For me, 2019 has been a more memorable year for nonfiction than for fiction. Like I did last year, I’ve happened to choose 12 favorite nonfiction books – though after some thematic grouping this has ended up as a top 10 list. Bodies, archaeology, and the environmental crisis are recurring topics, reflecting my own interests but also, I think, something of the zeitgeist.
Let the countdown begin!
- Because Internet: Understanding how language is changing by Gretchen McCulloch: Surprisingly fascinating stuff, even for a late adopter of technology. The Internet popularized informal writing and quickly incorporates changes in slang and cultural references. The book addresses things you may never have considered, like how we convey tone of voice through what we type and how emoji function as the gestures of the written word. Bursting with geeky enthusiasm.
- Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie: A fusion of autobiography with nature and travel writing – two genres that are too often dominated by men. Jamie has a particular interest in birds, islands, archaeology and the oddities of the human body, all subjects that intrigue me. There is beautiful nature writing to be found in this volume, as you might expect, but also relatable words on the human condition.
- Mother Ship by Francesca Segal: A visceral diary of the first eight weeks in the lives of the author’s daughters, who were born by Caesarean section at 29 weeks in October 2015 and spent the next two months in the NICU. Segal describes with tender precision the feeling of being torn between writing and motherhood, and crafts twinkly pen portraits of others she encountered in the NICU, including the staff but especially her fellow preemie mums.
- Surrender: Mid-Life in the American West by Joanna Pocock: Prompted by two years spent in Missoula, Montana and the disorientation felt upon a return to London, this memoir-in-essays varies in scale from the big skies of the American West to the smallness of one human life and the experience of loss and change. This is an elegantly introspective work that should engage anyone interested in women’s life writing and the environmental crisis.
- (A tie) Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson / The Undying by Anne Boyer / Notes Made while Falling by Jenn Ashworth: Trenchant autobiographical essays about female pain. All three feel timely and inventive in how they bring together disparate topics to explore the possibilities and limitations of women’s bodies. A huge theme in life writing in the last couple of years and a great step toward trauma and chronic pain being taken seriously. (See also Notes to Self by Emilie Pine and the forthcoming Pain Studies by Lisa Olstein.)
- Time Song: Searching for Doggerland by Julia Blackburn: Deep time is another key topic this year. Blackburn follows her curiosity wherever it leads as she does research into millions of years of history, including the much shorter story of human occupation. The writing is splendid, and the dashes of autobiographical information are just right, making her timely/timeless story personal. This would have been my Wainwright Prize winner.
- The Seafarers: A Journey among Birds by Stephen Rutt: The young naturalist travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles – from Skomer to Shetland – courting encounters with seabirds. Discussion of the environmental threats that hit these species hardest, such as plastic pollution, makes for a timely tie-in to wider issues. The prose is elegantly evocative, and especially enjoyable because I’ve been to a lot of the island locations.
- Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene: In 2015 the author’s two-year-old daughter, Greta, was fatally struck in the head by a brick that crumbled off an eighth-story Manhattan windowsill. Music journalist Greene explores all the ramifications of grief. I’ve read many a bereavement memoir and can’t remember a more searing account of the emotions and thoughts experienced moment to moment. The whole book has an aw(e)ful clarity to it.
- The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson: Bryson is back on form indulging his layman’s curiosity. Without ever being superficial or patronizing, he gives a comprehensive introduction to every organ and body system. He delights in our physical oddities, and his sense of wonder is contagious. Shelve this next to Being Mortal by Atul Gawande in a collection of books everyone should read – even if you don’t normally choose nonfiction.
- Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places by Julian Hoffman: Species and habitat loss are hard to comprehend even when we know the facts. This exquisitely written book is about taking stock, taking responsibility, and going beyond the numbers to tell the stories of front-line conservation work. Irreplaceable is an elegy of sorts, but, more importantly, it’s a call to arms. It places environmentalism in the hands of laypeople and offers hope that in working together in the spirit of defiance we can achieve great things. So, if you read one 2019 release, make it this one.
What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?
29th: Other superlatives and some statistics
30th: Best backlist reads
31st: The final figures on my 2019 reading
I call it serendipitous 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 incidents. I post these occasional reading coincidences on Twitter. What’s the weirdest one you’ve had lately? (The following are in rough chronological order.)
