Best Books of 2021: Nonfiction
Below I’ve chosen my top 15 nonfiction releases of 2021. This list plus yesterday’s post on fiction and poetry together represent about the top 10% of my year’s reading. In previous years I’ve assigned rankings within best-of lists, but this time I didn’t feel compelled to do so.
The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell: Hoping to reclaim an ancestral connection, Ansell visited the New Forest some 30 times between January 2019 and January 2020, observing the unfolding seasons and the many uncommon and endemic species its miles house. He weaves together his personal story, the shocking history of forced Gypsy relocation into forest compounds starting in the 1920s, and the unfairness of land ownership in Britain. The New Forest is a model of both wildlife-friendly land management and freedom of human access.
On Gallows Down: Place, Protest and Belonging by Nicola Chester: So many layers of history mingle here: from the English Civil War onward, Newbury has been a locus of resistance for centuries. A hymn-like memoir of place as much as of one person’s life, this posits that quiet moments of connection with nature and the rights of ordinary people are worth fighting for. I particularly loved a chapter about how she grounds herself via the literature of the area. She continues a hopeful activist, her lyrical writing a means of defiance.
The Glitter in the Green: In Search of Hummingbirds by Jon Dunn: A wildlife writer and photographer, Dunn travels the length of the Americas, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, to see as many hummingbirds as he can. He provides a thorough survey of the history, science and cultural relevance of this most jewel-like of bird families. He is equally good at describing birds and their habitats and at constructing a charming travelogue out of his sometimes fraught journeys. Passionate and adventurous.
The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart: Engelhart spends time with doctors and patients who are caught up in the assisted dying argument, chiefly in Western Europe and the United States. Each case is given its own long chapter, like an extended magazine profile. The stories are wrenching, but compassionately told. The author explores the nuances of each situation, crafting expert portraits of suffering people and the medical professionals who seek to help them, and adding much in the way of valuable context. A voice of reason and empathy.
Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn: Flyn travels to neglected and derelict places, looking for the traces of human impact and noting how landscapes restore themselves – how life goes on without us. Places like a wasteland where there was once mining, nuclear exclusion zones, the depopulated city of Detroit, and areas that have been altered by natural disasters and conflict. The writing is literary and evocative, at times reminiscent of Peter Matthiessen’s. It’s a nature/travel book with a difference, and the poetic eye helps you to see things anew.
The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster: A Renaissance man as well versed in law and theology as he is in natural history, Foster is obsessed with swifts and ashamed of his own species: for looking down at their feet when they could be watching the skies; for the “pathological tidiness” that leaves birds and other creatures no place to live. He delivers heaps of information on the birds but refuses to stick to a just-the-facts approach. The book quotes frequently from poetry and the prose is full of sharp turns of phrase and whimsy.
Intensive Care by Gavin Francis: Francis, an Edinburgh physician, reflects on “the most intense months I have known in my twenty-year career.” He journeys back through 2020, from the January day when he received a bulletin about a “novel Wuhan coronavirus” to November, when he learned of promising vaccine trials but also a rumored third wave and winter lockdown. An absorbing first-hand account of a medical crisis, it compassionately bridges the gap between experts and laymen. The best Covid chronicle so far.
A Still Life by Josie George: Over a year of lockdowns, many of us became accustomed to spending most of the time at home. But for Josie George, social isolation is nothing new. 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. (Reviewed for the TLS.)
The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a human-centered planet by John Green: In essays of about 5–10 pages, Green takes a phenomenon experienced in the modern age, whether miraculous (sunsets, the Lascaux cave paintings, favourite films or songs), regrettable (Staph infections, CNN, our obsession with grass lawns), or just plain weird, and riffs on it, exploring its backstory, cultural manifestations and personal resonance. I found a lot that rang true and a lot that made me laugh, and admired the openness on mental health.
