Sidle Creek by Jolene McIlwain (Blog Tour)
I’m a sucker for “dirty realism,” a term coined in the 1980s to encompass gritty stories of blue-collar Americana: Ron Rash, David Vann, Daniel Woodrell et al. (I wrote a whole article about it in 2013). It’s less common, certainly, to find women writing in this subgenre, and that feminine touch is part of what makes Sidle Creek unique. In this debut collection of 22 short stories, loosely linked by their location in the Appalachian hills in western Pennsylvania and a couple of recurring minor characters, Jolene McIlwain softens the harsh realities of addiction, poverty and violence with the tender bruises of infertility and lost love.
The title story, which opens the book, has a shifting first-person point-of-view, first telling us about and then putting us into the mind of Esme Andersen, who’s 20 in 1975. Various diagnoses have plagued her family, medical words that repeat as chants: hemorrhage, endometriosis. Superstitions around the creek cast it alternately as a potential site of harm or healing as her single father tries to help her deal with her severe periods. The cover image comes from “Shell,” in which Tiller Shanty reads signs in the markings on red-winged blackbird eggs. He learned his skill of divination from his Vietnamese wife, but conceals from her a portent about her future. It turns out there’s more than one way to lose a beloved.
Grief is a resonant theme in so many of the stories. “The Fractal Geometry of Grief” is a shining example. Hubert Ashe, a widowed mathematician, becomes obsessed with a doe and sets up trail cams and a feeding station to watch her. It’s not clear whether he believes the animal is a reincarnation of his wife or not, but it’s unwise to get so attached in a hunting area. In “Seeds,” a man finds a photograph of his dying wife as a girl and revisits the sadness of her life. “Steer,” one of the most affecting stories, has a middle-aged man hit by anxiety, unable to forget the death of one of their cattle back when he was 16. As horrific as the experience was, it made him receptive to both beauty and pain.
Animal suffering is indeed frequent – something that seems important to mention, as I know a lot of readers who avoid scenes of it whenever possible. In “Eminent Domain,” the electricity shed where teenagers used to go drinking is found to be full of slaughtered cats. It’s the prompt the protagonist needs to escape this dead-end town. “Loosed” is a masterpiece in the vein of Demon Copperhead (though much more violent) about a man who makes money on increasingly cruel sport: cock fighting, then dog fighting, then dirty fights between his own four sons. The flash forward that ends this one is devastating. I, too, am sensitive to reading about animal deaths, but the animal suffering only matches the human here. The nastiness of “The Less Said” makes that plain.
Pregnancy or infant loss is a recurring element. In just three pages, “Seed to Full” expresses a world of sorrow as a woodworker crafts a coffin for his infant son. Even where it is not a central subject, infertility is mentioned in a number of stories. In “You Four Are the One,” four adolescent neighbor girls help Cinta Johns out around the house, hoping with her that this fifth pregnancy will be the one that lasts. “The Steep Side,” a memorable closer that shifts between past and future, has a teen coming across a crashed van, a heavily pregnant woman, and an older woman claiming to be a nurse. What he sees haunts him into adulthood.
There’s an air of mystery to that one, and particularly in “Those Red Boots,” about the disappearance of a waitress who worked at a Hooters-style joint where all the comely staff wear the same uniforms and perform titillating dances. My preference was for longer stories like this where you get greater depth of characterization and more scenes and dialogue. I might have considered cutting a handful of the flash-length stories. However, even in these micro-fictions, there are still interesting setups. My favorite among them was “The Fourth,” in which Independence Day fireworks are triggering for shell-shocked Uncle Ron.
At times harrowing, always clear-eyed, these stories are true to life and compassionate about human foibles and animal pain. I would highly recommend them to readers of Kent Haruf and Jayne Anne Phillips. McIlwain has such an established voice that this hardly seems like a first book. I can’t wait to read whatever she writes next.
With thanks to Melville House for the proof copy for review.
Buy Sidle Creek from Bookshop.org [affiliate link]
I was delighted to be invited to participate in the blog tour for Sidle Creek. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon.
