10 Days in the USA and What I Read (Plus a Book Haul)
On October 29th, I went to an evening drinks party at a neighbour’s house around the corner. A friend asked me about whether the UK or the USA is “home” and I replied that the States feels less and less like home every time I go, that the culture and politics are ever more foreign to me and the UK’s more progressive society is where I belong. I even made an offhand comment to the effect of: once my mother passed, I didn’t think I’d fly back there often, if at all. I was thinking about 5–10 years into the future; instead, a few hours after I got home from the party, we were awoken by the middle-of-the-night phone call saying my mother had suffered a nonrecoverable brain bleed. The next day she was gone.
I haven’t reflected a lot on the irony of that timing, probably because it feels like too much, but it turns out I was completely wrong: in fact, I’m now returning to the States more often. With our mom gone and our dad not really in our lives, my sister and I have gotten closer. Since October I’ve flown back twice and she’s visited here once. There are 7.5 years between us and we’ve always been at different stages of life, with separate preoccupations and priorities; I was also lazy and let my mom be the go-between, passing family news back and forth. Now there’s a sense that we are all we have, and we have to stick together.
So it was doubly important for me to be there for my sister’s graduation from nursing school last week. If we follow each other on Facebook or Instagram, you will have already seen that she finished at the top of her cohort and was one of just two students recognized for academic excellence out of the college’s over 200 graduates – and all of this while raising four children and coping with the disruption of Mom’s death seven months ago. There were many times when she thought she would have to pause or give up her studies, but she persisted and will start work as a hospice nurse soon. We’re all as proud as could be, on our mom’s behalf, too.
The trip was a mixture of celebratory moments and sad duties. We started the process of going through our mom’s belongings and culling what we can, but the files, photos and mementoes are the real challenge and had to wait for another time. There were dozens of books I’d given her for birthdays and holidays, mostly by her favourite gentle writers – Gerald Durrell, Jan Karon, Gervase Phinn – invariably annotated with her name, the date and occasion. I looked back through them and then let them go.
Between my two suitcases I managed to bring back the rest of her first box of journals (there are 150 of them in total, spanning 1989 to 2022), and I’m halfway through #4 at the moment. We moved out of my first home when I was nine, and I don’t have a lot of vivid memories of those early years. But as I read her record of everyday life it’s like I’m right back in those rooms. I get new glimpses of myself, my dad, my sister, but especially of her – not as my mother, but as a whole person. As a child I never realized she was depressed: distressed about her job situation, worried over conflicts with her siblings and my sister, coping with ill health (she was later diagnosed with fibromyalgia) and resisting ageing. For as strong as her Christian faith was, she was really struggling in ways I couldn’t appreciate then.
I hope that later journals will introduce hindsight, now that she’s not around to give a more circumspect view. In any case, they’re an incredible legacy, a chance for me to relive much of my life that I otherwise would only remember in fragments through photographs, and perhaps have a preview of what I can expect from the course of our shared kidney disease.
What I Read
The Housekeepers by Alex Hay – A historical heist novel with shades of Downton Abbey, this comes out in July. Reviewed for Shelf Awareness.
Cowboys Are My Weakness by Pam Houston – Terrific: stark, sexy stories about women who live out West and love cowboys and hunters (as well as dogs and horses). Ten of the stories are in the first person, voiced by women in their twenties and thirties who are looking for romance and adventure and anxiously pondering motherhood (“by the time you get to be thirty, freedom has circled back on itself to mean something totally different from what it did at twenty-one”). The remaining two are in the second person, which I always enjoy. The occasional Montana setting reminded me of stories I’ve read by Maile Meloy and Maggie Shipstead, while the relationship studies made me think of Amy Bloom’s work.
The Harpy by Megan Hunter – Read for Literary Wives club. Review coming up on Monday.
The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller – A solid set of narratives alternating between the POVs of four characters whose lives converge around a play inspired by the playwright’s loss of her boyfriend on one of the hijacked planes on 9/11. Her mixed feelings about him towards the end of his life and about being shackled to his legacy as his ‘widow’ reverberate in other sections: one about the lead actor, whose wife has ALS; and one about a widower the playwright is being set up with on a date. Fitting for a book about a play, the scenes feel very visual. A little underpowered, but subtlety is to be expected from a Miller novel. She, Anne Tyler and Elizabeth Berg write easy reads with substance, just the kind of book I want to take on an airplane, as indeed I did with this one. I read the first 2/3 on my travel day (although with the 9/11 theme this maybe wasn’t the best choice!).
For apposite plane reading, I also started Fly Girl by Ann Hood, her memoir of being a TWA flight attendant in the 1970s, the waning glory days of air travel. I’ve read 10 or so of Hood’s books before from various genres, but lost interest in the minutiae of her job applications and interviews. Another writer would probably have made a bigger deal of the inherent sexism of the profession, too. I read 30%.
Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano – I knew I wanted to read this even before it was Oprah’s 100th book club pick. It’s a family story spanning three decades and focusing on the Padavanos, a working-class Italian American Chicago clan with four daughters: Julia, Sylvie, and twins Cecilia and Emeline. Julia meets melancholy basketball player William Waters while at Northwestern in the late 1970s and they marry and have a daughter; Sylvie, a budding librarian, makes out with boys in the stacks until her great romance comes along; Cecilia is an artist and Emeline loves babies and manages a nursery. More than once a character think of their collective story as a “soap opera,” and there’s plenty of melodrama here – an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, estrangements, a suicide attempt, a coming out, stealing another’s man – as well as far-fetched coincidences, including the two major deaths falling on the same day as a birth and a reconciliation.
There is such warmth and intensity to the telling, and brave reckoning with mental illness, prejudice and trauma, that I excused flaws such as dwelling overly much in characters’ heads through close third person narration, to the detriment of scenes and dialogue. I love sister stories in general, and the subtle echoes of Leaves of Grass and Little Women (the connections aren’t one to one and you’re kept guessing for most of the book who will be the Beth) add heft. I especially appreciated how a late parent is still remembered in daily life after 30 years have passed. This is, believe it or not, the second basketball novel I’ve loved this year, after Tell the Rest by Lucy Jane Bledsoe.
