It’s coming up on the one-year anniversary of the first UK lockdown and here we are still living our lives online. The first hint I had of how serious things were going to get was when a London event with Anne Tyler I was due to attend in March 2020 with Eric and Laura T. was cancelled, followed by … everything else. Oh well.
This February was a bountiful month for online literary conversations. I’m catching up now by writing up my notes from a few more events (after Saunders and Ishiguro) that helped to brighten my evenings and weekends.
Melanie Finn in Conversation with Claire Fuller
(Exile in Bookville American online bookstore event on Facebook, February 2nd)
I was a big fan of Melanie Finn’s 2015 novel Shame (retitled The Gloaming), which I reviewed for Third Way magazine. Her new book, The Hare, sounds appealing but isn’t yet available in the UK. Rosie and Bennett, a 20-years-older man, meet in New York City. Readers soon enough know that he is a scoundrel, but Rosie doesn’t, and they settle together in Vermont. A contemporary storyline looking back at how they met contrasts the romantic potential of their relationship with its current reality.
Fuller said The Hare is her favorite kind of novel: literary but also a page-turner. (Indeed, the same could be said of Fuller’s books.) She noted that Finn’s previous three novels are all partly set in Africa and have a seam of violence – perhaps justified – running through. Finn acknowledged that everyday life in a postcolonial country has been a recurring element in her fiction, arising from her own experience growing up in Kenya, but the new book marked a change of heart: there is so much coming out of Africa by Black writers that she feels she doesn’t have anything to add. The authors agreed you have to be cruel to your characters.
Finn believes descriptive writing is one of her strengths, perhaps due to her time as a journalist. She still takes inspiration from headlines. Now that she and her family (a wildlife filmmaker husband and twin daughters born in her forties) are rooted in Vermont, she sees more nature writing in her work. They recovered a clear-cut plot and grow their own food; they also forage in the woods, and a hunter shoots surplus deer and gives them the venison. Appropriately, she read a tense deer-hunting passage from The Hare. Finn also teaches skiing and offers much the same advice as about writing: repetition eventually leads to elegance.
I was especially interested to hear the two novelists compare their composition process. Finn races through a draft in two months, but rewriting takes her a year, and she always knows the ending in advance. Fuller’s work, on the other hand, is largely unplanned; she starts with a character and a place and then just writes, finding out what she’s created much later on. (If you’ve read her Women’s Prize-longlisted upcoming novel, Unsettled Ground, you, too, would have noted her mention of a derelict caravan in the woods that her son took her to see.) Both said they don’t really like writing! Finn said she likes the idea of being a writer, while Fuller that she likes having written – a direct echo of Dorothy Parker’s quip: “I hate writing. I love having written.” Their fiction makes a good pairing and the conversation flowed freely.
Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature, “Light in Darkness,” Part I
I’d attended once in person, in 2016 (see my write-up of Sarah Perry and more), when this was still known as Bloxham Festival and was held at Bloxham School in Oxfordshire. Starting next year, it will take place in central Oxford instead. I attended the three morning events of Part I; there’s another virtual program taking place on Saturday the 17th of April.
Rachel Mann on The Gospel of Eve
Mann opened with a long reading from Chapter 1 of her debut novel (I reviewed it here) and said it is about her “three favorite things: sex, death, and religion,” all of which involve a sort of self-emptying. Mark Oakley, dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, interviewed her. He noted that her book has been likened to “Dan Brown on steroids.” Mann laughed but recognizes that, though she’s a ‘serious poet’, her gift as a novelist is for pace. She’s a lover of thrillers and, like Brown, gets obsessed with secrets. Although she and her protagonist, Kitty, are outwardly similar (a rural, working-class background and theological training), she quoted Evelyn Waugh’s dictum that all characters should be based on at least three people. Mann argued that the Church has not dealt as well with desire as it has with friendship. She thinks the best priests, like novelists, are genuine and engage with other people’s stories.
Francis Spufford on Light Perpetual
Mann then interviewed Spufford about his second novel, which arose from his frequent walks to his teaching job at Goldsmiths College in London. A plaque on an Iceland commemorates a World War II bombing that killed 15 children in what was then a Woolworths. He decided to commit an act of “literary resurrection” – but through imaginary people in a made-up, working-class South London location. The idea was to mediate between time and eternity. “All lives are remarkable and exceptional if you look at them up close,” he said. The opening bombing scene is delivered in extreme slow motion and then the book jumps on in 15-year intervals, in a reminder of scale. He read a passage from the end of the book when Ben, a bus conductor who fell in love with a Nigerian woman who took him to her Pentecostal Church, is lying in a hospice bed. It was a beautiful litany of “Praise him” statements, a panorama of everyday life: “Praise him at food banks,” etc. It made for a very moving moment.
Mark Oakley on the books that got him through the pandemic
Oakley, in turn, was interviewed by Spufford – everyone did double duty as speaker and questioner! He mentioned six books that meant a lot to him during lockdown. Three of them I’d read myself and can also recommend: Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald (my nonfiction book of 2020), Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt (one of my top five poetry picks from 2020), and Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious by David Dark. His top read of all, though, is a book I haven’t read but would like to: Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour (see Susan’s review). Rounding out his six were The Act of Living by Frank Tallis, about the psychology of finding fulfillment, and The Hunted by Gabriel Bergmoser, a bleak thriller set in the Outback. He read a prepared sermon-like piece on the books rather than just having a chat about them, which made it a bit more difficult to engage.
Spufford asked him if his reading had been about catharsis. Perhaps for some of those choices, he conceded. Oakley spoke of two lessons learned from lockdown. One is “I am an incarnational Christian” in opposition to the way we’ve all now been reduced to screens, abstract and nonmobile. And secondly, “Don’t be prosaic.” He called literalism a curse and decried the thinness of binary views of the world. “Literature is always challenging your answers, asking who you are when you get beyond what you’re good at.” I thought that was an excellent point, as was his bottom line about books: “It’s not how many you get through, but how many get through to you.”
