#ReadIndies and Review Catch-up: Hazrat, Nettel, Peacock, Seldon
Another four selections for Read Indies month. I’m particularly pleased that two from this latest batch are “just because” books that I picked up off my shelves; another two are catch-up review copies. A few more indie titles will appear in my February roundup on Tuesday. For today, I have a fun variety: a history of the exclamation point, a Mexican novel about choosing motherhood versus being childfree, a memoir of a decades-long friendship between two poets, and a posthumous poetry collection with themes of history, illness and nature.
An Admirable Point: A brief history of the exclamation mark by Florence Hazrat (2022)
I’m definitely a punctuation geek. (My favourite punctuation mark is the semicolon, and there’s a book about it, too: Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark by Cecelia Watson, which I have on my Kindle.) One might think that strings of exclamation points are a pretty new thing – rounding off phrases in (ex-)presidential tweets, for instance – but, in fact, Hazrat opens with a Boston Gazette headline from 1788 that decried “CORRUPTION AND BRIBERY!!!” in relation to the adoption of the new Constitution.
The exclamation mark as we know it has been around since 1399, and by the 16th century its use for expression and emphasis had been codified. I was reminded of Gretchen McCulloch’s discussion of emoji in Because Internet, which also considers how written speech signifies tone, especially in the digital age. There have been various proposals for other “intonation points” over the centuries, but the question mark and exclamation mark are the two that have stuck. (Though I’m currently listening to an album called interrobang – ‽, that is. Invented by Martin Speckter in 1962; recorded by Switchfoot in 2021.)
I most enjoyed Chapter 3, on punctuation in literature. Jane Austen’s original manuscripts, replete with dashes, ampersands and exclamation points, were tidied up considerably before they made it into book form. She’s literature’s third most liberal user of exclamation marks, in terms of the number per 100,000 words, according to a chart Ben Blatt drew up in 2017, topped only by Tom Wolfe and James Joyce.
There are also sections on the use of exclamation points in propaganda and political campaigns – in conjunction with fonts, which brought to mind Simon Garfield’s Just My Type and the graphic novel ABC of Typography. It might seem to have a niche subject, but at just over 150 pages this is a cheery and diverting read for word nerds.
With thanks to Profile Books for the proof copy for review.
Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel (2020; 2022)
[Translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey]
This was the Mexican author’s fourth novel; she’s also a magazine director and has published several short story collections. I’d liken it to a cross between Motherhood by Sheila Heti and (the second half of) No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. Thirtysomething friends Laura and Alina veer off in different directions, yet end up finding themselves in similar ethical dilemmas. Laura, who narrates, is adamant that she doesn’t want children, and follows through with sterilization. However, when she becomes enmeshed in a situation with her neighbours – Doris, who’s been left by her abusive husband, and her troubled son Nicolás – she understands some of the emotional burden of motherhood. Even the pigeon nest she watches on her balcony presents a sort of morality play about parenthood.
Meanwhile, Alina and her partner Aurelio embark on infertility treatment. Laura fears losing her friend: “Alina was about to disappear and join the sect of mothers, those creatures with no life of their own who, zombie-like, with huge bags under their eyes, lugged prams around the streets of the city.” They eventually have a daughter, Inés, but learn before her birth that brain defects may cause her to die in infancy or be severely disabled. Right from the start, Alina is conflicted. Will she cling to Inés no matter her condition, or let her go? And with various unhealthy coping mechanisms to hand, will her relationship with Aurelio stay the course?
Laura alternates between her life and her friends’ circumstances, taking on an omniscient voice on Nettel’s behalf – she recounts details she couldn’t possibly be privy to, at least not at the time (there’s a similar strategy in The Group by Lara Feigel). The question of what is fated versus what is chosen, also represented by Laura’s interest in tarot and palm-reading, always appeals to me. This was a wry and sharp commentary on women’s options. (Giveaway win from Bookish Chat on Twitter)
Still Born was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK and is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in the USA on August 8th.
A Friend Sails in on a Poem by Molly Peacock (2022)
I’ve read one of Peacock’s poetry collections, The Analyst, as well as her biography of Mary Delany, The Paper Garden. I was delighted when she got in touch to offer a review copy of her latest memoir, which reflects on her nearly half a century of friendship with fellow poet Phillis Levin. They met in a Johns Hopkins University writing seminar in 1976, and ever since have shared their work in progress over meals. They are seven years apart in age and their careers took different routes – Peacock headed up the Poetry Society of America’s subway poetry project and then moved to Toronto, while Levin taught at the University of Maryland – but over the years they developed “a sense of trust that really does feel familial … There is a weird way, in our conversations about poetry, that we share a single soul.” For a time they were both based in New York City and had the same therapist; more recently, they arranged annual summer poetry retreats in Cazenovia (recalled via diary entries), with just the two attendees. Jobs and lovers came and went, but their bond has endured.
