I’m still averaging four new releases per month: a nicely manageable number. In addition to Lily King’s Writers & Lovers, in May I’ve read a novel about eco-anxiety and marital conflict, a memoir of losing a mother to grief and dementia, and an account of a shift in sexuality. I had a somewhat mixed reaction to all three books, but see if one or more catches your eye anyway.
When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray
Perhaps if this had come out two or three years ago, it could have felt fresh. As it is, it felt like a retread of familiar stories about eco-grief and -anxiety among the middle classes (such as Weather and Unsheltered). Emma Abram is an average suburban mother of two in the north of England, upcycling fabrics and doing her best with other little green initiatives around the house since she got laid off from her job when the local library closed. She feels guilty a lot of the time, but what else can she do?
Nero fiddled while Rome burned; she will sew while the polar ice melts and the seas surge.
She couldn’t un-birth the children, un-earth the disposable nappies or un-plumb the white goods.
Such sentiments also reminded me of the relatable, but by no means ground-breaking, contents of Letters to the Earth.
Emma’s husband Chris, though, has taken things to an extreme: as zealous as he once was about his childhood faith, he now is about impending climate change. One day, a week or so before Christmas, she is embarrassed to spot him by the roadside in town, holding up a signboard prophesying environmental doom. “In those days, Chris had been spreading the Good News. Now he is spreading the Bad News.” He thinks cold-weather and survivalist gear makes appropriate gifts; he raises rabbits for meat; he makes Emma watch crackpot documentaries about pandemic preparation. (Oh, the irony! I was sent this book in December.)
Part of the problem was to do with my expectations: from the cover and publicity materials I thought this was going to be a near-future speculative novel about a family coping with flooding and other literal signs of environmental apocalypse. Instead, it is a story about a marriage in crisis. (I cringed at how unsubtly this line put it: “The climate of her marriage [has] been changing, and she has been in denial about it for a long time.”) It is also, like Unless, about how to relate to a family member who has, in your opinion, gone off the rails.
Nothing wrong with those themes, of course, but my false assumptions meant that I spent well over 200 pages waiting for something to happen, thinking that everything I had read thus far was backstory and character development that, in a more eventful novel, would have been dispatched within, say, the first 40 pages. I did enjoy the seasonal activity leading up to Christmas Eve, and the portrayal of Chris’s widowed, pious mother. But compared to A Song for Issy Bradley, one of my favorite books of 2014, this was a disappointment.
My thanks to Hutchinson for the proof copy for review. This came out in e-book and audio on May 7th but the print edition has been delayed until November 12th.
Mother: A Memoir by Nicholas Royle
“A memoir is about what survives. But it is also about what is enigmatic and irretrievable. Cryptic and unknown.”
A few years ago I read Royle’s An English Guide to Birdwatching, one of the stranger novels I’ve ever come across (it brings together a young literary critic’s pet peeves, a retired couple’s seaside torture by squawking gulls, the confusion between the two real-life English novelists named Nicholas Royle, and bird-themed vignettes). It was joyfully over-the-top, full of jokes and puns as well as trenchant observations about modern life.
I found that same delight in the vagaries of language and life in Mother: A Memoir. Royle’s mother, Kathleen, had Alzheimer’s and died in 2003. At least to start with, she was aware of what was happening to her: “I’m losing my marbles,” she pronounced one day in the kitchen of the family home in Devon. Yet Royle pinpoints the beginning of the end nearly two decades earlier, when his younger brother, Simon, died of a rare cancer. “From that death none of us recovered. But my mother it did for. She it by degrees sent mad.”
In short, titled sections that function almost like essays, Royle traces his mother’s family history and nursing career, and brings to life her pastimes and mannerisms. She passed on to Royle, a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Sussex, a love of literature and of unusual words and sayings. She was often to be found with a crossword puzzle in front of her, she devoured books (devoting a whole summer to the complete works to date of Doris Lessing, for instance), and she gave advice on her son’s early stories.
The narrative moves back and forth in time and intersperses letters, lists and black-and-white photographs. Royle often eschews punctuation and indulges in wordplay. “These details matter. The matter of my mater. Matador killing metaphor.” I found that I remained at arm’s length from the book – admiring it rather than becoming as emotionally engaged with it as I wanted to be – but it’s certainly not your average memoir, and it’s always refreshing to find (auto)biographical work that does something different.
My thanks to Myriad Editions for the free copy for review.
