Even though we aren’t big on Valentine’s Day (we went out to a “Flavours of Africa” supper club last weekend and are calling it our celebration meal), for the past three years I’ve ended up doing themed posts featuring books that have “Love” or a similar word in the title or that consider romantic or familial love in some way. (Here are my 2017, 2018 and 2019 posts.) These seven selections, all of them fiction, sometimes end up being more bittersweet or ironic than straightforwardly romantic, but see what catches your eye anyway.
Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler (2014)
Four childhood friends from Little Wing, Wisconsin; four weddings (no funeral – though there are a couple of close calls along the way). Which bonds will last, and which will be strained to the breaking point? Henry is the family man, a dairy farmer who married his college sweetheart, Beth. Lee* is a musician, the closest thing to a rock star Little Wing will ever produce. He became famous for Shotgun Lovesongs, a bestselling album he recorded by himself in a refurbished chicken coop for $600, and now lives in New York City and hobnobs with celebrities. Kip gave up being a Chicago commodities trader to return to Little Wing and spruce up the old mill into an events venue. Ronny lived for alcohol and rodeos until a drunken accident ended his career and damaged his brain.
The friends have their fair share of petty quarrels and everyday crises, but the big one hits when one guy confesses to another that he’s in love with his wife. Male friendship still feels like a rarer subject for fiction, but you don’t have to fear any macho stylings here. The narration rotates between the four men, but Beth also has a couple of sections, including the longest one in the book. This is full of nostalgia and small-town (especially winter) atmosphere, but also brimming with the sort of emotion that gets a knot started in the top of your throat. All the characters are wondering whether they’ve made the right decisions. There are a lot of bittersweet moments, but also some comic ones. The entire pickled egg sequence, for instance, is a riot even as it skirts the edge of tragedy.
*Apparently based on Bon Iver (Justin Vernon), whose first album was a similarly low-budget phenomenon recorded in Wisconsin. I’d never heard any Bon Iver before and expected something like the more lo-fi guy-with-guitar tracks on the Garden State soundtrack. My husband has a copy of the band’s 2011 self-titled album, so I listened to that and found that it has a very different sound: expansive, trance-like, lots of horns and strings. (But NB, the final track is called “Beth/Rest.”) For something more akin to what Lee might play, try this video.
Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo (2013)
Barry came to London from Antigua and has been married for 50 years to Carmel, the mother of his two adult daughters. For years Carmel has been fed up with his drinking and gallivanting, assuming he has lots of women on the side. Little does she know that Barry’s best friend, Morris, has also been his lover for 60 years. Morris divorced his own wife long ago, and he’s keen for Barry to leave Carmel and set up home with him, maybe even get a civil partnership. When Carmel goes back to Antigua for her father’s funeral, it’s Barry’s last chance to live it up as a bachelor and pluck up his courage to tell his wife the truth.
Barry’s voice is a delight: a funny mixture of patois and formality; slang and Shakespeare quotes. Cleverly, Evaristo avoids turning Carmel into a mute victim by giving her occasional chapters of her own (“Song of…” versus Barry’s “The Art of…” chapters), written in the second person and in the hybrid poetry style readers of Girl, Woman, Other will recognize. From these sections we learn that Carmel has her own secrets and an equal determination to live a more authentic life. Although it’s sad that these two characters have spent so long deceiving each other and themselves, this is an essentially comic novel that pokes fun at traditional mores and includes several glittering portraits.
Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen (1991)
Set in an upstate New York convent mostly in 1906–7, this is a story of religious fervor, doubt and jealousy. Mariette Baptiste is a 17-year-old postulant; her (literal) sister, 20 years older, is the prioress here. Mariette is given to mystical swoons and, just after the Christmas mass, also develops the stigmata. Her fellow nuns are divided: some think Mariette is a saint who is bringing honor to their organization; others believe she has fabricated her calling and is vain enough to have inflicted the stigmata on herself. A priest and a doctor both examine her, but ultimately it’s for the sisters to decide whether they are housing a miracle or a fraud.
The short sections are headed by the names of feasts or saints’ days, and often open with choppy descriptive phrases that didn’t strike me as quite right for the time period (versus Hansen has also written a Western, in which such language would seem appropriate). Although the novella is slow to take off – the stigmata don’t arrive until after the halfway point – it’s a compelling study of the psychology of a religious body, including fragments from others’ testimonies for or against Mariette. I could imagine it working well as a play.
Bizarre Romance by Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell (2018)
Most of these pieces originated as text-only stories by Niffenegger and were later adapted into comics by Campbell. By the time they got married, they had been collaborating long-distance for a while. Some of the stories incorporate fairies, monsters, ghosts and other worlds. A young woman on her way to a holiday party travels via a mirror to another land where she is queen; a hapless bar fly trades one fairy mistress for another; Arthur Conan Doyle’s father sketches fairies in an asylum; a middle-aged woman on a cruise decides to donate her remaining years to her aged father.
My favorite of the fantastical ones was “Jakob Wywialowski and the Angels,” a story of a man dealing with an angel infestation in the attic; it first appeared as a holiday story on the Amazon homepage in 2003 and is the oldest piece here, with the newest dating from 2015. I also liked “Thursdays, Six to Eight p.m.,” in which a man goes to great lengths to assure two hours of completely uninterrupted reading per week. Strangely, my two favorite pieces were the nonfiction ones: “Digging up the Cat,” about burying her frozen pet with its deceased sibling; and “The Church of the Funnies,” a secular sermon about her history with Catholicism and art that Niffenegger delivered at Manchester Cathedral as part of the 2014 Manchester Literary Festival.
The Nine-Chambered Heart by Janice Pariat (2017)
I find second-person narration intriguing, and I like the idea of various people’s memories of a character being combined to create a composite portrait (previous books that do this that I have enjoyed are The Life and Death of Sophie Stark and Kitchens of the Great Midwest). The protagonist here, never named, is a young Indian writer who travels widely, everywhere from the Himalayas to Tuscany. She also studies and then works in London, where she meets and marries a fellow foreigner. We get the sense that she is restless, eager for adventure and novelty: “You seem to be a woman to whom something is always about to happen.”
An issue with the book is that most of the nine viewpoints belong to her lovers, which would account for the title but makes their sections seem repetitive. By contrast, I most enjoyed the first chapter, by her art teacher, because it gives us the earliest account of her (at age 12) and so contributes to a more rounded picture of her as opposed to just the impulsive, flirtatious twentysomething hooking up on holidays and at a writers’ residency. I also wish Pariat had further explored the main character’s relationship with her parents. Still, I found this thoroughly absorbing and read it in a few days, steaming through over 100 pages on one.
Kinds of Love by May Sarton (1970)
Christina and Cornelius Chapman have been “summer people,” visiting Willard, New Hampshire each summer for decades, but in the town’s bicentennial year they decide to commit to it full-time. They are seen as incomers by the tough mountain people, but Cornelius’s stroke and their adjustments to his disability and older age have given them the resilience to make it through a hard winter. Sarton lovingly builds up pictures of the townsfolk: Ellen Comstock, Christina’s gruff friend; Nick, Ellen’s mentally troubled son, who’s committed to protecting the local flora and fauna; Jane Tuttle, an ancient botanist; and so on. Willard is clearly a version of Sarton’s beloved Nelson, NH. She’s exploring love for the land as well as love between romantic partners and within families.
