Reviews Roundup, April–May
Every month I compile the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to click on the link to read more.
The Good Guy by Susan Beale: You might think there’s nothing new to add to the suburban-angst-and-adultery storyline. What Beale does so beautifully in this debut novel is to put you right into the minds of the three main characters. This is a story about the differences between what’s easy and what’s right, and the quest to make amends wherever possible. It’s also a cautionary tale: be careful what you wish for, because that boring life you were so eager to escape may just be what you wanted after all. I also love the range of settings, from the dazzling Shoppers’ World mall to a beach house on Cape Cod. This is a delicious, slightly gossipy summer read with a Mad Men feel to it. I’d especially recommend this to fans of The Longest Night and Tigers in Red Weather. Releases June 16th.
Invincible Summer by Alice Adams: Four Bristol University friends navigate the highs and lows of life in the 20 years following graduation. Like in One Day, the narrative checks in on the characters nearly every summer. As happens in real life, even the closest friends gradually drift apart. Job situations and relationships change, and external events like the financial collapse of 2008 take a toll. Compared to some other similar recent novels (e.g. Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma), this debut somewhat lacks sparkle. Releases June 2nd in the UK and June 28th in the USA.
This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell: O’Farrell’s globe-trotting seventh novel opens in 2010 with Daniel Sullivan, an American linguistics professor in Donegal. 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. The disparate locations and the title suggest our nomadic modern condition. It’s the widest scope she has attempted yet; that’s both a good and a bad thing. I did wonder if there were a few too many characters and plot threads.
(A subscriber service, so I can only make excerpts available.)
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. Torn between two men who mean so much to her, Meri has to consider what her true duties are. “There was no good solution. No clear way out, no approach that would earn the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” she wryly observes. I instantly warmed to Meri as a narrator and loved following her unpredictable life story. Church reveals the difficulty a woman of that time had in choosing her own path and making it fit into men’s plans, and shows how love, as the title suggests, can be a burden but also a thing of reassuring substance. Meri longs, like one of her beloved birds, to take flight into her dreams. Whether she gets there, and how, is a bittersweet trip but one you’ll be glad you went along for.
The North Water by Ian McGuire: A gritty tale of adventure and murder set aboard a mid-nineteenth-century whaling ship. Archaic adjectives pile up in a clever recreation of Victorian prose: “The men, empurpled, reeking, drenched in the fish’s steaming, expectorated gore.” Much of the novel is bleak and brutal like that. There are a lot of “F” and “C” words, too; this is so impeccably researched that I don’t doubt the language is accurate. McGuire never shies away from gory detail, whether that’s putrid smells, bodily fluids, animal slaughter, or human cruelty. I thought the novel’s villain was perhaps too evil, with no redeeming features. Still, this is a powerful inquiry into human nature and the making of ethical choices in extreme circumstances. From the open seas to the forbidding polar regions, this is a journey worth taking.
Rediscovering the Immune System as an Integrated Organ by Peter Bretscher: A rigorous introduction to current immunological thought. Vocabulary terms are given in bold italics and defined in context on first use, and each chapter ends with a helpful synopsis. However, these summaries are almost as dense as the text itself, and the many acronyms are difficult to keep straight. Unlike a textbook, though, the book also contains welcome snippets of autobiography. Bretscher traces not just the evolution of immunological knowledge, but also the development of his own thinking. This will be an invaluable resource for students in search of a nonstandard immunology primer. With research under way into vaccinations against AIDS, tuberculosis, and cancer, the field has a bright future.
Crowning Glory: An experiment in self-discovery through disguise by Stacy Harshman: In 2005, Harshman decided to embark on a sociological experiment-cum-personal challenge: each week for six weeks she donned a different wig, and with the help of her assistant, Bonnie, she carefully recorded the reactions she received from onlookers and potential partners. Each day she chose three New York City locales, taking in events like lunch, happy hour, and late night socializing. Recalling the time she was hospitalized for a psychotic break in 2000, she marvels at how changing hairstyles could help her feel self-assured and sexy. The book is an appealing cross between a scientific study and a spy story.
All at Sea by Decca Aitkenhead: In May 2014, Aitkenhead, a Guardian writer, was on vacation with her partner Tony Wilkinson and their two young sons in Jamaica. A beautiful sunny morning turned disastrous when Tony swam out to rescue their son Jake and drowned. After the tragic events of the first chapter, this wrenching memoir retreats to consider the 10 years she and Tony (a former criminal and crack addict) spent as “the most implausible couple I have ever known.” More than half the book is devoted to the aftermath of Tony’s death, described in a matter-of-fact style that still manages to convey the depth of Aitkenhead’s pain. This is a unique combination of a journalist’s forthright storytelling and the ‘magical thinking’ Joan Didion introduced. Releases in the States on August 16th.
Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent by Mircea Eliade: This rediscovered Romanian classic is what you might get if a teenage Adrian Mole was studying for a philosophy degree. Before picking this up I knew of Eliade as a commentator on world religions. I didn’t realize he also wrote novels. This is particularly special in that it’s a lost manuscript he wrote as a teenager; it was only discovered in a Bucharest attic after his death in the 1980s. The novel’s chief detriments – the repetitive nature of the sections about his schooling, and his obsessive introspection – are also, ironically, what make it most true to the adolescent experience. I’d recommend it to fans of My Brilliant Friend and Melanie Sumner’s How to Write a Novel.
