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.
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.)
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
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 statistics on my 2020 reading:
(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.)
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!
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 (usually around 20), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents than some. I also list these occasional reading coincidences on a Twitter thread.
- Reading two books whose covers feature Audubon bird paintings.
- A 19th-century female character inherits a house but knows it will pass instantly to her spouse in Property by Valerie Martin and Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain.
- A bag/sack of potatoes as a metaphor in Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes and Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler.
- Nipple rings get a mention in Addition by Toni Jordan and Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes.
- Taxidermy is an element (most major in the first one) in Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett, Wild Child by Patrick Barkham and Into the Tangled Bank by Lev Parikian.
- A discussion of bartenders’ habit of giving out free drinks to get big tips (a canny way of ‘stealing’ from the employer) in Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain and Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes.
- Characters named Seamus in Addition by Toni Jordan and Mother’s Milk by Edward St. Aubyn.
- Wild boar mentioned in Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett, Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes and My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss.
- A fastidious bachelor who’s always cleaning his living space in Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes and Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler.
- A character is a blogger in Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes and My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss.
- Norfolk settings in Wild Child by Patrick Barkham and Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness (and both were on the Wainwright Prize longlist).
- A close aunt‒niece relationship in Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett and Addition by Toni Jordan.
- A guy does dumb accents when talking about food, and specifically a French accent for “hamburger,” in Addition by Toni Jordan and Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler.
- Recipes for a potato salad that is dressed with oil and vinegar rather than mayonnaise in Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl and My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss.
- Mentions of the Watergate hearings in A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne and Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl.
- Twins in Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne and The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani.
- Characters nicknamed “Lefty” in Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Modern Lovers by Emma Straub.
- Characters named Abir/Abeer in A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne and Apeirogon by Colum McCann.
- Kayaking in Scotland in The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange and Summerwater by Sarah Moss.
- The military coup in Nigeria features in Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński.
- The song “White Christmas” is quoted in Mudbound by Hillary Jordan and Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin.
- The fact that fingerprints are formed by the fetus touching the uterine wall appears in Marrow by Elizabeth Lesser and You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South.
- Orkney as a setting in Close to Where the Heart Gives Out by Malcolm Alexander and The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange. I’m hankering to go back!
- Teresa of Ávila is mentioned in Marrow by Elizabeth Lesser and You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South.
- A dog named Bingo in Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Modern Lovers by Emma Straub. (B-I-N-G-O!)
- Four sisters are given a joint name in A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne (Fran-Claire-Lois-Ada) and Marrow by Elizabeth Lesser (KaLiMaJo).
- The same Lilla Watson quote (“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together”) appears in both The Gospel of Trees by Apricot Irving and Marrow by Elizabeth Lesser.
- An Irish author and Hong Kong setting for Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan and The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell.
- The Dorothy Parker quote “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” appears in both What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez and First Time Ever by Peggy Seeger.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
The 2020 Booker Prize shortlist will be announced tomorrow, September 15th. Following on from my initial thoughts … I’ve only managed to read one more book from the longlist, reviewed in brief below along with some thoughts on a few other nominees I’ve sampled.
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
This short, intense novel is about two women locked into resentful competition. Tara and Antara also happen to be mother and daughter. When the long-divorced Tara shows signs of dementia, artist Antara and her American-born husband Dilip take her into their home in Pune, India. Her mother’s criticism and strange behavior stir up flashbacks to the 1980s and 1990s, when Antara felt abandoned by Tara during the four years they lived in an ashram and then her time at boarding school. Emotional turmoil led to medical manifestations like excretory issues and an eating disorder, and both women fell in love in turn with a homeless photographer named Reza Pine.