It’s a meandering novel pleasant for its atmosphere and its working out of philosophies of life through conversation and rumination, but Part Three, “A Stranger Comes to Willard,” feels like a misstep. A college dropout turns up at Ellen’s door after his car turns over in a blizzard. Before he’s drafted into the Vietnam War, he has time to fall in love with Christina’s 15-year-old granddaughter, Cathy. There may only be a few years between the teens, but this still didn’t sit well with me.
I liked how each third-person omniscient chapter ends with a passage from Christina’s journal, making things personal and echoing the sort of self-reflective writing for which Sarton became most famous. The book could have been closer to 300 pages instead of over 460, though.
The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall (2019)
An elegant debut novel about two couples thrown together in 1960s New York City when the men are hired as co-pastors of a floundering Presbyterian church. Nearly the first half is devoted to the four main characters’ backstories and how each couple met. It’s a slow, subtle, quiet story (so much so that I only read the first half and skimmed the second), and I kept getting Charles and James, and Lily and Nan confused.
So here’s the shorthand: Charles is the son of an atheist Harvard professor and plans to study history until a lecture gets him thinking seriously about faith. Lily has closed herself off to life since she lost her parents in a car accident; though she eventually accedes to Charles’s romantic advances, she warns him she won’t bend where it comes to religion. James grew up in a poor Chicago household with an alcoholic father, while Nan is a Southern preacher’s daughter who goes up to Illinois to study music at Wheaton.
James doesn’t have a calling per se, but is passionate about social justice. As co-pastor, his focus will be on outreach and community service, while Charles’s will be on traditional teaching and ministry duties. Nan is desperate for a baby but keeps having miscarriages; Lily has twins, one of whom is autistic (early days for that diagnosis; doctors thought the baby should be institutionalized). Although Lily remains prickly, Nan and James’s friendship is a lifeline for them. The “dearly beloved” term thus applies outside of marriage as well, encompassing all the ties that sustain us – in the last line, Lily thinks, “these friends would forever be her stitches, her scaffold, her ballast, her home.”
Have you read any “love” books, or books about love of any kind, lately?
I sometimes like to call this post “The Best Books You’ve Probably Never Heard Of (Unless You Heard about Them from Me)”. However, these picks vary quite a bit in terms of how hyped or obscure they are; the ones marked with an asterisk are the ones I consider my hidden gems of the year. Between this post and my Fiction/Poetry and Nonfiction best-of lists, I’ve now highlighted about the top 13% of my year’s reading.
Salt Slow by Julia Armfield: Nine short stories steeped in myth and magic. The body is a site of transformation, or a source of grotesque relics. Armfield’s prose is punchy, with invented verbs and condensed descriptions that just plain work. She was the Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel winner. I’ll be following her career with interest.
*Agatha by Anne Cathrine Bomann: In late-1940s Paris, a psychiatrist counts down the days and appointments until his retirement. A few experiences awaken him from his apathy, including meeting Agatha, a new German patient with a history of self-harm. This debut novel is a touching, subtle and gently funny story of rediscovering one’s purpose late in life.
A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier: Chevalier is an American expat like me, but she’s lived in England long enough to make this very English novel convincing and full of charm. Violet Speedwell, 38, is an appealing heroine who has to fight for a life of her own in the 1930s. Who knew the hobbies of embroidering kneelers and ringing church bells could be so fascinating?
Akin by Emma Donoghue: An 80-year-old ends up taking his sullen pre-teen great-nephew with him on a long-awaited trip back to his birthplace of Nice, France. The odd-couple dynamic works perfectly and makes for many amusing culture/generation clashes. Donoghue nails it: sharp, true-to-life and never sappy, with spot-on dialogue and vivid scenes.
Things in Jars by Jess Kidd: In 1863 Bridie Devine, female detective extraordinaire, is tasked with finding the six-year-old daughter of a baronet. Kidd paints a convincingly stark picture of Dickensian London, focusing on an underworld of criminals and circus freaks. The prose is spry and amusing, particularly in her compact descriptions of people.
*The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin: Bleak yet beautiful in the vein of David Vann’s work: the story of a Taiwanese immigrant family in Alaska and the bad luck and poor choices that nearly destroy them. This debut novel is full of atmosphere and the lowering forces of weather and fate.
The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal: Set in the early 1850s and focusing on the Great Exhibition and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, this reveals the everyday world of poor Londoners. It’s a sumptuous and believable fictional world, with touches of gritty realism. A terrific debut full of panache and promise.
*The Heavens by Sandra Newman: Not a genre I would normally be drawn to (time travel), yet I found it entrancing. In her dreams Kate becomes Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady” and sees visions of a future burned city. The more she exclaims over changes in her modern-day life, the more people question her mental health. Impressive for how much it packs into 250 pages; something like a cross between Jonathan Franzen and Samantha Harvey.
*In Love with George Eliot by Kathy O’Shaughnessy: Many characters, fictional and historical, are in love with George Eliot over the course of this debut novel. We get intriguing vignettes from Eliot’s life with her two great loves, and insight into her scandalous position in Victorian society. O’Shaughnessy mimics Victorian prose ably.
Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid: This story of the rise and fall of a Fleetwood Mac-esque band is full of verve and heart. It’s so clever how Reid delivers it all as an oral history of pieced-together interview fragments. Pure California sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll, yet there’s nothing clichéd about it.
*ABC of Typography by David Rault: From cuneiform to Comic Sans, this history of typography is delightful. Graphic designer David Rault wrote the whole thing, but each chapter has a different illustrator, so the book is like a taster course in comics styles. It is fascinating to explore the technical characteristics and aesthetic associations of various fonts.
*The Lady Doctor by Ian Williams: Dr. Lois Pritchard works at a medical practice in small-town Wales and treats embarrassing ailments at a local genitourinary medicine clinic. The tone is wonderfully balanced: there are plenty of hilarious, somewhat raunchy scenes, but also a lot of heartfelt moments. The drawing style recalls Alison Bechdel’s.
*Thousandfold by Nina Bogin: This is a lovely collection whose poems devote equal time to interactions with nature and encounters with friends and family. Birds are a frequent presence. Elsewhere Bogin greets a new granddaughter and gives thanks for the comforting presence of her cat. Gentle rhymes and half-rhymes lend a playful or incantatory nature.
*When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back by Naja Marie Aidt: Aidt’s son Carl Emil died in 2015, having jumped out of his fifth-floor Copenhagen window during a mushroom-induced psychosis. The text is a collage of fragments. A playful disregard for chronology and a variety of fonts, typefaces and sizes are ways of circumventing the feeling that grief has made words lose their meaning forever.
*Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed by Catrina Davies: Penniless during an ongoing housing crisis, Davies moved into the shed near Land’s End that had served as her father’s architecture office until he went bankrupt. Like Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path, this intimate, engaging memoir serves as a sobering reminder that homelessness is not so remote.
*Hard Pushed: A Midwife’s Story by Leah Hazard: An empathetic picture of patients’ plights and medical professionals’ burnout. Visceral details of sights, smells and feelings put you right there in the delivery room. This is a heartfelt read as well as a vivid and pacey one, and it’s alternately funny and sobering.
*Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country by Pam Houston: Autobiographical essays full of the love of place, chiefly her Colorado ranch – a haven in a nomadic career, and a stand-in for the loving family home she never had. It’s about making your own way, and loving the world even – or especially – when it’s threatened with destruction. Highly recommended to readers of The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch.
