I first read Anne Lamott’s autobiographical essays on faith in about 2005, when I was in my early twenties and a recovering fundamentalist and Republican. She’s a Northern Californian ex-alcoholic, a single mother, a white lady with dreadlocks. Her liberal, hippie approach to Christianity was a bit much for me back then. I especially remember her raging against George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. But even if I couldn’t fully get behind all of her views, her picture of a fumbling faith that doesn’t claim to know much for certain appealed to me. Jesus is for her the herald of a radical path of love and grace. Lamott describes herself stumbling towards kindness and forgiveness while uttering the three simplest and truest prayers she knows, “Help, thanks, wow.” I only own three of her eight spiritual books (though I’ve read them all), so I recently reread them one right after the other – the best kind of soul food binge in a stressful time.
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999)
Her first and best collection. Many of these pieces first appeared in Salon web magazine. There is a lot of bereavement and other dark stuff here, yet an overall lightness of spirit prevails. Lamott’s father died of melanoma that metastasized to his brain (her work has meant a lot to my sister because her husband, too, died of brain cancer) and her best friend Pammy died of breast cancer – both far too young. A college dropout, alcoholic and drug addict, Lamott didn’t walk into a church and get clean until she was in her early thirties. Newly sober and with the support of the community, she was able to face unexpected motherhood and raise Sam in the church, clinging to fragments of family and nurturing seeds of faith.
The essays sometimes zero in on moments of crisis or decision, but more often on everyday angst, such as coming to terms with a middle-aged body. “Thirst” and “Hunger” are a gorgeous pair about getting sober and addressing disordered eating. “Ashes,” set on one Ash Wednesday, sees her trying to get her young son interested in the liturgical significance and remembering scattering Pammy’s ashes. “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and “Barn Raising” are two classics about surviving a turbulent flight and supporting a local family whose child has cystic fibrosis. Each essay is perfectly constructed: bringing together multiple incidents and themes in a lucid way, full of meaning but never over-egging the emotion.
Like A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas, this was even better the second time around – I can see that the memoir-in-essays is now among my most admired forms.
Some favorite lines:
“The main reason [that she makes Sam go to church] is that I want to give him what I found in the world[: …] a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want—which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality.”
“You really do have to eat, anything at all you can bear. So we had smoothies, with bananas, which I believe to be the only known cure for existential dread.”
“most of the time, all you have is the moment, and the imperfect love of people.”
“even though I am a feminist and even though I am religious, I secretly believe, in some mean little rat part of my brain, that I am my skin, my hair, and worst of all, those triangles of fat that pooch at the top of my thighs. In other words, that I am my packaging.”
My original rating (c. 2005):
My rating now:
Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (2005)
Here’s the more political material I remembered from Lamott. Desperately angry about the impending Iraq War, she struggles to think civilly about Bush. “I wake up some mornings pinned to the bed by centrifugal sadness and frustration.” In the meantime, her difficult mother has died and it takes years to get to a point where she can take the woman’s ashes (with a misspelling on the name label) out of the closet and think of scattering them. Sam is a teenager and there are predictable battles of wills but also touching moments as they rekindle a relationship with his father. Lamott also starts a Sunday School and says goodbye to a dear old dog. A few of the essays (especially “One Hand Clapping”) feel like filler, and there are fewer memorable lines. “Ham of God,” though, is an absolute classic about the everyday miracle of a free ham she could pass on to a family who needed it.
I’ve been surprised that Lamott hasn’t vented her spleen against Donald Trump in her most recent books – he makes Bush look like a saint, after all. But I think it must be some combination of spiritual maturity and not wanting to alienate a potential fan base (though to most evangelicals she’ll be beyond the pale anyway). Although her response to current events makes this book less timeless than Traveling Mercies, I found some of her words applicable to any troubled period: “These are such rich, ripe times for paranoia and despair that each celebration, each occasion of tribal love and music and overeating glows more brightly … People are helping one another keep their spirits up.”
