Tag Archives: death

The Best Books from the First Half of 2021

Hard to believe we’ve already crossed the midpoint of the year. My top 20 releases of 2021 thus far, in alphabetical order within genre (fiction is dominating this year!), are below. I link to those I’ve already reviewed in full here or on Goodreads:

 

Fiction

Under the Blue by Oana Aristide: Fans of Station Eleven, this one’s for you: the best dystopian novel I’ve read since Mandel’s. Aristide started writing in 2017, and unknowingly predicted a much worse pandemic than Covid-19. In July 2020, Harry and sisters Ash and Jessie are among mere thousands of survivors worldwide. Their plan is to flee England for Uganda, out of range of Europe’s at-risk nuclear reactors. An epic road trip ensues. A propulsive cautionary tale that also reminded me of work by Louisa Hall and Maja Lunde.

 

The Push by Ashley Audrain: Blythe Connor, living alone with her memories, ponders what went wrong with her seemingly perfect family: a handsome architect husband, Fox, and their daughter Violet and baby son Sam. How much of what happened was because of Violet’s nature, and how much was Blythe’s fault for failing to be the mother the girl needed? The fact that her experience with Sam was completely different makes her feel ambivalent about motherhood. A cracking psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator.

 

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies: Davies’ minimalist approach – short sections skating over the months and years, wryly pulling out representative moment – crystallizes fatherhood, illuminating its daily heartaches and joys. The tone is just right in this novella, showing both sides of parenthood and voicing things you aren’t allowed to think, or at least not to admit to, starting with abortion, which would-be fathers aren’t expected to have strong feelings about. I loved the rumination on the role that chance plays in a life.

 

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan: Extinction, personal and global, is at the heart of this timely and enchanting story. It starts off as a family drama. Francie, the 86-year-old matriarch, is in a Tasmanian hospital after a brain bleed. Her three middle-aged children can’t bear to let her go. In an Australia blighted by bushfires, species loss mirrors Francie’s physical and mental crumbling. Smartphone addiction threatens meaningful connection. And then characters start to literally disappear, part by part…

 

Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden: Grief Is the Thing with Feathers meets Girl, Woman, Other would be my marketing shorthand for this one. Poet Salena Godden’s debut novel is a fresh and fizzing work, passionate about exposing injustice but also about celebrating simple joys, and in the end it’s wholly life-affirming despite a narrative stuffed full of deaths real and imagined. The novel balances the cosmic and the personal through Wolf’s family story. Unusual, musical, and a real pleasure to read.

 

Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny: This tickled my funny bone. A cross between Kitchens of the Great Midwest and Olive Kitteridge, it’s built of five extended episodes, crossing nearly two decades in the lives of Jane and Duncan and lovingly portraying the hangers-on who compose their unusual family constellation in Boyne City, Michigan. All the characters are incorrigible but wonderful. Bad things happen, but there’s a core of love as Heiny explores marriage and parenting. A good-natured book that feels wise and bittersweet.

 

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood: This starts as a flippant skewering of modern life. A woman who became a social media star by tweeting quips like “Can a dog be twins?” reflects on life on “the portal” and under “the dictator.” Midway through the book, she gets a wake-up call when her mother summons her back to the Midwest for a family emergency. It’s the about-face that makes this novel, forcing readers to question the value of a digital existence based on glib pretence. Funny, but with an ache behind it.

 

In by Will McPhail: Alternately laugh-out-loud funny and gentle. This debut graphic novel is a spot-on picture of modern life in a generic city. Nick never knows the right thing to say. The bachelor artist’s well-intentioned thoughts remain unvoiced; all he can manage is small talk. That starts to change when he meets Wren, a Black doctor who sees past his pretence. If only he can find the magic words that elicit honesty, he might make real connections with other human beings. A good old-fashioned story, with a wide emotional range.

 

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters: A sparkling, sexy comedy with a tender heart beneath the zingers. Peters has set herself up as the Jane Austen of the trans community, tracing the ins and outs of relationships with verve and nuance. For me this was a valuable book simply for normalizing trans sexuality. The themes are universal, after all: figuring out who you are and what the shape of your life will be. I admire when authors don’t pander to readers by making things easy for those who are unfamiliar with a culture. Great lines abound.

 

Brood by Jackie Polzin: Polzin’s debut is a quietly touching story of a woman in the Midwest raising chickens and coming to terms with the shape of her life. The unnamed narrator is Everywoman and no one at the same time. At one point she reveals, with no fanfare, that she miscarried four months into pregnancy in the bathroom of one of the houses she cleans. There is a bittersweet tone to this short work. It’s a low-key, genuine portrait of life in the in-between stages and how it can be affected by fate or by other people’s decisions.

 

 

Nonfiction

The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell: Hoping to reclaim an ancestral connection, Ansell visited the New Forest some 30 times between January 2019 and January 2020, observing the unfolding seasons and the many uncommon and endemic species its miles house. He weaves together his personal story, the shocking history of forced Gypsy relocation into forest compounds starting in the 1920s, and the unfairness of land ownership in Britain. The New Forest is a model of both wildlife-friendly land management and freedom of human access.

 

The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart: Engelhart spends time with doctors and patients who are caught up in the assisted dying argument, chiefly in Western Europe and the United States. Each case is given its own long chapter, like an extended magazine profile. The stories are wrenching, but compassionately told. The author explores the nuances of each situation, crafting expert portraits of suffering people and the medical professionals who seek to help them, and adding much in the way of valuable context. A voice of reason and empathy.

 

The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster: A Renaissance man as well versed in law and theology as he is in natural history, Foster is obsessed with swifts and ashamed of his own species: for looking down at their feet when they could be watching the skies; for the “pathological tidiness” that leaves birds and other creatures no place to live. He delivers heaps of information on the birds but refuses to stick to a just-the-facts approach. The book quotes frequently from poetry and the prose is full of sharp turns of phrase and whimsy.

 

Intensive Care by Gavin Francis: Francis, an Edinburgh physician, reflects on “the most intense months I have known in my twenty-year career.” He journeys back through 2020, from the January day when he received a bulletin about a “novel Wuhan coronavirus” to November, when he learned of promising vaccine trials but also a rumored third wave and winter lockdown. An absorbing first-hand account of a medical crisis, it compassionately bridges the gap between experts and laymen. The best Covid chronicle so far.

 

A Still Life by Josie George: Over a year of lockdowns, many of us became accustomed to spending most of the time at home. But for Josie George, social isolation is nothing new. Chronic illness long ago reduced her territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto George’s quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons. (Reviewed for TLS.)

 

Dusk, Night, Dawn by Anne Lamott: Lamott’s best new essays in nearly a decade. The central theme is how to have hope in God and in other people even when the news – Trump, Covid, and climate breakdown – only heralds the worst. One key thing that has changed for her is getting married for the first time, in her mid-sixties, to a Buddhist. In thinking of marriage, she writes about friendship, constancy, and forgiveness, none of which comes easy. Opportunities for maintaining quiet faith in spite of the circumstances arise all the time.

 

A Braided Heart by Brenda Miller: Miller, a professor of creative writing, delivers a master class on the composition and appreciation of autobiographical essays. In 18 concise pieces, she tracks her development as a writer and discusses the “lyric essay”—a form as old as Seneca that prioritizes imagery over narrative. These innovative and introspective essays, ideal for fans of Anne Fadiman, showcase the interplay of structure and content. (Coming out on July 13th from the University of Michigan Press. My first review for Shelf Awareness.)

