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.
“Maybe we can see that the animals are like us, or we are like animals.”
Laura Kaye’s impressive debut novel, English Animals, is a fresh take on themes of art, sex, violence and belonging. It has particular resonance in the wake of Brexit, showing the apparent lack of a cohesive English identity in spite of sometimes knee-jerk nationalism.
The novel takes place within roughly a year and is narrated by Mirka Komárova, a 19-year-old Slovakian who left home suddenly after an argument with her parents and arrives in the English countryside to work for thirty-somethings Richard and Sophie Parker. She doesn’t know what to expect from her new employers: “Richard and Sophie sounded like good names for good people. But they could be anything, they could be completely crazy.”
It’s a live-in governess-type arrangement, and yet there are no children – Mirka later learns that Sophie is having trouble getting pregnant. Instead Mirka drives the volatile Parkers to the pub so they can get drunk whenever they want, and also helps with their various money-making ventures: cooking and cleaning for B&B guests and the summer’s wedding parties, serving as a beater for pheasant shoots, and assisting with Richard’s taxidermy business. Her relationship with them remains uncertain: she’s not a servant but not quite an equal either; it’s a careful friendship powered by jokes with Richard and cryptic crossword clues with Sophie.
At first Mirka seems disgusted by Sophie’s shabby family home and the many animals around the place, both living and dead. Initially squeamish about skinning animal corpses, she gets used to it as taxidermy becomes her artistic expression. Taking inspiration from whimsical Victorian portraits of dead animals in costume, she makes intricate modern tableaux with names like Mice Raving, Freelance Squirrels and Rats at the Office Party. When her art catches the eye of a London agent, she starts preparing her pieces for an exhibit and is the subject of a magazine profile. The interviewer writes this about her:
Mirka is someone who understands the philosophical nature of her art. How, in our strange condition of being simultaneously within and outside the animal kingdom, we invest taxidermy with our longing for permanence.
I loved the level of detail about Mirka’s work – it’s rare to encounter such a precise account of handiwork in fiction, as opposed to in nonfiction like Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes and David Esterly’s The Lost Carving; Kaye herself is a potter, which might explain it – and I appreciated the many meanings that dead animals take on in the novel. They’re by turns food, art objects and sacrificial victims. Taxidermy is a perfect juxtaposition of physicality and the higher echelons of art, a canny way of blending death and beauty.
But of course the human residents of this community also fall into the title’s category: Many of them are what you might call ‘beastly’, and the threat of violence is never far away given Richard and Sophie’s argumentativeness. A promiscuous blonde, Sophie reminded me of Daisy in The Great Gatsby, so often described as careless: “You are a dangerous person, Sophie,” Mirka says. “Don’t say that. I didn’t mean to hurt anything.” Mirka replies, “You don’t care about other things. Everything is a game. Everyone is a toy for you to play with.”
The two different blurbs I’ve seen for the book both give too much away, so I will simply say that there’s an air of sexual tension and latent hostility surrounding this semi-isolated home, and it’s intriguing to watch the dynamic shift between Richard, Sophie and Mirka. I felt that I never quite knew what would happen or how far Kaye would take things.
I did have a few minor misgivings, though: sometimes Mirka’s narration reads like a stilted translation into English, rather than a fluent outpouring; there’s a bit too much domestic detail and heavy-handed symbolism; and the themes of xenophobia and homophobia might have been introduced more subtly, rather than using certain characters as overt mouthpieces.
All the same, I read this with great interest and curiosity throughout. It’s a powerful look at assumptions versus reality, how we approach the Other, and the great effort it takes to change; it’s easier to remain trapped in the roles we’ve acquired. I’d recommend this to readers of Polly Samson, Francesca Segal and even Rachel Johnson (the satire Shire Hell). In particular, I was reminded of Shelter by Jung Yun and Little Children by Tom Perrotta: though suburban in setting, they share Kaye’s preoccupations with sex and violence and the ways we try to hide our true selves beneath a façade of conformity.
This is one of the most striking debut novels I’ve encountered in recent years; it’s left me eager to see what Laura Kaye will do next.
English Animals was published by Little, Brown UK on January 12th. My thanks to Hayley Camis for the review copy.
I was delighted to be asked to participate in the blog tour for English Animals. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.
Why We Write about Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature
(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?
(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)
“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.
The 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)
A 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:
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!
Want 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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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 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?
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.)
Death 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.
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.
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.
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.
Shiny New Books
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.
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 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.)
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.
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.
Big 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.
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.
Malignant Metaphor by Alanna Mitchell: A Canadian science journalist counters three misleading adjectives often applied to cancer: inevitable, preventable, 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.
A 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.
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.