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.
Best Books from 2022
I’m keeping it simple this year with one post covering a baker’s dozen from all genres: the 13 current-year releases that stood out to me the most. (No rankings this time; anything from my Best of First Half post that didn’t make it through to here can be considered a runner-up.)
Groundskeeping by Lee Cole: In Cole’s debut novel, two aspiring writers meet on a Kentucky college campus and form a romantic connection despite very different backgrounds. There are stereotypes to be overcome as Owen introduces Alma to Kentucky culture and slang. Trump’s election divides families and colleagues. The gentle satire on the pretensions of writing programs is another enjoyable element. Three-dimensional characters, vivid scenes ripe for the Netflix treatment, timely themes and touching relationships.
Stories from the Tenants Downstairs by Sidik Fofana: Fofana’s novel-in-stories orbits a Harlem apartment complex and spins bittersweet tales of ambition and disappointment in a range of vibrant voices. Endearing scoundrels are the focus in a number of stories. Minor characters from some go on to have starring roles in others. Though these tenants’ lives are filled with difficulties, their optimism and sheer joy shine through in their picaresque antics. A stellar debut from a very talented writer; Fofana should win all the prizes.
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel: This dazzlingly intricate novel blends historical fiction, up-to-the-minute commentary and science-fiction predictions. In 2401, the Time Institute hires Gaspery-Jacques Roberts to investigate a recurring blip in time. Fans of The Glass Hotel will recognize some characters, and those familiar with Station Eleven will find similarities in a pandemic plot that resonates with the Covid-19 experience. How does Mandel do it? One compulsively readable hit after another.
Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso: The aphoristic style of some of Manguso’s previous books continues here as discrete paragraphs and brief vignettes build to a gloomy portrait of Ruthie’s archetypical affection-starved childhood in the fictional Massachusetts town of Waitsfield in the 1980s and 90s. The depiction of Ruthie’s narcissistic mother is especially acute. So much resonated with me. This is the stuff of girlhood – if not universally, then certainly for the (largely pre-tech) American 1990s as I experienced them.
Body Kintsugi by Senka Marić: This intense work of autofiction is all the more powerful due to the second-person narration that displaces the pain of breast cancer from the protagonist and onto the reader. Coming of age in a female body was traumatic in itself; now that same body threatens to kill her. Even as she loses the physical signs of femininity, she remains resilient: Her body will document what she’s been through. As forthright as it is about the brutality of cancer treatment, the novella is also creative, playful and darkly comic.
The Hero of This Book by Elizabeth McCracken: Is it autofiction or bereavement memoir? Both and neither. In 2019, an American writer wanders London, seeing the sights but mostly reminiscing about her mother, whom she describes through bare facts and apt anecdotes. London had been a favourite destination, their final trip together falling just three years before. As well as a tribute to a beloved mother and a matter-of-fact record of dealing with ageing parents and the aftermath of loss, this is a playful cross-examination of literary genres.
The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka: Otsuka’s third novel of the Japanese American experience again employs the first-person plural, as well as the second person – rarer perspectives that provide stylistic novelty. The first two chapters are set at a pool that, for the title swimmers, serves as a locus of escape and safety. On the first page we’re introduced to Alice, whose struggle with dementia becomes central. I admired Otsuka’s techniques for moving readers through the minds of the characters, alternating range with profundity and irony with sadness.
Which Side Are You On by Ryan Lee Wong: Wong’s dynamite debut novel weaves timely issues of racism and protest into a pacy, funny story of idealism versus cynicism. Reed, an Asian American college student committed to social justice, rethinks how best to live out his values in the real world when he goes home for a few days. Wong probes the generational gap between him and his parents through snappy dialogue and enjoyable scenes that constitute an incidental tour of multi-ethnic Los Angeles.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin: Sam and Sadie’s friendship, which over the years becomes a business partnership that also incorporates Sam’s college roommate, Marx Watanabe, is a joy. Their creative energy and banter are enviable. Marx is the uncomplicated, optimistic go-between when Sam and Sadie butt heads and take offense at betrayals. Underneath their conflicts is a love different from, and maybe superior to, romantic love. An immersive story of friendship and obsession; nostalgic, even cathartic.
In Love by Amy Bloom: Bloom’s husband, Brian Ameche, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in his mid-60s, having exhibited mild cognitive impairment for several years. Brian quickly resolved to make a dignified exit while he still, mostly, had his faculties. This achieves the perfect tone, mixing black humour with teeth-gritted practicality as Bloom chronicles their relationship, the final preparations, his assisted suicide at Dignitas in Switzerland, and the aftermath. An essential, compelling read.
Sinkhole: A Natural History of a Suicide by Juliet Patterson: This gorgeously written family memoir approaches its subject matter with brave tenderness. In December 2008, poet Patterson’s father died by suicide near his Minnesota home. He wasn’t an obvious risk. Yet there was family history: both of Patterson’s parents lost their fathers to suicide. She returns to Kansas on research trips to unearth her grandfathers’ lives. Throughout, sinkholes, common in Kansas, are both reality and metaphor for the chasm a suicide leaves.
