Tag Archives: Elizabeth Strout

Book Serendipity, Mid-August to Mid-October 2022

It’s my birthday today and we’re off to Kelmscott Manor, where William Morris once lived, so I’ll start with a Morris-related anecdote even if it’s not a proper book coincidence. One of his most famous designs, the Strawberry Thief, is mentioned in Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin, and I happen to be using a William Morris wall calendar this year. I will plan to report back tomorrow on our visit plus any book hauls that occur.


I call it “Book Serendipity” when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something in common – the more bizarre, the better. This is a regular feature of mine every few months. Because I usually have 20–30 books on the go at once, I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. The following are in roughly chronological order.

  • There’s a character named Verena in What Concerns Us by Laura Vogt and Summer by Edith Wharton. Add on another called Verona from Stories from the Tenants Downstairs by Sidik Fofana.

 

  • Two novels with a female protagonist who’s given up a singing career: Brief Lives by Anita Brookner and What Concerns Us by Laura Vogt.

 

  • Two books featuring Black characters, written in African American Vernacular English, and with elements of drug use and jail time plus rent rises driving people out of their apartments and/or to crime (I’ve basically never felt so white): Stories from the Tenants Downstairs by Sidik Fofana and Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley.
  • Two books on my stack with the protagonist an African American woman from Oakland, California: Red Island House by Andrea Lee and Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley

 

  • A middle-aged woman’s hair is described as colourless and an officious hotel staff member won’t give the protagonist a cup of coffee/glass of wine in Brief Lives by Anita Brookner and Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout.

 

  • There’s a central Switzerland setting in Mountain Song by Lucy Fuggle and What Concerns Us by Laura Vogt.
  • On the same day, I encountered two references to Mary Oliver’s famous poem “The Summer Day” (“what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”): in Mountain Song by Lucy Fuggle and This Beauty by Nick Riggle. (Fuggle and Riggle – that makes me laugh!)

 

  • In the same evening I found mentions of copperhead snakes in Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (no surprise there), but also on the very first page of Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew-Bergman.
  • Crop circles are important to What Remains? by Rupert Callender and The Perfect Golden Circle by Benjamin Myers.

 

  • I was reading two books with provocative peaches on the cover at the same time: The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw and Butts: A Backstory by Heather Radke.
  • A main character is pregnant but refuses medical attention in The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh and What Concerns Us by Laura Vogt.

 

  • An Australian setting and the slang “Carn” or “C’arn” for “come on” in Cloudstreet by Tim Winton and one story (“Halflead Bay”) from The Boat by Nam Le.

 

  • Grape nuts cereal is mentioned in Leap Year by Helen Russell and This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub.
  • A character wagers their hair in a short story from Bratwurst Haven by Rachel King and one from Anthropology by Dan Rhodes.

 

  • Just after I started reading a Jackie Kay poetry collection (Other Lovers), I turned to The Horizontal Oak by Polly Pullar and found a puff from Kay on the front cover. And then one from Jim Crumley, whose The Nature of Spring I was also reading, on the back cover! (All Scottish authors, you see.)

 

  • Reading two memoirs that include a father’s suicideSinkhole by Juliet Patterson and The Horizontal Oak by Polly Pullar – at the same time.
  • Middle school students reading Of Mice and Men in Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum and Stories from the Tenants Downstairs by Sidik Fofana.

 

  • A second novel in two months in which Los Angeles’s K-Town (Korean neighbourhood) is an important location: after Which Side Are You On by Ryan Lee Wong, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin.

 

  • The main character inherits his roommate’s coat in one story of The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin.
  • The Groucho Marx quote “Whatever it is, I’m against it” turns up in What Remains? by Rupert Callender and Blurb Your Enthusiasm by Louise Willder (where it’s adapted to “we’re” as the motto of 3:AM Magazine).

 

  • In Remainders of the Day by Shaun Bythell, Polly Pullar is mentioned as one of the writers at that year’s Wigtown Book Festival; I was reading her The Horizontal Oak at the same time.

 

  • Marilyn Monroe’s death is mentioned in Sinkhole by Juliet Patterson and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin.

 

  • The types of standard plots that there are, and the fact that children’s books get the parents out of the way as soon as possible, are mentioned in And Finally by Henry Marsh and Blurb Your Enthusiasm by Louise Willder.

 

  • Two books in quick succession with a leaping hare (and another leaping mammal, deer vs. dog) on the cover: Awayland by Ramona Ausubel, followed by Hare House by Sally Hinchcliffe.
  • Three fingers held up to test someone’s mental state after a head injury in The House Is on Fire by Rachel Beanland and The Fear Index by Robert Harris.

 

  • A scene where a teenage girl has to help with a breech livestock delivery (goat vs. sheep) in Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer and The Truants by Kate Weinberg.

 

  • Two memoirs by a doctor/comedian that open with a scene commenting on the genitals of a cadaver being studied in medical school: Catch Your Breath by Ed Patrick wasn’t funny in the least, so I ditched it within the first 10 pages or so, whereas Undoctored by Adam Kay has been great so far.

 

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

Short Stories in September, Part III/Roundup: Ausubel, Bynum, Roberts

A rare second post in a day from me – there’s just too much to try to fit in at the end of a month! This year I read a total of 11.5 short story collections in September, nearly matching last year’s 12. I’ve already written about the first three and the next four. I’ll give details on a few more below, but the final 1.5 are going to be part of a later Three on a Theme post on “Birds” story collections. The highlight of the month was one of those: Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman. However, I read lots of winners, including Brown Girls, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies and the three below. Just shorthand responses this time; all were .