*Dancing with Bees: A Journey back to Nature by Brigit Strawbridge Howard: Bees were the author’s gateway into a general appreciation of nature, something she lost for a time in midlife because of the rat race and family complications. She clearly delights in discovery and is devoted to lifelong learning. It’s a book characterized by curiosity and warmth. I ordered signed copies of this and the Simmons (below) directly from the authors via Twitter.
*Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem: Maiklem is a London mudlark, scavenging for what washes up on the shores of the Thames, including clay pipes, coins, armaments, pottery, and much more. A fascinating way of bringing history to life and imagining what everyday existence was like for Londoners across the centuries.
Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper: Phelps-Roper grew up in a church founded by her grandfather and made up mostly of her extended family. Its anti-homosexuality message and picketing of military funerals became trademarks. This is an absorbing account of doubt and making a new life outside the only framework you’ve ever known.
*A Half Baked Idea: How Grief, Love and Cake Took Me from the Courtroom to Le Cordon Bleu by Olivia Potts: Bereavement memoir + foodie memoir = a perfect book for me. Potts left one very interesting career for another. Losing her mother when she was 25 and meeting her future husband, Sam, who put time and care into cooking, were the immediate spurs to trade in her wig and gown for a chef’s apron.
*The Lost Properties of Love by Sophie Ratcliffe: Not your average memoir. It’s based around train journeys – real and fictional, remembered and imagined; appropriate symbols for many of the book’s dichotomies: scheduling versus unpredictability, having or lacking a direction in life, monotony versus momentous events, and fleeting versus lasting connections.
Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro: On a whim, in her fifties, Shapiro sent off a DNA test kit and learned she was only half Jewish. Within 36 hours she found her biological father, who’d donated sperm as a medical student. It’s a moving account of her emotional state as she pondered her identity and what her sense of family would be in the future.
*The Country of Larks: A Chiltern Journey by Gail Simmons: Reprising a trek Robert Louis Stevenson took nearly 150 years before, revisiting sites from a childhood in the Chilterns, and seeing the countryside that will be blighted by a planned high-speed railway line. Although the book has an elegiac air, Simmons avoids dwelling in melancholy, and her writing is a beautiful tribute to farmland that was once saturated with the song of larks.
Coming tomorrow: Other superlatives and some statistics.
Sun, warmth and rival feelings of endlessness and evanescence: here were three reads that were perfect fits for the summer setting.
Sunburn by Laura Lippman (2018)
While on a beach vacation in 1995, a woman walks away from her husband and daughter and into a new life as an unattached waitress in Belleville, Delaware. Polly has been known by many names, and this isn’t the first time she’s left a family and started over. She’s the (literal) femme fatale of this film noir-inspired piece, as bound by her secrets as is Adam Bosk, the investigator sent to trail her. He takes a job as a chef at the diner where Polly works, and falls in love with her even though he may never fully trust her. Insurance scams and arson emerge as major themes.
I liked the fact that I recognized many of the Maryland/Delaware settings, and that the setup is a tip of the hat to Anne Tyler’s excellent Ladder of Years, which was published in the year this is set. It is a quick and enjoyable summer read that surprised me with its ending, but I generally don’t find mysteries a particularly worthwhile use of my reading time. Put it down to personal taste and/or literary snobbery.
Heat Wave by Penelope Lively (1996)
My fourth Lively book, and the most enjoyable thus far. Pauline, a freelance copyeditor (“Putting commas into a novel about unicorns”) in her fifties, has escaped from London to spend a hot summer at World’s End, the Midlands holiday cottage complex she shares with her daughter Teresa, Teresa’s husband Maurice, and their baby son Luke. Maurice is writing a history of English tourism and regularly goes back to London for meetings or receives visits from his publishers, James and Carol. Pauline, divorced from a philandering husband, recognizes the signs of Maurice’s adultery long before Teresa does, and uneasily ponders how much to hint and how much to say outright.
The last line of the first chapter coyly promises an “agreeable summer of industry and companionship,” but the increasing atmospheric threats (drought or storms; combine harvesters coming ever nearer) match the tensions in the household. I expected this to be one of those subtle relationship studies where ultimately nothing happens. That’s not the case, though; if you’ve been paying good attention to the foreshadowing you’ll see that the ending has been on the cards.
I loved the city versus country setup of the novel, especially the almost Van Gogh-like descriptions of the blue sky and the golden wheat, and recognized myself in Pauline’s freelancer routines. Her friendships with bookseller Hugh and her client, novelist Chris Rogers, might be inconsequential to the plot but give Pauline a life wider than the confines of the cottage, and the frequent flashbacks to her marriage to Harry show what she had to overcome to earn a life of her own.
This was a compulsive read that was perfect for reading during the hottest week of our English summer. I’d recommend it to fans of Tessa Hadley, Susan Hill and Polly Sansom.
Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls (2019)
The title is a snippet from Romeo and Juliet, which provides the setup and subject matter for this novel about first love during the golden summer of 1997, when Charlie Lewis and Fran Fisher are 16. Charlie thinks he’s way too cool for the thespians, but if he wants to keep seeing Fran he has to join the Full Fathom Five Theatre Co-operative for the five weeks of rehearsals leading up to performances. Besides, he doesn’t have anything better to do – besides watching his dad get drunk on the couch and scamming the petrol station where he works nights. Charlie starts off as the most robotic Benvolio imaginable, but Fran helps bring him up to scratch with her private tutoring (which is literal as well as a euphemism).
Glimpses of the present day are an opportunity for nostalgia and regret, as Charlie/Nicholls coyly insists that first love means nothing: “love is boring. Love is familiar and commonplace for anyone not taking part, and first love is just a gangling, glandular incarnation of the same. … first love wasn’t real love anyway, just a fraught and feverish, juvenile imitation of it.” I enjoyed the teenage boy perspective and the theatre company shenanigans well enough, but was bored with the endless back story about Charlie’s family: his father’s record shops went bankrupt; his mother left him for another golf club colleague and took his sister; he and his depressed father are slobby roommates subsisting on takeaways and booze; blah blah blah.
It’s possible that had I read or seen R&J more recently, I would have spotted some clever parallels. Honestly? I’d cut 100+ pages (it should really be closer to 300 pages than 400) and repackage this as YA fiction. If you’re looking for lite summer fare reminiscent of Rachel Joyce and, yes, One Day, this will slip down easily, but I feel like I need to get better about curating my library stack and weeding out new releases that will be readable but forgettable. I really liked Us, which explains why I was willing to take another chance on Nicholls.
Note: There is a pretty bad anachronism here: a reference to watching The Matrix, which wasn’t released until 1999 (p. 113, “Cinnamon” chapter). Also a reference to Hobby Lobby, which as far as I know doesn’t exist in the UK (here it’s Hobbycraft) (p. 205, “Masks” chapter). I guess someone jumped the gun trying to get this ready for its U.S. release.