 

Sanctuary by Emily Rapp Black: A continuation of The Still Point of the Turning World, about the author’s son Ronan, who died of Tay-Sachs disease at age three. In the months surrounding his death, she split from her husband and raced into another relationship that led to her daughter, Charlie. Rapp Black questions the sorts of words she got branded with: “brave,” “resilient.” Sanctuary is full of allusions and flashbacks, threading life’s disparate parts into a chaotic tapestry. It’s measured and wrought, taming fire into light and warmth.

 

 

Poetry

Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar: An Iranian American poet imparts the experience of being torn between cultures and languages, as well as between religion and doubt, in this gorgeous collection of confessional verse. Food, plants, animals, and the body supply the book’s imagery. Wordplay and startling juxtapositions lend lightness to a wistful, intimate collection that seeks belonging and belief. (Coming out on August 3rd from Graywolf Press. Reviewed for Shelf Awareness.)

 

Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick: In this audacious debut collection, the body is presented as a battleground: for the brain cancer that takes the poet’s father; for disordered eating that entwines with mummy issues; for the restructuring of pregnancy. Families break apart and fuse into new formations. Cannibalism and famine metaphors dredge up emotional states and religious doctrines. There’s a pleasingly morbid cast to the book, but it also has its lighter moments. Rich with imagery and alliteration, this is just my kind of poetry.

 

What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?
What 2021 releases do I need to catch up on right away?

An Embarrassment of Riches at the (Digital) Hay Festival 2021

There was a phenomenal program for this year’s digital Hay Festival. I signed up to a whopping eight events and enjoyed them all. If you missed watching live, it’s not too late to donate and catch up on the archived talks. For three of these, the host-cum-interviewer appeared in person on a studio stage, with the guest(s) joining, perhaps from thousands of miles away, on a large screen mounted on the wall behind them. I thought this was a neat hybrid approach. The rest of my sessions had interviewer and interviewee appearing remotely on a split screen. Let me know which, if any, events you attended and how you found them.

 

Richard Flanagan

Flanagan’s The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is my novel of 2021 so far (my review), so it was a delight to hear him say more (and in that fantastic accent) about it in the course of a conversation with Stephanie Merritt. Tasmania, where he lives, had always seemed like an ark for species, but now they are vanishing. Ninety percent of the kelp forest has disappeared within the last 20 years because of warming oceans; there are only 300 swift parrots remaining; and the bushfires of 2018–19 were unprecedented in severity. Although he had already roughed out the novel by the time of the fires, Flanagan said he rewrote it in response to the sense of accelerating environmental collapse.

The novel’s twin themes are species extinction and personal extinction, with an elderly family matriarch being kept alive at all costs. Flanagan spoke of the “evasions of the soul” that make us ignore the environmental losses around us and refuse to die – “the final avoidance of life.” He thinks the pandemic has forced people to rethink these ideas and ponder the meaning of life. At age 21, he nearly drowned while kayaking, and ever since he has been frightened not of death, but of the pain of dying. He is not optimistic per se, but hopeful because the world is still so beautiful – on the island he goes to for writing, he is surrounded by wild creatures.

Merritt asked about the novel’s magic realist element and how stylistically different his novels have been from each other. He was glad she found the book funny, as “life is tragicomic.” In an effort not to get stuck in a rut, he deliberately ‘breaks the mould’ after each book and starts over. This has not made him popular with his publisher!

Three take-aways:

  • The one obligation of a writer? “Not to be boring.”
  • Novels are not about messages; “that’s what Twitter is for.”
  • “To despair is rational, but to hope is the very essence of what it means to be human.”

 

Rachel Clarke interviewing Jim Down and Michael Rosen

All three authors have written books about the coronavirus pandemic (I have reviewed Clarke’s Breathtaking and Rosen’s Many Different Kinds of Love). Clarke said that the belief foundational to the NHS is that all lives have equal value, but as an ICU doctor Down found that the question of who would benefit most from the use of ventilation was creeping in as there was a risk that there would be more patients than there was equipment to treat them with. With decisions needing to be made very quickly, his hospital adopted the “three wise people” collaborative method. The element that often felt lost, however, was the patient’s wishes, since they might be unresponsive and no family or other visitors were around.

Rosen, who contracted Covid-19 in March 2020 and was in an induced coma for six weeks, included letters from his medical team in his book to give a 360° view of NHS treatment. He thinks of the NHS as being almost in the role of parents, giving altruistic care and support. “Tell the truth about herd immunity” was his pithy message to the government. He read the poem “These Are the Hands,” which he wrote for the 60th anniversary of the NHS, to close.

 

Bryan Washington and Raven Leilani

Last year’s Dylan Thomas Prize winner interviewed this year’s winner, and it was clear that the mutual admiration was strong. Though I had mixed feelings about Luster (my review), I was blown away by this high-level intellectual discussion. Both authors are invested in the debate around what it means to be a Black artist. Leilani said she did not want to make concessions in the form of Edie comporting herself better; this character is open about her wants, giving the novel a libidinal flavour. She said she almost envies her protagonist her autonomy, and thinks of the novel as a letter to her old self, granting permission and reassuring herself that “the mess has merit.”

Three take-aways:

  • Writing offers Leilani a sanctuary or sense of control.
  • While Washington sees works full of strife, grief, and malice as most likely to be considered the pinnacle of American literary fiction, he admires Luster for its theme of communion (especially via the character Akila).
  • Leilani sees her novel as being in conversation with Queenie, Sula, The New Me, and Detransition, Baby.

 

Maggie Shipstead

Shipstead (also a Dylan Thomas Prize winner) echoed something Leilani had said: that she starts a novel with questions, not answers. Such humility is refreshing, and a sure way to avoid being preachy in fiction. Her new novel, Great Circle, is among my most anticipated books of the year and tells the stories of a fictional female pilot from the golden age of aviation and the actress playing her in a biopic. The book was long in the gestation: In 2012 Shipstead saw a sculpture commemorating a female pilot in Auckland, and in 2014 she started researching. She came to appreciate the miracle of flight and read many books by and about female pilots. The book is dedicated to her brother, recently retired from 20 years in the Air Force. She told Sameer Rahim that, although she used to say this is not a love story, she has since changed her mind.

Three take-aways:

  • Shipstead was a competitive show jumper and applied to a creative writing program on a whim.
  • She has made a name for herself as a travel writer, too, often combining magazine assignments with her research for the novel (e.g., various trips to Antarctica).
  • While she has appreciated the year off from Covid, she is looking forward to getting back to travelling; her first booking is a women’s wilderness experience in Alaska.

 

Patricia Lockwood

Lockwood is the only novelist to be included on the Atlantic’s roster of best tweets. She and Nina Stibbe, who interviewed her, agreed that 1) things aren’t funny when they try too hard and 2) the Internet used to be a taboo subject for fiction – producing time-stamped references that editors used to remove. “I had so many observations and I didn’t know where to put them,” Lockwood said, and it seems to her perverse to not write about something that is such a major part of our daily lives. The title of her Women’s Prize-shortlisted novel, No One Is Talking About This (my review), refers to many things, including this reticence to grant the Internet a place in our discourse.

Lockwood said she has been delighted by the high-quality literary pieces coming out about her book, often in comparison with Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts. The timing of the publication meant that her initial (U.S.) media interviews ended up being more about Trump than she would have liked. “I think I’m not a natural fiction writer,” she said; it’s true that the novel is so autobiographical it can only be described as autofiction – the second half is all true and all sincere, she was careful to point out – but it’s a gem.

