Three memoirs remain on the shortlist; three windows onto living with disability or caring for a relative with an incapacitating mental illness.
First up is a visual artist’s account of growing up with spina bifida, entering Disabled culture, and forming a collaborative style all her own.
Golem Girl: A Memoir by Riva Lehrer (2020)
“My first monster story was Frankenstein,” Lehrer writes. Like Dr. Frankenstein’s creation or the Golem of medieval Jewish legend, she felt like a physical monstrosity in search of an animating purpose. Born with spina bifida, she spent much of her first two years in Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and would endure dozens of surgeries in years to come to repair her spine and urinary tract and attempt to make her legs the same length. In 1958, when she was born, 90% of children with her condition died before age two. Lehrer’s mother, Carole, who grew up in a family pharmacy business and had worked as a medical researcher, was her daughter’s dogged health advocate. Carole fought for Riva even though she was caught up in her own chronic pain after a botched back surgery that left her addicted to painkillers.
Lehrer went to a special school for the disabled in Ohio. It was racially integrated (rare at that time) and offered children physical therapy and normal experiences like Girl Scouts and day camp. But it was clear the teachers didn’t expect these children to achieve anything or have a family life; home ec classes just taught how to wash up from a wheelchair and make meals for one. One horrible day, a substitute teacher locked a classroom door and hectored the children, saying their parents must have drunk and fornicated and they were the wages of sin.
Between the routine or emergency surgeries and family heartaches, Lehrer grew up to attend art school at the University of Cincinnati and Art Institute of Chicago. Professors (most of them male) found her work grotesque and self-indulgent, and she struggled with how to depict her body. There were boyfriends and girlfriends, even a wife (though in the late 1980s, before same-sex marriage was legally recognized). In 1996 she joined the Chicago Disabled Artists Collective and it was a revelation. She learned that Disabled (like Deaf) is a cultural identity as much as a physical reality, adopted vocabulary like crip (a reclaimed term, like queer) and ableism, and began painting fellow artists with dwarfism, prostheses, or wheelchairs.
Becoming a member of the Medical Humanities faculty as well as a visiting artist at two Chicago universities, the School of the Art Institute and Northwestern, gave Lehrer access to Gross Anatomy Labs, where she found in the historical collections – just as she had at the Mütter Museum of medical curiosities in Philadelphia – a fetus in a jar with her very condition. Knowing that she might be the first Disabled person her budding doctors met, she was determined to give them an “inclusive vision” of “the reality of human divergence.” She would have the medical students draw one of the jarred specimens, not as an oddity but as an individual, and give a 15-minute presentation about someone who lives with that disability.
Golem Girl is a touching family memoir delivered in short, essay-like chapters, most of them named after books or films. It is also a primer in Disability theory and – what truly lifts it above the pack – a miniature art gallery, with reproductions of paintings from various of Lehrer’s series as well as self-portraits, family portraits, and photographs. “I fiercely wanted to see a gallery filled with portraits of luminous crips,” she writes; “I suspected I was going to have to make them myself.” And that is just what she has done. The “Circle Stories” featured the Chicago Disabled Artists Collective and “Mirror Shards” included animal daimons, while “The Risk Pictures” of some of her personal heroes were daringly collaborative: she would give the subject an hour alone in her studio with their portrait in progress and allow them to amend it as they wished. Much of her work has bright colors and involves anatomical realism and symbols personal to herself and/or the subject – with Frida Kahlo an acknowledged influence.
I’ve now (just about) read the whole Barbellion Prize shortlist. For how it illuminates a life of being different – through queerness in addition to disability, engages with the academic fields of anatomy and Disability studies, and showcases the achievements of Disabled artists, this would be my clear winner of the inaugural award, with Sanatorium my backup choice. It is also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography.
Readalikes I have also reviewed:
“The hospital demands surrender. You accept the piercing, the cutting, the swallowing of noxious chemicals. You roll over and stand up even when it’s as impossible as flying around the ceiling. Whoever has authority can remove your clothes and display your stitched-up monster body to crowds of young white-coated men. You’re an assemblage of parts that lack gender and those elusive things called feelings.”
“‘Normal’ beauty is unmarked, smooth, shiny, upright; but my gaze began to slip past normal beauty as if it was coated in baby oil. I wanted crip beauty—variant, iconoclastic, unpredictable. Bodies that were lived in with intentionality and self-knowledge. Crip bodies were fresh.”
With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.
See my introductory post for more about the Barbellion Prize, which is in its first year and will be awarded on Friday “to an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability.”
I will review the final two on the shortlist, The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills and Kika & Me by Amit Patel, tomorrow.
The end of the year is fast approaching, and one of my main reading goals is to follow through on all the rest of the review books I’ve received from publishers. I have another handful on the go, including a few holiday- and snow-themed ones I’ll review together.
Today, I have a history-rich travelogue that explores the Atlantic coast of Britain and Ireland, a memoir by an Anglican priest who has transitioned and experienced chronic illness, and a humorous, offbeat novel about finding the real Ireland.
The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel by David Gange (2019)
This was one of the 2020 Wainwright Prize finalists. Having now experienced the entire nature writing shortlist, I stick with my early September pronouncement that it should have won. I was consistently impressed with the intricacy of the interdisciplinary approach. While kayaking down the western coast of the British Isles and Ireland, Gange delved into the folklore, geology, history, local language and wildlife of each region and island group. From the extreme north of Scotland at Muckle Flugga to the southwest tip of Cornwall, he devoted a month to each Atlantic-facing area, often squeezing in expeditions between commitments as a history lecturer at Birmingham.
