Adventures in Rereading: A. S. Byatt and Abigail Thomas
At the end of last year, I picked out a whole shelf’s worth of books I’ve been meaning to reread. I know that others of you are devoted re-readers, returning to childhood favorites for comfort or poring over admired novels two or three times to figure out how they work. Alas, I’m usually resistant to rereading because I feel like it takes away time that I could be spending reading new or at least new-to-me books. Yet along with the nostalgia there is also a certain relief to returning to a favorite: here’s a book that is guaranteed not to disappoint.
So far this year I’ve finished two rereads, and I’m partway through a third. I’m not managing the one-every-other-week pace I would need to keep up to get through the whole shelf this year, but for me this is still good progress. I’ll report regularly on my experience of rereading.
The Matisse Stories by A. S. Byatt (1993)
Byatt is my favorite author. My memory for individual short stories is pitiful, yet I have never forgotten the first of three stories in this volume, so I focus on it here with a close rereading. In “Medusa’s Ankles,” a middle-aged woman goes berserk in a hair salon but it all turns out fine. I remember imagining what that would be like: to let go, to behave badly with no thought for others’ opinions, to act purely on instinct – and for there to be no consequences.
I’d forgotten all the particulars of the event. Susannah, a linguist, is drawn to the salon by the Rosy Nude reproduction she sees through the window. She becomes a reluctant receptacle for her stylist Lucian’s stories, including tales of his wife’s fat ankles and his mistress’ greater appeal. He confides in her his plan to run away. “I don’t want to put the best years of my life into making suburban old dears presentable. I want something more.”
Susannah holds in all her contempt for Lucian and his hip shop redesign until the day he fobs her off on another stylist – even though she’s said she needs an especially careful job this time because she is to appear on TV to accept the Translator’s Medal. When Deirdre is done, Susannah forgets about English politeness and says just what she thinks: “It’s horrible. I look like a middle-aged woman with a hair-do.” (Never mind that that’s exactly what she is.)
In a whirlwind of fury, she trashes the salon. Byatt describes the aftermath, indulging her trademark love of colors: “It was a strange empty battlefield, full of glittering fragments and sweet-smelling rivulets and puddles of venous-blue and fuchsia-red unguents, patches of crimson-streaked foam and odd intense spills of orange henna or cobalt and copper.”
You can just imagine the atmosphere in the salon: everyone exchanging horrified looks and cautiously approaching Susannah as if she’s a dangerous dog. Lucian steps in to reassure her: “We all feel like that, sometimes. Most of us don’t dare. … The insurance’ll pay. Don’t worry. … You’ve done me a good turn in a way.” Maybe he’ll go off with his girlfriend and start a new business, after all. Predictably, the man has made it all about him.
The ironic kicker to this perfect story about middle age and female rage comes after Susannah goes home to a husband we hadn’t heard about yet. “He saw her. (Usually he did not.) ‘You look different. You’ve had your hair done. I like it. You look lovely. It takes twenty years off you. You should have it done more often.’”
“Art Work” briefly, unnecessarily, uses a Matisse painting as a jumping-off point. A bourgeois couple, a painter and magazine design editor, hire Mrs. Brown, a black woman, to clean their house and are flabbergasted when she turns out to be an artist in her own right. “The Chinese Lobster,” the final story, is the only one explicitly about Matisse. An academic dean invites her colleague out to lunch at a Chinese restaurant to discuss a troubled student he’s supervising. This young woman has eating disorders and is doing a portfolio of artwork plus a dissertation on Matisse’s treatment of female bodies. Her work isn’t up to scratch, and now she’s accused her elderly supervisor of sexual harassment. The racial and sexual politics of these two stories don’t quite hold up, though both are well constructed.
I reread the book in one morning sitting last week.
My original rating (c. 2005):
My rating now:
A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas (2006)
In April 2000 Thomas’s husband Rich was hit by a car and incurred a traumatic brain injury when their dog Harry got off the leash and Rich ran out into the road near their New York City home to save him. It was a miracle that Rich lived, but his disability was severe enough that he had to be moved to an upstate nursing home. This is one of the first memoirs I ever remember reading, and it made a big impression. I don’t think I realized at the time that it was written in discrete essays, many of which were first published in magazines and anthologies. It represents an advance on the highly fragmentary nature of her first memoir, Safekeeping.
