I love book lists: ticking off what I’ve read from newspaper and website selections, comparing my “best-of” choices and prize predictions with other people’s, and making up my own thematic inventories. Earlier in the year I spotted Desert Island-style 100-book lists on Annabookbel and A life in books, as well as Lonesome Reader’s reconsideration of the 100 favorite books he’d chosen half a lifetime ago. For my 35th birthday today, I’ve looked back at my “Absolute Favorites” shelf on Goodreads and picked the 35 titles that stand out the most for me: some are childhood favorites, some are books that changed my thinking, some I have read two or three times (an extreme rarity for me), and some are recent discoveries that have quickly become personal classics. I’ve listed these in rough chronological order of when I first read them, rather than ranking them, which would be nigh on impossible! Perhaps I’ll revisit the list on future significant birthdays and see how things change. Interesting to note that this works out as about two-thirds fiction and one-third nonfiction.
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis
Watership Down by Richard Adams
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
Possession by A.S. Byatt
Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
Sixpence House by Paul Collins
A History of God by Karen Armstrong
Conundrum by Jan Morris
The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty
Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Caribou Island by David Vann
To Travel Hopefully by Christopher Rush
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
There could hardly be an author better qualified to deliver this thorough history of the heart and the treatment of its problems. Sandeep Jauhar is the director of the Heart Failure Program at Long Island Medical Center. His family history – both grandfathers died of sudden cardiac events in India, one after being bitten by a snake – prompted an obsession with the heart, and he and his brother both became cardiologists. As the book opens, Jauhar was shocked to learn he had up to a 50% blockage of his own coronary vessels. Things had really gotten personal.
Cardiovascular disease has been the #1 killer in the West since 1910 and, thanks to steady smoking rates and a continuing rise in obesity and sedentary lifestyles, will still affect 60% of Americans. However, the key is that fewer people will now die of heart disease thanks to the developments of the last six decades in particular. These include the heart–lung machine, cardiac catheterization, heart transplantation, and artificial hearts.
Along the timeline, Jauhar peppers in bits of his own professional and academic experience, like experimenting on frogs during high school in California and meeting his first cadaver at medical school. My favorite chapter was the twelfth, “Vulnerable Heart,” which is about how trauma can cause heart arrhythmias; it opens with an account of the author’s days cataloguing body parts in a makeshift morgue as a 9/11 first responder. I also particularly liked his account of being called out of bed to perform an echocardiogram, which required catching a taxi at 3 a.m. and avoiding New York City’s rats.
Maybe I’ve read too much surgical history this year (The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris and Face to Face by Jim McCaul), though, because I found myself growing fairly impatient with the medical details in the long Part II, which centers on the heart as a machine, and was drawn more to the autobiographical material in the first and final sections. Perhaps I would prefer Jauhar’s first book, Intern: A Doctor’s Initiation.
In terms of readalikes, I’d mention Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene, in which the personal story also takes something of a backseat to the science, and Gavin Francis’s Shapeshifters, which exhibits a similar interest in the metaphors applied to the body. While I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as two other heart-themed memoirs I’ve read, The Sanctuary of Illness by Thomas Larson and Echoes of Heartsounds by Martha Weinman Lear, I still think it’s a strong contender for next year’s Wellcome Book Prize (the judging panel is announced tomorrow!).
Some favorite lines:
“it is increasingly clear that the biological heart is extraordinarily sensitive to our emotional system—to the metaphorical heart, if you will.”
“Who but the owner can say what lies inside a human heart?”
“As a heart-failure specialist, I’d experienced enough death to fill up a lifetime. At one time, it was difficult to witness the grief of loved ones. But my heart had been hardened, and this was no longer that time.”
Heart is published in the UK today, September 27th, by Oneworld. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
In My Mind’s Eye: A Thought Diary,by Jan Morris
I’ve been an admirer of Jan Morris’s autobiographical and travel writing for 15 years or more. In this diary covering 2017 into early 2018, parts of which were originally published in the Financial Times and the Welsh-language literary newspaper O’r Pedwar Gwynt, we get a glimpse into her life in her early nineties. It was a momentous time in the world at large but a fairly quiet and reflective span for her personally. Though each day’s headlines seem to herald chaos and despair, she’s a blithe spirit – good-natured about the ravages of old age and taking delight in the routines of daily one-mile walks down the lane and errands in local Welsh towns with her beloved partner Elizabeth, who’s in the early stages of dementia.