- Two novels in which a character attempts to glimpse famous mountains out of a train window but it’s so rainy they can barely be seen: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma and The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann.
- Ex-husbands move from England to California and remarry younger women in The Stillness The Dancing by Wendy Perriam and Heat Wave by Penelope Lively.
- References to Edgar Allan Poe in both Timbuktu by Paul Auster and The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma.
- An account of Percy Shelley’s funeral pyre in both The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma and Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson.
- Mentions of barn owls being killed by eating poisoned rats in Owl Sense by Miriam Darlington and Homesick by Catrina Davies.
- Miriam Rothschild is mentioned in Irreplaceable by Julian Hoffman and An Obsession with Butterflies by Sharman Apt Russell.
- Gorse is thrown on bonfires in Homesick by Catrina Davies and The Stillness The Dancing by Wendy Perriam.
- A character has a nice cup of Ovaltine in Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym and The Stillness The Dancing by Wendy Perriam.
- I started two books with “Bloom” in the title on the same day.
- Two books I finished about the same time conclude by quoting or referring to the T. S. Eliot lines about coming back to the place where you started and knowing it for the first time (Owl Sense by Miriam Darlington and This Is Not a Drill, the Extinction Rebellion handbook).
- Three books in which the narrator wonders whether to tell the truth slant (quoting Emily Dickinson, consciously or not): The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and The Hiding Game by Naomi Wood.
- On the same day, I saw mentions of crullers in both On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming and The Dutch House by Ann Patchett.
- There are descriptions of starling murmurations over Brighton Pier in both Irreplaceable by Julian Hoffman and Expectation by Anna Hope. (Always brings this wonderful Bell X1 song to mind!)
- I was reading The Outermost House by Henry Beston and soon after found an excerpt from it in Irreplaceable by Julian Hoffman; later I started The Easternmost House by Juliet Blaxland, whose title is a deliberate tip of the hat to Beston.
- At a fertility clinic, the author describes a pair of transferred embryos as “two sequins of light” (in On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming) and “two points of light” (in Expectation by Anna Hope).
- Mentions of azolla ferns in Time Song by Julia Blackburn and Bloom (aka Slime) by Ruth Kassinger.
- Incorporation of a mother’s brief memoir in the author’s own memoir in On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming and All Things Consoled by Elizabeth Hay.
- Artist mothers in On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming, All Things Consoled by Elizabeth Hay, and Expectation by Anna Hope.
- Missionary fathers in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and The Wind that Lays Waste by Selva Almada.
- Twins, one who’s disabled from a birth defect and doesn’t speak much, in Golden Child by Claire Adam and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.
- An Irish-American family in a major East Coast city where the teenage boy does construction work during the summers in Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane and The Dutch House by Ann Patchett.
- SPOILERS: A woman with terminal cancer refuses treatment so she can die on her own terms and is carried out into her garden in Expectation by Anna Hope and A Reckoning by May Sarton.
- A 27-year-old professor has a student tearfully confide in her in Crow Lake by Mary Lawson and The Small Room by May Sarton.
- Reading The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom at the same time as The Dutch House by Ann Patchett.
- “I was nineteen years old and an idiot” (City of Girls, Elizabeth Gilbert); “I was fifteen and generally an idiot” (The Dutch House, Ann Patchett).
- Mentions of a conjuring tricks book in Time Song by Julia Blackburn and Fifth Business by Robertson Davies.
- A teen fleeces their place of employment in Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore.
- A talking parrot with a religious owner in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.
- Pictorial book serendipity: three books I was reading, and another waiting in the wings, had a red, black and white color scheme.
- Kripalu (a Massachusetts retreat center) is mentioned in Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner and Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene.
- The character of Netty Quelch in Robertson Davies’s The Manticore reminds me of Fluffy in Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House.
- The artist Chardin is mentioned in How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton and Varying Degrees of Hopelessness by Lucy Ellmann.
- A Czech grand/father who works in a plant nursery in the opening story of Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever and Patricia Hampl’s The Florist’s Daughter.