 

Awayland by Ramona Ausubel (2018)

Basics: 11 stories, grouped under 4 mythical locales

Settings: California, Beirut, Africa, Turkey, a museum, an unnamed island

Themes: motherhood, loss, travel

Links: Greek myths (opener “You Can Find Love Now” is the Cyclops’ online dating profile); the sister in #2 is the main character in #4

Stand-out: “Template for a Proclamation to Save the Species” (the mayor of a Minnesota town, concerned about underpopulation, offers a car to the first mother to give birth on a date 9 months in the future)

Similar authors: Aimee Bender, Lydia Millet

Aside: I’d want to read her novels just for the titles: No One Is Here Except All of Us and Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty

(New/remainder purchase from Dollar Tree on a recent USA trip)

 

Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum (2008)

Basics: 8 linked stories following 7th-grade teacher Beatrice Hempel through her twenties and thirties

Setting: Massachusetts

Themes: love, loss, motherhood, adventure vs. overprotectiveness, idealism vs. being jaded

Stand-outs: “Crossing” (Ms. Hempel, previously an English teacher, is asked to cover history, and takes her students to Plimoth Plantation; meanwhile, her department chair wishes she’d hyphenate her name to make it more clear she’s half-Chinese); “Satellite” (after her father’s death, Beatrice’s mother and younger sister decide to turn the family home into a B&B)

A similar read: Olive Kitteridge, though that takes more of an interest in the town and its other residents than this – it’s ironic that this came out in the same year, and even got lots of positive and high-profile reviews based on the quotes in my paperback copy, yet I doubt it’s been remembered as Strout’s book has. Such is the power of the Pulitzer.

Aside: I’d read Bynum’s other story collection, Likes (2020), and didn’t care much for it, but I’m glad I tried her again.

(Secondhand purchase from 2nd & Charles on a recent USA trip)

 

Playing Sardines by Michèle Roberts (2001)

Basics: 18 stories, some of flash fiction length

Settings: France, England, Italy

Themes: reinvention, love affairs, obsession, food, literature

Stand-outs: The ones with funny twists/shock endings: “The Sheets” (French maid beds visiting English author), “The Cookery Lesson” (woman stalks celebrity chef), “Lists” (pillar of the community prepares for Christmas, starting months ahead), “Blathering Frights” (a Wuthering Heights spoof)

Similar authors: Julian Barnes (one story is indeed dedicated to him!), A.S. Byatt, John Lanchester, Helen Simpson

Aside: I own two unread novels by Roberts and need to prioritize them.

(Secondhand purchase from local charity shop)


Alas, I also had some DNFs for the month. I read one or two stories in each of these and didn’t take to the style and/or contents:

  • The Quarry by Ben Halls
  • One Good Story, That One by Thomas King
  • Speak Gigantular by Irenosen Okojie
  • What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

Booker Prize Longlist Reading & Shortlist Predictions

I’ve polished off another four from the Booker Prize longlist (my initial reactions and excerpts from existing reviews are here), with one more coming up for me next month.

 

Trust by Hernan Diaz

“History itself is just a fiction—a fiction with an army. And reality? Reality is a fiction with an unlimited budget.”

My synopsis for Bookmarks magazine:

Set in the 1920s and 1930s, this expansive novel is about the early days of New York City high finance. It is told through four interlocking narratives. The first is Bonds, a novel by Harold Vanner, whose main character is clearly based on tycoon Andrew Bevel. Bevel, outraged at his portrayal as well as the allegation that his late wife, Mildred, was a madwoman, responds by writing a memoir—the book’s second part. Part 3 is an account by Ida Partenza, Bevel’s secretary, who helps him plot revenge on Vanner. In the final section, Mildred finally gets her say. Her journal caps off a sumptuous, kaleidoscopic look at American capitalism.

Ghostwriter Ida’s section was much my favourite, for her voice as well as for how it leads you to go back to the previous part – some of it still in shorthand (“Father. Describe early memories of him. … MATH in great detail. Precocious talent. Anecdotes.”) and reassess its picture of Bevel. His short selling in advance of the Great Depression made him a fortune, but he defends himself: “My actions safeguarded American industry and business.” Mildred’s journal entries, clearly written through a fog of pain as she was dying from cancer, then force another rethink about the role she played in her husband’s decision making. With her genius-level memory, philanthropy and love of literature and music, she’s a much more interesting character than Bevel – that being the point, of course, that he steals the limelight. This is clever, clever stuff. However, as admirable as the pastiche sections might be (though they’re not as convincing as the first section of To Paradise), they’re ever so dull to read.

With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.

 

Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet

That GMB is quite the trickster. From the biographical sections, I definitely assumed that A. Collins Braithwaite was a real psychiatrist in the 1960s. A quick Google when I got to the end revealed that he only exists in this fictional universe. I enjoyed the notebooks recounting an unnamed young woman’s visits to Braithwaite’s office; holding the man responsible for her sister’s suicide, she books her appointments under a false name, Rebecca Smyth, and tries acting just mad (and sensual) enough to warrant her coming back. Her family stories, whether true or embellished, are ripe for psychoanalysis, and the more she inhabits this character she’s created the more she takes on her persona. (“And, perhaps on account of Mrs du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca had always struck me as the most dazzling of names. I liked the way its three short syllables felt in my mouth, ending in that breathy, open-lipped exhalation.” I had to laugh at this passage! I’ve always thought mine a staid name.) But the different documents don’t come together as satisfyingly as I expected, especially compared to His Bloody Project. (Public library)


Those two are both literary show-off stuff (the epistolary found documents strategy, metafiction): the kind of book I would have liked more in my twenties. I’m less impressed with games these days; I prefer the raw heart of this next one.