When Antara learns she is pregnant, the whole cycle of guilt and maternal ambivalence looks set to start again. Memory is precarious and full of potential hurt here, and Antara’s impassive narration is perfectly suited to the story of a toxic relationship. Neither the UK title nor the one for the original Indian publication (Girl in White Cotton) seems quite right to me; I might have chosen something related to the cover and endpaper image of the aloe plant: something that is as spiky as a cactus yet holds out hope of balm. This was a good fictional follow-up to a memoir I read earlier in the year about dementia’s effect on an Indian-American mother–daughter pair, What We Carry by Maya Shanbhag Lang.
It seems to me now that this forgetting is convenient, that she doesn’t want to remember the things she has said and done. It feels unfair that she can put away the past from her mind while I’m brimming with it all the time. I fill papers, drawers, entire rooms with records, notes, thoughts, while she grows foggier with each passing day.
I will never be free of her. She’s in my marrow and I’ll never be immune.
My thanks to Hamish Hamilton for the free copy for review.
Apeirogon by Colum McCann
Reminiscent of the work of David Grossman, this is the story of two fathers, one Israeli and one Palestinian, who lost their daughters to the ongoing conflict between their nations: Rami Elhanan’s 13-year-old daughter Smadar was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber, while Bassam Aramin’s 10-year-old daughter Abir was shot by Israeli border police. The two men become unlikely friends through their work with a peacemaking organization, with Bassam also expanding his sense of compassion through his studies of the Holocaust.
It doesn’t take long to piece the men’s basic stories together. But the novel just keeps going. It’s in numbered vignettes ranging in length from one line to a few pages, and McCann brings in many tangentially related topics such as politics, anatomy, and religious history. Bird migration is frequently used as a metaphor. Word association means some lines feel arbitrary and throwaway. Looking ahead, I could see the numbering goes up to 500, at which point there is a long central section narrated in turn by the two main characters, and then goes back down to 1, mimicking the structure of the One Thousand and One Nights, mentioned in #101.
The narrative sags under the challenge McCann has set for himself. At 200 pages, this might have been a masterpiece. Though still powerful, it sprawls into repetition and pretension. (I read the first 150 pages.)
Set aside temporarily:
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook: The blurb promised an interesting mother–daughter relationship, but so far this is dystopia by numbers. A wilderness living experiment started with 20 volunteers, but illnesses and accidents have reduced their number. Bea was an interior decorator and her partner, Glen, a professor of anthropology – their packing list and habits echo primitive human culture. I loved the rituals around a porcelain teacup, but in general the plot and characters weren’t promising. I read Part I (47 pages) and would only resume if this makes the shortlist, which seems unlikely. (See this extraordinarily detailed 1-star Goodreads review from someone who DNFed the novel near where I am now.)
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart: Dialect + depressing subject matter = a hard slog. Poverty and alcoholism make life in 1980s Glasgow a grim prospect for Agnes Bain and her three children. So far, the novel is sticking with the parents and the older children, with the title character barely getting a mention. I did love the scene where Catherine goes to Leek’s den in the pallet factory. This is a lot like the account Damian Barr gives of his childhood in Maggie & Me. I left off on page 82 but will go back to this if it makes the shortlist.
So that makes a total of 2 read, 4 DNFed, 2 set aside (and might yet DNF), 2 I still hope to read (one of which I’m awaiting from the library; the other is on my birthday wish list), and 3 I don’t intend to read. Not a great showing at all this year!
Still, I can never resist an opportunity to make predictions about a prize shortlist, so here’s what I expect to still be in the running after tomorrow. Weighty, diverse; a mixture of historical and contemporary.
- The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel (will win)
- Apeirogon by Colum McCann
- The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
- Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
- Real Life by Brandon Taylor
- How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C. Pam Zhang
What have you read from the longlist? What do you expect to be shortlisted?
The 13-strong 2020 Booker Prize longlist was announced this morning. Looking at friends’ Booker predictions/wish lists (Clare’s and Susan’s), I didn’t think I would be invested in this year’s prize race, yet the moment I saw the longlist I scurried to look up the titles I hadn’t heard of and to request others I realized I wanted to read after all.
In general, the list achieves a nice balance between established names and debut authors, and the gender, ethnicity and sexuality statistics are good.
