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.
“I don’t want them to look like war paintings, Elsie. I want them to look like heaven.”
When I was offered a copy of this novel to review as part of the blog tour, I was unfamiliar with the name of its subject, the artist Sir Stanley Spencer (1891–1959) – until I realized that he painted the WWI-commemorative Sandham Memorial Chapel in Hampshire, which I had never visited* but knew was just 5.5 miles from our home in Berkshire.
Take another look at the title, though: two characters are given double billing, the second of whom is Elsie Munday, who in the opening chapter presents herself for an interview with Stanley and his wife, Hilda (also a painter), who promptly hire her to be their housemaid at Chapel View in 1928. This creates a setup similar to that in Girl with a Pearl Earring, with a lower-class character observing the inner workings of an artist’s household and giving plain-speaking commentary on what she sees. Upson’s close third-person narration sticks with Elsie for the whole of Part I, but in Part II the picture widens out, with the point of view rotating between Hilda, Elsie and Dorothy Hepworth, the reluctant third side in a love triangle that develops between Stanley and her partner, Patricia Preece.
Hilda and Stanley argue about everything, from childrearing to art: they even paint dueling portraits of Elsie – with Hilda’s Country Girl winning out. Elsie knows she’s lucky to have such a comfortable position with the Spencers and their daughters at Burghclere, and later at Cookham, but she’s uneasy at how Stanley turns her into a confidante in his increasingly tempestuous marriage. Hilda, frustrated at Stanley’s selfish, demanding ways, often returns to her family home in Hampstead, leaving Elsie alone with her employer. Stanley doesn’t give a fig for local opinion, but Elsie knows she has a reputation to protect – especially considering that her moments alone with Stanley aren’t entirely free of sexual tension.
I love reading about artists’ habits – how creative work actually gets done – so I particularly loved the scenes where Elsie, sent on errands, finds Stanley up a ladder in the chapel, pondering how to get a face or object just right. On more than one occasion he borrows her kitchen items, such as a sponge and cooked and uncooked rashers of bacon, so he can render them perfectly in his paintings. I also loved that this is a local interest book for me, with Newbury, where I live, mentioned four or five times in passing as the nearest big town. Part II, with its account of Stanley’s extramarital doings becoming ever more sordid, didn’t grip me as much as Part I, but I found the whole to be an elegantly written study of a very difficult man and the ties that he made and broke over the course of several decades.
For the tone as well as the subject matter, I would particularly recommend it to readers of Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February and Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday, and especially Esther Freud’s Mr. Mac and Me.
Stanley and Elsie will be published by Duckworth on May 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review. They also sent a stylish tote bag!
Nicola Upson is best known for her seven Josephine Tey crime novels. She has also published nonfiction, including a book on the sculpture of Helaine Blumenfeld. This is her first stand-alone novel.
*Until now. On a gorgeous Easter Saturday that felt more like summer than spring, I had my husband drop me off on his way to a country walk so I could tour the chapel. I appreciated Spencer’s “holy box” so much more having read the novel than I ever could have otherwise – even though the paintings were nothing like I’d imagined from Upson’s descriptions.
What struck me immediately is that, for war art, the focus is so much more on domesticity. Spencer briefly served in Salonika, Macedonia (like his patrons’ brother, Harry Sandham, to whose memory the chapel is dedicated), but had initially been rejected by the army and started off as a medical orderly in an English hospital. Both Salonika and Beaufort hospital appear in the paintings, but there are no battle scenes or bloody injuries. Instead we see tableaux of cooking, doing laundry, making beds, inventorying kitbags, filling canteens, reading maps, dressing under mosquito nets and making stone mosaics. It’s as if Spencer wanted to spotlight what happens in between the fighting. These everyday activities would have typified the soldiers’ lives more than active combat, after all.
I was reminded of how Stanley explains his approach in the novel:
“There’s something heroic in the everyday, don’t you think?”
“Isn’t that what peace is sometimes? A succession of bland moments? We have to cherish them, though, otherwise what was the point of fighting for them?”
The paintings show inventive composition but are in an unusual style that sometimes verges on the grotesque. Many of the figures are lumpen and childlike, especially in Tea in the Hospital Ward, where the soldiers scoffing bread and jam look like cheeky schoolboys. There are lots of animals on display, especially horses and donkeys, but they often look enormous and not entirely realistic. The longer you look, the more details you spot, like a dog raiding a stash of Fray Bentos tins and a young man looking at his reflection in a picture frame to part his hair with a comb. These aren’t desolate, burnt-out landscapes but rich with foliage and blossom, even in Macedonia, which recalls the Holy Land and seems timeless.
