Tag Archives: Carol Shields

Book Serendipity, Late 2020 into 2021

I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once (20+), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents than some. I also list some of my occasional reading coincidences on Twitter. The following are in chronological order.

  • The Orkney Islands were the setting for Close to Where the Heart Gives Out by Malcolm Alexander, which I read last year. They showed up, in one chapter or occasional mentions, in The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange and The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, plus I read a book of Christmas-themed short stories (some set on Orkney) by George Mackay Brown, the best-known Orkney author. Gavin Francis (author of Intensive Care) also does occasional work as a GP on Orkney.
  • The movie Jaws is mentioned in Mr. Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe and Landfill by Tim Dee.

 

  • The Sámi people of the far north of Norway feature in Fifty Words for Snow by Nancy Campbell and The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.

 

  • Twins appear in Mr. Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe and Tennis Lessons by Susannah Dickey. In Vesper Flights Helen Macdonald mentions that she had a twin who died at birth, as does a character in Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce. A character in The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard is delivered of twins, but one is stillborn. From Wrestling the Angel by Michael King I learned that Janet Frame also had a twin who died in utero.

 

  • Fennel seeds are baked into bread in The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley. Later, “fennel rolls” (but I don’t know if that’s the seed or the vegetable) are served in Monogamy by Sue Miller.
  • A mistress can’t attend her lover’s funeral in Here Is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan and Tennis Lessons by Susannah Dickey.

 

  • A sudden storm drowns fishermen in a tale from Christmas Stories by George Mackay Brown and The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.

 

  • Silver Spring, Maryland (where I lived until age 9) is mentioned in one story from To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss and is also where Peggy Seeger grew up, as recounted in her memoir First Time Ever. Then it got briefly mentioned, as the site of the Institute of Behavioral Research, in Livewired by David Eagleman.

 

  • Lamb is served with beans at a dinner party in Monogamy by Sue Miller and Larry’s Party by Carol Shields.

 

  • Trips to Madagascar in Landfill by Tim Dee and Lightning Flowers by Katherine E. Standefer.

 

  • Hospital volunteering in My Year with Eleanor by Noelle Hancock and Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession.

 

  • A Ronan is the subject of Emily Rapp’s memoir The Still Point of the Turning World and the author of Leonard and Hungry Paul (Hession).

 

  • The Magic Mountain (by Thomas Mann) is discussed in Scattered Limbs by Iain Bamforth, The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp, and Snow by Marcus Sedgwick.

 

  • Frankenstein is mentioned in The Biographer’s Tale by A.S. Byatt, The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp, and Snow by Marcus Sedgwick.
  • Rheumatic fever and missing school to avoid heart strain in Foreign Correspondence by Geraldine Brooks and Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller. Janet Frame also had rheumatic fever as a child, as I discovered in her biography.

 

  • Reading two novels whose titles come from The Tempest quotes at the same time: Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame and This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson.
  • A character in Embers by Sándor Márai is nicknamed Nini, which was also Janet Frame’s nickname in childhood (per Wrestling the Angel by Michael King).

 

  • A character loses their teeth and has them replaced by dentures in America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo and The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard.

Also, the latest cover trend I’ve noticed: layers of monochrome upturned faces. Several examples from this year and last. Abstract faces in general seem to be a thing.

What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?

Random 2020 Superlatives and Statistics

My top ‘discoveries’ of the year: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (4 books), Octavia E. Butler, Tim Dee (3 books each, read or in progress), and Louise Erdrich (2 books, one in progress).

Also the publisher Little Toller Books: I read four of their releases this year and they were fantastic.

The authors I read the most by this year: Carol Shields tops the list at 6 books (3 of these were rereads) thanks to my buddy reads with Buried in Print, followed by Paul Auster with 5 due to Annabel’s reading week in February, then Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with 4, and finally Anne Lamott with 3 comfort rereads.

Debut authors whose next work I’m most looking forward to: Naoise Dolan, Bess Kalb, Dara McAnulty, Mary South, Brandon Taylor, and Madeleine Watts

 

My proudest reading achievement: 16 rereads, which must be a record for me. Also, I always say I’m not really a short story person … and yet somehow I’ve read 19 collections of them this year (and one stand-alone story, plus another collection currently on the go)!

 

My proudest (non-reading) bookish achievement: Conceiving of and coordinating the Not the Wellcome Prize blog tour.

Five favorite blog posts of the year: Love, Etc. – Some Thematic Reading for Valentine’s Day; Polio and the Plague: Epidemics in Fiction; Thinking about the Future with David Farrier & Roman Krznaric (Hay Festival); Three Out-of-the-Ordinary Memoirs: Kalb, Machado, McGuinness; Asking What If? with Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld (I had a lot of fun putting the current post together, too!)

 

The bookish experience that most defined my year: Watching the Bookshop Band’s live shows from their living room. Between their Friday night lockdown performances and one-offs for festivals and book launches, I think I saw them play 33 times in 2020!

Biggest book read this year: Going by dimensions rather than number of pages, it was the oversize hardback The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris.

vs.

Smallest book read this year: Pocket-sized and only about 60 pages: No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg.

Oldest author read this year: Peggy Seeger was 82 when her memoir First Time Ever was published. I haven’t double-checked the age of every single author, but I think second place at 77 is a tie between debut novelist Arlene Heyman for Artifact and Sue Miller for Monogamy. (I don’t know how old Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren, the joint authors of The Consolation of Nature, are; Mynott may actually be the oldest overall, and their combined age is likely over 200.)

vs.

Youngest author read this year: You might assume it was 16-year-old Dara McAnulty with Diary of a Young Naturalist, which won the Wainwright Prize (as well as the An Post Irish Book Award for Newcomer of the Year, the Books Are My Bag Reader Award for Non-Fiction, and the Hay Festival Book of the Year!) … or Thunberg, above, who was 16 when her book came out. They were indeed tied for youngest until, earlier in December, I started reading The House without Windows (1927) by Barbara Newhall Follett, a bizarre fantasy novel published when the child prodigy was 12.

 

Most As on a book cover: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

vs.

Most Zs on a book cover: The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi. I haven’t read it yet, but a neighbor passed on a copy she was getting rid of. It was nominated for both the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize.

The book that made me laugh the most: Kay’s Anatomy by Adam Kay

 

Books that made me cry: Writers and Lovers by Lily King, Monogamy by Sue Miller, First Time Ever by Peggy Seeger, and Catalogue Baby: A Memoir of (In)fertility by Myriam Steinberg (coming out in March 2021)

 

The book that put a song in my head every single time I looked at it, much less read it: I Am an Island by Tamsin Calidas (i.e., “I Am a Rock” by Simon and Garfunkel, which, as my husband pointed out, has very appropriate lyrics for 2020: “In a deep and dark December / I am alone / Gazing from my window to the streets below … Hiding in my room / Safe within my womb / I touch no one and no one touches me.”)

 

Best book club selections: Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale and The Wife by Meg Wolitzer tied for our highest score ever and gave us lots to talk about.

Most unexpectedly apt lines encountered in a book: “People came to church wearing masks, if they came at all. They’d sit as far from each other as they could.” (Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Describing not COVID-19 times but the Spanish flu.)

