#ReadIndies and Review Catch-up: Hazrat, Nettel, Peacock, Seldon
Another four selections for Read Indies month. I’m particularly pleased that two from this latest batch are “just because” books that I picked up off my shelves; another two are catch-up review copies. A few more indie titles will appear in my February roundup on Tuesday. For today, I have a fun variety: a history of the exclamation point, a Mexican novel about choosing motherhood versus being childfree, a memoir of a decades-long friendship between two poets, and a posthumous poetry collection with themes of history, illness and nature.
An Admirable Point: A brief history of the exclamation mark by Florence Hazrat (2022)
I’m definitely a punctuation geek. (My favourite punctuation mark is the semicolon, and there’s a book about it, too: Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark by Cecelia Watson, which I have on my Kindle.) One might think that strings of exclamation points are a pretty new thing – rounding off phrases in (ex-)presidential tweets, for instance – but, in fact, Hazrat opens with a Boston Gazette headline from 1788 that decried “CORRUPTION AND BRIBERY!!!” in relation to the adoption of the new Constitution.
The exclamation mark as we know it has been around since 1399, and by the 16th century its use for expression and emphasis had been codified. I was reminded of Gretchen McCulloch’s discussion of emoji in Because Internet, which also considers how written speech signifies tone, especially in the digital age. There have been various proposals for other “intonation points” over the centuries, but the question mark and exclamation mark are the two that have stuck. (Though I’m currently listening to an album called interrobang – ‽, that is. Invented by Martin Speckter in 1962; recorded by Switchfoot in 2021.)
I most enjoyed Chapter 3, on punctuation in literature. Jane Austen’s original manuscripts, replete with dashes, ampersands and exclamation points, were tidied up considerably before they made it into book form. She’s literature’s third most liberal user of exclamation marks, in terms of the number per 100,000 words, according to a chart Ben Blatt drew up in 2017, topped only by Tom Wolfe and James Joyce.
There are also sections on the use of exclamation points in propaganda and political campaigns – in conjunction with fonts, which brought to mind Simon Garfield’s Just My Type and the graphic novel ABC of Typography. It might seem to have a niche subject, but at just over 150 pages this is a cheery and diverting read for word nerds.
With thanks to Profile Books for the proof copy for review.
Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel (2020; 2022)
[Translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey]
This was the Mexican author’s fourth novel; she’s also a magazine director and has published several short story collections. I’d liken it to a cross between Motherhood by Sheila Heti and (the second half of) No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. Thirtysomething friends Laura and Alina veer off in different directions, yet end up finding themselves in similar ethical dilemmas. Laura, who narrates, is adamant that she doesn’t want children, and follows through with sterilization. However, when she becomes enmeshed in a situation with her neighbours – Doris, who’s been left by her abusive husband, and her troubled son Nicolás – she understands some of the emotional burden of motherhood. Even the pigeon nest she watches on her balcony presents a sort of morality play about parenthood.
Meanwhile, Alina and her partner Aurelio embark on infertility treatment. Laura fears losing her friend: “Alina was about to disappear and join the sect of mothers, those creatures with no life of their own who, zombie-like, with huge bags under their eyes, lugged prams around the streets of the city.” They eventually have a daughter, Inés, but learn before her birth that brain defects may cause her to die in infancy or be severely disabled. Right from the start, Alina is conflicted. Will she cling to Inés no matter her condition, or let her go? And with various unhealthy coping mechanisms to hand, will her relationship with Aurelio stay the course?
Laura alternates between her life and her friends’ circumstances, taking on an omniscient voice on Nettel’s behalf – she recounts details she couldn’t possibly be privy to, at least not at the time (there’s a similar strategy in The Group by Lara Feigel). The question of what is fated versus what is chosen, also represented by Laura’s interest in tarot and palm-reading, always appeals to me. This was a wry and sharp commentary on women’s options. (Giveaway win from Bookish Chat on Twitter)
Still Born was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK and is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in the USA on August 8th.
