I’m continuing with the Nonfiction November focus by catching up on six nonfiction review books I’ve been sent over the last half a year. We’ve got a record of elderly parents’ decline, letters and poems written about the climate crisis, a family memoir set between Taiwan and Canada, a widow’s mushroom-hunting quest, a work of ecotheology that reflects on travels in the Galápagos Islands, and a defense of an entirely secular basis for morality. You can’t say I don’t read a variety, even within nonfiction! See if one or more of these tempts you.
All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir by Elizabeth Hay
Gordon and Jean Hay stumbled into their early nineties in an Ottawa retirement home starting in 2009. Elizabeth Hay is one of four children, but caregiving fell to her for one reason and another, and it was a fraught task because of her parents’ prickly personalities: Jean was critical and thrifty to the point of absurdity, spooning thick mold off apple sauce before serving it and needling Elizabeth for dumping perfectly good chicken juice a year before; Gordon had a terrible temper and a history of corporal punishment of his children and of his students when he was a school principal. Jean’s knee surgery and subsequent infection finally put paid to their independence; her mind was never the same and she could no longer paint.
There are many harsh moments in this memoir, but almost as many wry ones, with Hay picking just the right anecdotes to illustrate her parents’ behavior and the shifting family dynamic. She never looks away, no matter how hard it all gets. Her father’s rage against the dying of the light contrasts with her mother’s fade into confusion – lightened by the surprisingly poetic turns of phrase she came out with despite her dementia and aphasia. The title phrase, for instance, was her attempt at “all things considered.” I would wholeheartedly recommend this to readers of Hay’s novels, but anyone can appreciate the picture of complicated love and grief. (See also Susan’s review.)
With thanks to MacLehose Press for the free copy for review.
Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis, edited by Anna Hope et al.
Culture Declares Emergency launched in April to bring the arts into the conversation about the climate emergency. Letters to the Earth compiles 100 short pieces by known and unknown names alike. Alongside published authors, songwriters, professors and politicians are lots of ordinary folk, including children as young as seven. The brief was broad: to write a letter in response to environmental crisis, whether to or from the Earth, to future generations (there are wrenching pieces written to children: “What can I say, now that it’s too late? … that I’m sorry, that I tried,” writes Stuart Capstick), to the government or to other species.
There are certainly relatable emotions here, especially the feeling of helplessness. “We take the train, go vegan, refuse plastic, buy less and less. But that is tiny. We are tiny,” novelist Jo Baker writes. I loved retired bishop Richard Holloway’s wry letter calling the author of Genesis to account for unhelpful language of dominion, Rob Cowen’s poem to a starling, and Anna Hope’s essay about parenting in a time of uncertainty. Unfortunately, much of the rest is twee or haranguing, e.g. “Forest fires are scorching INNOCENT wildlife. Plastic is strangling INNOCENT turtles and dolphins,” a 12-year-old writes. This was put together in a matter of months, and it shows. There is not enough tonal variety, a lot of overwriting has crept through, and errors, especially in the kids’ work, remain uncorrected. Perhaps six to 10 pieces stood out to me overall. I’d recommend the Extinction Rebellion handbook instead.
With thanks to Alison Menzies / William Collins for the free copy for review.
Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan by Jessica J. Lee
I loved Turning, Lee’s 2017 memoir about swimming in one of Berlin’s lakes per week for a year, so I jumped at the chance to read her follow-up, which delves into her maternal line’s history in Taiwan. She travels to Taipei for three months to brush up on her Chinese, write and hike. Interspersed with the lush descriptions of her walks are reflections on Taiwan’s history and on the hidden aspects of her grandfather Gong’s past that only came to light after Lee’s grandmother, Po, died and she and her mother discovered an autobiographical letter he’d written before he drifted into dementia. Nature, language, history and memory flow together in a delicate blend of genres – “I moved from the human timescale of my family’s story through green and unfurling dendrological time,” she writes.
