It feels like the whole world has changed in the past week, doesn’t it? I hope you all are keeping well and turning to books for comfort and escape. Reading Ireland Month is run each March by Cathy of 746 Books. I’m wishing you a happy (if subdued) St. Patrick’s Day with this post on the Irish books I’ve been perusing recently. Even before this coronavirus situation heated up, I’d been struggling with my focus, so only one of these was a proper read, while the rest ended up being skims. In the meantime, I’m trying out a new blog design and have been working to create more intuitive menu headings and helpful intro pages.
Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman by Nuala O’Faolain (1996)
Before writing this landmark memoir, O’Faolain was a TV documentary producer and Irish Times columnist. Her upbringing in poverty is reminiscent of Frank McCourt’s: one of nine children, she had a violent father and an alcoholic mother who cheated on each other and never seemed to achieve happiness. Educated at a convent school and at university in Dublin (until she dropped out), she was a literary-minded romantic who bounced between relationships and couldn’t decide whether marriage or a career should be her highest aim. Though desperate not to become her mother – a bitter, harried woman who’d wanted to be a book reviewer – she didn’t want to miss out on a chance for love either.
O’Faolain feels she was born slightly too early to benefit from the women’s movement. “I could see sexism in operation everywhere in society; once your consciousness goes ping you can never again stop seeing that. But I was quite unaware of how consistently I put the responsibility for my personal happiness off onto men.” Chapter 16 is a standout, though with no explanation (all her other lovers were men) it launches into an account of her 15 years living with Nell McCafferty, “by far the most life-giving relationship of my life.”
Although this is in many respects an ordinary story, the geniality and honesty of the writing account for its success. It was an instant bestseller in Ireland, spending 20 weeks at number one, and made the author a household name. I especially loved her encounters with literary figures. For instance, on a year’s scholarship at Hull she didn’t quite meet Philip Larkin, who’d been tasked with looking after her, but years later had a bizarre dinner with him and his mother, both rather deaf; and David Lodge was a friend. The boarding school section reminded me of The Country Girls. Two bookish memoirs I’d recommend as readalikes are Ordinary Dogs by Eileen Battersby and Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading by Maureen Corrigan.
Skims (all: )
Actress by Anne Enright (2020)
The Green Road is among my most memorable reads of the past five years, so I was eagerly awaiting Enright’s new novel, which is on the Women’s Prize longlist. I read the first 30 pages and found I wasn’t warming to the voice or main characters. Norah is a novelist who, prompted by an interviewer, realizes the story she most needs to tell is her mother’s. Katherine O’Dell was “a great fake,” an actress who came to epitomize Irishness even though she was actually English. Her slow-burning backstory is punctuated by trauma and mental illness. “She was a great piece of anguish, madness and sorrow,” Norah concludes. I could easily see this making the Women’s Prize shortlist and earning a Booker nomination as well. It’s the sort of book I’ll need to come back to some years down the line to fully appreciate.
Cal by Bernard MacLaverty (1983)
As Catholics, Cal McCluskey and his father are a rarity in their community and fear attacks on their home. Resistant to join his father in working at the local abattoir, Cal spends his days doing odd jobs and lurking around the public library – he has a crush on a married librarian named Marcella. Aimless and impressionable, he’s easily talked into acting as a driver for Crilly and Skeffington, the kind of associates who have gotten him branded as “Fenian scum.” The novella reflects on the futility of cycles of violence (“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” Crilly says, to which Cal replies, “But it all seems so pointless”), but is definitely a period piece. Cal is not the most sympathetic of protagonists. I didn’t enjoy this as much as the two other books I’ve read by MacLaverty.
Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy (1965)
Murphy and her bike “Roz” set out on an epic Fermor-like journey in the first six months of 1963. She covered 60 to 100 miles a day, facing sunburn, punctured tires and broken ribs. She was relieved she brought a gun: it came in handy for fending off wolves, deterring a would-be rapist, and preventing bike thieves. For some reason travel books are slow, painstaking reads for me. I never got into the flow of this one, and was troubled by snap judgments about groups of people – “I know instinctively the temper of a place, after being five minutes with the inhabitants. … the Afghans are, on balance, much dirtier in clothes, personal habits and dwellings than either the Turks or Persians.” Murphy does have a witty turn of phrase, though, e.g. “I suppose I’ll get used to it but at the moment I wouldn’t actually say that camel’s milk is my favourite beverage.”
My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die by Kevin Toolis (2017)
Toolis is a journalist and filmmaker from Dookinella, on an island off the coast of County Mayo. His father Sonny’s pancreatic cancer prompted him to return to the ancestral village and reflect on his own encounters with death. As a young man he had tuberculosis and stayed on a male chest ward with longtime smokers; despite a bone marrow donation, his older brother Bernard died from leukemia.
As a reporter during the Troubles and in Malawi and Gaza, Toolis often witnessed death, but at home in rural Ireland he saw a model for how it should be: accepted, and faced with the support of a whole community. People made a point of coming to see Sonny as he was dying. Keeping the body in the home and holding a wake are precious opportunities to be with the dead. Death is what’s coming for us all, so why not make its acquaintance? Toolis argues.
