Atlantic Books, Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, Bryan Washington, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, USA

‘Memorial’ by Bryan Washington

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 284 pages; 2021.

After reading what feels like a trillion novels about young 20-something women trying to sort out their lives in the 21st century, how refreshing to read a novel from the male perspective!

Bryan Washington’s Memorial is about two gay men from diverse backgrounds trying to decide whether to commit to each other or not. Both have complicated relationships with their parents (particularly their fathers), which adds to their emotional impotence, and neither seems able to express the three simple words we all long to hear: “I love you”.

It’s written in a restrained style, albeit with plenty of sex scenes and lavish descriptions of food (if you are not hungry before reading this book, you will be during it). And it’s free of speech marks, which seems to be a “thing” in all the new novels I have been reading lately.

Relationship rut

The story is focused on two men who are in a relationship rut. Benson is a middle-class Black man working in childcare, while Mike is from a lower-class Japanese background (but raised in the US) and is now employed as a chef.

Their relationship is told in three parts. The first, from Benson’s perspective, details what happens when Mike’s mother arrives for a holiday on the same day her son flies to Japan to visit his dying father. This leaves Benson alone with his almost-mother-in-law, a woman he’s never met before let alone shared a house with and had to entertain. Their odd-couple interactions are awkward — “So, how long have you been sleeping with my son?” — but eventually morph into something resembling friendship.

The second part is told from Mike’s point of view and charts his time in Osaka with his ill father, Eiju, who runs a small bar that his son will inherit, while the third part shifts back to Benson’s perspective before ending on a hopeful note.

Well-rounded look at a relationship

Nothing earth-shattering happens in this book. The plot is thin and occasionally moves ahead through text messages or via photographs snapped on Smartphones (some of which are reproduced in the novel).

Sometimes a little nugget of information is dropped into the narrative or someone says something particularly scathing — “You’re trash, he said. Great, I said. That’s big of you. You came from trash, and you’ll always be trash” — which alters our perspectives on the characters. This is a great device for allowing us to understand both Benson and Mike’s motives and thoughts, to see how their actions and behaviours impact the other person, giving us a more rounded version of them as a couple.

Like the much-lauded work of Sally Rooney, Memorial is a story that simply explores human relationships and the ways in which entanglements with lovers, friends, family and colleagues shape our lives. And it looks at decision making: how our actions have consequences and being an adult is about accepting responsibility for the things we do and say. (Even the dads in this story have to grow into this idea.)

Washington also turns his eye to commitment. What is it, and is it worth pursuing? How do we plan for a future together if we don’t know what that future holds?

One night, I asked Ben what he wanted. We steeped on the top of our mattress like tea bags. The A/C wheezed overhead. Ben sat up. He smiled. Honestly, he said, I hadn’t expected this to be anything. Oh, I said. Yeah. Whatever happens, happens. Isn’t that what you wanted? I want whatever’s best for both of us, I said. There’s no best. Things just happen.

This is my 10th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year. 

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Sigrid Nunez, USA, Virago

‘The Friend’ by Sigrid Nunez

Fiction – Kindle edition; Virago; 224 pages; 2019.

This is the third book by Sigrid Nunez that I have read this year. She was a new discovery for me back in January, when I fell in love with her wonderful novel The Last of her Kind, but I’m fairly certain that if I had read The Friend first I probably wouldn’t have bothered reading anything else by her.

Not that this is a bad book. I enjoyed it. But its rambling nature, its lack of plot and structure, tested my patience at a time when I had little patience to test.

I know it pre-dated What Are You Going Through, but it felt very much like a companion piece to that novel — and maybe that’s why it didn’t really work for me: I simply read them too close together.

A canine inheritance

The Friend is about an unnamed middle-aged woman who inherits a dog after her best friend, a male creative writing professor, dies and leaves his great Dane to her. The inheritance, like his death (a suicide), is unexpected. Despite their close friendship for more than 30 years, the idea that the woman would look after his dog if he died has never been discussed: she finds out the (not particularly welcome) news when his third wife invites her for a coffee.

The dog, Apollo, is beautiful, docile and loyal, but he’s huge and he takes up so much room in her Manhattan apartment he has to sleep on her bed. And yet, for all the inconvenience and stress of living together in such a confined space, the pair of them get along well. He teaches her patience. She begins to fall in love with him.

