Category: Fiction Reviews

A President’s Day Reading Special (No Trump in Sight)

Today is President’s Day in the States, which was instituted to jointly celebrate the February birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and is more about feting historical presidents than the current one (thank goodness). I’ve recently read four books that shed light on some American presidents: a brand-new novel, two memoirs, and a zany travel book.

 

White Houses by Amy Bloom (2018)

April 1945: Franklin D. Roosevelt is dead. His widow Eleanor goes to New York City to spend a long weekend with her lover, former White House reporter Lorena Hickok. Lorena, our feisty narrator, recalls her abusive upbringing in South Dakota, her early days as a reporter, and the flirtation that arose when she interviewed Eleanor about her governor husband’s presidential campaign. The open secret of FDR’s affair with his secretary, Missy LeHand, is contrasted with Eleanor and Lorena’s relationship – and with the situation of Eleanor’s cousin Parker Fiske, a closeted homosexual. Lorena’s voice is enjoyable, but I felt I gained no particular insight into Eleanor or Franklin Roosevelt. Bloom aims to reconcile Eleanor’s frumpy image with her passionate secret self, but for me that never fully happened. The most interesting scenes are from Lorena’s time working for a circus freak show on her way to Chicago (presumably completely made up). While Bloom had access to letters that passed between Lorena and Eleanor, she emphasizes that this is a work of fiction.

My rating:

 

[Neat little connection: As First Lady, Hillary Clinton felt a kinship with Eleanor Roosevelt, and visited her portrait in the Oval Office to have imaginary chats and buck up her courage. These are described in a chapter of Living History entitled “Conversations with Eleanor.”]

 

Living History: Memoirs by Hillary Rodham Clinton (2003)

I may be showing my political colors with this choice. However, in my defense, I have also read memoirs by Laura Bush and Sarah Palin, both of which, like this, are rumored to have been ghostwritten. (In her acknowledgments Clinton mentions Lissa Muscatine as “Responsible for many of the words in my speeches as First Lady and in this book”.) The first few chapters, about Clinton’s early years and college days, are rather plodding, but once she meets Bill at Yale Law School in 1971 things pick up, and I found the whole informative and diverting. I hadn’t realized that Clinton was an accomplished lawyer in her own right, focusing on women’s and children’s rights and family law. She was also a researcher on the Nixon impeachment case – an experience that, ironically, came in handy three decades later.

Clinton is honest and self-deprecating about her image issues. She was a whole new breed of First Lady, chairing the committee for Bill’s health care bill and making state visits. Her Beijing speech is still a touchstone for international feminism. Inevitably, a good chunk of the book is devoted to the investigations that plagued the Clinton administration. The eight years of Bill’s presidency are very much the focus; the book ends with them saying a final farewell to the White House. By this point, though, Clinton had been elected a New York senator, so she left for a new mission. I picked up a secondhand copy of Hard Choices the other week and look forward to learning more about her time as a senator and then Secretary of State.

My rating:

 

[Neat little connection: Roland Mesnier and his sweet creations get two mentions in Living History: the giant carrot cake he made for Chelsea’s sixteenth birthday; and the book-shaped cake for her graduation.]

 

All the Presidents’ Pastries: Twenty-Five Years in the White House, A Memoir by Roland Mesnier with Christian Malard [trans. from French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie] (2007)

Roland Mesnier was the White House pastry chef for 25 years. After training in France and Germany, he worked at the Savoy in London and then as head pastry chef at the Princess Hotel, Bermuda – all by age 20. His specialty was intricate sugar sculptures, for which he won international competitions. He also worked in Paris and Virginia before hearing that Rosalynn Carter was looking for a White House pastry chef. Fast-tracked to U.S. citizenship, he made elaborate desserts for presidential family occasions and state dinners. The latter were always based on research into a particular country’s culture, products, taste and traditions. These impressive constructions included molded sorbets, petits fours and marzipan figures, and were often feats of logistics and timing. The memoir is undoubtedly more interesting for what it tells about the First Families (Nancy Reagan was a hard taskmistress; Barbara Bush was his personal #1) than for its author’s life. An appendix includes 15 fairly simple (i.e., replicable at home!) recipes from his 2004 cookbook Dessert University, such as pecan bourbon pie and baked apple soufflé.

(I must also marvel at the journey that this particular book has been on. It is signed by the English translator and inscribed to her mother: “Mum, with all love, Louise – 8 May 2007”. This hardback copy somehow made it all the way to the £1 bargain shelves outside the upper level of the castle in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, where my husband snatched it up last spring.)

