It’s my stop on the “Not the Wellcome Prize” blog tour. With two dozen reviews of health-themed 2019 books to choose from, I decided to nominate these two for the longlist because they’re under the radar compared to some other medical releases, plus they showcase the breadth of the books that the Prize recognizes: from a heartfelt memoir of a mother welcoming premature babies to a laugh-out-loud graphic novel about a doctor practicing in a small town in Wales. (The Prize website says “picture-led books are not eligible,” so in fact it is likely that graphic novels have never been considered, but we’ve been flexible with the rules for this unofficial blog tour.)
Mother Ship by Francesca Segal
This first work of nonfiction from the author of the exquisite The Innocents is a visceral diary of the first eight weeks in the lives of her twin daughters, who were born by Caesarean section at 29 weeks in October 2015 and spent the next two months in the NICU, “an extremely well-funded prison or perhaps more accurately a high-tech zoo.” In Mother Ship, she strives to come to terms with this unnatural start to motherhood. “Taking my unready daughters from within me felt not like a birth but an evisceration,” she writes. “My children do not appear to require mothering. Instead they need sophisticated medical intervention.”
Segal describes with tender precision the feeling of being torn: between the second novel she’d been in the middle of writing and the all-consuming nature of early parenthood; and between her two girls (known for much of the book as “A-lette” and “B-lette”), who are at one point separated in different hospitals. Her attitude towards the NHS is pure gratitude.
As well as portraying her own state of mind, she crafts twinkly pen portraits of the others she encountered in the NICU, including the staff but especially her fellow preemie mums, who met in a “milking shed” where they pumped breast milk for the babies they were so afraid of losing that they resisted naming. (Though it was touch and go for a while, A-lette and B-lette finally earned the names Raffaella and Celeste and came home safely.) Female friendship is thus a subsidiary theme in this exploration of desperate love and helplessness.
The Lady Doctor by Ian Williams
This sequel to 2014’s The Bad Doctor returns to a medical practice in small-town Wales. This time, though, the focus is on Iwan James’s colleague, Dr. Lois Pritchard, who also puts in two days a week treating embarrassing ailments at the local hospital’s genitourinary medicine clinic. At nearly 40, Lois is a divorcee with no children; just a dog. She enjoys her nights out drinking with her best friend, Geeta, but her carefree life is soon beset by various complications: she has to decide whether she wants to join the health centre as a full partner, a tryst with her new fella goes horribly wrong, and her estranged mother suddenly reappears in her life, hoping that Lois will give her a liver transplant. And that’s not to mention all the drug addicts and VD-ridden lotharios hanging about.
Williams was a GP in North Wales for 20 years, and no doubt his experiences have inspired his comics. His tone is wonderfully balanced: there are plenty of hilarious, somewhat raunchy scenes, but also touching moments where Lois learns that a doctor is never completely off duty and has no idea what medical or personal challenge will crop up next. The drawing style reminded me most of Alison Bechdel’s or Posy Simmonds’, with single shades from rose to olive alternating as the background. I especially loved the pages where each panel depicts a different patient to show the range of people and complaints a doctor might see in a day. Myriad Editions have a whole “Graphic Medicine” series that I’m keen to explore.
See below for details of the blogs where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon.
The shadow panel will choose a shortlist of six titles to be announced on 4 May. We will then vote to choose a winner, with the results of a Twitter poll serving as one additional vote. The Not the Wellcome Prize winner will be announced on 11 May.
It feels like the whole world has changed in the past week, doesn’t it? I hope you all are keeping well and turning to books for comfort and escape. Reading Ireland Month is run each March by Cathy of 746 Books. I’m wishing you a happy (if subdued) St. Patrick’s Day with this post on the Irish books I’ve been perusing recently. Even before this coronavirus situation heated up, I’d been struggling with my focus, so only one of these was a proper read, while the rest ended up being skims. In the meantime, I’m trying out a new blog design and have been working to create more intuitive menu headings and helpful intro pages.
Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman by Nuala O’Faolain (1996)
Before writing this landmark memoir, O’Faolain was a TV documentary producer and Irish Times columnist. Her upbringing in poverty is reminiscent of Frank McCourt’s: one of nine children, she had a violent father and an alcoholic mother who cheated on each other and never seemed to achieve happiness. Educated at a convent school and at university in Dublin (until she dropped out), she was a literary-minded romantic who bounced between relationships and couldn’t decide whether marriage or a career should be her highest aim. Though desperate not to become her mother – a bitter, harried woman who’d wanted to be a book reviewer – she didn’t want to miss out on a chance for love either.
O’Faolain feels she was born slightly too early to benefit from the women’s movement. “I could see sexism in operation everywhere in society; once your consciousness goes ping you can never again stop seeing that. But I was quite unaware of how consistently I put the responsibility for my personal happiness off onto men.” Chapter 16 is a standout, though with no explanation (all her other lovers were men) it launches into an account of her 15 years living with Nell McCafferty, “by far the most life-giving relationship of my life.”
Although this is in many respects an ordinary story, the geniality and honesty of the writing account for its success. It was an instant bestseller in Ireland, spending 20 weeks at number one, and made the author a household name. I especially loved her encounters with literary figures. For instance, on a year’s scholarship at Hull she didn’t quite meet Philip Larkin, who’d been tasked with looking after her, but years later had a bizarre dinner with him and his mother, both rather deaf; and David Lodge was a friend. The boarding school section reminded me of The Country Girls. Two bookish memoirs I’d recommend as readalikes are Ordinary Dogs by Eileen Battersby and Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading by Maureen Corrigan.
Skims (all: )
Actress by Anne Enright (2020)
The Green Road is among my most memorable reads of the past five years, so I was eagerly awaiting Enright’s new novel, which is on the Women’s Prize longlist. I read the first 30 pages and found I wasn’t warming to the voice or main characters. Norah is a novelist who, prompted by an interviewer, realizes the story she most needs to tell is her mother’s. Katherine O’Dell was “a great fake,” an actress who came to epitomize Irishness even though she was actually English. Her slow-burning backstory is punctuated by trauma and mental illness. “She was a great piece of anguish, madness and sorrow,” Norah concludes. I could easily see this making the Women’s Prize shortlist and earning a Booker nomination as well. It’s the sort of book I’ll need to come back to some years down the line to fully appreciate.
Cal by Bernard MacLaverty (1983)
As Catholics, Cal McCluskey and his father are a rarity in their community and fear attacks on their home. Resistant to join his father in working at the local abattoir, Cal spends his days doing odd jobs and lurking around the public library – he has a crush on a married librarian named Marcella. Aimless and impressionable, he’s easily talked into acting as a driver for Crilly and Skeffington, the kind of associates who have gotten him branded as “Fenian scum.” The novella reflects on the futility of cycles of violence (“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” Crilly says, to which Cal replies, “But it all seems so pointless”), but is definitely a period piece. Cal is not the most sympathetic of protagonists. I didn’t enjoy this as much as the two other books I’ve read by MacLaverty.
Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy (1965)
Murphy and her bike “Roz” set out on an epic Fermor-like journey in the first six months of 1963. She covered 60 to 100 miles a day, facing sunburn, punctured tires and broken ribs. She was relieved she brought a gun: it came in handy for fending off wolves, deterring a would-be rapist, and preventing bike thieves. For some reason travel books are slow, painstaking reads for me. I never got into the flow of this one, and was troubled by snap judgments about groups of people – “I know instinctively the temper of a place, after being five minutes with the inhabitants. … the Afghans are, on balance, much dirtier in clothes, personal habits and dwellings than either the Turks or Persians.” Murphy does have a witty turn of phrase, though, e.g. “I suppose I’ll get used to it but at the moment I wouldn’t actually say that camel’s milk is my favourite beverage.”
My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die by Kevin Toolis (2017)
Toolis is a journalist and filmmaker from Dookinella, on an island off the coast of County Mayo. His father Sonny’s pancreatic cancer prompted him to return to the ancestral village and reflect on his own encounters with death. As a young man he had tuberculosis and stayed on a male chest ward with longtime smokers; despite a bone marrow donation, his older brother Bernard died from leukemia.
