Excerpts from and links to some of my recent online writing for other places:
Three O’Clock in the Morning by Gianrico Carofiglio
The quotation that gives Carofiglio’s tender novel its title is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up: “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” It lends an appropriate sense of time suspended, of earnest seeking and extreme circumstances: The main action of the book takes place over just a few days in June of 1983, when Italian teenager Antonio and his father are stranded in Marseilles while there for Antonio to be seen by an epilepsy specialist. The gift of this time outside of time allows them to get to know each other better, such that the memory of the trip will be precious to Antonio even decades later. I appreciated how the limited setting heightened this short novel’s emotions. Carofiglio invites readers to peer between the leisurely progression of events to see the bond that is being formed. (See my full review at BookBrowse. See also my related article on HarperVia, a new publishing imprint for international literature.)
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
Inspired by the composition of the Oxford English Dictionary, this Australian debut novel explores the lives of the women on its fringes through the words that were omitted. The suffrage movement and World War I loom large as the storyline enters the 1910s. I most appreciated the relationships Esme has with the various women in her life. The main action spans the 40 years of the original composition of the OED. That scope means there is a lot of skipping forward in time. Especially in the first half, I longed for the narrative to slow down so I could spend more time with this character. Despite the first-person narration, I never felt I knew Esme very well. Women’s bonds and women’s words are strong themes in this forthrightly feminist novel that, despite its flaws, would make a great book club selection. (See my full review at BookBrowse. See also my reading list of books about dictionaries and lost words.)
Shiny New Books
Notes from Deep Time: The Hidden Stories of the Earth Beneath Our Feet by Helen Gordon
To assess the place of humanity, we can look back to prehistory, but also forward to envision the “deep future.” (It was only in a late chapter on nuclear waste disposal sites and warning messages to the future that I found too much direct overlap with Footprints by David Farrier.) This engagingly blends both tactics, surveying the fields of geology and palaeontology and pondering the future traces of the Anthropocene. I most enjoyed the middle chapters, in which science meets wildlife and cultural studies. For instance, a chapter on ammonites leads into a profile of Mary Anning and the history of both fossil hunting and women in STEM careers. The prose is well pitched to the layman’s level. Interviews, travels, and snapshots from her own life generally keep the material from becoming too dry. An invigorating interdisciplinary tour. (See my full review at Shiny New Books.)
My book club has been meeting via Zoom since April 2020. This is a common state of affairs for book clubs around the world. Especially since we have 12 members (if everyone attends, which is rare), we haven’t been able to contemplate meeting in person as of yet. However, a subset of us meet midway between the monthly reads to discuss women’s classics like Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. For next week’s meeting on Mrs. Dalloway, we are going to attempt a six-person get-together in one member’s house.
Anyway, a neat thing we did last month was a Zoom chat with the author: a BBC correspondent who happens to be the brother of one of our members. If you’re a news junkie in the UK, you may know the name Jon Sopel, though since I don’t have a telly or ever listen to radio, I hadn’t encountered him until this “in-person” meet-up. He has been the BBC’s North America Editor since 2014.
UnPresidented is the third book he wrote over the course of the Trump presidency. It started off as a diary of the 2020 election campaign, beginning in July 2019, but of course soon morphed into something slightly different: a chronicle of life in D.C. and London during Covid-19 and a record of the Trump mishandling of the pandemic. But as well as a farcical election process and a public health crisis, 2020’s perfect storm also included economic collapse and social upheaval – thanks to the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests worldwide plus isolated rioting.
UnPresidented served as a good reminder for me of the timeline of events and the full catalogue of outrages committed by Trump and his cronies. You just have to shake your head over the litany of ridiculous things he said and did, and got away with – any one of which might have sunk another president or candidate. The style is breezy and off-the-cuff, so the book reads quickly. There’s a good balance between world events and personal ones, with his family split across the UK and Australia. I appreciated the insight into differences from the British system. I thought it would be depressing reading back through the events of 2020, but for the most part the knowledge that everything turned out “right” allowed me to see the humour in it. Still, I found it excruciating reading about the four days following the election.
Sopel kindly gave us an hour of his time one Wednesday evening before he had to go on air and answered our questions about Biden, Harris, journalistic ethics, and more. He was charming and eloquent, as befits his profession.
Would any of these books interest you?
Today I’m taking part in the “blog blast” for Painting Time by Maylis de Kerangal (translated from the French by Jessica Moore), which is published today by MacLehose Press.
This is the third novel I’ve read by de Kerangal, after her 2017 Wellcome Book Prize winner, Mend the Living, and 2019’s The Cook. Painting Time resembles the former in the way it revels in niche vocabulary and the latter in that it slowly builds up a portrait of the central character. But all three books could be characterized as deep dives into a particular subject – the human body, gastronomy, and painting, respectively.
