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 recently participated in the one-week “My Life in Books” extravaganza hosted by Simon Thomas (Stuck in a Book), where he asks bloggers to choose five books that have been important to them at different points in their reading lives. The neat twist is that he puts the bloggers in pairs and asks them to comment anonymously on their partner’s reading choices and even come up with an apt book recommendation or two. A few of my selections will be familiar from the two Landmark Books posts I wrote in 2016 (here and here), but a couple are new, and it was fun to think about what’s changed versus what’s endured in my reading taste.
Shiny New Books
Irreplaceable by Julian Hoffman: If you read one 2019 release, make it this one. (It’s too important a book to dilute that statement with qualifiers.) Species and habitat loss are hard to comprehend even when we know the facts. This book is a way of taking stock, taking responsibility, and going beyond the numbers to tell the stories of front-line conservation work. From the Kent marshes to the Coral Triangle off Indonesia, Hoffman discovers the situation on the ground and talks to the people involved in protecting places at risk of destruction. Reassuringly, these aren’t usually genius scientists or well-funded heroes, but ordinary citizens who are concerned about preserving nearby sites that mean something to them. Irreplaceable is an elegy of sorts, but, more importantly, it’s a call to arms. It places environmentalism in the hands of laypeople and offers hope that in working together in the spirit of defiance we can achieve great things. It takes local concerns seriously, yet its scope is international. But what truly lifts Hoffman’s work above most recent nature books is the exquisite prose.
Times Literary Supplement
These three reviews are forthcoming.
The Heat of the Moment: Life and Death Decision-Making from a Firefighter by Sabrina Cohen-Hatton: Cohen-Hatton is one of the UK’s highest-ranking female firefighters. A few perilous situations inspired her to investigate how people make decisions under pressure. For a PhD in Psychology from Cardiff University, she delved into the neurology of decision-making. Although there is jargon in the book, she explains the terms well and uses relatable metaphors. However, the context about her research can be repetitive and basic, as if dumbed down for a general reader. The book shines when giving blow-by-blow accounts of real-life or composite incidents. Potential readers should bear in mind, though, that this is ultimately more of a management psychology book than a memoir.
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), a record of his two-year experiment living alone in a cabin near a Massachusetts pond, has inspired innumerable back-to-nature adventures, including these two books I discuss together in a longer article.
The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod by Henry Beston: Beston had a two-room wooden shack built at Cape Cod in 1925. Although he only intended to spend a fortnight of the following summer in the sixteen-by-twenty-foot dwelling, he stayed a year. The chronicle of that year, The Outermost House (originally published in 1928 and previously out of print in the UK), is a charming meditation on the turning of the seasons and the sometimes terrifying power of the sea. The writing is often poetic, with sibilance conjuring the sound of the ocean. Beston will be remembered for his statement of the proper relationship between humans and the natural world. “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” he declares; “they are not underlings; they are other nations.” One word stands out in The Outermost House: “elemental” appears a dozen times, evoking the grandeur of nature and the necessity of getting back to life’s basics.
(See also Susan’s review of this one.)
Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed by Catrina Davies: Davies crosses Thoreauvian language – many chapter titles and epigraphs are borrowed from Walden – with a Woolfian search for a room of her own. Penniless during an ongoing housing crisis and reeling from a series of precarious living situations, she 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 is a sobering reminder that homelessness is not so remote, and education is no guarantee of success. There is, understandably, a sense of righteous indignation here against a land-owning class – including the lord who owns much of the area where she lives and works – and government policies that favour the wealthy.
I’d of course read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but this was my first taste of George Orwell’s nonfiction. It was his first book, published when he was 30, and is an excellent first-hand account of the working and living conditions of the poor in two world cities. I started it on the Eurostar between London and Paris and have enjoyed dipping into it over the past couple of weeks. I most appreciated the first two-thirds, in which Orwell is working as a dishwasher and waiter in Paris hotel restaurants for up to 80 hours a week and has to pawn his clothes to scrape together enough money to ward off starvation. Chapter 3 is a masterful piece of writing that, with its second-person address, puts the reader right into this desperate situation with him. The matter-of-fact words about poverty and hunger are incisive:
Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything else. It is as though one had turned into a jellyfish, or as though all one’s blood had been pumped out and luke-warm water substituted. Complete inertia is my chief memory of hunger
Two bad days followed. We had only sixty centimes left, and we spent it on half a pound of bread, with a piece of garlic to rub it with. The point of rubbing garlic on bread is that the taste lingers and gives one the illusion of having fed recently.
It is disagreeable to eat out of a newspaper on a public seat, especially in the Tuileries, which are generally full of pretty girls, but I was too hungry to care.
Even as he’s conveying the harsh reality of exhaustion and indignity, Orwell takes a Dickensian delight in people and their eccentricities. His pen portraits of those he associates with – Boris, a former captain in the Russian Army who is always coming up with new money-making schemes in Paris; Paddy, a tramp he falls in with in London; and Bozo, a “screever” (street painter) who “managed to keep his brain intact and alert, and so nothing could make him succumb to poverty” – are glistening passages enhanced by recreated dialogue. There are a few asides, such as a chapter about London slang and swearing, that break up the flow, and I might have liked more context about Orwell’s earlier and later life – how he slipped into poverty and how he worked his way out of it again – but he more than succeeds in his aim of exposing the truth of what it was like to be poor at that time.
Depressingly, though, this is not merely a period piece: well over 80 years later, the poor are still in danger of homelessness and enslavement to low wages and zero-hours contracts. No doubt it is still what Orwell refers to as a “dismal, demoralizing way of life,” and the poor “are ordinary human beings … if they are worse than other people it is the result and not the cause of [that] way of life.”
