I’m taking a quick break from novellas coverage but keeping up the nonfiction focus with this week’s Nonfiction November prompt, “Stranger than Fiction,” hosted by Christopher at Plucked from the Stacks: “This week we’re focusing on all the great nonfiction books that almost don’t seem real. A sports biography involving overcoming massive obstacles, a profile on a bizarre scam, a look into the natural wonders in our world—basically, if it makes your jaw drop, you can highlight it for this week’s topic.” I would also interpret this brief to refer to nonfiction that reads as fluently as a novel, and on both counts this book stands out.
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown (2013)
We read this for my book club a couple of months ago, on the recommendation of one of our members’ spouses. I was dubious because I don’t read history books, and don’t enjoy playing or watching sports, so a sport + history book sounded like a real snoozefest, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Brown focuses on one of the University of Washington rowers, Joe Rantz, in effect making him the protagonist of a classic underdog story. The college team in general, and Rantz in particular, were unlikely champions. Rantz lost his mother young and, abandoned by his father multiple times, had to make a living by his wits in the Seattle area, sometimes resorting to illegal schemes like poaching and selling liquor during Prohibition, but also logging and working in dam construction. Even among the teammates who became his de facto family, he was bullied for coming from poverty and for his enthusiasm for folksy music. That we come to know and care deeply for Rantz testifies to how well Brown recreates his life story – largely via Rantz’s daughter’s reminiscences, though Brown did meet Rantz before his death.
Another central character is world-renowned boat designer George Pocock, an Englishman who set up shop on the Washington campus. Boatbuilding and rowing both come across as admirable skills involving hard physical labour, scientific precision and an artist’s mind. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed reading about the technical details of woodworking and rowing. Brown emphasizes the psychological as well as the physical challenges of rowing – “mind in boat” is a catchphrase reminding rowers to give their total attention for there to be harmony between teammates. Individual talent is only useful insomuch as it boosts collective performance, and there has to be a perfect balance between speed, power and technique. Often, it means going past the pain barrier: “Competitive rowing is an undertaking of extraordinary beauty preceded by brutal punishment,” as the author sums it up.
(After reading the book, some of us went on a fieldtrip to see the boating club where the woman who recommended the book rows as an amateur. It wasn’t until I saw the rowers out on the Thames that I realized that only the coxswain – the one who sits at the back of the boat and calls out the orders – faces forward, while all the other rowers are facing backwards. That feels metaphorically significant, like you have to trust where the journey is taking you all together rather than relying on your own sight.)
All along, Brown subtly weaves in the historical background: Depression-era Seattle with its shantytowns, and the rise of Hitler in Germany. Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl were key propagandists, whitewashing the city in advance of the Olympics to make a good impression on foreign visitors. Some atrocities had already been committed, and purification policies were in place, yet the Nazis fooled many with a façade of efficiency and cleanliness.
I have deep admiration for books, fiction or non-, that can maintain suspense even though you know the outcome. The pacing really works here. Most of the action is pre-Berlin, which keeps the tension high. (The only times when my attention waned was in the blow-by-blow accounts of preliminary races.) There were so many mishaps associated with the Olympic race that it truly is amazing that the U.S. team pulled through to win – I’ll leave the specifics for future readers to discover. But there are a couple ‘stranger than fiction’ details of the book that I do want to pull out: Joe’s father and brother each married one sister from a set of twins; and actor Hugh Laurie’s father was on the Great Britain rowing team at the 1936 Olympics.
The fires and heatwave of 1936 felt familiar, as did the hairstyles and fashions in the black-and-white photos (but the ‘boys’ themselves look more like 35-year-olds than modern college students). In some ways it seemed that little has changed, but then other facts feel impossibly outdated – e.g., sperm whale oil was used to oil the boats.
This might seem like a ‘dad book’ – indeed, several of us passed the book on to our fathers/-in-law after reading – but in fact it has very broad appeal and is one I’d be likely to recommend to any big readers, even if they’re not keen on nonfiction. It’s one of my most memorable reads of the year so far. And whether you fancy reading the book or not, you may want to look out for the George Clooney-directed film, coming out next year. (Secondhand purchase)
It’s been a long time since I attended a literary festival in person rather than online. Four of us from my book club went along yesterday evening to the headline event of Marlborough Literature Festival. Marlborough is a pleasant market town in Wiltshire about 40 minutes from Newbury, and I’d like to get back to it sometime soon when things are open so I can explore its secondhand and plastic-free shops.
Patrick Gale closed the festival by speaking about his new novel (his 17th), Mother’s Boy. I knew it was a historical novel that covered the Second World War, but I had no idea that it was based on a real person, poet Charles Causley. With Andrew Motion, Gale is a patron of the Charles Causley Trust, which runs an annual poetry competition for children. I hadn’t heard of Causley, but Gale and some members of the audience recall memorizing his poems in school – like Roald Dahl’s, they can have a wicked sense of humour. Causley also wrote in the style of traditional ballads; my husband knows a version of one on a folk album.
Gale called Causley the “least sexy” of the war poets. He was from Launceston, Cornwall and left school at age 15, joining the Navy and later working as a schoolteacher for many years. He lived with his widowed mother and, if you believe the legend, died a virgin. However, Gale unearthed evidence that Causley was in fact a closeted homosexual and had sexual encounters with men during the war. He experienced survivor’s guilt because he escaped his ship’s explosion while he had an on-shore posting so that he could sit his exams.