My secondhand copy has had quite the journey: it has a “The Munich Readery” stamp in the front and has sat text block facing out on a shelf for ages judging by the pattern of yellowing; I picked it up from the Community Furniture Project, a local charity warehouse, last year for a matter of pence.
Some favorite lines:
(on caring for an ageing body) “You celebrate what works and you take tender care of what doesn’t, with lotion, polish and kindness.”
“Rest and laughter are the most spiritual and subversive acts of all. Laugh, rest, slow down.”
My original rating (c. 2005):
My rating now:
Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace (2014)
This is a sort of “Greatest Hits” collection of new and selected essays. I skipped over the ones I’d just encountered in Traveling Mercies and Plan B to focus on the newer material. I don’t have a copy of Grace (Eventually), her third set of essays on faith, so I wasn’t sure which were from that and which were previously unpublished in book form. More so than before, Lamott’s thoughts turn to ageing and her changing family dynamic – she’s now a grandmother. As usual, the emphasis is on being kind to oneself and learning the art of forgiveness. Sometimes it seems like her every friend or relative has cancer. Her writing has tailed off noticeably in quality, but I suspect there’s still no one many of us would rather hear from about life and faith. It’s a beautiful book, too, with deckle edge, blue type and gold accents. My favorite of the new stuff was “Matches,” about Internet dating.
My original rating (2015):
My rating now (for the newer material only):
Currently rereading: Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Considering rereading next: Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty
Done any rereading lately?
What books have been balm for the soul for you?
For this second half of the year I chose just 15 of the new releases I was most excited about. Limiting myself in that way has been helpful for focusing the mind: I’ve already read six of my most anticipated books, I’m currently reading another, and I have several more awaiting me. Had I chosen 30 or more titles, I would likely be feeling overwhelmed by now, but as it is I have a good chance of actually getting to all these books before the end of the year. These five September releases, while very different – their topics range from cancer and dead bodies to archaeological digs and family inheritance – all lived up to my expectations:
The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care by Anne Boyer
(Coming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux [USA] on the 17th and Allen Lane [UK] on October 3rd)
In 2014, Boyer, then a 41-year-old poet and professor at the Kansas City Art Institute (and a single mother) was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. The book’s subtitle gives you clues to the sort of practical and emotional territory that’s covered here. Although she survived this highly aggressive cancer, she was not unscathed: the chemotherapy she had is so toxic it leads to lasting nerve damage and a brain fog that hasn’t completely lifted.
All the more impressive, then, that Boyer has been able to put together this ferociously intellectual response to American cancer culture. Her frame of reference ranges from ancient Greece – Aelius Aristides, who lived in a temple, hoping the gods would reveal the cure to his wasting illness via dreams, becomes an offbeat hero for her – to recent breast cancer vloggers. She is scathing on vapid pink-ribbon cheerleading that doesn’t substantially improve breast cancer patients’ lives, and on profit-making healthcare schemes that inevitably discriminate against poor women of color and send people home from the hospital within a day or two of a double mastectomy. Through her own experience, she reflects on the pressure women are under to be brave, to be optimistic, to go to work as normal, and to look as beautiful as ever when they are in excruciating pain and beyond exhaustion.
Impossible to avoid comparisons to Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, but this book has a personal power I don’t remember finding in Sontag’s more detached, academic-level work. Boyer sees herself as one in a long lineage of women writing about their cancer – from Fanny Burney to Audre Lorde – and probes the limits of language when describing pain. I was reminded of another terrific, adjacent book from this year, Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson, especially where Boyer describes her imagined 10-part pain scale (Gleeson has a set of 20 poems based on the McGill Pain Index).
I could quote excellent passages all day, but here are a few that stood out to me:
“People with breast cancer are supposed to be ourselves as we were before, but also better and stronger and at the same time heart-wrenchingly worse. We are supposed to keep our unhappiness to ourselves but donate our courage to everyone.”
“The moral failure of breast cancer is not in the people who die: it is in the world that makes them sick, bankrupts them for a cure that also makes them sick, then blames them for their own deaths.”
“If suffering is like a poem, I want mine to be lurid, righteous, and goth.”
My thanks to FSG for the proof copy for review.
Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals about Death by Caitlin Doughty
(Coming from W.W. Norton [USA] on the 10th and W&N [UK] on the 19th)
This is the third book by the millennial mortician, and I’ve taken perverse glee in reading them all. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes explains cremation and combats misconceptions about death; From Here to Eternity surveys death rituals from around the world. This new book seems to be aimed at (morbid) children, but for me it was more like one of those New Scientist books (Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze?) or Why Do Men Have Nipples?
Some of the questions are more serious than others, but with her usual punning wit and pop culture references Doughty gives biologically sound answers to them all. For instance, she explains what might happen to a corpse in space, why the hair and fingernails of a cadaver appear to keep growing, and why the quantity of ashes from a cremation is about the same no matter the dead person’s girth (all the fat burns away; what would make your ashes weigh more is being taller and thus having longer bones). I was most interested in the chapter on why conjoined twins generally die at roughly the same time.
Doughty also discusses laws relating to the dead, such as “abuse of corpse” regulations and whether or not deaths at a property have to be reported to potential buyers (it depends on what state or country you live in); and what happens in countries that are literally running out of space for burials. In highly population-dense places like Singapore, but also in countries such as Germany, one is considered to ‘rent’ grave space, which is then recycled after 15 years and the previous set of remains cremated. Or graves might get stacked vertically.
This is good fun, and features lots of cartoonishly gruesome black-and-white illustrations by Dianné Ruz. If you’ve got a particularly curious niece or nephew who might appreciate a dark sense of humor, this would make a good Christmas gift for one who is an older child or young teen.
My thanks to W&N for the free copy for review.
Bloomland by John Englehardt
(Coming from Dzanc Books [USA only] on the 10th)
“you wonder if the scariest thing about all this is not that life can’t return to normal, but that it already has”
Especially after Gilroy and El Paso, I wasn’t sure I’d have the heart to pick up Bloomland, a novel about a mass shooting at (fictional) Ozarka University, Arkansas. But I’m very glad I did. Crucially, Englehardt’s debut doesn’t a) make easy assignments of guilt, b) resort to lurid scenes for shock value, or c) employ the cut-and-dried language of cause and effect. It’s a subtle and finely crafted piece of literary fiction. The second-person narration is an effective means of drawing the reader into the action, and inviting ‘you’ to extend sympathy to three very different characters: Rose, an Ozarka student who becomes romantically involved with one of the injured; Eddie, a professor whose wife dies in the massacre; and Eli, the shooter.
Both Rose and Eli lost their mothers when they were 11 years old. Six years before starting a poultry science course at Ozarka, Rose was caught up in a tornado that killed her grandmother and fractured her skull. The fact that her upbringing was even more traumatic than Eli’s is, I think, meant to discredit the lazy argument that dysfunctional families produce killers. In his early days at university we see Eli befriending a drug dealer named Gordon, whose hunting rifle he soups up to use in the shooting at the campus library in finals week. Englehardt also tests out another couple of predictors of violence: cruelty towards animals (au contraire, Eli can’t stand more than one day of debeaking chickens at a poultry factory and even takes one home as a pet) and violent, video-game-fueled fantasies (the story he writes for creative writing class is average for a teenage male so doesn’t raise any alarm bells).
Gradually we learn that there is an “I” behind this triple-stranded narrative: Dr. Steven Bressinger, an Ozarka creative writing professor. Although Rose, Eddie and Eli are all fully realized characters, we are also left to wonder how this Bressinger is able to access their memories and emotions. To what extent can he really put himself into their situations? And how much of the rest is made up? But then, that’s what the novelist does anyway: imagine what it’s like to be inside a character’s experience, especially when they’ve made unimaginable decisions.
So this novel within a novel thoroughly convinced me, especially as it moves into the future to examine how the campus and the wider community address issues of guilt and vengeance. Its timeliness is obvious, and Englehardt writes a gorgeous sentence, even when it’s about the homogeneity of the American suburb: e.g., “You start driving down MLK, past the mass grave of dollar stores, under the even clouds converging like one stoic slab of ice.”
