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.”
Recent Writing for Bookmarks, Foreword and Shelf Awareness
I’ve been writing for U.S. print magazine Bookmarks for an astonishing 9.5 years now, and have the title of associate editor. The upcoming November/December issue is their first to be released in digital format as well, and as a promo it’s available to read for free here. My contributions to the issue are an article on fiction and nonfiction about women in STEM (starts on p. 23), and various of the anonymous synopses/critical summaries in the New Books Guide. Each issue has one or more author profiles, one or more thematic features, reader recommendations, a book group bio, and news on prizes and upcoming releases.
Here are excerpts from a few recent or upcoming reviews of October releases that I’ve contributed elsewhere. I link to the full text where available.
Without Saints: Essays by Christopher Locke: Fifteen flash essays present shards of a life story. Growing up in New Hampshire, Locke encountered abusive schoolteachers and Pentecostal church elders who attributed his stuttering to demon possession and performed an exorcism. By age 16, small acts of rebellion had ceded to self-harm, and his addictions persisted into adulthood. Later, teaching poetry to prisoners, he realized that he might have been in their situation had he been caught with drugs. The complexity of the essays advances alongside the chronology. Weakness of body and will is a recurrent element.
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver: Her bighearted ninth novel follows the contours of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, transplanting the plot to 1990s southwest Virginia to uncover the perils of opiate addiction. Ten-year-old Damon Fields lives in a trailer home with his addict mother, who is employed at Walmart, and his new stepfather, Stoner, a mean trucker. Tragedy strikes and Damon moves between several foster homes before running away. “A kid is a terrible thing to be, in charge of nothing,” he remarks, looking back. His irrepressible, sassy voice is reminiscent of Holden Caulfield’s in this Appalachian cousin to Shuggie Bain.
Bad Vibes Only by Nora McInerny: McInerny’s fifth book is a witty, insightful set of essays about self-worth and parenting in the social media era. Those familiar with the author’s previous autobiographical works will remember that within a few weeks in 2014, her father and first husband, Aaron, both died of cancer. After several years as a single mother, she married Matthew and they blended their families. Even when dealing with serious topics like anxiety and narrow escapes, McInerny has a light touch. She is endearingly honest, aware of her privilege and open about her contradictions. The then-and-now focus compares pre-Internet childhood with the challenges of raising kids with a constant online presence.
Which Side Are You On by Ryan Lee Wong: In Wong’s dynamite debut novel – set in Los Angeles, with its history of race riots – an Asian American college student committed to social justice rethinks how best to live out his ideals in the real world. Wong probes the generational gap between Reed and his parents through snappy dialogue and enjoyable scenes that constitute an incidental tour of multi-ethnic L.A. Full of vibrant characters, this punchy story offers no simple answers to ongoing racial conflicts. The portrait of a sanctimonious young man who wakes up to the reality of generational trauma and well-meaning failure is spot-on. Truly, a book for the contemporary moment.
It’s always a thrill to see my words quoted as authoritative: excerpts from my Bad Vibes Only review appear on Bookshop.org and on Lit Hub’s Bookmarks page (see below), and there’s an unattributed quote from my Which Side Are You On review on the book’s Amazon page.
Do any of these books interest you?
Until the Future: “Tomorrow” Novels by Emma Straub & Gabrielle Zevin
These two 2022 novels I read from the library recently were such fun, but also had me fighting back tears – they’re lovely, bittersweet reads that think seriously about time and failure and loss (and prompted me to ask myself, “Was everything better in 1995–6?” The answer to which is an emphatic YES). If you’re a city-goer, you’ll appreciate the loving depictions of New York City and Los Angeles. They’re also perfect literary/ commercial crossovers that I can imagine recommending to just about any of my readers. Both:
This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub
Emma Straub is one of the most reliable authors I know for highly readable literary fiction (see also: Jami Attenberg, Maggie O’Farrell and Ann Patchett): while there’s always a lot going on in terms of family dysfunction and character dynamics, her plots are juicy and the prose slides right down (especially Modern Lovers, as well as The Vacationers). Here Alice Stern is a frustrated 40-year-old who feels stuck career- and relationship-wise, working in admissions in the same NYC private school she once attended and living with an okay boyfriend she secretly hopes won’t propose. She devotes much of her emotional energy to her seriously ill father, Leonard, who it seems may never be released from the hospital.
Leonard is the one-hit sci-fi author of a cult classic about time travel, and when an inebriated Alice falls asleep near her childhood home on the night of her 40th birthday, she has her own time-travel adventure, waking up on her 16th birthday in 1996. This is her chance, she thinks: to make sure things go right with her high school crush, and to encourage her father to write more and adopt healthier habits so he won’t be dying in a hospital 24 years down the line. As she figures out the rules of this personal portal and attempts the same transition again and again, she starts to get the hang of what works; what she can change and what is inexorable. And she tries to be a better person, both then and now.
True sci-fi aficionados would probably pick holes in the reasoning, but I would say so long as you pick this up expecting a smart commentary on relationships, ageing, loss and regret rather than a straight-up time-travel novel, you’ll be just fine. Straub is closer to my older sister’s age than mine, but I still loved the 1990s nostalgia, and looking back at your childhood/teen years from a parent’s perspective can only ever be an instructive thing to do.
