Capsule reviews today, of four books I am inexcusably late in reviewing. I have a record of personal experience with species reintroductions, a memoir about living among reindeer herders in the far north of Norway, a set of elegiac poems, and a biography of a Victorian woman poet who struggled with poor health for most of her life.
Restoring the Wild: Sixty Years of Rewilding Our Skies, Woods and Waterways by Roy Dennis
Rewilding is a big buzz word in current nature and environmental writing. Few could be said to have played as major a role in the UK’s successful species reintroduction projects as Roy Dennis, who has been involved with the RSPB and other key organizations since the late 1950s. He trained as a warden at two of the country’s most famous bird observatories, Lundy Island and Fair Isle. Most of his later work was to focus on birds: white-tailed eagles, red kites, and ospreys. Some of these projects extended into continental Europe. He also writes about the special challenges posed by mammal reintroductions; beavers get a chapter of their own. Every initiative is described in exhaustive detail, full of names and dates, whereas I would have been okay with an overview. This feels like more of an insider’s history rather than a layman’s introduction. I have popped it on my husband’s bedside table in hopes that, with his degree in wildlife conservation, he’ll be more interested in the nitty-gritty.
“Tenacity and a long view to the future are important in wildlife conservation.”
“for every successful project that gets the go-ahead, there are others into which people put great effort but which then run up against problems.”
With thanks to William Collins for the free copy for review.
Dálvi: Six Years in the Arctic Tundra by Laura Galloway
The title is the word for winter in the Northern Sámi language. Galloway, a journalist, traded in New York City for Arctic Norway after a) a DNA test told her that she had Sámi blood and b) she met and fell for Áilu, a reindeer herder, at a wedding. She enrolled in an intensive language learning course at university level and got used to some major cultural changes: animals were co-workers here rather than pets (like the two cats she brought with her); communal meals and drawn-out goodbyes were not the done thing; and shamans were still active (one helped them find a key she lost). Footwear neatly sums up the difference. The Prada heels she brought “just in case” ended up serving as hammers; instead, she helped Áilu’s mother make reindeer skins into boots. Two factors undermined my enjoyment: Alternating chapters about her unhappy upbringing in Indiana don’t add much of interest, and, after her relationship with Áilu ends, the book feels aimless. However, I appreciated her words about DNA not defining you, and family being what you make it.
With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.
A Raga for George Harrison by Sharmagne Leland St.-John (2020)
Native American poet Sharmagne Leland St.-John’s fifth collection is a nostalgic and bittersweet look at people and places from one’s past. There are multiple elegies for public figures – everyone from Janis Joplin to Virginia Woolf – as well as for some who aren’t household names but have important stories that should be commemorated, like Hector Pieterson, a 12-year-old boy killed during the Soweto Uprising for protesting enforced teaching of Afrikaans in South Africa in 1976. Many of the elegies are presented as songs. Personal sources of sadness, such as a stillbirth, disagreements with a daughter, and ageing, weigh as heavily as tragic world events.
Rhyming and alliteration create inviting rhythms throughout the book, and details of colour and fashion animate poems like “La Kalima.” Leland St.-John remembers meeting street children in Mexico, while bamboo calls to mind time spent in Japan. “Promised Land” is an ironic account of land being seized from natives and people of colour. I especially liked “Things I Would Have Given to My Mother Had She Asked” (some literal and some more abstract), which opens “A piece of my liberal mind. 5 more minutes of my time”, and the sombre “Cat’s Cradle” (“Drenched starlings perch on a cat’s cradle of telephone wires”).
With thanks to the author for sending a free e-copy for review.
Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Fiona Sampson
Coming in at under 260 pages, this isn’t your standard comprehensive biography. Sampson instead describes it as a “portrait,” one that takes up the structure of EBB’s nine-book epic poem, Aurora Leigh, and is concerned with themes of identity and the framing of stories. Elizabeth, as she is cosily called throughout the book, wrote poems that lend themselves to autobiographical interpretation – “her body of work creates a kind of looking glass in which, dimly, we make out the person who wrote it,” Sampson asserts.
Nicknamed “Ba,” Elizabeth was born in 1806 and brought up with 11 younger siblings at a Herefordshire estate, Hope End. Her father, Edward, had been born in Jamaica and the family fortune was based on sugar – and slavery. Sampson makes much of this inherited guilt, and also places an emphasis on EBB’s lifelong ill health, which involved headaches, back and side pain, and depression. She also suffered from respiratory complaints. The modern medically minded reader tries to come up with a concrete diagnosis. Tardive dystonia? Post-viral syndrome? The author offers many potential explanations, and notes that her subject was the very type of the Victorian female invalid. She would also suffer from miscarriages, but had one son, Pen. The Brownings were in the unusual position of the wife being the more famous partner.
Sampson draws heavily on correspondence and earnestly interrogates scenes and remembrances, but her use of the present tense is a bit odd for a historical narrative, and I found my casual curiosity about the Brownings wasn’t enough to sustain my interest. However, this did make me eager to try more of EBB’s poetry. I wonder if I still have that copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese in a box in the States?