Gavin Francis in Conversation with Louise Welsh
(Wellcome Collection event, February 25th)
Francis, a medical doctor, wrote Intensive Care (I reviewed it here) month by month and sent chapters to his editor as he went along. Its narrative begins barely a year ago and yet it was published in January – a real feat given the usual time scale of book publishing. It was always meant to have the urgent feel of journalism, to be a “hot take,” as he put it, about COVID-19. He finds writing therapeutic; it helps him make sense of and process things as he looks back to the ‘before time’. He remembers first discussing this virus out of China with friends at a Burns Night supper in January 2020. Francis sees so many people using their “retrospecto-scopes” this year and asking what we might have done differently, if only we’d known.
He shook his head over the unnatural situations that Covid has forced us all into: “we’re gregarious mammals” and yet the virus is spread by voice and touch, so those are the very things we have to avoid. GP practices have had to fundamentally change how they operate, and he foresees telephone triage continuing even after the worst of this is over. He’s noted a rise in antidepressant use over the last year. So the vaccine, to him, is like “liquid hope”; even if not 100% protective, it does seem to prevent deaths and ventilation. Vaccination is like paying for the fire service, he said: it’s not a personal medical intervention but a community thing. This talk didn’t add a lot for me as I’d read the book, but for those who hadn’t, I’m sure it would have been an ideal introduction – and I enjoyed hearing the Scottish accents.
Bookish online events coming up soon: The Rathbones Folio Prize announcement on the 24th and Claire Fuller’s book launch for Unsettled Ground on the 25th.
Have you attended any online literary events recently?
A calmer month for new releases after September’s bumper crop. I read a sophisticated mystery set at a theological college, a subtle novel about empathy and being a good friend, and a memoir of raising one of Britain’s first llamas.
The Gospel of Eve by Rachel Mann
Last year I dipped into Mann’s poetry (A Kingdom of Love) and literary criticism/devotional writing (In the Bleak Midwinter); this year I was delighted to be offered an early copy of her debut novel. The press materials are full of comparisons to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History; it’s certainly an apt point of reference for this mystery focusing on clever, Medieval-obsessed students training for the priesthood at a theological college outside Oxford.
It’s 1997 and Catherine Bolton is part of the first female intake at Littlemore College. She has striven to rid herself of a working-class accent and recently completed her PhD on Chaucer, but feels daunted by her new friends’ intelligence and old-money backgrounds: Ivo went to Eton, Charlie is an heiress, and so on. But Kitty’s most fascinated with Evie, who is bright, privileged and quick with a comeback – everything Kitty wishes she could be.
If you think of ordinands as pious and prudish, you’ll be scandalized by these six. They drink, smoke, curse and make crude jokes. In seminars with Professor Albertus Loewe, they make provocative mention of feminist theory and are tempted by his collection of rare books. Soon sex, death and literature get all mixed up as Kitty realizes that her friends’ devotion to the Medieval period goes as far as replicating dangerous rituals. We know from the first line that one of them ends up dead. But what might it have to do with the apocryphal text of the title?
I didn’t always feel the psychological groundwork was there to understand characters’ motivations, but I still found this to be a beguiling story, well plotted and drenched in elitism and lust. Mann explores a theology that is more about practice, about the body, than belief. Kitty’s retrospective blends regret and nostalgia: “We were the special ones, the shining ones,” and despite how wrong everything went, part of her wouldn’t change it for the world.
My thanks to publicist Hannah Hargrave for the proof copy for review. Published today by Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd.
What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez
A perfect follow-up to The Friend and very similar in some ways: again we have the disparate first-person musings of an unnamed narrator compelled to help a friend. In Nunez’s previous novel, the protagonist has to care for the dog of a man who recently killed himself; here she is called upon to help a terminally ill friend commit suicide. The novel opens in September 2017 in the unfamiliar town she’s come to for her friend’s cancer treatments. While there she goes to a talk by an older male author who believes human civilization is finished and people shouldn’t have children anymore. This prophet of doom is her ex.
His pessimism is echoed by the dying friend when she relapses. The narrator agrees to accompany her to a rental house where she will take a drug to die at a time of her choosing. “Lucy and Ethel Do Euthanasia,” the ex jokes. And there is a sort of slapstick joy early in this morbid adventure, with mishaps like forgetting the pills and flooding the bathroom.
As in Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, the voice is not solely or even primarily the narrator’s but Other: her friend speaking about her happy childhood and her estrangement from her daughter; a woman met at the gym; a paranoid neighbor; a recent short story; a documentary film. I felt there was too much recounting of a thriller plot, but in general this approach, paired with the absence of speech marks, reflects how the art we consume and the people we encounter become part of our own story. Curiosity about other lives fuels empathy.
With the wry energy of Jenny Offill’s Weather, this is a quiet novel that sneaks up to seize you by the heartstrings. “Women’s stories are often sad stories,” Nunez writes, but “no matter how sad, a beautifully told story lifts you up.” Like The Friend, which also ends just before The End, this presents love and literature as ways to bear “witness to the human condition.”
With thanks to Virago for the proof copy for review.
Along Came a Llama: Tales from a Welsh Hill Farm by Ruth Janette Ruck
Originally published in 1978 (now reissued with a foreword by John Lewis-Stempel), this is an enjoyably animal-stuffed memoir reminiscent of Gerald Durrell and especially Doreen Tovey. Ruck (d. 2006) and her family – which at times included her ill sister, her elderly mother and/or her sister-in-law – lived on a remote farm in the hills of North Wales. On a visit to Knaresborough Zoo, Ruck was taken with the llamas and fancied buying one to add to their menagerie of farm animals. It was as simple as asking the zoo director and then taking the young female back to Wales in a pony box. At that time, hardly anyone in the UK knew anything about llamas or the other camelids. No insurance company would cover their llama in transit; no one had specialist knowledge on feeding or breeding. Ruck had to do things the old-fashioned way, finding books and specialist scientific papers.
