I’m squeaking in here on the 31st with the doorstopper I’ve been reading all month. I started Cutting for Stone in an odd situation on the 1st: We’d attempted to go to France that morning but were foiled by a fatal engine failure en route to the ferry terminal, so were riding in the cab of a recovery vehicle that was taking us and our car home. My poor husband sat beside the driver, trying to make laddish small talk about cars, while I wedged myself by the window and got lost in the early pages of Indian-American doctor Abraham Verghese’s saga of twins Marion and Shiva, born of an unlikely union between an Indian nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, and an English surgeon, Thomas Stone, at Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa in 1954.
What with the flashbacks and the traumatic labor, it takes narrator Marion over 100 pages to get born. That might seem like a Tristram Shandy degree of circumlocution, but there was nary a moment when my interest flagged during this book’s 50-year journey with a medical family starting in a country I knew nothing about. I was reminded of Midnight’s Children, in that the twin brothers are born loosely conjoined at the head and ever after have a somewhat mystical connection, understanding each other’s thoughts even when they’re continents apart.
When Sister Mary Joseph Praise dies in childbirth and Stone absconds, the twins are raised by the hospital’s blunt obstetrician, Hema, and her husband, a surgeon named Ghosh. Both brothers follow their adoptive parents into medicine and gain knowledge of genitourinary matters. We observe a vasectomy, a breech birth, a C-section, and the aftermath of female genital mutilation. While Marion relocates to an inner-city New York hospital, Shiva stays in Ethiopia and becomes a world expert on vaginal fistulas. The novel I kept thinking about was The Cider House Rules, which is primarily about orphans and obstetrics, and I was smugly confirmed by finding Verghese’s thanks to his friend John Irving in the acknowledgments.
Ethiopia’s postcolonial history is a colorful background, with Verghese giving a bystander’s view of the military coup against the Emperor and the rise of the Eritrean liberation movement. Like Marion, the author is an Indian doctor who came of age in Ethiopia, a country he describes as a “juxtaposition of culture and brutality, this molding of the new out of the crucible of primeval mud.” Marion’s experiences in New York City and Boston then add on the immigrant’s perspective on life in the West in the 1980s onwards.
Naomi of Consumed by Ink predicted long ago that I’d love this, and she was right. Of course I thrilled to the accounts of medical procedures, such as an early live-donor liver transplant (this was shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize in 2009), but that wasn’t all that made Cutting for Stone such a winner for me. I can’t get enough of sprawling Dickensian stories in which coincidences abound (“The world turns on our every action, and our every omission, whether we know it or not”), minor characters have heroic roles to play, and humor and tragedy balance each other out, if ever so narrowly. (Besides Irving, think of books like The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne.) What I’m saying, as I strive to finish this inadequate review in the last hour of the last day of the month, is that this was just my sort of thing, and I hope I’ve convinced you that it might be yours, too.
Hema: “The Hippocratic oath is if you are sitting in London and drinking tea. No such oaths here in the jungle. I know my obligations.”
“Doubt is a first cousin to faith”
“A childhood at Missing imparted lessons about resilience, about fortitude, and about the fragility of life. I knew better than most children how little separate the world of health from that of disease, living flesh from the icy touch of the dead, the solid ground from treacherous bog.”
Page count: 667
Next month: Since Easter falls in April and I’ve been wanting to read it for ages anyway, I’ve picked out The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas to start tomorrow.
Across my four best-of posts (Nonfiction was on Wednesday and Fiction on Thursday; Backlist reads are coming up tomorrow), I will have spotlighted roughly the top 20% of my year’s reading. The 15 runners-up below – 5 fiction and 10 nonfiction – are in alphabetical order by author. The ones marked with an asterisk are my Best 2018 Books You Probably Never Heard Of (Unless You Heard about Them from Me!).
*Frieda by Annabel Abbs: If you rely only on the words of D.H. Lawrence, you’d think Frieda was lucky to shed a dull family life and embark on an exciting set of bohemian travels with him as he built his name as a writer; Abbs adds nuance to that picture by revealing just how much Frieda was giving up, and the sorrow she left behind her. Frieda’s determination to live according to her own rules makes her a captivating character.
