Women’s Prize Shadowing & Men Reading Books by Women
Back in April I announced that my book club was one of six selected to shadow this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist by reading and discussing one of the finalists. Our assigned title was one I’d already read, but I skimmed back through it before our meet-up and enjoyed getting reacquainted with Martha Friel. Here’s our group’s review:
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
Can’t Put It Down: 4.5/5
Total = 18.5/20
Our joint highest rating, and one of our best discussions – taking in mental illness and its diagnosis and treatment, marriage, childlessness, alcoholism, sisterhood, creativity, neglect, unreliable narrators and loneliness. For several of us, these issues hit close to home due to personal or family experience. We particularly noted the way that Mason sets up parallels between pairs of characters, accurately reflecting how family dynamics can be replicated in later generations.
Even the minor characters are fully rounded, and although Martha is not always pleasant to spend time with, her voice is impressively rendered. The picture of mental illness from the inside feels authentic, including the fact that Martha uses it as an excuse for her bad behaviour, becoming self-absorbed and not seeing how she is affecting others around her. Our main point of disagreement was about Mason’s decision not to name the mental illness Martha is suffering from. It seemed clear to several of us that it was meant to be bipolar disorder, so we wondered if it was a copout not to identify it as such.
We also thought about the meaning of the term “literary fiction”, and whether this has the qualities of a prize winner and will stand the test of time.
We had to fill out a feedback questionnaire about our experience of shadowing, and most of us sent in individual blurbs in response to the book. Some ended up in the final Reading Agency article. Here was mine:
“This deceptively light novel was a perfect book club selection, eliciting deep discussion about mental illness, family relationships and parenthood. Martha’s (unreliable) narration is a delight, wry and deadpan but also with moments of wrenching emotion. Mason masterfully controls the tone to create something that is witty and poignant all at once.”
Probably the main reason we were chosen for this opportunity is that we have a man – my husband, that is! – who attends regularly. This year the prize has been particularly keen to get more men reading books by women (see more below). So, he was responsible for giving The Male Response to the novel. No pressure, right? Luckily, he enjoyed it just as much as the rest of us. From the cover and blurb, it didn’t necessarily seem like the sort of book that he would pick up to read for himself, but he was fully engaged with the themes of mental illness, family relationships, and the question of whether or not to have children, and was so compelled that he read over half of it in a day.
I’m not sure who I expect to be awarded the Women’s Prize tomorrow. We of West Fields Readers would be delighted if it went to Meg Mason for Sorrow and Bliss, but I’d also be happy with a win for Louise Erdrich or Ruth Ozeki – though I wasn’t taken with their latest works compared with earlier ones I’ve read, they are excellent authors who deserve recognition. I don’t think The Bread the Devil Knead has a chance; I’d be disappointed in a win by Elif Shafak in that I would feel obligated to try her novel – the kind that gives magic realism a bad name – again; and, while I’m a Maggie Shipstead fan in general and admire the ambition of Great Circle, it would be galling for a book I DNFed twice to take the title!
Who are you rooting for/predicting?
I’d like to mock you with that thought,
jeer at the man
who won’t read novels
written by women –
at least not if they’re still alive
~from The Poet by Louisa Reid
Maybe you’ve seen on social media that the Women’s Prize has been canvassing opinion on the books by women that all men should read. This was prompted by some shocking statistics suggesting that even bestselling female authors can only attract a 20% male readership, whereas the best-known male authors are almost equally popular with men and women. They solicited 60 nominations from big names and ran a public poll. I voted for these 10:
Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
Possession (A.S. Byatt)
Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi)
The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)
The Sea, The Sea (Iris Murdoch)
The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields)
We Need to Talk about Kevin (Lionel Shriver)
Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout)
The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)
Orlando (Virginia Woolf)
*If I could have added to that list, though, my top recommendations for all men to read would be Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (and probably a different Octavia E. Butler novel from the one nominated).
Three of my selections were among the 10 essential reads announced on the WP website. Their list was headed by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, though of her works I’d be more likely to direct men to Oryx and Crake.
I’ve seen discussions on Twitter about why men don’t read novels (at all, prioritizing nonfiction), or specifically not ones by women. Do you have any theories?
What one book by a woman do you think all men should read?
Literary Wives Club: The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
This has been my first read with the Literary Wives online book club. The other members will also be posting their thoughts this week; we consider four books per year in total.
See also the reviews by:
Kay at What Me Read
Lynn at Smoke & Mirrors
Naomi at Consumed by Ink
I wrote a general review of The Sentence in April when it was on the Women’s Prize longlist (it has since advanced to the shortlist). This time I’m focusing on the relationship between Tookie and Pollux. The central question we ask about the books we read for Literary Wives is:
What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
~SPOILERS IN THIS ONE~
There are some unusual aspects to the central marriage in this novel. For one thing, Pollux, a former tribal policeman, was the one to arrest Tookie. For another, although he is a “ceremony man” keeping up Native American rituals (e.g., burning sweetgrass and receiving an eagle corpse from the government to make a fan), he doesn’t believe in ghosts, so Tookie keeps Flora’s haunting of the bookshop from him, as well as from some of her colleagues. For a time, this secret makes Tookie feel like she’s facing the supernatural alone.
Pollux does not, cumulatively, get a lot of page time in the novel, yet I got the sense that he was always there in the background as support. Their relationship is casual and sweet, with lots of banter and a good dollop of sex considering they’re some way into middle age. Clearly, they rely on each other. Their marriage keeps Tookie grounded even when traumatic memories or awful current events rear up.
Now I live as a person with a regular life. A job with regular hours after which I come home to a regular husband. … I live the way a person does who has ceased to dread each day’s ration of time. I live what can be called a normal life only if you’ve always expected to live such a way. If you think you have the right. Work. Love. Food. A bedroom sheltered by a pine tree. Sex and wine.
The thing I knew was that if anything happened to Pollux I would die too. I would be happy to die. I would make sure that I did.
With the latter passage in mind, I did fear the worst when Pollux caught Covid and was hospitalized; I was as relieved as Tookie when he was discharged.
Along with Pollux comes his daughter, Hetta, and her baby son Jarvis. Tookie and Hetta had generally been cool towards each other, but the presence of the baby and the lockdown situation soften things between them. Having never been a maternal sort, Tookie falls completely in love with Jarvis and takes every excuse to babysit him. This gives us a welcome glimpse into another aspect of her character.
I noted a couple of other passages where rituals have practical or metaphorical significance for the central relationship:
At a New Year’s buffet: “a wild rice argument can wreck friendships, kill marriages, if allowed to rage.”
“You let the logs burn long enough so they made a space between them. You gotta keep the fire new. Every piece of wood needs a companion to keep it burning. Now push them together. Not too much. They also need that air. Get them close, but not on top of each other. Just a light connection all the way along. Now you’ll see a row of even flames.”
