Review Catch-Up: Jhalak and Women’s Prize Nominees, Etc.
Another in an ongoing series as I catch up on the current and previous year releases I’ve been sent for review. Today I have four books by women: a poetry collection about living between countries and languages, a magic realist novel about vengeful spirits in Vietnam, a memoir in verse about the disabled body and queer parenting, and a novel set in gentrifying Puerto Rican neighbourhoods of New York City.
From the Jhalak Prize longlist:
Honorifics by Cynthia Miller (2021)
Miller is a Malaysian American poet currently living in Edinburgh. Honorifics was also shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Its themes resonate with poetry I’ve read by other Asian women like Romalyn Ante and Jenny Xie and with the works of mixed-race authors such as Jessica J. Lee and Nina Mingya Powles: living between two or more countries and feeling like an exile versus finding a sense of home.
Nightly, you rosary American synonyms for success learned the hard way: suburb – 10-year visa – promotion – carpool – mortgage – parent-teacher conference – nuclear family – assimilation … Homecoming is the last, hardest thing you’ll ask yourself to do.
“Loving v. Virginia” celebrates interracial love: “Look at us, improper. Look at us, indecent. Look at us, incandescent and loving.” Food is a vehicle for memory, as are home videos. Like Ante, Miller has a poem based on her mother’s voicemail messages. “Glitch honorifics” gives the characters for different family relationships, comparing Chinese and Hokkien. The imagery is full of colour and light, plants and paintings. A terrific central section called “Bloom” contains 10 jellyfish poems (“We bloom like nuclear hydrangea … I’m an unwound chandelier, / a 150-foot-long coil of cilia, // made up of a million gelatinous foxgloves.”).
Miller incorporates a lot of unusual structures, some of them traditional forms (“Sonnet with lighthouses,” “Moon goddess ghazal,” “Persimmon abecedarian”) and others freer forms like a numbered list, columns, dictionary definitions or prose paragraphs. Six of the poems cite an inspiration; I could particularly see the influence in “The Home Office after Caroline Bird” – an absurdist take on government immigration policy.
There’s much variety here, and so many beautiful lines and evocative images. “Malaysiana,” a tour through everything she loves about the country of her birth, was my single favourite poem, and a couple more passages I loved were “the heart measuring breaths like levelling sugar / for a batter, the heart saying / why don’t you come in from the cold.” (from “The impossible physiology of the free diver”) and the last two stanzas of “Lupins”: “Some days / their purple spines // are the only things / holding me up.” Flora and fauna references plus a consideration of the expat life meant this was custom made for me, but I’d recommend it to anyone looking to try out different styles of contemporary poetry.
With thanks to Nine Arches Press for the free copy for review.
From the Women’s Prize longlist:
Build Your House around My Body by Violet Kupersmith (2021)
Back in 2014, I reviewed Kupersmith’s debut collection, The Frangipani Hotel, for BookBrowse. I was held rapt by its ghostly stories of Vietnam, so I was delighted to hear that she had written a debut novel, and it was one of my few correct predictions for the Women’s Prize nominees. The main action takes place between when Winnie – half white and half Vietnamese – arrives in Saigon to teach English in 2010, and when she disappears from the house she shared with her boyfriend of three months, Long, in March 2011. But the timeline darts about to tell a much more expansive story, starting with the Japanese invasion of Vietnam in the 1940s. Each date is given as the number of months or years before or after Winnie’s disappearance.
Winnie starts off living with a great-aunt and cousins, and meets a family friend, Dr. Sang, who’s been experimenting on a hallucinogenic drug made from cobra venom. Long and his brother, Tan, a policeman, were childhood friends with a fearless young woman named Binh – now a vengeful ghost haunting them both. Meanwhile, the Saigon Spirit Eradication Company, led by the Fortune Teller, is called upon to eradicate a ghost – which from time to time seems to inhabit a small dog – from a snake-infested highland estate. These strands are bound to meet, and smoke and snakes wind their way through them all.
