Book Serendipity in 2020: Part III
I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once (usually around 20), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents than some. I also list these occasional reading coincidences on a Twitter thread.
The following are in chronological order. (January to March’s incidents appeared in this post, and April to July’s here.)
- Reading two books whose covers feature Audubon bird paintings.
- A 19th-century female character inherits a house but knows it will pass instantly to her spouse in Property by Valerie Martin and Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain.
- A bag/sack of potatoes as a metaphor in Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes and Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler.
- Nipple rings get a mention in Addition by Toni Jordan and Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes.
- Taxidermy is an element (most major in the first one) in Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett, Wild Child by Patrick Barkham and Into the Tangled Bank by Lev Parikian.
- A discussion of bartenders’ habit of giving out free drinks to get big tips (a canny way of ‘stealing’ from the employer) in Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain and Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes.
- Characters named Seamus in Addition by Toni Jordan and Mother’s Milk by Edward St. Aubyn.
- Wild boar mentioned in Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett, Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes and My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss.
- A fastidious bachelor who’s always cleaning his living space in Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes and Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler.
- A character is a blogger in Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes and My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss.
- Norfolk settings in Wild Child by Patrick Barkham and Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness (and both were on the Wainwright Prize longlist).
- A close aunt‒niece relationship in Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett and Addition by Toni Jordan.
- A guy does dumb accents when talking about food, and specifically a French accent for “hamburger,” in Addition by Toni Jordan and Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler.
- Recipes for a potato salad that is dressed with oil and vinegar rather than mayonnaise in Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl and My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss.
- Mentions of the Watergate hearings in A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne and Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl.
- Twins in Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne and The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani.
- Characters nicknamed “Lefty” in Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Modern Lovers by Emma Straub.
- Characters named Abir/Abeer in A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne and Apeirogon by Colum McCann.
- Kayaking in Scotland in The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange and Summerwater by Sarah Moss.
- The military coup in Nigeria features in Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński.
- The song “White Christmas” is quoted in Mudbound by Hillary Jordan and Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin.
- The fact that fingerprints are formed by the fetus touching the uterine wall appears in Marrow by Elizabeth Lesser and You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South.
- Orkney as a setting in Close to Where the Heart Gives Out by Malcolm Alexander and The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange. I’m hankering to go back!
- Teresa of Ávila is mentioned in Marrow by Elizabeth Lesser and You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South.
- A dog named Bingo in Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Modern Lovers by Emma Straub. (B-I-N-G-O!)
- Four sisters are given a joint name in A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne (Fran-Claire-Lois-Ada) and Marrow by Elizabeth Lesser (KaLiMaJo).
- The same Lilla Watson quote (“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together”) appears in both The Gospel of Trees by Apricot Irving and Marrow by Elizabeth Lesser.
- An Irish author and Hong Kong setting for Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan and The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell.
- The Dorothy Parker quote “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” appears in both What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez and First Time Ever by Peggy Seeger.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
20 Books of Summer, #19–20: Heat & The Gospel of Trees
Finishing off my summer reading project with a stellar biography-cum-travel book about Italian cuisine and a family memoir about missionary work in Haiti in the 1980s.
Heat by Bill Buford (2006)
(20 Books of Summer, #19) The long subtitle gives you an outline of the contents: “An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany.” If Buford’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he was the founding editor of Granta magazine and publisher at Granta Books, but by the time he wrote this he was a staff writer for the New Yorker.
Mario Batali is the book’s presiding imp. In 2002–3, Buford was an unpaid intern in the kitchen of Batali’s famous New York City restaurant, Babbo, which serves fancy versions of authentic Italian dishes. It took 18 months for him to get so much as a thank-you. Buford’s strategy was “be invisible, be useful, and eventually you’ll be given a chance to do more.”
