Catching Up: Mini Reviews of Some Notable Reads from Last Year

I do all my composition on an ancient PC (unconnected to the Internet) in a corner of our lounge. On top of the CPU sit piles of books waiting to be reviewed. Some have been residing there for an embarrassingly long time since I finished reading them; others were only recently added to the stack but had previously languished on my set-aside shelf. I think the ‘oldest’ of the set below is the Olson, which I started reading in November 2019. In every case, the book earned a spot on the pile because I felt it was worth a review, but I’ll stick to a brief paragraph on why each was memorable. Bonus: I get my Post-its back, and can reshelve the books so they get packed sensibly for our upcoming move.

Fiction

How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti (2012): My second from Heti, after Motherhood; both landed with me because they nail aspects of my state of mind. Heti writes autofiction about writers dithering about their purpose in life. Here Sheila is working in a hair salon while trying to finish her play – some absurdist dialogue is set out in script form – and hanging out with artists like her best friend Margaux. The sex scenes are gratuitous and kinda gross. In general, I alternated between sniggering (especially at the ugly painting competition) and feeling seen: Sheila expects fate to decide things for her; God forbid she should ever have to make an actual choice. Heti is self-deprecating about an admittedly self-indulgent approach, and so funny on topics like mansplaining. This was longlisted for the Women’s Prize in 2013. (Little Free Library)

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1990): The first volume of The Cazalet Chronicles, read for a book club meeting last January. I could hardly believe the publication date; it’s such a detailed, convincing picture of daily life in 1937–8 for a large, wealthy family in London and Sussex that it seems it must have been written in the 1940s. The retrospective angle, however, allows for subtle commentary on how limited women’s lives were, locked in by marriage and pregnancies. Sexual abuse is also calmly reported. One character is a lesbian, but everyone believes her partner is just a friend. The cousins’ childhood japes are especially enjoyable. And, of course, war is approaching. It’s all very Downton Abbey. I launched straight into the second book afterwards, but stalled 60 pages in. I’ll aim to get back into the series later this year. (Free mall bookshop)

Nonfiction

Keeper: Living with Nancy—A journey into Alzheimer’s by Andrea Gillies (2009): The inaugural Wellcome Book Prize winner. The Prize expanded in focus over a decade; I don’t think a straightforward family memoir like this would have won later on. Gillies’ family relocated to remote northern Scotland and her elderly mother- and father-in-law, Nancy and Morris, moved in. Morris was passive, with limited mobility; Nancy was confused and cantankerous, often treating Gillies like a servant. (“There’s emptiness behind her eyes, something missing that used to be there. It’s sinister.”) She’d try to keep her cool but often got frustrated and contradicted her mother-in-law’s delusions. Gillies relays facts about Alzheimer’s that I knew from In Pursuit of Memory. What has remained with me is a sense of just how gruelling the caring life is. Gillies could barely get any writing done because if she turned her back Nancy might start walking to town, or – the single most horrific incident that has stuck in my mind – place faeces on the bookshelf. (Secondhand purchase)

Reflections from the North Country by Sigurd F. Olson (1976): Olson was a well-known environmental writer in his time, also serving as president of the National Parks Association. Somehow I hadn’t heard of him before my husband picked this out at random. Part of a Minnesota Heritage Book series, this collection of passionate, philosophically oriented essays about the state of nature places him in the vein of Aldo Leopold – before-their-time conservationists. He ponders solitude, wilderness and human nature, asking what is primal in us and what is due to unfortunate later developments. His counsel includes simplicity and wonder rather than exploitation and waste. The chief worry that comes across is that people are now so cut off from nature they can’t see what they’re missing – and destroying. It can be depressing to read such profound 1970s works; had we heeded environmental prophets like Olson, we could have changed course before it was too late. (Free from The Book Thing of Baltimore)

Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman by Alice Steinbach (2004): I’d loved her earlier travel book Without Reservations. Here she sets off on a journey of discovery and lifelong learning. I included the first essay, about enrolling in cooking lessons in Paris, in my foodie 20 Books of Summer 2020. In other chapters she takes dance lessons in Kyoto, appreciates art in Florence and Havana, walks in Jane Austen’s footsteps in Winchester and environs, studies garden design in Provence, takes a creative writing workshop in Prague, and trains Border collies in Scotland. It’s clear she loves meeting new people and chatting – great qualities in a journalist. By this time she had quit her job with the Baltimore Sun so was free to explore and make her life what she wanted. She thinks back to childhood memories of her Scottish grandmother, and imagines how she’d describe her adventures to her gentleman friend, Naohiro. She recreates everything in a way that makes this as fluent as any novel, such that I’d even dare recommend it to fiction-only readers. (Free mall bookshop)

Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey by Adam Weymouth (2018): I didn’t get the chance to read this when it was shortlisted for, and then won, the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, but I received a copy from my wish list for Christmas that year. Alaska is a place that attracts outsiders and nonconformists. During the summer of 2016, Weymouth undertook a voyage by canoe down the nearly 2,000 miles of the Yukon River – the same epic journey made by king/Chinook salmon. He camps alongside the river bank in a tent, often with his partner, Ulli. He also visits a fish farm, meets reality TV stars and native Yup’ik people, and eats plenty of salmon. “I do occasionally consider the ethics of investigating a fish’s decline whilst stuffing my face with it.” Charting the effects of climate change without forcing the issue, he paints a somewhat bleak picture. But his descriptive writing is so lyrical, and his scenes and dialogue so natural, that he kept me eagerly riding along in the canoe with him. (Secondhand copy, gifted)

Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

27 responses

  1. I’ve had Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles on my list for years (I read a couple of non-related novels by Howard & liked them and I’m fond of long reading projects). I’m not exactly a “fiction-only” reader, but I do come close; you’re right about Educating Alice’s appeal to readers like me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you enjoyed Howard’s style I’m sure you’d have good success with the Cazalet Chronicles. I don’t often have staying power with series, but so many people have recommended the whole thing, especially books 2-3, to me.

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  2. Hello Rebecca! I am a new subscriber and just wanted to tell how much I enjoyed reading some of your Book Serendipity posts (among others!) – really fun and will inspired me to keep my eye out for some of my own findings! I am *brand new* to the book blog world and so glad to have come across yours!

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    1. Thank you, Stacia! Welcome to the book blogging world. I appreciate you stopping by and reading my posts. I’ve only been to Maine once (in 2007), but I love reading about it in Elizabeth Strout’s books and recently encountered it in Lily King’s short story collection, too. Welcome to the book blogging world — your site looks so professional! I wish you well with the reviews and bookstore promotion.

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  3. I couldn’t get on with Light Years at all but recently read and enjoyed The Odd Girl Out so may try another standalone EJH.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I found her style very enjoyable. Eventually I’d like to read her memoir as well. Marriage to Kingsley Amis must have been interesting!

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      1. Ha! Not to mention Martin Amis’ stepmother

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  4. It’s ages since I read it but I remember hating How Should A Person Be? ! I liked Motherhood a lot more.

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    1. Ha ha, I think Heti is an acquired taste! It’s a very indulgent book, but I found enough to latch on to.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It feels so satisfying to clear out a pile of read but not reviewed books, doesn’t it? The Elizabeth Howard appeals to me.

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    1. I was pretty darn proud of myself! There are three more in that pile, waiting for particular themed roundups, but it felt like progress. I think you’d love the Cazalet Chronicles.

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  6. I have a substantial pile of books to review alongside my computer too. There are probably going to be some that I never will…

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    1. Yes, I have given up on reviewing some before, or just written a sentence or two about them as a note to self.

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      1. I find poetry difficult, probably because it feels like a school exercise.

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      2. I can understand that. Ruth Padel has a couple of good books about how to read and respond to poetry. But maybe you’d just want to read and absorb it rather than try to analyze it.

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  7. I loved Without Reservations too – what a fabulous idea she had to mail postcards to herself while she was travelling. I now have “Adventures” awaiting me but I’m reluctant to open it because when it’s finished I don’t think there is anything else by her to read.

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    1. It only occurred to me the other day to look her up, and I was sad to see that she died in 2012. Were she still alive, I would have sent her a fan letter. Goodreads lists a third book of hers, The Miss Dennis School of Writing: And Other Lessons from a Woman’s Life (1996), a collection of essays and columns.

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  8. The last three appeal most to me, as expected. Never got on with Howard, although would also be interested in her memoir!

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    1. No? I’d’ve thought you’d like her. I’m reading Dorothy Whipple’s The Priory now for book club and it reminds me of the Cazalet books.

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      1. Yes, I thought that, too, and acquired one or two – the first killed off a cat as a plot device and the second (or the same one) had a weird portrait of an eating disorder (from very patchy memory) and I didn’t like the style somehow. Yet on paper, indeed, I should like her!

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  9. As others have said, I’ve had that Howard novel in mind (and the other three) for ages. I even read her autobiography and quite enjoyed it too (despite not being all that familiar with her fiction). That stack of books you’ve got more to say about? So relatable!

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    1. There’s 5 books in the Cazalet Chronicles. I own the first four, so it’s just a question of when to get back into them. When will I feel like super-long (yet not doorstopper) reads??

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  10. I would love to read Kings of the Yukon. And Educating Alice also sounds like fun!

    I can so relate to that stack of books you have. Sometimes I’m ashamed to think how long it’s been since reading a book and it’s still not reviewed. And it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with how much I liked the book!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s true. Sometimes I put off reviewing the 5* books because I don’t think I’m up to the challenge of describing what makes them so great!

      Liked by 2 people

    2. staciachapmanbookish | Reply

      So thankful to see that others also experience this also… #so many books, never enough time!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. […] loved sinking into The Light Years, the first volume of The Cazalet Chronicles (read for a book club meeting last January), and even […]

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