Our town has its fair share of the down-and-out, as was brought home to me just yesterday. My husband had an unpleasant encounter with a group of them when he tried remonstrating with a man who was cutting flowers in the community garden we’ve volunteered our time to create – the very day before the Britain in Bloom competition! When I dropped by later to help get the garden tidy for judging, they were still hanging about on the other side of the canal, smoking and drinking. Then I spotted with them an older woman who goes to our church. I’ve broken bread with her on a regular basis. She borrowed a couple of books from the theological library last week. And she must be a hair’s breadth away from homelessness, if not actually homeless. It felt like a wake-up call, a reminder that these people whose lives seem so hopelessly foreign are not as distant or as different as we might like to think.Since 1994 the Orwell Prizes have been awarded to the best political writing. It’s clear that we still need voices like his to reveal what’s going on in the world and call us comfortable folks out on our complacency. As he caricatures a rich person’s response here, “don’t expect us to do anything about it. We are sorry for you lower classes, just as we are sorry for a cat with the mange, but we will fight like devils against any improvement of your condition. We feel that you are much safer as you are. The present state of affairs suits us”. I would commend this to any nonfiction reader, and hope to read much more of Orwell’s journalism.
Next month: The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
The Institute by Vincent Bijlo
[London’s Holland Park Press specializes in making classic and contemporary Dutch literature available in English translation.]
Otto Iking is a resident at the Institute, a boarding school for the blind. He characterizes his fellow students firstly according to their smell – “foul soap,” “piss” or “grated Swiss cheese” – only later adding in details about their speech and habits. It’s a zany sort of place, powered by pranks and strange decisions. Some stand-out scenes include hiding Harry’s glass eyes and a visit from the president of Surinam, a former Dutch colony. The slapstick humor works well (“When I walked into a lamppost, I said sorry. When I struck my head against a traffic sign, I said sorry. No one has ever apologised to street furniture as often as I did”), but some humor translates less well, seeming cruel or even offensive (“Tony was fat and deaf and black-skinned”).
Alongside the silliness is the matter of Otto’s coming of age. He has the first inklings of what sex is about and falls for Sonja, and also undergoes training to prepare him for the real world, things like reading and writing Braille, preparing and eating tricky meals (soup’s a killer). One day he hopes to go to a mainstream school and broadcast radio programs. The institutional setting and quirky cast reminded me of The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old and Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle.
The Institute, originally from 1998, was published on April 27th. Translated from the Dutch by Susan Ridder. My thanks to Bernadette Jansen op de Haar for sending a free copy for review.
This is the first of three Otto Iking novels. Vincent Bijlo, a Dutch stand-up comedian, was born blind.
Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel
[Peirene Press issues its translated European novellas in trios. This is the final installment in the “East and West: Looking Both Ways” series; I’ve also reviewed the first two, The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch and The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay.]
I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel narrated by a homeless person before. Gabriela von Haßlau has a noble name and a solid upper-middle-class background – her father was a surgeon and chief medical officer specializing in varicose veins; her mother was trained as a radiographer before becoming a housewife and society hostess – but her life took a turn for the worse at some point and she now lives in an encampment under a canal bridge in the town of Leibnitz (a fictional stand-in for Leipzig).
It’s July 1994 and she decides to write her life story on whatever scraps of paper she can get her hands on. She remembers being forced to play the violin as a child even though she was largely unmusical, enduring mockery at school for being one of the intelligentsia, playing hooky with her best friend Katka, and failing at a mechanical engineering apprenticeship. The narrative toggles between Gabriela’s memories and her present situation: getting blankets and food from a shelter and trying to avoid being sent to the mental hospital.
My unfamiliarity with German history, especially that relating to East Germany and reunification, means I probably missed some nuances of the plot; I found the ending quite sudden. What was most worthwhile about the book for me was experiencing homelessness with Gabriela and tracing some of the unfortunate events that led her to this situation. It’s also interesting to see how she shapes her life story in scenes and streams of consciousness.
Dance by the Canal, originally from 1994, was published on July 3rd. Translated from the German by Jen Calleja. With thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.
Hair Everywhere by Tea Tulić
[London’s Istros Books specializes in Balkans and South-Eastern European literature in translation.]
How could I resist such a terrific title and cover image? This was Croatian novelist Tea Tulić’s first book. In brief, titled vignettes almost like flash fiction stories, she dramatizes how a cancer diagnosis affects three generations of women. The book is strong on place, sensual detail and scene-setting. The narrator’s mother is in the hospital, and all the specialists and medicinal plant extracts in the world don’t seem to be helping. In such a restrictive narrative format, a line or two of dialogue can reveal a lot about a character’s attitude. The grandmother is a weary pessimist – “I just need to help your mother get through this and then I can die” – while the narrator is quite the hypochondriac.
The tone ranges from poignant to cynical, as in the absurd two-page sequence in which the family cannot locate an on-duty doctor who can read the latest X-ray results for them. The deadpan language and mixture of black humor and pathos reminded me of Adios, Cowboy by Olja Savičevi, which coincidentally is the only other Croatian novel I’ve encountered, and was originally published in the same year, 2011.
A few favorite lines:
“One little cloud was urinating.”
“While I watch her lying in bed, I can feel the umbilical cord between us. Something I have tried to cut a thousand times already. And now I hold onto that invisible cord as though I were hanging from a bridge.”
“Patrick Swayze” in its entirety: “My brother is angry because the doctors say they cannot help Mum. I tell him Patrick Swayze had lots of money but he still died of cancer.”
Hair Everywhere was published on May 22nd. Translated from the Croatian by Coral Petkovich. My thanks to Susan Curtis for sending a free copy for review – and to TJ at My Book Strings for making me aware of this title during Women in Translation Month.