In between behind-the-scenes looks at frantic or dull sessions of food prep (“after you’ve made a couple thousand or so of these little ears [orecchiette pasta], your mind wanders. You think about anything, everything, whatever, nothing”), Buford traces Batali’s culinary pedigree through Italy and London, where Batali learned from the first modern celebrity chef, Marco Pierre White, and gives pen portraits of the rest of the kitchen staff. At first only trusted with chopping herbs, the author develops his skills enough that he’s allowed to work the pasta and grill stations, and to make polenta for 200 for a benefit dinner in Nashville.
Later, Buford spends stretches of several months in Italy as an apprentice to a pasta-maker and a Tuscan butcher. His obsession with Italian cuisine is such that he has to know precisely when egg started to replace water in pasta dough in historical cookbooks, and is distressed when the workers at the pasta museum in Rome can’t give him a definitive answer. All the same, the author never takes himself too seriously: he knows it’s ridiculous for a clumsy, unfit man in his mid-forties to be entertaining dreams of working in a restaurant for real, and he gives self-deprecating accounts of his mishaps in the various kitchens he toils in:
to stir the polenta, I was beginning to feel I had to be in the polenta. Would I finish cooking it before I was enveloped by it and became the darkly sauced meaty thing it was served with?
Compared to Kitchen Confidential, I found this less brash and more polished. You still get the sense of macho posturing from a lot of the figures profiled, but of course this author is not going to be in a position to interrogate food culture’s overweening masculinity. However, he does take a stand in support of small-scale food production:
Small food: by hand and therefore precious, hard to find. Big food: from a factory and therefore cheap, abundant. Just about every preparation I learned in Italy was handmade and involved learning how to use my own hands differently. … Food made by hand is an act of defiance and runs contrary to everything in our modernity. Find it; eat it; it will go.
This is exactly what I want from food writing: interesting nuggets of trivia and insight, a quick pace, humor, and mouthwatering descriptions. If the restaurant world lures you at all, you must read this one.
- Nice connections with my other summer reading: there are mentions of both Eric Asimov and Ruth Reichl visiting Babbo in their capacity as food critics for the New York Times.
- This also induced a weird case of reverse déjà vu: a book I reviewed last summer for BookBrowse, Hungry by Jeff Gordinier, is so similar that it must have been patterned on Heat: the punchy one-word title; a New York journalist follows an internationally known chef (in that case, René Redzepi) and surveys culinary trends.
I was delighted to learn that this year Buford released a sequel of sorts, this one about French cuisine: Dirt. It’s on my wish list.
Source: From my dad
The Gospel of Trees by Apricot Irving (2018)
(20 Books of Summer, #20) Irving’s parents were volunteer missionaries to Haiti between 1982 and 1991, when she was aged six to 15. Her father, Jon, was trained as an agronomist, and his passion was for planting trees to combat the negative effects of deforestation on the island (erosion and worsened flooding). But in a country blighted by political unrest, AIDS and poverty, people can’t think long-term; they need charcoal to light their stoves, so they cut down trees.
Along with an agricultural center, the American Baptist missionaries were closely associated with a hospital, Hôpital le Bon Samaritain, run by amateur archaeologist Dr. Hodges and his family. Although Apricot and her two younger sisters were young enough to adapt easily to life in a developing country, they were disoriented each time the family returned to California in between assignments. Their bonds were shaky due to her father’s temper, her parents’ rocky relationship, and the jealousy provoked over almost adopting a Haitian baby girl.
Irving drew on letters and cassette tape recordings, newsletters, and journals (her parents’ and her own) to recreate the decade in Haiti and the years since. This debut book was many years in the making – she started the project in 2001. “I inherited my father’s anger and his perfectionism. Haiti was a wound, an unhealed scab that I was afraid to pick open. But I knew that unless I faced that broken history, my own buried grief, like my father’s, would explode ways I couldn’t predict.”
She and her parents returned to the country after the 2010 earthquake: they were volunteers with a relief organization, while she reported for the This American Life radio program. I loved the ambivalent portrait of Haiti and, especially, of Jon, but couldn’t muster up much interest in secondary characters, hoped for more discussion of (loss of) faith, and thought the book about 80 pages too long. Irving writes wonderfully, though, especially when musing on Haiti’s pre-Columbian history; I’d gladly read a nature book about her life in Oregon, or a novel – in tone this reminded me of The Poisonwood Bible.
