I sometimes like to call this post “The Best Books You’ve Probably Never Heard Of (Unless You Heard about Them from Me)”. However, these picks vary quite a bit in terms of how hyped or obscure they are; the ones marked with an asterisk are the ones I consider my hidden gems of the year. Between this post and my Fiction/Poetry and Nonfiction best-of lists, I’ve now highlighted about the top 13% of my year’s reading.
Salt Slow by Julia Armfield: Nine short stories steeped in myth and magic. The body is a site of transformation, or a source of grotesque relics. Armfield’s prose is punchy, with invented verbs and condensed descriptions that just plain work. She was the Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel winner. I’ll be following her career with interest.
*Agatha by Anne Cathrine Bomann: In late-1940s Paris, a psychiatrist counts down the days and appointments until his retirement. A few experiences awaken him from his apathy, including meeting Agatha, a new German patient with a history of self-harm. This debut novel is a touching, subtle and gently funny story of rediscovering one’s purpose late in life.
A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier: Chevalier is an American expat like me, but she’s lived in England long enough to make this very English novel convincing and full of charm. Violet Speedwell, 38, is an appealing heroine who has to fight for a life of her own in the 1930s. Who knew the hobbies of embroidering kneelers and ringing church bells could be so fascinating?
Akin by Emma Donoghue: An 80-year-old ends up taking his sullen pre-teen great-nephew with him on a long-awaited trip back to his birthplace of Nice, France. The odd-couple dynamic works perfectly and makes for many amusing culture/generation clashes. Donoghue nails it: sharp, true-to-life and never sappy, with spot-on dialogue and vivid scenes.
Things in Jars by Jess Kidd: In 1863 Bridie Devine, female detective extraordinaire, is tasked with finding the six-year-old daughter of a baronet. Kidd paints a convincingly stark picture of Dickensian London, focusing on an underworld of criminals and circus freaks. The prose is spry and amusing, particularly in her compact descriptions of people.
*The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin: Bleak yet beautiful in the vein of David Vann’s work: the story of a Taiwanese immigrant family in Alaska and the bad luck and poor choices that nearly destroy them. This debut novel is full of atmosphere and the lowering forces of weather and fate.
The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal: Set in the early 1850s and focusing on the Great Exhibition and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, this reveals the everyday world of poor Londoners. It’s a sumptuous and believable fictional world, with touches of gritty realism. A terrific debut full of panache and promise.
*The Heavens by Sandra Newman: Not a genre I would normally be drawn to (time travel), yet I found it entrancing. In her dreams Kate becomes Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady” and sees visions of a future burned city. The more she exclaims over changes in her modern-day life, the more people question her mental health. Impressive for how much it packs into 250 pages; something like a cross between Jonathan Franzen and Samantha Harvey.
*In Love with George Eliot by Kathy O’Shaughnessy: Many characters, fictional and historical, are in love with George Eliot over the course of this debut novel. We get intriguing vignettes from Eliot’s life with her two great loves, and insight into her scandalous position in Victorian society. O’Shaughnessy mimics Victorian prose ably.
Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid: This story of the rise and fall of a Fleetwood Mac-esque band is full of verve and heart. It’s so clever how Reid delivers it all as an oral history of pieced-together interview fragments. Pure California sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll, yet there’s nothing clichéd about it.
*ABC of Typography by David Rault: From cuneiform to Comic Sans, this history of typography is delightful. Graphic designer David Rault wrote the whole thing, but each chapter has a different illustrator, so the book is like a taster course in comics styles. It is fascinating to explore the technical characteristics and aesthetic associations of various fonts.
*The Lady Doctor by Ian Williams: Dr. Lois Pritchard works at a medical practice in small-town Wales and treats embarrassing ailments at a local genitourinary medicine clinic. The tone is wonderfully balanced: there are plenty of hilarious, somewhat raunchy scenes, but also a lot of heartfelt moments. The drawing style recalls Alison Bechdel’s.
*Thousandfold by Nina Bogin: This is a lovely collection whose poems devote equal time to interactions with nature and encounters with friends and family. Birds are a frequent presence. Elsewhere Bogin greets a new granddaughter and gives thanks for the comforting presence of her cat. Gentle rhymes and half-rhymes lend a playful or incantatory nature.
*When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back by Naja Marie Aidt: Aidt’s son Carl Emil died in 2015, having jumped out of his fifth-floor Copenhagen window during a mushroom-induced psychosis. The text is a collage of fragments. A playful disregard for chronology and a variety of fonts, typefaces and sizes are ways of circumventing the feeling that grief has made words lose their meaning forever.
*Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed by Catrina Davies: Penniless during an ongoing housing crisis, Davies moved into the shed near Land’s End that had served as her father’s architecture office until he went bankrupt. Like Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path, this intimate, engaging memoir serves as a sobering reminder that homelessness is not so remote.
*Hard Pushed: A Midwife’s Story by Leah Hazard: An empathetic picture of patients’ plights and medical professionals’ burnout. Visceral details of sights, smells and feelings put you right there in the delivery room. This is a heartfelt read as well as a vivid and pacey one, and it’s alternately funny and sobering.
*Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country by Pam Houston: Autobiographical essays full of the love of place, chiefly her Colorado ranch – a haven in a nomadic career, and a stand-in for the loving family home she never had. It’s about making your own way, and loving the world even – or especially – when it’s threatened with destruction. Highly recommended to readers of The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch.
*Dancing with Bees: A Journey back to Nature by Brigit Strawbridge Howard: Bees were the author’s gateway into a general appreciation of nature, something she lost for a time in midlife because of the rat race and family complications. She clearly delights in discovery and is devoted to lifelong learning. It’s a book characterized by curiosity and warmth. I ordered signed copies of this and the Simmons (below) directly from the authors via Twitter.
*Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem: Maiklem is a London mudlark, scavenging for what washes up on the shores of the Thames, including clay pipes, coins, armaments, pottery, and much more. A fascinating way of bringing history to life and imagining what everyday existence was like for Londoners across the centuries.
Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper: Phelps-Roper grew up in a church founded by her grandfather and made up mostly of her extended family. Its anti-homosexuality message and picketing of military funerals became trademarks. This is an absorbing account of doubt and making a new life outside the only framework you’ve ever known.
*A Half Baked Idea: How Grief, Love and Cake Took Me from the Courtroom to Le Cordon Bleu by Olivia Potts: Bereavement memoir + foodie memoir = a perfect book for me. Potts left one very interesting career for another. Losing her mother when she was 25 and meeting her future husband, Sam, who put time and care into cooking, were the immediate spurs to trade in her wig and gown for a chef’s apron.
*The Lost Properties of Love by Sophie Ratcliffe: Not your average memoir. It’s based around train journeys – real and fictional, remembered and imagined; appropriate symbols for many of the book’s dichotomies: scheduling versus unpredictability, having or lacking a direction in life, monotony versus momentous events, and fleeting versus lasting connections.
Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro: On a whim, in her fifties, Shapiro sent off a DNA test kit and learned she was only half Jewish. Within 36 hours she found her biological father, who’d donated sperm as a medical student. It’s a moving account of her emotional state as she pondered her identity and what her sense of family would be in the future.
*The Country of Larks: A Chiltern Journey by Gail Simmons: Reprising a trek Robert Louis Stevenson took nearly 150 years before, revisiting sites from a childhood in the Chilterns, and seeing the countryside that will be blighted by a planned high-speed railway line. Although the book has an elegiac air, Simmons avoids dwelling in melancholy, and her writing is a beautiful tribute to farmland that was once saturated with the song of larks.
Coming tomorrow: Other superlatives and some statistics.
I’ve been reading sophisticated short stories, a food/travel memoir, and a prize-winning slice of cozy Americana.
Sunstroke and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley (2007)
Everything is running away so fast; your deepest responsibility is to snatch at all the living you can.
Here’s a little something I wrote as an introduction to a review of Hadley’s most recent short story collection: “When I think of Tessa Hadley’s books, I picture a certain quality of light. I see piercing yellow shafts of sunlight filling airy, wood-floored rooms and lowering over suburban English gardens to create languid summer evenings. I think of childhood’s sense of possibility and adolescence’s gently scary feeling of new freedoms opening up. And, even when the story lines are set in the present day, I imagine the calm sophistication of 1950s–70s fashions: smart sweater sets and skirts, or flowing hippie dresses.” This volume is from a decade earlier and is not quite as strong, but that distinct atmosphere is still there.
Each story pivots on a particular relationship: A mother fends off her son’s spurned lover; a teenager helps her older sister recover from a miscarriage; a woman hosts her former brother-in-law. Several stories revisit the same place or situation decades later. Claudia flirted with Graham when he was a teenager and she a grown woman; in “Phosphorescence” he tests whether there’s still any power in that connection 25 years later. In “A Card Trick” Gina goes back to a writer’s home she visited with family friends 25 years ago and reflects on how life has failed to live up to expectations. In “Matrilineal” Nia shares the comfort of a bed with her mother twice: once as a little girl the night they run away from her father, and again 40 years later in a hotel in New York City.
My two favorites were “The Surrogate,” in which a young woman falls for her professor – and for a pub customer who happens to look like him; and “Exchanges,” about two women on the cusp of middle age whose lives have diverged.
Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi by Pamela Timms (2014)
The only diary I’ve ever religiously maintained is my food journal.
Timms is a Scottish journalist and food blogger who moved to India in 2005 when her husband got a job as a foreign correspondent. She delights in the street food stalls of Old Delhi, where you can get a hearty and delicious meal of mutton curry or fried vegetable dumplings for very little money. Often the snacks are simple – the first roasted sweet potatoes of the season or a big bowl of rice pudding made with buffalo milk and flavored with cardamom – but something about snatching sustenance while you’re on the go can make it the best thing you’ve ever tasted. It takes some searching to avoid the “pizza-fication” of Indian cuisine and discover an authentic hole-in-the-wall. Timms relies on local knowledge to locate hidden treasures and probes the owners until she gets recipes to recreate at home.
There isn’t a strong narrative to the book, but the food descriptions are certainly mouth-watering. Timms also captures the “magnificent mayhem of the spice market” and the extremes of the climate – a Delhi summer is like “being trapped inside a tandoor for three months of the year.” I reckon “Mr Naseem’s Sheer Khurma” will be fairly easy and so worth trying as a light dessert to follow a curry feast. Made with whole milk, ground rice, dried fruits and nuts, it’s a sweet custard traditionally used to break the Ramadan fast.
Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler (1988)
“Was there a certain conscious point in your life when you decided to settle for being ordinary?”
Tyler won the Pulitzer Prize for this one. I’d rate it third out of the seven of her novels I’ve read so far, after Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist. (In general I seem to like her 1980s work the best.) The main action takes place all on one day, as Maggie Moran and her husband Ira travel from Baltimore up to Pennsylvania to attend the funeral of her childhood friend’s husband and pay a visit to their son’s ex-wife and their granddaughter.
