My Best Backlist Reads of 2020
Like many book bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the shiny new books released each year. However, I consistently find that many of my most memorable reads were published years or even decades ago. These 29 selections, in alphabetical order by author name, account for the rest of my 4.5- and 5-star ratings of the year. Five rereads made it onto my list.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Through Ifemelu’s years of studying, working, and blogging her way around the Eastern seaboard of the United States, Adichie explores the ways in which the experience of an African abroad differs from that of African Americans. On a sentence level as well as at a macro plot level, this was utterly rewarding.
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks: In 1665, with the Derbyshire village of Eyam in the grip of the Plague, the drastic decision is made to quarantine it. Frustration with the pastor’s ineffectuality attracts people to religious extremism. Anna’s intimate first-person narration and the historical recreation are faultless, and there are so many passages that feel apt.
Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler: Four childhood friends from Little Wing, Wisconsin. Which bonds will last, and which will be strained to the breaking point? This is a book full of nostalgia and small-town atmosphere. All the characters wonder whether they’ve made the right decisions or gotten stuck. A lot of bittersweet moments, but also comic ones.
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler: A perfect time-travel novel for readers who quail at science fiction. Dana, an African American writer in Los Angeles, is dropped into early-nineteenth-century Maryland. This was such an absorbing read, with first-person narration that makes you feel you’re right there alongside Dana on her perilous travels.
Dominicana by Angie Cruz: Ana Canción is just 15 when she arrives in New York from the Dominican Republic on the first day of 1965 to start her new life as the wife of Juan Ruiz. An arranged marriage and arriving in a country not knowing a word of the language: this is a valuable immigration story that stands out for its plucky and confiding narrator.
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn: A book of letters in multiple sense. Laugh-out-loud silliness plus a sly message about science and reason over superstition = a rare combination that made this an enduring favorite. On my reread I was more struck by the political satire: freedom of speech is endangered in a repressive society slavishly devoted to a sacred text.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich: Interlocking stories that span half a century in the lives of a couple of Chippewa families that sprawl out from a North Dakota reservation. Looking for love, looking for work. Getting lucky, getting even. Their problems are the stuff of human nature and contemporary life. I adored the descriptions of characters and of nature.
Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale: Nonlinear chapters give snapshots of the life of a bipolar artist and her interactions with her husband and children. Their Quakerism sets up a calm and compassionate atmosphere, but also allows family secrets to proliferate. The novel questions patterns of inheritance and the possibility of happiness.
Confession with Blue Horses by Sophie Hardach: When Ella’s parents, East German art historians who came under Stasi surveillance, were caught trying to defect, their children were taken away from them. Decades later, Ella is determined to find her missing brother and learn what really happened to her mother. Eye-opening and emotionally involving.
The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley: Twelve-year-old Leo Colston is invited to spend July at his school friend’s home, Brandham Hall. You know from the famous first line on that this juxtaposes past and present. It’s masterfully done: the class divide, the picture of childhood tipping over into the teenage years, the oppressive atmosphere, the comical touches.
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf: Addie is a widow; Louis is a widower. They’re both lonely and prone to fretting about what they could have done better. Would he like to come over to her house at night to talk and sleep? Matter-of-fact prose, delivered without speech marks, belies a deep undercurrent of emotion. Understated, bittersweet, realistic. Perfect.
The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud: A 9/11 novel. The trio of protagonists, all would-be journalists aged 30, have never really had to grow up; now it’s time to get out from under the shadow of a previous generation and reassess what is admirable and who is expendable. This was thoroughly engrossing. Great American Novel territory, for sure.
My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki: A Japanese-American filmmaker is tasked with finding all-American families and capturing their daily lives – and best meat recipes. There is a clear message here about cheapness and commodification, but Ozeki filters it through the wrenching stories of two women with fertility problems. Bold if at times discomforting.
Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields: An impeccable novella, it brings its many elements to a satisfying conclusion and previews the author’s enduring themes. Something of a sly academic comedy à la David Lodge, it’s laced with Shields’s quiet wisdom on marriage, parenting, the writer’s vocation, and the difficulty of ever fully understanding another life.
Larry’s Party by Carol Shields: The sweep of Larry’s life, from youth to middle age, is presented chronologically through chapters that are more like linked short stories: they focus on themes (family, friends, career, sex, clothing, health) and loop back to events to add more detail and new insight. I found so much to relate to in Larry’s story; Larry is really all of us.
Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout: Tyler Caskey is a widowed pastor whose five-year-old daughter has gone mute and started acting up. As usual, Strout’s characters are painfully real, flawed people, often struggling with damaging obsessions. She tenderly probes the dark places of the community and its minister’s doubts, but finds the light shining through.
The Wife by Meg Wolitzer: On the way to Finland, where her genius writer husband will accept the prestigious Helsinki Prize, Joan finally decides to leave him. Alternating between the trip and earlier in their marriage, this is deceptively thoughtful with a juicy twist. Joan’s narration is witty and the point about the greater value attributed to men’s work is still valid.
Winter Journal by Paul Auster: Approaching age 64, the winter of his life, Auster decided to assemble his most visceral memories: scars, accidents and near-misses, what his hands felt and his eyes observed. The use of the second person draws readers in. I particularly enjoyed the tour through the 21 places he’s lived. One of the most remarkable memoirs I’ve ever read.
Heat by Bill Buford: Buford was an unpaid intern at Mario Batali’s famous New York City restaurant, Babbo. In between behind-the-scenes looks at frantic sessions of food prep, Buford traces Batali’s culinary pedigree through Italy and London. Exactly what I want from food writing: interesting trivia, quick pace, humor, and mouthwatering descriptions.
Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books by Paul Collins: Collins moved to Hay-on-Wye with his wife and toddler son, hoping to make a life there. As he edited the manuscript of his first book, he started working for Richard Booth, the eccentric bookseller who crowned himself King of Hay. Warm, funny, and nostalgic. An enduring favorite of mine.
A Year on the Wing by Tim Dee: From a life spent watching birds, Dee weaves a mesh of memories and recent experiences, meditations and allusions. He moves from one June to the next and from Shetland to Zambia. The most powerful chapter is about watching peregrines at Bristol’s famous bridge – where he also, as a teen, saw a man commit suicide.
The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange: While kayaking down the western coast of the British Isles and Ireland, Gange delves into the folklore, geology, history, local language and wildlife of each region and island group – from the extreme north of Scotland at Muckle Flugga to the southwest tip of Cornwall. An intricate interdisciplinary approach.
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott: There is a lot of bereavement and other dark stuff here, yet an overall lightness of spirit prevails. A college dropout and addict, Lamott didn’t walk into a church and get clean until her early thirties. Each essay is perfectly constructed, countering everyday angst with a fumbling faith.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: This has my deepest admiration for how it prioritizes voice, theme and scene, gleefully does away with chronology and (not directly relevant) backstory, and engages with history, critical theory and the tropes of folk tales to interrogate her experience of same-sex domestic violence. (Second-person narration again!)
Period Piece by Gwen Raverat: Raverat was a granddaughter of Charles Darwin. This is a portrait of what it was like to grow up in a particular time and place (Cambridge from the 1880s to about 1909). Not just an invaluable record of domestic history, it is a funny and impressively thorough memoir that serves as a model for how to capture childhood.
The Universal Christ by Richard Rohr: I’d read two of the Franciscan priest’s previous books but was really blown away by the wisdom in this one. The argument in a nutshell is that Western individualism has perverted the good news of Jesus, which is renewal for everything and everyone. A real gamechanger. My copy is littered with Post-it flags.
First Time Ever: A Memoir by Peggy Seeger: The octogenarian folk singer and activist has packed in enough adventure and experience for multiple lifetimes, and in some respects has literally lived two: one in America and one in England; one with Ewan MacColl and one with a female partner. Her writing is punchy and impressionistic. She’s my new hero.
A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas: A memoir in essays about her husband’s TBI and what kept her going. Unassuming and heart on sleeve, Thomas wrote one of the most beautiful books out there about loss and memory. It is one of the first memoirs I remember reading; it made a big impression the first time, but I loved it even more on a reread.
On Silbury Hill by Adam Thorpe: Explores the fragmentary history of the manmade Neolithic mound and various attempts to excavate it, but ultimately concludes we will never understand how and why it was made. A flawless integration of personal and wider history, as well as a profound engagement with questions of human striving and hubris.
(Books not pictured were read digitally, or have already gone back to the library.)
And if I really had to limit myself to just two favorites – my very best fiction and nonfiction reads of the year – they would be Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf and Winter Journal by Paul Auster.
What were your best backlist reads this year?
Hay-on-Wye Trip & Sixpence House Reread
We found Hay-on-Wye fairly bustling on an early September weekend. Not all of the bookshops are operational or have reliable opening hours, so we missed our chance to go in a few of them this time. Still, nine was plenty to be getting on with. The castle currently has scaffolding up for necessary renovations, and many eateries were offering little or no indoor table service. Masks are not actually compulsory in Wales, but we wore ours inside shops anyway, and half or more of the other customers and booksellers were doing the same.
