Category: Nonfiction Reviews

Recent Nonfiction Reads, in 200 Words Each: Black, Fee, Gaw

I’ve let months pass between receiving these books from the kindly publishers and following through with a review, so in an attempt to clear the decks I’m putting up just a short response to each, along with some favorite quotes.

 

All that Remains: A Life in Death by Sue Black

Black, a world-leading forensic anthropologist, was part of the war crimes investigation in Kosovo and the recovery effort in Thailand after the 2004 tsunami. She is frequently called into trials to give evidence, has advised the U.K. government on disaster preparedness, and is a co-author of the textbook Developmental Juvenile Osteology (2000). Whether working in a butcher’s shop as a teenager or exploring a cadaver for an anatomy class at the University of Aberdeen, she’s always been comfortable with death. “I never had any desire to work with the living,” she confesses; “The dead are much more predictable and co-operative.”

The book considers death in its clinical and personal aspects: the seven stages of postmortem alteration and the challenges of identifying the sex and age of remains; versus her own experiences with losing her grandmother, uncle and parents. Black wants her skeleton to go to Dundee University’s teaching collection. It doesn’t creep her out to think of that, no more than it did to meet her future cadaver, a matter-of-fact, curious elderly gentleman named Arthur. My favorite chapter was on Kosovo; elsewhere I found the mixture of science and memoir slightly off, and the voice never fully drew me in.

Favorite line: “Perhaps forensic anthropologists are the sin-eaters of our day, addressing the unpleasant and unimaginable so that others don’t have to.”

My rating:


All that Remains was published by Doubleday on April 19th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

Places I Stopped on the Way Home: A Memoir of Chaos and Grace by Meg Fee

Fee came to New York City to study drama at Julliard. Her short essays, most of them titled after New York locations (plus a few set further afield), are about the uncertainty of her twenties: falling in and out of love, having an eating disorder, and searching for her purpose. She calls herself “a mess of disparate wants, a small universe in bloom.” New York is where she has an awful job she hates, can’t get the man she’s in love with to really notice her, and hops between terrible apartments – including one with bedbugs, the subject of my favorite essay – and yet the City continues to lure her with its endless opportunities.

I think this book could mean a lot to women who are younger than me or have had experiences similar to the author’s. I found the essays slightly repetitive, and rather unkindly wondered what this privileged young woman had to whine about. It’s got the same American, generically spiritual self-help vibe that you get from authors like Brené Brown and Elizabeth Gilbert. Despite her loneliness, Fee retains a romantic view of things, and the way she writes about her crushes and boyfriends never truly connected with me.

Some favorite lines:

“Writing felt like wrangling storm clouds, which is to say, impossible. But so did life. Writing became a way to make peace with that which was flawed.”

“I have let go of the idea of permanency and roots and What Comes Next.”

My rating:


Places I Stopped on the Way Home was published by Icon Books on May 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

The Pull of the River: A journey into the wild and watery heart of Britain by Matt Gaw

A watery travelogue in the same vein as works by Roger Deakin and Alys Fowler, this jolly yet reflective book traces Gaw’s canoe trips down Britain’s rivers. His vessel was “the Pipe,” a red canoe built by his friend James Treadaway, who also served as his companion for many of the jaunts. Starting with his local river, the Waveney in East Anglia, and finishing with Scotland’s Great Glen Way, the quest was a way of (re)discovering his country by sensing the currents of history and escaping to the edge of danger.

Access issues, outdoor toileting, getting stuck on mudflats, and going under in the winter – it wasn’t always a comfortable method of travel. But Gaw’s expressive writing renders even rubbish- and sewage-strewn landscapes beautiful in their own way: “grim bunting made from discarded bags of dog poo,” “a savannah of quivering, moussey mud” and “cormorants hunched together like sinister penguins, some holding ragged wings to the wind in taxidermic poses.”

My favorite chapters were about pollution and invasive species, as seen at the Lark, and about the beaver reintroduction project in Devon (we have friends who live near it). I’m rooting for this to make next year’s Wainwright Prize longlist.

A favorite passage:

“I feel like I’ve shed the rust gathered from being landlocked and lazy. The habits and responsibilities of modern life can be hard to shake off, the white noise difficult to muffle. But the water has returned me to my senses. I’ve been reborn in a baptism of the Waveney [et al.]”

My rating:


The Pull of the River was published by Elliott & Thompson on April 5th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

 

Have you read any stand-out nonfiction recently?

