It’s that time of year when all the literary prize news comes at once. Tonight: the announcement of the Wainwright Prize winners. (I was honoured to be invited to the ceremony, but traveling into London was more than I felt up to handling under the circumstances.) Tomorrow, the 8th, the Women’s Prize for Fiction is awarded. It’s been so long since the shortlist announcement that my enthusiasm has waned, but nonetheless, I make predictions and wishes for it as well as the Wainwright below.
I’d read (or skimmed, or decided against) all 13 of the UK nature writing nominees, as well as a few from the global conservation longlist, before the shortlists were announced (see my mini-reviews and predictions).
Unfortunately, my favourite from the lists, Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald, did not make it through to the final round. To some extent it was a victim of the new division into two prizes: the idea seems to be to separate the narrative-driven, personal writing from the scientific, environmentally minded nonfiction. Books that draw on both genres, like Macdonald’s essays this year, and Tim Dee’s and Kathleen Jamie’s excellent travelogues (Greenery and Surfacing) last year, fall into the gap.
Since the shortlist announcement, I’ve read more of Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn and started Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs. Both are exceptionally written and impressive in scope, but as her portraits of the world’s derelict places have truly captivated my imagination, I stand by my initial prediction that Cal Flyn will win the global conservation prize.
As for the nature writing prize, I’m torn: The book that I think is of most lasting UK importance, with vital lessons to teach, is English Pastoral by James Rebanks. By contrast, the book that I wholeheartedly loved and admired was Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour. I’d be happy to see either one win.
Like last year, the winner announcement was delayed by several months, giving me time to forget all about it. Back in April I was very invested in the race (see my thoughts on the longlist; my wish list correctly predicted four of the six on the shortlist), and since then I’ve read and enjoyed a couple more from the longlist.
I predicted it would be Women’s Prize fodder when I read it back in June 2020, and I still think it the safest, strongest contender: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. It’s easy to see this following in the footsteps of An American Marriage: a book club book concerned with race and relationships.
So that’s what I think will win, whereas I marginally preferred the superficially similar but subtler Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi and would like to see its author get some recognition, so that’s what should win.
Next prize to think about: The Booker, whose shortlist will be announced on the 14th. On the 13th I’ll give my thoughts on the longlisted novels that I’ve read so far.
Today I have a book of poems about the Filipinx experience in the UK, a collection of short stories reflecting on racial injustice, a monograph on a bird that spells summer for many of us, and a biographical investigation into a little-understood medical condition.
Antiemetic for Homesickness by Romalyn Ante
I was drawn to this debut collection by the terrific title and cover, but also by the accolades it received: it was on the Dylan Thomas Prize longlist and the Jhalak Prize shortlist. I hope we’ll see it on the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist, too. Ante grew up in the Philippines but at age 16 joined her mother in the UK, where she had moved years before to work as a nurse in the NHS. She has since followed in her mother’s footsteps as a nurse – indeed, overseas Filipinx workers (Jamaicans, too) are a mainstay of the NHS.
Ante remembers the years when her mother was absent but promised to send for the rest of the family soon: “You said all I needed to do was to sleep and before I knew it, / you’d be back. But I woke to the rice that needed rinsing, / my siblings’ school uniforms that needed ironing.” The medical profession as a family legacy and noble calling is a strong element of these poems, especially in “Invisible Women,” an ode to the “goddesses of caring and tending” who walk the halls of any hospital. Hard work is a matter of survival, and family – whether physically present or not – bolsters weary souls. A series of short, untitled poems are presented as tape recordings made for her mother.
Food is inextricably entwined with memory (reminding me of Nina Mingya Powles’s approach in Tiny Moons) and provides some of the standout metaphors, especially in “Patis” and “Ode to a Pot Noodle.” Ante uses a lot of alliteration and adapts various forms. I especially liked “Tagay!”, a traditional drinking song, and “Mateo,” printed in the shape of a pound sign. The nuanced look at the immigrant experience reminded me of Jenny Xie’s Eye Level. Movement entails losses as well as benefits. The focus on the Filipinx experience also made me think of America Is Not the Heart. My favourite single poem was “The Making of a Smuggler,” which opens “Wherever we travel, we carry / the whole country with us – // our rice terraces are folded garments, / we have pillars of trees, a rainforest // on a hairbrush.”
“Gone are the nights he steals / the moon with a mango picker / and swaps it for her pocket mirror”
“The yellow admission papers in my hands escaped / flustering at my face into a flight of orioles.”
“I am halved in order to be whole – / I rebuild by leaving / everything I love.”
With thanks to Chatto & Windus for the free copy for review.
The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans
To boil these six stories and a novella down to the topic of race in America risks painting them as solemn or strident – more concerned with meaning than with art – when the truth is that they are playful and propulsive even though they keep cycling back to bereavement and injustice. Several of the protagonists are young Black women coming to terms with a loss.
In “Happily Ever After,” Lyssa works in the gift shop of a Titanic replica and is cast as an extra in a pop star’s music video. Mythical sea monsters are contrasted with the real dangers of her life, like cancer and racism. “Anything Could Disappear” was a favourite of mine, though it begins with that unlikely scenario of a single woman acquiring a baby as if by magic. What starts off as a burden becomes a bond she can’t bear to let go. A family is determined to clear the name of their falsely imprisoned ancestor in “Alcatraz.” In “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain” (a mnemonic for the colours of the rainbow), photojournalist Rena is wary about attending the wedding of a friend she met when their plane was detained in Africa some years ago. The only wedding she’s been in is her sister’s, which ended badly.