It’s clever how Straub starts cycling through the time changes faster and faster so they don’t get repetitive. The supporting characters like Sam (Alice’s African American best friend), Kenji and even Ursula the cat are great, and there are little nods throughout to other pop culture representations of time travel. This was entertaining and relatable, but also left me with a lump in the throat. And it was all the more poignant to have been reading it just as news hit of author Peter Straub’s death; it’s a daughter’s tribute.
Some favourite lines:
(Alice thinking about Leonard) “She would feel immeasurably older when he was gone.”
“Maybe, she thought, … her mistake had been assuming that somewhere along the line, everything would fall into place and her life would look just like everyone else’s.”
(in 1996) “Everyone was gorgeous and gangly and slightly undercooked, like they’d been taken out of the oven a little bit too early”
“Any story could be a comedy or a tragedy, depending on where you ended it. That was the magic, how the same story could be told an infinite number of ways.”
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
I didn’t think I’d ever read another novel by Zevin after the dud that was The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (by far my most popular negative review on Goodreads), but Laura’s fantastic review changed my mind.
Here’s the summary I wrote for Bookmarks magazine:
Sadie Green and Sam Masur met in unlikely circumstances. In 1986, Sam’s serious foot injury had him in a children’s hospital, where Sadie was visiting her sister, who had cancer. They hit it off talking video games, but Sam was hurt to learn Sadie kept up the visits to earn community service hours for her bat mitzvah. When they meet again during college in Boston, they decide to co-design a game. Helped by his roommate and her boyfriend, they create a bestseller, Ichigo, based on The Tempest. Over the decades, these gaming friends collaborate multiple times, but life throws some curveballs. A heartwarming story for gamers and the uninitiated alike.
The novel was more complicated than I expected, mostly because it spans nearly 30 years – and my main critique would probably be that a shorter timeline would have been more intense. It also goes to some dark places as it probes the two central characters’ traumas and tendency to depression. But their friendship, which over the years becomes a business partnership that also incorporates Sam’s college roommate, Marx Watanabe, is a joy. The creative energy and banter are enviable. Marx is the uncomplicated, optimistic go-between when Sam and Sadie butt heads and take offense at perceived betrayals. Underneath Sam and Sadie’s conflicts is a love different from, and maybe superior to, romantic love (I think Sam might best be described as ace).
Gaming comes across as better than reality in that it offers infinite possibilities for do-overs. Life, on the other hand, only goes in one direction and is constrained by choices, your own and others’. Part VII, “The NPC” (for non-player character), is in second person narration and is beautiful as well as heartbreaking – I’ll say no more for fear of spoilers.
Apart from playing Super Mario with older cousins at 1990s family reunions and a couple of educational computer games with my childhood best friend, I don’t have any history with gaming at all, yet Zevin really drew me in to the fictional worlds Sadie and Sam created with their games. What with the vivid imagery and literary allusions, EmilyBlaster, Ichigo and Master of the Revels are real works of art, bridging high and low culture and proving that Dickinson’s poetry and Shakespeare’s plays are truly timeless. I was also interested to see how games might be ahead of their time socio-politically.
This reminded me most of The Animators and The Art of Fielding, similarly immersive stories of friendship and obsessive commitment to work and/or play. In the same way that you don’t have to know anything about cartooning or baseball to enjoy those novels, you don’t have to be a gamer to find this a nostalgic, even cathartic, read.
Some favourite lines:
“for Marx, the world was like a breakfast at a five-star hotel in an Asian country—the abundance of it was almost overwhelming. Who wouldn’t want a pineapple smoothie, a roast pork bun, an omelet, pickled vegetables, sushi, and a green-tea-flavoured croissant? They were all there for the taking and delicious, in their own way.”
Sam to Sadie: “We work through our pain. That’s what we do. We put the pain into the work, and the work becomes better.”
Marx (who was a college actor) in the early years, citing Macbeth: “What is a game? It’s tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. It’s the possibility of infinite rebirth, infinite redemption. The idea that if you keep playing, you could win. No loss is permanent, because nothing is permanent, ever.”
February Releases by de Visser, George, Lawson, and Smiley
Nonfiction about doctors’ memorable patients and a life of chronic pain and disability; novels set in 1970s Canada and contemporary (but magically outside-of-time) Paris.
That One Patient: Doctors’ and nurses’ stories of the patients who changed their lives forever by Ellen de Visser
[Translated from the Dutch by Brent Annable]
Ellen de Visser is a science writer for the most popular newspaper in the Netherlands, De Volkskrant. Her “That One Patient” column, which began in the summer of 2017, turns interviews with medical professionals into punchy first-person narratives. A collection of them was published in Dutch in 2019. This English translation tacks on 10 additional pieces based on conversations with English and American practitioners (including Dr. Anthony Fauci, immunologist and presidential medical advisor), four of them explicitly reflecting on COVID-19.