As a reporter during the Troubles and in Malawi and Gaza, Toolis often witnessed death, but at home in rural Ireland he saw a model for how it should be: accepted, and faced with the support of a whole community. People made a point of coming to see Sonny as he was dying. Keeping the body in the home and holding a wake are precious opportunities to be with the dead. Death is what’s coming for us all, so why not make its acquaintance? Toolis argues.
I’ve read so much around the topic that books like this don’t stand out anymore, and while I preferred the general talk of death to the family memoir bits, it also made very familiar points. At any rate, his description of his mother’s death is just how I want to go: “She quietly died of a heart attack with a cup of tea and a biscuit on a sunny May morning.”
What have you been picking up for Reading Ireland Month?
It’s my second month participating in Kate’s Six Degrees of Separation meme (see her introductory post). This time the challenge starts with Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar. Alas, as far as I can tell this hasn’t yet been published outside of Australia. Which is such a shame, because I absolutely adored…
#1 Salt Creek, Treloar’s debut novel. I read it in 2018 and deemed it “one of the very best works of historical fiction I’ve read.” A widowed teacher settled in England looks back on the eight ill-fated years her family spent at an outpost in South Australia in the 1850s–60s. It’s a piercing story of the clash of cultures and the secret prejudices that underpin our beliefs.
#2 I recently saw someone on Twitter remarking on the apparent trend for book titles to have the word “Salt” in them. Of the few examples he mentioned, I’ve read and enjoyed Salt Slow by Julia Armfield, which was on the Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist last year. The book’s nine short stories are steeped in myth and magic, but often have a realistic shell.
#3 One story in Salt Slow, “Formerly Feral,” is about a teenager who has a wolf for a stepsister. So, to get back to the literal wording of our starting point (a homonym, anyway; I didn’t know whether to take this in the Salt direction or the Wolf direction; now I’ve done both!), another work of fiction I read that incorporated wolves was The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall, a fantastic novel to which Scottish independence and rewilding form a backdrop.
#4 The controversy over the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park – and the decision to remove their endangered status, thus declaring open season for hunters – is at the heart of the nonfiction study American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee. “The West was caught up in a culture war, and for some people it was more than just a metaphor,” he writes.
#5 Wolves and rewilding in the American West also come into the memoir-in-essays Surrender by Joanna Pocock, about the two years of loss and change she spent in Missoula, Montana and her sense of being a foreigner both there and on her return to London.
#6 A wonderful memoir-in-essays that was criminally overlooked in 2016 was Riverine by Angela Palm (my BookBrowse review). It has such a strong sense of place, revealing how traces of the past are still visible in the landscape and how our environment shapes who we are. Palm reflects on the winding course of her life in the Midwest and the people who meant most to her along the way, including a friend who was later sentenced to life in prison for murdering their elderly neighbors. In keeping with the watery imagery, there is a stream-of-consciousness element to the writing.
Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already!
Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
We’re back from our weekend in Bristol and Exeter to hang out with university friends and attend our goddaughter’s dedication service. On the way (ish) down, we stopped at Bookbarn International, one of my favorite places to look for secondhand books. The shop is always coming up with new ideas and ventures – a rare books room, a café, stationery and store-brand merchandise, new stock alongside the used books, and so on – and has recently been doing some renovating of the main shop space. I contributed to a crowdfunder for this and got to pick up my rewards while I was there, including the items at right and a £10 store voucher, which, along with the small balance of my vendor account, more than covered my purchases that day.
We arrived around noon so started with a café lunch of all-day veggie cooked breakfasts plus cakes and coffee. Delicious! Then it was time for some dedicated browsing. All of the books on the main shop floor are £1 each; they’re working on restocking this area after the refurbishment. I found 12 books here, and ordered another two (the Janet Frame biography and Gail Godwin’s nonfiction book Heart) from the warehouse for £2 each.
From my book haul, I’m particularly pleased with:
- The sequel to another Robertson Davies novel I own
- The Frame biography – I loved her three-part autobiography and have also been dipping into her fiction; it will be fascinating to learn the ‘truth’ behind how she presented her life in memoir and autofiction. This copy looks to be in new condition, too.
