I’m grateful to Lory (of The Emerald City Book Review) for hosting this past week’s Robertson Davies readalong, which was my excuse to finally try him for the first time. Of course, Canadians have long recognized what a treasure he is, but he’s less known elsewhere. I do remember that Erica Wagner, one of my literary heroes (an American in England; former books editor of the London Times, etc.), has expressed great admiration for his work.
I started with what I had to hand: Fifth Business (1970), the first volume of The Deptford Trilogy. In the theatre world, the title phrase refers to a bit player who yet has importance to the outcome of a drama, and that’s how the narrator, Dunstan Ramsay, thinks of himself. I was reminded right away of the opening of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” In the first line Ramsay introduces himself in relation to another person: “My lifelong involvement with Mrs. Dempster began at 5.58 o’clock p.m. on 27 December 1908, at which time I was ten years and seven months old.”
Specifically, he dodged a snowball meant for him – thrown by his frenemy, Percy Boyd Staunton – and it hit Mrs. Dempster, wife of the local Baptist minister, in the back of the head, knocking her over and 1) sending her into early labor with Paul, who also plays a major role in the book; and 2) permanently compromising her mental health. Surprisingly, given his tepid Protestant upbringing, Ramsay becomes a historian of Christian saints, and comes to consider Mrs. Dempster part of his personal pantheon for a few incidents he thinks of as miracles – not least his survival during First World War service. And this is despite Mrs. Dempster being caught in a situation that seriously compromises her standing in Deptford.
The novel is presented as a long, confessional letter Ramsay writes, on the occasion of his retirement, to the headmaster of the boys’ school where he taught history for 45 years. Staunton, later known simply as “Boy,” becomes a sugar magnate and politician; Paul becomes a world-renowned illusionist known by various stage names. Both Paul and Ramsay are obsessed with the unexplained and impossible, but where Paul manipulates appearances and fictionalizes the past, Ramsay looks for miracles. The Fool, the Saint and the Devil are generic characters we’re invited to ponder; perhaps they also have incarnations in the novel?
Fifth Business ends with a mysterious death, and though there are clues that seem to point to whodunit, the fact that the story segues straight into a second volume, with a third to come, indicates that it’s all more complicated than it might seem. I was so intrigued that, thanks to my omnibus edition, I carried right on with the first chapter of The Manticore (1972), which is also in the first person but this time narrated by Staunton’s son, David, from Switzerland. Freudian versus Jungian psychology promises to be a major dichotomy in this one, and I’m sure that the themes of the complexity of human desire, the search for truth and goodness, and the difficulty of seeing oneself and others clearly will crop up once again.
This was a very rewarding reading experience. I’d recommend Davies to those who enjoy novels of ideas, such as Iris Murdoch’s. I’ll carry on with at least the second volume of the trilogy for now, and I’ve also acquired the first volume of another, later trilogy to try.
Some favorite lines:
“I cannot remember a time when I did not take it as understood that everybody has at least two, if not twenty-two, sides to him.”
“Forgive yourself for being a human creature, Ramezay. That is the beginning of wisdom; that is part of what is meant by the fear of God; and for you it is the only way to save your sanity.”
It’s also fascinating to see the contrast between how Ramsay sees himself, and how others do:
“it has been my luck to appear more literate than I really am, owing to a cadaverous and scowling cast of countenance, and a rather pedantic Scots voice”
“Good God, don’t you think the way you rootle in your ear with your little finger delights the boys? And the way you waggle your eyebrows … and those horrible Harris tweed suits you wear … And that disgusting trick of blowing your nose and looking into your handkerchief as if you expected to prophesy something from the mess. You look ten years older than your age.”
I asked Carolyn Oliver of Rosemary & Reading Glasses for her top fiction picks from 2017 and she came up with this list of 13 cracking recommendations. I doubt you’ll be able to resist adding at least one of these to your TBR.
Best 2017 Fiction: A Baker’s Dozen
These were my favorite works of fiction published (in the United States) in 2017, listed in the order I read them. One caveat: as I write this, there are 22 days left in 2017, so I may find another favorite; there are some heavy hitters (Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing comes to mind) that haven’t found their way to my nightstand yet.
Human Acts, Han Kang: I admit, this book, which traces the human costs of the brutally repressed Gwanju Uprising, is difficult to read. Worth the effort, though, for its urgent questions about the nature of humanity.
