated books of the year and tells the stories of a fictional female pilot from the golden age of aviation and the actress playing her in a biopic. The book was long in the gestation: In 2012 Shipstead saw a sculpture commemorating a female pilot in Auckland, and in 2014 she started researching. She came to appreciate the miracle of flight and read many books by and about female pilots. The book is dedicated to her brother, recently retired from 20 years in the Air Force. She told Sameer Rahim that, although she used to say this is not a love story, she has since changed her mind.
- Shipstead was a competitive show jumper and applied to a creative writing program on a whim.
- She has made a name for herself as a travel writer, too, often combining magazine assignments with her research for the novel (e.g., various trips to Antarctica).
- While she has appreciated the year off from Covid, she is looking forward to getting back to travelling; her first booking is a women’s wilderness experience in Alaska.
Lockwood is the only novelist to be included on the Atlantic’s roster of best tweets. She and Nina Stibbe, who interviewed her, agreed that 1) things aren’t funny when they try too hard and 2) the Internet used to be a taboo subject for fiction – producing time-stamped references that editors used to remove. “I had so many observations and I didn’t know where to put them,” Lockwood said, and it seems to her perverse to not write about something that is such a major part of our daily lives. The title of her Women’s Prize-shortlisted novel, No One Is Talking About This (my review), refers to many things, including this reticence to grant the Internet a place in our discourse.
Lockwood said she has been delighted by the high-quality literary pieces coming out about her book, often in comparison with Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts. The timing of the publication meant that her initial (U.S.) media interviews ended up being more about Trump than she would have liked. “I think I’m not a natural fiction writer,” she said; it’s true that the novel is so autobiographical it can only be described as autofiction – the second half is all true and all sincere, she was careful to point out – but it’s a gem.
Like Lockwood, Pachico was part of the “10 @ 10” series featuring debut novelists (though her first book, the linked story collection The Lucky Ones, was marketed as a novel in the USA). Her new book, The Anthill, another of my most anticipated books of the year, is about a young woman returning to Medellín, Colombia, where Pachico spent her formative years. Although she is not a citizen and only goes back on a tourist visa, it feels like going home each time. For her, writing fiction has been a way of sorting out her feelings about the place. She wrote 50,000 words of the novel at her sister’s apartment in Medellín. Pachico told Rosie Goldsmith that, though she considers herself part of the Latin American literary tradition, she is conscious of presenting the country to English-speaking readers: a politically divided place that has gentrified in pockets, but is still plagued by extreme poverty and hardship. She described The Anthill as “a ghost story without ghosts.” I can’t wait to dive into my copy.
Speaking to Arifa Akbar about The Vanishing Half, Bennett admitted that she was worried a historical setting was a cop-out, but reassured herself that she was not writing out of nostalgia and that she did not allow readers a sense of distance – the characters are so ordinary that we know we’d do the same sorts of things. She thinks of passing as a distinctly American project of self-reinvention but acknowledged that we have no definitive statistics on it because, if someone succeeds, they disappear. Some of Stella’s psychology – a very interior character who makes decisions that are difficult to understand – came from her reading of Playing Dead by Elizabeth Greenwood. She loves writing about small towns because they force people to interact with each other. Akbar noted that passing is a double-edged sword, involving subterfuge but also offering liberation (e.g. for a trans character later in the book).
- “That’s the most exciting place to be, writing into a mystery.”
- “Race is a fiction, but racism is a reality.”
- An HBO adaptation is in the works, but Bennett doesn’t know if it will cast real twins, two actors, or meld separate people using CGI.
Rachel Cusk and Sheila Heti
I’ve read more of and gotten on better with Heti’s work than Cusk’s, so this was a rare case of being perhaps more interested in interviewer than interviewee. Heti said that, compared with the Outline trilogy, Cusk’s new novel Second Place feels wilder and more instinctual. Cusk, speaking from the Greek island of Tinos, where she is researching marble quarrying, described her book in often vague yet overall intriguing terms: it’s about exile and the illicit, she said; about femininity and entitlement to speak; about the domestic space and how things are legitimized; about the adoption of male values and the “rightness of the artist.”
Ironically, given that Cusk initially hesitated over revealing her debt to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir Lorenzo in Taos, much of the discussion ended up revolving around Luhan and D.H. Lawrence, about whom Cusk now considers herself an amateur scholar. In his personal writings he reserved special scorn for Luhan, with whom he stayed in New Mexico in the 1920s. This was something Cusk wanted to explore: misogyny and Luhan’s “voice of obscurity.” She hopes that her book will contribute to a better understanding of Luhan’s; not vice versa.
