Novels narrated by an octogenarian and an unborn child; memoirs about connection with nature and escaping an abusive relationship; and a strong poetry collection that includes some everyday epics: these five wildly different books are all 4-star reads I can highly recommend.
The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old
In this anonymous Dutch novel in diary form, Hendrik Groen provides a full reckoning of how 2013 went down in his Amsterdam old folks’ care home. He and five friends form the “Old But Not Dead” club and take turns planning exciting weekly outings. Much comic relief is provided by his incorrigibly tippling friend, Evert, and the arrival of Eefje makes late-life romance seem like a possibility for Hendrik. However, there’s no getting around physical decay: between them these friends suffer from incontinence, dementia, diabetic amputations and a stroke. By the time 2014 rolls around, their number will be reduced by one. Yet this is a tremendously witty and warm-hearted book, despite Hendrik’s sad family history. It’s definitely one for fans of A Man Called Ove – but I liked this more. A sequel from 85-year-old Hendrik came out this year in Dutch; I’ll be looking forward to the English translation.
The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy
By Michael McCarthy
An environmental journalist for the UK’s Independent, McCarthy offers a personal view of how the erstwhile abundance of the natural world has experienced a dramatic thinning, even just in England in his lifetime. He gives both statistical and anecdotal evidence for that decline; as a case study he discusses the construction of a sea wall at Saemangeum in South Korea, responsible for decimating a precious estuary habitat for shorebirds. As if to balance his pessimism about the state of the world, McCarthy remembers singular natural encounters that filled him with joy and wonder – first discovering birdwatching as a lad near Liverpool, seeing a morpho butterfly in South America – but also annual displays that rekindle his love of life: the winter solstice, the arrival of cuckoos, and bluebells. This memoir is more sentimental than I expected from an English author, but I admire his passion and openness.
By Ian McEwan
My seventh McEwan novel and one of his strongest. Within the first few pages, I was utterly captivated and convinced by the voice of this contemporary, in utero Hamlet. Provided you suspend disbelief a bit to accept he can see/hear/surmise everything that happens – the most tedious passages are those where McEwan tries to give more precise justification for his narrator’s observations – the plot really works. Not even born and already a snob with an advanced vocabulary and a taste for fine wine, this fetus is a delight to spend time with. His captive state pairs perfectly with Hamlet’s existential despair, but also makes him (and us as readers) part of the conspiracy: even as he wants justice for his father, he has to hope his mother and uncle will get away with their crime; his whole future depends on it.
Favorite line: “I have lungs but not air to shout a warning or weep with shame at my impotence.”
How Snow Falls
By Craig Raine
One of the few best poetry collections I’ve read this year. It contains nary a dud and is a good one to sink your teeth into – it’s composed of just 20 poems, but several are in-depth epics drawn from everyday life and death. Two elegies, to a dead mother and a former lover, are particularly strong. I loved the mixture of clinical and whimsical vocabulary in “I Remember My Mother” as the poet charts the transformation from person to corpse. “Rashomon” is another stand-out, commissioned as an opera and inspired by the short story “In a Grove” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. In couplets with a flexible rhyme scheme, the poem alternates the perspectives of a bandit, a captive husband, his raped wife, and the woodcutter who becomes an unwilling observer. Alliteration is noteworthy throughout the collection, but here produces one of my favorite lines: “Sweet cedar chips were spurting in the gloom like sparks.”
Land of Enchantment
By Leigh Stein
Stein tells of her abusive relationship with Jason, a reckless younger man with whom she moved to New Mexico. The memoir mostly toggles between their shaky attempt at a functional relationship in 2007 and learning about his death in a motorcycle accident in 2011. Even though they’d drifted apart, Jason’s memory still had power over her. Breaking free from him meant growing up at last and taking responsibility for her future. You might call this a feminist coming-of-age narrative, though that makes it sound more strident and formulaic than it actually is. I admired the skipping around in time, and especially a late chapter in the second person. I also enjoyed how New Mexico provides a metaphorical as well as a literal setting; Stein weaves in references to Georgia O’Keeffe’s art and letters to put into context her own search to become a self-sufficient artist.