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Two Records of Bodily Transformation: Amateur and Shapeshifters

 

Amateur: A True Story about What Makes a Man, Thomas Page McBee

Thomas Page McBee was the first transgender man to box at Madison Square Garden. In his second memoir, which arose from a Quartz article entitled “Why Men Fight,” he recounts the training leading up to his charity match and ponders whether aggression is a natural male trait. McBee grew up in a small town outside Pittsburgh with a stepfather who sexually abused him from age four. In 2011 he started the testosterone injections that would begin his gender transformation. During the years that followed, other men seemed to pick fights with him fairly often, and he was unsure what to do about it. Finally, in 2015, the Manhattan editor decided to confront the belligerent male stereotype by starting boxing training.

What I most appreciated were the author’s observations of how others have related to him since his transition. He notices that he’s taken more seriously at work as a man, and that he can be an object of fear – when jogging behind a woman at night, for instance. One of the most eye-opening moments of the book is when he realizes that he’s been talking over his own sister. Thankfully, McBee is sensitive enough to stop and change, recognizing that kindness and vulnerability are not faults but attributes any person should be proud of.

I have a feeling I would have preferred his previous memoir, Man Alive, which sounds like it has more about the transition itself. Jonathan Eig’s biography of Muhammad Ali is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and in comparison I didn’t find the boxing writing here very interesting. Likewise, this pales beside two similar but more perceptive books I’ve read that have been hugely influential on my own understanding of gender identity: Conundrum by Jan Morris and The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson.

 My rating:


Amateur was published in the UK by Canongate on August 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

Shapeshifters: On Medicine and Human Change by Gavin Francis

Gavin Francis is a physician with a practice near Edinburgh. His latest book is like a taster course in medical topics. The overarching theme is the modifications the body undergoes, so there are chapters on, for example, body-building, tattoos, puberty, prosthetic limbs, dementia and menopause. Over his years in general practice Francis has gotten to know his patients’ stories and seen them change, for better or worse. These anecdotes of transformation are one source for his book, but he also applies insight from history, mythology, literature, etymology and more. So in a chapter on conception he discusses the Virgin Mary myth, Leonardo da Vinci’s fetal diagrams, the physiological changes pregnant women experience, and the case of a patient, Hannah, who had three difficult, surprise pregnancies in quick succession.

We are all in the process of various transformations, Francis argues, whether by choice or involuntarily. (I decided on the link with McBee because of a chapter on sex changes.) I was less convinced by the author’s inclusion of temporary, reversible changes such as sleep, hallucinations, jet lag and laughter. And while each chapter is finely wrought, I felt some sort of chronological or anatomical order was necessary to give the book more focus. All the same, I suspect this will be a strong contender for next year’s Wellcome Book Prize because of its broad relevance to human health and its compassionate picture of bodies in flux.

My rating:


Shapeshifters was published by the Wellcome Collection/Profile Books on May 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.

#20BooksofSummer Bumper Edition! #9–14: Alden, Colwin, Danticat, Kimmel, Lipman & Steinbach

I fly back to the UK later today after a fairly busy few weeks of packing, unpacking, and more packing as I got my mom settled into her new home and dealt with the substantial amount of stuff I still had in storage with my parents. I’ll post later in the week about book culling versus acquisitions. For now, here’s a quick look at the books by women I’ve been reading in print towards my summer challenge: everything from a memoir of infertility to a perfectly summery novel set at a Vermont lake resort.

 

Crossing the Moon by Paulette Bates Alden (1998)

I first read this nearly four years ago (you can find my initial review in an early blog post that rounds up three of Alden’s works), and was moved to reread it this summer as a follow-up to Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. The book focuses on Alden’s uncertainty about having children all the way up to her late thirties, when she underwent three years of somewhat desperate, and ultimately unsuccessful, infertility treatment. “From the very start, I had seen writing and motherhood as mutually exclusive,” she writes, an attitude very similar to Heti’s. Yet she feared missing out on the meaning and love a child could bring to her life.

More broadly, the memoir is about the search to integrate the different aspects of a life – including family history and the fateful decisions that seem to have been made for you – into a realistic vision of the future. I didn’t find the book quite as profound this time around, but I noticed that I marked many of the same passages I did four years ago, about the dearth of childless role models and the struggle to accept the life that has become yours, even if it’s not what you predicted for yourself. That proves how influential and comforting it’s been for me.

Favorite lines:

“About the closest I can come to imagining what it would be like to have a child is with our cat, Cecil. For Cecil I feel the most delicious love, but also the most anxious responsibility.”

“It came to me that it really was a choice between two good things—having a child and not having a child. Our life without a child seemed good to me. I caught a glimpse that it was what was right for us, for the best. But who can say what is ‘best’? Maybe it’s possible to get to a place where what is best is simply what is.”

My rating:

 

Passion and Affect by Laurie Colwin (1974)

I mostly know Colwin as a food writer, but she also published fiction. This subtle story collection turns on quiet, mostly domestic dramas: people falling in and out of love, stepping out on their spouses and trying to protect their families. I didn’t particularly engage with the central two stories about cousins Vincent and Guido (characters from her novel Happy All the Time, which I abandoned a few years back), but the rest more than made up for them.