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie
(Coming from Sort Of Books [UK] on the 19th and Penguin Books [USA] on the 24th)
I’m a big fan of Kathleen Jamie’s work, prose and poetry. Like her two previous essay collections, Sightlines and Findings, both of which I read in 2012, this fuses autobiography with nature and travel writing – two genres that are too often dominated by males. Jamie has a particular interest in birds, islands, archaeology and the oddities of the human body, all subjects that intrigue me, too.
The bulk of Surfacing is given over to three long pieces set in Alaska, Orkney and Tibet. She was drawn to Quinhagak, Alaska, a village that’s about the farthest you can go before crossing the Bering Sea into Russia, by her fascination with the whaling artifacts found along the UK’s east coast. Here she helped out on a summer archaeological dig and learned about the language and culture of the Yup’ik people. Alarmingly, the ground here should have been frozen most of the way to the surface, forcing the crew to wear thermals; instead, the ice was a half-meter down, and Jamie found that she never needed her cold-weather gear.
On Westray, Orkney (hey, I’ve been there!), there was also evidence of environmental degradation in the form of rapid erosion. This Neolithic site, comparable to the better-known Skara Brae, leads Jamie to think about deep time and whether we’re actually much better off than people in the Bronze Age were. Prehistory fits the zeitgeist, as seen in two entries from the recent Wainwright Prize shortlist: Time Song by Julia Blackburn and Underland by Robert Macfarlane. It’s a necessary corrective to the kind of short-term thinking that has gotten us into environmental crisis.
A cancer biopsy coincides with a dream memory of being bitten by a Tibetan dog, prompting Jamie to get out her notebook from a trip to China/Tibet some 30 years ago. Xiahe was technically in China but ethnically and culturally Tibetan, and so the best they could manage at that time since Tibet was closed to foreigners. There’s an amazing amount of detail in this essay given how much time has passed, but her photos as well as her notebook must have helped with the reconstruction.
The depth and engagement of the long essays are admirable, yet I often connected more with the few-page pieces on experiencing a cave, spotting an eagle or getting lost in a forest. Jamie has made the interesting choice of delivering a lot of the memoir fragments in the second person. My favorite piece of all is “Elders,” which in just five pages charts her father’s decline and death and marks her own passage into unknown territory: grown children and no parents; what might her life look like now?
There is beautiful nature writing to be found in this volume, as you might expect, but also relatable words on the human condition:
What are you doing here anyway, in the woods? … You wanted to think about all the horror. The everyday news … No, not to think about it exactly but consider what to do with the weight of it all, the knowing … You are not lost, just melodramatic. The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on.
My thanks to Sort Of Books for the free copy for review.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
(Coming from Bloomsbury [UK] and Harper [USA] on the 24th)
Maeve and Danny Conroy are an inseparable brother-and-sister pair. Their mother left when Danny was little, so his older sister played a maternal role, too. And when their father dies, they become like Hansel and Gretel (or Cinderella and her little brother): cast out into the wilds by an evil stepmother who takes possession of the only home they’ve ever known, a suburban Philadelphia mansion built on the proceeds of the VanHoebeeks’ cigarette empire.
It’s interesting to see Patchett take on a male perspective in this novel; she does it utterly convincingly. I also loved the medical threads running through: Maeve is diagnosed with diabetes as a teenager, and Danny spends many years in medical training even though his only ambition is to follow in his father’s footsteps as a property developer. There was a stretch in the middle of the book – something like 46% to 58% – when I was really bored with Danny’s dithering (‘but I don’t want to be a doctor … but I don’t want to marry Celeste’), and the chronology is unnecessarily complicated by flashbacks, though this is, I think, meant to convey Danny’s desultory composition of his memoirs.
In the end I didn’t like this quite as much as Commonwealth, but it’s a memorable exploration of family secrets and memories. As the decades pass you see how what happened to Maeve and Danny has been turned into myth: a story they repeat to themselves about how they were usurped, until this narrative has more power than the reality. Readers, meanwhile, are invited to question the people and places we base our security on, and to imagine what it would mean to forgive and forget and start living in a different way.
