Across my four best-of posts (Nonfiction was on Wednesday and Fiction on Thursday; Backlist reads are coming up tomorrow), I will have spotlighted roughly the top 20% of my year’s reading. The 15 runners-up below – 5 fiction and 10 nonfiction – are in alphabetical order by author. The ones marked with an asterisk are my Best 2018 Books You Probably Never Heard Of (Unless You Heard about Them from Me!).
*Frieda by Annabel Abbs: If you rely only on the words of D.H. Lawrence, you’d think Frieda was lucky to shed a dull family life and embark on an exciting set of bohemian travels with him as he built his name as a writer; Abbs adds nuance to that picture by revealing just how much Frieda was giving up, and the sorrow she left behind her. Frieda’s determination to live according to her own rules makes her a captivating character.
A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne: A delicious piece of literary suspense with a Tom Ripley-like hero you’ll love to hate: Maurice Swift, who wants nothing more than to be a writer but doesn’t have any ideas of his own, so steals them from other people. I loved how we see this character from several outside points of view before getting Maurice’s own perspective; by this point we know enough to understand just how unreliable a narrator he is.
The Overstory by Richard Powers: A sprawling novel about regular people who through various unpredictable routes become so devoted to trees that they turn to acts, large and small, of civil disobedience to protest the clear-cutting of everything from suburban gardens to redwood forests. I admired pretty much every sentence, whether it’s expository or prophetic.
You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld: Sittenfeld describes families and romantic relationships expertly, in prose so deliciously smooth it slides right down. These 11 stories are about marriage, parenting, authenticity, celebrity and social media in Trump’s America. Overall, this is a whip-smart, current and relatable book, ideal for readers who don’t think they like short stories.
*Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson: A charming, bittersweet novel composed entirely of the letters that pass between Tina Hopgood, a 60-year-old farmer’s wife in East Anglia, and Anders Larsen, a curator at the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark. It’s a novel about second chances in the second half of life, and has an open but hopeful ending. I found it very touching and wish it hadn’t been given the women’s fiction treatment.
Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living by Karen Auvinen: An excellent memoir that will have broad appeal with its themes of domestic violence, illness, grief, travel, wilderness, solitude, pets, wildlife, and relationships. A great example of how unchronological autobiographical essays can together build a picture of a life.
*Heal Me: In Search of a Cure by Julia Buckley: Buckley takes readers along on a rollercoaster ride of new treatment ideas and periodically dashed hopes during four years of chronic pain. I was morbidly fascinated with this story, which is so bizarre and eventful that it reads like a great novel.
*This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein: A wry, bittersweet look at the unpredictability of life as an idealistic young woman in the world’s major cities. Another great example of life writing that’s not comprehensive or strictly chronological yet gives a clear sense of the self in the context of a family and in the face of an uncertain future.
*The Pull of the River: Tales of Escape and Adventure on Britain’s Waterways by Matt Gaw: This jolly yet reflective book traces canoe trips down Britain’s rivers, a quest to (re)discover the country by sensing the currents of history and escaping to the edge of danger. Gaw’s expressive writing renders even rubbish- and sewage-strewn landscapes beautiful.
The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson: A delightful read that successfully combines many genres – biography, true crime, ornithology, history, travel and memoir – to tell the story of an audacious heist of rare bird skins from the Natural History Museum at Tring in 2009. This is the very best sort of nonfiction: wide-ranging, intelligent and gripping.
*No One Tells You This by Glynnis MacNicol: There was a lot of appeal for me in how MacNicol sets out her 40th year as an adventure into the unknown. She is daring and candid in examining her preconceptions and asking what she really wants from her life. And she tells a darn good story: I read this much faster than I generally do with a memoir.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean: This is really two books in one. The first is a record of the devastating fire at the Los Angeles Central Library on April 29, 1986 and how the city and library service recovered. The second is a paean to libraries in general: what they offer to society, and how they work, in a digital age. Sure to appeal to any book-lover.
Help Me!: One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Her Life by Marianne Power: I have a particular weakness for year-challenge books, and Power’s is written in an easy, chatty style, as if Bridget Jones had given over her diary to testing self-help books for 16 months. Help Me! is self-deprecating and relatable, with some sweary Irish swagger thrown in. I can recommend it to self-help junkies and skeptics alike.