The book traces their lives but also their development as poets, through examples of their verse. Her friend is “Phillis” in real life, but “Levin” when it’s her work is being discussed – and her own poems are as written by “Peacock.” Both women became devoted to the sonnet, an unusual choice because at the time that they were graduate students free verse reigned and form was something one had to learn on one’s own time. Stanza means “room,” Peacock reminds readers, and she believes there is something about form that opens up space, almost literally but certainly metaphorically, to re-examine experience. She repeatedly tracks how traumatic childhood events, as much as everyday observations, were transmuted into her poetry. Levin did so, too, but with an opposite approach: intellectual and universal where Peacock was carnal and personal. That paradox of difference yet likeness is the essence of the friendships we sail on. What a lovely read, especially if you’re curious about ‘where poems come from’; I’d particularly recommend it to fans of Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty.
With thanks to Molly Peacock and Palimpsest Press for the free e-copy for review.
The Bright White Tree by Joanna Seldon (Worple Press, 2017)
This appeared the year after Seldon died of cancer; were it not for her untimely end and her famous husband Anthony (a historian and political biographer), I’m not sure it would have been published, as the poetry is fairly mediocre, with some obvious rhymes and twee sentiments. I wouldn’t want to speak ill of the dead, though, so think of this more like a self-published work collected in tribute, and then no problem. Some of the poems were written from the Royal Marsden Hospital, with “Advice” a useful rundown of how to be there for a friend undergoing cancer treatment (text to let them know you’re thinking of them; check before calling, or visiting briefly; bring sanctioned snacks; don’t be afraid to ask after their health).
Seldon takes inspiration from history (the story of Kitty Pakenham, the bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas), travels in England and abroad (“Robin in York” vs. “Tuscan Garden”), and family history. Her Jewish heritage is clear from poems about Israel, National Holocaust Memorial Day and Rosh Hashanah. Her own suffering is put into perspective in “A Cancer Patient Visits Auschwitz.” There are also ekphrastic responses to art and literature (a Gaugin, A Winter’s Tale, Jane Eyre, and so on). I particularly liked “Conker,” a reminder of a departed loved one “So is a good life packed full of doing / That may grow warm with others, even when / The many years have turned, and darkness filled / Places where memory shone bright and strong. / I feel the conker and feel he is here.” (New bargain book from Waterstones online sale with Christmas book token)
There are haikus dotted through the collection; here’s one perfect for the season:
Maids demure, white tips to
Mob caps… Look now! They’ve
Splattered the lawn with snow
Have you discovered any new-to-you independent publishers recently?
Winter Reads, Part II: Elisa Shua Dusapin, Howard Norman & Picture Books
As hoped for in my first instalment of winter reads, the weather is warmer now and signs of spring are appearing in the form of cherry blossom, crocuses, daffodils, primroses and snowdrops. So I’m bidding a (perhaps premature) farewell to winter with these two novels featuring very chilly settings. I also borrowed from the library a big ol’ pile of wintry children’s books full of bears, rabbits, snowmen, snowballs and days off school.
Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (2016; 2020)
[Daunt Books Originals; translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins]
Another title doing double duty for #FrenchFebruary and #ReadIndies month. This was Dusapin’s debut and won the Prix Robert Walser and the Prix Régine-Deforges.
Our beaches are still waiting for the end of a war that’s been going on for so long people have stopped believing it’s real. They build hotels, put up neon signs, but it’s all fake, we’re on a knife-edge, it could all give way any moment. We’re living in limbo. In a winter that never ends.
The protagonist is a young mixed-race woman working behind the reception desk at a hotel in Sokcho, a South Korean resort at the northern border. A tourist mecca in high season, during the frigid months this beach town feels down-at-heel, even sinister. The arrival of a new guest is a major event at the guesthouse. And not just any guest but Yan Kerrand, a French graphic novelist. Although she has a boyfriend and the middle-aged Kerrand is probably old enough to be her father – and thus an uncomfortable stand-in for her absent French father – the narrator is drawn to him. She accompanies him on sightseeing excursions but wants to go deeper in his life, rifling through his rubbish for scraps of work in progress.
The underemployed, self-sabotaging young woman is so familiar these days as to be a cliché (and I’d already met a very similar one, also Korean, in Ro from Sea Change by Gina Chung), but there is still something enticing about the atmosphere of this novella. I also enjoyed the narrator’s relationship with her mother, a fishmonger, which sets up for the entirely inconclusive and potentially very disturbing ending. Impossible to say more without spoilers, but I’d be interested to hear what others who have read it think will happen after the last page. (Birthday gift from my wish list)
The Northern Lights by Howard Norman (1987)
Norman is a really underrated writer and I’m a big fan of The Bird Artist and especially I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place. This is a weird one; it’s his debut and you can see the autobiographical inspiration (per his Introduction) and the sorts of interests that would recur across his oeuvre, such as subarctic Canada and its Indigenous peoples, absent fathers and hotels (not the only reason this reminded me most of early John Irving).