Patchett is always so good on the psychology of complicated families, and her sharp prose never fails to hit the nail on the head. The Goldfinch comes to mind as a readalike – not least because of the significance of a piece of art: the cover depicts a painting made of Maeve when she was 10 – as well as Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good.
I read an electronic proof copy via Edelweiss.
Have you read any September releases that you would recommend? Which of these tempt you?
On Tuesday the longlist for the 2019 Wellcome Book Prize will be announced. For the third year in a row I’m running a shadow panel, and it’s composed of the same four wonderful book bloggers who joined me last year: Paul Cheney of Halfman, Halfbook, Annabel Gaskell of Annabookbel, Clare Rowland of A Little Blog of Books, and Dr. Laura Tisdall.
This year we’re going to do things slightly differently: we plan to split up the longlist, taking two to three titles each, so that between us we will have read them all and can announce our own preferred shortlist before the official shortlist is announced in March. At that point we’ll catch up by (re)reading the six shortlisted books, each reviewing the ones we haven’t already. Essentially, I’m adding an extra stage of shadow panel judging, simply because I can. I hope it will be fun – and also less onerous, in that we should get a leg-up on the shortlist and not have to read all six books in March‒April, which has proved to be a challenge in the past.
My Wellcome Prize hopefuls are all the fiction or nonfiction titles I’ve read on a medical theme that were published in the UK in calendar year 2018. I have put asterisks beside the 12 books in this post that I predict for the longlist. (The combination of wishful thinking and likelihood means that these are not exclusively my personal favorites.)
Below is a list of the books I’ve already featured on the blog in some way, with links to my coverage and a few-word summary of their relevance.
Gross Anatomy by Mara Altman: Female body woes
*Beneath the Skin: Great Writers on the Body: Essays on organs
*All that Remains by Sue Black: Forensic anthropology
Everything Happens for a Reason by Kate Bowler: Living with advanced cancer
Heal Me by Julia Buckley: Tackling chronic pain
*The Unmapped Mind by Christian Donlan: Adjusting to life with MS
From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty: Funerary rites around the world
This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein: A genetic disease in the family
Natural Causes by Barbara Ehrenreich: Questioning the wellness culture
On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions by Kate Figes: Pondering breast cancer
Shapeshifters by Gavin Francis: Instances of bodily change
The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman: Healing from an eating disorder
Nine Pints by Rose George: The story of blood
Waiting for the Last Bus by Richard Holloway: Ageing and death
*Heart: A History by Sandeep Jauhar: Heart disease and treatments
Sick by Porochista Khakpour: Chronic Lyme disease
Human Errors by Nathan Lents: Flawed bodies; evolutionary adaptations
Skybound by Rebecca Loncraine: Breast cancer; flying lessons
Amateur by Thomas Page McBee: Memoir of F2M transformation
*Face to Face by Jim McCaul: Tales of facial surgery
*Somebody I Used to Know by Wendy Mitchell: A firsthand account of early Alzheimer’s
*That Was When People Started to Worry by Nancy Tucker: Mental illness from the inside
*The Language of Kindness by Christie Watson: Nursing as a vocation
Little by Edward Carey: Anatomical models in wax (thanks to Clare for the reminder!)
Orchid & the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes: Non-epileptic seizures
*The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason: Neurology, surgery during WWI
The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry: Medicine in 1840s Edinburgh
Other eligible books that I have read but not happened to mention on the blog:
In Shock by Rana Awdish: The doctor became the patient when Awdish, seven months pregnant, was rushed into emergency surgery with excruciating pain due to severe hemorrhaging into the space around her liver, later explained by a ruptured tumor. Having experienced brusque, cursory treatment, even from colleagues at her Detroit-area hospital, she was convinced that doctors needed to do better. This memoir is a gripping story of her own medical journey and a fervent plea for compassion from medical professionals.