A Friend Sails in on a Poem by Molly Peacock (2022)
I’ve read one of Peacock’s poetry collections, The Analyst, as well as her biography of Mary Delany, The Paper Garden. I was delighted when she got in touch to offer a review copy of her latest memoir, which reflects on her nearly half a century of friendship with fellow poet Phillis Levin. They met in a Johns Hopkins University writing seminar in 1976, and ever since have shared their work in progress over meals. They are seven years apart in age and their careers took different routes – Peacock headed up the Poetry Society of America’s subway poetry project and then moved to Toronto, while Levin taught at the University of Maryland – but over the years they developed “a sense of trust that really does feel familial … There is a weird way, in our conversations about poetry, that we share a single soul.” For a time they were both based in New York City and had the same therapist; more recently, they arranged annual summer poetry retreats in Cazenovia (recalled via diary entries), with just the two attendees. Jobs and lovers came and went, but their bond has endured.
The book traces their lives but also their development as poets, through examples of their verse. Her friend is “Phillis” in real life, but “Levin” when it’s her work is being discussed – and her own poems are as written by “Peacock.” Both women became devoted to the sonnet, an unusual choice because at the time that they were graduate students free verse reigned and form was something one had to learn on one’s own time. Stanza means “room,” Peacock reminds readers, and she believes there is something about form that opens up space, almost literally but certainly metaphorically, to re-examine experience. She repeatedly tracks how traumatic childhood events, as much as everyday observations, were transmuted into her poetry. Levin did so, too, but with an opposite approach: intellectual and universal where Peacock was carnal and personal. That paradox of difference yet likeness is the essence of the friendships we sail on. What a lovely read, especially if you’re curious about ‘where poems come from’; I’d particularly recommend it to fans of Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty.
With thanks to Molly Peacock and Palimpsest Press for the free e-copy for review.
The Bright White Tree by Joanna Seldon (Worple Press, 2017)
This appeared the year after Seldon died of cancer; were it not for her untimely end and her famous husband Anthony (a historian and political biographer), I’m not sure it would have been published, as the poetry is fairly mediocre, with some obvious rhymes and twee sentiments. I wouldn’t want to speak ill of the dead, though, so think of this more like a self-published work collected in tribute, and then no problem. Some of the poems were written from the Royal Marsden Hospital, with “Advice” a useful rundown of how to be there for a friend undergoing cancer treatment (text to let them know you’re thinking of them; check before calling, or visiting briefly; bring sanctioned snacks; don’t be afraid to ask after their health).
Seldon takes inspiration from history (the story of Kitty Pakenham, the bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas), travels in England and abroad (“Robin in York” vs. “Tuscan Garden”), and family history. Her Jewish heritage is clear from poems about Israel, National Holocaust Memorial Day and Rosh Hashanah. Her own suffering is put into perspective in “A Cancer Patient Visits Auschwitz.” There are also ekphrastic responses to art and literature (a Gaugin, A Winter’s Tale, Jane Eyre, and so on). I particularly liked “Conker,” a reminder of a departed loved one “So is a good life packed full of doing / That may grow warm with others, even when / The many years have turned, and darkness filled / Places where memory shone bright and strong. / I feel the conker and feel he is here.” (New bargain book from Waterstones online sale with Christmas book token)
There are haikus dotted through the collection; here’s one perfect for the season:
Maids demure, white tips to
Mob caps… Look now! They’ve
Splattered the lawn with snow
Have you discovered any new-to-you independent publishers recently?
An Embarrassment of Riches at the (Digital) Hay Festival 2021
There was a phenomenal program for this year’s digital Hay Festival. I signed up to a whopping eight events and enjoyed them all. If you missed watching live, it’s not too late to donate and catch up on the archived talks. For three of these, the host-cum-interviewer appeared in person on a studio stage, with the guest(s) joining, perhaps from thousands of miles away, on a large screen mounted on the wall behind them. I thought this was a neat hybrid approach. The rest of my sessions had interviewer and interviewee appearing remotely on a split screen. Let me know which, if any, events you attended and how you found them.
Flanagan’s The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is my novel of 2021 so far (my review), so it was a delight to hear him say more (and in that fantastic accent) about it in the course of a conversation with Stephanie Merritt. Tasmania, where he lives, had always seemed like an ark for species, but now they are vanishing. Ninety percent of the kelp forest has disappeared within the last 20 years because of warming oceans; there are only 300 swift parrots remaining; and the bushfires of 2018–19 were unprecedented in severity. Although he had already roughed out the novel by the time of the fires, Flanagan said he rewrote it in response to the sense of accelerating environmental collapse.
