Across my four best-of posts (Nonfiction was on Wednesday and Fiction on Thursday; Backlist reads are coming up tomorrow), I will have spotlighted roughly the top 20% of my year’s reading. The 15 runners-up below – 5 fiction and 10 nonfiction – are in alphabetical order by author. The ones marked with an asterisk are my Best 2018 Books You Probably Never Heard Of (Unless You Heard about Them from Me!).
*Frieda by Annabel Abbs: If you rely only on the words of D.H. Lawrence, you’d think Frieda was lucky to shed a dull family life and embark on an exciting set of bohemian travels with him as he built his name as a writer; Abbs adds nuance to that picture by revealing just how much Frieda was giving up, and the sorrow she left behind her. Frieda’s determination to live according to her own rules makes her a captivating character.
A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne: A delicious piece of literary suspense with a Tom Ripley-like hero you’ll love to hate: Maurice Swift, who wants nothing more than to be a writer but doesn’t have any ideas of his own, so steals them from other people. I loved how we see this character from several outside points of view before getting Maurice’s own perspective; by this point we know enough to understand just how unreliable a narrator he is.
The Overstory by Richard Powers: A sprawling novel about regular people who through various unpredictable routes become so devoted to trees that they turn to acts, large and small, of civil disobedience to protest the clear-cutting of everything from suburban gardens to redwood forests. I admired pretty much every sentence, whether it’s expository or prophetic.
You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld: Sittenfeld describes families and romantic relationships expertly, in prose so deliciously smooth it slides right down. These 11 stories are about marriage, parenting, authenticity, celebrity and social media in Trump’s America. Overall, this is a whip-smart, current and relatable book, ideal for readers who don’t think they like short stories.
*Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson: A charming, bittersweet novel composed entirely of the letters that pass between Tina Hopgood, a 60-year-old farmer’s wife in East Anglia, and Anders Larsen, a curator at the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark. It’s a novel about second chances in the second half of life, and has an open but hopeful ending. I found it very touching and wish it hadn’t been given the women’s fiction treatment.
Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living by Karen Auvinen: An excellent memoir that will have broad appeal with its themes of domestic violence, illness, grief, travel, wilderness, solitude, pets, wildlife, and relationships. A great example of how unchronological autobiographical essays can together build a picture of a life.
*Heal Me: In Search of a Cure by Julia Buckley: Buckley takes readers along on a rollercoaster ride of new treatment ideas and periodically dashed hopes during four years of chronic pain. I was morbidly fascinated with this story, which is so bizarre and eventful that it reads like a great novel.
*This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein: A wry, bittersweet look at the unpredictability of life as an idealistic young woman in the world’s major cities. Another great example of life writing that’s not comprehensive or strictly chronological yet gives a clear sense of the self in the context of a family and in the face of an uncertain future.
*The Pull of the River: Tales of Escape and Adventure on Britain’s Waterways by Matt Gaw: This jolly yet reflective book traces canoe trips down Britain’s rivers, a quest to (re)discover the country by sensing the currents of history and escaping to the edge of danger. Gaw’s expressive writing renders even rubbish- and sewage-strewn landscapes beautiful.
The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson: A delightful read that successfully combines many genres – biography, true crime, ornithology, history, travel and memoir – to tell the story of an audacious heist of rare bird skins from the Natural History Museum at Tring in 2009. This is the very best sort of nonfiction: wide-ranging, intelligent and gripping.
*No One Tells You This by Glynnis MacNicol: There was a lot of appeal for me in how MacNicol sets out her 40th year as an adventure into the unknown. She is daring and candid in examining her preconceptions and asking what she really wants from her life. And she tells a darn good story: I read this much faster than I generally do with a memoir.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean: This is really two books in one. The first is a record of the devastating fire at the Los Angeles Central Library on April 29, 1986 and how the city and library service recovered. The second is a paean to libraries in general: what they offer to society, and how they work, in a digital age. Sure to appeal to any book-lover.
