Kathleen Jamie is an author I can always rely on if I want to read something contemplative about nature. Jamie, who is based in Scotland, is both a poet and essayist, and I have thoroughly enjoyed her collections in the past. Surfacing is her newest effort, published in 2019. Diana Athill summed it up wonderfully when she commented: ‘It is not often that the prose of a poet is as powerful as her verse, but Jamie’s is.’
As I expected, having read several of her collections to date, Surfacing is heavily involved with the natural world. In these twelve individual essays, some of which have recurring themes, Jamie discusses archaeology, notions of discovery, climate change, her parents and their influence, and wildlife, amongst others. Each essay is interspersed with photographs and illustrations, many of which I believe Jamie took herself.
The essays in Surfacing move between Scotland, Alaska, and Jamie’s memory. It is a visceral collection, arranged non-chronologically. Here, Jamie has visited ‘archaeological sites and mines her own memories… to explore what surfaces and what reconnects us to our past.’ The majority of the essays here were written at pivotal points in Jamie’s life, from when she was caught up in brutal protests in China in the late 1980s, and banned from leaving the country, to stages at which her father passes away, and her children grow up and leave home. This collection promises to examine ‘a profound sense of time passing and an antidote to all that is instant, ephemeral, unrooted.’
Some of the essays in Surfacing are very brief, and I was left wanting more. This is not a criticism of what Jamie has written; rather, it is a testament to her prose, and the way in which I wanted to read more from her perspective. It is in the longer pieces in which Jamie’s work sings. I particularly enjoyed reading the essays about archaeological digs; so many of the details within them were fascinating to me as a reader.
My favourite piece was ‘In Quinhagak’, a small settlement in Alaska which has been dated to at least AD 1000. Jamie travels to assist on an archaeological dig, in a secluded town of around 700 people, where the maps ‘show no roads, just green scribbly waterways and melt-pools.’ I always admire the way in which the author captures scenery and details. As Jamie is taken to the town on a very small plane, she observes: ‘… immediately we were soaring over miles of emerald green and moss green, yellowish patches with coppery tints… At seven hundred feet we were low enough to see a line of moose tracks traversing a mudbank. Two white dabs were tundra swans.’ In an essay entitled ‘The Eagle’, she writes: ‘It’s summer, a long July gloaming. The road I’m taking cuts through a rough glen. There are no houses on this stretch, only the thin road and a lochan of peat-coloured water. The hill on the left is a steep strew of bare rock and heather rising to a ridge which runs north for about a mile and a half; the hill on the right is lower. The whole glen, now I’ve stopped, has become a place of entrancing isolation.’
Jamie is sensitive to cultural differences, and to what it means for very specific elements of history to be returned to the living generations. At the dig in Alaska, in which the plan is to excavate a village which was abandoned around five hundred years previously, she comments: ‘The objects are out of the earth, back in the hands of people who call them into memory and know them, weigh them, test them, name them. Truly, they have come home.’
It is fair to say that Jamie’s prose is sometimes simplistic and rather matter-of-fact. This is something which I find surprising, given that she is a poet too. However, her prose style undoubtedly works well within these essays; it allows her to blend different genres of writing, from (auto)biography and history to travel and nature writing. She looks into neolithic history, as well as the histories bound up between her own family. I very much enjoyed the variations within these essays, which made Surfacing so easy to read from cover to cover. Of course, it would also be a great choice to dip and out of, and to savour.
I am beginning this episode of The Book Trail with a non-fiction piece which both surprised and delighted me, and which I reviewed a fortnight ago. As ever, I have chosen to use Goodreads’ ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature to generate this list. Hopefully, like me, you might find a few titles here which pique your interest.
1. Love Lessons by Joan Wyndham
‘”On my way to the studio there was an air-raid. I ran into the brick shelter in the middle of the road. There were poor little Leonard and Agnes sitting on their suitcases, having lost their all. Luckily Leonard had been wearing his best trousers at the time. Madame Arcana was there too wearing a gold brocade toque and a blanket. It was bloody cold and I wanted to pee badly, but couldn’t. Leonard wouldn’t give me his seat as he believes in the equality of the sexes, so I sat on the floor…”
August 1939. As a teenage Catholic virgin, Joan Wyndham spent her days trying to remain pure and unsullied and her nights trying to stay alive. Huddled in the air-raid shelter, she wrote secretly and obsessively about the strange yet exhilarating times she was living through, sure that this was ‘ the happiest time of my life’.’
2. I Remember Nothing: and Other Reflections by Nora Ephron
‘Nora Ephron returns with her first book since the astounding success of I Feel Bad About My Neck, taking a cool, hard, hilarious look at the past, the present, and the future, bemoaning the vicissitudes of modern life, and recalling with her signature clarity and wisdom everything she hasn’t (yet) forgotten.
Ephron writes about falling hard for a way of life (“Journalism: A Love Story”) and about breaking up even harder with the men in her life (“The D Word”); lists “Twenty-five Things People Have a Shocking Capacity to Be Surprised by Over and Over Again” (“There is no explaining the stock market but people try”; “You can never know the truth of anyone’s marriage, including your own”; “Cary Grant was Jewish”; “Men cheat”); reveals the alarming evolution, a decade after she wrote and directed You’ve Got Mail, of her relationship with her in-box (“The Six Stages of E-Mail”); and asks the age-old question, which came first, the chicken soup or the cold? All the while, she gives candid, edgy voice to everything women who have reached a certain age have been thinking . . . but rarely acknowledging.’
