I found a lesser-known Yates novel on my last trip to our local charity warehouse and saved it up for the titular holiday. I also remembered about a half-read theology book I’d packed away with the decorative wooden Easter egg and tin with a rabbit on in the holiday stash behind the spare room bed. And speaking of rabbits…
The Easter Parade by Richard Yates (1976)
Yates sets out his stall with the first line: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back, it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.” I’d seen the film of Revolutionary Road, and my impression of Yates’s work was confirmed by this first taste of his fiction: an atmosphere of mid-century (sub)urban ennui, with the twin ills of alcoholism and adultery causing the characters to drift inexorably towards tragedy.
The novel follows Sarah and Emily Grimes from the 1930s to the 1970s. Emily, four years younger, has always known that her sister is the pretty one. Twenty-year-old Sarah is tapped to model traditional Chinese dress during an Easter parade and be photographed by the public relations office of United China Relief, for whom she works in fundraising. Sarah had plans with her fiancé, Tony Wilson, and is unenthusiastic about taking part in the photo shoot, while Emily thinks what she wouldn’t give to appear in the New York Times.
The mild rivalry resurfaces in the years to come, though the sisters take different paths: Sarah marries Tony, has three sons, and moves to the Wilson family home out on Long Island; in New York City, Emily keeps up an unending stream of lovers and English-major jobs: bookstore clerk, librarian, journal editor, and ad agency copywriter. Sarah envies Emily’s ability to live as a free spirit, while Emily wishes she could have Sarah’s loving family home – until she learns that it’s not as idyllic as it appears.
What I found most tragic wasn’t the whiskey-soused poor decisions so much as the fact that both sisters have unrealized ambitions as writers. They long to follow in their headline-writing father’s footsteps: Emily starts composing a personal exposé on abortion, and later a witty travel guide to the Midwest when she accompanies a poet boyfriend to Iowa so he can teach in the Writers’ Workshop; Sarah makes a capable start on a book about the Wilson family history. But both allow their projects to wither, and their promise is unfulfilled.
Yates’s authentic characterization, forthright prose, and incisive observations on the futility of modern life and the ways we choose to numb ourselves kept this from getting too depressing – though I don’t mind bleak books. Much of the novel sticks close to Emily, who can, infuriatingly, be her own worst enemy. Yet the ending offers her the hand of grace in the form of her nephew Peter, a minister. I read the beautiful final paragraphs again and again.
A readalike I’ve reviewed (sisters, one named Sarah!): A Summer Bird-Cage by Margaret Drabble
The Way of the Cross by Richard Holloway (1986)
Each year the Archbishop of Canterbury commissions a short book for the Anglican Communion to use as Lenten reading. This study of the crucifixion focuses on seven of the Stations of the Cross, which are depicted in paintings or sculptures in most Anglo-Catholic churches, and emphasizes Jesus’s humble submission and the irony that the expected Son of God came as an executed criminal rather than an exalted king. Holloway weaves scripture passages and literary quotations through each chapter, and via discussion questions encourages readers to apply the themes of power, envy, sin, and the treatment of women to everyday life – not always entirely naturally, and the book does feel dated. Not a stand-out from a prolific author I’ve enjoyed in the past (e.g., Waiting for the Last Bus).
“the yearly remembrance of the life of Christ is a way of actualizing and making that life present now, in the universal mode of sacramental reality.”
“Powerlessness is the message of the cross”
Recently read for book club; I’ll throw it in here for its dubious thematic significance (the protagonist starts off as an innocently blasphemous child and, disappointed with God as she’s encountered him thus far, gives that name to her pet rabbit):
When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman (2011)
I’d enjoyed Winman’s 2017 Tin Man so was very disappointed with this one. You can tell it was a debut novel because she really threw the kitchen sink in when it comes to quirkiness and magic realism. Secondary characters manage to be more engaging than the primary ones though they are little more than a thumbnail description: the lesbian actress aunt, the camp old lodger, etc. I also hate the use of 9/11 as a plot device, something I have encountered several times in the last couple of years, and stupid names like Jenny Penny. Really, the second part of this novel just feels like a rehearsal for Tin Man in that it sets up a close relationship between two gay men and a woman.
Two major themes, generally speaking, are intuition and trauma: characters predict things that they couldn’t know by ordinary means, and have had some awful things happen to them. Some bottle it all up, only for it to explode later in life; others decide not to let childhood trauma define them. This is a worthy topic, certainly, but feels at odds with the carefully cultivated lighthearted tone. Winman repeatedly introduces something sweet or hopeful only to undercut it with a tragic turn of events.
The title phrase comes from a moment of pure nostalgia for childhood, and I think the novel may have been better if it had limited itself to that rather than trying to follow all the characters into later life and sprawling over nearly 40 years. Ultimately, I didn’t feel that I knew much about Elly, the narrator, or what makes her tick, and Joe and Jenny Penny almost detract from each other. Pick one or the other, brother or best friend, to be the protagonist’s mainstay; both was unnecessary.