- A reviewer noted the use of exclamation points, counting 189 of them in the novel. Cusk equates an exclamation point to a laying down of arms – proof that someone (especially her protagonist, M) means to be nonthreatening.
- Cusk thinks of this book as being like a play: staged and in the moment.
- A woman observing but not being noticed is, like in the Outline trilogy, Cusk’s basic framework.
This month we’re starting with Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (which I have punctuated appropriately!). See Kate’s opening post. I know I read this as a child, but other Judy Blume novels were more meaningful for me since I was a tomboy and late bloomer. The only line that stays with me is the chant “We must, we must, we must increase our bust!”
#1 Another book with a question in the title (and dominating the cover) is How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti. I found a hardback copy in the unofficial Little Free Library I ran in our neighborhood during the first lockdown before the public library reopened. Heti is a divisive author, but I loved Motherhood for perfectly encapsulating my situation. I think this one, too, is autofiction, and the title question is one I ask myself variations on frequently.
#2 I’ve read quite a few “How to” books, whether straightforward explanatory/self-help texts or not. Lots happened to be from the School of Life series. One I found particularly enjoyable and helpful was How to Age by Anne Karpf. She writes frankly about bodily degeneration, the pursuit of wisdom, and preparation for death. “Growth and psychological development aren’t a property of our earliest years but can continue throughout the life cycle.”
#3 Ageing is a major element in May Sarton’s journals, particularly as she moves from her seventies into her eighties and fights illnesses. I’ve read all but one of her autobiographical works now, and – while my favorite is Journal of a Solitude – the one I’ve chosen as most representative of her usual themes, including inspiration, camaraderie, the pressures of the writing life, and old age, is At Seventy.
#4 Sarton was a keen gardener, as was Derek Jarman. I learned about him in the context of nature helping people come to terms with their mortality. Modern Nature reproduces the journal the gay, HIV-positive filmmaker kept in 1989–90. Prospect Cottage in Dungeness, Kent, and the unusual garden he cultivated there, was his refuge between trips to London and further afield, and a mental sanctuary when he was marooned in the hospital.
#5 One of the first memoirs I ever read and loved was Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty, about his partner Wally’s death from AIDS. This sparked my continuing interest in illness and bereavement narratives, and it was through following up Doty’s memoirs with his collections of poems that I first got into contemporary poetry, so he’s had a major influence on my taste. I’ve had Heaven’s Coast on my rereading shelf for ages, so really must get to it in 2021.
#6 Thinking of heaven, a nice loop back to Blume’s Margaret and her determination to find God … one of the finest travel books I’ve read is This Cold Heaven, about Gretel Ehrlich’s expeditions to Greenland and historical precursors who explored it. Even more than her intrepid wanderings, I was impressed by her prose, which made the icy scenery new every time. “Part jewel, part eye, part lighthouse, part recumbent monolith, the ice is a bright spot on the upper tier of the globe where the world’s purse strings have been pulled tight.”
A fitting final selection for this week’s properly chilly winter temperatures, too. I’ll be writing up my first snowy and/or holiday-themed reads of the year in a couple of weeks.
Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.)
Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
Below I’ve chosen my top 12 fiction releases from 2018 (eight of them happen to be by women!). Many of these books have already featured on my blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep things simple, as with my nonfiction selections, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I’ve also highlighted my three favorites from the year’s poetry releases.
- Orchid & the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes: From the Iraq War protests to the Occupy movement in New York City, we follow antiheroine Gael Foess as she tries to get her brother’s art recognized. This debut novel is a potent reminder that money and skills don’t get distributed fairly in this life.
- Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller: Fuller’s third novel tells the suspenseful story of the profligate summer of 1969 spent at a dilapidated English country house. The characters and atmosphere are top-notch; this is an absorbing, satisfying novel to swallow down in big gulps.
- The Only Story by Julian Barnes: It may be a familiar story – a May–December romance that fizzles out – but, as Paul believes, we only really get one love story, the defining story of our lives. The picture of romantic youth shading into cynical but still hopeful middle age really resonates, as do the themes of unconventionality, memory, addiction and pity.
- The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin: Summer 1969: four young siblings escape a sweltering New York City morning by visiting a fortune teller who can tell you the day you’ll die; in the decades that follow, they have to decide what to do with this advance knowledge: will it spur them to live courageous lives, or drive them to desperation? This compelling family story lives up to the hype.
- An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: Roy and Celestial only get a year of happy marriage before he’s falsely accused of rape and sentenced to 12 years in prison in Louisiana. This would make a great book club pick: I ached for all the main characters in their impossible situation; there’s a lot to probe about their personalities and motivations, and about how they reveal or disguise themselves through their narration and letters.