Some favorite lines:
If, like my father, you suffer from a savior complex, Haiti is a bleak assignment, but if you are able to enter it unguarded, shielded only by curiosity, you will find the sorrows entangled with a defiant joy.
My family had moved to Haiti to try to help, but instead, we learned our limitations. Failure can be a wise friend. We felt crushed at times; found it difficult to breathe; and yet the experience carved into each of us an understanding of loss, the weight of compassion. We learned how small we were when measured against the world’s great sorrow.
Source: Bargain book from Amazon last year
And a DNF:
We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates (oats!)
I gave up after 38 pages. I’ve long meant to try Oates, but her oeuvre is daunting. An Oprah’s Book Club selection seemed like a safe bet. I found the quirky all-American family saga approach somewhat similar to John Irving or Richard Russo, but Judd’s narration is annoyingly perky, and already I was impatient to find out what happened to his sister Marianne on Valentine’s Day 1976. I’ll give it a few years and try again. In the meantime, maybe I’ll try Oates in a different genre.
Looking back, Heat was the clear highlight of my 20 Books, closely followed by My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki. I also really enjoyed the foodoirs by Anthony Bourdain, Nina Mingya Powles and Luisa Weiss. It’s funny how much I love foodie lit given that I don’t cook. As Alice Steinbach puts it, “while we all like to eat, we like it more when someone else does the cooking.”
Of course, not all of my selections were explicitly food-related; others simply had food words in their titles (or, as above, in the author’s name). Of these, my favorite was a reread, Ella Minnow Pea. Ideally, I would not have had to include my two skims and one partial read in the total, but I ran out of time in August to substitute in three more books. I’m happy enough with my showing this year, but next time I plan to build in more flexibility – or cheating, whichever you wish to call it – to ensure that I manage 20 solid reads.
I already have a color theme planned for 20 Books of Summer 2021! Here are 15 books that I own, mostly fiction, that would fit the bill:
As wildcard selections and/or substitutes, I will also allow:
- Books with “light”, “dark”, or “bright” in the title
- Kindle or library books, though I’d like the focus to remain on print books I own.
- If I’m really stuck, book covers/jackets in a rainbow of colors. I’ll skip orange because Penguin paperbacks are too plentiful in my book collection, but I have some nice red, yellow, green, blue, purple and pink covers to choose from.
#17–18: Marrow & The Hundred-Foot Journey
Almost there! Today I have a family memoir about the repercussions of cancer and a novel about an Indian chef who becomes a guardian of traditional French cuisine.
Marrow: A Love Story by Elizabeth Lesser (2016)
(20 Books of Summer, #17) I put this on the pile for my foodie-themed summer reading challenge because a marrow is an overgrown courgette (zucchini), but of course bone marrow is also eaten and is what is being referred to here. When they were in middle age and Lesser’s younger sister Maggie had a recurrence of her lymphoma, the author was identified as a perfect match to donate bone marrow. She charts the ups and downs of Maggie’s treatment but also goes deep into their family history: parents who rejected the supernatural in reaction to her mother’s Christian Science upbringing; a quartet of sisters who competed for love and attention; and different approaches to life – Maggie was a back-to-the-land Vermont farmer, nurse and botanical artist, while Elizabeth had bucked the trend by moving to New York City and exploring spirituality (she co-founded the Omega Institute, a holistic retreat center).
By including unedited “field notes” Maggie wrote periodically, Lesser recreates the drama and heartache of the cancer journey. She also muses a lot about attempts to repair family relationships through honest conversations and therapy. “Marrow” is not just a literal substance but also a metaphor for getting to the heart of what matters in life. I expect this memoir will be too New Age-y for many readers, but I appreciated its insights and the close sister bonds. I also loved the deckle edge and Maggie’s botanical prints on the endpapers. Recommended to fans of Elizabeth Gilbert and Anne Lamott.
