Six Degrees of Separation: From Hamnet to Paula
I was slow off the mark this month, but here we go with everyone’s favorite book blogging meme! This time we start with Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell’s Women’s Prize-winning novel about the death of William Shakespeare’s son. (See Kate’s opening post.) Although I didn’t love this as much as others have (my review is here), I was delighted for O’Farrell to get the well-deserved attention – Hamnet was also named the Waterstones Book of the Year 2020.
#1 I’ve read many nonfiction accounts of bereavement. One that stands out is Notes from the Everlost by Kate Inglis, which is also about the death of a child. The author’s twin sons were born premature; one survived while the other died. Her book is about what happened next, and how bereaved parents help each other to cope. An excerpt from my TLS review is here.
#2 Also featuring a magpie on the cover, at least in its original hardback form, is Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver (reviewed for R.I.P. this past October). I loved that Maud has a pet magpie named Chatterpie, and the fen setting was appealing, but I’ve been pretty underwhelmed by all three of Paver’s historical suspense novels for adults.
#3 One of the strands in Wakenhyrst is Maud’s father’s research into a painting of the Judgment Day discovered at the local church. In A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr (reviewed last summer), a WWI veteran is commissioned to uncover a wall painting of the Judgment Day, assumed to be the work of a medieval monk and long ago whitewashed over.
#4 A Month in the Country spans one summer month. Invincible Summer by Alice Adams, about four Bristol University friends who navigate the highs and lows of life in the 20 years following their graduation, checks in on the characters nearly every summer. I found it clichéd; not one of the better group-of-friends novels. (My review for The Bookbag is here.)
#5 The title of Invincible Summer comes from an Albert Camus quote: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy.” Inspired by the same quotation, then, is In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende, a recent novel of hers that I was drawn to for the seasonal link but couldn’t get through.
#6 However, I’ve enjoyed a number of Allende books over the last 12 years or so, both fiction and non-. One of these was Paula, a memoir sparked by her twentysomething daughter’s untimely death in the early 1990s from complications due to the genetic condition porphyria. Allende told her life story in the form of a letter composed at Paula’s bedside while she was in a coma.
So, I’ve come full circle with another story of the death of a child, but there’s a welcome glimpse of the summer somewhere there in the middle. May you find your own inner summer to get you through this lockdown winter.
Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.) Next month’s starting point is Redhead at the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler.
Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
Reviews Roundup, April–May
Every month I compile the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to click on the link to read more.
The Good Guy by Susan Beale: You might think there’s nothing new to add to the suburban-angst-and-adultery storyline. What Beale does so beautifully in this debut novel is to put you right into the minds of the three main characters. This is a story about the differences between what’s easy and what’s right, and the quest to make amends wherever possible. It’s also a cautionary tale: be careful what you wish for, because that boring life you were so eager to escape may just be what you wanted after all. I also love the range of settings, from the dazzling Shoppers’ World mall to a beach house on Cape Cod. This is a delicious, slightly gossipy summer read with a Mad Men feel to it. I’d especially recommend this to fans of The Longest Night and Tigers in Red Weather. Releases June 16th.
Invincible Summer by Alice Adams: Four Bristol University friends navigate the highs and lows of life in the 20 years following graduation. Like in One Day, the narrative checks in on the characters nearly every summer. As happens in real life, even the closest friends gradually drift apart. Job situations and relationships change, and external events like the financial collapse of 2008 take a toll. Compared to some other similar recent novels (e.g. Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma), this debut somewhat lacks sparkle. Releases June 2nd in the UK and June 28th in the USA.
This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell: O’Farrell’s globe-trotting seventh novel opens in 2010 with Daniel Sullivan, an American linguistics professor in Donegal. Spreading outward from Ireland and reaching into every character’s past and future, this has all O’Farrell’s trademark insight into family and romantic relationships, as well as her gorgeous prose and precise imagery. The disparate locations and the title suggest our nomadic modern condition. It’s the widest scope she has attempted yet; that’s both a good and a bad thing. I did wonder if there were a few too many characters and plot threads.
(A subscriber service, so I can only make excerpts available.)
