Although 120+ books that will be published in 2021 are already on my radar, I’ve limited myself to the 20 I’m most excited about. The modest number is a cheat in that I’ve already read a couple of books from this period in advance (and I’m currently reading another two), and I haven’t listed any that I already own as proofs or finished copies (pictured here) or have been promised. With a couple of exceptions, these books are due out between January and June.
I’m also not counting these three forthcoming books that I’ve sponsored via Kickstarter (the Trauma anthology) or Unbound:
Two that I read as U.S. e-books but would recommend that UK-based readers look out for in 2021 are Memorial by Bryan Washington (Jan. 7, Atlantic) and Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (March 4, Penguin).
The following are in UK release date order, within sections by genre; the quoted descriptions are from the publisher blurbs on Goodreads. Much more fiction is catching my eye this time.
The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan [Jan. 14, Chatto & Windus / May 25, Knopf] “In a world of perennial fire and growing extinctions, Anna’s aged mother … increasingly escapes through her hospital window … When Anna’s finger vanishes and a few months later her knee disappears, Anna too feels the pull of the window. … A strangely beautiful novel about hope and love and orange-bellied parrots.” I’ve had mixed success with Flanagan, but the blurb draws me and I’ve read good early reviews so far. [Library hold]
The Charmed Wife by Olga Grushin [Jan. 21, Hodder & Stoughton / Jan. 12, Putnam] “Cinderella married the man of her dreams – the perfect ending she deserved after diligently following all the fairy-tale rules. Yet now, two children and thirteen-and-a-half years later, things have gone badly wrong. One night, she sneaks out of the palace to get help from the Witch who, for a price, offers love potions to disgruntled housewives.” A feminist retelling. I loved Grushin’s previous novel, Forty Rooms. [Edelweiss download]
The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. [Jan. 21, Quercus / Jan. 5, G.P. Putnam’s Sons] “A singular and stunning debut novel about the forbidden union between two enslaved young men on a Deep South plantation, the refuge they find in each other, and a betrayal that threatens their existence.” Lots of hype about this one. I’m getting Days Without End vibes, and the mention of copious biblical references is a draw for me rather than a turn-off. The cover looks so much like the UK cover of The Vanishing Half! [Publisher request pending]
Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden [Jan. 28, Canongate] “Mrs Death has had enough. She is exhausted from spending eternity doing her job and now she seeks someone to unburden her conscience to. Wolf Willeford, a troubled young writer, is well acquainted with death, but until now hadn’t met Death in person – a black, working-class woman who shape-shifts and does her work unseen. Enthralled by her stories, Wolf becomes Mrs Death’s scribe, and begins to write her memoirs.” [NetGalley download / Library hold]
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood [Feb. 16, Bloomsbury / Riverhead] “A woman known for her viral social media posts travels the world speaking to her adoring fans … Suddenly, two texts from her mother pierce the fray … [and] the woman confronts a world that seems to contain both an abundance of proof that there is goodness, empathy and justice in the universe, and a deluge of evidence to the contrary.” Lockwood’s memoir, Priestdaddy, is an all-time favorite of mine. [NetGalley download / Publisher request pending]
A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson [Feb. 18, Chatto & Windus / Feb. 16, Knopf Canada] “It’s North Ontario in 1972, and seven-year-old Clara’s teenage sister Rose has just run away from home. At the same time, a strange man – Liam – drives up to the house next door, which he has just inherited from Mrs Orchard, a kindly old woman who was friendly to Clara … A beautiful portrait of a small town, a little girl and an exploration of childhood.” I’ve loved the two Lawson novels I’ve read. [Publisher request pending]
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro [March 2, Faber & Faber / Knopf] Synopsis from Faber e-mail: “Klara and the Sun is the story of an ‘Artificial Friend’ who … is warned not to invest too much in the promises of humans. A luminous narrative about humanity, hope and the human heart.” I’m not an Ishiguro fan per se, but this looks set to be one of the biggest books of the year. I’m tempted to pre-order a signed copy as part of an early bird ticket to a Faber Members live-streamed event with him in early March.
Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley [March 18, Hodder & Stoughton / April 20, Algonquin Books] “The Soho that Precious and Tabitha live and work in is barely recognizable anymore. … Billionaire-owner Agatha wants to kick the women out to build expensive restaurants and luxury flats. Men like Robert, who visit the brothel, will have to go elsewhere. … An insightful and ambitious novel about property, ownership, wealth and inheritance.” This sounds very different to Elmet, but I liked Mozley’s writing enough to give it a try.
Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge [March 30, Algonquin Books; April 29, Serpent’s Tail] “Coming of age as a free-born Black girl in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, Libertie Sampson” is expected to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a doctor. “When a young man from Haiti proposes, she accepts, only to discover that she is still subordinate to him and all men. … Inspired by the life of one of the first Black female doctors in the United States.” I loved Greenidge’s underappreciated debut, We Love You, Charlie Freeman. [Edelweiss download]
An Ordinary Wonder by Buki Papillon [April 9, Dialogue Books] “Richly imagined with art, proverbs and folk tales, this moving and modern novel follows Oto through life at home and at boarding school in Nigeria, through the heartbreak of living as a boy despite their profound belief they are a girl, and through a hunger for freedom that only a new life in the United States can offer. … a powerful coming-of-age story that explores complex desires as well as challenges of family, identity, gender and culture, and what it means to feel whole.”
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead [May 4, Doubleday / Knopf] “In 1940s London, after a series of reckless romances and a spell flying to aid the war effort, Marian embarks on a treacherous, epic flight in search of the freedom she has always craved. She is never seen again. More than half a century later, Hadley Baxter, a troubled Hollywood starlet beset by scandal, is irresistibly drawn to play Marian Graves in her biopic.” I loved Seating Arrangements and have been waiting for a new Shipstead novel for seven years!
The Anthill by Julianne Pachico [May 6, Faber & Faber; this has been out since May 2020 in the USA, but was pushed back a year in the UK] “Linda returns to Colombia after 20 years away. Sent to England after her mother’s death when she was eight, she’s searching for the person who can tell her what’s happened in the time that has passed. Matty – Lina’s childhood confidant, her best friend – now runs a refuge called The Anthill for the street kids of Medellín.” Pachico was our Young Writer of the Year shadow panel winner.
Filthy Animals: Stories by Brandon Taylor [June 24, Daunt Books / June 21, Riverhead] “In the series of linked stories at the heart of Filthy Animals, set among young creatives in the American Midwest, a young man treads delicate emotional waters as he navigates a series of sexually fraught encounters with two dancers in an open relationship, forcing him to weigh his vulnerabilities against his loneliness.” Sounds like the perfect follow-up for those of us who loved his Booker-shortlisted debut novel, Real Life.
Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club by J. Ryan Stradal [USA only? Pamela Dorman Books; no cover or exact date yet, just “Summer 2021”] “Combines the comedic pathos of John Irving with the brilliant generational storytelling of Jane Smiley and the wildly rich and quirky characters of fellow Minnesotan Anne Tyler … set on a lake in Northern Minnesota, about a beloved but dying family restaurant and whether it can be saved.” I was disappointed by Stradal’s latest, but love Kitchens of the Great Midwest enough to give him another try.
Matrix by Lauren Groff [Sept. 23, Cornerstone / Riverhead; no cover yet] “Cast out of the royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine, … seventeen-year-old Marie de France is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey, its nuns on the brink of starvation and beset by disease. … a mesmerizing portrait of consuming passion, aberrant faith, and a woman that history moves both through and around.” Yuck to medieval history in general as a setting, but I love Groff’s work enough to get hold of this one anyway.
Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn [Jan. 21, William Collins; June 1, Viking] “A variety of wildlife not seen in many lifetimes has rebounded on the irradiated grounds of Chernobyl. A lush forest supports thousands of species that are extinct or endangered everywhere else on earth in the Korean peninsula’s narrow DMZ. … Islands of Abandonment is a tour through these new ecosystems … ultimately a story of redemption”. Good news about nature is always nice to find. [Publisher request pending]
The Believer by Sarah Krasnostein [March 2, Text Publishing – might be Australia only; I’ll have an eagle eye out for news of a UK release] “This book is about ghosts and gods and flying saucers; certainty in the absence of knowledge; how the stories we tell ourselves to deal with the distance between the world as it is and as we’d like it to be can stunt us or save us.” Krasnostein was our Wellcome Book Prize shadow panel winner in 2019. She told us a bit about this work in progress at the prize ceremony and I was intrigued!
A History of Scars: A Memoir by Laura Lee [March 2, Atria Books; no sign of a UK release] “In this stunning debut, Laura Lee weaves unforgettable and eye-opening essays on a variety of taboo topics. … Through the vivid imagery of mountain climbing, cooking, studying writing, and growing up Korean American, Lee explores the legacy of trauma on a young queer child of immigrants as she reconciles the disparate pieces of existence that make her whole.” I was drawn to this one by Roxane Gay’s high praise.
Everybody: A Book about Freedom by Olivia Laing [April 29, Picador / May 4, W. W. Norton & Co.] “The body is a source of pleasure and of pain, at once hopelessly vulnerable and radiant with power. … Laing charts an electrifying course through the long struggle for bodily freedom, using the life of the renegade psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich to explore gay rights and sexual liberation, feminism, and the civil rights movement.” Wellcome Prize fodder from the author of The Lonely City.
Rooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit by Lyanda Lynn Haupt [May 4, Little, Brown Spark; no sign of a UK release] “Cutting-edge science supports a truth that poets, artists, mystics, and earth-based cultures across the world have proclaimed over millennia: life on this planet is radically interconnected. … In the tradition of Rachel Carson, Elizabeth Kolbert, and Mary Oliver, Haupt writes with urgency and grace, reminding us that at the crossroads of science, nature, and spirit we find true hope.” I’m a Haupt fan.
Which of these do you want to read, too?
What other upcoming 2021 titles are you looking forward to?
If you’ve been spending time blog-hopping or on Twitter over the last few weeks, you will have seen countless riffs on this topic. Everyone’s pondering what’s best to read in these times. All we can get our hands on about plagues (Boccaccio, Camus, Defoe)? Allegories of similarly challenging worldwide disasters (WWII, 9/11)? Childhood favorites? Comfort reads? Funny books? Light, undemanding stuff? Rereads?
My general answer would be: as always, read whatever you want or can – anything that captures your attention is worthwhile. We’re under so much stress that our reading should be entirely unpressured. But to be a little more specific, I’ve gathered reading recommendations on a variety of topics, drawing on lists that others have made and linking to my own blog reviews where applicable.
(Some of these ideas are less serious than others.)
If you are brave enough to learn about zoonotic diseases:
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen: This is top-notch scientific journalism: pacey, well-structured, and gripping. The best chapters are on Ebola and SARS; the SARS chapter, in particular, reads like a film screenplay, if this were a far superior version of Contagion. It’s a sobering subject, with some quite alarming anecdotes and statistics, but this is not scare-mongering for the sake of it; Quammen is frank about the fact that we’re still all more likely to get heart disease or be in a fatal car crash.
If you can’t look away from pandemic stories, historical or imagined:
I already had Philip Roth’s Nemesis (set in 1940s New Jersey amid a polio epidemic) out from the library because it was on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist in 2011. I was also inspired to take Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (set in the 1660s and featuring an English village that quarantined itself during the Plague) off the shelf. I’m nearing the end of these two and should have my reviews up next week.
You will see no one book referenced more than Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s a wholly believable dystopian novel in which 99% of the population has been wiped out by a pandemic. The remnant bands together not just to survive but to create and preserve art. “What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.” (My full BookBrowse review from December 2014.)
See also this Publishers Weekly list of “13 Essential Pandemic Novels.”
If you’re feeling cooped up…
Infinite Home by Kathleen Alcott: “Edith is a widowed landlady who rents apartments in her Brooklyn brownstone to an unlikely collection of humans, all deeply in need of shelter.” (I haven’t read it, but I do have a copy; now would seem like the time to read it!)
