I have a big backlog of review books piled beside my composition station (a corner of the lounge by the front window; an ancient PC inherited from my mother-in-law and not connected to the Internet; a wooden chair with leather seat that had been left behind in a previous rental house’s garage). Nonfiction November is the excuse I need to finally get around to writing about lots of them; at least one more catch-up will be coming later this month. My apologies to the publishers for the brief reviews.
Today I have a therapist’s take on classic literature, an optimist’s research on data use, a journalist’s response to her sister’s and father’s deaths, a professor’s search for the remnants of Charles Darwin at his family home, and a bibliophile’s tales of book-collecting exploits.
How to Live. What to Do.: In Search of Ourselves in Life and Literature by Josh Cohen
“Literature and psychoanalysis are both efforts to make sense of the world through stories, to discover the recurring problems and patterns and themes of life. Read and listen enough, and we soon come to notice how insistently the same struggles, anxieties and hopes repeat themselves down the ages and across the world.”
This is the premise for Cohen’s work life, and for this book. Moving through the human experience from youth to old age, he examines anonymous case studies and works of literature that speak to the sorts of situations encountered in that stage. For instance, he recommends Alice in Wonderland as a tonic for the feeling of being stuck – Lewis Carroll’s “let’s pretend” attitude can help someone return to the playfulness and openness of childhood. William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows, set during the Spanish flu, takes on new significance for Cohen in the days of Covid as his appointments all move online; he also takes from it the importance of a mother for providing emotional security. A bibliotherapy theme would normally be catnip for me, but I often found the examples too obvious and the discussion too detailed (and thus involving spoilers). Not a patch on The Novel Cure.
(Ebury Press, February 2021.) With thanks to the publicist for the free copy for review.
Good Data: An Optimist’s Guide to Our Digital Future by Sam Gilbert
Gilbert worked for Experian before going back to university to study politics; he is now a researcher at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge. At a time of much anxiety about “surveillance capitalism,” he seeks to provide reassurance. He explains that Facebook and the like, with their ad-based business models, use profile data and behavioural data to make inferences about you. This is not the same as “listening in,” he is careful to assert. Gilbert contrasts broad targeting and micro-targeting, and runs through trends in search data. He highlights instances where social media and data mining have been beneficial, such as in creating jobs, increasing knowledge, or aiding communication during democratic protests. I have to confess that a lot of this went over my head; I’d overestimated my interest in a full book on technology, having reviewed Born Digital earlier in the year.
(Welbeck, April 2021.) With thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
The Consequences of Love by Gavanndra Hodge (2020)
In 1989, Hodge’s younger sister Candy died on a family holiday in Tunisia when a rare virus brought on rapid organ failure. The rest of the family exhibited three very different responses to grief: her father retreated into existing addictions, her mother found religion, and she went numb and forgot her sister as much as possible – despite having a photographic memory in general. After her father’s death, Hodge finally found the courage to look back to her early life and the effect of Candy’s death. Hers was no ordinary upbringing; her father was a drug dealer who constantly disappointed her and from her teens on roped her into his substance abuse evenings. Often she was the closest thing to a sober and rational adult in the drug den their home had become. This is a very fluidly written bereavement memoir and a powerful exploration of memory and trauma. It was unfortunate that it felt that little bit too similar to a couple of other books I’ve read in recent years: When I Had a Little Sister by Catherine Simpson and especially Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour.
(Paperback: Penguin, July 2021.) With thanks to the publicist for the free copy for review.
The Ghost in the Garden: In Search of Darwin’s Lost Garden by Jude Piesse
When Piesse’s academic career took her back to her home county of Shropshire, she became fascinated by the Darwin family home in Shrewsbury, The Mount. A Victorian specialist, she threw herself into research on the family and particularly on the traces of the garden. Her thesis is that here, and on long walks through the surrounding countryside, Darwin developed the field methods and careful attention that would serve him well as the naturalist on board the Beagle. Piesse believes the habit of looking closely was shared by Darwin and his mother, Susannah. The author contrasts Susannah’s experience of childrearing with her own – she has two young daughters when she returns to Shropshire, and has to work out a balance between work and motherhood. I noted that Darwin lost his mother early – early parent loss is considered a predictor of high achievement (it links one-third of U.S. presidents, for instance).
