This Year’s Pre-Christmas Reading
My household has been struck down by
flu Covid this week, so we’ve had to cancel some all of our holiday plans and I haven’t had as much energy or festive good cheer as I would like. This is my favourite time of the blogging year what with everyone’s best-of lists appearing, so I hope that come Boxing Day I will be feeling up for starting my own countdown of superlatives and catching up on everything you all have posted recently.
Two of my recent reads were appropriate Yuletide choices:
Robin by Helen F. Wilson: The most recent release from the “Animal” series issued by the British indie publisher Reaktion. (I’d previously read Seal.) Wilson introduces the breadth of international bird species that are known by the name “robin.” (The European robin, the protagonist of this monograph, is the only bird in its genus and is not as closely related to the American robin (a thrush) as to the bluebird; the name simply referenced the red breast. There are also magpie-robins in Southeast Asia.) Like another strikingly red bird, the cardinal in North America, the robin has long been associated with a) death and b) Christmas. They might be a portent of death, or an embodiment of the soul of the departed. For instance, the legend has it that a robin spent days in Westminster Abbey while Queen Mary II lay in state. Robins are the UK’s official favourite bird because they look cute and act endearing and sing sweetly, but they are violently territorial. (The old nursery rhyme “Who Killed Cock Robin?” also set up a weird and false vendetta between sparrows and robins.) This was a pleasant wander through biological and cultural information. I particularly loved the photos and other illustrations.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan: I read this last year but reread it earlier this month for book club. A year ago, I called it a predictable narrative and thought the evil nuns were a stereotype. This time, Keegan really got me in the feels, just as she had with Foster a couple of months before. The Church-sanctioned abuse that was the Magdalen Laundries must have seemed like a system too big to tackle, but take a look at the title. One good man’s small act of rebellion was a way of standing up to the injustice and saying that these girls were of worth (indeed, this won the Orwell Prize for political fiction). This time around, I was especially impressed by how much Keegan fits into so few pages, including Bill working out who his father was. We also get a strong sense of a man in the middle of his life: privileged enough, happy enough, but wondering if this is all there is to it; if there is something more on offer. Like Foster, this is set in the 1980s but feels timeless, and seems to effortlessly encompass so much of what it means to be human. Absolutely beautiful.
Merry Christmas, all!
Book Serendipity, Mid-October to Mid-December 2022
The last entry in this series for the year. Those of you who join me for Love Your Library, note that I’ll host it on the 19th this month to avoid the holidays. Other than that, I don’t know how many more posts I’ll fit in before my year-end coverage (about six posts of best-of lists and statistics). Maybe I’ll manage a few more backlog reviews and a thematic roundup.
I call it “Book Serendipity” when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something in common – the more bizarre, the better. This is a regular feature of mine every few months. Because I usually have 20–30 books on the go at once, I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. The following are in roughly chronological order.
- Tom Swifties (a punning joke involving the way a quotation is attributed) in Savage Tales by Tara Bergin (“We get a lot of writers in here, said the rollercoaster operator lowering the bar”) and one of the stories in Birds of America by Lorrie Moore (“Would you like a soda? he asked spritely”).
- Prince’s androgynous symbol was on the cover of Dickens and Prince by Nick Hornby and is mentioned in the opening pages of Shameless by Nadia Bolz-Weber.
- Clarence Thomas is mentioned in one story of Birds of America by Lorrie Moore and Encore by May Sarton. (A function of them both dating to the early 1990s!)
- A kerfuffle over a ring belonging to the dead in one story of Shoot the Horses First by Leah Angstman and Motherthing by Ainslie Hogarth.
- Excellent historical fiction with a 2023 release date in which the amputation of a woman’s leg is a threat or a reality: one story of Shoot the Horses First by Leah Angstman and The House Is on Fire by Rachel Beanland.
- More of a real-life coincidence, this one: I was looking into Paradise, Piece by Piece by Molly Peacock, a memoir I already had on my TBR, because of an Instagram post I’d read about books that were influential on a childfree woman. Then, later the same day, my inbox showed that Molly Peacock herself had contacted me through my blog’s contact form, offering a review copy of her latest book!
- Reading nonfiction books titled The Heart of Things (by Richard Holloway) and The Small Heart of Things (by Julian Hoffman) at the same time.
- A woman investigates her husband’s past breakdown for clues to his current mental health in The Fear Index by Robert Harris and Motherthing by Ainslie Hogarth.
- “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” is a repeated phrase in Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, as it was in Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin.
- Massive, much-anticipated novel by respected author who doesn’t publish very often, and that changed names along the way: John Irving’s The Last Chairlift (2022) was originally “Darkness as a Bride” (a better title!); Abraham Verghese’s The Covenant of Water (2023) started off as “The Maramon Convention.” I plan to read the Verghese but have decided against the Irving.
- Looting and white flight in New York City in Feral City by Jeremiah Moss and Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson.
- Two bereavement memoirs about a loved one’s death from pancreatic cancer: Ti Amo by Hanne Ørstavik and Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner.
- The Owl and the Pussycat of Edward Lear’s poem turn up in an update poem by Margaret Atwood in her collection The Door and in Anna James’s fifth Pages & Co. book, The Treehouse Library.
- Two books in which the author draws security attention for close observation of living things on the ground: Where the Wildflowers Grow by Leif Bersweden and The Lichen Museum by A. Laurie Palmer.
- Seal and human motherhood are compared in Zig-Zag Boy by Tanya Frank and All of Us Together in the End by Matthew Vollmer, two 2023 memoirs I’m enjoying a lot.
- Mystical lights appear in Animal Life by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (the Northern Lights, there) and All of Us Together in the End by Matthew Vollmer.
- St Vitus Dance is mentioned in Zig-Zag Boy by Tanya Frank and Robin by Helen F. Wilson.
- The history of white supremacy as a deliberate project in Oregon was a major element in Heaven Is a Place on Earth by Adrian Shirk, which I read earlier in the year, and has now recurred in The Distance from Slaughter County by Steven Moore.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?