Category Archives: Author spotlight
Barbara Kingsolver in Conversation about “Unsheltered”
Through a Faber & Faber Twitter giveaway, I won tickets to see Barbara Kingsolver speak about her new novel, Unsheltered, at the Royal Festival Hall in London on Monday the 12th. (Yes, this is the second lot of tickets I’ve won within a month. When all you have to do is reply to a tweet or retweet it, I don’t know why more people don’t enter these competitions!) It was great to meet up with fellow bloggers Clare and Laura – half of my Wellcome Prize shadow panel – to hear Kingsolver chat with Samira Ahmed of Radio 4 and BBC One.
In person Kingsolver was a delight – warm and funny, with a generic American accent that doesn’t betray her Kentucky roots. In her beaded caftan and knee-high oxblood boots, she exuded girlish energy despite the shock of white in her hair. Although her fervor for the scientific method and a socially responsible government came through clearly, there was a lightness about her that tempered the weighty issues she covers in her novel.
In case you are unfamiliar with it, Unsheltered is the story of two residents of Vineland, New Jersey: in the present day, fifty-something Willa Knox is trying to keep her enlarged nuclear family together in the face of underemployment, a crumbling house, divided political loyalties and serious illness. In a parallel story line set in the 1870s that unfolds in alternating chapters, science teacher Thatcher Greenwood butts heads with his principal over Darwin’s writings and is alarmed by the actions of the town’s dictator-like founder, Charles Landis.
Kingsolver revealed that she always starts with theme rather than character or setting. A novel arises from a compelling question she wants to wrestle with. When she started this one five years ago, she wanted to write about paradigm shift. She felt like the regular rules have failed us, that the world no longer provides the ‘shelter’ we expect – a good job after a degree, a pension at the end of a career, adequate health care, and so on. Consumption and growth, the economic tools we’ve always relied on, won’t work anymore. How will we cope with the end of the world as we know it? Looking for a time period when people were also asked to rise to the occasion upon a shift in worldview, she settled on the 1870s, the decade following the Civil War, when America was divided along nearly the same lines as today.
Initially she thought she might make Darwin himself a character, but that would have required setting the book at least partially in England, and she’s come to terms with the fact that she’s an American novelist. Instead, she researched the champions of Darwin in America, starting with Asa Gray. Things didn’t work out with Gray – “it was like dating,” she jokes – but then she came across Mary Treat, a self-taught ‘lady scientist’ who corresponded with Darwin, and made him Thatcher’s neighbour in Vineland.
In the scene Kingsolver read from the historical thread, Mary experiments at letting a carnivorous plant nibble at her finger. The other reading, from the contemporary section, pictured Willa – part of the “sandwich generation,” doing the unpaid labor of caring for an aging relative to make up for a shortfall in the services the state should be providing – facing a pile of bills. “Willa is the peanut butter trying to hold everything together,” Kingsolver said – a feeling familiar to her from when she and her sister cared for their dying mother.
At Ahmed’s leading, Kingsolver also discussed the modern anti-fact movement, female anger and the balance between honoring the past and erasing it (the example Ahmed gave was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name being taken off of the ALA children’s book medal because she is now considered to have a backward attitude to race). Kingsolver described the novel as her “love letter to millennials” such as her two resilient twenty-something daughters who are having to creatively make up for the ways in which Baby Boomers have ruined the world.
It’s impossible to ignore the similarities between Landis, Vineland’s leader, and Donald Trump. There was much knowing laughter from the audience, in fact, as she described Landis and his megalomaniac behavior. Although she peppered in a few of the more explicit Trump allusions (e.g., “Lock him up!”) later on, she wrote the bulk of the book before his presidential run was ever a possibility. Kingsolver said that this is not the first time that she has anticipated rather than responded to world events: for The Poisonwood Bible she wrote a scene of the death of Mobutu two months before he died in real life.