The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church: In Church’s debut, an amateur ornithologist learns about love and sacrifice through marriage to a Los Alamos physicist and a relationship with a Vietnam veteran. Torn between two men who mean so much to her, Meri has to consider what her true duties are. “There was no good solution. No clear way out, no approach that would earn the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” she wryly observes. I instantly warmed to Meri as a narrator and loved following her unpredictable life story. Church reveals the difficulty a woman of that time had in choosing her own path and making it fit into men’s plans, and shows how love, as the title suggests, can be a burden but also a thing of reassuring substance. Meri longs, like one of her beloved birds, to take flight into her dreams. Whether she gets there, and how, is a bittersweet trip but one you’ll be glad you went along for.
The North Water by Ian McGuire: A gritty tale of adventure and murder set aboard a mid-nineteenth-century whaling ship. Archaic adjectives pile up in a clever recreation of Victorian prose: “The men, empurpled, reeking, drenched in the fish’s steaming, expectorated gore.” Much of the novel is bleak and brutal like that. There are a lot of “F” and “C” words, too; this is so impeccably researched that I don’t doubt the language is accurate. McGuire never shies away from gory detail, whether that’s putrid smells, bodily fluids, animal slaughter, or human cruelty. I thought the novel’s villain was perhaps too evil, with no redeeming features. Still, this is a powerful inquiry into human nature and the making of ethical choices in extreme circumstances. From the open seas to the forbidding polar regions, this is a journey worth taking.
Rediscovering the Immune System as an Integrated Organ by Peter Bretscher: A rigorous introduction to current immunological thought. Vocabulary terms are given in bold italics and defined in context on first use, and each chapter ends with a helpful synopsis. However, these summaries are almost as dense as the text itself, and the many acronyms are difficult to keep straight. Unlike a textbook, though, the book also contains welcome snippets of autobiography. Bretscher traces not just the evolution of immunological knowledge, but also the development of his own thinking. This will be an invaluable resource for students in search of a nonstandard immunology primer. With research under way into vaccinations against AIDS, tuberculosis, and cancer, the field has a bright future.
Crowning Glory: An experiment in self-discovery through disguise by Stacy Harshman: In 2005, Harshman decided to embark on a sociological experiment-cum-personal challenge: each week for six weeks she donned a different wig, and with the help of her assistant, Bonnie, she carefully recorded the reactions she received from onlookers and potential partners. Each day she chose three New York City locales, taking in events like lunch, happy hour, and late night socializing. Recalling the time she was hospitalized for a psychotic break in 2000, she marvels at how changing hairstyles could help her feel self-assured and sexy. The book is an appealing cross between a scientific study and a spy story.
All at Sea by Decca Aitkenhead: In May 2014, Aitkenhead, a Guardian writer, was on vacation with her partner Tony Wilkinson and their two young sons in Jamaica. A beautiful sunny morning turned disastrous when Tony swam out to rescue their son Jake and drowned. After the tragic events of the first chapter, this wrenching memoir retreats to consider the 10 years she and Tony (a former criminal and crack addict) spent as “the most implausible couple I have ever known.” More than half the book is devoted to the aftermath of Tony’s death, described in a matter-of-fact style that still manages to convey the depth of Aitkenhead’s pain. This is a unique combination of a journalist’s forthright storytelling and the ‘magical thinking’ Joan Didion introduced. Releases in the States on August 16th.
Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent by Mircea Eliade: This rediscovered Romanian classic is what you might get if a teenage Adrian Mole was studying for a philosophy degree. Before picking this up I knew of Eliade as a commentator on world religions. I didn’t realize he also wrote novels. This is particularly special in that it’s a lost manuscript he wrote as a teenager; it was only discovered in a Bucharest attic after his death in the 1980s. The novel’s chief detriments – the repetitive nature of the sections about his schooling, and his obsessive introspection – are also, ironically, what make it most true to the adolescent experience. I’d recommend it to fans of My Brilliant Friend and Melanie Sumner’s How to Write a Novel.
Quiet Flows the Una by Faruk Šehić: This autobiographical novel by a Bosnian poet and former soldier is full of poetic language and nature imagery. The narrator transcends his sordid war memories through his magical approach to life. Actual war scenes only come much later in the book; even then they are conveyed in such an abstract style that they seem more like hallucinations than remembered events. The lyrical writing about his beloved river provides a perfect counterpoint to the horror and absurdity of war. “We made this town, Bosanska Krupa, of black mire, yellow sand and green water borrowed from the Una. The tall towers of our town tickle God’s feet.” What most impressed me about passages like that one is the alliteration that shines through even after translation. I would highly recommend this to readers of Anthony Marra and Daniel Kehlmann.
