I may have fallen behind on my 20 Books of Summer reading – August is going to have to be jam-packed! – but I have been enjoying the all-animals challenge. One of these two collections of short fiction sustains an animal theme for most of its length, while the other draws on metaphors from a fishing community but isn’t specifically about nature.
Animal Crackers by Hannah Tinti (2004)
A zoo, a circus, a turkey farm, a natural history museum, an African hunting expedition: several of the 11 stories are set in locales where human–animal interactions are formalized and exploitative, but all mention an animal at least once. In two cases the animal reference seems incidental and the stories really belong elsewhere – “Home Sweet Home,” which opens with the excellent line “Pat and Clyde were murdered on pot roast night,” appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2003; “Hit Man of the Year” feels like a trial run for The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley – and in others there are gratuitous animal deaths at the hands of disturbed boys or angry men, which is always a strike against a book for me.
I only found four stand-outs here. “Reasonable Terms” is a playful piece of magic realism in which a zoo’s giraffes get the gorilla to write out a list of demands for their keepers and, when agreement isn’t forthcoming, stage a mass mock suicide. In “How to Revitalize the Snake in Your Life,” a woman takes revenge on her boa constrictor-keeping boyfriend. In “Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus,” which reminded me of Ned Beauman’s madcap style, a boarding school teenager eludes the private detectives her parents have hired to keep tabs on her and makes it all the way to Ghana, where a new species of monkey is named after her. My favorite of all was “Preservation,” in which Mary saves wildlife paintings through her work as an art conservator but can’t save her father from terminal illness.
Barnacle Love by Anthony De Sa (2008)
When I plucked this Giller Prize finalist from a secondhand bookshop’s clearance shelf, I assumed it was a novel. The 10 titled chapters are in chronological order and recount the Rebelos’ experiences in Canada between the mid-1950s and the early 1980s, but in that each focuses on a discrete incident from the family’s history, they are more like linked short stories. Manuel, a fisherman from the Azores, is shipwrecked on the coast of Newfoundland and begins a new life in Canada. He’s deliberately gone far from his home village, far from his controlling mother and the priest who abused him: “I knew that if I stayed in our town, on our stifling island, I’d be consumed by what it was you [his mother] hoped and dreamed for me.” He moves from St. John’s to Toronto, brings over a Portuguese wife, and raises two children while hopping from one unsuccessful money-making scheme to another.
The first half of the book reports Manuel’s life in the third person, while the second is in the first person, narrated by his son, Antonio. Through that shift in perspective we come to see Manuel as both a comic and a tragic figure: he insists on speaking English, but his grammar and accent are atrocious; he cultivates proud Canadian traditions, like playing the anthem on repeat on Canada Day and spending Christmas Eve at Niagara Falls, but he’s also a drunk the neighborhood children laugh at. Although the two chapters set back in Portugal were my favorites, Manuel is a compelling, sympathetic character throughout, and I appreciated De Sa’s picture of the immigrant’s contrasting feelings of home and community. Particularly recommended if you’ve enjoyed That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung.
Manuel’s mother: “My husband used to say that men are all barnacles. A barnacle starts out life swimming freely in the ocean. But, when it matures, it must settle down and choose a home. My dear husband used to say that it chooses to live with other barnacles of the same kind so that they can mate.”
Manuel: “I leave Portugal on fishing boat and I know I not going to come back. I give everything away to follow something new. I no understand what but something inside push me here—to make something of myself in this land. I come to be someone in this world.”
I was slow to launch into my 20 Books of Summer reading, but have now finally managed to get through my first four books. These include two substitutes: a review copy I hadn’t realized fit in perfectly with my all-animals challenge, and a book I’d started earlier in the year but set aside and wanted to get back into. Three of the four were extremely rewarding; the last was somewhat insubstantial, though I always enjoy reading about cat antics. All have been illuminating about animal intelligence and behavior, and useful for thinking about our place in and duty towards the more-than-human world. Not all of my 20 Books of Summer will have such an explicit focus on nature – some just happen to have an animal in the title or pictured on the cover – but this first batch had a strong linking theme so was a great start.
Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis (2015)
In this modern folk tale with elements of the Book of Job, the gods Apollo and Hermes, drinking in a Toronto tavern, discuss the nature of human intelligence and ponder whether it’s inevitably bound up with suffering. They decide to try an experiment, and make a wager on it. They’ll bestow human intelligence on a set of animals and find out whether the creatures die unhappy. Apollo is willing to bet two years’ personal servitude that they will be even unhappier than humans. Their experimental subjects are the 15 dogs being boarded overnight at a nearby veterinary clinic.
