19 Claws and a Black Bird by Agustina Bazterrica (Blog Tour)
A couple of years ago, I reviewed Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender Is the Flesh for the R.I.P. challenge. It’s a dystopian horror novel in which cannibalism becomes commonplace. “Brutal but brilliant,” I called it. That’s what I was hoping for from this collection of 20 of the Argentinian author’s speculative short stories. Unfortunately, I found the death-drenched work uneven, but there were a few individual stories and recurring elements that I appreciated.
In “Unamuno’s Boxes,” a woman becomes convinced that her taxi driver is a serial killer; in “Anita and Happiness,” Pablo suspects his lover is an alien. In both of these, the imagined identity is so strongly rooted that it reflects, or even alters, the reality. My favourite line of the book came from the latter: “human beings are a mere parenthesis between two unknowns.”
There are a few cases of poetic justice here, such as when a football obsessive decides to take out his feelings on a cat and instead gets his comeuppance. Two other stories, “Roberto” and “Earth,” include revenge for child sexual abuse – they have mighty satisfying conclusions. Along with those two, the stand-out of the collection for me was the final story, “The Solitary Ones,” which is the closest to straight-up horror and features a young woman riding the subway alone when the electricity goes out. It’s one of four second-person narratives; that’s always an interesting point-of-view. (The rest are roughly equally split between first and third person.)
My qualms were about a couple of unpleasant repeated topics and the vague or generic nature of many of the remaining stories. Several involve suicide, which is not problematic in and of itself – “A Light, Swift and Monstrous Sound” is a strong opener in which a woman finds her elderly neighbour dead on her patio – but in two places it’s a too-convenient way of concluding a story about someone with mental illness. Two late stories apply menacing imagery about religion. Perhaps I’m overly sensitive about such things, but I prefer a more balanced depiction.
The title makes intriguing reference to other creatures, particularly birds, but apart from a couple of sinister appearances and one stereotyping page about the threat of a wolf, it doesn’t live up to that promise. Although I cannot wholeheartedly recommend Bazterrica’s short fiction, you might want to seek out select stories. Meanwhile, I would urge you all to read Tender Is the Flesh, which also engages with the question of the ethical treatment of animals.
[Translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses]
With thanks to Pushkin Press for the free copy for review.
I was happy to participate in the blog tour for 19 Claws and a Black Bird. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon.
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.
#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?
Animal Life by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Icelandic author Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir was familiar to me from Butterflies in November (2013), a whimsical, feminist road trip novel I reviewed for For Books’ Sake. Dómhildur or “Dýja” is, like her grandaunt before her, a midwife – a word that was once voted Iceland’s most beautiful: ljósmóðir combines the words for light and mother, so it connotes “mother of light.” On the other side of the family, Dýja’s relatives are undertakers, a neat setup that sees her clan “handling people at their points of entry and exit.”
Along with her profession, Dýja inherited her great-aunt’s apartment, nine bottles of sherry, pen pal letters to a Welsh midwife and a box containing several discursive manuscripts of philosophical musings, one of them entitled Animal Life. In fragments from this book within the book, we see how her grandaunt recorded philosophical musings about coincidences and humanity in relation to other species, vacillating between the poetic and the scientific.
As Christmas – and an unprecedented storm prophesied by her meteorologist sister – approaches, Dýja starts to make the apartment less of a mausoleum and more her own home, trading lots of the fusty furniture for a colleague’s help with painting and decorating, and flirting with an Australian tourist who’s staying in the apartment upstairs. Outside of work she has never had much of a personal life, so she’s finally finding a better balance.
I really warmed to the grandaunt character and enjoyed the peppering of her aphorisms. As in novels like The Birth House and A Ghost in the Throat, it feels like this is a female wisdom, somewhat forbidden and witchy. The idea of it being passed down through the generations is appealing. We get less of a sense of Dýja overall, only late on finding that she has her own traumatic backstory. For a first-person narrator, she’s lacking the expected interiority. Mostly, we see her interactions with a random selection of minor characters such as an electrician whose wife is experiencing postpartum depression.
