A year club hosted by Karen and Simon is always a great excuse to read more classics. I appear to be getting in training for Novellas in November – both of these were notably short at under 100 pages, particularly the Rilke, which is little more than a pamphlet. (Both: )
Passing by Nella Larsen
By the time of her death in 1964, this Harlem Renaissance author had mostly fallen into obscurity, but she has received renewed attention in recent decades. I learned about Passing in connection to Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, which it partially inspired.
Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry grew up together in Chicago. Both are light-skinned African American women, their features described as “olive” or “golden.” Irene has remained within the Black community, marrying a doctor named Brian and living a comfortable life in Harlem. However, she is able to pass as white in certain circumstances, such as when she and Clare meet for tea in a high-end establishment. Clare, on the other hand, is hiding her ancestry from her white husband, Jack Bellew, who spews hatred for Black people. “It’s such a frightfully easy thing to do. If one’s the type, all that’s needed is a little nerve,” she insists.
Clare and Irene’s relationship could be characterized as that of frenemies, though critics have posited repressed homoeroticism based on how Larsen describes Clare’s beauty from Irene’s perspective. This is very subtle – I only spotted potential infatuation in the letter from Clare that Irene reads in the opening pages. Most of the time, Irene appears to disapprove of Clare for her recklessness, knowing that there could be dire consequences if Jack discovers her deception. She also starts to suspect that Clare is having an affair with Brian, and for these reasons, as well as her own discomfort and guilt, she avoids Clare as much as possible.
The trouble with Clare was, not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well.
Things come to a head in the final six pages, turning what had for much of its length been an ambling read into something of a shocker. Apparently scholars feel that Larsen flubs her endings, but I thought this one was fantastic, giving a Gatsby-esque tragic weight. Comparing Black women’s strategies of coping with a white world was also fascinating. My experience with African American classics is limited, so I was happy to increase my repertoire.
My secondhand copy – a dual volume with Quicksand, which I’ll plan on reading next November – came from the much-mourned Bookbarn International.
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
[Translated from the German by Charlie Louth]
I’d long wanted to read this and couldn’t find it through a library, so bought a copy as part of a Foyles order funded by last year’s Christmas money. I’m not clear on whether the Penguin Little Black Classics edition is abridged, but the 1929 preface by Franz Xaver Kappus, Rilke’s correspondent, only mentions 10 letters, which is how many are printed here, so I have at least gotten the gist. Most of the letters were sent in 1903–4, with a final one dated 1908, from various locations on Rilke’s European travels.
Kappus sent Rilke his early poetic efforts and received in reply a frank letdown – “the poems are not yet anything in themselves” – but also much kind, general advice about creativity, confidence, post-faith life, and thriving in spite of suffering. Even so tiny a book is almost endlessly quotable, with many self-help-oriented phrases I’d read in other contexts and found wonderfully reassuring:
Go into yourself. Examine the reason that bids you to write; check whether it reaches its roots into the deepest region of your heart, admit to yourself whether you would die if it should be denied you to write.
To be an artist means: not to calculate and count; to grow and ripen like a tree which does not hurry the flow of its sap and stands at ease in the spring gales without fearing that no summer may follow. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are simply there in their vast, quiet tranquillity, as if eternity lay before them.
be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and … try to love the questions themselves
I also got this 1929 autobiography out from the library. While I much admire the tone in the first paragraph and final pages (especially that last word!), I find I don’t have enough interest in the WWI poets to read what’s in between. It put a Sufjan Stevens song in my head, though.
Here are four enjoyable books due out next month that I was lucky enough to read in advance. The first is the sophomore novel from an author whose work I’ve enjoyed before, the second is a highly anticipated memoir from an author new to me, and the third and fourth – both among my favorite books of 2017 so far – strike me as 2018 Wellcome Book Prize hopefuls: one is a highly autobiographical novel about bereavement, and the other is a courageous memoir about facing terminal cancer. I’ve pulled 250-word extracts from my full reviews and hope you’ll be tempted by one or more of these.
The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro
(Coming from St. Martin’s Press on June 6th)
It’s the summer of 1992 and a plague of gypsy moth caterpillars has hit Avalon Island, a community built around Grudder Aviation. The creatures are just one of many threats to this would-be fairy tale world. For Maddie Pencott LaRosa, it’s no simple Sweet Sixteen time of testing out drugs and sex at parties. Her grandfather, Grudder’s president, is back in town with her grandmother, Veronica, and they’re eager to hide the fact that he’s losing his marbles. Also recently returned is Leslie Day Marshall, daughter of the previous Grudder president; she’s inherited “The Castle” and shocked everyone with the family she brought back: Jules, an African-American landscape architect, and their two mixed-race children.
