As usual, I have a big backlog of 2021–22 releases I’m working my way through. I’ll get there eventually! Today I’m reporting on a poetry collection about English ancestry and wildlife, a vision of post-doubt Christian faith, and a set of essays on connection to nature, specifically flora. (I also take a brief look at some autofiction that didn’t work for me.)
Thorpeness by Alison Brackenbury (2022)
I’m familiar with Brackenbury from her appearance at New Networks for Nature in 2016 and her latest selected poems volume, Gallop. This, her tenth stand-alone collection, features abundant imagery of animals and the seasons, as in “Cucu” and “Postcard,” which marks the return of swifts. Alliteration is prominent, but there is also a handful of rhymes, like in “Fern.” Family history and the perhaps-idyllic rural underpin the verse set in Lincolnshire and Gloucestershire as Brackenbury searches for ancestral graves and delivers elegies.
I especially loved “Aunt Margaret’s Pudding,” a multipart poem about her grandmother’s life as a professional cook and then a mother of four, and “My Grandmother Waits for Christmas,” about a simple link between multiple generations’ Christmases: a sugar mouse. Caring for horses is another recurring theme; a 31-year-old blind pony receives a fond farewell.
There are also playful meetings between historical figures (“Purple Haze,” a dialogue between George Frideric Handel and Jimi Hendrix, who saw the composer’s ghost in their shared London home) and between past and contemporary, like “Thomas Hardy sends an email” (it opens “I need slide no confessions under doors”). “Charles Dickens at Home” was another favourite of mine. The title is the never-to-be-reached destination in the final poem, “Shingle.” A number of these poems were first broadcast on BBC Radio.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the e-copy for review.
Faith after Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do about It by Brian McLaren (2021)
I’ve explained before how McLaren’s books were pivotal to my spiritual journey, even before I attended the church he founded in Maryland. (I’ve also reviewed his previous book, God Unbound). His progressive, environmentalist theology is perfect for continuing searchers like me. At one of last year’s online Church Times Festival events, I saw him introduce the schema that underpins this book. He proposes that the spiritual life (not just Christian) has four stages that may overlap or repeat: simplicity, complexity, perplexity and harmony. The first stage is for new zealots who draw us–them divisions and are most concerned with orthodoxy. In the second, practitioners are more concerned with practicalities: what works, what makes life better. Perplexity is provoked by cynicism about injustice and hypocrisy, while harmony moves beyond dualism and into connection with other people and with nature.
McLaren suggest that honest doubting, far from being a problem, might present an opportunity for changing in the right direction, getting us closer to the “revolutionary love” at the heart of the gospel. He shares stories from his own life, in and out of ministry, and from readers who have contacted him remotely or come up to him after events, caught in dilemmas about what they believe and whether they want to raise their children into religion. Though he’s fully aware of the environmental crisis and doesn’t offer false hope that we as a species will survive it, he isn’t ready to give up on religion; he believes that a faith seasoned by doubt and matured into an understanding of the harmony of all things can be part of a solution.
It’s possible some would find McLaren’s ideas formulaic and his prose repetitive. His point of view always draws me in and gives me much to think about. I’ve been stuck in perplexity for, ooh, 20 years? I frequently ask myself why I persist in going to church when it’s so boring and so often feels like a social club for stick-in-the-mud white people instead of a force for change. But books like this and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, my current soul food, encourage me to keep pursuing spiritual connection as a worthwhile path. I’ll be seeking out his forthcoming book (due out in May), Do I Stay Christian?, too.
Some favourite lines:
“only doubt can save the world. Only doubt will open a doorway out of hostile orthodoxies – whether religious, cultural, economic or political. Only through the difficult passage of doubt can we emerge into a new stage of faith and a new regenerative way of life. Everything depends on making this passage.”
“Among all the other things doubt is – loss, loneliness, crisis, doorway, descent, dissent [these are each the subject of individual chapters early on in the book] – it is also this: a crossroads. At the crossroads of doubt, we either become better or bitter. We either break down or break through. We become cynics or sages, hollow or holy. We choose love or despair.”
“Blessed are the wonderers, for they shall find what is wonderful. … Blessed are the doubters, for they shall see through false gods. Blessed are the lovers, for they shall see God everywhere.”
With thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for the free copy for review.
This Book Is a Plant: How to Grow, Learn and Radically Engage with the Natural World (2022)
This collection of new essays and excerpts from previously published volumes accompanies the upcoming Wellcome Collection exhibition Rooted Beings (a collaboration with La Casa Encendida, Madrid, it’s curated by Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz and Emily Sargent and will run from 24 March to 29 August). The overarching theme is our connection with plants and fungi, and the ways in which they communicate. Some of the authors are known for their nature writing – there’s an excerpt from Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, Jessica J. Lee (author of Turning and Two Trees Make a Forest) contributes an essay on studying mosses, and a short section from Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass closes the book – while others are better known in other fields, like Susie Orbach and Abi Palmer (author of Sanatorium).
I especially enjoyed novelist Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s “Wilder Flowers,” which is about landscape painting, balcony gardening in pots, and what’s pretty versus what’s actually good for nature. (Wildflowers aren’t the panacea we are sometimes sold.) I was also interested to learn about quinine, which comes from the fever tree, in Kim Walker and Nataly Allasi Canales’ “Bitter Barks.” Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s essay on the Western influence on Inuit communities in northern Canada, reprinted from Granta, is one of the best individual pieces – forceful and with a unique voice, it advocates reframing the climate change debate in terms of human rights as opposed to the economy – but has nothing to do with plants specifically. There are also a couple of pieces that go strangely mystical, such as one on plant metaphors in the Kama Sutra. So, a mixed bag that jumbles science, paganism and postcolonial thought, but if you haven’t already encountered the Kimmerer and Sheldrake (or, e.g., Rooted by Lyanda Lynn Haupt and Losing Eden by Lucy Jones) you might find this a good primer.