The Chosen by Elizabeth Lowry (2022)
“What’s lost when your idea of the other dies? He knows the answer: only the entire world.”
Elizabeth Lowry’s utterly immersive third novel, The Chosen, currently on the shortlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction*, examines Thomas Hardy’s relationship with his first wife, Emma Gifford. The main storyline is set in November–December 1912 and opens on the morning of Emma’s death at Max Gate, their Dorchester home of 27 years. The couple had long been estranged and effectively lived separate lives on different floors of the house, but instantly Hardy is struck with pangs of grief – and remorse for how he had treated Emma. (He would pour these emotions out into some of his most famous poems.)
That guilt is only compounded by what he finds in her desk: her short memoir, Some Recollections, with an account of their first meeting in Cornwall; and her journals going back two decades, wherein she is brutally honest about her husband’s failings and pretensions. “I expect nothing from him now & that is just as well – neither gratitude nor attention, love, nor justice. He belongs to the public & all my years of devotion count for nothing.” She describes him as little better than a jailor, and blames him for their lifelong childlessness.
It’s an exercise in self-flagellation, yet as weeks crawl by after her funeral, Hardy continues to obsessively read Emma’s “catalogue of her grievances.” In the fog of grief, he relives scenes his late wife documented – especially the composition and controversial publication of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Emma hoped to be his amanuensis and so share in the thrill of creation, but he nipped a potential reunion in the bud. Lowry intercuts these flashbacks with the central narrative in a way that makes Hardy feel like a bumbling old man; he has trouble returning to reality afterwards, and his sisters and the servants are concerned for him.
Hardy was that stereotypical figure: the hapless man who needs women around to do everything for him. Luckily, he’s surrounded by an abundance of strong female characters: his sister Kate, who takes temporary control of the household; his secretary, Florence Dugdale, who had been his platonic companion and before long became his second wife; even Emma’s money-grubbing niece, Lilian, who descends to mine her aunt’s wardrobe.
I particularly enjoyed Hardy’s literary discussions with Edmund Gosse, who urged him to temper the bleakness of his plots, and the stranger-than-fiction incident of a Chinese man visiting Hardy at home and telling him his own story of neglecting his wife and repenting his treatment of her after her death.
For anyone who’s read and loved Hardy’s major works, or visited his homes, this feels absolutely true to his life story, and so evocative of the places involved. I could picture every locale, from Stinsford churchyard to Emma’s attic bedroom. It was perfect reading for my short break in Dorset earlier in the month and brought back memories of the Hardy tourism I did at the end of my study abroad year in 2004. Although Hardy’s written words permeate the book, I was impressed to learn that Lowry invented all of Emma’s journal entries, based on feelings she had expressed in letters.
But there is something universal, of course, about a tale of waning romance, unexpected loss, and regret for all that is left undone. This is such a beautifully understated novel, perfectly convincing for the period but also timeless. It’s one to shelve alongside Winter by Christopher Nicholson, another favourite of mine about Hardy’s later life.
With thanks to riverrun (Quercus) for the free copy for review. The Chosen came out in paperback on 13 April.
*The winner will be announced on 15 June.
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!
A Trip to Kyoto with Muriel Barbery and Florentyna Leow (#FrenchFebruary and #ReadIndies)
One of my most recent Book Serendipity incidents was reading these two 139-page books about a foreigner’s wanderings in Kyoto (often touring temples) at the same time. They’re also both from independent publishers, so I’m taking the opportunity to review them together for Read Indies month. The Barbery is also towards Marina Sofia’s casual French February challenge.
A Single Rose by Muriel Barbery (2020; 2021)
[Translated from the French by Alison Anderson]
That Barbery is a Japanophile was clear from her whimsical The Writer’s Cats, which I reviewed for Novellas in November in 2021. Here she takes inspiration from a Japanese aesthetic of minimalist prose, melancholy walks in rainy gardens, and a mixture of legends and stoic Buddhist philosophy. Rose, the half-French, half-Japanese protagonist, is in Kyoto to hear the reading of the will made by her late father, Haru, a contemporary art dealer.