I always try to choose thematically appropriate reads, so I also started:
Circling My Mother by Mary Gordon – A memoir she began after her nonagenarian mother’s death with dementia. Intriguingly, the structure is not chronological but topic by topic, built around key relationships: so far I’ve read “My Mother and Her Bosses” and “My Mother: Words and Music.”
Grave by Allison C. Meier – My sister and I made a day trip up to my mother’s grave for the first time since her burial. She has a beautiful spot in a rural cemetery dating back to the 1780s, but it’s in full sun and very dry, so we tried to cheer up the dusty plot with some extra topsoil and grass seed, marigolds, and a butterfly flag.
Meier is a cemetery tour guide in Brooklyn, where she lives. In the third of the e-book I’ve read so far, she looks at American burial customs, the lack of respect for Black and Native American burial sites, and the rise of garden cemeteries such as Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I’ve been reading death-themed books for over a decade and have delighted in exploring cemeteries (including Mount Auburn, as part of my New England honeymoon) for even longer, so this is right up my street and one of the better Object Lessons monographs.
What I Bought
I traded in most of my mother’s books at 2nd & Charles and Wonder Book and Video but, no surprise, promptly spent the store credit on more secondhand books. Thanks to clearance shelves at both stores, I only had to chip in another $12.25 for the below haul, which also covered two Dollar Tree purchases (I felt bad for Susan Minot having signed editions end up remaindered!). Some tried and true authors here, as well as novelties to test out, with a bunch of short stories and novellas to read later in the year.
A May Sarton Birthday Celebration
These days I consider May Sarton one of my favourite authors, but I’ve only been reading her for about nine years, since I picked up Journal of a Solitude on a whim. (Ten years prior, when I was a senior in college working in a used bookstore on evenings and weekends, a customer came up and asked me if we had anything by May Sarton. I had never heard of her so said no, only later discovering that we shelved her in with Classic literature. Huh. I can only apologize to that long-ago customer for my ignorance and negligence.)
A general-interest article I wrote on May Sarton’s life and work appears in the May/June 2023 issue of Bookmarks magazine, for which I am an associate editor. I submitted this feature back in August 2019, so it’s taken quite some time for it to see the light of day, but I’m pleased that the publication happened to coincide with the anniversary of her birth. In fact, today, May 3rd, would have been her 111th birthday. For the article, I covered a selection of Sarton’s fiction and nonfiction, and gave a brief discussion of her poetry (which the magazine doesn’t otherwise cover).
The two below, a journal and a novel, are works I’ve read more recently. Both were secondhand purchases, I think from Awesomebooks.com.
Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year (1993)
Sarton is one of those reasonably rare authors who published autobiography, fiction AND poetry. I know I’m not alone in thinking that the journals and memoirs are where she really shines. (She herself was proudest of her poetry, and resented the fact that publishers only seemed to be interested in novels because they were what sold.) I came to her through her journals, which she started writing in her sixties, and I love them for how frankly they come to terms with ageing and the ill health and loss it inevitably involves. They are also such good, gentle companions in that they celebrate seasonality and small joys: her beautiful New England homes, her gardening hobby, her pets, and her writing routines and correspondence.
Encore was the only journal I had left unread; soon it will be time to start rereading my top few. When Sarton wrote this in 1991–2, she was recovering from a spell of illness and assumed it would be her final journal. (In fact, At Eighty-Two would appear two years later.) Although she still struggles with pain and low energy, the overall tone is of gratitude and rediscovery of wonder. Whereas a few of the later journals can get a bit miserable because she’s so anxious about her health and the state of the world, here there is more looking back at life’s highlights. Perhaps because Margot Peters was in the process of researching her biography (which would not appear until after her death), she was nudged into the past more often. I especially appreciated a late entry where she lists “peak experiences,” ranging from her teen years to age 80. What a positive way of thinking about one’s life!
For many months I kept this as a bedside book and read just an entry or two a night. When I started reading it more quickly and straight through, I did note some repetition, which Sarton worried would result from her dictating into a recording device. But I don’t think this detracts significantly. In this volume, events of note include a trip to London and commemorative publications plus a conference all to mark her 80th birthday. She’s just as pleased with tiny signs of her success, though, such as a fan letter saying The House by the Sea inspired the reader to put up a bird feeder.
The Education of Harriet Hatfield (1988)
This is my eighth Sarton novel. In general, I’ve had less success with her fiction as it can be formulaic: characters exist to play stereotypical roles and/or serve as mouthpieces for the author’s opinions. That’s certainly true of Harriet Hatfield, who, like the protagonist of Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, is fairly similar to Sarton. After the death of her long-time partner, Vicky, who ran a small publishing house, sixty-year-old Harriet decides to open a women’s bookstore in a Boston suburb. She has no business acumen, just enthusiasm (and money, via the inheritance from Vicky). College girls, housewives, nuns and older feminists all become regulars, but Hatfield House also attracts unwanted attention in this dodgy neighbourhood, especially after a newspaper outs Harriet: graffiti, petty theft and worse. The police are little help, but Harriet’s brothers and a local gay couple promise to look out for her.
The central struggle for Harriet is whether she will remain a private lesbian – as one customer says to her, “you are old and respectable and no one would ever guess”; that is, she can pass as straight – or become part of a more audible, visible movement toward equal rights. It’s cringe-worthy how unsubtly Sarton has Harriet recognize (the “Education” the title speaks of) her privilege and accept her parity with other minorities through friendships with a Black mother, a battered wife who gets an abortion, and a man whose partner is dying of AIDS. Harriet’s brother, too, comes out to her as gay, and I was uneasy with the portrayal of him and the AIDS patient as promiscuous to the point of bringing any suffering on themselves.
Still, when I consider that Sarton was in her late seventies at the time she was writing this, and that public knowledge of AIDS would have been poor at best, I think this was admirably edgy. Harriet’s dilemma reflects Sarton’s own identity crisis, as expressed in Encore: “I do not wish to be labeled as a lesbian and do not wish to be labeled as a woman writer but consider myself a universal writer who is writing for human beings.” Nowadays, though, what Harriet deems discretion comes across as cowardice and priggishness.