Several stories reveal the hidden depths of a character who’s only been a bit player in a protagonist’s life: a family friend who suddenly commits suicide, a Hispanic cook who has a rich boyfriend, a widowed piano teacher whose young student’s accomplishments buoy him up, and a supermarket employee whose ordinary life doesn’t live up to the fantasy background her manager, an art history PhD student, dreams up for her. In “The Water Rats” and “Wet,” water symbolizes all that we can’t control and understand, whether that’s our family’s safety or the inner life of a spouse.

Colwin writes funny, sharp descriptions, like “he was greeted by a young man wearing his hair in the manner of John Donne, a three-piece suit, and cowboy boots” and “she windowshopped, staring with rapt depression at rows of mannikins in glossy trousers.”

Favorite lines:

“She was three years married and when she looked at herself in the mirror, she did not see that she had become any more serious, any less young and heedless, or any more willing to get down to what Richard called ‘the things of life.’ He was right when he said that she had not made up her mind about anything.”

“He looked at his dissertation, or the heap that was to become his dissertation, and sighed again. He was of two minds about this Vermeer business, and he was of two minds about this supermarket business. That accounted for four minds in all, and it made life painful for him.”

My rating:

 

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat (1994)

Like her protagonist, Sophie Caco, Danticat was raised by her aunt in Haiti and reunited with her parents in the USA at age 12. As Sophie grows up and falls in love with an older musician, she and her mother are both haunted by sexual trauma that nothing – not motherhood, not a long-awaited return to Haiti – seems to heal. I loved the descriptions of Haiti (“The sun, which was once god to my ancestors, slapped my face as though I had done something wrong. The fragrance of crushed mint leaves and stagnant pee alternated in the breeze” and “The stars fell as though the glue that held them together had come loose”), and the novel gives a powerful picture of a maternal line marred by guilt and an obsession with sexual purity. However, compared to Danticat’s later novel, Claire of the Sea Light, I found the narration a bit flat and the story interrupted – thinking particularly of the gap between ages 12 and 18 for Sophie. (Another Oprah’s Book Club selection.)

Favorite lines:

“She cannot stay out of duty. The things one does, one should do out of love.”

“I knew my hurt and hers were links in a long chain and if she hurt me, it was because she was hurt, too.”

My rating:

 

A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel (2001)

Maybe you grew up in or near a town like Mooreland, Indiana (population 300). Born in 1965 when her brother and sister were 13 and 10, Kimmel was affectionately referred to as an “Afterthought” and nicknamed “Zippy” for her boundless energy. Gawky and stubborn, she pulled every trick in the book to try to get out of going to Quaker meetings three times a week, preferring to go fishing with her father. The short chapters, headed by family or period photos, are sets of thematic childhood anecdotes about particular neighbors, school friends and pets. I especially loved her parents: her mother reading approximately 40,000 science fiction novels while wearing a groove into the couch, and her father’s love of the woods (which he called his “church”) and elaborate preparations for camping trips an hour away.

The tone is light-hearted despite hints of unpleasantness around town: open hostility towards people of color, a lecherous music teacher and a kid who abused animals. The more exaggerated stories are reminiscent of David Sedaris’s work – did she really cut hippies’ hair in exchange for an Irish Setter puppy?! Mostly, the book made me think about my mother’s small-town childhood versus my own suburban one, and how I would try to put all my early experiences together in a funny, nostalgic but honest way. It wouldn’t be easy at all, which makes Kimmel’s a noteworthy achievement.

Favorite lines:

“I figure heaven will be a scratch-and-sniff sort of place … I will ask for the smell of my dad’s truck, which was a combination of basic truck (nearly universal), plus his cologne (Old Spice), unfiltered Lucky Strikes, and when I was very lucky, leaded gasoline.”

“Mom used to say that my dad was a mountain man, which was obviously just a figure of speech, since most of Indiana is flat as a pancake. Her point was that Dad is a wild man, which was certainly true.”

My rating:

 

The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman (1998)

This was a breezy, delightful novel perfect for summer reading. In 1962 Natalie Marx’s family is looking for a vacation destination and sends query letters to various Vermont establishments. Their reply from the Inn at Lake Devine (proprietress: Ingrid Berry) tactfully but firmly states that the inn’s regular guests are Gentiles. In other words, no Jews allowed. The adolescent Natalie is outraged, and when the chance comes for her to infiltrate the Inn as the guest of one of her summer camp roommates, she sees it as a secret act of revenge.