Quiet Flows the Una by Faruk Šehić: This autobiographical novel by a Bosnian poet and former soldier is full of poetic language and nature imagery. The narrator transcends his sordid war memories through his magical approach to life. Actual war scenes only come much later in the book; even then they are conveyed in such an abstract style that they seem more like hallucinations than remembered events. The lyrical writing about his beloved river provides a perfect counterpoint to the horror and absurdity of war. “We made this town, Bosanska Krupa, of black mire, yellow sand and green water borrowed from the Una. The tall towers of our town tickle God’s feet.” What most impressed me about passages like that one is the alliteration that shines through even after translation. I would highly recommend this to readers of Anthony Marra and Daniel Kehlmann.
Shelter by Jung Yun: A Korean-American family faces up to violence past and present in this strong debut. Finances and relationships just keep going from bad to worse, as the novel’s tripartite structure suggests: “Dawn” cedes to “Dusk,” which descends into “Night.” You wonder just how terrible things can get – will this really reach the Thomas Hardy levels of tragedy it seems to portend? – until, in the incredible last 10 pages, Yun pulls back from violence and offers the hope of redemption. I did wonder if there were a few too many secondary characters. However, the Korean-American culture of honor and shame makes a perfect setting. I would recommend this to fans of David Vann and Richard Ford.
The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang: Mental illness haunts an Asian-American family in this offbeat multi-generational saga. Wang’s debut novel opens in 1968 with David Nowak reporting from the motel room where he plans to kill himself. Succeeding portions of the novel are narrated from other perspectives: David’s wife Jia-Hui, aka Daisy, whom he met in Taiwan; then their son William and his half-sister Gillian. Jia-Hui’s narrative is the most entrancing. Presented as a translation, it includes occasional foreign characters or blank spaces where she couldn’t quite catch what someone was saying in English. Her sections are full of foreboding about the family legacy of madness. I was reminded most of A Reunion of Ghosts and All My Puny Sorrows. Something about this book left a slightly bitter aftertaste for me, but there’s no doubt Wang has fine plotting, character building, and prose skills.
The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught Her to Fly by Luis Sepúlveda: Zorba, a fat black cat, will be alone this summer while his boy’s family go on holiday – convenient given the adventure that’s about to befall him. Kengah, an exhausted and oil-drenched seagull, lands on his balcony and lays a final, precious egg. She makes Zorba promise he will not eat the egg but will look after her baby and teach it to fly. He enlists his motley group of fellow cats at the port of Hamburg to help him figure out how to raise a chick. Sepúlveda, a Chilean author, was jailed under the Pinochet regime and was later on the crew of a Greenpeace ship. The environmental message here is noticeable but not overpowering. Geared towards confident nine- to eleven-year-olds, this might also be read aloud with younger children.
Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu by Yi Shun Lai: Marty Wu is an advertising account executive for a NYC retirees’ magazine but dreams of opening her own costume shop. This debut novel is her Bridget Jones-esque diary, often written in a kind of shorthand style contrasting her goals with her seemingly inevitably failures, as in: “Crap. Is 4:00 a.m. Have breakfast meeting. Must sleep.” She’s constantly quoting to herself the advice and wisdom she’s gleaned from various motivational books she picked up in hopes of self-improvement. Lai writes engagingly about the contrasts between Taiwan and the States, especially the complexities of family roles. This is a lighthearted, summery read. Watch Marty ditch self-help books and start living the life she wants anyway.
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue: A nurse investigates the case of an Irish girl surviving without food for months: miracle or hoax? The novel draws on about 50 historical cases of “Fasting Girls” that occurred in Europe and North America in the 16th to 20th centuries. It sets up a particularly effective contrast between medicine and superstition. Donoghue writes convincing, vivid historical fiction, peppering the text with small details about everything from literature to technology. This is the fifth book I’ve read by her, and it’s by far my favorite. With the two-week time limit and the fact that most scenes take place in the cabin – with just a handful set in other village locales like the bog and the pub where Lib stays – this has something of the flavor of a locked-room mystery. Releases September 20th.
Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint: A nostalgic tour through a soccer fan’s highlights. Over the years Toussaint has realized what he loves about the sport: its seasonality (the World Cup “comes round every four years with the regularity of a leap-year seasonal fruit”) and the rituals of attending a match. On the other hand, he recognizes downsides, such as temporary permission given to chauvinism and the fact that it doesn’t age well – it’s an instant thing; one doesn’t tend to watch repeats. My favorite chapter, set in 2014, is less about sports and more about a hard time in the author’s personal life: he had recently lost his father and finished a ten-year novel sequence, leaving him unsure what to do next. I enjoyed his introspective passages about the writing life and the sense of purpose it gives his struggles. I was not the ideal reader, given my general antipathy to sports and my unfamiliarity with the author. All the same, I can see how this would appeal to fans of Fever Pitch.
Reviews Roundup, February–March
One of my goals with this blog was to have one convenient place where I could gather together all my writing that appears in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I provide links to all book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to read more. A few exceptions: I don’t point out my Kirkus Indie, BlueInk or Publishers Weekly reviews since I don’t get a byline. Meanwhile, I’ve done my first article for the Los Angeles Review of Books – exciting!
Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell: Brings the late 1950s, specifically the bustling, cutthroat New York City publishing world, to life through the connections between three young people who collide over a debated manuscript. The three first-person voices fit together like a dream. It’s an expert evocation of Beat culture and post-war paranoia over Communism and homosexuality. Walking into Eden’s office, especially, you’ll think you’ve landed on the set of Mad Men. This classy, well-plotted follow-up will win Rindell even more fans and tide us all over until the film version of The Other Typist – produced by and starring Keira Knightley – appears. Releases May 19th in the UK.
Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma: Five university friends strive to make their lives count against the indifferent backdrop of recession-era New York City. When one of them falls ill, they pull together like a family. The tone of the novel lies somewhere between A Little Life and the sitcom Friends (a Mexican version of which the characters watch obsessively). Even as his characters realize that they are not special and not in control of their lives, Jansma never lets his book descend too far into gloom. Narrowly misses out on 5 stars from me because the storyline loses momentum in Part Two. Rich with emotion and literary allusions (from Walden to The Iliad), this is my favorite novel of the year so far.