The central painting behind the altar, The Resurrection of the Soldiers, imagines the dead rising out of their graves, taking up their white crosses and delivering them to Jesus, a white-clad figure in the middle distance. There’s an Italian Renaissance feeling to this one, with one face in particular looking like it could have come straight out of Giotto (an acknowledged influence on Spencer’s chapel work). It’s as busy as Bosch, but not as dark thematically or in terms of the color scheme – while some of the first paintings in the sequence, like the one of scrubbing hospital floors, recall Edward Hopper with their somber realism. We see all these soldiers intact: at their resurrection they are whole, with no horrific wounds or humiliating nudity. Like Stanley says to Elsie, it’s more heaven than war.
If you are ever in the area, I highly recommend even a quick stop at this National Trust property. I showed a few workers my advanced copy of the novel; while the reception staff were unaware of its existence, a manager I caught up with after my tour knew about it and had plans to read it soon. She also said they will stock it in the NT shop on site.
Below I’ve chosen my top 12 fiction releases from 2018 (eight of them happen to be by women!). Many of these books have already featured on my blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep things simple, as with my nonfiction selections, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I’ve also highlighted my three favorites from the year’s poetry releases.
- Orchid & the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes: From the Iraq War protests to the Occupy movement in New York City, we follow antiheroine Gael Foess as she tries to get her brother’s art recognized. This debut novel is a potent reminder that money and skills don’t get distributed fairly in this life.
- Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller: Fuller’s third novel tells the suspenseful story of the profligate summer of 1969 spent at a dilapidated English country house. The characters and atmosphere are top-notch; this is an absorbing, satisfying novel to swallow down in big gulps.
- The Only Story by Julian Barnes: It may be a familiar story – a May–December romance that fizzles out – but, as Paul believes, we only really get one love story, the defining story of our lives. 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.
- An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: Roy and Celestial only get a year of happy marriage before he’s falsely accused of rape and sentenced to 12 years in prison in Louisiana. This would make a great book club pick: I ached for all the main characters in their impossible situation; there’s a lot to probe about their personalities and motivations, and about how they reveal or disguise themselves through their narration and letters.
- The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman: Charles “Pinch” Bavinsky is an Italian teacher; as a boy in Rome in the 1950s–60s he believed he’d follow in the footsteps of his sculptor mother and his moderately famous father, Bear Bavinsky, who paints close-ups of body parts, but along the way something went wrong. This is a rewarding novel about the desperation to please, or perhaps exceed, one’s parents and the legacy of artists in a fickle market.
- The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon: A sophisticated, unsettling debut novel about faith and its aftermath, fractured through the experience of three people coming to terms with painful circumstances. Kwon spent 10 years writing this book, and that time and diligence come through in how carefully honed the prose is: such precise images; not a single excess word.
- Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: Kingsolver’s bold eighth novel has a dual timeline that compares the America of the 1870s and the recent past and finds that they are linked by distrust and displacement. There’s so much going on that it feels like it encompasses all of human life; it’s by no means a subtle book, but it’s an important one for our time, with many issues worth pondering and discussing.
- Southernmost by Silas House: In House’s sixth novel, a Tennessee preacher’s family life falls apart when he accepts a gay couple into his church. We go on a long journey with Asher Sharp: not just a literal road trip from Tennessee to Florida, but also a spiritual passage from judgment to grace in this beautiful, quietly moving novel of redemption and openness to what life might teach us.
- Little by Edward Carey: This is a deliciously macabre, Dickensian novel about Madame Tussaud, who started life as Anne Marie Grosholtz in Switzerland in 1761. From a former monkey house to the Versailles palace and back, Marie must tread carefully as the French Revolution advances and a desire for wax heads is replaced by that for decapitated ones.
- Motherhood by Sheila Heti: Chance, inheritance, and choice vie for pride of place in this relentless, audacious inquiry into the purpose of a woman’s life. 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.
- Florida by Lauren Groff: There’s an oppressive atmosphere throughout these 11 short stories, with violent storms reminding the characters of an uncaring universe, falling-apart relationships, and the threat of environmental catastrophe. Florida feels innovative and terrifyingly relevant; any one of its stories is a bracing read; together they form a masterpiece. (I never would have predicted that a short story collection would be my favorite fiction read of the year!)
- Three Poems by Hannah Sullivan: These poem-essays give fragmentary images of city life and question the notion of progress and what meaning a life leaves behind. “The Sandpit after Rain” stylishly but grimly juxtaposes her father’s death and her son’s birth.
- Comfort Measures Only: New and Selected Poems, 1994–2016 by Rafael Campo: Superb, poignant poetry about illness and the physician’s duty. A good bit of this was composed in response to the AIDS crisis; it’s remarkable how Campo wrings beauty out of clinical terminology and tragic situations.
- The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain: St. Germain’s seventh collection is in memory of her son Gray, who died of a drug overdose in 2014, aged 30. She turns her family history of alcohol and drug use into a touchpoint and affirms life’s sensual pleasures – everything from the smell of brand-new cowboy boots to luscious fruits.
