This year the Be/Ask/Become the Expert week of the month-long Nonfiction November challenge is hosted by Veronica of The Thousand Book Project. (In previous years I’ve contributed lists of women’s religious memoirs (twice), accounts of postpartum depression, and books on “care”.)
I’ve been devouring nonfiction responses to COVID-19 for over a year now. Even memoirs that are not specifically structured as diaries take pains to give a sense of what life was like from day to day during the early months of the pandemic, including the fear of infection and the experience of lockdown. Covid is mentioned in lots of new releases these days, fiction or nonfiction, even if just via an introduction or epilogue, but I’ve focused on books where it’s a major element. At the end of the post I list others I’ve read on the theme, but first I feature four recent releases that I was sent for review.
Year of Plagues: A Memoir of 2020 by Fred D’Aguiar
The plague for D’Aguiar was dual: not just Covid, but cancer. Specifically, stage 4 prostate cancer. A hospital was the last place he wanted to spend time during a pandemic, yet his treatment required frequent visits. Current events, including a curfew in his adopted home of Los Angeles and the protests following George Floyd’s murder, form a distant background to an allegorized medical struggle. D’Aguiar personifies his illness as a force intent on harming him; his hope is that he can be like Anansi and outwit the Brer Rabbit of cancer. He imagines dialogues between himself and his illness as they spar through a turbulent year.
Cancer needs a song: tambourine and cymbals and a choir, not to raise it from the dead but [to] lay it to rest finally.
Tracing the effects of his cancer on his wife and children as well as on his own body, he wonders if the treatment will disrupt his sense of his own masculinity. I thought the narrative would hit home given that I have a family member going through the same thing, but it struck me as a jumble, full of repetition and TMI moments. Expecting concision from a poet, I wanted the highlights reel instead of 323 rambling pages.
(Carcanet Press, August 26.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
100 Days by Gabriel Josipovici
Beginning in March 2020, Josipovici challenged himself to write a diary entry and mini-essay each day for 100 days – which happened to correspond almost exactly to the length of the UK’s first lockdown. Approaching age 80, he felt the virus had offered “the unexpected gift of a bracket round life” that he “mustn’t fritter away.” He chose an alphabetical framework, stretching from Aachen to Zoos and covering everything from his upbringing in Egypt to his love of walking in the Sussex Downs. I had the feeling that I should have read some of his fiction first so that I could spot how his ideas and experiences had infiltrated it; I’m now rectifying this by reading his novella The Cemetery in Barnes, in which I recognize a late-life remarriage and London versus countryside settings.
Still, I appreciated Josipovici’s thoughts on literature and his own aims for his work (more so than the rehashing of Covid statistics and official briefings from Boris Johnson et al., almost unbearable to encounter again):
In my writing I have always eschewed visual descriptions, perhaps because I don’t have a strong visual memory myself, but actually it is because reading such descriptions in other people’s novels I am instantly bored and feel it is so much dead wood.
nearly all my books and stories try to force the reader (and, I suppose, as I wrote, to force me) to face the strange phenomenon that everything does indeed pass, and that one day, perhaps sooner than most people think, humanity will pass and, eventually, the universe, but that most of the time we live as though all was permanent, including ourselves. What rich soil for the artist!
Why have I always had such an aversion to first person narratives? I think precisely because of their dishonesty – they start from a falsehood and can never recover. The falsehood that ‘I’ can talk in such detail and so smoothly about what has ‘happened’ to ‘me’, or even, sometimes, what is actually happening as ‘I’ write.
You never know till you’ve plunged in just what it is you really want to write. When I started writing The Inventory I had no idea repetition would play such an important role in it. And so it has been all through, right up to The Cemetery in Barnes. If I was a poet I would no doubt use refrains – I love the way the same thing becomes different the second time round
To write a novel in which nothing happens and yet everything happens: a secret dream of mine ever since I began to write
I did sense some misogyny, though, as it’s generally female writers he singles out for criticism: Iris Murdoch is his prime example of the overuse of adjectives and adverbs, he mentions a “dreadful novel” he’s reading by Elizabeth Bowen, and he describes Jean Rhys and Dorothy Whipple as women “who, raised on a diet of the classic English novel, howled with anguish when life did not, for them, turn out as they felt it should.”