But they mostly learned about Ñusta (the Quechua word for princess) by spending time with her. At holidays they discovered her love of chocolate Easter eggs and cherry brandy. The cud-chewing creature sometimes gave clues to what else she’d been eating, as when she regurgitated plum stones. She didn’t particularly like being touched or trailed by an orphaned lamb, but followed Ruck around dutifully and would sit sociably in the living room. Life with animals often involves mild disasters: Ñusta jumps in a pool and locks Ruck’s husband in the loo, and the truck breaks down on the way to mate her with the male at Chester Zoo.
From spitting to shearing, there was a lot to get used to, but this account of the first three years of llama ownership emphasizes the delights of animal companionship. There were hardships in Ruck’s life, including multiple sclerosis and her sister’s death, but into the “austere but soul-rewarding life of a hill firm … like a catalyst or a touch of magic, the llama came along.” I was into llamas and alpacas well before the rest of the world – in high school I often visited a local llama farm, and I led a llama in a parade and an alpaca in a nativity play – so that was my primary reason for requesting this, but it’s just right for any animal lover.
With thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy for review.
What recent releases can you recommend?
I first read Anne Lamott’s autobiographical essays on faith in about 2005, when I was in my early twenties and a recovering fundamentalist and Republican. She’s a Northern Californian ex-alcoholic, a single mother, a white lady with dreadlocks. Her liberal, hippie approach to Christianity was a bit much for me back then. I especially remember her raging against George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. But even if I couldn’t fully get behind all of her views, her picture of a fumbling faith that doesn’t claim to know much for certain appealed to me. Jesus is for her the herald of a radical path of love and grace. Lamott describes herself stumbling towards kindness and forgiveness while uttering the three simplest and truest prayers she knows, “Help, thanks, wow.” I only own three of her eight spiritual books (though I’ve read them all), so I recently reread them one right after the other – the best kind of soul food binge in a stressful time.
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999)
Her first and best collection. Many of these pieces first appeared in Salon web magazine. There is a lot of bereavement and other dark stuff here, yet an overall lightness of spirit prevails. Lamott’s father died of melanoma that metastasized to his brain (her work has meant a lot to my sister because her husband, too, died of brain cancer) and her best friend Pammy died of breast cancer – both far too young. A college dropout, alcoholic and drug addict, Lamott didn’t walk into a church and get clean until she was in her early thirties. Newly sober and with the support of the community, she was able to face unexpected motherhood and raise Sam in the church, clinging to fragments of family and nurturing seeds of faith.
The essays sometimes zero in on moments of crisis or decision, but more often on everyday angst, such as coming to terms with a middle-aged body. “Thirst” and “Hunger” are a gorgeous pair about getting sober and addressing disordered eating. “Ashes,” set on one Ash Wednesday, sees her trying to get her young son interested in the liturgical significance and remembering scattering Pammy’s ashes. “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and “Barn Raising” are two classics about surviving a turbulent flight and supporting a local family whose child has cystic fibrosis. Each essay is perfectly constructed: bringing together multiple incidents and themes in a lucid way, full of meaning but never over-egging the emotion.
Like A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas, this was even better the second time around – I can see that the memoir-in-essays is now among my most admired forms.
Some favorite lines:
“The main reason [that she makes Sam go to church] is that I want to give him what I found in the world[: …] a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want—which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality.”
“You really do have to eat, anything at all you can bear. So we had smoothies, with bananas, which I believe to be the only known cure for existential dread.”
“most of the time, all you have is the moment, and the imperfect love of people.”
“even though I am a feminist and even though I am religious, I secretly believe, in some mean little rat part of my brain, that I am my skin, my hair, and worst of all, those triangles of fat that pooch at the top of my thighs. In other words, that I am my packaging.”
My original rating (c. 2005):
My rating now:
Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (2005)
Here’s the more political material I remembered from Lamott. Desperately angry about the impending Iraq War, she struggles to think civilly about Bush. “I wake up some mornings pinned to the bed by centrifugal sadness and frustration.” In the meantime, her difficult mother has died and it takes years to get to a point where she can take the woman’s ashes (with a misspelling on the name label) out of the closet and think of scattering them. Sam is a teenager and there are predictable battles of wills but also touching moments as they rekindle a relationship with his father. Lamott also starts a Sunday School and says goodbye to a dear old dog. A few of the essays (especially “One Hand Clapping”) feel like filler, and there are fewer memorable lines. “Ham of God,” though, is an absolute classic about the everyday miracle of a free ham she could pass on to a family who needed it.
I’ve been surprised that Lamott hasn’t vented her spleen against Donald Trump in her most recent books – he makes Bush look like a saint, after all. But I think it must be some combination of spiritual maturity and not wanting to alienate a potential fan base (though to most evangelicals she’ll be beyond the pale anyway). Although her response to current events makes this book less timeless than Traveling Mercies, I found some of her words applicable to any troubled period: “These are such rich, ripe times for paranoia and despair that each celebration, each occasion of tribal love and music and overeating glows more brightly … People are helping one another keep their spirits up.”
My secondhand copy has had quite the journey: it has a “The Munich Readery” stamp in the front and has sat text block facing out on a shelf for ages judging by the pattern of yellowing; I picked it up from the Community Furniture Project, a local charity warehouse, last year for a matter of pence.
Some favorite lines:
(on caring for an ageing body) “You celebrate what works and you take tender care of what doesn’t, with lotion, polish and kindness.”
“Rest and laughter are the most spiritual and subversive acts of all. Laugh, rest, slow down.”
My original rating (c. 2005):
My rating now:
Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace (2014)
This is a sort of “Greatest Hits” collection of new and selected essays. I skipped over the ones I’d just encountered in Traveling Mercies and Plan B to focus on the newer material. I don’t have a copy of Grace (Eventually), her third set of essays on faith, so I wasn’t sure which were from that and which were previously unpublished in book form. More so than before, Lamott’s thoughts turn to ageing and her changing family dynamic – she’s now a grandmother. As usual, the emphasis is on being kind to oneself and learning the art of forgiveness. Sometimes it seems like her every friend or relative has cancer. Her writing has tailed off noticeably in quality, but I suspect there’s still no one many of us would rather hear from about life and faith. It’s a beautiful book, too, with deckle edge, blue type and gold accents. My favorite of the new stuff was “Matches,” about Internet dating.
