We arrived in the UK on January 1, after an overnight flight from Baltimore. There was no midnight announcement, no complimentary champagne; nothing. Clearly I had my hopes too high. So we’re feeling a bit cheated out of our New Year’s Eve experience and will be doing a recreated countdown and toast when we have houseguests over for this Epiphany weekend.
It was a low-key, relaxing couple of weeks back in the States, the majority of it spent seeing family and friends. We also made it into D.C. to see the new Obama portraits. Mostly I enjoyed doing not a lick of work. And I acquired books, of course: a secondhand and remainder stack that, after my trade-in of some cast-off books, cost just $4; and a few ARCs I’m excited about.
I’m feeling restless in my career, like if someone gave me permission to quit all my gigs I would do it tomorrow. But, of course, only a fool would do so with no plan to replace them with other remunerative work. The year is likely to involve a lot of rethinking for me as I evaluate which of my proofreading and writing jobs feel worthwhile, and what’s taking me in the direction I want to go (not that I currently know what that is).
Life is awfully hard to plan out. Reading is much easier! So here are my fairly modest reading goals for the year, some of them overlapping:
- I plan to reinstate the Classic and Doorstopper of the month features I ran in 2017, since otherwise I hardly ever read them. I’m starting with Annabel’s readalong of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, which is just over 500 pages but also conveniently falls into one of the below categories.
- I’ll make a second attempt at getting through some of the travel books and biographies I own, though I won’t hold myself to any particular target. At least five of each would be nice.
- I’m determined to up my literature in translation ratio. These are all the books I own that were originally published in other languages – pitiful! – but I will get hold of more through the library and publishers.
- Re-reading is something I undertake very reluctantly. I have friends who swear by it, but to me it can feel like a waste of time. Last year I re-read just four books: Little Women, Give Me Everything You Have, Crossing the Moon, and Diary of a Bookseller. In each case, on the second reading I rated the book a star lower. That suggests that, far from appreciating books more on a second reading, I have less patience with them and find more flaws! All the same, I’ve chosen four books to re-read in 2019. The Collins is a longtime favorite about moving to Hay-on-Wye; the Thomas is one of the books that first got me into reading memoirs. I’ve been let down by Lamott’s latest three books so wanted to go back to one of her spiritual classics; I’ve gotten into L’Engle’s writing for adults and want to revisit her most famous children’s book (which I don’t think I comprehended at age nine or whatever I was).
- I have a bad habit of racing through self-help and theology books rather than taking my time mulling over them and fully exploring how I might apply them in my life. This was especially true of The Artist’s Way, one of my bibliotherapy prescriptions. I started out with the aim of completing the daily “morning pages” of free writing (though for me they were ‘evening pages’; I’m not a morning person) and each chapter’s self-knowledge exercises. But soon I’d given up on the writing and contemplation and begun just reading the book straight through, which is not the point of it at all. So this year I mean to go back through the Cameron and Rubin books more mindfully, and use the McLaren devotional as it is intended, reading the recommended Bible passages alongside the weekly reflections.
What are some of your goals (reading-related or otherwise) for 2019?
I had high hopes for all of these: long-awaited novels from Jonathan Safran Foer (10 years after his previous one), Maria Semple and Zadie Smith; a Project Gutenberg download from the reliably funny Jerome K. Jerome; a brand new psychological thriller from James Lasdun, whose memoir and poetry I’ve loved; and a horse racing epic that generated Great American Novel buzz. But they all failed to live up to expectations.
Here I Am
By Jonathan Safran Foer
Is it a simple account of the implosion of two Washington, D.C. fortysomethings’ marriage? Or is it a sweeping epic of Judaism from the biblical patriarchs to imagined all-out Middle Eastern warfare? Can it succeed in being both? I didn’t really think so. The dialogue between this couple as they face the fallout is all too real and cuts to the quick. I enjoyed the preparations for Sam’s bar mitzvah and I could admire Julia’s clear-eyed capability and Sam, Max and Benjy’s almost alarming intelligence and heart at the same time as I wondered to what extent she was Foer’s ex-wife Nicole Krauss and they were the authors’ kids. But about halfway through I thought the book got away from Foer, requiring him to throw in a death, a natural disaster, and a conflict with global implications. This feels more like a novel by Philip Roth or Howard Jacobson, what with frequent masturbation and sex talk on the one hand and constant quarreling about what Jewishness means on the other. The central message about being present for others’ suffering, and your own, got a little lost under the flood of events.