A 40-year-old botanist, Rose is adrift, her father’s death just the latest in a string of losses that have caused her to close off her heart. Her time in Kyoto, while she waits to meet with the lawyer, is a low-key cycle of visits to gardens and Buddhist temples, sake-soused meals, going to bed sad and tipsy, and waking up to rain and preparing to do it all over again. Her minder is Paul, a Belgian who was her father’s assistant. They initially find each other irritating, but are gradually drawn together as two damaged souls.
There are lovely descriptive passages, and the theme of the inescapability of suffering cannot be refuted. The universality of loss comes across in key quotes from Issa and Rainer Maria Rilke, respectively: “in this world / we walk on the roof of hell / gazing at flowers” and “A single rose is every rose.” Still, I somehow found this work both too subtle (the only vaguely relevant chapter-opening snippets of history or legend) and too obvious (“Everybody hurts” is hardly a groundbreaking message). This was my third novella by Barbery. Shall I carry on and read The Elegance of the Hedgehog as well?
With thanks to Gallic Books for the free copy for review.
How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart by Florentyna Leow (2023)
On the face of it, this collection has quite a lot in common with Nina Mingya Powles’s Tiny Moons, from the same publisher: travel- and food-inspired essays that loop through some of the same experiences of loneliness and disorientation. The writers also have a similar background, with Leow a Malaysian Chinese woman living in Japan. She is able to pass for Japanese and so is experienced at code-switching as she moves from temple to jazz bar to teahouse and learns new dialects and accents.
For some years she made a living by leading tours she could never have afforded herself. Much as she loves Kyoto and its sights, she tired of the crowds and of seeing the same temples all the time. It took a stranger observing that she seemed unhappy in her work for her too realize it was time for a change.
This disillusionment and the end of her friendship with her female housemate are the main themes of this short book, especially in the six-part title essay. Interestingly, she describes the end of their relationship in the sort of terms that would generally be used for a romantic break-up, despondently querying what went wrong between them when they had been so happy picking and cooking the fruit from the persimmon tree outside their apartment window. Indeed, later on she cites the concept of a “romantic friendship.”
But I think what she was really mourning was the temporary nature of life. We’re nostalgic for golden times we can never get back. I think of parts of my early twenties like that. I wouldn’t necessarily trade my life now to go back in time (or maybe I would), but those periods will always glow in my memory.
My favourite essays were “Persimmons,” “A Bowl of Tea,” “A Rainy Day in Kyoto” and “Egg Love” – prove you care for someone by learning how they like their eggs. This wasn’t a particularly stand-out read for me, especially in comparison to the Powles, but I’d happily read more by Leow in the future.
A favourite passage:
REASONS FOR TEA
To celebrate. To thank someone. To enjoy the scent of different incense. To listen to the rain. To view an autumn moon reflected on a pond outside. To watch snow blanket the garden. To hear the texture of that silence. To walk through freshly fallen snow before dawn on the way to the teahouse. To drink tea by candlelight. To remember someone. To bask in the light, the cool of early summer mornings. Because it is spring. Because the leaves are changing colour. Because it is autumn. Because the plum blossoms are out. Because the world is beautiful. Because why not?
How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart will be published on 23 February. With thanks to The Emma Press for the proof 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?
Dylan Thomas & Folio Prize Lists and a Book Launch
Literary prize season is upon us! I sometimes find it overwhelming, but mostly I love it. Last month I submitted a longlist of my top five manuscripts to be considered for the McKitterick Prize. In the past week the Dylan Thomas Prize longlist and Folio Prize shortlists have been announced. The press release for the former notes “an even split of debut and established names, with African diaspora and female voices dominating.”
