Say Say Say by Lila Savage: Caring for others

Cover imageI spotted Lila Savage’s debut on Twitter quite some time ago and liked the look of it. Say Say Say explores the job of the caregiver, one which is becoming increasingly common as we call on the services of others to look after us in our old age and one which Savage spent more than a decade in herself. Her novel personalises this most difficult and delicate of roles, so often undervalued, through Ella who never expected to inhabit it.

Ella is a bright young woman, close to thirty and a grad school dropout. She’s settled into life with Alix with whom she’s very much in love, dabbling in a variety of artistic pursuits and earning her money from looking after those who need it. Usually, it’s a job which combines the domestic with a modicum of care: she makes cookies for Sharon – vastly over weight but eager to be enveloped in the smell of baking – cleans her bathroom and clears up after her incontinence. Ella’s new job is caring for Jill, a woman whose brain injury has left her incoherent, caught up in meaningless repetitive routines and seemingly unreachable. Jill lives with her husband Bryn, who has given up work to look after his beloved wife but is looking for a little respite although finds himself almost incapable of taking it. Ella is simply to sit with Jill, to ensure that she doesn’t harm herself. Through Ella’s head runs a multitude of concerns – about Jill, about Bryn and how he is coping, about the life they once had together and whether she’s fulfilling their needs – while fretting about what she should be doing with her life. Eventually, as all her jobs do, her time with Jill comes to an end and she must leave what has come almost to feel like family.

And so Ella had learnt to step in and out of grief, to sample it on demand  

Rather like Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, I found this book getting under my skin but not being able to quite define why. Savage narrates her brief novella from Ella’s perspective which underlines the odd relationship between carer and client – intimate yet not – demanding a delicacy of navigation that Ella constantly re-evaluates. She’s the insider-outsider who must perform the most private of functions, witness the grief and distress of her clients, while safeguarding her own emotional wellbeing. Ella is constantly questioning herself, perpetually conscious of the effects of her actions on others. All this is explored with great humanity but also with wit: there’s an episode when Bryn takes Ella and Jill to the bike shop which is both comic and poignant as Ella attempts to shepherd a ranting Jill around the car park.

Still, she felt like a malevolent bully, like a sadistic prison guard, though she experienced no anger, or pleasure, in thwarting Jill’s will

Savage questions the gendered ‘pink-collar’ nature of caring, as Ella puts it, forced to re-think this idea as Bryn performs the most distasteful of tasks for Jill out of love, while Ella is simply paid to sit with her. Say Say Say is a thoughtful, humane and compassionate meditation on the toll caregiving exacts both on loved ones and professionals, delivered with acuity and style. I’m looking forward very much to seeing what Savage writes next.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in September 2019

Cover imageSadly, paperbacks on offer this September are as disappointing as new titles for me. Just the smallest of handfuls appeals, one of which I’ve already read, I owe my short story conversion largely to Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. Given that she died in 2004, I’d assumed that was it and so was delighted when Evening in Paradise turned up. Comprising twenty-two stories, it lacks the more detailed biographical notes included in A Manual for Cleaning Women but it’s clear that it also draws on her own life and what a rackety life it was: several marriages, four children and alcoholism followed a peripatetic childhood spent in mining towns with a brief glamorous teenage period in Chile. Even if you’re not a short story fan, please do give Berlin’s writing a try. It’s superb.

Lidia Yuknavitch’s Dora: A Headcase is billed as a coming-of-age story which draws on Freud’s famous case study of the eponymous young woman. Ida is secretly in love with her best friend but is struck dumb or faints whenever intimacy appears on the horizon. Her father sends her to a shrink but Ida, together with her alter ego, Dora, sets about subverting Siggy’s head games by covertly filming him. The result goes viral and Ida finds herself the victim of hackers.  ‘Yuknavitch’s Dora is radical and unapologetic – you won’t have met a character quite like her before’ say the publishers. It sounds intriguing.

I do like a good satire but one which deals with war is  tricky to pull off. The Guardian Cover imageclearly thought that Mohammed Hanif managed it with Red Birds, naming it one of their books of last year. An American pilot crashes his plane in the middle of the desert and is taken in by the very refugee camp he was supposed to bomb. Major Ellie finds his views turned upside down by both refugees and aid workers, by the sound of it, in what the publishers describe as a ‘savage, irreverent and deliciously dark’ novel.

And that, I’m afraid, is it for September. A click on Evening in Paradise will take you to my review and to a more detailed synopsis for the other two. If you’d like to catch up with new titles, they’re here. With publishers’ marketing eyes firmly fixed on Christmas, I’m sure October will offer a plethora of potential goodies to make up for September’s dearth. At least, I hope so.

