Tag Archives: memoirs

These Precious Days by Ann Patchett

I consider myself an Ann Patchett fan, having read eight of her books by now. Although she’s better known for her novels, I have a slight preference for her nonfiction – Truth and Beauty, her memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy; and her two collections of autobiographical essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage and now These Precious Days, which made it onto my Best of 2021 list last month. Compared to the previous volume, the essays here, though no less sincere and thoughtful, are more melancholy. The preoccupation with death and drive to simplify life (“My Year of No Shopping,” “How to Practice”) seem appropriate for Covid times.

The opening essay, “Three Fathers,” gives wry portraits of her father and her two stepfathers, contrasting their careers, her relationship with each, and their deaths. In a final piece before the epilogue, she notes the bittersweet privilege of her membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters – new members are only inducted to replace senior ones, for each of whom she receives a death notice in the mail. Memento mori are everywhere; “The human impulse is to look for order, but there isn’t any. People come and go. When you try to find your place among all the living and dead, the numbers are unmanageable.”

The long title essay, first published in Harper’s, is about her stranger-than-fiction friendship with Tom Hanks’s personal assistant, Sooki Raphael (her painting of Patchett’s dog Sparky adorns the cover). They first made contact after Patchett read an early copy of Hanks’s short story collection, gave it a nice endorsement, and then interviewed him at the D.C. stop on his book tour. Sooki had recurrent pancreatic cancer; Patchett’s husband Karl, a doctor, got her into a medical trial in Nashville and she lived with them throughout her treatment, including during Covid. There are so many twists to this story, so many moments when it might have faltered. Patchett is well aware of the unlikelihood and uses it to comment on her own plots, and the fact that sometimes what she thinks a novel is about ends up being far from the truth.

Patchett also expresses her appreciation of other authors (“Eudora Welty, an introduction,” “Reading Kate DiCamillo”), looks back to her young adulthood (“The First Thanksgiving,” “The Paris Tattoo”) and explores her other key relationships: her ever-youthful mother is the subject of “Sisters,” she celebrates a childhood friend in “Tavia,” and her worry over her 16-years-older husband fuels “Flight Plan” (about his amateur pilot hobby) and “The Moment Nothing Changed” (about his heart attack scare). Many of the shorter pieces first appeared in other publications or anthologies; a few verge on throwaway if I’m being harsh (did we need the essays on Snoopy and knitting?).

But it’s the approach that distinguishes the work as a whole: a clear eye on herself and others; honesty and deep emotion that never tip into mawkishness. I also enjoyed the little glimpses into her everyday domestic life, as well as her work behind the scenes at Parnassus Books. The one essay that meant the most to me, though, was “There Are No Children Here,” which matter-of-factly covers everything I’d ever like to say or hear about childlessness. At their best, Patchett’s books are not just pleasant reads but fond companions on the journey of life, and that’s how I felt about this one. (Susan included it on her list of comfort reading, too.)

With thanks to Bloomsbury for the free copy for review.

Catching Up: Mini Reviews of Some Notable Reads from Last Year

I do all my composition on an ancient PC (unconnected to the Internet) in a corner of our lounge. On top of the CPU sit piles of books waiting to be reviewed. Some have been residing there for an embarrassingly long time since I finished reading them; others were only recently added to the stack but had previously languished on my set-aside shelf. I think the ‘oldest’ of the set below is the Olson, which I started reading in November 2019. In every case, the book earned a spot on the pile because I felt it was worth a review, but I’ll stick to a brief paragraph on why each was memorable. Bonus: I get my Post-its back, and can reshelve the books so they get packed sensibly for our upcoming move.

 

Fiction

How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti (2012): My second from Heti, after Motherhood; both landed with me because they nail aspects of my state of mind. Heti writes autofiction about writers dithering about their purpose in life. Here Sheila is working in a hair salon while trying to finish her play – some absurdist dialogue is set out in script form – and hanging out with artists like her best friend Margaux. The sex scenes are gratuitous and kinda gross. In general, I alternated between sniggering (especially at the ugly painting competition) and feeling seen: Sheila expects fate to decide things for her; God forbid she should ever have to make an actual choice. Heti is self-deprecating about an admittedly self-indulgent approach, and so funny on topics like mansplaining. This was longlisted for the Women’s Prize in 2013. (Little Free Library)

 

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1990): The first volume of The Cazalet Chronicle, read for a book club meeting last January. I could hardly believe the publication date; it’s such a detailed, convincing picture of daily life in 1937–8 for a large, wealthy family in London and Sussex that it seems it must have been written in the 1940s. The retrospective angle, however, allows for subtle commentary on how limited women’s lives were, locked in by marriage and pregnancies. Sexual abuse is also calmly reported. One character is a lesbian, but everyone believes her partner is just a friend. The cousins’ childhood japes are especially enjoyable. And, of course, war is approaching. It’s all very Downton Abbey. I launched straight into the second book afterwards, but stalled 60 pages in. I’ll aim to get back into the series later this year. (Free mall bookshop)

 

Nonfiction

Keeper: Living with Nancy—A journey into Alzheimer’s by Andrea Gillies (2009): The inaugural Wellcome Book Prize winner. The Prize expanded in focus over a decade; I don’t think a straightforward family memoir like this would have won later on. Gillies’ family relocated to remote northern Scotland and her elderly mother- and father-in-law, Nancy and Morris, moved in. Morris was passive, with limited mobility; Nancy was confused and cantankerous, often treating Gillies like a servant. (“There’s emptiness behind her eyes, something missing that used to be there. It’s sinister.”) She’d try to keep her cool but often got frustrated and contradicted her mother-in-law’s delusions. Gillies relays facts about Alzheimer’s that I knew from In Pursuit of Memory. What has remained with me is a sense of just how gruelling the caring life is. Gillies could barely get any writing done because if she turned her back Nancy might start walking to town, or – the single most horrific incident that has stuck in my mind – place faeces on the bookshelf. (Secondhand purchase)

 

Reflections from the North Country by Sigurd F. Olson (1976): Olson was a well-known environmental writer in his time, also serving as president of the National Parks Association. Somehow I hadn’t heard of him before my husband picked this out at random. Part of a Minnesota Heritage Book series, this collection of passionate, philosophically oriented essays about the state of nature places him in the vein of Aldo Leopold – before-their-time conservationists. He ponders solitude, wilderness and human nature, asking what is primal in us and what is due to unfortunate later developments. His counsel includes simplicity and wonder rather than exploitation and waste. The chief worry that comes across is that people are now so cut off from nature they can’t see what they’re missing – and destroying. It can be depressing to read such profound 1970s works; had we heeded environmental prophets like Olson, we could have changed course before it was too late. (Free from The Book Thing of Baltimore)

 

Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman by Alice Steinbach (2004): I’d loved her earlier travel book Without Reservations. Here she sets off on a journey of discovery and lifelong learning. I included the first essay, about enrolling in cooking lessons in Paris, in my foodie 20 Books of Summer 2020. In other chapters she takes dance lessons in Kyoto, appreciates art in Florence and Havana, walks in Jane Austen’s footsteps in Winchester and environs, studies garden design in Provence, takes a creative writing workshop in Prague, and trains Border collies in Scotland. It’s clear she loves meeting new people and chatting – great qualities in a journalist. By this time she had quit her job with the Baltimore Sun so was free to explore and make her life what she wanted. She thinks back to childhood memories of her Scottish grandmother, and imagines how she’d describe her adventures to her gentleman friend, Naohiro. She recreates everything in a way that makes this as fluent as any novel, such that I’d even dare recommend it to fiction-only readers. (Free mall bookshop)

 

Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey by Adam Weymouth (2018): I didn’t get the chance to read this when it was shortlisted for, and then won, the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, but I received a copy from my wish list for Christmas that year. Alaska is a place that attracts outsiders and nonconformists. During the summer of 2016, Weymouth undertook a voyage by canoe down the nearly 2,000 miles of the Yukon River – the same epic journey made by king/Chinook salmon. He camps alongside the river bank in a tent, often with his partner, Ulli. He also visits a fish farm, meets reality TV stars and native Yup’ik people, and eats plenty of salmon. “I do occasionally consider the ethics of investigating a fish’s decline whilst stuffing my face with it.” Charting the effects of climate change without forcing the issue, he paints a somewhat bleak picture. But his descriptive writing is so lyrical, and his scenes and dialogue so natural, that he kept me eagerly riding along in the canoe with him. (Secondhand copy, gifted)

 

Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

Some of My Most Anticipated Releases of 2022

Ninety-nine 2022 releases have made it onto my Goodreads shelves so far. I’ve read about 10 already and will preview some of them tomorrow.

This year we can expect new fiction from Julian Barnes, Carol Birch, Jessie Burton, Jennifer Egan, Karen Joy Fowler, David Guterson, Sheila Heti, John Irving (perhaps? at last), Liza Klaussman, Benjamin Myers, Julie Otsuka, Alex Preston and Anne Tyler; a debut novel from Emilie Pine; second memoirs from Amy Liptrot and Wendy Mitchell; another wide-ranging cultural history/self-help book from Susan Cain; another medical history from Lindsey Fitzharris; a biography of the late Jan Morris; and much more. (Already I feel swamped, and this in a year when I’ve said I want to prioritize backlist reads! Ah well, it is always thus.)

I’ve limited myself here to the 20 upcoming releases I’m most excited about. The low figure is a bit of a cheat: with a few exceptions, I’ve not included books I have / have been promised. I’ll be scurrying around requesting copies of most of the others soon. The following are due out between January and August and are in (UK) release date order, within sections by genre. (U.S. details given too/instead if USA-only. Quotes are extracted from publisher blurbs on Goodreads.)

U.S. covers – included where different – rule!

N.B. Fiction is winning this year!

 

Fiction

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara [Jan. 11, Picador / Doubleday] You’ll see this on just about every list; her fans are legion after the wonder that was A Little Life. Another doorstopper, but this time with the epic reach to justify the length: sections are set in an alternative 1893, 1993, and 2093 – “joined in an enthralling and ingenious symphony, as recurring notes and themes deepen and enrich one another.” [Proof copy]

 

UK cover

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu [Jan. 18, Bloomsbury / William Morrow] Amazing author name! Similar to the Yanagihara what with the century-hopping and future scenario, a feature common in 2020s literature – a throwback to Cloud Atlas? I’m also reminded of the premise of Under the Blue, one of my favourites from last year. “Once unleashed, the Arctic Plague will reshape life on Earth for generations to come.”

 

Heartstopper, Volume 5 by Alice Oseman [Feb. ?, Hodder Children’s] I devoured the first four volumes of this teen comic last year. In 2020, Oseman tweeted that the fifth and final installment was slated for February 2022, but I don’t have any more information than that. Nick will be getting ready to go off to university, so I guess we’ll see how he leaves things with Charlie and whether their relationship will survive a separation. (No cover art yet.)

 

How Strange a Season by Megan Mayhew Bergman [March 29, Scribner] I enjoyed her earlier story collection, Almost Famous Women. “Bergman portrays women who wrestle with problematic inheritances: a modern glass house on a treacherous California cliff, a water-starved ranch, an abandoned plantation on a river near Charleston … provocative prose asks what are we leaving behind for our ancestors … what price will they pay for our mistakes?”

 

A Violent Woman by Ayana Mathis [April 7, Hutchinson] Her Oprah-approved 2013 debut, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, got a rare 5-star review from me. About “an estranged mother and her daughter. Dutchess lives in Bonaparte, Alabama, a once thriving black town now in its death throes. Lena lives in Philadelphia in the 1980s. Her involvement with the radical separatist group STEP leads to transcendence and tragedy.” (No cover art yet.)

 

there are more things by Yara Rodrigues Fowler [April 28, Fleet] I so wanted her 2019 debut novel, Stubborn Archivist, to win the Young Writer of the Year Award. I love the cover and Hamlet-sourced title, and I’m here for novels of female friendship. “In January 2016, Melissa [South London native] and Catarina [born to well-known political family in Brazil] meet for the first time, and as political turmoil unfolds … their friendship takes flight.”

 

UK cover

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel [April 28, Picador / April 5, Knopf] This is the other title you’ll find on everyone else’s list. That’s because The Glass Hotel, even more so than Station Eleven, was amazing. Another history-to-future-hopper: “a novel of art, time, love, and plague that takes the reader from Vancouver Island in 1912 to a dark colony on the moon three hundred years later, unfurling a story of humanity across centuries and space.” [Edelweiss download]

 

Search by Michelle Huneven [April 28, Penguin] A late addition to my list thanks to the Kirkus review. Sounds like one for readers of Katherine Heiny! “Dana Potowski is a restaurant critic and food writer … asked to join [her California Unitarian Universalist] church search committee for a new minister. Under pressure to find her next book idea, she agrees, and resolves to secretly pen a memoir, with recipes, about the experience.”

 

UK cover

Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso [April 28, Picador / Feb. 8, Hogarth] The debut novel from an author by whom I’ve read four nonfiction works. “For Ruthie, the frozen town of Waitsfield, Massachusetts, is all she has ever known. Once home to the country’s oldest and most illustrious families[,] … it is an unforgiving place awash with secrets. … Ruthie slowly learns how the town’s prim facade conceals a deeper, darker history…”

 

UK cover

True Biz by Sara Nović [May 5, Little, Brown / April 5, Random House] Her 2015 Girl at War is one of my most-admired debuts of all time, and who can resist a campus novel?! “The students at the River Valley School for the Deaf just want to hook up, pass their history final, and have doctors, politicians, and their parents stop telling them what to do with their bodies. This revelatory novel plunges readers into the halls of a residential school for the deaf.”

 

You Have a Friend in 10a: Stories by Maggie Shipstead [May 19, Transworld / May 17, Knopf] Shipstead’s Booker-shortlisted doorstopper, Great Circle, ironically, never took off for me; I’m hoping her short-form storytelling will work out better. “Diving into eclectic and vivid settings, from an Olympic village to a deathbed in Paris to a Pacific atoll, … Shipstead traverses ordinary and unusual realities with cunning, compassion, and wit.”

