“Words, after all, are just another set of gestures…” #TheTraces #MaireadSmallStaid #Calvino @DeepVellum


Although we’re now comfortably into March I’m still continuing to catch up with reviews of indie books I read during February, and today’s post is about one which was a particularly fascinating and resonant read for me. The book is “The Traces: An Essay” by Mairead Small Staid, published by Deep Vellum, an indie out of Dallas, Texas, under their A Strange Object imprint; and it’s a multi-layered and profound work which certainly got me thinking.

Staid hails from Massachusetts and has published widely in magazines; she’s also, as parts of the book revealed, worked in a University library, for which I envy her, and in her acknowledgements at the back of the book mentions that she has spent much of her time working in independent bookshops and public libraries. I have to be honest and say that what initially attracted me to the book was the fact that much of Staid’s narrative is inspired and informed by her reading of Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities”, a book I’ve read and loved, but which I’m sure deserves a re-read! “Traces” focuses on a season Staid spent studying in Florence, and travelling around the capitals of Europe, when she was 20. And as she explores that past, she meditates on the process of memory, on the person she was then and who she is now, and on how much of what we remember is accurate.

We grow used to seeing ourselves in certain places, doing certain things, acting in a certain way. Our episodic memories accumulate, forming semantic ones: I did, I did, I did, therefore I am. We define ourselves by repetition, our persons – our personalities – formed like a portrait, brush stroke upon brush stroke slowly taking the shape of a cheek or a hand. We are creatures of habit, sure, and of habits, good and bad.

Much of Staid’s time in Europe is spent in pursuit of art; but she’s also juggling personal life and emotions, in particular her attraction to Z, a fellow student who is not single. They maintain their distance despite a mutual attraction, but that magnetism between the two of them is a constant thread through her narrative and inevitably colours her memories of Florence and Italy. She’s also coming out of a period of recurring depression, and this is another strand to her story; the anticipation of the return of the ‘black dog’ seems always in her mind.

But there are good times despite the potential issues, and Staid travels widely, mostly alongside her fellow student Annie. They smoke, drink, eat well and visit such a dazzling list of places that I can only gasp with envy and wish I’d done more travelling in my youth. Staid ponders many issues, but looking back I sense that the search to define and find happiness is one of the major ones; because of her periods of depression she struggles to identify what real happiness is, and in parts of her book looks back to other thinkers and philosophers to try to help. Is there any real meaning to the search for that happiness? I don’t know – I suspect it’s different for any human being. Certainly, Staid seems to be trying to work out if her period in Florence was the happiest point of her life, and if so, why was that? Are memories accurate and can they really ever be grasped? These are difficult questions and I’m not sure if there are actually definitive answers.

I think we are always hunting something that is hidden or merely possible or hypothetical, something whose tracks we follow as we find them on the surface of the ground. (Calvino, ‘Six Memos for the Next Millennium”)

In truth, “Traces” is a hard book to pin down and write about in some ways because of the different strands to her narrative. Periods of memoir will be interspersed with philosophical meditations which make the book a fascinating and heady mix; and her explorations of other writers has already had a dramatic effect on my immediate TBR as you’ll have noted in my recent posts. She quotes Pavese, Montaigne, Camus, Kafka – well, you name it, they’re probably on my TBR shouting to be read. Staid’s insights into these authors, and the influence they have on her, are fascinating, and I really want to get to some of these books soon!.

Running all the way through the book is the influence of the aforementioned Calvino and his “Invisible Cities”. Calvino was Italian, and Staid relates some of the descriptions of his cities to the ones she sees; indeed in the beautifully written chapter “Cities and Names”, she wonderfully recreates the mood of Calvino as a narrator travels by train between a number of European cities. The narrator is of course Staid herself, but it’s a particularly stand-out chapter in what is an already fascinating book.

Florence’s Duomo by Petar Milošević, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Another favourite chapter was “Cities and Eyes” which explores the work of Leonardo da Vinci via Berger, Benjamin and Vasari; Staid takes a look at the whole issue of authenticity and originality, what is ‘real’ and what has been recreated, and this was fascinating (and has also made me pull out Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ for reading asap!). Much of the book is indeed a commentary on art: the visual arts Staid sees on her travels and also the written arts (Calvino and Pavese are prominent here).