The novel’s twin themes are species extinction and personal extinction, with an elderly family matriarch being kept alive at all costs. Flanagan spoke of the “evasions of the soul” that make us ignore the environmental losses around us and refuse to die – “the final avoidance of life.” He thinks the pandemic has forced people to rethink these ideas and ponder the meaning of life. At age 21, he nearly drowned while kayaking, and ever since he has been frightened not of death, but of the pain of dying. He is not optimistic per se, but hopeful because the world is still so beautiful – on the island he goes to for writing, he is surrounded by wild creatures.
Merritt asked about the novel’s magic realist element and how stylistically different his novels have been from each other. He was glad she found the book funny, as “life is tragicomic.” In an effort not to get stuck in a rut, he deliberately ‘breaks the mould’ after each book and starts over. This has not made him popular with his publisher!
- The one obligation of a writer? “Not to be boring.”
- Novels are not about messages; “that’s what Twitter is for.”
- “To despair is rational, but to hope is the very essence of what it means to be human.”
Rachel Clarke interviewing Jim Down and Michael Rosen
All three authors have written books about the coronavirus pandemic (I have reviewed Clarke’s Breathtaking and Rosen’s Many Different Kinds of Love). Clarke said that the belief foundational to the NHS is that all lives have equal value, but as an ICU doctor Down found that the question of who would benefit most from the use of ventilation was creeping in as there was a risk that there would be more patients than there was equipment to treat them with. With decisions needing to be made very quickly, his hospital adopted the “three wise people” collaborative method. The element that often felt lost, however, was the patient’s wishes, since they might be unresponsive and no family or other visitors were around.
Rosen, who contracted Covid-19 in March 2020 and was in an induced coma for six weeks, included letters from his medical team in his book to give a 360° view of NHS treatment. He thinks of the NHS as being almost in the role of parents, giving altruistic care and support. “Tell the truth about herd immunity” was his pithy message to the government. He read the poem “These Are the Hands,” which he wrote for the 60th anniversary of the NHS, to close.
Bryan Washington and Raven Leilani
Last year’s Dylan Thomas Prize winner interviewed this year’s winner, and it was clear that the mutual admiration was strong. Though I had mixed feelings about Luster (my review), I was blown away by this high-level intellectual discussion. Both authors are invested in the debate around what it means to be a Black artist. Leilani said she did not want to make concessions in the form of Edie comporting herself better; this character is open about her wants, giving the novel a libidinal flavour. She said she almost envies her protagonist her autonomy, and thinks of the novel as a letter to her old self, granting permission and reassuring herself that “the mess has merit.”
- Writing offers Leilani a sanctuary or sense of control.
- While Washington sees works full of strife, grief, and malice as most likely to be considered the pinnacle of American literary fiction, he admires Luster for its theme of communion (especially via the character Akila).
- Leilani sees her novel as being in conversation with Queenie, Sula, The New Me, and Detransition, Baby.
Shipstead (also a Dylan Thomas Prize winner) echoed something Leilani had said: that she starts a novel with questions, not answers. Such humility is refreshing, and a sure way to avoid being preachy in fiction. Her new novel, Great Circle, is among my most anticipated books of the year and tells the stories of a fictional female pilot from the golden age of aviation and the actress playing her in a biopic. The book was long in the gestation: In 2012 Shipstead saw a sculpture commemorating a female pilot in Auckland, and in 2014 she started researching. She came to appreciate the miracle of flight and read many books by and about female pilots. The book is dedicated to her brother, recently retired from 20 years in the Air Force. She told Sameer Rahim that, although she used to say this is not a love story, she has since changed her mind.
- Shipstead was a competitive show jumper and applied to a creative writing program on a whim.
- She has made a name for herself as a travel writer, too, often combining magazine assignments with her research for the novel (e.g., various trips to Antarctica).
- While she has appreciated the year off from Covid, she is looking forward to getting back to travelling; her first booking is a women’s wilderness experience in Alaska.