(Descriptions of books not experienced are from the Goodreads blurbs.)
Only one so far and, alas, I thought it among the author’s poorest work to date:
- Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler (Chatto & Windus) – While this novella is perfectly readable – Tyler could write sympathetic characters like Micah and his Baltimore neighbors in her sleep – it felt incomplete and inconsequential, like an early draft that needed another subplot and plenty more scenes added in before it was ready for publication. Any potential controversy (illegitimate offspring and a few post-apocalyptic imaginings) is instantly neutralized, making the story feel toothless.
DNFed earlier in the year (but what do I know?):
- The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel (4th Estate) – I only managed to read 80 pages or so, then skimmed to page 200 before admitting defeat. I would be totally engrossed for up to 10 pages (exposition and Cromwell one-liners), but then everything got talky or plotty and I’d skim for 20‒30 pages and set it down. I lacked the necessary singlemindedness and felt overwhelmed by the level of detail and cast of characters, so never built up momentum. Still, I can objectively recognize the prose as top-notch. But is 900 pages not a wee bit indulgent? No editor would have dared cut it…
- Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (Bloomsbury) – “In the midst of a family crisis one late evening, white blogger Alix Chamberlain calls her African American babysitter, Emira, asking her to take toddler Briar to the local market for distraction. There, the security guard accuses Emira of kidnapping Briar, and Alix’s efforts to right the situation turn out to be good intentions selfishly mismanaged.”
- How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C. Pam Zhang (Virago) – “Both epic and intimate, blending Chinese symbolism and re-imagined history with fiercely original language and storytelling, How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a haunting adventure story … An electric debut novel set against the twilight of the American gold rush, two siblings are on the run in an unforgiving landscape—trying not just to survive but to find a home.”
On the shelf to read soon:
- Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Picador) – “The unforgettable story of young Hugh ‘Shuggie’ Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. Thatcher’s policies have put husbands and sons out of work, and the city’s notorious drugs epidemic is waiting in the wings.” (Out on August 6th. Proof copy from publisher)
Already wanted to read:
- Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (Bloomsbury) – Yes, I’m going to try this one again! (Requested from library)
- Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Daunt Books) – “An introverted young man from Alabama, black and queer, he has left behind his family without escaping the long shadows of his childhood. But over the course of a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with an ostensibly straight, white classmate, conspire to fracture his defenses while exposing long-hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community.”
- Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward (Corsair) – “Rachel and Eliza are hoping to have a baby. The couple spend many happy evenings together planning for the future. One night Rachel wakes up screaming and tells Eliza that an ant has crawled into her eye and is stuck there. She knows it sounds mad – but she also knows it’s true. As a scientist, Eliza won’t take Rachel’s fear seriously and they have a bitter fight. Suddenly their entire relationship is called into question.” (Requested from library)
Heard about for the first time and leapt to find:
- The New Wilderness by Diane Cook (Oneworld) – “Bea, Agnes, and eighteen others volunteer to live in the Wilderness State as part of a study to see if humans can co-exist with nature … [This] explores a moving mother‒daughter relationship in a world ravaged by climate change and overpopulation.” (Out on August 13th. Requested from publisher)
- Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (Hamish Hamilton) – “A searing debut novel about mothers and daughters, obsession and betrayal – for fans of Deborah Levy, Jenny Offill and Diana Evans … unpicks the slippery, choking cord of memory and myth that binds two women together, making and unmaking them endlessly.” (Out on July 30th. Requested from publisher)
Thought I didn’t want to read, but changed my mind:
- Apeirogon by Colum McCann (Bloomsbury) – I’ve only read one book by McCann and have always meant to read more. But I judged this one by the title and assumed it was going to be yet another Greek myth update. (What an eejit!) “Bassam Aramin is Palestinian. Rami Elhanan is Israeli. They inhabit a world of conflict that colors every aspect of their daily lives, from the roads they are allowed to drive on, to the schools their daughters, Abir and Smadar, each attend, to the checkpoints, both physical and emotional, they must negotiate.” (Reading from library)
Would read if it fell in my lap, but I’m not too bothered:
- Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze (4th Estate) – “An electrifying autobiographical British novel … This is a story of a London you won’t find in any guidebooks. This is a story about what it’s like to exist in the moment, about boys too eager to become men, growing up in the hidden war zones of big cities – and the girls trying to make it their own way.”