Day 1: Drive there; Clock Tower Books, Oxfam, a great haul from the honesty shelves by the Castle (everything’s £1); ice cream cones from Shepherds; dinner at The Globe.
Day 2: A walk up Hay Bluff; roast lunch at the Three Tuns pub; Broad Street Book Centre, Hay Cinema Bookshop.
Day 3: Cinema outdoor area, Booth’s, British Red Cross shop, back to Oxfam, back to Clock Tower Books, Green Ink Booksellers; ice cream cones from Shepherds (again); drive home.
“To look for a specific book in Hay is a hopeless task; you can only find the books that are looking for you, the ones you didn’t even know to ask for in the first place. … What you mean to find matters less than what you do find.”
~Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, Paul Collins (see below)
I bought 26 books in total (though one is an omnibus, so you could call it 28), at an average spend of £1.81 per volume. (My husband bought 10 nature books. We also found a gift for my father-in-law’s birthday next week – whew!) I’m particularly pleased with the Robertson Davies novels and the memoirs, some of which have been on my wish list for a long time. My interests in animals plus foodie and medical themes come through clearly. Some authors here I’ve never tried but have been meaning to; others are familiar names I was interested to read more by. I only noticed later on that Ghosts, the John Fuller poetry book, is a signed copy.
What I read
From last year’s book haul: The first 30 or so pages in Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller and Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres. I’ll probably only skim the Spowers travel book (another one I only just noticed is signed). I have to read a different Dunmore first, towards my Women’s Prize reading project, as it’s requested after me at the library, but I’ll try to get to Talking to the Dead before too much longer.
I got through another 90 pages in Mike Parker’s On the Red Hill, about life in the house he and his partner inherited in the Welsh countryside from another gay couple. I also read about half of Tilly and the Lost Fairy Tales, Anna James’s second middle-grade novel about a girl who disappears into books and interacts with the characters, and the remainder of A.N. Wilson’s The Tabitha Stories, a cute chapter book with illustrations about a kitten learning how to be a cat.
Mostly, I focused on rereading the whole of Paul Collins’s memoir Sixpence House. I’ve listed this as one of the landmark books in my life because, as I was getting ready for my year abroad in England in the late summer of 2003, it was one of the books that whetted my appetite for traveling, and particularly for visiting Hay-on-Wye. (We first went in 2004; this was our seventh trip.)
In 2000 Collins moved from San Francisco to Hay with his wife and toddler son, hoping to make a life there. His parents were British and he’d enjoyed trips to the Book Town before, so it wasn’t a completely random choice. The place suited his interest in the oddities and obscure figures of literature and history. In fact, he’d just finished writing Banvard’s Folly, a fun book containing 13 profiles of thinkers and inventors whose great ideas flopped. (I should reread it, too.)
As he edits his manuscript and hunts for the perfect cover and title, he is also unexpectedly drawn into working for Richard Booth, the eccentric bookseller who was responsible for creating the world’s first book town and crowned himself King of Hay. Booth hired him to sort out the American Studies section – but if you ever went in the pre-2007 Booth’s you’ll know how impossible it would have been to make order out of its chaos. He comes across lots of interesting books time has forgotten, though (I first learned about W.N.P. Barbellion’s The Journal of a Disappointed Man from this book; why have I still not read it?!), and muses on counterfeiting, cover designs, bookbinding, and the sadness of the remainders bin.
Renting an apartment above Pembertons, which no longer exists but was at that time the town’s only new bookshop, Collins and his wife look at various properties and fall in love with a former pub. But when the survey comes back, they realize fixing all the damp and rot would nearly double its £125,000 price tag. (That sure looks good these days! The B&B next to the Airbnb flat where we stayed was for sale for over £700,000. Cusop Dingle is full of large, posh houses – Collins’s landlady referred to it as the “Beverly Hills of Hay.”) Buying one of the new-build houses on the edge of town just isn’t their dream.
In the end, after six months or so in Hay, they admit defeat and move back to the States. So in a sense this is – just like Banvard’s Folly, the book being shepherded into publication within it – a book about an experiment that turned out to be a noble failure. It’s warm, funny in a Bryson-esque way, and nostalgic for a place that still exists but a time that never will again. I loved spotting familiar landmarks, even if the shops have changed hands or are no longer there. This was probably my fourth read, but it all still felt fresh. An enduring favorite of mine.