I’m continuing with the Nonfiction November focus by catching up on six nonfiction review books I’ve been sent over the last half a year. We’ve got a record of elderly parents’ decline, letters and poems written about the climate crisis, a family memoir set between Taiwan and Canada, a widow’s mushroom-hunting quest, a work of ecotheology that reflects on travels in the Galápagos Islands, and a defense of an entirely secular basis for morality. You can’t say I don’t read a variety, even within nonfiction! See if one or more of these tempts you.
All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir by Elizabeth Hay
Gordon and Jean Hay stumbled into their early nineties in an Ottawa retirement home starting in 2009. Elizabeth Hay is one of four children, but caregiving fell to her for one reason and another, and it was a fraught task because of her parents’ prickly personalities: Jean was critical and thrifty to the point of absurdity, spooning thick mold off apple sauce before serving it and needling Elizabeth for dumping perfectly good chicken juice a year before; Gordon had a terrible temper and a history of corporal punishment of his children and of his students when he was a school principal. Jean’s knee surgery and subsequent infection finally put paid to their independence; her mind was never the same and she could no longer paint.
There are many harsh moments in this memoir, but almost as many wry ones, with Hay picking just the right anecdotes to illustrate her parents’ behavior and the shifting family dynamic. She never looks away, no matter how hard it all gets. Her father’s rage against the dying of the light contrasts with her mother’s fade into confusion – lightened by the surprisingly poetic turns of phrase she came out with despite her dementia and aphasia. The title phrase, for instance, was her attempt at “all things considered.” I would wholeheartedly recommend this to readers of Hay’s novels, but anyone can appreciate the picture of complicated love and grief. (See also Susan’s review.)
With thanks to MacLehose Press for the free copy for review.
Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis, edited by Anna Hope et al.
Culture Declares Emergency launched in April to bring the arts into the conversation about the climate emergency. Letters to the Earth compiles 100 short pieces by known and unknown names alike. Alongside published authors, songwriters, professors and politicians are lots of ordinary folk, including children as young as seven. The brief was broad: to write a letter in response to environmental crisis, whether to or from the Earth, to future generations (there are wrenching pieces written to children: “What can I say, now that it’s too late? … that I’m sorry, that I tried,” writes Stuart Capstick), to the government or to other species.
There are certainly relatable emotions here, especially the feeling of helplessness. “We take the train, go vegan, refuse plastic, buy less and less. But that is tiny. We are tiny,” novelist Jo Baker writes. I loved retired bishop Richard Holloway’s wry letter calling the author of Genesis to account for unhelpful language of dominion, Rob Cowen’s poem to a starling, and Anna Hope’s essay about parenting in a time of uncertainty. Unfortunately, much of the rest is twee or haranguing, e.g. “Forest fires are scorching INNOCENT wildlife. Plastic is strangling INNOCENT turtles and dolphins,” a 12-year-old writes. This was put together in a matter of months, and it shows. There is not enough tonal variety, a lot of overwriting has crept through, and errors, especially in the kids’ work, remain uncorrected. Perhaps six to 10 pieces stood out to me overall. I’d recommend the Extinction Rebellion handbook instead.
With thanks to Alison Menzies / William Collins for the free copy for review.
Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan by Jessica J. Lee
I loved Turning, Lee’s 2017 memoir about swimming in one of Berlin’s lakes per week for a year, so I jumped at the chance to read her follow-up, which delves into her maternal line’s history in Taiwan. She travels to Taipei for three months to brush up on her Chinese, write and hike. Interspersed with the lush descriptions of her walks are reflections on Taiwan’s history and on the hidden aspects of her grandfather Gong’s past that only came to light after Lee’s grandmother, Po, died and she and her mother discovered an autobiographical letter he’d written before he drifted into dementia. Nature, language, history and memory flow together in a delicate blend of genres – “I moved from the human timescale of my family’s story through green and unfurling dendrological time,” she writes.
This has got to be one of the most striking title and cover combinations of the year. Along with Chinese characters, the book includes some looping text and Nico Taylor’s maps and illustrations of Taiwanese flora and fauna. While you will likely get more out of this if you have a particular interest in Asian history, languages and culture, it’s impressive how Lee brings the different strands of her story together to form a hybrid nature memoir that I hope will be recognized by next year’s Wainwright Prize and Young Writer of the Year Award shortlists. She’d also be a perfect New Networks for Nature speaker.
With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.