Depending on when you were born, you might not think of the 1990s as “history,” but this novel does what the best historical fiction does: expertly evoke a time period. Moving between the perspectives of six major characters, the novel captures all the promise and peril of life, especially for those who love the ‘wrong’ people. I especially loved small meetings of worlds, like Maddie and Veronica getting together for tea and Oprah.
My main criticism would be that there is a lot going on here – racism, domestic violence, alcohol and prescription drug abuse, cancer, teen sex (a whole lotta sex in general) – and that can make things feel melodramatic. But in general I loved the atmosphere: a sultry summer of Gatsby-esque glittering parties and garden mazes, a time dripping with secrets, sex and caterpillar poop.
[It felt like I kept seeing references to gypsy moths in the run-up to reading this book, like a passage from Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, and a random secondhand book I spotted in Hay-on-Wye (though in that case it’s actually the name of a ship and is a record of a sea voyage).]
Read-alike: The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
(Coming from HarperCollins on June 13th [USA] and from Corsair on August 3rd [UK])
I’d never read anything by Roxane Gay before, but somehow already knew the basics of her story: the daughter of Haitian immigrants to the American Midwest, she was gang raped at age 12, and to some extent everything she’s done and become since then has been influenced by that one horrific experience. Not least her compulsive overeating: “I ate and ate and ate to build my body into a fortress,”she writes. At her heaviest Gay was super morbidly obese according to her BMI, a term that “frames fat people like we are the walking dead.”
Though presented as a memoir, this is more like a collection of short autobiographical essays (88 of them, in six sections). The portions that could together be dubbed her life story take up about a third of the book, and the rest is riffs around a cluster of related topics: weight, diet, exercise and body image. The writing style is matter-of-fact (e.g. “My body is a cage of my own making”), which means she never comes across as self-pitying. I appreciate how she holds opposing notions in tension: she doesn’t know how she developed such an “unruly” body; she knows exactly how it happened.
The structure of the book made it a little repetitive for me, but I think what Gay has written will be of tremendous value, not just to rape victims or those whose BMI is classed as obese, but to anyone who has struggled with body image – so pretty much everyone, especially women.
Read-alike: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist
(Coming on from Sceptre on June 1st [UK] and from Melville House on February 6, 2018 [USA])
In this autobiographical novel from a Swedish poet, Tom faces the loss of his partner and his father in quick succession. The novel opens in medias res at Söder hospital, where Tom’s long-time girlfriend, Karin, has been rushed for breathing problems. Doctors initially suspect pneumonia or a blood clot, but a huge increase in her white blood cells confirms leukemia. This might seem manageable if it weren’t for Karin, 33, being pregnant with their first child. The next morning she’s transferred to another hospital for a Cesarean section and, before he can catch his breath, Tom is effectively a single parent to Livia, delivered six weeks early.
Malmquist does an extraordinary job of depicting Tom’s bewilderment. He records word for word what busy doctors and jobsworth nurses have to say, but because there are no speech marks their monologues merge with Tom’s thoughts, conversations and descriptions of the disorienting hospital atmosphere to produce a seamless narrative of frightened confusion. There is an especially effective contrast set up between Karin’s frantic emergency room treatment and the peaceful neonatal ward where Livia is being cared for.
While it’s being marketed as a novel, this reads more like a stylized memoir. Similar to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books, it features the author as the central character and narrator, and the story of grief it tells is a highly personal one.With its frank look at medical crises, this is a book I fully expect to see on next year’s Wellcome Book Prize shortlist.
Read-alike: Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal
The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
(Coming on June 6th from Simon & Schuster [USA] and from Text Publishing on August 3rd [UK])
You’re going to hear a lot about this one. It’s been likened to When Breath Becomes Air, an apt comparison given the beauty of the prose and the literary and philosophical approach to terminal cancer. It’s a wonderful book, so wry and honest, with a voice that reminds me of Anne Lamott and Elizabeth McCracken.
It started with a tiny spot of cancer in the breast. “No one dies from one small spot,” Nina Riggs and her husband told themselves. Until it wasn’t just a spot but a larger tumor that required a mastectomy. And then there was the severe back pain that alerted them to metastases in her spine, and later in her lungs. Riggs was a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and she quotes from her ancestor’s essays as well as from Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy of life to put things in perspective.
Riggs started out as a poet, and you can tell. She’s an expert at capturing the moments that make life alternately euphoric and unbearable – sometimes both at once. Usually these moments are experienced with family: her tough mother, who died after nine years with multiple myeloma, providing her with a kind of “morbid test drive” for her own death; and her husband and their two precocious sons. Whether she’s choosing an expensive couch, bringing home a puppy, or surprising her sons with a trip to Universal Studios, she’s always engaged in life. You never get a sense of resignation or despair.
Some of my favorite lines:
“inside the MRI machine, where it sounded like hostile aliens had formed a punk band”
“my pubic hair all falls out at once in the shower and shows up like a drowned muskrat in the drain.”