The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenberg
Wizenberg is the author of two terrific food-themed memoirs. I particularly loved A Homemade Life, which chronicles the death of her father Burg from cancer, her time living in Paris, building a new life in Seattle, starting her famous food blog (Orangette), and meeting her husband, Brandon. Her follow-up, Delancey, was about the ups and downs of them opening a pizza restaurant and bar in Seattle while she was pregnant with June.
By contrast, The Fixed Stars was an uncomfortable read in more ways than one. For one thing, it unpicks the fairy tale of what had looked like a pretty ideal marriage and entrepreneurial partnership. It turns out Wizenberg wasn’t wholly on board with their little restaurant empire and found the work overwhelming. It was all Brandon’s dream, not hers. (She admits to these facts in Delancey, but it was the success, not the doubt, that I remembered.)
And then, in the summer of 2015, Wizenberg was summoned for jury duty and found herself fascinated by one of the defense attorneys, a woman named Nora who wore a man’s suit and a butch haircut. The author had always considered herself straight, had never been attracted to a woman before, but this crush wouldn’t go away. She and Brandon tried an open marriage so that she could date Nora and he could see other people, too, but it didn’t work out. Brandon didn’t want her to fall in love with anyone else, but that was just what was happening.
Wizenberg announced her coming-out and her separation from Brandon on her blog, so I was aware of all this for the last few years and via Instagram followed what came next. I knew her new spouse is a non-binary person named Ash who was born female but had top surgery to remove their breasts. (At first I was assumed Nora was an alias for Ash, but they are actually different characters. After things broke down with Nora, a mutual friend set her up with Ash.) The other source of discomfort for me here was the explicit descriptions of her lovemaking with Nora – her initiation into lesbian sex – though she draws a veil over this with Ash.
I’m not sure if the intimate details were strictly necessary, but I reminded myself that a memoir is a person’s impressions of what they’ve done and what has happened to them, molded into a meaningful shape. Wizenberg clearly felt a need to dig for the why of her transformation, and her answers range from her early knowledge of homosexuality (an uncle who died of AIDS) to her frustrations about her life with Brandon (theirs really was a happy enough marriage, and a markedly amicable divorce, but had its niggles, like any partnership).
I appreciated that, ultimately, Wizenberg leaves her experience unlabeled. She acknowledges that hers is a messy story, but an honest one. While she entertains several possibilities – Was she a closeted lesbian all along? Or was she bisexual? Can sexual orientation change? – she finds out that sexual fluidity is common in women, and that all queer families are unique. An obvious comparison is with Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which is a bit more profound and original. But the mourning for her marriage and the anguish over what she was doing to her daughter are strong elements alongside the examination of sexuality. The overarching metaphor of star maps is effective and reminded me of Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson.
There were points in the narrative where I was afraid the author would resort to pat answers about what was ‘meant to be’ or to depicting villains versus heroic actions, but instead she treats this all just as something that happened and that all involved coped with as best they could, hopefully making something better in the end. It’s sensitively told and, while inevitably different from her other work, well worth reading for anyone who’s been surprised where life has led.
I read an advanced e-copy from Abrams Press via Edelweiss. A Kindle edition came out on May 12th, but the hardback release has been pushed back to August 4th.
What recent releases can you recommend?
Amateur: A True Story about What Makes a Man, Thomas Page McBee
Thomas Page McBee was the first transgender man to box at Madison Square Garden. In his second memoir, which arose from a Quartz article entitled “Why Men Fight,” he recounts the training leading up to his charity match and ponders whether aggression is a natural male trait. McBee grew up in a small town outside Pittsburgh with a stepfather who sexually abused him from age four. In 2011 he started the testosterone injections that would begin his gender transformation. During the years that followed, other men seemed to pick fights with him fairly often, and he was unsure what to do about it. Finally, in 2015, the Manhattan editor decided to confront the belligerent male stereotype by starting boxing training.
What I most appreciated were the author’s observations of how others have related to him since his transition. He notices that he’s taken more seriously at work as a man, and that he can be an object of fear – when jogging behind a woman at night, for instance. One of the most eye-opening moments of the book is when he realizes that he’s been talking over his own sister. Thankfully, McBee is sensitive enough to stop and change, recognizing that kindness and vulnerability are not faults but attributes any person should be proud of.
I have a feeling I would have preferred his previous memoir, Man Alive, which sounds like it has more about the transition itself. Jonathan Eig’s biography of Muhammad Ali is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and in comparison I didn’t find the boxing writing here very interesting. Likewise, this pales beside two similar but more perceptive books I’ve read that have been hugely influential on my own understanding of gender identity: Conundrum by Jan Morris and The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson.