Many of the cases are decades old yet stuck with the doctor or nurse in question because of a vital lesson learned. Overtreatment is regretted just as much as an omission of care. Again and again, these medical professionals conclude that it’s impossible to judge someone else’s decisions or quality of life. For instance, a surgeon admits he had a hard time empathizing with his obese patients undergoing stomach reduction until he followed up with a young woman who told him about how invisible she’d felt before her surgery. Premature and disabled children bring grief or joy, not always in the expected doses. A doctor resents the work his team puts into repairing a woman who jumped from an eighth-floor window – why the heroic measures for someone who wanted to die? – until he learns she was pushed. A cancer surgeon develops breast cancer and now knows exactly what her patients go through.
Some of these stories are disturbing: being stalked by a patient with a personality disorder, a man poisoning his girlfriend, a farmer predicting the very day and time of his death. A gynaecologist changes his mind about abortion after he meets a 15-year-old who gave birth at home and left her baby outside in a plastic bag to die of exposure. Other pieces are heart-warming: A paramedic delivers a premature, breech baby right in the ambulance. Staff throw a wedding at the hospital for a dying teen (as in Dear Life by Rachel Clarke). A woman diagnosed with cancer while pregnant has chemotherapy and a healthy baby – now a teenager. There’s even a tale from a vet who crowdfunded prostheses for a lively terrier.
One unique thing about the Netherlands is that euthanasia is legal and provided by doctors upon the express request of a patient suffering from a terminal illness. It is taken for granted in these essays, yet some interviewees express their discomfort with it as an option for young patients. De Visser is careful to note that, even with the situation as it is, only 4% of deaths in the Netherlands are by euthanasia, and the majority of these are end-stage cancer cases.
As with any collection of this nature, some stories are more enticing than others, but overall I found it a surprising and moving set of reflections that is alive to ethical complexities and grapples with tough issues like disability, doctor error, loneliness, pain, and sense of purpose.
Two quotes, in particular, stood out to me, one from a nurse – “We are only ever guests in other people’s lives, and that’s how we ought to behave” – and the other from Dr. Fauci’s piece. In 2014 he treated a doctor who had been volunteering in Sierra Leone after an Ebola outbreak but became ill with the virus and had to be evacuated. “He cited Hippocrates: ‘It is far more important to know what sort of person has the disease, rather than what sort of disease the person has.’ You treated me like a person, not a disease, he said. And that’s what medicine is all about.”
With thanks to 4th Estate for the proof copy for review.
A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George
Over a year of lockdowns, many of us have become accustomed to spending most of the time at home. But for Josie George, social isolation is nothing new. Chronic illness long ago reduced her territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto George’s quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons. (My full review will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Times Literary Supplement. See also Eleanor’s thorough review.) This is top of my wish list for next year’s Barbellion Prize shortlist.
With thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.
A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson
I discovered Mary Lawson in 2015 with Road Ends and caught up with Crow Lake in the summer of 2019. All four of her books are set in fictional locations inspired by the villages and rural areas of Northern Ontario, where the author grew up before moving to England in 1968. So Solace, while not a real town, is true to her memory and, despite the sometimes gruff or know-it-all locals, an emotional landmark for the three central characters, all of whom are processing trauma and looking for places of comfort where they can start over.
1972. First we meet Clara, a plucky seven-year-old sitting vigil. She’s waiting for the return of two people: her sixteen-year-old sister, Rose, who ran away from home; and their next-door neighbour, Mrs. Orchard, whose cat, Moses, she’s feeding until the old lady gets back from the hospital. As days turn into weeks, though, it seems less likely that either will come home, and one day Clara sees a strange man moving boxes around in Mrs. Orchard’s house. This is Liam Kane, who’s inherited the house from a family friend. In his thirties and recently divorced, he’s taking a break in this tiny town, never imagining that he might find a new life. The third protagonist, and only first-person narrator, is Elizabeth, who lies in a hospital bed with heart trouble and voices her memories as a monologue to her late husband.
As we cycle through these three characters’ perspectives in alternating chapters, we gradually come to understand the connections between them. There are satisfying parallels in that, on multiple occasions but in slightly different ways, a child attaches to an older person or an adult stands in as a guardian for a neglected child. All of Lawson’s creations, even the secondary figures, are dealing with distressing memories or a loss of some kind, the details of which might only emerge much later on. Solace offers myriad opportunities for recovery, whether kitty playtime at Mrs. Orchard’s or diner food and homemade ice cream.
Like Lawson’s other works, this is a slow burner featuring troubled families. Her characters, often full of regret and sorrow, take a shadowy past as a prompt to reset their lives. They’re charming in spite of their flaws. I recalled that Crow Lake also looks back to the climactic happenings experienced by a seven-year-old girl. And like Road Ends, A Town Called Solace makes a convincing case for present decisions being influenced by historical trauma. It’s a tender and inviting story I’d recommend to readers of Wendy McGrath and Anne Tyler, with Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley and Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout as specific readalikes. (My dilemma now is whether to read my only remaining Lawson novel, The Other Side of the Bridge, right away or save it: she’s not the most prolific author, with four books in 19 years.)