I’d be intrigued to know what Collins would make of Hay 20 years later. In 2000 it had 40 bookshops; now it’s only 12, with online sellers, book-related businesses, and shops further afield pushing the listings in the annual leaflet to 26. Whereas then Collins felt they were the only young family in town, it’s very much a hipster place now and we saw many groups of teens and twentysomethings. A tapas bar, boutique stores, turmeric chai lattes … it’s not just a musty antiquarian book lover’s paradise anymore, and that might sadden some like Collins. Yet gentrification and the Festival may be the only things that have kept the town alive. Richard Booth died last year, but the book town vision should live on.
I miss Hay already. I hate to think of all the time that might pass before I can get there again, and what will (or won’t) have changed by then. A few years can seem to go by in an instant these days. My vow is to go again before I turn 40.
Making Plans for a Return to Hay-on-Wye & A Book “Overhaul”
Somehow it’s been nearly 3.5 years since our last trip to Hay-on-Wye, the Book Town of Wales (I wrote about that April 2017 visit here). This coming weekend will be our seventh trip to Hay, one of our favorite places. We’ve booked an Airbnb in nearby English hamlet Cusop Dingle for two nights, so it’s a pretty short break, but longer than the weekend away we managed last month – reduced to only 36 hours by the cat’s poorly timed but ultimately minor one-day illness.
I’ve acquired many, many books from the free mall bookshop over the past year. (It’s now closed permanently, alas.) And I had no shortage of additional incomers during lockdown, via the unofficial Little Free Library I started and orders I placed with independent bookstores and publishers. So you could say I don’t need a book-buying trip to Hay. But 1) it’s never a question of need, is it? and 2) We want to continue to support the town, which will have been hit hard by temporary closures and by its annual literary festival being purely online this year.
I have no particular plans for what to buy this time, so will just see what takes my fancy. There are noticeably fewer bookshops than when we first started visiting Hay in 2004, but among the dozen or so remaining are some truly excellent shops like Addyman Books, the Hay Cinema Bookshop, and Booth’s Bookshop. Our best bargains last time were from the Oxfam charity shop and the honesty shelves around the castle, so those will likely be our first ports of call, and from there we’ll let whimsy be our guide. Saturday and Monday will be for wandering the town and book shopping, while Sunday will include countryside walks around Hay Bluff. We also hope to explore some eatery options we’ve not tried before.
An Overhaul of Last Trip’s Book Purchases
Simon of Stuck in a Book runs a regular blog feature he calls “The Overhaul,” where he revisits a book haul from some time ago and takes stock of what he’s read, what he still owns, etc. (here’s the most recent one). With his permission, I’m borrowing the title and format to look back at what I bought in Hay last time.
Date of haul: April 2017
Number of books bought: 18
Had already read: (3/18)
- How to Age by Anne Karpf
- From Heaven Lake by Vikram Seth
- Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds – It’s on my shelf for rereading.
Have read since then: (5/18)
- Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge [resold]
- Fillets of Plaice by Gerald Durrell
- A Student of Weather by Elizabeth Hay (!)
- The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson
- Cats in May by Doreen Tovey
BUT also read from my hubby’s pile (not pictured):
- Sold for a Farthing by Clare Kipps
- All the Presidents’ Pastries by Roland Mesnier
- Second Nature by Michael Pollan
- A Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks
- Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee [resold]
- We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates – Might try this one again another time.
- Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott [given away]
Resold unread: (1/18)
- Family and Friends by Anita Brookner – I’d added it to the Oxfam pile to make up a 5 for £1 stack, but then didn’t enjoy Booker winner Hotel du Lac enough to try another by Brookner.
Total still unread: 6
Total no longer owned: 4
This is not too bad a showing overall, though it does reveal my habit of buying books and letting them sit around for years unread. (Surely I’m not alone in this?!)
The six purchases still to read are two cat-themed anthologies for reading piecemeal, plus these four – two fiction and two non-:
- Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore
- Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller
- Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres
- A Year in Green Tea and Tuk-Tuks by Rory Spowers
To force myself to get to them, these are the four I’ve packed for reading in the car and while in Hay. I’m also bringing, to read on location: 1) On the Red Hill by Mike Parker, a Wainwright Prize-shortlisted memoir about life in the Welsh countryside (I’m about 40 pages into it already); and 2) Sixpence House, which I’ve read several times before and consider among my absolute favorite books; it’s Paul Collins’s memoir about finding a temporary home and work among the bookshops of Hay.
