Nonfiction November: Being the ‘Expert’ on Women’s Religious Memoirs
This week of the month-long challenge is hosted by JulzReads. I’m a total memoir junkie and gravitate towards ones written by women: sometimes those whose lives are completely different to mine (medical crises, parenting, etc.) and sometimes those who’ve had experiences similar to mine (moving to a new country, illness and dysfunction in the family, etc.).
In my late teens I fell into a crisis of faith that lasted for many years – or maybe is still ongoing – and planted the seed for my Master’s thesis on women’s faith and doubt narratives in Victorian fiction. I’m always looking out for memoirs that discuss religious conversion, doubt, or loss of faith.
I know we don’t all share the same obsessions. (The bookish world would be boring if we did!) It’s possible this topic doesn’t interest you at all. But if it does, or if you’d like to test the waters, here are 15 or so relevant reads that have stood out for me; I think I’ve only written about a few of them on here in the past.
[Note: I highly recommend any autobiographical writing by Anne Lamott, Madeleine L’Engle, and Kathleen Norris; although all three write/wrote about faith, their engagement with doubt doesn’t quite feel specific enough to get them a spot on this list.]
Recommended from This Year’s Reading
Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler: An assistant professor at Duke Divinity School, Bowler was fascinated by prosperity theology: the idea that God’s blessings reward righteous living and generous giving to the church. If she’d been tempted to set store by this notion, that certainty was permanently fractured when she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in her mid-thirties. Bowler writes tenderly about suffering and surrender, and about living in the moment with her husband and son while being uncertain of the future, in a style reminiscent of Anne Lamott and Nina Riggs.
The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Seen: Opening Your Eyes to Wonder by Lisa Gungor: Like many Gungor listeners, Lisa grew up in, and soon outgrew, a fundamentalist Christian setting. She married Michael Gungor at the absurdly young age of 19 and they struggled with infertility and world events. When their second daughter was born with Down syndrome and required urgent heart surgery, it sparked further soul searching and a return to God, but this time within a much more open spirituality that encircles and values everyone – her gay neighbors, her disabled daughter; the ones society overlooks.
In the Days of Rain: A Daughter, a Father, a Cult by Rebecca Stott: This is several things: a bereavement memoir that opens with Stott’s father succumbing to cancer and eliciting her promise to finish his languishing memoirs; a family memoir tracking generations in England, Scotland and Australia; and a story of faith and doubt, of the absolute certainty experienced inside the Exclusive Brethren (a sect that numbers 45,000 worldwide) and how that cracked until there was no choice but to leave. Stott grew up with an apocalyptic mindset. It wasn’t until she was a teenager that she learned to trust her intellect and admit doubts.
Educated by Tara Westover: You might be tired of hearing about this book, but it really does deserve the hype. Westover’s is an incredible story of testing the limits of perseverance and sanity. After an off-grid, extremist Mormon upbringing in Idaho, hard work took her from almost complete ignorance to a Cambridge PhD. She writes with calm authority, channeling the style of the scriptures and history books that were formative in her upbringing and education. This is one of the most powerful and well-written memoirs I’ve ever read.
Recent Releases (all came out on Nov. 13th)
A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel: From rural Indiana and an apocalyptic Christian cult to New York City and Orthodox Judaism by way of studies in Jerusalem: Himsel has made quite the religious leap. She was one of 11 children and grew up in the Worldwide Church of God (reminiscent of the Exclusive Brethren from Stott’s book). Although leaving a cult is easy to understand, what happens next feels more like a random sequence of events than a conscious choice; maybe I needed some more climactic scenes.
Why Religion? A Personal Story by Elaine Pagels: Pagels is a religion scholar known for her work on the Gnostic Gospels. As a teen she joined a friend’s youth group and answered the altar call at a Billy Graham rally. Although she didn’t stick with Evangelicalism, spirituality provided some comfort when her son died of pulmonary hypertension at age six and her physicist husband Heinz fell to his death on a hike in Colorado little more than a year later. She sees religion’s endurance as proof that it plays a necessary role in human life.
