I recently participated in the one-week “My Life in Books” extravaganza hosted by Simon Thomas (Stuck in a Book), where he asks bloggers to choose five books that have been important to them at different points in their reading lives. The neat twist is that he puts the bloggers in pairs and asks them to comment anonymously on their partner’s reading choices and even come up with an apt book recommendation or two. A few of my selections will be familiar from the two Landmark Books posts I wrote in 2016 (here and here), but a couple are new, and it was fun to think about what’s changed versus what’s endured in my reading taste.
Shiny New Books
Irreplaceableby Julian Hoffman: If you read one 2019 release, make it this one. (It’s too important a book to dilute that statement with qualifiers.) Species and habitat loss are hard to comprehend even when we know the facts. This book is a way of taking stock, taking responsibility, and going beyond the numbers to tell the stories of front-line conservation work. From the Kent marshes to the Coral Triangle off Indonesia, Hoffman discovers the situation on the ground and talks to the people involved in protecting places at risk of destruction. Reassuringly, these aren’t usually genius scientists or well-funded heroes, but ordinary citizens who are concerned about preserving nearby sites that mean something to them. 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. It takes local concerns seriously, yet its scope is international. But what truly lifts Hoffman’s work above most recent nature books is the exquisite prose.
Times Literary Supplement
These three reviews are forthcoming.
The Heat of the Moment: Life and Death Decision-Making from a Firefighter by Sabrina Cohen-Hatton: Cohen-Hatton is one of the UK’s highest-ranking female firefighters. A few perilous situations inspired her to investigate how people make decisions under pressure. For a PhD in Psychology from Cardiff University, she delved into the neurology of decision-making. Although there is jargon in the book, she explains the terms well and uses relatable metaphors. However, the context about her research can be repetitive and basic, as if dumbed down for a general reader. The book shines when giving blow-by-blow accounts of real-life or composite incidents. Potential readers should bear in mind, though, that this is ultimately more of a management psychology book than a memoir.
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), a record of his two-year experiment living alone in a cabin near a Massachusetts pond, has inspired innumerable back-to-nature adventures, including these two books I discuss together in a longer article.
The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod by Henry Beston: Beston had a two-room wooden shack built at Cape Cod in 1925. Although he only intended to spend a fortnight of the following summer in the sixteen-by-twenty-foot dwelling, he stayed a year. The chronicle of that year, The Outermost House (originally published in 1928 and previously out of print in the UK), is a charming meditation on the turning of the seasons and the sometimes terrifying power of the sea. The writing is often poetic, with sibilance conjuring the sound of the ocean. Beston will be remembered for his statement of the proper relationship between humans and the natural world. “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” he declares; “they are not underlings; they are other nations.” One word stands out in The Outermost House: “elemental” appears a dozen times, evoking the grandeur of nature and the necessity of getting back to life’s basics.
Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed by Catrina Davies: Davies crosses Thoreauvian language – many chapter titles and epigraphs are borrowed from Walden – with a Woolfian search for a room of her own. Penniless during an ongoing housing crisis and reeling from a series of precarious living situations, she moved into the shed near Land’s End that had served as her father’s architecture office until he went bankrupt. Like Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path, this intimate, engaging memoir is a sobering reminder that homelessness is not so remote, and education is no guarantee of success. There is, understandably, a sense of righteous indignation here against a land-owning class – including the lord who owns much of the area where she lives and works – and government policies that favour the wealthy.
I’m sneaking in just in time here, on the very last day of the #20BooksofSummer challenge, with my final three reviews: two novellas, one of them a work of children’s fantasy; and a nature/travel classic that turns into something more like a spiritual memoir.
The Owl Service by Alan Garner (1967)
I’d heard of Garner, a British writer of classic children’s fantasy novels, but never read any of his work until I picked this up from the free bookshop where I volunteer on a Friday. My husband remembers reading Elidor (also a 1990s TV series) as a boy, but I’m not sure Garner was ever well known in America. Perhaps if I’d discovered this right after the Narnia series when I was a young child, I would have been captivated. I did enjoy the rural Welsh setting, and to start with I was intrigued by the setup: curious about knocking and scratching overhead, Alison and her stepbrother Roger find a complete dinner service up in the attic of this house Alison inherited from her late father. Alison becomes obsessed with tracing out the plates’ owl pattern – which disappears when anyone else, like Nancy the cook, looks at them.
I gather that Garner frequently draws on ancient legend for his plots. Here he takes inspiration from Welsh myths, but the background was so complex and unfamiliar (see the blurb from the back of the book as an example!) that I could barely follow along. This meant that the climactic ‘spooky’ scenes failed to move me. Instead, I mostly noted the period slang and the class difference between the English children and Gwyn, Nancy’s son, who’s forbidden from speaking Welsh (Nancy says, “I’ve not struggled all these years in Aber to have you talk like a labourer”) and secretly takes elocution lessons to sound less ‘common’.
Can someone recommend a Garner book I might get on with better?
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen (1978)
For two months of 1973, from late September to late November, Matthiessen joined zoologist George Schaller on a journey from the Nepalese Himalayas to the Tibetan Plateau to study Himalayan blue sheep. Both also harbored a hope of spotting the elusive snow leopard.
