Four More Short Nonfiction Books for Novellas for November
Short nonfiction turns up in every genre. Today I have a feminist manifesto, some miniature travel essays, a memoir of the writing life, and a book of environmentalist speeches.
Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2017)
My fourth book this year by Adichie, who is also making a repeat appearance on one of my nonfiction novellas lists; I reviewed “We Should All Be Feminists” in 2017. While this builds on the TED talk that fueled that essay, it is more successful for me because of the frame: a long letter to a childhood friend who had just had a baby girl and wanted advice about how to raise her as a feminist. Adichie’s premises are that women matter equally and that if you can’t reverse the genders in a scenario and get acceptable results (e.g. ‘women should leave men who cheat,’ but we don’t necessarily demand the opposite), an argument is sexist.
Even when her points seem obvious – gender roles are nonsense, don’t hold up marriage as the pinnacle of achievement, downplay appearance – they are beautifully expressed, and there are lots of tactics that wouldn’t have occurred to me in the context of feminism: Normalize differences between people. Teach a girl to love reading – “Books will help her understand and question the world, help her express herself”. And beware of how language is used: if people deride a woman for ambition where they wouldn’t criticize a man, their problem is not with ambition but with women. Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris come to mind…
Go ahead and buy a stack of this book to have on hand the next time a friend has a baby (boy or girl). Adichie wasn’t a mother when she wrote it, but in her Introduction she says that, looking back after the birth of her daughter, it still rang true and gave her plenty to live up to.
[By the way, did you hear that Adichie is the Women’s Prize’s Winner of Winners for Half of a Yellow Sun? Her novel came out at #2 in my ranking of all 25 winners, so I’m pleased!]
A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1957)
Three brief essays about visits to monasteries: The Abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontanelle (Benedictine) and La Grande Trappe (Cistercian) in France, and the rock monasteries of Cappadocia in Turkey. I’ve read a fair bit about the monastic life, so I found little that was new in Fermor’s accounts of austere daily routines and religious history. I had more interest in the rock monasteries where some Church Fathers were based, simply because Turkey is a relatively unfamiliar setting for me, but despite Fermor’s rich descriptive gifts, this piece was, at nine pages, little more than a sketch. Alas, this was a disappointment.
The Cost of a Best Seller by Frances Parkinson Keyes (1953)
I picked up a £1 dustjacketless copy on a whim from the outdoor clearance area at the Hay Cinema Bookshop in September and started reading it immediately, off and on as a bedside book. Keyes is a twentieth-century author whose dozens of potboilers sold in their millions, but she has been largely forgotten since. Imagine my surprise, then, when her best-known novel, Dinner at Antoine’s (1948), turned up on a recent Book Riot list of New Orleans-themed literature – though mostly for the reference to the still-popular title restaurant.
When Keyes began writing, a mother of three young children in an attic room, it was to supplement her husband’s income, but the work soon became an obsession and allowed her to maintain her independence after her husband, a U.S. senator, died. Not until 17 years after the publication of her first novel did she have her first bestseller. She depicts fame as a double-edged sword: It allowed her to travel in Europe and to Louisiana, where she later made her home, but also made heavy demands on her time, requiring responses to annoying letters, hours spent signing books, and attendance at literary lunches. For someone with back problems, these commitments could be literally as well as figuratively painful.
Keyes has the popular fiction writer’s bitterness about never getting critical recognition. This memoir was pleasant enough, but hasn’t induced me to read any more by her. Readers fond of her work might get something more out of it. For the most part, it doesn’t feel dated, but one detail really got to me: Whenever she needed to ensure that she wouldn’t be disturbed, she would go work in the old slave quarters of her New Orleans mansion. Yipes!
No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg (2019)
“Our house is on fire. … I want you to panic.” Starting with a speech she gave on a climate march in Stockholm in September 2018 and ending with her address to the UK parliament in April 2019, this punchy pamphlet of rhetoric makes it clear why the teenage Thunberg has rapidly become such an important public figure. She attributes her bluntness to her Asperger’s: the way her mind works, she sees climate breakdown as a simple, black and white issue – either we care or we don’t; either we stop emitting carbon or we don’t; either we find new ways of doing things now, or we stand by and watch it all go to ruin. She calls governments and international bodies to account for their inaction and lack of commitment, and for subsidizing fossil fuels and encouraging consumerism as usual.
Peppering in key statistics and accepted scientific guidelines but staying at a lay level, she calls on the world’s decision-makers to create hope for young people and others who will be most affected by global warming but don’t have a seat at the table. I admire Thunberg’s bravery as well as her words. The only issue with a wee book like this one is that the same points and language recur in multiple speeches, so there is inevitable repetition.