My original rating (2015):
My rating now (for the newer material only):
Currently rereading: Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Considering rereading next: Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty
Done any rereading lately?
What books have been balm for the soul for you?
Novellas in November is one of my favorite blogging challenges of the year. Earlier in the month I reviewed a first batch of five novellas. For this second and final installment I have 11 small books to feed back on: fiction, graphic novels, and miscellaneous nonfiction.
Classic of the Month
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956)
This was my first taste of Baldwin’s fiction, and it was very good indeed. David, a penniless American, came to Paris to find himself. His second year there he meets Giovanni, an Italian barman. They fall in love and move in together. There’s a problem, though: David has a fiancée – Hella, who’s traveling in Spain. It seems that David had bisexual tendencies but went off women after Giovanni. “Much has been written of love turning to hatred, of the heart growing cold with the death of love.” We know from the first pages that David has fled to the south of France and Giovanni faces the guillotine in the morning, but all through Baldwin maintains the tension as we wait to hear why he is sentenced to death. Deeply sad, but also powerful and brave. I’ll make Go Tell It on the Mountain my next one by Baldwin.
Garfield, Why Do You Hate Mondays? by Jim Davis (1982)
This was like a trip back to childhood, as “Garfield” was always the first thing I would turn to in the Sunday comics section of the Washington Post. The story of the tubby, lasagna-stealing, dog-outsmarting ginger cat even managed to feel relevant to my life now, since our furball is on a perpetual diet – and it’s working, he’s actually lost most of a kilo this year! Most of the three-pane pages are stand-alones in which Garfield gets into scrapes or plays pranks. Fat jokes abound. There is actually a narrative in the latter half, though: Garfield stows away in Jon’s suitcase on a vacation to Hawaii and gets locked up in the local pound. He and a couple of other cats have to team up to escape. [To my amusement, two photos of a bust-up Nissan were being used as bookmarks in the copy that came into the free bookshop where I volunteer.]
Reading Quirks: Weird Things that Bookish Nerds Do! by The Wild Detectives (2019)
This is a collected comic strip that appeared on Instagram between 2016 and 2018 (you can view it in full here). The brainchild of bookstore/bar owners in Dallas, Texas, it highlights behaviors that many might find strange but that make total sense to a bibliophile: buying multiple copies of a book so that your less-careful partner doesn’t ruin yours or you don’t lose a friend when they fail to return a borrowed copy; being so glued to a book that you take it everywhere; buying a coat with an eye to whether the pockets accommodate a paperback; exulting at a broken leg for the extra reading time a temporary handicap could buy you; reading with a headtorch after a bedmate has gone to sleep; and so on. The simple four-pane comics usually contain just one or two colors. The captions add as much as the dialogue. Read this next if you enjoyed Book Love by Debbie Tung.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach (1972)
I was curious about this bestselling fable, but wish I’d left it to its 1970s oblivion. The title seagull stands out from the flock for his desire to fly higher and faster than seen before. He’s not content to be like all the rest; once he arrives in birdie heaven he starts teaching other gulls how to live out their perfect freedom. “We can lift ourselves out of ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill.” Gradually comes the sinking realization that JLS is a Messiah figure. I repeat, the seagull is Jesus. (“They are saying in the Flock that if you are not the Son of the Great Gull Himself … then you are a thousand years ahead of your time.”) An obvious allegory, unlikely dialogue, dated metaphors (“like a streamlined feathered computer”), cringe-worthy New Age sentiments and loads of poor-quality soft-focus photographs: This was utterly atrocious.
Agatha by Anne Cathrine Bomann (2019)
[Trans. from the Danish by Caroline Waight; 147 pages]
In late-1940s Paris, a psychiatrist counts down the days and appointments until his retirement. He’s so jaded that he barely listens to his patients anymore. “Was I just lazy, or was I genuinely so arrogant that I’d become bored by other people’s misery?” he asks himself. A few experiences awaken him from his apathy: learning that his longtime secretary’s husband has terminal cancer and visiting the man for some straight talk about death; discovering that the neighbor he’s never met, but only known via piano playing through the wall, is deaf, and striking up a friendship with him; and meeting Agatha, a new German patient with a history of self-harm, and vowing to get to the bottom of her trauma. This debut novel by a psychologist (and table tennis champion) is a touching, subtle and gently funny story of rediscovering one’s purpose late in life.
Agatha will be released on 12th December. With thanks to Sceptre for the proof copy for review.
The Dig by Cynan Jones (2014)
Daniel is a recently widowed farmer in rural Wales. On his own for the challenges of lambing, he hates who he’s become. “She would not have liked this anger in me. I was not an angry man.” In the meantime, a badger-baiter worries the police are getting wise to his nocturnal misdemeanors and looks for a new, remote locale to dig for badgers. I kept waiting for these two story lines to meet explosively, but instead they just fizzle out. I should have been prepared for the animal cruelty I’d encounter here, but it still bothered me. Even the descriptions of lambing, and of Daniel’s wife’s death, are brutal. Jones’s writing reminded me of Andrew Michael Hurley’s; while I did appreciate the observation that violence begets more violence in groups of men (“It was the gangness of it”), this was a tough read for me.