There are thrilling little moments, though, when a placid domestic life (a different kind of marmalade with breakfast each day of the week!) collides with exotic past experiences, and suddenly we’re plunged into memories of travels in Swaziland and India. Back when she was still James, Morris served in World War II, was the Times journalist reporting from the first ascent of Everest, and wrote a monolithic three-volume history of the British Empire. She took her first airplane flight 70 years ago, and is nostalgic for the small-town America she first encountered in the 1950s. Hold all that up against her current languid existence among the books and treasures of Trefan Morys and it seems she’s lived enough for many lifetimes.
There’s a good variety of topics here, ranging from current events to Morris’s love of cats; I particularly liked the fragments of doggerel. However, as is often the case with diaries, read too many entries in one go and you may start to find the sequence of (non-)events tedious. Each piece is only a page or two, so I tried never to read many more than 10 pages at a time. Even so, I noticed that the plight of zoo animals, clearly a hobby-horse, gets mentioned several times. It seemed to me a strange issue to get worked up about, especially as enthusiastic meat-eating and killing mice with traps suggest that she’s not applying a compassionate outlook consistently.
In the end, though, kindness is Morris’s cardinal virtue, and despite minor illness, telephone scams and a country that looks to be headed to the dogs, she’s encouraged by the small acts of kindness she meets with from friends and strangers alike. Like Diana Athill (whose Alive, Alive Oh! this resembles), I think of Morris as a national treasure, and I was pleased to spend some time seeing things from her perspective.
Some favorite lines:
“If I set out in the morning for my statutory thousand daily paces up the lane, … I enjoy the fun of me, the harmless conceit, the guileless complexity and the merriment. When I go walking in the evening, on the other hand, … I shall recognize what I don’t like about myself – selfishness, self-satisfaction, foolish self-deceit and irritability. Morning pride, then, and evening shame.” (from Day 99)
“Good or bad, virile or senile, there’s no life like the writer’s life.” (from Day 153)
In My Mind’s Eye was published by Faber & Faber on September 6th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Amateur: A True Story about What Makes a Man, Thomas Page McBee
Thomas Page McBee was the first transgender man to box at Madison Square Garden. In his second memoir, which arose from a Quartz article entitled “Why Men Fight,” he recounts the training leading up to his charity match and ponders whether aggression is a natural male trait. McBee grew up in a small town outside Pittsburgh with a stepfather who sexually abused him from age four. In 2011 he started the testosterone injections that would begin his gender transformation. During the years that followed, other men seemed to pick fights with him fairly often, and he was unsure what to do about it. Finally, in 2015, the Manhattan editor decided to confront the belligerent male stereotype by starting boxing training.
What I most appreciated were the author’s observations of how others have related to him since his transition. He notices that he’s taken more seriously at work as a man, and that he can be an object of fear – when jogging behind a woman at night, for instance. One of the most eye-opening moments of the book is when he realizes that he’s been talking over his own sister. Thankfully, McBee is sensitive enough to stop and change, recognizing that kindness and vulnerability are not faults but attributes any person should be proud of.
I have a feeling I would have preferred his previous memoir, Man Alive, which sounds like it has more about the transition itself. Jonathan Eig’s biography of Muhammad Ali is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and in comparison I didn’t find the boxing writing here very interesting. Likewise, this pales beside two similar but more perceptive books I’ve read that have been hugely influential on my own understanding of gender identity: Conundrum by Jan Morris and The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson.
Amateur was published in the UK by Canongate on August 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Shapeshifters: On Medicine and Human Change by Gavin Francis
Gavin Francis is a physician with a practice near Edinburgh. His latest book is like a taster course in medical topics. The overarching theme is the modifications the body undergoes, so there are chapters on, for example, body-building, tattoos, puberty, prosthetic limbs, dementia and menopause. Over his years in general practice Francis has gotten to know his patients’ stories and seen them change, for better or worse. These anecdotes of transformation are one source for his book, but he also applies insight from history, mythology, literature, etymology and more. So in a chapter on conception he discusses the Virgin Mary myth, Leonardo da Vinci’s fetal diagrams, the physiological changes pregnant women experience, and the case of a patient, Hannah, who had three difficult, surprise pregnancies in quick succession.