Matthiessen had recently lost his partner, Deborah Love, to cancer, and left their children behind – at residential schools or with family friends – to go on this spirit-healing quest. Though he occasionally feels guilty, especially about the eight-year-old, his thoughts are usually on the practicalities of the mountain trek. They have sherpas to carry their gear, and they stop in at monasteries but also meet ordinary people. More memorable than the human encounters, though, are those with the natural world. Matthiessen watches foxes hunting and griffons soaring overhead; he marvels at alpine birds and flora.
The writing is stunning. No wonder this won a 1979 National Book Award (in the short-lived “Contemporary Thought” category, which has since been replaced by a general nonfiction award). It’s a nature and travel writing classic. However, it took me nearly EIGHTEEN MONTHS to read, in all kinds of fits and starts (see below), because I could rarely read more than part of one daily entry at a time. I struggle with travel narratives in general – perhaps I think it’s unfair to read them faster than the author lived through them? – but there’s also an aphoristic density to the book that requires unhurried, meditative engagement.
The mountains in their monolithic permanence remind the author that he will die. The question of whether he will ever see a snow leopard comes to matter less and less as he uses his Buddhist training to remind himself of tenets of acceptance (“not fatalism but a deep trust in life”) and transience: “In worrying about the future, I despoil the present”; what is this “forever getting-ready-for-life instead of living it each day”? I’m fascinated by Buddhism, but anyone who ponders life’s deep questions should get something out of this.
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore (1994)
Thanks to Cathy for reminding me about this one – I had intended to make it one of my novellas for November, but as I was scrambling around to find a last couple of short books to make up my 20 I thought, “Frog! hey, that fits”* and picked it up.
Oddly, given that Moore is so well known for short stories, I’ve only ever read two of her novels (the other was A Gate at the Stairs). Berie Carr lives just over the border from Quebec in Horsehearts, a fictional town in upstate New York. She and her best friend Sils are teenagers at the tail end of the Vietnam War, and work at Storyland amusement park on the weekends and during the summer. When Sils gets into trouble, Berie starts pocketing money from the cash register to help her out, but it will only be so long until she gets caught and the course of her life changes.
Berie is recounting these pivotal events from adulthood, when she’s traveling in Paris with her husband, Daniel. There are some troubling aspects to their relationship that don’t get fully explored, but that seems to be part of the point: we are always works in progress, and never as psychologically well as we try to appear. I most enjoyed the book’s tone of gentle nostalgia: “Despite all my curatorial impulses and training, my priestly harborings and professional, courtly suit of the past, I never knew what to do with all those years of one’s life: trot around in them forever like old boots – or sever them, let them fly free?”
Moore’s voice here reminds me of Amy Bloom’s and Elizabeth McCracken’s, though I’ve generally enjoyed those writers more.
*There are a few literal references to frogs (as well as the understood slang for French people). The title phrase comes from a drawing Sils makes about their mission to find and mend all the swamp frogs that boys shoot with BB guns. Berie also remarks on the sound of a frog chorus, and notes that two decades later frogs seem to be disappearing from the earth. In both these cases frogs are metaphors for a lost innocence. “She has eaten the frog” is also, in French, a slang term for taking from the cash box.
(I can’t resist mentioning Berie and Sils’ usual snack: raw, peeled potatoes cut into quarters and spread with margarine and salt!)
A recap of my 20 Books of Summer:
I enjoyed my animal theme, which was broad enough to encompass straightforward nature books but also a wide variety of memoirs and fiction. In most cases there was a literal connection between the animal in the title and the book’s subject.
I read just nine of my original choices, plus two of the back-ups. The rest were a mixture of: books I brought back from America, review copies, books I’d started last year and set aside for ages, and ones I had lying around and had forgotten were relevant.
I accidentally split the total evenly between fiction and nonfiction: 10 of each.
I happened to read three novels by Canadian authors. The remainder were your usual British and American suspects.
The clear stand-out of the 20 was Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, followed closely by The Snow Leopard (see above) and The Seafarers by Stephen Rutt – all nonfiction!
In my second tier of favorites were three novels: Fifteen Dogs, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, and Crow Lake.
I also had three DNFs that I managed to replace in time.
Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton [a review copy – and one of my Most Anticipated titles]
(I managed the first 36 pages.) Do you have a friend who’s intimidatingly sharp, whose every spoken or written line leaps from wordplay to a joke to an allusion to a pun? That’s how I felt about Hollow Kingdom. It’s so clever it’s exhausting.
I wanted to read this because I’d heard it’s narrated by a crow. S.T. (Shit Turd) is an American Crow who lives with an electrician, Big Jim, in Seattle, along with Dennis the dumb bloodhound. One day Jim’s eyeball pops out and he starts acting crazy and spending all his time in the basement. On reconnaissance flights through the neighborhood, S.T. realizes that all the humans (aka “MoFos” or “Hollows”) are similarly deranged. He runs into a gang of zombies when he goes to the Walgreens pharmacy to loot medications. Some are even starting to eat their pets. (Uh oh.)
We get brief introductions to other animal narrators, including Winnie the Poodle and Genghis Cat. An Internet-like “Aura” allows animals of various species to communicate with each other about the crisis. I struggle with dystopian and zombie stuff, but I think I could make an exception for this. Although I do think it’s overwritten (one adverb and four adjectives in one sentence: “We left slowly to the gentle song of lugubrious paw pads and the viscous beat of crestfallen wings”), I’ll try it again someday.
Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish by Richard Flanagan: I read the first 164 pages last year before stalling; alas, I could make no more headway this summer. It’s an amusing historical pastiche in the voice of a notorious forger and counterfeiter who’s sentenced to 14 years in Van Diemen’s Land. I could bear only so much of this wordy brilliance, and no more.