When I Spoke in Tongues: A Story of Faith and Its Loss by Jessica Wilbanks: Like me, Wilbanks grew up attending a Pentecostal-style church in southern Maryland. I recognized the emotional tumult of her trajectory – the lure of power and certainty; the threat of punishment and ostracism – as well as some of the specifics of her experience. Captivated by the story of Enoch Adeboye and his millions-strong Redemption Camps, she traveled to Nigeria to research the possible Yoruba roots of Pentecostalism in the summer of 2010.
Read Some Time Ago
Not That Kind of Girl by Carlene Bauer: A bookish, introspective adolescent, Bauer was troubled by how fundamentalism denied the validity of secular art. All the same, Christian notions of purity and purpose stuck with her throughout her college days in Baltimore and then when she was trying to make it in publishing in New York City. Along the way she flirted with converting to Catholicism. What Bauer does best is to capture a fleeting mindset and its evolution into a broader way of thinking.
The Book of Separation by Tova Mirvis: In a graceful and painfully honest memoir, Mirvis goes back and forth in time to contrast the simplicity – but discontentment – of her early years of marriage with the disorientation she felt after divorcing her husband and leaving Orthodox Judaism. Anyone who has wrestled with faith or other people’s expectations will appreciate this story of finding the courage to be true to yourself.
Between Gods by Alison Pick: At a time of transition – preparing for her wedding and finishing her first novel, set during her Holocaust – the author decided to convert to Judaism, the faith of her father’s Czech family. Ritual was her way into Judaism: she fasted for Yom Kippur and took her father to synagogue on the anniversary of her grandfather’s death, but also had the fun of getting ready for a Purim costume party.
Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir of Humor and Healing by Reba Riley: Riley was a Pentecostal-leaning fundamentalist through high school, but turned her back on it in college. Yet she retained a strong spiritual compass that helped her tap into the energy of the “Godiverse.” She concocted the idea of experiencing 30 different religious traditions before she turned 30, and spent 2011–12 visiting a Hindu temple, a Buddhist meditation center, a mosque, a synagogue, a gathering of witches, and a range of Christian churches.
Girl Meets God: A Memoir by Lauren F. Winner: Some people just seem to have the religion gene. That’s definitely true of Winner, who was as enthusiastic an Orthodox Jew as she later was a Christian after the conversion that began in her college years. Like Anne Lamott, Winner draws on anecdotes from everyday life and very much portrays herself as a “bad Christian,” one who struggles with the basics like praying and finding a church community and is endlessly grateful for the grace that covers her shortcomings.
When We Were on Fire by Addie Zierman: Zierman was a poster girl for Evangelicalism in her high school years. After attending Christian college, she and her husband spent a lonely year teaching English in Pinghu, China. Things got worse before they got better, but eventually she made her way out of depression through therapy, antidepressants and EMDR treatments, marriage counselling, a dog, a home of their own, and – despite the many ways she’d been hurt and let down by “Church People” over the years – a good-enough church.
Read but Not Reviewed
Fleeing Fundamentalism by Carlene Cross
Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor
On my TBR Stack
Not pictured: (on Nook) Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther; (on Kindle) Shunned by Linda A. Curtis and Cut Me Loose by Leah Vincent. Also, I got a copy of Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood for my birthday, but I’m not clear to what extent it’s actually about her religious experiences.
Could you see yourself reading any of these books?
My 2018 Wellcome Book Prize Wish List
Tomorrow the longlist for the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize will be announced. This year’s judging panel is chaired by Edmund de Waal, author of The Hare with Amber Eyes. I hope to once again shadow the shortlist along with a few fellow book bloggers. I don’t feel like I’ve read all that many books that are eligible (i.e., released in the UK in 2017, and on a medical theme), but here are some that I would love to see make the list. I link to all those I’ve already featured here, and give review extracts for the books I haven’t already mentioned.
- I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice
- In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight against Alzheimer’s by Joseph Jebelli
- Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
- In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist
- Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh
- I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell: O’Farrell captures fragments of her life through essays on life-threatening illnesses and other narrow escapes she’s experienced. The pieces aren’t in chronological order and aren’t intended to be comprehensive. Instead, they crystallize the fear and pain of particular moments in time, and are rendered with the detail you’d expect from her novels. She’s been mugged at machete point, nearly drowned several times, had a risky first labor, and was almost the victim of a serial killer. (My life feels awfully uneventful by comparison!) But the best section of the book is its final quarter: an essay about her childhood encephalitis and its lasting effects, followed by another about her daughter’s extreme allergies.