We are all in the process of various transformations, Francis argues, whether by choice or involuntarily. (I decided on the link with McBee because of a chapter on sex changes.) I was less convinced by the author’s inclusion of temporary, reversible changes such as sleep, hallucinations, jet lag and laughter. And while each chapter is finely wrought, I felt some sort of chronological or anatomical order was necessary to give the book more focus. All the same, I suspect this will be a strong contender for next year’s Wellcome Book Prize because of its broad relevance to human health and its compassionate picture of bodies in flux.
Shapeshifters was published by the Wellcome Collection/Profile Books on May 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
Here are 30 books that are on my radar for the months of July through November (I haven’t heard about any December titles yet), plus one bonus book that I’ve already read. This is by no means a full inventory of what’s coming out, or even of what I have available through NetGalley and Edelweiss; instead, think of it as a preview of the books I actually intend to read, in release date order. The quoted descriptions are from the publisher blurbs on Goodreads. If I already have access to the book in some way, I’ve noted that.
The first half of the year seemed to be all about plants. This time around I have plenty of memoirs, some medical and some bookish; birds and watery imagery; and some religious and philosophical themes.
17 out of 30 read; of those 8 were at least somewhat disappointing (d’oh!)
1 currently reading
1 lost interest in
1 I still intend to read
5 I didn’t manage to find]
No One Tells You This: A Memoir by Glynnis MacNicol [July 10, Simon & Schuster]: “If the story doesn’t end with marriage or a child, what then? This question plagued Glynnis MacNicol on the eve of her 40th birthday. … Over the course of her fortieth year, which this memoir chronicles, Glynnis embarks on a revealing journey of self-discovery that continually contradicts everything she’d been led to expect.” (NetGalley download)
The Lost Chapters: Finding Recovery and Renewal One Book at a Time by Leslie Schwartz [July 10, Blue Rider Press]: “Leslie Schwartz’s powerful, skillfully woven memoir of redemption and reading, as told through the list of books she read as she served a 90-day jail sentence. … Incarceration might have ruined her, if not for the stories that comforted her while she was locked up.”
The Bumblebee Flies Anyway: Gardening and Surviving Against the Odds by Kate Bradbury [July 17, Bloomsbury Wildlife]: “Finding herself in a new home in Brighton, Kate Bradbury sets about transforming her decked, barren backyard into a beautiful wildlife garden. She documents the unbuttoning of the earth and the rebirth of the garden, the rewilding of a tiny urban space.”
Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir by Jean Guerrero [July 17, One World]: “A daughter’s quest to find, understand, and save her charismatic, troubled, and elusive father, a self-mythologizing Mexican immigrant who travels across continents—and across the borders between imagination and reality; and spirituality and insanity—fleeing real and invented persecutors.”
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon [July 31, Riverhead]: “A shocking novel of violence, love, faith, and loss, as a young woman at an elite American university is drawn into acts of domestic terrorism by a cult tied to North Korea. … The Incendiaries is a fractured love story and a brilliant examination of the minds of extremist terrorists, and of what can happen to people who lose what they love most.” (Print ARC for blog review at UK release on Sept. 6 [Virago])
Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller [Aug. 2, Penguin Fig Tree]: I’ve loved Fuller’s two previous novels. This one is described as “a suspenseful story about deception, sexual obsession and atonement” set in 1969 in a run-down English country house. I don’t need to know any more than that; I have no doubt it’ll be brilliant in an Iris Murdoch/Gothic way. (Print ARC for blog review on release date)
If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim [Aug. 7, William Morrow]: “An emotionally riveting debut novel about war, family, and forbidden love—the unforgettable saga of two ill-fated lovers in Korea and the heartbreaking choices they’re forced to make in the years surrounding the civil war that continues to haunt us today.” This year’s answer to Pachinko? And another botanical cover to boot! (Edelweiss download)
A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua [Aug. 14, Ballantine Books]: “In a powerful debut novel about motherhood, immigration, and identity, a pregnant Chinese woman makes her way to California and stakes a claim to the American dream. … an entertaining, wildly unpredictable adventure, told with empathy and wit” Sounds like The Leavers, which is a Very Good Thing.
