This latest batch of colour-themed summer reads took me from a depleted post-pandemic landscape to the heart of dysfunctional families in Rhode Island and California.
Under the Blue by Oana Aristide (2021)
Fans of Station Eleven, this one’s for you: the best dystopian novel I’ve read since Mandel’s. Aristide started writing this in 2017, and unknowingly predicted a much worse pandemic than Covid-19. In July 2020, Harry, a middle-aged painter inhabiting his late nephew’s apartment in London, finally twigs that something major is going on. He packs his car and heads to his Devon cottage, leaving its address under the door of the cute neighbour he sometimes flirts with. Hot days stack up and his new habits of rationing food and soap are deeply ingrained by the time the gal from #22, Ash – along with her sister, Jessie, a doctor who stocked up on medicine before fleeing her hospital – turn up. They quickly sink into his routines but have a bigger game plan: getting to Uganda, where their mum once worked and where they know they will be out of range of Europe’s at-risk nuclear reactors. An epic road trip ensues.
It gradually becomes clear that Harry, Ash and Jessie are among mere thousands of survivors worldwide, somehow immune to a novel disease that spread like wildfire. There are echoes of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in the way that they ransack the homes of the dead for supplies, and yet there’s lightness to their journey. Jessie has a sharp sense of humour, provoking much banter, and the places they pass through in France and Italy are gorgeous despite the circumstances. It would be a privilege to wander empty tourist destinations were it not for fear of nuclear winter and not finding sufficient food – and petrol to keep “the Lioness” (the replacement car they steal; it becomes their refuge) going. While the vague sexual tension between Harry and Ash persists, all three bonds are intriguing.
In an alternating storyline starting in 2017, Lisa and Paul, two computer scientists based in a lab at the Arctic Circle, are programming an AI, Talos XI. Based on reams of data on history and human nature, Talos is asked to predict what will happen next. But when it comes to questions like the purpose of art and whether humans are worth saving, the conclusions he comes to aren’t the ones his creators were hoping for. These sections are set out as transcripts of dialogues, and provide a change of pace and perspective. Initially, I was less sure about this strand, worrying that it would resort to that well-worn trope of machines gone bad. Luckily, Aristide avoids sci-fi clichés, and presents a believable vision of life after the collapse of civilization.
The novel is full of memorable lines (“This absurd overkill, this baroque wedding cake of an apocalypse: plague and then nuclear meltdowns”) and scenes, from Harry burying a dead cow to the trio acting out a dinner party – just in case it’s their last. There’s an environmentalist message here, but it’s subtly conveyed via a propulsive cautionary tale that also reminded me of work by Louisa Hall and Maja Lunde. (Public library)
Ruby by Ann Hood (1998)
Olivia had the perfect life: fulfilling, creative work as a milliner; a place in New York City and a bolthole in Rhode Island; a new husband and plans to try for a baby right away. But then, in a fluke accident, David was hit by a car while jogging near their vacation home less than a year into their marriage. As the novel opens, 37-year-old Olivia is trying to formulate a letter to the college girl who struck and killed her husband. She has returned to Rhode Island to get the house ready to sell but changes her mind when a pregnant 15-year-old, Ruby, wanders in one day.
At first, I worried that the setup would be too neat: Olivia wants a baby but didn’t get a chance to have one with David before he died; Ruby didn’t intend to get pregnant and looks forward to getting back her figure and her life of soft drugs and petty crime. And indeed, Olivia suggests an adoption arrangement early on. But the outworkings of the plot are not straightforward, and the characters, both main and secondary (including Olivia’s magazine writer friend, Winnie; David’s friend, Rex; Olivia’s mother and sister; a local lawyer who becomes a love interest), are charming.
It’s a low-key, small-town affair reminiscent of the work of Anne Tyler, and I appreciated how it sensitively explores grief, its effects on the protagonist’s decision-making, and how daunting it is to start over (“The idea of that, of beginning again from nothing, made Olivia feel tired.”). It was also a neat touch that Olivia is the same age as me, so in some ways I could easily imagine myself into her position.