 

Julianne Pachico

Like Lockwood, Pachico was part of the “10 @ 10” series featuring debut novelists (though her first book, the linked story collection The Lucky Ones, was marketed as a novel in the USA). Her new book, The Anthill, another of my most anticipated books of the year, is about a young woman returning to Medellín, Colombia, where Pachico spent her formative years. Although she is not a citizen and only goes back on a tourist visa, it feels like going home each time. For her, writing fiction has been a way of sorting out her feelings about the place. She wrote 50,000 words of the novel at her sister’s apartment in Medellín. Pachico told Rosie Goldsmith that, though she considers herself part of the Latin American literary tradition, she is conscious of presenting the country to English-speaking readers: a politically divided place that has gentrified in pockets, but is still plagued by extreme poverty and hardship. She described The Anthill as “a ghost story without ghosts.” I can’t wait to dive into my copy.

 

Brit Bennett

Speaking to Arifa Akbar about The Vanishing Half, Bennett admitted that she was worried a historical setting was a cop-out, but reassured herself that she was not writing out of nostalgia and that she did not allow readers a sense of distance – the characters are so ordinary that we know we’d do the same sorts of things. She thinks of passing as a distinctly American project of self-reinvention but acknowledged that we have no definitive statistics on it because, if someone succeeds, they disappear. Some of Stella’s psychology – a very interior character who makes decisions that are difficult to understand – came from her reading of Playing Dead by Elizabeth Greenwood. She loves writing about small towns because they force people to interact with each other. Akbar noted that passing is a double-edged sword, involving subterfuge but also offering liberation (e.g. for a trans character later in the book).

Three take-aways:

  • “That’s the most exciting place to be, writing into a mystery.”
  • “Race is a fiction, but racism is a reality.”
  • An HBO adaptation is in the works, but Bennett doesn’t know if it will cast real twins, two actors, or meld separate people using CGI.

 

Rachel Cusk and Sheila Heti

I’ve read more of and gotten on better with Heti’s work than Cusk’s, so this was a rare case of being perhaps more interested in interviewer than interviewee. Heti said that, compared with the Outline trilogy, Cusk’s new novel Second Place feels wilder and more instinctual. Cusk, speaking from the Greek island of Tinos, where she is researching marble quarrying, described her book in often vague yet overall intriguing terms: it’s about exile and the illicit, she said; about femininity and entitlement to speak; about the domestic space and how things are legitimized; about the adoption of male values and the “rightness of the artist.”

Ironically, given that Cusk initially hesitated over revealing her debt to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir Lorenzo in Taos, much of the discussion ended up revolving around Luhan and D.H. Lawrence, about whom Cusk now considers herself an amateur scholar. In his personal writings he reserved special scorn for Luhan, with whom he stayed in New Mexico in the 1920s. This was something Cusk wanted to explore: misogyny and Luhan’s “voice of obscurity.” She hopes that her book will contribute to a better understanding of Luhan’s; not vice versa.

Three take-aways:

  • A reviewer noted the use of exclamation points, counting 189 of them in the novel. Cusk equates an exclamation point to a laying down of arms – proof that someone (especially her protagonist, M) means to be nonthreatening.
  • Cusk thinks of this book as being like a play: staged and in the moment.
  • A woman observing but not being noticed is, like in the Outline trilogy, Cusk’s basic framework.

The Inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to Die by Katie Engelhart

Why, she wanted to know, was I so interested in the subject?

“Why isn’t everyone?” I asked.

The fact that I read a lot more books about death than the average person is something I attribute not to some morbid curiosity, but to pragmatism. As the title of Canadian reporter and documentary filmmaker Katie Engelhart’s book makes clear, this is the one subject none of us can avoid indefinitely, so why not learn about and understand it as much as possible? The Inevitable focuses on the controversial matter of assisted dying, also known as assisted suicide, euthanasia, or physician-assisted death. It’s a topic that’s already come up in my reading a couple of times this year: in the Dutch context of That One Patient by Ellen de Visser, and as a key part of the narrative in Darke Matter by Rick Gekoski.

Engelhart spends time with doctors and patients who are caught up in the assisted dying argument, chiefly in Western Europe and the United States. Ten states plus Washington, D.C. have assisted dying laws, sparked by Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act in 1994. In California, the author follows Dr. Lonny Shavelson for a month, observing all the meticulous regulations surrounded a physician-assisted death: patients with a terminal diagnosis and less than six months to live have to complete multiple forms, give many signatures, deliver oral testimony, and be able to drink the fatal concoction by themselves (whereas in other countries doctors can administer lethal injections). And if, when the time comes, a patient is too far gone to give spoken consent, the procedure is cancelled.

Other chapters consider specific cases that are not generally covered by current legislation but can drive people to seek assisted suicide: the ravages of old age, chronic degenerative illnesses, dementia, and severe mental illness. Each of these is given its own long chapter, like an extended magazine profile.

  • Meet Avril Henry, a former Exeter University professor in her eighties, now living alone with a failing body but no specific diagnosis that would qualify her for AD. Pain has long since outweighed pleasure in her life, so she illegally imports Nembutal from a veterinary supplier in Mexico and makes a careful plan for what will happen with her body, home, and possessions after she takes the drug in the bathtub.
  • Meet Maia Calloway, a 39-year-old former filmmaker confined to a wheelchair by multiple sclerosis. Her medicines cost $65,000 a year, not all covered by Medicare, and she can no longer rely on the patience of her boyfriend, who acts as her carer. She decides to raise the money to travel from Taos to a Swiss assisted dying clinic.
  • Meet Debra, a 65-year-old widow so rapidly declining with dementia that she knows she has to make her arrangements at once. She contacts the Final Exit Network, which gives advice and equipment (e.g. a nitrogen tank) that can make a death look unexplained or like a standard suicide.
  • Meet Adam, a 27-year-old in daily distress from OCD, anxiety, and depersonalization disorder. Though he’s lobbied for the inclusion of mental illness, he doesn’t qualify for AD under Canada’s laws. In 2017 he starts a Facebook livestream from a hotel room, intending to take poison off-screen. He loses his nerve this time, but is determined to try again.

These stories are so wrenching, but so compassionately told. Engelhart explores the nuances of each situation, crafting expert portraits of suffering people and the medical professionals who seek to help them, and adding much in the way of valuable context. Hers is a voice of reason and empathy. She mostly stays in the background, as befits a journalist, but occasionally emotional responses or skepticism come through – Exit International’s Philip Nitschke, vilified as a “Dr. Death” like Jack Kevorkian, is too much of a maverick for her.

And while her sympathy for the AD cause is evident, she also presents opposing arguments: from hospice doctors, from those afraid that the disabled will be pushed into assisted suicide to free up resources, from the family members of her subjects, and from those who have witnessed abuses of the system. There are those who frame this as a question of rights, and others who recognize a rare privilege; some who scorn the notion of escape, and others who speak of dignity and the kindness one would show a dying pet. The book is a vital contribution to an ongoing debate, with human stories at its heart.


With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review. The Inevitable was published in the UK on March 11th and is available from St. Martin’s Press in the USA.

Book Serendipity, Mid-March to Early May 2021

In early April, the publisher Canongate ran a newsletter competition for one reader to win a stack of their recent releases. All you had to do was reply with your favourite word. On Twitter they gave a rundown of the most popular responses. Turning up several times each were petrichor, mellifluous, and oleaginous. Most frequent of all was serendipity: I was one of 15 to submit it! And one of those entries, but not mine, won. Anyway, fun little story there.