I’ll be back on Tuesday with this year’s book haul plus photos and notes on how we found the town this time around. (But first, Six Degrees of Separation will post on Saturday while I’m away.)
American Book Acquisitions and 2019 Reading Goals
We arrived in the UK on January 1, after an overnight flight from Baltimore. There was no midnight announcement, no complimentary champagne; nothing. Clearly I had my hopes too high. So we’re feeling a bit cheated out of our New Year’s Eve experience and will be doing a recreated countdown and toast when we have houseguests over for this Epiphany weekend.
It was a low-key, relaxing couple of weeks back in the States, the majority of it spent seeing family and friends. We also made it into D.C. to see the new Obama portraits. Mostly I enjoyed doing not a lick of work. And I acquired books, of course: a secondhand and remainder stack that, after my trade-in of some cast-off books, cost just $4; and a few ARCs I’m excited about.
I’m feeling restless in my career, like if someone gave me permission to quit all my gigs I would do it tomorrow. But, of course, only a fool would do so with no plan to replace them with other remunerative work. The year is likely to involve a lot of rethinking for me as I evaluate which of my proofreading and writing jobs feel worthwhile, and what’s taking me in the direction I want to go (not that I currently know what that is).
Life is awfully hard to plan out. Reading is much easier! So here are my fairly modest reading goals for the year, some of them overlapping:
- I plan to reinstate the Classic and Doorstopper of the month features I ran in 2017, since otherwise I hardly ever read them. I’m starting with Annabel’s readalong of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, which is just over 500 pages but also conveniently falls into one of the below categories.
- I’ll make a second attempt at getting through some of the travel books and biographies I own, though I won’t hold myself to any particular target. At least five of each would be nice.
- I’m determined to up my literature in translation ratio. These are all the books I own that were originally published in other languages – pitiful! – but I will get hold of more through the library and publishers.
- Re-reading is something I undertake very reluctantly. I have friends who swear by it, but to me it can feel like a waste of time. Last year I re-read just four books: Little Women, Give Me Everything You Have, Crossing the Moon, and Diary of a Bookseller. In each case, on the second reading I rated the book a star lower. That suggests that, far from appreciating books more on a second reading, I have less patience with them and find more flaws! All the same, I’ve chosen four books to re-read in 2019. The Collins is a longtime favorite about moving to Hay-on-Wye; the Thomas is one of the books that first got me into reading memoirs. I’ve been let down by Lamott’s latest three books so wanted to go back to one of her spiritual classics; I’ve gotten into L’Engle’s writing for adults and want to revisit her most famous children’s book (which I don’t think I comprehended at age nine or whatever I was).
- I have a bad habit of racing through self-help and theology books rather than taking my time mulling over them and fully exploring how I might apply them in my life. This was especially true of The Artist’s Way, one of my bibliotherapy prescriptions. I started out with the aim of completing the daily “morning pages” of free writing (though for me they were ‘evening pages’; I’m not a morning person) and each chapter’s self-knowledge exercises. But soon I’d given up on the writing and contemplation and begun just reading the book straight through, which is not the point of it at all. So this year I mean to go back through the Cameron and Rubin books more mindfully, and use the McLaren devotional as it is intended, reading the recommended Bible passages alongside the weekly reflections.
What are some of your goals (reading-related or otherwise) for 2019?
35 Years, 35 Favorite Books
I love book lists: ticking off what I’ve read from newspaper and website selections, comparing my “best-of” choices and prize predictions with other people’s, and making up my own thematic inventories. Earlier in the year I spotted Desert Island-style 100-book lists on Annabookbel and A life in books, as well as Lonesome Reader’s reconsideration of the 100 favorite books he’d chosen half a lifetime ago. For my 35th birthday today, I’ve looked back at my “Absolute Favorites” shelf on Goodreads and picked the 35 titles that stand out the most for me: some are childhood favorites, some are books that changed my thinking, some I have read two or three times (an extreme rarity for me), and some are recent discoveries that have quickly become personal classics. I’ve listed these in rough chronological order of when I first read them, rather than ranking them, which would be nigh on impossible! Perhaps I’ll revisit the list on future significant birthdays and see how things change. Interesting to note that this works out as about two-thirds fiction and one-third nonfiction.
- Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
- The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis
- Watership Down by Richard Adams
- Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
- David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
- The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
- Possession by A.S. Byatt
- Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
- Sixpence House by Paul Collins
- A History of God by Karen Armstrong
- Conundrum by Jan Morris
- The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg
- The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
- My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
- On Beauty by Zadie Smith
- Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty
- Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner
- A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
- American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
- Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
- Caribou Island by David Vann
- To Travel Hopefully by Christopher Rush
- We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
- The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
- Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway
- An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
- A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
- Want Not by Jonathan Miles
- Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton
- F by Daniel Kehlmann
- Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
- March by Geraldine Brooks
Are any of these among your favorites, too?