I felt there were a few too many disparate elements here, not all joined but just left on the page as a quirky smorgasbord. Still, it’s fun to try fiction in translation sometimes, especially when it’s of novella length. This also reminded me a bit of Weather and Brood.
Translated by Brian FitzGibbon. With thanks to Pushkin Press for my free copy for review.
I was delighted to be part of the blog tour for Animal Life. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon.
For Thy Great Pain… and Ti Amo for #NovNov22
On Friday evening we went to see Aqualung give his first London show in 12 years. (Here’s his lovely new song “November.”) I like travel days because I tend to get loads of reading done on my Kindle, and this was no exception: I read both of the below novellas, plus two-thirds of a poetry collection. Novellas aren’t always quick reads, but these were.
For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain by Victoria Mackenzie (2023)
Two female medieval mystics, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, are the twin protagonists of Mackenzie’s debut. She allows each to tell her life story through alternating first-person strands that only braid together very late on when she posits that Margery visited Julian in her cell and took into safekeeping the manuscript of her “shewings.” I finished reading Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love earlier this year and, apart from a couple of biographical details (she lost her husband and baby daughter to an outbreak of plague, and didn’t leave her cell in Norwich for 23 years), this added little to my experience of her work.
I didn’t know Margery’s story, so found her sections a little more interesting. A married mother of 14, she earned scorn for preaching, prophesying and weeping in public. Again and again, she was told to know her place and not dare to speak on behalf of God or question the clergy. She was a bold and passionate woman, and the accusations of heresy were no doubt motivated by a wish to see her humiliated for claiming spiritual authority. But nowadays, we would doubtless question her mental health – likewise for Julian when you learn that her shewings arose from a time of fevered hallucination. If you’re new to these figures, you might be captivated by their bizarre life stories and religious obsession, but I thought the bare telling was somewhat lacking in literary interest. (Read via NetGalley) [176 pages]
Coming out on January 19th from Bloomsbury.
Ti Amo by Hanne Ørstavik (2020; 2022)
[Translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken; Archipelago Books]
Ørstavik wrote this in the early months of 2020 while she was living in Milan with her husband, Luigi Spagnol, who was her Italian publisher as well as a painter. They had only been together for four years and he’d been ill for half of that. The average life expectancy for someone who had undergone his particular type of pancreatic cancer surgery was 15–20 months; “We’re at fifteen months now.” Indeed, Spagnol would die in June 2020. But Ørstavik writes from that delicate in-between time when the outcome is clear but hasn’t yet arrived:
What’s real is that you’re still here, and at the same time, as if embedded in that, the fact that soon you’re going to die. Often I don’t feel a thing.
She knows, having heard it straight from his doctor’s lips, that her husband is going to die in a matter of months, but he doesn’t know. And now he wants to host a New Year’s Eve party, as is their annual tradition. Ørstavik skips between the present, the couple’s shared past, and an incident from her recent past that she hasn’t yet told anyone else: not long ago, while in Mexico for a literary festival, she fell in love with A., her handler. And while she hasn’t acted on that, beyond a kiss on the cheek, it’s smouldering inside her, a secret from the husband she still loves and can’t bear to hurt. Novels are where she can be most truthful, and she knows the one she needs to write will be healing.
There are many wrenching scenes and moments here, but it’s all delivered in a fairly flat style that left little impression on me. I wonder if I’d appreciate her fiction more. (Read via Edelweiss) [124 pages]
Body Kintsugi by Senka Marić: A Peirene Press Novella (#NovNov22)
This is my eleventh translated novella from Peirene Press* and, in my opinion, their best yet. It’s an intense work of autofiction about two years of hellish treatment for breast cancer, all the more powerful due to the second-person narration that displaces the pain from the protagonist and onto the reader.