A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne: A delicious piece of literary suspense with a Tom Ripley-like hero you’ll love to hate: Maurice Swift, who wants nothing more than to be a writer but doesn’t have any ideas of his own, so steals them from other people. I loved how we see this character from several outside points of view before getting Maurice’s own perspective; by this point we know enough to understand just how unreliable a narrator he is.
The Overstory by Richard Powers: A sprawling novel about regular people who through various unpredictable routes become so devoted to trees that they turn to acts, large and small, of civil disobedience to protest the clear-cutting of everything from suburban gardens to redwood forests. I admired pretty much every sentence, whether it’s expository or prophetic.
You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld: Sittenfeld describes families and romantic relationships expertly, in prose so deliciously smooth it slides right down. These 11 stories are about marriage, parenting, authenticity, celebrity and social media in Trump’s America. Overall, this is a whip-smart, current and relatable book, ideal for readers who don’t think they like short stories.
*Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson: A charming, bittersweet novel composed entirely of the letters that pass between Tina Hopgood, a 60-year-old farmer’s wife in East Anglia, and Anders Larsen, a curator at the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark. It’s a novel about second chances in the second half of life, and has an open but hopeful ending. I found it very touching and wish it hadn’t been given the women’s fiction treatment.
Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living by Karen Auvinen: An excellent memoir that will have broad appeal with its themes of domestic violence, illness, grief, travel, wilderness, solitude, pets, wildlife, and relationships. A great example of how unchronological autobiographical essays can together build a picture of a life.
*Heal Me: In Search of a Cure by Julia Buckley: Buckley takes readers along on a rollercoaster ride of new treatment ideas and periodically dashed hopes during four years of chronic pain. I was morbidly fascinated with this story, which is so bizarre and eventful that it reads like a great novel.
*This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein: A wry, bittersweet look at the unpredictability of life as an idealistic young woman in the world’s major cities. Another great example of life writing that’s not comprehensive or strictly chronological yet gives a clear sense of the self in the context of a family and in the face of an uncertain future.
*The Pull of the River: Tales of Escape and Adventure on Britain’s Waterways by Matt Gaw: This jolly yet reflective book traces canoe trips down Britain’s rivers, a quest to (re)discover the country by sensing the currents of history and escaping to the edge of danger. Gaw’s expressive writing renders even rubbish- and sewage-strewn landscapes beautiful.
The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson: A delightful read that successfully combines many genres – biography, true crime, ornithology, history, travel and memoir – to tell the story of an audacious heist of rare bird skins from the Natural History Museum at Tring in 2009. This is the very best sort of nonfiction: wide-ranging, intelligent and gripping.
*No One Tells You This by Glynnis MacNicol: There was a lot of appeal for me in how MacNicol sets out her 40th year as an adventure into the unknown. She is daring and candid in examining her preconceptions and asking what she really wants from her life. And she tells a darn good story: I read this much faster than I generally do with a memoir.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean: This is really two books in one. The first is a record of the devastating fire at the Los Angeles Central Library on April 29, 1986 and how the city and library service recovered. The second is a paean to libraries in general: what they offer to society, and how they work, in a digital age. Sure to appeal to any book-lover.
Help Me!: One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Her Life by Marianne Power: I have a particular weakness for year-challenge books, and Power’s is written in an easy, chatty style, as if Bridget Jones had given over her diary to testing self-help books for 16 months. Help Me! is self-deprecating and relatable, with some sweary Irish swagger thrown in. I can recommend it to self-help junkies and skeptics alike.
Mrs Gaskell & Me: Two Women, Two Love Stories, Two Centuries Apart by Nell Stevens: Stevens has a light touch, and flits between Gaskell’s story and her own in alternating chapters. This is a whimsical, sentimental, wry book that will ring true for anyone who’s ever been fixated on an idea or put too much stock in a relationship that failed to thrive.
The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story by Christie Watson: Watson presents her book as a roughly chronological tour through the stages of nursing – from pediatrics through to elderly care and the tending to dead bodies – but also through her own career. With its message of empathy for suffering and vulnerable humanity, it’s a book that anyone and everyone should read.