- The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman: Charles “Pinch” Bavinsky is an Italian teacher; as a boy in Rome in the 1950s–60s he believed he’d follow in the footsteps of his sculptor mother and his moderately famous father, Bear Bavinsky, who paints close-ups of body parts, but along the way something went wrong. This is a rewarding novel about the desperation to please, or perhaps exceed, one’s parents and the legacy of artists in a fickle market.
- The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon: A sophisticated, unsettling debut novel about faith and its aftermath, fractured through the experience of three people coming to terms with painful circumstances. Kwon spent 10 years writing this book, and that time and diligence come through in how carefully honed the prose is: such precise images; not a single excess word.
- Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: Kingsolver’s bold eighth novel has a dual timeline that compares the America of the 1870s and the recent past and finds that they are linked by distrust and displacement. There’s so much going on that it feels like it encompasses all of human life; it’s by no means a subtle book, but it’s an important one for our time, with many issues worth pondering and discussing.
- Southernmost by Silas House: In House’s sixth novel, a Tennessee preacher’s family life falls apart when he accepts a gay couple into his church. We go on a long journey with Asher Sharp: not just a literal road trip from Tennessee to Florida, but also a spiritual passage from judgment to grace in this beautiful, quietly moving novel of redemption and openness to what life might teach us.
- Little by Edward Carey: This is a deliciously macabre, Dickensian novel about Madame Tussaud, who started life as Anne Marie Grosholtz in Switzerland in 1761. From a former monkey house to the Versailles palace and back, Marie must tread carefully as the French Revolution advances and a desire for wax heads is replaced by that for decapitated ones.
- Motherhood by Sheila Heti: Chance, inheritance, and choice vie for pride of place in this relentless, audacious inquiry into the purpose of a woman’s life. The book encapsulates nearly every thought that has gone through my mind over the last decade as I’ve faced the intractable question of whether to have children.
- Florida by Lauren Groff: There’s an oppressive atmosphere throughout these 11 short stories, with violent storms reminding the characters of an uncaring universe, falling-apart relationships, and the threat of environmental catastrophe. Florida feels innovative and terrifyingly relevant; any one of its stories is a bracing read; together they form a masterpiece. (I never would have predicted that a short story collection would be my favorite fiction read of the year!)
- Three Poems by Hannah Sullivan: These poem-essays give fragmentary images of city life and question the notion of progress and what meaning a life leaves behind. “The Sandpit after Rain” stylishly but grimly juxtaposes her father’s death and her son’s birth.
- Comfort Measures Only: New and Selected Poems, 1994–2016 by Rafael Campo: Superb, poignant poetry about illness and the physician’s duty. A good bit of this was composed in response to the AIDS crisis; it’s remarkable how Campo wrings beauty out of clinical terminology and tragic situations.
- The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain: St. Germain’s seventh collection is in memory of her son Gray, who died of a drug overdose in 2014, aged 30. She turns her family history of alcohol and drug use into a touchpoint and affirms life’s sensual pleasures – everything from the smell of brand-new cowboy boots to luscious fruits.
What were some of your top fiction (or poetry) reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll be naming some runners-up (both fiction and nonfiction).
I fly back to the UK later today after a fairly busy few weeks of packing, unpacking, and more packing as I got my mom settled into her new home and dealt with the substantial amount of stuff I still had in storage with my parents. I’ll post later in the week about book culling versus acquisitions. For now, here’s a quick look at the books by women I’ve been reading in print towards my summer challenge: everything from a memoir of infertility to a perfectly summery novel set at a Vermont lake resort.
Crossing the Moon by Paulette Bates Alden (1998)
I first read this nearly four years ago (you can find my initial review in an early blog post that rounds up three of Alden’s works), and was moved to reread it this summer as a follow-up to Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. The book focuses on Alden’s uncertainty about having children all the way up to her late thirties, when she underwent three years of somewhat desperate, and ultimately unsuccessful, infertility treatment. “From the very start, I had seen writing and motherhood as mutually exclusive,” she writes, an attitude very similar to Heti’s. Yet she feared missing out on the meaning and love a child could bring to her life.
More broadly, the memoir is about the search to integrate the different aspects of a life – including family history and the fateful decisions that seem to have been made for you – into a realistic vision of the future. I didn’t find the book quite as profound this time around, but I noticed that I marked many of the same passages I did four years ago, about the dearth of childless role models and the struggle to accept the life that has become yours, even if it’s not what you predicted for yourself. That proves how influential and comforting it’s been for me.
“About the closest I can come to imagining what it would be like to have a child is with our cat, Cecil. For Cecil I feel the most delicious love, but also the most anxious responsibility.”