 

Most ironic lines encountered in a book: “September 12—In the ongoing hearings, Senator Joseph Biden pledges to consider the Bork nomination ‘with total objectivity,’ adding, ‘You have that on my honor not only as a senator, but also as the Prince of Wales.’ … October 1—Senator Joseph Biden is forced to withdraw from the Democratic presidential race when it is learned that he is in fact an elderly Norwegian woman.” (from the 1987 roundup in Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits – Biden has been on the U.S. political scene, and mocked, for 3.5+ decades!)

 

Best first line encountered this year: “And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters.” (Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf)

 

Best last lines encountered this year:

  • “my childhood falls silently to the bottom of my memory, that library of the soul from which I will draw knowledge and experience for the rest of my life.” (Childhood by Tove Ditlevsen)
  • “What I want to say is: I misremember all this so vividly it’s as if it only happened yesterday.” (Other People’s Countries: A Journey into Memory by Patrick McGuinness)
  • “these friends would forever be her stitches, her scaffold, her ballast, her home.” (The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall)

 

My favorite title and cover combo of the year: A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth by Daniel Mason

The book I wish had gotten a better title and cover: Tennis Lessons by Susannah Dickey – I did enjoy this second-person novel about a young woman who is her own worst enemy, to the tune of 3.5 stars, but the title says nothing about it and the cover would have been a turnoff had I not won a signed copy from Mslexia.

The most unfortunate typos I found in published works: In English Pastoral by James Rebanks, “sewn” where he meant “sown” (so ironic in a book about farming!) versus, in Mr Wilder & Me by Jonathan Coe, “sown” in place of “sewn.” Also “impassible” where it should read “impassable” in Apeirogon by Colum McCann. This is what proofreaders like myself are for. We will save you from embarrassing homophone slips, dangling modifiers, and more!

 

The 2020 books that everybody else loved, but I didn’t: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, and Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

The year’s biggest disappointments: I don’t like to call anything “worst” (after all, I didn’t read anything nearly as awful as last year’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull), but my lowest ratings went to A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne and At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison, and I was disappointed that When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray was misleadingly marketed.

 

The downright strangest books I read this year: Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony, A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne, The House Without Windows by Barbara Newhall Follett, and The Child in Time by Ian McEwan

 

The people and themes that kept turning up in my reading: Rachel Carson and Henry David Thoreau; curlews and plagues; how we define and relate to history; childhood memoirs (seven of them).

Some of my 2020 curlew reading. (Two more books with curlews on the cover were borrowed from the library.)


Some statistics on my 2020 reading:

 

Fiction: 57.2%

Nonfiction: 36.8%

Poetry: 6%

(Fiction reigned supreme this year! Last year my F:NF ratio was roughly 1:1. Poetry was down by ~5% this year compared to 2019.)

 

Male author: 34.1%

Female author: 63.8%

Nonbinary author: 0.3% (= 1 author, Jay Bernard)

Multiple genders (anthologies): 1.8%

(Women dominated by an extra ~5% this year over 2019. I’ve said this for four years now: I find it intriguing that female authors significantly outweigh male authors in my reading because I have never consciously set out to read more books by women; it must be a matter of being interested in the kinds of stories women tell and how they capture their experiences in nonfiction.)

 

E-books: 10.6%

Print books: 89.4%

(Almost exactly the same as last year. My e-book reading has been declining, partially because I’ve cut back on the reviewing gigs that involve only reading e-books and partially because I’ve done less traveling. Increasingly, I prefer to sit down with a big stack of print books.)

 

Books by BIPOC: 14.7%

Literature in translation: 6.6%

(Down from last year’s 7.2%; how did this happen?! This will be something to address in 2021.)

 

Where my books came from for the whole year:

  • Free print or e-copy from publisher: 25.6%
  • Public library: 25.6%
  • Free (giveaways, The Book Thing of Baltimore, the free mall bookshop, etc.): 14.9%
  • Secondhand purchase: 11.6%
  • Downloaded from NetGalley, Edelweiss or Project Gutenberg: 6.7%
  • New purchase (sometimes at a bargain price): 6.3%
  • Gifts: 5.5%
  • University library: 3.8%

I promised to scale back on review copies this year, and I did: last year they accounted for nearly 37% of my reading. My library reading was higher than last year’s, despite the challenges of lockdowns; my e-book reading decreased in general. I bought more than twice as many new books as usual this year, and read lots that I either bought secondhand or got for free.

 

Number of unread print books in the house: 435

At the end of last year this figure was at 440 after lots of stock-ups from the free mall bookshop, which has since closed. So even though it might look like I have only read five books of my own, I have in fact read loads from my shelves this year … but also acquired many more books, both new and secondhand.

In any case, the overall movement has been downward, so I’m calling it a win!

My Best Backlist Reads of 2020

Like many book bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the shiny new books released each year. However, I consistently find that many of my most memorable reads were published years or even decades ago. These 29 selections, in alphabetical order by author name, account for the rest of my 4.5- and 5-star ratings of the year. Five rereads made it onto my list.

 

Fiction

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Through Ifemelu’s years of studying, working, and blogging her way around the Eastern seaboard of the United States, Adichie explores the ways in which the experience of an African abroad differs from that of African Americans. On a sentence level as well as at a macro plot level, this was utterly rewarding.

 

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks: In 1665, with the Derbyshire village of Eyam in the grip of the Plague, the drastic decision is made to quarantine it. Frustration with the pastor’s ineffectuality attracts people to religious extremism. Anna’s intimate first-person narration and the historical recreation are faultless, and there are so many passages that feel apt.

 

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler: Four childhood friends from Little Wing, Wisconsin. Which bonds will last, and which will be strained to the breaking point? This is a book full of nostalgia and small-town atmosphere. All the characters wonder whether they’ve made the right decisions or gotten stuck. A lot of bittersweet moments, but also comic ones.

 

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler: A perfect time-travel novel for readers who quail at science fiction. Dana, an African American writer in Los Angeles, is dropped into early-nineteenth-century Maryland. This was such an absorbing read, with first-person narration that makes you feel you’re right there alongside Dana on her perilous travels.

 

Dominicana by Angie Cruz: Ana Canción is just 15 when she arrives in New York from the Dominican Republic on the first day of 1965 to start her new life as the wife of Juan Ruiz. An arranged marriage and arriving in a country not knowing a word of the language: this is a valuable immigration story that stands out for its plucky and confiding narrator.

 

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn: A book of letters in multiple sense. Laugh-out-loud silliness plus a sly message about science and reason over superstition = a rare combination that made this an enduring favorite. On my reread I was more struck by the political satire: freedom of speech is endangered in a repressive society slavishly devoted to a sacred text.

 

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich: Interlocking stories that span half a century in the lives of a couple of Chippewa families that sprawl out from a North Dakota reservation. Looking for love, looking for work. Getting lucky, getting even. Their problems are the stuff of human nature and contemporary life. I adored the descriptions of characters and of nature.

