Book Review: Faces on the Tip of My Tongue

Faces on the Tip of My Tongue, by Emmanuelle Pagano (translated by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis), is the third book in the publisher’s 2019 ‘There Be Monsters’ series. It is a collection of thirteen interlinked short stories set in France across several decades. The initial tales, whilst evocative, struggled to capture my full attention. As reading progressed common threads and characters emerged. Meaning and depth increased thereby strengthening engagement.

The collection opens with The Lake’s Favourite which tells of an almost too perfect period in the narrator’s childhood. At just a few pages in length this offered a snapshot with little development.

The Jigsaw Puzzle, whilst still short, offered more to consider. It portrays a marriage faltering in the shade of an old and popular lime tree that draws visitors to the remote location. The couple’s young daughter happily copes with each change in circumstance until her mother tries to impose her concerns on the child, against the girl’s will and that of her father. I was pleased when, later in the collection, this family was revisited from several perspectives.

The Short Cut is set largely around a funeral. A woman is returning to an area she left as a teenager to watch as her cousin and doppelgänger is buried. The women made choices when they went their separate ways but neither could predict where these would lead.

“I knew what frightened her most: it was the life that I had chosen where nothing is known. She had tried to persuade me not to leave, telling me other places were the same as here but worse”

I read through this story twice and still it remained elusive until the characters were revisited in subsequent tales.

Blind Spots is told from the point of view of a hitchhiker who has worked out a way to gain lifts by taking drivers by surprise. I found this story overlong and repetitive although it had a good ending. It turned out to be a pivotal tale in the collection.

“The faster you go, the less you can see on either side. The bigger your blind spots. On the motorway it’s as if we’re looking down a tunnel […] lots of people go about with blinkers, not just on motorways. They’re not really driving their lives. I mean, not leading their lives. Instead of leading their own lives they let themselves be carried along in their restricted view of things. Social conventions, appearances, all those things, you know, all those things that shrink your field of vision.”

The Loony and the Bright Spark is one of several stories looking at the elderly and misfits in society – how they came to be where they are and the strange rituals they adopt to give them some reason to keep on living.

Mum at the Park is a snapshot of a child’s view of their book reading parent who has no interest in other people or playing childish games. The city doesn’t suit her but the boy regards it as a playground filled with potential friends.

I enjoyed Just a Dad – another view of a parent as seen through the eyes of their child. By this stage in the collection the reader is observing recurring characters at different times in there lives. This fragmented approach to storytelling added interest but required a going back to reread previously portrayed details.

Over the Aquaduct tells of a childish joke that has unintended consequences, driving apart good friends.

The penultimate story, The Dropout, revisits characters, this time at a wedding where a wrongly invited guest causes the bride to behave badly.

“life is just that, a whole lot of hitches, contradictions, mishaps and revisions, and it’s all the better for that. It’s the opposite of inertia.”

Having read each tale I would say that overall I enjoyed the collection even if it was quite a slow burner. The writing is choppy in places as is the subject matter. The sense of place is strong and the characters interesting. I suspect this is a book that would offer more on rereading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Advertisements

Book Review: Glitch

L-J is an engineer living in company owned accommodation in Hoboken, USA. For six years he worked on the national grid’s New Jersey Transmission Project until a hand injury led to him being struck off sick. He had enjoyed dangling from pylons at great heights, aspiring to be one of the linesmen who work six inches from live wires – the entire voltage running through and around them. L-J has always wanted to be a part of things, connected to the grid. Despite this, life and those he encounters wash over him. The only connection he has ever truly felt is the bond with his mother back home in England. Now she is dying.

L-J needs an operation on his hand and is offered the chance to have the procedure done in the UK where he was born and raised. He decides to return to Dunwich on the Suffolf Coast, a place he left abruptly to travel to the USA. His flight home makes headlines when it suffers a malfunction, a glitch that causes it to plummet back down to earth. As chaos erupts around him, L-J calmly reflects on his job and the people he is returning to.

“everything is already broken, everything is prone to malfunction. We spend our entire lives trying to fix things when there’s no point.”

When L-J eventually reaches London he is met by his sister, Ellen, who appears to blame him for the inconvenience of his delayed arrival. Their relationship is fractured, with a history of resentments. Ellen is married to Paul and they are worried about the financial impact of the current recession – its threat to their livelihoods. She is angry that L-J left the UK in the way he did. L-J is put out that she does not show adequate interest in and concern about the flight on which he could have died. He recalls an incident when she attacked him as a baby. Although he only knows of this through hearsay, he still harbours anger that she does not voice regret for her childish actions.

“Nobody wants to spend time examining the blips in our lives, we just hope they’ll go away, but they don’t. They remain with us, like a scar that never fades.”

L-J stays in the family home, walks along the shore, relishes the memories evoked. He sits at his mother’s hospital bedside trying to comfort her and himself. The two have always shared a closeness born of outings, art and poetry. He is her beautiful boy, reading the books she suggested as a means to retain and strengthen their connection.

“that’s the beauty of poetry, there’s nothing to understand, only something to grasp.”

“by his early teens he’d already decided that he wanted to be an engineer. Poetry, apart from serving as the living umbilical cord between him and Mother, had no other use.”

Ellen wishes to discuss practical matters and rails against her brother’s attitude and behaviour. Her priority, as she considers their mother’s imminent death, is attaining monetary security – something L-J has no interest in. He values their childhood home for visceral reasons.

This is a strangely told tale. The writing has a detached feel. The protagonist, from whose point of view it is written, is there in each moment but also in imaginings triggered by conversation or events. His musings are distracted which can be somewhat disconcerting to read.

“Everything remains just under the surface of things”

L-J’s seemingly more practical sister is living in a different reality to his. She cannot comprehend his actions, past or present, and shows her irritation. He resents her material outlook and aspects of their shared history.

In the hospital, Mother’s health continues to deteriorate. Tied to their home for this period of time, L-J looks through cupboards and drawers finding photographs and letters that fill in gaps of knowledge from the family’s past. He considers these new facts a ‘rip in the fabric of our reality’.

The glitches in L-J’s life have proved pivotal even if they did not provide what he was hoping for. It is these that he holds on to, the harness that prevents him falling from height to his demise. Whatever Ellen demands, he must find a way to cope in his own way with their mother’s death.

A story of grief and the detachment needed to survive it – the free fall suffered when connections are severed. Although not always straightforward, the reflections evoked – the understanding of human nature – linger long after the last page is turned. A poignant and original read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink.

Book Review: Confessions of a Bookseller

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“It is an irony of my position that – although I’m surrounded by books every day – most of what I know about them is imparted by customers, the self-same customers whom my first instinct is to discourage from talking.”

Shaun Bythell wrote The Diary of a Bookseller in 2014. It was published three years later and went on to become an international bestseller. Confessions of a Bookseller has the same structure – short entries for each day of a year in Bythell’s life. Each month opens with a quote – in this volume from The Intimate Thoughts of John Baxter, Bookseller by Augustus Muir – followed by some personal thoughts on various aspects of books and bookselling. Bythell muses on: the habits of customers, the latent excitement and inherent risks of book acquisition, and the challenges he faces due to the existence of Amazon.

The author is proprietor of The Bookshop in Wigtown, a business he purchased in November 2001. He buys and sells second hand books, both in the shop and online. He is a native of Galloway and writes of the place with deep fondness. He is less complimentary about the part-time staff he employs and many of their customers, including regulars. 

Written with caustic wit the daily entries take the reader through the seasons detailing tasks that must be completed associated with the business. Bythell has converted several rooms and buildings linked to his shop – which he lives above – to form meeting rooms and accommodation. These are well used by both locals and visitors to the region, especially during the Wigtown Festival in late September.

The diverse cast of characters are presented in less than flattering cameo although there is no rancour in the writing. Brief descriptions of encounters form the backbone of a book that strips away any dreamy preconceptions around the reality of running a bookshop. Unforeseen expenses include the need for a retrospective planning application and repairs to a collapsing chimney. Bythell must come up with ideas to offset costs as they may not be met by profits from book sales. Daily entries conclude with a tally of customer footfall and till receipts which provide a salutary reminder of the decline in high street spending as the public embrace the ease and convenience of the internet.

“I managed to get the ‘Death to the Kindle’ mug available for sale on Amazon. I wonder how long it will be before it is removed.”

Amazon’s focus on buyers rather than sellers, along with software issues processing listings and orders, provide ongoing headaches for Bythell. Customer expectations have also been altered by the behemoth, with those bringing in books to sell harbouring unrealistic views on value and purchasers demanding discounts.  

Although best read in chronological order to keep abreast of ongoing developments this is a book that can be enjoyed in short fragments. The author offers up his trials and tribulations with a mix of mockery and dour humour, unafraid to admit to his personal peeves and shortcomings.

Any Cop?: Another slice of life as a bookseller with the added quirks of Bythell’s character, this was ultimately a diverting and congenial read.

    

Jackie Law

Book Review: Welcome to America

Ellen is eleven years old and stopped talking after her father died. She had prayed for his death and now feels culpable although also happy that he can no longer disrupt her family’s life. She was afraid of him and is also afraid of her brother. She adores her beautiful, actress mother but cannot imagine ever recapturing the closeness they once enjoyed.

Welcome to America, by Linda Boström Knausgård (translated by Martin Aitken), is told in the first person by Ellen as she navigates her self-imposed silence and the effect it has on those around her. Unwilling to communicate, she watches as her mother tries to maintain some normalcy. Ellen fears change, especially the prospect of growing up. She wishes her mother happiness but does not want to be like her.

“I didn’t want her glitzy smiles. Her perfect hair. Her wanting me to be a beautiful girl. To her, beauty was something on its own. An important property that had to be cultivated like a flower.”

The tangled threads of how the family got to this moment are revealed in spare prose. Caught in the crossfire of her parents’ behaviour, Ellen remembers moments of light and her mother’s determined optimism. She has internalised so much trauma but cannot find the words to explain. Once words are spoken they generate ripples. Silence offers Ellen the stillness she craves.

The story unfolds mostly in the spacious apartment where Ellen lives with her mother and brother. She observes her brother demanding solitude by nailing closed the door of his bedroom. She observes her mother as she prepares meals, teaches her pupils and goes out to work. The ebb and flow of family life is evoked with painful insight – the closeness and necessary distancing.

The pain Ellen feels is palpable yet rarely expressed. Her mother’s reaction to her daughter’s behaviour is filtered through a determination to grant agency. There is much love within this family but also recognition of the needs of individuals – finding that difficult balance between neglect and freedom.

A fierce yet beautifully rendered depiction of family trauma and its repercussions. A recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, World Editions.

Book Review: The Light in the Dark

“It is like being stalked by a ghoul. Turn your gaze outwards, I keep telling myself. You do not matter; other people matter, the land matters, the sky and the world. If only you could get out of the way of your own view!”

The Light in the Dark, by Horatio Clare, is a series of journal entries written over the course of a harsh, Pennine winter. In recent years the author has come to fear the season as it brings with it debilitating depression. Determined to face up to the issue, he agrees to write down his thoughts and experiences. The prologue is written at the end of a summer as he embarks on this writing journey.

“I will embrace this winter like a summer. I will try to see this little shard of the North as I would an unknown country. I will pay attention.”

Entries cover the period from mid October to mid March. The journal format offers an immediacy that other books – written with hindsight about an author’s depression – cannot capture. Clare is self-aware but this makes his suffering worse. He observes the effect his illness has on his beloved family thereby increasing his feelings of guilt and inadequacy. He understands that there is joy to be found – to be embraced and shared – in the present moment, but as the season deepens and darkens so does his introspection.

The prose is evocative and often poetic, particularly in his descriptions of nature. When possible Clare goes outside, on walks or to social events. He writes down his observations.

“Now the power cuts. I dash out to see if it is just us – but it is the world transformed, released into darkness, moonlight, stars and frost. It is the first time I have ever seen our valley as it is in itself at night.”

Clare was raised with his brother on a farm in Wales, his father largely absent. He lived in Italy for a time before moving to a village in Yorkshire – that his wife’s elder child may live closer to his father. The couple also have a young son and the narrative offers snippets of their family life.

Clare’s mother, now in her seventies, still runs the Welsh hill farm. Early in the book deeply distressing journal entries describe the sickening activities of badger baiters. I pondered how such monsters can exist.

The journal is not a complete account of the season but rather an ongoing reflection of the many facets of seasonal depression.

“I have not written down all the rows, the despairs, the heaviness of spirit; no reader could have enjoyed them.”

What is included are moments of light and reflection – found in nature or time spent with family – and the increasing difficulty Clare has rising to be warmed by them as winter slowly progresses. He knows that time will pass and spring will bring relief but surviving the present darkness is a growing challenge. The winter is a harsh one – weather wise and emotionally.

Despite the subject matter this is a hopeful read. Issues are confronted and the impairment created by Clare’s illness vividly conveyed. What shines through is the author’s humanity – his appreciation of the natural world and his family. The beauty of the writing carries the reader on a journey offering insights that may increase understanding of the difficulties and fears felt by those suffering mental illness.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: Breaking and Mending

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“medicine is all about people, and people are made out of stories”

Why would anyone wish to become a doctor? It is a question most potential students applying to medical school will be asked. Perhaps they wish to save lives, to make a difference. Perhaps they come from a family of medics and it has always been expected of them. 

It costs around a quarter of a million pounds to train a doctor in the UK, a significant proportion of which must now be borne by the student, often in the form of debt. The course is one of the most demanding offered by universities. And yet for every place available, four people who expect to achieve the necessary exam results will apply. It is and remains a competitive career choice.

Joanna Cannon entered medical school in her thirties. She was accepted by the admissions panel as a wild card. Her motivation throughout the long years of training was to get into psychiatry. Breaking and Mending is the story of her experiences on hospital wards as a student and then Junior Doctor. It is a sobering indictment of how medical professionals – the people entrusted with individuals’ myriad and complex health issues – are treated by the NHS and certain of its senior employees.

“Stories bind us together, stories unite us, and we tell our stories in the hope that someone out there will listen, and we will be understood.”

Cannon’s story is told in snapshots that she describes as her Kodak moments. Each chapter details an encounter with a patient or colleague, the memory of which she carries with her. The burden of her emotional responses over time became a weight that she struggled to bear. The long and busy shifts a doctor is required to work took their toll and she found it ever more difficult to be the type of doctor she had worked so hard to become.

Written with grace and candour the descriptions and reflections are a balance between compassion, valuable learning and simmering anger. There is much for the reader to contemplate and absorb. Doctors work to ease suffering and delay death under exhausting conditions. Given the lack of care they themselves receive it is little wonder that too many of them face burn out.

Yet this is not a polemic. It is a very personal story that cuts to the heart of issues faced by a vital profession dealing daily with human suffering. Doctors must somehow find a way to inure themselves while showing others care and understanding. Their role goes beyond prescribing and administering appropriate clinical treatment. Good doctors learn to listen to the stories they are told by patients and to find the right words in response. They also benefit when colleagues notice and find time to listen to them.   

Any Cop?: Cannon is a skilled storyteller and this is a poignant and thought-provoking medical memoir. It highlights the importance of talking about topics that make many uncomfortable such as death and mental illness. It underscores the stigma doctors face if they admit they are struggling to cope with the conditions under which they are required to work.

 

Jackie Law 

Book Review: This Way to Departures

This Way to Departures, by Linda Mannheim, is a collection of eleven short stories by an author capable of using the form to impressive effect. Each tale is expertly crafted, evoking a passionate response in the reader. That this is achieved by harnessing everyday language and action – nothing feels overdone – makes for an immersive reading experience.

The collection opens with Noir, a tale set in Miami. Laura and Sam are enjoying their fledgling relationship when Laura, a journalist growing bored with her mundane assignments, is approached by a handsome but sad eyed stranger, Miguel from El Salvador. He is trying to track down missing friends.

“I remembered the instructions Inez and I had been handed when, as children, we went out to play in the street: strangers should be left as you found them, sob stories promptly returned to their owners. Somewhere along the way, Inez had decided to dismiss this as cynicism rather than wisdom; no one we knew had ever stayed safe by avoiding risk.”

