Books in Brief: Five I Loved Recently

Novels narrated by an octogenarian and an unborn child; memoirs about connection with nature and escaping an abusive relationship; and a strong poetry collection that includes some everyday epics: these five wildly different books are all 4-star reads I can highly recommend.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old

hendrik-groenIn this anonymous Dutch novel in diary form, Hendrik Groen provides a full reckoning of how 2013 went down in his Amsterdam old folks’ care home. He and five friends form the “Old But Not Dead” club and take turns planning exciting weekly outings. Much comic relief is provided by his incorrigibly tippling friend, Evert, and the arrival of Eefje makes late-life romance seem like a possibility for Hendrik. However, there’s no getting around physical decay: between them these friends suffer from incontinence, dementia, diabetic amputations and a stroke. By the time 2014 rolls around, their number will be reduced by one. Yet this is a tremendously witty and warm-hearted book, despite Hendrik’s sad family history. It’s definitely one for fans of A Man Called Ove – but I liked this more. A sequel from 85-year-old Hendrik came out this year in Dutch; I’ll be looking forward to the English translation.


The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy

By Michael McCarthy

moth-snowstormAn environmental journalist for the UK’s Independent, McCarthy offers a personal view of how the erstwhile abundance of the natural world has experienced a dramatic thinning, even just in England in his lifetime. He gives both statistical and anecdotal evidence for that decline; as a case study he discusses the construction of a sea wall at Saemangeum in South Korea, responsible for decimating a precious estuary habitat for shorebirds. As if to balance his pessimism about the state of the world, McCarthy remembers singular natural encounters that filled him with joy and wonder – first discovering birdwatching as a lad near Liverpool, seeing a morpho butterfly in South America – but also annual displays that rekindle his love of life: the winter solstice, the arrival of cuckoos, and bluebells. This memoir is more sentimental than I expected from an English author, but I admire his passion and openness.



By Ian McEwan

nutshellMy seventh McEwan novel and one of his strongest. Within the first few pages, I was utterly captivated and convinced by the voice of this contemporary, in utero Hamlet. Provided you suspend disbelief a bit to accept he can see/hear/surmise everything that happens – the most tedious passages are those where McEwan tries to give more precise justification for his narrator’s observations – the plot really works. Not even born and already a snob with an advanced vocabulary and a taste for fine wine, this fetus is a delight to spend time with. His captive state pairs perfectly with Hamlet’s existential despair, but also makes him (and us as readers) part of the conspiracy: even as he wants justice for his father, he has to hope his mother and uncle will get away with their crime; his whole future depends on it.

Favorite line: “I have lungs but not air to shout a warning or weep with shame at my impotence.”


How Snow Falls

By Craig Raine

how-snow-fallsOne of the few best poetry collections I’ve read this year. It contains nary a dud and is a good one to sink your teeth into – it’s composed of just 20 poems, but several are in-depth epics drawn from everyday life and death. Two elegies, to a dead mother and a former lover, are particularly strong. I loved the mixture of clinical and whimsical vocabulary in “I Remember My Mother” as the poet charts the transformation from person to corpse. “Rashomon” is another stand-out, commissioned as an opera and inspired by the short story “In a Grove” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. In couplets with a flexible rhyme scheme, the poem alternates the perspectives of a bandit, a captive husband, his raped wife, and the woodcutter who becomes an unwilling observer. Alliteration is noteworthy throughout the collection, but here produces one of my favorite lines: “Sweet cedar chips were spurting in the gloom like sparks.”


Land of Enchantment

By Leigh Stein

land-of-enchantmentStein tells of her abusive relationship with Jason, a reckless younger man with whom she moved to New Mexico. The memoir mostly toggles between their shaky attempt at a functional relationship in 2007 and learning about his death in a motorcycle accident in 2011. Even though they’d drifted apart, Jason’s memory still had power over her. Breaking free from him meant growing up at last and taking responsibility for her future. You might call this a feminist coming-of-age narrative, though that makes it sound more strident and formulaic than it actually is. I admired the skipping around in time, and especially a late chapter in the second person. I also enjoyed how New Mexico provides a metaphorical as well as a literal setting; Stein weaves in references to Georgia O’Keeffe’s art and letters to put into context her own search to become a self-sufficient artist.


Have you read any of these? Which one takes your fancy?

16 responses

  1. I’d go for the first one!
    Nutshell sounds better than I thought it would, too – I had no idea what it was really about.


    1. Oh yes, Hendrik Groen is very sweet. I think you’ll enjoy it.

      And I, too, was surprised by how well Nutshell worked. The plot sounded a little zany to me, but McEwan totally pulled it off. Have you read any of his other books?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Atonement, which just about killed me. Saturday, which bored me. And On Chesil Beach, which I really liked. 🙂


    2. Is that killed you in a good way or a bad way? 🙂 I loved Atonement. You might also like Solar, a comedy about a scientist.


      1. In a good way (I think). It really got to me – I still can’t shake it. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. If the Hendrik Groen is for fans of ‘A Man called Ove’ I’ll give it a miss. I remembert rnot believing in any of the characters but the cat, in the Ove book. I see we both gave it three stars on Goodreads, which in retrospect was generous of me. Is this one a more convincing read?


    1. I didn’t care for A Man Called Ove very much at all; I found it sentimental. Hendrik Groen is a lot better.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think we can agree about Ove. So I’m prepared to give Hendrik a whirl 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I think, by the way, that you’ve sold me the Ian McEwan and the Michael McCarthy


    1. Great! I think the McCarthy is definitely one for you. Had you heard about the Saemangeum sea wall?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I hadn’t! So much to learn…..


  4. Really looking forward to Nutshell! The Moth Snowstorm sounds interesting too.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I find the knee-jerk dismissal of Nutshell as ridiculous and/or misogynist or anti-choice soooo frustrating. Because it’s always by someone who hasn’t read the book. I might read this but maybe I’ll read hamlet first!


    1. Oh wow, you’ve never read Hamlet! That was the winning admission in David Lodge’s literary “Humiliation” game where people admit the books everyone is supposed to have read but they never have.

      Yes, it’s good to remember that in Nutshell the fetus as narrator is simply a literary device.


  6. […] the surface this is similar to a novel I reviewed earlier in the month, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old. But where spunky Hendrik determines to outwit […]


  7. […] 11, Michael Joseph (Penguin UK)]: I loved the first Hendrik Groen novel back in 2016 (reviewed here); this promises more of the same witty, bittersweet stories about elderly Dutch eccentrics. […]


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