Category: Nonfiction Reviews

11 Days, 11 Books: 2020’s Reads, from Best to Worst

I happen to have finished 11 books so far this year – though a number of them were started in 2019 (one as far back as September) and several of them are novelty books and/or of novella length. Just for kicks, I’ve arranged them from best to worst. Here’s how my reading year has started off…

 

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale – Nonlinear chapters give snapshots of the life of bipolar Cornwall artist Rachel Kelly and her interactions with her husband and four children, all of whom are desperate to earn her love. Quakerism, with its emphasis on silence and the inner light in everyone, sets up a calm and compassionate atmosphere, but also allows for family secrets to proliferate. There are two cameo appearances by an intimidating Dame Barbara Hepworth, and three wonderfully horrible scenes in which Rachel gives a child a birthday outing. The novel questions patterns of inheritance (e.g. of talent and mental illness) and whether happiness is possible in such a mixed-up family. (Our joint highest book club rating ever, with Red Dust Road. We all said we’d read more by Gale.)

 

Be My Guest: Reflections on Food, Community and the Meaning of Generosity by Priya Basil – An extended essay whose overarching theme of hospitality stretches into many different topics. Part of an Indian family that has lived in Kenya and England, Basil is used to a culture of culinary abundance. Greed, especially for food, feels like her natural state, she acknowledges. However, living in Berlin has given her a greater awareness of the suffering of the Other – hundreds of thousands of refugees have entered the EU, often to be met with hostility. Yet the Sikhism she grew up in teaches unconditional kindness to strangers. She asks herself, and readers, how to cultivate the spirit of generosity. Clearly written and thought-provoking. (And typeset in Mrs Eaves, one of my favorite fonts.) See also Susan’s review, which convinced me to order a copy with my Christmas bookstore voucher.

 

Frost by Holly Webb – Part of a winter animals series by a prolific children’s author, this combines historical fiction and fantasy in an utterly charming way. Cassie is a middle child who always feels left out of her big brother’s games, but befriending a fox cub who lives on scrubby ground near her London flat gives her a chance for adventures of her own. One winter night, Frost the fox leads Cassie down the road – and back in time to the Frost Fair of 1683 on the frozen Thames. I rarely read middle-grade fiction, but this was worth making an exception for. It’s probably intended for ages eight to 12, yet I enjoyed it at 36. My library copy smelled like strawberry lip gloss, which was somehow just right.

 

The Envoy from Mirror City by Janet Frame – This is the last and least enjoyable volume of Frame’s autobiography, but as a whole the trilogy is an impressive achievement. Never dwelling on unnecessary details, she conveys the essence of what it is to be (Book 1) a child, (2) a ‘mad’ person, and (3) a writer. After years in mental hospitals for presumed schizophrenia, Frame was awarded a travel fellowship to London and Ibiza. Her seven years away from New Zealand were a prolific period as, with the exception of breaks to go to films and galleries, and one obsessive relationship that nearly led to pregnancy out of wedlock, she did little else besides write. The title is her term for the imagination, which leads us to see Plato’s ideals of what might be.

 

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins – Collins won the first novel category of the Costa Awards for this story of a black maid on trial in 1826 London for the murder of her employers, the Benhams. Margaret Atwood hit the nail on the head in a tweet describing the book as “Wide Sargasso Sea meets Beloved meets Alias Grace” (she’s such a legend she can get away with being self-referential). Back in Jamaica, Frances was a house slave and learned to read and write. This enabled her to assist Langton in recording his observations of Negro anatomy. Amateur medical experimentation and opium addiction were subplots that captivated me more than Frannie’s affair with Marguerite Benham and even the question of her guilt. However, time and place are conveyed convincingly, and the voice is strong.

 

(The next one is a book my husband received for Christmas, as are the Heritage and Pyle, further down, which were from me. Yes, I read them as well. What of it?)

 

Lost in Translation by Charlie Croker – This has had us in tears of laughter. It lists examples of English being misused abroad, e.g. on signs, instructions and product marketing. China and Japan are the worst repeat offenders, but there are hilarious examples from around the world. Croker has divided the book into thematic chapters, so the weird translated phrases and downright gobbledygook are grouped around topics like food, hotels and medical advice. A lot of times you can see why mistakes came about, through the choice of almost-but-not-quite-right synonyms or literal interpretation of a saying, but sometimes the mind boggles. Two favorites: (in an Austrian hotel) “Not to perambulate the corridors in the hours of repose in the boots of ascension” and (on a menu in Macao) “Utmost of chicken fried in bother.”

 

All the Water in the World by Karen Raney – Like The Fault in Our Stars (though not YA), this is about a teen with cancer. Sixteen-year-old Maddy is eager for everything life has to offer, so we see her having her first relationship – with Jack, her co-conspirator on an animation project to be used in an environmental protest – and contacting Antonio, the father she never met. Sections alternate narration between her and her mother, Eve. I loved the suburban D.C. setting and the e-mails between Maddy and Antonio. Maddy’s voice is sweet yet sharp, and, given that the main story is set in 2011, the environmentalism theme seems to anticipate last year’s flowering of youth participation. However, about halfway through there’s a ‘big reveal’ that fell flat for me because I’d guessed it from the beginning.