The setup means we’re in for an And Then There Were None type of picking-off of the 15, and some of the deaths are distressing. But strangely – and this is what the gods couldn’t foresee – knowledge of their approaching mortality gives the dogs added dignity. It gives their lives and deaths the weight of Shakespearean tragedy. Although they still do doggy things like establishing dominance structures and eating poop, they also know the joys of language and love. A mutt called Prince composes poetry and jokes. Benjy the beagle learns English well enough to recite the first paragraph of Vanity Fair. A poodle named Majnoun forms a connection with his owner that lasts beyond the grave. The dogs work out who they can trust; they form and dissolve bonds; they have memories and a hope that lives on.
It’s a fascinating and inventive novella, and a fond treatment of the relationship between dogs and humans. When I read in the Author’s Note that the poems all included dogs’ names, I went right back to the beginning to scout them out. I’m intrigued by the fact that this Giller Prize winner is a middle book in a series, and keen to explore the rest of the Trinidanian-Canadian author’s oeuvre.
These next two have a lot in common. For both authors, paying close attention to the natural world – birds, in particular – is a way of coping with environmental and mental health crises.
Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt (2009)
Lyanda Lynn Haupt has worked in bird research and rehabilitation for the Audubon Society and other nature organizations. (I read her first book, Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds, quite a few years ago.) During a bout of depression, she decided to start paying more attention to the natural world right outside her suburban Seattle window. Crows were a natural place to start. From then on she took binoculars everywhere she went, even on walks to Target. She spent time watching crows’ behavior from a distance or examining them up close – devoting hours to studying a prepared crow skin. She even temporarily took in a broken-legged fledgling she named Charlotte and kept a close eye on the injured bird’s progress in the months after she released it.
Were this simply a charming and keenly observed record of bird behavior and one woman’s gradual reawakening to the joys of nature, I would still have loved it. Haupt is a forthright and gently witty writer. But what takes it well beyond your average nature memoir is the bold statement of human responsibility to the environment. I’ve sat through whole conference sessions that try to define what nature is, what the purpose of nature writing is, and so on. Haupt can do it in just a sentence, concisely and effortlessly explaining how to be a naturalist in a time of loss and how to hope even when in possession of all the facts.
A few favorite passages:
“an intimate awareness of the continuity between our lives and the rest of life is the only thing that will truly conserve the earth … When we allow ourselves to think of nature as something out there, we become prey to complacency. If nature is somewhere else, then what we do here doesn’t really matter.”
“I believe strongly that the modern naturalist’s calling includes an element of activism. Naturalists are witnesses to the wild, and necessary bridges between ecological and political ways of knowing. … We join the ‘cloud of witnesses’ who refuse to let the more-than-human world pass unnoticed.”
“here we are, intricate human animals capable of feeling despair over the state of the earth and, simultaneously, joy in its unfolding wildness, no matter how hampered. What are we to do with such a confounding vision? The choices appear to be few. We can deny it, ignore it, go insane with its weight, structure it into a stony ethos with which we beat our friends and ourselves to death—or we can live well in its light.”
The Seafarers: A Journey among Birds by Stephen Rutt (2019)
In 2016 Rutt left his anxiety-inducing life in London in a search for space and silence. He found plenty of both on the Orkney Islands, where he volunteered at the North Ronaldsay bird observatory for seven months. In the few years that followed, the young naturalist travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles – from Skomer to Shetland – courting encounters with seabirds. He’s surrounded by storm petrels one magical night at Mousa Broch; he runs from menacing skuas; he watches eider and terns and kittiwakes along the northeast coast; he returns to Orkney to marvel at gannets and fulmars. Whether it’s their beauty, majesty, resilience, or associations with freedom, such species are for him a particularly life-enhancing segment of nature to spend time around.
Discussion of the environmental threats that hit seabirds hardest, such as plastic pollution, makes for a timely tie-in to wider conservation issues. Rutt also sees himself as part of a long line of bird-loving travellers, including James Fisher and especially R.M. Lockley, whose stories he weaves in. This is one of the best nature/travel books I’ve read in a long time, especially enjoyable because I’ve been to a lot of the island locations and the elegantly evocative writing, making particularly effective use of varied sentence lengths, brought back to me just what it’s like to be in the far north of Scotland in the midst of an endless summer twilight, a humbled observer as a whole whirlwind of bird life carries on above you.
