Sidle Creek by Jolene McIlwain (Blog Tour)
I’m a sucker for “dirty realism,” a term coined in the 1980s to encompass gritty stories of blue-collar Americana: Ron Rash, David Vann, Daniel Woodrell et al. (I wrote a whole article about it in 2013). It’s less common, certainly, to find women writing in this subgenre, and that feminine touch is part of what makes Sidle Creek unique. In this debut collection of 22 short stories, loosely linked by their location in the Appalachian hills in western Pennsylvania and a couple of recurring minor characters, Jolene McIlwain softens the harsh realities of addiction, poverty and violence with the tender bruises of infertility and lost love.
The title story, which opens the book, has a shifting first-person point-of-view, first telling us about and then putting us into the mind of Esme Andersen, who’s 20 in 1975. Various diagnoses have plagued her family, medical words that repeat as chants: hemorrhage, endometriosis. Superstitions around the creek cast it alternately as a potential site of harm or healing as her single father tries to help her deal with her severe periods. The cover image comes from “Shell,” in which Tiller Shanty reads signs in the markings on red-winged blackbird eggs. He learned his skill of divination from his Vietnamese wife, but conceals from her a portent about her future. It turns out there’s more than one way to lose a beloved.
Grief is a resonant theme in so many of the stories. “The Fractal Geometry of Grief” is a shining example. Hubert Ashe, a widowed mathematician, becomes obsessed with a doe and sets up trail cams and a feeding station to watch her. It’s not clear whether he believes the animal is a reincarnation of his wife or not, but it’s unwise to get so attached in a hunting area. In “Seeds,” a man finds a photograph of his dying wife as a girl and revisits the sadness of her life. “Steer,” one of the most affecting stories, has a middle-aged man hit by anxiety, unable to forget the death of one of their cattle back when he was 16. As horrific as the experience was, it made him receptive to both beauty and pain.
Animal suffering is indeed frequent – something that seems important to mention, as I know a lot of readers who avoid scenes of it whenever possible. In “Eminent Domain,” the electricity shed where teenagers used to go drinking is found to be full of slaughtered cats. It’s the prompt the protagonist needs to escape this dead-end town. “Loosed” is a masterpiece in the vein of Demon Copperhead (though much more violent) about a man who makes money on increasingly cruel sport: cock fighting, then dog fighting, then dirty fights between his own four sons. The flash forward that ends this one is devastating. I, too, am sensitive to reading about animal deaths, but the animal suffering only matches the human here. The nastiness of “The Less Said” makes that plain.
Pregnancy or infant loss is a recurring element. In just three pages, “Seed to Full” expresses a world of sorrow as a woodworker crafts a coffin for his infant son. Even where it is not a central subject, infertility is mentioned in a number of stories. In “You Four Are the One,” four adolescent neighbor girls help Cinta Johns out around the house, hoping with her that this fifth pregnancy will be the one that lasts. “The Steep Side,” a memorable closer that shifts between past and future, has a teen coming across a crashed van, a heavily pregnant woman, and an older woman claiming to be a nurse. What he sees haunts him into adulthood.
There’s an air of mystery to that one, and particularly in “Those Red Boots,” about the disappearance of a waitress who worked at a Hooters-style joint where all the comely staff wear the same uniforms and perform titillating dances. My preference was for longer stories like this where you get greater depth of characterization and more scenes and dialogue. I might have considered cutting a handful of the flash-length stories. However, even in these micro-fictions, there are still interesting setups. My favorite among them was “The Fourth,” in which Independence Day fireworks are triggering for shell-shocked Uncle Ron.
At times harrowing, always clear-eyed, these stories are true to life and compassionate about human foibles and animal pain. I would highly recommend them to readers of Kent Haruf and Jayne Anne Phillips. McIlwain has such an established voice that this hardly seems like a first book. I can’t wait to read whatever she writes next.
With thanks to Melville House for the proof copy for review.
Buy Sidle Creek from Bookshop.org [affiliate link]
I was delighted to be invited to participate in the blog tour for Sidle Creek. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon.
Daphne du Maurier Reading Week: Rebecca Reread & Forster Biography
It’s been a couple of years since I took part in HeavenAli’s annual Daphne du Maurier Reading Week (the last time was with a review of My Cousin Rachel; this year, links are being hosted by Liz here).
My last-minute and meagre contribution comprises an attempted reread (which ended up being a skim) of Rebecca for book club last month, and a partial, ongoing read of Margaret Forster’s cracking biography of DDM.
I must have first read this in my early twenties, and remembered it as spooky and atmospheric. I had completely forgotten that the action opens not at Manderley (despite the exceptionally famous first line, which forms part of a prologue-like first chapter depicting the place empty without its master and mistress to tend to it) but in Monte Carlo, where the unnamed narrator meets Maxim de Winter while she’s a lady’s companion to bossy Mrs. Van Hopper. This section functions to introduce Max and his tragic history via hearsay, but I found the first 60 pages so slow that I had trouble maintaining momentum thereafter, especially through the low-action and slightly repetitive scenes as the diffident second Mrs de Winter explores the house and tries to avoid Mrs Danvers, so I ended up skimming most of it.