“The Traces” is a book filled with many riches: Staid’s writing is beautiful, her philosophical explorations fascinating, her memoirs evocative and her thoughts on Calvino in particular illuminating. If nothing else, I shall go back to “Invisible Cities” in a different frame of mind for my next re-read and look more deeply into it I hope. As for Staid, this is her first book, and I think it’s a wonderful and very original achievement; I hope she writes more and look forward to seeing what she comes up with next!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher – many thanks!)


“…how intense and enduring these secrets have been.” #ReadIndies @DeepVellum


Many of the publishers I’ve focused on so far during our #ReadIndies have been UK based; however, the book I’m sharing today is from a press based in Texas, USA – Deep Vellum. Although they’ve been around for a while, I only read my first DV book recently when I was charmed and seduced by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s “The New Adventures of Helen“. So when the publisher asked if I’d like to read a new title by another Russian woman author, I was most definitely up for it! The book is “Stories of a Life”, the author Nataliya Meshchaninova and the translator Fiona Bell.

Meshchaninova is a Russian filmmaker whose first directorial outing was in 2014, and she has a number of credits to her name for writing and directing for film and tv. “Stories of a Life” burst onto the Russian literary scene in 2017 and became a sensation, being adopted by the #metoo movement in that country. Reading the stories collected here, it’s not hard to see why…

“Stories…” gathers together seven pieces into what’s described as a ‘memoir-novel’ by the blurb, and these explore pivotal events and experiences from the author’s life. Pretty much auto-fiction then, or veiled memoir, and the writing is direct and powerful from the start. On the second page of the book, where the author’s been introducing her family, she states starkly “There isn’t a single normal person in our family. Sorry in advance.” And as you read through the stories of her life, you see she really wasn’t exaggerating…

Meshchaninova grew up in post-Soviet Russia in the last years of the 20th century and it really doesn’t sound like a pleasant place to be. As a child, she’s basically surrounded by male predators, whether they’re local boys, one of the many stepfathers, older men in the area or even those who present themselves as suitors. This is a world whether there is violence, often shockingly graphic (one part I just couldn’t read and had to put a post it over), and survival is difficult in this brutal setting. Despite having a place to live, and a mother who’s present, Meshchaninova is never safe and as she relates her fears, her secrets, the problems within her family and her complex relationship with her mother, you find yourself thinking it’s a miracle she survived.

Much bitterness is reserved for her second stepfather, Uncle Sasha, who frankly deserves what he gets. Meshchaninova’s adopted sister and that girl’s son also cause havoc in the family, and it’s not hard to see why the author runs like hell from her childhood and so-called family home when she gets the chance. The most tragic thing for me, though, was the horrendous mother-daughter relationship, and Meshchaninova explores that in the final story of the book which is something of an explosion of emotion. Mother-daughter relationships are complex at the best of time (and I know this as I fit on both sides of that equation); but it’s shocking to realise how much of Meshchaninova’s suffering could have been avoided if her mother had actually done something to protect her daughter. Without giving anything away, if my mother had allowed to happen to me what Meshchaninova’s did to her, I would have walked away and never come back. It’s a testament to Meshchaninova that she still tries to maintain a relationship with her parent.

Obviously, “Stories…” is a powerful and often painful read, which quite brilliantly captures the horrors of Meshchaninova’s life in stark, often staccato sentences. Yet, obviously she survived the whole experience and has made a life and career for herself, which is an uplifting result. This howl of a book, though, is a reminder of how easy it is for the position of women in society to slip back into a situation where they’re easy prey for predators. We still need to be vigilant, protecting ourselves and others…


“The prison gate was ajar…” @deepvellum #thenewadventuresofhelen


I started off December by reviewing a book by a Russian woman writer and I’m happy to be continuing that trend today. The author in question is Ludmilla Petrushevksaya, whose acquaintance I made earlier this year via her memoir “The Girl from the Metropol Hotel“; and the book is her latest release, “The New Adventures of Helen”, translated by Jane Bugaeva and published by Deep Vellum. Petushevskaya is probably best known for writing fable-like short fictions with quirky titles (“There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby”), and this collection again brings together short works – the book has the subtitle “Magical Tales” so it’s a fair guess that these stories might well be subverting the norm!