The protagonist of Painting Time is Paula Karst, one of 20-some art students who arrive at the Institut de Peinture in Brussels in the autumn of 2007 to learn trompe l’oeil technique. They’re taught to painstakingly imitate every variety of wood and stone so their murals will look as convincing as the real thing. It’s a gruelling course, with many hours spent on their feet every day.
Years later, the only classmates Paula has kept up with are Jonas, her old flatmate, with whom she had a sort-of-almost-not-quite relationship, and their Scottish friend Kate. The novel opens with the three of them having a reunion in Paris. Given this setup, I expected de Kerangal to follow all three characters from 2007 to the near past, but the book sticks closely to Paula, such that the only secondary characters who come through clearly are her parents.
It’s intriguing to see the work that comes Paula’s way after a degree in decorative painting, including painting backdrops for a Moscow-set film of Anna Karenina and the job of a lifetime: working on a full-scale replica of the prehistoric animal paintings of the Lascaux Caves (Lascaux IV). The final quarter of the novel delves into the history of Lascaux, which was discovered in 1940 and open to the public on and off until the late 1960s. Deep time abuts the troubled present as Paula contemplates what will last versus what is ephemeral.
As de Kerangal did with medical terminology in Mend the Living, so here she relishes art words: colours, tools, techniques; names for types of marble and timber (Paula’s own surname is a word for limestone caves). The long sentences accrete to form paragraphs that stretch across multiple pages. I confess to getting a bit lost in these, and wanting more juicy interactions than austere character study. However, the themes of art and history are resonant. If you’ve enjoyed de Kerangal’s prose before, you will certainly want to read this, too.
My thanks to MacLehose Press for access to an e-copy via NetGalley.
When I heard about the new book by Michiko Kakutani, former chief book critic of the New York Times, I rushed to put it on my wish list – though I ended up accessing it via the library instead. I also felt a hankering to reread Anne Fadiman’s essay collection by the same title, so I ordered myself a secondhand copy earlier this year. Both books are by (more or less) famous New York City bibliophiles and take old-fashioned bookplate designs as an inspiration. Here’s how the two fared in a head-to-head battle.
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman (1998)
Like many a bibliophile, I have a soft spot for books about books. However, I’m also a real stickler about them, because all too often they make common mistakes: they’re too generic or too obscure in their points of reference, they slip into plot summary and include spoilers, or they alienate the reader by presenting the author as being on another echelon.
Fadiman, though, is a very relatable narrator in these expanded versions of 18 essays originally written for publication in Civilization, the Library of Congress magazine published from 1994 to 2000. (Can you imagine, your own bookish column in which you could write whatever you like?!) Her father was the well-known intellectual Clifton Fadiman. Theirs was a family of book-obsessed, vocabulary-loving, trivia-spouting readers, and she was also crafting her own with her husband and two young children.
I saw my family – especially my mother and me – in a number of these pieces: in “The Joy of Sesquipedalians,” about the love of obscure words and word games played on a board or along with the TV (I was a spelling bee champion, and we’re all Scrabble fiends to a greater or lesser extent), in “Insert a Caret [Inset a Carrot],” about compulsive proofreading, in “The Catalogical Imperative,” about a build-up of print catalogues and the different selves one can imagine using the products therein, and in “Secondhand Prose,” about collecting used books.
There’s one respect in which I differ from the Fadiman family, though. Tom Mole’s The Secret Life of Books had reminded me of Fadiman’s division of readers into “courtly” and “carnal” lovers of books: the courtly ones keep a book pristine, while the carnal ones use and abuse them however they wish. She introduces this piece with an episode from a family trip to Copenhagen when she was a teenager. Her brother left a book open, facedown, on the bedside table at their hotel and the next day they found that the chambermaid had carefully put a marker at the right page, closed the book, and set a note on top reading, “Sir, you must never do that to a book.” I wholeheartedly agree. While I always say “your books, your rules” to other readers, I would have to suppress a cringe if I witnessed dog-earing, reading in the bath, cracking the spine, tearing out pages, doodling in the margins, and so on.
What I can get on board with, though, is the love of books as both narratives and physical objects. In the former camp, you get essays on books about polar exploration, sonnets, outdated guides to femininity, food literature, and reading aloud. On the latter, you’ll hear about her New York City apartment groaning with books absorbed from her husband’s and father’s collections, the good and bad of inscriptions, and Prime Minister William Gladstone’s tips for storing books.
Two essays have not aged well: one on a beloved pen (though she acknowledges that this was already multiply outdated by that time, by the typewriter and then by the computer she now uses for composition) and especially one on the quandary of gender-neutral pronouns (as opposed to “every man for himself” types of constructions) – nowadays we have no qualms about employing “them” for the unknown and the nonbinary.
My favorite essay overall was “You Are There,” about the special joy of reading on location. Additional irony points for Joe Biden being mentioned in the piece on plagiarism! I’d read this from a library some years before. I enjoyed it just as much the second time around, and certain essays will reward additional future rereadings, too.