Landmark Books in My Life, Part II
This is a follow-up to a piece I wrote in September about the books that shaped my early life. I think of my twenties in general, and 2005–7 in particular, as a golden period in my reading life, when I started to develop the tastes that still guide my book choices today.
I was an English and Religion major and studied abroad in England for my junior year in 2003–4. As I was getting ready to go overseas for that first time in the summer of 2003, Susan Allen Toth’s trilogy of travel memoirs, starting with My Love Affair with England, and Paul Collins’s Sixpence House whetted my appetite for travel in Great Britain and, in the case of the latter, made me determined to get to Hay-on-Wye, Wales as soon as I could. (I first visited in May 2004 and have gone back several times since.)
One of the most memorable books I read during my year abroad was Robert Elsmere by Mrs. Humphry Ward. It’s almost forgotten nowadays, but was a bestseller at its release in 1888. The story of a minister’s loss of faith and how it affects his marriage, it’s a stand-in for a whole faith-and-doubt subgenre that was wildly popular at the time. The novel is long, brooding and overwritten—in many ways it exemplifies the worst characteristics of the Victorian novel—but it resonated with my own crisis of faith and planted the seed for my Master’s thesis on women’s faith and doubt narratives in Victorian fiction.
Part of working through that ongoing crisis of faith was seeing other religions more objectively and being open to the similarities between them. I found Karen Armstrong’s comparative study of the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism and Islam), A History of God, absolutely riveting when I read it in my senior year of college. It’s a classic.
My academic conference career began and ended with one I attended the summer after college graduation. I adapted a paper I’d written about D.H. Lawrence’s new moral framework for sexuality and was accepted to present it at the D.H. Lawrence Society of North America’s annual conference in 2005, which that year was held in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Thankfully, I’ve mostly blanked out my actual paper presentation as part of a panel of three young people, but the trip as a whole was wonderful—it was my first time in the southwest, and the conference included great field trips to Lawrence’s ranch at Taos and the Georgia O’Keeffe museum. I prepared for the experience by reading David Lodge’s Small World, a paperback I’d plucked from the shelves of the bookstore where I worked part-time during my senior year. “A satire about the academic conference circuit? I’m there!” I thought, and since then David Lodge has become one of my two or three favorite authors.
It wasn’t until I returned to England to get my Master’s in 2005–6 that I really reclaimed reading as a leisure activity. The last couple years of college had been so busy I’d barely been able to cope with my assigned reading; I remember never making it very far in any paperback I picked up from the public library (like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, which I’ve never gone back to). But the long, lonely evenings in Leeds had to be filled somehow, and the upstairs stacks of the magnificent Brotherton Library had plenty to offer in the way of literary fiction. In that year I made my way through loads of books by A.S. Byatt and Julian Barnes, as well as David Lodge (my top 3, probably). Possession made the biggest impression, but I love pretty much all of Byatt’s work. If pressed to name my favorite author, it would be her.
In the partial year between finishing my Master’s and getting married back in England, I lived at home with my parents and worked part-time at a community college library. My evening shifts were often dead quiet, so I got plenty of reading done behind the circulation desk. One book I selected at random from the public library shelves, Abigail Thomas’s A Three Dog Life, had a big impact on me in 2007. The memoir tells of her husband’s traumatic brain injury and the aftermath. Thomas writes in a fragmentary, episodic format that felt fresh and jolted me. I wasn’t entirely sure I liked the style, but it sure was intriguing.
I picked up Meredith Hall’s Without a Map around the same time, which cemented my interest in women’s life stories. Memoirs have been among my favorite genres ever since. Mark Doty’s exquisite Heaven’s Coast, which I read the following year, kickstarted my particular fascination with bereavement memoirs. Also, I think it was through following up his memoirs with his collections of poems that I first got into contemporary poetry.
In recent years I’ve tried to branch out (e.g. into graphic novels and literature in translation), but contemporary literary fiction, historical fiction, memoirs, theology and travel books remain my preferred genres. Most of these loves I can trace back to my early twenties.
What books meant the most to you in young adulthood?