Shelter by Jung Yun: A Korean-American family faces up to violence past and present in this strong debut. Finances and relationships just keep going from bad to worse, as the novel’s tripartite structure suggests: “Dawn” cedes to “Dusk,” which descends into “Night.” You wonder just how terrible things can get – will this really reach the Thomas Hardy levels of tragedy it seems to portend? – until, in the incredible last 10 pages, Yun pulls back from violence and offers the hope of redemption. I did wonder if there were a few too many secondary characters. However, the Korean-American culture of honor and shame makes a perfect setting. I would recommend this to fans of David Vann and Richard Ford.
The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang: Mental illness haunts an Asian-American family in this offbeat multi-generational saga. Wang’s debut novel opens in 1968 with David Nowak reporting from the motel room where he plans to kill himself. Succeeding portions of the novel are narrated from other perspectives: David’s wife Jia-Hui, aka Daisy, whom he met in Taiwan; then their son William and his half-sister Gillian. Jia-Hui’s narrative is the most entrancing. Presented as a translation, it includes occasional foreign characters or blank spaces where she couldn’t quite catch what someone was saying in English. Her sections are full of foreboding about the family legacy of madness. I was reminded most of A Reunion of Ghosts and All My Puny Sorrows. Something about this book left a slightly bitter aftertaste for me, but there’s no doubt Wang has fine plotting, character building, and prose skills.
The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught Her to Fly by Luis Sepúlveda: Zorba, a fat black cat, will be alone this summer while his boy’s family go on holiday – convenient given the adventure that’s about to befall him. Kengah, an exhausted and oil-drenched seagull, lands on his balcony and lays a final, precious egg. She makes Zorba promise he will not eat the egg but will look after her baby and teach it to fly. He enlists his motley group of fellow cats at the port of Hamburg to help him figure out how to raise a chick. Sepúlveda, a Chilean author, was jailed under the Pinochet regime and was later on the crew of a Greenpeace ship. The environmental message here is noticeable but not overpowering. Geared towards confident nine- to eleven-year-olds, this might also be read aloud with younger children.
Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu by Yi Shun Lai: Marty Wu is an advertising account executive for a NYC retirees’ magazine but dreams of opening her own costume shop. This debut novel is her Bridget Jones-esque diary, often written in a kind of shorthand style contrasting her goals with her seemingly inevitably failures, as in: “Crap. Is 4:00 a.m. Have breakfast meeting. Must sleep.” She’s constantly quoting to herself the advice and wisdom she’s gleaned from various motivational books she picked up in hopes of self-improvement. Lai writes engagingly about the contrasts between Taiwan and the States, especially the complexities of family roles. This is a lighthearted, summery read. Watch Marty ditch self-help books and start living the life she wants anyway.
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue: A nurse investigates the case of an Irish girl surviving without food for months: miracle or hoax? The novel draws on about 50 historical cases of “Fasting Girls” that occurred in Europe and North America in the 16th to 20th centuries. It sets up a particularly effective contrast between medicine and superstition. Donoghue writes convincing, vivid historical fiction, peppering the text with small details about everything from literature to technology. This is the fifth book I’ve read by her, and it’s by far my favorite. With the two-week time limit and the fact that most scenes take place in the cabin – with just a handful set in other village locales like the bog and the pub where Lib stays – this has something of the flavor of a locked-room mystery. Releases September 20th.
Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint: A nostalgic tour through a soccer fan’s highlights. Over the years Toussaint has realized what he loves about the sport: its seasonality (the World Cup “comes round every four years with the regularity of a leap-year seasonal fruit”) and the rituals of attending a match. On the other hand, he recognizes downsides, such as temporary permission given to chauvinism and the fact that it doesn’t age well – it’s an instant thing; one doesn’t tend to watch repeats. My favorite chapter, set in 2014, is less about sports and more about a hard time in the author’s personal life: he had recently lost his father and finished a ten-year novel sequence, leaving him unsure what to do next. I enjoyed his introspective passages about the writing life and the sense of purpose it gives his struggles. I was not the ideal reader, given my general antipathy to sports and my unfamiliarity with the author. All the same, I can see how this would appeal to fans of Fever Pitch.
