Here’s a quick look back at a baker’s dozen of 2018 releases that have stood out most for me so far. I’ve linked to books that I’ve already reviewed in full on the blog or elsewhere.
The Only Story by Julian Barnes: A familiar story: a May–December romance fizzles out. A sad story: an idealistic young man who swears he’ll never be old and boring has to face that this romance isn’t all he wanted it to be. A love story nonetheless. Paul met 48-year-old Susan, a married mother of two, at the local tennis club when he was 19. The narrative is partly the older Paul’s way of salvaging what happy memories he can, but also partly an extended self-defense. Barnes takes what could have been a dreary and repetitive story line and makes it an exquisitely plangent progression: first-person into second-person into third-person. The picture of romantic youth shading into cynical but still hopeful middle age really resonates, as do the themes of unconventionality, memory, addiction and pity.
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin: Summer 1969: four young siblings escape a sweltering New York City morning by visiting a fortune teller who can tell you the day you’ll die. In the decades that follow, they have to decide what to do with this advance knowledge: will it spur them to live courageous lives, or drive them to desperation? This compelling family story lives up to the hype. Imagine the fun Benjamin had researching four distinct worlds: Daniel, a military doctor, examines Iraq War recruits; Klara becomes a magician in Las Vegas; Varya researches aging via primate studies; and Simon is a dancer in San Francisco. The settings, time periods, and career paths are so diverse that you get four novels’ worth of interesting background.
Florida by Lauren Groff: Two major, connected threads in this superb story collection are ambivalence about Florida, and ambivalence about motherhood. There’s an oppressive atmosphere throughout, with environmental catastrophe an underlying threat. Set-ups vary in scope from almost the whole span of a life to one scene. A dearth of named characters emphasizes just how universal the scenarios and emotions are. Groff’s style is like a cross between Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and her unexpected turns of phrase jump off the page. A favorite was “Above and Below,” in which a woman slips into homelessness. Florida feels innovative and terrifyingly relevant. Any one of its stories is a bracing read; together they form a masterpiece.
Motherhood by Sheila Heti: Should one have children? Should I have children? No matter who’s asking the questions or in what context, you’re going to get the whole gamut of replies. Heti’s unnamed heroine consults a fortune teller and psychics, tosses coins and interprets her dreams as The Decision looms. Chance, inheritance, and choice vie for pride of place in this relentless, audacious inquiry into the purpose of a woman’s life. I marked out dozens of quotes that could have been downloaded directly from my head or copied from my e-mails and journal pages. The book encapsulates nearly every thought that has gone through my mind over the last decade as I’ve faced the intractable question of whether to have children. Heti has captured brilliantly what it’s like to be in this situation in this moment in time.
Orchid & the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes: The action spans about nine years: a politically turbulent decade that opens with the Iraq War protests and closes with the Occupy movement in New York City. Gael Foess, our lovable antiheroine, is a trickster. She’s learned well her banker father’s lesson that money and skills don’t get distributed fairly in this life, so she’s going to do what she can to ensure that her loved ones succeed. Art, music, religion and health are major interlocking themes. The author is wonderfully adept at voices, and the book’s frenetic pace is well matched by the virtuosic use of language – wordplay, neologisms, and metaphors drawn from the arts and nature. Hughes is an exciting writer who has rightfully attracted a lot of buzz for her debut.
The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman: Charles “Pinch” Bavinsky is just an Italian teacher, though as a boy in Rome in the 1950s–60s he believed he would follow in the footsteps of his sculptor mother and his moderately famous father, Bear Bavinsky, who paints close-ups of body parts. We follow Pinch through the rest of his life, a sad one of estrangement, loss and misunderstandings – but ultimately there’s a sly triumph in store for the boy who was told that he’d never make it as an artist. Rachman jets between lots of different places – Rome, New York City, Toronto, rural France, London – and ropes in quirky characters in the search for an identity and a place to belong. This is a rewarding story about the desperation to please, or perhaps exceed, one’s parents, and the legacy of artists in a fickle market.
The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú: Francisco Cantú was a U.S. Border Patrol agent for four years in Arizona and Texas. Impressionistic rather than journalistic, his book is a loosely thematic scrapbook. He inserts snippets of U.S.–Mexico history, including the establishment of the border, and quotes from other primary and secondary texts. He also adds in fragments of his family’s history: His ancestors left Mexico during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, but there’s no doubt his Latino name and features made him a friendly face for illegal immigrants. The final third of the book makes things personal when his friend is detained in Mexico. Giving faces to an abstract struggle, this work passionately argues that people should not be divided by walls but united in common humanity.
The Unmapped Mind by Christian Donlan: Some of the best medical writing from a layman’s perspective I’ve ever read. Donlan, a Brighton-area video games journalist, was diagnosed with (relapsing, remitting) multiple sclerosis in 2014. “I think sometimes that early MS is a sort of tasting menu of neurological disease,” Donlan wryly offers. He approaches his disease with good humor and curiosity, using metaphors of maps to depict himself as an explorer into uncharted territory. The accounts of going in for an MRI and a round of chemotherapy are excellent. Short interludes also give snippets from the history of MS and the science of neurology in general. What’s especially nice is how he sets up parallels with his daughter’s early years. My frontrunner for next year’s Wellcome Book Prize so far.
Free Woman by Lara Feigel: Doris Lessing lived by ideals of free love and Communism, but it came at the price of abandoning her children. Lara Feigel could identify with Lessing in some ways, and as she entered a rocky time in her mid-thirties – a miscarriage followed by IVF, which was a strain on her marriage; the death of a close friend; ongoing worry over how motherhood might affect her academic career – she set out to find what Lessing could teach her about how to be free. A familiarity with the works of Doris Lessing is not a prerequisite to enjoying this richly satisfying hybrid of biography, literary criticism and memoir. The Golden Notebook is about the ways in which women compartmentalize their lives and the struggle to bring various strands into harmony; that’s what Free Woman is all about as well.