 

Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley

She may be only 20 years old, but Leila Mottley is the real deal. Her debut novel, laden with praise from her mentor Ruth Ozeki and many others, reminded me of Bryan Washington’s work. The first-person voice is convincing and mature as Mottley spins the (inspired by a true) story of an underage prostitute who testifies against the cops who have kept her in what is virtually sex slavery. At 17, Kiara is the de facto head of her household, with her father dead, her mother in a halfway house, and her older brother pursuing his dream of recording a rap album. When news comes of a rise in the rent and Kia stumbles into being paid for sex, she knows it’s her only way of staying in their Oakland apartment and looking after her neglected nine-year-old neighbour, Trevor.

I loved her relationships with Trevor, her best friend Alé (they crash funerals for the free food), and trans prostitute Camila, and the glimpses into prison life and police corruption. This doesn’t feel like misery for the sake of it, just realistic and compassionate documentation. There were a few places where I felt the joins showed, like a teacher had told her she needed to fill in some emotional backstory, and I noticed an irksome habit of turning adjectives into verbs or nouns (e.g., “full of all her loud,” “the sky is just starting to pastel”); perhaps this is an instinct from her start in poetry, but it struck me as precious. However, this is easily one of the more memorable 2022 releases I’ve read, and I’d love to see it on the shortlist and on other prize lists later this year and next. (Public library)

 

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

This was a DNF for me last year, but I tried again. The setup is simple: Lucy Barton’s ex-husband, William, discovers he has a half-sister he never knew about. William and Lucy travel from New York City to Maine in hopes of meeting her. For both of them, the quest sparks a lot of questions about how our origins determine who we are, and what William’s late mother, Catherine, was running from and to in leaving her husband and small child behind to forge a different life. Like Lucy, Catherine came from nothing; to an extent, everything that unfolded afterwards for them was a reaction against poverty and neglect.

The difficulty of ever really knowing another person, or even understanding oneself, is one of Strout’s recurring messages. There are a lot of strong lines and relatable feelings here. What I found maddening, though, is Lucy’s tentative phrasing, e.g. “And I cannot explain it except to say—oh, I don’t know what to say! Truly, it is as if I do not exist, I guess is the closest thing I can say.” She employs hedging statements like that all the time; it struck me as false that someone who makes a living by words would be so lacking in confidence about how to say what she means. So I appreciated the psychological insight but found Lucy’s voice annoying, even in such a short book. (Public library)

 

A Recap

I’ve read 6 of the 13 at this point, have imminent plans to read After Sappho for a Shelf Awareness review, and would still like to read the Mortimer if my library system acquires it. The others? Meh. I might consider catching up if they’re shortlisted.

My book group wasn’t chosen to shadow the Booker Prize this year, which is fair enough since we already officially shadowed the Women’s Prize earlier in the year (here are the six successful book clubs, if you’re interested). However, we have been offered the chance to send in up to five interview questions for the shortlisted authors. The Q&As will then be part of a website feature. And I was pleasantly surprised to see that my non-holiday snap of a Booker Prize nominee turned up in this round-up!

  

Here’s my (not particularly scientific) reasoning for what might make the shortlist:

A literary puzzle novel

Trust by Hernan Diaz or Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet

  • Trust feels more impressive, and timely; GMB already had his chance.

 

 

 

 

A contemporary novel

Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley or Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

  • Oh William! is the weakest Strout novel I’ve read. Mottley’s is a fresh voice that deserves to be broadcast.

 

 

 

 

A satire

The Trees by Percival Everett or Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka

  • Without having read either, I’m going to hazard a guess that the Everett is too Ameri-centric/similar to The Sellout. The Booker tends to reward colourful Commonwealth books. [EDITED to add that I forgot to take into my considerations Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo; while it doesn’t perfectly fit this category, as a political allegory it’s close enough that I’ll include it here. I would not be at all surprised if it made the shortlist, along with the Karunatilaka.]

 

 

 

 

A couple of historical novels

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler or After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz

and/or

A couple of Irish novels

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan or The Colony by Audrey Magee

  • I’m hearing such buzz about the Magee, and there’s such love out there for the Keegan, that I reckon both of these will make it through.
The odd one out?

Treacle Walker by Alan Garner or Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies by Maddie Mortimer

  • Maybe nostalgia will spur the judges to give Garner a chance in his 80s.

 

 

 

 

 

My predicted shortlist:

On Tuesday evening we’ll find out if I got any of these right!

 

What have you read from the longlist? What do you most want to read, or see on the shortlist?

Booker Prize Longlist Thoughts and Reading Plan

Yesterday the 2022 Booker Prize longlist was announced.

It’s an intriguing selection that for the most part avoids the usual suspects – although a few of these authors have previously been shortlisted, they’re not from the standard crop of staid white men. The website is making much of two pieces of trivia: that the longlist includes the youngest and oldest authors ever (Leila Mottley at 20 and Alan Garner at 87); and that Small Things Like These is the shortest book to be nominated.

I happen to have read two from the longlist so far, and I’m surprised by how many of the rest I want to read. I’ll go through each of the ‘Booker Dozen’ of 13 below (the brief summaries are from the Booker Prize announcement e-mail):

 

Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo

“This energetic and exhilarating joyride … is the story of an uprising, told by a vivid chorus of animal voices that help us see our human world more clearly.”

  • Zimbabwean author Bulawayo was shortlisted for her debut novel, We Need New Names, in 2013. I’ve never been drawn to read that one, and have to wonder why we needed an extended Animal Farm remake…

 

Trust by Hernan Diaz

“A literary puzzle about money, power, and intimacy, Trust challenges the myths shrouding wealth, and the fictions that often pass for history.”

