If you’ve been spending time blog-hopping or on Twitter over the last few weeks, you will have seen countless riffs on this topic. Everyone’s pondering what’s best to read in these times. All we can get our hands on about plagues (Boccaccio, Camus, Defoe)? Allegories of similarly challenging worldwide disasters (WWII, 9/11)? Childhood favorites? Comfort reads? Funny books? Light, undemanding stuff? Rereads?
My general answer would be: as always, read whatever you want or can – anything that captures your attention is worthwhile. We’re under so much stress that our reading should be entirely unpressured. But to be a little more specific, I’ve gathered reading recommendations on a variety of topics, drawing on lists that others have made and linking to my own blog reviews where applicable.
(Some of these ideas are less serious than others.)
If you are brave enough to learn about zoonotic diseases:
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen: This is top-notch scientific journalism: pacey, well-structured, and gripping. The best chapters are on Ebola and SARS; the SARS chapter, in particular, reads like a film screenplay, if this were a far superior version of Contagion. It’s a sobering subject, with some quite alarming anecdotes and statistics, but this is not scare-mongering for the sake of it; Quammen is frank about the fact that we’re still all more likely to get heart disease or be in a fatal car crash.
If you can’t look away from pandemic stories, historical or imagined:
I already had Philip Roth’s Nemesis (set in 1940s New Jersey amid a polio epidemic) out from the library because it was on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist in 2011. I was also inspired to take Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (set in the 1660s and featuring an English village that quarantined itself during the Plague) off the shelf. I’m nearing the end of these two and should have my reviews up next week.
You will see no one book referenced more than Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s a wholly believable dystopian novel in which 99% of the population has been wiped out by a pandemic. The remnant bands together not just to survive but to create and preserve art. “What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.” (My full BookBrowse review from December 2014.)
See also this Publishers Weekly list of “13 Essential Pandemic Novels.”
If you’re feeling cooped up…
Infinite Home by Kathleen Alcott: “Edith is a widowed landlady who rents apartments in her Brooklyn brownstone to an unlikely collection of humans, all deeply in need of shelter.” (I haven’t read it, but I do have a copy; now would seem like the time to read it!)
…yet want to appreciate the home you’re stuck in:
Years ago I read and loved At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson and Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin. I can’t tell you anything more than that because it was before the days when I reviewed everything I read, but these are both reliable authors.
I love the sound of A Journey Around My Room by Xavier de Maistre: “Finding himself locked in his room for six weeks, a young officer journeys around his room in his imagination, using the various objects it contains as inspiration for a delightful parody of contemporary travel writing and an exercise in Sternean picaresque.”
I’m also drawn to Home: The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived in Our House by Julie Myerson, who combed archives for traces of all the former residents of her 1870s terraced house in Clapham.
If you’re struggling with being on your own:
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing: This remarkable book on outsider artists interweaves biography, art criticism and memoir. Laing is a tour guide into the peculiar, lonely crowdedness you find in a world city.
How to Be Alone by Sara Maitland: Maitland argues that although being alone is easy to achieve, there is an art to doing it properly, and solitude and loneliness are by no means the same thing. Profiling everyone from the Desert Fathers of early Christianity to the Romantic poets, she enumerates all the benefits that solitude confers.
Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton: A one-year account of her writing life in New Hampshire, this is Sarton’s best. The book dwells on the seasonal patterns of the natural world (shovelling snow, gardening, caring for animals) but also the rhythms of the soul – rising in hope but also falling into occasional, inevitable despair.
See also this Penguin UK list of books to read in self-isolation.
If you’ve been passing the time by baking…
The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living by Louise Miller: As chief baker at the Sugar Maple Inn in Guthrie, Vermon, Olivia Rawlings settles into a daily routine of baking muffins, bread and cakes. This is a warm, cozy debut novel full of well-drawn secondary characters and romantic possibilities. There’s nothing clichéd about it, though. Livvy is a sassy narrator, and I loved how Miller documents the rhythms of the small-town country year, including tapping the maple trees in the early spring and a pie baking contest at the summer county fair.
Sourdough by Robin Sloan: Lois Clary, a Bay Area robot programmer, becomes obsessed with baking. “I needed a more interesting life. I could start by learning something. I could start with the starter.” She attempts to link her job and her hobby by teaching a robot arm to knead the bread she makes for a farmer’s market. Madcap adventures ensue. It’s a funny and original novel and it makes you think, too – particularly about the extent to which we should allow technology to take over our food production.
…but can’t find yeast or eggs in the shop:
Yeast: A Problem by Charles Kingsley (1851). Nope, I haven’t read it, but our friend has a copy in his Everyman’s Library collection and the title makes us laugh every time we see it.
The Egg & I by Betty Macdonald: MacDonald and her husband started a rural Washington State chicken farm in the 1940s. Her account of her failure to become the perfect farm wife is hilarious. The voice reminded me of Doreen Tovey’s: mild exasperation at the drama caused by household animals, neighbors, and inanimate objects. “I really tried to like chickens. But I couldn’t get close to the hen either physically or spiritually, and by the end of the second spring I hated everything about the chicken but the egg.” Perfect pre-Easter reading.