Gange’s thesis is that the sea has done more to shape Britain and Ireland than we generally recognize, and that to be truly representative history books must ascribe the same importance to coastal communities that they do to major inland cities. Everywhere he goes he meets locals, trawls regional archives and museums, and surveys the art and literature (especially poetry) that a place has produced. Though dense with information, the book is a rollicking travelogue that – in words no less than in the two sections of stunning colour photographs – captures the elation and fear of an intrepid solo journey. He hunkers on snowy cliffs in his sleeping bag and comes face to face with otters, seals and seabirds in his kayak; at the mercy of the weather, he has deep respect for the Atlantic waves’ power.
I enjoyed revisiting places I’ve seen in person (Shetland, the Orkney Islands, Skomer) and getting a taste of others I’ve not been to but would like to go (like the Western Isles and the west coast of Ireland). Gange’s allusive writing reminds me of Tim Dee’s and Adam Nicolson’s, and Madeleine Bunting’s Love of Country is a similar read I also loved.
With thanks to William Collins for the free copy for review.
Dazzling Darkness: Gender, sexuality, illness and God by Rachel Mann (2012; 2020)
I’ve so enjoyed discovering Rev. Rachel Mann’s work: poetry collection A Kingdom of Love, Advent devotional In the Bleak Midwinter, and novel The Gospel of Eve. This is a revised edition of her memoir, which is less an autobiographical blow-by-blow of becoming a trans priest in the Church of England than it is a vibrant theological meditation based around keywords like loneliness, reconciliation and vocation. She reflects on the apparent contradictions of her life: she was a typical boy who loved nothing more than toy guns, and then a young man obsessed with drugs and guitars; as ‘Nick’, she was married to a woman at the time of coming out, but continued to have relationships with women after transitioning and undergoing reassignment surgery, so considers herself a lesbian.
Ambiguities like this make us uncomfortable, Mann notes, but change and loss, and making the best of impossible situations, are all a part of the human condition. I appreciated how she characterizes herself as a perennial beginner: having to face the world anew after the second adolescence of becoming a woman as well as after the end of a long-term relationship and the last in a series of hospitalizations for severe Crohn’s disease.
While I’ve read other trans memoirs (Amateur by Thomas Page McBee and Conundrum by Jan Morris), this is my first from a Christian perspective, apart from the essays in The Book of Queer Prophets. Mann describes her early faith as intense but shallow, like falling in love; later it became deeper but darker as she followed Jesus’s path of suffering. Ministry has been a gift but is not without challenges: At synod meetings she is unsure whether to speak out or remain silent, but at least she bears witness to the presence of trans people in the Church.
With thanks to Wild Goose Publications for the free copy for review.
Scenes of a Graphic Nature by Caroline O’Donoghue (2020)
Charlotte “Charlie” Regan is a 29-year-old filmmaker based in London. Her father has had cancer on and off for four years, but he got his ‘survivor’ label in a different way: when he was a child on an island off the western coast of Ireland, his teacher and 18 classmates died of carbon monoxide poisoning from the faulty secondhand oil burner in the schoolhouse; he was the only one left alive. Although her film commemorates this story, Charlie has never actually been to Ireland, so an invitation to Cork Film Festival is the perfect opportunity to see the place before her father dies. Travelling with her is her former best friend and roommate, Laura Shingle. There’s sexual tension between these two: Charlie is a lesbian, but Laura is determined to think of herself as straight even though she and Charlie would occasionally share a bed. To prove herself, Laura goes too far the other way, making homophobic comments about strangers.
If initially Charlie thinks this trip to Ireland will be about shamrock-green nostalgia, she soon snaps out of her idealism as she has to face some tough truths about the film and her family’s history. Charlie is a companionable narrator, but, while I enjoyed the pub scenes and found some of the one-liners very funny (“Everything in our room is a faint brown, as though it were daubed very gently by a child with a teabag” and “He had an X-ray and there’s legumes all over it.” / “Legumes? Do you mean lesions?”), I was underwhelmed overall. My interest peaked at the halfway point and waned thereafter. This is one I might recommend to fans of Caoilinn Hughes.
With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
A calmer month for new releases after September’s bumper crop. I read a sophisticated mystery set at a theological college, a subtle novel about empathy and being a good friend, and a memoir of raising one of Britain’s first llamas.
The Gospel of Eve by Rachel Mann
Last year I dipped into Mann’s poetry (A Kingdom of Love) and literary criticism/devotional writing (In the Bleak Midwinter); this year I was delighted to be offered an early copy of her debut novel. The press materials are full of comparisons to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History; it’s certainly an apt point of reference for this mystery focusing on clever, Medieval-obsessed students training for the priesthood at a theological college outside Oxford.
It’s 1997 and Catherine Bolton is part of the first female intake at Littlemore College. She has striven to rid herself of a working-class accent and recently completed her PhD on Chaucer, but feels daunted by her new friends’ intelligence and old-money backgrounds: Ivo went to Eton, Charlie is an heiress, and so on. But Kitty’s most fascinated with Evie, who is bright, privileged and quick with a comeback – everything Kitty wishes she could be.
If you think of ordinands as pious and prudish, you’ll be scandalized by these six. They drink, smoke, curse and make crude jokes. In seminars with Professor Albertus Loewe, they make provocative mention of feminist theory and are tempted by his collection of rare books. Soon sex, death and literature get all mixed up as Kitty realizes that her friends’ devotion to the Medieval period goes as far as replicating dangerous rituals. We know from the first line that one of them ends up dead. But what might it have to do with the apocryphal text of the title?
I didn’t always feel the psychological groundwork was there to understand characters’ motivations, but I still found this to be a beguiling story, well plotted and drenched in elitism and lust. Mann explores a theology that is more about practice, about the body, than belief. Kitty’s retrospective blends regret and nostalgia: “We were the special ones, the shining ones,” and despite how wrong everything went, part of her wouldn’t change it for the world.
My thanks to publicist Hannah Hargrave for the proof copy for review. Published today by Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd.
