There was a phenomenal program for this year’s digital Hay Festival. I signed up to a whopping eight events and enjoyed them all. If you missed watching live, it’s not too late to donate and catch up on the archived talks. For three of these, the host-cum-interviewer appeared in person on a studio stage, with the guest(s) joining, perhaps from thousands of miles away, on a large screen mounted on the wall behind them. I thought this was a neat hybrid approach. The rest of my sessions had interviewer and interviewee appearing remotely on a split screen. Let me know which, if any, events you attended and how you found them.
Flanagan’s The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is my novel of 2021 so far (my review), so it was a delight to hear him say more (and in that fantastic accent) about it in the course of a conversation with Stephanie Merritt. Tasmania, where he lives, had always seemed like an ark for species, but now they are vanishing. Ninety percent of the kelp forest has disappeared within the last 20 years because of warming oceans; there are only 300 swift parrots remaining; and the bushfires of 2018–19 were unprecedented in severity. Although he had already roughed out the novel by the time of the fires, Flanagan said he rewrote it in response to the sense of accelerating environmental collapse.
The novel’s twin themes are species extinction and personal extinction, with an elderly family matriarch being kept alive at all costs. Flanagan spoke of the “evasions of the soul” that make us ignore the environmental losses around us and refuse to die – “the final avoidance of life.” He thinks the pandemic has forced people to rethink these ideas and ponder the meaning of life. At age 21, he nearly drowned while kayaking, and ever since he has been frightened not of death, but of the pain of dying. He is not optimistic per se, but hopeful because the world is still so beautiful – on the island he goes to for writing, he is surrounded by wild creatures.
Merritt asked about the novel’s magic realist element and how stylistically different his novels have been from each other. He was glad she found the book funny, as “life is tragicomic.” In an effort not to get stuck in a rut, he deliberately ‘breaks the mould’ after each book and starts over. This has not made him popular with his publisher!
- The one obligation of a writer? “Not to be boring.”
- Novels are not about messages; “that’s what Twitter is for.”
- “To despair is rational, but to hope is the very essence of what it means to be human.”
Rachel Clarke interviewing Jim Down and Michael Rosen
All three authors have written books about the coronavirus pandemic (I have reviewed Clarke’s Breathtaking and Rosen’s Many Different Kinds of Love). Clarke said that the belief foundational to the NHS is that all lives have equal value, but as an ICU doctor Down found that the question of who would benefit most from the use of ventilation was creeping in as there was a risk that there would be more patients than there was equipment to treat them with. With decisions needing to be made very quickly, his hospital adopted the “three wise people” collaborative method. The element that often felt lost, however, was the patient’s wishes, since they might be unresponsive and no family or other visitors were around.
Rosen, who contracted Covid-19 in March 2020 and was in an induced coma for six weeks, included letters from his medical team in his book to give a 360° view of NHS treatment. He thinks of the NHS as being almost in the role of parents, giving altruistic care and support. “Tell the truth about herd immunity” was his pithy message to the government. He read the poem “These Are the Hands,” which he wrote for the 60th anniversary of the NHS, to close.
Bryan Washington and Raven Leilani
Last year’s Dylan Thomas Prize winner interviewed this year’s winner, and it was clear that the mutual admiration was strong. Though I had mixed feelings about Luster (my review), I was blown away by this high-level intellectual discussion. Both authors are invested in the debate around what it means to be a Black artist. Leilani said she did not want to make concessions in the form of Edie comporting herself better; this character is open about her wants, giving the novel a libidinal flavour. She said she almost envies her protagonist her autonomy, and thinks of the novel as a letter to her old self, granting permission and reassuring herself that “the mess has merit.”
- Writing offers Leilani a sanctuary or sense of control.
- While Washington sees works full of strife, grief, and malice as most likely to be considered the pinnacle of American literary fiction, he admires Luster for its theme of communion (especially via the character Akila).
- Leilani sees her novel as being in conversation with Queenie, Sula, The New Me, and Detransition, Baby.
Shipstead (also a Dylan Thomas Prize winner) echoed something Leilani had said: that she starts a novel with questions, not answers. Such humility is refreshing, and a sure way to avoid being preachy in fiction. Her new novel, Great Circle, is among my most anticipated books of the year and tells the stories of a fictional female pilot from the golden age of aviation and the actress playing her in a biopic. The book was long in the gestation: In 2012 Shipstead saw a sculpture commemorating a female pilot in Auckland, and in 2014 she started researching. She came to appreciate the miracle of flight and read many books by and about female pilots. The book is dedicated to her brother, recently retired from 20 years in the Air Force. She told Sameer Rahim that, although she used to say this is not a love story, she has since changed her mind.
- Shipstead was a competitive show jumper and applied to a creative writing program on a whim.
- She has made a name for herself as a travel writer, too, often combining magazine assignments with her research for the novel (e.g., various trips to Antarctica).
- While she has appreciated the year off from Covid, she is looking forward to getting back to travelling; her first booking is a women’s wilderness experience in Alaska.
