My Most Memorable Backlist Reads of 2021
Like many bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the new books released each year. However, I consistently find that many of my most memorable reads were published years or decades ago. These 19 selections, in alphabetical order within genre, together with my Best of 2021 posts (fiction and nonfiction), make up the top 15% of my reading for the year. Three of the below were rereads.
(The three books not pictured were read electronically or from the library.)
America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo: Set in the early 1990s in the Filipino immigrant neighbourhoods of the Bay Area in California, this is a complex, confident debut novel that throws you into an unfamiliar culture at the deep end. The characters shine and the dialogue feels utterly authentic in this fresh immigration story.
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson: The mystery element held me completely gripped – readers are just as in the dark as jurors until close to the end – but this is mostly a powerful picture of the lasting effects of racism. I was instantly immersed, whether in a warm courtroom with a snowstorm swirling outside or on a troop ship entering the Pacific Theater.
Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon: David is back on Spain’s Costa Brava, where he and his wife Mary Rose holidayed every summer for 20 years. This is a quiet novel about what goes unsaid in any marriage, and a deeply touching look at loss and what comes next. Grief, memory, fate: some of my favourite themes, elegantly treated.
A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez: From the little I know of Nunez, this seems close to autofiction, especially in terms of her parents. Identifying the self by the key relationships and obsessions of a life makes sense, and this speaks to the universals of how we cope with a troublesome past. It cemented her as one of my favourite authors.
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy: An unusual and fascinating novel with hints of science fiction, but still grounded in the real world, this contrasts utopian and dystopian scenes experienced by a Latina woman who’s been confined to a mental hospital. It’s an intense cultural commentary from a writer ahead of her time on gender roles and the environment.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell: Obsessed with Lolita since she was a teenager, Russell decided to tell the teenage girl’s side of the story. She uses a dual timeline to great effect, creating an utterly immersive novel – as good a first-person narrative as anything Curtis Sittenfeld has ever written, and the ultimate #MeToo story.
Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler: Ian Bedloe joins the puritanical Church of the Second Chance and drops out of college to help his parents raise his late brother’s three children. Anyone will be able to find themselves and their family in this story of the life chosen versus the life fallen into, and the difficult necessity of moving past regrets in the search for meaning.
The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler: Unique in her oeuvre for how it bridges historical fiction and her more typical contemporary commentary. The Antons muddle their way through a volatile marriage for decades without figuring out how to change anything for the better. There is deep compassion for their foibles and how they affect the next generation.
Lot by Bryan Washington: The musical equivalent might be a mixtape blasted from an open-top Corvette while touring the streets of Houston, Texas. Drug dealers, careworn immigrants, and prostitutes: Even the toughest guys have tender hearts in these 13 stories. Washington’s prose is earthy and slang-filled. The matter-of-fact phrasing made me laugh.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton: I was so impressed by this condensed tragedy and the ambiance of a harsh New England winter. It struck me even more on a reread as a flawless parable of a man imprisoned by circumstance and punished for wanting more. A perfect example of how literature can encapsulate the human condition.
The Air Year by Caroline Bird: I read this with a big smile on my face, delighting in the clever and playful poems. The impermanence of relationships is a recurring theme. Dreams and miscommunication are also common elements, and lists grow increasingly absurd. I particularly liked where structure creates meaning, e.g. the mise en abyme of “Dive Bar.”
Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour: As an aimless twentysomething, Gilmour tried to rekindle a relationship with his unreliable poet father. Meanwhile, he was raising Benzene, a magpie that fell out of its nest. He makes elegant use of connections and metaphors; he’s so good at scenes, dialogue, and emotion – a truly natural writer.
Spring in Washington by Louis J. Halle: From first migrant in February to last in June, the author traced the D.C. spring of 1945 mostly through the birds that he saw. More so than the specific observations of familiar places, though, I valued the philosophical outlook. For me this was an ideal combination of thoughtful prose and vicarious travel.
The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński: This collection of essays spans decades and lots of African countries, yet feels like a cohesive narrative. Kapuściński saw many places right on the cusp of independence or in the midst of coup d’états. I appreciated how he never resorts to stereotypes or flattens differences. One of the few best travel books I’ve read.
Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer: Lehrer has endured dozens of surgeries for spina bifida. Her touching family memoir is delivered in short, essay-like chapters, most named after books or films. It is also a primer in Disability theory and a miniature art gallery, filled with reproductions of her paintings. This inaugural Barbellion Prize winner is not to be missed.
The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy: This sparse volume, the middle in an autobiographical trilogy, has Levy searching for the intellectual and physical freedom needed to reinvent her life after divorce. It is made up of conversations and memories; travels and quotations that have stuck with her. Each moment is perfectly chosen to reveal the self.