And here are a few lists I put together for Hungerford Bookshop:
If you need a laugh:
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
The Darling Buds of May (and sequels) by H.E. Bates
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
Heartburn by Nora Ephron
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Anything by Nick Hornby
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
Anything by David Lodge
Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
The Rosie Project (and sequels) by Graeme Simsion
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
Anything by Bill Bryson
21st-Century Yokel by Tom Cox
Anything by Gerald Durrell
Anything by Nora Ephron (essays)
This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood
Dear Lupin by Roger Mortimer
Anything by David Sedaris
Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart
If you want to disappear into a long book:
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Nix by Nathan Hill
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
If you’re looking for some hope:
Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott
Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit
Hope Dies Last: Making a Difference in an Indifferent World by Studs Terkel
I’ve been doing a combination of the above strategies, reading about historical plagues in fiction and nonfiction but also doing some rereading and consuming lighter genre stuff like mysteries. I continue to dip into new releases, and I enjoy the ongoing challenge of my reading projects. Right now, I’m working through a few current Women’s Prize longlistees, as well as some past Wellcome Book Prize nominees and Women’s Prize winners, and I’m about to start a third #1920Club title. Plus I’m already thinking about my 20 Books of Summer (I’m considering an all-foodie theme).
- Book Riot pinpoints seven categories of books to read during a pandemic.
- Clare surveys the post-pandemic literary landscape.
- Elle logs her pandemic reading and viewing.
- Laura discusses pandemic reading strategies and distraction reading.
- Literary Hub looks at parallel situations, including post-9/11 reads, to make predictions, and asks what your “go-to quarantine read” says about you. (I’ve read Kindred most recently, but I wouldn’t say that describes me.)
- Simon thinks about what we can and should read.
- Susan highlights some comfort reads.
What are your current reading strategies?
Like many book bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the shiny new books released each year. However, I consistently find that many of my most memorable reads were published years or even decades ago.
These selections, in alphabetical order by author name, account for the rest of my 5-star ratings of the year, plus a handful of 4.5 and high 4 ones.
Faces in the Water by Janet Frame: The best inside picture of mental illness I’ve read. Istina Mavet, in and out of New Zealand mental hospitals between ages 20 and 28, undergoes regular shock treatments. Occasional use of unpunctuated, stream-of-consciousness prose is an effective way of conveying the protagonist’s terror. Simply stunning writing.
The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff: Groff wrote this in homage to Cooperstown, New York, where she grew up. We hear from leading lights in the town’s history and Willie’s family tree through a convincing series of first-person narratives, letters and other documents. A charming way to celebrate where you come from with all its magic and mundanity.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver: What an amazing novel about the ways that right and wrong, truth and pain get muddied together. Some characters are able to acknowledge their mistakes and move on, while others never can. Christianity and colonialism have a lot to answer for. A masterpiece.
The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing: Begins with the words “MURDER MYSTERY”: a newspaper headline announcing that Mary, wife of Rhodesian farmer Dick Turner, has been found murdered by their houseboy. The breakdown of a marriage and the failure of a farm form a dual tragedy that Lessing explores in searing psychological detail.
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively: Seventy-six-year-old Claudia Hampton, on her deathbed in a nursing home, determines to write a history of the world as she’s known it. More impressive than the plot surprises is how Lively packs the whole sweep of a life into just 200 pages, all with such rich, wry commentary on how what we remember constructs our reality.
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez: The narrator is a writer and academic who has stepped up to care for her late friend’s aging Great Dane, Apollo. It feels like Nunez has encapsulated everything she’s ever known or thought about, all in just over 200 pages, and alongside a heartwarming little plot. (Animal lovers need not fear.)
There There by Tommy Orange: Orange’s dozen main characters are urban Native Americans converging on the annual Oakland Powwow. Their lives have been difficult, to say the least. The novel cycles through most of the characters multiple times, so gradually we work out the links between everyone. Hugely impressive.
In the Driver’s Seat by Helen Simpson: The best story collection I read this year. Themes include motherhood, death versus new beginnings, and how to be optimistic in a world in turmoil. Gentle humor and magic tempers the sadness. I especially liked “The Green Room,” a Christmas Carol riff, and “Constitutional,” set on a woman’s one-hour lunch break walk.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck: Look no further for the Great American Novel. Spanning from the Civil War to World War I and crossing the country from New England to California, this is just as wide-ranging in its subject matter, with an overarching theme of good and evil as it plays out in families and in individual souls.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese: The saga of conjoined twins born of a union between an Indian nun and an English surgeon in 1954. Ethiopia’s postcolonial history is a colorful background. I thrilled to the accounts of medical procedures. I can’t get enough of sprawling Dickensian stories full of coincidences, minor characters, and humor and tragedy.
Extinctions by Josephine Wilson: The curmudgeonly antihero is widower Frederick Lothian, at age 69 a reluctant resident of St Sylvan’s Estate retirement village. It’s the middle of a blistering Australian summer and he has plenty of time to drift back over his life. He’s a retired engineering expert, but he’s been much less successful in his personal life.
Windfall by Miriam Darlington: I’d had no idea that Darlington had written poetry before she turned to nature writing. The verse is rooted in the everyday. Multiple poems link food and erotic pleasure; others make nature the source of exaltation. Lots of allusions and delicious alliteration. Pick this up if you’re still mourning Mary Oliver.
Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods by Tishani Doshi: The third collection by the Welsh–Gujarati poet and dancer is vibrant and boldly feminist. The tone is simultaneously playful and visionary, toying with readers’ expectations. Several of the most arresting poems respond to the #MeToo movement. She also excels at crafting breath-taking few-word phrases.
Where the Road Runs Out by Gaia Holmes: A major thread of the book is caring for her father at home and in the hospital as he was dying on the Orkney Islands – a time of both wonder and horror. Other themes include pre-smartphone life and a marriage falling apart. There are no rhymes, just alliteration and plays on words, with a lot of seaside imagery.
Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice: MacNeice wrote this long verse narrative between August 1938 and the turn of the following year. Everyday life for the common worker muffles political rumblings that suggest all is not right in the world. He reflects on his disconnection from Ireland; on fear, apathy and the longing for purpose. Still utterly relevant.
Sky Burials by Ben Smith: I discovered Smith through the 2018 New Networks for Nature conference. He was part of a panel discussion on the role poetry might play in environmental activism. This collection shares that environmentalist focus. Many of the poems are about birds. There’s a sense of history but also of the future.
Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt: During a bout of depression, Haupt decided to start paying more attention to the natural world right outside her suburban Seattle window. Crows were a natural place to start. A charming record of bird behavior and one woman’s reawakening, but also a bold statement of human responsibility to the environment.
All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir by Elizabeth Hay: Hay’s parents, Gordon and Jean, stumbled into their early nineties in an Ottawa retirement home. 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.
Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay: Jackie Kay was born out of the brief relationship between a Nigerian student and a Scottish nurse in Aberdeen in the early 1960s. This memoir of her search for her birth parents is a sensitive treatment of belonging and (racial) identity. Kay writes with warmth and a quiet wit. The nonlinear structure is like a family photo album.
Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp: An excellent addiction memoir that stands out for its smooth and candid writing. For nearly 20 years, Knapp was a high-functioning alcoholic who maintained jobs in Boston-area journalism. The rehab part is often least exciting, but I appreciated how Knapp characterized it as the tortured end of a love affair.
The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein: I guarantee you’ve never read a biography quite like this one. It’s part journalistic exposé and part “love letter”; it’s part true crime and part ordinary life story. It considers gender, mental health, addiction, trauma and death. Simply a terrific read.
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood: A memoir of growing up in a highly conservative religious setting, but not Evangelical Christianity as you or I have known it. Her father, a married Catholic priest, is an unforgettable character. This is a poet’s mind sparking at high voltage and taking an ironically innocent delight in dirty and iconoclastic talk.
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen: For two months in 1973, Matthiessen joined a zoologist on a journey from the Nepalese Himalayas to the Tibetan Plateau in hopes of spotting the elusive snow leopard. Recently widowed, Matthiessen put his Buddhist training to work as he pondered impermanence and acceptance. The writing is remarkable.
This Sunrise of Wonder: Letters for the Journey by Michael Mayne: Mayne’s thesis is that experiencing wonder is what makes us human. He believes poets, musicians and painters, in particular, reawaken us to awe by encouraging us to pay close attention. Especially with the frequent quotations and epigraphs, this is like a rich compendium of wisdom from the ages.
Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab by Christine Montross: When she was training to become a doctor, Montross was assigned an older female cadaver, Eve, who taught her everything she knows about the human body. Montross is also a poet, as evident in this lyrical, compassionate exploration of working with the dead.
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell: An excellent first-hand account of the working and living conditions of the poor in two world cities. Orwell works as a dishwasher and waiter in Paris hotel restaurants for up to 80 hours a week. The matter-of-fact words about poverty and hunger are incisive, while the pen portraits are glistening.
A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter: In 1934, Ritter, an Austrian painter, joined her husband Hermann for a year in Spitsbergen. I was fascinated by the details of Ritter’s daily tasks, but also by how her perspective on the landscape changed. No longer a bleak wilderness, it became a tableau of grandeur. A travel classic worth rediscovering.
Autumn Across America by Edwin Way Teale: In the late 1940s Teale and his wife set out on a 20,000-mile road trip from Cape Cod on the Atlantic coast to Point Reyes on the Pacific to track the autumn. Teale was an early conservationist. His descriptions of nature are gorgeous, and the scientific explanations are at just the right level for the average reader.
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch: This blew me away. Reading this nonlinear memoir of trauma and addiction, you’re amazed the author is still alive, let alone a thriving writer. The writing is truly dazzling, veering between lyrical stream-of-consciousness and in-your-face informality. The watery metaphors are only part of what make it unforgettable.
And if I really had to limit myself to just two favorites – my very best fiction and nonfiction reads of the year – they would be Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively and Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood.
What were your best backlist reads this year?
My best discoveries of the year: The poetry of Tishani Doshi; Penelope Lively and Elizabeth Strout (whom I’d read before but not fully appreciated until this year); also, the classic nature writing of Edwin Way Teale.
The authors I read the most by this year: Margaret Atwood and Janet Frame (each: 2 whole books plus parts of 2 more), followed by Doris Lessing (2 whole books plus part of 1 more), followed by Miriam Darlington, Paul Gallico, Penelope Lively, Rachel Mann and Ben Smith (each: 2 books).