3. The Hungover Games: A True Story by Sophie Heawood
‘This “funny, dark, and true” (Caitlin Moran) memoir is Bridget Jones’s Diary for the Fleabag generation: What happens when you have an unplanned baby on your own in your mid-thirties before you’ve worked out how to look after yourself, let alone a child?
This is the story of one woman’s adventures in single motherhood. It’s about what happens when Mr. Right isn’t around so you have a baby with Mr. Wrong, a touring musician who tells you halfway through your pregnancy that he’s met someone else, just after you’ve given up your LA life and moved back to England to attempt some kind of modern family life with him. So now you’re six months along, sleeping on a friend’s sofa in London, and waking up in the morning to a room full of taxidermied animals who seem to be staring at you. The Hungover Games about what it’s like raising a baby on your own when you’re more at home on the dance floor than in the kitchen. It’s about how to invent the concept of the two-person family when you grew up in a traditional nuclear unit of four, and your kid’s friends all have happily married parents too, and you are definitely not, in any way, ticking off the days until all those lovely couples get divorced. Unflinchingly honest, emotionally raw, and surprisingly sweet, The Hungover Games is the true story of what happens if you’ve been looking for love your whole life and finally find it where you least expect it.’
4. Glorious Rock Bottom by Bryony Gordon
‘In Glorious Rock Bottom Bryony opens up about a toxic twenty-year relationship with alcohol and drugs and explains exactly why hitting rock bottom – for her, a traumatic event and the abrupt realisation that she was putting herself in danger, time and again – saved her life. Known for her trademark honesty, Bryony re-lives the darkest and most terrifying moments of her addiction, never shying away from the fact that alcoholism robs you of your ability to focus on your family, your work, your health, your children, yourself. And then, a chink of light as the hard work begins – rehab; AA meetings; endless, tedious, painful self-reflection – a rollercoaster ride through self-acceptance, friendship, love and hope, to a joy and pride in staying sober that her younger self could never have imagined.
Shining a light on the deep connection between addiction and mental health issues, Glorious Rock Bottom is in turn, shocking, brutal, dark, funny, hopeful and uplifting. It is a sobriety memoir like no other.’
5. Some Body to Love: A Family Story by Alexandra Heminsley
‘‘Today I sat on a bench facing the sea, the one where I waited for L to be born, and sobbed my heart out. I don’t know if I’ll ever recover.’
This note was written on 9 November 2017. As the seagulls squawked overhead and the sun dipped into the sea, Alexandra Heminsley’s world was turning inside out.
She’d just been told her then-husband was going to transition. The revelation threatened to shatter their brand new, still fragile, family.
But this vertiginous moment represented only the latest in a series of events that had left Alex feeling more and more dissociated from her own body, turning her into a seemingly unreliable narrator of her own reality.
Some Body to Love is Alex’s profoundly open-hearted memoir about losing her husband but gaining a best friend, and together bringing up a baby in a changing world. Its exploration of what it means to have a human body, to feel connected or severed from it, and how we might learn to accept our own, makes it a vital and inspiring contribution to some of the most complex and heated conversations of our times.’
6. Hungry by Grace Dent
‘From an early age, Grace Dent was hungry. As a little girl growing up in Currock, Carlisle, she yearned to be something bigger, to go somewhere better.
Hungry traces Grace’s story from growing up eating beige food to becoming one of the much-loved voices on the British food scene. It’s also everyone’s story – from treats with your nan, to cheese and pineapple hedgehogs, to the exquisite joy of cheaply-made apple crumble with custard. It’s the high-point of a chip butty covered in vinegar and too much salt in the school canteen, on an otherwise grey day of double-Maths and cross country running. It’s the real story of how we have all lived, laughed, and eaten over the past 40 years.’
7. Blueberries: Essays Concerning Understanding by Ellena Savage
‘The body frequently escapes her, but is always very much present in these compellingly vivid, clear-eyed essays on an embodied self in flight through the world, from the brilliant young writer Ellena Savage.
In Portuguese police stations and Portland college campuses, in suburban Melbourne libraries and wintry Berlin apartments, Savage shows bodies in pain and in love, bodies at work and at rest.
She circles back to scenes of crimes or near-crimes, to lovers or near-lovers, to turn over the stones, reread the paperwork, check the deeds, approach from another angle altogether. These essays traverse cities and spaces, bodies and histories, moving through forms and modes to find a closer kind of truth. Blueberries is ripe with acid, promise, and sweetness.’
8. Show Me Where It Hurts: Living with Invisible Illness by Kylie Maslen
‘Kylie Maslen has been living with invisible illness for twenty years-more than half her life. Its impact is felt in every aspect of her day-to-day existence- from work to dating; from her fears for what the future holds to her struggles to get out of bed some mornings.