 

UK cover

Horse by Geraldine Brooks [June 2, Little, Brown / June 14, Viking] You guessed it, another tripartite 1800s–1900s–2000s narrative! With themes of slavery, art and general African American history. I’m not big on horses, at least not these days, but Brooks’s March and Year of Wonders are among my recent favourites. “Based on the remarkable true story of the record-breaking thoroughbred, Lexington, who became America’s greatest stud sire.”

 

UK cover

Briefly, a Delicious Life by Nell Stevens [June 23, Picador / June 21, Scribner] I’ve read her two previous autofiction-y memoirs and loved Mrs Gaskell & Me. The title, cover and Victorian setting of her debut novel beckon. “In 1473, fourteen-year-old Blanca dies in a hilltop monastery in Mallorca. Nearly four hundred years later, when George Sand, her two children, and her lover Frederic Chopin arrive in the village, Blanca is still there: a spirited, funny, righteous ghost.”

 

A Brief History of Living Forever by Jaroslav Kalfar [Aug. 4, Sceptre / Little, Brown] His Spaceman of Bohemia (2017) was terrific. “When Adela discovers she has a terminal illness, her thoughts turn to Tereza, the American-raised daughter she gave up at birth. … In NYC, Tereza is … the star researcher for two suspicious biotech moguls hellbent on developing a ‘god pill’ to extend human life indefinitely. … Narrated from the beyond by Adela.”

 

Nonfiction

The Cure for Sleep by Tanya Shadrick [Jan. 20, Weidenfeld & Nicolson] Nature memoir / self-help. “On return from near-death, Shadrick vows to stop sleepwalking through life. … Around the care of young children, she starts to play with the shape and scale of her days: to stray from the path, get lost in the woods, make bargains with strangers … she moves beyond her respectable roles as worker, wife and mother in a small town.” [Review copy]

 

The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness by Meghan O’Rourke [March 1, Riverhead] O’Rourke wrote one of the best bereavement memoirs ever. This ties in with my medical interests. “O’Rourke delivers a revelatory investigation into this elusive category of ‘invisible’ illness that encompasses autoimmune diseases, post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome, and now long COVID, synthesizing the personal and the universal.”

 

UK cover

In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss by Amy Bloom [April 7, Granta / March 8, Random House] The true story of how Bloom accompanied her husband Brian, who had Alzheimer’s, to Dignitas in Switzerland to end his life. I’ve read quite a lot around assisted dying. “Written in Bloom’s captivating, insightful voice and with her trademark wit and candor, In Love is an unforgettable portrait of a beautiful marriage, and a boundary-defying love.”

 

Home/Land: A Memoir of Departure and Return by Rebecca Mead [April 21, Grove Press UK / Feb. 8, Knopf] I enjoyed Mead’s bibliomemoir on Middlemarch. The Anglo-American theme is perfect for me: “drawing on literature and art, recent and ancient history, and the experience of encounters with individuals, environments, and landscapes in New York City and in England, Mead artfully explores themes of identity, nationality, and inheritance.”

 

UK cover

Lost & Found: A Memoir by Kathryn Schulz [April 28, Picador / Jan. 20, Random House] I loved her 2010 book Being Wrong, and bereavement memoirs are my jam. “Eighteen months before Kathryn Schulz’s father died, she met the woman she would marry. In Lost & Found, she weaves the story of those relationships into a brilliant exploration of the role that loss and discovery play in all of our lives … an enduring account of love in all its many forms.”

 

Poetry

Inside the Storm I Want to Touch the Tremble by Carolyn Oliver [Aug. 19, Univ. of Utah Press] Carolyn used to blog at Rosemary and Reading Glasses. The poems she’s shared on social media are beautiful, and I’m proud of her for winning the Agha Shahid Ali Prize. “Inside this debut collection, girlhood’s dangers echo, transmuted, in the poet’s fears for her son. A body … is humbled by chronic illness. Stumbling toward joy across time and space, these poems hum with fear and desire, bewildering loss, and love’s lush possibilities.”

 

Themes arising: crossing three centuries; H & I titles, the word “brief”; moons and stars on covers. Mostly female authors (only two men here).

 

Do check out these other lists for more ideas!

Callum’s

Kate’s

Kirkus

Laura’s

Paul’s

Rachel’s

Plus you can seek out all the usual lists (e.g. on Lit Hub and virtually every other book or newspaper site) … if you want to be overwhelmed!

 

What catches your eye here?
What other 2022 titles do I need to know about?

My Most Memorable Backlist Reads of 2021

Like many bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the new books released each year. However, I consistently find that many of my most memorable reads were published years or decades ago. These 19 selections, in alphabetical order within genre, together with my Best of 2021 posts (fiction and nonfiction), make up the top 15% of my reading for the year. Three of the below were rereads.

(The three books not pictured were read electronically or from the library.)

 

Fiction

America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo: Set in the early 1990s in the Filipino immigrant neighbourhoods of the Bay Area in California, this is a complex, confident debut novel that throws you into an unfamiliar culture at the deep end. The characters shine and the dialogue feels utterly authentic in this fresh immigration story.

 

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson: The mystery element held me completely gripped – readers are just as in the dark as jurors until close to the end – but this is mostly a powerful picture of the lasting effects of racism. I was instantly immersed, whether in a warm courtroom with a snowstorm swirling outside or on a troop ship entering the Pacific Theater.

 

Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon: David is back on Spain’s Costa Brava, where he and his wife Mary Rose holidayed every summer for 20 years. This is a quiet novel about what goes unsaid in any marriage, and a deeply touching look at loss and what comes next. Grief, memory, fate: some of my favourite themes, elegantly treated.

 

A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez: From the little I know of Nunez, this seems close to autofiction, especially in terms of her parents. Identifying the self by the key relationships and obsessions of a life makes sense, and this speaks to the universals of how we cope with a troublesome past. It cemented her as one of my favourite authors.

 

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy: An unusual and fascinating novel with hints of science fiction, but still grounded in the real world, this contrasts utopian and dystopian scenes experienced by a Latina woman who’s been confined to a mental hospital. It’s an intense cultural commentary from a writer ahead of her time on gender roles and the environment.

 

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell: Obsessed with Lolita since she was a teenager, Russell decided to tell the teenage girl’s side of the story. She uses a dual timeline to great effect, creating an utterly immersive novel – as good a first-person narrative as anything Curtis Sittenfeld has ever written, and the ultimate #MeToo story.

 

Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler: Ian Bedloe joins the puritanical Church of the Second Chance and drops out of college to help his parents raise his late brother’s three children. Anyone will be able to find themselves and their family in this story of the life chosen versus the life fallen into, and the difficult necessity of moving past regrets in the search for meaning.

 

The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler: Unique in her oeuvre for how it bridges historical fiction and her more typical contemporary commentary. The Antons muddle their way through a volatile marriage for decades without figuring out how to change anything for the better. There is deep compassion for their foibles and how they affect the next generation.

