All My Wild Mothers by Victoria Bennett & I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
I’m catching up with reviews of two February releases that I spent the whole of last month submerged in. These are early entries on my Best of 2023 list: A lovely memoir about grief and gardening, caring for an ill child and a dying parent; and a riveting true crime-inspired novel, set on a boarding school campus, that rages at injustice and violence against women.
All My Wild Mothers: Motherhood, loss and an apothecary garden by Victoria Bennett
Early in February, I attended the online book launch via Sam Read Bookseller in Grasmere. With conversation, readings and song, it was the ideal introduction to the themes of this debut memoir by a poet. The book is composed of dozens of brief autobiographical, present-tense essays, each titled after a wildflower with traditional healing properties. The chapters are headed by a black-and-white woodcut of each plant (by Bennett’s husband, Adam Clarke) and a précis of its medicinal uses, as well as where it is found. Again and again, these descriptions site the flora on edgelands or “disturbed ground” – the perfect metaphorical tie-in to Bennett’s tumultuous life and the comfort that creating an apothecary garden brought.
Bennett is the youngest of six children. When she was expecting her son – much longed for after multiple pregnancy losses – news came that her eldest sister had died in a canoeing accident. At age two, her son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes; managing his condition has imposed a heavy emotional burden. And years later, she was the primary caregiver for her elderly mother as she was dying of mesothelioma. The memoir’s format – which arose in part because it was written over the course of 10 years, during stolen moments – realistically presents bereavement and caring as ongoing, cyclical challenges rather than one-time events.
There are no simple solutions offered here, nothing so pat as that ‘gardening heals all hurts’, but Bennett writes into the broken places and finds joy in what comes to life spontaneously in nature or in her ramshackle yard on a social housing estate in Cumbria. She recalls a horse chestnut tree that looked over her outside the window of her childhood home; she and her son take impish delight in guerrilla gardening and sometimes disastrous cooking projects with foraged fruit. Some of my favourite individual vignettes were “Elder,” about the magic and medicine of making elderberry syrup from the few village trees that escape the chainsaw; “Dandelion,” about her trio of older sisters, who were Greenham Common protestors and always tried to protect her as well as nature; “Herb Robert,” about her sister-in-law’s funeral; and especially “Honeysuckle,” about a local agricultural show where the officious organizers make them feel like interlopers yet her son wins first place for their feral, fecund garden.
Many side topics twine into the narrative as well: a difficult relationship with a controlling mother; a family history that takes in boarding schools, cults, road trips, risk taking and mental health issues; the economic disparity that leads to one set of rules for the rich and another for those on benefits. But the core of the book is a tender mother–son relationship. “I can give him this: a seed, with all its defiant hope against the dark; and the memory that once, we grew a garden out of rock, and waste, and all things broken, and it thrived.” Sitting somewhere between creative nonfiction and nature essays, it’s a beautiful read for any fan of women’s life writing, especially if you share the interests in grief or gardening. I hope we’ll see it recognized on the Barbellion and Wainwright Prize shortlists alike.
Readalikes I have reviewed: A Still Life by Josie George, The Book of Difficult Fruit by Kate Lebo, The Cure for Sleep by Tanya Shadrick
With thanks to Victoria Bennett and Two Roads for the free copy for review.
I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
I’m a big fan of Makkai’s first two novels, The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House, and have her other two books lined up to read, so I was excited to hear about this new work and put it on my Most Anticipated list for the year. My interest was redoubled by Laura’s review, which likens it to a cross between Prep and My Dark Vanessa – irresistible.
Bodie Kane grew up in a deprived and dysfunctional family in Indiana, and has beneficent Mormon neighbours to thank for the tuition money that allowed her to attend Granby, an exclusive New Hampshire boarding school, in the early to mid-1990s. She was an angry and awkward high school student, yet her memories of Granby and the friendships she made there are still an emotional mainstay more than two decades later. In 2018, she is a successful film professor with a podcast about Hollywood starlets. Although she is separated from Jerome, her artist husband, he lives next door and they co-parent their two children.