Pachinko, Min Jin Lee: A twentieth-century family saga about Korean immigrants in Japan. Expansive and richly textured.
The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry: A recently widowed natural historian and a village curate spar over rumors of a returned prehistoric serpent. Sumptuous.
Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders: The resident ghosts look on with consternation as Abraham Lincoln visits their cemetery to mourn over the body of his son, Willie. Polyphonic; extraordinarily moving.
The Wanderers, Meg Howrey: Three astronauts undertake a long-term simulation of a mission to Mars, leaving their loved ones behind. Wonderful literary sci-fi, absorbing in its physical and psychological detail.
Exit West, Mohsin Hamid: Two young lovers become part of a global migration through mysterious doors that connect locations all over the world. Intimate and tender.
My Darling Detective, Howard Norman: A tale of family secrets set in 1970s Halifax, featuring plainspoken people and delightful use of radio drama. From my review: “noir with a spring in its step and a lilt in its voice.”
Days Without End, Sebastian Barry: Irish immigrant Thomas McNulty chronicles his survival in the American West (and the Civil War) and his love for fellow soldier John Cole. Fearsomely beautiful.
The Mountain, Paul Yoon: Six exquisite short stories, set in different locations over the past 100 years, from a master of the form.
The Stone Sky, N. K. Jemisin: The blistering final book in Ms. Jemisin’s stunning Broken Earth trilogy (must be read in order, so start with The Fifth Season if you’re new to the series). Superb speculative fiction.
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng: The complexities of race, class, and motherhood swirl in a Cleveland suburb (my hometown) in this deft, compassionate novel.
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado: Short stories grounded in the body but shot through with elements of horror and fantasy. Won’t take it easy on you, but you won’t want to stop reading, either. Brilliant.
The Power, Naomi Alderman: Women harness a power within themselves that turns the tables on men. Atwoodian dystopia at its finest.
A huge thank-you to Carolyn for this guest blog!
Which one of her picks do you want to read first?
On Tuesday we leave for two weeks in America. It’s nearly a year and a half since our last trip – much too long – so we’ll be cramming in lots of visits with friends and family and doing a fair bit of driving around the Mid-Atlantic states. I’m giving myself the whole time off, which means I’ve been working flat out for the past two weeks to get everything done (including my U.K. and U.S. taxes). I’m nearly there: at the 11-day countdown I still had 12 books I wanted to finish and 12 reviews to write; now I’m down to five books, only one of which might be considered essential, and all the reviews are ready to submit/schedule. What with the holiday weekend underway, it should all be manageable.
I’m a compulsive list maker in general, but especially when it comes to preparing for a trip. I’ve kept adding to lists entitled “Pack for America,” “Do in America,” “Buy in America,” and “Bring back from America.” But the more fun lists to make are book-related ones: what paper books should I take to read on the plane? Which of the 315 books on my Kindle ought I to prioritize over the next two weeks? Which exclusively American books should I borrow from the public library? What secondhand books will I try to find? And which of the books in the dozens of boxes in the closet of my old bedroom will I fit in my suitcase for the trip back?
I liked the sound of Laila’s habit of taking an Anne Tyler novel on every flight. That’s just the kind of cozy reading I want, especially as I head back to Maryland – not far at all from Tyler’s home turf of Baltimore. I browsed the blurbs on a few of her paperbacks I have lying around and chose Back When We Were Grownups to be my fifth Tyler and one of my airplane reads.
I’m also tempted by Min Kym’s Gone, a memoir by a violin virtuoso about having her Stradivarius stolen. I picked up a proof copy in a 3-for-£1 charity sale a couple of weeks ago. And then I can’t resist the aptness of Jonathan Miles’s Dear American Airlines (even though we’re actually flying on Virgin). I’ll start one or more of these before we go, just to make sure they ‘take’.
I almost certainly won’t need three print books for the trip, particularly if I take advantage of the in-flight entertainment. We only ever seem to watch films while we’re in America or en route there, so between the two legs I’ll at least try to get to La La Land and The Light between Oceans; I’m also considering Nocturnal Animals, Silence, and the live-action Beauty and the Beast – anyone seen these?
However, I’ll also keep my Kindle to hand, as I find it easier to pick up and put down on multi-part journeys like ours to the airport (train ride + coach ride). Some of the books on my Kindle priority list are: The Day that Went Missing by Richard Beard, Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta (out in August), The Power by Naomi Alderman, Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy, See What I have Done by Sarah Schmidt, You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann … and the list continues, but I’ll stop there.