While there are elements of Harriet Hatfield that have not aged well, if you focus on the Bythell-esque bookshop stuff (“I find that the people I love best are those who come in to browse, the silent shy ones, who are hungry for books rather than for conversation”) rather than the consciousness-raising or the mystery subplot, you might enjoy it as much as I did. Kudos for the first and last lines, anyway: “How rarely is it possible for anyone to begin a new life at sixty!” and “It’s the real world and I am fully alive in it.”
The Swedish Art of Ageing Well by Margareta Magnusson (#NordicFINDS23)
Annabel’s Nordic FINDS challenge is running for the second time this month. I hope to manage at least one more read for it; this one feels like a cheat as it’s not exactly in translation. Magnusson, who is Swedish, either wrote it in English or translated it herself for simultaneous 2022 publication in Sweden and the USA – where the title phrase was “Aging Exuberantly.” There is some quirky phrasing that a native speaker would never use, more so than in her Döstädning: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, which I reviewed last year, but it’s perfectly understandable.
The subtitle is “Life wisdom from someone who will (probably) die before you,” which gives a flavour of 89-year-old Magnusson’s self-deprecating sense of humour. The big 4-0 is coming up for me later this year, but I’ve been reading books about ageing and death since my twenties and find them valuable for gaining perspective and storing up wisdom.
This is not one of those “hygge” books extolling the virtues of Scandinavian culture, but rather a charming self-help memoir recounting what the author has learned about what matters in life and how to gracefully accept the ageing process. Each chapter is like a mini essay with a piece of advice as the title. Some are more serious than others: “Don’t Fall Over” and “Keep an Open Mind” vs. “Eat Chocolate” and “Wear Stripes.”
Since Magnusson was widowed, she has valued her friendships all the more, and during the pandemic cheerfully switched to video chats (G&T in hand) with her best friend since age eight. She is sweetly optimistic despite news headlines; after all, in the words of one of her chapter titles, “The World Is Always Ending” – she grew up during World War II and remembers the bad old days of the Cold War and personal near-tragedies like when the ship on which her teenage son was a deckhand temporarily disappeared in the South China Sea.
Lots of little family anecdotes like that enter into the book. Magnusson has five children and lived in Singapore and Annapolis, Maryland (my part of the world!) for a time. The open-mindedness I’ve mentioned was an attitude she cultivated towards new-to-her customs like a Chinese wedding, Christian adult baptism, and Halloween. Happy memories are her emotional support; as for physical assistance: “I call my walker Lars Harald, after my husband who is no longer with me. The walker, much like my husband was, is my support and my safety.”
Volunteering, spending lots of time with younger people, looking after another living thing (a houseplant if you can’t commit to a pet), turning daily burdens into beloved routines, and keeping your hair looking as nice as possible are some of Magnusson’s top tips for coping.
An appendix gives additional death-cleaning guidance based on Covid-era FAQs; the chapter in this book that is most reminiscent of the practical approach of Döstädning is “Don’t Leave Empty-Handed,” which might sound metaphorical but in fact is a literal mantra she learned from an acquaintance. On a small scale, it might mean tidying a room gradually by picking up at least one item each time you pass through; more generally, it could refer to a mindset of cleaning up after oneself so that the world is a better place for one’s presence.
With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.
Margaret Atwood Reading Month: The Door (#MARM)
It’s my fifth year participating in the annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month (#MARM), hosted by indomitable Canadian blogger Marcie of Buried in Print. In previous years for this challenge, I’ve read Surfacing and The Edible Woman, The Robber Bride and Moral Disorder, and Wilderness Tips; and reread The Blind Assassin. Today is Atwood’s 83rd birthday, so what better time to show her some love?
Like the Beatles, she’s worked in so many different genres and styles that I don’t see how anyone could say they don’t like her – you just haven’t explored her oeuvre deeply enough. Although she’s best known for her fiction, she started off as a poet, with a whole five collections published in the 1960s before her first novel appeared. I’d previously read her Eating Fire: Selected Poetry 1965–1995 and Dearly, my top poetry read of 2020.
The Door (2007) was at that point her first poetry release in 12 years and features a number of the same themes that permeate her novels and nonfiction: memory, writing, ageing, travel and politics. I particularly like the early poems where she reinhabits memories of childhood and early adulthood, often through objects. Such artifacts are “pocketed as pure mementoes / of some once indelible day,” she writes in “Year of the Hen.”
These are followed by a trilogy about the death of the family’s pet cat, Blackie. “We get too sentimental / over dead animals. / We turn maudlin,” she acknowledges in “Mourning for Cats,” yet “Blackie in Antarctica” injects some humour as she remembers how her sister kept the cat’s corpse in the freezer until she could come home to bury it. Also on the lighter side is a long “where are they now?” update for the Owl and the Pussycat.
There are also meta reflections on poetry, slightly menacing observations on the weather (an implacable, fate-like force) and the seasons (autumn = hunting), virtual visits to the Arctic, mild complaints about the elderly not being taken seriously, and thoughts on duty.
Four in a row muse about war – the Vietnam War in particular, I think? “The Last Rational Man” is a sinister standout, depicting a figure who is doomed under Caligula’s reign. Whoever she may have had in mind when she wrote this, it’s just as relevant 15 years later.
In the final, title poem, which appears to be modelled on the Seven Ages of Man, a door is a metaphor for life’s transitions and, ultimately, for death.
The door swings open:
O god of hinges,
god of long voyages,
you have kept faith.
It’s dark in there.
You confide yourself to the darkness.
You step in.
The door swings closed.