 

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale: Nonlinear chapters give snapshots of the life of a bipolar artist and her interactions with her husband and children. Their Quakerism sets up a calm and compassionate atmosphere, but also allows family secrets to proliferate. The novel questions patterns of inheritance and the possibility of happiness.

 

Confession with Blue Horses by Sophie Hardach: When Ella’s parents, East German art historians who came under Stasi surveillance, were caught trying to defect, their children were taken away from them. Decades later, Ella is determined to find her missing brother and learn what really happened to her mother. Eye-opening and emotionally involving.

 

The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley: Twelve-year-old Leo Colston is invited to spend July at his school friend’s home, Brandham Hall. You know from the famous first line on that this juxtaposes past and present. It’s masterfully done: the class divide, the picture of childhood tipping over into the teenage years, the oppressive atmosphere, the comical touches.

 

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf: Addie is a widow; Louis is a widower. They’re both lonely and prone to fretting about what they could have done better. Would he like to come over to her house at night to talk and sleep? Matter-of-fact prose, delivered without speech marks, belies a deep undercurrent of emotion. Understated, bittersweet, realistic. Perfect.

 

The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud: A 9/11 novel. The trio of protagonists, all would-be journalists aged 30, have never really had to grow up; now it’s time to get out from under the shadow of a previous generation and reassess what is admirable and who is expendable. This was thoroughly engrossing. Great American Novel territory, for sure.

 

My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki: A Japanese-American filmmaker is tasked with finding all-American families and capturing their daily lives – and best meat recipes. There is a clear message here about cheapness and commodification, but Ozeki filters it through the wrenching stories of two women with fertility problems. Bold if at times discomforting.

 

Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields: An impeccable novella, it brings its many elements to a satisfying conclusion and previews the author’s enduring themes. Something of a sly academic comedy à la David Lodge, it’s laced with Shields’s quiet wisdom on marriage, parenting, the writer’s vocation, and the difficulty of ever fully understanding another life.

 

Larry’s Party by Carol Shields: The sweep of Larry’s life, from youth to middle age, is presented chronologically through chapters that are more like linked short stories: they focus on themes (family, friends, career, sex, clothing, health) and loop back to events to add more detail and new insight. I found so much to relate to in Larry’s story; Larry is really all of us.

 

Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout: Tyler Caskey is a widowed pastor whose five-year-old daughter has gone mute and started acting up. As usual, Strout’s characters are painfully real, flawed people, often struggling with damaging obsessions. She tenderly probes the dark places of the community and its minister’s doubts, but finds the light shining through.

 

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer: On the way to Finland, where her genius writer husband will accept the prestigious Helsinki Prize, Joan finally decides to leave him. Alternating between the trip and earlier in their marriage, this is deceptively thoughtful with a juicy twist. Joan’s narration is witty and the point about the greater value attributed to men’s work is still valid.

 

Nonfiction

Winter Journal by Paul Auster: Approaching age 64, the winter of his life, Auster decided to assemble his most visceral memories: scars, accidents and near-misses, what his hands felt and his eyes observed. The use of the second person draws readers in. I particularly enjoyed the tour through the 21 places he’s lived. One of the most remarkable memoirs I’ve ever read.

 

Heat by Bill Buford: Buford was an unpaid intern at Mario Batali’s famous New York City restaurant, Babbo. In between behind-the-scenes looks at frantic sessions of food prep, Buford traces Batali’s culinary pedigree through Italy and London. Exactly what I want from food writing: interesting trivia, quick pace, humor, and mouthwatering descriptions.

 

Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books by Paul Collins: Collins moved to Hay-on-Wye with his wife and toddler son, hoping to make a life there. As he edited the manuscript of his first book, he started working for Richard Booth, the eccentric bookseller who crowned himself King of Hay. Warm, funny, and nostalgic. An enduring favorite of mine.

 

A Year on the Wing by Tim Dee: From a life spent watching birds, Dee weaves a mesh of memories and recent experiences, meditations and allusions. He moves from one June to the next and from Shetland to Zambia. The most powerful chapter is about watching peregrines at Bristol’s famous bridge – where he also, as a teen, saw a man commit suicide.

 

The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange: While kayaking down the western coast of the British Isles and Ireland, Gange delves into the folklore, geology, history, local language and wildlife of each region and island group – from the extreme north of Scotland at Muckle Flugga to the southwest tip of Cornwall. An intricate interdisciplinary approach.

 

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott: There is a lot of bereavement and other dark stuff here, yet an overall lightness of spirit prevails. A college dropout and addict, Lamott didn’t walk into a church and get clean until her early thirties. Each essay is perfectly constructed, countering everyday angst with a fumbling faith.

 

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: This has my deepest admiration for how it prioritizes voice, theme and scene, gleefully does away with chronology and (not directly relevant) backstory, and engages with history, critical theory and the tropes of folk tales to interrogate her experience of same-sex domestic violence. (Second-person narration again!)

 

Period Piece by Gwen Raverat: Raverat was a granddaughter of Charles Darwin. This is a portrait of what it was like to grow up in a particular time and place (Cambridge from the 1880s to about 1909). Not just an invaluable record of domestic history, it is a funny and impressively thorough memoir that serves as a model for how to capture childhood.

 

The Universal Christ by Richard Rohr: I’d read two of the Franciscan priest’s previous books but was really blown away by the wisdom in this one. The argument in a nutshell is that Western individualism has perverted the good news of Jesus, which is renewal for everything and everyone. A real gamechanger. My copy is littered with Post-it flags.

 

First Time Ever: A Memoir by Peggy Seeger: The octogenarian folk singer and activist has packed in enough adventure and experience for multiple lifetimes, and in some respects has literally lived two: one in America and one in England; one with Ewan MacColl and one with a female partner. Her writing is punchy and impressionistic. She’s my new hero.

 

A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas: A memoir in essays about her husband’s TBI and what kept her going. Unassuming and heart on sleeve, Thomas wrote one of the most beautiful books out there about loss and memory. It is one of the first memoirs I remember reading; it made a big impression the first time, but I loved it even more on a reread.

 

On Silbury Hill by Adam Thorpe: Explores the fragmentary history of the manmade Neolithic mound and various attempts to excavate it, but ultimately concludes we will never understand how and why it was made. A flawless integration of personal and wider history, as well as a profound engagement with questions of human striving and hubris.

 

(Books not pictured were read digitally, or have already gone back to the library.)

 

And if I really had to limit myself to just two favorites – my very best fiction and nonfiction reads of the year – they would be Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf and Winter Journal by Paul Auster.

 

What were your best backlist reads this year?

Mrs. Shields & Me: (Re)reading Carol Shields in 2020

It’s pure happenstance that I started reading Carol Shields’s work in 2006.

2005: When I first returned to England for my MA program at Leeds, I met a PhD student who was writing a dissertation on contemporary Canadian women writers. At that point I could literally name only one – Margaret Atwood – and I hadn’t even read anything by her yet.

2006: Back in the States after that second year abroad, living with my parents and killing time until my wedding, I got an evening job behind the circulation desk of the local community college library. A colleague passed on four books to me one day. By tying them up in a ribbon, she made a gift out of hand-me-downs: The Giant’s House, The Secret History, and two by Shields: Happenstance and The Stone Diaries. I’ve gone on to read most or all of the books by these authors, so I’m grateful to this acquaintance I’ve since lost touch with.