“It came to me that it really was a choice between two good things—having a child and not having a child. Our life without a child seemed good to me. I caught a glimpse that it was what was right for us, for the best. But who can say what is ‘best’? Maybe it’s possible to get to a place where what is best is simply what is.”
Passion and Affect by Laurie Colwin (1974)
I mostly know Colwin as a food writer, but she also published fiction. This subtle story collection turns on quiet, mostly domestic dramas: people falling in and out of love, stepping out on their spouses and trying to protect their families. I didn’t particularly engage with the central two stories about cousins Vincent and Guido (characters from her novel Happy All the Time, which I abandoned a few years back), but the rest more than made up for them.
Several stories reveal the hidden depths of a character who’s only been a bit player in a protagonist’s life: a family friend who suddenly commits suicide, a Hispanic cook who has a rich boyfriend, a widowed piano teacher whose young student’s accomplishments buoy him up, and a supermarket employee whose ordinary life doesn’t live up to the fantasy background her manager, an art history PhD student, dreams up for her. In “The Water Rats” and “Wet,” water symbolizes all that we can’t control and understand, whether that’s our family’s safety or the inner life of a spouse.
Colwin writes funny, sharp descriptions, like “he was greeted by a young man wearing his hair in the manner of John Donne, a three-piece suit, and cowboy boots” and “she windowshopped, staring with rapt depression at rows of mannikins in glossy trousers.”
“She was three years married and when she looked at herself in the mirror, she did not see that she had become any more serious, any less young and heedless, or any more willing to get down to what Richard called ‘the things of life.’ He was right when he said that she had not made up her mind about anything.”
“He looked at his dissertation, or the heap that was to become his dissertation, and sighed again. He was of two minds about this Vermeer business, and he was of two minds about this supermarket business. That accounted for four minds in all, and it made life painful for him.”
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat (1994)
Like her protagonist, Sophie Caco, Danticat was raised by her aunt in Haiti and reunited with her parents in the USA at age 12. As Sophie grows up and falls in love with an older musician, she and her mother are both haunted by sexual trauma that nothing – not motherhood, not a long-awaited return to Haiti – seems to heal. I loved the descriptions of Haiti (“The sun, which was once god to my ancestors, slapped my face as though I had done something wrong. The fragrance of crushed mint leaves and stagnant pee alternated in the breeze” and “The stars fell as though the glue that held them together had come loose”), and the novel gives a powerful picture of a maternal line marred by guilt and an obsession with sexual purity. However, compared to Danticat’s later novel, Claire of the Sea Light, I found the narration a bit flat and the story interrupted – thinking particularly of the gap between ages 12 and 18 for Sophie. (Another Oprah’s Book Club selection.)
“She cannot stay out of duty. The things one does, one should do out of love.”
“I knew my hurt and hers were links in a long chain and if she hurt me, it was because she was hurt, too.”
A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel (2001)
Maybe you grew up in or near a town like Mooreland, Indiana (population 300). Born in 1965 when her brother and sister were 13 and 10, Kimmel was affectionately referred to as an “Afterthought” and nicknamed “Zippy” for her boundless energy. Gawky and stubborn, she pulled every trick in the book to try to get out of going to Quaker meetings three times a week, preferring to go fishing with her father. The short chapters, headed by family or period photos, are sets of thematic childhood anecdotes about particular neighbors, school friends and pets. I especially loved her parents: her mother reading approximately 40,000 science fiction novels while wearing a groove into the couch, and her father’s love of the woods (which he called his “church”) and elaborate preparations for camping trips an hour away.
The tone is light-hearted despite hints of unpleasantness around town: open hostility towards people of color, a lecherous music teacher and a kid who abused animals. The more exaggerated stories are reminiscent of David Sedaris’s work – did she really cut hippies’ hair in exchange for an Irish Setter puppy?! Mostly, the book made me think about my mother’s small-town childhood versus my own suburban one, and how I would try to put all my early experiences together in a funny, nostalgic but honest way. It wouldn’t be easy at all, which makes Kimmel’s a noteworthy achievement.
“I figure heaven will be a scratch-and-sniff sort of place … I will ask for the smell of my dad’s truck, which was a combination of basic truck (nearly universal), plus his cologne (Old Spice), unfiltered Lucky Strikes, and when I was very lucky, leaded gasoline.”
“Mom used to say that my dad was a mountain man, which was obviously just a figure of speech, since most of Indiana is flat as a pancake. Her point was that Dad is a wild man, which was certainly true.”