My book shopping list is an ongoing one, as the many cross-outs and additions on this sheet show. Finding specific books at my beloved Wonder Book can be a challenge, so I usually just keep in mind the names of authors I’d like to read more by. This time that might include Arnold Bennett, Geoff Dyer, Elizabeth Hay, Bernd Heinrich, W. Somerset Maugham, Haruki Murakami and Kathleen Norris. In addition to the couple of secondhand bookstores we always hit, I hope to visit a few new-to-me ones on stays with friends in Virginia.
As for those poor books sat in boxes in the closet, I have plans to unearth novels by Anita Brookner, Mohsin Hamid, Kent Haruf, Penelope Lively, Howard Norman and Philip Roth – for reading while I’m there and/or bringing back with me. I’m also contemplating borrowing my dad’s omnibus edition of the John Updike “Rabbit” novels. From my nonfiction hoard, I fancy an Alexandra Fuller memoir, D.H. Lawrence’s travel books and more of May Sarton’s journals. If only it weren’t for luggage weight limits!
On Monday I’ll publish my intercontinental Library Checkout, on Tuesday I have a few June releases to recommend, and then I’m scheduling a handful of posts for while I’m away – a couple reviews I happen to have ready, plus some other lightweight stuff. Alas, I read no doorstoppers in May, but I have a list (of course) of potential ones for June, so will attempt to resurrect that monthly column.
Though I may be slow to respond to comments and read your blogs while I’m away, I will do my best and hope to catch up soon after I’m back.
Here are three enjoyable novels due out next month that I was lucky enough to read early. The first two are debuts, while the third is by an author I’ve had good luck with before. I’ve pulled 250-word extracts from my full reviews and hope you’ll be tempted by one or more of these.
Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař
(Coming on March 7th from Little, Brown and Company [USA] and March 9th from Sceptre [UK])
Call this a cross between Everything Is Illuminated (Jonathan Safran Foer) and The Book of Strange New Things (Michel Faber). In April 2018 Czech astronaut Jakub Procházka is launched to investigate cosmic dust storm “Chopra,” but realizes he can never escape his family history or the hazards of his own mind. Amid the drudgery of daily life onboard the JanHus1 space shuttle, he makes a friend: a giant, alien spider he names Hanuš. Jakub has the sense that Hanuš is sifting through his memories, drawing out the central tragedies that form his motivation for going to space, including the shame and persecution that resulted from his father being a Party loyalist and member of the Secret Police prior to the Velvet Revolution.
This debut novel is a terrific blend of the past and the futuristic, Earth and space. There is much to enjoy: Jakub’s sometimes baroque narrative voice (“What good am I, a thin purse of brittle bones and spoiling meat?”) – all the more impressive because Jaroslav Kalfař is in his late twenties and has only spoken English for about 13 years; the mixture of countryside rituals and the bustle of Prague; and the uncertainty about whether Jakub has a viable future, with or without his wife Lenka. The book goes downhill in Part Two and doesn’t quite pull everything together before its end. However, it’s still one of the best debuts I’ve encountered in recent years, and I’ll be eager to see what Kalfař will come up with next.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
(Coming on March 14th from Penguin [USA] and June 1st from Jonathan Cape [UK])
An odd but very funny anti-Bildungsroman. This is Selin Hanim’s account of her freshman year at Harvard (circa 1995) and the summer of European travel that follows. A daughter of Turkish immigrants, she wants to become a writer, but even as she minutely records every happening and thought she doubts the point of it. In Russian and linguistics classes, in interactions with her roommates and her Serbian friend Svetlana, and in her growing obsession with Ivan, a senior math major from Hungary, she includes a Knausgaardian amount of mundane detail yet always remains at an emotional distance from events. The tone is so very deadpan that you may never warm to Selin. However, it feels appropriate for what the novel is attempting: a commentary on the difficulty of having real, meaningful conversations when language breakdown is rife.
Once again Batuman has borrowed a Dostoevsky title (her 2010 memoir was called The Possessed). I suspect her debut novel is generally indebted to Eastern European literature in the randomness of the incidents and the way they are bluntly recounted rather than explained. This can be problematic for the story line: it feels like things keep happening that serve no purpose in the grander scheme. It’s as if Batuman is subverting the whole idea of a simple coming-of-age trajectory. At the same time, she convincingly captures what it’s like to be young and confused. This reminded me of my college and study abroad experience; that familiarity plus the off-the-wall humor kept me reading.