However, it was satisfying to rediscover the Jane Eyre parallels and there are deliciously chilling scenes, like with Mrs Danvers at the window and the way she then sabotages her young mistress at the costume ball. This was one of four rereads for book club already this year, which has the benefit of reducing pressure and sometimes increasing the comfort-read factor. We have two Rebeccas in my book club, so it seemed an appropriate choice. Others found the book as gripping as ever, with one member reading it in a day thanks to long hospital waits. Would you believe, I hadn’t at all remembered the truth of what happened to Rebecca! So there was that surprise awaiting me. In our discussion we remarked that though this has the trappings of a romance novel or mystery (e.g. see my dreadful paperback cover above!), it also has enduring literary weight – it won the National Book Award, for instance.
Daphne du Maurier by Margaret Forster (1993)
I read my first work by Forster, My Life in Houses, last year, and adored it, so the fact that she was the author was all the more reason to read this when I found a copy in a library secondhand book sale. I started it immediately after our meeting about Rebecca, but I find biographies so dense and daunting that I’m still only a third of the way into it even though I’ve been liberally skimming.
So far I have noted: du Maurier’s artistic pedigree, including her grandfather’s authorship of Trilby and her parents meeting through stage acting; her frank engagement in sexual activity, and presumed bisexuality (so far only evident through a requited crush on a teacher at her French finishing school, though perhaps there will be more to come); her first publications of short stories (“inspired by her three favourite short story writers, Maugham, Mansfield and Maupassant”) and the early novels, including one from a male point of view; her close relationship with her father and the crushing blow of his death; her determination to escape London for Cornwall; and her marriage to a soldier and ambivalent motherhood.
The last chapter I got to was all about the success of Rebecca. Though the critical reaction was generally favourable, reviewers also deemed it melodramatic … fair?
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.
April Releases: Frida Kahlo, Games and Rituals, Romantic Comedy
It’s been a big month for new releases and I have loads more April books on the go or waiting in the wings to be reviewed in catch-up posts in the future. For now, I have a biographical graphic novel about a celebrated painter whose medical struggles coloured her art, a set of witty short stories about modern preoccupations and relationships, and a guilty pleasure of a novel from one of my favourite contemporary authors.
Frida Kahlo: Her Life, Her Work, Her Home by Francisco de la Mora
[Translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel]
The latest in SelfMadeHero’s Art Masters series (I’ve also reviewed their books on Munch, Van Gogh, Gauguin and O’Keeffe). De la Mora imagines Kahlo (1907–1954) hosting a party at her famous blue house in Coyoacán, Mexico in her final summer – unknown to everyone there, it’s exactly one week before her death. “Hola, come in, welcome. I’m so glad you’re all here. Today is my birthday, and I want to tell all of you the story of my life…” she invites her guests, and thereby the reader. It’s a handy conceit that justifies a chronological approach.
I was reminded of traumatic events from Kahlo’s life that I’d already encountered in various places (such as Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson and Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg by Emily Rapp Black): childhood polio and the Mexican Revolution, the hideous bus accident that reshaped her body, and two miscarriages. Periods of confinement alternate with travels. We see her devotion to traditional dress and the development of her frank self-portraiture style. I’d forgotten, or never knew, that she married Diego Rivera twice and divorced in between. They hosted many cultural giants of the time (e.g., Trotsky’s stay with them forms part of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna), and both had their infidelities. I loved the use of vibrant colours, but learned little. This is really only an introduction for those new to her.
With thanks to Paul Smith and SelfMadeHero for the free copy for review.
Games and Rituals by Katherine Heiny
Early Morning Riser was one of my favourite books of 2021, and I caught up earlier this year with Heiny’s only previous novel, Standard Deviation. Both are hilarious takes on the quirks of relationships, exploring a specific dynamic that recurs in a couple of these stories: the uncomfortable triangle between a man, his second (invariably younger) wife, and the very different, generally formidable, woman he was formerly married to and who continues to play a role in his life. One of the strongest stories is “561,” which was first published as a stand-alone e-book in 2018. Charlie stole Forrest away from Barbara and now the two women have a frosty relationship. It might seem like poetic justice that Charlie later has to load all of Barbara’s possessions into a moving van, but the notion of penance gets murkier when we learn what happened when they worked together on a suicide prevention hotline.
Eight of the 11 stories are in the third person and most protagonists are young or middle-aged women navigating marriage/divorce and motherhood. A driving examiner finds herself in the same situation as her teenage test-taker; a wife finds evidence of her actor husband’s adultery. In “Damascus,” Mia worries her son might be on drugs, but doesn’t question her own self-destructive habits. Inspired by Marie Kondo, Rachel tries to pare her life back to the basics in “CobRa.” In “King Midas,” Oscar learns that all is not golden with his mistress. “Sky Bar” has Fawn stuck in her hometown airport during a blizzard. I particularly liked the ridiculous situations Florida housemates get themselves into in “Pandemic Behavior,” and the second-person “Twist and Shout,” about loving an elderly father even though he’s infuriating.