I enjoyed Kupersmith’s energetic writing, which reminded me by turns of Nicola Barker, Ned Beauman, Elaine Castillo and Naoise Dolan, and the glimpses of Cambodia and Vietnam we get through meals and motorbike rides. What happens with Belly the dog towards the end is fantastic. But the chronology feels needlessly complex, with the flashbacks to colonial history and even to Binh’s story not adding enough to the narrative. While I’d still like to see Kupersmith make the shortlist, I can recommend her short stories that bit more highly.
With thanks to Oneworld for the free copy for review.
Handbook for the Newly Disabled: A Lyric Memoir by Allison Blevins (2022)
Allison Blevins, a poet, has published five chapbooks or collections and has another forthcoming. Based in Missouri and the director of an indie press, she tells her story of chronic illness and queer parenting in 10 “chapters” composed of multi-part poems. She moves through brain fog and commemorates pain and desire, which cannot always coexist (as in “How to F**k a Disabled Body”).
ride a bike again, hike, carry my children. I’m learning to number what I’ve lost.
Because of the pills, I no longer fall into sleep, I stop. I used to hate queer at 19
when I was a dyke. I can’t be disabled. I need a better word. I need a body that floats—
translucent and liquid—to my daughter’s bed, to cover her like cotton-red quilted stars.
(from “Brain Fog”)
Sometimes the title is enough: “My Neurologist (Who Doesn’t Have MS) Explains Pain Is Not a Symptom of MS.” Other times, what is left out, or erased (as in “Five by Five”) is what matters the most. For instance, the Photo Illustrations promised in the titles of two chapters are replaced by Accessibility Notes. That strategy reminded me of one Raymond Antrobus has used. Alliteration, synesthesia and the language of the body express the complexities of a friend’s cancer, having a trans partner, and coming to terms with sexuality (“I think now that being queer was easy, easy as forgetting / being born”). A really interesting work and an author I’d like to read more from.
Published by BlazeVOX [books] on 22 March. With thanks to the author for the e-copy for review.
Olga Dies Dreaming by Xóchitl González (2022)
This was on my radar thanks to a starred Kirkus review. It would have been a good choice for the Women’s Prize longlist, with its bold heroine, Latinx and gay characters, and blend of literary and women’s fiction. The Puerto Rican immigrant community and gentrifying neighbourhoods of New York City are appealing locales, and Olga is a clever, gutsy protagonist. As the novel opens in 2017, she’s working out how best to fleece the rich families whose progeny’s weddings she plans. Today it’s embezzling napkins for her cousin Mabel’s wedding. Next: stockpiling cut-price champagne. Olga’s brother Prieto, a slick congressman inevitably nicknamed the “Latino Obama,” is a closeted gay man. Their late father was a drug addict; their mother left to be part of a revolutionary movement back in PR and sends her children occasional chiding letters when they appear to be selling out.
The aftermath of Hurricane Maria coincides with upheaval in Olga’s and Prieto’s personal and professional lives. The ins and outs of Puerto Rican politics went over my head somewhat, and the various schemes and conspiracy theories get slightly silly. The thread that most engaged me was Olga’s relationship with Matteo, a hoarder. I hoped that, following the satire of earlier parts (“Olga realized she’d allowed herself to become distracted from the true American dream—accumulating money—by its phantom cousin, accumulating fame. She would never make that mistake again”), there might be a message about the emptiness of the pursuit of wealth. So I ended up a little disappointed by a late revelation about Matteo.
However, I did appreciate the picture of how Olga is up against it as both a woman and a person of colour (“no person of color serious about being taken seriously was ever late to meet white people”). This debut was perhaps a little unsure of what it wanted to be, but the novelty of the main elements was enough to make it worth reading.
With thanks to Fleet for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
March Releases by Rebecca Brown, Luis Carrasco, A.J. Lees et al.
