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?
Six Degrees of Separation: From Our Wives Under the Sea to Groundskeeping
This month we began with Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield, one of my favourite novels of the year so far. It fuses horror-tinged magic realism with an emotionally resonant story of disconnection and grief. My review is here. I met the lovely Julia Armfield at the 2019 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award ceremony at the London Library. (See also Kate’s opening post.)
#1 This morning I was reading in Slime, Susanne Wedlich’s wide-ranging popular science book about primordial slime and mucus and biofilms and everything in between, about the peculiar creatures that thrive in the high-pressure deep sea level known as the hadal zone – which is of great significance in Armfield’s book. One of these is the hadal snailfish.
#2 I wish I could remember how I first heard about The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey (2010). Possibly the Bas Bleu catalogue? In any case, it was one of the books I requested on interlibrary loan during one of our stays with my parents in Maryland. Bailey, bedbound by chronic illness, saw in the snail that lived on her bedside table a microcosm of nature and animal behaviour. It’s a peaceful book about changing one’s pace and expectations, and thereby appreciating life.
#3 The book is still much admired in nature writing circles. In fact, it was mentioned by Anita Roy, one of the panellists at last year’s New Networks for Nature conference – except she couldn’t remember the author’s name so asked the audience if anyone knew. Yours truly called it out (twice, so I could be heard over my face mask). Anyway, Josie George is in a similar position to Bailey and A Still Life records how she has cultivated close observation skills of the nature around her. I believe she was even inspired to keep a snail at one point.
#4 Still Life is one of my favourite A.S. Byatt novels (this is not the first time I’ve used one of her novels that happens to have the same title as another book as a link in my chain; see also September 2020’s). Back in 2010, Erica Wagner, then literary editor of The Times and one of my idols (she’s American), happened to mention in her column the manner of death of a character in Still Life. Except she had it wrong. I e-mailed to say so, and got referred to in a follow-up column soon thereafter as a “perceptive reader” (i.e., know-it-all) who spotted the error; she used it as an opportunity to reflect on the tricksy nature of memory.
#5 When I wrote to Wagner, I remarked that the real means of death was similar to Thomas Merton’s, which is why it was fresh in mind though I hadn’t read the Byatt in years. (It would be ripe for rereading, in fact.) No spoilers here, so only look into Merton’s death if you’re morbidly curious and don’t mind having a novel’s ending ruined. I’ve not read an entire book by Merton yet, but have encountered his wisdom piecemeal via lots of references made by other authors and the daily excerpts in the one-year devotional book A Year with Thomas Merton, which I must have worked my way through in 2009.
#6 Merton was a Trappist monk based in Kentucky. In the process of introducing his girlfriend, Alma, a Bosnian American who grew up in northern Virginia, to the state where she’s come to live, Owen, the protagonist of Lee Cole’s debut novel, Groundskeeping, takes her to see Merton’s grave at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, Kentucky. Literary grave hunting is one of my niche hobbies, and Groundskeeping, like Our Wives Under the Sea, is one of my top novels of 2022 so far.
So, I’ve gone from one reading year highlight to another, via two instances of me being a book nerd. Deep sea creatures, slime and snails, accidental deaths, and literary grave spotting: it’s been an odd chain! That’s just what I happened to come up with this morning, right after I wrote my review of Groundskeeping for BookBrowse; I’d started a chain yesterday afternoon and came up with something completely different before getting stuck on link #4. It goes to show you how arbitrary and off-the-cuff this meme can be, though I know others pick a strategy and stick with it, or first choose the books and then shoehorn them in.
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 starting point is True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. I can’t remember if I still have a copy – pretty much all of my books are now packed in advance of our mid-May move – but if I find it, I should be sure to actually read it!
Have you read any of my selections? Tempted by any you didn’t know before?