In fact, in the years to come, after she trains as a chef, Natalie will become further entwined in the inn’s life, helping the family recover from a tragedy, falling in love with one of the Berry sons, and unwittingly contributing to a livelihood-threatening accident. Natalie’s voice drew me in right from the start. Lipman’s comedies of manners have been compared to Jane Austen’s, and you can see that likeness in the witty dialogue. I’ll certainly read more by her.

My rating:

 

Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman by Alice Steinbach (2000)

In 1993 Steinbach, then in her fifties, took a sabbatical from her job as a Baltimore Sun journalist to travel for nine months straight in Paris, England and Italy. As a divorcee with two grown sons, she no longer felt shackled to her Maryland home and wanted to see if she could recover a more spontaneous and adventurous version of herself and not be defined exclusively by her career. Her innate curiosity and experience as a reporter helped her to quickly form relationships with other English-speaking tourists, which was an essential for someone traveling alone.

I enjoyed spotting familiar sites I’ve visited, but I don’t think you need to know these countries or even have a particular interest in them to appreciate the book. Whether she’s attending a swanky party or nearly getting mugged, Steinbach is an entertaining and unpretentious tour guide. Her attitude is impressive, too: “I had surprised myself this year by jumping in to reshape my life before life stepped in to reshape it for me.” You might not be willing to give up your normal existence for nine months, but I suspect that this travel memoir might make you consider how you could be more daring in your daily life.

My rating:

20 Books of Summer, #5–8: Anderson, Cusk, Fitch & L’Engle

I’ve been reading a feminist memoir set on Cape Cod, a subtle novel about the inner life and outward experiences of a writer, a soapy literary thriller about a troubled mother and teen daughter, and a slightly melancholy reminiscence of an aged mother succumbing to dementia.

 

A Walk on the Beach: Tales of Wisdom from an Unconventional Woman by Joan Anderson (2004)

This is the third volume in a loose autobiographical trilogy about Anderson’s experiment with taking a break from her marriage and living alone in a Cape Cod cottage to figure out what she really wanted from the rest of her life. Specifically, this book is about the inspirational relationship she formed with Joan Erikson, who moved to the area in her eighties when her husband, the famous psychologist Erik Erikson, was admitted to a care home. Joanie was a thinker and author in her own right, publishing books on life’s stages, especially those of older age. She encouraged Anderson to have the confidence to write her own story, and to take up challenges like a trip to Peru and learning to weave on a loom. Joanie’s aphoristic advice is valuable, but there’s a fair bit of overlap between this book and A Year by the Sea, which I would recommend over this.

My rating:

 

Some of Joan Erikson’s words of wisdom:

“Doing something with your hands, rather than your head, is often the best route to clarity.”

“wisdom comes from life’s experiences well digested. Stop relying so much on your mind and get in touch with experience.”

“The struggle is to try and obtain a sense of participation in your life the whole way through. We must treasure old age, but not wallow in nostalgia.”

 

Transit by Rachel Cusk (2016)

I finally made it through a Rachel Cusk book! (This was my third attempt; I made it just a few pages into Aftermath and 60 pages through Outline.) I suspected this would make a good plane read, and thankfully I was right. Each chapter is a perfectly formed short story, a snapshot of one aspect of Faye’s life and the relationships that have shaped her: a former lover she bumps into in London, a builder who tells her the flat she’s bought is a lost cause, the awful downstairs neighbors who hate her with a passion, the fellow writers (based on Edmund White and Karl Ove Knausgaard?) at a literary festival event who hog most of the time, the jolly Eastern European construction workers who undertake her renovations, a childless friend who works in fashion design, and a country cousin who’s struggling with his new blended family.

Like in Outline, the novel is based largely on the conversations Faye overhears or participates in (“I had found out more, I said, by listening than I had ever thought possible”), but I sensed more of her personality this time, and could relate to her questioning: Why do her neighbors hate her so? How much of her life is fated, and how much has she chosen? I doubt I’ll read another book by Cusk, but I ended up surprisingly grateful to have gotten hold of this one as a free proof copy of the new paperback edition from the Faber Spring Party.

My rating:

 

Some favorite lines:

“we examine least what has formed us the most, and instead find ourselves driven blindly to re-enact it.”

“Without children or partner, without meaningful family or a home, a day can last an eternity: a life without those things is a life without a story, a life in which there is nothing – no narrative flights, no plot developments, no immersive human dramas – to alleviate the cruelly meticulous passing of time.”

 

White Oleander by Janet Fitch (1999)

Man, that Oprah knows how to pick ’em! This was a terrific read; I’m not sure why I’d never gotten to it before. I read huge chunks during my travel to the States and then slowed down quite a bit, which was a shame because it meant I felt less connected to Astrid’s later struggles in the foster care system. It’s an atmospheric novel full of oppressive Los Angeles heat and a classic noir flavor that shades into gritty realism as it goes on, taking us from when Astrid is 12 to when she’s a young woman out in the world on her own.