The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman (1998)
This was a breezy, delightful novel perfect for summer reading. In 1962 Natalie Marx’s family is looking for a vacation destination and sends query letters to various Vermont establishments. Their reply from the Inn at Lake Devine (proprietress: Ingrid Berry) tactfully but firmly states that the inn’s regular guests are Gentiles. In other words, no Jews allowed. The adolescent Natalie is outraged, and when the chance comes for her to infiltrate the Inn as the guest of one of her summer camp roommates, she sees it as a secret act of revenge.
In fact, in the years to come, after she trains as a chef, Natalie will become further entwined in the inn’s life, helping the family recover from a tragedy, falling in love with one of the Berry sons, and unwittingly contributing to a livelihood-threatening accident. Natalie’s voice drew me in right from the start. Lipman’s comedies of manners have been compared to Jane Austen’s, and you can see that likeness in the witty dialogue. I’ll certainly read more by her.
Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman by Alice Steinbach (2000)
In 1993 Steinbach, then in her fifties, took a sabbatical from her job as a Baltimore Sun journalist to travel for nine months straight in Paris, England and Italy. As a divorcee with two grown sons, she no longer felt shackled to her Maryland home and wanted to see if she could recover a more spontaneous and adventurous version of herself and not be defined exclusively by her career. Her innate curiosity and experience as a reporter helped her to quickly form relationships with other English-speaking tourists, which was an essential for someone traveling alone.
I enjoyed spotting familiar sites I’ve visited, but I don’t think you need to know these countries or even have a particular interest in them to appreciate the book. Whether she’s attending a swanky party or nearly getting mugged, Steinbach is an entertaining and unpretentious tour guide. Her attitude is impressive, too: “I had surprised myself this year by jumping in to reshape my life before life stepped in to reshape it for me.” You might not be willing to give up your normal existence for nine months, but I suspect that this travel memoir might make you consider how you could be more daring in your daily life.
You’ll have to excuse me posting twice in one day. I’ve just finished packing the last few things for my three weeks in America, and want to get my latest #20BooksofSummer review out there before I fly early tomorrow. What with a layover in Toronto, it will be a very long day of travel, so I think the volume of reading material I’m taking is justified! (See the last photo of the post.)
Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly by Sue Halpern (2001)
I admire nonfiction books that successfully combine lots of genres into a dynamic narrative. This one incorporates travel, science, memoir, history, and even politics. Halpern spent a year tracking monarch butterflies on their biannual continent-wide migrations, which were still not well understood at that point. She rides through Texas into Mexico with Bill Calvert, field researcher extraordinaire; goes gliding with David Gibo, a university biologist, in fields near Toronto; and hears from scientists and laymen alike about the monarchs’ habits and outlook. It happened to be a worryingly poor year for the butterflies, yet citizen science initiatives provided valuable information that could be used to predict their future.
The book is especially insightful about clashes between environmentalist initiatives and local livelihoods in Mexico (tree huggers versus subsistence loggers) and the joy of doing practical science with simple tools you make yourself. It’s also about how focused attention becomes passion. “Science, like belief, starts with wonder, and wonder starts with a question,” Halpern writes.
The style is engaging, though at nearly 20 years old the book feels a bit dated, and I might have liked more personal reflections than interviews with (middle-aged, white, male) scientists. I only realized on the very last page, through the acknowledgments, that the author is married to Bill McKibben, a respected environment writer. [She frequently mentions Fred Urquhart, a Toronto zoology professor; I wondered if he could be related to Jane Urquhart, a Canadian novelist whose novel Sanctuary Line features monarchs. (Turns out: no relation. Oh well!)]
I’ve already done some substituting on my 20 Books of Summer. I decided against reading Vendela Vida’s Girls on the Verge after perusing the table of contents and the first few pages and gauging reader opinions on Goodreads. I have a couple of review books, Twister by Genanne Walsh and The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr, that I’m enjoying but will have to leave behind while I’m in the States, so I may need that little extra push to finish them once I get back. I’ve also been rereading a favorite, Paulette Bates Alden’s memoir Crossing the Moon, which has proved an excellent follow-up to Sheila Heti’s Motherhood.
(What I haven’t determined yet is which books these will be standing in for.) Waiting in the wings in case further substitutions are needed is this stack of review books:
Also from the #20Books list and coming with me on the flight are Madeleine L’Engle’s The Summer of the Great-Grandmother and Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, which are both terrific thus far. The final print book joining me for the journey is Transit by Rachel Cusk. I have attempted to read her twice before and failed to get through a whole book, so we’ll see if it’s third time lucky. It seems like the perfect book to read in transit to Canada, after all.
Finally, in progress on the Kindle are Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the last in his set of four seasonal essay collections, and The Late Bloomers’ Club by Louise Miller, another cozy novel set in fictional Guthrie, Vermont, which she introduced in her previous book, The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living.