  • I’m looking forward to this one after all the buzz from its U.S. release, and have a copy on the way to me from Picador.

 

The Trees by Percival Everett

“A violent history refuses to be buried in … Everett’s striking novel, which combines an unnerving murder mystery with a powerful condemnation of racism and police violence.”

  • Susan is a fan of Everett’s. He’s known for his satirical fiction, whereas the only book of his that I happen to have read was poetry – not representative of his work. I’d happily read this if given the chance, but Everett’s stuff is hard to find over here.

 

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler

“Fowler’s epic novel about an ill-fated family of thespians, drinkers and dreamers, whose most infamous son is destined to commit a terrible and violent act.”

  • I reviewed this for BookBrowse earlier in the year. (It’s Fowler’s second nomination, after We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a very different novel.) The present-tense narration helps it be less of a dull group biography, and there are two female point-of-view characters. The issues of racial equality, political divisions and mistrust of the government are just as important in our own day. However, the foreshadowing is sometimes heavy-handed, the extended timeline means there is some skating over of long periods, and the novel as a whole is low on scenes and dialogue, with Fowler conveying a lot of information through exposition. I gave it a tepid .

 

Treacle Walker by Alan Garner

“This latest fiction from a remarkable and enduring talent brilliantly illuminates an introspective young mind trying to make sense of the world around him.”

  • Garner is a beloved fantasy writer in the UK. Though I didn’t care for The Owl Service when I read it in 2019, given that this is just over 150 pages, there would be no harm in taking a chance on it.

 

Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka

“Karunatilaka’s rip-roaring epic is a searing, mordantly funny satire set amid the murderous mayhem of a Sri Lanka beset by civil war.”

  • This is the sort of Commonwealth novel I’m wary of, fearing Rushdie-like indulgence. My library system tends to order all the Booker nominees, so I would gladly borrow this and try the early pages to see how I get on.

 

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

“Keegan’s tender tale of hope and quiet heroism is both a celebration of compassion and a stern rebuke of the sins committed in the name of religion.”

  • I read and reviewed this late last year and appreciated it as a spare and heartwarming yuletide fable. A coal merchant in 1980s Ireland comes to value his quiet family life all the more when he sees how difficult existence is for the teen mothers sent to work in the local convent’s laundry service. I was familiar with the Magdalene Laundries from the movie The Magdalene Sisters and found this a fairly predictable narrative, with the nuns cartoonishly villainous. So I’m not as enthusiastic as many others have been, but feel like a Scrooge for saying so.

 

Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet

“Graeme Macrae Burnet offers a dazzlingly inventive – and often wickedly humorous – meditation on the nature of sanity, identity and truth itself.”

  • Macrae Burnet was a dark horse in the 2016 Booker race for the terrific His Bloody Project. This new novel was one of Clare’s top picks for the longlist and sounds like a clever and playful book about a psychoanalyst and his patient; again the author blends fact and fiction and relies on ‘found documents’. I have it on request from the library.

 

The Colony by Audrey Magee

“In … Magee’s lyrical and brooding fable, two outsiders visit a small island off the west coast of Ireland, with unforeseen and haunting consequences.”

  • One of Clare and Susan’s joint correct predictions (Susan’s review). On the face of it, it sounds too similar to one I read from last year’s longlist, An Island. I can’t say I’m particularly interested, though if this were to be shortlisted I might have a go.

 

Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies by Maddie Mortimer

“Under attack from within, Lia tries to keep the landscapes of her past, her present and her body separate. But time and bodies are porous, and unpredictable.”

  • This Desmond Elliott Prize winner was already on my TBR for its medical theme and is one of two nominees I’m most excited about. It potentially sounds long and challenging, but has been received well by my Goodreads friends. I’ll hope my library system acquires a copy soon.

 

Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley

“At once agonising and mesmerising, Nightcrawling presents a haunting vision of marginalised young people navigating the darkest corners of an adult world.”

  • Like many, I had this brought to my attention anew by Ruth Ozeki’s shout-out during her Women’s Prize acceptance speech (Mottley was her student). I’d already heard some chatter about it from its Oprah’s Book Club selection. The subject matter – sex workers in Oakland, California – will be tough, but I hope the prose and storytelling will make up for it. I have it on request from the library.

 

After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz

“A joyous reimagining of the lives of a brilliant group of feminists, sapphists, artists and writers from the past, as they battle for control over their lives, for liberation and for justice.”

  • The other novel I’m most excited about. It was totally new to me but sounds fantastic. It only came out this month, so I’ll see if Galley Beggar might be willing to send out a review copy.

 

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

“Strout returns to her beloved heroine Lucy Barton in a luminous novel about love, loss, and the family secrets that can erupt and bewilder us at any time.”

  • I DNFed this one after just 20 or so pages last year, finding Lucy too annoyingly scatter-brained this time around (I’d enjoyed My Name Is Lucy Barton but not read the sequel). But I’m willing to give it another try, so have placed a library hold.

 

There we have it: 2 read, 4 I have immediate plans to read, 3 I’m keen to read if I can find them, 4 I’m less likely to read – but, unlike in most years, there are no entries I’m completely uninterested in or averse to reading.

Earlier this year my book club took part in a Women’s Prize shadowing project run by the Reading Agency. They’re organizing a similar thing on behalf of the Booker Prize, but the six groups (for six shortlisted books) will be chosen by the Prize organizers this time, so we’ve been encouraged to apply again. It’s a better deal in that members of successful groups will be invited to attend the shortlist party and then the awards ceremony. I’ll meet up with my co-leader later this week to work on our application.

