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Best Backlist Reads of 2018
Like a lot of book bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the shiny new books released each year. However, I’ve noticed recently that many of my most memorable reads were published years or even decades ago. In 2018 I even came across a handful of books that are for me among the very best representatives of their genre, whether that’s nature, travel, family memoir, historical fiction or science fiction. The below selections are in alphabetical order by author name, and account for all the rest of my 4.5- and 5-star ratings of the year (another 27!).
March by Geraldine Brooks (2005): The best Civil War novel I’ve read. The best slavery novel I’ve read. One of the best historical novels I’ve ever read, period. Brooks’s second novel uses Little Women as its jumping-off point but is very much its own story. The whole is a perfect mixture of what’s familiar from history and literature and what Brooks has imagined.
Marlena by Julie Buntin (2017): The northern Michigan setting pairs perfectly with the novel’s tone of foreboding: you have a sense of these troubled teens being isolated in their clearing in the woods, and from one frigid winter through a steamy summer and into the chill of the impending autumn, they have to figure out what in the world they are going to do with their terrifying freedom. It’s basically a flawless debut, one I can’t recommend too highly.
Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane (1996): Ireland’s internecine violence is the sinister backdrop to this family’s everyday sorrows, including the death of a child and the mother’s shaky mental health. The book captures all the magic, uncertainty and heartache of being a child, in crisp scenes I saw playing out in my mind.
The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr (2013): Lena Gaunt: early theremin player, grande dame of electronic music, and opium addict. I loved how Farr evokes the strangeness and energy of theremin music, and how sound waves find a metaphorical echo in the ocean’s waves – swimming is Lena’s other great passion.
Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay (2007): A tight-knit cast gathers around the local radio station in Yellowknife, a small city in Canada’s Northwest Territories: Harry and Gwen, refugees from Ontario starting new lives; Dido, an alluring Dutch newsreader; Ralph, the freelance book reviewer; menacing Eddie; and pious Eleanor. This is a marvellous story of quiet striving and dislocation; I saw bits of myself in each of the characters, and I loved the extreme setting, both mosquito-ridden summer and bitter winter.
The Leavers by Lisa Ko (2017): An ambitious and satisfying novel set in New York and China, with major themes of illegal immigration, searching for a mother and a sense of belonging, and deciding what to take with you from your past. This was hand-picked by Barbara Kingsolver for the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (2010): Hungarian Jew Andras Lévi travels from Budapest to Paris to study architecture, falls in love with an older woman who runs a ballet school, and – along with his parents, brothers, and friends – has to adjust to the increasingly strict constraints on Jews across Europe in 1937–45. It’s all too easy to burn out on World War II narratives these days, but this is among the very best I’ve read.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996): For someone like me who struggles with sci-fi at the best of times, this is just right: the alien beings are just different enough from humans for Russell to make fascinating points about gender roles, commerce and art, but not so peculiar that you have trouble believing in their existence. All of the crew members are wonderful, distinctive characters, and the novel leaves you with so much to think about: unrequited love, destiny, faith, despair, and the meaning to be found in life.
Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar (2015): Hester Finch is looking back from the 1870s – when she is a widowed teacher settled in England – to the eight ill-fated years her family spent at Salt Creek, a small (fictional) outpost in South Australia, in the 1850s–60s. This is one of the very best works of historical fiction I’ve read; it’s hard to believe it’s Treloar’s debut novel.
Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days by Jeanette Winterson (2016): I treated myself to this new paperback edition with part of my birthday book token and it was a perfect read for the week leading up to Christmas. The stories are often fable-like, some spooky and some funny. Most have fantastical elements and meaningful rhetorical questions. Winterson takes the theology of Christmas seriously. A gorgeous book I’ll return to year after year.
Available Light by Marge Piercy (1988): The subjects are diverse: travels in Europe, menstruation, identifying as a Jew as well as a feminist, scattering her father’s ashes, the stresses of daily life, and being in love. Some of my favorites were about selectively adhering to the lessons her mother taught her, how difficult it is for a workaholic to be idle, and wrestling the deity for words.
Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills by Neil Ansell (2011): One of the most memorable nature/travel books I’ve ever read; a modern-day Walden. Ansell’s memoir is packed with beautiful lines as well as philosophical reflections on the nature of the self and the difference between isolation and loneliness.
Boy by Roald Dahl (1984): Pranks and larks and holidays: these are all here; so is crushing homesickness and a bitter sense of injustice at being at the mercy of sadistic adults. Nearly 60 years later, Dahl could use memory and imagination to fully inhabit his childhood self and give a charming survey of the notable events of his life up to age 20.
This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich (2001): I thoroughly enjoyed my armchair trek across a frigid island nation in the company of Gretel Ehrlich, who traveled here repeatedly between 1995 and 2001 and intersperses her journeys with those of her historical model, Inuit–Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen, whose seven Arctic expeditions took in the west coast of Greenland and the far north of the North American continent. Every time she finds a fresh way to write about ice and sun glare and frigid temperatures.
Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig (2017): It’s a riveting account of outliving segregation and developing a personal style and world-beating confidence; it’s a sobering tale of facing consequences and having your own body fail you. I’m the furthest thing from a sports fan you could imagine, but I approached this as a book about a cultural icon and read it with a spirit of curiosity about how Eig would shape this life story and separate the facts from the legend. I loved it.
The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler (2017): A charming introduction to 99 more or less obscure writers. Each profile is a perfectly formed mini-biography with a survey of the author’s major work: in just two or three pages, Fowler is able to convey all a writer’s eccentricities and why their output is still worth remembering.
To the Is-Land: An Autobiography by Janet Frame (1982): This is some of the best writing about childhood and memory that I’ve ever read, infused with music, magic and mystery. The prose alternates between dreamy and matter-of-fact as Frame describes growing up in New Zealand one of five children in the Depression and interwar years.
Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller (2015): This poignant sequel to Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is a portrait of Fuller’s two-decade marriage, from its hopeful beginnings to its acrimonious end. What I most appreciated about the book was Fuller’s sense of being displaced: she no longer feels African, but nor does she feel American.
West With the Night by Beryl Markham (1942): Markham writes so vividly about the many adventures of her life in Africa: hunting lions, training race horses, and becoming one of the continent’s first freelance pilots, delivering mail and locating elephant herds. Whether she’s reflecting on the many faces of Africa or the peculiar solitude of night flights, the prose is just stellar.
And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison (1993): An extraordinary memoir based around the author’s relationship with his father. Alternating chapters give glimpses into earlier family life and narrate Morrison’s father’s decline and death from cancer. This is simply marvelously written, not a bad line in the whole thing.
The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers by Adam Nicolson (2017): This is an extraordinarily well-written and -researched book (a worthy Wainwright Prize winner) about the behavior, cultural importance, and current plight of the world’s seabirds. Each chapter takes up a different species and dives deep into everything from its anatomy to the legends surrounding it, simultaneously conveying the playful, intimate real lives of the birds and their complete otherness.
The Long Goodbye: A Memoir of Grief by Meghan O’Rourke (2011): I read a whole lot of bereavement memoirs; this has been one of the very best. O’Rourke tells her story with absolute clarity – a robust, plain-speaking style that matches her emotional transparency. The heart of the book is her mother’s death from colorectal cancer on Christmas Day 2008, but we also get a full picture of the family life that preceded it and the first couple of years of aftermath.
Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone by Richard Lloyd Parry (2017): Eighteen and a half thousand people died in the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011. It’s not really possible to get your head around a tragedy on that scale so, wisely, Parry focuses on a smaller story within the story: 74 died at Okawa primary school because the administration didn’t have a sufficient disaster plan in place. This is a stunning portrait of a resilient people, but also a universal story of the human spirit facing the worst.
Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen (2012): A splendid memoir-in-essays that dwells on aging, parenting and female friendship. Some of its specific themes are marriage, solitude, the randomness of life, the process of growing into your own identity, and the special challenges her generation (roughly my mother’s) faced in seeking a work–life balance. Her words are witty and reassuring, and cut right to the heart of the matter in every case.