The Club by Takis Würger (transl. Charlotte Collins): All too believable

Cover imageI had my eye on this one as soon as I saw that it was translated by the excellent Charlotte Collins, although I think I would have read it anyway. Set against a backdrop of privilege and entitlement, Takis Würger’s The Club follows Hans, a young German orphan whose estranged aunt has spotted a way in which her nephew’s boxing prowess can help her in her quest for retribution.

Lonely and bereft, Hans had hoped that Alex might take him home with her to Cambridge but instead he’s left at a Bavarian boarding school, taking up boxing to counter his schoolmates’ bullying. When he receives a letter from her asking him to infiltrate a Cambridge University boxing club in return for a scholarship, Hans accepts only for lack of anything else to do with his life. Alex’s PhD student, Charlotte, sets him up with the entrée he needs, introducing Hans to her father, Angus, who sponsors him, and providing him with the clothing that will mark him out as ‘one of us’. Hans’ boxing flair soon gets him noticed by Josh Hartley, the self-obsessed star of the club who thinks himself principled because he cares about the provenance of his meat. Through diligent training and assiduous lying, Hans works his way onto the university boxing team, winning his bout against Oxford for which he’s to be admitted into the inner sanctum. As with any exclusive club, there’s an initiation rite to complete – one so repugnant that Hans risks blowing his cover to avoid it. By the time, he becomes a Butterfly, Hans has come both to understand the reason Alex has enlisted his help and to overcome the loneliness that has haunted him since he was a child.

Würger explores themes of power, privilege, misogyny and homophobia in this far from comfortable read, telling his story through the voices of its principal players. Many of the details of Josh’s behaviour are so familiar from the well-documented antics of the Bullingdon Club that it’s all too easy to imagine them taken several steps further. Würger manages to nail the mind-bogglingly ghastly sense of entitlement displayed by Josh and co. with a careful but light hand. There are occasional flashes of dark humour while Angus’s lack of understanding of his own crime and concern for Charlotte in the face of the unsporting behavior of the young Butterflies is well done as is Josh’s total lack of self-knowledge, locking himself firmly in a closet of his own determined straightness. I see from Würger’s biographical notes that he, too, was a member of the Pitt Club as a Cambridge undergraduate making me squirm even more. That said, the detail may be peculiar to my own country but I suspect the generality is sadly universal. Not that I take any comfort from that observation.

Mrs Gaskell and Me by Nell Stevens: A little light relief

Cover imageI was casting around for a spot of diversion after a string of excellent but particularly dark novels when Nell Stevens’ Mrs Gaskell and Me arrived. I’d been eyeing it up for a little while, wondering if I’d enjoy it and now seemed the perfect time to find out. Stevens’ account of her doctoral research into Mrs Gaskell’s correspondence with a young man she met in Rome together with her own love story turned out to be very appealing, although perhaps not as light hearted as I’d expected.

Stevens had been struggling for a little while, trying to get a grip on her thesis, watching her fellow post-grad students, all displaying the classic signs of the PhD candidate – obsession with one’s subject, inability to talk about anyone’s else’s subject, a tendency to prickliness – but finding nothing of their passion in her own research. She’s constantly distracted by fantasies about Max, the friend she met on a creative writing course in Boston, with whom she’s fallen in apparently unrequited love. When he invites her to Paris, where he’s trying to write, she goes armed with a declaration that this can’t go on, that she adores him but can no longer see him platonically. After an awkward supper, things take a surprising turn back at Max’s apartment. Not long after, the focus of Stevens’ research becomes clear to her. Anticipating opprobrium on the publication of her biography of her dear friend Charlotte Brontë, Mrs Gaskell took herself off to Rome where she immersed herself in the English-speaking artistic community, meeting the likes of Elizabeth and Robert Barrett Browning and making the acquaintance of Charles Eliot Newton with whom she formed a deep connection. It’s this that Stevens decides to research, based on their correspondence.

Unlike Mrs Gaskell, who informed her publisher that she wanted to libel those she felt had let Brontë down, Stevens makes no bones about her book being a ‘work of imagination’, weaving imagined episodes in Rome through her own story and addressing some sections directly to Mrs Gaskell herself. I may well not have picked this book up without the Gaskell hook but I found myself rushing through these sections eager to get on and find out what was happening between Stevens and Max. There’s plenty of heartbreak here, despite the light tone, but there’s also a good deal of humour to enjoy particularly if you’ve had anything to do with academic life. I see from her biographical notes that Stevens teaches creative writing and I suspect she’s much more comfortable with that than in a literature department. I raced through her book, rooting for her all the way. Happy endings often make for dull fiction but give me a real life one any day. I hope Stevens has found hers.