(On a plane) “I opened the foil lid and looked at the American meal. I couldn’t tell what it was. The man in the seat ahead of me started tossing and turning. His pillow fell into my dessert. The pink whipped foam formed meaningful-looking patterns on the white fabric. I saw a bird—that meant travel.”
“Spiderwebs attached themselves, like long trails of agglutinative suffixes, onto our arms and faces.”
My Darling Detective by Howard Norman
(Coming on March 28th from Houghton Mifflin)
When Jacob Rigolet’s mother Nora, former head of Halifax Free Library, throws ink on a photograph during an art auction in 1977, it sparks an unusual quest into his past. Jacob’s fiancee Martha Crauchet, the detective of the title, learns two startling facts from Nora’s police file: Jacob was born in the Halifax library; and Bernard Rigolet had been serving overseas for more than a year before his birth in 1945, so can’t be his father. Three years ago Nora’s obsession with World War II led to a breakdown she calls her “fall from grace”; she’s been confined to a rest home ever since. As Jacob gives up being an art buyer to attend library school, Martha gets involved in a cold case that involves his real father. The film noir atmosphere is enhanced by a hardboiled detective radio program he and Martha are hooked on: set in the year of Jacob’s birth, Detective Levy Detects keeps overlapping with real life.
This offbeat mystery reminded me of The World According to Garp. I could see it working as a low-budget indie movie or TV special. I loved how climactic things kept happening at the library, and enjoyed glimpses of bad borrower behavior: selling the library’s art books to a secondhand bookstore and a 105-year overdue loan found in someone’s attic. I have a suspicion this novel won’t linger long in my mind, but it was a fun weekend read. (Historical note: one character’s mother was killed in the Halifax Explosion.)
Have you read any March releases you would recommend?
Starting in mid-January I began surveying my shelves, library stack and Kindle for books with “love” in the title. Here are the six I had time to try; I didn’t get to Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love on my Kindle, nor my paperback copies of Iris Murdoch’s The Sacred and Profane Love Machine and Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank.
You’ll notice that a number of the books I’ve read aren’t that optimistic about love; in several cases the use of the word in the title even seems to be ironic. As Lady Montdore exclaims in Love in a Cold Climate, “Love indeed – whoever invented love ought to be shot.” So I can’t offer them as particularly romantic choices. But let’s start positively, with some pleasantly out-of-the-ordinary love poems.
From Me to You: Love Poems, U.A. Fanthorpe and R.V. Bailey
Ursula Fanthorpe and Rosie Bailey met as English teachers at the same Cheltenham school in their late twenties and were partners for nearly 40 years. None of the poems in this short volume are attributed, though I recognized a few from Fanthorpe’s Collected Poems. They’re not particularly distinguished as poetry, but I appreciated the simple, unsentimental examples of what makes up everyday life with a partner: “There is a kind of love called maintenance, / Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it; // Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget / The milkman” (“Atlas”) and “I’m working on a meal you haven’t had to imagine, / A house cleaned to the rafters” (“Dear Valentine”). [Public library]
What I Loved, Siri Hustvedt
This 2003 novel could just as well have been titled “What I Lost,” which might be truer to its elegiac tone. Narrated by Professor Leo Hertzberg and set between the 1970s and 1990s, it’s about two New York City couples – academics and artists – and the losses they suffer over the years. With themes of modern art, perspective, memory, separation and varieties of mental illness, it asks to what extent we can ever know other people or use replacements to fill the gaps left by who and what is missing. Read it if you’ve enjoyed The Suicide of Claire Bishop by Carmiel Banasky, other books by Siri Hustvedt, or anything by Howard Norman. My favorite lines about love were “I often thought of our marriage as one long conversation” and “love thrives on a certain kind of distance … it requires an awed separateness to continue.” [Charity shop]
Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford
I didn’t realize this 1949 novel is a sequel to The Pursuit of Love, so it took a while to figure out who all the characters were. Fanny Logan is a cousin orbiting around Lord and Lady Montdore and their daughter Polly Hampton, all recently returned from some years in India. Fanny marries an Oxford don, while Polly shocks everyone by eloping with her uncle by marriage, “Boy” Dougdale, a recent widower once known as the “Lecherous Lecturer” for interfering with little girls. (This hint of pedophilia is carelessly tossed off in a way no writer would get away with today.) Meanwhile, the heir to the Hampton estate, an effeminate chap named Cedric, comes over from Canada for a visit and wins Lady Montdore over. This amusing picture of aristocratic life in the 1930s marvels at who we love and why. [Bookbarn International]