The Book of Difficult Fruit: Arguments for the Tart, Tender, and Unruly by Kate Lebo: I have a soft spot for uncategorizable nonfiction. My expectation was for a food memoir, but while the essays incorporate shards of autobiography and, yes, recipes, they also dive into everything from botany and cultural history to medicinal uses. Occasionally the ‘recipes’ are for non-food items. Health is a recurring element that intersects with eating habits. The A-to-Z format required some creativity and occasions great trivia but also poignant stories.
A Braided Heart: Essays on Writing and Form by Brenda Miller: Miller, a professor of creati.ve writing, delivers a master class on the composition and appreciation of autobiographical essays. In 18 concise pieces, she tracks her development as a writer and discusses the “lyric essay”—a form as old as Seneca that prioritizes imagery over narrative. These innovative and introspective essays, ideal for fans of Anne Fadiman, showcase the interplay of structure and content. (Reviewed for Shelf Awareness.)
Flesh & Blood: Reflections on Infertility, Family, and Creating a Bountiful Life: A Memoir by N. West Moss: In her 50s, Moss needed an exploratory D&C, a cruel flashback to failed pregnancies of her 40s. Soon she faced a total hysterectomy. Here she tenderly traces the before and after of surgery and how she came to terms with childlessness. While she doesn’t shy away from medical details, Moss delves more into emotional effects. The few-page chapters are warm slices of life. She leavens her losses with a sense of humour. (Reviewed for Shelf Awareness.)
These Precious Days: Essays by Ann Patchett: This second collection of thoughtful, sincere autobiographical essays has a melancholy bent – the preoccupation with death and drive to simplify life seem appropriate for Covid times – but also looks back at her young adulthood and key relationships. The long title piece, first published in Harper’s, is about her stranger-than-fiction friendship with Tom Hanks’s assistant; “There Are No Children Here” says everything I’d ever like to say or hear about childlessness. (Full review to come.)
Sanctuary by Emily Rapp Black: A continuation of The Still Point of the Turning World, about the author’s son Ronan, who died of Tay-Sachs disease at age three. In the months surrounding his death, she split from her husband and raced into another relationship that led to her daughter, Charlie. Rapp Black questions the sorts of words she got branded with: “brave,” “resilient.” Sanctuary is full of allusions and flashbacks, threading life’s disparate parts into a chaotic tapestry. It’s measured and wrought, taming fire into light and warmth.
Forecast: A Diary of the Lost Seasons by Joe Shute: Shute probes how the seasons are bound up with memories, conceding the danger of giving in to nostalgia for a gloried past that may never have existed. He provides hard evidence in the form of long-term observations such as temperature data and photo archives. The book deftly recreates its many scenes and conversations, and inserts statistics naturally. It also delicately weaves in a storyline about infertility. Wide-ranging and so relevant.
Book Serendipity, July to August 2021
I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once (usually 20–30), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. I’ve realized that, of course, synchronicity is really the more apt word, but this branding has stuck. This used to be a quarterly feature, but to keep the lists from getting too unwieldy I’ve shifted to bimonthly.
The following are in roughly chronological order.
- I read two novels about the disappearance of a 15-year-old girl at the same time: Heatstroke by Hazel Barkworth and When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain.
- Two novels in a row were set on a holiday in Spain: Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon and The Vacationers by Emma Straub.
- I encountered mentions of the removal of the Edward Colston statue in God Is Not a White Man by Chine McDonald and I Belong Here by Anita Sethi on the same evening.
- Characters have the habit of making up names and backstories for strangers in Ruby by Ann Hood and Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon.
- The main female character says she works out what she thinks by talking in Second Place by Rachel Cusk and The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler.
- A passive mother is bullied by her controlling husband in Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon and Female Friends by Fay Weldon.
- Two reads in a row were a slim volume on the necessity of giving up denial: What White People Can Do Next by Emma Dabiri (re: racism) and What If We Stopped Pretending by Jonathan Franzen (re: climate change).
- Expressions of a strange sense of relief at disaster in Forecast by Joe Shute (re: flooding) and The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler (re: a car accident).