Books to Look Out for in September 2019

Disappointingly, very few new titles have caught my eye for September. I’ve included the first, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments , more because I’d find it difficult to leave out a new Atwood than because I’m looking forward to it. Truth be told, I’m wary of sequels in the same way I’m wary of unpublished novels found mouldering in dusty desk drawers. Probably best to leave them there. Anyway, Atwood promises to reveal the fate of Offred in this new novel, prompted both by her readers’ pleas and by the state of the world.

I’m much more enthusiastic about The Dutch House, Ann Patchett’s new novel about a house in small-town Pennsylvania lived in by Danny Conroy, his older sister Maeve and their property-developer father. Their mother is both absent and never spoken of but Danny finds solace with his sister until his father brings his wife-to-be home. I’ve jumped the gun with this one and can tell you it’s everything an ardent fan could want it to be. So good, I included it on my Booker wish list. Review to follow…

I’m in two minds about Nell Zink’s Doxology having found her previous novels something of a curate’s egg but the synopsis makes it sound very attractive. It follows two generations of an American family, one either side of 9/11. The first are members of a punk band, two of whom have an unplanned child, Flora. Zink follows the grown-up Flora into the world of conservation with all its political and personal challenges. At once an elegiac takedown of today’s political climate and a touching invocation of humanity’s goodness, Doxology offers daring revelations about America’s past and possible future that could only come from Nell Zink, one of the sharpest novelists of our time’ say the publishers.

Regular readers could be forgiven for being surprised at the inclusion of a novel about time travel but the premise of Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s Before the Coffee Gets Cold sounds delightful. The offer of something more than just a flat white or macchiato in a tucked away Tokyo coffee shop is taken up by four customers each of who has a reason to travel back to the past. ‘Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s beautiful, moving story explores the age-old question: what would you change if you could travel back in time? More importantly, who would you want to meet, maybe for one last time?’ say the publishers promisingly.

Past times are also revisited in Philippe Besson’s Lie with Me. When a famous writer sees a young man who resembles his first love, he’s catapulted back to 1984 when he was seventeen and embarking upon an intense affair with a classmate. I think we can assume there’s an autobiographical element here given that the famous writer shares the author’s name. ‘Dazzlingly rendered by Molly Ringwald, the acclaimed actor and writer, in her first-ever translation, Besson’s exquisitely moving coming-of-age story captures the tenderness of first love – and the heart-breaking passage of time’ say the publishers.

I’m finishing September’s new title preview with Etgar Keret’s Fly Already, whose blurb promises a collection of twenty-two short stories in which ‘wild capers reveal painful emotional truths, and the bizarre is just another name for the familiar. Wickedly funny and thrillingly smart, Fly Already is a collage of absurdity, despair and love, written by veteran commentator on the circus farce that is life’. I’m hoping for some light relief in amongst all that.

A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should any have taken your fancy. September paperbacks soon…

Lot by Bryan Washington: No place like home

Cover imageBryan Washington’s Lot comes garlanded with praise from all manner of people not least Max Porter, whose own writing has caught the eye of a multitude of reviewers, but it was Jami Attenberg’s description of it as her ‘favourite fiction debut of the year’ which piqued my interest. Billed as a collection of short stories, Washington’s book comprises thirteen pieces – some snapshots, others much longer – all firmly rooted in Houston, Texas. That said, for me it read like a fragmentary novella through which runs the story of a narrator whose name we finally learn in the book’s last section.

The son of a black mother and a Latino father grows up in a rundown Houston neighbourhood where his family scrapes a living running a restaurant. Our narrator discovers a liking for boys while his brother entertains an endless parade of women and their sister works hard at finding a way out. Their father eventually leaves, packing his bags after a long string of nights with his lover, then our narrator’s brother joins the army after one too many skirmishes and his sister marries a white man. Finally, his mother goes home to Louisiana leaving him alone, faced with the question what’s keeping him and finding a surprising answer. Threaded through these episodes are stories of others who share the city: a beautiful woman whose affair with a white man ends in tragedy when the local gossips reveal it; two sushi restaurant workers who think they’ve found a way to make their fortune with a strange creature found abandoned; a young man’s john becomes his lover offering kindness he can hardly believe. These thirteen pieces are woven together to form a tapestry of life in a city full to bursting with diversity.

