My Best Backlist Reads of 2019
Like many book bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the shiny new books released each year. However, I consistently find that many of my most memorable reads were published years or even decades ago.
These selections, in alphabetical order by author name, account for the rest of my 5-star ratings of the year, plus a handful of 4.5 and high 4 ones.
Faces in the Water by Janet Frame: The best inside picture of mental illness I’ve read. Istina Mavet, in and out of New Zealand mental hospitals between ages 20 and 28, undergoes regular shock treatments. Occasional use of unpunctuated, stream-of-consciousness prose is an effective way of conveying the protagonist’s terror. Simply stunning writing.
The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff: Groff wrote this in homage to Cooperstown, New York, where she grew up. We hear from leading lights in the town’s history and Willie’s family tree through a convincing series of first-person narratives, letters and other documents. A charming way to celebrate where you come from with all its magic and mundanity.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver: What an amazing novel about the ways that right and wrong, truth and pain get muddied together. Some characters are able to acknowledge their mistakes and move on, while others never can. Christianity and colonialism have a lot to answer for. A masterpiece.
The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing: Begins with the words “MURDER MYSTERY”: a newspaper headline announcing that Mary, wife of Rhodesian farmer Dick Turner, has been found murdered by their houseboy. The breakdown of a marriage and the failure of a farm form a dual tragedy that Lessing explores in searing psychological detail.
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively: Seventy-six-year-old Claudia Hampton, on her deathbed in a nursing home, determines to write a history of the world as she’s known it. More impressive than the plot surprises is how Lively packs the whole sweep of a life into just 200 pages, all with such rich, wry commentary on how what we remember constructs our reality.
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez: The narrator is a writer and academic who has stepped up to care for her late friend’s aging Great Dane, Apollo. It feels like Nunez has encapsulated everything she’s ever known or thought about, all in just over 200 pages, and alongside a heartwarming little plot. (Animal lovers need not fear.)
There There by Tommy Orange: Orange’s dozen main characters are urban Native Americans converging on the annual Oakland Powwow. Their lives have been difficult, to say the least. The novel cycles through most of the characters multiple times, so gradually we work out the links between everyone. Hugely impressive.
In the Driver’s Seat by Helen Simpson: The best story collection I read this year. Themes include motherhood, death versus new beginnings, and how to be optimistic in a world in turmoil. Gentle humor and magic tempers the sadness. I especially liked “The Green Room,” a Christmas Carol riff, and “Constitutional,” set on a woman’s one-hour lunch break walk.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck: Look no further for the Great American Novel. Spanning from the Civil War to World War I and crossing the country from New England to California, this is just as wide-ranging in its subject matter, with an overarching theme of good and evil as it plays out in families and in individual souls.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese: The saga of conjoined twins born of a union between an Indian nun and an English surgeon in 1954. Ethiopia’s postcolonial history is a colorful background. I thrilled to the accounts of medical procedures. I can’t get enough of sprawling Dickensian stories full of coincidences, minor characters, and humor and tragedy.
Extinctions by Josephine Wilson: The curmudgeonly antihero is widower Frederick Lothian, at age 69 a reluctant resident of St Sylvan’s Estate retirement village. It’s the middle of a blistering Australian summer and he has plenty of time to drift back over his life. He’s a retired engineering expert, but he’s been much less successful in his personal life.
Windfall by Miriam Darlington: I’d had no idea that Darlington had written poetry before she turned to nature writing. The verse is rooted in the everyday. Multiple poems link food and erotic pleasure; others make nature the source of exaltation. Lots of allusions and delicious alliteration. Pick this up if you’re still mourning Mary Oliver.
Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods by Tishani Doshi: The third collection by the Welsh–Gujarati poet and dancer is vibrant and boldly feminist. The tone is simultaneously playful and visionary, toying with readers’ expectations. Several of the most arresting poems respond to the #MeToo movement. She also excels at crafting breath-taking few-word phrases.
Where the Road Runs Out by Gaia Holmes: A major thread of the book is caring for her father at home and in the hospital as he was dying on the Orkney Islands – a time of both wonder and horror. Other themes include pre-smartphone life and a marriage falling apart. There are no rhymes, just alliteration and plays on words, with a lot of seaside imagery.
Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice: MacNeice wrote this long verse narrative between August 1938 and the turn of the following year. Everyday life for the common worker muffles political rumblings that suggest all is not right in the world. He reflects on his disconnection from Ireland; on fear, apathy and the longing for purpose. Still utterly relevant.
Sky Burials by Ben Smith: I discovered Smith through the 2018 New Networks for Nature conference. He was part of a panel discussion on the role poetry might play in environmental activism. This collection shares that environmentalist focus. Many of the poems are about birds. There’s a sense of history but also of the future.
Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt: During a bout of depression, Haupt decided to start paying more attention to the natural world right outside her suburban Seattle window. Crows were a natural place to start. A charming record of bird behavior and one woman’s reawakening, but also a bold statement of human responsibility to the environment.
All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir by Elizabeth Hay: Hay’s parents, Gordon and Jean, stumbled into their early nineties in an Ottawa retirement home. There are many harsh moments in this memoir, but almost as many wry ones, with Hay picking just the right anecdotes to illustrate her parents’ behavior and the shifting family dynamic.
Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay: Jackie Kay was born out of the brief relationship between a Nigerian student and a Scottish nurse in Aberdeen in the early 1960s. This memoir of her search for her birth parents is a sensitive treatment of belonging and (racial) identity. Kay writes with warmth and a quiet wit. The nonlinear structure is like a family photo album.
Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp: An excellent addiction memoir that stands out for its smooth and candid writing. For nearly 20 years, Knapp was a high-functioning alcoholic who maintained jobs in Boston-area journalism. The rehab part is often least exciting, but I appreciated how Knapp characterized it as the tortured end of a love affair.
The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein: I guarantee you’ve never read a biography quite like this one. It’s part journalistic exposé and part “love letter”; it’s part true crime and part ordinary life story. It considers gender, mental health, addiction, trauma and death. Simply a terrific read.
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood: A memoir of growing up in a highly conservative religious setting, but not Evangelical Christianity as you or I have known it. Her father, a married Catholic priest, is an unforgettable character. This is a poet’s mind sparking at high voltage and taking an ironically innocent delight in dirty and iconoclastic talk.
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen: For two months in 1973, Matthiessen joined a zoologist on a journey from the Nepalese Himalayas to the Tibetan Plateau in hopes of spotting the elusive snow leopard. Recently widowed, Matthiessen put his Buddhist training to work as he pondered impermanence and acceptance. The writing is remarkable.
This Sunrise of Wonder: Letters for the Journey by Michael Mayne: Mayne’s thesis is that experiencing wonder is what makes us human. He believes poets, musicians and painters, in particular, reawaken us to awe by encouraging us to pay close attention. Especially with the frequent quotations and epigraphs, this is like a rich compendium of wisdom from the ages.
Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab by Christine Montross: When she was training to become a doctor, Montross was assigned an older female cadaver, Eve, who taught her everything she knows about the human body. Montross is also a poet, as evident in this lyrical, compassionate exploration of working with the dead.
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell: An excellent first-hand account of the working and living conditions of the poor in two world cities. Orwell works as a dishwasher and waiter in Paris hotel restaurants for up to 80 hours a week. The matter-of-fact words about poverty and hunger are incisive, while the pen portraits are glistening.
A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter: In 1934, Ritter, an Austrian painter, joined her husband Hermann for a year in Spitsbergen. I was fascinated by the details of Ritter’s daily tasks, but also by how her perspective on the landscape changed. No longer a bleak wilderness, it became a tableau of grandeur. A travel classic worth rediscovering.
Autumn Across America by Edwin Way Teale: In the late 1940s Teale and his wife set out on a 20,000-mile road trip from Cape Cod on the Atlantic coast to Point Reyes on the Pacific to track the autumn. Teale was an early conservationist. His descriptions of nature are gorgeous, and the scientific explanations are at just the right level for the average reader.
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch: This blew me away. Reading this nonlinear memoir of trauma and addiction, you’re amazed the author is still alive, let alone a thriving writer. The writing is truly dazzling, veering between lyrical stream-of-consciousness and in-your-face informality. The watery metaphors are only part of what make it unforgettable.
And if I really had to limit myself to just two favorites – my very best fiction and nonfiction reads of the year – they would be Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively and Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood.
What were your best backlist reads this year?
Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again
Although I’ve confessed to being generally wary of sequels, and I am scrupulously avoiding this autumn’s other high-profile sequel (you know the one!), I loved Olive Kitteridge enough to continue straight on to Elizabeth Strout’s sequel, Olive, Again, which I thought even better.
Olive Kitteridge (2008)
I have a soft spot for literature’s curmudgeons – the real-life ones like J. R. Ackerley, Shaun Bythell and Geoff Dyer as well as the fictional protagonists like Dr. James Darke in Rick Gekoski’s debut novel, Cassandra Darke in Posy Simmonds’s graphic novel, Hagar Shipley in The Stone Angel, Hendrik Groen in his two titular Dutch diaries, and Frederick Lothian in Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions. So it’s no surprise that I warmed immediately to Olive Kitteridge, a grumpy retired math teacher in Crosby, Maine. She’s seen and heard it all, and will bluntly say just what she thinks. She has no time for anyone else’s nonsense.
