Tag: Civil War

Best Backlist Reads of 2018

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!).

My best backlist reads of the year (most of the ones I own in print, anyway).

Fiction

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.

 

Poetry

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.

 

Nonfiction

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.


What were your best backlist reads this year?

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Barbara Kingsolver in Conversation about “Unsheltered”

Through a Faber & Faber Twitter giveaway, I won tickets to see Barbara Kingsolver speak about her new novel, Unsheltered, at the Royal Festival Hall in London on Monday the 12th. (Yes, this is the second lot of tickets I’ve won within a month. When all you have to do is reply to a tweet or retweet it, I don’t know why more people don’t enter these competitions!) It was great to meet up with fellow bloggers Clare and Laura – half of my Wellcome Prize shadow panel – to hear Kingsolver chat with Samira Ahmed of Radio 4 and BBC One.

In person Kingsolver was a delight – warm and funny, with a generic American accent that doesn’t betray her Kentucky roots. In her beaded caftan and knee-high oxblood boots, she exuded girlish energy despite the shock of white in her hair. Although her fervor for the scientific method and a socially responsible government came through clearly, there was a lightness about her that tempered the weighty issues she covers in her novel.

In case you are unfamiliar with it, Unsheltered is the story of two residents of Vineland, New Jersey: in the present day, fifty-something Willa Knox is trying to keep her enlarged nuclear family together in the face of underemployment, a crumbling house, divided political loyalties and serious illness. In a parallel story line set in the 1870s that unfolds in alternating chapters, science teacher Thatcher Greenwood butts heads with his principal over Darwin’s writings and is alarmed by the actions of the town’s dictator-like founder, Charles Landis.

Kingsolver revealed that she always starts with theme rather than character or setting. A novel arises from a compelling question she wants to wrestle with. When she started this one five years ago, she wanted to write about paradigm shift. She felt like the regular rules have failed us, that the world no longer provides the ‘shelter’ we expect – a good job after a degree, a pension at the end of a career, adequate health care, and so on. Consumption and growth, the economic tools we’ve always relied on, won’t work anymore. How will we cope with the end of the world as we know it? Looking for a time period when people were also asked to rise to the occasion upon a shift in worldview, she settled on the 1870s, the decade following the Civil War, when America was divided along nearly the same lines as today.

Darwin: “such a sweet guy!” said Kingsolver.

Initially she thought she might make Darwin himself a character, but that would have required setting the book at least partially in England, and she’s come to terms with the fact that she’s an American novelist. Instead, she researched the champions of Darwin in America, starting with Asa Gray. Things didn’t work out with Gray – “it was like dating,” she jokes – but then she came across Mary Treat, a self-taught ‘lady scientist’ who corresponded with Darwin, and made him Thatcher’s neighbour in Vineland.

In the scene Kingsolver read from the historical thread, Mary experiments at letting a carnivorous plant nibble at her finger. The other reading, from the contemporary section, pictured Willa – part of the “sandwich generation,” doing the unpaid labor of caring for an aging relative to make up for a shortfall in the services the state should be providing – facing a pile of bills. “Willa is the peanut butter trying to hold everything together,” Kingsolver said – a feeling familiar to her from when she and her sister cared for their dying mother.

At Ahmed’s leading, Kingsolver also discussed the modern anti-fact movement, female anger and the balance between honoring the past and erasing it (the example Ahmed gave was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name being taken off of the ALA children’s book medal because she is now considered to have a backward attitude to race). Kingsolver described the novel as her “love letter to millennials” such as her two resilient twenty-something daughters who are having to creatively make up for the ways in which Baby Boomers have ruined the world.

It’s impossible to ignore the similarities between Landis, Vineland’s leader, and Donald Trump. There was much knowing laughter from the audience, in fact, as she described Landis and his megalomaniac behavior. Although she peppered in a few of the more explicit Trump allusions (e.g., “Lock him up!”) later on, she wrote the bulk of the book before his presidential run was ever a possibility. Kingsolver said that this is not the first time that she has anticipated rather than responded to world events: for The Poisonwood Bible she wrote a scene of the death of Mobutu two months before he died in real life.

I reviewed Unsheltered for BookBrowse (4-star-rating) and have also been moderating their online book club discussion of it. It’s been fascinating to see the spread of opinions, especially in the thread asking readers to describe the novel in three words. Descriptors have ranged from “preachy,” “political” and “repressive” to “prophetic,” “hopeful” and “truth.” My own three-word summary was “Bold, complex, polarizing.” I sensed that Kingsolver was going to divide readers – American ones, anyway; British readers should be a lot more positive because even centrist politics here start significantly further left, and there is for the most part very little resistance to concepts like socialism and climate change. I have a feeling the site’s users are predominantly middle-class, middle-aged white ladies (which, to be fair, was also true of the London audience), and we know that they’re a bastion of Trump support.

My proof copy of Unsheltered: lots to think about.

It’s clear what Kingsolver’s political leanings would be, but she emphasized the importance of having conversations with family members and neighbors who voted a different way (for Brexit, perhaps) that don’t begin with “You idiot…” “As a novelist you have to generate that absolute empathy” for every character, she insisted, even Willa’s hateful, Fox News-blasting father-in-law, Nick, who’s an example of the ‘pull up the ladder’ type of first-generation immigrant. It’s important to remember that “it’s all coming from a place of fear,” she noted.

“We come to literature with our own nutritional needs,” Kingsolver remarked, and she loves that readers can take such different messages from her writing. Novels don’t give answers but bring you into conversation with yourself, she suggested. In asking “What is the human animal?” and “What can we do about it?” she hopes that she’s expanding our humanity. That is what she believes literary fiction should do, and she argued passionately on its behalf.

