Like the assassination of John F. Kennedy for a previous generation, September 11, 2001 was a landmark day in our shared history. I was two weeks into my freshman year of college and getting ready to head out to a 9:30 seminar when my roommate returned early from her first class. “All these planes flying into buildings – I’m freaking out!” she cried, and turned our tiny desktop TV set to a news station.
At that point it was unclear what was going on, so I dutifully trudged out across the quad linking the residence halls to the academic buildings, anticipating a normal day of classes. On the way I encountered small groups of somber students, and was alarmed to see my friend and “Big Sister” from the junior class weeping onto her boyfriend’s shoulder – her dad worked at the Pentagon, and she hadn’t yet heard that he was okay. When I entered the lecture hall it was clear no regular work was going to happen that day; I was one of only a handful of students who’d shown up, and our English professor, too, was engrossed by the rippling montage of rubble and smoke being projected onto a screen behind him.
As the anniversary approached this year, I picked up a coffee table book of photos, Reuters’ September 11: A Testimony from the library and was struck by how dated everything appeared. For an event so fresh in my memory, it actually looks like something that happened a long time ago thanks to everything from the fashions and car designs to the photographic quality. You also get the sense that, even in the early Internet age, things like missing person posters and public tributes to the dead were primarily paper-based then. The photos barely capture the scope of the devastation. One image of firefighters among the wreckage looks like a film set or architect’s model, the human figures like ants among the dusty girders. This was published in late 2001, so it was put together quickly. Photographs tell the story, with extremely brief captions on facing pages. Nearly half of the length is devoted to documenting the three crash sites, with the rest chronicling memorial services, national and international commemorations, and New York City gradually returning to business as usual.
On the way back from our mother’s wedding this summer, my sister and brother-in-law and I passed the entrance to the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania so drove in for a look. The 1,000-acre site is administered by the National Park Service. On the airless June day we were there, the Tower of Voices was not making its eerie music, but it was still a peaceful spot for reflection. You can listen to a recording of the windchimes on the website. There is also a visitor center with a permanent exhibition that we will have to go back and see another time.
I also recently reread Rowan Williams’s superb book-length essay Writing in the Dust (2002), which I’d read twice before. Williams, then Archbishop of Wales and soon to become Archbishop of Canterbury, was in New York City on 9/11. He was, in fact, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center, at Trinity Church, Wall Street, where he was part of a group recording theological conversations to be used for educational purposes. When the planes hit and the air filled with dust and smoke, he did the same as everyone else: he quickly evacuated, ensured everyone was safe, and then watched, listened, and prayed. And in the months that followed he thought about what he’d seen that day, and what his experience had taught him about suffering, peacemaking, and the ways of God.
Writing well before military action against Iraq began, Williams cautioned against labeling the Other as Evil and responding in a simple spirit of retribution. Prophets’ words are never welcome, of course, and time has shown that Western policies have only made things worse. I must have read this from a university library; I then did a peculiar (and probably illegal, in copyright terms) thing and typed out every single word of it into a Word file so I could keep it forever.
Here are some of Williams’s words of wisdom:
“The hardest thing in the world is to know how to act so as to make the difference that can be made; to know how and why that differs from the act that only releases or expresses the basic impotence of resentment.”
My original rating (2013):
My rating now:
Other 9/11-themed reading I have done:
The Second Plane by Martin Amis (2008)
A famously bad-tempered English novelist who now lives in New York, Amis here presents a collection of 14 fictional and factual responses to 9/11. The essays are much stronger than the stories (a tale about Saddam Hussein’s son’s body double is downright weird), although it might be argued that Amis’s general understanding of Islam is fatally skewed. Opinionated, bold, and polarizing, these pieces ponder the symbolism and ideology of a day that changed the world.
The wonderful Annie Dillard’s post-9/11 essay “This is the Life,” available to read here, is another perceptive look at our response to tragedy, asking whether we are going to accept what “everyone” thinks about us vs. them and the value of human lives: “Everyone knows…the enemies are barbarians [but] our lives and our deaths count equally.”
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (2005)
Oskar Schell is a tremendously precocious nine-year-old who’s trying to come to terms with his father’s death in the World Trade Center on 9/11. He sets off on a quest to find the lock that takes the key he found in his dad’s closet. This light-hearted search takes him all over New York’s five boroughs, but in the end Oskar is little closer to discovering who his dad really was or how exactly he died. All he has left of him is that same panicked message on the answering machine, left sometime during the morning of September 11th. By denying neat narrative closure, Foer avoids sentimentality at the same time as he affirms the tragedy’s effect on a nation and on individuals.
Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver (2002)
On September 12th, 2001, Kingsolver sat down at her computer to write up some thoughts about the previous day’s tragedy. A newspaper had asked her for a short response, but as she sat and typed she found that the words kept coming, in essay after essay. The title piece in this collection, and several others like it, might make for occasionally uncomfortable reading, as Kingsolver questions automatic all-American responses like indiscriminate flag-waving and “we’ll hunt those terrorists down” vigilante justice. She asks how someone who loves her country can criticize its tenets and actions without being branded a traitor. “My country, right or wrong,” the saying goes – fair enough, but the truest patriot is one who loves her country enough to hold it to the highest moral standards, demanding it live up to its democratic ideals.