Laura agrees to help Miguel. To do so she must involve one of Sam’s good friends.

Missing Girl, 5, Gone Fifteen Months explores the world of youngsters placed under the care of the Department of Children and Families. Every year hundreds disappear. Foster parents take on their role as it is a chance for them to earn a little extra income in areas where jobs are hard to find. Overburdened caseworkers struggle to deal with every query and reported incident. When the papers or television pick up on an individual missing child, the Secretary of the Department must offer a response.

“Every time, the panels have come to the same conclusions – that we must invest more in the programs. And every time, the state has said it cannot provide that funding.”

The story offers a concise indictment of the fickle nature of public outrage and then insouciant acceptance.

Butterfly McQueen on Broadway provides a glimpse of the problems faced by a successful actress of colour when she refuses to take stereotypical roles in films. The titular actress appeared in Gone With the Wind yet ended up accepting any available casual work in Harlem. Her career is compared to another actress of colour who went on to win an Oscar, yet whose story remained peppered with shocking racism.

The Place That He Can Never Return To recalls the narrator’s childhood visits, with their father, to a restaurant frequented by fellow exiles. Here they would be served German food and encouraged to speak the language while being told tales of a homeland, recalled with nostalgia.

The lasting impact of the immigrant experience is a theme that runs through each of these tales.

This Way to Departures is one of several stories set in or around an American campus. Danny was born in Poland but his parents were determined to start afresh somewhere they regarded as better.

“He would know Evanston, Illinois, where his parents tried and tried to become middle class and American. And if they failed, well, they were not the only ones failing to become happy Americans after the war.”

Danny becomes a successful economist but, as a committed socialist, needs to follow his ideals. His wife, who compromises her career for him, must make further difficult choices. Danny thinks he knows what she wants but can only see this through the prism of his own needs.

“He leapt up when he saw me, took me in his arms, gave me more of a clinch than an embrace. At first I half-believed he knew what I was going to tell him, sensed it. But he hadn’t of course. His anticipation – the way he held his breath, watched me carefully, and could barely sit – all that was because he had something to tell me.”

Facsimiles is set in New York City, mid September 2001. The narrator and her girlfriend survive the attacks but, like so many who had worked at the World Trade Centre, were deeply affected. The story is heartbreaking yet beautifully rendered.

The World’s Fair tells of a young couple eager to escape the confines of their neighbourhood – built on what was once landfill – and their stifling upbringing.

“‘All of this,’ she says, looking out at the garden apartments broken up by big brick buildings, ‘it used to be garbage.’
‘When did it stop being garbage?’ I want to ask her.
‘Before you were born,’ she offers, ‘this neighbourhood was beautiful.’
As if my being born ruined it.”

The author captures the hemmed in frustrations teenagers suffer yet never overplays them.

Waiting for Daylight is another campus story exploring the abuse of power. Like the following story, The Young Woman Sleeps While the Artist Paints Her, the protagonists are not depicted in the way most books, films or TV shows paint American college kids. There are drugs and sex but these students are more universally real, more nuanced in their wider trials and experiences. Studies may be neglected but their importance feels understood. The difficulty of funding them remains an issue.

The Christmas Story offers a glimpse of the festive season through the eyes of those living with poverty and illness in a capitalist society. The narrator is now grown and living in comfort but the time she recalls is seared in her memory. As a child she lived in an apartment with broken heating. Her Jewish mother would not bow to the conventions of Christmas. The young girl’s furtive prayers to the Jesus she finds in a ‘comic book’ represent just another of life’s empty promises.

Dangers of the Sun covers a court case in which a widow is suing her late husband’s doctor for negligence. Told from the point of view of an old friend, the reader is shown the machinations of the legal system. It is a painful portrayal of distancing.

What these stories have in common is the feeling of disconnection as people grow and change. Many of the characters have roots in different countries. Past experiences haunt what their present can be. The author pierces each topic with intrepid yet empathetic succinctness – I couldn’t be more impressed with the quality and style of her writing.

This is a gratifying and recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.