Mistakes and deceit seem to follow these characters. In the title novella that closes the book, Cassie and her colleagues combat fake news, going around putting correction labels on plaques that whitewash history. When she and her former colleague meet up in Wisconsin to find the truth behind a complex correction case, a clash with a white supremacist group quickly turns pedantry into a matter of life and death. The story I’d heard the most about beforehand was “Boys Go to Jupiter,” about a college girl who dons a Confederate flag bikini, not caring what message it sends to others in her dorm. It turns out she has history with a Black family, but has chosen to airbrush this experience out of her life.
There was only one story I didn’t care for, “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” about a celebrity who turns apologizing into performance art. Overall, this is a very strong collection I would recommend to readers of Brit Bennett and Raven Leilani, with some stories also reminding me of recent work by Curtis Sittenfeld and Mary South. I’ll be sure to seek out Evans’s previous book (also short stories), too.
With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.
The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster
The other week I was volunteering at our local community garden and looked up to see a dozen common swifts wheeling over the Kennet & Avon canal and picking off insects among the treetops. I hope this fellow Foster (for whom my husband was once confused on a nature conference attendee list) would be proud of me for pausing to gaze at the birds for a while. My impression of the author is as a misanthropic eccentric. A Renaissance man as well versed in law and theology as he is in natural history, he’s obsessed with swifts and ashamed of his own species: for looking down at their feet when they could be watching the skies; for the “pathological tidiness” that leaves swifts and so many other creatures no place to live.
The obsession began when he was eight years old and someone brought him a dead swift fledgling for his taxidermy hobby. Ever since, he’s dated the summer by their arrival. “It is always summer for them,” though, as his opening line has it. This monograph is structured chronologically. Much like Tim Dee does in Greenery, Foster follows the birds for a year: from their winter territory in Africa to the edges of Europe in spring and then to his very own Oxford street in high summer. When they leave, he’s bereft and ready to book a flight back to Africa.
Along the way, Foster delivers heaps of information: the fossil evidence of swifts, how they know where to migrate (we have various theories but don’t really know), their nesting habits and lifespan, and the typical fates of those individuals that don’t survive. But, thumbing his nose at his “ex-friend” (a closed-minded biologist he repeatedly, and delightfully, rails against), he refuses to stick to a just-the-facts approach. Acknowledging the risks of anthropomorphizing, he speaks of swifts as symbols of aspiration, of life lived with intensity. He believes that we can understand animal emotions analogously through our own, so that, inappropriate as such words might seem, we can talk about what birds hope and plan for. He scorns reductive ecosystem services lingo that defines creatures by what we get out of them.
Also like Dee, Foster quotes frequently from poetry. His prose is full of sharp turns of phrase and moments of whimsy and made me eager to try more of his work (I know the most about but have not yet read Being a Beast).
Swifts know the roar of lions better than the roar of the M25, the piping of hornbills better than the Nunc Dimittis of parish Evensong … Are memories of our eaves spiralling high above the Gulf of Guinea? … They don’t seem to prevaricate. One moment they’re there, the next they’re off, diving straight into the journey. It’s the way we should run into cold water.
As I’ve found with a number of Little Toller releases now (On Silbury Hill, Snow, Landfill), knowledge meets passion to create a book that could make an aficionado of the most casual of readers. Towards the close I was also reminded of Richard Smyth’s An Indifference of Birds: “When Homo sapiens has gone there will be lots of ideal swift holes in the decaying buildings we’ll leave behind.” It’s comforting to think of natural cycles continuing after we’re gone … but let’s start making the space for them now. Jonathan Pomroy’s black-and-white illustrations of swift behaviour only add to this short book’s charms.
With thanks to Little Toller Books for the free copy for review.
Waiting for Superman: One Family’s Struggle to Survive – and Cure – Chronic Fatigue Syndrome by Tracie White
Like Suzanne O’Sullivan’s books (most recently, The Sleeping Beauties), this is presented as an investigation into a medical mystery. White, a Stanford Medicine journalist, focuses on one family that has been indelibly changed by chronic fatigue syndrome – now linked with myalgic encephalomyelitis and termed ME/CFS for short. Whitney Dafoe was a world traveller and promising photographer before, in 2010, a diagnosis of ME/CFS explained his exhaustion and gastrointestinal problems. By the time White first met the family in 2016, the thirtysomething was bedbound in his parents’ home with a feeding tube, only able to communicate via gestures and rearranging Scrabble tiles. He couldn’t bear loud noises, or to be touched. At times he was nearly comatose.
Whitney’s father, Ron Davis, is a Stanford geneticist whose research has contributed to the Human Genome Project. He has devoted himself to studying ME/CFS, which affects 20 million people worldwide yet receives little research funding; he calls it “the last major disease we know nothing about.” Testing his son’s blood, he found a problem with the citric acid cycle that produces ATP, essential fuel for the body’s cells – proof that there was a physiological reason for Whitney’s condition. Frustratingly, though, a Stanford colleague who examined Whitney prescribed a psychological intervention. This is in line with the current standard of care for ME/CFS: a graded exercise regime (nigh on impossible for someone who can’t get out of bed) and cognitive behavioural therapy.
White delves into Whitney’s past, looking for clues to what could have triggered his illness (having mono in high school? a parasite he picked up in India?). She also goes back to the mid-1980s to consider the Lake Tahoe outbreak of ME/CFS, whose victims “looked too healthy to be sick and were repeatedly disbelieved.” The media called it “yuppie flu,” downplaying the extreme fatigue involved. White also meets Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit, who suffers from ME/CFS and managed to write her bestselling books from bed. Like Whitney, she only has a certain allotment of energy and mustn’t use it up too fast.