This was published on the 9th. My thanks to Two Roads for the proof copy for review.

 

Strange Planet by Nathan W. Pyle – I love these simple cartoons about aliens and the sense they manage to make of Earth and its rituals. The humor mostly rests in their clinical synonyms for everyday objects and activities (parenting, exercise, emotions, birthdays, office life, etc.). Pyle definitely had fun with a thesaurus while putting these together. It’s also about gentle mockery of the things we think of as normal: consider them from one remove, and they can be awfully strange. My favorites are still about the cat. You can also see his work on Instagram.

 

Bedtime Stories for Worried Liberals by Stuart Heritage – I bought this for my husband purely for the title, which couldn’t be more apt for him. The stories, a mix of adapted fairy tales and new setups, are mostly up-to-the-minute takes on US and UK politics, along with some digs at contemporary hipster culture and social media obsession. Heritage quite cleverly imitates the manner of speaking of both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. By its nature, though, the book will only work for those who know the context (so I can’t see it succeeding outside the UK) and will have a short shelf life as the situations it mocks will eventually fade into collective memory. So, amusing but not built to last. I particularly liked “The Night Before Brexmas” and its all-too-recognizable picture of intergenerational strife.

 

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite – The Booker Prize longlist and the Women’s Prize shortlist? You must be kidding me! The plot is enjoyable enough: a Nigerian nurse named Korede finds herself complicit in covering up her gorgeous little sister Ayoola’s crimes – her boyfriends just seem to end up dead somehow; what a shame! – but things get complicated when Ayoola starts dating the doctor Korede has a crush on and the comatose patient to whom Korede had been pouring out her troubles wakes up. My issue was mostly with the jejune writing, which falls somewhere between high school literary magazine and television soap (e.g. “My hands are cold, so I rub them on my jeans” & “I have found that the best way to take your mind off something is to binge-watch TV shows”).

 

On Love and Barley – Haiku of Basho [trans. from the Japanese by Lucien Stryk] – These hardly work in translation. Almost every poem requires a contextual note on Japan’s geography, flora and fauna, or traditions; as these were collected at the end but there were no footnote symbols, I didn’t know to look for them, so by the time I read them it was too late. However, here are two that resonated, with messages about Zen Buddhism and depression, respectively: “Skylark on moor – / sweet song / of non-attachment.” (#83) and “Muddy sake, black rice – sick of the cherry / sick of the world.” (#221; reminds me of Samuel Johnson’s “tired of London, tired of life” maxim). My favorite, for personal relevance, was “Now cat’s done / mewing, bedroom’s / touched by moonlight.” (#24)

 

Any of these you have read or would read?

Onwards with the 2020 reading!

Some Early Recommendations for 2020

I haven’t done much dipping into 2020 releases yet, but I do have two that I would highly recommend to pretty much anyone, plus some more that are also worth highlighting.

 

My top recommendations (so far) for 2020:

 

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

[Coming on January 21st from Tinder Press (UK) / Flatiron Books (USA)]

 

You’ve most likely already heard of this novel about the plight of migrants crossing the U.S. border in search of a better life. What’s interesting is that the main characters are not your typical border crossers: Lydia was a middle-class Acapulco bookshop owner whose journalist husband was murdered for his pieces exposing the local drug cartel. She and her eight-year-old son, Luca, know that the cartel is after them, too, and its informers are everywhere. They join Central American migrants in hopping onto La Bestia, a dangerous freight train network running the length of Mexico. Their fellow travelers’ histories reveal the traumatic situations migrants leave and the hazards they face along the way. Cummins alternates between the compelling perspectives of Lydia and Luca, and the suspense is unrelenting. It feels current and crucial. (My full review will be in Issue 491 of Stylist magazine, so if you are in London or another city that hands it out and can pick up a copy, keep an eye out!)

 

The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland

[Coming on March 3rd from Abrams Press (USA)]

 

A terrific follow-up to one of my runners-up from last year, Inheritance by Dani Shapiro. I learned that “non-paternity events” such as Shapiro experienced are not as uncommon as you might think. Copeland spoke to scientists, DNA testing companies, and some 400 ordinary people who sent off saliva samples to get their DNA profile and, in many cases, received results they were never expecting. There are stories of secret second families, of people who didn’t find out they were adopted until midlife, and of babies switched at birth. We’ve come a long way since the days when people interested in family history had to trawl through reams of microfilm and wait months or years to learn anything new; nowadays a DNA test can turn up missing relatives within a matter of days. But there are a lot of troubling aspects to this new industry, including privacy concerns, notions of racial identity, and criminal databases. It’s a timely and thought-provoking book, written with all the verve and suspense of fiction.