- The Tulip by Anna Pavord, which I’ve long meant to read
- Another Carolyn Parkhurst novel – I loved The Dogs of Babel and Harmony
- Another Wendy Perriam novel – I read my first last year and have been hoping to find more
I also bought copies of two of my favorite memoirs, And When Did You Last See Your Father? and Journal of a Solitude (though I own a copy in America, I’d like it to be part of my rereading project this year). I now own two unread novels each by Candia McWilliam and Michèle Roberts and three by Rose Tremain, so I’ll need to be sure I read one from each author this year. I also have a bad habit of hoarding biographies but not reading them, so I want to at least read the Frame one before the year is out.
Between Bristol’s charity shops and Book-Cycle in Exeter, I bought another five novels during the weekend, including the Vann to reread and several by authors I want to increase my familiarity with. (Smug points for not buying the £2.50 copy of Boyle’s The Women at Bookbarn and then finding it at Book Cycle for 50 pence instead.) Total weekend spend on 19 books: £2.12.
Picked up any good secondhand bargains recently?
Paul Auster Reading Week continues! Be sure to check out Annabel’s excellent post on why you should try Auster. On Monday I reviewed Winter Journal and the New York Trilogy. Adding in last year’s review of Timbuktu, I’ve now read six of Auster’s books and skimmed another one (the sequel to Winter Journal). It’s been great to have this project as an excuse to get more familiar with his work and start to recognize some of the recurring tropes.
Oracle Night (2003)
This reminded me most of The Locked Room, the final volume of the New York Trilogy. There’s even a literal locked room in a book within the book by the narrator, a writer named Sidney Orr. It’s 1982 and Orr is convalescing from a sudden, life-threatening illness. At a stationer’s shop, he buys a fine blue notebook from Portugal, hoping its beauty will inspire him to resume his long-neglected work. When he and his wife Grace go to visit John Trause, Grace’s lifelong family friend and a fellow novelist, Orr learns that Trause uses the same notebooks. Only the blue ones, mind you. No other color fosters the same almost magical creativity.
For long stretches of the novel, Orr is lost in his notebook (“I was there, fully engaged in what was happening, and at the same time I wasn’t there—for the there wasn’t an authentic there anymore”), writing in short, obsessive bursts. In one project, a mystery inspired by an incident from The Maltese Falcon, Nick Bowen, a New York City editor, has a manuscript called Oracle Night land on his desk. Spooked by a near-death experience, he flees to Kansas City, where he gets a job working on a cabdriver’s phone book archive, “The Bureau of Historical Preservation,” which includes a collection from the Warsaw ghetto. But then he gets trapped in the man’s underground bunker … and Orr has writer’s block, so leaves him there. Even though it’s fiction (within fiction), I still found that unspeakably creepy.
In the real world, Orr’s life accumulates all sorts of complications over just nine September days. Some of them are to do with Grace and her relationship with Trause’s family; some of them concern his work. There’s a sense in which what he writes is prescient. “Maybe that’s what writing is all about, Sid,” Trause suggests. “Not recording events from the past, but making things happen in the future.” The novel has the noir air I’ve come to expect from Auster, while the layering of stories and the hints of the unexplained reminded me of Italo Calvino and Haruki Murakami. I even caught a whiff of What I Loved, the novel Auster’s wife Siri Hustvedt published the same year. (It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve spotted similar themes in husband‒wife duos’ work – cf. Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss; Zadie Smith and Nick Laird.)
This is a carefully constructed and satisfying novel, and the works within the work are so absorbing that you as the reader get almost as lost in them as Orr himself does. I’d rank this at the top of the Auster fiction I’ve read so far, followed closely by City of Glass.
Report from the Interior (2013)
This sequel to Winter Journal came out a year later. Again, the autobiographical rendering features second-person narration and a fragmentary style. I had a ‘been there, done that’ feeling about the book and only gave it a quick skim. It might be one to try another time.
In the first 100-page section Auster highlights key moments from the inner life of a child. For instance, he remembers that the epiphany that a writer can inhabit another mind came while reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s poetry, and he emulated RLS in his own first poetic attempts. The history and pop culture of the 1950s, understanding that he was Jewish, and reaping the creative rewards of boredom are other themes. I especially liked a final anecdote about smashing his seventh-grade teacher’s reading challenge and being driven to tears when the man disbelieved that he’d read so many books and accused him of cheating.