 

Lot by Bryan Washington: The musical equivalent might be a mixtape blasted from an open-top Corvette while touring the streets of Houston, Texas. Drug dealers, careworn immigrants, and prostitutes: Even the toughest guys have tender hearts in these 13 stories. Washington’s prose is earthy and slang-filled. The matter-of-fact phrasing made me laugh.

 

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton: I was so impressed by this condensed tragedy and the ambiance of a harsh New England winter. It struck me even more on a reread as a flawless parable of a man imprisoned by circumstance and punished for wanting more. A perfect example of how literature can encapsulate the human condition.

 

Poetry

The Air Year by Caroline Bird: I read this with a big smile on my face, delighting in the clever and playful poems. The impermanence of relationships is a recurring theme. Dreams and miscommunication are also common elements, and lists grow increasingly absurd. I particularly liked where structure creates meaning, e.g. the mise en abyme of “Dive Bar.”

 

Nonfiction

Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour: As an aimless twentysomething, Gilmour tried to rekindle a relationship with his unreliable poet father. Meanwhile, he was raising Benzene, a magpie that fell out of its nest. He makes elegant use of connections and metaphors; he’s so good at scenes, dialogue, and emotion – a truly natural writer.

 

Spring in Washington by Louis J. Halle: From first migrant in February to last in June, the author traced the D.C. spring of 1945 mostly through the birds that he saw. More so than the specific observations of familiar places, though, I valued the philosophical outlook. For me this was an ideal combination of thoughtful prose and vicarious travel.

 

The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński: This collection of essays spans decades and lots of African countries, yet feels like a cohesive narrative. Kapuściński saw many places right on the cusp of independence or in the midst of coup d’états. I appreciated how he never resorts to stereotypes or flattens differences. One of the few best travel books I’ve read.

 

Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer: Lehrer has endured dozens of surgeries for spina bifida. Her touching family memoir is delivered in short, essay-like chapters, most named after books or films. It is also a primer in Disability theory and a miniature art gallery, filled with reproductions of her paintings. This inaugural Barbellion Prize winner is not to be missed.

 

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy: This sparse volume, the middle in an autobiographical trilogy, has Levy searching for the intellectual and physical freedom needed to reinvent her life after divorce. It is made up of conversations and memories; travels and quotations that have stuck with her. Each moment is perfectly chosen to reveal the self.

 

Conundrum by Jan Morris: Morris was a trans pioneer; this transformed my understanding of gender when I first read it in 2006. Born James, Morris knew by age four that she was really a girl. A journalism career, marriage, five children, and two decades of hormone therapy preceded sex reassignment surgery. She paints hers as a spiritual quest toward her true identity.

 

You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy: We all fail to listen properly sometimes, for various reasons. A New York Times journalist, Murphy does a lot of listening to her interview subjects.  She also talks with representatives of so-called listening careers. This is a short, interesting, and genuinely helpful self-help book.

 

Writing in the Dust: After September 11 by Rowan Williams: Williams, then Archbishop of Wales, was in New York City on 9/11, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. In the months that followed he pondered suffering, peacemaking, and the ways of God. He cautions against labelling the Other as Evil and responding with retribution. A superb book-length essay.

 

And if I really had to limit myself to just two favourites – my very best fiction and nonfiction reads of the year – they would be Snow Falling on Cedars and The Cost of Living.


What were your best backlist reads this year?

Merry Christmas!

(I’ll be back on the 27th with Love Your Library, then I have various year-end superlatives and statistics posts going through the 31st.)

Best Books of 2021: Nonfiction

Below I’ve chosen my top 15 nonfiction releases of 2021. This list plus yesterday’s post on fiction and poetry together represent about the top 10% of my year’s reading. In previous years I’ve assigned rankings within best-of lists, but this time I didn’t feel compelled to do so.

 

The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell: Hoping to reclaim an ancestral connection, Ansell visited the New Forest some 30 times between January 2019 and January 2020, observing the unfolding seasons and the many uncommon and endemic species its miles house. He weaves together his personal story, the shocking history of forced Gypsy relocation into forest compounds starting in the 1920s, and the unfairness of land ownership in Britain. The New Forest is a model of both wildlife-friendly land management and freedom of human access.

 

On Gallows Down: Place, Protest and Belonging by Nicola Chester: So many layers of history mingle here: from the English Civil War onward, Newbury has been a locus of resistance for centuries. A hymn-like memoir of place as much as of one person’s life, this posits that quiet moments of connection with nature and the rights of ordinary people are worth fighting for. I particularly loved a chapter about how she grounds herself via the literature of the area. She continues a hopeful activist, her lyrical writing a means of defiance.

 

The Glitter in the Green: In Search of Hummingbirds by Jon Dunn: A wildlife writer and photographer, Dunn travels the length of the Americas, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, to see as many hummingbirds as he can. He provides a thorough survey of the history, science and cultural relevance of this most jewel-like of bird families. He is equally good at describing birds and their habitats and at constructing a charming travelogue out of his sometimes fraught journeys. Passionate and adventurous.

 

The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart: Engelhart spends time with doctors and patients who are caught up in the assisted dying argument, chiefly in Western Europe and the United States. Each case is given its own long chapter, like an extended magazine profile. The stories are wrenching, but compassionately told. The author explores the nuances of each situation, crafting expert portraits of suffering people and the medical professionals who seek to help them, and adding much in the way of valuable context. A voice of reason and empathy.

 

Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn: Flyn travels to neglected and derelict places, looking for the traces of human impact and noting how landscapes restore themselves – how life goes on without us. Places like a wasteland where there was once mining, nuclear exclusion zones, the depopulated city of Detroit, and areas that have been altered by natural disasters and conflict. The writing is literary and evocative, at times reminiscent of Peter Matthiessen’s. It’s a nature/travel book with a difference, and the poetic eye helps you to see things anew.

 

The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster: A Renaissance man as well versed in law and theology as he is in natural history, Foster is obsessed with swifts and ashamed of his own species: for looking down at their feet when they could be watching the skies; for the “pathological tidiness” that leaves birds and other creatures no place to live. He delivers heaps of information on the birds but refuses to stick to a just-the-facts approach. The book quotes frequently from poetry and the prose is full of sharp turns of phrase and whimsy.

 

Intensive Care by Gavin Francis: Francis, an Edinburgh physician, reflects on “the most intense months I have known in my twenty-year career.” He journeys back through 2020, from the January day when he received a bulletin about a “novel Wuhan coronavirus” to November, when he learned of promising vaccine trials but also a rumored third wave and winter lockdown. An absorbing first-hand account of a medical crisis, it compassionately bridges the gap between experts and laymen. The best Covid chronicle so far.

 

A Still Life by Josie George: Over a year of lockdowns, many of us became accustomed to spending most of the time at home. But for Josie George, social isolation is nothing new. Chronic illness long ago reduced her territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto George’s quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons. (Reviewed for the TLS.)