Lockwood is the only novelist to be included on the Atlantic’s roster of best tweets. She and Nina Stibbe, who interviewed her, agreed that 1) things aren’t funny when they try too hard and 2) the Internet used to be a taboo subject for fiction – producing time-stamped references that editors used to remove. “I had so many observations and I didn’t know where to put them,” Lockwood said, and it seems to her perverse to not write about something that is such a major part of our daily lives. The title of her Women’s Prize-shortlisted novel, No One Is Talking About This (my review), refers to many things, including this reticence to grant the Internet a place in our discourse.
Lockwood said she has been delighted by the high-quality literary pieces coming out about her book, often in comparison with Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts. The timing of the publication meant that her initial (U.S.) media interviews ended up being more about Trump than she would have liked. “I think I’m not a natural fiction writer,” she said; it’s true that the novel is so autobiographical it can only be described as autofiction – the second half is all true and all sincere, she was careful to point out – but it’s a gem.
Like Lockwood, Pachico was part of the “10 @ 10” series featuring debut novelists (though her first book, the linked story collection The Lucky Ones, was marketed as a novel in the USA). Her new book, The Anthill, another of my most anticipated books of the year, is about a young woman returning to Medellín, Colombia, where Pachico spent her formative years. Although she is not a citizen and only goes back on a tourist visa, it feels like going home each time. For her, writing fiction has been a way of sorting out her feelings about the place. She wrote 50,000 words of the novel at her sister’s apartment in Medellín. Pachico told Rosie Goldsmith that, though she considers herself part of the Latin American literary tradition, she is conscious of presenting the country to English-speaking readers: a politically divided place that has gentrified in pockets, but is still plagued by extreme poverty and hardship. She described The Anthill as “a ghost story without ghosts.” I can’t wait to dive into my copy.
Speaking to Arifa Akbar about The Vanishing Half, Bennett admitted that she was worried a historical setting was a cop-out, but reassured herself that she was not writing out of nostalgia and that she did not allow readers a sense of distance – the characters are so ordinary that we know we’d do the same sorts of things. She thinks of passing as a distinctly American project of self-reinvention but acknowledged that we have no definitive statistics on it because, if someone succeeds, they disappear. Some of Stella’s psychology – a very interior character who makes decisions that are difficult to understand – came from her reading of Playing Dead by Elizabeth Greenwood. She loves writing about small towns because they force people to interact with each other. Akbar noted that passing is a double-edged sword, involving subterfuge but also offering liberation (e.g. for a trans character later in the book).
- “That’s the most exciting place to be, writing into a mystery.”
- “Race is a fiction, but racism is a reality.”
- An HBO adaptation is in the works, but Bennett doesn’t know if it will cast real twins, two actors, or meld separate people using CGI.
Rachel Cusk and Sheila Heti
I’ve read more of and gotten on better with Heti’s work than Cusk’s, so this was a rare case of being perhaps more interested in interviewer than interviewee. Heti said that, compared with the Outline trilogy, Cusk’s new novel Second Place feels wilder and more instinctual. Cusk, speaking from the Greek island of Tinos, where she is researching marble quarrying, described her book in often vague yet overall intriguing terms: it’s about exile and the illicit, she said; about femininity and entitlement to speak; about the domestic space and how things are legitimized; about the adoption of male values and the “rightness of the artist.”
Ironically, given that Cusk initially hesitated over revealing her debt to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir Lorenzo in Taos, much of the discussion ended up revolving around Luhan and D.H. Lawrence, about whom Cusk now considers herself an amateur scholar. In his personal writings he reserved special scorn for Luhan, with whom he stayed in New Mexico in the 1920s. This was something Cusk wanted to explore: misogyny and Luhan’s “voice of obscurity.” She hopes that her book will contribute to a better understanding of Luhan’s; not vice versa.
- A reviewer noted the use of exclamation points, counting 189 of them in the novel. Cusk equates an exclamation point to a laying down of arms – proof that someone (especially her protagonist, M) means to be nonthreatening.
- Cusk thinks of this book as being like a play: staged and in the moment.
- A woman observing but not being noticed is, like in the Outline trilogy, Cusk’s basic framework.