What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez
A perfect follow-up to The Friend and very similar in some ways: again we have the disparate first-person musings of an unnamed narrator compelled to help a friend. In Nunez’s previous novel, the protagonist has to care for the dog of a man who recently killed himself; here she is called upon to help a terminally ill friend commit suicide. The novel opens in September 2017 in the unfamiliar town she’s come to for her friend’s cancer treatments. While there she goes to a talk by an older male author who believes human civilization is finished and people shouldn’t have children anymore. This prophet of doom is her ex.
His pessimism is echoed by the dying friend when she relapses. The narrator agrees to accompany her to a rental house where she will take a drug to die at a time of her choosing. “Lucy and Ethel Do Euthanasia,” the ex jokes. And there is a sort of slapstick joy early in this morbid adventure, with mishaps like forgetting the pills and flooding the bathroom.
As in Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, the voice is not solely or even primarily the narrator’s but Other: her friend speaking about her happy childhood and her estrangement from her daughter; a woman met at the gym; a paranoid neighbor; a recent short story; a documentary film. I felt there was too much recounting of a thriller plot, but in general this approach, paired with the absence of speech marks, reflects how the art we consume and the people we encounter become part of our own story. Curiosity about other lives fuels empathy.
With the wry energy of Jenny Offill’s Weather, this is a quiet novel that sneaks up to seize you by the heartstrings. “Women’s stories are often sad stories,” Nunez writes, but “no matter how sad, a beautifully told story lifts you up.” Like The Friend, which also ends just before The End, this presents love and literature as ways to bear “witness to the human condition.”
With thanks to Virago for the proof copy for review.
Along Came a Llama: Tales from a Welsh Hill Farm by Ruth Janette Ruck
Originally published in 1978 (now reissued with a foreword by John Lewis-Stempel), this is an enjoyably animal-stuffed memoir reminiscent of Gerald Durrell and especially Doreen Tovey. Ruck (d. 2006) and her family – which at times included her ill sister, her elderly mother and/or her sister-in-law – lived on a remote farm in the hills of North Wales. On a visit to Knaresborough Zoo, Ruck was taken with the llamas and fancied buying one to add to their menagerie of farm animals. It was as simple as asking the zoo director and then taking the young female back to Wales in a pony box. At that time, hardly anyone in the UK knew anything about llamas or the other camelids. No insurance company would cover their llama in transit; no one had specialist knowledge on feeding or breeding. Ruck had to do things the old-fashioned way, finding books and specialist scientific papers.
But they mostly learned about Ñusta (the Quechua word for princess) by spending time with her. At holidays they discovered her love of chocolate Easter eggs and cherry brandy. The cud-chewing creature sometimes gave clues to what else she’d been eating, as when she regurgitated plum stones. She didn’t particularly like being touched or trailed by an orphaned lamb, but followed Ruck around dutifully and would sit sociably in the living room. Life with animals often involves mild disasters: Ñusta jumps in a pool and locks Ruck’s husband in the loo, and the truck breaks down on the way to mate her with the male at Chester Zoo.
From spitting to shearing, there was a lot to get used to, but this account of the first three years of llama ownership emphasizes the delights of animal companionship. There were hardships in Ruck’s life, including multiple sclerosis and her sister’s death, but into the “austere but soul-rewarding life of a hill firm … like a catalyst or a touch of magic, the llama came along.” I was into llamas and alpacas well before the rest of the world – in high school I often visited a local llama farm, and I led a llama in a parade and an alpaca in a nativity play – so that was my primary reason for requesting this, but it’s just right for any animal lover.
With thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy for review.
What recent releases can you recommend?
On one of my periodic trips back to the States, I saw Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speak at a large Maryland library soon after Americanah (2013) was published. I didn’t retain much from her talk, except that her main character, Ifemelu, was a blogger about race issues and that Black hair also played a role. I was hugely impressed with Adichie in person: stylish and well-spoken, she has calm confidence and a mellifluous voice. In the “question” (comment) time I remember many young African and African American women saying how much her book meant to them, capturing the complexities of what it’s like to be Black in America.
Ironically, I have hoarded Adichie’s work over the years since then but not read it. I did read We Should All Be Feminists from the library for Novellas in November one year, but had accumulated copies of her other five books as gifts or from neighbors or the free bookshop. (Is there a tsundoku-type term for author-specific stockpiling?) Luckily, my first taste of her fiction exceeded my high expectations and whetted my appetite to read the rest.
“You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country,” a secondary African American character declares at an evening salon Ifemelu attends. Adichie puts the lie to that statement: her slight outsider status allows her to cut through stereotypes and pretenses and get right to the heart of the issue. The novel may be seven years old (and hearkens back to the optimism of Barack Obama’s first election), but it feels utterly fresh and relevant at a time when we are newly aware of the insidiousness of racism. Again and again, I nodded in wry acknowledgment of the truth of Ifemelu’s cutting observations:
Job Vacancy in America—National Arbiter in Chief of ‘Who Is Racist’: In America, racism exists but racists are all gone. Racists belong to the past. Racists are the thin-lipped mean white people in the movies about the civil rights era. Here’s the thing: the manifestation of racism has changed but the language has not. So if you haven’t lynched somebody then you can’t be called a racist.
Through Ifemelu’s years of studying, working and blogging her way around the Eastern seaboard of the United States, Adichie explores the ways in which the experience of an African abroad differs from that of African Americans. These subtleties become especially clear through her relationships with Curt (white) and Blaine (African American), which involve a performative aspect and a slight tension that were absent with Obinze, her teenage sweetheart. Obinze, too, tries life in another country, moving to the UK illegally. Although they eventually earn financial success and good reputations – with Obinze a married property developer back in Nigeria – both characters initially have to do debasing work to get by.
Americanah is so wise about identity and perceptions, with many passages that resonated for me as an expat. When Ifemelu returns to Nigeria after 13 years, she doesn’t know if she or her country has changed: “She was no longer sure what was new in Lagos and what was new in herself … home was now a blurred place between here and there … there was something wrong with her. A hunger, a restlessness. An incomplete knowledge of herself.”