Apart from a few end rhymes, Atwood relies more on theme than on sonic technique or form. That, I think, makes her poetry accessible to those who are new to or suspicious of verse. Happy birthday, M.A., and thank you for your literary wisdom and innovation! (Little Free Library)
Four for #WITMonth: Jansson, Lamarche, Lunde and Vogt
I’ve managed four novels for this year’s Women in Translation month: a nostalgic, bittersweet picture of island summers poised between childhood and old age; a brief, impressionistic account of domestic violence and rape; the third in a series looking at how climate change and species loss reverberate amid family situations; and a visceral meditation on women’s bodies and relationships. Two of these were review copies from the recently launched Héloïse Press, which “champions world-wide female talent”.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (1972; 1974)
[Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal]
It was just the same long summer, always, and everything lived and grew at its own pace.
This was only the second time I’ve read one of Jansson’s books aimed at adults (as opposed to five from the Moomins series). Whereas A Winter Book didn’t stand out to me when I read it in 2012 – though I will try it again this winter, having acquired a free copy from a neighbour – this was a lovely read, so evocative of childhood and of languid summers free from obligation. For two months, Sophia and Grandmother go for mini adventures on their tiny Finnish island. Each chapter is almost like a stand-alone story in a linked collection. They make believe and welcome visitors and weather storms and poke their noses into a new neighbour’s unwanted construction.
Six-year-old Sophia, based on Jansson’s niece of the same name, is precocious and opinionated, liable to change her mind in an instant. In “The Cat,” one of my favourite stand-alone bits, she’s fed up with their half-feral pet who kills lots of birds and swaps him for a friend’s soppy lap cat, but then regrets it. She’s learning that logic and emotion sometimes contradict each other, which becomes clearer as she peppers Grandmother with questions about religion and superstition.
As is common to Jansson’s books, there’s a melancholy undercurrent here.
Everything was fine, and yet everything was overshadowed by a great sadness. It was August, and the weather was sometimes stormy and sometimes nice, but for Grandmother, no matter what happened, it was only time on top of time, since everything is vanity and a chasing after the wind.
Sophia’s mother died, and although her grandmother has the greater presence, Papa is also around, dealing with practicalities in the background. Death stalks around the edges, reminding Grandmother of her mortality through bouts of vertigo that have her grabbing for her heart medication. On just the second page we have this memento mori:
“When are you going to die?” the child asked.
And Grandmother answered, “Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours.”
And so it doesn’t feel like our concern either; the focus is on the now, on these beautiful little moments of connection across the generations – like in “Playing Venice,” when Grandmother stays up all night rebuilding Sophia’s model city that was washed away by the rain. (Public library)
The Memory of the Air by Caroline Lamarche (2014; 2022)
[Winner of an English PEN Award; translated from the French by Katherine Gregor]
In a hypnotic monologue, a woman tells of her time with a violent partner (the man before, or “Manfore”) who thinks her reaction to him is disproportionate and all due to the fact that she has never processed being raped two decades ago. When she goes in for a routine breast scan, she shows the doctor her bruised arm, wanting there to be a definitive record of what she’s gone through. It’s a bracing echo of the moment she walked into a police station to report the sexual assault (and oh but the questions the male inspector asked her are horrible).
The novella opens with an image that returns in dreams but is almost more a future memory of what might have been: “I went down into a ravine and, at the bottom, found a dead woman. She was lying in a shroud, on a carpet of fallen leaves.” I read this in one sitting – er, yoga session – and it has stayed in my mind in intense flashes like that and the flounce of her red dress on the summer day that turned into a nightmare. At an intense 70 pages, this reminded me of Annie Ernaux’s concise autofiction (I’ve reviewed Happening and I Remain in Darkness). An introduction by Dr Dominique Carlini-Versini contextualizes the work by considering the treatment of rape in contemporary French women’s writing.
The Memory of the Air will be published on 26 September. With thanks to Héloïse Press for the proof copy for review.
The Last Wild Horses by Maja Lunde (2019; 2022)
[Translated from the Norwegian by Diane Oatley]
The third in Lunde’s “Climate Quartet,” with its recurring elements of migration, shortages and environmental collapse. Always, though, the overall theme is parent–child relationships and the love that might be the only thing that keeps us going in the face of unspeakable challenges. Here she returns to the tripartite structure of The History of Bees (much my favourite of the three): a historical strand, a near-contemporary one, and a dystopian future story line. The link between the three is Przewalski’s horses (aka takhi).
In the early 1880s, Mikhail Alexandrovich Kovrov, assistant director of St. Petersburg Zoo, is brought the hide and skull of an ancient horse species assumed extinct. Although a timorous man who still lives with his mother, he becomes part of an expedition to Mongolia to bring back live specimens. In 1992, Karin, who has been obsessed with Przewalski’s horses since encountering them as a child in Nazi Germany, spearheads a mission to return the takhi to Mongolia and set up a breeding population. With her is her son Matthias, tentatively sober after years of drug abuse. In 2064 Norway, Eva and her daughter Isa are caretakers of a decaying wildlife park that houses a couple of wild horses. When a climate migrant comes to stay with them and the electricity goes off once and for all, they have to decide what comes next. This future story line engaged me the most.
I appreciated some aspects: queer and middle-aged romances, the return of a character from The End of the Ocean, the consideration across all three plots of what makes a good mother. However, the horses seemed neither here nor there. There are also many, many animal deaths. Perhaps an unsentimental attitude is necessary to reflect past and future values, and the apparent cruelty of natural processes, but it limits the book’s appeal to animal lovers. Maybe the tone fits the Norwegian prose, which the translator describes as lean.
The fourth book of the quartet, publishing in Norway next month, is called something like The Dream of a Tree; a focus on trees would be a draw for me. After the disappointment of Books 2 and 3, I’m unsure whether I want to bother with the final volume, but it makes sense to do so, if only to grasp Lunde’s full vision. (Public library)
What Concerns Us by Laura Vogt (2020; 2022)
[Translated from the German by Caroline Waight]
Vogt’s Swiss-set second novel is about a tight-knit matriarchal family whose threads have started to unravel. For Rahel, motherhood has taken her away from her vocation as a singer. Boris stepped up when she was pregnant with another man’s baby and has been as much of a father to Rico as to Leni, the daughter they had together afterwards. But now Rahel’s postnatal depression is stopping her from bonding with the new baby, and she isn’t sure this quartet is going to make it in the long term.