- The biomass ratios of livestock to humans to other mammals are cited in Silent Earth by Dave Goulson, The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green, and Bewilderment by Richard Powers.
- Two Booker nominees referencing china crockery: An Island by Karen Jennings and China Room by Sunjeev Sahota (yep, it’s talking about the plates rather than the country).
- Teens sneak vodka in Heartstopper, Volume 3 by Alice Oseman and The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.
- Robert FitzRoy appears in The Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn and Forecast by Joe Shute, and is the main subject of This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson, a doorstopper that has been languishing on my set-aside pile.
- Dave Goulson’s bumblebee research is mentioned in The Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn, which I was reading at the same time as Goulson’s new book, Silent Earth.
- Reading two cancer memoirs that mention bucket lists at the same time: No Cure for Being Human by Kate Bowler and Year of Plagues by Fred D’Aguiar.
- Mentions of the damaging practice of clearing forest to plant eucalyptus in The Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn and Forecast by Joe Shute.
- Mentions of mosquito coils being used (in Borneo or Australia) in Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles and The Weekend by Charlotte Wood.
- Different words to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in In Every Mirror She’s Black by Lola Akinmade Åkerström and How We Do Family by Trystan Reese.
- A brief mention of China and Japan’s 72 mini-seasons in Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles: this will then be the setup for Light Rains Sometimes Fall by Lev Parikian, which I’ll be reading later in September.
- Beached whales feature in Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs and Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles.
- A chapter in No Cure for Being Human by Kate Bowler is entitled “Flesh & Blood,” which is the title of the whole memoir by N. West Moss that I picked up next – and both are for Shelf Awareness reviews.
- A description of a sonogram appointment where the nurse calls the doctor in to interpret the results and they know right away that means the pregnancy is unviable, followed by an account of a miscarriage, in Flesh & Blood by N. West Moss and How We Do Family by Trystan Reese.
- Robin Wall Kimmerer and Robert Macfarlane quoted in Church of the Wild by Victoria Loorz and Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
Finishing 20 Books of Summer: The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green
The final choice for my colour-themed 20 Books of Summer, a terrific essay collection about the best and worst of the modern human experience, also happened to be the only one where the colour was part of the author’s name rather than the book’s title. I also have a bonus rainbow-covered read and a look back at the highlights of my summer reading.
The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet by John Green (2021)
(20 Books of Summer, #20) How Have You Enjoyed the Anthropocene So Far? That’s the literal translation of the book’s German title, but also a tidy summary of its approach. John Green is not only a YA author but also a new media star – he and his brother Hank are popular vlogging co-hosts, and this book arose from a podcast of the same name. Some of the essays first appeared on his various video projects, too. In about 5–10 pages, he takes a phenomenon experienced in the modern age, whether miraculous (sunsets, the Lascaux cave paintings, favourite films or songs), regrettable (Staph infections, CNN, our obsession with grass lawns), or just plain weird, and riffs on it, exploring its backstory, cultural manifestations and personal resonance.
Indeed, the essays reveal a lot about Green himself. I didn’t know of his struggles with anxiety and depression. “Harvey,” one of the standout essays, is about a breakdown he had in his early twenties when living in Chicago and working for Booklist magazine. His boss told him to take as much time as he needed, and urged him to watch Harvey, the Jimmy Stewart film about a man with an imaginary friend that happens to be a six-foot rabbit. It was the perfect prescription. In “Auld Lang Syne,” Green toggles between the history of the song and a friendship from his own old times, with an author and mentor who has since died. “Googling Strangers” prides itself on a very 21st-century skill by which he discovers that a critically injured boy from his time as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital lived to adulthood.