“Within the continual process of reputation-making and remaking that is literary history, Elizabeth Barrett Browning remains a bellwether for the rising and sinking stock of women writers. … Elizabeth dramatizes the two-way creation of every writing self, from without and from within. That the life of the body both enables and limits the life of the mind is the paradox of the thinking self.”
With thanks to Profile Books for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
This month we’re all starting with Rodham. I reviewed this Marmite novel as part of the UK blog tour and was fully engaged in its blend of historical and fictional material. Ultimately, it doesn’t work as well as American Wife because we all know too much about Hillary Clinton, but it was a lot of fun for summer binge reading and is a must for any diehard Curtis Sittenfeld fan.
#1 Late last year I was sent an e-copy of The Book of Gutsy Women by Hillary and Chelsea Clinton for a potential review. I didn’t end up reading it at the time, but I still have it on my Kindle so might get to it someday. Like many, many books that have come out over the last few years, it’s full of mini-biographies of praiseworthy women from history. It seems a bit superfluous and overlong, but if the writing is up to snuff it might still be one to skim.
#2 Speaking of guts, earlier in the year I took perverse glee in reading Gulp by Mary Roach, a tour through the body’s digestive and excretory systems. Here’s a quick question to help you gauge whether the book is for you: does the prospect of three chapters on flatulence make you go “Yesssss!” or “Ew, no. Why?!” I’m in the former camp so, for the most part, found it fascinating. Footnotes on bizarre scientific studies are particularly hilarious.
#3 I’ve read two novels with “Roach” in the title; I didn’t want to use Ian McEwan as a link two months in a row, so I went with the other one: Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga, which is also a good follow-on from #WITMonth as it was originally written in French. I reviewed this harrowing memoir of her Tutsi family’s slaughter during the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s for Wasafiri literary magazine in early 2018.
#4 One of the sunny/summer reads I featured last week was The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński. One essay from the middle of the book is called “A Lecture on Rwanda,” which locates the seeds of the 1990s conflict in the independence struggle and peasant revolt of the late 1950s and early 1960s: the Hutu majority caste (85%) was composed of tenant farmers who rebelled against the cattle-owning Tutsi minority (14%).
#5 I’ve read another book by the title The Shadow of the Sun, this one a weak early novel by A.S. Byatt. It’s about a young woman struggling to get out from under the expectations and example of her father, a literary lion.
#6 Staying in the shadows … my top nonfiction read of 2017 was James Atlas’s memoir of the biographer’s profession, The Shadow in the Garden. The book deals with the nitty-gritty of archival research and how technology has changed it; story-telling strategies and the challenge of impartiality; and how we look for patterns in a life that might explain what, besides genius, accounts for a writer’s skill. Even though I knew little about his two main subjects, poet Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow, I found the book thoroughly enthralling.
Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already! (Hosted the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best; see her intro post.)
Have you read any of my selections?
Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
I’ve now read eight of the 12 titles longlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2019 and skimmed another two, leaving just two unexplored.
My latest two reads are books that I hugely enjoyed yet would be surprised to see make the shortlist (both ):
The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein (2017)
I guarantee you’ve never read a biography quite like this one. For one thing, its subject is still alive and has never been much of a public figure, at least not outside Victoria, Australia. For another, your average biography is robustly supported by archival evidence; to the contrary, this is a largely oral history conveyed by an unreliable narrator. And lastly, whether a biography is critical or adulatory overall, the author usually at least feigns objectivity. Sarah Krasnostein doesn’t bother with that. Sandra Pankhurst’s life is an incredible blend of ordinary and bizarre circumstances and experiences, and it’s clear Krasnostein is smitten with her. “I fall in love … anew each time I listen to her speak,” she gushes towards the book’s end. At first I was irked by all the fawning adjectives she uses for Sandra, but eventually I stopped noticing them and allowed myself to sink into this astonishing story.
Sandra was born male and adopted by a couple whose child had died. When they later conceived again, they basically disowned ‘Peter’, moving him to an outdoor shed and making him scrounge for food. His adoptive father was an abusive alcoholic and kicked him out permanently when he was 17. Peter married ‘Linda’ at age 19 and they had two sons in quick succession, but he was already going to gay bars and wearing makeup; when he heard about the possibility of a sex change, he started taking hormones right away. Even before surgery completed the gender reassignment, Sandra got involved in sex work, and was a prostitute for years until a brutal rape at the Dream Palace brothel drove her to seek other employment. Cleaning and funeral home jobs nicely predicted the specialty business she would start after the hardware store she ran with her late husband George went under: trauma cleaning.
Krasnostein parcels this chronology into tantalizing pieces, interspersed with chapters in which she accompanies Sandra and her team on assignments. They fumigate and clean up bodily fluids after suicides and overdoses, but also deal with clients who have lost control of their possessions – and, to some extent, their lives. They’re hoarders, cancer patients and ex-convicts; their homes are overtaken by stuff and often saturated with mold or feces. Sandra sympathizes with the mental health struggles that lead people into such extreme situations. Her line of work takes “Great compassion, great dignity and a good sense of humour,” she tells Krasnostein; even better if you can “not … take the smell in, ’cause they stink.”