What were some of your top fiction (or poetry) reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll be naming some runners-up (both fiction and nonfiction).
For several years in her mid-thirties, British author Olivia Laing lived in New York City. A relationship had recently fallen through and she was subletting an apartment from a friend. Whole days went by when she hardly left the flat, whiling away her time on social media and watching music videos on YouTube. Whenever she did go out, she felt cut off because of her accent and her unfamiliarity with American vernacular; she wished she could wear a Halloween mask all the time to achieve anonymity. How ironic, she thought, that in a city of millions she could be so utterly lonely.
Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee. … [L]oneliness inhibits empathy because it induces in its wake a kind of self-protective amnesia, so that when a person is no longer lonely they struggle to remember what the condition is like.
Whereas alcoholic writers were the points of reference for her previous book, the superb The Trip to Echo Spring (2013), here outsider artists take center stage: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, and the many lost to AIDS in the 1980s to 1990s. It’s a testament to Laing’s skill at interweaving biography, art criticism and memoir when I say that I knew next to nothing about any of these artists to start with and have little fondness for modern art but still found her book completely absorbing.
Several of the artists shared underlying reasons for loneliness: an abusive childhood, mental illness and/or sexuality perceived as aberrant. Edward Hopper might seem the most ‘normal’ of the artists profiled, but even he was bullied when he shot up to 6 feet at age 12; his wife Jo, doing some amateur psychoanalyzing, named it the root of his notorious taciturnity. His Nighthawks, with its “noxious pallid green” shades, perfectly illustrates the inescapability of “urban alienation,” Laing writes: when she saw it in person at the Whitney, she realized the diner has no door. (It’s a shame the book couldn’t accommodate a centerfold of color plates, but each chapter opens with a black-and-white photograph of its main subject.)
Andy Warhol was born Andrej Warhola to Slovakian immigrants in Pittsburgh in 1928. He was often tongue-tied and anxious, and used fashion and technology as ways of displacing attention. In 1968 he was shot in the torso by Valerie Solanas, the paranoid, sometimes-homeless author of SCUM Manifesto, and ever after had to wear surgical corsets. For Warhol and Wojnarowicz, art and sex were possible routes out of loneliness. As homosexuals, though, they could be restricted to sordid cruising grounds such as cinemas and piers. Like Klaus Nomi, a gay German electro-pop singer whose music Laing listened to obsessively, Wojnarowicz died of AIDS. Nomi was one of the first celebrities to succumb, in 1983. The epidemic only increased the general stigma against gay people. Even Warhol, as a lifelong hypochondriac, was leery about contact with AIDS patients. Through protest marches and artworks, Wojnarowicz exposed the scale of the tragedy and the lack of government concern.
In some ways Henry Darger is the oddest of the outsiders Laing features. He is also the only one not based in New York: he worked as a Chicago hospital janitor for nearly six decades; it was only when he was moved into a nursing home and the landlord cleared out his room that an astonishing cache of art and writing was discovered. Darger’s oeuvre included a 15,000-page work of fiction set in “the Realms of the Unreal” and paintings that veer towards sadism and pedophilia. Laing spent a week reading his unpublished memoir. With his distinctive, not-quite-coherent style and his affection for the asylum where he lived as an orphaned child, he reminded me of Royal Robertson, the schizophrenic artist whose work inspired Sufjan Stevens’s The Age of Adz album, and the artist character in the movie Junebug (2005).
A few of the chapters are less focused because they split the time between several subjects. I also felt that a section on Josh Harris, Internet entrepreneur and early reality show streaming pioneer, pulled the spotlight away from outsider art. Although I can see, in theory, how his work is performance art reflecting on our lack of true connection in an age of social media and voyeurism, I still found this the least relevant part.
The book is best when Laing is able to pull all her threads together: her own seclusion – flitting between housing situations, finding dates through Craigslist and feeling trapped behind her laptop screen; her subjects’ troubled isolation; and the science behind loneliness. Like Korey Floyd does in The Loneliness Cure, Laing summarizes the physical symptoms and psychological effects associated with solitude. She dips into pediatrician D.W. Winnicott’s work on attachment and separation in children, and mentions Harry Harlow’s abhorrent rhesus monkey experiments in which babies were raised without physical contact.
The tone throughout is academic but not inaccessible. Ultimately I didn’t like this quite as much as The Trip to Echo Spring, but it’s still a remarkable piece of work, fusing social history, commentary on modern art, biographical observation and self-knowledge. The first chapter and the last five paragraphs, especially, are simply excellent. Your interest may wax and wane through the rest of the book, but I expect that, like me, you’ll willingly follow Laing as a tour guide into the peculiar, lonely crowdedness you find in a world city.
(See also Laing’s list of 10 Books about Loneliness, chosen for Publishers Weekly.)
With thanks to Canongate for sending a free copy.