I reviewed Unsheltered for BookBrowse () and have also been moderating their online book club discussion of it. It’s been fascinating to see the spread of opinions, especially in the thread asking readers to describe the novel in three words. Descriptors have ranged from “preachy,” “political” and “repressive” to “prophetic,” “hopeful” and “truth.” My own three-word summary was “Bold, complex, polarizing.” I sensed that Kingsolver was going to divide readers – American ones, anyway; British readers should be a lot more positive because even centrist politics here start significantly further left, and there is for the most part very little resistance to concepts like socialism and climate change. I have a feeling the site’s users are predominantly middle-class, middle-aged white ladies (which, to be fair, was also true of the London audience), and we know that they’re a bastion of Trump support.
It’s clear what Kingsolver’s political leanings would be, but she emphasized the importance of having conversations with family members and neighbors who voted a different way (for Brexit, perhaps) that don’t begin with “You idiot…” “As a novelist you have to generate that absolute empathy” for every character, she insisted, even Willa’s hateful, Fox News-blasting father-in-law, Nick, who’s an example of the ‘pull up the ladder’ type of first-generation immigrant. It’s important to remember that “it’s all coming from a place of fear,” she noted.
“We come to literature with our own nutritional needs,” Kingsolver remarked, and she loves that readers can take such different messages from her writing. Novels don’t give answers but bring you into conversation with yourself, she suggested. In asking “What is the human animal?” and “What can we do about it?” she hopes that she’s expanding our humanity. That is what she believes literary fiction should do, and she argued passionately on its behalf.
Being careful not to give any spoilers about her story lines’ endings during the question time, she said, “I promise I will not leave you in despair.” I hope that, if you haven’t already, you will all read Unsheltered, coming to it with an open mind. It’s one of the most important books of the year.
First Encounter: Karl Ove Knausgaard
For years I felt behind the curve because I had not yet read the two prime examples of European autofiction: Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard. It seemed like everyone was raving about them, calling their work revelatory and even compulsive (Zadie Smith has famously likened Knausgaard’s autobiographical novels to literary “crack”). Well, my first experience of Ferrante (see my review of My Brilliant Friend), about this time last year, was underwhelming, so that tempered my enthusiasm for trying Knausgaard. However, I had a copy of A Death in the Family on the shelf that I’d bought with a voucher, so I was determined to give him a go.
I read this first part of the six-volume “My Struggle” series over the course of about two months. That’s much longer than I generally spend with a book, and unfortunately reflects the fact that it was the opposite of compelling for me; at times I had to force myself to pick it up from a stack of far more inviting books and read just five or 10 pages so I’d see some progress. Now, a couple of weeks after finally reading the last page, I can say that I’m glad I tried Knausgaard to see what the fuss is all about, but I think it unlikely that I’ll read any of his other books.
Written in 2008, when he was 39, this is Knausgaard’s record of his childhood and adolescence – specifically his relationship with his father, a distant and sometimes harsh man who drank himself to an early death. And yet at least half the book is about other things, with the father – whether alive or dead – as just a shadow in the background. I found it so curious what Knausgaard chooses to focus on in painstaking detail versus what he skates over.
For instance, he spends ages on the preparations for a New Year’s Eve party he attended in high school: acquiring the booze, the lengths he had to go to in hiding it and lugging it through a snowy night, and so on. He gives a broader idea of his school years through some classroom scenes and word pictures of friends he was in an amateur rock band with and girls he had crushes on, but these are very brief compared to the 50 pages allotted to the party.
Part Two feels like a significant improvement. It opens at the time of composition, with Karl Ove the writer and family man in his office in Sweden – a scene we briefly saw around 30 pages into Part One. I like these interludes perhaps best of all because they make a space for his philosophical musings about writing and parenthood:
Even if the feeling of happiness [fatherhood] gives me is not exactly a whirlwind but closer to satisfaction or serenity, it is happiness all the same. Perhaps, even, at certain moments, joy. And isn’t that enough? Isn’t it enough? Yes, if joy had been the goal it would have been enough. But joy is not my goal, never has been, what good is joy to me? The family is not my goal, either. … The question of happiness is banal, but the question that follows is not, the question of meaning.
Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows. That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself.
At about the book’s halfway point we finally delve into the title event. About a decade previously Karl Ove got a call from his older brother, Yngve, telling him that their father was dead. Almost instantly he found himself trying to construct a narrative around this fact, assessing his thoughts to see if they had the appropriate gravity:
He and Yngve met up to make funeral arrangements and view their father’s body, but the majority of this section – about 175 pages with the exception of flashbacks, many to earlier moments in his relationship with his brother – is about cleaning up the house where his father died. Their grandmother, who was in an early stage of dementia, still lived there and was barely in better shape than the property, littered as it was with empty bottles and excrement.
this is a big, big event, it should fill me to the hilt, but it isn’t doing that, for here I am, staring at the kettle, annoyed that it hasn’t boiled yet. Here I am, looking out and thinking how lucky we were to get this flat … and not that dad’s dead, even though that is the only thing that actually has any meaning.
What puzzles me, once again, is Knausgaard’s fixation on detail. He describes every meal he and Yngve shared with their grandmother, their every conversation, what he ate, how he slept, what he wore, what he cleaned and how and when. How could he possibly remember all of this, unless the journal that he mentions keeping at the time was truly exhaustive? And why does it all matter anyway? Does this slavish recreation fulfill the same role that obsessive action did back then: displacing his feelings about his father?
This is all the more unusual to me given the numerous asides where the author/narrator denigrates his memory:
I remembered hardly anything from my childhood. That is, I remembered hardly any of the events in it. But I did remember the rooms where they took place.
nostalgia is not only shameless, it is also treacherous. What does anyone in their twenties really get out of a longing for their childhood years? For their own youth? It was like an illness.
Now I had burned all the diaries and notes I had written, there was barely a trace of the person I was until I turned twenty-five, and rightly so; no good ever came out of that place.
Why did I remember this so well? I usually forgot almost everything people, however close they were, said to me.
The best explanation I can come up with is that this is not a work of memory. It’s more novel than it is autobiography. It’s very much a constructed object. Early in Part Two he reveals that when he first tried writing about his father’s death he realized he was too close to it; he had to step back and “force [it] into another form, which of course is a prerequisite for literature.” Style and theme, he believes, should take a backseat to form.
Ultimately, then, I think of this book as an experiment in giving a literary form to his father’s life and death, which affected him more than he’d ever, at least consciously, acknowledged. Even if I found the narrative focus strange at times, I recognize that it makes for precise vision: I could clearly picture each scene in my head, most taking place in an airy house with wood paneling and shag pile carpeting matching its 1970s décor. Maybe what I’m saying is: this would make a brilliant film, but I don’t think I have the patience for the rest of the books.
Whether or not you’ve read Knausgaard, do you grasp his appeal? Should I persist with his books?
Girl at War Paperback Release
Next Thursday, the 24th, marks the UK paperback publication of Girl at War by Sara Nović, which I reviewed last year for BookBrowse (a subscription-only site, but you can see an excerpt of my review here). It was #3 on my list of last year’s best fiction, so I’m delighted that Little, Brown Book Group got in touch asking me to help publicize the paperback release. They created a shareable image with a snippet of my NetGalley feedback.
This pitch-perfect debut novel is an inside look at the Yugoslavian Civil War and its aftermath, from the perspective of a young girl caught up in the fighting. If you haven’t already read it, I encourage you to seek it out soon.