 

 

Also of note (in release date order):

 

Half Broke: A Memoir by Ginger Gaffney: Horse trainer Gaffney has volunteered at the Delancey Street Foundation’s New Mexico ranch, an alternative prison for drug offenders, for six years. She chronicles how feral horses and humans can help each other heal. Great for fans of Cheryl Strayed. (February 4, W.W. Norton)

 

Survival Is a Style: Poems by Christian Wiman: Wiman examines Christian faith in the shadow of cancer. This is the third of his books that I’ve read; I’m consistently impressed by how he makes room for doubt, bitterness and irony, yet a flame of faith remains. Really interesting phrasing and vocabulary here. (February 4, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

 

Pain Studies by Lisa Olstein: Another in a growing number of hard-hitting books about female pain. Specifically, Olstein has chronic migraines. In these essays she ranges from ancient philosophy to recent television in her references, and from lists of symptoms to poetic descriptions in her format. A little rambly, but stylish nonetheless. (March 4, Bellevue Literary Press)

 

My Wild Garden: Notes from a Writer’s Eden by Meir Shalev: The Israeli novelist tells of how he took a derelict garden in the Jezreel Valley and made it thrive. He blends botanical knowledge with Jewish folklore. I particularly enjoyed his good-natured feud against his local mole rats. Gentle and charming. (March 31, Shocken)

 

The Alekizou and His Terrible Library Plot! by Nancy Turgeon: The Alekizou can’t read! Jealous of the fun he sees children having at the library, he breaks in and steals all the vowels. Without them, books and speech don’t make sense. Luckily, the children know sign language and use it to create replacement letters. A fun picture book with rhymes reminiscent of Dr. Seuss, this also teaches children vowels and basic signing. (April 6, CrissCross AppleSauce)

With thanks to the publisher for the free PDF copy for review.

 

Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui: A personal history with swimming, but also a wide-ranging study of humans’ relationship with the water – as a source of food, exercise, healing, competition and enjoyment. Tsui meets scientists, coaches, Olympians and record holders, and recounts some hard-to-believe survival tales. (April 14, Algonquin Books)

 

Will you look out for one or more of these?

Any other 2020 reads you can recommend?

My Best Backlist Reads of 2019

Like many book bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the shiny new books released each year. However, I consistently find that many of my most memorable reads were published years or even decades ago.

These selections, in alphabetical order by author name, account for the rest of my 5-star ratings of the year, plus a handful of 4.5 and high 4 ones.

 

Fiction

 

Faces in the Water by Janet Frame: The best inside picture of mental illness I’ve read. Istina Mavet, in and out of New Zealand mental hospitals between ages 20 and 28, undergoes regular shock treatments. Occasional use of unpunctuated, stream-of-consciousness prose is an effective way of conveying the protagonist’s terror. Simply stunning writing.

 

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff: Groff wrote this in homage to Cooperstown, New York, where she grew up. We hear from leading lights in the town’s history and Willie’s family tree through a convincing series of first-person narratives, letters and other documents. A charming way to celebrate where you come from with all its magic and mundanity.

 

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver: What an amazing novel about the ways that right and wrong, truth and pain get muddied together. Some characters are able to acknowledge their mistakes and move on, while others never can. Christianity and colonialism have a lot to answer for. A masterpiece.

 

The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing: Begins with the words “MURDER MYSTERY”: a newspaper headline announcing that Mary, wife of Rhodesian farmer Dick Turner, has been found murdered by their houseboy. The breakdown of a marriage and the failure of a farm form a dual tragedy that Lessing explores in searing psychological detail.

 

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively: Seventy-six-year-old Claudia Hampton, on her deathbed in a nursing home, determines to write a history of the world as she’s known it. More impressive than the plot surprises is how Lively packs the whole sweep of a life into just 200 pages, all with such rich, wry commentary on how what we remember constructs our reality.

 

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez: The narrator is a writer and academic who has stepped up to care for her late friend’s aging Great Dane, Apollo. It feels like Nunez has encapsulated everything she’s ever known or thought about, all in just over 200 pages, and alongside a heartwarming little plot. (Animal lovers need not fear.)

 

There There by Tommy Orange: Orange’s dozen main characters are urban Native Americans converging on the annual Oakland Powwow. Their lives have been difficult, to say the least. The novel cycles through most of the characters multiple times, so gradually we work out the links between everyone. Hugely impressive.

 

In the Driver’s Seat by Helen Simpson: The best story collection I read this year. Themes include motherhood, death versus new beginnings, and how to be optimistic in a world in turmoil. Gentle humor and magic tempers the sadness. I especially liked “The Green Room,” a Christmas Carol riff, and “Constitutional,” set on a woman’s one-hour lunch break walk.

 

East of Eden by John Steinbeck: Look no further for the Great American Novel. Spanning from the Civil War to World War I and crossing the country from New England to California, this is just as wide-ranging in its subject matter, with an overarching theme of good and evil as it plays out in families and in individual souls.

 

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese: The saga of conjoined twins born of a union between an Indian nun and an English surgeon in 1954. Ethiopia’s postcolonial history is a colorful background. I thrilled to the accounts of medical procedures. I can’t get enough of sprawling Dickensian stories full of coincidences, minor characters, and humor and tragedy.

