This month we begin with Wintering by Katherine May. I reviewed this for the Times Literary Supplement back in early 2020 and enjoyed the blend of memoir, nature and travel writing. (See also Kate’s opening post.)
#1 May travels to Iceland, which is the location of Sarah Moss’s memoir Names for the Sea. I’ve read nine of Moss’s books and consider her one of my favourite contemporary authors. (I’m currently rereading Night Waking.)
#2 Nancy Campbell’s Fifty Words for Snow shares an interest in languages and naming. I noted that the Icelandic “hundslappadrifa” refers to snowflakes as large as a dog’s paw.
#3 In 2018–19, Campbell was the poet laureate for the Canal & River Trust. As part of her tour of the country’s waterways, she came to Newbury and wrote a poem on commission about the community gardening project I volunteer with. (Here’s her blog post about the experience.) Three Women and a Boat by Anne Youngson is about a canalboat journey.
#4 Youngson’s novel was inspired by the setup of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. Another book loosely based on a classic is The Decameron Project, a set of 29 short stories ranging from realist to dystopian in their response to pandemic times.
#5 Another project updating the classics was the Hogarth Shakespeare series. One of these books (though not my favourite) was The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson, her take on The Winter’s Tale.
#6 Even if you’ve not read it (it happened to be on my undergraduate curriculum), you probably know that The Winter’s Tale famously includes the stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear.” I’m finishing with The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen, one of the novels I read on my trip to the Outer Hebrides because it’s set on North Uist. I’ll review it in full soon, but for now will say that it does actually have a bear in it, and is based on a true story.
I’m pleased with myself for going from Wintering (via various other ice, snow and winter references) to a “Summer” title. We’ve crossed the hemispheres from Kate’s Australian winter to summertime here.
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 will be the recent winner of the Women’s Prize, The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki.
Have you read any of my selections? Tempted by any you didn’t know before?
The next two entries in my flora-themed summer reading are books I read for paid reviews, so I only give extracts from my thoughts below. These are both UK-based environmentalist travel memoirs and counted because of their titles, but do also feature plants in the text. I have various relevant books of my own and from the library on the go toward this challenge. Despite the complications of a rail strike and two cancelled trains, we have persisted in finding workarounds and making new bookings, so our trip to the Outer Hebrides is going ahead – whew! I’ll schedule a few posts for while I’m away and hope to share all that was seen and done (and read) when I’m back in early July.
Mistletoe Winter: Essays of a Naturalist throughout the Year by Roy Dennis (2021)
Dennis is among the UK’s wildlife conservation pioneers, particularly active in reintroducing birds of prey such as ospreys and white-tailed eagles (see also my response to his Restoring the Wild). In this essay collection, his excitement about everyday encounters with the natural world matches his zeal for momentous rewilding projects. The book entices with the wonders that can be experienced through close attention, like the dozen species’ worth of tracks identified on a snowy morning’s walk. Dennis is sober about wildlife declines witnessed in his lifetime. Practical and plain-speaking, he does not shy away from bold proposals. However, some of the pieces feel slight or dated, and it’s unclear how relevant the specific case studies will prove elsewhere. (Full review forthcoming for Foreword Reviews.)
Forget Me Not: Finding the forgotten species of climate-change Britain by Sophie Pavelle (2022)
A late-twenties science communicator for Beaver Trust, Pavelle is enthusiastic and self-deprecating. Her nature quest takes in insects like the marsh fritillary and bilberry bumblebee and marine species such as seagrass and the Atlantic salmon. Travelling between lockdowns in 2020–1, she takes low-carbon transport wherever possible and bolsters her trip accounts with context, much of it gleaned from Zoom calls and e-mail correspondence with experts from museums and universities. Refreshingly, half the interviewees are women, and her animal subjects are never obvious choices. The snappy writing – full of extended sartorial or food-related metaphors, puns and cheeky humour (the dung beetle chapter is a scatological highlight) – is a delight. (Full review forthcoming for the Times Literary Supplement.)
With thanks to Bloomsbury Wildlife for the free copy for review.
Plants mirror minds,
Healing, harming powers
Growing green thoughts.
(First stanza of “Plants Mirror Minds” from The Facebook of the Dead by Valerie Laws)
Here are my first three selections for my flora-themed summer reading. I hope to get through more of my own books, as opposed to library books and review copies, as the months go on. Today I have one of each from fiction, nonfiction and poetry, with the settings ranging from 16th-century Alsace to late-20th-century Spain.
The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (2022)
Kiran Millwood Hargrave is one of my favourite new voices in historical fiction (she had written fiction for children and young adults before 2020’s The Mercies). Both novels hit the absolute sweet spot between the literary and women’s fiction camps, choosing a lesser-known time period and incident and filling in the background with sumptuous detail and language. Both also consider situations in which women, queer people and other cultural minorities were oppressed, and imagine characters pushing against those boundaries in affirming but authentic-feeling ways.
The setting is Strasbourg in the sweltering summer of 1518, when a dancing plague (choreomania) hit and hundreds of women engaged in frenzied public dancing, often until their feet bled or even, allegedly, until 15 per day dropped dead. Lisbet observes this all at close hand through her sister-in-law and best friend, who get caught up in the dancing. In the final trimester of pregnancy at last after the loss of many pregnancies and babies, Lisbet tends to the family beekeeping enterprise while her husband is away, but gets distracted when two musicians (brought in to accompany the dancers; an early strategy before the council cracked down), one a Turk, lodge with her and her mother-in-law. The dance tree, where she commemorates her lost children, is her refuge away from the chaos enveloping the city. She’s a naive point-of-view character who quickly has her eyes opened about different ways of living. “It takes courage, to love beyond what others deem the right boundaries.”