Help Me!: One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Her Life by Marianne Power: I have a particular weakness for year-challenge books, and Power’s is written in an easy, chatty style, as if Bridget Jones had given over her diary to testing self-help books for 16 months. Help Me! is self-deprecating and relatable, with some sweary Irish swagger thrown in. I can recommend it to self-help junkies and skeptics alike.
Mrs Gaskell & Me: Two Women, Two Love Stories, Two Centuries Apart by Nell Stevens: Stevens has a light touch, and flits between Gaskell’s story and her own in alternating chapters. This is a whimsical, sentimental, wry book that will ring true for anyone who’s ever been fixated on an idea or put too much stock in a relationship that failed to thrive.
The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story by Christie Watson: Watson presents her book as a roughly chronological tour through the stages of nursing – from pediatrics through to elderly care and the tending to dead bodies – but also through her own career. With its message of empathy for suffering and vulnerable humanity, it’s a book that anyone and everyone should read.
Coming tomorrow: My best backlist reads of the year.
These are in chronological order by my reading.
- borborygmi = stomach rumblings caused by the movement of fluid and gas in the intestines
- crapula = sickness caused by excessive eating and drinking
- olm = a cave-dwelling aquatic salamander
~The Year of the Hare, Arto Paasilinna
- befurbelowed = ornamented with frills (the use seems to be peculiar to this book, as it is the example in every online dictionary!)
~The Awakening, Kate Chopin
- roding = the sound produced during the mating display of snipe and woodcock, also known as drumming
- peat hag = eroded ground from which peat has been cut
~Deep Country, Neil Ansell
- rallentando = a gradual decrease in speed
~Sight, Jessie Greengrass
- piceous = resembling pitch
~March, Geraldine Brooks
- soffit = the underside of eaves or an arch, balcony, etc.
~The Only Story, Julian Barnes
- lemniscate = the infinity symbol, here used as a metaphor for the pattern of pipe smoke
~The Invisible Bridge, Julie Orringer
- purfling = a decorative border
- lamingtons = sponge cake squares coated in chocolate and desiccated coconut (sounds yummy!)
~The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, Tracy Farr
- ocellated = having eye-shaped markings
~Red Clocks, Leni Zumas
- balloonatic (WWI slang) = a ballooning enthusiast
- skinkling = sparkling
- preludial = introductory
- claustral = confining
- baccalà = salted cod
~The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon
(There were so many words I didn’t immediately recognize in this novel that I thought Kwon must have made them up; preludial and claustral, especially, are words I didn’t know existed but that one might have extrapolated from their noun forms.)
- bronies = middle-aged male fans of My Little Pony (wow, who knew this was a thing?! I feel like I’ve gone down a rabbit hole just by Googling it.)
- callipygian = having well-shaped buttocks
~Gross Anatomy, Mara Altman
- syce = someone who looks after horses; a groom (especially in India; though here it was Kenya)
- riem = a strip of rawhide or leather
- pastern = a horse’s ankle equivalent
~West with the Night, Beryl Markham
- blintering = flickering, glimmering (Scottish)
- sillion = shiny soil turned over by a plow
~The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal, Horatio Clare
- whiffet = a small, young or unimportant person
~Ladder of Years, Anne Tyler
- trilliant = a triangular gemstone cut
- cabochon = a gemstone that’s polished but not faceted
- blirt = a gust of wind and rain (but here used as a verb: “Coldness blirted over her”)
- contumacious = stubbornly disobedient
~Four Bare Legs in a Bed, Helen Simpson
- xeric = very dry (usually describes a habitat, but used here for a person’s manner)
~Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver
- twitten = a narrow passage between two walls or hedges (Sussex dialect – Marshall is based near Brighton)
~The Power of Dog, Andrew Marshall
- swither (Scottish) = to be uncertain as to which course of action to take
- strathspey = a dance tune, a slow reel
~Stargazing, Peter Hill
- citole = a medieval fiddle
- naker = a kettledrum
- amice = a liturgical vestment that resembles a cape
~The Western Wind, Samantha Harvey
- pareidolia = seeing faces in things, an evolutionary adaptation (check out @FacesPics on Twitter!)
~The Overstory, Richard Powers
Have you learned any new vocabulary words recently?