My original rating (c. 2008):
My rating now:
Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread by Michiko Kakutani (2020)
In my more morbid moments, when I imagine how I would approach the remainder of my life if I knew that I was going to die young of a terminal illness, I think about self-publishing a selection of my best blog posts and book reviews. A personal greatest hits, if you would, and anyone could forgive the self-indulgence because, hey, she’s probably going to die soon. But then I open a book like this and realize that a collection of book reviews can actually be pretty tedious, even when written by one of the greats.
“Like all lists and anthologies, the selections here are subjective and decidedly arbitrary,” Kakutani warns in her introduction. What this means in practice is that: a) if I’d read a particular book, I didn’t need to read a ~1000-word review of it; b) if I hadn’t read the book but wanted to, I avoided the essay in fear of spoilers (e.g. she does reveal some specific incidents from Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, which I have on the shelf and was looking forward to; I’ll just wait until I’ve forgotten); and c) if I hadn’t read the book and didn’t want to (there is LOTS of history and politics here, with plenty of Trump jabs shoehorned in; you do know her only previous book was a diatribe against Trump, right?), I wasn’t interested. So, while there were a few pieces I appreciated, such as one on the enduring appeal of The Great Gatsby, which I recently read a third time for book club, not many caught my eye as I skimmed the book.
In any case, it’s not a book for reading all the way through but one for having on the coffee table to read the occasional essay. It is gorgeously put together, what with Dana Tanamachi’s illustrations in the style of vintage bookplates, so would still be a lovely reference book to have around. Think of it as a collection of amuse-bouches to whet your appetite to read the books you’ve always meant to pick up but haven’t managed yet (for me, that would be As I Lay Dying and Mason & Dixon). See Susan’s more judicious review here.
I found plenty of other books on Goodreads with the title Ex Libris, such as this one, a compendium of library-themed fantasy and science fiction stories. (Yes, really.)
Have you read one of these? Which did you prefer?
Novellas in November will be coming to a close on Monday and has been a great success in terms of blogger engagement. I’ve been adding review links to the master post nearly every day of the month, and I’m sure there are some I have missed. Although I still have a couple of novellas on the go, I don’t see myself finishing them this month, so I’m going to end with this set: three short classics to continue the week’s theme, two graphic novels, and a pair of nature/art/music/poetry books.
Something Special by Iris Murdoch (1957)
A Murdoch rarity, this appeared in a 1950s anthology and in an English-language textbook in Japan, but was not otherwise published in the author’s lifetime. I think it’s her only short story. I’m counting it as a novella because it was published as a stand-alone volume by Vintage Classics in 2000. Twenty-four-year-old Yvonne Geary doesn’t know precisely what she wants from life, but hopes there might be more for her than a conventional marriage to Sam, her beau. “Can’t I live my life as I please since it’s the only thing I have?” she asks her hen-pecking mother. “I can’t see him as something special and I won’t marry him if I can’t.” Maybe she’ll escape to England. But for now she’s off for a night on the town in Dublin with Sam, going from a rowdy pub to the quiet of a locked-up park. Sam may be dull, but he seems sensitive, solicitous and well-meaning. Yvonne’s feelings for him flip-flop over the course of the evening. I’ve noticed before that Murdoch is a bit funny about Jewishness, but this is still a brisk, bittersweet story in the direct lineage of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. (With striking black-and-white woodcut-style illustrations by Michael McCurdy.)
The Fairacre Festival by ‘Miss Read’ (1968)
I’m not sure why I’d never tried anything by ‘Miss Read’ (the pseudonym of Dora Jessie Saint, a teacher turned author who was based not far from me in Berkshire) until now. She wrote two series of quaint novels set in the fictional villages of Fairacre and Thrush Green; this is #7 in the Fairacre series. Miss Read, her narrator, is a schoolteacher who records her wry observations of all the local happenings. After an autumn storm damages the church roof, the parishioners are dismayed to learn the renovations could cost £2000. No amount of jumble sales, concerts and tea dances will raise that much. So they set their sights higher, to an Edinburgh-style festival with a light show and an appearance from a famous opera singer. But it’s not going to be smooth sailing now, is it? This was cozy, quaint fun, and if I wished it had been a full-length book, that means I’ll just have to begin at the beginning with 1955’s Village School.
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark (1970)
Lise has her “glad rags” on – bright new clothes in clashing patterns that strangers can’t help commenting on. The 34-year-old single woman has worked in an accounting office for the last 16 years and is now off to the South (Italy?) for a long-awaited vacation. This will be no blissful holiday, though. Just 11 pages in, we get our first hint that things are going to go wrong, and in the opening line of Chapter 3 Spark gives the game away. Clearly, her intention is to subordinate what happens to why it happens, so the foreshadowing of the early chapters is twisted to ironic effect later on. Lise is an unappealing character, haughty and deceitful, and the strangers she meets on the flight and at the hotel, including a man obsessed with the macrobiotic diet, are little better. I felt I didn’t have enough time to change my mind about Lise before we’re asked to have pity. Of course, this is meant to be a black comedy, but it was a little abrasive for my taste. This was my third and probably last from Spark, as I haven’t particularly enjoyed any of her work; I do love this pithy description of The Ballad of Peckham Rye, though: “An entertaining tale of satanism in South London.”