I loved Ifemelu’s close bond with her cousin, Dike, who is more like a little brother to her, and the way the narrative keeps revisiting a New Jersey hair salon where she is getting her hair braided. These scenes reminded me of Barber Shop Chronicles, a terrific play I saw with my book club last year. The prose is precise, insightful and evocative (“she would not unwrap from herself the pashmina of the wounded,” “There was something in him, lighter than ego but darker than insecurity, that needed constant buffing”).
On a sentence level as well as at a macro plot level, this was engrossing and rewarding – just what I want from a doorstopper. The question of whether Ifemelu and Obinze will get back together is one that will appeal to fans of Normal People – can these sustaining teenage relationships ever last? – but Ifemelu is such a strong, independent character that it’s merely icing on the cake. I’m moving on to her Women’s Prize winner, Half of a Yellow Sun, next.
Page count: 477 (but tiny type)
Source: Free bookshop
Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau (1839)
This was meant to be a buddy read with Buried in Print, but I fell at the first hurdle and started skimming after 35 pages. I haven’t made it through a Victorian triple-decker in well over a decade; just since 2012, I’ve failed to get through three novels by Charles Dickens, whom I used to call my favorite author. I’m mildly disappointed in myself, but may have to accept the change in my reading tastes. In my early 20s, I loved chunky nineteenth-century novels and got my MA in Victorian Literature, but nowadays I look at one of these 500+-page classics and think, why wade through something so tortuously verbose over a matter of weeks when I could read three or more contemporary novels that will have more bearing on my life, for the same word count and time?
In any case, Deerbrook is interesting from a cultural history point of view, sitting between Austen and the Brontës or George Eliot in terms of timeline, style and themes. In the fictional Midlands village of Deerbrook, the Greys and Rowlands are neighbors engaged in a polite feud while sharing a summer house and a governess. Orphaned sisters Hester and Margaret Ibbotson, 21 and 20, come to live with the Greys, their distant cousins and known dissenters. Hester got “all the beauty,” so it’s no surprise that, after a visit from a local doctor, Edward Hope, everyone is pairing him with her in their minds. I liked an early passage voicing the thoughts of Maria Young, the crippled governess (“How I love to overlook people,—to watch them acting unconsciously, and speculate for them!”), but soon tired of the matchmaking and moralizing. A world in which everyone does their duty is boring indeed.
Martineau, though, seems like a fascinating figure I’d like to read more about. She wrote a two-volume Autobiography, which I would also skim if I could find it from a library. Just her one-page bio at the front of my Virago paperback contained many astonishing sentences: “her education was interrupted by advancing deafness, requiring her to use an ear trumpet in later life”; “Her fiancé, John Hugh Worthington, having gone insane also died”; [after writing Deerbrook] “She then collapsed into bed where she was to remain for the next five years. In 1845 Harriet Martineau was dramatically cured by mesmerism,” etc.
Page count: 523 (again, tiny type)
Source: A UK secondhand bookshop 15+ years ago
I’m continuing with the Nonfiction November focus by catching up on six nonfiction review books I’ve been sent over the last half a year. We’ve got a record of elderly parents’ decline, letters and poems written about the climate crisis, a family memoir set between Taiwan and Canada, a widow’s mushroom-hunting quest, a work of ecotheology that reflects on travels in the Galápagos Islands, and a defense of an entirely secular basis for morality. You can’t say I don’t read a variety, even within nonfiction! See if one or more of these tempts you.
All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir by Elizabeth Hay
Gordon and Jean Hay stumbled into their early nineties in an Ottawa retirement home starting in 2009. Elizabeth Hay is one of four children, but caregiving fell to her for one reason and another, and it was a fraught task because of her parents’ prickly personalities: Jean was critical and thrifty to the point of absurdity, spooning thick mold off apple sauce before serving it and needling Elizabeth for dumping perfectly good chicken juice a year before; Gordon had a terrible temper and a history of corporal punishment of his children and of his students when he was a school principal. Jean’s knee surgery and subsequent infection finally put paid to their independence; her mind was never the same and she could no longer paint.
There are many harsh moments in this memoir, but almost as many wry ones, with Hay picking just the right anecdotes to illustrate her parents’ behavior and the shifting family dynamic. She never looks away, no matter how hard it all gets. Her father’s rage against the dying of the light contrasts with her mother’s fade into confusion – lightened by the surprisingly poetic turns of phrase she came out with despite her dementia and aphasia. The title phrase, for instance, was her attempt at “all things considered.” I would wholeheartedly recommend this to readers of Hay’s novels, but anyone can appreciate the picture of complicated love and grief. (See also Susan’s review.)
With thanks to MacLehose Press for the free copy for review.
Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis, edited by Anna Hope et al.
Culture Declares Emergency launched in April to bring the arts into the conversation about the climate emergency. Letters to the Earth compiles 100 short pieces by known and unknown names alike. Alongside published authors, songwriters, professors and politicians are lots of ordinary folk, including children as young as seven. The brief was broad: to write a letter in response to environmental crisis, whether to or from the Earth, to future generations (there are wrenching pieces written to children: “What can I say, now that it’s too late? … that I’m sorry, that I tried,” writes Stuart Capstick), to the government or to other species.
There are certainly relatable emotions here, especially the feeling of helplessness. “We take the train, go vegan, refuse plastic, buy less and less. But that is tiny. We are tiny,” novelist Jo Baker writes. I loved retired bishop Richard Holloway’s wry letter calling the author of Genesis to account for unhelpful language of dominion, Rob Cowen’s poem to a starling, and Anna Hope’s essay about parenting in a time of uncertainty. Unfortunately, much of the rest is twee or haranguing, e.g. “Forest fires are scorching INNOCENT wildlife. Plastic is strangling INNOCENT turtles and dolphins,” a 12-year-old writes. This was put together in a matter of months, and it shows. There is not enough tonal variety, a lot of overwriting has crept through, and errors, especially in the kids’ work, remain uncorrected. Perhaps six to 10 pieces stood out to me overall. I’d recommend the Extinction Rebellion handbook instead.