The inspiration for my post title.

Starting in June this year, I joined Marcie of Buried in Print in reading or rereading six Shields novels. She’s been rereading Shields for many years, and I benefited from her insight and careful attention to connections between the works’ characters and themes during our buddy reads. I’d treated myself to a secondhand book binge in the first lockdown, including copies of three Shields novels I’d not read before. We started with these.

 

Small Ceremonies (1976)

Shields’s debut ended up being my surprise favorite. A flawless novella, it brings its many elements to a satisfying conclusion and previews the author’s enduring themes in 180 pages. Judith is working on a third biography, of Susanna Moodie, and remembering the recent sabbatical year that she and her husband, a Milton scholar, spent with their two children in Birmingham. High tea is a compensating ritual she imported from a dismal England. She also brought back an idea for a novel. Meanwhile family friend Furlong Eberhardt, author of a string of twee, triumphantly Canadian novels, is casting around for plots.

What ensues is something of a sly academic comedy à la David Lodge, laced with Shields’s quiet wisdom on marriage, parenting, the writer’s vocation, and the difficulty of ever fully understanding another life. Specific links to her later work include a wonderful dinner party scene with people talking over each other and a craft project.

 

The Box Garden (1977)

The companion novel to Small Ceremonies is narrated by Judith’s sister Charleen, a poet and single mother who lives in Vancouver and produces the National Botanical Journal. I imagined the sisters representing two facets of Shields, who had previously published poetry and a Moodie biography. Charleen is preparing to travel to Toronto for their 70-year-old mother’s wedding to Louis, an ex-priest. Via flashbacks and excruciating scenes at the family home, we learn how literally and emotionally stingy their mother has always been. If Charleen’s boyfriend Eugene’s motto is to always assume the best of people, her mother’s modus operandi is to assume she’s been hard done by.

The title comes from the time when a faithful Journal correspondent, the mysterious Brother Adam, sent Charleen some grass seed to grow in a window box – a symbol of thriving in spite of restrictive circumstances. I thought the plot went off in a silly direction, but loved the wedding reception. Specific links to Shields’s later work include a botanical hobby, a long train journey, and a final scene delivered entirely in dialogue.

 

A Celibate Season (1991)

“We’re suffering a communication gap, that’s obvious.”

This epistolary novel was a collaboration: Blanche Howard wrote the letters by Jocelyn (“Jock”), who’s gone to Ottawa to be the legal counsel for a commission looking into women’s poverty, while Shields wrote the replies from her husband Charles (“Chas”), an underemployed architect who’s keeping the home fire burning back in Vancouver. He faces challenges large and small: their daughter’s first period versus meal planning (“Found the lentils. Now what?”). The household starts comically expanding to include a housekeeper, Chas’s mother-in-law, a troubled neighbor, and so on.

Both partners see how the other half lives. The misunderstandings between them become worse during their separation. Howard and Shields started writing in 1983, and the book does feel dated; they later threw in a jokey reference to the unreliability of e-mail to explain why the couple are sending letters and faxes. Two unsent letters reveal secrets Jock and Chas are keeping from each other, which felt like cheating. I remained unconvinced that so much could change in 10 months, and the weird nicknames were an issue for me. Plus, arguing about a solarium building project? Talk about First World problems! All the same, the letters are amusing.

 


Rereads

 

Happenstance (1980/1982)

This was the first novel I read by Shields. My Penguin paperback gives the wife’s story first and then you flip it over to read the husband’s story. But the opposite reflects the actual publishing order: Happenstance is Jack’s story; two years later came Brenda’s story in A Fairly Conventional Woman. The obvious inheritor of the pair is A Celibate Season with the dual male/female narratives, and the setups are indeed similar: a man is left at home alone with his teenage kids, having to cope with chores and an unexpected houseguest.

What I remembered beforehand: The wife goes to a quilting conference; an image of a hotel corridor and elevator.

Happenstance

Jack, a museum curator in Chicago, is writing a book about “Indian” trading practices (this isn’t the word we’d use nowadays, but the terminology ends up being important to the plot). He and his best friend Bernie, who’s going through a separation, are obsessed with questions of history: what gets written down, and what it means to have a sense of the past (or not). I loved all the little threads, like Jack’s father’s obsession with self-help books, memories of Brenda’s vivacious single mother, and their neighbor’s failure as Hamlet in a local production. I also enjoyed an epic trek in the snow in a final section potentially modeled on Ulysses.

 

A Fairly Conventional Woman

“Aside from quiltmaking, pleasantness was her one talent. … She had come to this awkward age, forty, at an awkward time in history – too soon to be one of the new women, whatever that meant, and too late to be an old-style woman.”

Brenda is in Philadelphia for a quilting conference. Quilting, once just a hobby, is now part of a modern art movement and she earns prizes and hundreds of dollars for her pieces. The hotel is overbooked, overlapping with an International Society of Metallurgists gathering, and both she and Barry from Vancouver, an attractive metallurgist in a pinstriped suit whom she meets in the elevator, are driven from their shared rooms by roommates bringing back one-night stands. This doesn’t add anything to the picture of a marriage in Jack’s story and I only skimmed it this time. It’s a wonder I kept reading Shields after this, but I’m so glad I did!

 

I reviewed these last two earlier this year. They were previously my joint favorites of Shields’s work, linked by a gardening hobby, the role of chance, and the unreliability of history and (auto)biography. They remain in my top three.

The Stone Diaries (1995)

What I remembered beforehand: a long train ride, a friend who by the feeling ‘down there’ thought that someone had had sex with her the night before, and something about the Orkney Islands.

My full review:

Larry’s Party (1997)

What I remembered beforehand: a food poisoning incident (though I’d thought it was in one of Shields’s short stories), a climactic event involving a garden maze, a chapter entitled “Larry’s Penis,” and the closing dinner party scene.

My full review:

 

Looking back: Fortunately, in the last 15 years I’ve done something to redress my ignorance, discovering Canadian women writers whom I admire greatly: Elizabeth Hay, Margaret Laurence, Mary Lawson and especially Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields.

Looking out: “I am watching. My own life will never be enough for me. It is a congenital condition, my only, only disease in an otherwise lucky life. I am a watcher, an outsider whether I like it or not, and I’m stuck with the dangers that go along with it. And the rewards.”

  • That’s Judith on the last page of Small Ceremonies. It’s also probably Shields. And, to an extent, it seems like me. A writer, but mostly a reader, absorbing other lives.

Looking forward: I’m interested in rereading Shields’s short stories and Mary Swann (to be reissued by World Editions in 2021). And, though I’ve read 13 of her books now, there are still plenty of unread, lesser-known ones I’ll have to try to find secondhand one day. Her close attention to ordinary lives and relationships and the way we connect to the past makes her work essential.

Three Women and a Boat by Anne Youngson

“Does being grown up mean we are all doomed to be ordinary?”