But his presence in the building is forbidden by her landlord who has banned pets. There is a very real possibility that she will lose her much loved rent-controlled apartment if she does not find another home for Apollo.

That sense of jeopardy is what holds the entire narrative together — will she keep the dog and be turfed out into the street, or will she find a way to get rid of him?

Recurring themes

This, however, is a thin premise for a plot; most of the novel reads like a series of essays (the book is comprised of 12 parts) that focus on recurring themes. These include, among others, suicide and its aftermath; platonic friendship, sexual relationships and marriage; grief and bereavement; academic life; creative writing, writing as a profession and literature; dogs as companions and dogs in literature.

These forays or diversions read like long passages of stream-of-consciousness or eloquent diary entries — and there’s a hint of meta-fiction throughout (is the narrator, for instance, really Nunez in disguise). They’re brim-full of insights and there’s an emphasis on detail, and despite some heavy subject matter — this is, after all, a book about suicide and its aftermath — there’s a seam of humour running throughout the narrative, a slight poking of fun at the ridiculous concept of a small woman looking after a gigantic dog.

I should also point out that it’s all written in the second person; the “you” is the dead friend, but by the last chapter the “you” has become the dog. Make of that what you will.

The Friend is an intriguing concept for a book. But for all its humanity and its intelligence and its look at an “outsider” — an unmarried woman finding true companionship with a dog  — I found the story didn’t really hold my interest. Perhaps that’s because it’s the kind of book you really need to be in the mood for.

Don’t let my review put you off though. Annabel liked it more than me — and so did Eric.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sigrid Nunez, USA, Virago

‘What Are You Going Through’ by Sigrid Nunez

Fiction – paperback; Virago; 210 pages; 2020.

Sigrid Nunez’s latest novel What Are You Going Through is a beguiling story that doesn’t really fit into a box. The blurb writers have tried to paint it as a tale about two friends, one of whom asks the other to be there when she chooses to die euthanasia style, but it is so much more complex and convoluted than that.

This is a story about stories — the stories we hear, the stories we write, the stories we tell ourselves. (“This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” the opening line from Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, is a constant refrain.)

It’s about truth and fiction, confronting our fears, searching for hope to sustain us and caring for others. Most importantly, it’s about life and death, and asks pertinent questions about what makes a good life — and what makes a good death.

Helping a friend out

What Are You Going Through is told through the eyes of an unnamed narrator, a middle-aged writer who has never been married or had children. She has an ex-partner who is a professor and well-known author, and when the book opens she (secretly) attends a talk he is delivering “based on a long article he had written for a magazine” about humankind’s death wish.

It was all over, he said again. No more the faith and consolation that had sustained generations and generations, the knowledge that, though our own individual time on earth must end, what we loved and what had meaning for us would go on, the world of which we had been a part would endure — that time had ended, he said. Our world and our civilization would not endure, he said. We must live and die in this new knowledge.

This, essentially, is a foreshadowing of a predicament the narrator finds herself in when she agrees to be with her terminally ill friend at the end of her life. The end, however, won’t be from natural causes. Her friend has decided that she will take a lethal tablet at a time of her choosing because she’s seeking peace, not the pain and agony of a death from cancer.

The narrator agrees to help because “I knew that, in her place, I would have hoped to be able to do exactly what she now wanted to do. And I would have needed someone to help me.”

A book of two halves

What Are You Going Through is a book of two halves. In the first, Nunez takes her time to build up the idea that all people really want out of life is to be noticed, to be seen, for others to understand what they are going through. And in the second, she recounts what happens when the narrator and her friend rent an Airbnb for a short holiday in which they will go exploring, eat out and generally relax before one of them will take a lethal drug to end it all.

There’s a lot to like about this book: the finger-on-the-pulse commentary about modern living and the craziness of our lives in general, the easy-going narrative style, the humour and the cool, calm intelligent voice of the narrator.

The meandering anecdotal style threw me at first, but once I warmed to it I loved not knowing what to expect next. That’s because much of what the narrator tells us is observational, a bit like a personal diary in which she recalls scenes she’s glimpsed, people she’s met and conversations she’s overheard.