- The Smell of Fresh Rain: A Journey into the Sense of Smell by Barney Shaw
- Fragile Lives: A Heart Surgeon’s Stories of Life and Death on the Operating Table by Stephen Westaby
It’s also possible that we could see these make the longlist:
- History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund: Fridlund’s Minnesota-set debut novel is haunted by a dead child. From the second page readers know four-year-old Paul is dead; a trial is also mentioned early on, but not until halfway does Madeline Furston divulge how her charge died. This becomes a familiar narrative pattern: careful withholding followed by tossed-off revelations that muddy the question of complicity. The novel’s simplicity is deceptive; it’s not merely a slow-building coming-of-age story with Paul’s untimely death at its climax. For after a first part entitled “Science”, there’s still half the book to go – a second section of equal length, somewhat ironically labeled “Health”. (Reviewed for the TLS.)
- Hair Everywhere by Tea Tulić
- Modern Death: How Medicine Changed the End of Life by Haider Warraich: A learned but engaging book that intersperses science, history, medicine and personal stories. The first half is about death as a medical reality, while the second focuses on social aspects of death: religious beliefs, the burden on families and other caregivers, the debate over euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, and the pros and cons of using social media to share one’s journey towards death. (See my full Nudge review.)
Of 2017’s medical titles that I haven’t read, I would have especially liked to have gotten to:
- Sound: A Story of Hearing Lost and Found by Bella Bathurst
- This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay
- With the End in Mind: Dying, Death, and Wisdom in an Age of Denial by Kathryn Mannix [I have this one on my Kindle from NetGalley]
- Into the Grey Zone: A Neuroscientist Explores the Border between Life and Death by Adrian Owen
- Patient H69: The Story of My Second Sight by Vanessa Potter
We are also likely to see a repeat appearance from the winner of the 2017 Royal Society Science Book Prize, Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society by Cordelia Fine.
Other relevant books I read last year that have not (yet?) been released in the UK:
- The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death by John Bateson
- The Family Gene: A Mission to Turn My Deadly Inheritance into a Hopeful Future by Joselin Linder
- Last Things: A Graphic Memoir of Loss and Love by Marissa Moss
- Love and Laughter in the Time of Chemotherapy by Manjusha Pawagi
- No Apparent Distress: A Doctor’s Coming-of-Age on the Front Lines of American Medicine by Rachel Pearson: Pearson describes her Texas upbringing and the many different hands-on stages involved in her training: a prison hospital, gynecology, general surgery, rural family medicine, neurology, dermatology. Each comes with memorable stories, but it’s her experience at St. Vincent’s Student-Run Free Clinic on Galveston Island that stands out most. Pearson speaks out boldly about the divide between rich and poor Americans (often mirrored by the racial gap) in terms of what medical care they can get. A clear-eyed insider’s glimpse into American health care.
- The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
- The Tincture of Time: A Memoir of (Medical) Uncertainty by Elizabeth L. Silver: At the age of six weeks, Silver’s daughter suffered a massive brain bleed for no reason that doctors could ever determine. Thanks to the brain’s plasticity, especially in infants, the bleed was reabsorbed and Abby has developed normally, although the worry never goes away. Alongside the narrative of Abby’s baffling medical crisis, Silver tells of other health experiences in her family. An interesting exploration of the things we can’t control and how we get beyond notions of guilt and blame to accept that time may be the only healer.
Do you follow the Wellcome Book Prize? Have you read any books that might be eligible?
Some Early Recommendations for 2018
I took some time out this December to start reading the 2018 releases I was most looking forward to. In early January I’ll preview another 25 or 30 titles I’m interested in, but for now here are eight books coming out in the first half of next year that I can heartily recommend, with ~130-word mini reviews to give you a taste of them. (These are in alphabetical order by author, with the publication details noted beneath the title.)