 

What have you read from the longlist? Which book(s) do you most want to find?

Women’s Prize Shadowing & Men Reading Books by Women

Back in April I announced that my book club was one of six selected to shadow this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist by reading and discussing one of the finalists. Our assigned title was one I’d already read, but I skimmed back through it before our meet-up and enjoyed getting reacquainted with Martha Friel. Here’s our group’s review:

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

Readability: 5/5

Characters: 5/5

Storyline: 4/5

Can’t Put It Down: 4.5/5

Total = 18.5/20

Our joint highest rating, and one of our best discussions – taking in mental illness and its diagnosis and treatment, marriage, childlessness, alcoholism, sisterhood, creativity, neglect, unreliable narrators and loneliness. For several of us, these issues hit close to home due to personal or family experience. We particularly noted the way that Mason sets up parallels between pairs of characters, accurately reflecting how family dynamics can be replicated in later generations.

Even the minor characters are fully rounded, and although Martha is not always pleasant to spend time with, her voice is impressively rendered. The picture of mental illness from the inside feels authentic, including the fact that Martha uses it as an excuse for her bad behaviour, becoming self-absorbed and not seeing how she is affecting others around her. Our main point of disagreement was about Mason’s decision not to name the mental illness Martha is suffering from. It seemed clear to several of us that it was meant to be bipolar disorder, so we wondered if it was a copout not to identify it as such.

We also thought about the meaning of the term “literary fiction”, and whether this has the qualities of a prize winner and will stand the test of time.

 

We had to fill out a feedback questionnaire about our experience of shadowing, and most of us sent in individual blurbs in response to the book. Some ended up in the final Reading Agency article. Here was mine:

“This deceptively light novel was a perfect book club selection, eliciting deep discussion about mental illness, family relationships and parenthood. Martha’s (unreliable) narration is a delight, wry and deadpan but also with moments of wrenching emotion. Mason masterfully controls the tone to create something that is witty and poignant all at once.”

Probably the main reason we were chosen for this opportunity is that we have a man – my husband, that is! – who attends regularly. This year the prize has been particularly keen to get more men reading books by women (see more below). So, he was responsible for giving The Male Response to the novel. No pressure, right? Luckily, he enjoyed it just as much as the rest of us. From the cover and blurb, it didn’t necessarily seem like the sort of book that he would pick up to read for himself, but he was fully engaged with the themes of mental illness, family relationships, and the question of whether or not to have children, and was so compelled that he read over half of it in a day.

I’m not sure who I expect to be awarded the Women’s Prize tomorrow. We of West Fields Readers would be delighted if it went to Meg Mason for Sorrow and Bliss, but I’d also be happy with a win for Louise Erdrich or Ruth Ozeki – though I wasn’t taken with their latest works compared with earlier ones I’ve read, they are excellent authors who deserve recognition. I don’t think The Bread the Devil Knead has a chance; I’d be disappointed in a win by Elif Shafak in that I would feel obligated to try her novel – the kind that gives magic realism a bad name – again; and, while I’m a Maggie Shipstead fan in general and admire the ambition of Great Circle, it would be galling for a book I DNFed twice to take the title!

Who are you rooting for/predicting?

 


I’d like to mock you with that thought,

jeer at the man

who won’t read novels

written by women ­­–

at least not if they’re still alive

~from The Poet by Louisa Reid

Maybe you’ve seen on social media that the Women’s Prize has been canvassing opinion on the books by women that all men should read. This was prompted by some shocking statistics suggesting that even bestselling female authors can only attract a 20% male readership, whereas the best-known male authors are almost equally popular with men and women. They solicited 60 nominations from big names and ran a public poll. I voted for these 10:

Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

Possession (A.S. Byatt)

Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi)

The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)

The Sea, The Sea (Iris Murdoch)

The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields)

We Need to Talk about Kevin (Lionel Shriver)

Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout)

The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)

Orlando (Virginia Woolf)

*If I could have added to that list, though, my top recommendations for all men to read would be Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (and probably a different Octavia E. Butler novel from the one nominated).

Three of my selections were among the 10 essential reads announced on the WP website. Their list was headed by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, though of her works I’d be more likely to direct men to Oryx and Crake.

I’ve seen discussions on Twitter about why men don’t read novels (at all, prioritizing nonfiction), or specifically not ones by women. Do you have any theories?

What one book by a woman do you think all men should read?

Recommended April Releases by Amy Bloom, Sarah Manguso & Sara Rauch

Just two weeks until moving day – we’ve got a long weekend ahead of us of sanding, painting, packing and gardening. As busy as I am with house stuff, I’m endeavouring to keep up with the new releases publishers have been so good as to send me. Today I review three short works: the story of accompanying a beloved husband to Switzerland for an assisted suicide, a coolly perceptive novella of American girlhood, and a vivid memoir of two momentous relationships. (April was a big month for new books: I have another 6–8 on the go that I’ll be catching up on in the future.) All:

 

In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss by Amy Bloom

“We’re not here for a long time, we’re here for a good time.”

(Ameche family saying)

Given the psychological astuteness of her fiction, it’s no surprise that Bloom is a practicing psychotherapist. She treats her own life with the same compassionate understanding, and even though the main events covered in this brilliantly understated memoir only occurred two and a bit years ago, she has remarkable perspective and avoids self-pity and mawkishness. Her husband, Brian Ameche, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in his mid-60s, having exhibited mild cognitive impairment for several years. Brian quickly resolved to make a dignified exit while he still, mostly, had his faculties. But he needed Bloom’s help.

