April, Come She Will

DucksApril comes and April goes, whether you want her to or not. In the teaching term, it is always a blur of a month—a bit out of control, like rolling down a hill. I used to welcome the feeling—the exhilaration of finishing up, the anticipation of summer—but this year it is just one more reminder of how relentlessly, and how strangely, time passes.

I have been busy and tired and sad this month, which means that I haven’t done much reading outside of work. The good news is that all three (just three!) books I finished this month were very good. The first was my friend John Cotter’s memoir Losing Music. I was completely engrossed by this searching account of John’s experience with what he eventually learned was Ménière’s Disease, a syndrome that has devastating effects on balance—lengthy, debilitating bouts of vertigo—as well as on hearing. As the title indicates, an important dimension of the book is what it meant to John to be unable to hear music, which had always been a significant part of his life and identity. One of the most moving passages describes a night when (as occasionally but unpredictably happens) his hearing comes back— “but who knew for how long.” “I knew exactly how to proceed,” John tells us:cotter

Carefully, I laid myself down on my childhood bed . . . and set in place an expensive pair of Audio-Technica headphones I’d been saving against the day. Jascha Heifetz, back in 1952, in Hollywood, playing Bach’s partitas for solo violin. It’s vertiginous, sinister, and somehow a kind of duet, the way he plays it, a dance at the edge of a cliff.

Another night, he wakes up and can hear birds:

I can hear them fading, going—they’ll be gone at any second. As I listen to the last catches of song, I can feel my heart break in every sound. Don’t let that one be the last one. Don’t let that one. Don’t let that.

Losing Music follows John’s extensive and often desperate quest for first a diagnosis and then a treatment (there is no cure); he is frank about his occasional, very understandable, collapses into self-pity and also about his painful depression and frequent suicidal thoughts. He looks for help but also for ways to sustain some meaning and purpose in a life spiraling out of his control. He finds sustenance in teaching, in volunteering, in love and friendship, and also, vitally, in writing; he finds, eventually, a kind of peace born of hard-won compassion:

Compassion for the world, over which we have only narrow dominion, and awe at the world’s mutability, can germinate in the cultivation of a gentleness in one’s self, a gentleness for one’s future self, over which we have only narrow dominion. In feeling a little sorry for myself, I also feel sorry for the world, the evening world of half measures and regrets, the morning world when we sweep up and start again.

I was frequently moved to tears by Losing Music, and I feel very proud to have had a small part in it (it began as an essay for Open Letters Monthly) and to be mentioned in the acknowledgments.

barkerThe other books I read all of in April (I’m assuming I won’t finish another one by Sunday) were Elspeth Barker’s O, Caledonia and Martin Riker’s The Guest Lecture. It’s hard to imagine two books with less in common! I enjoyed O, Caledonia a lot, although it is strange and wild and—I thought—a bit random, almost artless: as I read it, I was often surprised, even confused, by it, uncertain why this was what was happening or this particular detail was in it. Yet it felt unified, nonetheless: maybe that strangeness itself unifies it! Its fierce protagonist Janet takes the “not like other girls” trope to an extreme: she’s equal parts compelling and appalling. It has something of the flavor of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

The Guest Lecture, by comparison, is more cool and cerebral. Its whole premise is so unlikely—who would write (and who would want to read) a novel about Keynes?—and yet I found it completely engaging, and I always like that feeling of seeing someone succeed with a completely idiosyncratic idea. The plotline about tenure denial had a lot in common with my own experience of being turned down for promotion, although the consequences of the former are of course more dire. Still, when Keynes says “Part of you clearly thinks they are right about you, even though they canriker‘t be, they have to be wrong or else your life’s work is pointless, and that is a level of personal negation you cannot possibly survive”—well, yes, exactly. Just thinking about the report of the final appeals committee for my promotion case still makes me shrink back inside myself. I appreciated The Guest Lecture as an attempt to show the examined life from the inside: what is it like to be someone who takes ideas seriously, and who tries (successfully or not) to live with and among them in some kind of meaningful way? It’s no picnic, that’s for sure: the unexamined life may not be worth living, but (as I have often thought myself in recent months) surely in many ways it is an easier way to live. I liked the last part of the novel the least: it spirals into a version of the “teaching dream” every academic has had, where things make sense but don’t, and you are ready and present but somehow, also, you aren’t. Rebecca pointed me to an interview with Riker that I hope to listen to soon. I’m sure there are many subtleties about it, especially its form, that I missed.

I started but abandoned a couple of other novels this month. One was Mexican Gothic. It looked like so much fun—but I really wasn’t into it. Maybe another time. Another was Niall Williams’s This Is Happiness. It looked like the kind of novel I would love, and actually there wasn’t anything wrong with it. If I hadn’t been tired and busy and sad, I might have loved it, so again, another time. Up next is Clare Chambers’s Small Pleasures, which I’ve just begun* and am liking so far, and then maybe Nicola Griffith’s Spear, which has been in my TBR pile for quite some time. Oh, and I need to get back to Demon Copperhead, which I bailed on months ago: my book club is meeting in May to talk about it, which is just the incentive I need. I wasn’t finding it Dickensian enough, which is perhaps not a fair criticism, except that it is so closely modeled on David Copperfield in its plot and characters that it is hard not to expect it to have something of the same heart and humour as well. I know Mark Athitakis really liked it, which encourages me to approach it with a more open mind.

I will save reflections on this term’s teaching for another post.

*Just a quick update to note that I actually did finish Small Pleasures already (it’s amazing what a difference it makes to my mood and concentration to be done with grading!) and it’s very good. It seems at first like a charming period piece, full of 1950s atmosphere and mores depicted with an edge that keeps it from tipping into nostalgia, but it gets more emotionally intense as it goes along—which it does at a pretty good clip, as the “what really happened?” question underlying its plot gives it momentum. I thought the answer we finally get to that question was underwhelming, but the mystery is more of a device than the real heart of the novel, and its actual resolution hit harder than I expected.