Astrid’s mother Ingrid, an elitist poet, becomes obsessed with a lover who spurned her and goes to jail for his murder. Bouncing between foster homes and children’s institutions, Astrid is plunged into a world of sex, drugs, violence and short-lived piety. “Like a limpet I attached to anything, anyone who showed me the least attention,” she writes. Her role models change over the years, but always in the background is the icy influence of her mother, through letters and visits.

Fitch’s writing is sumptuous, as in a house “the color of a tropical lagoon on a postcard thirty years out of date, a Gauguin syphilitic nightmare.” I might have liked a tiny bit more of Ingrid in the book, but I can still recommend this one wholeheartedly as summer reading.

My rating:

 

Some favorite lines:

The knock-out opening two lines: “The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blossoms, their dagger green leaves.”

“I couldn’t imagine my mother in prison. She didn’t smoke or chew on toothpicks. She didn’t say ‘bitch’ or ‘fuck.’ She spoke four languages, quoted T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas, drank Lapsang souchong out of a porcelain cup. She had never been inside a McDonald’s. She had lived in Paris and Amsterdam. Freiburg and Martinique. How could she be in prison?”

 

The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle (1974)

L’Engle is better known for children’s books, but wrote tons for adults, too. In this second volume of The Crosswicks Journal, she recounts her family history as a way of remembering on behalf of her mother, who at age 90 was slipping into dementia in her final summer. “I talked awhile, earlier this summer, about wanting my mother to have a dignified death. But there is nothing dignified about incontinence and senility.” L’Engle found herself in the unwanted position of being like her mother’s mother, and had to accept that she had no control over the situation. “This summer is practice in dying for me as well as for my mother.”

One of the reasons L’Engle was driven to write science fiction was because she couldn’t reconcile the idea of permanent human extinction with her Christian faith, but nor could she honestly affirm every word of the Creed. Hers is a more broad-minded, mystical spirituality that really appeals to me. (Her early life reminds me of May Sarton’s, as recounted in I Knew a Phoenix: both were born right around World War I, raised partially in Europe and sent to boarding school; a frequent theme in their nonfiction is the regenerative power of solitude and of the writing process itself.)

My rating:

 

Some favorite lines:

“I said [in a lecture] that the artist’s response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, not to impose restrictive rules but to rejoice in pattern and meaning, for there is something in all artists which rejects coincidence and accident. And I went on to say that we must meet the precariousness of the universe without self-pity, and with dignity and courage.”

“Our lives are given a certain dignity by their very evanescence. If there were never to be an end to my quiet moments at the brook, if I could sit on the rock forever, I would not treasure these minutes so much. If our associations with the people we love were to have no termination, we would not value them as much as we do.”

Calypso by David Sedaris

“Why Aren’t You Laughing?” is one of the essay titles in Calypso, David Sedaris’s tenth book; it’s an ironically appropriate question you might ask of the whole book. It’s not that this isn’t funny – it is, very much so, in places – but that there’s a melancholy aura I hadn’t sensed in his work before. “Now We Are Five,” the second piece, sets the tone, explaining that Tiffany, Sedaris’s youngest sister, committed suicide in 2013, aged 49. He hadn’t spoken to her for the eight years prior to that. The siblings learn that she did it with pills plus a plastic bag over her head. These facts are just thrown out there for us: there’s no getting around how horrific it all was, but Sedaris doesn’t do much obvious hand-wringing or soul-searching.

Tiffany’s suicide is an occasional point of reference in these 21 short essays, as is their mother’s alcoholism and death from cancer. The remaining middle-aged family members – and their 90-something dad – make an effort to stay close, chiefly through meet-ups at the beach cottage Sedaris and his partner, Hugh Hamrick, buy in Emerald Isle, North Carolina. They name the place Sea Section, and it’s the setting for about a third of the book. Two-thirds of these essays were published previously, which entails some repetition, especially in the setup of each piece. I wondered if an adjustment to the sequencing and some editing out of repeated details could have made the Emerald Isle material flow together a bit better.

Sedaris’s trouble communicating with his father, a thrift-conscious hoarder, is one major theme of the book. “We’re like a pair of bad trapeze artists, reaching for each other’s hands and missing every time,” he writes. Their relationship mostly consists of trying to avoid talk of politics lest his father spout pro-Trump propaganda, and his father nagging him about his health. Despite advancing age, Sedaris’s medical crises are trivial and turned to humorous effect: broken ribs from falling off a ladder, an awful stomach virus that provides scatological background to a reading tour, and a fatty tumor he decides to freeze and feed to the snapping turtles the next time he’s on Emerald Isle.* O-kaaaay.