The Canadian settings represent the two poles of isolation and the urban: Quill, Manitoba versus Toronto in 1959–60. The novel opens with the death of teenage Noah’s best friend, Pelly, who fell through a frozen lake while riding his unicycle. Noah’s family dynamic changes quickly, as his cousin Charlotte, orphaned by a factory disaster, comes to live with them and then his cartographer father leaves them to become a hermit in a remote cabin furnished with musical instruments. Noah stays with Pelly’s parents, Sam and Hettie (a Cree woman), to brave a harsh Quill winter –
January and February mornings you would get a crack of icy static in the nostrils when first stepping outside and have to shade your eyes against the harsh glint of snow, if the sun had worked its way through. Certain days neighbors were seen only on their way to their woodsheds. Chimney smoke was our windsocks. Enormous drifts had built up against the houses, sculpted in various shapes. Even brief walks were taken on snowshoes. Winter might be seven months long.
– while his mother, Mina, takes Charlotte to Toronto to run The Northern Lights, the movie theatre where she met her husband as a young woman. The previous alcoholic owner has run it into the ground; “the curtain smelled like a ten-thousand-year-old moose hide.”
At the time that Noah joins them, he’s never seen a movie before, but as “manager” of the theatre he soon sees The Magnificent Seven 15 times in quick succession. Norman does a peculiar thing here, which is to introduce a key character quite late on in the action. Noah hires Levon, a Cree man, to be the projectionist and he promptly moves his entire family into the building. Had Noah relocated to Toronto earlier, we might have seen more of these characters. Norman’s habit of mimicking broken speech from non-native speakers through overly frequent commas (indicating pauses, I suppose) irked me. There are lots of quirky elements here and I enjoyed the overall atmosphere, but felt the plot left something to be desired. I’d start elsewhere with Norman, but could still recommend this to readers of Robertson Davies and Elizabeth Hay. (Secondhand – 2nd & Charles)
And a DNF:
Snowflake, AZ by Marcus Sedgwick (2019): I wanted to try something else by the late Sedgwick (I’ve only read his nonfiction monograph, Snow) and this seemed ideal. I could have gotten onboard with the desert dystopia, but Ash’s narration was so unconvincing. Sedgwick was attempting a folksy American accent but all the “ain’t”s and “darned”s really don’t work from a teenage character. I only managed about 20 pages. (Public library)
Plus a whole bunch of children’s picture books:
The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen [adapted by Geraldine McCaughrean; illus. Laura Barrett] (2019): The whole is in the shadow painting style shown on the cover, with a black, white and ice blue palette. It’s visually stunning, but I didn’t like the language as much as in the original (or at least older) version I remember from a book I read every Christmas as a child.
A Polar Bear in the Snow by Mac Barnett [art by Shawn Harris] (2020): From a grey-white background, a bear’s face emerges. The remaining pages are made of torn and cut paper that looks more three-dimensional than it really is. The bear passes other Arctic creatures and plays in the sea. Such simple yet intricate spreads.
Snow Day by Richard Curtis [illus. Rebecca Cobb] (2014): When snow covers London one December, only two people fail to get the message that the school is closed: Danny Higgins and Mr Trapper, his nemesis. So lessons proceed. At first it feels like a prison sentence, but at break time Mr Trapper gives in to the holiday atmosphere. These two lonely souls play as if they were both children, making an army of snowmen and an igloo. And next year, they’ll secretly do it all again. Watch out for the recurring robin in a woolly hat.
The Snowflake by Benji Davies (2020): I didn’t realize this was a Christmas story, but no matter. A snowflake starts her lonely journey down from a cloud; on Earth, Noelle hopes for snow to fall on her little Christmas tree. From motorway to town to little isolated house, Davies has an eye for colour and detail.
Bear and Hare: SNOW! by Emily Gravett (2014): Bear and Hare, wearing natty scarves, indulge in all the fun activities a blizzard brings: snow angels, building snow creatures, having a snowball fight and sledging. Bear seems a little wary, but Hare wins him over. The illustration style reminded me of Axel Scheffler’s work for Julia Donaldson.
Snow Ghost by Tony Mitton [illus. Diana Mayo] (2020): Snow Ghost looks for somewhere she might rest, drifting over cities and through woods until she finds the rural home of a boy and girl who look ready to welcome her. Nice pastel art but twee couplets.
Rabbits in the Snow: A Book of Opposites by Natalie Russell (2012): A suite of different coloured rabbits explore large and small, full and empty, top and bottom, and so on. After building a snowman and sledging, they come inside for some carrot soup.
The Snowbear by Sean Taylor [illus. Claire Alexander] (2017): Iggy and Martina build a snowman that looks more like a bear. Even though their mum has told them not to, they sledge into the woods and encounter danger, but the snow bear briefly comes alive and walks down the hill to save them. Delightful.