It’s been Nonfiction week here on Novellas in November. #NovNov meets #NonficNov!
Starting Monday: Literature in Translation week, which Cathy is hosting.
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley & Improvement by Joan Silber
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley (2019)
Two London couples: Christine and Alex, and Lydia and Zachary. They’ve known each other for decades, and their affiliations have changed in major, even ironic ways. It was Lydia who was initially infatuated with Alex when he taught both her and Christine, and Christine and Zachary who dated for a time. But this is how things ultimately fell out, each marriage resulting in one daughter. Christine with Alex; Lydia with Zachary.
Except now Zachary is dead. The phone call comes in the novel’s very first sentence. How Lydia and her friends – not to mention her daughter, Grace, who’s studying art in Glasgow – will cope with the loss, and rearrange what was once such a comfortable quadrilateral, is the ostensible subject of the rest of the book. There’s a funeral to plan and a future for Lydia to construct. But the problem, for me, is that every other chapter hosts a seemingly endless flashback to the couples’ backstory. Apart from an odd, titillating moment when the four nearly let down their guard together, these sections don’t reveal an awful lot.
This is my sixth book by Tessa Hadley. Her eye is always sharp on how families work, how relationships fall apart, and how memories form and linger as we age. She’s also a master of third-person omniscience, moving effortlessly between characters’ perspectives. The writing here is exquisite; there’s no question about that. I especially love the descriptive passages, full of so much sensual detail that you can imagine yourself right into a scene:
A breeze fanned the newspaper on the table, the smells of a city summer were wafted through the open window: tar and car exhaust, the bitter-green of the flowering privet hedge. Police horses went past in the broad street, their hooves clip-clopping conversationally alongside the voices of the women who rode them; the stables were nearby.
Her perception was a skin stretched taut, prickling with response to each change in the light outside as it ran through the drama of its sunset performance at the end of the street, in a mass of gilded pink cloud. When eventually the copper beech was only a silhouette cut out against the blue of the last light, Christine pulled down the blinds, put on all the lamps, turned her awareness inwards.
Despite the fine prose, I found the past strand of this novel tedious. If you’re new to Hadley, I’d recommend starting with Clever Girl and/or Bad Dreams and Other Stories.
Late in the Day was published in the UK by Jonathan Cape on February 14th, and in the USA by Harper on January 15th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Improvement by Joan Silber (2017)
I’ve been thinking a lot about linked short story collections, having written a brief article about them for BookBrowse to accompany my review of Carrianne Leung’s That Time I Loved You (those who contributed ideas on Twitter, thank you!). I find them easier to read than the average short story volume because there are fewer characters and settings to keep track of, and you get the fun of tracing unexpected connections between characters. Improvement didn’t quite work for me in that way, mostly because you can tell that it started as one short story, “About My Aunt”: now the untitled first chapter, it is, as you might guess, a solid stand-alone narrative about Reyna and her aunt Kiki. It was originally published in Tin House and collected in The Best American Short Stories 2015.
I was most interested in Kiki, a terrific character with a completely unsuitable name. Her marriage to a Turk failed – but hey, at least she got a great rug out of it, as well as the fun but temporary challenge of third-world life. (“For a hardheaded person, she had let herself be flung about by the winds of love, and she wasn’t sorry either.”) Back in New York City she directs a house-cleaning agency and babysits for Reyna’s four-year-old son, Oliver. Tattooed Reyna’s African-American boyfriend, Boyd, is in prison for three months for selling pot; when he gets out he comes up with the bright idea of smuggling cigarettes between Virginia and New York to profit from the tax difference. He asks Reyna to make one of the pick-ups, but she chickens out at the last minute. Boyd’s friend Claude drives instead, and is killed instantly in a crash.
Part II reaches into the lives of some of the minor characters on the fringes: Claude; Teddy, the truck driver who was the other party in the car accident; Osman, Kiki’s ex-husband; a trio of Germans who passed through their Turkish town in the summer of 1977 with smuggled antiquities in their possession; and so on. For me, these narratives were too diffuse and didn’t hang together as a novel. I had hoped to enjoy this more since it won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and Silber is one of those writer’s writers you always hear about but never get to read. I found her voice similar to Anne Tyler’s or perhaps Julia Glass’s, but I’m not sure I’d try another book by her.
Improvement was published by Allen & Unwin on February 7th. It came out in the USA from Counterpoint Press in 2017. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Bottom line for both:
Subtle, sophisticated but underwhelming.
It’s been a frigid start to March here in Europe. Even though it only amounted to a few inches in total, this is still the most snow we’ve seen in years. We were without heating for 46 hours during the coldest couple of days due to an inaccessible frozen pipe, so I’m grateful that things have now thawed and spring is looking more likely. During winter’s last gasp, though, I’ve been dipping into a few appropriately snow-themed books. I had more success with some than with others. I’ll start with the one that stood out.
Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg (1992)
[trans. from the Danish by Felicity David]
Nordic noir avant la lettre? I bought this rather by accident; had I realized it was a murder mystery, I never would have taken a chance on this international bestseller. That would have been too bad, as it’s much more interesting than your average crime thriller. The narrator/detective is Smilla Jaspersen: a 37-year-old mathematician and former Arctic navigator with a Danish father and Greenlander mother, she’s a stylish dresser and a shrewd, bold questioner who makes herself unpopular by nosing about where she doesn’t belong.
Isaiah, a little Greenlander boy, has fallen to his death from the roof of the Copenhagen apartment complex where Smilla also lives, and she’s convinced foul play was involved. In Part I she enlists the help of a mechanic neighbor (and love interest), a translator, an Arctic medicine specialist, and a mining corporation secretary to investigate Isaiah’s father’s death on a 1991 Arctic expedition and how it might be connected to Isaiah’s murder. In Part II she tests her theories by setting sail on the Greenland-bound Kronos as a stewardess. At every turn her snooping puts her in danger – there are some pretty violent scenes.
I read this fairly slowly, over the course of a month (alongside lots of other books); it’s absorbing but in a literary style, so not as pacey or full of cliffhangers as you’d expect from a suspense novel. I got myself confused over all the minor characters and the revelations about the expeditions, so made pencil notes inside the front cover to keep things straight. Setting aside the plot, which gets a bit silly towards the end, I valued this most for Smilla’s self-knowledge and insights into what it’s like to be a Greenlander in Denmark. I read this straight after Gretel Ehrlich’s travel book about Greenland, This Cold Heaven – an excellent pairing I’d recommend to anyone who wants to spend time vicariously traveling in the far north.
Favorite wintry passage:
“I’m not perfect. I think more highly of snow and ice than of love. It’s easier for me to be interested in mathematics than to have affection for my fellow human beings.”
One that I left unfinished:
Snow by Orhan Pamuk (2002)
[trans. from the Turkish by Maureen Freely]
This novel seems to be based around an elaborate play on words: it’s set in Kars, a Turkish town where the protagonist, a poet known by the initials Ka, becomes stranded by the snow (Kar in Turkish). After 12 years in political exile in Germany, Ka is back in Turkey for his mother’s funeral. While he’s here, he decides to investigate a recent spate of female suicides, keep tabs on the upcoming election, and see if he can win the love of divorcée Ipek, daughter of the owner of the Snow Palace Hotel, where he’s staying. There’s a hint of magic realism to the novel: the newspaper covers Ka’s reading of a poem called “Snow” before he’s even written it. He and Ipek witness the shooting of the director of the Institute of Education. The attempted assassination is revenge for him banning girls who wear headscarves from schools.
As in Elif Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve, the emphasis is on Turkey’s split personality: a choice between fundamentalism (= East, poverty) and secularism (= West, wealth). Pamuk is pretty heavy-handed with these rival ideologies and with the symbolism of the snow. By the time I reached page 165, having skimmed maybe two chapters’ worth along the way, I couldn’t bear to keep going. However, if I get a recommendation of a shorter and subtler Pamuk novel I would give him another try. I did enjoy the various nice quotes about snow (reminiscent of Joyce’s “The Dead”) – it really was atmospheric for this time of year.
Favorite wintry passage:
“That’s why snow drew people together. It was as if snow cast a veil over hatreds, greed and wrath and made everyone feel close to one another.”
One that I only skimmed:
The Snow Geese by William Fiennes (2002)
Having recovered from an illness that hit at age 25 while he was studying for a doctorate, Fiennes set off to track the migration route of the snow goose, which starts in the Gulf of Mexico and goes to the Arctic territories of Canada. He was inspired by his father’s love of birdwatching and Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose (which I haven’t read). I thought this couldn’t fail to be great, what with its themes of travel, birds, illness and identity. However, Fiennes gets bogged down in details. When he stays with friendly Americans in Texas he gives you every detail of their home décor, meals and way of speaking; when he takes a Greyhound bus ride he recounts every conversation he had with his random seatmates. This is too much about the grind of travel and not enough about the natural spectacles he was searching for. And then when he gets up to the far north he eats snow goose. So I ended up just skimming this one for the birdwatching bits. I did like Fiennes’s writing, just not what he chose to focus on, so I’ll read his other memoir, The Music Room.
Considered but quickly abandoned: In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende
Would like to read soon: The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen – my husband recently rated this 5 stars and calls it a spiritual quest memoir, with elements of nature and travel writing.