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 20‒30), 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.

The following are in roughly chronological order.

  • A white peacock is mentioned in Indelicacy by Amina Cain and The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey, both of which were on the 2021 Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist.
  • Speaking of that Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist, four of the eight were paperbacks with French flaps.

 

  • The main character takes ballet lessons in Indelicacy by Amina Cain and A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez.

 

  • Mermaids! A big theme in The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (of course) and The Republic of Love by Carol Shields, but they’re also mentioned in the opening story of The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans and are main characters in “The Pangs of Love” by Jane Gardam in the anthology Close Company.

  • The Brothers Grimm story about brothers who have been transformed into swans and their sister who sews shirts out of nettles to turn them back is reworked in The Charmed Wife by Olga Grushin and used as a metaphor in Dusk, Night, Dawn by Anne Lamott.

 

  • An electric carving knife is mentioned as a means of suicide (yipes!) in The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart and Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy.

 

  • A discussion of the distinction between the fear of dying and the fear of being dead in This Party’s Dead by Erica Buist and The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart.

 

  • Two novels in a row in which an older man is appalled by the squalor of his young girlfriend’s apartment, and she calls him “daddy” during sex (double yipes!), made the Dylan Thomas Prize shortlist: Luster by Raven Leilani and My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell.
  • Architect husbands in The Push by Ashley Audrain and The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin (and, last year, in A Celibate Season by Blanche Howard and Carol Shields), as well as a female architect as a main character in The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan earlier this year.

 

  • The next-to-last essay in the Trauma anthology quotes from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, which I was also reading at the time.

 

  • A mention of the eels in London absorbing cocaine from the Thames in the final essay in the Trauma anthology; I then moved right on to the last 40 pages of Nobody Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood and the same bizarre fact was mentioned. A week and a half later, there it was again, this time in Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic.

 

  • A mention of sailors’ habit of getting tattoos of swallows in The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell (who has a swallow tattoo, even though he’s not a sailor) and Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt.
  • A father and teenage child wander an unfamiliar city and enter a sex shop together (yipes yet again!) in Three O’Clock in the Morning by Gianrico Carofiglio and Ten Days by Austin Duffy.

 

  • A mention of the same University of Virginia study in which people self-administered electric shocks to alleviate the boredom of sitting alone with their thoughts in Rooted by Lyanda Lynn Haupt and You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy.

 

  • Basho’s poetry and George Monbiot’s Feral are both cited in The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell and Rooted by Lyanda Lynn Haupt.

 

  • A dead sister named Mattie in Consent by Annabel Lyon and Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz.
  • A young Black female protagonist and the same family dynamic (the mother committed suicide and the father is in the Marines/Navy) in The Mothers by Brit Bennett and Luster by Raven Leilani.

 

  • On the same night, I read about two pets encountering snow for the first time: a cat in Close Encounters of the Furred Kind by Tom Cox and a dog in Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson.

 

  • A character is described as being as wide as they are tall in Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander and The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox.
  • A character is known as Seventh in Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander and the story “The Pangs of Love” by Jane Gardam in the Close Company anthology. Plus, there’s Septimus in Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, which I’m reading concurrently with those two.

 

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

January’s Nonfiction Releases: Clarke, Heminsley and Lalkhen

Three new books with medical themes (no surprise there), including the first Covid wave in the UK; fertility and body issues in a new queer family; and pain management strategies.

Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic by Rachel Clarke

Clarke is a palliative care doctor based in Oxfordshire. She runs the Katharine House hospice but during the coronavirus pandemic has also been on active duty in the Oxford University Hospitals system. If you’re on social media you have likely come across some of her postings as she has been equally vocal in her praise of the NHS and her criticism of Boris Johnson’s faltering policies, which are often of the too little, too late variety. So I was eager to read her insider’s account of hospital treatment of the first wave of Covid in the UK, especially because her previous book, Dear Life, was one of my top two nonfiction releases of last year.

The focus is on the first four full months of 2020, and the book originated in Clarke’s insomniac diaries and notes made when, even after manically busy shifts, she couldn’t rest her thoughts. Her pilot husband was flying to China even as increasingly alarming reports started coming in from Wuhan. She weaves in the latest news from China and Italy as well as what she hears from colleagues and disease experts in London. But the priority is given to stories: of the first doctor to die in China; of a Yorkshire ICU nurse’s father, who comes down with Covid and is on a ventilator in an Oxford hospital; and of her patients there and in the hospice. She is touched that so many are making great sacrifices, such as by deciding not to visit loved ones at the end of their lives so as not to risk spreading infection.

A shortage of PPE remained a major issue, though Dominic Pimenta (whose Duty of Care was my first COVID-19 book) pulled through for her with an emergency shipment for the hospice – without which it would have had to close. Clarke marvels at the NHS’s ability to create an extra 33,000 beds within a month, but knows that this comes at a cost of other services, including cancer care, being stripped back or cancelled, meaning that many are not receiving the necessary treatment or are pushing inescapable problems further down the road.

From January 26, 2021

A comparison with Gavin Francis’s Intensive Care, published earlier in the month, is inevitable. Both doctors bounce between headlines and everyday stories, government advice and the situation on the ground. Both had their own Covid scare – Clarke didn’t meet the criteria to be tested so simply went back to work two weeks later, when she felt well enough – and had connections to regions that foreshadowed what would soon happen in the UK. Both give a sense of the scope of the crisis and both lament that, just when patients need compassion most, full PPE leads to their doctors feeling more detached from them than ever.

However, within the same page count, Francis manages to convey more of the science behind the virus and its transmission, and helpfully explores the range of effects Covid is having for different groups. He also brings the story more up to the minute with a look back from November, whereas Clarke ends in April and follows up with an epilogue set in August. A book has to end somewhere, yes, but with this crisis ongoing, the later and more relevant its contents can be, the better. And in any book that involves a lot of death, mawkishness is a risk; Clarke so carefully avoided this in Dear Life, but sometimes succumbs here, with an insistence on how the pandemic has brought out the best in people (clapping and rainbows and all that). Her writing is as strong as ever, but I would have appreciated a sharper, more sombre look at the situation a few months later. Perhaps there will be a sequel.

From January 6, 2021

With thanks to Little, Brown UK for the free copy for review.

Some Body to Love: A Family Story by Alexandra Heminsley

From Heminsley’s previous book, Leap In, I knew about her getting married and undergoing IVF. It was also a book about outdoor swimming; I appreciated her words on acquiring a new skill as an adult and overcoming body issues. This memoir continues the story: in 2017, after a gruelling journey through infertility treatment, Heminsley finally got the baby she wanted. But not before a couple more heart-wrenching moments: the lab made an error and notified her that she shared no DNA with this last embryo, and while heavily pregnant she was assaulted by a drunk man on a train. Both incidents left her feeling a loss of agency. “Why was I consistently being deemed the least reliable witness of my own reality?” she asks.

As they adjusted to new life with a baby, Heminsley started to notice that she wasn’t connecting with her husband, D, like she used to. She felt emotionally unsupported and, in fact, jealous of D’s relationship with their son, L. And while they’d never been the most conventional couple, D’s changes of appearance and wardrobe seemed like a sign of something bigger. Indeed, when L was six months old, D told Heminsley, “this body doesn’t represent who I am” and announced a decision to begin transitioning.