The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher [Aug. 14, Doubleday]: A sequel to the very funny epistolary novel Dear Committee Members! “Now is the fall of his discontent, as Jason Fitger, newly appointed chair of the English Department of Payne University, takes aim against a sea of troubles, personal and institutional.” (Edelweiss download)
Gross Anatomy: Dispatches from the Front (and Back) by Mara Altman [Aug. 21, G.P. Putnam’s Sons]: “By using a combination of personal anecdotes and fascinating research, Gross Anatomy holds up a magnifying glass to our beliefs, practices, biases, and body parts and shows us the naked truth—that there is greatness in our grossness.” (PDF from publisher; to review for GLAMOUR online)
Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters by Anne Boyd Rioux [Aug. 21, W. W. Norton Company]: This is the bonus one I’ve already read, as part of my research for my Literary Hub article on rereading Little Women at its 150th anniversary. (That’s also the occasion for this charming book.) Rioux unearths Little Women’s origins in Alcott family history, but also traces its influence through to the present day. She also makes a strong feminist case for it. My short Goodreads review is here. (Edelweiss download)
Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart [Sept. 4, Random House]: I read his memoir but am yet to try his fiction. “When his dream of the perfect marriage, the perfect son, and the perfect life implodes, a Wall Street millionaire takes a cross-country bus trip in search of his college sweetheart and ideals of youth. … [a] biting, brilliant, emotionally resonant novel very much of our times.” (Edelweiss download; for Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review)
In My Mind’s Eye: A Thought Diary by Jan Morris [Sept. 6, Faber & Faber]: One of my most admired writers. “A collection of diary pieces that Jan Morris wrote for the Financial Times over the course of 2017.” I have never before in my life kept a diary of my thoughts, and here at the start of my ninth decade, having for the moment nothing much else to write, I am having a go at it. Good luck to me.
Help Me!: One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Her Life by Marianne Power [Sept. 6, Picador]: “[F]or a year she vowed to test a book a month, following its advice to the letter, taking the surest road she knew to a perfect Marianne. As her year-long plan turned into a demented roller coaster where everything she knew was turned upside down, she found herself confronted with a different question: Self-help can change your life, but is it for the better?” (Print ARC)
Normal People by Sally Rooney [Sept. 6, Faber & Faber]: Much anticipated follow-up to Conversations with Friends. “Connell and Marianne both grow up in the same town in rural Ireland. The similarities end there; they are from very different worlds. But they both get places to study at university in Dublin, and a connection that has grown between them despite the social tangle of school lasts long into the following years.”
Mrs. Gaskell & Me by Nell Stevens [Sept. 6, Picador]: “In 2013, Nell Stevens is embarking on her PhD … and falling drastically in love with a man who lives in another city. As Nell chases her heart around the world, and as Mrs. Gaskell forms the greatest connection of her life, these two women, though centuries apart, are drawn together.” I was lukewarm on her previous book, Bleaker House, but I couldn’t resist the Victorian theme of this one! (Print ARC to review for Shiny New Books)
Heart: A History by Sandeep Jauhar [Sept. 18, Farrar, Straus and Giroux]: “Deftly alternating between key historical episodes and his own work, Jauhar tells the colorful and little-known story of the doctors who risked their careers and the patients who risked their lives to know and heal our most vital organ. … Affecting, engaging, and beautifully written.” (Edelweiss download)
To the Moon and Back: A Childhood under the Influence by Lisa Kohn [Sept. 18, Heliotrope Books]: “Lisa was raised as a ‘Moonie’—a member of the Unification Church, founded by self-appointed Messiah, Reverend Sun Myung Moon. … Told with spirited candor, [this] reveals how one can leave behind such absurdity and horror and create a life of intention and joy.”
