Tag Archives: Tracy Chevalier

Best Backlist Reads of the Year

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 even decades ago. These 16 selections, in alphabetical order within genre, together with my Best of 2022 post (coming up tomorrow), make up the top 9.5% or so of my reading for the year. Three of the below were rereads.

 

Fiction

First, a special mention for this trio:

Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff

Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

It’s unusual for me to fall so wholeheartedly for short stories. I intended to write up these three “Birds” collections as part of my short story focus in September but ultimately decided to spend more time with the latter two (and then fell ill with Covid before I could write them up, so look out for my full reviews early in the new year). The word from the title is incidental, really; the books do have a lot in common in terms of theme and tone, though. The environment, fidelity and motherhood are recurring elements. The warmth and psychological depth are palpable. Each story feels fleshed out enough that I would happily read an entire novel set in its world, but also such that it is complete unto itself. Two of these writers (Bergman and Moore) are best known for short stories; the third, to my mind, should be.

 

Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier: I’ve read all of Chevalier’s novels and always thought of this one as my favourite. A reread didn’t change that. I loved the neat structure that bookends the action between the death of Queen Victoria and the death of Edward VII, and the focus on funerary customs (with Highgate Cemetery a major setting) and women’s rights.

 

Julia and the Shark by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: Julia and her parents are on an island adventure to Unst, in the north of Shetland, where her father will keep the lighthouse for a summer and her mother, a marine biologist, will search for the Greenland shark. Hargrave treats the shark as both a real creature and a metaphor for all that lurks – all that we fear and don’t understand. Beautifully illustrated, too; a modern children’s classic in the making.

 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson: A brooding character study of two sisters isolated by their scandalous family history and the suspicion of the townspeople. I loved the offbeat voice and unreliable narration, and the way the Blackwood house is both a refuge and a prison for the sisters. Who is protecting whom, and from what? There are a lot of great scenes, all so discrete that I could see this working very well as a play

 

Foster by Claire Keegan: A delicate, heart-rending novella about a deprived young Irish girl sent to live with rural relatives for one pivotal summer. It bears all the hallmarks of a book several times its length: a convincing and original voice, rich character development, an evocative setting, just enough backstory, psychological depth, conflict and sensitive treatment of difficult themes like poverty and neglect. I finished the one-sitting read in a flood of tears.

 

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan: One good man’s small act of rebellion is a way of standing up to the injustice of the Magdalen Laundries, a church-sanctioned system that must have seemed too big to tackle. Keegan fits so much into so few pages, including Bill working out who his father was and deciding what to make of the middle of his life. Like Foster, this is set in the 1980s but feels timeless. Absolutely beautiful.

 

The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius: Sally Jones is a ship’s engineer who journeys from Portugal to India to clear her captain’s name when he is accused of murder. She’s also a gorilla. This was the perfect rip-roaring adventure story to read at sea (on the ferry to Spain in May); the twisty plot and larger-than-life characters who aid or betray Sally Jones kept the nearly 600 pages turning quickly.

 

Poetry

Honorifics by Cynthia Miller: Miller is a Malaysian American poet in Edinburgh. The themes of her debut include living between countries and feeling like an exile versus finding a sense of home. There’s much variety here, and so many beautiful lines and evocative images. Miller incorporates a lot of unusual structures, some of them traditional forms and others freer: a numbered list, columns, dictionary definitions or prose paragraphs. Flora and fauna references plus a consideration of the expat life meant this was custom made for me.

 

Nonfiction

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown: The University of Washington rowing team in general, and Joe Rantz in particular, were unlikely champions. Boatbuilding and rowing both come across as admirable skills involving hard physical labour, scientific precision and an artist’s mind. All along, Brown subtly weaves in the historical background: Depression-era Seattle with its shantytowns, and the rise of Hitler in Germany. A classic underdog story.

 

My Life in Houses by Margaret Forster: Having become a homeowner for the first time earlier this year, I was interested in how an author would organize their life around the different places they’ve lived. The early chapters about being a child in Carlisle are compelling in terms of cultural history; later on she observes gentrification in London, and her home becomes a haven for her during her cancer treatment.

 

Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie: A reread started on our July trip to the Outer Hebrides. I’d forgotten how closely Jamie’s interests align with my own: Scotland and its islands, birds, the prehistoric, museums, archaeology. I particularly appreciated “Three Ways of Looking at St Kilda,” but everything she writes is profound: “if we are to be alive and available for joy and discovery, then it’s as an animal body, available for cancer and infection and pain.”

 

Reflections from the North Country by Sigurd F. Olson: Olson was a well-known environmental writer in his time (through 1970s), also serving as president of the National Parks Association. This collection of passionate, philosophically oriented essays about the state of nature places him in the vein of Aldo Leopold – before-their-time conservationists. He ponders solitude, wilderness and human nature, asking what is primal in us.

 

Smile by Sarah Ruhl: These warm and beautifully observed autobiographical essays stem from the birth of her twins and the slow-burning medical crises that followed. Shortly after delivery, Ruhl developed Bell’s palsy, a partial paralysis of the face. Having a lopsided face, grimacing and squinting when she tried to show expression – it was a minor problem in the grand scheme of things, yet provoked questions about whether the body equates to identity.

 

Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C. Slaght: Slaght has become an expert on the Blakiston’s fish owl during nearly two decades of fieldwork in the far east of Russia. Slaght thinks of Russia as his second home, and you can sense his passion for the fish owl and for conservation in general. Amid the science, this is a darn good story, full of bizarre characters. Top-notch nature and travel writing; a ride along on a consequential environmentalist quest.