 

Extinctions by Josephine Wilson: The curmudgeonly antihero is widower Frederick Lothian, at age 69 a reluctant resident of St Sylvan’s Estate retirement village. It’s the middle of a blistering Australian summer and he has plenty of time to drift back over his life. He’s a retired engineering expert, but he’s been much less successful in his personal life.

 

 

Poetry

 

Windfall by Miriam Darlington: I’d had no idea that Darlington had written poetry before she turned to nature writing. The verse is rooted in the everyday. Multiple poems link food and erotic pleasure; others make nature the source of exaltation. Lots of allusions and delicious alliteration. Pick this up if you’re still mourning Mary Oliver.

 

Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods by Tishani Doshi: The third collection by the Welsh–Gujarati poet and dancer is vibrant and boldly feminist. The tone is simultaneously playful and visionary, toying with readers’ expectations. Several of the most arresting poems respond to the #MeToo movement. She also excels at crafting breath-taking few-word phrases.

 

Where the Road Runs Out by Gaia Holmes: A major thread of the book is caring for her father at home and in the hospital as he was dying on the Orkney Islands – a time of both wonder and horror. Other themes include pre-smartphone life and a marriage falling apart. There are no rhymes, just alliteration and plays on words, with a lot of seaside imagery.

 

Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice: MacNeice wrote this long verse narrative between August 1938 and the turn of the following year. Everyday life for the common worker muffles political rumblings that suggest all is not right in the world. He reflects on his disconnection from Ireland; on fear, apathy and the longing for purpose. Still utterly relevant.

 

Sky Burials by Ben Smith: I discovered Smith through the 2018 New Networks for Nature conference. He was part of a panel discussion on the role poetry might play in environmental activism. This collection shares that environmentalist focus. Many of the poems are about birds. There’s a sense of history but also of the future.

 

 

Nonfiction

 

Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt: During a bout of depression, Haupt decided to start paying more attention to the natural world right outside her suburban Seattle window. Crows were a natural place to start. A charming record of bird behavior and one woman’s reawakening, but also a bold statement of human responsibility to the environment.

 

All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir by Elizabeth Hay: Hay’s parents, Gordon and Jean, stumbled into their early nineties in an Ottawa retirement home. There are many harsh moments in this memoir, but almost as many wry ones, with Hay picking just the right anecdotes to illustrate her parents’ behavior and the shifting family dynamic.

 

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay: Jackie Kay was born out of the brief relationship between a Nigerian student and a Scottish nurse in Aberdeen in the early 1960s. This memoir of her search for her birth parents is a sensitive treatment of belonging and (racial) identity. Kay writes with warmth and a quiet wit. The nonlinear structure is like a family photo album.

 

Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp: An excellent addiction memoir that stands out for its smooth and candid writing. For nearly 20 years, Knapp was a high-functioning alcoholic who maintained jobs in Boston-area journalism. The rehab part is often least exciting, but I appreciated how Knapp characterized it as the tortured end of a love affair.

 

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein: I guarantee you’ve never read a biography quite like this one. It’s part journalistic exposé and part “love letter”; it’s part true crime and part ordinary life story. It considers gender, mental health, addiction, trauma and death. Simply a terrific read.

 

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood: A memoir of growing up in a highly conservative religious setting, but not Evangelical Christianity as you or I have known it. Her father, a married Catholic priest, is an unforgettable character. This is a poet’s mind sparking at high voltage and taking an ironically innocent delight in dirty and iconoclastic talk.

 

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen: For two months in 1973, Matthiessen joined a zoologist on a journey from the Nepalese Himalayas to the Tibetan Plateau in hopes of spotting the elusive snow leopard. Recently widowed, Matthiessen put his Buddhist training to work as he pondered impermanence and acceptance. The writing is remarkable.

 

This Sunrise of Wonder: Letters for the Journey by Michael Mayne: Mayne’s thesis is that experiencing wonder is what makes us human. He believes poets, musicians and painters, in particular, reawaken us to awe by encouraging us to pay close attention. Especially with the frequent quotations and epigraphs, this is like a rich compendium of wisdom from the ages.

 

Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab by Christine Montross: When she was training to become a doctor, Montross was assigned an older female cadaver, Eve, who taught her everything she knows about the human body. Montross is also a poet, as evident in this lyrical, compassionate exploration of working with the dead.

 

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell: An excellent first-hand account of the working and living conditions of the poor in two world cities. Orwell works as a dishwasher and waiter in Paris hotel restaurants for up to 80 hours a week. The matter-of-fact words about poverty and hunger are incisive, while the pen portraits are glistening.

 

A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter: In 1934, Ritter, an Austrian painter, joined her husband Hermann for a year in Spitsbergen. I was fascinated by the details of Ritter’s daily tasks, but also by how her perspective on the landscape changed. No longer a bleak wilderness, it became a tableau of grandeur. A travel classic worth rediscovering.

