Recent Poetry Releases by Allison Blevins, Kit Fan, Lisa Kelly and Laura Scott
I’m catching up on four 2023 poetry collections from independent publishers, three of them from Carcanet Press, which so graciously keeps me stocked up with work by contemporary poets. Despite the wide range of subject matter, style and technique, nature imagery and erotic musings are links. From each I’ve chosen one short poem as a representative.
Cataloguing Pain by Allison Blevins
Last year I reviewed Allison Blevins’ Handbook for the Newly Disabled. This shares its autobiographical consideration of chronic illness and queer parenting. Specifically, she looks back to her MS diagnosis and three IVF pregnancies, and her spouse’s transition. Both partners were undergoing bodily transformations and coming into new identities, the one as disabled and the other as a man. In later poems she calls herself “The shell”, while “Elegy for My Wife,” which closes Part I, makes way for references to “my husband” in Part II.
“I won’t wail for your dead name. I don’t mean that violence. I wish for a word other than elegy to explain how some of this feels like goodbye.”
In unrhymed couplets or stanzas and bittersweet paragraphs, Blevins marshals metaphors from domestic life – colours, food, furniture, gardening – to chart the changes that pain and disability force onto their family’s everyday routines. “Fall Risk” and “Fly Season” are particular highlights. This is a potent and frankly sexual text for readers drawn to themes of health and queer family-making (see also my Three on a Theme post on that topic).
Published by YesYes Books on 19 April. With thanks to the author for the advanced e-copy for review.
The Ink Cloud Reader by Kit Fan
Kit Fan was raised in Hong Kong and moved to the UK as an adult. This is his third collection of poetry. “Suddenly” tells a version of his life story in paragraphs or single lines that all incorporate the title word (with an ironic nod, through the epigraph, to Elmore Leonard’s writing ‘rule’ that “suddenly” should never be used). The “IF” statements of “Delphi” then ponder possible future events; a trip to hospital sees him contemplating his mortality (“Glück,” written as a miniature three-act play) and appreciating tokens of beauty (“Geraniums in May”). “Yew,” unusually, is a modified sonnet where every line rhymes.
As the collection’s title suggests, it is equally interested in the natural and the human. There are poems describing the cycles of the moon (the lines of “Moon Salutation” curve into a half-moon parabola) and the wind. Ink pulls together calligraphy, the Chinese zodiac and literature. “The Art of Reading,” which commemorates important moments, real and imaginary, of the poet’s reading life, was a favourite of mine, as was “Derek Jarman’s Garden.” Fan also writes of memory and travels – including to the underworld. His relationship with his husband is a subtle background subject. (“Even though we’ve lived together for nearly twenty years and are always reading sometimes I can’t read you at all which I guess is a good thing”). It’s an opulent and allusive work that has made me eager to try more by Fan. Luckily, I have his debut novel (passed on to me by Laura T.) on the shelf.
Readalike: Moving House by Theophilus Kwek
Published on 27 April. With thanks to Carcanet Press for the advanced e-copy for review.
The House of the Interpreter by Lisa Kelly
Lisa Kelly’s concern with deafness is sure to bring to mind Raymond Antrobus and Ilya Kaminsky, but I prefer her work. Kelly is half-Danish and has single-sided deafness, and in Part I of this second collection, entitled “Chamber,” her poems engage with questions of split identity:
Is this what it is like for us all? Always having to relearn home
with a strange tongue and alien hands, prepared to open our mouths
as if to beg, to touch tongue-tip with fingertip to reveal ourselves?
The title poem relishes the absurdities of telephone communication, closing with:
In the House of the Interpreter,
Oralism and Manualism, like Passion and Patience,
are rewarded differently and at different times.
Hello, this is your Interpreter. What is your wishlist?
This section ends with “#WhereIsTheInterpreter,” about the Deaf community’s outrage that the Prime Minister’s Covid briefings were not simultaneously translated into BSL.
Bizarrely but delightfully, Kelly then moves onto “Oval Window,” a sequence of alliteration-rich poems about fungi. “Mycology Abecedarian” is a joyful list of species’ common names, while “Mycelium” notes how mushrooms show that different ways of evolution and reproduction are possible. “Darning Mushroom” even combines images of fungi and holey socks. Part III, “Canal,” is a miscellany of autobiographical poems and homages to Faith Ringgold, full of references to colour, language, nature and travel.
Readalike: In the Quaker Hotel by Helen Tookey
Published on 27 April. With thanks to Carcanet Press for the advanced e-copy for review.
The Fourth Sister by Laura Scott
Back in 2019 I reviewed Laura Scott’s debut collection, So Many Rooms. Her second book reflects some of the same preoccupations: art, birds, colour and Russian literature. Chekhov is a recurring point of reference across the two; here, for instance, we have a found poem composed of excerpts from his letters. Scott also writes about the deaths of her parents, voicing resentment towards her father and remarking on life’s irony. As the title suggests, her family constellation includes sisters. Her godparents loom surprisingly large; her godmother was, apparently, a spy. My favourite of the poems, “Still Life,” imagines the whole of life being prized as a glass in an exhibit, appealingly pristine and praiseworthy in comparison to what we usually perceive: “the raggy sprawl of a life … the wrong turns and longing of it.” Elsewhere, metaphors are drawn from the theatre: performing lines, taking items from a wardrobe. I loved the way the pull of nostalgia is set up in opposition to the now.