Drawing on pop music, art, literature and online culture, Maslen explores the lived experience of invisible illness with sensitivity and wit, drawing back the veil on a reality many struggle-or refuse-to recognise. Show Me Where it Hurts- Living with Invisible Illness is a powerful collection of essays that speak to those who have encountered the brush-off from doctors, faced endless tests and treatments, and endured chronic pain and suffering. But it is also a bridge reaching out to partners, families, friends, colleagues, doctors- all those who want to better understand what life looks like when you cannot simply show others where it hurts.’
Have you read any of these books? Will you be adding any of them to your TBR?
Any reader of my reviews will already know that I am consistently drawn to themed anthologies. I am also a huge fan of food, both of preparing and eating it. It was inevitable, then, that I would pick up In the Kitchen: Essays on Food and Life, which brings together original pieces by many different authors. The gorgeously designed book has been released by the publishing arm of Daunt Books, and it looks to be part of a small series of anthologies on specific themes. I have already read and loved At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond (review here), and hope to be able to pick up In the Garden very soon.
The book’s blurb declares that food ‘can embody our personal histories as well as wider cultural histories. But what are the stories we tell ourselves about the kitchen, and how do we first come to it?’ The collection aims to explore whether food, and the process of cooking, can be ‘a tool for connection’, both in the physical space of the kitchen, and in the wider world.
In the Kitchen features work from new-to-me authors, as well as those whom I have read and enjoyed before – Daisy Johnson, Ruby Tandoh, and Nina Mingya Powles, to name but three. There are thirteen essays in total, and each considers various aspects of cooking and eating, and ‘the possibilities and limitations the kitchen poses.’ Throughout, the authors discuss their experiences of cooking in a particular kitchen, or simply being present in one. Almost every essay is bound up with memories; they seem inextricable from the process of using the kitchen as an adult.
I love the way in which each of the included pieces are so very different. In ‘A Life in Cookers’, Rachel Roddy writes about the ovens which she has lived with, from ‘the heavyweight comforter’ of an Aga in her childhood home, to ‘a cream and green electric cooker with hot plates like liquorice whirls’ owned by her grandparents. On said cooker, her grandmother ‘boiled tongue for hours and made pan after pan of a minced beef and potato stew called tattie hash, the smell of which clung to the wallpaper like a pattern, along with worry and love.’ In Ella Risbridger’s essay, the author details the sensuality which often strike her when she is in the kitchen: ‘There is something about the kitchen that invites intimacy. I suppose kitchens are a space for intimacy because I will touch with my hands the things that will go in your mouth; I will taste what you taste; I will work for you, or you will work for me. I will make this for you because I love you, because you need it, because you want it.’
In ‘The New Thing’, Juliet Annan – who taught herself to cook using often vague Penguin paperbacks – details some of the questionable menus which she made for friends in the late 1970s: ‘… October 14 is Whiting and Fennel Soup, followed by Stuffed Cabbage, followed by Apple Steamed Pudding; very heavy. It makes me wonder about central heating – did we not have any? – but even on a summer’s day I see the menu was: Lettuce and Hazelnut Soup, Spiced Chicken with Tomato Salad and New Potatoes and then Baked Alaska and Fruit Salad.’ Annan goes on to remark: ‘… I was cooking dinners like this at least twice a week: the suet pudding years, and I was turning into one.’
Daisy Johnson writes about rituals surrounding food, such as her family’s tradition of making pizzas from scratch on Christmas Eve. She says that this tradition is ‘older than I am and has changed as my siblings and I have grown.’ Johnson goes on to comment that writing about food is ‘almost impossible’, and difficult to capture: ‘I would like to write about the ritual of food. I would like to write about how food rituals grow and about the ones that I have grown with my family and friends. I would like to write about how these rituals have come about seemingly without discussion and are now almost impossible to break.’
In ‘Steam’, Nina Mingya Powles talks about the foods bound up with her Asian heritage, and the almost endless variations of the same dish which can be found from one country to another. She tells us, in her rich and careful prose: ‘My most treasured childhood foods are steamed: dumplings, bao, parcels of sticky rice wrapped in leaves, silky cheung fun. Somehow, steaming feels more alchemical than other ways of cooking.’ As with Powles, for many of these authors, food is deeply connected to their treasured memories, and to fostering a sense of community at different points in their lives. Powles captures this beautifully when she writes: ‘In the kitchen, memories live in the body, just under the skin and under the tongue. Scents and residues from childhood rub off on our hands.’
Rebecca Liu takes a different tack, exploring the recent phenomenon of recipe boxes in her essay. Laura Freeman ponders over the diets of famous writers; for example, Iris Murdoch’s ‘surprise pudding’, which she served to her friends, and which turned out to be ‘a single Mr Kipling cake’. Ruby Tandoh writes of Doreen Fernandez, who ‘travelled widely across many of the 7,641 islands that comprise the Philippines, documenting the ways in which multiple cultures (and multiple colonisers) have… often synthesised to create the diverse and endlessly inventive foods of the country.’ The essayists draw their inspiration from a wealth of different sources – films, literature, love affairs, or the country of origin of a former partner, for example.
The separate essays have been arranged into three sections, entitled ‘Coming to the Kitchen’, ‘Reading and Writing the Kitchen’, and ‘Beyond the Kitchen’. So many of the authors have been wonderfully inventive and, as I have demonstrated above, have gone in very different directions in what they have explored here. A loose structure, such as the one which the separate sections gives, is effective.