 

Autumn Across America by Edwin Way Teale: In the late 1940s Teale and his wife set out on a 20,000-mile road trip from Cape Cod on the Atlantic coast to Point Reyes on the Pacific to track the autumn. Teale was an early conservationist. His descriptions of nature are gorgeous, and the scientific explanations are at just the right level for the average reader.

 

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch: This blew me away. Reading this nonlinear memoir of trauma and addiction, you’re amazed the author is still alive, let alone a thriving writer. The writing is truly dazzling, veering between lyrical stream-of-consciousness and in-your-face informality. The watery metaphors are only part of what make it unforgettable.

 

(Books not pictured were read from the library or on Kindle.)

 

And if I really had to limit myself to just two favorites – my very best fiction and nonfiction reads of the year – they would be Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively and Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood.

 

What were your best backlist reads this year?

The Best Books of 2019: Some Runners-Up

I sometimes like to call this post “The Best Books You’ve Probably Never Heard Of (Unless You Heard about Them from Me)”. However, these picks vary quite a bit in terms of how hyped or obscure they are; the ones marked with an asterisk are the ones I consider my hidden gems of the year. Between this post and my Fiction/Poetry and Nonfiction best-of lists, I’ve now highlighted about the top 13% of my year’s reading.

 

Fiction:

 

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield: Nine short stories steeped in myth and magic. The body is a site of transformation, or a source of grotesque relics. Armfield’s prose is punchy, with invented verbs and condensed descriptions that just plain work. She was the Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel winner. I’ll be following her career with interest.

 

*Agatha by Anne Cathrine Bomann: In late-1940s Paris, a psychiatrist counts down the days and appointments until his retirement. A few experiences awaken him from his apathy, including meeting Agatha, a new German patient with a history of self-harm. This debut novel is a touching, subtle and gently funny story of rediscovering one’s purpose late in life.

 

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier: Chevalier is an American expat like me, but she’s lived in England long enough to make this very English novel convincing and full of charm. Violet Speedwell, 38, is an appealing heroine who has to fight for a life of her own in the 1930s. Who knew the hobbies of embroidering kneelers and ringing church bells could be so fascinating?

 

Akin by Emma Donoghue: An 80-year-old ends up taking his sullen pre-teen great-nephew with him on a long-awaited trip back to his birthplace of Nice, France. The odd-couple dynamic works perfectly and makes for many amusing culture/generation clashes. Donoghue nails it: sharp, true-to-life and never sappy, with spot-on dialogue and vivid scenes.

 

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd: In 1863 Bridie Devine, female detective extraordinaire, is tasked with finding the six-year-old daughter of a baronet. Kidd paints a convincingly stark picture of Dickensian London, focusing on an underworld of criminals and circus freaks. The prose is spry and amusing, particularly in her compact descriptions of people.

 

*The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin: Bleak yet beautiful in the vein of David Vann’s work: the story of a Taiwanese immigrant family in Alaska and the bad luck and poor choices that nearly destroy them. This debut novel is full of atmosphere and the lowering forces of weather and fate.

 

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal: Set in the early 1850s and focusing on the Great Exhibition and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, this reveals the everyday world of poor Londoners. It’s a sumptuous and believable fictional world, with touches of gritty realism. A terrific debut full of panache and promise.

 

*The Heavens by Sandra Newman: Not a genre I would normally be drawn to (time travel), yet I found it entrancing. In her dreams Kate becomes Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady” and sees visions of a future burned city. The more she exclaims over changes in her modern-day life, the more people question her mental health. Impressive for how much it packs into 250 pages; something like a cross between Jonathan Franzen and Samantha Harvey.

 

*In Love with George Eliot by Kathy O’Shaughnessy: Many characters, fictional and historical, are in love with George Eliot over the course of this debut novel. We get intriguing vignettes from Eliot’s life with her two great loves, and insight into her scandalous position in Victorian society. O’Shaughnessy mimics Victorian prose ably.

 

Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid: This story of the rise and fall of a Fleetwood Mac-esque band is full of verve and heart. It’s so clever how Reid delivers it all as an oral history of pieced-together interview fragments. Pure California sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll, yet there’s nothing clichéd about it.

 

 

Graphic Novels:

 

*ABC of Typography by David Rault: From cuneiform to Comic Sans, this history of typography is delightful. Graphic designer David Rault wrote the whole thing, but each chapter has a different illustrator, so the book is like a taster course in comics styles. It is fascinating to explore the technical characteristics and aesthetic associations of various fonts.

 

*The Lady Doctor by Ian Williams: Dr. Lois Pritchard works at a medical practice in small-town Wales and treats embarrassing ailments at a local genitourinary medicine clinic. The tone is wonderfully balanced: there are plenty of hilarious, somewhat raunchy scenes, but also a lot of heartfelt moments. The drawing style recalls Alison Bechdel’s.

 

 

Poetry:

 

*Thousandfold by Nina Bogin: This is a lovely collection whose poems devote equal time to interactions with nature and encounters with friends and family. Birds are a frequent presence. Elsewhere Bogin greets a new granddaughter and gives thanks for the comforting presence of her cat. Gentle rhymes and half-rhymes lend a playful or incantatory nature.