With thanks to Profile Books / Wellcome Collection for the free copy for review.
And one that really didn’t work for me; my apologies to the author and publisher.
I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins (2021)
What a letdown after Gold Fame Citrus, one of my favourite novels of 2015. I’d also read Watkins’s debut short story collection, Battleborn, which won the Dylan Thomas Prize. Despite the amazing title and promising setup – autofiction that reflects on postpartum depression and her Mojave Desert upbringing as a daughter of one of the Manson Family cult members – this is indulgent, misguided, and largely unreadable.
A writer named Claire Vaye Watkins flies to Nevada to give a lecture and leaves her husband and baby daughter behind – for good? To commemorate her mother Martha, who died of an opiate overdose, she reprints Martha’s 1970s letters, which are unspeakably boring. I feel like Watkins wanted to write a memoir but didn’t give herself permission to choose nonfiction, so tried to turn her character Claire’s bad behaviour into a feminist odyssey of sexual freedom and ended up writing such atrocious lines as the below:
“I mostly boinked millennial preparers of beverages and schlepped to book festivals to hook up with whatever adequate rando lurked at the end of my signing line. This was what our open marriage looked like”
“‘Psychedelics tend to find me when I need them,’ she said, sending a rush of my blood to my vulva.”
Her vagina dentata (a myth, or a real condition?!) becomes a bizarre symbol of female power and rage. I could only bear to skim this.
Some lines I liked:
Listen: I am a messenger from the future. I am you in ten years. Pay attention! Don’t fetishize marriage and babies. Don’t succumb to the axial tilt of monogamy! I don’t pretend to know the details of your…situation, but I guarantee you, you’re as free as you’ll ever be. Have sex with anyone you want. Enjoy the fact that it might happen any minute. You could have sex with a man, a woman, both—tonight!
I went from being raised by a pack of coyotes to a fellowship at Princeton where I sat next to John McPhee at a dinner and we talked about rocks and he wasn’t at all afraid of me.
With thanks to riverrun for the proof copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
This is a bimonthly feature of mine. I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something in common – the more bizarre, the better. Because I usually 20–30 books on the go at once, I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. (I’ve realized that, of course, synchronicity is really the more apt word, but this branding has stuck.) I always like hearing about your bookish coincidences, too!
The following are in roughly chronological order.
- The author takes Valium to cope with fear of flying in two memoirs I read at the same time, I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg and This Boy We Made by Taylor Harris.
- The fact that the Spanish brought wild horses to the USA is mentioned in the story “The Team” by Tommy Orange (in The Decameron Project) and the poetry collection Rise and Float by Brian Tierney – this also links back to a book I reread in late 2021, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry.
- There are roaches in a New York City apartment in I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg and the story “Other People’s Lives” in Loss of Memory Is Only Temporary by Johanna Kaplan.
- The same Dostoevsky passage from The Brothers Karamazov, about loving everything (“Love all the earth, every ray of God’s light, every grain of sand or blade of grass, every living thing. If you love the earth enough, you will know the divine mystery” and so on), is quoted in Faith after Doubt by Brian McLaren and Reflections from the North Country by Sigurd Olson.
- A description of nicotine-stained yellow fingers in What I Wish People Knew About Dementia by Wendy Mitchell, The Cure for Sleep by Tanya Shadrick, and Free by Lea Ypi.
- Joni Mitchell’s music is mentioned in The Reactor by Nick Blackburn and The Cure for Sleep by Tanya Shadrick, two memoirs I was reading at the same time.
- From one summer camp story to another … I happened to follow up The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer with Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash.
- Audre Lorde’s definition of the erotic is quoted in Body Work by Melissa Febos and Heaven Is a Place on Earth by Adrian Shirk, both of which are March 15, 2022 nonfiction releases I’ve reviewed for Shelf Awareness.
- The 2017 white supremacist terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia is mentioned in This Boy We Made by Taylor Harris (who lives there), Faith after Doubt by Brian McLaren (who was part of the clergy counterprotest group that day), and Heaven Is a Place on Earth by Adrian Shirk (she went there for a literary event a few months later).
- The Salvador Dalí painting The Persistence of Memory (that’s the one with the melting clock) is described in The Reactor by Nick Blackburn and This Boy We Made by Taylor Harris.
- On the same day, I came across the fact that Mary Shelley was pregnant while she wrote Frankenstein in two books: Linea Nigra by Jazmina Barrera and Smile by Sarah Ruhl.
- The fact that cysts in female organs can contain teeth comes up in Heaven Is a Place on Earth by Adrian Shirk and I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins.
- Reading two novels by Japanese-American authors who grew up in Hawaii at the same time: How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu and To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara.
- Twins are everywhere! Including, just in a recent reading pile, in Hands by Lauren Brown (she’s a twin, so fair enough), Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell, The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall, Smile by Sarah Ruhl (this and the Cornwell are memoirs about birthing twins, so also fair enough), Ordinary Love by Jane Smiley, and The Priory by Dorothy Whipple. For as uncommon as they are in real life, they turn up way too often in fiction.
- Bell’s palsy AND giving birth to twins are elements in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell and Smile by Sarah Ruhl.
- There’s a no-nonsense maternity nurse in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell and The Priory by Dorothy Whipple.
- U.S. West Coast wolves (a particular one in each case, known by a tracking number) are the subject of a poem in Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz and The Necessity of Wildfire by Caitlin Scarano.
- Herons appear and/or have metaphorical/symbolic meaning in Thorpeness by Alison Brackenbury, What Willow Says by Lynn Buckle, Maggie Blue and the Dark World by Anna Goodall, and The Priory by Dorothy Whipple.