Snow (2014) & Lost (2021) by Sam Usher: A cute pair from a set of series about a little ginger boy and his grandfather. The boy is frustrated with how slow and stick-in-the-mud his grandpa seems to be, yet he comes through with magic. In the former, it’s a snow day and the boy feels like he’s missing all the fun until zoo animals come out to frolic. There’s lots of white space to simulate the snow. In the latter, they build a sledge and help search for a lost dog. Once again, ‘wild’ animals come to the rescue. /
The Lights that Dance in the Night by Yuval Zommer (2021): I’ve seen Zommer speak as part of a conference panel on children’s nature writing. The Aurora Borealis unfolds across the sky above the creatures and people of the far north: “We sashayed for an Arctic fox. We swayed above an old musk ox.” I expected more anatomical accuracy (i.e., faces not flattened so that eyes appear to be next to each other on the same side of a face) but I loved how vivid and imaginative it all is.
Any snowy or icy reads (or weather) for you lately?
Six Degrees: Ethan Frome to A Mother’s Reckoning
This month we began with Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, which was our buddy read for the short classics week of Novellas in November. I reread and reviewed it recently. (See Kate’s opening post.)
#1 When I posted an excerpt of my Ethan Frome review on Instagram, I got a comment from the publicist who was involved with the recent UK release of The Smash-Up by Ali Benjamin, a modern update of Wharton’s plot. Here’s part of the blurb: “Life for Ethan and Zo used to be simple. Ethan co-founded a lucrative media start-up, and Zo was well on her way to becoming a successful filmmaker. Then they moved to a rural community for a little more tranquility—or so they thought. … Enter a houseguest who is young, fun, and not at all concerned with the real world, and Ethan is abruptly forced to question everything: his past, his future, his marriage, and what he values most.” I’m going to try to get hold of a review copy when the paperback comes out in February.
#2 One of my all-time favourite debut novels is The Innocents by Francesca Segal, which won the Costa First Novel Award in 2012. It is also a contemporary reworking of an Edith Wharton novel, this time The Age of Innocence. Segal’s love triangle, set in a world I know very little about (the tight-knit Jewish community of northwest London), stays true to the emotional content of the original: the interplay of love and desire, jealousy and frustration. Adam Newman has been happily paired with Rachel Gilbert for nearly 12 years. Now engaged, Adam and Rachel seem set to become pillars of the community. Suddenly, their future is threatened by the return of Rachel’s bad-girl American cousin, Ellie Schneider.
#3 Also set in north London’s Jewish community is The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2013. Chani is the fifth of eight daughters in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family in Golders Green. The story begins and closes with Chani and Baruch’s wedding ceremony, and in between it loops back to detail their six-month courtship and highlight a few events from their family past. It’s a light-hearted, gossipy tale of interclass matchmaking in the Jane Austen vein.
#4 I learned more about Jewish beliefs and rituals via several memoirs, including Between Gods by Alison Pick. Her paternal grandparents escaped Czechoslovakia just before the Holocaust; she only found out that her father was Jewish through eavesdropping. In 2008 the author (a Toronto-based novelist and poet) decided to convert to Judaism. The book vividly depicts a time of tremendous change, covering a lot of other issues Pick was dealing with simultaneously, such as depression, preparation for marriage, pregnancy, and so on.
#5 One small element of Pick’s story was her decision to be tested for the BRCA gene because it’s common among Ashkenazi Jews. Tay-Sachs disease is usually found among Ashkenazi Jews, but because only her husband was Jewish, Emily Rapp never thought to be tested before she became pregnant with her son Ronan. Had she known she was also a carrier, things might have gone differently. The Still Point of the Turning World was written while her young son was still alive, but terminally ill.
#6 Another wrenching memoir of losing a son: A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold, whose son Dylan was one of the Columbine school shooters. I was in high school myself at the time, and the event made a deep impression on me. Perhaps the most striking thing about this book is Klebold’s determination to reclaim Columbine as a murder–suicide and encourage mental health awareness; all author proceeds were donated to suicide prevention and mental health charities. There’s no real redemptive arc, though, no easy answers; just regrets. If something similar could happen to any family, no one is immune. And Columbine was only one of many major shootings. I finished this feeling spent, even desolate. Yet this is a vital book everyone should read.
So, I’ve gone from one unremittingly bleak book to another, via sex, religion and death. Nothing for cheerful holiday reading – or a polite dinner party conversation – here! All my selections were by women this month.
Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.)
Next month’s starting point is Rules of Civility by Amor Towles; I have a copy on the shelf and this would be a good excuse to read it!
Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
A Few Bizarre Backlist Reads: McEwan, Michaels & Tremain
I’ve grouped these three prize-winning novels from the late 1980s and 1990s together because they all left me scratching my head, wondering whether they were jumbles of random elements and events or if there was indeed a satisfyingly coherent story. While there were aspects I admired, there were also moments when I thought it indulgent of the authors to pursue poetic prose or plot tangents and not consider the reader’s limited patience. I had to think for ages about how to rate these, but eventually arrived at the same rating for each, reflecting my enjoyment but also my hesitation.