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss [Sept. 20, Granta]: I’ve read Moss’s complete (non-academic) oeuvre; I’d read her on any topic. This novella sounds rather similar to her first book, Cold Earth, which I read recently. “Teenage Silvie is living in a remote Northumberland camp as an exercise in experimental archaeology. … Behind and ahead of Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a sacrifice, a woman killed by those closest to her, and as the hot summer builds to a terrifying climax, Silvie and the Bog girl are in ever more terrifying proximity.” (NetGalley download)
Time’s Convert (All Souls Universe #1) by Deborah Harkness [Sept. 25, Viking]: I was a sucker for Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches and its sequels, much to my surprise. (The thinking girl’s Twilight, you see. I don’t otherwise read fantasy.) Set between the American Revolution and contemporary London, this fills in the backstory for some of the vampire characters.
All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Nicole Chung [Oct. 2, Catapult]: “Nicole Chung was born severely premature, placed for adoption by her Korean parents, and raised by a white family in a sheltered Oregon town. … With warmth, candor, and startling insight, Chung tells of her search for the people who gave her up, which coincided with the birth of her own child.” (Edelweiss download)
Melmoth by Sarah Perry [Oct. 2, Serpent’s Tail]: Gothic fantasy / historical thriller? Not entirely sure. I just know that it’s the follow-up by the author of The Essex Serpent. (I choose to forget that her first novel exists.) Comes recommended by Eleanor Franzen and Simon Savidge, among others. (Edelweiss download)
The Ravenmaster: Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London by Christopher Skaife [Oct. 2, 4th Estate]: More suitably Gothic pre-Halloween fare! “Legend has it that if the Tower of London’s ravens should perish or be lost, the Crown and kingdom will fall. … [A]fter decades of serving the Queen, Yeoman Warder Christopher Skaife took on the added responsibility of caring for these infamous birds.” I briefly met the author when he accompanied Lindsey Fitzharris to the Wellcome Book Prize ceremony.
I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche by Sue Prideaux [Oct. 4, Faber & Faber]: “Friedrich Nietzsche’s work forms the bedrock of our contemporary thought, and yet a shroud of misunderstanding surrounds the philosopher behind these proclamations. The time is right for a new take on Nietzsche’s extraordinary life, whose importance as a thinker rivals that of Freud or Marx.” (For a possible TLS review?)
Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott [Oct. 16, Riverhead]: I haven’t been too impressed with Lamott’s recent stuff, but I’ll still read anything she publishes. “In this profound and funny book, Lamott calls for each of us to rediscover the nuggets of hope and wisdom that are buried within us that can make life sweeter than we ever imagined. … Almost Everything pinpoints these moments of insight as it shines an encouraging light forward.”
The Library Book by Susan Orlean [Oct. 16, Simon & Schuster]: The story of a devastating fire at Los Angeles Public Library in April 1986. “Investigators descended on the scene, but over 30 years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who? Weaving her life-long love of books and reading with the fascinating history of libraries and the sometimes-eccentric characters who run them, … Orlean presents a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling story as only she can.” (Edelweiss download)
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver [Oct. 18, Faber & Faber]: Kingsolver is another author I’d read anything by. “[T]he story of two families, in two centuries, who live at the corner of Sixth and Plum, as they navigate the challenges of surviving a world in the throes of major cultural shifts.” 1880s vs. today, with themes of science and utopianism – I’m excited! (Edelweiss download)
Nine Pints: A Journey through the Money, Medicine, and Mysteries of Blood by Rose George [Oct. 23, Metropolitan Books]: “Rose George, author of The Big Necessity [on human waste], is renowned for her intrepid work on topics that are invisible but vitally important. In Nine Pints, she takes us from ancient practices of bloodletting to modern ‘hemovigilance’ teams that track blood-borne diseases.”
The End of the End of the Earth: Essays by Jonathan Franzen [Nov. 13, Farrar, Straus and Giroux]: “[G]athers essays and speeches written mostly in the past five years … Whether exploring his complex relationship with his uncle, recounting his young adulthood in New York, or offering an illuminating look at the global seabird crisis, these pieces contain all the wit and disabused realism that we’ve come to expect from Franzen.”
A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel [Nov. 13, Fig Tree Books]: “How does a woman who grew up in rural Indiana as a fundamentalist Christian end up a practicing Jew in New York? … Ultimately, the connection to God she so relentlessly pursued was found in the most unexpected place: a mikvah on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. This devout Christian Midwesterner found her own form of salvation—as a practicing Jewish woman.”