*  “April Come She Will” is one of the songs I used to sing to Owen at bedtime when he was little. Like so many things, it will always make me think of him; maybe it won’t always make me so sad.


Roots March 2023March was a rough month. For one thing, I had more academic integrity hearings stemming from a single assignment than I’ve ever had in one term. It was an exceptionally disheartening experience, especially given the lengths I have gone to in my introductory class to reduce the risk for students of just trying to do the work for themselves: this is the class in which I’m using specifications grading, meaning there is really no risk involved. As I plaintively reminded the class as it became clear just how widespread the problem was, the class is designed to make it safe to be wrong, safe to be confused, safe to be learning. But if you don’t actually do your own writing, you strip the whole process of its meaning. Plus (as I pointed out to many students in the actual hearings), if your uncertainty leads you to copying other people’s writing, you will never build your own skills and your own confidence: you will never find out that you can in fact do the work, and get better at it.

I’ve written here before about plagiarism and my overall attitude remains the same. I’m just crushingly disappointed that things went so badly this term, despite my considerable efforts to educate and support students so that they would make better choices. It was incredibly demoralizing that so many students clearly saw the course as a means to an end, hoping to get the credit for it without engaging in the process. It has also been predictably destabilizing seeing or even just suspecting that students are using ChatGPT to do “their” work. (Literally the only good news about this is that the bots are pretty unreliable about any but the most widely familiar literary works, and even with them they can produce real howlers.) One consequence is that I am reconsidering specifications grading, even though I remain convinced that it is pedagogically sound and also ethically preferable to traditional approaches to writing assessment.  At the very least, if I use it again next year, I’m going to have to rethink the kind and number of components I require: with as many moving parts as my current course design includes, it is just overwhelming trying to scrutinize submissions as closely as it turns out we need to. Next year the class will be in person rather than online, which may make a difference: for one thing, I can do some in-class writing that will both give me a baseline indication of how the students’ own voices sound and, maybe, give them the hands-on experience they need to believe they can actually do the work themselves. English 1015 Academic Integrity Explainer

So that was a dreary part of the past month or so that took up an enormous amount of my time and energy. That’s one reason I didn’t get much good reading done: I was too tired and sad and distracted to concentrate. I did finish a few books, though, and a couple of them were excellent. An unexpected highlight was Stephen Marche’s On Writing and Failure, which I quoted from in my last post. Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness was not for me: it seemed to be aiming for some of the same effects as Anthony Doerr’s Cloud-Cuckoo Land, but I found Doerr’s novel much more engaging. Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind was gripping and thought-provoking, if unpleasantly unsettling: I didn’t think much about its genre when I picked it up at the store, but it is as much horror as dystopian fiction. I appreciated the slow but steady increase in tension and the imaginative creepiness of details like the flamingos. I was disappointed in the ending, though. Like The Road, it never specifies its calamity, which frustrated me more in this case because it focuses so much more, at least initially, on the question of what happened: in The Road, we are always already in the aftermath, and it hardly matters any more how we got there. The author interview that follows Leave the World Behind clarifies that the novel’s open-endedness is deliberate, but given how strenuously Alam avoids telling us either what happened (the cause) or what happens after (the effects), I found the little proleptic teasers about the characters’ futures annoying.  So, for me, it was good (I did appreciate reading a genuine page-turner, given my own general malaise) but not great.

pineiroEasily the best novel I read in March was Claudia Piñeiro’s Elena Knows. This was recommended to me last year when I was (as I so often am) casting about for new ideas for my two mystery fiction courses. I started it then but had to abandon it, as a novel about suicide and a mother’s grief was not an experience I could bear. I kept it on my mental TBR, though, and I’m glad I tried again, because it really is exceptional: slight but fierce and complex, with its overlapping interests in disability, ageism, misogyny, and autonomy. I think it would be a really interesting book to read in my course on Women & Detective Fiction, even though in many ways it is not really a mystery. It is certainly about a crime – or, crimes, if you think socially and systemically – and there is an investigation, even if there isn’t a detective, or evidence, or any of the other conventional elements.

I also read Jo Baker’s The Midnight News and quite enjoyed it, but this one was for a review, so I will save more detailed comments for that purpose. I will say that I admire Baker’s versatility: like Sarah Moss, she clearly likes to try new things. There’s a snarky comment in Toby Litt’s A Writer’s Diary about Sarah Waters always writing the same book. I bristled, because Waters is one of my favorite novelists and that seems unfair and reductive! But there is a grain of truth in it: she is drawn to similar problems and scenarios in all of her books, and her recent novels do all have a fairly similar tone. I think that’s fine! She’s really good at what she does. But Longbourn and The Body Lies and A Country Road, A Tree are completely different books, as are Signs for Lost Children, Cold Earth, and Ghost Wall: I don’t think you would necessarily recognize them as being by the same authors. ghost-wall

March was rough for me emotionally, and April has its challenges as well. There are some bright spots to look forward to, though, notably Maddie’s graduation recital. She began her music degree in 2019: it has been a strange and often very difficult four years of university for her, between COVID and online learning and the particularly disruptive effects of lockdowns for the performing arts. She has accomplished so much, in spite of all that and everything else. Her 3rd-year recital was a triumph, and it is an understatement to say that I am looking forward to this year’s longer program.

A Warm-Hearted Reading Update

strout-againAfter I finished Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms, I commented on Twitter that I was finding cold, meticulous novels wearing and asked for recommendations of good, recent warm-hearted fiction. Along with the understandable and spot-on nods to writers I already know well (such as Barbara Pym and Anne Tyler), I got a lot of good tips, which I am still working through. Here are the ones I have read so far. I have to say that while they have all been fine, none of them really got much traction with me: I don’t think it is necessarily the case that “warm-hearted” means lightweight, but that’s how these mostly felt. I don’t think I will remember much about them. The exception so far is Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow, which I found very moving; that’s why it got its own post!