Lockwood is the only novelist to be included on the Atlantic’s roster of best tweets. She and Nina Stibbe, who interviewed her, agreed that 1) things aren’t funny when they try too hard and 2) the Internet used to be a taboo subject for fiction – producing time-stamped references that editors used to remove. “I had so many observations and I didn’t know where to put them,” Lockwood said, and it seems to her perverse to not write about something that is such a major part of our daily lives. The title of her Women’s Prize-shortlisted novel, No One Is Talking About This (my review), refers to many things, including this reticence to grant the Internet a place in our discourse.
Lockwood said she has been delighted by the high-quality literary pieces coming out about her book, often in comparison with Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts. The timing of the publication meant that her initial (U.S.) media interviews ended up being more about Trump than she would have liked. “I think I’m not a natural fiction writer,” she said; it’s true that the novel is so autobiographical it can only be described as autofiction – the second half is all true and all sincere, she was careful to point out – but it’s a gem.
Like Lockwood, Pachico was part of the “10 @ 10” series featuring debut novelists (though her first book, the linked story collection The Lucky Ones, was marketed as a novel in the USA). Her new book, The Anthill, another of my most anticipated books of the year, is about a young woman returning to Medellín, Colombia, where Pachico spent her formative years. Although she is not a citizen and only goes back on a tourist visa, it feels like going home each time. For her, writing fiction has been a way of sorting out her feelings about the place. She wrote 50,000 words of the novel at her sister’s apartment in Medellín. Pachico told Rosie Goldsmith that, though she considers herself part of the Latin American literary tradition, she is conscious of presenting the country to English-speaking readers: a politically divided place that has gentrified in pockets, but is still plagued by extreme poverty and hardship. She described The Anthill as “a ghost story without ghosts.” I can’t wait to dive into my copy.
Speaking to Arifa Akbar about The Vanishing Half, Bennett admitted that she was worried a historical setting was a cop-out, but reassured herself that she was not writing out of nostalgia and that she did not allow readers a sense of distance – the characters are so ordinary that we know we’d do the same sorts of things. She thinks of passing as a distinctly American project of self-reinvention but acknowledged that we have no definitive statistics on it because, if someone succeeds, they disappear. Some of Stella’s psychology – a very interior character who makes decisions that are difficult to understand – came from her reading of Playing Dead by Elizabeth Greenwood. She loves writing about small towns because they force people to interact with each other. Akbar noted that passing is a double-edged sword, involving subterfuge but also offering liberation (e.g. for a trans character later in the book).
- “That’s the most exciting place to be, writing into a mystery.”
- “Race is a fiction, but racism is a reality.”
- An HBO adaptation is in the works, but Bennett doesn’t know if it will cast real twins, two actors, or meld separate people using CGI.
Rachel Cusk and Sheila Heti
I’ve read more of and gotten on better with Heti’s work than Cusk’s, so this was a rare case of being perhaps more interested in interviewer than interviewee. Heti said that, compared with the Outline trilogy, Cusk’s new novel Second Place feels wilder and more instinctual. Cusk, speaking from the Greek island of Tinos, where she is researching marble quarrying, described her book in often vague yet overall intriguing terms: it’s about exile and the illicit, she said; about femininity and entitlement to speak; about the domestic space and how things are legitimized; about the adoption of male values and the “rightness of the artist.”
Ironically, given that Cusk initially hesitated over revealing her debt to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir Lorenzo in Taos, much of the discussion ended up revolving around Luhan and D.H. Lawrence, about whom Cusk now considers herself an amateur scholar. In his personal writings he reserved special scorn for Luhan, with whom he stayed in New Mexico in the 1920s. This was something Cusk wanted to explore: misogyny and Luhan’s “voice of obscurity.” She hopes that her book will contribute to a better understanding of Luhan’s; not vice versa.
- A reviewer noted the use of exclamation points, counting 189 of them in the novel. Cusk equates an exclamation point to a laying down of arms – proof that someone (especially her protagonist, M) means to be nonthreatening.
- Cusk thinks of this book as being like a play: staged and in the moment.
- A woman observing but not being noticed is, like in the Outline trilogy, Cusk’s basic framework.
Something tells me my readers are the sort of people who buy books for their family and friends at the holidays. Consider any rating of 3.5 or above on this blog a solid recommendation; 3 stars is still a qualified recommendation, and by my comments you should be able to tell whether the book would be right for you or a friend. I’ll make another plug for the books I’ve already mentioned here as gift ideas and highlight other books I think would be ideal for the right reader. I read all these books this year, and most were released in 2017, but I have a few backlist titles, too – in those cases I’ve specified the publication year. Since I recommend fiction all the time through my reviews, I’ve given significantly more space to nonfiction.