On more than one occasion I was reminded of Helen Garner’s wonderful Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1, 1978-1987. (As an aside, Nunez and Garner seem to have similar writing styles and observational skills, the ability to create a whole scene or feeling from the briefest of detail. And it hasn’t escaped my attention that Garner’s novel The Spare Room is also about a friend dying from cancer.)

Despite the heavy subject matter, I rather enjoyed What Are You Going Through. Having read Nunez’s brilliant 2006 novel The Last of Her Kind earlier this year, I had high expectations. I wasn’t disappointed.

I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Joyce Carol Oates, literary fiction, Macmillan, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Black Water’ by Joyce Carol Oates

Fiction – hardcover; MacMillan; 156 pages; 1992.

I first heard about Joyce Carol Oates’ novella Black Water via Cathy’s recent 6 Degrees of Separation post.

This slim book is based on the infamous 1969 Chappaquiddick incident in which Senator Ted Kennedy’s car crashed into the water, killing his 28-year-old passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, who was trapped inside.

Oates transposes this real-life tragedy to a different time (the early 1990s) and place (Grayling Island, Maine), and tells it from the point of view of the female victim.

A fateful meeting

When 26-year-old Kelly Kelleher meets The Senator at a Fourth of July party she is immediately enamoured by him, not least because she wrote her thesis on him and his three campaigns for the Senate. She harbours a dream to work on his presidential campaign.

The much older politician (he’s in his 50s), who has been separated from his wife for 30 years, is immediately struck by the young blonde woman with the green eyes, and the pair hit it off, so much so that they exchange a secret kiss and then go for a long drive.

It’s during this drive, in a race to get to the last ferry that evening, that the Senator’s rented Toyota leaves the road, crashes through a barricade and ends upside-down in the brackish water. The Senator manages to escape, but Kelly is trapped inside, unable to get out because her legs are pinned by twisted metal.

In her shock not knowing at first where she was, what tight-clamped place this was, what darkness, not knowing what had happened because it had happened so abruptly like a scene blurred with speed glimpsed from a rushing window and there was blood in her eyes, her eyes were wide open staring and sightless, her head pounding violently where the bone was cracked, she knew the bone was cracked believing that it would be through this fissure the black water would poor to extinguish her life unless she could find a way to escape unless he will be back to help me of course.

The narrative is largely comprised of Kelly’s thoughts as she realises she is trapped and that The Senator is not coming back to rescue her. As she dies, her thoughts are a jumble of memories, mainly recent ones, as she recalls events at the party, snippets of conversation, the unexpected (but delicious) kiss she receives and the attention The Senator lavishes on her.

The chapters are short, sometimes just a page long, and the prose style alternates between long, breathless sentences, and short, choppy ones, reflecting Kelly’s changing moods – from excitement to disbelief to fear and panic.

It’s an easy book to read, even if the contents are occasionally heartbreaking, for here is a happy carefree young woman who has had her life cut abruptly short by a man drunk behind the wheel — and the man has now fled the scene.

Unfortunately, Black Water, which was first published in 1992, is currently out of print. I purchased mine secondhand online via Abebooks.

I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Jacqueline Woodson, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

‘Red at the Bone’ by Jacqueline Woodson

Fiction – Kindle edition; W&N; 208 pages; 2020.

Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone came recommended to me with much fanfare. It’s been nominated for many prizes (including the Women’s Prize for Fiction), been a runaway bestseller and named as one of the books of the year in countless media outlets (New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today et al).

It features everything I love in a great story: well-drawn characters, vivid prose, a strong narrative voice, thought-provoking themes (including race, class, sexuality, teen pregnancy, social mobility and ambition) and an original structure that interweaves different storylines and jumps backwards and forwards in time.

But this novella about a Black American family, told from multiple points of view, didn’t really work for me. Perhaps it didn’t help that the week I read it I was distracted by (1) the never-ending USA Presidential Election count and (2) a looming deadline for a massive project at work. Given different circumstances, I may well have found this story more engaging and immersive than I did upon my initial reading.

Melody’s family history

The story revolves around Melody, a 16-year-old about to make her coming of age debut, in 2001. She’s wearing a beautiful white dress that was made for her mother, Iris, who never got to wear it because she fell pregnant when still a schoolgirl.