Because We Are Bad: OCD and a Girl Lost in Thought by Lily Bailey
[Coming on March 15th from Canbury Press (UK) and on April 3rd from Harper Collins US]
“For as long as I could remember, I wasn’t me, I was we.” Lily Bailey had a sort of imaginary friend while she was growing up, but instead of a comforting presence it was a critical voice pushing her to be ultra-conscious of how her behavior appeared to others. This went on for years until she was finally diagnosed with severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Despite Prozac and CBT, she later landed in a psychiatric unit. She captures this inpatient stay with great verve, recalling the chorus of other patients’ voices and different nurses’ strategies. This memoir tracks Bailey’s life up until age 20, but her recreation of childhood and the first-person plural sections are the strongest. I’d recommend this to readers interested in learning more about OCD and mental health issues in general. (Full blog review scheduled for March 15th.)
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
[Coming on January 9th from Tinder Press (UK) / G.P. Putnam’s (USA)]
Summer 1969: four young siblings escape a sweltering New York City morning by visiting a fortune teller who can tell you the day you’ll die. In the decades that follow, they have to decide what to do with this advance knowledge: will it spur them to live courageous lives, or drive them to desperation? This compelling family story lives up to the hype. I can imagine how much fun Benjamin had researching and writing it as she’s able to explore four distinct worlds: Daniel, a military doctor, examines Iraq War recruits; Klara becomes a magician in Las Vegas; Varya researches aging via primate studies; and Simon is a dancer in San Francisco. The settings, time periods, and career paths are so diverse that you get four novels’ worth of interesting background. (See my full review at The Bookbag.)
Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler
[Coming on February 6th from Random House (USA)]
This was the 2018 title I was most looking forward to reading. It combines two of my niche interests: medical (especially cancer) memoirs, and the prosperity gospel, which I grew up with in the church my parents attend in America. An assistant professor at Duke Divinity School, Bowler was fascinated by the idea that you can claim God’s blessings, financial and otherwise, as a reward for righteous behavior and generosity to the church. But if she’d been tempted to set store by this notion, that certainty was permanently fractured when she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in her mid-thirties. Bowler writes tenderly about suffering and surrender, about living in the moment with her husband and son while being uncertain of the future. Her writing reminds me of Anne Lamott’s and Nina Riggs’s.
The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite by Laura Freeman
[Coming on February 22nd from Weidenfeld & Nicolson (UK)]
A memoir with food, medical and literary themes and a bibliotherapy-affirming title – this debut ticks lots of boxes for me. As a teenager, Freeman suffered from anorexia. This is not an anorexia memoir, though; instead, it’s about the lifelong joy of reading and how books have helped her haltingly recover the joy of eating. Her voracious reading took in the whole of Charles Dickens’s oeuvre, war writers like Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves (boiled eggs and cocoa); travel writers Laurie Lee and Patrick Leigh Fermor and their enthusiastic acceptance of whatever food came their way on treks; and rediscovered children’s classics from The Secret Garden through to the Harry Potter series. This is about comfort reading as much as it is about rediscovering comfort eating, and it delicately balances optimism with reality. (Full blog review scheduled for February 1st.)
Everything Here Is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee
[Coming on January 16th from Pamela Dorman Books (USA)]
Lucia Bok has been many people: a globe-trotting Chinese-American journalist, a shopkeeper’s wife in New York City, an illegal immigrant’s girlfriend, and a mother making the best of primitive conditions in Ecuador. Her schizophrenia means she throws herself wholeheartedly into each role but, as her mind turns against her, eventually finds herself unable to cope. We hear from Lucia herself as well as her older sister, ex-husband and boyfriend – in both first-person and third-person passages – over the course of 25 years to get an intimate picture of how mental illness strains families and how blame gets parceled out. Lucia’s first-person narration was most effective for me: “I take only one kind of medication now. They adjust the dosage. Sometimes I still slosh around, dense and slushy like a watermelon; other times I’m flat, defizzed.”