This is a story about the body. Its struggle to feel whole while reality shatters it into fragments. The gash goes from the right nipple towards your back, and after five centimetres makes a gentle curve up and continues to your armpit. It’s still fresh and red.
How does the story crumbling under your tongue and refusing to take on a firm shape begin to be told?
You knew on that day, sixteen years ago, when your mother’s diagnosis was confirmed, that you’d get cancer?
Ever since that day, sixteen years ago, when your mother’s diagnosis was confirmed, that you’d never get cancer?
Both are equally true.
In 2014, just a couple of months after her husband leaves her – making her, in her early forties, a single mother to a son and a daughter – she discovers a lump in her right breast.
As she endures five operations, chemotherapy and adjuvant therapies, as well as endless testing and hospital stays, her mind keeps going back to her girlhood and adolescence, especially the moments when she felt afraid or ashamed. Her father, alcoholic and perpetually ill, made her feel like she was an annoyance to him.
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: “Perfectly sculpted through all your defeats, and your victories. The scars scrawled on it are the map of your journey. The truest story about you, which words cannot grasp.”
As forthright as it is about the brutality of cancer treatment, the novella can also be creative, playful and even darkly comic.
Things you don’t want to think about:
Your bald head
Almost unbearable nausea delivers her into a new space: “Here, the only colours are black and red. You’re lost in a vast hotel. However hard you try, you can’t count the floors.” One snowy morning, she imagines she’s being visited by a host of Medusa-like women in long black dresses who minister to her. Whether it’s a dream or a medication-induced hallucination, it feels mystical, like she’s part of a timeless lineage of wise women. The themes, tone and style all came together here for me, though I can see how this book might not be for everyone. I have a college friend who’s going through breast cancer treatment right now. She’s only 40. She was diagnosed in the summer and has already had surgery and a few rounds of chemo. I wonder if this book is just what she would want to read right now … or the last thing she would want to think about. All I can do is ask.
(Translated from the Bosnian by Celia Hawkesworth) [165 pages]
With thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.
*Other Peirene Press novellas I’ve reviewed:
Mr. Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson
The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen
Ankomst by Gøhril Gabrielsen
Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel
The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch
Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini
Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun
The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay
The Man I Became by Peter Verhelst
Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve
September’s Focus: Short Stories
This is the seventh year in a row in which I’m making a special effort to read short stories in September; otherwise, story collections tend to languish on my shelves (and Kindle) unread. In September 2020 I read 8 collections, and in September 2021 it was 12. How many can I get through this time?! Here are my options, including, at far right, some I’m partway through, a thematic trio (“Birds” titles) I fancy reviewing together, and a few from the library.
To my surprise, if I count linked short stories, I’ve already read 13 collections this year. Highlights: Dance Move by Wendy Erskine, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, Antipodes by Holly Goddard Jones, and How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu.
The best of the lot, though, has been Stories from the Tenants Downstairs by Sidik Fofana, which I’ll be reviewing for BookBrowse over the weekend. It’s a character- and voice-driven set of eight stories about the residents of a Harlem apartment complex, many of them lovable rogues who have to hustle to try to make rent in this gentrifying area.
A September release I’ll quickly plug: The Best Short Stories 2022: The O. Henry Prize Winners, selected by Valeria Luiselli. I read this for Shelf Awareness and my review will be appearing in a couple of weeks. Half of the 20 stories are in translation – Luiselli insists this was coincidental – so it’s a nice taster of international short fiction. Contributing authors you will have heard of: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lorrie Moore, Samanta Schweblin and Olga Tokarczuk. The style runs the gamut from metafiction to sci-fi/horror. Covid-19, loss and parenting are frequent elements. My two favourites: Joseph O’Neill’s “Rainbows,” about sexual misconduct allegations, then and now; and the absolutely bonkers novella-length “Horse Soup” by Vladimir Sorokin, about a woman and a released prisoner who meet on a train and bond over food. (13 September, Anchor Books)
Here’s a short story collection I received for review but, alas, couldn’t finish: Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz. This was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and won the NB Magazine Blogger’s Book Prize. The link, I have gathered, is adolescent girls in Florida. I enjoyed the title story, which opens the collection and takes peer pressure and imitation to an extreme, but couldn’t get through more than another 1.5 after that; they left zero impression.