As Melody descends the staircase in her grandparent’s brownstone house in Brooklyn, the time-shifting narrative explores all the interconnections in Melody’s family, detailing the personal histories of her parents and grandparents, to create an authentic portrait of an ordinary hard-working family wanting the very best for their loved ones.

He wanted Melody to never have hands like his mother’s. And maybe that was what being not poor was. They were not poor. Well, Melody wasn’t.

Red at the Bone highlights the repercussions of a teenage pregnancy on two young parents and their respective families.

It looks at how Melody’s father, Aubry, did not realise he was poor until he met Iris and got introduced to her (slightly larger) world; it shows how Iris, having birthed her daughter at 15, refused to be defined by motherhood and escaped to college to pursue a better, more ambitious life; it examines the struggles of Melody’s grandparents, Sabe and Po’Boy, who grew up in the shadow of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921; and it takes all these narrative threads and cleverly shows how the history of this one family shapes Melody’s values and world view.

It’s an ambitious story wrapped up in one neat package. It’s just a shame it didn’t quite hit the spot for me, but that’s more my fault than that of the author’s. Sometimes it’s simply a case of right book, wrong time…

I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.

Anne Tyler, Author, Book review, Chatto & Windus, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ by Anne Tyler

Fiction – paperback; Chatto & Windus; 178 pages; 2020.

Anne Tyler’s latest novel, Redhead by the Side of the Road, is classic Anne Tyler: absorbing, perceptive and warm-hearted, but underpinned by a current of pathos.

It tells the story of Micah Mortimer, a 41-year-old man, who does his best to live a quiet, understated life in which he never puts a foot wrong.

He has a “woman friend”, Cass, who teaches fourth grade, but they live in separate apartments and lead fairly separate lives, only catching up on a semi-regular basis for meals, overnight stays and weekend outings.

Day-to-day, he follows a relatively regimented schedule — going for a run at 7.15am every morning, for instance, and cleaning his basement flat according to a rigid routine.

He makes his living as a computer technician, running his own business called TECH HERMIT, where he makes home visits to sort people’s computer and printer issues out. He also moonlights as the super at the apartment building in which he lives.

He is cordial and friendly to people, but he’s not social and has no male friends. But this is his life and he has no cause to examine it.

Of course, this wouldn’t be an Anne Tyler novel without something extraordinary happening to an ordinary person, throwing things into disarray and causing characters to reassess their situations. In Micah’s case, two things happen: an 18-year-old preppy-looking kid turns up on his doorstep claiming Micah is his father, and his girlfriend Cass breaks off their relationship because he does little to help her when she fears she might become homeless. Both events test Micah’s view of himself — and his life.

Character-driven novel

As a character-driven novel, this is a perceptive look at a seemingly happy middle-aged man whose life is thrown off kilter.  For all his stability and level-headedness, you only have to scratch the surface to realise that Micah is not a particularly confident person. He might not be able to control how other people behave, so he has spent his life focusing on the things he can control — making sure his house is spotlessly clean, doing a job that doesn’t challenge him too much, keeping Cass at arm’s length because if he makes a real commitment he could potentially get hurt.

Micah, however, doesn’t have enough self-awareness to realise that this is what he does. He’s puzzled when he turns up to a family gathering — he is the youngest of four children — and finds his sisters and in-laws taking the mickey out of him. When he announces that he and Cassie have broken up, they urge him to try to get her back.

“Tell her you’ll change your ways,” Phil advised him.
“Change what ways?” Micah asked.
This made them all start laughing; he didn’t know why. […]
“Uncle Mickey’s kind of … finicky.”
“I am not finicky,” Micah said.
“What day is it today, Micah?” Suze’s husband called from the foyer doorway. […]
“What do you mean, what day? It’s Thursday.”
“Is it vacuuming day? Is it dusting day? Is it scrub-the-keyboards-with-a-Q-tip day?”
“Oh, Dave, leave him alone,” Suze said.
“He doesn’t mind! Is it window-washing day?”
“Well,” Micah said grudgingly. “It’s kitchen day, as it happens.”
“Kitchen day! Ha! Your kitchen has a day all its own?”
“Yes.”
“And what does that involve, exactly?” […]
“On kitchen day I clean the counters and the appliances and such. And one complete cabinet.”
“One cabinet?”
“In rotation.”
They laughed again, and Micah gave an exaggerated scowl. He wasn’t sure why he played along with them like this. (Even encouraged them, some might say.)