- There’s a character named Edwin in Booth by Karen Joy Fowler and Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel.
- The use of “hoard” where it should be “horde” in Maggie Blue and the Dark World by Anna Goodall and Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan – both errors were encountered in the same evening.
- I read about Lindisfarne in Jini Reddy’s essay in Women on Nature (ed. Katharine Norbury) and The Interior Silence by Sarah Sands in the same evening.
- “Flitting” as a synonym for moving house in Thorpeness by Alison Brackenbury and Nature Cure by Richard Mabey.
- A brother named Paul in Tides by Sara Freeman and Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel.
- A woman knows her lover is on the phone with his ex by his tone of voice in Tides by Sara Freeman and Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan.
- In two novels I’ve read so far this year – but I won’t say which ones as it’s a spoiler – the big reveal, towards the very end, is that a woman was caught breastfeeding someone who was not her baby and it caused a relationship-destroying rupture.
- Reading a second memoir this year where the chapters are titled after pop songs: Dear Queer Self by Jonathan Alexander (for a Foreword review) and now This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps.
- A second short novel entitled The Swimmers this year: the first was Julie Otsuka’s, recently reviewed for Shiny New Books; a proof copy is on the way to me of Chloe Lane’s, coming out from Gallic Books in May.
- Reading a second memoir this year whose author grew up in the Chicago suburbs of Illinois (Arlington Heights/Buffalo Grove vs. Oak Park): I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg and This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps.
- The linea nigra (a stripe of dark hair down a pregnant woman’s belly) provides the title for Linea Nigra by Jazmina Barrera and is also mentioned in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell.
- The famous feminist text Our Bodies, Ourselves is mentioned in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell and I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins.
- Childbirth brings back traumatic memories of rape in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell and This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
I didn’t feel like I’d done a lot of pre-release reading yet, but put it all together and somehow it looks like a lot…
My top recommendations for 2022 (so far):
Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield
Coming on March 3rd from Picador (UK) and on July 12th from Flatiron Books (USA)
I loved Armfield’s 2019 short story collection Salt Slow, which I reviewed when it was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. Her strategy in her debut novel is similar: letting the magical elements seep in gradually so that, lulled into a false sense of familiarity, you find the creepy stuff all the more unsettling.
Miri is relieved to have her wife back when Leah returns from an extended Centre for Marine Inquiry expedition. But something went wrong with the craft while in the ocean depths and it was too late to evacuate. What happened to Leah and the rest of the small crew? Miri starts to worry that Leah – who now spends 70% of her time in the bathtub – will never truly recover. Chapters alternate between Miri describing their new abnormal and Leah recalling the voyage. As Miri tries to tackle life admin for both of them, she feels increasingly alone and doesn’t know how to deal with persistent calls from the sister of one of the crew members.
This is a really sensitive consideration of dependency and grief – Miri recently lost her mother and Leah’s father also died. I especially liked the passages about Miri’s prickly mother: it was impossible not to offend her, and she truly believed that if she resisted ageing she might never die. Leah seems shell-shocked; her matter-of-fact narration is a contrast to Miri’s snark. Armfield gives an increasingly eerie story line a solid emotional foundation, and her words about family and romantic relationships ring true. I read this in about 24 hours in early December, on my way back from a rare trip into London; it got the 2022 releases off to a fab start to me. Plus, the title and cover combo is killer. I’d especially recommend this to readers of Carmen Maria Machado and Banana Yoshimoto. (Read via NetGalley)
Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King
Coming on January 20th from Picador (UK); released in the USA in November 2021
The same intimate understanding of emotions and interactions found in Euphoria and Writers & Lovers underlies King’s first short story collection. Some stories are romantic; others are retrospective coming-of-age narratives. Most are set in New England, but the time and place varies from the 1960s to the present day and from Maine to northern Europe. Several stories look back to a 1980s adolescence. “South” and “The Man at the Door” are refreshingly different, incorporating touches of magic and suspense. However, there are also a few less engaging stories, and there aren’t particularly strong linking themes. Still, the questions of love’s transience and whether any relationship can ever match up to expectations linger. I’d certainly recommend this to fans of King’s novels. (See my full review at BookBrowse. See also my related article on contemporary New England fiction.)
With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.
Other 2022 releases I’ve read:
(In publication date order)
Write It All Down: How to put your life on the page by Cathy Rentzenbrink [Jan. 6, Bluebird] I’ve read all of Rentzenbrink’s books, but the last few have been disappointing. Alas, this is more of a therapy session than a practical memoir-writing guide. (Full review coming later this month.)
Recovery: The Lost Art of Convalescence by Gavin Francis [Jan. 13, Wellcome Collection]: A short, timely book about the history and subjectivity of recovering from illness. (Full review and giveaway coming next week.)
The Store-House of Wonder and Astonishment by Sherry Rind [Jan. 15, Pleasure Boat Studio]: In her learned and mischievous fourth collection, the Seattle poet ponders Classical and medieval attitudes towards animals. (Full review coming to Shelf Awareness soon.)
Stepmotherland by Darrel Alejandro Holnes [Feb. 1, University of Notre Dame Press]: Holnes’s debut collection, winner of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, ponders a mixed-race background and queerness through art, current events and religion. Poems take a multitude of forms; the erotic and devotional mix in provocative ways. (See my full review at Foreword.)
Rise and Float: Poems by Brian Tierney [Feb. 8, Milkweed Editions]: A hard-hitting debut collection with themes of bereavement and mental illness – but the gorgeous imagery lifts it above pure melancholy. (Full review coming to Shelf Awareness soon.)