Elizabeth Strout, Olive, Again. I read Olive Kitteridge years ago – long enough that I didn’t write it up here, that I can find. I remember enjoying it, but it seemed dispensable, so after a while I put it in my “donate” pile. I didn’t like My Name is Lucy Barton much, and that seemed like the end of my relationship with Strout. Still, she’s much beloved, and so I picked up Olive, Again to see if I’d underestimated her. My conclusion is “not really.” I liked it fine, but it felt incidental, meandering. The ‘linked short story’ effect irritates the novel reader in me: it feels lazy, as if the author couldn’t be bothered to do the work of actually integrating the characters and events into one more substantial and meaningful whole. I’m a lover of Victorian multi-plot novels, which I consider, at their best, a high form of art. If the whole is supposed to be more than the sum of its parts, I’d like the author to be the one who does the work of building that up. Don’t just give us the pieces and assume we’ll believe there’s more to it than that.onan

Stewart O’Nan, Emily Alone. I read this right after Olive, Again, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was still reading the same book. There was nothing (to my ear, anyway) to distinguish the voice or tone or prose of one author from the other; Emily’s story could easily have been one of the chapters in Strout’s book (see, I’m reluctant to call it a “novel”!) – except, of course, for being book-length itself. I liked Emily herself just fine, and “older woman living alone” is one of my favorite tropes (see Plant Dreaming Deep, for a cherished example) but the novel recounted day to day events in tedious detail. I like exposition, but I like it to be more than an accumulation of (fictional) facts.

mccrackenElizabeth McCracken, The Hero of This Book. I liked this one quite a lot except for the uneasiness it created in me about what kind of book it is, exactly. I realize that is one of the main points of the book, to destabilize assumptions about what constitutes a memoir or a novel or autofiction or whatever. I understood this because McCracken makes rather a lot of noise about it: “What’s the difference between a novel and a memoir?” she asks; “I couldn’t tell you. Permission to lie; permission to cast aside worries about plausibility.” “It’s not a made-up place,” she says about a trip she and her mother make to the theater (or do they?),

though this is a novel, and the theater might be fictional, and my insistence fictional, and my mother the only real thing, though this version of her is also fictional.

OK, whatever. I found these intrusions distracting. If I wanted to explore theoretical differences between genres in that kind of explicit way, I’d read critical writing; if you want to play with genre, you can do it without so much handwaving about it. And yet as a book about love and mourning, The Hero of This Book was sometimes quite powerful:

Was this grief? I could feel my mother’s joy on the London Eye, her love of heights and good views. That streak of daredevilry and thrill-seeking. I had once taken her on a helicopter tour of downtown Miami, after she’d seen somebody parasailing and had guessed aloud that she couldn’t do that. My mother laughed as the helicopter wove through skyscrapers; I believed that I would fall to the ground at any moment and thought, I’ve had nightmares like this. That was actual joy; the joy I could apprehend now had not occurred, was counterfeit, made of regret and set in regret. osman

Richard Osman, The Thursday Murder Club. When Levi Stahl recommended this, he prefaced it by asking if I read or liked “cozies.” I don’t, much, but this one sounded really charming – which it is, or at least the cast of characters is. By about half way through, however, I had completely lost interest in the actual murder case. (I also got irritated at the repeated device of revealing some key bit of evidence to the characters but withholding it from us: I get that it’s a provocation for us to figure out what it might be on our own, but IMHO it’s a bit of a cheap trick.) This had some ripple effects on the quality of attention I paid to the rest of the novel: I read just closely enough to find out what happened to the people I liked, but overall I wasn’t very invested, and I don’t think I’ll read on in the series.

January Reading

weekendI read 8.5 new books this month and blogged about . . . none of them? Hmmm. I’m honestly not sure if the fault is mine or theirs. Not one of them lit me up, but that didn’t used to keep me from rambling on about a book! So maybe the problem is what I’m bringing to them as a reader these days—but if so, does that mean my reports on them are unreliable? Who knows? As always, all we can really talk about is our experience of a book.

Here, then, in brief: my January reading.

Charlotte Wood, The Weekend. I enjoyed this one quite a bit. It is a story of female friendship—but it is more probing and uncomfortable than that theme might make you expect. I appreciated its focus on older women. They have been through a lot, separately and together, and Wood does a good job exploring the kind of bond the sheer longevity of their relationships creates.

Roy Jacobsen, The Unseen. I was not enthralled by this; I definitely will not be searching out the others in the series. However, the prose has a starkness that suits the bleakness of the landscape and the hardships of the characters’ lives, and sometimes it achieved a resonance that elevated its otherwise rather laborious cadences (perhaps the fault of the translators?) to something almost stirring. kennedy feast

Margaret Kennedy, The Feast. Fun! But not as delightful as I expected. I even started skimming after a while because many of the characters were so annoying that I got impatient for the cliffs to cave in on them. I think I should have been reading it differently to get more out of it—not just more slowly but less for plot and more for ideas about virtue and vice and the meaning of life. One day I’ll read it again and do better.