This is a novel about missteps and misperceptions to the point of almost farce. Even the novel’s title, which comes from short-sighted Micah mistaking a fire hydrant as a “redhead by the side of the road”, suggests a farcical element to his life.

There are a lot of misunderstandings too, owing largely to lack of communication, or people jumping to conclusions. For instance, Cass thinks that Micah deliberately has someone stay over in his guest room so that he won’t have to invite her to move in when she’s evicted. But it never even occurs to him that he should ease her fears of homelessness by offering her to move in with him.

By the same token, Cass lacks the directness to say what she feels, which would help resolve the issue.

Comic and heartfelt

Redhead by the Side of the Road is a very humane book, brimming with comic moments and heartfelt deeds. It’s cosy without being cloying, moving without being sentimental, and life-affirming without being moralistic.

I adored it, and for all of Micah’s annoying habits and lack of spontaneity, I loved spending time in his company. It only makes me want to work my way through Anne Tyler’s backlist — most of which I’ve already read pre-blog.

Abacus, Anita Shreve, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, historical fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, USA

‘Fortune’s Rocks’ by Anita Shreve

Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 476 pages; 2001.

It’s been three years since I last read an Anita Shreve novel. She’s usually my go-to author when I’m looking for some light but immersive reading. I like her plot-driven stories, which are typically peopled by strong, resilient women often caught up in moral or ethical dilemmas.

Fortune’s Rock, published in 1999, was her eighth novel (before she died in 2018, she penned 19 novels — and I’ve read most of them).

Set at the turn of the 20th century, it’s an age-old story of a teenage girl falling for an older man and then being forced to suffer the consequences of her illicit liaison by a society that sees everything in black or white.

A summer love affair

When the book opens we meet 15-year-old Olympia Biddeford walking along a New Hampshire beach one hot June day in 1899. Her family — a poorly, mainly bed-ridden mother and a rich, scholarly father who publishes a literary magazine and home schools his daughter — have decamped to the beachside community of Fortune’s Rocks from Boston for the summer.

In the time it takes for her to walk from the bathhouse at the sea wall of Fortune’s Rocks, where she has left her boots and has discreetly pulled off her stockings, to the waterline along which the sea continually licks the pink and silver sand, she learns about desire.

All the men on the beach staring at her sets the tone for the rest of this 400-plus page novel, for Olympia, on the cusp of womanhood, is subject to the male gaze at almost every turn. When she meets her father’s friend,  John Warren Haskell, an essayist and medical doctor, the way he looks at her takes on deeper meaning.

There is no mistaking this gaze. It is not a look that turns itself into a polite moment of recognition or a nod of encouragement to speak. Nor is it the result of an absentminded concentration of thought. It is rather an entirely penetrating gaze with no barriers or boundaries. It is scrutiny such as Olympia has never encountered in her young life. And she thinks that the entire table must be stopped in that moment, as she is, feeling its nearly intolerable intensity.

Despite 41-year-old Haskell being married with four children, the pair go on to have a passionate love affair that opens Olympia’s eyes, not only to love and desire, but to the wider world in general. When she accompanies Haskell on one of his medical rounds at the impoverished mill town in nearby Ely, she witnesses childbirth for the first time and begins to understand that her upbringing has been rather staid and sheltered. This only heightens her desire to seek out new experiences.

Their summer-long affair, which comprises trysts in Haskell’s hotel room while his wife is away, and later in the half-constructed coastal cottage that Haskell is building for his family, skirts dangerous territory. There is an unknown witness to their affair, who manages to expose their wrongdoing at the worst possible moment: Olympia’s extravagant 16th birthday gala party attended by more than 100 people.

Plot-driven story

This is a plot-driven novel and it’s difficult to say much more without ruining the story for others yet to read it. Let’s just say that ruination results for both Olympia and Haskell’s family, and a good portion of the novel is set in a courtroom.

But for all its old-fashioned sentiment, its expert portrayal of late 19th century morals and its championing of young women’s rights, I had some issues with Fortune’s Rocks.