Favorite summery passage: “This summer’s a bastard, isn’t it? Sun comes out, sky’s blue if you’re lucky and suddenly there are all these preconceived ideas of what you should be doing, lying on a beach or jumping off a rope swing into the river or having a picnic with all your amazing mates, sitting on a blanket in a meadow and eating strawberries and laughing in that mad way, like in the adverts. It’s never like that, it’s just six weeks of feeling like you’re in the wrong place … and you’re missing out. That’s why summer’s so sad – because you’re meant to be so happy. Personally, I can’t wait to get my tights back on, turn the central heating up. At least in winter you’re allowed to be miserable” (Fran)
Plus a couple of skims:
The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton with Lara Love Hardin (2018)
I’d heard about Hinton’s case: he spent nearly 30 years on death row in Alabama for crimes he didn’t commit. In 1985 he was convicted of two counts of robbery and murder, even though he’d been working in a locked warehouse 15 miles away at the time the restaurant managers were shot. His mother’s gun served as the chief piece of evidence, even though it didn’t match the bullets found at the crime scenes. “My only crime was … being born black in Alabama,” Hinton concludes. He was a convenient fall guy, and his every appeal failed until Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative (and author of Just Mercy, which I’d like to read) took on his case.
It took another 16 years and an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but Hinton was finally released and now speaks out whenever he can about justice for those on death row, guilty or innocent. Almost the most heartbreaking thing about the book is that his mother, who kept the faith for so many years, died in 2012 and didn’t get to see her son walk free. I love the role that literature played: Hinton started a prison book club in which the men read Go Tell It on the Mountain and To Kill a Mockingbird and discussed issues of race and injustice. Although he doesn’t say very much about his life post-prison, I did note how big of an adjustment 30 years’ worth of technology was for him.
I don’t set a lot of stock by ghostwritten or co-written books, and found the story much more interesting than the writing here (though Hardin does a fine job of recreating the way a black man from the South speaks), so I just skimmed the book for the basics. I was impressed by how Hinton avoided bitterness and, from the very beginning, chose to forgive those who falsely accused him and worked to keep him in prison. “I was afraid every single day on death row. And I also found a way to find joy every single day. I learned that fear and joy are both a choice.” The book ends with a sobering list of all those currently on death row in the United States: single-spaced, in three columns, it fills nine pages. Lord, have mercy.
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk (2009)
Having moved away from Bristol, Cusk and her family (a husband and two children) decided to spend a summer in Italy before deciding where to go next. They took the boat to France then drove, made a stop in Lucca, and settled into a rented house on the eastern edge of Tuscany. It proceeded to rain for 10 days. Cusk learns to speak the vernacular of football and Catholicism – but Italian eludes her: “I too feel humbled, feel childlike and impotent. It is hard to feel so primitive, so stupid.” They glory in the food, elemental and unpretentious; they try a whole spectrum of gelato flavors. And they experience as much culture as they can: “we will learn to fillet an Italian city of its artworks with the ruthless efficiency of an English aristocrat de-boning a Dover sole.” A number of these masterpieces are reproduced in the text in black and white. In the grip of a heatwave, they move on to Rome, Naples and Capri.
If I’d been able to get hold of this for my trip to Milan (it was on loan at the time), I might have enjoyed it enough to read the whole thing. As it is, I just had a quick skim through. Cusk can write evocatively when she wishes to (“We came here over the white Apuan mountains, leaving behind the rose-coloured light of the coast … up and up into regions of dazzling ferocity where we wound among deathly white peaks scarred with marble quarries, along glittering chasms where the road fell away into nothingness and we clung to our seats in terror”), but more often resorts to flat descriptions of where they went and what they did. I’m pretty sure Transit was a one-off and I’ll never warm to another Cusk book.
DNFs: Alas, One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson and The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley were total non-starters. Maybe some other day (make that year).
Have you read any summer-appropriate books lately?
I was slow to launch into my 20 Books of Summer reading, but have now finally managed to get through my first four books. These include two substitutes: a review copy I hadn’t realized fit in perfectly with my all-animals challenge, and a book I’d started earlier in the year but set aside and wanted to get back into. Three of the four were extremely rewarding; the last was somewhat insubstantial, though I always enjoy reading about cat antics. All have been illuminating about animal intelligence and behavior, and useful for thinking about our place in and duty towards the more-than-human world. Not all of my 20 Books of Summer will have such an explicit focus on nature – some just happen to have an animal in the title or pictured on the cover – but this first batch had a strong linking theme so was a great start.
Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis (2015)
In this modern folk tale with elements of the Book of Job, the gods Apollo and Hermes, drinking in a Toronto tavern, discuss the nature of human intelligence and ponder whether it’s inevitably bound up with suffering. They decide to try an experiment, and make a wager on it. They’ll bestow human intelligence on a set of animals and find out whether the creatures die unhappy. Apollo is willing to bet two years’ personal servitude that they will be even unhappier than humans. Their experimental subjects are the 15 dogs being boarded overnight at a nearby veterinary clinic.
The setup means we’re in for an And Then There Were None type of picking-off of the 15, and some of the deaths are distressing. But strangely – and this is what the gods couldn’t foresee – knowledge of their approaching mortality gives the dogs added dignity. It gives their lives and deaths the weight of Shakespearean tragedy. Although they still do doggy things like establishing dominance structures and eating poop, they also know the joys of language and love. A mutt called Prince composes poetry and jokes. Benjy the beagle learns English well enough to recite the first paragraph of Vanity Fair. A poodle named Majnoun forms a connection with his owner that lasts beyond the grave. The dogs work out who they can trust; they form and dissolve bonds; they have memories and a hope that lives on.
It’s a fascinating and inventive novella, and a fond treatment of the relationship between dogs and humans. When I read in the Author’s Note that the poems all included dogs’ names, I went right back to the beginning to scout them out. I’m intrigued by the fact that this Giller Prize winner is a middle book in a series, and keen to explore the rest of the Trinidanian-Canadian author’s oeuvre.
These next two have a lot in common. For both authors, paying close attention to the natural world – birds, in particular – is a way of coping with environmental and mental health crises.
Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt (2009)
Lyanda Lynn Haupt has worked in bird research and rehabilitation for the Audubon Society and other nature organizations. (I read her first book, Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds, quite a few years ago.) During a bout of depression, she decided to start paying more attention to the natural world right outside her suburban Seattle window. Crows were a natural place to start. From then on she took binoculars everywhere she went, even on walks to Target. She spent time watching crows’ behavior from a distance or examining them up close – devoting hours to studying a prepared crow skin. She even temporarily took in a broken-legged fledgling she named Charlotte and kept a close eye on the injured bird’s progress in the months after she released it.
Were this simply a charming and keenly observed record of bird behavior and one woman’s gradual reawakening to the joys of nature, I would still have loved it. Haupt is a forthright and gently witty writer. But what takes it well beyond your average nature memoir is the bold statement of human responsibility to the environment. I’ve sat through whole conference sessions that try to define what nature is, what the purpose of nature writing is, and so on. Haupt can do it in just a sentence, concisely and effortlessly explaining how to be a naturalist in a time of loss and how to hope even when in possession of all the facts.
A few favorite passages:
“an intimate awareness of the continuity between our lives and the rest of life is the only thing that will truly conserve the earth … When we allow ourselves to think of nature as something out there, we become prey to complacency. If nature is somewhere else, then what we do here doesn’t really matter.”
“I believe strongly that the modern naturalist’s calling includes an element of activism. Naturalists are witnesses to the wild, and necessary bridges between ecological and political ways of knowing. … We join the ‘cloud of witnesses’ who refuse to let the more-than-human world pass unnoticed.”