While this was enjoyable to flip through, it’s probably more for existing fans than for readers new to the author’s work, and the Covid connection isn’t integral to the writing experiment.
(Carcanet Press, October 28.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
A stanza from the below collection to link the first two books to this next one:
Have they found him yet, I wonder,
whoever it is strolling
about as a plague doctor, outlandish
beak and all?
The Crash Wake and Other Poems by Owen Lowery
Lowery was a tetraplegic poet – wheelchair-bound and on a ventilator – who also survived a serious car crash in February 2020 before his death in May 2021. It’s astonishing how much his body withstood, leaving his mind not just intact but capable of generating dozens of seemingly effortless poems. Most of the first half of this posthumous collection, his third overall, is taken up by a long, multipart poem entitled “The Crash Wake” (it’s composed of 104 12-line poems, to be precise), in which his complicated recovery gets bound up with wider anxiety about the pandemic: “It will take time and / more to find our way / back to who we were before the shimmer / and promise of our snapped day.”
As the seventh anniversary of his wedding to Jayne nears, Lowery reflects on how love has kept him going despite flashbacks to the accident and feeling written off by his doctors. In the second section of the book, the subjects vary from the arts (Paula Rego’s photographs, Stanley Spencer’s paintings, R.S. Thomas’s theology) to sport. There is also a lovely “Remembrance Day Sequence” imagining what various soldiers, including Edward Thomas and his own grandfather, lived through. The final piece is a prose horror story about a magpie. Like a magpie, I found many sparkly gems in this wide-ranging collection.
(Carcanet Press, October 28.) With thanks to the publisher for the free e-copy for review.
Behind the Mask: Living Alone in the Epicenter by Kate Walter
[135 pages, so I’m counting this one towards #NovNov, too]
For Walter, a freelance journalist and longtime Manhattan resident, coronavirus turned life upside down. Retired from college teaching and living in Westbeth Artists Housing, she’d relied on activities outside the home for socializing. To a single extrovert, lockdown offered no benefits; she spent holidays alone instead of with her large Irish Catholic family. Even one of the world’s great cities could be a site of boredom and isolation. Still, she gamely moved her hobbies onto Zoom as much as possible, and welcomed an escape to Jersey Shore.
In short essays, she proceeds month by month through the pandemic: what changed, what kept her sane, and what she was missing. Walter considers herself a “gay elder” and was particularly sad the Pride March didn’t go ahead in 2020. She also found herself ‘coming out again’, at age 71, when she was asked by her alma mater to encapsulate the 50 years since graduation in 100 words.
There’s a lot here to relate to – being glued to the news, anxiety over Trump’s possible re-election, looking forward to vaccination appointments – and the book is also revealing on the special challenges for older people and those who don’t live with family. However, I found the whole fairly repetitive (perhaps as a result of some pieces originally appearing in The Village Sun and then being tweaked and inserted here).
Before an appendix of four short pre-Covid essays, there’s a section of pandemic writing prompts: 12 sets of questions to use to think through the last year and a half and what it’s meant. E.g. “Did living through this extraordinary experience change your outlook on life?” If you’ve been meaning to leave a written record of this time for posterity, this list would be a great place to start.
(Heliotrope Books, November 16.) With thanks to the publicist for the free e-copy for review.
Other Covid-themed nonfiction I have read:
- Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke
- Intensive Care by Gavin Francis
- Every Minute Is a Day by Robert Meyer and Dan Koeppel (reviewed for Shelf Awareness)
- Duty of Care by Dominic Pimenta
- Many Different Kinds of Love by Michael Rosen
+ I have a proof copy of Everything Is True: A Junior Doctor’s Story of Life, Death and Grief in a Time of Pandemic by Roopa Farooki, coming out in January.