Equally important to the novel is Causley’s mother, Laura, who grew up in extreme poverty and, after her husband’s death from TB, raised Charles in a slum on a laundress’ salary, even managing to buy him a piano. Launceston was decimated by the two world wars, and essentially colonized by the segregated U.S. Army. Gale made up a Black character named Amos, but gave him a horrific real-life story. Laura would have met Black soldiers and, later, German POWs through her working-class church.
Gale acknowledged that he had to make up more of Laura’s story, relying only on the information about her in Causley’s tiny appointment diaries. In response to an audience question, he said he thinks Causley would be “utterly appalled” at the existence of this novel because he was an intensely private person, but that he’s salved his conscience with the fact that the book is driving people back to Causley’s poems. He wrote this as a novel rather than a biography because he tends to “overempathize” with characters, and likes to go “behind the bedroom door,” as he put it – indeed, one (non-graphic) scene he read was of Charles’s conception, while the other was about Charles learning to read at age five and enjoying his father’s company though he knew he was ill.
Mother’s Boy is most like A Place Called Winter from his oeuvre, Gale remarked, in that it’s historical fiction based on real people – in that earlier case, his own relatives. Gale’s father was the governor of Wandsworth Prison and his mother the daughter of the governor of Liverpool Prison (where he oversaw many hangings). In fact, he’s now at work on a sequel to A Place Called Winter, about his grandparents and parents, and researching from letters.
I was impressed with Gale’s delivery: he spoke engagingly for 45 minutes about the book and its context, peppering in readings and recitations, with no interviewer to prompt him. It was clearly a practiced lecture, but he had no notes and spoke warmly and as if off the cuff.
Are any of these poem titles familiar to you? These were the ones mentioned during last night’s event. (You can listen to Causley reading some of them in his eighties – with his large cat purring in the background – on the Poetry Archive site I linked to above.)
- “Timothy Winters”
- “Rattler Morgan”
- “Eden Rock”
- “The Ballad of a Bread Man”
- “Angel Hill”
I have a copy of Mother’s Boy on hold at the library for me to pick up tomorrow, and we fancy reading A Place Called Winter for book club soon – his Notes from an Exhibition was one of our all-time favourites that we’ve read together.
Are you a Patrick Gale fan? Have you been able to attend any literary events recently?
The Holy Week opening was the excuse I needed to pick up this review copy from 2021. Amadeo Padilla is playing Jesus this year in the Las Penas, New Mexico penitentes’ reenactment of the crucifixion. At 33, he’s the perfect age for the role; no matter that he’s an unemployed alcoholic and a single father to 15-year-old Angel, who is pregnant. Looping from one Good Friday to the next, this debut novel is a crushingly honest look at family dynamics. It’s what isn’t said that might tear them apart: Amadeo’s mother, Yolanda, hasn’t told anyone about her diagnosis, and Amadeo conveniently covers up the fact that he’s sleeping with Brianna, Angel’s teacher at the Smart Starts! high school equivalency program.
The title refers to the stigmata of Christ, but could just as well apply to the Padillas’ five generations, from baby Connor all the way up to Tío Tíve, Amadeo’s great-uncle. Substance abuse, poverty and abandonment are generational wounds that run through this family. Quade treats heavy subjects and damaged characters with kindness, never mocking or descending into cruelty. There is even levity to failures like Amadeo’s windshield crack repair venture. Any of these characters could have been caricatures, especially Angel as a teen mother, but Quade gives them depth. Angel’s emulation of Brianna and her classmate Lizette, her grudging care for Connor and Yolanda, and her ambivalent feelings towards Ryan, Connor’s father, are just a few of the aspects that make her a plucky, winsome protagonist.
The inclusion of Lent and Advent sets up the book’s emotional palette: waiting, guilt, self-sacrifice; preparing for birth, death and the determination to forge a new life. It’s refreshing, however, that the theological content is not just metaphorical here; these characters have a staunch Catholic background, and they take seriously Jesus’ example:
Good Friday was supposed to save Amadeo. He was supposed to be past the shame and failure and the mistakes that hardly seem to be his own and that unravel beyond his control. Amadeo feels cheated. By Passion week, by the penitentes, by Jesus himself. The fact is that no one can be crucified every day—not even Jesus could pull off that miracle.
Amadeo asks himself, with no trace of irony, what Jesus would do in the kinds of situations he finds himself in.
I would have liked more closure about two secondary characters, and at over 400 pages of small type, The Five Wounds is on the overlong side. But it’s so strong on characters and scenes, from classroom to hospital, that my interest never waned. Different as their settings are, I’d liken this to An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud – two novels that had me aching for their vibrant characters’ poor decisions compounded by bad luck. The authors’ compassionate outlook makes the tragic elements bearable. I’ll be catching up on Quade’s first book, the short story collection Night at the Fiestas, as soon as I can.
With thanks to Profile Books (Tuskar Rock imprint) for the free copy for review.