Blurb Your Enthusiasm: An A-Z of Literary Persuasion by Louise Willder: A delightful bibliophile’s miscellany about ways of pithily spreading excitement about books. Over the last 25 years, Willder has written jacket copy for thousands of Penguin releases, so she has it down to a science as well as an art. (Reviewing is an adjacent skill.) The art of the first line, serialization and self-promotion, guidelines for good writing, differences between British and American jacket copy, the use of punctuation, and so much more. Very funny to boot.
Inside the Storm I Want to Touch the Tremble by Carolyn Oliver: Carolyn used to blog at Rosemary and Reading Glasses and won the Agha Shahid Ali Prize for this debut collection. Every line feels tirelessly honed to elicit maximal meaning and a memorable sound. Traditional forms are adapted to great effect. Chronic illness, gardening, and everyday sexual danger are themes, but the poems that pierced me most were about her son: quirky things he says, but also the reality of modern parenting, where active shooter drills are de rigueur.
This year’s best-of selections (the ones I own in print, anyway; the rest were read on Kindle or have already gone back to the library).
Have you read any of my 2022 favourites?
What releases do I need to catch up on right away?
January Releases II: Nick Blackburn, Wendy Mitchell & Padraig Regan
The January new releases continue! I’ll have a final batch of three tomorrow. For today, I have an all-over-the-place meditation masquerading as a bereavement memoir, an insider’s look at what daily life with dementia is like, and a nonbinary poet’s debut.
The Reactor: A Book about Grief and Repair by Nick Blackburn
I’ll read any bereavement memoir going, and the cover commendations from Olivia Laing and Helen Macdonald made this seem like a sure bet. Unfortunately, this is not a bereavement memoir but an exercise in self-pity and free association. The book opens two weeks after Blackburn’s father’s death – “You have died but it’s fine, Dad.” – and proceeds in titled fragments of one line to a few paragraphs. Blackburn sometimes addresses his late father directly, but more often the “you” is himself. He becomes obsessed with the Chernobyl disaster (even travelling to Belarus), which provides the overriding, and overstretched, title metaphor – “the workings of grief are unconscious, invisible. Like radiation.”
From here the author indulges in pop culture references and word association: Alexander McQueen’s fashion shows, Joni Mitchell’s music, Ingmar Bergman’s films, Salvador Dalí’s paintings and so on. These I at least recognized; there were plenty of other random allusions that meant nothing to me. All of this feels obfuscating, as if Blackburn is just keeping busy: moving physically and mentally to distract from his own feelings. A therapist focusing on LGBT issues, he surely recognizes his own strategy here. This seems like a diary you’d keep in a bedside drawer (there’s also the annoyance of no proper italicization or quotation marks for works of art), not something you’d try to get published as a bereavement memoir.
The bigger problem is there is no real attempt to convey a sense of his father. It would be instructive to go back and count how many pages actually mention his father. One page on his death; a couple fleeting mentions of his mental illness being treated with ECT and lithium. Most revealing of all, ironically, is the text of a postcard he wrote to his mother on a 1963 school trip to Austria. “I want to tell you more about my father, but honestly I feel like I hardly knew him. There was always his body and that was enough,” Blackburn writes. Weaselling out of his one task – to recreate his father for readers – made this an affected dud.
With thanks to Faber for the free copy for review.
What I Wish People Knew About Dementia: From Someone Who Knows by Wendy Mitchell
I loved Mitchell’s first book, Somebody I Used to Know. She was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at age 58 in 2014. This follow-up, too, was co-written with Anna Wharton (they have each written interesting articles on their collaboration process, here and here). Whereas her previous work was a straightforward memoir, this has more of a teaching focus, going point by point through the major changes dementia causes to the senses, relationships, communication, one’s reaction to one’s environment, emotions, and attitudes.
I kept shaking my head at all these effects that would never have occurred to me. You tend not to think beyond memory. Food is a major issue for Mitchell: she has to set iPad reminders to eat, and chooses the same simple meals every time. Pasta bowls work best for people with dementia as they can get confused trying to push food around a plate. She is extra sensitive to noises and may have visual and olfactory hallucinations. Sometimes she is asked to comment on dementia-friendly building design. For instance, a marble floor in a lobby looks like water and scares her, whereas clear signage and bright colours cheer up a hospital trip.
The text also includes anonymous input from her friends with dementia, and excerpts from recent academic research on what can help. Mitchell and others with Alzheimer’s often feel written off by their doctors – her diagnosis appointment was especially pessimistic – but her position is that the focus should be on what people can still do and adaptations that will improve their everyday lives. Mitchell lives alone in a small Yorkshire village and loves documenting the turning of the seasons through photographs she shares on social media. She notes that it’s important for people to live in the moment and continue finding activities that promote a flow state, a contrast to some days that pass in a brain haze.
This achieves just what it sets out to: give a picture of dementia from the inside. As it’s not a narrative, it’s probably best read in small doses, but there are some great stories along the way, like the epilogue’s account of her skydive to raise money for Young Dementia UK.
With thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.
Some Integrity by Padraig Regan
The sensual poems in this debut collection are driven by curiosity, hunger and queer desire. Flora and foods are described as teasing mystery, with cheeky detail:
I’m thinking of how mushrooms will haunt a wet log like bulbous ghosts
The chicken is spatchcocked & nothing
like a book, but it lies open & creases
where its spine once was.
For as long as it take a single drop of condensation to roll its path
down the curve of a mojito glass before it’s lost in the bare wood of the table,
everything is held // in its hall of mirrors
An unusual devotion to ampersands; an erotic response to statuary, reminiscent of Richard Scott; alternating between bold sexuality and masochism to the point of not even wanting to exist; a central essay on the Orlando nightclub shooting and videogames – the book kept surprising me. I loved the fertile imagery, and appreciated Regan’s exploration of a nonbinary identity:
Often I envy the Scandinavians for their months of sun,
unpunctuated. I think I want some kind of salad. I want to feel like a real boy, sometimes.
for this chain of daisies to wear around my neck — it makes me look so pretty.
Highly recommended, especially to readers of Séan Hewitt and Stephen Sexton.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.
Does one of these books appeal to you?
2022 Proof Copies & Early Recommendations (Julia Armfield’s Debut Novel, Lily King’s Short Stories)
I didn’t feel like I’d done a lot of pre-release reading yet, but put it all together and somehow it looks like a lot…
My top recommendations for 2022 (so far):
Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield
Coming on March 3rd from Picador (UK) and on July 12th from Flatiron Books (USA)
I loved Armfield’s 2019 short story collection Salt Slow, which I reviewed when it was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. Her strategy in her debut novel is similar: letting the magical elements seep in gradually so that, lulled into a false sense of familiarity, you find the creepy stuff all the more unsettling.
Miri is relieved to have her wife back when Leah returns from an extended Centre for Marine Inquiry expedition. But something went wrong with the craft while in the ocean depths and it was too late to evacuate. What happened to Leah and the rest of the small crew? Miri starts to worry that Leah – who now spends 70% of her time in the bathtub – will never truly recover. Chapters alternate between Miri describing their new abnormal and Leah recalling the voyage. As Miri tries to tackle life admin for both of them, she feels increasingly alone and doesn’t know how to deal with persistent calls from the sister of one of the crew members.
This is a really sensitive consideration of dependency and grief – Miri recently lost her mother and Leah’s father also died. I especially liked the passages about Miri’s prickly mother: it was impossible not to offend her, and she truly believed that if she resisted ageing she might never die. Leah seems shell-shocked; her matter-of-fact narration is a contrast to Miri’s snark. Armfield gives an increasingly eerie story line a solid emotional foundation, and her words about family and romantic relationships ring true. I read this in about 24 hours in early December, on my way back from a rare trip into London; it got the 2022 releases off to a fab start to me. Plus, the title and cover combo is killer. I’d especially recommend this to readers of Carmen Maria Machado and Banana Yoshimoto. (Read via NetGalley)
Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King
Coming on January 20th from Picador (UK); released in the USA in November 2021
The same intimate understanding of emotions and interactions found in Euphoria and Writers & Lovers underlies King’s first short story collection. Some stories are romantic; others are retrospective coming-of-age narratives. Most are set in New England, but the time and place varies from the 1960s to the present day and from Maine to northern Europe. Several stories look back to a 1980s adolescence. “South” and “The Man at the Door” are refreshingly different, incorporating touches of magic and suspense. However, there are also a few less engaging stories, and there aren’t particularly strong linking themes. Still, the questions of love’s transience and whether any relationship can ever match up to expectations linger. I’d certainly recommend this to fans of King’s novels. (See my full review at BookBrowse. See also my related article on contemporary New England fiction.)
With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.
Other 2022 releases I’ve read:
(In publication date order)
Write It All Down: How to put your life on the page by Cathy Rentzenbrink [Jan. 6, Bluebird] I’ve read all of Rentzenbrink’s books, but the last few have been disappointing. Alas, this is more of a therapy session than a practical memoir-writing guide. (Full review coming later this month.)
Recovery: The Lost Art of Convalescence by Gavin Francis [Jan. 13, Wellcome Collection]: A short, timely book about the history and subjectivity of recovering from illness. (Full review and giveaway coming next week.)
The Store-House of Wonder and Astonishment by Sherry Rind [Jan. 15, Pleasure Boat Studio]: In her learned and mischievous fourth collection, the Seattle poet ponders Classical and medieval attitudes towards animals. (Full review coming to Shelf Awareness soon.)
Stepmotherland by Darrel Alejandro Holnes [Feb. 1, University of Notre Dame Press]: Holnes’s debut collection, winner of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, ponders a mixed-race background and queerness through art, current events and religion. Poems take a multitude of forms; the erotic and devotional mix in provocative ways. (See my full review at Foreword.)