“My wig smells toxic and makes me feel like a bank robber. But maybe it is just a cloak for riding out into suspicious country.”
“‘Merry Christmas,’ says a nurse who is measuring my urine into a jug in the bathroom. ‘Do you want some pain meds? Do you want another stool softener?’”
(Nina Riggs died at age 39 on February 23, 2017.)
Read-alike: A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles by Mary Elizabeth Williams
What June books do you have on the docket? Have you already read any that you can recommend?
“Maybe we can see that the animals are like us, or we are like animals.”
Laura Kaye’s impressive debut novel, English Animals, is a fresh take on themes of art, sex, violence and belonging. It has particular resonance in the wake of Brexit, showing the apparent lack of a cohesive English identity in spite of sometimes knee-jerk nationalism.
The novel takes place within roughly a year and is narrated by Mirka Komárova, a 19-year-old Slovakian who left home suddenly after an argument with her parents and arrives in the English countryside to work for thirty-somethings Richard and Sophie Parker. She doesn’t know what to expect from her new employers: “Richard and Sophie sounded like good names for good people. But they could be anything, they could be completely crazy.”
It’s a live-in governess-type arrangement, and yet there are no children – Mirka later learns that Sophie is having trouble getting pregnant. Instead Mirka drives the volatile Parkers to the pub so they can get drunk whenever they want, and also helps with their various money-making ventures: cooking and cleaning for B&B guests and the summer’s wedding parties, serving as a beater for pheasant shoots, and assisting with Richard’s taxidermy business. Her relationship with them remains uncertain: she’s not a servant but not quite an equal either; it’s a careful friendship powered by jokes with Richard and cryptic crossword clues with Sophie.
At first Mirka seems disgusted by Sophie’s shabby family home and the many animals around the place, both living and dead. Initially squeamish about skinning animal corpses, she gets used to it as taxidermy becomes her artistic expression. Taking inspiration from whimsical Victorian portraits of dead animals in costume, she makes intricate modern tableaux with names like Mice Raving, Freelance Squirrels and Rats at the Office Party. When her art catches the eye of a London agent, she starts preparing her pieces for an exhibit and is the subject of a magazine profile. The interviewer writes this about her:
Mirka is someone who understands the philosophical nature of her art. How, in our strange condition of being simultaneously within and outside the animal kingdom, we invest taxidermy with our longing for permanence.
I loved the level of detail about Mirka’s work – it’s rare to encounter such a precise account of handiwork in fiction, as opposed to in nonfiction like Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes and David Esterly’s The Lost Carving; Kaye herself is a potter, which might explain it – and I appreciated the many meanings that dead animals take on in the novel. They’re by turns food, art objects and sacrificial victims. Taxidermy is a perfect juxtaposition of physicality and the higher echelons of art, a canny way of blending death and beauty.
But of course the human residents of this community also fall into the title’s category: Many of them are what you might call ‘beastly’, and the threat of violence is never far away given Richard and Sophie’s argumentativeness. A promiscuous blonde, Sophie reminded me of Daisy in The Great Gatsby, so often described as careless: “You are a dangerous person, Sophie,” Mirka says. “Don’t say that. I didn’t mean to hurt anything.” Mirka replies, “You don’t care about other things. Everything is a game. Everyone is a toy for you to play with.”
The two different blurbs I’ve seen for the book both give too much away, so I will simply say that there’s an air of sexual tension and latent hostility surrounding this semi-isolated home, and it’s intriguing to watch the dynamic shift between Richard, Sophie and Mirka. I felt that I never quite knew what would happen or how far Kaye would take things.
I did have a few minor misgivings, though: sometimes Mirka’s narration reads like a stilted translation into English, rather than a fluent outpouring; there’s a bit too much domestic detail and heavy-handed symbolism; and the themes of xenophobia and homophobia might have been introduced more subtly, rather than using certain characters as overt mouthpieces.
All the same, I read this with great interest and curiosity throughout. It’s a powerful look at assumptions versus reality, how we approach the Other, and the great effort it takes to change; it’s easier to remain trapped in the roles we’ve acquired. I’d recommend this to readers of Polly Samson, Francesca Segal and even Rachel Johnson (the satire Shire Hell). In particular, I was reminded of Shelter by Jung Yun and Little Children by Tom Perrotta: though suburban in setting, they share Kaye’s preoccupations with sex and violence and the ways we try to hide our true selves beneath a façade of conformity.
This is one of the most striking debut novels I’ve encountered in recent years; it’s left me eager to see what Laura Kaye will do next.
English Animals was published by Little, Brown UK on January 12th. My thanks to Hayley Camis for the review copy.
I was delighted to be asked to participate in the blog tour for English Animals. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.