Shelf Respect: A Book Lover’s Defence by Annie Austen (2019)
[183 pages, but with large type and not many words on a page]
This seems destined to be in many a bibliophile’s Christmas stocking this year. It’s a collection of mini-essays, quotations and listicles on topics such as DNFing, merging your book collection with a new partner’s, famous bibliophiles and bookshelves from history, and how you choose to organize your library. It’s full of fun trivia. Two of my favorite factoids: Bill Clinton keeps track of his books via a computerized database, and the original title of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms was “I Have Committed Fornication but that Was in Another Country” (really?!). It’s scattered and shallow, but fun in the same way that Book Riot articles generally are. (I almost always click through to 2–5 articles in my Book Riot e-newsletters, so that’s no problem in my book.) I couldn’t find a single piece of information on ‘Annie Austen’, not even a photo – I sincerely doubt she’s that Kansas City lifestyle blogger, for instance – so I suspect she’s actually a collective of interns.
With thanks to Sphere for the free copy for review.
Intoxicated by My Illness: And Other Writings on Life and Death by Anatole Broyard (1992)
This posthumous collection brings together essays Broyard wrote for the New York Times after being diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer in 1989, journal entries, a piece he’d written after his father’s death from bladder cancer in 1954, and essays from the early 1980s about “the literature of death.” He writes to impose a narrative on his illness, expatiating on what he expects of his doctor and how he plans to live with style even as he’s dying. “If you have to die, and I hope you don’t, I think you should try to die the most beautiful death you can,” he charmingly suggests. It’s ironic that he laments a dearth of literature (apart from Susan Sontag) about illness and dying – if only he could have seen the flourishing of cancer memoirs in the last two decades! [An interesting footnote: in 2007 Broyard’s daughter Bliss published a memoir, One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets, about finding out that her father was in fact black but had passed as white his whole life. I’ll be keen to read that.]
Sold for a Farthing by Clare Kipps (1953)
This was a random 50p find at the Hay-on-Wye market on our last trip. In July 1940 Kipps adopted a house sparrow that had fallen out of the nest – or, perhaps, been thrown out for having a deformed wing and foot. Clarence became her beloved pet, living for just over 12 years until dying of old age. A former professional musician, Kipps served as an air-raid warden during the war; she and Clarence had a couple of close shaves and had to evacuate London at one point. Clarence sang more beautifully than the average sparrow and could do a card trick and play dead. He loved to nestle inside Kipps’s blouse and join her for naps under the duvet. At age 11 he had a stroke, but vet attention (and champagne) kept him going for another year, though with less vitality. This is sweet but not saccharine, and holds interest for its window onto domesticated birds’ behavior. With photos, and a foreword by Julian Huxley.
A Year Lost and Found by Michael Mayne (1987)
Mayne was vicar at the university church in Cambridge when he came down with a mysterious, debilitating illness, only later diagnosed as myalgic encephalomyelitis or post-viral fatigue syndrome. During his illness he was offered the job of Dean of Westminster, and accepted the post even though he worried about his ability to carry out his duties. He writes of his frustration at not getting better and receiving no answers from doctors, but much of this short memoir is – unsurprisingly, I suppose – given over to theological musings on the nature of suffering, with lots of quotations (too many) from theologians and poets. Curiously, he also uses Broyard’s word, speaking of the “intoxication of convalescence.”
Ordinary Sacred: The Simple Beauty of Everyday Life by Kent Nerburn (2006)
The author has a PhD in religion and art and produced sculptures for a Benedictine abbey in British Columbia and the Peace Museum in Hiroshima. I worried this would be too New Agey for me, but at 20p from a closing-down charity shop, it was worth taking a chance on. Nerburn feels we are often too “busy with our daily obligations … to surround our hearts with the quiet that is necessary to hear life’s softer songs.” He tells pleasant stories of moments when he stopped to appreciate meaning and connection, like watching a man in a wheelchair fly a kite, setting aside his to-do list to have coffee with an ailing friend, and attending the funeral of a Native American man he once taught.
Total number of novellas read this month: 16 (compared to last year’s 26)
My overall favorite: Agatha by Anne Cathrine Bomann
Runners-up: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, Intoxicated by My Illness by Anatole Broyard, and Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit
What’s the best novella you’ve read recently? Do you like the sound of any of the ones I read?
I’ve fallen behind on the weekly prompts for Nonfiction November, but wanted to post a follow-up to my 2018 list of a baker’s dozen of memoirs I’ve read that explore women’s religious experiences. I’ve read a couple more this year that are worth adding to the list; in addition to their themes of doubt and making a new life outside the church, they also share an interesting detail: it’s an online friend that goads each author into questioning her beliefs. Even if you aren’t typically interested in this subgenre, you’ve likely heard of Unfollow because of the high-profile story behind it. (This week is hosted by Katie of Doing Dewey.)
Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper
“God hates f*gs.” If you know one thing about Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, it’s that this slogan plastered their signs and was part of their armory of in-your-face chants at nationwide protests.
Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the Church, which was founded by her grandfather, Fred Phelps, and made up mostly of her extended family: Phelps had 13 children, and Phelps-Roper is one of 11. In 1989 Phelps learned that nearby Gage Park was a gay cruising spot and wrote in disgust to the mayor and other city officials. In a sense, he never got over it. The anti-homosexuality message would become Westboro’s trademark, at least until the church started its picketing of military funerals after the Iraq War – which, like 9/11, was interpreted as being God’s just punishment of American immorality.
By portraying it from the inside and recreating her shifting perspective from early childhood onwards, Phelps-Roper initially makes her extreme upbringing seem normal. After all, it’s the only thing she knew, and it never would have occurred to her that her family could be wrong. The Phelpses were fiercely intelligent and also ran a law firm, so it’s impossible to just dismiss them as redneck idiots. Frequent passages from the King James Bible appear in italics to echo the justifications the Church cited for its beliefs and actions.
Only gradually did doubts start to creep in for the author as various uncles and brothers left the church. Phelps-Roper was even the voice of Westboro on Twitter, but defending funeral protests became increasingly difficult for her. Two things brought her to a breaking point. First, in something of a coup, the Church appointed a new body of elders – all male, of course – who instituted ever more draconian rules, such as a dress code for women, and effectively removed her mother from leadership. (Ultimately, they would kick the dying Fred Phelps himself out of the church.) Secondly, the Church started to spread fake news via doctored photos. For example, they claimed to be protesting a royal wedding in London, when in fact Westboro members never go anywhere the First Amendment can’t protect them.
