I keep an ongoing Word file with details on my year’s reading: books finished with the date, number of pages, and source – similar information to what’s recorded on Goodreads – plus any quotations that particularly stood out to me. It occurred to me that by looking back through these annual book lists for the quotes that meant the most to me I could probably narrate my recent years. So here are the 2015–2016 quotes that tell my story.
“I’m learning that what’s important is not so much what I do to make a living as who I become in the process. … the heroine, when at a juncture, makes her own choice—the nonheroine lets others make it for her.”
(A Year by the Sea: Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman, Joan Anderson)
“The dishes. The dishes! The goddamn dishes! No wonder women don’t succeed.”
(The author’s mother’s explosion in The Year My Mother Came Back, Alice Eve Cohen)
“Success says, What more can I get?
Craft says, Can you believe I get to do this?”
(How to Be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living, Rob Bell)
“Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
(Everyman, Philip Roth)
Finding a Home
“In Orcadian, ‘flitting’ means ‘moving house’. I can hear it spoken with a tinge of disapproval or pity: the air-headed English couple who couldn’t settle.”
(The Outrun, Amy Liptrot)
“Where, after we have made the great decision to leave the security of childhood and move on into the vastness of maturity, does anybody ever feel completely at home?”
(A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle)
“there is no such thing / as the right route or a clear passage / no matter where you start, / or how you plan it.”
(from “Aneurysm,” Selected Poems, Kate Clanchy)
Life vs. Books
“He had accepted that if you were a bookish person the events in your life took place in your head.”
(Golden Age, Jane Smiley)
“my way of seeing has always been different, shyer. To see the world I’ve always opened a book.”
(The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End, Katie Roiphe)
“Other people’s lives, and the lives I read about in books, seem richer, mine seems so threadbare.”
(The Past, Tessa Hadley)
“She remembered finding her first white hair somewhere near her thirtieth birthday and it had sent her on a tailspin for half a day. It’s starting, she’d thought then. The follicle that produced that hair is dying. I’ve reached the tipping point and from now on it’s nothing but slow decline.”
(Dog Run Moon: Stories, Callan Wink)
“All the most terrifying Ifs involve people. All the good ones do as well.”
(A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara)
“I wished then, and still do, that there was something in me also that would march steadily in one road, instead of down here or there or somewhere else, the mind running a net of rabbit-paths that twisted and turned and doubled on themselves, pursued always by the hawk-shadow of doubt.”
(Now in November, Josephine Johnson – to be reviewed here within next couple weeks)
Without further ado, I present to you my 15 favorite non-fiction books read in 2015. I’m a memoir junkie so many of these fit under that broad heading, but I’ve dipped into other areas too. I give two favorites for each category, then count down my top 7 memoirs read this year.
Note: Only four of these were actually published in 2015; for the rest I’ve given the publication year. Many of them I’ve already previewed through the year, so – like I did yesterday for fiction – I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read this book. (Links given to full reviews.)
A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg (2009): Wizenberg reflects on the death of her father Burg from cancer, time spent living in Paris, building a new life in Seattle, starting her food blog, and meeting her husband through it. Each brief autobiographical essay is perfectly formed and followed by a relevant recipe, capturing precisely how food is tied up with memories.
Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table by Ruth Reichl (2001): Reichl traces the rise of American foodie culture in the 1970s–80s (Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck) through her time as a food critic for the Los Angeles Times, also weaving in personal history – from a Berkeley co-op with her first husband to a home in the California hills with her second after affairs and a sticky divorce. Throughout she describes meals in mouth-watering detail, like this Thai dish: “The hot-pink soup was dotted with lacy green leaves of cilantro, like little bursts of breeze behind the heat. … I took another spoonful of soup and tasted citrus, as if lemons had once gone gliding through and left their ghosts behind.”
Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field by John Lewis-Stempel (2014): Lewis-Stempel is a proper third-generation Herefordshire farmer, but also a naturalist with a poet’s eye. Magical moments and lovely prose, as in “The dew, trapped in the webs of countless money spiders, has skeined the entire field in tiny silken pocket squares, gnomes’ handkerchiefs dropped in the sward.”
Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane: This new classic of nature writing zeroes in on the language we use to talk about our environment, both individual words – which Macfarlane celebrates in nine mini-glossaries alternating with the prose chapters – and the narratives we build around places, via discussions of the work of nature writers he admires. Whether poetic (“heavengravel,” Gerard Manley Hopkins’s term for hailstones), local and folksy (“wonty-tump,” a Herefordshire word for a molehill), or onomatopoeic (on Exmoor, “zwer” is the sound of partridges taking off), his vocabulary words are a treasure trove.
Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris (1998): In few-page essays, Norris gives theological words and phrases a rich, jargon-free backstory through anecdote, scripture and lived philosophy. This makes the shortlist of books I would hand to skeptics to show them there might be something to this Christianity nonsense after all.
My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman (2013): Seven years into a cancer journey, Wiman, a poet, gives an intimate picture of faith and doubt as he has lived with them in the shadow of death. Nearly every page has a passage that cuts right to the quick of what it means to be human and in interaction with other people and the divine.
Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee (2013): Although Penelope Fitzgerald always guarded literary ambitions, she was not able to pursue her writing wholeheartedly until she had reared three children and nursed her hapless husband through his last illness. This is a thorough and sympathetic appreciation of an underrated author, and another marvellously detailed biography from Lee.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (2014): A surgeon’s essential guide to decision-making about end-of-life care, but also a more philosophical treatment of the question of what makes life worth living: When should we extend life, and when should we concentrate more on the quality of our remaining days than their quantity? The title condition applies to all, so this is a book everyone should read.
- The Year My Mother Came Back by Alice Eve Cohen: Wry and heartfelt, this is a wonderful memoir about motherhood in all its variations and complexities; the magic realism (Cohen’s dead mother keeps showing up) is an added delight. I recommend this no matter what sort of relationship, past or present, you have with your mother, especially if you’re also a fan of Anne Lamott and Abigail Thomas.
- The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr: There is a wealth of practical advice here, on topics such as choosing the right carnal details (not sexual – or not only sexual – but physicality generally), correcting facts and misconceptions, figuring out a structure, and settling on your voice. Karr has been teaching (and writing) memoirs at Syracuse University for years now, so she’s thought deeply about what makes them work, and sets her theories out clearly for readers at any level of familiarity.
- A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle (1971): In this account of a summer spent at her family’s Connecticut farmhouse, L’Engle muses on theology, purpose, children’s education, the writing life, the difference between creating stories for children and adults, neighbors and fitting into a community, and much besides. If, like me, you only knew L’Engle through her Wrinkle in Time children’s series, this journal should come as a revelation.
- Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh (2014): “Terrible job, neurosurgery. Don’t do it.” – luckily for us, Henry Marsh reports back from the frontlines of brain surgery so we don’t have to. In my favorite passages, Marsh reflects on the mind-blowing fact that the few pounds of tissue stored in our heads could be the site of our consciousness, our creativity, our personhood – everything we traditionally count as the soul.
- I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place by Howard Norman (2013): Norman has quickly become one of my favorite writers. You wouldn’t think these disparate autobiographical essays would fit together as a whole, given that they range in subject from Inuit folktales and birdwatching to a murder–suicide committed in Norman’s Washington, D.C. home and a girlfriend’s death in a plane crash, but somehow they do; after all, “A whole world of impudent detours, unbridled perplexities, degrading sorrow, and exacting joys can befall a person in a single season, not to mention a lifetime.”
- Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg (2010): Through this book I followed literary agent Bill Clegg on dozens of taxi rides between generic hotel rooms and bar toilets and New York City offices and apartments; together we smoked innumerable crack pipes and guzzled dozens of bottles of vodka while letting partners and family members down and spiraling further down into paranoia and squalor. He achieves a perfect balance between his feelings at the time – being out of control and utterly enslaved to his next hit – and the hindsight that allows him to see what a pathetic figure he was becoming.