I’ve read so much around the topic that books like this don’t stand out anymore, and while I preferred the general talk of death to the family memoir bits, it also made very familiar points. At any rate, his description of his mother’s death is just how I want to go: “She quietly died of a heart attack with a cup of tea and a biscuit on a sunny May morning.”
What have you been picking up for Reading Ireland Month?
Reading about a particular topic, time period or type of character often leads me to want to read more about the same thing. This isn’t the same as what I call “book serendipity,” when such connections happen purely coincidentally; instead, it’s a deliberate way of following a thread of interest further. I keep meaning to read more about lighthouses, butterflies and Virginia Woolf, for instance. Some attempts are more successful than others, though.
Alas, I had to return the Peggy Seeger memoir to the library unread because it was requested after me, and I haven’t found the immediate spur to pick up Greatest Hits yet.
However, soon after I finished one novel about conjoined twins, Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, I launched straight into another one, Lori Lansens’ The Girls. I’m halfway through and it’s great so far. (Another I’d recommend is Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss, about the original “Siamese twins.”)
This spring I realized that I’d read four and a bit shepherds’ memoirs in 17 months, which is quite the concentration considering I’m not a countryside gal. Here’s how I’d rank the five:
#1: A Farmer’s Diary: A Year at High House Farm by Sally Urwin
Urwin is a charming guide to a year in the life of her working farm in Northumberland. Just don’t make the mistake of dismissing her as “the farmer’s wife.” She may only be 4 foot 10 (her Twitter handle is @pintsizedfarmer and her biography describes her as “(probably) the shortest farmer in England”), but her struggles to find attractive waterproofs don’t stop her from putting in hard labor to tend to the daily needs of a 200-strong flock of sheep.
From mating the ewes to preparing the next year’s lambs for market, we see the whole cycle once through and about to start again. Lambing is a fraught couple of months that form the heart of the book, but there are plenty of other challenges, including stolen sheep, fallen trees, and constant financial concerns that lead to a petition to the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution for help paying the gas bill and keeping food on the table for their two kids.
Despite the year’s setbacks, Urwin has an indomitable spirit and writes in a chatty, chin-up style that reflects the book’s origin in blog posts from 2017 to 2018. She gets a lot of comic mileage out of her yo-yo dieting, the many escapades of Candy the fat pony, and quirky English traditions like the village fete. I enjoy reading about people’s daily habits through a diary, and all the better when it’s a lifestyle that’s totally foreign to me.
#2: The Sheep Stell by Janet White
First published in 1991, The Sheep Stell taps into a widespread feeling that we have become cut off from the natural world and that existing in communion with animals is a healthier lifestyle. White’s pleasantly nostalgic memoir tells of finding contentment in the countryside, first on her own and later with a dearly loved family. It is both an evocative picture of a life adapted to seasonal rhythms and an arresting account of the casual sexism – and even violence – White experienced in a traditionally male vocation when she emigrated to New Zealand in 1953. From solitary youthful adventures that recall Gerald Durrell’s and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s to a more settled domestic life with animals reminiscent of the writings of James Herriot and Doreen Tovey, White’s story is unfailingly enjoyable. (I reviewed it for the Times Literary Supplement last year.)
#3: On Sheep: Diary of a Swedish Shepherd by Axel Lindén
(translated from the Swedish by Frank Perry)
Axel Lindén left his hipster Stockholm existence behind to take on his parents’ rural collective. On Sheep documents two years in his life as a shepherd aspiring to self-sufficiency and a small-scale model of food production. The diary entries range from a couple of words (“Silage; wet”) to several pages, and tend to cluster around busy times on the farm. The author expresses genuine concern for the sheep’s wellbeing. However, he cannily avoids anthropomorphism, insisting that his loyalty must be to the whole flock rather than to individual animals. The brevity and selectiveness of the diary keep the everyday tasks from becoming tiresome. Instead, the rural routines are comforting, even humbling.
#4: The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks
My husband valued this more as a memoir than as a cultural document; the opposite was true for me. As a memoir it’s fairly unexceptional, but it’s valuable as a picture of a rare and dwindling way of life in the British countryside.
#5: Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World by Steinunn Sigurðardóttir
(translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton)
DNF after 53 pages. I was offered a proof copy by the publisher on Twitter. I thought it would be interesting to hear about a female Icelandic shepherd who was a model before taking over her family farm and then reluctantly went into politics to try to block a hydroelectric power station on her land. Unfortunately, though, the book is scattered and barely competently written. It doesn’t help that the proof is error-strewn. [This mini-review has been corrected to reflect the fact that, unlike what is printed on the proof copy, the sole author is Steinunn Sigurðardóttir, who has written the book as if from Heiða Ásgeirsdóttir’s perspective.]
What’s the last major reading theme you’ve had?
Can I tempt you with a sheep-herding memoir?
We’re off to America tomorrow for two weeks for a holiday plus family time and a college friend’s wedding. While I won’t be particularly communicative on others’ blogs or social media, I’m scheduling a few blogs per week that we’re away. Back on June 3rd – just in time for the start of 20 Books of Summer!