One of my favorite things about where I live is the opportunity to walk along the Kennet & Avon canal, which runs by the bottom of our garden. Just a 10-minute stroll on the towpath takes us into Newbury’s town center, but someone with more time and motivation could take the canal all the way from London to Bristol. We have a small population of permanent boat dwellers beside one of the bridges, but many more vessels pass through or moor up for a night or a week. Even more so than gazing through a lit house window on a dark, cold night, looking at canal-boats sparks my imagination, making me wonder what life is like for the people (and cats) who live on them. How do they store everything, especially books??

My curiosity about canal living and my love for Meet Me at the Museum (2018), Anne Youngson’s charming, bittersweet debut novel in letters between a farmer’s wife in England and a curator at the Denmark museum that houses the Tollund Man, were two strong motives to request her follow-up; a third was the title’s nod to the delightful Victorian classic Three Men in a Boat (although, for its 2021 U.S. release, it has been renamed The Narrowboat Summer; Jerome K. Jerome must be too niche a reference for the average American reader.)

On a towpath not far from London, two women are drawn to the Number One by the sound of a dog howling. Eve Warburton has just been made redundant after 30 years at a corporate job, and Sally Allsop has just decided to leave her impassive husband. Distressed at the animal’s unearthly cries, they break down the boat door to check on it and it promptly runs away. Luckily, it’s not long until the boat owner, Anastasia, returns, followed by Noah the terrier.

Anastasia is a no-nonsense woman but takes kindly to Eve and Sally. Her situation is thus: she needs to go into hospital soon for cancer treatment, but she has no money for moorings or necessary repairs on the Number One, her only home. She needs someone to pilot her boat to Chester, where she knows someone who will carry out the maintenance for free, and back. Conveniently, Eve and Sally, free of the commitments that once defined them, now have all the time in the world. Anastasia will live in Eve’s flat during her treatment. In a matter of days, Eve and Sally learn the basics about canal-boats and set off on their journey. Along the way they’ll meet drifters, craftspeople and storytellers, and rethink what they want from life.

Youngson perches halfway between Rachel Joyce and Carol Shields in this one. Much like Meet Me at the Museum, it’s about second chances in the second half of life, with relatable situations and an open, hopeful ending. I liked the details of the journey – makeshift meals, Scrabble games, transcripts of blunt phone calls with Anastasia – but Eve and Sally remained a bit blank for me, such that I did not care equally about all the protagonists’ fates. Still, this is a pleasant amble of a novel and one that I expect to be popular with my local book club. (See also: Susan’s review.)

A favorite passage:

Anyone can use the canal, for holidays, for living, for plying a trade. They’ve always been a bit alternative. An alternative to a horse and cart, then an alternative to a railway, then an alternative to a caravan holiday, an alternative to a house. I like that. I like that it’s not fixed. No one owns it. And I like that it is slow, which is exactly what made the search for alternatives essential. The canals were wide enough to cope with a boat moving at the walking pace of a horse. Any faster, and they break apart. That’s the only thing that needs to be preserved: the banks, the locks, the bridges. And what would destroy them is speed.

Three Women and a Boat was published in the UK by Doubleday on November 12th. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.

It will be published as The Narrowboat Summer in the USA by Flatiron Books on January 26, 2021.

Recent Reviews for Shiny New Books: Poetry, Fiction and Nature Writing

First up was a rundown of my five favorite poetry releases of the year, starting with…

Dearly by Margaret Atwood

Dearly is a treasure trove, twice the length of the average poetry collection and rich with themes of memory, women’s rights, environmental crisis, and bereavement. It is reflective and playful, melancholy and hopeful. I can highly recommend it, even to non-poetry readers, because it is led by its themes; although there are layers to explore, these poems are generally about what they say they’re about, and more material than abstract. Alliteration, repetition, internal and slant rhymes, and neologisms will delight language lovers and make the book one to experience aloud as well as on paper. Atwood’s imagery ranges from the Dutch masters to The Wizard of Oz. Her frame of reference is as wide as the array of fields she’s written in over the course of over half a century.

I’ll let you read the whole article to discover my four runners-up. (They’ll also be appearing in my fiction & poetry best-of post next week.)


Next was one of my most anticipated reads of the second half of 2020. (I was drawn to it by Susan’s review.)

Artifact by Arlene Heyman

Lottie’s story is a case study of the feminist project to reconcile motherhood and career (in this case, scientific research). In the generic more than the scientific meaning of the word, the novel is indeed about artifacts – as in works by Doris Lessing, Penelope Lively and Carol Shields, the goal is to unearth the traces of a woman’s life. The long chapters are almost like discrete short stories. Heyman follows Lottie through years of schooling and menial jobs, through a broken marriage and a period of single parenthood, and into a new relationship. There were aspects of the writing that didn’t work for me and I found the book as a whole more intellectually noteworthy than engaging as a story. A piercing – if not notably subtle – story of women’s choices and limitations in the latter half of the twentieth century. I’d recommend it to fans of Forty Rooms and The Female Persuasion.


Finally, I contributed a dual review of two works of nature writing that would make perfect last-minute Christmas gifts for outdoorsy types and/or would be perfect bedside books for reading along with the English seasons into a new year.

The Stubborn Light of Things by Melissa Harrison

This collects five and a half years’ worth of Harrison’s monthly Nature Notebook columns for The Times. The book falls into two rough halves, “City” and “Country”: initially based in South London, Harrison moved to the Suffolk countryside in late 2017. In the grand tradition of Gilbert White, she records when she sees her firsts of a year. Often, she need look no further than her own home and garden. I appreciated how hands-on and practical she is: She’s always picking up dead animals to clean up and display the skeletons, and she never misses an opportunity to tell readers about ways they can create habitat for wildlife (e.g. bat and bird nest boxes that can be incorporated into buildings) and get involved in citizen science projects like moth recording.

The book’s final two entries were set during the UK’s first COVID-19 lockdown in spring 2020 – a notably fine season. This inspired me to review it alongside…

The Consolation of Nature by Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren

A tripartite diary of the coronavirus spring kept by three veteran nature writers based in southern England (all of them familiar to me through their involvement with New Networks for Nature and its annual Nature Matters conferences). The entries, of a similar length to Harrison’s, are grouped into chronological chapters from 21 March to 31 May. While the authors focus in these 10 weeks on their wildlife sightings – red kites, kestrels, bluebells, fungal fairy rings and much more – they also log government advice and death tolls. They achieve an ideal balance between current events and the timelessness of nature, enjoyed all the more in 2020’s unprecedented spring because of a dearth of traffic noise.

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (Blog Tour Review)

Is it possible to capture the complete course of a life, whether looking from the outside or telling it from the inside? What is set in stone and what is fleeting? These are questions Carol Shields addresses in her 1995 Pulitzer Prize winner, which plays with perspective and forms of storytelling as it conveys the extra/ordinary life of Daisy Stone Goodwill Flett. What with the family tree and section of black-and-white photographs, you might expect this to be a family saga; with the chronological chapters proceeding from “Birth” in 1905 to “Death” in the 1990s, you might expect an objective faux-biography. But The Stone Diaries is neither.