With thanks to Alison Menzies / William Collins for the free copy for review.
Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan by Jessica J. Lee
I loved Turning, Lee’s 2017 memoir about swimming in one of Berlin’s lakes per week for a year, so I jumped at the chance to read her follow-up, which delves into her maternal line’s history in Taiwan. She travels to Taipei for three months to brush up on her Chinese, write and hike. Interspersed with the lush descriptions of her walks are reflections on Taiwan’s history and on the hidden aspects of her grandfather Gong’s past that only came to light after Lee’s grandmother, Po, died and she and her mother discovered an autobiographical letter he’d written before he drifted into dementia. Nature, language, history and memory flow together in a delicate blend of genres – “I moved from the human timescale of my family’s story through green and unfurling dendrological time,” she writes.
This has got to be one of the most striking title and cover combinations of the year. Along with Chinese characters, the book includes some looping text and Nico Taylor’s maps and illustrations of Taiwanese flora and fauna. While you will likely get more out of this if you have a particular interest in Asian history, languages and culture, it’s impressive how Lee brings the different strands of her story together to form a hybrid nature memoir that I hope will be recognized by next year’s Wainwright Prize and Young Writer of the Year Award shortlists. She’d also be a perfect New Networks for Nature speaker.
With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.
The Way through the Woods: Of Mushrooms and Mourning by Long Lit Woon
[Trans. from the Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland]
I couldn’t resist the sound of a bereavement memoir crossed with a mushroom hunting guide. When Long met her husband, Eiolf Olsen, she was an 18-year-old Malaysian exchange student in Stavanger, Norway. Meeting Eiolf changed the whole course of her life, keeping her in Europe for good; decades later, her life changed forever once again when Eiolf dropped dead at work one morning. “If anyone had told me that mushrooms would be my lifeline, the thing that would help me back onto my feet and quite literally back onto life’s track, I would have rolled my eyes. What had mushrooms to do with mourning?” she writes.
The answer to that rhetorical question is nothing much, at least not inherently, so this ends up becoming a book of two parts, with the bereavement strand (printed in green and in a different font – green is for grief? I suppose) engaging me much more than the mushroom-hunting one, which takes her to Central Park and the annual Telluride, Colorado mushroom festival as well as to Norway’s woods again and again – “In Norway, outdoor life is tantamount to a religion.” But the quest for wonder and for meaning is a universal one. In addition, if you’re a mushroom fan you’ll find gathering advice, tasting notes, and even recipes. I fancy trying the “mushroom bacon” made out of oven-dried shiitakes.
With thanks to Scribe for the free copy for review.
God Unbound: Theology in the Wild by Brian McLaren
McLaren was commissioned to launch a series that was part travel guide, part spiritual memoir and part theological reflection. Specifically, he was asked to write about the Galápagos Islands because he’d been before and they were important to him. He joins a six-day eco-cruise that tours around the island chain off Ecuador, with little to do except observe the birds, tortoises and iguanas, and swim with fish and sea turtles. For him this is a peaceful, even sacred place that reminds him of the beauty that still exists in the world despite so much human desecration. Although he avoids using his phone except to quickly check in with his wife, modernity encroaches unhelpfully through a potential disaster with his laptop.
I was surprised to see that McLaren leaves the Galápagos at the midpoint – whatever could fill the rest of the book, I wondered? He starts by reassessing Darwin, so often painted as a villain by Evangelical Christianity but actually a model of close, loving attention to nature. He also recalls how some of his most intense spiritual experiences have arisen from time in nature. McLaren’s books have been pivotal to my spiritual journey as we’ve both gradually become more liberal and environmentalist. His definition of God might horrify traditionalists, but holds appeal for me: “a centering singularity whose gravity holds me in insistent orbit, pulling me deeper into mystery, pondering who I am and what my life means.” This is an unusual but gently entrancing book full of photos and quotes from other thinkers including John Muir, Pope Francis and Richard Rohr. It’s an ideal introduction to ecotheology.
With thanks to Canterbury Press for the free copy for review.
What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life by Phil Zuckerman
From one end of the spectrum (progressive Christianity) to the other (atheism). Here’s a different perspective from a sociology professor at California’s Pitzer College. Zuckerman’s central argument is that humanism and free choice can fuel ethical behavior; since there’s no proof of God’s existence and theists have such a wide range of beliefs, it’s absurd to slap a “because God says so” label on our subjective judgments. Morals maintain the small communities our primate ancestors evolved into, with specific views (such as on homosexuality) a result of our socialization. Alas, the in-group/out-group thinking from our evolutionary heritage is what can lead to genocide. Instead of thinking in terms of ‘evil’, though, Zuckerman prefers Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen’s term, “empathy erosion.”
To tackle violent crime, Zuckerman contends, we need a more equal society, with the Scandinavian countries a model of how to achieve that through higher taxes, social services and the rehabilitation of prisoners. He uses a lot of relatable examples from history and from his own experience, as well as theoretical situations, to think through practical morality. I found his indictment of American Christianity accurate – how does it make sense for people who say they follow the way of Jesus to fight against equality, tolerance and scientific advances and instead advocate guns, the death penalty and Trump? Well, indeed.
It might seem odd for me to recommend this alongside the McLaren, but there is much to be gained from both viewpoints. Zuckerman’s work overlaps a fair bit with another I’ve read on the topic, Richard Holloway’s Godless Morality – even a bishop agrees we needn’t take our societal ethics straight from the Bible! I can’t go along fully with Zuckerman because I think progressive religion has been and can continue to be a force for good, but I would agree that atheists can be just as moral as people of faith – and often more so.
With thanks to Counterpoint Press for sending a proof copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Two nonfiction books: a frank account of an abortion; clutter-busting techniques.
