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?
Today marks 189 years since poet Christina Rossetti’s birth in 1830. You could hardly find better reading for Advent than poet–priest Rachel Mann’s new seasonal devotional, In the Bleak Midwinter, which journeys through Advent and the 12 days of Christmas via short essays on about 40 Rossetti poems.
If your mental picture of Rossetti’s work is, like mine was, limited to twee repetition (“Snow had fallen, snow on snow, / Snow on snow,” as the title carol from 1872 goes), you’ll gain a new appreciation after reading this. Yes, Rossetti’s poetry may strike today’s readers as sentimental, with a bit too much rhyming and overt religion, but it is important to understand it as a product of the Victorian era.
Mann gives equal focus to Rossetti’s techniques and themes. Repetition is indeed one of her main tools, used “to build intensity and rhythm,” and some of her poems are psalm-like in their diction and emotion. I had no idea that Rossetti had written so much – and so much that’s specific to the Christmas season. She has multiple poems entitled “Advent” and “A Christmas Carol” (the technical title of “In the Bleak Midwinter”) or variations thereon.
The book’s commentary spins out the many potential metaphorical connotations of Advent: anticipation, hope, suffering, beginnings versus endings. Mann notes that Rossetti often linked Advent and apocalypse as times of change and preparation. Even as Christians await the birth of Christ, the poet seems to say, they should keep the end of all things in mind. Thus, some of the poems include surprisingly dark or premonitory language:
The days are evil looking back,
The coming days are dim;
Yet count we not His promise slack,
But watch and wait for Him. (from “Advent,” 1858)
Death is better far than birth,
You shall turn again to earth. (from “For Advent”)
Along with that note of memento mori, Mann suggests other hidden elements of Rossetti’s poetry, like desire (as in the sensual vocabulary of “Goblin Market”) and teasing mystery (“Winter: My Secret,” which reminded me of Emily Dickinson). Not all of her work is devotional or sweet; those who feel overwhelmed or depressed at Christmastime will also find lines that resonate for them here.
Mann helped me to notice Rossetti’s sense of “divine time” that moves in cycles. She also makes a strong case for reading Rossetti to understand how we envision Christmas even now: “In some ways, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ offers the acme of our European cultural representations of this season.”
With thanks to Canterbury Press for the free copy for review.
(I also reviewed Mann’s poetry collection, A Kingdom of Love, earlier in the year.)
For December I’m reading Do Nothing, the Advent booklet Stephen Cottrell (now the Bishop of Chelmsford; formerly Bishop of Reading) wrote in 2008 about a minimalist, low-stress approach to the holidays. I have to say, it’s inspiring me to cut way back on card-sending and gift-giving this year.
A few seasonal snippets spotted in my recent reading:
“December darkens and darkens, and the streets sprout forth their Christmas tinsel, and the Salvation Army brass band sings hymns and jingles its bells and stirs up its cauldron of money, and loneliness blows in the snowflurries”
(from The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood)
“Fine old Christmas, with the snowy hair and ruddy face, had done his duty that year in the noblest fashion, and had set off his rich gifts of warmth and colour with all the heightening contrast of frost and snow.”
(from The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot)
A week to Christmas, cards of snow and holly,
Gimcracks in the shops,
Wishes and memories wrapped in tissue paper,
Trinkets, gadgets and lollipops
And as if through coloured glasses
We remember our childhood’s thrill
… And the feeling that Christmas Day
Was a coral island in time where we land and eat our lotus
But where we can never stay.
(from Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice)
I’m always on the lookout for books that seem to fit the season. Here are the piles I’ve amassed for winter (Early Riser imagines a human hibernation system for the winters), Christmas and snow. I’ll dip into these over the next couple of months. I plan to get more “winter,” “snow” and “ice” titles out from the library. Plus I have this review book (at left), newly in paperback, to start soon.
Have you read any Advent or wintry books recently?
With bare trees leading down to the canal and frosty temperatures forecast for the weekend, it’s starting to feel more like winter here. I journeyed through a fine autumn with two obscure classics that ended up being gems.
Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice (1939)
MacNeice, a poet and man of letters from Northern Ireland, wrote this long verse narrative between August 1938 and the turn of the following year. It’s simultaneously about everything and nothing, about everyday life for the common worker and the political rumblings that suggest all is not right in the world. As summer fades and Christmas draws closer, he reflects on his disconnection from Ireland; and on fear, apathy and the longing for purpose.
Two in every four lines rhyme, but the rhyme scheme is so subtle that I was far into the book before I recognized it. I tend not to like prose poems, but this book offers a nice halfway house between complete sentences and a stanza form, and it voices the kinds of feelings we can all relate to. How can this possibly be 80 years old? It is so relevant to our situation now.
we think ‘This must be wrong, it has happened before,
Just like this before, we must be dreaming…’
now it seems futility, imbecility,
To be building shops when nobody can tell
What will happen next.
There are only too many who say ‘What difference does it make
One way or the other?
To turn the stream of history will take
More than a by-election.’
Still there are … the seeds of energy and choice
Still alive even if forbidden, hidden,
And while a man has voice
He may recover music.
The university library copy I borrowed smells faintly of incense, so reading it was rather like slipping into the back pew of an old church and pondering timelessness.
Autumn Across America by Edwin Way Teale (1950)
Teale is a lesser-known naturalist who specialized in insects and edited or introduced works by famous natural historians of a previous era like Thoreau, Fabre, Hudson and Muir. In the late 1940s he and his wife Nellie set out on a meandering 20,000-mile road trip from Cape Cod on the Atlantic coast to Point Reyes on the Pacific to track autumn from its first hints to its last gasp. It was the third of four seasonal journeys the Teales undertook in part to distract them from their grief over their son David, who was killed in Germany during WWII. Their route passes through about half the states and experiences nearly every landscape you can imagine, some that are familiar to me and others that would be totally new. They delve in rockpools; observe bird and monarch migration; cross desert, mountains and prairie; and watch sea otters at play.
Although there is a sense of abundance – they see a million ducks in one day, and pass dozens of roadkill jackrabbits – like Aldo Leopold, Teale was an early conservationist who sounded the alarm about flora and fauna becoming rarer: “So much was going even as we watched.” His descriptions of nature are simply gorgeous, while the scientific explanations of leaf color, “Indian summer” and animal communication are at just the right level for the average reader. This was a lucky find at the Book Thing of Baltimore this past spring, and if I ever get the chance, I will delight in reading the other three in the quartet.
Some favorite lines:
“The stars speak of man’s insignificance in the long eternity of time; the desert speaks of his insignificance right now.”
“Those to whom the trees, the birds, the wildflowers represent only ‘locked-up dollars’ have never known or really seen these things. They have never experienced an interest in nature for itself. Whoever stimulates a wider appreciation of nature, a wider understanding of nature, a wider love of nature for its own sake accomplishes no small thing.”
I’m also still reading Led by the Nose: A Garden of Smells by Jenny Joseph, a book about what you see and smell in the garden month by month. I only have the December chapter still to read, followed by some lists of plants set out by ‘when they smell’ and when you plant them. I’ve also been slowly working through A Country Year: Living the Questions by Sue Hubbell, another Book Thing find. After her divorce, Hubbell lived alone on her 90 acres in the Ozarks of Missouri, keeping bees and conscientiously rebuilding a life in communion with nature. I still have the final two sections, “Winter” and “Spring,” left to read.
How’s the weather where you are?
Have you read any “Autumn” books lately?