I love our first introduction to her, three pages into the opening piece of this linked short story collection: she dismisses her pharmacist husband Henry’s new employee as “mousy,” and when Henry suggests inviting the girl and her husband over for dinner, snaps, Bartleby-like, “Not keen on it.” The great sadness of Olive’s life is the death of a fellow teacher she never quite had an affair with, but loved in her early forties. The great failure of Olive’s life is not connecting with her only son, Christopher, a podiatrist who marries a woman Olive dislikes and moves to California, then remarries a single mother of two and settles in New York City.
I started this in February and didn’t finish it until this month. I lost momentum after “A Different Road,” in which Olive and Henry are in a hostage situation in the local hospital. This was a darker turn than I was prepared for from Strout – I thought unrequited love and seasonal melancholy was as bleak as she’d go. But I hadn’t read “Tulips” yet, in which we learn that a local boy is in prison for stabbing a woman 29 times.
My least favorite stories were the ones that are about other locals and only mention Olive in passing, perhaps via advice she once gave a student. It almost feels like Strout wrote these as stand-alone stories and then, at her publisher’s behest, inserted a sentence or two so they could fit into a book about Olive. I much prefer the stories that are all about Olive, whether she’s engaging in a small act of rebellion on her son’s wedding day, visiting his new family in New York, or entertaining the prospect of romance some time after Henry’s death.
Olive is a sort of Everywoman; in her loneliness, frustrated desire and occasional depression she’s like us all. I wrote an article on linked short story collections some months ago and pretty much everyone I consulted mentioned Olive as the epitome. I didn’t love the book quite as much as I expected to, but I was very glad to have read it. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.
[Apropos of nothing: this book contains the worst possible nickname for my name that I’ve ever encountered: Bicka-Beck.]
Olive, Again (2019)
(Coming from Random House [USA] on October 15th and Viking [UK] on October 31st)
I liked this that little bit more than Olive Kitteridge for a number of reasons:
1) I read it over a matter of days rather than months, so the characters and happenings stayed fresher in my mind and I experienced it more as a novel-in-stories than as a set of discrete stories.
2) Olive, our Everywoman protagonist, approaches widowhood, decrepitude and death with her usual mixture of stoicism and bad temper. You may hear more about her bowels than you’d like to, but at least Strout is being realistic about the indignities of ageing.
3) Crucially, Olive has started, very late in life, to take a genuine interest in other people, such as her son’s second wife; a local girl who becomes Poet Laureate; and the carers who look after her following a heart attack. “Tell me what it’s like to be you,” she says one day to the Somali nurse who comes over from Shirley Falls. Comparing others’ lives with her own, she realizes she’s been lucky in many ways. Yet that doesn’t make understanding herself, or preparing for death, any easier.
4) There are connections to other Strout novels that made me intrigued to read further in her work. In “Exiles,” Bob and Jim Burgess of The Burgess Boys are reunited in Maine, while in the final story, “Friend,” Olive befriends a new fellow nursing home resident, Isabelle Daignault of Amy and Isabelle.
5) Olive delivers a baby!
As with the previous volume, I most liked the stories that stuck close to Olive, and least liked those that are primarily about others in Crosby or Shirley Falls and only mention Olive in passing, such as via a piece of advice she gave to one of her math students several decades ago. Twice Strout goes sexually explicit – a voyeurism situation, and a minor character who is a dominatrix; I felt these touches were unnecessary. Overall, though, these stories are of very high quality. The two best ones, worth seeking out whether you think you want to read the whole book or not, are “The Poet” and “Heart.”
I read an advanced e-copy via NetGalley.
Are you a fan of Elizabeth Strout’s work? Do you plan to read Olive, Again?
Book Serendipity Incidents of 2019 (So Far)
I’ve continued to post my occasional reading coincidences on Twitter and/or Instagram. This is when two or more books that I’m reading 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 between 10 and 20 – I guess I’m more prone to such serendipitous incidents. (The following are in rough chronological order.)
What’s the weirdest coincidence you’ve had lately?
