I have a big backlog of review books piled beside my composition station (a corner of the lounge by the front window; an ancient PC inherited from my mother-in-law and not connected to the Internet; a wooden chair with leather seat that had been left behind in a previous rental house’s garage). Nonfiction November is the excuse I need to finally get around to writing about lots of them; at least one more catch-up will be coming later this month. My apologies to the publishers for the brief reviews.
Today I have a therapist’s take on classic literature, an optimist’s research on data use, a journalist’s response to her sister’s and father’s deaths, a professor’s search for the remnants of Charles Darwin at his family home, and a bibliophile’s tales of book-collecting exploits.
How to Live. What to Do.: In Search of Ourselves in Life and Literature by Josh Cohen
“Literature and psychoanalysis are both efforts to make sense of the world through stories, to discover the recurring problems and patterns and themes of life. Read and listen enough, and we soon come to notice how insistently the same struggles, anxieties and hopes repeat themselves down the ages and across the world.”
This is the premise for Cohen’s work life, and for this book. Moving through the human experience from youth to old age, he examines anonymous case studies and works of literature that speak to the sorts of situations encountered in that stage. For instance, he recommends Alice in Wonderland as a tonic for the feeling of being stuck – Lewis Carroll’s “let’s pretend” attitude can help someone return to the playfulness and openness of childhood. William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows, set during the Spanish flu, takes on new significance for Cohen in the days of Covid as his appointments all move online; he also takes from it the importance of a mother for providing emotional security. A bibliotherapy theme would normally be catnip for me, but I often found the examples too obvious and the discussion too detailed (and thus involving spoilers). Not a patch on The Novel Cure.
(Ebury Press, February 2021.) With thanks to the publicist for the free copy for review.
Good Data: An Optimist’s Guide to Our Digital Future by Sam Gilbert
Gilbert worked for Experian before going back to university to study politics; he is now a researcher at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge. At a time of much anxiety about “surveillance capitalism,” he seeks to provide reassurance. He explains that Facebook and the like, with their ad-based business models, use profile data and behavioural data to make inferences about you. This is not the same as “listening in,” he is careful to assert. Gilbert contrasts broad targeting and micro-targeting, and runs through trends in search data. He highlights instances where social media and data mining have been beneficial, such as in creating jobs, increasing knowledge, or aiding communication during democratic protests. I have to confess that a lot of this went over my head; I’d overestimated my interest in a full book on technology, having reviewed Born Digital earlier in the year.
(Welbeck, April 2021.) With thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
The Consequences of Love by Gavanndra Hodge (2020)
In 1989, Hodge’s younger sister Candy died on a family holiday in Tunisia when a rare virus brought on rapid organ failure. The rest of the family exhibited three very different responses to grief: her father retreated into existing addictions, her mother found religion, and she went numb and forgot her sister as much as possible – despite having a photographic memory in general. After her father’s death, Hodge finally found the courage to look back to her early life and the effect of Candy’s death. Hers was no ordinary upbringing; her father was a drug dealer who constantly disappointed her and from her teens on roped her into his substance abuse evenings. Often she was the closest thing to a sober and rational adult in the drug den their home had become. This is a very fluidly written bereavement memoir and a powerful exploration of memory and trauma. It was unfortunate that it felt that little bit too similar to a couple of other books I’ve read in recent years: When I Had a Little Sister by Catherine Simpson and especially Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour.
(Paperback: Penguin, July 2021.) With thanks to the publicist for the free copy for review.
The Ghost in the Garden: In Search of Darwin’s Lost Garden by Jude Piesse
When Piesse’s academic career took her back to her home county of Shropshire, she became fascinated by the Darwin family home in Shrewsbury, The Mount. A Victorian specialist, she threw herself into research on the family and particularly on the traces of the garden. Her thesis is that here, and on long walks through the surrounding countryside, Darwin developed the field methods and careful attention that would serve him well as the naturalist on board the Beagle. Piesse believes the habit of looking closely was shared by Darwin and his mother, Susannah. The author contrasts Susannah’s experience of childrearing with her own – she has two young daughters when she returns to Shropshire, and has to work out a balance between work and motherhood. I noted that Darwin lost his mother early – early parent loss is considered a predictor of high achievement (it links one-third of U.S. presidents, for instance).
I think what Piesse was attempting here was something like Rebecca Mead’s wonderful My Life in Middlemarch, but the links just aren’t strong enough: There aren’t that many remnants of the garden or the Darwins here (all the family artefacts are at Down House in Kent), and Piesse doesn’t even step foot into The Mount itself until page 217. I enjoyed her writing about her domestic life and her desire to create a green space, however small, for her daughters, but this doesn’t connect to the Darwin material. Despite my fondness for Victoriana, I was left asking myself what the point of this project was.