The author does a nice job of staying out of the narrative: though she’s an observer and questioner, there’s only the occasional paragraph in which she mentions her own life. Her mother left when she was young, which helps to explain why she is so compassionate towards the addicts and hoarders she meets with Sandra. Some of the loveliest passages have her pondering how things got so bad for these people and affirming that their lives still have value. As for Sandra herself – now in her sixties and increasingly ill with lung disease and cirrhosis – Krasnostein believes she’s never been unconditionally loved and so has never formed true human connections.
This book does many different things in its 250 pages. 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. It’s also simply a terrific read that should draw in lots of people who wouldn’t normally pick up nonfiction. I don’t expect it to advance to the shortlist, but if it does I’ll be not-so-secretly delighted.
A favorite passage:
Sometimes, listening to Sandra try to remember the events of her life is like watching someone reel in rubbish on a fishing line: a weird mix of surprise, perplexity and unexpected recognition. No matter how many times we go over the first three decades of her life, the timeline of places and dates is never clear. Many of her memories have a quality beyond being merely faded; they are so rusted that they have crumbled back into the soil of her origins. Others have been fossilised, frozen in time, and don’t have a personal pull until they defrost slightly in the sunlit air between us as we speak. And when that happens there is a tremor in her voice as she integrates them back into herself, not seamlessly but fully.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (2018)
If you’ve read her Booker-shortlisted debut, Eileen, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that Moshfegh has written another love-it-or-hate-it book with a narrator whose odd behavior is hard to stomach. This worked better for me than Eileen, I think because I approached it as a deadpan black comedy in the same vein as Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. Its inclusion on the Wellcome longlist is somewhat tenuous: in 2000 the unnamed narrator, in her mid-twenties, gets a negligent psychiatrist to prescribe her drugs for insomnia and depression and stockpiles them so she can take pill cocktails to knock herself out for days at a time. In a sense this is a way of extending the numbness that started with her parents’ deaths – her father from cancer and her mother by suicide. But there’s also a more fantastical scheme in her mind: “when I’d slept enough, I’d be okay, I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person.”
Ever since she was let go from her job at a gallery that showcases ridiculous modern art, the only people in this character’s life are an on-again, off-again boyfriend, Trevor, and her best (only) friend from college, longsuffering Reva, who keeps checking up on her in her New York City apartment even though she consistently treats Reva with indifference or disdain. Soon her life is a bleary cycle of sleepwalking and sleep-shopping, interspersed with brief periods of wakefulness, during which she watches a nostalgia-inducing stream of late-1990s movies on video (the kind of stuff I watched at sleepovers with my best friend during high school) – she has a weird obsession with Whoopi Goldberg.
It’s a wonder the plot doesn’t become more repetitive. I like reading about routines, so I was fascinated to see how the narrator methodically takes her project to extremes. Amazingly, towards the middle of the novel she gets herself from a blackout situation to Reva’s mother’s funeral – about the only time we see somewhere that isn’t her apartment, the corner shop, the pharmacy or Dr. Tuttle’s office – and this interlude is just enough to break things up. There are lots of outrageous lines and preposterous decisions that made me laugh. Consumerism and self-medication to deaden painful emotions are the targets of this biting satire. As 9/11 approaches, you wonder what it will take to wake this character up to her life. I’ve often wished I could hibernate through British winters, but I wouldn’t do what Moshfegh’s antiheroine does. Call this a timely cautionary tale about privilege and disengagement.
“Initially, I just wanted some downers to drown out my thoughts and judgments, since the constant barrage made it hard not to hate everyone and everything. I thought life would be more tolerable if my brain were slower to condemn the world around me.”
“Oh, sleep, nothing else could ever bring me such pleasure, such freedom, the power to feel and move and think and imagine, safe from the miseries of my waking consciousness.”
Reva: “you’re not changing anything in your sleep. You’re just avoiding your problems. … Your problem is that you’re passive. You wait around for things to change, and they never will. That must be a painful way to live. Very disempowering.”
And one more that I got out from the library and skimmed:
Murmur by Will Eaves (2018)
The subject is Alec Pryor, or “the scientist.” It’s clear that he is a stand-in for Alan Turing, quotes from whom appear as epigraphs at the head of most chapters. Turing was arrested for homosexuality and subjected to chemical castration. I happily read the first-person “Part One: Journal,” which was originally a stand-alone story (shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2017), but “Part Two: Letters and Dreams” was a lot harder to get into, so I ended up just giving the rest of the book a quick skim. If this is shortlisted, I promise to return to it and give it fair consideration.
The Feather Thief is a delightful read that successfully combines many genres – biography, true crime, ornithology, history, travel and memoir – to tell the story of an audacious heist of rare bird skins from the Natural History Museum at Tring in 2009. Somehow I managed not to hear about it at the time, but it was huge news in terms of museum collections and endangered species crime. The tendrils of this thorny case wind around Victorian explorers, tycoons, and fashionistas through to modern obsessions with music, fly-fishing and refugees.