Published on 23 February. With thanks to Carcanet Press for the advanced e-copy for review.
Read any good poetry recently?
April Releases: Frida Kahlo, Games and Rituals, Romantic Comedy
It’s been a big month for new releases and I have loads more April books on the go or waiting in the wings to be reviewed in catch-up posts in the future. For now, I have a biographical graphic novel about a celebrated painter whose medical struggles coloured her art, a set of witty short stories about modern preoccupations and relationships, and a guilty pleasure of a novel from one of my favourite contemporary authors.
Frida Kahlo: Her Life, Her Work, Her Home by Francisco de la Mora
[Translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel]
The latest in SelfMadeHero’s Art Masters series (I’ve also reviewed their books on Munch, Van Gogh, Gauguin and O’Keeffe). De la Mora imagines Kahlo (1907–1954) hosting a party at her famous blue house in Coyoacán, Mexico in her final summer – unknown to everyone there, it’s exactly one week before her death. “Hola, come in, welcome. I’m so glad you’re all here. Today is my birthday, and I want to tell all of you the story of my life…” she invites her guests, and thereby the reader. It’s a handy conceit that justifies a chronological approach.
I was reminded of traumatic events from Kahlo’s life that I’d already encountered in various places (such as Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson and Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg by Emily Rapp Black): childhood polio and the Mexican Revolution, the hideous bus accident that reshaped her body, and two miscarriages. Periods of confinement alternate with travels. We see her devotion to traditional dress and the development of her frank self-portraiture style. I’d forgotten, or never knew, that she married Diego Rivera twice and divorced in between. They hosted many cultural giants of the time (e.g., Trotsky’s stay with them forms part of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna), and both had their infidelities. I loved the use of vibrant colours, but learned little. This is really only an introduction for those new to her.
With thanks to Paul Smith and SelfMadeHero for the free copy for review.
Games and Rituals by Katherine Heiny
Early Morning Riser was one of my favourite books of 2021, and I caught up earlier this year with Heiny’s only previous novel, Standard Deviation. Both are hilarious takes on the quirks of relationships, exploring a specific dynamic that recurs in a couple of these stories: the uncomfortable triangle between a man, his second (invariably younger) wife, and the very different, generally formidable, woman he was formerly married to and who continues to play a role in his life. One of the strongest stories is “561,” which was first published as a stand-alone e-book in 2018. Charlie stole Forrest away from Barbara and now the two women have a frosty relationship. It might seem like poetic justice that Charlie later has to load all of Barbara’s possessions into a moving van, but the notion of penance gets murkier when we learn what happened when they worked together on a suicide prevention hotline.
Eight of the 11 stories are in the third person and most protagonists are young or middle-aged women navigating marriage/divorce and motherhood. A driving examiner finds herself in the same situation as her teenage test-taker; a wife finds evidence of her actor husband’s adultery. In “Damascus,” Mia worries her son might be on drugs, but doesn’t question her own self-destructive habits. Inspired by Marie Kondo, Rachel tries to pare her life back to the basics in “CobRa.” In “King Midas,” Oscar learns that all is not golden with his mistress. “Sky Bar” has Fawn stuck in her hometown airport during a blizzard. I particularly liked the ridiculous situations Florida housemates get themselves into in “Pandemic Behavior,” and the second-person “Twist and Shout,” about loving an elderly father even though he’s infuriating.
Heiny mixes humour with bitter truths in engaging stories about characters whose mistakes and futile attempts to escape the past only make them the more relatable. Her first and last lines are particularly strong; who could resist a piece that opens with “Your elderly father has mistaken his four-thousand-dollar hearing aid for a cashew and eaten it”?
With thanks to 4th Estate for the proof copy for review.
Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld
Curtis Sittenfeld is one of my favourite contemporary authors (I’ve also reviewed You Think It, I’ll Say It and Rodham) and I’ve read everything she’s published. Her work might seem lighter than my usual fare, but I’ve always maintained that she, like Maggie O’Farrell, perfectly treads the line between literary fiction and women’s fiction. This was one of my most anticipated releases of the year and it met my expectations.
Sally Milz is a mid-thirties writer for The Night Owls, a long-running sketch comedy show modelled on Saturday Night Live. Sittenfeld clearly did a lot of research into women in comedy, and Chapter 1 is a convincing blow-by-blow of a typical TNO schedule of pitches, edits, rehearsals, all-nighters and afterparties. This particular week in 2018, the host and musical guest are the same person: Noah Brewster, a pop star with surfer-boy good looks who rose to fame in the early 2000s with radio singles like “Making Love in July” and has maintained steady popularity since then. (I imagined him as a cross between Robbie Williams and Chris Hemsworth.) Sally had been expecting a self-absorbed ignoramus so, when she helps Noah edit a sketch he’s written, is pleasantly surprised to discover he’s actually smart, funny and humble. Sparks seem to fly between them, too, though the week ends all too soon.