I found In the Kitchen both immersive, and highly entertaining. I was awed by the variety which it contained, and took something particular from every single piece. Every essay made me contemplate something, and – as well as making me feel very hungry! – connected me with a lot of memories in the various kitchens which I have known during my lifetime. I can only hope that Daunt Books expand this as-yet small collection, and in the meantime, I look forward to reading much more of the publishing house’s back catalogue.
If you are a self-confessed foodie, like I am, In the Kitchen will be an incredibly valuable addition to your reading life. I relish books like this, which push me in the directions of different cuisines which I am not as familiar with as I would like to be, recipes which I have not yet tried, and techniques which I have not explored in my cooking. I very much look forward to implementing everything which I have learnt from this excellent collection in my own kitchen.
I received a Waterstone’s voucher for my birthday – surely the best kind of present there is? – and set about spending it immediately. When browsing in my local branch, a thin, pale green spine caught my eye, and before I knew it, I had added Julian Green’s Paris to the rather large stack of books which I was already balancing in my arms. Part of the reason that I picked it up was my love for Penguin Classics, but mostly it was due to the fact that a holiday in France – one of my favourite countries, and one in which I have been lucky enough to spend a large span of time in my life so far – sadly looks very much off the cards in 2021.
It is described in its blurb as an ‘extraordinary, lyrical love letter… taking the reader on an imaginative journey around its secret stairways, courtyards, alleys and hidden places.’ Further, the blurb declares, it is ‘a meditation on getting lost and wasting time, and on what it truly means to love a city.’ I was further intrigued when I read that the Observer calls Paris ‘the most bizarre and delicious of travel books’. Sold, to the girl with the voucher.
Julian Green was born in Paris in 1900, to American parents, and spent the majority of his life in the city. He was a prolific author whom I had never read before, publishing over sixty-five books in France, and a further five in the USA. He wrote mainly in French; indeed, Paris was originally penned in this Romantic language. The Penguin edition is interestingly a bilingual one, the first of the kind which I have read to date. I am just about proficient enough in French to read Green’s original text, but I appreciated being able to compare and contrast his own turns of phrase with those in the translation by J.A. Underwood.
Green opens his travelogue in rather a charming manner: ‘I have often dreamed of writing a book about Paris that would be like one of those long, aimless strolls on which you find none of the things you are looking for but many that you were not looking for.’ He goes on to explain why he wished to look at the more hidden corners of the city, commenting, perhaps a little controversially: ‘Possibly from having looked at them too much, I can no longer see the architectural glories of Paris with quite the open mind required… I make no secret of the fact that it is the old buildings that I prefer, and yet I should be bored to tears if I had to write a page about the Hôtel des Invalides… I should be similarly struck dumb by Notre-Dame… I prefer to remain silent; for me, Notre-Dame is simply Notre-Dame, full stop.’
When Green was forced to be away from his beloved city during the war years, the thought of his home sustained him, holding a great deal of comfort. He reflects: ‘Thinking about the capital all the time, I rebuilt it inside myself. I replaced its physical presence with something else, something supernatural…’. When he returns to Paris, one of the first things which he does is to climb the dome of the Sacre-Coeur: ‘It was as if the whole city hit me in the chest… Winter was drawing to a close; the dazzling March light already consumed everything, and as far as the eye could see there was Paris, wearing, like a cloak that kept slipping from its shoulders, the shadow of the great clouds that the wind was chasing across the breadth of the sky.’ He goes on to say: ‘Certainly the city’s smile is reserved for those who draw near and loaf in its streets; to them it speaks a familiar, reassuring language. The soul of Paris, however, can be apprehended fully from afar and from above, and it is in the silence of the sky that you hear the great and moving cry of pride and faith it upraises to the clouds.’
Green’s short chapters, which are more like a series of essays than anything, take us on a sweeping tour around the city. He speaks of Paris’ history at times, and writes at length about his favourite places to peruse. He is essentially a flâneur; on the Rue de Passy, for instance, he captures the following: ‘… the shoeshop where Lina, my nanny, used to buy those slippers with the sky-blue pompoms, and the stationer’s where flies basked in the sun on the covers of the exercise books, and the grim Nicolas shop, the wine merchant’s, and Mr Beaudichon’s pharmacy (he had such a beautiful beard), and the great gold letters high up on a balcony, proclaiming to all and sundry that a dental surgeon lived here… and the heavenly fragrance of the first sprays of lilac that the florist with the red hands kept in the shade beneath the archway of number 93…’.
Paris is a really beautiful, musing piece on what it means to be a Parisian. According to Green, ‘Every walk I have ever taken along its streets has seemed to create a fresh link, invisible yet tenacious, binding me to its very stones. I used to wonder as a child how the mere name of Paris could denote so many different things, so many streets and squares, so many gardens, houses, roofs, chimneys, and above it all the shifting, insubstantial sky that crowns our city…’. He goes on to tell us: ‘There is scarcely a corner of Paris that is not haunted with memories for me.’