Have you read any of these? Which one takes your fancy?
This is a follow-up to a piece I wrote in September about the books that shaped my early life. I think of my twenties in general, and 2005–7 in particular, as a golden period in my reading life, when I started to develop the tastes that still guide my book choices today.
I was an English and Religion major and studied abroad in England for my junior year in 2003–4. As I was getting ready to go overseas for that first time in the summer of 2003, Susan Allen Toth’s trilogy of travel memoirs, starting with My Love Affair with England, and Paul Collins’s Sixpence House whetted my appetite for travel in Great Britain and, in the case of the latter, made me determined to get to Hay-on-Wye, Wales as soon as I could. (I first visited in May 2004 and have gone back several times since.)
One of the most memorable books I read during my year abroad was Robert Elsmere by Mrs. Humphry Ward. It’s almost forgotten nowadays, but was a bestseller at its release in 1888. The story of a minister’s loss of faith and how it affects his marriage, it’s a stand-in for a whole faith-and-doubt subgenre that was wildly popular at the time. The novel is long, brooding and overwritten—in many ways it exemplifies the worst characteristics of the Victorian novel—but it resonated with my own crisis of faith and planted the seed for my Master’s thesis on women’s faith and doubt narratives in Victorian fiction.
Part of working through that ongoing crisis of faith was seeing other religions more objectively and being open to the similarities between them. I found Karen Armstrong’s comparative study of the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism and Islam), A History of God, absolutely riveting when I read it in my senior year of college. It’s a classic.
My academic conference career began and ended with one I attended the summer after college graduation. I adapted a paper I’d written about D.H. Lawrence’s new moral framework for sexuality and was accepted to present it at the D.H. Lawrence Society of North America’s annual conference in 2005, which that year was held in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Thankfully, I’ve mostly blanked out my actual paper presentation as part of a panel of three young people, but the trip as a whole was wonderful—it was my first time in the southwest, and the conference included great field trips to Lawrence’s ranch at Taos and the Georgia O’Keeffe museum. I prepared for the experience by reading David Lodge’s Small World, a paperback I’d plucked from the shelves of the bookstore where I worked part-time during my senior year. “A satire about the academic conference circuit? I’m there!” I thought, and since then David Lodge has become one of my two or three favorite authors.
It wasn’t until I returned to England to get my Master’s in 2005–6 that I really reclaimed reading as a leisure activity. The last couple years of college had been so busy I’d barely been able to cope with my assigned reading; I remember never making it very far in any paperback I picked up from the public library (like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, which I’ve never gone back to). But the long, lonely evenings in Leeds had to be filled somehow, and the upstairs stacks of the magnificent Brotherton Library had plenty to offer in the way of literary fiction. In that year I made my way through loads of books by A.S. Byatt and Julian Barnes, as well as David Lodge (my top 3, probably). Possession made the biggest impression, but I love pretty much all of Byatt’s work. If pressed to name my favorite author, it would be her.
In the partial year between finishing my Master’s and getting married back in England, I lived at home with my parents and worked part-time at a community college library. My evening shifts were often dead quiet, so I got plenty of reading done behind the circulation desk. One book I selected at random from the public library shelves, Abigail Thomas’s A Three Dog Life, had a big impact on me in 2007. The memoir tells of her husband’s traumatic brain injury and the aftermath. Thomas writes in a fragmentary, episodic format that felt fresh and jolted me. I wasn’t entirely sure I liked the style, but it sure was intriguing.
I picked up Meredith Hall’s Without a Map around the same time, which cemented my interest in women’s life stories. Memoirs have been among my favorite genres ever since. Mark Doty’s exquisite Heaven’s Coast, which I read the following year, kickstarted my particular fascination with bereavement memoirs. Also, I think it was through following up his memoirs with his collections of poems that I first got into contemporary poetry.
In recent years I’ve tried to branch out (e.g. into graphic novels and literature in translation), but contemporary literary fiction, historical fiction, memoirs, theology and travel books remain my preferred genres. Most of these loves I can trace back to my early twenties.
What books meant the most to you in young adulthood?