I recently finished a limping reread of Watership Down by Richard Adams. This was my favourite book as a child, but I couldn’t recapture the magic in my late thirties. The novelty this time around was in being able to recognize all the settings – the rabbits’ epic quest takes place on the outskirts of Newbury; we’ve walked through its countryside locations. (In fact, my husband, in his capacity as a town councillor, has testified at a hearing in objection to a plan to build 1000 houses at Sandleford, where the rabbits set out from.) I can see why I loved this at age nine: anthropomorphized animals, legends, made-up vocabulary and an old-fashioned adventure narrative. But it’s telling that this time around, what most amused me was Chapter 48, “Dea ex Machina,” in which a little girl rescues Hazel from her cat.
I’m 40 pages from the end of These Days by Lucy Caldwell, a beautiful novel set in Belfast in April 1941. A long central section is about “The Easter Raid.” I didn’t realize the devastation the city suffered during the Second World War. We see it mostly through the eyes of the Bell family – especially daughters Audrey, engaged to be married to a young doctor, and Emma, in love with a fellow female volunteer. I was wary of the characterization of the lower class, and the period slang can be a bit heavy-handed, but the evocation of a time of crisis is excellent, contrasting a departed normality with the new reality of bodies piled in the street and in makeshift morgues. It’s reminded me of The Night Watch by Sarah Waters.
This month we begin with The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, a perfect excuse for me to review a novel I finished more than a year ago. This was only my second novel from Greene, after The Quiet American many a year ago. It’s subtle: low on action and majoring on recollection and regret. Mostly what we get are the bitter memories of Maurice Bendrix, a writer who had an affair with his clueless friend Henry’s wife Sarah during the last days of the Second World War. After she broke up with him, he remained obsessed with her and hired Parkis, a lower-class private detective, to figure out why. To his surprise, Sarah’s diaries revealed, not that she’d taken up with another man, but that she’d found religion. Maurice finds himself in the odd position of being jealous of … God? (More thoughts here.)
#1 I asked myself if I’d ever read another book where someone was jealous of a concept rather than a fellow human being, and finally came up with one. I enjoyed Cooking as Fast as I Can by Cat Cora even though I wasn’t aware of this Food Network celebrity and restaurateur. Her memoir focuses on her Mississippi upbringing in a half-Greek adoptive family and the challenges of being gay in the South. Separate obsessions plagued her marriage; I remember at one point she gave her wife an ultimatum: it’s either me or the hot yoga.
#2 Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It by Geoff Dyer is one of my favourite-ever book titles. The title is his proposed idea for a self-help book, but … wait for the punchline … he couldn’t be bothered to write it. It’s a book of disparate travel essays, with him as the bumbling antihero, sluggish and stoned. This wasn’t one of his better books, but his descriptions and one-liners are always amusing (my review).
#3 Another book with a fantastic title that has nothing to do with the contents: Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris. Again, not my favourite of his essay collections (try Me Talk Pretty One Day or When You Are Engulfed in Flames instead), but he’s reliable for laughs.
#4 No more about owls than the previous one; Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame is an autobiographical novel that tells the same story as her An Angel at My Table trilogy (but less compellingly): a hardscrabble upbringing in New Zealand and mental illness that led to incarceration in psychiatric hospitals. The title phrase is from Ariel’s song in The Tempest, which the Withers siblings learn at school. I’ve been ‘reading’ this for nearly a year and a half; really, it’s mostly been on the set-aside shelf for that time.
#5 Another title drawn from Shakespeare: there are more things by Yara Rodrigues Fowler is one of my Most Anticipated Books of 2022. It’s about a female friendship that links Brazil and London. I’m holding out hope for a review copy.
#6 Fowler’s title comes from Hamlet, which provides the plot for Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, one of his strongest novels of recent years. Within a few pages, I was captivated and utterly convinced by the voice of this contemporary, in utero Hamlet. Not even born and already a snob with an advanced vocabulary and a taste for fine wine, this foetus is a delight to spend time with. His captive state pairs perfectly with Hamlet’s existential despair, but also makes him (and us as readers) part of the conspiracy: even as he wants justice for his father, he has to hope his mother and uncle will get away with their crime; his future depends on it.
Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.)
Have you read any of my selections? Tempted by any you didn’t know before?
In the week before Christmas I reviewed a first batch of wintry reads. We’ve had hardly any snowfall here in southern England this season, so I gave up on it in real life and sought winter weather on the page. After we’ve seen the back of Storm Franklin (it’s already moved on from Eunice!), I hope it will feel appropriate to start right in on some spring reading. But for today I have a Tokyo-set novella, sombre poems, an OTT contemporary Gothic novel, historical fiction in translation from the Finnish, and – the cream of the crop – a real-life environmentalist adventure in Russia.
Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au (2022)
This slim work will be released in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions on the 23rd and came out elsewhere this month from New Directions and Giramondo. I actually read it in December during my travel back from the States. It’s a delicate work of autofiction – it reads most like a Chloe Aridjis or Rachel Cusk novel – about a woman and her Hong Kong-raised mother on a trip to Tokyo. You get a bit of a flavour of Japan through their tourism (a museum, a temple, handicrafts, trains, meals), but the real focus is internal as Au subtly probes the workings of memory and generational bonds.