The Way through the Woods: Of Mushrooms and Mourning by Long Lit Woon
[Trans. from the Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland]
I couldn’t resist the sound of a bereavement memoir crossed with a mushroom hunting guide. When Long met her husband, Eiolf Olsen, she was an 18-year-old Malaysian exchange student in Stavanger, Norway. Meeting Eiolf changed the whole course of her life, keeping her in Europe for good; decades later, her life changed forever once again when Eiolf dropped dead at work one morning. “If anyone had told me that mushrooms would be my lifeline, the thing that would help me back onto my feet and quite literally back onto life’s track, I would have rolled my eyes. What had mushrooms to do with mourning?” she writes.
The answer to that rhetorical question is nothing much, at least not inherently, so this ends up becoming a book of two parts, with the bereavement strand (printed in green and in a different font – green is for grief? I suppose) engaging me much more than the mushroom-hunting one, which takes her to Central Park and the annual Telluride, Colorado mushroom festival as well as to Norway’s woods again and again – “In Norway, outdoor life is tantamount to a religion.” But the quest for wonder and for meaning is a universal one. In addition, if you’re a mushroom fan you’ll find gathering advice, tasting notes, and even recipes. I fancy trying the “mushroom bacon” made out of oven-dried shiitakes.
With thanks to Scribe for the free copy for review.
God Unbound: Theology in the Wild by Brian McLaren
McLaren was commissioned to launch a series that was part travel guide, part spiritual memoir and part theological reflection. Specifically, he was asked to write about the Galápagos Islands because he’d been before and they were important to him. He joins a six-day eco-cruise that tours around the island chain off Ecuador, with little to do except observe the birds, tortoises and iguanas, and swim with fish and sea turtles. For him this is a peaceful, even sacred place that reminds him of the beauty that still exists in the world despite so much human desecration. Although he avoids using his phone except to quickly check in with his wife, modernity encroaches unhelpfully through a potential disaster with his laptop.
I was surprised to see that McLaren leaves the Galápagos at the midpoint – whatever could fill the rest of the book, I wondered? He starts by reassessing Darwin, so often painted as a villain by Evangelical Christianity but actually a model of close, loving attention to nature. He also recalls how some of his most intense spiritual experiences have arisen from time in nature. McLaren’s books have been pivotal to my spiritual journey as we’ve both gradually become more liberal and environmentalist. His definition of God might horrify traditionalists, but holds appeal for me: “a centering singularity whose gravity holds me in insistent orbit, pulling me deeper into mystery, pondering who I am and what my life means.” This is an unusual but gently entrancing book full of photos and quotes from other thinkers including John Muir, Pope Francis and Richard Rohr. It’s an ideal introduction to ecotheology.
With thanks to Canterbury Press for the free copy for review.
What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life by Phil Zuckerman
From one end of the spectrum (progressive Christianity) to the other (atheism). Here’s a different perspective from a sociology professor at California’s Pitzer College. Zuckerman’s central argument is that humanism and free choice can fuel ethical behavior; since there’s no proof of God’s existence and theists have such a wide range of beliefs, it’s absurd to slap a “because God says so” label on our subjective judgments. Morals maintain the small communities our primate ancestors evolved into, with specific views (such as on homosexuality) a result of our socialization. Alas, the in-group/out-group thinking from our evolutionary heritage is what can lead to genocide. Instead of thinking in terms of ‘evil’, though, Zuckerman prefers Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen’s term, “empathy erosion.”
To tackle violent crime, Zuckerman contends, we need a more equal society, with the Scandinavian countries a model of how to achieve that through higher taxes, social services and the rehabilitation of prisoners. He uses a lot of relatable examples from history and from his own experience, as well as theoretical situations, to think through practical morality. I found his indictment of American Christianity accurate – how does it make sense for people who say they follow the way of Jesus to fight against equality, tolerance and scientific advances and instead advocate guns, the death penalty and Trump? Well, indeed.
It might seem odd for me to recommend this alongside the McLaren, but there is much to be gained from both viewpoints. Zuckerman’s work overlaps a fair bit with another I’ve read on the topic, Richard Holloway’s Godless Morality – even a bishop agrees we needn’t take our societal ethics straight from the Bible! I can’t go along fully with Zuckerman because I think progressive religion has been and can continue to be a force for good, but I would agree that atheists can be just as moral as people of faith – and often more so.
With thanks to Counterpoint Press for sending a proof copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
I’ve continued to post my occasional reading coincidences on Twitter and/or Instagram. This is when two or more books that I’m reading 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 between 10 and 20 – I guess I’m more prone to such serendipitous incidents. (The following are in rough chronological order.)
What’s the weirdest coincidence you’ve had lately?
- Two titles that sound dubious about miracles: There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald and The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything that Comes After by Julie Yip-Williams
- Two titles featuring light: A Light Song of Light by Kei Miller and The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer
- Grey Poupon mustard (and its snooty associations, as captured in the TV commercials) mentioned in There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald and Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp
- “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” (the Whitney Houston song) referenced in There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald and Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
- Two books have an on/off boyfriend named Julian: Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp and Extinctions by Josephine Wilson
- There’s an Aunt Marjorie in When I Had a Little Sister by Catherine Simpson and Extinctions by Josephine Wilson
- Set (at least partially) in a Swiss chalet: This Sunrise of Wonder by Michael Mayne and Crazy for God by Frank Schaeffer
- A character named Kiki in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine by Iris Murdoch, The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer, AND Improvement by Joan Silber
- Two books set (at least partially) in mental hospitals: Mind on Fire by Arnold Thomas Fanning and Faces in the Water by Janet Frame
- Two books in which a character thinks the saying is “It’s a doggy dog world” (rather than “dog-eat-dog”): The Friend by Sigrid Nunez and The Octopus Museum by Brenda Shaughnessy
- Reading a novel about Lee Miller (The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer), I find a metaphor involving her in My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh: (the narrator describes her mother) “I think she got away with so much because she was beautiful. She looked like Lee Miller if Lee Miller had been a bedroom drunk.” THEN I come across a poem in Clive James’s Injury Time entitled “Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bathtub”
- On the same night that I started Siri Hustvedt’s new novel, Memories of the Future, I also started a novel that had a Siri Hustvedt quote (from The Blindfold) as the epigraph: Besotted by Melissa Duclos
- In two books “elicit” was printed where the author meant “illicit” – I’m not going to name and shame, but one of these instances was in a finished copy! (the other in a proof, which is understandable)
- Three books in which the bibliography is in alphabetical order BY BOOK TITLE! Tell me this is not a thing; it will not do! (Vagina: A Re-education by Lynn Enright; Let’s Talk about Death (over Dinner) by Michael Hebb; Telling the Story: How to Write and Sell Narrative Nonfiction by Peter Rubie)
- References to Gerard Manley Hopkins in Another King, Another Country by Richard Holloway, This Sunrise of Wonder by Michael Mayne and The Point of Poetry by Joe Nutt (these last two also discuss his concept of the “inscape”)
- Creative placement of words on the page (different fonts; different type sizes, capitals, bold, etc.; looping around the page or at least not in traditional paragraphs) in When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back by Naja Marie Aidt [not pictured below], How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton, Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler, Alice Iris Red Horse: Selected Poems of Yoshimasu Gozo and Lanny by Max Porter
- Twin brothers fall out over a girl in Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese and one story from the upcoming book Meteorites by Julie Paul
- Characters are described as being “away with the fairies” in Lanny by Max Porter and Away by Jane Urquhart
- Schindler’s Ark/List is mentioned in In the Beginning: A New Reading of the Book of Genesis by Karen Armstrong and Telling the Story: How to Write and Sell Narrative Nonfiction by Peter Rubie … makes me think that I should finally pick up my copy!
On Tuesday the longlist for the 2019 Wellcome Book Prize will be announced. For the third year in a row I’m running a shadow panel, and it’s composed of the same four wonderful book bloggers who joined me last year: Paul Cheney of Halfman, Halfbook, Annabel Gaskell of Annabookbel, Clare Rowland of A Little Blog of Books, and Dr. Laura Tisdall.
This year we’re going to do things slightly differently: we plan to split up the longlist, taking two to three titles each, so that between us we will have read them all and can announce our own preferred shortlist before the official shortlist is announced in March. At that point we’ll catch up by (re)reading the six shortlisted books, each reviewing the ones we haven’t already. Essentially, I’m adding an extra stage of shadow panel judging, simply because I can. I hope it will be fun – and also less onerous, in that we should get a leg-up on the shortlist and not have to read all six books in March‒April, which has proved to be a challenge in the past.
My Wellcome Prize hopefuls are all the fiction or nonfiction titles I’ve read on a medical theme that were published in the UK in calendar year 2018. I have put asterisks beside the 12 books in this post that I predict for the longlist. (The combination of wishful thinking and likelihood means that these are not exclusively my personal favorites.)
Below is a list of the books I’ve already featured on the blog in some way, with links to my coverage and a few-word summary of their relevance.
Gross Anatomy by Mara Altman: Female body woes
*Beneath the Skin: Great Writers on the Body: Essays on organs
*All that Remains by Sue Black: Forensic anthropology
Everything Happens for a Reason by Kate Bowler: Living with advanced cancer
Heal Me by Julia Buckley: Tackling chronic pain
*The Unmapped Mind by Christian Donlan: Adjusting to life with MS
From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty: Funerary rites around the world
This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein: A genetic disease in the family
Natural Causes by Barbara Ehrenreich: Questioning the wellness culture
On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions by Kate Figes: Pondering breast cancer
Shapeshifters by Gavin Francis: Instances of bodily change
The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman: Healing from an eating disorder
Nine Pints by Rose George: The story of blood
Waiting for the Last Bus by Richard Holloway: Ageing and death
*Heart: A History by Sandeep Jauhar: Heart disease and treatments
Sick by Porochista Khakpour: Chronic Lyme disease
Human Errors by Nathan Lents: Flawed bodies; evolutionary adaptations
Skybound by Rebecca Loncraine: Breast cancer; flying lessons
Amateur by Thomas Page McBee: Memoir of F2M transformation
*Face to Face by Jim McCaul: Tales of facial surgery
*Somebody I Used to Know by Wendy Mitchell: A firsthand account of early Alzheimer’s
*That Was When People Started to Worry by Nancy Tucker: Mental illness from the inside
*The Language of Kindness by Christie Watson: Nursing as a vocation
Little by Edward Carey: Anatomical models in wax (thanks to Clare for the reminder!)
Orchid & the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes: Non-epileptic seizures
*The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason: Neurology, surgery during WWI
The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry: Medicine in 1840s Edinburgh
Other eligible books that I have read but not happened to mention on the blog:
In Shock by Rana Awdish: The doctor became the patient when Awdish, seven months pregnant, was rushed into emergency surgery with excruciating pain due to severe hemorrhaging into the space around her liver, later explained by a ruptured tumor. Having experienced brusque, cursory treatment, even from colleagues at her Detroit-area hospital, she was convinced that doctors needed to do better. This memoir is a gripping story of her own medical journey and a fervent plea for compassion from medical professionals.
Doctor by Andrew Bomback: Part of the Bloomsbury Object Lessons series, this is a wide-ranging look at what it’s like to be a doctor. Bomback is a kidney specialist; his wife is also a doctor, and his father, fast approaching retirement, is the kind of old-fashioned, reassuring pediatrician who knows everything. Even the author’s young daughter likes playing with a stethoscope and deciding what’s wrong with her dolls. In a sense, then, Bomback uses fragments of family memoir to compare the past, present and likely future of medicine.
A Moment of Grace by Patrick Dillon [skimmed]: A touching short memoir of the last year of his wife Nicola Thorold’s life, in which she battled acute myeloid leukemia. Dillon doesn’t shy away from the pain and difficulties, but is also able to summon up some gratitude.
Get Well Soon: Adventures in Alternative Healthcare by Nick Duerden: British journalist Nick Duerden had severe post-viral fatigue after a run-in with possible avian flu in 2009 and was falsely diagnosed with ME / CFS. He spent a year wholeheartedly investigating alternative therapies, including yoga, massage, mindfulness and meditation, visualization, talk therapy and more. He never comes across as bitter or sorry for himself. Instead, he considered fatigue a fact of his new life and asked what he could do about it. So this ends up being quite a pleasant amble through the options, some of them more bizarre than others.
*Sight by Jessie Greengrass [skimmed]: I wanted to enjoy this, but ended up frustrated. As a set of themes (losing a parent, choosing motherhood, the ways in which medical science has learned to look into human bodies and minds), it’s appealing; as a novel, it’s off-putting. Had this been presented as a set of autobiographical essays, perhaps I would have loved it. But instead it’s in the coy autofiction mold where you know the author has pulled some observations straight from life, gussied up others, and then, in this case, thrown in a bunch of irrelevant medical material dredged up during research at the Wellcome Library.
*Brainstorm: Detective Stories From the World of Neurology by Suzanne O’Sullivan: Epilepsy affects 600,000 people in the UK and 50 million worldwide, so it’s an important condition to know about. It is fascinating to see the range of behaviors seizures can be associated with. The guesswork is in determining precisely what is going wrong in the brain, and where, as well as how medicines or surgery could address the fault. “There are still far more unknowns than knowns where the brain is concerned,” O’Sullivan writes; “The brain has a mind of its own,” she wryly adds later on. (O’Sullivan won the Prize in 2016 for It’s All in Your Head.)
I’m also currently reading and enjoying two witty medical books, The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine by Thomas Morris, and Chicken Unga Fever by Phil Whitaker, his collected New Statesman columns on being a GP.
Four additional books I have not read but think might have a chance of making the longlist:
Primate Change: How the World We Made Is Remaking Us by Vybarr Cregan-Reid
The Beautiful Cure: Harnessing Your Body’s Natural Defences by Daniel M. Davis
Because I Come from a Crazy Family: The Making of a Psychiatrist by Edward M. Hallowell
*She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer
Look out for the announcement of the longlist on Tuesday afternoon! I’ll report back, perhaps on Wednesday, with some reactions and the shadow panel’s reviewing strategy.
Have you read, or are you interested in, any of these books?
Can you think of other 2018 releases that might be eligible for the Wellcome Book Prize?
I love book lists: ticking off what I’ve read from newspaper and website selections, comparing my “best-of” choices and prize predictions with other people’s, and making up my own thematic inventories. Earlier in the year I spotted Desert Island-style 100-book lists on Annabookbel and A life in books, as well as Lonesome Reader’s reconsideration of the 100 favorite books he’d chosen half a lifetime ago. For my 35th birthday today, I’ve looked back at my “Absolute Favorites” shelf on Goodreads and picked the 35 titles that stand out the most for me: some are childhood favorites, some are books that changed my thinking, some I have read two or three times (an extreme rarity for me), and some are recent discoveries that have quickly become personal classics. I’ve listed these in rough chronological order of when I first read them, rather than ranking them, which would be nigh on impossible! Perhaps I’ll revisit the list on future significant birthdays and see how things change. Interesting to note that this works out as about two-thirds fiction and one-third nonfiction.
- Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
- The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis
- Watership Down by Richard Adams
- Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
- David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
- The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
- Possession by A.S. Byatt
- Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
- Sixpence House by Paul Collins
- A History of God by Karen Armstrong
- Conundrum by Jan Morris
- The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg
- The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
- My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
- On Beauty by Zadie Smith
- Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty
- Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner
- A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
- American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
- Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
- Caribou Island by David Vann
- To Travel Hopefully by Christopher Rush
- We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
- The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
- Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway
- An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
- A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
- Want Not by Jonathan Miles
- Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton
- F by Daniel Kehlmann
- Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
- March by Geraldine Brooks
Are any of these among your favorites, too?
I’m delighted to announce the other book bloggers on my Wellcome Book Prize 2018 shadow panel: Paul Cheney of Halfman, Halfbook, Annabel Gaskell of Annabookbel, Clare Rowland of A Little Blog of Books, and Dr. Laura Tisdall. Once the shortlist is announced on Tuesday the 20th, we’ll be reading through the six nominees and sharing our thoughts. Before the official winner is announced at the end of April we will choose our own shadow winner.
I’ve been working my way through some of the longlisted titles I was able to access via the public library and NetGalley. Here’s my latest two (both ):
Plot 29: A Memoir by Allan Jenkins
This is an unusual hybrid memoir: it’s a meditative tour through the gardening year, on a plot in London and at his second home in his wife’s native Denmark. But it’s also the story of how Jenkins, editor of the Observer Food Monthly, investigated his early life. Handed over to a Barnardo’s home at a few months of age, he was passed between various family members and a stepfather (with some degree of neglect: his notes show scabies, rickets and TB) and then raised by strict foster parents in Devon with his beloved older half-brother, Christopher. It’s interesting to read that initially Jenkins intended to write a simple gardening diary, with a bit of personal stuff thrown in. But as he got further into the project, it started to morph.
The book has a complicated chronology: though arranged by month, within chapters its fragments jump around in time, a year or a date at the start helping the reader to orient herself between flashbacks and the contemporary story line. Sections are often just a paragraph long; sometimes up to a page or two. I suspect some will find the structure difficult and distancing. It certainly made me read the book slowly, which I think was the right way. You take your time adjusting to the gradual personal unveiling just as you do to the slow turn of the seasons. When major things do happen – meeting his mother in his 30s; learning who his father was in his 60s – they’re almost anticlimactic, perhaps because of the rather flat style. It’s the process that has mattered, and gardening has granted solace along the way.
I’m grateful to the longlist for making me aware of a book I otherwise might never have heard about. I don’t think the book’s mental health theme is strong enough for it to make the shortlist, but I enjoyed reading it and I’ll also take a look at Jenkins’s upcoming book, Morning, about the joys of being an early riser. (Ironic after my recent revelations about my own sleep patterns!)
“Solitude plus community, the constant I search for, the same as the allotment”
“The last element to be released from Pandora’s box, they say, was hope. So I will mourn the children we once were and I will sow chicory for bitterness. I will plant spring beans and alliums. I’ll look after them.”
“As a journalist, I have learned the five Ws – who, what, where, when, why. They are all needed to tell a story, we are taught, but too many are missing in my tale.”
With the End in Mind: Dying, Death and Wisdom in an Age of Denial by Kathryn Mannix
This is an excellent all-round guide to preparation for death. It’s based around relatable stories of the patients Mannix met in her decades working in the fields of cancer treatment and hospice care. She has a particular interest in combining CBT with palliative care to help the dying approach their remaining time with realism rather than pessimism. In many cases this involves talking patients and their loved ones through the steps of dying and explaining the patterns – decreased energy, increased time spent asleep, a change in breathing just before the end – as well as being clear about how suffering can be eased.
I read the first 20% on my Kindle and then skimmed the rest in a library copy. This was not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because it was a two-week loan and I was conscious of needing to move on to other longlist books. It may also be because I have read quite a number of books with similar themes and scope – including Caitlin Doughty’s two books on death, Caring for the Dying by Henry Fersko-Weiss, Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, and Waiting for the Last Bus by Richard Holloway. Really this is the kind of book I would like to own a copy of and read steadily, just a chapter a week. Mannix’s introductions to each section and chapter, and the Pause for Thought pages at the end of each chapter, mean the book lends itself to being read as a handbook, perhaps in tandem with an ill relative.
The book is unique in giving a doctor’s perspective but telling the stories of patients and their families, so we see a whole range of emotions and attitudes: denial, anger, regret, fear and so on. Tears were never far from my eyes as I read about a head teacher with motor neurone disease; a pair of women with metastatic breast cancer who broke their hips and ended up as hospice roommates; a beautiful young woman who didn’t want to stop wearing her skinny jeans even though they were exacerbating her nerve pain, as then she’d feel like she’d given up; and a husband and wife who each thought the other didn’t know she was dying of cancer.
Mannix believes there’s something special about people who are approaching the end of their life. There’s wisdom, dignity, even holiness surrounding them. It’s clear she feels she’s been honored to work with the dying, and she’s helped to propagate a healthy approach to death. As her children told her when they visited her dying godmother, “you and Dad [a pathologist] have spent a lifetime preparing us for this. No one else at school ever talked about death. It was just a Thing in our house. And now look – it’s OK. We know what to expect. We don’t feel frightened. We can do it. This is what you wanted for us, not to be afraid.”
I would be happy to see this advance to the shortlist.
“‘So, how long has she got?’ I hate this question. It’s almost impossible to answer, yet people ask as though it’s a calculation of change from a pound. It’s not a number – it’s a direction of travel, a movement over time, a tiptoe journey towards a tipping point. I give my most honest, most direct answer: I don’t know exactly. But I can tell you how I estimate, and then we can guesstimate together.”
“we are privileged to accompany people through moments of enormous meaning and power; moments to be remembered and retold as family legends and, if we get the care right, to reassure and encourage future generations as they face these great events themselves.”
Currently reading: The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris: a history of early surgery and the fight against hospital infection, with a focus on the life and work of Joseph Lister.
Up next: I’ve requested review copies of The White Book by Han Kang and Mayhem by Sigrid Rausing, but if they don’t make it to the shortlist they’ll slip down the list of priorities.
Theology rarely appears on this blog, though I have a dual degree in English and Religion and read a fair number of books with religious themes. Never fear: it’s not your average pie-in-the-sky Christian talk in Waiting for the Last Bus, Richard Holloway’s brand-new book about old age and death. Holloway was a career priest and has written nearly 30 theological works, but he comes at things from a refreshingly different angle. In Leaving Alexandria (2012), one of my all-time favorite memoirs, he recorded his drift away from orthodoxy – even as he rose through the ranks of the Church of Scotland to become Bishop of Edinburgh. He recognizes morality as provisional (like in another of his books I’ve read, Godless Morality (1999)) – the Church has changed its mind about women and gay people, for instance – and doesn’t waste time pondering the supernatural or the chance of eternal life, but he still thinks religion has lessons to teach us about how we can approach death with dignity.
The thematic scaffolding of this short book, which grew out of a Radio 4 series that aired in 2016, is acceptance versus denial. For Holloway, going prematurely bald was like a preview of ageing, and the futility of the quack hair restoration pills he ordered from a magazine was his first lesson in accepting what you cannot change about yourself. Seeing ourselves as we really are is a lifelong struggle, Holloway acknowledges; some only grasp their identity right at the end, as death approaches. Predestination is a doctrine common to Christianity and Islam, but he is more inclined to mix free will and fate. His recurring metaphor is of a deck of cards: life is a hand that you are dealt, but you get to choose exactly how to play it.
This is a richly allusive book, full of snatches of literature (especially poetry), as well as excerpts from obituaries and from funeral addresses Holloway has given. He also discusses the fear of death, the dystopian possibilities of cryogenic freezing, countering regrets with forgiveness, and how the way we face death could redeem a disappointing life. Holloway’s is a voice of wisdom worth heeding, and he is honest and humble instead of giving pat answers to life’s enormous questions. I would be particularly likely to recommend this to readers of Julian Barnes’s Nothing to Be Frightened Of who want a contrasting perspective.
A couple of favorite passages:
“I have ministered [Last Rites] myself and seen the peace they can bring at the end. I have sent good friends into the arms of a merciful God I was no longer sure I believed in. And I was convinced not only of the efficacy but of the honesty of what I was doing. I was not there to ventilate my doubts but to help the dying find the strength to cast off and take the tide that was pulling them out.”
“Religion is at its most compelling when it restrains the urge to explain death away and contents itself with voicing our sorrow and defiance that [death] keeps beating us into the ground. It feels most authentic when it stops preaching and becomes, instead, our song, our protest, the handkerchief waved against the immense tank looming at the corner of the street.”
Waiting for the Last Bus is published in the UK today, March 1st. With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.
Every once in a while you’ll hear someone claim that a certain book will change your life. I think of a scene in Garden State, still one of my favorite movies of all time, where Natalie Portman’s character tells Zach Braff’s character “this song will change your life” and puts The Shins’ “New Slang” on his headphones. (Ok, it’s a good song, but not that great.)