 

The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a human-centered planet by John Green: In essays of about 5–10 pages, Green takes a phenomenon experienced in the modern age, whether miraculous (sunsets, the Lascaux cave paintings, favourite films or songs), regrettable (Staph infections, CNN, our obsession with grass lawns), or just plain weird, and riffs on it, exploring its backstory, cultural manifestations and personal resonance. I found a lot that rang true and a lot that made me laugh, and admired the openness on mental health.

 

The Book of Difficult Fruit: Arguments for the Tart, Tender, and Unruly by Kate Lebo: I have a soft spot for uncategorizable nonfiction. My expectation was for a food memoir, but while the essays incorporate shards of autobiography and, yes, recipes, they also dive into everything from botany and cultural history to medicinal uses. Occasionally the ‘recipes’ are for non-food items. Health is a recurring element that intersects with eating habits. The A-to-Z format required some creativity and occasions great trivia but also poignant stories.

 

A Braided Heart: Essays on Writing and Form by Brenda Miller: Miller, a professor of creati.ve writing, delivers a master class on the composition and appreciation of autobiographical essays. In 18 concise pieces, she tracks her development as a writer and discusses the “lyric essay”—a form as old as Seneca that prioritizes imagery over narrative. These innovative and introspective essays, ideal for fans of Anne Fadiman, showcase the interplay of structure and content. (Reviewed for Shelf Awareness.)

 

Flesh & Blood: Reflections on Infertility, Family, and Creating a Bountiful Life: A Memoir by N. West Moss: In her 50s, Moss needed an exploratory D&C, a cruel flashback to failed pregnancies of her 40s. Soon she faced a total hysterectomy. Here she tenderly traces the before and after of surgery and how she came to terms with childlessness. While she doesn’t shy away from medical details, Moss delves more into emotional effects. The few-page chapters are warm slices of life. She leavens her losses with a sense of humour. (Reviewed for Shelf Awareness.)

 

These Precious Days: Essays by Ann Patchett: This second collection of thoughtful, sincere autobiographical essays has a melancholy bent – the preoccupation with death and drive to simplify life seem appropriate for Covid times – but also looks back at her young adulthood and key relationships. The long title piece, first published in Harper’s, is about her stranger-than-fiction friendship with Tom Hanks’s assistant; “There Are No Children Here” says everything I’d ever like to say or hear about childlessness. (Full review to come.)

 

Sanctuary by Emily Rapp Black: A continuation of The Still Point of the Turning World, about the author’s son Ronan, who died of Tay-Sachs disease at age three. In the months surrounding his death, she split from her husband and raced into another relationship that led to her daughter, Charlie. Rapp Black questions the sorts of words she got branded with: “brave,” “resilient.” Sanctuary is full of allusions and flashbacks, threading life’s disparate parts into a chaotic tapestry. It’s measured and wrought, taming fire into light and warmth.

 

Forecast: A Diary of the Lost Seasons by Joe Shute: Shute probes how the seasons are bound up with memories, conceding the danger of giving in to nostalgia for a gloried past that may never have existed. He provides hard evidence in the form of long-term observations such as temperature data and photo archives. The book deftly recreates its many scenes and conversations, and inserts statistics naturally. It also delicately weaves in a storyline about infertility. Wide-ranging and so relevant.

 

The three books not pictured were read electronically.

Surviving Home by Katerina Canyon & B: A Year in Plagues and Pencils by Edward Carey

Catching up on two recent review books today: a hard-hitting volume of poems about family dysfunction and racism; and the pandemic year as captured in black-and-white illustrations and short autobiographical essays.

 

Surviving Home by Katerina Canyon

Katerina Canyon is from Los Angeles and now lives in Seattle. This is her second collection. As the poem “Involuntary Endurance” makes clear, you survive an upbringing like hers only because you have to. This autobiographical collection is designed to earn the epithet “unflinching,” with topics including domestic violence, parental drug abuse, and homelessness. When you hear that her father once handcuffed and whipped her autistic brother, you understand why “No More Poems about My Father” ends up breaking its title’s New Year’s resolution!

Threatening forces are everywhere: bears and sharks recur, and beet juice mimics blood. (Though there’s a nice cornbread metaphor, it, too, holds menace: “I have no trust in humanity / I lost that when I was 3 / It was baked in a pan of / Cornbread and eaten by // Demons.”)

Canyon also has anti-Trump material, and the poems about the ongoing effects of racism reminded me of some of Natasha Trethewey’s work. I particularly liked a poem structured around words and phrases coined in the year of the poet’s birth. There’s plenty of noteworthy language and images here, but the tough subject matter may limit the audience.

With thanks to Kelsay Books and the publicist for the free e-copy for review.

 

B: A Year in Plagues and Pencils by Edward Carey

I was a huge fan of Edward Carey’s Little. His black-and-white sketches kept turning up on my Twitter timeline throughout 2020. He sent the first, “A determined young man,” into the world on March 19, 2020, vowing to make a drawing a day until the pandemic was over. Perhaps a rash thing to agree to, and at times he regretted it, but he kept his promise for 500 days and wore out many a B pencil in the process.

This book covers the first 365 days of the project and also provides a rough recap of the turbulent year that was 2020. Carey’s subjects include politicians (his leanings are clear from his unflattering caricatures of Trump and other Republicans), writers, actors, birds and family members. Some were by request; others marked a public figure’s death. You can track the vaccine’s progress and outrage over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other victims of institutional racism. As an Englishman in Texas, Carey feels he doesn’t understand the country he lives in (though he loves its wildlife) and finds himself missing London.

Carey’s style veers towards the grotesque, so is best suited to fictional characters and those with distinctive features. I particularly liked a drawing of Rudy Guiliani dripping hair dye, the two-part spread of Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve versus Christmas Day, and a farewell to 2020 as a wizened ogre opposite a hello to 2021 as a cheerful baby.

I was also delighted to see a drawing of W.N.P. Barbellion to mark the inaugural Barbellion Prize. In general, though, I doubt the value of simple reproductions of well-known paintings and photographs. If the goal was lifelike versions of real people, some of these miss the mark; the features are simply off. And Carey is not always great at rendering non-white people.

The pleasure of this collection is in seeing the variety from one page to the next: a laughing Albert Einstein, William Shakespeare, a capybara, and so on. There are one to four of the drawings printed per page, with short reflections from Carey interspersed between sections. In these mini-essays he talks about his process, where he got his ideas, and lockdown life with his family (his wife is author Elizabeth McCracken; they have two children and a cat).

One day noses will be permissible again. And then there will be mouths, too. And chins, likewise, shall be popular. … I’m forgetting faces. I miss people, of course, terribly. Yet every day out of the window there are still people there. I see these individuals walking up and down the street. Can’t see their faces. Only their eyes and the top of their heads. Like a new breed of human, with no nose, no mouth, no chin. Who are they? Don’t get too close. Everyone’s keeping their distance.

The drawings were a way of marking time, so the book serves as a time capsule of sorts. The text is perhaps an afterthought, and yet the random assemblage of illustrations couldn’t stand without it (I tried to imagine them filling an exhibit, but extensive captioning would be required). I feel a bit uncharitable for criticizing the artwork, given the constraints and the fact that I couldn’t produce even one sketch of nearly this quality. This was a perfectly pleasant and quick read, just not one that will stay with me. I think the same is true of a number of the other Covid diaries I’ve read: they feel ephemeral. However, it’s an attractive small-format hardback that should make it into many a Christmas stocking this year.