Plain Jane getting the hot guy … that never happens, right? In fact, Sally has a theory about this very dilemma, named after her schlubby TNO office-mate: The Danny Horst Rule states that ordinary men may date and even marry actresses or supermodels, but reverse the genders and it never works. A fundamental lack of confidence means that, whenever she feels too vulnerable, Sally resorts to snarky comedy and sabotages her chances at happiness. But when, midway through the summer of 2020, she gets an out-of-the-blue e-mail from Noah, she wonders if this relationship has potential in the real world. (This, for me, is the peak: when you find out that interest is requited; that the person you’ve been thinking about for years has also been thinking about you. Whatever comes next pales in comparison to this moment.)
The correspondence section was my favourite element. “I do still wonder whether a person’s writing self is their realest self, their fakest self, or just a different self than their in-the-world self?” Sally writes to Noah. As always, Sittenfeld’s inhabiting of a first-person narrator is flawless, and Sally’s backstory and Covid-lockdown, Kansas City existence with her octogenarian stepfather and his beagle endeared her to me. I also appreciated that a woman in her mid- to late thirties could be a romantic lead, and that the question of whether she wants children simply never comes up. Of Sittenfeld’s books, I’d call this closest in tone and content to Eligible, and some familiarity with SNL would probably be of benefit.
Could this be called a predictable story? Well, what does one expect or want from a romcom (watching or reading)? There may be a feminist leaning in places, but this is conventional wish fulfilment, which, I assume, is what keeps romance readers hooked. I enjoyed every sentence and, when it was over, wished I could stay in Sally’s world. (See also Susan’s review.)
With thanks to Doubleday for the proof copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Rathbones Folio Prize Fiction Shortlist: Sheila Heti and Elizabeth Strout
I’ve enjoyed engaging with this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize shortlists, reading the entire poetry shortlist and two each from the nonfiction and fiction lists. These two I accessed from the library. Both Sheila Heti and Elizabeth Strout featured in the 5×15 event I attended on Tuesday evening, so in the reviews below I’ll weave in some insights from that.
Pure Colour by Sheila Heti
Sheila Heti is a divisive author; I’m sure there are those who detest her indulgent autofiction, though I’ve loved it (How Should a Person Be? and especially Motherhood). But this is another thing entirely: Heti puts two fingers up to the whole notion of rounded characterization or coherent plot. This is the thinnest of fables, fascinating for its ideas and certainly resonant for me what with the themes of losing a parent and searching for purpose in life on an earth that seems doomed to destruction … but is it a novel?
My summary for Bookmarks magazine gives an idea of the ridiculous plot:
Heti imagines that the life we live now—for Mira, studying at the American Academy of American Critics, working in a lamp store, grieving her father, and falling in love with Annie—is just God’s first draft. In this creation myth of sorts, everyone is born a “bear” (lover), “bird” (achiever), or “fish” (follower). Mira has a mystical experience in which she and her dead father meet as souls in a leaf, where they converse about the nature of time and how art helps us face the inevitability of death. If everything that exists will soon be wiped out, what matters?
The three-creature classification is cute enough, but a copout because it means Heti doesn’t have to spend time developing Mira (a bird), Annie (a fish), or Mira’s father (a bear), except through surreal philosophical dialogues that may or may not take place whilst she is disembodied in a leaf. It’s also uncomfortable how Heti uses sexual language for Mira’s communion with her dead dad: “she knew that the universe had ejaculated his spirit into her”.
Heti explained that the book came to her in discrete chunks, from what felt like a more intuitive place than the others, which were more of an intellectual struggle, and that she drew on her own experience of grief over her father’s death, though she had been writing it for a year beforehand.
Indeed, she appears to be tapping into primordial stories, the stuff of Greek myth or Jewish kabbalah. She writes sometimes of “God” and sometimes of “the gods”: the former regretting this first draft of things and planning how to make things better for himself the second time around; the latter out to strip humans of what they care about: “our parents, our ambitions, our friendships, our beauty—different things from different people. They strip some people more and others less. They strip us of whatever they need to in order to see us more clearly.” Appropriately, then, we follow Mira all the way through to her end, when, stripped of everything but love, she rediscovers the two major human connections of her life.
Given Ali Smith’s love of the experimental, it’s no surprise that she as a judge shortlisted this. If you’re of a philosophical bent, don’t mind negligible/non-existent plot in your novels and aren’t turned off by literary pretension, you should be fine. If you are new to Heti or unsure about trying her, though, this is probably not the right place to start. See my Goodreads review for some sample quotes, good and bad.
Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout
This was by far the best of the three Amgash books I’ve read. I think it must be the first time that Strout has set a book not in the past or at some undated near-contemporary moment but in the actual world with its current events, which inevitably means it gets political. I had my doubts about how successful she’d be with such hyper-realism, but this really worked.
As Covid hits, William whisks Lucy away from her New York City apartment to a house at the coast in Crosby, Maine. She’s an Everywoman recounting the fear and confusion of those early pandemic days, hearing of friends and relatives falling ill and knowing there’s nothing she can do about it. Isolation, mostly imposed on her but partially chosen – she finally gets a writing studio, the first ‘room of her own’ she’s ever had – gives her time to ponder the trauma of her childhood and what went wrong in her marriage to William. She worries for her two adult daughters but, for the first time, you get the sense that the strength and wisdom she’s earned through bitter experience will help her support them in making good choices.
Here in rural Maine, Lucy sees similar deprivation to what she grew up with in Illinois and also meets real people – nice, friendly people – who voted for Trump and refuse to be vaccinated. I loved how Strout shows us Lucy observing and then, through a short story, compassionately imagining herself into the situation of conservative cops and drug addicts. “Try to go outside your comfort level, because that’s where interesting things will happen on the page,” is her philosophy. This felt like real insight into a writer’s inspirations.
Another neat thing Strout does here, as she has done before, is to stitch her oeuvre together by including references to most of her other books. So she becomes friends with Bob Burgess, volunteers alongside Olive Kitteridge’s nursing home caregiver (and I expect their rental house is supposed to be the one Olive vacated), and meets the pastor’s daughter from Abide with Me. My only misgiving is that she recounts Bob Burgess’s whole story, replete with spoilers, such that I don’t feel I need to read The Burgess Boys.
Lucy has emotional intelligence (“You’re not stupid about the human heart,” Bob Burgess tells her) and real, hard-won insight into herself (“My childhood had been a lockdown”). Readers as well as writers have really taken this character to heart, admiring her seemingly effortless voice. Strout said she does not think of this as a ‘pandemic novel’ because she’s always most interested in character. She believes the most important thing is the sound of the sentences and that a writer has to determine the shape of the material from the inside. She was very keen to separate herself from Lucy, and in fact came across as rather terse. I had somehow expected her to have a higher voice, to be warmer and softer. (“Ah, you’re not Lucy, you’re Olive!” I thought to myself.)
This year’s judges are Guy Gunaratne, Jackie Kay and Ali Smith. Last year’s winner was a white man, so I’m going to say in 2023 the prize should go to a woman of colour, and in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if all three category winners were women of colour. My own taste in the shortlists is, perhaps unsurprisingly, very white-lady-ish and non-experimental. But I think Amy Bloom and Elizabeth Strout’s books are too straightforward and Fiona Benson’s not edgy enough. So I’m expecting:
Fiction: Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser
Nonfiction: Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson
Poetry: Quiet by Victoria Adukwei Bulley (or Cane, Corn & Gully by Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa)
Overall winner: Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson (or Quiet by Victoria Adukwei Bulley)
This is my 1,200th blog post!
February Releases by Nick Acheson, Charlotte Eichler and Nona Fernández (#ReadIndies)
Three final selections for Read Indies. I’m pleased to have featured 16 books from independent publishers this month. And how’s this for neat symmetry? I started the month with Chase of the Wild Goose and finish with a literal wild goose chase as Nick Acheson tracks down Norfolk’s flocks in the lockdown winter of 2020–21. Also appearing today are nature- and travel-filled poems and a hybrid memoir about Chilean and family history.
The Meaning of Geese: A thousand miles in search of home by Nick Acheson
I saw Nick Acheson speak at New Networks for Nature 2021 as the ‘anti-’ voice in a debate on ecotourism. He was a wildlife guide in South America and Africa for more than a decade before, waking up to the enormity of the climate crisis, he vowed never to fly again. Now he mostly stays close to home in North Norfolk, where he grew up and where generations of his family have lived and farmed, working for Norfolk Wildlife Trust and appreciating the flora and fauna on his doorstep.
This was indeed to be a low-carbon initiative, undertaken on his mother’s 40-year-old red bicycle and spanning September 2021 to the start of the following spring. Whether on his own or with friends and experts, and in fair weather or foul, he became obsessed with spending as much time observing geese as he could – even six hours at a stretch. Pink-footed geese descend on the Holkham Estate in their thousands, but there were smaller flocks and rarer types as well: from Canada and greylag to white-fronted and snow geese. He also found perspective (historical, ethical and geographical) by way of Peter Scott’s conservation efforts, chats with hunters, and insight from the Icelandic researchers who watch the geese later in the year, after they leave the UK. The germane context is woven into a month-by-month diary.
The Covid-19 lockdowns spawned a number of nature books in the UK – for instance, I’ve also read Goshawk Summer by James Aldred, Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt, The Consolation of Nature by Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren, and Skylarks with Rosie by Stephen Moss – and although the pandemic is not a major element here, one does get a sense of how Acheson struggled with isolation as well as the normal winter blues and found comfort and purpose in birdwatching.