Waltzing in Vienna by C.G. Metts (& interview): Three girlfriends – a singer staging a comeback, a psychology professor reawakening to sexuality after being widowed, and a socialite Southern Belle – are reunited in Charleston, South Carolina in their early forties. Remembering their wild college days, they wonder how to make midlife count. There’s a fun Sex and the City or Ya-Ya Sisterhood vibe to this recommended debut novel. I liked the mixture of nostalgia and gentle feminism, and I think this may also inspire readers to see South Carolina’s coastal landscape for themselves. The title phrase is the friends’ shorthand for smoking marijuana together.
The Cauliflower® by Nicola Barker: Put simply, this is a fictionalized biography of the largely illiterate Hindu guru Sri Ramakrishna (1836–1886). That may sound dry as dust, but Barker makes it a playful delight by skipping around in time and interspersing aphorisms, imagined film scenes, questions and answers, and even a recipe with the narrative chapters. The kernel of the story – set in 1857 at the Dakshineswar Kali Temple, six miles north of Calcutta – is narrated in the first person by the guru’s nephew, Hriday. Scripture of all types (the Bible is also cited) is a relevant, joyful echo here rather than a dull set of rules. Bizarre but very readable. Releases April 21st.
The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James: This composite picture of the state of wildlife conservation in India is told from three perspectives: an elephant named the Gravedigger, a poacher, and a documentary filmmaker. James ably intersperses three voices as she explores how people fail to live up to their ideals and make harmful assumptions. Despite these attributes, it was one of those books I had to force myself through. Perhaps it was the environmental agenda: if a book is going to wear its message so openly, it has to live up to it in terms of the writing. I might have preferred it if the whole novel had been from Emma’s point of view, with one climactic encounter with the Gravedigger to make the poaching question immediate and not simply academic.
Dog Run Moon: Stories by Callan Wink [subscription service]: Wink’s debut story collection, set mostly under Montana’s open skies, stars a motley cast of aimless young men, ranchers, Native Americans, and animals live and dead. He plays around with Western stereotypes in intriguing ways. A few of the tales are a bit less compelling, and I would have preferred more variety in narration (8 of 9 are third person), but the stand-outs more than make up for it. My two favorites were “Runoff” (there’s a double meaning to the title) and “Exotics,” in which all the characters are lured by the life they don’t currently have.
For Books’ Sake
Interview with Rachel B. Glaser, author of Paulina & Fran [my review of which was in last month’s roundup]
Night Ringing by Laura Foley: Foley’s strong fifth collection ruminates on romance and family via autobiographical free verse. One of the collection highlights is “In the Honda Service Area,” which unexpectedly unites modern technology with ancient literature. While a woman describes her impending hip replacement surgery to a friend, Foley tries to concentrate on Homer’s Iliad. The collection is dedicated to Foley’s partner, Clara Giménez, and lesbian romance is a subtle undercurrent. Especially recommended for fans of Jane Hilberry and Adrienne Rich.
The Temple of Paris by Laura DeBruce: This second volume in Laura DeBruce’s Quicksilver Legacy trilogy is a fast-paced fantasy adventure novel. In the previous book, the author introduced the “Immortals,” centuries-old creatures who are impervious to disease and aging due to a magic elixir. If Hana, the teenage protagonist, can learn how to use the elixir in her possession correctly, she can save her mother from a potentially fatal blood disorder. Although the complicated plot might be challenging for those new to the series, older teens will appreciate the rollicking story and the chance for vicarious European sightseeing.
Mon amie américaine by Michèle Halberstadt: After years of heavy smoking and migraines, a brain aneurysm plunges forty-year-old Molly into a coma. The novel is presented as Michèle’s confessional letter to her American friend Molly, addressed in the second person. During Molly’s coma and after she wakes up, Michèle ponders their unlikely friendship and also frets over her threatened marriage. The novella is like a cross between Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly, and bears tantalizing traces of deliberate homage to Pedro Almodóvar’s coma-themed Talk to Her: an understated dual account of betrayal and disability.
Specimen: Stories by Irina Kovalyova: “People like to pretend that our genes define the truth for us. But I assure you that’s not the case,” a character insists in the title story. Diverse in setting and form, these nine stories, long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, contrast the scientific understanding of genetics with deeper wisdom about the bonds of love and family. Nestling science into rich psychological narratives, Kovalyova’s work is reminiscent of that of Andrea Barrett and A. S. Byatt; in fact, the latter is directly referenced in one story. She also channels Anthony Marra and Adam Johnson by affirming love’s survival in spite of repressive situations.
Of Crime and Passion by Jonathan Harnisch: In this novella, a proud young man seeks to transcend his underprivileged upbringing by worming his way into the homes of the rich and seducing powerful women. At its heart, the book is about the ongoing conflict between economic and social classes. With the melodramatic action and old-fashioned dialogue, though, it is easy to imagine this coming-of-age tale working better in the form of a play.
(a Canadian publication highlighting coastal ecosystems)
Seal by Victoria Dickenson: “It is hard to imagine a creature more distant from the human species in bodily form, habits, and habitat than the seal,” Dickenson writes in her introduction, “yet our mutual regard tells of a long, shared history of interaction.” Seal is the latest in the 80-strong Animal series from Reaktion Books. Like other volumes, this gives a brief discussion of the featured animal’s evolutionary biology, followed by an interdisciplinary survey of how it has entered human culture throughout history. In the final two chapters—the highlight of an occasionally dry book—Dickenson gives a balanced account of the history of hunting seals.