Paris is not merely a romantic musing on the city. Green is remarkably realist in places about aspects of the city’s history, or areas which were perhaps less salubrious than others as he wandered. He comments that in his Paris, ‘Ceaselessly, day and night, poverty and sickness prowl the dreary Montmartre streets that in the tourist’s eyes glitter like a paradise of carefree pleasure…’. He captures such a great deal throughout, often in just one or two sentences which are loaded with detail. He writes, for instance: ‘If the night is a clear one, and if the shadows are sharp and the moonlight good and white, there comes a moment when the best-informed stroller, as for all of the mystery of his city is concerned, stops and stars in silence. Paris, as I have said, is loath to surrender itself to people who are in a hurry; it belongs to the dreamers, to those capable of amusing themselves in its streets without regard to time… consequently their reward is to see what others will never see.’
At just 119 pages, Green captures such a great deal in Paris. It was a delight to peruse the photographs included on some of the pages, all of which were taken by Green himself. He was an excellent chronicler of a city which holds such a dear place in my heart, and which I hope to return to as soon as I can. I found Paris to be a very thoughtful and evocative account of what it means to make one’s home in a single place, and to know it almost as well as one knows oneself. What a wonder, and what a privilege, to travel its streets with one who knew it so well.
I had not heard of Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation before spotting it in my local Fopp store. I felt as though this collection of essays, which all revolve around the Israeli military’s occupation of Palestine, was worthy of an extended review. Whilst I knew quite a bit about the situation and its history before picking the book up, I am always eager to learn, and hoped that it would fill in the gaps which I was certain I had.
Edited by husband and wife team Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, who also contribute an essay each, Kingdom of Olives and Ash brings together twenty-six pieces by a variety of celebrated authors, most of them novelists, from all over the world. Each was offered a trip to the occupied zone, and was invited to write about whatever it was that struck them the most on their travels. Their work, viewed both separately and collectively, ‘shows the human cost of fifty years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.’ These ‘perceptive and poignant essays’, says the book’s blurb, ‘offer unique insight into the narratives behind the litany of grim destruction broadcast nightly on the news, as well as a deeper understanding of the conflict as experienced by the people who live in the occupied territories.’
Chabon and Waldman are frank in their introduction. They write: ‘We didn’t want to edit this book. We didn’t want to write, or even think, in any kind of sustained way, about Israel and Palestine, about the nature and meaning of occupation, about intifadas and settlements, about whose claims were more valid, whose suffering more bitter, whose crimes more egregious, whose outrage more justified. Our reluctance to engage with the issue was so acute that for nearly a quarter of a century we didn’t even visit the place [Jerusalem] where Ayelet was born.’ 1992, they go on to discuss, was the first time in which they visited Israel together. This was a ‘time of optimism, new initiatives, relative tranquility.’
Despite enjoying their trip, and believing that they would often return, they did not get the opportunity to do so for over twenty years. As violence escalated following their visit, they remark: ‘Horrified and bewildered by the blur of violence and destruction, of reprisal and counter-reprisal and counter-counter-reprisal, put off by the dehumanizing rhetoric prevalent on both sides, we did what so many others in the ambivalent middle have done: we averted our gaze. We opted out of the debate, and stayed away from the country.’ Following an invitation to a writers’ festival, Ayelet returned to Israel by herself in 2014, where she also visited Hebron and Tel Aviv: ‘The city sparkles, it hums. And it averts its gaze. One would never know, on the streets of Tel Aviv, that an hour’s drive away, millions of people are living and dying under oppressive military rule.’
As the project for Kingdom of Olives and Ash began to take shape, the editors speak of how they selected a vast array of contributors for the volume, in order to make the collection as far-reaching as was possible. The core idea was this: ‘Conscious of the imminence of June 2017, the fiftieth anniversary of the occupation, we put the word out – to writers on every continent except Antarctica, of all ages and eight mother tongues. Writers who identified as Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu, and writers of no religious affiliation at all. Some had already made clear and public their political feelings on the subject of Palestine-Israel, but most had not, and many acknowledged from the outset that they had never really given the subject more than a glancing consideration.’
I had heard of a lot of the authors collected here, and was familiar with some of their work. I was particularly excited to read essays by Anita Desai, Eimear McBride, and Geraldine Brooks, all writers whose novels I admire. There were a few writers who were new to me, too. Some of these authors were invited to stay at houses in Palestinian refugee camps and villages, and some spoke to civilians about their experiences. Others explored cities, some tried to cross the many checkpoints strewn over a small area, and still others interviewed those working in factories or on archaeological sites. There are many tragic stories told here, as one might expect given the circumstances. The contributors variously meet advocates for peace and change, artisans cultivating ancient practices (soap making, for instance), students, bereaved parents, non-conformists, and taxi drivers who have to navigate the checkpoints many times each day.
I enjoyed and engaged with several of the essays in Kingdom of Olives and Ash, but others did not capture my attention in the same way. The pieces which I particularly enjoyed tended to be written by the authors which I wasn’t already overly familiar with. Jacqueline Woodson’s essay, ‘One’s Own People’, in which she contrasts her privileged, shielded life in New York with those she sees lived in occupied territory, was particularly striking. She writes: ‘I knew the Palestine-Israel of newspaper articles and television journalism. This Palestine-Israel was as foreign to me as Yemen, a place somewhere out there where people who had no connection to me fought among themselves – and killed others. People who were not 100 percent people… how could they be? They were outside my very comfortable America. Outside anything I could – or needed to – imagine.’ I also very much enjoyed Norwegian author Lars Saabye Christensen’s ‘Occupied Words’, which considers the language which we use: ‘And when our language is occupied, attitudes change too, and sometimes the distance from attitude to action is short. The front lines move quicker than the thought. We can’t keep up.’