Why Don’t You Write My Eulogy Now So I Can Correct It? A Mother’s Suggestions by Patricia Marx, illus. Roz Chast (2019)
I loved Chast’s graphic memoir Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? and figured this would have the same witty approach to an elderly parent’s decline. Apart from a brief introduction to her mother (from Philadelphia, outspoken, worked as a guidance counselor and for her husband’s office supplies company), there is hardly any text; the rest is just illustrated one-liners, sayings her mother had or opinions she espoused. Many of these have to do with fashion no-nos, dinner party etiquette, grammar pedantry, avoiding the outdoors and exercise, and childrearing. “My mother never hesitates to say what other mothers would not even think to think. She calls it constructive criticism.” She reminds me of Bess Kalb’s grandmother in Nobody Will Tell You This but Me, an overall much funnier and more complete picture of an entertaining figure.
The Exciting World of Churchgoing by Dave Walker (2010)
A third set of Church Times comics, not as memorable as the original Dave Walker Guide to the Church. Once again, Walker pokes fun at bureaucracy, silly traditions, closed-mindedness, and the oddities of church buildings and parishioners’ habits. You really need to be familiar with the UK churchgoing scene, and specifically with Anglican churches, to get much out of the cartoons. I loved “According to legend, there is a lady who changes the teatowels in the church kitchen from time to time” and the “Infestations” spread that starts with bats and wasps and moves on to Charismatics. Most striking are two pages on church proceedings during swine flu – what was meant to be a joke doesn’t seem so funny now that it literally describes in-person services during COVID-19: “Shaking hands during the peace should be replaced by a friendly wave,” “Administration of anti-bacterial gel should take place,” etc.
The Lost Words: A Spell Book by Robert Macfarlane, illus. Jackie Morris (2017)
Macfarlane’s work has been hit or miss for me and I was suspicious of this project in general, thinking it would be twee or juvenile, but the beauty of the artwork and playful energy of the poems won me over. It’s common knowledge that this book arose as a response to news that many words to do with nature had been removed from the latest version of a junior dictionary published in the UK, to be replaced by technology vocabulary. Macfarlane spotlights these omitted words through acrostic poems alive with alliteration (“Fern’s first form is furled, / Each frond fast as a fiddle-head”), wordplay and internal rhymes. He peppers in questions, both rhetorical and literal-minded, and exclamations. Conker, Dandelion, Lark and Otter are highlights. Morris’s wildlife paintings are superb, with a Giotto-like gilt portrait facing each poem and two-page in situ tableaux in between.
The Lost Words Spell Songs (2019)
I followed up immediately with this companion book to the 14-track album a group of eight folk musicians made in response to The Lost Words. We were already fans of Kris Drever (mostly via Lau), Karine Polwart and Beth Porter (via the Bookshop Band), and became familiar with a few more of the artists (Kerry Andrew, Julie Fowlis and Rachel Newton) earlier this year through the online Folk on Foot festivals. This volume includes six additional poems, four of which directly inspired songs on the album, plus brief bios and words on the project from each artist (each portrayed by Morris as a relevant bird, with the musician serving as the “spirit human” for the bird) the complete lyrics with notes from whoever took the lead on a particular song, and short essays by Macfarlane, Morris (also an interview) and Polwart.
It was interesting to compare the different approaches to the project: five songs directly set Macfarlane’s poetry to music, two of them primarily in spoken word form; five are based on Macfarlane “extras,” like the new spells and the “charm against harm” he wrote during anti-tree felling campaigns like the one in Sheffield; a few are essentially pop songs based around major lines from Dandelion, Goldfinch and Lark (these plus “Selkie-Boy,” based on Grey Seal, ended up being my favorites); one is a traditional song from Seckou Keita’s native Senegal that also incorporates the bilingual Fowlis’s Gaelic to mourn the words that are lost with the past; and one is a final blessing song that weaves in bits from multiple spells. The artists all bring their individual styles, but the collaborations are strong, too.
Are you squeezing in any more novellas this month?
Do you like the sound of any of the ones I’ve read?
Four July–August releases: Scottish nature writing, the quirky story of a family taxidermy business in Florida, a dual-timeline novel set at an unusual dictionary’s headquarters, and a critical and personal response to Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex.