All along, Phelps-Roper had been corresponding with “C.G.,” an online acquaintance with whom she played Words with Friends. Chad gently encouraged her to ask why Westboro believed as it did, and to unpick rather than ignore any doctrines that didn’t make sense. “What if we’re wrong? What if this isn’t The Place led by God Himself? What if we’re just people?” she wondered. In November 2012, she and her sister Grace left the Church and the family home, where she’d lived until age 26, and retreated to a Deadwood, South Dakota Airbnb to hike, read and think about what they’d left behind and what came next. I’d had just about enough of Westboro and its infighting by that point in the book – the chapter about her leaving gets a little melodramatic – so, like the author, I was glad to move on to another setting, and this interlude ended up being my favorite section.There’s much more I could say about this memoir, as the path out of fundamentalism is one I’ve taken, too, and the process of rebuilding a life outside it is ongoing for me, as it is for Phelps-Roper, who now lobbies for empathy across religious and political lines. The sense of a family divided is reminiscent of Tara Westover’s Educated, whose readership Unfollow is keen to secure. At points the book feels overlong (the chapters certainly are), but the good news for anyone who might feel reluctant to tackle it is that a film version is in the works, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby and Reese Witherspoon producing.
Note: Westboro was the subject of a Louis Theroux documentary in 2006, and in a nice full-circle moment, he’s now interviewing Phelps-Roper on some of her UK book tour spots. And, in another lovely aside, she married C.G.
With thanks to riverrun for the free copy for review.
Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life by Amber Scorah
Like In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, this is the story of growing up in a cult and what happens when, as an adult, a woman has to build a new life free from the constraints – but also unmoored from the comforting framework – of a previously unquestioned belief system. Scorah grew up in Vancouver’s community of Jehovah’s Witnesses and, although she was temporarily disfellowshipped as a teenager for having premarital sex, the faith was her home and gave her a sense of purpose. Witnesses are discouraged from attending university or pursuing careers; without exception, they’re expected to preach and win converts – the only task worth engaging in given that the world is headed towards Armageddon.
Scorah and her husband went to China as clandestine JW missionaries. Her Mandarin skills were good enough that she could become friends with her English-language pupils and then start to talk to them about religion. In the meantime, she became an early podcast host with the program “Dear Amber,” which offered advice on the Chinese language and culture. She embarked on a flirtatious correspondence with one of her regular listeners, Jonathan from Los Angeles, who goaded her into rethinking everything she’d been taught to believe. “I was questioning with a mind that had been trained not to. It was highly uncomfortable.”
As her marriage and faith simultaneously crumbled, Scorah had to decide what was left to form the foundation of a new life on her own in New York City. “My eye-glazing peace, unquestioning contentment, and eternal life were gone, and the time ahead of me was filled with people I didn’t yet know, uncertainty about the future, and, one day, death.” I was absorbed in the bittersweet outworkings of this before and after: a process of losing faith and deciding what’s next.
The final chapter is a whirlwind tour through her first years in NYC, including the tragic death of her infant son, Karl. This makes for something of an abrupt end to the book; I might have liked to get as much detail on all this as we got about the time in China. But it was clearly a deliberate decision to present such life and death matters from a hard-won secular perspective, without the false balm of a religion that promises she’ll see her son again. There’s a lot of secrecy about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, so this is a rare insider’s view as well as a wrenching account of loss and starting over.
Full disclosure: Amber Scorah offered me a copy through a Facebook group we are both a part of.
Thanks to her and Viking for sending a free copy for review.
Can you see yourself reading either of these books?
Working from home, I don’t get out or see other people nearly often enough, so any time I think of a way that I can get more human interaction while contributing to a worthy cause – like spreading the love of reading – it’s worth seizing.
I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but here in our town there are tons of empty storefronts on the main street and in the mall, which makes everything feel half-derelict. The Global Educational Trust was donated a shop space in my local mall and set up a free bookshop that has since been taken over by Fair Close Centre, a non-residential center where the elderly can socialize and take advantage of hot meals and other services. The shop creates awareness of Fair Close and what it has to offer, and also promotes reading and lifelong learning.
I volunteered late last year when it was first being set up, and for the past few weeks I’ve been putting in two hours every Friday afternoon. Did I mention it’s full of free books!? This is kind of a problem for someone who already has a house full of books plus boxes of them in storage back in America. (But not really a problem.) The first time I was there I scored eight books; on four subsequent visits I’ve both donated and acquired books, sometimes in unhelpful ratios. Seven given versus two taken: excellent! Two donated and nine acquired: not so good. Six out; three in: A-OK. This past Friday I broke even with four of each.
We’re making do with insufficient shelving, whatever we’ve been able to scrounge from going-out-of-business shops, etc., so the categories are not very precise yet. Most of my work so far has been rearranging the central area for fiction (someone thought it was a good idea to have the alphabetical sequence going across the four bays of shelves, rather than from top to bottom in one case and then on to the next one to the right, as is the custom in any library or bookstore!) and pulling out all the nonfiction that snuck in. You often see this in charity shops: people who don’t know much about books end up shelving memoirs, travel books and history in with the fiction. In this photo you can see evidence of my tidying in fiction, A–F.
The other project I’ve been working on lately, though it’s still very much in the planning stages, is a theological lending library at my church. This was prompted by me looking through our shelves of religion books and deciding that there were upwards of 20 books that we would likely never read again/ever but that others might find edifying. In the end I pulled out 36 books to donate, ranging in outlook from C.S. Lewis to Rob Bell. I’m also aware that my mother-in-law, who’s retiring from ministry this year, will likely shed many theology books when they downsize to leave the rectory, and there are various retired clergy members in our church who might have books to pass on. So I had a meeting with our vicar last week to talk through some ideas about where we might house a library and how the system might work.
