I have wanted to read Eley Willams’ debut short story collection, Attrib., since it was first published, but have been unable to find a copy. I was delighted, therefore, when I was able to find her first novel, The Liar’s Dictionary, in my local library.
The Liar’s Dictionary tells two parallel stories, which revolve around the creation and revision of an unfinished dictionary, Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. The first of these stories takes place in 1899, where Peter Winceworth is ‘toiling away’, and has reached the letter ‘S’. He is feeling somewhat threatened by his colleagues, who are intent only upon the ‘regiment facts’, and decides to insert a series of mountweazels, completely fictitious words, into the dictionary.
Such mountweazels are often used to prevent copyright infringement, but Winceworth finds them fascinating, and begins to invent slews of his own; ‘fourteenth-century dignitaries from Constantinople and a small religious sect living in the volcanic Japanese Alps. More often that not, however, these false entries allowed him to plug a lexical gap, create a word for a sensation or a reality where no word in current circulation seemed to fit the bill. This ranged from waxing poetical about a disappointing novel – susposset (n.)… [to] larch (v.), to allot time to daydreaming.’
The present story takes place in the same physical office building which Winceworth once worked within. Here, we follow a young intern named Mallory, who is, in fact, the only member of staff in the office, aside from David Swansby, a relative of the original dictionary creator. Her job is to locate all of the mountweazels in the text, and remove them for the revised edition. As she finds more and more invented words, she ‘has access to their creator’s motivations, hopes and desires.’ She is entirely forbidden from adding modern words into the dictionary, too. Mallory’s narrative begins in a manner which amused and intrigued me: ‘David spoke to me for three minutes without realising I had a whole egg in my mouth.’
Mallory and Winceworth are both fully-formed and fascinating. Winceworth decided, in childhood, to cultivate a lisp, which his mother found ‘endearing’ and his father ‘ridiculous’; this has followed him into his adult life. Mallory is complex, coming to terms with her life, and nervous about whether she should reveal the existence of her girlfriend, Pip, to her boss.
I thoroughly enjoyed the observations which Williams made throughout the novel; David Swansby, for instance, ‘looked like his handwriting: ludicrously tall, neat, squared-off at the edges. Like my handwriting, I was aware that I often looked as though I needed to be tidied away, or ironed, possibly autoclaved.’ As Mallory begins to learn of Winceworth’s story, she reflects: ‘The more I thought about it at work, the more I liked the close-but-unreachable sound of 1900 and its neologisms, the words that entered mouths and ears and inkwells that year. Teabag, come-hither, razzmatazz. 1900 sounds like a lot more fun than 1899, and its note-taking lexicographers.’
The novel’s preface muses about what makes the ‘perfect dictionary’, which would, of course, be tailored to the individual reader. It comments that ‘a dictionary’s preface can act like an introduction to someone you have no interest in meeting’. I found this section relatively humorous, and felt that it nicely paved the way for the two stories to unfold. I very much liked the structural approach which Williams took, too; The Liar’s Dictionary follows the patterns and directives of a real dictionary: it ranges from the chapter heading ‘A is for artful (adj.)’ to ‘Y is for yes (exclam.)’.
Williams’ novel ‘celebrates the rigidity, fragility and absurdity of language’, and she does this so well. It is clear that the author gets such joy from wordplay, and this was one of my favourite elements throughout the entire novel. There are moments of real brilliance here, and a lot of curious observances to be found. The Liar’s Dictionary is a thoroughly engaging, entertaining, and playful read, which I had so much fun with.
I was not planning on breaking my book buying ban (again…), but I ended up ordering a copy of Bee Lewis’ Liminal, along with Eleanor Anstruther’s fascinating A Perfect Explanation. The publisher of both novels, Salt Books, was asking for everyone to buy one book during the pandemic, as their business was suffering. I set out to just choose one, but could not decide which I would rather read, so both novels landed on my doorstep a week or so later.
I was immediately drawn to Liminal when I started to read its Gothic-sounding blurb. I very much enjoy reading deliberately unsettling books, and had not picked one up in quite some time. Liminal, therefore, sounded perfect. It focuses on Esther, a pregnant woman whose leg was amputated after a childhood accident, and her husband, Dan. The pair are travelling from their former home in Bristol to start a new life in the remote Scottish Highlands, restoring a former train station, which has been abandoned for decades.
We follow Esther ‘as her marriage, life and body begin to dramatically change’. Due to her disability, she often feels isolated; this is exacerbated by the rough and uneven terrain around their new home, and its remote position. A deep snowfall, which arrives soon after the couple do, also makes movement more difficult to Esther. Early in the novel, she thinks back to her home in Bristol, uncertain about having left everything which she is so comfortable with behind: ‘The city was her touchstone, its roads were rooted in her veins, its houses in her cells. Yet she’d agreed to leave her sanctuary, trading the strident city streets for the cool mountain air and yawning expanse. She’d heard her rational self trotting out the reasons why: new life, fresh start, fantastic opportunity, support for Dan. But she couldn’t just ignore the small voice deep inside her that invaded her dreams and called her out for the coward she was.’
Lewis’ beautiful prose highlights all that is bleak around Esther: ‘The bone-numbing wind tried to breathe new life into the ancient landscape, but Spring was not yet ready to be roused and instead pulled a cloak of frost around her.’ One of my favourite parts of the entire novel was the way in which the landscape is personified; it is a character in itself, and it lives and adapts throughout the novel. Lewis’ writing is continuously dark, descriptive, and haunting, but never does it feel repetitive or overdone.