Are they not criminals, books that have wasted our time and sympathy, are they not the most insidious enemies of society, corrupters, defilers, the writers of false books, faked books, books that fill the air with decay and disease?
Strong words there, from Virginia Woolf in “How Should One Read a Book?” I’m not quite so fervently opposed to these six books I abandoned recently, but I do share Woolf’s feeling of having had my time wasted. Particularly since I started as a freelance book reviewer, I’ve noticed that I am not very patient with my leisure reading: if a book doesn’t totally grab me and keep me turning the pages with rapt interest, I’m more likely to leave it unfinished. Better if I can do that before spending too much time with a book, but sometimes I approach the halfway point before finally giving up.
Below I give brief write-ups of the abandonees. I’d be interested to hear if you’ve read any of them and thought they were worth persisting with.
Of Love and Desire by Louis de Bernières
Like so many, I enjoyed Captain Corelli’s Mandolin but haven’t tried much else from de Bernières. These are love poems: many of them Greek-influenced; most of them sentimental and not very interesting. I marked out one passage I liked, but even it then turns into a clichéd relationship poem: “I looked behind and saw the long straight line of my mistakes, / Faithful as hounds, their eyes alert, trailing in my wake. But / They weren’t dogs, they were women, some fair, some dark …” (from “Mistakes”). [Read the first 25 pages.]
Yuki Chan in Brontë Country by Mick Jackson
The premise for this one – young Japanese woman visits the Brontë sites in Yorkshire as a way of reconnecting with her departed mother – sounded so interesting, but the third-person narration is very flat and detached. It makes Yuki and all the other characters seem like stereotypes: the fashion-obsessed Asian girl, the horde of Japanese tourists. I also noticed that far too many sentences and paragraphs start with “She.” I couldn’t be bothered to see how it would turn out. [Read the first 26%.]
Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson
I’d read Jacobson’s three most recent novels and liked them all well enough. He’s certainly your go-to author if you want a witty discussion of the modern Jewish “persecution complex.” I think the problem with this one was that I wasn’t sure what it wanted to be: a contemporary Jewish novel, or a Hebrew fable, or some mixture thereof. Shylock is pretty much dropped in as is from The Merchant of Venice, so it’s unclear whether he’s Strulovitch’s hallucination or a time traveler or what. The exasperated father characters are well drawn, but their flighty daughters less so. I just got to a point where I didn’t care at all what happened next, which to me was the sign to give up and move on to something else. [Read the first 43%.]
As Close to Us as Breathing by Elizabeth Poliner
The writing is measured and lovely, and I appreciated the picture of late-1940s life for a Jewish family, but the pace was killing me: this is set in one summer, but with constant flashbacks and flash-forwards to other family stories, such that although we learn on page 1 that a character has died, even by the 60% mark I still had not learned how. Also, the narrator is telling everything in retrospect from 1999, but there is too little about her life at that present moment. I would direct readers to Elizabeth Graver’s The End of the Point instead. [Read the first 60%.]
The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard
I’d read such rave reviews of this novel set in the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War, and I’ve always meant to try something by Jim Shepard, so this seemed an ideal place to start. I decided to stop because although this is a fairly believable child’s voice, it is only being used to convey information. To me the spark of personality and the pull of storytelling are lacking. I felt like I was reading a history book about the Holocaust, subtly tweaked (i.e. dumbed down and flattened) to sound like it could be a child’s observations. [Read the first 53 pages.]
Georgia by Dawn Tripp
Who doesn’t love Georgia O’Keeffe’s dreamy paintings of flowers and southwestern scenes? Initially I loved her tough-as-nails voice in this fictionalized autobiography, too, but as the story wore on it felt like she was withholding herself to some degree, only giving the bare facts of (dry, repetitive) everyday life and (wet, repetitive) sex scenes with 24-years-her-elder photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Call me impatient, but I couldn’t be bothered to stick around to see if something actually happened in this novel. I think I’d be interested in glancing through O’Keeffe and Stieglitz’s correspondence, though, just to see how the voices compare to what Tripp has created here. [Read the first 48%.]