The facts are these. Daisy’s mother, Mercy, dies giving birth to her in rural Manitoba. Raised by a neighbor, Daisy later moves to Indiana with her stonecutter father, Cuyler. After a disastrously short first marriage, Daisy returns to Canada to marry Barker Flett. Their three children and Ottawa garden become her life. She temporarily finds purpose in her empty-nest years by writing a “Mrs. Green Thumb” column for a local newspaper, but her retirement in Florida is plagued by illness and the feeling that she has missed out on what matters most.

What makes this surprising life story so remarkable is its unpicking of (auto)biographical authenticity: Shields switches between the first and third person, between Daisy’s point of view and a feigned omniscience. Some sections foreground others’ opinions: Chapter 6 is composed entirely of letters Daisy receives, while Chapter 7 collects short first-person narratives from her children and friends as they speculate on why she has fallen into a depression.

As in Shields’s Happenstance and Larry’s Party, which I’ve also reread this year, I was struck by the role that chance plays in any life:

History indeed! As though this paltry slice of time deserves such a name. Accident, not history, has called us together, and what an assembly we make. What confusion, what a clamor of inadequacy and portent.

Talk of bias, gaps and unreliability undermines the narrative:

Well, a childhood is what anyone wants to remember of it. It leaves behind no fossils, except perhaps in fiction. Which is why you want to take Daisy’s representation of events with a grain of salt, a bushel of salt.

Daisy herself almost disappears from the parts of the book where she is voiceless, consumed by her roles – by the end she is universally known as “Grandma Flett.” This meant that other characters stood out as more memorable to me: Cuyler for his obsessive building of stone monuments and streams of words, Barker for his love of plants and long-deferred sexual fulfillment, Daisy’s friend Fraidy Hoyt for her careful chronicling of fast living, and Magnus, Barker’s father, who lives long past his 100th birthday after his return to the Orkney Islands.

As in Moon Tiger, one of my absolute favorites, the author explores how events and memories turn into artifacts. The meta approach also, I suspect, tips the hat to other works of Canadian literature: in her introduction, Margaret Atwood mentions that the poet whose story inspired Shields’s Mary Swann had a collection entitled A Stone Diary, and surely the title’s similarity to Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel (1964) can’t be pure coincidence.

Experiencing the novel again after 14 years, I was impressed by the experimentation but ultimately somewhat detached from the story. It was admiration rather than love; I enjoyed earlier chapters more than the last few. But isn’t that just like life, to keep going past the point where it’s fun? And isn’t that the point, that the meaning you long for may not be there at all?

Marcie (Buried in Print) and I have reread – or, in my case for half of them, read for the first time – six Shields novels together in 2020. I hope I’ll find time to respond to the rest of them in the next few weeks. It has been so rewarding to observe how her themes recur and interlock. How heartening to see that, 17 years after her death, Shields is still being read and remembered, through the World Editions reissues (three more are coming in 2021) and through the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction, a new $100,000 annual award for North American women’s writing.


The Stone Diaries was reissued in the UK by World Editions on December 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

I was delighted to be invited to help close out the blog tour for The Stone Diaries. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared.

Thinking Realistically about Reading Plans for the Rest of the Year

The other year I did something dangerous: I started an exclusive Goodreads shelf (i.e., an option besides the standard “Read,” “Currently Reading” and “Want to Read”) called “Set Aside Temporarily,” where I stick a book I have to put on hiatus for whatever reason, whether I’d read 20 pages or 200+. This enabled me to continue in my bad habit of leaving part-read books lying around. I know I’m unusual for taking multi-reading to an extreme with 20‒30 books on the go at a time. For the most part, this works for me, but it does mean that less compelling books or ones that don’t have a review deadline attached tend to get ignored.

I swore I’d do away with the Set Aside shelf in 2020, but it hasn’t happened. In fact, I made another cheaty shelf, “Occasional Reading,” for bedside books and volumes I read a few pages in once a week or so (e.g. devotional works on lockdown Sundays), but I don’t perceive this one to be a problem; no matter if what’s on it carries over into 2021.

Looking at the five weeks left in the year and adapting the End of the Year Book Tag Laura did recently, I’ve been thinking about what I can realistically read in 2020.

 

Is there a book that you started that you still need to finish by the end of the year?

So many! I hope to finish most, if not all, of the books I’m currently reading, plus I’d like to clear these set aside stacks as much as possible. If nothing else, I have to finish the two review books (Gange and Heyman, on the top of the right-hand stack).

Name some books you want to read by the end of the year.

I still have these four print books to review on the blog. The Shields, a reissue, is for a December blog tour; I might save the snowy one for later in the winter.

I will also be reading an e-copy of Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce for a BookBrowse review.

The 2020 releases I’d placed holds on are still arriving to the library for me. Of them, I’d most like to get to:

  • Mr Wilder & Me by Jonathan Coe
  • Bringing Back the Beaver: The Story of One Man’s Quest to Rewild Britain’s Waterways by Derek Gow
  • To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss

My Kindle is littered with 2020 releases I purchased or downloaded from NetGalley and intended to get to this year, including buzzy books like My Dark Vanessa. I don’t read so much on my e-readers anymore, but I’ll see if I can squeeze in one or two of these:

  • Fat by Hanne Blank
  • Marram by Leonie Charlton
  • D by Michel Faber
  • Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19, edited by Jennifer Haupt
  • Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann
  • Avoid the Day by Jay Kirk*
  • World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil*

*These were on my Most Anticipated list for the second half of 2020.

The Nezhukumatathil would also count towards the #DiverseDecember challenge Naomi F. is hosting. I assembled this set of potentials: four books that I own and am eager to read on the left, and four books from libraries on the right.

Is there a book that could still shock you and become your favorite of the year?

Two books I didn’t finish until earlier this month, The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel and Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald, leapt into contention for first place for the year in fiction and nonfiction, respectively, and it’s entirely possible that something I’ve got out from the library or on my Kindle (as listed above) could be just as successful. That’s why I wait until the last week of the year to finalize Best Of lists.


Do you have any books that are partly read and languishing? How do you decide on year-end reading priorities?

Completing the Women’s Prize Winners Reading Project and Voting

In this 25th anniversary year of the Women’s (previously Orange/Baileys) Prize, people have been encouraged to read all of the previous winners. I duly attempted to catch up on the 11 winners I hadn’t yet read, starting with Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels; Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne as part of a summer reading post; and When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant, Property by Valerie Martin and Larry’s Party by Carol Shields (a reread) in this post.

This left just four for me to read before voting for my all-time favorite in the web poll. I managed two as recent buddy reads but had to admit defeat on the others, giving them just the barest skim before sending them back to the library.

The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville (1999; 2001 prize)

(Buddy read with Laura T.; see her review here)

This is essentially an odd-couple romance, but so awkward I don’t think any of its scenes could accurately be described as a meet-cute. Harley Savage, a thrice-married middle-aged widow, works for the Applied Arts Museum in Sydney. The tall, blunt woman is in Karakarook, New South Wales to help the little town launch a heritage museum. Douglas Cheeseman is a divorced engineer tasked with tearing down a local wooden bridge and building a more suitable structure in its place. Their career trajectories are set to clash, but the novel focuses more on their personal lives. From the moment they literally bump into each other outside Douglas’ hotel, their every meeting is so embarrassing you have to blush – she saves him from some angry cows, while he tends to her after a bout of food poisoning.