For now we plan to trial a pop-up library in the cloisters in mid-July, advertised via the notice sheet in early June. In the weeks leading up to it, we’ll accept book donations to a box at the back of the church (and reserve the right to jettison books that seem dated or unhelpful!). The lending will be on an honesty system, with people writing their name and the book title(s) in a ledger. We’ll suggest that books borrowed at the pop-up in mid-July could be returned in early September, though keeping them out longer wouldn’t be a problem. Nor, for that matter, would it be a problem if some books never make it back to the shelves – we’d like to hope they’ll be helpful to people.
The only other equipment to get hold of now is a set of bookplates with the church logo. As to how to classify the books, I may well model our system on this one. I know I’ll have fun cataloguing the books and affixing spine labels and bookplates. It’ll be like my library assistant days all over again – except just the fun working-with-books bit and not the babysitting-students bit.
Are you involved in any volunteer projects?
My apologies if you’ve already heard this story on social media: I was supposed to be in France this past weekend, but for the fourth time in a row we’ve been plagued by transport problems on a holiday: a flat tire in Wigtown, a cancelled train to Edinburgh, a cancelled flight to the States, and now car trouble so severe we couldn’t get on the ferry to Normandy. Though we made it all the way to the ferry port in Poole, our car was by then making such hideous engine noises that it would have been imprudent to drive it any further. We got a tow back to the auto shop where our car is usually serviced and currently await its prognosis. If it can be fixed, we may be able to reschedule our trip for this coming weekend.
The good news about our strange (non-)travel day: I got a jump on my Doorstopper of the Month, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, a terrific read that reminds me of a cross between Midnight’s Children and The Cider House Rules, and also started Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood – though my husband made me stop reading it because I couldn’t stop sniggering while he was trying to make important phone calls about the car. We ended up having a nice weekend at home anyway: going out for Nepalese food, gelato and a screening of The Favorite; doing some gardening and getting bits of work and writing done; and (of course) doing plenty of reading. Waking up with a purring cat on my legs and tucking into a stack of pancakes with maple syrup, I thought to myself, being home is pretty great, too.
Reading Ireland Month 2019
This will be my second time participating in the annual challenge hosted by Cathy of 746 Books. I recently started The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen and I’m also currently reading two nonfiction books by Irish women: a review copy of Vagina: A Re-Education by Lynn Enright (which releases on March 7th) and the essay collection Notes to Self by Emilie Pine, on my Kindle. I have several other novels to choose from – two of which are set in Ireland rather than by Irish authors – plus a classic travel book by Dervla Murphy.
Wellcome Book Prize
The second of my ‘assigned’ longlist reviews will be going up on Wednesday. I’m currently reading another three books from the longlist and will post some brief thoughts on them if I manage to finish them before the shortlist announcement on the 19th. At that point I will have read 10 out of the 12 books on the longlist, so should feel pretty confident about making predictions (or at least stating wishes) for what will go through to the next round.
I have two blog tours coming up later in the month, including the official one that’s being run for the Dylan Thomas Prize longlist.
I’ve got a pile-up of review copies that came out in February or are releasing early this month – 9, I think? Some I’ve already read and some are still in progress. So I will be doing my best to group these sensibly and write short reviews, but you may well notice a lot of posts from me.
This Friday marks four years that I’ve been blogging about books!
Here are a few March releases I’ve read that you may want to look out for:
Sing to It: New Stories by Amy Hempel [releases on the 26th]: “When danger approaches, sing to it.” That Arabian proverb provides the title for Amy Hempel’s fifth collection of short fiction, and it’s no bad summary of the purpose of the arts in our time: creativity is for defusing or at least defying the innumerable threats to personal expression. Only roughly half of the flash fiction achieves a successful triumvirate of character, incident and meaning. The author’s passion for working with dogs inspired the best story, “A Full-Service Shelter,” set in Spanish Harlem. A novella, Cloudland, takes up the last three-fifths of the book and is based on the case of the “Butterbox Babies.” (Reviewed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)
The Cook by Maylis de Kerangal (translated from the French by Sam Taylor) [releases on the 26th]: This is a pleasant enough little book, composed of scenes in the life of a fictional chef named Mauro. Each chapter picks up with the young man at a different point as he travels through Europe, studying and working in various restaurants. If you’ve read The Heart / Mend the Living, you’ll know de Kerangal writes exquisite prose. Here the descriptions of meals are mouthwatering, and the kitchen’s often tense relationships come through powerfully. Overall, though, I didn’t know what all these scenes are meant to add up to. Kitchens of the Great Midwest does a better job of capturing a chef and her milieu.
Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others by Barbara Brown Taylor [releases on the 12th]: After she left the pastorate, Taylor taught Religion 101 at Piedmont College, a small Georgia institution, for 20 years. This book arose from what she learned about other religions – and about Christianity – by engaging with faith in an academic setting and taking her students on field trips to mosques, temples, and so on. She emphasizes that appreciating other religions is not about flattening their uniqueness or looking for some lowest common denominator. Neither is it about picking out what affirms your own tradition and ignoring the rest. It’s about being comfortable with not being right, or even knowing who is right.
What’s on your reading docket for March?
We arrived in the UK on January 1, after an overnight flight from Baltimore. There was no midnight announcement, no complimentary champagne; nothing. Clearly I had my hopes too high. So we’re feeling a bit cheated out of our New Year’s Eve experience and will be doing a recreated countdown and toast when we have houseguests over for this Epiphany weekend.
It was a low-key, relaxing couple of weeks back in the States, the majority of it spent seeing family and friends. We also made it into D.C. to see the new Obama portraits. Mostly I enjoyed doing not a lick of work. And I acquired books, of course: a secondhand and remainder stack that, after my trade-in of some cast-off books, cost just $4; and a few ARCs I’m excited about.
I’m feeling restless in my career, like if someone gave me permission to quit all my gigs I would do it tomorrow. But, of course, only a fool would do so with no plan to replace them with other remunerative work. The year is likely to involve a lot of rethinking for me as I evaluate which of my proofreading and writing jobs feel worthwhile, and what’s taking me in the direction I want to go (not that I currently know what that is).