It’ll be a busy few weeks helping my parents pack up their house and moving my mom into her new place, plus doing a reduced freelance work load for the final two weeks. It’s also going to be a strange time because I have to say goodbye to a house that’s been a part of my life for 13 years, and sort through box after box of mementoes before putting everything into medium-term storage.
I won’t be online all that much, and can’t promise to keep up with everyone else’s blogs, but I’ll try to pop in with a few reviews.
Happy July reading!
Here’s a quick look back at a baker’s dozen of 2018 releases that have stood out most for me so far. I’ve linked to books that I’ve already reviewed in full on the blog or elsewhere.
The Only Story by Julian Barnes: A familiar story: a May–December romance fizzles out. A sad story: an idealistic young man who swears he’ll never be old and boring has to face that this romance isn’t all he wanted it to be. A love story nonetheless. Paul met 48-year-old Susan, a married mother of two, at the local tennis club when he was 19. The narrative is partly the older Paul’s way of salvaging what happy memories he can, but also partly an extended self-defense. Barnes takes what could have been a dreary and repetitive story line and makes it an exquisitely plangent progression: first-person into second-person into third-person. The picture of romantic youth shading into cynical but still hopeful middle age really resonates, as do the themes of unconventionality, memory, addiction and pity.
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin: Summer 1969: four young siblings escape a sweltering New York City morning by visiting a fortune teller who can tell you the day you’ll die. In the decades that follow, they have to decide what to do with this advance knowledge: will it spur them to live courageous lives, or drive them to desperation? This compelling family story lives up to the hype. Imagine the fun Benjamin had researching four distinct worlds: Daniel, a military doctor, examines Iraq War recruits; Klara becomes a magician in Las Vegas; Varya researches aging via primate studies; and Simon is a dancer in San Francisco. The settings, time periods, and career paths are so diverse that you get four novels’ worth of interesting background.
Florida by Lauren Groff: Two major, connected threads in this superb story collection are ambivalence about Florida, and ambivalence about motherhood. There’s an oppressive atmosphere throughout, with environmental catastrophe an underlying threat. Set-ups vary in scope from almost the whole span of a life to one scene. A dearth of named characters emphasizes just how universal the scenarios and emotions are. Groff’s style is like a cross between Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and her unexpected turns of phrase jump off the page. A favorite was “Above and Below,” in which a woman slips into homelessness. Florida feels innovative and terrifyingly relevant. Any one of its stories is a bracing read; together they form a masterpiece.
Motherhood by Sheila Heti: Should one have children? Should I have children? No matter who’s asking the questions or in what context, you’re going to get the whole gamut of replies. Heti’s unnamed heroine consults a fortune teller and psychics, tosses coins and interprets her dreams as The Decision looms. Chance, inheritance, and choice vie for pride of place in this relentless, audacious inquiry into the purpose of a woman’s life. I marked out dozens of quotes that could have been downloaded directly from my head or copied from my e-mails and journal pages. The book encapsulates nearly every thought that has gone through my mind over the last decade as I’ve faced the intractable question of whether to have children. Heti has captured brilliantly what it’s like to be in this situation in this moment in time.
Orchid & the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes: The action spans about nine years: a politically turbulent decade that opens with the Iraq War protests and closes with the Occupy movement in New York City. Gael Foess, our lovable antiheroine, is a trickster. She’s learned well her banker father’s lesson that money and skills don’t get distributed fairly in this life, so she’s going to do what she can to ensure that her loved ones succeed. Art, music, religion and health are major interlocking themes. The author is wonderfully adept at voices, and the book’s frenetic pace is well matched by the virtuosic use of language – wordplay, neologisms, and metaphors drawn from the arts and nature. Hughes is an exciting writer who has rightfully attracted a lot of buzz for her debut.
The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman: Charles “Pinch” Bavinsky is just an Italian teacher, though as a boy in Rome in the 1950s–60s he believed he would follow in the footsteps of his sculptor mother and his moderately famous father, Bear Bavinsky, who paints close-ups of body parts. We follow Pinch through the rest of his life, a sad one of estrangement, loss and misunderstandings – but ultimately there’s a sly triumph in store for the boy who was told that he’d never make it as an artist. Rachman jets between lots of different places – Rome, New York City, Toronto, rural France, London – and ropes in quirky characters in the search for an identity and a place to belong. This is a rewarding story about the desperation to please, or perhaps exceed, one’s parents, and the legacy of artists in a fickle market.