The Un-Discovered Islands by Malachy Tallack
Last summer I very much enjoyed Malachy Tallack’s first book, 60 Degrees North, a memoir cum travel book about looking for a place to call home in the midst of a nomadic life; see my Nudge review. His new book is a gorgeous art object (illustrated by Katie Scott), composed of two- or three-page mini-essays about the real and legendary islands that have disappeared and/or been disproved over the centuries. A few of the names may be familiar – Atlantis, Thule and the Isles of the Blessed, perhaps – but many of the rest are fairly obscure entries in the historical and geographical record.
It’s fascinating to see how some of these islands inhabit both mythological and real space. For instance, my favorite story is that of Hufaidh in the Southern Iraq marshes. This area where the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers meet was the ancestral home of the Ma‘dān or “Marsh Arabs,” and was known to Western visitors such as Gavin Maxwell, who came to collect his otter Mijbil (the subject of Ring of Bright Water) there, and travel writer Wilfred Thesiger. Tallack writes that Hufaidh “was part paradise and part hell, both of this world and another.” When Thesiger asked locals about the island in the 1950s, he was told that “anyone who sees Hufaidh is bewitched, and afterwards no-one can understand his words.” So Hufaidh was mythical? In a sense, Tallack acknowledges, and yet Saddam Hussein’s deliberate destruction of the marshes after the first Gulf War also obliterated Hufaidh, and even the ongoing campaign of ecological restoration can never bring it back.
I was also intrigued by the tale of the Auroras, presumed to be located between the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. They were sighted multiple times between 1762 and 1796, including by a Spanish research ship, but were never seen again after the eighteenth century. Were the sailors simply mistaken? In 1820 Captain James Weddell concluded that they must have confused the Shag Rocks, 100 miles to the east, for a new set of islands. But the mystery remained, as evidenced by Edgar Allan Poe’s 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which has a ship’s crew searching for the Auroras as well as for fur seals.
Plato almost certainly invented Atlantis for his allegories, but in reading this book you will learn that some islands are indeed suspected to have sunk, like Sarah Ann Island in the Pacific, which the USA claimed for its guano resources. And while you might think that bogus territories could not exist in the late twentieth or early twenty-first centuries, a few did: the Terra Nova Islands of the Antarctic were only removed from the map in 1989, and Bermeja, an island in the Gulf of Mexico disputed between the United States and Mexico, was only definitively proven not to exist in 2009.
A few of these cases feel thin or repetitive; even with 24 islands discussed in full and another 10 listed with capsule explanations in an appendix, you sometimes get the sense that the book required a lot of barrel-scraping to craft satisfying narratives out of frustratingly incomplete stories. Still, Tallack has done an admirable job parsing fact from fiction and extracting broad lessons about the truths that might lie deeper than our atlas pages:
Absence is terrifying, and so we fill the gaps in our knowledge with invented things. These bring us comfort, but they conflict, too, with our desire for certainty and understanding.
The science of navigation has worked towards the eradication … of mystery, and to an astonishing degree it has succeeded. We can know where we are and what direction we are traveling with just the click of a button. And though that technology brings its own kind of wonder, part of us mourns what has been lost.
With its excellent color illustrations, this would make a perfect coffee table book to dip into whenever you have five or ten spare minutes to read an essay or two. I would particularly recommend it to readers who are captivated by maps, historical oddities and hoaxes.
(My review copy came wrapped in matching paper!)
The Un-Discovered Islands releases in the UK tomorrow. My thanks to Kristian Kerr of Birlinn Polygon for the free copy.
Further reading: Two similar books I’ve read are The Ice Museum by Joanna Kavenna (about the search for Thule) and Banvard’s Folly by Paul Collins (more tangentially relevant – it’s about historical mistakes and failures). You might also try Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands.
Looking for Community: Oliver Balch’s Under the Tump
My eagle eye for anything related to Hay-on-Wye led me to this book, a memoir of sorts about moving to the Welsh Borders in the search for a sense of community. Journalist Oliver Balch and his wife had previously lived in London and then started a family while living in Argentina. Although they loved the vibrancy and social opportunities of city life, when they moved back to the UK in 2012 they were in search of something different:
I fancied living somewhere with open skies and fresh air; somewhere I could strap on my walking boots and head out for a hike; somewhere alive to the sound of birdsong rather than bus exhausts. I envisioned the same for the boys. Growing up in wellies and with dirty knees. Weekend camping trips. Swimming in the river.