I think what Piesse was attempting here was something like Rebecca Mead’s wonderful My Life in Middlemarch, but the links just aren’t strong enough: There aren’t that many remnants of the garden or the Darwins here (all the family artefacts are at Down House in Kent), and Piesse doesn’t even step foot into The Mount itself until page 217. I enjoyed her writing about her domestic life and her desire to create a green space, however small, for her daughters, but this doesn’t connect to the Darwin material. Despite my fondness for Victoriana, I was left asking myself what the point of this project was.
(Scribe, May 2021.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector by Nicholas Royle
From the 1970s to 1990s, Picador released over 1,000 paperback volumes with the same clean white-spined design. Royle has acquired most of them – no matter the author, genre or topic; no worries if he has duplicate copies. To build this impressive collection, he has spent years haunting charity shops and secondhand bookshops in between his teaching and writing commitments. He knows where you can get a good bargain, but he’s also willing to pay a little more for a rarer find. In this meandering memoir-of-sorts, he ponders the art of cover design, delights in ephemera and inscriptions found in his purchases (he groups these together as “inclusions”), investigates some previous owners and the provenance of his signed copies, interviews Picador staff and authors, and muses on the few most ubiquitous titles to be found in charity shops (Once in a House on Fire by Andrea Ashworth, Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding, anything by Kathy Lette, and Last Orders by Graham Swift). And he does actually read some of what he buys, though of course not all, and finds some hidden gems.
In 2013 I read Royle’s First Novel, which also features Picador spines on its cover and a protagonist obsessed with them. I’d read enthusiastic reviews by fellow bibliophiles – Paul, Simon, Susan – so couldn’t resist requesting White Spines. While I enjoyed the conversational writing, ultimately I thought it quite an indulgent undertaking (especially the records of his dreams!), not dissimilar to a series of book haul posts. The details of shopping trips aren’t of much interest because he’s solely focused on his own quest, not on giving any insight into the wider offerings of a shop or town, e.g., Hay-on-Wye and Barter Books. But if you’re a fan of Shaun Bythell’s books you may well want to read this too. It’s also a window into the collector’s mindset: You know Royle is an extremist when you read that he once collected bread labels!
(Salt Publishing, July 2021.) With thanks to the publicist for the free copy for review.
Are you interested in reading one or more of these?
Yesterday was my husband’s birthday. Baking him the world’s most complicated cake on Wednesday evening and taking Thursday off for a birthday outing to Salisbury for the Terry Pratchett exhibit at the town’s museum and the Christmas-decorated rooms at Mompesson House are my collective excuse for not writing up the last of November’s novellas until now.
For the most part I had a great time reading novellas last month. However, there were three I abandoned: Mornings in Mexico by D.H Lawrence (p. 11), whose random, repetitive observations lead to no bigger picture; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (p. 28), which is understated to the point of nothing really happening; and Jaguars and Electric Eels by Alexander von Humboldt (p. 6), which has that dry old style that’s hard to engage with. (I’ll plan to encounter snatches of his writing via Andrea Wulf’s biography instead.)
To my disappointment, I find I can’t make generalizations about the correlation between a book’s page count and its quality: a great book stands out no matter its length. But as Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son) said of his latest work, a set of four short novels, a novella should be “all killer, no filler.” Three of the five I review today definitely meet those criteria, impressing me with the literal and/or emotional ground covered.
Below are the novellas I didn’t manage to get to this past November. Perhaps they’ll hang around until next year, unless I get a burning urge to read one or more of them before then:
The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery
(translated from the French by Alison Anderson)
Pierre Arthens, France’s most formidable food critic, is on his deathbed reliving his most memorable meals and searching for one elusive flavor to experience again before he dies. He’s proud of his accomplishments – “I have covered the entire range of culinary art, for I am an encyclopedic esthete who is always one dish ahead of the game” – and expresses no remorse for his affairs and his coldness as a father. This takes place in the same apartment building as The Elegance of the Hedgehog and is in short first-person chapters narrated by various figures from Arthens’ life. His wife, his children and his doctor are expected, but we also hear from the building’s concierge, a homeless man he passed every day for ten years, and even a sculpture in his study. I liked Arthens’ grandiose style and the descriptions of over-the-top meals but, unlike the somewhat similar The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester, this doesn’t have much of a payoff.
