Season of the Body by Brenda Miller

season of the bodyBy one of the authors of Tell It Slant, Season of the Body is a collection of lovely essays which showcase Miller’s extraordinary, often poetic prose. She writes intimately about her own body and love affairs; two miscarriages when she was twenty which resulted in her inability to have children, and her feelings about that inability over the course of a life; her explorations in spirituality; different forms of family; and art. Her writing is sensual and muscular. I wonder if I use those words to describe it because the title, Season of the Body, cued me to do so. I think they ring true.

Without going back to investigate whether this is literally true, I am left with the impression that these essays run more or less chronologically in terms of the time in Miller’s life that they handle. So we meet her first as a young woman, dealing with the medical side of two miscarriages, and exploring her maternal ancestry and Jewish heritage. We see her pursuing relationships that work out more and less well; she becomes a godmother to a friend’s child, and wishes for her own. Later, we see her reflecting back from a certain distance. These essays also carry her through space, and because a sense of place is important to me, that intrigues me – all the more so because Miller and I now live in the same town, so I see some of her vistas out my own windows.

The fineness of this writing is indisputable. It is emotionally very powerful and evocative, and an extraordinary showcase for what language can do; her essays should really be read at least twice, for their content and again for their music. As craft, these essays are exemplary. In terms of their subject matter, they really got me thinking about the idea of the universal in personal writing. Writers of creative nonfiction are urged to find the universal in the personal story. I found myself sometimes distant from the sort of physical flesh of these essays: spiritual questing and yearning for babies are not experiences that resonate with me. I had to stop to consider how Miller’s writing did and didn’t speak to me. But I continued to feel pulled into the story, for the beauty of the writing as much as anything else. A friend characterized the themes of this collection a little less physically than I did: he cited “hope deferred and fractured desire.” In these terms, the stories Miller tells are much more universal, and maybe that’s where I responded to them, too.


Rating: 7 photographs.

The Insect Farm by Stuart Prebble

A disquieting puzzle starring two odd but loving brothers with distinct fixations.

insect farm

Stuart Prebble’s U.S. debut, The Insect Farm, follows the lives of two devoted brothers, Jonathan and Roger. As boys, they were close, but as they enter adulthood they develop separate passions. Jonathan is obsessed with his stunning, brilliant wife, Harriet, and deeply, disturbingly jealous of the attentions she receives from other men. Roger is consumed with his intricate collection of insect tanks and habitats, housed in a garden shed, where he goes to lose himself for hours on end. Roger is mentally handicapped, and his ability in caring for the insect farm is much greater than his abilities in other areas of his life.

When their family circumstances change, Jonathan leaves university to care for Roger, putting Harriet at a physical distance since she stays in school. From this point, a series of misfortunes and accidents raises faint questions about the minds of each brother, as they age together in quiet companionship.

This unsettling story is told in Jonathan’s retrospective voice, as he looks back on the tragedies that have befallen his family. While each brother is a complex and subtly disconcerting character, this dubious point of view obscures them somewhat, and the reader’s suspicions accumulate.

Suspenseful and ominous, The Insect Farm sketches a world of unstable truths, while posing questions about memory, relationships, perception and intuition. Through Jonathan’s shifting narration, Prebble skillfully evokes an increasingly unnerving atmosphere, as it gradually becomes clear how little each brother really understands about the other–and about himself.


This review originally ran in the July 21, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 cockroaches.

The Anger Meridian by Kaylie Jones

A newly widowed woman is forced to face her own secrets, in vibrant San Miguel de Allende.

anger meridian

Merryn is up late at night, awaiting and fearing her husband’s drunken homecoming, when she opens the door to find two policemen announcing that he has been killed in a car accident. She quickly bundles up their nine-year-old daughter, the precocious Tenney, and leaves Dallas, Tex., for her mother’s home in San Miguel de Allende, in central Mexico.

The rest of Kaylie Jones’s striking novel, The Anger Meridian, is set in San Miguel, where Merryn’s mother, Bibi, presides over an opulent home and her frightened daughter’s life. As Merryn struggles to navigate her husband’s legacy (the FBI has followed her to Mexico to investigate his business dealings) and her and Tenney’s future, she has the opportunity to confront many dishonesties, including her own. Lying is one of The Anger Meridian‘s central themes.