Currently reading: The Boat by Nam Le (it won the Dylan Thomas Prize; I’ve read the first story so far and it was knockout!), Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman.
Resuming soon: The Predatory Animal Ball by Jennifer Fliss (e-book), Hearts & Bones by Niamh Mulvey, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw – all were review copies.
Are you a short story fan? Read any good ones recently?
Join me in this low-key challenge if you wish!
Four for #WITMonth: Jansson, Lamarche, Lunde and Vogt
I’ve managed four novels for this year’s Women in Translation month: a nostalgic, bittersweet picture of island summers poised between childhood and old age; a brief, impressionistic account of domestic violence and rape; the third in a series looking at how climate change and species loss reverberate amid family situations; and a visceral meditation on women’s bodies and relationships. Two of these were review copies from the recently launched Héloïse Press, which “champions world-wide female talent”.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (1972; 1974)
[Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal]
It was just the same long summer, always, and everything lived and grew at its own pace.
This was only the second time I’ve read one of Jansson’s books aimed at adults (as opposed to five from the Moomins series). Whereas A Winter Book didn’t stand out to me when I read it in 2012 – though I will try it again this winter, having acquired a free copy from a neighbour – this was a lovely read, so evocative of childhood and of languid summers free from obligation. For two months, Sophia and Grandmother go for mini adventures on their tiny Finnish island. Each chapter is almost like a stand-alone story in a linked collection. They make believe and welcome visitors and weather storms and poke their noses into a new neighbour’s unwanted construction.
Six-year-old Sophia, based on Jansson’s niece of the same name, is precocious and opinionated, liable to change her mind in an instant. In “The Cat,” one of my favourite stand-alone bits, she’s fed up with their half-feral pet who kills lots of birds and swaps him for a friend’s soppy lap cat, but then regrets it. She’s learning that logic and emotion sometimes contradict each other, which becomes clearer as she peppers Grandmother with questions about religion and superstition.
As is common to Jansson’s books, there’s a melancholy undercurrent here.
Everything was fine, and yet everything was overshadowed by a great sadness. It was August, and the weather was sometimes stormy and sometimes nice, but for Grandmother, no matter what happened, it was only time on top of time, since everything is vanity and a chasing after the wind.
Sophia’s mother died, and although her grandmother has the greater presence, Papa is also around, dealing with practicalities in the background. Death stalks around the edges, reminding Grandmother of her mortality through bouts of vertigo that have her grabbing for her heart medication. On just the second page we have this memento mori:
“When are you going to die?” the child asked.
And Grandmother answered, “Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours.”
And so it doesn’t feel like our concern either; the focus is on the now, on these beautiful little moments of connection across the generations – like in “Playing Venice,” when Grandmother stays up all night rebuilding Sophia’s model city that was washed away by the rain. (Public library)
The Memory of the Air by Caroline Lamarche (2014; 2022)
[Winner of an English PEN Award; translated from the French by Katherine Gregor]
In a hypnotic monologue, a woman tells of her time with a violent partner (the man before, or “Manfore”) who thinks her reaction to him is disproportionate and all due to the fact that she has never processed being raped two decades ago. When she goes in for a routine breast scan, she shows the doctor her bruised arm, wanting there to be a definitive record of what she’s gone through. It’s a bracing echo of the moment she walked into a police station to report the sexual assault (and oh but the questions the male inspector asked her are horrible).
