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Each September I make a bit more of an effort to read short stories, which otherwise tend to sit on my shelves and Kindle unread. I’ve read three collections recently, all of them released this August or September, and I have a few more on the go to report on later in the month.
Likes by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum
This was a hit and miss collection for me: I only loved one of the stories, and enjoyed another three; touches of magic realism à la Aimee Bender produce the two weakest stories, and there are a few that simply tail off without having made a point. My favorite was “Many a Little Makes,” about a trio of childhood best friends whose silly sleepover days come to an end as they develop separate interests and one girl sleeps with another one’s brother. In “Tell Me My Name,” set in a post-economic collapse California, an actress who was a gay icon back in New York City pitches a TV show to the narrator’s wife, who makes kids’ shows.
“Julia and Sunny,” about two couples – one that makes it and one that doesn’t – who all met in medical school, reminded me of a Wallace Stegner plot. “The Bears” has a wispy resemblance to Goldilocks and the Three Bears and stars a woman convalescing from a miscarriage at a retreat center while writing a chapter on William James. In James’s famous metaphor involving a bear, bodily action precedes emotion – we are afraid because we flee; not vice versa. The touch of magic in this story is light enough to not be off-putting, whereas “The Erlking” and “The Young Wife’s Tale” take their fairy tale similarities too far.
The title story, about a father trying to understand his 12-year-old through her Instagram posts either side of the Trump election, is promising but doesn’t go anywhere, and “The Burglar” and “Bedtime Story” struck me as equally insubstantial, making nothing of their setups. Seven of these nine stories had been previously published in other publications in some form.
Published in the USA by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I read an advanced e-copy via Edelweiss.
Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons
Parsons’s debut collection, longlisted for the U.S. National Book Award in 2019, contains a dozen gritty stories set in or remembering her native Texas. Eleven of the 12 are in the first person, with the mostly female narrators unnamed or underdeveloped and thus difficult to differentiate from each other. The homogeneity of voice and recurring themes – drug use, dysfunctional families, overweight bodies, lesbian or lopsided relationships – lead to monotony.
“Glow Hunter” and “We Don’t Come Natural to It” are representative: in the former, Sarah and her girlfriend Bo have sex and go for a drive while tripping on magic mushrooms; in the latter, the narrator has a crush on her co-worker Suki, who has lost 200 pounds, and they remain obsessed with their and others’ fat bodies (the references are inescapable: “a pudgy,” “the fatty,” “some cow,” “thinspiration”). The opening story, “Guts,” is uncomfortable for the way that it both fetishizes fat and medicalizes sex: when unreliable, alcoholic receptionist Sheila turns up at her boyfriend Tim’s hospital saying there’s something wrong with her internally, he performs an examination that’s part striptease and part children playing doctor.
“The Light Will Pour In” is refreshingly different for its Lolita-type situation. “Into the Fold,” set at a girls’ boarding school, reminded me of Scarlett Thomas’s Oligarchy. In “Fiddlebacks,” my favorite, siblings on a night hunt for creepy-crawlies come across their newly religious mother and the handyman trysting in a car. “Starlite,” the only one in the third person, has colleagues, one a supervisor and both married, meet up in a seedy motel for drugs and junk food. The shortest stories at just a few pages each, “In Our Circle” and “The Animal Part” animate art therapy in a mental hospital and urban legends told while camping (though I’d forgotten it, I’d encountered the former in The Best Small Fictions 2017).
These stories engaged me at neither the sentence level nor the plot level, but many readers (and critics) have felt otherwise. Here are two lines I liked, from “Glow Hunter”: “Bo says everything that scares you is something to poke at with a stick, to pick up and turn in your hands” & “I’m very aware that we are organisms on the surface of a rock, orbiting a burning star.”
My thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.
You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South
“In the modern world, you might be easily forgotten, but you could also carve out your own niche.”
In the 10 stories of this debut collection, characters turn to technology to stake a claim on originality, compensate for their losses, and leave a legacy. In “Keith Prime,” a widowed nurse works at a warehouse that produces unconscious specimens for organ harvesting. When her favorite Keith wakes up, she agrees to raise him at home, but human development and emotional connection are inconveniences in a commodity. The narrator of “FAQs about Your Craniotomy” is a female brain surgeon who starts out by giving literal answers to potential patient questions and then segues into bitterly funny reflections on life after her husband’s suicide.