A favorite passage:
“Gannets nest on the honeycombs of the cliff, in their thousands. They sit in pairs, pointing to the sky, swaying heads. They stir. The scent of the boat’s herring fills the air. They take off, tessellating in a sky that is suddenly as much bird as light. The great skuas lurk.”
With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the proof copy for review.
The Coming of Saska by Doreen Tovey (1977)
I’ve read four of Tovey’s quaint Siamese cat books now; this was the least worthwhile. It’s partially a matter of false advertising: Saska only turns up for the last 15 pages, as a replacement of sorts for Seeley, who disappeared one morning a year earlier and was never seen again. Over half of the book, in fact, is about a trip Tovey and her husband Charles took to Edmonton, Canada. The Canadian government sponsored them to come over for the Klondike Days festivities, and they also rented a camper and went looking for bears and moose. Mildly amusing mishaps, close shaves, etc. ensue. They then come back and settle into everyday life with their pair of Siamese half-siblings; Saska had the same father as Shebalu. Entertaining enough, but slight, and with far too many ellipses.
We’re back from a pleasant but whirlwind weekend in France. Even just sticking to one corner of Normandy, there was far too much to see and do and not enough good weather to do it all in. Highlights were the Bayeux tapestry, the gorse-covered rocky cliff above a river at Les Roches de Ham, a delicious three-course meal in a restaurant just outside Bayeux, fresh bread and cake from boulangeries, and the enormous Sunday morning open-air market in Caen. (Low point: being sick on the boat on the way back. I hate sailing.) I finished up The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker, read all of A Breath of French Air by H.E. Bates, and started a few more books.
Here are excerpts from and links to some of my recent print or online writing for other places. (No surprise that four out of the five are nonfiction and involve medical or bereavement themes!)
The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything That Comes After by Julie Yip-Williams: A lawyer facing late-stage cancer reflects on the happy life she had despite disability and an inauspicious start, and bids farewell to her family. It was miracle enough to have survived her first few years (blindness, a euthanasia attempt, and fleeing Vietnam by boat), but she eventually graduated from Harvard Law School and joined a Wall Street law firm. The author dubs herself “a somewhat ruthless realist.” Early on she vowed she would do nothing desperate or bizarre in her quest for healing, in contravention of what she calls the American “hope industrial complex.” Yet she also left room for spirituality to surprise her. The book resembles a set of journal entries or thematic essays, written at various times over her five years with colon cancer. Some stories are told more than once; an editor might have combined or cut some passages to avoid repetitiveness. Still, this posthumous memoir stands as a testament to a remarkable life of overcoming adversity, asking questions, and appreciating beauty wherever it’s found. (See also my list of other recommended posthumous cancer memoirs.)
That Time I Loved You: Stories by Carrianne Leung: The residents of a Toronto suburb cope with growing up amid a spate of surprise suicides in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Leung explores different points of view on the same events and changes that take place in a community over several years. Three of the stories are narrated by June, who is 11 years old at the start. Her parents came over from Hong Kong 15 years ago. Other stories fill in a kaleidoscopic view of the neighborhood, showing how lonely the residents are – and how segregated along ethnic lines. Leung returns to June’s perspective at the beginning, middle, and end of the book, so we see her growing up and learning how the world works. Hard lessons are in store for her: people are sometimes punished for their differences, and the older generation doesn’t have it all figured out. Suburbia gets a bad rap, but it’s where so many of us come from, so it’s heartening to see a writer taking it seriously here. (See also my article on linked short story collections, for which I enlisted lots of blogger help via book Twitter.)
Shiny New Books
War Doctor: Surgery on the Front Line by David Nott: Welsh surgeon David Nott combines advanced technical skills with extreme altruism: for weeks of every year he takes unpaid leave to volunteer with a medical charity like Médecins sans Frontières or Syria Relief in war zones or disaster areas around the world. The kinds of procedures he has performed in Sarajevo, Kabul and Darfur are a world away from his normal work as an NHS consultant in London: amputations, treating injuries caused by homemade bombs, and delivering the babies of young rape victims. His memoir is mostly structured by countries and/or time periods. There are gripping moments – such as completing a difficult amputation by following instructions texted to him by a London colleague – but also some less fascinating chronology. The book is slow to start and took me weeks to get through. However, it shines when Nott recalls particular patients who have stood out for him. All told, his is an amazing and inspiring story.
As if you haven’t already heard enough about the Wellcome Book Prize from me (!), I also wrote this article for Shiny about the Prize’s history and the range of books that have won or been nominated over the last 10 years, finishing up with some reflections on this year’s shortlist.