This has got to be one of the most striking title and cover combinations of the year. Along with Chinese characters, the book includes some looping text and Nico Taylor’s maps and illustrations of Taiwanese flora and fauna. While you will likely get more out of this if you have a particular interest in Asian history, languages and culture, it’s impressive how Lee brings the different strands of her story together to form a hybrid nature memoir that I hope will be recognized by next year’s Wainwright Prize and Young Writer of the Year Award shortlists. She’d also be a perfect New Networks for Nature speaker.
With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.
The Way through the Woods: Of Mushrooms and Mourning by Long Lit Woon
[Trans. from the Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland]
I couldn’t resist the sound of a bereavement memoir crossed with a mushroom hunting guide. When Long met her husband, Eiolf Olsen, she was an 18-year-old Malaysian exchange student in Stavanger, Norway. Meeting Eiolf changed the whole course of her life, keeping her in Europe for good; decades later, her life changed forever once again when Eiolf dropped dead at work one morning. “If anyone had told me that mushrooms would be my lifeline, the thing that would help me back onto my feet and quite literally back onto life’s track, I would have rolled my eyes. What had mushrooms to do with mourning?” she writes.
The answer to that rhetorical question is nothing much, at least not inherently, so this ends up becoming a book of two parts, with the bereavement strand (printed in green and in a different font – green is for grief? I suppose) engaging me much more than the mushroom-hunting one, which takes her to Central Park and the annual Telluride, Colorado mushroom festival as well as to Norway’s woods again and again – “In Norway, outdoor life is tantamount to a religion.” But the quest for wonder and for meaning is a universal one. In addition, if you’re a mushroom fan you’ll find gathering advice, tasting notes, and even recipes. I fancy trying the “mushroom bacon” made out of oven-dried shiitakes.
With thanks to Scribe for the free copy for review.
God Unbound: Theology in the Wild by Brian McLaren
McLaren was commissioned to launch a series that was part travel guide, part spiritual memoir and part theological reflection. Specifically, he was asked to write about the Galápagos Islands because he’d been before and they were important to him. He joins a six-day eco-cruise that tours around the island chain off Ecuador, with little to do except observe the birds, tortoises and iguanas, and swim with fish and sea turtles. For him this is a peaceful, even sacred place that reminds him of the beauty that still exists in the world despite so much human desecration. Although he avoids using his phone except to quickly check in with his wife, modernity encroaches unhelpfully through a potential disaster with his laptop.
I was surprised to see that McLaren leaves the Galápagos at the midpoint – whatever could fill the rest of the book, I wondered? He starts by reassessing Darwin, so often painted as a villain by Evangelical Christianity but actually a model of close, loving attention to nature. He also recalls how some of his most intense spiritual experiences have arisen from time in nature. McLaren’s books have been pivotal to my spiritual journey as we’ve both gradually become more liberal and environmentalist. His definition of God might horrify traditionalists, but holds appeal for me: “a centering singularity whose gravity holds me in insistent orbit, pulling me deeper into mystery, pondering who I am and what my life means.” This is an unusual but gently entrancing book full of photos and quotes from other thinkers including John Muir, Pope Francis and Richard Rohr. It’s an ideal introduction to ecotheology.
With thanks to Canterbury Press for the free copy for review.
What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life by Phil Zuckerman
From one end of the spectrum (progressive Christianity) to the other (atheism). Here’s a different perspective from a sociology professor at California’s Pitzer College. Zuckerman’s central argument is that humanism and free choice can fuel ethical behavior; since there’s no proof of God’s existence and theists have such a wide range of beliefs, it’s absurd to slap a “because God says so” label on our subjective judgments. Morals maintain the small communities our primate ancestors evolved into, with specific views (such as on homosexuality) a result of our socialization. Alas, the in-group/out-group thinking from our evolutionary heritage is what can lead to genocide. Instead of thinking in terms of ‘evil’, though, Zuckerman prefers Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen’s term, “empathy erosion.”
To tackle violent crime, Zuckerman contends, we need a more equal society, with the Scandinavian countries a model of how to achieve that through higher taxes, social services and the rehabilitation of prisoners. He uses a lot of relatable examples from history and from his own experience, as well as theoretical situations, to think through practical morality. I found his indictment of American Christianity accurate – how does it make sense for people who say they follow the way of Jesus to fight against equality, tolerance and scientific advances and instead advocate guns, the death penalty and Trump? Well, indeed.