Even the elements of magical realism – ‘Gothic fantasia’, as they are termed in the novel’s blurb – blend in seamlessly with the realistic. Esther awakes one morning, for instance, naked and outside, ‘on a bed of bracken’. Lewis describes the experience, with striking imagery, as follows: ‘The metal shaft of her right leg was cold against her skin… This was bad. She had to get back home, back to Dan, back to safety, but nothing looked familiar to her and a growing dread burrowed into her stomach. She ran her hands over her body, checking for injuries as she stood up, hunching her shoulders and stooping low to the ground, conscious of her nakedness. Her moth tasted of iron as the fear she felt fused with her blood. The trees loomed in towards her, closing ranks, surrounding her on every side.’
The span of Liminal, which takes place over a single week, works wonderfully. The atmosphere and pressure grow exponentially. We learn early on that something is not right within Esther and Dan’s marriage, and that it has not been so for a long time. They are grieving both the death of a friend and a miscarriage, and Esther cannot quite believe that she has been given another chance to become a mother.
From the outset, Liminal felt like a novel which I would love. This feeling grew stronger as I continued to read it, and I quickly got to the stage where I could not bear to put it down. I sank into the writing; I was totally absorbed within it. For a debut novel, Liminal is nothing short of a masterpiece. There are so many elements here which soar. Lewis has such an understanding of Esther, and focuses on her strengths whilst also being continually aware of her limitations as a disabled woman. I am so looking forward to reading whatever Lewis publishes next, and am almost certain that whatever her main subject is, it will be handled with finesse and compassion.
I cannot help but feel that British author Salley Vickers is somewhat underrated. I have not seen many reviews of her work online, or on platforms like BookTube, and her works tend to have rather low overall ratings on Goodreads. However, she is an author whose work I have very much enjoyed since first picking up Miss Garnet’s Angel back in 2012.
I picked up one of her novels, Dancing Backwards, when my library first reopened for browsing, having been shut for four months due to the pandemic. Stuck in one place, with little opportunity to travel, I decided that I wanted to read as many books about journeys as was possible. Dancing Backwards, therefore, seemed perfect. The protagonist of the piece, a woman named Violet Hetherington, is travelling to New York by ship, to meet an old acquaintance. Her journey is as much an inner one as a physical one; thus, I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s early masterpiece, The Voyage Out.
As ever, Vickers’ prose is remarkably vivid from the outset. Her writing is intelligent, and it has a lot of depth to it. She never loses the focus of Violet, but is astute at writing about her surroundings, and of the other characters who are taking the same journey. Violet feels wholly realistic; we learn about her past and present, and her hopes for the future, through the many vignettes which make up the novel’s structure. She can be rather an acerbic woman, and I enjoyed her dark humour. Vickers wonderfully charts Violet’s relationships, and deftly handles the way in which the narrative moves back and forth in time. Dancing Backwards is a wonderful novel about taking chances, and being true to oneself.
The Word for Woman is Wilderness by Abi Andrews ****
I also picked up Abi Andrews’ novel, The Word for Woman is Wilderness, on the same library visit. It has been on my radar for quite some time, and I was so interested in the plot and somewhat unconventional structure. The novel takes as its focus a nineteen-year-old woman named Erin, who has never strayed too far from her Midlands home. She decides, however, to take an epic journey to the wilds of Alaska, travelling via Iceland, Greenland, and Canada to do so.
Throughout, Erin details her experiences of travelling and living in rather hostile environments, and those who help her along the way. Inspired on her journey by the rather infamous Chris McCandless, she comments: ‘Travelling by sea and land will be an Odyssean epic, only with me, a girl, on a female quest for authenticity.’ She films her own documentary as she goes too, which was an authentic-feeling way for Andrews to shoehorn in a lot of cultural commentary.
The Word for Woman is Wilderness is a fascinating and thought-provoking piece of ecofiction, which held my attention from its very beginning. I loved the numerous different approaches used here, from transcripts from the documentary, to philosophical musings. Erin is a wonderful character, who comes to rely entirely upon herself, and does so with a great deal of realism. There are many moments of profundity throughout, and the originality which Andrews has managed to create in this, her debut, is quite astounding.
Having very much enjoyed Jane Robinson’s Bluestockings some years ago, I felt that it was high time I picked up another of her books. I found the prolific author’s tenth book – Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote – on a jaunt to my local library, and settled down to read it on a grey afternoon.
The idea behind Hearts and Minds fascinated me. I have always been so interested in the suffrage movement, but Robinson had found an element of it which I had never before learnt about. This surprises me, as I have studied it in detail over the years; the Great Pilgrimage just seems to be a largely overlooked event, for reasons unbeknownst to me. I agree wholeheartedly with Robinson’s commentary on the Great Pilgrimage; she calls it ‘one of the most inspiring and neglected episodes in British history.’