Thomas maintains a delicate balance of emotions: between guilt every time she bids Rich goodbye in the nursing home and relief that she doesn’t have to care for him 24/7; between missing the life they had and loving the cozy one she’s built on her own with her three dogs. (The title is how Aborigines refer to the coldest nights.) As in One Hundred Names for Love and All Things Consoled, Rich’s aphasia produces moments of unexpectedly poetic insight.
Before rereading I remembered one phrase and one incident (though I’d thought the latter was from Safekeeping): doctors described Rich’s skull as “shattered like an eggshell,” and Thomas remembers a time she was driving and saw the car ahead hit a raccoon; she automatically swerved to avoid the animal, but saw in her rearview mirror that it was still alive and realized the compassionate thing would have been to run it over again. I’ve never forgotten these disturbing images.
Unassuming and heart on sleeve, Thomas wrote one of the most beautiful books out there about loss and memory. I’d recommend this to fans of Anne Lamott and readers of bereavement memoirs in general. This is what I wanted from the rereading experience: to find a book that was even better the second time around.
My original rating (c. 2006):
My rating now:
Currently rereading: Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
Considering rereading next: On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Done any rereading lately?
Books in Brief: Five I Loved Recently
The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us
By Diane Ackerman
A perfect tonic to books like The Sixth Extinction, this is an intriguing and inspiring look at how some of the world’s brightest minds are working to mitigate the negative impacts we have had on the environment and improve human life through technology. As in David R. Boyd’s The Optimistic Environmentalist, Ackerman highlights some innovative programs that are working to improve the environment. Part 1 is the weakest – most of us are already all too aware of how we’ve trashed nature – but the book gets stronger as it goes on. My favorite chapters were the last five, about 3D printing, bionic body parts and human–animal hybrids created for medical use, and how epigenetics and the microbial life we all harbor might influence our personality and behavior more than we think.
I Will Find You
By Joanna Connors
Connors was a young reporter running late for an assignment for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer when she was raped in an empty theatre on the Case Western campus. Using present-tense narration, she makes the events of 1984 feel as if they happened yesterday. It wasn’t until 2005 that Connors, about to send her daughter off to college, felt the urge to go public about her experience. “I will find you,” her rapist had warned her as he released her from the theatre, but she turned the words back on him, locating his family and learning everything she could about what made him a repeat criminal. She never uses this to explain away what he did, but it gives her the necessary compassion to visit the man’s grave. This is an excellent work of reconstruction and investigative reporting.
One of Us: The Story of a Massacre and Its Aftermath
By Åsne Seierstad
An utterly engrossing account of Anders Behring Breivik’s July 22, 2011 attacks on an Oslo government building (8 dead) and the political youth camp on the island of Utøya (69 killed). Over half of this hefty tome is prologue: Breivik’s life story, plus occasional chapters giving engaging portraits of his teenage victims. The massacre itself, along with initial interrogations and identification of the dead, takes up two long chapters totaling about 100 pages – best devoured in one big gulp when you’re feeling strong. It’s hard to read, but brilliantly rendered. Anyone with an interest in psychology or criminology will find the insights into Breivik’s personality fascinating. This is a book about love and empathy: what they can achieve; what happens when they are absent. It shows how wide the ripples of one person’s actions can be, but also how deep individual motivation goes. All wrapped up in a gripping true crime narrative. Doubtless one of the best books I will read this year.
Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places
By Bill Streever
“Cold is a part of day-to-day life, but we often isolate ourselves from it, hiding in overheated houses and retreating to overheated climates, all without understanding what we so eagerly avoid.” In 12 chapters spanning one year, Streever covers every topic related to the cold that you could imagine: polar exploration, temperature scales, extreme weather events (especially the School Children’s Blizzard of 1888 and the “Year without Summer,” 1815), ice ages, cryogenics technology, and on and on. There’s also a travel element, with Streever regularly recording where he is and what the temperature is, starting in his home turf of Anchorage, Alaska. My favorite chapters were February and March, about the development of refrigeration and air conditioning and cold-weather apparel, respectively.