Here’s the stack of books I’ve packed – with plenty more waiting for me over there and my Kindle providing some 400 backups.
Most of the time, if I learn that a book has a sequel or is the first in a series, my automatic reaction is to groan. Why can’t a story just have a tidy ending? Why does it need to sprawl further, creating a sense of obligation in its readers? Further adventures with The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window? Returning to the world of The Handmaid’s Tale? No, thank you.
It was different when I was a kid. I couldn’t get enough of series: the Little House on the Prairie books, Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, the Saddle Club, Redwall, the Baby-Sitters Club, various dragon series, Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who mysteries, the Anne of Green Gables books… You name it, I read it. I think children, especially, gravitate towards series because they’re guaranteed more of what they know they like. It’s a dependable mold. These days, though, I’m famous for trying one or two books from a series and leaving the rest unfinished (Harry Potter: 1.5 books; Discworld: 2 books at random; Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files: 1 book; the first book of crime series by M.J. Carter, Judith Flanders and William Shaw).
But, like any reader, I break my own rules all the time – even if I sometimes come to regret it. I recently finished reading a sequel and I’m now halfway through another. I’ve even read a few high-profile sci fi/fantasy trilogies over the last eight years, even though with all of them I liked each sequel less than the book that went before (Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam books, Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden series and Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy).
A later book in a series can go either way for me – surpass the original, or fail to live up to it. Nonfiction sequels seem more reliable than fiction ones, though: if I discover that a memoirist has written a follow-up volume, I will generally rush to read it.
So, what would induce me to pick up a sequel?
I want to know what happens next.
After reading Ruth Picardie’s Before I Say Goodbye, I was eager to hear from her bereaved sister, Justine Picardie. Ruth died of breast cancer in 1997; Justine writes a journal covering 2000 to 2001, asking herself whether death is really the end and if there is any possibility of communicating with her sister and other loved ones she’s recently lost. If the Spirit Moves You: Life and Love after Death is desperately sad, but also compelling.
Graeme Simsion’s Rosie series has a wonderfully quirky narrator. When we first meet him, Don Tillman is a 39-year-old Melbourne genetics professor who’s decided it’s time to find a wife. Book 2 has him and Rosie expecting a baby in New York City. I’m halfway through Book 3, in which in their son is 11 and they’re back in Australia. Though not as enjoyable as the first, it’s still a funny look through the eyes of someone on the autistic spectrum.
Edward St. Aubyn’s Never Mind, the first Patrick Melrose book, left a nasty aftertaste, but I was glad I tried again with Bad News, a blackly comic two days in the life of a drug addict.
Joan Anderson’s two sequels to A Year by the Sea are less engaging, and her books have too much overlap with each other.
Perhaps inevitably, Bill Clegg’s Ninety Days, about getting clean, feels subdued compared to his flashy account of the heights of his drug addiction, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.
Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water was an awfully wordy slog compared to A Time of Gifts.
Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow was one of my favorite backlist reads last year. I only read the first 60 pages of Children of God, though. It was a recent DNF after leaving it languishing on my pile for many months. While I was, of course, intrigued to learn that (SPOILER) a character we thought had died is still alive, and it was nice to see broken priest Emilio Sandoz getting a chance at happiness back on Earth, I couldn’t get interested in the political machinations of the alien races. Without the quest setup and terrific ensemble cast of the first book, this didn’t grab me.
I want to spend more time with these characters.
Simon Armitage’s travel narrative Walking Away is even funnier than Walking Home.
I’m as leery of child narrators as I am of sequels, yet I read all 10 Flavia de Luce novels by Alan Bradley: quaint mysteries set in 1950s England and starring an eleven-year-old who performs madcap chemistry experiments and solves small-town murders. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (#6) was the best, followed by Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (#8).
Roald Dahl’s Going Solo is almost as good as Boy.
Alexandra Fuller’s Leaving Before the Rains Come is even better than Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.
Likewise, Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children, about a female doctor in the 1880s, is even better than Bodies of Light.
Doreen Tovey’s Cats in May is just as good as Cats in the Belfry.
H. E. Bates’s A Breath of French Air revisits the Larkins, the indomitably cheery hedonists introduced in The Darling Buds of May, as they spend a month abroad in the late 1950s. France shows off its worst weather and mostly inedible cuisine; even the booze is barely tolerable. Like a lot of comedy, this feels slightly dated, and maybe also a touch xenophobic.
The first Hendrik Groen diary, about an octogenarian and his Old-But-Not-Dead club of Amsterdam nursing home buddies, was a joy, but the sequel felt like it would never end.
I loved Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead; I didn’t need the two subsequent books.
The Shakespeare Requirement, Julie Schumacher’s sequel to Dear Committee Members, a hilarious epistolary novel about an English professor on a Midwest college campus, was only mildly amusing; I didn’t even get halfway through it.
I finished Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy because I felt invested in the central family, but as with the SFF series above, the later books, especially the third one, were a letdown.
What next? I’m still unsure about whether to try the other H. E. Bates and Edward St. Aubyn sequels. I’m thinking yes to Melrose but no to the Larkins. Olive Kitteridge, which I’ve been slowly working my way through, is so good that I might make yet another exception and seek out Olive, Again in the autumn.