- Goshawk Summer by James Aldred
- The Heeding by Rob Cowen (in poetry form)
- Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt
- The Consolation of Nature by Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren
- Skylarks with Rosie by Stephen Moss
- Hold Still (a National Portrait Gallery commission of 100 photographs taken in the UK in 2020)
- The Rome Plague Diaries by Matthew Kneale
- Quarantine Comix by Rachael Smith (in graphic novel form; reviewed for Foreword Reviews)
- UnPresidented by Jon Sopel
+ on my Kindle: Alone Together, an anthology of personal essays
+ on my TBR: What Just Happened: Notes on a Long Year by Charles Finch
If you read just one… Make it Intensive Care by Gavin Francis. (And, if you love nature books, follow that up with The Consolation of Nature.)
Can you see yourself reading any of these?
I’m still averaging four new releases per month: a nicely manageable number. In addition to Lily King’s Writers & Lovers, in May I’ve read a novel about eco-anxiety and marital conflict, a memoir of losing a mother to grief and dementia, and an account of a shift in sexuality. I had a somewhat mixed reaction to all three books, but see if one or more catches your eye anyway.
When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray
Perhaps if this had come out two or three years ago, it could have felt fresh. As it is, it felt like a retread of familiar stories about eco-grief and -anxiety among the middle classes (such as Weather and Unsheltered). Emma Abram is an average suburban mother of two in the north of England, upcycling fabrics and doing her best with other little green initiatives around the house since she got laid off from her job when the local library closed. She feels guilty a lot of the time, but what else can she do?
Nero fiddled while Rome burned; she will sew while the polar ice melts and the seas surge.
She couldn’t un-birth the children, un-earth the disposable nappies or un-plumb the white goods.
Such sentiments also reminded me of the relatable, but by no means ground-breaking, contents of Letters to the Earth.
Emma’s husband Chris, though, has taken things to an extreme: as zealous as he once was about his childhood faith, he now is about impending climate change. One day, a week or so before Christmas, she is embarrassed to spot him by the roadside in town, holding up a signboard prophesying environmental doom. “In those days, Chris had been spreading the Good News. Now he is spreading the Bad News.” He thinks cold-weather and survivalist gear makes appropriate gifts; he raises rabbits for meat; he makes Emma watch crackpot documentaries about pandemic preparation. (Oh, the irony! I was sent this book in December.)
Part of the problem was to do with my expectations: from the cover and publicity materials I thought this was going to be a near-future speculative novel about a family coping with flooding and other literal signs of environmental apocalypse. Instead, it is a story about a marriage in crisis. (I cringed at how unsubtly this line put it: “The climate of her marriage [has] been changing, and she has been in denial about it for a long time.”) It is also, like Unless, about how to relate to a family member who has, in your opinion, gone off the rails.
Nothing wrong with those themes, of course, but my false assumptions meant that I spent well over 200 pages waiting for something to happen, thinking that everything I had read thus far was backstory and character development that, in a more eventful novel, would have been dispatched within, say, the first 40 pages. I did enjoy the seasonal activity leading up to Christmas Eve, and the portrayal of Chris’s widowed, pious mother. But compared to A Song for Issy Bradley, one of my favorite books of 2014, this was a disappointment.
My thanks to Hutchinson for the proof copy for review. This came out in e-book and audio on May 7th but the print edition has been delayed until November 12th.
Mother: A Memoir by Nicholas Royle
“A memoir is about what survives. But it is also about what is enigmatic and irretrievable. Cryptic and unknown.”
A few years ago I read Royle’s An English Guide to Birdwatching, one of the stranger novels I’ve ever come across (it brings together a young literary critic’s pet peeves, a retired couple’s seaside torture by squawking gulls, the confusion between the two real-life English novelists named Nicholas Royle, and bird-themed vignettes). It was joyfully over-the-top, full of jokes and puns as well as trenchant observations about modern life.
I found that same delight in the vagaries of language and life in Mother: A Memoir. Royle’s mother, Kathleen, had Alzheimer’s and died in 2003. At least to start with, she was aware of what was happening to her: “I’m losing my marbles,” she pronounced one day in the kitchen of the family home in Devon. Yet Royle pinpoints the beginning of the end nearly two decades earlier, when his younger brother, Simon, died of a rare cancer. “From that death none of us recovered. But my mother it did for. She it by degrees sent mad.”