Author Kirk Wallace Johnson worked for USAID in Iraq, heading up the reconstruction of Fallujah, then founded a non-profit organization rehoming refugees in America. Plagued by PTSD, he turned to fly-fishing as therapy, and this was how he heard about the curious case of Edwin Rist, who stole the bird specimens from Tring to sell the bright feathers to fellow hobbyists who tie elaborate Victorian-style fishing flies.
Rist, from upstate New York, was a 20-year-old flautist studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Since age 11 he’d been fixated on fly-tying, especially old-fashioned salmon ties, which use exotic feathers or ordinary ones dyed to look like them. An online friend told him he should check out Tring – the museum Walter Rothschild’s financier father built for him as a twenty-first birthday present – when he got to London. In 2008 Rist scoped out the collection, pretending to be photographing the birds of paradise for a friend’s book.
A year later he took the train to Tring one summer night with an empty suitcase and a glass cutter, broke in through a window, stole 300 bird skins, and made it back to his flat without incident. The museum only discovered the crime a month later, by accident. Rist sold many feathers and whole birds via a fly-tying forum and on eBay. It was nearly another year and a half before the police knocked on his door, having been alerted by a former law enforcement officer who encountered a museum-grade bird skin at the Dutch Fly Fair and asked where it came from.
Here is where things get really interesting, at least for me. Rist confessed immediately, but a psychological evaluation diagnosed him with Asperger’s; on the strength of that mental health defense he was given a suspension and a large fine, but no jail time, so he graduated from the Royal Academy as normal and auditioned for jobs. The precedent was a case from 2000 in which a young man with Asperger’s who stole human remains from a Bristol graveyard was exonerated.
The book is in three parts: the first gives historical context about specimen collection and the early feather trade; the second is a blow-by-blow of Rist’s crime and the aftermath, including the trial; and the third goes into Wallace’s own investigation process. He started by attending a fly-tying symposium, where he felt like an outsider and even received vague threats: Rist was now a no-go subject for this community. But Wallace wasn’t going to be deterred. Sixty-four bird skins were still missing, and his quest was to track them down. He started by contacting Rist’s confirmed customers, then interviewed Rist himself in Germany and traveled to Norway to meet someone who might have been Rist’s accomplice – or fall guy.
I happened to be a bit too familiar with the related history – I’ve read a lot of books that touch on Alfred Russel Wallace, whose specimens formed the core of the Tring collection, as well as a whole book on the feather trade for women’s hats and the movement against the extermination, which led to the formation of the Audubon Society (Kris Radish’s The Year of Necessary Lies). This meant that I was a little impatient with the first few chapters, but if you are new to these subjects you shouldn’t have that problem. For me the highlights were the reconstruction of the crime itself and Wallace’s inquiry into whether the Asperger’s diagnosis was accurate and a fair excuse for Rist’s behavior.
This whole story is stranger than fiction, which would make it a great selection for readers who don’t often pick up nonfiction, perhaps expecting it to be dry or taxing. Far from it. This is the very best sort of nonfiction: wide-ranging, intelligent and gripping.
The Feather Thief was published in the UK by Hutchinson on April 26th. My thanks to Najma Finlay for the free copy for review.
The first book I ever reviewed on this blog, nearly three years ago, happened to be Jonathan Eig’s The Birth of the Pill. It was the strength of the writing in that offbeat work of history, as well as rave reviews for this 2017 biography of Muhammad Ali (1942–2016), that led me to pick up a sport-themed book. I’m the furthest thing from a sports fan you could imagine, but I approached this as a book about a cultural icon and read it with a spirit of curiosity about how Eig would shape this life story and separate the facts from the legend. It’s a riveting account of outliving segregation and developing a personal style and world-beating confidence; it’s a sobering tale of facing consequences and having your own body fail you. I loved it.
Today would have been Ali’s 76th birthday, so in honor of the occasion – and his tendency to spout off-the-cuff rhymes about his competitors’ shortfalls and his own greatness – I’ve turned his life story into a book review of sorts, in rhyming couplets.
Born into 1940s Kentucky,
this fine boy had decent luck – he
surpassed his angry, cheating father
though he shared his name; no bother –
he’d not be Cassius Clay much longer.
He knew he was so much stronger
than all those other boys. Racing
the bus with Rudy; embracing
the help of a white policeman,
his first boxing coach – this guardian
prepared him for Olympic gold
(the last time Cassius did as told?).
A self-promoter from the start, he
was no scholar but won hearts; he
hogged every crowd’s full attention
but his faults are worth a mention:
he hoarded Caddys and Royces
and made bad financial choices;
he went through one, two, three, four wives
and lots of other dames besides;
his kids – no closer than his fans –
hardly even got a chance.