And my overall favorite nonfiction book of the year:
1. The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander: In short vignettes, beginning afresh with every chapter, Alexander conjures up the life she lived with – and after the sudden death of – her husband Ficre Ghebreyesus, an Eritrean chef and painter. This book is the most wonderful love letter you could imagine, and no less beautiful for its bittersweet nature.
What were some of your best nonfiction reads of the year?
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month – or maybe more often – I’ll provide links to all the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a short taster and a rating (below) so you can decide whether to click to read more. (A couple of exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie or BlueInk reviews since I don’t get a byline.)
The Animals by Christian Kiefer [BookBrowse is a subscription service, but an excerpt is available for free on the website]: Kiefer’s second novel contrasts wildness and civilization through the story of a man who runs an animal refuge to escape from his criminal past.
The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein: A debut novel as charming as it is quirky. Two young adults from Brooklyn meet in the far north of Norway, where one is an artist’s apprentice and the other is burying a beloved father. Bittersweet family backstories and burgeoning romance make this a winner.
Beauty and Chaos: Slices and Morsels of Tokyo Life by Michael Pronko (& interview): The pleasant and diverse travel essays in this collection draw on Pronko’s 15 years living in Japan. A long-term resident but still an outsider, he is perfectly placed to notice the many odd and wonderful aspects of Tokyo life.
The Blind Man of Hoy: A True Story by Red Szell: Red Széll started losing his sight at age 19. In 2013 he became the first blind person to climb the Old Man of Hoy, off the Orkney Islands. An inspirational rock-climbing adventure.
Adeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Norah Vincent: Set in 1925–1941 and focusing on Virginia Woolf’s marriage and later career, this is a remarkable picture of mental illness from the inside. For the depth of its literary reference and psychological insight, this is my favorite novel of 2015 so far.
On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss: This wide-ranging work of nonfiction explores the facts, myths and metaphors of vaccination. Biss powerfully captures the modern phenomenon of feeling simultaneously responsible and powerless.
Chaplin and Company by Mave Fellowes: An aspiring mime buys a London canal boat and finds her father in this debut novel. Fellowes writes good descriptive passages and handles past and present capably. However, I was unsure whether Chaplin and Company overall has much narrative verve. What I will take away is an offbeat, bittersweet coming-of-age story.
Gorsky by Vesna Goldsworthy: An updated version of The Great Gatsby set amongst contemporary London’s über-rich Russians. The novel is wise about the implications of class and immigration. However, as a whole it doesn’t work as well as some updated classics, such as The Innocents (Francesca Segal). In a sense, Goldsworthy’s literary debt is too obvious.
Quite a Good Time to Be Born: A Memoir, 1935-1975 by David Lodge [more personal musings and an overview of the book’s content]: David Lodge, one of Britain’s most celebrated comic novelists, surveys 40 years of personal and social change.
Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin: The author of The Happiness Project returns with a thorough guide to making and breaking habits, offering different strategies for different personality types.
Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher: A very funny epistolary novel in the form of letters of recommendation written by a grouchy English professor. English graduates and teachers in particular will get a kick out of this, but I daresay anyone who has ever been fed up with bureaucracy at work will sympathize with Fitger.
The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Time by Barbara Taylor: Taylor was once a mental patient at Friern Hospital. This is an arresting vision of madness from the inside, as well as a history of England’s asylum system.
We Love This Book
It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario: Photojournalist Lynsey Addario remembers a decade on the frontline of conflicts in the Middle East and Africa and strives for balance in her work and personal life. Journalists face real danger every day. It’s all here: bombs, car accidents, dehydration, beatings, and sexual assault. Yet all the risks over the years have been worth it “to convey beauty in war.”
Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum: Essbaum’s arresting debut novel reads like a modern retelling of Madame Bovary, with its main character a desperate housewife in Zurich. As deplorable as Anna’s actions may be, she is an entirely sympathetic tragic heroine. Watch her trajectory with horror but you cannot deny there is a little of Anna in you.