The woman and her mother engage in surprisingly deep conversations about the soul and the meaning of life, but these are conveyed indirectly rather than through dialogue: “she said that she believed that we were all essentially nothing, just series of sensations and desires, none of it lasting. … The best we could do in this life was to pass through it, like smoke through the branches”. Though I highlighted a fair few passages, I find that no details have stuck with me. This is just the sort of spare book I can admire but not warm to. (NetGalley)
Winter Recipes from the Collective by Louise Glück (2021)
The only other poetry collection of Glück’s that I’d read was Vita Nova. This, her first release since her Nobel Prize win, was my final read of 2021 and my shortest, at 40-some pages; it’s composed of just 15 poems, a few of which stretch to five pages or more. “The Denial of Death,” a prose piece with more of the feel of an autobiographical travel essay, was a standout; the title poem, again in prose paragraphs, and the following one, “Winter Journey,” about farewells, bear a melancholy chill. Memories and dreams take pride of place, with the poet’s sister appearing frequently. “How heavy my mind is, filled with the past.” There are also multiple references to Chinese concepts and characters (as on the cover). The overall style is more aphoristic and reflective than expected. Few individual lines or images stood out to me.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the e-copy for review.
The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall (2020)
Henna is alone in the world since her parents and twin sister disappeared in a boating accident. She lives a solitary existence with her sister’s basset hound Rembrandt in a New England village, writing encyclopaedia entries on the Arctic, until she stumbles on a corpse and embarks on an amateur investigation involving scraps of 19th-century correspondence. The dead woman asked inconvenient questions about a historical cover-up; if she takes up the thread, Henna could be a target, too. Her collaboration with the police chief, Fletcher, turns into a flirtation. After her house burns down, she ends up living with him – and his mother and housekeeper – in a Gothic mansion stuffed with birds of prey and historical snow samples. She’s at the mercy of this quirky family and the weather, wearing ancient clothing from Fletcher’s great-aunts and tramping through blizzards looking for answers.
This is a kitchen-sink novel with loads going on, as if Hall couldn’t decide which of her interests to include so threw them all in. Yet at only 221 pages, it might actually have been expanded a little to flesh out the backstory and mystery plot. It gets more than a bit ridiculous in places, but its Victorian fan fiction vibe is charming escapism nonetheless. What with the historical fiction interludes about the Franklin expedition, this reminded me most of The Still Point, but also of The World Before Us and The Birth House. I’d happily read Hall’s 2010 short story collection, too. (Christmas gift)
Land of Snow and Ashes by Petra Rautiainen (2022)
[Translated from the Finnish by David Hackston]
In the middle years of World War II, Finland was allied with Nazi Germany against Russia, a mutual enemy. After the Moscow Armistice, the Germans retreated in disgrace, burning as many buildings and planting as many landmines as they could (“the Lapland War”). I gleaned this helpful background information from Hackston’s preface. The story that follows is in two strands: one is set in 1944 and told via diary entries from Väinö Remes, a Finnish soldier called up to interpret at a Nazi prison camp in Inari. The other, in third person, takes place between 1947 and 1950, the early years of postwar reconstruction. Inkeri, a journalist, has come to Enontekiö to find out what happened to her husband. An amateur photographer, she teaches art to the local Sámi children and takes on one girl, Bigga-Marja, as her protégée.
Collusion and secrets; escaped prisoners and physical measurements being taken of the Sámi: there are a number of sinister hints that become clearer as the novel goes on. I felt a distance from the main characters that I could never quite overcome, such that the reveals didn’t land with as much power as I think was intended. Still, this has the kind of forthright storytelling and precise writing that fans of Hubert Mingarelli should appreciate. For another story of the complexities of being on the wrong side of history, see The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck.
With thanks to Pushkin Press for the proof copy for review.
“Fresh snow has fallen, forming drifts across the terrain. White. Grey. Undulating. The ice has cracked here and there, raising its head in the thawed sections of the river. There is only a thin layer of ice left.”
Owls of the Eastern Ice: The Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan C. Slaght (2020)
Slaght has become an expert on the Blakiston’s fish owl during nearly two decades of fieldwork in the far east of Russia – much closer to Korea and Japan than to Moscow, the region is also home to Amur tigers. For his Master’s and PhD research at the University of Minnesota, he plotted the territories of breeding pairs of owls and fit them with identifying bands and data loggers to track their movements over the years. He describes these winter field seasons as recurring frontier adventures. Now, I’ve accompanied my husband on fieldwork from time to time, and I can tell you it would be hard to make it sound exciting. Then again, gathering beetles from English fields is pretty staid compared to piloting snowmobiles over melting ice, running from fire, speeding to avoid blockaded logging roads, and being served cleaning-grade ethanol when the vodka runs out.
The sorts of towns Slaght works near are primitive places where adequate food and fuel is a matter of life and death. He and his assistants rely on the hospitality of Anatoliy the crazy hermit and also stay in huts and caravans. Tracking the owls is a rollercoaster experience, with expensive equipment failures and trial and error to narrow down the most effective trapping methods. His team develops a new low-tech technique involving a tray of live fish planted in the river shallows under a net. They come to know individuals and mourn their loss: the Sha-Mi female he’s holding in his author photo was hit by a car four years later.
Slaght thinks of Russia as his second home, and you can sense his passion for the fish owl and for conservation in general. He boils down complicated data and statistics into the simple requirements for this endangered species (fewer than 2000 in the wild): valleys containing old-growth forest with large trees and rivers that don’t fully freeze over. There are only limited areas with these characteristics. These specifications and his ongoing research – Slaght is now the Northeast Asia Coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society – inform the policy recommendations given to logging companies and other bodies.