Tundra bean, taiga bean, brent … I don’t think I’ve seen any of these species – not even pinkfeet, to my recollection – so wished for black-and-white drawings or colour photographs in the book. That’s not to say that Acheson is not successful at painting word pictures of geese; his rich descriptions, full of food-related and sartorial metaphors, are proof of how much he revels in the company of birds. But I suspect this is a book more for birders than for casual nature-watchers like myself. I would have welcomed more autobiographical material, and Wintering by Stephen Rutt seems the more suitable geese book for laymen. Still, I admire Acheson’s fervour: “I watch birds not to add them to a list of species seen; nor to sneer at birds which are not truly wild. I watch them because they are magnificent”.
With thanks to Chelsea Green Publishing for the free copy for review.
Swimming Between Islands by Charlotte Eichler
Eichler’s debut collection was inspired by various trips to cold and remote places, such as to Lofoten 10 years ago, as she explains in a blog post on the Carcanet website. (The cover image is her painting Nusfjord.) British and Scandinavian islands and their wildlife provide much of the imagery and atmosphere. You can sink into the moss and fog, lulled by alliteration. A glance at some of the poem titles reveals the breadth of her gaze: “Brimstones” – “A Pheasant” (a perfect description in just two lines) – “A Meditation of Small Frogs” – “Trapping Moths with My Father.” There are also historical vignettes and pen portraits. The scenes of childhood, as in the four-part “What Little Girls Are Made Of,” evoke the freedom of curiosity about the natural world and feel autobiographical yet universal.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.
Voyager: Constellations of Memory—A Memoir by Nona Fernández (2019; 2023)
[Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer]
Our archive of memories is the closest thing we have to a record of identity. … Disjointed fragments, a pile of mirror shards, a heap of the past. The accumulation is what we’re made of.
When Fernández’s elderly mother started fainting and struggling with recall, it prompted the Chilean actress and writer to embark on an inquiry into memory. Astronomy provides the symbolic language here, with memory a constellation and gaps as black holes. But the stars also play a literal role. Fernández was part of an Amnesty International campaign to rename a constellation in honour of the 26 people “disappeared” in Chile’s Atacama Desert in 1973. She meets the widow of one of the victims, wondering what he might have been like as an older man as she helps to plan the star ceremony. This oblique and imaginative narrative ties together brain evolution, a medieval astronomer executed for heresy, Pinochet administration collaborators, her son’s birth, and her mother’s surprise 80th birthday party. NASA’s Voyager probes, launched in 1977, were intended as time capsules capturing something of human life at the time. The author imagines her brief memoir doing the same: “A book is a space-time capsule. It freezes the present and launches it into tomorrow as a message.”
With thanks to Daunt Books for the free copy for review.
Learning How to Be Sad via Books by Susan Cain and Helen Russell
There’s been a lot of sadness in my life over the past few months. If there’s a key lesson I learned from the latest work by these authors, who are among the best self-help writers out there, it’s that denying sadness is the worst thing we could do. Accepting sadness helps us to be compassionate towards others and to acknowledge but ultimately let go of generational pain. There are measures we can take to mitigate sadness – a focus of the second half of Russell’s book – but it can’t be avoided altogether. Alongside the classics of bereavement literature I have been rereading, I found these two books to be valuable companions in grief.
Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole by Susan Cain (2022)
Cain’s Quiet must be one of the best-known nonfiction books of the millennium. It felt like vindication for introverts everywhere. Bittersweet is a little more nebulous in strategy but, boiled down, is a defence of the melancholic personality, one of the types identified by Aristotle (also explored in Richard Holloway’s The Heart of Things). Sadness is not the same as clinical depression, Cain rushes to clarify, though the two might coexist. Melancholy is often associated with creativity and sensitivity, and can lead us into empathy for others. Suffering and death seem like things to flee, but if we sit with them, we will truly be part of the human race and, per the “wounded healer” archetype, may also work toward restoration.
A love for minor-key music, especially songs by Leonard Cohen, is what initially drew Cain to this topic, but there are other autobiographical seeds: the deaths of many ancestors, including her rabbi grandfather’s entire family, in the Holocaust; her difficult relationship with her controlling mother, who now has dementia; and the deaths from Covid of both her brother, a hospital doctor, and her elderly father in 2020.
Through interviews and attendance at conferences and other events, she draws in various side topics, like the longing that prompts mysticism (Kabbalah and Sufism), loving-kindness meditation, an American culture of positivity that demands “effortless perfection,” ways the business world could cultivate empathy, and how knowledge of death makes life precious. (The only chapter I found less than essential was one about transhumance – the hope of escaping death altogether. Mark O’Connell has that topic covered.) Cain weaves together her research with autobiographical material naturally. As a shy introvert with melancholy tendencies, I found both Quiet and Bittersweet comforting.
With thanks to Viking (Penguin) for the proof copy for review.