The Wild Beyond by Piers Torday: the suspenseful finale to “The Last Wild,” a fantasy trilogy for younger readers. The environmentalist message is not subtle but it is powerful and should inspire older children. Blending hints of Pullman and Tolkien with up-to-the-minute dystopian themes, this is an inventive take on the classic quest narrative.
The Time in Between: A Memoir of Hunger and Hope by Nancy Tucker: Nancy Tucker suffered from anorexia and bulimia for nearly a decade. Written in an original blend of styles, her eating disorder memoir is wrenching but utterly absorbing. You won’t find epiphanies or happy endings here, just a messy, ongoing recovery process – but 21-year-old Tucker narrates it exquisitely.
Quadrapheme literary magazine
Quite a Good Time to Be Born: A Memoir, 1935-1975 by David Lodge [more of an essay about the context and sociological themes]: Even readers less familiar with Lodge’s work may be interested in the book’s insights into the social changes of post-war Britain. Lodge has not had a conventionally exciting life, and he knows it. From the title onward, his focus is more on his time period than his own uniqueness. He appears as an Everyman who superseded his working-class origins and expectations through hard work and luck.
Shiny New Books
Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer by Ann Morgan: Not just another bibliomemoir. A better balance could have been struck between recycled blog content and academic musings on postcolonial literature and censorship. An interest in the politics of literature in translation would be a boon to anyone attempting this.
Foreword Reviews (self-published titles)
The Woman in the Movie Star Dress by Praveen Asthana: In this carefully plotted novel, a young Native American finds self-assurance and explores her sexuality by trying on the clothing – and personae – of Hollywood actresses. Spirited characters and dialogue make this an enjoyable read for classic film lovers.
Silence by Deborah Lytton: Lytton’s second novel for young adults concerns the unlikely match between a Broadway-bound singer who experiences temporary deafness after an accident and a pianist with a speech impediment and a traumatic past. It is a touching story about the forces that so often threaten us into silence and the struggle to find a voice anyway.
Woody Allen: Reel to Real by Alex Sheremet: Woody Allen fans will prize this comprehensive, readable rundown of his oeuvre. This is an exhaustive study, ideal for established Allen enthusiasts and film students rather than the average moviegoer looking for an introduction.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading on Goodreads.
The Mermaid’s Child by Jo Baker: This was Baker’s second novel, originally published in 2004. It doesn’t nearly live up to Longbourn, but it’s a fairly intriguing blend of historical fiction and fantasy. Malin’s father was a ferryman; her absent mother, so he swears, was a mermaid. Curiously timeless and placeless.
The Dream Lover: A Novel of George Sand by Elizabeth Berg: This historical novel about George Sand is a real slow burner. Berg makes the mistake of trying to be too comprehensive about Sand’s life; it would be better to just choose illustrative vignettes or representative love affairs (e.g. with Chopin) rather than include them all. There are two different timelines, 1831–1876 and 1804–1831, but together they’re still just a chronological slog.
The Year My Mother Came Back by Alice Eve Cohen: There’s some gentle magic realism to this mother-daughter memoir. In the difficult year that forms the kernel of the memoir, Cohen’s younger daughter, Eliana, had a leg-lengthening surgery; her adopted older daughter, Julia, met her birth mother, Zoe; and Cohen herself underwent a lumpectomy and radiation for breast cancer. During radiation sessions, when she had to lie face-down, perfectly still, for 10 minutes at a time, her mother – dead for 20 years – would appear and talk to her.
A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees by Dave Goulson: A wholly engaging tour through everything we know and are still trying to learn about bumblebees. I saw Goulson, founder of the UK’s Bumblebee Conservation Trust, speak at a nature conference in November and found him to be just as enthusiastic and well-informed in person. His occasional anthropomorphisms are unfailingly endearing.