There are echoes of Me Talk Pretty One Day and When You Are Engulfed in Flames in the delight in languages and travel. “Your English Is So Good” skewers the annoyances of small talk and jargon, especially as used by waitstaff and shop assistants. Another essay is about what people in various countries shout when they get cut off in traffic – unsurprisingly, this one is rather foul-mouthed. Sedaris gets addicted to clothes shopping in Tokyo and obsesses over achieving his daily Fitbit steps goal while litter picking near his home in West Sussex. Some of my favorite essays were “A Modest Proposal,” reflecting on the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage; “Untamed,” about feeding a local fox; and “Boo-Hooey,” in which he scoffs at ghost stories yet wonders if his dead mother visits him in dreams.

This collection doesn’t quite live up to the two I’ve already mentioned, and there were moments when I was put off by the author’s unthinking adherence to a luxurious lifestyle, but this is a solid book you wouldn’t have to be an existing fan to enjoy.

Favorite lines:

“The battle for gay marriage was, in essence, the fight to be as square as straight people, to say things like ‘My husband tells me that the new Spicy Chipotle Burger they’ve got at Bennigan’s is awesome!’”

“We’re not pessimists, exactly, but in late middle age, when you envision your life ten years down the line, you’re more likely to see a bedpan than a Tony Award.”

My rating:

 

*The topic of the title essay. He’s affronted when he learns that the local kids know about ‘his’ snapping turtle and even have a name for it – he likens this to finding out that your cat is being secretly fed by the neighbors, who call it “Calypso.” It’s an obscure reference, definitely; then again, this is the same man who titled books Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. The cover design even has some slight relevance within the book: “Calypso” mentions an old friend he meets up with on an American book tour, Janet, and her woodgrain art.

 

Calypso comes out today, July 5th, in the UK from Little, Brown. It was released in the USA on May 29th. My thanks to the publisher for sending a free copy for review.

20 Books of Summer #4 + Substitutes & Plane Reading

You’ll have to excuse me posting twice in one day. I’ve just finished packing the last few things for my three weeks in America, and want to get my latest #20BooksofSummer review out there before I fly early tomorrow. What with a layover in Toronto, it will be a very long day of travel, so I think the volume of reading material I’m taking is justified! (See the last photo of the post.)

 

Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly by Sue Halpern (2001)

I admire nonfiction books that successfully combine lots of genres into a dynamic narrative. This one incorporates travel, science, memoir, history, and even politics. Halpern spent a year tracking monarch butterflies on their biannual continent-wide migrations, which were still not well understood at that point. She rides through Texas into Mexico with Bill Calvert, field researcher extraordinaire; goes gliding with David Gibo, a university biologist, in fields near Toronto; and hears from scientists and laymen alike about the monarchs’ habits and outlook. It happened to be a worryingly poor year for the butterflies, yet citizen science initiatives provided valuable information that could be used to predict their future.

The book is especially insightful about clashes between environmentalist initiatives and local livelihoods in Mexico (tree huggers versus subsistence loggers) and the joy of doing practical science with simple tools you make yourself. It’s also about how focused attention becomes passion. “Science, like belief, starts with wonder, and wonder starts with a question,” Halpern writes.

The style is engaging, though at nearly 20 years old the book feels a bit dated, and I might have liked more personal reflections than interviews with (middle-aged, white, male) scientists. I only realized on the very last page, through the acknowledgments, that the author is married to Bill McKibben, a respected environment writer. [She frequently mentions Fred Urquhart, a Toronto zoology professor; I wondered if he could be related to Jane Urquhart, a Canadian novelist whose novel Sanctuary Line features monarchs. (Turns out: no relation. Oh well!)]

Readalikes: Farther Away by Jonathan Franzen & Ruins by Peter Kuper

My rating:

 

I’ve already done some substituting on my 20 Books of Summer. I decided against reading Vendela Vida’s Girls on the Verge after perusing the table of contents and the first few pages and gauging reader opinions on Goodreads. I have a couple of review books, Twister  by Genanne Walsh and The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr, that I’m enjoying but will have to leave behind while I’m in the States, so I may need that little extra push to finish them once I get back. I’ve also been rereading a favorite, Paulette Bates Alden’s memoir Crossing the Moon, which has proved an excellent follow-up to Sheila Heti’s Motherhood.

(What I haven’t determined yet is which books these will be standing in for.) Waiting in the wings in case further substitutions are needed is this stack of review books:

Also from the #20Books list and coming with me on the flight are Madeleine L’Engle’s The Summer of the Great-Grandmother and Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, which are both terrific thus far. The final print book joining me for the journey is Transit by Rachel Cusk. I have attempted to read her twice before and failed to get through a whole book, so we’ll see if it’s third time lucky. It seems like the perfect book to read in transit to Canada, after all.