Other sections give long commentary on two films (something he also does in Winter Journal with 10 pages on the 1950 film D.O.A.), select from letters he wrote to his first wife in the late 1960s while living in Paris, and collect an album of black-and-white period images such as ads, film stills and newspaper photographs. There’s a strong nostalgia element, such that the memoir would appeal to Auster’s contemporaries and those interested in learning about growing up in the 1950s.
Ultimately, though, this feels unnecessary after Winter Journal. Auster repeats a circular aphorism he wrote at age 20: “The world is in my head. My body is in the world. You will stand by that paradox, which was an attempt to capture the strange doubleness of being alive, the inexorable union of inner and outer”. But I’m not sure that body and mind can be so tidily separated as these two works posit. I got more of an overall sense of Auster’s character from the previous book, even though it was ostensibly focused on his physical existence.
The library at the university where my husband works holds another four Auster novels, but I’ll wait until next year to dive back into his work. After reading other people’s reviews, I’m now most keen to try The Brooklyn Follies, Invisible and In the Country of Last Things.
Have you tried anything by Paul Auster this week?
Later today we’re making a pilgrimage to Bookbarn International,* one of my favorite secondhand bookshops in the UK, on the way (ish) to seeing friends in Bristol and Exeter for the weekend. In the past we’ve managed to drop in to Bookbarn annually, but it’s been nearly 2.5 years since our last visit. At that special Harvest Supper and Scrabble** tournament in October 2017 (which I wrote about here), I got to meet William Pryor, the chairman of Bookbarn, and he gave me a copy of his grandmother Gwen Raverat’s memoir, Period Piece.
Raverat was a granddaughter of Charles Darwin (the first child of his son George) but never got to meet him as he died three years before her birth. Her book has the subtitle “A Cambridge Childhood,” which perfectly conveys the aim. This is not a comprehensive family history or autobiography, but a portrait of what it was like to grow up in a particular time and place. Raverat was born in 1885, but she begins two years earlier, when her American mother, Maud Du Puy, was 21 and in England for the first time to spend a summer with her great-aunt and -uncle. She had three suitors during that time, all of them Fellows of Trinity College. The rules had only just been changed to allow Fellows to marry, so George Darwin would be among the first married members, and Gwen was in the first batch of offspring.
Period Piece is a charming, witty look at daily life from the 1880s through about 1909 – ending with the marriage of her cousin Frances, which seemed to signal a definitive end to their collective youth. Raverat focuses on everyday sights and sounds but also points out life’s little absurdities. She proceeds thematically rather than chronologically, taking up topics like her mother’s parenting theories; her boarding school education and budding love of art; visits to Grandmamma at Down House, Kent; childhood fears and ghost stories; the five Darwin uncles; religion; sports and games; clothing; and social events such as dances.
Writing towards the end of her life and in the middle of the twentieth century, Raverat neatly draws contrasts between old-fashioned propriety and modern mores. For example, as a child she was often called upon to act as a chaperone to courting couples, and when ladies boated past a watering hole where boys swam naked, they would cover their faces with parasols. She herself managed to avoid the matter of sex entirely until she was an adult, though she does remember looking to an encyclopedia to find out where babies come from.
The utter reliance on servants, a profusion of buttons on every garment, and forced trips to church are a few elements that might strike today’s readers as alien. One incident felt eerily contemporary to me, though: once, walking home alone at around 10 p.m., Gwen saw a gang of dodgy-looking undergraduates carrying a drunk or dead young woman down the street and into a pub. After much internal debate, she decided not to say a word about it to her parents.
I often wonder how novelists and filmmakers get a historical setting just right. The answer is, probably by reading books like this one that so clearly convey quotidian details most people would leave out, e.g. a list of every piece of clothing a lady wore or a rundown of the steps to getting her mother out the door to catch the 8:30 train for a day out in London. Those who have visited or lived in Cambridge will no doubt enjoy spotting familiar locations. There are also amusing cameo appearances from Virginia Stephen (Woolf) and E.M. Forster.