Black River by S.M. Hulse: Back in the town of Black River, Montana after his wife’s agonizing death, Wesley Carver must face the trauma he experienced as a prison guard when he was held hostage and tortured during an inmate riot. Now his attacker is up for parole, and Wes plans to attend the hearing and discourage the jury. At first you might think you’re reading a revenge story, but this is something subtler and sweeter than that. (What a shame that Hulse had to go by her initials, rather than Sarah, to be taken seriously in this genre, even though she’s on a level with Philipp Meyer.)
Trumbull Ave. by Michael Lauchlan: I didn’t like this quite as much as the other Made in Michigan books I’ve read, but Lauchlan does a good job of contrasting pastoral and post-industrial views of Detroit through free verse, as in “Detroit Pheasant,” the poem that gives the collection its cover image.
What Ridiculous Things We Could Ask of Each Other by Jeffrey Schultz: I enjoyed these poems set in a seemingly post-apocalyptic urban wasteland. They’re full of black humor, sarcasm and realistically pessimistic views of the American future. They’re very densely structured, usually in complete sentences of free verse.
Looking for a heartwarming story about new motherhood? You won’t find it here. The narrator of Elisa Albert’s second novel, Ari, gave birth to Walker a year ago but still hasn’t gotten over the disruption to her life: the constant demands on her time and affection, the decay of her postgraduate thesis, and post-traumatic flashbacks to her caesarean section. Birth wasn’t the blissful, Earth Mother experience she wanted it to be; it was more like butchery: “nightmare blur of newborn stitches tears antibiotic awake constipation tears wound tears awake awake awake limping tears screaming tears screaming shit piss puke tears.” Now don’t get her wrong; she loves Walker: “He’s an awesome baby, a swell little guy. Still a baby, though, of which even the best are oppressive fascist bastard dictator narcissists.”
So even though Ari is reasonably happy and settled in her upstate New York home with her husband Paul (a professor 15 years her senior) and Walker, putting in the occasional shift at the local co-op and sending half-hearted ideas to her advisor, she can’t escape the thought that life isn’t as it should be. That is, until Mina Morris, bassist from a late-eighties girl band, moves to town to sublet her friends’ place while they’re on sabbatical in Rome. Ari had a girl crush on Mina before she ever met her, but when she realizes Mina is nine months’ pregnant, she sees a chance to put her new mommy expertise to good use. She’ll give Mina all the advice and support she wished she’d had. When the need arises, she’ll even breastfeed Mina’s newborn son, Zev. (Albert had a similar experience when her son was failing to thrive from breastfeeding and a friend fed him for her; see her Guardian article.)
There isn’t a whole lot of plot to After Birth. Mina comes into Ari’s life for just two months and then moves on. Ari temporarily indulges her fantasy of a feminist collective where women help each other give birth and raise each other’s children; it is enough of a healing experience that she can conceive of resuming her thesis or even – ha! – having another baby. Still, she acknowledges that “the work of childbearing, done fully, done consciously, is all-consuming. So who’s gonna write about it if everyone doing it is lost forever within it? You want adventures, you want poetry and art, you want to salon it up over at Gertrude and Alice’s, you’d best leave the messy all-consuming baby stuff to someone else.”
It can be hard to warm to Ari’s sarcastic voice and jarringly short or disorientingly run-on phrases. Albert’s choice to exclude speech marks means that the whole book reads like a sort of fever dream, with past and present and different voices melding. My favorite passage is a monologue by an Oprah-like black nurse who encourages Ari in her early attempts at breastfeeding. There are also frequent flashbacks to Ari’s childhood: Jewish summer camp and the aftermath of her mother Janice’s untimely death. The memories of her mother’s illness (DES treatment leading to breast cancer) and the touches of magic realism as the dead Janice occasionally pops up alongside Ari, usually kvetching about her choices, make this uncannily similar to The Year My Mother Came Back by Alice Eve Cohen.
After Birth might not prove to be a classic of ambivalent motherhood, but if you’re in the right mood for it I reckon you’ll find it to be a striking novella.