Coming tomorrow: My best backlist reads of the year.
Since May I’ve been posting my occasional reading coincidences on Twitter and/or Instagram. This is when two or more books that I’m reading at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once – usually between 10 and 20 – I guess I’m more prone to such serendipitous incidents. What’s the weirdest one you’ve had lately? (The following are in rough chronological order.)
Two historical novels set (partially) among the slaves of Martinique and featuring snippets of Creole (Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man and Jane Harris’s Sugar Money)
A book about epilepsy and a conductor’s memoir, followed by a novel with a conductor character and another who has seizures (Suzanne O’Sullivan’s Brainstorm and Lev Parikian’s Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? to Caoilinn Hughes’s Orchid & the Wasp)
Two characters mistake pregnancy for cholera (in Alexandra Fuller’s Leaving Before the Rains Come and W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil)
Two characters are reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (in Lily Brooks-Dalton’s Good Morning, Midnight and Julie Buntin’s Marlena) … I’ve since tried again with Le Guin’s book myself, but it’s so dry I can only bear to skim it.
Two memoirs by Iranian-American novelists with mental health and drug use issues (Porochista Khakpour’s Sick and Afarin Majidi’s Writing and Madness in a Time of Terror)
References to the blasé response to Martin Luther King’s assassination in North Carolina (in Paulette Bates Alden’s Crossing the Moon and David Sedaris’s Calypso)
The Police lyrics (in Less by Andrew Sean Greer and Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard [a whole essay called “Sting”])
Salmon croquettes mentioned in Less by Andrew Sean Greer and An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
I’m reading Beryl Markham’s West with the Night… and then Glynnis MacNicol picks that very book up to read on a plane in No One Tells You This
Starting two books with the word “Ladder” in the title, one right after the other: Ladders to Heaven by Mike Shanahan and Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler (followed just a couple of weeks later by A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne!)
Two books set in Dunedin, New Zealand, one right after the other – I planned it that way, BUT both have a character called Myrtle (To the Is-Land by Janet Frame and Dunedin by Shena Mackay). Then I encountered Harold Gillies, the father of plastic surgery, in Jim McCaul’s Face to Face, and guess what? He was from Dunedin!
Then I was skimming Louisa Young’s You Left Early and she mentioned that her grandmother was a sculptor who worked with Gillies on prostheses, which was the inspiration for her WWI novel, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You.
Two novels featuringdrug addicts (Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin and Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn)
The same Wallace Stevens lines that appear as an epigraph to Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered are mentioned in Elaine Pagels’s Why Religion? – “After the final no there comes a yes / And on that yes the future world depends.”
“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is mentioned in Little by Edward Carey and Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy
Reading Nine Pints, Rose George’s book about blood, at the same time as Deborah Harkness’s Time’s Convert, which is partially about vampires; in this it takes 90 days for a human to become fully vampirized – the same time it takes to be cured of an addiction according to the memoir Ninety Days by Bill Clegg.
After going to Wigtown in April, I never expected I’d be back in Scotland this year. This was a fairly last-minute trip we booked so that my husband could attend a short rewilding workshop for PhD students. They all met up in Edinburgh and proceeded by bus into the Cairngorms to see sites of habitat restoration and potential future wildlife releases. I stayed behind at our Airbnb flat and kept up a reduced work load while enjoying the city break.
Day 1, Wednesday the 19th: A travel day. Our journey – two train rides plus a short walk at either end – should have taken just over 7 hours. Instead, it took 14. Recent storms had taken down wires at Durham and left debris on the line, so our original train was terminated at York. We managed to get a connection to Newcastle, queued outside for two hours for rail replacement buses that never came, and finally got a very delayed train through to Edinburgh. Our poor Airbnb hostess’s parents had to wait up for us until 12:40 a.m.
Day 2, Thursday the 20th: After just a few hours of sleep, we were up early so that Chris could leave by 7:15 for his meet-up on the Edinburgh campus. The props and sketches scattered about suggest that the flat owner is a theatre costume and set designer. The view overlooking Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat is spectacular – a great place to put in a few hours of proofreading before heading out to town after lunch.