- The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (Canongate) – “A gripping novel set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King takes us back to the first real conflict of World War II, casting light on the women soldiers who were left out of the historical record.” I have seen unenthusiastic reviews from friends.
Don’t plan to read:
- This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber & Faber) – “Anxious about her prospects after leaving a stagnant job, Tambudzai finds herself living in a run-down youth hostel in downtown Harare. … at every turn in her attempt to make a life for herself, she is faced with a fresh humiliation, until the painful contrast between the future she imagined and her daily reality ultimately drives her to a breaking point.” This is the third book in a trilogy and I have seen unfavorable reviews from friends.
Of course, Hilary will win; skip the shortlist announcement in September and go ahead and give her the Triple Crown! But I always discover at least a couple of gems through the Booker longlist each year, so I’m grateful to the judges (Margaret Busby (chair), editor, literary critic and former publisher; Lee Child, author; Sameer Rahim, author and critic; Lemn Sissay, writer and broadcaster; and Emily Wilson, classicist and translator) for highlighting some exciting books that I may not have been induced to try otherwise. I will probably end up reading only half of the longlist, but may readjust my plans after the shortlist comes out.
What do you think about the longlist? Have you read anything from it? Which nominees appeal to you?
Dr. James Darke, the narrator of rare-book dealer Rick Gekoski’s debut novel, is of the same lineage as titular antiheroes like Hendrik Groen and Fredrik Backman’s Ove, or J. Mendelssohn, protagonist of the title novella in Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking: an aging widower and curmudgeon with an unforgettable voice.
As Darke begins, this retired English teacher is literally sealing himself off from the world. He hires a handyman to take out the door’s built-in letterbox, change the locks and install a high-tech peephole; he has all his mail redirected to an old colleague, George; he changes his e-mail address; and he compiles a thorough list of service providers who will come to him – everything from grocery deliveries to a doctor. Now, with any luck, he won’t need to set foot outside his London home while he writes this “coming-of-old-age book.”
For eight months Darke stays in self-imposed exile, his solitude broken only by visits from Bronya, a Bulgarian cleaner who engages him in discussions of his beloved Dickens. Although he’s only sixty-something, Darke sounds like a much older man, complaining of constipation and vision problems and launching a vendetta against the annoying neighbor dog. Ignoring the pile of adamant letters George guiltily delivers on behalf of Darke’s daughter, Lucy, he keeps up his very particular habits and rituals (I loved the steps of making coffee with an espresso-maker) and gives himself over to memories of life with Suzy.
The novel is tripartite: In Part I we meet Darke and get accustomed to his angry, hypercritical voice. In Part II we descend into a no-holds-barred account of his wife Suzy’s death from lung cancer. She’s another wonderful character: pessimistic, ungraceful and utterly foul-mouthed. Here Darke unleashes the full extent of his bitterness. He mocks the approach, advocated by Joan Didion (“that poor Joan D’Idiot,” he calls her!), of turning to sages of the past for comfort, instead insisting that literature – including W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot and all the rest – was of no use to him in the face of his wife’s impending death:
We don’t have God, so we have literature, with its associated proverbs and allegories, its received wisdom. We quote and genuflect and defer and pay homage, as if in a holy sanctuary. But just as God failed us, so too will reading. We will turn against it as certainly, and rightly, as we did against Him. Nobody, and nothing, can explain life for us.
Luckily, Part III is something of a reprieve, as Darke starts to come out of his temporary retreat and resume life. He has a rental car delivered and sets out for Oxford, where he revisits his and Suzy’s old university haunts and hesitantly reopens a connection with Lucy and her young son, Rudy.