Three Men on the Bummel
By Jerome K. Jerome
Jerome’s digressive style can be amusing in small doses, but this book is almost nothing but asides. I did enjoy the parts that most closely resemble a travelogue of the cycle trip through Germany, but these are drowned under a bunch of irrelevant memories and anecdotes. I much preferred Diary of a Pilgrimage.
The Fall Guy
By James Lasdun
This is a capable psychological thriller about an out-of-work chef who becomes obsessed with the idea that his wealthy cousin’s alluring wife is cheating on him during a summer spent with them in their upstate New York bolthole. I liked hearing about Matthew’s cooking and Chloe’s photography, and it’s interesting how Lasdun draws in a bit about banking and the Occupy movement. However, the complicated Anglo-American family backstory between Matthew and Charlie feels belabored, and the fact that we only see things from Matthew’s perspective is limiting in a bad way. There’s a decent Hitchcock vibe in places, but overall this is somewhat lackluster.
The Sport of Kings
By C.E. Morgan
I found this Kentucky-based horse racing novel to be florid and overlong. The novel doesn’t achieve takeoff until Allmon comes on the scene at about page 180. Although there are good descriptions of horses, the main plot – training Hellsmouth to compete in the 2006 Derby – mostly passed me by. Meanwhile, the interpersonal relationships become surprisingly melodramatic, more fit for a late Victorian novel or maybe something by Faulkner. My favorite character was Maryleen, the no-nonsense black house servant. Henry himself, though, makes for pretty unpleasant company. Morgan delivers the occasional great one-liner (“Childhood is the country of question marks, and the streets are solid answers”), but her prose is on the whole incredibly overwritten. There’s a potent message in here somewhere about ambition, inheritance and race, but it’s buried under an overwhelming weight of words. (See my full Nudge review.)
Today Will Be Different
By Maria Semple
Bernadette fans, prepare for disappointment. There’s nothing that bad about the story of middle-aged animator Eleanor Flood, her hand-surgeon-to-the-stars husband Joe, and their precocious kid Timby, but nor is there anything very interesting about it. The novel is one of those rare ones that take place all in one day, a setup that enticed me, but all Eleanor manages to fit into her day – despite the title resolution – is an encounter with a pet poet who listens to her reciting memorized verse, another with a disgruntled former employee, some pondering of her husband’s strange behavior, and plenty of being downright mean to her son (as if his name wasn’t punishment enough). “In the past, I’d often been called crazy. But it was endearing-crazy, kooky-crazy, we’re-all-a-little-crazy-crazy,” Eleanor insists. I didn’t think so. I didn’t like being stuck in her head. In general, it seems like a bad sign if you’re eager to get away from a book’s narrator and her scatty behavior. Compared to Semple’s previous novel, it feels like quirkiness for quirkiness’ sake, with a sudden, contrived ending.
By Zadie Smith
Smith’s fifth novel spans 25 years and journeys from London to New York City and West Africa in tracing the different paths two black girls’ lives take. The narrator (who is never named) and Tracey, both biracial, meet through dance lessons at age seven in 1982 and soon become inseparable. The way this relationship shifts over time is the most potent element of the novel, and will appeal to fans of Elena Ferrante. The narrator alternates chapters about her friendship with Tracey with chapters about her work for pop star Aimee in Africa. Unfortunately, the Africa material is not very convincing or lively and I was impatient for these sections to finish. The Aimee subplot and the way Tracey turns out struck me as equally clichéd. Despite the geographical and chronological sprawl, the claustrophobic narration makes this feel insular, defusing its potential messages about how race, money and class still define and divide us. A new Zadie Smith novel is an event; this one is still worth reading, but it definitely disappointed me in comparison to White Teeth and On Beauty. (Releases Nov. 15th.)