My rating:

 

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell (2005)

U.S. history has never been so much fun! There’s nothing Sarah Vowell loves more than a presidential plaque, monument, home or grave, and her enthusiasm is infectious. Over half of this book is about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination; the rest goes to those of James Garfield and William McKinley (attempts on T. Roosevelt and Reagan get a brief mention, but she pretty much avoids JFK – presumably because that would fill a book of its own). If all you remember about these last two assassins is that one was a disgruntled civil servant and the other was an anarchist with a funny name, let Vowell enlighten you with her mixture of travel and trivia. She follows John Wilkes Booth’s escape route from the nation’s capital, traces Charles Guiteau back to upstate New York’s Oneida community, and sympathizes with Leon Czolgosz’s hard early life. The book came out in 2005, and what with Vowell’s outrage over the Dubya administration, it does feel a little dated. But if the rest of her books are this nerdy-cool, I’ll be reading them all.

My rating:

 

What’s on your presidential reading list?

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Review: Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

Salt Creek is one of the very best works of historical fiction I’ve read. All the harder, then, to believe that it’s Lucy Treloar’s debut novel. Since its initial release in Australia in 2015, it has gone on to be shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction and the Miles Franklin Award for Australian novels. We have Claire McAlpine of Word by Word to thank for helping this book find a publisher in the UK. I can particularly recommend it to fans of The Essex Serpent and English Passengers, and there are also resonances with Rebecca Winterer’s Australia-set The Singing Ship.

Hester Finch is looking back from the 1870s – when she is a widowed teacher settled in England – to the eight ill-fated years her family spent at Salt Creek, a small (fictional) outpost in South Australia, in the 1850s–60s. Her luckless father tried whaling in Adelaide before turning to cheese-making as his next far-fetched money-making venture. From Quaker stock, Papa believed the natives should be well treated and even all but adopted an aboriginal boy named Tully, getting him to bathe and wear clothes and educating him alongside his seven children. However, as Hester hints starting early on in the novel, having a white family monopolizing resources put an impossible strain on relations with the natives.

It seems an inevitable irony of reviewing – or maybe it’s just me? – that the books you love the most are the hardest to write about. However can I do this book justice? I wonder about lots of 5-star books. It’s easier to put together a review when you have some mixture of positive and negative things to say, but I have no faults to find with Salt Creek. It flawlessly evokes its time period and somewhat bleak setting. Hester’s narration is as lyrical as it is nostalgic and matter-of-fact, and I sympathized with her desperation not to be drawn into a Victorian housewife’s cycle of endless pregnancies. The characterization is spot on, especially for figures like Papa or Tully who could have easily been reduced to stereotypes.

Most of all, this is the piercing story of a clash of cultures and the secret prejudices that underpin our beliefs. You might think notions of dominion and looking after ‘poor natives’ are outdated, but just listen in to what particular groups have to say about the environment and intervention abroad and you’ll realize that this is as relevant as ever. Salt Creek comes with my highest recommendation.

Some favorite lines:

“Poor Papa. He pitted himself against the land, yet it was impervious to all his learning and effort and incantatory prayers. The land had its own drives and they ran against Papa’s, blunting all his purposes.”

“I would not have a baby or that would be my life. There would be another and another and nothing left of my self; my life being decided for me.”

“Memories are just the survivors of complete events and are not easy to interpret; in the recalling they can be used to create a story that is only partially true or not true at all.”

“It seemed as if every part of the lagoon had a name and a story and a meaning. The stories were all around us wherever we went. There was scarcely a place without one and it felt as if we were nothing but one more story inside this world and the stories were without number.”

“The longer I looked the more that impression of civilization seemed an illusion.”


With thanks to Gallic Books for the free copy for review.

My rating:

Love and Lust: Four Books for Valentine’s Day

Got any romantic plans for the morrow? I’ll be having my first of six evening yoga classes at our local Waitrose (was a more middle-class phrase ever written?!), but I’ve been promised a nice dinner with dessert on my return.

Like last year, I’ve been reading a few books with “love” in the title – plus one featuring “lust” this time – in advance of the day and can report back on what I’ve gleaned. Nothing particularly optimistic about marriage or true love, I’m afraid.

 

Lust in Translation: Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee by Pamela Druckerman (2007)

Druckerman travels from France (where she lives) to the United States, Russia, Japan, South Africa, Indonesia and China, interviewing professionals and anonymous adulterers and pondering what makes people cheat and what difference country of origin makes. Boiling it down, people in poor countries, even in parts of Africa where AIDS is a huge threat, are more likely to have multiple sexual partners than those in wealthy countries. Statistically speaking, there’s also a slight bias towards adultery in warmer countries. However, some factors that you might expect to have a big effect on the adultery rate, like religiosity (e.g. America vs. France), actually hardly do. What does differ is the level of guilt experienced over infidelity and its concomitant offense, lying. In places like France and Japan she discovers more of a don’t-ask-don’t-tell attitude: as long as the straying partner is discreet enough not to be caught, the other turns a blind eye.