Doctor by Andrew Bomback: Part of the Bloomsbury Object Lessons series, this is a wide-ranging look at what it’s like to be a doctor. Bomback is a kidney specialist; his wife is also a doctor, and his father, fast approaching retirement, is the kind of old-fashioned, reassuring pediatrician who knows everything. Even the author’s young daughter likes playing with a stethoscope and deciding what’s wrong with her dolls. In a sense, then, Bomback uses fragments of family memoir to compare the past, present and likely future of medicine.
A Moment of Grace by Patrick Dillon [skimmed]: A touching short memoir of the last year of his wife Nicola Thorold’s life, in which she battled acute myeloid leukemia. Dillon doesn’t shy away from the pain and difficulties, but is also able to summon up some gratitude.
Get Well Soon: Adventures in Alternative Healthcare by Nick Duerden: British journalist Nick Duerden had severe post-viral fatigue after a run-in with possible avian flu in 2009 and was falsely diagnosed with ME / CFS. He spent a year wholeheartedly investigating alternative therapies, including yoga, massage, mindfulness and meditation, visualization, talk therapy and more. He never comes across as bitter or sorry for himself. Instead, he considered fatigue a fact of his new life and asked what he could do about it. So this ends up being quite a pleasant amble through the options, some of them more bizarre than others.
*Sight by Jessie Greengrass [skimmed]: I wanted to enjoy this, but ended up frustrated. As a set of themes (losing a parent, choosing motherhood, the ways in which medical science has learned to look into human bodies and minds), it’s appealing; as a novel, it’s off-putting. Had this been presented as a set of autobiographical essays, perhaps I would have loved it. But instead it’s in the coy autofiction mold where you know the author has pulled some observations straight from life, gussied up others, and then, in this case, thrown in a bunch of irrelevant medical material dredged up during research at the Wellcome Library.
*Brainstorm: Detective Stories From the World of Neurology by Suzanne O’Sullivan: Epilepsy affects 600,000 people in the UK and 50 million worldwide, so it’s an important condition to know about. It is fascinating to see the range of behaviors seizures can be associated with. The guesswork is in determining precisely what is going wrong in the brain, and where, as well as how medicines or surgery could address the fault. “There are still far more unknowns than knowns where the brain is concerned,” O’Sullivan writes; “The brain has a mind of its own,” she wryly adds later on. (O’Sullivan won the Prize in 2016 for It’s All in Your Head.)
I’m also currently reading and enjoying two witty medical books, The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine by Thomas Morris, and Chicken Unga Fever by Phil Whitaker, his collected New Statesman columns on being a GP.
Four additional books I have not read but think might have a chance of making the longlist:
Primate Change: How the World We Made Is Remaking Us by Vybarr Cregan-Reid
The Beautiful Cure: Harnessing Your Body’s Natural Defences by Daniel M. Davis
Because I Come from a Crazy Family: The Making of a Psychiatrist by Edward M. Hallowell
*She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer
Look out for the announcement of the longlist on Tuesday afternoon! I’ll report back, perhaps on Wednesday, with some reactions and the shadow panel’s reviewing strategy.
Have you read, or are you interested in, any of these books?
Can you think of other 2018 releases that might be eligible for the Wellcome Book Prize?
The Line Becomes a River
Francisco Cantú was a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Arizona and Texas for four years. Agents tracked illegals using the same skills with which hunters stalk their prey. Once captured, the would-be immigrants were detained, processed and deported. Days in the field were full of smuggled drugs, cached belongings and corpses of those who’d tried to cross in inhospitable conditions. Even when Cantú was transferred to a desk job, he couldn’t escape news of Mexican drug cartels and ritual mutilation of traitors’ corpses. Dreams of wolves and of his teeth breaking and falling out revealed that this was a more stressful career than he ever realized. Cantú worried that he was becoming inured to the violence he encountered daily – was he using his position “as a tool for destruction or as one of safekeeping”?
