Books in Brief: Five I Loved Recently

Ironically, Tuesday’s post on all the books I’ve abandoned so far in 2017 was my most popular in ages; it received nearly twice as many views as most of my recent posts. I think readers must find it reassuring that they’re ‘allowed’ to give up on a book rather than struggle through to the end of something they’re really not enjoying. However, I unwittingly stirred up some controversy when I shared the post on a Facebook group for book bloggers and authors and got a few replies along the lines of “I would never write about a book I didn’t like or didn’t finish. It’s not fair to the author.” Hmmm.

Anyway, today I have five pretty much unreserved recommendations instead. An original take on the American Civil War, a retelling of a Shakespearean tragedy, a highly unusual travel book, a creative blending of poems and recipes, and a wonderful book about sisters and betrayal from a Canadian author new to me. I hope you’ll find something here to enjoy.


Days Without End

By Sebastian Barry

An entirely believable look at the life of the American soldier in the 1850s and 1860s, this novel succeeds due to its folksy dialect and a perfect balance between adventuresome spirit and repulsion at wartime carnage. While it shares some elements with Westerns and Civil War fiction, it’s unique in several ways. Though thrilling and episodic, it’s deeply thoughtful as well. Thomas writes semi-literate English but delivers profound, beautiful statements all the same. Lovely metaphors and memorable turns of phrase abound. Finally, this book is the most matter-of-fact consideration of same-sex relationships I’ve ever encountered in historical fiction. Heart-breaking, life-affirming, laugh-out-loud: these may be clichés, but here’s one novel that is all these things and more. Truly unforgettable. (See my full review at BookBrowse. See also my related article on the Native American practice of cross-dressing, known as winkte or berdache.)

My rating:

 

New Boy: Othello Retold

By Tracy Chevalier

(My second favorite in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, after Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed.) Chevalier is known for historical fiction, but here she gives Othello a near-contemporary situation and a backdrop much closer to home: her native Washington, D.C. Spring 1974: it’s Ghanaian diplomat’s son Osei Kokote’s first day at a new school. Fortunately, he’s taken under the wing of one of the most popular sixth grade girls, Dee, and they’re soon inseparable. The novel takes place all in one day, divided into discrete sections by recess periods and a lunch break. Jump rope rhymes, jungle gyms, kickball games, arts and crafts, and a typical cafeteria meal of Salisbury steak and tater tots: it’s impressive how Chevalier takes ordinary elements and transforms them into symbols of a complex hierarchy and shifting loyalties. The language of possession and desire felt overly dramatic to me when applied to eleven-year-olds. However, it’s a remarkable exploration of the psyche of a boy isolated by his race. (Full review forthcoming at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website.)

My rating:  (maybe more like 3.75)

 

Tragic Shores: A Memoir of Dark Travel

By Thomas H. Cook

Cook is a crime writer. In this out-of-the-ordinary travel memoir he blends personal experience and history to tell of the ‘dark places’ he’s drawn to visiting. In 28 chapters that jump around in chronological order, he chronicles journeys he’s made to places associated with war, massacres, doomed lovers, suicides and other evidence of human suffering. Some are well known – Lourdes, Auschwitz, Verdun and Ground Zero – while others, like a Hawaiian leper colony and the hideaway of a fifteenth-century serial killer, require more background. A section on Okinawa and Hiroshima is among the book’s highlights: excellent descriptions of the mass suicide rooms where the Japanese retreated as the Americans approached and the atomic bomb drop itself bring history to life. But the most memorable chapter of all is one in which suffering touches Cook in a personal way. A meditative and often melancholy picture of humanity at its best and worst. (See my full review at Nudge.)