Green is well aware of the state of things: “Humans are already an ecological catastrophe … for many forms of life, humanity is the apocalypse.” He plays up the contradictions in everyday objects: air-conditioning is an environmental disaster, yet makes everyday life tolerable in vast swathes of the USA; Canada geese are still, to many, a symbol of wildness, but are almost frighteningly ubiquitous – one of the winners in the species roulette we’ve initiated. And although he’s clued in, he knows that in many respects he’s still living as if the world isn’t falling apart. “In the daily grind of a human life, there’s a lawn to mow, soccer practices to drive to, a mortgage to pay. And so I go on living the way I feel like people always have.” A sentiment that rings true for many of us: despite the background dread about where everything is headed, we just have to get on with our day-to-day obligations, right?
Although he’s from Indianapolis, a not particularly well regarded city of the Midwest, Green is far from the conservative, insular stereotype of that region. There are pockets of liberal, hipster culture all across the Midwest, in fact, and while he does joke about Indy in the vein of “well, you’ve gotta live somewhere,” it’s clear that he’s come to love the place – enough to set climactic scenes from two of his novels there. However, he’s also cosmopolitan enough – he’s a Liverpool FC fan, and one essay is set on a trip to Iceland – to be able to see America’s faults (which, to an extent, are shared by many Western countries) of greed and militarism and gluttony and more.
In any book like this, one might quibble with the particular items selected. I mostly skipped over the handful of pieces on sports and video games, for instance. But even when the phenomena were completely unknown to me, I was still tickled by Green’s take. For example, here he is rhapsodizing on Diet Dr Pepper: “Look at what humans can do! They can make ice-cold, sugary-sweet, zero-calorie soda that tastes like everything and also like nothing.” He veers between the funny and the heartfelt: “I want to be earnest, even if it’s embarrassing.”
Each essay closes with a star rating. What value does a numerical assessment have when he’s making such apples-and-oranges comparisons (a sporting performance vs. sycamore trees vs. hot dog eating contests)? Not all that much. (Of course, some might make that very argument about rating books, but I persist!) At first I thought the setup was a silly gimmick, but since reviewing anything and everything on Amazon/TripAdvisor/wherever is as much a characteristic of our era as everything he’s writing about, why not? Calamities get 1–1.5 stars, things that seemed good but have turned out to be mixed blessings might get 2–3 stars, and whatever he unabashedly loves gets 4.5–5 stars.
As Green astutely remarks, “when people write reviews, they are really writing a kind of memoir—here’s what my experience was.” So, because I found a lot that resonated with me and a lot that made me laugh, and admired his openness on mental health à la Matt Haig, but also found the choices random such that a few essays didn’t interest me and the whole doesn’t necessarily build a cohesive argument, I give The Anthropocene Reviewed four stars. I’d only ever read The Fault in Our Stars, one of the first YA books I loved, so this was a good reminder to try more of Green’s fiction soon.
Initially, I thought I might struggle to find 20 appealing colour-associated books, so I gave myself latitude to include books with different coloured covers. As it happens, I didn’t have to resort to choosing by cover, but I’ve thrown in this rainbow cover as an extra.
Songs in Ursa Major by Emma Brodie (2021)
A Daisy Jones and the Six wannabe for sure, and a fun enough summer read even though the writing doesn’t nearly live up to Reid’s. Set largely between 1969 and 1971, the novel stars Jane Quinn, who lives on New England’s Bayleen Island with her aunt, grandmother and cousin – her aspiring singer mother having disappeared when Jane was nine. Nursing and bartending keep Jane going while she tries to make her name with her band, the Breakers. Aunt Grace, also a nurse, cares for local folk rocker Jesse Reid during his convalescence from a motorcycle accident. He then invites the Breakers to open for him on his tour and he and Jane embark on a turbulent affair. After Jane splits from both Jesse and the Breakers, she shrugs off her sexist producer and pours her soul into landmark album Songs in Ursa Major. (I got the Sufjan Stevens song “Ursa Major” in my head nearly every time I picked this up.)