Two novels: amusing intellectual fare featuring a big dog or the Parisian Surrealists.
Happening by Annie Ernaux (2000; English translation, 2019)
[Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie]
“I believe that any experience, whatever its nature, has the inalienable right to be chronicled,” Ernaux writes. In 1963, when she was 23 and living in a student residence in Rouen, she realized she was pregnant. An appointment with a gynecologist set out the facts starkly: “Pregnancy certificate of: Mademoiselle Annie Duchesne. Date of delivery: 8 July, 1964. I saw summer, sunshine. I tore up the certificate.” Abortion was illegal in France at that time. Ernaux tried to take things into her own hands – “plunging a knitting needle into a womb weighed little next to ruining one’s career” – but couldn’t go through with it. Instead she went to the home of a middle-aged nurse she’d heard about…
This very short book (just 60-some pages) is told in a matter-of-fact style – apart from the climactic moment when her pregnancy ends: “It burst forth like a grenade, in a spray of water that splashed the door. I saw a baby doll dangling from my loins at the end of a reddish cord.” It’s such a garish image, almost cartoonish, that I didn’t know whether to laugh or be horrified. Mostly, Ernaux reflects on memory and the reconstruction of events. I haven’t read many nonfiction accounts of abortion/miscarriage and for that reason found this interesting, but it was perhaps too brief and detached for me to be fully engaged.
With thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for the free copy for review.
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2018)
“Does something bad happen to the dog?” We animal lovers are wary when approaching a book about a pet. Nunez playfully anticipates that question as she has her unnamed female narrator reflect on her duty of care to her dead friend’s dog. The narrator is a writer and academic – like her late friend, a Bellovian womanizer who recently committed suicide, leaving behind two ex-wives, a widow, and Apollo the aging Great Dane. She addresses the friend directly as “you” for almost the whole book, which unfolds – in a similar style to Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation – via quotations, aphorisms, and stories from literary history as well as mini-incidents from a life.
This won the 2018 National Book Award in the USA and is an unashamedly high-brow work whose intertextuality comes through in direct allusions to many classic works of autofiction (Coetzee, Knausgaard and Lessing) and/or doggy lit (Ackerley; Coetzee again – Disgrace). As Apollo starts to take up more physical, mental and emotional space in the narrator’s life, she waits for a miracle that will allow her to keep him despite an eviction notice and muses on lots of questions: Is all writing autobiographical? Why does animal suffering pain us so much (especially compared to human suffering)? I was impressed: it feels like Nunez has encapsulated everything she’s ever known or thought about, all in just over 200 pages, and alongside a heart-warming little plot. (Animal lovers need not fear.)
With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.
Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness by Gretchen Rubin (2019)
What with all the debate over Marie Kondo’s clutter-reducing tactics, the timing is perfect for this practical guide to culling and organizing all the stuff that piles up around us at home and at work. Unlike the rest of Rubin’s self-help books, this is not a narrative but a set of tips – 150 of them! It’s not so much a book to read straight through as one to keep at your bedside and read a few pages to summon up motivation for the next tidying challenge.
Famously, Kondo advises one to ask whether an item sparks joy. Rubin’s central questions are more down-to-earth: Do I need it? Do I love it? Do I use it? With no index, the book is a bit difficult to navigate; you just have to flip through until you find what you want. The advice seems in something of a random order and can be slightly repetitive. But since this is really meant as a book of inspiration, I think it will be a useful jumping-off point for anyone trying to get on top of clutter. I plan to work through the closet checklist before I pass the book to my sister – who’s dealing with a basement full of stuff after she and her second husband merged their households. If I could add one page, it would be a flowchart of what to do with unwanted stuff that corresponds to the latest green recommendations.
With thanks to Two Roads for the free copy for review.
The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer (2019)
This novel about Lee Miller’s relationship with Man Ray is in the same vein as The Paris Wife, Z, Loving Frank and Frieda: all of these have sought to rescue a historical woman from the shadow of a celebrated, charismatic male and tell her own fascinating life story. Scharer captures the bohemian atmosphere of 1929–30 Paris in elegant but accessible prose. Along with the central pair we meet others from the Dada group plus Jean Cocteau, and get a glimpse of Josephine Baker. The novel is nearly 100 pages too long, I think, such that my interest in the politics of the central relationship – Man becomes too possessive and Lee starts to act out, longing for freedom again – started to wane.
Miller was a photographer as well as a model and journalist, and this is an appropriately visual novel that’s interested in appearances, lighting and what gets preserved for posterity. It’s also fairly sexually explicit for literary fiction, sometimes unnecessarily so, so keep that in mind if it’s likely to bother you. I especially enjoyed the brief flashes of Lee at other points in her life: in London during the Blitz, photographing the aftermath of the war in Germany (there’s a famous image of her in Hitler’s bathtub), and hoping she’s more than just a washed-up alcoholic in the 1960s. It would be a boon to have a prior interest in or some knowledge of the Surrealists.
With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
The Incendiaries is a sophisticated, unsettling debut novel about faith and its aftermath, fractured through the experience of three people coming to terms with painful circumstances. Will Kendall left his California Bible college when he lost his faith. Soon after transferring to Edwards in upstate New York, he falls for Phoebe Lin at a party. Although he’s working in a restaurant to pay his way, he hides his working-class background to fit in with Phoebe and her glitzy, careless friends. Phoebe is a failed piano prodigy who can’t forgive herself: her mother died in a car Phoebe was driving. John Leal, a half-Korean alumnus, worked with refugees in China and was imprisoned in North Korea. Now he’s started a vaguely Christian movement called Jejah (Korean for “disciple”) that involves forced baptisms, intense confessions and self-flagellation. It’s no coincidence his last name rhymes with zeal.