How to Be Sad: The Key to a Happier Life by Helen Russell (2021)
A reread, though I only skimmed the first time around – my tiny points of criticism would be that the book is a tad long – the print in the paperback is really rather small – and retreads some of the same ground as Leap Year (e.g., how exercise and culture can contribute to a sense of wellbeing). I read that just last year, after enjoying The Year of Living Danishly with my book club. She’s a reliable nonfiction author; I’d liken her to a funnier Gretchen Rubin.
Russell has an appealingly self-deprecating style and breezily highlights statistics alongside personal anecdotes. Here she faces sources of sadness in her life head-on: her younger sister’s death from SIDS and the silence that surrounded that loss; her parents’ divorce and her sense of being abandoned by her father; struggles with eating disorders and alcohol and exercise addiction; and relationship trials, from changing herself to please boyfriends to undergoing IVF with her husband, T (aka “Legoman”), and adjusting to life as a mother of three.
As in her other self-help work, she interviews lots of experts and people who have gone through similar things to understand why we’re sad and what to do about it. I particularly appreciated chapters on “arrival fallacy” and “summit syndrome,” both of which refer to a feeling of letdown after we achieve what we think will make us happy, whether that be parenthood or the South Pole. Better to have intrinsic goals than external ones, Russell learns.
She also considers cultural differences in how we approach sadness: for instance, Russians relish sadness and teach their children to do the same, whereas the English, especially men, are expected to bury their feelings. Russell notes a waning of the rituals that could help us cope with loss, and a rise in unhealthy coping mechanisms. Like Cain, she also covers sad music (vs. one of her interviewees prescribing Jack Johnson as a mood equalizer). There are lots of laughs to be had, but the epilogue can’t fail to bring a tear to the eye. (Public library)
I found this quote from the Russell a handy summary of both authors’ premise. Dr Lucy Johnstone says:
“The key question when encountering someone with mental or emotional distress shouldn’t be, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ but rather, ‘What’s happened to you?’”
Suffering is coming for all of us, so why not arm yourself to deal with it and help others through? That’s always been one of my motivations for reading widely: to understand other people’s situations and prepare myself for what the future holds.
Could you see yourself reading a book about sadness?
Barbellion Prize Shortlist: Book of Hours by Letty McHugh
The Barbellion Prize shortlist, announced yesterday, consists of the short story collection Polluted Sex and the novel Chouette, both of which I’m still keen to read; and two nonfiction works, Hybrid Humans, which I reviewed last year, and Letty McHugh’s hybrid memoir, Book of Hours: An Almanac for the Seasons of the Soul.
I’m saving up tiny joys the way a bear fattens up for the coming winter
A patchwork quilt of ordinary leftover happiness
to keep me warm through the darkest part of the night.
In medieval times, a book of hours was a devotional book that set out the day’s prayers. Usually an illuminated manuscript, it was a precious object for laypeople, and a way of marking time. For Letty McHugh, a Yorkshire-based visual artist who lives with chronic pain and illness, this book of hours is many things: a journal, a scrapbook, an enquiry into the monastic impulse, and an interrogation of the potential meanings of physical suffering.
In April 2020, McHugh experienced a relapse of MS so bad she had to move back in with her parents and was sleeping 20 hours a day. Her sphere had contracted to a single room. If only, she wished, there was “something to concentrate on that wasn’t my unravelling body or the unravelling world.” A Catholic upbringing and childhood holidays in Northumberland made her think about the early Christian hermits and saints like Aidan, Cuthbert and Julian of Norwich who salvaged something from solitude, who out of the privations of monasticism made monuments of faith and, sometimes, written documents, too.
This was the inspiration behind her own book of hours, which intersperses poems and photographs of found objects (wildflowers, animal skulls, sea glass and shells) with biographical sketches of saints, short autobiographical essays about her childhood and career, and musings on faith and pain. Metaphors of magic and outer space contrast with the claustrophobia of “the illness place,” somewhere she knows she’ll return to again and again. Although she knows she will never be perfectly holy or perfectly productive, she is encouraged to know that even those with confined lives (such as Emily Dickinson) can have a rich inner existence. While she resists the desire for a cure, or for a simple meaning to suffering, she bears witness to the fact that creativity can emerge in spite of everything.
I enjoyed spending time with this meticulously crafted and meditative work that engages with the present moment but also the eternal. It’s perfect onward reading for fans of the inaugural Barbellion Prize winner, Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer, and A Still Life by Josie George, a shortlistee from last year.
Book of Hours was self-published with assistance from Disability Arts Online. You can buy a signed copy of the handmade book from her Etsy shop, or read the text for free here.
With thanks to Letty McHugh for sending a free e-copy for review.
This year’s Barbellion Prize judges are Dr Emmeline Burdett, Lynn Buckle (last year’s winner) and scholar Ray Davis. The winner will be announced in February.
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.