After an invitation comes from Granby to teach a two-week course on podcasting, Bodie trades Los Angeles for a bitter New England winter. It’s the perfect excuse to indulge her obsession with the 1995 murder of her former Granby roommate, Thalia Keith, who was found dead in the swimming pool one March morning after a play performance. Bodie has never been comfortable with the flawed case against the Black athletics coach, Omar Evans, who has been imprisoned ever since. When one of her students chooses to make Thalia’s murder the subject of a podcast, it’s all the justification Bodie needs to dive deep into her pet hypothesis: Thalia was sleeping with the music director, Denny Bloch, and he was involved in her death in some way. Her blinkered view threatens to exclude a key explanation. Still, the informal sleuthing she and her students do is enough to warrant a follow-up hearing in 2022, but they – and Omar – are up against a broken system.
Makkai has taken her cues from the true crime genre and constructed a convincing mesh of evidence and theories. There’s a large cast of secondary characters, from Dorian, the bully who once humiliated Bodie with sexual slurs, to Fran, the faculty kid/gay best friend who now lives and works on campus herself and continues to be Bodie’s trusty backup. The combinations of background + teenage behaviour + 40-something lives all feel authentic in their randomness (when I saw that Makkai sourced 24 names from indie bookstore supporters, I realized afresh just how real, as opposed to ‘made-up’, these characters feel).
At times I wondered if there was too much detail on the case and the former classmates; I might even have streamlined the novel by doing away with the 2022 section altogether, though it ends up being crucial to the plot. But Makkai has so carefully crafted these pen portraits, and so intimately involved us in Bodie’s psyche, that it’s easy to become invested in the story. What’s more, the novel introduces a seam of rage about violence towards women – so predictably excused and allowed to recur by a justice system weighted against victims –
What’s as perfect as a girl stopped dead, midformation? Girl as blank slate. Girl as reflection of your desires, unmarred by her own. Girl as sacrifice to the idea of girl.
let’s say it was the one where the rugby team covered up the girl’s death and the school covered for the rugby team. Actually it was the one where the therapist spent years grooming her. It was the one where the senator, then a promising teenager, shoved his d*ck in the girl’s face. … It was the one where her body was never found. It was the one where her body was found in the snow. It was the one where he left her body for dead under the tarp.
– yet also finds nuance in the situation when Bodie’s ex-husband is subjected to exaggerated #MeToo accusations. It’s timely, daring, intelligent, enthralling storytelling. Susan (review here) and I are both hoping to see this make the Women’s Prize longlist next week.
Readalikes I have reviewed: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld
With thanks to Fleet for the proof copy for review.
What are the best 2023 books you’ve read so far?
Barbellion Prize Shortlist: Book of Hours by Letty McHugh
The Barbellion Prize shortlist, announced yesterday, consists of the short story collection Polluted Sex and the novel Chouette, both of which I’m still keen to read; and two nonfiction works, Hybrid Humans, which I reviewed last year, and Letty McHugh’s hybrid memoir, Book of Hours: An Almanac for the Seasons of the Soul.
I’m saving up tiny joys the way a bear fattens up for the coming winter
A patchwork quilt of ordinary leftover happiness
to keep me warm through the darkest part of the night.
In medieval times, a book of hours was a devotional book that set out the day’s prayers. Usually an illuminated manuscript, it was a precious object for laypeople, and a way of marking time. For Letty McHugh, a Yorkshire-based visual artist who lives with chronic pain and illness, this book of hours is many things: a journal, a scrapbook, an enquiry into the monastic impulse, and an interrogation of the potential meanings of physical suffering.
In April 2020, McHugh experienced a relapse of MS so bad she had to move back in with her parents and was sleeping 20 hours a day. Her sphere had contracted to a single room. If only, she wished, there was “something to concentrate on that wasn’t my unravelling body or the unravelling world.” A Catholic upbringing and childhood holidays in Northumberland made her think about the early Christian hermits and saints like Aidan, Cuthbert and Julian of Norwich who salvaged something from solitude, who out of the privations of monasticism made monuments of faith and, sometimes, written documents, too.
This was the inspiration behind her own book of hours, which intersperses poems and photographs of found objects (wildflowers, animal skulls, sea glass and shells) with biographical sketches of saints, short autobiographical essays about her childhood and career, and musings on faith and pain. Metaphors of magic and outer space contrast with the claustrophobia of “the illness place,” somewhere she knows she’ll return to again and again. Although she knows she will never be perfectly holy or perfectly productive, she is encouraged to know that even those with confined lives (such as Emily Dickinson) can have a rich inner existence. While she resists the desire for a cure, or for a simple meaning to suffering, she bears witness to the fact that creativity can emerge in spite of everything.
