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.
A perfect heatwave read, Claire Fuller’s third novel tells the suspenseful story of the profligate summer of 1969 spent at a dilapidated English country house. Frances Jellico, who seems to be on her deathbed in a care home, recalls for the chaplain, her friend Victor Wylde, the August 20 years ago when she stayed at Lyntons, a neoclassical mansion in Hampshire, to report on the garden architecture for the new American owner, a Mr. Liebermann. Frances was an awkward 39-year-old at that time; having spent 10 years caring for her ill mother up to her recent death, she’d never had a romantic relationship or even a real friendship. So when she got to Lyntons and met Peter Robertson, who was to survey the house and its fittings, and his girlfriend Cara Calace, a melodramatic Anglo-Irish woman who tried to pass as Italian, Frances instantly latched on to their attractively hedonistic lifestyle and felt, for the first time, as if she had people who cared about her and genuinely liked her.
I was a relative latecomer to Fuller’s work, but Swimming Lessons turned out to be one of my favorite novels of last year and I quickly caught up on her debut, Our Endless Numbered Days (2015), which won the Desmond Elliott Prize. If you’re familiar with her first novel you’ll know she’s a master of the unreliable narrator, and here there are two: Frances herself, but also Cara, who tells Frances about her past in Ireland in long monologues that start to beggar belief. Peter warns Frances that Cara is a fantasist, but Frances wants to accept her new friend’s superstition-laced stories. She’s more than half in love with both Peter and Cara. As the trio have lavish picnics on the house’s grounds and ransack the forgotten on-site museum for furniture for their bedrooms and clothes to play dress-up in, the foreshadowing makes you wonder how long it will be before this dissolute interlude shades into tragedy.
Bitter Orange reminded me most of the lowering Gothic feel of books by Daphne du Maurier and Iris Murdoch (especially The Italian Girl, but there’s also a mention of a fish’s severed head, and a couple of times Frances says she feels as if she’s in a play), but I’d also recommend it to readers who’ve enjoyed recent work by Emma Donoghue, Tessa Hadley, Sarah Perry and Sarah Waters. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Fuller’s two previous books: it feels a bit less original, and the symbolism of the orange tree and the various animal appearances is rather heavy-handed. But the characters and atmosphere are top-notch. It’s an absorbing, satisfying novel to swallow down in big gulps on a few of these hot summer days.
“It seemed threatening now, the empty rooms and dusty spaces sinister, when so recently I had thought it beautiful. I couldn’t help but believe it was playing tricks on me, trying to send me mad or drive me away.”
“I had thought I would like living life to the maximum, I had thought I would enjoy being unconstrained and reckless, but I learned that it is terrifying to look into the abyss.”
Bitter Orange is released today, August 2nd, by Fig Tree (Penguin) in the UK. [It will come out on October 9th from Tin House in the USA and House of Anansi in Canada.] My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
The 11 stories in Jennifer Caloyeras’ new collection, Unruly Creatures (released on October 3rd by West Virginia University Press), feature characters who find themselves in extreme situations and/or are let down by their bodies. Often, their tentative steps outside their own problematic situations involve making unexpected connections with the animal world: a neglected boy learns from a taxidermist, a trainer at the Institute for Privileged Primates is surprised by the depth of her feelings for one of the gorillas in her care, a woman who has just had a double mastectomy empathizes with a cow stuck in the crater left by a crashed meteor, and two teens realize they can only bond with their father when in animal costumes.
I appreciated the variety of forms and voices here. One story set in a dystopian future has an epistolary element, including letters and memos; two others use second-person or first-person plural narration, respectively. There’s also a lot to think about in terms of gender. For instance, one protagonist frets about out-of-control pubic hair, while another finds it difficult to maintain her trans identity on a male prison ward. “A Real Live Baby” was a stand-out for me. Its title is a tease, though, because Chloe is doing the Egg Baby project in school and ‘babysits’ for her delusional neighbor, who keeps a doll in a stroller. The conflation of dolls and babies is also an element in recent stories by Camilla Grudova and Lesley Nneka Arimah – proof, if we needed it, that modern motherhood is both an enigma and a work in progress.
I’d recommend this story collection to readers of Margaret Atwood and Karen Joy Fowler – and to book clubs. You certainly won’t run out of things to discuss!