Pollux is literally instructing Tookie in how to light a fire there, but could just as well be prescribing what makes a marriage work. Connection but a bit of distance; support plus freedom. Their existence as a couple seems to achieve that. They have their individual lives with separate jobs and hobbies, but also a cosy bond that buoys them.
Next book: Red Island House by Andrea Lee in September.
Book Serendipity, March to April 2022
This is a bimonthly feature of mine. I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something in common – the more bizarre, the better. Because I usually 20–30 books on the go at once, I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. The following are in roughly chronological order.
(I always like hearing about your bookish coincidences, too! Laura had what she thought must be the ultimate Book Serendipity when she reviewed two novels with the same setup: Groundskeeping by Lee Cole and Last Resort by Andrew Lipstein.)
- The same sans serif font is on Sea State by Tabitha Lasley and Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor – both released by 4th Estate. I never would have noticed had they not ended up next to each other in my stack one day. (Then a font-alike showed up in my TBR pile, this time from different publishers, later on: What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad and When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo.)
- Kraftwerk is mentioned in The Facebook of the Dead by Valerie Laws and How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu.
- The fact that bacteria sometimes form biofilms is mentioned in Hybrid Humans by Harry Parker and Slime by Susanne Wedlich.
- The idea that when someone dies, it’s like a library burning is repeated in The Reactor by Nick Blackburn and In the River of Songs by Susan Jackson.
- Espresso martinis are consumed in If Not for You by Georgina Lucas and Wahala by Nikki May.
- Prosthetic limbs turn up in Groundskeeping by Lee Cole, The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki, and Hybrid Humans by Harry Parker.
- A character incurs a bad cut to the palm of the hand in After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell and The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki – I read the two scenes on the same day.
- Catfish is on the menu in Groundskeeping by Lee Cole and in one story of Antipodes by Holly Goddard Jones.
- Reading two novels with “Paradise” in the title (and as the last word) at the same time: Paradise by Toni Morrison and To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara.
- Reading two books by a Davidson at once: Damnation Spring by Ash and Tracks by Robyn.
- There’s a character named Elwin in The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade and one called Elvin in The Two Lives of Sara by Catherine Adel West.
- Tea is served with lemon in The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald and The Two Lives of Sara by Catherine Adel West.
- There’s a Florence (or Flo) in Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin, These Days by Lucy Caldwell and Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell. (Not to mention a Flora in The Sentence by Louise Erdrich.)
- There’s a hoarder character in Olga Dies Dreaming by Xóchitl González and The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki.
- Reading at the same time two memoirs by New Yorker writers releasing within two weeks of each other (in the UK at least) and blurbed by Jia Tolentino: Home/Land by Rebecca Mead and Lost & Found by Kathryn Schulz.
- Three children play in a graveyard in Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier and Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith.
- Shalimar perfume is worn in These Days by Lucy Caldwell and The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade.
- A relative is described as “very cold” and it’s wondered what made her that way in Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso and one of the testimonies in Regrets of the Dying by Georgina Scull.
- Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild is mentioned in The Sentence by Louise Erdrich, which I was reading at around the same time. (As is The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald, which I’d recently finished.)
- From one poetry collection with references to Islam (Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head by Warsan Shire) to another (Auguries of a Minor God by Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe).
- Two children’s books featuring a building that is revealed to be a theatre: Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson and The Unadoptables by Hana Tooke.
- Reading two “braid” books at once: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and French Braid by Anne Tyler.
- Protests and teargas in The Sentence by Louise Erdrich and The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki.
- Jellyfish poems in Honorifics by Cynthia Miller and Love Poems in Quarantine by Sarah Ruhl.
- George Floyd’s murder is a major element in The Sentence by Louise Erdrich and Love Poems in Quarantine by Sarah Ruhl.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
Women’s Prize Longlist Reviews (Erdrich, Mendelson, Ozeki) & Predictions
Tomorrow the Women’s Prize shortlist will be revealed. I’ve become much more invested in this prize over the past few years and will be following the 2022 race especially closely – look out for a related announcement soon. In recent years the nominees have tended to cluster thematically, which can feel redundant. This longlist has a notably high ghost quotient. Two novels I review below feature unquiet spirits, an appearance by the author, and the magical powers of books. The third is a straightforward contemporary dysfunctional family story.
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
My second from Erdrich (I gave Love Medicine, her first novel, 5 stars in 2020). I will be revisiting this in June because it is our first pick for my tenure in the Literary Wives online book club. For that post I’ll focus on the relationship between Tookie and Pollux, which I won’t mention in this more general response. I was worried that a take on very recent events – this is set in Minneapolis between 2019 and 2020 and covers the first six months of the pandemic plus local protests following George Floyd’s murder – would seem either rushed or dated. I’m still unsure how I feel about encountering Covid-19 in fiction (vs. I’ve read 20 or more nonfiction records now), but I think this novel functions as a sturdy time capsule.
Tookie, the narrator, has a tough exterior but a tender heart. When she spent 10 years in prison for a misunderstanding-cum-body snatching, books helped her survive, starting with the dictionary. Once she got out, she translated her love of words into work as a bookseller at Birchbark Books, Louise Erdrich’s Minnesota independent bookshop (Louise herself is an occasional character). Bibliophiles are sure to enjoy the mentions of the books she presses into customers’ hands; there’s also a fun appendix of recommendations on particular topics.
However, the central mystery about Flora, a dead customer who haunts the store until Tookie figures out why she died and how to exorcise her, struck me as silly. I only appreciated this storyline to the extent that it explores authenticity (Flora may have fabricated her Native heritage) and the inescapability of history. I preferred real life: Tookie getting locked down with her stepdaughter and baby grandson and filling book orders from a closed shop.
Erdrich weaves in Indigenous customs naturally and the banter between the characters, including young shop employees, makes this hip and lighthearted, even as it deals with serious subjects. I smiled at the bookish lingo, like Tookie’s division of her reading into a Lazy Stack and a Hard Stack (“books I would avoid reading until some wellspring of mental energy was uncapped” – my occasional and set-aside titles could comprise the latter) and the “cowbirds,” self-published titles secreted on the shelves that aren’t found until inventory day. There’s also an excellent passage on novellas that I’ll be bringing out in November.
Like a vintage armchair, this is a little overstuffed, but so comfortable you’ll want to stay a while. (See also Laura’s review.) (Public library)
The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson
~SPOILERS IN THIS ONE~
Artists, dysfunctional families, and limited settings (here, one crumbling London house and its environs; and about two days across one weekend) are irresistible elements for me, and I don’t mind a work being peopled with mostly unlikable characters. That’s just as well, because the narrative orbits Ray Hanrahan, a monstrous narcissist who insists that his family put his painting career above all else. His wife, Lucia, is a sculptor who has always sacrificed her own art to ensure Ray’s success. But now Lucia, having survived breast cancer, has the chance to focus on herself. She’s tolerated his extramarital dalliances all along; why not see where her crush on MP Priya Menon leads? What with fresh love and the offer of her own exhibition in Venice, maybe she truly can start over in her fifties.