I enjoyed spending time with this meticulously crafted and meditative work that engages with the present moment but also the eternal. It’s perfect onward reading for fans of the inaugural Barbellion Prize winner, Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer, and A Still Life by Josie George, a shortlistee from last year.
Book of Hours was self-published with assistance from Disability Arts Online. You can buy a signed copy of the handmade book from her Etsy shop, or read the text for free here.
With thanks to Letty McHugh for sending a free e-copy for review.
This year’s Barbellion Prize judges are Dr Emmeline Burdett, Lynn Buckle (last year’s winner) and scholar Ray Davis. The winner will be announced in February.
The Barbellion Prize 2022 Longlist
This is the third year that the Barbellion Prize will be awarded “to an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability.” In the inaugural year I read the entire shortlist, and last year I had already read a few from the longlist and was able to review another two shortlisted titles before the prize announcement.
The 2022 longlist was announced on Friday and contains two books I’d predicted – Hybrid Humans, which I reviewed earlier in the year; and Polluted Sex – and one more that I’d heard of (Chouette), while the rest were new to me. Letty McHugh kindly sent me a PDF copy of her self-published memoir in poems, Book of Hours, and I may be able to get some of the others from the publishers to support the prize through reviews early in the new year.
This list comes from the Prize website. Click on any title for more information. Here we have three (hybrid) memoirs, two autobiographical poetry collections, a novel, a book of short stories, and a biography. Will it be the year for a poetry collection or biography to win?
Head Above Water by Shahd Alshammari (Neem Tree Press)
From the synopsis: “takes us into a space of intimate conversations on illness and society’s stigmatization of disabled bodies. We are invited in to ask the big questions about life, loss, and the place of the other. … Through conversations about women’s identities, bodies, and our journeys through life, we arrive at a politics of love, survival, and hope.”
Recovering Dorothy: The Hidden Life of Dorothy Wordsworth by Polly Atkin (Saraband)
From the synopsis: “Less well known [than her writing and famous brother] … is that Dorothy became seriously ill … and was mostly housebound for the last 20 years of her life. Her personal letters and unpublished journals from this time … [show] a compassionate and creative woman who made her sickroom into a garden … and … grew to call herself a poet.”
Polluted Sex by Lauren Foley (Influx Press)
From the synopsis: “A pregnant woman takes the ferry to the UK. … Two ungendered characters contest the same female body. … Lauren Foley’s debut collection of dramatic short stories … is fearless in its depiction of women’s bodies and sexuality, offering an unflinching window into Irish girl and womanhood.”
163 Days by Hannah Hodgson (Seren Books)
From the synopsis: “Hodgson is an award-winning poet and a palliative care patient. In her compelling debut collection … she uses a panoply of medical, legal, and personal vocabularies to explore what illness, death and dying does to a person as both patient and witness. 163 days is the length of Hannah’s longest period of hospitalisation to date.”
Book of Hours: An Almanac for The Seasons of The Soul by Letty McHugh (Self-published, with support from Disability Arts Online)
From the synopsis: “Over the course of the pandemic, a complication with my chronic illness left me alone in a darkened room for three weeks. I drew comfort from an imagined Book of Hours. … Book of Hours is a collection of lyric essay and poetry exploring what it means to have faith, why we chase suffering and how to take solace in small joys.”
Chouette by Claire Oshetsky (Ecco/HarperCollins)
From the synopsis: “When Chouette is born small and broken-winged, Tiny … [is left] on her own to care for a child who seems more predatory bird than baby. … When she discovers that her husband is on an obsessive and increasingly dangerous quest to find a “cure” for their daughter, Tiny must decide whether Chouette should be raised to fit in or to be herself”.
Hybrid Humans: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Man and Machine by Harry Parker (Profile Books/Wellcome Collection)
My blog review excerpt: “Parker was a captain in the British Army in Afghanistan when an IED took his legs. Now he wears prostheses that make him roughly 12% machine. Pain management, PTSD, phantom limbs, foreign body rejection, and deep brain stimulation are other topics in this wide-ranging study that is at the juncture of the personal and political.”
Year of The Tiger: An Activist’s Life by Alice Wong (Vintage Books/PRH)
From the synopsis: “[With] original essays, previously published work, conversations, graphics, photos, commissioned art by disabled and Asian American artists, and more, Alice uses her unique talent to share an impressionistic scrapbook of her life as an Asian American disabled activist, community organizer, media maker, and dreamer.”
This year’s judges are Dr Emmeline Burdett, Lynn Buckle (last year’s winner) and scholar Ray Davis. The shortlist is due out in January and the winner will be announced in February.