Enduring Love, Ian McEwan
Interesting to consider this as a precursor to Saturday: both have a scientist as the protagonist and get progressively darker through a slightly contrived stalker plot. Enduring Love opens, famously, with a ballooning accident that leaves its witnesses questioning whether they couldn’t have done more to prevent it. Freelance science journalist Joe Rose – on a picnic with his partner, Keats scholar Clarissa, at the time – was one of those who rushed to help, as was Jed Parry, a young Christian zealot who fixates on Joe. He seems to think that by loving Joe, a committed atheist, he can bring him to God. In turn, Joe’s obsession with Jed’s harassment campaign drives Clarissa away. It’s a deliciously creepy read that contrasts rationality with religion and inquires into what types of love are built to last. [Charity shop]
An Exclusive Love: A Memoir, Johanna Adorján
The author’s grandparents, Hungarian Holocaust survivors who moved to Denmark as refugees, committed suicide together on October 13, 1991. Her grandfather, an orthopedic surgeon who had been in an Austrian concentration camp, was terminally ill and his wife was determined not to live a day without him. This short, elegant memoir alternates Adorján’s imagined reconstruction of her grandparents’ last day with an account of their life together, drawn from family memories and interviews with those who knew them. She wonders whether, like Primo Levi and Arthur Koestler, theirs was a typically Jewish failure to fit in wherever they went, and/or a particularly Hungarian melancholy. “The answer is their great love,” the newspaper report of their death insisted. [Waterstones clearance]
Note: That striking cover is by Leanne Shapton.
And another nonfiction selection that I didn’t make it all the way through:
A Book about Love, Jonah Lehrer
(Abandoned at 31%.) Although I can see why he starts where he does, Lehrer’s early focus on attachment and attunement – two psychological theories of how babies learn to relate affectionately to others – means the book gets bogged down in studies performed on mice and/or children and feels more like a parenting book than anything else. (If that’s what you’re after, read All Joy and No Fun.) A glance at the table of contents suggests the rest of the book will go into marriage, divorce and how love changes over time, but I couldn’t be bothered to stick around. That said, Lehrer’s popular science writing is clear and engaging, and with the heartfelt mea culpa at the start of this book I couldn’t hold a grudge about his earlier plagiarism scandal. [Kindle book from NetGalley.]
No overtly heartwarming love stories in that selection, then, but are there any you fancy reading anyway? Have you read any “love” titles recently?
See also: The Guardian’s list of Top 10 Authentic Romances.
My resolution to read just my own books for the summer largely fell by the wayside, but I did manage to get through another handful of print books from the shelves. Below I give brief write-ups of what I’ve finished lately and recall how these books came to be in my collection.
In Fond Remembrance of Me by Howard Norman: A strange, short book that blends memoir and Inuit legends. In 1977 Norman travelled to Churchill, Manitoba to transcribe an oral storyteller’s folktales. Most of these were about Noah coming into contact with the peoples of the far north and displeasing them by refusing to give over the exotic animals of his ark as food. Helen Tanizaki, a scholar in her late thirties who tried half-heartedly to hide the fact that she was dying of stomach cancer, was also there to translate stories into Japanese. It’s easy to see why she impressed Norman with her mystical stoicism. She was a keen birdwatcher, and declared she wanted to be reincarnated as a seabird. The portrait of Helen is compelling, but the book doesn’t hang together well, especially because the interspersed legends are so repetitive. [From my Amazon wish list last Christmas.]
An Anthology of Animal Poetry, ed. Kenneth A. Mason: This was assembled in 1940 by a 19-year-old, and it shows. The choices are obvious and old-fashioned; too many of the poems are long and insist on rhyming. However, I discovered some real gems. Three poems in a row are about skylarks – by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wordsworth and Shelley – and they’re all brilliant, using the bird as an emblem of freedom. Shelley’s “To a Skylark,” in particular, I can’t believe I’ve never encountered before. Its 21 stanzas praise the bird’s pure joy and wonder how careworn humans might emulate it: “We look before and after, / And pine for what is not … Teach me half the gladness / That thy brain must know.” My vintage Pelican copy has ads for chocolate and cigarettes that made me laugh. [Bought from a secondhand bookstore in Tunbridge Wells for 10 pence.]