Are there any books that have literally changed my life? I can think of a handful that have been extremely influential on my worldview and, in a couple of cases, also changed my behavior. As it happens, they’re all nonfiction.
After I got back to the States from my year abroad, I spent a few years doing some intensive reading about progressive Christianity (it was sometimes also called the emergent church) and other religions, trying to decide if it was worth sticking with the faith I’d grown up in. Although I still haven’t definitively answered this for myself, and have drifted in and out of lots of churches over the last 12 years, two authors were key to me never ditching Christianity entirely: Brian McLaren and Marcus Borg.
McLaren founded the church we attend whenever we’re back in Maryland and is the author of over a dozen theology titles, including the New Kind of Christian trilogy of allegorical novels. For me his best book is A New Kind of Christianity, which pulls together all his recurrent themes. Borg, who died in 2015, wrote several books that made a big impression on me, but none more so than The Heart of Christianity, which is the best single book I’ve found about what Christianity can and should be, going back to Jesus’ way of peace and social justice and siphoning off the unhelpful doctrines that have accumulated over the centuries.
Any number of other Christian books and authors have been helpful to me over the years (Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner, How (Not) to Speak of God by Peter Rollins, Falling Upward by Richard Rohr, An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor, Without Buddha I Could Not be a Christian by Paul Knitter, Unapologetic by Francis Spufford, and various by Kathleen Norris, Rowan Williams, Richard Holloway and Anne Lamott), reassuring me that it’s not all hellfire/pie in the sky mumbo-jumbo for anti-gay Republicans, but Borg and McLaren were there at the start of my journey.
Reading is my primary means of examining society as well as my own life, so it’s no wonder that I have turned to books to learn from some gender pioneers. Hanne Blank’s accessible social history Straight (2012) is particularly valuable for its revelation of the surprisingly short history of heterosexuality as a concept – the term has only existed since the 1860s. But the book that most helped me adjust my definitions of gender and broaden my tolerance was Conundrum by Jan Morris (1974).
James Morris, born in 1926, was a successful reporter, travel writer, husband and father. Yet all along he knew he was meant to be female; it was something he had sensed for the first time as a young child sitting under the family piano: “I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl … the conviction was unfaltering from the start.” In 1954 he began taking hormones to start his transition to womanhood, completed by a sex reassignment surgery in Morocco in 1972. This exceptional memoir of sex change evokes the swirl of determination and doubt, as well as the almost magical process of metamorphosing from one thing to another. Morris has been instrumental in helping me see sexuality as a continuum rather than a fixed entity.
Apart from Michael Pollan, can you guess who’s had the greatest influence on my eating habits? You might be surprised to learn it’s American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. In 2009 he published a provocative book called Eating Animals. I’m still surprised by how powerful and challenging I found it, considering that I knew pretty much what to expect: anti-meat rhetoric from a trendy vegetarian, with plenty of arresting statistics and horrifying behind-the-scenes accounts of factory farming and slaughter. But I set aside my jaded approach to potential propaganda and let it all saturate me, and it was devastating.
The fact that I still haven’t completely given up meat is proof of how difficult it is to change, even once you’ve been convicted. We’ve gone from eating meat occasionally to almost never, and then mostly when we’re guests at other people’s houses. But if I really reminded myself to think about where my food was coming from, I’m sure we’d be even more hardline. Foer didn’t answer all my questions – what about offal and wild game, and why not go all the way to veganism? – but I appreciated that he never characterizes the decision to be vegetarian as an easy one. He recognizes the ways food is bound up with cultural traditions and family memories, but still thinks being true to one’s principles outweighs all. (He’s brave enough to suggest to middle America that it’s time to consider a turkey-free Thanksgiving!)
There’s nothing more routine than brushing your teeth, and I never thought I would learn a new way to do it at age 32! But that’s just what Ignore Your Teeth and They’ll Go Away by Sheldon Dov Sydney gave me. He advises these steps: (1) brushing with a dry brush to remove bits of food and plaque, (2) flossing, and (3) brushing with toothpaste as a polish and to freshen breath. It takes a little bit longer than your usual quick brush and thus I can’t often be bothered to do it, but it does always leave my mouth feeling super-clean.
I frequently succumb to negative self-talk, thinking “I can’t cope” or “There’s no way I could…” Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers helped me see that I need to be more positive in my thought life. Originally published in 1987, the self-help classic says that at the base of every fear is a belief that “I can’t handle it.” Our fears are either of things that can happen to us (aging and natural disasters) or actions we might take (going back to school or changing jobs). You can choose to hold fear with either pain (leading to paralysis) or power (leading to action). This is still a struggle for me, but whenever I start to think “I can’t” I try to replace it with Jeffers’ mantra, “Whatever it is, I’ll handle it.”