The novella opens with an image that returns in dreams but is almost more a future memory of what might have been: “I went down into a ravine and, at the bottom, found a dead woman. She was lying in a shroud, on a carpet of fallen leaves.” I read this in one sitting – er, yoga session – and it has stayed in my mind in intense flashes like that and the flounce of her red dress on the summer day that turned into a nightmare. At an intense 70 pages, this reminded me of Annie Ernaux’s concise autofiction (I’ve reviewed Happening and I Remain in Darkness). An introduction by Dr Dominique Carlini-Versini contextualizes the work by considering the treatment of rape in contemporary French women’s writing.
The Memory of the Air will be published on 26 September. With thanks to Héloïse Press for the proof copy for review.
The Last Wild Horses by Maja Lunde (2019; 2022)
[Translated from the Norwegian by Diane Oatley]
The third in Lunde’s “Climate Quartet,” with its recurring elements of migration, shortages and environmental collapse. Always, though, the overall theme is parent–child relationships and the love that might be the only thing that keeps us going in the face of unspeakable challenges. Here she returns to the tripartite structure of The History of Bees (much my favourite of the three): a historical strand, a near-contemporary one, and a dystopian future story line. The link between the three is Przewalski’s horses (aka takhi).
In the early 1880s, Mikhail Alexandrovich Kovrov, assistant director of St. Petersburg Zoo, is brought the hide and skull of an ancient horse species assumed extinct. Although a timorous man who still lives with his mother, he becomes part of an expedition to Mongolia to bring back live specimens. In 1992, Karin, who has been obsessed with Przewalski’s horses since encountering them as a child in Nazi Germany, spearheads a mission to return the takhi to Mongolia and set up a breeding population. With her is her son Matthias, tentatively sober after years of drug abuse. In 2064 Norway, Eva and her daughter Isa are caretakers of a decaying wildlife park that houses a couple of wild horses. When a climate migrant comes to stay with them and the electricity goes off once and for all, they have to decide what comes next. This future story line engaged me the most.
I appreciated some aspects: queer and middle-aged romances, the return of a character from The End of the Ocean, the consideration across all three plots of what makes a good mother. However, the horses seemed neither here nor there. There are also many, many animal deaths. Perhaps an unsentimental attitude is necessary to reflect past and future values, and the apparent cruelty of natural processes, but it limits the book’s appeal to animal lovers. Maybe the tone fits the Norwegian prose, which the translator describes as lean.
The fourth book of the quartet, publishing in Norway next month, is called something like The Dream of a Tree; a focus on trees would be a draw for me. After the disappointment of Books 2 and 3, I’m unsure whether I want to bother with the final volume, but it makes sense to do so, if only to grasp Lunde’s full vision. (Public library)
What Concerns Us by Laura Vogt (2020; 2022)
[Translated from the German by Caroline Waight]
Vogt’s Swiss-set second novel is about a tight-knit matriarchal family whose threads have started to unravel. For Rahel, motherhood has taken her away from her vocation as a singer. Boris stepped up when she was pregnant with another man’s baby and has been as much of a father to Rico as to Leni, the daughter they had together afterwards. But now Rahel’s postnatal depression is stopping her from bonding with the new baby, and she isn’t sure this quartet is going to make it in the long term.
Meanwhile, Rahel’s sister Fenna knows she’s pregnant but refuses a doctor’s care. When she comes to stay with Rahel, she confides that the encounter with her partner, Luc, that led to conception was odd, rough; maybe not consensual. And all this time, the women’s mother, Verena, has been undergoing treatment for breast cancer. All three characters appear to be matter-of-factly bisexual; Rahel and Fenna’s father has long been out of the picture, replaced in Verena’s affections by Inge.
As I was reading, I kept thinking of the declaration running through A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa: “This is a female text.” Vogt’s vision is all breasts and eggs, genitals actual and metaphorical. I loved the use of food in the novel: growing up, the girls cherished “silly nights” when their mother prepared an egg feast and paired it with a feminist lecture on reproduction. Late on, there’s a wonderful scene when the three main characters gorge on preserved foodstuffs from the cellar and share their secrets. (Their language is so sexually frank; would anyone really talk to their mother and siblings in that way?!) As in the Lunde, the main question is what it means to be a mother, but negotiating their relationships with men stretches the bonds of this feminine trio. One for fans of Rachel Cusk and Sally Rooney.