“I worry, sometimes, that a better wife, certainly a different wife, would have said no, would have insisted on keeping her husband in this world until his body gave out. It seems to me that I’m doing the right thing, in supporting Brian in his decision, but it would feel better and easier if he could make all the arrangements himself and I could just be a dutiful duckling, following in his wake. Of course, if he could make all the arrangements himself, he wouldn’t have Alzheimer’s”

U.S. cover

She achieves the perfect tone, mixing black humour with teeth-gritted practicality. Research into acquiring sodium pentobarbital via doctor friends soon hit a dead end and they settled instead on flying to Switzerland for an assisted suicide through Dignitas – a proven but bureaucracy-ridden and expensive method. The first quarter of the book is a day-by-day diary of their January 2020 trip to Zurich as they perform the farce of a couple on vacation. A long central section surveys their relationship – a second chance for both of them in midlife – and how Brian, a strapping Yale sportsman and accomplished architect, gradually descended into confusion and dependence. The assisted suicide itself, and the aftermath as she returns to the USA and organizes a memorial service, fill a matter-of-fact 20 pages towards the close.

Hard as parts of this are to read, there are so many lovely moments of kindness (the letter her psychotherapist writes about Brian’s condition to clinch their place at Dignitas!) and laughter, despite it all (Brian’s endless fishing stories!). While Bloom doesn’t spare herself here, diligently documenting times when she was impatient and petty, she doesn’t come across as impossibly brave or stoic. She was just doing what she felt she had to, to show her love for Brian, and weeping all the way. An essential, compelling read.

With thanks to Granta for the free copy for review.

 

Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso

I’ve read Manguso’s four nonfiction works and especially love her Wellcome Book Prize-shortlisted medical memoir The Two Kinds of Decay. The aphoristic style she developed in her two previous books continues here as discrete paragraphs and brief vignettes build to a gloomy portrait of Ruthie’s archetypical affection-starved childhood in the fictional Massachusetts town of Waitsfield in the 1980s and 90s. She’s an only child whose parents no doubt were doing their best after emotionally stunted upbringings but never managed to make her feel unconditionally loved. Praise is always qualified and stingily administered. Ruthie feels like a burden and escapes into her imaginings of how local Brahmins – Cabots and Emersons and Lowells – lived. Her family is cash-poor compared to their neighbours and loves nothing more than a trip to the dump: “My parents weren’t after shiny things or even beautiful things; they simply liked getting things that stupid people threw away.”

The depiction of Ruthie’s narcissistic mother is especially acute. She has to make everything about her; any minor success of her daughter’s is a blow to her own ego. I marked out an excruciating passage that made me feel so sorry for this character. A European friend of the family visits and Ruthie’s mother serves corn muffins that he seems to appreciate.

My mother brought up her triumph for years. … She’d believed his praise was genuine. She hadn’t noticed that he’d pegged her as a person who would snatch up any compliment into the maw of her unloved, throbbing little heart.

U.S. cover

At school, as in her home life, Ruthie dissociates herself from every potentially traumatic situation. “My life felt unreal and I felt half-invested. I felt indistinct, like someone else’s dream.” Her friend circle is an abbreviated A–Z of girlhood: Amber, Bee, Charlie and Colleen. “Odd” men – meaning sexual predators – seem to be everywhere and these adolescent girls are horribly vulnerable. Molestation is such an open secret in the world of the novel that Ruthie assumes this is why her mother is the way she is.

While the #MeToo theme didn’t resonate with me personally, so much else did. Chemistry class, sleepovers, getting one’s first period, falling off a bike: this is the stuff of girlhood – if not universally, then certainly for the (largely pre-tech) American 1990s as I experienced them. I found myself inhabiting memories I hadn’t revisited for years, and a thought came that had perhaps never occurred to me before: for our time and area, my family was poor, too. I’m grateful for my ignorance: what scarred Ruthie passed me by; I was a purely happy child. But I think my sister, born seven years earlier, suffered more, in ways that she’d recognize here. This has something of the flavour of Eileen and My Name Is Lucy Barton and reads like autofiction even though it’s not presented as such. The style and contents may well be divisive. I’ll be curious to hear if other readers see themselves in its sketches of childhood.

With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.

XO by Sara Rauch

Sara Rauch won the Electric Book Award for her short story collection What Shines from It. This compact autobiographical parcel focuses on a point in her early thirties when she lived with a long-time female partner, “Piper”, and had an intense affair with “Liam”, a fellow writer she met at a residency.

“no one sets out in search of buried treasure when they’re content with life as it is”

“Longing isn’t cheating (of this I was certain), even when it brushes its whiskers against your cheek.”

Adultery is among the most ancient human stories we have, a fact Rauch acknowledges by braiding through the narrative her musings on religion and storytelling by way of her Catholic upbringing and interest in myths and fairy tales. She’s looking for the patterns of her own experience and how endings make way for new life. The title has multiple meanings: embraces, crossroads and coming full circle. Like a spider’s web, her narrative pulls in many threads to make an ordered whole. All through, bisexuality is a baseline, not something that needs to be interrogated.

This reminded me of a number of books I’ve read about short-lived affairs – Tides, The Instant – and about renegotiating relationships in a queer life – The Fixed Stars, In the Dream House – but felt most like reading a May Sarton journal for how intimately it recreates daily routines of writing, cooking, caring for cats, and weighing up past, present and future. Lovely stuff.

With thanks to publicist Lori Hettler and Autofocus Books for the e-copy for review.

Will you seek out one or more of these books?

What other April releases can you recommend?