- The author was in Eva Le Gallienne’s NYC theatre company (Madeleine L’Engle’s Two-Part Invention and various works by May Sarton, also including a biography of her).
- Gillian Rose’s book Love’s Work is mentioned in both Notes Made while Falling by Jenn Ashworth and My Year Off by Robert McCrum. (I will clearly have to read the Rose!)
- Sarah Baartman (displayed in Europe as the “Hottentot Venus”) is mentioned in Shame on Me by Tessa McWatt and Hull by Xandria Phillips.
I recently participated in the one-week “My Life in Books” extravaganza hosted by Simon Thomas (Stuck in a Book), where he asks bloggers to choose five books that have been important to them at different points in their reading lives. The neat twist is that he puts the bloggers in pairs and asks them to comment anonymously on their partner’s reading choices and even come up with an apt book recommendation or two. A few of my selections will be familiar from the two Landmark Books posts I wrote in 2016 (here and here), but a couple are new, and it was fun to think about what’s changed versus what’s endured in my reading taste.
Shiny New Books
Irreplaceable by Julian Hoffman: If you read one 2019 release, make it this one. (It’s too important a book to dilute that statement with qualifiers.) Species and habitat loss are hard to comprehend even when we know the facts. This book is a way of taking stock, taking responsibility, and going beyond the numbers to tell the stories of front-line conservation work. From the Kent marshes to the Coral Triangle off Indonesia, Hoffman discovers the situation on the ground and talks to the people involved in protecting places at risk of destruction. Reassuringly, these aren’t usually genius scientists or well-funded heroes, but ordinary citizens who are concerned about preserving nearby sites that mean something to them. Irreplaceable is an elegy of sorts, but, more importantly, it’s a call to arms. It places environmentalism in the hands of laypeople and offers hope that in working together in the spirit of defiance we can achieve great things. It takes local concerns seriously, yet its scope is international. But what truly lifts Hoffman’s work above most recent nature books is the exquisite prose.
Times Literary Supplement
These three reviews are forthcoming.
The Heat of the Moment: Life and Death Decision-Making from a Firefighter by Sabrina Cohen-Hatton: Cohen-Hatton is one of the UK’s highest-ranking female firefighters. A few perilous situations inspired her to investigate how people make decisions under pressure. For a PhD in Psychology from Cardiff University, she delved into the neurology of decision-making. Although there is jargon in the book, she explains the terms well and uses relatable metaphors. However, the context about her research can be repetitive and basic, as if dumbed down for a general reader. The book shines when giving blow-by-blow accounts of real-life or composite incidents. Potential readers should bear in mind, though, that this is ultimately more of a management psychology book than a memoir.
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), a record of his two-year experiment living alone in a cabin near a Massachusetts pond, has inspired innumerable back-to-nature adventures, including these two books I discuss together in a longer article.
The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod by Henry Beston: Beston had a two-room wooden shack built at Cape Cod in 1925. Although he only intended to spend a fortnight of the following summer in the sixteen-by-twenty-foot dwelling, he stayed a year. The chronicle of that year, The Outermost House (originally published in 1928 and previously out of print in the UK), is a charming meditation on the turning of the seasons and the sometimes terrifying power of the sea. The writing is often poetic, with sibilance conjuring the sound of the ocean. Beston will be remembered for his statement of the proper relationship between humans and the natural world. “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” he declares; “they are not underlings; they are other nations.” One word stands out in The Outermost House: “elemental” appears a dozen times, evoking the grandeur of nature and the necessity of getting back to life’s basics.
(See also Susan’s review of this one.)
Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed by Catrina Davies: Davies crosses Thoreauvian language – many chapter titles and epigraphs are borrowed from Walden – with a Woolfian search for a room of her own. Penniless during an ongoing housing crisis and reeling from a series of precarious living situations, she moved into the shed near Land’s End that had served as her father’s architecture office until he went bankrupt. Like Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path, this intimate, engaging memoir is a sobering reminder that homelessness is not so remote, and education is no guarantee of success. There is, understandably, a sense of righteous indignation here against a land-owning class – including the lord who owns much of the area where she lives and works – and government policies that favour the wealthy.