The Child in Time by Ian McEwan (1987)
[Whitbread Prize for Fiction (now Costa Novel Award)]
This is the second-earliest of the 13 McEwan books I’ve read. It’s something of a strange muddle (from the protagonist’s hobbies of Arabic and tennis lessons plus drinking onwards), yet everything clusters around the title’s announced themes of children and time.
Stephen Lewis’s three-year-old daughter, Kate, was abducted from a supermarket three years ago. The incident is recalled early in the book, as if the remainder will be about solving the mystery of what happened to Kate. But such is not the case. Her disappearance is an unalterable fact of Stephen’s life that drove him and his wife apart, but apart from one excruciating scene later in the book when he mistakes a little girl on a school playground for Kate and interrogates the principal about her, the missing child is just subtext.
Instead, the tokens of childhood are political and fanciful. Stephen, a writer whose novels accidentally got categorized as children’s books, is on a government committee producing a report on childcare. On a visit to Suffolk, he learns that his publisher, Charles Darke, who later became an MP, has reverted to childhood, wearing shorts and serving lemonade up in a treehouse.
Meanwhile, Charles’s wife, Thelma, is a physicist researching the nature of time. For Charles, returning to childhood is a way of recapturing timelessness. There’s also an odd shared memory that Stephen and his mother had four decades apart. Even tiny details add on to the time theme, like Stephen’s parents meeting when his father returned a defective clock to the department store where his mother worked.
This is McEwan, so you know there’s going to be a contrived but very funny scene. Here that comes in Chapter 5, when Stephen is behind a flipped lorry and goes to help the driver. He agrees to take down a series of (increasingly outrageous) dictated letters but gets exasperated at about the same time it becomes clear the young man is not approaching death. Instead, he helps him out of the cab and they celebrate by drinking two bottles of champagne. This doesn’t seem to have much bearing on the rest of the book, but is the scene I’m most likely to remember.
Other noteworthy elements: Stephen has a couple of run-ins with the Prime Minister; though this is clearly Margaret Thatcher, McEwan takes pains to neither name nor so much as reveal the gender of the PM (in fear of libel claims?). Homeless people and gypsies show up multiple times, making Stephen uncomfortable but also drawing his attention. I assumed this was a political point about Thatcher’s influence, with the homeless serving as additional stand-ins for children in a paternalistic society, representing vulnerability and (misplaced) trust.
This is a book club read for our third monthly Zoom meeting, coming up in the first week of June. While it’s odd and not entirely successful, I think it should give us a lot to talk about: the good and bad aspects of reverting to childhood, whether it matters if Kate ever comes back, the caginess about Thatcher, and so on.
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (1996)
[Orange Prize (now Women’s Prize for Fiction)]
“One can look deeply for meaning or one can invent it.”
Poland, Greece, Canada; geology, poetry, meteorology. At times it felt like Michaels had picked her settings and topics out of a hat and flung them together. Especially in the early pages, the dreamy prose is so close to poetry that I had trouble figuring out what was actually happening, but gradually I was drawn into the story of Jakob Beer, a Jewish boy rescued like a bog body or golem from the ruins of his Polish village. Raised on a Greek island and in Toronto by his adoptive father, a geologist named Athos who’s determined to combat the Nazi falsifying of archaeological history, Jakob becomes a poet and translator. Though he marries twice, he remains a lonely genius haunted by the loss of his whole family – especially his sister, Bella, who played the piano. Survivor’s guilt never goes away. “To survive was to escape fate. But if you escape your fate, whose life do you then step into?”
The final third of the novel, set after Jakob’s death, shifts into another first-person voice. Ben is a student of literature and meteorological history. His parents are concentration camp survivors, so he relates to the themes of loss and longing in Jakob’s poetry. Taking a break from his troubled marriage, Ben offers to go back to the Greek island where Jakob last lived to retrieve his notebooks – which presumably contain all that’s come before. Ben often addresses Jakob directly in the second person, as if to reassure him that he has been remembered. Ultimately, I wasn’t sure what this section was meant to add, but Ben’s narration is more fluent than Jakob’s, so it was at least pleasant to read.
Although this is undoubtedly overwritten in places, too often resorting to weighty one-liners, I found myself entranced by the stylish writing most of the time. I particularly enjoyed the puns, palindromes and rhyming slang that Jakob shares with Athos while learning English, and with his first wife. If I could change one thing, I would boost the presence of the female characters. I was reminded of other books I’ve read about the interpretation of history and memory, Everything Is Illuminated and Moon Tiger, as well as of other works by Canadian women, A Student of Weather and Fall on Your Knees. This won’t be a book for everyone, but if you’ve enjoyed one or more of my readalikes, you might consider giving it a try.