It’s too long for a start. A judicious cut of at least 100 pages would not take anything away from the plot. It feels a bit prone to histrionics in places, too, and is far too predictable from start to finish. And the courtroom bits towards the end, particularly in the way that Olympia behaves, seems informed by late 20th century attitudes.

And don’t get me started about John Haskell having his way with a 15-year-old! Shreve paints a very sympathetic portrait of him and suggests that Olympia knew exactly what she was doing —

“Though I was very young and understood little of the magnitude of what I was doing, I was not seduced. Never seduced. I had will and some understanding. I could have stopped it at any time.”

— but I still didn’t buy it. This kind of relationship would be scandalous today; more than 100 years ago it would have been ruinous!

In short, this isn’t the best Shreve book I’ve read, nor is it the worst (that honour lies with A Wedding in December). It was a good distraction for lockdown reading, requiring little brainpower, and kept me entertained for a week. But on the whole, Fortune’s Rocks — even with its happy, redemptive ending — didn’t set my world on fire.

This is my 15th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I “mooched” a paperback copy of this book years and years ago (circa 2006), but I read the Kindle edition for this review.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Philip Roth, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, USA, Vintage

‘Nemesis’ by Philip Roth

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 2011; 280 pages.

Reading a novel about a polio epidemic while the world is grappling with the Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic might seem like an odd thing to do. Aren’t we all scared enough? But I thought that Philip Roth’s Nemesis might offer some insights into how people behave during health scares and whether there are any lessons to be learned.

Newark polio epidemic

The story is set in Newark, New Jersey during the summer of 1944. It’s a scary time — there’s a war raging in Europe and the Pacific — but closer to home there’s another threat, a contagious disease that largely targets children. It’s called polio and is known as the “summer disease” because it only appears during the warmer months.

It starts with a headache and a fever and then leads to paralysis of body and limbs. In severe cases, patients are put in “iron lungs” — a mechanical respirator which enables a person to breathe on their own — for months at a time. Survivors can end up in wheelchairs or have to wear calipers to support withered limbs. Many die. There is no known cure.

The story is framed around 23-year-old Bucky Cantor whose poor eyesight means he hasn’t been able to enlist in the Army. His thoughts are never far away from the battlefield: two of his best friends signed up and are fighting somewhere in France. Bucky finds a good job as the director of a playground, in a Jewish part of town, where he teaches his young charges physical education and supervises their games.

He is well-liked and popular; never more so than when he stands up to a group of Italian teenagers who arrive in two cars to “spread polio” one sunny afternoon. “We got it and you don’t, so we thought we’d drive up and spread a little around,” says one of the guys, who then proceeds to spit all over the sidewalk.

Several days later two of Bucky’s students come down with polio; both eventually die. There is no proof the Italians spread the disease (after they spat on the sidewalk, Bucky washed it all down) but no one really knows how the contagion is passed on. Is it via human contact? Maybe it’s from food? Or is it the water? Why are some neighbourhoods more badly affected than others? So little is known that rumours and conspiracies abound. People want the playground shut down, the Italian gang to be lynched, the local hotdog vendor to close, entire apartment blocks to be quarantined.

Bewilderment and fear

Bucky begins to feel the weight of people’s grief and fears, their panic and bewilderment, their pain and outrage. People on the street mistake him for a Health Department official and yell their fury at him. He is devoted to the playground, at keeping it open and providing a safe place for boys to play, but he’s fearful of who might fall sick next. He begins to feel guilty that maybe he didn’t do enough to stop two of his charges from dying.

His girlfriend, a first grade teacher working at a summer camp in the hills, offers him a reprieve. There’s an opening at the camp for a waterfront director and Bucky, an accomplished diver and swimmer, would be ideal for the job. He prevaricates for a week or two — he needs to stay in the city to keep an eye on the grandmother who raised him — but eventually succumbs to the idea of fresh air and a fresh start.

The second half of the book charts Bucky’s time at the India Hill camp and his romance with Marcia. But when a fellow camp instructor falls ill, Bucky can’t help but think he brought the poliovirus with him. How many children has he now put at risk? How many parents will suffer the loss of a loved one?

Surviving a contagion 

Nemesis is a gripping account of an epidemic from another time and place seen through the eyes of one man.