As busy as I am with house stuff, I’m endeavouring to keep up with the new releases publishers have been kind enough to send. Today I have a collection of essays on the seasons and mental health, a novella inhabiting a homeless girl’s situation, and a memoir about how skills of observation have been invaluable to a neurologist’s career. (I also mention a few other March releases that I have written about elsewhere or will be reviewing soon.)
You Tell the Stories You Need to Believe: On the four seasons, time and love, death and growing up by Rebecca Brown
Brown has shown up twice now in my November novella reading (Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary in 2016 and the excellent The Gifts of the Body in 2018). I was delighted to learn from a recent Shelf Awareness newsletter that she had a new book, and its Didion-esque title intrigued me. These four essays, which were originally commissioned for The Stranger, Seattle’s alternative weekly, and appeared in print between 2014 and 2016, move methodically through the four seasons and through the weather of the heart, which doesn’t always follow nature’s cues. Depression can linger and mock by contrast the external signs of growth and happiness; it’s no wonder that spring is dubbed the “suicide season.”
The relaxed collages of experience and research blend stories from childhood and later life with references to etymology, literature, music, mythology and poetry. Spring brings to mind the Persephone legend and Vivaldi’s compositions. Summer makes her think of riding bikes on dusty roads and a pregnant dog that turned up just before a storm. Autumn has always been for falling in or out of love. Winter is hard to trudge through, but offers compensatory blessings: “You stand inside the house of your friends and feel and see and everyone is in love and alive and you get to be here, grateful, too, however long, this time, the winter lasts.”
A danger with seasonal books is that, with nostalgia tingeing everything, you end up with twee, obvious reflections. Here, the presence of grief and mental health struggles creates a balanced tone, and while the book as a whole feels a little evanescent, it’s a lovely read.
Another favorite passage:
Maybe like how in the winter it’s hard to imagine spring, I forgot there was anything else besides despair. I needed—I need—to remember the seasons change. I need to remember the dark abates, that light and life return. This is a story I need to believe.
With thanks to Chatwin Books for the e-copy for review.
Ghosts of Spring by Luis Carrasco
Carrasco’s second novella (after 2018’s El Hacho) takes an intimate journey with a young woman who sleeps rough on the streets of a city in the west of England (Cheltenham? Gloucester?). Elemental concerns guide her existence: where can she shelter for the night? Where can she store her meagre belongings during the day? Does she have enough coins to buy a cup of tea from a café, and how long can she stretch out one drink so she can stay in the warm? The creeping advance of the winter (and the holiday season) sets up an updated Christmas Carol type of scenario where the have-nots are mostly invisible to the haves but rely on their charity:
Hidden in plain sight amongst them, in nooks and doorways and sitting with heads hanging against cold stone walls are huddled shapes, blanketed and inert, with faces of indifferent boredom. Too cold to fish for cash and pity[,] they sit with their faces wrapped in dirty scarves and stolen hats, working the empty corners of tobacco pouches and sucking cold coffee from yesterday’s cups. Ghosts of flesh, they are here and everywhere and nobody sees a thing.
With no speech marks, the narrative flows easily between dialogue and a third-person limited point of view. The protagonist, generally just called “the girl,” is friends with a group of prostitutes and tries out a night in a homeless hostel and sleeping in an allotment shed when she takes a bus to the suburbs. Carrasco is attentive to the everyday challenges she faces, such as while menstruating. We get hints of the family issues that drove her away, but also follow her into a new opportunity.
The book has an eye to her promising future but also bears in mind the worst that can happen to those who don’t escape poverty and abuse. At times underpowered, at others overwritten (as I found for my only other époque press read, What Willow Says), this succeeds as a compassionate portrait of extreme circumstances, something I always appreciate in fiction, and would make a good pairing with another story of homelessness, Kerstin Hensel’s Dance by the Canal from Peirene Press.
With thanks to époque press for the proof copy for review.