Junk by Tommy Pico
[Coming on May 8th from Tin House Books (USA)]
Junk food, junk shops, junk mail; junk as in random stuff; junk as in genitals. These are the major elements of Pico’s run-on, stream-of-consciousness poem, the third in his Teebs trilogy (after IRL and Nature Poem). The overarching theme is being a homosexual Native American in Brooklyn. You might think of Pico as a latter-day Ginsberg. His text-speak and sexual explicitness might ordinarily be off-putting for me, but there’s something about Pico’s voice that I really like. He vacillates between flippant and heartfelt in a way that seems to capture something about the modern condition.
“the lights go low across the / multiplex Temple of // canoodling and Junk food”
“Haven’t figured out how to be NDN and not have / suspicion coursing thru me like cortisol”
Indecent by Corinne Sullivan
[Coming on March 6th from St. Martin’s Press (USA)]
Expect a cross between Prep (Curtis Sittenfeld) and Notes on a Scandal (Zoe Heller). Imogene Abney, 22, is an apprentice teacher at Vandenberg School for Boys in New York State. She’s young and pretty enough to be met with innuendo and disrespect from her high school charges; she’s insecure enough about her acne to feel rejected by other apprentices. But Adam Kipling, who goes by “Kip,” seems different from any of the other people she’s thrown together with at Vandenberg. A fourth-year student, he’s only five years younger than she is, and he really seems to appreciate her for who she is. Their relationship proceeds apace, but nothing stays a secret for long around here. Being in Imogene’s head can feel a little claustrophobic because of her obsessions, but this is a racy, pacey read.
From Mother to Mother by Émilie Vast
[Coming on March 20th from Charlesbridge Publishing (USA)]
This sweet, simple picture book for very young children (it will actually be a board book, though I read it as an e-book) was originally published in French. Based on Russian nesting dolls, it introduces the idea of ancestry, specifically multiple generations of women. I imagine a mother with a child sitting on her knee. Holding this book in one hand and a photo album in the other, she points to all the family members who have passed down life and love. Each two-page spread has a different color motif and incorporates flora and fauna on the design of the doll.
I’m also currently partway through, and enjoying, Educated by Tara Westover [Coming on February 20th from Random House (USA) and February 22nd from Hutchinson (UK)], a striking memoir about being raised off grid in Idaho as the youngest of seven children of religious/survivalist parents – and never going to a proper school.
Coming tomorrow (my last post of the year): Some year-end statistics and 2018 reading goals.
My Top 10 Nonfiction Reads of 2017
Below I’ve chosen my seven favorite nonfiction books published in 2017, followed by three older titles that I only recently discovered. Many of these books have already featured on the blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m mostly limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
- Landslide: True Stories by Minna Zallman Proctor: This gorgeous set of autobiographical essays circles through some of the overarching themes of the author’s life: losing her mother, a composer; the importance Italy had for both of them; a love for the work of Muriel Spark; their loose connection to Judaism; and the relentless and arbitrary nature of time. Proctor provides a fine example of how to write a non-linear memoir that gets to the essence of what matters in life.
- My Jewish Year by Abigail Pogrebin: From September 2014 to September 2015, Pogrebin celebrated all the holidays in the Jewish calendar, drawing thematic connections and looking for the resonance of religious rituals might have in her daily life. This bighearted, open-minded book strikes me as a perfect model for how any person of faith should engage with their tradition: not just offering lip service and grudgingly showing up to a few services a year, but knowing what you believe and practice, and why.
In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight against Alzheimer’s by Joseph Jebelli: With the world’s population aging, it is expected that by 2050 Alzheimer’s will be the second leading cause of death after heart disease. Research neurologist Joseph Jebelli gives a thorough survey of the history of Alzheimer’s and the development of our efforts to treat and even prevent it, but balances his research with a personal medical story any reader can relate to – his beloved grandfather, Abbas, succumbed to Alzheimer’s back in Iran in 2012. (See my full review for BookBrowse.)
- My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul: Whether she was hoarding castoffs from her bookstore job, obsessing about ticking off everything in the Norton Anthology, despairing that she’d run out of reading material in a remote yurt in China, or fretting that her new husband took a fundamentally different approach to the works of Thomas Mann, Paul (the editor of the New York Times Book Review) always looks beyond the books themselves to ask what they say about her. It’s just the sort of bibliomemoir I wish I had written.