For the Shiny New Books Christmas special I chose two books I could see myself giving to lots of people. One was A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives by Lisa Congdon, my overall top gift idea. It’s a celebration of women’s attainments after age 40, especially second careers and late-life changes of course. There’s a lively mixture of interviews, first-person essays, inspirational quotes, and profiles of figures like Vera Wang, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Grandma Moses, with Congdon’s whimsical drawings dotted all through. This would make a perfect gift for any woman who’s feeling her age, even if that’s younger than 40. (An essay on gray hair particularly hit home for me.) It’s a reminder that great things can be achieved at any age, and that with the right attitude, we will only grow in confidence and courage over the years. (See my full Nudge review.)
One Year Wiser: An Illustrated Guide to Mindfulness by Mike Medaglia
Drawn like an adult coloring book, this mindfulness guide is divided into color-block sections according to the seasons and tackles themes like happiness, gratitude, fighting anxiety and developing a healthy thought life. The layout is varied and unexpected, with abstract ideas represented by bodies in everyday situations. It’s a fresh delivery of familiar concepts.
My thanks to SelfMadeHero for the free copy for review.
An Almost Perfect Christmas by Nina Stibbe
With its short chapters and stocking stuffer dimensions, this is a perfect book to dip into over the holidays. The autobiographical pieces involve Stibbe begrudgingly coming round to things she’s resisted, from Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” to a flaming Christmas pudding. The four short stories, whether nostalgic or macabre, share a wicked sense of humor. You’ll also find an acerbic shopping guide and – best of all – a tongue-in-cheek Christmas A-to-Z. Nearly as funny as Love, Nina. (I reviewed this for the Nov. 29th Stylist “Book Wars” column.)
For some reason book- and nature-themed books seem to particularly lend themselves to gifting. Do you find that too?
For the fellow book and word lovers in your life:
The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
It’s a pleasure to spend a vicarious year running The Book Shop in Wigtown, Scotland with the curmudgeonly Bythell. I enjoyed the nitty-gritty details about acquiring and pricing books, and the unfailingly quirky customer encounters. This would make a great one-year bedside book. (See my full review.)
The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words by Paul Anthony Jones
Another perfect bedside book: this is composed of daily one-page entries that link etymology with events from history. I’ve been reading it a page a day since mid-October. A favorite word so far: “vandemonianism” (rowdy, unmannerly behavior), named after the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), first sighted by Europeans on 24 November 1642.
“The Gifts of Reading” by Robert Macfarlane (2016)
This was my other Christmas recommendation for Shiny New Books. A love of literature shared with friends and the books he now gifts to students and a new generation of nature writers are the main themes of this perfect essay. First printed as a stand-alone pamphlet in aid of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, this is just right for slipping in a stocking.
A Girl Walks into a Book: What the Brontës Taught Me about Life, Love, and Women’s Work by Miranda K. Pennington
This charming bibliomemoir reflects on Pennington’s two-decade love affair with the work of the Brontë sisters, especially Charlotte. It cleverly gives side-by-side chronological tours through the Brontës’ biographies and careers and her own life, drawing parallels and noting where she might have been better off if she’d followed in Brontë heroines’ footsteps.
For the nature enthusiasts in your life:
A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold
Few know how much of our current philosophy of wilderness and the human impact on the world is indebted to Aldo Leopold. This was first published in 1949, but it still rings true. A month-by-month account of life in Wisconsin gives way to pieces set everywhere from Mexico to Manitoba. Beautiful, incisive prose; wonderful illustrations by Charles W. Schwartz.
The History of Bees by Maja Lunde
Blending historical, contemporary and future story lines, this inventive novel, originally published in Norway in 2015, is a hymn to the dying art of beekeeping and a wake-up call about the environmental disaster the disappearance of bees signals. The plot strands share the themes of troubled parenthood and the drive to fulfill one’s purpose. Like David Mitchell, Lunde juggles her divergent time periods and voices admirably. It’s also a beautifully produced book, with an embossed bee on the dust jacket and a black and gold honeycomb pattern across the spine and boards. (See my full Bookbag review.)
Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm by David Mas Masumoto (1995)
Masumoto is a third-generation Japanese-American peach and grape farmer in California. He takes readers on a quiet journey through the typical events of the farming calendar. It’s a lovely, meditative book about the challenges and joys of this way of life. I would highly recommend it to readers of Wendell Berry.
A Wood of One’s Own by Ruth Pavey
This pleasantly meandering memoir, an account of two decades spent restoring land to orchard in Somerset, will appeal to readers of modern nature writers. Local history weaves through this story, too: everything from the English Civil War to Cecil Sharp’s collecting of folk songs. Bonus: Pavey’s lovely black-and-white line drawings. (See my full review.)
It’s not just books…
With this year’s Christmas money from my mother I bought the five-disc back catalogue of albums from The Bookshop Band. I crowdfunded their nine-disc, 100+-track recording project last year; it was money extremely well spent. So much quality music, and all the songs are based on books. I listen to these albums all the time while I’m working. I look forward to catching up on older songs I don’t know. Check out their Bandcamp site and see if there’s a physical or digital album you’d like to own or give to a fellow book and music lover. They played two commissioned songs at the launch event for The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, so if you’re a Philip Pullman fan you might start by downloading those.