Sacred Country by Rose Tremain (1992)
[James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Prix Fémina Etranger]
In 1952, on the day a two-minute silence is held for the dead king, six-year-old Mary Ward has a distinct thought: “I am not Mary. That is a mistake. I am not a girl. I’m a boy.” Growing up on a Suffolk farm with a violent father and a mentally ill mother, Mary asks to be called Martin and binds her breasts with bandages. Kicked out at age 15, she lives with her retired teacher and then starts to pursue a life on her own terms in London. While working for a literary magazine and dating women, she consults a doctor and psychologist to explore the hormonal and surgical options for becoming the man she believes she’s always been.
Meanwhile, a hometown acquaintance with whom she once shared a dentist’s waiting room, Walter Loomis, gives up his family’s butcher shop to pursue his passion for country music. Both he and Mary/Martin are sexually fluid and, dissatisfied with the existence they were born into, resolve to search for something more. The outsiders’ journeys take them to Tennessee, of all places. But when Martin joins Walter there, it’s an anticlimax. You’d expect their new lives to dovetail together, but instead they remain separate strivers.
At a bare summary, this seems like a simple plot, but Tremain complicates it with many minor characters and subplots. The story line stretches to 1980: nearly three decades’ worth of historical and social upheaval. The third person narration shifts perspective often to show a whole breadth of experience in this small English village, while occasional first-person passages from Mary and from her mother, Estelle, who’s in and out of a mental hospital, lend intimacy. Otherwise, the minor characters feel flat, more like symbols or mouthpieces.
To give a flavor of the book’s many random elements, here’s a decoding of the extraordinary cover on the copy I picked up from the free bookshop:
Crimson background and oval shape = female anatomy, menstruation
Central figure in a medieval painting style, with royal blue cloth = Mary
Masculine muscle structure plus yin-yang at top = blended sexuality
Airplane = Estelle’s mother died in a glider accident
Confederate flag = Tennessee
Cards = fate/chance, conjuring tricks Mary learns at school, fortune teller Walter visits
Cleaver = the Loomis butcher shop
Cricket bat = Edward Harker’s woodcraft; he employs and then marries Estelle’s friend Irene
Guitar = Walter’s country music ambitions
Oyster shell with pearl = Irene’s daughter Pearl, whom young Mary loves so much she takes her (then a baby) in to school for show-and-tell
Cutout torso = the search for the title land (both inward and outer), a place beyond duality
Tremain must have been ahead of the times in writing a trans character. She acknowledged that the premise was inspired by Conundrum by Jan Morris (who, born James, knew he was really a girl from the age of five). I recall that Sacred Country turned up often in the footnotes of Tremain’s recent memoir, Rosie, so I expect it has little autobiographical resonances and is a work she’s particularly proud of. I read this in advance of writing a profile of Tremain for Bookmarks magazine. It feels very different from her other books I’ve read; while it’s not as straightforwardly readable as The Road Home, I’d call it my second favorite from her. The writing is somewhat reminiscent of Kate Atkinson, early A.S. Byatt and Shena Mackay, and it’s a memorable exploration of hidden identity and the parts of life that remain a mystery.
#5–6 Short Fiction: Animal Crackers and Barnacle Love
I may have fallen behind on my 20 Books of Summer reading – August is going to have to be jam-packed! – but I have been enjoying the all-animals challenge. One of these two collections of short fiction sustains an animal theme for most of its length, while the other draws on metaphors from a fishing community but isn’t specifically about nature.
Animal Crackers by Hannah Tinti (2004)
A zoo, a circus, a turkey farm, a natural history museum, an African hunting expedition: several of the 11 stories are set in locales where human–animal interactions are formalized and exploitative, but all mention an animal at least once. In two cases the animal reference seems incidental and the stories really belong elsewhere – “Home Sweet Home,” which opens with the excellent line “Pat and Clyde were murdered on pot roast night,” appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2003; “Hit Man of the Year” feels like a trial run for The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley – and in others there are gratuitous animal deaths at the hands of disturbed boys or angry men, which is always a strike against a book for me.
I only found four stand-outs here. “Reasonable Terms” is a playful piece of magic realism in which a zoo’s giraffes get the gorilla to write out a list of demands for their keepers and, when agreement isn’t forthcoming, stage a mass mock suicide. In “How to Revitalize the Snake in Your Life,” a woman takes revenge on her boa constrictor-keeping boyfriend. In “Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus,” which reminded me of Ned Beauman’s madcap style, a boarding school teenager eludes the private detectives her parents have hired to keep tabs on her and makes it all the way to Ghana, where a new species of monkey is named after her. My favorite of all was “Preservation,” in which Mary saves wildlife paintings through her work as an art conservator but can’t save her father from terminal illness.