A favorite passage:
[Liam’s] life prior to coming north seemed to be taking on the quality of an old movie, one in which he’d been deeply engrossed while watching it but which now seemed trivial, unconvincing and profoundly lacking in either colour or plot. Solace had colour and plot in spades, maybe too much. In every way it was coming to seem more real than Toronto, with its endless malls and traffic jams and high-powered jobs. Though maybe, if he went back to Toronto, the same would be true in reverse. Maybe when he’d been back for a couple of months he’d find that it was Solace that seemed unreal, its unremarkable streets and stores like something from a dream, its dramatic landscape fading to nothing, like a holiday photo left in the sun.
With thanks to Chatto & Windus for the free copy for review.
The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley
(Published in the USA in December 2020 under the title Perestroika in Paris. It’s been given a The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse treatment for its UK release.)
My summary for Bookmarks magazine: “A racehorse, Perestroika—nicknamed Paras—strays from her unlocked suburban stable one day, carrying her groom’s purse in her mouth, and ends up in Paris’s Place du Trocadéro. Here she meets Frida the dog, Sid and Nancy the mallards, and Raoul the raven. Frida, whose homeless owner died, knows about money. She takes euros from the purse to buy food from a local market, while Paras gets treats from a baker on predawn walks. Etienne, an eight-year-old orphan who lives with his ancient great-grandmother, visits the snowy park to feed the wary animals (who can talk to each other), and offers Paras a home. A sweet fable for animal lovers.”
Yes, this is a talking animal book, but the animals only talk to each other; they communicate with humans through their gestures and soulful eyes. Kindly shopkeepers work out what Frida wants to buy based on what she stares at or points to with a paw; the baker whose window Paras passes on her early morning walks intuits that the horse is hungry; Etienne, who gives a couple of the stray animals a home during a chill winter, learns to understand when Paras needs to go out to relieve herself, after piles of dung build up in the sitting room.
I liked how patiently and convincingly Smiley builds the portrait of each character – human or animal – and the overall situation of kindness and good fortune. Raoul is particularly amusing for his birdsplaining: “It is a feature of age. I have learned so many things in my life that they just force their way out of my beak,” he says. However, a crow would be much more realistic for Paris (or any city) than a raven, and, overall, this was a little twee and farfetched for my tastes. It was nice to read something a bit different from Smiley, who I haven’t tried since her Last Hundred Years Trilogy. She has a sideline in YA horse novels; this should probably have been lumped with those. (Annabel liked it a bit more.)
I was sent an unsolicited review copy by Picador/Mantle.
What recent releases can you recommend?
A Few Bizarre Backlist Reads: McEwan, Michaels & Tremain
I’ve grouped these three prize-winning novels from the late 1980s and 1990s together because they all left me scratching my head, wondering whether they were jumbles of random elements and events or if there was indeed a satisfyingly coherent story. While there were aspects I admired, there were also moments when I thought it indulgent of the authors to pursue poetic prose or plot tangents and not consider the reader’s limited patience. I had to think for ages about how to rate these, but eventually arrived at the same rating for each, reflecting my enjoyment but also my hesitation.
The Child in Time by Ian McEwan (1987)
[Whitbread Prize for Fiction (now Costa Novel Award)]
This is the second-earliest of the 13 McEwan books I’ve read. It’s something of a strange muddle (from the protagonist’s hobbies of Arabic and tennis lessons plus drinking onwards), yet everything clusters around the title’s announced themes of children and time.
Stephen Lewis’s three-year-old daughter, Kate, was abducted from a supermarket three years ago. The incident is recalled early in the book, as if the remainder will be about solving the mystery of what happened to Kate. But such is not the case. Her disappearance is an unalterable fact of Stephen’s life that drove him and his wife apart, but apart from one excruciating scene later in the book when he mistakes a little girl on a school playground for Kate and interrogates the principal about her, the missing child is just subtext.
Instead, the tokens of childhood are political and fanciful. Stephen, a writer whose novels accidentally got categorized as children’s books, is on a government committee producing a report on childcare. On a visit to Suffolk, he learns that his publisher, Charles Darke, who later became an MP, has reverted to childhood, wearing shorts and serving lemonade up in a treehouse.
Meanwhile, Charles’s wife, Thelma, is a physicist researching the nature of time. For Charles, returning to childhood is a way of recapturing timelessness. There’s also an odd shared memory that Stephen and his mother had four decades apart. Even tiny details add on to the time theme, like Stephen’s parents meeting when his father returned a defective clock to the department store where his mother worked.
This is McEwan, so you know there’s going to be a contrived but very funny scene. Here that comes in Chapter 5, when Stephen is behind a flipped lorry and goes to help the driver. He agrees to take down a series of (increasingly outrageous) dictated letters but gets exasperated at about the same time it becomes clear the young man is not approaching death. Instead, he helps him out of the cab and they celebrate by drinking two bottles of champagne. This doesn’t seem to have much bearing on the rest of the book, but is the scene I’m most likely to remember.