Have you read any of these? What did you think?
What’s the last book that really let you down?
We spent a few days last week in Cambridge, England for New Networks for Nature’s interdisciplinary “Nature Matters” conference, this year on the theme of “In Touch with the Wild.” This is the fourth year my husband (a biologist with the University of Reading) has participated, and the third year in a row that I’ve attended for a day. While other years the gathering has been in the small town of Stamford, this year’s temporary move to Cambridge gave us the impetus to finally explore this world-famous city for the first time.
Arriving later than we meant to on a Thursday evening, checking into our noisy hostel and then having to dash out in time for my husband to make the first event (and making a futile attempt to find an open coffee shop where I could while away a couple hours)…this all meant our first impression of the city was not great. However, cheap, terrific Chinese street food on Friday after the conference, followed by a delicious glass of cider in a pub and a sunny day for exploring the bustling city center on Saturday created a more favorable overall feeling.
Last year’s conference highlights for me were a debate about nature’s economic value and a panel on the purpose of nature poetry. This year’s sessions tackled personal connection with nature, rewilding (setting aside tracts of land for wilderness and reintroducing native species that have been driven out or gone locally extinct, such as wolves and wild boar), and coping with a sense of loss. With everyone from geographers to a singer and a painter involved on the day I attended, the conference succeeded in drawing in different fields from the sciences and the arts to provide commentary on ways we might reconnect with nature.
The day’s first event brought together author William Fiennes, poet Alison Brackenbury, and Cambridge psychologist Laurie Parma. Fiennes spoke about writing an introduction to John Fowles’s long, curmudgeonly essay The Tree. Whereas Fowles denigrates Linnaeus, Fiennes thinks of him as a hero; like Adam in the Bible, Linnaeus knew the value of naming things. “In order to care about something, we first have to notice it,” Fiennes insisted; for him the noticing began when he was a child going round the garden with his father and learning plant names. Rather than thinking of names as a control mechanism, he suggested they can be a first step in “granting [a species] a place in your sensorium.”
Brackenbury, who comes from four generations of Lincolnshire shepherds, recited from memory seven poems from her latest collection, Skies, several of which reflect on species’ extinctions or comebacks. “Look at them well before they go” is the broadly applicable piece of advice that closes “The Elms.” I especially liked one poem about a starling’s many songs.
Parma relayed the scientific evidence for green spaces mitigating stress and promoting happiness. At an event like this there’s an inevitable feeling that the speakers are preaching to the choir: we already know the personal value of time in nature, as well as the scale of environmental degradation. Still, this came home afresh in the following session as Dr. Stuart Butchart of BirdLife International spoke about the situation in Hawaii, where deforestation, non-native mosquitoes and other invasive animals are rapidly driving native birds to extinction. Photojournalist Toby Smith then questioned whether the nature photographer’s role should be to chronicle nature’s degradation or to celebrate what’s left. Many speakers acknowledged the difficult balance between mourning losses and applauding successes.
I spent most of Saturday scouring Cambridge’s charity shops and made out like a bandit, coming away with 15 books for £15.39. If you happen to find yourself in Cambridge and have seen all you need to of the colleges and the river (it doesn’t take very long), I can recommend Burleigh Street for charity shops but also Mill Road, a slightly more off-the-beaten-path student area of ethnic eateries and cheap stores. Books for Amnesty has an incredible selection; I took advantage of a couple James Lasdun books from their £1 poetry shelf. Best of all was the Salvation Army store, where all books were either 40 or 70 pence. I amassed a huge pile and then put half of it back when I remembered I would have to carry these books the mile or so back into town and then haul them around the whole rest of the day. I also did well at RSPCA’s two shops, one a dedicated bookshop on Mill Road.