Meanwhile, Rahel’s sister Fenna knows she’s pregnant but refuses a doctor’s care. When she comes to stay with Rahel, she confides that the encounter with her partner, Luc, that led to conception was odd, rough; maybe not consensual. And all this time, the women’s mother, Verena, has been undergoing treatment for breast cancer. All three characters appear to be matter-of-factly bisexual; Rahel and Fenna’s father has long been out of the picture, replaced in Verena’s affections by Inge.
As I was reading, I kept thinking of the declaration running through A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa: “This is a female text.” Vogt’s vision is all breasts and eggs, genitals actual and metaphorical. I loved the use of food in the novel: growing up, the girls cherished “silly nights” when their mother prepared an egg feast and paired it with a feminist lecture on reproduction. Late on, there’s a wonderful scene when the three main characters gorge on preserved foodstuffs from the cellar and share their secrets. (Their language is so sexually frank; would anyone really talk to their mother and siblings in that way?!) As in the Lunde, the main question is what it means to be a mother, but negotiating their relationships with men stretches the bonds of this feminine trio. One for fans of Rachel Cusk and Sally Rooney.
With thanks to Héloïse Press for the proof copy for review.
Spring Reading, Part II: May, Moving and Swifts
Eight days after our move, there are still piles of boxes, but the furniture is in place and there are clear walkways, so we’ll call that progress. We got a lot of help on moving day from neighbours, one of whom built a tower of book boxes in the corner of the dining room! I had fun dismantling it last week and assigning each box to a particular bookcase. Arranging the contents on shelves will be for once we’re back from Spain.
What with moving and DIY, I haven’t had a lot of time for reading lately, so didn’t finish any more of the spring books I’d intended to include – except for one children’s book from the library. I’ll give a little rundown of some of what has been on my coffee table stack.
Busy Spring: Nature Wakes Up by Sean Taylor and Alex Morss; illus. Cinyee Chiu (2021)
This was a cute read about two little girls helping their father in the garden and discovering the natural wonders of the season, like tadpoles in a pond, birds building nests, and insects and worms in the compost heap. A section at the end gives more information about the science of spring – unfortunately, it mislabels one bird and includes North American species without labelling them as such, whereas the rest of the book was clearly set in the UK. The strategy reminded me of that in Wild Child by Dara McAnulty. This year is the first time a children’s book Wainwright Prize will be awarded, so we’ll see this kind of book being recognized more.
Encore is my last unread journal of May Sarton’s. It begins in May 1991, when she’s 79 and in recovery from major illness. She’s still plagued by pain and fatigue, but her garden and visits from friends are a solace. Although she has to lie down to garden, “to put my hands in the earth to dig is life giving … it is almost as if the earth were nourishing me at the moment.” As usual, there are lovely reflections on the freedoms as well as the losses of ageing. This book, like the previous, was dictated, so there is a bit of repetition. I’ve been amused to see how pretentious she found A.S. Byatt’s Possession! An entry or two at a sitting helped calm my mind during the stress of moving week.
“In a funny way what drives me is the spring, the fleeting spring. Because of the enormous wind and rain we have had, a lot of the daffodils have blown down, though not as many as I feared. But the truth is that their peak is past. We shall have them for another week and then they will be gone. It seems quite unbearable but that is what spring is—the letting go. The waiting and waiting and waiting, and then the letting go.”
I started a reread of Snow in May by Kseniya Melnik and am partway through the second story. It’s a linked short story collection set in Magadan in northeast Russia – known for Stalin’s forced-labour camps. In “Love, Italian Style, or in Line for Bananas,” it’s 1975 and Tanya is on a shopping spree in Moscow. At a time of deprivation, she buys even things she doesn’t need or that aren’t quite right. Propositioned by an Italian football player on the plane ride over, she fantasizes about the exotic and romantic, juxtaposed against her everyday life.
“The pollen swirled around her like snow. There was a time when the distinctions between right and wrong seemed indisputable, and doing right felt good. When all the decisions had been premade and in her best interest. Back when she didn’t need so much to be happy.”
I saw it on shelf at the library and knew now was the perfect time to read My Life in Houses by Margaret Forster, a memoir via the places she’s lived, starting with the house where she was born in 1938, on a council estate in Carlisle. There’s something appealing to me about tracing a life story through homes – Paul Auster did the same in part of Winter Journal. I’d be tempted to undertake a similar exercise myself someday.
The swifts come screeching down our new street and we saw one investigating a crevice in our back roof for a nest! In Fledgling by Hannah Bourne-Taylor, she is lonely in rural Ghana, where she and her husband had moved for his work, and takes in a young swift displaced from its nest. I’m only in the early pages, but can tell that her care for the bird will be a way of exploring her own feeling of displacement and the desire to belong. “Although I was unaware of it at the time, the English countryside and the birds had turned into my anchor of home.”
Swedish Death Cleaning (#NordicFINDS and #ReadIndies) & Three Rereads
An unexpected opportunity to contribute another post for Nordic FINDS this week (after my skim of Sophie’s World): yesterday we went into London – for just the second time since the pandemic started – and I took along a couple of novella-length books, one of them this Swedish nonfiction work that I picked up from a charity shop the other week. As it was released by Canongate in 2017, it also fits into Karen and Lizzy’s Read Indies challenge.
Our previous London trip was to see Bell X1 play at Union Chapel back in December. Yesterday was also for a gig, this time The Lost Words: Spell Songs playing Cadogan Hall. I’d been dubious about this ensemble project based on Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’s The Lost Words and The Lost Spells but ended up loving both books as well as the two albums of folk/world music based on them, and it was a brilliant evening of music.
Anyway, on to the books. I also reread a novella in advance of book club, so afterwards I’ll take a quick look at the rereading I’ve done so far this year.
Döstädning: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson
This is not about trauma cleaning, but downsizing and culling possessions so that the burden doesn’t fall to your children or other relatives after your death. Magnusson, who is in her 80s, has experience with death cleaning: first after her mother’s death, then after her mother-in-law’s, and finally after her husband’s, when she decided to move from the family home to a small flat. I enjoyed the little glimpses into her life as a mother of five and an artist. The family moved around a lot for her husband’s work, living in the USA and Singapore. She makes more of an allowance for possessions that hold sentimental value (especially photos and letters), being more concerned about the accumulation of STUFF.