Other noteworthy elements: Stephen has a couple of run-ins with the Prime Minister; though this is clearly Margaret Thatcher, McEwan takes pains to neither name nor so much as reveal the gender of the PM (in fear of libel claims?). Homeless people and gypsies show up multiple times, making Stephen uncomfortable but also drawing his attention. I assumed this was a political point about Thatcher’s influence, with the homeless serving as additional stand-ins for children in a paternalistic society, representing vulnerability and (misplaced) trust.
This is a book club read for our third monthly Zoom meeting, coming up in the first week of June. While it’s odd and not entirely successful, I think it should give us a lot to talk about: the good and bad aspects of reverting to childhood, whether it matters if Kate ever comes back, the caginess about Thatcher, and so on.
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (1996)
[Orange Prize (now Women’s Prize for Fiction)]
“One can look deeply for meaning or one can invent it.”
Poland, Greece, Canada; geology, poetry, meteorology. At times it felt like Michaels had picked her settings and topics out of a hat and flung them together. Especially in the early pages, the dreamy prose is so close to poetry that I had trouble figuring out what was actually happening, but gradually I was drawn into the story of Jakob Beer, a Jewish boy rescued like a bog body or golem from the ruins of his Polish village. Raised on a Greek island and in Toronto by his adoptive father, a geologist named Athos who’s determined to combat the Nazi falsifying of archaeological history, Jakob becomes a poet and translator. Though he marries twice, he remains a lonely genius haunted by the loss of his whole family – especially his sister, Bella, who played the piano. Survivor’s guilt never goes away. “To survive was to escape fate. But if you escape your fate, whose life do you then step into?”
The final third of the novel, set after Jakob’s death, shifts into another first-person voice. Ben is a student of literature and meteorological history. His parents are concentration camp survivors, so he relates to the themes of loss and longing in Jakob’s poetry. Taking a break from his troubled marriage, Ben offers to go back to the Greek island where Jakob last lived to retrieve his notebooks – which presumably contain all that’s come before. Ben often addresses Jakob directly in the second person, as if to reassure him that he has been remembered. Ultimately, I wasn’t sure what this section was meant to add, but Ben’s narration is more fluent than Jakob’s, so it was at least pleasant to read.
Although this is undoubtedly overwritten in places, too often resorting to weighty one-liners, I found myself entranced by the stylish writing most of the time. I particularly enjoyed the puns, palindromes and rhyming slang that Jakob shares with Athos while learning English, and with his first wife. If I could change one thing, I would boost the presence of the female characters. I was reminded of other books I’ve read about the interpretation of history and memory, Everything Is Illuminated and Moon Tiger, as well as of other works by Canadian women, A Student of Weather and Fall on Your Knees. This won’t be a book for everyone, but if you’ve enjoyed one or more of my readalikes, you might consider giving it a try.
Sacred Country by Rose Tremain (1992)
[James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Prix Fémina Etranger]
In 1952, on the day a two-minute silence is held for the dead king, six-year-old Mary Ward has a distinct thought: “I am not Mary. That is a mistake. I am not a girl. I’m a boy.” Growing up on a Suffolk farm with a violent father and a mentally ill mother, Mary asks to be called Martin and binds her breasts with bandages. Kicked out at age 15, she lives with her retired teacher and then starts to pursue a life on her own terms in London. While working for a literary magazine and dating women, she consults a doctor and psychologist to explore the hormonal and surgical options for becoming the man she believes she’s always been.
Meanwhile, a hometown acquaintance with whom she once shared a dentist’s waiting room, Walter Loomis, gives up his family’s butcher shop to pursue his passion for country music. Both he and Mary/Martin are sexually fluid and, dissatisfied with the existence they were born into, resolve to search for something more. The outsiders’ journeys take them to Tennessee, of all places. But when Martin joins Walter there, it’s an anticlimax. You’d expect their new lives to dovetail together, but instead they remain separate strivers.
At a bare summary, this seems like a simple plot, but Tremain complicates it with many minor characters and subplots. The story line stretches to 1980: nearly three decades’ worth of historical and social upheaval. The third person narration shifts perspective often to show a whole breadth of experience in this small English village, while occasional first-person passages from Mary and from her mother, Estelle, who’s in and out of a mental hospital, lend intimacy. Otherwise, the minor characters feel flat, more like symbols or mouthpieces.
To give a flavor of the book’s many random elements, here’s a decoding of the extraordinary cover on the copy I picked up from the free bookshop:
Crimson background and oval shape = female anatomy, menstruation
Central figure in a medieval painting style, with royal blue cloth = Mary
Masculine muscle structure plus yin-yang at top = blended sexuality
Airplane = Estelle’s mother died in a glider accident
Confederate flag = Tennessee
Cards = fate/chance, conjuring tricks Mary learns at school, fortune teller Walter visits
Cleaver = the Loomis butcher shop
Cricket bat = Edward Harker’s woodcraft; he employs and then marries Estelle’s friend Irene
Guitar = Walter’s country music ambitions
Oyster shell with pearl = Irene’s daughter Pearl, whom young Mary loves so much she takes her (then a baby) in to school for show-and-tell
Cutout torso = the search for the title land (both inward and outer), a place beyond duality
Tremain must have been ahead of the times in writing a trans character. She acknowledged that the premise was inspired by Conundrum by Jan Morris (who, born James, knew he was really a girl from the age of five). I recall that Sacred Country turned up often in the footnotes of Tremain’s recent memoir, Rosie, so I expect it has little autobiographical resonances and is a work she’s particularly proud of. I read this in advance of writing a profile of Tremain for Bookmarks magazine. It feels very different from her other books I’ve read; while it’s not as straightforwardly readable as The Road Home, I’d call it my second favorite from her. The writing is somewhat reminiscent of Kate Atkinson, early A.S. Byatt and Shena Mackay, and it’s a memorable exploration of hidden identity and the parts of life that remain a mystery.