Raverat, a wood engraver, peppered Period Piece with her own illustrations (I have photographed one favorite, at left, but you can see them all in the archive here) – a lovely supplement to the highly visual text. Not just an invaluable record of domestic history, this is a very funny and impressively thorough memoir that could be used by anyone as a model for how to capture childhood. It has never been out of print, and still deserves to be widely read.
*They’ve recently had a renovation that I helped to crowdfund; I’m looking forward to seeing the results. I’ll also be sure to report back on my book haul.
**I was especially delighted to see that the Darwin family had a favorite word-making game, described in the middle of the “Sport” chapter, that sounds a fair bit like Scrabble – except that you only added one letter at a time and could scramble the letters to change the meaning.
Some favorite lines:
(describing one of her mother’s early letters home to America) “They got [rooms for the night] at last at ‘the St Pancreas Hotel’. I was delighted to find this spelling so early, as, to the end of her days, my mother always considered the saint and the internal organ as identical.”
(of their French nurserymaids) “By a provision of Providence they were always called Eugenie, so that when a new one came she could be called Newgenie.”
“The faint flavour of the ghost of my grandfather hung in a friendly way about the whole place [Down] – house, garden and all. … In fact, he was obviously in the same category as God and Father Christmas.”
I read the 2014 Collector’s Library edition, an attractive pocket-sized book with gilt edging and a built-in red ribbon bookmark.
At the end of last year, I picked out a whole shelf’s worth of books I’ve been meaning to reread. I know that others of you are devoted re-readers, returning to childhood favorites for comfort or poring over admired novels two or three times to figure out how they work. Alas, I’m usually resistant to rereading because I feel like it takes away time that I could be spending reading new or at least new-to-me books. Yet along with the nostalgia there is also a certain relief to returning to a favorite: here’s a book that is guaranteed not to disappoint.
So far this year I’ve finished two rereads, and I’m partway through a third. I’m not managing the one-every-other-week pace I would need to keep up to get through the whole shelf this year, but for me this is still good progress. I’ll report regularly on my experience of rereading.
The Matisse Stories by A. S. Byatt (1993)
Byatt is my favorite author. My memory for individual short stories is pitiful, yet I have never forgotten the first of three stories in this volume, so I focus on it here with a close rereading. In “Medusa’s Ankles,” a middle-aged woman goes berserk in a hair salon but it all turns out fine. I remember imagining what that would be like: to let go, to behave badly with no thought for others’ opinions, to act purely on instinct – and for there to be no consequences.
I’d forgotten all the particulars of the event. Susannah, a linguist, is drawn to the salon by the Rosy Nude reproduction she sees through the window. She becomes a reluctant receptacle for her stylist Lucian’s stories, including tales of his wife’s fat ankles and his mistress’ greater appeal. He confides in her his plan to run away. “I don’t want to put the best years of my life into making suburban old dears presentable. I want something more.”
Susannah holds in all her contempt for Lucian and his hip shop redesign until the day he fobs her off on another stylist – even though she’s said she needs an especially careful job this time because she is to appear on TV to accept the Translator’s Medal. When Deirdre is done, Susannah forgets about English politeness and says just what she thinks: “It’s horrible. I look like a middle-aged woman with a hair-do.” (Never mind that that’s exactly what she is.)
In a whirlwind of fury, she trashes the salon. Byatt describes the aftermath, indulging her trademark love of colors: “It was a strange empty battlefield, full of glittering fragments and sweet-smelling rivulets and puddles of venous-blue and fuchsia-red unguents, patches of crimson-streaked foam and odd intense spills of orange henna or cobalt and copper.”
You can just imagine the atmosphere in the salon: everyone exchanging horrified looks and cautiously approaching Susannah as if she’s a dangerous dog. Lucian steps in to reassure her: “We all feel like that, sometimes. Most of us don’t dare. … The insurance’ll pay. Don’t worry. … You’ve done me a good turn in a way.” Maybe he’ll go off with his girlfriend and start a new business, after all. Predictably, the man has made it all about him.
The ironic kicker to this perfect story about middle age and female rage comes after Susannah goes home to a husband we hadn’t heard about yet. “He saw her. (Usually he did not.) ‘You look different. You’ve had your hair done. I like it. You look lovely. It takes twenty years off you. You should have it done more often.’”