In the summer of 1913, the year before the outbreak of the First World War, Britain became ‘gripped by suffragette fever’. This was the year in which the Great Pilgrimage took place. It was planned by the peaceful non-militant suffragist group, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage (NUWSS), who were keen to create as much distance as possible between themselves and the militant suffragettes. The often increasingly violent acts of the suffragettes made them seem a larger group than they were; rather, the suffragettes were a minority, albeit one who gained a lot of attention in the media, and in the country at large. As Robinson writes, the suffragettes’ ‘confrontational approach distracted public attention from the imaginative and quietly courageous work done by tens of thousands of others across Britain… [The suffragists] were just as determined about emancipation… but more persuasive.’ The suffragists wished to set themselves apart once and for all, and planned the Great Pilgrimage to be ‘as much as a march against militancy as it was for women’s rights.’
Thousands of women took to the streets to try to win equal suffrage. These women, from all over the country, ’embarked on an astonishing six-week protest march they called the Great Pilgrimage. Rich and poor, young and old, they defy convention’, and happily gave up ‘jobs, family relationships, and even their lives to persuade the country to listen to them.’ Their journey was at once ‘dangerous, exhausting and exhilarating’, and paved the way to alter the lives of British women forever. Their march was beset by problems from the outset, from vandalism of their property, to physical violence meted out by those who disagreed that women should be given equal suffrage.
The women who participated in the Great Pilgrimage were largely unknown. High-profile suffragists marched amongst them, but for the most part the women left their small towns and villages all over the country to show their solidarity. Of these women, Robinson notes: ‘Many of the people who feature in this book were not thought important enough to record in official chronicles of the fight for the vote, or were too modest to imagine anyone being interested in who they were.’ Robinson also writes, although not always at great length, about the hundreds of men who supported the cause, many of whom set out to march with the women along part of the route.
The march took six different routes from all corners of Britain – Carlisle, Newcastle, Yarmouth, Portsmouth, and Brighton, amongst other locations – converging in a final push upon London. Smaller routes fed into these larger ones ‘like tributaries, all flowing to the capital city.’ It began in the middle of June, and went on until the end of July. The different groups of participants had to stop many times along the way in order to hold meetings with locals, trying to convert the more stubborn to their cause.
In Hearts and Minds, Robinson weaves together extracts from diaries, letters, and unpublished accounts, framing these within the wider context of the suffrage movement, and the United Kingdom’s political landscape. She spans a vast period, from the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, and thoroughly explores ‘a story of ordinary people’ who brought about ‘extraordinary change’. In her introduction, Robinson sets out the social constraints of early twentieth-century Britain in a succinct manner, and continually points out the importance of the Great Pilgrimage. It at last gave women, who were denied a voice, ‘the authority to challenge the domestic stereotype’. Although women did not receive equal suffrage until 1928, the Great Pilgrimage was a series of small steps, which made an enormous difference.
Hearts and Minds is incredibly thorough, and so easy to read. Robinson sets out the birth of both suffrage groups in great detail, and also offers biographical information about several of the women who were there from the very beginning. The attention which Robinson gives to setting the scene, indeed, is so thorough, that the Great Pilgrimage is not explored in any detail until the middle of the book.
Hearts and Minds is inspiring, filled as it is with so many selfless women – and men – who advanced a cause of vital importance, and changed Britain for the better. They ensured, en masse, that their voices were heard, and their determination is heartening. This is another highly engaging book from a wonderful historian, and I am very much looking forward to exploring the rest of her oeuvre in the months to come.
I recently came across this very interesting reading list, published by TED in 2018. It is wonderfully varied, and certainly contains quite a few niche genres which I certainly have not read before. Although the list specifies that these choices are aimed at summer reading, I thought that I would look through it and pick out ten titles which I would like to get to over the next year or two.
1. A Lucky Man: Stories by Jamel Brinkley ‘In the nine expansive, searching stories of A Lucky Man, fathers and sons attempt to salvage relationships with friends and family members and confront mistakes made in the past. An imaginative young boy from the Bronx goes swimming with his group from day camp at a backyard pool in the suburbs, and faces the effects of power and privilege in ways he can barely grasp. A teen intent on proving himself a man through the all-night revel of J’Ouvert can’t help but look out for his impressionable younger brother. A pair of college boys on the prowl follow two girls home from a party and have to own the uncomfortable truth of their desires. And at a capoeira conference, two brothers grapple with how to tell the story of their family, caught in the dance of their painful, fractured history. Jamel Brinkley’s stories, in a debut that announces the arrival of a significant new voice, reflect the tenderness and vulnerability of black men and boys whose hopes sometimes betray them, especially in a world shaped by race, gender, and class–where luck may be the greatest fiction of all.’
2. Sophie’s Misfortunes by Comtesse de Ségur ‘Les Malheur de Sophie (Sophie’s Misfortunes) describes the life of Sophie before the events of Les Petites Filles Modèles, when she still lives with her parents in the French countryside. She is a lively, adventurous child who keeps getting into mischief with the critical complicity of her cousin Paul. Each chapter, with a few exceptions, follow a similar pattern: Sophie does something bad or stupid; she is found out or confesses her mischief; and she gets punished –or not – by her mother Mme de Réan, who uses each incident to teach a moral lesson.’
3. Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World by Eileen McNamara ‘A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist examines the life and times of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, arguing she left behind the Kennedy family’s most profound political legacy. While Joe Kennedy was grooming his sons for the White House and the Senate, his Stanford-educated daughter Eunice was tapping her father’s fortune and her brothers’ political power to engineer one of the great civil rights movements of our time on behalf of millions of children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Now, in Eunice, Pulitzer Prize winner Eileen McNamara finally brings Eunice Kennedy Shriver out from her brothers’ shadow to show an officious, cigar-smoking, indefatigable woman of unladylike determination and deep compassion born of rage: at the medical establishment that had no answers for her sister Rosemary; at the revered but dismissive father whose vision for his family did not extend beyond his sons; and at the government that failed to deliver on America’s promise of equality. Granted access to never-before-seen private papers—from the scrapbooks Eunice kept as a schoolgirl in prewar London to her thoughts on motherhood and feminism—McNamara paints a vivid portrait of a woman both ahead of her time and out of step with it: the visionary founder of the Special Olympics, a devout Catholic in a secular age, and a formidable woman whose impact on American society was longer lasting than that of any of the Kennedy men.’
4. The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs ‘Poet and essayist Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer–one small spot. Within a year, she received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal. How does a dying person learn to live each day “unattached to outcome”? How does one approach the moments, big and small, with both love and honesty? How does a young mother and wife prepare her two young children and adored husband for a loss that will shape the rest of their lives? How do we want to be remembered? Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, Nina asks: What makes a meaningful life when one has limited time? “Profound and poignant” (O, The Oprah Magazine), The Bright Hour is about how to make the most of all the days, even the painful ones. It’s about the way literature, especially Nina’s direct ancestor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and her other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer.’
5. The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown ‘For readers of Unbroken, out of the depths of the Depression comes an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times–the improbable, intimate account of how nine working-class boys from the American West showed the world at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin what true grit really meant. It was an unlikely quest from the start. With a team composed of the sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the University of Washington’s eight-oar crew team was never expected to defeat the elite teams of the East Coast and Great Britain, yet they did, going on to shock the world by defeating the German team rowing for Adolf Hitler. The emotional heart of the tale lies with Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not only to regain his shattered self-regard but also to find a real place for himself in the world. Drawing on the boys’ own journals and vivid memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, Brown has created an unforgettable portrait of an era, a celebration of a remarkable achievement, and a chronicle of one extraordinary young man’s personal quest.’
6. The Overstoryby Richard Powers
‘An Air Force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. These four, and five other strangers-each summoned in different ways by trees-are brought together in a last and violent stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest. In his twelfth novel, National Book Award winner Richard Powers delivers a sweeping, impassioned novel of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of-and paean to-the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, exploring the essential conflict on this planet: the one taking place between humans and nonhumans. There is a world alongside ours-vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe. The Overstory is a book for all readers who despair of humanity’s self-imposed separation from the rest of creation and who hope for the transformative, regenerating possibility of a homecoming. If the trees of this earth could speak, what would they tell us? “Listen. There’s something you need to hear.”‘
7. No Pity by Joe Shapiro ‘In No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement, Joe Shapiro of U.S. News & World Report tells of a political awakening few nondisabled Americans have even imagined. There are over 43 million disabled people in this country alone; for decades most of them have been thought incapable of working, caring for themselves, or contributing to society. But during the last twenty-live years, they, along with their parents and families, have begun to recognize that paraplegia, retardation, deafness, blindness, AIDS, autism, or any of the hundreds of other chronic illnesses and disabilities that differentiate them from the able-bodied are not tragic. The real tragedy is prejudice, our society’s and the medical establishment’s refusal to recognize that the disabled person is entitled to every right and privilege America can offer. No Pity‘s chronicle of disabled people’s struggle for inclusion, from the seventeenth-century deaf communities on Martha’s Vineyard to the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1992, is only part of the story. Joe Shapiro’s five years of in-depth reporting have uncovered many personal stories as well. ‘
8. A Kind of Mirraculus Paradise by Sandra Allen
‘Writer Sandra Allen did not know their uncle Bob very well. As a child, Sandy had been told Bob was “crazy,” that he had spent time in mental hospitals while growing up in Berkeley in the 60s and 70s. But Bob had lived a hermetic life in a remote part of California for longer than Sandy had been alive, and what little Sandy knew of him came from rare family reunions or odd, infrequent phone calls. Then in 2009 Bob mailed Sandy his autobiography. Typewritten in all caps, a stream of error-riddled sentences over sixty, single-spaced pages, the often-incomprehensible manuscript proclaimed to be a “true story” about being “labeled a psychotic paranoid schizophrenic,” and arrived with a plea to help him get his story out to the world. In A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story about Schizophrenia, Sandy translates Bob’s autobiography, artfully creating a gripping coming-of-age story while sticking faithfully to the facts as he shared them. Lacing Bob’s narrative with chapters providing greater contextualization, Sandy also shares background information about their family, the culturally explosive time and place of their uncle’s formative years, and the vitally important questions surrounding schizophrenia and mental healthcare in America more broadly. The result is a heartbreaking and sometimes hilarious portrait of a young man striving for stability in his life as well as his mind, and an utterly unique lens into an experience that, to most people, remains unimaginable.’
9. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien ‘Master storyteller Madeleine Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations–those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. At the center of this epic story are two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming. Through their relationship Marie strives to piece together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking answers in the fragile layers of their collective story. Her quest will unveil how Kai, her enigmatic father, a talented pianist, and Ai-Ming’s father, the shy and brilliant composer, Sparrow, along with the violin prodigy Zhuli were forced to reimagine their artistic and private selves during China’s political campaigns and how their fates reverberate through the years with lasting consequences. With maturity and sophistication, humor and beauty, Thien has crafted a novel that is at once intimate and grandly political, rooted in the details of life inside China yet transcendent in its universality.’