Conundrum by Jan Morris: Morris was a trans pioneer; this transformed my understanding of gender when I first read it in 2006. Born James, Morris knew by age four that she was really a girl. A journalism career, marriage, five children, and two decades of hormone therapy preceded sex reassignment surgery. She paints hers as a spiritual quest toward her true identity.
You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy: We all fail to listen properly sometimes, for various reasons. A New York Times journalist, Murphy does a lot of listening to her interview subjects. She also talks with representatives of so-called listening careers. This is a short, interesting, and genuinely helpful self-help book.
Writing in the Dust: After September 11 by Rowan Williams: Williams, then Archbishop of Wales, was in New York City on 9/11, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. In the months that followed he pondered suffering, peacemaking, and the ways of God. He cautions against labelling the Other as Evil and responding with retribution. A superb book-length essay.
And if I really had to limit myself to just two favourites – my very best fiction and nonfiction reads of the year – they would be Snow Falling on Cedars and The Cost of Living.
What were your best backlist reads this year?
(I’ll be back on the 27th with Love Your Library, then I have various year-end superlatives and statistics posts going through the 31st.)
Open Water & Other Contemporary Novellas Read This Year (#NovNov)
Open Water is our first buddy read, for Contemporary week of Novellas in November (#NovNov). Look out for the giveaway running on Cathy’s blog today!
I read this one back in April–May and didn’t get a chance to revisit it, but I’ll chime in with my brief thoughts recorded at the time. I then take a look back at 14 other novellas I’ve read this year; many of them I originally reviewed here. I also have several more contemporary novellas on the go to round up before the end of the month.
Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson (2021)
I always enjoy the use of second person narration, and it works pretty well in this love story between two young Black British people in South London. The title is a metaphor for the possibilities and fear of intimacy. The protagonist, a photographer, doesn’t know what to do with his anger about how young Black men are treated. I felt Nelson was a little heavy-handed in his treatment of this theme, though I did love that the pivotal scene is set in a barbershop, a place where men reveal more of themselves than usual – I was reminded of a terrific play I saw a few years ago, Barber Shop Chronicles.
Ultimately, I wasn’t convinced that fiction was the right vehicle for this story, especially with all the references to other authors, from Hanif Abdurraqib to Zadie Smith (NW, in particular); I think a memoir with cultural criticism was what the author really intended. I’ll keep an eye out for Nelson, though – I wouldn’t be surprised if this makes it onto the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist in January. I feel like with his next book he might truly find his voice.
- Assembly by Natasha Brown (also appears below)
- Poor by Caleb Femi (poetry with photographs)
- Normal People by Sally Rooney
Other Contemporary Novellas Read This Year:
(Post-1980; under 200 pages)
Somebody Loves You by Mona Arshi
Assembly by Natasha Brown
Indelicacy by Amina Cain
A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies
Blue Dog by Louis de Bernières
The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans
Anarchipelago by Jay Griffiths
Tinkers by Paul Harding
An Island by Karen Jennings
Ness by Robert Macfarlane
Black Dogs by Ian McEwan
Broke City by Wendy McGrath
A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez
In the Winter Dark by Tim Winton
- Inside the Bone Box by Anthony Ferner
- My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
- The Cemetery in Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici
What novellas do you have underway this month? Have you read any of my selections?
Recommended March Releases: Broder, Fuller, Lamott, Polzin
Three novels that range in tone from carnal allegorical excess to quiet, bittersweet reflection via low-key menace; and essays about keeping the faith in the most turbulent of times.
Milk Fed by Melissa Broder
Rachel’s body and mommy issues are major and intertwined: she takes calorie counting and exercise to an extreme, and her therapist has suggested that she take a 90-day break from contact with her overbearing mother. Her workdays at a Hollywood talent management agency are punctuated by carefully regimented meals, one of them a 16-ounce serving of fat-free frozen yogurt from a shop run by Orthodox Jews. One day it’s not the usual teenage boy behind the counter, but his overweight older sister, Miriam. Miriam makes Rachel elaborate sundaes instead of her usual abstemious cups and Rachel lets herself eat them even though it throws her whole diet off. She realizes she’s attracted to Miriam, who comes to fill the bisexual Rachel’s fantasies, and they strike up a tentative relationship over Chinese food and classic film dates as well as Shabbat dinners at Miriam’s family home.
If you’re familiar with The Pisces, Broder’s Women’s Prize-longlisted debut, you should recognize the pattern here: a deep exploration of wish fulfilment and psychological roles, wrapped up in a sarcastic and sexually explicit narrative. Fat becomes not something to fear but a source of comfort; desire for food and for the female body go hand in hand. Rachel says, “It felt like a miracle to be able to eat what I desired, not more or less than that. It was shocking, as though my body somehow knew what to do and what not to do—if only I let it.”