Heiny mixes humour with bitter truths in engaging stories about characters whose mistakes and futile attempts to escape the past only make them the more relatable. Her first and last lines are particularly strong; who could resist a piece that opens with “Your elderly father has mistaken his four-thousand-dollar hearing aid for a cashew and eaten it”?
With thanks to 4th Estate for the proof copy for review.
Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld
Curtis Sittenfeld is one of my favourite contemporary authors (I’ve also reviewed You Think It, I’ll Say It and Rodham) and I’ve read everything she’s published. Her work might seem lighter than my usual fare, but I’ve always maintained that she, like Maggie O’Farrell, perfectly treads the line between literary fiction and women’s fiction. This was one of my most anticipated releases of the year and it met my expectations.
Sally Milz is a mid-thirties writer for The Night Owls, a long-running sketch comedy show modelled on Saturday Night Live. Sittenfeld clearly did a lot of research into women in comedy, and Chapter 1 is a convincing blow-by-blow of a typical TNO schedule of pitches, edits, rehearsals, all-nighters and afterparties. This particular week in 2018, the host and musical guest are the same person: Noah Brewster, a pop star with surfer-boy good looks who rose to fame in the early 2000s with radio singles like “Making Love in July” and has maintained steady popularity since then. (I imagined him as a cross between Robbie Williams and Chris Hemsworth.) Sally had been expecting a self-absorbed ignoramus so, when she helps Noah edit a sketch he’s written, is pleasantly surprised to discover he’s actually smart, funny and humble. Sparks seem to fly between them, too, though the week ends all too soon.
Plain Jane getting the hot guy … that never happens, right? In fact, Sally has a theory about this very dilemma, named after her schlubby TNO office-mate: The Danny Horst Rule states that ordinary men may date and even marry actresses or supermodels, but reverse the genders and it never works. A fundamental lack of confidence means that, whenever she feels too vulnerable, Sally resorts to snarky comedy and sabotages her chances at happiness. But when, midway through the summer of 2020, she gets an out-of-the-blue e-mail from Noah, she wonders if this relationship has potential in the real world. (This, for me, is the peak: when you find out that interest is requited; that the person you’ve been thinking about for years has also been thinking about you. Whatever comes next pales in comparison to this moment.)
The correspondence section was my favourite element. “I do still wonder whether a person’s writing self is their realest self, their fakest self, or just a different self than their in-the-world self?” Sally writes to Noah. As always, Sittenfeld’s inhabiting of a first-person narrator is flawless, and Sally’s backstory and Covid-lockdown, Kansas City existence with her octogenarian stepfather and his beagle endeared her to me. I also appreciated that a woman in her mid- to late thirties could be a romantic lead, and that the question of whether she wants children simply never comes up. Of Sittenfeld’s books, I’d call this closest in tone and content to Eligible, and some familiarity with SNL would probably be of benefit.
Could this be called a predictable story? Well, what does one expect or want from a romcom (watching or reading)? There may be a feminist leaning in places, but this is conventional wish fulfilment, which, I assume, is what keeps romance readers hooked. I enjoyed every sentence and, when it was over, wished I could stay in Sally’s world. (See also Susan’s review.)
With thanks to Doubleday for the proof copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Three on a Theme for Valentine’s Day: “Love” Short Story Collections
Even though I’m really not a Valentine’s Day sort of person*, this is the seventh year in a row that I’ve put together a themed post featuring books that have “Love” or a similar word in the title in the run-up to mid-February (2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022).
I also don’t generally read short story collections if it’s not September – I seem to need that alliterative crutch to get to a dozen or so of them – but my “Birds” trio and these three were so great that I had to wonder why I don’t read them all year round.
Are these love stories? Some, to an extent. But also loss stories. Loneliness stories. Hatred stories. Abandonment stories. A few even verge on horror. In other words, realistic slivers of life. And as different as Carver’s lean, masculine tales of addiction and failure might seem from Bloom’s wry scenes of family life and Dunmore’s intimate pictures of isolation and mental illness, I found that all three resonated with each other. As for character detail, Dunmore’s “fat men” echo the overweight male protagonist in Bloom’s first story cycle.
Where the God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom (2010)
One of these stories, “Sleepwalking,” was familiar to me because it is reprinted from her 1993 collection, Come to Me, and another two were originally published in 2000’s A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You – isn’t she great at titles?! She excels at first lines, too: some from this volume are “At two o’clock in the morning, no one is to blame,” “William has gout,” “Clare can’t walk,” “No power” and “I had always planned to kill my father.”
The book contains two quartets of linked stories and four stand-alone stories. The first set is about Clare and William, whose dynamic shifts from acquaintances to couple-friends to lovers to spouses. Bloom, a former psychotherapist, is interested in tracking how they navigate these changes over the years, and does so by switching between first- and third-person narration and adopting a different perspective for each story. She does the same with the four stories about Lionel and Julia, a Black man and his white stepmother. Over the course of maybe three decades, we see the constellations of relationships each one forms, while the family core remains. She also includes sexual encounters between characters who are middle-aged and older – when, according to stereotypes, lust should have been snuffed out.