Travel-based quest narratives like this usually have a personal element that helps to anchor a book. The other direction Druckerman might have taken would be a straightforward academic study, which her journalistic tone wouldn’t suit. Because this book hovers between genres/levels of discourse, it didn’t quite work for me, but if you think you might find the subject matter interesting it’s at least worth skimming.

A representative line:

“The pursuit of happiness, or true love, is one of the most salient stories that Americans use to justify affairs and overcome their moral qualms about cheating.”

My rating:

 

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan (2007)

Even if you don’t have any particular interest in architect Frank Lloyd Wright, this carefully crafted and lovingly written historical novel is well worth reading. Mamah (“May-muh”) Borthwick Cheney and her husband Edwin hired Wright to design their suburban Chicago home in 1903, and in 1907 she and Wright embarked on an affair. The novel covers roughly the next seven years of their lives, and is particularly illuminating about relationships, the rights of women and the morality code of the time. Through Mamah’s eyes Horan shows just why this affair was irresistible: “Frank Lloyd Wright was a life force. He seemed to fill whatever space he occupied with a pulsing energy that was spiritual, sexual, and intellectual all at once.” But in the eyes of the public, and of their families, it was a selfish choice that left her two children adrift. Beside Mamah, Catherine Wright was held up as a paragon of fidelity, waiting patiently for Frank to come back to her and their seven children.

If you think you are at all likely to read this book, DO NOT GOOGLE Mamah Borthwick Cheney, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s life in these years. I’m now keen to compare this with T.C. Boyle’s The Women, which is about Catherine, Mamah and two other important female figures in Frank Lloyd Wright’s life.

A representative passage:

“Does that mean I have to play this hand to the bitter end, full of regret? Knowing I might have had the happiest life imaginable with the one man I love more than any other I have ever known?”

My rating:

 

I Love Dick by Chris Kraus (1997)

This is one of the stranger novels I’ve ever read. It’s December 1994 and failed filmmaker Chris Kraus, 39, and her husband, 56-year-old professor Sylvère Lotringer, spend a night at the home of Dick, one of his California colleagues, to mark the end of Sylvère’s sabbatical. When they wake up the next morning Dick is gone, but he’s made a huge impression on Chris. She decides she and Dick have had something like D.H. Lawrence’s ‘sex in the head’, and becomes obsessed with him. Chris and Sylvère address reams of letters and journal entries to Dick. Some they send and some they don’t; Dick is a total blank, which allows the couple to build fantasies around him. It’s a chance for Chris to reimagine a life that’s gotten away from her and regain her voice.

I preferred Part 1, which I found quite funny. Kraus lost me a bit in Part 2, with a trip to Guatemala plus random exhibits and performance art. I think the whole thing would have been more effective at novella length. But it’s intriguing how it blends fact and fiction (Dick Hebdige is a real person, and apparently not happy about the invasion of his privacy) and adapts the epistolary form. An afterword by Joan Hawkins notes the similarity to Dangerous Liaisons, in which a couple exchange letters about a seduction plot.

A representative passage:

“Dear Dick,

No woman is an island-ess. We fall in love in hope of anchoring ourselves to someone else, to keep from falling,

Love,

Chris

My rating:

 

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford (1945)

Last year I unwittingly read the 1949 sequel, Love in a Cold Climate, first. I rather enjoyed that one, but somehow wasn’t in the mood for Mitford this time around, and ended up just skimming this one. Once again Fanny traces the love life of one of her posh cousins. This time it’s Linda Radlett, whose two marriages – to a Conservative and a Communist – are doomed to failure. Then she finds her true love, too late. I liked the ball scene, and the image of Uncle Matthew using his bloodhounds to hunt down his children. Mitford mixes the lighthearted and the caustic in an amusing way. The last two pages of this novel turn particularly nasty, though, which made me wonder how people can call this a comfort read.

A representative passage:

“What we would never admit was the possibility of lovers after marriage. We were looking for real love, and that could only come once in a lifetime; it hurried to consecration, and thereafter never wavered. Husbands, we knew, were not always faithful, this we must be prepared for, we must understand and forgive.”

My rating:

 


Have you read anything love-ly lately?