Cameos from bin Laden, Trump,
Toni Morrison and more: jump
ahead and you’ll see an actor,
envoy, entrepreneur, preacher,
(though maybe things got out of hand).
Ali was all things to all men
and fitted in the life of ten
but though he tested a lot of walks,
mostly he just wanted to box.
The fights: Frazier, Foreman, Liston –
they’re all here, and the details stun.
Eig gives a vivid blow-by-blow
such that you will feel like you know
what it’s like to be in the ring:
dodge, jab, weave; hear that left hook sing
past your ear. Catch rest at the ropes
but don’t stay too long like a dope.
If, like Ali, you sting and float,
keep an eye on your age and bloat –
the young, slim ones will catch you out.
Bow out before too many bouts.
Ignore the signs if you so choose
(ain’t got many brain cells to lose –
these blows to the head ain’t no joke);
retirement talk ain’t foolin’ folk,
can’t you give up on earning dough
and think more about your own soul?
Just like Malcolm X always said
Allah laid a call on your head:
To raise up the black man’s status
and ask white men why they hate us;
to resist the Vietnam draft
though that nearly got you the shaft
and lost you your name, your title
and (close) your rank as an idol.
Was it all real, your piety?
Was it worth it in society?
Nation of Islam was your crew
but sure did leave you in the stew
with that Vietcong kerfuffle
and Malcolm/Muhammad shuffle.
Through U.S. missions (after 9/11)
you explained it ain’t about heaven
and who you’ll kill to get you there;
it’s about peace, being God’s heir.
Is this story all about race?
Eig believes it deserves its place
as the theme of Ali’s life: he
was born in segregation, see,
a black fighter in a white world,
but stereotypes he hurled
right back in their faces: Uncle
Tom Negro? Naw, even punch-drunk he’ll
smash your categories and crush
your expectations. You can flush
that flat dismissal down the john;
don’t think you know what’s going on.
Dupe, ego, clown, greedy, hero:
larger than life, Jesus or Nero?
How to see both, that’s the kicker;
Eig avoids ‘good’ and ‘bad’ stickers
but shows a life laid bare and
how win and lose ain’t fair and
history is of our making
and half of legacy is faking
and all you got to do is spin
the world round ’till it lets you in.
Biography’s all ’bout the arc
and though this story gets real dark,
there’s a glister to it all the same.
A man exists beyond the fame.
What do you know beneath the name?
Less, I’d make a bet, than you think.
Come over here and take a drink:
this is long, deep, satisfying;
you won’t escape without crying.
Based on 600 interviews,
this fresh account is full of news
and fit for all, not just sports fans.
Whew, let’s give it up for Eig, man.
Below I’ve chosen my seven favorite nonfiction books published in 2017, followed by three older titles that I only recently discovered. Many of these books have already featured on the blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m mostly limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
- Landslide: True Stories by Minna Zallman Proctor: This gorgeous set of autobiographical essays circles through some of the overarching themes of the author’s life: losing her mother, a composer; the importance Italy had for both of them; a love for the work of Muriel Spark; their loose connection to Judaism; and the relentless and arbitrary nature of time. Proctor provides a fine example of how to write a non-linear memoir that gets to the essence of what matters in life.
- My Jewish Year by Abigail Pogrebin: From September 2014 to September 2015, Pogrebin celebrated all the holidays in the Jewish calendar, drawing thematic connections and looking for the resonance of religious rituals might have in her daily life. This bighearted, open-minded book strikes me as a perfect model for how any person of faith should engage with their tradition: not just offering lip service and grudgingly showing up to a few services a year, but knowing what you believe and practice, and why.
In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight against Alzheimer’s by Joseph Jebelli: With the world’s population aging, it is expected that by 2050 Alzheimer’s will be the second leading cause of death after heart disease. Research neurologist Joseph Jebelli gives a thorough survey of the history of Alzheimer’s and the development of our efforts to treat and even prevent it, but balances his research with a personal medical story any reader can relate to – his beloved grandfather, Abbas, succumbed to Alzheimer’s back in Iran in 2012. (See my full review for BookBrowse.)
- My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul: Whether she was hoarding castoffs from her bookstore job, obsessing about ticking off everything in the Norton Anthology, despairing that she’d run out of reading material in a remote yurt in China, or fretting that her new husband took a fundamentally different approach to the works of Thomas Mann, Paul (the editor of the New York Times Book Review) always looks beyond the books themselves to ask what they say about her. It’s just the sort of bibliomemoir I wish I had written.
- The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs: Beautiful prose enhances this literary and philosophical approach to terminal cancer. Riggs was a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson and quotes from her ancestor’s essays as well as from Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy to put things into perspective; she’s an expert at capturing the moments that make life alternately euphoric and unbearable – and sometimes both at once.
- Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby: This is a vivid, compassionate set of stories culled from the author’s long career in heart surgery with the Grim Reaper looking on. I am not a little envious of all that Westaby has achieved: not just saving the occasional life despite his high-mortality field – as if that weren’t enough – but also pioneering various artificial heart solutions and a tracheal bypass tube that’s named after him.