In “Architecture for Monsters,” a young woman interviews Helen Dannenforth, a formidable female architect whose designs are inspired by anatomy, specifically by her disabled daughter’s condition. The narrator’s mother, a molecular biologist, was assaulted and murdered by a lab technician. Dannenforth is a hero/replacement mother figure to her, even after she learns about the complicated situation with the architect’s sister, who was the surrogate for her niece but then got cut out of the child’s life.
I particularly liked “The Age of Love,” a funny one in which the nurses at a nursing home listen in to their elderly patients’ calls to phone sex lines. Their conversations aren’t about smut so much as they’re about loneliness and nostalgia. Another favorite of mine was “Camp Jabberwocky for Recovering Internet Trolls,” about a Martha’s Vineyard camp for teens who need a better relationship with social media. When camper Rex Hasselbach, who had posted foul content in his father’s name to get revenge on being beaten up at home, goes missing, three counselors with guilt or identity issues of their own go looking for him. The title story also engages with social media as a woman obsessively tracks her rapist and works as a “digital media curator” deleting distressing video content.
All of the characters have had a bereavement or other traumatic incident and are looking for the best way to move on, but some make bizarre and unhealthy decisions – such as to restage events from a dead daughter’s life, to breastfeed grown men, or to communicate by text with a deceased wife. These quirky, humorous stories never strayed so far into science fiction as to alienate me. I loved the medical themes and the subtle, incisive observations about a technology-obsessed culture. I’ll be looking out for what Mary South does next.
(Note: The cover image is a creepily pixelated version of the author’s photo.)
My thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.
Are you a short story fan? Read any good ones recently?
The final three review books of the year (not counting DNFs, which will be briefly dispatched on Sunday): a much-hyped novel set in contemporary New York City, a memoir of suicidal depression and recuperation, and a study of linguistics in the Internet era.
Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
According to the aggregated best-of lists (which Kate has surveyed here), this was one of the top two novels of 2019. I’m going to have to shrug my shoulders and admit, I don’t get it. To me this didn’t stand out at all from the sea of fiction about crumbling marriages and upper-middle-class angst. Toby Fleishman is 41-year-old head of hepatology at a New York City hospital. He recently split from his wife, Rachel, agent to the creator of a Hamilton-style phenomenon. Not content with their comfortable lifestyle, Rachel hankers for true wealth.
When Rachel goes AWOL at a yoga retreat, Toby is left in charge of their children: Hannah, 11, and Solly, nine. He ferries them to and from summer camp, all the while bombarded with dirty texts and semi-nude selfies from the women he’s flirting with via a dating app. Had this novel been written by a man, people would have been up in arms about the unpleasant sexual content. But this is not just written by a woman; it’s also narrated by a woman: Elizabeth Epstein Slater, a former journalist turned stay-at-home mom. She and Toby became friends on their junior year abroad in Israel and have started hanging out more after his divorce.
So this is a book within a book Elizabeth is writing about one turbulent summer in her friends’ lives, but also her own – she’s dissatisfied with her staid marriage. It’s also Brodesser-Akner’s winking commentary on macho or moralizing fiction: “this was the only way to get someone to listen to a woman—to tell her story through a man” and “none of my characters were likable,” Elizabeth thinks. But attempts to humanize Toby and Rachel fell flat for me. Sadness over the loss of one patient was insufficient to endear me to the randy Toby, and early life with a grim grandmother and severe postpartum trauma couldn’t make me care about whether Rachel was coming back. I also never fully suspended disbelief about Elizabeth’s intimate knowledge of the Fleishmans.
This very New York novel started out promising, with echoes of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? or The Nest. There are some perceptive passages about marriage, and the writing in general is more than capable. But the story didn’t feel nearly fresh enough to justify all that acclaim, or the 373-page length.
With thanks to Wildfire for the free copy for review.
The Scar: A Personal History of Depression and Recovery by Mary Cregan
Cregan has a scar that reminds her, every time she notices it, of how close she came to taking her own life decades ago. In 1983, at the age of 27, she gave birth to a baby girl, Anna, who died two days later of a heart defect. The loss plunged her into a depression so severe that she made a halfhearted suicide attempt some weeks later and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where she was given electroconvulsive therapy. One morning in the hospital, she brought a glass jar of lotion into the shower with her, smashed it, and took a shard to her throat. She only narrowly missed her carotid artery. Cregan wonders if, had she been given appropriate medication, all this heartache could have been avoided.
“I’ve often wished I could undo my own act (if indeed ‘I’ and ‘my’ are accurate words for a self in the condition I was in.)”