On Clare’s recommendation I started with the Surgeons’ Hall Museums on the Royal College of Surgeons campus. They have several collections covering the history of surgery, dentistry, and pathology specimens. Many of the names and developments were familiar to me from Lindsey Fitzharris’s The Butchering Art. Joseph Lister’s frock coat is on display, and in one corner rare video footage plays of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who was initially a practicing physician) explaining how he based Sherlock Holmes on his university mentor, Joseph Bell.
It’s not a place for the squeamish as there are mummified skeletons, details about Burke and Hare’s grave-robbing, surgical tools, and tumors and other anatomical deformities in jars everywhere. I found it all fascinating and spent a good two hours poking around. My favorite bits were the case full of foreign bodies removed from noses, stomachs and intestines and the temporary exhibition, “A Quest for Healing” by Zhang Yanzi, who had a residency at the museums in the summer of 2017. Her pieces included a 2D mountain made of pill packets, a cotton and gauze sculpture bristling with acupuncture needles, a matching hanging sculpture of capillaries, two surgical beds, and various silk screen panels.
The pathology museum, spread across two floors, was a little overwhelming and almost distressingly faceless – so many human beings reduced to the conditions that had defined and perhaps killed them. The most striking specimen for me, then, was one that actually included a face. I think it was a First World War soldier whose nose had been sewn back together, and what was so remarkable was that you could see his ginger whiskers and eyebrows, and his eyes were closed as if he was just taking a nap. (For ever. In a museum case.)
There are only explanatory panels about a select few samples, so it can be hard to spot just what’s wrong with the organs unless you have specialist medical knowledge. I appreciated the few places where notes have been added along the lines of “see your doctor if…” There were four polycystic kidneys on display in various cases, so including mine there were at least six present in the building that day. “More lives would be saved if more people carried kidney donor cards,” one caption read. Amen.
Clare also recommended the university area for its charity shops. I had a good trawl around Nicolson Street and bought one book, but a lot of the shops are geared towards vintage and High Street fashion. I had better luck at the Salvation Army store on Forrest Road (near the National Museum), where I found three books and two classical CDs.
Total charity shop spending: £7.97.
On to the Writers’ Museum, which commemorates Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. I was most interested in the Stevenson material, including memorabilia from his later life on Samoa, especially as I’m currently reading a novel about his relationship with the American divorcee Fanny Osbourne. By now I was museum-ed out and headed back to the flat for a leftovers dinner and some reading before an early bedtime.
RLS’s epitaph, from his own poem.
Day 3, Friday the 21st: Another morning of work followed by an afternoon of wandering on foot between free attractions and charity shops and avoiding the drizzle. I visited the unusual Scottish Parliament building (which cost a cool £414 million) and saw inside the debating chamber. Four books from the Lothian Cat Rescue charity shop; quick jaunts around the Museum of Childhood, the Museum of Edinburgh, Canongate Kirk, the Music Museum, and the Central Library. When it came to it I couldn’t be bothered to pay £14 to go around Holyrood Palace, but I enjoyed a reasonably priced cappuccino and carrot cake at their café. Chris was back in the evening for a dinner of frozen pizza with local beer and cider.
Scottish Parliament entrance
Palace and abbey ruins
Day 4, Saturday the 22nd: Our one full day in the City together. We weren’t feeling up to the Arthur’s Seat walk, so we did a gentle stroll up the Salisbury Crags and back instead. Then we caught a bus out to the Stockbridge area for more charity shopping (two more books) and a scrumptious brunch at The Pantry. This was a recommendation on chef David Lebovitz’s food blog and it more than lived up to expectations. It’s no wonder we had to wait half an hour for a table. I could have eaten anything on the menu, but in the end I had smoked salmon eggs Benedict followed by a cherry and Nutella brownie.