…yet want to appreciate the home you’re stuck in:
Years ago I read and loved At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson and Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin. I can’t tell you anything more than that because it was before the days when I reviewed everything I read, but these are both reliable authors.
I love the sound of A Journey Around My Room by Xavier de Maistre: “Finding himself locked in his room for six weeks, a young officer journeys around his room in his imagination, using the various objects it contains as inspiration for a delightful parody of contemporary travel writing and an exercise in Sternean picaresque.”
I’m also drawn to Home: The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived in Our House by Julie Myerson, who combed archives for traces of all the former residents of her 1870s terraced house in Clapham.
If you’re struggling with being on your own:
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing: This remarkable book on outsider artists interweaves biography, art criticism and memoir. Laing is a tour guide into the peculiar, lonely crowdedness you find in a world city.
How to Be Alone by Sara Maitland: Maitland argues that although being alone is easy to achieve, there is an art to doing it properly, and solitude and loneliness are by no means the same thing. Profiling everyone from the Desert Fathers of early Christianity to the Romantic poets, she enumerates all the benefits that solitude confers.
Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton: A one-year account of her writing life in New Hampshire, this is Sarton’s best. The book dwells on the seasonal patterns of the natural world (shovelling snow, gardening, caring for animals) but also the rhythms of the soul – rising in hope but also falling into occasional, inevitable despair.
See also this Penguin UK list of books to read in self-isolation.
If you’ve been passing the time by baking…
The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living by Louise Miller: As chief baker at the Sugar Maple Inn in Guthrie, Vermon, Olivia Rawlings settles into a daily routine of baking muffins, bread and cakes. This is a warm, cozy debut novel full of well-drawn secondary characters and romantic possibilities. There’s nothing clichéd about it, though. Livvy is a sassy narrator, and I loved how Miller documents the rhythms of the small-town country year, including tapping the maple trees in the early spring and a pie baking contest at the summer county fair.
Sourdough by Robin Sloan: Lois Clary, a Bay Area robot programmer, becomes obsessed with baking. “I needed a more interesting life. I could start by learning something. I could start with the starter.” She attempts to link her job and her hobby by teaching a robot arm to knead the bread she makes for a farmer’s market. Madcap adventures ensue. It’s a funny and original novel and it makes you think, too – particularly about the extent to which we should allow technology to take over our food production.
…but can’t find yeast or eggs in the shop:
Yeast: A Problem by Charles Kingsley (1851). Nope, I haven’t read it, but our friend has a copy in his Everyman’s Library collection and the title makes us laugh every time we see it.
The Egg & I by Betty Macdonald: MacDonald and her husband started a rural Washington State chicken farm in the 1940s. Her account of her failure to become the perfect farm wife is hilarious. The voice reminded me of Doreen Tovey’s: mild exasperation at the drama caused by household animals, neighbors, and inanimate objects. “I really tried to like chickens. But I couldn’t get close to the hen either physically or spiritually, and by the end of the second spring I hated everything about the chicken but the egg.” Perfect pre-Easter reading.
And here are a few lists I put together for Hungerford Bookshop:
If you need a laugh:
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
The Darling Buds of May (and sequels) by H.E. Bates
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
Heartburn by Nora Ephron
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Anything by Nick Hornby
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
Anything by David Lodge
Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
The Rosie Project (and sequels) by Graeme Simsion
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
Anything by Bill Bryson
21st-Century Yokel by Tom Cox
Anything by Gerald Durrell
Anything by Nora Ephron (essays)
This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood
Dear Lupin by Roger Mortimer
Anything by David Sedaris
Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart
If you want to disappear into a long book:
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Nix by Nathan Hill
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
If you’re looking for some hope:
Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott
Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit
Hope Dies Last: Making a Difference in an Indifferent World by Studs Terkel
I’ve been doing a combination of the above strategies, reading about historical plagues in fiction and nonfiction but also doing some rereading and consuming lighter genre stuff like mysteries. I continue to dip into new releases, and I enjoy the ongoing challenge of my reading projects. Right now, I’m working through a few current Women’s Prize longlistees, as well as some past Wellcome Book Prize nominees and Women’s Prize winners, and I’m about to start a third #1920Club title. Plus I’m already thinking about my 20 Books of Summer (I’m considering an all-foodie theme).