Much of the book is filtered through Will’s perspective; even sections headed “Phoebe” and “John Leal” most often contain his second-hand recounting of Phoebe’s words, or his imagined rendering of Leal’s thoughts – bizarre and fervent. Only in a few spots is it clear that the “I” speaking is actually Phoebe. This plus a lack of speech marks makes for a somewhat disorienting reading experience, but that is very much the point. Will and Phoebe’s voices and personalities start to merge until you have to shake your head for some clarity. The irony that emerges is that Phoebe is taking the opposite route to Will’s: she is drifting from faithless apathy into radical religion, drawn in by Jejah’s promise of atonement.
As in Celeste Ng’s novels, we know from the very start the climactic event that powers the whole book: the members of Jejah set off a series of bombs at abortion clinics, killing five. The mystery, then, is not so much what happened but why. In particular, we’re left to question how Phoebe could be transformed so quickly from a vapid party girl to a religious extremist willing to suffer for her beliefs.
Kwon spent 10 years writing this book, and that time and diligence come through in how carefully honed the prose is: such precise images; not a single excess word. I can see how some might find the style frustratingly oblique, but for me it was razor sharp, and the compelling religious theme was right up my street. It’s a troubling book, one that keeps tugging at your elbow. Recommended to readers of Sweetbitter and Shelter.
“This has been the cardinal fiction of my life, its ruling principle: if I work hard enough, I’ll get what I want.”
“People with no experience of God tend to think that leaving the faith would be a liberation, a flight from guilt, rules, but what I couldn’t forget was the joy I’d known, loving Him.”
The Incendiaries will be published by Virago Press on September 6th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Note: An excerpt from The Incendiaries appeared in The Best Small Fictions 2016 (ed. Stuart Dybek), which I reviewed for Small Press Book Review. I was interested to look back and see that, at that point, her work in progress was entitled Heroics.
I was delighted to be invited to participate in the blog tour. See below for details of where other reviews are appearing today.
In the first four months of this year, I got my hands on no fewer than four swimming memoirs. For the upcoming July/August issue of Foreword Reviews magazine I’ve reviewed Floating: A Life Regained by Joe Minihane, in which the author recreates the late nature writer Roger Deakin’s wild swimming journeys from Waterlog (1999) in an attempt to overcome anxiety; I have Leap In by Alexandra Heminsley on my Kindle; and I read roughly the first 60 pages of a library copy of Al Álvarez’s 2013 Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal.
For now, I’m featuring Turning by Jessica J. Lee, which has strong similarities to these other memoirs – especially Minihane’s – but is its own beautifully reflective personal story. The book arose from Lee’s resolution, when she was 28 and in Berlin on a research placement for her dissertation in environmental history, to swim in 52 local lakes – a year’s worth – no matter the weather. At the time she blogged about her “52 Lakes Project” for Slow Travel Berlin, and kept friends and family up to date through social media as well. Her focus would be on the former East German region of Brandenburg, which has Berlin at its center and was first popularized by Theodor Fontane’s 1862 travel book.
Lee traveled to the lakes under her own steam, using trains and her bicycle; occasionally she took friends with her, but most often she was alone, which became a chance to cultivate solitude – not the same as loneliness. The challenge entailed all kinds of practical difficulties like bike trouble, getting lost, and a dead phone battery, but gradually it became routine and held less fear for her. On summer days she could manage multiple lakes in a day, and even small encounters with Germans gave her a newfound sense of belonging.
Within chapters, the memoir gracefully alternates pieces of the author’s past with her lake travels. With a father from Wales and a mother from Taiwan, Lee grew up in Ontario and spent summers in Florida. She remembers taking YMCA swimming lessons alongside her mother, and swimming in Canadian lakes. Back then the water usually intimidated her, but over the years her feelings have changed:
Water feels different in each place. The water I grew up with was hard, cutting, and when I go back to visit it now, I feel it in my ears when I dive in. something different, more like rock. The lake a whetted blade. The water in Berlin has a softness to it. Maybe it’s the sand, buffing the edges off the water like splinters from a beam. It slips over you like a blanket. There’s a safety in this feeling. In the lakes here, there is a feeling of enclosure and security that Canada can’t replicate. And it shouldn’t – the pelagic vastness there is entirely its own, and I’ve learned to love that too.
Swimming fulfills many functions for Lee. It served variously as necessary discipline after going mildly off the rails in young adulthood (drinking, smoking pot and having an abortion during college; a short-lived marriage in her early twenties); as a way of bouncing back from depression when her planned life in London didn’t pan out and a budding relationship failed; and as a way of being in touch with the turning seasons and coming to know the German landscape intimately. Symbolically, of course, it’s also a baptism into a new life.
Yet I had to wonder if there was also something masochistic about this pursuit, especially in the winter months. On the back cover there’s a photograph of Lee using a hammer to chip out a path through the ice so she can do her minimum of 45 strokes. (No wetsuit!) As spring came, ironically, the water felt almost too warm to her. She had learned to master the timing of a winter swim: “Between pain and numbness there’s a brightness, a crisp, heightened sensation in the cold: that’s the place to swim through. When it ends, when numbness arrives, it’s time to get out.”
The end of Lee’s year-long project is bittersweet, but she’s consoled by the fact that she didn’t have to leave her ordinary life in order to complete it. It was a companion alongside the frantic last-minute work on her dissertation and it never got in the way of her relationships; on the contrary, it strengthened certain friendships. And with Berlin looking like her home for the foreseeable future, she’s committed to seeking out more lakes, too.
There are a lot of year quest books out there, but this one never feels formulaic because there’s such a fluid intermingling of past and present. As memoirs go, it is somewhat like Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun – but much better. It’s also comparable to Angela Palm’s Riverine, with a watery metaphor at the heart to reflect the author’s conception of life as a meandering route. Unlike the other swimming memoirs I’ve sampled, I can recommend this one to a general reader with no particular interest in wild swimming or any other sport. It’s for you if you enjoy reading about the ebb and flow of women’s lives.