Amateur was published in the UK by Canongate on August 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Shapeshifters: On Medicine and Human Change by Gavin Francis
Gavin Francis is a physician with a practice near Edinburgh. His latest book is like a taster course in medical topics. The overarching theme is the modifications the body undergoes, so there are chapters on, for example, body-building, tattoos, puberty, prosthetic limbs, dementia and menopause. Over his years in general practice Francis has gotten to know his patients’ stories and seen them change, for better or worse. These anecdotes of transformation are one source for his book, but he also applies insight from history, mythology, literature, etymology and more. So in a chapter on conception he discusses the Virgin Mary myth, Leonardo da Vinci’s fetal diagrams, the physiological changes pregnant women experience, and the case of a patient, Hannah, who had three difficult, surprise pregnancies in quick succession.
We are all in the process of various transformations, Francis argues, whether by choice or involuntarily. (I decided on the link with McBee because of a chapter on sex changes.) I was less convinced by the author’s inclusion of temporary, reversible changes such as sleep, hallucinations, jet lag and laughter. And while each chapter is finely wrought, I felt some sort of chronological or anatomical order was necessary to give the book more focus. All the same, I suspect this will be a strong contender for next year’s Wellcome Book Prize because of its broad relevance to human health and its compassionate picture of bodies in flux.
Shapeshifters was published by the Wellcome Collection/Profile Books on May 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
Below I’ve chosen my seven favorite nonfiction books published in 2017, followed by three older titles that I only recently discovered. Many of these books have already featured on the blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m mostly limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
- Landslide: True Stories by Minna Zallman Proctor: This gorgeous set of autobiographical essays circles through some of the overarching themes of the author’s life: losing her mother, a composer; the importance Italy had for both of them; a love for the work of Muriel Spark; their loose connection to Judaism; and the relentless and arbitrary nature of time. Proctor provides a fine example of how to write a non-linear memoir that gets to the essence of what matters in life.
- My Jewish Year by Abigail Pogrebin: From September 2014 to September 2015, Pogrebin celebrated all the holidays in the Jewish calendar, drawing thematic connections and looking for the resonance of religious rituals might have in her daily life. This bighearted, open-minded book strikes me as a perfect model for how any person of faith should engage with their tradition: not just offering lip service and grudgingly showing up to a few services a year, but knowing what you believe and practice, and why.
In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight against Alzheimer’s by Joseph Jebelli: With the world’s population aging, it is expected that by 2050 Alzheimer’s will be the second leading cause of death after heart disease. Research neurologist Joseph Jebelli gives a thorough survey of the history of Alzheimer’s and the development of our efforts to treat and even prevent it, but balances his research with a personal medical story any reader can relate to – his beloved grandfather, Abbas, succumbed to Alzheimer’s back in Iran in 2012. (See my full review for BookBrowse.)
- My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul: Whether she was hoarding castoffs from her bookstore job, obsessing about ticking off everything in the Norton Anthology, despairing that she’d run out of reading material in a remote yurt in China, or fretting that her new husband took a fundamentally different approach to the works of Thomas Mann, Paul (the editor of the New York Times Book Review) always looks beyond the books themselves to ask what they say about her. It’s just the sort of bibliomemoir I wish I had written.
- The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs: Beautiful prose enhances this literary and philosophical approach to terminal cancer. Riggs was a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson and quotes from her ancestor’s essays as well as from Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy to put things into perspective; she’s an expert at capturing the moments that make life alternately euphoric and unbearable – and sometimes both at once.
- Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby: This is a vivid, compassionate set of stories culled from the author’s long career in heart surgery with the Grim Reaper looking on. I am not a little envious of all that Westaby has achieved: not just saving the occasional life despite his high-mortality field – as if that weren’t enough – but also pioneering various artificial heart solutions and a tracheal bypass tube that’s named after him.
And my nonfiction book of the year was:
1. The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas: I read this in August, planning to contrast it with Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own, another biographer’s memoir, for the LARB. It would have been a brilliant article, believe me. But they didn’t bite, and by the time I approached the TLS they’d already arranged coverage of the books. Alas! Such is the life of a freelancer. Since then I’ve struggled to know what to say about Atlas’s book that would explain why I loved it so much that my paperback proof is riddled with Post-It flags. (It’s going to take more than a couple of sentences…)
Much more so than Tomalin, Atlas gave me a real sense of what it’s like to immerse yourself in another person’s life. He made it up as he went along: he was only 25 when he got the contract to write a biography of the poet Delmore Schwartz, who died a penniless alcoholic at age 52. Writing about the deceased was a whole different matter to engaging with a living figure, as Atlas did when he wrote his biography of Saul Bellow in the 1990s.