Grenville does well to make the two initially unappealing characters sympathetic, primarily by giving flashes of backstory. Douglas is the posthumous child of a war hero, but has never felt he’s a proper (macho) Australian man. In fact, he has a crippling fear of heights, which is pretty inconvenient for someone who works on tall bridges. Harley, meanwhile, is haunted by the scene of her last husband’s suicide and is also recovering from a recent heart attack.

The title is, I think, meant to refer to how the protagonists fail to live up to ideals or gender stereotypes. However, it more obviously applies to the subplot about Felicity Porcelline, a stay-at-home mother who has always sought to be flawless – a perfect pregnancy, an ageless body (“Sometimes she thought she would rather be dead than old”), the perfect marriage – but gets enmired in a dalliance with the town butcher. I was never convinced Felicity’s storyline was necessary. Without it, the book might have been cut from 400 pages to 300.

Still, this was a pleasant narrative of second chances and life’s surprises. The small-town setting reminded Laura of Olive Kitteridge in particular, and I also thought frequently of Anne Tyler and her cheerfully useless males (“There was a lot to be said for being boring, and it was something [Douglas] was good at”). But I suspect the book won’t remain vivid in my memory, especially with its vague title that doesn’t suggest the contents. I enjoyed Grenville’s writing, though, so will try her again. In my mind she’s more known for historical fiction. I have a copy of The Secret River, so will see if she lives up to that reputation.

My rating:

 

How to Be Both by Ali Smith (2014)

(Buddy read with Marcie of Buried in Print.)

A book of two halves, one of which I thoroughly enjoyed; the other I struggled to engage with. I remembered vaguely as I was reading it that this was published in two different versions. As it happened, my library paperback opened with the contemporary storyline.

New Year’s Day marks the start of George’s first full year without her mother, a journalist who died at age 50. Her mother’s major project was “Subvert,” which used Internet pop-ups to have art to comment on politics and vice versa. George remembers conversations with her mother about the nature of history and art, and a trip to Italy. She’s now in therapy, and has a flirty relationship with Helena (“H”), a mixed-race school friend.

Smith’s typical wordplay comes through in the book’s banter, especially in George and H’s texts. George is a whip-smart grammar pedant. Her story was, all in all, a joy to read. There is even a hint of mystery here – is it possible that her mother was being monitored by MI5? When George skips school to gaze at her mother’s favorite Francesco del Cossa painting in the National Gallery, she thinks she sees Lisa Goliard, her mother’s intense acquaintance, who said she was a bookbinder but acted more like a spy…

The second half imagines a history for Francesco del Cossa, who rises from a brick-making family to become a respected portrait and fresco painter. The artist shares outward similarities with George, such as a dead mother and homoerotic leanings. There are numerous tiny connections, too, some of which I will have missed as my attention waned. The voice felt all wrong for the time period; I sensed that Smith wasn’t fully invested in the past, so I wasn’t either. (In dual-timeline novels, I pretty much always prefer the contemporary one and am impatient to get back to it; at least in books like Unsheltered and The Liar’s Dictionary there are alternate chapters to look forward to if the historical material gets tedious.)

An intriguing idea, a very promising first half, then a drift into pretension. Or was that my failure to observe and appreciate? Smith impishly mocks: “If you notice, it changes everything about the picture.” With her format and themes, she questions accepted binaries. There are interesting points about art, grief and gender, even without the clever links across time. But had the story opened with the other Part 1, I may never have gotten anywhere.

My rating:

 

Skims

I made the mistake of leaving the three winners that daunted me the most stylistically – McBride, McInerney and Smith – for last. I eventually made it through the Smith, though the second half was quite the slog, but quickly realized these two were a lost cause for me.

A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride: I’d glanced at the first few pages in a shop before and found the style immediately off-putting. When I committed to this #ReadingWomen project, I diligently requested a copy from the university library even though I seriously doubted I’d have the motivation to read it. It turns out my first impression was correct: I would have to be paid much more than I’ve ever been paid for writing about a book just to get through this one. From the first paragraph on, it’s deliberately impenetrable in a sub-Joycean way. Ron Charles, the Washington Post book critic and one of my literary heroes/gurus, found the subject matter relentlessly depressing and the obfuscating style elitist. (Might it work as an audiobook? I can’t say; I’ve never listened to one.)

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney: Not as stylistically difficult as expected, though there is mild dialect and long passages in italics (one of my reading pet peeves). But I’m not drawn to gangster stories, and after a couple of chapters didn’t feel like pushing myself through the book. I did enjoy the setup of Maureen killing an intruder with a holy stone, eliciting this confession: “I crept up behind him and hit him in the head with a religious ornament. So first I suppose God would have to forgive me for killing one of his creatures and then he’d have to forgive me for defiling one of his keepsakes.” For Anna Burns and Donal Ryan fans, perhaps?


It’s been many years since I’ve read some of these novels, such that all I have to go on is my vague memories and Goodreads ratings, and there are a handful there towards the bottom that I couldn’t get through at all, but I still couldn’t resist having a go at ranking the 25 winners, from best to least. My completely* objective list:

(*not at all)

Larry’s Party by Carol Shields

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne

The Road Home by Rose Tremain

When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant

The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

Property by Valerie Martin

Small World by Andrea Levy

Home by Marilynne Robinson

How to Be Both by Ali Smith

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride


You can see the arbitrary nature of prizes at work here: some authors I love have won for books I don’t consider their best (Adichie, Kingsolver, O’Farrell, Patchett), while some exceptional female authors have been nominated but never won (Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Strout, Anne Tyler). Each year the judges are different, and there are no detailed criteria for choosing the winner, so it will only ever be the book that five people happen to like the best.

As she came out top of the heap with what is, coincidentally, the only one of the winning novels that I have managed to reread, my vote goes to Carol Shields for Larry’s Party. (People’s memory for prize winners is notoriously short, so I predict that one of the last two years’ winners, Tayari Jones or Maggie O’Farrell, will win the public’s best of the best vote.)

You have until midnight GMT on Sunday November 1st to vote for your favorite winner at this link. That’s less than a week away now, so get voting!

Note: If you’re interested in tracking your Women’s Prize reading over the years, check out Rachel’s extremely helpful list of all the nominees. It comes in spreadsheet form for you to download and fill out. I have read 138 nominees (out of 477) and DNFed another 19 so far.

Who gets your vote?

Women’s Prize Winners Reading Project: Grant, Martin, Shields et al.

In this 25th anniversary year of the Women’s Prize, readers are being encouraged to catch up on all the previous winners. I’d read 14 of them (including Hamnet) as of mid-April and have managed five more since then – plus a reread, a DNF and a skim. I recently reviewed Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne as part of this summer reading post. This leaves just four more for me to read before voting for my all-time favorite in November.