My rating:

 

Eat This Poem: A Literary Feast of Recipes Inspired by Poetry

By Nicole Gulotta

This arose from Gulotta’s blog of the same title. It’s a luscious mix of food-themed poems – none of which I’d ever encountered before, even if certain of the poets were familiar to me (like Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds and Wendell Berry) – commentary, personal anecdote and recipes that manage to hit the sweet spot in a Venn diagram between trendy, frugal, simple and indulgent. I could see myself making and eating any of these recipes, but my eye was particularly drawn to baked sweet potatoes with maple yogurt, vanilla-pear crumble, butternut squash macaroni and cheese, olive oil pumpkin bread, and cornmeal waffles. It might seem like this is a book that would only have niche appeal, but I don’t think that’s the case. Whether you like to cook or just like to eat, whether you love poetry or struggle to understand it, I’d recommend this for pleasant occasional reading. It only misses out on five stars because some of the observations are fairly obvious; these poems mostly speak for themselves.

My rating:

 

A Student of Weather

By Elizabeth Hay

Set between the 1930s and 1970s, Hay’s debut (shortlisted for Canada’s Giller Prize in 2000) focuses on a pair of sisters, Norma Joyce and Lucinda Hardy, and the frostbitten young weather researcher who stumbles upon their Saskatchewan farmhouse one January evening in 1938. “Two sisters fell down the same well, and the well was Maurice Dove.” Seventeen-year-old Lucinda became the capable family housekeeper after their mother’s death. Norma Joyce is a precocious, sneaky eight-year-old. On each of Maurice’s visits, and in the years to come, they quietly jostle for his attention. Despite the upheaval of war and a move to Ontario, some things never change. Hay lends her story allusive depth by referencing biblical pairs of opposites: Jacob and Esau, Mary and Martha, and the Prodigal Son and his jealous older brother. My favorite parts were when the sisters were together in Canada; once Norma Joyce moves to New York, the book starts drifting a bit. However, there are such astute observations about what goes on in family and romantic relationships, and many perfect sentences. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this slowly over the course of a month, and I’d gladly read anything else from Hay.

My rating:


Have you read any of these? Which one takes your fancy?

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37 thoughts on “Books in Brief: Five I Loved Recently

  1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the Hay. I can thoroughly recommend Late Nights on Air, one of my favourite books. As for not finishing books, life’s too short, and many readers would thank you for letting them know: forewarned is forearmed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think a lot of people value your judgement when it comes to books, so I’m not surprised your ‘abandoned’ books blog was so popular.
    Completely disagree with those on your FB page who criticised you for being ‘unfair to the author’! Reminds me a bit about a restaurant review website which only accepted ‘good’ reviews and refused to publish any that commented unfavourably on an establishment!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Penny. I appreciate you saying that. It did seem very strange to me, this notion that we are only ever expected to express positive opinions about books lest we hurt the authors’ feelings. Many of the members of that group are self-publishing authors so may be particularly sensitive. This is one reason why I tend not to accept review books directly from authors; I don’t like to feel that I am obligated to give a good review.

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    1. I could see that one being great for discussion! I haven’t actually read Othello myself but know the basic story line; people would likely be interested in commenting on how it compares to the original.

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  3. Having just read my first in the re-make of Shakespeare series: in my case Jeanette Winterson’s ‘The Gap of Time’, I’m planning to read the lot. We discussed four of them at Book Group yesterday and on the whole, they were all very much enjoyed: for being good stories in their own right, and for maintaining the spirit of the originals. I like Tracy Chevalier, so I’ll be looking for that one soon. Your whole selection this month looks enticing. And by the way, in the end I finished ‘Swimming Lessons’. It did improve, I think, but I still didn’t buy those letters.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Not many people tried that one. However, the few that did insisted you had to persist through the pain barrier, and then it became enjoyable. I plan to try it now, and I’m ambivalent about Jacobson usually.

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    1. The ‘pain barrier’ — they sure make it sound appealing! 😉 I lasted until 43% in the Kindle book and gave up. I think it might be one case where knowing the play was essential, and I didn’t. I’ve read two of his other novels (Finkler and Zoo Time) and liked them well enough.