- Limberlost by Robbie Arnott (Atlantic Books) – novel (Australia)
- Seven Steeples by Sara Baume (Tramp Press) – novel (Ireland)
- God’s Children Are Little Broken Things by Arinze Ifeakandu (Orion, Weidenfeld & Nicolson) – short story collection (Nigeria)
- Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies by Maddie Mortimer (Picador, Pan Macmillan) – novel (UK)
- Phantom Gang by Ciarán O’Rourke (The Irish Pages Press) – poetry collection (Ireland)
- Things They Lost by Okwiri Oduor (Oneworld) – novel (Kenya)
- Losing the Plot by Derek Owusu (Canongate Books) – novel (UK)
- I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel (Rough Trade Books) – novel (UK)
- Send Nudes by Saba Sams (Bloomsbury Publishing) – short story collection (UK)
- Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head by Warsan Shire (Chatto & Windus) – poetry collection (Somalia-UK)
- Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens (Picador, Pan Macmillan) – novel (UK)
- No Land to Light On by Yara Zgheib (Atlantic Books, Allen & Unwin) – novel (Lebanon)
I happen to have already read Warsan Shire’s poetry collection and Nell Stevens’ debut novel (my review), which I loved and am delighted to see get more attention. I had Seven Steeples as an unsolicited review copy on my e-reader so have started reading that, and Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies is one of the books I treated myself to with Christmas money. There’s a possibility of a longlist blog tour, so for that I’ve requested the poetry book Phantom Gang. The shortlist will be announced on 23 March and the winner on 11 May.
This is the first year of the new Rathbones Folio Prize format: as in the defunct Costa Awards, the judges will choose a winner in each of three categories and then the category winners will go on to compete for an overall prize.
- The Passengers by Will Ashon
- In Love by Amy Bloom
- The Escape Artist by Jonathan Freedland
- Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson
- The Social Distance Between Us by Darren McGarvey
- Quiet by Victoria Adukwei Bulley
- Ephemeron by Fiona Benson
- Cane, Corn & Gully by Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa
- England’s Green by Zaffar Kunial
- Manorism by Yomi Ṣode
- Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo
- Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser
- Pure Colour by Sheila Heti
- Emergency by Daisy Hildyard
- Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout
Amy Bloom’s memoir In Love was one of my favourites last year, but I’m unfamiliar with the rest of the nonfiction shortlist and all the poetry collections are new to me (though I’ve read Zaffar Kunial’s Us). From the fiction list, I’m currently reading Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy by the Sea and I’ve read part of Sheila Heti’s bizarre Pure Colour and will try to get back into it on my Kindle at some point. In 2021 I was sent the entire Folio Prize shortlist to feature on my blog, but last year there was no contact from the publicists. I’ve expressed interest in receiving the poetry nominees, if nothing else.
The Women’s Prize longlist is always announced on International Women’s Day (8 March). Very unusually for me, I have already put together a list of novels we might see on that. I actually started compiling the list in 2022, and then last month spent some bookish procrastination time scouring the web for what I might have missed. There are 124 books on my list. Before cutting that down by 90% I have to decide if I want to be really thorough and check the publisher for each one (bar some exceptions, each publisher can only submit two books). I’ll work on that a bit more and post it in the next couple of weeks.
Last night I attended an online book launch (throwback to 2020!) via Sam Read Bookseller in Grasmere, for All My Wild Mothers by Victoria Bennett. Vik saw me express interest in her book on Twitter and had her publisher, Two Roads, send me a copy. I knew I had to attend the launch event because the Bookshop Band wrote a song about the book and premiered it as a music video partway through the evening. I’ve read the first 50 pages so far and it’s a lovely book I’ll review in full later in the month.
The brief autobiographical essays, each titled after a wildflower and headed by a woodcut of it, sit somewhere between creative nonfiction and nature writing, with Bennett reflecting on her sister’s sudden accidental death, her years caring for elderly parents and an ill son, and the process of creating an “apothecary garden” from scratch on a social housing estate in Cumbria. Interviewed by Catherine Simpson (author of When I Had a Little Sister), she said that the book is about “what grows not in spite of brokenness, but because of it.” The format is such in part because it was written over the course of 10 years and Bennett could only steal moments at a time from full-time caregiving. She has also previously published poetry, but this is her prose debut.