With thanks to Héloïse Press for the proof copy for review.
Review Catch-Up: Capildeo, Castillo, Nagamatsu & Wedlich
A second catch-up for April. Today I have a sprightly poetry collection about history, language and nature; a linked short story collection that imagines funerary rituals and human meaning in a post-pandemic future; and a wide-ranging popular science book about the diverse connotations and practical uses of slime. As a bonus, I have a preview essay from a forthcoming collection about how reading promotes empathy and social justice.
Like a Tree, Walking by Vahni Capildeo (2021)
Capildeo is a nonbinary Trinidadian Scottish poet and the current University of York writer in residence. Their fourth collection is richly studded with imagery of the natural world, especially birds and trees. “In Praise of Birds” makes a gorgeous start:
“In praise of high-contrast birds, purple bougainvillea thicketing the golden oriole. … In praise of grackles quarrelling on the lawn. / In praise of unbeautiful birds abounding in Old Norse, language of scavenging ravens, thought and memory, a treacherous duo”
and finds a late echo in “In Praise of Trees”: “If I could have translated piano practice into botany, the lichen is that Mozart phrase my left hand trialled endlessly.”
The title section (named after a moment from the book of Mark) draws on several numbered series – “Walk #2,” “Nocturne #1,” “Lullaby 4,” and so on – that appeared in a pamphlet they published last year. These are not uncomplicated idylls, though. Walks might involve dull scenery and asthma-inducing dust, as well as danger: “If nobody has abducted you, I’ll double back to meet you. … Before raper-man corner and the gingerbread house.” Lullabies wish for good sleep despite lawnmowers and a neighbour shooting his guns. There’s more bold defiance of expectations in phrases like “This is the circus for dead horses only”.
Language is a key theme, with translations from the French of Eugène Ionesco, and of Pierre de Ronsard into Trini patois. There are also dual-language erasure poems after Dame Julian of Norwich (Middle English) and Simone Weil (French). Much of the work is based on engagement with literature, or was written in collaboration with performers.
“Death is a thief in a stationery shop. He strolls out. The shopkeeper, a poor man, runs after, shouting. – I saw you! Give that back! – Give back what? Death says, strolling out. Hermes is a tram attendant who holds your coffee, helping you find the coin you dropped; it rolls underfoot.” (from “Odyssey Response”)
“Windrush Reflections” impresses for its research into the situation of Caribbean immigrants to Britain. It’s one of a number of long, multipart pieces, some of them prose poems. The verse relies mostly on alliteration and anaphora for its sonic qualities. Along with history, there is reflection on current events, as in “Plague Poems.” Experiences of casual racism fuel one of my favourite passages:
“the doorbell was ringing / the downstairs american oxford neighbours / wanted to check / by chatting on the intercom / if i was doing terrorism / i was doing transcriptions” (from “Violent Triage”)
Honorifics by Cynthia Miller, which I reviewed last week, had more personal resonance for me, but these are both powerful collections – alive to the present moment and revelling in language and in flora and fauna. However, only Capildeo progressed from the Jhalak Prize longlist onto the shortlist, which was announced yesterday.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.
How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu (2022)
“Things are bad in every generation. But we still have to live our life.”
This linked short story collection was one of my most anticipated books of the year. Like two of its fellow entries on that list, Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel and To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara, it’s just the right blend of literary fiction and science fiction – an Octavia E. Butler level of the latter that I can handle. Opening in 2031 and stretching another 70 years into the future, it imagines how a pandemic reshapes the world and how communication and connection might continue after death. In the first story, Cliff is on the ground at the start of the Arctic plague, which emerges from a thawing Siberia (the same setup as in Under the Blue!), where his late daughter, Clara, had been part of a research group that discovered a 30,000-year-old Neanderthal girl they named Annie.
