Reviews Roundup, October–November
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I provide links to all book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to read more. A few exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie, BlueInk or Publishers Weekly reviews since I don’t get a byline.
This month you may recognize a few books I already previewed in my posts on books as beautiful objects and library books read in October.
Charlotte Brontë’s Secret Love by Jolien Janzing: Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s time in Belgium – specifically, Charlotte’s passion for her teacher, Constantin Heger – is the basis for this historical novel. The authoritative yet inviting narration is a highlight, but some readers may be uncomfortable with the erotic portrayal; it doesn’t seem to fit the historical record, which suggests an unrequited love affair. My other issue with the book is a couple of subplots that only seem to have minor significance.
In Fidelity by Jack Wilson: In this 1970s-set novel, the central couple’s relationship is tested by illness and extramarital sexual experiences. Moving from New England to Nigeria and back, the story asks what loyalty really requires when a once-strong connection has faded over time. Strongly reminiscent of John Updike in Part One, this is the male view of adultery. Something about the self-justifying tone stuck in my craw. A more balanced book would give the wife’s perspective, too, as Carol Shields did in Happenstance, or like Lauren Groff recently did to great success in Fates and Furies.
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra [subscription service]: This collection of tightly linked short stories, an intimate look at Russia and Chechnya in wartime and afterwards, reveals how politics, family, and art intertwine. Ranging from 1937 to 2013, the pieces show how fear and propaganda linger in the post-Stalinist era. In art as much as in politics, it can be difficult to distinguish airbrushed history from bitter reality. Just as he did in his excellent debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Marra renders unspeakable tragedies bearable because of his warm and witty writing. All his characters’ voices are well-realized and inviting, and he comes up with terrific one-liners.
Mad Feast by Matthew Gavin Frank: This is the cookbook David Foster Wallace might have written. In an off-the-wall blend of memoir, travel, history and fiction, Frank proceeds region by region, choosing for each American state one beloved dish and interrogating its origins as well as its metaphors and associations. It’s a mixed bag of familiar foods and ones that only locals are likely to know about. Each chapter ends with a recipe for the signature plate, whether from a Lutheran church or a posh restaurant. Frank’s digressive, anecdotal approach takes some getting used to. If you appreciate the style of writers like Geoff Dyer, Maggie Nelson and Will Self, this should be your next food-themed read.
For Books’ Sake
Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Claire Harman: With her bicentennial approaching in April 2016, it’s the perfect time to revisit Charlotte Brontë’s timeless stories. One of the things Harman’s biography does best is trace how the Brontës’ childhood experiences found later expression in fiction. A chapter on the publication of Jane Eyre is a highlight. Diehard fans might not encounter lots of new material, but Harman does make a revelation concerning Charlotte’s cause of death – not TB, as previously believed, but hyperemesis gravidarum (extreme morning sickness). This will help you appreciate afresh a “poet of suffering” whose novels were “all the more subversive because of [their] surface conventionality.”
Cockfosters by Helen Simpson: Simpson’s sixth story collection is full of wry, incisive reflections on aging, loss, regrets, gender roles, and a changing relationship to sex. Most of Simpson’s characters are in their late forties, a liminal time when they’re caught between older parents and still-needy children. Many pieces are dialogue-driven, like scenes in plays. In “Kentish Town,” book club members meet to discuss Dickens’s The Chimes. Simpson weaves in discussion of the plot with commentary on the state of the nation as the ladies set the world to rights and make New Year’s resolutions. It’s a perfect story to read in the run-up to Christmas. The overall stand-out is “Erewhon,” named for Samuel Butler’s 1872 satirical utopian novel. It quickly becomes clear that gender roles are reversed in its fictional world.