Sequels: yea or nay?
The year-end coverage continues!
So, how did I do with the 2018 reading goals I set for myself about this time last year? Rather poorly! is the short answer.
- I only read one book that might be considered a travel classic (by Patrick Leigh Fermor), though I did read some modern travel books.
- I only read Ali and the first half of a biography of May Sarton. What I’d envisioned being a monthly biography feature on the blog turned into a one-off.
- I need to work out my literature in translation percentage and compare it to last year’s to see if I’ve improved at all.
However, I do feel that I did well at reading my own books, as boosted by my 20 Books of Summer being chosen exclusively from my own shelves. Once I’m back from America I’ll have to do another full inventory and see how many unread books are still in the house, as compared to the 327 at this time last year.
Out of my 31 most anticipated reads of the second half of the year, I read 20 (of which 5 were at least somewhat disappointing), abandoned 2, still have 2 to read, lost interest in 1, have 1 in progress, and can’t find 5. For the whole year, the statistics are at 38/61 read (13 disappointments = more than 1/3 – that’s really bad and needs to be fixed!), 7 DNF, 4 still to read, 9 not found, 2 lost interest, and 1 in progress.
As for my non-reading-related goal … my accordion-playing fell by the wayside in July because I went away to America for three weeks unexpectedly, and after that never got back into the habit of daily practice and biweekly lessons the other side of Reading. I’d still like to pick it back up in the near future. I was at a point where I knew five notes and a few bass chords and could play both hands on a number of very simple tunes.
This Year’s Cover Trends
Mostly flora, which I noticed before 2018 had even begun.
The other one that kept jumping out at me was rubber gloves. Weird!
I’ll be back on the 26th to begin the countdown of my favorite books of the year, starting with nonfiction.
A debut memoir with food, medical and literary themes and a bibliotherapy-affirming title – this book ticks a whole lot of boxes for me. The very day I saw it mentioned on Twitter I requested a copy, and it was a warming, cozy read for the dark days of late December. As a teenager, freelance journalist Laura Freeman suffered from anorexia, and ever since she has struggled to regain a healthy relationship with food. This is decidedly not an anorexia memoir; if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll want to pick up Nancy Tucker’s grueling but inventive The Time in Between. Instead, it’s about the lifelong joy of reading and how books have helped Freeman in the years that she has been haltingly recovering a joy of eating.
If asked to name a favorite food, Freeman writes that it would be porridge – or, if she was really pressed, perhaps her mother’s roast chicken dinner. But it’s been so long since she’s thought of food in terms of pleasure that written accounts of feasting from the likes of M.F.K. Fisher or Parson Woodforde might as well be written in a foreign language. When in 2012 she decided to read the whole of Charles Dickens’s oeuvre in his bicentenary year, she was struck afresh by the delight his characters take in meals.
While I was reading Dickens something changed. I didn’t want to be on the outside, looking at pictures, tasting recipes at one remove, seeing the last muffin go to someone else. I began to want to want food. To share it, savour it, to have it without guilt.
This nascent desire for a broader and more sumptuous food repertoire fuels the author through her voracious reading: of war writers like Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves with their boiled eggs and cocoa; of travel writers Laurie Lee and Patrick Leigh Fermor and their enthusiastic acceptance of whatever food came their way on treks; and of rediscovered favorite children’s books from The Secret Garden through the Harry Potter series with the characters’ greedy appetite for sweets. Other chapters are devoted to Virginia Woolf, whose depression and food issues especially resonate for Freeman; food writers; famous gluttons; and the specific challenge of chocolate, which she can’t yet bring herself to sample because it’s “so tangled up in my mind with ideas of sin, greed and loss of control.”
It’s these psychological and emotional aspects of food that Freeman is so good at capturing. She recognizes a tendency to all-or-nothing thinking that makes her prey to clean eating fads and exclusion diets. Today she still works to stifle the voices that tell her she’ll never be well and she doesn’t deserve to eat; she also tries to block out society’s contradictory messages about fat versus thin, healthy versus unhealthy, this diet versus that one. Channeling Dickens, she advises, “Don’t make a Marshalsea prison of rules for yourself – no biscuits at tea, no meat in the week, no pudding, not ever. Don’t trap yourself in lonely habits.”
Freeman’s taste in both food and literature seems a trifle old-fashioned, leaning towards jolly ol’ English stuff, but that’s because this is about comfort reading as much as it is about rediscovering comfort eating. Her memoir delicately balances optimism with reality, and encourages us to take another look at the books we love and really notice all those food scenes. Maybe our favorite writers have been teaching us how to eat well all along.
The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite is published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. My thanks to Virginia Woolstencroft for the review copy.
I took some time out this December to start reading the 2018 releases I was most looking forward to. In early January I’ll preview another 25 or 30 titles I’m interested in, but for now here are eight books coming out in the first half of next year that I can heartily recommend, with ~130-word mini reviews to give you a taste of them. (These are in alphabetical order by author, with the publication details noted beneath the title.)
