3

‘Of Cats and Elfins: Short Tales and Fantasies’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner ****

I received a copy of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Of Cats and Elfins: Short Tales and Fantasies from a dear friend for Christmas. We studied Townsend Warner’s fantastic masterpiece of a novel, Lolly Willowes, together whilst postgraduate students, and have both retained a fondness for her inventive work. I was unaware that this collection, printed by Handheld Press, had been published, so it was a lovely surprise to open.

The pieces within Of Cats and Elfins are previously uncollected, and range from between 1927 and 1984, spanning Townsend Warner’s entire writing career. It is, says its blurb, a ‘forgotten collection of fantasy stories and folk tales about human bravery and dispassionate animals, written in the darkest days of wartime Britain’. It includes Townsend Warner’s 1927 essay, ‘Elfins’, and the entirety of her Cat’s Cradle book, which was originally published in the United States in 1940, and the United Kingdom in 1960. Of Cats and Elfins is intended as a companion volume to Kingdoms of Elfin, a collection of Townsend Warner’s fantasy stories, which were published by Handheld Press in 2018.

Of Cats and Elfins features a meticulous introduction by fantasy author Greer Gilman. She writes of the diversity collected here: ‘Fantasy ran underground with Warner, flashing out like a hidden river, each time in a new landscape: witchlore; myth; folktale; invisible kingdoms. What they share is Warner’s worldview, her inimitable voice.’ Greer goes on to give a lot of specific critique of the pieces collected here.

The first piece in this collection is ‘The Kingdom of Elfin’, which sets out Townsend Warner’s imagined fantasy world. Here, she writes: ‘It is a sad fact, but undeniable; the Kingdom of Elfin had a very poor opinion of humankind. I suppose we must seem to them shocking boors, uncouth, noisy, ill-bred and disgustingly oversized.’ There are several Elfin stories to be found here, all set in a vividly imagined and expansive land, which is redolent almost of that in The Lord of the Rings. Townsend Warner’s worldbuilding is faultless; there is such a thoroughness to it. I enjoyed this part of the collection to a point, but I did find it a little difficult at times to suspend my disbelief, and feel that I would have got more out of it if I had read Kingdoms of Elfin previously.

Townsend Warner’s wicked sense of humour is displayed throughout the Elfin stories, and can also be found at times in her animal stories. These tales have an almost Aesop’s Fables-style feel to them; some could be construed as moralistic. There are echoes of the fairytale here too, but Townsend Warner makes the genre something all her own. The unexpected lives in each of these stories, which follow many different animal species – magpies, foxes, phoenixes, a tiger who learns the meaning of ‘virtue’… In ‘Introduction’, as an example, the many cat characters can interact – in clever flourishes of speech, and witty asides – with the humans they live alongside. This piece is my favourite in the entirety of Of Cats and Elfins; I found it quite delightful.

Entwined throughout is the wonder of the natural world, something which feeds into each of these stories. Her descriptions are exquisite. In ‘Stay, Corydon, Thou Swain’, for instance, she crafts: ‘But in the shadow of the wood, where the sun had not penetrated, the thorn trees were at the perfection of their bloom. They were very old trees, gnarled, and tufted with greenish-grey moss, dry and dead-coloured. It did not seem possible that these angular boughs should have pit out the lacework of milky blossoms: each a blunt star, each with its little pointed pink star within it. It seemed rather as though light had rested upon the dead boughs and turned it into blossom.’ In ‘Introduction’, the first piece in the Cat’s Cradle collection, she writes: ‘The house was handsome too, its good looks sobered by age and usage – a seventeenth-century house with a long façade… It gave an impression of slenderness, of being worn smooth and thin like an old spoon… the general tint of the house was that of a ripening pear with streaks of vague rose and pale madder flushing its sallow skin.’

I must admit that I am not really a fan of fantasy, and it is a genre which I rarely – if ever – reach for. Townsend Warner is a firm favourite of mine, however, and I will gladly read all of her work. This sounded both intriguing and charming, and it was; there is a real otherworldly quality to it. It was a joy to reacquaint myself with Townsend Warner, and I was struck once again by her inventiveness, and the myriad ways in which she was well ahead of her time.

Of Cats and Elfins collects together a full bibliography of Townsend Warner’s published work; it reminded me both that I have hardly explored her oeuvre to date, and that a lot of her work is sadly very difficult to get hold of, particularly for an affordable price. This collection is wonderful to have; it provides such wonderful escapism, and I very much appreciated the lively unpredictability of her work.

Of Cats and Elfins is undoubtedly odd, but rather enchanting. It reminded me throughout of Scottish author Naomi Mitchison, whose work has so enchanted and – I admit – mildly confused me in the past. The collection is highly memorable, and whilst I was perhaps a little less enraptured by the Elfin stories than many readers will be, I will certainly be thinking about them in future. I would like to revisit this collection, particularly if I do pick up the Kingdoms of Elfin tales at some point – although unless I make a dramatic U-turn in my reading life and start enjoying fantasy novels, I’m not sure that this will be at the top of my to-read list.