Times Literary Supplement
Somehow I seem to have become a TLS regular. The biography editor periodically contacts me with lists of recent memoirs to be reviewed in 400 words for the “In Brief” section, and I’ve been doing about one per month this year.
Blood Ties by Ben Crane: Artist Ben Crane has developed a passion for birds of prey, raising hawks and training as a falconer. “I saw that my feelings towards nature, and birds of prey in particular, ran in parallel with my feelings for my son,” he writes. Blood Ties accordingly cuts between the story of rehabilitating a pair of rescued sparrowhawks named Girl and Boy and a parallel story about raising his son as a part-time single father. Together these strands emphasize the common concerns that arise when caring for any creature. Crane’s descriptive language is memorably sharp. Whatever struggles his Asperger’s entails, it seems to heighten his observational skills. Pruning the travel segments would have produced a more focused memoir, but this is a powerful story all the same – of the ties that bind us, both to nature and our own families. (Full review in February 8th issue.)
Notes for the Everlost: A Field Guide to Grief by Kate Inglis: Inglis, a Nova Scotian photographer and children’s author, has written this delicate, playful handbook – something between a bereavement memoir and a self-help guide – for people who feel they might disappear into grief for ever. In 2007, Inglis’s identical twin sons were born premature, at twenty-seven weeks. Ben lived but Liam died. Every milestone in Ben’s life would serve as a reminder of the brother who should have been growing up alongside him. The unfairness was particularly keen on the day she returned to hospital for two appointments: Ben’s check-up and a report on Liam’s autopsy. Unable to sustain the eye-popping freshness of the prose in the introduction, Inglis resorts to some clichés in what follows. But this kooky, candid book will be valuable to anyone facing bereavement or supporting a loved one through it. (Full review in March 15th issue.)
Last month I picked out this exchange from East of Eden by John Steinbeck:
“But the Irish are said to be a happy people, full of jokes.”
“They’re not. They’re a dark people with a gift for suffering way past their deserving. It’s said that without whisky to soak and soften the world, they’d kill themselves. But they tell jokes because it’s expected of them.”
There’s something about that mixture of darkness and humor, isn’t there? I also find that Irish art (music as well as literature) has a lot of heart. I only read two Ireland-related historical novels this month, but they both have that soulful blend of light and somber. Both:
Things in Jars by Jess Kidd (2019)
In the autumn of 1863 Bridie Devine, female detective extraordinaire, is tasked with finding the six-year-old daughter of a baronet. Problem is, this missing girl is no ordinary child, and collectors of medical curiosities and circus masters alike are interested in acquiring her.
In its early chapters this delightful Victorian pastiche reminded me of a cross between Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and that comparison played out pretty well in the remainder. Kidd paints a convincingly gritty picture of Dickensian London, focusing on an underworld of criminals and circus freaks: when Bridie first arrived in London from Dublin, she worked as an assistant to a resurrectionist; her maid is a 7-foot-tall bearded lady; and her would-be love interest, if only death didn’t separate them, is the ghost of a heavily tattooed boxer.
Medicine (surgery – before and after anesthesia) and mythology (mermaids and selkies) are intriguing subplots woven through, such that this is likely to appeal to fans of The Way of All Flesh and The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. Kidd’s prose is spry and amusing, particularly in her compact descriptions of people (but also in her more expansive musings on the dirty, bustling city): “a joyless string of a woman, thin and pristine with a halibut pout,” “In Dr Prudhoe’s countenance, refinement meets rogue,” and “People are no more than punctuation from above.”
I’ll definitely go back and read Kidd’s two previous novels, Himself and The Hoarder. I didn’t even realize she was Irish, so I’m grateful to Cathy for making me aware of that in her preview of upcoming Irish fiction. [Trigger warnings: violence against women and animals.] (Out from Canongate on April 4th.)
Away by Jane Urquhart (1993)
I was enraptured from the first line: “The women of this family leaned towards extremes” – starting with Mary, who falls in love with a sailor who washes up on the Irish coast in the 1840s amid the cabbages, silver teapots and whiskey barrels of a shipwreck and dies in her arms. Due to her continued communion with the dead man, people speak of her being “away with the fairies,” even after she marries the local schoolteacher, Brian O’Malley.
With their young son, Liam, they join the first wave of emigration to Canada during the Potato Famine, funded by their landlords, the Sedgewick brothers of Puffin Court (amateur naturalist Osbert and poet Granville). No sooner have the O’Malleys settled and had their second child, Eileen, than Mary disappears. As she grows, Eileen takes after her mother, mystically attuned to portents and prone to flightiness, while Liam is a happily rooted Great Lakes farmer. Like Mary, Eileen has her own forbidden romance, with a political revolutionary who dances like a dream.