“Art Work” briefly, unnecessarily, uses a Matisse painting as a jumping-off point. A bourgeois couple, a painter and magazine design editor, hire Mrs. Brown, a black woman, to clean their house and are flabbergasted when she turns out to be an artist in her own right. “The Chinese Lobster,” the final story, is the only one explicitly about Matisse. An academic dean invites her colleague out to lunch at a Chinese restaurant to discuss a troubled student he’s supervising. This young woman has eating disorders and is doing a portfolio of artwork plus a dissertation on Matisse’s treatment of female bodies. Her work isn’t up to scratch, and now she’s accused her elderly supervisor of sexual harassment. The racial and sexual politics of these two stories don’t quite hold up, though both are well constructed.
I reread the book in one morning sitting last week.
My original rating (c. 2005):
My rating now:
A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas (2006)
In April 2000 Thomas’s husband Rich was hit by a car and incurred a traumatic brain injury when their dog Harry got off the leash and Rich ran out into the road near their New York City home to save him. It was a miracle that Rich lived, but his disability was severe enough that he had to be moved to an upstate nursing home. This is one of the first memoirs I ever remember reading, and it made a big impression. I don’t think I realized at the time that it was written in discrete essays, many of which were first published in magazines and anthologies. It represents an advance on the highly fragmentary nature of her first memoir, Safekeeping.
Thomas maintains a delicate balance of emotions: between guilt every time she bids Rich goodbye in the nursing home and relief that she doesn’t have to care for him 24/7; between missing the life they had and loving the cozy one she’s built on her own with her three dogs. (The title is how Aborigines refer to the coldest nights.) As in One Hundred Names for Love and All Things Consoled, Rich’s aphasia produces moments of unexpectedly poetic insight.
Before rereading I remembered one phrase and one incident (though I’d thought the latter was from Safekeeping): doctors described Rich’s skull as “shattered like an eggshell,” and Thomas remembers a time she was driving and saw the car ahead hit a raccoon; she automatically swerved to avoid the animal, but saw in her rearview mirror that it was still alive and realized the compassionate thing would have been to run it over again. I’ve never forgotten these disturbing images.
Unassuming and heart on sleeve, Thomas wrote one of the most beautiful books out there about loss and memory. I’d recommend this to fans of Anne Lamott and readers of bereavement memoirs in general. This is what I wanted from the rereading experience: to find a book that was even better the second time around.
My original rating (c. 2006):
My rating now:
Currently rereading: Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
Considering rereading next: On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Done any rereading lately?
For me, 2019 has been a more memorable year for nonfiction than for fiction. Like I did last year, I’ve happened to choose 12 favorite nonfiction books – though after some thematic grouping this has ended up as a top 10 list. Bodies, archaeology, and the environmental crisis are recurring topics, reflecting my own interests but also, I think, something of the zeitgeist.
Let the countdown begin!
- Because Internet: Understanding how language is changing by Gretchen McCulloch: Surprisingly fascinating stuff, even for a late adopter of technology. The Internet popularized informal writing and quickly incorporates changes in slang and cultural references. The book addresses things you may never have considered, like how we convey tone of voice through what we type and how emoji function as the gestures of the written word. Bursting with geeky enthusiasm.
- Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie: A fusion of autobiography with nature and travel writing – two genres that are too often dominated by men. Jamie has a particular interest in birds, islands, archaeology and the oddities of the human body, all subjects that intrigue me. There is beautiful nature writing to be found in this volume, as you might expect, but also relatable words on the human condition.
- Mother Ship by Francesca Segal: A visceral diary of the first eight weeks in the lives of the author’s daughters, who were born by Caesarean section at 29 weeks in October 2015 and spent the next two months in the NICU. Segal describes with tender precision the feeling of being torn between writing and motherhood, and crafts twinkly pen portraits of others she encountered in the NICU, including the staff but especially her fellow preemie mums.
- Surrender: Mid-Life in the American West by Joanna Pocock: Prompted by two years spent in Missoula, Montana and the disorientation felt upon a return to London, this memoir-in-essays varies in scale from the big skies of the American West to the smallness of one human life and the experience of loss and change. This is an elegantly introspective work that should engage anyone interested in women’s life writing and the environmental crisis.