 

When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant (2000)

Some settings have been done to death, but here’s one I don’t think I’d ever encountered before: Israel in the final year before statehood. Grant dramatizes the contrast between Palestine, a doomed British colony, and the Jewish hope of a homeland. In 1946 twenty-year-old Evelyn Sert leaves her home in London, masquerading as a Gentile tourist (though she has Latvian Jewish ancestry) so as to jump ahead of thousands of displaced persons awaiting entry visas. With her mother recently dead of a stroke, she takes advice and money from her mother’s married boyfriend, “Uncle Joe,” a Polish Jew and Zionist, and heads to Palestine.

After six weeks on a kibbutz, Evelyn sets out to make her own life in Tel Aviv as a hairdresser and falls in with Johnny, a Jew who fought for the British. It’s safer to be part of the colonial structure here, so she once again passes as Gentile, dyeing her hair blonde and going by Priscilla Jones. In a land where all kinds of people have been thrown together by the accident of their ethnicity and the suffering it often entailed, one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. For Evelyn, who’s never known anywhere apart from suburban London and arrived in Palestine a virgin, the entire year is a journey of discovery. Will a place of ancient religious significance embrace modern architecture, technology and government? Grant really captures this period of transition for an individual and for a nascent nation of exiles. I loved the supporting characters and the nostalgic look back from half a century on.

Favorite passages:

In a country with its face turned towards the future, our stories sat on our shoulders like a second head, facing the way we had come from. We were the tribe of Janus, if there is such a thing.

With hindsight it always seems easy to do the right thing, but we were trying to decide something in those days that people don’t often get a chance to have a say in and it was this: would we be a free nation after two thousand years of wandering or would we always be a subject race? Would we be ghetto Jews or new Jews?

 

Property by Valerie Martin (2003)

A compact study of slavery that unfolds through the relationship between a New Orleans plantation owner’s wife and her husband’s mistress. Manon Gaudet has never been happy in her marriage, but when their slave girl, Sarah, bears her husband a second child, she decides she has had enough of silently condoning his behavior. A slave uprising and cholera and yellow fever outbreaks provide some welcome drama, but the bulk of this short novel is an examination of the psyche of a woman tormented by hatred and jealousy. Ownership of another human being is, if not technically impossible, certainly not emotionally tenable. Manon’s situation is also intolerable because she has no rights as a woman in the early nineteenth century: any property she inherits will pass directly to her husband. Though thoroughly readable, for me this didn’t really add anything to the corpus of slavery fiction.

 

A reread (as well as a buddy read with Buried in Print):

Larry’s Party by Carol Shields (1997)

“The whole thing about mazes is that they make perfect sense only when you look down on them from above.”

Larry Weller is an Everyman: sometimes hapless and sometimes purposeful; often bewildered with where life has led him, but happy enough nonetheless. From the start, Shields dwells on the role that “mistakes” have played in making Larry who he is, like a floral arts catalogue coming in the mail from the college instead of one on furnace repair and meeting Dorrie at a Halloween party he attended with a different girl. Before he knows it he and a pregnant Dorrie are getting married and he’s been at his flower shop job for 12 years. A honeymoon tour through England takes in the Hampton Court Palace maze and sparks an obsession that will change the course of Larry’s life, as he creates his first maze at their Winnipeg home and gradually becomes one of a handful of expert maze-makers.

The sweep of Larry’s life, from youth to middle age, is presented roughly chronologically through chapters that are more like linked short stories: they focus on themes (family, friends, career, sex, clothing, health) and loop back to events to add more detail and new insight. I found the repetition of basic information about Larry somewhat off-putting in that it’s as if we start over with this character with each chapter – the same might be said of Olive Kitteridge, but that book’s composition was drawn out and it involves a multiplicity of perspectives, which explains the slight detachment from Olive. Here the third-person narration sticks close to Larry but gives glimpses into other points of view, tiny hints of other stories – a man with AIDS, a woman trying to atone for lifelong selfishness, and so on.

From my first reading I remembered a climactic event involving the Winnipeg maze; a ribald chapter entitled “Larry’s Penis,” about his second marriage to a younger woman and more; and the closing dinner party, a masterful sequence composed almost entirely of overlapping dialogue (like the final wedding reception scene in her earlier novel, The Box Garden) as Larry hosts his two ex-wives, his current girlfriend, his sister and his partner, and a colleague and boss. What is it like to be a man today? someone asks, and through the responses Shields suggests a state of uneasiness, of walking on eggshells and trying not to be a chauvinist in a world whose boundaries are being redrawn by feminism. That process has continued in the decades since, though with predictable backlash from those who consider women a threat.

It seems slightly ironic that Shields won the Women’s Prize for this episodic fictional biography of a man, but I found so much to relate to in Larry’s story – the “how did I get here?” self-questioning, the search for life’s meaning, “the clutter of good luck and bad” – that I’d say Larry is really all of us.

One of Shields’s best, and quite possibly my winner of winners.

My original rating (2008?):

My rating now:


Currently rereading: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

 

A skim:

A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore (1995)

An annoying thing happened with this one: the back cover blurb gave away a central theme. It’s one I’m keen to avoid yet feel I have encountered disproportionately often in fiction, especially recently (I won’t name any titles as that would give it away instantly). Dunmore writes nicely – from my quick skim of this one it seemed very atmospheric – but I am not particularly drawn to her plots. I’ve read Exposure for book club and own two more of her novels, Talking to the Dead and Zennor in Darkness, so by the time I’ve read those I will have given her a solid try. So far I’ve preferred her poetry – I’ve read three of her collections.

A favorite passage:

“It is winter in the house. This morning the ice on my basin of water is so thick I can not break it. The windows stare back at me, blind with frost. … I can see nothing through the frost flowers on the glass. I wonder if it is snowing yet, but I think it is too cold. … I look at the house, still and breathless in the frost. I have got what I wanted. A spell of winter hangs over it, and everyone has gone.”

 

And a DNF:

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (2011)

Patroclus is a disappointment of a prince. He has no chance of winning Helen of Troy’s hand in marriage, and exile awaits him when he is responsible for an accidental death. As a foster child in the household of another king, he becomes obsessed with Achilles. The two young men take part in music lessons and military training, and Patroclus follows Achilles away from the palace to be taught by a centaur. That’s as far as I got before I couldn’t bear any more. The homoerotic hints are laughably unsubtle: (of a lyre) “‘You can hold it, if you like.’ The wood would be smooth and known as my own skin” & (fighting) “he rolled me beneath him, pinning me, his knees in my belly. I panted, angry but strangely satisfied.”

I got a free download from Emerald Street, the Stylist magazine e-newsletter. The ancient world, and Greek mythology in particular, do not draw me in the least, and I have had bad experiences with updates of Greek myths before (e.g. Bright Air Black by David Vann). I never thought this would be a book for me, but still wanted to attempt it so I could complete the set of Women’s Prize winners. I read 77 pages out of 278 in the e-book, but when I have to force myself to pick up a book, I know it’s a lost cause. As with the Dunmore, I think it’s safe to say this one never would have gotten my vote anyway.

 

The final four to complete my project:

(On the stack to read soon)

The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville – free from mall bookshop

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney – public library copy

How to Be Both by Ali Smith – public library copy; a planned buddy read with B.I.P.

 

(To get from the university library)

A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

 

Read any Women’s Prize winners lately?