- Two titles that sound dubious about miracles: There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald and The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything that Comes After by Julie Yip-Williams
- Two titles featuring light: A Light Song of Light by Kei Miller and The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer
- Grey Poupon mustard (and its snooty associations, as captured in the TV commercials) mentioned in There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald and Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp
- “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” (the Whitney Houston song) referenced in There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald and Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
- Two books have an on/off boyfriend named Julian: Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp and Extinctions by Josephine Wilson
- There’s an Aunt Marjorie in When I Had a Little Sister by Catherine Simpson and Extinctions by Josephine Wilson
- Set (at least partially) in a Swiss chalet: This Sunrise of Wonder by Michael Mayne and Crazy for God by Frank Schaeffer
- A character named Kiki in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine by Iris Murdoch, The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer, AND Improvement by Joan Silber
- Two books set (at least partially) in mental hospitals: Mind on Fire by Arnold Thomas Fanning and Faces in the Water by Janet Frame
- Two books in which a character thinks the saying is “It’s a doggy dog world” (rather than “dog-eat-dog”): The Friend by Sigrid Nunez and The Octopus Museum by Brenda Shaughnessy
- Reading a novel about Lee Miller (The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer), I find a metaphor involving her in My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh: (the narrator describes her mother) “I think she got away with so much because she was beautiful. She looked like Lee Miller if Lee Miller had been a bedroom drunk.” THEN I come across a poem in Clive James’s Injury Time entitled “Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bathtub”
- On the same night that I started Siri Hustvedt’s new novel, Memories of the Future, I also started a novel that had a Siri Hustvedt quote (from The Blindfold) as the epigraph: Besotted by Melissa Duclos
- In two books “elicit” was printed where the author meant “illicit” – I’m not going to name and shame, but one of these instances was in a finished copy! (the other in a proof, which is understandable)
- Three books in which the bibliography is in alphabetical order BY BOOK TITLE! Tell me this is not a thing; it will not do! (Vagina: A Re-education by Lynn Enright; Let’s Talk about Death (over Dinner) by Michael Hebb; Telling the Story: How to Write and Sell Narrative Nonfiction by Peter Rubie)
- References to Gerard Manley Hopkins in Another King, Another Country by Richard Holloway, This Sunrise of Wonder by Michael Mayne and The Point of Poetry by Joe Nutt (these last two also discuss his concept of the “inscape”)
- Creative placement of words on the page (different fonts; different type sizes, capitals, bold, etc.; looping around the page or at least not in traditional paragraphs) in When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back by Naja Marie Aidt [not pictured below], How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton, Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler, Alice Iris Red Horse: Selected Poems of Yoshimasu Gozo and Lanny by Max Porter
- Twin brothers fall out over a girl in Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese and one story from the upcoming book Meteorites by Julie Paul
- Characters are described as being “away with the fairies” in Lanny by Max Porter and Away by Jane Urquhart
- Schindler’s Ark/List is mentioned in In the Beginning: A New Reading of the Book of Genesis by Karen Armstrong and Telling the Story: How to Write and Sell Narrative Nonfiction by Peter Rubie … makes me think that I should finally pick up my copy!
Review: Extinctions by Josephine Wilson
I don’t often get a chance to read the wonderful-sounding Australian books I see on prize shortlists or on Kate’s blog, so I was delighted when Extinctions, which won the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award, was published in the UK last year. It may just be my mind making easy associations, but Josephine Wilson’s second novel indeed reminded me of other Australian fiction I’ve enjoyed, including The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr, Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar, and The Singing Ship by Rebecca Winterer. I can’t quite put my finger on what these novels have in common despite their disparate time settings. A hot and forbidding landscape? An enduring sense of pioneer spirit, of survival against the odds? All four, to an extent, pit an explorer’s impetus against family trauma and/or racial difference.
The antihero of Extinctions is widower Frederick Lothian, who at age 69 is a reluctant resident of St Sylvan’s Estate retirement village. It’s January 2006, the middle of a blistering Australian summer, and amid his usual morbid activities of reading the newspaper obituaries and watching his elderly co-residents fall over outside his air-conditioned unit, he has plenty of time to drift back over his life. A retired engineer, he’s an expert on concrete construction as well as a noted collector of modernist furniture. But he’s been much less successful in his personal life. His son is in a care home after a devastating accident, and his adopted daughter Caroline, who is part Aborigine, blames and avoids Fred. A run-in with a nosy neighbor, Jan, forces him to face the world – and his past – again.
Meanwhile, Caroline is traveling in the UK to secure specimens for a museum exhibit on extinct species, and the idea of feeling utterly lonesome, like the last of one’s kind, recurs: Frederick sits stubbornly on his own at St Sylvan’s, pondering the inevitability of death; Caroline and Jan, both adopted, don’t have the comfort of a family lineage; and the museum specimens whose photographs are dotted through the novel (including the last passenger pigeon, Martha, which also – not coincidentally, I’m sure – was Fred’s wife’s name) represent the end of the line.
I loved pretty much everything about this book: the thematic connections, the gentle sense of humor (especially during Fred and Jan’s expensive restaurant dégustation), the chance for a curmudgeonly protagonist to redeem himself, and the spot-on writing. Highly recommended.
A favorite passage:
“Like many educated people, Frederick had his opinions, most of which were set in concrete so as to render them more akin to truths, but in reality politics and modern history were his weak points – along with poetry. Where poetry and politics were concerned he feared a lack of foundation, which left him vulnerable to challenge. Deep down he knew that opinion – like concrete – was most resilient when well founded and reinforced.”
Other readalikes: Darke by Rick Gekoski & Ok, Mr Field by Katharine Kilalea
With thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the free copy for review.