Cambridge is certainly rich in secondhand book buying opportunities. Other shops I browsed but didn’t buy from included G. David Books and the tiny Sarah Key Books (also known as “The Haunted Bookshop” – I’d love to know why! – and included on a Guardian list of 10 of the best secondhand bookstores), both on St. Edward’s Passage, and the multi-floored emporium Heffers on St. John’s Street, which has a great selection of board games and gift items as well as new and used books.
As a literary destination, Cambridge left a bit to be desired, though. There weren’t any literary graves for me to find, nor any notable houses or statues. Many of the college’s famous alumni are known for work in other fields. There’s Newton, Darwin and Hawking in the sciences, for instance – they all appear in this mural in the hostel dining room. Plenty of political figures attended, as well as lots of living authors (Wikipedia has an extensive list; the hostel wall featured Zadie Smith as a fairly recent example of a literary alumna).
So, overall, a nice enough city for a day trip but not somewhere you need to stay much longer. Granted, it was outside of term time so King’s College wasn’t running its usual chapel services, and I never did make it out to the Fitzwilliam Museum. Still, I reckon you’ll find much more to see and do in Oxford, a city I’ve visited again and again ever since my undergraduate study abroad days took me there for weekly theology tutorials.
Your thoughts (on new cities, connecting with nature and secondhand book shopping) are always welcome!
When it came to it, it isn’t me
was all he seemed to learn
from all his diligent forays outward.
(from “It Isn’t Me” by James Lasdun)
I chose to read this doorstopper from 1915 because it appeared in The Novel Cure on a list entitled “The Ten Best Novels for Thirty-Somethings.” By happy accident, I was also reading it throughout its centenary year. My knowledge of W. Somerset Maugham’s work was limited – I had seen the 2006 film version of The Painted Veil but never read anything by him – so I had no clear idea of what to expect. I was pleased to encounter a narrative rich with psychological insight and traces of the Victorian novel.
Philip Carey is not unlike a Dickensian hero: born with a club foot and orphaned as a child, he’s raised by his stern vicar uncle in Kent and reluctantly attends boarding school. Much of the book is filled with his post-schooling wanderings and professional shilly-shallying, along with multiple romantic missteps. He studies in Germany, tries to make it as a painter in Paris, and returns to London to train as an accountant and then as a doctor. Each attempted career seems to fail, as does every relationship. Philip reminded me most of David Copperfield, especially after he meets the jolly, Micawber-esque Thorpe Athelny during his hospital internship and becomes friendly with his wife and children.
As is common in Victorian novels, Philip is troubled by his conflicting desires. When it comes to women, he cannot get love to match up with lust. As a youth he loses his virginity to Emily Wilkinson, a woman in her mid-30s, then wants nothing to do with her. A few other dalliances have mixed success, but the novel focuses on Philip’s connection to Mildred Rogers. A café waitress, she’s vain and ill-tempered and acts indifferent to Philip – but is happy for him to spend money on her. He’s disgusted and infatuated all at once: “He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her. He would rather have misery with [her] than happiness with [another].” Though Mildred tries to eschew the traditional roles of wife and mother, the Victorian notion of the fallen woman haunts her.
This on-again, off-again romance forms the heart of the book. Both Philip and Mildred are maddening in their own way. Not since Pip (another Philip, interestingly) in Great Expectations have I been so furious at a main character for consistently making the wrong choices, being dazzled by beauty and status and ignoring the more important things in life. Yet the close third-person narration sees so deeply into Philip’s psyche that I could not help but feel sympathy for him, too, cringing over his every failure – especially when stock market losses leave him destitute and he undertakes humiliating (to him) work at a department store. The novel is liberally studded with intimate paragraphs conveying Philip’s thoughts:
He painted with the brain, and he could not help knowing that the only painting worth anything was done with the heart. … [H]e had a terrible fear that he would never be more than second-rate. Was it worth while for that to give up one’s youth, and the gaiety of life, and the manifold chances of being?