There are some soap opera twists and turns to the plot, and I would say the novel is at least 100 pages too long, with an unnecessary interlude on a Greek island. Everyone loves a good sex, drugs and rock ’n roll tale, but here the sex scenes were kind of cringey, and the lyrics and descriptions of musical styles seemed laboured. Also, I thought from the beginning that the novel could use the intimacy of a first-person narrator, but late on realized it had to be in the third person to conceal a secret of Jane’s – which ended up feeling like a trick. There are also a few potential anachronisms (e.g. I found myself googling “how much did a pitcher of beer cost in 1969?”) that took me out of the period. Brodie is a debut novelist who has worked in book publishing in the USA for a decade. Her Instagram has a photo of her reading Daisy Jones and the Six in March 2019! That and the shout-out to Mandy Moore, of all the musical inspirations, in her acknowledgments, had me seriously doubting her bona fides to write this story. Maybe take it as a beach read if you aren’t too picky.
(Twitter giveaway win)
Looking back, my favourite read from this project was Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon, closely followed by the novels Under the Blue by Oana Aristide and Ruby by Ann Hood, the essay collection The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green (above), the travel book The Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn, and the memoirs Darkness Visible by William Styron and Direct Red by Gabriel Weston. A varied and mostly great selection, all told! I read six books from the library and the rest from my shelves. Maybe next year I’ll not pick a theme but allow myself completely free choice – so long as they’re all books I own.
What was the highlight of your summer reading?
Recommended June Releases
I have an all-female line-up for you this time, with selections ranging from a YA romance in verse to a memoir by a spiritual recording artist. There’s a very random detail that connects two of these books – look out for it!
In Paris with You by Clémentine Beauvais
[Faber & Faber, 7th]
I don’t know the source material Beauvais was working with (Eugene Onegin, 1837), but still enjoyed this YA romance in verse. Eugene and Tatiana meet by chance in Paris in 2016 and the attraction between them is as strong as ever, but a possible relationship is threatened by memories of a tragic event from 10 years ago involving Lensky, Eugene’s friend and the boyfriend of Tatiana’s older sister Olga. I’m in awe at how translator Sam Taylor has taken the French of her Songe à la douceur and turned it into English poetry with the occasional rhyme. This is a sweet book that would appeal to John Green’s readers, but it’s more sexually explicit than a lot of American YA, so is probably only suitable for older teens. (Proof copy from Faber Spring Party)
“Her heart takes the lift / up to her larynx, / where it gets stuck / hammering against the walls of her neck.”
“an adult with a miniature attention span, / like everyone else, refreshing, updating, / nibbling at time like a ham baguette.”
“helium balloons in the shape of spermatozoa straining towards the dark sky.”
Implosion: A Memoir of an Architect’s Daughter by Elizabeth W. Garber
[She Writes Press, 12th]
The author grew up in a glass house designed by her father, Modernist architect Woodie Garber, outside Cincinnati in the 1960s–70s. This and his other most notable design, Sander Hall, a controversial tower-style dorm at the University of Cincinnati that was later destroyed in a controlled explosion, serve as powerful metaphors for her dysfunctional family life. Woodie is such a fascinating, flawed figure. Manic depression meant he had periods of great productivity but also weeks when he couldn’t get out of bed. He and Elizabeth connected over architecture, like when he helped her make a scale model of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye for a school project, but it was hard for a man born in the 1910s to understand his daughter’s generation or his wife’s desire to go back to school and have her own career.
Mixed feelings towards a charismatic creative genius who made home life a torment and the way their fractured family kept going are reasons enough to read this book. But another is just that Garber’s life has been so interesting: she witnessed the 1968 race riots and had a black boyfriend when interracial relationships were frowned upon; she was briefly the librarian for the Oceanics School, whose boat was taken hostage in Panama; and she dropped out of mythology studies at Harvard to become an acupuncturist. Don’t assume this will be a boring tome only for architecture buffs. It’s a masterful memoir for everyone. (Read via NetGalley on Nook)
Florida by Lauren Groff
[William Heinemann (UK), 7th / Riverhead (USA), 5th]
My review is in today’s “Book Wars” column in Stylist magazine. Two major, connected threads in this superb story collection are ambivalence about Florida, and ambivalence about motherhood. The narrator of “The Midnight Zone,” staying with her sons in a hunting camp 20 miles from civilization, ponders the cruelty of time and her failure to be sufficiently maternal, while the woman in “Flower Hunters” is so lost in an eighteenth-century naturalist’s book that she forgets to get Halloween costumes for her kids. A few favorites of mine were “Ghosts and Empties,” in which the narrator goes for long walks at twilight and watches time passing through the unwitting tableaux of the neighbors’ windows; “Eyewall,” a matter-of-fact ghost story; and “Above and Below,” in which a woman slips into homelessness – it’s terrifying how precarious her life is at every step. (Proof copy)
“What had been built to seem so solid was fragile in the face of time because time is impassive, more animal than human. Time would not care if you fell out of it. It would continue on without you.” (from “The Midnight Zone”)
“The wind played the chimney until the whole place wheezed like a bagpipe.” (from “Eyewall”)
“How lonely it would be, the mother thinks, looking at her children, to live in this dark world without them.” (from “Yport”)
The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Seen: Opening Your Eyes to Wonder by Lisa Gungor
You’re most likely to pick this up if you enjoy Gungor’s music, but it’s by no means a band tell-all. The big theme of this memoir is moving beyond the strictures of religion to find an all-encompassing spirituality. Like many Gungor listeners, Lisa grew up in, and soon outgrew, a fundamentalist Christian setting. She bases the book around a key set of metaphors: the dot, the line, and the circle. The dot was the confining theology she was raised with; the line was the pilgrimage she and Michael Gungor embarked on after they married at 19; the circle was the more inclusive spirituality she developed after their second daughter, Lucie, was born with Down syndrome and required urgent heart surgery. Being mothered, becoming a mother and accepting God as Mother: together these experiences bring the book full circle. Barring the too-frequent nerdy-cool posturing (seven mentions of “dance parties,” and so on), this is a likable memoir for readers of spiritual writing by the likes of Sue Monk Kidd, Mary Oliver and Terry Tempest Williams. (Read via NetGalley on Kindle)
Orchid & the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes
[Oneworld, 7th] – see my full review.
Ok, Mr Field by Katharine Kilalea
[Faber & Faber, 7th]
Mr. Field is a concert pianist whose wrist was shattered in a train crash. With his career temporarily derailed, there’s little for him to do apart from wander his Cape Town house, a replica of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, and the nearby coastal path. He also drives over to spy on his architect’s widow, with whom he’s obsessed. He’s an aimless voyeur who’s more engaged with other people’s lives than with his own – until a dog follows him home from a graveyard. This is a strangely detached little novel in which little seems to happen. Like Asunder by Chloe Aridjis and Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner, it’s about someone who’s been coasting unfeelingly through life and has to stop to ask what’s gone wrong and what’s worth pursuing. It’s so brilliantly written, with the pages flowing effortlessly on, that I admired Kilalea’s skill. Her descriptions of scenery and music are particularly good. In terms of the style, I was reminded of books I’ve read by Katie Kitamura and Henrietta Rose-Innes. (Proof copy from Faber Spring Party)
This came out in the States (from Riverhead) back in early April, but releases here in the UK soon, so I’ve added it in as a bonus.
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
[Chatto & Windus, 7th]
An enjoyable story of twentysomethings looking for purpose and trying to be good feminists. To start with it’s a fairly familiar campus novel in the vein of The Art of Fielding and The Marriage Plot, but we follow Greer, her high school sweetheart Cory and her new friend Zee for the next 10+ years to see the compromises they make as ideals bend to reality. Faith Frank is Greer’s feminist idol, but she’s only human in the end, and there are different ways of being a feminist: not just speaking out from a stage, but also quietly living every day in a way that shows you value people equally. I have a feeling this would have meant much more to me a decade ago, and the #MeToo-ready message isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but I very much enjoyed my first taste of Wolitzer’s sharp, witty writing and will be sure to read more from her. This seems custom-made for next year’s Women’s Prize shortlist. (Free from publisher, for comparison with Florida in Stylist “Book Wars” column.)
What June books do you have on the docket? Have you already read any that you can recommend?
Narcissism for Beginners by Martine McDonagh
Don’t talk like we were stuck in a lift.
Why would I be missing you so violently?
We’re all the hero when directing the scene,
But therapy for liars is a giant ice cream.
(from “Montparnasse” by Elbow)
I broke one of my cardinal reviewing rules—write about the book while it’s still fresh in your mind—and waited two weeks after finishing Martine McDonagh’s Narcissism for Beginners before writing it up. Luckily the Elbow stanza above (Guy Garvey’s lyrics are like poetry, after all) brought back to me some of the themes I want to explore: how you can miss someone you barely know, the way that ties ebb and shift such that your blood kin are strangers and the unrelated become like family, and how a narcissistic personality can use coercion and deception to get his or her way. Plus there’s the ice cream metaphor of the last line, a link to the terrific cover on finished copies of the novel—not on my proof, alas.
The novel is presented as Sonny Anderson’s extended letter to the mother he doesn’t remember. He’s lived with his guardian, a Brit named Thomas Hardiker, in Redondo Beach, California for 11 years; before that they were in Brazil with Sonny’s father. A month ago, on his twenty-first birthday, Sonny received the astounding news that he’s a millionaire thanks to a trust fund from his late father, Robin Agelaste-Bim, better known as Guru Bim. His mother is Sarah Anderson: once a Scottish housewife, now untraceable. Despite his youth, Sonny has been a meth addict and kicked the habit through NA. This kid’s done a lot of living already, but sets out on a new adventure to learn about his parents from those who knew them. And while he’s in Britain, he’ll squeeze in some tourism related to his favorite movie, Shaun of the Dead.
Starting with Sonny’s plane ride to Heathrow, the book is in the present tense, which makes you feel you’re taking the journey right along with him. Although this isn’t being marketed as young adult fiction, it has the same vibe as some YA quest narratives I’ve read: John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, both of David Arnold’s books, and Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star. Sonny is more bitter and world-weary than those teen protagonists, but you still get the slang and the pop culture references along with the heartfelt emotions.
Sonny’s first visit is to Torquay octogenarian Doris Henry, who was the Agelaste-Bims’ servant and Robin’s wet nurse circa 1970. Next up: London and Ruth Williams, whom Sonny’s mother, then going by Suki, recruited into a LifeForce meditation group. Ruth remembers taking against Guru Bim immediately: “He was faking it to get in with Suki. I understood the attraction, though; those narcissistic types are always charming.” Bim and Suki formed a splinter group, Trembling Leaves and soon announced Suki’s pregnancy, but things went awry and Suki fled to Scotland with her ex-boyfriend, Andrew.
This slightly madcap biographical trip around Britain also takes in Brighton, Scotland and Keswick in the Lake District. At each stop Sonny’s able to fill in more about his past, but it’s the letters Thomas sent along for him that contain the real shockers. It’s an epistolary within an epistolary, really, with Thomas’s series of long, explanatory letters daubing in the details and anchoring Sonny’s sometimes-earnest, sometimes-angry missive to his mother.
I loved tagging along on this kooky hero’s quest. My one small criticism about an otherwise zippy novel is that there is a lot of backstory to absorb, from Sonny’s former drug use onwards. For an American expat, though, it was especially fun to watch Sonny trying to get used to some peculiarities of Britain: “apparently it’s compulsory to eat potato chips and on Brit trains” and “We argue about which floor she lives on. I say second and Ruth says first, until we realise we mean the same thing.”