(Scribe, May 2021.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector by Nicholas Royle
From the 1970s to 1990s, Picador released over 1,000 paperback volumes with the same clean white-spined design. Royle has acquired most of them – no matter the author, genre or topic; no worries if he has duplicate copies. To build this impressive collection, he has spent years haunting charity shops and secondhand bookshops in between his teaching and writing commitments. He knows where you can get a good bargain, but he’s also willing to pay a little more for a rarer find. In this meandering memoir-of-sorts, he ponders the art of cover design, delights in ephemera and inscriptions found in his purchases (he groups these together as “inclusions”), investigates some previous owners and the provenance of his signed copies, interviews Picador staff and authors, and muses on the few most ubiquitous titles to be found in charity shops (Once in a House on Fire by Andrea Ashworth, Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding, anything by Kathy Lette, and Last Orders by Graham Swift). And he does actually read some of what he buys, though of course not all, and finds some hidden gems.
In 2013 I read Royle’s First Novel, which also features Picador spines on its cover and a protagonist obsessed with them. I’d read enthusiastic reviews by fellow bibliophiles – Paul, Simon, Susan – so couldn’t resist requesting White Spines. While I enjoyed the conversational writing, ultimately I thought it quite an indulgent undertaking (especially the records of his dreams!), not dissimilar to a series of book haul posts. The details of shopping trips aren’t of much interest because he’s solely focused on his own quest, not on giving any insight into the wider offerings of a shop or town, e.g., Hay-on-Wye and Barter Books. But if you’re a fan of Shaun Bythell’s books you may well want to read this too. It’s also a window into the collector’s mindset: You know Royle is an extremist when you read that he once collected bread labels!
(Salt Publishing, July 2021.) With thanks to the publicist for the free copy for review.
Are you interested in reading one or more of these?
Fiction about caregiving for AIDS patients and Victorian ghosts; nonfiction about American race relations and British wildlife: novellas have it all! Here are my latest four reads. All were .
The Gifts of the Body by Rebecca Brown (1994)
This is rather like a set of linked short stories, narrated by a home care aide who bathes and feeds those dying of AIDS. The same patients appear in multiple chapters titled “The Gift of…” (Sweat, Tears, Hunger, etc.) – Rick, Ed, Carlos, and Marty, with brief appearances from Mike and Keith. But for me the most poignant story was that of Connie Lindstrom, an old woman who got a dodgy blood transfusion after her mastectomy; the extra irony to her situation is that her son Joe is gay, and feels guilty because he thinks he should have been the one to get sick. Several characters move in and out of hospice care, and one building is so known for its AIDS victims that a savant resident greets the narrator with a roll call of its dead and dying. Brown herself had been a home-care worker, and she delivers these achingly sad vignettes in plain language that keeps the book from ever turning maudlin.
A favorite passage:
“I’d thought about the sores all week long, about how they looked and how it frightened me. But I’d worked myself up to acting like it didn’t bother me. … I also kept telling myself that even if I wasn’t feeling or thinking the right things, at least he was getting fed, at least he was getting his sheets changed, at least his kitchen was getting cleaned, at least his body was getting salve.”
(I found my copy over the summer in a Little Free Library in my mother’s new town in the States and read it in one day, on my travel to and from London for the Barbara Kingsolver event. Rebecca Brown is a repeat presence on my novellas list: Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary was in my 2016 roster.)
Bodies of Water by V. H. Leslie (2016)
Left over from my R.I.P. reading plans. This was nearly a one-sitting read for me: I read 94 pages in one go, though that may be because I was trapped under the cat. The first thing I noted was that the setup and dual timeframe are exactly the same as in Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered: we switch between the same place in 2016 and 1871. In this case it’s Wakewater House, a residential development by the Thames that incorporates the site of a dilapidated Victorian hydrotherapy center. After her partner cheats on her, Kirsten moves into Wakewater, where she’s alone apart from one neighbor, Manon, a hoarder who’s researching Anatomical Venuses – often modeled on prostitutes who drowned themselves in the river. In the historical strand, we see Wakewater through the eyes of Evelyn Byrne, who rescues street prostitutes and, after a disastrously ended relationship of her own, has arrived to take the Water Cure.