I’ve been underwhelmed by other Urquhart novels, Sanctuary Line and The Whirlpool, but here she gets it just right, wrapping her unfailingly gorgeous language around an absorbing plot – which is what I felt was lacking in the others. The Ireland and Canada settings are equally strong, and the spirit of Ireland – the people, the stories, the folk music – is kept alive abroad. I recommend this to readers of historical fiction by Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt and Hannah Kent.
Some favorite lines:
Osbert says of Mary: “There’s this light in her, you see, and it must not be put out.”
“When summer was finished the family was visited by a series of overstated seasons. In September, they awakened after night frosts to a woods awash with floating gold leaves and a sky frantic with migrating birds – sometimes so great in number that they covered completely with their shadows the acre of light and air that Brian had managed to create.”
“There are five hundred and forty different kinds of weather out there, and I respect every one of them. White squalls, green fogs, black ice, and the dreaded yellow cyclone, just to mention a few.”
At about this time of year I try to read a handful of books with “love” in the title. I’m currently reading Iris Murdoch’s The Sacred and Profane Love Machine for the #IMReadalong, and I have one more “love” title towards the end of this post, but it turns out that my focus this year has been more on the kinds of love that tend to get ignored around Valentine’s Day – familial love for one’s ageing parents and grandparents.
Be With: Letters to a Carer by Mike Barnes (2018)
Mike Barnes, a Toronto poet and novelist, has been a primary caregiver for his mother, Mary, in the nine years since her Alzheimer’s diagnosis disease. She grew up on a Saskatchewan farm and is now in her nineties; he’s in his sixties. A bipolar sufferer, Barnes has spent his own fair share of time in hospitals and on disability. He’s moved Mary between care homes four times as her condition has deteriorated. Though he laments her gradual loss of words and awareness of her family, he can still discern instances of her bravery and the beauty of life.
This book of fragments – memories and advice delivered via short letters – was written in between demanding caregiving tasks and is meant to be read in those same gaps. Dementia is one situation in which you should definitely throw money at a problem, Barnes counsels, to secure the best care you can, even round-the-clock nursing help. However, as the title suggests, nothing outweighs simply being there. Your presence, not chiefly to make decisions, but just to sit, listen and place a soothing hand on a forehead, is the greatest gift.
There are many excellent, pithy quotations in this book. Here are a few of my favorites:
“a retreat under fire”
“a passage of exquisite vulnerability”
By your loved one’s side is “Not where things are easy, or satisfactorily achieved, or achievable, or even necessarily pleasant. But where you ought to be, have to be, and are. It brings a peace.”
The goal is “Erring humanely”.
I can imagine this being an invaluable companion for caregivers, to be tucked into a pocket or purse and pulled out for a few moments of relief. On the theme of a parent’s dementia, I’d also recommend Paulette Bates Alden’s book of linked short stories, Unforgettable.
Out now from Myriad Editions. My thanks for the free copy for review.
The Smallest Things: On the enduring power of family: A memoir of tiny dramas by Nick Duerden (2019)
Journalist Nick Duerden always appreciated how his maternal grandparents, Nonna and Nonno, seemed so ordinary and unchanging. Every trip to see them in the Milan suburbs was, comfortingly, the same. He’d muddle along with his meager Italian, and they’d look after him in their usual clucking way. It was only as he reached middle age and realized that his grandparents were undeniably very old – his grandmother is 99 and in a care home at the time of writing – that he realized how lucky he was to still have them in his life and how unlikely it was that they’d be around for much longer.
Duerden compares his small immediate family with his Spanish wife’s large extended one, and his uptight paternal grandparents with the more effusive set. There are also some family secrets still to uncover. I made the mistake of reading a previous nonfiction book of Duerden’s just the week before this one: Get Well Soon (2018), which has a long chapter about his grandparents that told me all I needed to know about them. That’s probably the main reason why this short book struck me as lightweight, though I did ultimately find it a touching tribute, especially to his grandmother. It could make a good Mother’s Day present.
Out today from Elliott & Thompson. My thanks for a proof copy for review.
Love Story by Erich Segal (1970)
This offbeat novella was a bestseller and a successful film. You surely know its most famous line: “Love means not ever having to say you’re sorry.” Oliver Barrett IV is a golden boy: his banker father and previous generations of the eminent Barrett family funded various buildings at Harvard, where Oliver is a hockey player in the late 1960s. Jenny Cavilleri, on the other hand, comes from a single-parent Italian-American family in New Jersey. She’s made it to Radcliffe as a harpsichordist, but her father is just a baker; she’d never be considered good enough for the likes of Oliver. But they meet at the Radcliffe library and, sure enough, fall for each other. She calls him “Preppie”; he calls her a bitch. They’re only partially joking. It may be true love against the odds, but it has an expiration date, as we know from the first line: “What can you say about a twenty-five-year old girl who died?”