Cost of Living: Essays by Emily Maloney [Feb. 8, Henry Holt]: Probing mental illness and pain from the medical professional’s perspective as well as the patient’s, 16 autobiographical essays ponder the value of life. (Full review coming to Shelf Awareness soon.)
Circle Way: A Daughter’s Memoir, a Writer’s Journey Home by Mary Ann Hogan [Feb. 15, Wonderwell]: A posthumous memoir of family and fate that focuses on a father-daughter pair of writers. A fourth-generation Californian, Hogan followed in her father Bill’s footsteps as a local journalist. Collage-like, the book features song lyrics and wordplay as well as family anecdotes. (See my full review at Foreword.)
Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au [Feb. 23, Fitzcarraldo Editions]: A delicate work of autofiction – it reads like a Chloe Aridjis or Rachel Cusk novel – about a woman and her Hong Kong-raised mother on a trip to Tokyo. (Full review coming up in a seasonal post.)
The Carriers: What the Fragile X Gene Reveals about Family, Heredity, and Scientific Discovery by Anne Skomorowsky [May 3, Columbia UP]: Blending stories and interviews with science and statistics, this balances the worldwide scope of a disease with its intimate details. (Full review coming to Foreword soon.)
(In release date order)
This Boy We Made: A Memoir of Motherhood, Genetics, and Facing the Unknown by Taylor Harris [Jan. 11, Catapult] (Reading via Edelweiss; to review for BookBrowse)
To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara [Jan. 11, Picador] (Blog review coming … eventually)
I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home by Jami Attenberg [Jan. 13, Serpent’s Tail] (Blog review coming later this month)
Everything Is True: A Junior Doctor’s Story of Life, Death and Grief in a Time of Pandemic by Roopa Farooki [Jan. 20, Bloomsbury] (To review for Shiny New Books)
Some Integrity by Padraig Regan [Jan. 27, Carcanet] (Blog review coming later this month)
Additional proof copies on my shelf:
(In release date order; publisher blurbs from Goodreads/Amazon)
What I Wish People Knew About Dementia by Wendy Mitchell [Jan. 20, Bloomsbury]: “When Mitchell was diagnosed with young-onset dementia at the age of fifty-eight, her brain was overwhelmed with images of the last stages of the disease – those familiar tropes, shortcuts and clichés that we are fed by the media, or even our own health professionals. … Wise, practical and life affirming, [this] combines anecdotes, research and Mitchell’s own brilliant wit and wisdom to tell readers exactly what she wishes they knew about dementia.”
I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins [Came out in USA last year; UK release = Jan. 20, Quercus]: “Leaving behind her husband and their baby daughter, a writer gets on a flight for a speaking engagement in Reno, not carrying much besides a breast pump and a spiraling case of postpartum depression. … Deep in the Mojave Desert where she grew up, she meets her ghosts at every turn: the first love whose self-destruction still haunts her; her father, a member of the most famous cult in American history.”
Beasts of a Little Land by Juhea Kim [Feb. 3, Oneworld]: “From the perfumed chambers of a courtesan school in Pyongyang to the chic cafes of a modernising Seoul and the thick forests of Manchuria, Juhea Kim’s unforgettable characters forge their own destinies as they shape the future of their nation. Immersive and elegant, firmly rooted in Korean folklore and legend, [this] unveils a world where friends become enemies, enemies become saviours, and beasts take many shapes.”
Theatre of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth [April 28, Hutchinson Heinemann]: “Unruly crowds descend on Crillick’s Variety Theatre. Young actress Zillah [a mixed-race orphan] is headlining tonight. … Rising up the echelons of society is everything Zillah has ever dreamed of. But when a new stage act disappears, Zillah is haunted by a feeling that something is amiss. Is the woman in danger? Her pursuit of the truth takes her into the underbelly of the city.” (Unsolicited) [Dillsworth is Black British.]
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw [Came out in USA in 2020; UK release = May 5, Pushkin]: “explores the raw and tender places where Black women and girls dare to follow their desires and pursue a momentary reprieve from being good. … With their secret longings, new love, and forbidden affairs, these church ladies are as seductive as they want to be, as vulnerable as they need to be, as unfaithful and unrepentant as they care to be, and as free as they deserve to be.”
And on my NetGalley shelf:
Will you look out for one or more of these titles?
Any other 2022 reads you can recommend?
I’ve been interested in bibliotherapy for years, and I love The Novel Cure (see my review), the learned and playful advice book from Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, two of the bibliotherapists at Alain de Botton’s London School of Life. Earlier this month I had the tremendous opportunity to have a personalized bibliotherapy appointment with Ella Berthoud at the School of Life. She’d put out a call on Twitter for volunteers to come for a free session (usually £100) to be observed by a journalist from La Repubblica writing about bibliotherapy – the translation of The Novel Cure has sold remarkably well in Italy. The feature will be part of a special color supplement in February, and I look forward to seeing if my story makes the cut! That is, if I can decipher any of the Italian.
Now, you might not think I’m the kind of person who needs a bibliotherapy assessment since I already find 300+ books per year I want to read; I worried that too, and felt a little bit guilty, but in the end I couldn’t pass up the chance, and Ella was happy to have me.
Before my appointment I’d been asked to complete a two-page questionnaire about my reading habits and likes/dislikes, along with what’s going on in my life in general (the ‘therapy’ aspect is real). Once we were set up in the basement therapy room with hot drinks, Ella asked me more about how I read. I’d told her my reading was about two-thirds print books and one-third e-books. Had I ever tried audiobooks or reading aloud, she asked? The answer to both of those is no, I’m afraid. There’s no obvious place for audiobooks in my life because I work from home. However, as I’d mentioned I haven’t been able to get through a Dickens novel in five years, Ella suggested I try listening to one – abridged, it can be more like eight hours long instead of 42, and you still get a terrific story. She also highly recommended New Yorker and Guardian podcasts based around short stories and discussion.