- Book Riot pinpoints seven categories of books to read during a pandemic.
- Clare surveys the post-pandemic literary landscape.
- Elle logs her pandemic reading and viewing.
- Laura discusses pandemic reading strategies and distraction reading.
- Literary Hub looks at parallel situations, including post-9/11 reads, to make predictions, and asks what your “go-to quarantine read” says about you. (I’ve read Kindred most recently, but I wouldn’t say that describes me.)
- Simon thinks about what we can and should read.
- Susan highlights some comfort reads.
What are your current reading strategies?
Feminist social history, visits with the world’s bees, a novel about a peculiar child and his reclusive writer mother, witty notes on Englishness, and tips on surviving heartbreak: five very different books, but I hope one or more of them is something that you’d enjoy.
Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London
By Lauren Elkin
Raised in New York and now a Paris resident, Lauren Elkin has always felt at home in cities. Here she traces how women writers and artists have made the world’s great cities their own, blending memoir, social history and literary criticism. In a neat example of form flowing from content, the book meanders from city to city and figure to figure. My interest waned during later chapters on protesting (‘taking to the streets’) and the films of Agnès Varda. However, especially when she’s musing on Martha Gellhorn’s rootlessness, Elkin captures the angst of being a woman caught between places and purposes in a way that expatriates like myself will appreciate. It’s in making the history of the flâneuse personal that Elkin opens her book up to a wider swathe of readers than just the feminist social historians and literary critics who might seem like her natural audience. I would particularly recommend this to readers of Rebecca Solnit and Olivia Laing. (See my full review at The Bookbag.)
Bee Quest: In Search of Rare Bees
By Dave Goulson
Goulson grows more like Bill Bryson and Gerald Durrell with each book. Although the topic of this, his third nature book (all of them are broadly about insects), is probably of least personal interest to me, there are plenty of wonderful asides and pieces of trivia that make it worth journeying along with him from Poland to Ecuador in the search for rare bees. For as close-up as his view often is, he also sees the big picture of environmental degradation and species loss. I learned some fairly dismaying facts: gold mining is extremely destructive to the environment, producing 20 tons of toxic material per ring; and it takes five liters of water to produce one almond in California. As for a more hopeful statistic: the billions of dollars it would take to set up conservation efforts for all the world’s species would still only equate to cutting world Coke consumption by 20%. It’s all a matter of priorities.
A favorite line:
“As is often the case in entomology, in the end it all comes down to the genitals.”
Be Frank with Me
By Julia Claiborne Johnson
Alice, a young publishing assistant, is sent from New York City to Los Angeles to encourage one-hit wonder and Harper Lee type M.M. Banning to produce her long-delayed second novel. But when she arrives she discovers her most pressing duty is keeping an eye on Mimi’s oddball son, nine-year-old Frank. I doubt you’ve ever met a character quite like Frank. (I appreciated how, although he is clearly on what would be termed the autistic spectrum, Johnson avoids naming his condition.) Alice narrates the whole book in the first person. She finds herself caught in a four-person battle of wits – Alice, Mimi, Frank, and “itinerant male role model” Xander – inside Mimi’s big glass-fronted fishbowl of a house. There were a couple moments when I wondered where this madcap plot could be going. In particular, we have to wait a long time to find out whether Mimi is actually going to deliver another book. But the payout is worth waiting for. (See my full review at The Bookbag.)
How to Be an Alien
By George Mikes
(The first volume in the How to Be a Brit omnibus; originally published in 1946.) You can draw a straight line from this through Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island to the “Very British Problems” phenomenon. Mikes (that’s “mee-cash” – he was a Hungarian journalist who accidentally moved to England permanently when he was sent to London as a correspondent just before World War II) made humorous observations that have, in general, aged well. The mini-essays on tea, weather, and queuing struck me as particularly apt. I’d heard this line before, though I can’t remember where: “An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.”
