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.)
This month we begin with Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (2020), last year’s Booker Prize winner. (See Kate’s opening post.) I tried it a couple of times and couldn’t get past page 100, but I’ve kept my proof copy on the shelf to try some other time.
#1 The main character’s sweet nickname takes me to Sugar and Other Stories by A.S. Byatt. Byatt is my favourite author. Rereading her The Matisse Stories last year was rewarding, and I’d eventually like to go back to the rest of her short fiction. I read Sugar and Other Stories in Bath in 2006. (As my MA year in Leeds came to a close, I interviewed at several libraries, hoping to get onto a graduate trainee scheme so I could stay in the UK for another year. It didn’t work out, but I got to tour many wonderful libraries.) I picnicked on the grass on a May day on the University of Bath campus before my interview at the library.
I can’t claim to remember the book well overall, but I do recall the story “The July Ghost,” in which a man at a party tells a story about his landlady and the silent boy he’s seen in her garden. This turns out to be the ghost of her son, who died when he was hit by a car two summers earlier. I’ve never forgotten it because that’s exactly what happened to Byatt’s 12-year-old son.
#2 The title of that memorable story takes me to The First Bad Man by Miranda July. This review from the early days of my blog is still inexplicably popular in terms of number of views. The novel is full of unlikable characters and quirkiness for the sake of it; I doubt I would have read it had I not been sent an unsolicited review copy by the U.S. publisher.
#3 According to a search of my Goodreads library, the only other book I’ve ever read by a Miranda is A Girl Walks into a Book by Miranda K. Pennington, a charming bibliomemoir about the lives and works of the Brontës. I especially enjoyed the cynical dissection of Wuthering Heights, a classic I’ve never managed to warm to.
#4 From one famous set of sisters in the arts to another with Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar, a novel about Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. It is presented as Vanessa’s diary, incorporating letters and telegrams. The interactions with their Bloomsbury set are delightful, and sibling rivalry is a perennial theme I can’t resist.
#5 Another Vanessa novel and one I would highly recommend to anyone wanting a nuanced look at the #MeToo phenomenon is My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell. It’s utterly immersive and as good a first-person narrative as anything Curtis Sittenfeld has ever written. I also appreciated the allusions to other works of literature, from Nabokov (the title is from Pale Fire) to Swift. This would make a great book club selection.
#6 Speaking of feminist responses to #MeToo, Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo is just as good as you’ve heard. If you haven’t read it yet, why not? It’s a linked short story collection about 12 black women navigating twentieth-century and contemporary Britain – balancing external and internal expectations to build lives of their own. It reads like poetry.
Cycling round from one Booker Prize winner to another, I’ve featured stories by and about strong women, with most of my links coming from names and titles.
Whatever could be on the 2021 Booker Prize longlist? We have a lot of literary prize races to see out before then, but I’m keen to learn what Rev. Rowan Williams and the rest of the judges deem worthy.
Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.) Next month’s starting point is Beezus and Ramona, in honour of Beverly Cleary (May 1, 2021).
Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
For this final week of Novellas in November, we’re focusing on classic literature. The more obscure the better, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe a few of the favorites I feature below will be new to you? (The two not pictured were read from the library.)
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin [150 pages]: David, a penniless American, came to Paris to find himself. His second year there he meets Giovanni, an Italian barman. They fall in love and move in together. There’s a problem, though: David has a fiancée. We know from the first pages that David has fled to the south of France and that Giovanni faces the guillotine in the morning, but throughout Baldwin maintains the tension as we wait to hear why he has been sentenced to death. Deeply sad, but also powerful and brave.
The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates [137 pages]: “Perfick” reading for an afternoon sitting or two; The Novel Cure even prescribes it as a tonic for cynicism. Just like tax inspector Cedric Charlton, you’ll find yourself drawn into the orbit of junk dealer Pop Larkin, Ma, and their six children at their country home in Kent – indomitably cheery hedonists, the lot of them. Ma and Pop are more calculating than they let on, but you can’t help but love them. Plus Bates writes so evocatively about the British countryside in late spring.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote [91 pages]: Whether you’ve seen the Audrey Hepburn film or not, this is delightful. Holly Golightly has remade herself as a New York City good-time girl, but her upstairs neighbor discovers her humble origins. This was from my pre-reviewing days, so I have no more detail to add. But whenever I think of its manic cocktail party scenes, I think of a holiday do from my final year of college: packed like sardines, everyone talking over each other, and my professor couldn’t stop shaking my hand.
A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr [108 pages]: Summer 1920: Tom Birkin, a WWI veteran, arrives in North Yorkshire to uncover a local church’s medieval wall painting of the Judgment Day. With nothing awaiting him back in London, he gives himself over to the rhythms of working, eating and sleeping. Also embarked on a quest into the past is Charles Moon, searching for the grave of their patroness’ 14th-century ancestor in the churchyard. Moon, too, has a war history he’d rather forget. A Hardyesque, tragicomic romance.
The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer [144 pages]: Aged 31 and already on her fourth husband, the narrator, known only as Mrs. Armitage, has an indeterminate number of children. A breakdown at Harrods is the sign that Mrs. A. isn’t coping, and she starts therapy. Meanwhile, her filmmaker husband is having a glass tower built as a countryside getaway, allowing her to contemplate an escape from motherhood. A razor-sharp period piece composed largely of dialogue, it gives a sense of a woman overwhelmed by responsibility.
Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov [177 pages]: A comic novel about a Russian professor on an American college campus. In this episodic narrative spanning 1950–4, Timofey Pnin is a figure of fun but also of pathos: from having all his teeth pulled out and entertaining the son his ex-wife had by another man to failing to find and keep a home of his own, he deserves the phrase Nabokov originally thought to use as a title, “My Poor Pnin”. There are shades of Lucky Jim here – I laughed out loud at some of Pnin’s verbal gaffes and slapstick falls.
No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West [156 pages]: Sackville-West’s last novel, published a year before her death, was inspired by world cruises she and her husband, Harold Nicolson, took in later life. Fifty-year-old Edmund Carr, a journalist with a few months to live, has embarked on a cruise ship voyage to be close to the woman he loves, 40-year-old war widow Laura Drysdale. He dares to hope she might return his feelings … but doesn’t tell her of his imminent demise. The novel is presented as Edmund’s diary, found after his death.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger [192 pages]: Believe it or not, I didn’t read this until December 2018! From the start I found Holden Caulfield’s voice funny and surprising, so drenched in period American slang you can never forget when and where it’s set. He’s a typical lazy teenager, flunking four subjects when he’s kicked out of Pencey Prep. The first part is a languorous farewell tour to classmates and teachers before he takes the train back to NYC. Once there, he lives it up in a hotel for a few days. A shocker of an ending is to come.
Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West [110 pages]: Like The Great Gatsby, this is a very American tragedy and state-of-the-nation novel. “Miss Lonelyhearts” is a male advice columnist for the New York Post-Dispatch. His letters come from a pitiable cross section of humanity: the abused, the downtrodden and the unloved. Not surprisingly, these second-hand woes start to get him down, and he turns to drink and womanizing for escape. West’s picture of how beleaguered compassion can turn to indifference feels utterly contemporary.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton [181 pages]: Unlike Wharton’s NYC society novels, this has a rural setting, but the plot is not dissimilar to that of The Age of Innocence, with extra tragic sauce. The title character makes the mistake of falling in love with his wife’s cousin, and the would-be lovers are punished one New England winter. A quarter of a century later, the narrator learns what happened to this sad old man. It’s probably been 15 years since I’ve read this, and I like the catharsis of a good old-fashioned tragedy. Maybe I’ll reread it soon.
Not enough women on my list! I should redress that by reading some more Jean Rhys…
Keep in touch via Twitter (@bookishbeck / @cathy746books) and Instagram (@bookishbeck / @cathy_746books). We’ll keep adding your review links in to our master posts. Feel free to use the terrific feature image Cathy made and don’t forget the hashtag #NovNov.
Any suitably short classics on your shelves?
“Wasn’t it Nabokov who said ‘It is astounding how little the ordinary person notices butterflies?’”
Butterflies, monks, students and teachers, prophets and saints: such is the cast of naturalist Robert Michael Pyle’s unusual and rewarding debut novel, Magdalena Mountain. It’s a golden autumn in the early 1970s as James Mead leaves Albuquerque on a Greyhound bus to travel to New Haven, Connecticut, where he will undertake a PhD in biology at Yale. He squats in a lab on campus to save money and, after some tension with his thesis advisor, decides to keep his head down, feeding the department’s giant cave roaches and becoming engrossed in the field journals written by one October Carson in 1969 during his travels out West.
Pyle presents nature as both beatific and harsh, a continuity of life that human events – like a car going over a cliff in the first chapter – barely disrupt. Occasional chapters check in on the woman who was in the car crash, Mary Glanville. Now suffering from amnesia, she believes she’s a famous figure from history. One day she escapes from her nursing home and hitchhikes into the Colorado mountains. In her weakened state she’s taken in by Attalus and Oberon, monks at a deconsecrated monastery devoted to the god Pan and the creeds of nature writers like John Burroughs, Aldo Leopold and John Muir. Attalus, a compassionless misogynist, vehemently protests Mary’s presence in their community, but Oberon soon falls in love with her.
When James, disobeying his supervisor, lights out for Colorado for a summer of research at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, the stage is set for these major characters to collide on Magdalena Mountain, home to the distinctive, all-black Magdalena Alpine butterfly (Erebia magdalena). “Flight may appear weak, but adults are able to sail up and over huge boulders with the greatest of ease, eluding humans who desire a closer look. Flies in summer,” reads the description in my (Kaufman) field guide to North American butterflies. Intermittent segments of pure nature writing about Erebia’s life cycle – seven short chapters in total – establish the seasons and encourage a long view of local history, but somewhat slow down the novel’s tempo.
Pyle successfully pulls in so many different themes: academic infighting and the impulses of scientific researchers versus amateur collectors; environmentalism, especially through the threats that infestations, pesticides and off-road vehicles pose to the mountain landscape; activism, by way of the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons protests; and even sacred femininity and the myths surrounding Mary Magdalene. Mary Glanville’s name is a nice nod to history – Elinor Glanville was a seventeenth-century English collector who gave her name to the Glanville Fritillary – while Vladimir Nabokov, who was a keen lepidopterist as well as an academic and author, is mentioned several times for his real-life connections to the area.