It might seem odd for me to recommend this alongside the McLaren, but there is much to be gained from both viewpoints. Zuckerman’s work overlaps a fair bit with another I’ve read on the topic, Richard Holloway’s Godless Morality – even a bishop agrees we needn’t take our societal ethics straight from the Bible! I can’t go along fully with Zuckerman because I think progressive religion has been and can continue to be a force for good, but I would agree that atheists can be just as moral as people of faith – and often more so.
With thanks to Counterpoint Press for sending a proof copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
I’ve only been reviewing on Goodreads for a couple years, but in that time I’ve noticed some contradictory trends. The most-liked reviews can be thousands of words long or two sentences; disjointed ramblings or concise analysis; gif after gif (screen captures of moving or still images from TV or film) or pure text; strewn with typos or perfectly honed; personal or detached; gimmicky or straightforward; gushing praise or forthright dismissal. In other words, I’m somewhat puzzled as to what makes a review popular.
To some extent it’s down to the popularity of a reviewer: the more friends and followers they have, the more likely people are to ‘like’ their review (if you’re not familiar with Goodreads, it has a ‘like’ button just like on Facebook, and reviews of a certain book then arrange themselves in order with the ones with the highest likes on the top). But this isn’t a sure thing. Although top reviewers probably account for a good percentage of the most popular reviews, there are always those sneaky book reviews that come out of nowhere and go viral.
Here are my thoughts on what is likely to make a review popular, thinking not just of Goodreads but of other sites I’ve worked with:
The book has buzz already, and/or has won a major prize.
By far, my most popular review ever is of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries [458 likes]. It won the Man Booker Prize in 2013.
My second most popular review ever is of Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry [264 likes]. It was a New York Times bestseller and especially successful with the bookish types on Goodreads.
To my knowledge, our most popular article ever published on Bookkaholic was a book debate we did about Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. I rated it 3 stars, while my opponent, an Australian blogger, gave it 5.
There’s thousands of 5-star ratings for Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, the 2015 Pulitzer winner, so while mine is not one of the top reviews by any means, it’s still my fifth most popular one at 62 likes.
You get in there early.
Mine was one of the first reviews of The Luminaries to hit Goodreads, thanks to an advanced reader’s copy sent to me by We Love This Book. I also managed to review A.J. Fikry a few weeks before the publication date thanks to an Edelweiss download. With an early review, you can sometimes set the trend.
Helen Macdonald’s superb memoir, H is for Hawk, was released in the UK about a year before it finally arrived in the States, so that allowed my review time to gain some momentum (though not as much as a review that contained lots of photographs, something I still haven’t figured out how to do in html). It’s my sixth most popular review at 48 likes.
You epitomize the positive (or dissenting) response.
My third most popular review is of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being [138 likes], one of my favorite books from 2013 or any year. That was an unreserved 5-star rating. My 5-star review of Jo Baker’s Longbourn, my fourth most popular at 64 likes, went up the week of publication and started off strong before being overtaken by some other positive reviews.
By contrast, my reviews of The Luminaries and A.J. Fikry are lukewarm and critical, respectively. For the latter, I seem to represent the negative response: people who were disappointed by how clichéd and sappy a promising bibliophile’s novel turned out to be.
[Note: The above numbers were correct as of October 12, 2015; I will now stop updating them as it was taking up too much of my time and memory! My Goodreads teaser for A Little Life has now overtaken H is for Hawk as my sixth most popular review.]
Do you have any theories as to what makes a review popular? If you’re a blogger and/or reviewer, what have been some of your most popular pieces?
All comments welcome!
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 – or maybe more often – I’ll provide links to all the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a short taster and a rating (below) so you can decide whether to click to read more. (A couple of exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie or BlueInk reviews since I don’t get a byline.)
The Animals by Christian Kiefer [BookBrowse is a subscription service, but an excerpt is available for free on the website]: Kiefer’s second novel contrasts wildness and civilization through the story of a man who runs an animal refuge to escape from his criminal past.