Debut authors whose next work I’m most looking forward to: John Englehardt, Elizabeth Macneal, Stephen Rutt, Gail Simmons and Lara Williams.
My proudest reading achievement: A 613-page novel in verse (Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly) + 2 more books of over 600 pages (East of Eden by John Steinbeck and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese).
Best book club selection: Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay was our first nonfiction book and received our highest score ever.
Some best first lines encountered this year:
- “What can you say about a twenty-five-year old girl who died?” (Love Story by Erich Segal)
- “The women of this family leaned towards extremes” (Away by Jane Urquhart)
- “The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.” (from The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff)
The downright strangest book I read this year: Lanny by Max Porter
The 2019 books everybody else loved (or so it seems), but I didn’t: Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, The Topeka School by Ben Lerner, Underland by Robert Macfarlane, The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy, Three Women by Lisa Taddeo and The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
The year’s major disappointments: Cape May by Chip Cheek, We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast by Jonathan Safran Foer, Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis, ed. Anna Hope et al., Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken, Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race by Lara Prior-Palmer, The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal, The Knife’s Edge by Stephen Westaby and Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson
The worst book I read this year: Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
Some statistics on my 2019 reading:
(As usual, fiction and nonfiction are neck and neck. I read a bit more poetry this year than last.)
Male author: 39.4%
Female author: 58.9%
Nonbinary author (the first time this category has been applicable for me): 0.85%
Multiple genders (anthologies): 0.85%
(I’ve said this the past three years: I find it interesting that female authors significantly outweigh male authors in my reading; I have never consciously set out to read more books by women.)
Print books: 89.7%
(My e-book reading has been declining year on year, partially because I’ve cut back on the reviewing gigs that involve only reading e-books and partially because I’ve done less traveling; also, increasingly, I find that I just prefer to sit down with a big stack of print books.)
Work in translation: 7.2%
(Lower than I’d like, but better than last year’s 4.8%.)
Where my books came from for the whole year:
- Free print or e-copy from publisher: 36.8%
- Public library: 21.3%
- Secondhand purchase: 13.8%
- Free (giveaways, The Book Thing of Baltimore, the free mall bookshop, etc.): 9.2%
- Downloaded from NetGalley, Edelweiss or Project Gutenberg: 7.8%
- Gifts: 4.3%
- University library: 2.9%
- New purchase (usually at a bargain price): 2.9%
- Church theological library: 0.8%
- Borrowed: 0.2%
(Review copies accounted for over a third of my reading; I’m going to scale way back on this next year. My library reading was similar to last year’s; my e-book reading decreased in general; I read more books that I either bought new or got for free.)
Number of unread print books in the house: 440
(Last thing I knew the figure was more like 300, so this is rather alarming. I blame the free mall bookshop, where I volunteer every Friday. Most weeks I end up bringing home at least a few books, but it’s often a whole stack. Surely you understand. Free books! No strings attached!)
Thanks to the Lauras (Reading in Bed and Dr Laura Tisdall) for making me aware of this tag that is also going around on BookTube. Laura F. specifically tagged me. If you haven’t already taken part and think this looks like fun, why not give it a try? For my examples I’ve chosen books I read this year or last year.
- How do you define literary fiction?
My inclination is to adapt one of Italo Calvino’s definitions of a classic (recapped here): a book that will never finish saying all it has to say. In other words, a perennially relevant work that speaks to the human condition. Obviously, not all literary fiction can live up to that standard; some will inevitably feel dated due to its setting, slang, technology, and so on. But at its best, literary fiction voices, and makes an attempt at answering, one or more of life’s biggest questions. As Laura F. says, this generally means that it lends itself to discussion and (re)interpretation. I know I can be an awful snob about genre fiction, but I avoid crime, science fiction, etc. because I find these genres less ‘serious’ and thus less worthwhile than literary fiction.
- Name a literary fiction novel with a superb character study.
The first novel that comes to mind here is The Poisonwood Bible, which would be a suitable answer for several of these categories but on rereading struck me most for how well developed its five main characters are. Barbara Kingsolver does an impressive job of distinguishing these multiple narrators from each other based on how they speak/write.
- Name a literary fiction novel that has experimental or unique writing.
One of the fiction highlights of 2019 so far for me is Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler. It stands out from the autofiction field due to its placement of words. Some pages contain just a few lines, or a single short paragraph that reads like a prose poem. Even in the more conventional sections, a lack of punctuation creates a breathless, run-on pace.
- Name a literary fiction novel with an interesting structure.
In The Monsters of Templeton, Lauren Groff’s debut novel, Willie Upton is back in her hometown in upstate New York, partway through a PhD and pregnant by her married professor. We hear from various leading lights in the town’s history and/or Willie’s family tree through a series of first-person narratives, letters and other documents.
- Name a literary fiction novel that explores social themes.
Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly, which I reviewed for Nudge, is written entirely in verse and narrated in dialect by an unlearned servant from a cloth mill town in Gloucestershire. With unemployment rising amid the clamor for universal male suffrage, the scene is set for a climactic clash between the common people and the landowning class.
- Name a literary fiction novel that explores the human condition.