Of course, there are elements of interest in each and every essay here, but I found some of the writing styles a little awkward in their choice of prose, overly and unnecessarily sensationalised, or not to my taste. I found the essays which focus on one individual, or one family, particularly intriguing and accessible. Others, like Madeleine Thien’s, are overly fact-heavy, and took far longer to read and consider.
Kingdom of Olives and Ash is certainly not an easy read, but it is a challenging and important one. A lot has been explored here. I had intended to read the book all in one go, but it proved far better to read and consider one or two essays each day over an extended period. Much of the information here needed time to settle. I found this varied collection a little uneven at times, but overarchingly, the pieces are interesting and informative, and form rather an essential whole.
I am an enormous fan of Shirley Jackson’s work, and have been eager to read Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings since its publication in 2015. For various reasons, I hadn’t managed to pick it up, but finally requested a copy from my local library. The volume, which contains a great deal of unseen work of Jackson’s, from early stories to pieces of observation, has been edited by her son and daughter, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt. The foreword to the book has been written by Jackson’s biographer, Ruth Franklin.
The blurb explains that Let Me Tell You ‘brings together a treasure trove of short stories – each a miniature masterpiece of unease – with candid, fascinating essays, lectures, articles and drawings.’ In each of these pieces, ‘strange encounters occur, unwanted visitors arrive, places and objects take on lives of their own.’ They shift between the ‘ordinary and the uncanny, the comic and the horrific.’ Many of the stories collected here are from Jackson’s earliest writing period; they were written in a time of ‘impressive productivity as well as inspiring persistence.’
In her introduction, Franklin talks at length about the importance of Jackson’s posthumous collection. She writes that the real highlight in Let Me Tell You is ‘especially for aspiring writers’, as Jackson shares ‘succinct, specific advice about creating fiction’ in both essays and transcripts of lectures which she gave.
Let Me Tell You has been split into several sections, which are often thematic. Due to the emphasis which Jackson placed on writing about her family and her own life, many of the sections which are not purely made up of her short stories have overlapping content.
Let Me Tell You further demonstrates just how marvellous Jackson was at writing, and how she could so deftly create atmosphere and foreboding. She had an innate ability to know just where to end a story, when all of the reader’s senses are heightened, and the tension which she is built is almost unbearable. Jackson was also wonderful at suggestion, and of making her readers question often quite ordinary things. As with her better known work, her stories contain clever and surprising twists. At first, the situations which she crafts, and the lives which she lets us glimpse, appear ordinary; however, her stories are anything but. Even the shortest of her stories has been meticulously plotted, and strikes just the right balance. A mixture of narrative perspectives has been used throughout, the characters are varied, and there is an unsettling quality to each.
Many of Jackson’s stories are steeped in the domestic, and the everyday: for instance, Mrs Spencer in ‘Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons’, who sets about preparing a party with no help whatsoever from her indifferent husband; and the wife of a professor talking to two of his young female students in ‘Still Life and Students’, one of whom has been having an affair with him. We meet a man who walks around a park fabricating stories to tell to everyone he meets, and a woman who returns to her hometown after many years, and finds that nothing at all is the same, or is as she expected. In this last story, ‘The Lie’, Jackson writes: ‘She felt wary of going too close to her old house, although she had been anxious to see it again; perhaps if she came within its reach it would capture her again, and never let her go this time. Or perhaps it was only because she was embarrassed about being seen by people looking out their windows and telling one another, “There’s Joyce Richards come back. Thought she was doing so well in the city?”‘
The accompanying illustrations, of which there are surprisingly few, are whimsical, and her essays witty and amusing. Throughout, there is a sharpness to Jackson’s writing, perhaps more apparent in her short stories than her non-fiction pieces. She was an extremely perceptive and intelligent author.
For a Jackson fan, Let Me Tell You is a real treat. To those unfamiliar with her work, it could act as a great introduction to both her stories and style. Jackson is quite unlike any other author I have ever come across, and it feels like a real privilege to be able to read these previously unpublished and forgotten pieces. They are polished, written with the hand of a very talented author who already seems at the height of her craft.
I have previously read Gay’s short story collection Ayiti, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Her writing has such a startling beauty to it. I was therefore looking forward to reading her first collection of essays, Bad Feminist, and expected to be similarly blown away.
My interest was piqued particularly after I read the thoughts of one of my favourite authors, Elizabeth McCracken, on the book. She writes: ‘Bad Feminist shows this extraordinary writer’s range… Roxane Gay is alternately hilarious, full of righteous anger, confiding, moving. [It] is like staying up agreeing and arguing with the smartest person you’ve ever met.’ Indeed, there is a lot of high praise surrounding Bad Feminist. In the quotations published at the front of the book, Gay and her work are variously described as ‘alternately friendly and provocative, wry and serious’, ‘[She] playfully subverts the borders between pop-culture consumer and critic, between serious academic and lighthearted sister-girl, between despair and optimism, between good and bad’, and as ‘a necessary and brave voice when it comes to figuring out all the crazy mixed messages in our mixed-up world.’