- (A tie) Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson / The Undying by Anne Boyer / Notes Made while Falling by Jenn Ashworth: Trenchant autobiographical essays about female pain. All three feel timely and inventive in how they bring together disparate topics to explore the possibilities and limitations of women’s bodies. A huge theme in life writing in the last couple of years and a great step toward trauma and chronic pain being taken seriously. (See also Notes to Self by Emilie Pine and the forthcoming Pain Studies by Lisa Olstein.)
- Time Song: Searching for Doggerland by Julia Blackburn: Deep time is another key topic this year. Blackburn follows her curiosity wherever it leads as she does research into millions of years of history, including the much shorter story of human occupation. The writing is splendid, and the dashes of autobiographical information are just right, making her timely/timeless story personal. This would have been my Wainwright Prize winner.
- The Seafarers: A Journey among Birds by Stephen Rutt: The young naturalist travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles – from Skomer to Shetland – courting encounters with seabirds. Discussion of the environmental threats that hit these species hardest, such as plastic pollution, makes for a timely tie-in to wider issues. The prose is elegantly evocative, and especially enjoyable because I’ve been to a lot of the island locations.
- Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene: In 2015 the author’s two-year-old daughter, Greta, was fatally struck in the head by a brick that crumbled off an eighth-story Manhattan windowsill. Music journalist Greene explores all the ramifications of grief. I’ve read many a bereavement memoir and can’t remember a more searing account of the emotions and thoughts experienced moment to moment. The whole book has an aw(e)ful clarity to it.
- The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson: Bryson is back on form indulging his layman’s curiosity. Without ever being superficial or patronizing, he gives a comprehensive introduction to every organ and body system. He delights in our physical oddities, and his sense of wonder is contagious. Shelve this next to Being Mortal by Atul Gawande in a collection of books everyone should read – even if you don’t normally choose nonfiction.
- Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places by Julian Hoffman: Species and habitat loss are hard to comprehend even when we know the facts. This exquisitely written book is about taking stock, taking responsibility, and going beyond the numbers to tell the stories of front-line conservation work. Irreplaceable is an elegy of sorts, but, more importantly, it’s a call to arms. It places environmentalism in the hands of laypeople and offers hope that in working together in the spirit of defiance we can achieve great things. So, if you read one 2019 release, make it this one.
What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?
29th: Other superlatives and some statistics
30th: Best backlist reads
31st: The final figures on my 2019 reading
I ‘met’ poet Carolyn Oliver through her much-missed blog, Rosemary & Reading Glasses. (She’s on Twitter as @CarolynROliver and Instagram as @carolynroliver.) Back in 2017 I asked for her top fiction picks; this year she’s contributed another guest blog listing the best nonfiction she’s read this year. It’s a fascinating selection of memoirs, essays, science and nature, and current events. I scurried to add the ones I hadn’t already heard of to my TBR. Which ones tempt you?
My favorite nonfiction reads from this year (though many are backlist):
The Butchering Art, Lindsey Fitzharris: Fascinating medical history of Lister’s antiseptic breakthrough.
Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer: Reflective ecology from the perspective of a Native botanist. Probably my favorite essay collection of the decade.
The Book of Delights, Ross Gay: Just as the title says. Mini-essays on myriad topics. When you’ve finished, pick up his Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (poems).
Atlas of Poetic Botany, Francis Halle: Bite-sized excursions into the worlds of unusual flora, with drawings. Meant for adults, I think, but a huge hit with my eight-year-old.
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi: Just as the title says. Incisive, eye-opening, necessary.
The Art Detective, Philip Mould: A romp through the art world with an enthusiastic, knowledgeable guide (Mould is the co-host of the BBC’s Fake or Fortune).
How We Fight for Our Lives, Saeed Jones: The bildungsroman America needs. Beautiful writing.
In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado: The most formally inventive memoir I’ve ever read. Brilliant and necessary.
Coventry, Rachel Cusk: I was entranced by Cusk’s voice, even when I didn’t share her conclusions; reading this collection (with the exception of the book reviews added at the end), I felt I was witnessing the writer’s mind in the act of thinking.