With the help of her therapist, a rabbi that appears in her dreams, and the recurring metaphor of the golem, Rachel starts to grasp the necessity of mothering herself and becoming the shaper of her own life. I was uneasy that Miriam, like Theo in The Pisces, might come to feel more instrumental than real, but overall this was an enjoyable novel that brings together its disparate subjects convincingly. (But is it hot or smutty? You tell me.)
With thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.
Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
At a glance, the cover for Fuller’s fourth novel seems to host a riot of luscious flowers and fruit, but look closer and you’ll see the daisies are withering and the grapes rotting; there’s a worm exiting the apple and flies are overseeing the decomposition. Just as the image slowly reveals signs of decay, Fuller’s novel gradually unveils the drawbacks of its secluded village setting. Jeanie and Julius Seeder, 51-year-old twins, lived with their mother, Dot, until she was felled by a stroke. They’d always been content with a circumscribed, self-sufficient existence, but now their whole way of life is called into question. Their mother’s rent-free arrangement with the landowners, the Rawsons, falls through, and the cash they keep in a biscuit tin in the cottage comes nowhere close to covering her debts, let alone a funeral.
During the Zoom book launch event, Fuller confessed that she’s “incapable of writing a happy novel,” so consider that your warning of how bleak things will get for her protagonists – though by the end there are pinpricks of returning hope. Before then, though, readers navigate an unrelenting spiral of rural poverty and bad luck, exacerbated by illiteracy and the greed and unkindness of others. One of Fuller’s strengths is creating atmosphere, and there are many images and details here that build the picture of isolation and pathos, such as a piano marooned halfway to a derelict caravan along a forest track and Jeanie having to count pennies so carefully that she must choose between toilet paper and dish soap at the shop.
Unsettled Ground is set in a fictional North Wessex Downs village not far from where I live. I loved spotting references to local places and to folk music – Jeanie and Julius might not have book smarts or successful careers, but they inherited Dot’s love of music and when they pick up a fiddle and guitar they tune in to the ancient magic of storytelling. Much of the novel is from Jeanie’s perspective and she makes for an out-of-the-ordinary yet relatable POV character. I found the novel heavy on exposition, which somewhat slowed my progress through it, but it’s comparable to Fuller’s other work in that it focuses on family secrets, unusual states of mind, and threatening situations. She’s rapidly become one of my favourite contemporary novelists, and I’d recommend this to you if you’ve liked her other work or Fiona Mozley’s Elmet.
With thanks to Penguin Fig Tree for the proof copy for review.
Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage by Anne Lamott
These are Lamott’s best new essays (if you don’t count Small Victories, which reprinted some of her greatest hits) in nearly a decade. The book is a fitting follow-up to 2018’s Almost Everything in that it tackles the same central theme: how to have hope in God and in other people even when the news – Trump, Covid, and climate breakdown – only heralds the worst.
One key thing that has changed in Lamott’s life since her last book is getting married for the first time, in her mid-sixties, to a Buddhist. “How’s married life?” people can’t seem to resist asking her. In thinking of marriage she writes about love and friendship, constancy and forgiveness, none of which comes easy. Her neurotic nature flares up every now and again, but Neal helps to talk her down. Fragments of her early family life come back as she considers all her parents were up against and concludes that they did their best (“How paltry and blocked our family love was, how narrow the bandwidth of my parents’ spiritual lives”).
Opportunities for maintaining quiet faith in spite of the circumstances arise all the time for her, whether it’s a variety show that feels like it will never end, a four-day power cut in California, the kitten inexplicably going missing, or young people taking to the streets to protest about the climate crisis they’re inheriting. A short postscript entitled “Covid College” gives thanks for “the blessings of COVID: we became more reflective, more contemplative.”
The prose and anecdotes feel fresher here than in several of the author’s other recent books. I highlighted quote after quote on my Kindle. Some of these essays will be well worth rereading and deserve to become classics in the Lamott canon, especially “Soul Lather,” “Snail Hymn,” “Light Breezes,” and “One Winged Love.”
I read an advanced digital review copy via NetGalley. Available from Riverhead in the USA and SPCK in the UK.
Brood by Jackie Polzin
Polzin’s debut novel is a quietly touching story of a woman in the Midwest raising chickens and coming to terms with the shape of her life. The unnamed narrator is Everywoman and no one at the same time. As in recent autofiction by Rachel Cusk and Sigrid Nunez, readers find observations of other people (and animals), a record of their behaviour and words; facts about the narrator herself are few and far between, though it is possible to gradually piece together a backstory for her. At one point she reveals, with no fanfare, that she miscarried four months into pregnancy in the bathroom of one of the houses she cleans. There is a bittersweet tone to this short work. It’s a low-key, genuine portrait of life in the in-between stages and how it can be affected by fate or by other people’s decisions.