Becoming by Michelle Obama [Nov. 13, Crown]: “In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her—from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address.”
Which of these do you want to read, too? What other upcoming 2018 titles are you looking forward to?
Every once in a while you’ll hear someone claim that a certain book will change your life. I think of a scene in Garden State, still one of my favorite movies of all time, where Natalie Portman’s character tells Zach Braff’s character “this song will change your life” and puts The Shins’ “New Slang” on his headphones. (Ok, it’s a good song, but not that great.)
Are there any books that have literally changed my life? I can think of a handful that have been extremely influential on my worldview and, in a couple of cases, also changed my behavior. As it happens, they’re all nonfiction.
After I got back to the States from my year abroad, I spent a few years doing some intensive reading about progressive Christianity (it was sometimes also called the emergent church) and other religions, trying to decide if it was worth sticking with the faith I’d grown up in. Although I still haven’t definitively answered this for myself, and have drifted in and out of lots of churches over the last 12 years, two authors were key to me never ditching Christianity entirely: Brian McLaren and Marcus Borg.
McLaren founded the church we attend whenever we’re back in Maryland and is the author of over a dozen theology titles, including the New Kind of Christian trilogy of allegorical novels. For me his best book is A New Kind of Christianity, which pulls together all his recurrent themes. Borg, who died in 2015, wrote several books that made a big impression on me, but none more so than The Heart of Christianity, which is the best single book I’ve found about what Christianity can and should be, going back to Jesus’ way of peace and social justice and siphoning off the unhelpful doctrines that have accumulated over the centuries.
Any number of other Christian books and authors have been helpful to me over the years (Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner, How (Not) to Speak of God by Peter Rollins, Falling Upward by Richard Rohr, An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor, Without Buddha I Could Not be a Christian by Paul Knitter, Unapologetic by Francis Spufford, and various by Kathleen Norris, Rowan Williams, Richard Holloway and Anne Lamott), reassuring me that it’s not all hellfire/pie in the sky mumbo-jumbo for anti-gay Republicans, but Borg and McLaren were there at the start of my journey.
Reading is my primary means of examining society as well as my own life, so it’s no wonder that I have turned to books to learn from some gender pioneers. Hanne Blank’s accessible social history Straight (2012) is particularly valuable for its revelation of the surprisingly short history of heterosexuality as a concept – the term has only existed since the 1860s. But the book that most helped me adjust my definitions of gender and broaden my tolerance was Conundrum by Jan Morris (1974).
James Morris, born in 1926, was a successful reporter, travel writer, husband and father. Yet all along he knew he was meant to be female; it was something he had sensed for the first time as a young child sitting under the family piano: “I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl … the conviction was unfaltering from the start.” In 1954 he began taking hormones to start his transition to womanhood, completed by a sex reassignment surgery in Morocco in 1972. This exceptional memoir of sex change evokes the swirl of determination and doubt, as well as the almost magical process of metamorphosing from one thing to another. Morris has been instrumental in helping me see sexuality as a continuum rather than a fixed entity.
Apart from Michael Pollan, can you guess who’s had the greatest influence on my eating habits? You might be surprised to learn it’s American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. In 2009 he published a provocative book called Eating Animals. I’m still surprised by how powerful and challenging I found it, considering that I knew pretty much what to expect: anti-meat rhetoric from a trendy vegetarian, with plenty of arresting statistics and horrifying behind-the-scenes accounts of factory farming and slaughter. But I set aside my jaded approach to potential propaganda and let it all saturate me, and it was devastating.
The fact that I still haven’t completely given up meat is proof of how difficult it is to change, even once you’ve been convicted. We’ve gone from eating meat occasionally to almost never, and then mostly when we’re guests at other people’s houses. But if I really reminded myself to think about where my food was coming from, I’m sure we’d be even more hardline. Foer didn’t answer all my questions – what about offal and wild game, and why not go all the way to veganism? – but I appreciated that he never characterizes the decision to be vegetarian as an easy one. He recognizes the ways food is bound up with cultural traditions and family memories, but still thinks being true to one’s principles outweighs all. (He’s brave enough to suggest to middle America that it’s time to consider a turkey-free Thanksgiving!)