Los Angeles Review of Books
“Rediscovering an Overlooked Woman Novelist”: A dual review of Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist by Anne Boyd Rioux () and Miss Grief and Other Stories (), a new selection of Woolson’s short fiction.
Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840–1894) is most often remembered for her connection to male writers; her great-uncle was pioneering American novelist James Fenimore Cooper, and in her later years as an expatriate in Europe she associated with Henry James, fueling rumors of a romance between them. Deserving to be known in her own right, Woolson represents key junctures between realism and regionalism, and between American and European styles. Gives a remarkable picture of a bold, bright woman who paved the way for writers such as Edith Wharton, E. M. Forster, and Willa Cather, and who arguably might be hailed in the same breath as Henry James and George Eliot.
My quick response to Instructions for a Heatwave, for a Maggie O’Farrell retrospective: Another spot-on tale of family and romantic relationships – O’Farrell always gets the emotional tenor just right. You may spot hints of Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry or Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, but the psychological and linguistic precision is all O’Farrell’s own. Her descriptive language is unfailingly elegant. I love how she opens with the heat as the most notable character: “It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome: it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs.”
Pretentiousness: Why It Matters by Dan Fox: This wide-ranging essay discusses pretentiousness as it relates to class, taste, and modern art. Fox grew up outside of Oxford but now lives in New York City, where he is the co-editor of frieze. From its Latin etymology we learn that pretentious means “to stretch before,” so to hold something in front of you like a mask. He thus starts off by talking about acting techniques and rhetoric, then broadens this out to themes of authenticity and self-discovery. The most interesting part of the book concerns class connotations. This is a somewhat meandering work, and though it has good individual lines it is not always riveting.
Third Way magazine
I’ve reviewed books, mostly fiction, for them for the last 2.5 years; sadly, the April 2016 issue will be the final one. It’s a shame; the progressive Christian perspective on popular culture is a niche it will be hard to fill.
Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris: Barney Norris is a playwright in his twenties, so it’s no surprise that there’s something a little staged to his debut novel. The lives of the book’s five narrators collide one night when a car hits a moped in Salisbury town center. We hear from each protagonist in turn as they reflect on their losses and wonder whether religion – represented by Salisbury Cathedral and the scripture and rituals of Christianity – might help. Rita is the liveliest and most engaging character, difficult as her expletive-strewn narrative might be to traverse. Like David Nicholls, Norris prizes emotional connection and delivers a theatrical plot. If he can avoid the more clichéd aspects of a novel like One Day, he could have a long career in fiction ahead of him. Releases April 21st.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads:
Mosquitoland by David Arnold: I don’t read a whole lot of YA, but the voice of this one captured me right away. Like Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars, Mim (Mary Iris Malone) is a lovably sarcastic oddball – she describes herself as “a young Ellen Page” à la Juno – with some hidden issues that come out over the course of the book. Here Mim’s journey takes the form of a road trip from Mississippi, where she lives with her father and new stepmother, back to Ohio to be with her sick mother. She meets a kooky cast of secondary characters along the way, narrowly escapes danger, and even gets a chance at romance.
A Change of World: Poems by Adrienne Rich: This is a forthcoming Norton reissue of Rich’s first collection from 1951. I’d always thought of her as a later, feminist poet, so it was jolting to see an introduction from W.H. Auden – that made it feel like a real generational crossover. It’s a very impressive debut, full of mannered, rhyme-rich verse. Two favorites were “Walden 1950” (“Thoreau, lank ghost, comes back to visit Concord, / Finds the town like all towns, much the same— / A little less remote, less independent”) and “The Innocents.” I’ll be interested to read some of her later work and see if she loosened up with form. Releases June 21st.
The Shadow Hour by Kate Riordan: A clever dual-timeline novel with a pleasing Gothic flavor. In 1922 Grace Fairford takes up a governess position at Fenix House near Cheltenham, the very place where her grandmother, Harriet Jenner, worked in 1878. Every few chapters the perspective shifts from Grace (first person) to Harriet (third person). The novel is full of coincidences and the sense of history repeating itself. Riordan’s writing is capable, sometimes clichéd, but the echoes of Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw make this a delicious guilty-pleasure read.
Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious by David Dark: Etymologically, the word “religion” means to bind together again. Simply put, Dark’s thesis is that we’re all connected: we are in relationship with the people around us and can’t pretend otherwise. What we need is a shared vision for our shared life, and that involves engaging with other people. No pie-in-the-sky theology here; Dark affirms Daniel Berrigan’s assertion that “the actual world is our only world,” so things like climate change, gun control, immigration, and foreign policy are religious issues because they affect us all in this life. Together we have to imagine another story that isn’t capitalism and American imperialism as usual.
Adios, Cowboy by Olja Savičević Ivančević: In summer 2009, Dada (aka Rusty) returns to her Croatian hometown to care for her mother. Going home facing up to the fact of her brother’s death – when he was 18 he threw himself under a train. “One has to sit down beside one’s demon and mollify it until it’s calm – that’s all, perhaps, that can be done,” she muses. Now for the title: Dada’s late father, brother, and friends (“the Iroquois Brothers”) were all big on cowboys and Indians. When news comes that a spaghetti western actor/director named Ned Montgomery will be passing through town, it causes Dada to think about her father and her brother and, what’s more, about the workings of her own memory.
Now Go Out There: (and Get Curious) by Mary Karr: There’s not much to this Syracuse University commencement speech. Leftovers of sob-story autobiography and clichéd advice cobbled together. Disappointing given how much I loved Karr’s recent The Art of Memoir. For a truly inspirational graduation address, I recommend David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water.