The literal and metaphorical connections between the two story lines are strong. Annabel described this novella as “watery,” and I would agree: pretty much every paragraph has a water word in it, whether it’s “river,” “sea,” “aquatic” or “immersion.” Both women see ghostly figures emerging from the water, and Manon’s interest in legends about water spirits and the motif of the drowned girl adds texture. Short chapters keep things ticking over, and I loved the spooky atmosphere.
A favorite line: “Sometimes old places like this retain a bit of the past, in the fabric of the building, and occasionally, they seep.”
(Purchased from Salt Publishing during their #JustOneBook fundraising campaign in late May.)
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (1963)
This was written yesterday, right? Actually, it was 55 years ago, but apart from the use of the word “Negro” you might have fooled me. Baldwin’s writing is still completely relevant, and eminently quotable. I can’t believe I hadn’t read him until now. This hard-hitting little book is composed of two essays that first appeared elsewhere. The first, “My Dungeon Shook,” a very short piece from the Madison, Wisconsin Progressive, is a letter addressed to his nephew and namesake on the 100th anniversary of emancipation. No doubt it directly inspired Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me.
“Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind” is a 66-page essay that first appeared in the New Yorker. It tells of a crisis of faith that hit Baldwin when he was a teenager. Whereas he used to be a fervent young preacher in his church, he started to question to what extent Christianity of all stripes was upholding white privilege and black subjugation. Unless religion was making things better, he decided he wanted no part of it. Curiosity about the Nation of Islam led to Baldwin meeting Elijah Muhammad for dinner at his home in Chicago. I marked out so many passages from this essay. Here are a few that stood out most:
“To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.”
“If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”
“When a white man faces a black man, especially if the black man is helpless, terrible things are revealed.”
How to See Nature by Paul Evans (2018)
How to See Nature (1940), a quaint and perhaps slightly patronizing book by Shropshire naturalist and photographer Frances Pitt, was intended to help city evacuees cope with life in the countryside. Recently Pitt’s publisher, Batsford, commissioned Shropshire naturalist Paul Evans to revisit the topic. The result is a simply lovely volume (with a cover illustration by Angela Harding and black-and-white interior drawings by Evans’s partner, Maria Nunzia) that reflects on the range of modern relationships with nature and revels in the wealth of wildlife and semi-wild places we still have in Britain.
He starts with his own garden, where he encounters hedgehogs and marmalade hoverflies. Other chapters consider night creatures like bats; weeds and what they have to offer; and the wildlife of rivers, common land, moors and woods. I particularly enjoyed a section on reintroduced species such as beavers and red kites. The book closes with an A–Z bestiary of British wildlife, from adders to zooplankton.
Throughout, Evans treats issues like tree blight, climate change and species persecution with a light touch. Although it’s clear he’s aware of the diminished state of nature and quietly irate at how we are all responsible for pollution and invasive species, he writes lovingly and with poetic grace. I would not hesitate to recommend this to fans of contemporary nature writing.
“the orb-weavers wait: sexual cannibals adorned in the extra-terrestrial glow of their pearl diadems, suspended in ethereal scaffolds woven from hundreds of glands controlled by their own sovereign will and unique metabolism”
“The last ‘woo-oooo’ of a tawny owl meets the first clockwork hiccup of a pheasant, then bird by bird in the scanty light, the songs begin”
(Paul Evans is a repeat presence on my novellas list: Herbaceous was in my 2017 roster.)
How to See Nature was published by Batsford on November 6th. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
Have you read any of these novellas? Which one takes your fancy?
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I’ll provide links to all the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a short taster so you can decide whether to click to read more. A couple of exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie or BlueInk reviews since I don’t get a byline.
The Past by Tessa Hadley: Four adult siblings gather at their grandfather’s Devon vicarage for one last summer holiday before the house is sold. Their interactions, past and present, skirt the edges of tragedy and show the secrets and psychological intricacies any family harbors. Hadley writes beautifully subtle stories of English family life. Here she channels Elizabeth Bowen with a setup borrowed from The House in Paris: the novel is divided into three parts, titled “The Present,” “The Past,” and “The Present.” That structure allows for a deeper look at what the house and a neighboring cottage have meant to the central family. Hadley writes great descriptive prose and has such insight into family dynamics. Releases September 3rd.
Between Gods by Alison Pick: At a time of transition – preparing for her wedding and finishing her first novel, set during the Holocaust – the author decided to convert to Judaism, the faith of her father’s Czech family. There are so many things going on in this sensitive and engrossing memoir: depression, her family’s Holocaust history, her conversion, career struggles, moving to Toronto, adjusting to marriage, and then pregnancy and motherhood following soon after – leading full circle to a time of postpartum depression. That said, this book is exactly what you want from a memoir: it vividly depicts a time of tremendous change, after which the subject is still somehow the same person, or perhaps more herself than ever.