The tone of Jones’s writing quivers with tension from the opening page. Merryn is traumatized, anxious, grinds her teeth at night; she behaves like an abuse victim. But where does her damage come from? And whom should she–and the reader–trust? A handsome American expat doctor, a lawyer friend of the family, a local yoga teacher, the members of Bibi’s entourage and clever Tenney each offer different angles on Merryn’s life. In the end, there are several puzzles to untangle in this lovely, finely plotted novel, which highlights colorful San Miguel and the complexities of family, loyalty and honesty. The Anger Meridian is at once a suspenseful mystery and a superlatively gripping story of self-discovery.


This review originally ran in the July 21, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 martinis.

The Casualties by Nick Holdstock

This memorable first novel examines a Scottish neighborhood’s eccentrics with the benefit of hindsight following an apocalypse.

casualties

In Edinburgh, Scotland, there was once a neighborhood called Comely Bank, whose denizens included some eccentrics, with stories that warrant telling. Hinted at, just out of the reader’s line of sight, is the calamitous event that wiped it out, and Edinburgh, and all of Western Europe and beyond. This catastrophe motivates the unnamed narrator’s storytelling, told almost entirely in flashback.

Following a brief and ominous opening in which Comely Bank’s destruction is promised, the daily lives of local residents form the focus of Nick Holdstock’s debut novel, The Casualties. Sam Clark is a very curious man. He runs the charity bookshop in the neighborhood, where he carefully sifts and sorts through donated books looking for the ephemera tucked forgotten between their pages: he’s after photographs, letters, airline tickets, notes and cards that shed light on the lives of strangers. He carefully observes the people around him, seeking their stories. The reader won’t learn what he’s really looking for until well into Holdstock’s meticulously ordered narrative.

Comely Bank’s other residents include Sinead, a nymphomaniac struggling to control herself but obsessed with a local shopkeeper; meanwhile she serves as caregiver for an obese, mentally handicapped man. Caitlin works at a secondhand clothing store and fixates on the crackling skin condition that mars her face. She loves a man who does not love her; “with adoration comes the wish to hold a pillow over his face.” Alasdair lives under a bridge, dispensing questionable health advice to passersby who do not want it; he can’t remember his last name or his past. “Trudy” is the name taken by a Filipino prostitute illegally residing in Comely Bank. Mr. Ashram is resentful of his neighbors’ reluctance to accept him into their society. Retired headmistress Mrs. Maclean is impatient for her own demise. And so on–until the final, strangely twisting, imaginative pages.

Holdstock vividly presents his odd and varied characters, and places them in a world that is at once both colorful and recognizably everyday. The protagonists’ personalities and actions are quirky but believable, and given added weight by their place in time: The Casualties is a twist on the post-apocalyptic novel in that it reexamines the world just before its end. This perspective, and the continuing mystery of the narrator’s identity, nudge the reader into asking uncomfortable questions about life and its length and meaning. In its ending, Holdstock’s unusual creation leaves certain details to the imagination. Strong characterization and a creative plot, both familiar and bizarre, give this novel enduring allure.


This review originally ran in the July 21, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 pictures.

Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

Trauma is reborn for the victims of a double abduction, nearly 20 years after their rescue.

pretty is

Two women in their 30s: Chloe is an almost-famous actor barely hanging on to her Hollywood career; Lois is a precocious junior professor with two book contracts. They share a past neither wants known. When they were 12, Lois and Chloe–then known as Carly May–were abducted and held in a hunting lodge in the Adirondacks for a summer before being rescued. This secret, the victimization they just want to forget, comes back to haunt them in Maggie Mitchell’s first novel, Pretty Is.

The action alternates between the present lives of Lois and the reinvented Chloe/Carly May, and flashbacks to the summer they spent with a man they called Zed. They’ve stuck by their story that he never touched or hurt them, not that anyone seems to believe that. Now, Lois’s latest project and a peculiarly disturbed student seem poised to intersect with Chloe’s struggling acting career. The question becomes not what Zed did nearly 20 years ago, but what agency do the adult women have in their own lives?

Suspenseful, quick-paced and action-driven, Pretty Is also wisely invests in character development. Carly May may have been a beauty queen, but she was an intelligent child, too; Lois was a spelling-bee champion and confirmed bookworm as well as pretty, and those lists of spelling words still serve as a mental aid. Mitchell’s greatest strength, however, is in the riveting, magnetic pull of her plot, as the stakes grow higher and Pretty Is rushes toward its finale.