Some of the best backlist reads I own and could lay my hands on.

 

What were your best backlist reads this year?

Some 2022 Reading Superlatives

Longest book read this year: To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara (720 pages)

Shortest book read this year: Everything’s Changing by Chelsea Stickle (37 pages)

Authors I read the most by this year: Nicola Colton (4), Jakob Wegelius (3), Tove Jansson and Sarah Ruhl (2)

 

Publishers I read the most from: (Besides the ubiquitous Penguin and its many imprints) Canongate, Carcanet and Picador – which is part of the Pan Macmillan group.

 

An author I ‘discovered’ and now want to read everything by: Matthew Vollmer

 

My overall top discovery of the year: The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius

My proudest non-bookish achievement: Giving a eulogy at my mom’s funeral (and even getting some laughs).

 

The books that made me laugh the most: Revenge of the Librarians by Tom Gauld, Undoctored by Adam Kay, Forget Me Not by Sophie Pavelle, Blurb Your Enthusiasm by Louise Willder

 

The books that made me cry the most: Foster by Claire Keegan, The Hero of This Book by Elizabeth McCracken

Most useful fact gleaned from a book: To convert a Celsius temperature to Fahrenheit, double it and add 30. It’s a rough estimate, but it generally works! I learned this from, of all places, The Hero of This Book by Elizabeth McCracken.

 

Best book club selections: The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier, Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Best first line encountered this year: “First, I got myself born.” (Demon Copperhead, Barbara Kingsolver)

 

Best last lines encountered this year:

  • “Darling, that’s what life’s for – to take risks.” (Up at the Villa, W. Somerset Maugham)
  • “The defiant soul of the city doesn’t die. It stays alive, right below the surface, pressing up against the boot heels, crouched like the life inside an egg, the force that drives the flower, forever reaching for its next breath.” (Feral City, Jeremiah Moss)
  • “Until the future, whatever it was going to be.” (This Time Tomorrow, Emma Straub)

 

A book that put a song in my head every time I picked it up: Heaven Is a Place on Earth by Adrian Shirk

Shortest book title encountered: O (a poetry collection by Zeina Hashem Beck), followed by XO (a memoir by Sara Rauch)

 

Best 2022 book title: I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokbokki by Baek Se-hee (No, I haven’t read it and I’m unlikely to, not having had great luck with recent translations of work by Japanese and Korean women.)

 

Favourite title and cover combo of the year: Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens

Most fun cover serendipity: Two books I read in 2022 featured Matisse cut-outs.

Biggest disappointment: The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki ( for me)

 

Two 2022 books that everyone was in raptures about but me: Trust by Hernan Diaz and Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (both for me)

A 2022 book that everyone was reading but I decided not to: The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell – since I thought Hamnet her weakest work, I’m not eager to try more historical fiction by her.

 

A 2022 book I can’t read: (No matter how good the reviews might be, because of the title) I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy

 

The worst books I read this year: The Reactor by Nick Blackburn, Treacle Walker by Alan Garner, Anthropology by Dan Rhodes, Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra (1-star ratings are extremely rare from me; these were this year’s four)

 

The downright strangest book I read this year: The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay

Book Serendipity, May to Mid-August 2022

This is a regular feature of mine every few months. I call it “Book Serendipity” when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something in common – the more bizarre, the better. Because I usually have 20–30 books on the go at once, I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. The following are in roughly chronological order.

  • Not only did the opening scene of All Down Darkness Wide by Seán Hewitt share with Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier a graveyard setting, but more specifically an angel statue whose head falls off.
  • SPOILER: {The protagonist has a backstory of a mother who drowned, presumably by suicide, in Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford and The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.}

 

  • I started reading two e-books on the same day that had Taylor Swift lyrics as an epigraph: Bad Vibes Only by Nora McInerny and Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta. I have never knowingly heard a Taylor Swift song.

 

  • Rescuing insects from a swimming pool in Fledgling by Hannah Bourne-Taylor and In the Quaker Hotel by Helen Tookey.

 

  • Reading two feminist works of historical fiction in which the protagonist refuses to marry (even though it’s true love) at the same time: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus and Madwoman by Louisa Treger (about Nellie Bly).
  • Two London-set books featuring a daughter named Mabel, one right after the other: This Is Not a Pity Memoir by Abi Morgan and Bridget Jones: Mad about the Boy by Helen Fielding.

 

  • In Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers I came across the fact that McCullers married the same man twice. Just a few days before, I’d seen that same odd fact about Hilary Mantel in her Wikipedia bio.

 

  • A character named Clodagh in Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden and “Rainbows” by Joseph O’Neill, one of the entries in The Best Short Stories 2022: The O. Henry Prize Winners.

 

  • Reading two books about an English author who died young of TB at the same time: Tenderness by Alison MacLeod (about D.H. Lawrence) and Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit.
  • Reading two novels that mention the shipwreck of the Batavia at the same time: The Night Ship by Jess Kidd (where it’s a major element) and Cloudstreet by Tim Winton (just a tiny reference that nonetheless took me aback). According to Wikipedia, “Batavia was a ship of the Dutch East India Company. Built in Amsterdam in 1628 as the company’s new flagship, she sailed that year on her maiden voyage for Batavia, capital of the Dutch East Indies. On 4 June 1629, Batavia was wrecked on the Houtman Abrolhos, a chain of small islands off the western coast of Australia.”

 

  • David Lack’s Swifts in a Tower is mentioned in Swifts and Us by Sarah Gibson (no surprise there) but also in From the Hedgerows by Lew Lewis.

 

  • There’s a child nicknamed Chub in Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson and Cloudstreet by Tim Winton (which both also at least started off being buddy reads with Marcie of Buried in Print!).

 

  • Two novels in quick succession in which the discovery of a horse skeleton sparks the action in one story line: The Last Wild Horses by Maja Lunde and (coming up soon – I have a library reservation placed) Horse by Geraldine Brooks.
  • Unst, Shetland as a setting in Orchid Summer by Jon Dunn, Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, Julia and the Shark by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, and Where the Wildflowers Grow by Leif Bersweden.

 

  • “Quiet as it’s kept” (a quote from the opening line of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye) is borrowed in a poem in No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies by Julian Aguon and one in the anthology American Wildflowers: A Literary Field Guide, ed. Susan Barba (“A Siren Patch of Indigo” by Cyrus Cassells).

 

  • I didn’t recognize the word “swingeing” in The Reindeer Hunters by Lars Mytting and encountered it again the same day in Brief Lives by Anita Brookner before I had a chance to look it up (it means extreme or severe).

 

  • A 1950s setting and a main character who is a man with missing fingers/arm in Cloudstreet by Tim Winton and The Young Accomplice by Benjamin Wood.

What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?

Six Degrees of Separation: True History of the Kelly Gang to Geek Love

This month we begin with True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. (See also Kate’s opening post.) I feel like I still have an unread copy, but won’t find out now until after we move. I’ve read several of Carey’s novels; my favourite by far was Parrot and Olivier in America, a delightful picaresque set in the early 19th century.

#1 Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes was one of my most-admired novels in my twenties, though I didn’t like it quite as much when I reread it in 2020. Funnily enough, his new novel has a bird in the title, too: Elizabeth Finch. I’m two-thirds through and it’s feeling like warmed-up leftovers of The Sense of an Ending with extra history and philosophy on the side.

 

#2 My latest reread was Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier, for book club. I’ve read all of her novels and always thought of this one as my favourite. A reread didn’t change that, so I rated it 5 stars. I love the neat structure that bookends the action between the death of Queen Victoria and the death of Edward VII, and the focus on funerary customs (with Highgate Cemetery a major setting) and women’s rights is right up my street.

 

#3 Another novel featuring an angel that I read for a book club was The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox. It’s set in Burgundy, France in 1808, when an angel rescues a drunken winemaker from a fall. All I can remember is that it was bizarre and pretty terrible, so I’m glad I didn’t realize it was the same author and went ahead with a read of The Absolute Book.

 

#4 The winemaking theme takes me to my next selection, Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker, which I read on a trip to the Netherlands and Belgium in 2017. Bosker, previously a technology journalist, gave herself a year and a half to learn everything she could about wine in hopes of passing the Court of Master Sommeliers exam. The result is such a fun blend of science, memoir and encounters with people who are deadly serious about wine.

 

#5 I have so often heard the title The Dork of Cork by Chet Raymo, though I don’t know why because I can’t think of an acquaintance who’s actually read or reviewed it. The synopsis: “When Frank, an Irish dwarf, writes a personal memoir, he moves from dark isolation into the public eye. This luminous journey is marked by memories of his lonely childhood, secrets of his doomed young mother, and his passion for a woman who is as unreachable as the stars.” Sounds a bit like A Prayer for Owen Meany.

 

#6 Another novel with a dwarf: Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, about a carnival of freaks that tours U.S. backwaters. I have meant to read this for many years and was even convinced that I owned a copy, but on my last few trips to the States I’ve not been able to find it in one of the boxes in my sister’s basement. Hmmm.

To the extent that we have ‘a song,’ “Geek Love” by Nerina Pallot would be it for my husband and me. A line from the chorus is “We’re geeks, but we know this is love.” It’s from her breakout album Fires, which came out in 2005 and was almost constant listening fodder for us while we were engaged. We’ve seen her live three times and she always plays this one.

 

From a gang via dorks to geeks, linked by the fact of books being stuck in (Schrödinger’s) boxes. Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.) Next month’s starting point is Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason — perfect given that it’s the book my book group has been sent to discuss as we shadow this year’s Women’s Prize.

Have you read any of my selections? Tempted by any you didn’t know before?

Book Serendipity, March to April 2022

This is a bimonthly feature of mine. I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something in common – the more bizarre, the better. Because I usually 20–30 books on the go at once, I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. The following are in roughly chronological order.

(I always like hearing about your bookish coincidences, too! Laura had what she thought must be the ultimate Book Serendipity when she reviewed two novels with the same setup: Groundskeeping by Lee Cole and Last Resort by Andrew Lipstein.)

  • The same sans serif font is on Sea State by Tabitha Lasley and Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor – both released by 4th Estate. I never would have noticed had they not ended up next to each other in my stack one day. (Then a font-alike showed up in my TBR pile, this time from different publishers, later on: What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad and When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo.)
  • Kraftwerk is mentioned in The Facebook of the Dead by Valerie Laws and How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu.

 

  • The fact that bacteria sometimes form biofilms is mentioned in Hybrid Humans by Harry Parker and Slime by Susanne Wedlich.
  • The idea that when someone dies, it’s like a library burning is repeated in The Reactor by Nick Blackburn and In the River of Songs by Susan Jackson.

 

  • Espresso martinis are consumed in If Not for You by Georgina Lucas and Wahala by Nikki May.

 

  • Prosthetic limbs turn up in Groundskeeping by Lee Cole, The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki, and Hybrid Humans by Harry Parker.
  • A character incurs a bad cut to the palm of the hand in After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell and The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki – I read the two scenes on the same day.

 

  • Catfish is on the menu in Groundskeeping by Lee Cole and in one story of Antipodes by Holly Goddard Jones.

 

  • Reading two novels with “Paradise” in the title (and as the last word) at the same time: Paradise by Toni Morrison and To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara.

 

  • Reading two books by a Davidson at once: Damnation Spring by Ash and Tracks by Robyn.

 

  • There’s a character named Elwin in The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade and one called Elvin in The Two Lives of Sara by Catherine Adel West.
  • Tea is served with lemon in The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald and The Two Lives of Sara by Catherine Adel West.

 

  • There’s a Florence (or Flo) in Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin, These Days by Lucy Caldwell and Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell. (Not to mention a Flora in The Sentence by Louise Erdrich.)

 

  • There’s a hoarder character in Olga Dies Dreaming by Xóchitl González and The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki.

 

  • Reading at the same time two memoirs by New Yorker writers releasing within two weeks of each other (in the UK at least) and blurbed by Jia Tolentino: Home/Land by Rebecca Mead and Lost & Found by Kathryn Schulz.

 

  • Three children play in a graveyard in Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier and Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith.
  • Shalimar perfume is worn in These Days by Lucy Caldwell and The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade.

 

  • A relative is described as “very cold” and it’s wondered what made her that way in Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso and one of the testimonies in Regrets of the Dying by Georgina Scull.

 

  • Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild is mentioned in The Sentence by Louise Erdrich, which I was reading at around the same time. (As is The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald, which I’d recently finished.)

 

  • From one poetry collection with references to Islam (Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head by Warsan Shire) to another (Auguries of a Minor God by Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe).

 

  • Two children’s books featuring a building that is revealed to be a theatre: Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson and The Unadoptables by Hana Tooke.

 

  • Reading two “braid” books at once: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and French Braid by Anne Tyler.
  • Protests and teargas in The Sentence by Louise Erdrich and The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki.

 

  • Jellyfish poems in Honorifics by Cynthia Miller and Love Poems in Quarantine by Sarah Ruhl.
  • George Floyd’s murder is a major element in The Sentence by Louise Erdrich and Love Poems in Quarantine by Sarah Ruhl.

 

What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?

Booker and Young Writer Ceremonies & Tracy Chevalier Book Club

This year I correctly predicted Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart and Surge by Jay Bernard as the winners of the Booker Prize and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, respectively. Patting myself on the back!

(Earlier in the year, I had a feeling Maggie O’Farrell would win the Women’s Prize, but wasn’t confident enough to single her out; and I got the Wainwright Prizes all wrong.)


I watched both the Booker Prize (live) and Young Writer of the Year Award (pre-recorded) ceremonies online; not having to secure an invitation or pay £30 for the train into London has been an ongoing bonus of pandemic arrangements.

The Booker ceremony was nicely tailored to viewers at home, incorporating brief, informal pre-recorded interviews with each nominated author and a video chat between last year’s winners, Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo. When Evaristo asked Atwood about the difference between winning the Booker in 2019 versus in 2000, she replied, deadpan, “I was older.” I especially liked the short monologues that well-known UK actors performed from each shortlisted book. Only a few people – the presenter, Evaristo, chair of judges and publisher Margaret Busby, and a string quartet – appeared in the studio, while all the other participants beamed in from other times and places. Stuart is only the second Scottish winner of the Booker, and seemed genuinely touched for this recognition of his tribute to his mother.


I’ve attended the Young Writer ceremony at the London Library twice: in 2017, when I was on the shadow panel, and again last year. It was a shame not to be able to meet up with fellow bloggers and the shortlisted authors, but I appreciated hearing the judges’ thoughts on each nominee. Tessa Hadley said the whole shortlist was “so full of young energy.” Kit de Waal called Catherine Cho’s Inferno “an absolute page-turner.” All the judges remarked at how funny, cutting and original Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times is. Critic Houman Barekat referred to Seán Hewitt’s Tongues of Fire as “unabashedly earnest.” Hadley said Marina Kemp’s Nightingale is just the kind of novel she loves, a “delicate, full notation,” and Barekat observed that it is a timely reminder of the value of care work.

It was clear that, for the judges, all five books were terrifically accomplished and would be worthy winners. Still, the unanimous decision was in favor of Surge, which Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate said is “remarkable for its passionate engagement and diversity of voices.” Bernard read “Hiss” (also up on the Granta website) and said that “poems can take on another life” through performance and short films, so the poet can’t predict whether they will stay in poetry or branch out into other genres.


Back on 18 November, I attended another online event to which I’d gotten a last-minute invitation: a “book club” featuring Tracy Chevalier in conversation with her literary agent, Jonny Geller, on Girl with a Pearl Earring at 20 and her new novel, A Single Thread. In 1996 she sent Geller a letter asking if he’d read Virgin Blue, which she’d written for the MA at the University of East Anglia – the only UK Creative Writing course out there at the time. After VB, she started a contemporary novel set at Highgate Cemetery, where she was a tour guide. It was to be called Live a Little (since a Howard Jacobson title). But shortly thereafter, she was lying in bed one day, looking at a Vermeer print on the wall, and asked herself what the look on the girl’s face meant and who she was. She sent Geller one page of thoughts and he immediately told her to stick Live a Little in a drawer and focus on the Vermeer idea.

Intriguingly, Chevalier stated that the deadline of her pregnancy determined the form of Girl with a Pearl Earring: she knew she had to keep things simple, with a linear narrative, one point of view, and spare prose. While the novel had a quiet publication in August 1999, a good review from Deborah Moggach helped, and it became a “word of mouth success,” never hitting #1 but selling continuously. Chevalier believes this was due to a rare coming together of story and writing; sometimes good stories are hampered by mediocre writing, or vice versa. She and Geller discussed the strange coincidence of two other Vermeer novels coming out at the same time (e.g. Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland); she had the good luck of being the victor. The film version is “lovely,” she said. Geller has never forgotten Scarlett Johansson, who turned 18 on set, leaving her gum in during a cast supper of spaghetti.

Chevalier’s actual Highgate novel, Falling Angels, didn’t borrow at all from her contemporary-set draft as it was set in 1900. Incorporating suffragette history, it felt like an untold story ripe for the plucking. Falling Angels has long been the one I consider my favorite Chevalier – as of last month, when we did The Last Runaway in book club, I’ve read all her work – but after this event I’m eager to reread it and GwaPE to see what I think.

Lastly, Chevalier and Geller talked about her new novel, A Single Thread, which was conceived before Trump and Brexit but had its central themes reinforced by the constant references back to 1930s fascism during the Trump presidency. She showed off the needlepoint spectacles case she’d embroidered for the novel. This wasn’t the first time she’d taken up a craft featured in her fiction: for The Last Runaway she learned to quilt, and indeed still quilts today. Geller likened her to a “method actor,” and jokingly fretted that they’ll lose her to one of these hobbies one day. Chevalier’s work in progress features Venetian glass. I’m already looking forward to it.

Like me, she moved to England from the Washington, D.C. area and has never lost the ‘accent’, so I feel like she’s a kindred spirit.

Bookish online events coming up soon: Penguin book quiz, followed by book club holiday social (a Zoom meeting with glasses of wine in hand!), on the 15th

Have you taken advantage of any online literary events recently?

The Best Books of 2019: Some Runners-Up

I sometimes like to call this post “The Best Books You’ve Probably Never Heard Of (Unless You Heard about Them from Me)”. However, these picks vary quite a bit in terms of how hyped or obscure they are; the ones marked with an asterisk are the ones I consider 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 13% of my year’s reading.

 

Fiction:

 

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield: Nine short stories steeped in myth and magic. The body is a site of transformation, or a source of grotesque relics. Armfield’s prose is punchy, with invented verbs and condensed descriptions that just plain work. She was the Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel winner. I’ll be following her career with interest.

 

*Agatha by Anne Cathrine Bomann: In late-1940s Paris, a psychiatrist counts down the days and appointments until his retirement. A few experiences awaken him from his apathy, including meeting Agatha, a new German patient with a history of self-harm. This debut novel is a touching, subtle and gently funny story of rediscovering one’s purpose late in life.

 

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier: Chevalier is an American expat like me, but she’s lived in England long enough to make this very English novel convincing and full of charm. Violet Speedwell, 38, is an appealing heroine who has to fight for a life of her own in the 1930s. Who knew the hobbies of embroidering kneelers and ringing church bells could be so fascinating?

 

Akin by Emma Donoghue: An 80-year-old ends up taking his sullen pre-teen great-nephew with him on a long-awaited trip back to his birthplace of Nice, France. The odd-couple dynamic works perfectly and makes for many amusing culture/generation clashes. Donoghue nails it: sharp, true-to-life and never sappy, with spot-on dialogue and vivid scenes.

 

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd: In 1863 Bridie Devine, female detective extraordinaire, is tasked with finding the six-year-old daughter of a baronet. Kidd paints a convincingly stark picture of Dickensian London, focusing on an underworld of criminals and circus freaks. The prose is spry and amusing, particularly in her compact descriptions of people.

 

*The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin: Bleak yet beautiful in the vein of David Vann’s work: the story of a Taiwanese immigrant family in Alaska and the bad luck and poor choices that nearly destroy them. This debut novel is full of atmosphere and the lowering forces of weather and fate.

 

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal: Set in the early 1850s and focusing on the Great Exhibition and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, this reveals the everyday world of poor Londoners. It’s a sumptuous and believable fictional world, with touches of gritty realism. A terrific debut full of panache and promise.

 

*The Heavens by Sandra Newman: Not a genre I would normally be drawn to (time travel), yet I found it entrancing. In her dreams Kate becomes Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady” and sees visions of a future burned city. The more she exclaims over changes in her modern-day life, the more people question her mental health. Impressive for how much it packs into 250 pages; something like a cross between Jonathan Franzen and Samantha Harvey.

 

*In Love with George Eliot by Kathy O’Shaughnessy: Many characters, fictional and historical, are in love with George Eliot over the course of this debut novel. We get intriguing vignettes from Eliot’s life with her two great loves, and insight into her scandalous position in Victorian society. O’Shaughnessy mimics Victorian prose ably.

 

Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid: This story of the rise and fall of a Fleetwood Mac-esque band is full of verve and heart. It’s so clever how Reid delivers it all as an oral history of pieced-together interview fragments. Pure California sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll, yet there’s nothing clichéd about it.

 

 

Graphic Novels:

 

*ABC of Typography by David Rault: From cuneiform to Comic Sans, this history of typography is delightful. Graphic designer David Rault wrote the whole thing, but each chapter has a different illustrator, so the book is like a taster course in comics styles. It is fascinating to explore the technical characteristics and aesthetic associations of various fonts.

 

*The Lady Doctor by Ian Williams: Dr. Lois Pritchard works at a medical practice in small-town Wales and treats embarrassing ailments at a local genitourinary medicine clinic. The tone is wonderfully balanced: there are plenty of hilarious, somewhat raunchy scenes, but also a lot of heartfelt moments. The drawing style recalls Alison Bechdel’s.

 

 

Poetry:

 

*Thousandfold by Nina Bogin: This is a lovely collection whose poems devote equal time to interactions with nature and encounters with friends and family. Birds are a frequent presence. Elsewhere Bogin greets a new granddaughter and gives thanks for the comforting presence of her cat. Gentle rhymes and half-rhymes lend a playful or incantatory nature.

 

 

Nonfiction:

 

*When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back by Naja Marie Aidt: Aidt’s son Carl Emil died in 2015, having jumped out of his fifth-floor Copenhagen window during a mushroom-induced psychosis. The text is a collage of fragments. A playful disregard for chronology and a variety of fonts, typefaces and sizes are ways of circumventing the feeling that grief has made words lose their meaning forever.

 

*Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed by Catrina Davies: Penniless during an ongoing housing crisis, Davies moved into the shed near Land’s End that had served as her father’s architecture office until he went bankrupt. Like Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path, this intimate, engaging memoir serves as a sobering reminder that homelessness is not so remote.

 

*Hard Pushed: A Midwife’s Story by Leah Hazard: An empathetic picture of patients’ plights and medical professionals’ burnout. Visceral details of sights, smells and feelings put you right there in the delivery room. This is a heartfelt read as well as a vivid and pacey one, and it’s alternately funny and sobering.

 

*Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country by Pam Houston: Autobiographical essays full of the love of place, chiefly her Colorado ranch – a haven in a nomadic career, and a stand-in for the loving family home she never had. It’s about making your own way, and loving the world even – or especially – when it’s threatened with destruction. Highly recommended to readers of The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch.

 

*Dancing with Bees: A Journey back to Nature by Brigit Strawbridge Howard: Bees were the author’s gateway into a general appreciation of nature, something she lost for a time in midlife because of the rat race and family complications. She clearly delights in discovery and is devoted to lifelong learning. It’s a book characterized by curiosity and warmth. I ordered signed copies of this and the Simmons (below) directly from the authors via Twitter.

 

*Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem: Maiklem is a London mudlark, scavenging for what washes up on the shores of the Thames, including clay pipes, coins, armaments, pottery, and much more. A fascinating way of bringing history to life and imagining what everyday existence was like for Londoners across the centuries.

 

Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper: Phelps-Roper grew up in a church founded by her grandfather and made up mostly of her extended family. Its anti-homosexuality message and picketing of military funerals became trademarks. This is an absorbing account of doubt and making a new life outside the only framework you’ve ever known.

 

*A Half Baked Idea: How Grief, Love and Cake Took Me from the Courtroom to Le Cordon Bleu by Olivia Potts: Bereavement memoir + foodie memoir = a perfect book for me. Potts left one very interesting career for another. Losing her mother when she was 25 and meeting her future husband, Sam, who put time and care into cooking, were the immediate spurs to trade in her wig and gown for a chef’s apron.

 

*The Lost Properties of Love by Sophie Ratcliffe: Not your average memoir. It’s based around train journeys – real and fictional, remembered and imagined; appropriate symbols for many of the book’s dichotomies: scheduling versus unpredictability, having or lacking a direction in life, monotony versus momentous events, and fleeting versus lasting connections.

 

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro: On a whim, in her fifties, Shapiro sent off a DNA test kit and learned she was only half Jewish. Within 36 hours she found her biological father, who’d donated sperm as a medical student. It’s a moving account of her emotional state as she pondered her identity and what her sense of family would be in the future.

 

*The Country of Larks: A Chiltern Journey by Gail Simmons: Reprising a trek Robert Louis Stevenson took nearly 150 years before, revisiting sites from a childhood in the Chilterns, and seeing the countryside that will be blighted by a planned high-speed railway line. Although the book has an elegiac air, Simmons avoids dwelling in melancholy, and her writing is a beautiful tribute to farmland that was once saturated with the song of larks.

 

(Books not pictured were read from the library or on Kindle.)

 

Coming tomorrow: Other superlatives and some statistics.

Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson & A Visit to Sandham Memorial Chapel

“I don’t want them to look like war paintings, Elsie. I want them to look like heaven.”

When I was offered a copy of this novel to review as part of the blog tour, I was unfamiliar with the name of its subject, the artist Sir Stanley Spencer (1891–1959) – until I realized that he painted the WWI-commemorative Sandham Memorial Chapel in Hampshire, which I had never visited* but knew was just 5.5 miles from our home in Berkshire.

Take another look at the title, though: two characters are given double billing, the second of whom is Elsie Munday, who in the opening chapter presents herself for an interview with Stanley and his wife, Hilda (also a painter), who promptly hire her to be their housemaid at Chapel View in 1928. This creates a setup similar to that in Girl with a Pearl Earring, with a lower-class character observing the inner workings of an artist’s household and giving plain-speaking commentary on what she sees. Upson’s close third-person narration sticks with Elsie for the whole of Part I, but in Part II the picture widens out, with the point of view rotating between Hilda, Elsie and Dorothy Hepworth, the reluctant third side in a love triangle that develops between Stanley and her partner, Patricia Preece.

Hilda and Stanley argue about everything, from childrearing to art: they even paint dueling portraits of Elsie – with Hilda’s Country Girl winning out. Elsie knows she’s lucky to have such a comfortable position with the Spencers and their daughters at Burghclere, and later at Cookham, but she’s uneasy at how Stanley turns her into a confidante in his increasingly tempestuous marriage. Hilda, frustrated at Stanley’s selfish, demanding ways, often returns to her family home in Hampstead, leaving Elsie alone with her employer. Stanley doesn’t give a fig for local opinion, but Elsie knows she has a reputation to protect – especially considering that her moments alone with Stanley aren’t entirely free of sexual tension.

I love reading about artists’ habits – how creative work actually gets done – so I particularly loved the scenes where Elsie, sent on errands, finds Stanley up a ladder in the chapel, pondering how to get a face or object just right. On more than one occasion he borrows her kitchen items, such as a sponge and cooked and uncooked rashers of bacon, so he can render them perfectly in his paintings. I also loved that this is a local interest book for me, with Newbury, where I live, mentioned four or five times in passing as the nearest big town. Part II, with its account of Stanley’s extramarital doings becoming ever more sordid, didn’t grip me as much as Part I, but I found the whole to be an elegantly written study of a very difficult man and the ties that he made and broke over the course of several decades.

For the tone as well as the subject matter, I would particularly recommend it to readers of Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February and Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday, and especially Esther Freud’s Mr. Mac and Me.

My rating:


Stanley and Elsie will be published by Duckworth on May 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review. They also sent a stylish tote bag!

 

Nicola Upson

Nicola Upson is best known for her seven Josephine Tey crime novels. She has also published nonfiction, including a book on the sculpture of Helaine Blumenfeld. This is her first stand-alone novel.

 

 

 

*Until now. On a gorgeous Easter Saturday that felt more like summer than spring, I had my husband drop me off on his way to a country walk so I could tour the chapel. I appreciated Spencer’s “holy box” so much more having read the novel than I ever could have otherwise – even though the paintings were nothing like I’d imagined from Upson’s descriptions.

You enter the chapel through the wooden double doors at the center.

What struck me immediately is that, for war art, the focus is so much more on domesticity. Spencer briefly served in Salonika, Macedonia (like his patrons’ brother, Harry Sandham, to whose memory the chapel is dedicated), but had initially been rejected by the army and started off as a medical orderly in an English hospital. Both Salonika and Beaufort hospital appear in the paintings, but there are no battle scenes or bloody injuries. Instead we see tableaux of cooking, doing laundry, making beds, inventorying kitbags, filling canteens, reading maps, dressing under mosquito nets and making stone mosaics. It’s as if Spencer wanted to spotlight what happens in between the fighting. These everyday activities would have typified the soldiers’ lives more than active combat, after all.

I was reminded of how Stanley explains his approach in the novel:

“There’s something heroic in the everyday, don’t you think?”

“Isn’t that what peace is sometimes? A succession of bland moments? We have to cherish them, though, otherwise what was the point of fighting for them?”

The paintings show inventive composition but are in an unusual style that sometimes verges on the grotesque. Many of the figures are lumpen and childlike, especially in Tea in the Hospital Ward, where the soldiers scoffing bread and jam look like cheeky schoolboys. There are lots of animals on display, especially horses and donkeys, but they often look enormous and not entirely realistic. The longer you look, the more details you spot, like a dog raiding a stash of Fray Bentos tins and a young man looking at his reflection in a picture frame to part his hair with a comb. These aren’t desolate, burnt-out landscapes but rich with foliage and blossom, even in Macedonia, which recalls the Holy Land and seems timeless.

The central painting behind the altar, The Resurrection of the Soldiers, imagines the dead rising out of their graves, taking up their white crosses and delivering them to Jesus, a white-clad figure in the middle distance. There’s an Italian Renaissance feeling to this one, with one face in particular looking like it could have come straight out of Giotto (an acknowledged influence on Spencer’s chapel work). It’s as busy as Bosch, but not as dark thematically or in terms of the color scheme – while some of the first paintings in the sequence, like the one of scrubbing hospital floors, recall Edward Hopper with their somber realism. We see all these soldiers intact: at their resurrection they are whole, with no horrific wounds or humiliating nudity. Like Stanley says to Elsie, it’s more heaven than war.

If you are ever in the area, I highly recommend even a quick stop at this National Trust property. I showed a few workers my advanced copy of the novel; while the reception staff were unaware of its existence, a manager I caught up with after my tour knew about it and had plans to read it soon. She also said they will stock it in the NT shop on site.

Third Blog Anniversary

Hard to believe, but I’ve only been blogging for three years as of today. It feels like something I’ve been doing forever, but at the same time I still consider myself a newbie. This is my 382nd post, so I’ve been keeping up an average of 2.5 posts a week.

By Joey Gannon from Pittsburgh, PA (Candles) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

In general, if I think back to this time last year, I’ve been comparing/pressuring myself less – though I still push myself, e.g. to finish a few books on a topic by a certain date – and enjoying it more. I’ve had success in working towards certain goals like participating in shadow panels (for the Wellcome Book Prize and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award) and blog tours (I’ve done 11 so far and have another seven coming up by July).

I’ve particularly enjoyed doing author Q&As and highlighting seasonal reads, novellas, books about cats, and physical book traits. I especially like writing up bookshop visits and other literary travels, and discussing literary prizes. My supply of graphic novels seems to have dried up; for new releases I focus on literary fiction, historical fiction and memoirs.

Straightforward book reviews have always been less popular than book lists and other more tangentially book-related posts. Library Checkout posts are consistently well-liked, as were the “Books in Brief” sets of five mini-reviews I used to do. As I’ve noted before, my posts on abandoned books are always perversely popular.

Some of my favorite posts from the past year were on World Kidney Day, Mother–Daughter Author Pairs, and Book Hoarding, and my review in verse of Jonathan Eig’s Ali: A Life.

The numbers of likes seem to be less than informative as they simply reflect a growing number of followers – many of my recent posts have averaged 20–25 likes – so I prefer to look at comments, as it means people are truly reading and engaging. In terms of numbers of comments, my top posts of all time appeared in the last year and were:

Thanks to everyone who has supported me this past year, and/or all three years, by visiting the site, commenting, re-tweeting, and so on. You’re the best!

Ghent and Amsterdam, and What I Read

Ghent. Photo by Chris Foster

We got back on Monday from a packed week in Ghent and Amsterdam. Despite the chilly, showery weather and a slightly disappointing Airbnb experience in Ghent, it was a great trip overall. Our charming little B&B apartment in Broek in Waterland, a 20-minute bus ride from Amsterdam, more than made up for the somewhat lackluster accommodation in Belgium and was a perfect base for exploring the area. With our three-day, all-inclusive regional travel passes we were free to hop on as many trams and buses as we wanted.

On Saturday we crammed in lots of Amsterdam’s main attractions: the Rijksmuseum, the Begijnhof cloisters, the Botanical Gardens and the Anne Frank House, interspersed with window shopping, a rainy picnic lunch and an Indonesian takeaway dinner eaten by a canal. I also got to visit a more off-the-beaten-track attraction I’d spotted in our guide book: De Poezenboot or “The Cat Boat,” a home for strays moored on the Singel canal. Alas, the resident kitties were not as friendly as many we met on the rest of the trip, but it was still fun.

The highlight of our Amsterdam stay was the Van Gogh Museum on Sunday morning. It was crowded – everything was; though Ghent was very quiet, Amsterdam doesn’t seem to be into its off season yet, if it even has one – but we took our time and saw every single painting, many of which I’d never come across in reproductions. The galleries are organized in chronological order, so you get to trace Van Gogh’s style and state of mind over the years. Superb.

Marken. Photo by Chris Foster

At this point we were just about overwhelmed by the big city atmosphere, so we spent much of the next day and a half in the outlying Dutch towns of Marken and Edam. Flat fields and dykes, cows, cobbled streets and bicycles everywhere – it’s what you’d expect of Holland’s countryside, apart from a surprising dearth of windmills.

Bookish highlights:

  • This Ghent University library – I’m presuming it held Special Collections/rare books:

Photo by Chris Foster

What I read:

  • Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov: A comic novel about a Russian professor on an American college campus. While there are indeed shades of Lucky Jim – I certainly laughed out loud at Timofey Pnin’s verbal gaffes and slapstick falls – there’s more going on here. In this episodic narrative spanning 1950–4, Pnin is a figure of fun but also of pathos: from having all his teeth out and entertaining the son his ex-wife had by another man to failing to find and keep a home of his own, he deserves the phrase Nabokov originally thought to use as a title, “My Poor Pnin”. 

 

  • Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker: Bosker gave herself a year and a half to learn everything about wine in hopes of passing the Court of Master Sommeliers exam. Along the way she worked in various New York City restaurants, joined blind tasting clubs and attended an olfactory conference. The challenge included educating her palate, absorbing tons of trivia about growers and production methods, and learning accepted standards for sommelier service. The resulting book is a delightful blend of science, memoir and encounters with people who are deadly serious about wine. 

 

  • You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann: And I thought my Airbnb experience was a nightmare? This is a horror novella about a writing retreat gone bad. The narrator is a screenplay writer who’s overdue delivering the sequel to Besties. As he argues with his partner, tries to take care of his daughter and produces fragments of the screenplay, the haunted house in the mountains starts to close in on him. I’ve loved Kehlmann’s work before (especially F), but he couldn’t convince me of the narrator’s state of mind or the peril. I actually found the book unintentionally humorous. 

 

  • The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker: A Dutch translator and Emily Dickinson scholar has fled a mistake in her personal life and settled in rural Wales at the foot of Snowdon. “She had left everything behind, everything except the poems. They would have to see her through. She forgot to eat.” On her farmstead is a dwindling flock of geese and, later on, a young man surveying for a new footpath. Amidst her quiet, secret-filled days we also learn of her husband’s attempts to find her back in Amsterdam. Bakker’s writing is subtle and lovely, yet the story never quite took off for me. 

 

  • Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach: If you liked Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Miniaturist, you may also enjoy this atmospheric, art-inspired novel set in the 1630s. (Originally from 1999, it’s recently been adapted into a film.) Sophia, married off to an old merchant, falls in love with Jan van Loos, the painter who comes to do their portrait. If Sophia and Jan are ever to be together, they’ll have to scrape together enough money to plot an elaborate escape. I thought this was rather soap opera-ish most of the way through, though I was satisfied with how things turned out in the end. 

 

Plus other books I had on the go (lots of short works and literature in translation):

  • Dangling Man by Saul Bellow
  • Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  • The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen
  • The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Other Stories by Etgar Keret
  • Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love and Manic Depression by David Leite
  • The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
  • Honeydew: Stories by Edith Pearlman
  • A Girl Walks into a Book: What the Brontës Taught Me about Life, Love, and Women’s Work by Miranda Pennington

Extremely cheap souvenirs of Amsterdam to add to my collections: a badge, a pressed coin, and a Van Gogh bookmark.


What have you been reading recently?

Do you find that books read ‘on location’ never quite live up to your expectations?