 

 

Nonfiction:

 

*When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back by Naja Marie Aidt: Aidt’s son Carl Emil died in 2015, having jumped out of his fifth-floor Copenhagen window during a mushroom-induced psychosis. The text is a collage of fragments. A playful disregard for chronology and a variety of fonts, typefaces and sizes are ways of circumventing the feeling that grief has made words lose their meaning forever.

 

*Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed by Catrina Davies: Penniless during an ongoing housing crisis, Davies moved into the shed near Land’s End that had served as her father’s architecture office until he went bankrupt. Like Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path, this intimate, engaging memoir serves as a sobering reminder that homelessness is not so remote.

 

*Hard Pushed: A Midwife’s Story by Leah Hazard: An empathetic picture of patients’ plights and medical professionals’ burnout. Visceral details of sights, smells and feelings put you right there in the delivery room. This is a heartfelt read as well as a vivid and pacey one, and it’s alternately funny and sobering.

 

*Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country by Pam Houston: Autobiographical essays full of the love of place, chiefly her Colorado ranch – a haven in a nomadic career, and a stand-in for the loving family home she never had. It’s about making your own way, and loving the world even – or especially – when it’s threatened with destruction. Highly recommended to readers of The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch.

 

*Dancing with Bees: A Journey back to Nature by Brigit Strawbridge Howard: Bees were the author’s gateway into a general appreciation of nature, something she lost for a time in midlife because of the rat race and family complications. She clearly delights in discovery and is devoted to lifelong learning. It’s a book characterized by curiosity and warmth. I ordered signed copies of this and the Simmons (below) directly from the authors via Twitter.

 

*Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem: Maiklem is a London mudlark, scavenging for what washes up on the shores of the Thames, including clay pipes, coins, armaments, pottery, and much more. A fascinating way of bringing history to life and imagining what everyday existence was like for Londoners across the centuries.

 

Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper: Phelps-Roper grew up in a church founded by her grandfather and made up mostly of her extended family. Its anti-homosexuality message and picketing of military funerals became trademarks. This is an absorbing account of doubt and making a new life outside the only framework you’ve ever known.

 

*A Half Baked Idea: How Grief, Love and Cake Took Me from the Courtroom to Le Cordon Bleu by Olivia Potts: Bereavement memoir + foodie memoir = a perfect book for me. Potts left one very interesting career for another. Losing her mother when she was 25 and meeting her future husband, Sam, who put time and care into cooking, were the immediate spurs to trade in her wig and gown for a chef’s apron.

 

*The Lost Properties of Love by Sophie Ratcliffe: Not your average memoir. It’s based around train journeys – real and fictional, remembered and imagined; appropriate symbols for many of the book’s dichotomies: scheduling versus unpredictability, having or lacking a direction in life, monotony versus momentous events, and fleeting versus lasting connections.

 

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro: On a whim, in her fifties, Shapiro sent off a DNA test kit and learned she was only half Jewish. Within 36 hours she found her biological father, who’d donated sperm as a medical student. It’s a moving account of her emotional state as she pondered her identity and what her sense of family would be in the future.

 

*The Country of Larks: A Chiltern Journey by Gail Simmons: Reprising a trek Robert Louis Stevenson took nearly 150 years before, revisiting sites from a childhood in the Chilterns, and seeing the countryside that will be blighted by a planned high-speed railway line. Although the book has an elegiac air, Simmons avoids dwelling in melancholy, and her writing is a beautiful tribute to farmland that was once saturated with the song of larks.

 

(Books not pictured were read from the library or on Kindle.)

 

Coming tomorrow: Other superlatives and some statistics.

Best of 2019: Nonfiction

For me, 2019 has been a more memorable year for nonfiction than for fiction. Like I did last year, I’ve happened to choose 12 favorite nonfiction books – though after some thematic grouping this has ended up as a top 10 list. Bodies, archaeology, and the environmental crisis are recurring topics, reflecting my own interests but also, I think, something of the zeitgeist.

Let the countdown begin!

 

  1. Because Internet: Understanding how language is changing by Gretchen McCulloch: Surprisingly fascinating stuff, even for a late adopter of technology. The Internet popularized informal writing and quickly incorporates changes in slang and cultural references. The book addresses things you may never have considered, like how we convey tone of voice through what we type and how emoji function as the gestures of the written word. Bursting with geeky enthusiasm.

 

  1. Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie: A fusion of autobiography with nature and travel writing – two genres that are too often dominated by men. Jamie has a particular interest in birds, islands, archaeology and the oddities of the human body, all subjects that intrigue me. There is beautiful nature writing to be found in this volume, as you might expect, but also relatable words on the human condition.

 

  1. Mother Ship by Francesca Segal: A visceral diary of the first eight weeks in the lives of the author’s daughters, who were born by Caesarean section at 29 weeks in October 2015 and spent the next two months in the NICU. Segal describes with tender precision the feeling of being torn between writing and motherhood, and crafts twinkly pen portraits of others she encountered in the NICU, including the staff but especially her fellow preemie mums.