Rise and Float: Poems by Brian Tierney [Feb. 8, Milkweed Editions]: A hard-hitting debut collection with themes of bereavement and mental illness – but the gorgeous imagery lifts it above pure melancholy. (Full review coming to Shelf Awareness soon.)
Cost of Living: Essays by Emily Maloney [Feb. 8, Henry Holt]: Probing mental illness and pain from the medical professional’s perspective as well as the patient’s, 16 autobiographical essays ponder the value of life. (Full review coming to Shelf Awareness soon.)
Circle Way: A Daughter’s Memoir, a Writer’s Journey Home by Mary Ann Hogan [Feb. 15, Wonderwell]: A posthumous memoir of family and fate that focuses on a father-daughter pair of writers. A fourth-generation Californian, Hogan followed in her father Bill’s footsteps as a local journalist. Collage-like, the book features song lyrics and wordplay as well as family anecdotes. (See my full review at Foreword.)
Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au [Feb. 23, Fitzcarraldo Editions]: A delicate work of autofiction – it reads like a Chloe Aridjis or Rachel Cusk novel – about a woman and her Hong Kong-raised mother on a trip to Tokyo. (Full review coming up in a seasonal post.)
The Carriers: What the Fragile X Gene Reveals about Family, Heredity, and Scientific Discovery by Anne Skomorowsky [May 3, Columbia UP]: Blending stories and interviews with science and statistics, this balances the worldwide scope of a disease with its intimate details. (Full review coming to Foreword soon.)
(In release date order)
This Boy We Made: A Memoir of Motherhood, Genetics, and Facing the Unknown by Taylor Harris [Jan. 11, Catapult] (Reading via Edelweiss; to review for BookBrowse)
To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara [Jan. 11, Picador] (Blog review coming … eventually)
I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home by Jami Attenberg [Jan. 13, Serpent’s Tail] (Blog review coming later this month)
Everything Is True: A Junior Doctor’s Story of Life, Death and Grief in a Time of Pandemic by Roopa Farooki [Jan. 20, Bloomsbury] (To review for Shiny New Books)
Some Integrity by Padraig Regan [Jan. 27, Carcanet] (Blog review coming later this month)
Additional proof copies on my shelf:
(In release date order; publisher blurbs from Goodreads/Amazon)
What I Wish People Knew About Dementia by Wendy Mitchell [Jan. 20, Bloomsbury]: “When Mitchell was diagnosed with young-onset dementia at the age of fifty-eight, her brain was overwhelmed with images of the last stages of the disease – those familiar tropes, shortcuts and clichés that we are fed by the media, or even our own health professionals. … Wise, practical and life affirming, [this] combines anecdotes, research and Mitchell’s own brilliant wit and wisdom to tell readers exactly what she wishes they knew about dementia.”
I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins [Came out in USA last year; UK release = Jan. 20, Quercus]: “Leaving behind her husband and their baby daughter, a writer gets on a flight for a speaking engagement in Reno, not carrying much besides a breast pump and a spiraling case of postpartum depression. … Deep in the Mojave Desert where she grew up, she meets her ghosts at every turn: the first love whose self-destruction still haunts her; her father, a member of the most famous cult in American history.”
Beasts of a Little Land by Juhea Kim [Feb. 3, Oneworld]: “From the perfumed chambers of a courtesan school in Pyongyang to the chic cafes of a modernising Seoul and the thick forests of Manchuria, Juhea Kim’s unforgettable characters forge their own destinies as they shape the future of their nation. Immersive and elegant, firmly rooted in Korean folklore and legend, [this] unveils a world where friends become enemies, enemies become saviours, and beasts take many shapes.”
Theatre of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth [April 28, Hutchinson Heinemann]: “Unruly crowds descend on Crillick’s Variety Theatre. Young actress Zillah [a mixed-race orphan] is headlining tonight. … Rising up the echelons of society is everything Zillah has ever dreamed of. But when a new stage act disappears, Zillah is haunted by a feeling that something is amiss. Is the woman in danger? Her pursuit of the truth takes her into the underbelly of the city.” (Unsolicited) [Dillsworth is Black British.]
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw [Came out in USA in 2020; UK release = May 5, Pushkin]: “explores the raw and tender places where Black women and girls dare to follow their desires and pursue a momentary reprieve from being good. … With their secret longings, new love, and forbidden affairs, these church ladies are as seductive as they want to be, as vulnerable as they need to be, as unfaithful and unrepentant as they care to be, and as free as they deserve to be.”
And on my NetGalley shelf:
Will you look out for one or more of these titles?
Any other 2022 reads you can recommend?
R.I.P. Reads for Halloween: Ashworth, Bazterrica, Hill, Machado & More
I don’t often read anything that could be classed as suspense or horror, so the R.I.P. challenge is a fun excuse to dip a toe into these genres each year. This year I have an eerie relationship study, a dystopian scenario where cannibalism has become the norm, some traditional ghost stories old and new, and a bonus story encountered in an unrelated anthology.