Regardless, Of Cats and Elfins is highly recommended, whether you are a fan of fantasy, or just of Modernism. There is so much to admire here, and a great deal to consider. If you have never read Townsend Warner, and my comments here have enticed you to pick up one of her books, I would point you towards Lolly Willowes as a starting point. Of Cats and Elfins, though, would be a good choice to follow her most famous novel with.

0

‘The Merry Spinster’ by Daniel Mallory Ortberg ****

I had not heard of The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror before I plucked it from a library shelf, but I had read snippets about its author, Mallory Ortberg, around the Internet. I really enjoy magical realism, and hadn’t read much of it during 2020, so I very much looked forward to beginning this short story collection.

The Merry Spinster reminded me – after reading its blurb, and a host of comments which point to its originality – of something by Kirsty Logan, an author whose work I always find clever and imaginative. A review by John Scalzi particularly caught my eye; he writes that ‘the sloe gin wit of Dorothy Parker and the soul of a Classics nerd’ have been combined in Ortberg’s work.

The Merry Spinster is comprised of eleven ‘darkly mischievous stories based on classic fairy tales. Sinister and inviting, familiar and alien’, Ortberg ‘updates traditional children’s stories… with elements of psychological horror, emotional clarity and a keen sense of feminist mischief.’ The author has also included a short note on the sources and inspirations used in this collection – the Brothers Grimm feature heavily, but authors famous for tales about anthropomorphic animals, such as Kenneth Grahame and Arnold Lobel, also make an appearance. There is even a biblical tale, based on Genesis.

I very much liked the frank, cool matter-of-fact prose in these tales. In the first, ‘Daughter Cells’, Ortberg writes: ‘There once was a king who owned a great deal of what lay under the surface of the sea, and he happened to fill it with his daughters. Another man might have filled it with something else – potato farmers or pop-eyed scholars or merchant marines – but this one filled it with daughters, so there’s no use arguing about it now.’

I loved the unusual descriptions which Ortberg often creates, in which the monstrous is made a thing of beauty, and vice versa. For instance, in ‘The Daughter Cells’: ‘Now here is what the sea witch looked like: she was hinged neatly in the middle; she could jump very high by bending and straightening her great-foot; she could whistle water through her teeth and hit a swimming fish one hundred yards away; and she had no head at all. She was lovely to look at.’

Ortberg somehow makes the lewd and ridiculous feel quite realistic, and writes throughout with a practiced hand. A lot of societal conventions, particularly those regarding sexuality and gender, are turned on their head. There is something both whimsically old-fashioned and searingly modern to be found within The Merry Spinster, particularly with regard to its dialogue patterns.

Clues are given in each story regarding their original source material, but there is certainly something which feels fresh and new within The Merry Spinster. Much of Ortberg’s prose holds the sinister, unsettling feeling which, of course, exists in the vast majority of fairytales. Ortberg’s stories, which often move in surprising directions, are rather beguiling, and highly memorable. They provoke much consideration in the mind of the reader with their clever subversion of events. The Merry Spinster is strange and unsettling, but it also hums with a true beauty.

5

Eight Great Audiobooks

I had sampled the odd audiobook in the past, but it wasn’t until 2020 that I began to listen to them regularly. I am fortunate that my local library offers a great deal of titles for free on the BorrowBox app, and although this is the sole resource which I personally use for audiobooks, I know that many people pay for subscriptions to the likes of Audible and Scribd.

I haven’t reviewed any of the books which I came to on audio, but the following eight were standouts to me last year. I loved the narration and delivery for the mostpart, and also the way in which I was able to immerse myself in so many titles which I otherwise would not have been able to find very easily. I would highly recommend that if you are interested in the following books, you should try and find the audio version. However, I’m sure they would be just as good on the page too!

The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
‘Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer–one small spot. Within a year, the mother of two sons, ages seven and nine, and married sixteen years to her best friend, received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal. How does one live each day, “unattached to outcome”? How does one approach the moments, big and small, with both love and honesty.

Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, even as she wrestles with the legacy of her great-great-great grandfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nina Riggs’s breathtaking memoir continues the urgent conversation that Paul Kalanithi began in his gorgeous When Breath Becomes Air. She asks, what makes a meaningful life when one has limited time?

Brilliantly written, disarmingly funny, and deeply moving, The Bright Hour is about how to love all the days, even the bad ones, and it’s about the way literature, especially Emerson, and Nina’s other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer. It’s a book about looking death squarely in the face and saying “this is what will be.” Especially poignant in these uncertain times, The Bright Hour urges us to live well and not lose sight of what makes us human: love, art, music, words.’