Tisala by Richard Seward Newton: I guess I read the blurb and thought this was unmissable, but I should have tried to read a sample or some more reviews of it. I got to page 6 and found it so undistinguished and overblown that I couldn’t imagine reading another 560+ pages about a whale.
For next year, I’m toying with the idea of a food and drink theme. Once again, this would include fiction and nonfiction that is specifically about food but also slightly more cheaty selections that happen to have the word “eats” or “ate” or a potential foodstuff in the title, or have an author whose name brings food to mind. I perused my shelf and found exactly 20 suitable books, so that seems like a sign! (The eagle-eyed among you may note that two of these were on my piles of potential reads for this summer, and two others on last summer’s. When will they ever actually get read?!)
Alternatively, I could just let myself have completely free choice from my shelves. My only non-negotiable criterion is that all 20 books must be ones that I own, to force me to get through more from my shelves (even if that includes review copies).
Approaching the home straight with these two: another novel that happens to have an animal in the title, and a pleasant work of modern nature writing set in an English village. My rating for both:
Crow Lake by Mary Lawson (2002)
I’ve meant to read more by Lawson ever since I reviewed her latest book, Road Ends, for Nudge in May 2015. All three of her novels draw on the same fictional setting: Struan, Ontario. Lawson grew up in a similar Canadian farming community before moving to England in the late 1960s. After an invitation arrives for her nephew’s birthday party, narrator Kate Morrison looks 20 years into the past to remember the climactic events of the year that she was seven. When she and her siblings were suddenly orphaned, her teenage brothers, Luke and Matt, had to cobble together local employment that allowed them to look after their little sisters at home. With the help of relatives and neighbors, they kept their family of four together. All along, though, their lives were becoming increasingly entwined with those of the Pyes, a troubled local farming family.
Matt inspired Kate’s love of pond life – she’s now an assistant professor of invertebrate ecology – but never got to go to college himself. Theirs was a family that prized schooling above all else (legend has it that Great-Grandmother installed a book rest on her spinning wheel so she could read while her hands were busy*) and eschewed emotion. “It was the Eleventh Commandment,” Kate recalls: “Thou Shalt Not Emote.”
This is a slow burner for sure, but it’s a winning picture of a family that stuck together despite the odds, as well as an appeal to recognize that emotional intelligence is just as important as book learning. The novel reminded me a lot of Surfacing by Margaret Atwood and The Girls by Lori Lansens, and I’d also recommend it to readers of Elizabeth Hay and Jane Urquhart.
*Delightfully, this detail was autobiographical for Lawson.
Wild Hares and Hummingbirds: The Natural History of an English Village by Stephen Moss (2011)
England doesn’t have any hummingbirds, but it does have hummingbird hawkmoths, which explains the title. In the tradition of Gilbert White, Moss writes a month-by-month tribute to what he regularly sees on his home turf of Mark, Somerset. As I did with Mark Cocker’s Claxton, I picked up the book partway – at the month in which I started reading it – and when I reached the end, returned to the beginning and read up to my starting point. Controversial, I know, but that July to June timeline worked fine: it gave me familiar glimpses of what’s going on with English nature now, followed by an accelerated preview of what I have to look forward to in the coming months.
Moss is primarily a birder, so he focuses on bird life, but also notes what’s happening with weather, trees, fungi, and so on. In the central and probably best chapter, on June, he maximizes wildlife-watching opportunities: going eel fishing, running a moth trap, listening for bats, and looking out for unfamiliar plants. My minor annoyances with the book were the too-frequent references to “the parish,” which makes the book’s concerns seem parochial rather than microcosmic, and the common use of semicolons where commas and dashes would be preferable. But if you’re fond of modern nature writing, and have some familiarity with (or at least interest in) the English countryside, I highly recommend this as a peaceful, observant read. Plus, Harry Brockway’s black-and-white engravings heading each chapter are exquisite.
“Being in one place is also the best way to understand the passing of the seasons: not the great shifts between winter and spring, summer and autumn, which we all notice; but the tiny, subtle changes that occur almost imperceptibly, from week to week, and day to day, throughout the year.”
“For me, one of the greatest pleasures of living in the English countryside is the way we ourselves become part of the natural cycle of the seasons.”
I was slow to launch into my 20 Books of Summer reading, but have now finally managed to get through my first four books. These include two substitutes: a review copy I hadn’t realized fit in perfectly with my all-animals challenge, and a book I’d started earlier in the year but set aside and wanted to get back into. Three of the four were extremely rewarding; the last was somewhat insubstantial, though I always enjoy reading about cat antics. All have been illuminating about animal intelligence and behavior, and useful for thinking about our place in and duty towards the more-than-human world. Not all of my 20 Books of Summer will have such an explicit focus on nature – some just happen to have an animal in the title or pictured on the cover – but this first batch had a strong linking theme so was a great start.
Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis (2015)
In this modern folk tale with elements of the Book of Job, the gods Apollo and Hermes, drinking in a Toronto tavern, discuss the nature of human intelligence and ponder whether it’s inevitably bound up with suffering. They decide to try an experiment, and make a wager on it. They’ll bestow human intelligence on a set of animals and find out whether the creatures die unhappy. Apollo is willing to bet two years’ personal servitude that they will be even unhappier than humans. Their experimental subjects are the 15 dogs being boarded overnight at a nearby veterinary clinic.