The book has been split into five often overlapping sections. Two of these concern Gay as an individual, and the others are ‘Gender & Sexuality’, ‘Race & Entertainment’, and ‘Politics, Gender & Race’. In these essays, Gay deals variously with such topics as the language surrounding sexual violence, ‘The Trouble with Prince Charming’, homosexuality, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, and Twitter.
In her introduction, Gay justifies her reasons for writing such a collection of essays, using the term ‘bad feminist’ as she is both ‘flawed and human’. She posits, as one might expect, that in large sections of culture and the workplace, women are overlooked and subjugated: ‘Movies, more often than not, tell the stories of men as if men’s stories are the only stories that matter. When women are involved, they are sidekicks, the romantic interests. the afterthoughts. Rarely do women get to be the center of attention. Rarely do our stories get to matter.’ I feel as though this all-or-nothing viewpoint is a little limiting, and can think of many films and books written before Bad Feminist was published, which do demonstrate the strength of women; the film Erin Brockovich is a striking example.
The style of Gay’s writing in Bad Feminist did not really work for me. I found it rather repetitive at times, particularly from one essay to another, and some of the things which she said were, I felt, a little obvious. Evidently, the book has been aimed at a general audience, but the odd balance struck between relatively highbrow, academic and data-informed writing and the chatty tone which Gay adopts felt a little awkward. I also had an issue with the pop culture references which are used often throughout; they were, as one might expect, geared solely to a US audience, and I had no knowledge of some of the programmes and people whom she mentioned.
Bad Feminist was not at all what I expected it to be. The beginnings of each essay failed to grab my attention, and I felt that sometimes more interesting points which Gay made were overlooked, or not worked to their full potential. Few of the essay subjects really jumped out and grabbed me, and nothing had me on the edge of my seat as her fiction so often does. Despite my largely negative feelings about Bad Feminist, I do intend to read her newest book of non-fiction, Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture.
The thirty-eighth book in the Penguin Modern series is Dark Days by James Baldwin, a selection of three searing and important essays – ‘Dark Days’ (1980), ‘The Price of the Ticket’ (1985), and ‘The White Man’s Guilt’ (1965). All of them draw upon Baldwin’s own experiences of prejudice, and a life growing up in poverty. I really enjoyed Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni’s Room, and have been hoping to read more of his work ever since, so I was very much looking forward to this title.
Whilst Baldwin’s prose style is beautiful and intelligent, the content of these essays is sometimes quite difficult to read. The titular essays begins with Baldwin’s beliefs about racial ideas which prevailed during the Great Depression: ‘To be black was to confront, and to be forced to alter, a condition forged in history. To be white was to be forced to digest a delusion called white supremacy. Indeed, without confronting the history that has either given white people an identity or divested them of it, it is hardly possible for anyone who thinks of himself as white to know what a black person is talking about at all.’ He goes on in this essay to discuss his education, which he received in Harlem during the Great Depression: ‘My education began, as does everyone’s, with the people who towered over me, who were responsible for me, who were forming me. They were the people who loved me, in their fashion – whom I loved, in mine. These were people whom I had no choice but to imitate and, in time, to outwit. One realizes later that there is no one to outwit but oneself.’
Despite the brevity of these essays, Baldwin discusses an awful lot of topics, many of which are interconnected, in depth. He talks about race, the economy, migration, family, community, war, identity, politics, education, sexuality, and poverty, to name but a handful. He writes with piercing insight, and so much talent.
Baldwin comments throughout on American society and culture. In ‘The White Man’s Guilt’, he writes, for instance: ‘This is the place in which, it seems to me, most white Americans find themselves. Impaled. They are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence. This incoherence is heard nowhere more plainly than in these stammering, terrified dialogues which white Americans sometime entertain with that black conscience, the black man in America.’
Dark Days feels incredibly modern, both with regard to the problems which it speaks about, and the harshly divided world which it presents. The essays here are important and insightful, and should be read by everyone. If we all took Baldwin’s ideas and sentiments to heart, the world would be a much nicer place in which to live.
As winter is settling down for good and Christmas is fast approaching, what better way to spend those chilly days than cosy up with a hot beverage and a good book of fairy tale-inspired stories.
My fascination with fairy tales and folk stories is nothing new, so as soon as I found out about When I Was A Wolf, a book of classic Western fairy tale retellings by Terayama Shūji, a Japanese author, I was incredibly excited to get my hands on it. Fairy tale retellings have been quite popular for a long time now, but since they are usually retold by a Western perspective, I thought it would be very intriguing to gain some insight on what a Japanese author would make of those Western tales most of us grew up with and are so fond of.
Terayama Shūji doesn’t merely retell the classic fairy tales that have been chosen for this collection, but instead he twists and turns them into an entirely different entity. Attempting to give them an adult twist, much like Angela Carter had also done, Terayama creates stories that are definitely not suitable for children, mostly due to the numerous sexual references and inuendos. One such example is Pinocchio’s nose, which is being turned into a phallus that grows more and more whenever he tells a lie. This collection is excellently translated by Elizabeth L. Armstrong, who also wrote a very useful and highly informative preface to the book, giving some much needed insight into the author’s style and literary achievements.