10. Sorry, Not Sorry by Haji Mohamed Dawjee ‘Why don’t white people understand that Converse tekkies are not just cool but a political statement to people of colour? Why is it that South Africans of colour don’t really ‘write what we like’? What’s the deal with people pretending to be ‘woke’? Is Islam really as antifeminist as is claimed? What does it feel like to be a brown woman in a white media corporation? And what life lessons can we learn from Bollywood movies? In Sorry, Not Sorry, Haji Mohamed Dawjee explores the often maddening experience of moving through post-apartheid South Africa as a woman of colour. In characteristically candid style, she pulls no punches when examining the social landscape: from arguing why she’d rather deal with an open racist than some liberal white people, to drawing on her own experience to convince readers that joining a cult is never a good idea. In the provocative voice that has made Mohamed Dawjee one of our country’s most talked-about columnists, she offers observations laced with acerbic wit. Sorry, Not Sorry will make readers laugh, wince, nod, introspect and argue.’
Which of these books take your fancy? Have you read any of them?
I have been blown away by Irish author Lucy Caldwell’s short stories in the past, and have been keen to pick up one of her novels, to see how the form compares. All the Beggars Riding was the first which I picked up, as I was kindly gifted a copy for my birthday. The novel is Caldwell’s third, and was first published in 2013.
All the Beggars Riding focuses upon Lara Moorhouse and her younger brother Alfie, who grew up in London during the 1970s and 1980s. Their father worked as a plastic surgeon in Northern Ireland for part of each week, helping to reconstruct the faces of those injured in bombing attacks during the Troubles. He then spent a day or two in an exclusive Harley Street practice. When Lara’s father passes away in a helicopter crash, the truth about his life is revealed; he had another family, a wife and children, who lived in Belfast. Lara’s mother ‘was, in fact, his mistress’.
The novel marks Lara’s attempts to confront her past, in which she makes herself revisit ‘troubling memories of her childhood to piece together the story of her parents’ hidden relationship.’ In the present day story, Lara is thirty-nine years old, and is grieving following the death of her mother. Of this, she comments on the turmoil which she feels: ‘… inside, I was alternately blank and lurching with grief, thick and oily, like waves, that would rise up and threaten to swamp me utterly… People kept saying, time will heal, and in a terrible, clichéd way, it does: every day life pastes its dull routines over the rawness, although the rawness is still there.’
The novel begins, rather specifically, on a Thursday morning in May 1972, with one of Lara’s memories: ‘Early morning, say six, or half six, but the sunlight is already pouring in, through the curtainless window set high in the slope of the roof… You are standing, face upturned to the window, breathing in the sun. I can see you, almost: if I close my eyes I can almost see you.’ I liked the way in which Lara occasionally addresses her childhood self, longing as she does to retain some memory of who she was.
One of my favourite elements of All the Beggars Riding was the emphasis which Caldwell places on the unreliability of memory. Our narrator comments: ‘… lives aren’t orderly, and nor is memory… We make it so, when we narrate things – setting them in straight lines and in context – whereas in reality things are all mixed up, and you feel several things, even things that contradict each other, or that happened at separate times, or that aren’t on the surface even related, all at once.’ Later, she muses: ‘But it seems to me that in too many books people’s memories come in seamless waves, perfectly coherent and lyrical. Recollections come like that one just did to me, searing, intense and jagged from nowhere, burning bright when before there was nothing.’
The author certainly has a recognisable style; as with her short stories, she searches for the essence of her characters throughout All the Beggars Riding. One gets a real insight into Lara’s thoughts and feelings, and her discomfort with writing a memoir: ‘For one thing, it’s gruesome using real people’s lives, real people’s deaths, to try and explain something of mine, I know. The scales of suffering are incomparable.’
There is a lot to connect with within Lara’s story. She longs to capture a realistic picture of her past self in this, her exercise of memory. She probes into the past, often uncomfortably, asking a great deal of questions in her desperation to make sense of things. I admired the way in which Caldwell, through Lara, went in search of her mother’s story, piecing together the concrete facts and imagining her thoughts and feelings.
I am always drawn to stories about families, particularly those in which there is an element of dysfunction within the familial structure, and I am pleased to report that All the Beggars Riding did not disappoint. I was not as enamoured with the story as I am with much of her shorter fiction; Caldwell’s stories are perfect, truly. Here, as in her other work though, her prose is thoughtful, and her protagonist realistic. I did feel for Lara and her situation, her uncertain memories, and her fraught relationships with others. I must admit that to me, though, the ending of All the Beggars Riding felt too neat, and was not entirely satisfying.
I have been lucky enough to visit the United States on a few occasions, but given the sheer vastness of the country, I’m sure that there will always be states and cities which I really want to visit! I have collected together books from two states here, all of which I really, really want to go to, as soon as it’s safe. Part Two of this post will follow next month; there were just far too many books to choose from!
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
‘With the opening line of Silver Sparrow, “My father, James Witherspoon is a bigamist,” Tayari Jones unveils a breathtaking story about a man’s deception, a family’s complicity, and the teenage girls caught in the middle. Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s families– the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode when secrets are revealed and illusions shattered. As Jones explores the backstories of her rich and flawed characters, she also reveals the joy, and the destruction, they brought to each other’s lives. At the heart of it all are the two girls whose lives are at stake, and like the best writers, Jones portrays the fragility of her characers with raw authenticity as they seek love, demand attention, and try to imagine themselves as women.’