The setup means we’re in for an And Then There Were None type of picking-off of the 15, and some of the deaths are distressing. But strangely – and this is what the gods couldn’t foresee – knowledge of their approaching mortality gives the dogs added dignity. It gives their lives and deaths the weight of Shakespearean tragedy. Although they still do doggy things like establishing dominance structures and eating poop, they also know the joys of language and love. A mutt called Prince composes poetry and jokes. Benjy the beagle learns English well enough to recite the first paragraph of Vanity Fair. A poodle named Majnoun forms a connection with his owner that lasts beyond the grave. The dogs work out who they can trust; they form and dissolve bonds; they have memories and a hope that lives on.
It’s a fascinating and inventive novella, and a fond treatment of the relationship between dogs and humans. When I read in the Author’s Note that the poems all included dogs’ names, I went right back to the beginning to scout them out. I’m intrigued by the fact that this Giller Prize winner is a middle book in a series, and keen to explore the rest of the Trinidanian-Canadian author’s oeuvre.
These next two have a lot in common. For both authors, paying close attention to the natural world – birds, in particular – is a way of coping with environmental and mental health crises.
Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt (2009)
Lyanda Lynn Haupt has worked in bird research and rehabilitation for the Audubon Society and other nature organizations. (I read her first book, Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds, quite a few years ago.) During a bout of depression, she decided to start paying more attention to the natural world right outside her suburban Seattle window. Crows were a natural place to start. From then on she took binoculars everywhere she went, even on walks to Target. She spent time watching crows’ behavior from a distance or examining them up close – devoting hours to studying a prepared crow skin. She even temporarily took in a broken-legged fledgling she named Charlotte and kept a close eye on the injured bird’s progress in the months after she released it.
Were this simply a charming and keenly observed record of bird behavior and one woman’s gradual reawakening to the joys of nature, I would still have loved it. Haupt is a forthright and gently witty writer. But what takes it well beyond your average nature memoir is the bold statement of human responsibility to the environment. I’ve sat through whole conference sessions that try to define what nature is, what the purpose of nature writing is, and so on. Haupt can do it in just a sentence, concisely and effortlessly explaining how to be a naturalist in a time of loss and how to hope even when in possession of all the facts.
A few favorite passages:
“an intimate awareness of the continuity between our lives and the rest of life is the only thing that will truly conserve the earth … When we allow ourselves to think of nature as something out there, we become prey to complacency. If nature is somewhere else, then what we do here doesn’t really matter.”
“I believe strongly that the modern naturalist’s calling includes an element of activism. Naturalists are witnesses to the wild, and necessary bridges between ecological and political ways of knowing. … We join the ‘cloud of witnesses’ who refuse to let the more-than-human world pass unnoticed.”
“here we are, intricate human animals capable of feeling despair over the state of the earth and, simultaneously, joy in its unfolding wildness, no matter how hampered. What are we to do with such a confounding vision? The choices appear to be few. We can deny it, ignore it, go insane with its weight, structure it into a stony ethos with which we beat our friends and ourselves to death—or we can live well in its light.”
The Seafarers: A Journey among Birds by Stephen Rutt (2019)
In 2016 Rutt left his anxiety-inducing life in London in a search for space and silence. He found plenty of both on the Orkney Islands, where he volunteered at the North Ronaldsay bird observatory for seven months. In the few years that followed, the young naturalist travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles – from Skomer to Shetland – courting encounters with seabirds. He’s surrounded by storm petrels one magical night at Mousa Broch; he runs from menacing skuas; he watches eider and terns and kittiwakes along the northeast coast; he returns to Orkney to marvel at gannets and fulmars. Whether it’s their beauty, majesty, resilience, or associations with freedom, such species are for him a particularly life-enhancing segment of nature to spend time around.
Discussion of the environmental threats that hit seabirds hardest, such as plastic pollution, makes for a timely tie-in to wider conservation issues. Rutt also sees himself as part of a long line of bird-loving travellers, including James Fisher and especially R.M. Lockley, whose stories he weaves in. This is one of the best nature/travel books I’ve read in a long time, especially enjoyable because I’ve been to a lot of the island locations and the elegantly evocative writing, making particularly effective use of varied sentence lengths, brought back to me just what it’s like to be in the far north of Scotland in the midst of an endless summer twilight, a humbled observer as a whole whirlwind of bird life carries on above you.
A favorite passage:
“Gannets nest on the honeycombs of the cliff, in their thousands. They sit in pairs, pointing to the sky, swaying heads. They stir. The scent of the boat’s herring fills the air. They take off, tessellating in a sky that is suddenly as much bird as light. The great skuas lurk.”
With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the proof copy for review.
The Coming of Saska by Doreen Tovey (1977)
I’ve read four of Tovey’s quaint Siamese cat books now; this was the least worthwhile. It’s partially a matter of false advertising: Saska only turns up for the last 15 pages, as a replacement of sorts for Seeley, who disappeared one morning a year earlier and was never seen again. Over half of the book, in fact, is about a trip Tovey and her husband Charles took to Edmonton, Canada. The Canadian government sponsored them to come over for the Klondike Days festivities, and they also rented a camper and went looking for bears and moose. Mildly amusing mishaps, close shaves, etc. ensue. They then come back and settle into everyday life with their pair of Siamese half-siblings; Saska had the same father as Shebalu. Entertaining enough, but slight, and with far too many ellipses.