John Steinbeck’s East of Eden has an overarching theme of good and evil as it plays out in families and in individual souls. This weighty material – openly addressed in theological and philosophical terms in the course of the novel – is couched in something of a family saga that follows several generations of the Trasks and the Hamiltons.
- Name a brilliant literary-hybrid genre novel.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is a rare sci-fi novel that I loved wholeheartedly. Set on a near-future Jesuit mission to the two alien species on a distant planet, it is about the possibility of believing in God, and doing good works in His name, when suffering seems to be the only result. (See also: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber.)
- What genre do you wish was mixed with literary fiction more?
I’ve always felt that Maggie O’Farrell expertly straddles the line between literary and women’s fiction; her books are addictively readable but also hold up to critical scrutiny. Her best is The Hand that First Held Mine, but everything I’ve read by her is wonderful. I’d happily read more books like hers. (Expectation by Anna Hope was slightly less successful.)
Last month I picked out this exchange from East of Eden by John Steinbeck:
“But the Irish are said to be a happy people, full of jokes.”
“They’re not. They’re a dark people with a gift for suffering way past their deserving. It’s said that without whisky to soak and soften the world, they’d kill themselves. But they tell jokes because it’s expected of them.”
There’s something about that mixture of darkness and humor, isn’t there? I also find that Irish art (music as well as literature) has a lot of heart. I only read two Ireland-related historical novels this month, but they both have that soulful blend of light and somber. Both:
Things in Jars by Jess Kidd (2019)
In the autumn of 1863 Bridie Devine, female detective extraordinaire, is tasked with finding the six-year-old daughter of a baronet. Problem is, this missing girl is no ordinary child, and collectors of medical curiosities and circus masters alike are interested in acquiring her.
In its early chapters this delightful Victorian pastiche reminded me of a cross between Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and that comparison played out pretty well in the remainder. Kidd paints a convincingly gritty picture of Dickensian London, focusing on an underworld of criminals and circus freaks: when Bridie first arrived in London from Dublin, she worked as an assistant to a resurrectionist; her maid is a 7-foot-tall bearded lady; and her would-be love interest, if only death didn’t separate them, is the ghost of a heavily tattooed boxer.
Medicine (surgery – before and after anesthesia) and mythology (mermaids and selkies) are intriguing subplots woven through, such that this is likely to appeal to fans of The Way of All Flesh and The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. Kidd’s prose is spry and amusing, particularly in her compact descriptions of people (but also in her more expansive musings on the dirty, bustling city): “a joyless string of a woman, thin and pristine with a halibut pout,” “In Dr Prudhoe’s countenance, refinement meets rogue,” and “People are no more than punctuation from above.”
I’ll definitely go back and read Kidd’s two previous novels, Himself and The Hoarder. I didn’t even realize she was Irish, so I’m grateful to Cathy for making me aware of that in her preview of upcoming Irish fiction. [Trigger warnings: violence against women and animals.] (Out from Canongate on April 4th.)
Away by Jane Urquhart (1993)
I was enraptured from the first line: “The women of this family leaned towards extremes” – starting with Mary, who falls in love with a sailor who washes up on the Irish coast in the 1840s amid the cabbages, silver teapots and whiskey barrels of a shipwreck and dies in her arms. Due to her continued communion with the dead man, people speak of her being “away with the fairies,” even after she marries the local schoolteacher, Brian O’Malley.
With their young son, Liam, they join the first wave of emigration to Canada during the Potato Famine, funded by their landlords, the Sedgewick brothers of Puffin Court (amateur naturalist Osbert and poet Granville). No sooner have the O’Malleys settled and had their second child, Eileen, than Mary disappears. As she grows, Eileen takes after her mother, mystically attuned to portents and prone to flightiness, while Liam is a happily rooted Great Lakes farmer. Like Mary, Eileen has her own forbidden romance, with a political revolutionary who dances like a dream.
I’ve been underwhelmed by other Urquhart novels, Sanctuary Line and The Whirlpool, but here she gets it just right, wrapping her unfailingly gorgeous language around an absorbing plot – which is what I felt was lacking in the others. The Ireland and Canada settings are equally strong, and the spirit of Ireland – the people, the stories, the folk music – is kept alive abroad. I recommend this to readers of historical fiction by Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt and Hannah Kent.
Some favorite lines:
Osbert says of Mary: “There’s this light in her, you see, and it must not be put out.”
“When summer was finished the family was visited by a series of overstated seasons. In September, they awakened after night frosts to a woods awash with floating gold leaves and a sky frantic with migrating birds – sometimes so great in number that they covered completely with their shadows the acre of light and air that Brian had managed to create.”
“There are five hundred and forty different kinds of weather out there, and I respect every one of them. White squalls, green fogs, black ice, and the dreaded yellow cyclone, just to mention a few.”
Did you manage to read any Irish literature this month?
Look no further for the Great American Novel. Spanning from the Civil War to World War I and crossing the country from New England to California, East of Eden is just as wide-ranging in its subject matter, with an overarching theme of good and evil as it plays out in families and in individual souls. This weighty material – openly addressed in theological and philosophical terms in the course of the novel – is couched in something of a family saga that follows several generations of the Trasks and the Hamiltons. (Some spoilers follow.)