After a brief browse at Golden Hare Books, we went on along the Water of Leith to the lovely Royal Botanic Garden. It’s free to walk around, but we also paid to tour the Glasshouses, which recreate the flora of 10 different climates. The RBG is also home to the National Memorial for Organ and Tissue Donors, a peaceful circular space set back in the woods and marked out by a few benches and stone monuments. As I have organ donors to thank for the continued life and health of my mother and several other relatives, it was well worth a visit.
Part of the Organ Donors memorial.
Back into town for gelato (I had a delicious poached plum and cinnamon sorbet) at Mary’s Milk Bar, which is on Grassmarket across from the Castle and was another Lebovitz recommendation. A quick circuit of the animal hall at the National Museum before it closed, a stroll along the Royal Mile, and a rest with tea and books back at the flat before going back out for a veggie curry.
Day 5, Sunday the 23rd: Return travel day. No major issues, but still enough of a delay to apply for compensation – refunds from LNER and my husband’s work will have made the journey very cheap indeed.
I was sad to leave Edinburgh this time. I loved our Airbnb flat and felt very at home in it. If I had a bicycle to get into town a little faster, I could easily live there. The tourists would probably drive me mad, but Edinburgh is a wonderful place with so much to see and do and such incredible scenery within a short drive.
Thank you to everyone who offered suggestions of what to see and do. I managed to fit in most of what you recommended!
What I read:
The bulk of Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver’s bold new novel about distrust and displacement in America then (the 1870s) and now (during the rise of Trump), and Come to Me by Amy Bloom, a wonderful story collection about people who love who they shouldn’t love. More about this one in my upcoming round-up of short stories I’ve read this month.
A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne is a delicious piece of literary suspense with a Tom Ripley-like hero you’ll love to hate: Maurice Swift, who wants nothing more than to be a writer but doesn’t have any ideas of his own, so steals them from other people. I loved how we see this character from several outside points of view – first Erich Ackerman, whose Nazi-era history provides the basis for Maurice’s first novel; then Gore Vidal, to whose Italian home Maurice pays a visit with his new mentor; and finally Maurice’s wife Edith, a celebrated author in her own right – before getting Maurice’s own perspective. By this point we know enough about him to understand just how unreliable a narrator he is. My one criticism is that I would have binned the whole subplot about Edith’s sister and brother-in-law. (A nice touch: at one point Maurice buys a reprint copy of Maude Avery’s Like to the Lark, which should ring a bell from The Heart’s Invisible Furies.)
I also read over half of Jenny Diski’s Stranger on a Train, a memoir about two long train journeys she took across America in the late 1990s that also incorporates memories from a troubled adolescence – she started smoking at 14 and was in and out of mental hospitals at 15 – in which she loved nothing more than to read while riding the Circle line all day long. I’m a quarter of the way through both Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky, about Stevenson and his wife, and Peter Hill’s Stargazing, a memoir about dropping out of art school to become a Scottish lighthouse keeper in 1973; he started on Pladda, a tiny island off of Arran. And on my Nook I read a good bit of All You Can Ever Know, Nicole Chung’s forthcoming memoir about being raised by adoptive white parents in Oregon and meeting members of her Korean family in her mid-twenties, just as she became a mother herself.
It’s mid-September and crunch time: my husband intends to hand in a complete draft of his PhD thesis next week. He’s been studying part time while working full time and technically has another year to submit, but this month is his self-imposed deadline before the frantic busyness of a new academic year. For weeks now, he’s been going to campus just once or twice a week, working mostly at home out of a makeshift office in our summer house, to which he reels an extension lead each morning so he can plug in his laptop and desk lamp. There’s no Internet signal that far from the house, so it’s a distraction-free zone – or at least the distractions are mostly pleasant ones like birdsong and the cat padding in and out. He’s been known to stay out there until well past 10 at night working on his writing and mapping.
It’s been nice for me to have a bit of company at home during the day (though it’s definitely for the best that we work in different spaces). We reconvene for morning coffee and afternoon tea and also break for lunch. Twice a day I’ll traipse out to the summer house with a tray of hot drinks and snacks and a tote bag of books over my shoulder to spend an hour or so relaxing before getting back to my proofreading or other work upstairs. I’ve tried to be kind and supportive through all the catastrophic announcements about the results being wrong, the statistics going screwy, and the project being basically impossible to finish.