The Mistress’s Daughter by A.M. Homes: This grew out of a New Yorker article Homes published about meeting her biological parents in her early 30s. Her mother carried on an affair with her married boss, starting when she was just a teenager – Homes learned that she was the mistress’s daughter. This is the story of how her birth mother tried to get involved in her life, in a really rather stalker-ish way, and the occasional contact she had from her birth father. The blow-by-blow gets a little boring, especially when it’s Homes and her father only communicating via lawyers. Homes doesn’t really make much of a contribution to the literature of adoption, though this is a pleasant enough read. “I am an amalgam. I will always be something glued together, something slightly broken.” [Bought from a library book sale in America for $1.]
Summertime by Vanessa Lafaye: An enjoyable historical novel based on several true-life elements: a work camp of army veterans based at the Florida Keys, segregation and lynching, and a massive hurricane that hit in 1935. Main characters Missy and Henry are well drawn, but beyond them I thought Lafaye splits the perspective too far: I didn’t need to see through the eyes of lots of the veterans, the shopkeeper, or the policeman investigating the brutal beating of a local white woman. As for this crime, I knew whodunit pretty much right away, so there wasn’t any suspense regarding that plot point. However, Lafaye does do a great job of building tension in the novel’s final third as the storm approaches. The U.S. title (Under a Dark Summer Sky) is much better; “Summertime” evokes strangely rosy images and so is inappropriate. [I won a copy in a Goodreads giveaway.]
So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading by Sara Nelson: Nelson is forthright about what she likes and doesn’t like; she also ruefully reflects on the gap between what she meant to read and what she actually read in 2002. Her reading diary tells a lot about her personal life too: having a non-reading spouse and a novelist sister; memories of her late father; and the struggle to instill a love of reading into her young son. Inevitably a little dated as it engages with ‘It’ books of the time like A Million Little Pieces and Kitchen Confidential, the book has staying power because in each chapter Nelson broadens out from her discussion of one or more books to craft a thematic essay. This was meant to be my bedside book for the second half of the year, but I devoured it in less than seven weeks. It’s full of lines bibliophiles can relate to. [Free from The Book Thing of Baltimore.]
The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester: Tarquin Winot, the snobby Francophile who narrates Lanchester’s debut novel, has a voice reminiscent of Oliver in Julian Barnes’s Talking It Over and Love etc. His opinionated, verbose speech provides much of the book’s wit. “This is not a conventional cookbook,” the first line warns, but a foodie’s tribute to traditional English and French dishes that compose the best seasonal menus. As we travel with Tarquin from Portsmouth to Provence we learn more about this peculiar character through the memories dishes elicit: about his Irish nanny, his sculptor brother’s boarding school years, etc. Lanchester subtly introduces notes of doubt about the narrator’s reliability, until we have to wonder how much his tale resembles Perfume or The Talented Mr. Ripley. Deliciously clever and sinuous. [Bought from a London charity shop for 20 pence.]
I spent much of the summer bogged down in several very good but not particularly page-turning works of nonfiction. I’ll review those in due course.
Up next, though, are a few Booker Prize longlist mini-reviews in advance of the shortlist announcement on Tuesday.
My eagle eye for anything related to Hay-on-Wye led me to this book, a memoir of sorts about moving to the Welsh Borders in the search for a sense of community. Journalist Oliver Balch and his wife had previously lived in London and then started a family while living in Argentina. Although they loved the vibrancy and social opportunities of city life, when they moved back to the UK in 2012 they were in search of something different:
I fancied living somewhere with open skies and fresh air; somewhere I could strap on my walking boots and head out for a hike; somewhere alive to the sound of birdsong rather than bus exhausts. I envisioned the same for the boys. Growing up in wellies and with dirty knees. Weekend camping trips. Swimming in the river.
But it was more than just the natural scenery that drew him to the England–Wales border town of Clyro. “I liked the idea of finding a place where I could truly belong. It would be good to be on the inside for once, to be a thread or stitch in the social fabric.” It was John Updike, of all people, who inspired him to seek out small-town life. “For a writer, it’s good to live between a widow and a plumber,” Updike wrote – to be surrounded by different, ordinary people and get to know your neighbors in an old-fashioned but still desirable way.