Of the unlinked stories, the most memorable was “By-and-By,” a distressingly unemotional account of the ripple effects of a serial killer’s actions as seen by a victim’s roommate. I also loved the title story, which appears last. An older man and his daughter-in-law meet twice, by accident, in small-town eateries, the one wanting to come clean about a troubled past and the other wanting to embark on a new and surprising romance. This one reminded me of Richard Russo and early John Irving, while the collection as a whole would suit fans of Julia Glass, Tessa Hadley, Sue Miller, Lorrie Moore and Elizabeth Strout. (Secondhand – Bookbarn International)
What We Talk about When We Talk about Love by Raymond Carver (1981)
Such a famous title that it has spawned countless imitators, two of which I’ve even read (What We Talk about When We Talk about God by Rob Bell and What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank by Nathan Englander). It turns out I had Carver confused with John Cheever, so I was expecting gritty stories of alcoholism in the 1950s Midwest. Yes to the alcohol abuse, but Carver was from the Pacific Northwest and was writing in the 1980s. A number of his protagonists are drunk, deadbeat dads who have been kicked out and make a scene to get back at their wives. Others are more passive, stuck in suburban ennui. Grown men fear turning into their fathers (“Sacks”). Ultimatums are defused (“Everything Stuck to Him”) and custody arrangements fought over (the Solomonic fable “Popular Mechanics”).
The declarative simplicity of the prose, and the interest in male activities like gambling, hunting and fishing, can’t fail to recall Ernest Hemingway, yet I warmed to Carver much more than Hem. Two of these stories struck me as feminist for how they expose nonchalant male violence towards women; elsewhere I spotted tiny gender-transgressing details (a man who knits, for instance). In “Tell the Women We’re Going,” two men escape their families to play pool and drink, then make a fateful decision on the way home. I don’t think I’ve been as shocked by the matter-of-fact brutality of a short story since “The Lottery.” My favourite was also chilling, “So Much Water So Close to Home.” Both reveal how homosocial peer pressure leads to bad behaviour; this was toxic masculinity before we had that term.
Many of the stories are only 3–8 pages long, such that 17 fit into a slender volume. They’re about half and half first- and third-person, sometimes with speech marks and sometimes not. At 15 pages, the title story is the longest and a great one. Two couples are having pre-dinner drinks and discussing types of love – physical, spiritual and so on. The POV character mostly conveys monologues by his friend Mel, a cardiologist (of course he would be a heart doctor!), comparing the obsessive love of his first wife’s ex, who turned out to be a stalker, and the mature devotion he saw in an elderly couple at his hospital after a horrific car accident. There were a few flippant or less memorable stories in here, but I’m impressed enough to seek out more of Carver’s work, poetry or prose. (Secondhand – Books for Amnesty, York)
Love of Fat Men by Helen Dunmore (1997)
This was an early work by Dunmore, who was so prolific in her two-decade career that I still come across titles of hers that I’ve never heard of before. I don’t think a book by this title would get published nowadays, but I won’t hold it against her. It is literal in that Ulli, a recurring character in 10 of these 19 stories, finds comfort in sleeping with larger men. I wondered what so captured Dunmore’s imagination about Scandinavia: you can work out that Ulli is from Finland and most of the stories are set there or in nearby countries.
Every other story returns to Ulli, but the fragments of her life miss out the connective tissue: we suspect she’s pregnant as a teen, but don’t learn what she chose to do about it; we witness some dysfunctional scenes and realize she’s estranged from her family later on, but don’t find out if there was some big bust-up that prompted it. She comes across as a loner and a nomad, apt to be effaced by stronger personalities. In “The Ice Bear,” she’s on a ferry from Sweden back to Finland and can’t escape the prattle of a male missionary. In “A Question of Latitude” she’s out for a restaurant meal with friends, one of whom diagnoses her thus: “Nothing really affects you, does it? You just smile and put it out of your mind. And you cut people out of your life the same way, when you’ve finished with them.”
Whereas in the Bloom the interconnected stories are the strongest, here my preference was for the others. “The Bridge Painter” is about a man who leaves a peculiar calling card at each bridge he visits. “Annina” paints a woman with a questionable grasp on reality after the loss of a child. Best of all is probably “North Sea Crossing,” which contrasts two father-and-son pairs. If you only know Dunmore from novels, I can recommend her poetry and short stories, too. (Secondhand – Bas Books, Newbury)
Try all of these authors right away if you haven’t already!
*A daytrip into London on Thursday was our Valentine’s gift to selves. We toured the Tower of London and the Science Museum (the Wellcome medical collections for me) and had an exceptional late lunch at Dishoom (starters and drinks pictured below). Tonight we’ll be having chocolate prune pots in front of The Bookshop Band’s love-themed livestream concert.
Winter Reads, Part I: Patrick Gale & Tove Jansson (#NordicFINDS23)
This winter has been a disappointment: it’s bloody cold, but with no snow. It’s impossible to keep our house warm, even with extra loft insulation and new double-glazed windows (home ownership is boring and overrated), so I’m ready for signs of spring. Maybe by the time I review a second batch of seasonal reads in February, winter will truly be on its way out.