Death and the Seaside by Alison Moore
‘With an abandoned degree behind her and a thirtieth birthday approaching, amateur writer Bonnie Falls moves out of her parents’ home into a nearby flat. Her landlady, Sylvia Slythe, takes an interest in Bonnie, encouraging her to finish one of her stories, in which a young woman moves to the seaside, where she comes under strange influences. As summer approaches, Sylvia suggests to Bonnie that, as neither of them has anyone else to go on holiday with, they should go away together – to the seaside, perhaps.

The new novel from the author of the Man Booker-shortlisted The Lighthouse is a tense and moreish confection of semiotics, suggestibility and creative writing with real psychological depth and, in Bonnie Falls and Sylvia Slythe, two unforgettable characters.’

I Want You To Know We’re Still Here: A Post-Holocaust Memoir by Esther Safran-Foer
‘Esther Safran Foer grew up in a home where the past was too terrible to speak of. The child of parents who were each the sole survivors of their respective families, for Esther the Holocaust loomed in the backdrop of daily life, felt but never discussed. The result was a childhood marked by painful silences and continued tragedy. Even as she built a successful career, married, and raised three children, Esther always felt herself searching.

So when Esther’s mother casually mentions an astonishing revelation–that her father had a previous wife and daughter, both killed in the Holocaust–Esther resolves to find out who they were, and how her father survived. Armed with only a black-and-white photo and a hand-drawn map, she travels to Ukraine, determined to find the shtetl where her father hid during the war. What she finds reshapes her identity and gives her the opportunity to finally mourn.

I Want You to Know We’re Still Here is the poignant and deeply moving story not only of Esther’s journey but of four generations living in the shadow of the Holocaust. They are four generations of survivors, storytellers, and memory keepers, determined not just to keep the past alive but to imbue the present with life and more life.’

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield
‘This collection of stories is about women and their experiences in society, about bodies and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of its characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession and love. Throughout the collection, women become insects, men turn to stone, a city becomes insomniac and bodies are picked apart to make up better ones. The mundane worlds of schools and sea side towns are invaded and transformed by the physical, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to the bodies of its inhabitants. Blending the mythic and the fantastic, the collection considers characters in motion – turning away, turning back or simply turning into something new.’

The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall
‘Rachel Caine is a zoologist working in Nez Perce, Idaho, as part of a wolf recovery project. She spends her days, and often nights, tracking the every move of a wild wolf pack—their size, their behavior, their howl patterns. It is a fairly solitary existence, but Rachel is content.

When she receives a call from the wealthy and mysterious Earl of Annerdale, who is interested in reintroducing the grey wolf to Northern England, Rachel agrees to a meeting. She is certain she wants no part of this project, but the Earl’s estate is close to the village where Rachel grew up, and where her aging mother now lives in a care facility. It has been far too long since Rachel has gone home, and so she returns to face the ghosts of her past.

The Wolf Border is a breathtaking story about the frontier of the human spirit, from one of the most celebrated young writers working today.’

The Glass House by Eve Chase
‘Outside a remote manor house in an idyllic wood, a baby girl is found. The Harrington family takes her in and disbelief quickly turns to joy. They’re grieving a terrible tragedy of their own and the beautiful baby fills them with hope, lighting up the house’s dark, dusty corners. Desperate not to lose her to the authorities, they keep her secret, suspended in a blissful summer world where normal rules of behaviour – and the law – don’t seem to apply.

But within days a body will lie dead in the grounds. And their dreams of a perfect family will shatter like glass. Years later, the truth will need to be put back together again, piece by piece . . .

From the author of Black Rabbit Hall, The Glass House is a emotional, thrilling book about family secrets and belonging – and how we find ourselves when we are most lost.’

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald
‘Helen Macdonald’s bestselling debut H is for Hawk brought the astonishing story of her relationship with goshawk Mabel to global critical acclaim and announced Macdonald as one of this century’s most important and insightful nature writers. H is for Hawk won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction and the Costa Book Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction, launching poet and falconer Macdonald as our preeminent nature essayist, with a semi-regular column in the New York Times Magazine.

In Vesper Flights Helen Macdonald brings together a collection of her best loved essays, along with new pieces on topics ranging from nostalgia for a vanishing countryside to the tribulations of farming ostriches to her own private vespers while trying to fall asleep. Meditating on notions of captivity and freedom, immigration and flight, Helen invites us into her most intimate experiences: observing songbirds from the Empire State Building as they migrate through the Tribute of Light, watching tens of thousands of cranes in Hungary, seeking the last golden orioles in Suffolk’s poplar forests. She writes with heart-tugging clarity about wild boar, swifts, mushroom hunting, migraines, the strangeness of birds’ nests, and the unexpected guidance and comfort we find when watching wildlife. By one of this century’s most important and insightful nature writers, Vesper Flights is a captivating and foundational book about observation, fascination, time, memory, love and loss and how we make sense of the world around us.’

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
‘At twenty-five years old, Anna Wiener was beginning to tire of her assistant job in New York publishing. There was no room to grow, and the voyeuristic thrill of answering someone else’s phone had worn thin. Within a year she had moved to San Francisco to take up a job at a data analytics start-up in Silicon Valley. Leaving her business casual skirts and shirts in the wardrobe, she began working in company-branded T-shirts and hoodies. She had a healthy income for the first time in her life. She felt like part of the future.