I wanted to like this more. There’s a pleasing lightness to the style, but because the whole book is from Oliver’s perspective, I felt like Jenny got short shrift: she’s the wise-cracking gal from the block, and then she’s the innocent victim in the hospital bed. Because this is only about 120 pages, there’s not much space in between for her character to be developed. I was somewhat appalled to learn about a 1977 sequel in which Oliver finds a new love.
(Segal’s daughter Francesca is also a novelist (The Innocents).)
Have you read any “love” books, or books about love of any kind, lately?
Like a lot of book bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the shiny new books released each year. However, I’ve noticed recently that many of my most memorable reads were published years or even decades ago. In 2018 I even came across a handful of books that are for me among the very best representatives of their genre, whether that’s nature, travel, family memoir, historical fiction or science fiction. The below selections are in alphabetical order by author name, and account for all the rest of my 4.5- and 5-star ratings of the year (another 27!).
March by Geraldine Brooks (2005): The best Civil War novel I’ve read. The best slavery novel I’ve read. One of the best historical novels I’ve ever read, period. Brooks’s second novel uses Little Women as its jumping-off point but is very much its own story. The whole is a perfect mixture of what’s familiar from history and literature and what Brooks has imagined.
Marlena by Julie Buntin (2017): The northern Michigan setting pairs perfectly with the novel’s tone of foreboding: you have a sense of these troubled teens being isolated in their clearing in the woods, and from one frigid winter through a steamy summer and into the chill of the impending autumn, they have to figure out what in the world they are going to do with their terrifying freedom. It’s basically a flawless debut, one I can’t recommend too highly.
Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane (1996): Ireland’s internecine violence is the sinister backdrop to this family’s everyday sorrows, including the death of a child and the mother’s shaky mental health. The book captures all the magic, uncertainty and heartache of being a child, in crisp scenes I saw playing out in my mind.
The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr (2013): Lena Gaunt: early theremin player, grande dame of electronic music, and opium addict. I loved how Farr evokes the strangeness and energy of theremin music, and how sound waves find a metaphorical echo in the ocean’s waves – swimming is Lena’s other great passion.
Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay (2007): A tight-knit cast gathers around the local radio station in Yellowknife, a small city in Canada’s Northwest Territories: Harry and Gwen, refugees from Ontario starting new lives; Dido, an alluring Dutch newsreader; Ralph, the freelance book reviewer; menacing Eddie; and pious Eleanor. This is a marvellous story of quiet striving and dislocation; I saw bits of myself in each of the characters, and I loved the extreme setting, both mosquito-ridden summer and bitter winter.
The Leavers by Lisa Ko (2017): An ambitious and satisfying novel set in New York and China, with major themes of illegal immigration, searching for a mother and a sense of belonging, and deciding what to take with you from your past. This was hand-picked by Barbara Kingsolver for the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (2010): Hungarian Jew Andras Lévi travels from Budapest to Paris to study architecture, falls in love with an older woman who runs a ballet school, and – along with his parents, brothers, and friends – has to adjust to the increasingly strict constraints on Jews across Europe in 1937–45. It’s all too easy to burn out on World War II narratives these days, but this is among the very best I’ve read.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996): For someone like me who struggles with sci-fi at the best of times, this is just right: the alien beings are just different enough from humans for Russell to make fascinating points about gender roles, commerce and art, but not so peculiar that you have trouble believing in their existence. All of the crew members are wonderful, distinctive characters, and the novel leaves you with so much to think about: unrequited love, destiny, faith, despair, and the meaning to be found in life.
Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar (2015): Hester Finch is looking back from the 1870s – when she is a widowed teacher settled in England – to the eight ill-fated years her family spent at Salt Creek, a small (fictional) outpost in South Australia, in the 1850s–60s. This is one of the very best works of historical fiction I’ve read; it’s hard to believe it’s Treloar’s debut novel.
Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days by Jeanette Winterson (2016): I treated myself to this new paperback edition with part of my birthday book token and it was a perfect read for the week leading up to Christmas. The stories are often fable-like, some spooky and some funny. Most have fantastical elements and meaningful rhetorical questions. Winterson takes the theology of Christmas seriously. A gorgeous book I’ll return to year after year.