Of course, circadian narratives are so clever because they manage to interleave sufficient flashbacks to fill in the background. So we learn how 48-year-old Maggie – a precursor of Rebecca Davitch from Back When We Were Grown-ups and Abby Whitshank from A Spool of Blue Thread and the epitome of the exuberant, slightly ditzy, do-gooding heroine – has always meant well but through a combination of misunderstandings and fibs has botched things. She settled on Ira almost out of embarrassment: she’d heard a rumor he’d been killed in military training and sent his father an effusive condolence letter. When their son Jesse got Fiona pregnant, Maggie convinced Fiona to give him a chance based on a sentimental story about him that she perhaps half believed, and now, years later, she’s trying to do the same.
I loved the funeral scene itself – Serena is determined to recreate her wedding to Max, note for note – but I wearied of a sequence in which Maggie and Ira help an older African-American gentleman with car trouble. This is very much the Maggie show, so your reaction to the novel will largely depend on how well you’re able to tolerate her irksome habits. (Really, does she have to confuse the brake and the accelerator TWICE in one day?) Ira is the usual Tylerian standoffish husband, and Jesse the standard layabout progeny. What I found strangest was how little Tyler bothers to develop the character of the Moran daughter, Daisy.
Still, I enjoyed this. It’s a story about the mistakes we make, the patterns we get stuck in, and the ways we try to put things right. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. Ultimately, we’re all making up this life business as we go along.
(I’ll also be reviewing Anne Tyler’s new novel, Clock Dance, on July 12th.)
Despite my largely successful resolution to focus on my own books for the summer, I’ve also gotten through plenty of e-books from NetGalley and Edelweiss, too. I just find it easier to fit time with the Kindle into my day, whether it’s 20 minutes over lunch (food-themed nonfiction works particularly well for such situations) or 30 minutes on the cross trainer. Here’s a sample of the e-books I’ve enjoyed this summer: four nonfiction and one fiction.
Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France
By Craig Carlson
A good-natured memoir about the travails of opening the first American-style diner in Paris. Carlson charts his somewhat chaotic growing-up years in Connecticut, the college study abroad experience that kindled his love for France, his years trying to make it as a screenwriter and director in Hollywood, his long-held dream of opening Breakfast in America, and finding a French sweetheart of his own. Much of the book is devoted to a blow-by-blow of the bureaucratic nightmare of opening a restaurant, starting with getting investors on board and continuing through France’s ridiculously restrictive labor laws. (The impression I came away with was: France – great place to be an employee or rent property; terrible place to start a business.) Next time I’m in Paris, I will be looking to get myself a stack of his signature blueberry and white chocolate chip pancakes. Releases September 6th.
When in French: Love in a Second Language
By Lauren Collins
Collins, a journalist from North Carolina, married a Frenchman named Olivier she met while working in London. They then moved to Geneva, a mutually unfamiliar place but one where French reigned. For the first time, she was forced to learn a new language to survive. I love how she blends her own story with the philosophy, history and science behind language use. As she learned how to do things she never expected to have to in French – deal with her in-laws and give birth, for instance – she developed a new appreciation for the marvel that is bilingualism and pondered whether she was the same person in a different language. My favorite section recounts a holiday to Corsica that brought her family and Olivier’s into close quarters and cast her in the unforeseen role of translator. There’s a surprising amount of linguistic detail here, but Collins incorporates it well. Releases September 13th.
A Body, Undone: Living On After Great Pain
By Christina Crosby
Crosby teaches English and gender studies at Wesleyan University. Her inclusion in this “Sexual Cultures” series has to do with her lesbian feminist ideology but also the new understanding of her body an accident forced upon her at age 50. While she was cycling, a stick stuck in her spokes and she fell over onto concrete, breaking vertebrae in her neck that damaged her spinal cord. In the midst of a full and physical life, she became a quadriplegic. The great irony was that in this she joined her brother Jeff, whose MS had long since reduced him to a wheelchair. Here, in a memoir written 11 years after the accident, she reflects on chronic pain and new limitations – even including bowel habits – with blunt honesty as well as literary allusions. Along the way she remembers physical pleasures now denied to her. Nonetheless, she never comes across as sorry for herself. I found this to be highly absorbing.
The Reader on the 6.27
By Jean-Paul Didierlaurent
Guylain Vignolles works in a paper pulping plant. Rather than an enemy of books, however, he’s really a champion of the written word and its power to improve people’s lives. Every day when he descends into the belly of “The Thing” to clean it, he rescues the stray pages that escaped destruction and reads them aloud the following morning on his twenty-minute train commute, or to the residents of an old-folks home, no matter what their subject. He also helps his disabled former colleague Giuseppe stockpile all the books made from the recycled paper created on the fateful day the machine shredded his legs. There’s a charming Amélie vibe to this short novel, especially in the later chapters when Guylain sets off on a romantic quest to find the lavatory attendant whose wry diary he finds on a memory stick on the train. Most of the subplots could do with some expanding, but it’s a pleasant and super-quick read.
Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals that Brought Me Home
By Jessica Fechtor
For me this is right up there with Molly Wizenberg and Ruth Reichl in how the author merges food writing with a frank recounting of personal experiences with crisis and heartache. At age 28 Fechtor, then a graduate student in history and Yiddish, collapsed on a treadmill with a brain bleed. Surgery to clip the aneurysm left her blind in one eye. During her long recovery process she started a food blog. At the end of each chapter she shares recipes that alternate between simple, favorite dishes and more involved ones. It’s that unpretentiousness that really endears her to me. She doesn’t think she was particularly brave in getting through an unwanted illness; nor does she think the perfect almond macaroon or cherry clafoutis is beyond anyone’s capability. Instead, she gives a glimpse into an ordinary life turned upside down and the foods that helped her regain a zest for life.
Have you read any of these? Which one takes your fancy?