But it was more than just the natural scenery that drew him to the England–Wales border town of Clyro. “I liked the idea of finding a place where I could truly belong. It would be good to be on the inside for once, to be a thread or stitch in the social fabric.” It was John Updike, of all people, who inspired him to seek out small-town life. “For a writer, it’s good to live between a widow and a plumber,” Updike wrote – to be surrounded by different, ordinary people and get to know your neighbors in an old-fashioned but still desirable way.
After the family settled in at Pottery Cottage, another of Balch’s guiding spirits was Reverend Francis Kilvert, curate of Clyro from 1865 to 1872. He’s known today for the diary he started keeping in 1870. As he went around visiting, he made pen portraits of his parishioners, often summing people up through one apt phrase of Dickensian description. In a sense, Balch is trying to do the same thing with these sketches of his new community members. Meanwhile, he weaves in biographical information about Kilvert in much the same way that Helen Macdonald does about T.H. White in H is for Hawk.There’s still an active Kilvert Society today, and early on Balch joined them for a tour of Clyro. With the River Wye, the Black Mountains and the book town of Hay-on-Wye all in range, it’s a splendid view:
The Wye is at its nearest to the east, huddled in the dip between two rippled fields of honeyed wheat and brilliant yellow rapeseed, its emerald-green waters rushing fast above the reeds. … Burrowed among the trees above its far bank stands Hay, a blue-grey patchwork of tiled rooftops amid a swathe of sylvan green. Poking above the tree canopy is the castle … And then beyond, of course, the barren bouldery bulk of the Black Mountains. Implacably wild. Their beauty hard, unremitting, almost brutish in their bluntness.
Balch starts trying to fit in by joining the regular drinkers at the Rhydspence Inn, an old-fashioned pub, on Wednesday nights. He’s closest with Tony, a farmer, and subsequently observes the Young Farmers group. In other chapters he profiles the unconventional, hippie types drawn to the area, like the owners of Hay’s fair trade shop; and the locals and shopkeepers involved in the Thursday market. He also sits in on some community planning meetings and learns about a recent anti-supermarket campaign. The Town Council and the “Hay Together” interest group are often at odds, he learns. A Chamber of Commerce meeting turns into an argument about renovating the Castle, one of Hay’s chief landmarks.My favorite chapter of all was about the Hay Festival, one of the foremost literary festivals in the UK. (It starts this week, in fact.) Although I’ve been to Hay five times since 2004, I’ve never attended its annual festival. I loved getting a peek behind the scenes, as Balch interviewed an author who’d written a guide to the local area. For Balch, his feelings about the festival prove that he’s finally thinking more like a local than an ‘incomer’:
Part of me is elated that the outside world has landed on our doorstep. For a brief window in late spring, everywhere I turn there are urbanites like me. … Simultaneously, part of me recoils. … I feel invaded. Some traitorous wretch has spilled word of our rural haven and now legions of out-of-towners have arrived, overrunning the place with their unmuddied cars and city manners.
Even in the decade that I’ve been visiting, I can recognize some of the processes Balch pinpoints – essentially evidence of gentrification going on in Hay and the surrounding area. Under the ownership of an American female entrepreneur, for instance, Booth’s Bookshop has been transformed from a falling-down jumble sale into a well-presented independent bookstore with a posh café. Some of the locals Balch meets are delighted with the changes, while others feel that the snobs are taking over and driving up prices for regular folk.
If I was a bit disappointed with this book, it’s because I didn’t fully heed the subtitle – “Sketches of Real Life on the Welsh Borders.” It’s not meant to be a chronological narrative of Balch’s time in Clyro but a thematic tour, with some common threads running through. This means that, depending on the reader, certain chapters will probably seem much more interesting than others. So the best part of “The Young Farmers” chapter, for me, was a description of a cow doing a messy poo (“the most splendid jet of steaming gravy-colored excrement”); otherwise I found it entirely tedious.Perhaps I wrongly expected this to be exactly like Paul Collins’s Sixpence House. This 2003 memoir of trying to make a life in Hay is among my all-time favorite reads. Although similar on the surface, Under the Tump is a very different book. I appreciated it most as a narrative of searching for a place to call home – something that will surely strike a chord with any reader.
With thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy.
- Other books that reference Hay-on-Wye:
- Reading in Bed by Sue Gee opens at the Hay Festival.
- In The Red House by Mark Haddon, a dysfunctional family vacations in the countryside near Hay.
- In Next Life Might Be Kinder by Howard Norman, the main female character is from Hay.
- One of the settings in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman is a bookstore in a small Welsh village. (Okay, not quite Hay.)
- Plus one from the TBR: in The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett, an antiquarian bookseller browsing in a shop in Hay finds a book that sets him off on a quest.