My 2018 Wellcome Book Prize Wish List

Tomorrow the longlist for the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize will be announced. This year’s judging panel is chaired by Edmund de Waal, author of The Hare with Amber Eyes. I hope to once again shadow the shortlist along with a few fellow book bloggers. I don’t feel like I’ve read all that many books that are eligible (i.e., released in the UK in 2017, and on a medical theme), but here are some that I would love to see make the list. I link to all those I’ve already featured here, and give review extracts for the books I haven’t already mentioned.

 

 

  • I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell: O’Farrell captures fragments of her life through essays on life-threatening illnesses and other narrow escapes she’s experienced. The pieces aren’t in chronological order and aren’t intended to be comprehensive. Instead, they crystallize the fear and pain of particular moments in time, and are rendered with the detail you’d expect from her novels. She’s been mugged at machete point, nearly drowned several times, had a risky first labor, and was almost the victim of a serial killer. (My life feels awfully uneventful by comparison!) But the best section of the book is its final quarter: an essay about her childhood encephalitis and its lasting effects, followed by another about her daughter’s extreme allergies. 

 

 

It’s also possible that we could see these make the longlist:

  • History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund: Fridlund’s Minnesota-set debut novel is haunted by a dead child. From the second page readers know four-year-old Paul is dead; a trial is also mentioned early on, but not until halfway does Madeline Furston divulge how her charge died. This becomes a familiar narrative pattern: careful withholding followed by tossed-off revelations that muddy the question of complicity. The novel’s simplicity is deceptive; it’s not merely a slow-building coming-of-age story with Paul’s untimely death at its climax. For after a first part entitled “Science”, there’s still half the book to go – a second section of equal length, somewhat ironically labeled “Health”. (Reviewed for the TLS.) 

 

 

  • Modern Death: How Medicine Changed the End of Life by Haider Warraich: A learned but engaging book that intersperses science, history, medicine and personal stories. The first half is about death as a medical reality, while the second focuses on social aspects of death: religious beliefs, the burden on families and other caregivers, the debate over euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, and the pros and cons of using social media to share one’s journey towards death. (See my full Nudge review.) 

 


Of 2017’s medical titles that I haven’t read, I would have especially liked to have gotten to:

  • Sound: A Story of Hearing Lost and Found by Bella Bathurst
  • This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay
  • With the End in Mind: Dying, Death, and Wisdom in an Age of Denial by Kathryn Mannix [I have this one on my Kindle from NetGalley]
  • Into the Grey Zone: A Neuroscientist Explores the Border between Life and Death by Adrian Owen
  • Patient H69: The Story of My Second Sight by Vanessa Potter

 

We are also likely to see a repeat appearance from the winner of the 2017 Royal Society Science Book Prize, Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society by Cordelia Fine.

 

Other relevant books I read last year that have not (yet?) been released in the UK:

 

  • No Apparent Distress: A Doctor’s Coming-of-Age on the Front Lines of American Medicine by Rachel Pearson: Pearson describes her Texas upbringing and the many different hands-on stages involved in her training: a prison hospital, gynecology, general surgery, rural family medicine, neurology, dermatology. Each comes with memorable stories, but it’s her experience at St. Vincent’s Student-Run Free Clinic on Galveston Island that stands out most. Pearson speaks out boldly about the divide between rich and poor Americans (often mirrored by the racial gap) in terms of what medical care they can get. A clear-eyed insider’s glimpse into American health care. 

 

 

  • The Tincture of Time: A Memoir of (Medical) Uncertainty by Elizabeth L. Silver: At the age of six weeks, Silver’s daughter suffered a massive brain bleed for no reason that doctors could ever determine. Thanks to the brain’s plasticity, especially in infants, the bleed was reabsorbed and Abby has developed normally, although the worry never goes away. Alongside the narrative of Abby’s baffling medical crisis, Silver tells of other health experiences in her family. An interesting exploration of the things we can’t control and how we get beyond notions of guilt and blame to accept that time may be the only healer. 

 

Do you follow the Wellcome Book Prize? Have you read any books that might be eligible?

Five Perfect Winter Reads

When possible I enjoy reading with the seasons. As the holidays approached last year I picked out a pile of wintry reads that would see me through the dark, cold days of January. I’ve had a chance to read five of them so far, and give review extracts below. I may report back later on in the winter about a few books I plan to read with “snow” in the title.

In the Grip of Winter by Colin Dann

In this second book of the Farthing Wood series, the animals endure a harsh winter in their new home, the White Deer Park. When Badger falls down a slope and injures his leg, he’s nursed back to health at the Warden’s cottage, where Ginger Cat tempts him to join in a life of comfort and plenty. Meanwhile, Fox, Tawny Owl and the others are near starvation, and resort to leaving the park and stealing food from farms and rubbish bins. They have to band together and use their cunning to survive. This was a sweet book that reminded me of my childhood love of anthropomorphized animal stories (like Watership Down and the Redwall series). I doubt I’ll read another from the series, but this was a quaint read for the season.