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  4. To your Facebook detractors, I say: LOL. Since when have readers or reviewers had a duty of fairness to an author? And since when has being honest, even and especially when that means being negative, been “unfair”? Fucksake.

    Adored Days Without End and am informed by a colleague that New Boy is very good – the Guardian review was less convinced, so obviously I’ll have to find out for myself…

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    1. There seems to be a “we’re all in this together, so let’s support each other” vibe in that group. Which is fair enough: if I love a book I’ll happily do my bit to get the author some attention. But I’m not going to be nice about a lackluster book just to stroke an author’s ego. I didn’t want to go all Roland-Barthes-Death-of-the-Author on them, but my feeling is that publishing a book is like throwing your baby to the wolves. You have no control over what happens to it at that point. The book will be judged on its merits, and it’s hugely undignified to fight back at negative reviews. It made me wonder whether some book bloggers see themselves primarily as cheerleaders, whereas I see my blog as a sort of extension of my professional critic capacity.

      I’ll go have a look at that Guardian review.

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      1. I gather (and please correct me if I get any of this wrong, since you are more of a pro!) there was a major shift in book blogging round about the late 2000s: up until then it had really been a small community of very dedicated, often academically-minded people (though not generally professional academics) who wrote critically about books that they thought were worth writing critically about—new, old, classic, genre, whatever. At some point, publicity departments discovered book bloggers, and that changed everything: not only did the numbers of book bloggers increase, but the way that lots of people now choose what to review at all is selecting from whatever gets sent to them. That gives a very different feel to the whole thing, and it’s what makes me continually aware of the need to thank publicists at the end of a post (so that people know you’ve taken something from them), and to occasionally turn them down, and also to occasionally take them up on a book but then write a negative review. I do sometimes wish I were blogging a decade earlier; the stuff I read from archives dated 2006/7/8 is intellectually fresh in a way that much of the books content I now consume isn’t; so much of it has already been through the Twitter machine and the hype machine and the “brilliant” machine. (If I could ban book people from using one word, it would be “brilliant”. It’s no good to anyone.)

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    2. That would make sense. The cutting-edge bloggers seem to be ones who have good relationships with publicists. But then there are also plenty of bloggers who just go it alone and review their own books, or classics. (I’m no veteran, really; you’ve been blogging for longer than I have!)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. *blush* Also related to this: I’m ever more interested in the distinction between writing a review of a book and writing criticism about it. Reading some long-standing bloggers has made me want to up my game in terms of the quality of the thinking/writing I produce. Reviewing feels like not enough anymore; I want to actually SAY something about a book’s project, or not bother. (The work of Abigail Nussbaum and Victoria Hoyle has been particularly inspirational, both of them on Blogspot as Asking the Wrong Questions and Eve’s Alexandria respectively.)

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      2. I wouldn’t describe my own blog as cutting edge, but as I’ve been doing it a long time, I do have good contacts (even better since Shiny). The world is definitely a different place for blogging now from when I started in 2008 – I’ve haemorrhaged readers in recent times – but I do my own blog more than anything else for me (now!).

        That said, Elle – although we can’t pay, Shiny would love to showcase your writing in longform. I’d love to have more essays and articles/criticism on it.

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      3. I’m glad you chimed in, Annabel. You’re definitely someone I’d consider a blogging veteran. I think rather than cutting-edge I really meant influential (thinking of Naomi at Writes of Woman and Simon Savidge especially). I don’t feel very well connected yet, even after two years, though I do have a few publicists who are kind enough to offer me anything they have going.

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      4. Thanks Rebecca – anything I can do to help! Simon whom I’ve met many times is lovely and so successful – but lately he’s vlogging more than trad blogging. I prefer to read a reasoned/well-written review like Naomi’s rather than watch a vlog, personallly. Although I like a good podcast when I remember to listen to them.