It’s eloquently written in Roth’s typical forthright style and is told in the third-person. But midway through we discover it is being told through the eyes of one of Bucky’s former students looking back on the summer of 1944. The narrator, it turns out, caught polio but survived. It’s an unusual device, and perhaps not entirely necessary, but it does show that the disease was not always a death sentence.

This novel also shows how rumour and fear can spread almost as fast, if not faster, than the contagion itself, and looks at the responsibility that we all hold to behave with the good of others in mind. Washing your hands and the need for quarantine are frequently mentioned. Yes, I think there might be lessons in this book for us all.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers has also reviewed this book, but it first attracted my attention when the late KevinfromCanada reviewed it on his blog back in 2010.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London: This story is set in a children’s convalescent home in Perth, Western Australia during a polio outbreak in 1954.

This is my 9th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. The press release tucked into the cover of this book indicates that it was sent to me unsolicited in October 2011. I was obviously interested in reading it because it survived dozens of book culls over the years and was packed in my suitcase when I moved back to Australia in June last year. It may possibly be the oldest book I own here.

Author, Book review, essays, Janet Malcolm, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, Text, USA

‘Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays’ by Janet Malcolm

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Text Publishing; 304 pages; 2019.

Janet Malcolm is a respected American journalist who writes in a narrative non-fiction style. I regard her most notable work, The Journalist and The Murderer, first published in 1990, as one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read. It’s the quintessential work by which I measure all other narrative non-fiction work.

Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays, which was published by Text last year, brings together a variety of her shorter essays, which were originally published in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. As such they are fairly divergent in theme, if not style, and they cover everything from detailed profile pieces to long-form book reviews. (The title comes from her profile of American fashion designer Eileen Fisher, whose Catholic mother often said to her “nobody’s looking at you” as a way of stamping out any tendency towards self-absorption.)

This eclectic collection is divided into three parts: long-form journalistic profiles of famous people; shorter pieces on topics ranging from pop culture to politics; and articles about books and literature. Admittedly, I found the first part much better than the second and third, perhaps because the pieces were long enough to give Malcolm’s writing the chance to breathe — and to showcase what she really does best, bringing people to life with a simple flourish of her pen.

Profile pieces

In Part I of Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays there are several standout features, but the one that made the biggest impression on me was about Yuja Wang, a Chinese classical pianist who is renowned for wearing stilettos and outrageous little dresses on stage. I had never heard of her before, but reading Malcolm’s essay “Performance Artist” really made me feel as if I knew her personally. I found myself feeling quite defensive of her!

In this piece, Malcolm shows how Yuga’s preference for “extremely short and tight dresses that ride up as she plays” has almost eclipsed the music, as journalists and critics get sidetracked by her fashion sense.

The New Criterion critic Jay Nordlinger characterized the “shorter-than-short red dress, barely covering her rear” that Yuja wore for a Carnegie Hall recital as “stripper-wear.” Never has the relationship between what we see at a concert and what we hear come under such perplexing scrutiny.

Spending time with the young musician, Malcolm finds herself wondering if it might not just be easier for Yuja to ditch the risque outfits for something more sombre.

In 2014, when an interviewer from the London Telegraph asked Yuja about “her fondness for riskily short, clingy dresses,” she gave a flippant reply: “I am 26 years old, so I dress for 26. I can dress in long skirts when I am 40.” But in fact Yuja’s penchant for the riskily short and clingy has less to do with allegiance to the dress code of her generation than with an awareness of her own “super-smallness,” as she calls it. She knows that small, tight clothes bring out her beauty and large, loose garments don’t. But she is not just a woman who knows how to dress. She is a woman who is constantly experimenting with how to dress when she is playing on a concert stage. She is keenly aware—as many soloists affect not to be—that she is being looked at as well as listened to.

Malcolm gains further insight into her subject when the pair get ready to attend a meeting. Yuja spends an inordinate amount of time deciding whether to wear a flamboyant dress or stay in her casual attire:

Should she wear one of them or stay in the shorts? I asked what the issue was—was she interested in comfort or in how she looked? She stared at me as if I were crazy. What weird world was I living in where comfort could even be thought of? She wiggled into one of the bandage dresses, added her high heels, and we walked the three blocks to Lincoln Center at a brisk clip.