Driving Miss Daisy by Alfred Uhry
‘The place is the Deep South, the time 1948, just prior to the civil rights movement. Having recently demolished another car, Daisy Wertham, a rich, sharp-tongued Jewish widow of seventy-two, is informed by her son, Boolie, that henceforth she must rely on the services of a chauffeur. The person he hires for the job is a thoughtful, unemployed black man, Hoke, whom Miss Daisy immediately regards with disdain and who, in turn, is not impressed with his employer’s patronizing tone and, he believes, her latent prejudice. But, in a series of absorbing scenes spanning twenty-five years, the two, despite their mutual differences, grow ever closer to, and more dependent on, each other, until, eventually, they become almost a couple. Slowly and steadily the dignified, good-natured Hoke breaks down the stern defenses of the ornery old lady, as she teaches him to read and write and, in a gesture of good will and shared concern, invites him to join her at a banquet in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. As the play ends Hoke has a final visit with Miss Daisy, now ninety-seven and confined to a nursing home, and while it is evident that a vestige of her fierce independence and sense of position still remain, it is also movingly clear that they have both come to realize they have more in common than they ever believed possible-and that times and circumstances would ever allow them to publicly admit.’
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
‘A sublime and seductive reading experience. Brilliantly conceived and masterfully written, this enormously engaging portrait of a most beguiling Southern city has become a modern classic. Shots rang out in Savannah’s grandest mansion in the misty, early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Was it murder or self-defense? For nearly a decade, the shooting and its aftermath reverberated throughout this hauntingly beautiful city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares. John Berendt’s sharply observed, suspenseful, and witty narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction. Berendt skillfully interweaves a hugely entertaining first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case. It is a spellbinding story peopled by a gallery of remarkable characters: the well-bred society ladies of the Married Woman’s Card Club; the turbulent young redneck gigolo; the hapless recluse who owns a bottle of poison so powerful it could kill every man, woman, and child in Savannah; the aging and profane Southern belle who is the “soul of pampered self-absorption”; the uproariously funny black drag queen; the acerbic and arrogant antiques dealer; the sweet-talking, piano-playing con artist; young blacks dancing the minuet at the black debutante ball; and Minerva, the voodoo priestess who works her magic in the graveyard at midnight. These and other Savannahians act as a Greek chorus, with Berendt revealing the alliances, hostilities, and intrigues that thrive in a town where everyone knows everyone else.’
Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata
‘kira-kira (kee ra kee ra): glittering; shining Glittering. That’s how Katie Takeshima’s sister, Lynn, makes everything seem. The sky is kira-kira because its color is deep but see-through at the same time. The sea is kira-kira for the same reason and so are people’s eyes. When Katie and her family move from a Japanese community in Iowa to the Deep South of Georgia, it’s Lynn who explains to her why people stop on the street to stare, and it’s Lynn who, with her special way of viewing the world, teaches Katie to look beyond tomorrow, but when Lynn becomes desperately ill, and the whole family begins to fall apart, it is up to Katie to find a way to remind them all that there is always something glittering — kira-kira — in the future.’
Cane by Jean Toomer
‘First published in 1923, Jean Toomer’s Cane is an innovative literary work-part drama, part poetry, part fiction-powerfully evoking black life in the South. Rich in imagery, Toomer’s impressionistic, sometimes surrealistic sketches of Southern rural and urban life are permeated by visions of smoke, sugarcane, dusk, and fire; the northern world is pictured as a harsher reality of asphalt streets. This iconic work of American literature is published with a new afterword by Rudolph Byrd of Emory University and Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard University, who provide groundbreaking biographical information on Toomer, place his writing within the context of American modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, and examine his shifting claims about his own race and his pioneering critique of race as a scientific or biological concept.’
The Light on the Islands: Tales of a Lighthouse Keeper’s Family in the San Juan Islandsby Helen Glidden
‘Readers can once again enjoy Helene Glidden’s classic The Light on the Island, as this 50th Anniversary Edition retells the touching story of a young girl growing up on Patos Island in the San Archipelago of Washington State. Her parents raised thirteen children while her father served as the Patos Island lighthouse keeper from 1905 – 1913. Helene reminisces about the adventure and heartbreak experienced on a beautiful but remote island where smugglers, old timers, and “God” weave in and out of their lives.’
Freaky Green Eyes by Joyce Carol Oates
‘Sometimes Franky Pierson has a hard time dealing with life. Like when her parents separate and her mother vanishes, Franky wants to believe that her mom has simply pulled a disappearing act. Yet deep within herself, a secret part of her she calls Freaky Green Eyes knows that something is terribly wrong. And only Freaky can open Franky’s eyes to the truth.’