Sy Montgomery, The Soul of an Octopus. The octopus stuff is really cool (for example, did you know that because an octopus’s brains are spread through its arms, a severed octopus arm will just go about its business for a long time as if nothing has happened? even continuing to hunt?!), but after a while I felt as if Montgomery was trying too hard to make more of it than it could bear. Even the title goes a bit far! (I loved My Octopus Teacher, which is a captivating nature documentary and includes thoughtful but not overwrought reflections on how spending time with an octopus can change your perceptions, including of yourself.)

octopusKate Clayborn, Georgie All Along. The long-awaited (well, for at least a year anyway) new romance novel from my favorite contemporary romance author—that is, my favorite author of contemporary romances. I enjoyed it fine but it seemed too much like her other novels and not as good as the earliest ones. They are packed full (almost too full) of details, especially of the kind I learned to call “neepery” (whether it’s metallurgy or home restoration or photography, Clayborn is good at conveying the texture and fascination of people’s interests); they are also quite emotionally intense. This one included some of the same kind of stuff but in a less engrossing way; the characters also seemed too conspicuously constructed, like concepts that didn’t 100% come to life. But I might change my mind on rereading: I had a similar reaction to her previous one, Love At First, but liked it quite a bit more when I went back to it more recently.

god-rabbitSarah Winman, When God Was a Rabbit. I happened across this one at a thrift store and grabbed it because I liked Still Life so much. It is not as good as Still Life but it kept my interest from start to finish, which these days is saying something. The narrator’s voice in particular is effective, and I also appreciated the novel’s journey across key events in recent decades, landing on them as events in specific people’s lives. This includes 9/11; I learned from the author’s note that this was a controversial aspect of the novel, which didn’t really make any sense to me.

Elisa Gabbert, The Unreality of Memory. This was a hard one for me in ways that I probably should have expected, or would have, if I’d studied the table of contents more carefully beforehand. I know Elisa (in the internet sense of “know”) from collaborating with her husband John Cotter at Open Letters Monthly, where for a while Elisa wrote a column about perfume. Since then I have read some of her other public writing, but not, that I recall, any of the essays collected here. The hardship was that they are all fairly grim! They deal with hard, scary, or disheartening topics, from natural disasters to the disaster of American politics under Trump. Elisa writes wonderfully, with a poet’s eye for the telling detail at the right moment; as an essayist, she is more associative than argumentative. Sometimes this felt digressive and sometimes as a result I occasionally lost my own focus, but in fact she is always in excellent control; as I kept reading I learned to remind myself to trust her.

rileyGwendoline Riley, My Phantoms. I didn’t enjoy this at all. I could tell it was “well written,” meaning it has crisp, often resonant sentences and is constructed with conspicuous care. The narrator is unpleasant; the relationship she has with her mother is worse than that. I wasn’t sure what the point of the exercise was supposed to be: it takes about 2 pages to get the gist of how uncomfortable it is all going to be and then it’s just discomfort and nastiness, with a bit of pathos thrown in, for another 150 pages. OK, I exaggerate slightly, but I want this post to serve as a cautionary tale for me: beware Twitter enthusiasm! I have learned not to rush off after whatever mid-century middle European novel from NYRB Classics is currently getting all the buzz, because it will probably just sit unread on my shelves along with Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy. For people who like these kinds of things, these kinds of things are great! (And it’s true that sometimes, a bit to my own surprise, I like them too.) But cold, clinical, forensically observant narrators are not my thing. Gorgeous cover on this edition, though!

Which brings me to the .5 in my 8.5 books this month: Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead. Its narrator is definitely not cold and clinical, but he is also no David Copperfield, and (so far) the novel has none of the warmth or wit of Dickens’s novel. That’s fine! Kingsolver is perfectly free to write her own book. But it is so disorienting to “know” all the details, to recognize everybody as they arrive in their new outfits, ready to play their accustomed parts in David’s (sorry, Demon’s) oh-so-familiar story—but to hear only bitterness and cynicism. A good page of Demon Copperhead might have a bit of wistfulness, maybe even a trace of pathos, but David’s narrative is full of heart, and (again, so far) Kingsolver’s version has none of it, and no humor either. And it’s loooooooong. I’m not giving up: my book club chose it, and the others who have read it pretty much all report having really enjoyed it. It seems likely that knowing David Copperfield as well as I do has actually been a disadvantage for me.kingsolver

I’ve also been reading for work (The MoonstoneThe Hound of the Baskervilles, and selected stories and poems).

All in all, it actually hasn’t been a bad month for reading. Even My Phantoms at least interested me, plus it was too short for me to be really bothered by the things I didn’t like about it. Still, I hope February brings more books that genuinely excite me.

Reading Week Reflections


It took some effort and some strategic skimming, but I made it to the end of Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads. There’s a lot of it – but that wouldn’t have been a problem if I had felt there was more to it. What was all that accumulated information for, in the end? What comes of it? What are we left thinking about, after wading through so much detail about people who are by and large quite unsympathetic and disappointingly static? I was never exactly bored, but I was also completely unable to get my bearings at anything but the most literal level. But a lot of astute critics loved the novel (that’s one reason I bought it, after not having read anything by Franzen since The Corrections) so as always we are left with the great mystery of reading, the inexplicable idiosyncrasy of it all.

Now I’m reading Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Case Study. I think it first caught my eye because it was on the Booker longlist. Then I read something else about it somewhere – now I can’t remember exactly what or where (typical of me these days, I’m sorry to say) that sharpened my interest enough that I went ahead and procured it. I’m engaged but not engrossed so far; we’ll see how it goes. I reviewed Burnet’s earlier novel His Bloody Project for Open Letters Monthly a few years ago and concluded it was “not wholly satisfying.” It too was a compilation of purported source documents; my main complaint (besides the voices being insufficiently distinct and exciting) was that it lacked a unifying idea about its elements. Maybe this should have discouraged me from trying another novel by the same author in so similar a vein, but Case Study seems tauter so far. I’ll see. If I can just concentrate on it long enough to read to the end, that in itself will be a mark in its favor.

Update: I did read Case Study to the end, and stayed interested in it the whole time. Success, then! I am not sure I read it in a suspicious enough way: I found the ending curiously anticlimactic and it was only on peering at some reviews that I started to think about more layers of unreliability and thus interpretation than had occurred to me on my own. Curiosity, too, rather than emotional engagement, was my main feeling as I read: I wanted to see how the elements were going to come together, and what they were going to mean, but I wasn’t particularly invested in the outcome otherwise. It’s a clever book, maybe too clever for a reader like me whose first instinct, at some level, is to give myself over to the fiction, rather than to mistrust every move.*

Also on my TBR pile are Ian McEwan’s Lessons, which my book club is doing next and Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, which a member of my book club talked about in such an interesting way at our last meeting that it inspired me to pick it up. I’m stalled about a third of the way into Andrew Greig’s Rose Nicolson, and keep looking at but not actually starting Nicola Griffith’s Spear. I feel as if I keep picking the wrong books, as if my reading radar is malfunctioning. For this reason I am suppressing my urge to rush out and buy Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead, even though everything I’ve heard about it so far makes it sound very tempting. Or maybe my “bandwidth,” as we like to call it nowadays, is just overwhelmed by the combination of work (which of course includes a lot of reading) and grief.