But a tide was beginning to turn. People were speaking of tech start-ups as surveillance companies. Out of sixty employees, only eight of her colleagues were women. Casual sexism was rife. Sexual harassment cases were proliferating. And soon, like everyone else, she was addicted to the internet, refreshing the news, refreshing social media, scrolling and scrolling and scrolling. Slowly, she began to realise that her blind faith in ambitious, arrogant young men from America’s soft suburbs wasn’t just her own personal pathology. It had become a global affliction.

Uncanny Valley is a coming of age story set against the backdrop of our generation’s very own gold rush. It’s a story about the tension between old and new, between art and tech, between the quest for money and the quest for meaning – about how our world is changing for ever.’

Have you read, or listened to, any of these books? Are you a fan of audiobooks? Which is your favourite?

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‘Awayland: Stories’ by Ramona Ausubel ****

Ramona Ausubel is one of my absolute favourite authors, but her work has proven to be rather difficult to find in the United Kingdom. When I spotted a copy of her newest publication, a short story collection entitled Awayland, for an affordable price on AbeBooks, I just had to order it. This gorgeously designed paperback has been well received, with the San Francisco Chronicle, for instance, writing that it ‘astounds for its daring visionary scope and compassion.’

Eleven tales make up Awayland, and these have been subsequently split up into different sections, something which feels rather rare in the form of a short story collection. They introduce us, says the blurb, ‘to a geography both fantastic and familiar’, and to the ‘tangle and thump of her characters’ inner worlds and emotional truths’.

The first rather humorous story in the collection, ‘You Can Find Love Now’, takes us through the dating profile of a Cyclops; he calls himself Cyclops15 online, as ‘Cyclops 1 through 14 were taken’. In ‘Freshwater from the Sea’, a woman in Lebanon is nearing the end of her life, and is beginning to disappear. Ausubel writes: ‘Where she had once been a precise oil painting, now she was a watercolor.’ Her state is continually changing, and as we near the end of the story, her daughter observes: ‘She looked more and more like weather, like a brewing storm.’

‘Template for a Proclamation to Save the Species’ is set in the ‘shittiness’ of a town in northern Minnesota, where the residents are failing to reproduce. The narrator of the story observes: ‘It is as if their lives are so boring, so deeply muddy that it hardly even occurs to two people with enough feeling to create anything other than a disappointed sigh.’ The town’s mayor puts into place a ‘designated sex day’, which culminates in the prize of a free car for whichever couple gives birth first on a chosen date.

‘Departure Lounge’ is a story about a group of astronauts, in training in a remote part of Hawaii: ‘We lived in a bubble on a crater on a mountain on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but where we imagined we lived was Mars.’ The chef of the group, who narrates the story, later reveals her loneliness, and her sadness at the way in which her own plans have been put on hold in order to take part in the experiment: ‘I would be a good mother. I would be generous and interested in all the side-roads of childhood – superheroes and princesses and dinosaurs and bugs and minor weaponry and animal rights. I would mean it, if only someone would join me in my little life.’

There is much in Awayland about bodies changing, both in terms of ageing, and from flesh into other states. Many of the stories contain pregnancy, and what it means to move into the state of motherhood. Ausubel also reflects at length on what it means to confront one’s own mortality. Throughout, Ausubel’s prose is layered, and unusual. In ‘Remedy’, for instance, protagonist Summer is described as ‘the smell of fire and the smell of pine forest and the smell of a storm’.

I find Ausubel’s work wondrously inventive, but I must admit that Awayland is my least favourite of her publications to date. Whilst there are undoubtedly some great and original ideas to be found here, I did not feel as though the sense of creativity and imagination which normally suffuses her stories was as strong as it perhaps could have been. The tales are not as memorable as I was expecting, either.

There is whimsy here, something which Ausubel usually excels with, but this sometimes feels a little overshadowed by other elements. There is also a great deal less magical realism than can be found in earlier stories and novels. Regardless, Ausubel definitely deserves a great deal more attention, and I wholeheartedly look forward to her next book – whatever that may be.

3

‘Miss Browne’s Friend: A Story of Two Women’ by F.M. Mayor ****

As a reader who likes to pick up books that barely anyone seems to be reading, I am so grateful to publishers like Michael Walmer, who make it their mission to sift through a great deal of forgotten literature, and reprint the real gems for a modern audience. The gorgeously designed hardback edition of F.M. Mayor’s Miss Browne’s Friend is the newest addition to my collection, and is part of the Zephyr Books list.

I have read, and very much enjoyed, two of Virago author F.M. Mayor’s novels in the past – The Rector’s Daughter and The Third Miss Symons – and was overjoyed when I was offered a review copy of her little known serialised short story, Miss Browne’s Friend. It first appeared in four parts in the Free Church Suffrage Times, between June 1914 and March 1915, and was published just a year after her first novel, The Third Miss Symons. In this printed format, it fills just 32 pages, and can easily be read in a single sitting.