This is likely to attract readers of Hamnet; I was also reminded of The Sleeping Beauties, in that the author’s note discusses the possibility that the dancing plagues were an example of a mass hysteria that arose in response to religious restrictions. (Public library)
Magnolia by Nina Mingya Powles (2020)
(Powles also kicked off my 2020 food-themed summer reading.) This came out from Nine Arches Press and a small New Zealand press two years ago but is being published in the USA by Tin House in August. I’ll be reviewing it for Shelf Awareness in advance of that release. Those who are new to Powles’s work should enjoy her trademark blend of themes in this poetry collection. She’s mixed race and writes about crossing cultural and language boundaries – especially trying to express herself in Chinese and Hakka. Often, food is her way of embodying split loyalties and love for her heritage. I noted the alliteration in “Layers of silken tofu float in the shape of a lotus slowly opening under swirls of soy sauce.” Magnolia is the literal translation of “Mulan,” and that Disney movie and a few other films play a major role here, as do writers Eileen Chang and Robin Hyde. My issue with the book is that it doesn’t feel sufficiently different from her essay collections that I’ve read – the other is Small Bodies of Water – especially given that many of the poems are in prose paragraphs. [Update: I dug out my copy of Small Bodies of Water from a box and found that, indeed, one piece had felt awfully familiar for a reason: that book contains a revised version of “Falling City” (about Eileen Chang’s Shanghai apartment), which first appeared here.] (Read via Edelweiss)
A Parrot in the Pepper Tree by Chris Stewart (2002)
It’s at least 10 years ago, probably nearer 15, that I read Driving over Lemons, the first in Stewart’s eventual trilogy about buying a remote farm in Andalusia. His books are in the Peter Mayle vein, low-key and humorous: an Englishman finds the good life abroad and tells amusing anecdotes about the locals and his own mishaps.
This sequel stood out for me a little more than the previous book, if only because I mostly read it in Spain. It’s in discrete essays, some of which look back on his earlier life. He was a founding member of Genesis and very briefly the band’s drummer; and to make some cash for the farm he used to rent himself out as a sheep shearer, including during winters in Sweden.
To start with, they were really very isolated, such that getting a telephone line put in revolutionized their lives. By this time, his first book had become something of a literary sensation, so he reflects on its composition and early reception, remembering when the Mail sent a clueless reporter out to find him. Spanish bureaucracy becomes a key element, especially when it looks like their land might be flooded by the building of a dam. Despite that vague sense of dread, this was good fun. (Public library)
This month we begin with The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, a perfect excuse for me to review a novel I finished more than a year ago. This was only my second novel from Greene, after The Quiet American many a year ago. It’s subtle: low on action and majoring on recollection and regret. Mostly what we get are the bitter memories of Maurice Bendrix, a writer who had an affair with his clueless friend Henry’s wife Sarah during the last days of the Second World War. After she broke up with him, he remained obsessed with her and hired Parkis, a lower-class private detective, to figure out why. To his surprise, Sarah’s diaries revealed, not that she’d taken up with another man, but that she’d found religion. Maurice finds himself in the odd position of being jealous of … God? (More thoughts here.)
#1 I asked myself if I’d ever read another book where someone was jealous of a concept rather than a fellow human being, and finally came up with one. I enjoyed Cooking as Fast as I Can by Cat Cora even though I wasn’t aware of this Food Network celebrity and restaurateur. Her memoir focuses on her Mississippi upbringing in a half-Greek adoptive family and the challenges of being gay in the South. Separate obsessions plagued her marriage; I remember at one point she gave her wife an ultimatum: it’s either me or the hot yoga.
#2 Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It by Geoff Dyer is one of my favourite-ever book titles. The title is his proposed idea for a self-help book, but … wait for the punchline … he couldn’t be bothered to write it. It’s a book of disparate travel essays, with him as the bumbling antihero, sluggish and stoned. This wasn’t one of his better books, but his descriptions and one-liners are always amusing (my review).
#3 Another book with a fantastic title that has nothing to do with the contents: Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris. Again, not my favourite of his essay collections (try Me Talk Pretty One Day or When You Are Engulfed in Flames instead), but he’s reliable for laughs.
#4 No more about owls than the previous one; Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame is an autobiographical novel that tells the same story as her An Angel at My Table trilogy (but less compellingly): a hardscrabble upbringing in New Zealand and mental illness that led to incarceration in psychiatric hospitals. The title phrase is from Ariel’s song in The Tempest, which the Withers siblings learn at school. I’ve been ‘reading’ this for nearly a year and a half; really, it’s mostly been on the set-aside shelf for that time.
#5 Another title drawn from Shakespeare: there are more things by Yara Rodrigues Fowler is one of my Most Anticipated Books of 2022. It’s about a female friendship that links Brazil and London. I’m holding out hope for a review copy.