At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell
I’ve long meant to read Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live, a biography of Montaigne that also promises to be a deep examination of philosophical and ethical issues. When I heard she had a new book out, I jumped at the chance to learn more about existentialism. I’ve come away from At the Existentialist Café with only a nebulous sense of what existentialism actually means (though Bakewell’s bullet-pointed list of points towards a definition on page 34 is helpful), but certainly with more knowledge about and appreciation for Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, two of her main subjects. This is appropriate given the shift in Bakewell’s thinking: “When I first read Sartre and Heidegger, I didn’t think the details of a philosopher’s personality or biography were important. … Thirty years later, I have come to the opposite conclusion. Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.”
Some of the interesting characters herein, apart from Sartre and de Beauvoir (always referred to in these pages as “Beauvoir,” which irked me unduly), are Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Albert Camus. It’s a large cast; you may well find yourself flipping back and forth to the helpful who’s who list in the back of the book. I was amused to see that Freiburg, Germany is the seat of phenomenology (which gave rise to existentialism) – I’m heading there in June to stay with friends at the start of a mini European tour. Husserl was the chair of philosophy at Freiburg, and Heidegger his colleague.
The best I can make out, Heidegger’s philosophy was about describing experience to get to the heart of things. Disregard peripherals and focus on the self’s knowledge of the world, he advised. His best known work, Being and Time, contrasted individual beings with Being itself (i.e. ontology). Think of him as an experimental, modernist novelist, Bakewell advises; understanding what he’s doing with his philosophy is difficult otherwise. Existentialism built on this framework but emphasized freedom and how it is exercised in particular situations.
World War II, especially the year 1945, was a turning point for many of the philosophers discussed. Sartre was held in a POW camp but his eye troubles gave him a way out. Many left Europe for America due to anti-Semitism, including Hannah Arendt and Bruno Bettelheim. Although Heidegger contrasted “the they” (das Man – more similar, perhaps, to the English phrase “the Man”) with the voice of conscience in such a way that suggested one should resist totalitarianism, he would later be exposed as a Nazi. In the following years, the United States became very popular culturally: jazz music, film noir, Hemingway. At the same time, the French were shocked at America’s racial inequality. Sartre believed that one should always take the opinion of the “least favored” or most oppressed party in any situation, which would lead him to speak out for minorities and the colonized, as in the Algerian liberation movement of the 1950s–60s. In the meantime, the rise of the Soviet Union and the development of the atom bomb would emerge as imminent societal threats.
Sartre and de Beauvoir had an open relationship but clearly relied on and felt deeply about each other, especially when it came to their writing. Bakewell convinced me of Sartre’s surprising sex appeal, despite his unprepossessing appearance: “down-turned grouper lips, a dented complexion, prominent ears, and eyes that pointed in different directions.” Apparently he had a silly side and would even do Donald Duck impressions. At the same time, he had rock-solid convictions, as evidenced by his refusal of the Légion d’Honneur and the Nobel Prize. I also learned that he was a biographer of Jean Genet and Gustave Flaubert; his biography of the latter, in three volumes, stretched to 2800 pages! Bakewell waxes anti-lyrical in her account of the disheartening experience of reading it: “Occasional lightning flashes strike the primordial soup, although they never quite spark it into life, and there is no way to find them except by dredging through the bog for as long as you can stand it.”
From the title and subtitle (“Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails”), I expected this book to be a bit more of a jolly narrative than it was. The frequent Left Bank Paris setting is atmospheric, but the tone is never as blithe as promised. I would also have liked some additional autobiographical material from Bakewell, who grew up in Reading, England (where I currently live) and met the existentialists through Sartre’s Nausea at age 16.
In the end the fault may not be her book’s but mine: I wasn’t up for fully engaging with a multi-subject biography packed with history and hard-to-grasp philosophical ideas. I’d recommend this to readers who long for bohemian Paris and have enjoyed either an existentialist work or a philosophical novel like Sophie’s World (Jostein Gaarder) or 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (Rebecca Goldstein).
With thanks to Chatto & Windus for the review copy.
Further reading: If anything, I think I’m likely to try de Beauvoir’s autobiographical works – the descriptive language Bakewell quotes from them sounds appealing, and of course she was fundamental in paving the way for modern feminism.
You can read an excerpt from At the Existentialist Café, about de Beauvoir’s composition of The Second Sex, at Flavorwire. See also Bakewell’s Guardian list of 10 reasons why we should still be reading the existentialists.
Have you read anything by the existentialists? What would you recommend?