“here we are, intricate human animals capable of feeling despair over the state of the earth and, simultaneously, joy in its unfolding wildness, no matter how hampered. What are we to do with such a confounding vision? The choices appear to be few. We can deny it, ignore it, go insane with its weight, structure it into a stony ethos with which we beat our friends and ourselves to death—or we can live well in its light.”
The Seafarers: A Journey among Birds by Stephen Rutt (2019)
In 2016 Rutt left his anxiety-inducing life in London in a search for space and silence. He found plenty of both on the Orkney Islands, where he volunteered at the North Ronaldsay bird observatory for seven months. In the few years that followed, the young naturalist travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles – from Skomer to Shetland – courting encounters with seabirds. He’s surrounded by storm petrels one magical night at Mousa Broch; he runs from menacing skuas; he watches eider and terns and kittiwakes along the northeast coast; he returns to Orkney to marvel at gannets and fulmars. Whether it’s their beauty, majesty, resilience, or associations with freedom, such species are for him a particularly life-enhancing segment of nature to spend time around.
Discussion of the environmental threats that hit seabirds hardest, such as plastic pollution, makes for a timely tie-in to wider conservation issues. Rutt also sees himself as part of a long line of bird-loving travellers, including James Fisher and especially R.M. Lockley, whose stories he weaves in. This is one of the best nature/travel books I’ve read in a long time, especially enjoyable because I’ve been to a lot of the island locations and the elegantly evocative writing, making particularly effective use of varied sentence lengths, brought back to me just what it’s like to be in the far north of Scotland in the midst of an endless summer twilight, a humbled observer as a whole whirlwind of bird life carries on above you.
A favorite passage:
“Gannets nest on the honeycombs of the cliff, in their thousands. They sit in pairs, pointing to the sky, swaying heads. They stir. The scent of the boat’s herring fills the air. They take off, tessellating in a sky that is suddenly as much bird as light. The great skuas lurk.”
My husband also reviewed this, from a birder’s perspective.
With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the proof copy for review.
The Coming of Saska by Doreen Tovey (1977)
I’ve read four of Tovey’s quaint Siamese cat books now; this was the least worthwhile. It’s partially a matter of false advertising: Saska only turns up for the last 15 pages, as a replacement of sorts for Seeley, who disappeared one morning a year earlier and was never seen again. Over half of the book, in fact, is about a trip Tovey and her husband Charles took to Edmonton, Canada. The Canadian government sponsored them to come over for the Klondike Days festivities, and they also rented a camper and went looking for bears and moose. Mildly amusing mishaps, close shaves, etc. ensue. They then come back and settle into everyday life with their pair of Siamese half-siblings; Saska had the same father as Shebalu. Entertaining enough, but slight, and with far too many ellipses.
In March through May I often try to read a few gardening-themed books and/or ones with “spring” in the title. Here are some of the ones that I have on the go as occasional reading:
Flowers and gardens
The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl: Her mother’s final illness led Hampl to reflect on her upbringing in St. Paul, Minnesota as the daughter of an Irish Catholic library clerk and a Czech florist. I love how she writes about small-town life and helping out in her father’s flower shop:
“These apparently ordinary people in our ordinary town, living faultlessly ordinary lives … why do I persist in thinking—knowing—they weren’t ordinary at all? … Nostalgia is really a kind of loyalty”
“it was my father’s domain, but it was also marvelously other, this place heavy with the drowsy scent of velvet-petaled roses and Provençal freesias in the middle of winter, the damp-earth spring fragrance of just-watered azaleas and cyclamen”
Led by the Nose: A Garden of Smells by Jenny Joseph: Joseph’s name might not sound familiar, but she was the author of the famous poem “Warning: When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple” and died early last year. This is a pleasant set of short pieces about what you might see and sense in your garden month by month. “Gardeners do indeed look before and after, at the same time living, as no one else, in the now of the nose,” she maintains. I’m particularly fascinated by the sense of smell and how a writer can describe odors, so I was delighted to find this in a charity shop in Edinburgh last year and have been reading it a few pages at a time as a bedside book. I especially like the wood engravings by Yvonne Skargon that head each chapter.
Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden by Eleanor Perényi: A somewhat dense collection of few-page essays, arranged in alphabetical order, on particular plants, tools and techniques. I tried reading it straight through last year and only made it as far as “Beans.” My new strategy is to keep it on my bedside shelves and dip into whichever pieces catch my attention. I don’t have particularly green fingers, so it’s not a surprise that my eye recently alighted on the essay “Failure,” which opens, “Sooner or later every gardener must face the fact that certain things are going to die on him. It is a temptation to be anthropomorphic about plants, to suspect that they do it to annoy.”
With One Lousy Free Packet of Seed by Lynne Truss (DNF at page 131 out of 210): A faltering gardening magazine is about to be closed down, but Osborne only finds out when he’s already down in Devon doing the research for his regular “Me and My Shed” column with a TV actress. Hijinks were promised as the rest of the put-out staff descend on Honiton, but by nearly the two-thirds point it all still felt like preamble, laying out the characters and their backstories, connections and motivations. My favorite minor character was Makepeace, a pugnacious book reviewer: “he used his great capacities as a professional know-all as a perfectly acceptable substitute for either insight or style.”
The Seasons, a Faber & Faber / BBC Radio 4 poetry anthology: From Chaucer and other Old English poets to Seamus Heaney (“Death of a Naturalist”) and Philip Larkin (“The Trees”), the spring section offers a good mixture of recent and traditional, familiar and new. A favorite passage was “May come up with fiddle-bows, / May come up with blossom, / May come up the same again, / The same again but different” (from “Nuts in May” by Louis MacNeice). Once we’re back from America I’ll pick up with the summer selections.
In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill: Early one spring, Ruth Bryce’s husband, Ben, dies in a forestry accident. They had only been married a year and here she is, aged twenty-one and a widow. Ben’s little brother, 14-year-old Jo, is a faithful visitor, but after the funeral many simply leave Ruth alone. I’m 100 pages in and still waiting for there to be a plot as such; so far it’s a lovely, quiet meditation on grief and solitude amid the rhythms of country life. Ben’s death is described as a “stone cast into still water,” and here at nearly the halfway point we’re seeing how some of the ripples spread out beyond his immediate family. I’m enjoying the writing more than in the three other Hill books I’ve read.
Absent in the Spring by Mary Westmacott: (The title doesn’t actually have anything to do with the season; it’s a quotation from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 98: “From you have I been absent in the spring.”) From 1944, this is the third of six novels Agatha Christie published under the alias Mary Westmacott. Joan Scudamore, traveling back to London from Baghdad after a visit to her adult daughter, encounters bad weather and misses her train, which leaves her stranded in the desert for days that feel more like weeks. We’re led back through scenes from Joan’s earlier life and realize that she’s utterly clueless about what those closest to her want and think. Rather like Olive Kitteridge, Joan is difficult in ways she doesn’t fully acknowledge. Like a desert mirage, the truth of who she’s been and what she’s done is hazy, and her realization feels a little drawn out and obvious. Once she gets back to London, will she act on what she’s discovered about herself and reform her life, or just slip back into her old habits? This is a short and immersive book, and a cautionary tale to boot. It examines the interplay between duty and happiness, and the temptation of living vicariously through one’s children.
Have you been reading anything particularly appropriate for spring this year?