Like a lot of book bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the shiny new books released each year. However, I’ve noticed recently that many of my most memorable reads were published years or even decades ago. In 2018 I even came across a handful of books that are for me among the very best representatives of their genre, whether that’s nature, travel, family memoir, historical fiction or science fiction. The below selections are in alphabetical order by author name, and account for all the rest of my 4.5- and 5-star ratings of the year (another 27!).
March by Geraldine Brooks (2005): The best Civil War novel I’ve read. The best slavery novel I’ve read. One of the best historical novels I’ve ever read, period. Brooks’s second novel uses Little Women as its jumping-off point but is very much its own story. The whole is a perfect mixture of what’s familiar from history and literature and what Brooks has imagined.
Marlena by Julie Buntin (2017): The northern Michigan setting pairs perfectly with the novel’s tone of foreboding: you have a sense of these troubled teens being isolated in their clearing in the woods, and from one frigid winter through a steamy summer and into the chill of the impending autumn, they have to figure out what in the world they are going to do with their terrifying freedom. It’s basically a flawless debut, one I can’t recommend too highly.
Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane (1996): Ireland’s internecine violence is the sinister backdrop to this family’s everyday sorrows, including the death of a child and the mother’s shaky mental health. The book captures all the magic, uncertainty and heartache of being a child, in crisp scenes I saw playing out in my mind.
The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr (2013): Lena Gaunt: early theremin player, grande dame of electronic music, and opium addict. I loved how Farr evokes the strangeness and energy of theremin music, and how sound waves find a metaphorical echo in the ocean’s waves – swimming is Lena’s other great passion.
Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay (2007): A tight-knit cast gathers around the local radio station in Yellowknife, a small city in Canada’s Northwest Territories: Harry and Gwen, refugees from Ontario starting new lives; Dido, an alluring Dutch newsreader; Ralph, the freelance book reviewer; menacing Eddie; and pious Eleanor. This is a marvellous story of quiet striving and dislocation; I saw bits of myself in each of the characters, and I loved the extreme setting, both mosquito-ridden summer and bitter winter.
The Leavers by Lisa Ko (2017): An ambitious and satisfying novel set in New York and China, with major themes of illegal immigration, searching for a mother and a sense of belonging, and deciding what to take with you from your past. This was hand-picked by Barbara Kingsolver for the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (2010): Hungarian Jew Andras Lévi travels from Budapest to Paris to study architecture, falls in love with an older woman who runs a ballet school, and – along with his parents, brothers, and friends – has to adjust to the increasingly strict constraints on Jews across Europe in 1937–45. It’s all too easy to burn out on World War II narratives these days, but this is among the very best I’ve read.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996): For someone like me who struggles with sci-fi at the best of times, this is just right: the alien beings are just different enough from humans for Russell to make fascinating points about gender roles, commerce and art, but not so peculiar that you have trouble believing in their existence. All of the crew members are wonderful, distinctive characters, and the novel leaves you with so much to think about: unrequited love, destiny, faith, despair, and the meaning to be found in life.
Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar (2015): Hester Finch is looking back from the 1870s – when she is a widowed teacher settled in England – to the eight ill-fated years her family spent at Salt Creek, a small (fictional) outpost in South Australia, in the 1850s–60s. This is one of the very best works of historical fiction I’ve read; it’s hard to believe it’s Treloar’s debut novel.
Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days by Jeanette Winterson (2016): I treated myself to this new paperback edition with part of my birthday book token and it was a perfect read for the week leading up to Christmas. The stories are often fable-like, some spooky and some funny. Most have fantastical elements and meaningful rhetorical questions. Winterson takes the theology of Christmas seriously. A gorgeous book I’ll return to year after year.
Available Light by Marge Piercy (1988): The subjects are diverse: travels in Europe, menstruation, identifying as a Jew as well as a feminist, scattering her father’s ashes, the stresses of daily life, and being in love. Some of my favorites were about selectively adhering to the lessons her mother taught her, how difficult it is for a workaholic to be idle, and wrestling the deity for words.
Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills by Neil Ansell (2011): One of the most memorable nature/travel books I’ve ever read; a modern-day Walden. Ansell’s memoir is packed with beautiful lines as well as philosophical reflections on the nature of the self and the difference between isolation and loneliness.
Boy by Roald Dahl (1984): Pranks and larks and holidays: these are all here; so is crushing homesickness and a bitter sense of injustice at being at the mercy of sadistic adults. Nearly 60 years later, Dahl could use memory and imagination to fully inhabit his childhood self and give a charming survey of the notable events of his life up to age 20.
This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich (2001): I thoroughly enjoyed my armchair trek across a frigid island nation in the company of Gretel Ehrlich, who traveled here repeatedly between 1995 and 2001 and intersperses her journeys with those of her historical model, Inuit–Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen, whose seven Arctic expeditions took in the west coast of Greenland and the far north of the North American continent. Every time she finds a fresh way to write about ice and sun glare and frigid temperatures.
Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig (2017): It’s a riveting account of outliving segregation and developing a personal style and world-beating confidence; it’s a sobering tale of facing consequences and having your own body fail you. I’m the furthest thing from a sports fan you could imagine, but I approached this as a book about a cultural icon and read it with a spirit of curiosity about how Eig would shape this life story and separate the facts from the legend. I loved it.
The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler (2017): A charming introduction to 99 more or less obscure writers. Each profile is a perfectly formed mini-biography with a survey of the author’s major work: in just two or three pages, Fowler is able to convey all a writer’s eccentricities and why their output is still worth remembering.