Three Junes by Julia Glass (2002)

I had the “wrong” introduction to Julia Glass’s work in that I started with The Whole World Over (2006) in January 2019 instead of the novel to which it is a rough sequel: her National Book Award-winning debut, Three Junes. This wasn’t really a problem, though. The main link between the two is the character Fenno, a Scottish transplant to New York City who runs a bookstore. He narrates the central and longest section of Three Junes, while the shorter bookend chapters are in the third person. All three pieces braid past and present together such that the novel’s 10-year span feels even more expansive.

“Collies,” set in 1989, opens the book on Greece, where Paul McLeod has headed for a package holiday after the death from cancer of his wife, Maureen, who was an obsessive dog trainer. In “Upright,” which moves six years into the future, Paul’s son Fenno and his younger twin brothers, David and Dennis, are at the family home in Dumfries to divvy up the estate. Fenno’s mind drifts back through his time in New York City and particularly the lovers and friends of his life, some of whom died at the height of the AIDS crisis. In the present day, he faces a dilemma when his brother and sister-in-law ask him an intimate favor.

“Boys,” dated 1999, closes the book and centers on Fern, a young widow who is visiting a friend’s beach home in Long Island and contemplating how she will tell her new boyfriend (who happens to be her landlord’s son) that she is five months pregnant. This final chapter ropes in a few characters from previous sections – but, in a frustrating yet delicious instance of dramatic irony, the two main figures don’t realize there’s a couple of connections between them.

Many of the elements that I loved in The Whole World Over were present here, too: a New York City bookstore setting, the comfort of animals (David is a vet), gourmet meals (Dennis is a chef), and a matter-of-fact but tender consideration of loss. A minor character declares, “people overestimate the power of the past,” but this tripartite narrative puts the lie to that statement as the past continues to seep into everyday life. And the last line goes on my list of favourites encountered so far this year: “Here we are—despite the delays, the confusion, and the shadows en route—at last, or for the moment, where we always intended to be.”

I didn’t particularly warm to the first chapter and worried that this boded ill for the whole book, but as soon as Fenno’s voice took over at about page 60 I sank into the inviting prose. After my first taste of her work, I likened Glass to Louise Miller and Carolyn Parkhurst; now I’d add in Elizabeths Berg and Strout. I’ll read the rest of her books for sure. I have a paperback copy of I See You Everywhere and her latest, A House among the Trees, is on my Kindle.

 

Source: Secondhand purchase from Wonder Book and Video outdoor clearance area

My rating:

February Releases by de Visser, George, Lawson, and Smiley

Nonfiction about doctors’ memorable patients and a life of chronic pain and disability; novels set in 1970s Canada and contemporary (but magically outside-of-time) Paris.

 

That One Patient: Doctors’ and nurses’ stories of the patients who changed their lives forever by Ellen de Visser

[Translated from the Dutch by Brent Annable]

Ellen de Visser is a science writer for the most popular newspaper in the Netherlands, De Volkskrant. Her “That One Patient” column, which began in the summer of 2017, turns interviews with medical professionals into punchy first-person narratives. A collection of them was published in Dutch in 2019. This English translation tacks on 10 additional pieces based on conversations with English and American practitioners (including Dr. Anthony Fauci, immunologist and presidential medical advisor), four of them explicitly reflecting on COVID-19.

Many of the cases are decades old yet stuck with the doctor or nurse in question because of a vital lesson learned. Overtreatment is regretted just as much as an omission of care. Again and again, these medical professionals conclude that it’s impossible to judge someone else’s decisions or quality of life. For instance, a surgeon admits he had a hard time empathizing with his obese patients undergoing stomach reduction until he followed up with a young woman who told him about how invisible she’d felt before her surgery. Premature and disabled children bring grief or joy, not always in the expected doses. A doctor resents the work his team puts into repairing a woman who jumped from an eighth-floor window – why the heroic measures for someone who wanted to die? – until he learns she was pushed. A cancer surgeon develops breast cancer and now knows exactly what her patients go through.

Some of these stories are disturbing: being stalked by a patient with a personality disorder, a man poisoning his girlfriend, a farmer predicting the very day and time of his death. A gynaecologist changes his mind about abortion after he meets a 15-year-old who gave birth at home and left her baby outside in a plastic bag to die of exposure. Other pieces are heart-warming: A paramedic delivers a premature, breech baby right in the ambulance. Staff throw a wedding at the hospital for a dying teen (as in Dear Life by Rachel Clarke). A woman diagnosed with cancer while pregnant has chemotherapy and a healthy baby – now a teenager. There’s even a tale from a vet who crowdfunded prostheses for a lively terrier.

One unique thing about the Netherlands is that euthanasia is legal and provided by doctors upon the express request of a patient suffering from a terminal illness. It is taken for granted in these essays, yet some interviewees express their discomfort with it as an option for young patients. De Visser is careful to note that, even with the situation as it is, only 4% of deaths in the Netherlands are by euthanasia, and the majority of these are end-stage cancer cases.

As with any collection of this nature, some stories are more enticing than others, but overall I found it a surprising and moving set of reflections that is alive to ethical complexities and grapples with tough issues like disability, doctor error, loneliness, pain, and sense of purpose.

Two quotes, in particular, stood out to me, one from a nurse – “We are only ever guests in other people’s lives, and that’s how we ought to behave” – and the other from Dr. Fauci’s piece. In 2014 he treated a doctor who had been volunteering in Sierra Leone after an Ebola outbreak but became ill with the virus and had to be evacuated. “He cited Hippocrates: ‘It is far more important to know what sort of person has the disease, rather than what sort of disease the person has.’ You treated me like a person, not a disease, he said. And that’s what medicine is all about.”

With thanks to 4th Estate for the proof copy for review.

