Two London couples: Christine and Alex, and Lydia and Zachary. They’ve known each other for decades, and their affiliations have changed in major, even ironic ways. It was Lydia who was initially infatuated with Alex when he taught both her and Christine, and Christine and Zachary who dated for a time. But this is how things ultimately fell out, each marriage resulting in one daughter. Christine with Alex; Lydia with Zachary.
Except now Zachary is dead. The phone call comes in the novel’s very first sentence. How Lydia and her friends – not to mention her daughter, Grace, who’s studying art in Glasgow – will cope with the loss, and rearrange what was once such a comfortable quadrilateral, is the ostensible subject of the rest of the book. There’s a funeral to plan and a future for Lydia to construct. But the problem, for me, is that every other chapter hosts a seemingly endless flashback to the couples’ backstory. Apart from an odd, titillating moment when the four nearly let down their guard together, these sections don’t reveal an awful lot.
This is my sixth book by Tessa Hadley. Her eye is always sharp on how families work, how relationships fall apart, and how memories form and linger as we age. She’s also a master of third-person omniscience, moving effortlessly between characters’ perspectives. The writing here is exquisite; there’s no question about that. I especially love the descriptive passages, full of so much sensual detail that you can imagine yourself right into a scene:
A breeze fanned the newspaper on the table, the smells of a city summer were wafted through the open window: tar and car exhaust, the bitter-green of the flowering privet hedge. Police horses went past in the broad street, their hooves clip-clopping conversationally alongside the voices of the women who rode them; the stables were nearby.
Her perception was a skin stretched taut, prickling with response to each change in the light outside as it ran through the drama of its sunset performance at the end of the street, in a mass of gilded pink cloud. When eventually the copper beech was only a silhouette cut out against the blue of the last light, Christine pulled down the blinds, put on all the lamps, turned her awareness inwards.
Despite the fine prose, I found the past strand of this novel tedious. If you’re new to Hadley, I’d recommend starting with Clever Girl and/or Bad Dreams and Other Stories.
Late in the Day was published in the UK by Jonathan Cape on February 14th, and in the USA by Harper on January 15th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Improvement by Joan Silber (2017)
I’ve been thinking a lot about linked short story collections, having written a brief article about them for BookBrowse to accompany my review of Carrianne Leung’s That Time I Loved You (those who contributed ideas on Twitter, thank you!). I find them easier to read than the average short story volume because there are fewer characters and settings to keep track of, and you get the fun of tracing unexpected connections between characters. Improvement didn’t quite work for me in that way, mostly because you can tell that it started as one short story, “About My Aunt”: now the untitled first chapter, it is, as you might guess, a solid stand-alone narrative about Reyna and her aunt Kiki. It was originally published in Tin House and collected in TheBest American Short Stories 2015.
I was most interested in Kiki, a terrific character with a completely unsuitable name. Her marriage to a Turk failed – but hey, at least she got a great rug out of it, as well as the fun but temporary challenge of third-world life. (“For a hardheaded person, she had let herself be flung about by the winds of love, and she wasn’t sorry either.”) Back in New York City she directs a house-cleaning agency and babysits for Reyna’s four-year-old son, Oliver. Tattooed Reyna’s African-American boyfriend, Boyd, is in prison for three months for selling pot; when he gets out he comes up with the bright idea of smuggling cigarettes between Virginia and New York to profit from the tax difference. He asks Reyna to make one of the pick-ups, but she chickens out at the last minute. Boyd’s friend Claude drives instead, and is killed instantly in a crash.
Part II reaches into the lives of some of the minor characters on the fringes: Claude; Teddy, the truck driver who was the other party in the car accident; Osman, Kiki’s ex-husband; a trio of Germans who passed through their Turkish town in the summer of 1977 with smuggled antiquities in their possession; and so on. For me, these narratives were too diffuse and didn’t hang together as a novel. I had hoped to enjoy this more since it won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and Silber is one of those writer’s writers you always hear about but never get to read. I found her voice similar to Anne Tyler’s or perhaps Julia Glass’s, but I’m not sure I’d try another book by her.
Improvement was published by Allen & Unwin on February 7th. It came out in the USA from Counterpoint Press in 2017. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Like a lot of book bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the shiny new books released each year. However, I’ve noticed recently that many of my most memorable reads were published years or even decades ago. In 2018 I even came across a handful of books that are for me among the very best representatives of their genre, whether that’s nature, travel, family memoir, historical fiction or science fiction. The below selections are in alphabetical order by author name, and account for all the rest of my 4.5- and 5-star ratings of the year (another 27!).
March by Geraldine Brooks (2005): The best Civil War novel I’ve read. The best slavery novel I’ve read. One of the best historical novels I’ve ever read, period. Brooks’s second novel uses Little Women as its jumping-off point but is very much its own story. The whole is a perfect mixture of what’s familiar from history and literature and what Brooks has imagined.
Marlena by Julie Buntin (2017): The northern Michigan setting pairs perfectly with the novel’s tone of foreboding: you have a sense of these troubled teens being isolated in their clearing in the woods, and from one frigid winter through a steamy summer and into the chill of the impending autumn, they have to figure out what in the world they are going to do with their terrifying freedom. It’s basically a flawless debut, one I can’t recommend too highly.
Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane (1996): Ireland’s internecine violence is the sinister backdrop to this family’s everyday sorrows, including the death of a child and the mother’s shaky mental health. The book captures all the magic, uncertainty and heartache of being a child, in crisp scenes I saw playing out in my mind.
The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr (2013): Lena Gaunt: early theremin player, grande dame of electronic music, and opium addict. I loved how Farr evokes the strangeness and energy of theremin music, and how sound waves find a metaphorical echo in the ocean’s waves – swimming is Lena’s other great passion.
Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay (2007): A tight-knit cast gathers around the local radio station in Yellowknife, a small city in Canada’s Northwest Territories: Harry and Gwen, refugees from Ontario starting new lives; Dido, an alluring Dutch newsreader; Ralph, the freelance book reviewer; menacing Eddie; and pious Eleanor. This is a marvellous story of quiet striving and dislocation; I saw bits of myself in each of the characters, and I loved the extreme setting, both mosquito-ridden summer and bitter winter.
The Leavers by Lisa Ko (2017): An ambitious and satisfying novel set in New York and China, with major themes of illegal immigration, searching for a mother and a sense of belonging, and deciding what to take with you from your past. This was hand-picked by Barbara Kingsolver for the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (2010): Hungarian Jew Andras Lévi travels from Budapest to Paris to study architecture, falls in love with an older woman who runs a ballet school, and – along with his parents, brothers, and friends – has to adjust to the increasingly strict constraints on Jews across Europe in 1937–45. It’s all too easy to burn out on World War II narratives these days, but this is among the very best I’ve read.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996): For someone like me who struggles with sci-fi at the best of times, this is just right: the alien beings are just different enough from humans for Russell to make fascinating points about gender roles, commerce and art, but not so peculiar that you have trouble believing in their existence. All of the crew members are wonderful, distinctive characters, and the novel leaves you with so much to think about: unrequited love, destiny, faith, despair, and the meaning to be found in life.
Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar (2015): Hester Finch is looking back from the 1870s – when she is a widowed teacher settled in England – to the eight ill-fated years her family spent at Salt Creek, a small (fictional) outpost in South Australia, in the 1850s–60s. This is one of the very best works of historical fiction I’ve read; it’s hard to believe it’s Treloar’s debut novel.
Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days by Jeanette Winterson (2016): I treated myself to this new paperback edition with part of my birthday book token and it was a perfect read for the week leading up to Christmas. The stories are often fable-like, some spooky and some funny. Most have fantastical elements and meaningful rhetorical questions. Winterson takes the theology of Christmas seriously. A gorgeous book I’ll return to year after year.
Available Light by Marge Piercy (1988): The subjects are diverse: travels in Europe, menstruation, identifying as a Jew as well as a feminist, scattering her father’s ashes, the stresses of daily life, and being in love. Some of my favorites were about selectively adhering to the lessons her mother taught her, how difficult it is for a workaholic to be idle, and wrestling the deity for words.
Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills by Neil Ansell (2011): One of the most memorable nature/travel books I’ve ever read; a modern-day Walden. Ansell’s memoir is packed with beautiful lines as well as philosophical reflections on the nature of the self and the difference between isolation and loneliness.
Boy by Roald Dahl (1984): Pranks and larks and holidays: these are all here; so is crushing homesickness and a bitter sense of injustice at being at the mercy of sadistic adults. Nearly 60 years later, Dahl could use memory and imagination to fully inhabit his childhood self and give a charming survey of the notable events of his life up to age 20.
This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich (2001): I thoroughly enjoyed my armchair trek across a frigid island nation in the company of Gretel Ehrlich, who traveled here repeatedly between 1995 and 2001 and intersperses her journeys with those of her historical model, Inuit–Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen, whose seven Arctic expeditions took in the west coast of Greenland and the far north of the North American continent. Every time she finds a fresh way to write about ice and sun glare and frigid temperatures.
Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig (2017): It’s a riveting account of outliving segregation and developing a personal style and world-beating confidence; it’s a sobering tale of facing consequences and having your own body fail you. I’m the furthest thing from a sports fan you could imagine, but I approached this as a book about a cultural icon and read it with a spirit of curiosity about how Eig would shape this life story and separate the facts from the legend. I loved it.
The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler (2017): A charming introduction to 99 more or less obscure writers. Each profile is a perfectly formed mini-biography with a survey of the author’s major work: in just two or three pages, Fowler is able to convey all a writer’s eccentricities and why their output is still worth remembering.
To the Is-Land: An Autobiography by Janet Frame (1982): This is some of the best writing about childhood and memory that I’ve ever read, infused with music, magic and mystery. The prose alternates between dreamy and matter-of-fact as Frame describes growing up in New Zealand one of five children in the Depression and interwar years.
Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller (2015): This poignant sequel to Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is a portrait of Fuller’s two-decade marriage, from its hopeful beginnings to its acrimonious end. What I most appreciated about the book was Fuller’s sense of being displaced: she no longer feels African, but nor does she feel American.
West With the Night by Beryl Markham (1942): Markham writes so vividly about the many adventures of her life in Africa: hunting lions, training race horses, and becoming one of the continent’s first freelance pilots, delivering mail and locating elephant herds. Whether she’s reflecting on the many faces of Africa or the peculiar solitude of night flights, the prose is just stellar.
And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison (1993): An extraordinary memoir based around the author’s relationship with his father. Alternating chapters give glimpses into earlier family life and narrate Morrison’s father’s decline and death from cancer. This is simply marvelously written, not a bad line in the whole thing.
The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers by Adam Nicolson (2017): This is an extraordinarily well-written and -researched book (a worthy Wainwright Prize winner) about the behavior, cultural importance, and current plight of the world’s seabirds. Each chapter takes up a different species and dives deep into everything from its anatomy to the legends surrounding it, simultaneously conveying the playful, intimate real lives of the birds and their complete otherness.
The Long Goodbye: A Memoir of Grief by Meghan O’Rourke (2011): I read a whole lot of bereavement memoirs; this has been one of the very best. O’Rourke tells her story with absolute clarity – a robust, plain-speaking style that matches her emotional transparency. The heart of the book is her mother’s death from colorectal cancer on Christmas Day 2008, but we also get a full picture of the family life that preceded it and the first couple of years of aftermath.
Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone by Richard Lloyd Parry (2017): Eighteen and a half thousand people died in the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011. It’s not really possible to get your head around a tragedy on that scale so, wisely, Parry focuses on a smaller story within the story: 74 died at Okawa primary school because the administration didn’t have a sufficient disaster plan in place. This is a stunning portrait of a resilient people, but also a universal story of the human spirit facing the worst.
Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen (2012): A splendid memoir-in-essays that dwells on aging, parenting and female friendship. Some of its specific themes are marriage, solitude, the randomness of life, the process of growing into your own identity, and the special challenges her generation (roughly my mother’s) faced in seeking a work–life balance. Her words are witty and reassuring, and cut right to the heart of the matter in every case.
The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin (2009): Probably the best self-help book I’ve read; dense (in the best possible way) with philosophy, experience and advice. What I appreciated most is that her approach is not about undertaking extreme actions to try to achieve happiness, but about finding contentment in the life you already have by adding or tweaking small habits – especially useful for pessimists like me.
In the Days of Rain: A daughter. A father. A cult by Rebecca Stott (2017): This was a perfect book for my interests, and just the kind of thing I would love to write someday. It’s a bereavement memoir that opens with Stott’s father succumbing to pancreatic cancer and eliciting her promise to help finish his languishing memoir; it’s a family memoir that tracks generations through England, Scotland and Australia; and it’s a story of faith and doubt, of the absolute certainty experienced inside the Exclusive Brethren (a Christian sect that numbers 45,000 worldwide) and how that cracked until there was no choice but to leave.
Writers & Company by Eleanor Wachtel (1993): Erudite and fascinating author interviews from Wachtel’s weekly Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program. Whether I’d read anything by these authors (or even heard of them) or not, I found each Q&A chock-full of priceless nuggets of wisdom about creativity, mothers and daughters, drawing on autobiographical material, the writing process, and much more.
And if I really had to limit myself to just two books – my very best fiction and nonfiction reads of the year – they would be March by Geraldine Brooks and And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison.
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.
Below I’ve chosen my top 12 fiction releases from 2018 (eight of them happen to be by women!). Many of these books have already featured on my blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep things simple, as with my nonfiction selections, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I’ve also highlighted my three favorites from the year’s poetry releases.
Orchid & the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes: From the Iraq War protests to the Occupy movement in New York City, we follow antiheroine Gael Foess as she tries to get her brother’s art recognized. This debut novel is a potent reminder that money and skills don’t get distributed fairly in this life.
Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller: Fuller’s third novel tells the suspenseful story of the profligate summer of 1969 spent at a dilapidated English country house. The characters and atmosphere are top-notch; this is an absorbing, satisfying novel to swallow down in big gulps.
The Only Story by Julian Barnes: It may be a familiar story – a May–December romance that fizzles out – but, as Paul believes, we only really get one love story, the defining story of our lives. The picture of romantic youth shading into cynical but still hopeful middle age really resonates, as do the themes of unconventionality, memory, addiction and pity.
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin: Summer 1969: four young siblings escape a sweltering New York City morning by visiting a fortune teller who can tell you the day you’ll die; in the decades that follow, they have to decide what to do with this advance knowledge: will it spur them to live courageous lives, or drive them to desperation? This compelling family story lives up to the hype.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: Roy and Celestial only get a year of happy marriage before he’s falsely accused of rape and sentenced to 12 years in prison in Louisiana. This would make a great book club pick: I ached for all the main characters in their impossible situation; there’s a lot to probe about their personalities and motivations, and about how they reveal or disguise themselves through their narration and letters.
The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman: Charles “Pinch” Bavinsky is an Italian teacher; as a boy in Rome in the 1950s–60s he believed he’d follow in the footsteps of his sculptor mother and his moderately famous father, Bear Bavinsky, who paints close-ups of body parts, but along the way something went wrong. This is a rewarding novel about the desperation to please, or perhaps exceed, one’s parents and the legacy of artists in a fickle market.
The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon: A sophisticated, unsettling debut novel about faith and its aftermath, fractured through the experience of three people coming to terms with painful circumstances. Kwon spent 10 years writing this book, and that time and diligence come through in how carefully honed the prose is: such precise images; not a single excess word.
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: Kingsolver’s bold eighth novel has a dual timeline that compares the America of the 1870s and the recent past and finds that they are linked by distrust and displacement. There’s so much going on that it feels like it encompasses all of human life; it’s by no means a subtle book, but it’s an important one for our time, with many issues worth pondering and discussing.
Southernmost by Silas House: In House’s sixth novel, a Tennessee preacher’s family life falls apart when he accepts a gay couple into his church. We go on a long journey with Asher Sharp: not just a literal road trip from Tennessee to Florida, but also a spiritual passage from judgment to grace in this beautiful, quietly moving novel of redemption and openness to what life might teach us.
Little by Edward Carey: This is a deliciously macabre, Dickensian novel about Madame Tussaud, who started life as Anne Marie Grosholtz in Switzerland in 1761. From a former monkey house to the Versailles palace and back, Marie must tread carefully as the French Revolution advances and a desire for wax heads is replaced by that for decapitated ones.
Motherhood by Sheila Heti: Chance, inheritance, and choice vie for pride of place in this relentless, audacious inquiry into the purpose of a woman’s life. The book encapsulates nearly every thought that has gone through my mind over the last decade as I’ve faced the intractable question of whether to have children.
Florida by Lauren Groff: There’s an oppressive atmosphere throughout these 11 short stories, with violent storms reminding the characters of an uncaring universe, falling-apart relationships, and the threat of environmental catastrophe. Florida feels innovative and terrifyingly relevant; any one of its stories is a bracing read; together they form a masterpiece. (I never would have predicted that a short story collection would be my favorite fiction read of the year!)
Three Poems by Hannah Sullivan: These poem-essays give fragmentary images of city life and question the notion of progress and what meaning a life leaves behind. “The Sandpit after Rain” stylishly but grimly juxtaposes her father’s death and her son’s birth.
Comfort Measures Only: New and Selected Poems, 1994–2016 by Rafael Campo: Superb, poignant poetry about illness and the physician’s duty. A good bit of this was composed in response to the AIDS crisis; it’s remarkable how Campo wrings beauty out of clinical terminology and tragic situations.
The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain: St. Germain’s seventh collection is in memory of her son Gray, who died of a drug overdose in 2014, aged 30. She turns her family history of alcohol and drug use into a touchpoint and affirms life’s sensual pleasures – everything from the smell of brand-new cowboy boots to luscious fruits.
What were some of your top fiction (or poetry) reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll be naming some runners-up (both fiction and nonfiction).
With part of my birthday book token I treated myself to the new paperback edition of Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas Days, which I’ll read off and on over the holidays this year and next, probably. I recently finished Rachel Joyce’s wintry short story collection and started Madeleine L’Engle’s third Crosswicks Journal, An Irrational Season. The first two chapters are set at Advent and Christmas and the rest later in the liturgical year; I’ve set the book aside to come back to in January. L’Engle is a great author to read if you’d like some liberal, non-threatening theology at this time of year. I particularly recommend her Christmas-themed book that I read last year. (Mini-reviews of the Joyce and L’Engle are below.)
I also have a signed copy of Ian Sansom’s December Stories I that I won in a giveaway on Cathy’s blog, so I’ll be dipping into plenty of seasonally appropriate short stories this year. Earlier this year I picked up copies of the G.K. Chesterton collection (signed by the anthology editor) and the Robert Louis Stevenson volume (which contains prayers plus a sermon written during his time in Samoa) free at church from the theological library of a woman who’d died and donated her books to the church family.
A Snow Garden and Other Stories by Rachel Joyce
Two stand-outs were “The Boxing Day Ball,” a prequel to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, describing how Harold and Maureen met, and “A Faraway Smell of Lemon,” in which a woman mourning the end of her relationship wanders into a cleaning supplies store and learns the simple lesson that everybody hurts. (“Life is hard sometimes” – fair enough, but can we say it without a cliché?) “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is about the boy formerly known as Tim, now the mega pop star X. All he wants is a quiet few days back home, but he can’t seem to escape his reputation. Characters and little elements from previous stories reappear in later ones. My favorite was probably the title story, about a father trying to make the holidays perfect for his sons after his breakdown and divorce.
Joyce chooses to write about ordinary and forgotten people, but sometimes her vision of chavvy types doesn’t quite ring true, and when she isn’t being melancholy she’s twee. “Christmas Day at the Airport” was so contrived it made me groan. While I don’t think any of her books are truly great, they’re pleasant, relatable and easy to read.
“There is much to do, much to prepare, much to mend, but it cannot be done in a day and sometimes it is better to do one small thing.” (from “A Faraway Smell of Lemon”)
“The truth was, there were no instructions when you got married. There was no manual in the birthing suite that explained how to bring up a happy child. No one said, you do this, and then you do this, and after that this will happen. You made it up as you went along.” (from “The Marriage Manual”)
Bright Evening Star: Mystery of the Incarnation by Madeleine L’Engle
“The story of Jesus’ birth has been oversentimentalized until it no longer has the ring of truth, and once we’d sentimentalized it we could commercialize it and so forget what Christmas is really about.” L’Engle believes in the power of storytelling, and in this short volume of memoir she retells the life story of Jesus and recalls her own experiences with suffering and joy: losing her father young (his lungs damaged by poison gas in WWI) and the death of her husband of 40 years versus the sustaining nature of family love and late-life friendships. Chapters 4 and 5 are particular highlights.
L’Engle was not at all your average American Christian: raised in the Episcopal tradition, she didn’t even encounter Evangelicalism until her mid-forties, and she doesn’t understand the focus on creationism and sexual morality. She also writes about free will and the adoration of Mary and how A Wrinkle in Time (rejected by many a publisher) was her fable of light in the midst of darkness. The title comes from TheNew Zealand Prayer Book, which also gives helpful alternate names for the persons of the Trinity: Earth Maker, Pain Bearer, Life Giver. This isn’t a particularly Christmas-y book, but it still lends itself to being read a chapter at a time during Advent.
Some other favorite lines:
“Christ, in being born as Jesus, broke into time for us, so that time will never be the same again.”
“Family can be a movable feast. It can be a group of friends sitting around the dining table for an evening. It can be one or two people coming to stay with me for a few nights or a few weeks. It should be the church, and I am grateful that my church is a small church.”
Are you reading any particularly wintry or Christmasy books this year?
Happy Halloween! I enjoyed taking part in R.I.P. for the first time this year. My top two choices out of the six fantastical and/or spooky books I managed to read would be The Loney and The Graveyard Book (see below). For this second installment I’ve been reading eerie short stories that take place in the English countryside, a young adult fantasy novel set mostly in a graveyard, and a ghost story that unfolds in the Himalayas of the 1930s.
Help the Witch by Tom Cox (2018)
I knew Tom Cox for his witty books about his many cats, including The Good, the Bad and the Furry. His first foray into fiction was published by Unbound earlier this month; I pre-ordered it on a Kindle deal for £1. The settings are dilapidated cottages, moorland and villages, mostly in the North of England. Even in the spookier stories, there’s always a welcome touch of humor. “Seance” raises the ghost of a cyclist who was killed on his bike and now is destined to cycle evermore. He doesn’t, at first, realize that he’s dead. “‘Morning!’ he called to a middle-aged couple with a labradoodle, cheerfully, as he cycled past Whiddon Scrubs. They ignored him. ‘Shitbags,’ he said under his breath.”
The three sets of flash fictions, “Listings,” “Nine Tiny Stories about Houses,” and “Folk Tales of the Twenty-third Century,” particularly made me laugh, though each perhaps overstays its welcome a bit. My two favorites were proper ghost stories: “Speed Awareness,” about a peculiar mix-up with the course teacher, and “Just Good Friends,” in which a woman’s Internet dating experiences turn strange when she meets someone with inside knowledge about her past. I could see the latter being anthologized. These are enjoyable enough stories to flip through around Halloween.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2008)
Nobody “Bod” Owens has lived in a graveyard ever since the night he climbed out of his cot and toddled there – the same night that a man named Jack murdered his parents and older sister. He was the only member of his family to survive the slaughter. Although he passes a happy childhood among the graveyard’s witches, ghouls and ghosts from many centuries, he knows he’s different. He’s alive; he has to eat and craves human friendship. As valuable as his lessons in Fading and Dreamwalking prove to be, he longs to attend school and discover more of the world outside – provided he can keep his head down and avoid notice; previous trips beyond the cemetery walls, such as to a pawnshop, have bordered on the disastrous.
Bod’s japes with his returning friend Scarlett turn more serious when he learns that Jack is still after him. This is quite a dark book for its young teen audience, but as I remember from the only other Gaiman book I’ve read, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, he’s a master at balancing sadness with humor and magic. The illustrations by Chris Riddell are terrific, too.
Silas, Bod’s guardian: “You’re alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you change the world, the world will change.”
“Mother Slaughter’s headstone [was] so cracked and worn and weathered that all it said now was:
which had puzzled the local historians for over a hundred years.”
Thin Air: A Ghost Story by Michelle Paver (2016)
In 1935 Dr. Stephen Pearce and his brother Kits are part of a five-man mission to climb the most dangerous mountain in the Himalayas, Kangchenjunga. Thirty years before, Sir Edmund Lyell led an ill-fated expedition up the same mountain: more than one man did not return, and the rest lost limbs to frostbite. “I don’t want to know what happened to them. It’s in the past. It has nothing to do with us,” Dr. Pearce tells himself, but from the start it feels like a bad omen that they, like Lyell’s party, are attempting the southwest approach; even the native porters are nervous. And as they climb, they fall prey to various medical and mental crises; hallucinations of ghostly figures on the crags are just as much of a danger as snow blindness.
This is pacey, readable historical fiction with a good sense of period and atmosphere. I enjoyed Pearce’s narration, and the one-upmanship type of relationship with his brother adds an interesting dimension to the expedition dynamics. However, I never submitted sufficiently to Paver’s spell to find anything particularly scary. I’ll try again with her other ghost story, Dark Matter, about an Arctic expedition from the same time period.
“The Sherpas are wrong. This mountain has no spirit, no sentience and no intent. It’s not trying to kill us. It simply is.” [famous last words…]
Have you been reading anything fantastical or spooky this October?
I’ve been reading twisted fairy tales, a novel about witches and vampires with historical and contemporary timelines, and a subtle work of Gothic horror set on a remote stretch of the English coast.
The Color Master by Aimee Bender (2013)
Aimee Bender is best known for The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. This is the second collection of her stories that I’ve read. Most have a touch of the bizarre to them – a tiny tweak to normal life – but some are set in completely alternate worlds. One character experiences extreme face blindness; another deludes himself that he was a famously vicious Nazi during the Second World War. Seamstresses take on odd tasks like repairing endangered animals or, in the title story, creating a dress that resembles the moon and embodies female anger. In “Appleless,” vigilantes punish a girl who won’t eat apples, while “The Devourings” is a dark riff on Shrek in which a woman comes to terms with her ogre husband’s innate violence.
A few favorites were “A State of Variance,” in which a character can’t seem to avoid perfect facial symmetry no matter how he tries to mar his natural beauty, “The Doctor and the Rabbi,” a philosophical conversation between an ill rabbi and her atheist-leaning parishioner, and “The Red Ribbon” (which draws on the same source material as Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch”), about a bored housewife who starts acting out sexual fantasies to try to save her marriage.
Bender deploys a good mixture of voices and protagonists, though at least four of the 15 stories felt unnecessary to me. Her approach is similar to Kelly Link’s and Karen Russell’s, but I’ve failed to get on with their surreal stories before – Bender’s writing is that bit more accessible. I’d recommend her to fans of stories by Amy Bloom and Sarah Hall.
Time’s Convert by Deborah Harkness (2018)
This is a companion volume to Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy, which is like the thinking gal’s Twilight, as written by a historian of science. I read the first book, A Discovery of Witches, in 2011 and surprised myself by completely loving the story of the witch Diana Bishop, who researches alchemy at the Bodleian Library and falls hard for a centuries-old vampire, Matthew de Clermont. Although Time’s Convert is likely intended to stand alone, I felt it could do with a dramatis personae at the start as I’d forgotten who many of the minor characters were.
Diana and Matthew are still major characters, though not at the heart of the book. One strand has Diana and her family staying in the French countryside. She and Matthew now have toddler twins, Philip and Becca, who are just starting to show magical powers: Philip summons a griffon named Apollo as his familiar. Another is set in Paris, where Phoebe Taylor is willingly being transformed into a vampire so she can marry Matthew’s son, Marcus. A final strand recreates Marcus’s experiences during the American and French Revolutions and onward: he was born in Massachusetts in 1757 and was a surgeon during the Revolutionary War before he met Matthew and received the offer of immortality.
I almost always feel that sequels fail to live up to the original. Time’s Convert is most like Shadow of Night, the second book of the series and my least favorite because it spends so much time in 1590s England. Here the three different story lines split my focus and I resented being taken away from Diana’s first-person narration, which is much more engaging than the third-person material. I would only recommend this volume to diehard fans of the series.
With thanks to Headline for the free copy for review.
Note: A television adaptation of A Discovery of Witches recently aired on Sky One in the UK and is coming to North America in January.
The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley (2014)
The Loney is not a monster, as I suppose I expected, but a place: an isolated coastline in the northwest of England that the narrator and his family visited on pilgrimage with their Roman Catholic congregation every Easter in the 1970s. The narrator, only identified by the nickname Tonto, explores their strange rental house – full of taxidermied animals and hidden rooms, it also has a rifle under the floorboards – and goes to the beach with his mute brother Andrew (“Hanny”). Mummer and Farther hold out hope that their son Hanny will be healed on a visit to the local shrine, and Mummer especially is frustrated that Father Bernard isn’t as strict and devout as their previous priest, Father Wilfred, who died under a cloud of suspicion not long before this trip.
Last year at around this time I read Hurley’s follow-up, Devil’s Day, which has a similarly bleak and eerie atmosphere. Both look at rural superstitions as experienced by outsiders. The Loney was more profound for me, though, in how it subverts religious rituals and posits a subtle evil influence without ever disappearing down doctrinal rabbitholes. It asks how far people will go to get what they want, what meaning there is to human life if there is no supernatural being looking out for us, and – through a framing story set 30 or more years later – how guilt and memory persist. I especially loved the Tenebrae service in a gloomy church featuring Bosch-like horrors in its artwork. This reminded me of a less abstract After Me Comes the Flood and a more contemporary The Short Day Dying; I highly recommend it.
“The Church of the Sacred Heart was an ancient place – dark and squat and glistening amphibiously in the rain.”
“The wind continued to rise and fall. Whining and shrilling. It was as insistent as the priest, louder sometimes, preaching an older sermon, about the sand and the sea.”
Have you been reading anything fantastical or spooky this October?