How likely am I to use any of these words in the next year?
“Wasn’t it Nabokov who said ‘It is astounding how little the ordinary person notices butterflies?’”
Butterflies, monks, students and teachers, prophets and saints: such is the cast of naturalist Robert Michael Pyle’s unusual and rewarding debut novel, Magdalena Mountain. It’s a golden autumn in the early 1970s as James Mead leaves Albuquerque on a Greyhound bus to travel to New Haven, Connecticut, where he will undertake a PhD in biology at Yale. He squats in a lab on campus to save money and, after some tension with his thesis advisor, decides to keep his head down, feeding the department’s giant cave roaches and becoming engrossed in the field journals written by one October Carson in 1969 during his travels out West.
Pyle presents nature as both beatific and harsh, a continuity of life that human events – like a car going over a cliff in the first chapter – barely disrupt. Occasional chapters check in on the woman who was in the car crash, Mary Glanville. Now suffering from amnesia, she believes she’s a famous figure from history. One day she escapes from her nursing home and hitchhikes into the Colorado mountains. In her weakened state she’s taken in by Attalus and Oberon, monks at a deconsecrated monastery devoted to the god Pan and the creeds of nature writers like John Burroughs, Aldo Leopold and John Muir. Attalus, a compassionless misogynist, vehemently protests Mary’s presence in their community, but Oberon soon falls in love with her.
When James, disobeying his supervisor, lights out for Colorado for a summer of research at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, the stage is set for these major characters to collide on Magdalena Mountain, home to the distinctive, all-black Magdalena Alpine butterfly (Erebia magdalena). “Flight may appear weak, but adults are able to sail up and over huge boulders with the greatest of ease, eluding humans who desire a closer look. Flies in summer,” reads the description in my (Kaufman) field guide to North American butterflies. Intermittent segments of pure nature writing about Erebia’s life cycle – seven short chapters in total – establish the seasons and encourage a long view of local history, but somewhat slow down the novel’s tempo.
Pyle successfully pulls in so many different themes: academic infighting and the impulses of scientific researchers versus amateur collectors; environmentalism, especially through the threats that infestations, pesticides and off-road vehicles pose to the mountain landscape; activism, by way of the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons protests; and even sacred femininity and the myths surrounding Mary Magdalene. Mary Glanville’s name is a nice nod to history – Elinor Glanville was a seventeenth-century English collector who gave her name to the Glanville Fritillary – while Vladimir Nabokov, who was a keen lepidopterist as well as an academic and author, is mentioned several times for his real-life connections to the area.
The quirky set of hangers-on at the monastery reminded me of an Iris Murdoch setup (thinking mostly of The Bell), while the passion for science and activism brought to mind two other excellent environmentally minded novels published this year, The Overstory and Unsheltered. Indeed, Mary preaches at one point, “Seek your shelter in nature … In love lies the only real shelter there is.” If you’re interested in the Powers and/or Kingsolver, I would commend Pyle’s book to you as well: it’s offbeat, dreamy yet fervent, with intriguing characters and elegant nature-infused language. One of my favorite descriptive scraps, so simple but so apt, was “a peeled peach of a moon.” I’m grateful to have had a chance to read this, and I will be seeking out Pyle’s nature writing, too.
Magdalena Mountain was published in August 2018. My thanks to the good folk of Counterpoint Press (based in Berkeley, California) for sending a free copy for review.
For a low-key early birthday outing we went to The Living Rainforest, a local tourist attraction run by a conservation charity. It’s on the small side, but our tickets got us free annual entry, so we’ll likely come back with family and friends with kids. Along with the tropical plants (including various fig trees I sought out especially!), there are birds both free-roaming and in cages, marmosets and monkeys, fish and turtles, an armadillo, and an elusive sloth we didn’t manage to see. Afterwards we went around the corner for cappuccinos and generous slabs of cake at the Hampstead Norreys community shop café.
My birthday itself was a gloomy day, but I didn’t mind at all; I filled it with reading and feasting, plus listening to music, working on a jigsaw puzzle, and having the cat on my lap. Each year my husband happily takes on impressive cooking and baking projects of my choice. This year we had acorn squash and black bean enchiladas with homemade salsa and guacamole, followed by Mexican rice pudding flavored with cinnamon and lime. In the afternoon with presents we’d had David Lebovitz’s Banana Cake with Mocha Frosting and Salted Candied Peanuts from Ready for Dessert. A delicious and decadent grown-up cake.
I got chocolate, notebooks, Lush shampoo, a bunch of llama/alpaca stuff, and 10 books as gifts (I suspect there might be more books to come, though). Looking back at my birthday book hauls from 2016 and 2017, I can see that I’ve had mixed success with getting through the acquisitions in a timely fashion: I’ve now read 9 out of 12 of 2016’s, but only 4 out of 11 of 2017’s. Though I’m very excited about some of my new books – I marked them as high priority on my wish list, after all – that doesn’t always translate into reading them soon. However, I’ve added two of them to my novellas pile for November, and I’ll read the first L’Engle journal in December as it starts around Christmastime.
Tomorrow the Man Booker Prize will be announced. Although I’ve only read one and a third books from the shortlist, I’m going to have a go at making predictions anyway. Here are the six nominees in what I think is their likelihood of winning:
#1: I fully expect Richard Powers to win for The Overstory. This is the one I’m partway through; I started reading a library copy on Friday. I’m so impressed by the novel’s expansive nature. It seems to have everything: love, war, history, nature, politics, technology, small-town life, family drama, illness, accidents, death. And all of human life is overshadowed and put into perspective by the ancientness of trees, whose power we disregard at a cost. I’m reminded of the work of Jonathan Franzen (Freedom + Purity), as well as Barbara Kingsolver’s latest, Unsheltered – though Powers is prophetic where she’s polemic.
#2: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan is a good old-fashioned adventure story about a slave who gets the chance to leave his Barbados sugar plantation behind when he becomes an assistant to an abolitionist inventor, Christopher “Titch” Wilde. Wash discovers a talent for drawing and a love for marine life and pursues these joint interests in the disparate places where life takes him. Part One was much my favorite; none of what followed quite matched it in depth or pace. Still, I enjoyed following along on Wash’s escapades, and I wouldn’t mind seeing this take the prize – it would be great to see a woman of color win.
#3: The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner: Kushner is well respected, though I’ve failed to get on with her fiction before. An inside look at the prison system, this could be sufficiently weighty and well-timed to win.
#4: Everything Under by Daisy Johnson: A myth-infused debut novel about a mother and daughter. On my library stack to read next, and the remaining title from the shortlist I’m most keen to read.
#5: The Long Take by Robin Robertson: A novel, largely in verse, about the aftermath of war service. Also on my library stack. Somewhat experimental forms like this grab Booker attention, but this might be too under-the-radar to win.
#6: Milkman by Anna Burns: Set in Belfast during the Troubles or a dystopian future? From my Goodreads friends’ reviews this sounds wooden and overwritten. Like the Kushner, I’d consider reading it if it wins but probably not otherwise.
Do you follow the Booker Prize? Which novel do you expect to win?
Tomorrow, the 20th, the Man Booker Prize shortlist will be announced. This must be my worst showing for many years: I’ve read just two of the longlisted books, and both were such disappointments I had to wonder why they’d been nominated at all. I have six of the others on request from the public library; of them I’m most keen to read The Overstory and Sabrina, the first graphic novel to have been recognized (the others are by Gunaratne, Johnson, Kushner and Ryan, but I’ll likely cancel my holds if they don’t make the shortlist). I’d read Robin Robertson’s novel-in-verse if I ever managed to get hold of a copy, but I’ve decided I’m not interested in the other four nominees (Bauer, Burns, Edugyan, Ondaatje*).
The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh
(Excerpted from my upcoming review for New Books magazine’s Booker Prize roundup.)
The first word of The Water Cure may be “Once,” but what follows is no fairy tale. Here’s the rest of that sentence: “Once we have a father, but our father dies without us noticing.” The tense seems all wrong; surely it should be “had” and “died”? From the very first line, then, Sophie Mackintosh’s debut novel has the reader wrong-footed, and there are many more moments of confusion to come. The other thing to notice in the opening sentence is the use of the first person plural. That “we” refers to three sisters: Grace, Lia and Sky. After the death of their father, King, it’s just them and their mother in a grand house on a remote island.
There are frequent flashbacks to times when damaged women used to come here for therapy that sounds more like torture. The sisters still engage in similar sadomasochistic practices: sitting in a hot sauna until they faint, putting their hands and feet in buckets of ice, and playing the “drowning game” in the pool by putting on a dress laced with lead weights. Despite their isolation, the sisters are still affected by the world at large. At the end of Part I, three shipwrecked men wash up on shore and request sanctuary. The men represent new temptations and a threat to the sisters’ comfort zone.
This is a strange and disorienting book. The atmosphere – lonely and lowering – is the best thing about it. Its setup is somewhat reminiscent of two Shakespeare plays, King Lear and The Tempest. With the exception of a few lines like “we look towards the rounded glow of the horizon, the air peach-ripe with toxicity,” the prose draws attention to itself in a bad way: it’s consciously literary and overwritten. In terms of the plot, it is difficult to understand, at the most basic level, what is going on and why. Speculative novels with themes of women’s repression are a dime a dozen nowadays, and the interested reader will find a better example than this one.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Conversations with Friends was one of last year’s sleeper hits and a surprise favorite of mine. You may remember that I was part of an official shadow panel for the 2017 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, which I was pleased to see Sally Rooney win. So I jumped at the chance to read her follow-up novel, which has been earning high praise from critics and ordinary readers alike as being even better than her debut. Alas, though, I was let down.
Normal People is very similar to Tender – which for some will be high praise indeed, though I never managed to finish Belinda McKeon’s novel – in that both realistically address the intimacy between a young woman and a young man during their university days and draw class and town-and-country distinctions (the latter of which might not mean much to those who are unfamiliar with Ireland).
The central characters here are two loners: Marianne Sheridan, who lives in a white mansion with her distant mother and sadistic older brother Alan, and Connell Waldron, whose single mother cleans Marianne’s house. Connell doesn’t know who his father is; Marianne’s father died when she was 13, but good riddance – he hit her and her mother. Marianne and Connell start hooking up during high school in Carricklea, but Connell keeps their relationship a secret because Marianne is perceived as strange and unpopular. At Trinity College Dublin they struggle to fit in and keep falling into bed with each other even though they’re technically seeing other people.
The novel, which takes place between 2011 and 2015, keeps going back and forth in time by weeks or months, jumping forward and then filling in the intervening time with flashbacks. I kept waiting for more to happen, skimming ahead to see if there would be anything more to it than drunken college parties and frank sex scenes. The answer is: not really; that’s mostly what the book is composed of.
I can see what Rooney is trying to do here (she makes it plain in the next-to-last paragraph): to show how one temporary, almost accidental relationship can change the partners for the better, giving Connell the impetus to pursue writing and Marianne the confidence to believe she is loveable, just like ‘normal people’. It is appealing to see into these characters’ heads and compare what they think of themselves and each other with their awareness of what others think. But page to page it is pretty tedious, and fairly unsubtle.
I was interested to learn that Rooney was writing this at the same time as Conversations, and initially intended it to be short stories. It’s possible I would have appreciated it more in that form.
My thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy for review.
*I’ve only ever read the memoir Running in the Family plus a poetry collection by Ondaatje. I have a copy of The English Patient on the shelf and have felt guilty for years about not reading it, especially after it won the “Golden Booker” this past summer (see Annabel’s report on the ceremony). I had grand plans of reading all the Booker winners on my shelf – also including Carey and Keneally – in advance of the 50th anniversary celebrations, but didn’t even make it through the books I started by the two South African winners; my aborted mini-reviews are part of the Shiny New Books coverage here. (There are also excerpts from my reviews of Bring Up the Bodies, The Sellout and Lincoln in the Bardo here.)
Last year I’d read enough from the Booker longlist to make predictions and a wish list, but this year I have no clue. I’ll just have a look at the shortlist tomorrow and see if any of the remaining contenders appeal.