Being careful not to give any spoilers about her story lines’ endings during the question time, she said, “I promise I will not leave you in despair.” I hope that, if you haven’t already, you will all read Unsheltered, coming to it with an open mind. It’s one of the most important books of the year.

Hurled into Gettysburg: Poems by Theresa Wyatt

Today marks the start of the 155th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, which took place on July 1–3, 1863. Theresa Wyatt was so kind as to send her terrific book of commemorative poems all the way to England for me. She pays tribute to forgotten and fringe players of the Civil War, such as Elizabeth C. Thorn, who served as the gatekeeper of Gettysburg’s Evergreen Cemetery from 1862 to 1865 while her husband was off fighting, and Jennie Wade, the only civilian killed by a war sniper. “Jennie & Jack” includes fragments of letters written by Jennie and her childhood friend and sweetheart Johnston Skelly, who died of an infection just nine days after her; neither was aware of the other’s demise. Another great story is that of poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier, whose colorblindness may have been a disadvantage growing up on a farm but was a metaphorical boon in the days of slavery.

The poems are also peopled by immigrant settlers, Underground Railroad passengers (“divinity squeezing / into dark tight spaces”) on the run from slave hunters, and brothers fighting on opposite sides. On a recent visit to Gettysburg Wyatt imagines herself into the position of General Buford, “descending these stairs in flawless summer light, / uplifted by a cyclorama of clear view, fortified” – a clever reference to the famous Gettysburg Cyclorama.

In “Visiting Gettysburg” she captures the sense of overwhelmed helplessness one experiences in relation to great historical tragedies: “trying to take it all in as if I knew anything at all / about horses, cannons or bloodshed.” The imagery ranges from grisly through innocuous to lovely, so that “buckets full of gangrene – a country’s highest price” contrast with “drops of ruby blood / invisible to sight or touch / [that] have mingled into blooms” on a farm that once comprised part of the battlefield. Especially if you’ve visited Gettysburg or another military site recently, you’ll find these poems truly resonate. It’s hard not to devour them within one sitting.

 

Another favorite passage: “Some people like their heroes loud / and let them talk, but sometimes history / picks off the scabs of arrogance / when setting records straight.” (from “At the Jennie Wade Monument”)

 

Readalikes:

March by Geraldine Brooks

Into the Cyclorama by Annie Kim

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Doorstopper of the Month: By Gaslight by Steven Price

My 2017 goal of reading one book of 500+ pages per month has been a mixed success. With the best doorstoppers the pages fly by and you enjoy every minute spent in a fictional world. From this past year Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle fits that bill, and a couple of novels I read years ago on holidays also come to mind: Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. But then there are the books that feel like they’ll never end and you have to drag yourself through page by page.

Unfortunately, Steven Price’s second novel, By Gaslight, a Victorian cat-and-mouse mystery, tended more towards the latter group for me. Like Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, it has the kernel of a fascinating story but piles up the words unnecessarily. Between July and August I read the first 300 pages and then skimmed the rest (in total the paperback has 731 small-type pages). This is the story of William Pinkerton, a 39-year-old Civil War veteran and private investigator from Chicago who comes to London in 1885 to chase up a name from his father’s files: Edward Shade. His best lead comes to nothing when Charlotte Reckitt evades him and turns up as a set of dismembered remains in the Thames. Keeping in mind the rudimentary state of forensics, though, there’s some uncertainty about the corpse’s identity.

The other central character in this drama is Adam Foole, a master thief. Half Indian and half English, he has violet eyes and travels in the company of Molly, a young pickpocket he passes off as his daughter, and Japheth Fludd, a vegetarian giant just out of prison. Foole was Charlotte’s lover ten years ago in South Africa, where they together pulled off a legendary diamond heist. Now he’s traveling back to England: she’s requested his help with a job as she knows she’s being tailed by a detective. The remaining cast is large and Dickensian: a medium and her lawyer brother, Charlotte’s imprisoned uncle, sewer dwellers, an opium dealer, and so on. Settings include a rare goods emporium, a Miss Havisham-type lonely manor house, the Record Office at Chancery Lane, and plenty of shabby garrets.

What I most enjoyed about the book was the restless, outlaw spirit of both main characters, but particularly Pinkerton. His troubled relationship with his father, in whose footsteps he’s following as a detective, is especially poignant: “William feared him and loved him and loathed him every day of his life yet too not a day passed that he did not want to be him.”

Price’s style is not what you’d generally expect of a Victorian pastiche. He uses no speech marks and his punctuation is non-standard, with lots of incomplete or run-in sentences like the one above. The critics’ blurbs liken By Gaslight to William Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy, apt comparisons that tell you just how unusual a hybrid it is.

I liked Price’s writing and starting around page 150 found the book truly gripping for a time, but extended flashbacks to Pinkerton and Foole’s earlier years really drag the story down, taking away from the suspense of the hunt. Meanwhile, the two major twists aren’t confirmed until over halfway through, but are hinted at so early that the watchful reader will know what’s going on long before the supposedly shrewd Pinkerton does. The salient facts about both characters’ past might have been conveyed in one short chapter each and the 1885 plot streamlined to make a taut novel of less than half the length.

There are many reasons to admire this Canadian novelist’s achievement, but whether it’s a reading experience you’d enjoy is something you’ll have to decide for yourself.

A favorite passage:

There is in every life a shadow of the possible, she said to him. The almost and the might have been. There are the histories that never were. We imagine we are keeping our accounts but what we are really saying is, I was here, I was real, this did happen once. It happened.

My rating:


By Gaslight was first published in the UK by Oneworld in September 2016. My thanks to Margot Weale for sending a free paperback for review.

Fun trivia: Steven Price is married to Esi Edugyan, author of the Booker Prize shortlisted novel Half Blood Blues.