The Submission by Amy Waldman (2011)
Waldman’s debut imagines what would have happened had New Yorkers chosen a 9/11 memorial design as soon as 2003 and – crucially – had the anonymous selection turned out to be by a Muslim architect named Mohammad Khan. His memorial garden is rich in possible meanings and influences. When a member of the memorial selection jury leaks the information about the designer’s name to the press, however, all hell breaks loose, and perfectly nice, reasonable people start to display some ugly bigotry. As the clever double meaning of the title suggests, Waldman has educated herself about Islam’s doctrines. She includes an impressive range of characters and opinions in this canny psychological exploration.
(Most of the above text is recycled from an article I wrote for Bookkaholic web magazine (now defunct) in 2013.)
I can think of at least six more novels I’ve read that would be appropriate for this list, yet even including them here would be a spoiler. Generally, if you’re reading a novel set in New York City in 2000 or so, you should be prepared…
This year I meant to read Mitchell Zuckoff’s comprehensive journalistic study, Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11, but ran out of time. Eleanor highly recommends the audiobook of the oral history The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett M. Graff. This Kirkus list has two additional nonfiction suggestions.
Where were you on 9/11?
Have you read anything related to it?
I’m not doing as well with my rereading goal this year as I did in 2020. So far I’ve gotten to The Republic of Love by Carol Shields and the two below (with another DNF). Considering that I completed 16 rereads last year, I’m looking seriously behind. I still have a bulging shelf of books I’d like to reread, but they never seem to make it onto my current reading stack…
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
I probably picked this up at age seven or so as a natural follow-on from the Chronicles of Narnia – both are well-regarded children’s sci fi/fantasy from an author with a Christian worldview. In my memory I didn’t connect with L’Engle’s work particularly well, finding it vague and cerebral, if creative, compared to Lewis’s. I don’t think I ever went on to the multiple sequels. As an adult I’ve enjoyed L’Engle’s autobiographical and spiritual writing, especially the Crosswicks Journals, so I thought I’d give her best-known book another try.
On a proverbially dark and stormy night, Meg Murry and her precocious little brother Charles Wallace come down to the kitchen to join their mother for a snack. In blows Mrs. Whatsit with the promise of a way of rescuing their missing scientist father through a “tesseract,” or wrinkle in time. Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, rounding out a trio of Macbeth-like witches, accompany the children and their friend Calvin on a perilous journey to face up to cosmic darkness in the form of a disembodied brain called IT that keeps their father hostage and tries to entrance Charles Wallace as well.
Interplanetary stories have never held a lot of interest for me. (As a child, I was always more drawn to talking-animal stuff.) Again I found the travels and settings hazy. It’s admirable of L’Engle to introduce kids to basic quantum physics, and famous quotations via Mrs. Who, but this all comes across as consciously intellectual rather than organic and compelling. Even the home and school talk feels dated. I most appreciated the thought of a normal – or even not very bright – child like Meg saving the day through bravery and love. This wasn’t for me, but I hope that for some kids, still, it will be pure magic.
“The only way to cope with something deadly serious is to try to treat it a little lightly.”
“we can’t take any credit for our talents. It’s how we use them that counts.”
Original rating (as remembered from childhood):
My rating now:
Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds (2007)
This must be one of the first graphic novels I ever read. Hearing that it was an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, one of my favorite novels, was enough to attract me. During the years that I worked at King’s College London, I took full advantage of Lambeth Library’s extensive graphic novel collection and would pick up big piles of all sorts of books on my lunch breaks – I got a gentle ribbing from library staff nearly every time I showed up. Anyway, this is all backstory to me finding a severely underpriced secondhand copy (99p! the dear old ladies pricing things couldn’t have known what they had) in the Hay-on-Wye Oxfam shop in April 2017. It took me until earlier this year to reread it, though.
Simmonds recreates the central situation of FFTMC – an alluring young woman returns to her ancestral village and enraptures three very different men – but doesn’t stick slavishly to its plot. Her greatest innovation is in the narration. Set in and around a writers’ retreat, the novel is told in turns by Dr. Glen Larson, a (chubby, Bryson-esque) visiting American academic trying to get to grips with his novel; Beth Hardiman, who runs the retreat center and does all the admin for her philandering crime writer husband, Nicholas; and Casey Shaw, a lower-class teenager who, with her bold pal Jody, observes all the goings-on among the posh folk from the local bus shelter and later gets unexpectedly drawn in to their lives.
Tamara is a hotshot London journalist and, after a nose job, is irresistible to men. Andy Cobb, the Hardimans’ groundsman, runs a small organic food business and is a clear stand-in for Hardy’s Farmer Oak. He’s known Tamara nearly all their lives, and isn’t fussed about her new appearance and glitzy reputation. But she certainly turns Nicholas’s head, and also draws the attention of Ben, former drummer for a washed-up band. Tamara and Ben are a power couple in this sleepy village, and stir up jealousy. Ben is closest to Sergeant Troy, but he and Nicholas (who’s most like Boldwood) aren’t one-to-one equivalents. Casey and Jody fill the role of the servants and rustics, with chavs serving as the early 21st-century peasantry.
So Simmonds takes what she wants from Hardy, but adapts it as it suits her. There are a lot of words on the page compared to some graphic novels, so this would be a good halfway house for someone who’s new to comics for adults and still wants a good story to get the teeth into. At nearly 150 pages, there’s plenty of time for Simmonds to spin an involved, dramatic tale and give insight into her characters and their interactions. One ends up feeling, perhaps inevitably, more sympathy for the narrators than for the other characters, but all are well drawn. There’s a surprise ending, too. Back in 2010 I was probably more interested in getting a straight Hardy remake, so might have been disappointed when Simmonds strayed from the source material, but now I thoroughly enjoyed this for its own sake.
Original rating (2010?):
My rating now:
And a DNF:
I’ve long considered A.S. Byatt a favorite author, and early last year my reread of one of her story collections was successful. But trying again with The Biographer’s Tale (2000) – which I remember reading in an airport as I traveled to or from Leeds, where I was doing a Master’s degree, to see my family for Christmas in 2005/6 – was a lost cause. I remembered an intricate, clever, witty take on the biographer’s art, but couldn’t have recited any details for you. I managed about the first 100 pages this time. Phineas G. sets out to write a biography of famous biographer Scholes Destry-Scholes, whose subjects included Francis Galton, Henrik Ibsen, and Carl Linnaeus. The novel quotes extensively from Destry-Scholes’s writing on these three, and his general notes on writing biography. I got lost somewhere in the documents. I think in my early twenties I was more impressed by virtuoso faux-scholarly writing like you often get in Byatt or Julian Barnes. Alas, it engages me less now.
Done any rereading lately?
“Let’s hear it for love.”
Last year I read, or reread, six Carol Shields novels (my roundup post). The ongoing World Editions reissue series is my excuse to continue rereading her this year – Mary Swann, another I’m keen to try again, is due out in August.
The Republic of Love (1992), the seventh of Shields’s 10 novels, was a runner-up for the Guardian Fiction Prize and was adapted into a 2003 film directed by Deepa Mehta. (I love Emilia Fox; how have I not seen this?!)
The chapters alternate between the perspectives of radio disc jockey Tom Avery and mermaid researcher Fay McLeod, two thirtysomething Winnipeg lonely hearts who each have their share of broken relationships behind them – three divorces for Tom; a string of long-term live-in boyfriends for Fay. It’s clear that these two characters are going to meet and fall in love (at almost exactly halfway through), but Shields is careful to interrogate the myths of love at first sight and happily ever after.
On this reread, I was most struck by the subplot about Fay’s parents’ marriage and especially liked the secondary characters (like Fay’s godmother, Onion) and the surprising small-world moments that take place in Winnipeg even though it was then a city of some 600,000 people. Shields has a habit of recording minor characters’ monologues (friends, family, radio listeners, and colleagues) word for word without letting Fay or Tom’s words in edgewise.
Tom sometimes feels like a caricature – the male/female dynamic is not as successful here as in the Happenstance dual volume, which also divides the perspective half and half – and I wasn’t entirely sure what the mermaid theme is meant to contribute. Mermaids are sexually ambiguous, and in Fay’s Jungian interpretation represent the soul emerging from the unconscious. In any case, they’re an excuse for Fay to present papers at folklore conferences and spend four weeks traveling in Europe (Amsterdam, Copenhagen, northwest France).
Straightforward romance plots don’t hold much appeal for me anymore, but Shields always impresses with her compassionate understanding of human nature and the complexities of relationships.
This was not one of my favorites of hers, and the passage of nearly five years didn’t change that, but it’s still pleasant and will suit readers of similarly low-key, observant novels by women: Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection, Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air, Mary Lawson’s A Town Called Solace, and Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist.
“Most people’s lives don’t wrap up nearly as neatly as they’d like to think. Fay’s sure of that. Most people’s lives are a mess.”
Fay’s mother: “I sometimes think that the best thing about your mermaids is the fact that they never age.”
The Republic of Love was reissued in the UK by World Editions in February. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
I was delighted to take part in the blog tour for The Republic of Love. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing.
When I heard about the new book by Michiko Kakutani, former chief book critic of the New York Times, I rushed to put it on my wish list – though I ended up accessing it via the library instead. I also felt a hankering to reread Anne Fadiman’s essay collection by the same title, so I ordered myself a secondhand copy earlier this year. Both books are by (more or less) famous New York City bibliophiles and take old-fashioned bookplate designs as an inspiration. Here’s how the two fared in a head-to-head battle.
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman (1998)
Like many a bibliophile, I have a soft spot for books about books. However, I’m also a real stickler about them, because all too often they make common mistakes: they’re too generic or too obscure in their points of reference, they slip into plot summary and include spoilers, or they alienate the reader by presenting the author as being on another echelon.
Fadiman, though, is a very relatable narrator in these expanded versions of 18 essays originally written for publication in Civilization, the Library of Congress magazine published from 1994 to 2000. (Can you imagine, your own bookish column in which you could write whatever you like?!) Her father was the well-known intellectual Clifton Fadiman. Theirs was a family of book-obsessed, vocabulary-loving, trivia-spouting readers, and she was also crafting her own with her husband and two young children.
I saw my family – especially my mother and me – in a number of these pieces: in “The Joy of Sesquipedalians,” about the love of obscure words and word games played on a board or along with the TV (I was a spelling bee champion, and we’re all Scrabble fiends to a greater or lesser extent), in “Insert a Caret [Inset a Carrot],” about compulsive proofreading, in “The Catalogical Imperative,” about a build-up of print catalogues and the different selves one can imagine using the products therein, and in “Secondhand Prose,” about collecting used books.
There’s one respect in which I differ from the Fadiman family, though. Tom Mole’s The Secret Life of Books had reminded me of Fadiman’s division of readers into “courtly” and “carnal” lovers of books: the courtly ones keep a book pristine, while the carnal ones use and abuse them however they wish. She introduces this piece with an episode from a family trip to Copenhagen when she was a teenager. Her brother left a book open, facedown, on the bedside table at their hotel and the next day they found that the chambermaid had carefully put a marker at the right page, closed the book, and set a note on top reading, “Sir, you must never do that to a book.” I wholeheartedly agree. While I always say “your books, your rules” to other readers, I would have to suppress a cringe if I witnessed dog-earing, reading in the bath, cracking the spine, tearing out pages, doodling in the margins, and so on.
What I can get on board with, though, is the love of books as both narratives and physical objects. In the former camp, you get essays on books about polar exploration, sonnets, outdated guides to femininity, food literature, and reading aloud. On the latter, you’ll hear about her New York City apartment groaning with books absorbed from her husband’s and father’s collections, the good and bad of inscriptions, and Prime Minister William Gladstone’s tips for storing books.
Two essays have not aged well: one on a beloved pen (though she acknowledges that this was already multiply outdated by that time, by the typewriter and then by the computer she now uses for composition) and especially one on the quandary of gender-neutral pronouns (as opposed to “every man for himself” types of constructions) – nowadays we have no qualms about employing “them” for the unknown and the nonbinary.
My favorite essay overall was “You Are There,” about the special joy of reading on location. Additional irony points for Joe Biden being mentioned in the piece on plagiarism! I’d read this from a library some years before. I enjoyed it just as much the second time around, and certain essays will reward additional future rereadings, too.
My original rating (c. 2008):
My rating now:
Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread by Michiko Kakutani (2020)
In my more morbid moments, when I imagine how I would approach the remainder of my life if I knew that I was going to die young of a terminal illness, I think about self-publishing a selection of my best blog posts and book reviews. A personal greatest hits, if you would, and anyone could forgive the self-indulgence because, hey, she’s probably going to die soon. But then I open a book like this and realize that a collection of book reviews can actually be pretty tedious, even when written by one of the greats.
“Like all lists and anthologies, the selections here are subjective and decidedly arbitrary,” Kakutani warns in her introduction. What this means in practice is that: a) if I’d read a particular book, I didn’t need to read a ~1000-word review of it; b) if I hadn’t read the book but wanted to, I avoided the essay in fear of spoilers (e.g. she does reveal some specific incidents from Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, which I have on the shelf and was looking forward to; I’ll just wait until I’ve forgotten); and c) if I hadn’t read the book and didn’t want to (there is LOTS of history and politics here, with plenty of Trump jabs shoehorned in; you do know her only previous book was a diatribe against Trump, right?), I wasn’t interested. So, while there were a few pieces I appreciated, such as one on the enduring appeal of The Great Gatsby, which I recently read a third time for book club, not many caught my eye as I skimmed the book.
In any case, it’s not a book for reading all the way through but one for having on the coffee table to read the occasional essay. It is gorgeously put together, what with Dana Tanamachi’s illustrations in the style of vintage bookplates, so would still be a lovely reference book to have around. Think of it as a collection of amuse-bouches to whet your appetite to read the books you’ve always meant to pick up but haven’t managed yet (for me, that would be As I Lay Dying and Mason & Dixon). See Susan’s more judicious review here.
I found plenty of other books on Goodreads with the title Ex Libris, such as this one, a compendium of library-themed fantasy and science fiction stories. (Yes, really.)
Have you read one of these? Which did you prefer?
My top ‘discoveries’ of the year: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (4 books), Octavia E. Butler, Tim Dee (3 books each, read or in progress), and Louise Erdrich (2 books, one in progress).
Also the publisher Little Toller Books: I read four of their releases this year and they were fantastic.
The authors I read the most by this year: Carol Shields tops the list at 6 books (3 of these were rereads) thanks to my buddy reads with Buried in Print, followed by Paul Auster with 5 due to Annabel’s reading week in February, then Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with 4, and finally Anne Lamott with 3 comfort rereads.
Debut authors whose next work I’m most looking forward to: Naoise Dolan, Bess Kalb, Dara McAnulty, Mary South, Brandon Taylor, and Madeleine Watts
My proudest reading achievement: 16 rereads, which must be a record for me. Also, I always say I’m not really a short story person … and yet somehow I’ve read 19 collections of them this year (and one stand-alone story, plus another collection currently on the go)!
My proudest (non-reading) bookish achievement: Conceiving of and coordinating the Not the Wellcome Prize blog tour.
Five favorite blog posts of the year: Love, Etc. – Some Thematic Reading for Valentine’s Day; Polio and the Plague: Epidemics in Fiction; Thinking about the Future with David Farrier & Roman Krznaric (Hay Festival); Three Out-of-the-Ordinary Memoirs: Kalb, Machado, McGuinness; Asking What If? with Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld (I had a lot of fun putting the current post together, too!)
The bookish experience that most defined my year: Watching the Bookshop Band’s live shows from their living room. Between their Friday night lockdown performances and one-offs for festivals and book launches, I think I saw them play 33 times in 2020!
Biggest book read this year: Going by dimensions rather than number of pages, it was the oversize hardback The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris.
Smallest book read this year: Pocket-sized and only about 60 pages: No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg.
Oldest author read this year: Peggy Seeger was 82 when her memoir First Time Ever was published. I haven’t double-checked the age of every single author, but I think second place at 77 is a tie between debut novelist Arlene Heyman for Artifact and Sue Miller for Monogamy. (I don’t know how old Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren, the joint authors of The Consolation of Nature, are; Mynott may actually be the oldest overall, and their combined age is likely over 200.)
Youngest author read this year: You might assume it was 16-year-old Dara McAnulty with Diary of a Young Naturalist, which won the Wainwright Prize (as well as the An Post Irish Book Award for Newcomer of the Year, the Books Are My Bag Reader Award for Non-Fiction, and the Hay Festival Book of the Year!) … or Thunberg, above, who was 16 when her book came out. They were indeed tied for youngest until, earlier in December, I started reading The House without Windows (1927) by Barbara Newhall Follett, a bizarre fantasy novel published when the child prodigy was 12.
Most As on a book cover: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Most Zs on a book cover: The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi. I haven’t read it yet, but a neighbor passed on a copy she was getting rid of. It was nominated for both the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize.
The book that made me laugh the most: Kay’s Anatomy by Adam Kay
Books that made me cry: Writers and Lovers by Lily King, Monogamy by Sue Miller, First Time Ever by Peggy Seeger, and Catalogue Baby: A Memoir of (In)fertility by Myriam Steinberg (coming out in March 2021)
The book that put a song in my head every single time I looked at it, much less read it: I Am an Island by Tamsin Calidas (i.e., “I Am a Rock” by Simon and Garfunkel, which, as my husband pointed out, has very appropriate lyrics for 2020: “In a deep and dark December / I am alone / Gazing from my window to the streets below … Hiding in my room / Safe within my womb / I touch no one and no one touches me.”)
Best book club selections: Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale and The Wife by Meg Wolitzer tied for our highest score ever and gave us lots to talk about.
Most unexpectedly apt lines encountered in a book: “People came to church wearing masks, if they came at all. They’d sit as far from each other as they could.” (Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Describing not COVID-19 times but the Spanish flu.)
Most ironic lines encountered in a book: “September 12—In the ongoing hearings, Senator Joseph Biden pledges to consider the Bork nomination ‘with total objectivity,’ adding, ‘You have that on my honor not only as a senator, but also as the Prince of Wales.’ … October 1—Senator Joseph Biden is forced to withdraw from the Democratic presidential race when it is learned that he is in fact an elderly Norwegian woman.” (from the 1987 roundup in Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits – Biden has been on the U.S. political scene, and mocked, for 3.5+ decades!)
Best first line encountered this year: “And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters.” (Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf)
Best last lines encountered this year:
- “my childhood falls silently to the bottom of my memory, that library of the soul from which I will draw knowledge and experience for the rest of my life.” (Childhood by Tove Ditlevsen)
- “What I want to say is: I misremember all this so vividly it’s as if it only happened yesterday.” (Other People’s Countries: A Journey into Memory by Patrick McGuinness)
- “these friends would forever be her stitches, her scaffold, her ballast, her home.” (The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall)
My favorite title and cover combo of the year: A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth by Daniel Mason
The book I wish had gotten a better title and cover: Tennis Lessons by Susannah Dickey – I did enjoy this second-person novel about a young woman who is her own worst enemy, to the tune of 3.5 stars, but the title says nothing about it and the cover would have been a turnoff had I not won a signed copy from Mslexia.
The most unfortunate typos I found in published works: In English Pastoral by James Rebanks, “sewn” where he meant “sown” (so ironic in a book about farming!) versus, in Mr Wilder & Me by Jonathan Coe, “sown” in place of “sewn.” Also “impassible” where it should read “impassable” in Apeirogon by Colum McCann. This is what proofreaders like myself are for. We will save you from embarrassing homophone slips, dangling modifiers, and more!
The 2020 books that everybody else loved, but I didn’t: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, and Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
The year’s biggest disappointments: I don’t like to call anything “worst” (after all, I didn’t read anything nearly as awful as last year’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull), but my lowest ratings went to A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne and At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison, and I was disappointed that When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray was misleadingly marketed.
The downright strangest books I read this year: Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony, A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne, The House Without Windows by Barbara Newhall Follett, and The Child in Time by Ian McEwan
The people and themes that kept turning up in my reading: Rachel Carson and Henry David Thoreau; curlews and plagues; how we define and relate to history; childhood memoirs (seven of them).
Some statistics on my 2020 reading:
(Fiction reigned supreme this year! Last year my F:NF ratio was roughly 1:1. Poetry was down by ~5% this year compared to 2019.)
Male author: 34.1%
Female author: 63.8%
Nonbinary author: 0.3% (= 1 author, Jay Bernard)
Multiple genders (anthologies): 1.8%
(Women dominated by an extra ~5% this year over 2019. I’ve said this for four years now: I find it intriguing that female authors significantly outweigh male authors in my reading because I have never consciously set out to read more books by women; it must be a matter of being interested in the kinds of stories women tell and how they capture their experiences in nonfiction.)
Print books: 89.4%
(Almost exactly the same as last year. My e-book reading has been declining, partially because I’ve cut back on the reviewing gigs that involve only reading e-books and partially because I’ve done less traveling. Increasingly, I prefer to sit down with a big stack of print books.)
Books by BIPOC: 14.7%
Literature in translation: 6.6%
(Down from last year’s 7.2%; how did this happen?! This will be something to address in 2021.)
Where my books came from for the whole year:
- Free print or e-copy from publisher: 25.6%
- Public library: 25.6%
- Free (giveaways, The Book Thing of Baltimore, the free mall bookshop, etc.): 14.9%
- Secondhand purchase: 11.6%
- Downloaded from NetGalley, Edelweiss or Project Gutenberg: 6.7%
- New purchase (sometimes at a bargain price): 6.3%
- Gifts: 5.5%
- University library: 3.8%
I promised to scale back on review copies this year, and I did: last year they accounted for nearly 37% of my reading. My library reading was higher than last year’s, despite the challenges of lockdowns; my e-book reading decreased in general. I bought more than twice as many new books as usual this year, and read lots that I either bought secondhand or got for free.
Number of unread print books in the house: 435
At the end of last year this figure was at 440 after lots of stock-ups from the free mall bookshop, which has since closed. So even though it might look like I have only read five books of my own, I have in fact read loads from my shelves this year … but also acquired many more books, both new and secondhand.
In any case, the overall movement has been downward, so I’m calling it a win!
It’s pure happenstance that I started reading Carol Shields’s work in 2006.
2005: When I first returned to England for my MA program at Leeds, I met a PhD student who was writing a dissertation on contemporary Canadian women writers. At that point I could literally name only one – Margaret Atwood – and I hadn’t even read anything by her yet.
2006: Back in the States after that second year abroad, living with my parents and killing time until my wedding, I got an evening job behind the circulation desk of the local community college library. A colleague passed on four books to me one day. By tying them up in a ribbon, she made a gift out of hand-me-downs: The Giant’s House, The Secret History, and two by Shields: Happenstance and The Stone Diaries. I’ve gone on to read most or all of the books by these authors, so I’m grateful to this acquaintance I’ve since lost touch with.
Starting in June this year, I joined Marcie of Buried in Print in reading or rereading six Shields novels. She’s been rereading Shields for many years, and I benefited from her insight and careful attention to connections between the works’ characters and themes during our buddy reads. I’d treated myself to a secondhand book binge in the first lockdown, including copies of three Shields novels I’d not read before. We started with these.
Small Ceremonies (1976)
Shields’s debut ended up being my surprise favorite. A flawless novella, it brings its many elements to a satisfying conclusion and previews the author’s enduring themes in 180 pages. Judith is working on a third biography, of Susanna Moodie, and remembering the recent sabbatical year that she and her husband, a Milton scholar, spent with their two children in Birmingham. High tea is a compensating ritual she imported from a dismal England. She also brought back an idea for a novel. Meanwhile family friend Furlong Eberhardt, author of a string of twee, triumphantly Canadian novels, is casting around for plots.
What ensues is something of a sly academic comedy à la David Lodge, laced with Shields’s quiet wisdom on marriage, parenting, the writer’s vocation, and the difficulty of ever fully understanding another life. Specific links to her later work include a wonderful dinner party scene with people talking over each other and a craft project.
The Box Garden (1977)
The companion novel to Small Ceremonies is narrated by Judith’s sister Charleen, a poet and single mother who lives in Vancouver and produces the National Botanical Journal. I imagined the sisters representing two facets of Shields, who had previously published poetry and a Moodie biography. Charleen is preparing to travel to Toronto for their 70-year-old mother’s wedding to Louis, an ex-priest. Via flashbacks and excruciating scenes at the family home, we learn how literally and emotionally stingy their mother has always been. If Charleen’s boyfriend Eugene’s motto is to always assume the best of people, her mother’s modus operandi is to assume she’s been hard done by.
The title comes from the time when a faithful Journal correspondent, the mysterious Brother Adam, sent Charleen some grass seed to grow in a window box – a symbol of thriving in spite of restrictive circumstances. I thought the plot went off in a silly direction, but loved the wedding reception. Specific links to Shields’s later work include a botanical hobby, a long train journey, and a final scene delivered entirely in dialogue.
A Celibate Season (1991)
“We’re suffering a communication gap, that’s obvious.”
This epistolary novel was a collaboration: Blanche Howard wrote the letters by Jocelyn (“Jock”), who’s gone to Ottawa to be the legal counsel for a commission looking into women’s poverty, while Shields wrote the replies from her husband Charles (“Chas”), an underemployed architect who’s keeping the home fire burning back in Vancouver. He faces challenges large and small: their daughter’s first period versus meal planning (“Found the lentils. Now what?”). The household starts comically expanding to include a housekeeper, Chas’s mother-in-law, a troubled neighbor, and so on.
Both partners see how the other half lives. The misunderstandings between them become worse during their separation. Howard and Shields started writing in 1983, and the book does feel dated; they later threw in a jokey reference to the unreliability of e-mail to explain why the couple are sending letters and faxes. Two unsent letters reveal secrets Jock and Chas are keeping from each other, which felt like cheating. I remained unconvinced that so much could change in 10 months, and the weird nicknames were an issue for me. Plus, arguing about a solarium building project? Talk about First World problems! All the same, the letters are amusing.
This was the first novel I read by Shields. My Penguin paperback gives the wife’s story first and then you flip it over to read the husband’s story. But the opposite reflects the actual publishing order: Happenstance is Jack’s story; two years later came Brenda’s story in A Fairly Conventional Woman. The obvious inheritor of the pair is A Celibate Season with the dual male/female narratives, and the setups are indeed similar: a man is left at home alone with his teenage kids, having to cope with chores and an unexpected houseguest.
What I remembered beforehand: The wife goes to a quilting conference; an image of a hotel corridor and elevator.
Jack, a museum curator in Chicago, is writing a book about “Indian” trading practices (this isn’t the word we’d use nowadays, but the terminology ends up being important to the plot). He and his best friend Bernie, who’s going through a separation, are obsessed with questions of history: what gets written down, and what it means to have a sense of the past (or not). I loved all the little threads, like Jack’s father’s obsession with self-help books, memories of Brenda’s vivacious single mother, and their neighbor’s failure as Hamlet in a local production. I also enjoyed an epic trek in the snow in a final section potentially modeled on Ulysses.
A Fairly Conventional Woman
“Aside from quiltmaking, pleasantness was her one talent. … She had come to this awkward age, forty, at an awkward time in history – too soon to be one of the new women, whatever that meant, and too late to be an old-style woman.”
Brenda is in Philadelphia for a quilting conference. Quilting, once just a hobby, is now part of a modern art movement and she earns prizes and hundreds of dollars for her pieces. The hotel is overbooked, overlapping with an International Society of Metallurgists gathering, and both she and Barry from Vancouver, an attractive metallurgist in a pinstriped suit whom she meets in the elevator, are driven from their shared rooms by roommates bringing back one-night stands. This doesn’t add anything to the picture of a marriage in Jack’s story and I only skimmed it this time. It’s a wonder I kept reading Shields after this, but I’m so glad I did!
I reviewed these last two earlier this year. They were previously my joint favorites of Shields’s work, linked by a gardening hobby, the role of chance, and the unreliability of history and (auto)biography. They remain in my top three.
The Stone Diaries (1995)
What I remembered beforehand: a long train ride, a friend who by the feeling ‘down there’ thought that someone had had sex with her the night before, and something about the Orkney Islands.
Larry’s Party (1997)
What I remembered beforehand: a food poisoning incident (though I’d thought it was in one of Shields’s short stories), a climactic event involving a garden maze, a chapter entitled “Larry’s Penis,” and the closing dinner party scene.
Looking back: Fortunately, in the last 15 years I’ve done something to redress my ignorance, discovering Canadian women writers whom I admire greatly: Elizabeth Hay, Margaret Laurence, Mary Lawson and especially Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields.
Looking out: “I am watching. My own life will never be enough for me. It is a congenital condition, my only, only disease in an otherwise lucky life. I am a watcher, an outsider whether I like it or not, and I’m stuck with the dangers that go along with it. And the rewards.”
- That’s Judith on the last page of Small Ceremonies. It’s also probably Shields. And, to an extent, it seems like me. A writer, but mostly a reader, absorbing other lives.
Looking forward: I’m interested in rereading Shields’s short stories and Mary Swann (to be reissued by World Editions in 2021). And, though I’ve read 13 of her books now, there are still plenty of unread, lesser-known ones I’ll have to try to find secondhand one day. Her close attention to ordinary lives and relationships and the way we connect to the past makes her work essential.
Major bookish initiatives:
- Coordinated a Not the Wellcome Prize blog tour to celebrate 2019’s health-themed books – in case you missed it, the winner was Sinéad Gleeson for Constellations.
- Co-hosted Novellas in November with Cathy (746 Books).
- Hosted Library Checkout each month.
Reading challenges joined:
- 12 blog tours
- Six Degrees of Separation: I started participating in February and did nine posts this year
- Paul Auster Reading Week
- Reading Ireland month
- Japanese Literature Challenge
- 1920 Club
- 20 Books of Summer
- Women in Translation Month
- Robertson Davies Weekend
- Women’s Prize winners (#ReadingWomen)
- 1956 Club
- Nonfiction November
- Margaret Atwood Reading Month
This works out to one blog tour, one reading project, and one regular meme per month – manageable. I’ll probably cut back on blog tours next year, though; unless for a new release I’m really very excited about, they’re often not worth it.
- Crossing to Safety with Laila (Big Reading Life)
- 6 Carol Shields novels plus The Trick Is to Keep Breathing, Deerbrook, and How to Be Both with Marcie (Buried in Print)
- A Visit from the Goon Squad and The Idea of Perfection with Laura T.
- Mother’s Milk with Annabel
- 666 Charing Cross Road with Liz
Self-set reading challenges:
- Seasonal reading
- Classic of the Month (14 in total; it’s only thanks to Novellas in November that I averaged more than one a month)
- Doorstopper of the Month (just 3; I’d like to try to get closer to monthly in 2021)
- Wainwright Prize longlist reading
- Bellwether Prize winners (read 2, DNFed 1)
- Short stories in September (8 collections)
- Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist reading
- Thematic roundups – I’m now calling these “Three on a Theme” and have done 2 so far
- Journey through the Day with Books (3 new reviews this year):
- Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore
- Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen
- [Up with the Larks by Tessa Hainsworth – DNF]
- [Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer – DNF]
- Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell – existing review
- The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński – read part of
- Eventide by Kent Haruf
- Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler – existing review
- Talk before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg – existing review
- When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray
- Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb
- Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys
- Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay – existing review
- Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Shaine Cunningham
- The House of Sleep by Jonathan Coe
- Bodies in Motion and at Rest by Thomas Lynch – read but not reviewed
- Silence by Shūsaku Endō
- Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez – read part of
- The Four in a Row Challenge – I failed miserably with this one. I started an M set but got bogged down in Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (also a bibliotherapy self-prescription for Loneliness from The Novel Cure), which I had as a bedside book for much of the year, so only managed 1.5 out of 4; I also started an H quartet but set both Tinkers and Plainsong aside. Meanwhile, Debbie joined in and completed her own 4 in a Row. Well done! I like how simple this challenge is, so I’m going to use it next year as an excuse to read more from my shelves – but I’ll be more flexible and allow lots of substitutions in case I stall with one of the four books.
At the end of 2019, I picked out a whole shelf’s worth of books I’d been meaning to reread. I kept adding options over the year, so although I managed a respectable 16 rereads in 2020, the shelf is still overflowing!
Many of my rereads have featured on the blog over the year, but here are two more I didn’t review at the time. Both were book club selections inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. (We held a rally and silent protest in a park in the town centre in June.)
Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama: Remember when there was a U.S. president who thought deeply, searched his soul, and wrote eloquently? I first read this memoir in 2006, when Obama was an up-and-coming Democratic politician who’d given a rousing convention speech. I remembered no details, just the general sweep of Hawaii to Chicago to Kenya. On this reread I engaged most with the first third, in which he remembers a childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, gives pen portraits of his white mother and absentee Kenyan father, and works out what it means to be black and Christian in America. By age 12, he’d stopped advertising his mother’s race, not wanting to ingratiate himself with white people. By contrast, “To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear.” The long middle section on community organizing in Chicago nearly did me in; I had to skim past it to get to his trip to Kenya to meet his paternal relatives – “Africa had become an idea more than an actual place, a new promised land”.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: This Wellcome Book Prize winner about the use of a poor African-American woman’s cells in medical research was one of the first books to turn me onto health-themed reads. I devoured it in a few days in 2010. Once again, I was impressed at the balance between popular science and social history. Skloot conveys the basics of cell biology in a way accessible to laypeople, and uses recreated scenes and dialogue very effectively. I had forgotten the sobering details of the Lacks family experience, including incest, abuse, and STDs. Henrietta had a rural Virginia upbringing and had a child by her first cousin at age 14. At 31 she would be dead of cervical cancer, but the tissue taken from her at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins hospital became an immortal cell line. HeLa is still commonly used in medical experimentation. Consent was a major talking point at our book club Zoom meeting. Cells, once outside a body, cannot be owned, but it looks like exploitation that Henrietta’s descendants are so limited by their race and poverty. I had forgotten how Skloot’s relationship and travels with Henrietta’s unstable daughter, Deborah, takes over the book (as in the film). While I felt a little uncomfortable with how various family members are portrayed as unhinged, I still thought this was a great read. then / now
I had some surprising rereading DNFs. These were once favorites of mine, but for some reason I wasn’t able to recapture the magic: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, and On Beauty by Zadie Smith. I attempted a second read of John Fowles’s postmodern Victorian pastiche, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, on a mini-break in Lyme Regis, happily reading the first third on location, but I couldn’t make myself finish once we were back home. And A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan was very disappointing a second time; it hasn’t aged well. Lastly, I’ve been stalled in Watership Down for a long time, but do intend to finish my reread.
In general, voice- and style-heavy fiction did not work so well for me on rereading. Autobiographical essays by Anne Lamott and Abigail Thomas worked best, but I also succeeded at rereading some straightforward novels and short stories. Next year, I’d like to aim for a similar number of rereads, with a mixture of memoirs and fiction, including at least one novel by David Lodge. I’d also be interested in rereading earlier books by Ned Beauman and Curtis Sittenfeld if I can find them cheap secondhand.