How to Be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living by Rob Bell: Bell left his pastoral role to become a motivational speaker so, unsurprisingly, this book is closer to self-help than theology. He’s good pals with Elizabeth Gilbert, and this book would make a great companion piece to her Big Magic. It’s about how to find what gets you out of bed in the morning and live mindfully. As always, his formatting – bite-size paragraphs, stretching out phrases with line breaks – is slightly annoying. I didn’t learn a whole lot; it was more a case of being reminded of things I knew deep down. He prefaces most chapters with an anecdote about his creative ventures, some of which were utter failures.
And my highest recommendation goes to…
The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson: The kernel of the novel is a true story: for two summers in the late 1880s, Chekhov stayed at the Lintvaryovs’ guest house in Luka, Ukraine. One strand of the narration is a journal kept during those years by Zinaida, the family’s eldest daughter, a doctor dying of a brain tumor. Zina’s story is offset by those of two contemporary women. Katya, a Russian émigré in London who’s trying to keep her failing publishing house afloat, sends the never-before-published diary to Ana, a translator based near the French border with Switzerland. There’s a touch of mystery here: where was the diary found? And what became of the novel Chekhov mentions he had in progress? Ana’s search for answers takes her to the Lintvaryov estate, even though Ukraine in 2014 is a hotbed of unrest. Having recently watched the BBC War & Peace miniseries with rapt interest and seen a Tchaikovsky symphony performance, it was the perfect time to get lost in an intricate, playful novel about how Russian literature still resonates. I’ll certainly be looking up Anderson’s other novels.
The Best Fiction of 2015: My Top 15
2015 was a great year for fiction, largely dominated by doorstoppers (like Death & Mr. Pickwick and City on Fire, in addition to the Franzen and Yanagihara listed below) and Harper Lee. I’ve decided to pass on Go Set a Watchman, but I’ve read plenty of the year’s big-name fiction, as well as some more obscure titles I’d like to bring to your attention.
As difficult as it is to pit books against each other and come up with a numbered list, I’ve given it a go and come up with my top 15 fiction works of the year. To keep it simple for myself and straightforward for potential readers, I’m 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.
Let the countdown begin!
- The Shore by Sara Taylor: Gritty and virtuosic, this debut novel-in-13-stories imagines 250 years of history on a set of islands. Every region needs a literary chronicler, and I reckon Taylor – channeling David Mitchell with her cross-centuries approach – is it for the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia’s islands.
- Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins: Gold, fame, citrus: reasons people once came to California; now, only a desperate remnant remains in the waterless wasteland. As a smart, believable dystopian with a family at its heart, this trumps any of last year’s efforts (like Station Eleven or California).
- Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish: Like West Side Story, this debut novel is an updated Romeo and Juliet narrative – a tragedy-bound love story with a grimy contemporary setting and a sobering message about racism and the failure of the American dream. The matter-of-fact style somehow manages to elevate the everyday and urban into an art form. (Reviewed for Third Way magazine in August.)
- Circling the Sun by Paula McLain: Before she ever thought of flying solo across the Atlantic, aviatrix Beryl Markham was just Beryl Clutterbuck: raised in Kenya, one of Africa’s first female horse trainers, its first professional female pilot, and the other side of the love triangle featuring Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) and Denys Finch Hatton. McLain describes her African settings beautifully, and focuses as much on the small emotional moments that make a life as she does on its external thrills.
- Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal: One of my favorite debuts of the year: a culinary-themed collection of short stories loosely linked through the character of Eva Thorvald, a young chef with an unfortunate past and a rare palate. Read it for a glimpse of how ordinary, flawed Americans live – no fairytale endings here.
- Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum: This arresting debut reads like a modern retelling of Madame Bovary, with its main character a desperate American housewife in Zurich. Watch Anna’s trajectory with horror, but you cannot deny there is a little of her in you.
- The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett: In this impressively structured, elegantly written debut, Barnett chronicles the romantic lives of two Cambridge graduates through three-quarters of a century, giving three options for how their connection might play out. There is no one perfect person or story: unsentimental this may be, but it feels true to how life works. (Reviewed for Third Way magazine in July.)
- Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: An incisive study of a marriage, beautifully written and rich with allusions to Shakespeare and Greek mythology. Groff makes it onto a short list of women I expect to produce the Great American Novel (along with Curtis Sittenfeld, Jennifer Egan, and Hanya Yanagihara).
- Purity by Jonathan Franzen: East Germany, Bolivia and Oakland, California: Franzen doesn’t quite pull all his settings and storylines together, but this is darn close to a 5-star Dickensian read. It’s strong on the level of character and theme, with secrecy, isolation and compassion as recurring topics.
- You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman: Kleeman’s first novel is a full-on postmodern satire bursting with biting commentary on consumerism and conformity. Think of her as an heir to Dave Eggers and Douglas Coupland, with a hefty dollop of Margaret Atwood thrown in.
- The Animals by Christian Kiefer: Kiefer’s second novel contrasts wildness and civilization through the story of a man who runs an animal refuge to escape from his criminal past. A tough opening sequence establishes themes that will be essential to the novel: the fine line between instincts and decisions, the moral dilemmas involved in environmentalism, and the seeming inescapability of violence.
- The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra: A collection of tightly linked short stories giving an intimate look at Russia and Chechnya in wartime and afterwards – revealing how politics, family, and art intertwine. Just as he did in his first novel, Marra renders unspeakable tragedies bearable through his warm and witty writing.
- Girl at War by Sara Nović: This pitch-perfect debut novel is an inside look at the Yugoslavian Civil War and its aftermath, from the perspective of a young girl caught up in the fighting. The way Nović recreates a child’s perspective on the horrors of war is masterful: Ana’s viewpoint is realistic and matter-of-fact, without the melodrama an omniscient narrator might inject.