Lots of adults are afraid of poetry, Joe Nutt believes. As a Midlands lad he loved going to the public library and had a magical first encounter with poetry at secondary school – the last time many people will ever read it. A former English teacher and Times Educational Supplement columnist who has written books about Shakespeare, Donne and Milton, he also spent many years in the business world, where he sensed apprehension and even hostility towards poetry. This book is meant as a gentle introduction, or reintroduction, to the joys of reading a poem for yourself.
The 22 chapters each focus on a particular poem, ranging in period and style from the stately metaphysical verse of Andrew Marvell to the rapid-fire performance rhythms of Hollie McNish. The pattern in these essays is to provide background on the poet and his or her milieu or style before moving into more explicit interpretation of the poem’s themes and techniques; the poem is then generally printed at the end of the chapter.*
I most appreciated the essays on poems I already knew and loved but gained extra insight into (“Blackberry-Picking” by Seamus Heaney and “The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy) or had never read before, even if I knew other things by the same poets (“The Bistro Styx” by Rita Dove and “The Sea and the Skylark” by Gerard Manley Hopkins). The Dove poem echoes the Demeter and Persephone myth as it describes a meeting between a mother and daughter in a Paris café. The mother worries she’s lost her daughter to Paris – and, what’s worse, to a kitschy gift shop and an artist for whom she works as a model. Meanwhile, Heaney, Hardy and Hopkins all reflect – in their various, subtle ways – on environmental and societal collapse and ask what hope we might find in the midst of despair.
Other themes that come through in the chosen poems include Englishness and countryside knowledge (E. Nesbit and Edward Thomas), love, war and death. Nutt points out the things to look out for, such as doubling of words or sounds, punctuation, and line length. His commentary is especially useful in the chapters on Donne, Wordsworth and Hopkins. In other chapters, though, he can get sidetracked by personal anecdotes or hang-ups like people not knowing the difference between rifles and shotguns (his main reason for objecting to Vicki Feaver’s “The Gun,” to which he devotes a whole chapter) or Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize. These felt like unnecessary asides and detracted from the central goal of celebrating poetry. One can praise the good without denigrating what one thinks bad, yes?
*Except for a few confusing cases where it’s not. Where’s Ted Hughes’s “Tractor”? If reproduction rights couldn’t be obtained, a different poem should have been chosen. Why does a chapter on Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes” quote just a few fragments from it in the text but then end with a passage from Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (ditto with the excerpt from Donne that ends the chapter on Milton)? The particular Carol Ann Duffy and Robert Browning poems Nutt has chosen are TL; DR, while he errs to the other extreme by not quoting enough from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Paradise Lost, perhaps assuming too much audience familiarity. (I’ve never read either!)
So, overall, a bit of a mixed bag: probably better suited to those less familiar with poetry; and, oddly, often more successful for me in its generalizations than in its particulars:
if you once perceive that poetry operates on the edges of man’s knowledge and experience, that it represents in art a profoundly sincere attempt by individuals to grapple with the inexorable conditions of human life, then you are well on the way to becoming not just a reader of it but a fan.
The poet’s skill is in making us look at the world anew, through different, less tainted lenses.
A poem, however unique and strange, however pure and white the page it sits on, doesn’t enter your life unaccompanied. It comes surrounded by literary echoes and memories, loaded with the past. That’s why you get better at understanding [poems], why you enjoy them more, the more you read.
Poetry is so often parsimonious. It makes us work for our supper.
Rossetti deliberately avoids certainty throughout. I enjoy that in any poem. It makes you think.
There is really only one response to great poetry: an unqualified, appreciative ‘yes’.
- The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner
- 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem by Ruth Padel
- The Poem and the Journey and 60 Poems to Read Along the Way by Ruth Padel
- The Poetry Pharmacy by William Sieghart
- Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder
(I have read and can recommend all of these. Padel’s explication of poetry is top-notch.)
The Point of Poetry was published by Unbound on March 21st (World Poetry Day). My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
See below for where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon.
I love interspersing poetry with my other reading, and this year it seems like I’m getting to more of it than ever. Although I try to have a poetry collection on the go at all times, I still consider myself a novice and enjoy discovering new-to-me poets. However, I know many readers who totally avoid poetry because they assume they won’t understand it or it would feel too much like hard work.
Sinking into poems is certainly a very different experience from opening up a novel or a nonfiction narrative. Often I read parts of a poem two or three times – to make sure I’ve taken it in properly, or just to savor the language. I try to hear the lines aloud in my head so I can appreciate the sonic techniques at work, whether rhyming or alliteration. Reading or listening to poetry engages a different part of the brain, and it may be best to experience it in something of a dreamlike state.
I hope you’ll find a book or two that appeals from the selection below.
Thousandfold by Nina Bogin (2019)
This is a lovely collection whose poems devote equal time to interactions with nature and encounters with friends and family. Birds – along with their eggs and feathers – are a frequent presence. Often a particular object will serve as a totem as the poet remembers the most important people in her life: her father’s sheepskin coat, her grandmother’s pink bathrobe, and the slippers her late husband shuffled around in – a sign of how diminished he’d become due to dementia. Elsewhere Bogin greets a new granddaughter and gives thanks for the comforting presence of her cat. Gentle rhymes and half-rhymes lend a playful or incantatory nature. I’d recommend this to fans of Linda Pastan.
Thousandfold will be published by Carcanet Press on January 31st. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Sweet Shop by Amit Chaudhuri (2019)
I was previously unfamiliar with Chaudhuri’s work, and unfortunately this insubstantial book about his beloved Indian places and foods hasn’t lured me into trying any more. The one poem I liked best was “Creek Row,” about a Calcutta lane used as a shortcut: “you are a thin, short-lived, / decaying corridor” and an “oesophageal aperture”. I also liked, as stand-alone lines go, “Refugees are periodic / like daffodils.” Nothing else stood out for me in terms of language, sound or theme. Poetry is so subjective; all I can say is that some poets will click with you and others don’t. In any case, the atmosphere is similar to what I found in Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi by Pamela Timms.
My thanks to Salt Publishing for the free copy for review.
Windfall by Miriam Darlington (2008)
Before I picked this up from the bookstall at the New Networks for Nature conference in November, I had no idea that Darlington had written poetry before she turned to nature writing (Otter Country and Owl Sense). These poems are rooted in the everyday: flipping pancakes, sitting down to coffee, tending a garden, smiling at a dog. Multiple poems link food and erotic pleasure; others make nature the source of exaltation. I loved her descriptions of a heron (“a standing stone / perched in silt / a wrap of grey plumage”) and a blackbird (“the first bird / a glockenspiel in C / an improvisation on morning / a blue string of notes”), Lots of allusions and delicious alliteration. Pick this up if you’re missing Mary Oliver.
A Responsibility to Awe by Rebecca Elson (2018)
Elson, an astronomer who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, died of breast cancer; this is a reprint of her posthumous 2001 publication. Along with a set of completed poems, the volume includes an autobiographical essay and extracts from her notebooks. Her impending mortality has a subtle presence in the book. I focused on the finished poems, which take their metaphors from physics (“Dark Matter”), mathematics (“Inventing Zero”) and evolution (indeed, “Evolution” was my favorite). In the essay that closes the book, Elson remembers long summers of fieldwork and road trips across Canada with her geologist father (I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye), and traces her academic career as she bounced between the United States and Great Britain.