East End in the evening is a bottle of noise, with the strays scaling the fences and the viejos garbling on porches, and their wives talking shit in their kitchens on Wayland, sucking up all the air, swallowing everyone’s voices whole, bubbling under the bass booming halfway down Dowling  

The sense of place in Lot is so strong you can almost see, smell, taste and hear it. There are neighbourhoods where one of the smartest things a boy can do is get himself apprenticed to a well-connected savvy dealer, others where white boys who see themselves as cool live because they think it’s the real Houston while those with no choice are hoping for escape. Washington’s writing is striking: sometimes poetic, often raw, vibrant and immediate. Here’s a tiny sample of the many quotes I pulled out:

It was the house you shook your head at when you drove up the road  

My father was a handsome man. Wore his skin like a sunburnt peach  

We filled the corners with our silence. It leaked into the hallway. If you didn’t know us better you might call us content  

He knocked her up in the usual way. For six minutes it looked like he’d stick around  

These are stories which explore, sex, love, identity and the meaning of home with empathy and wit. They’re not always an easy read but the writing is so powerful sometimes it makes you stop to catch your breath.

The Outermost House by Henry Beston: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod

Cover imageHenry Beston’s The Outermost House is something of an American nature classic, an account of the year he spent living on a beach near Eastham, Massachusetts not far from the very tip of Cape Cod in the 1920s. This new edition comes with charming illustrations by Pete Smith who also designed its beautiful jacket.

An ambulance driver in World War One, Beston was a writer of fairy tales who decided to build himself a two-room summer house on the five acres of beach he bought in 1925, making sure to include a fireplace and an oil-fired stove. At the end of what was to be a two-week stay in September 1927, he decided to live in Fo’castle for a year, observing the rhythms of nature in this remote often harsh yet beautiful place. Apart from weekly tramps to the local stores for fresh supplies, occasionally helped by friends, and nightly calls by the coast guards as part of their patrols, Beston had little contact with other people but never felt lonely. From marvelling at the glorious night sky, with none of the light pollution that most of us hardly notice obscuring his view, to having his feet tickled by a shoal of fish on a nocturnal walk through the sea, to watching the comings and goings of migratory birds, Beston had much to occupy his year which ends fittingly with a night spent sleeping, albeit rather fitfully, under the stars

The Outermost House comes with an introduction by Philip Hoare which neatly sketches in details of Beston’s life, adding Hoare’s own description of the beach on which Fo’castle stood for a decade after Beston died until it was washed away by a storm in 1978. Beston’s reverence for nature and its importance to humanity is clear from the outset. Although there’s no mention of religion, there’s something of the spiritual about his attitude which resonates throughout the book.

Nature is a part of our humanity, and without some awareness and experience of that divine mystery man ceases to be man

Beston writes lyrically about the world around him, his awe at the land and seascape’s grandeur clear from the outset.

Solitary and elemental, unsullied and remote, visited and possessed by the outer sea, these sands might be the end or the beginning of the world  

The language and cadence of his writing transports you to Cape Cod with its crashing breakers, bird cries and shifting sand dunes. The book is studded with gorgeous word pictures, lovely descriptions which are a product of writerly skill and keen observation.

Silvery grey-green all summer long, in autumn it puts on gold and russet-golden colourings of singular delicacy and beauty

One of the most effective passages is Beston’s description of the sound of the sea, the constant yet changing soundtrack of his year

I listen to the rushes and the bursts, the tramplings, and the long, intermingled thunderings, never wearying of the sonorous and universal sound  

I fell in love with this timeless, beautiful book, as you can probably tell. Impossible to read it, without thinking of climate change. There were man-made hazards in Beston’s day – he describes futile attempts to rescue birds from oil-spillages – but such incidents seem almost trivial given what we now know. Beston ends his book with the exhortation:

Do no dishonor to the earth lest you dishonor the spirit of man  

Relevant then, and even more so now.

Blasts from the Past: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (1987)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

Crossing to Safety is one of those novels I came across in my early blogging days when I was getting to know which bloggers I’d like to follow. I’ve a feeling that it was Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal who put me on to it. Whoever it was, I’m very grateful. Written when he was seventy-eight, Wallace Stegner’s semi-autobiographical novel is about two couples and their lifelong friendship.

The Langs meet the Morgans during the Great Depression. Charity and Sally are both pregnant while Sid and Larry are colleagues in the local university’s English department. The story of this friendship, which will see the couples through happiness and tragedy, triumphs and tribulations, is told through Larry’s recollections. All this may sound a little dull but for me, it’s a quiet masterpiece, notable for the elegance of Stegner’s expression and its evocation of a friendship which manages to weather the strains put upon it by changing circumstances.