“It took a long time to work all of this out, because it’s very hard to see yourself clearly when depressed. The problem is that you think with your mind, but your mind is ill and untrustworthy. Your mind is your enemy.”
Alongside her own winding story, the author surveys the history of mental health treatment in the United States. This felt more familiar and thus engaged me less than the personal material. Nevertheless, I would recommend this forthright memoir to anyone keen to read about the experience of mental illness.
With thanks to the author for arranging my free copy from Lilliput Press, Dublin.
Because Internet: Understanding how language is changing by Gretchen McCulloch
I’m surprised by how fascinating I found this: I’m a late adopter when it comes to technology (I’m still resisting a smartphone) and I haven’t given linguistics a thought since that one class I took in college, but it turns out that my proofreader’s interest in the English language and my daily use of e-mail and social media were enough to make it extremely relevant. The Montreal linguist’s thesis is that the Internet popularized informal writing and quickly incorporates changes in slang and cultural references. At the same time, it still reflects regional and age-specific differences in the way that people speak (write conversationally).
The book goes deep into topics you may never have considered, like how we convey tone of voice through what we type and how emoji function as the gestures of the written word. You’ll get a breakdown of current generations in terms of when the Internet became the default in their life (I belong to what the author calls “Semi Internet People”: I remember first using the Internet in a classroom in seventh grade, getting dial-up AOL at home not long thereafter, and opening my own Hotmail account in high school), a history of lolcats, and musings on the metaphorical use of periods and capital letters. If you are among the unconvinced, you’ll also be schooled in the appeal of gifs and memes.
Some trivia I picked up:
- In 2015 the tears of joy emoji became the most popular emoji, more used than the smiley-face emoticon.
- For many of us the Internet serves as what sociologists call a “third place” besides home and work where we can socialize.
- Only 5–8% of Internet users are bloggers.
- “Subtweeting” (as in subliminal) and “vaguebooking” are when you post about a situation without giving any specifics.
- Parents often refer to a child by an initial or nickname so the child won’t have a searchable social media presence.
- The Library of Congress now archives memes (The Lolcat Bible, Urban Dictionary, etc.).
McCulloch portrays language as a constantly changing network, such that terms like “standard” and “correct” no longer apply. She writes with such geeky enthusiasm that you’ll happily accompany her down any linguistic alley.
With thanks to Harvill Secker for the free copy for review.
This past weekend was my fourth time attending part of Nature Matters, the annual New Networks for Nature conference. I’ve written about it here a couple of times, once when there was a particular focus on nature poetry and another time when it was held in Cambridge. This year it was back in Stamford for a last time for the 10th anniversary. Next year: York.
What’s so special about the conference is its interdisciplinary nature: visual artists, poets, musicians, writers, politicians, academics and conservationists alike attend and present. So although the event might seem geared more towards my biologist husband, there’s always plenty to interest me, too. The roster is a who’s who of British nature writing: Mark Avery, Tim Birkhead, Mark Cocker, Mary Colwell, Miriam Darlington, Richard Kerridge, Peter Marren, Michael McCarthy, Stephen Moss, Adam Nicolson, Katharine Norbury, Ruth Padel, Laurence Rose and Mike Toms were all there this year. I also appreciate the atmosphere of friendly disagreement about what nature is and how best to go about conserving it.
I attended on Friday, a jam-packed day of sessions that began with Bob Gibbons presenting on the flowers and wildlife of Transylvania, a landscape and culture that are still almost medieval in character. Then Jeremy Mynott interviewed Mark Cocker about his latest book, Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife before It Is Too Late? I’ve read other Cocker books, but not this one yet. Its main point seems to be that the country’s environmental organizations need to work together. Individuals and NGOs are doing passionate and wonderful things towards nature conservation, Cocker said, but overall “we ain’t getting there.” Bad news doesn’t sell, though, he noted: his book has sold just 6,000 copies compared to 30,000 for Wilding, Isabella Tree’s story of the rewilding success at Knepp.
Cocker refused to define nature in a one-sentence soundbite, but argued that we have to consider ourselves a part of it rather than thinking about it as a victim ‘out there’ (the closest he came to a definition was “the totality of the system we are a part of”). “Our responsibility, terrifyingly, is unending,” he said – every time you open a new plastic toothbrush, you can’t forget that the old one you throw away will effectively be around forever. Our Place isn’t just composed of polemic, though: it’s structured around six beloved landscapes and finds moments of transcendence in being out in nature. You find hope by walking out the door, feeling the wind on your face and hearing the starling singing, Cocker remarked. He closed by reading a description from the book of the north Norfolk coast.