Jennifer kindly offered to take part in a Q&A over e-mail. We talked about eco-lit, fairy tales gone wild, and how writing and marketing short stories is different from novels.
Animals take on a variety of roles in these stories: research subjects, art projects, friends. Are you an animal lover? Or was that linking theme incidental? And what did you hope to convey about the ways the human and animal worlds intersect?
I am an animal lover. I always have been. When I was younger I really wanted to be a marine biologist. I couldn’t quite get around the math. Then for a while, I thought, animal psychologist. I’ve always been obsessed with animals and animal behavior and the ways in which humans are constantly distancing themselves from animals and their behavior. We have a bit of an unfair superiority complex when it comes to the animal world. I ended up going down an entirely different path (musician and singer) before applying to graduate school for a MA in English and then a MFA in creative writing.
But to get back to your question, I didn’t set out to write a collection of linked animal stories; that ended up happening organically. I like to use animals as a mirror or lens through which we see ourselves: sometimes at our worst, most instinctive behavior – sometimes at our best. I think an apt metaphor is that of child staring at an animal at a cage in the zoo, internalizing the thought, “I am nothing like that animal. I am everything like that animal.”
Sometimes the humans are the truly unruly creatures – thinking especially of the obnoxious plane passenger in “Airborne” and Ernest, the persnickety postman in “Big Brother.” How does placing them alongside animal characters point up their flaws?
I am a huge fan of unlikable and unreliable narrators. And I think the short story genre lends itself to utilizing these types of narrators, because you don’t have to sustain this for the duration of an entire novel. In “Big Brother”, the reader aligns with everyone else in the story, not the protagonist. Ernest can’t get over the fact that Les, his co-worker, could have such a bond with a parrot, when Ernest has such a difficult time connecting with anyone, yet in the same story, Ernest’s earnest love for his dog is apparent. He has the key to connecting with people, he just doesn’t have the means to put this knowledge to use.
“H2O” imagines a future extreme drought situation in which only the elite can afford fresh water. Does this feel like a plausible scenario, especially where you live in California?
Oh, the water situation is really scary. I don’t think we’re far off from the scenario presented in this story. It’s always absurd to me when we hear about drought conditions and yet, here I am, driving by a huge verdant golf course. And the access for the wealthy in this particular story resonates in terms of access in general in a capitalistic society. In the story, which is a sort of eco-lit satire (I think I just made up that genre), water is the most coveted commodity, yet it’s marketed differently depending on economic status. Living in Los Angeles, there seems to be a production value to everything here, so I wanted to add that twist in the story – the commercialism of a commodity – how it would be talked about on a production set. How to do the perfect “hard sell” when it comes to water.
I especially love the fairy tale-gone-wild mood of “Unruly”: Caroline loathes the Rapunzel-like abundance of her pubic hair, and instead of a glass slipper we get glass shards in Tom’s arm. How does twisting a fairy tale play with readers’ expectations for a story?
I’ve always been obsessed with fairy tales. My second young adult novel, Strays, has a whole component where a high school English teacher introduces 16-year-old Iris, the protagonist, to Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (if you’re a fairy tale fan, you have to read this one!), which is a feminist reinterpretation of fairy tales. I love how familiar all the fairy tale tropes are. I love the use of magical realism in fairy tales and I love the idea of playing with a familiar and predictable story and undercutting the reader’s expectations. To that end, I recently read (and loved) A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass – which was a retelling of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. But instead of waking up as a cockroach, in this version – a black man in Lagos wakes up as a white man, afforded all of the benefits of white privilege. As a reader you’re thinking, “I know the story, but I don’t know this story.”
The story “Stuffed” was also inspired loosely by the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. The witch in the woods is replaced by a taxidermist (who is not evil) and instead, things with the child go dark pretty quickly.
Occasionally ersatz creatures are on display: doll babies, taxidermied animals, or animal costumes. What are we to make of that gulf between the real thing and the false one on display?
Surrogates are some of my favorite things to explore! I took a deep dive into the world of taxidermy while doing research for “Stuffed”. I really couldn’t get enough. I remember as a child getting lost for hours in the Hall of Mammals at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. I think, for me, it’s the idea of creating something to replace something, but the replacement is complete artifice. In terms of taxidermy, essentially, you are replacing death or recreating death to imitate life. A real dead animal is ugly, sunken, decayed. But we have these artists who take death, stuff it with synthetic material, replace eyeballs with beads and you have a recreation of an animal that sometimes looks better off than a live version of that animal. A lot of what is explored in these stories is a stripping down to raw human behavior. People hide behind the masks and costumes and artifice, but placed in certain situations, their animal instincts will always emerge.