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I provide links to all book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to read more. A few exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie, BlueInk or Publishers Weekly reviews since I don’t get a byline. Meanwhile, I’ve done my first review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – exciting!
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes: “Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.” Through a fictionalized biography of the Russian composer Shostakovich, Barnes questions how art can withstand political oppression. Knowing Barnes’s penchant for stylistic experimentation, this was never going to be a straightforward, chronological life story. Instead, as he so often does, he sets up a tripartite structure, focusing on three moments when Shostakovich has a reckoning with Power. The book is full of terrific one-liners (“Integrity is like virginity: once lost, never recoverable”), but there are not many memorable scenes to latch on to.
Motions and Moments: More Essays on Tokyo (& interview) by Michael Pronko: Pronko’s third collection of essays about his adopted city is an eloquent tribute to a place full of contradictions and wonders. Compared to his earlier collection, Beauty and Chaos, I sense Pronko is now more comfortable in his surroundings, perhaps happier to include himself in ‘we’ rather than looking on passively at ‘them’. For instance – inspired by Japanese women’s perfect outfits – he consciously tries to dress better, and he’s taken to eating ramen and sleeping on a futon, just like a native. The highlight is a set of pieces written in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake / tsunami.
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie: Veblen, named after the late-nineteenth-century Norwegian-American economist, is one of the oddest heroines you’ll ever meet. She thinks squirrels are talking to her and kisses flowers. But McKenzie doesn’t just play Veblen for laughs; she makes her a believable character well aware of her own psychological backstory. I suspect the squirrel material could be a potential turn-off for readers who can’t handle too much whimsy. Over-the-top silly in places, this is nonetheless a serious account of the difficulty of Veblen and Paul, her neurology researcher fiancé, blending their dysfunctional families and different ideologies – which is what marriage is all about.
Weathering by Lucy Wood: This atmospheric debut novel is set in a crumbling house by an English river and stars three generations of women – one of them a ghost. Ada has returned to her childhood home after 13 years to scatter her mother Pearl’s ashes, sort through her belongings, and get the property ready to sell. In a sense, then, this is a haunted house story. Yet Wood introduces the traces of magical realism so subtly that they never feel jolting. Like the river, the novel is fluid, moving between the past and present with ease. The vivid picture of the English countryside and clear-eyed look at family dynamics remind me most of Tessa Hadley (The Past) and Polly Samson (The Kindness).
When We Were Invincible by Jonathan Harnisch: In this short novel, a young man wrestles with depression and Tourette’s syndrome, which together drive him to the point of suicide. A series of dreams and chance meetings, along with the possibility of romance and faith in God, pull him back from the edge. The book successfully introduces philosophical themes and gives a sympathetic picture of mental illness. However, it is weaker at filling in background and providing transitions, and there are many awkward, unlikely lines of dialogue. Recommended to fans of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North: The twisty, clever story of a doomed filmmaker – perfect for fans of Hausfrau. Who is Sophie Stark? A New York City-based indie director whose four documentary-style movies are “almost more like life than life itself.” Bisexual and with certain traits of high-functioning autism, Sophie is easily misunderstood. She’s a rebel who doesn’t conform to social niceties. The book is told through five first-person reminiscences from the people closest to her. In this respect the novel’s format recalls Kitchens of the Great Midwest. My favorite sections, though, are the reviews of her films, all by the same critic.
Casualties by Betsy Marro: A powerful, melancholy debut novel about how war affects whole families, not just individual soldiers. As in Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family, which Casualties resembles in tone if not in style, a bereaved mother sets off on a journey. Ruth’s unlikely companion on the road trip east is a Gulf War amputee who appears little more than a conman but genuinely wants to clean up his act so he can reconcile with his teenage daughter. At times the road trip scenario felt a little far-fetched to me, and Casey too obvious a replacement son figure. Yet as both he and Ruth ponder how much they have lost and the small things they can try to put right, they together form a touching picture of the various ways war’s effects can linger.
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt: “All stories are ghost stories,” Samantha Hunt proclaims in her quirky third novel about the crossover between motherhood and mysticism. In a dual storyline that takes in fundamentalist cults, unlikely mediums and a pregnant woman’s pilgrimage, Hunt asks whether one can ever believe in the unseen. Mr. Splitfoot has the offbeat charm of Scarlett Thomas’s work. While the plot ultimately feels like a bit of a jumble, its vision of unexpected love and loyalty remains compelling. “The End’s always coming,” but it is how one lives in the face of brutality and impending extinction that matters.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads:
Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett: A debut novel in which an Australian whaler’s daughter looks back at 1908, a catastrophic whaling season but also her first chance at romance. I felt that additional narrators, such as a whaleman or an omniscient voice, would have allowed for more climactic scenes. Still, I found this gently funny, especially the fact that the family’s cow and horse are inseparable and must be together on any outing. There are some great descriptions of whales, too.
Felicity by Mary Oliver: I was disappointed with my first taste of Mary Oliver’s poetry. So many readers praise her work to the skies, and I’ve loved excerpts I’ve read elsewhere. However, I found these to be rather simplistic and clichéd, especially poems’ final lines, e.g. “Soon now, I’ll turn and start for home. / And who knows, maybe I’ll be singing.” or “Late, late, but now lovely and lovelier. / And the two of us, together—a part of it.” I’ll definitely try more of her work, but I’ll look out for an older, classic collection.
Paulina & Fran by Rachel B. Glaser: Full of blunt, faux-profound sentences and smutty, two-dimensional characters. Others may rave about it, but this wasn’t for me. I get that it is a satire on female friendship and youth entitlement. But I hated how the main characters get involved in a love triangle, and once they leave college any interest I had in them largely disappeared. Least favorite lines: “Paulina. She’s like Cleopatra, but more squat.” / “She’s more like Humphrey Bogart” and “She craved the zen-ness of being rammed.”