Either side of lunch were panels on how social media (mostly Twitter, plus smartphone apps) can serve nature and the role that poetry might play in environmental activism, with a brief interlude from visual artist Derek Robertson, who responded to the refugee crisis by traveling to Calais and Jordan and painting human figures alongside migratory birds. In the poetry session I especially enjoyed hearing from Ben Smith, a University of Plymouth lecturer and poet with a debut novel coming out in April 2019 (Doggerland, from Fourth Estate). He recently collaborated with Dr. Lee de Mora on a set of poems inspired by the Earth System Model, which provides the data for the International Panel on Climate Change. Climate modeling might seem an odd subject for poetry, but it provides excellent metaphors for failure and hope in “Spinning Up,” “Data Sets” and “Alternate Histories.”
Birmingham lecturer Isabel Galleymore, whose debut collection Significant Other is coming out from Carcanet Press in March, talked about how she uses the tropes of love poetry (praise, intimacy, pursuit and loss) when writing about environmental crisis. This shift in her focus began at university when she studied Wordsworth through an ecocritical lens, she said. Jos Smith and Luke Thompson were the other two poets on a panel chaired by Matt Howard. Howard quoted Keats – “We hate poetry that has a design on us” – and asked the poets for reactions. Smith agreed that polemic and poetry don’t mix well, yet said it’s good to have a reason for writing. He thinks it’s best when you can hold two or more ideas in play at a time.
After tea and a marvelous cake spread, it was time for a marathon of three sessions in a row, starting with three short presentations on seabirds: one by a researcher, one by a nature reserve manager, and one by a young artist who produced Chinese-style scroll paintings of the guillemot breeding colonies on Skomer and exhibited them in Sheffield Cathedral.
Next up was a highlight of the weekend: Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and Labour peer Baroness Barbara Young conversed with Michael McCarthy on the topic “Can Conventional Politics Save the Environment?” Both decried short-term thinking, the influence of corporations and the media, and government departments not working together. No one was ever elected on the promise of “less,” McCarthy suggested, but in reply Lucas talked about redefining terms: less of what? more of what? If we think in terms of quality of life, things like green energy and the sharing economy will become more appealing. She also believes that more people care about green issues than we think, but, e.g., a London mum might speak out about air quality without ever using the word “environment.” Baroness Young concluded that “adversarial politics, flip-flopping between parties, isn’t working” and we must get beyond it, at the local level if nothing else. That rang true for me for American politics, too.
Before the day ended with a drinks reception, we were treated to a completely different presentation by Lloyd Buck, who raises and trains birds, mostly for television footage. So, for instance, the greylag geese flying in formation alongside the boat in David Attenborough’s 2012 Sixty Years in the Wild TV special had imprinted on Lloyd’s wife, Rose. Buck spoke about bonding with birds of very different personalities, and introduced the audience to five starlings (who appeared in Poldark), a peregrine, a gyrfalcon, a golden eagle, and Bran the raven, who showed his intelligence by solving several puzzles to find hidden chunks of meat.
I purchased two books of poetry from the bookstall – I had no idea Darlington had written poetry before her nature books – and the conference brochure itself is a wonderful 75-page collection of recent artwork and short nature writing pieces, including most of the presenters but also Patrick Barkham, Tim Dee, Paul Evans, Philip Hoare, Richard Mabey, Helen Macdonald and Chris Packham – a keynote speaker announced for next year. I’ve been skipping through the booklet and have most enjoyed the pieces by Melissa Harrison and Helen Scales so far. Altogether, an inspiring and worthwhile weekend.
Would any of the conference’s themes or events have interested you?
I recently signed up to Instagram – bookishbeck, as always, if you want to connect – but haven’t been very active on the site yet. (My sister coerced me into joining, mostly so I could follow itsdougthepug.) The main issue is that I don’t have a smartphone, so rather than using the app version I have to go via a program called Gramblr and can’t access all the usual features. A lot of the time it can seem like too much of a faff to post pictures on there.
However, I want to give the site a proper go so would like to get advice on how I can best use it as a book blogger. I know it can be a good way to connect with publishers by posting photos of review copies they’ve sent you and linking to your reviews, etc. I’ve already followed a bunch of publishers, but I know there’s more I could and should be doing.
So I’ll turn it over to you: those of you who use Instagram (primarily for bookish reasons rather than personal photos, though that’s cool too), what accounts should I be following? What’s your strategy when posting book photos? How can I use hashtags and captions to my advantage? Do you use Instagram in pretty much the same way as you do Twitter, or are there subtle differences I should be aware of?