On a practical level, I help out by preparing very simple meals – bean burgers from the freezer section at Aldi plus homemade coleslaw and corn-on-the-cob; fresh oven chips with a fried egg and steamed broccoli – or at least doing the sous chef chopping for complicated ones. My husband cooked for himself during his last two years of uni and enjoys improvising meals, so he’s done pretty much all the cooking for the 11+ years of our marriage. When I was in America I picked up a “Vidalia Chop Wizard” from Bed Bath & Beyond. Some will be thinking “what a pointless, cheaty device!” – but I knew without it I’d never get more involved in cooking, especially because I hate to have lingering savory smells on my fingers.
It’s been a stressful couple of months for my husband, and that stress has of course spilled over to me somewhat. Still, I’m trying not to wish these days away, even as I look forward to the relief of his thesis being finished. It’s never good to wish your life away. I even tried to do some peaceful sitting in nature (i.e., our garden) last week, which led to this short Guardian Country Diary-style piece. (However, you’d better believe I have plans for the post-PhD evenings and weekends. After all these weeks of letting my hubby off the hook, the chores have piled up. I envision a deep clean of the kitchen, tidying up all the little half-finished projects that are sitting around, gardening, banking, and much more.)
This past Saturday we gave ourselves the day off to attend Newbury Real Ale Festival. It’s held just across the canal from our house, so we could hardly pass up the opportunity to sample 146 beers and 118 ciders (my tipple of choice). The music was terrible but the weather stayed decent for much of the five hours we were there. Along with plenty of reading and snacking on crisps, I had the chance to try six ciders, which ranged from the almost undrinkable (beetroot and orange flavor sounded interesting!) to the sublime.
Appropriately enough, the best of the bunch was from Thistly Cross, a cider company based in Scotland: next Wednesday, to celebrate (we hope) the thesis being handed in, we’re off to Edinburgh for a long weekend. It’s something of a work trip for my husband – he’s traveling on to the Cairngorms for a two-day PhD student workshop while I stay behind at our Airbnb – but we’ll have a couple of days to enjoy the city together as well as two very long train rides on which to sink into books.
You’ll be unsurprised to learn that I started planning what books I’d pack weeks ago: some on a train theme; some by or about Scottish writers; some set in Scotland. I’ll also take at least one October review book (probably Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered or Sarah Perry’s Melmoth) and one of the multiple library reservations that have arrived for me all at once (most likely John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky or Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley).
I’ve been to Edinburgh twice before, but both trips were brief and the most recent one was in 2005. What should I see and do? Where should I eat? (I’ll have to find at least one meal out in the city on my own.) I plan to visit the Writers’ Museum for the first time, and may drop into the National Gallery again. Since I was too skint to do so in my early twenties, I’ll probably also treat myself to a tour of the Castle (though, 17 quid – really?!). Any other recommendations of secondhand bookshops, cafés, free/inexpensive attractions and casual dining establishments will be much appreciated!
It’s my first time participating in Reading Ireland Month, run each March by Cathy of 746 Books and Niall of The Fluff is Raging. I enjoyed scouring my shelves for Irish reads – though in the end I only had time for two.
Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane (1996)
I don’t recall how I first heard about this book, but its title was familiar to me when I picked it up for a matter of pence at a charity shop last year. When I saw it on Cathy’s recent list of her top five Irish books of all time, I knew I was in for something special. These vivid vignettes of childhood and young adulthood are so convincing that I could have been fooled into believing I was reading a memoir. Indeed, this debut novel has generally been interpreted as heavily autobiographical, with the anonymous narrator, the third of seven children born to Catholic parents in Derry, Northern Ireland, taken to be a stand-in for Deane.
Ireland’s internecine violence is the sinister backdrop to this family’s everyday sorrows, including the death of a child and the mother’s shaky mental health. The narrator also learns a family secret from his dying maternal grandfather that at first thrills him – he knows something his father doesn’t! – but later serves to drive him away from his parents. The short chapters take place between 1945 and 1971: starting when the boy is five years old and encountering a household ghost on the stairs and ending as, in his early thirties, he lays his father to rest in the midst of the Troubles.