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.
These next two were on the Costa Prize for Poetry shortlist, along with Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems, which was one of my top poetry collections of 2018 and recently won the T. S. Eliot Prize. I first encountered the work of all three poets at last year’s Faber Spring Party.
Us by Zaffar Kunial (2018)
Many of these poems are about split loyalties and a composite identity – Kunial’s father was Kashmiri and his mother English – and what the languages we use say about us. He also writes about unexpectedly developing a love for literature, and devotes one poem to Jane Austen and another to Shakespeare. My favorites were “Self Portrait as Bottom,” about doing a DNA test (“O I am translated. / The speech of numbers. / Here’s me in them / and them in me. … What could be more prosaic? / I am split. 50% Europe. / 50% Asia.”), and the title poem, a plea for understanding and common ground.
Soho by Richard Scott (2018)
When I saw him live, Scott read two of the amazingly intimate poems from this upcoming collection. One, “cover-boys,” is about top-shelf gay porn and what became of the models; the other, “museum,” is, on the face of it, about mutilated sculptures of male bodies in the Athens archaeological museum, but also, more generally, about “the vulnerability of / queer bodies.” If you appreciate the erotic verse of Mark Doty and Andrew McMillan, you need to pick this one up immediately. Scott channels Verlaine in a central section of gritty love poems and Whitman in the final, multi-part “Oh My Soho!”
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (2017)
Like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, this is a book whose aims I can admire even though I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. It’s about being black and queer in an America where both those identifiers are dangerous, where guns and HIV are omnipresent threats. “reader, what does it / feel like to be safe? white?” Smith asks. “when i was born, i was born a bull’s-eye.” The narrator and many of the other characters are bruised and bloody, with blood used literally but also metaphorically for kinship and sexual encounters. By turns tender and biting, exultant and uncomfortable, these poems are undeniably striking, and a necessary wake-up call for readers who may never have considered the author’s perspective.
Up next: This Pulitzer-winning collection from the late Mary Oliver, whose work I’ve had mixed success with before (Dream Work is by far her best that I’ve read so far). We lost two great authors within a week! RIP Diana Athill, too, who was 101.
Any recent poetry reads you can recommend to me?
“What a joy it is to dance and sing!”
Through a Granta giveaway on Twitter I won two tickets to see Wise Children at London’s Old Vic theatre on October 18th. Clare of A Little Blog of Books joined me for an excellent evening at the theatre, and we both followed it up by reading the novel – Angela Carter’s final book, published in 1991. (Clare’s write-up of the book and play is here.) It has one of the best openers I’ve come across recently:
Twins Nora and Dora Chance turn 75 today; their father, Shakespearean actor Melchior Hazard, who has never publicly acknowledged them because they were born out of wedlock to a servant girl who died in childbirth, turns 100. At the last minute an invitation to his birthday party arrives, and between this point and the party Dora fills us in on the sisters’ knotty family history. Their father is also a twin (though fraternal); his brother Peregrine was more of a father to them than Melchior, with “Grandma” Chance, the owner of the boarding house where they were born, the closest thing they had to a mother growing up. By the time they’re teenagers, the girls are on stage at music halls. After a jaunt to Hollywood to appear in Melchior’s filming of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they’re back in time for wartime deprivation and tragedy in South London, and decades of shabby nostalgia follow.
It’s a big, bawdy story that has, amazingly, been compressed into just 230 pages. There are five sets of twins in total, with multiple cases of doubling, incest and mistaken identity that would make Shakespeare proud. The novel is composed of five long chapters, like the acts in a play, with a Dramatis Personae on the last two pages (though it might have proven more helpful at the start), and the sisters even live at 49 Bard Road. Dora’s voice is slang-filled and gossipy, and she dutifully presents the sisters’ past as the tragicomedy that it was.
Indeed, Wise Children seems perfect for the stage, and Emma Rice’s production recreates everything that’s best about the book, including Dora’s delightful narration. At the start, resplendent in kimonos and turbans, she and Nora greet us from their Brixton home – represented by a kitschy caravan, which with minor redecoration between scenes serves for all the play’s interiors. The 75-year-olds remain on stage for virtually the entire performance, watching along with the audience from the wings and adding in fragments of commentary, often drawn directly from the text, as scenes from their past unfold (including plenty of simulated sex – I wouldn’t recommend taking along any under-15s).
Androgynous extras cycle into various roles as the action proceeds, with the twins represented first by puppets, then by three sets of actors of various races and genders – the teenage/young adult Nora is played by a Black man, while 75-year-old Dora is a man perhaps of South Asian extraction. This adds extra irony to the humor of one of Nora’s lines: “It’s every woman’s tragedy that, after a certain age, she looks like a female impersonator.” Grandma Chance, with her beehive, cat-eye glasses and nude bodysuit, steals the show, with seaside comedian Gorgeous George coming a close second as the most entertaining character.
The play has cut out most of the 1980s layer of characters and made the story line stronger in doing so. The only other scene I wish could have been included is a farcical multiple wedding ceremony in Hollywood. The glitzy costumes, recurring butterflies, and John Waters-esque tacky-chic of the set all felt true to the atmosphere of the book, and the songs mentioned in the text (such as “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby”) are supplemented by a couple of numbers that evoke the 1980s setting: “Electric Avenue” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”
This was my fifth book by Carter, and now a joint favorite with The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories – but I liked the play that little bit better. If you get a chance to see it in London or on tour further afield, don’t pass it up. It’s a pure joy.
My rating: Book; Play
Iris Murdoch’s eleventh novel starts with a bang: civil servant Joseph Radeechy has shot himself at the office, leaving Octavian Gray and Richard Biranne to deal with the fallout. The incident delays Octavian’s departure for idyllic Dorset, where he and his wife Kate live in community with various hangers-on: Mary Clothier and her son Pierce; Biranne’s ex, Paula, and their twins; and the Grays’ daughter, Barbara, whenever she’s home from her Swiss boarding school. I loved the initial introduction to a household so full of joyful bustle, the witty dialogue of children and servants, and a memorable dog and cat. It’s a hot summer and there are games and jaunts down to the rocky beach and an abandoned graveyard.
Gradually the focus shifts to would-be judge John Ducane, the legal advisor to Octavian’s department. Like the narrator of A Severed Head, he’s just breaking off an affair with a younger woman. He’s decided he’s in love with Kate, with whom he shares an occasional kiss. Octavian knows all about this and finds it amusing – I thought of him and Kate as the Oberon and Titania of their enchanted pastoral world, presiding in lordly yet playful ways over the other mortals’ romantic entanglements. (“Midsummer madness,” John remarks at one point.) Again as in A Severed Head, it seems everyone’s infatuated with everyone else, in different ways and at different times. A distinction is often drawn between loving and being in love – the two do not always coexist.
Ducane helps the department look into Radeechy’s death in hopes of avoiding a public enquiry. It seems the man was involved in some bizarre stuff – witchcraft with prostitutes? – and was being blackmailed for it. However, the city and country divide is stark, and so the investigation never overpowers the more low-key interpersonal intrigues down in Dorset. There are lots of important though secondary characters in this ensemble cast – so many that I struggled to pay attention to all of them (Uncle Theo?). Of these I’ll just give a special mention to Holocaust survivor Willy Kost. Thankfully, there’s a much more positive vision of Judaism here than in A Severed Head or The Italian Girl.