Cyrus Trask, Civil War amputee and fraudulent hero, has two sons. He sends his beloved boy, Adam, into the army during the Indian Wars. Adam’s half-brother Charles stays home to tend the family’s Connecticut farm. There’s a bitter sibling rivalry between them; more than once it looks like Charles might beat Adam to death. When Cyrus, now high up in military administration in Washington, dies and leaves his sons $100,000, Charles is suspicious. He’s sure their father stole the money, but Adam won’t accept that. Adam takes his inheritance and buys a ranch outside Salinas, California, taking with him his new wife Cathy, who turned up battered on the brothers’ doorstep and won’t reveal anything about her shadowy background.
Cathy is that rare thing: a female villain, and one with virtually no redeeming features. No sooner has she given birth to Adam’s twin sons than she runs off, shooting him in the shoulder to get away. Unbeknownst to Adam, who still idealizes a wife he knows nothing about, she gets work in a Salinas brothel and before long takes over as the madam. As her sons Aron and Cal grow up, they hear rumors that make them doubt their mother is buried back East, as their father claims. Aron is drawn to the Church and falls for a girl named Abra, whom he puts on a pedestal just as he does his ‘dead’ mother. Cal, a wanderer and schemer, is determined not to follow his mother into vice even though that seems like his fate.Meanwhile, the Hamiltons are a large Irish-American clan headed up by patriarch Samuel, who’s an indomitably cheerful inventor and land advisor even though he’s hardly made a penny from his own ranch. He’s a devoted friend to Adam in the 11 years Adam is lost in his grief over Cathy. At about the halfway point of the novel, we finally learn that the narrator is a version of the author: this John Steinbeck is one of Samuel’s grandchildren, so at the same time that he’s mythologizing the Trasks’ story he’s also expounding family stories. I’ll have to do more research to see to what extent the family’s Salinas history is autobiographical.
This was a buddy read with my mother. We were surprised by how much philosophy and theology Steinbeck includes. The parallels with the Cain and Abel story (brought to mind by both sets of C & A Trask brothers) are not buried in the text for an observant reader to find, but discussed explicitly. My favorite character and the novel’s most straightforward hero is Lee, Adam’s loyal Chinese cook, who practically raises Cal and Aron. When we first meet him he’s speaking pidgin, as is expected of him, but around friends he drops the act and can be his nurturing and deeply intellectual self. With some fellow Chinese scholars he’s picked apart Genesis 4 and zeroed in on one Hebrew word, timshel or “thou mayest.” To Lee this speaks of choice and possibility; life is not all pre-ordained. For the two central families it is a message of hope: one does not have to replicate family mistakes.There are plenty more scriptural echoes if you look out for them. Two brothers taking their inheritance and doing different things with it reminded me of the Prodigal Son parable. Siblings squabble over a father’s blessing as in the Jacob and Esau story, and the Hamiltons are like the many children of Israel – the youngest is even called Joseph. It’s rewarding to watch how money and technology come and go, and to trace the novel’s repeating patterns of behavior – some subtle and some overt. (There are three $100,000 bequests, for instance.)
At 600 small-type pages, this is a big book with many minor threads and secondary characters I haven’t even touched on. Steinbeck grapples with primal stories about human nature and examines how we try to earn love and break free from others’ expectations. His depiction of America’s contradictions still feels true, and he writes simply stunning sentences. “It is one of the best books I’ve ever read,” my mother told me. It’s a classic you really shouldn’t pass up.
Page count: 602
A few favorite passages:
“It is the dull eventless times that have no duration whatever. A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy—that’s the time that seems long in the memory.”
“Adam Trask grew up in grayness, and the curtains of his life were like dusty cobwebs, and his days a slow file of half-sorrows and sick dissatisfactions, and then, through Cathy, the glory came to him.”
“We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”
During the month I spent reading this I could hardly get these two songs out of my head. Both seem to be at least loosely inspired by East of Eden. I’ve pulled out some key lines and linked to audio or video footage.
When the clouds roll in, we start playing for our sins
With a gun in my hand and my son at my shoulder
Believe I will run before that boy gets older […]
Ask the angels, “Am I heaven-bound?”
My luck ran out just east of Eden
Oh, I proved you right
I’m a danger […]
I’m tired, don’t let me be a failure
This is my third year of prioritizing novellas for my November reading. I have plenty more on the go that I’ll try to write up as the month progresses. For this first installment I review three each of my recent fiction and nonfiction reads, all of them 150 pages or fewer.
Lady into Fox by David Garnett (1922)
I accidentally did things the wrong way round: a few months back I read Sarah Hall’s Madame Zero, which includes the BBC National Short Story Prize 2013 winner “Mrs Fox,” clearly modeled on Garnett’s half-charming, half-horrible fable. In both, an upper-middle-class marriage is derailed when the wife turns into a fox. Here Mr. Tebrick sends away the servants and retreats from the world to look after Silvia, who grows increasingly feral. To start with the vixen will wear clothing, sleep in a bed, play cards and eat table scraps, but soon she’s hunting birds outdoors. Before long she’s effectively a wild creature, though she still shows affection to Tebrick when he comes to visit her den.