The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein: A debut novel as charming as it is quirky. Two young adults from Brooklyn meet in the far north of Norway, where one is an artist’s apprentice and the other is burying a beloved father. Bittersweet family backstories and burgeoning romance make this a winner.
Beauty and Chaos: Slices and Morsels of Tokyo Life by Michael Pronko (& interview): The pleasant and diverse travel essays in this collection draw on Pronko’s 15 years living in Japan. A long-term resident but still an outsider, he is perfectly placed to notice the many odd and wonderful aspects of Tokyo life.
The Blind Man of Hoy: A True Story by Red Szell: Red Széll started losing his sight at age 19. In 2013 he became the first blind person to climb the Old Man of Hoy, off the Orkney Islands. An inspirational rock-climbing adventure.
Adeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Norah Vincent: Set in 1925–1941 and focusing on Virginia Woolf’s marriage and later career, this is a remarkable picture of mental illness from the inside. For the depth of its literary reference and psychological insight, this is my favorite novel of 2015 so far.
On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss: This wide-ranging work of nonfiction explores the facts, myths and metaphors of vaccination. Biss powerfully captures the modern phenomenon of feeling simultaneously responsible and powerless.
Chaplin and Company by Mave Fellowes: An aspiring mime buys a London canal boat and finds her father in this debut novel. Fellowes writes good descriptive passages and handles past and present capably. However, I was unsure whether Chaplin and Company overall has much narrative verve. What I will take away is an offbeat, bittersweet coming-of-age story.
Gorsky by Vesna Goldsworthy: An updated version of The Great Gatsby set amongst contemporary London’s über-rich Russians. The novel is wise about the implications of class and immigration. However, as a whole it doesn’t work as well as some updated classics, such as The Innocents (Francesca Segal). In a sense, Goldsworthy’s literary debt is too obvious.
Quite a Good Time to Be Born: A Memoir, 1935-1975 by David Lodge [more personal musings and an overview of the book’s content]: David Lodge, one of Britain’s most celebrated comic novelists, surveys 40 years of personal and social change.
Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin: The author of The Happiness Project returns with a thorough guide to making and breaking habits, offering different strategies for different personality types.
Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher: A very funny epistolary novel in the form of letters of recommendation written by a grouchy English professor. English graduates and teachers in particular will get a kick out of this, but I daresay anyone who has ever been fed up with bureaucracy at work will sympathize with Fitger.
The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Time by Barbara Taylor: Taylor was once a mental patient at Friern Hospital. This is an arresting vision of madness from the inside, as well as a history of England’s asylum system.
We Love This Book
It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario: Photojournalist Lynsey Addario remembers a decade on the frontline of conflicts in the Middle East and Africa and strives for balance in her work and personal life. Journalists face real danger every day. It’s all here: bombs, car accidents, dehydration, beatings, and sexual assault. Yet all the risks over the years have been worth it “to convey beauty in war.”
Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum: Essbaum’s arresting debut novel reads like a modern retelling of Madame Bovary, with its main character a desperate housewife in Zurich. As deplorable as Anna’s actions may be, she is an entirely sympathetic tragic heroine. Watch her trajectory with horror but you cannot deny there is a little of Anna in you.
The Wild Beyond by Piers Torday: the suspenseful finale to “The Last Wild,” a fantasy trilogy for younger readers. The environmentalist message is not subtle but it is powerful and should inspire older children. Blending hints of Pullman and Tolkien with up-to-the-minute dystopian themes, this is an inventive take on the classic quest narrative.
The Time in Between: A Memoir of Hunger and Hope by Nancy Tucker: Nancy Tucker suffered from anorexia and bulimia for nearly a decade. Written in an original blend of styles, her eating disorder memoir is wrenching but utterly absorbing. You won’t find epiphanies or happy endings here, just a messy, ongoing recovery process – but 21-year-old Tucker narrates it exquisitely.