Another favorite passage:
“It is all right to have central heating in an English home, except the bath room, because that is the only place where you are naked and wet at the same time, and you must give British germs a fair chance.” [This reminds me of when my mother made her first trip to England in 2004 to visit me during my study abroad year; in her family newsletter reporting on the experience, one of her key observations was, “British bathrooms are antiquated.” My husband and I still quote this to each other regularly.]
A Manual for Heartache
By Cathy Rentzenbrink
This is a follow-up to Rentzenbrink’s memoir, The Last Act of Love, which was about the accident that left her brother in a vegetative state for eight years and the legal battle she and her parents fought to be able to end his life. The first quarter of this book contains fairly generic advice for people who have been through family tragedy, illness or some other hardship. It’s when Rentzenbrink makes things personal, talking about her own struggles with PTSD and depression and strategies that have helped her over the years, that the book improves, and it maintains a pretty high standard therafter. Although you wouldn’t really call anything in here groundbreaking, it’s a slim and accessible volume that I could see being helpful for anyone who’s grieving, even someone who’s not usually a reader or has a short attention span. (I won a copy in a Goodreads giveaway.)
A couple favorite passages:
“Experiencing grief for the first time is like the dark twin of falling in love. It feels a bit crazy, and we don’t think anyone has ever felt exactly as we do. But of course they have.”
“We don’t need to be unbroken. Our first step is simply to stop trying to hide our scars. Heartache is human.”
Have you read any of these? Which one takes your fancy?
Below I’ve chosen my 10 favorite nonfiction books published in 2016, followed by five older nonfiction reads that I only discovered this year. I find it nigh on impossible to compare different genres of nonfiction, so I’m not ranking these but simply listing them alphabetically by author (interestingly, all but one of the 2016 books are by women).
As with yesterday’s fiction choices, many of these books have already featured on the blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
The Best of 2016
This Is Cancer by Laura Holmes Haddad: A stage IV inflammatory breast cancer survivor, the author wrote the “What to Expect” guide she wishes she could have found at the time of her diagnosis in 2012. Throughout this comprehensive, well-structured book, she uses her own experience to set out practical advice for dealing with the everyday medical and emotional realities of cancer.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren: With witty anecdotes and recreated dialogue, Jahren tells about her Minnesota upbringing, her long years in education, her ultimate specialization in geobiology/botany, crossing the country to take up academic posts in Atlanta, Baltimore and Hawaii, her long-time platonic relationship with eccentric lab partner Bill, and zany road trips across America for conferences and field work. What I think she does best is convey what it’s like to have true passion for your work, a rare thing.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: Kalanithi was 36 and just completing his neurosurgery residency in Stanford, California when he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer that did not respond well to treatment; he devoted his last year to writing this. I would recommend this cancer memoir to anyone for the beauty of its prose – a fine blend of literature and medicine – and the simple yet wholehearted picture of a life cut short.
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing: A remarkable piece of work fusing social history, commentary on modern art, biographical observation and self-knowledge. It’s a testament to Laing’s skill when I say that I knew next to nothing about any of these artists to start with and have little fondness for modern art but still found her book completely absorbing.
Squirrel Pie (and Other Stories): Adventures in Food across the Globe by Elisabeth Luard: Broadly speaking, this is about indigenous and peasant cooking traditions, a remit that allows Luard to include and adapt travel pieces she’s written over the past 20 years. It’s a cozy and conversational book for anyone who enjoys cooking or eating food from different cuisines (from Maui and Romania to Gujarat and Ethiopia); Luard’s own sketches and line drawings provide a lovely accompaniment.
Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body by Jo Marchant: Marchant, a journalist with a PhD in genetics and medical microbiology, investigates instances where the mind seems to contribute to medical improvement: the use of placebos in transplant recipients, hypnosis for IBS patients, virtual reality to help burn victims manage pain, and the remarkable differences that social connection, a sense of purpose, meditation and empathic conversation all make. I finished the book feeling intrigued and hopeful about what this might all mean for the future of medicine.