Anyone in a partnership will experience a bittersweet sense of recognition at how Tebrick and Silvia try to accommodate each other’s differences and make compromises to maintain a relationship in defiance of the world’s disapproval and danger. Beware unsentimental animal peril throughout. I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952)
It’s a wonder I never read this Pulitzer winner in high school. Like that other syllabus favorite, Steinbeck’s The Pearl, it’s a Great American novella praised for spare prose and weighty symbolism. My two decades’ worth of preconceptions were proven accurate insomuch as this is a gloomy story about the nobility but ultimate futility of human striving. After 84 days without a catch, Santiago returns to the waters off of Havana and finally gets a bite. Even after the harrowing process of reeling in the 18-foot marlin, his struggle isn’t over.
This is my third experience with Hemingway’s fiction; I remain unconvinced. I appreciated some of the old man’s solitary ruminations on purpose and determination – “My big fish must be somewhere,” “Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is” – though they sound rather like sound bites. And I kept almost falling asleep while reading this (until the sharks showed up), which almost never happens. Take that as you will.
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (2018)
It’s the late 1980s and teenager Silvie Hampton and her parents have joined a university-run residential archaeology course in the North of England, near bogs where human sacrifice once took place. Her father is a Rochdale-area bus driver, but British prehistory is his all-consuming hobby. They’ll skin rabbits with stone tools and forage for roots and berries. What could be better?! As it turns out, it’s a stifling summer, and the students can’t sneak off to civilization often enough. Mocked for her family’s accent, Silvie is uncomfortably aware of her class. And, always, she must tread carefully to avoid angering her father, who punishes perceived offenses with his belt or his fists.
Women’s bodies and what can be done to them is central; as the climax approaches, the tricksy matter of consent arises. Though I enjoyed Silvie’s sarcastic voice, I was underwhelmed for much of the book, yet ended up impressed by how much is conveyed in so few pages. If you haven’t read anything by Sarah Moss, do so immediately.
Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest’s Wife, and the God Who Gives and Takes Away by Victor Lee Austin (2016)
Austin, an Episcopal priest and academic, met his wife Susan at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was his companion for nearly 40 years. Unusually for a cancer story, it wasn’t the beginning of the end when Susan was diagnosed with an astrocytoma brain tumor in 1993; surgery was successful and she lived for another 19 years, but white-matter disease, a side effect of radiation, meant that her brain function was continually diminishing.
The book gives a clear sense of Susan’s personality despite the progression of her illness, and of the challenges of being a caregiver while holding down a career. I enjoyed the details of the human story of coping with suffering, but in overlaying a spiritual significance on it Austin lost me somewhat. “God, who had given us so much, now gave us this evil,” he writes. While once this kind of language would have meant something to me, now it alienates me. I valued this more as a straightforward bereavement memoir than as a theological treatise.
The Secret Life of the Owl by John Lewis-Stempel (2017)
“There is something about owls. More than any other family of birds they produce a reaction in us, and have done so across time and continents.” Some species-specific natural/cultural histories can be long-winded, giving significantly more information than your averagely interested lay reader needs (Foxes Unearthed, for instance), but Lewis-Stempel’s short book about Britain’s owls gets it just right.
He gives some general information about the family, surveys the native species and occasional visitors, gives tips for telling them apart – I’m going to photograph a page on the difference between the five major species’ pellets for future reference – and shares legends and poems that feature owls (including a jaunty little Tennyson piece that reads like a folk song; I’ll suggest that my husband turn it into one). The black-and-white illustrations by Beci Kelly are charming, too. It’s a shame I missed this when it first came out, but it would still make a great gift for a bird lover this Christmas.
Pages from a Nature-Lover’s Diary by Kathleen A. Renninger (2013)
These are lovely excerpts from nature sketchbooks Renninger kept between 1987 and 2013. My mother bought the self-published book from the author at a craft fair, and I enjoyed spotting lots of familiar place names from southern central Pennsylvania, where my mother and sister used to live. In the past I’ve unfairly considered the area devoid of natural beauty, but it’s clear from Renninger’s encounters that the wildlife is out there if you’re patient and lucky enough to find it – mostly birds and insects, but even larger mammals like foxes and bears.
Many of her sightings are by chance: near her feeders or clothesline, or while driving past fields or down a residential street. Each month ends with a poem; these are slightly florid, but so earnest that they won me over. There are plentiful punctuation issues and the cursive font is a challenge to read, but the captured moments and the sense of the seasons’ passing make for a sweet book I’d recommend to anyone with a local interest.
Have you read any of these novellas? Which one takes your fancy?
I always used to be more of a dog person than a cat person, even though we had both while I was growing up, but now I’m a dedicated cat owner and have tried out some related reading. You’ll notice I don’t rate any of these five books about cats particularly highly, whereas there have been a number of dog books I’ve given 4 stars (Dog Years by Mark Doty, Ordinary Dogs by Eileen Battersby, A Dog’s Life by Peter Mayle; even books that aren’t necessarily about dogs but reference life with them, like A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas and Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck). What’s with that? Maybe dog lovers don’t have to worry so much about striking a balance between a pet’s standoffishness and affection. Maybe dogs play a larger role in everyday human life and leave a more gaping hole when they shuffle off the canine coil. Still, I enjoyed aspects of or specific passages from each of the following.