Antlers of Water: Writing on the Nature and Environment of Scotland, edited by Kathleen Jamie
This nature writing anthology of essays, poems and visual art drew me because of contributor names like GP Gavin Francis (reviewed: Shapeshifters), Amy Liptrot (the Wainwright Prize-winning memoir The Outrun), singer/songwriter Karine Polwart, and Shetland chronicler Malachy Tallack (reviewed: The Un-Discovered Islands and The Valley at the Centre of the World), not to mention editor Kathleen Jamie. Archaeology and folk music evoke the past, while climate change scenarios inject a sense of a menacing future. Seabirds circle and coastal and island scenery recurs. Entries from Alec Finlay’s “A Place-Aware Dictionary” disguise political points under tongue-in-cheek language, as in a definition of foraging: “Later sometimes referred to as the Brexit Diet.” The (sub)urban could be more evident, and I didn’t need two bouts of red deer sex, but there’s still a nice mix of tones and approaches here.
Six best pieces (out of 24): Chris Powici on wind turbines and red kites at the Braes of Doune; Jacqueline Bain on how reduced mobility allows her to observe wasps closely; Jim Crumley on sea eagle reintroductions and the ancient sky burials that took place at the Tomb of the Eagles; Jen Hadfield on foraging for whelks at the ocean’s edge, in a run-on hybrid narrative; Sally Huband on how persecution of ravens and of women (still not allowed to take part in Up Helly Aa festivities) continues on Shetland; and Liptrot on how wild swimming prepared her for childbirth and helped her to recover a sense of herself separate from her baby. And if I had to pick just one, the Huband – so brave and righteously angry.
“Compromises need to be made. An overlap between the wild and the human has to be negotiated and managed. … So let’s play merry hell with the distinction between what counts as wild and what counts as human, between what’s condemned as a visual obscenity and what’s seen as a marvel of the age. Let’s mess up the boundaries and get a new measure of ourselves as a species.” (Powici)
inspiration to get out walking again: “Don’t wait / thinking you’ve seen it all already … don’t wait thinking you need better boots / or a waterproof that’ll keep out the rain. / It won’t. Don’t wait.” (“Water of Ae” by Em Strang)
My thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.
Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett
“We couldn’t ever leave roadkill behind. Something inside us always made us stop to pick up dead things.”
After her father’s suicide, Jessa-Lynn Morton takes over the family taxidermy business in central Florida. Despite her excessive drinking and grief over both her father and her best friend and long-time on-and-off girlfriend (also, inconveniently, her brother’s wife) Brynn, who recently took off, she’s just about holding it together. That is, until 1) her mother takes to composing interspecies orgies and S&M scenes in the shop window and 2) her niece and nephew, Lolee and Bastien, start bringing in specimens for taxidermy that they haven’t exactly obtained legally. Gallery owner Lucinda Rex takes an interest in her mother’s ‘art’ and is soon a new romantic interest for Jessa. But the entire family is going to have to face its issues before her professional and love life can be restored.
This debut novel’s title, cover and premise were utterly irresistible to me, and though I loved the humid Florida setting, it was all a bit too much. At 200 pages this could have been a razor-sharp new favorite, but instead there was a lot of sag in its 350+ pages. Alternating chapters based around mounting particular animals give glimpses into the family’s past but mostly have Jessa mooning over Brynn. Her emotional journey starts to feel belabored; it’s as if an editor tried to rein in Arnett’s campy glee at the dysfunctional family’s breakdown and made her add in some amateur psychoanalysis, and for me this diluted the quirky joy.
Skinning and sex scenes are equally explicit here. This never bothered me, but it should go without saying that it is not a book for the squeamish. It’s when sex and taxidermy mix that things get a little icky, as in her mother’s X-rated tableaux and a line like “Often I found myself comparing the limber body of a deer with the long line of [Lucinda’s] legs or the strong cord of her neck.” Believe it or not, this is not the first queer taxidermy novel I’ve read. The other one, English Animals by Laura Kaye, was better. I’d wanted another Swamplandia! but got something closer to Black Light instead.
My thanks to Corsair for the free copy for review.
The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams
Mallory is five years into an internship at Swansby House, the London headquarters of Swansby’s dictionary. The dictionary is known for being unfinished – too many of its lexicographers left for WWI and never returned – and for having made-up words. In 1899, Peter Winceworth, the butt of jokes among his colleagues, started composing mountweazels (fake entries) and inserting them into the dictionary. In the contemporary story line, Mallory’s job is to remove the mountweazels as the dictionary is prepared for digitization. But her attention is distracted by anonymous bomb threats and by lingering shame about her sexuality – Mallory thinks she’s “out enough,” but her girlfriend Pip begs to differ.
Chapters are headed with vocabulary words running from A to Z, and alternate between Mallory’s first-person narration and a third-person account of Winceworth’s misadventures at the turn of the twentieth century. In any book with this kind of structure I seem to prefer the contemporary strand and itch to get back to it, though there is a quite astounding scene in which Winceworth intervenes to help a choking pelican. Events at Swansby House resonate and mirror each other across the dozen decades, with both main characters emerging with a new sense of purpose after an epiphany that life is about more than work. Though silly in places, this has a winning love of words and characters you’ll care about.