Ghosted: A Love Story by Jenn Ashworth (2021)
Laurie’s life is thrown off kilter when, after they’ve been together 15 years, her husband Mark disappears one day, taking nothing with him. She continues in her job as a cleaner on a university campus in northwest England. After work she visits her father, who is suffering from dementia, and his Ukrainian carer Olena. In general, she pretends that nothing has happened, caring little how odd it will appear that she didn’t call the police until Mark had been gone for five weeks. Despite her obsession with true crime podcasts, she can’t seem to imagine that anything untoward has happened to him. What happened to Mark, and what’s with that spooky spare room in their flat that Laurie won’t let anyone enter?
If you find unreliable narrators delicious, you’re in the right place. The mood is confessional, yet Laurie is anything but confiding. Occasionally she apologizes for her behaviour: “I realise this does not sound very sane” is one of her concessions to readers’ rationality. So her drinking problem doesn’t become evident until nearly halfway through, and a bombshell is still to come. It’s the key to understanding our protagonist and why she’s acted this way.
Ghosted wasn’t what I expected. Its air of supernatural menace mellows; what is to be feared is much more ordinary. The subtitle should have been more of a clue for me. I appreciated the working class, northern setting (not often represented; Ashworth is up for this year’s Portico Prize) and the unusual relationships Laurie has with Olena, as well as with co-worker Eddie and neighbour Katrina. Reminiscent of Jo Baker’s The Body Lies and Sue Miller’s Monogamy, this story of a storm-tossed marriage was a solid introduction to Ashworth’s fiction – this is her fifth novel – but I’m not sure the payoff lived up to that amazing cover.
With thanks to Sceptre for the free copy for review.
Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica (2017; 2020)
[Translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses]
This sledgehammer of a short Argentinian novel has a simple premise: not long ago, animals were found to be infected with a virus that made them toxic to humans. During the euphemistic “Transition,” all domesticated and herd animals were killed and the roles they once held began to be filled by humans – hunted, sacrificed, butchered, scavenged, cooked and eaten. A whole gastronomic culture quickly developed around cannibalism.
Marcos is our guide to this horrific near-future world. Although he works in a slaughterhouse, he’s still uneasy with some aspects of the arrangement. The standard terminology is an attempt at dispassion: the “heads” are “processed” for their “meat.” Smarting from the loss of his baby son and with his father in a nursing home, Marcos still has enough compassion that when he’s gifted a high-quality female he views her as a person rather than potential cuts of flesh. His decisions from here on will call into question his loyalty to the new system.
I wondered if there would come a point where I was no longer physically able to keep reading. But it’s fiendishly clever how the book beckons you into analogical situations and then forces you to face up to cold truths. It’s impossible to avoid the animal-rights message (in a book full of gruesome scenes, the one that involves animals somehow hits hardest), but I also thought a lot about how human castes might work – dooming some to muteness, breeding and commodification, while others are the privileged overseers granted peaceful ends. Bazterrica also conflates sex and death in uncomfortable ways. In one sense, this was not easy to read. But in another, I was morbidly compelled to turn the pages. Brutal but brilliant stuff. (Public library/Edelweiss)
Fear: Tales of Terror and Suspense, selected by Roald Dahl (2017)
I reviewed the five female-penned ghost stories for R.I.P. back in 2019. This year I picked out another five, leaving a final four for another year. (Review copy)
“W.S.” by L.P. Hartley: The only thing I’ve read of Hartley’s besides The Go-Between. Novelist Walter Streeter is confronted by one of his characters, to whom he gave the same initials. What’s real and what’s only going on in his head? Perfectly plotted and delicious.
“In the Tube” by E.F. Benson: The concept of time is called into question when someone witnesses a suicide on the London Underground some days before it could actually have happened. All recounted as a retrospective tale. Believably uncanny.
“Elias and the Draug” by Jonas Lie: A sea monster and ghost ship plague Norwegian fishermen.
“The Ghost of a Hand” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu: A disembodied hand wreaks havoc in an eighteenth-century household.
“On the Brighton Road” by Richard Middleton: A tramp meets an ill boy on a road in the Sussex Downs. A classic ghost story that pivots on its final line.
The Small Hand: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill (2010)
This was my fourth of Hill’s classic ghost stories, after The Woman in Black, The Man in the Picture and Dolly. They’re always concise and so fluently written that the storytelling voice feels effortless. I wondered if this one might have been inspired by “The Ghost of a Hand” (above). It doesn’t feature a disembodied hand, per se, but the presence of a young boy who slips his hand into antiquarian book dealer Adam Snow’s when he stops at an abandoned house in the English countryside, and again when he goes to a French monastery to purchase a Shakespeare First Folio. Each time, Adam feels the ghost is pulling him to throw himself into a pond. When Adam confides in the monks and in his brother, he gets different advice. A pleasant and very quick read, if a little predictable. (Free from a neighbour)
And a bonus story:
Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror” appears in Kink (2021), a short story anthology edited by Garth Greenwell and R.O. Kwon. (I requested it from NetGalley just so I could read the stories by Machado and Brandon Taylor.) It opens “I would never forget the night I saw Maxa decompose before me.” A seamstress, obsessed with an actress, becomes her dresser. Set in the 19th-century Parisian theatre world, this pairs queer desire and early special effects and is over-the-top sensual in the vein of Angela Carter, with hints of the sadomasochism that got it a place here.