A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from my Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg
‘When Molly Wizenberg’s father died of cancer, everyone told her to go easy on herself, to hold off on making any major decisions for a while. But when she tried going back to her apartment in Seattle and returning to graduate school, she knew it wasn’t possible to resume life as though nothing had happened. So she went to Paris, a city that held vivid memories of a childhood trip with her father, of early morning walks on the cobbled streets of the Latin Quarter and the taste of her first pain au chocolat. She was supposed to be doing research for her dissertation, but more often, she found herself peering through the windows of chocolate shops, trekking across town to try a new pâtisserie, or tasting cheeses at outdoor markets, until one evening when she sat in the Luxembourg Gardens reading cookbooks until it was too dark to see, she realized that her heart was not in her studies but in the kitchen. At first, it wasn’t clear where this epiphany might lead. Like her long letters home describing the details of every meal and market, Molly’s blog Orangette started out merely as a pleasant pastime. But it wasn’t long before her writing and recipes developed an international following. Every week, devoted readers logged on to find out what Molly was cooking, eating, reading, and thinking, and it seemed she had finally found her passion. But the story wasn’t over: one reader in particular, a curly-haired, food-loving composer from New York, found himself enchanted by the redhead in Seattle, and their email correspondence blossomed into a long-distance romance. In A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table, Molly Wizenberg recounts a life with the kitchen at its center. From her mother’s pound cake, a staple of summer picnics during her childhood in Oklahoma, to the eggs she cooked for her father during the weeks before his death, food and memories are intimately entwined.’
Steal the North by Heather BrittainBergstrom
‘Vocally graceful and fearlessly intimate, Steal The North, Heather Brittain Bergstrom’s remarkable debut novel, is a strikingly beautiful portrait of modern identity, faith, family, and love in all its forms. Emmy Nolan is a sheltered and introverted sixteen-year-old living in Sacramento with her mom, Kate, when a phone call comes from an aunt she never knew existed. Fifteen years earlier, Kate had abandoned her only sibling, Beth, fleeing their tiny eastern Washington town and the fundamentalist Baptist church that had condemned her as a whore. Beth, who’s pregnant for what she knows is the last time after countless miscarriages, believes her only hope to delivering the baby is Emmy’s participation in a faith healing ceremony. Emmy reluctantly goes. Despite uncovering her mom’s desperate and painful past, she soon finds she has come home–immediately developing a strong bond with her aunt Beth and feeling destined to the rugged landscape. Then Emmy meets Reuben Tonasket, the Native American boy who lives next door. Though passion-filled and resilient, their love story is eerily mirrorThed by the generation before them, who fear that their own mistakes are doomed to repeat themselves in Emmy and Reuben. This is a marvelously imaginative and deeply felt debut, one whose characters live at nearly intolerable levels of vulnerability. Yet, as fragile as they may seem, Bergstrom has imbued them with a tremendous inner strength, proving that the question of home is a spiritual one, that getting over the past is hope for the future, and that the bond between family is truly unbreakable.’
The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen
‘Set against the backdrop of one of the most virulent epidemics that America ever experienced-the 1918 flu epidemic-Thomas Mullen’s powerful, sweeping first novel is a tale of morality in a time of upheaval. Deep in the mist-shrouded forests of the Pacific Northwest is a small mill town called Commonwealth, conceived as a haven for workers weary of exploitation. For Philip Worthy, the adopted son of the town’s founder, it is a haven in another sense-as the first place in his life he’s had a loving family to call his own. And yet, the ideals that define this outpost are being threatened from all sides. A world war is raging, and with the fear of spies rampant, the loyalty of all Americans is coming under scrutiny. Meanwhile, another shadow has fallen across the region in the form of a deadly illness striking down vast swaths of surrounding communities. When Commonwealth votes to quarantine itself against contagion, guards are posted at the single road leading in and out of town, and Philip Worthy is among them. He will be unlucky enough to be on duty when a cold, hungry, tired-and apparently ill-soldier presents himself at the town’s doorstep begging for sanctuary. The encounter that ensues, and the shots that are fired, will have deafening reverberations throughout Commonwealth, escalating until every human value-love, patriotism, community, family, friendship-not to mention the town’s very survival, is imperiled. Inspired by a little-known historical footnote regarding towns that quarantined themselves during the 1918 epidemic, “The Last Town on Earth” is a remarkably moving and accomplished debut.’
I have wanted to read Susannah Cahalan’s memoir Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness for such a long time, but have struggled to get my hands on a copy. Thankfully it was added to my online library app, and I was able to borrow it straight away. Unusually in this case, I actually watched the film before picking up the book, and thankfully found a memoir which has so much depth in both formats.
Brain on Fire is described as ‘the powerful account of one woman’s struggle to recapture her identity’. As a twenty four-year-old, Cahalan was establishing herself as a journalist in New York City, living in a studio apartment by herself, and working at the New YorkPost. After having a series of strange symptoms for a number of weeks – the certainty that there were bedbugs in her apartment which were biting her, a sudden out of character jealousy which causes her to check her boyfriend’s emails, migraines, numbness in various parts of her body, and paranoia – she wakes alone in a hospital room, ‘strapped to her bed and unable to speak’, and with no memory of how she came to be there. This previously astute and independent woman was labelled ‘violent, psychotic, a flight risk.’
Cahalan has vivid and terrifying hallucinations, and violent moodswings. She loses her appetite, she forgets how to read, and she loses her ability to speak. When she is first admitted to hospital, Cahalan writes: ‘This new me was physically different: skinny and pale, cheeks sunken in, and thighs whittled down to toothpicks. My eyes were glazed over… it was hard to maintain a conversation because I operated on a delay, responding to basic questions several seconds after they were posed.’