Today is exactly one year since Owen moved back in with us, for what was meant to be a restorative stop-gap measure while we sorted out his next steps. The onset of fall weather, with its crisp sunshine and bright colours, has intensified the feeling I’ve talked about before of time coming somehow full circle: the intervening months have been so strange, so foggy and disoriented, and the events of this time last year are still so immediate and vivid in my mind, that it is almost easier to believe I am still there, in November 2021, than here, helplessly reaching back to that hopeful reunion across the unfathomable chasm Owen’s death created in my life and my memories. But I’m not there, of course, but here, and soon there will be other, even harder, markers of the relentless way time puts more and more distance between us. I think often of Denise Riley’s comment that “the dead slip away, as we realize that we have unwillingly left them behind in their timelessness.” Current wisdom is that grief is best treated by finding ways to continue our relationships with those we have lost. It is an ongoing struggle, for me, to understand what that means in practice, although I am learning that it includes grief itself, which for now at least is the truest expression of my ongoing love for my son. Its pain is no less fierce now, but it is at least more familiar.

These lines by Philip Larkin capture so well what it feels like to live with sorrow, sometimes sitting quietly with it but sometimes sensing it stir, or stirring it yourself, so that it flares up once more, rending your heart. I know a lot of you live this way too. 

If grief could burn out
Like a sunken coal,
The heart would rest quiet,
The unrent soul
Be still as a veil;
But I have watched all night

The fire grow silent,
The grey ash soft:
And I stir the stubborn flint
The flames have left,
And grief stirs, and the deft
Heart lies impotent.

* One of the challenges of a novel like Case Study for me is that, deliberately, we are discouraged from accepting any of it as sincere. And yet in the midst of it, there was a passage – narrated by a character we can’t trust, about someone who by the end of the novel I’m not 100% sure ever actually existed within its fictional space – that hit very hard:

Then something else occurred. One evening, as we sat at supper, I turned to the place Veronica had lately occupied and was about to say something to her, before I checked myself. For the first time, I keenly felt her absence. From that moment, I saw her death in a different light. There was a Veronica-sized void in the world. As well as her physical presence, the contents of her mind were gone. The question I had been about to ask would never be answered. Everything she had learned, the memories she had accumulated, her future thoughts and actions had all been snuffed out. The world was diminished by her non-existence.

In the novel, this moment is either poignant autobiography or strategically affecting fantasy (or, perhaps, sadly troubling delusion). Whichever of these it is meant as, it’s also, in its own way, truthful, as are many of Burnet’s remarks – off-hand though they seem – about suicide and “dark thoughts.”

Recent Reading: Late September Edition

Arcimbolo LibrarianComparisons are foolish, I know, but often these days I recoil uncomfortably from cheerful exchanges among my many bookish ‘tweeps’ about what they’ve been reading because they seem to read so much and so enthusiastically—which is great, of course, but because I’m struggling to finish most of the books I pick up, the contrast can make me feel discouraged instead of interested and inspired. Social media has a way of making you feel inadequate or alienated, doesn’t it? And I say this as someone who has long championed Twitter (and would still do so, if challenged) on the grounds that it is very much what you make it. “My” Twitter is full of avid readers and I love that about it. It’s absolutely not their fault that lately it sometimes seems to hurt as much as it helps. I’m trying to think of it as aspirational: one day, I too will feel cheerfully bookish again!

Anyway, it’s not that I haven’t been reading at all. For one thing, I’m reading for my classes, which most recently has meant Great Expectations, Agatha Christie, and Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Old Clock. Next week it will be Lady Audley’s Secret in 19th-Century Fiction and Gaudy Night in Women & Detective Fiction: as Joe Gargery would say, what larks!

light-yearsEarlier this month I read Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years, the first of her much-admired Cazalet Chronicles. I enjoyed it just fine but wasn’t swept up in it—or swept away by it! The aspect of it that surprised me the most was how much it read like a book written in the 1930s (or perhaps the 1950s) rather than in the 1990s: it felt very much of the time it depicts. As a result, in some ways it seemed like a missed opportunity, artistically speaking: it’s a smart, elegant, readable portrayal but it didn’t seem to have any layers of reflection, or to take advantage of being what it actually is, namely historical fiction. Maybe the idea was to give us the feeling of being transported back, rather than to encourage us to look back and consider gaps and differences. I already had a copy of the second book in the series, Marking Time, and I will probably read it eventually, but I’ve picked it up, read a few pages, and put it down again more than once: I just don’t feel compelled to persist. The last time I tried, I found myself thinking that (deliberately or not) it read like the novel I imagine Woolf was trying not to write when she wrote what ended up as The Years. The problem, she noted, was “how to give ordinary waking Arnold Bennett life the form of art.” Not (we might conclude, following her lead) by just recounting in meticulous detail everything that happens to a large number of people over a long period of time.

the fellAlso this month I finally got my hands on Sarah Moss’s The Fell. I’m a big admirer of Moss’s fiction (see here, here, and here for more formal reviews plus any posts in this category here) but like other readers I know, I did not get terribly excited about The Fell. It has her usual combination of intelligence, precision, and undercurrents of menace or stress, and it really captured the grim absurdity of early lockdowns, but I keep wishing for her to go back to a more expansive canvas. I also found the somewhat breathless or chaotic stream of consciousness style of The Fell quite tiring to read.

mandel2My book club met in the middle of September to talk about Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, but I actually read it in August, so it doesn’t really count as “recent”. I will say that it was not a big hit with the group, although most of us found at least some aspects of it enjoyable, provocative, or entertaining. There seemed to be a general consensus that it too often felt thin or sketchy: that she had not taken the time to make the most of her premise and her scenarios, or perhaps even that she had just cobbled together a lot of different ideas she’d had and tried to make a single novel out of them.

During Hurricane Fiona, I read mostly on my Kobo, which can be illuminated: when it’s really stormy, there’s rarely enough light to see print books very clearly, even with our best battery-powered lanterns. First I ended up rereading Normal People, which I had been thinking about and talking with other people about and so wanted to revisit. It still strikes me as such a melancholy novel; I find it odd when people refer to it as some kind of romance.

us-bookThen I read David Nicholls’s Us, which I happened to have recently downloaded, inspired by having enjoyed the TV adaptation starring Tom Hollander (which I thought was excellent). I wouldn’t say it’s a great novel, or even a particularly good one, at least in the prose: it’s a bit awkward and heavy-handed. I really empathized with its protagonist Douglas, though, and I appreciate that Nicholls refused the simplistic happy ending you might expect from a novel about a man hoping to save his marriage while going on a ‘grand tour’ with his wife and son.

I found myself thinking a lot about Douglas’s wife Connie’s explanation for deciding to divorce him: that their “marriage has run its course,” that with the departure of their son for college there isn’t really anything left for them to do as a couple and she just wants something new, different, better for the next and probably last phase of her life. Is that a reasonable or a selfish position? Obviously, a lot depends on specifics (for example, on whether she’s right that, as a couple, they have exhausted their options). A different novel (or novelist, I guess) would have explored that question more fully, perhaps even given us a split perspective so that we heard from Connie as well as from Douglas. There’s something enigmatic about her to the end, as it is: our story is really just about Douglas coming to terms with the inarguable fact that what you want is not always what someone else wants, and it might not be possible, never mind right, to change that. Because there’s never any doubt in the novel that Douglas loves Connie and would stay married to her if he could, there’s real pathos in watching him struggle with her resolution, including with the judgment of him (and his parenting) that is part of it. It was a good hurricane read: just absorbing enough to pass the time without being terribly demanding. rose-nicolson

I have a few books around that I hope will help me out of my current slump: Andrew Greig’s Rose Nicolson, which looks great; Nicola Griffith’s Spear, which I’ve been meaning to read for months now; and Ian McEwan’s Lessons, which my book club chose for our next meeting. Kate Atkinson’s Shrines of Gaiety is incoming, as well: I always find Atkinson immensely readable, even when I end up dissatisfied with the result, so the timing of this release seems perfect.


ghostJuly was not a very good reading month for me. By habit and on principle I usually finish most of the books I start, at least if I have any reason to think they are worth a bit of effort if it’s needed. In July, however, I not only didn’t even start many books (not by my usual standards, anyway) but I set aside almost as many books as I completed—Bloomsbury Girls (which hit all my sweet spots in theory but fell painfully flat in practice), Gilead (a reread I was enthusiastic about at first but just could not persist with), A Ghost in the Throat (which I will try again, as I liked its voice—what I struggled with was its essentialism and its somewhat miscellaneous or wandering structure). I already mentioned Andrew Miller’s Oxygen and Monica Ali’s Love Marriage, both of which I finished and enjoyed, in my last round-up post; I can add Maggie O’Farrell’s forthcoming The Marriage Portrait to the tally of successes since then (I liked it a lot).

smithAli Smith’s how to be both was a mixed experience for me. My copy began with the contemporary story (as you may know, two versions were published), and it read easily for me and was quite engaging, in the same way that the seasonal quartet books all were (though it was funny—funny strange, not lol funny—to find that once again, but this time accidentally, I had chosen a book fundamentally about grief). But the Renaissance section pretty much lost me, and I was not willing or able to put in the work to understand and appreciate the connections between the parts. I’m quite ready to blame myself, not Smith, as my concentration has been quite poor recently, as has my motivation to persist with anything that isn’t either required or readily rewarding—but this was also a reminder of why until fairly recently I had been wary of her fiction: I’m not an experimentalist by habit, my sensibility or taste just runs to the more conventional. I like my novelists to actually write their novels, not leave the work of making sense of it, or filling in the actual content of it, up to me—not absolutely, of course, or I’m in the wrong job, but how to be both was too far in the wrong direction for me, for now.

Ow1Another reread for me in July was Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End. As with everything I’ve read about both grief and suicide, this novel made me very conscious of the particularity of loss, and also of relationships, including mother-child ones: there is not much in it that specifically reminds me of my own son or what it was like being his mom. But there are some passages in it that vividly capture emotions I have had or thoughts I have struggled with, of sorrow, pain, confusion, disorientation, and helpless, bereft love. I am so grateful for the writers who have done the hard work of finding words for these feelings.

Owen would have turned 25 on July 22, another ‘first.’ On his birthday last year I told him (as I always did) that the day he was born was one of the happiest days of our lives. This year it was one of the saddest.


For the Record: Recent Reading

cassatSince I started Novel Readings in 2007, I’ve written up—sometimes briefly, sometimes in great detail—almost every book I’ve read. The best thing about that has always been the exercise itself: knowing I would write at least something about my reading encouraged me to read more attentively and thoughtfully, and then finding the words for what I’d noticed and thought about not only fixed the experience better in my memory but helped me understand the experience better, since as we all know, writing isn’t just a matter of transcribing things you’ve already figured out but is a vital process for figuring them out.

Over the years I have come to really appreciate having this record of my reading, and I am sad that this habit has been so hard to keep up since Owen died. At first, I just wasn’t reading much; now, I am reading again (though not as much as before, and with more difficulties) but I’m tired all the time, mentally as much as physically. Also, writing—at least, writing that doesn’t come with the extrinsic motivation of a commitment and a deadline—turns out, for me anyway, to be a more optimistic activity than I had realized. Going back, as I have so often now, to Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without Its Flow, I came again across her comment,

You can’t, it seems, take the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity . . . Any written or spoken sentence would naturally lean forward towards its development and conclusion, unlike my own paralyzed time.

Earlier in my own experience of grief, I was not really conscious of what she describes as “the sensation of having been lifted clean out of habitual time,” but as I try harder to make my own way back into the present, I think I understand better what she was talking about. riley-time-2

have done a lot of writing since Owen died, of course: about my grief and loss, not just here but privately (it might seem to some people that I’ve overshared here, I suppose, but there are definitely aspects of my experience and of Owen’s, both his life and his death, that are too hard, or just too much, to share even—as I imagine this space being—among friends); about at least some of my reading; in draft material for the book I am working on; and in a few published reviews and review-essays. Many times in the past I have stumbled over identifying myself as “a writer,” but not now: it has never felt more essential to me to put things into words. As I have learned more about grief and what helps people move through it, I have realized that the compulsion I felt starting very soon after Owen’s death to write about it was probably an intuitive reaching towards what in therapeutic jargon is sometimes called “meaning making.”

monica-aliAnyway, this is a pretty roundabout way to get to the point of this post, which is to update the record of my recent reading, if only to shore up my recollections of this period of my life. There’s no way I can write “proper” posts about each of these recently read titles, but I don’t want to forget that I read them, and I also (as part of my larger effort to “reengage with the world”) want to push myself past the sad inertia that at this point is mostly to blame for my losing the habit of writing up my ‘novel readings.’ I remind myself, not for the first time, of my conviction that if something was worth doing before a catastrophe, it remains doing after. Novel Readings has never been “just” a book blog, of course, and I expect I’ll continue to write sometimes about my grief, just as I know mourning is going to continue changing how and why I read. As September nears, I expect I’ll also go back to blogging about my teaching.

So: here’s a stack of books I’ve read in recent weeks but mostly haven’t written up here (the exceptions are The Slowworm’s Song and  Woolf’s diary).

June Books

It was a good run: there’s not one here I wouldn’t recommend to you if you asked about it. The standout was Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, which is at once the best representation I’ve ever read of what it’s like being on Twitter (which she calls, evocatively, “the portal”) and a truly heartfelt and heartbreaking human story. I appreciated that, while she doesn’t gloss over the ways Twitter can be strange and terrible and inhumane, she doesn’t pit “real life” against it either. “The world of books is still the world,” Aurora Leigh remarks, and I have always felt the same about social media.

I didn’t like Oxygen as much as the other books I’ve read by Andrew Miller, but that’s a pretty high bar; ditto Companion Piece, which read easily but made less of an impression on me than Smith’s Seasonal Quartet did. The Dictionary of Lost Words is probably the most conventional one in this stack, which is not a knock against it: it’s smart and very readable. My review of Haven will be in Canadian Notes & Queries at the end of the summer; the tl;dr version is that it’s quite good, though I continue to wish Donoghue would slow down and write a really good, more expansive, novel. (I wish the same of Sarah Moss.) I do admire how different Donoghue’s novels are from each other. Haven has the most in common, thematically, with The Wonder, as it is in part about faith, but it’s still quite distinct in approach and tone. It’s set on Skellig Michael, which looks like an incredible site. Donoghue writes wonderfully about that setting, and the novel is also chock full of brilliant process writing, about everything from fishing to making ink.

gileadI have stumbled more in the last couple of weeks, starting and then quitting a lot of titles including Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat and Rachel Cusk’s Second Place, but I did read Monica Ali’s Love Marriage with interest that (with a bit of persistence) grew into appreciation. One book I began with enthusiasm but ultimately decided not to finish was Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which I have read before, long ago (pre-blogging, that’s how long ago!). It was just too religious for me this time: I just don’t see the world as John Ames does, and while as a well-trained and very experienced novel reader I totally understand and agree that I don’t have to in order to engage with his story, this time (with apologies to the people of faith among you) it just felt too much like having to take very seriously someone who believes in Santa Claus. There’s a lot that’s beautiful in what and how the Reverend Ames sees, but I’m with the brother who reads Feuerbach and goes his own way (I assume he read George Eliot’s translation!). I didn’t much like Housekeeping when I went back to it a few years ago, so maybe Robinson is just not for me.

I have just started Natalie Jenner’s Bloomsbury Girls, which seems fine so far, though I don’t expect anything groundbreaking from it either stylistically or thematically. Ali Smith’s how to be both looks more exciting in both respects, so it’s probably next.

Recent Reading

winmanThe past few weeks, though still often sad and difficult, have been a bit better for reading. I’m not sure if it’s me or the books—probably a bit of both.

My favorite recent read by far is Sarah Winman’s exquisite novel Still Life. It took a while to draw me in, but it was well worth an initial bit of patience: it unfolds into such a tender story about friendship, art, beauty, values, love, loss, and chosen families. It has darker shadows and fiercer pains than Forster’s A Room With a View, source of its main intertextual and contextual allusions, but it has in common with Forster’s novel a commitment to seeing widely and to seeking sunshine—to clearing the way for it. I loved it. I also loved Panenka, which like Rónán Hession’s first novel Leonard and Hungry Paul is small, quiet, funny, and yet also piercing. And I almost loved Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss, which engrossed and moved me nearly to the end—but I thought the last 10% or so dragged, to the point that I started skimming a bit just to see it through. (I was also frustrated by the decision not to name or specify the narrator’s mental illness. A note at the end says her symptoms are “not consistent with a genuine mental illness,” and that seemed to me to undermine a lot of the novel’s work to bring them to such vivid life. What was the point of labeling it “——”? Is it an act of resistance to the whole idea of labeling and diagnosing mental illness? If so, then why is the narrator so relieved to get a correct diagnosis?)*

colwinI didn’t much like Andrew Sean Greer’s Less. I persisted to the end, but it never engaged me deeply at all. My least favorite quality in a book is archness, and that seemed to me Less‘s primary mood. It will shock some of my Twitter friends when I say that I also didn’t much like Laurie Colwin’s Happy All The Time: it isn’t arch, exactly, but it is crisp and clever and detached to the point that it felt thin, even superficial, and thus unsatisfying. I was interested in the premise of Kate Grenville’s A House Made of Leaves and there are good things about it, but overall the execution felt dry and the messages (about history and gender and colonialism) perfunctory, delivered rather than dramatized.

