Tag Archives: Tom Perrotta

Adventuring (and Reading) in the Outer Hebrides

Islands are irresistible for the unique identities they develop through isolation, and the extra effort that it often takes to reach them. Over the years, my husband and I have developed a special fondness for Britain’s islands – the smaller and more remote the better. After exploring the Inner Hebrides in 2005 and Orkney and Shetland in 2006, we always intended to see more of Scotland’s islands; why ever did we leave it this long?

From Wikimedia Commons. By Kelisi.

Rail strikes and cancelled trains threatened our itinerary more than once, so it was a relief that we were able to go, even at extra cost. Our back-up plan left us with a spare day in Inverness, which we filled with coffee and pastries outside the cathedral, browsing at Leakey’s bookshop, walking along the River Ness and in the botanical gardens, and a meal overlooking the 19th-century castle.

Then it was on to the Outer Hebrides at last, via a bus ride and then a ferry to Stornoway in Lewis, the largest settlement in the Western Isles. Here we rented a car for a week to allow us to explore the islands at will. We were surprised at how major a town Stornoway is, with a big supermarket and slight suburban sprawl – yet it was dead on the Saturday morning we went in to walk around; not until 11:30 was there anything like the bustle we expected.

We’d booked three nights in a tiny Airbnb house 15 minutes from the capital. First up on our tourist agenda was Callanish stone circle, which we had to ourselves (once the German coach party left). Unlike at Stonehenge, you can walk in among the standing stones. The rest of our time on Lewis went to futile whale watching, the castle grounds, and beach walks.

This post threatens to become a boring rundown, so I’ll organize the rest thematically, introduced by songs by Scottish artists.

 

“I’ll Always Leave the Light On” by Kris Drever

Long days: The daylight lasts longer so far north, so each day we could plan activities not just for the morning and afternoon but late into the evening. At our second stop – three nights in another Airbnb on North Uist – we took walks after dinner, often not coming back until 10 p.m., at which point there was still another half-hour until sunset.

 

“Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” by Travis

Weather: We got a mixture of sun and clouds. It rained at least a bit on most days, and we got drenched twice, walking out to an eagle observatory on Harris (where we saw no eagles, as they are too sensible to fly in the rain) and dashing back to the car from a coastal excursion. I was doomed to wearing plastic bags around my feet inside my disintegrating hiking boots for the rest of the trip. There was also a strong wind much of the time, which made it feel colder than the temperature suggested – I often wore my fleece and winter hat.

A witty approach to weather forecasting. (Outside the shop/bistro on Berneray.)

 

“St Kilda Wren” by Julie Fowlis

Music and language: Julie Fowlis is a singer from North Uist who records in English and Gaelic. (This particular song is in Gaelic, but the whole Spell Songs album was perfect listening on our drives because of the several Scottish artists involved and the British plants and animals sung about.) There is a strong Gaelic-speaking tradition in the Western Isles. We heard a handful of people speaking it, all road signs give place names in Gaelic before the English translation, and there were several Gaelic pages in the free newspaper we picked up.

Wildlife: The Outer Hebrides is a bastion for some rare birds: the corncrake, the red-necked phalarope, and both golden and white-tailed eagles. Thanks to intel gleaned from Twitter, my husband easily found a phalarope swimming in a small roadside loch. Corncrakes hide so well they are virtually impossible to see, but you will surely hear their rasping calls from the long grass. Balranald is the westernmost RSPB reserve and a wonderful place to hear corncrakes and see seabirds flying above the machair (wildflower-rich coastal grassland). No golden eagles, but we did see a white-tailed eagle flying over our accommodation on our last day, and short-eared owls were seemingly a dime a dozen. We were worried we might see lots of dead birds on our trip due to the avian flu raging, but there were only five – four gannets and an eider – and a couple looked long dead. Still, it’s a distressing situation.

We also attended an RSPB guided walk to look for otters and did indeed spot one on a sea loch. It happened to be the Outer Hebrides Wildlife Festival week. Our guide was knowledgeable about the geography and history of the islands as well.

Badges make great, cheap souvenirs!

St. Kilda: This uninhabited island really takes hold of the imagination. It can still be visited, but only via a small boat through famously rough seas. We didn’t chance it this time. I might never get there, but I enjoy reading about it. There’s a viewing point on North Uist where one can see out to St. Kilda, but it was only the vaguest of outlines on the hazy day we stopped.

 

“Traiveller’s Joy” by Emily Smith

Additional highlights:

  • An extended late afternoon tea at Mollans rainbow takeaway shed on Lewis. Many of the other eateries we’d eyed up in the guidebook were closed, either temporarily or for good – perhaps an effect of Covid, which hit just after the latest edition was published.
  • A long reading session with a view by the Butt of Lewis, which has a Stevenson lighthouse.

  • Watching mum and baby seals playing by the spit outside our B&B window on Berneray.
  • Peat smoked salmon. As much of it as I could get.
  • A G&T with Harris gin (made with kelp).

 

“Dear Prudence” (Beatles cover) by Lau

Surprises:

  • Gorgeous, deserted beaches. This is Luskentyre on Harris.

  • No midges to speak of. The Highlands are notorious for these biting insects, but the wind kept them away most of the time we were on the islands. We only noticed them in the air on one still evening, but they weren’t even bad enough to deploy the Avon Skin So Soft we borrowed from a neighbour.
  • People still cut and burn peats for fuel. Indeed, when we stepped into the Harris gin distillery for a look around, I was so cold and wet that I warmed my hands by a peat fire! Even into the 1960s, people lived in primitive blackhouses, some of which have now been restored as holiday rentals. The one below is run as a museum.

  • Not far outside Stornoway is the tiny town of Tong. We passed through it each day. Here Mary Anne MacLeod was born in 1912. If only she’d stayed on Lewis instead of emigrating to New York City, where she met Fred Trump and had, among other children, a son named Donald…
  • Lord Leverhulme, founder of Unilever, bought Lewis in 1918 and part of Harris the next year. He tried to get crofters to work in his businesses, but all his plans met with resistance and his time there was a failure, as symbolized by this “bridge to nowhere” (Garry Bridge). His legacy is portrayed very differently here compared to in Port Sunlight, the factory workers’ town he set up in Merseyside.

  • The most far-flung Little Free Library I’ve ever visited (on Lewis).

  • Visits from Lulu the cat at our North Uist Airbnb.

 

“Wrapped Up in Books” by Belle and Sebastian

What I read: I aimed for lots of relevant on-location reads. I can’t claim Book Serendipity: reading multiple novels set on Scottish islands, it’s no surprise if isolation, the history of the Clearances, boat rides, selkies and seabirds recur. However, the coincidences were notable for one pair, Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford and Night Waking by Sarah Moss, a reread for me. I’ll review these two together, as well as The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen (inspired by a real incident that occurred on North Uist in 1980), in full later this week.

I also read about half of Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, a reread for me; its essays on gannets and St. Kilda chimed with the rest of my reading. Marram, Leonie Charlton’s memoir of pony trekking through the Outer Hebrides, will form part of a later 20 Books of Summer post thanks to the flora connection, as will Jon Dunn’s Orchid Summer, one chapter of which involves a jaunt to North Uist to find a rare species.

Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart: My selection for the train journey up. I got Daphne du Maurier vibes from this short novel about a holiday Dr Rose Fenemore, an English tutor at Cambridge, takes to Moila, a (fictional) small island off of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. It’s a writing retreat for her: she’s working on a book of poetry, but also on the science fiction she publishes under a pseudonym. Waiting for her brother to join her, she gets caught up in mild intrigue when two mysterious men enter her holiday cottage late one stormy night. Each has a good excuse cooked up, but who can she trust? I enjoyed the details of the setting but found the plot thin, predictable and slightly silly (“I may be a dish, but I am also a don”). This feels like it’s from the 1950s, but was actually published in 1991. I might try another of Stewart’s.

I also acquired four books on the trip: one from the Little Free Library and three from Inverness charity shops.

I started reading all three in the bottom pile, and read a few more books on my Kindle, two of them for upcoming paid reviews. The third was:

Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta: A sequel to Election, which you might remember as a late-1990s Reese Witherspoon film even if you don’t know Perrotta’s fiction. Tracy Flick was the goody two-shoes student who ran for school president and had her campaign tampered with. Now in her forties, she’s an assistant principal at a high school and a single mother. Missing her late mother and wishing she’d completed law school, she fears she’ll be passed over for the top job when the principal retires. This is something of an attempt to update the author’s laddish style for the #MeToo era. Interspersed with the third-person narration are snappy first-person testimonials from Tracy, the principal, a couple of students, and the washed-up football star the school chooses to launch its new Hall of Fame. I can’t think of any specific objections, but nor can I think of any reason why you should read this.

On my recommendation, my husband read Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting and The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange, two excellent nonfiction books about Britain’s islands and coastline.

 

“Other Side of the World” by KT Tunstall

General impressions: We weren’t so taken with Lewis on the whole, but absolutely loved what we saw of Harris on our drive to the ferry to Berneray and wished we’d allotted it more time. While we only had one night on Berneray and mostly saw it in the rain, we thought it a lovely little place. It only has the one shop, which doubles as the bistro in the evenings – warned by the guidebook that this is the only place to eat on the island, we made our dinner reservation many weeks in advance. The following morning, as we ate our full Scottish cooked breakfast, I asked the B&B owner what led him to move from England to “the ends of the earth.” He took mild objection to my tossed-off remark and replied that the islands are more like “the heart of it all.” Thanks to fast Internet service, remote working is no issue.

We are more than half serious when we talk about moving to Scotland one day. We love Edinburgh, though the tourists might drive us mad, and enjoyed our time in Wigtown four years ago. I’d like to think we could even cope with island life in Orkney or the Hebrides. We imagine them having warm, tight-knit communities, but would newcomers feel welcome? With only one major supermarket in the whole Western Isles, would we find enough fresh fruit and veg? And however would one survive the bleakness of the winters?

North Uist captivated us right away, though. Within 15 minutes of driving onto the island via a causeway, we’d seen three short-eared owls and three red deer stags, and we got great views of hen harriers and other raptors. One evening we found ourselves under what seemed to be a raven highway. It felt unlike anywhere else we’d been: pleasingly empty of humans, and thus a wildlife haven.

 

The long journey home: The public transport nightmares of our return trip put something of a damper on the end of the holiday. We left the islands via a ferry to Skye, where we caught a bus. So far, so good. Our second bus, however, broke down in the middle of nowhere in the Highlands and the driver plus we five passengers were stuck for 3.5 hours awaiting a taxi we thought would never come. When it did, it drove the winding road at terrifying speed through the pitch black.

Grateful to be alive, we spent the following half-day in Edinburgh, bravely finding brunch, the botanic gardens and ice cream with our heavy luggage in tow. The final leg home, alas, was also disrupted when our overcrowded train to Reading was delayed and we missed the final connection to Newbury, necessitating another taxi – luckily, both were covered by the transport operators, and we’ll also reclaim for our tickets. Much as we believe in public transport and want to support it, this experience gave us pause. Getting to and around Spain by car was so much easier, and that trip ended up a lot cheaper, too. Ironic!

Guarding the bags in Edinburgh

 

“Take Me Back to the Islands” by Idlewild

Next time: On this occasion we only got as far south as Benbecula (which, pleasingly, is pronounced Ben-BECK-you-luh). In the future we’d think about starting at the southern tip and seeing Barra, Eriskay and South Uist before travelling up to Harris. We’ve heard that these all have their own personalities. Now, will we get back before many more years pass?

Thoughts on Literary Prizes, Sequels, and Finishing Books

I feel like my blogging is all over the place so far this month, but I’ll get back on track in the next couple of weeks with a few thematic roundups. Today, some disparate thoughts.


Literary prize season will soon be in full swing, and can be overwhelming. I’m currently reading Megan Nolan’s Acts of Desperation, doing double duty from the Dylan Thomas Prize longlist and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist, and enjoying it more than expected given the inevitable Sally Rooney comparisons and messed-up young female tropes. However, I abandoned Here Comes the Miracle (from the latter) after 46 pages because it was just as When God Was a Rabbit as I feared.

Today the second Barbellion Prize winner was announced: Lynn Buckle for What Willow Says, her lyrical novella about communication between a terminally ill woman, her deaf granddaughter, and the natural world. My choice from the shortlist would have been Josie George’s A Still Life, but I can see how the judges might have felt, in an early year when precedents are still being set, that it was important to recognize fiction as being just as valid a way of writing about disability and chronic illness.

Earlier in the week, the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist was announced. Everyone remarked on the attractive mint green colour scheme! I found myself slightly disappointed; the Prize is usually more various since it includes nonfiction and poetry as well as fiction. Only one nonfiction title here: Philip Hoare going on (again) about whales. I’ve read another of poet Selima Hill’s collections so would gladly read this, too. I’ve already read the Brown and Keegan novellas and Sahota’s novel; I DNFed the Riley. Galgut has already won the Booker Prize. I’m awaiting a library hold of The Magician but I rather doubt my staying power with a 500-page biographical novel. My vote would, overwhelmingly, be for China Room.

I’m more tempted by the Fiction with a Sense of Place shortlist, announced as part of the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards early this month. What an intriguing and non-obvious set of nominees! Elena Knows was on the Barbellion longlist and the Greengrass and Shafak novels were previously shortlisted for the Costa Prize. I plan to try the Heller again this summer.

I’m also delighted to see that Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles is shortlisted for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award.

I’ve been pondering my predictions and wishes (entirely separate things) for the Women’s Prize longlist and will post them early next month; for now, check out Laura’s.

 


I believe books should be self-contained and I struggle to engage with ANY series. Unpopular opinion alert: sequels are almost always indulgent and/or money-grubbing on the part of the author. Here are four high-profile literary fiction sequels I plan on skipping this year (in all the cases, I just didn’t like the original enough to continue the story):

  • Either/Or by Elif Batuman – The Idiot was bizarre, deadpan and slightly entertaining, but I have no need to spend any more time with Selin.)
  • The Candy House by Jennifer Egan – A Visit from the Goon Squad didn’t stand up to a reread.
  • Less Is Lost by Andrew Sean Greer – Less, only mildly funny, was hugely overrated by critics.
  • Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta – I read, and saw the Reese Witherspoon-starring movie version of, Election ages ago; this is the one I’d be most likely to change my mind about, if I read good reviews.

 


I learned via a friend’s Instagram post that there is such a thing as #FinishItFebruary and felt seen. My goal had been to clear my set-aside shelf by the end of January; of course that didn’t happen, but I have been making some progress, reducing it from about 40 to more like 25. I try to reintroduce a part-finished book into my stack every few days. Sometimes it ‘takes’ and I finish it shortly; other times it languishes again, just in a different location. I’ll see how many more I can get to before the end of February.

A reminder of that set-aside shelf, as of early January.

Following any literary prize races this year?

Do you also avoid sequels, and leave books part-read?

A Recommendation for August

Each month I aim to preview two to four books to be released in the next month that I have already read and can recommend. It’s looking thin on the ground for August because two of my most anticipated reads of the year were disappointments, and another August release I left unfinished; I give mini write-ups of these below. However, I’ve very much enjoyed What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, the debut story collection by Lesley Nneka Arimah, which came out in America in April but releases on the 24th over here; I’ll be reviewing it for Shiny New Books shortly. Also, I’m 20% into The Education of a Coroner by John Bateson (releases August 15th), a fascinating set of sometimes gory true crime case studies.

As for the one August book I’m currently able to wholeheartedly recommend, that is…

 

The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading by Anne Gisleson

(Coming from Little, Brown and Company on the 22nd)

One for angsty, bookish types. In 2012 Anne Gisleson, a New Orleans-based creative writing teacher, her husband, sister and some friends formed an Existential Crisis Reading Group (which, for the record, I think would have been a better title). Each month they got together to discuss their lives and their set readings – both expected and off-beat selections, everything from Kafka and Tolstoy to Kingsley Amis and Clarice Lispector – over wine and snacks.

One of their texts, Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation, proposed the helpful notion of the Trivial and Tragic Planes. The Trivial is where we live everyday; the Tragic is where we’re transported when something awful happens. Gisleson had plenty of experience with the latter: not just the suicides of her younger twin sisters, a year and a half apart, and her father’s death from leukemia, but also the collective loss of Hurricane Katrina. She returns again and again to these sources of grief in her monthly chapters structured around the book group meetings, elegantly interweaving family stories and literary criticism.

I found the long quotes from the readings a little much – you probably shouldn’t pick this up if you haven’t the least interest in philosophy and aren’t much troubled by life’s big questions – but in general this is a fascinating, personal look at what makes life worth living when it might be shattered any second. I particularly loved the chapter in which the book club members creatively re-enact the Stations of the Cross for Easter and the sections about her father’s pro bono work as an attorney for death row inmates at Angola prison. Sometimes it really is a matter of life and death.

Favorite passage:

“Generations of parents have put their children to bed in this house and even if I haven’t quite figured out the why and the how of living, others have found reasons to keep moving things forward. In quiet moments I can feel the collective push of these ghost-hands on my back, nudging me on.”

My rating:

 


And now for the ones I’m closer to lukewarm on…

(Reviews in the order in which I read the books.)

 

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta

(Coming from Scribner on the 1st)

I enjoy Tom Perrotta’s novels: they’re funny, snappy, current and relatable; it’s no surprise they make great movies. I’ve somehow read seven of his nine books now, without even realizing it. Mrs. Fletcher is more of the same satire on suburban angst, but with an extra layer of raunchiness that struck me as unnecessary. It seemed something like a sexual box-ticking exercise. But for all the deliberately edgy content, this book isn’t really doing anything very groundbreaking; it’s the same old story of temptations and bad decisions, but with everything basically going back to a state of normality by the end. If you haven’t read any Perrotta before and are interested in giving his work a try, let me steer you towards Little Children instead. That’s his best book by far.

My rating:

 

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

(Coming from Lenny Books on the 1st [USA] and Bloomsbury Circus on the 10th [UK])

I read “We Love You Crispina” (13%), about the string of awful hovels a family of Chinese immigrants is forced to move between in early 1990s New York City. You’d think it would be unbearably sad reading about cockroaches and shared mattresses and her father’s mistress, but Zhang’s deadpan litanies are actually very funny: “After Woodside we moved to another floor, this time in my mom’s cousin’s friend’s sister’s apartment in Ocean Hill that would have been perfect except for the nights when rats ran over our faces while we were sleeping and even on the nights they didn’t, we were still being charged twice the cost of a shitty motel.” Perhaps I’m out of practice in reading short story collections, but after I finished this first story I felt absolutely no need to move on to the rest of the book.

My rating:

 

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss

(Coming on the 24th from Harper [USA] and Bloomsbury [UK])

Impressive in scope and structure, but rather frustrating. If you’re hoping for another History of Love, you’re likely to come away disappointed: while that book touched the heart; this one is mostly cerebral. Metafiction, the Kabbalah, and some alternative history featuring Kafka are a few of the major elements, so think about whether those topics attract or repel you. Looking a bit deeper, this is a book about Jewish self-invention and reinvention. Now, when I read a novel with a dual narrative, especially when the two strands share a partial setting – here, the Tel Aviv Hilton – I fully expect them to meet up at some point. In Forest Dark that never happens. At least, I don’t think so.* I sometimes found “Nicole” (the author character) insufferably clever and inward-gazing. All told, there’s a lot to think about here: more questions than answers, really. Interesting, for sure, but not the return to form I’d hoped for.

*Hop over to my Goodreads review to read the marked spoilers and chip in with comments!

My rating:

 


What August books do you have on the docket?

Have you already read any that you can recommend?

Making Plans (and Book Lists) for America

On Tuesday we leave for two weeks in America. It’s nearly a year and a half since our last trip – much too long – so we’ll be cramming in lots of visits with friends and family and doing a fair bit of driving around the Mid-Atlantic states. I’m giving myself the whole time off, which means I’ve been working flat out for the past two weeks to get everything done (including my U.K. and U.S. taxes). I’m nearly there: at the 11-day countdown I still had 12 books I wanted to finish and 12 reviews to write; now I’m down to five books, only one of which might be considered essential, and all the reviews are ready to submit/schedule. What with the holiday weekend underway, it should all be manageable.

I’m a compulsive list maker in general, but especially when it comes to preparing for a trip. I’ve kept adding to lists entitled “Pack for America,” “Do in America,” “Buy in America,” and “Bring back from America.” But the more fun lists to make are book-related ones: what paper books should I take to read on the plane? Which of the 315 books on my Kindle ought I to prioritize over the next two weeks? Which exclusively American books should I borrow from the public library? What secondhand books will I try to find? And which of the books in the dozens of boxes in the closet of my old bedroom will I fit in my suitcase for the trip back?

I liked the sound of Laila’s habit of taking an Anne Tyler novel on every flight. That’s just the kind of cozy reading I want, especially as I head back to Maryland – not far at all from Tyler’s home turf of Baltimore. I browsed the blurbs on a few of her paperbacks I have lying around and chose Back When We Were Grownups to be my fifth Tyler and one of my airplane reads.

I’m also tempted by Min Kym’s Gone, a memoir by a violin virtuoso about having her Stradivarius stolen. I picked up a proof copy in a 3-for-£1 charity sale a couple of weeks ago. And then I can’t resist the aptness of Jonathan Miles’s Dear American Airlines (even though we’re actually flying on Virgin). I’ll start one or more of these before we go, just to make sure they ‘take’.

I almost certainly won’t need three print books for the trip, particularly if I take advantage of the in-flight entertainment. We only ever seem to watch films while we’re in America or en route there, so between the two legs I’ll at least try to get to La La Land and The Light between Oceans; I’m also considering Nocturnal Animals, Silence, and the live-action Beauty and the Beast – anyone seen these?

However, I’ll also keep my Kindle to hand, as I find it easier to pick up and put down on multi-part journeys like ours to the airport (train ride + coach ride). Some of the books on my Kindle priority list are: The Day that Went Missing by Richard Beard, Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta (out in August), The Power by Naomi Alderman, Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy, See What I have Done by Sarah Schmidt, You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann … and the list continues, but I’ll stop there.

My book shopping list is an ongoing one, as the many cross-outs and additions on this sheet show. Finding specific books at my beloved Wonder Book can be a challenge, so I usually just keep in mind the names of authors I’d like to read more by. This time that might include Arnold Bennett, Geoff Dyer, Elizabeth Hay, Bernd Heinrich, W. Somerset Maugham, Haruki Murakami and Kathleen Norris. In addition to the couple of secondhand bookstores we always hit, I hope to visit a few new-to-me ones on stays with friends in Virginia.

As for those poor books sat in boxes in the closet, I have plans to unearth novels by Anita Brookner, Mohsin Hamid, Kent Haruf, Penelope Lively, Howard Norman and Philip Roth – for reading while I’m there and/or bringing back with me. I’m also contemplating borrowing my dad’s omnibus edition of the John Updike “Rabbit” novels. From my nonfiction hoard, I fancy an Alexandra Fuller memoir, D.H. Lawrence’s travel books and more of May Sarton’s journals. If only it weren’t for luggage weight limits!


On Monday I’ll publish my intercontinental Library Checkout, on Tuesday I have a few June releases to recommend, and then I’m scheduling a handful of posts for while I’m away – a couple reviews I happen to have ready, plus some other lightweight stuff. Alas, I read no doorstoppers in May, but I have a list (of course) of potential ones for June, so will attempt to resurrect that monthly column.

Though I may be slow to respond to comments and read your blogs while I’m away, I will do my best and hope to catch up soon after I’m back.

Review: English Animals by Laura Kaye

“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.

My rating: 4-star-rating


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.

englishanimalsbanner

Books in Brief: Five I Loved Recently

Why We Write about Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature

why we write(Edited by Meredith Maran)

A great collection of first-person pieces from memoir authors, charting their individual journeys into autobiographical writing and giving their top tips. Opinions vary as to whether you have to get the approval of the people who appear in your work – some think that’s essential; others simply change the names and get on with it. Sometimes this has led to fallout within families. One thing everyone agrees on, though, is that a memoir has to be as carefully crafted as any novel, with a clear narrative arc and distinctive dialogue and scenes. My favorite pieces were from Kate Christensen, Edwidge Danticat and Darin Strauss.


Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?

can't we talk(By Roz Chast)

Memoir + graphic novel = graphic memoir. This one’s about her parents’ aging, senility and death yet still manages to be laugh-out-loud funny. It also includes photos of her parents’ apartment filled with ancient stuff they’d hoarded and a touching series of sketches she made of her mother while she was dying. This and Fun Home are the two best graphic memoirs I’ve read. A favorite line, uttered when her mother bounced back temporarily from hospice care: “Where, in the five Stages of Death, is EAT TUNA SANDWICH?!?!?


Best Food Writing 2015

(Edited by Holly Hughes)

best food writing“Food is intimate. We take it into our bodies. When we gather at the table with friends and family, we’re gathering to affirm something.” The title doesn’t lie – these essays are terrific. There wasn’t a single one I didn’t find interesting, whether the topic was lab meat; seeking out the perfect burger, Bolognese sauce or gumbo; particular chefs or restaurants; food fads; starting a simple meatball supper club; or feeding picky kids. A couple favorites were “Finding Home at Taco Bell” by John DeVore and “The One Ingredient that Has Sustained Me during Bouts of Leukemia” by Jim Shahin. This series has been running since 2000, but this is the first time I’ve picked up one of the books. I’ll be looking out for it again next year.


longest nightThe Longest Night

(By Andria Williams)

Utterly absorbing historical fiction. What with the remote setting and the threat of Cold War or nuclear fallout, this is reminiscent of The Last Pilot and The Wives of Los Alamos, but more engaging than either of those. You may also see hints of Richard Yates or even Tom Perrotta’s Little Children in the story of a marriage strained to the breaking point. Each character is fully explored and the early 1960s atmosphere is completely convincing. A great debut and an author I’d like to hear more from.


Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist

(By Sunil Yapa)

your heart isA hard-hitting novel with an unforgettably resonant title, this is set at the 1999 Seattle WTO protest. Yapa explores the motivations and backstories of activists, police officers, and delegates as the day deteriorates into violence. The novel flows pretty much effortlessly. Yapa’s writing style is closest to Smith Henderson’s (Fourth of July Creek): short, verbless sentences alternate with long, lyrical ones; there’s plenty of repetition and rhetorical questions, but it remains accessible rather than overblown. This fine debut novel is about cultivating the natural compassion in your heart even while under the threat of the fist.

My rating for all: 4 star rating

Thanksgiving Reading

This Thursday marks one of the most American of holidays: Thanksgiving. (My apologies to Canadian readers, who already had their celebration in October, and to British readers, who may find the whole thing a bit mysterious.) If you’ve never experienced a Thanksgiving meal for yourself, you might not know what all the fuss is about. After all, as Bill Bryson puts it in Notes from a Big Country, it’s a holiday where you just try to “get your stomach into the approximate shape of a beach ball.” But something about dysfunctional families crossing the country for a feast and reflecting on the country’s origins – however spurious the Pilgrims-’n-Injuns history behind the tradition might be – makes for intriguing fictional possibilities.

It’s no wonder Thanksgiving turns up all the time in American novels. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is a classic example, but look further and you’ll find references everywhere. For instance, I’m just finishing up Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor (coming in February), set in New York City as Y2K approaches, and what do you know? There’s a Thanksgiving meal. And even a simple list of dishes gives a perfect miniature view of differences in class and perspective: Shira’s neighbor wants “traditional fare—string bean casserole with cornflakes” and yam casserole topped with marshmallows, while her gay, Pakistani co-parent, Ahmad, prefers “the exotic: millet-shitake stuffing with chestnut-and-caper sauce.”

If you’re looking for something seasonal to read this week, here are snippets of books I’ve reviewed, two fiction and two nonfiction. For more ideas, check out this Thanksgiving books list on Goodreads from the Washington Post’s Ron Charles. Anne Tyler, Richard Ford – some great stuff on there!

Fiction:

want notWant Not by Jonathan Miles: “Waste not, want not” goes the aphorism, and Miles’s second novel explores both themes to their fullest extent: the concept of waste – from profligate living to garbage and excrement – and ordinary people’s conflicting desires. In three interlocking story lines, Miles looks for what is really of human value at a time when everything seems disposable and possessions both material and digital can exert a dispiriting tyranny. The novel opens on Thanksgiving 2007, with New York City buried under an early snowstorm. The nation’s annual excuse for gluttony makes a perfect metaphorical setting for Miles’s exposé of food waste and consumerist excess. This is a book I wish I had written.

5 star rating

housebreaking

 

Housebreaking by Dan Pope: This tightly crafted novel of adultery in dysfunctional suburbia is somewhat reminiscent of Tom Perrotta’s Little Children or the movie Far from Heaven, but with less memorable characters and story line overall. The strategy of revisiting the same events of one late summer and fall from different characters’ perspectives makes it feel slightly repetitive and claustrophobic. My favorite touches were the comical dialogue between a handful of old folks and a description of the cookie-cutter buildings in the Connecticut suburbs: “all the little houses, lined up like cereal boxes on a shelf.” Like Want Not, it also revolves around Thanksgiving 2007.

 3 star rating

Bet you never thought there would be a third novel set on Thanksgiving 2007! But it appears there is: Strangers at the Feast by Jennifer Vanderbes. You may also like to sample “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving,” an 1881 short story by Louisa May Alcott.


Nonfiction:

You won’t have to try too hard to find Thanksgiving scenes in nonfiction either, especially when it comes to memoirs. I read one of Ruth Reichl’s terrific ‘foodoirs’, Comfort Me with Apples, earlier this year and there’s a great moment when she and Michael Singer, who would become her second husband, go to a restaurant for their first Thanksgiving together. It’s a disaster of a meal; the duck isn’t served until midnight. Sure is memorable, though.

first thanksgivingThe First Thanksgiving by Nathaniel Philbrick: In this selection from his 2007 book Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, reprinted as a mini e-book in the “Penguin Tracks” series, Philbrick tells the true story behind the first Thanksgiving. As with most beloved legends, the circumstances are much more complicated and much less rosy than they appear in our collective memory. Philbrick writes in an informative yet conversational style, and paints an appealing picture of the Pilgrims as reasonable people with humble aims. (See my full review at Bookkaholic.)

eating appalachiaEating Appalachia: Rediscovering Regional American Flavors by Darrin Nordahl: Nordahl travels through Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina in search of truly indigenous local ingredients. There are a few recipes and photographs in each chapter, although this is more of a narrative than a cookbook. I loved how he brought it all together with his imagined Appalachian Thanksgiving feast (what we consider traditional today includes very little that would actually have been eaten in the Pilgrims’ place and time):

appetizers of pickled ramps and brook trout crostini, bowls of butternut [the nut, not the squash] cream bisque, plates piled with the showpiece dish of spicebush-peppered roast elk tenderloin and hickory nut stuffing—all washed down with steaming sassafras tea and chilled sumac-ade, capped with a choice of persimmon pudding with black walnut ice cream or pawpaw panna cotta.


Do you like to tailor your reading to the holidays? What will you be reading this Thanksgiving week?

Reviews Roundup, June–July

One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I’ll provide links to all the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating and a short taster so you can decide whether to click to read more. (A couple of exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie or BlueInk reviews since I don’t get a byline.)

BookBrowse

death and mrDeath and Mr. Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis [subscription service; excerpt available to non-subscribers]: The Pickwick Papers was a Victorian publishing phenomenon. Originally envisioned as a series of sporting tales to accompany Robert Seymour’s engravings in a monthly magazine, the story soon took on a life of its own. Debut novelist Jarvis believes that a conspiracy between Dickens and his publishers covered up two key facts: Pickwick was primarily Seymour’s creation, and Dickens’s brash attempt to take it over was the impetus for Seymour’s suicide in 1836. At 800+ pages, this novel is chock-full of digressions – some amusing, others seemingly irrelevant. Jarvis started the project with the ambition of reading everything ever written about Pickwick. The results are exhaustive…but also a little exhausting.

4 star rating


coastlinesHakai Magazine (a Canadian publication highlighting coastal ecosystems)

Coastlines by Patrick Barkham: In his third nature book, Guardian journalist Patrick Barkham blends science, history, and biography as he travels sections of the British coast protected through Enterprise Neptune, a National Trust campaign celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. His structural approach is unconventional: neither chronological nor geographical, but thematic. In sections on childhood, war, work, art, and faith, he highlights the many practical and metaphorical roles the coast has played in the British story. The choices of location often feel arbitrary and the themes are not quite strong enough to pull the book together, but Barkham succeeds in evoking the mysterious grandeur of the coast.

3 star rating


The Bookbag

Two Lives by Sarah Bourne (& interview): A car accident causes Emma and Loretta’s lives to be intertwined in surprising ways as they negotiate loss, domestic violence and motherhood. There’s a great dynamic between these characters: Loretta vicariously relives her own experience of pregnancy through Emma. As time moves on, their relationship is more like Barbara and Sheba’s in Notes on a Scandal; secrets provoke a tacit power struggle. For a short book, it’s filled with heavy social issues. It loses points for poor cover design as well as frequent typos. All the same, this is a compelling story built around likeable main characters. It does what fiction does best: exploring the small moments that can change lives for good.

 3.5 star rating


60 degrees northNudge

Sixty Degrees North by Malachy Tallack: “Geography begins at the only point of which we can be certain. It begins inside. And from there, from inside, rises a single question: where am I?” Tallack muses. This is a beautifully introspective book about the search for home and identity amidst the changes of time and the trappings of place. The goal of traveling across cold northern places makes it reminiscent of Joanna Kavenna’s The Ice Museum. However, a more telling comparison is with George Mackay Brown, chronicler of the Orkney Islands; like Brown, Tallack is interested in islands, both literally and metaphorically, as places of both isolation and authentic community.

4 star rating


Shiny New Books

The American cover is more evocative of the subject matter.

The American cover is more evocative of the subject matter.

The UK cover: different thematic focus; frankly a bit tame and boring.

The UK cover: different thematic focus; frankly a bit tame and boring.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: Sure to be one of the books of the year, if not the decade. Jude St. Francis: Dickensian orphan, patron saint of lost causes, Christlike Man of Sorrows, and one of the most memorable characters in recent fiction. The reading experience might have been unbearable due to his suffering, but Yanagihara’s skill keeps you reading: the narration is matter-of-fact and revelation of Jude’s past is incremental, so distressing flashbacks are punctuated with more innocuous events. There is nothing ‘little’ about this book or the life portrayed. The novel is an attempt to tackle the monolithic question of what makes life worth living. Among the potential answers: love (though it doesn’t conquer all), friendship, creativity, and the family you create for yourself. Yanagihara has instantly shot to literary greatness; this is Pulitzer and Man Booker Prize-winning material.

5 star rating


BookTrib: A preview of the PBS broadcast of Poldark, which aired on BBC earlier this year.


I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads (the rating is below each description).

 

preparation next lifePreparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish: Like West Side Story, this debut novel is an updated Romeo and Juliet narrative – a tragedy-bound love story with a gritty contemporary setting and a sobering message about racism and the failure of the American dream. Lish’s post-9/11 New York City is less melting pot than Boschian hell, a violent abyss lubricated with the sweat of illegal immigrants. The matter-of-fact style somehow manages to elevate the everyday and urban into an art form. (Full review in August 2015 issue of Third Way magazine.)

4 star rating

Housebreaking by Dan Pope: This tightly crafted novel of adultery in dysfunctional suburbia is somewhat reminiscent of Tom Perrotta’s Little Children or the movie Far from Heaven, but with less memorable characters and storyline overall. The strategy of revisiting the same events of the late summer and fall of 2007 from different characters’ perspectives makes it feel slightly repetitive and claustrophobic.

3 star rating

In a Dark Wood by Joseph Luzzi: In November 2007 Joseph Luzzi’s wife Katherine was in a fatal car accident; she had been eight and a half months’ pregnant, so within one day he entered “the wild uncharted terrain of being a single father and widower.” For several years Luzzi disengaged from fatherhood, throwing himself into his work – teaching Italian at Bard College, editing the proofs for a forthcoming book – while his mother did the hard work of childrearing. As Virgil was to Dante, Dante is to Luzzi: a guide through the hell of loss and into a vita nuova as he starts a new life with his daughter Isabel and, later, his second wife.

4 star rating

big magicBig Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert: Gilbert sets herself up as a layman’s creativity guru much like Anne Lamott does with Bird by Bird or Stephen King with On Writing. This is based on Gilbert’s TED talks, and it reads very much like a self-help pep talk, with short chapters, lots of anecdotes, and buzz words to latch onto. Her central tenet is “You do not need anybody’s permission to live a creative life.” The voice and message are similar to Rob Bell’s in the field of contemporary theology: reminding readers that what is too precious for words should, perhaps paradoxically, be held loosely with open hands. Releases September 22nd.

4 star rating

Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor: Emily Dickinson’s Amherst is an inviting setting, and the alternating first-person voices of Emily and the family’s Irish maid, Ada Concannon, are both well realized. However, the plot soon gets mired in the melodrama of a wrong done to Ada in the Dickinson household, which results in a crisis that – you guessed it – requires the reclusive Emily to leave the house. After reading, I remained greedy for more of Emily’s inner life and poetry.

3 star rating

Malignant Metaphor by Alanna Mitchell: A Canadian science journalist counters three misleading adjectives often applied to cancer: inevitablepreventable, and deserved. She personalizes her quest for knowledge through two family experiences. First her brother-in-law, having already survived prostate cancer, was diagnosed with untreatable stage III melanoma. Later Mitchell’s daughter had a thyroid cancer scare. In both cases, things turned out better than expected – proof that cancer is not a death sentence. Releases September 15th.

4 star rating

window opensA Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan: A sweet, funny debut novel about a woman who tries to juggle all the elements of a happy life: finding the perfect job for a modern book-lover…but also being a good mother to her three children, supporting her husband after he loses his job at a law firm, and helping her mother care for her father as he suffers a relapse of throat cancer. It succeeds because its female first-person voice is immediately engaging. You like Alice and root for her. Releases August 25th.

4 star rating

The Sunken Cathedral by Kate Walbert: Much has been made of Walbert’s “Impressionistic” style. There is some beautiful writing here for sure, but I think it would lend itself better to short stories as there is not enough plot or character continuity to latch onto. Essentially the novel is about a set of New Yorkers in a Chelsea brownstone (chiefly Marie, an old woman who came to America from France after World War II) and their disparate memories and experiences.

2.5 star rating