Because We Are Bad: OCD and a Girl Lost in Thought by Lily Bailey
[Coming on March 15th from Canbury Press (UK) and on April 3rd from Harper Collins US]
“For as long as I could remember, I wasn’t me, I was we.” Lily Bailey had a sort of imaginary friend while she was growing up, but instead of a comforting presence it was a critical voice pushing her to be ultra-conscious of how her behavior appeared to others. This went on for years until she was finally diagnosed with severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Despite Prozac and CBT, she later landed in a psychiatric unit. She captures this inpatient stay with great verve, recalling the chorus of other patients’ voices and different nurses’ strategies. This memoir tracks Bailey’s life up until age 20, but her recreation of childhood and the first-person plural sections are the strongest. I’d recommend this to readers interested in learning more about OCD and mental health issues in general. (Full blog review scheduled for March 15th.)
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
[Coming on January 9th from Tinder Press (UK) / G.P. Putnam’s (USA)]
Summer 1969: four young siblings escape a sweltering New York City morning by visiting a fortune teller who can tell you the day you’ll die. In the decades that follow, they have to decide what to do with this advance knowledge: will it spur them to live courageous lives, or drive them to desperation? This compelling family story lives up to the hype. I can imagine how much fun Benjamin had researching and writing it as she’s able to explore four distinct worlds: Daniel, a military doctor, examines Iraq War recruits; Klara becomes a magician in Las Vegas; Varya researches aging via primate studies; and Simon is a dancer in San Francisco. The settings, time periods, and career paths are so diverse that you get four novels’ worth of interesting background. (See my full review at The Bookbag.)
Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler
[Coming on February 6th from Random House (USA)]
This was the 2018 title I was most looking forward to reading. It combines two of my niche interests: medical (especially cancer) memoirs, and the prosperity gospel, which I grew up with in the church my parents attend in America. An assistant professor at Duke Divinity School, Bowler was fascinated by the idea that you can claim God’s blessings, financial and otherwise, as a reward for righteous behavior and generosity to the church. But if she’d been tempted to set store by this notion, that certainty was permanently fractured when she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in her mid-thirties. Bowler writes tenderly about suffering and surrender, about living in the moment with her husband and son while being uncertain of the future. Her writing reminds me of Anne Lamott’s and Nina Riggs’s.
The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite by Laura Freeman
[Coming on February 22nd from Weidenfeld & Nicolson (UK)]
A memoir with food, medical and literary themes and a bibliotherapy-affirming title – this debut ticks lots of boxes for me. As a teenager, Freeman suffered from anorexia. This is not an anorexia memoir, though; instead, it’s about the lifelong joy of reading and how books have helped her haltingly recover the joy of eating. Her voracious reading took in the whole of Charles Dickens’s oeuvre, war writers like Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves (boiled eggs and cocoa); travel writers Laurie Lee and Patrick Leigh Fermor and their enthusiastic acceptance of whatever food came their way on treks; and rediscovered children’s classics from The Secret Garden through to the Harry Potter series. This is about comfort reading as much as it is about rediscovering comfort eating, and it delicately balances optimism with reality. (Full blog review scheduled for February 1st.)
Everything Here Is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee
[Coming on January 16th from Pamela Dorman Books (USA)]
Lucia Bok has been many people: a globe-trotting Chinese-American journalist, a shopkeeper’s wife in New York City, an illegal immigrant’s girlfriend, and a mother making the best of primitive conditions in Ecuador. Her schizophrenia means she throws herself wholeheartedly into each role but, as her mind turns against her, eventually finds herself unable to cope. We hear from Lucia herself as well as her older sister, ex-husband and boyfriend – in both first-person and third-person passages – over the course of 25 years to get an intimate picture of how mental illness strains families and how blame gets parceled out. Lucia’s first-person narration was most effective for me: “I take only one kind of medication now. They adjust the dosage. Sometimes I still slosh around, dense and slushy like a watermelon; other times I’m flat, defizzed.”
Junk by Tommy Pico
[Coming on May 8th from Tin House Books (USA)]
Junk food, junk shops, junk mail; junk as in random stuff; junk as in genitals. These are the major elements of Pico’s run-on, stream-of-consciousness poem, the third in his Teebs trilogy (after IRL and Nature Poem). The overarching theme is being a homosexual Native American in Brooklyn. You might think of Pico as a latter-day Ginsberg. His text-speak and sexual explicitness might ordinarily be off-putting for me, but there’s something about Pico’s voice that I really like. He vacillates between flippant and heartfelt in a way that seems to capture something about the modern condition.
“the lights go low across the / multiplex Temple of // canoodling and Junk food”
“Haven’t figured out how to be NDN and not have / suspicion coursing thru me like cortisol”
Indecent by Corinne Sullivan
[Coming on March 6th from St. Martin’s Press (USA)]
Expect a cross between Prep (Curtis Sittenfeld) and Notes on a Scandal (Zoe Heller). Imogene Abney, 22, is an apprentice teacher at Vandenberg School for Boys in New York State. She’s young and pretty enough to be met with innuendo and disrespect from her high school charges; she’s insecure enough about her acne to feel rejected by other apprentices. But Adam Kipling, who goes by “Kip,” seems different from any of the other people she’s thrown together with at Vandenberg. A fourth-year student, he’s only five years younger than she is, and he really seems to appreciate her for who she is. Their relationship proceeds apace, but nothing stays a secret for long around here. Being in Imogene’s head can feel a little claustrophobic because of her obsessions, but this is a racy, pacey read.