It’s these kinds of observations that distinguishes Malcolm’s work from the usual run-of-the-mill magazine features we might normally read. She spends a lot of time with her subjects on multiple occasions, which allows her to get a feel for the person she’s profiling.

Putting in the hours

In her essay “Three Sisters”, which is about three sisters in their 70s who run Argosy Bookshop on East Fifty-Ninth Street in New York, she actually works behind the till to allow her to understand how the business works.

“One day,” she writes, “I sat with Adina at the cash register as spurts of arriving customers alternated with lulls when the shop was almost empty.” She then charts every exchange, every customer’s weird and wonderful requests, and in doing so shows the inner-most working of a secondhand bookstore via the clientele it attracts. It’s this kind of journalistic research that can only be done face-to-face, by putting the hours in, as it were, that makes the pieces come alive.

That said, I found her essays on politics a little wearisome, perhaps because they were outdated — “The Art of Testifying”, for instance, is about the Senate Judiciary Committee’s machinations in 1990 and everything she states about the process has been somewhat eclipsed by Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination last year. Her essay “Special Needs”, on Sarah Palin’s nine-part documentary series, which was published in the New York Review of Books in 2011 seems similarly irrelevant.

Perhaps these old essays might have benefited from a short introduction putting things into context —  or at least the initial date of publication could have been listed at the top of the essay (instead of at the end) to act as a helpful signpost for the reader.

All up, I really only liked a third of this essay collection. I hazard to say it is probably one for completists only.

This is my 5th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought it on Kindle late last year.

 

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sigrid Nunez, USA, Virago

‘The Last of Her Kind’ by Sigrid Nunez

Fiction – paperback; Virago; 416 pages; 2019.

No sooner had I read the first few pages of Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind than I knew it was going to be one of my favourite books of the year.

It’s the kind of immersive, entertaining life saga I really love to read, and the setting — New York in the late 1960s — is so evocatively depicted I felt like I was really experiencing first hand that time and place.

Coupled with a confident, dazzling prose style and a brilliant cast of strong characters, I knew I was in safe hands and would thoroughly enjoy the ride.

A college friendship

The book charts the friendship between two wildly different young women who meet as college roommates at Columbia University in 1968.

Ann Drayton is an only child who comes from a rich, upper-class background but is so ashamed of her unearned privilege that she turns her back on it, beginning college life with one aim: to socialise and befriend people from the lower classes.

Georgette George comes from the other end of the social spectrum, has grown up in poverty, but has a “set of brains” and wants to make something of herself, if only to escape her underprivileged background.

The pair share a room, but it is an uneasy, almost one-sided friendship, for Ann is domineering, self-assured and politicised, while George is introverted, wary and lacking in confidence. But over time George, who narrates the story, grows to like her roomie, especially her unwavering acceptance of her, and the ways in which she opens up her world — and associated world view.

The intensity of the friendship does, eventually, come to a head, when the pair have a full-blown argument that results in a major falling out.

But that is not the end of the story, because some six or seven years after the fight, when neither of them has bothered to remedy the situation, Ann is arrested for the murder of a policeman. George finds this situation so unbelievable and alarming, she analyses their shared history in almost forensic detail, trying to unravel the clues that might indicate why Ann could commit such a heinous act.

Truly engaging story

The Last of Her Kind is ambitious in structure and utilises a pastiche of styles to create a truly engaging story, one that I kept thinking about every time I (reluctantly) put down the book.

It is an unflinching account of power and privilege in America, seen through the very personal lens of female friendship. As well as highlighting how our family history and early adult relationships can shape the course of our lives, it looks at how romantic idealism, martyrdom and activism can collide with outcomes we might not expect.

It’s a truly compelling story about all kinds of issues — social justice, race and poverty, to name but a few — but it does it in such an authentic and nuanced way it never feels heavy-handed. (The only bit of the story I wasn’t quite sure about was the chapter told from the point of view of a prisoner, which didn’t feel quite as convincing as everything that went before, but that’s just a minor issue.)

It’s very much a book about human nature and all kinds of interpersonal relationships between parents and children, as well as friends, siblings and lovers.

The Last of Her Kind, which was first published in 2006, is Sigrid Nunez’s fifth novel. Her most recent novel, The Friend, won the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction. I have promptly added it to my TBR.