Mrs Gaskell & Me: Two Women, Two Love Stories, Two Centuries Apart by Nell Stevens: Stevens has a light touch, and flits between Gaskell’s story and her own in alternating chapters. This is a whimsical, sentimental, wry book that will ring true for anyone who’s ever been fixated on an idea or put too much stock in a relationship that failed to thrive.
The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story by Christie Watson: Watson presents her book as a roughly chronological tour through the stages of nursing – from pediatrics through to elderly care and the tending to dead bodies – but also through her own career. With its message of empathy for suffering and vulnerable humanity, it’s a book that anyone and everyone should read.
Coming tomorrow: My best backlist reads of the year.
It’s a tradition now in its third and last year: I spend one day at the New Networks for Nature conference with my husband, and then (to save money, and because I’ve usually had my fill of stimulating speakers by then) wander around Stamford and haunt the public library on the other day.
This past Saturday I browsed the charity shops and found a short story collection I’ve been interested in reading, but otherwise just spent hours in Stamford’s library looking through recent issues of the Times Literary Supplement and The Bookseller and reading from the stack of novellas I’d brought with me. I read four in one sitting because all were shorter than 50 pages long: two obscure classics and two nature books.
The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono (1953)
[Translated from the French by Barbara Bray; 46 pages]
Trees have been a surprise recurring theme in my 2018 reading. This spare allegory from a Provençal author is all about the difference one person can make. The narrator meets a shepherd and beekeeper named Elzéard Bouffier who plants as many acorns as he can; “it struck him that this part of the country was dying for lack of trees, and having nothing much else to do he decided to put things right.” Decades pass and two world wars do their worst, but very little changes in the countryside. Old Bouffier has led an unassuming but worthwhile life.
There’s not very much to this story, though I appreciated the message about doing good even if you won’t get any recognition or even live to see the fruits of your labor. What’s most interesting about it is the publication history: it was commissioned by Reader’s Digest for a series on “The Most Extraordinary Character I Ever Met,” and though the magazine accepted it with rapture, there was belated outrage when they realized it was fiction. It was later included in a German anthology of biography, too! No one recognized it as a fable; this became a sort of literary in-joke, as Giono’s daughter Aline reveals in a short afterword.
Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville (1853)
[40 pages from my Penguin Classics copy of Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories]
You probably know the basic plot even if you’ve never read the story. Hired as the fourth scrivener in a Wall Street office of law-copyists, Bartleby seems quietly efficient until one day he mildly refuses to do the work requested of him. “I prefer not to” becomes his refrain. First he stops proofreading his copies, and then he declines to do any writing at all. (More and more these days, I find I have the same can’t-be-bothered attitude as Bartleby!) As the employer/narrator writes, “a certain unconscious air … of pallid haughtiness … positively awed me into my tame compliance with his eccentricities.” Farce ensues as he finds himself incapable of getting rid of Bartleby, even after he goes to the extreme of changing the premises of his office. Three times he even denies knowing Bartleby, but still the man is a thorn in his flesh, a nuisance turned inescapable responsibility. A glance at the introduction by Harold Beaver tells me I’m not the first to make such Christian parallels. (This was the first Melville I’ve read since an aborted attempt on Moby-Dick during college.)
The Company of Swans by Jim Crumley (1997)
[Illustrated by Harry Brockway, who also did the wood engravings for the Giono; 39 pages]
Crumley is an underappreciated Scottish nature writer. Here he tells the tale of a pair of mute swans on a loch in Highland Perthshire. He followed their relationship with great interest over a matter of years. First he noticed that their nest had been robbed, twice within a few weeks, and realized otters must be to blame. Then, although it’s a truism that swans mate for life, he observed the cob (male) leaving the pen (female) for another! Crumley was overtaken with sympathy for the abandoned swan and got to feed her by hand and watch her fall asleep. “To suggest there was true communication between us would be outrageous, but I believe she regarded me as benevolent, which was all I ever asked of her,” he writes. Two years later he learns the end of her story. A pleasant ode to fleeting moments of communion with nature.
“Swans this wild let you into only a certain portion of their lives. They give you intimate glimpses. But you can never have any part in the business of being a swan. You can offer them no more than the flung tribute of your admiring gaze.”
“I think there is nothing in all nature that outshines that lustrous lacing of curves [of swan necks], nothing in all theatre that outperforms its pivotal tension.”