And my nonfiction book of the year was:
1. The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas: I read this in August, planning to contrast it with Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own, another biographer’s memoir, for the LARB. It would have been a brilliant article, believe me. But they didn’t bite, and by the time I approached the TLS they’d already arranged coverage of the books. Alas! Such is the life of a freelancer. Since then I’ve struggled to know what to say about Atlas’s book that would explain why I loved it so much that my paperback proof is riddled with Post-It flags. (It’s going to take more than a couple of sentences…)
Much more so than Tomalin, Atlas gave me a real sense of what it’s like to immerse yourself in another person’s life. He made it up as he went along: he was only 25 when he got the contract to write a biography of the poet Delmore Schwartz, who died a penniless alcoholic at age 52. Writing about the deceased was a whole different matter to engaging with a living figure, as Atlas did when he wrote his biography of Saul Bellow in the 1990s.
Atlas perceptively explores the connections between Schwartz and Bellow (Schwartz was the model for the protagonist of Bellow’s 1975 Pulitzer winner, Humboldt’s Gift) and between Bellow and himself (a Chicago upbringing with Russian Jewish immigrant ancestors), but also sets his work in the context of centuries of biographical achievement – from Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson through master biographers like Richard Holmes, Leon Edel and Richard Ellmann (Atlas’s supervisor during his fellowship at Oxford) to recent controversial biographies of Robert Frost and Vladimir Nabokov.
This book deals with the nitty-gritty of archival research and how technology has changed it; Atlas also talks story-telling strategies and the challenge of impartiality, and ponders how we look for the patterns in a life that might explain what, besides genius, accounts for a writer’s skill. Even the footnotes are illuminating, and from the notes I learned about a whole raft of biographies and books on the biographer’s trade that I’d like to read. After I finished reading it I spent a few days dreamily wondering if I might write a biography some day. For anyone remotely interested in life writing, pick this up with my highest recommendation.
I’ll make it up to an even 10 with a few backlist titles I also loved:
The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books by John Carey (2014): Carey gives a thorough picture of events from his personal and professional life, but the focus is always on his literary education: the books that have meant the most to him and the way his taste and academic specialties have developed over the years. Ultimately what this book conveys is the joy of being a lifelong reader.
A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold (1949): So many of Leopold’s musings ring true today: how we only appreciate wildlife if we can put an economic value on it, the troubles we get into when we eradicate predators and let prey animals run rampant, and the danger of being disconnected from the land that supplies our very life. And all this he delivers in stunning, incisive prose.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (2015): An exquisite interrogation of gender identity and an invaluable reminder that the supposed complications of making a queer family just boil down to your basic human experiences of birth, love and death. I preferred those passages where Nelson allows herself to string her fragments into more extended autobiographical meditations, like the brilliant final 20 pages interspersing her memories of giving birth to her son Iggy with an account of the deathbed vigil her partner (artist Harry Dodge) held for his mother; it had me breathless and in tears, on a plane of all places.
What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll be posting my Library Checkout a few days early.
Next week’s planned posts:
26th: Doorstopper of the Month
27th: Top fiction of the year list
28th: Runners-up and other superlatives
29th: Early 2018 recommendations
30th: Final statistics on my 2017 reading
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 rating and a short taster 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.)
Girl at War by Sara Nović [subscription service; excerpt available to non-subscribers]: This pitch-perfect debut novel is an inside look at the Yugoslavian Civil War and its aftermath, from the perspective of a young girl caught up in the fighting. The careful structure is what keeps it from becoming just another ordinary, chronological war story. The recreation of a child’s perspective on the horrors of war is stunning. In fact, I can barely think of a negative thing to say about this concise novel. It strikes a perfect balance between past and present, tragic and hopeful.
Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry [subscription service; excerpt available to non-subscribers]: With settings ranging from a Coney Island theater to an opium den and a mental asylum, this is a gritty look at late-nineteenth-century outsiders. Circus and sideshow themes have been very popular in fiction in recent years, and this is a great example of a novel that uses those elements as background but goes beyond the incidentals of the carnival lifestyle to examine sexuality and societal outcasts. A very atmospheric and accomplished debut novel.
Secrets of the Pomegranate by Barbara Lamplugh (& interview): In the aftermath of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, the secrets harbored by two English sisters, one of them settled in Granada, will come out into the open and affect the entire family. Lamplugh does a great job of unveiling a little at a time – but still maintaining tension until the surprise of the final revelation. The novel shifts easily between the central narrative and Deb’s diary entries, and between Alice’s and Mark’s perspectives. A strong debut novel.
An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It by Jessie Greengrass: An unusual mixture of historical, contemporary and dystopian short stories. A number of the first-person narratives feel like vague interior monologues, though there are some universal sentiments. When Greengrass picks one genre (but which will it be?) and sticks with it for the length of a whole book, she should have the time and space for the deep characterizations I thought were missing here. (But you can’t beat this book’s title, can you?)