Ray and Lucia’s three grown children, Leah, Patrick and Jess, are all home for Ray’s new exhibition. They’re mere sketches: Leah is Ray’s staunchest supporter and is infatuated with the no-show caterer; Patrick’s mental health is shaky, interfering with his job prospects; Jess, a teacher in Edinburgh, is pregnant but not sure she’s committed to her boyfriend long term. I wanted more depth from all the characters, but especially the offspring. I also expected a climactic late scene on Hampstead Heath to come to more.
Still, the build-up to the exhibit (followed by a laughably pitiful reveal) and Lucia’s inner life form an adequately strong foundation for Mendelson’s sardonic prose. The dialogue, full of interruptions, is true to life. This is her fifth novel and called to mind Jami Attenberg’s and Claire Fuller’s work. (Liz found shades of Iris Murdoch. Susan loved it, too.) I wouldn’t say I’m compelled to seek out more by Mendelson, but this was a solid read. (Public library)
The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki
A Tale for the Time Being is one of my favourite novels of the century (and one of my most popular Goodreads reviews ever), My Year of Meats was a terrific backlist read a couple of summers ago, and I’m eager to catch up on All Over Creation. So I’d built up this fourth Ozeki novel in my head, thinking a library setting and magic realist elements presaged something deliciously Murakami-esque.
What I actually found, having limped through it off and on for seven months, was something of a disappointment. A frank depiction of the mental health struggles of the Oh family? Great. A paean to how books and libraries can save us by showing us a way out of our own heads? A-OK. The problem is with the twee way that The Book narrates Benny’s story and engages him in a conversation about fate versus choice.
When Kenji Oh, a jazz musician, is run over by a chicken truck, Annabelle finds herself a single mother to Benny, a troubled teen who starts to hear everyday objects speaking to him. His voices and Annabelle’s hoarding habit jeopardize the viability of their household: Benny spends time on a psychiatric hospital ward for minors and Annabelle is threatened with eviction. For Benny, the library and the acquaintances he makes there – a fellow pedi-psych patient named Alice who calls herself The Aleph, an Eastern European philosopher who goes by The Bottleman (= Slavoj Žižek?), even the Ozeki figure tapping away on her laptop – may be his salvation; for Annabelle, it could be the book Tidy Magic (modelled on Marie Kondo’s work), written by a Buddhist nun. But until then, their stories get very dark indeed.
Concern for the principal pair and their relationship kept me reading even though this is too long and I wearied of Ozeki’s habit of literalizing metaphors (books speaking to people; being crushed by one’s belongings; crows playing a protective role). I’m still sympathetic to Ozeki’s aims, even if she doesn’t quite pull it all off here. If I pit the rather similar The Sentence and The Book of Form and Emptiness against each other, Erdrich comes out ahead.
With thanks to Canongate for the proof copy for review.
I’ve gotten to six books from the longlist so far and have a few more on order at the library. The others I’ve read, with ratings and links to my reviews, are:
Build Your House around My Body by Violet Kupersmith
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
I’m also partway through The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton, which is enjoyable enough but, alas, suffers in comparison to Daisy Jones and the Six, whose format (a composite oral history of a fictional 1960s/70s musical act) it repeats. The addition of the race issue doesn’t feel sufficient to call it original.
I’ve also DNFed a few from the longlist, two of them multiple times, so I have my fingers crossed that they don’t advance!
- The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller
- The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak
- Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
My attitude to the rest of the longlist is…
- The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini – No plans to read.
- Salt Lick by Lulu Allison – I might read this from the library. I’m leery of dystopias, but I’m there for a chorus of cows.
- Careless by Kirsty Capes – No plans to read.
- Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey – I would happily read it if it’s shortlisted, but at over 500 pages I fear it’ll be too dense.
- Flamingo by Rachel Elliott – Maybe. Sounds like pretty standard Sarah Winman-type stuff, but it could go down well with a book club.
- This One Sky Day by Leone Ross – No plans to read.
- Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé – I was actually pretty keen to read this one, so I have it on reserve at the library. Egyptian mythology makes a change from the overdone Greeks, and the Washington, D.C. setting is a big draw. Laura’s review has tempered my expectations, but I might still give it a go.
My ideal shortlist (a wish list based on my reading and what I still want to read):
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
Build Your House around My Body by Violet Kupersmith
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton
Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé
My predicted shortlist:
Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson
This One Sky Day by Leone Ross
The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak
An overall winner? Gosh, it’s too early to tell. But maybe The Sentence, Sorrow and Bliss or The Island of Missing Trees.
See also Laura’s shortlist predictions.
What have you read from the longlist so far?
Which of these books are calling to you?
Love Your Library, March 2022
Naomi has been reading a variety of books from the library, including middle grade fiction and Indigenous poetry. Rosemary and Laura posted photos of the books they’ve borrowed from their local libraries recently.
Like Laura, I’ve been sourcing prize nominees from various places. In April I hope to read two nonfiction books from the Jhalak Prize longlist (Things I Have Withheld by Kei Miller and Brown Baby by Nikesh Shukla) and two more novels from the Women’s Prize longlist (The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller and The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak), and I’ve just started Colm Tóibín’s Folio Prize-winning The Magician.
All from the library: a great way to read new and critically acclaimed books without having to buy them!
I’ve joined Kay, Lynn and Naomi for the Literary Wives online book club and our first read, coming up in June, will be The Sentence by Louise Erdrich, which will be doing double duty as part of the Women’s Prize longlist. I’m in the library holds queue and my copy should come in soon. My only other Erdrich so far, Love Medicine, was a 5-star read, so I have high hopes even though the premise for this one sounds a little iffy. (A bookshop ghost – magic realism being a common denominator on this year’s list – and a Covid lockdown setting.)
For those of you who like to plan ahead, here’s our schedule thereafter. I’ll be rereading two of them (Hornby and O’Farrell) and getting four out from the library (Feito, Hurston, Medie, O’Farrell). One I’ll request as a review copy (Lee), one was 99p on Kindle (Brown), and two more remain to be found secondhand (Gaige and Hunter). Maybe there’s one or more you’d like to join in with?
September 2022 Red Island House by Andrea Lee
December 2022 State of the Union by Nick Hornby
March 2023 His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie
June 2023 The Harpy by Megan Hunter
September 2023 Sea Wife by Amity Gaige
December 2023 Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
March 2024 Mrs. March by Virginia Feito
June 2024 Recipe for a Perfect Marriage by Karma Brown
September 2024 Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
What have you been reading or reviewing from the library recently?