As for general strategies, she suggests starting the process c. age 65 and beginning with the big things, from furniture on down, so that you make visible progress right away. “I’ve discovered that it is rewarding to spend time with these objects one last time and then dispose of them.” She goes category by category through her possessions. Clothing and cookbooks are pretty easy to shed: get rid of whatever doesn’t fit or suit you anymore, and only keep a couple of much-used cookbooks; you can find most any recipe on the Internet these days, after all. Leave the emotional material for last or you’ll get bogged down, she advises – you can take your time and enjoy reminiscing as you look through mementoes later on. She even considers what to do about old pets.
To let things, people and pets go when there is no better alternative is a lesson that has been very difficult for me to learn, and it is a lesson that life, as it goes further along, is teaching me more and more often.
Magnusson writes that she does not intend this to be a sad book, and it’s mostly very practical and unsentimental, even funny at times: on disposing of secret stuff, “save your favourite dildo but throw away the other fifteen!”; a little section on the perils of “man caves” and her memories of her clumsy cat Klumpeduns. I also laughed at the concept of a fulskåp (“a cabinet for the ugly”) for unwanted gifts that must eventually be rehomed or disposed of.
One problem that I have with decluttering books in general is that there isn’t enough of an anti-consumerist and green message. One, don’t accumulate the stuff in the first place (and reuse and buy secondhand wherever possible); two, possessions should almost never be thrown away, and only as an absolute last resort after doing everything possible to repair, refurbish, rehome or recycle them.
This was an enjoyable little book that I’ll pass on to someone else who might find it useful (so long as it’s not considered too on the nose as a book recommendation!), but it didn’t necessarily add anything for me beyond what I’d encountered in Outer Order, Inner Calm by Gretchen Rubin and Year of No Clutter by Eve O. Schaub. (Secondhand purchase)
[I’m a little confused as to whether this is in translation or not. It first appeared in Swedish, but as no translator is listed anywhere in the copyright info, I assume that Magnusson translated it herself. Apart from some wrong number/amount and during/over choices, it reads like a native speaker’s work.]
I’ve reread three books so far this year, which for me is pretty good going. It helped that all three were novella length, and I had book club as an excuse to return to the two novels.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes was the other book I popped in the back of my purse for yesterday’s London outing. Barnes is one of my favourite authors – I’ve read 21 books by him now! – but I remember not being very taken with this Booker winner when I read it just over 10 years ago. (I prefer to think of his win as being for his whole body of work as he’s written vastly more original and interesting books, like Flaubert’s Parrot.) It’s the story of an older man looking back on his youth, and his friend’s suicide, in the light of what he learns after a somewhat mysterious bequest. The themes of history, memory and regret certainly mean more to me now in my late 30s than they did in my late 20s, but I still find this work a little lightweight; sordid, too. (Free from mall bookshop)
Readalikes: Any Human Heart by William Boyd, Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, The Child in Time by Ian McEwan
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark was January’s book club selection. I had remembered no details apart from the title character being a teacher. It’s a between-the-wars story set in Edinburgh. Miss Brodie’s pet students are girls with attributes that remind her of aspects of herself. Our group was appalled at what we today would consider inappropriate grooming, and at Miss Brodie’s admiration for Hitler and Mussolini. Educational theory was interesting to think about, however. Spark’s work is a little astringent for me, and I also found this one annoyingly repetitive on the sentence level. (Public library)
Brit-Think, Ameri-Think: A Transatlantic Survival Guide by Jane Walmsley: This is the revised edition from 2003, so I must have bought it as preparatory reading for my study abroad year in England. This may even be the third time I’ve read it. Walmsley, an American in the UK, compares Yanks and Brits on topics like business, love and sex, parenting, food, television, etc. I found my favourite lines again (in a panel entitled “Eating in Britain: Things that Confuse American Tourists”): “Why do Brits like snacks that combine two starches? (a) If you’ve got spaghetti, do you really need the toast? (b) What’s a ‘chip-butty’? Is it fatal?” The explanation of the divergent sense of humour is still spot on, and I like the Gray Jolliffe cartoons. Unfortunately, a lot of the rest feels dated – she’d updated it to 2003’s pop culture references, but these haven’t aged well. (New purchase?)
Any Nordic reads, or rereads, for you lately?
Three June Releases: Allen-Paisant, Cowen and Mosse
Two poetry offerings and a short memoir this month. A similar strategy is at work in both verse volumes: Jason Allen-Paisant contrasts Jamaica and England via the medium of trees, and Rob Cowen comments on current events through the prism of the natural world. In Kate Mosse’s first nonfiction book, she reflects on bereavement and caregiving.
Thinking with Trees by Jason Allen-Paisant
Allen-Paisant, from Jamaica and now based in Leeds, describes walking in the forest as an act of “reclamation.” For people of colour whose ancestors were perhaps sent on forced marches, hiking may seem strange, purposeless (the subject of “Black Walking”). Back in Jamaica, the forest was a place of utility rather than recreation:
In Porus life was un-
The woodland was there
not for living in going for walks
Trees were answers to our needs
not objects of desire
But “I give myself permission / to go outside,” he writes, to notice the turning of the seasons, to commune with trees and birds, even if “there is nobody else like me / around here”. Explicitly calling into question Wordsworth’s model of privileged wandering, he injects a hint of threat into his interactions with nature. Most often this is symbolized by the presence of dogs. Even the most idyllic of scenes harbours the possibility of danger.
beware of spring
believe you are
a sprout of grass
and love all you see
but come out of the woods
before the white boys
The poet cites George Floyd and Christian Cooper, the Central Park birder a white woman called the police on, as proof that being Black outdoors is inherently risky. There’s no denying this is an important topic, but I found the poems repetitive, especially the references to dogs. These felt like overkill. While there is some interesting enjambment, as in the first extended quote above, as well as internal and half-rhymes, I tend to prefer more formal poetry that uses more sonic techniques and punctuation. Still, I would be likely to direct fans of Kei Miller’s work to this collection.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.