A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles
By Mary Elizabeth Williams
“SPOILER: I lived,” the Salon journalist begins her bittersweet memoir of having Stage 4 metastatic melanoma. In August 2010 she had a several-millimeter scab on her head surgically removed. When the cancer came back a year and a half later, this time in her lungs as well as on her back, she had the extreme good luck of qualifying for an immunotherapy trial that straight up cured her. It’s an encouraging story you don’t often hear in a cancer memoir. On the other hand, her father-in-law’s esophageal cancer and her best friend Debbie’s ovarian cancer simply went from bad to worse. As the title suggests, Williams’s tone vacillates between despair and hope, but her writing is always wry and conversational.
(For each one, read my full Goodreads review by clicking on the title link.)
Have you read any of these? Which one takes your fancy?
Books in Brief: Five I Loved Recently
The Zookeeper’s Wife
By Diane Ackerman
A different sort of Holocaust story, set at Warsaw Zoo in the years surrounding World War II. Even after Nazis dismantled their zoo and killed many of the larger animals, Jan and Antonina Żabiński stayed at their home and used the zoo’s premises for storing explosives and ammunition for Jan’s work in the Polish resistance as well as sheltering “Guests,” Jews passing through. This is a gripping narrative of survival against the odds, with the added pleasure of the kind of animal antics you’d find in a Gerald Durrell book. Their son Ryszard kept as pets a badger who bathed sitting back in the tub like a person and an arctic hare who stole cured meats like “a fat, furry thug.” Much of the book is based on Antonina’s journals, but I wish there had been more direct quotes from it and less in the way of reconstruction.
Walking Away: Further Travels with a Troubadour on the South West Coast Path
By Simon Armitage
As a sequel to Walking Home, the account of his 2010 trek along the Pennine Way, Armitage walked much of England’s South West Coast Path in August–September 2013. As before, he relied on the hospitality of acquaintances and strangers to put him up along the way and transport his enormous suitcase for him so he could walk about 10 miles a day to his next poetry reading. Emulating a modern-day troubadour, Armitage passed around a sock at the end of readings for donations (though the list of other stuff people left in the sock, with which he closes the book, is quite amusing). Along the way he meets all kinds of odd folk and muses on the landscape and the distressing amounts of seaside rubbish. His self-deprecating style reminded me of Bill Bryson. A pleasant ramble of a travel book.
Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival
By Bernd Heinrich
This great seasonal read carefully pitches science to the level of the layman. Heinrich, an emeritus professor of biology at the University of Vermont, surveys various strategies animals use for surviving the winter: caching food, huddling together, hibernating or entering torpor, and lowering their body temperature – even to the point where 50% of their body water is ice, as with hibernating frogs. He carries out ever so slightly gruesome experiments that make him sound like a lovably nutty professor:
To find out how quickly a fully feathered kinglet loses body heat, I experimentally heated a dead kinglet and then measured its cooling rate. … I do not know how many seeds a chipmunk usually packs into each of its two pouches—I easily inserted sixty black sunflower seeds through the mouth into just one pouch of a roadkill.
His passion for knowledge carries through in his writing. I came away with a fresh sense of wonder for how species are adapted to their environments: “Much that animals have evolved to do would have seemed impossible to us, if experience has not taught us otherwise.”
Poor Your Soul
By Mira Ptacin
Ptacin’s memoir is based around two losses: that of her brother, in a collision with a drunk driver; and that of a pregnancy in 2008. She skips back and forth in time to examine the numb aftermath of trauma as well as the fresh pain of actually going through it. In places I felt Ptacin sacrificed the literary quality hindsight might have allowed, prioritizing instead the somewhat clichéd thoughts and responses she had in the moment. Still, I loved so much about this book, especially her memories of growing up in the cereal capital of America and the account of her mother coming to America from Poland. Her mother is a terrific character, and it’s her half-warning, half-commiserative phrase that gives the novel its title (not a typo, as you might be forgiven for thinking): a kind of Slavic “I pity the fool.”
Miss Fortune: Fresh Perspectives on Having It All from Someone Who Is Not Okay
By Lauren Weedman
Weedman is a playwright and minor celebrity who’s worked on The Daily Show, Hung and Looking. This is a truly funny set of essays about marriage (from beginning to end), motherhood, working life and everything in between. Self-deprecatingly, she focuses on ridiculous situations she’s gotten herself into, like the world’s unsexiest threesome and an accidental gang symbol tattoo. Amid the laughs are some serious reflections on being adopted and figuring out how to be a responsible stepmother. With a warning that parts can be pretty raunchy, I’d recommend this to fans of David Sedaris and Bossypants.