The Irish have such a knack for holding humor and tragedy up side by side – think John Boyne, James Joyce and Frank McCourt. The one force doesn’t negate the other, but the juxtaposition reminds you that life isn’t all gloom or laughs. There are some terrifically funny incidents in Reading in the Dark, like the individual sex ed. chat with Father Nugent (“And semen is the Latin for seed. Do you have to know Latin to do this?”) and going to investigate the rumor of a brothel by the football ground. But there is also perhaps the best ghost story I’ve ever read, an eerie tale of shape-shifting children he hears from his aunt.
This book captures all the magic, uncertainty and heartache of being a child, in crisp scenes I saw playing out in my mind. If I have one small, strange complaint, it’s that there’s too much plot – most of the chapters function perfectly well as stand-alone short stories, so, particularly in the last third, the growing obsession with the family secret feels like an unnecessary attempt to tie everything together. That plus the slight irrelevance of the title are the only reasons this misses out on 5 stars from me.
Still, I’d agree with Cathy: this is probably one of my favorite Irish reads, along with Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Mary Costello’s Academy Street, Anne Enright’s The Green Road, and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It’s no wonder Deane won so many prizes for this: the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize, and the Irish Literature Prize; he was also shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize.
“Child, she’d tell me, I think sometimes you’re possessed. Can’t you just let the past be the past?”
“He looked up at me, smiling, to say: ah well, it was all blood under the bridge now”
“Politics destroyed people’s lives in this place, he said. People were better not knowing some things”
Mother Ireland by Edna O’Brien (1976)
This slim volume combines travel writing, history and memoir, with plentiful black and white photographs (by Fergus Bourke) along the way. Often, even where O’Brien is clearly drawing on autobiographical material, she resists saying “I”, instead opting for “one,” “you,” or “we.” I think she was aiming at the universalities of the Irish experience, but instead it ends up coming off as generic. That and a long opening chapter on Ireland’s history set me to skimming. (Also, the book is maddeningly underpunctuated, and the photos in particular seem very dated.) By far my favorite of the seven essays was the last, “Escape to England.” In just three pages, she explains what it’s like to start a new life in another country and how the experience allowed her to appreciate home all the more. Should I try O’Brien’s fiction?
“Irish people do not like to be contradicted. Foiled again and again[,] they have in them a rage that comes at you unawares like a briar jutting out of a hedge.”
“You are Irish[,] you say lightly, and allocated to you are the tendencies to be wild, wanton, drunk, superstitious, unreliable, backward, toadying and prone to fits, whereas you know that in fact a whole entourage of ghosts resides in you, ghosts with whom the inner rapport is as frequent, as perplexing, as defiant as with any of the living.”
No time for these this year – maybe next year, if not sooner?
Below I’ve chosen my top nine fiction releases from 2017 (seven by women!), followed by the backlist titles I loved the most this year. Many of these books have already featured on my blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, as with my nonfiction selections I’m mostly limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller: This atmospheric novel reminiscent of Iris Murdoch is no happy family story; it’s full of betrayals and sadness, of failures to connect and communicate, yet it’s beautifully written, with all its scenes and dialogue just right. I recently caught up on Fuller’s acclaimed 2015 debut, Our Endless Numbered Days, and collectively I’m so impressed with her work, specifically the elegant way she alternates between time periods to gradually reveal the extent of family secrets and the faultiness of memory.
The Lucky Ones by Julianne Pachico: You may remember that our shadow panel chose this as our winner for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award: we were blown away by this linked short story collection set in a drug-fueled Colombia in which violence and its aftermath are never far away. For the originality of the setup and the sheer excellence of the writing, this can’t be topped.
The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber: The name Margery Williams Bianco might not seem familiar, but chances are you remember her classic children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit. This is about Margery and her daughter, Pamela Bianco, a painter and child prodigy troubled by mental illness, and the themes of creativity, mental health and motherhood are nestled in a highly visual debut novel full of cameos by everyone from Pablo Picasso to Eugene O’Neill.