#6 Fowler’s title comes from Hamlet, which provides the plot for Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, one of his strongest novels of recent years. Within a few pages, I was captivated and utterly convinced by the voice of this contemporary, in utero Hamlet. Not even born and already a snob with an advanced vocabulary and a taste for fine wine, this foetus is a delight to spend time with. His captive state pairs perfectly with Hamlet’s existential despair, but also makes him (and us as readers) part of the conspiracy: even as he wants justice for his father, he has to hope his mother and uncle will get away with their crime; his future depends on it.
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.)
Have you read any of my selections? Tempted by any you didn’t know before?
Here in the UK we’re hunkering down against the high winds of Storm Eunice. We’ve already watched two trees come down in a neighbour’s garden (and they’re currently out there trying to shore up the fence!), and had news on the community Facebook page of a huge conifer down by the canal. Very sad. I hope you’re all safe and well and tucked up at home.
Today I’m looking back at several 2021 nonfiction releases I helped come into existence. The first and third I sponsored via Unbound, and the second through Dodo Ink. Supporting small publishers also ties this post into Karen and Lizzy’s February Read Indies initiative. All:
This Party’s Dead: Grief, Joy and Spilled Rum at the World’s Death Festivals by Erica Buist
A death tourism book? I’m there! This is actually the third I’ve read in recent years, after From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty and Near the Exit by Lori Erickson. Buist’s journey was sparked off by the sudden death of her fiancé Dion’s father, Chris – he was dead for a week before his cleaner raised the alarm – and her burden of guilt. It’s an act of atonement for what happened to Chris and the fact that she and Dion, who used to lodge with him, weren’t there when he really needed it. It’s also her way of discovering a sense of the sacred around death, instead of simply fearing and hiding from it.
This takes place in roughly 2018. The author travelled to eight festivals in seven countries, starting with Mexico for the Day of the Dead and later for an exploration of Santa Muerte, a hero of the working class. Other destinations included Nepal, Sicily (“bones of the dead” biscotti), Madagascar (the “turning of the bones” ceremony – a days-long, extravagant party for a whole village), Thailand and Kyoto. The New Orleans chapter was a standout for me. It’s a city where the dead outnumber the living 10 to 1 (and did so even before Katrina), and graveyard and ghost tours are a common tourist activity.
Buist is an entertaining writer, snappy and upbeat without ever seeming flippant as she discusses heavy topics. The mix of experience and research, the everyday and the momentous, is spot on and she recreates dialogue very well. I appreciated the earnest seeking here, and would happily read a book of hers on pretty much any subject. (New purchase from Unbound)
Trauma: Essays on Art and Mental Health, ed. Thom Cuell & Sam Mills
I’ll never learn: I left it nearly 10 months between finishing this and writing it up. And took no notes. So it’s nearly impossible to recreate the reading experience. What I do recall, however, is how wide-ranging and surprising I found this book. At first I had my doubts, thinking it was overkill to describe sad events like a break-up or loss as “traumatic”. But an essay midway through (which intriguingly trades off autobiographical text by Kirsty Logan and Freudian interpretation by Paul McQuade) set me straight: trauma cannot be quantified or compared; it’s all about the “unpreparedness of the subject. A traumatic event overwhelms all the defences laid out in advance against the encroachment of negative experience.”
The pieces can be straightforward memoir fragments or playful, experimental narratives more like autofiction. (Alex Pheby’s is in the second person, for instance.) Within those broad branches, though, the topics vary widely. James Miller writes about the collective horror at the Trump presidency. Emma Jane Unsworth recounts a traumatic delivery – I loved getting this taste of her autobiographical writing but, unfortunately, it outshone her full-length memoir, After the Storm, which I read later in the year. Susanna Crossman tells of dressing up as a clown for her clinical therapy work. Naomi Frisby (the much-admired blogger behind The Writes of Womxn) uses food metaphors to describe how she coped with the end of a bad relationship with a narcissist.
As is inevitable with a collection this long, there are some essays that quickly fade in the memory and could have been omitted without weakening the book as a whole. But it’s not gracious to name names, and, anyway, it’s likely that different pieces will stand out for other readers based on their own experiences. (New purchase from Dodo Ink)
- “Inheritance” by Christiana Spens (about investigating her grandparents’ lives through screen prints and writing after her father’s death and her son’s birth)
- “Blank Spaces” by Yvonna Conza (about the lure of suicide)
- “The Fish Bowl” by Monique Roffey (about everyday sexual harassment and an assault she underwent as a teenager; I enjoyed this so much more than her latest novel)
- “Thanks, I’ll Take the Chair” by Jude Cook, about being in therapy.
Women on Nature: 100+ Voices on Place, Landscape & the Natural World, ed. Katharine Norbury
It was over three years between when I pledged support and held the finished book in my hands; I can only imagine what a mammoth job compiling it was for Katharine Norbury (author of The Fish Ladder). The subtitle on the title page explains the limits she set: “An anthology of women’s writing about the natural world in the east Atlantic archipelago.” So, broadly, British and Irish writers, but within that there’s a lot of scope for variety: fragments of fiction (e.g., a passage from Jane Eyre), plenty of poetry, but mostly nonfiction narratives – some work in autobiographical reflection; others are straightforward nature or travel writing. Excerpts from previously published works trade off with essays produced specifically for this volume. So I encountered snippets of works I’d read by the likes of Miriam Darlington, Melissa Harrison, Sara Maitland, Polly Samson and Nan Shepherd. The timeline stretches from medieval mystics to today’s Guardian Country Diarists and BIPOC nature writers.
For most of the last seven months of 2021, I kept this as a bedside book, reading one or two pieces on most nights. It wasn’t until early this year that I brought it downstairs and started working it into my regular daily stacks so that I would see more progress. At first I quibbled (internally) with the decision to structure the book alphabetically by author. I wondered if more might have been done to group the pieces by region or theme. But besides being an unwieldy task, that might have made the contents seem overly determined. Instead, you get the serendipity of different works conversing with each other. So, for example, Katrina Porteous’s dialect poem about a Northumberland fisherman is followed immediately by Jini Reddy’s account of a trip to Lindisfarne; Margaret Cavendish’s 1653 dialogue in verse between an oak tree and the man cutting him down leads perfectly into an excerpt from Nicola Chester’s On Gallows Down describing a confrontation with tree fellers.
I’d highly recommend this for those who are fairly new to the UK nature writing scene and/or would like to read more by women. Keep it as a coffee table book or a bedside read and pick it up between other things. You’ll soon find your own favourites. (New purchase from Unbound)
- “Caravan” by Sally Goldsmith (a Sheffield tree defender)
- “Enlli: The Living Island” by Pippa Marland (about the small Welsh island of Bardsey)
- “An Affinity with Bees” by Elizabeth Rose Murray (about beekeeping, and her difficult mother, who called herself “the queen bee”)
- “An Island Ecology” by Sarah Thomas (about witnessing a whale hunt on the Faroe Islands)
- My overall favourite: “Arboreal” by Jean McNeil (about living in Antarctica for a winter and the contrast between that treeless continent and Canada, where she grew up, and England, where she lives now)
“It occurred to me that trees were part of the grammar of one’s life, as much as any spoken language. … To see trees every day and to be seen by them is a privilege.”
Stay strong, trees!
Sponsored any books, or read any from indie publishers, recently?
It’s been a big month for new releases! I’m still working on a handful and will report back on two batches of three, tomorrow and Sunday; more will likely turn up in review roundups in future months. For today, I have a memoir in essays about a peripatetic writer’s life and an excerpt from my review of a junior doctor’s chronicle of the early days of the pandemic.
I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home by Jami Attenberg
I’ve enjoyed Attenberg’s four most recent novels (reviewed here: The Middlesteins and All This Could Be Yours) so was intrigued to hear that she was trying out nonfiction. She self-describes as a “moderately successful author,” now in her early fifties – a single, independent feminist based in New Orleans after years in Manhattan and then Brooklyn. (Name-dropping of author friends: “Lauren” (Groff), “Kristen” (Arnett) and “Viola” (di Grado), with whom she stays in Italy.) Leaving places abruptly had become a habit; travelling from literary festival to holiday to writing residency was her way of counterbalancing a safe, quiet writing life at home. She tells of visiting a friend in Hong Kong and teaching fiction for two weeks in Vilnius – where she learned that, despite her Jewish heritage, Holocaust tourism is not her thing. Anxiety starts to interfere with travel, though, and she takes six months off flying. Owning a New Orleans home where she can host guests is the most rooted she’s ever been.
Along with nomadism, creativity and being a woman are key themes. Attenberg notices how she’s treated differently from male writers at literary events, and sometimes has to counter antifeminist perspectives even from women – as in a bizarre debate she ended up taking part in at a festival in Portugal. She takes risks and gets hurt, physically and emotionally. Break-ups sting, but she moves on and tries to be a better person. There are a lot of hard-hitting one-liners about the writing life and learning to be comfortable in one’s (middle-aged) body:
I believe that one must arrive at an intersection of hunger and fear to make great art.
Who was I hiding from? I was only ever going to be me. I was only ever going to have this body forever. Life was too short not to have radical acceptance of my body.
Whenever my life turns into any kind of cliché, I am furious. Not me, I want to scream. Not me, I am special and unusual. But none of us are special and unusual. Our stories are all the same. It is just how you tell them that makes them worth hearing again.
I did not know yet how books would save me over and over again. I did not know that a book was a reason to live. I did not know that being alive was a reason to live.
Late on comes her #MeToo story, which in some ways feels like the core of the book. When she was in college, a creative writing classmate assaulted her on campus while drunk. She reported it but nothing was ever done; it only led to rumours and meanness towards her, and a year later she attempted suicide. You know how people will walk into a doctor’s appointment and discuss three random things, then casually drop in a fourth that is actually their overriding concern? I felt that way about this episode: that really the assault was what Attenberg wanted to talk about, and could have devoted much more of the book to.
The chapters are more like mini essays, flitting between locations and experiences in the same way she has done, and sometimes repeating incidents. I think the intent was to mimic, and embrace, the random shape that a life takes. Each vignette is like a competently crafted magazine piece, but the whole is no more than the sum of the parts.
With thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the proof copy for review.
Everything Is True: A Junior Doctor’s Story of Life, Death and Grief in a Time of Pandemic by Roopa Farooki
Farooki is a novelist, lecturer, mum of four, and junior doctor. Her storytelling choices owe more to literary fiction than to impassive reportage. The second-person, present-tense narration drops readers right into her position. Frequent line breaks and repetition almost give the prose the rhythm of performance poetry. There is also wry humour, wordplay, slang and cursing. In February 2020, her sister Kiron had died of breast cancer. During the first 40 days of the initial UK lockdown – the book’s limited timeframe – she continues to talk to Kiron, and imagines she can hear her sister’s chiding replies. Grief opens the door for magic realism, despite the title – which comes from a Balzac quote. A hybrid work that reads as fluidly as a novel while dramatizing real events, this is sure to appeal to people who wouldn’t normally pick up a bereavement or medical memoir. (Full review coming soon at Shiny New Books.)
A great addition to my Covid chronicles repertoire!
With thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.
Would one of these books interest you?
I do all my composition on an ancient PC (unconnected to the Internet) in a corner of our lounge. On top of the CPU sit piles of books waiting to be reviewed. Some have been residing there for an embarrassingly long time since I finished reading them; others were only recently added to the stack but had previously languished on my set-aside shelf. I think the ‘oldest’ of the set below is the Olson, which I started reading in November 2019. In every case, the book earned a spot on the pile because I felt it was worth a review, but I’ll stick to a brief paragraph on why each was memorable. Bonus: I get my Post-its back, and can reshelve the books so they get packed sensibly for our upcoming move.
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti (2012): My second from Heti, after Motherhood; both landed with me because they nail aspects of my state of mind. Heti writes autofiction about writers dithering about their purpose in life. Here Sheila is working in a hair salon while trying to finish her play – some absurdist dialogue is set out in script form – and hanging out with artists like her best friend Margaux. The sex scenes are gratuitous and kinda gross. In general, I alternated between sniggering (especially at the ugly painting competition) and feeling seen: Sheila expects fate to decide things for her; God forbid she should ever have to make an actual choice. Heti is self-deprecating about an admittedly self-indulgent approach, and so funny on topics like mansplaining. This was longlisted for the Women’s Prize in 2013. (Little Free Library)
The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1990): The first volume of The Cazalet Chronicles, read for a book club meeting last January. I could hardly believe the publication date; it’s such a detailed, convincing picture of daily life in 1937–8 for a large, wealthy family in London and Sussex that it seems it must have been written in the 1940s. The retrospective angle, however, allows for subtle commentary on how limited women’s lives were, locked in by marriage and pregnancies. Sexual abuse is also calmly reported. One character is a lesbian, but everyone believes her partner is just a friend. The cousins’ childhood japes are especially enjoyable. And, of course, war is approaching. It’s all very Downton Abbey. I launched straight into the second book afterwards, but stalled 60 pages in. I’ll aim to get back into the series later this year. (Free mall bookshop)
Keeper: Living with Nancy—A journey into Alzheimer’s by Andrea Gillies (2009): The inaugural Wellcome Book Prize winner. The Prize expanded in focus over a decade; I don’t think a straightforward family memoir like this would have won later on. Gillies’ family relocated to remote northern Scotland and her elderly mother- and father-in-law, Nancy and Morris, moved in. Morris was passive, with limited mobility; Nancy was confused and cantankerous, often treating Gillies like a servant. (“There’s emptiness behind her eyes, something missing that used to be there. It’s sinister.”) She’d try to keep her cool but often got frustrated and contradicted her mother-in-law’s delusions. Gillies relays facts about Alzheimer’s that I knew from In Pursuit of Memory. What has remained with me is a sense of just how gruelling the caring life is. Gillies could barely get any writing done because if she turned her back Nancy might start walking to town, or – the single most horrific incident that has stuck in my mind – place faeces on the bookshelf. (Secondhand purchase)
Reflections from the North Country by Sigurd F. Olson (1976): Olson was a well-known environmental writer in his time, also serving as president of the National Parks Association. Somehow I hadn’t heard of him before my husband picked this out at random. Part of a Minnesota Heritage Book series, 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 and what is due to unfortunate later developments. His counsel includes simplicity and wonder rather than exploitation and waste. The chief worry that comes across is that people are now so cut off from nature they can’t see what they’re missing – and destroying. It can be depressing to read such profound 1970s works; had we heeded environmental prophets like Olson, we could have changed course before it was too late. (Free from The Book Thing of Baltimore)
Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman by Alice Steinbach (2004): I’d loved her earlier travel book Without Reservations. Here she sets off on a journey of discovery and lifelong learning. I included the first essay, about enrolling in cooking lessons in Paris, in my foodie 20 Books of Summer 2020. In other chapters she takes dance lessons in Kyoto, appreciates art in Florence and Havana, walks in Jane Austen’s footsteps in Winchester and environs, studies garden design in Provence, takes a creative writing workshop in Prague, and trains Border collies in Scotland. It’s clear she loves meeting new people and chatting – great qualities in a journalist. By this time she had quit her job with the Baltimore Sun so was free to explore and make her life what she wanted. She thinks back to childhood memories of her Scottish grandmother, and imagines how she’d describe her adventures to her gentleman friend, Naohiro. She recreates everything in a way that makes this as fluent as any novel, such that I’d even dare recommend it to fiction-only readers. (Free mall bookshop)
Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey by Adam Weymouth (2018): I didn’t get the chance to read this when it was shortlisted for, and then won, the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, but I received a copy from my wish list for Christmas that year. Alaska is a place that attracts outsiders and nonconformists. During the summer of 2016, Weymouth undertook a voyage by canoe down the nearly 2,000 miles of the Yukon River – the same epic journey made by king/Chinook salmon. He camps alongside the river bank in a tent, often with his partner, Ulli. He also visits a fish farm, meets reality TV stars and native Yup’ik people, and eats plenty of salmon. “I do occasionally consider the ethics of investigating a fish’s decline whilst stuffing my face with it.” Charting the effects of climate change without forcing the issue, he paints a somewhat bleak picture. But his descriptive writing is so lyrical, and his scenes and dialogue so natural, that he kept me eagerly riding along in the canoe with him. (Secondhand copy, gifted)
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
I hope everyone passed a lovely holiday week. We had house guests for a few days over New Year’s, so I haven’t had a chance to work up my statistics until now. Marcie sent me a spreadsheet template to keep track of my reading, and my tech whiz husband helped analyze the data. I look forward to catching up on everyone else’s best-of and stats posts, too.
How I did with my 2021 goals
My simple reading goals for 2021 were to read more biographies, classics, doorstoppers and travel books – genres that tend to sit on my shelves unread. I read one biography in graphic novel form (Orwell by Pierre Christin), but otherwise didn’t manage any. I only read three doorstoppers the whole year, but 29 classics – defining them is always a nebulous matter, but I’m going with books from before 1980 – a number I’m happy with.
Surprisingly, I did the best with travel books, perhaps because I’ve started thinking about travel writing more broadly and not just as a white man going to the other side of the world and seeing exotic things, since I don’t often enjoy such narratives. Granted, I did read a few like that, and they were exceptional (The Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn, The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński and Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth), but if I include essays, memoirs and poetry with significant place-based and migration themes, I was at 26.
Exactly the same total as last year (2019 had my maximum-ever of 343). From those three years’ evidence, I’d say I’ve found my natural limit. Next year I will aim for 340 again.
(This is what my lifestyle allows; yours is likely very different. I have bookish friends who read 80 books a year, 120, 150, 180, 200, and so on. My very busy university lecturer/town councillor husband felt bad for ‘only’ reading 65 books this past year, but keep in mind that the average person reads just 12 per year. My message to you, no matter your numbers, is YOU READ LOADS!)
Fiction: 49.7% (6.5% graphic novels; 5.3% short stories)
(Fiction and nonfiction are usually just about equal for me; I’m surprised that fiction pulled well ahead this year. I also read a bit more poetry this year than last.)
Female author: 66.47%
Male author: 30%
Nonbinary author: 0.88% (Meg-John Barker, Alice Hattrick and Olivia Laing)
Multiple genders (in anthologies): 2.65%
(I’ve been reading more and more by women each year, but this is the first time that female + nonbinary authors have outnumbered men by more than 2:1. I mostly attribute this to my interest in women’s stories. There were also three trans authors on my list.)
BIPOC author: 18.5%
(The first time I have specifically tracked this figure. Not too bad, but I’d prefer 25% or higher.)
Work in translation: 5%
(A decline from last year’s 7.2%. Must try harder!)
Print books: 86.8%
(Slightly higher than last year because of my new reviewing gig for Shelf Awareness, for which I read almost exclusively e-books.)
2021 releases: 41.8% (add in the 2020 releases and it’s 54.4%)
Pre-release books: 20%
Rereads: 12 (3.5%)
Where my books came from for the whole year:
- Free print or e-copy from publisher: 31.8%
- Public library: 24.7%
- Secondhand purchase: 16.8%
- Free (The Book Thing of Baltimore, the free mall bookshop, a giveaway, Little Free Libraries, etc.): 9.4%
- Downloaded from NetGalley or Edelweiss: 5.9%
- New purchase (sometimes at a bargain price): 5.6%
- University library: 3.8%
- Gifts: 2%
(Decreased from last year: review copies, NetGalley/Edelweiss, gifts; increased from last year: library borrowing, new and secondhand purchases, free books.)
Additional statistics courtesy of Goodreads:
73,520 pages read
Average book length: 216 pages (thank you, novellas and poetry!)
Average rating for 2021: 3.7
First book completed:
Last book completed (also the shortest, at 46 pages)
Longest book, at 628 pages:
Authors I read the most by: Anne Tyler (5), thanks to Liz’s readalong project; Jim Davis and Alice Oseman cartoons (4 volumes each); Jim Crumley nature books and Emily Rapp Black memoirs (3 each)
Publishers I read the most from: Carcanet (18), then Picador (17), then Bloomsbury and Faber (14 each); in overall first place was undoubtedly Penguin and its many imprints.
My top discovery of the year: the Heartstopper teen graphic novel series.
My proudest bookish achievement: being asked to be a judge for the McKitterick Prize.
The books that made me laugh the most: The Echo Chamber by John Boyne and Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny.
Best book club selections: The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard, Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell.
Most genuinely helpful book: How to Talk to a Science Denier by Lee McIntyre.
Best last lines encountered: “So where are we gonna go? / I don’t know. Let’s just drive and find out.” (from Heartstopper, Volume 4 by Alice Oseman).
Best 2021 book title: Mrs Death Misses Death.
Shortest book title encountered: In (Will McPhail), followed by Lot (Bryan Washington).
Biggest disappointments: Some of my lowest ratings went to Indelicacy by Amina Cain, Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ness by Robert Macfarlane.
A 2021 book that everyone loved but me: The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles.