Do share a link to your own post in the comments, and feel free to use the above image. I’ve co-opted a hashtag that is already popular on Twitter and Instagram: #LoveYourLibrary.
Here’s a reminder of my ideas of what you might choose to post (this list will stay up on the project page):
- Photos or a list of your latest library book haul
- An account of a visit to a new-to-you library
- Full-length or mini reviews of some recent library reads
- A description of a particular feature of your local library
- A screenshot of the state of play of your online account
- An opinion piece about library policies (e.g. Covid procedures or fines amnesties)
- A write-up of a library event you attended, such as an author reading or book club.
If it’s related to libraries, I want to hear about it!
Quick Thoughts on the Women’s Prize 2022 Longlist & My Reading Plans
Tuesday is my volunteering morning at the library, but at 9:45 I nipped onto one of the public access PCs so I could find out which books were on the Women’s Prize longlist. I just couldn’t wait until I got home! It’s a surprising list. Those who thought Rooney and Yanagihara would be snubbed were absolutely right. Debuts and historical fiction aren’t as plentiful as forecast, but there are two doorstoppers on there, plus another 450+-pager. And it is great to see a list that is half by BIPOC women.
Of my wishes and predictions, 1 and 2 were correct, so I got 3 right overall, with my wildcard choice being the only nominee I’ve read in full so far. I’m currently reading another 2 and have 3 more set to read – the moment I got the news I marched over to borrow a couple more.
Fair play to the judges – I hadn’t even HEARD of these SIX titles:
- The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini
- Salt Lick by Lulu Allison
- Careless by Kirsty Capes
- Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey
- Flamingo by Rachel Elliott
- Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé
I haven’t had a chance to look into these half-dozen, but will do so later on. I’m only likely to pick them up if a) others rave about them and/or b) they’re shortlisted.
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason: They say turning 40 can do weird things to you. Martha Friel gets a tattoo – so far, so stereotypical – but also blows up her marriage to Patrick, who’s been devoted to her since they were teens and met as family friends. In the year that follows, she looks back on a life that’s been defined by mental illness. As a young woman she was told she should never have children, but recently she met a new psychiatrist who gave her a proper diagnosis and told her motherhood was not out of the question. But is it too late for Martha and Patrick? Martha’s narration is a delight, wry and deadpan but also with moments of wrenching emotion. Her relationship with her sister, Ingrid, who gives birth to her first child on their aunt’s bathroom floor and eventually has four under the age of nine, is a highlight, and it’s touching to see how their mother and their aunt, both initially standoffish, end up being pillars of support. (My full review)
Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith – I’m just over half done, and loving it. A weird and magical and slightly horror-tinged story set in Vietnam past and present, it builds on her debut ghost stories. Sort of plays the role Our Wives Under the Sea would have had on the longlist (though I dearly wish it could have been nominated as well).
Set aside last year because it’s twee and annoying, but will now continue (ARGH + le sigh):
The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki
Own and will read soon (this was a treat to self with birthday money last year):
The Final Revival of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton
Borrowed from library:
The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller
The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak
DNFed last year (twice); will not attempt again:
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
On request from the library:
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson
Not interested in reading:
This One Sky Day by Leone Ross – I saw Ross speak about this and read an excerpt as part of a Faber showcase. I have a limited tolerance for magic realism and don’t think this appeals.
Above: my reading plans. Plenty to be getting on with before the shortlist announcement on 27th April!
What have you read, or might you read, from the longlist?
Northumberland Trip, Book Haul, and Reading & 20 Books #9 Emerald
We spent the first 11 days of July on holiday in Northumberland (via stays with friends in York on the way up and back) – our longest spell of vacation since 2016, and our longest UK break since 2013. The trip also happened to coincide with our 14th anniversary. It was a fantastic time of exploring England’s northeast corner, a region new to me. I loved the many different types of landscape, from sandy beaches and rocky coasts and islands to moorland and lovely towns. It’s the county for you if you like castles. We joined the National Trust so we could make stops at lots of stately homes and other historic sites. Some highlights were:
- Cherryburn, the off-the-beaten-track home of engraver Thomas Bewick.
- A cheap and delicious meal of authentic Mexican street food in Hexham, of all places (at Little Mexico).
- Walking along a tiny fraction of Hadrian’s Wall from Housesteads Roman Fort.
- Cragside, the over-the-top home of a Victorian inventor (and the first international arms dealer – whoops), nestled in a plantation of pines and rhododendrons.
- A boat trip to the Farne Islands with a landing on Inner Farne, giving close-up views of puffins, other seabirds, and grey seals. We also sailed past the lighthouse made famous by Grace Darling’s rescue of shipwreck victims in 1838. (Relevant song by Duke Special, by way of a Michael Longley poem.)
- Whiling away a rainy morning in Barter Books, one of Britain’s largest secondhand bookshops (located in an old Victorian railway station), and the charity shops of Alnwick.
- An adventurous (and very wet) walk along the coast to the Dunstanburgh Castle ruin.
- Searching the dunes for rare orchids on Holy Island, followed by a delicious and largely vegan lunch at Pilgrims Coffee House.
- Another seabird-filled boat trip, this one round Coquet Island. Sightings included roseate terns and the Duke of Northumberland.
- Our second Airbnb, The Lonnen (near Rothbury), was a rural idyll shared mostly with sheep and gray wagtails. We were spoiled by Ruth’s excellent interior décor and cooked breakfasts. You can get a feel for the place via her Instagram.
- Coffee and snacks at Corbridge Larder’s Heron Café – so good we made a second trip.
It was also, half unexpectedly, a week filled with book shopping. First up was Forum Books in Corbridge, a lovely independent bookshop. I don’t often buy new books, so enjoyed the splurge here. The Flyn and Taylor were two of my most anticipated releases of 2021. It felt appropriate to pick up a Bloodaxe poetry title as the publisher is based in nearby Hexham.
Next came a bounteous charity shop haul in Hexham.
On the Tuesday we holed up in Barter Books for hours while it rained – and the queue lengthened – outside. I was surprised and delighted that the nine antiquarian books I resold to Barter more than paid for my purchases, leaving me in credit to spend another time (online if, as seems likely, I don’t get back up in person anytime soon).
Alnwick also has a number of charity shops. I had the most luck at the Lions bookshop.
I seemed to keep finding books wherever I went. Kitchen came from a bookshelf in a shop/café on Holy Island. A secondhand/remainders shop near York Minster was the source of the other three.
What I Read:
The holiday involved significant car journeys as Northumberland is a big county with an hour or more between destinations. Alongside my navigating and DJ duties, I got a lot of reading done during the days, as well as in the evenings.