Source: A clearance book from Blackwell’s in Oxford (bought on a trip with Annabel last summer)
The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais (2008)
(20 Books of Summer, #18) From the acknowledgments I learned that this was written specifically to be filmed by the author’s friend Ismail Merchant; though Merchant died in 2005, it’s no surprise that it went on to become a well-received 2014 movie. I think the story probably worked better on the big screen, what with the Indian and French settings, the swirls of color and the bustle of restaurant kitchens. Still, I’d forgotten enough about the story line to enjoy the book, too.
Hassan Haji, the narrator, is born in Mumbai, one of six children of a restaurateur, and has his interest in other food cultures awakened early by a memorable French meal (a common experience in several other books I’ve reviewed this summer: Kitchen Confidential, How to Love Wine and Tender at the Bone). After his mother’s death, the extended family relocates to London and then to provincial France. Stranded in Lumière by a car breakdown, the family decides to stay, opening a curry house across from a fine dining establishment run by Gertrude Mallory. Madame Mallory engages in a battle of wills with the uncouth new arrivals. It nearly takes a tragedy for her to get over her snobbishness and xenophobia and realize Hassan has a perfect palate. She takes him on as an apprentice and he makes the title’s 100-foot journey across the street to join her staff.
The film was undoubtedly a Helen Mirren vehicle, and the Lumière material from the middle of the book holds the most interest. The remainder goes more melancholy as Hassan loses many family members and colleagues and deplores the rise of French bureaucracy and fads like molecular gastronomy. Although he eventually earns a third Michelin star for his Paris restaurant, the 40-year time span means that the warm ending somewhat loses its luster. (I can’t remember if the film went so far into the future.) A pleasant summer read nonetheless.
Source: Free from a neighbor
20 Books of Summer, #13–14: Ruth Reichl and Alice Steinbach
Just three weeks remain in this challenge. I’m reading another four books towards it, and have two more to pick up during our mini-break to Devon and Dorset this coming weekend. A few of my choices are long and/or slow-moving reads, though, so I have a feeling I’ll be reading right down to the wire…
Today I have another two memoirs linked by France and its cuisine.
Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl (1998)
(20 Books of Summer, #13) I’ve read Reichl’s memoirs out of order, starting with Garlic and Sapphires (2005), about her time as a New York Times food critic, and moving on to Comfort Me with Apples (2001), about her involvement in California foodie culture in the 1970s–80s. Whether because I’d been primed by the disclaimer in the author’s note (“I have occasionally embroidered. I learned early that the most important thing in life is a good story”) or not, I sensed that certain characters and scenes were exaggerated here. Although I didn’t enjoy her memoir of her first 30 years as much as either of the other two I’d read, it was still worth reading.
The cover image is a genuine photograph taken by Reichl’s German immigrant father, book designer Ernst Reichl, in 1955. Early on, Reichl had to fend for herself in the kitchen: her bipolar mother hoarded discount food even it was moldy, so the family quickly learned to avoid her dishes made with ingredients that were well past their best. Like Eric Asimov and Anthony Bourdain, whose memoirs I’ve also reviewed this summer, Reichl got turned on to food by a top-notch meal in France. Food was a form of self-expression as well as an emotional crutch in many situations to come: during boarding school in Montreal, her rebellious high school years, and while living off of trendy grains and Dumpster finds at a co-op in Berkeley.
Reichl worked with food in many ways during her twenties. She was a waitress during college in Michigan, and a restaurant collective co-owner in California; she gave cooking lessons; she catered parties; and she finally embarked on a career as a restaurant critic. Her travels took her to France (summer camp counselor; later, wine aficionado), Morocco (with her college roommate), and Crete (a honeymoon visit to her favorite professor). Raised in New York City, she makes her way back there frequently, too. Overall, the book felt a bit scattered to me, with few if any recipes that I would choose to make, and the relationship with a mentally ill mother was so fraught that I will probably avoid Reichl’s two later books focusing on her mother.
Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman by Alice Steinbach (2004)
(20 Books of Summer, #14) Steinbach makes a repeat appearance in my summer reading docket: her 2000 travel book Without Reservations was one of my 2018 selections. In that book, she took a sabbatical during her 50s to explore Paris, England, and Italy. Here she continues her efforts at lifelong learning by taking up some sort of lessons everywhere she goes. The long first section sees her back in Paris, enrolling at the Hotel Ritz’s Escoffier École de Gastronomie Française. She’s self-conscious about having joined late, being older than the other students and having to rely on the translator rather than the chef’s instructions, but she’s determined to keep up as the class makes omelettes, roast quail and desserts.
Full disclosure: I’ve only read the first chapter for now as it’s the only one directly relevant to food – in others she takes dance lessons in Japan, studies art in Cuba, trains Border collies in Scotland, etc. – but I was enjoying it and will go back to it before the end of the year.
Source: Free bookshop
Books in Brief: Five I Enjoyed Recently
Despite my largely successful resolution to focus on my own books for the summer, I’ve also gotten through plenty of e-books from NetGalley and Edelweiss, too. I just find it easier to fit time with the Kindle into my day, whether it’s 20 minutes over lunch (food-themed nonfiction works particularly well for such situations) or 30 minutes on the cross trainer. Here’s a sample of the e-books I’ve enjoyed this summer: four nonfiction and one fiction.
Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France
By Craig Carlson
A good-natured memoir about the travails of opening the first American-style diner in Paris. Carlson charts his somewhat chaotic growing-up years in Connecticut, the college study abroad experience that kindled his love for France, his years trying to make it as a screenwriter and director in Hollywood, his long-held dream of opening Breakfast in America, and finding a French sweetheart of his own. Much of the book is devoted to a blow-by-blow of the bureaucratic nightmare of opening a restaurant, starting with getting investors on board and continuing through France’s ridiculously restrictive labor laws. (The impression I came away with was: France – great place to be an employee or rent property; terrible place to start a business.) Next time I’m in Paris, I will be looking to get myself a stack of his signature blueberry and white chocolate chip pancakes. Releases September 6th.
When in French: Love in a Second Language
By Lauren Collins
Collins, a journalist from North Carolina, married a Frenchman named Olivier she met while working in London. They then moved to Geneva, a mutually unfamiliar place but one where French reigned. For the first time, she was forced to learn a new language to survive. I love how she blends her own story with the philosophy, history and science behind language use. As she learned how to do things she never expected to have to in French – deal with her in-laws and give birth, for instance – she developed a new appreciation for the marvel that is bilingualism and pondered whether she was the same person in a different language. My favorite section recounts a holiday to Corsica that brought her family and Olivier’s into close quarters and cast her in the unforeseen role of translator. There’s a surprising amount of linguistic detail here, but Collins incorporates it well. Releases September 13th.
A Body, Undone: Living On After Great Pain
By Christina Crosby
Crosby teaches English and gender studies at Wesleyan University. Her inclusion in this “Sexual Cultures” series has to do with her lesbian feminist ideology but also the new understanding of her body an accident forced upon her at age 50. While she was cycling, a stick stuck in her spokes and she fell over onto concrete, breaking vertebrae in her neck that damaged her spinal cord. In the midst of a full and physical life, she became a quadriplegic. The great irony was that in this she joined her brother Jeff, whose MS had long since reduced him to a wheelchair. Here, in a memoir written 11 years after the accident, she reflects on chronic pain and new limitations – even including bowel habits – with blunt honesty as well as literary allusions. Along the way she remembers physical pleasures now denied to her. Nonetheless, she never comes across as sorry for herself. I found this to be highly absorbing.
The Reader on the 6.27
By Jean-Paul Didierlaurent
Guylain Vignolles works in a paper pulping plant. Rather than an enemy of books, however, he’s really a champion of the written word and its power to improve people’s lives. Every day when he descends into the belly of “The Thing” to clean it, he rescues the stray pages that escaped destruction and reads them aloud the following morning on his twenty-minute train commute, or to the residents of an old-folks home, no matter what their subject. He also helps his disabled former colleague Giuseppe stockpile all the books made from the recycled paper created on the fateful day the machine shredded his legs. There’s a charming Amélie vibe to this short novel, especially in the later chapters when Guylain sets off on a romantic quest to find the lavatory attendant whose wry diary he finds on a memory stick on the train. Most of the subplots could do with some expanding, but it’s a pleasant and super-quick read.
Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals that Brought Me Home
By Jessica Fechtor
For me this is right up there with Molly Wizenberg and Ruth Reichl in how the author merges food writing with a frank recounting of personal experiences with crisis and heartache. At age 28 Fechtor, then a graduate student in history and Yiddish, collapsed on a treadmill with a brain bleed. Surgery to clip the aneurysm left her blind in one eye. During her long recovery process she started a food blog. At the end of each chapter she shares recipes that alternate between simple, favorite dishes and more involved ones. It’s that unpretentiousness that really endears her to me. She doesn’t think she was particularly brave in getting through an unwanted illness; nor does she think the perfect almond macaroon or cherry clafoutis is beyond anyone’s capability. Instead, she gives a glimpse into an ordinary life turned upside down and the foods that helped her regain a zest for life.
Have you read any of these? Which one takes your fancy?
My Favorite Nonfiction Reads of 2015
Without further ado, I present to you my 15 favorite non-fiction books read in 2015. I’m a memoir junkie so many of these fit under that broad heading, but I’ve dipped into other areas too. I give two favorites for each category, then count down my top 7 memoirs read this year.
Note: Only four of these were actually published in 2015; for the rest I’ve given the publication year. Many of them I’ve already previewed through the year, so – like I did yesterday for fiction – I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read this book. (Links given to full reviews.)
A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg (2009): Wizenberg reflects on the death of her father Burg from cancer, time spent living in Paris, building a new life in Seattle, starting her food blog, and meeting her husband through it. Each brief autobiographical essay is perfectly formed and followed by a relevant recipe, capturing precisely how food is tied up with memories.
Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table by Ruth Reichl (2001): Reichl traces the rise of American foodie culture in the 1970s–80s (Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck) through her time as a food critic for the Los Angeles Times, also weaving in personal history – from a Berkeley co-op with her first husband to a home in the California hills with her second after affairs and a sticky divorce. Throughout she describes meals in mouth-watering detail, like this Thai dish: “The hot-pink soup was dotted with lacy green leaves of cilantro, like little bursts of breeze behind the heat. … I took another spoonful of soup and tasted citrus, as if lemons had once gone gliding through and left their ghosts behind.”
Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field by John Lewis-Stempel (2014): Lewis-Stempel is a proper third-generation Herefordshire farmer, but also a naturalist with a poet’s eye. Magical moments and lovely prose, as in “The dew, trapped in the webs of countless money spiders, has skeined the entire field in tiny silken pocket squares, gnomes’ handkerchiefs dropped in the sward.”
Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane: This new classic of nature writing zeroes in on the language we use to talk about our environment, both individual words – which Macfarlane celebrates in nine mini-glossaries alternating with the prose chapters – and the narratives we build around places, via discussions of the work of nature writers he admires. Whether poetic (“heavengravel,” Gerard Manley Hopkins’s term for hailstones), local and folksy (“wonty-tump,” a Herefordshire word for a molehill), or onomatopoeic (on Exmoor, “zwer” is the sound of partridges taking off), his vocabulary words are a treasure trove.
Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris (1998): In few-page essays, Norris gives theological words and phrases a rich, jargon-free backstory through anecdote, scripture and lived philosophy. This makes the shortlist of books I would hand to skeptics to show them there might be something to this Christianity nonsense after all.
My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman (2013): Seven years into a cancer journey, Wiman, a poet, gives an intimate picture of faith and doubt as he has lived with them in the shadow of death. Nearly every page has a passage that cuts right to the quick of what it means to be human and in interaction with other people and the divine.
Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee (2013): Although Penelope Fitzgerald always guarded literary ambitions, she was not able to pursue her writing wholeheartedly until she had reared three children and nursed her hapless husband through his last illness. This is a thorough and sympathetic appreciation of an underrated author, and another marvellously detailed biography from Lee.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (2014): A surgeon’s essential guide to decision-making about end-of-life care, but also a more philosophical treatment of the question of what makes life worth living: When should we extend life, and when should we concentrate more on the quality of our remaining days than their quantity? The title condition applies to all, so this is a book everyone should read.
- The Year My Mother Came Back by Alice Eve Cohen: Wry and heartfelt, this is a wonderful memoir about motherhood in all its variations and complexities; the magic realism (Cohen’s dead mother keeps showing up) is an added delight. I recommend this no matter what sort of relationship, past or present, you have with your mother, especially if you’re also a fan of Anne Lamott and Abigail Thomas.
- The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr: There is a wealth of practical advice here, on topics such as choosing the right carnal details (not sexual – or not only sexual – but physicality generally), correcting facts and misconceptions, figuring out a structure, and settling on your voice. Karr has been teaching (and writing) memoirs at Syracuse University for years now, so she’s thought deeply about what makes them work, and sets her theories out clearly for readers at any level of familiarity.
- A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle (1971): In this account of a summer spent at her family’s Connecticut farmhouse, L’Engle muses on theology, purpose, children’s education, the writing life, the difference between creating stories for children and adults, neighbors and fitting into a community, and much besides. If, like me, you only knew L’Engle through her Wrinkle in Time children’s series, this journal should come as a revelation.
- Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh (2014): “Terrible job, neurosurgery. Don’t do it.” – luckily for us, Henry Marsh reports back from the frontlines of brain surgery so we don’t have to. In my favorite passages, Marsh reflects on the mind-blowing fact that the few pounds of tissue stored in our heads could be the site of our consciousness, our creativity, our personhood – everything we traditionally count as the soul.
- I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place by Howard Norman (2013): Norman has quickly become one of my favorite writers. You wouldn’t think these disparate autobiographical essays would fit together as a whole, given that they range in subject from Inuit folktales and birdwatching to a murder–suicide committed in Norman’s Washington, D.C. home and a girlfriend’s death in a plane crash, but somehow they do; after all, “A whole world of impudent detours, unbridled perplexities, degrading sorrow, and exacting joys can befall a person in a single season, not to mention a lifetime.”
- Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg (2010): Through this book I followed literary agent Bill Clegg on dozens of taxi rides between generic hotel rooms and bar toilets and New York City offices and apartments; together we smoked innumerable crack pipes and guzzled dozens of bottles of vodka while letting partners and family members down and spiraling further down into paranoia and squalor. He achieves a perfect balance between his feelings at the time – being out of control and utterly enslaved to his next hit – and the hindsight that allows him to see what a pathetic figure he was becoming.
And my overall favorite nonfiction book of the year:
1. The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander: In short vignettes, beginning afresh with every chapter, Alexander conjures up the life she lived with – and after the sudden death of – her husband Ficre Ghebreyesus, an Eritrean chef and painter. This book is the most wonderful love letter you could imagine, and no less beautiful for its bittersweet nature.
What were some of your best nonfiction reads of the year?
This Thursday marks one of the most American of holidays: Thanksgiving. (My apologies to Canadian readers, who already had their celebration in October, and to British readers, who may find the whole thing a bit mysterious.) If you’ve never experienced a Thanksgiving meal for yourself, you might not know what all the fuss is about. After all, as Bill Bryson puts it in Notes from a Big Country, it’s a holiday where you just try to “get your stomach into the approximate shape of a beach ball.” But something about dysfunctional families crossing the country for a feast and reflecting on the country’s origins – however spurious the Pilgrims-’n-Injuns history behind the tradition might be – makes for intriguing fictional possibilities.
It’s no wonder Thanksgiving turns up all the time in American novels. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is a classic example, but look further and you’ll find references everywhere. For instance, I’m just finishing up Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor (coming in February), set in New York City as Y2K approaches, and what do you know? There’s a Thanksgiving meal. And even a simple list of dishes gives a perfect miniature view of differences in class and perspective: Shira’s neighbor wants “traditional fare—string bean casserole with cornflakes” and yam casserole topped with marshmallows, while her gay, Pakistani co-parent, Ahmad, prefers “the exotic: millet-shitake stuffing with chestnut-and-caper sauce.”
If you’re looking for something seasonal to read this week, here are snippets of books I’ve reviewed, two fiction and two nonfiction. For more ideas, check out this Thanksgiving books list on Goodreads from the Washington Post’s Ron Charles. Anne Tyler, Richard Ford – some great stuff on there!
Want Not by Jonathan Miles: “Waste not, want not” goes the aphorism, and Miles’s second novel explores both themes to their fullest extent: the concept of waste – from profligate living to garbage and excrement – and ordinary people’s conflicting desires. In three interlocking story lines, Miles looks for what is really of human value at a time when everything seems disposable and possessions both material and digital can exert a dispiriting tyranny. The novel opens on Thanksgiving 2007, with New York City buried under an early snowstorm. The nation’s annual excuse for gluttony makes a perfect metaphorical setting for Miles’s exposé of food waste and consumerist excess. This is a book I wish I had written.
Housebreaking by Dan Pope: This tightly crafted novel of adultery in dysfunctional suburbia is somewhat reminiscent of Tom Perrotta’s Little Children or the movie Far from Heaven, but with less memorable characters and story line overall. The strategy of revisiting the same events of one late summer and fall from different characters’ perspectives makes it feel slightly repetitive and claustrophobic. My favorite touches were the comical dialogue between a handful of old folks and a description of the cookie-cutter buildings in the Connecticut suburbs: “all the little houses, lined up like cereal boxes on a shelf.” Like Want Not, it also revolves around Thanksgiving 2007.
Bet you never thought there would be a third novel set on Thanksgiving 2007! But it appears there is: Strangers at the Feast by Jennifer Vanderbes. You may also like to sample “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving,” an 1881 short story by Louisa May Alcott.
You won’t have to try too hard to find Thanksgiving scenes in nonfiction either, especially when it comes to memoirs. I read one of Ruth Reichl’s terrific ‘foodoirs’, Comfort Me with Apples, earlier this year and there’s a great moment when she and Michael Singer, who would become her second husband, go to a restaurant for their first Thanksgiving together. It’s a disaster of a meal; the duck isn’t served until midnight. Sure is memorable, though.
The First Thanksgiving by Nathaniel Philbrick: In this selection from his 2007 book Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, reprinted as a mini e-book in the “Penguin Tracks” series, Philbrick tells the true story behind the first Thanksgiving. As with most beloved legends, the circumstances are much more complicated and much less rosy than they appear in our collective memory. Philbrick writes in an informative yet conversational style, and paints an appealing picture of the Pilgrims as reasonable people with humble aims. (See my full review at Bookkaholic.)
Eating Appalachia: Rediscovering Regional American Flavors by Darrin Nordahl: Nordahl travels through Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina in search of truly indigenous local ingredients. There are a few recipes and photographs in each chapter, although this is more of a narrative than a cookbook. I loved how he brought it all together with his imagined Appalachian Thanksgiving feast (what we consider traditional today includes very little that would actually have been eaten in the Pilgrims’ place and time):
appetizers of pickled ramps and brook trout crostini, bowls of butternut [the nut, not the squash] cream bisque, plates piled with the showpiece dish of spicebush-peppered roast elk tenderloin and hickory nut stuffing—all washed down with steaming sassafras tea and chilled sumac-ade, capped with a choice of persimmon pudding with black walnut ice cream or pawpaw panna cotta.
Do you like to tailor your reading to the holidays? What will you be reading this Thanksgiving week?