[See also my review of the taxidermy-themed English Animals by Laura Kaye.]
Can you remember what the seed was for some of these stories? A particular line, scene, image, or character? Do you start writing a story with a title in mind, or does the title usually suggest itself later on?
Titles always come last for me. Always. I can’t name a thing until I know what that thing is. Writing is such a process and oftentimes I won’t end up where I think I’m going when I’m writing a story. They always surprise me. “Unruly” (the story of the pubic-haired Rapunzel) came directly out of this vivid dream I had when I was pregnant with my first child. I dreamed that I was naked with long flowing hair everywhere and a squirrel came out of a tree, nipped off a chunk of my hair and ran back to her nest and wove the hair into the nest. I remember waking up hysterically laughing. In hindsight it was such an obvious fertility dream; for the sake of the story, I made it a representation of coming-of-age/adolescence – a time where one’s body feels out of control, but I took it to the next level.
“The Sound of an Infinite Gesture” came directly from Koko the signing gorilla. It’s amazing that a gorilla can use sign language and communicate, but there was also something odd about people putting these very human ideas on a gorilla (remember they got her a pet kitten? And now I see they have her signing PSAs to save the environment?), so I started ruminating on what if we took this idea further – the gorilla communicates so well with her trainer that they begin to develop intimate feelings for one another.
Stories will often come out of an article I read (how leeches are being used in modern medicine led to “Bloodletting”) or from a friend, “Hey, did you know that people go to furry parties where they dress up in costumes and hug one another?” which led to “Plush” and I start playing around with what that might look like. It’s a lot of imaginative play involved. That’s my favorite part of writing – that dreamy time before I actually sit down to type – when it’s all just floating around my head and I’m trying to make a movie of it in my mind.
You’ve previously written YA novels. How different was the experience of writing these short stories? Do you see this work finding a dissimilar audience?
Writing a short fiction collection is not for the faint of heart. I was actually shocked at how slim the collection looked when it arrived in the mail. I kept thinking, “but I did all that work!” Each story, in a way, is treated like a novel. And I’m not talking just about the structure from beginning to end. Every word in a short story is precious; you have to economize. And, in order to get momentum for the collection, you want to publish stories from the collection in literary journals, which takes the same amount of energy and query letters that sending out your novel to an agent or publisher takes!
The audience for this book is completely different than the 13–17 demographic of the two other books. I have had a few people say, “Oh I bought your latest book for my child” and I’m quick to say, “it’s not for kids!” But read at your own risk.
Who are some of your favorite writers? Who has inspired your prose style or your story strategies?
I have so many favorite writers! And I read across all genres. It’s hard to say exactly who has influenced my work, but I will share my favorites! I love Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America. I think she is the best at synthesizing humor and pathos in the same space. I strive to do this in my stories. Pastoralia by George Saunders is another favorite collection. He is a master storyteller, satirist, humorist and his stories bring me to my knees from emotion in unexpected ways. I love Aimee Bender’s use of magical realism. I recently read Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World and loved it! There are so many amazing and varied voices when it comes to contemporary short fiction! The faculty member I worked closely with at the University of British Columbia when I was working on my MFA in creative writing was the Giller-nominated writer, Zsuzsi Gartner. In addition to being an incredible writer herself, she opened up the world of endless possibilities in short fiction, which was incredibly liberating.
What are you working on next?
Last year, I was selected as the writer-in-residence at the Annenberg in Santa Monica and I began working on a contemporary novel about expectations and parenthood. I’m still working on it and hope to be finished by the beginning of the new year. (Now that it’s in writing, maybe I will be further motivated!) I was pretty sure that I was done with short fiction for a while, but then ideas started coming to me again, so it’s my job to listen.
I also teach writing at UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program. I will be teaching a new course, “Writing the Young Adult Novel”, in the winter and my usual “Intro to Short Fiction” in the spring. The classes are online, so if any of your readers are interested, sign up!
I spend a good amount of my time editing and helping to develop manuscripts and stories for clients. So it’s a nice balance between writing, editing and teaching.
My father, screenwriter Ron Clark, and I are toying with starting a podcast. Stay tuned!
Tomorrow the Man Booker Prize shortlist will be announced. I’d already read and reviewed four of the nominees (see my quick impressions here), and in the time since the longlist announcement I’ve managed to read another three and ruled out one more. Two were terrific; another was pretty good; the last I’ll never know because it’s clear to me I won’t read it.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
What a terrific, propulsive tale Burnet has woven out of a real-life (I think) nineteenth-century Scottish murder case. The seams between fact and fiction are so subtle you might forget you’re reading a novel, but it’s clear the author has taken great care in assembling his “documents”: witness testimonies, medical reports, a psychologist’s assessment, trial records, and – the heart of the book and the most fascinating section – a memoir written by the murderer himself. As you’re reading it you believe Roddy implicitly and feel deeply for his humiliation (the meeting with the factor and the rejection by Flora are especially agonizing scenes), but as soon as you move on to the more ‘objective’ pieces you question how he depicted things. I went back and read parts of his account two or three times, wondering how his memories squared with the facts of the case. A great one for fans of Alias Grace, though I liked this much better. This is my favorite from the Booker longlist so far.
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
“I often felt there was something wired weird in my brain, a problem so complicated only a lobotomy could solve it—I’d need a whole new mind or a whole new life.” This isn’t so much a book to enjoy as one to endure. Being in Eileen’s mind is profoundly unsettling. She’s simultaneously fascinated and disgusted by bodies; she longs for her alcoholic father’s approval even as she wonders whether she could get away with killing him. They live a life apart in their rundown home in X-ville, New England, and Eileen can’t wait to get out by whatever means necessary. When Rebecca St. John joins the staff of the boys’ prison where Eileen works, she hopes this alluring woman will be her ticket out of town.
There’s a creepy Hitchcock flavor to parts of the novel (I imagined Eileen played by Patricia Hitchcock as in Strangers on a Train, with Rebecca as Gene Tierney in Laura), and a nice late twist – but Moshfegh sure makes you wait for it. In the meantime you have to put up with the tedium and squalor of Eileen’s daily life, and there’s no escape from her mind. This is one of those rare novels I would have preferred to be in the third person: it would allow the reader to come to his/her own conclusions about Eileen’s psychology, and would have created more suspense because Eileen’s hindsight wouldn’t result in such heavy foreshadowing. I expected suspense but actually found this fairly slow and somewhat short of gripping.
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
This is a most unusual mother–daughter story, set on the southern coast of Spain. Twenty-five-year-old Sofia Papastergiadis has put off her anthropology PhD to accompany her mother, Rose, on a sort of pilgrimage to Dr. Gómez’s clinic to assess what’s wrong with Rose’s legs. What I loved about this novel is the uncertainty about who each character really is. Is Rose an invalid or a first-class hypochondriac? Is Dr. Gómez a miracle worker or a quack who’s fleeced them out of 25,000 euros? As a narrator, Sofia pretends to objective anthropological observation but is just as confused by her actions as we are: she seems to deliberately court jellyfish stings, is simultaneously jealous and contemptuous of her Greek father’s young second wife, and sleeps with both Juan and Ingrid.
Levy imbues the novel’s relationships with psychological and mythological significance, especially the Medusa story. I don’t think the ending quite fits the tone, but overall this is a quick and worthwhile read. At the same time, it’s such an odd story that it will keep you thinking about the characters. A great entry I’d be happy to see make the shortlist.
[One I won’t be reading: The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee. I opened up the prequel, The Childhood of Jesus, and could only manage the first chapter. I quickly skimmed the rest but found it unutterably dull. It would take me a lot of secondary source reading to try to understand what was going on here allegorically, and it’s not made me look forward to trying more from Coetzee.]
As for the rest: I have All That Man Is by David Szalay and Serious Sweet by A.L. Kennedy on my Kindle and will probably read them whether or not they’re shortlisted. The same goes for Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, for which I’m third in a library hold queue. I’d still like to get hold of The Many by Wyl Menmuir. That leaves just Hystopia by David Means, which I can’t say I have much interest in.
I rarely feel like I have enough of a base of experience to make accurate predictions, but if I had to guess which six books would make it through tomorrow, I would pick:
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
The North Water by Ian McGuire
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
That would be three men and three women, and a pretty good mix of countries and genres. I’d be happy with that list.
What have you managed to read from the Booker longlist? How do your predictions match up against mine?