- Adeline by Norah Vincent: Set in 1925–1941 and structured like a five-act play, the novel revolves around Virginia Woolf’s philosophical conversations with Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey and his lover Carrington, T.S. and Valerie Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and her doctor, Octavia Wilberforce. Vincent has produced a remarkable picture of mental illness from the inside.
- A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: Jude St. Francis: Dickensian orphan, patron saint of lost causes, Christlike Man of Sorrows, and one of the most memorable characters in recent fiction. This novel is an attempt to tackle the monolithic question of what makes life worth living; among the potential answers: love (though it doesn’t conquer all), friendship, creativity, and the family you create for yourself.
Best Discoveries of the Year: Mary Lawson (Road Ends), Daniel Kehlmann (F: A Novel), Jonathan Evison (This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!) and Jonathan Coe (Number 11).
Debut Novelists Whose Next Work I’m Most Looking Forward to: Jessamyn Hope (Safekeeping – reviewed here in June) and Carmiel Banasky (The Suicide of Claire Bishop – reviewed for Foreword’s Fall 2015 issue).
The Year’s Biggest Disappointments: Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper; Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks and Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving (both rehash the authors’ familiar themes; I couldn’t make it past 15% in the latter).
Novels I Most Wish I’d Gotten to in 2015: Nell Zink’s Mislaid, Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither, and the final two volumes of Jane Smiley’s “Last Hundred Years” trilogy.
What are the best novels you read this year? Any new favorite books or authors? Your comments are always welcome.
I’ll be back tomorrow with my top 15 nonfiction books I read this year (most of them not published in 2015, however – I seem to have been a nonfiction slacker!)
Reviews Roundup, October–November
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 provide links to all book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to read more. A few exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie, BlueInk or Publishers Weekly reviews since I don’t get a byline.
This month you may recognize a few books I already previewed in my posts on books as beautiful objects and library books read in October.
Charlotte Brontë’s Secret Love by Jolien Janzing: Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s time in Belgium – specifically, Charlotte’s passion for her teacher, Constantin Heger – is the basis for this historical novel. The authoritative yet inviting narration is a highlight, but some readers may be uncomfortable with the erotic portrayal; it doesn’t seem to fit the historical record, which suggests an unrequited love affair. My other issue with the book is a couple of subplots that only seem to have minor significance.
In Fidelity by Jack Wilson: In this 1970s-set novel, the central couple’s relationship is tested by illness and extramarital sexual experiences. Moving from New England to Nigeria and back, the story asks what loyalty really requires when a once-strong connection has faded over time. Strongly reminiscent of John Updike in Part One, this is the male view of adultery. Something about the self-justifying tone stuck in my craw. A more balanced book would give the wife’s perspective, too, as Carol Shields did in Happenstance, or like Lauren Groff recently did to great success in Fates and Furies.
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra [subscription service]: This collection of tightly linked short stories, an intimate look at Russia and Chechnya in wartime and afterwards, reveals how politics, family, and art intertwine. Ranging from 1937 to 2013, the pieces show how fear and propaganda linger in the post-Stalinist era. In art as much as in politics, it can be difficult to distinguish airbrushed history from bitter reality. Just as he did in his excellent debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Marra renders unspeakable tragedies bearable because of his warm and witty writing. All his characters’ voices are well-realized and inviting, and he comes up with terrific one-liners.
Mad Feast by Matthew Gavin Frank: This is the cookbook David Foster Wallace might have written. In an off-the-wall blend of memoir, travel, history and fiction, Frank proceeds region by region, choosing for each American state one beloved dish and interrogating its origins as well as its metaphors and associations. It’s a mixed bag of familiar foods and ones that only locals are likely to know about. Each chapter ends with a recipe for the signature plate, whether from a Lutheran church or a posh restaurant. Frank’s digressive, anecdotal approach takes some getting used to. If you appreciate the style of writers like Geoff Dyer, Maggie Nelson and Will Self, this should be your next food-themed read.
For Books’ Sake
Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Claire Harman: With her bicentennial approaching in April 2016, it’s the perfect time to revisit Charlotte Brontë’s timeless stories. One of the things Harman’s biography does best is trace how the Brontës’ childhood experiences found later expression in fiction. A chapter on the publication of Jane Eyre is a highlight. Diehard fans might not encounter lots of new material, but Harman does make a revelation concerning Charlotte’s cause of death – not TB, as previously believed, but hyperemesis gravidarum (extreme morning sickness). This will help you appreciate afresh a “poet of suffering” whose novels were “all the more subversive because of [their] surface conventionality.”
Cockfosters by Helen Simpson: Simpson’s sixth story collection is full of wry, incisive reflections on aging, loss, regrets, gender roles, and a changing relationship to sex. Most of Simpson’s characters are in their late forties, a liminal time when they’re caught between older parents and still-needy children. Many pieces are dialogue-driven, like scenes in plays. In “Kentish Town,” book club members meet to discuss Dickens’s The Chimes. Simpson weaves in discussion of the plot with commentary on the state of the nation as the ladies set the world to rights and make New Year’s resolutions. It’s a perfect story to read in the run-up to Christmas. The overall stand-out is “Erewhon,” named for Samuel Butler’s 1872 satirical utopian novel. It quickly becomes clear that gender roles are reversed in its fictional world.
Addiction Is Addiction by Raju Hajela, Paige Abbott and Sue Newton: This comprehensive, well-organized guide discusses the features of addictive thinking and feeling, suggests holistic recovery methods, and offers useful definitions, diagrams, and case studies. The authors are affiliated with Health Upwardly Mobile Inc., Calgary, Alberta. Tracing the history of addiction back to the eighteenth century, when it was first known as “alcoholic disease syndrome,” they present an expert view of the disease’s symptoms and outlook. Strongly recommended to those who have participated in groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.
Indie Spotlight: Books about Religion: Self-publishing allows writers to tell their full stories. An article based on interviews with four indie religion authors and mini-reviews of their books.
Notes on Suicide by Simon Critchley: Critchley is a philosophy professor at New York’s New School for Social Research. Although he reassures readers with his first line that “This book is not a suicide note,” he also hints that its writing was inspired by personal trouble: “my life has dissolved over the past year or so, like sugar in hot tea.” Not suicidal himself, then, but sympathetic to those who are driven to self-murder. This concise essay illuminates arguments surrounding suicide, with points of reference ranging from Greek philosophers to Robin Williams. Overall, though, it feels cursory and inconclusive.
The Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan: We can all do with a little encouragement to appreciate what we already have. In so many areas of life – finances, career, relationship, even the weather – we’re all too often hoping for more or better than what we are currently experiencing. Here Kaplan undertakes a year-long experiment to see if gratitude can improve every aspect of her life. She draws her information from interviews with researchers and celebrities, quotes from philosophers, and anecdotes from her own and friends’ lives. It’s easy, pleasant reading I’d recommend to fans of Gretchen Rubin.
The Water Book by Alok Jha: An interdisciplinary look at water’s remarkable properties and necessity for life on earth. For the most part, Jha pitches his work at an appropriate level. However, if it’s been a while since you studied chemistry at school, you may struggle. Part IV, on the search for water in space, is too in-depth for popular science and tediously long. In December 2013 Jha was part of a month-long Antarctic expedition. He uses the trip as an effective framing device, but I would have liked more memoiristic passages. All in all, I was hoping for less hard science and more reflection on water’s importance to human culture.
Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet by Mark Cocker: Mark Cocker is the Guardian’s country diarist for Norfolk. The short pieces in this book are reprints of his columns, some expanded or revised. I would advise keeping this as a bedside or coffee table book from which you read no more than one or two entries a week, so that you always stay in chronological sync. You’ll appreciate the book most if you experience nature along with Cocker, rather than reading from front cover to back in a few sittings. The problem with the latter approach is that there is inevitable repetition of topics across years. All told, after spending a vicarious year in Claxton, you’ll agree: “How miraculous that we are all here, now, in this one small place.”
A Mile Down by David Vann: Vann, better known for fiction, tells the real-life story of his ill-fated journeys at sea. He hired a Turkish crew to build him a boat of his own, and before long shoddy workmanship, language difficulties, bureaucracy, and debts started to make it all seem like a very bad idea. Was he cursed? Would he follow his father into suicide? The day-to-day details of boat-building and sailing can be tedious, and there’s an angry tone that’s unpleasant; Vann seems to think everybody else was incompetent or a crook. However, he does an incredible job of narrating two climactic storms he sailed through.
The Triumph of the Snake Goddess by Kaiser Haq: Beginning with the creation of the world and telling climactic tales of the snake goddess Manasa’s interactions with humans, Haq crafts a uniquely playful set of sacred stories that bear striking similarities to those from other religious traditions. Like Greek myths, the Manasa stories are full of shape-shifting and mistaken identity; rape and incest; jealousy and revenge; and over-the-top exploits of warring gods. She even wears snakes in her hair, like Medusa. Many parallels can also be drawn with the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Haq’s rendering of the creation account, in particular, resembles the language of Genesis. This book will appeal to students of comparative religion, but can be read with equal enjoyment by laymen in search of engaging storytelling.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads.
Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing by May Sarton: Although I’m a huge fan of Sarton’s memoirs, this was my first taste of her fiction. I was underwhelmed: it’s slight and strangely unfeminist. Part of the problem may be that I know so much about Sarton that I couldn’t help but see all the autobiographical detail here. Most of the novel’s action takes place in one day, as Mrs. Stevens awaits the arrival of two interviewers and reflects on past love affairs (some with women) and the meaning of the Muse. For me, Sarton’s journals are a better source of deep thoughts on the writer’s vocation, the value of solitude and the memory of love. This was seen as Sarton’s coming-out book, although it’s not at all sexually explicit.
Running on the March Wind by Lenore Keeshig: Keeshig is a First Nations Canadian; these poems are full of images of Nanabush the Trickster, language from legal Indian acts, and sly subversion of stereotypes – cowboys and Indians, the only good Indian is a dead Indian (in “Making New”), the white man’s burden, and so on. In places I found these more repetitive and polemical than musical, though I did especially like the series of poems on trees.
The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion by Kei Miller: Kei Miller is a Jamaican writer who uses island patois and slang, and Rastafarian images and language, alongside standard English. Here he sets up (especially with the long, multi-part title poem) a playful contrast between the cartographer, emblem of civilization and unbiased science, and the rastaman, who takes an altogether more laidback approach to mapping his homeland. This was the perfect poetry collection to be reading in tandem with A Brief History of Seven Killings (see below).
Very British Problems Abroad by Rob Temple: This is possibly ever so slightly funnier than the original (Very British Problems). A lot of it rings true. Once again the fact that the book originated as tweets means you can’t read too much of it at a time or the one-liners grow tiresome. A couple of my favorites were: “The feeling of dread as you approach the campsite and only then remembering that last year you said you’d never, ever do this again” and “Noticing an avalanche heading your way and hoping your umbrella’s up to the job.”
Purity by Jonathan Franzen: By starting and ending with Purity ‘Pip’ Tyler, Franzen emphasizes his debt to Dickens: shades of both Bleak House and Great Expectations are there in the discovery of true parentage and unexpected riches. This is strong on the level of character and theme. Secrecy, isolation and compassion are recurring topics. East Germany, Bolivia and Oakland, California: Franzen doesn’t quite pull all his settings and storylines together, but this is close. With a more dynamic opening section, it might have been 5 stars.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James: This is an edgy, worthwhile Booker pick, but not for the faint-hearted. For the most part, James alternates patois and standard speech, but nearly every section is packed with local slang and expletives. Whether in monologue or dialogue, the many voices form a captivating chorus. The novel is in five parts, each named after a popular song or album of the time. James’s scope, especially as he follows Josey Wales to the Bronx, is too wide. All the narrative switches, once so dynamic, grow tiresome. At 350 pages this would have been a 5-star read. Nevertheless, I’ll be watching the HBO miniseries. (Full review to appear in December 2015 issue of Third Way magazine.)
Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal: One of my favorite debuts of 2015. Stradal has revealed that his grandmother’s Lutheran church cookbook was the inspiration for this culinary-themed novel that takes place over the course of 30 years. His unique structure takes what are essentially short stories from different perspectives and time periods and links them loosely through Eva Thorvald. Eva’s pop-up supper club gains fame thanks to her innovative adaptations of traditional Midwestern foods like venison or Scandinavian lutefisk; it charges $5,000 a head. I loved almost all of Stradal’s ordinary, flawed characters. If you want a peek at how average Americans live (apart from the $5,000 meals), you’ll find it here.
The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende: Allende is a wonderful storyteller. This isn’t up to the level of her South American novels (e.g. The House of the Spirits), and in elaborating both Alma’s and Irina’s stories there’s a bit too much telling rather than showing, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book all the same – I devoured it in just a few days. Allende is sensitive to both the process of aging and the various strategies for dealing with traumatic events from the past.
Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber: I knew of Nadia Bolz-Weber through Greenbelt Festival. She’s a foul-mouthed, tattooed, fairly orthodox Lutheran pastor. This brief, enjoyable memoir is about how she keeps believing despite her own past issues and the many messed-up and outwardly unlovable people who show up at her church, House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver. In my favorite section, she zeroes in on one Holy Week and shows the whole range of emotions and trauma that religion can address. The Ash Wednesday chapter is the overall highlight.
The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain by Bill Bryson: Bryson’s funniest book for many years. It meant a lot to me since I am also an American expat in England. Two points of criticism, though: although he moves roughly from southeast to northwest in the country, the stops he makes are pretty arbitrary, and his subjects of mockery are often what you’d call easy targets. Do we really need Bryson’s lead to scorn litterbugs and reality television celebrities? Still, I released many an audible snort of laughter while reading.
Shaler’s Fish by Helen Macdonald: I was a huge fan of Macdonald’s memoir, H is for Hawk, so was excited to read her poetry collection, originally published in 2001 but to be reissued by Atlantic Monthly Press. Unfortunately, despite the occasional bird and nature imagery (e.g. in “Monhegan”), I found these poems largely inaccessible. Perhaps it was the sprinkling of archaic vocabulary and spellings, or the general lack of punctuation apart from annoying slashes and ampersands.
Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man: A Memoir by Bill Clegg: One of the finest memoirs I’ve come across (and I read a heck of a lot of them). Through this book I followed literary agent Bill Clegg on dozens of taxi rides between generic hotel rooms and bar toilets and New York City offices and apartments; together we smoked innumerable crack pipes and guzzled dozens of bottles of vodka while letting partners and family members down and spiraling further down into paranoia and squalor. Every structural and stylistic decision works: the present tense, short paragraphs, speech set out in italics, occasional flashback chapters distanced through third-person narration. Clegg achieves a perfect balance between his feelings at the time – being out of control and utterly enslaved to his next hit – and the hindsight that allows him to see what a pathetic figure he was becoming.
Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams: An enjoyable novel of eighteenth-century maritime adventure, based on a true story and reminiscent of Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers and Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America. Williams moves between the perspectives of various crew members and outsiders, sometimes employing first person and sometimes third. Key chapters are set in South America, California, Alaska, Macao, and the Solomon Islands. I especially enjoyed a chapter from the point-of-view of a native Alaskan girl – one of the few times the novel focuses on female experience.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill: Not as innovative or profound as I was expecting given the rapturous reviews from so many quarters. It’s an attempt to tell an old, old story in a new way: wife finds out her husband is cheating. Offill’s style is fragmentary and aphoristic. Some of the facts and sayings are interesting, but most just sit there on the page and don’t add to the story. What I did find worthwhile was tracing the several tense and pronoun changes: from first-person, past tense into present tense, then to third-person and back to first-person for the final page.
As Far As I Know by Roger McGough: A bit silly for my tastes; lots of puns and other plays on words. In style they feel like children’s poems, but with vocabulary and themes more suited to adults. I did like “Indefinite Definitions,” especially BRUPT: “A brupt is a person, curt and impolite / Brusque and impatient / Who thinks he’s always right.” The whole series is like that: words with the indefinite article cut off and an explanation playing on the original word’s connotations. From the “And So to Bed” concluding cycle, I loved Camp bed: “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu / on the bedside table / Gardenia on the pillow / Silk pyjamas neatly folded.”
The Penguin Lessons: What I Learned from a Remarkable Bird by Tom Michell: Marley & Me with a penguin. Well, sort of. A sweet if slight story about the author keeping a Magellanic penguin as a pet while teaching in an Argentina boarding school in the 1970s. On a vacation to Uruguay the twentysomething rescued a penguin from an oil spill and named him Juan Salvado. The uproarious process of cleaning the oil-sodden bird, achieved with a bidet, string bag, and plenty of dish soap, was my favorite passage. However, I’m hesitant about anthropomorphizing, and the language can be stiff – I would have dated this to the 1950s by the speech. Also, there’s precious little evidence of Argentina’s political upheaval.