The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin (2009): Probably the best self-help book I’ve read; dense (in the best possible way) with philosophy, experience and advice. What I appreciated most is that her approach is not about undertaking extreme actions to try to achieve happiness, but about finding contentment in the life you already have by adding or tweaking small habits – especially useful for pessimists like me.
In the Days of Rain: A daughter. A father. A cult by Rebecca Stott (2017): This was a perfect book for my interests, and just the kind of thing I would love to write someday. It’s a bereavement memoir that opens with Stott’s father succumbing to pancreatic cancer and eliciting her promise to help finish his languishing memoir; it’s a family memoir that tracks generations through England, Scotland and Australia; and it’s a story of faith and doubt, of the absolute certainty experienced inside the Exclusive Brethren (a Christian sect that numbers 45,000 worldwide) and how that cracked until there was no choice but to leave.
Writers & Company by Eleanor Wachtel (1993): Erudite and fascinating author interviews from Wachtel’s weekly Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program. Whether I’d read anything by these authors (or even heard of them) or not, I found each Q&A chock-full of priceless nuggets of wisdom about creativity, mothers and daughters, drawing on autobiographical material, the writing process, and much more.
And if I really had to limit myself to just two books – my very best fiction and nonfiction reads of the year – they would be March by Geraldine Brooks and And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison.
What were your best backlist reads this year?
Best Nonfiction Books of 2018
Below I’ve chosen my 12 favorite nonfiction books published in 2018. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that half of them have a medical theme. Many have already featured on my blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep things simple, as I’ve done in previous years, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: a potted summary plus why you should read it. Let the countdown begin!
12. The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú: Francisco Cantú was a U.S. Border Patrol agent for four years in Arizona and Texas. Impressionistic rather than journalistic, his book is a loosely thematic scrapbook that, in giving faces to an abstract struggle, argues passionately that people should not be divided by walls but united in common humanity.
11. Bookworm by Lucy Mangan: Mangan takes us along on a nostalgic chronological tour through the books she loved most as a child and adolescent. No matter how much or how little of your early reading overlaps with hers, you’ll appreciate her picture of the intensity of children’s relationship with books – they can completely shut out the world and devour their favorite stories over and over, almost living inside them, they love and believe in them so much – and her tongue-in-cheek responses to them upon rereading them decades later.
10. Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler: An assistant professor at Duke Divinity School, Bowler was fascinated by the idea that you can claim God’s blessings, financial and otherwise, as a reward for righteous behavior and generosity to the church (“the prosperity gospel”), but if she’d been tempted to set store by this notion, that certainty was permanently fractured when she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in her mid-thirties. Bowler writes tenderly about suffering and surrender, about living in the moment with her husband and son while being uncertain of the future.
9. Gross Anatomy by Mara Altman: Through a snappy blend of personal anecdotes and intensive research, Altman exposes the cultural expectations that make us dislike our bodies, suggesting that a better knowledge of anatomy might help us feel normal. It’s funny, it’s feminist, and it’s a cracking good read.
8. The Unmapped Mind by Christian Donlan: Donlan, a Brighton-area video games journalist, was diagnosed with (relapsing, remitting) multiple sclerosis in 2014; he approaches his disease with good humor and curiosity, using metaphors of maps to depict himself as an explorer into uncharted territory. This is some of the best medical writing from a layman’s perspective I’ve ever read.
7. Skybound by Rebecca Loncraine: For Rebecca Loncraine, after treatment for breast cancer in her early thirties, taking flying lessons in an unpowered glider (everywhere from Wales to Nepal) was a way of rediscovering joy and experiencing freedom by facing her fears in the sky. Each year seems to bring one exquisite posthumous memoir about facing death with dignity; this is a worthwhile successor to When Breath Becomes Air et al.
6. Face to Face by Jim McCaul: Eighty percent of a facial surgeon’s work is the removal of face, mouth and neck tumors in surgeries lasting eight hours or more; McCaul also restores patients’ appearance as much as possible after disfiguring accidents. This is a book that inspires wonder at all that modern medicine can achieve.