Amid the science, this is just a darn good story, full of bizarre characters like Katkov, a garrulous assistant exiled for his snoring. (“He fueled his monologue with sausage and cheese, then belched zeppelins of aroma into that confined space.”) Slaght himself doesn’t play much of a role in the book, so don’t expect a soul-searching memoir. Instead, you get top-notch nature and travel writing, and a ride along on a consequential environmentalist quest. This is the kind of science book that, like Lab Girl and Entangled Life, I’d recommend even if you don’t normally pick up nonfiction. (Christmas gift)
And a bonus children’s book:
If Winter Comes, Tell It I’m Not Here by Simona Ciraolo (2020)
The little boy loves nothing more than to spend hours at the swimming pool and then have an ice cream cone. His big sister warns him the carefree days of summer will be over soon; it will turn cold and dark and he’ll be cooped up inside. Her words come to pass, yet the boy realizes that every season has its joys and he has to take advantage of them while they last. Cute and colourful, though the drawing style wasn’t my favourite. And a correction is in order: as President Biden would surely tell you, ice cream is a year-round treat! (Public library)
Any snowy or icy reading (or weather) for you lately?
I do all my composition on an ancient PC (unconnected to the Internet) in a corner of our lounge. On top of the CPU sit piles of books waiting to be reviewed. Some have been residing there for an embarrassingly long time since I finished reading them; others were only recently added to the stack but had previously languished on my set-aside shelf. I think the ‘oldest’ of the set below is the Olson, which I started reading in November 2019. In every case, the book earned a spot on the pile because I felt it was worth a review, but I’ll stick to a brief paragraph on why each was memorable. Bonus: I get my Post-its back, and can reshelve the books so they get packed sensibly for our upcoming move.
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti (2012): My second from Heti, after Motherhood; both landed with me because they nail aspects of my state of mind. Heti writes autofiction about writers dithering about their purpose in life. Here Sheila is working in a hair salon while trying to finish her play – some absurdist dialogue is set out in script form – and hanging out with artists like her best friend Margaux. The sex scenes are gratuitous and kinda gross. In general, I alternated between sniggering (especially at the ugly painting competition) and feeling seen: Sheila expects fate to decide things for her; God forbid she should ever have to make an actual choice. Heti is self-deprecating about an admittedly self-indulgent approach, and so funny on topics like mansplaining. This was longlisted for the Women’s Prize in 2013. (Little Free Library)
The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1990): The first volume of The Cazalet Chronicles, read for a book club meeting last January. I could hardly believe the publication date; it’s such a detailed, convincing picture of daily life in 1937–8 for a large, wealthy family in London and Sussex that it seems it must have been written in the 1940s. The retrospective angle, however, allows for subtle commentary on how limited women’s lives were, locked in by marriage and pregnancies. Sexual abuse is also calmly reported. One character is a lesbian, but everyone believes her partner is just a friend. The cousins’ childhood japes are especially enjoyable. And, of course, war is approaching. It’s all very Downton Abbey. I launched straight into the second book afterwards, but stalled 60 pages in. I’ll aim to get back into the series later this year. (Free mall bookshop)
Keeper: Living with Nancy—A journey into Alzheimer’s by Andrea Gillies (2009): The inaugural Wellcome Book Prize winner. The Prize expanded in focus over a decade; I don’t think a straightforward family memoir like this would have won later on. Gillies’ family relocated to remote northern Scotland and her elderly mother- and father-in-law, Nancy and Morris, moved in. Morris was passive, with limited mobility; Nancy was confused and cantankerous, often treating Gillies like a servant. (“There’s emptiness behind her eyes, something missing that used to be there. It’s sinister.”) She’d try to keep her cool but often got frustrated and contradicted her mother-in-law’s delusions. Gillies relays facts about Alzheimer’s that I knew from In Pursuit of Memory. What has remained with me is a sense of just how gruelling the caring life is. Gillies could barely get any writing done because if she turned her back Nancy might start walking to town, or – the single most horrific incident that has stuck in my mind – place faeces on the bookshelf. (Secondhand purchase)
Reflections from the North Country by Sigurd F. Olson (1976): Olson was a well-known environmental writer in his time, also serving as president of the National Parks Association. Somehow I hadn’t heard of him before my husband picked this out at random. Part of a Minnesota Heritage Book series, this collection of passionate, philosophically oriented essays about the state of nature places him in the vein of Aldo Leopold – before-their-time conservationists. He ponders solitude, wilderness and human nature, asking what is primal in us and what is due to unfortunate later developments. His counsel includes simplicity and wonder rather than exploitation and waste. The chief worry that comes across is that people are now so cut off from nature they can’t see what they’re missing – and destroying. It can be depressing to read such profound 1970s works; had we heeded environmental prophets like Olson, we could have changed course before it was too late. (Free from The Book Thing of Baltimore)
Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman by Alice Steinbach (2004): I’d loved her earlier travel book Without Reservations. Here she sets off on a journey of discovery and lifelong learning. I included the first essay, about enrolling in cooking lessons in Paris, in my foodie 20 Books of Summer 2020. In other chapters she takes dance lessons in Kyoto, appreciates art in Florence and Havana, walks in Jane Austen’s footsteps in Winchester and environs, studies garden design in Provence, takes a creative writing workshop in Prague, and trains Border collies in Scotland. It’s clear she loves meeting new people and chatting – great qualities in a journalist. By this time she had quit her job with the Baltimore Sun so was free to explore and make her life what she wanted. She thinks back to childhood memories of her Scottish grandmother, and imagines how she’d describe her adventures to her gentleman friend, Naohiro. She recreates everything in a way that makes this as fluent as any novel, such that I’d even dare recommend it to fiction-only readers. (Free mall bookshop)
Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey by Adam Weymouth (2018): I didn’t get the chance to read this when it was shortlisted for, and then won, the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, but I received a copy from my wish list for Christmas that year. Alaska is a place that attracts outsiders and nonconformists. During the summer of 2016, Weymouth undertook a voyage by canoe down the nearly 2,000 miles of the Yukon River – the same epic journey made by king/Chinook salmon. He camps alongside the river bank in a tent, often with his partner, Ulli. He also visits a fish farm, meets reality TV stars and native Yup’ik people, and eats plenty of salmon. “I do occasionally consider the ethics of investigating a fish’s decline whilst stuffing my face with it.” Charting the effects of climate change without forcing the issue, he paints a somewhat bleak picture. But his descriptive writing is so lyrical, and his scenes and dialogue so natural, that he kept me eagerly riding along in the canoe with him. (Secondhand copy, gifted)
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Friendship is a fairly common theme in my reading and, like sisterhood, it’s an element I can rarely resist. When I picked up a secondhand copy of Female Friends (below) in a charity shop in Hexham over the summer, I spied a chance for another thematic roundup. I limited myself to novels I’d read recently and to groups of women friends.