The Heeding by Rob Cowen
This poetry and art collaboration arose out of a “pact to pay attention” during a year of lockdown in the UK and record observations of nature, current events, and everyday life. Cowen is drawn to the moors near his home in Yorkshire, but also yearns to spend time with his friends again. He watches hawks and blue tits, notices the insects that fill his garden, and celebrates the way that allotment gardening brings together all sorts of people.
The emotional scope of the poems is broad: the author fondly remembers his brick-making ancestors and his honeymoon; he sombrely imagines the last moments of an old man dying in a hospital; he expresses guilt over accidentally dismembering an ant, yet divulges that he then destroyed the ants’ nest deliberately. There are even a couple of cheeky, carnal poems, one about a couple of teenagers he caught copulating in the street and one, “The Hottest Day of the Year,” about a longing for touch. “Matter,” in ABAB stanzas, is on the theme of racial justice by way of the Black Lives Matter movement.
My two favourites were “Sunday School,” about the rules for life he’s lived by since leaving religion behind, and “The End of This (Drinking Poem),” which serves as a good-riddance farewell to 2020: “Let me shake off / this year the way the otter / slips out of fast, rising water / and makes the holt just in time … / Let me rid my days of caution and fear, / these protocols and tiers / and Zoom funerals for people I love / and will never see again.” The book is worth the price of admission for the latter alone, and Nick Hayes’s black-and-white woodcut-style engravings are a plus.
However, in general I felt that the balance of current events and nature was off, especially compared to books like The Consolation of Nature, and ultimately I was not convinced that this needed to be in verse at all. “Starling,” especially, feels like a straight knockoff of Robert Macfarlane’s The Lost Words (“We forget that you once shimmered through frozen air, ripple bird. / Shape-shifter, dusk-dancer. Murmurer, sky-writer”). Judging from Cowen’s Common Ground, this would have been more successful as a book of short prose diary entries with a few poems dotted through.
With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the proof copy for review.
An Extra Pair of Hands: A Story of Caring, Ageing and Everyday Acts of Love by Kate Mosse
Mosse’s parents and mother-in-law all moved in to live with her and her husband in their Chichester home when they reached old age. Her father had Parkinson’s and died in 2011, her mother survived him by a few years, and Granny Rosie is still going (reasonably) strong at the age of 90. This is a compact and relatable account of a daughter’s experiences of caregiving and grief, especially with the recent added complications of a pandemic.
What came through particularly clearly for me was the older generation’s determination to not be a burden: living through the Second World War gave them a sense of perspective, such that they mostly did not complain about their physical ailments and did not expect heroic measures to be made to help them. (Her father knew his condition was “becoming too much” to deal with, and Granny Rosie would sometimes say, “I’ve had enough of me.”) In her father’s case, this was because he held out hope of an afterlife. Although Mosse does not share his religious beliefs, she is glad that he had them as a comfort.
The author recognizes the ways in which she has been lucky: as a full-time writer, she works from home and has the time and energy to devote to caring for elderly parents, whereas for many – generally middle-aged women, who may still have children at home – it is a huge struggle to balance caregiving with the rest of life. What is more, money is no issue for her. Repeating some of the statistics from Madeleine Bunting’s Labours of Love, she acknowledges that the situation is much more challenging for the average person.
I can see how this could serve as a great introduction for someone who hasn’t previously read much about bereavement, caregiving or old age, and I imagine it will especially appeal to existing fans of Mosse’s writing, whereas I was new to her work. I’ve read so much around these topics, including most of the works included in the bibliography, that the book did not offer me anything new, though it was a perfectly pleasant read.
Readalikes I have reviewed:
Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Be With by Mike Barnes
All Things Consoled by Elizabeth Hay
The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills
With thanks to Profile Books/Wellcome Collection for the free copy for review.
What recent releases can you recommend?
Six Degrees of Separation: From Margaret to This Cold Heaven
This month we’re starting with Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (which I have punctuated appropriately!). See Kate’s opening post. I know I read this as a child, but other Judy Blume novels were more meaningful for me since I was a tomboy and late bloomer. The only line that stays with me is the chant “We must, we must, we must increase our bust!”
#1 Another book with a question in the title (and dominating the cover) is How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti. I found a hardback copy in the unofficial Little Free Library I ran in our neighborhood during the first lockdown before the public library reopened. Heti is a divisive author, but I loved Motherhood for perfectly encapsulating my situation. I think this one, too, is autofiction, and the title question is one I ask myself variations on frequently.
#2 I’ve read quite a few “How to” books, whether straightforward explanatory/self-help texts or not. Lots happened to be from the School of Life series. One I found particularly enjoyable and helpful was How to Age by Anne Karpf. She writes frankly about bodily degeneration, the pursuit of wisdom, and preparation for death. “Growth and psychological development aren’t a property of our earliest years but can continue throughout the life cycle.”
#3 Ageing is a major element in May Sarton’s journals, particularly as she moves from her seventies into her eighties and fights illnesses. I’ve read all but one of her autobiographical works now, and – while my favorite is Journal of a Solitude – the one I’ve chosen as most representative of her usual themes, including inspiration, camaraderie, the pressures of the writing life, and old age, is At Seventy.
#4 Sarton was a keen gardener, as was Derek Jarman. I learned about him in the context of nature helping people come to terms with their mortality. Modern Nature reproduces the journal the gay, HIV-positive filmmaker kept in 1989–90. Prospect Cottage in Dungeness, Kent, and the unusual garden he cultivated there, was his refuge between trips to London and further afield, and a mental sanctuary when he was marooned in the hospital.
#5 One of the first memoirs I ever read and loved was Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty, about his partner Wally’s death from AIDS. This sparked my continuing interest in illness and bereavement narratives, and it was through following up Doty’s memoirs with his collections of poems that I first got into contemporary poetry, so he’s had a major influence on my taste. I’ve had Heaven’s Coast on my rereading shelf for ages, so really must get to it in 2021.