Do any of these nominees appeal to you?
Thoughts on Literary Prizes, Sequels, and Finishing Books
I feel like my blogging is all over the place so far this month, but I’ll get back on track in the next couple of weeks with a few thematic roundups. Today, some disparate thoughts.
Literary prize season will soon be in full swing, and can be overwhelming. I’m currently reading Megan Nolan’s Acts of Desperation, doing double duty from the Dylan Thomas Prize longlist and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist, and enjoying it more than expected given the inevitable Sally Rooney comparisons and messed-up young female tropes. However, I abandoned Here Comes the Miracle (from the latter) after 46 pages because it was just as When God Was a Rabbit as I feared.
Today the second Barbellion Prize winner was announced: Lynn Buckle for What Willow Says, her lyrical novella about communication between a terminally ill woman, her deaf granddaughter, and the natural world. My choice from the shortlist would have been Josie George’s A Still Life, but I can see how the judges might have felt, in an early year when precedents are still being set, that it was important to recognize fiction as being just as valid a way of writing about disability and chronic illness.
Earlier in the week, the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist was announced. Everyone remarked on the attractive mint green colour scheme! I found myself slightly disappointed; the Prize is usually more various since it includes nonfiction and poetry as well as fiction. Only one nonfiction title here: Philip Hoare going on (again) about whales. I’ve read another of poet Selima Hill’s collections so would gladly read this, too. I’ve already read the Brown and Keegan novellas and Sahota’s novel; I DNFed the Riley. Galgut has already won the Booker Prize. I’m awaiting a library hold of The Magician but I rather doubt my staying power with a 500-page biographical novel. My vote would, overwhelmingly, be for China Room.
I’m more tempted by the Fiction with a Sense of Place shortlist, announced as part of the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards early this month. What an intriguing and non-obvious set of nominees! Elena Knows was on the Barbellion longlist and the Greengrass and Shafak novels were previously shortlisted for the Costa Prize. I plan to try the Heller again this summer.
I’m also delighted to see that Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles is shortlisted for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award.
I’ve been pondering my predictions and wishes (entirely separate things) for the Women’s Prize longlist and will post them early next month; for now, check out Laura’s.
I believe books should be self-contained and I struggle to engage with ANY series. Unpopular opinion alert: sequels are almost always indulgent and/or money-grubbing on the part of the author. Here are four high-profile literary fiction sequels I plan on skipping this year (in all the cases, I just didn’t like the original enough to continue the story):
- Either/Or by Elif Batuman – The Idiot was bizarre, deadpan and slightly entertaining, but I have no need to spend any more time with Selin.)
- The Candy House by Jennifer Egan – A Visit from the Goon Squad didn’t stand up to a reread.
- Less Is Lost by Andrew Sean Greer – Less, only mildly funny, was hugely overrated by critics.
- Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta – I read, and saw the Reese Witherspoon-starring movie version of, Election ages ago; this is the one I’d be most likely to change my mind about, if I read good reviews.
I learned via a friend’s Instagram post that there is such a thing as #FinishItFebruary and felt seen. My goal had been to clear my set-aside shelf by the end of January; of course that didn’t happen, but I have been making some progress, reducing it from about 40 to more like 25. I try to reintroduce a part-finished book into my stack every few days. Sometimes it ‘takes’ and I finish it shortly; other times it languishes again, just in a different location. I’ll see how many more I can get to before the end of February.
Following any literary prize races this year?
Do you also avoid sequels, and leave books part-read?
Barbellion Prize Shortlist Reviews: Ultimatum Orangutan & What Willow Says
The shortlist for the second annual Barbellion Prize was announced earlier this month. I had already read one of the books, and publishers have kindly sent me two of the others for review. Still in the running this year are two novels, a poetry collection and a memoir (you can read a bit more about the longlist here).
Ultimatum Orangutan by Khairani Barokka (2021)
Barokka is an Indonesian poet and performance artist based in London. The topics of her second collection include chronic pain, the oppression of women, and the environmental crisis. While she’s distressed at the exploitation of nature, she sprinkles in humanist reminders of Indigenous peoples whose needs should also be valued. For instance, in the title poem, whose points of reference range from King Kong to palm oil plantations, she acknowledges that orangutans must be saved, but that people are also suffering in her native Indonesia. It’s a subtle plea for balanced consideration.