11 Days, 11 Books: 2023’s Reading So Far
I realized that, as in 2020, I happen to have finished 11 books so far this year (including a Patrick Gale again). Some of the below I’ll be reviewing in full for other themes or challenges coming up, and others have paid reviews pending that I can’t share yet, but I’ve written a little bit about each of the others. Here’s how my reading year has started off…
A children’s book
Leila and the Blue Fox by Kiran Millwood Hargrave – Similar in strategy to Hargrave’s previous book (also illustrated by her husband Tom de Freston), Julia and the Shark, one of my favourite reads of last year – both focus on the adventures of a girl who has trouble relating to her mother, a scientific researcher obsessed with a particular species. Leila, a Syrian refugee, lives with family in London and is visiting her mother in the far north of Norway. She joins her in tracking an Arctic fox on an epic journey, and helps the expedition out with social media. Migration for survival is the obvious link. There’s a lovely teal and black colour scheme, but I found this unsubtle. It crams too much together that doesn’t fit.
A genre that pretty much never makes it onto my stacks, but I read these two despite knowing little to nothing about the authors; instead, I was drawn in by their particular stories.
A Heart that Works by Rob Delaney – Delaney is an American actor who was living in London for TV filming in 2016 when his third son, baby Henry, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He died before the age of three. The details of disabling illness and brutal treatment could not be other than wrenching, but the tone is a delicate balance between humour, rage, and tenderness. The tribute to his son may be short in terms of number of words, yet includes so much emotional range and a lot of before and after to create a vivid picture of the wider family. People who have never picked up a bereavement memoir will warm to this one.
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah – Again, I was not familiar with the author’s work in TV/comedy, but had heard good things so gave this a try. It reminded me of Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father what with the African connection, the absent father, the close relationship with his mother, and the reflections on race and politics. I especially loved his stories of being dragged to church multiple times every Sunday. He writes a lot about her tough love, and the difficulty of leaving hood life behind once you’ve been sucked into it. The final chapter is exceptional. Noah does a fine job of creating scenes and dialogue; I’d happily read another book of his.
Bournville by Jonathan Coe – Coe does a good line in witty state-of-the-nation novels. Patriotism versus xenophobia is the overarching dichotomy in this one, as captured through a family’s response to seven key events from English history over the last 75+ years, several of them connected with the royals. Mary Lamb, the matriarch, is an Everywoman whose happy life still harboured unfulfilled longings. Coe mixes things up by including monologues, diary entries, and so on. In some sections he cuts between the main action and a transcript of a speech, TV commentary, or set of regulations. Covid informs his prologue and the highly autobiographical final chapter, and it’s clear he’s furious with the government’s handling.
Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng – Disappointing compared to her two previous novels. I’d read too much about the premise while writing a synopsis for Bookmarks magazine, so there were no surprises remaining. The political commentary, though necessary, is fairly obvious. The structure, which recounts some events first from Bird’s perspective and then from his mother Margaret Miu’s, makes parts of the second half feel redundant. Still, impossible not to find the plight of children separated from their parents heart-rending, or to disagree with the importance of drawing attention to race-based violence. It’s also appealing to think about the power of individual stories and how literature and libraries might be part of an underground protest movement.
And a memoir in miniature
Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly – I love memoirs-in-essays. Fennelly goes for the same minimalist approach as Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping. Pieces range from one line to six pages and mostly pull out moments of note from the everyday of marriage, motherhood and house maintenance. I tended to get more out of the ones where she reinhabits earlier life, like “Goner” (growing up in the Catholic church); “Nine Months in Madison” (poetry fellowship in Wisconsin, running around the lake where Otis Redding died in a plane crash); and “Emulsionar,” (age 23 and in Barcelona: sexy encounter, immediately followed by scary scene). Two about grief, anticipatory for her mother (“I’ll be alone, curator of the archives”) and realized for her sister (“She threaded her arms into the sleeves of grief” – you can tell Fennelly started off as a poet), hit me hardest. Sassy and poignant.
The best so far? Probably Born a Crime, followed by Bournville.
Any of these you have read or would read?
Five Final Novellas: Adichie, Glück, Jhabvala, Victory for Ukraine, Woodson (#NovNov22)
We’ll wrap up Novellas in November and give some final statistics tomorrow. Today, I have mini reviews of another five novellas I read this month: one short nonfiction reread and then fiction ranging from India in the 1920s to short stories in comics about the war in Ukraine.
Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2021)
This came out in May last year – I pre-ordered it from Waterstones with points I’d saved up, because I’m that much of a fan – and it’s rare for me to reread something so soon, but of course it took on new significance for me this month. Like me, Adichie lived on a different continent from her family and so technology mediated her long-distance relationships. She saw her father on their weekly Sunday Zoom on June 7, 2020 and he appeared briefly on screen the next two days, seeming tired; on June 10, he was gone, her brother’s phone screen showing her his face: “my father looks asleep, his face relaxed, beautiful in repose.”