In a year that opened with a narcissist being installed in the White House and will soon see the publication of a new book about cult leader Jim Jones (The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn, April 11th), McDonagh’s picture of Guru Bim is sure to strike a chord. As Ruth tells Sonny, in Ancient Greek an agelast was someone with no sense of humor; and she accused Bim of being “a manipulative charlatan.”
For Sonny, whose very name places him in relationship to others, coming to grips with who he came from means deciding to live differently and be content with his own piecemeal family, including Thomas, the Great Dudini (their dog), and maybe even a cool old lady like Ruth. You’ll love spending time with them all, and I imagine you’ll get a particular kick out of this if you like Shaun of the Dead. (Whisper it: I’ve never seen it.)
Narcissism for Beginners was published in the UK on March 9th. With thanks to Unbound for the review copy.
Martine McDonagh was an artist manager in the music industry for 30 years and now leads the Creative Writing & Publishing MA at West Dean College, Sussex. This is her third novel, following I Have Waited, and You Have Come and After Phoenix.
Watch the Movie or Read the Book?
It’s a risky business, adapting a well-loved book into a film. I’m always curious to see how a screenwriter and director will pull it off. The BBC generally does an admirable job with the classics, but contemporary book adaptations can be hit or miss. I’ve racked my brain to think of cases where the movie was much better than the book or vice versa, but to my surprise I’ve found that I can only think of a handful of examples. Most of the time I think the film and book are of about equal merit, whether that’s pretty good or excellent.
Watch the Movie Instead:
Birdsong [Sebastian Faulks] – Eddie Redmayne, anyone? The book is a slog, but the television miniseries is lovely.
One Day [David Nicholls] – Excellent casting (though Rafe Spall nearly steals the show). Feels less formulaic and mawkish than the novel.
Father of the Bride and its sequel [Edward Streeter] – The late 1940s/early 1950s books that served as very loose source material are hopelessly dated.
This Is Where I Leave You [Jonathan Tropper] – Again, perfect casting. Less raunchy and more good-natured than the book.
Read the Book Instead:
Possession [A.S. Byatt] – This is one of my favorite novels of all time. It has a richness of prose and style (letters, poems, etc.) that simply cannot be captured on film. Plus Aaron Eckhart couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag.
Everything Is Illuminated [Jonathan Safran Foer] – The movie’s not bad, but if you want to get a hint of Foer’s virtuosic talent you need to read the novel he wrote at 25.
A Prayer for Owen Meany [John Irving] – The film version, Simon Birch, was so mediocre that Irving wouldn’t let his character’s name be associated with it.
It’s Pretty Much Even:
Decent book and movie: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Help, The Hours, Memoirs of a Geisha, Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day
Terrific book and movie: The Fault in Our Stars, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared (Swedish language), The Orchid Thief / Adaptation (both great but in very different ways!), Tamara Drewe (based on a graphic novel, which itself is based on Far From the Madding Crowd)
If I’m interested in a story, my preference is always to watch the movie before I read the book. If you do it the other way round, you’re likely to be disappointed with the adaptation. Alas, this means that the actors’ and actresses’ faces will be ineradicably linked with the characters in your head when you try to read the book. I consider this a small disadvantage. Reading the book after you’ve already enjoyed the storyline on screen means you get to go deeper with the characters and the plot, since subplots are often eliminated in movie versions.
So although I’ve seen the films, I’m still keen to read Half of a Yellow Sun and The Kite Runner. I’m eager to both see and read The English Patient and The Shipping News (which would be my first by Proulx). All four of these I own in paperback. I’m also curious about two war novels being adapted this year, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and The Yellow Birds. There’s every chance I’d like these better as movies than I did as books.
As to books I’m interested in seeing on the big screen, the first one that comes to mind is Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal. It might also be interesting to see how the larger-than-life feminist heroines of Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World and Brian Morton’s Florence Gordon would translate for cinema. Can you think of any others?
What film adaptations have impressed or disappointed you recently? Do you watch the movie first, or read the book first?
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.