The protagonist of the piece is Miss Ethel Browne, ‘a typical adornment of her era’. In the years before World War One, Miss Browne is a single woman of a ‘certain age’, seen as a spinster by all around her. After reading an advertisement printed by the Rescue Home, Miss Browne is paired with a young woman named Mabel Roberts, who has ‘fallen into dubious ways’. The aim of this programme is to aid fallen women, and to make them more respectable. The book’s blurb writes of the way in which ‘Miss Browne is somewhat dazzled by Mabel’s beauty, and charmed by her simple transparency and determination to be good.’

I love the way in which the story begins. Mayor writes: ‘In almost every village in England a Miss Browne is to be found; in every town several Miss Brownes; in London they must be almost too many to count.’ These ‘Miss Brownes’ are described as ‘spinsters from thirty onwards’, who are using their lives to help others – ‘their families, their friends, their village, their town, and their country.’ Our particular Miss Browne hails from Croydon, where she largely ‘waited on a mother who did not want waiting on.’

After their initial meeting, Miss Browne has a real fondness for her charge. Mayor writes: ‘even in this little half-hour they had come close to intimacy’, and explains that afterwards, Miss Browne almost forgot to get out at her proper turning, she was so busy with benevolent schemes for Mabel’s future.’ It becomes, in a way, Miss Browne’s responsibility to help Mabel into work, and she finds several positions for her. This has a great effect on Miss Browne, too. When she learns of the mistakes which Mabel has made in her first posting, in which she is supposed to be helping two elderly ladies, ‘the whole taste’ goes out of her tea, ‘and she almost forgot to answer her mother cheerfully.’ One after another, these positions fall through, as employers tire of Mabel’s ways, and of her attitude. In a later posting, in which Mabel becomes a waitress in a London restaurant, Mayor wryly comments: ‘Everything went beautifully – until the usual earthquake.’

Mayor has a real knack for setting scenes deftly, with just a few details. She does the same with her characters; Miss Browne, for instance, possessed ‘a face which no one (herself included) could ever remember much about, [and so] she had a peculiar tenderness for beauty.’ Despite the shortness of the piece, Mayor manages to cover a great deal of ground here. Miss Browne’s Friend feels as expansive as a novel, in many ways, and its plot is whole, and well shaped. The balance between seriousness and humour has been expertly handled here, too.

The blurb of Miss Browne’s Friend hails F.M. Mayor as ‘one of the most sensitive exponents of the challenges and uncertainties of single women’s lives in her times’. I have to agree; despite the brevity of this story, it is tremendously useful from an historical perspective. Mayor wrote largely about women’s lives, and always takes into account differences between the classes, and the way in which individuals can often be so naive about the lives and situations of others.

Miss Browne’s Friend is immediately absorbing, and provides a lot of intrigue. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the social aspect of the period immediately preceding the First World War, and to any fans of Virago and Persephone books. This is a story which is sure to delight. I thoroughly hope that a great deal of readers go on to pick it up, and that they enjoy it just as much as I did.

6

The TED Reading List

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 412vb-c3-l._sx336_bo1204203200_
‘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.’

 

51xf8lggsll2. 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 41gx2bnlk4el._sx327_bo1204203200_
‘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.’

 

41ipnhudval._sx326_bo1204203200_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 51uu9frdkhl._sx324_bo1204203200_
‘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.’

 

51epm2wuoil._sx327_bo1204203200_6. The Overstory by 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 41gldpjfgsl._sx321_bo1204203200_
‘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 51hyyhwsbql._sx338_bo1204203200_
‘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 61u61td7s2bl._sx331_bo1204203200_
‘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.’

 

51ni9lnyfdl._sx325_bo1204203200_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?

7

Two Short Story Collections: George Saunders and Mary Gaitskill

Today, I have put together two reviews of short story collections which I was expecting to love, but which both somewhat disappointed me.

4157xu1loml._sx324_bo1204203200_Tenth of December by George Saunders **
I had yet to read any of George Saunders’ work before picking up his much-lauded short story collection, Tenth of December.  The author won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which, on reflection, perhaps would have been a better place to start with his work.

I must admit that I wasn’t really a fan of Saunders’ prose in this collection.  The stories often go off at tangents, and I did not feel as though the different disjointed threads always came together in the end.  The stories here are certainly varied – there are forays into science-fiction, and some writing which verges on the experimental, for instance – but I did not find that a single tale stood out for me as a reader.  Some of the storylines themselves intrigued me, but others ended too abruptly.  The story ‘Sticks’ only covers two pages, and was the tale which I could see the most potential in.

I felt pulled in by very few of the stories in Tenth of December.  I ended up reading the first four pages or so of the tales, and if they had not captured my attention, I moved on.  I was expecting to find moments of brilliance in this collection, but was unable to.  So many people have loved these short stories, so perhaps I’m missing something, but throughout I found so little to connect with.  I’m now unsure whether to read Lincoln in the Bardo based on my experience of this collection.

Don’t Cry by Mary Gaitskill ** 91j2b2bsthmbl
Mary Gaitskill’s short story collection, Don’t Cry, was first published in the USA in 2009, and in the United Kingdom in 2017.  Gaitskill was not an author whom I had read before, but I’d heard such great things about her writing, and consequently picked up Don’t Cry when browsing in my local library.

Described as ‘full of jagged, lived emotion and powerful, incisive writing’, I was certainly intrigued by this collection, which is made up of ten stories.  Gaitskill’s opening sentences are often quite startling and unusual, and sometimes packed a real punch.  ‘College Town, 1980’, for instance, begins: ‘Dolores did not look good in a scarf’; and ‘Mirror Bowl’ opens ‘He took her soul – though, being a secular-minded person, he didn’t think about it that way’.  They also provide a sense of intrigue. ‘Don’t Cry’, the title story, has ‘Our first day in Addis Ababa, we woke up to wedding music playing outside our hotel’ as its first sentence.

I admired Gaitskill’s skill at creating striking sentences and images, but found that there was perhaps a little too much sexual content, darkness, and grit in Don’t Cry for my personal taste.  I found a few of the stories grotesque, and quite difficult to read in consequence.  Whilst Gaitskill’s stories are largely about everyday occurrences, she twists them around until they seem nasty and unsettling.  Only some of her characters interested me, and I wasn’t that taken by her quite matter-of-fact writing.  The title story in the collection was by far my favourite, but it has not led me to want to pick up any more of Gaitskill’s work in future.

Have you read either of these collections?  Are there any authors whose short stories you would particularly recommend to me?

0

One From the Archive: ‘Uncanny Stories’ by May Sinclair *****

First published in September 2018.

I have been coveting a copy of Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair for such a long time.  She is an author whom I was originally focusing upon in my current postgraduate thesis, and whilst my scope has changed since I began my project, I am still very keen to read her entire oeuvre.  This particular book proved rather difficult to find, but I struck gold by keeping my eye on Abebooks, and finding a copy which was around £20 cheaper than those which I have previously seen.

The Wordsworth Edition which, whilst out of print, seemed to be the only edition which I could find, has been edited and introduced in a thorough manner by the well-informed 9781840224924Paul March-Russell.  The stories were first published with this title in 1923, and throughout, Sinclair ‘combines the traditional ghost story with the discoveries of Freud and Einstein.’  March-Russell, who calls her a ‘pivotal writer in the development of the ghost story’, recognises the myriad elements which influenced Sinclair’s work, calling her ‘one of the most intellectually driven of writers, pursuing the “new” and the “modern” in philosophy, psychoanalysis, mysticism and the paranormal.’  These eight tales promise to ‘shock, enthral, delight and unsettle’.  March-Russell writes that due to the very nature of these stories, they are ‘disturbing’ both in their content and the Modernist form in which they have been written.

A recurring motif in Sinclair’s stories is the ‘horror of family life’, and the ‘theme of self-denial’; she explores both in each of these stories, weaving them cleverly in with mysterious circumstances and paranormal occurrences.  Her writing is what really shines here.  A contemporary critic of hers named Julian Thompson said that her writing was ‘pin-sharp, often harrowingly economic.’  Everything here feels almost effortless; there is such a sense of flow and control in Sinclair’s writing, which often feels like a mixture of the Victorian Gothic and the Modernist tradition.

Uncanny Stories has a curiosity about it; it is as though Sinclair has chosen to explore our world through things which cannot be proven to exist, but which a lot of people in the Victorian era, for instance, as well at the time of writing, were highly interested in.  The descriptions which Sinclair has crafted are vivid and mysterious at once.  ‘The Finding of the Absolute’, for example, deals with differing dimensions and the emergence of Kant conversing with the narrator in this particular space, and is the most unusual story in the collection.  Here, she writes: ‘He found himself alone in an immense grey space, in which there was no distinguishable object but himself.  He was aware of his body as occupying a portion of this space.  For he had a body; a curious, tenuous, whitish body.  The odd thing was that this empty space had a sort of solidity under him.  He was lying on it, stretched out on it, adrift.  It supported him with the buoyancy of deep water.  And yet his body was part of it, melted in.’

Different narrative techniques and perspectives can be found from one story to another so, despite the often recurring themes, there is a freshness and variety to the collection.  Given its main theme, Uncanny Stories could so easily have been melodramatic, but not a single story can be categorised as such.  Sinclair has a way of making obscene and otherworldly things seem entirely reasonable; she provides ghosts and hauntings almost with a sense of normalcy.  The tension is built masterfully, and the theme of obsessive love has been explored in such depth in many differing situations.  Whilst there is a trope in these stories in which many young wives come back to haunt their husbands, the ways in which they do so vary, as does the reasoning.  The only thing here which I felt was a little overdone were the accents, some of which felt almost impenetrable.

The stories collected here were originally presented with illustrations; they have since been removed, which seems a shame.  Of this collection, I had only read one of the stories before, ‘The Flaw in the Crystal’; this, I enjoyed even more the second time around. The influence of psychology particularly here is fascinating; there are so many layers to each story, and psychological elements can be picked out in every single tale.

Uncanny Stories is highly engaging, and whilst I read it during a heatwave in France, it would definitely better suit a dark evening with a crackling fire.  The stories here should be better known and more widely read, as, indeed, should the rest of Sinclair’s books.  She is a wonderful and unjustly neglected author, and this collection demonstrates just how versatile she was.

1

‘Things We Lost in the Fire’ by Mariana Enriquez ****

Argentinian author Mariana Enriquez’ debut English language collection, Things We Lost in the Fire, had been on my radar for a while before I found a copy in my local library.  It sounded wonderfully creepy and unsettling; the Financial Times writes that it is ‘full of claustrophobic terror’, and Dave Eggers says that it ‘hits with the force of a freight train’.  The Irish Times goes further, proclaiming that this is the only book which has caused their reviewer to be ‘afraid to turn out the lights’.  I cautiously began it in broad daylight, but was surprisingly brave enough to read a couple of these stories just before bedtime.

9781846276361-ukThe twelve stories collected in Things We Lost in the Fire are of ‘ghosts, demons and wild women; of sharp-toothed children and stolen skulls’.  They are almost entirely set in the Argentinian capital, Buenos Aires, described in the book’s blurb as a series of ‘crime-ridden streets of [a] post-dictatorship’.  Here, ‘exhausted fathers conjure up child-killers, and young women, tired of suffering in silence, decide there’s nothing left to do but set themselves on fire.’

Each of the stories here is highly evocative; they feel like sharp scratches, or aching punches to the stomach in the power which they wield.  The historical context which fills each one is thoroughly and sensually explained and explored.  In ‘The Intoxicated Years’, for example, the section of the story which is set in 1989, begins: ‘All that summer the electricity went off for six hours at a time; government orders, because the country had no more energy, they said, though we didn’t really understand what that meant…  What would a widespread blackout be like?  Would we be left in the dark forever?  The possibility was incredible.  Stupid.  Ridiculous.  Useless adults, we thought, how useless.’  In 1992, the three young protagonists in this story make a new acquaintance.  The narrator explains: ‘Roxana never had food in the house; her empty cupboards were crisscrossed by bugs dying of hunger as they searched for nonexistent crumbs, and her fridge kept one Coca-Cola and some eggs cold.  The lack of food was good; we had promised each other to eat as little as possible.  We wanted to be light and pale like dead girls.’

In Things We Lost in the Fire, Enriquez explores the darker sides of life in Buenos Aires: drug abuse, hallucinations, homelessness, murder, illegal abortion, disability, suicide, and disappearance, to name but a few.  Each story is unsettling, but the collection is incredibly readable.  I found myself drawn to Enriquez’ descriptions.  She writes, amongst many others, the following striking phrases: ‘beside the pool where the water under the siesta sun looked silvered, as if made of wrapping paper’; a house, thought to be haunted, ‘buzzed; it buzzed like a hoarse mosquito’.

There are many chilling moments throughout.  In ‘Adela’s House’, the narrator relates: ‘I’ll never forget those afternoons.  When Adela talked, when she concentrated and her dark eyes burned, the house’s garden began to fill with shadows, and they ran, they waved to us mockingly.  When Adela sat with her back to the picture window, in the living room, I saw them dancing behind her.  I didn’t talk to her.  But Adela knew.’  In ‘An Invention of the Big-Eared Runt’, protagonist Pablo is working as a guide on a popular murder tour of Buenos Aires, when the ghost of a notorious child murderer appears to him.  Enriquez writes: ‘He studied the tour’s ten crimes in detail so he could narrate them well, with humor and suspense, and he’d never felt scared – they didn’t affect him at all.  That’s why, when he saw the apparition, he felt more surprise than terror.  It was definitely him, no doubt about it.  He was unmistakable: the large, damp eyes that looked full of tenderness but were really dark wells of idiocy.  The drab sweater on his short body, his puny shoulders, and in his hands the thin rope he’d used to demonstrate to the police, emotionless all the while, how he had tied up and strangled his victims.’

Enriquez’ style feels very Gothic, both in terms of its style and the plots of some of the stories.  Her tales build wonderfully, and there is a real claustrophobia which descends in a lot of them.  ‘Spiderweb’, for instance, begins: ‘It’s hard to breathe in the humid north, up there so close to Brazil and Paraguay, the rushing river guarded by mosquito sentinels and a sky that can turn from limpid blue to stormy black in minutes.  You start to struggle right away when you arrive, as if a brutal arm were wound around your waist and squeezing.’