Available Light by Marge Piercy (1988): The subjects are diverse: travels in Europe, menstruation, identifying as a Jew as well as a feminist, scattering her father’s ashes, the stresses of daily life, and being in love. Some of my favorites were about selectively adhering to the lessons her mother taught her, how difficult it is for a workaholic to be idle, and wrestling the deity for words.
Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills by Neil Ansell (2011): One of the most memorable nature/travel books I’ve ever read; a modern-day Walden. Ansell’s memoir is packed with beautiful lines as well as philosophical reflections on the nature of the self and the difference between isolation and loneliness.
Boy by Roald Dahl (1984): Pranks and larks and holidays: these are all here; so is crushing homesickness and a bitter sense of injustice at being at the mercy of sadistic adults. Nearly 60 years later, Dahl could use memory and imagination to fully inhabit his childhood self and give a charming survey of the notable events of his life up to age 20.
This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich (2001): I thoroughly enjoyed my armchair trek across a frigid island nation in the company of Gretel Ehrlich, who traveled here repeatedly between 1995 and 2001 and intersperses her journeys with those of her historical model, Inuit–Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen, whose seven Arctic expeditions took in the west coast of Greenland and the far north of the North American continent. Every time she finds a fresh way to write about ice and sun glare and frigid temperatures.
Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig (2017): 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’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. I loved it.
The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler (2017): A charming introduction to 99 more or less obscure writers. Each profile is a perfectly formed mini-biography with a survey of the author’s major work: in just two or three pages, Fowler is able to convey all a writer’s eccentricities and why their output is still worth remembering.
To the Is-Land: An Autobiography by Janet Frame (1982): This is some of the best writing about childhood and memory that I’ve ever read, infused with music, magic and mystery. The prose alternates between dreamy and matter-of-fact as Frame describes growing up in New Zealand one of five children in the Depression and interwar years.
Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller (2015): This poignant sequel to Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is a portrait of Fuller’s two-decade marriage, from its hopeful beginnings to its acrimonious end. What I most appreciated about the book was Fuller’s sense of being displaced: she no longer feels African, but nor does she feel American.
West With the Night by Beryl Markham (1942): Markham writes so vividly about the many adventures of her life in Africa: hunting lions, training race horses, and becoming one of the continent’s first freelance pilots, delivering mail and locating elephant herds. Whether she’s reflecting on the many faces of Africa or the peculiar solitude of night flights, the prose is just stellar.
And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison (1993): An extraordinary memoir based around the author’s relationship with his father. Alternating chapters give glimpses into earlier family life and narrate Morrison’s father’s decline and death from cancer. This is simply marvelously written, not a bad line in the whole thing.
The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers by Adam Nicolson (2017): This is an extraordinarily well-written and -researched book (a worthy Wainwright Prize winner) about the behavior, cultural importance, and current plight of the world’s seabirds. Each chapter takes up a different species and dives deep into everything from its anatomy to the legends surrounding it, simultaneously conveying the playful, intimate real lives of the birds and their complete otherness.
The Long Goodbye: A Memoir of Grief by Meghan O’Rourke (2011): I read a whole lot of bereavement memoirs; this has been one of the very best. O’Rourke tells her story with absolute clarity – a robust, plain-speaking style that matches her emotional transparency. The heart of the book is her mother’s death from colorectal cancer on Christmas Day 2008, but we also get a full picture of the family life that preceded it and the first couple of years of aftermath.
Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone by Richard Lloyd Parry (2017): Eighteen and a half thousand people died in the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011. It’s not really possible to get your head around a tragedy on that scale so, wisely, Parry focuses on a smaller story within the story: 74 died at Okawa primary school because the administration didn’t have a sufficient disaster plan in place. This is a stunning portrait of a resilient people, but also a universal story of the human spirit facing the worst.
Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen (2012): A splendid memoir-in-essays that dwells on aging, parenting and female friendship. Some of its specific themes are marriage, solitude, the randomness of life, the process of growing into your own identity, and the special challenges her generation (roughly my mother’s) faced in seeking a work–life balance. Her words are witty and reassuring, and cut right to the heart of the matter in every case.
The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin (2009): Probably the best self-help book I’ve read; dense (in the best possible way) with philosophy, experience and advice. What I appreciated most is that her approach is not about undertaking extreme actions to try to achieve happiness, but about finding contentment in the life you already have by adding or tweaking small habits – especially useful for pessimists like me.