An early sequence about a visit to a Natural History Museum exemplifies the blend of themes. From her wheelchair, the poet ponders “the event” that killed the dinosaurs and human bias towards fellow vertebrates. Why can’t we appreciate a tiger for its own sake rather than its cultural and metaphorical associations? she asks in the following poem.
Medical realities aren’t as prominent as in some nominees – nowhere is it made clear what condition Okka has – but illness haunts certain lines: “my pills lie as armor with so many / glasses of water, upright and tensile / to save life against terrors by way / of circulatory relief” (from “on lying down, apocalyptic”). Concern about the environment also tips over into the apocalyptic in “situation report” and below:
“Fence and Repetition” sets out a palindrome of lines, and later on there are a golden shovel and an abecedarian, with tips of the hat to other poets. This more formal verse is in contrast with looser poems lacking capitalization or articles; in places the language even reads like pidgin. I found the phrasing unusual, forcing close attention to what’s actually going on. This wasn’t generally my cup of tea, but makes a striking entry on this year’s shortlist, and was a good chance to add my first Indonesian writer to my internal library.
With thanks to Nine Arches Press for the free copy for review.
What Willow Says by Lynn Buckle (2021)
This is a delicate novella about the bond between a grandmother and her eight-year-old granddaughter, who is deaf. After the death of the girl’s mother, Grandmother has been her primary guardian. She raises her on Irish legends and a love of nature, especially their local trees. They mourn when they see hedgerows needlessly flailed, and the girl often asks what her grandmother hears the trees saying. Because Grandmother narrates in the form of journal entries, there is dramatic irony between what readers learn and what she is not telling the little girl; we ache to think about what might happen for her in the future.
Yet Buckle takes care not to let the mood get too sombre, even though there is disquiet aplenty: empty housing blocks from the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger, rage at the stereotypes and ableism that the granddaughter faces, and the darkness of the myths surrounding the peat bogs and those who drown. This is mostly thanks to the lyrical writing wrapped around the six months or so of the action. Focusing on the relationship between these two, a lot of what happens is quiet and seasonal, from a picnic in the park to preparations for Christmas, but there is also a sign language class that introduces some other characters.
At points I found the prose too thick – it’s rare for me to come across vocabulary I don’t know and, especially in such a short book, terms like “ombrogenous mires,” “chironomy” and “sestude” stood out, not necessarily in a good way. But, overall, I enjoyed this study of other forms of communication – with hands, in writing, between humans and more-than-human nature, and perhaps even beyond the grave.
A favourite passage:
We struggle to hear in our household. Age, degeneration, aural complications and congenital conditions. Ignorance. We have confusing discussions, mistaken arrangements, and fights over hearing aid batteries. Plus, the convenience of not hearing when it suits us. Now we are trying to listen, to each other, and to trees. There is so much that we have never heard, so little time to hear it.
With thanks to Époque Press for the free copy for review.
The other two books on the shortlist are:
A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George (Bloomsbury)
My TLS review excerpt: Chronic illness long ago reduced her territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto George’s quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons.
Duck Feet by Ely Percy (Monstrous Regiment)
From the synopsis: “A coming-of-age novel, set in the mid-noughties in Renfrew and Paisley, Scotland. … This book is a celebration of youth in an ever-changing world. It uses humour to tackle hard-hitting subjects such as drugs, bullying, sexuality, and teenage pregnancy.”
I haven’t had a chance to read Duck Feet, so it’s hard to make any predictions about the winner. Last year a memoir by a woman won, so I’m not sure A Still Life will win, even though it’s my clear favourite of the three I’ve read. Perhaps it will be a novel this year?
The Barbellion Prize, awarded “to an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability,” will be announced on 12 February.
Do any of the shortlisted books appeal to you?
A Look Back at My 2021 Reading: Statistics and Superlatives
I hope everyone passed a lovely holiday week. We had house guests for a few days over New Year’s, so I haven’t had a chance to work up my statistics until now. Marcie sent me a spreadsheet template to keep track of my reading, and my tech whiz husband helped analyze the data. I look forward to catching up on everyone else’s best-of and stats posts, too.
How I did with my 2021 goals
My simple reading goals for 2021 were to read more biographies, classics, doorstoppers and travel books – genres that tend to sit on my shelves unread. I read one biography in graphic novel form (Orwell by Pierre Christin), but otherwise didn’t manage any. I only read three doorstoppers the whole year, but 29 classics – defining them is always a nebulous matter, but I’m going with books from before 1980 – a number I’m happy with.