A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale (2015)
This was our January book club read. We’d had good luck with Gale before: his Notes from an Exhibition received our joint highest rating ever. As he’s often done in his fiction, he took inspiration from family history: here, the story of his great-grandfather Harry Cane, who emigrated to the Canadian prairies to farm in the most challenging of conditions. Because there is some uncertainty as to what precipitated his ancestor’s resettlement, Gale has chosen to imagine that Harry, though married and the father of a daughter, was in fact gay and left England to escape blackmailing and disgrace after his affair with a man was discovered.
There are very evocative descriptions of the pioneer life, lightened for Harry by his relationship with his closest neighbours, siblings Petra and Paul. The novel covers the First World War and the start of the Spanish flu epidemic, which provide much fodder for melodrama, but somehow I don’t mind it from Gale. Harry himself is so diffident as to seem blank, but that means he is free to become someone else in a new land. My other main criticism would be that the villain is implausibly evil. Some of our book club members also thought there were too many coincidences. Gale really makes you feel for these characters and their suffering, though. Sexuality and mental health, both so misunderstood at that time, are the two main themes and he explores them beautifully. In that both are historical fiction where homosexuality is simply a fact of life, not a titillating novelty, this reminded me a lot of Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. (Free from mall bookshop)
A Winter Book: Selected Stories by Tove Jansson (2006)
[Translated from the Swedish by Silvester Mazzarella, David McDuff and Kingsley Hart]
A brief second review for Nordic FINDS. It’s the third time I’ve encountered some of these autofiction stories: this was a reread for me, and 13 of the pieces are also in Sculptor’s Daughter, which I skimmed from the library a few years ago. And yet I remembered nothing; not a single one was memorable. Most of the pieces are impressionistic first-person fragments of childhood, with family photographs interspersed. In later sections, the protagonist is an older woman, Jansson herself or a stand-in. I most enjoyed “Messages” and “Correspondence,” round-ups of bizarre comments and requests she received from readers. Of the proper stories, “The Iceberg” was the best. It’s a literal object the speaker alternately covets and fears, and no doubt a metaphor for much else. This one had the kind of profound lines Jansson slips into her children’s fiction: “Now I had to make up my mind. And that’s an awful thing to have to do” and “if one doesn’t dare to do something immediately, then one never does it.” A shame this wasn’t a patch on The Summer Book. (Free from a neighbour)
Original rating in 2012:
And a DNF:
Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin (1983)
Laila (Big Reading Life) and I attempted this as a buddy read, but we both gave up on it. I got as far as page 53 (in the 600+-page pocket paperback). The premise was alluring, with a magical white horse swooping in to rescue Peter Lake from a violent gang. I also appreciated the NYC immigration backstory, but not the adjective-heavy wordiness, the anachronistic exclamations (“Crap!” and “Outta my way, you crazy midget” – this is presumably set some time between the 1900s and 1920s) or the meandering plot. It was also disturbing to hear about Peter’s sex life when he was 12. From a Little Free Library (at Philadelphia airport) it came, and to a LFL (at the Bar Convent in York) it returned. Laila read a little further than me, enough to tell the library patron who recommended it to her that she’d given it a fair try.
Any snowy or icy reading (or weather) for you lately?
Three on a Theme: “Birds” Short Story Collections
I read these three collections one at a time over three and a half months of last year, initially intending to write them up as part of my short story focus in September but ultimately deciding to spend more time with the latter two (and then falling ill with Covid before I could write them all up in 2022). They topped my Best Backlist Reads.
The word from the title is incidental, really; the books do have a lot in common in terms of theme and tone, though. The environment, fidelity and motherhood are recurring elements. The warmth and psychological depth are palpable. Each story feels fleshed out enough that I could happily read an entire novel set in its realm, but also complete unto itself.
Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman (2012)
I knew Bergman from her second of three collections, Almost Famous Women; this was her debut. As is common for a first book, it incorporates autobiographical characteristics: North Carolina settings, a preponderance of animals (her husband is a vet), and pregnancy and early motherhood. Eleven of the 12 stories are in the first person, there are no speech marks, and the protagonists are generally women in their twenties or thirties coping with young children, crumbling households, ageing parents, and ethical dilemmas at work.
Creatures are companions or catalysts here. In “Housewifely Arts,” a single mother and her son embark on a road trip to rescue her late mother’s African gray parrot. In the title story, Mae accompanies her father and her new beau on a search for the ivory-billed woodpecker. Fear grapples with openness to change for many of these characters, as expressed in the final lines: “I wished for things to stay the same. I wished for stillness everywhere, but I opened up the rest of the bedroom windows and let the world in.”
Environmental threat blares in the background, but usually fades in comparison to everyday concerns; the 2050-set “The Artificial Heart” is more alarmed about her aged father’s bionic existence than about a dying planet. In “Yesterday’s Whales,” the overall standout for me, ambivalence about motherhood meets climate catastrophism. The narrator’s boyfriend, Malachi, founded a nonprofit called Enough with Us, which asks members to vow not to reproduce so the human race can die out and nature can take over. Embarrassing, then, that she finds herself pregnant and unwilling to tread the hard line he’s drawn. This one is funny and poignant, capturing so many of my own feelings, and seems 10 years ahead of its time.
When someone’s ideal is the absence of all human life, romance is kind of a joke.