The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker: The cartooning world and the Kentucky–New York City dichotomy together feel like a brand new setting for a literary tragicomedy. Though it seems lighthearted, there’s a lot of meat to this story of the long friendship between two female animators as Whitaker contrasts the women’s public and private personas and imagines their professional legacy.
In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist: While it’s being marketed as a novel, this reads more like a stylized memoir: Similar to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books, it features the author as the central character and narrator, and the story of grief it tells is a highly personal one. Malmquist does an extraordinary job of depicting his protagonist’s bewilderment at the sudden loss of his partner and his new life as a single father.
How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza: As much as this is about a summer of enchantment and literal brushes with urban wildlife, it’s also about a woman’s life: loneliness, the patterns we get stuck in, and those unlooked-for experiences that might just liberate us. There’s something gently magical about the way the perspective occasionally shifts to give a fox’s backstory and impressions as a neologism-rich stream.
Elmet by Fiona Mozley: The dark horse on this past year’s Man Booker Prize longlist, this is a twisted fable about the clash of the land-owning and serf classes in contemporary England. It’s a gorgeous, timeless tale balanced between lush nature writing and Hardyesque pessimism.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: A multi-layered story about many facets of motherhood: adoption, surrogacy, pregnancy, abortion; estrangement, irritation, longing and pride. Each and every character earns our sympathy here – a real triumph of characterization, housed in a tightly plotted and beautifully written novel you’ll race through.
And my fiction book of the year was:
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne: A wonderful seam of humor tempers the awfulness of much of what befalls Cyril Avery – born in Dublin in 1945 – for whom homosexuality seems a terrible curse. It’s an alternately heartbreaking and heartening portrait of a life lived in defiance of intolerance and tragedy.
My poetry read of the year was:
All the Spectral Fractures: New and Selected Poems, Mary A. Hood: There is so much substance and variety to this poetry collection spanning the whole of Hood’s career. A professor emerita of microbiology at the University of West Florida and a former poet laureate of Pensacola, Florida, she takes inspiration from the ordinary folk of the state, the world of academic scientists, flora and fauna, and the minutiae of everyday life.
And here’s a quick run-through of the seven best backlist titles I read this year:
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis: Time travel would normally be a turnoff for me, but Willis manages it perfectly in this uproarious blend of science fiction and pitch-perfect Victorian pastiche (boating, séances and sentimentality, oh my!).
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: Brings together so many facets of the African and African-American experience; full of clear-eyed observations about the ongoing role race plays in American life.
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry: Contains the most matter-of-fact consideration of same-sex relationships I’ve ever encountered in historical fiction. Heart-breaking, life-affirming, laugh-out-loud: those may be clichés, but it’s all these things and more.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami: Mesmerizing and bizarre, but in the best possible way: it questions our comfort in the everyday by contorting familiar elements like dreams do. I’m a definite Murakami convert.
The Nix by Nathan Hill: A rich story about family curses and failure, and how to make amends for a life full of mistakes. Hill is a funny and inventive writer.
Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss: Simply superb in the way it juxtaposes England and Japan in the 1880s and comments on mental illness, the place of women, and the difficulty of navigating a marriage whether the partners are thousands of miles apart or in the same room.
My overall most memorable fiction read of the year, to my great surprise, was:
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler: I’ve been lukewarm on Anne Tyler’s novels before – this is my sixth from her – but this instantly leapt onto my list of absolute favorite books. Its chapters are like perfectly crafted short stories focusing on different members of the Tull family. These vignettes masterfully convey the common joys and tragedies of a fractured family’s life. After Beck Tull leaves with little warning, Pearl must raise Cody, Ezra and Jenny on her own and struggle to keep her anger in check. Cody is a vicious prankster who always has to get the better of good-natured Ezra; Jenny longs for love but keeps making bad choices. Despite their flaws, I adored these characters and yearned for them to sit down, even just the once, to an uninterrupted family dinner of comfort food.
What were some of your top fiction reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll be naming some runners-up and listing a few other superlatives.