A favorite passage:
“After decades of grub, deluges of wine and alcohol of every sort, after a life spent in butter, cream, sauce, and oil in constant, knowingly orchestrated and meticulously cajoled excess, my trustiest right-hand men, Sir Liver and his associate Stomach, are doing marvelously well and it is my heart that is giving out.”
Silk by Alessandro Baricco
(translated from the Italian by Guido Waldman)
The main action is set between 1861 and 1874, as married French merchant Hervé Joncour makes four journeys to and from Japan to acquire silkworms. “This place, Japan, where precisely is it?” he asks before his first trip. “Just keep going. Right to the end of the world,” Baldabiou, the silk mill owner, replies. On his first journey, Joncour is instantly captivated by his Japanese advisor’s concubine, though they haven’t exchanged a single word, and from that moment on nothing in his life can make up for the lack of her. At first I found the book slightly repetitive and fable-like, but as it went on I grew more impressed with the seeds Baricco has planted that lead to a couple of major surprises. At the end I went back and reread a number of chapters to pick up on the clues. I’d had this book recommended from a variety of quarters, first by Karen Shepard when I interviewed her for Bookkaholic in 2013, so I’m glad I finally found a copy in a charity shop.
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick
Hardwick’s 1979 work is composed of (autobiographical?) fragments about the people and places that make up a woman’s remembered past. Elizabeth shares a New York City apartment with a gay man; lovers come and go; she mourns for Billie Holiday; there are brief interludes in Amsterdam and other foreign destinations. She sends letters to “Dearest M.” and back home to Kentucky, where her mother raised nine children. (“My mother’s femaleness was absolute, ancient, and there was a peculiar, helpless assertiveness about it. … This fateful fertility kept her for most of her life under the dominion of nature.”) There’s some astonishingly good writing here, but as was the case for me with Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, I couldn’t quite see how it was all meant to fit together.
Some favorite passages:
“The stain of place hangs on not as a birthright but as a sort of artifice, a bit of cosmetic.”
“The bright morning sky that day had a rare and blue fluffiness, as if a vacuum cleaner had raced across the heavens as a weekly, clarifying duty.”
“On the battered calendar of the past, the back-glancing flow of numbers, I had imagined there would be felicitous notations of entrapments and escapes, days in the South with their insinuating feline accent, and nights in the East, showing a restlessness as beguiling as the winds of Aeolus. And myself there, marking the day with an I.”
Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
West was a contemporary of F. Scott Fitzgerald; in fact, the story goes that when he died in a car accident at age 37, he had been rushing to Fitzgerald’s wake, and the friends were given adjoining rooms in a Los Angeles funeral home. Like The Great Gatsby, this is a very American tragedy and state-of-the-nation novel. “Miss Lonelyhearts” (never given any other name) is a male advice columnist for the New York Post-Dispatch. His letters come from a pitiable cross section of humanity: the abused, the downtrodden, the unloved. Not surprisingly, the secondhand woes start to get him down (“his heart remained a congealed lump of icy fat”), and he turns to drink and womanizing for escape. Indeed, I was startled by how explicit the language and sexual situations are; this doesn’t feel like a book from 1933. West’s picture of how beleaguered compassion can turn to indifference really struck me, and the last few chapters, in which a drastic change of life is proffered but then cruelly denied, are masterfully plotted. The 2014 Daunt Books reissue has been given a cartoon cover and a puff from Jonathan Lethem to emphasize how contemporary it feels.
Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner
This was very nearly a one-sitting read for me: Clare gave me a copy at our Sunday Times Young Writer Award shadow panel decision meeting and I read all but a few pages on the train home from London. Famously, Matthew Weiner is the creator of Mad Men, but instead of 1960s stylishness this debut novella is full of all-too-believable creepiness and a crescendo of dubious decisions. Mark and Karen Breakstone have one beloved daughter, Heather. We follow them for years, getting little snapshots of a normal middle-class family. One summer, as their New York City apartment building is being renovated, the teenaged Heather catches the eye of a construction worker who has a criminal past – as we’ve learned through a parallel narrative about his life. I had no idea what I would conclude about this book until the last few pages; it was all going to be a matter of how Weiner brought things together. And he does so really satisfyingly, I think. It’s a subtle, Hitchcockian story, and that title is so sly: We never get the totality of anyone; we only see shards here and there – something the cover portrays very well – and make judgments we later have to rethink.