Megan McDowell’s translation from the original Spanish of the stories is faultless.  It does not feel as though anything of the original has been lost in translation; the stories have an urgency, an immediacy to them.   In her translator’s note at the end of the volume, McDowell writes that in these stories, ‘Argentina’s particular history combines with an aesthetic many have tied to the gothic horror tradition of the English-speaking world.’  She goes on to say: ‘But Enriquez’s literature conforms to no genre’.  She writes of the focus upon female characters, and the way in which, throughout this collection, ‘… we get a sense of the contingency and danger of occupying a female body, though these women are not victims.’

Things We Lost in the Fire is startling and entirely memorable.  The collection as a whole provides many creepy moments, a lot of which startled me as a reader, but I could not tear myself away from it.  The stories are at once desperate and disturbing.  I, like many other readers of English, I expect, eagerly await Enriquez’ next collection.

1

Three Reviews: Donal Ryan, Penelope Lively, and Angela Huth

9780857525345From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan ****
Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award in 2018. The novel follows three men, and is focused on a small town in Ireland, in which all three characters find themselves.

Our first protagonist is a Syrian refugee named Farouk, who has to leave his home and his career in medicine, and ends up losing far more before he reaches the safety of Ireland. We then meet twenty three-year-old Laurence, known as Lampy, who has reached something of a crisis in his life. He dreamed of a career, but now works in a care home, a job which he feels he is barely qualified for, and is nursing a broken heart. The third main character is an Irishman named John, who is reflecting upon his life, and the awful things which he has done. His narrative is the only one told from the first person perspective, and it is written as a confession to a priest.

Throughout, I was so interested in each of the characters, and their motivations. The prose in the first section, which follows Farouk, is exquisite, rich and textured. The section which follows Lampy has more matter-of-fact prose, and John’s falls somewhere inbetween. Taken together, these three men show rather a diverse picture of what it means to be a man in the twenty-first century, and the trials and tribulations which we could all face, if the circumstances were different.

 

Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively ***** 0241319625
Penelope Lively is an author whose work I always gravitate back to. I was enraptured when I picked up her novel, Consequences in a seconds bookshop some years ago, and absolutely loved the reading experience.  I have read quite a few of her novels since, as well as her excellent memoir, Oleander, Jacaranda, which focuses upon her childhood spent living in Egypt.

Although I do not have my own garden at present, gardening is an enduring love of mine.  I was therefore most excited to find Lively’s Life in the Garden on my library’s online borrowing service, and it proved to be just what I was in the mood for.  It is partly memoir of her own gardening escapades, and draws together a lot of other writers and their real and fictional gardens.

Lively’s exploration of gardens is very thorough, and she writes about so many different books which feature them.  She discusses at length the gardens of authors like Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, as well as the gardens which she herself has tended during her life.

Lively writes wonderfully, and I wished that this book had been twice as long so that I had a lot more time to savour her words.  Life in the Garden is a tender, lovely, and gentle read; just the thing to relax with in this busy world of ours.  I was pulled in immediately, and can only hope that Lively writes another tome like this one in the near future.

 

s-l640Collected Stories by Angela Huth ****
When I visit my local library, I’m like a magpie, borrowing anything which I fancy, even if I’ve not heard of it before.  I have decided to try and be more comprehensive about going through the many to-read notebooks which I have kept since I was a teenager, deliberately selecting tomes from them to read.  I therefore came across a collection of Angela Huth’s short stories, which I had written down about ten years ago, and decided to try them out.  I requested her Collected Stories through my local library, and the book was sent to me from the Country Store, where I believe it had been languishing for some years (the last date stamp reads 2007).

I had not read any of Huth’s work before picking up her Collected Stories, and must admit that I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  I do not recall ever seeing her work reviewed, and I do not remember where I found the recommendation.  Regardless, I settled down with the book during a storm, and read a huge chunk of it all in one go.

From the first couple of stories, I wasn’t entirely sure whether I would like Huth’s work; they seemed a little bitty and incomplete.  However, once I reached the fourth and fifth tales, I was hooked.  Some of the better stories are found towards the back of the collection.

Huth’s tales are well written – sometimes beautifully so – and very easy to read.  Huth’s work feels quite old-fashioned on the whole, and these were lovely to settle down with; I was reminded at points of work by Carol Shields and Penelope Lively.   I feel as though her style really suits this short form, and I’m currently unsure as to whether I will read any of her longer work at any time soon.

Collected Stories only had 8 ratings on Goodreads before I added my review, and I feel that it – and, too, Huth as an author – has been quite unfairly overlooked.  There is so much here to admire; the characters have depth and realness to them, and the situations in which they find themselves, whilst generally quite commonplace, are rendered memorable due to the reactions which Huth relates.

The focus upon female characters, particularly those in their middle- or old-age, made the whole feel cohesive.  There are commonalities threaded throughout Collected Stories, but each story is different enough to read one after the other.  I would highly recommend this collection, and believe that ‘Laughter in the Willows’, one of the later stories, is something akin to a masterpiece.