Finished second half or so of:
Phosphorescence by Julia Baird – An intriguing if somewhat scattered hybrid: a self-help memoir with nature themes. Many female-authored nature books I’ve read recently (Wintering, A Still Life, Rooted) have emphasized paying attention and courting a sense of wonder. To cope with recurring abdominal cancer, Baird turned to swimming at the Australian coast and to faith. Indeed, I was surprised by how deeply she delves into Christianity here. She was involved in the campaign for the ordination of women and supports LGBTQ rights.
Open House by Elizabeth Berg – When her husband leaves, Sam goes off the rails in minor and amusing ways: accepting a rotating cast of housemates, taking temp jobs at a laundromat and in telesales, and getting back onto the dating scene. I didn’t find Sam’s voice as fresh and funny as Berg probably thought it is, but this is as readable as any Oprah’s Book Club selection and kept me entertained on the plane ride back from America and the car trip up to York. It’s about finding joy in the everyday and not defining yourself by your relationships.
Site Fidelity by Claire Boyles – I have yet to review this for BookBrowse, but can briefly tell you that it’s a terrific linked short story collection set on the sagebrush steppe of Colorado and featuring several generations of strong women. Boyles explores environmental threats to the area, like fracking, polluted rivers and an endangered bird species, but never with a heavy hand. It’s a different picture than what we usually get of the American West, and the characters shine. The book reminded me most of Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich.
Every Minute Is a Day by Robert Meyer, MD and Dan Koeppel – The Bronx’s Montefiore Medical Center serves an ethnically diverse community of the working poor. Between March and September 2020, it had 6,000 Covid-19 patients cross the threshold. Nearly 1,000 of them would die. Unfolding in real time, this is an emergency room doctor’s diary as compiled from interviews and correspondence by his journalist cousin. (Coming out on August 3rd. Reviewed for Shelf Awareness.)
Virga by Shin Yu Pai – Yoga and Zen Buddhism are major elements in this tenth collection by a Chinese American poet based in Washington. She reflects on her family history and a friend’s death as well as the process of making art, such as a project of crafting 108 clay reliquary boxes. “The uncarved block,” a standout, contrasts the artist’s vision with the impossibility of perfection. The title refers to a weather phenomenon in which rain never reaches the ground because the air is too hot. (Coming out on August 1st.)
Read most or all of:
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris – I feel like I’m the last person on Earth to read this buzzy book, so there’s no point recounting the plot, which initially is reminiscent of Luster by Raven Leilani but morphs into its own thing as Nella realizes her rivalry with Hazel, her new Black colleague at Wagner Books, is evidence of a wider social experiment. The prose is hip, bringing to mind Queenie and Such a Fun Age. It was a fun road trip read for me, but I could have done without the silliness of magical hair care products.
Heartstopper, Volume 1 by Alice Oseman – It’s well known at Truham boys’ school that Charlie is gay. Luckily, the bullying has stopped and the others accept him. Nick, who sits next to Charlie in homeroom, even invites him to join the rugby team. Charlie is smitten right away, but it takes longer for Nick, who’s only ever liked girls before, to sort out his feelings. This black-and-white YA graphic novel is pure sweetness, taking me right back to the days of high school crushes. I raced through and placed holds on the other three volumes.
The Vacationers by Emma Straub – Perfect summer reading; perfect holiday reading. Like Jami Attenberg, Straub writes great dysfunctional family novels featuring characters so flawed and real you can’t help but love and laugh at them. Here, Franny and Jim Post borrow a friend’s home in Mallorca for two weeks, hoping sun and relaxation will temper the memory of Jim’s affair. Franny’s gay best friend and his husband, soon to adopt a baby, come along. Amid tennis lessons, swims and gourmet meals, secrets and resentment simmer.
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto – A pair of poignant stories of loss and what gets you through. In the title novella, after the death of the grandmother who raised her, Mikage takes refuge with her friend Yuichi and his mother (once father), Eriko, a trans woman who runs a nightclub. Mikage becomes obsessed with cooking: kitchens are her safe place and food her love language. Moonlight Shadow, half the length, repeats the bereavement theme but has a magic realist air as Satsuki meets someone who lets her see her dead boyfriend again.
I also made a good start on a few of my other purchases from the trip: Islands of Abandonment, No Time to Spare, Filthy Animals, and Female Friends.
Alas, most of the in-demand library books I brought along with me – Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid, and Still Life by Sarah Winman – didn’t hit the spot, so I’ve returned them unread and will borrow them at another point later in the year (except Malibu Rising, which felt soapy and insubstantial).
It’s been a struggle getting back into the routines of work and writing since we got back, but I’ve managed to review one more of my 20 Books of Summer. This is #9, slipped in from my Forum Books pile, and I’m currently working on books #10–13.
Emerald by Ruth Padel (2018)
This was my 11th book from Padel; I’ve read a mixture of her poetry, fiction, narrative nonfiction and poetry criticism. Emerald consists mostly of poems in memory of her mother, Hilda, who died in 2017 at the age of 97. The book pivots on her mother’s death, remembering the before (family stories, her little ways, moving her into sheltered accommodation when she was 91, sitting vigil at her deathbed) and the letdown of after. It made a good follow-on to one I reviewed last month, Kate Mosse’s An Extra Pair of Hands.
Emerald, the hue and the gemstone, recurs frequently in ornate imagery of verdant outdoor scenes and expensive art objects. Two favourites were travel-based: “Jaipur,” about the emerald-cutters of India, where Padel guiltily flew while her mother was ill; and “Salon Noir,” about a trip down into prehistoric caves of France the summer after Hilda’s death. Overall, I expected the book to resonate with me more than it did. The bereavement narrative never broke through to touch me; it remained behind a silk screen of manners and form.
Two favourite stanzas:
“Your voice is your breath.
The first thing that’s yours
and the last.” (from “Fragile as Breath”)
“that’s all of us
sifting the dark
in our anonymities and hope.” (from “Above is the Same as Below”)
Next books in progress: The Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn and Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon
Random 2020 Superlatives and Statistics
My top ‘discoveries’ of the year: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (4 books), Octavia E. Butler, Tim Dee (3 books each, read or in progress), and Louise Erdrich (2 books, one in progress).
Also the publisher Little Toller Books: I read four of their releases this year and they were fantastic.
The authors I read the most by this year: Carol Shields tops the list at 6 books (3 of these were rereads) thanks to my buddy reads with Buried in Print, followed by Paul Auster with 5 due to Annabel’s reading week in February, then Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with 4, and finally Anne Lamott with 3 comfort rereads.
Debut authors whose next work I’m most looking forward to: Naoise Dolan, Bess Kalb, Dara McAnulty, Mary South, Brandon Taylor, and Madeleine Watts
My proudest reading achievement: 16 rereads, which must be a record for me. Also, I always say I’m not really a short story person … and yet somehow I’ve read 19 collections of them this year (and one stand-alone story, plus another collection currently on the go)!