Simpson asked if she found the writing of All My Wild Mothers cathartic and Bennett replied that she went to therapy for that purpose, but that time and words have indeed helped to mellow anger and self-pity. She found that she was close enough in time to the events she writes about to remember them, but not so close as to get lost in grief. The Bookshop Band’s song “Keeping the Magic,” mostly on cello and guitar, has imagery of wildflowers and trees and dwells on the maternal and muddling through. (You can watch a performance of it here.)
Yesterday was a day of bad family news for me, both a diagnosis and another sudden death, so this was a message I needed, of beauty and hope alongside the grief. It’s why I’m so earnestly seeking warmth and spring flowers this season. I found snowdrops in the park the other day, and crocuses in a neighbour’s garden today.
Which literary prize races will you follow this year?
What’s bringing joy into your life these days?
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?
Review Catch-up: Lost & Found and Briefly, A Delicious Life
Picador has become one of the most reliable publishers for me, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. My ever more preposterous backlog won’t be diminishing much before the end of the year, but here are two 2022 Picador releases from my Most Anticipated list that I picked back up recently and enjoyed: a bereavement memoir turned love story, and a historical novel about a real writer–musician pair as observed by a centuries-dead ghost.
Lost & Found: A Memoir by Kathryn Schulz
Schulz is a staff writer for the New Yorker, and her 2010 book Being Wrong was my favourite kind of nonfiction: wide-ranging, erudite and uncategorizable. When I heard she’d written a bereavement memoir, I was beyond eager to read it. Her father, Isaac, was a scholarly and opinionated Polish Jew whose family emigrated from Israel via Germany to the USA in the early 1950s. Schulz grew up in the Cleveland suburbs of Ohio. Her father died at 74 after a decade of poor health. I read part of this book on the transatlantic flight to my mother’s funeral, and found the thoughts on grief so wise and true. “One of the many ways that loss instructs us is by correcting our sense of scale, showing us the world as it really is: so enormous, complex, and mysterious that there is nothing too large to be lost.”
But loss is not the end of this story; it overlaps with and is in some sense superseded by an unexpected romance. Introduced by mutual friends 18 months before her father’s death, Schulz and “C.” (fellow New Yorker writer Casey Cep) quickly fell in love and fashioned a life together on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, despite some significant differences in temperament and background – for instance, C. is a devout Lutheran while Schulz is a largely non-practicing Jew. She manages to braid this together with bereavement: “Love, like grief, has the properties of a fluid: it flows everywhere, fills any container, saturates everything.” My only slight frustration with the book was the amount of generic material on losing and finding and what other thinkers have had to say about these universal experiences – I tended to skip past it to get back to the narrative of her developing relationship with C.
Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens
This is Stevens’s third book but her first novel; her previous books (Bleaker House and Mrs Gaskell & Me) were autofiction-ish but have tended to be classified as memoirs. That same playfulness with genre is here, turning what could have been a straightforward biographical novel about George Sand – in the vein of the underwhelming The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg – into something cheeky and magical.
George Sand spent the winter of 1838–9 on Mallorca with her children, Solange and Maurice, and her lover, composer Frédéric Chopin. Stevens imagines that the monastery where they stay is still haunted by Blanca, a teenager who died in childbirth (having been impregnated by one of the trainee monks) there in 1473. Sand and Chopin – between them “Godless foreign odd consumptive cross-dressers … strangers and strange and strangely insouciant about their strangeness” – are instantly unpopular with the locals.
Blanca draws readers along on a tour of own past and George’s. Like any benevolent ghost, she’s a fan of pranks, but also hopes that she might use her power of omniscience to reverse tragic trajectories. A lover of men in her lifetime, she’s now enamoured with women in the hereafter, and outraged at how, even centuries later, women’s rights and desire are still being ignored. This is an earthy, impish, sexy read. Though it starts to wear a little thin before the end, it’s still well worth the ride.
With thanks to Picador for the proof copies for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or both of these? Do you have go-to/favourite publishers?
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.