Brainspotting: Adventures in Neurology by A.J. Lees
Dr Andrew Lees is a professor of neurology at the National Hospital in London and a world-renowned Parkinson’s disease researcher. The essays in this short autobiographical volume emphasize the importance of listening and noticing. The opening piece, in fact, is about birdwatching, a boyhood hobby that first helped him develop this observational ability. In further chapters he looks back to his medical education and early practice in London’s East End and in Paris in the 1960s and 1970s. He profiles the hospitals he has known over the last five decades, and the neurologists who paved the way for the modern science, such as Jean-Martin Charcot and François Lhermitte.
The professors whose lessons have most stuck with him are those who insisted on weaving patient histories and symptoms into a story. Lees likens the neurologist’s work to Sherlock Holmes’s deductions – even the smallest signs can mean so much. Indeed, Arthur Conan Doyle, himself a doctor, is known to have modelled Holmes on Joseph Bell, a Scottish surgeon. I particularly liked the essay “The Lost Soul of Neurology,” about science versus spirituality. As a whole, this didn’t particularly stand out for me compared to many of my other medical reads, but I’d still liken it to the works of Gavin Francis and Henry Marsh.
With thanks to Notting Hill Editions for the free copy for review.
Plus a few more March releases I’ve read recently:
Reviewed for BookBrowse:
Booth by Karen Joy Fowler
In an epic fictional sweep from 1822 to nearly the close of the century, Fowler surveys the Booth family’s triumphs and tragedies. Short asides chronicle Lincoln’s rise in parallel. The foreshadowing is sometimes heavy-handed, and the extended timeline means there is also some skating over of long periods. Booth is low on scenes and dialogue, with Fowler conveying a lot of information through exposition. Luckily, the present-tense narration goes a long way toward making this less of a dull group biography and more of an unfolding story. I also appreciated that the Booth sisters are given major roles as point-of-view characters. The issues considered, like racial equality, political divisions and mistrust of the government, are just as important in our own day. Recommended to fans of March and Hamnet. (I also wrote a related article on the Booth family actors and Shakespeare in performance in the 19th-century USA.)
With thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the proof copy for review.
To review for BookBrowse soon: Groundskeeping by Lee Cole, one of my favourite 2022 releases so far; just the sort of incisive contemporary American novel I love. Big questions of class, family, fate and politics are bound up in a campus-set love story between a drifting manual labourer with literary ambitions and a visiting writer. (Faber)
And coming up tomorrow in my Reading Ireland Month roundup: Vinegar Hill, Colm Tóibín’s terrific debut collection of poems about current events, religion and travels. (Carcanet Press)
Do any of these books appeal to you?
Smile: The Story of a Face by Sarah Ruhl
“Ten years ago, my smile walked off my face, and wandered out in the world. This is the story of my asking it to come back.”
Sarah Ruhl is a lauded New York City playwright (Eurydice et al.). These warm and beautifully observed autobiographical essays stem from the birth of her twins and the slow-burning medical crises that followed. Shortly after the delivery, she developed Bell’s palsy, a partial paralysis of the face that usually resolves itself within six months but in rare cases doesn’t go away, and later discovered that she had celiac disease and Hashimoto’s disease, two autoimmune disorders. Having a lopsided face, grimacing and squinting when she tried to show expression on her paralyzed side – she knew this was a minor problem in the grand scheme of things, yet it provoked thorny questions about to what extent the body equates to our identity:
Can one experience joy when one cannot express joy on one’s face? Does the smile itself create the happiness? Or does happiness create the smile?
Women are accustomed to men cajoling them into a smile, but now she couldn’t comply even had she wanted to. Ruhl looks into the psychology and neurology of facial expressions, such as the Duchenne smile, but keeps coming back to her own experience: marriage to Tony, a child psychiatrist; mothering Anna and twins William and Hope; teaching and writing and putting on plays; and seeking alternative as well as traditional treatments (acupuncture and Buddhist meditation versus physical therapy; she rejected Botox and experimental surgery) for the Bell’s palsy. By the end of the book she’s achieved about a 70% recovery, but it did take a decade. “A woman slowly gets better. What kind of story is that?” she wryly asks. The answer is: a realistic one. We’re all too cynical these days to believe in miracle cures. But a story of graceful persistence, of setbacks alternating with advances? That’s relatable.