Noah’s Wife by Lindsay Starck: I kept wanting to love this book, but never quite did. It’s more interesting as a set of ideas – a town where it won’t stop raining, a minister losing faith, homeless zoo animals sheltering with ordinary folk – than as an executed plot. My main problem was that the minor characters take over so that you never get to know the title character, who remains nameless. There’s also a ton of platitudes towards the end. It reminded me most of The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend and Not Forgetting the Whale (another cozy environmental dystopia based around biblical allusions).
Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume: This sounded like a charmingly offbeat story about a loner and his adopted dog setting off on a journey. As it turns out, this debut is much darker than expected, but what saves it from being unremittingly depressing is the same careful attention to voice you encounter in fellow Irish writers like Donal Ryan and Anne Enright. It’s organized into four sections, with the title’s four verbs as headings. In a novel low on action, the road trip is much the most repetitive section, extending to the language as well. Even so, Baume succeeds in giving a compassionate picture of a character whose mental state comes into question. (Full review in March 2016 issue of Third Way magazine.)
Medium Hero by Korby Lenker: Lenker is an indie musician, and the 27 autobiographical stories in his debut collection are about the everyday challenges of being on the road versus trying to pay the bills. Many feature “Korby” or “Simon” as fictional stand-ins, and recurring locations include his hometown of Twin Falls, Idaho and his adopted home of Nashville. As the title suggests, Lenker has no illusions about being famous or out of the ordinary. Most of the time he just tries to be a decent guy, the kind who prays for family members in distress even though he’s not sure he believes in God. Lest that sound too serious, though, there are also stories about peeing his pants and the perils of being a metrosexual.
Glitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan: Slides down like ice cream. And I say that even though the whole basis for this memoir feels rather thin. Corrigan frames it around five months in the early 1990s when she worked as a nanny for two Australian kids whose mother died of cancer. For a young woman fresh out of college, it was like a trial run for being a mother, and also gave her a new appreciation for everything her own mother had done for her during her Philadelphia Catholic upbringing. If Corrigan’s father was the ‘glitter’ of the family, her mother was the ‘glue’ – holding everything together in the background. This is impressively reconstructed, dialogue and all, from letters, journals and photos.
The Ballroom by Anna Hope: This novel was inspired by the story of the author’s great-great-grandfather, an Irishman who was a patient at Menston Asylum in West Yorkshire from 1909 to 1918. The novel zeroes in on the long, hot summer of 1911, focusing through alternating close third-person chapters on John Mulligan, a new patient named Ella Fay, and Dr. Charles Fuller, who wants to put his mental hospital at the frontline of eugenics research. Ultimately I didn’t like this quite as much as Wake, but I think it cements Anna Hope’s reputation as a solid historical fiction writer. I hope with her next book she’ll move beyond the years around World War I to consider a less-chronicled era.
Life without a Recipe by Diana Abu-Jaber: The Jordanian–American writer reflects on how various food cultures have sustained her through a life that hasn’t always turned out as expected. Three marriages, a move from Portland to Florida, a winding path to motherhood in her forties, and her father’s death from leukemia are some of the main events. Like Sasha Martin’s Life from Scratch, this is more about family and personal history than it is about food (and there are no recipes). Still, food is the stuff of memories, and it is what binds her to two strong characters: her Jordanian father Bud with his stuffed grape leaves, and her maternal grandmother Grace with her frequent baking and the pastries they consumed together in Paris.
Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut: This fictionalized account of the life of E.M. Forster focuses on the drawn-out composition of A Passage to India, which he began in 1913 but wouldn’t complete and publish until 1924. In between he broke off to write his explicitly homosexual novel Maurice (only published posthumously), spent three years working in Egypt during the war, and served as a secretary to an Indian maharajah. As fictionalized biographies of authors go, I’d rate this somewhere between David Lodge’s A Man of Parts (H.G. Wells) and Colm Tóibín’s superior The Master (Henry James); all three share a heavy focus on the author’s sexuality. “Buggery in the colonies. It wasn’t noble” is one of my favorite random snippets from this novel, and sums up, for me, its slightly prurient aftertaste.
Without further ado, I present to you my 15 favorite non-fiction books read in 2015. I’m a memoir junkie so many of these fit under that broad heading, but I’ve dipped into other areas too. I give two favorites for each category, then count down my top 7 memoirs read this year.
Note: Only four of these were actually published in 2015; for the rest I’ve given the publication year. Many of them I’ve already previewed through the year, so – like I did yesterday for fiction – I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read this book. (Links given to full reviews.)
A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg (2009): Wizenberg reflects on the death of her father Burg from cancer, time spent living in Paris, building a new life in Seattle, starting her food blog, and meeting her husband through it. Each brief autobiographical essay is perfectly formed and followed by a relevant recipe, capturing precisely how food is tied up with memories.
Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table by Ruth Reichl (2001): Reichl traces the rise of American foodie culture in the 1970s–80s (Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck) through her time as a food critic for the Los Angeles Times, also weaving in personal history – from a Berkeley co-op with her first husband to a home in the California hills with her second after affairs and a sticky divorce. Throughout she describes meals in mouth-watering detail, like this Thai dish: “The hot-pink soup was dotted with lacy green leaves of cilantro, like little bursts of breeze behind the heat. … I took another spoonful of soup and tasted citrus, as if lemons had once gone gliding through and left their ghosts behind.”
Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field by John Lewis-Stempel (2014): Lewis-Stempel is a proper third-generation Herefordshire farmer, but also a naturalist with a poet’s eye. Magical moments and lovely prose, as in “The dew, trapped in the webs of countless money spiders, has skeined the entire field in tiny silken pocket squares, gnomes’ handkerchiefs dropped in the sward.”
Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane: This new classic of nature writing zeroes in on the language we use to talk about our environment, both individual words – which Macfarlane celebrates in nine mini-glossaries alternating with the prose chapters – and the narratives we build around places, via discussions of the work of nature writers he admires. Whether poetic (“heavengravel,” Gerard Manley Hopkins’s term for hailstones), local and folksy (“wonty-tump,” a Herefordshire word for a molehill), or onomatopoeic (on Exmoor, “zwer” is the sound of partridges taking off), his vocabulary words are a treasure trove.
Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris (1998): In few-page essays, Norris gives theological words and phrases a rich, jargon-free backstory through anecdote, scripture and lived philosophy. This makes the shortlist of books I would hand to skeptics to show them there might be something to this Christianity nonsense after all.
My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman (2013): Seven years into a cancer journey, Wiman, a poet, gives an intimate picture of faith and doubt as he has lived with them in the shadow of death. Nearly every page has a passage that cuts right to the quick of what it means to be human and in interaction with other people and the divine.
Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee (2013): Although Penelope Fitzgerald always guarded literary ambitions, she was not able to pursue her writing wholeheartedly until she had reared three children and nursed her hapless husband through his last illness. This is a thorough and sympathetic appreciation of an underrated author, and another marvellously detailed biography from Lee.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (2014): A surgeon’s essential guide to decision-making about end-of-life care, but also a more philosophical treatment of the question of what makes life worth living: When should we extend life, and when should we concentrate more on the quality of our remaining days than their quantity? The title condition applies to all, so this is a book everyone should read.
- The Year My Mother Came Back by Alice Eve Cohen: Wry and heartfelt, this is a wonderful memoir about motherhood in all its variations and complexities; the magic realism (Cohen’s dead mother keeps showing up) is an added delight. I recommend this no matter what sort of relationship, past or present, you have with your mother, especially if you’re also a fan of Anne Lamott and Abigail Thomas.
- The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr: There is a wealth of practical advice here, on topics such as choosing the right carnal details (not sexual – or not only sexual – but physicality generally), correcting facts and misconceptions, figuring out a structure, and settling on your voice. Karr has been teaching (and writing) memoirs at Syracuse University for years now, so she’s thought deeply about what makes them work, and sets her theories out clearly for readers at any level of familiarity.
- A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle (1971): In this account of a summer spent at her family’s Connecticut farmhouse, L’Engle muses on theology, purpose, children’s education, the writing life, the difference between creating stories for children and adults, neighbors and fitting into a community, and much besides. If, like me, you only knew L’Engle through her Wrinkle in Time children’s series, this journal should come as a revelation.
- Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh (2014): “Terrible job, neurosurgery. Don’t do it.” – luckily for us, Henry Marsh reports back from the frontlines of brain surgery so we don’t have to. In my favorite passages, Marsh reflects on the mind-blowing fact that the few pounds of tissue stored in our heads could be the site of our consciousness, our creativity, our personhood – everything we traditionally count as the soul.
- I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place by Howard Norman (2013): Norman has quickly become one of my favorite writers. You wouldn’t think these disparate autobiographical essays would fit together as a whole, given that they range in subject from Inuit folktales and birdwatching to a murder–suicide committed in Norman’s Washington, D.C. home and a girlfriend’s death in a plane crash, but somehow they do; after all, “A whole world of impudent detours, unbridled perplexities, degrading sorrow, and exacting joys can befall a person in a single season, not to mention a lifetime.”
- Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg (2010): Through this book I followed literary agent Bill Clegg on dozens of taxi rides between generic hotel rooms and bar toilets and New York City offices and apartments; together we smoked innumerable crack pipes and guzzled dozens of bottles of vodka while letting partners and family members down and spiraling further down into paranoia and squalor. He achieves a perfect balance between his feelings at the time – being out of control and utterly enslaved to his next hit – and the hindsight that allows him to see what a pathetic figure he was becoming.
And my overall favorite nonfiction book of the year:
1. The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander: In short vignettes, beginning afresh with every chapter, Alexander conjures up the life she lived with – and after the sudden death of – her husband Ficre Ghebreyesus, an Eritrean chef and painter. This book is the most wonderful love letter you could imagine, and no less beautiful for its bittersweet nature.
What were some of your best nonfiction reads of the year?
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I provide links to all book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to read more. A few exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie, BlueInk or Publishers Weekly reviews since I don’t get a byline.
In Search of Mary: The Mother of All Journeys by Bee Rowlatt: A BBC journalist and mother of four sets out, baby in tow, to trace the steps of Mary Wollstonecraft in Norway and France. A follow-up trip to California is a little off-topic, but allows Rowlatt to survey the development of feminism over the last few centuries. This isn’t as successful a bibliomemoir as many I’ve read in recent years, such as Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch or Samantha Ellis’s How to Be a Heroine, but for readers interested in engaging in the ongoing debate about how women can balance work life with motherhood, and especially for any women who have attempted traveling with children, it’s a fun, sassy travelogue.
Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World by Christopher Kelly and Stuart Laycock: Proceeding alphabetically from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, the authors give a comprehensive picture of Italians’ global reach through one- to five-page snapshots. There are many familiar names here, such as Caesar, Garibaldi and Marco Polo. Along with exploration, some major reasons for historical crossover were trade, war, colonialism and immigration. At times it feels as if the authors are grasping at straws; better to skip one-paragraph write-ups altogether and focus instead on the countries that have extensive links with Italy. Nonetheless, this is a lively, conversational book full of surprising facts.