This was the ninth book I’ve read by Hood, an author little known outside of the USA – everything from grief memoirs to a novel about knitting. Ironically, its main themes of adoption and bereavement were to become hallmarks of her later work: she lost her daughter in 2002 and then adopted a little girl from China. (Secondhand purchase, June 2021)
[I’ve read another novel titled Ruby – Cynthia Bond’s from 2014.]
Blue Shoe by Anne Lamott (2002)
I’m a devoted reader of Lamott’s autobiographical essays about faith against the odds (see here), but have been wary of trying her fiction, suspecting I wouldn’t enjoy it as much. Well, it’s true that I prefer her nonfiction on the whole, but this was an enjoyably offbeat novel featuring the kind of frazzled antiheroine who wouldn’t be out of place in Anne Tyler’s work.
Mattie Ryder has left her husband and returned to her Bay Area family home with her young son and daughter. She promptly falls for Daniel, the handyman she hires to exterminate the rats, but he’s married, so she keeps falling into bed with her ex, Nicky, even after he acquires a new wife and baby. Her mother, Isa, is drifting ever further into dementia. A blue rubber shoe that Mattie finds serves as a totem of her late father – and his secret life. She takes a gamble that telling the truth, no matter what the circumstances, will see her right.
As in Ruby, I found the protagonist relatable and the ensemble cast of supporting characters amusing. Lamott crafts some memorable potted descriptions: “She was Jewish, expansive and yeasty and uncontained, as if she had a birthright for outrageousness” and “He seemed so constrained, so neatly trimmed, someone who’d been doing topiary with his soul all his life.” She turns a good phrase, and adopts the same self-deprecating attitude towards Mattie that she has towards herself in her memoirs: “She usually hoped to look more like Myrna Loy than an organ grinder’s monkey when a man finally proclaimed his adoration.”
At a certain point – maybe two-thirds of the way through – my inward reply to a lot of the novel’s threads was “okay, I get it; can we move on?” Yes, the situation with Isa is awful; yes, something’s gotta give with Daniel and his wife; yes, the revelations about her father seem unbearable. But with a four-year time span, it felt like Mattie was stuck in the middle for far too long. It’s also curious that she doesn’t apply her zany faith (a replica of Lamott’s) to questions of sexual morality – though that’s true of more liberal Christian approaches. All in all, I had some trouble valuing this as a novel because of how much I know about Lamott’s life and how closely I saw the storyline replicating her family dynamic. (Secondhand purchase, c. 2006 – I found a signed hardback in a library book sale back in my U.S. hometown for $1.)
Hmm, altogether too much blue in my selections thus far (4 out of 8!). I’ll have to try to come up with some more interesting colours for my upcoming choices.
Next books in progress: The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames and God Is Not a White Man by Chine McDonald.
Read any of these? Interested?
Today I have a biography-cum-cultural history of America’s wild foods and a novel about beekeeping and mental illness.
Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens by Andrew Beahrs (2010)
(20 Books of Summer, #15) In 1879, Mark Twain, partway through the Grand Tour immortalized in A Tramp Abroad, was sick of bland, poor-quality European food and hankering for down-home American cooking. He drew up a list of 80 foodstuffs he couldn’t wait to get back to: everything from soft-shell crabs to proper ice water. “The menu shouts of a joyous abundance,” Beahrs writes. “It testifies to a deep bond in Twain’s mind between eating and tasting and celebrating … rooted food that would live forever in his memory.”
Beahrs goes in search of some of those trademark dishes and explores their changes in production over the last 150 years. In some cases, the creatures and their habitats are so endangered that we don’t eat them anymore, like Illinois’ prairie chickens and Maryland’s terrapins, but he has experts show him where remnant populations live. In San Francisco Bay, he helps construct an artificial oyster reef. He meets cranberry farmers in Massachusetts and maple tree tappers in Vermont. At the Louisiana Foodservice EXPO he gorges on “fried oysters and fried shrimp and fries. I haven’t had much green, but I’ve had pecan waffles with bacon, and I’ve inserted beignets and café au lait between meals with the regularity of an Old Testament prophet chanting ‘begat.’”