The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide
As a cat-loving freelance writer who aspires to read more literature in translation, I thought from the blurb that this book could not be more perfect for me. I bought it in a charity shop one afternoon and started reading right away. It’s only 140 pages, so I finished within 24 hours, but felt at a distance from the story the whole time. Part of it might be the translation – the translator’s notes at the end explain some useful context about the late 1980s setting, but also conflate the narrator and the author in such a way that the book seems like an artless memoir rather than a novella. But the more basic problem for me is that there’s simply not enough about the cat. There’s plenty of architectural detail about the guesthouse the narrator and his wife rent on the grounds of a mansion, plenty of economic detail about the housing market…but the cat just doesn’t make enough of an impression. I’m at a bit of a loss to explain why this has been such a bestseller. Quite the disappointment.
The Fur Person by May Sarton
I’m a huge fan of May Sarton’s journals – in which various cats play supporting roles – so for a while I’d been hoping to come across a copy of this little novelty book from 1957, a childish fable about a tomcat who transforms from a malnourished Cat-About-Town to a spoiled Gentleman Cat. Luckily I managed to find a copy of this one plus the Lessing (see below) in the Nature section at Book Thing of Baltimore. In a preface to the 1978 edition Sarton reveals that Tom Jones was, indeed, a real cat, a stray she and her partner Judy Matlack adopted when they lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Wonderful coincidence: when they were on sabbatical in the early 1950s, they sublet the place to the Nabokovs, who looked after Tom while they were away!
I found this a bit lightweight overall, and the whole idea of a ‘fur person’ is a little strange – don’t we love cats precisely because they’re not people? Still, I enjoyed the proud cat’s Ten Commandments (e.g. “II. A Gentleman Cat allows no constraint of his person … III. A Gentleman Cat does not mew except in extremity”) and spotted my own domestic situation in this description: “while she [‘Gentle Voice’ = Judy] was away the other housekeeper [= Sarton] was sometimes quite absent-minded and even forgot his lunch once or twice because she sat for hours and hours in front of a typewriter, tapping out messages with her fingers.” The black-and-white illustrations by David Canright are a highlight.
Particularly Cats…And Rufus by Doris Lessing
A book about cats that I would almost hesitate to recommend to cat lovers: it contains many a scene of kitty carnage, as well as some unenlightened resistance to spaying and neutering. Lessing grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe that was at one point overrun with about 40 cats. Her mother went away, expecting her father to have ‘taken care of them’ by the time she got back. He tried chloroform to start with, but it was too slow and ineffective; in the end he rounded them all up in a room and got out his WWI revolver. And that’s not the end of it; even into her adulthood in England Lessing balked at taking female cats in for surgery so would find occasionally herself saddled with unwanted litters of kittens that they decided had to be drowned. It’s really a remarkably unsentimental record of her dealings with cats.
That’s not to say there weren’t some cats she willingly and lovingly kept as pets, particularly a pair of rival females known simply as “black cat” and “grey cat,” and later a stray named Rufus who adopted her. But even with cherished felines she comes across as tough: “Anyway, she had to be killed and I decided that to keep cats in London was a mistake” or “I smacked grey cat” for bullying the black one. The very fact of not giving the pair names certainly quashes any notion of her as some cuddly cat lady. All the same, she was a dutiful nurse when black cat and Rufus fell ill. The book ends on a repentant note: “Knowing cats, a lifetime of cats, what is left is a sediment of sorrow quite different from that due to humans: compounded of pain for their helplessness, of guilt on behalf of us all.”
My favorite thing about the book is the watercolor illustrations by James McMullan.
The Unadulterated Cat: A Campaign for Real Cats by Terry Pratchett
Like Douglas Adams or Monty Python, Terry Pratchett is, alas, a representative of the kind of British humor I just don’t get. But I rather enjoyed this small novelty book (bought for my husband for Christmas) all the same. For Pratchett, a “Real” cat is a non-pampered, tough-as-nails outdoor creature that hunts and generally does its own thing but also knows how to wrap its human servants around its paws. I like his idea of “cat chess” as a neighborhood-wide feline game of strategy, moving between carefully selected vantage points to keep an eye on the whole road yet avoid confrontation with other cats. It’s certainly true on our street. And this is quite a good summary of what cats do and why we put up with them:
What other animal gets fed, not because it’s useful, or guards the house, or sings, but because when it does get fed it looks pleased? And purrs. The purr is very important. It’s the purr that makes up for the Things Under the Bed, the occasional pungency, the 4 a.m. yowl.
On Cats by Charles Bukowski
“In my next life I want to be a cat. To sleep 20 hours a day and wait to be fed. To sit around licking my ass.” I’d never read anything else by Bukowski, so I wasn’t sure quite what to expect from this book, which is mostly composed of previously unpublished poems and short prose pieces about the author’s multiple cats. The tone is an odd mixture of gruff and sentimental. Make no mistake: his cats were all Real cats, in line with the Pratchett model. A white Manx cat, for instance, had been shot, run over, and had his tail cut off. Another was named Butch Van Gogh Artaud Bukowski. You wouldn’t mess with a cat with a macho name like that, would you? My favorite passage is from “War Surplus,” about an exchange he and his wife had with a store clerk:
“what will the cats do if there is an explosion?”
“lady, cats are different than we are, they are of a lower order.”
“I think cats are better than we are,” I said.
the clerk looked at me. “we don’t have gas masks for cats.”