A favorite made-up word: “Mammonsomniate: to dream that money might make anything possible.”
Readalikes: Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony and Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman
My thanks to William Heinemann for the proof copy for review.
Looking Was Not Enough: Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex by Irena Yamboliev
When I worked in a university library and read Middlesex during quiet evenings on the circulation desk in 2009, a colleague asked me, “Is that about the London borough?” My reply: “Er, no, it’s about a hermaphrodite.” That’s an off-putting, clinical sort of word, but it does appear in the first paragraph of this family saga with a difference, after the mythological intensity and medical necessity implied by the killer opening line: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
Cal, born Calliope but now living as a man and working in the Foreign Service, recounts three generations of family history, from Greece to Detroit to Berlin. “Because … their parents were dead and their village destroyed, because no one in Smyrna knew who they were,” brother and sister Lefty and Desdemona became lovers and got married on the boat over to America. They were his grandparents. Add to that his parents’ first-cousin marriage and you see how inbreeding played genetic havoc and made way for Callie/Cal.
I intended to reread Middlesex, which I consider one of my all-time favorite books, but only made it through 60 pages on this occasion. Still, Yamboliev, a Bulgarian-American who teaches at Stanford, reminded me of everything I love about it: the medical theme, the exploration of selfhood, the playful recreation of the past. Drawing parallels with her own family’s move to America, she ponders the disconnection from the home country and the creation of a new life story. “To tell ourselves where we come from—to narrate—is to find a pattern retroactively.” She also looks at literary precursors like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Herculine Barbin’s memoir, and Balzac’s and Barthes’s writings on a castrato. “Does transformation make the self discontinuous?” is one of her central questions, and she likens Cal’s situation to that of trans men who have to train themselves to speak, dress and act in a convincingly masculine way.
This is part of Fiction Advocate’s “Afterwords” series; all its monographs do a wonderful job of blending literary criticism, enthusiastic appreciation, and autobiographical reflection as life dovetails with (re)reading. I’ve previously reviewed the Fiction Advocate books on Blood Meridian, Fun Home, and The Year of Magical Thinking in this post, and the ones on Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild in this one.
My thanks to Fiction Advocate for the free e-copy for review.
What recent releases can you recommend?
It’s safe to say that book bloggers love lists: not only do we keep a thorough list of everything we read in a year, but we also leap to check out every new top 5/10/50/100 or thematic book list that’s posted so we can see how many of them we’ve read. And then, at the end of any year, most of us put together our own best-of lists, often for a number of categories.
When I was younger, though, I took the list-making to an extreme. As I was going back through boxes of mementos in America a few weeks ago, I found stacks of hand-written records I’d kept. Here’s a list of what I used to list:
- every book I read
- every movie I saw
- dreams, recounted in detail
- money I found on the ground
- items I bought or sold on eBay
- gifts given or received for birthdays and Christmas
- transactions made through my mail-order music club
- all my weekday outfits, with a special shorthand designating each item of clothing
Age 14 (1997-8) was the peak of my record-keeping, and the only year when I faithfully kept a diary. I cringe to look back at all this now. Most of the dreams are populated by my crushes of the time, names and faces that mean nothing to me now. And to think that I was so self-conscious and deluded to assume people at school might notice if I wore a shirt twice within a couple of weeks! My diary isn’t particularly illuminating from this distance, either; mostly it brings back how earnest and pious I was in my teens. It’s occasionally addressed in the second person, as if to an imaginary bosom friend who would know me as well as I knew myself.
What’s clear is that I was convinced that the minutiae of my life mattered. Between us, my mother and I had kept a huge cache of my schoolwork and craft projects from kindergarten right through graduate school. I was also a devoted collector – of stamps, coins, figurines, tea sets, shells, anything with puffins or llamas – so I obviously felt that physical objects had real importance, too. It’s a wonder I didn’t become an archivist or a museum curator.
Why did I save all this stuff in the first place? Even as a teen, was I imagining an illustrious career for myself and some future biographer who would gleefully mine my records and personal writings for clues to who I really was? I’m not sure whether to admire the confidence or deplore the presumption. We all want to believe we’re living lives of significance, but when I take a long view – if I never have a child … if I never publish a book (though I think I will) … if human society does indeed collapse by 2050 (as some are predicting) – it’s hard to see what, if anything, will be preserved of my time on earth.
This is deeper than I usually get in a blog post, but these are the sorts of thoughts that preoccupy me when I’m not just drifting along in life’s routines. My nieces’ and nephews’ generation may be the last to inhabit this planet if we don’t take drastic and immediate action to deal with the environmental crisis. Many are working for change (my husband, a new Town Councillor, recently voted for the successful motion to declare a climate emergency and commit Newbury to going carbon-neutral by 2030), but some remain ignorant that there is any kind of problem and so consume and dispose like there is (literally) no tomorrow.