But my favorite chapter was about attending a Coon Supper in Arkansas, a local tradition that has been in existence since the 1930s. Raccoons are hunted, butchered, steamed in enormous kettles, and smoked before the annual fundraising meal attended by 1000 people. Raccoon meat is greasy and its flavor sounds like an acquired taste: “a smell like nothing I’ve smelled before but which I’ll now recognize until I die (not, I hope, as a result of eating raccoon).” Beahrs has an entertaining style and inserts interesting snippets from Twain’s life story, as well as recipes from 19th-century cookbooks. There are lots of books out there about the country’s increasingly rare wild foods, but the Twain connection is novel, if niche.
Source: A remainder book from Wonder Book (Frederick, Maryland)
The Honey Thief by Elizabeth Graver (1999)
(20 Books of Summer, #16) Ever since I read The End of the Point (which featured in one of my Six Degrees posts), I’ve meant to try more by Graver. This was her second novel, a mother-and-daughter story that unearths the effects of mental illness on a family. Eleven-year-old Eva has developed a bad habit of shoplifting, so her mother Miriam moves them out from New York City to an upstate farmhouse for the summer. But in no time Eva, slipping away from her elderly babysitter’s supervision and riding her bike into the countryside, is stealing jars of honey from a roadside stand. She keeps going back and strikes up a friendship with the middle-aged beekeeper, Burl, whom she seems to see as a replacement for her father, Francis, who died of a heart attack when she was six.
Alternating chapters look back at how Miriam met Francis and how she gradually became aware of his bipolar disorder. This strand seems to be used to prop up Miriam’s worries about Eva (since bipolar has a genetic element); while it feels true to the experience of mental illness, it’s fairly depressing. Meanwhile, Burl doesn’t become much of a presence in his own right, so he and the beekeeping feel incidental, maybe only included because Graver kept/keeps bees herself. Although Eva is an appealingly plucky character, I’d recommend any number of bee-themed novels, such as The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, The History of Bees by Maja Lunde, and even Generation A by Douglas Coupland, over this one.
Source: Secondhand copy from Beltie Books, Wigtown
Something tells me my readers are the sort of people who buy books for their family and friends at the holidays. Consider any rating of 3.5 or above on this blog a solid recommendation; 3 stars is still a qualified recommendation, and by my comments you should be able to tell whether the book would be right for you or a friend. I’ll make another plug for the books I’ve already mentioned here as gift ideas and highlight other books I think would be ideal for the right reader. I read all these books this year, and most were released in 2017, but I have a few backlist titles, too – in those cases I’ve specified the publication year. Since I recommend fiction all the time through my reviews, I’ve given significantly more space to nonfiction.
For the Shiny New Books Christmas special I chose two books I could see myself giving to lots of people. One was A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives by Lisa Congdon, my overall top gift idea. It’s a celebration of women’s attainments after age 40, especially second careers and late-life changes of course. There’s a lively mixture of interviews, first-person essays, inspirational quotes, and profiles of figures like Vera Wang, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Grandma Moses, with Congdon’s whimsical drawings dotted all through. This would make a perfect gift for any woman who’s feeling her age, even if that’s younger than 40. (An essay on gray hair particularly hit home for me.) It’s a reminder that great things can be achieved at any age, and that with the right attitude, we will only grow in confidence and courage over the years. (See my full Nudge review.)
One Year Wiser: An Illustrated Guide to Mindfulness by Mike Medaglia
Drawn like an adult coloring book, this mindfulness guide is divided into color-block sections according to the seasons and tackles themes like happiness, gratitude, fighting anxiety and developing a healthy thought life. The layout is varied and unexpected, with abstract ideas represented by bodies in everyday situations. It’s a fresh delivery of familiar concepts.
My thanks to SelfMadeHero for the free copy for review.