For reading aloud with my husband, Ella prescribed one short story per evening sitting – a way for me to get through short story collections, which I sometimes struggle to finish, and a different way to engage with books. We also talked about the value of rereading childhood favorites such as Watership Down and Little Women, which I haven’t gone back to since I was nine and 12, respectively. In this anniversary year, Little Women would be the ideal book to reread (and the new television adaptation is pretty good too, Ella thinks).
One other reading habit Ella is adamant about is keeping a physical reading journal in which you record the title of each book you read, where you read it, and about a paragraph of thoughts about it. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive response to every book; more like an aide-mémoire that you can get off the shelf in years to come to remind yourself of what you thought about a book. Specifically, Ella thinks writing down the location of your reading (e.g., on a train to Scotland) allows you to put yourself back in the moment. I tend to note where I bought a book, but not necessarily where I read it – for that, I would probably have to cross-reference my annual book list against a calendar. Since 2010 I’ve kept my book lists and responses in computer files, and I also keep full records via Goodreads, but I can see why having a physical journal would be a good back-up as well as a more pleasant representation of my reading. I’ll think about starting one.
Various books came up over the course of our conversation: Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone [appearance in The Novel Cure: The Ten Best Novels to Cure the Xenophobic, but Ella brought it up because of the medical theme], Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume [cure: ageing, horror of], and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, a nonfiction guide to thinking creatively about your life, chiefly through 20-minute automatic writing exercises every morning. We agreed that it’s impossible to dismiss a whole genre, even if I do find myself weary of certain trends, like dystopian fiction (I introduced Ella to Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus, one of my favorite recent examples).
I came away with two instant prescriptions: Heligoland by Shena Mackay [cure: moving house], about a shell-shaped island house that used to be the headquarters of a cult. It’s a perfect short book, Ella tells me, and will help dose my feelings of rootlessness after moving more than 10 times in the last 10 years. She also prescribed Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry [cure: ageing parents] and an eventual reread of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. As we discussed various other issues, such as my uncertainty about having children, Ella said she could think of 20 or more books to recommend me. “That’s a good thing, right?!” I asked.
Before I left, I asked Ella if she would ever prescribe nonfiction. She said they have been known to do so, usually if it’s written in a literary style (e.g. Robert Macfarlane and Alain de Botton). We chatted about medical memoirs and reading with the seasons for a little while, and then I thanked her and headed on my way. I walked around the corner to Skoob Books but, alas, didn’t find any of the books Ella had mentioned during our session. On the way back to the Tube station, though, I stopped at Judd Books and bought several secondhand and remaindered goodies, including these two:
(Imagine my surprise when I spotted The Year of the Hare in The Novel Cure under midlife crisis! Age seemed to be the theme of the day.)
As soon as I got back from London I ordered secondhand copies of Heligoland, Jitterbug Perfume and The Artist’s Way, and borrowed Family Matters from the public library the next day. Within a few days four further book prescriptions arrived for me by e-mail. Ella did say that her job is made harder when her clients read a lot, so kudos to her for prescribing books I’d not read – with the one exception of Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, which I love.
I’ve put in another order for Maggie and Me, the memoir by Damian Barr, plus (for reading aloud) Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman and the collected short stories of Saki. I’m also keen to find The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski, Ella’s final prescription, but as the Persephone Books reprint is pricey at the moment I may hold off and hope to chance upon a secondhand copy later in the year. Ella has been very generous with her recommendations, especially considering that I didn’t pay a penny. I certainly have plenty to be getting on with for now! I’ll report back later on in the year when I’ve had the chance to read some of these prescriptions.
2015 was a great year for fiction, largely dominated by doorstoppers (like Death & Mr. Pickwick and City on Fire, in addition to the Franzen and Yanagihara listed below) and Harper Lee. I’ve decided to pass on Go Set a Watchman, but I’ve read plenty of the year’s big-name fiction, as well as some more obscure titles I’d like to bring to your attention.
As difficult as it is to pit books against each other and come up with a numbered list, I’ve given it a go and come up with my top 15 fiction works of the year. To keep it simple for myself and straightforward for potential readers, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
Let the countdown begin!
- The Shore by Sara Taylor: Gritty and virtuosic, this debut novel-in-13-stories imagines 250 years of history on a set of islands. Every region needs a literary chronicler, and I reckon Taylor – channeling David Mitchell with her cross-centuries approach – is it for the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia’s islands.
- Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins: Gold, fame, citrus: reasons people once came to California; now, only a desperate remnant remains in the waterless wasteland. As a smart, believable dystopian with a family at its heart, this trumps any of last year’s efforts (like Station Eleven or California).
- Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish: Like West Side Story, this debut novel is an updated Romeo and Juliet narrative – a tragedy-bound love story with a grimy contemporary setting and a sobering message about racism and the failure of the American dream. The matter-of-fact style somehow manages to elevate the everyday and urban into an art form. (Reviewed for Third Way magazine in August.)
- Circling the Sun by Paula McLain: Before she ever thought of flying solo across the Atlantic, aviatrix Beryl Markham was just Beryl Clutterbuck: raised in Kenya, one of Africa’s first female horse trainers, its first professional female pilot, and the other side of the love triangle featuring Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) and Denys Finch Hatton. McLain describes her African settings beautifully, and focuses as much on the small emotional moments that make a life as she does on its external thrills.
- Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal: One of my favorite debuts of the year: a culinary-themed collection of short stories loosely linked through the character of Eva Thorvald, a young chef with an unfortunate past and a rare palate. Read it for a glimpse of how ordinary, flawed Americans live – no fairytale endings here.
- Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum: This arresting debut reads like a modern retelling of Madame Bovary, with its main character a desperate American housewife in Zurich. Watch Anna’s trajectory with horror, but you cannot deny there is a little of her in you.
- The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett: In this impressively structured, elegantly written debut, Barnett chronicles the romantic lives of two Cambridge graduates through three-quarters of a century, giving three options for how their connection might play out. There is no one perfect person or story: unsentimental this may be, but it feels true to how life works. (Reviewed for Third Way magazine in July.)
- Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: An incisive study of a marriage, beautifully written and rich with allusions to Shakespeare and Greek mythology. Groff makes it onto a short list of women I expect to produce the Great American Novel (along with Curtis Sittenfeld, Jennifer Egan, and Hanya Yanagihara).
- Purity by Jonathan Franzen: East Germany, Bolivia and Oakland, California: Franzen doesn’t quite pull all his settings and storylines together, but this is darn close to a 5-star Dickensian read. It’s strong on the level of character and theme, with secrecy, isolation and compassion as recurring topics.
- You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman: Kleeman’s first novel is a full-on postmodern satire bursting with biting commentary on consumerism and conformity. Think of her as an heir to Dave Eggers and Douglas Coupland, with a hefty dollop of Margaret Atwood thrown in.
- The Animals by Christian Kiefer: Kiefer’s second novel contrasts wildness and civilization through the story of a man who runs an animal refuge to escape from his criminal past. A tough opening sequence establishes themes that will be essential to the novel: the fine line between instincts and decisions, the moral dilemmas involved in environmentalism, and the seeming inescapability of violence.
- The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra: A collection of tightly linked short stories giving an intimate look at Russia and Chechnya in wartime and afterwards – revealing how politics, family, and art intertwine. Just as he did in his first novel, Marra renders unspeakable tragedies bearable through his warm and witty writing.
- Girl at War by Sara Nović: This pitch-perfect debut novel is an inside look at the Yugoslavian Civil War and its aftermath, from the perspective of a young girl caught up in the fighting. The way Nović recreates a child’s perspective on the horrors of war is masterful: Ana’s viewpoint is realistic and matter-of-fact, without the melodrama an omniscient narrator might inject.
- Adeline by Norah Vincent: Set in 1925–1941 and structured like a five-act play, the novel revolves around Virginia Woolf’s philosophical conversations with Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey and his lover Carrington, T.S. and Valerie Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and her doctor, Octavia Wilberforce. Vincent has produced a remarkable picture of mental illness from the inside.
- A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: Jude St. Francis: Dickensian orphan, patron saint of lost causes, Christlike Man of Sorrows, and one of the most memorable characters in recent fiction. This novel is an attempt to tackle the monolithic question of what makes life worth living; among the potential answers: love (though it doesn’t conquer all), friendship, creativity, and the family you create for yourself.
Debut Novelists Whose Next Work I’m Most Looking Forward to: Jessamyn Hope (Safekeeping – reviewed here in June) and Carmiel Banasky (The Suicide of Claire Bishop – reviewed for Foreword’s Fall 2015 issue).
The Year’s Biggest Disappointments: Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper; Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks and Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving (both rehash the authors’ familiar themes; I couldn’t make it past 15% in the latter).
Novels I Most Wish I’d Gotten to in 2015: Nell Zink’s Mislaid, Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither, and the final two volumes of Jane Smiley’s “Last Hundred Years” trilogy.
What are the best novels you read this year? Any new favorite books or authors? Your comments are always welcome.
I’ll be back tomorrow with my top 15 nonfiction books I read this year (most of them not published in 2015, however – I seem to have been a nonfiction slacker!)
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I’ll provide links to all the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a short taster so you can decide whether to click to read more. A couple of exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie, BlueInk or Publishers Weekly reviews since I don’t get a byline.
Rising Strong by Brené Brown: Brown, a qualitative researcher in the field of social work, encourages readers to embrace vulnerability and transform failure and shame through a simple process of re-evaluating the stories we tell ourselves. The gimmicky terminology and frequent self-referencing grated on me a bit, but I appreciated how the book made me reconsider events from my own life. It’s the ideas that carry Rising Strong, so as long as you come to it expecting a useful tool rather than a literary experience you shouldn’t be disappointed. Genuinely helpful self-help.
Life After You by Lucie Brownlee: With honesty and humor, Brownlee reconstructs the two years following her husband’s sudden death. My sister is still a new widow, so I read this expecting it to resonate with her situation, and it certainly does. I had an issue with the title and marketing, though. When originally published last year, the book had the title Me After You. That’s been changed to sound a little less like a Jojo Moyes novel, but the cover is more chick lit than ever, which doesn’t really match the contents of the book.
The Glass Girl by Sandy Hogarth (& interview): Moving between Australia and England and spanning several decades of Ruth Bishop’s life, this debut novel explores the psychological effects of sexual trauma and betrayal. The middle of the book feels a little meandering, and the chronology is sometimes over-complicated. However, Ruth’s is a warm first-person voice, and the ending hints at welcome resolution to unanswered questions. My favorite aspect of the novel, though, is the frequent observations of the natural world.
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota: With multilingual slang and several Sikh characters, Sahota’s second novel illuminates aspects of the South Asian experience that might be unfamiliar. Daily life is a struggle for Tochi, Randeep and Avtar: they work multiple jobs to make ends meet, serving at Crunchy Fried Chicken, cleaning sewers, or building a luxury hotel in Leeds. The fourth protagonist is Randeep’s visa-wife, Narinder. Through flashbacks we discover each one’s past. It’s a harrowing read, but you can’t help but sympathize with the four runaways as they make and dissolve connections over the year.