The book is divided into two main parts. The first one contains some essays and thought pieces where Terayama explains his interpretation of fairy tales like ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, ‘Puss in Boots’, ‘Pinocchio’, as well as of literary masterpieces like Ibsen’s ‘Doll House’, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, ‘Don Quixote’ and so on. I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed his literary voice and the way he expressed his opinion, even if it was one that I wouldn’t always agree with. Terayama is a very talented critic and most of his opinions on the literary pieces he commented on were spot on and gave me a lot to ponder. What shines through the entire book, though, is undoubtedly his wit and sense of humour. Every sentence, every remark he makes is witty and purposeful and I believe this is what made me truly enjoy this book in the end.
The second part contains the actual retellings of fairy tales by Andersen, Aesop’s Fables and Perrault’s Mother Goose, which Terayama turns into adult-themed stories. Although it was this part of the book I was most looking forward to reading, I have to admit I was slightly disappointed in the result. Yes, the author’s wit and caustic humour encompass his writing and that makes it enjoyable, but I was probably expecting something different. In most cases, instead of a full-fledged story, we get a conglomeration of opinion pieces, “readers’ letters” and a partial rewriting of the fairy tale in question. I soon came to realise, though, that this is just Terayama’s writing style and my disappointment is mostly due to my creating unrealistic expectations, as I was expecting a rather conventionally retold story, if I can call it that.
Elizabeth L. Armstrong, the translator, perfectly describes the experience of reading Terayama’s essays and stories in her preface: “His work is often like a piece of performance art you simply cannot tear your eyes away from, so you bear witness to it, awash with feelings of revulsion, morbid attraction, revelation and compassion” (p. vii). This first encounter with Terayama’s work might not have been what I expected, but it definitely piqued my interest and made me want to seek more of his work, especially since he’s an author I had never heard of before.
Have you read this book? Do you enjoy fairy tale retellings and if yes, which is your favourite? Let me know in the comments below 🙂
A copy of the book was very kindly sent to me by the publisher, Kurodahan Press.
Penguin Modern number 29 is Susan Sontag’s Notes on “Camp”, which is comprised of the title essay alongside ‘One Culture and the New Sensibility’. These two essays, both of which can be found in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966), are heralded in the book’s blurb as ‘the first works of criticism to break down the boundaries between “high” and “low” culture, and made Susan Sontag a literary sensation.’
To date, I have only read two of Sontag’s other essays, collected together in Illness as Metaphor and Aids and Its Metaphors, and read for an Illness Narratives class during my Master’s degree. The essays were interesting enough, but I did feel as though they were rather too brief in places.
In ‘Notes on Camp’, Sontag essentially talks about our concept of what is ‘camp’. She believes ‘Camp’ to be a demonstration of artifice, something ‘silly’ and ‘extravagant’. Near to the beginning of the essay, she writes: ‘One of the facts to be reckoned with is that taste tends to develop very unevenly. It’s rare that the same person has good visual taste and good taste in people and taste in ideas’. Of course – and this is something which Sontag strangely does not consider at all in her essay – taste is entirely subjective. This put me off on the wrong footing with Sontag’s work. Throughout, I must admit that I found her brand of essayism a touch pretentious.
‘Notes on Camp’ feels quite fragmented to read. It is as though Sontag randomly jotted down a lot of quotes and thoughts, and did not bother to sort them into any order, or even to categorise them coherently. It very much feels like a series of notes which could perhaps have done with a little revising. Oscar Wilde quotes are shoved in at random, and not commented upon for the most part. I found it quite bizarre in places. Sontag believes, for instance, that ‘many of the works of Jean Cocteau are Camp, but not those of Andre Gide; the operas of Richard Strauss, but not those of Wagner; concoctions of Tin Pan Alley and Liverpool, but not jazz’. Never does she explain how or why she has come to these strange conclusions. When she does occasionally give reasoning for a point which she makes, I found it quite odd, and did not appreciate the occasional prejudices which come to light in her writing.
In the second essay, Sontag proposes that there exist “two cultures”: the literary-artistic and the scientific. She goes on to write: ‘According to this diagnosis, any intelligent and articulate modern person is likely to inhabit one culture to the exclusion of the other. He will be concerned with different documents, different techniques, different problems; he will speak a different language. Most important, the type of effort required for the mastery of these two cultures will differ vastly. For the literary-artistic culture is understood as a general culture. It is addressed to man insofar as he is man… The scientific culture, in contrast, is a culture for specialists; it is founded on remembering and is set down in ways that require complete dedication of the effort to comprehend.’ In this essay, which is slightly more coherent than the first, and more traditional in its structure, Sontag also talks about the progression of art.
I always feel as though I should enjoy Sontag’s work more than I do. However, Notes on “Camp” has cemented that I am not a great fan of her essayism. The collection shows its age rather; perhaps it is just a product of its time, but it is not one which I particularly enjoyed, or took much from. Sontag writes with a sort of knowing superiority, and I did not find her arguments here to be particularly measured, or compelling. Her tone feels final and definite, as though her answers are the only correct ones. I prefer the essayists I read to be more open in their conclusions, allowing inclusion, something which Sontag does not seem to concern herself with.