Barnacle Love by Anthony De Sa (2008)
When I plucked this Giller Prize finalist from a secondhand bookshop’s clearance shelf, I assumed it was a novel. The 10 titled chapters are in chronological order and recount the Rebelos’ experiences in Canada between the mid-1950s and the early 1980s, but in that each focuses on a discrete incident from the family’s history, they are more like linked short stories. Manuel, a fisherman from the Azores, is shipwrecked on the coast of Newfoundland and begins a new life in Canada. He’s deliberately gone far from his home village, far from his controlling mother and the priest who abused him: “I knew that if I stayed in our town, on our stifling island, I’d be consumed by what it was you [his mother] hoped and dreamed for me.” He moves from St. John’s to Toronto, brings over a Portuguese wife, and raises two children while hopping from one unsuccessful money-making scheme to another.
The first half of the book reports Manuel’s life in the third person, while the second is in the first person, narrated by his son, Antonio. Through that shift in perspective we come to see Manuel as both a comic and a tragic figure: he insists on speaking English, but his grammar and accent are atrocious; he cultivates proud Canadian traditions, like playing the anthem on repeat on Canada Day and spending Christmas Eve at Niagara Falls, but he’s also a drunk the neighborhood children laugh at. Although the two chapters set back in Portugal were my favorites, Manuel is a compelling, sympathetic character throughout, and I appreciated De Sa’s picture of the immigrant’s contrasting feelings of home and community. Particularly recommended if you’ve enjoyed That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung.
Manuel’s mother: “My husband used to say that men are all barnacles. A barnacle starts out life swimming freely in the ocean. But, when it matures, it must settle down and choose a home. My dear husband used to say that it chooses to live with other barnacles of the same kind so that they can mate.”
Manuel: “I leave Portugal on fishing boat and I know I not going to come back. I give everything away to follow something new. I no understand what but something inside push me here—to make something of myself in this land. I come to be someone in this world.”
Recent Writing for BookBrowse, Shiny New Books and the TLS
We’re back from a pleasant but whirlwind weekend in France. Even just sticking to one corner of Normandy, there was far too much to see and do and not enough good weather to do it all in. Highlights were the Bayeux tapestry, the gorse-covered rocky cliff above a river at Les Roches de Ham, a delicious three-course meal in a restaurant just outside Bayeux, fresh bread and cake from boulangeries, and the enormous Sunday morning open-air market in Caen. (Low point: being sick on the boat on the way back. I hate sailing.) I finished up The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker, read all of A Breath of French Air by H.E. Bates, and started a few more books.
Here are excerpts from and links to some of my recent print or online writing for other places. (No surprise that four out of the five are nonfiction and involve medical or bereavement themes!)
The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything That Comes After by Julie Yip-Williams: A lawyer facing late-stage cancer reflects on the happy life she had despite disability and an inauspicious start, and bids farewell to her family. It was miracle enough to have survived her first few years (blindness, a euthanasia attempt, and fleeing Vietnam by boat), but she eventually graduated from Harvard Law School and joined a Wall Street law firm. The author dubs herself “a somewhat ruthless realist.” Early on she vowed she would do nothing desperate or bizarre in her quest for healing, in contravention of what she calls the American “hope industrial complex.” Yet she also left room for spirituality to surprise her. The book resembles a set of journal entries or thematic essays, written at various times over her five years with colon cancer. Some stories are told more than once; an editor might have combined or cut some passages to avoid repetitiveness. Still, this posthumous memoir stands as a testament to a remarkable life of overcoming adversity, asking questions, and appreciating beauty wherever it’s found. (See also my list of other recommended posthumous cancer memoirs.)
That Time I Loved You: Stories by Carrianne Leung: The residents of a Toronto suburb cope with growing up amid a spate of surprise suicides in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Leung explores different points of view on the same events and changes that take place in a community over several years. Three of the stories are narrated by June, who is 11 years old at the start. Her parents came over from Hong Kong 15 years ago. Other stories fill in a kaleidoscopic view of the neighborhood, showing how lonely the residents are – and how segregated along ethnic lines. Leung returns to June’s perspective at the beginning, middle, and end of the book, so we see her growing up and learning how the world works. Hard lessons are in store for her: people are sometimes punished for their differences, and the older generation doesn’t have it all figured out. Suburbia gets a bad rap, but it’s where so many of us come from, so it’s heartening to see a writer taking it seriously here. (See also my article on linked short story collections, for which I enlisted lots of blogger help via book Twitter.)
Shiny New Books
War Doctor: Surgery on the Front Line by David Nott: Welsh surgeon David Nott combines advanced technical skills with extreme altruism: for weeks of every year he takes unpaid leave to volunteer with a medical charity like Médecins sans Frontières or Syria Relief in war zones or disaster areas around the world. The kinds of procedures he has performed in Sarajevo, Kabul and Darfur are a world away from his normal work as an NHS consultant in London: amputations, treating injuries caused by homemade bombs, and delivering the babies of young rape victims. His memoir is mostly structured by countries and/or time periods. There are gripping moments – such as completing a difficult amputation by following instructions texted to him by a London colleague – but also some less fascinating chronology. The book is slow to start and took me weeks to get through. However, it shines when Nott recalls particular patients who have stood out for him. All told, his is an amazing and inspiring story.