From Mother to Mother by Émilie Vast
[Coming on March 20th from Charlesbridge Publishing (USA)]
This sweet, simple picture book for very young children (it will actually be a board book, though I read it as an e-book) was originally published in French. Based on Russian nesting dolls, it introduces the idea of ancestry, specifically multiple generations of women. I imagine a mother with a child sitting on her knee. Holding this book in one hand and a photo album in the other, she points to all the family members who have passed down life and love. Each two-page spread has a different color motif and incorporates flora and fauna on the design of the doll.
I’m also currently partway through, and enjoying, Educated by Tara Westover [Coming on February 20th from Random House (USA) and February 22nd from Hutchinson (UK)], a striking memoir about being raised off grid in Idaho as the youngest of seven children of religious/survivalist parents – and never going to a proper school.
Coming tomorrow (my last post of the year): Some year-end statistics and 2018 reading goals.
A quick roundup in advance of our shadow panel decision meeting on Friday. I struggled with these two books for different reasons. A 640-page biography of a figure I’d never heard of was always going to be a hard ask; and science fiction is not one of my go-to genres. But I’ll try my best to do them justice with these short reviews.
Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman
By Minoo Dinshaw
Historian Steven Runciman’s life spanned most of the twentieth century: 1903 to 2000. Though born in Northumberland, he considered himself Scottish and was for a time the Laird of Eigg, an island his father, Walter, purchased in 1925. This biography often reads like a who’s-who of the upper classes. Walter led the Board of Education in Prime Minister Asquith’s cabinet, and young Steven was school chums with the PM’s son, Anthony “Puffin” Asquith. At Eton Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) was his closest pal; at Cambridge he was photographed by Cecil Beaton – as in that splendid cover image. His brother married novelist Rosamond Lehmann. He was friends with E.F. Benson, Edith Wharton and the Queen Mother. A young Patrick Leigh Fermor wandered into Bulgaria while Runciman was there for the 1934 International Byzantine Congress, and Fermor and Freya Stark turn up frequently thereafter. Our hero also spent time in China, Japan, Greece, Turkey, Egypt and Borneo. My favorite odd interlude in this wide-ranging, adventurous life was a time in Hollywood advising George Cukor on Empress Theodora (to be played by Ava Gardner).
Dinshaw draws a fine distinction between his subject’s professional and private selves. When talking about the published historian and thinker, he uses “Runciman”; when talking about the closeted homosexual and his relationships with family and friends, it’s “Steven”. This confused me to start with, but quickly became second nature. Occasionally these public and private personas are contrasted directly: “Runciman was a great romantic historian; but in his personal affairs Steven had come to be more admiring of that epithet ‘realistic’ than of any height of romance.” Indeed, Steven once confessed he had never been in love. At the shortlist event on Saturday, Dinshaw summed him up as “an old-fashioned, courtly queer.”
Dinshaw doesn’t shy away from his subject’s less flattering traits like vanity, envy and mischievousness. He also gives a good sense of Runciman’s writing style for those readers who may never read his history books – such as a three-volume history of the Crusades and a work on Sicilian prehistory – for themselves:
Runciman does owe some of his lucid style and sardonic humour to Gibbon.
The opening of Romanus established the practice of resonantly gnomic first lines in Runciman’s work: clear in style, epic in resonance, cynical in import and without immediate application to the particulars of the subject.
Chapter titles are mainly taken from relevant tarot cards (for instance, Chapter 22, “The Hanged Man,” primarily concerns Steven’s homosexuality), which also feature on the book’s endpapers. The text is also partitioned by two sets of glossy black-and-white photographs. The book’s scope and the years of research that went into it cannot fail to impress. I never warmed to Steven as much as I wanted to, but that is likely due to a lack of engagement: regrettably, I had to skim much of the book to make the deadline. However, I will not be at all surprised if the official judges choose to honor this imposing work of scholarship.
Other shadow panel reviews of Outlandish Knight:
Annabel’s at Annabookbel
The End of the Day
By Claire North
Charlie is the Harbinger of Death, a role that involves a lot of free travel and some sticky situations. But really, it’s a job like any other:
When he got the job, the first thing he did was phone his mum, who was very proud. It wasn’t what she’d ever imagined him doing, of course, not really, but it came with a pension and a good starting salary, and if it made him happy…
The second thing he did was try and find his Unique Taxpayer Reference, as without it the office in Milton Keynes said they couldn’t register him for PAYE at the appropriate tax level.
After all, they say there are only two things you can’t avoid: death and taxes.
Charlie is Death’s John the Baptist, if you will: “I’m the one who’s sent before. … My presence is not the end. Sometimes I am sent as a courtesy, sometimes as warning. I never know which.” His destinations include Peru, Greenland, Syria, Nigeria and Mexico. In between these visitations – during which he talks to the person in question and gives them something meaningful, like tea or a figurine of a deity – Charlie strives to lead a normal life back in Dulwich with Emmi, whom he met via Internet dating.