Poor Your Soul by Mira Ptacin: Ptacin’s wonderful memoir is based around two losses: her brother in a collision with a drunk driver, and a pregnancy in 2008; she skips back and forth in time to examine the numb aftermath of trauma as well as the fresh pain of actually going through it. I loved so much about this book, especially her memories of growing up in the cereal capital of America in Michigan and the account of her mother coming to America from Poland and setting up a fine-dining restaurant.
The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End by Katie Roiphe: An erudite, elegiac work of literary biography that takes in Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak and James Salter. What Roiphe observes of Sendak’s habit of drawing the dead and dying could equally be applied to The Violet Hour: it’s about seeing the beauty in what terrifies you.
Beyond the High Blue Air: A Memoir by Lu Spinney: In March 2006 Lu Spinney’s twenty-nine-year-old son, Miles King, was on a snowboarding holiday in Austria; on the final morning of the trip he took a fall that would leave this athlete, intellectual, and entrepreneur with a traumatic brain injury. Spinney tells her sad tale remarkably well, in a consciously literary style: with no speech marks and present-tense narration, thought and action flow lucidly into dialogue and daydream; she always chooses just the right metaphors, too.
The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World by Abigail Tucker: From the earliest domestication of animals to the cat meme-dominated Internet, Tucker marvels at how cats have succeeded by endearing themselves to humans and adapting as if effortlessly to any habitat in which they find themselves. This is the amazing cat book I’d been looking for, but I don’t think you even have to be a pet person to find this wide-ranging book enthralling.
If I had to list an overall favorite nonfiction book of the year, it would be The Violet Hour.
The Best of the Rest
Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home by Jessica Fechtor (2015): At age 28 Fechtor, then a graduate student in history and Yiddish, collapsed on a treadmill with a brain bleed; a subsequent surgery to clip the aneurysm left her blind in one eye. She gives a glimpse into an ordinary existence turned upside down and the foods that helped her regain a zest for life by reconnecting her with her family and her Jewish heritage.
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1977): Over the course of three years in the 1930s, starting when he was just 18, Fermor walked from Holland to Constantinople; this first of three volumes covers up until his entry into Hungary. His descriptions of the landscape and the people he interacted with are as fresh as if they happened yesterday; the precious glimpse of pre-war history and the damn fine writing make this a true masterwork of travel writing.
The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris (1996): Norris draws lessons from the time she spent as a lay Benedictine oblate but also simply reflects on her own life: the blessings and challenges of being a freelance poet and theologian; the daily discipline involved in marriage, keeping a house and gardening; and childhood memories from Virginia, Illinois and Hawaii. This is an impressively all-encompassing and eloquent set of essays on how faith intersects with everyday life.
One of Us: The Story of a Massacre and Its Aftermath by Åsne Seierstad (2015): An utterly engrossing account of Anders Behring Breivik’s July 22, 2011 attacks on an Oslo government building (8 dead) and the political youth camp on the island of Utøya (69 killed). This is a book about love and empathy – what they can achieve and what happens when they are absent; it shows how wide the ripples of one person’s actions can be, and how deep individual motivation goes.
The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman (1986): Spiegelman drew these allegorical tableaux to illustrate what, from a distance of decades, his Polish father Vladek told him about his almost unbelievable series of escapes, including time in Auschwitz. The only graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize, this brings the Holocaust home in a fresh way and paved the way for comic artists like Roz Chast and Alison Bechdel.
What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll list some runners-up for the year, and award a few more superlatives.
For several years in her mid-thirties, British author Olivia Laing lived in New York City. A relationship had recently fallen through and she was subletting an apartment from a friend. Whole days went by when she hardly left the flat, whiling away her time on social media and watching music videos on YouTube. Whenever she did go out, she felt cut off because of her accent and her unfamiliarity with American vernacular; she wished she could wear a Halloween mask all the time to achieve anonymity. How ironic, she thought, that in a city of millions she could be so utterly lonely.
Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee. … [L]oneliness inhibits empathy because it induces in its wake a kind of self-protective amnesia, so that when a person is no longer lonely they struggle to remember what the condition is like.