There’s nothing more routine than brushing your teeth, and I never thought I would learn a new way to do it at age 32! But that’s just what Ignore Your Teeth and They’ll Go Away by Sheldon Dov Sydney gave me. He advises these steps: (1) brushing with a dry brush to remove bits of food and plaque, (2) flossing, and (3) brushing with toothpaste as a polish and to freshen breath. It takes a little bit longer than your usual quick brush and thus I can’t often be bothered to do it, but it does always leave my mouth feeling super-clean.
I frequently succumb to negative self-talk, thinking “I can’t cope” or “There’s no way I could…” Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers helped me see that I need to be more positive in my thought life. Originally published in 1987, the self-help classic says that at the base of every fear is a belief that “I can’t handle it.” Our fears are either of things that can happen to us (aging and natural disasters) or actions we might take (going back to school or changing jobs). You can choose to hold fear with either pain (leading to paralysis) or power (leading to action). This is still a struggle for me, but whenever I start to think “I can’t” I try to replace it with Jeffers’ mantra, “Whatever it is, I’ll handle it.”
Can you think of any books that have literally changed your life?
For much much of the summer I was sunk deep into several very good but not particularly page-turning works of nonfiction from my shelves. I spent months reading some of them, which is very unusual for me and often a sign that I’m not enjoying something, but this time that wasn’t the case. One of these nonfiction reads – the Fermor – ended up being among my favorite books of the year so far. Below I give quick write-ups of what I’ve finished lately and recall how these books came to be in my collection.
Lincoln: A Foreigner’s Quest by Jan Morris: Like grape jelly, the obsession with Abraham Lincoln was something about American life that world traveler Jan Morris could never understand. Here she sets out to discover the melange of history and myth that composes the 16th president. She succeeds in giving not only the salient facts of Lincoln’s life but also a fair assessment of his character, in a lighthearted and accessible book that has neither the heft nor the heavygoing tone of a standard biography. Her discussion of his rhetorical style is especially good, and in a few passages she imagines the reader into scenes. Here’s one of the best pithy observations: “Academic historians cannot allow themselves such flip idiomatic judgments, but to an outsider like me that seems about the truth of it. He was a nice man. He could be scheming, irritable, disingenuous, but he was never pompous or overbearing.” [Remainder copy bought for $3.99 at Wonder Book and Video, Frederick, Maryland.]
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan: I made the mistake of reading this a decade after its publication, which means I already knew most of its facts about industrialized farming and the insidiousness of processed foods. I found Part I to be overly detailed and one-note, constantly harping on about corn. The book gets better as it goes on, though, with Pollan doing field research at Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia to compare large-scale organic agriculture with more sustainable grassroots operations. Pollan’s assessment of the ethics of eating meat is not quite as thorough as Jonathan Safran Foer’s (in Eating Animals), but he does a good job of showing all sides of the issue. This would make an excellent, comprehensive introduction to where food comes from for people who have never given it much thought. But then again, the people who need it most would never pick up a dense 400+-page book by a liberal journalist. [Bought in one of the Hay-on-Wye shops for £2.]
The Naming of the Shrew by John Wright: Wright is known in the UK as TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s go-to expert on foraging, especially fungi. His enthusiasm for the arcane details of Latin naming comes through clearly in this thorough history of taxonomy. At first I thought it would be a groaningly pun-filled book of arbitrarily arranged trivia, but by Chapter 2 Wright won me over. You’ll learn all about Carl Linnaeus and the taxonomists who preceded and followed him; rules for species naming and the meaning of common Latin prefixes and suffixes; the wildly divergent sources of names, from discoverers’ names to mythology; and the endless complications of a field where species are always being lumped, split, or re-evaluated. One of my favorite facts was that aloe vera and the boa constrictor are among the few species whose English names are the same as their Latin ones. [A birthday gift from my brother-in-law last year.]