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      5. I don’t watch any vlogs; it’s just not my thing. Simon is also very active on Instagram, where he posts the same mini-reviews (about a few sentences) that he puts on Goodreads. It’s interesting — makes me wonder if traditional reviewing is going by the wayside?

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    3. You need to get into paid reviewing! TLS, LRB, the Guardian, wherever. I’m not saying paid opportunities are easy to find, but I think it’s a more fitting place for the kind of criticism you’re talking about.

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      1. I’d love to get into paid reviewing – though the word limit probably puts a bit of constraint on how deeply it’s possible to dig into a text.

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      2. Elle – you’d be brilliant at paid reviewing. Go for it. Follow all the right people on twitter – all the press editors etc. I met Andrew Holgate of the Times at the last Times/PFD Prize do for bloggers and he was very approachable (and interested in blogging).

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    4. That’s why I was thinking of places like LRB. Also LARB, The Atlantic, New Yorker: places that would allow review essays that go in depth into various books on a theme. I think you’d be great! 😀

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      1. Ha ha! Having connections does help, but I think the quality of your work will speak for itself. Your blogs and Litro essays are excellent clips already. The key is to find the right person’s name and e-mail address, and then to send a confident pitch with a clear thesis plus a paragraph or two about what you mean to cover and achieve with the piece. I am still not an expert at this; I have such little confidence in pitching that I usually stick with the few venues I know and have relationships with, and not since LARB early last year have I had success in contacting a new pub. Are you in Binders on Facebook? If not, I should add you to the main group and a few of the subgroups. It is a terrific place to get good ideas for where and how to pitch ideas, and to get moral support from a huge and incredible group of women writers.

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  5. I like to read about your abandoned books, but I like to read about the ones you liked even more!
    The only one I’ve read is Student of Weather, and I think I felt pretty much the same way as you about it. It was a few years ago now. Why I haven’t read any of her others yet is a mystery, especially because I own a couple of them. But I will get there, eventually…
    Days Without End is firmly on my list. Not sure yet about New Boy. I have to get Hag-Seed read first!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re right. It seems so unrealistic, though. Not all books are 5-star books, and for an author (particularly a self-published one) to expect nothing but positive feedback is going to set them up for disappointment.

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  6. I’ve yet to read a Barry – but this one sounds like more my kind of book than his previous ones. The Hay has been in my piles for ages!

    I wouldn’t worry about ‘that’ FB group! It’s such a mix of authors/self-pub/bloggers and seems to be dominated by crime/romance, but it’s worth keeping in touch with – I’m selective about which blog posts I share with it!

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    1. It never occurred to me when I shared that post how it would be viewed by certain authors on the group. I’d never had much engagement with my posts there in the past. I’ll clearly have to be more careful in future!

      I’d previously read The Secret Scripture, which so many adored, but it hasn’t stuck with me in any way.

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  7. A Student of Weather sounds a very good one that I would look out for. And that’s an odd comment on your other post, which I loved – you were very fair and even-handed in it and gave good reasons for why you gave them up. Keep up the good work, I say!

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    1. I agree, it’s such a neat idea behind that book, and I really enjoyed reading it a bit at a time. My husband does pretty much all the cooking and baking in our household, yet I love reading foodie memoirs and novels. I guess they can be for anyone who loves to eat, not just those who love to cook 🙂

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  8. Elizabeth Hay is wonderful; I usually keep one of hers in reserve so that I always know there is “one more” in case I get desperate for something new from her. I’ve enjoyed them all, each in their own way. Now I actually have two to read, so I’m feeling flush. (If you can find interviews online, I think she expresses herself and her thoughts on the writing process beautifully too.) Will be happy to see which of hers you are able to find next!

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    1. I’m not sure which of her works, if any, are readily available in the UK, but I will certainly have my eyes open in secondhand shops. Late Nights on Air is the one I have most consistently had recommended to me.

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