I wanted, then, to become what I most admired, what now seemed most real to me. I wanted to be that exalted, complicated presence in someone’s life, the familiar body, the source of another’s existence. But I knew what I wanted was not always what I needed.
I envied my mother’s childhood, the awe with which she’d turned to her country and the world, the confidence she’d had in her right to exist and bear children. The world and mothers alike, I knew, had lost a little freshness.
(Secondhand, a gift from my wish list a couple of years ago)
Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff (2009)
What a clever decision to open with “Lucky Chow Fun,” a story set in Templeton, the location of Groff’s debut novel – it forms a thread of continuity between her first book and her second. Elizabeth, the only girl on the varsity swim team, comes to a number of realizations about her family and her community, including that the title Chinese restaurant is a front for a brothel that exploits trafficked women. The story becomes a wider parable about appearances and suspicion. “In these dark days, there is so much distrust in this town. … You never know quite what to think about people”. And what a brilliant last line: “I like to think it’s a happy ending, though it is the middle that haunts me.”
“L. DeBard and Aliette” recasts in the notorious Héloïse and Abelard romance an Olympic swimmer and a schoolgirl in Spanish flu-plagued New York City. The other seven stories alternate between historical fiction and contemporary, the USA and abroad, first person and third person, speech marks or none. Desire and boundaries, accomplishment and escape, fear and risk are contradictory pulls. While the details have faded for me, I remember that, while I was reading them, each of these stories enveloped me in a particular world – 30 pages seems like the ideal length here to fully explore a set of characters and a situation. If I had to choose a favourite, it would be “Blythe,” about a woman who feels responsible for her alcoholic best friend. (From my birthday book haul last year)
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore (1998)
Life: what an absurd little story it always made.
I’d read a few of Moore’s works before (A Gate at the Stairs, Bark, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?) and not grasped what the fuss is about; turns out I’d just chosen the wrong ones to read. This collection is every bit as good as everyone has been saying for the last 25 years. Amy Bloom, Carol Shields and Helen Simpson are a few other authors who struck me as having a similar tone and themes. Rich with psychological understanding of her characters – many of them women passing from youth to midlife, contemplating or being affected by adultery – and their relationships, the stories are sometimes wry and sometimes wrenching (that setup to “Terrific Mother”!). There were even two dysfunctional-family-at-the-holidays ones (“Charades” and “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens”) for me to read in December.
I’ll single out four of the 12 as favourites, though, really, any or all would be worthy of anthologizing in a volume epitomizing the art of the short story. “Which Is More than I Can Say about Some People” has a mother and daughter learning new things about each other on a vacation to Ireland. “What You Want to Do Fine,” another road trip narrative, stars an unlikely gay couple, one half of which is the flamboyant (and blind) Quilty. “People Like That Are the Only People Here” is so vivid on the plight of parents with a child in the paediatric oncology ward that I feel I should check whether Moore lived through that too. And the best of the best: “Real Estate” (not least because she dared to print two full pages of laughter: “Ha!”), which turns gently surreal as Ruth and her philandering husband move into a house that turns out to be a wreck, infested by both animal and human pests.
Moore is as great at the sentence level as she is at overarching plots. Here are a few out-of-context lines I saved to go back to:
She was starting to have two speeds: Coma and Hysteria.
In general, people were not road maps. People were not hieroglyphs or books. They were not stories. A person was a collection of accidents. A person was an infinite pile of rocks with things growing underneath.
Never a temple, her body had gone from being a home, to being a house, to being a phone booth, to being a kite. Nothing about it gave her proper shelter.
(From Oxfam Books, Hexham – a stop on our Northumberland trip last year)
Two of these writers are best known for their short stories; the third (Groff), to my mind, should be. Unusual for me to fall so wholeheartedly for short stories – these all earned my rarest rating:
Best Backlist Reads of the Year
Like many bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the new books released each year. However, I consistently find that many of my most memorable reads were published years or even decades ago. These 16 selections, in alphabetical order within genre, together with my Best of 2022 post (coming up tomorrow), make up the top 9.5% or so of my reading for the year. Three of the below were rereads.
First, a special mention for this trio:
Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman
Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
It’s unusual for me to fall so wholeheartedly for short stories. I intended to write up these three “Birds” collections as part of my short story focus in September but ultimately decided to spend more time with the latter two (and then fell ill with Covid before I could write them up, so look out for my full reviews early in the new year). The word from the title is incidental, really; the books do have a lot in common in terms of theme and tone, though. The environment, fidelity and motherhood are recurring elements. The warmth and psychological depth are palpable. Each story feels fleshed out enough that I would happily read an entire novel set in its world, but also such that it is complete unto itself. Two of these writers (Bergman and Moore) are best known for short stories; the third, to my mind, should be.
Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier: I’ve read all of Chevalier’s novels and always thought of this one as my favourite. A reread didn’t change that. I loved the neat structure that bookends the action between the death of Queen Victoria and the death of Edward VII, and the focus on funerary customs (with Highgate Cemetery a major setting) and women’s rights.