My home is a comfortable bubble I hardly ever leave, but more and more I feel that I need to become part of larger movements: first to ensure the continuation of human and non-human existence; then to improve the quality of human life, especially for those who have contributed least to climate change but will suffer the most from it. I have no idea what form my participation should take, but I know that focusing on outside causes will mean less time obsessing about myself and my inconsequential problems.
That’s not to say I won’t listen to the angst that’s telling me I’m not living my life as fully as I should, but I know that working with others, in whatever way, to tackle global issues will combat the lack of purpose that’s been plaguing me for years.
Appreciation for my past can only help with bolstering a healthy self-image, so I’ve kept a small selection of all those records, and a larger batch of school essays and assignments. Even if this archive is only ever for me, I like being able to look back at the well-rounded student I was – I used to get perfect scores on calculus tests and chemistry lab reports! I could write entire papers in French! – and see the seeds of the sincere, meticulous book lover I still am. As Eve Schaub writes in Year of No Clutter, “I’m not about to stop collecting my own life. It has been a source of pleasure for me ever since I can remember; it helps define me.”
A selection of favorite mementos I discovered back in the States:
In high school I started making my way through the American Film Institute’s list of Top 100 movies. I’ve now seen 89 of them.
I kept a list of new vocabulary words encountered in novels, especially Victorian ones. Note trumpery: (noun) attractive articles of little value or use; (adjective) showy but worthless – how apt!
As a high school senior, I waded through Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead to write an essay that won me an honorable mention, a point of interest on my college applications. Though I find it formulaic now, it’s a precursor to a career partially devoted to writing about books.
I planned my every college paper via incredibly detailed outlines. (I’m far too lazy to do this for book reviews now!) Can you work out what these essays were about?
As a college sophomore I wrote weekly essays in what looks like pretty flawless French. This one was an imagined interview with Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy about the autobiographical and religious influences on their fiction.
Are you a list keeper? Do you have a personal ‘archive’?
How do you balance a healthy self-regard with working for the good of the world?
These are in chronological order by my reading.
- borborygmi = stomach rumblings caused by the movement of fluid and gas in the intestines
- crapula = sickness caused by excessive eating and drinking
- olm = a cave-dwelling aquatic salamander
~The Year of the Hare, Arto Paasilinna
- befurbelowed = ornamented with frills (the use seems to be peculiar to this book, as it is the example in every online dictionary!)
~The Awakening, Kate Chopin
- roding = the sound produced during the mating display of snipe and woodcock, also known as drumming
- peat hag = eroded ground from which peat has been cut
~Deep Country, Neil Ansell
- rallentando = a gradual decrease in speed
~Sight, Jessie Greengrass
- piceous = resembling pitch
~March, Geraldine Brooks
- soffit = the underside of eaves or an arch, balcony, etc.
~The Only Story, Julian Barnes
- lemniscate = the infinity symbol, here used as a metaphor for the pattern of pipe smoke
~The Invisible Bridge, Julie Orringer
- purfling = a decorative border
- lamingtons = sponge cake squares coated in chocolate and desiccated coconut (sounds yummy!)
~The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, Tracy Farr
- ocellated = having eye-shaped markings
~Red Clocks, Leni Zumas
- balloonatic (WWI slang) = a ballooning enthusiast
- skinkling = sparkling
- preludial = introductory
- claustral = confining
- baccalà = salted cod
~The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon
(There were so many words I didn’t immediately recognize in this novel that I thought Kwon must have made them up; preludial and claustral, especially, are words I didn’t know existed but that one might have extrapolated from their noun forms.)
- bronies = middle-aged male fans of My Little Pony (wow, who knew this was a thing?! I feel like I’ve gone down a rabbit hole just by Googling it.)
- callipygian = having well-shaped buttocks
~Gross Anatomy, Mara Altman
- syce = someone who looks after horses; a groom (especially in India; though here it was Kenya)
- riem = a strip of rawhide or leather
- pastern = a horse’s ankle equivalent
~West with the Night, Beryl Markham
- blintering = flickering, glimmering (Scottish)
- sillion = shiny soil turned over by a plow
~The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal, Horatio Clare
- whiffet = a small, young or unimportant person
~Ladder of Years, Anne Tyler
- trilliant = a triangular gemstone cut
- cabochon = a gemstone that’s polished but not faceted
- blirt = a gust of wind and rain (but here used as a verb: “Coldness blirted over her”)
- contumacious = stubbornly disobedient
~Four Bare Legs in a Bed, Helen Simpson
- xeric = very dry (usually describes a habitat, but used here for a person’s manner)
~Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver
- twitten = a narrow passage between two walls or hedges (Sussex dialect – Marshall is based near Brighton)
~The Power of Dog, Andrew Marshall
- swither (Scottish) = to be uncertain as to which course of action to take
- strathspey = a dance tune, a slow reel
~Stargazing, Peter Hill
- citole = a medieval fiddle
- naker = a kettledrum
- amice = a liturgical vestment that resembles a cape
~The Western Wind, Samantha Harvey
- pareidolia = seeing faces in things, an evolutionary adaptation (check out @FacesPics on Twitter!)