- A neat connection: Stephanie Land, author of Maid, was Whitney’s ex-girlfriend when he was 19 and living in Alaska; she wrote a Longreads article about their relationship.
- The title is from a Flaming Lips lyric and expresses Whitney’s trust in his dad’s ability to cure him; the U.S. title is The Puzzle Solver and the working title was The Invisible Patient.
With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Happy Feast of the Inauguration!
This is a feast day we made up simply because 2021 needs as many excuses for celebration as it can get. (Our next one will be in mid-February: Victoriana Fest, to celebrate the birthdays of a few of our Victorian heroes – Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, and Abraham Lincoln. Expect traditional, stodgy foods.) Later tonight we’ll be having an all-American menu of veggie burgers, sweet potato fries, random Californian beers we found at Waitrose, and pecan pie with ice cream. And Vice President Kamala Harris’s autobiography is on hold for me at the library to pick up later this month.
Since I still don’t have any new book reviews ready (though I have now finished seven books in 2021, which is something), here’s some more filler content based on annoying book traits I’ve been reminded of recently.
Some of My Bookish Pet Peeves
Long excerpts from other books, in the text or as epigraphs
I often skip these. I am reading this book to hear from you, the author, not the various philosophers and poets you admire. I want to learn from your expertise and thought processes, not someone else’s.
Exceptions: Tim Dee’s books are good examples since he weaves in copious quotations and allusions while still being eloquent in his own right. Emily Rapp’s The Still Point of the Turning World includes a lot of quotes, especially from poems, but I was okay with that because it was true to her experience of traditional thinking failing her in the face of her son’s impending death. Her two bereavement memoirs are thus almost like commonplace books on grief.
Long passages in italics
I sometimes see these used to indicate flashbacks in historical fiction. They are such a pain to read. I am very likely to skim these sections, or skip them altogether.
An exception: Thus far, the secondary storyline about the mice in The Charmed Wife by Olga Grushin, delivered all in italics, has been more compelling than the main storyline.
Huge jumps forward in time
These generally feel unnatural and sudden. Surely there’s a way to avoid them? And if they are truly necessary, I’d rather they were denoted by a new section with a time/date stamp. I’m not talking about alternating storylines from different time periods, as these are usually well signaled by a change of voice, but, e.g., a chapter picking up 15 years in the future.
Not being upfront about the fact that a book is ghostwritten
I have come to expect ghostwriters for political memoirs (Barack Obama’s being a rare exception), but in the last two years I’ve also come across a botanist’s memoir and a surgeon’s memoir that were ghostwritten but not announced as such – with the former I only found out via the acknowledgments at the end, and with the latter it was hidden away in the copyright information. I’d rather the title page came right out and said “by So and So” with “Ghostwriter Name.” (Anyone know whether Kamala had a ghostwriter?)
Matte covers or dustjackets that show fingerprints
Back in 2017 I wrote a whole post on the physical book features that I love or loathe. It was a good way of eliciting strong opinions from blog readers! (For example, some people hate deckle edge, whereas I love it.)
Something that bothers other readers but doesn’t faze me at all is a lack of speech marks, or the use of alternative indicators like dashes or indented paragraphs. I’m totally used to this in literary fiction. I even kind of like it. I’m also devoted to rarer forms of narration like the second person and the first person plural that might be a turn-off for some.
No, or very few, paragraphs, chapters, or other section breaks
How am I supposed to know where to stop reading and put my bookmark in?!
Whom is dead
Not just in books; in written English in general. And, even if this is inevitable, it still makes me sad.
Any pet peeves making you a grumpy reader these days?
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 (20+), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents than some. I also list some of my occasional reading coincidences on Twitter. The following are in chronological order.
- The Orkney Islands were the setting for Close to Where the Heart Gives Out by Malcolm Alexander, which I read last year. They showed up, in one chapter or occasional mentions, in The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange and The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, plus I read a book of Christmas-themed short stories (some set on Orkney) by George Mackay Brown, the best-known Orkney author. Gavin Francis (author of Intensive Care) also does occasional work as a GP on Orkney.
- The movie Jaws is mentioned in Mr. Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe and Landfill by Tim Dee.
- The Sámi people of the far north of Norway feature in Fifty Words for Snow by Nancy Campbell and The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.
- Twins appear in Mr. Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe and Tennis Lessons by Susannah Dickey. In Vesper Flights Helen Macdonald mentions that she had a twin who died at birth, as does a character in Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce. A character in The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard is delivered of twins, but one is stillborn. From Wrestling the Angel by Michael King I learned that Janet Frame also had a twin who died in utero.
- Fennel seeds are baked into bread in The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley. Later, “fennel rolls” (but I don’t know if that’s the seed or the vegetable) are served in Monogamy by Sue Miller.
- A mistress can’t attend her lover’s funeral in Here Is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan and Tennis Lessons by Susannah Dickey.
- A sudden storm drowns fishermen in a tale from Christmas Stories by George Mackay Brown and The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.
- Silver Spring, Maryland (where I lived until age 9) is mentioned in one story from To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss and is also where Peggy Seeger grew up, as recounted in her memoir First Time Ever. Then it got briefly mentioned, as the site of the Institute of Behavioral Research, in Livewired by David Eagleman.
- Lamb is served with beans at a dinner party in Monogamy by Sue Miller and Larry’s Party by Carol Shields.
- Trips to Madagascar in Landfill by Tim Dee and Lightning Flowers by Katherine E. Standefer.
- Hospital volunteering in My Year with Eleanor by Noelle Hancock and Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession.
- A Ronan is the subject of Emily Rapp’s memoir The Still Point of the Turning World and the author of Leonard and Hungry Paul (Hession).
- The Magic Mountain (by Thomas Mann) is discussed in Scattered Limbs by Iain Bamforth, The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp, and Snow by Marcus Sedgwick.
- Frankenstein is mentioned in The Biographer’s Tale by A.S. Byatt, The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp, and Snow by Marcus Sedgwick.
- Rheumatic fever and missing school to avoid heart strain in Foreign Correspondence by Geraldine Brooks and Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller. Janet Frame also had rheumatic fever as a child, as I discovered in her biography.
- Reading two novels whose titles come from The Tempest quotes at the same time: Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame and This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson.
- A character in Embers by Sándor Márai is nicknamed Nini, which was also Janet Frame’s nickname in childhood (per Wrestling the Angel by Michael King).
- A character loses their teeth and has them replaced by dentures in America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo and The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard.
Also, the latest cover trend I’ve noticed: layers of monochrome upturned faces. Several examples from this year and last. Abstract faces in general seem to be a thing.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
My top ‘discoveries’ of the year: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (4 books), Octavia E. Butler, Tim Dee (3 books each, read or in progress), and Louise Erdrich (2 books, one in progress).
Also the publisher Little Toller Books: I read four of their releases this year and they were fantastic.
The authors I read the most by this year: Carol Shields tops the list at 6 books (3 of these were rereads) thanks to my buddy reads with Buried in Print, followed by Paul Auster with 5 due to Annabel’s reading week in February, then Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with 4, and finally Anne Lamott with 3 comfort rereads.
Debut authors whose next work I’m most looking forward to: Naoise Dolan, Bess Kalb, Dara McAnulty, Mary South, Brandon Taylor, and Madeleine Watts
My proudest reading achievement: 16 rereads, which must be a record for me. Also, I always say I’m not really a short story person … and yet somehow I’ve read 19 collections of them this year (and one stand-alone story, plus another collection currently on the go)!
My proudest (non-reading) bookish achievement: Conceiving of and coordinating the Not the Wellcome Prize blog tour.
Five favorite blog posts of the year: Love, Etc. – Some Thematic Reading for Valentine’s Day; Polio and the Plague: Epidemics in Fiction; Thinking about the Future with David Farrier & Roman Krznaric (Hay Festival); Three Out-of-the-Ordinary Memoirs: Kalb, Machado, McGuinness; Asking What If? with Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld (I had a lot of fun putting the current post together, too!)
The bookish experience that most defined my year: Watching the Bookshop Band’s live shows from their living room. Between their Friday night lockdown performances and one-offs for festivals and book launches, I think I saw them play 33 times in 2020!
Biggest book read this year: Going by dimensions rather than number of pages, it was the oversize hardback The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris.
Smallest book read this year: Pocket-sized and only about 60 pages: No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg.
Oldest author read this year: Peggy Seeger was 82 when her memoir First Time Ever was published. I haven’t double-checked the age of every single author, but I think second place at 77 is a tie between debut novelist Arlene Heyman for Artifact and Sue Miller for Monogamy. (I don’t know how old Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren, the joint authors of The Consolation of Nature, are; Mynott may actually be the oldest overall, and their combined age is likely over 200.)
Youngest author read this year: You might assume it was 16-year-old Dara McAnulty with Diary of a Young Naturalist, which won the Wainwright Prize (as well as the An Post Irish Book Award for Newcomer of the Year, the Books Are My Bag Reader Award for Non-Fiction, and the Hay Festival Book of the Year!) … or Thunberg, above, who was 16 when her book came out. They were indeed tied for youngest until, earlier in December, I started reading The House without Windows (1927) by Barbara Newhall Follett, a bizarre fantasy novel published when the child prodigy was 12.
Most As on a book cover: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Most Zs on a book cover: The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi. I haven’t read it yet, but a neighbor passed on a copy she was getting rid of. It was nominated for both the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize.
The book that made me laugh the most: Kay’s Anatomy by Adam Kay
Books that made me cry: Writers and Lovers by Lily King, Monogamy by Sue Miller, First Time Ever by Peggy Seeger, and Catalogue Baby: A Memoir of (In)fertility by Myriam Steinberg (coming out in March 2021)
The book that put a song in my head every single time I looked at it, much less read it: I Am an Island by Tamsin Calidas (i.e., “I Am a Rock” by Simon and Garfunkel, which, as my husband pointed out, has very appropriate lyrics for 2020: “In a deep and dark December / I am alone / Gazing from my window to the streets below … Hiding in my room / Safe within my womb / I touch no one and no one touches me.”)
Best book club selections: Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale and The Wife by Meg Wolitzer tied for our highest score ever and gave us lots to talk about.
Most unexpectedly apt lines encountered in a book: “People came to church wearing masks, if they came at all. They’d sit as far from each other as they could.” (Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Describing not COVID-19 times but the Spanish flu.)
Most ironic lines encountered in a book: “September 12—In the ongoing hearings, Senator Joseph Biden pledges to consider the Bork nomination ‘with total objectivity,’ adding, ‘You have that on my honor not only as a senator, but also as the Prince of Wales.’ … October 1—Senator Joseph Biden is forced to withdraw from the Democratic presidential race when it is learned that he is in fact an elderly Norwegian woman.” (from the 1987 roundup in Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits – Biden has been on the U.S. political scene, and mocked, for 3.5+ decades!)
Best first line encountered this year: “And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters.” (Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf)
Best last lines encountered this year:
- “my childhood falls silently to the bottom of my memory, that library of the soul from which I will draw knowledge and experience for the rest of my life.” (Childhood by Tove Ditlevsen)
- “What I want to say is: I misremember all this so vividly it’s as if it only happened yesterday.” (Other People’s Countries: A Journey into Memory by Patrick McGuinness)
- “these friends would forever be her stitches, her scaffold, her ballast, her home.” (The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall)
My favorite title and cover combo of the year: A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth by Daniel Mason
The book I wish had gotten a better title and cover: Tennis Lessons by Susannah Dickey – I did enjoy this second-person novel about a young woman who is her own worst enemy, to the tune of 3.5 stars, but the title says nothing about it and the cover would have been a turnoff had I not won a signed copy from Mslexia.
The most unfortunate typos I found in published works: In English Pastoral by James Rebanks, “sewn” where he meant “sown” (so ironic in a book about farming!) versus, in Mr Wilder & Me by Jonathan Coe, “sown” in place of “sewn.” Also “impassible” where it should read “impassable” in Apeirogon by Colum McCann. This is what proofreaders like myself are for. We will save you from embarrassing homophone slips, dangling modifiers, and more!
The 2020 books that everybody else loved, but I didn’t: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, and Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
The year’s biggest disappointments: I don’t like to call anything “worst” (after all, I didn’t read anything nearly as awful as last year’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull), but my lowest ratings went to A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne and At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison, and I was disappointed that When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray was misleadingly marketed.
The downright strangest books I read this year: Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony, A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne, The House Without Windows by Barbara Newhall Follett, and The Child in Time by Ian McEwan
The people and themes that kept turning up in my reading: Rachel Carson and Henry David Thoreau; curlews and plagues; how we define and relate to history; childhood memoirs (seven of them).
Some statistics on my 2020 reading:
(Fiction reigned supreme this year! Last year my F:NF ratio was roughly 1:1. Poetry was down by ~5% this year compared to 2019.)
Male author: 34.1%
Female author: 63.8%
Nonbinary author: 0.3% (= 1 author, Jay Bernard)
Multiple genders (anthologies): 1.8%
(Women dominated by an extra ~5% this year over 2019. I’ve said this for four years now: I find it intriguing that female authors significantly outweigh male authors in my reading because I have never consciously set out to read more books by women; it must be a matter of being interested in the kinds of stories women tell and how they capture their experiences in nonfiction.)
Print books: 89.4%
(Almost exactly the same as last year. My e-book reading has been declining, partially because I’ve cut back on the reviewing gigs that involve only reading e-books and partially because I’ve done less traveling. Increasingly, I prefer to sit down with a big stack of print books.)
Books by BIPOC: 14.7%
Literature in translation: 6.6%
(Down from last year’s 7.2%; how did this happen?! This will be something to address in 2021.)
Where my books came from for the whole year:
- Free print or e-copy from publisher: 25.6%
- Public library: 25.6%
- Free (giveaways, The Book Thing of Baltimore, the free mall bookshop, etc.): 14.9%
- Secondhand purchase: 11.6%
- Downloaded from NetGalley, Edelweiss or Project Gutenberg: 6.7%
- New purchase (sometimes at a bargain price): 6.3%
- Gifts: 5.5%
- University library: 3.8%
I promised to scale back on review copies this year, and I did: last year they accounted for nearly 37% of my reading. My library reading was higher than last year’s, despite the challenges of lockdowns; my e-book reading decreased in general. I bought more than twice as many new books as usual this year, and read lots that I either bought secondhand or got for free.
Number of unread print books in the house: 435
At the end of last year this figure was at 440 after lots of stock-ups from the free mall bookshop, which has since closed. So even though it might look like I have only read five books of my own, I have in fact read loads from my shelves this year … but also acquired many more books, both new and secondhand.
In any case, the overall movement has been downward, so I’m calling it a win!
Complementing yesterday’s list of my top fiction and poetry reads of 2020, I have chosen my six favorite nonfiction works of the year. Last year’s major themes were bodies, archaeology, and the environmental crisis; this year’s are adjacent: anatomy, nature, deep time, death, and questions of inheritance, both within families and more broadly. What will we leave behind? As usual, these topics reflect my own interests but also, I think, something of the zeitgeist.
Let the countdown begin!
- Kay’s Anatomy: A Complete (and Completely Disgusting) Guide to the Human Body by Adam Kay: Think of this as a juvenile, graphic novel version of Bill Bryson’s The Body; that’s exactly how thorough, accessible, and entertaining it is. Kay ditches his usual raunchiness and plumps for innocuous forms of humor: puns, dad jokes, toilet humor, running gags and so on. But where it counts – delivering vital information about not smoking, mental health, puberty, and facing the death of someone you love – Kay is completely serious, and always lets young readers know when it’s essential to tell an adult or ask a doctor. Henry Paker’s silly, grotesque illustrations are the perfect accompaniment.
- Sign Here If You Exist and Other Essays by Jill Sisson Quinn: The naturalist’s second essay collection considers themes of connection and change. Quinn regrets the afterlife prospect she lost along with her childhood Christian faith, while adopting a baby leads her to question notions of belonging and inheritance. Whether she’s studying wasps and reptiles or musing on family and faith, she knits her subjects together with meticulous attention. Putting self and nature under the microscope, she illuminates both. (Reviewed for Foreword.)
- Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils by David Farrier: Blending human and planetary history, environmental realism and literary echoes, Farrier, a lecturer in English literature, tells the story of the human impact on the Earth. Each chapter is an intricate blend of fact, experience, and story. We’ll leave behind massive road networks, remnants of coastal megacities, plastics, carbon and methane in the permafrost, the fossilized Great Barrier Reef, nuclear waste, and jellyfish-dominated oceans. An invaluable window onto the deep future.
- Greenery: Journeys in Springtime by Tim Dee: From the Cape of Good Hope to the Arctic Circle, Dee tracks the spring as it travels north. From first glimpse to last gasp, moving between his homes in two hemispheres, he makes the season last nearly half the year. His main harbingers are migrating birds, starting with swallows. The book is steeped in allusions and profound thinking about deep time and what it means to be alive in an era when nature’s rhythms are becoming distorted. A fresh, masterful model of how to write about nature.
- Dear Life: A Doctor’s Story of Love and Loss by Rachel Clarke: I’ve read so many doctors’ memoirs and books about death that it takes a truly special one to stand out. Clarke specializes in palliative medicine and alternates her patients’ stories with her own in a natural way. A major theme is her relationship with her doctor father and his lessons of empathy and dedication. She wrote in the wake of his death from cancer – an experience that forced her to practice what she preaches as a hospice doctor: focus on quality of life rather than number of days. This passionate and practical book encourages readers to be sure they and their relatives have formalized their wishes for end-of-life care and what will happen after their death.
- Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald: Any doubt that Macdonald could write a worthy follow-up to H Is for Hawk evaporates instantly. Though these essays were written for various periodicals and anthologies and range in topic from mushroom-hunting to deer–vehicle collisions and in scope from deeply researched travel pieces to one-page reminiscences, they form a coherent whole. Equally reliant on argument and epiphany, the book has more to say about human–animal interactions in one of its essays than some whole volumes manage. As you might expect, birds are a recurring theme. Her final lines are always breath-taking. I’d rather read her writing on any subject than almost any other author’s.
(Books not pictured were read digitally, or have already gone back to the library.)
What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?
28th: Library Checkout
29th: Runners-up from 2020 (all genres)
30th: Best backlist reads
31st: Random superlatives and some statistics
The end of the year is fast approaching, and one of my main reading goals is to follow through on all the rest of the review books I’ve received from publishers. I have another handful on the go, including a few holiday- and snow-themed ones I’ll review together.
Today, I have a history-rich travelogue that explores the Atlantic coast of Britain and Ireland, a memoir by an Anglican priest who has transitioned and experienced chronic illness, and a humorous, offbeat novel about finding the real Ireland.
The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel by David Gange (2019)
This was one of the 2020 Wainwright Prize finalists. Having now experienced the entire nature writing shortlist, I stick with my early September pronouncement that it should have won. I was consistently impressed with the intricacy of the interdisciplinary approach. While kayaking down the western coast of the British Isles and Ireland, Gange delved into the folklore, geology, history, local language and wildlife of each region and island group. From the extreme north of Scotland at Muckle Flugga to the southwest tip of Cornwall, he devoted a month to each Atlantic-facing area, often squeezing in expeditions between commitments as a history lecturer at Birmingham.
Gange’s thesis is that the sea has done more to shape Britain and Ireland than we generally recognize, and that to be truly representative history books must ascribe the same importance to coastal communities that they do to major inland cities. Everywhere he goes he meets locals, trawls regional archives and museums, and surveys the art and literature (especially poetry) that a place has produced. Though dense with information, the book is a rollicking travelogue that – in words no less than in the two sections of stunning colour photographs – captures the elation and fear of an intrepid solo journey. He hunkers on snowy cliffs in his sleeping bag and comes face to face with otters, seals and seabirds in his kayak; at the mercy of the weather, he has deep respect for the Atlantic waves’ power.
I enjoyed revisiting places I’ve seen in person (Shetland, the Orkney Islands, Skomer) and getting a taste of others I’ve not been to but would like to go (like the Western Isles and the west coast of Ireland). Gange’s allusive writing reminds me of Tim Dee’s and Adam Nicolson’s, and Madeleine Bunting’s Love of Country is a similar read I also loved.
With thanks to William Collins for the free copy for review.
Dazzling Darkness: Gender, sexuality, illness and God by Rachel Mann (2012; 2020)
I’ve so enjoyed discovering Rev. Rachel Mann’s work: poetry collection A Kingdom of Love, Advent devotional In the Bleak Midwinter, and novel The Gospel of Eve. This is a revised edition of her memoir, which is less an autobiographical blow-by-blow of becoming a trans priest in the Church of England than it is a vibrant theological meditation based around keywords like loneliness, reconciliation and vocation. She reflects on the apparent contradictions of her life: she was a typical boy who loved nothing more than toy guns, and then a young man obsessed with drugs and guitars; as ‘Nick’, she was married to a woman at the time of coming out, but continued to have relationships with women after transitioning and undergoing reassignment surgery, so considers herself a lesbian.
Ambiguities like this make us uncomfortable, Mann notes, but change and loss, and making the best of impossible situations, are all a part of the human condition. I appreciated how she characterizes herself as a perennial beginner: having to face the world anew after the second adolescence of becoming a woman as well as after the end of a long-term relationship and the last in a series of hospitalizations for severe Crohn’s disease.