In short, titled sections that function almost like essays, Royle traces his mother’s family history and nursing career, and brings to life her pastimes and mannerisms. She passed on to Royle, a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Sussex, a love of literature and of unusual words and sayings. She was often to be found with a crossword puzzle in front of her, she devoured books (devoting a whole summer to the complete works to date of Doris Lessing, for instance), and she gave advice on her son’s early stories.
The narrative moves back and forth in time and intersperses letters, lists and black-and-white photographs. Royle often eschews punctuation and indulges in wordplay. “These details matter. The matter of my mater. Matador killing metaphor.” I found that I remained at arm’s length from the book – admiring it rather than becoming as emotionally engaged with it as I wanted to be – but it’s certainly not your average memoir, and it’s always refreshing to find (auto)biographical work that does something different.
My thanks to Myriad Editions for the free copy for review.
The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenberg
Wizenberg is the author of two terrific food-themed memoirs. I particularly loved A Homemade Life, which chronicles the death of her father Burg from cancer, her time living in Paris, building a new life in Seattle, starting her famous food blog (Orangette), and meeting her husband, Brandon. Her follow-up, Delancey, was about the ups and downs of them opening a pizza restaurant and bar in Seattle while she was pregnant with June.
By contrast, The Fixed Stars was an uncomfortable read in more ways than one. For one thing, it unpicks the fairy tale of what had looked like a pretty ideal marriage and entrepreneurial partnership. It turns out Wizenberg wasn’t wholly on board with their little restaurant empire and found the work overwhelming. It was all Brandon’s dream, not hers. (She admits to these facts in Delancey, but it was the success, not the doubt, that I remembered.)
And then, in the summer of 2015, Wizenberg was summoned for jury duty and found herself fascinated by one of the defense attorneys, a woman named Nora who wore a man’s suit and a butch haircut. The author had always considered herself straight, had never been attracted to a woman before, but this crush wouldn’t go away. She and Brandon tried an open marriage so that she could date Nora and he could see other people, too, but it didn’t work out. Brandon didn’t want her to fall in love with anyone else, but that was just what was happening.
Wizenberg announced her coming-out and her separation from Brandon on her blog, so I was aware of all this for the last few years and via Instagram followed what came next. I knew her new spouse is a non-binary person named Ash who was born female but had top surgery to remove their breasts. (At first I was assumed Nora was an alias for Ash, but they are actually different characters. After things broke down with Nora, a mutual friend set her up with Ash.) The other source of discomfort for me here was the explicit descriptions of her lovemaking with Nora – her initiation into lesbian sex – though she draws a veil over this with Ash.
I’m not sure if the intimate details were strictly necessary, but I reminded myself that a memoir is a person’s impressions of what they’ve done and what has happened to them, molded into a meaningful shape. Wizenberg clearly felt a need to dig for the why of her transformation, and her answers range from her early knowledge of homosexuality (an uncle who died of AIDS) to her frustrations about her life with Brandon (theirs really was a happy enough marriage, and a markedly amicable divorce, but had its niggles, like any partnership).
I appreciated that, ultimately, Wizenberg leaves her experience unlabeled. She acknowledges that hers is a messy story, but an honest one. While she entertains several possibilities – Was she a closeted lesbian all along? Or was she bisexual? Can sexual orientation change? – she finds out that sexual fluidity is common in women, and that all queer families are unique. An obvious comparison is with Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which is a bit more profound and original. But the mourning for her marriage and the anguish over what she was doing to her daughter are strong elements alongside the examination of sexuality. The overarching metaphor of star maps is effective and reminded me of Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson.
There were points in the narrative where I was afraid the author would resort to pat answers about what was ‘meant to be’ or to depicting villains versus heroic actions, but instead she treats this all just as something that happened and that all involved coped with as best they could, hopefully making something better in the end. It’s sensitively told and, while inevitably different from her other work, well worth reading for anyone who’s been surprised where life has led.
I read an advanced e-copy from Abrams Press via Edelweiss. A Kindle edition came out on May 12th, but the hardback release has been pushed back to August 4th.
What recent releases can you recommend?
These were terrific reads. A comic novel set on a Sussex farm and a look back at banner years in the friendship of two couples. Both:
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1932)
I’d heard so much about this over the years. It was one I had to be in just the right mood for, though – I’d picked up my secondhand copy and read the first few pages on four different occasions before it finally took. If you recognize the phrase “something nasty in the woodshed” or know of a fictional plant called sukebind, you’ll appreciate the extent to which the story has entered into popular culture.