Paulette Bates Alden: An Underrated Author
I first came across Paulette Alden’s work last June, when she contacted me to ask if I’d like to review her new short story collection, Unforgettable. It’s a self-published book available through Kindle, and in all honesty, given my experience reviewing self-published material for Kirkus and Foreword, I wasn’t expecting much. What a pleasant surprise, then, to find that these were excellent, literary short stories with a strong voice and sense of place. Since then I have read two more Alden books: Crossing the Moon, her memoir of infertility, and Feeding the Eagles, her first short story collection, which shares a protagonist with Unforgettable. Here, in the order in which I have read them, are Alden’s published works:
Nine linked stories focus on the life of Miriam Batson, a writer and adjunct professor at a Minnesota college. Now in her late forties, Miriam faces the challenge of caring for her aging mother. Indeed, the final five stories are inspired by Alden’s experience as a caregiver for her late mother, who suffered from dementia. Although it is intriguing to ponder just how autobiographical these stories might be, ultimately it makes little difference to a reader’s enjoyment. The close third-person perspective creates such intimate knowledge of the main character that one cannot help but feel sympathy for her professional and personal struggles.
The opening story, “The Student,” is among the strongest. Miriam learns that Brian, one of the students in her advanced short story class, has attempted suicide – in three different ways. Horror cedes to compassion as she realizes how he must have been suffering, even while keeping up a cheerful exterior in class. As she visits Brian in the hospital during his recovery, Miriam is taken aback by her feelings for him. Hesitant to borrow spiritual language, she still senses that she and Brian have a soul connection. At the same time, she realizes that no relationship is entirely one thing or another; their teacher-student dynamic may resemble a parent-child link, but sex keeps creeping in unexpectedly.
In “Sorrow,” told in the present tense, Miriam learns of the death of one of her black nannies and returns to South Carolina to pay her respects. Filled with memories of segregation, this story shares the social conscience of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. “Enormously Valuable” returns to the first story’s academic setting, with Miriam receiving notification that someone else – a less experienced man – has gotten the teaching job she applied for. She decides to take legal advice to determine whether this is a case of sex discrimination. This story tips over into melodrama slightly, but is still an affecting look at career disappointment. The themes of bureaucracy and petty infighting in a university English department recall John Williams’s Stoner.
“Swimming, Snow” was commissioned as the Minnesota Center for Book Arts’ 1993 Winter Book. Miriam slowly starts to heal after her father’s death, thanks to the therapeutic effects of activities like massage, classical music, and sex. This one is a perfect segue into the collection’s last five stories, which together reflect on Alden’s experiences as a caregiver during her mother’s final years with dementia.
The title story, the last in the collection, does indeed have a stand-alone feel, combining all the emotions of the previous four into the most shrewdly crafted of the tales, rich with symbolism. It opens with Miriam driving to a monastery for a writing retreat. Although it is April, it is snowing, and Nat King Cole’s song “Unforgettable” is on the radio. Ironically, that title is also the name given to her mother’s nursing home’s remodeling campaign. Miriam has been taking beginner’s Italian lessons; her bewilderment is an echo of her mother’s confusion about language. In addition, Easter is coming up the following week, and the symbology of death and restoration plays a significant role. Miriam can no longer deny that her mother will be dead soon, yet she feels that she will live on – perhaps even through Miriam’s work: “Writing is her religion, her resurrection. Long after her mother is gone, she will have this moment. Her mother will rise from the dead and live again in those words.”
Alden tenderly conveys the overwhelming difficulties and small joys of being the primary caregiver for a loved one with serious health problems. You do not have to share any of Miriam’s experiences to value her insight and admire her courage. I daresay every reader will find at least one aspect of these stories to be, as the title suggests, simply unforgettable.
Crossing the Moon
Frank and tender, this is a wonderful memoir about women’s reproductive choices – or the way life sometimes takes those choices out of your hands. Alden was happily married, with a beloved cat named Cecil and her first short story collection coming out soon. At age 39, she still hadn’t thought all that much about motherhood, but suddenly decision time was on her. Despite her ambivalence (“I might never have a child, and the irony is not lost on me, that I’m not even sure I want one”), she went ahead with multiple rounds of infertility treatment, only conceding defeat and grieving her loss when she was 42.