This review originally ran in the July 17, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 text messages.

Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime by Val McDermid

The science of criminal detection from a writer with expertise and connections in the field.

forensics

Scottish crime writer Val McDermid (The Skeleton Road) expands on her considerable experience with Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime. In it, she studies the fields encompassed by forensic science and the large role that such detailed evidence plays in the modern judicial system.

In writing fiction, McDermid routinely consults professionals in law enforcement and scientific experts; here, she delves into their worlds to examine the history and challenges of their work. Chapters focus on crime and fire scenes, entomology, pathology, toxicology, forensic psychology and anthropology, the courtrooms and legal systems of various countries and more. McDermid visits with experts in each of these fields, exploring their personal and professional experiences, which can include trauma as well as deeply stimulating and important work. She also covers specific criminal cases, ranging from serial killings and rape to common burglary, that illustrate the science in question, and offers impressions of her own.

McDermid is not a perfectly impartial judge of the professions she considers; the tone of Forensics is more admiring than journalistic. She provides a great service in reducing complex science to a narrative easily understood by laypersons, and thereby allows fans of television crime drama and detective novels a heightened appreciation of the genre. Details are often predictably graphic, but never gratuitously so, and should be well within the tolerances of murder-mystery buffs. Forensics is an easy-reading introduction to the science behind criminal detection and a fine companion to fiction like McDermid’s.


This review originally ran in the July 17, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 pairs of gloves.

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard (audio)

From Dillard’s website:

The Boston Globe called it “a kind of spiritual Strunk & White, a small and brilliant guidebook to the landscape of a writer’s task.

Recalling how I felt about Strunk & White, and my admiration for Dillard, this is promising.

writing lifeThe Writing Life is brief, and very enjoyable. Her voice as read by Tavia Gilbert feels just right for Dillard’s tone, which is knowing, wry, funny, and serious, by turns and often simultaneously (as I believe I noted in my recent teaser).

As fine as this audio version was, however, it left me wishing I’d had more time to peruse and mull. I have already ordered a print version to keep. For one thing: the format is a series of essays, and this format was a little lost on me in audio form. The transitions felt abrupt sometimes. (Perhaps I could have been paying closer attention to signals of transition. A failure of the medium, or of mine? No matter, the point is it didn’t work perfectly for me.) But I let go and just listened. Don’t be fooled by the title: this is neither the story of Dillard’s life as a writer, nor an instruction on how to live it, ourselves. It’s a bunch of musings and meditations. There are pieces of advice, and stories too, mixed in. But it’s a buffet, lots of things at once. It was fabulously enjoyable when allowed to wash over me. Next time, I will study it more closely, in print.

For the Bellingham local in me – and I recommend it to my father for this reason – there are a few wonderful references to this place, including the inspired story of the Bellingham-based stunt pilot. (Other reviewers seem to find this the best chapter of the book. It was certainly among them.) For the place-obsessed me, there were excellent reflections on various places, including islands in the Puget Sound; Roanoke, Virginia; and Cape Cod. About writing, I enjoyed hearing Dillard’s ideas about where to write (“appealing workplaces are to be avoided”) and how to write: I loved the idea that, paradoxically, writers need to live less in order to create the time and isolation necessarily to write about that life which they have somewhat backed away from. There is less firm advice than encouragement – mixed in with discouragement, but of a collegial type.

Reviews out there in the world are mixed, and seem (according to my brief survey) to base their criticism on the idea that this book is made up of wonderful parts, mixed in with less wonderful parts, that fail to make a single, wonderful whole. I guess that might be born out by my struggles with the audio form. But actually, a bunch of wonderful parts is no failure at all, and I was left feeling enchanted. For that matter, I recall that Pilgrim at Tinker Creek had uneven effects on me, too – I can hardly believe that I gave it only 6 mushrooms, because I remember it so strongly and positively, but that shows how much I struggled with some parts of it, too. But really, I say again, we could do worse than many thought-provoking and wondersome components, which is what I found here.

It’s Annie Dillard, y’all. It’s good reading. The audio is good listening, although you may struggle to find it cohesive in that form. But that is the big criticism of this book anyway. So read, or listen, don’t worry about cohesion, and enjoy. I did.


Rating: 8 moths to a candle flame.
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