#6 Thinking of heaven, a nice loop back to Blume’s Margaret and her determination to find God … one of the finest travel books I’ve read is This Cold Heaven, about Gretel Ehrlich’s expeditions to Greenland and historical precursors who explored it. Even more than her intrepid wanderings, I was impressed by her prose, which made the icy scenery new every time. “Part jewel, part eye, part lighthouse, part recumbent monolith, the ice is a bright spot on the upper tier of the globe where the world’s purse strings have been pulled tight.”
A fitting final selection for this week’s properly chilly winter temperatures, too. I’ll be writing up my first snowy and/or holiday-themed reads of the year in a couple of weeks.
Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already! (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? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
Soul Food: Rereading Anne Lamott
I first read Anne Lamott’s autobiographical essays on faith in about 2005, when I was in my early twenties and a recovering fundamentalist and Republican. She’s a Northern Californian ex-alcoholic, a single mother, a white lady with dreadlocks. Her liberal, hippie approach to Christianity was a bit much for me back then. I especially remember her raging against George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. But even if I couldn’t fully get behind all of her views, her picture of a fumbling faith that doesn’t claim to know much for certain appealed to me. Jesus is for her the herald of a radical path of love and grace. Lamott describes herself stumbling towards kindness and forgiveness while uttering the three simplest and truest prayers she knows, “Help, thanks, wow.” I only own three of her eight spiritual books (though I’ve read them all), so I recently reread them one right after the other – the best kind of soul food binge in a stressful time.
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999)
Her first and best collection. Many of these pieces first appeared in Salon web magazine. There is a lot of bereavement and other dark stuff here, yet an overall lightness of spirit prevails. Lamott’s father died of melanoma that metastasized to his brain (her work has meant a lot to my sister because her husband, too, died of brain cancer) and her best friend Pammy died of breast cancer – both far too young. A college dropout, alcoholic and drug addict, Lamott didn’t walk into a church and get clean until she was in her early thirties. Newly sober and with the support of the community, she was able to face unexpected motherhood and raise Sam in the church, clinging to fragments of family and nurturing seeds of faith.
The essays sometimes zero in on moments of crisis or decision, but more often on everyday angst, such as coming to terms with a middle-aged body. “Thirst” and “Hunger” are a gorgeous pair about getting sober and addressing disordered eating. “Ashes,” set on one Ash Wednesday, sees her trying to get her young son interested in the liturgical significance and remembering scattering Pammy’s ashes. “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and “Barn Raising” are two classics about surviving a turbulent flight and supporting a local family whose child has cystic fibrosis. Each essay is perfectly constructed: bringing together multiple incidents and themes in a lucid way, full of meaning but never over-egging the emotion.
Like A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas, this was even better the second time around – I can see that the memoir-in-essays is now among my most admired forms.
Some favorite lines:
“The main reason [that she makes Sam go to church] is that I want to give him what I found in the world[: …] a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want—which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality.”
“You really do have to eat, anything at all you can bear. So we had smoothies, with bananas, which I believe to be the only known cure for existential dread.”
“most of the time, all you have is the moment, and the imperfect love of people.”
“even though I am a feminist and even though I am religious, I secretly believe, in some mean little rat part of my brain, that I am my skin, my hair, and worst of all, those triangles of fat that pooch at the top of my thighs. In other words, that I am my packaging.”
My original rating (c. 2005):
My rating now:
Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (2005)
Here’s the more political material I remembered from Lamott. Desperately angry about the impending Iraq War, she struggles to think civilly about Bush. “I wake up some mornings pinned to the bed by centrifugal sadness and frustration.” In the meantime, her difficult mother has died and it takes years to get to a point where she can take the woman’s ashes (with a misspelling on the name label) out of the closet and think of scattering them. Sam is a teenager and there are predictable battles of wills but also touching moments as they rekindle a relationship with his father. Lamott also starts a Sunday School and says goodbye to a dear old dog. A few of the essays (especially “One Hand Clapping”) feel like filler, and there are fewer memorable lines. “Ham of God,” though, is an absolute classic about the everyday miracle of a free ham she could pass on to a family who needed it.
I’ve been surprised that Lamott hasn’t vented her spleen against Donald Trump in her most recent books – he makes Bush look like a saint, after all. But I think it must be some combination of spiritual maturity and not wanting to alienate a potential fan base (though to most evangelicals she’ll be beyond the pale anyway). Although her response to current events makes this book less timeless than Traveling Mercies, I found some of her words applicable to any troubled period: “These are such rich, ripe times for paranoia and despair that each celebration, each occasion of tribal love and music and overeating glows more brightly … People are helping one another keep their spirits up.”
My secondhand copy has had quite the journey: it has a “The Munich Readery” stamp in the front and has sat text block facing out on a shelf for ages judging by the pattern of yellowing; I picked it up from the Community Furniture Project, a local charity warehouse, last year for a matter of pence.
Some favorite lines:
(on caring for an ageing body) “You celebrate what works and you take tender care of what doesn’t, with lotion, polish and kindness.”
“Rest and laughter are the most spiritual and subversive acts of all. Laugh, rest, slow down.”
My original rating (c. 2005):
My rating now:
Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace (2014)
This is a sort of “Greatest Hits” collection of new and selected essays. I skipped over the ones I’d just encountered in Traveling Mercies and Plan B to focus on the newer material. I don’t have a copy of Grace (Eventually), her third set of essays on faith, so I wasn’t sure which were from that and which were previously unpublished in book form. More so than before, Lamott’s thoughts turn to ageing and her changing family dynamic – she’s now a grandmother. As usual, the emphasis is on being kind to oneself and learning the art of forgiveness. Sometimes it seems like her every friend or relative has cancer. Her writing has tailed off noticeably in quality, but I suspect there’s still no one many of us would rather hear from about life and faith. It’s a beautiful book, too, with deckle edge, blue type and gold accents. My favorite of the new stuff was “Matches,” about Internet dating.
My original rating (2015):
My rating now (for the newer material only):
Currently rereading: Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Considering rereading next: Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty