I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once (usually 20‒30), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents.
Josh Cohen’s How to Live. What to Do, a therapist’s guide to literature, explains why this might happen:
More than one writer – the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges – has advanced the exhilarating idea that each book is an infinitesimally small piece of one single, endless Book. I’ve always felt that this idea, unlikely as it might sound, makes perfect sense if you read enough novels [also nonfiction, for me]. The incidents, descriptions, phrases and images in the book you’re reading will always recall the incidents in another, and those in turn will call up the incidents in another, so that even as you’re reading one book, you’re reading countless others.
The following are in roughly chronological order.
- Mother‒baby swimming sessions in Some Body to Love by Alexandra Heminsley and The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp.
- [I think it would be a spoiler to even name them, but two novels I read simultaneously in January featured 1) a marriage / close relationship between a man and a woman – even though the man is gay; and 2) a character who beat his wife and then died in a convenient ‘accident’. One was published in 1997 and the other in 2020.]
- Stomas appeared in Dazzling Darkness by Rachel Mann and First Time Ever by Peggy Seeger late in my 2020 reading, and then in early 2021 in Pain: The Science of the Feeling Brain by Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen and Love’s Work by Gillian Rose.
- An account of the author’s experience of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome in Hormonal by Eleanor Morgan and I Miss You when I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott.
- Salmon fishing takes place in Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson and Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth.
- The medical motto “see one, do one, teach one” appears in Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke and Complications by Atul Gawande.
- Filipino medical staff feature in America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo and Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke.
- Twin Peaks is mentioned in The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills and the anthology Trauma: Essays on Art and Mental Health; a different essay in the latter talks about Virginia Woolf’s mental health struggle, which is a strand in the former.
- St. Teresa of Ávila is mentioned in Heart by Gail Godwin and Sanatorium by Abi Palmer.
- The same Rachel Long poem appears in her debut collection, My Darling from the Lions, and The Emma Press Anthology of Love – but under different titles (“Portent” vs. “Delayed Gratification”).
- There’s a matriarch named Dot in Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller and The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett.
- There’s an Alaska setting in The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton and Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth.
- Becoming a mother is described as a baptism in Sanctuary by Emily Rapp Black and The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills.
- While reading America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo, I saw Castillo mentioned in the Acknowledgements of My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long.
- Polar explorers’ demise is discussed in Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman and The Still Point by Amy Sackville.
- “Butterfingers” / “butter-fingered” is used in America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo and The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler.
- There’s a mention of someone eating paper torn from books (the horror!) in Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman and The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler.
- I was reading three pre-releases at once, each of 288 pages: Milk Fed by Melissa Broder, Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller, and A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson.
- The Jewish golem myth is the overarching metaphor of Milk Fed by Melissa Broder and Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer.
- There’s a ceremony to pay respects to those who donated their bodies for medical school dissection in Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb and Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer.
- An old woman with dementia features in The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan, Keeper by Andrea Gillies, and The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler.
- A mother dies of cancer on Christmas Day in This Party’s Dead by Erica Buist and The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills.
- The main character does stand-up comedy in Milk Fed by Melissa Broder and This Party’s Dead by Erica Buist.
- Winning a goldfish at a carnival in The Air Year by Caroline Bird, A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez, and Anna Vaught’s essay in the Trauma anthology.
- ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) is mentioned in Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis and Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy.
- There’s a father who is non-medical hospital staff in The Push by Ashley Audrain (a cleaner) and A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez (a kitchen worker).
- There’s a character named Hart in The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes and The Birth House by Ami McKay.
- Cannibalism is a point of reference, a major metaphor, or a (surreal) reality in Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander, Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick, and Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford.
- Infertility and caring for animals were two big themes shared by Brood by Jackie Polzin and Catalogue Baby by Myriam Steinberg. This became clearer when I interviewed both authors in February. Also, both women have shocks of pink hair in their publicity photos!
- A young woman works at a hotel in The Distance between Us by Maggie O’Farrell and My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (and The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, which I read late last year).
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
Nonfiction about doctors’ memorable patients and a life of chronic pain and disability; novels set in 1970s Canada and contemporary (but magically outside-of-time) Paris.
That One Patient: Doctors’ and nurses’ stories of the patients who changed their lives forever by Ellen de Visser
[Translated from the Dutch by Brent Annable]
Ellen de Visser is a science writer for the most popular newspaper in the Netherlands, De Volkskrant. Her “That One Patient” column, which began in the summer of 2017, turns interviews with medical professionals into punchy first-person narratives. A collection of them was published in Dutch in 2019. This English translation tacks on 10 additional pieces based on conversations with English and American practitioners (including Dr. Anthony Fauci, immunologist and presidential medical advisor), four of them explicitly reflecting on COVID-19.
Many of the cases are decades old yet stuck with the doctor or nurse in question because of a vital lesson learned. Overtreatment is regretted just as much as an omission of care. Again and again, these medical professionals conclude that it’s impossible to judge someone else’s decisions or quality of life. For instance, a surgeon admits he had a hard time empathizing with his obese patients undergoing stomach reduction until he followed up with a young woman who told him about how invisible she’d felt before her surgery. Premature and disabled children bring grief or joy, not always in the expected doses. A doctor resents the work his team puts into repairing a woman who jumped from an eighth-floor window – why the heroic measures for someone who wanted to die? – until he learns she was pushed. A cancer surgeon develops breast cancer and now knows exactly what her patients go through.
Some of these stories are disturbing: being stalked by a patient with a personality disorder, a man poisoning his girlfriend, a farmer predicting the very day and time of his death. A gynaecologist changes his mind about abortion after he meets a 15-year-old who gave birth at home and left her baby outside in a plastic bag to die of exposure. Other pieces are heart-warming: A paramedic delivers a premature, breech baby right in the ambulance. Staff throw a wedding at the hospital for a dying teen (as in Dear Life by Rachel Clarke). A woman diagnosed with cancer while pregnant has chemotherapy and a healthy baby – now a teenager. There’s even a tale from a vet who crowdfunded prostheses for a lively terrier.
One unique thing about the Netherlands is that euthanasia is legal and provided by doctors upon the express request of a patient suffering from a terminal illness. It is taken for granted in these essays, yet some interviewees express their discomfort with it as an option for young patients. De Visser is careful to note that, even with the situation as it is, only 4% of deaths in the Netherlands are by euthanasia, and the majority of these are end-stage cancer cases.
As with any collection of this nature, some stories are more enticing than others, but overall I found it a surprising and moving set of reflections that is alive to ethical complexities and grapples with tough issues like disability, doctor error, loneliness, pain, and sense of purpose.
Two quotes, in particular, stood out to me, one from a nurse – “We are only ever guests in other people’s lives, and that’s how we ought to behave” – and the other from Dr. Fauci’s piece. In 2014 he treated a doctor who had been volunteering in Sierra Leone after an Ebola outbreak but became ill with the virus and had to be evacuated. “He cited Hippocrates: ‘It is far more important to know what sort of person has the disease, rather than what sort of disease the person has.’ You treated me like a person, not a disease, he said. And that’s what medicine is all about.”
With thanks to 4th Estate for the proof copy for review.
A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George
Over a year of lockdowns, many of us have become accustomed to spending most of the time at home. But for Josie George, social isolation is nothing new. Chronic illness long ago reduced her territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto George’s quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons. (My full review will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Times Literary Supplement. See also Eleanor’s thorough review.) This is top of my wish list for next year’s Barbellion Prize shortlist.
With thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.
A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson
I discovered Mary Lawson in 2015 with Road Ends and caught up with Crow Lake in the summer of 2019. All four of her books are set in fictional locations inspired by the villages and rural areas of Northern Ontario, where the author grew up before moving to England in 1968. So Solace, while not a real town, is true to her memory and, despite the sometimes gruff or know-it-all locals, an emotional landmark for the three central characters, all of whom are processing trauma and looking for places of comfort where they can start over.
1972. First we meet Clara, a plucky seven-year-old sitting vigil. She’s waiting for the return of two people: her sixteen-year-old sister, Rose, who ran away from home; and their next-door neighbour, Mrs. Orchard, whose cat, Moses, she’s feeding until the old lady gets back from the hospital. As days turn into weeks, though, it seems less likely that either will come home, and one day Clara sees a strange man moving boxes around in Mrs. Orchard’s house. This is Liam Kane, who’s inherited the house from a family friend. In his thirties and recently divorced, he’s taking a break in this tiny town, never imagining that he might find a new life. The third protagonist, and only first-person narrator, is Elizabeth, who lies in a hospital bed with heart trouble and voices her memories as a monologue to her late husband.
As we cycle through these three characters’ perspectives in alternating chapters, we gradually come to understand the connections between them. There are satisfying parallels in that, on multiple occasions but in slightly different ways, a child attaches to an older person or an adult stands in as a guardian for a neglected child. All of Lawson’s creations, even the secondary figures, are dealing with distressing memories or a loss of some kind, the details of which might only emerge much later on. Solace offers myriad opportunities for recovery, whether kitty playtime at Mrs. Orchard’s or diner food and homemade ice cream.
Like Lawson’s other works, this is a slow burner featuring troubled families. Her characters, often full of regret and sorrow, take a shadowy past as a prompt to reset their lives. They’re charming in spite of their flaws. I recalled that Crow Lake also looks back to the climactic happenings experienced by a seven-year-old girl. And like Road Ends, A Town Called Solace makes a convincing case for present decisions being influenced by historical trauma. It’s a tender and inviting story I’d recommend to readers of Wendy McGrath and Anne Tyler, with Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley and Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout as specific readalikes. (My dilemma now is whether to read my only remaining Lawson novel, The Other Side of the Bridge, right away or save it: she’s not the most prolific author, with four books in 19 years.)
A favorite passage:
[Liam’s] life prior to coming north seemed to be taking on the quality of an old movie, one in which he’d been deeply engrossed while watching it but which now seemed trivial, unconvincing and profoundly lacking in either colour or plot. Solace had colour and plot in spades, maybe too much. In every way it was coming to seem more real than Toronto, with its endless malls and traffic jams and high-powered jobs. Though maybe, if he went back to Toronto, the same would be true in reverse. Maybe when he’d been back for a couple of months he’d find that it was Solace that seemed unreal, its unremarkable streets and stores like something from a dream, its dramatic landscape fading to nothing, like a holiday photo left in the sun.
With thanks to Chatto & Windus for the free copy for review.
The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley
(Published in the USA in December 2020 under the title Perestroika in Paris. It’s been given a The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse treatment for its UK release.)
My summary for Bookmarks magazine: “A racehorse, Perestroika—nicknamed Paras—strays from her unlocked suburban stable one day, carrying her groom’s purse in her mouth, and ends up in Paris’s Place du Trocadéro. Here she meets Frida the dog, Sid and Nancy the mallards, and Raoul the raven. Frida, whose homeless owner died, knows about money. She takes euros from the purse to buy food from a local market, while Paras gets treats from a baker on predawn walks. Etienne, an eight-year-old orphan who lives with his ancient great-grandmother, visits the snowy park to feed the wary animals (who can talk to each other), and offers Paras a home. A sweet fable for animal lovers.”
Yes, this is a talking animal book, but the animals only talk to each other; they communicate with humans through their gestures and soulful eyes. Kindly shopkeepers work out what Frida wants to buy based on what she stares at or points to with a paw; the baker whose window Paras passes on her early morning walks intuits that the horse is hungry; Etienne, who gives a couple of the stray animals a home during a chill winter, learns to understand when Paras needs to go out to relieve herself, after piles of dung build up in the sitting room.
I liked how patiently and convincingly Smiley builds the portrait of each character – human or animal – and the overall situation of kindness and good fortune. Raoul is particularly amusing for his birdsplaining: “It is a feature of age. I have learned so many things in my life that they just force their way out of my beak,” he says. However, a crow would be much more realistic for Paris (or any city) than a raven, and, overall, this was a little twee and farfetched for my tastes. It was nice to read something a bit different from Smiley, who I haven’t tried since her Last Hundred Years Trilogy. She has a sideline in YA horse novels; this should probably have been lumped with those. (Annabel liked it a bit more.)
I was sent an unsolicited review copy by Picador/Mantle.
What recent releases can you recommend?
Three new books with medical themes (no surprise there), including the first Covid wave in the UK; fertility and body issues in a new queer family; and pain management strategies.
Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic by Rachel Clarke
Clarke is a palliative care doctor based in Oxfordshire. She runs the Katharine House hospice but during the coronavirus pandemic has also been on active duty in the Oxford University Hospitals system. If you’re on social media you have likely come across some of her postings as she has been equally vocal in her praise of the NHS and her criticism of Boris Johnson’s faltering policies, which are often of the too little, too late variety. So I was eager to read her insider’s account of hospital treatment of the first wave of Covid in the UK, especially because her previous book, Dear Life, was one of my top two nonfiction releases of last year.
The focus is on the first four full months of 2020, and the book originated in Clarke’s insomniac diaries and notes made when, even after manically busy shifts, she couldn’t rest her thoughts. Her pilot husband was flying to China even as increasingly alarming reports started coming in from Wuhan. She weaves in the latest news from China and Italy as well as what she hears from colleagues and disease experts in London. But the priority is given to stories: of the first doctor to die in China; of a Yorkshire ICU nurse’s father, who comes down with Covid and is on a ventilator in an Oxford hospital; and of her patients there and in the hospice. She is touched that so many are making great sacrifices, such as by deciding not to visit loved ones at the end of their lives so as not to risk spreading infection.
A shortage of PPE remained a major issue, though Dominic Pimenta (whose Duty of Care was my first COVID-19 book) pulled through for her with an emergency shipment for the hospice – without which it would have had to close. Clarke marvels at the NHS’s ability to create an extra 33,000 beds within a month, but knows that this comes at a cost of other services, including cancer care, being stripped back or cancelled, meaning that many are not receiving the necessary treatment or are pushing inescapable problems further down the road.
A comparison with Gavin Francis’s Intensive Care, published earlier in the month, is inevitable. Both doctors bounce between headlines and everyday stories, government advice and the situation on the ground. Both had their own Covid scare – Clarke didn’t meet the criteria to be tested so simply went back to work two weeks later, when she felt well enough – and had connections to regions that foreshadowed what would soon happen in the UK. Both give a sense of the scope of the crisis and both lament that, just when patients need compassion most, full PPE leads to their doctors feeling more detached from them than ever.
However, within the same page count, Francis manages to convey more of the science behind the virus and its transmission, and helpfully explores the range of effects Covid is having for different groups. He also brings the story more up to the minute with a look back from November, whereas Clarke ends in April and follows up with an epilogue set in August. A book has to end somewhere, yes, but with this crisis ongoing, the later and more relevant its contents can be, the better. And in any book that involves a lot of death, mawkishness is a risk; Clarke so carefully avoided this in Dear Life, but sometimes succumbs here, with an insistence on how the pandemic has brought out the best in people (clapping and rainbows and all that). Her writing is as strong as ever, but I would have appreciated a sharper, more sombre look at the situation a few months later. Perhaps there will be a sequel.
With thanks to Little, Brown UK for the free copy for review.
Some Body to Love: A Family Story by Alexandra Heminsley
From Heminsley’s previous book, Leap In, I knew about her getting married and undergoing IVF. It was also a book about outdoor swimming; I appreciated her words on acquiring a new skill as an adult and overcoming body issues. This memoir continues the story: in 2017, after a gruelling journey through infertility treatment, Heminsley finally got the baby she wanted. But not before a couple more heart-wrenching moments: the lab made an error and notified her that she shared no DNA with this last embryo, and while heavily pregnant she was assaulted by a drunk man on a train. Both incidents left her feeling a loss of agency. “Why was I consistently being deemed the least reliable witness of my own reality?” she asks.
As they adjusted to new life with a baby, Heminsley started to notice that she wasn’t connecting with her husband, D, like she used to. She felt emotionally unsupported and, in fact, jealous of D’s relationship with their son, L. And while they’d never been the most conventional couple, D’s changes of appearance and wardrobe seemed like a sign of something bigger. Indeed, when L was six months old, D told Heminsley, “this body doesn’t represent who I am” and announced a decision to begin transitioning.
As D moved towards having a body that fit their identity, Heminsley, too, needed to get back in touch with her body. After books like Running Like a Girl, she was considered an exercise guru, but she didn’t see herself in the new obsession with Instagram-ready images of fitness perfection. This is not, then, primarily a memoir of queer family-making, because D’s transitioning was not Heminsley’s story to tell and mostly occurs in the background. Instead she focuses on what she does know and can control: her relationship to her own body.
However, this entails what can feel like irrelevant flashbacks to her teenage years of undergoing rehab at a military clinic in Germany for hypermobility, trips to Trinidad and Italy, and the genesis of her two sporting memoirs. Much as I applaud the sensitivity to trans and body issues, the book ends up feeling scattered. Still, the writing is so candid and the narrative so eventful that you’ll race through this even if you don’t normally pick up nonfiction. (For a bit more information, see my short write-up of the virtual book launch.)
With thanks to Chatto & Windus for the free copy for review.
Pain: The Science of the Feeling Brain by Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen
Originally from South Africa, Dr Lalkhen is an anaesthesiology and pain specialist based in Manchester. In a nutshell, his approach is “biopsychosocial,” meaning that he seeks to understand pain not just as a physical phenomenon resulting from acute injury or damage but as an ongoing process that is affected by emotional and psychological factors. Particularly in the context of chronic syndromes, he acknowledges that pain can continue even when its immediate cause has been repaired. Mental preparation can come into the equation: if a patient assumes they’ll wake up from surgery healed, they may be alarmed if pain persists. Lalkhen talks about managing patient expectations, perhaps with something as simple as the promise, “we’ll aim to get your pain down to a 4 after surgery.” In part, he blames Western society’s Cartesian philosophy for treating mind and body as separate rather than a system.
There are genetic and psychological reasons people might be predisposed to chronic pain. Pain itself can then change the brain chemistry, making the body more alert to pain signals. People can choose one of three paths, Lalkhen observes: “You can spend your time agitating about the alarm going off, you can try to ignore it (but the ignoring of it actually takes up more energy), or the final alternative is to learn to live with this deeply unpleasant situation.” Those who opt for pharmacological solutions can become addicted to opiates, which are less effective over time. Non-drug-related therapies involve the desensitization of nerves, the injection of anaesthetics or steroids, or the implanting of spinal cord stimulators. But all of these strategies have their limitations, and can diminish in efficacy. The patients he sees in his pain clinics may be disappointed that, rather than offering a panacea, he wants to wean them off their current pain relief and help them develop a new way of thinking about pain.
I felt I learned a lot from reading this. Lalkhen is careful to state that he is only referring to non-cancer pain (cancer pain in terminal patients will take all the morphine you can throw at it). Like many physicians, he worries about the modern epidemic of overtreatment and our obsession with wellness. I especially enjoyed the discussion of the understanding of pain and its treatment from the ancient world onward, and in particular the history of opiates. The prose is not literary, but this is an accessible and informational read if the subject matter draws you.
With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.
What recent nonfiction releases can you recommend?
I finally finished a book in 2021! And it’s one with undeniable ongoing relevance. The subtitle is “A GP, a Community & COVID-19.” Francis, a physician who is based at an Edinburgh practice and frequently travels to the Orkney Islands for healthcare work, reflects on what he calls “the most intense months I have known in my twenty-year career.” He draws all of his chapter epigraphs from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and journeys back through most of 2020, from the day in January when he and his colleagues received a bulletin about a “novel Wuhan coronavirus” to November, when he was finalizing the book and learned of promising vaccine trials but also a rumored third wave and winter lockdown.
In February, no one knew whether precautions would end up being an overreaction, so Francis continued normal life: attending a conference, traveling to New York City, and going to a concert, pub, and restaurant. By March he was seeing more and more suspected cases, but symptoms were variable and the criteria for getting tested and quarantining changed all the time. The UK at least seemed better off than Italy, where his in-laws were isolating. Initially it was like flu outbreaks he’d dealt with before, with the main differences being a shift to telephone consultations and the “Great Faff” of donning full PPE for home visits and trips to care homes. The new “digital first” model left him feeling detached from his patients. He had his own Covid scare in May, but a test was negative and the 48-hour bug passed.
Through his involvement in the community, Francis saw the many ways in which coronavirus was affecting different groups of people. He laments the return of mental health crises that had been under control until lockdown. Edinburgh’s homeless, many in a perilous immigration situation thanks to Brexit, were housed in vacant luxury hotels. He visited several makeshift hostels, where some residents were going through drug withdrawal, and also met longtime patients whose self-harm and suicidal ideation were worsening.
Children and the elderly were also suffering. In June, he co-authored a letter begging the Scottish education secretary to allow children to return to school. Perhaps the image that will stick with me most, though, is of the confused dementia patients he met at care homes: “there was a crushing atmosphere of sadness among the residents … [they were] not able to understand why their families no longer came to visit. How do you explain social distancing to someone who doesn’t remember where they are, sometimes even who they are?”
Francis incorporates brief histories of vaccination and the discovery of herd immunity, and visits a hospital where a vaccine trial is underway. I learned some things about COVID-19 specifically: it can be called a “viral pneumonia”; it has two phases, virological (the virus makes you unwell) and immunological (the immune system misdirects messages and the lungs get worse); and it affects the blood vessels as well as the lungs, with one in five presenting with a rash and some developing chilblains in the summer. Amazingly, as the year waned, Francis only knew three patients who had died of Covid, with many more recovered. But in August, a city that should have been bustling with festival tourists was nearly empty.
Necessarily, the book ends in the middle of things; Francis has clear eyes but a hopeful heart. While this is not the first COVID-19 book I’ve encountered (that was Duty of Care by Dominic Pimenta) and will be far from the last – next up for me will be Rachel Clarke’s Breathtaking, out at the end of this month – it is an absorbing first-hand account of a medical crisis as well as a valuable memorial of a time like no other in recent history. A favorite line was “One of the few consolations of this pandemic is its grim camaraderie, a new fellowship among the fear.” Another consolation for me is reading books by medical professionals who can compassionately bridge the gap between expert opinion and everyday experience.
Intensive Care was published by the Wellcome Collection/Profile Books on January 7th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Gavin Francis’s other work includes:
Previously reviewed: Shapeshifters
Also owned: Adventures in Human Being
I’m keen to read: Empire Antarctica, about being the medical officer at the British research centre in Antarctica – ironically, this was during the first SARS pandemic. (In July 2020, conducting medical examinations on the next batch of scientists to ship out there, he envied them the chance to escape: “By the time they came home it would be 2022. Surely we’d have the virus under control by then?”)
Complementing yesterday’s list of my top fiction and poetry reads of 2020, I have chosen my six favorite nonfiction works of the year. Last year’s major themes were bodies, archaeology, and the environmental crisis; this year’s are adjacent: anatomy, nature, deep time, death, and questions of inheritance, both within families and more broadly. What will we leave behind? As usual, these topics reflect my own interests but also, I think, something of the zeitgeist.
Let the countdown begin!
- Kay’s Anatomy: A Complete (and Completely Disgusting) Guide to the Human Body by Adam Kay: Think of this as a juvenile, graphic novel version of Bill Bryson’s The Body; that’s exactly how thorough, accessible, and entertaining it is. Kay ditches his usual raunchiness and plumps for innocuous forms of humor: puns, dad jokes, toilet humor, running gags and so on. But where it counts – delivering vital information about not smoking, mental health, puberty, and facing the death of someone you love – Kay is completely serious, and always lets young readers know when it’s essential to tell an adult or ask a doctor. Henry Paker’s silly, grotesque illustrations are the perfect accompaniment.
- Sign Here If You Exist and Other Essays by Jill Sisson Quinn: The naturalist’s second essay collection considers themes of connection and change. Quinn regrets the afterlife prospect she lost along with her childhood Christian faith, while adopting a baby leads her to question notions of belonging and inheritance. Whether she’s studying wasps and reptiles or musing on family and faith, she knits her subjects together with meticulous attention. Putting self and nature under the microscope, she illuminates both. (Reviewed for Foreword.)
- Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils by David Farrier: Blending human and planetary history, environmental realism and literary echoes, Farrier, a lecturer in English literature, tells the story of the human impact on the Earth. Each chapter is an intricate blend of fact, experience, and story. We’ll leave behind massive road networks, remnants of coastal megacities, plastics, carbon and methane in the permafrost, the fossilized Great Barrier Reef, nuclear waste, and jellyfish-dominated oceans. An invaluable window onto the deep future.
- Greenery: Journeys in Springtime by Tim Dee: From the Cape of Good Hope to the Arctic Circle, Dee tracks the spring as it travels north. From first glimpse to last gasp, moving between his homes in two hemispheres, he makes the season last nearly half the year. His main harbingers are migrating birds, starting with swallows. The book is steeped in allusions and profound thinking about deep time and what it means to be alive in an era when nature’s rhythms are becoming distorted. A fresh, masterful model of how to write about nature.
- Dear Life: A Doctor’s Story of Love and Loss by Rachel Clarke: I’ve read so many doctors’ memoirs and books about death that it takes a truly special one to stand out. Clarke specializes in palliative medicine and alternates her patients’ stories with her own in a natural way. A major theme is her relationship with her doctor father and his lessons of empathy and dedication. She wrote in the wake of his death from cancer – an experience that forced her to practice what she preaches as a hospice doctor: focus on quality of life rather than number of days. This passionate and practical book encourages readers to be sure they and their relatives have formalized their wishes for end-of-life care and what will happen after their death.
- Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald: Any doubt that Macdonald could write a worthy follow-up to H Is for Hawk evaporates instantly. Though these essays were written for various periodicals and anthologies and range in topic from mushroom-hunting to deer–vehicle collisions and in scope from deeply researched travel pieces to one-page reminiscences, they form a coherent whole. Equally reliant on argument and epiphany, the book has more to say about human–animal interactions in one of its essays than some whole volumes manage. As you might expect, birds are a recurring theme. Her final lines are always breath-taking. I’d rather read her writing on any subject than almost any other author’s.
(Books not pictured were read digitally, or have already gone back to the library.)
What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?
28th: Library Checkout
29th: Runners-up from 2020 (all genres)
30th: Best backlist reads
31st: Random superlatives and some statistics
The Being/Becoming/Asking the Expert week of the month-long Nonfiction November challenge is hosted by Rennie of What’s Nonfiction. This is my second entry for the week after Monday’s post on postpartum depression, as well as the second installment in my new “Three on a Theme” series, where I review three books that have something significant in common and tell you which one to pick up if you want to read into the topic for yourself.
It will be no surprise to regular readers that both of my ‘expert’ posts have been on a health theme: I have an amateur’s love of medical memoirs and works of medical history, and I’ve followed the Wellcome Book Prize closely for a number of years – participating in official blog tours, creating a shadow panel, and running this past year’s Not the Wellcome Prize.
The three books below are linked by the word “Care” in the title or subtitle; all reflect, in the wake of COVID-19, on the ongoing crisis in UK healthcare and the vital role of nurses.
Labours of Love: The Crisis of Care by Madeleine Bunting
Bunting’s previous nonfiction work could hardly be more different: Love of Country was a travel memoir about the Scottish Hebrides. It was the first book I finished reading in 2017, and there could have been no better start to a year’s reading. With a background in history, journalism and politics, the author is well placed to comment on current events. Labours of Love arose from five years of travel to healthcare settings across the UK: care homes for the elderly and disabled, hospitals, local doctors’ surgeries, and palliative care units. Forget the Thursday-night clapping and rainbows in the windows: the NHS is perennially underfunded and its staff undervalued, by conservative governments as well as by people who rely on it.
We first experience bodily care as infants, Bunting notes, and many of the questions that run through her book originated in her early days of motherhood. Despite all the advances of feminism, parental duties follow the female-dominated pattern evident in the caring careers:
By the age of fifty-nine, women will have a fifty-fifty chance of being, or having been, a carer for a sick or elderly person. At the same time, many are still raising their teenage children and almost half of those over fifty-five are providing regular care for grandchildren.
Women dominate caring professions such as nursing (89 per cent), social work (75 per cent) and childcare (98 per cent). They now form the majority of GPs (54 per cent) and three out of four teachers are female. And they provide the vast bulk of the army of healthcare workers in the NHS (80 per cent) and social-care workers (82 per cent) for the long-term sick, disabled and frail elderly.
These are things we know intuitively, but seeing the numbers laid out so plainly is shocking. I most valued the general information in Bunting’s introduction and in between her interviews, while I found that the bulk of the book alternated between dry statistics and page after page of interview transcripts. However, I did love hearing more from Marion Coutts, the author of the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize winner, The Iceberg, about her husband’s death from brain cancer. (Labours of Love was longlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2020.)
My thanks to Granta for the free copy for review.
Duty of Care: One NHS Doctor’s Story of Courage and Compassion on the COVID-19 Frontline by Dr Dominic Pimenta
We’re going to see a flood of such books; I’m most looking forward to Dr Rachel Clarke’s Breathtaking (coming in January). Given how long it takes to get a book from manuscript to published product, I was impressed to find this on my library’s Bestsellers shelf in October. Pimenta’s was an early voice warning of the scale of the crisis and the government’s lack of preparation. He focuses on a narrow window of time, from February – when he encountered his first apparent case of coronavirus – to May, when, in protest at a government official flouting lockdown (readers outside the UK might not be familiar with the Cummings affair), he resigned his cardiology job at a London hospital to focus on his new charity, HEROES, which supports healthcare workers via PPE, childcare grants, mental health help and so on.
It felt uncanny to be watching events from earlier in the year unfold again: so clearly on a trajectory to disaster, but still gripping in the telling. Pimenta’s recreated dialogue and scenes are excellent. He gives a real sense of the challenges in his personal and professional lives. But I think I’d like a little more distance before I read this in entirety. Just from my skim, I know that it’s a very fluid book that reads almost like a thriller, and it ends with a sober but sensible statement of the situation we face. (All royalties from the book go to HEROES.)
The Courage to Care: A Call for Compassion by Christie Watson
I worried this would be a dull work of polemic; perhaps the title, though stirring, is inapt, as the book is actually a straightforward sequel to Watson’s 2018 memoir about being a nurse, The Language of Kindness. Although, like Bunting, Watson traveled widely to research the state of care in the country, she mostly relies on her own experience of various nursing settings over two decades: a pediatric intensive care unit, home healthcare for the elderly, a children’s oncology day center, a residential home for those with severe physical and learning disabilities, a community mental-health visiting team, and the emergency room. She also shadows military nurses and prison doctors.
With a novelist’s talent for scene-setting and characterization, Watson weaves each patient and incident into a vibrant story. Another strand is about parenthood: giving birth to her daughter and the process of adopting her son – both are now teenagers she raises as a single mother. She affirms the value of everyday care delivered by parents and nurses alike. I was especially struck by the account of a teenage girl who contracted measles (then pneumonia, meningitis and encephalitis) and was left blind and profoundly disabled, all because her parents were antivaxxers. In general, I’ve wearied of doctors’ memoirs composed of obviously anonymized case studies, but I’ll always make an exception for Clarke and Watson because of their gorgeous writing.
Note: Watson had left nursing to write full-time, but explains in an afterword that she returned to critical care in a London hospital during COVID-19.
What I learned:
Empathy is a key term for all three authors. They emphasize that the skills of compassion and listening are just as important as the ability to perform the required medical procedures.
A chilling specific fact I learned: 43,000 people died in the Blitz* in the UK. Pimenta cited that figure and warned that COVID-19 could be worse. And indeed, as of now, over 63,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the UK. The American death toll is even more alarming.
Here are some passages that stood out for me from each book:
Bunting: “Good care is as much an art as a skill, as much competence as tact. … Care is where we make profound collective decisions about the worth of an individual life. … There is no tradition of ageing wisely in the West, unlike in many Asian and African cultures where age has prestige, status and is associated with wisdom … We need to speak about care in a different language, instead of the relentless macho repetition of words such as ‘efficiency’, ‘quality’, ‘driving’, ‘choice’, ‘delivery’ and productivity.’”
Pimenta: “this will be akin to the Blitz*, and … we need to start thinking of it like that. A marathon, not a sprint. … The challenges to come – a second or even third wave, a global recession, climate change, mass misinformation … and political and societal upheaval … – will all require more from all of us if we hope to meet them. The challenge of our generation is not behind us, it is only just beginning. I plan to continue doing something about it, and perhaps now you do as well. So stay informed, stay safe and be kind.”