Cahalan spent weeks visiting different medical experts, with both her family and her boyfriend, in order to get to the bottom of her illness. All of her tests and vital signs came back as normal, but her family pushed for answers. Although she does eventually get an answer, many of the doctors whom she sought help from tried to convince her that her illness was all in her head, and originated only from a psychological source. Cahalan believes that her illness may have been caused by a pathogen ‘that had invaded my body, a little germ that set everything in motion.’ She comments: ‘I would learn firsthand that this kind of illness often ebbs and flows, leaving the sufferer convinced that the worst is over, even when it’s only retreating for a moment…’.
Cahalan’s experiences are harrowing, and rather troubling to read about. Her first seizure ‘marked the line between sanity and insanity. Though I would have moments of lucidity over the coming weeks, I would never again be the same person. This was the start of the dark period of my illness, as I began an existence in purgatory between the real world and a cloudy, fictitious realm made up of hallucinations and paranoia.’ She forgets huge chunks of time, and moves through various misdiagnoses, some of which are rather traumatic.
Along with her own experiences, Cahalan has woven in those of her divorced mother and father and their new partners, her boyfriend Stephen, and her brother, who was away at college and largely kept in the dark about her illness. Cahalan also includes portions of the stream-of-consciousness journal which she kept whilst in hospital, and which in retrospect she does not recognise herself within. Some of her patient notes also feature in Brain on Fire. This, alongside her narrative, demonstrate how erratic her behaviour so quickly became, and the way in which she had no control whatsoever over her body.
Throughout, Cahalan is open and honest about all of her experiences, many of which must have been highly traumatic to recount. The terror of her condition within Brain on Fire is almost tangible. Of course, with a memoir or illness narrative dealing with such a strange and debilitating disease, parts of the book are rather difficult to read. However, Cahalan charts her incredibly hard and harrowing journey, in a thoughtful and fascinating manner. There is so much depth to Cahalan’s narrative, both scientifically and emotionally, and it feels like a privilege to finally be able to read Brain on Fire.
I received a copy of the beautifully designed Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer for my birthday, after hearing many wonderful things about it – Town and Country, for example, describe the novel as ‘a celebration of a life spent immersed in nature’, and Country Life deems it ‘a great pleasure for birders and readers alike’. Bird Cottage has been translated from the original Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett, and is printed in its English edition by Pushkin Press, a publishing house which I always gravitate toward.
Bird Cottage is a fictionalised account of the life of Gwendolen Howard, known as Len. Dissatisfied with her life in London, she decided to retire to the English countryside at the age of forty . In 1938, she purchased a secluded cottage in Sussex, from which she would be able to observe birds. From her new home, she found the peace, and the avian subjects, which she needed to author two bestselling bird books. With these, she managed to captivate a large audience ‘with her observations on the tits, robins, sparrows and other birds who lived nearby, flew freely in and out of her windows, and would even perch on her shoulder as she typed.’
The prologue of Bird Cottage is set in 1965, when Len is alarmed to find a ‘stocky man’ using an electric hedge-cutter in her garden. When she tells him that the hedge is filled with birds’ nests, her voice becomes ‘shriller than usual. It feels as if someone is strangling me.’ We then move back and forth through time; Len in the present day attempts to stop the birds’ habitat from being destroyed, and remembers many instances from her past which include her two greatest passions – birds, and music. As a child, living with her parents and siblings in a large house in Wales, Len used to write stories about the birds she came across, and kept lists of the many species which visited her garden each spring and summer.
Len makes a home with the generations of birds which inhabit her garden; indeed, they soon come to inhabit her home, too. On the decision of some Great Tits to nest inside her cottage, she observes: ‘Their choices were not always happy – they would roost between the curtain rods and the ceiling, or in the frame of a sliding door, which meant that it could no longer be closed – and so I began to hang boxes on the walls, or old food cartons, or small wooden cases.’ Such a glorious sense of place is created, and soon, Len’s cottage, with all of its little quirks, feels rather intimate. I loved the descriptions of the outside world too, of which there are many: ‘The red in the sky has turned lilac, then purple, then dark blue, the shadow of the earth silhouetted against the pink, and now it’s become a blanket full of stars, little openings that let the light shine through.’
The first person perspective which has been used throughout works so well, as does the present tense which is continually used. One is made aware, almost immediately, of how much Len cared about the birds whom she essentially came to plan her life around. Everything is seen through Len’s kind eyes, and the birds become characters in their own right. She observes: ‘The Great Tits are sunning themselves in the front garden, their wings outspread. Jacob and Monocle II are sitting next to each other, very fraternally, as if they don’t usually spend the whole day quarrelling. It’s the heat that has made them so placid… Jacob’s oldest son is perched on a low, broad branch. He is a little slower than the others – too much feeding at my bird table.’
I very much admired Meijer’s interpretation of Len Howard, and would dearly like to learn more about her. Meijer notes that very little about Len’s life has actually been preserved, and that she pieced together the novel with the use of sparse known facts, and Len’s own work. Unfortunately, Len’s books appear very difficult to get hold of affordably, but I can only hope that they are reissued at some point in the near future. I am sure that the many delighted readers of Bird Cottage would love to read Len’s original work.
Such warmth suffuses Bird Cottage, and it is such a delightful novel to read. The translation has been seamlessly done, and the prose is often achingly beautiful. Bird Cottage is charming and delightful, and provides a wonderful piece of escapism from the fast-paced world in which we live, where many people often forget to take notice of the little things around them. Bird Cottage is a novel to savour.