My proudest (non-reading) bookish achievement: Conceiving of and coordinating the Not the Wellcome Prize blog tour.
Five favorite blog posts of the year: Love, Etc. – Some Thematic Reading for Valentine’s Day; Polio and the Plague: Epidemics in Fiction; Thinking about the Future with David Farrier & Roman Krznaric (Hay Festival); Three Out-of-the-Ordinary Memoirs: Kalb, Machado, McGuinness; Asking What If? with Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld (I had a lot of fun putting the current post together, too!)
The bookish experience that most defined my year: Watching the Bookshop Band’s live shows from their living room. Between their Friday night lockdown performances and one-offs for festivals and book launches, I think I saw them play 33 times in 2020!
Biggest book read this year: Going by dimensions rather than number of pages, it was the oversize hardback The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris.
Smallest book read this year: Pocket-sized and only about 60 pages: No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg.
Oldest author read this year: Peggy Seeger was 82 when her memoir First Time Ever was published. I haven’t double-checked the age of every single author, but I think second place at 77 is a tie between debut novelist Arlene Heyman for Artifact and Sue Miller for Monogamy. (I don’t know how old Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren, the joint authors of The Consolation of Nature, are; Mynott may actually be the oldest overall, and their combined age is likely over 200.)
Youngest author read this year: You might assume it was 16-year-old Dara McAnulty with Diary of a Young Naturalist, which won the Wainwright Prize (as well as the An Post Irish Book Award for Newcomer of the Year, the Books Are My Bag Reader Award for Non-Fiction, and the Hay Festival Book of the Year!) … or Thunberg, above, who was 16 when her book came out. They were indeed tied for youngest until, earlier in December, I started reading The House without Windows (1927) by Barbara Newhall Follett, a bizarre fantasy novel published when the child prodigy was 12.
Most As on a book cover: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Most Zs on a book cover: The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi. I haven’t read it yet, but a neighbor passed on a copy she was getting rid of. It was nominated for both the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize.
The book that made me laugh the most: Kay’s Anatomy by Adam Kay
Books that made me cry: Writers and Lovers by Lily King, Monogamy by Sue Miller, First Time Ever by Peggy Seeger, and Catalogue Baby: A Memoir of (In)fertility by Myriam Steinberg (coming out in March 2021)
The book that put a song in my head every single time I looked at it, much less read it: I Am an Island by Tamsin Calidas (i.e., “I Am a Rock” by Simon and Garfunkel, which, as my husband pointed out, has very appropriate lyrics for 2020: “In a deep and dark December / I am alone / Gazing from my window to the streets below … Hiding in my room / Safe within my womb / I touch no one and no one touches me.”)
Best book club selections: Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale and The Wife by Meg Wolitzer tied for our highest score ever and gave us lots to talk about.
Most unexpectedly apt lines encountered in a book: “People came to church wearing masks, if they came at all. They’d sit as far from each other as they could.” (Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Describing not COVID-19 times but the Spanish flu.)
Most ironic lines encountered in a book: “September 12—In the ongoing hearings, Senator Joseph Biden pledges to consider the Bork nomination ‘with total objectivity,’ adding, ‘You have that on my honor not only as a senator, but also as the Prince of Wales.’ … October 1—Senator Joseph Biden is forced to withdraw from the Democratic presidential race when it is learned that he is in fact an elderly Norwegian woman.” (from the 1987 roundup in Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits – Biden has been on the U.S. political scene, and mocked, for 3.5+ decades!)
Best first line encountered this year: “And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters.” (Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf)
Best last lines encountered this year:
- “my childhood falls silently to the bottom of my memory, that library of the soul from which I will draw knowledge and experience for the rest of my life.” (Childhood by Tove Ditlevsen)
- “What I want to say is: I misremember all this so vividly it’s as if it only happened yesterday.” (Other People’s Countries: A Journey into Memory by Patrick McGuinness)
- “these friends would forever be her stitches, her scaffold, her ballast, her home.” (The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall)
My favorite title and cover combo of the year: A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth by Daniel Mason
The book I wish had gotten a better title and cover: Tennis Lessons by Susannah Dickey – I did enjoy this second-person novel about a young woman who is her own worst enemy, to the tune of 3.5 stars, but the title says nothing about it and the cover would have been a turnoff had I not won a signed copy from Mslexia.
The most unfortunate typos I found in published works: In English Pastoral by James Rebanks, “sewn” where he meant “sown” (so ironic in a book about farming!) versus, in Mr Wilder & Me by Jonathan Coe, “sown” in place of “sewn.” Also “impassible” where it should read “impassable” in Apeirogon by Colum McCann. This is what proofreaders like myself are for. We will save you from embarrassing homophone slips, dangling modifiers, and more!
The 2020 books that everybody else loved, but I didn’t: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, and Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
The year’s biggest disappointments: I don’t like to call anything “worst” (after all, I didn’t read anything nearly as awful as last year’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull), but my lowest ratings went to A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne and At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison, and I was disappointed that When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray was misleadingly marketed.
The downright strangest books I read this year: Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony, A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne, The House Without Windows by Barbara Newhall Follett, and The Child in Time by Ian McEwan
The people and themes that kept turning up in my reading: Rachel Carson and Henry David Thoreau; curlews and plagues; how we define and relate to history; childhood memoirs (seven of them).
Some statistics on my 2020 reading:
(Fiction reigned supreme this year! Last year my F:NF ratio was roughly 1:1. Poetry was down by ~5% this year compared to 2019.)
Male author: 34.1%
Female author: 63.8%
Nonbinary author: 0.3% (= 1 author, Jay Bernard)
Multiple genders (anthologies): 1.8%
(Women dominated by an extra ~5% this year over 2019. I’ve said this for four years now: I find it intriguing that female authors significantly outweigh male authors in my reading because I have never consciously set out to read more books by women; it must be a matter of being interested in the kinds of stories women tell and how they capture their experiences in nonfiction.)
Print books: 89.4%
(Almost exactly the same as last year. My e-book reading has been declining, partially because I’ve cut back on the reviewing gigs that involve only reading e-books and partially because I’ve done less traveling. Increasingly, I prefer to sit down with a big stack of print books.)
Books by BIPOC: 14.7%
Literature in translation: 6.6%
(Down from last year’s 7.2%; how did this happen?! This will be something to address in 2021.)
Where my books came from for the whole year:
- Free print or e-copy from publisher: 25.6%
- Public library: 25.6%
- Free (giveaways, The Book Thing of Baltimore, the free mall bookshop, etc.): 14.9%
- Secondhand purchase: 11.6%
- Downloaded from NetGalley, Edelweiss or Project Gutenberg: 6.7%
- New purchase (sometimes at a bargain price): 6.3%
- Gifts: 5.5%
- University library: 3.8%
I promised to scale back on review copies this year, and I did: last year they accounted for nearly 37% of my reading. My library reading was higher than last year’s, despite the challenges of lockdowns; my e-book reading decreased in general. I bought more than twice as many new books as usual this year, and read lots that I either bought secondhand or got for free.