Surprisingly, I did the best with travel books, perhaps because I’ve started thinking about travel writing more broadly and not just as a white man going to the other side of the world and seeing exotic things, since I don’t often enjoy such narratives. Granted, I did read a few like that, and they were exceptional (The Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn, The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński and Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth), but if I include essays, memoirs and poetry with significant place-based and migration themes, I was at 26.
Exactly the same total as last year (2019 had my maximum-ever of 343). From those three years’ evidence, I’d say I’ve found my natural limit. Next year I will aim for 340 again.
(This is what my lifestyle allows; yours is likely very different. I have bookish friends who read 80 books a year, 120, 150, 180, 200, and so on. My very busy university lecturer/town councillor husband felt bad for ‘only’ reading 65 books this past year, but keep in mind that the average person reads just 12 per year. My message to you, no matter your numbers, is YOU READ LOADS!)
Fiction: 49.7% (6.5% graphic novels; 5.3% short stories)
(Fiction and nonfiction are usually just about equal for me; I’m surprised that fiction pulled well ahead this year. I also read a bit more poetry this year than last.)
Female author: 66.47%
Male author: 30%
Nonbinary author: 0.88% (Meg-John Barker, Alice Hattrick and Olivia Laing)
Multiple genders (in anthologies): 2.65%
(I’ve been reading more and more by women each year, but this is the first time that female + nonbinary authors have outnumbered men by more than 2:1. I mostly attribute this to my interest in women’s stories. There were also three trans authors on my list.)
BIPOC author: 18.5%
(The first time I have specifically tracked this figure. Not too bad, but I’d prefer 25% or higher.)
Work in translation: 5%
(A decline from last year’s 7.2%. Must try harder!)
Print books: 86.8%
(Slightly higher than last year because of my new reviewing gig for Shelf Awareness, for which I read almost exclusively e-books.)
2021 releases: 41.8% (add in the 2020 releases and it’s 54.4%)
Pre-release books: 20%
Rereads: 12 (3.5%)
Where my books came from for the whole year:
- Free print or e-copy from publisher: 31.8%
- Public library: 24.7%
- Secondhand purchase: 16.8%
- Free (The Book Thing of Baltimore, the free mall bookshop, a giveaway, Little Free Libraries, etc.): 9.4%
- Downloaded from NetGalley or Edelweiss: 5.9%
- New purchase (sometimes at a bargain price): 5.6%
- University library: 3.8%
- Gifts: 2%
(Decreased from last year: review copies, NetGalley/Edelweiss, gifts; increased from last year: library borrowing, new and secondhand purchases, free books.)
Additional statistics courtesy of Goodreads:
73,520 pages read
Average book length: 216 pages (thank you, novellas and poetry!)
Average rating for 2021: 3.7
First book completed:
Last book completed (also the shortest, at 46 pages)
Longest book, at 628 pages:
Authors I read the most by: Anne Tyler (5), thanks to Liz’s readalong project; Jim Davis and Alice Oseman cartoons (4 volumes each); Jim Crumley nature books and Emily Rapp Black memoirs (3 each)
Publishers I read the most from: Carcanet (18), then Picador (17), then Bloomsbury and Faber (14 each); in overall first place was undoubtedly Penguin and its many imprints.
My top discovery of the year: the Heartstopper teen graphic novel series.
My proudest bookish achievement: being asked to be a judge for the McKitterick Prize.
The books that made me laugh the most: The Echo Chamber by John Boyne and Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny.
Best book club selections: The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard, Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell.
Most genuinely helpful book: How to Talk to a Science Denier by Lee McIntyre.
Best last lines encountered: “So where are we gonna go? / I don’t know. Let’s just drive and find out.” (from Heartstopper, Volume 4 by Alice Oseman).
Best 2021 book title: Mrs Death Misses Death.
Shortest book title encountered: In (Will McPhail), followed by Lot (Bryan Washington).
Biggest disappointments: Some of my lowest ratings went to Indelicacy by Amina Cain, Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ness by Robert Macfarlane.
A 2021 book that everyone loved but me: The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles.
Themes that kept turning up in my reading: Covid-19, colours (thanks to my summer reading challenge), disability (thanks to shadowing the Barbellion Prize), the mental and physical health benefits of time in nature; perennial topics like friendship, parenting and sisterhood.
My Most Memorable Backlist Reads of 2021
Like many bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the new books released each year. However, I consistently find that many of my most memorable reads were published years or decades ago. These 19 selections, in alphabetical order within genre, together with my Best of 2021 posts (fiction and nonfiction), make up the top 15% of my reading for the year. Three of the below were rereads.
(The three books not pictured were read electronically or from the library.)
America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo: Set in the early 1990s in the Filipino immigrant neighbourhoods of the Bay Area in California, this is a complex, confident debut novel that throws you into an unfamiliar culture at the deep end. The characters shine and the dialogue feels utterly authentic in this fresh immigration story.
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson: The mystery element held me completely gripped – readers are just as in the dark as jurors until close to the end – but this is mostly a powerful picture of the lasting effects of racism. I was instantly immersed, whether in a warm courtroom with a snowstorm swirling outside or on a troop ship entering the Pacific Theater.
Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon: David is back on Spain’s Costa Brava, where he and his wife Mary Rose holidayed every summer for 20 years. This is a quiet novel about what goes unsaid in any marriage, and a deeply touching look at loss and what comes next. Grief, memory, fate: some of my favourite themes, elegantly treated.
A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez: From the little I know of Nunez, this seems close to autofiction, especially in terms of her parents. Identifying the self by the key relationships and obsessions of a life makes sense, and this speaks to the universals of how we cope with a troublesome past. It cemented her as one of my favourite authors.
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy: An unusual and fascinating novel with hints of science fiction, but still grounded in the real world, this contrasts utopian and dystopian scenes experienced by a Latina woman who’s been confined to a mental hospital. It’s an intense cultural commentary from a writer ahead of her time on gender roles and the environment.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell: Obsessed with Lolita since she was a teenager, Russell decided to tell the teenage girl’s side of the story. She uses a dual timeline to great effect, creating an utterly immersive novel – as good a first-person narrative as anything Curtis Sittenfeld has ever written, and the ultimate #MeToo story.
Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler: Ian Bedloe joins the puritanical Church of the Second Chance and drops out of college to help his parents raise his late brother’s three children. Anyone will be able to find themselves and their family in this story of the life chosen versus the life fallen into, and the difficult necessity of moving past regrets in the search for meaning.
The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler: Unique in her oeuvre for how it bridges historical fiction and her more typical contemporary commentary. The Antons muddle their way through a volatile marriage for decades without figuring out how to change anything for the better. There is deep compassion for their foibles and how they affect the next generation.
Lot by Bryan Washington: The musical equivalent might be a mixtape blasted from an open-top Corvette while touring the streets of Houston, Texas. Drug dealers, careworn immigrants, and prostitutes: Even the toughest guys have tender hearts in these 13 stories. Washington’s prose is earthy and slang-filled. The matter-of-fact phrasing made me laugh.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton: I was so impressed by this condensed tragedy and the ambiance of a harsh New England winter. It struck me even more on a reread as a flawless parable of a man imprisoned by circumstance and punished for wanting more. A perfect example of how literature can encapsulate the human condition.
The Air Year by Caroline Bird: I read this with a big smile on my face, delighting in the clever and playful poems. The impermanence of relationships is a recurring theme. Dreams and miscommunication are also common elements, and lists grow increasingly absurd. I particularly liked where structure creates meaning, e.g. the mise en abyme of “Dive Bar.”
Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour: As an aimless twentysomething, Gilmour tried to rekindle a relationship with his unreliable poet father. Meanwhile, he was raising Benzene, a magpie that fell out of its nest. He makes elegant use of connections and metaphors; he’s so good at scenes, dialogue, and emotion – a truly natural writer.
Spring in Washington by Louis J. Halle: From first migrant in February to last in June, the author traced the D.C. spring of 1945 mostly through the birds that he saw. More so than the specific observations of familiar places, though, I valued the philosophical outlook. For me this was an ideal combination of thoughtful prose and vicarious travel.
The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński: This collection of essays spans decades and lots of African countries, yet feels like a cohesive narrative. Kapuściński saw many places right on the cusp of independence or in the midst of coup d’états. I appreciated how he never resorts to stereotypes or flattens differences. One of the few best travel books I’ve read.
Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer: Lehrer has endured dozens of surgeries for spina bifida. Her touching family memoir is delivered in short, essay-like chapters, most named after books or films. It is also a primer in Disability theory and a miniature art gallery, filled with reproductions of her paintings. This inaugural Barbellion Prize winner is not to be missed.