Review Books Roundup: Blackburn, Bryson, Pocock, Setterwall, Wilson
I’m attempting to get through all my 2019 review books before the end of the year, so expect another couple of these roundups. Today I’m featuring a work of poetry about one of Picasso’s mistresses, a thorough yet accessible introduction to how the human body works, a memoir of personal and environmental change in the American West, Scandinavian autofiction about the sudden loss of a partner, and a novel about kids who catch on fire. You can’t say I don’t read a variety! See if one or more of these tempts you.
The Woman Who Always Loved Picasso by Julia Blackburn
Something different from Blackburn: biographical snippets in verse about Marie-Thérèse Walter, one of Pablo Picasso’s many mistress-muses. When they met she was 17 and he was 46. She gave birth to a daughter, Maya – to his wife Olga’s fury. Marie-Thérèse’s existence was an open secret: he rented a Paris apartment for her to live in, and left his home in the South of France to her (where she committed suicide three years after his death), but unless their visits happened to overlap she was never introduced to his friends. “I lived in the time I was born into / and I kept silent, / acquiescing / to everything.”
In Marie-Thérèse’s voice, Blackburn depicts Picasso as a fragile demagogue: in one of the poems that was a highlight for me, “Bird,” she describes how others would replace his caged birds when they died, hoping he wouldn’t notice – so great was his horror of death. I liked getting glimpses into a forgotten female’s life, and appreciated the whimsical illustrations by Jeffrey Fisher, but as poems these pieces don’t particularly stand out. (Plus, there are no page numbers! which doesn’t seem like it should make a big difference but ends up being annoying when you want to refer back to something. Instead, the poems are numbered.)
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review. Published today.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson
Shelve this next to Being Mortal by Atul Gawande in a collection of books everyone should read – even if you don’t normally choose nonfiction. Bryson is back on form here, indulging his layman’s curiosity. As you know, I read a LOT of medical memoirs and popular science. I’ve read entire books on organ transplantation, sleep, dementia, the blood, the heart, evolutionary defects, surgery and so on, but in many cases these go into more detail than I need and I can find my interest waning. That never happens here. Without ever being superficial or patronizing, the author gives a comprehensive introduction to every organ and body system, moving briskly between engaging anecdotes from medical history and encapsulated research on everything from gut microbes to cancer treatment.
Bryson delights in our physical oddities, and his sense of wonder is infectious. He loves a good statistic, and while this book is full of numbers and percentages, they are accessible rather than obfuscating, and will make you shake your head in amazement. It’s a persistently cheerful book, even when discussing illness, scientists whose work was overlooked, and the inevitability of death. Yet what I found most sobering was the observation that, having conquered many diseases and extended our life expectancy, we are now overwhelmingly killed by lifestyle, mostly a poor diet of processed and sugary foods and lack of exercise.
With thanks to Doubleday for the free copy for review.
Surrender: Mid-Life in the American West by Joanna Pocock
Prompted by two years spent in Missoula, Montana and the disorientation felt upon a return to London, this memoir-in-essays varies in scale from the big skies of the American West to the smallness of one human life and the experience of loss and change. Then in her late forties, Pocock had started menopause and recently been through the final illnesses and deaths of her parents, but was also mother to a fairly young daughter. She explores personal endings and contradictions as a kind of microcosm of the paradoxes of the Western USA.
It’s a place of fierce independence and conservatism, but also mystical back-to-the-land sentiment. For an outsider, so much of the lifestyle is bewildering. The author attends a wolf-trapping course, observes a Native American buffalo hunt, meets a transsexual rewilding activist, attends an ecosexuality conference, and goes foraging. All are attempts to reassess our connection with nature and ask what role humans can play in a diminished planet.
This is an elegantly introspective work that should engage anyone interested in women’s life writing and the environmental crisis. There are also dozens of black-and-white photographs interspersed in the text. In 2018 Pocock won the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize for this work-in-progress. It came to me as an unsolicited review copy and hung around on my shelves for six months before I picked it up; I’m glad I finally did.
With thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for the free copy for review.
Let’s Hope for the Best by Carolina Setterwall
[Trans. from the Swedish by Elizabeth Clark Wessel]
Although this is fiction, it very closely resembles the author’s own life. She wrote this debut novel to reflect on the sudden loss of her partner and how she started to rebuild her life in the years that followed. It quickly splits into two parallel story lines: one begins in April 2009, when Carolina first met Aksel at a friend’s big summer bash; the other picks up in October 2014, after Aksel’s death from cardiac arrest. The latter proceeds slowly, painstakingly, to portray the aftermath of bereavement. In the alternating timeline, we see Carolina and Aksel making their life together, with her always being the one to push the relationship forward.