While I’ve read other trans memoirs (Amateur by Thomas Page McBee and Conundrum by Jan Morris), this is my first from a Christian perspective, apart from the essays in The Book of Queer Prophets. Mann describes her early faith as intense but shallow, like falling in love; later it became deeper but darker as she followed Jesus’s path of suffering. Ministry has been a gift but is not without challenges: At synod meetings she is unsure whether to speak out or remain silent, but at least she bears witness to the presence of trans people in the Church.
With thanks to Wild Goose Publications for the free copy for review.
Scenes of a Graphic Nature by Caroline O’Donoghue (2020)
Charlotte “Charlie” Regan is a 29-year-old filmmaker based in London. Her father has had cancer on and off for four years, but he got his ‘survivor’ label in a different way: when he was a child on an island off the western coast of Ireland, his teacher and 18 classmates died of carbon monoxide poisoning from the faulty secondhand oil burner in the schoolhouse; he was the only one left alive. Although her film commemorates this story, Charlie has never actually been to Ireland, so an invitation to Cork Film Festival is the perfect opportunity to see the place before her father dies. Travelling with her is her former best friend and roommate, Laura Shingle. There’s sexual tension between these two: Charlie is a lesbian, but Laura is determined to think of herself as straight even though she and Charlie would occasionally share a bed. To prove herself, Laura goes too far the other way, making homophobic comments about strangers.
If initially Charlie thinks this trip to Ireland will be about shamrock-green nostalgia, she soon snaps out of her idealism as she has to face some tough truths about the film and her family’s history. Charlie is a companionable narrator, but, while I enjoyed the pub scenes and found some of the one-liners very funny (“Everything in our room is a faint brown, as though it were daubed very gently by a child with a teabag” and “He had an X-ray and there’s legumes all over it.” / “Legumes? Do you mean lesions?”), I was underwhelmed overall. My interest peaked at the halfway point and waned thereafter. This is one I might recommend to fans of Caoilinn Hughes.
With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
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 (20+), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents than some. I also list these occasional reading coincidences on Twitter. (Earlier incidents from the year are here, here, and here.)
- Eel fishing plays a role in First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan and The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson.
- A girl’s body is found in a canal in First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan and Carrying Fire and Water by Deirdre Shanahan.
- Curlews on covers by Angela Harding on two of the most anticipated nature books of the year, English Pastoral by James Rebanks and The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn (and both came out on September 3rd).
- Thanksgiving dinner scenes feature in 666 Charing Cross Road by Paul Magrs and Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid.
- A gay couple has the one man’s mother temporarily staying on the couch in 666 Charing Cross Road by Paul Magrs and Memorial by Bryan Washington.
- I was reading two “The Gospel of…” titles at once, The Gospel of Eve by Rachel Mann and The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson (and I’d read a third earlier in the year, The Gospel of Trees by Apricot Irving).
- References to Dickens’s David Copperfield in The Cider House Rules by John Irving and Mudbound by Hillary Jordan.
- The main female character has three ex-husbands, and there’s mention of chin-tightening exercises, in The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville and The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer.
- A Welsh hills setting in On the Red Hill by Mike Parker and Along Came a Llama by Ruth Janette Ruck.
- Rachel Carson and Silent Spring are mentioned in A Year on the Wing by Tim Dee, The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange, English Pastoral by James Rebanks and The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson. SS was also an influence on Losing Eden by Lucy Jones, which I read earlier in the year.
- There’s nude posing for a painter or photographer in The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, How to Be Both by Ali Smith, and Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth.
- A weird, watery landscape is the setting for The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey and Piranesi by Susanna Clarke.
- Bawdy flirting between a customer and a butcher in The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville and Just Like You by Nick Hornby.
- Corbels (an architectural term) mentioned in The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville and Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver.
- Near or actual drownings (something I encounter FAR more often in fiction than in real life, just like both parents dying in a car crash) in The Idea of Perfection, The Glass Hotel, The Gospel of Eve, Wakenhyrst, and Love and Other Thought Experiments.
- Nematodes are mentioned in The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson and Real Life by Brandon Taylor.
- A toxic lake features in The New Wilderness by Diane Cook and Real Life by Brandon Taylor (both were also on the Booker Prize shortlist).
- A black scientist from Alabama is the main character in Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi and Real Life by Brandon Taylor.
- Graduate studies in science at the University of Wisconsin, and rivals sabotaging experiments, in Artifact by Arlene Heyman and Real Life by Brandon Taylor.
- A female scientist who experiments on rodents in Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi and Artifact by Arlene Heyman.
- There are poems about blackberrying in Dearly by Margaret Atwood, Passport to Here and There by Grace Nichols, and How to wear a skin by Louisa Adjoa Parker. (Nichols’s “Blackberrying Black Woman” actually opens with “Everyone has a blackberry poem. Why not this?” – !)
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
It’s not November without a New Networks for Nature conference. Originally 2020’s was scheduled to take place in Norwich in July; it was then postponed to the usual November in hopes of an in-person meeting, but ultimately had to be online this year, like so much else. This was my sixth time taking part in this interdisciplinary gathering of authors, academics, and activists (I’ve also written about the 2015, 2016, 2018, and 2019 conferences). The UEA organizers, Jean McNeil and Jos Smith, with New Networks stalwart John Fanshawe, did an excellent job of creating three virtual events for people to engage with from home.
Two pre-recorded panels brought together writers from different fields to reflect on nature literature and the environmental crisis. First up was “New Perspectives on Nature Writing,” picking up on a perennial conference theme.
I was delighted to hear Jessica J. Lee speak – I’ve reviewed both of her nature-infused memoirs, Turning and Two Trees Make a Forest, and in last year’s feedback I suggested her as a future speaker (I’m sure I’m not solely responsible!). After a PhD in environmental history, she moved into more personal writing. Questions of home, place, language, and identity were natural for her as a third-generation migrant. She initially felt alone as a person of colour in nature writing, but when she founded the Willowherb Review she quickly learned that it wasn’t that POC weren’t out there; it was that they did not have opportunities to publish – she has had 300+ submissions per issue to the online literary magazine, which welcomes work from all genres by authors of colour.
Also on the panel were Mona Arshi, a Punjabi poet based in London, and McNeil, a creative writing professor. Arshi has been a human rights lawyer and is the current poet-in-residence at Cley Marshes, Norfolk, in association with the Wildlife Trusts and UEA. She has had to try to absorb the landscape via video and sound recordings since COVID-19 has limited her in-person visits. She read a sonnet she wrote about her last trip there in September. All three panellists spoke about land being in some ways beyond language, though.
Jean McNeil’s Ice Diaries is a memoir of a year in residence with the British Antarctic Survey, a very male, scientific world. Antarctica is “no one’s country,” she remarked, though it’s the fifth-largest continent; it’s as if the land has no memory of people. She observed that it’s impossible to write about Antarctica without giving a sense of the journey (so she includes travel writing) and mentioning death. Raised without technology by back-to-the-land parents in Canada, McNeil has been active in the environmental movement in Brazil, Central America, and Africa (as a safari guide). Ice Diaries was already on my TBR, but I’m impressed by her breadth of experience and want to explore her varied work.
The second panel, “States of Emergency,” included an academic, a playwright, the CEO of an environmental charity, and a philosopher and activist. I was intrigued by UEA’s Rebecca Tillett’s brief opening address about contemporary North American indigenous responses to climate change in fiction (her research speciality). Her primary example was the Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice, a postapocalyptic thriller in which the Wendigo, a figure from First Nations folklore, embodies capitalism as it consumes people with greed.
UEA-based playwright Steve Waters is planning outdoor theatre projects at nature reserves. James Thornton, the CEO of ClientEarth, spoke about starting with the science, the “grammar of the Earth.” His team has prevented new coal-fired stations in Europe and encouraged NGOs in China to sue polluting companies. Philosophy professor Rupert Reed was, until recently, an Extinction Rebellion spokesman. He noted that the climate emergency feels too slow and too long – a marathon, not a sprint; people don’t realize how profoundly our way of life and future are threatened. Alas, COVID-19 is not having the desired effect of turning people’s attention to the greater, ongoing emergency. He counselled acceptance and adaptation, stating that hope and action must go hand in hand. Thornton recalled the Dalai Lama telling him early in his career that he needed to get beyond anger because angry people don’t come up with viable solutions. The anger has to be turned into a positive vision.
There were live Q&A sessions for these two panels, but we weren’t able to watch. However, we did attend Saturday’s live keynote event featuring Tim Dee and Kathleen Jamie, two of the finest nature writers working today. Speaking from Cape Town, where he has been stranded since the start of the pandemic, Dee said that his current writing is about birds that are new to him but familiar to his neighbours. He explained that he admires and understands the world through birds, “who carry no bags or passports and are at home wherever they are.” In his work he explores how we are “made by places,” often returning to a place to reprocess his experiences there (e.g. Hungary in his latest book, Greenery). His notebooks, which are often just lists of birds seen, help him to “reinflate” a place when writing about it later.
Jamie agreed that her work also has this quality of “afterwardness” – finding the meaning of an experience long after the moment. She came across as down-to-earth, shrugging off McNeil’s question about transcendence and remarking that a sign above her desk reads “Nay narrative!” What is left for a lyric poet who loses faith in lyricism? For Jamie, the answer is prose poetry, as in “Tree on the Hill,” recently published in the LRB. Her poetry has always been local but her longform nonfiction has only ever come from other places, so while she’s been stuck in Fife she’s been unable to progress. But she never has any idea of what she’s writing, she said; she and her editor work out a theme once a whole book exists (for instance, the linking metaphor for Surfacing – unearthing archaeological evidence and memories).
Dee called himself a materialist – “no ideas but in things” – with language being what we clothe things in. He always double-checks his (sometimes elaborate) metaphors by putting them back onto a bird to ensure they fit. Jamie said she used to believe language was humans’ “fall” and would try to maintain a “pre-language state” for as long as possible every morning, but ultimately she changed her mind, accepting that language is what makes us human; it’s what we do. She acknowledges that nature writing like hers is not going to achieve things in the way that environmental activism can, but she hopes that bringing non-human creatures into the culture (as if it were an ark) can be a way of advocating for them all the same.
A brilliant programme, capped off with some visual and musical delights: “Where Song Began,” a one-hour cello and violin response/accompaniment to Australian birdsong created by Simone Slattery and Anthony Albrecht in January; and a brief virtual tour of the Nature Writing Collection in the British Archive for Contemporary Writing at UEA, which includes the papers of the late Roger Deakin and of (alive and kicking!) Mark Cocker, a UEA graduate. The archive contains Deakin’s drafts and pitches (Waterlog’s working title was “The Waters of the Wondrous Isle,” and he imagined it as an aquatic Rural Rides), photos, and even his Speedo bathing suit; along with Cocker’s field notebooks and fan mail.