5. That Was When People Started to Worry by Nancy Tucker: Tucker interviewed 70 women aged 16 to 25 for a total of more than 100 hours and chose to anonymize their stories by creating seven composite characters who represent various mental illnesses: depression, bipolar disorder, self-harm, anxiety, eating disorders, PTSD and borderline personality disorder. Reading this has helped me to understand friends’ and acquaintances’ behavior; I’ll keep it on the shelf as an invaluable reference book in the years to come.
4. Free Woman by Lara Feigel: A familiarity with the works of Doris Lessing is not a prerequisite to enjoying this richly satisfying hybrid of biography, literary criticism and memoir. Lessing’s The Golden Notebook is about the ways in which women compartmentalize their lives and the struggle to bring various strands into harmony; that’s what Free Woman is all about as well.
3. Implosion by Elizabeth W. Garber: The author endured sexual and psychological abuse while growing up in a glass house designed by her father, Modernist architect Woodie Garber – a fascinating, flawed figure – outside Cincinnati in the 1960s to 1970s. This is definitely not a boring tome just for architecture buffs; it’s a masterful memoir for everyone.
2. Educated by Tara Westover: Westover writes with calm authority, channeling the style of the scriptures and history books that were formative in her upbringing and education as she tells of a young woman’s off-grid upbringing in Idaho and the hard work that took her from almost complete ignorance to a Cambridge PhD. This is one of the most powerful and well-written memoirs I’ve ever read.
It was a real toss-up between Westover and this one, but since Educated has already gotten a ton of attention this year, I’ve awarded the title of nonfiction book of the year to:
1. Under the Rock by Benjamin Myers: A spell-bindingly lyrical book that ranges from literature and geology to true crime but has an underlying autobiographical vein. Its every sentence is well-crafted and memorable; this isn’t old-style nature writing in search of unspoiled places, but part of a growing interest in the ‘edgelands’ where human impact is undeniable but nature is creeping back in.
What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?
27th: Best fiction of the year
29th: Best backlist reads
30th: Other superlatives and some early 2019 recommendations
31st: Library Checkout & Final statistics on my 2018 reading
A Retrospective of 2018’s Events, Reading Projects and Themes
In January I had the tremendous opportunity to have a free personalized bibliotherapy appointment with Ella Berthoud at the School of Life in London. I’ve since read three of her prescriptions plus parts of a few others, but I still have several more awaiting me in the early days of 2019, and will plan to report back at some point on what I got out of all of them.
In March to April I ran a Wellcome Book Prize shadow panel for the second time. This year it was much more successful; I plan to do it again next year, too. (I actually proffered myself as an official judge for next year’s prize and got a very kind but entirely noncommittal e-mail back from the chairwoman, which I will have to take as victory enough.)
Early April saw us visiting Wigtown, Scotland’s book town, for the first time. It was a terrific trip, but thus far I have not been all that successful at reading the 13 books that I bought! (Just two and a quarter so far.)
I reviewed three novels for Liz Dexter’s Iris Murdoch Readalong project: A Severed Head in March, The Italian Girl in June, and The Nice and the Good in September. In February I’ll pop back in with one more paperback that I own, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine. November was Margaret Atwood Reading Month, hosted by Marcie of Buried in Print and Naomi of Consumed by Ink, and provided me with a good excuse to read her first two novels.
I did some “buddy reads” for the first time: Andrea Levy’s Small Island with Canadian blogger friends, including Marcie and Naomi; and West With the Night with Laila of Big Reading Life and Late Nights on Air with Naomi as well as Penny of Literary Hoarders during 20 Books of Summer, which I took part in for the first time. In May my mother and I read W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil and shared reading notes via e-mail. (A planned buddy read of The Left Hand of Darkness with Annabel and Laura was, alas, a fail.)
Besides the official Wellcome Book Prize blog tour in April, I participated in another 11 blog tours, averaging out at one a month. I’m going to scale back on these next year because I have too often found, after I accepted, that the book was a dud and I had to just run an extract because I could see I wasn’t going to get through it and write a review.