Number of unread print books in the house: 435
At the end of last year this figure was at 440 after lots of stock-ups from the free mall bookshop, which has since closed. So even though it might look like I have only read five books of my own, I have in fact read loads from my shelves this year … but also acquired many more books, both new and secondhand.
In any case, the overall movement has been downward, so I’m calling it a win!
My Best Backlist Reads of 2020
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 29 selections, in alphabetical order by author name, account for the rest of my 4.5- and 5-star ratings of the year. Five rereads made it onto my list.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Through Ifemelu’s years of studying, working, and blogging her way around the Eastern seaboard of the United States, Adichie explores the ways in which the experience of an African abroad differs from that of African Americans. On a sentence level as well as at a macro plot level, this was utterly rewarding.
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks: In 1665, with the Derbyshire village of Eyam in the grip of the Plague, the drastic decision is made to quarantine it. Frustration with the pastor’s ineffectuality attracts people to religious extremism. Anna’s intimate first-person narration and the historical recreation are faultless, and there are so many passages that feel apt.
Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler: Four childhood friends from Little Wing, Wisconsin. Which bonds will last, and which will be strained to the breaking point? This is a book full of nostalgia and small-town atmosphere. All the characters wonder whether they’ve made the right decisions or gotten stuck. A lot of bittersweet moments, but also comic ones.
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler: A perfect time-travel novel for readers who quail at science fiction. Dana, an African American writer in Los Angeles, is dropped into early-nineteenth-century Maryland. This was such an absorbing read, with first-person narration that makes you feel you’re right there alongside Dana on her perilous travels.
Dominicana by Angie Cruz: Ana Canción is just 15 when she arrives in New York from the Dominican Republic on the first day of 1965 to start her new life as the wife of Juan Ruiz. An arranged marriage and arriving in a country not knowing a word of the language: this is a valuable immigration story that stands out for its plucky and confiding narrator.
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn: A book of letters in multiple sense. Laugh-out-loud silliness plus a sly message about science and reason over superstition = a rare combination that made this an enduring favorite. On my reread I was more struck by the political satire: freedom of speech is endangered in a repressive society slavishly devoted to a sacred text.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich: Interlocking stories that span half a century in the lives of a couple of Chippewa families that sprawl out from a North Dakota reservation. Looking for love, looking for work. Getting lucky, getting even. Their problems are the stuff of human nature and contemporary life. I adored the descriptions of characters and of nature.
Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale: Nonlinear chapters give snapshots of the life of a bipolar artist and her interactions with her husband and children. Their Quakerism sets up a calm and compassionate atmosphere, but also allows family secrets to proliferate. The novel questions patterns of inheritance and the possibility of happiness.
Confession with Blue Horses by Sophie Hardach: When Ella’s parents, East German art historians who came under Stasi surveillance, were caught trying to defect, their children were taken away from them. Decades later, Ella is determined to find her missing brother and learn what really happened to her mother. Eye-opening and emotionally involving.
The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley: Twelve-year-old Leo Colston is invited to spend July at his school friend’s home, Brandham Hall. You know from the famous first line on that this juxtaposes past and present. It’s masterfully done: the class divide, the picture of childhood tipping over into the teenage years, the oppressive atmosphere, the comical touches.
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf: Addie is a widow; Louis is a widower. They’re both lonely and prone to fretting about what they could have done better. Would he like to come over to her house at night to talk and sleep? Matter-of-fact prose, delivered without speech marks, belies a deep undercurrent of emotion. Understated, bittersweet, realistic. Perfect.
The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud: A 9/11 novel. The trio of protagonists, all would-be journalists aged 30, have never really had to grow up; now it’s time to get out from under the shadow of a previous generation and reassess what is admirable and who is expendable. This was thoroughly engrossing. Great American Novel territory, for sure.
My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki: A Japanese-American filmmaker is tasked with finding all-American families and capturing their daily lives – and best meat recipes. There is a clear message here about cheapness and commodification, but Ozeki filters it through the wrenching stories of two women with fertility problems. Bold if at times discomforting.
Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields: An impeccable novella, it brings its many elements to a satisfying conclusion and previews the author’s enduring themes. Something of a sly academic comedy à la David Lodge, it’s laced with Shields’s quiet wisdom on marriage, parenting, the writer’s vocation, and the difficulty of ever fully understanding another life.
Larry’s Party by Carol Shields: The sweep of Larry’s life, from youth to middle age, is presented chronologically through chapters that are more like linked short stories: they focus on themes (family, friends, career, sex, clothing, health) and loop back to events to add more detail and new insight. I found so much to relate to in Larry’s story; Larry is really all of us.
Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout: Tyler Caskey is a widowed pastor whose five-year-old daughter has gone mute and started acting up. As usual, Strout’s characters are painfully real, flawed people, often struggling with damaging obsessions. She tenderly probes the dark places of the community and its minister’s doubts, but finds the light shining through.
The Wife by Meg Wolitzer: On the way to Finland, where her genius writer husband will accept the prestigious Helsinki Prize, Joan finally decides to leave him. Alternating between the trip and earlier in their marriage, this is deceptively thoughtful with a juicy twist. Joan’s narration is witty and the point about the greater value attributed to men’s work is still valid.
Winter Journal by Paul Auster: Approaching age 64, the winter of his life, Auster decided to assemble his most visceral memories: scars, accidents and near-misses, what his hands felt and his eyes observed. The use of the second person draws readers in. I particularly enjoyed the tour through the 21 places he’s lived. One of the most remarkable memoirs I’ve ever read.
Heat by Bill Buford: Buford was an unpaid intern at Mario Batali’s famous New York City restaurant, Babbo. In between behind-the-scenes looks at frantic sessions of food prep, Buford traces Batali’s culinary pedigree through Italy and London. Exactly what I want from food writing: interesting trivia, quick pace, humor, and mouthwatering descriptions.
Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books by Paul Collins: Collins moved to Hay-on-Wye with his wife and toddler son, hoping to make a life there. As he edited the manuscript of his first book, he started working for Richard Booth, the eccentric bookseller who crowned himself King of Hay. Warm, funny, and nostalgic. An enduring favorite of mine.
A Year on the Wing by Tim Dee: From a life spent watching birds, Dee weaves a mesh of memories and recent experiences, meditations and allusions. He moves from one June to the next and from Shetland to Zambia. The most powerful chapter is about watching peregrines at Bristol’s famous bridge – where he also, as a teen, saw a man commit suicide.