The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson: This contemporary ‘cover version’ of The Winter’s Tale links a London financier, a Parisian singer, and a blended family in New Orleans. Winterson creates clear counterparts for each Shakespeare characters, often tweaking names so they are recognizable but more modern. Inventive and true to the themes and imagery (time, adoption; angels, bears, statues) of the original, but ultimately adds little to one’s experience of Shakespeare. I’ll hope for better things from the rest of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. (Still to come: Margaret Atwood on The Tempest, Howard Jacobson on The Merchant of Venice and Anne Tyler on The Taming of the Shrew, among others.)
After the Parade by Lori Ostlund [subscription service, but the full text of my review will be available for free during the week of October 20th as part of Editor’s Choice]: Ostlund’s debut novel explores trauma and loneliness through the past and present of the protagonist, an ESL teacher who has just left his long-term partner, as well as the stories of those he meets. Although set over a six-month period, the novel is so full of flashbacks that it feels dense with the weight of the past. At times this can seem more like a set of short stories, only loosely connected through Aaron. Still, the overarching theme is strong and resonant: “after the parade,” after everything has changed irrevocably, you must keep going, pushing past the sadness to build a new life.
The Best Small Fictions 2015, ed. by Tara L. Masih and Robert Olen Butler: In this very strong anthology of flash fiction, stories range from Tweet length to a few pages, but are always under 1,000 words. Titles and first lines carry a lot of weight. One of the best openers is “I didn’t recognize her without her head” (“Before She Was a Memory,” Emma Bolden). In genre the stories run the gamut from historical fiction to whimsical fantasy. You’ll be introduced to a wealth of fresh and existing talent. There are literally dozens of stand-outs here, but if I had to choose a top 3, they’d be “A Notice from the Office of Reclamation” by J. Duncan Wiley, “The Lunar Deep” by David Mellerick Lynch, and (overall favorite) “Something Overheard” by Yennie Cheung.
For Books’ Sake
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: An incisive study of a marriage, beautifully written and rich with allusions to Shakespeare and Greek mythology. Short, verbless sentences pile up to create exquisite descriptions, as in “Sunset. House on the dunes like a sun-tossed conch. Pelicans thumb-tacked in the wind.” However, I was less sure about the necessity of the bracketed phrases, which seem to represent a Greek chorus giving omniscient commentary, and the use of slang and nicknames can grate. Groff makes it onto a short list of women I expect to produce the Great American Novel.
When All Goes Quiet by Augustinus F. Lodewyks: This religious memoir should interest those who are curious about how spiritual experience can infiltrate everyday life. “When all goes quiet, I know that Heaven is trying to show me its glory,” Lodewyks writes. In autobiographical vignettes, he vividly expresses his mystical visions, particularly those featuring Jesus, the Virgin Mary and angels, who tend to appear in times of crisis and during events of ritual significance like weddings, funerals and religious pilgrimages. Some will still object to the overt proselytizing, especially in the book’s last quarter.
The Blessing of Movement by Deborah Konrad: Konrad’s story is an inspirational memoir about life with disability and caring for dying relatives. Her sister Sandra became a quadriplegic in her twenties. Throughout the book, Konrad investigates the secret strength that underlay “the sunny disposition of the pretty paralyzed woman.” She concludes that it was all about thankfulness, as proven by Sandra’s gratitude journal. Konrad’s own life undeniably gets sidelined, though; more self-reflection would provide a good match for her insights into her sister’s character.
DNA of Mathematics by Mehran Basti: Drawing on his academic specialty in mathematics, Basti explores how scientific theories have been used and misused through history. The book lacks focus due to frequent unrelated asides. It may be difficult to grant credibility to a scientist who dismisses the big bang because it was theorized through “semi-broken scientific methods” and seems to have a personal vendetta against Stephen Hawking. Most importantly, the mathematics that forms the book’s basis is never fully explained.
From Hell to Heaven, One Man’s Journey by Gustav Daffy: This book was inspired by an acrimonious divorce and other family troubles; although Christian faith helped Gustav adjust his thinking, many of the poems still feel like the angry outpourings of a man with an ax to grind. Moreover, formulaic rhyming and poor spelling and grammar mar this overlong collection. It would take a professional copyeditor to hone this into a concise set of linguistically and stylistically acute poems. However, the author’s in-the-moment reactions are easy to relate to.
Shiny New Books
Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter: It may seem perverse to twist Emily Dickinson’s words about hope into a reflection on bereavement, but Porter’s exceptional debut does just that: tweak poetic forebears – chiefly Poe’s “The Raven” and Ted Hughes’s Crow – to create a hybrid response to loss. The novella is composed of three first-person voices: Dad, Boys and Crow (the soul of the book: witty, onomatopoeic, often macabre). Dad and his two young sons are adrift in mourning; the boys’ mum died after an unspecified accident in their London flat. The three narratives resemble monologues in a play, with short lines laid out on the page more like stanzas of a poem.
We Love This Book
A Slanting of the Sun by Donal Ryan: The Irish author of the novels The Spinning Heart (winner of the Guardian First Book Award in 2013) and The Thing About December, returns with 20 jolting, voice-driven short stories suffused with loneliness and anger. Nineteen of the 20 are in the first person, echoing the chorus of voices that made The Spinning Heart so effective. Many of the narrators speak in thick dialect and run-on sentences, which helps to immerse you in the rhythms of Irish speech. In a book full of lonely people, it is the moments of connection – however fleeting – that matter. For example, in “Long Puck,” one of the best stories, a Catholic priest posted to Syria initiates interfaith hurling matches that temporarily lift everyone’s spirits.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads.
The River by Helen Humphreys: Humphreys has lived along Ontario’s Napanee River for over a decade. I was expecting a blend of personal reflection and natural observations, but instead the book is mostly composed of brief fictional passages illuminating a handful of species. I liked the passages about the heron best – Humphreys successfully imagines the life of a plume hunter and contrasts it with the excitement of two women involved in the foundation of a bird conservation charity. However, much of the book felt like unconnected vignettes, not building to any kind of grander picture of a location.