With thanks to Gallic Books for the free copy for review.

 

P.S. This is my 1,000th post!

The Book of Difficult Fruit by Kate Lebo

I have a soft spot for uncategorizable nonfiction like this. My expectation was for a food memoir, but while the essays incorporate shards of autobiography and, yes, recipes, they also dive into everything from botany and cultural history to medicinal uses. Kate Lebo has a finger in many pies – a figure of speech I use deliberately, as she is primarily a baker (but also a poet) and her three previous books are about pie.

You won’t find any ordinary apples or oranges here. Difficult fruit – “the Tart, Tender, and Unruly,” as the subtitle elaborates – is different: rarer to find, more challenging to process, perhaps harder to love. Instead of bananas and pears, then, you’ll read about the niche (aronia and thimbleberries), the rotten and malodorous (medlars and durian fruit), and the downright inedible (just one: the Osage orange, only suitable for repelling spiders or turning into decorations). These fruits might be foraged on hikes, sent by friends and relatives in other parts of the USA, or sold at Lebo’s local Spokane, Washington farmer’s market. Occasionally the ‘recipes’ are for non-food items, such as a pomegranate face mask or yuzu body oil.

The A-to-Z format required some creativity and occasions great trivia but also poignant stories. J is for juniper berry, a traditional abortifacient, and brings to mind for Lebo the time she went to Denver to accompany a friend to an abortion appointment. N is for the Norton grape, an American variety whose wine is looked down upon compared to European cultivars. Q is for quince, what Eve likely ate in the Garden of Eden; like the first humans in the biblical account, Lebo’s pair of adopted aunts were cast out for their badness. W is for wheat, a reminder of her doomed relationship with a man who strictly avoided gluten; X is for xylitol, whose structure links to her stepdaughter’s belief in the power of crystals.

Health is a recurring element that intersects with eating habits: Lebo has ulcerative colitis, depression and allergies; her grandfather was a pharmacist and her mother is a physical therapist who suffers from migraines and is always trying out different diets. The extent to which a fruit can genuinely promote wellness is a question that is pondered more than once. Whether the main focus is on the foodstuff or the family experience, each piece is carefully researched so as to be authoritative yet conversational. The author is particularly good at describing smells and tastes, which can be so difficult to translate into words:

My first taste of durian was as candy, a beige lozenge with a slight pink blush that my boss at the time dared me to try. … It tasted of strawberries and old garlic. I had to will myself to finish. … My second taste of durian was at dim sum in New York City, visiting a man who would never love me. The durian was stewed, sweetened, and crenellated with flaky dough. … [It] was like peaches laced with onions, and had a richness that made my chest tight. Each bite was a dare. Could I keep going?

A single medlar that has been bletted outdoors through early December can be eaten in three bites. The first taste will be of spiced applesauce. … The second taste, because the medlar has spent long cold weeks on the branch, is sparkling wine. Not a good sparkling wine, but pleasant enough. Slightly explosive-tasting, like certain manufactured candies. Ugly, but what a personality. The third taste is a cold mildew one usually only smells, and generally interprets as a warning not to eat any more. You have now finished the medlar.

Two essays in a row best exemplified the book’s approach for me. The chapter on gooseberries, the cover stars, captures everything I love about them (we have two bushes; this year we turned our haul into a couple of Nigel Slater’s crumble cakes and a batch of gingery jam) and gives tips on preparation plus recipes I could see myself making. “Gooseberries are sour like you’ve arrived before they were ready for company, like they wanted you to see them in a better dress,” Lebo writes. The piece on huckleberries then shares Indigenous (Salish) wisdom about the fruit and notes that in a Spokane McDonald’s you can buy a huckleberry shake.

Over the eight months I spent with this collection – picking it up once in a while to read an essay, or a portion of one – I absorbed a lot of information, as well as some ideas for dishes I might actually try. Most of all, I admired how this book manages to be about everything, which makes sense because food is not just central to our continued survival but also bound up with collective and personal identity, memory, and traditions. Though it started off slightly scattershot for me, it’s ended up being one of my favorite reading experiences of the year.

With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.

Six Degrees: Ethan Frome to A Mother’s Reckoning

This month we began with Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, which was our buddy read for the short classics week of Novellas in November. I reread and reviewed it recently. (See Kate’s opening post.)

 

#1 When I posted an excerpt of my Ethan Frome review on Instagram, I got a comment from the publicist who was involved with the recent UK release of The Smash-Up by Ali Benjamin, a modern update of Wharton’s plot. Here’s part of the blurb: “Life for Ethan and Zo used to be simple. Ethan co-founded a lucrative media start-up, and Zo was well on her way to becoming a successful filmmaker. Then they moved to a rural community for a little more tranquility—or so they thought. … Enter a houseguest who is young, fun, and not at all concerned with the real world, and Ethan is abruptly forced to question everything: his past, his future, his marriage, and what he values most.” I’m going to try to get hold of a review copy when the paperback comes out in February.

 

#2 One of my all-time favourite debut novels is The Innocents by Francesca Segal, which won the Costa First Novel Award in 2012. It is also a contemporary reworking of an Edith Wharton novel, this time The Age of Innocence. Segal’s love triangle, set in a world I know very little about (the tight-knit Jewish community of northwest London), stays true to the emotional content of the original: the interplay of love and desire, jealousy and frustration. Adam Newman has been happily paired with Rachel Gilbert for nearly 12 years. Now engaged, Adam and Rachel seem set to become pillars of the community. Suddenly, their future is threatened by the return of Rachel’s bad-girl American cousin, Ellie Schneider.

 

#3 Also set in north London’s Jewish community is The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2013. Chani is the fifth of eight daughters in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family in Golders Green. The story begins and closes with Chani and Baruch’s wedding ceremony, and in between it loops back to detail their six-month courtship and highlight a few events from their family past. It’s a light-hearted, gossipy tale of interclass matchmaking in the Jane Austen vein.

 

#4 I learned more about Jewish beliefs and rituals via several memoirs, including Between Gods by Alison Pick. Her paternal grandparents escaped Czechoslovakia just before the Holocaust; she only found out that her father was Jewish through eavesdropping. In 2008 the author (a Toronto-based novelist and poet) decided to convert to Judaism. The book vividly depicts a time of tremendous change, covering a lot of other issues Pick was dealing with simultaneously, such as depression, preparation for marriage, pregnancy, and so on.

 

#5 One small element of Pick’s story was her decision to be tested for the BRCA gene because it’s common among Ashkenazi Jews. Tay-Sachs disease is usually found among Ashkenazi Jews, but because only her husband was Jewish, Emily Rapp never thought to be tested before she became pregnant with her son Ronan. Had she known she was also a carrier, things might have gone differently. The Still Point of the Turning World was written while her young son was still alive, but terminally ill.