The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy: This sparse volume, the middle in an autobiographical trilogy, has Levy searching for the intellectual and physical freedom needed to reinvent her life after divorce. It is made up of conversations and memories; travels and quotations that have stuck with her. Each moment is perfectly chosen to reveal the self.
Conundrum by Jan Morris: Morris was a trans pioneer; this transformed my understanding of gender when I first read it in 2006. Born James, Morris knew by age four that she was really a girl. A journalism career, marriage, five children, and two decades of hormone therapy preceded sex reassignment surgery. She paints hers as a spiritual quest toward her true identity.
You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy: We all fail to listen properly sometimes, for various reasons. A New York Times journalist, Murphy does a lot of listening to her interview subjects. She also talks with representatives of so-called listening careers. This is a short, interesting, and genuinely helpful self-help book.
Writing in the Dust: After September 11 by Rowan Williams: Williams, then Archbishop of Wales, was in New York City on 9/11, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. In the months that followed he pondered suffering, peacemaking, and the ways of God. He cautions against labelling the Other as Evil and responding with retribution. A superb book-length essay.
And if I really had to limit myself to just two favourites – my very best fiction and nonfiction reads of the year – they would be Snow Falling on Cedars and The Cost of Living.
What were your best backlist reads this year?
(I’ll be back on the 27th with Love Your Library, then I have various year-end superlatives and statistics posts going through the 31st.)
The Barbellion Prize 2021 Longlist
This is the second year that the Barbellion Prize will be awarded “to an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability.” It was a joy to read the entire shortlist for the inaugural prize this past February and support the well-deserved win of Riva Lehrer for Golem Girl. I’ll be following the 2021–22 race with interest again, not least because one of the three judges is a long-time blogger friend of mine, Eleanor Franzen.
This year’s longlist looks fascinating: it contains fiction, poetry and memoir, and includes two works in translation. I happen to have already read the three nonfiction selections, but hadn’t heard of the other nominees.
Click on any title below for more information from the publisher website.
Ultimatum Orangutan by Khairani Barokka (Nine Arches Press)
From the synopsis: “Barokka’s second poetry collection is an intricate exploration of colonialism and environmental injustice … Through these defiant, potent verses, the body—particularly the disabled body—is centred as an ecosystem in its own right.”
What Willow Says by Lynn Buckle (Époque Press)
From the synopsis: “Sharing stories of myths, legends and ancient bogs, a deaf child and her grandmother experiment with the lyrical beauty of sign language. A poignant tale of family bonding and the quiet acceptance of change.”
A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George (Bloomsbury)
Excerpt from my TLS review: Chronic illness long ago reduced George’s territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto her quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons. (One of my favourites of the year.)
I Live a Life Like Yours: A Memoir by Jan Grue (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Pushkin Press). Translated by B. L. Crook
Excerpt from my Shelf Awareness review: The University of Oslo professor was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at age three and relies on an electric wheelchair. In his powerful, matter-of-fact memoir, he alternates between his own story and others’, doctors’ reports and theorists’ quotations, mingling the academic and the intimate.
Ill Feelings by Alice Hattrick (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Excerpt from my blog review: Hattrick and their mother share a ME/CFS diagnosis. The book searches desultorily for medical answers but ultimately rests in mystery. Into a family story, Hattrick weaves the lives and writings of chronically ill women such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alice James and Virginia Woolf.
The Coward by Jarred McGinnis (Canongate)
From the synopsis: “After a car accident Jarred discovers he’ll never walk again. … Add in a shoplifting habit, an addiction to painkillers and the fact that total strangers now treat him like he’s an idiot, it’s a recipe for self-destruction. How can he stop himself careering out of control?”
Duck Feet by Ely Percy (Monstrous Regiment)
From the synopsis: “A coming-of-age novel, set in the mid-noughties in Renfrew and Paisley, Scotland. … This book is a celebration of youth in an ever-changing world. It uses humour to tackle hard-hitting subjects such as drugs, bullying, sexuality, and teenage pregnancy.”
Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (Charco Press). Translated by Frances Riddle
From the synopsis: “After Rita is found dead in the bell tower of the church she used to attend, the official investigation into the incident is quickly closed. Her sickly mother is the only person still determined to find the culprit.”
I’m most keen to read Ultimatum Orangutan (that title!), but would gladly read any of the new-to-me titles. The shortlist will be announced in January 2022.
Do any of the nominees appeal to you?