Finally, in progress on the Kindle are Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the last in his set of four seasonal essay collections, and The Late Bloomers’ Club by Louise Miller, another cozy novel set in fictional Guthrie, Vermont, which she introduced in her previous book, The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living.

It’ll be a busy few weeks helping my parents pack up their house and moving my mom into her new place, plus doing a reduced freelance work load for the final two weeks. It’s also going to be a strange time because I have to say goodbye to a house that’s been a part of my life for 13 years, and sort through box after box of mementoes before putting everything into medium-term storage.

I won’t be online all that much, and can’t promise to keep up with everyone else’s blogs, but I’ll try to pop in with a few reviews.

Happy July reading!

The Best Books from the First Half of 2018

Here’s a quick look back at a baker’s dozen of 2018 releases that have stood out most for me so far. I’ve linked to books that I’ve already reviewed in full on the blog or elsewhere.

Fiction:

The Only Story by Julian Barnes: A familiar story: a May–December romance fizzles out. A sad story: an idealistic young man who swears he’ll never be old and boring has to face that this romance isn’t all he wanted it to be. A love story nonetheless. Paul met 48-year-old Susan, a married mother of two, at the local tennis club when he was 19. The narrative is partly the older Paul’s way of salvaging what happy memories he can, but also partly an extended self-defense. Barnes takes what could have been a dreary and repetitive story line and makes it an exquisitely plangent progression: first-person into second-person into third-person. The picture of romantic youth shading into cynical but still hopeful middle age really resonates, as do the themes of unconventionality, memory, addiction and pity.

 

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin: Summer 1969: four young siblings escape a sweltering New York City morning by visiting a fortune teller who can tell you the day you’ll die. In the decades that follow, they have to decide what to do with this advance knowledge: will it spur them to live courageous lives, or drive them to desperation? This compelling family story lives up to the hype. Imagine the fun Benjamin had researching four distinct worlds: Daniel, a military doctor, examines Iraq War recruits; Klara becomes a magician in Las Vegas; Varya researches aging via primate studies; and Simon is a dancer in San Francisco. The settings, time periods, and career paths are so diverse that you get four novels’ worth of interesting background.

 

Florida by Lauren Groff: Two major, connected threads in this superb story collection are ambivalence about Florida, and ambivalence about motherhood. There’s an oppressive atmosphere throughout, with environmental catastrophe an underlying threat. Set-ups vary in scope from almost the whole span of a life to one scene. A dearth of named characters emphasizes just how universal the scenarios and emotions are. Groff’s style is like a cross between Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and her unexpected turns of phrase jump off the page. A favorite was “Above and Below,” in which a woman slips into homelessness. Florida feels innovative and terrifyingly relevant. Any one of its stories is a bracing read; together they form a masterpiece.

 

Motherhood by Sheila Heti: Should one have children? Should I have children? No matter who’s asking the questions or in what context, you’re going to get the whole gamut of replies. Heti’s unnamed heroine consults a fortune teller and psychics, tosses coins and interprets her dreams as The Decision looms. Chance, inheritance, and choice vie for pride of place in this relentless, audacious inquiry into the purpose of a woman’s life. I marked out dozens of quotes that could have been downloaded directly from my head or copied from my e-mails and journal pages. The book encapsulates nearly every thought that has gone through my mind over the last decade as I’ve faced the intractable question of whether to have children. Heti has captured brilliantly what it’s like to be in this situation in this moment in time.

 

Orchid & the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes: The action spans about nine years: a politically turbulent decade that opens with the Iraq War protests and closes with the Occupy movement in New York City. Gael Foess, our lovable antiheroine, is a trickster. She’s learned well her banker father’s lesson that money and skills don’t get distributed fairly in this life, so she’s going to do what she can to ensure that her loved ones succeed. Art, music, religion and health are major interlocking themes. The author is wonderfully adept at voices, and the book’s frenetic pace is well matched by the virtuosic use of language – wordplay, neologisms, and metaphors drawn from the arts and nature. Hughes is an exciting writer who has rightfully attracted a lot of buzz for her debut.

 

The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman: Charles “Pinch” Bavinsky is just an Italian teacher, though as a boy in Rome in the 1950s–60s he believed he would follow in the footsteps of his sculptor mother and his moderately famous father, Bear Bavinsky, who paints close-ups of body parts. We follow Pinch through the rest of his life, a sad one of estrangement, loss and misunderstandings – but ultimately there’s a sly triumph in store for the boy who was told that he’d never make it as an artist. Rachman jets between lots of different places – Rome, New York City, Toronto, rural France, London – and ropes in quirky characters in the search for an identity and a place to belong. This is a rewarding story about the desperation to please, or perhaps exceed, one’s parents, and the legacy of artists in a fickle market.