In the Days of Rain: A daughter. A father. A cult by Rebecca Stott (2017): This was a perfect book for my interests, and just the kind of thing I would love to write someday. It’s a bereavement memoir that opens with Stott’s father succumbing to pancreatic cancer and eliciting her promise to help finish his languishing memoir; it’s a family memoir that tracks generations through England, Scotland and Australia; and it’s a story of faith and doubt, of the absolute certainty experienced inside the Exclusive Brethren (a Christian sect that numbers 45,000 worldwide) and how that cracked until there was no choice but to leave.
Writers & Company by Eleanor Wachtel (1993): Erudite and fascinating author interviews from Wachtel’s weekly Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program. Whether I’d read anything by these authors (or even heard of them) or not, I found each Q&A chock-full of priceless nuggets of wisdom about creativity, mothers and daughters, drawing on autobiographical material, the writing process, and much more.
And if I really had to limit myself to just two books – my very best fiction and nonfiction reads of the year – they would be March by Geraldine Brooks and And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison.
For the Margaret Atwood Reading Month hosted by Marcie and Naomi, I read her first two novels – though I didn’t realize they were so at the time, and read them in reverse order. These were my 18th and 19th Atwood books overall, and my 11th and 12th of her novels. It was particularly interesting to see the germ of her frequent themes in these early works.
(At 186 pages, this just about fit into Novellas for November too!) A young Canadian woman has returned to her French-speaking hometown, ostensibly to search for her missing father but really to search for herself. She’s an illustrator at work on a collection of Quebec folk tales, and in her past are a husband and child that she left behind. With her at her father’s lakeside cabin are her boyfriend Joe, whom she’s not sure she loves, and their friends David and Anna, a married couple whose dynamic is rather disturbing – David is always making demeaning sexualized jokes about Anna, who is afraid for him to see her without makeup on.
This is a drifting, dreamy sort of book whose gorgeous nature writing (“Above the trees streaky mackerel clouds are spreading in over the sky, paint on a wet page; no wind at lake level, soft feel of the air before rain”) inures you to various threats. You’re never sure just how serious they’ll turn out to be. Will the men’s attitude to women spill over into outright assault? Will there be some big blowup with the resented Americans who are monopolizing the lake? (“We used to think they were harmless and funny and inept and faintly lovable, like President Eisenhower.”)
Meanwhile, the question of her father’s whereabouts becomes less and less important as the book goes on. The narrator seems to have closed herself off to emotion, but all that’s repressed returns dramatically in the final 20 pages (“From any rational point of view I am absurd; but there are no longer any rational points of view.”).
I suspect there may be a fair bit I missed; the book would probably benefit from future re-readings and even some exploration of secondary sources to think about all that’s going on. It’s maybe not as accessible and plot-heavy as much of Atwood’s later work, but I found it to be an intriguing and rewarding read, and it still feels timely more than four decades later.
The Edible Woman (1969)
Marian McAlpin works for Seymour Surveys, administering questionnaires about rice pudding and a new brand of beer. She shares an apartment with Ainsley, who tests electric toothbrushes, in the home of a harridan of a landlady who monitors their every move. Marian is happy enough with her boyfriend Peter and gradually drifts into an engagement – but she can’t stop thinking about Duncan, an apathetic graduate student whom she met during her survey rounds and ran into again at the laundromat. Duncan represents a sort of strings-free relationship that contrasts with the traditional marriage she’d have with Peter. Her challenge is to overcome the inertia of convention and decide what she really wants from her life.
Part Two’s shift from first person to third person is a signal that Marian is dissociating from her situation. She recoils from food and pregnancy – two facts of bodily life that the book’s characters embrace greedily or turn from in horror. Gradually Marian eliminates more and more foods from her diet, starting with meat. And while Ainsley concocts a devious plan to get pregnant by Marian’s friend Len, Marian keeps in mind the cautionary tale of her college friend Clara, whose three monstrous children are always peeing on people or going off to poop in corners. Marian perceives Clara as having given up her mind in favor of her womb.
It’s unclear whether we’re meant to see Marian’s experience as a temporary eating disorder or a physical manifestation of endangered femininity. Now that veganism is mainstream, it sounds dated to hear her lamenting, “I’m turning into a vegetarian, one of those cranks; I’ll have to start eating lunch at Health Bars.” In any case, you can spot themes that will recur in Atwood’s later work, like the threat of the male gaze (Surfacing), the perception of the female body (Lady Oracle), manipulation of pregnancy (The Handmaid’s Tale) and so on. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed this novel, but I liked the food metaphors and laughed at the over-the-top language about babies.
Have you read any of Margaret Atwood’s books recently?