My husband received this book for free from his school for some reason. Even early on his tastes turned towards wildlife. [One annoyance: the author always referred to Badger’s “set” instead of his “sett”; although it appears this may actually be a permissible variant, it wasn’t cool with me!]

Favorite wintry passage:

“‘Every winter is hard for some,’ Badger answered. ‘The weakest among us always suffer the most. The small creatures: the mice, the shrews, the voles and, particularly, the small birds – every winter takes its toll [on] them. But yes – I sense that this winter will be one to reckon with. There’s something in that wind…’”

My rating:

 

This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich

Once a year or so I encounter a book that’s so flawlessly written you could pick out just about any sentence and marvel at its construction. That’s certainly the case here. I never want to go to Greenland; English winters are quite dark and cold enough for me, and I don’t know if I could stomach seal meat at all, let alone for most meals and often raw. But that’s okay: I don’t need to book a flight to Qaanaaq, because through reading this I’ve already been in Greenland in every season, and I thoroughly enjoyed my armchair trek. Impressively, Ehrlich is always describing the same sorts of scenery, and yet every time finds a fresh way to write about ice and sun glare and frigid temperatures. I’ll be looking into her other books for sure.

Favorite wintry passage:

“The ice cap itself was a siren singing me back to Greenland, its walls of blue sapphire and sheer immensity always beguiling. Part jewel, part eye, part lighthouse, part recumbent monolith, the ice is a bright spot on the upper tier of the globe where the world’s purse strings have been pulled tight, nudging the tops of three continents together. Summers, it burns in the sun, and in the dark it hoards moonlight.”

My rating:

Further reading on Greenland: A Wilder Time: Notes from a Geologist at the Edge of the Greenland Ice by William E. Glassley (see my Foreword review) and The Prophets of Eternal Fjord by Kim Leine, an epic novel about an unconventional priest, set in late-eighteenth-century Denmark and Greenland (see my Nudge review). Also Sinéad Morrissey’s multi-part poem “Whitelessness.” You can read the first stanza of it here.

 

The Short Day Dying by Peter Hobbs

This short novel from 2005 deserves to be better known. It reminded me of Days Without End and On the Black Hill, but most of all of Francis Kilvert’s diary, perhaps as voiced by a rustic from Poldark. We journey through 1870 with Charles Wenmoth, a twenty-seven-year-old blacksmith’s apprentice and Methodist lay preacher in Cornwall mining country. Very little happens; the focus is on atmosphere and voice. The major struggle is with his melancholy spirit, which causes him to doubt his salvation. As winter circles round, the days grow shorter just as he senses life growing shorter. The short chapters are like undated diary entries (apparently based on the author’s great-great-grandfather’s); the sentences are almost completely unpunctuated, which at first had me twitching for my pencil to add commas to the run-on sentences, but eventually I gave myself over to the flow.

Favorite wintry passage:

“It is a shame we cannot stay children for ever and remain blind to the slow death of the land. How different it will all be in a few months the bare trees revealed as dark gnarled bodies. Something inside them though lives through the yearly famine and they always find new colour. I trust it is the same for us all.”

My rating:

 

Winter by Karl Ove Knausgaard

This is my favorite of the three Knausgaard books I’ve read so far, and miles better than his Autumn. These short essays successfully evoke the sensations of winter and the conflicting emotions elicited by family life and childhood memories. The series is, loosely speaking, a set of instruction manuals for his unborn daughter, who is born a month premature in the course of this volume. So in the first book he starts with the basics of bodily existence – orifices, bodily fluids and clothing – and now he’s moving on to slightly more advanced but still everyday things she’ll encounter, like coins, stuffed animals, a messy house, toothbrushes, and the moon. I’ll see out this series, and see afterwards if I have the nerve to return to My Struggle.

Favorite wintry passage:

“winter not only muffles some sounds and intensifies others, it also has sounds that are entirely its own, unique to the season, and some of them are among the most beautiful of all. The low boom of ice-covered waters as they freeze, for instance, which can be heard on perfectly clear days or nights when the cold deepens, and which has something menacing or mighty about it, since it isn’t connected to an visible movement”

My rating:

 

Available Light by Marge Piercy

Many poetry volumes get a middling rating from me because some of the poems are memorable but others do nothing for me. This is on the longer side for a collection at 120+ pages, but only a handful of its poems fell flat. The subjects are diverse: travels in Europe (my cover depicts the Avebury stone circle in the gloom), menstruation, identifying as a Jew as well as a feminist, scattering her father’s ashes, the stresses of daily life, and being in love. The title poem, which appears first, has a slightly melancholy tone with its focus on the short days of winter, but the poet defiantly asserts meaning despite the mood: “Even the dead of winter: it seethes with more / than I can ever live to name and speak.” Piercy was a great discovery, and I’ll be trying lots more of her books from various genres.