As D moved towards having a body that fit their identity, Heminsley, too, needed to get back in touch with her body. After books like Running Like a Girl, she was considered an exercise guru, but she didn’t see herself in the new obsession with Instagram-ready images of fitness perfection. This is not, then, primarily a memoir of queer family-making, because D’s transitioning was not Heminsley’s story to tell and mostly occurs in the background. Instead she focuses on what she does know and can control: her relationship to her own body.

However, this entails what can feel like irrelevant flashbacks to her teenage years of undergoing rehab at a military clinic in Germany for hypermobility, trips to Trinidad and Italy, and the genesis of her two sporting memoirs. Much as I applaud the sensitivity to trans and body issues, the book ends up feeling scattered. Still, the writing is so candid and the narrative so eventful that you’ll race through this even if you don’t normally pick up nonfiction. (For a bit more information, see my short write-up of the virtual book launch.)

With thanks to Chatto & Windus for the free copy for review.

Pain: The Science of the Feeling Brain by Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen

Originally from South Africa, Dr Lalkhen is an anaesthesiology and pain specialist based in Manchester. In a nutshell, his approach is “biopsychosocial,” meaning that he seeks to understand pain not just as a physical phenomenon resulting from acute injury or damage but as an ongoing process that is affected by emotional and psychological factors. Particularly in the context of chronic syndromes, he acknowledges that pain can continue even when its immediate cause has been repaired. Mental preparation can come into the equation: if a patient assumes they’ll wake up from surgery healed, they may be alarmed if pain persists. Lalkhen talks about managing patient expectations, perhaps with something as simple as the promise, “we’ll aim to get your pain down to a 4 after surgery.” In part, he blames Western society’s Cartesian philosophy for treating mind and body as separate rather than a system.

There are genetic and psychological reasons people might be predisposed to chronic pain. Pain itself can then change the brain chemistry, making the body more alert to pain signals. People can choose one of three paths, Lalkhen observes: “You can spend your time agitating about the alarm going off, you can try to ignore it (but the ignoring of it actually takes up more energy), or the final alternative is to learn to live with this deeply unpleasant situation.” Those who opt for pharmacological solutions can become addicted to opiates, which are less effective over time. Non-drug-related therapies involve the desensitization of nerves, the injection of anaesthetics or steroids, or the implanting of spinal cord stimulators. But all of these strategies have their limitations, and can diminish in efficacy. The patients he sees in his pain clinics may be disappointed that, rather than offering a panacea, he wants to wean them off their current pain relief and help them develop a new way of thinking about pain.

I felt I learned a lot from reading this. Lalkhen is careful to state that he is only referring to non-cancer pain (cancer pain in terminal patients will take all the morphine you can throw at it). Like many physicians, he worries about the modern epidemic of overtreatment and our obsession with wellness. I especially enjoyed the discussion of the understanding of pain and its treatment from the ancient world onward, and in particular the history of opiates. The prose is not literary, but this is an accessible and informational read if the subject matter draws you.

With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.

 

What recent nonfiction releases can you recommend?

Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers meets Girl, Woman, Other would be my marketing shorthand for this one. Poet Salena Godden’s debut novel is a fresh and fizzing work, passionate about exposing injustice but also about celebrating simple joys, and in the end it’s wholly life-affirming despite a narrative stuffed full of deaths real and imagined.

What if Death wasn’t the male Grim Reaper stereotype? What if, instead, she was a poor black woman – a bag lady on a bus, or a hospital cleaner? In this playful and lilting story, we learn of Mrs Death’s work via her unwitting medium, Wolf Willeford, who one Christmas Eve goes walking in London’s Brick Lane area and buys an irresistible desk that reveals flashes of historical deaths. Once Mrs Death’s desk (and resentful at not being a piano), it now transmits her stories to Wolf, giving a whole new meaning to the term ghost writer. Wolf compiles and edits her memoirs, which take the form of diary entries, poems, and songs.

It’s never been more stressful to be Death, what with civil war in Syria, school shootings in the USA, and refugees drowning off the coast of France. But although the book’s frame of reference is up to the minute, wrongful deaths are nothing new, so occasional vignettes dramatize untimely demises – especially of black women – across the centuries: from the days of slavery to Jack the Ripper to police custody a few years ago. There are so many ways to die:

really nearly took that other plane on 9/11

had a coconut fall on your head

saw your village being bombed

slipped taking a selfie by the Grand Canyon

had a fight with an alligator

got stranded in a fierce and fast-moving bushfire

Speaking of fire, and of the title, Wolf (biracial, nonbinary, and possibly bipolar) is here to narrate only because Mrs Death missed one. Their mum died in a house fire. Wolf should have died that day, too, but heard a voice saying “Wake up, Wolf … Can you smell smoke?” Were they spared deliberately, or did Mrs Death make a mistake? (After all, we learn that when a patient briefly wakes up on the operating table before dying for good, it’s because Mrs Death’s printer got jammed.)

Where I think the novel really succeeds is in balancing its two levels: the cosmic, in which Life and Death are sisters and Time is Death’s lover in a sort of creation myth; and the personal, in which Wolf’s family tree, printed at the end, is an appalling litany of accidental deaths and executions. It’s easy to see why Wolf is so traumatized, but Mrs Death, ironically, reminds him that, despite all of the world’s fallen heroes and ongoing crises, there is still such beauty to be found in life.

All the warmth and all the joy is boiled in a soup of memory, we stir the good stuff from the bottom of the pot and hold the ladle up, drink, we say, look at all the good chunks of goodness, take in your share of good times, good music, good books, good food, good laughter, good people, be grateful for the good stuff, life and death, we say, drink.

There were a few spots where I thought the content repetitive and wondered if the miscellany format distracted from the narrative, but overall the book more than lives up to its fantastic cover, title, and premise. And with the pandemic’s global death toll rising daily, it could hardly be more relevant.

Unusual, musical, and a real pleasure to read: this is the first entry on my Best of 2021 shelf.


With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.

 

Tomorrow I’ll review a few more of January’s fiction releases, followed by nonfiction on Saturday.

Some of My Most Anticipated Releases of 2021

Although 120+ books that will be published in 2021 are already on my radar, I’ve limited myself to the 20 I’m most excited about. The modest number is a cheat in that I’ve already read a couple of books from this period in advance (and I’m currently reading another two), and I haven’t listed any that I already own as proofs or finished copies (pictured here) or have been promised. With a couple of exceptions, these books are due out between January and June.

I’m also not counting these three forthcoming books that I’ve sponsored via Kickstarter (the Trauma anthology) or Unbound:

Two that I read as U.S. e-books but would recommend that UK-based readers look out for in 2021 are Memorial by Bryan Washington (Jan. 7, Atlantic) and Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (March 4, Penguin).

The following are in UK release date order, within sections by genre; the quoted descriptions are from the publisher blurbs on Goodreads. Much more fiction is catching my eye this time.

