Tag Archives: chapbooks
Recommended March Releases by Jane Aldous, Danielle Evans, Katherine May & Genanne Walsh
Sonnets, short stories, nature-fuelled wonder, and an autobiographical essay about a father’s death … from postwar Edinburgh to modern-day San Francisco and from fiction about young African American women to pilgrimages along the English coast, I have a real variety to recommend this month. (And coming up in a separate post: Womb by Leah Hazard.)
More Patina than Gleam by Jane Aldous
This was my second Arachne Press collection after Routes by Rhiya Pau. Intriguingly, it’s a story composed of 70 sonnets, untraditional in that they do not follow a particular rhyme scheme apart from the odd couplet. There is scant punctuation, with within-line spaces separating the phrases. Aldous, who has recently been featured in a Guardian article on debut authors over 60, imagines a sort of alternative future for her mother had she run away with her when she was a baby. Here, Linda escapes her abusive common-law husband, Vernon, and travels from England to Edinburgh with her 11-year-old daughter, Angie. They settle with an eccentric older woman named Elsie Datlow, who hires Linda as a lady’s companion and keeps her on as a housekeeper when financial struggles force her to accept paying guests. It’s impressive how much Aldous fits into comparatively little text, including Angie’s coming of age, the ups and downs of the Datlows’ picture restoring business, and transgressive romance as both Elsie and Linda fall in love across accepted gender or racial boundaries. This was a pleasant surprise that called to mind works by Muriel Spark and Sarah Waters.
With thanks to Arachne Press for the free copy for review.
Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans (2010)
A couple of years ago I reviewed Evans’s second short story collection, The Office of Historical Corrections. This was her first book but has only just been published in the UK. Six of the eight stories are in the first person, the other two in third person. The protagonists tend to be young African American women in moments of transition or clinging to unhealthy relationships. In “Virgins,” 15-year-old Erica and Jasmine want to shed their innocence but can’t necessarily control how it happens. “Snakes” has Tara, a transracial adoptee, spending her ninth summer with her white cousin, Allison, down at their grandmother’s home in Florida. The response to a series of accidents makes it clear to her who is valued in this family. The college girls in “Harvest” consider a variety of reproductive experiences, from selling their eggs to abortion. In “The King of a Vast Empire,” a brother and sister decide to track down a survivor of a car accident their family had when they were children. “Jellyfish” sees a father and daughter meeting for lunch in Harlem and pondering their separate futures.
Many settings were familiar to me from the Delmarva area where I grew up. Here on the cusp of the South, Confederate sympathy still exists, as high schoolers Crystal and Geena discover in “Robert E. Lee Is Dead.” The best friends collaborate on pranks, but Crystal’s grades point to a promising future whereas everyone has given up on Geena, including herself. Along with that one, my two favourites were “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere to Go” and “Wherever You Go, There You Are.” In the former, military veteran Georgie tries to ingratiate himself with his ex-girlfriend by treating her daughter to a princess experience; in the latter, Carla takes her would-be-sexpot 14-year-old niece, Chrissie, on a road trip to North Carolina to meet her ex’s fiancée. Both are exemplary of the assets of the whole collection: strong characters, natural dialogue, and subtle treatment of themes of class and race. I’d proffer this for fans of Sidik Fofana, and as a better option than Dantiel Moniz’s stories.
With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.
Enchantment: Reawakening wonder in an exhausted age by Katherine May
I was a big fan of Katherine May’s Wintering, which published just before the pandemic and, as if presciently, offers strategies for coping with seasons of depression. Coming after a few years of upheaval and disconnection, this follow-up voices May’s longing for rituals of the transcendent that will allow her to live in harmony and close attention to the world around her. Her usual way of communing with nature and other people was group swims in the sea, but that temporarily stopped with lockdown. She sought alternatives, such as visiting a sacred well with a friend, beekeeping, cultivating a wild garden, and chasing a meteor shower. The Earth – Water – Fire – Air structure is sometimes forced, and the content sparse; like Raynor Winn, May, I feel, was pressured to capitalize on the success of her previous work and quickly publish unfinished and rather nebulous material. It’s all surprisingly woo-woo from an English author. Yet May’s writing is unfailingly lovely and this went down easy a chapter at a time. It’s a comparable read to Wanderland by Jini Reddy.
With thanks to Faber for the proof copy for review.
Eggs in Purgatory by Genanne Walsh
I reviewed Genanne Walsh’s novel Twister as part of my summer reading in 2018. This autobiographical essay, recently published by WTAW Press and a finalist in their Alcove Chapbook Series Open, tells the story of the last few months of her father’s life. Aged 89, he lived downstairs from Walsh and her wife in San Francisco. He was quite the character: idealist, stubborn, outspoken; a former Catholic priest influenced by A Course in Miracles and convinced of the oneness of everything. Although he had no terminal conditions, he was sick of old age and its indignities and ready to exit. (“He wanted to be put on an ice floe and pushed offshore. The problem was, I lived above him on the iceberg and would be tasked with shoving him off.”) However, there was confusion about California state laws and whether doctors could help him with this, and at one point the police showed up at the door.
The title refers to a Middle Eastern dish (see this Nigella Lawson recipe) I’ve known as shakshuka. It was the last proper meal her father ate, Christmas morning 2017 with her and her wife, before he went on his final hunger strike. Later Walsh writes, “Mourning is a kind of purgatory. You exist between worlds. For a long time I walked through, not fully feeling the world of the living or the world of the dead but aware of both.”
The task of a memoir is to fully mine the personal details of a situation but make of it something universal, and that’s just what she does here. Her father’s past with her mother (who died decades before, following a stroke) renders the family dynamic a backdrop to a final pyrrhic battle. Aware that she doesn’t come out of this a saint, Walsh admits to contradictory feelings, including “my life will be so much easier when he dies.” The prediction, no less than its reality, makes her feel guilty. Though she has no faith as such, she senses her father’s influence in her very desire to keep communing with him after his death.
This stunning little book met me at a deep place and I can highly recommend it, especially if you were a fan of In Love by Amy Bloom and All Things Consoled by Elizabeth Hay. (See also The Inevitable – one of its case studies reminded me of this.)
With thanks to the author for the free e-copy for review.
And one dud:
Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton – This year’s Klara and the Sun for me: I have trouble remembering why I was so excited about Catton’s third novel that I put it on my Most Anticipated list for 2023, especially given my decidedly mixed feelings about The Luminaries. I’d read a lot about Birnam Wood so its plot held no surprises for me. An American tech billionaire is up to no good on a New Zealand nature reserve; though the members of a guerrilla gardening group summon courage to fight back, his drones see all.
From early on I had little interest in the cast and their doings, especially the buzzword-filled dialogues, and skimmed the rest. Literary fiction usually distinguishes itself from commercial genre fiction by its focus on character depth (and prose quality), but in Catton’s case that was achieved through endless backstory. Her attempt at edginess entails adding at least one F-word to each spoken sentence. (The Bookshop Band, usually so mild-mannered, reflected this by dropping an F-bomb in their song based on the book – see the music video, which cleverly employs a derelict greenhouse and drones.) I’d heard that the ending was a knockout, so I skipped ahead and did find the last 40 pages gripping and the gruesome final tableau worthy of the Shakespearean allusions, but there’s a lot of blah to wade through before that.
With thanks to Granta for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?