Villa America by Liza Klaussmann [the full text of my review is available for free this week as part of Editor’s Choice]: In her second novel, Klaussmann explores the glittering, tragic lives of Gerald and Sara Murphy, real-life models for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night. The book is slow to start with, with the first third unnecessarily devoted to Gerald’s and Sara’s childhoods and courtship. It is not until the Murphys are established in France and receive visits from fellow artists that the book really comes to life. It is easy to see why the Murphys attracted hangers-on. Yet beneath the façade of glamour, there is real sadness and struggle. Gerald’s uncertain sexuality is a tacit issue between him and Sara, and sickness strikes the family with cruel precision. The novel set up a beautiful contrast between happiness and tragedy.
Stop the Diet, I Want to Get Off! by Lisa Tillinger Johansen: Yo-yo dieters and newbies alike should pick up Johansen’s witty book before wasting any time, money, or heartache on ineffective fad diets. Surveying diets old and new in a conversational style, Johansen gives the merits and dangers of each and suggests realistic principles for healthy eating and exercise. She bases her advice on solid facts, but cannily avoids the dry, scientific tone some experts might use. Instead, she uses chatty, informal language and personal stories to enliven her writing.
The Year of Necessary Lies by Kris Radish: Radish’s tenth novel highlights women’s role in the Audubon Society campaign to eradicate feathers from ladies’ hats. Her fictional heroine, Julia Briton, is a composite portrait of the many courageous women who stood up to plume hunters and the fashion industry alike in the early years of the twentieth century. “I did not simply want to survive, but to live with great passion and to do something that made a difference in the world,” Julia declares. Recommended for fans of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings.
Now and at the Hour of Our Death by Susana Moreira Marques: In 2011 Marques, a freelance journalist, spent five months visiting the dying through a Portuguese home palliative care project. The resulting book falls into two parts: “Travel Notes about Death,” one-line aphorisms and several-paragraph anecdotes; and “Portraits,” case studies and interview transcripts from three families facing the death of a loved one. The lack of a straightforward narrative and the minimal presence of the author mean that the book overall feels disjointed. Nonetheless, it is a thought-provoking look at hospice services and emotions surrounding death. Releases September 3rd.
Caught by Lisa Moore: A classic cat-and-mouse story in which a Canadian drug smuggler escapes from prison to score another load of marijuana from Colombia. Moore paints Slaney and Hearn as “modern-day folk heroes,” and her writing elevates what could have been a plain crime story into real literature. From the title onwards, the book is heavy with foreshadowing as Moore exploits the dramatic irony that readers know the police have a sting operation trailing Slaney the whole way. Indeed, the most remarkable thing about the novel is how it maintains tension even though the outcome seems inevitable. “The best stories … we’ve known the end from the beginning.” To my surprise, Caught is not just a good old-fashioned adventure story, but also has the epic, tragic weight of Homer’s Odyssey.
Field Notes from the Edge by Paul Evans: A book full of unexpected nuggets of information and inspiration: in addition to the travel notes and field observations, Evans (who writes a Guardian country diary from Wenlock Edge, Shropshire) incorporates personal anecdote, folk songs, myths and scientific advances. His central idea is that we have lost our connection with nature due to fear – “ecophobia,” the opposite of which is E.O. Wilson’s “biophilia.” How do we overcome that fear? Mostly by doing just what Evans does: spending time in nature, finding beauty and developing an affinity for particular places and species.
Shiny New Books
The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood: Portmantle is a mysterious artists’ retreat center on a Turkish island. Our narrator, Elspeth Conroy (aka Knell), is a Scottish painter who came to Portmantle in 1962 after some struggles with mental illness. The first third of the novel is tremendously gripping and Gothic. The core of the book, nearly 200 pages, is a flashback to Elspeth’s life before. At last, after what feels like too long a digression, we come full circle back to Portmantle. I didn’t warm to The Ecliptic quite as much as I did to Wood’s debut, The Bellwether Revivals. Still, it’s really interesting to see how he alternates between realism and surrealism here. The parts that feel most real and immediate and the parts that are illusory are difficult to distinguish between. An odd, melancholy, shape-shifting novel.