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg: This was one of the key books of my American childhood. All these years later, phrases were still familiar to me, such as Jamie’s frequent exclamation of “Oh, boloney!” I clearly remembered the delicious overall sense of adventure and secrecy. Konigsburg captures school group chatter and brother/sister banter perfectly. The museum and archive settings are a great way to get children interested in art, history and library research. This was the original Night at the Museum before that franchise was ever dreamed up.
The Hunt for the Golden Mole by Richard Girling: From Victorian animal collecting to present-day poaching, Girling surveys the contradictory human instincts toward exploitation and preservation of mammals. The book is rather scattered, with too little about the actual quest for the mole, but the message about species extinction is powerful. (The Somali golden mole has never been seen in the wild, except as a few bones in an owl pellet found by an Italian zoologist in 1964. For some reason, it captured Girling’s imagination, becoming a symbol of rarity and fragility.)
Road Ends by Mary Lawson: Contrasting rural Canada and London in the 1960s, Lawson’s third novel is a powerful story about how people deal with a way of life ending. She creates a perfect balance between her two plot strands, and the evocation of both locations is flawless, perhaps because they have autobiographical worth for her – she grew up on a farm in Ontario but moved to England in 1968. One remarkable thing about the novel is how she traces every decision back to a traumatic event in a character’s past.
The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall: Rachel Caine has run Idaho’s Chief Joseph wolf preserve for nearly a decade, but her roots are in England’s Lake District. Her two worlds unexpectedly collide when an earl asks for her help reintroducing wolves near the Scottish border. Alongside the story of the wolves’ release runs Rachel’s decision to become a mother. The twin plot strands – one environmental and the other personal – ask what can be salvaged from the past.
Italian Ways by Tim Parks: Parks, an Englishman, has lived and worked in northern Italy for over 30 years. To start with he saw his train travel as an everyday source of woes about ticket queues, late running, officious staff, and so on, but as years passed he decided to interrogate Italy’s rail system as a metaphor for the country itself. He structures this book around seven train journeys. It’s better suited to train spotters than to armchair travelers: there is quite a lot about train schedules and not enough about the countryside itself.
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.
Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee: A thorough and sympathetic appreciation of an underrated author, and another marvelously detailed biography from Lee. Fitzgerald is, like Diana Athill, a reassuring examples of an author who did not find success until well into middle age. Although she always guarded literary ambitions, she was not able to pursue her work wholeheartedly until she had reared three children and nursed her hapless husband through his last illness. The approach is largely chronological, though Lee pauses at key moments to investigate the biographical origins of each of Fitzgerald’s books.
Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg: Mazie Phillips-Gordon, a real ticket-taker at The Venice movie theatre, barely gets a footnote in history. Here we see all sides of this bold, brassy broad through Attenberg’s fragmented, epistolary narrative. The novel intersperses Mazie’s fictional diary entries (1907 to 1939) with excerpts from her unpublished autobiography and interviews with people who knew her. This is historical fiction – but not as we’re accustomed to it. Attenberg shows how fragile and incomplete the documentary record can be. A hard-nosed heroine with a heart of gold, Mazie will leave her mark on you.
A Buzz in the Meadow by Dave Goulson: As Goulson did in his book about bees, A Sting in the Tale, he treats readers like friends he is taking on a gentle tour to have everyday encounters with nature. The low-key, humorous anecdotes are reminiscent of the writings of Gerald Durrell, but – like Durrell – Goulson has a serious environmental agenda. Some of the most amusing chapters are about the sexual habits of insects and plants. This is less focused than his previous book, though, and repeats some of the material. The main draw, as always, is Goulson’s infectious enthusiasm and excellent explanations of science.
We Love This Book
War of the Encyclopaedists by Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite: In this postmodern satire, two Seattle hipsters must face reality when one of them leaves to fight in the Iraq War. From now on they keep in touch by updating their pretentious Wikipedia article. While Hal applies literary criticism to Star Wars and tries to make amends to his ex-girlfriend, Mickey is in life-and-death situations, looking for car bombs and overseeing local elections. Robinson and Kovite (an Iraq War veteran) alternate their settings in a fairly seamless whole.
The Edible Atlas by Mina Holland: Food lovers and armchair travelers alike will savor this tour through the world’s regional cuisines and trademark dishes. In her first book, the editor of the Guardian’s Cook supplement introduces 39 cuisines with larder lists, a rundown of crucial flavors, and one to four recipes. Maps show which spices and chilies are used in different areas, while sidebars present key ingredients. The book strives for a balance of common imports and unknown dishes, prioritizing authenticity and reproducibility at home.
Hollow Heart by Viola di Grado: Twenty-five-year-old Dorotea Giglio slit her wrists in the bathtub in July 2011 and expired in “a grim mojito of mint bubble bath and blood.” Over the next four years she chronicles her physical decomposition as well as her spirit’s enduring search for love. In alternately clinical and whimsical language, with fresh metaphors that have survived translation from Italian admirably, di Grado’s second novel examines the secret sadness passed down through families.