My experience of my mother’s death was similar: everything was sudden; my sister was the one there at the hospital, while all I could do was wait by the phone/laptop for news. So these details were particularly piercing, but the whole essay resonated with me as she navigates the early days of grief and remembers what she most admires about her father, including his piety, record-keeping and pride in her. (How lucky I am that Covid travel restrictions were no longer a factor; they delayed his memorial service.) My original review is here. Cathy also reviewed it. If you wish, you can read the New Yorker piece it arose from here.
Marigold and Rose: A Fiction by Louise Glück (2022)
The first (and so far only) fiction by the poet and 2020 Nobel Prize winner, this is a curious little story that imagines the inner lives of infant twins and closes with their first birthday. Like Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, it ascribes to preverbal beings thoughts and wisdom they could not possibly have. Marigold, the would-be writer of the pair, is spiky and unpredictable, whereas Rose is the archetypal good baby.
Marigold did not like people. She liked Mother and Father; everyone else had not yet been properly inspected. Rose did like people and she intended them to like her. … Everyone understood that Marigold lived in her head and Rose lived in the world.
Now every day was like the days when the twins did not perform well at naptime. Then Mother and Father would begin to look tired and harassed. Mother explained that babies got tired too; often, they cried because they were tired. I don’t cry because I’m tired, Marigold thought. I cry because something has disappointed me.
As a psychological allegory, this tracks personality development and the growing awareness of Mother and Father as separate people with their own characteristics, some of which each girl replicates. But I failed to find much of a point.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.
Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1975)
A lesser-known Booker Prize winner that we read for our book club’s women’s classics subgroup. My reading was interrupted by the last-minute trip back to the States, so I ended up finishing the last two-thirds after we’d had the discussion and also watched the movie. I found I was better able to engage with the subtle story and understated writing after I’d seen the sumptuous 1983 Merchant Ivory film: the characters jumped out for me much more than they initially had on the page, and it was no problem having Greta Scacchi in my head.
In 1923, Olivia is a bored young officer’s wife in India who becomes infatuated with the Nawab, an Indian prince involved in some dodgy dealings. In the novel’s present day, Olivia’s step-granddaughter (never named; in the film she’s called Anne, played by Julie Christie and changed to a great-niece for some reason) is also in India, enjoying the hippie freedom and rediscovering Olivia’s life through the letters she wrote to her sister. Both novel and film cut quickly and often between the two time periods to draw increasingly overt parallels between the women’s lives, culminating in unexpected pregnancies and difficult decisions to be made. I enjoyed the atmosphere (see also The Painted Veil and China Room) and would recommend the film, but I doubt I’ll seek out more by Jhabvala. (Public library)
PEREMOHA: Victory for Ukraine (2022)
Various writers and artists contributed these graphic shorts, so there are likely to be some stories you enjoy more than others. “The Ghost of Kyiv” is about a mythical hero from the early days of the Russian invasion who shot down six enemy planes in a day. I got Andy Capp vibes from “Looters,” about Russian goons so dumb they don’t even recognize the appliances they haul back to their slum-dwelling families. (Look, this is propaganda. Whether it comes from the right side or not, recognize it for what it is.) In “Zmiinyi Island 13,” Ukrainian missiles destroy a Russian missile cruiser. Though hospitalized, the Ukrainian soldiers involved – including a woman – can rejoice in the win. “A pure heart is one that overcomes fear” is the lesson they quote from a legend. “Brave Little Tractor” is an adorable Thomas the Tank Engine-like story-within-a-story about farm machinery that joins the war effort. A bit too much of the superhero, shoot-’em-up stylings (including perfectly put-together females with pneumatic bosoms) for me here, but how could any graphic novel reader resist this Tokyopop compilation when a portion of proceeds go to RAZOM, a nonprofit Ukrainian-American human rights organization? (Read via Edelweiss)
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (2016)
August looks back on her coming of age in 1970s Bushwick, Brooklyn. She lived with her father and brother in a shabby apartment, but friendship with Angela, Gigi and Sylvia lightened a gloomy existence: “as we stood half circle in the bright school yard, we saw the lost and beautiful and hungry in each of us. We saw home.” As in Very Cold People, though, this is not an untroubled girlhood. Male threat is everywhere, and if boyfriends bring sexual awakening they are also a constant goad to do more than girls are ready for. In short, flitting paragraphs, Woodson explores August’s past – a childhood in Tennessee, her uncle who died in the Vietnam War, her father’s growing involvement with the Nation of Islam. What struck me most, though, was August’s coming to terms with her mother’s death, a fact she doesn’t even acknowledge at first, and the anthropological asides about other cultures’ death rituals. This was my second from Woodson after the Women’s Prize-longlisted Red at the Bone, and I liked them about the same. A problem for me was that Brown Girls, which, with its New York City setting and focus on friendships between girls of colour, must have at least partially been inspired by Another Brooklyn, was better. (Public library)
In total, I read 17 novellas this November, though if you add in the ones I’d read in advance and then reviewed over the course of the month, I managed 24. All things considered, I think that’s a great showing. The 5-star stand-outs for me were The Hero of This Book and Body Kintsugi, but Up at the Villa was also a great read.