Holloway by Robert Macfarlane (2013)
[Illustrated by Stanley Donwood; 39 pages]
In 2011 Macfarlane set out to recreate a journey through South Dorset that he’d first undertaken with the late Roger Deakin in 2005, targeting the sunken paths of former roadways. This is not your average nature or travel book, though; it’s much more fragmentary and poetic than you’d expect from a straightforward account of a journey through the natural world. I thought the stream-of-consciousness style overdone, and got more out of the song about the book by singer-songwriter Anne-Marie Sanderson. (Her Book Songs, Volume 1 EP, which has been one of my great discoveries of the year, is available to listen to and purchase on her Bandcamp page. It also includes songs inspired by Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Sarah Hall’s Haweswater, and Doris Lessing’s Mara and Dann.) The black-and-white illustrations are nicely evocative, though.
Lines I liked:
“paths run through people as surely as they run through places.”
“The holloway is absence; a wood-way worn away by buried feet.”
Have you read any of these super-short novellas? Which one takes your fancy?
A whole book about fig trees? That’s right! If you’re a voracious nonfiction reader like me, you’ll find freelance journalist Mike Shanahan’s history of fig trees unexpectedly fascinating. It opens with him atop a series of ladders in a national park in Borneo, reaching past a venomous snake to pick some figs. He did many such exciting things in his research towards a PhD in rainforest ecology, but that 1998 encounter was significantly more intrepid than his earliest experience with the genus: he remembers a potted weeping fig in the hallway of his childhood home.
From that little tree to the largest banyans, Ficus encompasses 750+ species and has had a major place in human culture for millennia. Fig trees turn up in Greek origin myths and are sacred to Hindus. Romulus and Remus were rescued from drowning in the Tiber by fig tree roots. The tree the Buddha sat under to meditate? A fig. The fruit Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden? More likely a fig than an apple given the Middle Eastern climate and the fact that they then sew fig leaves together to cover their nakedness. (The confusion may have come about because in Latin malum means either “apple” or “evil”.)
Figs offer some biological surprises. For one thing, the plants have no apparent flowers. That’s because the flowers are internal: a fig is not technically a fruit but a hollow ball lined with tiny flowers that must be pollinated by two-millimeter-long fig-wasps. Strangler figs colonize a host tree, starting as a seed in the canopy and enveloping it in long tangled roots. Many tropical birds and mammals rely on figs, including monkeys and hornbills. Figs were, Shanahan writes, the “original superfood” for our primate ancestors.
The habitats where fig trees thrive face severe challenges, including drought, forest fires and poaching. However, history offers encouraging examples of how fig species can be key to tropical forest restoration. After a volcano erupted on Papua New Guinea in 1660, for example, the razed land was fairly quickly recolonized by Ficus species from seeds dropped by birds and bats – a prerequisite for wildlife returning. Similarly, fig trees were all that remained of the forest on Krakatoa after its famous volcanic eruption in 1883.
Building on this precedent, the Forest Restoration Research Unit, based in Thailand, now uses fig species to kickstart the restitution of tropical landscapes; one in every five of their plantings is a fig. Likewise, figs can be used to restore post-mining landscapes and lock up carbon. Researchers are looking into using drones to collect and deposit the seeds.
I’d never realized how often figs show up in the historical record, or how dependent on them we and other creatures have been. “Look after fig trees and they will look after you. It’s a lesson we have all but forgotten, but one we could learn again,” Shanahan concludes. Have a look at the bibliography and you’ll see just how much information is synthesized into this short, engaging book. It’s another gorgeous design from Unbound, too: the colorful cover was what first attracted me, and the author’s black-and-white pointillist illustrations adorn the text.
Nowadays I tend to think of figs as an exotic, luxury food. Every year we add some dried figs to our Christmas cake, creating caramel bursts of crunchy seeds. When my husband and I lived in Reading, we briefly had a LandShare arrangement to look after an established garden. Hidden behind a suburban fence, it was a secret paradise overflowing with fruit: plum, greengage and apple trees plus a fruit cage containing berries, currants, and – in one corner – a small fig. I remember one glorious late summer when we were inundated with more ripe figs than I’d ever seen before. We would heat them in the oven and serve them split open and oozing with goat’s cheese and runny honey. Our very own taste of Eden.
Ladders to Heaven was first published by Unbound in 2016 and releases in paperback today, September 6th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.