Favorite wintry passage:

(from “Available light”)

In winter the light is red and short.

The sun hangs its wizened rosehip in the oaks.

By midafternoon night is folding in.

The ground is locked against us like a door.

Yet faces shine so the eyes stretch for them

and tracks in the snow are etched, calligraphy

My rating:

 

(And one book that didn’t quite work for me; I ended up abandoning it at 14%.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden: Some striking turns of phrase, an enchanting wintry atmosphere … but a little Disney-fied for me. I got this free for Kindle so may come back to it at some point.

Favorite wintry passage:

“The years slipped by like leaves. …The clouds lay like wet wool above the trees.”)

 


Have you read any wintry books this year?

2017’s Runners-Up and Other Superlatives

The choices below are in alphabetical order by author, with any previously published reviews linked in (many of these books have already appeared on the blog in some way over the course of the year). You know the drill by now: to keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title. The first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. Across these three best-of posts (see also my Top Nonfiction and Best Fiction posts), I’ve spotlighted roughly the top 15% of my year’s reading.

 

Runners-Up:

 

  • As a God Might Be by Neil Griffiths: The themes and central characters were strong enough to keep me powering through this 600-page novel of ideas about encounters with God and the nature of evil. This turned out to be just my sort of book: big and brazen, a deep well of thought that will only give up its deeper meanings upon discussion and repeat readings.

 

  • Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař: The story of Jakub Procházka, a Czech astronaut who leaves his wife behind to undertake a noble research mission but soon realizes he can never escape his family history or the hazards of his own mind. A terrific blend of the past and the futuristic, Earth and space.

 

  • English Animals by Laura Kaye: A young Slovakian becomes a housekeeper for a volatile English couple and discovers a talent for taxidermy. A fresh take on themes of art, sex, violence and belonging, this is one of the more striking debut novels I’ve encountered in recent years.

 

  • Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong: Reeling from a broken engagement, Ruth Young returns to her childhood home in California for a year to help look after her father, who has Alzheimer’s. This is a delightfully quirky little book, but you may well read it with a lump in your throat, too.

 

  • Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty: In MacLaverty’s quietly beautiful fifth novel, a retired couple faces up to past trauma and present incompatibility during a short vacation in Amsterdam. My overall response was one of admiration for what this couple has survived and sympathy for their current situation – with hope that they’ll make it through this, too. (Reviewed for BookBrowse.)

 

  • Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: An Irish college student navigates friendships and an affair with a married man. This is much more about universals than it is about particulars: realizing you’re stuck with yourself, exploring your sexuality and discovering sex is its own kind of conversation, and deciding whether ‘niceness’ is really the same as morality; a book I was surprised to love, but love it I did.

 

  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: The residents of Georgetown cemetery limbo don’t know they’re dead – or at least won’t accept it. An entertaining and truly original treatment of life’s transience; I know it’s on every other best-of-year list out there, but it really is a must-read.

 

  • The Smell of Fresh Rain by Barney Shaw: Shaw travels through space, time and literature as he asks why we don’t have the vocabulary to talk about the smells we encounter every day. If you’re interested in exploring connections between smell and memory, discovering what makes the human sense of smell unique, and learning some wine-tasting-style tips for describing odors, this is a perfect introduction.

 

  • A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin: Tomalin is best known as a biographer of literary figures including Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Pepys and Charles Dickens, but her memoir is especially revealing about the social and cultural history of the earlier decades her life covers. A dignified but slightly aloof book – well worth reading for anyone interested in spending time in London’s world of letters in the second half of the twentieth century.

 

  • Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: The story of a mixed-race family haunted – both literally and figuratively – by the effects of racism, drug abuse and incarceration in Bois Sauvage, a fictional Mississippi town. Beautiful language; perfect for fans of Toni Morrison and Cynthia Bond.