In March through May I often try to read a few gardening-themed books and/or ones with “spring” in the title. Here are some of the ones that I have on the go as occasional reading:
Flowers and gardens
The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl: Her mother’s final illness led Hampl to reflect on her upbringing in St. Paul, Minnesota as the daughter of an Irish Catholic library clerk and a Czech florist. I love how she writes about small-town life and helping out in her father’s flower shop:
“These apparently ordinary people in our ordinary town, living faultlessly ordinary lives … why do I persist in thinking—knowing—they weren’t ordinary at all? … Nostalgia is really a kind of loyalty”
“it was my father’s domain, but it was also marvelously other, this place heavy with the drowsy scent of velvet-petaled roses and Provençal freesias in the middle of winter, the damp-earth spring fragrance of just-watered azaleas and cyclamen”
Led by the Nose: A Garden of Smells by Jenny Joseph: Joseph’s name might not sound familiar, but she was the author of the famous poem “Warning: When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple” and died early last year. This is a pleasant set of short pieces about what you might see and sense in your garden month by month. “Gardeners do indeed look before and after, at the same time living, as no one else, in the now of the nose,” she maintains. I’m particularly fascinated by the sense of smell and how a writer can describe odors, so I was delighted to find this in a charity shop in Edinburgh last year and have been reading it a few pages at a time as a bedside book. I especially like the wood engravings by Yvonne Skargon that head each chapter.
Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden by Eleanor Perényi: A somewhat dense collection of few-page essays, arranged in alphabetical order, on particular plants, tools and techniques. I tried reading it straight through last year and only made it as far as “Beans.” My new strategy is to keep it on my bedside shelves and dip into whichever pieces catch my attention. I don’t have particularly green fingers, so it’s not a surprise that my eye recently alighted on the essay “Failure,” which opens, “Sooner or later every gardener must face the fact that certain things are going to die on him. It is a temptation to be anthropomorphic about plants, to suspect that they do it to annoy.”
With One Lousy Free Packet of Seed by Lynne Truss (DNF at page 131 out of 210): A faltering gardening magazine is about to be closed down, but Osborne only finds out when he’s already down in Devon doing the research for his regular “Me and My Shed” column with a TV actress. Hijinks were promised as the rest of the put-out staff descend on Honiton, but by nearly the two-thirds point it all still felt like preamble, laying out the characters and their backstories, connections and motivations. My favorite minor character was Makepeace, a pugnacious book reviewer: “he used his great capacities as a professional know-all as a perfectly acceptable substitute for either insight or style.”
The Seasons, a Faber & Faber / BBC Radio 4 poetry anthology: From Chaucer and other Old English poets to Seamus Heaney (“Death of a Naturalist”) and Philip Larkin (“The Trees”), the spring section offers a good mixture of recent and traditional, familiar and new. A favorite passage was “May come up with fiddle-bows, / May come up with blossom, / May come up the same again, / The same again but different” (from “Nuts in May” by Louis MacNeice). Once we’re back from America I’ll pick up with the summer selections.
In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill: Early one spring, Ruth Bryce’s husband, Ben, dies in a forestry accident. They had only been married a year and here she is, aged twenty-one and a widow. Ben’s little brother, 14-year-old Jo, is a faithful visitor, but after the funeral many simply leave Ruth alone. I’m 100 pages in and still waiting for there to be a plot as such; so far it’s a lovely, quiet meditation on grief and solitude amid the rhythms of country life. Ben’s death is described as a “stone cast into still water,” and here at nearly the halfway point we’re seeing how some of the ripples spread out beyond his immediate family. I’m enjoying the writing more than in the three other Hill books I’ve read.
Absent in the Spring by Mary Westmacott: (The title doesn’t actually have anything to do with the season; it’s a quotation from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 98: “From you have I been absent in the spring.”) From 1944, this is the third of six novels Agatha Christie published under the alias Mary Westmacott. Joan Scudamore, traveling back to London from Baghdad after a visit to her adult daughter, encounters bad weather and misses her train, which leaves her stranded in the desert for days that feel more like weeks. We’re led back through scenes from Joan’s earlier life and realize that she’s utterly clueless about what those closest to her want and think. Rather like Olive Kitteridge, Joan is difficult in ways she doesn’t fully acknowledge. Like a desert mirage, the truth of who she’s been and what she’s done is hazy, and her realization feels a little drawn out and obvious. Once she gets back to London, will she act on what she’s discovered about herself and reform her life, or just slip back into her old habits? This is a short and immersive book, and a cautionary tale to boot. It examines the interplay between duty and happiness, and the temptation of living vicariously through one’s children.