 

A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George

Over a year of lockdowns, many of us have become 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. (My full review will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Times Literary Supplement. See also Eleanor’s thorough review.) This is top of my wish list for next year’s Barbellion Prize shortlist.

With thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.

 

A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson

I discovered Mary Lawson in 2015 with Road Ends and caught up with Crow Lake in the summer of 2019. All four of her books are set in fictional locations inspired by the villages and rural areas of Northern Ontario, where the author grew up before moving to England in 1968. So Solace, while not a real town, is true to her memory and, despite the sometimes gruff or know-it-all locals, an emotional landmark for the three central characters, all of whom are processing trauma and looking for places of comfort where they can start over.

1972. First we meet Clara, a plucky seven-year-old sitting vigil. She’s waiting for the return of two people: her sixteen-year-old sister, Rose, who ran away from home; and their next-door neighbour, Mrs. Orchard, whose cat, Moses, she’s feeding until the old lady gets back from the hospital. As days turn into weeks, though, it seems less likely that either will come home, and one day Clara sees a strange man moving boxes around in Mrs. Orchard’s house. This is Liam Kane, who’s inherited the house from a family friend. In his thirties and recently divorced, he’s taking a break in this tiny town, never imagining that he might find a new life. The third protagonist, and only first-person narrator, is Elizabeth, who lies in a hospital bed with heart trouble and voices her memories as a monologue to her late husband.

As we cycle through these three characters’ perspectives in alternating chapters, we gradually come to understand the connections between them. There are satisfying parallels in that, on multiple occasions but in slightly different ways, a child attaches to an older person or an adult stands in as a guardian for a neglected child. All of Lawson’s creations, even the secondary figures, are dealing with distressing memories or a loss of some kind, the details of which might only emerge much later on. Solace offers myriad opportunities for recovery, whether kitty playtime at Mrs. Orchard’s or diner food and homemade ice cream.

Like Lawson’s other works, this is a slow burner featuring troubled families. Her characters, often full of regret and sorrow, take a shadowy past as a prompt to reset their lives. They’re charming in spite of their flaws. I recalled that Crow Lake also looks back to the climactic happenings experienced by a seven-year-old girl. And like Road Ends, A Town Called Solace makes a convincing case for present decisions being influenced by historical trauma. It’s a tender and inviting story I’d recommend to readers of Wendy McGrath and Anne Tyler, with Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley and Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout as specific readalikes. (My dilemma now is whether to read my only remaining Lawson novel, The Other Side of the Bridge, right away or save it: she’s not the most prolific author, with four books in 19 years.)

A favorite passage:

[Liam’s] life prior to coming north seemed to be taking on the quality of an old movie, one in which he’d been deeply engrossed while watching it but which now seemed trivial, unconvincing and profoundly lacking in either colour or plot. Solace had colour and plot in spades, maybe too much. In every way it was coming to seem more real than Toronto, with its endless malls and traffic jams and high-powered jobs. Though maybe, if he went back to Toronto, the same would be true in reverse. Maybe when he’d been back for a couple of months he’d find that it was Solace that seemed unreal, its unremarkable streets and stores like something from a dream, its dramatic landscape fading to nothing, like a holiday photo left in the sun.

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

 

The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley

(Published in the USA in December 2020 under the title Perestroika in Paris. It’s been given a The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse treatment for its UK release.)

My summary for Bookmarks magazine: “A racehorse, Perestroika—nicknamed Paras—strays from her unlocked suburban stable one day, carrying her groom’s purse in her mouth, and ends up in Paris’s Place du Trocadéro. Here she meets Frida the dog, Sid and Nancy the mallards, and Raoul the raven. Frida, whose homeless owner died, knows about money. She takes euros from the purse to buy food from a local market, while Paras gets treats from a baker on predawn walks. Etienne, an eight-year-old orphan who lives with his ancient great-grandmother, visits the snowy park to feed the wary animals (who can talk to each other), and offers Paras a home. A sweet fable for animal lovers.”

Yes, this is a talking animal book, but the animals only talk to each other; they communicate with humans through their gestures and soulful eyes. Kindly shopkeepers work out what Frida wants to buy based on what she stares at or points to with a paw; the baker whose window Paras passes on her early morning walks intuits that the horse is hungry; Etienne, who gives a couple of the stray animals a home during a chill winter, learns to understand when Paras needs to go out to relieve herself, after piles of dung build up in the sitting room.

I liked how patiently and convincingly Smiley builds the portrait of each character – human or animal – and the overall situation of kindness and good fortune. Raoul is particularly amusing for his birdsplaining: “It is a feature of age. I have learned so many things in my life that they just force their way out of my beak,” he says. However, a crow would be much more realistic for Paris (or any city) than a raven, and, overall, this was a little twee and farfetched for my tastes. It was nice to read something a bit different from Smiley, who I haven’t tried since her Last Hundred Years Trilogy. She has a sideline in YA horse novels; this should probably have been lumped with those. (Annabel liked it a bit more.)

I was sent an unsolicited review copy by Picador/Mantle.

 

What recent releases can you recommend?

My Best Backlist Reads of 2020

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

 

Fiction

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Nonfiction

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

What were your best backlist reads this year?

Completing the Women’s Prize Winners Reading Project and Voting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating:

 

How to Be Both by Ali Smith (2014)

(Buddy read with Marcie of Buried in Print.)

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

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

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

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

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

My rating:

 

Skims

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

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

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


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

(*not at all)

Larry’s Party by Carol Shields

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne

The Road Home by Rose Tremain

When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant

The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

Property by Valerie Martin

Small World by Andrea Levy

Home by Marilynne Robinson

How to Be Both by Ali Smith

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride


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

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

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

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

Who gets your vote?