I loved the premise of the novel, and its witty writing should appeal to Terry Pratchett and Nicola Barker fans. The more fantastical elements are generally brought back to earth by unremitting bureaucracy – I especially enjoyed a scene in which Charlie is questioned by U.S. Border officials. But the book’s structure and style got in the way for me. It is episodic and told via super-short chapters (110 of them). It skips around in a distracting manner, never landing on one scene or subplot for very long. Ellipses, partial repeated lines, and snippets of other voices all contribute to it feeling scattered and aimless. North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is terrific, but her latest didn’t live up to my expectations. Hopefully this is just a one-off; I’m willing to try more from North in the future.
Other shadow panel reviews of The End of the Day:
Annabel’s at Annabookbel
Clare’s at A Little Blog of Books
Dane’s at Social Book Shelves
Eleanor’s at Elle Thinks
I had a pleasant birthday weekend: a five-mile country walk with some foraging of sloes, reading in the armchair with the cat, catching up with Poldark on DVD, and a three-course Italian feast my husband made from a River Café cookbook (plus a homemade Sachertorte). And I got 11 secondhand books for my birthday, if you were wondering!
We also attended a couple of Hungerford Literary Festival events. This year the theme was “Journeys,” so all of the featured books and authors were broadly travel-related Alas, the talk we were meant to attend on Saturday by Sunday Times writer Jonathan Dean, based on I Must Belong Somewhere, his memoir about researching his family’s European history, was cancelled due to insufficient ticket sales – we felt so sorry for the poor author!
However, on Sunday my husband saw Nick Hunt speak about his recent travelogue on famous European winds such as the mistral, and I saw Simon Fenwick in conversation with journalist Elinor Goodman about his new biography of Joan Leigh Fermor, the wife of celebrated travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor (whom Fenwick and Goodman consistently called Paddy).
Fenwick considers Joan an enigmatic figure; although she could be quite a bitch, she also brought out the best in certain people, including Paddy. From a wealthy Yorkshire wool merchant family, she met golden writers like John Betjeman at bohemian parties. Although she was a fairly successful photographer – there will be a major exhibition of her work in London next year – she cast herself in a supporting role, as was traditional for the time: she would say that her career was all about helping Paddy in his, financially as well as morally. (I could just imagine what a novel about her would be called: The Travel Writer’s Wife.)
Although Fenwick believes Joan is a worthy biographical subject in her own right, her relationship with Paddy dominated the talk. When the couple met in Egypt in 1944, he was famous for having kidnapped a Nazi general, a stunt of debatable military benefit though it was certainly great for publicity. Women flocked to the handsome Paddy: he was carrying on two affairs at this time, and his one lover got pregnant and had an abortion.Though they didn’t marry until 1968, by which time they were settled in their home in Kardamyli, Greece, Joan and Paddy were an item for all the intervening years. Theirs was an open relationship, though; they even shared a lover, Alan Pryce-Jones. (Hoping I heard this correctly and am not just making a wild claim!) “NO GUILT” was one of Paddy’s mottoes. The travel writer’s life entailed long separations: Fenwick estimates that during the 1950s, Paddy didn’t stay put anywhere for more than two months at a time, but Joan served as “his psychological home.” Perhaps this practicality explains why the Fermors never had children: Paddy was simply hardly ever home. Or perhaps Joan was infertile, given that Paddy and Joan’s previous husband, John Rayner, both impregnated other women.
Joan was known as a wonderful cook and entertainer. In Greece they had a rotating cast of guests, and people would frequently just turn up uninvited. From afar the house looks like an ancient monastery, Fenwick said, though it’s now surrounded by modern buildings. Much of it is one huge room that serves as library, living room and dining room, with a corridor leading to the outside. In Joan’s time there were cats galore. Fenwick remembers the strong smell of jasmine the first time he walked through the archway into the courtyard.Fenwick’s route into this project was somewhat unusual: he’s an archivist by trade and has spent decades of his life reading other people’s letters. He was invited to archive the papers in Fermor’s writing studio after the author’s death in 2011. The material was in chaotic files, but eventually he organized some 19 boxes of records to send back to the UK; they are now held in the National Library of Scotland. He wrote an article for the Times Literary Supplement about the experience, and from there one thing led to another. He never met either Paddy or Joan, who died in 2003, while Fermor’s biographer, Artemis Cooper, did meet him.
Although Fenwick did not wish to comment on another biographer’s work, he noted that in comparison to Cooper’s his is perhaps a bit of a new view on Paddy, a “not wholly heroic but fascinating” figure, flawed “on a grand scale.” Fenwick was impressed by “his pure energy – in his writing and in everything he did.” While Paddy must have been exhausting to live with, Fenwick believes he and Joan recognized in each other a similar approach to life.