Fiction

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan [Jan. 14, Chatto & Windus / May 25, Knopf] “In a world of perennial fire and growing extinctions, Anna’s aged mother … increasingly escapes through her hospital window … When Anna’s finger vanishes and a few months later her knee disappears, Anna too feels the pull of the window. … A strangely beautiful novel about hope and love and orange-bellied parrots.” I’ve had mixed success with Flanagan, but the blurb draws me and I’ve read good early reviews so far. [Library hold]

The Charmed Wife by Olga Grushin [Jan. 21, Hodder & Stoughton / Jan. 12, Putnam] “Cinderella married the man of her dreams – the perfect ending she deserved after diligently following all the fairy-tale rules. Yet now, two children and thirteen-and-a-half years later, things have gone badly wrong. One night, she sneaks out of the palace to get help from the Witch who, for a price, offers love potions to disgruntled housewives.” A feminist retelling. I loved Grushin’s previous novel, Forty Rooms. [Edelweiss download]

The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. [Jan. 21, Quercus / Jan. 5, G.P. Putnam’s Sons] “A singular and stunning debut novel about the forbidden union between two enslaved young men on a Deep South plantation, the refuge they find in each other, and a betrayal that threatens their existence.” Lots of hype about this one. I’m getting Days Without End vibes, and the mention of copious biblical references is a draw for me rather than a turn-off. The cover looks so much like the UK cover of The Vanishing Half! [Publisher request pending]

Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden [Jan. 28, Canongate] “Mrs Death has had enough. She is exhausted from spending eternity doing her job and now she seeks someone to unburden her conscience to. Wolf Willeford, a troubled young writer, is well acquainted with death, but until now hadn’t met Death in person – a black, working-class woman who shape-shifts and does her work unseen. Enthralled by her stories, Wolf becomes Mrs Death’s scribe, and begins to write her memoirs.” [NetGalley download / Library hold]

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood [Feb. 16, Bloomsbury / Riverhead] “A woman known for her viral social media posts travels the world speaking to her adoring fans … Suddenly, two texts from her mother pierce the fray … [and] the woman confronts a world that seems to contain both an abundance of proof that there is goodness, empathy and justice in the universe, and a deluge of evidence to the contrary.” Lockwood’s memoir, Priestdaddy, is an all-time favorite of mine. [NetGalley download / Publisher request pending]

A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson [Feb. 18, Chatto & Windus / Feb. 16, Knopf Canada] “It’s North Ontario in 1972, and seven-year-old Clara’s teenage sister Rose has just run away from home. At the same time, a strange man – Liam – drives up to the house next door, which he has just inherited from Mrs Orchard, a kindly old woman who was friendly to Clara … A beautiful portrait of a small town, a little girl and an exploration of childhood.” I’ve loved the two Lawson novels I’ve read. [Publisher request pending]

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro [March 2, Faber & Faber / Knopf] Synopsis from Faber e-mail: “Klara and the Sun is the story of an ‘Artificial Friend’ who … is warned not to invest too much in the promises of humans. A luminous narrative about humanity, hope and the human heart.” I’m not an Ishiguro fan per se, but this looks set to be one of the biggest books of the year. I’m tempted to pre-order a signed copy as part of an early bird ticket to a Faber Members live-streamed event with him in early March.

Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley [March 18, Hodder & Stoughton / April 20, Algonquin Books] “The Soho that Precious and Tabitha live and work in is barely recognizable anymore. … Billionaire-owner Agatha wants to kick the women out to build expensive restaurants and luxury flats. Men like Robert, who visit the brothel, will have to go elsewhere. … An insightful and ambitious novel about property, ownership, wealth and inheritance.” This sounds very different to Elmet, but I liked Mozley’s writing enough to give it a try.

 Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge [March 30, Algonquin Books; April 29, Serpent’s Tail] “Coming of age as a free-born Black girl in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, Libertie Sampson” is expected to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a doctor. “When a young man from Haiti proposes, she accepts, only to discover that she is still subordinate to him and all men. … Inspired by the life of one of the first Black female doctors in the United States.” I loved Greenidge’s underappreciated debut, We Love You, Charlie Freeman. [Edelweiss download]

An Ordinary Wonder by Buki Papillon [April 9, Dialogue Books] “Richly imagined with art, proverbs and folk tales, this moving and modern novel follows Oto through life at home and at boarding school in Nigeria, through the heartbreak of living as a boy despite their profound belief they are a girl, and through a hunger for freedom that only a new life in the United States can offer. … a powerful coming-of-age story that explores complex desires as well as challenges of family, identity, gender and culture, and what it means to feel whole.”

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead [May 4, Doubleday / Knopf] “In 1940s London, after a series of reckless romances and a spell flying to aid the war effort, Marian embarks on a treacherous, epic flight in search of the freedom she has always craved. She is never seen again. More than half a century later, Hadley Baxter, a troubled Hollywood starlet beset by scandal, is irresistibly drawn to play Marian Graves in her biopic.” I loved Seating Arrangements and have been waiting for a new Shipstead novel for seven years!

The Anthill by Julianne Pachico [May 6, Faber & Faber; this has been out since May 2020 in the USA, but was pushed back a year in the UK] “Linda returns to Colombia after 20 years away. Sent to England after her mother’s death when she was eight, she’s searching for the person who can tell her what’s happened in the time that has passed. Matty – Lina’s childhood confidant, her best friend – now runs a refuge called The Anthill for the street kids of Medellín.” Pachico was our Young Writer of the Year shadow panel winner.

Filthy Animals: Stories by Brandon Taylor [June 24, Daunt Books / June 21, Riverhead] “In the series of linked stories at the heart of Filthy Animals, set among young creatives in the American Midwest, a young man treads delicate emotional waters as he navigates a series of sexually fraught encounters with two dancers in an open relationship, forcing him to weigh his vulnerabilities against his loneliness.” Sounds like the perfect follow-up for those of us who loved his Booker-shortlisted debut novel, Real Life.

Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club by J. Ryan Stradal [USA only? Pamela Dorman Books; no cover or exact date yet, just “Summer 2021”] “Combines the comedic pathos of John Irving with the brilliant generational storytelling of Jane Smiley and the wildly rich and quirky characters of fellow Minnesotan Anne Tyler … set on a lake in Northern Minnesota, about a beloved but dying family restaurant and whether it can be saved.” I was disappointed by Stradal’s latest, but love Kitchens of the Great Midwest enough to give him another try.

Matrix by Lauren Groff [Sept. 23, Cornerstone / Riverhead; no cover yet] “Cast out of the royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine, … seventeen-year-old Marie de France is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey, its nuns on the brink of starvation and beset by disease. … a mesmerizing portrait of consuming passion, aberrant faith, and a woman that history moves both through and around.” Yuck to medieval history in general as a setting, but I love Groff’s work enough to get hold of this one anyway.

Nonfiction

Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn [Jan. 21, William Collins; June 1, Viking] “A variety of wildlife not seen in many lifetimes has rebounded on the irradiated grounds of Chernobyl. A lush forest supports thousands of species that are extinct or endangered everywhere else on earth in the Korean peninsula’s narrow DMZ. … Islands of Abandonment is a tour through these new ecosystems … ultimately a story of redemption”. Good news about nature is always nice to find. [Publisher request pending]

 The Believer by Sarah Krasnostein [March 2, Text Publishing – might be Australia only; I’ll have an eagle eye out for news of a UK release] “This book is about ghosts and gods and flying saucers; certainty in the absence of knowledge; how the stories we tell ourselves to deal with the distance between the world as it is and as we’d like it to be can stunt us or save us.” Krasnostein was our Wellcome Book Prize shadow panel winner in 2019. She told us a bit about this work in progress at the prize ceremony and I was intrigued!

A History of Scars: A Memoir by Laura Lee [March 2, Atria Books; no sign of a UK release] “In this stunning debut, Laura Lee weaves unforgettable and eye-opening essays on a variety of taboo topics. … Through the vivid imagery of mountain climbing, cooking, studying writing, and growing up Korean American, Lee explores the legacy of trauma on a young queer child of immigrants as she reconciles the disparate pieces of existence that make her whole.” I was drawn to this one by Roxane Gay’s high praise.

 Everybody: A Book about Freedom by Olivia Laing [April 29, Picador / May 4, W. W. Norton & Co.] “The body is a source of pleasure and of pain, at once hopelessly vulnerable and radiant with power. …  Laing charts an electrifying course through the long struggle for bodily freedom, using the life of the renegade psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich to explore gay rights and sexual liberation, feminism, and the civil rights movement.” Wellcome Prize fodder from the author of The Lonely City.

Rooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit by Lyanda Lynn Haupt [May 4, Little, Brown Spark; no sign of a UK release] “Cutting-edge science supports a truth that poets, artists, mystics, and earth-based cultures across the world have proclaimed over millennia: life on this planet is radically interconnected. … In the tradition of Rachel Carson, Elizabeth Kolbert, and Mary Oliver, Haupt writes with urgency and grace, reminding us that at the crossroads of science, nature, and spirit we find true hope.” I’m a Haupt fan.

 

Which of these do you want to read, too?

What other upcoming 2021 titles are you looking forward to?

Best of 2020: Nonfiction

Complementing yesterday’s list of my top fiction and poetry reads of 2020, I have chosen my six favorite nonfiction works of the year. Last year’s major themes were bodies, archaeology, and the environmental crisis; this year’s are adjacent: anatomy, nature, deep time, death, and questions of inheritance, both within families and more broadly. What will we leave behind? As usual, these topics reflect my own interests but also, I think, something of the zeitgeist.

Let the countdown begin!

 

  1. Kay’s Anatomy: A Complete (and Completely Disgusting) Guide to the Human Body by Adam Kay: Think of this as a juvenile, graphic novel version of Bill Bryson’s The Body; that’s exactly how thorough, accessible, and entertaining it is. Kay ditches his usual raunchiness and plumps for innocuous forms of humor: puns, dad jokes, toilet humor, running gags and so on. But where it counts – delivering vital information about not smoking, mental health, puberty, and facing the death of someone you love – Kay is completely serious, and always lets young readers know when it’s essential to tell an adult or ask a doctor. Henry Paker’s silly, grotesque illustrations are the perfect accompaniment.

 

  1. Sign Here If You Exist and Other Essays by Jill Sisson Quinn: The naturalist’s second essay collection considers themes of connection and change. Quinn regrets the afterlife prospect she lost along with her childhood Christian faith, while adopting a baby leads her to question notions of belonging and inheritance. Whether she’s studying wasps and reptiles or musing on family and faith, she knits her subjects together with meticulous attention. Putting self and nature under the microscope, she illuminates both. (Reviewed for Foreword.)

 

  1. Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils by David Farrier: Blending human and planetary history, environmental realism and literary echoes, Farrier, a lecturer in English literature, tells the story of the human impact on the Earth. Each chapter is an intricate blend of fact, experience, and story. We’ll leave behind massive road networks, remnants of coastal megacities, plastics, carbon and methane in the permafrost, the fossilized Great Barrier Reef, nuclear waste, and jellyfish-dominated oceans. An invaluable window onto the deep future.

 

  1. Greenery: Journeys in Springtime by Tim Dee: From the Cape of Good Hope to the Arctic Circle, Dee tracks the spring as it travels north. From first glimpse to last gasp, moving between his homes in two hemispheres, he makes the season last nearly half the year. His main harbingers are migrating birds, starting with swallows. The book is steeped in allusions and profound thinking about deep time and what it means to be alive in an era when nature’s rhythms are becoming distorted. A fresh, masterful model of how to write about nature.

 

  1. Dear Life: A Doctor’s Story of Love and Loss by Rachel Clarke: I’ve read so many doctors’ memoirs and books about death that it takes a truly special one to stand out. Clarke specializes in palliative medicine and alternates her patients’ stories with her own in a natural way. A major theme is her relationship with her doctor father and his lessons of empathy and dedication. She wrote in the wake of his death from cancer – an experience that forced her to practice what she preaches as a hospice doctor: focus on quality of life rather than number of days. This passionate and practical book encourages readers to be sure they and their relatives have formalized their wishes for end-of-life care and what will happen after their death.

 

  1. Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald: Any doubt that Macdonald could write a worthy follow-up to H Is for Hawk evaporates instantly. Though these essays were written for various periodicals and anthologies and range in topic from mushroom-hunting to deer–vehicle collisions and in scope from deeply researched travel pieces to one-page reminiscences, they form a coherent whole. Equally reliant on argument and epiphany, the book has more to say about human–animal interactions in one of its essays than some whole volumes manage. As you might expect, birds are a recurring theme. Her final lines are always breath-taking. I’d rather read her writing on any subject than almost any other author’s.

 

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

 

What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?

 

Upcoming posts:

28th: Library Checkout

29th: Runners-up from 2020 (all genres)

30th: Best backlist reads

31st: Random superlatives and some statistics

October Releases by Rachel Mann, Sigrid Nunez and Ruth Janette Ruck

A calmer month for new releases after September’s bumper crop. I read a sophisticated mystery set at a theological college, a subtle novel about empathy and being a good friend, and a memoir of raising one of Britain’s first llamas.

 

The Gospel of Eve by Rachel Mann

Last year I dipped into Mann’s poetry (A Kingdom of Love) and literary criticism/devotional writing (In the Bleak Midwinter); this year I was delighted to be offered an early copy of her debut novel. The press materials are full of comparisons to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History; it’s certainly an apt point of reference for this mystery focusing on clever, Medieval-obsessed students training for the priesthood at a theological college outside Oxford.

It’s 1997 and Catherine Bolton is part of the first female intake at Littlemore College. She has striven to rid herself of a working-class accent and recently completed her PhD on Chaucer, but feels daunted by her new friends’ intelligence and old-money backgrounds: Ivo went to Eton, Charlie is an heiress, and so on. But Kitty’s most fascinated with Evie, who is bright, privileged and quick with a comeback – everything Kitty wishes she could be.

If you think of ordinands as pious and prudish, you’ll be scandalized by these six. They drink, smoke, curse and make crude jokes. In seminars with Professor Albertus Loewe, they make provocative mention of feminist theory and are tempted by his collection of rare books. Soon sex, death and literature get all mixed up as Kitty realizes that her friends’ devotion to the Medieval period goes as far as replicating dangerous rituals. We know from the first line that one of them ends up dead. But what might it have to do with the apocryphal text of the title?

I didn’t always feel the psychological groundwork was there to understand characters’ motivations, but I still found this to be a beguiling story, well plotted and drenched in elitism and lust. Mann explores a theology that is more about practice, about the body, than belief. Kitty’s retrospective blends regret and nostalgia: “We were the special ones, the shining ones,” and despite how wrong everything went, part of her wouldn’t change it for the world.

My thanks to publicist Hannah Hargrave for the proof copy for review. Published today by Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd.

 

What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez

A perfect follow-up to The Friend and very similar in some ways: again we have the disparate first-person musings of an unnamed narrator compelled to help a friend. In Nunez’s previous novel, the protagonist has to care for the dog of a man who recently killed himself; here she is called upon to help a terminally ill friend commit suicide. The novel opens in September 2017 in the unfamiliar town she’s come to for her friend’s cancer treatments. While there she goes to a talk by an older male author who believes human civilization is finished and people shouldn’t have children anymore. This prophet of doom is her ex.

His pessimism is echoed by the dying friend when she relapses. The narrator agrees to accompany her to a rental house where she will take a drug to die at a time of her choosing. “Lucy and Ethel Do Euthanasia,” the ex jokes. And there is a sort of slapstick joy early in this morbid adventure, with mishaps like forgetting the pills and flooding the bathroom.

As in Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, the voice is not solely or even primarily the narrator’s but Other: her friend speaking about her happy childhood and her estrangement from her daughter; a woman met at the gym; a paranoid neighbor; a recent short story; a documentary film. I felt there was too much recounting of a thriller plot, but in general this approach, paired with the absence of speech marks, reflects how the art we consume and the people we encounter become part of our own story. Curiosity about other lives fuels empathy.

With the wry energy of Jenny Offill’s Weather, this is a quiet novel that sneaks up to seize you by the heartstrings. “Women’s stories are often sad stories,” Nunez writes, but “no matter how sad, a beautifully told story lifts you up.” Like The Friend, which also ends just before The End, this presents love and literature as ways to bear “witness to the human condition.”

With thanks to Virago for the proof copy for review.

 

Along Came a Llama: Tales from a Welsh Hill Farm by Ruth Janette Ruck

Originally published in 1978 (now reissued with a foreword by John Lewis-Stempel), this is an enjoyably animal-stuffed memoir reminiscent of Gerald Durrell and especially Doreen Tovey. Ruck (d. 2006) and her family – which at times included her ill sister, her elderly mother and/or her sister-in-law – lived on a remote farm in the hills of North Wales. On a visit to Knaresborough Zoo, Ruck was taken with the llamas and fancied buying one to add to their menagerie of farm animals. It was as simple as asking the zoo director and then taking the young female back to Wales in a pony box. At that time, hardly anyone in the UK knew anything about llamas or the other camelids. No insurance company would cover their llama in transit; no one had specialist knowledge on feeding or breeding. Ruck had to do things the old-fashioned way, finding books and specialist scientific papers.

But they mostly learned about Ñusta (the Quechua word for princess) by spending time with her. At holidays they discovered her love of chocolate Easter eggs and cherry brandy. The cud-chewing creature sometimes gave clues to what else she’d been eating, as when she regurgitated plum stones. She didn’t particularly like being touched or trailed by an orphaned lamb, but followed Ruck around dutifully and would sit sociably in the living room. Life with animals often involves mild disasters: Ñusta jumps in a pool and locks Ruck’s husband in the loo, and the truck breaks down on the way to mate her with the male at Chester Zoo.

A vintage cover I found on Goodreads.

From spitting to shearing, there was a lot to get used to, but this account of the first three years of llama ownership emphasizes the delights of animal companionship. There were hardships in Ruck’s life, including multiple sclerosis and her sister’s death, but into the “austere but soul-rewarding life of a hill firm … like a catalyst or a touch of magic, the llama came along.” I was into llamas and alpacas well before the rest of the world – in high school I often visited a local llama farm, and I led a llama in a parade and an alpaca in a nativity play – so that was my primary reason for requesting this, but it’s just right for any animal lover.

With thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy for review.

 

What recent releases can you recommend?

Thinking about Dead Bodies with John Troyer (Hay Festival)

My second of three digital Hay Festival talks this year was by John Troyer, director of the interdisciplinary Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath. Troyer is from Wisconsin (where he was speaking from, having been trapped there during a visit to his parents) and grew up with a father who owned a funeral home. This meant that he was aware of death from a young age: One of his earliest memories is of touching the hand of a dead woman when he went to visit his father at work.

That’s not the only personal experience that went into his new book, Technologies of the Human Corpse, which I’m now keen to read. In 2018 his younger sister, Julie, died of brain cancer at age 43, so her illness and death became a late addition to the preface and also fed into a series of prose poems interspersed between the narrative chapters. She lived in Italy and her doctors failed to tell her that she was dying – that job fell to Troyer. (Unfortunately, this seems to be a persistent problem in Italy. In Dottoressa, her memoir of being an American doctor in Rome, which I read for a TLS review, Susan Levenstein writes of a paternalistic attitude among medical professionals: they treat their patients as children and might not even tell them about a cancer diagnosis; they just inform their family.)

Troyer discussed key moments that changed how we treat corpses. For instance, during the American Civil War there was a huge market for the new embalming technology; it was a way of preserving the bodies of soldiers so they could be returned home for funerals. Frauds also arose, however, and those taken in might find their loved one’s body arrived in a state of advanced decay. At around the same time, early photography captured corpses looking serene and sleeping. We might still take such photos, but we don’t tend to display them any more.

In the 1970s the “happy death” movement advocated for things like “natural death” and “death with dignity.” This piggybacked on the environmental and women’s movements and envisioned death as a taboo that had to be overcome. In recent decades a “necro-economy” based on the global trafficking of body parts (not organs for regulated transplant, Troyer clarified, but other tissue types) has appeared. While whole bodies may be worth just £2,000, “disarticulated” ones divided into their parts can net more like £100,000. Donating one’s body to science is, of course, a noble decision. Many people are also happy to donate their organs, though there remains a particular wariness about donating the eyes.

Troyer and Florence on my screen.

One section of Troyer’s book has become “uncannily resonant” in recent days, he noted. This is Chapter 3, on the AIDS corpse, an object of stigma. The biggest changes to death in the time of COVID-19 have been that family members are not able to be with a dying person in the ICU and that funerals cannot proceed as normal. In a viral pandemic, countries are producing a huge number of corpses that they aren’t prepared to deal with. (Indeed, the Washington, D.C. area is so overwhelmed with dead bodies that ice skating rinks have been requisitioned as makeshift morgues. The suburban Maryland rink I visited as a child is one such. Grim.)

Troyer spoke of the need for an everyday-ness to the discussion of death: talking with one’s next of kin, and encountering death in the course of a traditional education – he finds that even his final-year university students, studying in a related field, are very new to talking about death. A good way in that he recommends is simply to ask your loved ones what music they want played at their funerals, and the conversation can go from there.

We may not be able to commemorate the dead as we would like to at this time, but Troyer reminded the audience that funerals are for the living, whereas “the dead are okay with it – they know we’re doing our best.” The event was sensitively chaired by Peter Florence, the co-founder and director of Hay Festival (also responsible for last year’s controversial Booker Prize tie); the fact that Troyer got emotional talking about his sister only gave it more relevance and impact.

 

I’ve read an abnormally large number of books about death, especially in the five years since my brother-in-law died of brain cancer (one reason why Troyer’s talk was so meaningful for me). Most recently, I read Bodies in Motion and at Rest (2000) by Thomas Lynch, a set of essays by the Irish-American undertaker and poet from Michigan. I saw him speak at Greenbelt Festival in 2012 and have read four of his books since then. His unusual dual career lends lyrical beauty to his writing about death. However, this collection was not memorable for me in comparison to his 1997 book The Undertaking, and I’d already encountered a shortened version of “Wombs” in the Wellcome Collection anthology Beneath the Skin. But this passage from “The Way We Are” stood out:

After years and years of directing funerals, I’ve come to the conclusion that seeing [the dead body] is the hardest and most helpful part. The truth, even when it hurts, has a healing in it, better than fiction or fantasy. When someone dies it is not them we fear seeing, it is them dead. It is the death. We fear that seeing will be believing. We fear not seeing too. We search the wreckage and the ruins, the battlefields and ocean floors. We must find our dead to let the loss be real.

 

Just for a bit of morbid fun, I decided to draw up my top 10 nonfiction books about death, dying and the dead. Many of these are personal accounts of facing death or losing a loved one. In contrast to the bereavement and cancer memoirs, the books by Doughty and Gawande are more like cultural studies, and Montross’s is about working with corpses. If you need a laugh, the Bechdel (a graphic memoir) and Doughty are best for black comedy.