In the stillness of the lakes, the border between nature and culture is thinned. Swimming takes place at this border, as if constantly searching for home. Water is a place in which I don’t belong, but where I find myself nonetheless. Out of my culture, out of my depth.
There is more space inside than I can imagine, more hope and possibility than I’d known. Feeling as clear as the day, as deep as the lake.
Turning: A Swimming Memoir was published in the UK by Virago on May 4th. My thanks to the publisher for sending a free copy for review.
Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature, “a literary festival with a theological slant,” has been running since 2011, but this past weekend marked the first time I managed to attend a few Saturday sessions. It was held at Oxfordshire’s very posh Bloxham School (sample course schedule: Mandarin, riding, and Shakespeare on Film). The theme for this year being “All the World’s a Stage,” all the events were given Shakespeare lines as titles. Hey, even the free chocolate bars from the Meaningful Chocolate Company were tailored to the Shakespeare theme!
The morning began with an interview with Sarah Perry. Now, I have to admit that I didn’t really get on with her first novel, After Me Comes the Flood. Still, I was intrigued by how she incorporates biblical themes and her religious background in her fiction, so I thought I’d give it a go. Perry herself wasn’t at all as I expected her to be. I’d only ever seen one tiny press photo, in which she had a somewhat tomboyish haircut and had a demurely downcast gaze. So I was pleasantly surprised to find she was voluble, learned, and confident; in a black lacey dress and with loosely pinned hair, she resembled a modern Gibson Girl with a Gothic twist.
Interviewed by the editor of the Church Times newspaper, Perry spoke a bit about her upcoming novel, The Essex Serpent (to be published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail on June 18th), set in 1890s London and an invented village on the Essex marshes. In keeping with the talk’s title, “I would not wish any companion in the world but you,” the book is about friendship, specifically that between a vicar and a widowed amateur naturalist. Inspired by her own relationship with her (male) best friend and by intimate ‘love letters’ she found that passed between friends (like St. Paul to the Philippians and D.H. Lawrence to Jack Murray, or Montaigne writing about his best friend), the novel seeks the goodness in its characters.
The two readings Perry gave were lush, Dickensian descriptions of the City under rain and a drunken man going for a dip in the marsh and seeing what appears to be a sea creature. Perry was surprised when her debut novel was described as Gothic, but she’s embraced the label now: her third book, currently in progress, is full-on Gothic horror. What links all of her work, she thinks, is the Gothic notion of the thing lurking over the shoulder. For Perry, that ever-present threat is Reformation theology: the idea that man is born in sin and deserves damnation. During her Strict Baptist upbringing (which she, not coincidentally, describes as being like living in the 1890s), she was cut off from contemporary culture and influenced primarily by the King James Bible and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
Perry spent a short time as a missionary in the Philippines and was a biblical fundamentalist until age 25, when she and her husband (whom she met at 13 and married at 20) left the church. Stepping outside of that limiting community was the impetus she needed to start writing; although she had had stories looping around her head since the age of four, she had rarely written anything down. She completed a creative writing MA and PhD, all while working full time at the Inns of Court.
After Me Comes the Flood was rejected by 14 publishers; even her viva examiners, who passed her without corrections, were “ungracious,” she remarked. What it comes down to, she thinks, is simply that no one liked the book or knew what to make of it. It seemed unmarketable because it didn’t fit into a particular genre. At this point I was sheepishly keeping my head down, glad that Perry couldn’t possibly know about my largely unfavorable review in Third Way magazine. I confess that my reaction was roughly similar to the general consensus: “Not quite an allegory, [the book] still suffers from that genre’s pitfalls, such as one-dimensional characters,” I wrote.
A glowing Guardian review from poet John Burnside was enough to give Perry confidence to keep going as a novelist, and – having taken forever over writing her first book, an experience she likens to like pulling teeth because she had no idea what she was doing and could rarely overcome her natural laziness – she went on to write The Essex Serpent within just 10 months. And I’m glad she did, because this new book sounds right up my alley.
It will be interesting to see how she imagines a platonic friendship between the sexes in a historical setting, and the Dickensian and Gothic touches, even from the little taster I got, were delicious. I was especially intrigued to learn about her research into the friendship ‘triangle’ (betrayal! early death! forgiveness!) between William Ewart Gladstone, Alfred Tennyson, and Arthur Henry Hallam. Perry said she thinks the tide may be turning, that friendships rather than romantic love could be starting to dominate fiction; perhaps Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life from last year would be a good example.
In the other sessions I attended, a group of clergy revealed the shortlist for the £10,000 Michael Ramsey Prize for theology (to my surprise, I’d read one of the nominees, Unapologetic by Francis Spufford) and panelists introduced a forthcoming anthology of essays on Anglican women novelists from Charlotte Brontë onwards (to be published by Bloomsbury in January 2018). Jane Williams, wife of former archbishop Rowan Williams, will contribute a chapter on Barbara Pym, who obviously loved the Church but also sits at an anthropological distance to poke gentle fun at it. Her novels sound like great fun. Judith Maltby, one of the editors, convinced me that I need to read Rose Macauley’s The Towers of Trebizond (1956), while co-editor Alison Shell made the case for P.D. James’s late inclusion.
Chaired by contemporary Anglican novelist Catherine Fox, the panel noted two common threads in many of the featured novelists: detective fiction and humor. The striking number of crime novelists (including Dorothy L. Sayers and Ellis Peters), Shell suggested, one might attribute to an Anglican license to moralize or a preoccupation with ‘last things’. Humor, meanwhile, seems to arise from the little hypocrisies inherent to religious life and to the fact that liturgical seriousness can often tilt into comedy. Other repeated themes include the sacraments, the role of the spinster, and class – the clergy are often educated but poor. I came away with a list of authors to try; many of their works are available through Virago reprints.
All in all, it was a terrific, thought-provoking experience for me – a perfect mixture of literature and theology, and a great way to spend a blustery February Saturday.