See my full review at BookBrowse. I was also lucky enough to do an interview with the author.
I read an advanced digital review copy via Edelweiss. Available from Doubleday in the USA. To be released in the UK by Picador tomorrow, April 1st.
What recent releases can you recommend?
Two Novels of Ambivalent Parenthood: The Push & A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself
These 2021 releases I read from the library stood out to me for daring to suggest that sometimes children aren’t little angels and parenthood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The Push by Ashley Audrain
“Do you wish you weren’t a mother?”
“Sometimes I wish I were a different kind of person.”
A cracking psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator, this is in the same vein as The Woman in the Window, Gone Girl, and A Good Enough Mother. I hardly ever pick up novels that fit into this genre, but these were all well worth making an exception for. The Push feels closer to literary fiction than to crime. Blythe Connor, living alone with her memories, ponders what went wrong with her seemingly perfect family: a handsome architect husband, Fox, and their daughter Violet and baby son Sam. Now reduced to being a stalker and an impersonator, Blythe vows to write everything down as evidence, taking care to note when she first had cause to question whether Violet was normal. A daddy’s girl from the start, Violet never bonded with Blythe and admitted to deliberately hurting other children in her preschool. But how much of what happened next was because of Violet’s nature, and how much was Blythe’s fault for failing to be the mother the girl needed?
The inkblot design of the cover cleverly evokes classical psychological concepts and experiments. A key topic the novel explores is how trauma is passed down through the generations: Blythe had worried that she wasn’t cut out for motherhood, chiefly because her mother and her grandmother both abandoned their daughters. “Blythe, the women in this family, we’re different. You’ll see,” her mother had warned. The exchange between Blythe and her mother that opens my review reiterates her suspicion: some people just aren’t cut out for parenting. Blythe can’t dismiss her daughter as evil because she knows how much guilt rests on her own shoulders, and because she doubts that she saw what she thought she saw. Moreover, the fact that her experience with Sam was completely different makes her feel ambivalent about motherhood: she’s seen how wonderful it can be, but also how it can turn bad. The nuance sets the book apart from run-of-the-mill thrillers. Yet it’s in short, page-turning chapters, so it reads very quickly and would make a great book club selection.
A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies
At its best, autofiction is an intriguing blend of memoir and fiction, all of it true and universal in appeal. Davies’ minimalist approach – short sections skating over the months and years, wryly pulling out representative moments here and there, all in a mere 180 pages – could hardly be more different from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s, but both are equally dedicated to the unique alchemy of crystallizing fatherhood by illuminating its daily heartaches and joys.
Years ago, “the writer” and his wife were presented with a choice. When genetic tests indicated mosaicism, they terminated their first pregnancy. Instead of a little girl, they later had a baby boy who presented his own challenges, including delayed development and possible ASD. Years later, the abortion still haunts “the father.” He attempts to exorcise his shame (the title = how Anaïs Nin defined it) by volunteering at an abortion clinic. Escorting patients to and from their cars, ignoring the taunts of protestors, he lives out his conviction that you can never fully know what others are going through and why they make the decisions they do.
Davies gets the tone just right in this novella, showing both sides of parenthood and voicing the things you aren’t allowed to think, or at least not to admit to – starting with abortion, which would-be fathers aren’t expected to have strong feelings about. Soon after the writer’s son is born: “He feels about himself for love, the way he might pat his pockets for his wallet and keys. Do I love him yet? Is this love?” As the boy grows into a figure of pathos: “All the things they’ve imagined him growing up to be: A basketball player, a fireman, a chef. [vs. what he actually seems to be] Allergic, friendless, autistic.” Davies also has a gift for zinging phrases, like “the deification of babies” and “the baby-industrial complex” of Babies R Us.
But what I most loved was the rumination on the role that chance plays in a life. “All the coin flips. All the what ifs. Like the litany of prompts he uses in writing class. Heads and tales.” The writer has a background in physics (as Davies himself does), so often brings up Schrödinger’s cat as a metaphor – in any situation, things might have gone either way. Now that the possibilities have narrowed to one and the path has been started, what will you do? The treatment of luck, in particular, led me to think of this as a cross between Larry’s Party by Carol Shields and What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez. The style is similar to Jenny Offill’s; another similar and nearly contemporaneous release is Brood by Jackie Polzin.
I know I read The Fortunes back in 2016 but I retain virtually no memory of it. Davies’s prose, themes, and voice stood out much more for me here. I’ll try his novel The Welsh Girl, too, maybe even for book club later this year. This is an early entry on my Best of 2021 list.
“this is also what the internet is for, he thinks. If online porn universalizes shame, social media universalizes judgment. Both exercises in self-gratification.”
“An older colleague told him once cats were baby substitutes. ‘They weigh the same, they sleep on you, they roll around on their backs kicking their legs in the air. They mewl.’”
For more on abortion from a male perspective: The Cider House Rules by John Irving and Ars Botanica by Tim Taranto.
Review Book Catch-Up: Fox, Le Riche, Nunez, and Thammavongsa
Today I have a book of poems about Covid lockdown and being autistic, a reprint of a vintage cookbook with a difference, the pinnacle of autofiction that I’ve found thus far, and a prize-winning collection of short stories about immigrants’ everyday challenges.
The Oscillations by Kate Fox (2021)
The first section, “After,” responds to the events of 2020; six of its poems were part of a “Twelve Days of Lockdown” commission. Fox remembers how sinister a cougher at a public event felt on 13th March and remarks on how quickly social distancing came to feel like the norm, though hikes and wild swimming helped her to retain a sense of possibility. I especially liked “Pharmacopoeia,” which opens the collection and looks back to the Black Death that hit Amsterdam in 1635 – “suddenly the plagues / are the most interesting parts / of a city’s history.” “Returns” plots her next trip to a bookshop (“The plague books won’t be in yet, / but the dystopia section will be well stocked / … I spend fifty pounds I no longer had last time, will spend another fifty next. / Feeling I’m preserving an ecology, a sort of home”), while “The Funerals” wryly sings the glories of a spring the deceased didn’t get to see.
The second section, “Before,” is more wide-ranging, responding to artworks, historical events, family situations, and more. Fox has been vocal about her ASD, which is the subject of “What Could Be Called Communication,” about some habits of the neurodivergent that you might recognize. I also liked “The Fruits,” which narrates the end of a pregnancy, and the closing poem, “Emergency” (“between us, / sometimes despite us / love spreads like a satellite signal, / like sea foam, / like spilt coffee on a counter top, / like home.”). That was one of the few places in the whole book where the language (alliteration and an end-rhyme) struck me; elsewhere, the themes felt more notable than the poetic techniques.
With thanks to Nine Arches Press for the proof copy for review.
Eating Alone by Kathleen Le Riche (1954)
Recently reprinted as a facsimile edition by Faber, this was Le Riche’s third cookbook. It’s like no other cookbook I’ve read, though: It doesn’t list ingredients or, generally, quantities, and its steps are imprecise, more like suggestions. What it reads like is a set of short stories with incidental recipes. Le Riche had noted that people who live alone some or all of the time, for whatever reason, often can’t be bothered to cook for themselves properly. Through these old ladies, bachelors, career girls, and mothers with children off at school, she voices her ideas on shopping, food storage, simple cooking, and making good use of leftovers, but all through the medium of anecdote.
For instance, “The Grass Widower,” while his wife is away visiting her mother, indulges his love of seafood and learns how to wash up effectively. A convalescent plans the uncomplicated meals she’ll fix, including lots of egg dishes and some pleasingly dated fare like “junket” and cherries in brandy. A brother and sister, students left on their own for a day, try out all the different pancakes and quick breads in their repertoire. The bulk of the actual meal ideas come in a chapter called “The Happy Potterer,” whom Le Riche styles as a friend of hers named Flora who wrote out all her recipes on cards collected in an envelope. I enjoyed some of the little notes to self in this section: appended to a recipe for kidney and mushrooms, “Keep a few back for mushrooms-on-toast next day for a mid-morning snack”; “Forgive yourself if you have to use margarine instead of butter for frying.”
I don’t think there are any recipes here that I would actually try to reproduce, though I may one day attempt the Grass Widower’s silver-polishing method (put a strip of aluminium foil and some “washing soda” (soda crystals?) in the sink and pour over some boiling water from the kettle; dip in the silver items, touching them to the foil, and watch the tarnish disappear like magic!). This was interesting as a cultural artefact, to see the meals and ingredients that were mainstays of the 1950s (evaporated milk, anyone?) and how people coped without guaranteed refrigeration. It’s also a good reminder to eat well no matter your circumstances.
With thanks to Faber for the free copy for review.
A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez (1995)
My third from Nunez, after The Friend and What Are You Going Through, and my most loved of her books thus far, cementing her as one of my favourite authors. Like the other two, it’s narrated by an unnamed woman who defines herself by the people she encounters and the experiences she has in an unforgiving but still somehow beautiful and funny old world. From the little I know of Nunez, this seems the closest to autofiction, especially in terms of her parental origins. The father, Chang, born in Panama and raised in China, immigrated to the USA at age 12. In Germany for war service, he met her mother, Christa, just after VE Day.
Chang and Christa, the subjects of the book’s first two sections – accounting for about half the length – were opposites and had a volatile relationship. Their home in the New York City projects was an argumentative place the narrator was eager to escape. She felt she never knew her father, a humourless man who lost touch with Chinese culture. He worked on the kitchen staff of a hospital and never learned English properly. Christa, by contrast, was fastidious about English grammar but never lost her thick accent. An obstinate and contradictory woman, she resented her lot in life and never truly loved Chang, but was good with her hands and loved baking and sewing for her daughters.
Growing up, the narrator never knew quite what to make of her mixed, “exotic” background. For a time, she escaped into ballet, a tantalizingly female discipline that threw up a lot of issues: class pretensions, the eroticization of young girls and of pain, and eating disorders. When she went without solid food for days at a time, she felt she was approaching the weightlessness Saint Hildegard likened to being “a feather on the breath of God.” The final chapter, “Immigrant Love,” jumps ahead to when the narrator taught English as a foreign language and had an affair with Vadim, a married Russian taxi driver full of charisma but also of flaws. This finale is a brilliant twist on her parents’ situation, and a decision to teach English in China brings things full circle, promising a connection to her late father’s heritage.
The strategy of identifying the self by the key relationships and obsessions of a life struck me as spot on. This short novel punches above its weight, with profound observations on every page. Its specific situations are engaging, yet it speaks to the universals of how we cope with a troublesome past. “One wants a way of looking back without anger or bitterness or shame. One wants to be able to tell everything without blaming or apologizing,” Nunez writes, crystallizing her frank, wry approach. I’m eager to read all the rest of her oeuvre.
First published in the UK in 2021. With thanks to Virago Press for the free copy for review.
How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa (2020)
Thammavongsa pivoted from poetry to short stories and won Canada’s Giller Prize for this debut collection that mostly explores the lives of Laotian immigrants and refugees in a North American city. The 14 stories are split equally between first- and third-person perspectives, many of them narrated by young women remembering how they and their parents adjusted to an utterly foreign culture. The title story and “Chick-A-Chee!” are both built around a misunderstanding of the English language – the latter is a father’s approximation of what his children should say on doorsteps on Halloween. Television soaps and country music on the radio are ways to pick up more of the language. Farm and factory work are de rigueur, but characters nurture dreams of experiences beyond menial labour – at least for their children.
The stories are punchy: perfect snapshots of lives lived on the tightrope between expectation and despair. In “Mani Pedi,” Raymond is a former boxer who starts working at his sister’s nail salon and falls in love with a client. His sister warns him, “Don’t you be dreaming big now, little brother. Keep your dreams small. The size of a grain of rice.” In “Slingshot,” an older woman loses touch with her much younger lover, while in “The Gas Station,” Mary, a prim tax accountant, opens herself to love but ends up disappointed. The great-grandmother in “Ewwrrrkk” warns an eight-year-old that “I love you” pries open one’s legs like nothing else. “Randy Travis” and “Picking Worms” were probably my two overall favourites. Looking back, I have trouble remembering some of the individual stories. It’s not so much that they all blend into one, but that they form a cohesive whole. I’d recommend this even to readers who don’t normally pick up short stories, and will look out for more from this author.
Out in paperback on Thursday the 18th. With thanks to Bloomsbury for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Book Serendipity, Early 2021
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 20‒30), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents.
Josh Cohen’s How to Live. What to Do, a therapist’s guide to literature, explains why this might happen:
More than one writer – the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges – has advanced the exhilarating idea that each book is an infinitesimally small piece of one single, endless Book. I’ve always felt that this idea, unlikely as it might sound, makes perfect sense if you read enough novels [also nonfiction, for me]. The incidents, descriptions, phrases and images in the book you’re reading will always recall the incidents in another, and those in turn will call up the incidents in another, so that even as you’re reading one book, you’re reading countless others.
The following are in roughly chronological order.
- Mother‒baby swimming sessions in Some Body to Love by Alexandra Heminsley and The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp.
- [I think it would be a spoiler to even name them, but two novels I read simultaneously in January featured 1) a marriage / close relationship between a man and a woman – even though the man is gay; and 2) a character who beat his wife and then died in a convenient ‘accident’. One was published in 1997 and the other in 2020.]
- Stomas appeared in Dazzling Darkness by Rachel Mann and First Time Ever by Peggy Seeger late in my 2020 reading, and then in early 2021 in Pain: The Science of the Feeling Brain by Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen and Love’s Work by Gillian Rose.
- An account of the author’s experience of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome in Hormonal by Eleanor Morgan and I Miss You when I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott.
- Salmon fishing takes place in Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson and Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth.
- The medical motto “see one, do one, teach one” appears in Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke and Complications by Atul Gawande.
- Filipino medical staff feature in America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo and Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke.
- Twin Peaks is mentioned in The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills and the anthology Trauma: Essays on Art and Mental Health; a different essay in the latter talks about Virginia Woolf’s mental health struggle, which is a strand in the former.
- St. Teresa of Ávila is mentioned in Heart by Gail Godwin and Sanatorium by Abi Palmer.
- The same Rachel Long poem appears in her debut collection, My Darling from the Lions, and The Emma Press Anthology of Love – but under different titles (“Portent” vs. “Delayed Gratification”).
- There’s a matriarch named Dot in Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller and The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett.
- There’s an Alaska setting in The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton and Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth.
- Becoming a mother is described as a baptism in Sanctuary by Emily Rapp Black and The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills.
- While reading America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo, I saw Castillo mentioned in the Acknowledgements of My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long.
- Polar explorers’ demise is discussed in Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman and The Still Point by Amy Sackville.
- “Butterfingers” / “butter-fingered” is used in America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo and The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler.
- There’s a mention of someone eating paper torn from books (the horror!) in Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman and The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler.
- I was reading three pre-releases at once, each of 288 pages: Milk Fed by Melissa Broder, Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller, and A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson.
- The Jewish golem myth is the overarching metaphor of Milk Fed by Melissa Broder and Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer.
- There’s a ceremony to pay respects to those who donated their bodies for medical school dissection in Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb and Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer.
- An old woman with dementia features in The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan, Keeper by Andrea Gillies, and The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler.
- A mother dies of cancer on Christmas Day in This Party’s Dead by Erica Buist and The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills.
- The main character does stand-up comedy in Milk Fed by Melissa Broder and This Party’s Dead by Erica Buist.
- Winning a goldfish at a carnival in The Air Year by Caroline Bird, A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez, and Anna Vaught’s essay in the Trauma anthology.
- ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) is mentioned in Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis and Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy.
- There’s a father who is non-medical hospital staff in The Push by Ashley Audrain (a cleaner) and A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez (a kitchen worker).
- There’s a character named Hart in The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes and The Birth House by Ami McKay.
- Cannibalism is a point of reference, a major metaphor, or a (surreal) reality in Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander, Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick, and Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford.
- Infertility and caring for animals were two big themes shared by Brood by Jackie Polzin and Catalogue Baby by Myriam Steinberg. This became clearer when I interviewed both authors in February. Also, both women have shocks of pink hair in their publicity photos!
- A young woman works at a hotel in The Distance between Us by Maggie O’Farrell and My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (and The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, which I read late last year).
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
The Best Books of 2020: Some Runners-Up
I’ve chosen 25 more cracking reads that were first released in 2020. (Asterisks = my hidden gems of the year.) Between this post and my Fiction/Poetry and Nonfiction best-of lists, I’ve now highlighted about the top 12% of my year’s reading.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: Like some lost mid-career gem from Toni Morrison, this novel is meaty with questions of racial and sexual identity. Light-skinned African-American twins’ paths divide in 1950s Louisiana. Perceptive and beautifully written, this has characters whose struggles feel genuine and pertinent.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: To start with, Piranesi traverses his watery labyrinth like he’s an eighteenth-century adventurer, his resulting notebooks reading rather like Alexander von Humboldt’s writing. I admired how the novel moved from the fantastical and abstract into the real and gritty. Read it even if you say you don’t like fantasy.
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan: At 22, Ava leaves Dublin to teach English as a foreign language to wealthy preteens and almost accidentally embarks on affairs with an English guy and a Chinese girl. Dolan has created a funny, deadpan voice that carries the entire novel. I loved the psychological insight, the playfulness with language, and the zingy one-liners.
*A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler: Issues of race and privilege undermine a teen romance in a perfect-seeming North Carolina community. This is narrated in a first-person plural voice, like the Greek chorus of a classical tragedy. If you loved An American Marriage, it should be next on your list. I’m puzzled by how overlooked it’s been this year.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi: A more subdued and subtle book than Homegoing, but its treatment of themes of addiction, grief, racism, and religion is so spot on that it packs a punch. Gifty is a PhD student at Stanford, researching reward circuits in the mouse brain. There’s also a complex mother–daughter relationship and musings on love and risk. [To be published in the UK in March]
The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: A rich, natural exploration of a place and time period – full of detail but wearing its research lightly. Inspired by a real-life storm that struck on Christmas Eve 1617 and wiped out the male population of the Norwegian island of Vardø, it intimately portrays the lives of the women left behind. Tender, surprising, and harrowing.
Sisters by Daisy Johnson: Teenagers September and July were born just 10 months apart, with July always in thrall to her older sister. For much of this short novel, Johnson keeps readers guessing as to why the girls’ mother, Sheela, took them away to Settle House, her late husband’s family home in the North York Moors. As mesmerizing as it is unsettling.
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd: Kidd’s bold fourth novel started as a what-if question: What if Jesus had a wife? Although this retells biblical events, it is chiefly an attempt to illuminate women’s lives in the 1st century and to chart the female contribution to sacred literature and spirituality. An engrossing story of women’s intuition and yearning.
*The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson: Intense and convincing, this balances historical realism and magical elements. In mid-1850s Scotland, there is a move to ensure clean water. The Glasgow waterworks’ physician’s wife meets a strange minister who died in 1692. A rollicking read with medical elements and a novel look into Victorian women’s lives.
*The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting: In this first book of a magic-fueled historical trilogy, progress, religion, and superstition are forces fighting for the soul of a late-nineteenth-century Norwegian village. Mytting constructs the novel around compelling dichotomies. Astrid, a feminist ahead of her time, vows to protect the ancestral church bells.
What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez: The narrator is called upon to help a terminally ill friend commit suicide. The voice is not solely or even primarily the narrator’s but Other: art consumed and people encountered become part of her own story; curiosity about other lives fuels empathy. A quiet novel that sneaks up to seize you by the heartstrings.
Weather by Jenny Offill: A blunt, unromanticized, wickedly funny novel about how eco-anxiety permeates everyday life, written in an aphoristic style. Set either side of Trump’s election in 2016, the novel amplifies many voices prophesying doom. Offill’s observations are dead right. This felt like a perfect book for 2020 and its worries.
Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward: An intriguing set of linked short stories that combine philosophy and science fiction. Rachel and Eliza are preparing to have a baby together when an ant crawls into Rachel’s eye and she falls ill. I was particularly taken by the chapter narrated by the ant. It’s well worth making a rare dip into sci-fi for this one.
*The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts: The young female narrator of this debut novel lives in Sydney and works for Australia’s emergency call service. Against a backdrop of flooding and bush fires, a series of personal catastrophes play out. A timely, quietly forceful story of how women cope with concrete and existential threats.
To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss: These 10 stories from the last 18 years are melancholy and complex, often featuring several layers of Jewish family history. Europe, Israel, and film are frequent points of reference. “Future Emergencies,” though set just after 9/11, ended up feeling the most contemporary because it involves gas masks and other disaster preparations.
*Help Yourself by Curtis Sittenfeld: A bonus second UK release from Sittenfeld in 2020 after Rodham. Just three stories, but not leftovers; a strong follow-up to You Think It, I’ll Say It. They share the theme of figuring out who you really are versus what others think of you. “White Women LOL,” especially, compares favorably to Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age.
You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South: In this debut collection, characters turn to technology to stake a claim on originality, compensate for losses, and leave a legacy. These 10 quirky, humorous stories never strayed so far into science fiction as to alienate me. I loved the medical themes and subtle, incisive observations about a technology-obsessed culture.
*Survival Is a Style by Christian Wiman: Wiman examines Christian faith in the shadow of cancer. This is the third of his books that I’ve read, and I’m consistently impressed by how he makes room for doubt, bitterness, and irony – yet a flame of faith remains. There is really interesting phrasing and vocabulary in this volume.
Inferno: A Memoir by Catherine Cho: Cho experienced stress-induced postpartum psychosis after the birth of her son. She alternates between her time in the mental hospital and her life before the breakdown, weaving in family history and Korean sayings and legends. It’s a painstakingly vivid account.
*The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland: DNA tests can find missing relatives within days. But there are troubling aspects to this new industry, including privacy concerns, notions of racial identity, and criminal databases. A thought-provoking book with all the verve and suspense of fiction.
*Signs of Life: To the Ends of the Earth with a Doctor by Stephen Fabes: Fabes is an emergency room doctor in London and spent six years of the past decade cycling six continents. This warm-hearted and laugh-out-loud funny account of his travels achieves a perfect balance between world events, everyday discomforts, and humanitarian volunteering.
Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild by Lucy Jones: Nature’s positive effect on human mental health is something we know intuitively and can explain anecdotally, but Jones wanted to investigate the scientific mechanism behind it. Losing Eden is full of common sense and passion, cramming in lots of information yet never losing sight of the big picture.
*Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (As Told to Me) Story by Bess Kalb: Jewish grandmothers are renowned for their fiercely protective love, but also for nagging. Both sides of the stereotypical matriarch are on display in this funny, heartfelt family memoir, narrated in the second person – as if from beyond the grave – by her late grandmother. A real delight.
Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty: McAnulty is a leader in the UK’s youth environmental movement and an impassioned speaker on the love of nature. This is a wonderfully observant and introspective account of his fifteenth year and the joys of everyday encounters with wildlife. Impressive perspective and lyricism.
Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey: Trethewey grew up biracial in 1960s Mississippi, then moved with her mother to Atlanta. Her stepfather was abusive; her mother’s murder opens and closes the book. Trethewey only returned to their Memorial Drive apartment after 30 years had passed. A striking memoir, delicate and painful.
(Books not pictured were read digitally, or have already gone back to the library.)
Coming tomorrow: My best backlist reads of the year.