Julia and the Shark by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: Julia and her parents are on an island adventure to Unst, in the north of Shetland, where her father will keep the lighthouse for a summer and her mother, a marine biologist, will search for the Greenland shark. Hargrave treats the shark as both a real creature and a metaphor for all that lurks – all that we fear and don’t understand. Beautifully illustrated, too; a modern children’s classic in the making.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson: A brooding character study of two sisters isolated by their scandalous family history and the suspicion of the townspeople. I loved the offbeat voice and unreliable narration, and the way the Blackwood house is both a refuge and a prison for the sisters. Who is protecting whom, and from what? There are a lot of great scenes, all so discrete that I could see this working very well as a play
Foster by Claire Keegan: A delicate, heart-rending novella about a deprived young Irish girl sent to live with rural relatives for one pivotal summer. It bears all the hallmarks of a book several times its length: a convincing and original voice, rich character development, an evocative setting, just enough backstory, psychological depth, conflict and sensitive treatment of difficult themes like poverty and neglect. I finished the one-sitting read in a flood of tears.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan: One good man’s small act of rebellion is a way of standing up to the injustice of the Magdalen Laundries, a church-sanctioned system that must have seemed too big to tackle. Keegan fits so much into so few pages, including Bill working out who his father was and deciding what to make of the middle of his life. Like Foster, this is set in the 1980s but feels timeless. Absolutely beautiful.
The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius: Sally Jones is a ship’s engineer who journeys from Portugal to India to clear her captain’s name when he is accused of murder. She’s also a gorilla. This was the perfect rip-roaring adventure story to read at sea (on the ferry to Spain in May); the twisty plot and larger-than-life characters who aid or betray Sally Jones kept the nearly 600 pages turning quickly.
Honorifics by Cynthia Miller: Miller is a Malaysian American poet in Edinburgh. The themes of her debut include living between countries and feeling like an exile versus finding a sense of home. There’s much variety here, and so many beautiful lines and evocative images. Miller incorporates a lot of unusual structures, some of them traditional forms and others freer: a numbered list, columns, dictionary definitions or prose paragraphs. Flora and fauna references plus a consideration of the expat life meant this was custom made for me.
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown: The University of Washington rowing team in general, and Joe Rantz in particular, were unlikely champions. Boatbuilding and rowing both come across as admirable skills involving hard physical labour, scientific precision and an artist’s mind. All along, Brown subtly weaves in the historical background: Depression-era Seattle with its shantytowns, and the rise of Hitler in Germany. A classic underdog story.
My Life in Houses by Margaret Forster: Having become a homeowner for the first time earlier this year, I was interested in how an author would organize their life around the different places they’ve lived. The early chapters about being a child in Carlisle are compelling in terms of cultural history; later on she observes gentrification in London, and her home becomes a haven for her during her cancer treatment.
Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie: A reread started on our July trip to the Outer Hebrides. I’d forgotten how closely Jamie’s interests align with my own: Scotland and its islands, birds, the prehistoric, museums, archaeology. I particularly appreciated “Three Ways of Looking at St Kilda,” but everything she writes is profound: “if we are to be alive and available for joy and discovery, then it’s as an animal body, available for cancer and infection and pain.”
Reflections from the North Country by Sigurd F. Olson: Olson was a well-known environmental writer in his time (through 1970s), also serving as president of the National Parks Association. This collection of passionate, philosophically oriented essays about the state of nature places him in the vein of Aldo Leopold – before-their-time conservationists. He ponders solitude, wilderness and human nature, asking what is primal in us.
Smile by Sarah Ruhl: These warm and beautifully observed autobiographical essays stem from the birth of her twins and the slow-burning medical crises that followed. Shortly after delivery, Ruhl developed Bell’s palsy, a partial paralysis of the face. Having a lopsided face, grimacing and squinting when she tried to show expression – it was a minor problem in the grand scheme of things, yet provoked questions about whether the body equates to identity.
Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C. Slaght: Slaght has become an expert on the Blakiston’s fish owl during nearly two decades of fieldwork in the far east of Russia. Slaght thinks of Russia as his second home, and you can sense his passion for the fish owl and for conservation in general. Amid the science, this is a darn good story, full of bizarre characters. Top-notch nature and travel writing; a ride along on a consequential environmentalist quest.
Some of the best backlist reads I own and could lay my hands on.
What were your best backlist reads this year?
Five Final Novellas: Adichie, Glück, Jhabvala, Victory for Ukraine, Woodson (#NovNov22)
We’ll wrap up Novellas in November and give some final statistics tomorrow. Today, I have mini reviews of another five novellas I read this month: one short nonfiction reread and then fiction ranging from India in the 1920s to short stories in comics about the war in Ukraine.
Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2021)
This came out in May last year – I pre-ordered it from Waterstones with points I’d saved up, because I’m that much of a fan – and it’s rare for me to reread something so soon, but of course it took on new significance for me this month. Like me, Adichie lived on a different continent from her family and so technology mediated her long-distance relationships. She saw her father on their weekly Sunday Zoom on June 7, 2020 and he appeared briefly on screen the next two days, seeming tired; on June 10, he was gone, her brother’s phone screen showing her his face: “my father looks asleep, his face relaxed, beautiful in repose.”