Thanks in advance for any tips!
I’ve had this blog for almost a year now (tomorrow’s the anniversary!), and although I’m enjoying the writing practice and the interaction with readers, it hasn’t necessarily grown as much as I might have wanted it to. So I am seeking advice – from all my readers, but from fellow bloggers in particular.
From those of you who are experienced bloggers, especially book bloggers, I would love to know how you’ve made it work: what your strategies are for types and timing of posts; how you use social media to your advantage; how you connect with publishers and authors; and how you’ve carved out a niche for yourself.
I’d be glad to hear your thoughts about anything from the loooooong list of questions below – and if you’d rather reply at length and in private rather than via a comment, feel free to get in touch with me via e-mail: email@example.com.
- How often do you post per week?
- How long do you try to make your posts?
- Does a post’s timing (day of week and time of day) matter?
- How do you encourage blog comments?
- Do you try to reflect on book trends and controversies?
- How can I help create advanced buzz about books?
- When’s a good time to write about book prize races – before and/or after?
- How many book blogs do you follow and how do you keep up with them all?
I generally publish one straightforward review per week, usually on a Monday, and then my general strategy for other posts is to alternate between lists on a theme (with mini reviews), event or travel write-ups, and personal reflections or opinion pieces. I also do a monthly reviews roundup and often report on my library borrowing at the end of a month.
I try to make my post timings sensible for both US and UK readers, so I usually aim for 9 am ET / 2 pm GMT. I follow about 10 fellow book bloggers and already that feels like the limit of what I can sensibly keep up with, though I’d love to be supportive of others in return. I’d like to think it’s not always a tit for tat scenario, but I also accept that I’m more likely to get follows, likes and comments if I’m returning the favor.
- How can I attract more followers (blog and/or Twitter)?
- How often should I check Twitter and post on it?
- Where do you draw the line in terms of who you follow on Twitter?
- How can I best use Twitter to my advantage?
- Do you always tag a book’s author and/or publisher when you tweet a review?
- Is it worth making a Facebook author page?
- Are there any other groups (Facebook or other) I should be part of?
- Are there blog networks or directories I could join?
- Can you think of any blogger perks websites I should sign up for apart from NetGalley, Edelweiss and Blogging for Books?
I think I follow about 300 Twitter accounts. I go on there every few days and find it completely overwhelming; I can be scrolling for 20 minutes and not even get through a few hours of posts, let alone a few days’ worth. I follow a lot of publishers, so use the site mostly to keep an eye out for new books and enter giveaways, plus I link to my blogs and bylined reviews. However, I don’t know whether I should be following all the authors, publicists, fellow reviewers, bloggers, and freelance writers I can. It just seems to snowball!
I also cross-post my reviews to Goodreads and sometimes to Facebook, either on my own page or in a UK Book Bloggers group.
Publishers and Authors
- Do you request books, or are they sent to you unsolicited?
- How do you keep track of what’s coming out and decide what to ask for?
- How far ahead would you request a title?
- Are certain publishers particularly helpful and accommodating?
- How can I know definitively whether an American title is also coming out in the UK, maybe at a later date?
- Are your requests always granted?
- How many times do you follow up with a publicist before giving up?
- How can I help support debut novelists?
- How can I get involved in blog tours and giveaways?
- How could I bag invites to literary events in London?
- Is it possible to get involved in judging a literary prize?
Maybe my expectations are unrealistic, but I’m sure I’ve heard other bloggers talk about receiving boxes full of review books, unasked, months in advance of the publication dates. Some people seem to be doing blog tours and interviews every few days. I’ve gotten a bit braver about sending e-mails to publishers asking for a book I fancy reviewing on my blog, but I don’t feel like I quite have the etiquette down yet.
My long-term aim is to be a judge for a major book prize, like the Bailey’s Prize or the Man Booker Prize. (Hey, a girl can dream! I certainly read enough in a year to keep up with the load.) I also like the sound of getting dressed up for a book release soirée or similar.
Finding a Niche
- Would you rather see more straightforward reviews on my blog, or fewer?
- Is it important for me to specialize in terms of what genres I review?
- Is it advisable to list my e-mail address on the blog?
Tomorrow I’ll unveil an updated blog design to mark the one-year anniversary. I’m also tailoring my “About” page.
I’m grateful for any and all pieces of advice. I may have been doing this for a year now, but I still feel like an utter newbie! Here’s to another year of reading and writing.