~The Overstory, Richard Powers
Have you learned any new vocabulary words recently?
How likely am I to use any of these words in the next year?
I’m not sure if it’s heartening or daunting that I’m still learning new words at the age of 34. Many recent ones are thanks to The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words by Paul Anthony Jones, which I’m reading as a daily bedside book. But last year I spotted new words in a wide variety of books, including classic novels, nature books and contemporary fiction. Some are specialty words (e.g. bird or plant species) you wouldn’t encounter outside a certain context; others are British regional/slang terms I hadn’t previously come across; and a handful are words that make a lot of sense by their Latin origins but have simply never entered into my reading before. (In chronological order by my reading.)
- plaguy = troublesome or annoying
- rodomontade = boastful or inflated talk
~The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
- fuliginous = sooty, dusky
- jobation = a long, tedious scolding
~Father and Son by Edmund Gosse
- stogged = stuck or bogged down
- flurring (used here in the sense of water splashing up) = hurrying [archaic]
~ Dangling Man by Saul Bellow
- ferrule = a metal cap on the end of a handle or tube
- unsnibbing = opening or unfastening (e.g., a door)
~The Great Profundo and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty
- anserine = of or like a goose
- grama = a type of grass [which is the literal meaning of the word in Portuguese]
- wahoo = a North American elm
~A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
- antithalian = disapproving of fun
- gone for a burton = missing, from WWII RAF usage
- lucifugal = light-avoiding
- nefandous = unspeakably atrocious
- paralipsis = a rhetorical strategy: using “to say nothing of…” to draw attention to something
- phairopepla = a Central American flycatcher
- prolicide = killing one’s offspring
- scran = food [Northern English or Scottish dialect]
- swashing = moving with a splashing sound
+ some anatomical and behavioral terms relating to birds
~An English Guide to Birdwatching by Nicholas Royle
- bate = an angry mood [British, informal, dated]
~Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge
- gurn = a grotesque face
~As a God Might Be by Neil Griffiths
- stoorier = dustier, e.g. of nooks [Scots]
~The Nature of Autumn by Jim Crumley
- fascine = a bundle of rods used in construction or for filling in marshy ground
- orfe = a freshwater fish
~Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg
- vellications = muscle twitches
~First Love by Gwendoline Riley
- knapped = hit
~Herbaceous by Paul Evans
- fumet = a strongly flavored cooking liquor, e.g. fish stock, here used more generically as a strong flavor/odor
- thuja = a type of coniferous tree
~The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery
- howk = dig up [Scotland]
- lochan = a small loch
- runkled = wrinkled
- scaur = a variant of scar, i.e., a cliff [Scotland]
- spicules = ice particles
~The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd
- heafed = of farm animals: attached or accustomed to an area of mountain pasture [Northern England]
~The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks
- objurgation = a harsh reprimand
~The Shadow in the Garden by James Atlas
- lares = guardian deities in the ancient Roman religion
~At Seventy by May Sarton
- blatherskite = a person who talks at great length without making much sense
~Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge
- kickshaws = fancy but insubstantial cooked dishes, especially foreign ones
~The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman
- clerisy = learned or literary people
- intropunitiveness [which he spells intrapunitiveness] = self-punishment
- peculation = embezzlement
~The Brontësaurus by John Sutherland
The challenge with these words is: will I remember them? If I come upon them again, will I recall the definition I took the time to look up and jot down? In an age where all the world’s knowledge is at one’s fingertips via computers and smartphones, is it worth committing such terms to memory, or do I just trust that I can look them up again any time I need to?
I still remember, on my first reading of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield at age 14, filling several pages of a notebook with vocabulary words. The only one I can think of now is nankeen (a type of cloth), but I’m sure the list was full of British-specific or Victorian-specific terminology as well as ‘big words’ I didn’t know until my teens but then kept seeing and using.
The other question, then, is: will I actually use any of these words in my daily life? Or are they just to be showcased in the occasional essay? Gurn and unsnibbing seem fun and useful; I also rather like antithalian and blatherskite. Perhaps I’ll try to fit one or more into a piece of writing this year.
Do you like it when authors introduce you to new words, or does it just seem like they’re showing off? [Nicholas Royle (above) seemed to me to be channeling Will Self, whose obscure vocabulary I do find off-putting.]
Do you pause to look up words as you’re reading, note them for later, or just figure them out in context and move on?