As a speaker Fenwick wasn’t particularly engaging: even with a microphone he seemed to mutter, and left awkward gaps before answering. Is it fair that his dull manner made me wonder whether his book would be worth reading? Not all authors can be charismatic in person, I’m sure; I would definitely struggle with public speaking if I ever had to go on a book tour. But I do wish he had perhaps read a section from his book so I could have gotten a sense of the style. I think Joan’s life is interesting enough that I will still read her biography someday, but perhaps only after I’ve read more of Paddy’s travel books and the Cooper biography, which I own in paperback.
Have you attended any literary events recently? Does an author’s personality influence your opinion of their books?
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 much much of the summer I was sunk deep into several very good but not particularly page-turning works of nonfiction from my shelves. I spent months reading some of them, which is very unusual for me and often a sign that I’m not enjoying something, but this time that wasn’t the case. One of these nonfiction reads – the Fermor – ended up being among my favorite books of the year so far. Below I give quick write-ups of what I’ve finished lately and recall how these books came to be in my collection.
Lincoln: A Foreigner’s Quest by Jan Morris: Like grape jelly, the obsession with Abraham Lincoln was something about American life that world traveler Jan Morris could never understand. Here she sets out to discover the melange of history and myth that composes the 16th president. She succeeds in giving not only the salient facts of Lincoln’s life but also a fair assessment of his character, in a lighthearted and accessible book that has neither the heft nor the heavygoing tone of a standard biography. Her discussion of his rhetorical style is especially good, and in a few passages she imagines the reader into scenes. Here’s one of the best pithy observations: “Academic historians cannot allow themselves such flip idiomatic judgments, but to an outsider like me that seems about the truth of it. He was a nice man. He could be scheming, irritable, disingenuous, but he was never pompous or overbearing.” [Remainder copy bought for $3.99 at Wonder Book and Video, Frederick, Maryland.]
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan: I made the mistake of reading this a decade after its publication, which means I already knew most of its facts about industrialized farming and the insidiousness of processed foods. I found Part I to be overly detailed and one-note, constantly harping on about corn. The book gets better as it goes on, though, with Pollan doing field research at Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia to compare large-scale organic agriculture with more sustainable grassroots operations. Pollan’s assessment of the ethics of eating meat is not quite as thorough as Jonathan Safran Foer’s (in Eating Animals), but he does a good job of showing all sides of the issue. This would make an excellent, comprehensive introduction to where food comes from for people who have never given it much thought. But then again, the people who need it most would never pick up a dense 400+-page book by a liberal journalist. [Bought in one of the Hay-on-Wye shops for £2.]
The Naming of the Shrew by John Wright: Wright is known in the UK as TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s go-to expert on foraging, especially fungi. His enthusiasm for the arcane details of Latin naming comes through clearly in this thorough history of taxonomy. At first I thought it would be a groaningly pun-filled book of arbitrarily arranged trivia, but by Chapter 2 Wright won me over. You’ll learn all about Carl Linnaeus and the taxonomists who preceded and followed him; rules for species naming and the meaning of common Latin prefixes and suffixes; the wildly divergent sources of names, from discoverers’ names to mythology; and the endless complications of a field where species are always being lumped, split, or re-evaluated. One of my favorite facts was that aloe vera and the boa constrictor are among the few species whose English names are the same as their Latin ones. [A birthday gift from my brother-in-law last year.]
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor: A true masterwork of travel writing. Over the course of three years, starting when he was just 18, Fermor walked from Holland to Constantinople. I was particularly eager to read this because he passes through a lot of places I went on my travels this past summer, including Germany, Austria and Bratislava. 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, and yet he was reconstructing this journey nearly 40 years after the fact. Although he was basically traveling rough, he managed to wangle invitations into castles and aristocrats’ homes. This gives him a broad base of observation such that you feel you’re getting a complete picture of European life in the early 1930s. It’s a precious glimpse of pre-war history, but Fermor doesn’t use too heavy a hand when recalling signs of rising Nazism. Lastly, this is simply damn fine writing:
Beer, caraway seed, beeswax, coffee, pine-logs and melting snow combined with the smoke of thick, short cigars in a benign aroma across which every so often the ghost of sauerkraut would float.
The Romanesque nave was packed and an anthem of great choral splendour rose from the gothic choir stalls, while the cauliflowering incense followed the plainsong across the slopes of the sunbeams.
When no buildings were in sight, I was back in the Dark Ages. But the moment a farmhouse or a village impinged, I was in the world of Peter Brueghel.
[Bought for £1 from a secondhand bookstore in Henley-on-Thames.]
The House by the Sea by May Sarton: This is the sixth of Sarton’s journals I’ve read. It covers 1975–6, when she was 63–4 and in her second year in Maine. Her health is not yet a worry, at least as compared to later journals, but there is a faint sense of diminished abilities and an awareness of death’s approach. Poetry has run dry for her, but in the course of writing this journal she publishes a series of biographical reflections and prepares to begin a new novel. Tamas the dog and Bramble the cat are faithful companions. Her former lover, Judy, suffers from dementia and visits with her are mostly painful reminders of what has been lost. These journals are not the place to turn if you want momentous events. Rather, read them for deep insight into a writer’s psyche, meditations on the benefits of solitude, and affirmation of the quiet joys of gardening and an ocean view. [Bought from a library book sale in America for 50 cents.]