Watson: “So much of nursing, I think to myself, seems obvious, and yet seeing that need in the first place is difficult and takes experience, training and something extra. … The mundanity of human existence is where I find the most beauty … It takes my breath away: how fragile, extraordinary and vulnerable, how full of hatred and love and obsession and complexity we all are – every single one of us.”
*I highly recommend all of folk artist Kris Drever’s latest album, Where the World Is Thin, but especially the song “Hunker Down / That Old Blitz Spirit,” which has become my lockdown anthem.
If you read just one, though… Make it The Courage to Care by Christie Watson.
Can you see yourself reading any of these books?
If your household is anything like mine, stressful days and nights of lost sleep are ceding to relief after the U.S. election result was finally announced. We celebrated with whoopie pies (a Pennsylvania specialty) and Prosecco.
And look: I happened to pass 270 yesterday as well!
I’d taken part in the Six Degrees of Separation meme every month since February, but this time I had no inspiration. I was going to start with these two apple covers…
…but that’s as far as I got. Never mind! I’ll be back next month, when we all start with the YA classic Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume.
Instead, I’m catching up with this past week’s Nonfiction November prompt: Your Year in Nonfiction. It was hosted by Leann of Shelf Aware.
What topics have been prominent in your year’s nonfiction reading?
I’ve read a lot of nature and popular science, probably more than in an average year. Greenery by Tim Dee has been an overall highlight. I managed to read 12 books from the Wainwright Prize longlists, and I’m currently reading four books of nature-themed essays or journals. Thoughtful as well as consoling.
The popular science material has focused on environmentalism and current events, which has inevitably involved politics and long-term planning (Annabel called this category “The State We’re In”): e.g. Losing Eden, Footprints, The Good Ancestor, and Notes from an Apocalypse.
Thanks to the food and drink theme I set for my 20 Books of Summer, I read a number of foodie memoirs. The best one was Heat by Bill Buford, but I also really enjoyed Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain and My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss.
Since the Wellcome Book Prize didn’t run this year, I’ve read fewer health-related books, although I did specially read Not the Wellcome Prize shortlistee The Remarkable Life of the Skin by Monty Lyman, and Dear Life by Rachel Clarke, a palliative care doctor, has been one of my overall best nonfiction reads of the year.
Not very well represented in my nonfiction reading this year were biographies and travel books. I can struggle with the depth and dryness of some books from these genres, but I’d like to find some readable options to get stuck into next year.
What are your favorite nonfiction books you’ve read so far?
I’m a huge memoir junkie. Some of the most memorable ones this year have been Winter Journal by Paul Auster, Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott (a reread), and A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas (another reread).
An incidental theme in the life writing I’ve read in 2020 is childhood (Childhood by Tove Ditlevsen, Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee, Oleander, Jacaranda by Penelope Lively, Period Piece by Gwen Raverat); I hope to continue reading around this topic next year.
What books have you recommended the most to others?
I’ve mentioned the Clarke (above) in any discussions of books about illness and death.
I recommended the memoir Are You Somebody? by Nuala O’Faolain more than once following Reading Ireland Month.
Entangled Life, Merlin Sheldrake’s enthusiastic book about fungi, is one I can imagine suggesting to readers who don’t often pick up nonfiction.
And Signs of Life by Dr. Stephen Fabes has generated a fair bit of interest among my Goodreads friends.
How has your nonfiction reading been going this year?
My top 10 releases of 2020 thus far, in alphabetical order within genre (nonfiction is dominating the year for me!), are:
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: Like some lost mid-career gem from Toni Morrison, this novel is meaty with questions of racial and sexual identity. Light-skinned African American twins Stella and Desiree Vignes’ paths divide in 1954, with Stella passing as white. Both are desperate to escape from Mallard, Louisiana. The twins’ decisions affect the next generation, too. It’s perceptive and beautifully written, with characters whose struggles feel genuine and pertinent. The themes of self-reinvention and running from one’s past resonate.
Writers & Lovers by Lily King: Following a breakup and her mother’s sudden death, Casey Peabody is drowning in grief and debt. Between waitressing shifts, she chips away at the novel she’s been writing for six years. Life gets complicated, especially when two love interests appear. We see this character at rock bottom but also when things start to go well at long last. I felt I knew Casey through and through, and I cheered for her. An older, sadder Sweetbitter, perhaps as written by Elizabeth Strout. It gives you all the feels, as they say.
Weather by Jenny Offill: A blunt, unromanticized, wickedly funny novel about how eco-anxiety permeates everyday life, Weather is in the same aphoristic style as Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. Lizzie is married with a young son and works in a NYC university library. She takes on a second job as PA to her former professor, who runs a podcast on environmental issues. Set either side of Trump’s election, the novel amplifies many voices prophesying doom. Offill’s observations are spot on. Could there be a more perfect book for 2020?
The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld: There’s no avoiding violence for the women and children of this novel. It’s a sobering theme, certainly, but Wyld convinced me that hers is an accurate vision and a necessary mission. The novel cycles through its three strands in an ebb and flow pattern that seems appropriate to the coastal setting and creates a sense of time’s fluidity. Themes and elements keep coming back, stinging a little more each time. An elegant, time-blending structure and an unrelenting course – that indifferent monolith is the perfect symbol.
Dear Life: A Doctor’s Story of Love and Loss by Rachel Clarke: I’ve read so many doctors’ memoirs and books about death and dying; it takes a truly special one like this to stand out. Clarke specializes in palliative medicine and alternates her patients’ stories with her own in a very natural way. A major theme is her relationship with her father, who was also a doctor, and how she absorbed his lessons of empathy and dedication. A passionate and practical book, encouraging readers to be sure they and older relatives have formalized their wishes.