I joined my neighborhood book club in September and have attended every month since then. Our first four selections were Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler, The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan, Noonday by Pat Barker, and Number 11 by Jonathan Coe. I’d already read the Logan and Coe years ago and didn’t fancy rereading them, so wasn’t able to participate as much in those months, but was still glad to go along for the socializing. My husband even read the Coe and came to December’s meeting (was it just for the mince pies and mulled wine?!). We’ve set our first four reads for 2019 – the three below, in order from left to right, plus Ernest Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden, which I’ll borrow from the university library.
In October I won tickets to see a production of Angela Carter’s Wise Children at the Old Vic in London. Just a few weeks later I won tickets to see Barbara Kingsolver in conversation about Unsheltered at the Southbank Centre. I don’t often make it into London, so it was a treat to have bookish reasons to go and blogging friends to meet up with (Clare of A Little Blog of Books joined me for both, and Laura T. was also at the Kingsolver event).
November was mostly devoted to novellas, for the third year in a row. Although I didn’t officially participate in Nonfiction November, I still enjoyed coming up with some fiction/nonfiction pairings and an “expert’s” list of women’s religious memoirs.
My husband wrote pretty much his entire PhD thesis this year and on Friday the 14th had his graduation ceremony. I was the moral support / proofreader / preparer of simple meals during the months when he was in the throes of writing up, so I will consider myself as sharing in the accomplishment. Congratulations, Dr. Foster!
This month and into January I’ll be reading the last few nominees for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize.
When the list of finalists was released, I was relieved to see I’d already read four out of seven (and three of those were ones I’d nominated); the other three – the Adjei-Brenyah and Brinkley stories and There There – were books I was keen to read but hadn’t managed to get hold of. About 80 of us NBCC members are reading the shortlist and voting for the best first book of the year by January 8th. Plus I’m technically up for an NBCC prize myself, in that I nominated myself (that’s how it works) for the 2018 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing and sent in an application with five of my best reviews from the year.
The Ones that Got Away
Two posts I planned but never got around to putting together would have commemorated the 50th anniversary of Thomas Merton’s death (I own several of his books but am most interested in reading The Seven-Storey Mountain, which celebrated its 70th birthday in October) and the 40th anniversary of the publication of The Snow Leopard by the late Peter Matthiessen. Perhaps I’ll try these authors for the first time next year instead.
Final Book Serendipity Incidents
In the second half of the year I started keeping track of all my weird reading coincidences, posting about them on Twitter or Instagram before collecting them into a blog post a couple months ago. Here are a few that popped up since then or recalled earlier reads from the year:
- Two protagonists named Willa: Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance and Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered
- Two novels featuring bog people: Anne Youngson’s Meet Me at the Museum and Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall
- Two dogs named Flash: Ben Crane’s Blood Ties and Andrew Marshall’s The Power of Dog
- Multiple sclerosis is an element in Christian Donlan’s The Unmapped Mind: A Memoir of Neurology, Incurable Disease and Learning How to Live, Jennifer Richardson’s Americashire and Michelle Obama’s Becoming (her father had it)
- The ideas of Freud are mentioned in a 1910s setting in Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, Annabel Abbs’s Frieda and Daniel Mason’s The Winter Soldier
- Mermaids (or ‘mermaids’) and/or mermen appear in Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, Daniel Mason’s The Winter Soldier, and a series of poems in Miriam Darlington’s Windfall
- Bohemian writer dies young of tuberculosis (or similar) in novels about their wives: Annabel Abbs’s Frieda (D.H. Lawrence) and Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky (Robert Louis Stevenson)
- Two books that mention the Indonesian practice of keeping dead relatives as mummies and bringing them out on occasion for ritual celebrations: From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty and The Hot Young Widows Club by Nora McInerny
- Two books that include a trip to Lourdes for healing: Heal Me by Julia Buckley and Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson
- Two books that mention the irony of some of the most well-loved modern Christmas songs being written by Jews: In Mid-Air by Adam Gopnik and Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson
Surprise Themes from My Year’s Reading
A few of these make sense – cults fit with my interest in narratives of religious experience, and it doesn’t take a psychologist to see that my relationship with my father has been an ongoing issue in recent years (I wonder how the numbers would compare for books about mothers?) – but most are completely random.