Themes that kept turning up in my reading: Covid-19, colours (thanks to my summer reading challenge), disability (thanks to shadowing the Barbellion Prize), the mental and physical health benefits of time in nature; perennial topics like friendship, parenting and sisterhood.
Like many bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the new books released each year. However, I consistently find that many of my most memorable reads were published years or decades ago. These 19 selections, in alphabetical order within genre, together with my Best of 2021 posts (fiction and nonfiction), make up the top 15% of my reading for the year. Three of the below were rereads.
(The three books not pictured were read electronically or from the library.)
America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo: Set in the early 1990s in the Filipino immigrant neighbourhoods of the Bay Area in California, this is a complex, confident debut novel that throws you into an unfamiliar culture at the deep end. The characters shine and the dialogue feels utterly authentic in this fresh immigration story.
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson: The mystery element held me completely gripped – readers are just as in the dark as jurors until close to the end – but this is mostly a powerful picture of the lasting effects of racism. I was instantly immersed, whether in a warm courtroom with a snowstorm swirling outside or on a troop ship entering the Pacific Theater.
Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon: David is back on Spain’s Costa Brava, where he and his wife Mary Rose holidayed every summer for 20 years. This is a quiet novel about what goes unsaid in any marriage, and a deeply touching look at loss and what comes next. Grief, memory, fate: some of my favourite themes, elegantly treated.
A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez: From the little I know of Nunez, this seems close to autofiction, especially in terms of her parents. Identifying the self by the key relationships and obsessions of a life makes sense, and this speaks to the universals of how we cope with a troublesome past. It cemented her as one of my favourite authors.
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy: An unusual and fascinating novel with hints of science fiction, but still grounded in the real world, this contrasts utopian and dystopian scenes experienced by a Latina woman who’s been confined to a mental hospital. It’s an intense cultural commentary from a writer ahead of her time on gender roles and the environment.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell: Obsessed with Lolita since she was a teenager, Russell decided to tell the teenage girl’s side of the story. She uses a dual timeline to great effect, creating an utterly immersive novel – as good a first-person narrative as anything Curtis Sittenfeld has ever written, and the ultimate #MeToo story.
Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler: Ian Bedloe joins the puritanical Church of the Second Chance and drops out of college to help his parents raise his late brother’s three children. Anyone will be able to find themselves and their family in this story of the life chosen versus the life fallen into, and the difficult necessity of moving past regrets in the search for meaning.
The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler: Unique in her oeuvre for how it bridges historical fiction and her more typical contemporary commentary. The Antons muddle their way through a volatile marriage for decades without figuring out how to change anything for the better. There is deep compassion for their foibles and how they affect the next generation.
Lot by Bryan Washington: The musical equivalent might be a mixtape blasted from an open-top Corvette while touring the streets of Houston, Texas. Drug dealers, careworn immigrants, and prostitutes: Even the toughest guys have tender hearts in these 13 stories. Washington’s prose is earthy and slang-filled. The matter-of-fact phrasing made me laugh.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton: I was so impressed by this condensed tragedy and the ambiance of a harsh New England winter. It struck me even more on a reread as a flawless parable of a man imprisoned by circumstance and punished for wanting more. A perfect example of how literature can encapsulate the human condition.
The Air Year by Caroline Bird: I read this with a big smile on my face, delighting in the clever and playful poems. The impermanence of relationships is a recurring theme. Dreams and miscommunication are also common elements, and lists grow increasingly absurd. I particularly liked where structure creates meaning, e.g. the mise en abyme of “Dive Bar.”
Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour: As an aimless twentysomething, Gilmour tried to rekindle a relationship with his unreliable poet father. Meanwhile, he was raising Benzene, a magpie that fell out of its nest. He makes elegant use of connections and metaphors; he’s so good at scenes, dialogue, and emotion – a truly natural writer.
Spring in Washington by Louis J. Halle: From first migrant in February to last in June, the author traced the D.C. spring of 1945 mostly through the birds that he saw. More so than the specific observations of familiar places, though, I valued the philosophical outlook. For me this was an ideal combination of thoughtful prose and vicarious travel.
The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński: This collection of essays spans decades and lots of African countries, yet feels like a cohesive narrative. Kapuściński saw many places right on the cusp of independence or in the midst of coup d’états. I appreciated how he never resorts to stereotypes or flattens differences. One of the few best travel books I’ve read.
Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer: Lehrer has endured dozens of surgeries for spina bifida. Her touching family memoir is delivered in short, essay-like chapters, most named after books or films. It is also a primer in Disability theory and a miniature art gallery, filled with reproductions of her paintings. This inaugural Barbellion Prize winner is not to be missed.
The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy: This sparse volume, the middle in an autobiographical trilogy, has Levy searching for the intellectual and physical freedom needed to reinvent her life after divorce. It is made up of conversations and memories; travels and quotations that have stuck with her. Each moment is perfectly chosen to reveal the self.
Conundrum by Jan Morris: Morris was a trans pioneer; this transformed my understanding of gender when I first read it in 2006. Born James, Morris knew by age four that she was really a girl. A journalism career, marriage, five children, and two decades of hormone therapy preceded sex reassignment surgery. She paints hers as a spiritual quest toward her true identity.
You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy: We all fail to listen properly sometimes, for various reasons. A New York Times journalist, Murphy does a lot of listening to her interview subjects. She also talks with representatives of so-called listening careers. This is a short, interesting, and genuinely helpful self-help book.