Liz has written a wonderful summary of the novel and its themes, set in the context of the Murdoch novels that have come before. I especially noted and liked the duplicated moments, such as two scenes of women jealously observing other mistresses; the instances of dramatic irony; and the sequences composed mostly of dialogue (e.g., Chapter 40). There’s a gripping scene where three characters are stuck in a sea cave due to a rising tide, and the book ends on what seems to be a sighting of a flying saucer. You also have to love the late lion-and-lamb moment of Montrose the cat and Mingo the dog curling up in a basket together.
I kept looking back to the title and asking myself who is really ‘good’ here and what the real value of being ‘nice’ is. Murdoch pardons Radeechy’s peculiar behavior as “minor evil” at most, while Willy’s experience in Dachau is surely the clearest example of human evil at work.
“Ducane’s so nice – ” / “He’s so good – ”
“The point is that nothing matters except loving what is good. Not to look at evil but to look at good.”
Meanwhile, there are brief mentions of goodness as a state of mind or a matter of personality:
“in order to become good it may be necessary to imagine oneself good, and yet such imagining may also be the very thing which renders improvement impossible”
“I think being good is just a matter of temperament in the end. Yes, we shall all be so happy and good too. Oh, how utterly marvellous it is to be me!”
That last quote is a glimpse into Kate’s thoughts: so unrealistically optimistic you have to wonder whether Murdoch is making fun of her. And yet Kate is one of the most stable and contented characters.
This falls about in the middle of the pack for me in terms of how much I’ve enjoyed Murdoch’s novels. There’s a lot going on, perhaps too much, and the reader’s sympathy is spread thin across so many characters. Still, it’s summery, light-hearted fare that manages to also hint at deeper ethical questions.
Here’s my ranking of the eight I’ve read so far:
Favorite: The Bell
The Sea, The Sea
A Severed Head
The Nice and the Good
The Black Prince
The Italian Girl
Least favorite: An Accidental Rose
I’m Murdoch-ed out for the time being, but I’ll keep an eye on Liz’s ongoing Iris Murdoch readalong project to see if there are other novels I’ll try to find secondhand in the future (at least The Unicorn, I think). Join in for one or more!
Have you read this or anything else by Iris Murdoch?
Tomorrow, the 20th, the Man Booker Prize shortlist will be announced. This must be my worst showing for many years: I’ve read just two of the longlisted books, and both were such disappointments I had to wonder why they’d been nominated at all. I have six of the others on request from the public library; of them I’m most keen to read The Overstory and Sabrina, the first graphic novel to have been recognized (the others are by Gunaratne, Johnson, Kushner and Ryan, but I’ll likely cancel my holds if they don’t make the shortlist). I’d read Robin Robertson’s novel-in-verse if I ever managed to get hold of a copy, but I’ve decided I’m not interested in the other four nominees (Bauer, Burns, Edugyan, Ondaatje*).
The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh
(Excerpted from my upcoming review for New Books magazine’s Booker Prize roundup.)
The first word of The Water Cure may be “Once,” but what follows is no fairy tale. Here’s the rest of that sentence: “Once we have a father, but our father dies without us noticing.” The tense seems all wrong; surely it should be “had” and “died”? From the very first line, then, Sophie Mackintosh’s debut novel has the reader wrong-footed, and there are many more moments of confusion to come. The other thing to notice in the opening sentence is the use of the first person plural. That “we” refers to three sisters: Grace, Lia and Sky. After the death of their father, King, it’s just them and their mother in a grand house on a remote island.
There are frequent flashbacks to times when damaged women used to come here for therapy that sounds more like torture. The sisters still engage in similar sadomasochistic practices: sitting in a hot sauna until they faint, putting their hands and feet in buckets of ice, and playing the “drowning game” in the pool by putting on a dress laced with lead weights. Despite their isolation, the sisters are still affected by the world at large. At the end of Part I, three shipwrecked men wash up on shore and request sanctuary. The men represent new temptations and a threat to the sisters’ comfort zone.
This is a strange and disorienting book. The atmosphere – lonely and lowering – is the best thing about it. Its setup is somewhat reminiscent of two Shakespeare plays, King Lear and The Tempest. With the exception of a few lines like “we look towards the rounded glow of the horizon, the air peach-ripe with toxicity,” the prose draws attention to itself in a bad way: it’s consciously literary and overwritten. In terms of the plot, it is difficult to understand, at the most basic level, what is going on and why. Speculative novels with themes of women’s repression are a dime a dozen nowadays, and the interested reader will find a better example than this one.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Conversations with Friends was one of last year’s sleeper hits and a surprise favorite of mine. You may remember that I was part of an official shadow panel for the 2017 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, which I was pleased to see Sally Rooney win. So I jumped at the chance to read her follow-up novel, which has been earning high praise from critics and ordinary readers alike as being even better than her debut. Alas, though, I was let down.
Normal People is very similar to Tender – which for some will be high praise indeed, though I never managed to finish Belinda McKeon’s novel – in that both realistically address the intimacy between a young woman and a young man during their university days and draw class and town-and-country distinctions (the latter of which might not mean much to those who are unfamiliar with Ireland).
The central characters here are two loners: Marianne Sheridan, who lives in a white mansion with her distant mother and sadistic older brother Alan, and Connell Waldron, whose single mother cleans Marianne’s house. Connell doesn’t know who his father is; Marianne’s father died when she was 13, but good riddance – he hit her and her mother. Marianne and Connell start hooking up during high school in Carricklea, but Connell keeps their relationship a secret because Marianne is perceived as strange and unpopular. At Trinity College Dublin they struggle to fit in and keep falling into bed with each other even though they’re technically seeing other people.
The novel, which takes place between 2011 and 2015, keeps going back and forth in time by weeks or months, jumping forward and then filling in the intervening time with flashbacks. I kept waiting for more to happen, skimming ahead to see if there would be anything more to it than drunken college parties and frank sex scenes. The answer is: not really; that’s mostly what the book is composed of.
I can see what Rooney is trying to do here (she makes it plain in the next-to-last paragraph): to show how one temporary, almost accidental relationship can change the partners for the better, giving Connell the impetus to pursue writing and Marianne the confidence to believe she is loveable, just like ‘normal people’. It is appealing to see into these characters’ heads and compare what they think of themselves and each other with their awareness of what others think. But page to page it is pretty tedious, and fairly unsubtle.
I was interested to learn that Rooney was writing this at the same time as Conversations, and initially intended it to be short stories. It’s possible I would have appreciated it more in that form.
My thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy for review.
*I’ve only ever read the memoir Running in the Family plus a poetry collection by Ondaatje. I have a copy of The English Patient on the shelf and have felt guilty for years about not reading it, especially after it won the “Golden Booker” this past summer (see Annabel’s report on the ceremony). I had grand plans of reading all the Booker winners on my shelf – also including Carey and Keneally – in advance of the 50th anniversary celebrations, but didn’t even make it through the books I started by the two South African winners; my aborted mini-reviews are part of the Shiny New Books coverage here. (There are also excerpts from my reviews of Bring Up the Bodies, The Sellout and Lincoln in the Bardo here.)
Last year I’d read enough from the Booker longlist to make predictions and a wish list, but this year I have no clue. I’ll just have a look at the shortlist tomorrow and see if any of the remaining contenders appeal.