Sebastian Barry astutely notes the novel’s debt to Dante, but the component parts of the Divine Comedy are reordered, with the purgatory of the house-bound months broken by the hellish narrative of Suzy’s dying, which is then lifted by Darke’s return to life.
Each section has a different tone and is enjoyable in its own way, but for me there was no getting around the fact that Part I is the most entertaining. I was surprised to read in the Acknowledgments that Gekoski toned down this first dose of Darke considerably, on the advice of his wife and his literary agent; I think he could have hammed him up a fair bit more. Also, Lucy didn’t ring true for me as a character, which detracted from what’s meant to be an alternately volatile and poignant relationship; I preferred Darke’s scenes with Bronya.
In any case, the novel makes great metaphorical use of light and darkness. Not so subtle, maybe, but it works:
witnessing a protracted and horrible death infects the soul, the images implant themselves, root and flourish, you can never look at yourself or others in the innocent light – you are tarnished, uncleanably darkened.
And of course, look to literature and you find nothing but “shitslingers – Kahlil Gibran, Mr Tolstoy, the dreaded Eliot – all of them. Just wandering in the dark with flashlights.”
With lots of memorable scenes and turns of phrase, Darke is a rewarding glance at loss, literature and the sometimes futile search for salvation. It’s inspiring to see Gekoski, an American-born academic and literary critic (he’s been dubbed the Bill Bryson of the book world), turn his hand to fiction at age 71. I knew of him through his nonfiction, including Outside of a Dog: A Bibliomemoir, which I read in 2010, and have also enjoyed a couple of his articles that nicely presage this novel, on the subjects of reading through grief and turning against print books. I hope you’ll give his work a try.
Darke was published in the UK on February 2nd. With thanks to Becca Nice and Jamie Norman of Canongate for the free copy for review.
Taking a lead from Laura over at Reading in Bed, I’ve trawled my shelves and my current library pile for some blissfully short books. For this challenge I limited myself to books with fewer than 150 pages and came up with four fiction books and two ‘nonfiction novellas’.
The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry
This one-sitting read is a monologue by an embittered librarian who arrives one morning to discover a patron has been locked into the basement overnight—a captive audience. Responsible for Geography, she hopes for a promotion to History, her favorite subject. Alas, no one seems to appreciate this library as a bastion of learning anymore; they only come for DVDs and a place to keep warm. That is, except for Martin, a young PhD researcher who’s caught her eye. But he doesn’t even seem to notice she exists. In one uninterrupted paragraph, this celebrates all that books do for us but suggests that they still can’t fix a broken heart.
My verdict: There are lots of great one-liners about the value of books (“You’re never alone if you live surrounded by books”), but overall it’s a somewhat aimless little experiment and not particularly well translated.
The All of It by Jeannette Haien
When this won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction in 1987, the author was in her sixties. It’s since been championed by Ann Patchett, who contributed a Foreword to this 2011 edition. Father Declan de Loughry, fishing for salmon, reflects on the recent death of parishioner Kevin Dennehy. Before he died, Kevin admitted that he and Enda were never properly married. Yet Enda begs the priest to approve a death notice calling Kevin her “beloved husband,” promising she’ll then explain “the all of it” – the very good reason they never married. As she tells her full story, which occupies the bulk of the novella, Father Declan tries to strike a balance between the moral high ground and human compassion.
My verdict: Enda’s initial confession on page 27 is explosive, but the rest of this quiet book doesn’t ever live up to it. I was reminded of Mary Costello’s Academy Street, a more successful short book about an Irish life.
Favorite passage: “One thing I’ve learned, Father—that in this life it’s best to keep the then and the now and the what’s-to-be as close together in your thoughts as you can. It’s when you let gaps creep in, when you separate out the intervals and dwell on them, that you can’t bear the sorrow.”
Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann
This starts off as the simple story of J. Mendelssohn, an octogenarian who wakes up on a snowy morning in his New York City apartment, contemplating his past – Lithuanian/Polish ancestry, work as a judge and marriage to Eileen, whom he met as a boy in Dublin – and planning to meet his son at a restaurant for lunch. But all of a sudden it turns into a murder mystery on page 24: “Later the homicide detectives will be surprised…” In 13 sections headed by epigraphs from the Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” McCann flits through Mendelssohn’s thoughts and flips between the events preceding and immediately following the murder. A late interrogation scene is particularly strong – “unlike our poetry, we like our murders to be fully solved.”
My verdict: This is the first I’ve read from McCann, and it’s terrific. He stuffs so much plot and characterization into not many pages. Mendelssohn’s thought life is rich with allusions and wordplay. I was particularly intrigued to read about the autobiographical overlap in the Author’s Note. I haven’t yet read the short stories included in the volume, but for the novella on its own it’s .
As We Are Now by May Sarton
On the surface this is similar to a novel I reviewed earlier in the month, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old. But where spunky Hendrik determines to outwit his care home’s sullen staff, Sarton’s narrator, seventy-six-year-old Caroline Spencer, has given in. A retired high school math teacher, she’s landed in a New England old folks’ home because during her recovery from a heart attack she failed to get along with her brother’s younger wife. She finds kindred spirits in Standish Flint, a tough old farmer, and Reverend Thornhill, but her growing confusion and the home’s pretty appalling conditions drive her to despair.
My verdict: This is enjoyable for the unreliable narrator and the twist ending, but overall it struck me as rather melodramatic. However, I appreciated a lot of Caro’s sentiments.
Favorite passages: “Am I senile, I wonder? The trouble is that old age is not interesting until one gets there, a foreign country with an unknown language to the young, and even to the middle-aged. I wish now that I had found out more about it.” & “And what is left of you? A lapis lazuli pin, a faded rose petal, once pink, slipped into the pages of this copybook.”
And two short works of nonfiction:
Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary by Rebecca Brown
Brown is a novelist from Seattle. This is an account of her mother’s death from what sounds like stomach cancer. The disease progressed quickly and her mother died at home, under hospice care, in New Mexico in 1997. As the title suggests, the brief thematic chapters are arranged around vocabulary words like “anemia” and “metastasis.” My favorite chapters were about washing: her mother’s habit of reading while taking long baths, and the ways Brown and her sister tried to care for their mother’s disintegrating body, including a plan to prepare the corpse themselves. Clinical descriptions of vomiting alternate with magical thinking to accompany her mother’s hallucinations: “You’re packed, Mom, but all of us aren’t going, just you. But you’ve got everything you need.”
My verdict: Brown covers a lot of emotional ground in a very few pages, but I prefer my medical/bereavement memoirs to have more of a narrative and more detail than “when she died it was not peacefully or easy, it was hard.”
Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
This 1996 memoir was sparked by reading a quote from a Chinese Buddhist in a New York Times article: he suggested that reading is dangerous as it imposes others’ ideas on you and doesn’t allow you to use your own mind freely. Schwartz, of course, begs to differ. As a novelist, reading has been her lifeline. She looks back at her childhood reading and her pretentious college student opinions on Franz Kafka and Henry James, and explains that she lets serendipity guide her reading choices nowadays, rather than a strict TBR list: “reading at random – letting desire lead – feels like the most faithful kind.”
My verdict: It’s a bibliomemoir; I should have loved it. Instead I thought it unstructured and thin. There are some great lines dotted through, but I wasn’t very interested in the examples she focuses on. Five pages about a children’s book by Eleanor Farjeon? Yawn!
Favorite passages: “Like the bodies of dancers or athletes, the minds of readers are genuinely happy and self-possessed only when cavorting around, doing their stretches and leaps and jumps to the tune of words.” & “How are we to spend our lives, anyway? That is the real question. We read to seek the answer, and the search itself – the task of a lifetime – becomes the answer.”