 

The ‘bests’ that I happen to own in print.

Nonfiction:

The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú: Francisco Cantú was a U.S. Border Patrol agent for four years in Arizona and Texas. Impressionistic rather than journalistic, his book is a loosely thematic scrapbook. He inserts snippets of U.S.–Mexico history, including the establishment of the border, and quotes from other primary and secondary texts. He also adds in fragments of his family’s history: His ancestors left Mexico during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, but there’s no doubt his Latino name and features made him a friendly face for illegal immigrants. The final third of the book makes things personal when his friend is detained in Mexico. Giving faces to an abstract struggle, this work passionately argues that people should not be divided by walls but united in common humanity.

 

The Unmapped Mind by Christian Donlan: Some of the best medical writing from a layman’s perspective I’ve ever read. Donlan, a Brighton-area video games journalist, was diagnosed with (relapsing, remitting) multiple sclerosis in 2014. “I think sometimes that early MS is a sort of tasting menu of neurological disease,” Donlan wryly offers. He approaches his disease with good humor and curiosity, using metaphors of maps to depict himself as an explorer into uncharted territory. The accounts of going in for an MRI and a round of chemotherapy are excellent. Short interludes also give snippets from the history of MS and the science of neurology in general. What’s especially nice is how he sets up parallels with his daughter’s early years. My frontrunner for next year’s Wellcome Book Prize so far.

 

Free Woman by Lara Feigel: Doris Lessing lived by ideals of free love and Communism, but it came at the price of abandoning her children. Lara Feigel could identify with Lessing in some ways, and as she entered a rocky time in her mid-thirties – a miscarriage followed by IVF, which was a strain on her marriage; the death of a close friend; ongoing worry over how motherhood might affect her academic career – she set out to find what Lessing could teach her about how to be free. A familiarity with the works of Doris Lessing is not a prerequisite to enjoying this richly satisfying hybrid of biography, literary criticism and memoir. The Golden Notebook is about the ways in which women compartmentalize their lives and the struggle to bring various strands into harmony; that’s what Free Woman is all about as well.

 

Implosion by Elizabeth W. Garber: The author grew up in a glass house designed by her father, Modernist architect Woodie Garber, outside Cincinnati in the 1960s to 70s. This and Woodie’s other most notable design, Sander Hall, a controversial tower-style dorm at the University of Cincinnati that was later destroyed in a controlled explosion, serve as powerful metaphors for her dysfunctional family life. Woodie is such a fascinating, flawed figure. Garber endured sexual and psychological abuse yet likens him to Odysseus, the tragic hero of his own life. She connected with him over Le Corbusier’s designs, but it was impossible for a man born in the 1910s to understand his daughter’s generation. This definitely is not a boring tome just for architecture buffs. It’s a masterful memoir for everyone.

 

Skybound by Rebecca Loncraine: Each year seems to bring one exquisite posthumous memoir about facing death with dignity. For Rebecca Loncraine, after treatment for breast cancer in her early thirties, taking flying lessons in an unpowered glider was her way of rediscovering joy and experiencing freedom by facing her fears in the sky. She discovered a particular love for flying alongside birds: red kites in Wales, and vultures in Nepal. The most remarkable passages of the book are the exhilarating descriptions of being thousands of feet up in the air and the reflections on why humans are drawn to flight and what it does for our bodies and spirits. Loncraine had virtually finished this manuscript when her cancer returned; she underwent another 14 grueling months of treatment before her death in September 2016.

 

Bookworm by Lucy Mangan: Mangan takes us along on a nostalgic chronological tour through the books she loved most as a child and adolescent. No matter how much or how little of your early reading overlaps with hers, you’ll appreciate her picture of the intensity of children’s relationship with books – they can completely shut out the world and devour their favorite stories over and over, almost living inside them, they love and believe in them so much – and her tongue-in-cheek responses to them upon rereading them decades later. There are so many witty lines that it doesn’t really matter whether you give a fig about the particular titles she discusses or not. A delightful paean to the joys of being a lifelong reader; recommended to bibliophiles and parents trying to make bookworms out of their children.

 

Educated by Tara Westover: This is one of the most powerful and well-written memoirs I’ve ever read. It tells of a young woman’s off-grid upbringing in Idaho and the hard work that took her from almost complete ignorance to a Cambridge PhD. Westover’s is an incredible story about testing the limits of perseverance and sanity. Her father may have been a survivalist, but her psychic survival is the most impressive outcome here. What takes this astonishing life story to the next level, making it a classic to sit alongside memoirs by Alexandra Fuller, Mary Karr and Jeannette Walls, is the writing. Westover writes with calm authority, channeling the style of the scriptures and history books that were formative in her upbringing and education.

 


What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?

What 2018 releases do I need to catch up on right away?