Before Everything by Victoria Redel (2017)
I found out about this one from Susan’s review at A life in books (and she included it in her own thematic roundup of novels on friendship). “The Old Friends” have known each other for decades, since elementary school. Anna, Caroline, Helen, Ming and Molly. Their lives have gone in different directions – painter, psychiatrist, singer in a rock band and so on – but in March 2013 they’re huddling together because Anna is terminally ill. Over the years she’s had four remissions, but it’s clear the lymphoma won’t go away this time. Some of Anna’s friends and family want her to keep fighting, but the core group of pals is going to have to learn to let her die on her own terms. Before that, though, they aim for one more adventure.
Through the short, titled sections, some of them pages in length but others only a sentence or two, you piece together the friends’ history and separate struggles. Here’s an example of one such fragment, striking for the frankness and intimacy; how coyly those bald numbers conceal such joyful and wrenching moments:
Actually, for What It’s Worth
Between them there were twelve delivered babies. Three six- to eight-week abortions. Three miscarriages. One post-amniocentesis selective abortion. That’s just for the record.
While I didn’t like this quite as much as Talk Before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg, which is similar in setup, it’s a must-read on the theme. It’s sweet and sombre by turns, and has bite. I also appreciated how Redel contrasts the love between old friends with marital love and the companionship of new neighbourly friends. I hadn’t heard of Redel before, but she’s published another four novels and three poetry collections. It’d be worth finding more by her. The cover image is inspired by a moment late in a book when they find a photograph of the five of them doing handstands in a sprinkler the summer before seventh grade. (Public library)
Female Friends by Fay Weldon (1974)
Like a cross between The Orchard on Fire by Shena Mackay and The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer; this is the darkly funny story of Marjorie, Chloe and Grace: three Londoners who have stayed friends ever since their turbulent childhood during the Second World War, when Marjorie was sent to live with Grace and her mother. They have a nebulous brood of children between them, some fathered by a shared lover (a slovenly painter named Patrick). Chloe’s husband is trying to make her jealous with his sexual attentions to their French nanny. Marjorie, who works for the BBC, is the only one without children; she has a gynaecological condition and is engaged in a desultory search for her father.
The book is mostly in the third person, but some chapters are voiced by Chloe and occasional dialogues are set out like a film script. I enjoyed the glimpses I got into women’s lives in the mid-20th century via the three protagonists and their mothers. All are more beholden to men than they’d like to be. But there’s an overall grimness to this short novel that left me wincing. I’d expected more nostalgia (“they are nostalgic, all the same, for those days of innocence and growth and noise. The post-war world is drab and grey and middle-aged. No excitement, only shortages and work”) and warmth, but this friendship trio is characterized by jealousy and resentment. (Secondhand copy)
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood (2019)
“It was exhausting, being friends. Had they ever been able to tell each other the truth?”
It’s the day before Christmas Eve as seventysomethings Jude, Wendy and Adele gather to clear out their late friend’s Sylvie’s house in a fictional coastal town in New South Wales. This being Australia, that means blazing hot weather and a beach barbecue rather than a cosy winter scene. Jude is a bristly former restaurateur who has been the mistress of a married man for many years. Wendy is a widowed academic who brings her decrepit dog, Finn, along with her. Adele is a washed-up actress who carefully maintains her appearance but still can’t find meaningful work.
They know each other so well, faults and all. Things they think they’ve hidden are beyond obvious to the others. And for as much as they miss Sylvie, they are angry at her, too. But there is also a fierce affection in the mix that I didn’t sense in the Weldon: “[Adele] remembered them from long ago, two girls alive with purpose and beauty. Her love for them was inexplicable. It was almost bodily.” Yet Wendy compares their tenuous friendship to the Great Barrier Reef coral, at risk of being bleached.
It’s rare to see so concerted a look at women in later life, as the characters think back and wonder if they’ve made the right choices. There are plenty of secrets and self-esteem struggles, but it’s all encased in an acerbic wit that reminded me of Emma Straub and Elizabeth Strout. Terrific stuff. (Twitter giveaway win)
Some favourite lines:
“The past was striated through you, through your body, leaching into the present and the future.”
“Was this what getting old was made of? Routines and evasions, boring yourself to death with your own rigid judgements?”
On this theme, I have also read: The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames, Catch the Rabbit by Lana Bastašić, The Group by Lara Feigel (and Mary McCarthy), My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, Expectation by Anna Hope, Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney, and The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker.
If you read just one … The Weekend was the best of this bunch for me.
Have you read much on this topic?
Today’s entries in my colour-themed summer reading are a novel about a quartet of college friends and the mistakes that mar their lives and a novella about the enduring impact of war set just after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames (2019)
Make new friends but keep the old,
One is silver and the other’s gold.
Do you know that little tune? We would sing it as a round at summer camp. It provides a clever title for this story of four college roommates whose lives are marked by the threat of sexual violence and ambivalent feelings about motherhood. Alice, Ji Sun, Lainey and Margaret first meet as freshmen in 2002 when they’re assigned to the same suite (with a window seat! how envious am I?) at Quincy-Hawthorn College.
They live together for the whole four years – a highly unusual situation – and see each other through crises at college and in the years to come as they find partners and meander into motherhood. Iraq War protests and the Occupy movement form a turbulent background, but the friends’ overriding concerns are more personal. One girl was molested by her brother as a child and has kept secret her act of revenge; one has a crush on a professor until she learns he has sexual harassment charges being filed against him by multiple female students. Infertility later provokes jealousy between the young women, and mental health issues come to the fore.
As in Expectation by Anna Hope, the book starts to be all about babies at a certain point. That’s not a problem if you’re prepared for and interested in this theme, but I love campus novels so much that my engagement waned as the characters left university behind. Also, the characters seemed too artificially manufactured to inject diversity (Ji Sun is a wealthy Korean; adopted Lainey is of mixed Latina heritage, and bisexual; Margaret has Native American blood) and embody certain experiences. And, unfortunately, any #MeToo-themed read encountered in the wake of My Dark Vanessa is going to pale by comparison.
Part One held my interest, but after that I skimmed to the end. Ideally, I would have chosen replacements and not included skims like this and Green Mansions, but it’s not the first summer that I’ve had to count DNFs and skimmed books – my time and attention are always being diverted by paid review work, review copies and library books with imminent deadlines. I’ve read lots of fiction about groups of female friends this summer, partly by accident and partly by design, and will likely do a feature on it in an upcoming month. For now, I’d recommend Lara Feigel’s The Group instead of this.
With thanks to Pushkin Press (ONE imprint) for the free e-copy for review.
Black Dogs by Ian McEwan (1992)
When I read the blurb, I worried I’d read this before and forgotten it: all it mentions is a young couple setting off on honeymoon and having an encounter with evil. Isn’t that the plot of The Comfort of Strangers? I thought. In fact, this only happens to have the vacation detail in common, and has a very different setup and theme overall.
Jeremy lost his parents in a car accident (my least favourite fictional trope – far too convenient a way of setting a character off on their own!) when he was eight years old, and is self-aware enough to realize that he has been seeking for parental figures ever after. He becomes deeply immersed in the story of his wife’s parents, Bernard and June, even embarking on writing a memoir based on what June, from her nursing home bed, tells him of their early life (Part One).
After June’s death, Jeremy takes Bernard to Berlin (Part Two) to soak up the atmosphere just after the Wall comes down, but the elderly man is kicked by a skinhead. The other key thing that happens on this trip is that he refutes June’s account of their honeymoon. At June’s old house in France (Part Three), Jeremy feels her presence and seems to hear the couple’s voices. Only in Part Four do we learn what happened on their 1946 honeymoon trip to France: an encounter with literal black dogs that also has a metaphorical dimension, bringing back the horrors of World War II.
I think the novel is also meant to contrast Communist ideals – Bernard and June were members of the Party in their youth – with how Communism has played out in history. It was shortlisted for the Booker, which made me feel that I must be missing something. A fairly interesting read, most similar in his oeuvre (at least of the 15 I’ve read so far) to The Child in Time. (Secondhand purchase from a now-defunct Newbury charity shop)
Coming up next: The latest book by John Green – it’s due back at the library on the 31st so I’ll aim to review it before then, possibly with a rainbow-covered novel as a bonus read.
These three terrific graphic novels all have one-word titles and were published on the 13th of May. Outwardly, they are very different: a biography of a famous English writer, the story of an artist looking for authentic connections, and a memoir of a medical crisis that had permanent consequences. The drawing styles are varied as well. But if the books share one thing, it’s an engagement with loneliness: It’s tempting to see the self as being pitted against the world, with illness an additional isolating force, but family, friends and compatriots are there to help us feel less alone and like we are a part of something constructive.