Sample lines: “Women seep because they occupy the filmy gauze between the world of the living and the dead.” & “Her body blotted out the moon. She was an ambulatory garden, a beacon in a dead season, life where life should not grow.”
Also counting the short stories by Octavia E. Butler and Bradley Sides, I did some great R.I.P. reading this year! I think the book that will stick with me the most is Tender Is the Flesh.
Short Stories in September, Part III: Butler, Costello, MacLaverty, Washington
Today I have a third set of terrific and varied short story collections. Between this, my Part I and Part II posts, and a bonus review I have coming up on Friday, I’ve gotten through 12 volumes of stories this month. This feels like a great showing for me because I don’t naturally gravitate to short stories and have to force myself to make a special effort to read them every September; otherwise, they tend to languish unread on my shelves and TBR.
From science fiction and horror tales set in alternate worlds to gritty slices of real life in Texas via two sets of quiet Irish relationship studies, this quartet of books showcases a range of tones and genres but fairly straightforward story structures and points of view. This was such a strong batch, I had to wonder why I never call myself a short story fan. All:
Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler (2005)
My first R.I.P. selection and one I can heartily recommend – even if you’re normally wary of dystopias, horror and science fiction. Butler makes these genres accessible by peopling her plots with relatable protagonists and carefully accounting for their bizarre predicaments without wasting time on extraneous world-building. The way in which she explores very human issues alongside the existence of alien beings reminds me of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, another of my rare forays into sci fi.
Along with the original five stories Butler published in 1970s and 1980s magazines and anthologies, this second edition contains two essays on her writing process and two new stories that date to 2003. In “Bloodchild,” a small band of humans live on another planet ruled by the Tlic, which sound like giant spiders or scorpions. Gan learns he is expected to play his part by being a surrogate for T’Gatoi’s eggs, but is haunted by what he’s heard this process involves. In a brief afterword (one is included with each piece here), Butler explains that the story arose from her terror of botflies, which she knew she might encounter in the Peruvian Amazon, and that she has always faced what scares her through her writing.
My other favorite story was “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” about a subclass of people afflicted with Duryea-Gode disease. A cruel side effect of a parent’s cancer treatment, the illness compels sufferers to self-harm and they are often confined to asylums. Lynn and Alan visit his mother in one such institution and see what their future might hold. “Speech Sounds” and “Amnesty” reminded me most of the Parable novels, with the latter’s Noah a leader figure similar to Lauren. After an apocalyptic event, people must adapt and cooperate to survive. I appreciated how the two essays value persistence – more so than talent or inspiration – as the key to success as a writer. This was my fourth book by Butler and I don’t see why I shouldn’t keep going and read her whole oeuvre. (University library)
The China Factory by Mary Costello (2012)
Academy Street is a near-perfect novella and I also enjoyed The River Capture, so I wanted to complete the set by reading Costello’s first book. Its dozen understated stories are about Irish men and women the course of whose lives are altered by chance meetings, surprise liaisons, or not-quite-affairs that needle them ever after with the could-have-been. The mood of gentle melancholy would suit a chilly moonlight drive along the coast road to Howth. In the opening title story, a teenage girl rides to her work sponging clay cups with an oddball named Gus. Others can’t get past things like his body odour, but when there’s a crisis at the factory she sees his calm authority save the day. Elsewhere, a gardener rushes his employer to the hospital, a woman attends her ex-husband’s funeral, and a school inspector becomes obsessed with one of the young teachers he observes.
Three favourites: In “And Who Will Pay Charon?” a man learns that, after he rejected Suzanne, she was hideously attacked in London. When she returns to the town as an old woman, he wonders what he might have done differently. “The Astral Plane” concerns a woman who strikes up a long-distance e-mail correspondence with a man from New York who picked up a book she left behind in a library. How will their intellectual affair translate into the corporeal world? The final story, “The Sewing Room,” reminded me most of Academy Street and could be a novel all of its own, as a schoolteacher and amateur fashion designer prepares for her retirement party and remembers the child she gave up for adoption. (Secondhand, gifted)
Blank Pages and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty (2021)
I knew from The Great Profundo that I liked MacLaverty’s stories, and I also enjoyed his latest novel, Midwinter Break, so I was delighted to hear news of a new collection. A number of the longer stories are set at turning points in twentieth-century history. In 1940, a mother is desperate to hear word of her soldier son; in 1971 Belfast, officers search a woman’s house. Two of the historical stories appealed to me for their medical elements: “The End of Days,” set in Vienna in 1918, dramatizes Egon Schiele’s fight with Spanish flu, while “Blackthorns” gives a lovely picture of how early antibiotics promoted miraculous recovery. In the title story, a cat is all a writer has left to remind him of his late wife. “Wandering” has a woman out looking for her dementia-addled mother. “The Dust Gatherer” muses on the fate of an old piano. Elderly parents and music recur, establishing filaments of thematic connection.
Three favourites: In “Glasshouses,” a man temporarily misplaces his grandchildren in the botanical gardens; “The Fairly Good Samaritan” is the fable of a jolly drunk who calls an ambulance for his poorly neighbour – but not before polishing off her brandy; and in the gorgeous “Sounds and Sweet Airs” a young woman’s harp music enthrals the passengers on a ferry.
With thanks to Jonathan Cape for the free copy for review.
Lot: Stories by Bryan Washington (2019)
The musical equivalent of Lot might be a mixtape played on a boombox or blasted from an open-top Corvette while touring the streets of Houston, Texas. Most of this Dylan Thomas Prize-winning linked collection follows Nic, a mixed-race Black/Latino boy who works in the family restaurant. As his family situation realigns – his father leaves, his older brother Javi enlists, his sister Jan has a baby – he’s trying to come to terms with his homosexuality and wondering if this gentrifying city suits him anymore. But he knows he’ll take himself wherever he goes, and as the book closes with “Elgin” (the most similar in mood and setup to Washington’s debut novel, Memorial) he’s thinking of taking a chance on love.
Drug dealers, careworn immigrants and prostitutes: Even the toughest guys have tender hearts in these stories. Eleven of 13 stories are in the first person. Where the narration isn’t Nic’s, it’s usually the collective voice of the neighbourhood boys. As far as I can tell, most of the story titles refer to Houston sites: particular addresses or neighbourhoods, or more vague locations. Like in Memorial, there are no speech marks. Washington’s prose is earthy and slang-filled. The matter-of-fact phrasing made me laugh: “He knocked her up in the usual way. For six minutes it looked like he’d stick around”; “He’d been staying there since the Great Thanksgiving Rupture, back when his brother’d found the dick pic in his pillowcase.” With the melting pot of cultures, the restaurant setting, and the sharp humour, this reminded me of Elaine Castillo’s America Is Not the Heart.
Three favourites: In “Shepherd,” the narrator emulates a glamorous cousin from Jamaica; “Bayou” is completely different from the rest, telling the urban legend of a “chupacubra” (a mythical creature like a coyote); “Waugh,” the longest story and one of just two told in the third person, is about a brothel’s worth of male sex workers and their pimp. Its final page is devastating. Despite their bravado, Washington’s characters are as vulnerable as Brandon Taylor’s. I think of these two young gay African American writers as being similar at root even though their style and approach are so very different. (New purchase)
A side note: I’m wondering how an author chooses primarily first person or third person POVs for short stories. MacLaverty and Taylor write exclusively in an omniscient third person; Washington and Eley Williams almost always plump for the first person. (Here, Butler was about half and half and Costello only used first person in three stories.) Is the third person seen as more impartial and commanding – a more elevated form of fiction? Is first person more immediate, informal and natural, but also perhaps too easy? I wouldn’t say I prefer one or the other (not in my novels, either); it all depends on the execution. Notably, none of this year’s stories were in the second person or employed experimental structures.
Two more collections I’m reading are spilling across into October for R.I.P., but will I keep up the short story habit after that? I still have a shelf full of unread story collections, and I have my eye on My Monticello, which I got from NetGalley…
20 Books of Summer, #6–8: Aristide, Hood, Lamott
This latest batch of colour-themed summer reads took me from a depleted post-pandemic landscape to the heart of dysfunctional families in Rhode Island and California.
Under the Blue by Oana Aristide (2021)
Fans of Station Eleven, this one’s for you: the best dystopian novel I’ve read since Mandel’s. Aristide started writing this in 2017, and unknowingly predicted a much worse pandemic than Covid-19. In July 2020, Harry, a middle-aged painter inhabiting his late nephew’s apartment in London, finally twigs that something major is going on. He packs his car and heads to his Devon cottage, leaving its address under the door of the cute neighbour he sometimes flirts with. Hot days stack up and his new habits of rationing food and soap are deeply ingrained by the time the gal from #22, Ash – along with her sister, Jessie, a doctor who stocked up on medicine before fleeing her hospital – turn up. They quickly sink into his routines but have a bigger game plan: getting to Uganda, where their mum once worked and where they know they will be out of range of Europe’s at-risk nuclear reactors. An epic road trip ensues.
It gradually becomes clear that Harry, Ash and Jessie are among mere thousands of survivors worldwide, somehow immune to a novel disease that spread like wildfire. There are echoes of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in the way that they ransack the homes of the dead for supplies, and yet there’s lightness to their journey. Jessie has a sharp sense of humour, provoking much banter, and the places they pass through in France and Italy are gorgeous despite the circumstances. It would be a privilege to wander empty tourist destinations were it not for fear of nuclear winter and not finding sufficient food – and petrol to keep “the Lioness” (the replacement car they steal; it becomes their refuge) going. While the vague sexual tension between Harry and Ash persists, all three bonds are intriguing.