The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange: While kayaking down the western coast of the British Isles and Ireland, Gange delves into the folklore, geology, history, local language and wildlife of each region and island group – from the extreme north of Scotland at Muckle Flugga to the southwest tip of Cornwall. An intricate interdisciplinary approach.
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott: There is a lot of bereavement and other dark stuff here, yet an overall lightness of spirit prevails. A college dropout and addict, Lamott didn’t walk into a church and get clean until her early thirties. Each essay is perfectly constructed, countering everyday angst with a fumbling faith.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: This has my deepest admiration for how it prioritizes voice, theme and scene, gleefully does away with chronology and (not directly relevant) backstory, and engages with history, critical theory and the tropes of folk tales to interrogate her experience of same-sex domestic violence. (Second-person narration again!)
Period Piece by Gwen Raverat: Raverat was a granddaughter of Charles Darwin. This is a portrait of what it was like to grow up in a particular time and place (Cambridge from the 1880s to about 1909). Not just an invaluable record of domestic history, it is a funny and impressively thorough memoir that serves as a model for how to capture childhood.
The Universal Christ by Richard Rohr: I’d read two of the Franciscan priest’s previous books but was really blown away by the wisdom in this one. The argument in a nutshell is that Western individualism has perverted the good news of Jesus, which is renewal for everything and everyone. A real gamechanger. My copy is littered with Post-it flags.
First Time Ever: A Memoir by Peggy Seeger: The octogenarian folk singer and activist has packed in enough adventure and experience for multiple lifetimes, and in some respects has literally lived two: one in America and one in England; one with Ewan MacColl and one with a female partner. Her writing is punchy and impressionistic. She’s my new hero.
A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas: A memoir in essays about her husband’s TBI and what kept her going. Unassuming and heart on sleeve, Thomas wrote one of the most beautiful books out there about loss and memory. It is one of the first memoirs I remember reading; it made a big impression the first time, but I loved it even more on a reread.
On Silbury Hill by Adam Thorpe: Explores the fragmentary history of the manmade Neolithic mound and various attempts to excavate it, but ultimately concludes we will never understand how and why it was made. A flawless integration of personal and wider history, as well as a profound engagement with questions of human striving and hubris.
(Books not pictured were read digitally, or have already gone back to the library.)
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 Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf and Winter Journal by Paul Auster.
What were your best backlist reads this year?
The Best Books from the First Half of 2020
My top 10 releases of 2020 thus far, in alphabetical order within genre (nonfiction is dominating the year for me!), are:
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: Like some lost mid-career gem from Toni Morrison, this novel is meaty with questions of racial and sexual identity. Light-skinned African American twins Stella and Desiree Vignes’ paths divide in 1954, with Stella passing as white. Both are desperate to escape from Mallard, Louisiana. The twins’ decisions affect the next generation, too. It’s perceptive and beautifully written, with characters whose struggles feel genuine and pertinent. The themes of self-reinvention and running from one’s past resonate.
Writers & Lovers by Lily King: Following a breakup and her mother’s sudden death, Casey Peabody is drowning in grief and debt. Between waitressing shifts, she chips away at the novel she’s been writing for six years. Life gets complicated, especially when two love interests appear. We see this character at rock bottom but also when things start to go well at long last. I felt I knew Casey through and through, and I cheered for her. An older, sadder Sweetbitter, perhaps as written by Elizabeth Strout. It gives you all the feels, as they say.
Weather by Jenny Offill: A blunt, unromanticized, wickedly funny novel about how eco-anxiety permeates everyday life, Weather is in the same aphoristic style as Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. Lizzie is married with a young son and works in a NYC university library. She takes on a second job as PA to her former professor, who runs a podcast on environmental issues. Set either side of Trump’s election, the novel amplifies many voices prophesying doom. Offill’s observations are spot on. Could there be a more perfect book for 2020?
The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld: There’s no avoiding violence for the women and children of this novel. It’s a sobering theme, certainly, but Wyld convinced me that hers is an accurate vision and a necessary mission. The novel cycles through its three strands in an ebb and flow pattern that seems appropriate to the coastal setting and creates a sense of time’s fluidity. Themes and elements keep coming back, stinging a little more each time. An elegant, time-blending structure and an unrelenting course – that indifferent monolith is the perfect symbol.
Dear Life: A Doctor’s Story of Love and Loss by Rachel Clarke: I’ve read so many doctors’ memoirs and books about death and dying; it takes a truly special one like this to stand out. Clarke specializes in palliative medicine and alternates her patients’ stories with her own in a very natural way. A major theme is her relationship with her father, who was also a doctor, and how she absorbed his lessons of empathy and dedication. A passionate and practical book, encouraging readers to be sure they and older relatives have formalized their wishes.
The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland: Gone are the days when people interested in family history had to trawl through microfilm and wait months to learn anything new; nowadays a DNA test can find missing relatives within days. But there are troubling aspects to this new industry, including privacy concerns, notions of racial identity, and criminal databases. Copeland spoke to scientists and 400 laypeople who sent off saliva samples. A thought-provoking book with all the verve and suspense of fiction.
Greenery: Journeys in Springtime by Tim Dee: From the Cape of Good Hope to the Arctic Circle, Dee tracks the spring as it travels north. From first glimpse to last gasp, moving between his homes in two hemispheres, he makes the season last nearly half the year. His main harbingers are migrating birds, starting with swallows. The book is steeped in allusions and profound thinking about deep time and what it means to be alive in an era when nature’s rhythms are becoming distorted. A fresh, masterful model of how to write about nature.
Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils by David Farrier: Blending human and planetary history, environmental realism and literary echoes, Farrier, a lecturer in English literature, tells the story of the human impact on the Earth. Each chapter is an intricate blend of fact, experience and story. We’ll leave behind massive road networks, remnants of coastal megacities, plastics, carbon and methane in the permafrost, the fossilized Great Barrier Reef, nuclear waste, and jellyfish-dominated oceans. An invaluable window onto the deep future.
Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild by Lucy Jones: While nature’s positive effect on human mental health is something we know intuitively and can explain anecdotally, Jones wanted to investigate the scientific mechanism behind it. She makes an empirical enquiry but also attests to the personal benefits nature has. Losing Eden is full of common sense and passion, cramming masses of information into 200 pages yet never losing sight of the big picture. Like Silent Spring, on which it is patterned, I can see this leading to real change.
Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty: McAnulty is the UK’s answer to Greta Thunberg: a leader in the youth environmental movement and an impassioned speaker on the love of nature. This is a wonderfully observant and introspective account of his fifteenth year: of disruptions – moving house and school, of outrage at the state of the world and at individual and political indifference, of the complications of being autistic, but also of the joys of everyday encounters with wildlife. Impressive perspective and lyricism.
The 4.5- or 5-star backlist books that I’ve read this year but haven’t yet written about on here in some way are:
- Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
- Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
- Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields