September is always a big month in the publishing world, but even more so this year because of all the titles delayed from the spring and summer – apparently 600 books were published in the first week of September in the UK alone.
Still, I only ended up with my usual, manageable five new releases (with a few more on the way from the library). I read a beautiful novel about addiction and religion in contemporary America, speculative fiction about communication with wildlife in mid-pandemic (!) Australia, everything you ever wanted to know about fungi, historical fiction about outsiders in England and Borneo, and a study of our broken relationship with other animals.
Two of these are from my most anticipated list for the second half of 2020. Four of the five can be linked by the tenet that humans are only one species among many others necessary to life on this Earth, and not in some way above and beyond.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
This follow-up to Gyasi’s dazzling, centuries-spanning linked story collection, Homegoing, won’t be out in the UK until March 2021, but I couldn’t resist reading an e-copy of the American edition (Knopf) from Edelweiss. It’s altogether a more subdued and subtle book, but its treatment of themes of addiction, grief, racism and religion is so spot on that it packs a punch. Gifty is a PhD student at Stanford, researching pleasure and reward circuits in the mouse brain. She gets mice hooked on a sugary drink and then performs experiments to see if she can turn off their compulsion to keep pressing a lever for more. Sometimes when they press the lever they get an electric shock. Certain mice give up; others never will. Why?
People who know Gifty well assume she chose her field because of a personal tragedy. When she was 10, her 16-year-old brother, Nana, a high school basketball star in this Ghanaian-American family’s Alabama town, died of an opiate overdose. He’d gotten addicted to prescription drugs after a sports injury. At one level, Gifty acknowledges she is trying to atone for her brother’s death, but she won’t see it in those terms. An intensely private person, she shoulders almost impossible burdens of grief and responsibility for her mother, who has plunged into depression and, when she comes to live with Gifty, spends all her time in bed.
The most compelling aspect of the novel for me was Gifty’s attitude towards the religion of her childhood. Though they were the only black family at their Pentecostal church, she was a model believer, writing prayers in her journal, memorizing scriptures, and never doubting that everything happens for a reason. Nana’s death shattered it all. Though she now looks to science for answers, she misses the certainty she once had: that she was saved, that humans are special, that someone was looking out for her and her family, that it all mattered. I highlighted dozens of passages, but it’s possible the book won’t mean quite as much to readers for whom there’s no personal resonance. The complex mother–daughter relationship is an asset, and musings on love and risk are tenderly expressed. I wanted a more climactic conclusion to take this into 5-star territory, but I’ve still added it to my Best of 2020 shelf.
the species Homo sapiens, the most complex animal, [is] the only animal who believed he had transcended his Kingdom, as one of my high school biology teachers used to say.
At times, my life now feels so at odds with the religious teachings of my childhood that I wonder what the little girl I once was would think of the woman I’ve become … I am looking for new names for old feelings. My soul is still my soul, even if I rarely call it that.
the more I do this work the more I believe in a kind of holiness in our connection to everything on Earth. Holy is the mouse.
I read an advanced e-copy via Edelweiss.
The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay
McKay has a PhD in literary animal studies and serves as an animal expert and presenter on Australia’s ABC radio show Animal Sound Safari. Pair her academic background with the fact that this shares a title with a Margaret Atwood poetry collection and you’ll have some idea of what to expect here: mysterious but mostly believable speculative fiction that hinges on human communication with animals.
Jean Bennett isn’t your average grandma: a wise-cracking alcoholic, she drives the tourist train through the Australian wildlife park her daughter-in-law manages but wishes she could be a fully fledged ranger. Her ex-husband, Graham, left her and went down south, and eventually their only son Lee did the same. Now all Jean has left is Kim, her six-year-old granddaughter. Jean entertains Kim by imagining voices for the park’s animals. This no longer seems like a game, though, when news filters through of the “zooflu,” which has hit epidemic levels and has as a main symptom the ability to understand what animals say.
When Kim is kidnapped, Jean steals a camper van and takes Sue the dingo along to help her find her granddaughter. “There’s a new normal now,” a bus driver tells her. “And around here, not wearing a mask means you’ve gone animal. I’d put on my protective if I was you. Put that mutt in a cage.” It was uncanny reading this in the midst of a pandemic, but the specifics of McKay’s novel are hard to grasp. The animal language isn’t audible, necessarily, but a combination of smells, noises and body language. For a long time, they seem like pure nonsense, but gradually they resemble a sort of rough poetry. Here’s one example from Sue:
My front end
takes the food
for the Queen
(Sue usually calls Jean “Queen” or “Mother,” showing that she respects her authority, and “Yesterday” is frequently used to suggest a primitive sense of the past or of an older person.)
As entertaining a protagonist as Jean is, I lost interest in her road trip. If you focus on the journey into the wilderness and don’t mind a sudden ending, you may find this a worthwhile heir to Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton and The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
I read a proof copy for a Nudge review, but it’s never shown up on their website.
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake
I first heard about Sheldrake through Robert Macfarlane’s Underland. He struck me as a mad genius – an impression that was only strengthened by reading his detailed, enthusiastic book about fungi. Sheldrake researches fungal life in the tropical forests of Panama, accompanies truffle hunters in Italy, takes part in a clinical study on the effects of LSD (derived from a fungus), observes lichens off the coast of British Columbia, and attends a conference in Oregon on Radical Mycology. But more than a travel memoir, this is a work of science – there are over 100 pages devoted to notes, bibliography and index.
Basic information you’ll soon learn: mushrooms are only the fruiting bodies of fungi; under the ground is the material bulk, the mycelium, a sprawling network of hyphae. In what’s sometimes called the “Wood Wide Web,” fungal networks link the trees in a forest, and join up with plants, such as in lichens. “I feel a … sense of vertigo when I think about the complexity of mycorrhizal relationships – kilometers of entangled life – jostling beneath my feet,” Sheldrake confesses. He gives examples of fungi navigating and solving problems – what of our concept of intelligence if a creature without a brain can do such things?
Fungi are very adaptable to extreme conditions. Research is underway to grow edible mushrooms on some of our most troublesome waste, such as used diapers (nappies) and cigarette butts. And, of course, for millennia we’ve relied on certain fungi – yeasts – to create products like bread and beer. Sheldrake is a very hands-on writer: When he wants to know something, he does it, whether that’s scrumping Isaac Newton’s apples in Cambridge and fermenting the juice into cider at home or growing mushrooms on a copy of this very book.
During the month I was reading this, I felt like I kept coming across references to fungi. (I even had a patch of ringworm!)
It’s a perspective-altering text, but one that requires solid concentration. I’ll confess that at times it went over my head and I wished for a glossary and diagrams. A greater than average interest in biology and/or botany would thus be a boon to a potential reader. But if you can keep up, the book will elicit many a cry of “wow!” and “what?!” I kept launching “did you know?” questions at my husband, especially about the zombie fungi that parasitize insects. What a strange and wonderful world.
Favorite lines: “Paying more attention to animals than plants contributes to humans’ plant-blindness. Paying more attention to plants than fungi makes us fungus-blind.”
My thanks to Bodley Head for the free copy for review.
Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain
I read this back in June to prepare for writing a profile of Tremain for a forthcoming issue of Bookmarks magazine. Here’s the summary I wrote: “In Bath, England in 1865, 24-year-old nurse Jane Adeane is nicknamed ‘The Angel of the Baths’ for her healing touch. If she marries Dr. Valentine Ross, a colleague of her surgeon father, she can earn respectability – but will have to hide her love for Julietta, a married woman. Meanwhile, Dr. Ross’s brother, Edmund, a naturalist following in the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace, has journeyed to Borneo. Ill with malaria, he is taken in by British eccentric Sir Ralph Savage, a lover of native men and benevolent local rajah who funds infrastructure projects like a paved road and a hospital. Exiled or inwardly tortured for loving the wrong people, Tremain’s characters search for moments of wonder and comfort – whether those come in a primitive hut in the Malay Archipelago or in a cozy tearoom in Bath.”
It’s a slightly odd title, but tells you a lot about what Tremain is doing in this 14th novel. Often at the mercy of forces internal and external, her outcast characters look for places where they can find rest and refuge after a time of suffering. Will they, in turn, extend mercy? The split perspective and the focus on people who have to hide their sexuality are most similar to Sacred Country. The Victorian tip of the hat is mostly directed, I think, to George Eliot; of recent work, I was reminded of The Doll Factory and The Essex Serpent. I especially liked Jane’s painter aunt, Emmeline, and Clorinda, the Irish woman whose opening of a tearoom sets the plot going. The settings are surprising and vivid, and if Tremain doesn’t quite bring them and their story lines together seamlessly, she is still to be applauded for her ambition. This is probably my joint favorite of her novels that I’ve read so far, with The Road Home.
We must be unconventional in our joys and find them wherever we can.
life, so often so cruel in the way it thrust the human soul into prisons from which there seemed to be no escape, could sometimes place it athwart an open door.
I read an advanced e-copy via NetGalley.
Between Light and Storm: How We Live with Other Species by Esther Woolfson
If you’ve read Woolfson’s Corvus, you’ve already met Chicken, an orphaned rook she raised. For over 31 years, Chicken was a constant presence in her home. The recently departed bird is the dedicatee of her new book, feted as “Colleague, companion, friend.” (No mere pet.) Relationships with these creatures with whom she shared her life led her to think differently about how we as humans conceive of the animal world in general. “If I had ever believed humans to be the only ones to live profound and interconnected lives, I couldn’t any more. … If we’re the gods now, shouldn’t we be better than we are?” From her introduction, it’s clear that her sympathy toward the more-than-human world extends even to spiders, and her language throughout – using words like “who” and “his” in reference to animals, rather than “that” or “its” – reinforces the view that all species are equally valuable.
Or, at least, should be. But our attitudes are fundamentally distorted, Woolfson believes, and have been since the days of Aristotle (whose Ladder of Nature is an origin of the ideas that nature is there for man to use) and the Old Testament writers (one of the two creation accounts in Genesis established the idea of “dominion”). From cave paintings to animal sacrifice, intensive farming to fur coats, taxidermy to whaling, she surveys what others have thought and said about how animals are, or should be, perceived. There was more of an academic tone to this book than I expected, and in early chapters I found too much overlap with other works I’ve read about deep time (Time Song, Surfacing, Underland again!).
I most appreciated the fragments of nature writing and memoir and would have liked more in the way of personal reflection. Woolfson’s perspective – as a Jewish woman in Scotland – is quite interesting. She is clearly troubled by how humans exploit animals, but mostly recounts others’ reasoning rather than coming to conclusions of her own. (Though there is a brilliant takedown of the gender politics of Watership Down.) It’s a book that demands more time and attention than I was able to give just now. As I only skimmed it, I’m going to refrain from assigning a rating and will pass this on to my husband and return to it one day. [I do wish the title, on its own (subtitle aside), was more indicative of the contents.]
My thanks to Granta for the free copy for review.
Which of those 600+ September releases can you recommend?
Although over 100 books from the second half of the year are already on my radar, I’ve limited myself here to the 15 July to November releases that I’m most excited about.
The modest number is a cheat in that I’ve already read seven books from this period in advance (plus I’m currently reading another three), and I haven’t listed any that I already have access to via proofs, promised finished copies, NetGalley, Edelweiss, or library preorders. Some of these that I intend to read are A Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne, D (A Tale of Two Worlds): A Modern-Day Dickensian Fable by Michel Faber, Bringing Back the Beaver by Derek Gow, Just Like You by Nick Hornby, How to Fly (poems) by Barbara Kingsolver, Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald, Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell, Summerwater by Sarah Moss, Lake Life by David James Poissant, Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink, Jack by Marilynne Robinson and The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn.
(Meanwhile, two of my overall most anticipated 2020 releases have been pushed back to 2021, at least in the UK: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi and The Anthill by Julianne Pachico.)
The following are in release date order, within sections by genre; the quoted descriptions are from the publisher blurbs on Goodreads. For most I’ve added a note on why I want to read it. Nonfiction dominates: this seems to be the way of 2020 for me. Lots of flora and fauna on the covers and in the themes. Look out for antlers x 2.
Artifact by Arlene Heyman [July 9, Bloomsbury] “A sweeping debut novel about love, sex, motherhood, and ambition that follows a gifted and subversive scientist’s struggle to reach beyond cultural constraints for the life she wants. … Artifact is an intimate and propulsive portrait of a whole woman.” Susan of A life in books put me onto this one; here’s her review.
Sisters by Daisy Johnson [Aug. 13, Jonathan Cape / Aug. 25, Riverhead] “After a serious case of school bullying becomes too much to bear, sisters July and September move across the country with their mother to a long-abandoned family home. … With its roots in psychological horror, Sisters is a taut, powerful and deeply moving account of sibling love.” I loved Johnson’s Booker-shortlisted debut, Everything Under.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke [Sept. 15, Bloomsbury] “Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless. … For readers of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane … Piranesi introduces an astonishing new world.” It feels like forever since we had a book from Clarke. I remember devouring Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell during a boating holiday on the Norfolk Broads in 2006. But whew: this one is only 272 pages.
The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey [Nov. 5, Gallic / Oct. 27, Riverhead] “A beautiful and haunting imagining of the years Geppetto spends within the belly of a sea beast. Drawing upon the Pinocchio story while creating something entirely his own, Carey tells an unforgettable tale of fatherly love and loss, pride and regret, and of the sustaining power of art and imagination.” His Little was one of my favorite novels of 2018.
Dearly: New Poems by Margaret Atwood [Nov. 10, Chatto & Windus / Ecco / McClelland & Stewart] “By turns moving, playful and wise, the poems … are about absences and endings, ageing and retrospection, but also about gifts and renewals. They explore bodies and minds in transition … Werewolves, sirens and dreams make their appearance, as do various forms of animal life and fragments of our damaged environment.”
Bright Precious Thing: A Memoir by Gail Caldwell [July 7, Random House] “In a voice as candid as it is evocative, Gail Caldwell traces a path from her west Texas girlhood through her emergence as a young daredevil, then as a feminist.” I’ve enjoyed two of Caldwell’s previous books, especially Let’s Take the Long Way Home. Also, I’ve been reading a lot of childhood memoirs and I like comparing them to see how authors capture that time of life.
The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills [July 9, Fourth Estate] A memoir of being the primary caregiver for her father, who had schizophrenia; with references to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Leonard Woolf, who also found themselves caring for people struggling with mental illness. “A powerful and poignant memoir about parents and children, freedom and responsibility, madness and creativity and what it means to be a carer.”
Avoid the Day: A New Nonfiction in Two Movements by Jay Kirk [July 28, Harper Perennial] Transylvania, Béla Bartók’s folk songs, an eco-tourist cruise in the Arctic … “Avoid the Day is part detective story, part memoir, and part meditation on the meaning of life—all told with a dark pulse of existential horror.” It was Helen Macdonald’s testimonial that drew me to this: it “truly seems to me to push nonfiction memoir as far as it can go.”
World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil [Aug. 3, Milkweed Editions] “From beloved, award-winning poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil comes a debut work of nonfiction—a collection of essays about the natural world, and the way its inhabitants can teach, support, and inspire us. … Even in the strange and the unlovely, Nezhukumatathil finds beauty and kinship.” Who could resist that title or cover?
Antlers of Water: Writing on the Nature and Environment of Scotland, edited by Kathleen Jamie [Aug. 6, Canongate] Contributors include Amy Liptrot, musician Karine Polwart and Malachy Tallack. “Featuring prose, poetry and photography, this inspiring collection takes us from walking to wild swimming, from red deer to pigeons and wasps, from remote islands to back gardens … writing which is by turns celebratory, radical and political.”
The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World by Roman Krznaric [Aug. 27, W.H. Allen] “Drawing on radical solutions from around the world, Krznaric celebrates the innovators who are reinventing democracy, culture and economics so that we all have the chance to become good ancestors and create a better tomorrow.” I’ve been reading a fair bit around this topic. I got a sneak preview of this one from Krznaric’s Hay Festival talk.
Eat the Buddha: The Story of Modern Tibet through the People of One Town by Barbara Demick [Sept. 3, Granta / July 28, Random House] “Illuminating a culture that has long been romanticized by Westerners as deeply spiritual and peaceful, Demick reveals what it is really like to be a Tibetan in the twenty-first century, trying to preserve one’s culture, faith, and language.” I read her book on North Korea and found it eye-opening. I’ve read a few books about Tibet over the years; it is fascinating.
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake [Sept. 3, Bodley Head / May 12, Random House] “Entangled Life is a mind-altering journey into this hidden kingdom of life, and shows that fungi are key to understanding the planet on which we live, and the ways we think, feel and behave.” I like spotting fungi. Yes, yes, the title and cover are amazing, but also the author’s name!! – how could you not want to read this?
Between Light and Storm: How We Live with Other Species by Esther Woolfson [Sept. 3, Granta] “Woolfson considers prehistoric human‒animal interaction and traces the millennia-long evolution of conceptions of the soul and conscience in relation to the animal kingdom, and the consequences of our belief in human superiority.” I’ve read two previous nature books by Woolfson and have done some recent reading around deep time concepts. This is sure to be a thoughtful and nuanced take.
The Stubborn Light of Things: A Nature Diary by Melissa Harrison [Nov. 5, Faber & Faber] “Moving from scrappy city verges to ancient, rural Suffolk, where Harrison eventually relocates, this diary—compiled from her beloved “Nature Notebook” column in The Times—maps her joyful engagement with the natural world and demonstrates how we must first learn to see, and then act to preserve, the beauty we have on our doorsteps.” I love seeing her nature finds on Twitter. I think her writing will suit this format.
Which of these do you want to read, too?
What other upcoming 2020 titles are you looking forward to?
Review copies have started to feel like an obligation I don’t want. Almost as soon as one comes through the door, I regret having asked for or accepted it. (Now I have to read the danged thing, and follow through with a review!) So I’m going to cut back severely this year. The idea is to wait until late in 2020 to figure out which are the really worthwhile releases, and then only read those instead of wading through a lot of mediocre stuff.
“Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are. In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be ‘This book is worthless,’ while the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be ‘This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to’. … The best practice, it has always seemed to me, would be simply to ignore the great majority of books and to give very long reviews … to the few that seem to matter.” (from “Confessions of a Book Reviewer” in Books v. Cigarettes by George Orwell)
These are the January to May 2020 releases I own so far, with perhaps a few more on the way. I acquired a lot of these in September through November, before I made the decision to cut down on review copies.
I’m also looking forward to new books by Sebastian Barry, Susanna Clarke, Stephanie Danler, Anne Enright, Yaa Gyasi, John Irving, Daisy Johnson, Daniel Kehlmann, Sue Monk Kidd, Rebecca Dinerstein Knight, Maya Shanbhag Lang, Helen Macdonald, Hilary Mantel, David Mitchell, Sarah Moss, Mark O’Connell, Maggie O’Farrell, Anne Tyler, Abraham Verghese, Raynor Winn and Molly Wizenberg.
I can still access new/pre-release books via my public library and NetGalley/Edelweiss, especially fiction to review for BookBrowse and nonfiction for Kirkus and the TLS.
This resolution is not about denying or punishing myself, as bloggers’ book-buying bans sometimes seem to be, so if an unmissable book (e.g. HAMNET) is offered on Twitter or via my blog, I won’t consider it cheating to say yes. FOMO will likely be a chronic condition for me this year, but ultimately I hope to do myself a favor.
With the reading time I’m saving, I plan to make major inroads into those 440 print books I own and haven’t read yet, and to do a lot of re-reading (I only managed one and a bit rereads in 2019). I might well blog less often and only feature those books that have been exceptional for me. I’ve set aside this shelf of mostly fiction that I think deserves re-reading soon:
“I do not think we go back to the exciting books,—they do not usually leave a good taste in the mouth; neither to the dull books, which leave no taste at all in the mouth; but to the quiet, mildly tonic and stimulating books,—books that have the virtues of sanity and good nature, and that keep faith with us.” (from “On the Re-Reading of Books” in Literary Values by John Burroughs)
I hope (as always) to read more classics, literature in translation and doorstoppers. Travel and biography are consistently neglected categories for me. Though I won’t set specific goals for these genres, I will aim to see measurable progress. I will also take advantage of the Wellcome Book Prize being on hiatus this year to catch up on some of the previous winners and shortlisted books that I’ve never managed to read.
Mostly, I want to avoid any situations that make me feel guilty or mean (so no more books received direct from the author, and any review books that disappoint will be quietly dropped), follow my whims, and enjoy my reading.
What are some of your goals (reading-related or otherwise) for 2020?
Below I’ve chosen my top nine fiction releases from 2017 (seven by women!), followed by the backlist titles I loved the most this year. Many of these books have already featured on my 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, as with my nonfiction selections 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.
- Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller: This atmospheric novel reminiscent of Iris Murdoch is no happy family story; it’s full of betrayals and sadness, of failures to connect and communicate, yet it’s beautifully written, with all its scenes and dialogue just right. I recently caught up on Fuller’s acclaimed 2015 debut, Our Endless Numbered Days, and collectively I’m so impressed with her work, specifically the elegant way she alternates between time periods to gradually reveal the extent of family secrets and the faultiness of memory.
- The Lucky Ones by Julianne Pachico: You may remember that our shadow panel chose this as our winner for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award: we were blown away by this linked short story collection set in a drug-fueled Colombia in which violence and its aftermath are never far away. For the originality of the setup and the sheer excellence of the writing, this can’t be topped.
- The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber: The name Margery Williams Bianco might not seem familiar, but chances are you remember her classic children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit. This is about Margery and her daughter, Pamela Bianco, a painter and child prodigy troubled by mental illness, and the themes of creativity, mental health and motherhood are nestled in a highly visual debut novel full of cameos by everyone from Pablo Picasso to Eugene O’Neill.
- The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker: The cartooning world and the Kentucky–New York City dichotomy together feel like a brand new setting for a literary tragicomedy. Though it seems lighthearted, there’s a lot of meat to this story of the long friendship between two female animators as Whitaker contrasts the women’s public and private personas and imagines their professional legacy.
- In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist: While it’s being marketed as a novel, this reads more like a stylized memoir: Similar to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books, it features the author as the central character and narrator, and the story of grief it tells is a highly personal one. Malmquist does an extraordinary job of depicting his protagonist’s bewilderment at the sudden loss of his partner and his new life as a single father.
- How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza: As much as this is about a summer of enchantment and literal brushes with urban wildlife, it’s also about a woman’s life: loneliness, the patterns we get stuck in, and those unlooked-for experiences that might just liberate us. There’s something gently magical about the way the perspective occasionally shifts to give a fox’s backstory and impressions as a neologism-rich stream.
- Elmet by Fiona Mozley: The dark horse on this past year’s Man Booker Prize longlist, this is a twisted fable about the clash of the land-owning and serf classes in contemporary England. It’s a gorgeous, timeless tale balanced between lush nature writing and Hardyesque pessimism.
- Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: A multi-layered story about many facets of motherhood: adoption, surrogacy, pregnancy, abortion; estrangement, irritation, longing and pride. Each and every character earns our sympathy here – a real triumph of characterization, housed in a tightly plotted and beautifully written novel you’ll race through.
And my fiction book of the year was:
- The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne: A wonderful seam of humor tempers the awfulness of much of what befalls Cyril Avery – born in Dublin in 1945 – for whom homosexuality seems a terrible curse. It’s an alternately heartbreaking and heartening portrait of a life lived in defiance of intolerance and tragedy.
My poetry read of the year was:
All the Spectral Fractures: New and Selected Poems, Mary A. Hood: There is so much substance and variety to this poetry collection spanning the whole of Hood’s career. A professor emerita of microbiology at the University of West Florida and a former poet laureate of Pensacola, Florida, she takes inspiration from the ordinary folk of the state, the world of academic scientists, flora and fauna, and the minutiae of everyday life.
And here’s a quick run-through of the seven best backlist titles I read this year:
- To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis: Time travel would normally be a turnoff for me, but Willis manages it perfectly in this uproarious blend of science fiction and pitch-perfect Victorian pastiche (boating, séances and sentimentality, oh my!).
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: Brings together so many facets of the African and African-American experience; full of clear-eyed observations about the ongoing role race plays in American life.
- Days Without End by Sebastian Barry: Contains the most matter-of-fact consideration of same-sex relationships I’ve ever encountered in historical fiction. Heart-breaking, life-affirming, laugh-out-loud: those may be clichés, but it’s all these things and more.
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami: Mesmerizing and bizarre, but in the best possible way: it questions our comfort in the everyday by contorting familiar elements like dreams do. I’m a definite Murakami convert.
- The Nix by Nathan Hill: A rich story about family curses and failure, and how to make amends for a life full of mistakes. Hill is a funny and inventive writer.
- Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss: Simply superb in the way it juxtaposes England and Japan in the 1880s and comments on mental illness, the place of women, and the difficulty of navigating a marriage whether the partners are thousands of miles apart or in the same room.
My overall most memorable fiction read of the year, to my great surprise, was:
- Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler: I’ve been lukewarm on Anne Tyler’s novels before – this is my sixth from her – but this instantly leapt onto my list of absolute favorite books. Its chapters are like perfectly crafted short stories focusing on different members of the Tull family. These vignettes masterfully convey the common joys and tragedies of a fractured family’s life. After Beck Tull leaves with little warning, Pearl must raise Cody, Ezra and Jenny on her own and struggle to keep her anger in check. Cody is a vicious prankster who always has to get the better of good-natured Ezra; Jenny longs for love but keeps making bad choices. Despite their flaws, I adored these characters and yearned for them to sit down, even just the once, to an uninterrupted family dinner of comfort food.
What were some of your top fiction reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll be naming some runners-up and listing a few other superlatives.
Sometimes I love a prize winner and cheer the judges’ ruling; other times I shake my head and puzzle over how they could possibly think this was the best the year had to offer. I’m late to the party for these three recent prize-winning novels. I’m also a party pooper, I guess, because I didn’t particularly like or dislike a one of them. (Reviews are in the order in which I read the books. My rating for all three = )
A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman
(Winner of the Man Booker International Prize)
“Why the long face? Did someone die? It’s only stand-up comedy!” Except that for the comedian himself, Dovaleh Greenstein, this swan song of a show in the Israeli town of Netanya devolves into the story of the most traumatic day of his life. Grossman has made what seems to me an unusual choice of narrator: Avishai Lazar, a widower and Supreme Court justice, and Dov’s acquaintance from adolescence – they were in the same military training camp. Dov has invited him here to bear witness, and by the end we know Avishai will produce a written account of the evening.
Although it could be said that Avishai’s asides about the past, and about the increasingly restive crowd in the club, give us a rest from Dov’s claustrophobic monologue, in doing so they break the spell. This would be more hard-hitting as a play or a short story composed entirely of speech; in one of those formats, Dov’s story might keep you spellbound through a single sitting. Instead, I found that I had to force myself to read even five or 10 pages at a time. There’s no doubt Grossman can weave a clever tale about loss, and there are actually some quite funny jokes in here too, but overall I found this significantly less powerful than the author’s previous work, Falling Out of Time.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
(Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and Arthur C. Clarke Award; longlisted for the Man Booker Prize)
Following Cora on her fraught journey from her Georgia plantation through the Carolinas and Tennessee to Indiana is enjoyable enough, with the requisite atrocities like lynchings and rapes thrown in to make sure it’s not just a picaresque cat-and-mouse battle between her and Arnold Ridgeway, the villainous slavecatcher. But I’m surprised that such a case has been made for the uniqueness of this novel based on a simple tweak of the historical record: Whitehead imagines the Underground Railroad as an actual subterranean transport system. This makes less of a difference than you might expect; if anything, it renders the danger Cora faces more abstract. The same might be said for the anachronistic combination of enlightened and harsh societies she passes through: by telescoping out to show the range of threats African-Americans faced between the Civil War and the 1930s, the novel loses immediacy.
Ultimately, I felt little attachment to Cora and had to force myself to keep plodding through her story. My favorite parts were little asides giving other characters’ backstories. There’s no doubt Whitehead can shape a plot and dot in apt metaphors (I particularly liked “Ajarry died in the cotton, the bolls bobbing around her like whitecaps on the brute ocean”). However, I kept thinking, Haven’t I read this story before? (Beloved, Ruby, The Diary of Anne Frank; seen on screen in Twelve Years a Slave, Roots and the like.) This is certainly capably written, but doesn’t stand out for me compared to Homegoing, which was altogether more affecting.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
(Winner of the [Bailey’s] Women’s Prize)
I read the first ~120 pages and skimmed the rest. Alderman imagines a parallel world in which young women realize they wield electrostatic power that can maim or kill. In an Arab Spring-type movement, they start to take back power from their oppressive societies. You’ll cheer as women caught up in sex trafficking fight back and take over. The movement is led by Allie, an abused child who starts by getting revenge on her foster father and then takes her message worldwide, becoming known as Mother Eve.
Alderman has cleverly set this up as an anthropological treatise-cum-historical novel authored by “Neil Adam Armon” (an anagram of her own name), complete with documents and drawings of artifacts. “The power to hurt is a kind of wealth,” and in this situation of gender reversal women gradually turn despotic. They are soldiers and dictators; they inflict genital mutilation and rape on men.
I enjoyed the passages mimicking the Bible, but felt a lack of connection with the characters and didn’t get a sense of years passing even though this is spread over about a decade. This is most like Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy – Alderman’s debt to Atwood is explicit, in the dedication as well as the acknowledgments – so if you really like those books, by all means read this one. My usual response to such speculative fiction, though, even if it describes a believable situation, is: what’s the point? As with “Erewhon,” the best story in Helen Simpson’s collection Cockfosters, the points about gender roles are fairly obvious.
I’d be interested to hear if you’ve read any of these books – or plan to read them – and believe they were worthy prize winners. If so, set me straight!
Believe it or not, but the year is almost half over already. A look back at the “Best of 2017” shelf I’ve started on Goodreads has revealed the eight releases that have stood out most clearly for me so far. All but one of these I have already featured on the blog in some way; links are provided. I’ve also included short excerpts from my reviews to show what makes each of these books so special.
How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza: There’s something gently magical about the way the perspective occasionally shifts to give a fox’s backstory and impressions as a neologism-rich stream. As much as this is about a summer of enchantment and literal brushes with urban wildlife, it’s also about a woman’s life: loneliness, the patterns we get stuck in, and those unlooked-for experiences that might just liberate us. Cocozza sets up such intriguing contradictions between the domestic and the savage, the humdrum and the unpredictable.
Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller: This isn’t a happy family story. It’s full of betrayals and sadness, of failures to connect and communicate. Yet it’s beautifully written, with all its scenes and dialogue just right, and it’s pulsing with emotion. One theme is how there can be different interpretations of the same events even within a small family. The novel is particularly strong on atmosphere, reminding me of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea and Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. Fuller also manages her complex structure very well.
In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist: Malmquist does an extraordinary job of depicting his protagonist’s bewilderment at the sudden loss of his partner and his new life as a single father. While it’s being marketed as a novel, this reads more like a stylized memoir. Similar to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books, it features the author as the central character and narrator, and the story of grief it tells is a highly personal one. This is a book I fully expect to see on next year’s Wellcome Book Prize shortlist.
My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul: I’ve found a new favorite bibliomemoir. 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 (editor of the New York Times Book Review) always looks beyond the books themselves to ask what they say about her. Just the sort of book I wish I had written.
My Jewish Year by Abigail Pogrebin: 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. From September 2014 to September 2015, Pogrebin celebrated all the holidays in the Jewish calendar. I was consistently impressed by how she draws thematic connections and locates the resonance of religious ritual in her daily life.
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 she quotes from her ancestor’s essays as well as from Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy of life to put things in perspective. She’s an expert at capturing the moments that make life alternately euphoric and unbearable – sometimes both at once. A wonderful book, so wry and honest, with a voice that reminds me of Anne Lamott and Elizabeth McCracken.
Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby: This is a vivid, compassionate set of stories culled from the author’s long career in heart surgery. Westaby conveys a keen sense of the adrenaline rush a surgeon gets while operating with the Grim Reaper looking on. I am not a little envious of all that he 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.
The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker: Though it seems lighthearted on the surface, there’s a lot of meat to this story of the long friendship between two female animators. The cartooning world and the Kentucky–New York City dichotomy together feel like a brand new setting for a literary tragicomedy. I appreciated how Whitaker contrasts the women’s public and private personas and imagines their professional legacy. Plus I love a good road trip narrative, and this novel has two.
And here’s five more 4.5- or 5-star books that I read this year but were not published in 2017:
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?
What 2017 releases do I need to catch up on right away?
Yesterday evening’s Wellcome Book Prize announcement was my first time attending a literary prize awards ceremony. Despite my nerves going in, there was quite a relaxed atmosphere (I felt almost overdressed in my H&M dress) and it was no different to any party where one struggles to make small talk – except that here all the talk was of books!
The new high-ceilinged Reading Room at the Wellcome Library (across from London’s Euston station) was a suitably swanky setting, with the unusual collection of health-themed books surrounded by an equally odd set of curios, such as death masks, paintings showing medical conditions, and a columnar red dress designed to resemble a neural tube. There was even a jazz duo playing.
It was especially lovely to meet up with Clare (A Little Blog of Books) and Ruby (My Booking Great Blog) and compare notes on book blogging while nursing a flute of prosecco and some superlative canapés. We also indulged in some subtle celebrity spotting – or, at least, the sort of authors and public figures I consider celebrities: Ned Beauman, Sarah Churchwell, A.C. Grayling, Cathy Rentzenbrink, and Suzanne O’Sullivan, last year’s Wellcome Prize winner. Three of the shortlisted authors were also present.
About 45 minutes into the event, the official proceedings began. Crime writer Val McDermid, the chair of this year’s judging panel, gave introductory remarks about the Prize and the attributes they were looking for when assessing the 140 books in the running this year. She said they were in search of books that went beyond the superficial and revealed more layers upon each rereading – as by now they’ve read the shortlisted books three times.
Each of the judges then came to the podium to explain what they had all admired about a particular shortlisted book before presenting the author or author’s representative (editor, publisher or, in the case of Paul Kalanithi, his younger brother Jeevan, over from America) with flowers. When McDermid returned to the microphone to announce the winner, she started off by speaking of a book that combined two stories, the medical and the personal. Hmm, this might describe at least four or five of the books from the shortlist, I thought. Could it be When Breath Becomes Air, our shadow panel favorite? Or The Tidal Zone, our runner-up?
Within seconds the wait was over and we learned the actual winner was Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal. There was a pleased roar from the room, but also plenty of blinks and head shakes of surprise, I think. De Kerangal gave a few words of thanks, especially to the U.K. translator and publisher who made this edition of her book possible. This was the first work in translation to win the Wellcome Book Prize, and only the second novel (after Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante in 2011).
Clare and I stuck around for another hour and were unexpectedly asked for book recommendations by a member of the Wellcome legal team who was kind enough to take an interest in us as book bloggers. She confessed that since uni she doesn’t read much anymore, but said that at school she enjoyed Jane Austen and she’s recently read Elena Ferrante’s books. Based on that rather thin history, we suggested she try Zadie Smith, and I also spoke up for Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.
On the way out we were given terrific bookish swag bags! Mine contained a paperback reissue copy of The Tidal Zone, a Wellcome Prize bookmark and commemorative booklet, and a blank notebook featuring optician’s glass eyes.
I can’t see such London events ever being frequent for me, especially given the cost of travel in from Newbury, but if a similar opportunity arises again I won’t hesitate to take advantage of it, especially if it means putting faces to names from the U.K. blogging community.
It truly felt like spring was on the way. Temperatures were in the mid-fifties (I’ve never really gotten to grips with Centigrade) and the daffodils in our back garden were trying their best to join the snowdrops decorating the churchyard in town. I started reading this pair of books to look to the seasons ahead instead of dreading that winter might return in earnest:
Some lovely things have happened in the past week.
- I’ve delighted from afar as my sister, a widow for just over two years, precipitously falls in love with a pastor she met through a dating website.
- I had my second yoga class and, after the one other participant had to leave early, got what was essentially a private lesson. Many of the poses feel right at the edge of what my flexibility and balance will allow, which is surely a sign that the exercise is doing me good.
- (This one’s not so much lovely as annoying yet amusing.) The cat, already a connoisseur of cereal milk, discovered the illicit pleasure of melted butter in a dish we unthinkingly left on the counter, and now will not rest in his search for it. This is bad news as he’s already quite the butterball. He’s also ramped up his efforts to access all of the house’s secret spaces, including the airing cupboard, the under-stairs cupboard, and the crawlspace under the bath. [Stay tuned for tomorrow’s mini-reviews of yet more cat books, including one about some very mischievous Siamese cats.]
- On Friday I got an e-mail out of the blue asking me to review a book for the Times Literary Supplement. It was October 2015 when I first wrote for them, but that ended poorly: they ran out space in the magazine for my review and paid me a “kill fee” instead, but it made me doubt myself – was that code for them not thinking my writing was good enough to publish? So hearing back from them five months after I’d last gotten in touch asking for work was a great surprise. And I get to read History of Wolves, which I’ve heard marvelous things about.
- We went to a brilliant gig by folk artists Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin in a hole-in-the-wall venue 10 minutes from our house. It was doubtless the first time I’d seen beatboxing and a classical Indian sitar/guitar used in folk music, and Henry’s harmonica skills were literally unbelievable. You had to have been there. I was impressed anew at how folk, arising as it does from liberal working-class traditions, is unafraid to tackle social issues. They had songs about his cotton mill-working grandfather, the war in Syria, immigration, and a detention center in the Midlands. My favorite, though, was “Landlocked,” about a real woman from the eighteenth century who went to sea with her naval husband but ended up right back where she started: selling fish at Exmouth harbor. I loved Martin’s deep, rich voice and the complex interplay of guitar, banjo, pedal steel and fiddle in many of their songs.
- With one of our leftover jars of homemade mincemeat we made a decadent mincemeat cheesecake from this Nigel Slater recipe. What with the shortbread crust and crumbs and the orange zest in the topping, it was very much like having mince pies – but also cheesecake. Yum.
- This morning we attended a service led by a former archbishop. We knew that George Carey was a parishioner at the Berkshire church we’ve been frequenting since December, but hadn’t seen him at the pulpit yet. He’s one of various retired and lay clergy who have been filling in while the church seeks to appoint a new vicar. Carey gave a damn fine sermon (I guess he’s had plenty of practice) on the enormous topic of why bad things happen to good people, refuting the prosperity gospel and telling the tragically fascinating story behind the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul.”
And, of course, I’ve been reading some brilliant books. This week’s ongoing reading has included three terrific novels: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař, and Narcissism for Beginners by Martine McDonagh.
How was your week – in terms of reading and otherwise?
Let’s hear it for the ladies! In 2016 women writers accounted for 9 out of my 15 top fiction picks, 12 out of my 15 nonfiction selections, and 8 of the 10 runners-up below. That’s 73%. The choices below are in alphabetical order by author, with any full reviews linked in. Many of these have already appeared on the blog in some form over the course of the year.
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood: Atwood looks more like a good witch every year, and here she works her magic on The Tempest to produce the most satisfying volume of the Hogarth Shakespeare series yet. There’s a really clever play-within-the-play-within-the-play thing going on, and themes of imprisonment and performance resonate in multiple ways.
The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church: In Church’s debut, an amateur ornithologist learns about love and sacrifice through marriage to a Los Alamos physicist and a relationship with a Vietnam veteran. I instantly warmed to Meri as a narrator and loved following her unpredictable life story.
We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge: The Freemans are raising Charlie, a chimpanzee, as part of their family for a Toneybee Institute experiment and teaching him to communicate via sign language. This is a rich and unsettling story of human–human interactions, even more so than human–animal interactions; it’s a great first novel and I will follow Greenidge’s career with interest.
To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey: Ivey’s intricate second novel weaves together diaries, letters, photographs, and various other documents and artifacts to tell the gently supernatural story of an exploratory mission along Alaska’s Wolverine River in 1885 and its effects through to the present day. I can highly recommend this rollicking adventure tale to fans of historical fiction and magic realism.
This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell: Spreading outward from Ireland and reaching into every character’s past and future, this has all O’Farrell’s trademark insight into family and romantic relationships, as well as her gorgeous prose and precise imagery. I have always felt that O’Farrell expertly straddles the (perhaps imaginary) line between literary and popular fiction; her books are addictively readable but also hold up to critical scrutiny.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: This deep study of blended family dynamics starts with an early 1960s christening party Los Angeles policeman Fix Keating is throwing for his younger daughter, Franny; we see the aftermath of that party in the lives of six step-siblings in the decades to come. This is a sophisticated and atmospheric novel I would not hesitate to recommend to literary fiction fans in general and Patchett fans in particular.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith: Jessie Burton, Tracy Chevalier and all others who try to write historical fiction about the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, eat your hearts out. Such a beautiful epoch-spanning novel about art and regret.
Shelter by Jung Yun: A Korean-American family faces up to violence past and present in a strong debut that offers the hope of redemption. I would recommend this to fans of David Vann and Richard Ford.
I Will Find You by Joanna Connors: By using present-tense narration, Connors makes the events of 1984 feel as if they happened yesterday: a blow-by-blow of the sex acts forced on her at knife-point over the nearly one-hour duration of her rape; the police reports and trials; and the effects it all had on her marriage and family. This is an excellent work of reconstruction and investigative reporting.
Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge: Younge built this book by choosing a 24-hour period (November 22 to 23, 2013) and delving into all 10 gun deaths of young Americans on record for that time: seven black, two Latino, and one white; aged nine to 18; about half at least vaguely gang-related, while in two – perhaps the most crushing cases – there was an accident while playing around with a gun. I dare anyone to read this and then try to defend gun ‘rights’ in the face of such senseless, everyday loss.
Best Discoveries of the Year: Apollo Classics reprints (I reviewed three of them this year); Diana Abu-Jaber, Linda Grant and Kristopher Jansma.
Most Pleasant Year-Long Reading Experience: The seasonal anthologies issued by the UK Wildlife Trusts and edited by Melissa Harrison (I reviewed three of them this year).
Most Improved: I heartily disliked Sarah Perry’s debut novel, After Me Comes the Flood. But her second, The Essex Serpent, is exquisite.
Debut Novelists Whose Next Work I’m Most Looking Forward to: Stephanie Danler, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Francis Spufford, Andria Williams and Sunil Yapa.
The Year’s Biggest Disappointments: Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer, Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple, and Swing Time by Zadie Smith. Here’s hoping 2017 doesn’t bring any letdowns from beloved authors.
The Worst Book I Read This Year: Paulina & Fran (2015) by Rachel B. Glaser. My only one-star review of the year. ’Nuff said?
The 2016 Novels I Most Wish I’d Gotten to: (At least the 10 I’m most regretful about)
- The Power by Naomi Alderman
- The Museum of You by Carys Bray
- The Course of Love by Alain de Botton
- What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell*
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
- The Waiting Room by Leah Kaminsky
- The Inseparables by Stuart Nadler
- Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst*
- The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney*
- The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead*
*Haven’t been able to find anywhere yet; the rest are on my Kindle.