The Mountain Can Wait by Sarah Leipciger: The novel opens and closes with a hit-and-run, but in between those momentous peaks it’s a quieter tale of a single father trying to guide his son and daughter into young adulthood in the wilds of Canada’s west and islands. Tom Berry’s work is not cutting trees down but planting them – an interesting adaptation of a traditional woodsman’s activity to a new eco age. I found the story a little sleepy but loved Leipciger’s writing, especially her account of the daily drudgery of manual labor and her descriptions of wilderness scenery.
Decline of the Animal Kingdom by Laura Clarke: Bizarre, in-your-face poetry from a 30-year-old Canadian: business jargon, YouTube videos, fast food…and, yes, animals. Many of the poems feature mules and lions, including weird dialogues between a mule and its supervisor / domestic partner / psychiatrist. With plays on words and sexualized vocabulary, Clarke considers inter-species altruism and the inevitable slide towards extinction. Two favorite lines: “You forget you live parallel to violence” (from “Carnivora”); “The Tasmanian tiger live-tweets its extinction from the Hobart zoo in 1933” (from “Extirpation”).
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh: “Terrible job, neurosurgery. Don’t do it.” Lucky for us, Henry Marsh reports back from the frontlines of brain surgery so we don’t have to. He’s nearing retirement age after a career divided between a London hospital and medical missions to Ukraine. The punchy chapters are named after conditions he has treated or observed. Marsh comes across as having a hot temper, exhibiting extreme frustration with NHS bureaucracy. At the same time, he gets very emotional over his patients declining and dying, and experiences profound guilt over operations that go wrong or were ultimately unnecessary.
In the Flesh by Adam O’Riordan: My favorite poems in O’Riordan’s debut collection were about Victorian Manchester, 1910s suffragettes and the Wordsworths, this last based on the author’s year in residence at their Lake District cottage. I also liked “The Corpse Garden” – about the outdoor forensic lab in Knoxville, Tennessee – and a couple of multi-part poems that seem to enliven family history. It’s the vocabulary and alliteration that make these poems; there are only a handful of rhyming couplets.
A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle: If, like me, you only knew L’Engle through her Wrinkle in Time children’s series, this journal should come as a revelation. I didn’t know she wrote any nonfiction for adults. The Crosswicks books cannot be called simple memoirs, however; there’s so much more going on. In this journal (published 1972) of a summer spent at their Connecticut farmhouse, L’Engle muses on theology, purpose, children’s education, the writing life, the difference between creating stories for children and adults, neighbors and fitting into a community, and much besides.
A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor: My third Taylor – not as good as Mrs. Palfrey, but better than Angel. It’s about the everyday family and romantic entanglements of a small English harbor village in the 1940s. Beth is a preoccupied writer who doesn’t notice that her husband, the local doctor, is carrying on an affair with her best friend, the divorcée Tory, who is also their next-door neighbor. As always, Taylor has great insight into the human psyche and unlikely relationships. The plot is low on thrills for sure, but it’s pleasant reading, especially if you’re on holiday at the seaside (I started reading it on the coast near Dublin).
Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris: This makes the shortlist of books I would hand to skeptics to show them there might be something to this Christianity nonsense after all. Norris spent 20 years away from the faith but gradually made her way back, via the simple Presbyterianism of her Dakota relatives but also through becoming an oblate at a Benedictine monastery – two completely different expressions of the same faith. In few-page essays, she gives each word or phrase a rich backstory through anecdote, scripture and lived philosophy, ensuring that it’s not just religious jargon anymore.
Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt: What The Sisters Brothers did for the Western, this does for the Gothic fairytale. It’s not quite as fun or successful as the previous book, but has a nicely campy Dracula or Jane Eyre feel. Lucien “Lucy” Minor, a compulsive liar, sets out to find adventure and romance as undermajordomo of a castle in the quaint German countryside. Here he meets pickpockets, a periodically insane baron, a randy maiden, and a strapping rival who’s a soldier in the absurdist local conflict. DeWitt’s understated humor is not as clearly on display here; there’s also, strangely, quite a bit of sex.
Sentenced to Life by Clive James: James, an Australian critic and all-round man of letters, was first diagnosed with leukemia in 2010. After a setback in 2013, he’s rallied, but these poems are certainly infused with a sense of imminent mortality. The incessant ABAB rhyming in the early poems set up a jaunty rhythm I didn’t find appropriate to the subject matter; I much prefer the later unrhymed poems. “Plot Points” is my favorite, artfully linking disparate historical moments.
Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins: Gold, fame, citrus: reasons people once came to California. Now, only a desperate remnant remains in this waterless wasteland. Luz and Ray squat in a starlet’s abandoned mansion and live off of Luz’s modeling money – she was once the environmental movement’s poster child, “Baby Dunn.” When they take charge of a baby called Ig, however, their priorities change. They set off for the strangely beautiful sea of dunes, the Amargosa, leaving behind the ‘frying pan’ of exposure to the elements for the ‘fire’ of a desert cult. There is some absolutely beautiful prose. This is the book that California (Edan Lepucki) wanted to be.
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy: U. is a corporate anthropologist in London, coming off the success of the Koob–Sassen contract and facing the blank page of the Great Report he’s tasked with writing. Not much happens here; the book is more about his anthropological observations and the things he fixates on, like oil spills, a sabotaged parachutist, and Satin Island – a place he encounters in a dream and then, by word association, likens to Staten Island, a destination he doesn’t quite make it to. For me the most interesting parts were about narrative. I found this too clever for its own good; not Booker Prize material.