Auschwitz #34207: The Joe Rubinstein Story by Nancy Sprowell Geise: This eye-opening account of a Polish Jew’s life before, during, and after Auschwitz deposits readers right into concentration camp horrors. Instead of presenting this as a third-person biography, Geise writes as Rubinstein, using extensive interviews and documentary research to recreate his perspective. While the story is necessarily a bit less dramatic after the chapters on the Holocaust, the fact that Rubinstein survived and later became a successful shoe designer in New York is inspiring.
The Contaminants by Devin K. Smyth: Two teens aboard a spacecraft hold out hope for new life on post-apocalyptic Earth in this believable YA science fiction novel. Composed of two solid first-person narratives and based around two father-child relationships, this is a novel that prizes emotions as much as it does technology. The novel is on the thin side; it could have done with another subplot or two to add some complexity. However, the subtle eugenics theme will give teen readers plenty to think about while they follow the fast-paced story.
The Loneliness Cure by Kory Floyd: A professor of communication tackles the loneliness epidemic with stories and science. Floyd explains the problems associated with chronic affection deprivation and suggests practical strategies for getting more of the human contact we naturally crave. Two-thirds of the text goes to preliminaries, but the subtitle’s six strategies are worth waiting for. Like the best self-help books, this convinces readers that “it pays to reach out for help when you need it” and gives the confidence and tactics to do so.
In this article I give a more in-depth preview of Circling the Sun by Paula McLain, her fictionalized biography of Beryl Markham.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads.
Insomnia by Linda Pastan: Excellent free verse poems infused with images of weather, heavenly bodies, the night sky, art history, and travels. No rhymes to speak of, but plenty of alliteration and repetition – like in “Necklace,” where nearly every line ends with “pearl” or “pearls.” Historical and mythological references are frequent and highbrow. Especially in Part 3, the main theme is facing old age and illness. Linda Pastan has been writing poetry for nearly half a century; I’ll be sure to seek out more of her collections. Releases October 26th.
The Kindness by Polly Samson: This very subtle novel reminds me of works by Tessa Hadley and Lucy Caldwell. It takes one seemingly perfect couple – Julia and Julian – and parses out what went wrong between them and the aftermath. The book is so elegantly structured; characters drift in and out of flashbacks with none of the customary warnings. Instead Samson leaves it to readers to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of how they met and raised their daughter, Mira, and then how everything fell apart.
The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett: In this impressive debut, Barnett chronicles the romantic lives of two Cambridge graduates through three-quarters of a century, giving three options for how their connection might play out. She juggles her storylines and moves through decades with ease. Less mawkish than One Day; less gimmicky than Life After Life – though there are shades of both. The message seems to be: there is no one perfect person, no one perfect story. Unsentimental this may be, but it feels true to how life works. (My full review will appear in the July 2015 issue of Third Way magazine.)
Eating Appalachia: Rediscovering Regional American Flavors by Darrin Nordahl: Nordahl travels through Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina in search of truly indigenous local ingredients. He highlights ramsons, pawpaw, elk (leaner and richer than beef), squirrel, hickory nuts and black walnuts, sumac, spicebush berry, sassafras, and persimmons. There are a few recipes and photographs in each chapter, although this is more of a narrative than a cookbook. I loved how he brought it all together with an imagined Appalachian Thanksgiving feast.
Eating Rome: Living the Good Life in the Eternal City by Elizabeth Minchilli: Minchilli’s parents moved the family from America to Rome when she was 12. Over the years she kept going back to Italy: to Florence as a graduate student, and then to stay when she married Domenico. Here, through recipes and personal stories, she shares her enthusiasm for Italian food and for Rome in particular. She finishes each chapter with a list of favorite eateries, so this is a practical guide anyone would benefit from taking along on a trip to Rome.
Some Churches by Tasha Cotter: I loved the first two poems but felt a number of the rest were lacking in artistry. Almost all are written in complete sentences, some in paragraph blocks, and alliteration isn’t always enough to differentiate them from prose. Favorite lines (from “Blood Orange”): “People think that either the red or the orange should go, because to blend the two / alienates some readers. / … I, too, am having an identity crisis, / just like the blood orange. Now that we’ve peeled back / the artifice, you’re inviting me in anyway”.
South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature by Margaret Eby: This tour through Southern literature is a great introduction for someone whose familiarity with Southern authors is minimal. Starting off in her home state of Mississippi, Eby travels through Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and back to Mississippi in a roughly circular road trip. My favorite chapter was on Flannery O’Connor, but I was also interested to learn about Harry Crews, who I’d never heard of before – it certainly sounds like he was a character. Releases September 8th.
Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir of Humor and Healing by Reba Riley: I could relate to much of Riley’s story. She was a Pentecostal-leaning fundamentalist through high school, but now even setting foot in a church made her feel nauseous. Yet she retained a strong spiritual compass that helped her tap into the energy of the “Godiverse.” Aged 29, Riley had the idea of experiencing 30 different religious traditions before 30. She writes in a chatty, girlfriend-to-girlfriend style, as if you’ve joined her book club for a glass of pinot grigio.