To the Is-Land: An Autobiography by Janet Frame (1982): This is some of the best writing about childhood and memory that I’ve ever read, infused with music, magic and mystery. The prose alternates between dreamy and matter-of-fact as Frame describes growing up in New Zealand one of five children in the Depression and interwar years.
Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller (2015): This poignant sequel to Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is a portrait of Fuller’s two-decade marriage, from its hopeful beginnings to its acrimonious end. What I most appreciated about the book was Fuller’s sense of being displaced: she no longer feels African, but nor does she feel American.
West With the Night by Beryl Markham (1942): Markham writes so vividly about the many adventures of her life in Africa: hunting lions, training race horses, and becoming one of the continent’s first freelance pilots, delivering mail and locating elephant herds. Whether she’s reflecting on the many faces of Africa or the peculiar solitude of night flights, the prose is just stellar.
And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison (1993): An extraordinary memoir based around the author’s relationship with his father. Alternating chapters give glimpses into earlier family life and narrate Morrison’s father’s decline and death from cancer. This is simply marvelously written, not a bad line in the whole thing.
The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers by Adam Nicolson (2017): This is an extraordinarily well-written and -researched book (a worthy Wainwright Prize winner) about the behavior, cultural importance, and current plight of the world’s seabirds. Each chapter takes up a different species and dives deep into everything from its anatomy to the legends surrounding it, simultaneously conveying the playful, intimate real lives of the birds and their complete otherness.
The Long Goodbye: A Memoir of Grief by Meghan O’Rourke (2011): I read a whole lot of bereavement memoirs; this has been one of the very best. O’Rourke tells her story with absolute clarity – a robust, plain-speaking style that matches her emotional transparency. The heart of the book is her mother’s death from colorectal cancer on Christmas Day 2008, but we also get a full picture of the family life that preceded it and the first couple of years of aftermath.
Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone by Richard Lloyd Parry (2017): Eighteen and a half thousand people died in the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011. It’s not really possible to get your head around a tragedy on that scale so, wisely, Parry focuses on a smaller story within the story: 74 died at Okawa primary school because the administration didn’t have a sufficient disaster plan in place. This is a stunning portrait of a resilient people, but also a universal story of the human spirit facing the worst.
Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen (2012): A splendid memoir-in-essays that dwells on aging, parenting and female friendship. Some of its specific themes are marriage, solitude, the randomness of life, the process of growing into your own identity, and the special challenges her generation (roughly my mother’s) faced in seeking a work–life balance. Her words are witty and reassuring, and cut right to the heart of the matter in every case.
The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin (2009): Probably the best self-help book I’ve read; dense (in the best possible way) with philosophy, experience and advice. What I appreciated most is that her approach is not about undertaking extreme actions to try to achieve happiness, but about finding contentment in the life you already have by adding or tweaking small habits – especially useful for pessimists like me.
In the Days of Rain: A daughter. A father. A cult by Rebecca Stott (2017): This was a perfect book for my interests, and just the kind of thing I would love to write someday. It’s a bereavement memoir that opens with Stott’s father succumbing to pancreatic cancer and eliciting her promise to help finish his languishing memoir; it’s a family memoir that tracks generations through England, Scotland and Australia; and it’s a story of faith and doubt, of the absolute certainty experienced inside the Exclusive Brethren (a Christian sect that numbers 45,000 worldwide) and how that cracked until there was no choice but to leave.
Writers & Company by Eleanor Wachtel (1993): Erudite and fascinating author interviews from Wachtel’s weekly Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program. Whether I’d read anything by these authors (or even heard of them) or not, I found each Q&A chock-full of priceless nuggets of wisdom about creativity, mothers and daughters, drawing on autobiographical material, the writing process, and much more.
And if I really had to limit myself to just two books – my very best fiction and nonfiction reads of the year – they would be March by Geraldine Brooks and And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison.
Across my four best-of posts (Nonfiction was on Wednesday and Fiction on Thursday; Backlist reads are coming up tomorrow), I will have spotlighted roughly the top 20% of my year’s reading. The 15 runners-up below – 5 fiction and 10 nonfiction – are in alphabetical order by author. The ones marked with an asterisk are my Best 2018 Books You Probably Never Heard Of (Unless You Heard about Them from Me!).
*Frieda by Annabel Abbs: If you rely only on the words of D.H. Lawrence, you’d think Frieda was lucky to shed a dull family life and embark on an exciting set of bohemian travels with him as he built his name as a writer; Abbs adds nuance to that picture by revealing just how much Frieda was giving up, and the sorrow she left behind her. Frieda’s determination to live according to her own rules makes her a captivating character.
A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne: A delicious piece of literary suspense with a Tom Ripley-like hero you’ll love to hate: Maurice Swift, who wants nothing more than to be a writer but doesn’t have any ideas of his own, so steals them from other people. I loved how we see this character from several outside points of view before getting Maurice’s own perspective; by this point we know enough to understand just how unreliable a narrator he is.
The Overstory by Richard Powers: A sprawling novel about regular people who through various unpredictable routes become so devoted to trees that they turn to acts, large and small, of civil disobedience to protest the clear-cutting of everything from suburban gardens to redwood forests. I admired pretty much every sentence, whether it’s expository or prophetic.
You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld: Sittenfeld describes families and romantic relationships expertly, in prose so deliciously smooth it slides right down. These 11 stories are about marriage, parenting, authenticity, celebrity and social media in Trump’s America. Overall, this is a whip-smart, current and relatable book, ideal for readers who don’t think they like short stories.
*Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson: A charming, bittersweet novel composed entirely of the letters that pass between Tina Hopgood, a 60-year-old farmer’s wife in East Anglia, and Anders Larsen, a curator at the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark. It’s a novel about second chances in the second half of life, and has an open but hopeful ending. I found it very touching and wish it hadn’t been given the women’s fiction treatment.
Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living by Karen Auvinen: An excellent memoir that will have broad appeal with its themes of domestic violence, illness, grief, travel, wilderness, solitude, pets, wildlife, and relationships. A great example of how unchronological autobiographical essays can together build a picture of a life.
*Heal Me: In Search of a Cure by Julia Buckley: Buckley takes readers along on a rollercoaster ride of new treatment ideas and periodically dashed hopes during four years of chronic pain. I was morbidly fascinated with this story, which is so bizarre and eventful that it reads like a great novel.
*This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein: A wry, bittersweet look at the unpredictability of life as an idealistic young woman in the world’s major cities. Another great example of life writing that’s not comprehensive or strictly chronological yet gives a clear sense of the self in the context of a family and in the face of an uncertain future.
*The Pull of the River: Tales of Escape and Adventure on Britain’s Waterways by Matt Gaw: This jolly yet reflective book traces canoe trips down Britain’s rivers, a quest to (re)discover the country by sensing the currents of history and escaping to the edge of danger. Gaw’s expressive writing renders even rubbish- and sewage-strewn landscapes beautiful.
The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson: A delightful read that successfully combines many genres – biography, true crime, ornithology, history, travel and memoir – to tell the story of an audacious heist of rare bird skins from the Natural History Museum at Tring in 2009. This is the very best sort of nonfiction: wide-ranging, intelligent and gripping.
*No One Tells You This by Glynnis MacNicol: There was a lot of appeal for me in how MacNicol sets out her 40th year as an adventure into the unknown. She is daring and candid in examining her preconceptions and asking what she really wants from her life. And she tells a darn good story: I read this much faster than I generally do with a memoir.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean: This is really two books in one. The first is a record of the devastating fire at the Los Angeles Central Library on April 29, 1986 and how the city and library service recovered. The second is a paean to libraries in general: what they offer to society, and how they work, in a digital age. Sure to appeal to any book-lover.
Help Me!: One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Her Life by Marianne Power: I have a particular weakness for year-challenge books, and Power’s is written in an easy, chatty style, as if Bridget Jones had given over her diary to testing self-help books for 16 months. Help Me! is self-deprecating and relatable, with some sweary Irish swagger thrown in. I can recommend it to self-help junkies and skeptics alike.
Mrs Gaskell & Me: Two Women, Two Love Stories, Two Centuries Apart by Nell Stevens: Stevens has a light touch, and flits between Gaskell’s story and her own in alternating chapters. This is a whimsical, sentimental, wry book that will ring true for anyone who’s ever been fixated on an idea or put too much stock in a relationship that failed to thrive.
The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story by Christie Watson: Watson presents her book as a roughly chronological tour through the stages of nursing – from pediatrics through to elderly care and the tending to dead bodies – but also through her own career. With its message of empathy for suffering and vulnerable humanity, it’s a book that anyone and everyone should read.
Coming tomorrow: My best backlist reads of the year.
Novellas in November was a great success, helping me to finish more books in one month than I possibly ever have before. David Szalay’s Turbulence – a linked short story collection of tantalizing novella length – just arrived yesterday; I’ve started it but will be finishing it in December. The slim volume Fox 8 by George Saunders is also waiting for me at the library and I should be able to read it soon.
For this final installment I have 10 small books to feed back on: a mixture of fiction, graphic novels, nature books and memoirs.
West by Carys Davies (2018)
A gritty piece of historical fiction about a widowed mule breeder, Cyrus Bellman, who sets out from Pennsylvania to find traces of the giant creatures whose bones he hears have been discovered in Kentucky. He leaves his 10-year-old daughter, Bess, in the care of his sister, knowing he’ll be gone at least two years and may never return. Chapters cut between Cy’s harrowing journey in the company of a Native American guide, Old Woman From A Distance, and Bess’s home life, threatened by the unwanted attentions of their ranch hand neighbor and the town librarian. I don’t usually mind dark stories, but this was so bleak that I found it pretty unpleasant. The deus ex machina ending saved it somewhat.
Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika (2016)
Morayo Da Silva is an unlikely heroine: soon to turn 75, she’s a former English professor from Nigeria who hopped between countries with her ambassador husband but now lives alone in San Francisco. The first-person narration switches around to give the perspectives of peripheral figures like a shopkeeper, a homeless woman, and Sunshine, the young friend who helps Morayo get her affairs in order after she has a fall and goes into a care home temporarily. These shifts in point of view can be abrupt, even mid-chapter, and are a little confusing. However, Morayo is a wonderful character, inspiring in her determination to live flamboyantly. I also sympathized with her love of books. I would happily have read twice as many pages about her adventures.
Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds (2018)
Simmonds would be great for graphic novel newbies: she writes proper, full-length stories, often loosely based on a classic plot, with lots of narration and dialogue alongside the pictures. Cassandra Darke is a 71-year-old art dealer who’s laid low by fraud allegations and then blindsided by a case of mistaken identity that brings her into contact with a couple of criminal rings. To start with she’s a Scrooge-like curmudgeon who doesn’t understand the big fuss about Christmas, but she gradually grows compassionate, especially after her own brief brush with poverty. Luckily, Simmonds doesn’t overdo the Christmas Carol comparisons. Much of the book is in appropriately somber colors, with occasional brightness, including the yellow endpapers and built-in bookmark.