Quadrapheme literary magazine
Quite a Good Time to Be Born: A Memoir, 1935-1975 by David Lodge [more of an essay about the context and sociological themes]: Even readers less familiar with Lodge’s work may be interested in the book’s insights into the social changes of post-war Britain. Lodge has not had a conventionally exciting life, and he knows it. From the title onward, his focus is more on his time period than his own uniqueness. He appears as an Everyman who superseded his working-class origins and expectations through hard work and luck.
Shiny New Books
Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer by Ann Morgan: Not just another bibliomemoir. A better balance could have been struck between recycled blog content and academic musings on postcolonial literature and censorship. An interest in the politics of literature in translation would be a boon to anyone attempting this.
Foreword Reviews (self-published titles)
The Woman in the Movie Star Dress by Praveen Asthana: In this carefully plotted novel, a young Native American finds self-assurance and explores her sexuality by trying on the clothing – and personae – of Hollywood actresses. Spirited characters and dialogue make this an enjoyable read for classic film lovers.
Silence by Deborah Lytton: Lytton’s second novel for young adults concerns the unlikely match between a Broadway-bound singer who experiences temporary deafness after an accident and a pianist with a speech impediment and a traumatic past. It is a touching story about the forces that so often threaten us into silence and the struggle to find a voice anyway.
Woody Allen: Reel to Real by Alex Sheremet: Woody Allen fans will prize this comprehensive, readable rundown of his oeuvre. This is an exhaustive study, ideal for established Allen enthusiasts and film students rather than the average moviegoer looking for an introduction.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading on Goodreads.
The Mermaid’s Child by Jo Baker: This was Baker’s second novel, originally published in 2004. It doesn’t nearly live up to Longbourn, but it’s a fairly intriguing blend of historical fiction and fantasy. Malin’s father was a ferryman; her absent mother, so he swears, was a mermaid. Curiously timeless and placeless.
The Dream Lover: A Novel of George Sand by Elizabeth Berg: This historical novel about George Sand is a real slow burner. Berg makes the mistake of trying to be too comprehensive about Sand’s life; it would be better to just choose illustrative vignettes or representative love affairs (e.g. with Chopin) rather than include them all. There are two different timelines, 1831–1876 and 1804–1831, but together they’re still just a chronological slog.
The Year My Mother Came Back by Alice Eve Cohen: There’s some gentle magic realism to this mother-daughter memoir. In the difficult year that forms the kernel of the memoir, Cohen’s younger daughter, Eliana, had a leg-lengthening surgery; her adopted older daughter, Julia, met her birth mother, Zoe; and Cohen herself underwent a lumpectomy and radiation for breast cancer. During radiation sessions, when she had to lie face-down, perfectly still, for 10 minutes at a time, her mother – dead for 20 years – would appear and talk to her.
A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees by Dave Goulson: A wholly engaging tour through everything we know and are still trying to learn about bumblebees. I saw Goulson, founder of the UK’s Bumblebee Conservation Trust, speak at a nature conference in November and found him to be just as enthusiastic and well-informed in person. His occasional anthropomorphisms are unfailingly endearing.
Black River by S.M. Hulse: Back in the town of Black River, Montana after his wife’s agonizing death, Wesley Carver must face the trauma he experienced as a prison guard when he was held hostage and tortured during an inmate riot. Now his attacker is up for parole, and Wes plans to attend the hearing and discourage the jury. At first you might think you’re reading a revenge story, but this is something subtler and sweeter than that. (What a shame that Hulse had to go by her initials, rather than Sarah, to be taken seriously in this genre, even though she’s on a level with Philipp Meyer.)
Trumbull Ave. by Michael Lauchlan: I didn’t like this quite as much as the other Made in Michigan books I’ve read, but Lauchlan does a good job of contrasting pastoral and post-industrial views of Detroit through free verse, as in “Detroit Pheasant,” the poem that gives the collection its cover image.
What Ridiculous Things We Could Ask of Each Other by Jeffrey Schultz: I enjoyed these poems set in a seemingly post-apocalyptic urban wasteland. They’re full of black humor, sarcasm and realistically pessimistic views of the American future. They’re very densely structured, usually in complete sentences of free verse.