I decided a theme had to show up at least three times to make the list. Some topics I enjoyed so much I’ll keep reading about them next year. Within a category the books are in rough chronological order of my reading, and I include skims, DNFs and books in progress.
Fathers (absent/difficult) + fatherhood in general: Educated by Tara Westover, And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison, The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman, In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, Implosion by Elizabeth W. Garber, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott & March by Geraldine Brooks, The Unmapped Mind by Christian Donlan, Never Mind and Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn, The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma, How to Build a Boat by Jonathan Gornall, Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart, Normal People by Sally Rooney, Rosie by Rose Tremain, My Father and Myself by J.R. Ackerley, Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, Surfacing by Margaret Atwood, Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot, Blood Ties by Ben Crane, To Throw Away Unopened by Viv Albertine, Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs
Addiction: The Leavers by Lisa Ko, Mayhem by Sigrid Rausing, The Only Story by Julian Barnes, The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain, Writing and Madness in a Time of Terror by Afarin Majidi, Marlena by Julie Buntin, Ninety Days by Bill Clegg, Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn, Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin, Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot
Greenland: A Wilder Time by William E. Glassley, This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg, On Balance by Sinéad Morrissey (the poem “Whitelessness”), Cold Earth by Sarah Moss, Crimson by Niviaq Korneliussen, The Library of Ice by Nancy Campbell
Cults: Educated by Tara Westover, Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst, In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon, A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel
Trees: Ladders to Heaven by Mike Shanahan, The Overstory by Richard Powers, The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono, The Wood and The Secret Life of the Oak by John Lewis-Stempel
Flying: Skybound by Rebecca Loncraine, West With the Night by Beryl Markham, Going Solo by Roald Dahl, Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker
The Anglo experience in Africa: Free Woman: Life, Love and Doris Lessing by Lara Feigel, Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller, West With the Night by Beryl Markham, Going Solo by Roald Dahl
Korean-American women: The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon, If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim, All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung, Famous Adopted People by Alice Stephens, Digging to America by Anne Tyler
New Zealand: The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield, To the Is-Land by Janet Frame, Dunedin by Shena Mackay
Life in the White House: Living History by Hillary Rodham Clinton, All the Presidents’ Pastries by Roland Mesnier, Becoming by Michelle Obama
Lighthouses: Stargazing: Memoirs of a Young Lighthouse Keeper by Peter Hill, The Bird Artist by Howard Norman, Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan (about Robert Louis Stevenson, whose family built lighthouses)
Butterflies: Four Wings and a Prayer by Sue Halpern, Magdalena Mountain by Robert Michael Pyle, Mama Amazonica by Pascale Petit
What were some of the highlights of your bookish year?
What odd coincidences and recurring themes have you spotted in your year’s reading?
Two Memoirs of Women’s Freedom: Lara Feigel and Rebecca Loncraine
I have read some truly phenomenal memoirs this year, most of them by women. These two have rather different starting points – frustration with the constraints of marriage and motherhood, and breast cancer treatment – but I’ve paired them because both are journeys of self-discovery in which the author commits to determining how to live a free and true life.
Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing by Lara Feigel
It started with a spate of weddings one summer. Lara Feigel, a literature lecturer at King’s College London, found herself strangely irked at all this capitulation to marital convention, even though she herself had married in her twenties and had a young son. What did her mild outrage signify? At the same time, she was rereading the works of Doris Lessing, whom she found simultaneously admirable and vexing: Lessing lived by her ideals of free love and Communism, but it came at the price of abandoning her children. Feigel could identify with Lessing in some ways but not in others, and as she entered a rocky time in her mid-thirties – a miscarriage followed by IVF, which was a strain on her marriage; the death of a close friend; and ongoing worry over how motherhood might affect her academic career – she set out to find what Lessing could teach her about how to be free.
Throughout, Feigel holds up her own experiences of marriage and motherhood in parallel to Lessing’s. She maintains a delicate balance between biographical and autobiographical information and brings in references to other writers – everyone from Rachel Cusk to D.H. Lawrence – to explore various opinions on maternal ambivalence and sexual fulfillment. I could relate to the bookworm’s impulse to turn to literature for comfort and direction – “the most enduring novelists … illuminate our lives,” and “we live differently as a result of reading them,” Feigel insists. Lessing seemed to her the perfect “writer to discover in your thirties; a writer who wrote about the lives of grown-up women with an honesty and fullness I had not found in any novelist before or since.”