The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland: Gone are the days when people interested in family history had to trawl through microfilm and wait months to learn anything new; nowadays a DNA test can find missing relatives within days. But there are troubling aspects to this new industry, including privacy concerns, notions of racial identity, and criminal databases. Copeland spoke to scientists and 400 laypeople who sent off saliva samples. A thought-provoking book with all the verve and suspense of fiction.
Greenery: Journeys in Springtime by Tim Dee: From the Cape of Good Hope to the Arctic Circle, Dee tracks the spring as it travels north. From first glimpse to last gasp, moving between his homes in two hemispheres, he makes the season last nearly half the year. His main harbingers are migrating birds, starting with swallows. The book is steeped in allusions and profound thinking about deep time and what it means to be alive in an era when nature’s rhythms are becoming distorted. A fresh, masterful model of how to write about nature.
Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils by David Farrier: Blending human and planetary history, environmental realism and literary echoes, Farrier, a lecturer in English literature, tells the story of the human impact on the Earth. Each chapter is an intricate blend of fact, experience and story. We’ll leave behind massive road networks, remnants of coastal megacities, plastics, carbon and methane in the permafrost, the fossilized Great Barrier Reef, nuclear waste, and jellyfish-dominated oceans. An invaluable window onto the deep future.
Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild by Lucy Jones: While nature’s positive effect on human mental health is something we know intuitively and can explain anecdotally, Jones wanted to investigate the scientific mechanism behind it. She makes an empirical enquiry but also attests to the personal benefits nature has. Losing Eden is full of common sense and passion, cramming masses of information into 200 pages yet never losing sight of the big picture. Like Silent Spring, on which it is patterned, I can see this leading to real change.
Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty: McAnulty is the UK’s answer to Greta Thunberg: a leader in the youth environmental movement and an impassioned speaker on the love of nature. This is a wonderfully observant and introspective account of his fifteenth year: of disruptions – moving house and school, of outrage at the state of the world and at individual and political indifference, of the complications of being autistic, but also of the joys of everyday encounters with wildlife. Impressive perspective and lyricism.
The 4.5- or 5-star backlist books that I’ve read this year but haven’t yet written about on here in some way are:
- Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
- Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
- Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields
What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?
What 2020 releases do I need to catch up on right away?
It’s my third time participating in Kate’s Six Degrees of Separation meme (see her introductory post). The challenge starts with Stasiland (2003) by Anna Funder, which I also happened to read recently. While working part-time for an overseas television service in what was once West Berlin, Funder started gathering stories of how ordinary people were put under surveillance and psychologically terrorized by the Stasi, the East German secret police. She molds her travels and her interviewees’ testimonies into riveting stories – though this won the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction in 2004, it’s as character-driven as any novel.
#1 My interest in Stasiland was piqued by reading Sophie Hardach’s Costa Prize-shortlisted novel Confession with Blue Horses (2019). When Ella’s parents, East German art historians under Stasi surveillance, were caught trying to defect during a ‘vacation’ to Hungary in 1987, their three children were taken from them and only two were returned. Ella is determined to find her brother, whom they’ve had no word of since, via a correspondence with the Stasi archive. It’s an emotionally involving story of one ordinary family’s losses and reconstruction.
#2 Blue Horses (2014) is one of Mary Oliver’s lesser poetry collections. I found it to be a desperately earnest and somewhat overbaked set of nature observations and pat spiritual realizations. There are a few poems worth reading (e.g., “After Reading Lucretius, I Go to the Pond” and Part 3 of “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac”), and lines here and there fit for saving, but overall this is so weak that I’d direct readers to Oliver’s landmark 1980s work instead.
#3 Oliver’s poetry, especially “Wild Geese” and “The Summer Day,” gets quoted everywhere. The latter’s most famous lines, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” appears in Dear Life by Rachel Clarke, my book of 2020 so far. Clarke specializes in palliative medicine and alternates her patients’ stories with her own in a completely natural way. A major theme is her relationship with her late father, also a doctor, and his lessons of empathy and dedication. A passionate yet practical book, this aims to get people talking about end-of-life issues.
#4 I have meant to read Dear Life by Alice Munro (2012) since before she won the Nobel Prize. I was sent a free paperback copy for a Nudge review, but as the site already had a review of the book up, I let it slip and never followed through. More than once I’ve put this short story collection onto a reading stack, but I have never quite gotten past the first page or two. At some point this must be rectified.
#5 Alice Munro is one of the authors featured in Writers & Co. by Eleanor Wachtel (1993), a terrific collection of interviews from Wachtel’s weekly Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program. Whether I’d read anything by these authors (or even heard of them) or not, I found each Q&A chock-full of priceless nuggets of wisdom about creativity, mothers and daughters, drawing on autobiographical material, the writing process, and much more.
#6 My first-ever author Q&A, for Bookkaholic in 2013, was related to The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver. (Alas that the site is now defunct, so the interview only exists as a file on my computer.) In an astonishing historical sweep, from Massachusetts’s first colonial settlers through the cultural upheavals of the twentieth century, Graver’s family saga with a difference questions parent‒child ties, environmental responsibility, and the dictates of wealth and class. Her complex, elegiac tale, reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Liza Klaussmann’s Tigers in Red Weather, offers multiple points of view in a sympathetic gaze at a vanishing way of life – but an enduring sense of place.
Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already!
Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?