 

  1. Surrender: Mid-Life in the American West by Joanna Pocock: Prompted by two years spent in Missoula, Montana and the disorientation felt upon a return to London, this memoir-in-essays varies in scale from the big skies of the American West to the smallness of one human life and the experience of loss and change. This is an elegantly introspective work that should engage anyone interested in women’s life writing and the environmental crisis.

 

  1. (A tie) Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson / The Undying by Anne Boyer / Notes Made while Falling by Jenn Ashworth: Trenchant autobiographical essays about female pain. All three feel timely and inventive in how they bring together disparate topics to explore the possibilities and limitations of women’s bodies. A huge theme in life writing in the last couple of years and a great step toward trauma and chronic pain being taken seriously. (See also Notes to Self by Emilie Pine and the forthcoming Pain Studies by Lisa Olstein.)

 

  1. Time Song: Searching for Doggerland by Julia Blackburn: Deep time is another key topic this year. Blackburn follows her curiosity wherever it leads as she does research into millions of years of history, including the much shorter story of human occupation. The writing is splendid, and the dashes of autobiographical information are just right, making her timely/timeless story personal. This would have been my Wainwright Prize winner.

 

  1. The Seafarers: A Journey among Birds by Stephen Rutt: The young naturalist travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles – from Skomer to Shetland – courting encounters with seabirds. Discussion of the environmental threats that hit these species hardest, such as plastic pollution, makes for a timely tie-in to wider issues. The prose is elegantly evocative, and especially enjoyable because I’ve been to a lot of the island locations.

 

  1. Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene: In 2015 the author’s two-year-old daughter, Greta, was fatally struck in the head by a brick that crumbled off an eighth-story Manhattan windowsill. Music journalist Greene explores all the ramifications of grief. I’ve read many a bereavement memoir and can’t remember a more searing account of the emotions and thoughts experienced moment to moment. The whole book has an aw(e)ful clarity to it.

 

  1. The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson: Bryson is back on form indulging his layman’s curiosity. Without ever being superficial or patronizing, he gives a comprehensive introduction to every organ and body system. He delights in our physical oddities, and his sense of wonder is contagious. Shelve this next to Being Mortal by Atul Gawande in a collection of books everyone should read – even if you don’t normally choose nonfiction.

 

  1. Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places by Julian Hoffman: Species and habitat loss are hard to comprehend even when we know the facts. This exquisitely written book is about taking stock, taking responsibility, and going beyond the numbers to tell the stories of front-line conservation work. Irreplaceable is an elegy of sorts, but, more importantly, it’s a call to arms. It places environmentalism in the hands of laypeople and offers hope that in working together in the spirit of defiance we can achieve great things. So, if you read one 2019 release, make it this one.

 

(Books not pictured were read from the library or on Kindle.)

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

 

Upcoming posts:

28th: Runners-up

29th: Other superlatives and some statistics

30th: Best backlist reads

31st: The final figures on my 2019 reading

Nonfiction Recommendations from Carolyn Oliver

I ‘met’ poet Carolyn Oliver through her much-missed blog, Rosemary & Reading Glasses. (She’s on Twitter as @CarolynROliver and Instagram as @carolynroliver.) Back in 2017 I asked for her top fiction picks; this year she’s contributed another guest blog listing the best nonfiction she’s read this year. It’s a fascinating selection of memoirs, essays, science and nature, and current events. I scurried to add the ones I hadn’t already heard of to my TBR. Which ones tempt you?

 


My favorite nonfiction reads from this year (though many are backlist):

 

The Butchering Art, Lindsey Fitzharris: Fascinating medical history of Lister’s antiseptic breakthrough.

 

Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer: Reflective ecology from the perspective of a Native botanist. Probably my favorite essay collection of the decade.

 

The Book of Delights, Ross Gay: Just as the title says. Mini-essays on myriad topics. When you’ve finished, pick up his Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (poems).

 

Atlas of Poetic Botany, Francis Halle: Bite-sized excursions into the worlds of unusual flora, with drawings. Meant for adults, I think, but a huge hit with my eight-year-old.

 

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi: Just as the title says. Incisive, eye-opening, necessary.

 

The Art Detective, Philip Mould: A romp through the art world with an enthusiastic, knowledgeable guide (Mould is the co-host of the BBC’s Fake or Fortune).

 

How We Fight for Our Lives, Saeed Jones: The bildungsroman America needs. Beautiful writing.

 

In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado: The most formally inventive memoir I’ve ever read. Brilliant and necessary.

 

Coventry, Rachel Cusk: I was entranced by Cusk’s voice, even when I didn’t share her conclusions; reading this collection (with the exception of the book reviews added at the end), I felt I was witnessing the writer’s mind in the act of thinking.

Final 2019 Review Books: Brodesser-Akner, Cregan & McCulloch

The final three review books of the year (not counting DNFs, which will be briefly dispatched on Sunday): a much-hyped novel set in contemporary New York City, a memoir of suicidal depression and recuperation, and a study of linguistics in the Internet era.