Atlas perceptively explores the connections between Schwartz and Bellow (Schwartz was the model for the protagonist of Bellow’s 1975 Pulitzer winner, Humboldt’s Gift) and between Bellow and himself (a Chicago upbringing with Russian Jewish immigrant ancestors), but also sets his work in the context of centuries of biographical achievement – from Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson through master biographers like Richard Holmes, Leon Edel and Richard Ellmann (Atlas’s supervisor during his fellowship at Oxford) to recent controversial biographies of Robert Frost and Vladimir Nabokov.
This book deals with the nitty-gritty of archival research and how technology has changed it; Atlas also talks story-telling strategies and the challenge of impartiality, and ponders how we look for the patterns in a life that might explain what, besides genius, accounts for a writer’s skill. Even the footnotes are illuminating, and from the notes I learned about a whole raft of biographies and books on the biographer’s trade that I’d like to read. After I finished reading it I spent a few days dreamily wondering if I might write a biography some day. For anyone remotely interested in life writing, pick this up with my highest recommendation.
I’ll make it up to an even 10 with a few backlist titles I also loved:
The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books by John Carey (2014): Carey gives a thorough picture of events from his personal and professional life, but the focus is always on his literary education: the books that have meant the most to him and the way his taste and academic specialties have developed over the years. Ultimately what this book conveys is the joy of being a lifelong reader.
A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold (1949): So many of Leopold’s musings ring true today: how we only appreciate wildlife if we can put an economic value on it, the troubles we get into when we eradicate predators and let prey animals run rampant, and the danger of being disconnected from the land that supplies our very life. And all this he delivers in stunning, incisive prose.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (2015): An exquisite interrogation of gender identity and an invaluable reminder that the supposed complications of making a queer family just boil down to your basic human experiences of birth, love and death. I preferred those passages where Nelson allows herself to string her fragments into more extended autobiographical meditations, like the brilliant final 20 pages interspersing her memories of giving birth to her son Iggy with an account of the deathbed vigil her partner (artist Harry Dodge) held for his mother; it had me breathless and in tears, on a plane of all places.
What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll be posting my Library Checkout a few days early.
Next week’s planned posts:
26th: Doorstopper of the Month
27th: Top fiction of the year list
28th: Runners-up and other superlatives
29th: Early 2018 recommendations
30th: Final statistics on my 2017 reading
A thin month for library books overall, although I did read two very good ones. The Aldo Leopold book is a nature classic I’m pleased we could find via the library of the university where my husband works. In the second week of September I’m going along with him to Ghent, Belgium, where he’ll be presenting a research paper at a landscape ecology conference. Though we’ve been before, it’s a lovely town I’ll enjoy wandering – in between keeping up a normal virtual workload. After that we head on to Amsterdam for a long weekend; it’ll be my first time there and I’m excited to take in all the sights.
LIBRARY BOOKS READ
- The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
From my parents’ local branch in America:
- Sparky! by Jenny Offill [a picture book illustrated by Chris Appelhans]
- A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
- Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving by Julia Samuel
CHECKED OUT, TO BE SKIMMED
- 2 guide books to Belgium
- 2 guide books to Amsterdam
- White Tears by Hari Kunzru – I read the first 145 pages, skimmed another 70 or so, then gave up. The vibe is Jonathan Franzen meets Zadie Smith circa The Autograph Man; the theme is cultural appropriation, especially of a blues song by a forgotten master. (I had the song from The Wire in my head the whole time.) My interest started to wane after what happens to Carter happens, and by the time the parallel road trips kicked in I was lost. So to what extent this was realist or magic realist or absurdist or whatever I couldn’t tell you. I liked the writing enough that I would try something else by Kunzru if I thought I’d connect to the subject matter more.
(Hosted by Charleen of It’s a Portable Magic.)
Have you been taking advantage of your local libraries? What appeals from my lists?
I’m flying out to America later today on a short trip for my sister’s wedding, so I’ve been focusing on finishing most of the books I have out from the library, including some that have hung around for a number of months already. I’ll have just one or two awaiting me on my return.
(Ratings and links to any books that I haven’t already featured here in some way or don’t plan to soon.)