Implosion by Elizabeth W. Garber: The author grew up in a glass house designed by her father, Modernist architect Woodie Garber, outside Cincinnati in the 1960s to 70s. This and Woodie’s other most notable design, Sander Hall, a controversial tower-style dorm at the University of Cincinnati that was later destroyed in a controlled explosion, serve as powerful metaphors for her dysfunctional family life. Woodie is such a fascinating, flawed figure. Garber endured sexual and psychological abuse yet likens him to Odysseus, the tragic hero of his own life. She connected with him over Le Corbusier’s designs, but it was impossible for a man born in the 1910s to understand his daughter’s generation. This definitely is not a boring tome just for architecture buffs. It’s a masterful memoir for everyone.
Skybound by Rebecca Loncraine: Each year seems to bring one exquisite posthumous memoir about facing death with dignity. For Rebecca Loncraine, after treatment for breast cancer in her early thirties, taking flying lessons in an unpowered glider was her way of rediscovering joy and experiencing freedom by facing her fears in the sky. She discovered a particular love for flying alongside birds: red kites in Wales, and vultures in Nepal. The most remarkable passages of the book are the exhilarating descriptions of being thousands of feet up in the air and the reflections on why humans are drawn to flight and what it does for our bodies and spirits. Loncraine had virtually finished this manuscript when her cancer returned; she underwent another 14 grueling months of treatment before her death in September 2016.
Bookworm by Lucy Mangan: Mangan takes us along on a nostalgic chronological tour through the books she loved most as a child and adolescent. No matter how much or how little of your early reading overlaps with hers, you’ll appreciate her picture of the intensity of children’s relationship with books – they can completely shut out the world and devour their favorite stories over and over, almost living inside them, they love and believe in them so much – and her tongue-in-cheek responses to them upon rereading them decades later. There are so many witty lines that it doesn’t really matter whether you give a fig about the particular titles she discusses or not. A delightful paean to the joys of being a lifelong reader; recommended to bibliophiles and parents trying to make bookworms out of their children.
Educated by Tara Westover: This is one of the most powerful and well-written memoirs I’ve ever read. It tells of a young woman’s off-grid upbringing in Idaho and the hard work that took her from almost complete ignorance to a Cambridge PhD. Westover’s is an incredible story about testing the limits of perseverance and sanity. Her father may have been a survivalist, but her psychic survival is the most impressive outcome here. What takes this astonishing life story to the next level, making it a classic to sit alongside memoirs by Alexandra Fuller, Mary Karr and Jeannette Walls, is the writing. Westover writes with calm authority, channeling the style of the scriptures and history books that were formative in her upbringing and education.
What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?
What 2018 releases do I need to catch up on right away?
This is my first year joining in with the 20 Books of Summer challenge run by Cathy of 746 Books. I’ve decided to put two twists on it. One: I’ve only included books that I own in print, to work on tackling my mountain of unread books (300+ in the house at last count). As I was pulling out the books that I was most excited to read soon, I noticed that most of them happened to be by women. So for my second twist, all 20 books are by women. Why not? I’ve picked roughly half fiction and half life writing, so over the next 12 weeks I just need to pick one or two from the below list per week, perhaps alternating fiction and non-. I’m going to focus more on the reading than the reviewing, but I might do a few mini roundup posts.
I’m doing abysmally with the goal I set myself at the start of the year to read lots of travel classics and biographies, so I’ve chosen one of each for this summer, but in general my criteria were simply that I was keen to read a book soon, and that it mustn’t feel like hard work. (So, alas, that ruled out novels by Elizabeth Bowen, Ursula K. LeGuin and Virginia Woolf.) I don’t insist on “beach reads” – the last two books I read on a beach were When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi and Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin, after all – but I do hope that all the books I’ve chosen will be compelling and satisfying reads.
- To Throw Away Unopened by Viv Albertine – I picked up a copy from the Faber Spring Party, having no idea who Albertine was (guitarist of the all-female punk band The Slits). Everyone I know who has read this memoir has raved about it.
- Lit by Mary Karr – I’ve read Karr’s book about memoir, but not any of her three acclaimed memoirs. This, her second, is about alcoholism and motherhood.
- Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi by Pamela Timms – I bought a bargain copy at the Wigtown Festival shop earlier in the year. Timms is a Scottish journalist who now lives in India. This should be a fun combination of foodie memoir and travel book.
- Direct Red: A Surgeon’s Story by Gabriel Weston (a woman, honest!) – Indulging my love of medical memoirs here. I bought a copy at Oxfam Books earlier this year.
5. May Sarton by Margot Peters – I’ve been on a big May Sarton kick in recent years, so have been eager to read this 1997 biography, which apparently is not particularly favorable.
6. Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy – I bought this 1960s hardback from a charity shop in Cambridge a couple of years ago. It will at least be a start on that travel classics challenge.
7. Girls on the Verge: Debutante Dips, Drive-bys, and Other Initiations by Vendela Vida – This was Vida’s first book. It’s about coming-of-age rituals for young women in America.
8. Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly by Sue Halpern – Should fall somewhere between science and nature writing, with a travel element.
9. The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle – L’Engle is better known for children’s books, but she wrote tons for adults, too: fiction, memoirs and theology. I read the stellar first volume of the Crosswicks Journal, A Circle of Quiet, in September 2015 and have meant to continue the series ever since.
10. Sunstroke by Tessa Hadley – You know how I love reading with the seasons when I can. This slim 2007 volume of stories is sure to be a winner. Seven of the 10 originally appeared in the New Yorker or Granta.
11. Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore – I’ve only ever read Dunmore’s poetry. It’s long past time to try her fiction. This one comes highly recommended by Susan of A life in books.
12. We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates – Oates is intimidatingly prolific, but I’m finally going to jump in and give her a try.
13. Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto – A token lit in translation selection. “This is the story of [a] remarkable expedition through grief, dreams, and shadows to a place of transformation.” (Is it unimaginative to say that sounds like Murakami?)
14. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – How have I not read any of her fiction yet?! This has been sitting on my shelf for years. I only vaguely remember the story line from the film, so it should be fairly fresh for me.
15. White Oleander by Janet Fitch – An Oprah’s Book Club selection from 1999. I reckon this would make a good beach or road trip read.
16. Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz – Another Oprah’s Book Club favorite from 2000. Set in Wisconsin in the years after World War I.
- Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler – Tyler novels are a tonic. I have six unread on the shelf; the blurb on this one appealed to me the most. This summer actually brings two Tylers as Clock Dance comes out on July 12th – I’ll either substitute that one in, or read both!
18. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay – I’ve only read Gay’s memoir, Hunger. She’s an important cultural figure; it feels essential to read all her books. I expect this to be rough.
19. Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay – This has been on my radar for such a long time. After loving my first Hay novel (A Student of Weather) last year, what am I waiting for?
20. Fludd by Hilary Mantel – I haven’t read any Mantel in years, not since Bring Up the Bodies first came out. While we all await the third Cromwell book, I reckon this short novel about a curate arriving in a fictional town in the 1950s should hit the spot.
I’ll still be keeping up with my review books (paid and unpaid), blog tours, advance reads and library books over the summer. The aim of this challenge, though, is to make inroads into the physical TBR. Hopefully the habit will stick and I’ll keep on plucking reads from my shelves during the rest of the year.
Where shall I start? If I was going to sensibly move from darkest to lightest, I’d probably start with An Untamed State and/or Lit. Or I might try to lure in the summer weather by reading the two summery ones…
Which of these books have you read? Which ones appeal?
May and June are HUGE months for new releases. I’ve been doing enough early reading via NetGalley and Edelweiss that I’ve found plenty to recommend to you for next month. From a novel voiced by one of Hemingway’s wives to a physicist’s encouragement to waste more time, I hope there will be something here for everyone.
The Pisces by Melissa Broder
[Coming from Hogarth Press (USA) on the 1st and Bloomsbury (UK) on the 3rd]
At first I thought this was one of those funny, quirky but somewhat insubstantial novels about a thirtysomething stuck with a life she isn’t sure she wants – something along the lines of Goodbye, Vitamin, The Portable Veblen, or All Grown Up. Then I thought it was just a crass sex comedy. But the further I read the deeper it all seemed to become: tropes from Greek myth and the fluidity of gender roles made me think of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, another debut novel that surprised me for its profundity. Lucy, a thirty-eight-year-old PhD student, agrees to spend a summer dog-sitting for her yoga entrepreneur sister in Venice Beach, California while she undertakes therapy for the twin problems of low self-esteem and love addiction. If you know one thing about this book, it’s that there’s sex with a merman. Ultimately, though, I’d say it’s about “the prison of the body” and choosing which of the different siren voices calling us to listen to. I found it outrageous but rewarding.
How to Be a Perfect Christian by Adam Ford and Kyle Mann
[Coming from Multnomah (USA) on the 1st]
The Babylon Bee is a Christian version of The Onion, so you know what you’re getting here: a very clever, pitch-perfect satire of evangelical Christianity today. If, like me, you grew up in a nondenominational church and bought into the subculture hook, line and sinker (Awana club, youth group, courtship, dc Talk albums, the whole shebang), you will find that so much of this rings true. The book is set up as a course for achieving superficial perfection through absolute “conformity to the status quo of the modern church.” Sample advice: find an enormous church that meets your needs, has a great coffee bar and puts on a laser-lit worship performance to rival “an amusement park for cats or a Def Leppard concert”; master the language of Christianese (“Keeping it in prayer” pretty much covers your bases); and bring as little as you can to the church potluck (a 25-pack of napkins) but consume as much as is anatomically possible. So, a lot of fun, just a little overlong because you get the joke early on.
The Ensemble by Aja Gabel
[Coming from Riverhead (USA) on the 15th]
In May 1994, the members of the Van Ness String Quartet are completing their final graduate recital at a San Francisco conservatory and preparing for the Esterhazy quartet competition in the Canadian Rockies. These four talented musicians – Jana, first violin; Brit, second violin; Henry, viola; and Daniel, cello – have no idea what the next 15 years will hold for them: a cross-country move, romances begun and lost, and career successes and failures. Drawing on her own history as a violinist and cellist, Aja Gabel infuses her debut novel with the simultaneous uncertainty and euphoria of both the artistic life and early adulthood in general. An alternating close third-person perspective gives glimpses into the main characters’ inner lives, and there are evocative descriptions of classical music. I think The Ensemble will mean even more to those readers who are involved in music, but anyone can relate to the slow fade from youth into middle age and the struggle to integrate art with the rest of life.
Tropic of Squalor by Mary Karr
[Coming from Harper (USA) on the 8th]
Mary Karr is mostly known as a memoirist, but this is actually her fifth poetry collection. Death is a major theme, with David Foster Wallace’s suicide and 9/11 getting multiple mentions. Karr also writes self-deprecatingly about her Texas childhood. Best of all is the multi-part “The Less Holy Bible”: a sort of Devil’s Dictionary based loosely around the books of the Bible, it bounces between Texas and New York City and twists biblical concepts into commonsense advice. Not one for those who are quick to cry heresy, perhaps, but I enjoyed it very much, especially “VI. Wisdom: The Voice of God”: “Ninety percent of what’s wrong with you could be cured with a hot bath, / says God through the manhole covers, but you want magic, to win / the lottery you never bought a ticket for. … Don’t look for initials in the geese honking / overhead or to see through the glass even darkly. It says the most obvious shit, / i.e. Put down that gun, you need a sandwich.”
In Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman
[Coming from Simon & Schuster / TED (USA and UK) on the 15th]
Lightman, a physicist and MIT professor, argues that only in unstructured time can we rediscover our true identity and recover our carefree childhood creativity. This work-as-play model goes against the modern idea that time is money and every minute must be devoted to a project. “For any unexpected opening of time that appears during the day, I rush to patch it, as if a tear in my trousers. … I feel compelled to find a project, to fill up the hole.” Yet there is another way of approaching time, as he discovered when doing research in a village in Cambodia. He realized that the women he talked to didn’t own watches and thus had no real sense of how long any task took them. This sharp, concise treatise ruminates on the cultural forces that have enslaved us in the West to productivity. (In short, he blames the Internet, but specifically smartphones.) Lightman insists on the spiritual benefits of free time and solitude. “With a little determination, each of us can find a half hour a day to waste time,” he asserts.
Love and Ruin by Paula McLain
[Coming from Ballantine Books (USA) and Fleet (UK) on the 1st]
This is the weakest of the three McLain novels I’ve read, but when we’re talking about a writer of this caliber that isn’t much of a criticism. It’s strange to me that, having written a novel from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, McLain would choose to tell the story of another Hemingway wife – this time Martha Gellhorn, a war reporter and author in her own right. If I set aside this misgiving, though, and just assess the quality of the writing, there are definitely things to praise, such as the vivid scenes set during the Spanish Civil War, the dialogues between Martha and Hem, the way he perhaps fills in for her dead father, her fondness for his sons, and her jealousy over his growing success while her books sink like stones. I especially liked their first meeting in a bar in Key West, and the languid pace of their life in Cuba. I read such books because I’m intrigued about the appeal of a great man, but here I got a little bogged down with the many settings and events.
What May books do you have on the docket? Have you already read any that you can recommend?
For Diana Raab, writing has been a way of coping with all that life has thrown at her, starting with her grandmother’s suicide and also including her daughter’s drug addiction and two bouts with cancer. She’s written poetry, memoir, and various books on the writer’s craft, with the latest, Writing for Bliss, specifically centered around life writing and mindfulness. In particular, I could see this one being helpful supplementary reading for those who have enjoyed Francine Prose’s Reading like a Writer and Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir.
Some keywords Raab emphasizes are patience, journey, healing, and transformation. Writing is often a long process, but it can also be a therapeutic one. It’s important to find a sacred space of one’s own – whether literal like Virginia Woolf’s room of one’s own, or simply a repurposed space that has been made conducive with candles and family photos. Raab encourages would-be memoir writers to look at the patterns in their lives and to focus on writing about moments that are relevant to the story of their personal growth.
As to the nitty-gritty of getting words onto the page, she insists that life writing is just as much about storytelling as fiction is. Fleshing out a story is more important than chronological accuracy, and she advises striving for a mixture of narrative, dialogue, scenes and reflection so that the resulting book does not seem like just a list of facts and events.
Raab also issues warnings. One is about causing offense by revealing family secrets. She suggests consulting the family members you intend to write about beforehand, and later running a rough draft past them for their approval. Another is about the danger of seeking one’s self-worth in publishing. Not all books lead to traditional publication, so it’s better if you write out of love and for yourself, simply because you find fulfillment in creativity.
This is a practical as well as a theoretical guide: 50 writing prompts are dotted through the text, and there’s also an appendix full of more. I’m someone who doesn’t necessarily aspire to write fiction, so I usually skip over such sections in a book about writing, but I think many of these could make a great launch pad for writing a personal essay. The book also ends with a terrific 15-page inventory of further reading, including a list of recommended memoirs.
Writing for Bliss was published by Loving Healing Press on September 1st. My thanks to the author for the free e-copy for review.
I’ve hoarded a number of books about writing on my Kindle, including:
- The Hero Is You by Kendra Levin
- Scratch, ed. by Manjula Martin
- Part Wild by Deb Norton
- Process by Sarah Stodola
Have you read any of these? What other books about writing have you read that you can vouch for?
I’ve read a lot of the classics – Dorothea Brande, Stephen King, Anne Lamott et al. – but I’m always interested to hear what similar books people have found to be helpful.
With Valentine’s Day on the way, I’ve been reading a bunch of books with “Love” in the title to round up in a mini-reviews post next week. One of them was What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt – my second taste of her brilliant fiction after The Blazing World. Yet I’ve not tried a one of her husband Paul Auster’s books. There’s no particular reason for that; I’ve even had his New York Trilogy out from the library in the past, but never got around to reading it.
How about some other literary power couples? Here’s some that came to mind, along with an inventory of what I’ve read from each half. It’s pretty even for the first two couples, but in most of the other cases there’s a clear winner.
Zadie Smith: 5
Nick Laird: 5 (= ALL)
I’ve read all of Zadie Smith’s work apart from NW; I only got a few pages into it when it first came out, but I’m determined to try again someday. To my surprise, I’ve read everything her husband Nick Laird has ever published, which includes three poetry collections and two fairly undistinguished ‘lad lit’ novels. I’m pleased to see that his new novel Modern Gods, coming out on June 27th, is about two sisters and looks like a stab at proper literary fiction.
Jonathan Safran Foer: 4 (= ALL)
Nicole Krauss: 3 (= ALL)
Alas, they’re now an ex-couple. In any case, they’re both on the fairly short list of authors I’d read anything by. Foer has published three novels and the nonfiction polemic Eating Animals. Krauss, too, has three novels to her name, but a new one is long overdue after the slight disappointment of 2010’s Great House.
Margaret Drabble: 5
Michael Holroyd: 0
Michael Holroyd is a biographer and general nonfiction dabbler. I have a few of his books on my TBR but don’t feel much compulsion to seek them out. By contrast, I’ve read four novels and a memoir by Margaret Drabble and am likely to devour more of her fiction in the future.
Claire Tomalin: 2
Michael Frayn: 1
Claire Tomalin’s masterful biographies of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy are pillars of my nonfiction collection, and I have her books on Nelly Ternan and Samuel Pepys on the shelf to read as well. From her husband, celebrated playwright Michael Frayn, however, I’ve only read the comic novel Skios. It is very funny indeed, though, about a case of mistaken identity at an academic conference on a Greek island.
Plus a few I only recently found out about:
Ian McEwan: 7 (+ an 8th in progress)
Annalena McAfee: 1 (I’ll be reviewing her novel Hame here on Thursday)
Katie Kitamura: 1 (I just finished A Separation yesterday)
Hari Kunzru: 0
Madeleine Thien: 1 (Do Not Say We Have Nothing)
Rawi Hage: 0
Michael Chabon: 1
Ayelet Waldman: 0
I loved Moonglow and am keen to try Michael Chabon’s other novels, but I also have a couple of his wife Ayelet Waldman’s books on my TBR.
Dave Eggers: 5
Vendela Vida: 0
I’ve read a decent proportion of Dave Eggers’s books, fiction and nonfiction, but don’t know anything by his wife and The Believer co-founder Vendela Vida.
David Foster Wallace: 2
Mary Karr: 1
I didn’t even know they were briefly a couple. From Wallace I’ve read the essay collection Consider the Lobster and the commencement address This Is Water. I’ve definitely got to get hold of Karr’s memoirs, having so far only read her book about memoir (The Art of Memoir).
And some classics:
Ted Hughes: 1 (Crow)
Sylvia Plath: 0
F. Scott Fitzgerald: 2 (The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night)
Zelda Fitzgerald: 0
How have you fared with these or other literary power couples? Do you generally gravitate towards one or the other from a pair?
Without further ado, I present to you my 15 favorite non-fiction books read in 2015. I’m a memoir junkie so many of these fit under that broad heading, but I’ve dipped into other areas too. I give two favorites for each category, then count down my top 7 memoirs read this year.
Note: Only four of these were actually published in 2015; for the rest I’ve given the publication year. Many of them I’ve already previewed through the year, so – like I did yesterday for fiction – I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read this book. (Links given to full reviews.)
A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg (2009): Wizenberg reflects on the death of her father Burg from cancer, time spent living in Paris, building a new life in Seattle, starting her food blog, and meeting her husband through it. Each brief autobiographical essay is perfectly formed and followed by a relevant recipe, capturing precisely how food is tied up with memories.
Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table by Ruth Reichl (2001): Reichl traces the rise of American foodie culture in the 1970s–80s (Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck) through her time as a food critic for the Los Angeles Times, also weaving in personal history – from a Berkeley co-op with her first husband to a home in the California hills with her second after affairs and a sticky divorce. Throughout she describes meals in mouth-watering detail, like this Thai dish: “The hot-pink soup was dotted with lacy green leaves of cilantro, like little bursts of breeze behind the heat. … I took another spoonful of soup and tasted citrus, as if lemons had once gone gliding through and left their ghosts behind.”
Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field by John Lewis-Stempel (2014): Lewis-Stempel is a proper third-generation Herefordshire farmer, but also a naturalist with a poet’s eye. Magical moments and lovely prose, as in “The dew, trapped in the webs of countless money spiders, has skeined the entire field in tiny silken pocket squares, gnomes’ handkerchiefs dropped in the sward.”
Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane: This new classic of nature writing zeroes in on the language we use to talk about our environment, both individual words – which Macfarlane celebrates in nine mini-glossaries alternating with the prose chapters – and the narratives we build around places, via discussions of the work of nature writers he admires. Whether poetic (“heavengravel,” Gerard Manley Hopkins’s term for hailstones), local and folksy (“wonty-tump,” a Herefordshire word for a molehill), or onomatopoeic (on Exmoor, “zwer” is the sound of partridges taking off), his vocabulary words are a treasure trove.
Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris (1998): In few-page essays, Norris gives theological words and phrases a rich, jargon-free backstory through anecdote, scripture and lived philosophy. This makes the shortlist of books I would hand to skeptics to show them there might be something to this Christianity nonsense after all.
My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman (2013): Seven years into a cancer journey, Wiman, a poet, gives an intimate picture of faith and doubt as he has lived with them in the shadow of death. Nearly every page has a passage that cuts right to the quick of what it means to be human and in interaction with other people and the divine.
Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee (2013): Although Penelope Fitzgerald always guarded literary ambitions, she was not able to pursue her writing wholeheartedly until she had reared three children and nursed her hapless husband through his last illness. This is a thorough and sympathetic appreciation of an underrated author, and another marvellously detailed biography from Lee.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (2014): A surgeon’s essential guide to decision-making about end-of-life care, but also a more philosophical treatment of the question of what makes life worth living: When should we extend life, and when should we concentrate more on the quality of our remaining days than their quantity? The title condition applies to all, so this is a book everyone should read.
- The Year My Mother Came Back by Alice Eve Cohen: Wry and heartfelt, this is a wonderful memoir about motherhood in all its variations and complexities; the magic realism (Cohen’s dead mother keeps showing up) is an added delight. I recommend this no matter what sort of relationship, past or present, you have with your mother, especially if you’re also a fan of Anne Lamott and Abigail Thomas.
- The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr: There is a wealth of practical advice here, on topics such as choosing the right carnal details (not sexual – or not only sexual – but physicality generally), correcting facts and misconceptions, figuring out a structure, and settling on your voice. Karr has been teaching (and writing) memoirs at Syracuse University for years now, so she’s thought deeply about what makes them work, and sets her theories out clearly for readers at any level of familiarity.
- A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle (1971): In this account of a summer spent at her family’s Connecticut farmhouse, L’Engle muses on theology, purpose, children’s education, the writing life, the difference between creating stories for children and adults, neighbors and fitting into a community, and much besides. If, like me, you only knew L’Engle through her Wrinkle in Time children’s series, this journal should come as a revelation.
- Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh (2014): “Terrible job, neurosurgery. Don’t do it.” – luckily for us, Henry Marsh reports back from the frontlines of brain surgery so we don’t have to. In my favorite passages, Marsh reflects on the mind-blowing fact that the few pounds of tissue stored in our heads could be the site of our consciousness, our creativity, our personhood – everything we traditionally count as the soul.
- I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place by Howard Norman (2013): Norman has quickly become one of my favorite writers. You wouldn’t think these disparate autobiographical essays would fit together as a whole, given that they range in subject from Inuit folktales and birdwatching to a murder–suicide committed in Norman’s Washington, D.C. home and a girlfriend’s death in a plane crash, but somehow they do; after all, “A whole world of impudent detours, unbridled perplexities, degrading sorrow, and exacting joys can befall a person in a single season, not to mention a lifetime.”
- Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg (2010): Through this book I followed literary agent Bill Clegg on dozens of taxi rides between generic hotel rooms and bar toilets and New York City offices and apartments; together we smoked innumerable crack pipes and guzzled dozens of bottles of vodka while letting partners and family members down and spiraling further down into paranoia and squalor. He achieves a perfect balance between his feelings at the time – being out of control and utterly enslaved to his next hit – and the hindsight that allows him to see what a pathetic figure he was becoming.
And my overall favorite nonfiction book of the year:
1. The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander: In short vignettes, beginning afresh with every chapter, Alexander conjures up the life she lived with – and after the sudden death of – her husband Ficre Ghebreyesus, an Eritrean chef and painter. This book is the most wonderful love letter you could imagine, and no less beautiful for its bittersweet nature.
What were some of your best nonfiction reads of the year?
My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
“Publishing, books, life. … It seemed possible to get one right. But not all three.”
I’ve hardly read any Salinger, but that’s okay – neither had Joanna Rakoff until about two-thirds of the way through her year working for the legendary recluse’s literary agency in New York City. One long weekend she gorged on his complete works and found – in a man she’d previously encountered only as a shouting elderly voice on the phone – a kindred spirit.
This was 1996, and Rakoff was 23 years old, living with a boyfriend who didn’t appreciate her in a crummy apartment and harboring secret literary ambitions. On the cusp of the digital world, the Agency still resisted computers. Rakoff did most of her work on a typewriter and read manuscripts from the slush pile, extracting a couple of promising ones and getting a colleague to read her boyfriend Don’s unpublishable novel in turn. She had heavy student loans after graduate studies in London, and could barely afford a daily deli salad for lunch.
Mostly Rakoff spent her time typing form letters to Salinger’s fans, informing correspondents that he had asked not to have his letters forwarded. Believing she might make a difference, she went off-piste and started writing personal replies to some of the more wrenching letters: war veterans, struggling students, and a quiet young man who didn’t know what to do with his emotions. Alas, it backfired: more often than not she’d get an angry response, with the writer objecting to her presuming to take the place of Salinger and dispense life advice.
It’s remarkable how, at a distance of nearly 20 years, Rakoff makes this all seem like it happened yesterday: she adds in just the right amount of what Mary Karr, in The Art of Memoir, calls “carnal detail” to make her story seem timely and believable. The tone is nostalgic but also bittersweet – while it was a precious year, Rakoff also realizes what she could have done better (chiefly, ditching Don sooner).
Especially for female readers, this will instantly take you back to your own immediate post-college days of trying to figure out what life is about and who you wanted to be. “Was it possible, too, that one could be complicated, intellectual, awake to the world, that one could be an artist, and also be rosy and filled with light? Was it possible that one could be all those things and also be happy?”
With thanks to Bloomsbury for my free copy, won in a Facebook giveaway.
Hotel Alpha by Mark Watson
You may be unsurprised to learn there’s a touch of The Grand Budapest Hotel to this one. Hotel founder Howard York, though he sounds an awful lot like an Ayn Rand creation (i.e. Howard Roark, the architect-hero of The Fountainhead), is most like the Ralph Fiennes character. He uses his influence to finagle anything for a guest; “you could believe, sitting here in his castle, that he really did mean to live a couple of centuries and that everything he had built would still be standing around him.” But even he can’t stop tragedy; a fire at the hotel in the 1980s orphaned and blinded a small boy named Chas, who Howard then adopted.
The novel is told in alternating first-person chapters from Chas and Graham, the hotel concierge. Graham reminded me of Stevens in The Remains of the Day: very proper, even uptight, but with a hidden passion. Technology’s advance helps Chas immensely, but makes Graham feel superseded; “I have lived a great part of my own life in homage to my own past,” he acknowledges.
Key events take place between 2001 and 2005, with a historical backdrop including 9/11, the Olympic bid, and the 7/7 bombings. Chas works in PR and is involved with Kathleen, a journalist who’s opposed to the Iraq War. Howard, on the other hand, always supports the winning team and status quo. He is also a man of secrets. Why did Chas’s tutor, Ella, and Graham’s assistant, Agatha, both suddenly leave the hotel for America years ago? It all has to do with the legend of what happened the night of the fire, the truth of which will be exposed in time.
Watson is a stand-up comedian as well as the author of several novels. I like how he shows both the good and bad sides of technology here. My favorite part was Chas’s visit to China with Kathleen; even though he’s mostly stuck in a hotel, he still experiences extreme culture shock.
There are another 100 stories about the Hotel Alpha on the website, eight of which are printed as an appendix to the paperback edition. Much as I liked the main characters (especially Agatha), I didn’t think the two voices were distinctive enough – I wish Watson had incorporated more of the stories’ narrative variety (some first-person and some third-person) into the novel itself.
With thanks to Picador for my free copy, won in a newsletter giveaway.
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I’ll provide links to all the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a short taster so you can decide whether to click to read more. A couple of exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie or BlueInk reviews since I don’t get a byline.
Dandelion Angel by C.B. Calico (& interview): This was inspired by a non-fiction work, Understanding the Borderline Mother by Christine Ann Lawson. The four mother/daughter relationships in this Germany-set novel – all marked to some extent by dysfunction, physical and/or verbal abuse, and borderline personality disorder – are based on Lawson’s metaphorical classifications: the hermit, the queen, the waif, and the witch. Looping back through her four storylines in three complete cycles, Calico shows how mental illness is rooted in childhood experiences and can go on to affect a whole family.
The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock: Cinematic descriptions of the California desert setting plus excellent characters and dialogue enliven this debut novel about a fictional test pilot and his family troubles during America’s Space Race. Johncock is British, but you can tell he’s taken inspiration from stories about the dawn of the astronaut age. If I allowed myself small points of criticism, I would say that it’s a challenge to accept the passage of time in the final 50 pages, and that a keen interest in astronauts is probably a boon to keep readers going through the test flight portions, which to me were less compelling than the domestic drama of Jim, Grace and Florence.
Home Is Burning by Dan Marshall: At age 25, Dan Marshall went home to Salt Lake City to care for a father with ALS and a mother with leukemia. He and his four hapless siblings (a Sedaris-like clan) approached caregiving with sarcasm and dirty humor. Gleefully foul-mouthed, his memoir lacks introspective depth. He hardly ventures deeper than initial descriptions like “My gay brother, Greg” and “My adopted Native American sister, Michelle.” And even when his sentiments about his father are sincere, they are conveyed via what sound like clichés: “I wanted my poor dad to get better, not worse.” But to my surprise, Marshall made me cry in the end.
Of Orcas and Men by David Neiwert: Inspired by personal sightings near his home in Seattle, Neiwert set out to learn everything he could about orcas. The result is a thorough study of whales’ behavior and interactions with humanity from native mythology through modern-day aquarium shows. Some specialist interest would probably be helpful to those attempting this book, although there are plenty of black-and-white photographs to keep even casual readers interested. “Recovering our humanity may be the real gift of the orcas, what they can teach us. It’s our choice whether to listen.”
This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison [a subscription service, but an excerpt is available for free]: A widow in her seventies relives the ups and downs of her life while on an Alaskan cruise to scatter her husband’s ashes. Chapters alternate between a third-person account of the cruise and a second-person survey of Harriet’s past, delivered in the format of TV’s This Is Your Life. The narration is fresh and effective because the gradual revelations undermine Harriet’s elderly persona in such surprising ways. She is an out-of-the-ordinary but believable protagonist who, like all of us, has a mixture of victories and disappointments behind her. This is a charming novel about learning to reckon with the past.
Speak by Louisa Hall [subscription service, but the full text of my review will be available for free during the week starting September 25th as part of Editor’s Choice]: Hall interweaves disparate time periods and voices to track the development of artificial intelligence. The fact that all six narratives are in different documentary formats – memoirs, letters, the transcript of a dialogue, a diary, and so on – means they are easy to distinguish. One might argue that two of them (Alan Turing’s letters and Mary’s shipboard diary) are unnecessary, and yet these are by far the most enjoyable. They prove Hall has an aptitude for historical fiction, a genre she might choose to pursue in the future. A remarkable book interrogating how the languages we converse in and the stories we tell make us human.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman: Think of Alexandra Kleeman as an heir to Dave Eggers and Douglas Coupland, with a hefty dollop of Margaret Atwood thrown in. Her first novel is a full-on postmodern satire bursting with biting commentary on consumerism and conformity. Television and shopping are the twin symbolic pillars of a book about the commodification of the body. In a culture of self-alienation where we buy things we don’t need, have no idea where food comes from and desperately keep up the façade of normalcy, Kleeman’s is a fresh voice advocating the true sanity of individuality. Don’t miss her incredible debut.
Conflict Communication by Rory Miller: Based on “ConCom,” the police verbal de-escalation program Miller developed with Marc MacYoung, this book aims to introduce readers to more conscious methods of verbal communication that will sidestep instinctive reactions and promote peaceful solutions. The advice is practical and intuitive, yet picks up on tiny details that most people would not notice. Concise, helpful, and well-organized, this is strongly recommended for readers interested in the psychology of violence and improving communication skills.
Detained by Brian Rees: Rees intersperses witty e-mail updates from his tours of Iraq and Afghanistan with clued-in commentary about war tactics, terrorism, Islam, and the benefits of transcendental meditation (TM) for soldiers with PTSD. The mixture of formats and topics generally works well, though the spiritual material deserves its own book. There’s no denying Rees’s expertise, and his fluid writing keeps the pages turning. This could make a fascinating companion volume for fans of recent war fiction such as The Yellow Birds, Redeployment, and War of the Encyclopaedists.
Talk to Me of Love by Julia Anne Bernhardt: The poems in Bernhardt’s first collection range from erotic to spiritual as they investigate love in all its forms. Repetition, rhyme, and mantras produce hypnotic sonic effects and support the central message of the epigraph: “God is in the detail.” The everyday and the eternal mix here. This well-structured collection celebrates different types of love through meditative verse. The themes’ strength is enough to recommend it to readers of Jo Shapcott and Julia Copus.
The Hidden Treasure of Dutch Buffalo Creek by Jackson Badgenoone: Otherworldly ghost writers (the “Neverborn”) compose biographies for ordinary people in this playfully metafictional novel. James is a strong central character whose memories from the 1950s through the present give a sense of history’s sweep, while vivid descriptive language enlivens the settings. Although well written, the book as a whole is an unusual amalgam of spiritualism, historical nostalgia, and technology. James’s story might have been better told as a simple coming-of-age novel with flashbacks.
Common Ground by Rob Cowen: An unassuming patch of edge-land outside Harrogate is Cowen’s nature paradise, providing him with wildlife encounters and imaginative scenarios. Essentially, what Cowen does is give profiles of the edge-land’s inhabitants: animal and human, himself included. For instance, he creates an account of the life and death of a fox; elsewhere, he crafts a first-person narrative by a deer being hunted in medieval times. These fictions emulating Watership Down or Tarka the Otter, though well written, are out of place. When the book avoids melodramatic anthropomorphizing, it is very beautiful indeed.
We Love This Book
Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks: In Faulks’s thirteenth novel, his trademark themes of war, love and memory coalesce through the story of a middle-aged psychiatrist discovering the truth about his father’s death. Reminiscent of Birdsong as well as John Fowles’s The Magus and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, this does not have the power of Faulks’s previous work but is a capable study of how war stories and love stories translate into personal history. [A few extra thoughts at Goodreads.]
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads.
How to Write a Novel by Melanie Sumner: Our would-be novelist is Aris (short for Aristotle) Thibodeau, 12.5 years old and as precocious as Flavia de Luce. Diane is her single mother, and Max her downright weird younger brother. Using Write a Novel in 30 Days!, Aris is turning her family’s life story into fiction. In some ways they are very out of place here in Kanuga, Georgia. The child’s wry look at family dysfunction reminded me of Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾. I would probably read something else from Sumner, so long as it wasn’t quite as silly and YA geared as this.
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr: I would recommend this to anyone who reads and/or secretly wants to write memoirs; for the latter group, there is a wealth of practical advice here, on topics such as choosing the right carnal details (not sexual – or not only sexual – but physicality generally), correcting your facts and misconceptions, figuring out a structure, and settling on your voice. Along the way Karr discusses a number of favorite memoirs in detail, sometimes even line by line: Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Stop-Time by Pat Conroy, A Childhood by Harry Crews, Maya Angelou’s books, Speak, Memory by Nabokov, and so on.
Emblems of the Passing World: Poems after Photographs by August Sander by Adam Kirsch: A charming mix of historical photographs (1910s–1950s Germany) and poems. Kirsch uses his poetry to bring these one-dimensional figures to life, imagining the stories behind their generic titles (“Office Worker” or “Farming Family”) and sometimes slyly questioning the political and status connotations of such designations. One of my favorites was “Student of Philosophy.” This book could draw people whose interests usually run more to nonfiction – especially social history – into giving poetry a try. Releases November 17th.
Browsings by Michael Dirda: Dirda wrote this pleasant set of bibliophilic essays for the American Scholar website in 2012–13. He’s the American equivalent of the UK’s John Sutherland: an extremely well-read doyen of the classics with a special love for Victorian and Edwardian genre fiction, often as revived by small presses and specialist societies. At times Dirda’s interests can be a bit obscure for the average reader, and some of the essays feel redundant. Still, it’s easy to relate to his addictive book purchasing and hoarding.
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: I read this on the train to Manchester, appropriate reading when approaching one of the UK’s biggest centers of Victorian industry and the place where Marx and Engels met to discuss ideas in the mid-1840s. Like Darwin’s Origin of Species, another seminal Victorian text, this has so many familiar lines and wonderful metaphors that have entered into common discourse that I simply assumed it was composed in English. My eyes glaze over at politics or economics, so I valued this more for its language than for its ideas. Part II, “Proletarians and Communists,” is the most focused part if you want to sample it.
Number 11 by Jonathan Coe: This is a funny and mildly disturbing state-of-England and coming-of-age novel. I’d only read one previous book by Coe, Expo 58; this is a better example of his usual pattern: multiple, loosely linked storylines. Here the theme is the absurdity of modern culture, encompassing many aspects: unjust wars, the excesses of the uber-rich, the obsession with celebrity, and suspicion and exclusion of those who are different from us. The number 11 keeps popping up, too. My favorite parts were a Survivor-type reality television show and a laughably over-the-top prize ceremony banquet. Releases November 11th.
My Family and Other Superheroes by Jonathan Edwards: Edwards displays his proud Welsh heritage with poems reflecting on his family tree and the country’s landscape. One of my favorites was “View of Valleys Village from a Hill,” in which the narrator, with a God’s-eye view of his family, envisions messing around with them. The witty “In John F. Kennedy International Airport” imagines that Wales has been abolished and recreated in miniature in a small Kansas museum (a bit like Julian Barnes’s England, England).
The Whole & Rain-domed Universe by Colette Bryce: Many of these poems are about the author’s Irish family inheritance, both literal and figurative, as in “Heritance”: “From her? Resilience. Generosity. / A teacher’s gravitas. / Irish stew. A sense / of the ridiculous. High ceilings.” I loved the first line of “Signature” – “When I finally gave up and became my mother.” It’s particularly nice how enjambment often makes the thought go just that one line beyond what you expect. I’d read more from Bryce.