Impressionistic rather than journalistic, the book is a loosely thematic scrapbook that uses no speech marks, so macho banter with colleagues blends into introspection, memories and stories. Cantú inserts snippets of U.S.–Mexico history, including the establishment of the border, and quotes from and discusses other primary and secondary texts. He also adds in fragments of his family’s history: His ancestors left Mexico during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, but there’s no doubt his Latino name and features made him a friendly face for illegal immigrants. He was often called upon to translate for those in custody. I felt that even if the overall policy was problematic, it was good to have someone compassionate in his job.
The final third of the book represents a change of gears: Cantú left law enforcement to be a Fulbright scholar and then embarked on an MFA in creative writing at the University of Arizona. During those years of study he worked as a barista at a food court and every day he chatted and shared food with another worker, José Martínez from Oaxaca. When José went back to Mexico to visit his dying mother and settle her estate, he was refused reentry to the United States for not having the proper papers. Cantú drew on his contacts in Border Patrol to find out when José’s hearing would be, helped his wife to gather character witness letters, and took José’s sons to visit him in the detention center during his continuance and civil trial. There’s a particularly wrenching recreated monologue from José himself.
It is as if, for the first time, Cantú could see the human scale of U.S. immigration policy, what his mother, a former national park ranger, had described as “an institution with little regard for people.” No longer could he be blasé about the way things are. It was also, he recognized, an attempt to atone for the heartless deportations he had conducted as a Border agent. “All these years,” he said to his mother, “it’s like I’ve been circling beneath a giant, my gaze fixed upon its foot resting at the ground. But now, I said, it’s like I’m starting to crane my head upward, like I’m finally seeing the thing that crushes.” As he quotes from Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder, “It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people.” That’s just what this remarkable memoir does. In giving faces to an abstract struggle, it passionately argues that people should not be divided by walls but united in common humanity.
The Line Becomes a River was published in the UK by Bodley Head on March 1st. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions
It was hard to resist such a great title, especially with my penchant for cancer memoirs. In nine chapters that are almost like linked essays, Kate Figes reflects on the changes that a diagnosis of triple-negative, metastasized breast cancer has wrought in her life. However, like Vesna Goldsworthy’s Chernobyl Strawberries, the book sets the cancer experience within a wider life story of trauma and displacement. In the first essay, as Figes, a freelance nonfiction writer, approached age 60, she delighted in Zeus, their miniature wire-haired dachshund puppy, but also resented the sense of obligation. Cancer quickly changed her perspective.
I appreciated the lack of bitterness; the book’s focus is generally on resilience and on the liberation of knowing that little is now expected of her: “when there is no need to rush just to be able to get through everything I had to achieve each day, there is a glorious sense of freedom, of empty space.” Two chapters go in-depth into Figes’s “arsenal” of cancer-fighting tools, everything from hyperbaric oxygen treatments to yoga. She gave up sugar and swears by cannabis oil, filtered water, supplements and fresh juices. Her embrace of complementary medicine and discussion of her limitations – it takes her an hour and a half to get dressed and have breakfast – will probably mean the most to others with a chronic illness.
As to the other essays, “Tennis” is an ode to a favorite hobby she had to give up; “Mediation” is about training as a family mediator. The psychological understanding she gained through this and through researching her books helped her work through childhood hurt over her parents’ divorce. “The Beach Hut” remembers recent ‘escapes’ to the seaside and contrasts them with her Jewish mother’s* escape from 1930s Germany. “Home,” my favorite essay, is about clearing out her mother’s flat and the memories and comfort a home retains, even decades later. “That’s the power I will leave behind too, the essence of having been really known. It will pervade every piece of crockery I have eaten off, … every chair I have sat on.”
Unfortunately, Figes frequently uses clichéd language – “Cancer can feel isolating” and “battle is the right word” – and seems to give credence to the damaging idea that unresolved emotional trauma caused her cancer. What with the typos and the slight repetition across the essays, this feels like a book that was put together in a hurry. A bit more time and editing could have made it more cohesive and fresh. But perhaps Figes does not have that time. Fellow cancer patients may well appreciate her dispatches from what she calls “Planet Cancer,” but it’s not a book that will particularly stand out for me in this crowded genre.
*Her mother was Eva Figes, an author in her own right.
On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions was published by Virago on February 28th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
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.