My lighter reading included Jenny Holiday’s pretty entertaining Duke, Actually and a reread of Alan Bennett’s delightful The Uncommon Reader; I’m currently rereading Cecilia Grant’s Blackshear trilogy, my second favorite historical romance series (my very favorite is Loretta Chase’s Carsington series, especially Lord Perfect and Miss Wonderful).

smithI have some promising options in my TBR pile to choose from next, including Nicola Griffith’s Spear (a sequel to Hild is apparently on its way, but this looks good too), Andrew Miller’s The Slowworm’s Song (for my book club), Pip Williams’s The Dictionary of Lost Words, and Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat. I’ve put some of Ali Smith’s earlier novels on hold at the library and would also like to read her new one, Companion Piece, partly out of personal interest and partly because I’m still thinking about how her Seasonal Quartet might fit into the book I’m trying to work on. It’s a pretty tough time—personally, but also generally—to find the motivation to write something that seems unlikely to become anything, so I figure I should follow this flicker of interest in Smith as far as it will go.

As you can tell, I’m still not up to writing the kind of longer, more detailed and thoughtful book posts I used to enjoy crafting. But I am reading more again, and reading better. To quote Taylor Swift, this is me trying.

*After posting this, I looked up some reviews and interviews about Sorrow and Bliss and the idea seems to have been to avoid the novel being tagged as “the schizophrenia book” or “the borderline personality book” etc., and thus getting reduced to “a novel about X” in every discussion. I suppose that’s fair enough, though it still feels like a dodge.

Recent Reading

anneThe last three months haven’t been very good reading months for me: I have picked up and then put back down a lot more books than I have finished. This is true of new (to me) books, at any rate: since January I have actually reread quite a few books that were easy and comforting, including the first four Anne books (thanks to a dear friend who sent me a lovely box set), several favorite romances and mysteries, and The Beethoven Medal (part of one of my all-time favorite ‘YA’ series). I have also, of course, been reading books on grief and loss, and odds and ends of poetry.

But I have read some new books, and I thought I would remark them here, if only sketchily, so that I don’t forget them, and so that this blog doesn’t altogether lose its bookish aspect.

matrixIn January, I read Lauren Groff’s Matrix. I expected to like it more than I did. This is not to say I didn’t like it; the premise was fascinating, and I remember being impressed at how vividly Groff built her world, and how strong, strange, and specific she made Marie as a character. Female agency and empowerment, creativity, desire, spirituality: the book explores them all, with a compelling combination of grittiness and lyricism. For some reason, though, I was disappointed when I learned that this particular work of historical fiction is much more fictional than historical—that almost nothing is actually known about Marie, that Groff’s character and story is all invention. This retroactively took some of the life out of the book for me, which is hardly fair given that I read and love a lot of historical fiction that is mostly made up.

autumn-coverIn February, I read through Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet. The sabbatical project I am picking away at has to do with the relationship between fictional form and social or political engagement (or, to put it another way, with fictional form as itself a kind of social or political engagement). With this in mind I was poking around in information about the Orwell Prize and this led me to some articles and interviews about Smith’s win, which in turn made me curious about whether her series might make a good contemporary example for me. I reread Autumn, and then picked up the other three and read them all through. By the end of Spring I was a bit less sure about using this series for my purposes, but some of my hesitation came from feeling unqualified to work on Smith: both her style and her influences, including the explicit invocation of Shakespeare plays, are a bit far afield for me. That doesn’t rule the books out, of course; it would just mean I would have to work hard to figure out how to talk about them, a prospect which is actually kind of appealing, or it would be if my mind didn’t feel so scattered all the time right now.

rizzioIn March I read Denise Mina’s Rizzio, another historical novel I ended up being a bit disappointed in. There was something awkward (to my reading ear, anyway) about the combination of meticulous historical detail and a too-contemporary idiom, especially in the dialogue. Mina is good at foreboding and action, as you’d expect from a crime novelist. I reread Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, which I loved all over again, though it is even more melancholy than I’d remembered. Then I read Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence, which went really well at first and then started (I thought) to lose its focus and ended up feeling scattered, full of good bits but not a satisfying whole. I read two recently reissued novels by Rosalind Brackenbury, A Day to Remember to Forget and A Virtual Image, for an upcoming review (I finished a third, Into Egypt, yesterday). My last March book was Katherine Ashenburg’s Her Turn, which I enjoyed a lot. It’s less ambitious than some of my other recent reading, but it seemed to me to do well what it set out to do, including explore the possibilities and implications of both revenge and forgiveness in the context of our most intimate relationships.

I have a lot of unread books to hand that look tempting, including Laurie Colwin’s Happy All the Time, Sarah Winman’s Still Life, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, and the first of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles. I have more of the Anne books to dip back into, too, and another kind friend set me up with Emily of New Moon and its sequels, more childhood favorites that I haven’t read in decades. I have picked up and put down some of these a few times already but I’m sure their time will come. It’s not them—it’s me. It is rare for me that reading is this difficult: usually books have been a refuge for me in troubled times, but this time is not like the others. We’ll see how April goes.

(Brief update: I finished Small Things Like These this morningthere’s not much of it!—and it was indeed very good, as everyone has said, although I also felt that underneath the beautiful writing and careful minimalism—did I mention there’s not much of it?—it might actually be a bit heavy-handed.)