Life is awfully hard to plan out. Reading is much easier! So here are my fairly modest reading goals for the year, some of them overlapping:
- I plan to reinstate the Classic and Doorstopper of the month features I ran in 2017, since otherwise I hardly ever read them. I’m starting with Annabel’s readalong of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, which is just over 500 pages but also conveniently falls into one of the below categories.
- I’ll make a second attempt at getting through some of the travel books and biographies I own, though I won’t hold myself to any particular target. At least five of each would be nice.
- I’m determined to up my literature in translation ratio. These are all the books I own that were originally published in other languages – pitiful! – but I will get hold of more through the library and publishers.
- Re-reading is something I undertake very reluctantly. I have friends who swear by it, but to me it can feel like a waste of time. Last year I re-read just four books: Little Women, Give Me Everything You Have, Crossing the Moon, and Diary of a Bookseller. In each case, on the second reading I rated the book a star lower. That suggests that, far from appreciating books more on a second reading, I have less patience with them and find more flaws! All the same, I’ve chosen four books to re-read in 2019. The Collins is a longtime favorite about moving to Hay-on-Wye; the Thomas is one of the books that first got me into reading memoirs. I’ve been let down by Lamott’s latest three books so wanted to go back to one of her spiritual classics; I’ve gotten into L’Engle’s writing for adults and want to revisit her most famous children’s book (which I don’t think I comprehended at age nine or whatever I was).
- I have a bad habit of racing through self-help and theology books rather than taking my time mulling over them and fully exploring how I might apply them in my life. This was especially true of The Artist’s Way, one of my bibliotherapy prescriptions. I started out with the aim of completing the daily “morning pages” of free writing (though for me they were ‘evening pages’; I’m not a morning person) and each chapter’s self-knowledge exercises. But soon I’d given up on the writing and contemplation and begun just reading the book straight through, which is not the point of it at all. So this year I mean to go back through the Cameron and Rubin books more mindfully, and use the McLaren devotional as it is intended, reading the recommended Bible passages alongside the weekly reflections.
What are some of your goals (reading-related or otherwise) for 2019?
With part of my birthday book token I treated myself to the new paperback edition of Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas Days, which I’ll read off and on over the holidays this year and next, probably. I recently finished Rachel Joyce’s wintry short story collection and started Madeleine L’Engle’s third Crosswicks Journal, An Irrational Season. The first two chapters are set at Advent and Christmas and the rest later in the liturgical year; I’ve set the book aside to come back to in January. L’Engle is a great author to read if you’d like some liberal, non-threatening theology at this time of year. I particularly recommend her Christmas-themed book that I read last year. (Mini-reviews of the Joyce and L’Engle are below.)
I also have a signed copy of Ian Sansom’s December Stories I that I won in a giveaway on Cathy’s blog, so I’ll be dipping into plenty of seasonally appropriate short stories this year. Earlier this year I picked up copies of the G.K. Chesterton collection (signed by the anthology editor) and the Robert Louis Stevenson volume (which contains prayers plus a sermon written during his time in Samoa) free at church from the theological library of a woman who’d died and donated her books to the church family.
A Snow Garden and Other Stories by Rachel Joyce
Two stand-outs were “The Boxing Day Ball,” a prequel to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, describing how Harold and Maureen met, and “A Faraway Smell of Lemon,” in which a woman mourning the end of her relationship wanders into a cleaning supplies store and learns the simple lesson that everybody hurts. (“Life is hard sometimes” – fair enough, but can we say it without a cliché?) “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is about the boy formerly known as Tim, now the mega pop star X. All he wants is a quiet few days back home, but he can’t seem to escape his reputation. Characters and little elements from previous stories reappear in later ones. My favorite was probably the title story, about a father trying to make the holidays perfect for his sons after his breakdown and divorce.
Joyce chooses to write about ordinary and forgotten people, but sometimes her vision of chavvy types doesn’t quite ring true, and when she isn’t being melancholy she’s twee. “Christmas Day at the Airport” was so contrived it made me groan. While I don’t think any of her books are truly great, they’re pleasant, relatable and easy to read.
“There is much to do, much to prepare, much to mend, but it cannot be done in a day and sometimes it is better to do one small thing.” (from “A Faraway Smell of Lemon”)
“The truth was, there were no instructions when you got married. There was no manual in the birthing suite that explained how to bring up a happy child. No one said, you do this, and then you do this, and after that this will happen. You made it up as you went along.” (from “The Marriage Manual”)
Bright Evening Star: Mystery of the Incarnation by Madeleine L’Engle
“The story of Jesus’ birth has been oversentimentalized until it no longer has the ring of truth, and once we’d sentimentalized it we could commercialize it and so forget what Christmas is really about.” L’Engle believes in the power of storytelling, and in this short volume of memoir she retells the life story of Jesus and recalls her own experiences with suffering and joy: losing her father young (his lungs damaged by poison gas in WWI) and the death of her husband of 40 years versus the sustaining nature of family love and late-life friendships. Chapters 4 and 5 are particular highlights.
L’Engle was not at all your average American Christian: raised in the Episcopal tradition, she didn’t even encounter Evangelicalism until her mid-forties, and she doesn’t understand the focus on creationism and sexual morality. She also writes about free will and the adoration of Mary and how A Wrinkle in Time (rejected by many a publisher) was her fable of light in the midst of darkness. The title comes from The New Zealand Prayer Book, which also gives helpful alternate names for the persons of the Trinity: Earth Maker, Pain Bearer, Life Giver. This isn’t a particularly Christmas-y book, but it still lends itself to being read a chapter at a time during Advent.
Some other favorite lines:
“Christ, in being born as Jesus, broke into time for us, so that time will never be the same again.”
“Family can be a movable feast. It can be a group of friends sitting around the dining table for an evening. It can be one or two people coming to stay with me for a few nights or a few weeks. It should be the church, and I am grateful that my church is a small church.”