Why You Won’t Go to Hell by Benjamin Vande Weerdhof Andrews: In a well-structured argument, Andrews prizes empirical thinking, rejects the supernatural, and affirms the possibility of godless morality. His central thesis is that religion doesn’t evolve to keep pace with society and so holds humanity back. The book’s tone is too often defensive, often in response to included website comments, and there are some failures of accuracy and fairness. Ultimately, though, this could be an inspirational book for atheists or believers, prompting both groups to question their assumptions and be willing to say “I don’t know.” Readers of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens will be particularly drawn to the book, but others should take a chance on it too.
Cultured Food for Health by Donna Schwenk: When Schwenk started eating cultured foods in 2002, she had diabetes, high blood pressure, and a premature newborn. Keen to see if good bacteria could help with her medical problems, she started introducing the “healing powerhouse” of kefir (a fermented milk product resembling thin yogurt), kombucha (bubbly tea), and cultured vegetables into her diet, and soon reaped the rewards. About a quarter of the book is background information about probiotic foods. Bullet-pointed lists of health benefits, along with an alphabetical inventory of the diseases that cultured foods can treat, should prove helpful. The rest of the book is devoted to recipes, most vegetarian.
Three Simple Questions: Being in the World, But Not of It by Charlie Horton: Horton, trained as a social worker, was diagnosed with cerebellar degeneration in 1988. It has gradually affected his speech and movement. Despite having lived with disability for nearly three decades, he declares, “the world I live in is rich, and my spirit is young.” Here he documents how he deals with depression and physical limitations through guided meditations that bring him closer to God. Although he comes from a Christian perspective, he writes about spirituality in such inclusive terms that his work should speak to people of any faith.
Middle Passage: The Artistic Life of Lawrence Baker by Louis B. Burroughs, Jr.: This ghostwritten autobiography of an African-American artist is not only an evocative, eventful life story that moves from the Jim Crow South to the North, but also a forceful artist’s manifesto. Burroughs writes in Baker’s voice, a decision that works surprisingly well. The title is a powerful reference to the slave trade. Indeed, Burroughs consciously crafts Baker’s autobiography as an “up from slavery” narrative reminiscent of Richard Wright and Maya Angelou – with ‘slavery’ in this case being poverty and racism.
40 Sonnets by Don Patterson: All but one of the poems in this new book have the sonnet’s traditional 14 lines; “The Version” is a short prose story about writing an untranslatable poem. However, even in the more conventional verses, there is a wide variety of both subject matter and rhyme scheme. Topics range from love and death to a phishing phone call and a footpath blocked off by Dundee City Council. A few favorites were “A Powercut,” set in a stuck elevator; “Seven Questions about the Journey,” an eerie call-and-response; and “Mercies,” a sweet elegy to an old dog put to sleep. There weren’t quite enough stand-outs here for my liking, but I appreciated the book as a showcase for just how divergent in form sonnets can be.
Without You There Is No Us by Suki Kim: This is a quietly gripping book even though not much of moment happens over Kim’s five months teaching young men at a missionary-run college in Pyongyang. She was in a unique position in that students saw her as ethnically one of their own but she brought an outsider’s perspective to bear on what she observed. Just before she flew back to the States in 2011, Kim Jong-Il died, an event she uses as a framing device. It could have represented a turning point for the country, but instead history has repeated itself with Kim Jong-un. Kim thus ends on a note of frustration: she wants better for these young men she became so fond of. A rare glimpse into a country that carefully safeguards its secrets and masks its truth.
Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things that Matter by Diana Athill: Diana Athill turns 98 on December 21st. Apart from “Dead Right,” however, this collection is not primarily concerned with imminent death. Instead Athill is still grateful to be alive: marveling at a lifetime of good luck and health and taking joy in gardening, clothing, books, memories and friendships. Six of the 10 essays originally appeared elsewhere. The collection highlight is the title piece, about a miscarriage she suffered in her forties. Another stand-out is “The Decision,” about moving into a retirement home in her nineties. This doesn’t live up to her best memoirs, but is an essential read for a devoted fan, and a consolation given she will likely not publish anything else (though you never know). [For first-time Athill readers, I’d recommend starting with Somewhere Towards the End, followed by Stet, about her work as a literary editor.]
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads:
The Weightless World by Anthony Trevelyan: This debut novel blends postcolonial bureaucracy with steampunk zaniness. The setup is familiar enough: businessmen head overseas to take financial advantage of a former colony, puzzle over unfamiliar customs, and by the end are chastened but gain a clearer sense of values. Narrator Steven Strauss is the personal assistant to Raymond Ess, an entrepreneur with a history of mental illness. Their aviation company has gone bust; Strauss is to accompany Ess to India and keep him occupied by looking for an anti-gravity machine. Not anchored by either current events or convincing fantasy, the plot suffers in comparison to works by Geoff Dyer or Nick Harkaway. Despite entirely serviceable writing and a gravity-defying theme, it never really takes off.
My Confection: Odyssey of a Sugar Addict by Lisa Kotin: 1978. Twenty-one-year-old mime goes to macrobiotic rehab to recover from sugar addiction. Fails. Shows signs of being a sex addict as well. Pared down to headlines, that’s how this fairly rambling memoir about Kotin’s relationships with food, family, lovers, and career opens. I kept waiting for a turn, some moment of revelation, when Kotin’s binge eating would be solved. Still, her recreation of her obsessive younger self can be pretty funny and charming, and her family sounds a bit like the Sedaris clan. I found this a bit dated, but others may find the time period and Jewish family background more evocative.
Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor: I’m going to chalk this one up to blurb inflation. The writing is lively and the plot well crafted, with quirky postmodern touches, but the novel as a whole did not live up to my absurdly high expectations: it’s really nothing like A.S. Byatt’s Possession. It’s 1999 and Shira Greene is a failed translator from the Italian, now working as a temp in New York City and raising her daughter Andi with the help of her gay, Pakistani co-parent, Ahmad. One day she gets a call from Romei, a Nobel Prize-winning Italian poet who wants her to translate his new work, a version of Dante’s Vita Nuova that focuses on his relationship with his ill wife – and eventually starts to comment on Shira’s own life in surprising ways.
Water Sessions by James Lasdun: Wonderful poems from a severely underrated writer. The British Lasdun has relocated to small-town upstate New York, where he’s learned the spiritual worth of manual labor. There are such interesting rhyme schemes and half-rhymes throughout. One of the most striking poems, “Thing One and Thing Two,” compares human and animal sexuality in a rather disturbing way. The title sequence is a dialogue between a patient and a therapist, discussing what went wrong in a relationship and how arguments are never ‘about’ the thing that started it.
The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks: A retelling of the life of King David from the perspective of the prophet Nathan. The naming takes some getting used to, but the stories – from gory massacres to moments of triumph – are recognizable from the Old Testament. What makes Brooks’s take unique is the different points of view it shows and the ways it subtly introduces doubt about David’s carefully cultivated image. It’s sensual historical fiction, full of rich descriptive language. Strangely unmemorable for me, perhaps because the storyline is just too familiar. Brooks doesn’t offer a radical reinterpretation but sows small seeds of doubt about the hero we think we know. (Full review in Jan/Feb 2016 issue of Third Way magazine.)
When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone by Philip Gould: Gould may be familiar to British readers as a key strategist of the New Labour movement and one of Tony Blair’s advisors. In 2008 he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and chose to pay for private treatment at New York’s Sloan-Kettering hospital instead of going for a radical operation through the NHS – a fateful decision. Gould’s own account is fairly short, about 140 pages, but it’s supplemented by short reminiscences from his wife and two daughters. Daughter Georgia’s, especially, is a very good blow-by-blow of his final week. All royalties from the book went to the National Oesophago-Gastric Cancer Fund.
Twain’s End by Lynn Cullen: “Twain’s End” was a possible name for the Clemens house in Connecticut, but it’s also a tip of the hat to Howards End and an indication of the main character’s impending death. In January 1909, when the novel opens, Samuel Clemens, 74, is busy dictating his autobiography and waiting for Halley’s Comet, the heavenly body that accompanied his birth, to see him back out. His secretary, Isabel Lyon, is 45 and it’s no secret that the two of them are involved. I love how the novel shifts between the perspectives of several strong female characters yet still gives a distinct portrait of Clemens/Twain. Interestingly, I found that it helped to have visited the Twain house in Connecticut – I could truly picture all the scenes, especially those set in the billiard room and conservatory.
Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field by John Lewis-Stempel: Lewis-Stempel is a proper, third-generation Herefordshire farmer, but also a naturalist with a poet’s eye. His day job might involve shooting rabbits, cutting hay and delivering lambs, but he still finds the time to notice and appreciate wildlife. He knows his field’s flowers, insects and birds as well as he knows his cows; he gets quiet and close enough to the ground to watch a shrew devouring beetles. June and July are the stand-out chapters, with some truly magical moments. When his mower breaks on a stone, he has to cut the hay by hand, returning him to a centuries-gone model of hard labor. All delivered in the loveliest prose.
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg: A strong debut novel about personal and community responses to tragedy. Clegg’s multivocal approach works quite well, though there are perhaps a few too many voices diluting the mixture. I like how the revelations of what really happened that night before the wedding to cause the fatal house fire come gradually, making you constantly rethink who was responsible and what it all means. The small-town Connecticut setting is a good one, but I’d question the decision to set so much of the book in Washington, where the bereaved June drives on a whim. For a tragic story, it’s admirably lacking in melodrama.
A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg: Foodoir extraordinaire! I liked this even better than Delancey, which is a terrific book about opening a pizza restaurant in Seattle with her husband. Here we get the prequel: the death of her father Burg from cancer, time spent living in Paris, building a new life in Seattle, starting her now-famous food blog (Orangette), and meeting her husband Brandon through it. Each brief autobiographical essay is perfectly formed and followed by a relevant recipe, capturing precisely how food is tied up with her memories. Wizenberg’s very fond of salad, but also of cake, and every recipe is full-on in terms of flavors and ingredients.
Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons: This was a random library book sale purchase, chosen almost entirely for the title. I set aside my usual dislike of child narrators and found an enjoyable voice-driven novella about a feisty ten-year-old who loses both her parents (good riddance to her father, at least) and finds her own unconventional family after cycling through the homes of some truly horrid relatives. Just as an example, her maternal grandmother sends her out to work picking cotton. The book is set in the South, presumably in the 1970s or 80s, so it’s alarming to see how strong racial prejudice still was.
The Ecco Book of Christmas Stories, edited by Alberto Manguel: I read this over several years, a handful each holiday season. There are some very unusual choices, including some that really have hardly anything to do with Christmas (e.g. one by Bessie Head). Still, it’s a nice book to have to hand, even if just to skip through. Manguel strikes a good balance between well-known short story writers, authors you might never think to associate with Christmas, and fairly obscure works in translation. Four favorites: “A Christmas Memory,” Truman Capote (overall favorite); “Christmas Is a Sad Season for the Poor,” John Cheever; “The Zoo at Christmas,” Jane Gardam; and “O’Brien’s First Christmas,” Jeanette Winterson.