My experience of my mother’s death was similar: everything was sudden; my sister was the one there at the hospital, while all I could do was wait by the phone/laptop for news. So these details were particularly piercing, but the whole essay resonated with me as she navigates the early days of grief and remembers what she most admires about her father, including his piety, record-keeping and pride in her. (How lucky I am that Covid travel restrictions were no longer a factor; they delayed his memorial service.) My original review is here. Cathy also reviewed it. If you wish, you can read the New Yorker piece it arose from here.
Marigold and Rose: A Fiction by Louise Glück (2022)
The first (and so far only) fiction by the poet and 2020 Nobel Prize winner, this is a curious little story that imagines the inner lives of infant twins and closes with their first birthday. Like Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, it ascribes to preverbal beings thoughts and wisdom they could not possibly have. Marigold, the would-be writer of the pair, is spiky and unpredictable, whereas Rose is the archetypal good baby.
Marigold did not like people. She liked Mother and Father; everyone else had not yet been properly inspected. Rose did like people and she intended them to like her. … Everyone understood that Marigold lived in her head and Rose lived in the world.
Now every day was like the days when the twins did not perform well at naptime. Then Mother and Father would begin to look tired and harassed. Mother explained that babies got tired too; often, they cried because they were tired. I don’t cry because I’m tired, Marigold thought. I cry because something has disappointed me.
As a psychological allegory, this tracks personality development and the growing awareness of Mother and Father as separate people with their own characteristics, some of which each girl replicates. But I failed to find much of a point.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.
Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1975)
A lesser-known Booker Prize winner that we read for our book club’s women’s classics subgroup. My reading was interrupted by the last-minute trip back to the States, so I ended up finishing the last two-thirds after we’d had the discussion and also watched the movie. I found I was better able to engage with the subtle story and understated writing after I’d seen the sumptuous 1983 Merchant Ivory film: the characters jumped out for me much more than they initially had on the page, and it was no problem having Greta Scacchi in my head.
In 1923, Olivia is a bored young officer’s wife in India who becomes infatuated with the Nawab, an Indian prince involved in some dodgy dealings. In the novel’s present day, Olivia’s step-granddaughter (never named; in the film she’s called Anne, played by Julie Christie and changed to a great-niece for some reason) is also in India, enjoying the hippie freedom and rediscovering Olivia’s life through the letters she wrote to her sister. Both novel and film cut quickly and often between the two time periods to draw increasingly overt parallels between the women’s lives, culminating in unexpected pregnancies and difficult decisions to be made. I enjoyed the atmosphere (see also The Painted Veil and China Room) and would recommend the film, but I doubt I’ll seek out more by Jhabvala. (Public library)
PEREMOHA: Victory for Ukraine (2022)
Various writers and artists contributed these graphic shorts, so there are likely to be some stories you enjoy more than others. “The Ghost of Kyiv” is about a mythical hero from the early days of the Russian invasion who shot down six enemy planes in a day. I got Andy Capp vibes from “Looters,” about Russian goons so dumb they don’t even recognize the appliances they haul back to their slum-dwelling families. (Look, this is propaganda. Whether it comes from the right side or not, recognize it for what it is.) In “Zmiinyi Island 13,” Ukrainian missiles destroy a Russian missile cruiser. Though hospitalized, the Ukrainian soldiers involved – including a woman – can rejoice in the win. “A pure heart is one that overcomes fear” is the lesson they quote from a legend. “Brave Little Tractor” is an adorable Thomas the Tank Engine-like story-within-a-story about farm machinery that joins the war effort. A bit too much of the superhero, shoot-’em-up stylings (including perfectly put-together females with pneumatic bosoms) for me here, but how could any graphic novel reader resist this Tokyopop compilation when a portion of proceeds go to RAZOM, a nonprofit Ukrainian-American human rights organization? (Read via Edelweiss)
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (2016)
August looks back on her coming of age in 1970s Bushwick, Brooklyn. She lived with her father and brother in a shabby apartment, but friendship with Angela, Gigi and Sylvia lightened a gloomy existence: “as we stood half circle in the bright school yard, we saw the lost and beautiful and hungry in each of us. We saw home.” As in Very Cold People, though, this is not an untroubled girlhood. Male threat is everywhere, and if boyfriends bring sexual awakening they are also a constant goad to do more than girls are ready for. In short, flitting paragraphs, Woodson explores August’s past – a childhood in Tennessee, her uncle who died in the Vietnam War, her father’s growing involvement with the Nation of Islam. What struck me most, though, was August’s coming to terms with her mother’s death, a fact she doesn’t even acknowledge at first, and the anthropological asides about other cultures’ death rituals. This was my second from Woodson after the Women’s Prize-longlisted Red at the Bone, and I liked them about the same. A problem for me was that Brown Girls, which, with its New York City setting and focus on friendships between girls of colour, must have at least partially been inspired by Another Brooklyn, was better. (Public library)
In total, I read 17 novellas this November, though if you add in the ones I’d read in advance and then reviewed over the course of the month, I managed 24. All things considered, I think that’s a great showing. The 5-star stand-outs for me were The Hero of This Book and Body Kintsugi, but Up at the Villa was also a great read.