“Helen…” contains seven stories, and opens with the title work. Here, Helen of Troy is reborn in an unnamed seaside resort, ready for her beauty to wreak its usual havoc. However, a magician has prepared a trap, in the form of a magic mirror which renders anyone who looks into it invisible. Needless to say, this will have an unexpected effect on Helen who finds she can pass through the world without causing any disruption; which is all well and good until she finds herself attracted to a billionaire who can’t see her…

“Nose Girl” deals with notions of beauty; the title girl is beautiful, but has a nose which spoils this. However, will the perfect nose solve her problems and make the man she loves love her back? Next up is “The Prince with the Golden Hair”, which is probably the story closest to pure fairytale; the titular prince’s hair seems to be literally gold and everyone is after him and his kingdom. His adventures with his mother take in imprisonment by a travelling circus, where the erstwhile queen has to use all her wiles to stay safe and escape. “Queen Lir” is a hoot, with an elderly queen going AWOL and causing trouble wherever she goes. Although this is a very funny story (Lir getting a mohican haircut is hilarious!), there are serious undertones; Petrushevksaya is quite happy to slyly show how those with power and money can’t function on the most basic level when left to their own devices to manage things themselves.

Think about it: the royal quarters were always cleaned when the queen was away, so Lir remained quite clueless. She’d never laid eyes on a broom or dustpan in all her life. Apparently, the poor woman imagined that chambermaids swept with hats. (Come to think of it, many men and children wish it were that way in their homes; they don’t want to see any of the process, just the results. But, like it or not, they end up witnessing it all – the laundry, the ironing, the sweeping, the potato peeling, the pasta boiling – and are sometimes even obliged to help out…)

“Nettle and Raspberry” tellis the story of two sisters who are like chalk and cheese, and kind of live up to their names. Mostly they manage to get along, until love gets in the way and they become rivals. Sisters also feature (obvs) in “Two Sisters” where a sibling pair of old women stumble upon an ointment that makes them physically teenagers, but with their older minds. It will take all of their wisdom to negotiate a hostile world, hold onto their independence, make sure they get their pension payments and not get take into care as if they’re actually orphans.

Housing problems are something the sisters have to deal with (an issue which persists from the very dawn of Soviet times!), and this element is at the centre of the final entry, “The Story of an Artist”. Here, the title character struggles to keep possession of his apartment as well as producing his pictures. As the story develops, however, it seems that his paintings have a strange effect and as he comes to realise this, it seems he may be able to use his unusual and surreal talents to his advantage.

Petrushevkaya’s tales are wonderfully funny, quirky and entertaining, but she’s obviously a dab hand at using her fictions to take swipes at all manner of people and situations when she wants to! As you can see from the quote above, useless royals or men and children who don’t pull their weight are in for short shrift. The virtuous usually win out, which is a relief – well, these *are* magical tales after all – but there are harder truths embedded in the stories, and Petrushevskaya is clear-eyed about the realities of the world and the platitudes people trot out…

Mama died a day after Papa; she lay in bed all day and never woke up. At the funeral, people said they were lucky, that it happened only in fairy tales – a couple living a happy life then dying on the same day. But truth be told, these two supposedly happy people didn’t die at the same moment. One of them had seen death and understood that they were left alone. One of them had cried.

I was sold on Petrushevskaya’s economic yet effective prose after reading her memoir, and I’m pleased to say that her fictions are just as compelling. Whether subverting the norms, reversing fairy tale tropes or having sly digs at those she thinks deserve it, she’s produced an enjoyable and often thought-provoking collection. “The New Adventures of Helen” is my first experience of Petrushevskaya’s fictions but it definitely won’t be my last!!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

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