 

Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

According to the aggregated best-of lists (which Kate has surveyed here), this was one of the top two novels of 2019. I’m going to have to shrug my shoulders and admit, I don’t get it. To me this didn’t stand out at all from the sea of fiction about crumbling marriages and upper-middle-class angst. Toby Fleishman is 41-year-old head of hepatology at a New York City hospital. He recently split from his wife, Rachel, agent to the creator of a Hamilton-style phenomenon. Not content with their comfortable lifestyle, Rachel hankers for true wealth.

When Rachel goes AWOL at a yoga retreat, Toby is left in charge of their children: Hannah, 11, and Solly, nine. He ferries them to and from summer camp, all the while bombarded with dirty texts and semi-nude selfies from the women he’s flirting with via a dating app. Had this novel been written by a man, people would have been up in arms about the unpleasant sexual content. But this is not just written by a woman; it’s also narrated by a woman: Elizabeth Epstein Slater, a former journalist turned stay-at-home mom. She and Toby became friends on their junior year abroad in Israel and have started hanging out more after his divorce.

So this is a book within a book Elizabeth is writing about one turbulent summer in her friends’ lives, but also her own – she’s dissatisfied with her staid marriage. It’s also Brodesser-Akner’s winking commentary on macho or moralizing fiction: “this was the only way to get someone to listen to a woman—to tell her story through a man” and “none of my characters were likable,” Elizabeth thinks. But attempts to humanize Toby and Rachel fell flat for me. Sadness over the loss of one patient was insufficient to endear me to the randy Toby, and early life with a grim grandmother and severe postpartum trauma couldn’t make me care about whether Rachel was coming back. I also never fully suspended disbelief about Elizabeth’s intimate knowledge of the Fleishmans.

This very New York novel started out promising, with echoes of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? or The Nest. There are some very perceptive passages about marriage, and the writing in general is more than capable. But the story didn’t feel nearly fresh enough to justify all that acclaim, or the 373-page length.


With thanks to Wildfire for the free copy for review.

 

The Scar: A Personal History of Depression and Recovery by Mary Cregan

Cregan has a scar that reminds her, every time she notices it, of how close she came to taking her own life decades ago. In 1983, at the age of 27, she gave birth to a baby girl, Anna, who died two days later of a heart defect. The loss plunged her into a depression so severe that she made a halfhearted suicide attempt some weeks later and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where she was given electroconvulsive therapy. One morning in the hospital, she brought a glass jar of lotion into the shower with her, smashed it, and took a shard to her throat. She only narrowly missed her carotid artery. Cregan wonders if, had she been given appropriate medication, all this heartache could have been avoided.

“I’ve often wished I could undo my own act (if indeed ‘I’ and ‘my’ are accurate words for a self in the condition I was in.)”

“It took a long time to work all of this out, because it’s very hard to see yourself clearly when depressed. The problem is that you think with your mind, but your mind is ill and untrustworthy. Your mind is your enemy.”

Alongside her own winding story, the author surveys the history of mental health treatment in the United States. This felt more familiar and thus engaged me less than the personal material. Nevertheless, I would recommend this forthright memoir to anyone keen to read about the experience of mental illness.


With thanks to the author for arranging my free copy from Lilliput Press, Dublin.

 

Because Internet: Understanding how language is changing by Gretchen McCulloch

I’m surprised by how fascinating I found this: I’m a late adopter when it comes to technology (I’m still resisting a smartphone) and I haven’t given linguistics a thought since that one class I took in college, but it turns out that my proofreader’s interest in the English language and my daily use of e-mail and social media were enough to make it extremely relevant. The Montreal linguist’s thesis is that the Internet popularized informal writing and quickly incorporates changes in slang and cultural references. At the same time, it still reflects regional and age-specific differences in the way that people speak (write conversationally).

The book goes deep into topics you may never have considered, like how we convey tone of voice through what we type and how emoji function as the gestures of the written word. You’ll get a breakdown of current generations in terms of when the Internet became the default in their life (I belong to what the author calls “Semi Internet People”: I remember first using the Internet in a classroom in seventh grade, getting dial-up AOL at home not long thereafter, and opening my own Hotmail account in high school), a history of lolcats, and musings on the metaphorical use of periods and capital letters. If you are among the unconvinced, you’ll also be schooled in the appeal of gifs and memes.

Some trivia I picked up:

  • In 2015 the tears of joy emoji became the most popular emoji, more used than the smiley-face emoticon.
  • For many of us the Internet serves as what sociologists call a “third place” besides home and work where we can socialize.
  • Only 5–8% of Internet users are bloggers.
  • “Subtweeting” (as in subliminal) and “vaguebooking” are when you post about a situation without giving any specifics.
  • Parents often refer to a child by an initial or nickname so the child won’t have a searchable social media presence.
  • The Library of Congress now archives memes (The Lolcat Bible, Urban Dictionary, etc.).

McCulloch portrays language as a constantly changing network, such that terms like “standard” and “correct” no longer apply. She writes with such geeky enthusiasm that you’ll happily accompany her down any linguistic alley.


With thanks to Harvill Secker for the free copy for review.