The Dave Walker Guide to the Church by Dave Walker (2006)
Most of these comics originally appeared in the Church Times, the official newspaper of the Church of England. No doubt you’ll get the most out of it if you’re familiar with Anglican churches or the like (Episcopalian or even Roman Catholic). My mother-in-law is a C of E vicar and we’ve attended a High Anglican church for the last two years, so I got many a good snort out of the book. Walker pokes fun at bureaucracy, silly traditions, closed-mindedness, and the oddities of church buildings and parishioners’ habits. My favorite spreads compare choirs and music groups on criteria like “ability to process in” and liken different church members to chess pieces to explain church politics.
Rain: Four Walks in English Weather by Melissa Harrison (2016)
In the course of a year Harrison took four rainy walks, in different seasons and different parts of England. She intersperses her observations with facts and legends about the rain, quotes from historical weather guides and poems. It has the occasional nice line, but is overall an understated nature/travel book. A noteworthy moment is when she remembers scattering her mother’s ashes on a Dartmoor tor. I most liked the argument that it’s important to not just go out in good weather, but to adapt to nature in all its moods: “I can choose now to overcome the impulse for comfort and convenience that insulates us not only from the bad in life but from much of the good. I think we need the weather, in all its forms, to feel fully human.”
The Beauties of a Cottage Garden by Gertrude Jekyll (2009)
This mini-volume from Penguin’s English Journeys series feels like a bit of a cheat because it’s extracted from Wood and Garden (1899). Oh well. In short chapters Jekyll praises the variety of colors, smells and designs you’ll find in the average country garden, no matter how modest its size. She speaks of gardening as a lifelong learning process, humbly acknowledging that she’s no expert. “I hold that the best purpose of a garden is to give delight and to give refreshment of mind, to soothe, to refine, and to lift up the heart in a spirit of praise and thankfulness. … a garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all, it teaches entire trust.”
The Glorious Life of the Oak by John Lewis-Stempel (2018)
I didn’t enjoy this as much as the other Lewis-Stempel book I read this month, The Secret Life of the Owl. There’s a lot here about the role the oak has played in British history, such as in warships and cathedral roofs. Other topics are the oak’s appearance and function in different seasons, the use of acorns and oak leaves in cooking, and the myths and legends associated with the trees. I felt there was too much minimally relevant material added in to make up the page count, such as a list of Britain’s famous named oaks and long poems from the likes of John Clare and William Cowper. While Lewis-Stempel always has a piercing eye, I wonder if he shouldn’t be saving up his energies to write more substantial books.
General Nonfiction / Memoirs:
My Year by Roald Dahl (1993)
I spotted a copy in our Stamford Airbnb bedroom and read it over our two nights there. These short month-by-month essays were composed in the last year of Dahl’s life. Writing with children in mind, he remarks on what schoolkids will experience, whether a vacation or a holiday like Guy Fawkes night. But mostly he’s led by the seasons: the birds, trees and other natural phenomena he observed year after year from his home in Buckinghamshire. Dahl points out that he never lived in a city, so he chose to mark the passing of time chiefly by changes in the countryside. This is only really for diehard fans, but it’s a nice little book to have at the bedside. (Illustrated, as always, with whimsical Quentin Blake sketches.)
Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot (2018)
Mailhot was raised on a First Nation reservation on an island off of British Columbia. She is wary of equating her family with Native stereotypes, but there’s no denying that her father was a drunk and ended up murdered. After a childhood of abuse and foster homes, Mailhot committed herself to a mental hospital for PTSD, bipolar II and an eating disorder. It was there that she started writing her story. Much of the book is addressed in the second person to her partner, who helped her move past a broken marriage and the loss of her older son to his father’s custody. Though I highlighted lots of aphoristic pronouncements, I had trouble connecting with the book as a whole: the way imprecise scenes blend into each other makes it hard to find a story line in the murk of miserable circumstances. A more accurate title would have been “Indian Condition” or “Indian Sick” (both used as chapter titles).
Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage by Jennifer Richardson (2013)
A memoir by an American woman married to a Brit and adjusting to English village life was always going to appeal to me. If you approach this as a set of comic essays on the annual rituals of rich toffs (summer fairs, auctions, horse racing, a hunt ball, a cattle market, etc.), it’s enjoyable enough. It’s when Richardson tries to be more serious, discussing her husband’s depression, their uncertainty over having children, and her possible MS, that the book falters. You can tell her editors kept badgering her to give the book a hook, and decided the maybe-baby theme was strongest. But I never sensed any real wrestling with the question. Not a bad book, but it lacks a clear enough idea of what it wants to be.
Total number of novellas read this month:26
[not reviewed: In the Space between Moments: Finding Joy and Meaning in Medicine by Pranay Sinha – ]
A few that didn’t take:The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby, The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe
My overall favorite:The Gifts of the Body by Rebecca Brown
Runners-up:Surfacing by Margaret Atwood, How to See Nature by Paul Evans, Bodies of Water by V. H. Leslie, and Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
The ones that got away from me:
There’s always next year!
What’s the best novella you’ve read recently? Do you like the sound of any of the ones I read?