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor: A true masterwork of travel writing. Over the course of three years, starting when he was just 18, Fermor walked from Holland to Constantinople. I was particularly eager to read this because he passes through a lot of places I went on my travels this past summer, including Germany, Austria and Bratislava. This first of three volumes covers up until his entry into Hungary. His descriptions of the landscape and the people he interacted with are as fresh as if they happened yesterday, and yet he was reconstructing this journey nearly 40 years after the fact. Although he was basically traveling rough, he managed to wangle invitations into castles and aristocrats’ homes. This gives him a broad base of observation such that you feel you’re getting a complete picture of European life in the early 1930s. It’s a precious glimpse of pre-war history, but Fermor doesn’t use too heavy a hand when recalling signs of rising Nazism. Lastly, this is simply damn fine writing:
Beer, caraway seed, beeswax, coffee, pine-logs and melting snow combined with the smoke of thick, short cigars in a benign aroma across which every so often the ghost of sauerkraut would float.
The Romanesque nave was packed and an anthem of great choral splendour rose from the gothic choir stalls, while the cauliflowering incense followed the plainsong across the slopes of the sunbeams.
When no buildings were in sight, I was back in the Dark Ages. But the moment a farmhouse or a village impinged, I was in the world of Peter Brueghel.
[Bought for £1 from a secondhand bookstore in Henley-on-Thames.]
The House by the Sea by May Sarton: This is the sixth of Sarton’s journals I’ve read. It covers 1975–6, when she was 63–4 and in her second year in Maine. Her health is not yet a worry, at least as compared to later journals, but there is a faint sense of diminished abilities and an awareness of death’s approach. Poetry has run dry for her, but in the course of writing this journal she publishes a series of biographical reflections and prepares to begin a new novel. Tamas the dog and Bramble the cat are faithful companions. Her former lover, Judy, suffers from dementia and visits with her are mostly painful reminders of what has been lost. These journals are not the place to turn if you want momentous events. Rather, read them for deep insight into a writer’s psyche, meditations on the benefits of solitude, and affirmation of the quiet joys of gardening and an ocean view. [Bought from a library book sale in America for 50 cents.]
What are some of the best nonfiction books you’ve read recently?
In June my husband and I will be off to Europe for two weeks of train travel, making stops in Brussels, Freiburg (Germany), two towns in Switzerland and another two in Austria. I like picking appropriate reading material for my vacations whenever possible (even though I’ll never forget Jan Morris’s account of reading the works of Jane Austen on a houseboat in Sri Lanka – a case of the context being so wrong it’s right), so I’ve been thinking about what to take with me and what to read ahead of time.
Back in October I picked up a lovely little secondhand hardback of Jerome K. Jerome’s Diary of a Pilgrimage for £1. Given that it’s a novel about a journey by train and boat from England to Germany to see the Oberammergau Passion Play and that Jerome is a safe bet for a funny read, this one is definitely going in my luggage. I also plan to take along a library paperback of A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, a novella set in the Austrian Alps at the time of the Second World War.
Last year I discovered Austrian writer Daniel Kehlmann through the brilliant F: A Novel, and now have two more of his waiting: Me and Kaminski and Measuring the World, which sound completely different from each other but equally appealing (see Naomi’s review of the latter). What I might do is read one just before the trip and the other soon after we get back.
There are a few thin classics I have on my shelves and might be tempted to slip into a backpack, but for the most part I’ll plan to save space by taking a well-loaded Kindle. (It currently houses 300 books, so there’s no risk of running out of reading material!) I think I’ll treat myself to a few July/August books from my priority advanced reads list, like (fiction) The Hemingway Thief by Shaun Harris and The Book that Matters Most by Ann Hood, and (nonfiction) Playing Dead by Elizabeth Greenwood and On Trails by Robert Moor.
Once we get back to England, my self-imposed restriction for the rest of the summer will be reading only my own books. That means no library books, NetGalley/Edelweiss ARCs, or unpaid review books. This should work out well because it looks like we’ll be moving on August 18th, so I’ll be able to cull some books after reading them to reduce the packing load.
In any case, it will be a good chance to reassess my collection and get through some doorstoppers like A Suitable Boy, City on Fire, and This Thing of Darkness. During moving week itself I may have to stick to Kindle books while the print ones are inaccessible, but then as I rediscover them through unpacking I can try to push myself through a few more.
What are your summer and/or vacation reading strategies?