Two nonfiction books: a frank account of an abortion; clutter-busting techniques.
Two novels: amusing intellectual fare featuring a big dog or the Parisian Surrealists.
Happening by Annie Ernaux (2000; English translation, 2019)
[Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie]
“I believe that any experience, whatever its nature, has the inalienable right to be chronicled,” Ernaux writes. In 1963, when she was 23 and living in a student residence in Rouen, she realized she was pregnant. An appointment with a gynecologist set out the facts starkly: “Pregnancy certificate of: Mademoiselle Annie Duchesne. Date of delivery: 8 July, 1964. I saw summer, sunshine. I tore up the certificate.” Abortion was illegal in France at that time. Ernaux tried to take things into her own hands – “plunging a knitting needle into a womb weighed little next to ruining one’s career” – but couldn’t go through with it. Instead she went to the home of a middle-aged nurse she’d heard about…
This very short book (just 60-some pages) is told in a matter-of-fact style – apart from the climactic moment when her pregnancy ends: “It burst forth like a grenade, in a spray of water that splashed the door. I saw a baby doll dangling from my loins at the end of a reddish cord.” It’s such a garish image, almost cartoonish, that I didn’t know whether to laugh or be horrified. Mostly, Ernaux reflects on memory and the reconstruction of events. I haven’t read many nonfiction accounts of abortion/miscarriage and for that reason found this interesting, but it was perhaps too brief and detached for me to be fully engaged.
With thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for the free copy for review.
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2018)
“Does something bad happen to the dog?” We animal lovers are wary when approaching a book about a pet. Nunez playfully anticipates that question as she has her unnamed female narrator reflect on her duty of care to her dead friend’s dog. The narrator is a writer and academic – like her late friend, a Bellovian womanizer who recently committed suicide, leaving behind two ex-wives, a widow, and Apollo the aging Great Dane. She addresses the friend directly as “you” for almost the whole book, which unfolds – in a similar style to Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation – via quotations, aphorisms, and stories from literary history as well as mini-incidents from a life.
This won the 2018 National Book Award in the USA and is an unashamedly high-brow work whose intertextuality comes through in direct allusions to many classic works of autofiction (Coetzee, Knausgaard and Lessing) and/or doggy lit (Ackerley; Coetzee again – Disgrace). As Apollo starts to take up more physical, mental and emotional space in the narrator’s life, she waits for a miracle that will allow her to keep him despite an eviction notice and muses on lots of questions: Is all writing autobiographical? Why does animal suffering pain us so much (especially compared to human suffering)? I was impressed: it feels like Nunez has encapsulated everything she’s ever known or thought about, all in just over 200 pages, and alongside a heart-warming little plot. (Animal lovers need not fear.)
With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.
Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness by Gretchen Rubin (2019)
What with all the debate over Marie Kondo’s clutter-reducing tactics, the timing is perfect for this practical guide to culling and organizing all the stuff that piles up around us at home and at work. Unlike the rest of Rubin’s self-help books, this is not a narrative but a set of tips – 150 of them! It’s not so much a book to read straight through as one to keep at your bedside and read a few pages to summon up motivation for the next tidying challenge.
Famously, Kondo advises one to ask whether an item sparks joy. Rubin’s central questions are more down-to-earth: Do I need it? Do I love it? Do I use it? With no index, the book is a bit difficult to navigate; you just have to flip through until you find what you want. The advice seems in something of a random order and can be slightly repetitive. But since this is really meant as a book of inspiration, I think it will be a useful jumping-off point for anyone trying to get on top of clutter. I plan to work through the closet checklist before I pass the book to my sister – who’s dealing with a basement full of stuff after she and her second husband merged their households. If I could add one page, it would be a flowchart of what to do with unwanted stuff that corresponds to the latest green recommendations.
With thanks to Two Roads for the free copy for review.
The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer (2019)
This novel about Lee Miller’s relationship with Man Ray is in the same vein as The Paris Wife, Z, Loving Frank and Frieda: all of these have sought to rescue a historical woman from the shadow of a celebrated, charismatic male and tell her own fascinating life story. Scharer captures the bohemian atmosphere of 1929–30 Paris in elegant but accessible prose. Along with the central pair we meet others from the Dada group plus Jean Cocteau, and get a glimpse of Josephine Baker. The novel is nearly 100 pages too long, I think, such that my interest in the politics of the central relationship – Man becomes too possessive and Lee starts to act out, longing for freedom again – started to wane.
Miller was a photographer as well as a model and journalist, and this is an appropriately visual novel that’s interested in appearances, lighting and what gets preserved for posterity. It’s also fairly sexually explicit for literary fiction, sometimes unnecessarily so, so keep that in mind if it’s likely to bother you. I especially enjoyed the brief flashes of Lee at other points in her life: in London during the Blitz, photographing the aftermath of the war in Germany (there’s a famous image of her in Hitler’s bathtub), and hoping she’s more than just a washed-up alcoholic in the 1960s. It would be a boon to have a prior interest in or some knowledge of the Surrealists.
With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
The choices below are in alphabetical order by author, with any previously published reviews linked in (many of these books have already appeared on the blog in some way over the course of the year). You know the drill by now: to keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title. The first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. Across these three best-of posts (see also my Top Nonfiction and Best Fiction posts), I’ve spotlighted roughly the top 15% of my year’s reading.
- As a God Might Be by Neil Griffiths: The themes and central characters were strong enough to keep me powering through this 600-page novel of ideas about encounters with God and the nature of evil. This turned out to be just my sort of book: big and brazen, a deep well of thought that will only give up its deeper meanings upon discussion and repeat readings.
- Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař: The story of Jakub Procházka, a Czech astronaut who leaves his wife behind to undertake a noble research mission but soon realizes he can never escape his family history or the hazards of his own mind. A terrific blend of the past and the futuristic, Earth and space.
- English Animals by Laura Kaye: A young Slovakian becomes a housekeeper for a volatile English couple and discovers a talent for taxidermy. A fresh take on themes of art, sex, violence and belonging, this is one of the more striking debut novels I’ve encountered in recent years.
- Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong: Reeling from a broken engagement, Ruth Young returns to her childhood home in California for a year to help look after her father, who has Alzheimer’s. This is a delightfully quirky little book, but you may well read it with a lump in your throat, too.
- Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty: In MacLaverty’s quietly beautiful fifth novel, a retired couple faces up to past trauma and present incompatibility during a short vacation in Amsterdam. My overall response was one of admiration for what this couple has survived and sympathy for their current situation – with hope that they’ll make it through this, too. (Reviewed for BookBrowse.)
- Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: An Irish college student navigates friendships and an affair with a married man. This is much more about universals than it is about particulars: realizing you’re stuck with yourself, exploring your sexuality and discovering sex is its own kind of conversation, and deciding whether ‘niceness’ is really the same as morality; a book I was surprised to love, but love it I did.
- Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: The residents of Georgetown cemetery limbo don’t know they’re dead – or at least won’t accept it. An entertaining and truly original treatment of life’s transience; I know it’s on every other best-of-year list out there, but it really is a must-read.
- The Smell of Fresh Rain by Barney Shaw: Shaw travels through space, time and literature as he asks why we don’t have the vocabulary to talk about the smells we encounter every day. If you’re interested in exploring connections between smell and memory, discovering what makes the human sense of smell unique, and learning some wine-tasting-style tips for describing odors, this is a perfect introduction.
- A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin: Tomalin is best known as a biographer of literary figures including Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Pepys and Charles Dickens, but her memoir is especially revealing about the social and cultural history of the earlier decades her life covers. A dignified but slightly aloof book – well worth reading for anyone interested in spending time in London’s world of letters in the second half of the twentieth century.
- Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: The story of a mixed-race family haunted – both literally and figuratively – by the effects of racism, drug abuse and incarceration in Bois Sauvage, a fictional Mississippi town. Beautiful language; perfect for fans of Toni Morrison and Cynthia Bond.
I’ve really struggled with short stories this year, but here are four collections I can wholeheartedly recommend:
- What It Means when a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Reviewed for Shiny New Books.)
- Unruly Creatures: Stories by Jennifer Caloyeras
- Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley
- The Great Profundo and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty (1987)
The Best 2017 Books You Probably Never Heard of (Unless You Heard about Them from Me!):
- The Education of a Coroner by John Bateson: The coroner’s career is eventful no matter what, but Marin County, California has its fair share of special interest, what with Golden Gate Bridge suicides, misdeeds at San Quentin Prison, and various cases involving celebrities (e.g. Harvey Milk, Jerry Garcia and Tupac) in addition to your everyday sordid homicides. Ken Holmes was a death investigator and coroner in Marin County for 36 years; Bateson successfully recreates Holmes’ cases with plenty of (sometimes gory) details.
- Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker: Tasting notes: gleeful, ebullient, learned, self-deprecating; suggested pairings: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler; Top Chef, The Great British Bake Off. A delightful blend of science, memoir and encounters with people who are deadly serious about wine.
- A Paris All Your Own: Bestselling Women Writers on the City of Light, edited by Eleanor Brown: A highly enjoyable set of 18 autobiographical essays that celebrate what’s wonderful about the place but also acknowledge disillusionment; highlights are from Maggie Shipstead, Paula McLain, Therese Anne Fowler, Jennifer Coburn, Julie Powell and Michelle Gable. If you have a special love for Paris, have always wanted to visit, or just enjoy armchair traveling, this collection won’t disappoint you.
- Ashland & Vine by John Burnside: Essentially, it’s about the American story, individual American stories, and how these are constructed out of the chaos and violence of the past – all filtered through a random friendship that forms between a film student and an older woman in the Midwest. This captivated me from the first page.
- Tragic Shores: A Memoir of Dark Travel, Thomas H. Cook: In 28 non-chronological chapters, Cook documents journeys he’s made to places associated with war, massacres, doomed lovers, suicides and other evidence of human suffering. This is by no means your average travel book and it won’t suit those who seek high adventure and/or tropical escapism; instead, it’s a meditative and often melancholy picture of humanity at its best and worst. (Reviewed for Nudge.)
- The Valentine House by Emma Henderson: This is a highly enjoyable family saga set mostly between 1914 and 1976 at an English clan’s summer chalet in the French Alps near Geneva, with events seen from the perspective of a local servant girl. You can really imagine yourself into all the mountain scenes and the book moves quickly –a great one to take on vacation.
Various Superlatives, Good and Bad:
The 2017 Book Everybody Else Loved but I Didn’t: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. (See my Goodreads review for why.)
The Year’s Biggest Disappointments: All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg, Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich, Between Them by Richard Ford and George and Lizzie by Nancy Pearl.
The Worst Book I Read This Year: Books by Charlie Hill (ironic, that). My only one-star review of the year.
The Downright Strangest Book I Read This Year: An English Guide to Birdwatching by Nicholas Royle.
My Best Discoveries of the Year: Beryl Bainbridge, Saul Bellow, Bernard MacLaverty and Haruki Murakami. I’ve read two books by each of these authors this year and look forward to trying more from them.
The Debut Authors Whose Next Work I’m Most Looking Forward to: Lesley Nneka Arimah, Laura Kaye, Carmen Marcus, Julianne Pachico and Sally Rooney.
The Best First Line of the Year: “History has failed us, but no matter.” (Pachinko, Min Jin Lee)
The Best Last Line of the Year: “If she was an instance of the goodness in this world then passing through by her side was miracle enough.” (Midwinter Break, Bernard MacLaverty)
Coming tomorrow: Some early recommendations for 2018.
Here are three enjoyable reads due out next month that I was lucky enough to get a hold of early. These are all first books by women authors, with subjects ranging from twentieth-century artists to a parent’s dementia. I’ve pulled 200–250-word extracts from my full reviews and hope you’ll be tempted by one or more of these.
The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber
(Coming on July 11th from She Writes Press)
The name Margery Williams Bianco might not seem familiar, but chances are you remember her classic children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit. This lovely debut novel is about Margery and her daughter, Pamela Bianco, a painter and child prodigy troubled by mental illness. The main thread of the novel is set on one day in 1944, and the first-person narration alternates between Margery and Pamela, who through memory and imagination drift back through vivid scenes from their lives in Turin, London, Wales, and New York City.
Themes of creativity, mental health and motherhood are nestled in this highly visual book full of cameos by everyone from Pablo Picasso to Eugene O’Neill. I love reading fictional biographies of writers and other creative types, and this one gives such an interesting window onto lesser-known twentieth-century figures. I especially appreciated Huber’s endnotes explaining what was fact (almost everything) and what was fiction here, and her discussion of the letters and archives she used.
As The Velveteen Rabbit teaches, we truly come to life when we are loved, and you can see how for Pamela it was a lifelong struggle to be loved for who she was. The artist’s tortured journey and the mother’s tender worry are equally strong. Had I finished it a few days earlier I would have included this in my write-up of the best books of 2017 so far. It would be a great choice for book clubs, too – a set of questions is even included at the end of the novel.
A favorite line (Pamela describes her mother): “Mam’s eyes are vast almond-shaped seas, liquid navy, flowing with an endless depth of understanding and compassion.”
Readalike: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
My thanks to publicist Caitlin Hamilton Summie for granting me early access via NetGalley.
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
(Coming on July 11th from Henry Holt and Co. [USA]; already available from Scribner UK)
Reeling from a broken engagement, Ruth Young returns to her childhood home in California for a year to help look after her father, who has Alzheimer’s. She tries feeding Howard every half-cracked dementia health cure (cruciferous vegetables are a biggie) and, with his teaching assistant, Theo, maintains the illusion that her father is still fit to teach by gathering graduate students for a non-credit History of California class that meets in empty classrooms and occasionally off-campus – wherever they can be away from the watchful eye of Dean Levin.
As these strategies fail and Howard’s behavior becomes ever more erratic, Ruth realizes the best thing she can do is be a recorder of daily memories, just as Howard was for her when she was a little girl: “Here I am, in lieu of you, collecting the moments” – “Today you…”
This is a delightfully quirky little book, in the same vein as Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen. I marked out a bunch of funny metaphors:
This morning’s [hangover] is a rodent: pesky but manageable.
It was grotesque, the way I kept trying to save that relationship. Like trying to tuck an elephant into pants.
The moon, tonight, looks like a cut zucchini coin.
But you may well read this with a lump in your throat, too. From one Christmas to the next, we see how much changes for this family – a reminder that even though the good times are still worth celebrating, they’re gone before you know it.
Readalike: Not Working by Lisa Owens
A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal by Jen Waite
(Coming on July 11th from Plume Books [USA] and Prentice Hall Press [UK])
Jen Waite had been in New York City pursuing her dream of becoming an actress for two years when she started working at a restaurant for extra cash. It was here that she met Marco Medina, a handsome Argentinian bar manager, and they fell head-over-heels in love. All the clichés: a green card, a successful business venture, a baby on the way, an idyllic wedding on the beach in Maine. And then the whole thing fell apart. “Marco was always an illusion; the best magic trick I’ve ever seen,” Waite marvels.
She’s written her story up like a thriller, full of gradual revelations and the desire to get even. Chapters alternate between “Before,” when she still had what she thought was the perfect existence, and “After,” when she started to suspect that Marco had a secret life. I use the term “thriller” as a compliment: the dialogue is spot-on and this is a remarkably gripping book given that the title and blurb pretty much give the whole game away. More than that, it’s a fascinating psychological study of the personality of a sociopath and pathological liar. Surviving to tell her story and perhaps train to become a therapist for women who have been in her situation is Waite’s apt revenge.
Readalike: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Have you read any July releases that you would recommend?
Despite being educated through university level in the United States, I’m better acquainted with British literature than American, in part due to my own predilections. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald are two of the American authors I’ve most struggled with. For one thing, their novels’ titles are interchangeable, abstract quotations that I can never keep straight. Which is which? The Sun Also Rises is the bullfighting one, right? And is A Farewell to Arms the other one I’ve read? Fitzgerald is an even worse offender as titles go, with The Great Gatsby the only one that actually refers to its contents.
For the record, I recognize The Great Gatsby as a masterpiece, and I absolutely loved A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of life in Paris. I also enjoy reading about the Hemingways (Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife and Naomi Wood’s Mrs. Hemingway) and the Fitzgeralds (Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald and R. Clifton Spargo’s Beautiful Fools). But when I’ve tried to go deeper into the authors’ work, it hasn’t been an unmitigated success. The above two Hemingway novels are just okay for me. The Sun Also Rises struck me as having a thin plot, two-dimensional characters and repetitious dialogue.
When I eagerly approached Tender Is the Night last year – having recently read a novel about the real-life couple who inspired Fitzgerald’s portrait of Dick and Nicole Diver, Gerald and Sara Murphy (Villa America by Liza Klaussmann) – I pulled out a lot of great individual lines but had trouble following the basic plot and only really enjoyed the early chapters of Book Two. Here are some of those pearls of prose:
The delight in Nicole’s face—to be a feather again instead of a plummet, to float and not to drag. She was a carnival to watch—at times primly coy, posing, grimacing and gesturing—sometimes the shadow fell and the dignity of old suffering flowed down into her finger tips.
somehow Dick and Nicole had become one and equal, not apposite and complementary; she was Dick too, the drought in the marrow of his bones. He could not watch her disintegrations without participating in them.
Well, you never knew exactly how much space you occupied in people’s lives.
women marry all their husbands’ talents and naturally, afterwards, are not so impressed with them as they may keep up the pretense of being.
Imagine my surprise when I learned from a note at the end of my Penguin paperback that Fitzgerald made a major revision that rearranged the action into chronological order, thus opening with Book Two. That text, edited by Malcolm Cowley, appeared in 1951 and was printed by Penguin from 1955. However, the version I have – as reprinted from 1982 onwards – goes back to Fitzgerald’s first edition. Would I have had a more favorable reaction to the novel if I’d encountered it in its revised version? Somehow I think so.