 

I’ve really struggled with short stories this year, but here are four collections I can wholeheartedly recommend:

  • What It Means when a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Reviewed for Shiny New Books.)
  • Unruly Creatures: Stories by Jennifer Caloyeras
  • Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley
  • The Great Profundo and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty (1987)

 

The Best 2017 Books You Probably Never Heard of (Unless You Heard about Them from Me!):

 

  • The Education of a Coroner by John Bateson: The coroner’s career is eventful no matter what, but Marin County, California has its fair share of special interest, what with Golden Gate Bridge suicides, misdeeds at San Quentin Prison, and various cases involving celebrities (e.g. Harvey Milk, Jerry Garcia and Tupac) in addition to your everyday sordid homicides. Ken Holmes was a death investigator and coroner in Marin County for 36 years; Bateson successfully recreates Holmes’ cases with plenty of (sometimes gory) details.

 

  • Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker: Tasting notes: gleeful, ebullient, learned, self-deprecating; suggested pairings: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler; Top Chef, The Great British Bake Off. A delightful blend of science, memoir and encounters with people who are deadly serious about wine.

 

  • A Paris All Your Own: Bestselling Women Writers on the City of Light, edited by Eleanor Brown: A highly enjoyable set of 18 autobiographical essays that celebrate what’s wonderful about the place but also acknowledge disillusionment; highlights are from Maggie Shipstead, Paula McLain, Therese Anne Fowler, Jennifer Coburn, Julie Powell and Michelle Gable. If you have a special love for Paris, have always wanted to visit, or just enjoy armchair traveling, this collection won’t disappoint you.

 

  • Ashland & Vine by John Burnside: Essentially, it’s about the American story, individual American stories, and how these are constructed out of the chaos and violence of the past – all filtered through a random friendship that forms between a film student and an older woman in the Midwest. This captivated me from the first page.

 

  • Tragic Shores: A Memoir of Dark Travel, Thomas H. Cook: In 28 non-chronological chapters, Cook documents journeys he’s made to places associated with war, massacres, doomed lovers, suicides and other evidence of human suffering. This is by no means your average travel book and it won’t suit those who seek high adventure and/or tropical escapism; instead, it’s a meditative and often melancholy picture of humanity at its best and worst. (Reviewed for Nudge.)

 

  • The Valentine House by Emma Henderson: This is a highly enjoyable family saga set mostly between 1914 and 1976 at an English clan’s summer chalet in the French Alps near Geneva, with events seen from the perspective of a local servant girl. You can really imagine yourself into all the mountain scenes and the book moves quickly –a great one to take on vacation.

 

The year’s runners-up and superlatives that I happen to have around in print.

 

Various Superlatives, Good and Bad:

 

The 2017 Book Everybody Else Loved but I Didn’t: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. (See my Goodreads review for why.)

The Year’s Biggest Disappointments: All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg, Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich, Between Them by Richard Ford and George and Lizzie by Nancy Pearl.

The Worst Book I Read This Year: Books by Charlie Hill (ironic, that). My only one-star review of the year.

The Downright Strangest Book I Read This Year: An English Guide to Birdwatching by Nicholas Royle.

My Best Discoveries of the Year: Beryl Bainbridge, Saul Bellow, Bernard MacLaverty and Haruki Murakami. I’ve read two books by each of these authors this year and look forward to trying more from them.

The Debut Authors Whose Next Work I’m Most Looking Forward to: Lesley Nneka Arimah, Laura Kaye, Carmen Marcus, Julianne Pachico and Sally Rooney.

The Best First Line of the Year: “History has failed us, but no matter.” (Pachinko, Min Jin Lee)

The Best Last Line of the Year: “If she was an instance of the goodness in this world then passing through by her side was miracle enough.” (Midwinter Break, Bernard MacLaverty)

 


Coming tomorrow: Some early recommendations for 2018.

Best Fiction of 2017, Plus Some Other Favorite Reads

Below I’ve chosen my top nine fiction releases from 2017 (seven by women!), followed by the backlist titles I loved the most this year. Many of these books have already featured on my blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, as with my nonfiction selections I’m mostly limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.

 

  1. Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller: This atmospheric novel reminiscent of Iris Murdoch is no happy family story; it’s full of betrayals and sadness, of failures to connect and communicate, yet it’s beautifully written, with all its scenes and dialogue just right. I recently caught up on Fuller’s acclaimed 2015 debut, Our Endless Numbered Days, and collectively I’m so impressed with her work, specifically the elegant way she alternates between time periods to gradually reveal the extent of family secrets and the faultiness of memory.

 

  1. The Lucky Ones by Julianne Pachico: You may remember that our shadow panel chose this as our winner for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award: we were blown away by this linked short story collection set in a drug-fueled Colombia in which violence and its aftermath are never far away. For the originality of the setup and the sheer excellence of the writing, this can’t be topped.