When Flora Poste’s parents die of the “influenza or Spanish Plague” (oh dear), she’s left an orphan at age 20. Her best option seems to be moving in with relatives she’s never met: Aunt Ada Doom and the Starkadder cousins of Cold Comfort Farm in Howling, Sussex. They’re a delightful collection of eccentrics: mad Aunt Ada shut away in her room; her son Amos, a fire-and-brimstone preacher; cousin Seth, with his movie star looks and multiple children by the servant girl; cousin Elfine, a fey innocent in a secret relationship with the local landowner’s son, who’s dumb but rich; and so on.
Relying on her London sophistication and indomitable optimism, Flora sets out to improve everything and everyone at the crumbling farm. The blurb calls this a “parody of the melodramatic rural novels of the time,” but I thought of it more as a skewering of Victorian stereotypes, not least in that the farming folk speak like Thomas Hardy’s rustics (Reuben: “‘I ha’ scranleted two hundred furrows come five o’clock down i’ the bute.’ It was a difficult remark, Flora felt, to which to reply. Was it a complaint?”). Meanwhile, Mr. Mybug, with his obsession with sex, is a caricature of a D.H. Lawrence protagonist.
It may take a little while to adjust to the book’s sense of humor, which struck me as surprisingly edgy for its time. Gibbons expresses no great outrage about Seth’s illegitimate offspring, for instance; instead, the babies’ grandmother has the enterprising idea of training them up to be a jazz band. There is also plenty of pure silliness, like the cows being named Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless and one of them spontaneously losing legs. I especially liked that Flora’s London friend Mrs. Smiling collects brassieres and that Flora always samples novels to make sure they don’t contain a childbirth scene. This non sequitur also amused me at the same time as it puzzled me: Flora “liked Victorian novels. They were the only kind of novel you could read while you were eating an apple.”
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (1987)
(A buddy read with Laila of Big Reading Life for her Classics Club challenge.) Right from the start, I was thoroughly invested in this lovely, bittersweet story of two faculty couples, Larry and Sally Morgan and Sid and Charity Lang. Much of the action is split between Wisconsin in the 1930s and Vermont in the 1970s, the novel’s present day. Larry, the narrator, had a brief academic career in Madison but moved on to write novels. Sid longed to be a poet but didn’t have the skill, so remained in academia despite a tiny publication record.
Charity is the quartet’s stubborn mother hen, organizing everyone and tailoring everything to her own plans (don’t we all have a friend like that?). The Langs have wealth and class on their side, whereas the Morgans are described as having the intellect and talent. I found it odd that Stegner gave Charity such an obviously metaphorical name – starting with a big dinner party, the Langs lavish gifts and money on the Morgans in the name of friendship.
The novel sets up various counterparts and doubles, so Sally’s polio in the 1930s finds a parallel in the 1970s story line, when a terminally ill Charity is orchestrating her grand farewell. For all its challenges, Larry describes that first year in Madison as an idyllic time with “Two Adams and two Eves, an improvement on God’s plan.” Later on they all take a glorious sabbatical year together in Florence, too. New England, the Midwest and Italy make for an attractive trio of settings. There are also some great sequences that happen to reveal a lot about the friends’ dynamic, including an ill-fated sailboat outing and a hiking trip.
Nostalgic and psychologically rich, this is a quiet, beautifully written character study that would suit fans of Elizabeth Hay and May Sarton (though she was writing a decade and more earlier, this reminded me a lot of her small-town novel Kinds of Love and, eventually, A Reckoning). I’ll try more by Stegner.
“a chilly Octoberish smell of cured leaves rose from the ground, the indescribable smell of fall and football weather and the new term that is the same almost everywhere in America.”
Sid and Charity as “the people who above any other two on earth made us feel good, wanted, loved, important, and happy.”
“she was the same old Charity. She saw objectives, not obstacles, and she did not let her uncomplicated confidence get clouded by other people’s doubts, or other people’s facts, or even other people’s feelings.”
See also Susan’s review.