All along she was resisting multiple voices: that of her Southern upbringing, which said all women were supposed to have children; that of feminism, which told her she wasn’t supposed to want what all women are supposed to have. There was also her own inner suspicion that the life she already had was the one she wanted. “From the very start, I had seen writing and motherhood as mutually exclusive.”
I found this a very touching story of learning to love the life you have. “It came to me that it really was a choice between two good things – having a child and not having a child. Our life without a child seemed good to me. I caught a glimpse that it was what was right for us, for the best.”
Miriam Batson first appeared in this 1983 collection published by Graywolf Press. Of the 11 stories here, seven are in the third person and four in the first person. They dart back and forth in time: sometimes Miriam is married and back in South Carolina visiting her parents and sister; other times she’s a young graduate student on the way back to California. It was particularly interesting for me, having read Alden’s memoir, to trace the autobiographical roots of many of the stories. I even spotted a couple of lines taken word for word from life: “‘I’ll tell you what I think,’ [Miriam’s] mother says slowly. ‘I think people who don’t have children are the most selfish people in the world.’”
These stories are strong on symbolism and often have memorable endings. For instance, the title phrase seems odd but in context is a beautiful image of turning failure into a positive. Miriam and her husband Ted have gone out fishing from their Minnesota cabin. Ted throws a big fish back, hoping the hook injury wasn’t too deep, but a while later they see it floating on its side. They’re feeling a little guilty – until an eagle drops in and snatches the dead fish. “‘Now you don’t have to feel so bad,’ Ted says. ‘We’re feeding the eagles.’” Elsewhere, Miriam’s grandmother’s wig is a peculiar token of family inheritance, while a snake encountered at a campground is a reminder of excessive sensuality.
As in Unforgettable and Crossing the Moon, the overarching theme of the book is a woman’s identity and how this shifts through life. Miriam is a daughter, a wife, a grown sister, a writer. She is not a mother, a decision that defines her as much as any other. But even within these roles, time creeps in and changes things. With her elderly parents facing bankruptcy, Miriam realizes, “It occurred to me for the first time that maybe my father didn’t know what was going on.” That sense of a turning of the generations, of the child taking on the responsible parent guise, is undoubtedly true to life.
Another central theme is how places of safety and familiarity lose their capacity to reassure us. For Miriam/Alden, the South becomes increasingly foreign but still has a metaphorical hold on her. “Stretching out around us in every direction are the flat Midwestern plains, and it comes to me that I will not live my life as I have always imagined I would—without even thinking of it—in South Carolina.” All the same, as she drives to the old family cabin in South Carolina before it passes out of their hands for good, she thinks how “all of the roads of her life lead back to this one.”
On this reading the story that meant most to me was “At the Beach,” in which Miriam and her sister Linda take a rare vacation together and marvel at how their parents are aging. “Just so you take them in in their old age,” Miriam jokes, but beneath the quip lies deep concern. I could recognize my sister and myself – now separated by an ocean but not so much anymore by the eight years between us – in this sentence: “It seems we talk more now that we are older, now that we live so far apart and have so little time together.”
One thing I love about Alden’s books is how she seems to see life in discrete parts but also, looking back nostalgically, as a coherent narrative that leads logically and inevitably to the present. This makes for a gently bittersweet tone, but I come away sensing gratitude. As my favorite lines from Crossing the Moon have it, “who can say what is ‘best’? Maybe it’s possible to get to a place where what is best is simply what is.”
I haven’t read this one yet, but I have a copy on my e-reader and am saving it for a rainy day treat. On the surface it sounds completely different from anything else Alden has written. The blurb describes a page-turning thriller about a man who has been accused of murdering four women and his librarian mother’s quest to figure out whether he really did it and why. It won the Kindle Book Review Best Indie Book of 2013 in the suspense category. I feel sure that it will have the same psychological acuity as Alden’s other books.
Who are some of your favorite lesser-known authors? Share them in the comments below!