 

  1. The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber: The name Margery Williams Bianco might not seem familiar, but chances are you remember her classic children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit. This is about Margery and her daughter, Pamela Bianco, a painter and child prodigy troubled by mental illness, and the themes of creativity, mental health and motherhood are nestled in a highly visual debut novel full of cameos by everyone from Pablo Picasso to Eugene O’Neill.

 

  1. The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker: The cartooning world and the Kentucky–New York City dichotomy together feel like a brand new setting for a literary tragicomedy. Though it seems lighthearted, there’s a lot of meat to this story of the long friendship between two female animators as Whitaker contrasts the women’s public and private personas and imagines their professional legacy.

 

  1. In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist: While it’s being marketed as a novel, this reads more like a stylized memoir: Similar to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books, it features the author as the central character and narrator, and the story of grief it tells is a highly personal one. Malmquist does an extraordinary job of depicting his protagonist’s bewilderment at the sudden loss of his partner and his new life as a single father.

 

  1. How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza: As much as this is about a summer of enchantment and literal brushes with urban wildlife, it’s also about a woman’s life: loneliness, the patterns we get stuck in, and those unlooked-for experiences that might just liberate us. There’s something gently magical about the way the perspective occasionally shifts to give a fox’s backstory and impressions as a neologism-rich stream.

 

  1. Elmet by Fiona Mozley: The dark horse on this past year’s Man Booker Prize longlist, this is a twisted fable about the clash of the land-owning and serf classes in contemporary England. It’s a gorgeous, timeless tale balanced between lush nature writing and Hardyesque pessimism.

 

  1. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: A multi-layered story about many facets of motherhood: adoption, surrogacy, pregnancy, abortion; estrangement, irritation, longing and pride. Each and every character earns our sympathy here – a real triumph of characterization, housed in a tightly plotted and beautifully written novel you’ll race through.

 

And my fiction book of the year was:

  1. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne: A wonderful seam of humor tempers the awfulness of much of what befalls Cyril Avery – born in Dublin in 1945 – for whom homosexuality seems a terrible curse. It’s an alternately heartbreaking and heartening portrait of a life lived in defiance of intolerance and tragedy.

 

My poetry read of the year was:

All the Spectral Fractures: New and Selected Poems, Mary A. Hood: There is so much substance and variety to this poetry collection spanning the whole of Hood’s career. A professor emerita of microbiology at the University of West Florida and a former poet laureate of Pensacola, Florida, she takes inspiration from the ordinary folk of the state, the world of academic scientists, flora and fauna, and the minutiae of everyday life.

 

The year’s best books that I happen to have around in print.

And here’s a quick run-through of the seven best backlist titles I read this year:

 

  1. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis: Time travel would normally be a turnoff for me, but Willis manages it perfectly in this uproarious blend of science fiction and pitch-perfect Victorian pastiche (boating, séances and sentimentality, oh my!).

 

  1. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: Brings together so many facets of the African and African-American experience; full of clear-eyed observations about the ongoing role race plays in American life.

 

  1. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry: Contains the most matter-of-fact consideration of same-sex relationships I’ve ever encountered in historical fiction. Heart-breaking, life-affirming, laugh-out-loud: those may be clichés, but it’s all these things and more.

 

  1. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami: Mesmerizing and bizarre, but in the best possible way: it questions our comfort in the everyday by contorting familiar elements like dreams do. I’m a definite Murakami convert.

 

  1. The Nix by Nathan Hill: A rich story about family curses and failure, and how to make amends for a life full of mistakes. Hill is a funny and inventive writer.

 

  1. Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss: Simply superb in the way it juxtaposes England and Japan in the 1880s and comments on mental illness, the place of women, and the difficulty of navigating a marriage whether the partners are thousands of miles apart or in the same room.

 

My overall most memorable fiction read of the year, to my great surprise, was:

  1. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler: I’ve been lukewarm on Anne Tyler’s novels before – this is my sixth from her – but this instantly leapt onto my list of absolute favorite books. Its chapters are like perfectly crafted short stories focusing on different members of the Tull family. These vignettes masterfully convey the common joys and tragedies of a fractured family’s life. After Beck Tull leaves with little warning, Pearl must raise Cody, Ezra and Jenny on her own and struggle to keep her anger in check. Cody is a vicious prankster who always has to get the better of good-natured Ezra; Jenny longs for love but keeps making bad choices. Despite their flaws, I adored these characters and yearned for them to sit down, even just the once, to an uninterrupted family dinner of comfort food.

 


What were some of your top fiction reads of the year?

Tomorrow I’ll be naming some runners-up and listing a few other superlatives.