The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú: Francisco Cantú was a U.S. Border Patrol agent for four years in Arizona and Texas. Impressionistic rather than journalistic, his book is a loosely thematic scrapbook. He inserts snippets of U.S.–Mexico history, including the establishment of the border, and quotes from other primary and secondary texts. He also adds in fragments of his family’s history: His ancestors left Mexico during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, but there’s no doubt his Latino name and features made him a friendly face for illegal immigrants. The final third of the book makes things personal when his friend is detained in Mexico. Giving faces to an abstract struggle, this work passionately argues that people should not be divided by walls but united in common humanity.
The Unmapped Mind by Christian Donlan: Some of the best medical writing from a layman’s perspective I’ve ever read. Donlan, a Brighton-area video games journalist, was diagnosed with (relapsing, remitting) multiple sclerosis in 2014. “I think sometimes that early MS is a sort of tasting menu of neurological disease,” Donlan wryly offers. He approaches his disease with good humor and curiosity, using metaphors of maps to depict himself as an explorer into uncharted territory. The accounts of going in for an MRI and a round of chemotherapy are excellent. Short interludes also give snippets from the history of MS and the science of neurology in general. What’s especially nice is how he sets up parallels with his daughter’s early years. My frontrunner for next year’s Wellcome Book Prize so far.
Free Woman by Lara Feigel: Doris Lessing lived by ideals of free love and Communism, but it came at the price of abandoning her children. Lara Feigel could identify with Lessing in some ways, and as she entered a rocky time in her mid-thirties – a miscarriage followed by IVF, which was a strain on her marriage; the death of a close friend; ongoing worry over how motherhood might affect her academic career – she set out to find what Lessing could teach her about how to be free. A familiarity with the works of Doris Lessing is not a prerequisite to enjoying this richly satisfying hybrid of biography, literary criticism and memoir. The Golden Notebook is about the ways in which women compartmentalize their lives and the struggle to bring various strands into harmony; that’s what Free Woman is all about as well.
Implosion by Elizabeth W. Garber: The author grew up in a glass house designed by her father, Modernist architect Woodie Garber, outside Cincinnati in the 1960s to 70s. This and Woodie’s other most notable design, Sander Hall, a controversial tower-style dorm at the University of Cincinnati that was later destroyed in a controlled explosion, serve as powerful metaphors for her dysfunctional family life. Woodie is such a fascinating, flawed figure. Garber endured sexual and psychological abuse yet likens him to Odysseus, the tragic hero of his own life. She connected with him over Le Corbusier’s designs, but it was impossible for a man born in the 1910s to understand his daughter’s generation. This definitely is not a boring tome just for architecture buffs. It’s a masterful memoir for everyone.
Skybound by Rebecca Loncraine: Each year seems to bring one exquisite posthumous memoir about facing death with dignity. For Rebecca Loncraine, after treatment for breast cancer in her early thirties, taking flying lessons in an unpowered glider was her way of rediscovering joy and experiencing freedom by facing her fears in the sky. She discovered a particular love for flying alongside birds: red kites in Wales, and vultures in Nepal. The most remarkable passages of the book are the exhilarating descriptions of being thousands of feet up in the air and the reflections on why humans are drawn to flight and what it does for our bodies and spirits. Loncraine had virtually finished this manuscript when her cancer returned; she underwent another 14 grueling months of treatment before her death in September 2016.
Bookworm by Lucy Mangan: Mangan takes us along on a nostalgic chronological tour through the books she loved most as a child and adolescent. No matter how much or how little of your early reading overlaps with hers, you’ll appreciate her picture of the intensity of children’s relationship with books – they can completely shut out the world and devour their favorite stories over and over, almost living inside them, they love and believe in them so much – and her tongue-in-cheek responses to them upon rereading them decades later. There are so many witty lines that it doesn’t really matter whether you give a fig about the particular titles she discusses or not. A delightful paean to the joys of being a lifelong reader; recommended to bibliophiles and parents trying to make bookworms out of their children.
Educated by Tara Westover: This is one of the most powerful and well-written memoirs I’ve ever read. It tells of a young woman’s off-grid upbringing in Idaho and the hard work that took her from almost complete ignorance to a Cambridge PhD. Westover’s is an incredible story about testing the limits of perseverance and sanity. Her father may have been a survivalist, but her psychic survival is the most impressive outcome here. What takes this astonishing life story to the next level, making it a classic to sit alongside memoirs by Alexandra Fuller, Mary Karr and Jeannette Walls, is the writing. Westover writes with calm authority, channeling the style of the scriptures and history books that were formative in her upbringing and education.
What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?
What 2018 releases do I need to catch up on right away?