And yet a familiarity with or fondness of the works of Doris Lessing is not a prerequisite to enjoying this book. I’ve only ever read The Golden Notebook (1962) and Alfred and Emily (2008), a fictionalized biography of Lessing’s parents, both during my mid-twenties. The former I almost certainly read before I could fully appreciate it. It’s about the ways in which women compartmentalize their lives and the struggle to bring various strands into harmony; that’s what Free Woman is all about as well. Feigel often looks for clues in Lessing’s heavily autobiographical Martha Quest novels, which I’d like to read, and also travels to California to meet one of Lessing’s lovers and to Zimbabwe to see the farm where Lessing grew up.
Like Samantha Ellis’s How to Be a Heroine and Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, this is a richly satisfying hybrid of biography, literary criticism and memoir. I would also recommend it to readers of Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, and Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. Feigel’s is a particularly brave and forthright book. I feel proud of her in an oddly personal way: during my years as a library assistant at King’s, I saw her chair countless literature and life writing events. She seemed impossibly young for a professor type, and wore her navy blue shift dress and string of pearls like it was her grown-up’s uniform. I can tell that the years since, including the difficult experiences she recounts here, have both softened and toughened her, sandpapering away what she calls her “diffident angularity” and replacing it with womanly wisdom.
Free Woman was published by Bloomsbury UK on March 8th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Skybound: A Journey in Flight by Rebecca Loncraine
In 2016 it was When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi; in 2017 it was The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs. And now Skybound. Each year seems to bring one exquisite posthumous memoir about facing a death from cancer with dignity. For Rebecca Loncraine, after treatment for breast cancer in her early thirties, taking flying lessons in an unpowered glider was her way of rediscovering joy and experiencing freedom by facing her fears in the sky.
She was a freelance writer based on her parents’ farm in the Black Mountains of Wales, an area that’s familiar to me from trips to Hay-on-Wye and from my reading of Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill. The history and geography of the region, as revealed from the air, weave through the book, as do childhood memories and recollections of chemotherapy. Loncraine discovered a particular love for flying alongside birds: the red kites in Wales, and later vultures in Nepal. The most remarkable passages of the book are the exhilarating descriptions of being thousands of feet up in the air and the reflections on why humans are drawn to flight and what it does for our bodies and spirits. She learned from a British Airways pilot that 500,000 people are airborne at any one moment! We take for granted what should still be acknowledged as a miraculous feat.
“There’s no road in the sky. Each individual glider pilot finds a new pathless way through the air, a unique scribble. We locate a bit of ridge lift, here; fly out to a thermal, there; we wind and manoeuvre over the curving land. We never take the same route twice, so flight offers me a new perspective each time I fly.”
“Influenced by the ancient seam of human thought that associates the sky with the imagination, weaving and circling in the sky begins to feel like sailing through the realm of the subconscious itself.”
This hobby-turned-obsession was not without its inconveniences and dangers. Even when it’s warm at ground level it’s frigid at 13,000 feet, so you have to bundle up. Meanwhile, the strength of the sun means you keep guzzling water and have to wear either a urine-collecting device or adult diapers. The earliest attempts at unpowered flight were generally fatal, and when Loncraine went to New Zealand for a bonus season of flying to replace the Welsh winter, one of her fellow flyers died in a crash. Her instructor told her she’d become fearless, even reckless. But when she met one of the pioneers of gliding, then in his nineties, in New Zealand he spoke an aphorism that perfectly captures the role flying played for Loncraine: “The antidote to fear is fascination.”
There’s a brief afterword by Loncraine’s mother, Trisha. Her daughter had virtually finished this manuscript when the cancer returned, and underwent another 14 grueling months of treatment before her death in September 2016. This is a simply wonderful book; what a shame that we won’t get another.
Skybound was published by Picador on April 19th. My thanks to the publisher for a proof copy for review.