Addiction Is Addiction by Raju Hajela, Paige Abbott and Sue Newton: This comprehensive, well-organized guide discusses the features of addictive thinking and feeling, suggests holistic recovery methods, and offers useful definitions, diagrams, and case studies. The authors are affiliated with Health Upwardly Mobile Inc., Calgary, Alberta. Tracing the history of addiction back to the eighteenth century, when it was first known as “alcoholic disease syndrome,” they present an expert view of the disease’s symptoms and outlook. Strongly recommended to those who have participated in groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.
Indie Spotlight: Books about Religion: Self-publishing allows writers to tell their full stories. An article based on interviews with four indie religion authors and mini-reviews of their books.
Notes on Suicide by Simon Critchley: Critchley is a philosophy professor at New York’s New School for Social Research. Although he reassures readers with his first line that “This book is not a suicide note,” he also hints that its writing was inspired by personal trouble: “my life has dissolved over the past year or so, like sugar in hot tea.” Not suicidal himself, then, but sympathetic to those who are driven to self-murder. This concise essay illuminates arguments surrounding suicide, with points of reference ranging from Greek philosophers to Robin Williams. Overall, though, it feels cursory and inconclusive.
The Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan: We can all do with a little encouragement to appreciate what we already have. In so many areas of life – finances, career, relationship, even the weather – we’re all too often hoping for more or better than what we are currently experiencing. Here Kaplan undertakes a year-long experiment to see if gratitude can improve every aspect of her life. She draws her information from interviews with researchers and celebrities, quotes from philosophers, and anecdotes from her own and friends’ lives. It’s easy, pleasant reading I’d recommend to fans of Gretchen Rubin.
The Water Book by Alok Jha: An interdisciplinary look at water’s remarkable properties and necessity for life on earth. For the most part, Jha pitches his work at an appropriate level. However, if it’s been a while since you studied chemistry at school, you may struggle. Part IV, on the search for water in space, is too in-depth for popular science and tediously long. In December 2013 Jha was part of a month-long Antarctic expedition. He uses the trip as an effective framing device, but I would have liked more memoiristic passages. All in all, I was hoping for less hard science and more reflection on water’s importance to human culture.
Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet by Mark Cocker: Mark Cocker is the Guardian’s country diarist for Norfolk. The short pieces in this book are reprints of his columns, some expanded or revised. I would advise keeping this as a bedside or coffee table book from which you read no more than one or two entries a week, so that you always stay in chronological sync. You’ll appreciate the book most if you experience nature along with Cocker, rather than reading from front cover to back in a few sittings. The problem with the latter approach is that there is inevitable repetition of topics across years. All told, after spending a vicarious year in Claxton, you’ll agree: “How miraculous that we are all here, now, in this one small place.”
A Mile Down by David Vann: Vann, better known for fiction, tells the real-life story of his ill-fated journeys at sea. He hired a Turkish crew to build him a boat of his own, and before long shoddy workmanship, language difficulties, bureaucracy, and debts started to make it all seem like a very bad idea. Was he cursed? Would he follow his father into suicide? The day-to-day details of boat-building and sailing can be tedious, and there’s an angry tone that’s unpleasant; Vann seems to think everybody else was incompetent or a crook. However, he does an incredible job of narrating two climactic storms he sailed through.
The Triumph of the Snake Goddess by Kaiser Haq: Beginning with the creation of the world and telling climactic tales of the snake goddess Manasa’s interactions with humans, Haq crafts a uniquely playful set of sacred stories that bear striking similarities to those from other religious traditions. Like Greek myths, the Manasa stories are full of shape-shifting and mistaken identity; rape and incest; jealousy and revenge; and over-the-top exploits of warring gods. She even wears snakes in her hair, like Medusa. Many parallels can also be drawn with the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Haq’s rendering of the creation account, in particular, resembles the language of Genesis. This book will appeal to students of comparative religion, but can be read with equal enjoyment by laymen in search of engaging storytelling.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads.
Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing by May Sarton: Although I’m a huge fan of Sarton’s memoirs, this was my first taste of her fiction. I was underwhelmed: it’s slight and strangely unfeminist. Part of the problem may be that I know so much about Sarton that I couldn’t help but see all the autobiographical detail here. Most of the novel’s action takes place in one day, as Mrs. Stevens awaits the arrival of two interviewers and reflects on past love affairs (some with women) and the meaning of the Muse. For me, Sarton’s journals are a better source of deep thoughts on the writer’s vocation, the value of solitude and the memory of love. This was seen as Sarton’s coming-out book, although it’s not at all sexually explicit.
Running on the March Wind by Lenore Keeshig: Keeshig is a First Nations Canadian; these poems are full of images of Nanabush the Trickster, language from legal Indian acts, and sly subversion of stereotypes – cowboys and Indians, the only good Indian is a dead Indian (in “Making New”), the white man’s burden, and so on. In places I found these more repetitive and polemical than musical, though I did especially like the series of poems on trees.
The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion by Kei Miller: Kei Miller is a Jamaican writer who uses island patois and slang, and Rastafarian images and language, alongside standard English. Here he sets up (especially with the long, multi-part title poem) a playful contrast between the cartographer, emblem of civilization and unbiased science, and the rastaman, who takes an altogether more laidback approach to mapping his homeland. This was the perfect poetry collection to be reading in tandem with A Brief History of Seven Killings (see below).
Very British Problems Abroad by Rob Temple: This is possibly ever so slightly funnier than the original (Very British Problems). A lot of it rings true. Once again the fact that the book originated as tweets means you can’t read too much of it at a time or the one-liners grow tiresome. A couple of my favorites were: “The feeling of dread as you approach the campsite and only then remembering that last year you said you’d never, ever do this again” and “Noticing an avalanche heading your way and hoping your umbrella’s up to the job.”
Purity by Jonathan Franzen: By starting and ending with Purity ‘Pip’ Tyler, Franzen emphasizes his debt to Dickens: shades of both Bleak House and Great Expectations are there in the discovery of true parentage and unexpected riches. This is strong on the level of character and theme. Secrecy, isolation and compassion are recurring topics. East Germany, Bolivia and Oakland, California: Franzen doesn’t quite pull all his settings and storylines together, but this is close. With a more dynamic opening section, it might have been 5 stars.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James: This is an edgy, worthwhile Booker pick, but not for the faint-hearted. For the most part, James alternates patois and standard speech, but nearly every section is packed with local slang and expletives. Whether in monologue or dialogue, the many voices form a captivating chorus. The novel is in five parts, each named after a popular song or album of the time. James’s scope, especially as he follows Josey Wales to the Bronx, is too wide. All the narrative switches, once so dynamic, grow tiresome. At 350 pages this would have been a 5-star read. Nevertheless, I’ll be watching the HBO miniseries. (Full review to appear in December 2015 issue of Third Way magazine.)
Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal: One of my favorite debuts of 2015. Stradal has revealed that his grandmother’s Lutheran church cookbook was the inspiration for this culinary-themed novel that takes place over the course of 30 years. His unique structure takes what are essentially short stories from different perspectives and time periods and links them loosely through Eva Thorvald. Eva’s pop-up supper club gains fame thanks to her innovative adaptations of traditional Midwestern foods like venison or Scandinavian lutefisk; it charges $5,000 a head. I loved almost all of Stradal’s ordinary, flawed characters. If you want a peek at how average Americans live (apart from the $5,000 meals), you’ll find it here.
The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende: Allende is a wonderful storyteller. This isn’t up to the level of her South American novels (e.g. The House of the Spirits), and in elaborating both Alma’s and Irina’s stories there’s a bit too much telling rather than showing, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book all the same – I devoured it in just a few days. Allende is sensitive to both the process of aging and the various strategies for dealing with traumatic events from the past.
Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber: I knew of Nadia Bolz-Weber through Greenbelt Festival. She’s a foul-mouthed, tattooed, fairly orthodox Lutheran pastor. This brief, enjoyable memoir is about how she keeps believing despite her own past issues and the many messed-up and outwardly unlovable people who show up at her church, House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver. In my favorite section, she zeroes in on one Holy Week and shows the whole range of emotions and trauma that religion can address. The Ash Wednesday chapter is the overall highlight.
The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain by Bill Bryson: Bryson’s funniest book for many years. It meant a lot to me since I am also an American expat in England. Two points of criticism, though: although he moves roughly from southeast to northwest in the country, the stops he makes are pretty arbitrary, and his subjects of mockery are often what you’d call easy targets. Do we really need Bryson’s lead to scorn litterbugs and reality television celebrities? Still, I released many an audible snort of laughter while reading.
Shaler’s Fish by Helen Macdonald: I was a huge fan of Macdonald’s memoir, H is for Hawk, so was excited to read her poetry collection, originally published in 2001 but to be reissued by Atlantic Monthly Press. Unfortunately, despite the occasional bird and nature imagery (e.g. in “Monhegan”), I found these poems largely inaccessible. Perhaps it was the sprinkling of archaic vocabulary and spellings, or the general lack of punctuation apart from annoying slashes and ampersands.
Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man: A Memoir by Bill Clegg: One of the finest memoirs I’ve come across (and I read a heck of a lot of them). Through this book I followed literary agent Bill Clegg on dozens of taxi rides between generic hotel rooms and bar toilets and New York City offices and apartments; together we smoked innumerable crack pipes and guzzled dozens of bottles of vodka while letting partners and family members down and spiraling further down into paranoia and squalor. Every structural and stylistic decision works: the present tense, short paragraphs, speech set out in italics, occasional flashback chapters distanced through third-person narration. Clegg achieves a perfect balance between his feelings at the time – being out of control and utterly enslaved to his next hit – and the hindsight that allows him to see what a pathetic figure he was becoming.
Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams: An enjoyable novel of eighteenth-century maritime adventure, based on a true story and reminiscent of Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers and Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America. Williams moves between the perspectives of various crew members and outsiders, sometimes employing first person and sometimes third. Key chapters are set in South America, California, Alaska, Macao, and the Solomon Islands. I especially enjoyed a chapter from the point-of-view of a native Alaskan girl – one of the few times the novel focuses on female experience.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill: Not as innovative or profound as I was expecting given the rapturous reviews from so many quarters. It’s an attempt to tell an old, old story in a new way: wife finds out her husband is cheating. Offill’s style is fragmentary and aphoristic. Some of the facts and sayings are interesting, but most just sit there on the page and don’t add to the story. What I did find worthwhile was tracing the several tense and pronoun changes: from first-person, past tense into present tense, then to third-person and back to first-person for the final page.
As Far As I Know by Roger McGough: A bit silly for my tastes; lots of puns and other plays on words. In style they feel like children’s poems, but with vocabulary and themes more suited to adults. I did like “Indefinite Definitions,” especially BRUPT: “A brupt is a person, curt and impolite / Brusque and impatient / Who thinks he’s always right.” The whole series is like that: words with the indefinite article cut off and an explanation playing on the original word’s connotations. From the “And So to Bed” concluding cycle, I loved Camp bed: “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu / on the bedside table / Gardenia on the pillow / Silk pyjamas neatly folded.”
The Penguin Lessons: What I Learned from a Remarkable Bird by Tom Michell: Marley & Me with a penguin. Well, sort of. A sweet if slight story about the author keeping a Magellanic penguin as a pet while teaching in an Argentina boarding school in the 1970s. On a vacation to Uruguay the twentysomething rescued a penguin from an oil spill and named him Juan Salvado. The uproarious process of cleaning the oil-sodden bird, achieved with a bidet, string bag, and plenty of dish soap, was my favorite passage. However, I’m hesitant about anthropomorphizing, and the language can be stiff – I would have dated this to the 1950s by the speech. Also, there’s precious little evidence of Argentina’s political upheaval.