Setterwall addresses the whole book in the second person to Aksel. When the two story lines meet at about the two-thirds point, it carries on into 2016 as she moves house, returns to work and resumes a tentative social life, even falling in love. This is a wrenching story reminiscent of In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist, and much of it resonated with my sister’s experience of widowhood. There are many painful moments that stick in the memory. Overall, though, I think it was too long by 100+ pages; in aiming for comprehensiveness, it lost some of its power. Page 273, for instance (the first anniversary of Aksel’s death, rather than the second, where the book actually ends), would have made a fine ending.
With thanks to Bloomsbury UK for the proof copy for review.
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson
I’d read a lot about this novel while writing a synopsis and summary of critical opinion for Bookmarks magazine – perhaps too much, as it felt familiar and offered no surprises. Lillian, a drifting twentysomething, is offered a job as a governess for her boarding school roommate Madison’s stepchildren. Madison’s husband is a Tennessee senator in the running for the Secretary of State position, so it’s imperative that they keep a lid on the situation with his 10-year-old twins, Bessie and Roland.
You see, when they’re upset these children catch on fire; flames destroy their clothes and damage nearby soft furnishings, but leave the kids themselves unharmed. Temporary, generally innocuous spontaneous combustion? Okay. That’s the setup. Wilson writes so well that it’s easy to suspend your disbelief about this, but harder to see a larger point, except perhaps creating a general allegory for the challenges of parenting. This was entertaining enough, mostly thanks to Lillian’s no-nonsense narration, but for me it didn’t soar.
With thanks to Text Publishing UK for the PDF for review. This came out in the States in October and will be released in the UK on January 30th.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
August’s Reading Plans: Too Many Projects!
My August is looking chock-full of reading projects – many of them self-imposed, to be fair.
20 Books of Summer: I’ve finished a few more books and just need to write them up; I’m in the middle of another nine, including Tisala as my doorstopper for the month.
Summer theme: Books with summer/sun/shine in the title, and others set in summer, like The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley, my classic for the month.
Women in Translation month: I’ve started the Ferrante and also want to get to the Fenollera and start the Flores stories (all those Fs!), which are coming out from Oneworld in November. Also, in yesterday’s post I received a surprise copy of a forthcoming Fitzcarraldo Editions essay by Annie Ernaux about her mother’s dementia, so I will squeeze that in too.
Robertson Davies week: In the final week of August I’ll be joining in with Lory’s (The Emerald City Book Review) Robertson Davies readalong by starting Fifth Business, the first volume in The Deptford Trilogy.
May Sarton article: I’m writing a profile for Bookmarks magazine this month, and am currently in the throes of research: finishing the Margot Peters biography I started last year and set aside for ages; reading another novel or two by Sarton; skimming back through various of the journals, novels and poems I’ve read before; and exploring other external sources. Luckily, my husband was able to forage for loads from his university library for me.
What’s keeping you busy this month?
This Year’s “Snow” and “Winter” Reads
Longtime readers will know how much I enjoy reading with the seasons. Although it’s just starting to feel like there’s a promise of spring here in the south of England, I understand that much of North America is still cold and snowy, so I hope these recent reads of mine will feel topical to some of you – and the rest of you might store some ideas away for next winter.
Silence in the Snowy Fields and Other Poems by Robert Bly (1967)
Even when they’re in stanza form, these don’t necessarily read like poems; they’re often more like declaratory sentences, with the occasional out-of-place exclamation. But Bly’s eye is sharp as he describes the signs of the seasons, the sights and atmosphere of places he visits or passes through on the train (Ohio and Maryland get poems; his home state of Minnesota gets a whole section), and the small epiphanies of everyday life, whether alone or with friends. And the occasional short stanza hits like a wisdom-filled haiku, such as “There are palaces, boats, silence among white buildings, / Iced drinks on marble tops among cool rooms; / It is good also to be poor, and listen to the wind” (from “Poem against the British”).
Favorite wintry passages:
How strange to think of giving up all ambition!
Suddenly I see with such clear eyes
The white flake of snow
That has just fallen in the horse’s mane!
(“Watering the Horse” in its entirety)
The grass is half-covered with snow.
It was the sort of snowfall that starts in late afternoon,
And now the little houses of the grass are growing dark.
(the first stanza of “Snowfall in the Afternoon”)
Wishing for Snow: A Memoir by Minrose Gwin (2004)
One of the more inventive and surprising memoirs I’ve read. Growing up in Mississippi in the 1920s–30s, Gwin’s mother wanted nothing more than for it to snow. That wistfulness, a nostalgia tinged with bitterness, pervades the whole book. By the time her mother, Erin Clayton Pitner, a published though never particularly successful poet, died of ovarian cancer in the late 1980s, their relationship was a shambles. Erin’s mental health was shakier than ever – she stole flowers from the church altar, frequently ran her car off the road, and lived off canned green beans – and she never forgave Minrose for having had her committed to a mental hospital. Poring over Erin’s childhood diaries and adulthood vocabulary notebook, photographs, the letters and cards that passed between them, remembered and imagined conversations and monologues, and Erin’s darkly observant unrhyming poems (“No place to hide / from the leer of the sun / searching out every pothole, / every dream denied”), Gwin asks of her late mother, “When did you reach the point that everything was in pieces?”