The playwright’s skills are abundantly evident here: strong dialogue and scenes; a clear sense of time, such that flashbacks to earlier life, including childhood, are interlaced naturally; a mixture of exposition and forceful one-liners. She is also brave to include lots of black-and-white family photographs that illustrate the before and after. While reading I often thought of Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face and Terri Tate’s A Crooked Smile, which are both about life with facial deformity after cancer surgery. I’d also recommend this to readers of Flesh & Blood by N. West Moss, one of my 2021 favourites, and Anne Lamott’s essays on facing everyday life with wit and spiritual wisdom.
More lines I loved:
imperfection is a portal. Whereas perfection and symmetry create distance. Our culture values perfect pictures of ourselves, mirage, over and above authentic connection. But we meet one another through the imperfect particular of our bodies.
Lucky the laugh lines and the smile lines especially: they signify mobility, duration, and joy.
With thanks to Bodley Head for the free copy for review.
The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason
Though I’m often wary of war fiction – can anything new still be written about World War I? – I was drawn to The Winter Soldier by the enthusiastic American reviews and the medical theme. The protagonist of psychiatrist Daniel Mason’s third novel, Lucius Krzelewski, comes from southern Polish nobility. In the 1910s medicine was a path for those seeking social mobility, but for Lucius neurology study is a way out of his stifling aristocratic household. Under Herr Doktor Zimmer’s tutelage in Vienna, he experiments on ways to make blood vessels visible. Dismayed to learn that Zimmer believes the “mermaid” in the medical school’s anatomical museum is real, he hurries to enlist when war begins in 1914.
As a 22-year-old medical lieutenant he’s stationed at a church turned into a regimental hospital at Lemnowice. Here Sister Margarete has been making do without a doctor in charge for two months. She’s been performing amputations and setting fractures in a lice-ridden building where hunger and typhoid are never far away. Lucius is ashamed of his ignorance compared to this skilled nurse; though he has textbook knowledge, he has no practical experience and has to learn on the job.
The following winter a Hungarian soldier suffering from “nervous shock” but no visible wounds is brought in, a sheaf of accomplished drawings padding his coat. For Lucius and Margarete, Sergeant József Horváth poses a particular challenge, which makes his recovery seem more like a resurrection: “they were both falling a little bit in love with their silent visitor or, more, with the cure that they had wrought.” Even as Lucius and Margarete fall in love and steal moments alone, they regret they couldn’t do more for Horváth. When Lucius and Margarete are separated, he vows to find her again – and make things right with Horváth.
I loved the novel’s first half, with its gallows humor, memorable scenes of gruesome medical procedures, and bleak conditions so convincing you’ll find yourself itching right along with the lice-plagued patients. But at about the halfway point the pace changes dramatically. Years pass and Lucius has various deployments and hospital positions. Curiously, although so much is happening to him outwardly, he’s stalled internally – haunted by thoughts of Margarete and Horváth. Perhaps this is why I felt the narrative slowed to a crawl. I could barely force myself to read more than five or 10 pages in a sitting, and the novel as a whole took me much longer to read than normal. Or maybe I was just missing Margarete, the most vibrant character.
Early on I was reminded of Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge and Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter, lesser-known war novels in which the stark beauty of the writing tempers the somber subject matter. Partway through I started thinking of Ambrose Parry’s The Way of All Flesh, in which an unqualified female outshines a male in medical knowledge. By the end I was recalling epic separation-filled romances like The English Patient and Birdsong.
Though the novel’s second half never matched the strength of the first, I was at least pleased that Mason avoided a clichéd, Hollywood-ready ending in favor of a more fitting one that, while still somewhat far-fetched, makes sense of the title’s emphasis. This is a moving story of the physical and psychological effects of war, and I would certainly read more by Mason.
The Winter Soldier was published in the UK by Mantle on October 18th. With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.