Should one have children? No matter who’s asking the question or in what context, you’re going to get the whole gamut of replies, as proven by this recent Literary Hub survey of authors. Should I have children? Turn the question personal and, even if it’s actually rhetorical, you’ll still get an opinion from every quarter. As The Decision looms over her, the narrator of Sheila Heti’s new novel, a 37-year-old writer from Toronto, isn’t sure who to listen to. Her neurotic inner voice makes her second-guess her life. “The question of a child is a bug in the brain—it’s a bug that crawls across everything, every memory, and every sense of my own future.” Meanwhile, acquaintances and strangers alike all have their two cents to chip in. Everywhere she goes on her book tour, for instance, she hears other people’s stories and has to sift through them. She’s something like the protagonist of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, though with a stronger personality and internal commentary.
Having a child is an act of creation, and Heti’s narrator worries that she only has sufficient creative energy for one or the other: writing or breeding. Her identity as an artist is so precious to her that she is terrified of giving it up, or watering it down, to risk being a (not very good?) mother. Yet she has the sense that to remain childless she had better come up with a really good excuse. People will want to know what she is going to do with her life instead, and they’re unlikely to be satisfied by the notion that her books are like her babies.
The novel is in short, aphoristic paragraphs and is dominated by cogitation rather than scenes, though there are some concrete events and secondary characters, such as the narrator’s mother; her friend Libby, a new mother; and her partner, Miles, who has a 12-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. The sections are given headings like “PMS,” “Bleeding,” “Follicular,” and “Ovulating,” which suggest the cyclical nature of life: whether she likes it or not, this character is part of a physical process geared towards reproduction.
The cyclical workings of the female body mirror the circularity of her thoughts: she keeps revolving around the same questions, never seeming to get any closer to a decision – though by the end she does decide. The temptation is always to offload the choice onto an external, fate-like force. The narrator wants the oracular voice of the universe to answer everything for her via coin tosses. (Heti writes in a prefatory note that these were based on actual coin tosses.) She asks series of yes/no questions and reports what the coins have to say. It’s a way of avoiding responsibility for her own decision, and produces some truly hilarious passages. Oh, the absurdity of having a dialogue with an impersonal force!
Our heroine does ultimately realize how random and meaningless the coins’ yes/no answers are, but she continues to look outside herself for wisdom: to a fortune teller, psychics, dreams, and even a crazy woman in New York City who hits her up for money. Anything to bypass the wringer of her own mind. She also latches onto the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, and contrasts this with the symbol of a kitchen knife, which represents a demon that robs her of hope.
Every woman is a daughter as well as a potential mother, and a particularly moving strand of Motherhood is the narrator’s relationship with her female ancestors. Her Hungarian grandmother, Magda, survived Auschwitz only to die of cancer at 53; her mother, a doctor, devoted herself to her career and left the traditional household and childrearing tasks to her husband. This dual legacy of suffering and professional pride helps explain the narrator’s feelings. Deep down, she believes her family line was meant to end in a concentration camp; how dare she continue it now? She also emulates her mother’s commitment to a cerebral vocation – “So I also wanted to be the brains: to be nothing but words on a page.”
Chance, inheritance, and choice vie for pride of place in this relentless, audacious inquiry into the purpose of a woman’s life. I marked out dozens of quotes that could have been downloaded directly from my head or copied from my e-mails and journal pages. The book encapsulates nearly every thought that has gone through my mind over the last decade as I’ve faced the intractable question of whether to have children. I suspect it will mean the most to people who are still unsure or have already decided against children; parents may interpret Heti’s arguments as personal barbs, even though the narrator insists her own decision is not an inherent comment on anyone else’s. It’s a book I could have written, but now don’t have to; Heti has captured brilliantly what it’s like to be in this situation in this moment in time.
Here are a few of my favorite passages. They should give you an idea of whether this book might resonate with you, or at least interest you academically:
“On the one hand, the joy of children. On the other hand, the misery of them. On the one hand, the freedom of not having children. On the other hand, the loss of never having had them—but what is there to lose?”
“for a woman of curiosity, no decision will ever feel like the right one. In both, too much is missing. What can I say, except: I forgive myself for every time I neglected to take a risk, for all the narrowings and winnowings of my life. I understand that fear beckons to a person as much as possibility does, and even more strongly.”
“I don’t have to live every possible life, or to experience that particular love. I know I cannot hide from life; that life will give me experiences no matter what I choose. Not having a child is no escape from life, for life will always put me in situations, and show me new things, and take me to darknesses I wouldn’t choose to see, and all sorts of treasures of knowledge I cannot comprehend.”
Motherhood was published in the UK by Harvill Secker on May 24th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review. It came out in North America on May 1st (Knopf Canada / Henry Holt and Co.).