The quirky set of hangers-on at the monastery reminded me of an Iris Murdoch setup (thinking mostly of The Bell), while the passion for science and activism brought to mind two other excellent environmentally minded novels published this year, The Overstory and Unsheltered. Indeed, Mary preaches at one point, “Seek your shelter in nature … In love lies the only real shelter there is.” If you’re interested in the Powers and/or Kingsolver, I would commend Pyle’s book to you as well: it’s offbeat, dreamy yet fervent, with intriguing characters and elegant nature-infused language. One of my favorite descriptive scraps, so simple but so apt, was “a peeled peach of a moon.” I’m grateful to have had a chance to read this, and I will be seeking out Pyle’s nature writing, too.
Magdalena Mountain was published in August 2018. My thanks to the good folk of Counterpoint Press (based in Berkeley, California) for sending a free copy for review.
Below I’ve chosen my seven favorite nonfiction books published in 2017, followed by three older titles that I only recently discovered. Many of these books have already featured on the blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m mostly limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
- Landslide: True Stories by Minna Zallman Proctor: This gorgeous set of autobiographical essays circles through some of the overarching themes of the author’s life: losing her mother, a composer; the importance Italy had for both of them; a love for the work of Muriel Spark; their loose connection to Judaism; and the relentless and arbitrary nature of time. Proctor provides a fine example of how to write a non-linear memoir that gets to the essence of what matters in life.
- My Jewish Year by Abigail Pogrebin: From September 2014 to September 2015, Pogrebin celebrated all the holidays in the Jewish calendar, drawing thematic connections and looking for the resonance of religious rituals might have in her daily life. This bighearted, open-minded book strikes me as a perfect model for how any person of faith should engage with their tradition: not just offering lip service and grudgingly showing up to a few services a year, but knowing what you believe and practice, and why.
In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight against Alzheimer’s by Joseph Jebelli: With the world’s population aging, it is expected that by 2050 Alzheimer’s will be the second leading cause of death after heart disease. Research neurologist Joseph Jebelli gives a thorough survey of the history of Alzheimer’s and the development of our efforts to treat and even prevent it, but balances his research with a personal medical story any reader can relate to – his beloved grandfather, Abbas, succumbed to Alzheimer’s back in Iran in 2012. (See my full review for BookBrowse.)
- My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul: Whether she was hoarding castoffs from her bookstore job, obsessing about ticking off everything in the Norton Anthology, despairing that she’d run out of reading material in a remote yurt in China, or fretting that her new husband took a fundamentally different approach to the works of Thomas Mann, Paul (the editor of the New York Times Book Review) always looks beyond the books themselves to ask what they say about her. It’s just the sort of bibliomemoir I wish I had written.
- The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs: Beautiful prose enhances this literary and philosophical approach to terminal cancer. Riggs was a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson and quotes from her ancestor’s essays as well as from Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy to put things into perspective; she’s an expert at capturing the moments that make life alternately euphoric and unbearable – and sometimes both at once.
- Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby: This is a vivid, compassionate set of stories culled from the author’s long career in heart surgery with the Grim Reaper looking on. I am not a little envious of all that Westaby has achieved: not just saving the occasional life despite his high-mortality field – as if that weren’t enough – but also pioneering various artificial heart solutions and a tracheal bypass tube that’s named after him.
And my nonfiction book of the year was:
1. The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas: I read this in August, planning to contrast it with Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own, another biographer’s memoir, for the LARB. It would have been a brilliant article, believe me. But they didn’t bite, and by the time I approached the TLS they’d already arranged coverage of the books. Alas! Such is the life of a freelancer. Since then I’ve struggled to know what to say about Atlas’s book that would explain why I loved it so much that my paperback proof is riddled with Post-It flags. (It’s going to take more than a couple of sentences…)
Much more so than Tomalin, Atlas gave me a real sense of what it’s like to immerse yourself in another person’s life. He made it up as he went along: he was only 25 when he got the contract to write a biography of the poet Delmore Schwartz, who died a penniless alcoholic at age 52. Writing about the deceased was a whole different matter to engaging with a living figure, as Atlas did when he wrote his biography of Saul Bellow in the 1990s.
Atlas perceptively explores the connections between Schwartz and Bellow (Schwartz was the model for the protagonist of Bellow’s 1975 Pulitzer winner, Humboldt’s Gift) and between Bellow and himself (a Chicago upbringing with Russian Jewish immigrant ancestors), but also sets his work in the context of centuries of biographical achievement – from Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson through master biographers like Richard Holmes, Leon Edel and Richard Ellmann (Atlas’s supervisor during his fellowship at Oxford) to recent controversial biographies of Robert Frost and Vladimir Nabokov.
This book deals with the nitty-gritty of archival research and how technology has changed it; Atlas also talks story-telling strategies and the challenge of impartiality, and ponders how we look for the patterns in a life that might explain what, besides genius, accounts for a writer’s skill. Even the footnotes are illuminating, and from the notes I learned about a whole raft of biographies and books on the biographer’s trade that I’d like to read. After I finished reading it I spent a few days dreamily wondering if I might write a biography some day. For anyone remotely interested in life writing, pick this up with my highest recommendation.
I’ll make it up to an even 10 with a few backlist titles I also loved:
The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books by John Carey (2014): Carey gives a thorough picture of events from his personal and professional life, but the focus is always on his literary education: the books that have meant the most to him and the way his taste and academic specialties have developed over the years. Ultimately what this book conveys is the joy of being a lifelong reader.
A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold (1949): So many of Leopold’s musings ring true today: how we only appreciate wildlife if we can put an economic value on it, the troubles we get into when we eradicate predators and let prey animals run rampant, and the danger of being disconnected from the land that supplies our very life. And all this he delivers in stunning, incisive prose.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (2015): An exquisite interrogation of gender identity and an invaluable reminder that the supposed complications of making a queer family just boil down to your basic human experiences of birth, love and death. I preferred those passages where Nelson allows herself to string her fragments into more extended autobiographical meditations, like the brilliant final 20 pages interspersing her memories of giving birth to her son Iggy with an account of the deathbed vigil her partner (artist Harry Dodge) held for his mother; it had me breathless and in tears, on a plane of all places.
What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll be posting my Library Checkout a few days early.
Next week’s planned posts:
26th: Doorstopper of the Month
27th: Top fiction of the year list
28th: Runners-up and other superlatives
29th: Early 2018 recommendations
30th: Final statistics on my 2017 reading
We got back on Monday from a packed week in Ghent and Amsterdam. Despite the chilly, showery weather and a slightly disappointing Airbnb experience in Ghent, it was a great trip overall. Our charming little B&B apartment in Broek in Waterland, a 20-minute bus ride from Amsterdam, more than made up for the somewhat lackluster accommodation in Belgium and was a perfect base for exploring the area. With our three-day, all-inclusive regional travel passes we were free to hop on as many trams and buses as we wanted.
On Saturday we crammed in lots of Amsterdam’s main attractions: the Rijksmuseum, the Begijnhof cloisters, the Botanical Gardens and the Anne Frank House, interspersed with window shopping, a rainy picnic lunch and an Indonesian takeaway dinner eaten by a canal. I also got to visit a more off-the-beaten-track attraction I’d spotted in our guide book: De Poezenboot or “The Cat Boat,” a home for strays moored on the Singel canal. Alas, the resident kitties were not as friendly as many we met on the rest of the trip, but it was still fun.
The highlight of our Amsterdam stay was the Van Gogh Museum on Sunday morning. It was crowded – everything was; though Ghent was very quiet, Amsterdam doesn’t seem to be into its off season yet, if it even has one – but we took our time and saw every single painting, many of which I’d never come across in reproductions. The galleries are organized in chronological order, so you get to trace Van Gogh’s style and state of mind over the years. Superb.
At this point we were just about overwhelmed by the big city atmosphere, so we spent much of the next day and a half in the outlying Dutch towns of Marken and Edam. Flat fields and dykes, cows, cobbled streets and bicycles everywhere – it’s what you’d expect of Holland’s countryside, apart from a surprising dearth of windmills.
- This Ghent University library – I’m presuming it held Special Collections/rare books:
- The American Book Center in Amsterdam:
What I read:
- Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov: A comic novel about a Russian professor on an American college campus. While there are indeed shades of Lucky Jim – I certainly laughed out loud at Timofey Pnin’s verbal gaffes and slapstick falls – there’s more going on here. In this episodic narrative spanning 1950–4, Pnin is a figure of fun but also of pathos: from having all his teeth out and entertaining the son his ex-wife had by another man to failing to find and keep a home of his own, he deserves the phrase Nabokov originally thought to use as a title, “My Poor Pnin”.
- Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker: Bosker gave herself a year and a half to learn everything about wine in hopes of passing the Court of Master Sommeliers exam. Along the way she worked in various New York City restaurants, joined blind tasting clubs and attended an olfactory conference. The challenge included educating her palate, absorbing tons of trivia about growers and production methods, and learning accepted standards for sommelier service. The resulting book is a delightful blend of science, memoir and encounters with people who are deadly serious about wine.
- You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann: And I thought my Airbnb experience was a nightmare? This is a horror novella about a writing retreat gone bad. The narrator is a screenplay writer who’s overdue delivering the sequel to Besties. As he argues with his partner, tries to take care of his daughter and produces fragments of the screenplay, the haunted house in the mountains starts to close in on him. I’ve loved Kehlmann’s work before (especially F), but he couldn’t convince me of the narrator’s state of mind or the peril. I actually found the book unintentionally humorous.
- The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker: A Dutch translator and Emily Dickinson scholar has fled a mistake in her personal life and settled in rural Wales at the foot of Snowdon. “She had left everything behind, everything except the poems. They would have to see her through. She forgot to eat.” On her farmstead is a dwindling flock of geese and, later on, a young man surveying for a new footpath. Amidst her quiet, secret-filled days we also learn of her husband’s attempts to find her back in Amsterdam. Bakker’s writing is subtle and lovely, yet the story never quite took off for me.
- Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach: If you liked Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Miniaturist, you may also enjoy this atmospheric, art-inspired novel set in the 1630s. (Originally from 1999, it’s recently been adapted into a film.) Sophia, married off to an old merchant, falls in love with Jan van Loos, the painter who comes to do their portrait. If Sophia and Jan are ever to be together, they’ll have to scrape together enough money to plot an elaborate escape. I thought this was rather soap opera-ish most of the way through, though I was satisfied with how things turned out in the end.
Plus other books I had on the go (lots of short works and literature in translation):
- Dangling Man by Saul Bellow
- Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
- Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
- The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen
- The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Other Stories by Etgar Keret
- Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love and Manic Depression by David Leite
- The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
- Honeydew: Stories by Edith Pearlman
- A Girl Walks into a Book: What the Brontës Taught Me about Life, Love, and Women’s Work by Miranda Pennington
What have you been reading recently?
Do you find that books read ‘on location’ never quite live up to your expectations?
We’re off to continental Europe again on Monday. This isn’t a major trip like last summer’s; it’s just a one-week break to take advantage of my husband presenting a paper at a landscape ecology conference in Ghent, Belgium. Though we’ve been to Ghent before, it’s a lovely town, so in between keeping up with a normal editing workload I’ll enjoy being a flâneuse on the streets and seeing the few sights we missed last time. Afterwards we head to Amsterdam for several days; it’ll be my first time there and I’m excited to take it all in.
Coincidentally, I recently read Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break for a BookBrowse review. It’s about a retired couple, Stella and Gerry, facing up to past trauma and present incompatibility during a short vacation in Amsterdam. They visit a number of the city’s most famous tourist destinations: from the art treasures of the Rijksmuseum to a drink taken in the dubious red light district. It was fun to take a virtual tour with them. We’ll see how much of our itinerary overlaps with theirs – the Anne Frank House, certainly; maybe I should also stop by the Begijnhof since it means so much to Stella.
When possible I like to do some geographically appropriate reading, so I’ve saved up a couple of Dutch-themed novels to take along on the trip:
- The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker [published as Ten White Geese in the USA]: By a Dutch novelist, with a plot split between Amsterdam and rural Wales.
- Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach: Set in 17th-century Amsterdam and with an art theme (there are some full-color plates of works by Dutch masters); this was recommended by Annie Spence.
I’m mostly focusing on short fiction in September – short stories, novellas, and novels that are perhaps too long to technically be called novellas but still significantly under 200 pages – so may also pack the following:
- Before She Met Me by Julian Barnes: I don’t know much about it (adultery + film?) but it’s one of just a few of his books I haven’t read yet.
- Dangling Man by Saul Bellow: I recently read The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas, about becoming a biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow. It’s stellar, quite possibly my book of the year, and whetted my appetite to try some Bellow. I imagine The Adventures of Augie March would be the better place to start, but I picked this up in Oxfam Books the other day.
- Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita is the only Nabokov I’ve read thus far; I liked the sound of this comic novel set on a college campus.
I also have to decide whether to take any of the books I currently have on the go, including my Classic (Madame Bovary) and Doorstopper (The Nix) for the month. Luckily we’re going by train, so space and weight limitations aren’t really an issue, though it would probably be prudent not to pack too many print books. I’ll probably at least take the Etgar Keret short stories: they’re flash fictions perfect for reading two or three at a time in a short sitting.
At any rate, I’ll be continuing my two e-books in progress: Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker, about the crazy world of wine obsessives and would-be top sommeliers; and Honeydew, short stories by Edith Pearlman. If I get bored, my Kindle has another 330 titles to choose from. (Isn’t it amazing? – a nearly weightless library!)
We’re back late on the 18th; I’ll be scheduling a couple of posts for while we’re away.
I always used to be more of a dog person than a cat person, even though we had both while I was growing up, but now I’m a dedicated cat owner and have tried out some related reading. You’ll notice I don’t rate any of these five books about cats particularly highly, whereas there have been a number of dog books I’ve given 4 stars (Dog Years by Mark Doty, Ordinary Dogs by Eileen Battersby, A Dog’s Life by Peter Mayle; even books that aren’t necessarily about dogs but reference life with them, like A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas and Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck). What’s with that? Maybe dog lovers don’t have to worry so much about striking a balance between a pet’s standoffishness and affection. Maybe dogs play a larger role in everyday human life and leave a more gaping hole when they shuffle off the canine coil. Still, I enjoyed aspects of or specific passages from each of the following.
The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide
As a cat-loving freelance writer who aspires to read more literature in translation, I thought from the blurb that this book could not be more perfect for me. I bought it in a charity shop one afternoon and started reading right away. It’s only 140 pages, so I finished within 24 hours, but felt at a distance from the story the whole time. Part of it might be the translation – the translator’s notes at the end explain some useful context about the late 1980s setting, but also conflate the narrator and the author in such a way that the book seems like an artless memoir rather than a novella. But the more basic problem for me is that there’s simply not enough about the cat. There’s plenty of architectural detail about the guesthouse the narrator and his wife rent on the grounds of a mansion, plenty of economic detail about the housing market…but the cat just doesn’t make enough of an impression. I’m at a bit of a loss to explain why this has been such a bestseller. Quite the disappointment.
The Fur Person by May Sarton
I’m a huge fan of May Sarton’s journals – in which various cats play supporting roles – so for a while I’d been hoping to come across a copy of this little novelty book from 1957, a childish fable about a tomcat who transforms from a malnourished Cat-About-Town to a spoiled Gentleman Cat. Luckily I managed to find a copy of this one plus the Lessing (see below) in the Nature section at Book Thing of Baltimore. In a preface to the 1978 edition Sarton reveals that Tom Jones was, indeed, a real cat, a stray she and her partner Judy Matlack adopted when they lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Wonderful coincidence: when they were on sabbatical in the early 1950s, they sublet the place to the Nabokovs, who looked after Tom while they were away!
I found this a bit lightweight overall, and the whole idea of a ‘fur person’ is a little strange – don’t we love cats precisely because they’re not people? Still, I enjoyed the proud cat’s Ten Commandments (e.g. “II. A Gentleman Cat allows no constraint of his person … III. A Gentleman Cat does not mew except in extremity”) and spotted my own domestic situation in this description: “while she [‘Gentle Voice’ = Judy] was away the other housekeeper [= Sarton] was sometimes quite absent-minded and even forgot his lunch once or twice because she sat for hours and hours in front of a typewriter, tapping out messages with her fingers.” The black-and-white illustrations by David Canright are a highlight.
Particularly Cats…And Rufus by Doris Lessing
A book about cats that I would almost hesitate to recommend to cat lovers: it contains many a scene of kitty carnage, as well as some unenlightened resistance to spaying and neutering. Lessing grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe that was at one point overrun with about 40 cats. Her mother went away, expecting her father to have ‘taken care of them’ by the time she got back. He tried chloroform to start with, but it was too slow and ineffective; in the end he rounded them all up in a room and got out his WWI revolver. And that’s not the end of it; even into her adulthood in England Lessing balked at taking female cats in for surgery so would find occasionally herself saddled with unwanted litters of kittens that they decided had to be drowned. It’s really a remarkably unsentimental record of her dealings with cats.
That’s not to say there weren’t some cats she willingly and lovingly kept as pets, particularly a pair of rival females known simply as “black cat” and “grey cat,” and later a stray named Rufus who adopted her. But even with cherished felines she comes across as tough: “Anyway, she had to be killed and I decided that to keep cats in London was a mistake” or “I smacked grey cat” for bullying the black one. The very fact of not giving the pair names certainly quashes any notion of her as some cuddly cat lady. All the same, she was a dutiful nurse when black cat and Rufus fell ill. The book ends on a repentant note: “Knowing cats, a lifetime of cats, what is left is a sediment of sorrow quite different from that due to humans: compounded of pain for their helplessness, of guilt on behalf of us all.”
My favorite thing about the book is the watercolor illustrations by James McMullan.
The Unadulterated Cat: A Campaign for Real Cats by Terry Pratchett
Like Douglas Adams or Monty Python, Terry Pratchett is, alas, a representative of the kind of British humor I just don’t get. But I rather enjoyed this small novelty book (bought for my husband for Christmas) all the same. For Pratchett, a “Real” cat is a non-pampered, tough-as-nails outdoor creature that hunts and generally does its own thing but also knows how to wrap its human servants around its paws. I like his idea of “cat chess” as a neighborhood-wide feline game of strategy, moving between carefully selected vantage points to keep an eye on the whole road yet avoid confrontation with other cats. It’s certainly true on our street. And this is quite a good summary of what cats do and why we put up with them:
What other animal gets fed, not because it’s useful, or guards the house, or sings, but because when it does get fed it looks pleased? And purrs. The purr is very important. It’s the purr that makes up for the Things Under the Bed, the occasional pungency, the 4 a.m. yowl.
On Cats by Charles Bukowski
“In my next life I want to be a cat. To sleep 20 hours a day and wait to be fed. To sit around licking my ass.” I’d never read anything else by Bukowski, so I wasn’t sure quite what to expect from this book, which is mostly composed of previously unpublished poems and short prose pieces about the author’s multiple cats. The tone is an odd mixture of gruff and sentimental. Make no mistake: his cats were all Real cats, in line with the Pratchett model. A white Manx cat, for instance, had been shot, run over, and had his tail cut off. Another was named Butch Van Gogh Artaud Bukowski. You wouldn’t mess with a cat with a macho name like that, would you? My favorite passage is from “War Surplus,” about an exchange he and his wife had with a store clerk:
“what will the cats do if there is an explosion?”
“lady, cats are different than we are, they are of a lower order.”
“I think cats are better than we are,” I said.
the clerk looked at me. “we don’t have gas masks for cats.”
Is there a terrific cat book out there that I haven’t read yet? I do hope so! Please add your suggestions in the comments.
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I’ll provide links to all the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a short taster so you can decide whether to click to read more. A couple of exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie or BlueInk reviews since I don’t get a byline.
Dandelion Angel by C.B. Calico (& interview): This was inspired by a non-fiction work, Understanding the Borderline Mother by Christine Ann Lawson. The four mother/daughter relationships in this Germany-set novel – all marked to some extent by dysfunction, physical and/or verbal abuse, and borderline personality disorder – are based on Lawson’s metaphorical classifications: the hermit, the queen, the waif, and the witch. Looping back through her four storylines in three complete cycles, Calico shows how mental illness is rooted in childhood experiences and can go on to affect a whole family.
The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock: Cinematic descriptions of the California desert setting plus excellent characters and dialogue enliven this debut novel about a fictional test pilot and his family troubles during America’s Space Race. Johncock is British, but you can tell he’s taken inspiration from stories about the dawn of the astronaut age. If I allowed myself small points of criticism, I would say that it’s a challenge to accept the passage of time in the final 50 pages, and that a keen interest in astronauts is probably a boon to keep readers going through the test flight portions, which to me were less compelling than the domestic drama of Jim, Grace and Florence.
Home Is Burning by Dan Marshall: At age 25, Dan Marshall went home to Salt Lake City to care for a father with ALS and a mother with leukemia. He and his four hapless siblings (a Sedaris-like clan) approached caregiving with sarcasm and dirty humor. Gleefully foul-mouthed, his memoir lacks introspective depth. He hardly ventures deeper than initial descriptions like “My gay brother, Greg” and “My adopted Native American sister, Michelle.” And even when his sentiments about his father are sincere, they are conveyed via what sound like clichés: “I wanted my poor dad to get better, not worse.” But to my surprise, Marshall made me cry in the end.
Of Orcas and Men by David Neiwert: Inspired by personal sightings near his home in Seattle, Neiwert set out to learn everything he could about orcas. The result is a thorough study of whales’ behavior and interactions with humanity from native mythology through modern-day aquarium shows. Some specialist interest would probably be helpful to those attempting this book, although there are plenty of black-and-white photographs to keep even casual readers interested. “Recovering our humanity may be the real gift of the orcas, what they can teach us. It’s our choice whether to listen.”
This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison [a subscription service, but an excerpt is available for free]: A widow in her seventies relives the ups and downs of her life while on an Alaskan cruise to scatter her husband’s ashes. Chapters alternate between a third-person account of the cruise and a second-person survey of Harriet’s past, delivered in the format of TV’s This Is Your Life. The narration is fresh and effective because the gradual revelations undermine Harriet’s elderly persona in such surprising ways. She is an out-of-the-ordinary but believable protagonist who, like all of us, has a mixture of victories and disappointments behind her. This is a charming novel about learning to reckon with the past.
Speak by Louisa Hall [subscription service, but the full text of my review will be available for free during the week starting September 25th as part of Editor’s Choice]: Hall interweaves disparate time periods and voices to track the development of artificial intelligence. The fact that all six narratives are in different documentary formats – memoirs, letters, the transcript of a dialogue, a diary, and so on – means they are easy to distinguish. One might argue that two of them (Alan Turing’s letters and Mary’s shipboard diary) are unnecessary, and yet these are by far the most enjoyable. They prove Hall has an aptitude for historical fiction, a genre she might choose to pursue in the future. A remarkable book interrogating how the languages we converse in and the stories we tell make us human.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman: Think of Alexandra Kleeman as an heir to Dave Eggers and Douglas Coupland, with a hefty dollop of Margaret Atwood thrown in. Her first novel is a full-on postmodern satire bursting with biting commentary on consumerism and conformity. Television and shopping are the twin symbolic pillars of a book about the commodification of the body. In a culture of self-alienation where we buy things we don’t need, have no idea where food comes from and desperately keep up the façade of normalcy, Kleeman’s is a fresh voice advocating the true sanity of individuality. Don’t miss her incredible debut.
Conflict Communication by Rory Miller: Based on “ConCom,” the police verbal de-escalation program Miller developed with Marc MacYoung, this book aims to introduce readers to more conscious methods of verbal communication that will sidestep instinctive reactions and promote peaceful solutions. The advice is practical and intuitive, yet picks up on tiny details that most people would not notice. Concise, helpful, and well-organized, this is strongly recommended for readers interested in the psychology of violence and improving communication skills.
Detained by Brian Rees: Rees intersperses witty e-mail updates from his tours of Iraq and Afghanistan with clued-in commentary about war tactics, terrorism, Islam, and the benefits of transcendental meditation (TM) for soldiers with PTSD. The mixture of formats and topics generally works well, though the spiritual material deserves its own book. There’s no denying Rees’s expertise, and his fluid writing keeps the pages turning. This could make a fascinating companion volume for fans of recent war fiction such as The Yellow Birds, Redeployment, and War of the Encyclopaedists.
Talk to Me of Love by Julia Anne Bernhardt: The poems in Bernhardt’s first collection range from erotic to spiritual as they investigate love in all its forms. Repetition, rhyme, and mantras produce hypnotic sonic effects and support the central message of the epigraph: “God is in the detail.” The everyday and the eternal mix here. This well-structured collection celebrates different types of love through meditative verse. The themes’ strength is enough to recommend it to readers of Jo Shapcott and Julia Copus.
The Hidden Treasure of Dutch Buffalo Creek by Jackson Badgenoone: Otherworldly ghost writers (the “Neverborn”) compose biographies for ordinary people in this playfully metafictional novel. James is a strong central character whose memories from the 1950s through the present give a sense of history’s sweep, while vivid descriptive language enlivens the settings. Although well written, the book as a whole is an unusual amalgam of spiritualism, historical nostalgia, and technology. James’s story might have been better told as a simple coming-of-age novel with flashbacks.
Common Ground by Rob Cowen: An unassuming patch of edge-land outside Harrogate is Cowen’s nature paradise, providing him with wildlife encounters and imaginative scenarios. Essentially, what Cowen does is give profiles of the edge-land’s inhabitants: animal and human, himself included. For instance, he creates an account of the life and death of a fox; elsewhere, he crafts a first-person narrative by a deer being hunted in medieval times. These fictions emulating Watership Down or Tarka the Otter, though well written, are out of place. When the book avoids melodramatic anthropomorphizing, it is very beautiful indeed.
We Love This Book
Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks: In Faulks’s thirteenth novel, his trademark themes of war, love and memory coalesce through the story of a middle-aged psychiatrist discovering the truth about his father’s death. Reminiscent of Birdsong as well as John Fowles’s The Magus and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, this does not have the power of Faulks’s previous work but is a capable study of how war stories and love stories translate into personal history. [A few extra thoughts at Goodreads.]
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads.
How to Write a Novel by Melanie Sumner: Our would-be novelist is Aris (short for Aristotle) Thibodeau, 12.5 years old and as precocious as Flavia de Luce. Diane is her single mother, and Max her downright weird younger brother. Using Write a Novel in 30 Days!, Aris is turning her family’s life story into fiction. In some ways they are very out of place here in Kanuga, Georgia. The child’s wry look at family dysfunction reminded me of Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾. I would probably read something else from Sumner, so long as it wasn’t quite as silly and YA geared as this.
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr: I would recommend this to anyone who reads and/or secretly wants to write memoirs; for the latter group, there is a wealth of practical advice here, on topics such as choosing the right carnal details (not sexual – or not only sexual – but physicality generally), correcting your facts and misconceptions, figuring out a structure, and settling on your voice. Along the way Karr discusses a number of favorite memoirs in detail, sometimes even line by line: Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Stop-Time by Pat Conroy, A Childhood by Harry Crews, Maya Angelou’s books, Speak, Memory by Nabokov, and so on.
Emblems of the Passing World: Poems after Photographs by August Sander by Adam Kirsch: A charming mix of historical photographs (1910s–1950s Germany) and poems. Kirsch uses his poetry to bring these one-dimensional figures to life, imagining the stories behind their generic titles (“Office Worker” or “Farming Family”) and sometimes slyly questioning the political and status connotations of such designations. One of my favorites was “Student of Philosophy.” This book could draw people whose interests usually run more to nonfiction – especially social history – into giving poetry a try. Releases November 17th.
Browsings by Michael Dirda: Dirda wrote this pleasant set of bibliophilic essays for the American Scholar website in 2012–13. He’s the American equivalent of the UK’s John Sutherland: an extremely well-read doyen of the classics with a special love for Victorian and Edwardian genre fiction, often as revived by small presses and specialist societies. At times Dirda’s interests can be a bit obscure for the average reader, and some of the essays feel redundant. Still, it’s easy to relate to his addictive book purchasing and hoarding.
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: I read this on the train to Manchester, appropriate reading when approaching one of the UK’s biggest centers of Victorian industry and the place where Marx and Engels met to discuss ideas in the mid-1840s. Like Darwin’s Origin of Species, another seminal Victorian text, this has so many familiar lines and wonderful metaphors that have entered into common discourse that I simply assumed it was composed in English. My eyes glaze over at politics or economics, so I valued this more for its language than for its ideas. Part II, “Proletarians and Communists,” is the most focused part if you want to sample it.
Number 11 by Jonathan Coe: This is a funny and mildly disturbing state-of-England and coming-of-age novel. I’d only read one previous book by Coe, Expo 58; this is a better example of his usual pattern: multiple, loosely linked storylines. Here the theme is the absurdity of modern culture, encompassing many aspects: unjust wars, the excesses of the uber-rich, the obsession with celebrity, and suspicion and exclusion of those who are different from us. The number 11 keeps popping up, too. My favorite parts were a Survivor-type reality television show and a laughably over-the-top prize ceremony banquet. Releases November 11th.
My Family and Other Superheroes by Jonathan Edwards: Edwards displays his proud Welsh heritage with poems reflecting on his family tree and the country’s landscape. One of my favorites was “View of Valleys Village from a Hill,” in which the narrator, with a God’s-eye view of his family, envisions messing around with them. The witty “In John F. Kennedy International Airport” imagines that Wales has been abolished and recreated in miniature in a small Kansas museum (a bit like Julian Barnes’s England, England).
The Whole & Rain-domed Universe by Colette Bryce: Many of these poems are about the author’s Irish family inheritance, both literal and figurative, as in “Heritance”: “From her? Resilience. Generosity. / A teacher’s gravitas. / Irish stew. A sense / of the ridiculous. High ceilings.” I loved the first line of “Signature” – “When I finally gave up and became my mother.” It’s particularly nice how enjambment often makes the thought go just that one line beyond what you expect. I’d read more from Bryce.