After the family settled in at Pottery Cottage, another of Balch’s guiding spirits was Reverend Francis Kilvert, curate of Clyro from 1865 to 1872. He’s known today for the diary he started keeping in 1870. As he went around visiting, he made pen portraits of his parishioners, often summing people up through one apt phrase of Dickensian description. In a sense, Balch is trying to do the same thing with these sketches of his new community members. Meanwhile, he weaves in biographical information about Kilvert in much the same way that Helen Macdonald does about T.H. White in H is for Hawk.There’s still an active Kilvert Society today, and early on Balch joined them for a tour of Clyro. With the River Wye, the Black Mountains and the book town of Hay-on-Wye all in range, it’s a splendid view:
The Wye is at its nearest to the east, huddled in the dip between two rippled fields of honeyed wheat and brilliant yellow rapeseed, its emerald-green waters rushing fast above the reeds. … Burrowed among the trees above its far bank stands Hay, a blue-grey patchwork of tiled rooftops amid a swathe of sylvan green. Poking above the tree canopy is the castle … And then beyond, of course, the barren bouldery bulk of the Black Mountains. Implacably wild. Their beauty hard, unremitting, almost brutish in their bluntness.
Balch starts trying to fit in by joining the regular drinkers at the Rhydspence Inn, an old-fashioned pub, on Wednesday nights. He’s closest with Tony, a farmer, and subsequently observes the Young Farmers group. In other chapters he profiles the unconventional, hippie types drawn to the area, like the owners of Hay’s fair trade shop; and the locals and shopkeepers involved in the Thursday market. He also sits in on some community planning meetings and learns about a recent anti-supermarket campaign. The Town Council and the “Hay Together” interest group are often at odds, he learns. A Chamber of Commerce meeting turns into an argument about renovating the Castle, one of Hay’s chief landmarks.My favorite chapter of all was about the Hay Festival, one of the foremost literary festivals in the UK. (It starts this week, in fact.) Although I’ve been to Hay five times since 2004, I’ve never attended its annual festival. I loved getting a peek behind the scenes, as Balch interviewed an author who’d written a guide to the local area. For Balch, his feelings about the festival prove that he’s finally thinking more like a local than an ‘incomer’:
Part of me is elated that the outside world has landed on our doorstep. For a brief window in late spring, everywhere I turn there are urbanites like me. … Simultaneously, part of me recoils. … I feel invaded. Some traitorous wretch has spilled word of our rural haven and now legions of out-of-towners have arrived, overrunning the place with their unmuddied cars and city manners.
Even in the decade that I’ve been visiting, I can recognize some of the processes Balch pinpoints – essentially evidence of gentrification going on in Hay and the surrounding area. Under the ownership of an American female entrepreneur, for instance, Booth’s Bookshop has been transformed from a falling-down jumble sale into a well-presented independent bookstore with a posh café. Some of the locals Balch meets are delighted with the changes, while others feel that the snobs are taking over and driving up prices for regular folk.
If I was a bit disappointed with this book, it’s because I didn’t fully heed the subtitle – “Sketches of Real Life on the Welsh Borders.” It’s not meant to be a chronological narrative of Balch’s time in Clyro but a thematic tour, with some common threads running through. This means that, depending on the reader, certain chapters will probably seem much more interesting than others. So the best part of “The Young Farmers” chapter, for me, was a description of a cow doing a messy poo (“the most splendid jet of steaming gravy-colored excrement”); otherwise I found it entirely tedious.Perhaps I wrongly expected this to be exactly like Paul Collins’s Sixpence House. This 2003 memoir of trying to make a life in Hay is among my all-time favorite reads. Although similar on the surface, Under the Tump is a very different book. I appreciated it most as a narrative of searching for a place to call home – something that will surely strike a chord with any reader.
With thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy.
- Other books that reference Hay-on-Wye:
- Reading in Bed by Sue Gee opens at the Hay Festival.
- In The Red House by Mark Haddon, a dysfunctional family vacations in the countryside near Hay.
- In Next Life Might Be Kinder by Howard Norman, the main female character is from Hay.
- One of the settings in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman is a bookstore in a small Welsh village. (Okay, not quite Hay.)
- Plus one from the TBR: in The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett, an antiquarian bookseller browsing in a shop in Hay finds a book that sets him off on a quest.
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?