LIBRARY BOOKS READ
- Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery by Alys Fowler
- Bee Quest: In Search of Rare Bees by Dave Goulson
- A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman
- Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss
LIBRARY BOOKS SKIMMED
- The Power by Naomi Alderman
- The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson – I’ll either take this with me or put it on hold until I come back; I haven’t decided as of the time of scheduling this post. In any case, it’s the sort of fragmentary narrative that doesn’t have to be read all at once.
CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ
- White Tears by Hari Kunzru
- Human Acts by Han Kang – I read the first 115 pages and then set this aside, not because it was too harrowing or challenging, but simply because I’d been bored for at least 45 pages and didn’t have the patience to see how the various chapters, each from a different perspective (2nd person, then 1st, then 3rd) might fit together.
- Tiny Giants by Nate Powell – I glanced at the first few pages of this graphic novel but didn’t like the drawing style or the narration.
(Hosted by Charleen of It’s a Portable Magic.)
Have you been taking advantage of your local libraries? What appeals from my lists?
Maggie Nelson is the author of four volumes of poetry and five wide-ranging works of nonfiction that delve into the nature of violence and sexuality. From what I’d heard about her writing, I knew to expect an important and unconventional thinker with a distinctive, lyrical style. As of early June, Vintage has made some of her backlist, including The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial and Bluets, available for the first time in the UK.
I read The Red Parts for The Bookbag. Here’s an excerpt from my full review:
Nelson’s aunt was murdered in Michigan in 1969. Thirty-five years later, just as Nelson had completed writing a poetry collection about her, the case was reopened when new DNA evidence emerged. Most authors would quickly zero in on the trial itself, giving a blow-by-blow of the lawyers’ questioning and witnesses’ statements. Although Nelson does document important developments in the month-long trial, and describes autopsy photographs in blunt detail, her account is much more diffuse than one might expect. Interspersed with Jane’s history are other dark memories: Nelson’s father’s sudden death, her sister’s wild years, aborted love affairs. The title phrase tangentially refers to the words of Jesus in the New Testament, traditionally printed in red, so it has a sort of dual meaning: this is a (futile) search for the gospel truth about her aunt’s death, and also a conscious dive into the parts of life that frighten us. This fluid, engrossing narrative is no ordinary true crime story, but a meditative reflection on loss and identity.
Bluets is a fragmentary record of Nelson’s arbitrary obsession with the color blue. It’s composed of 240 short numbered essays of about a paragraph each; some are just one or two sentences. At one point Nelson refers to these as “propositions,” but really they are more like metaphorical musings. Blue takes on so many meanings: with the connotation of “depressed”, it applies to her loneliness and sense of loss after the breakdown of a relationship (she continues addressing her former partner as “you” here) and a friend’s serious accident:
Loneliness is solitude with a problem. Can blue solve the problem, or can it at least keep me company within it?
Mostly I have felt myself becoming a servant of sadness. I am still looking for the beauty in that.
Then there’s blues music (Billie Holiday), seedy sex (“blue movies”), Joan Mitchell’s 1973 abstract painting Les Bluets, Novalis’ blue flower (which gives the title to a Penelope Fitzgerald novel), and so on. Nelson likens herself to a male bowerbird lining her nest with blue – sometimes literally, as with the collection of “blue amulets” that she keeps on a windowsill so sunlight can pass through the glass and illuminate the stones. I recalled that Sarah Perry lists Bluets as one inspiration for The Essex Serpent, in which the character Stella is fascinated with the color blue and keeps a similar trove of trinkets.
Bluets is a difficult work to characterize, but it seems closest in style to Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which is also built on loosely linked aphorisms. The problem with books like these is that individual lines may stand out as profound but don’t contribute to an overall story line or argument. Moreover, Nelson’s forthrightness about sex, which edges towards crassness and feels out of place in this dreamily academic text, took me some getting used to.
Two more favorite lines:
I walked around Brooklyn and noticed that the faded periwinkle of the abandoned Mobil gas station on the corner was suddenly blooming.
If I were today on my deathbed, I would name my love of the color blue and making love with you as two of the sweetest sensations I knew on this earth.
Many thanks to Cat Mitchell of Penguin Random House for the free review copy.
The Red Parts was the more straightforward and satisfying read of this pair, but Bluets is certainly an original and artful bedside book. I would certainly read more by Nelson; I’m particularly interested in The Argonauts (2015), a memoir about forming her unconventional family – her partner, Harry Dodge, is transgender.