In an alternating storyline starting in 2017, Lisa and Paul, two computer scientists based in a lab at the Arctic Circle, are programming an AI, Talos XI. Based on reams of data on history and human nature, Talos is asked to predict what will happen next. But when it comes to questions like the purpose of art and whether humans are worth saving, the conclusions he comes to aren’t the ones his creators were hoping for. These sections are set out as transcripts of dialogues, and provide a change of pace and perspective. Initially, I was less sure about this strand, worrying that it would resort to that well-worn trope of machines gone bad. Luckily, Aristide avoids sci-fi clichés, and presents a believable vision of life after the collapse of civilization.
The novel is full of memorable lines (“This absurd overkill, this baroque wedding cake of an apocalypse: plague and then nuclear meltdowns”) and scenes, from Harry burying a dead cow to the trio acting out a dinner party – just in case it’s their last. There’s an environmentalist message here, but it’s subtly conveyed via a propulsive cautionary tale that also reminded me of work by Louisa Hall and Maja Lunde. (Public library)
Ruby by Ann Hood (1998)
Olivia had the perfect life: fulfilling, creative work as a milliner; a place in New York City and a bolthole in Rhode Island; a new husband and plans to try for a baby right away. But then, in a fluke accident, David was hit by a car while jogging near their vacation home less than a year into their marriage. As the novel opens, 37-year-old Olivia is trying to formulate a letter to the college girl who struck and killed her husband. She has returned to Rhode Island to get the house ready to sell but changes her mind when a pregnant 15-year-old, Ruby, wanders in one day.
At first, I worried that the setup would be too neat: Olivia wants a baby but didn’t get a chance to have one with David before he died; Ruby didn’t intend to get pregnant and looks forward to getting back her figure and her life of soft drugs and petty crime. And indeed, Olivia suggests an adoption arrangement early on. But the outworkings of the plot are not straightforward, and the characters, both main and secondary (including Olivia’s magazine writer friend, Winnie; David’s friend, Rex; Olivia’s mother and sister; a local lawyer who becomes a love interest), are charming.
It’s a low-key, small-town affair reminiscent of the work of Anne Tyler, and I appreciated how it sensitively explores grief, its effects on the protagonist’s decision-making, and how daunting it is to start over (“The idea of that, of beginning again from nothing, made Olivia feel tired.”). It was also a neat touch that Olivia is the same age as me, so in some ways I could easily imagine myself into her position.
This was the ninth book I’ve read by Hood, an author little known outside of the USA – everything from grief memoirs to a novel about knitting. Ironically, its main themes of adoption and bereavement were to become hallmarks of her later work: she lost her daughter in 2002 and then adopted a little girl from China. (Secondhand purchase, June 2021)
[I’ve read another novel titled Ruby – Cynthia Bond’s from 2014.]
Blue Shoe by Anne Lamott (2002)
I’m a devoted reader of Lamott’s autobiographical essays about faith against the odds (see here), but have been wary of trying her fiction, suspecting I wouldn’t enjoy it as much. Well, it’s true that I prefer her nonfiction on the whole, but this was an enjoyably offbeat novel featuring the kind of frazzled antiheroine who wouldn’t be out of place in Anne Tyler’s work.
Mattie Ryder has left her husband and returned to her Bay Area family home with her young son and daughter. She promptly falls for Daniel, the handyman she hires to exterminate the rats, but he’s married, so she keeps falling into bed with her ex, Nicky, even after he acquires a new wife and baby. Her mother, Isa, is drifting ever further into dementia. A blue rubber shoe that Mattie finds serves as a totem of her late father – and his secret life. She takes a gamble that telling the truth, no matter what the circumstances, will see her right.
As in Ruby, I found the protagonist relatable and the ensemble cast of supporting characters amusing. Lamott crafts some memorable potted descriptions: “She was Jewish, expansive and yeasty and uncontained, as if she had a birthright for outrageousness” and “He seemed so constrained, so neatly trimmed, someone who’d been doing topiary with his soul all his life.” She turns a good phrase, and adopts the same self-deprecating attitude towards Mattie that she has towards herself in her memoirs: “She usually hoped to look more like Myrna Loy than an organ grinder’s monkey when a man finally proclaimed his adoration.”
At a certain point – maybe two-thirds of the way through – my inward reply to a lot of the novel’s threads was “okay, I get it; can we move on?” Yes, the situation with Isa is awful; yes, something’s gotta give with Daniel and his wife; yes, the revelations about her father seem unbearable. But with a four-year time span, it felt like Mattie was stuck in the middle for far too long. It’s also curious that she doesn’t apply her zany faith (a replica of Lamott’s) to questions of sexual morality – though that’s true of more liberal Christian approaches. All in all, I had some trouble valuing this as a novel because of how much I know about Lamott’s life and how closely I saw the storyline replicating her family dynamic. (Secondhand purchase, c. 2006 – I found a signed hardback in a library book sale back in my U.S. hometown for $1.)
Hmm, altogether too much blue in my selections thus far (4 out of 8!). I’ll have to try to come up with some more interesting colours for my upcoming choices.
Next books in progress: The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames and God Is Not a White Man by Chine McDonald.