We Love This Book
Beneath the Bonfire by Nickolas Butler: Ten tales of moral complexity in America’s gritty heartland. Fire and recreational drugs are powerful forces linking these Wisconsin-set stories. Opener “The Chainsaw Soirée” sets the tone by describing a failed utopia reminiscent of Lauren Groff’s Arcadia. The stand-out is “Morels,” in which three stoned friends go foraging for mushrooms in their dying rural community. The title’s similarity to “morals” is no coincidence: when the trio are involved in a hit-and-run they have to decide what to stand for. Unsentimental but lyrically composed, these stories will appeal to fans of Ron Rash.
Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpoint: Pierpont’s ambitiously structured debut novel explores how infidelity affects a whole New York City family. In short sections of matter-of-fact statements Pierpont gives a what-happened-next for each of the characters over the next decade or so. But “it’s the between-time that lasted,” Pierpoint argues as she returns to that summer of revelations for a closer look. The climactic events of the holiday contrast childhood innocence and adulthood; when you’re on the cusp, certain experiences can push you over the brink from one to the other. This offbeat take on the dysfunctional family novel should interest fans of Nicole Krauss or Rebecca Dinerstein (The Sunlit Night). [Few extra thoughts at Goodreads.]
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads.
F: A Novel by Daniel Kehlmann: What does F stand for? Faith, finances, fraud, forgery, family and Fate all play a role in Kehlmann’s fourth novel available in English translation. F is also for the Friedlands: Arthur the unreliable patriarch; Martin, a portly Catholic priest who doesn’t believe in God; and his twin half-brothers, Eric and Ivan, a mentally ill businessman and a homosexual painter who forges his mentor’s masterworks. Reading this brilliant, funny spoof on the traditional family saga is like puzzling out a Rubik’s Cube: it is a multi-faceted narrative with many meanings that only become clear the deeper you go. (Full review in September/October 2015 issue of Third Way magazine.)
Mrs. Engels by Gavin McCrea: I generally love Victorian-set historical fiction and books about famous wives, so I was surprised by how little I liked this novel about Lizzie Burns, the illiterate, working-class Irish woman who was Frederick Engels’ longtime partner. The novel flits between 1870–1, when Lizzie and Frederick were newly arrived in London and involved in helping the poor and Franco-Prussian War refugees, and their earlier years in Manchester. Lizzie is a no-nonsense first-person narrator, and her coarse, questionably grammatical speech fits with her background. Unfortunately, I never warmed to Lizzie or felt that she was giving a truly intimate look at her own life. This novel had such potential to bring an exciting, revolutionary time to life, but it never fulfilled its promise for me. Releases in the States on October 13th.
Rank by Aaron McCollough: Some nice alliteration and pleasant imagery of flora, fauna and musical instruments. However, I struggled to find any overarching meaning in these run-on poems. In fact, I could not tell you what a single one of them is actually about. Story is just as important as sound in poetry, I feel, and in that respect this collection was lacking. Releases September 1st.
Trout’s Lie by Percival Everett: “The line of time / Is past. / The line folds back, / Splits. / Two lines now, future, present. The past / Is a circle of / Abstraction, regret.” There is a lot of repetition and wordplay in these poems. The title piece uses a line in Italian from Dante – translating to “in the middle of our life’s path” – that forms another recurring theme: being stuck between times or between options and having to decide which way to go. These read quickly, with the run-on phrases flowing naturally from topic to topic. I’m not sure this was the best introduction to a prolific author I’d never heard of; I’ll have to look into his other work. Releases October 15th.
Bandersnatch by Erika Morrison: This is Christian self-help, an ideal read for fans of Glennon Doyle Melton and Rob Bell. The title, a creature from Lewis Carroll’s imagination, is Morrison’s shorthand for a troublemaker. She argues that as Christians we should be following Jesus down the road of “positive nonconformity”: taking an avant-garde approach to life, turning ordinary moments into divine opportunities through spiritual alchemy, taking an interest in the least of these with kingdom anthropology, and making the everyday trials of marriage and parenthood our works of art. I liked the book best when Morrison illustrated her points with stories from her own life. Overall I found the book repetitive, and the language can definitely be hippy-dippy in places. Releases October 6th.
Family Values by Wendy Cope: Cope mostly uses recognizable forms (villanelles, sonnets, etc.): this is interesting to see in contemporary poetry, but requires a whole lot of rhyming, most of it rather twee (e.g. “tuppence/comeuppance”), which gives the whole collection the feeling of being written for children. My two favorites were “Lissadell,” about a vacation to Ireland, and “Haiku,” perfect in its simplicity:
A perfect white wine
is sharp, sweet and cold as this:
birdsong in winter.