Writing in the Dust: After September 11 by Rowan Williams: Williams, then Archbishop of Wales, was in New York City on 9/11, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. In the months that followed he pondered suffering, peacemaking, and the ways of God. He cautions against labelling the Other as Evil and responding with retribution. A superb book-length essay.
And if I really had to limit myself to just two favourites – my very best fiction and nonfiction reads of the year – they would be Snow Falling on Cedars and The Cost of Living.
What were your best backlist reads this year?
(I’ll be back on the 27th with Love Your Library, then I have various year-end superlatives and statistics posts going through the 31st.)
Recently, I toured multiple seasons via these three pleasantly meandering books for Anglophiles. All:
Orchard by Benedict Macdonald and Nicholas Gates (2020)
Bristol friends and BBC colleagues Ben Macdonald and Nick Gates set out to chronicle a year in the life of a traditional Herefordshire orchard that has been managed differently from the industrial norm. Operations are designed to maximize wildlife as well as production, so the orchard has become a bastion for birds and insects. After a brief history of apple cultivation and orchard design, it’s straight into a month-by-month rundown of what can be seen and heard on this particular patch. For the most part, the co-authors trade off chapters. They observe and describe the kinds of behaviours that most of us never get to see. A central section of remarkable photographs, some of them by the authors, illustrates the year as vividly as the passionate prose. (See my full review at Shiny New Books.)
With thanks to William Collins for the free copy for review.
Light Rains Sometimes Fall by Lev Parikian (2021)
It was only 2018 that I read Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? but since then we’ve had another three books from Lev Parikian. It’s now hard to imagine a year without one of his genial nature books. Here he adapts Japan’s famous 72 microseasons to an English year, with every five days or so taking on a slightly different character and welcoming in the subtle changes that add up to big ones. Given the Japanese inspiration, it’s appropriate that his entries sometimes read like haikus. Here’s one from the start of 2–7 September: “The streets. Rumble of traffic. Gentle wind in trees. Soft chrrr of blue tit. Furious cawing, stage left.”
Parikian’s patch is South London, specifically his local cemetery – which, since the book starts in February 2020, was closed off to him for a short time a month later when the first UK lockdown hit. This only served to increase his appreciation for the place when it reopened. (Cemeteries are amazing places for wildlife in general, especially the more park-like ones: I can remember seeing muntjac at Cemetery Junction in Reading, and red-tailed hawks perched in the trees in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.) Here, his star sighting was an occasional peregrine on the church tower.
The idea behind this book of mini nature essays is to try to see things again as if for the first time. In the pandemic year, he finds that time is elastic: it seems both fast and slow, and paying close attention is a way of valuing nature and experience. After all, as Parikian quotes from Confucius, “Everything has beauty, but not everyone can see it.” This reminded me particularly of Birdsong in a Time of Silence, but the tone is refreshingly light, as readers will have come to expect of Parikian.
Controversially, because I picked this up in September, I started reading it from the first September chapter, carried on to the end and then began again at the beginning and caught myself up, a strategy I have only ever taken with Mark Cocker’s Claxton (another month-by-month nature diary-type narrative) before. Initially, it was a nice way of following along with the seasons. I kept this as a bedside book and would read a chapter before bed. Most of us live in cities or suburbs, so I particularly appreciated the enthusiastic advocacy for the value of urban spaces for nature. I recommend this one for reading your way slowly and attentively through the seasons.
With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the proof copy for review.
England for All Seasons by Susan Allen Toth (1997)
A reread. As I was getting ready to go overseas for the first time in the summer of 2003, Toth’s trilogy of memoirs whetted my appetite for travel in Britain. (They’re on my Landmark Books in My Life, Part II list.) I loved how warmly she invites readers to join her itineraries and shares tips for lesser-known destinations.
This was her third set of England essays, prompted by a question she frequently got from friends and readers: when is the best time to go? Her answer would be to go whenever you can, as often as you can, because rain can be delightful and in the off season you’ll have special places to yourself. I can see that I have this book to thank for the memorable Cornwall vacation I had with my mom and sister in April 2004, midway through my study abroad year: two of the sites she highlights here, St. Ives and the seal sanctuary at Gweek (part of the “Touring England’s Ark” chapter) were among our chosen stops.
Toth is a particular fan of gardens and literary sites, but loves London museums and theatres as much as windswept coastal and island scenery. When in England she lets herself sample multiple desserts from the sweet trolley, fill her suitcase with secondhand books, and pepper her speech with exclamations of “Lovely!” and “Brilliant!” I was relieved to be reminded of her suggested one-hour time limit for any museum – “depart without guilt, as soon as your eyes droop or your feet hurt or your heavy shoulder bag sinks to the floor. When you begin wondering if it is too early for lunch, head for the door.” (I poop out at museums very quickly.) The practical information she includes at the end of each chapter is probably entirely out of date, but her ideas are solid, and a quick web search will update any details.
The final essay, “Travel Time,” perfectly captures the holiday spirit: “Because our travel time is so densely filled, with intense if often quiet experiences, I am always astonished at what has happened—or rather, what has not happened—when we return home. After two weeks of living so vividly, newness in each hour, I feel as if I must have changed in significant ways.” (Free from The Book Thing of Baltimore)