Orwell by Pierre Christin; illustrated by Sébastien Verdier
[Translated from the French by Edward Gauvin]
George Orwell was born Eric Blair in Bengal, where his father worked for the colonial government. As a boy, he loved science fiction and knew that he would become a writer. He had an unhappy time at prep school, where he was on reduced fees, and proceeded to Eton and then police training in Burma. Already he felt that “imperialism was an evil thing.” Among this book’s black-and-white panes, the splashes of colour – blood, a British flag – stand out, and guest artists contribute a two-page colour spread each, illustrating scenes from Orwell’s major works. His pen name commemorates a local river and England’s patron saint, marking his preoccupation with the essence of Englishness: something deeper than his hated militarism and capitalism. Even when he tried to ‘go native’ for embedded journalism (Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier), his accent marked him out as posh. He was opinionated and set out “rules” for clear writing and the proper making of tea.
The book’s settings range from Spain, where Orwell went to fight in the Civil War, via a bomb shelter in London’s Underground, to the island of Jura, where he retired after the war. I particularly loved the Scottish scenery. I also appreciated the notes on where his life story entered into his fiction (especially in A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying). During World War II he joined the Home Guard and contributed to BBC broadcasting alongside T.S. Eliot. He had married Eileen, adopted a baby boy, and set up a smallholding. Even when hospitalized for tuberculosis, he wouldn’t stop typing (or smoking).
Christin creates just enough scenes to give a sense of the sweep of Orwell’s life, and incorporates plenty of the author’s own words in a typewriter font. He recognizes all the many aspects, sometimes contradictory, of his subject’s life. And in an afterword, he makes a strong case for Orwell’s ideas being more important now than ever before. My knowledge of Orwell’s oeuvre, apart from the ones everyone has read – Animal Farm and 1984 – is limited; luckily this is suited not just to Orwell fans but to devotees of life stories of any kind.
With thanks to SelfMadeHero for the free copy for review.
In by Will McPhail
Nick never knows the right thing to say. The bachelor artist’s well-intentioned thoughts remain unvoiced, such that all he can manage is small talk. Whether he’s on a subway train, interacting with his mom and sister, or sitting in a bar with a tongue-in-cheek name (like “Your Friends Have Kids” or “Gentrificchiato”), he’s conscious of being the clichéd guy who’s too clueless or pathetic to make a real connection with another human being. That starts to change when he meets Wren, a Black doctor who instantly sees past all his pretence.
Like Orwell, In makes strategic use of colour spreads. “Say something that matters,” Nick scolds himself, and on the rare occasions when he does figure out what to say or ask – the magic words that elicit an honest response – it’s as if a new world opens up. These full-colour breakthrough scenes are like dream sequences, filled with symbols such as a waterfall, icy cliff, or half-submerged building with classical façade. Each is heralded by a close-up image on the other person’s eyes: being literally close enough to see their eye colour means being metaphorically close enough to be let in. Nick achieves these moments with everyone from the plumber to his four-year-old nephew.
Alternately laugh-out-loud funny and tender, McPhail’s debut novel is as hip as it is genuine. It’s a spot-on picture of modern life in a generic city. I especially loved the few pages when Nick is on a Zoom call with carefully ironed shirt but no trousers and the potential employers on the other end get so lost in their own jargon that they forget he’s there. His banter with Wren or with his sister reveals a lot about these characters, but there’s also an amazing 12-page wordless sequence late on that conveys so much. While I’d recommend this to readers of Alison Bechdel, Craig Thompson, and Chris Ware (and expect it to have a lot in common with Kristen Radtke’s forthcoming Seek You: A Journey through American Loneliness), it’s perfect for those brand new to graphic novels, too – a good old-fashioned story, with all the emotional range of Writers & Lovers. I hope it’ll be a wildcard entry on the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist.
With thanks to Sceptre for the free copy for review.
Coma by Zara Slattery
In May 2013, Zara Slattery’s life changed forever. What started as a nagging sore throat developed into a potentially deadly infection called necrotising fascitis. She spent 15 days in a medically induced coma and woke up to find that one of her legs had been amputated. As in Orwell and In, colour is used to differentiate different realms. Monochrome sketches in thick crayon illustrate her husband Dan’s diary of the everyday life that kept going while she was in hospital, yet it’s the coma/fantasy pages in vibrant blues, reds and gold that feel more real.
Slattery remembers, or perhaps imagines, being surrounded by nightmarish skulls and menacing animals. She feels accused and guilty, like she has to justify her continued existence. In one moment she’s a puppet; in another she’s in ancient China, her fate being decided for her. Some of the watery landscapes and specific images here happen to echo those in McPhail’s novel: a splash park, a sunken theatre; a statue on a plinth. There’s also a giant that reminded me a lot of one of the monsters in Spirited Away.
Meanwhile, Dan was holding down the fort, completing domestic tasks and reassuring their three children. Relatives came to stay; neighbours brought food, ran errands, and gave him lifts to the hospital. He addresses the diary directly to Zara as a record of the time she spent away from home and acknowledges that he doesn’t know if she’ll come back to them. A final letter from Zara’s nurse reveals how bad off she was, maybe more so than Dan was aware.
This must have been such a distressing time to revisit. In this interview, Slattery talks about the courage it took to read Dan’s diary even years after the fact. I admired how the book’s contrasting drawing styles recreate her locked-in mental state and her family’s weeks of waiting – both parties in limbo, wondering what will come next.
Brighton, where Slattery is based, is a hotspot of the Graphic Medicine movement spearheaded by Ian Williams (author of The Lady Doctor). Regular readers know how much I love health narratives, and with my keenness for graphic novels this series couldn’t be better suited to my interests.
With thanks to Myriad Editions for the free copy for review.