 

#6 Another wrenching memoir of losing a son: A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold, whose son Dylan was one of the Columbine school shooters. I was in high school myself at the time, and the event made a deep impression on me. Perhaps the most striking thing about this book is Klebold’s determination to reclaim Columbine as a murder–suicide and encourage mental health awareness; all author proceeds were donated to suicide prevention and mental health charities. There’s no real redemptive arc, though, no easy answers; just regrets. If something similar could happen to any family, no one is immune. And Columbine was only one of many major shootings. I finished this feeling spent, even desolate. Yet this is a vital book everyone should read.

 

So, I’ve gone from one unremittingly bleak book to another, via sex, religion and death. Nothing for cheerful holiday reading – or a polite dinner party conversation – here! All my selections were by women this month.

Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.)

Next month’s starting point is Rules of Civility by Amor Towles; I have a copy on the shelf and this would be a good excuse to read it!

Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?

#NonFicNov Catch-Up 2: Abbs, Hattrick, Powles, DAD Anthology, Santhouse

I’m sneaking in with five more review books on the final day of Nonfiction November, after a first catch-up earlier on in the month. Today I have a sprightly travel book based on the journeys of female writers and artists, a probing account of repeated chronic illness in the family, an anthology of essays showcasing the breadth of fatherhood experiences, a lyrical memoir-in-essays exploring racial identity, and a psychiatrist’s case studies of how the mind influences what the body feels. My apologies to the publishers for the brief responses.

 

Windswept: Walking in the footsteps of remarkable women by Annabel Abbs

After a fall landed her in hospital with a cracked skull, Abbs couldn’t wait to roam again and vowed all her future holidays would be walking ones. What time she had for pleasure reading while raising children was devoted to travel books; looking at her stacks, she realized they were all by men. Her challenge to self was to find the women and recreate their journeys. I was drawn to this because I’d enjoyed Abbs’s novel about Frieda Lawrence and knew she was the subject of the first chapter here. During research for Frieda, Abbs omitted the Lawrences’ six-week honeymoon in the German mountains, so now she makes it a family cycling holiday, imitating Frieda’s experience by walking in a skirt and sunbathing nude. Other chapters follow Welsh painter Gwen John in Bordeaux, Nan Shepherd in Scotland, Georgia O’Keeffe in the American Southwest, and so on. Questions of risk and compulsion recur as Abbs asks how these women sought to achieve liberation. The interplay between biographical information and travel narrative is carefully controlled, but somehow this never quite came together for me in the way that, for instance, Sara Wheeler’s O My America! did.

(Two Roads, June 2021.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

Ill Feelings by Alice Hattrick

“My mother and I have symptoms of illness without any known cause,” Hattrick writes. When they showed signs of the ME/CFS their mother had suffered from since 1995, it was assumed there was imitation going on – that a “shared hysterical language” was fuelling their continued infirmity. It didn’t help that both looked well, so could pass as normal despite debilitating fatigue. Into their own family’s story, Hattrick weaves the lives and writings of chronically ill women such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning (see my review of Fiona Sampson’s biography, Two-Way Mirror), Alice James and Virginia Woolf. All these figures knew that what Hattrick calls “crip time” is different: more elastic; about survival rather than achievement.

The book searches desultorily for answers – could this have something to do with Giardiasis at age two? – but ultimately rests in mystery. ME/CFS patients rarely experience magical recovery, instead exhibiting repeated cycles of illness and being ‘well enough’. Hattrick also briefly considers long Covid as another form of postviral syndrome. My mother had fibromyalgia for years, so I’m always interested to read more about related illnesses. Earlier in the year I read Tracie White’s Waiting for Superman, and this also reminded me of Suzanne O’Sullivan’s books, though it’s literary and discursive rather than scientific.

(Fitzcarraldo Editions, August 2021.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles

I loved Powles’s bite-size food memoir, Tiny Moons. She won the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize for underrepresented voices in nature writing for this work in progress, and I was eager to read more of her autobiographical essays. Watery metaphors are appropriate for a poet’s fluid narrative about moving between countries and identities. Powles grew up in a mixed-race household in New Zealand with a Malaysian Chinese mother and a white father, and now lives in London after time spent in Shanghai. Water has been her element ever since she learned to swim in a pool in Borneo, where her grandfather was a scholar of freshwater fish.

The book travels between hemispheres, seasons and languages, and once again food is a major point of reference. “I am the best at being alone when cooking and eating a soft-boiled egg,” she writes. Many of the essays are in short fragments – dated, numbered or titled. A foodstuff or water body (like the ponds at Hampstead Heath) might serve as a link: A kōwhai tree, on which the unofficial national flower of New Zealand grows, when encountered in London, collapses the miles between one home and another. Looking back months later (given I failed to take notes), this evades my grasp; it’s subtle, slippery but admirable.

(Canongate, August 2021.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

DAD: Untold Stories of Fatherhood, Love, Mental Health and Masculinity, edited by Elliott Rae

Music.Football.Fatherhood, a British equivalent of Mumsnet, brings dads together in conversation. These 20 essays by ordinary fathers run the gamut of parenting experiences: postnatal depression, divorce, single parenthood, a child with autism, and much more. We’re used to childbirth being talked about by women, but rarely by their partners, especially things like miscarriage, stillbirth and trauma. I’ve already written on Michael Johnson-Ellis’s essay on surrogacy; I also found particularly insightful R.P. Falconer’s piece on trying to be the best father he can be despite not having a particularly good role model in his own absent father, and Sam Draper’s on breaking the mould as a stay-at-home dad (“the bar for expectations regarding fathers is low, very low”) – I never understood how parental leave works in the UK before reading this. The book is full of genial and relatable stories and half or more of its authors are non-white. It could do with more rigorous editing to get the grammar and writing style up to the standard of traditionally published work, but even for someone like me who is not in the target audience it was an enjoyable set of everyday voices.

(Music.Football.Fatherhood, June 2021.) With thanks for the free copy for review. 

 

Head First: A Psychiatrist’s Stories of Mind and Body by Alastair Santhouse

Santhouse is a consultant psychiatrist at London’s Guy’s and Maudsley hospitals. This book was an interesting follow-up to Ill Feelings (above) in that the author draws an important distinction between illness as a subjective experience and disease as an objective medical reality. Like Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen does in Pain, Santhouse adopts a biopsychosocial approach: “to focus solely on the scientific and neglect he social aspects of illness is a mistake that we continue to make,” he says. Using a patchwork of anonymous case studies, he delves into topics like depression, altruism, obesity, self-diagnosis, medical mysteries, evidence-based medicine, and preparation for death. A discussion of CFS again echoes the Hattrick. He brings the picture up to date with a final chapter on Covid-19. I’ve read so many doctors’ memoirs that this one didn’t stand out for me at all, but those less familiar with the subject matter could find it a good introduction to some ins and outs of mind–body medicine.

(Atlantic Books, July 2021.) With thanks to the publicist for the free copy for review.

 

Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

Seven Final Novellas: Crumley, Morris, Rapp Black; Hunter, Johnson, Josipovici, Otsuka (#NovNov)

We’ll be wrapping up Novellas in November and giving final statistics on Tuesday. Today, I have mini reviews of another seven novellas I’ve been working on, some of them for the whole month. I’ll start with some short nonfiction and then move on to the fiction.

 

Nonfiction:

Barn Owl by Jim Crumley (2014)

[63 pages]

I reviewed Kingfisher and Otter, two other titles from Crumley’s “Encounters in the Wild” series for the publisher Saraband, earlier in the month. Barn Owl follows the same pattern, traveling the Scottish islands in search of close encounters (with badgers and ospreys, too) but also stretching back to a childhood memory from 1950s Dundee, when there was an owl-occupied derelict farmstead a quarter-mile from his home. This is a lovely little full-circle narrative in that the book closes with “the barn owl, unlike all other night-flying owls, is the one that we can see in the dark … its inarguable beauty is layered with mystery, and …all of us have a place in our hearts and minds for mysterious beauty. I have known that to be an essential truth since I was about eight years old.” (Public library)

 

Conundrum by Jan Morris (1974)

[148 pages]

A reread of a book that transformed my understanding of gender back in 2006. Morris (d. 2020) was a trans pioneer. Her concise memoir opens “I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl.” Sitting under the family piano, little James knew it, but it took many years – a journalist’s career, including the scoop of the first summiting of Mount Everest in 1953; marriage and five children; and nearly two decades of hormone therapy – before a sex reassignment surgery in Morocco in 1972 physically confirmed it. I was struck this time by Morris’s feeling of having been a spy in all-male circles and taking advantage of that privilege while she could. She speculates that her travel books arose from “incessant wandering as an outer expression of my inner journey.” The focus is more on her unchanging soul than on her body, so this is not a sexual tell-all. She paints hers as a spiritual quest toward true identity and there is only joy at new life rather than regret at time wasted in the ‘wrong’ one. (Public library)

 

Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg by Emily Rapp Black (2021)

[145 pages]

This was my third memoir by the author; I reviewed The Still Point of the Turning World and Sanctuary earlier in the year. Like Sinéad Gleeson does in Constellations, Rapp Black turns to Frida Kahlo as a role model for “translating … pain into art.” Polio, a streetcar accident, 32 operations, failed pregnancies and an amputated leg – Kahlo endured much suffering. It was this last particular that especially drew Rapp Black (who has had a prosthetic leg since early childhood) to her. On a visit to Kahlo’s Mexico City home, she can hardly bear the intimacy of seeing Kahlo’s prostheses and corsets. They plunge her back into her own memories: of passing as normal despite a disability, having an eating disorder, losing her son Ronan to Tay-Sachs disease, and starting over with a new marriage and baby. Rapp Black weaves this all together artfully as well as effectively, but for someone like me who is already conversant with her story, there wasn’t quite enough in the way of new material.

With thanks to Notting Hill Editions for the free e-copy for review.

  

Fiction:

These first two ended up having a major arc in common: desperate preservation of key family relationships against the backdrop of a believably falling-apart near-future world.

 

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter (2017)

[127 pages]

A woman, her partner (R), and their baby son flee a flooded London in search of a place of safety, traveling by car and boat and camping with friends and fellow refugees. “How easily we have got used to it all, as though we knew what was coming all along,” she says. Her baby, Z, tethers her to the corporeal world. What actually happens? Well, on the one hand it’s very familiar if you’ve read any dystopian fiction; on the other hand it is vague because characters only designated by initials are hard to keep straight and the text is in one- or two-sentence or -paragraph chunks punctuated by asterisks (and dull observations): “Often, I am unsure whether something is a bird or a leaf. *** Z likes to eat butter in chunks. *** We are overrun by mice.” etc. It’s touching how Z’s early milestones structure the book, but for the most part the style meant this wasn’t my cup of tea. (Secondhand purchase)

 

My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson (2021)

[For novella only: 182 pages?]

Pick this up right away if you loved Danielle Evans’s The Office of Historical Corrections. After “the unraveling,” Da’Naisha and fellow escapees from racial violence in Charlottesville – including her former and current boyfriends, the one Black and the other white; and her ailing grandmother, MaViolet – shelter at Thomas Jefferson’s famous Virginia estate. At first they stay by the visitor’s center, but as weeks pass and they fear a siege, they retreat to the mansion itself. Da’Naisha, our narrator, becomes the de facto leader of the motley crew, spearheading a trip out for supplies. She harbors two major secrets, one about her heritage and one about her future. Although this is a bit too similar to Parable of the Sower, against which I judge just about any dystopian fiction, the setting and timeliness can’t be beat. I read the U.S. ebook edition, which includes five short stories that also explore race issues and employ the first person plural and second person to good effect; “Buying a House Ahead of the Apocalypse” encapsulated my whole autumn mood. (Read via Edelweiss)

 

The Cemetery in Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici (2018)

[101 pages]

After reviewing Josipovici’s 100 Days earlier in the month, I wanted to get a taste of his fiction. The protagonist is a translator who has lived in London, Paris and now rural Wales. He’s been married twice but, whatever his living situation, he’s always prized the solitude and routine he needs for his work. Passages from Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo and Joachim du Bellay’s poetry – in the original language, sometimes but not always translated for us – drift through the novella, which also prioritizes the sort of repeated phrases that constitute a long-cohabitating couple’s domestic vocabulary. References to cemeteries and to du Bellay’s Regrets are hints of something hasn’t isn’t being revealed to us up front. I think I worked out what it was. Clever and interesting, but I’d like a bit more grounding detail. A favorite line: “for one’s life not living up to expectation there is no excuse, except for the paltry one that this is true of everybody’s life.” (University library)

 

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka (2002)

[145 pages]

Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, about Japanese mail order brides in early 1900s San Francisco, was one of my first encounters with the first person plural, which I’ve come to love. It also serves as a prequel to this, her debut novel. In Berkeley, California in 1942, a Japanese man is arrested as a potential enemy combatant. His wife, son and daughter are given just a matter of days to pack their things and evacuate to an internment camp in the desert. Otsuka takes us along on the train journey and to the camp, where small moments rather than climactic ones reveal the children’s sadness and the injustice of what they’re missing out on. I most enjoyed the last section, when they all return to their home after over three years away and start to piece life back together. I’d already read a few novels featuring Japanese internment (e.g. The Japanese Lover and Snow Falling on Cedars) but, more than that, Otsuka’s writing is a tad too subtle for me. (Secondhand purchase)

 

In total, I read 29 novellas this November – a new record for me! I didn’t set out to read the equivalent of nearly one per day, but it happened to pan out like that. Some of my selections were very short indeed, at under 100 pages; multiple volumes of Garfield comics also helped. Three were 5-star reads: The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy plus two rereads, Conundrum by Jan Morris (above) and our classics buddy read, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.

 

I also had a couple of DNFs:

Gone by Michael Blencowe: (45 pages) I made a second attempt on this essay collection about extinct species this month. Maybe I’ve just read too much around the topic recently. (Review copy)

Inside the Bone Box by Anthony Ferner: (50 pages) I loved the idea of a novella about a neurosurgeon, but mostly this concerns Nick’s fatness and his family members’ various dysfunctions. (New purchase)