The virus is highly transmissible and deadly, and later found to mostly affect children. In the following 13 stories (most about Asian Americans in California, plus a few set in Japan), the plague is a fact of life but has also prompted a new relationship to death – a major thread running through is the funerary rites that have arisen, everything from elegy hotels to “resomation.” In the stand-out story, the George Saunders-esque “City of Laughter,” Skip works at a euthanasia theme park whose roller coasters render ill children unconscious before stopping their hearts. He’s proud of his work, but can’t approach it objectively after he becomes emotionally involved with Dorrie and her son Fitch, who arrives in a bubble.
All but one of these stories are in the first person, so they feel like intimate testimonies of how a pandemic transforms existence. Almost all of the characters have experienced a bereavement, or are sick themselves. Relatives or acquaintances become protagonists in later stories. For instance, in “Pig Son,” Dorrie’s ex, David, is a scientist growing organs for transplantation. Bereavement coordinator Dennis and his doctor brother Bryan narrate #5 and #8, respectively. Six years on, Cliff’s wife Miki takes their granddaughter on a space mission. My other two favourites were “Through the Garden of Memory,” in which patients on a plague ward build a human pyramid and plot a sacrifice, and “Songs of Your Decay,” about a researcher at a forensic body farm who bonds with her one live donor over rock music.
Some stories are weaker or less original than others, but this is one case where the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. The focus on illness and death, but also on the love that survives, made this a winner for me. I’d be especially likely to recommend it to fans of Kazuo Ishiguro and Karen Russell.
With thanks to Bloomsbury for the free copy for review.
Slime: A Natural History by Susanne Wedlich (2021)
[Translated from the German by Ayça Türkoğlu]
This is just the sort of wide-ranging popular science book that draws me in. Like Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, a work I’ve had many opportunities to recommend even to those who don’t normally pick up nonfiction, it incorporates many weird and wonderful facts about life forms we tend to overlook. Wedlich, a freelance science journalist in Germany, starts off at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, where she seeks a sample of the “primordial slime” collected by the HMS Challenger in 1876. “It seems to be an unwritten rule of horror: slime sells!” she remarks – from H. P. Lovecraft to Ghostbusters, it has provoked disgust. Jellyfish, snails, frogs and carnivorous plants – you’re in for a sticky tour of the natural world.
The technical blanket term for slimy substances is “hydrogels,” which are 99% water and held together by polymers. Biological examples have been inspiring new technologies, like friction reducers (e.g. in fire hoses) modelled on fish mucus, novel adhesives to repair organs and seal wounds, and glue traps to remove microplastics. Looking to nature to aid our lives is nothing new, of course: Wedlich records that slugs were once used to lubricate cart wheels.
The book branches off in a lot of directions. You’ll hear about writers who were spellbound or terrified by marine life (Patricia Highsmith kept snails, while Jean-Paul Sartre was freaked out by sea creatures), the Victorian fascination with underwater life, the importance of the microbiome and the serious medical consequences of its dysfunction, and animals such as amphibians that live between land and water. At times it felt like the narrative jumped from one topic to another, especially between the biological and the cultural, without following a particular plan, but there are enough remarkable nuggets to hold the interest.
With thanks to Granta for the free copy for review.
And a bonus:
I was delighted to be sent a preview pamphlet containing the author’s note and title essay of How to Read Now by Elaine Castillo, coming from Atlantic in August. This guide to cultural criticism – how to read anything, not just a book – is alive to the biased undertones of everyday life. “Anyone who is perfectly comfortable with keeping the world just as it is now and reading it the way they’ve always read it … cannot be trusted”. Castillo writes that it is not the job of people of colour to enlighten white people (especially not through “the gooey heart-porn of the ethnographic” – war, genocide, tragedy, etc.); “if our stories primarily serve to educate, console and productively scold a comfortable white readership, then those stories will have failed their readers”. This is bold, provocative stuff. I’m sure to learn a lot.