The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (2018)
It has been winter for five years, and Sanna, Mila and Pípa are left alone in their little house in the forest – with nothing but cabbages to eat – when their brother Oskar is lured away by the same evil force that took their father years ago and has been keeping spring from coming. Mila, the brave middle daughter, sets out on a quest to rescue Oskar and the village’s other lost boys and to find the way past winter. Clearly inspired by the Chronicles of Narnia and especially Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy, this middle grade novel is set in an evocative, if slightly vague, Russo-Finnish past and has more than a touch of the fairy tale about it. I enjoyed it well enough, but wouldn’t seek out anything else by the author.
Favorite wintry passage:
“It was a winter they would tell tales about. A winter that arrived so sudden and sharp it stuck birds to branches, and caught the rivers in such a frost their spray froze and scattered down like clouded crystals on the stilled water. A winter that came, and never left.”
Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (1937; English translation, 1956)
[Translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker]
The translator’s introduction helped me understand the book better than I otherwise might have. I gleaned two key facts: 1) The mountainous west coast of Japan is snowbound for months of the year, so the title is fairly literal. 2) Hot springs were traditionally places where family men travelled without their wives to enjoy the company of geishas. Such is the case here with the protagonist, Shimamura, who is intrigued by the geisha Komako. Her flighty hedonism seems a good match for his, but they fail to fully connect. His attentions are divided between Komako and Yoko, and a final scene that is surprisingly climactic in a novella so low on plot puts the three and their relationships in danger. I liked the appropriate atmosphere of chilly isolation; the style reminded me of what little I’ve read from Marguerite Duras. I also thought of Silk by Alessandro Baricco and Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden – perhaps those were to some extent inspired by Kawabata?
Favorite wintry passage:
“From the gray sky, framed by the window, the snow floated toward them in great flakes, like white peonies. There was something quietly unreal about it.”
I’ve also been slowly working my way through The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen, a spiritual quest memoir with elements of nature and travel writing, and skimming Francis Spufford’s dense book about the history of English exploration in polar regions, I May Be Some Time (“Heat and cold probably provide the oldest metaphors for emotion that exist.”).
On next year’s docket: The Library of Ice by Nancy Campbell (on my Kindle) and Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
Last year I had a whole article on perfect winter reads published in the Nov/Dec issue of Bookmarks magazine. Buried in Print spotted it and sent this tweet. If you have access to the magazine via your local library, be sure to have a look!
Have you read any particularly wintry books recently?
The November Outlook
Normally I’d start the month off with a few recommendations for new books, but I’ve only finished one November book I can recommend (Skating on the Vertical, short stories by Jan English Leary; not yet reviewed); I DNFed another couple and skimmed one more. So instead I’ll give a quick survey of what the month holds.
- Young Writer of the Year reviews and events. I’ve read The Lauras; expect my review on Monday. I’m currently reading The Lucky Ones, Conversations with Friends, and the Steven Runciman biography, which will be my doorstopper for the month. There will be a shortlist event in London on the 18th, and on the 24th the shadow panel is meeting up to select a winner.
- I’ll be finishing up a brief climate change feature for Foreword Reviews magazine, consisting of mini-reviews of four upcoming books on an environmental theme.
- Review books I owe write-ups for: Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books by Susan Hill (released last month) and The Smell of Fresh Rain by Barney Shaw (out on the 14th). I’m fascinated by the science of smell and taste, so I’m intrigued to find out what Shaw has to say about a sense that often gets little attention.
- Blog tour for Celeste Ng’s new novel, Little Fires Everywhere, on the 14th. I haven’t started it yet but I’m looking forward to it immensely.
- You’d think with all those review books and library piles I wouldn’t be taking on any more projects…but I couldn’t resist agreeing to another “Book Wars” column (my third) for Stylist magazine, due on the 17th. I used to love reading Stylist when I worked in London; if you’re lucky enough to come across the magazine in your commuting, look out for my contribution to the Christmas-themed special.
- The Iris Murdoch Readalong begins with Under the Net. I’ll aim to squeeze it in before the end of the month. (Can I count it as my Classic?!)
- If I get a chance, I’ll also participate in German Literature Month by reading Bernhard Schlink’s The Woman on the Stairs on my Kindle.
- I’m revisiting some of my favorite Victorian pastiches for an article on neo-Victorian novels for Bookmarks magazine, due at the end of the month.
- Otherwise, I’ll be focusing on novellas for November, including some nonfiction novellas. I have a big pile of books set aside that are around 150 pages or shorter. I’ll get to as many of them as I can and summarize them in a roundup or two. They’re quick wins, true, often read in a single sitting (I read Alice Hoffman’s Survival Lessons this morning, for instance), but this doesn’t feel like a cheaty way to build up the book list because brevity is such an admirable skill.