Whereas alcoholic writers were the points of reference for her previous book, the superb The Trip to Echo Spring (2013), here outsider artists take center stage: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, and the many lost to AIDS in the 1980s to 1990s. It’s a testament to Laing’s skill at interweaving biography, art criticism and memoir when I say that I knew next to nothing about any of these artists to start with and have little fondness for modern art but still found her book completely absorbing.
Several of the artists shared underlying reasons for loneliness: an abusive childhood, mental illness and/or sexuality perceived as aberrant. Edward Hopper might seem the most ‘normal’ of the artists profiled, but even he was bullied when he shot up to 6 feet at age 12; his wife Jo, doing some amateur psychoanalyzing, named it the root of his notorious taciturnity. His Nighthawks, with its “noxious pallid green” shades, perfectly illustrates the inescapability of “urban alienation,” Laing writes: when she saw it in person at the Whitney, she realized the diner has no door. (It’s a shame the book couldn’t accommodate a centerfold of color plates, but each chapter opens with a black-and-white photograph of its main subject.)
Andy Warhol was born Andrej Warhola to Slovakian immigrants in Pittsburgh in 1928. He was often tongue-tied and anxious, and used fashion and technology as ways of displacing attention. In 1968 he was shot in the torso by Valerie Solanas, the paranoid, sometimes-homeless author of SCUM Manifesto, and ever after had to wear surgical corsets. For Warhol and Wojnarowicz, art and sex were possible routes out of loneliness. As homosexuals, though, they could be restricted to sordid cruising grounds such as cinemas and piers. Like Klaus Nomi, a gay German electro-pop singer whose music Laing listened to obsessively, Wojnarowicz died of AIDS. Nomi was one of the first celebrities to succumb, in 1983. The epidemic only increased the general stigma against gay people. Even Warhol, as a lifelong hypochondriac, was leery about contact with AIDS patients. Through protest marches and artworks, Wojnarowicz exposed the scale of the tragedy and the lack of government concern.
In some ways Henry Darger is the oddest of the outsiders Laing features. He is also the only one not based in New York: he worked as a Chicago hospital janitor for nearly six decades; it was only when he was moved into a nursing home and the landlord cleared out his room that an astonishing cache of art and writing was discovered. Darger’s oeuvre included a 15,000-page work of fiction set in “the Realms of the Unreal” and paintings that veer towards sadism and pedophilia. Laing spent a week reading his unpublished memoir. With his distinctive, not-quite-coherent style and his affection for the asylum where he lived as an orphaned child, he reminded me of Royal Robertson, the schizophrenic artist whose work inspired Sufjan Stevens’s The Age of Adz album, and the artist character in the movie Junebug (2005).
A few of the chapters are less focused because they split the time between several subjects. I also felt that a section on Josh Harris, Internet entrepreneur and early reality show streaming pioneer, pulled the spotlight away from outsider art. Although I can see, in theory, how his work is performance art reflecting on our lack of true connection in an age of social media and voyeurism, I still found this the least relevant part.
The book is best when Laing is able to pull all her threads together: her own seclusion – flitting between housing situations, finding dates through Craigslist and feeling trapped behind her laptop screen; her subjects’ troubled isolation; and the science behind loneliness. Like Korey Floyd does in The Loneliness Cure, Laing summarizes the physical symptoms and psychological effects associated with solitude. She dips into pediatrician D.W. Winnicott’s work on attachment and separation in children, and mentions Harry Harlow’s abhorrent rhesus monkey experiments in which babies were raised without physical contact.
The tone throughout is academic but not inaccessible. Ultimately I didn’t like this quite as much as The Trip to Echo Spring, but it’s still a remarkable piece of work, fusing social history, commentary on modern art, biographical observation and self-knowledge. The first chapter and the last five paragraphs, especially, are simply excellent. Your interest may wax and wane through the rest of the book, but I expect that, like me, you’ll willingly follow Laing as a tour guide into the peculiar, lonely crowdedness you find in a world city.
(See also Laing’s list of 10 Books about Loneliness, chosen for Publishers Weekly.)
With thanks to Canongate for sending a free copy.