Pain and disease and unhappiness weighed down the scale so heavily. What did it all mean? He thought of his own life, the high hopes with which he had entered upon it, the limitations which his body forced upon him, his friendlessness, and the lack of affection which had surrounded his youth. He did not know that he had ever done anything but what seemed best to do, and what a cropper he had come! Other men, with no more advantages than he, succeeded, and others again, with many more, failed. It seemed pure chance. The rain fell alike upon the just and upon the unjust, and for nothing was there a why and a wherefore.
Another humanizing element that especially appealed to me was Philip’s loss of Christian faith. During my study abroad year and especially my master’s year at Leeds, when I wrote a dissertation on women’s loss-of-faith narratives in Victorian fiction, I read a lot of novels about belief and doubt. In Philip’s case, I was interested to see how Maugham portrays what is usually seen as a loss as more of a liberation:
Suddenly he realised that he had lost also that burden of responsibility which made every action of his life a matter of urgent consequence. He could breathe more freely in a lighter air. He was responsible only to himself for the things he did. Freedom! He was his own master at last. From old habit, unconsciously he thanked God that he no longer believed in Him.
Although Philip frequently indulges in self-pity, he also has moments where he wakes up to the wonder of life. These epiphanies of the beauty of London, of the whole world, were among my favorite scenes.
Unusually in a long book, I thought the last 150 pages were the strongest. I struggled to pay attention throughout Philip’s schooling and wearied of the endless negotiations with Mildred, but when Philip is at his lowest point – like the protagonist of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, not even sure if he’ll find enough to eat – there’s a real intensity to the plot that made this last chunk fly by.
I read a 1930s Modern Library copy from the University of Reading, but consulted Robert Calder’s introduction to the 1992 Penguin Classics edition for background information. It seems the novel was recognizably autobiographical for Maugham, though where a club foot was Philip’s source of shame, for the author it was his stammer (and his sexuality – he married but is known to have been a homosexual).
Like Joyce’s roughly contemporary A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Calder notes, Of Human Bondage fits into the “apprentice novel” genre. Despite being published in 1915, it is set in a recent past so makes no reference to the First World War, though the Boer War plays a background role. I didn’t find the book to be particularly dated; I even discovered that a couple of sayings I might have pegged as later inventions were around in the 1910s: “like it or lump it” and “put that in your pipe and smoke it.”
Of Human Bondage met with a lukewarm critical response in its own time but does seem to be among the more beloved – if obscure – classics nowadays. Calder insists that it “remains Maugham’s most complete statement of the importance of physical and spiritual liberty.”
There have been three film versions – and another is in production this year, apparently. The best known, from 1934, launched the career of Bette Davis, who gave it her all as Mildred Rogers (she was a write-in favorite for the Oscars that year). Overacting, for sure, but her blonde wave and simpering looks were perfect for the role. By contrast, Leslie Howard’s is a fairly subtle Philip. The movie – condensed, amazingly, to just over an hour and a half – focuses on his club foot and his relationship with Mildred; I was disappointed that no attempt was made to reproduce Philip’s introspective monologues through voiceovers.
To my surprise, Calder asserts that Of Human Bondage “has become one of the most widely read of modern novels, particularly by young people, who still find relevance in Philip’s struggle for a free and meaningful life.” It was good enough for Holden Caulfield, after all. It struck me during my reading that two recent novels may have taken inspiration from Maugham: the main character in Esther Freud’s Mr. Mac and Me, set in 1914, has a club foot; and in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life Jude’s shame over his deteriorating physical condition, especially his legs, is reminiscent of Philip’s.
I’m not sure I’ll try anything else by Maugham – how could I when there’s still so much of Dickens and Hardy left to read? – but I’m certainly glad I read this. It’s clear why Berthoud and Elderkin thought Of Human Bondage would be a perfect read for someone in their 30s: it’s infused with the protagonist’s nostalgia for his youth and regret at opportunities not taken and time lost. The novel imagines a world where, even without a god pulling a string, some misfortune seems to be fated. Even so, free will is there, allowing you to recover from failure and try something new that will be truer to yourself in this one and only life.
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.