An Almost Perfect Christmas by Nina Stibbe
With its short chapters and stocking stuffer dimensions, this is a perfect book to dip into over the holidays. The autobiographical pieces involve Stibbe begrudgingly coming round to things she’s resisted, from Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” to a flaming Christmas pudding. The four short stories, whether nostalgic or macabre, share a wicked sense of humor. You’ll also find an acerbic shopping guide and – best of all – a tongue-in-cheek Christmas A-to-Z. Nearly as funny as Love, Nina. (I reviewed this for the Nov. 29th Stylist “Book Wars” column.)
For some reason book- and nature-themed books seem to particularly lend themselves to gifting. Do you find that too?
For the fellow book and word lovers in your life:
The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
It’s a pleasure to spend a vicarious year running The Book Shop in Wigtown, Scotland with the curmudgeonly Bythell. I enjoyed the nitty-gritty details about acquiring and pricing books, and the unfailingly quirky customer encounters. This would make a great one-year bedside book. (See my full review.)
The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words by Paul Anthony Jones
Another perfect bedside book: this is composed of daily one-page entries that link etymology with events from history. I’ve been reading it a page a day since mid-October. A favorite word so far: “vandemonianism” (rowdy, unmannerly behavior), named after the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), first sighted by Europeans on 24 November 1642.
“The Gifts of Reading” by Robert Macfarlane (2016)
This was my other Christmas recommendation for Shiny New Books. A love of literature shared with friends and the books he now gifts to students and a new generation of nature writers are the main themes of this perfect essay. First printed as a stand-alone pamphlet in aid of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, this is just right for slipping in a stocking.
A Girl Walks into a Book: What the Brontës Taught Me about Life, Love, and Women’s Work by Miranda K. Pennington
This charming bibliomemoir reflects on Pennington’s two-decade love affair with the work of the Brontë sisters, especially Charlotte. It cleverly gives side-by-side chronological tours through the Brontës’ biographies and careers and her own life, drawing parallels and noting where she might have been better off if she’d followed in Brontë heroines’ footsteps.
For the nature enthusiasts in your life:
A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold
Few know how much of our current philosophy of wilderness and the human impact on the world is indebted to Aldo Leopold. This was first published in 1949, but it still rings true. A month-by-month account of life in Wisconsin gives way to pieces set everywhere from Mexico to Manitoba. Beautiful, incisive prose; wonderful illustrations by Charles W. Schwartz.
The History of Bees by Maja Lunde
Blending historical, contemporary and future story lines, this inventive novel, originally published in Norway in 2015, is a hymn to the dying art of beekeeping and a wake-up call about the environmental disaster the disappearance of bees signals. The plot strands share the themes of troubled parenthood and the drive to fulfill one’s purpose. Like David Mitchell, Lunde juggles her divergent time periods and voices admirably. It’s also a beautifully produced book, with an embossed bee on the dust jacket and a black and gold honeycomb pattern across the spine and boards. (See my full Bookbag review.)
Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm by David Mas Masumoto (1995)
Masumoto is a third-generation Japanese-American peach and grape farmer in California. He takes readers on a quiet journey through the typical events of the farming calendar. It’s a lovely, meditative book about the challenges and joys of this way of life. I would highly recommend it to readers of Wendell Berry.
A Wood of One’s Own by Ruth Pavey
This pleasantly meandering memoir, an account of two decades spent restoring land to orchard in Somerset, will appeal to readers of modern nature writers. Local history weaves through this story, too: everything from the English Civil War to Cecil Sharp’s collecting of folk songs. Bonus: Pavey’s lovely black-and-white line drawings. (See my full review.)
It’s not just books…
With this year’s Christmas money from my mother I bought the five-disc back catalogue of albums from The Bookshop Band. I crowdfunded their nine-disc, 100+-track recording project last year; it was money extremely well spent. So much quality music, and all the songs are based on books. I listen to these albums all the time while I’m working. I look forward to catching up on older songs I don’t know. Check out their Bandcamp site and see if there’s a physical or digital album you’d like to own or give to a fellow book and music lover. They played two commissioned songs at the launch event for The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, so if you’re a Philip Pullman fan you might start by downloading those.