As if you haven’t already heard enough about the Wellcome Book Prize from me (!), I also wrote this article for Shiny about the Prize’s history and the range of books that have won or been nominated over the last 10 years, finishing up with some reflections on this year’s shortlist.
Times Literary Supplement
Somehow I seem to have become a TLS regular. The biography editor periodically contacts me with lists of recent memoirs to be reviewed in 400 words for the “In Brief” section, and I’ve been doing about one per month this year.
Blood Ties by Ben Crane: Artist Ben Crane has developed a passion for birds of prey, raising hawks and training as a falconer. “I saw that my feelings towards nature, and birds of prey in particular, ran in parallel with my feelings for my son,” he writes. Blood Ties accordingly cuts between the story of rehabilitating a pair of rescued sparrowhawks named Girl and Boy and a parallel story about raising his son as a part-time single father. Together these strands emphasize the common concerns that arise when caring for any creature. Crane’s descriptive language is memorably sharp. Whatever struggles his Asperger’s entails, it seems to heighten his observational skills. Pruning the travel segments would have produced a more focused memoir, but this is a powerful story all the same – of the ties that bind us, both to nature and our own families. (Full review in February 8th issue.)
Notes for the Everlost: A Field Guide to Grief by Kate Inglis: Inglis, a Nova Scotian photographer and children’s author, has written this delicate, playful handbook – something between a bereavement memoir and a self-help guide – for people who feel they might disappear into grief for ever. In 2007, Inglis’s identical twin sons were born premature, at twenty-seven weeks. Ben lived but Liam died. Every milestone in Ben’s life would serve as a reminder of the brother who should have been growing up alongside him. The unfairness was particularly keen on the day she returned to hospital for two appointments: Ben’s check-up and a report on Liam’s autopsy. Unable to sustain the eye-popping freshness of the prose in the introduction, Inglis resorts to some clichés in what follows. But this kooky, candid book will be valuable to anyone facing bereavement or supporting a loved one through it. (Full review in March 15th issue.)
Would any of these books interest you?
Reviews Roundup, December–January
It’s been a slow period for reviewing; I was mostly focusing on ongoing projects and year-end lists, and didn’t take the time to review a lot of the books I borrowed from libraries while in the States visiting family. Enjoy the respite! And I promise more productivity next month. There’s a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to read more.
Fig Tree Books
Everyman by Philip Roth: It has now been about three years since Philip Roth, then 79, famously announced his retirement from fiction writing. In a look back over Roth’s career—spanning half a century and 30 books—Everyman (2006) might fade into the background, especially given the book’s novella length. But to overlook it would be a mistake: This is a near-perfect fable about the life we build through decades of small choices and the death that is always lying in wait, whether we feel ready or not.
(Have a look around at the great work this publisher does in highlighting the American Jewish Experience; for instance, they released Safekeeping by Jessamyn Hope, which I loved this past summer.)
A Smile at Twilight by Robert Loyst and Wayne Yetman: Loyst gives a candid account of the joys and difficulties of helping to care for Poppy, an Alzheimer’s patient he met through a Toronto-based “Seniors Helping Seniors” organization. It’s an appealing “opposites attract”/“odd couple” scenario: Poppy was a perfectionist with a foul mouth and a withering glare of disapproval, while Loyst describes himself as “more of a take-it-as-it-comes type of guy.” Those who have family members or friends struggling with dementia will probably benefit most from the memoir, but readers of Still Alice might enjoy trying a real-life story.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: Lucy Barton is in the hospital for nine weeks following an appendectomy. The novel zeroes in on the five days her mother comes to stay by her bedside, a pinnacle in their often difficult relationship. For a short book, this packs a lot in: an artist’s development, the course of a marriage, poverty and class distinctions. Lucy grew up in rural Illinois, where words like “cheap” and “trash” could easily have been applied to her family. I read this in one sitting on a plane ride and found it to be a powerful portrayal of the small connections that stand out in a life.
Eligible: A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld: Pride and Prejudice transplanted to Cincinnati in 2013? That might sound like a stretch, but Sittenfeld pretty much pulls it off. The characters and underlying plot are virtually identical to the original, with just a few tweaks here and there. What Sittenfeld does update are the particular scenes and situations, as well as the cultural norms and sexual practices. My main problem is how slavishly Sittenfeld replicates Austen’s third-person voice and vocabulary. Sittenfeld is the queen of first-person female narration; this is the first time in my memory that she has attempted an omniscient voice. To me it felt like the book was crying out to be told from Lizzy’s perspective. Releases April 19th.