I remember trying to track down as many of Stegner’s novels as I could after reading Crossing to Safety but few seemed to be available here in the UK apart from Angle of Repose. Much to my delight, I stumbled upon an American import of Recapitulation when on holiday in Madrid and snapped it up immediately.

What about you – any blasts from your pasts you’d like to recommend?

Six Degrees of Separation – from The Tiger in the Tiger Pit to And the Wind Sees All

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

Cover images

Kate has set us something a little different this month. We’re all starting from the point at which each of us ended last month. For me that was Janette Turner Hospital’s The Tiger in the Tiger Pit which I had to confess I’d read so long ago I could barely remember it but Google came to the rescue reminding me that it’s about a fraught family celebration.

I’m using the author’s unusual last name as my jumping off point, linking to Austin Duffy’s This Living and Immortal Thing, which is set in a hospital, about a clinical researcher brought uncomfortably face-to-face with the disease he’s studying.

Workplaces rarely seem to feature in fiction although I’ve read several novels set in restaurants including Merrett Tierce’s Love Me Back narrated by Marie – smart, professional and hard-working on the outside – who makes her living waiting tables at a classy Dallas steakhouse.

Kim Thúy’s lovely Mãn also features a restaurant, owned by the husband of a Vietnamese woman who has left her homeland to marry him without ever having met him, a match made for security rather than love.

Which leads me to The Refugees written by Viet Thanh Nguyen, who fled with his parents from Vietnam to America in 1975. Written over twenty years, Nguyen’s stories explore the consequences of leaving one’s country under the most difficult of circumstances and its legacy.

From there it’s a very short leap to Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes’ breach, a collection of stories based on interviews with residents of the Calais refugee camp which came to be known as the Jungle, now disbanded.

breach is published by Peirene Press who produce just a handful of books a year, one of which was Guđmundur Andri Thorsson’s And the Wind Sees All in 2018. It takes place over the brief bicycle ride that Kata takes to the village hall in preparation for the evening’s concert, taking in the stories of the villagers who catch sight of her out of the corner of their eyes

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from the familiar fictional territory of family reunions, secrets and lies to a two-minute bicycle ride around an Icelandic village. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the routes other bloggers take from each month’s jumping off point, although this month we’ll be starting from entirely different places. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada (transl. Chris Andrews): Spreading the word

Cover imageArgentinian writer Selva Almada’s The Wind That Lays Waste is published by Charco Press, a small publisher set up by Carolina Orloff and Samuel McDowell to champion Latin American literature in the English-speaking world. Orloff’s a translator which is perhaps why Chris Andrews’ name appears on the book’s cover, just as it should. I wish more publishers would do this. Almada’s novella is the tale of an encounter between a charismatic evangelist and the mechanic who spends much of a long hot day mending the preacher’s car.

Reverend Pearson and his daughter are on their way to see Pastor Zack, busy converting indigenous people deep in the Argentinean forest. Pearson has spent a decade touring the country, putting the fear of God into as many people as he can, dragging the reluctant Leni around with him and living out of his car. Leni still remembers kneeling on the backseat watching her distraught mother as her father drove them away. At sixteen she’s both admiring of her father’s skills and disapproving of what he does. When their car breaks down in the harsh heat of the day, a kind stranger tows them to Gringo Brauer’s. Gringo sets to work with his assistant, Tapioca, the unacknowledged son left with him when Tapioca was six. Gringo and Pearson are each other’s antithesis: one a passionate believer in God and himself as God’s instrument; the other an atheist, dismissive of religion. As the day wears on, Pearson spots an opportunity resulting in a confrontation which reaches its climax as the skies crack open and the storm breaks.

Perhaps it’s because both novels end in a deluge or maybe it’s their shared economy of style, striking use of language and fable like quality, either way The Wind That Lays Waste reminded me a little of Luis Carrasco’s El Hacho, one of last’s year’s favourites. Almada unfolds her story in short chapters written in plain yet evocative often poetic prose, anchoring it in the parched Argentinean outback.

Although he had barely used his muscles, lying still all day, the blood that went coursing through his body had made the pit so hot not even the fleas could stand it anymore  

Her characters are sharply observed: Tapioca’s naivete is convincingly drawn while Pearson is full of righteousness, oblivious to the misery he’s caused his daughter by separating her from her mother and forcing his beliefs on her.

His mission on earth was to wash dirty souls, to make them sparkling clean again, and fill them with the word of God  

It’s an impressive piece of fiction, thought-provoking and absorbing. Almada’s is the latest in a long string of novellas I’ve read which demonstrate the power of the form. Much left unsaid for the reader to infer, and all the better for it.