- The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs: Beautiful prose enhances this literary and philosophical approach to terminal cancer. Riggs was a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson and quotes from her ancestor’s essays as well as from Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy to put things into perspective; she’s an expert at capturing the moments that make life alternately euphoric and unbearable – and sometimes both at once.
- Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby: This is a vivid, compassionate set of stories culled from the author’s long career in heart surgery with the Grim Reaper looking on. I am not a little envious of all that Westaby has achieved: not just saving the occasional life despite his high-mortality field – as if that weren’t enough – but also pioneering various artificial heart solutions and a tracheal bypass tube that’s named after him.
And my nonfiction book of the year was:
1. The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas: I read this in August, planning to contrast it with Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own, another biographer’s memoir, for the LARB. It would have been a brilliant article, believe me. But they didn’t bite, and by the time I approached the TLS they’d already arranged coverage of the books. Alas! Such is the life of a freelancer. Since then I’ve struggled to know what to say about Atlas’s book that would explain why I loved it so much that my paperback proof is riddled with Post-It flags. (It’s going to take more than a couple of sentences…)
Much more so than Tomalin, Atlas gave me a real sense of what it’s like to immerse yourself in another person’s life. He made it up as he went along: he was only 25 when he got the contract to write a biography of the poet Delmore Schwartz, who died a penniless alcoholic at age 52. Writing about the deceased was a whole different matter to engaging with a living figure, as Atlas did when he wrote his biography of Saul Bellow in the 1990s.
Atlas perceptively explores the connections between Schwartz and Bellow (Schwartz was the model for the protagonist of Bellow’s 1975 Pulitzer winner, Humboldt’s Gift) and between Bellow and himself (a Chicago upbringing with Russian Jewish immigrant ancestors), but also sets his work in the context of centuries of biographical achievement – from Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson through master biographers like Richard Holmes, Leon Edel and Richard Ellmann (Atlas’s supervisor during his fellowship at Oxford) to recent controversial biographies of Robert Frost and Vladimir Nabokov.
This book deals with the nitty-gritty of archival research and how technology has changed it; Atlas also talks story-telling strategies and the challenge of impartiality, and ponders how we look for the patterns in a life that might explain what, besides genius, accounts for a writer’s skill. Even the footnotes are illuminating, and from the notes I learned about a whole raft of biographies and books on the biographer’s trade that I’d like to read. After I finished reading it I spent a few days dreamily wondering if I might write a biography some day. For anyone remotely interested in life writing, pick this up with my highest recommendation.
I’ll make it up to an even 10 with a few backlist titles I also loved:
The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books by John Carey (2014): Carey gives a thorough picture of events from his personal and professional life, but the focus is always on his literary education: the books that have meant the most to him and the way his taste and academic specialties have developed over the years. Ultimately what this book conveys is the joy of being a lifelong reader.
A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold (1949): So many of Leopold’s musings ring true today: how we only appreciate wildlife if we can put an economic value on it, the troubles we get into when we eradicate predators and let prey animals run rampant, and the danger of being disconnected from the land that supplies our very life. And all this he delivers in stunning, incisive prose.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (2015): An exquisite interrogation of gender identity and an invaluable reminder that the supposed complications of making a queer family just boil down to your basic human experiences of birth, love and death. I preferred those passages where Nelson allows herself to string her fragments into more extended autobiographical meditations, like the brilliant final 20 pages interspersing her memories of giving birth to her son Iggy with an account of the deathbed vigil her partner (artist Harry Dodge) held for his mother; it had me breathless and in tears, on a plane of all places.
What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll be posting my Library Checkout a few days early.
Next week’s planned posts:
26th: Doorstopper of the Month
27th: Top fiction of the year list
28th: Runners-up and other superlatives
29th: Early 2018 recommendations
30th: Final statistics on my 2017 reading
The Best Books from the First Half of 2017
Believe it or not, but the year is almost half over already. A look back at the “Best of 2017” shelf I’ve started on Goodreads has revealed the eight releases that have stood out most clearly for me so far. All but one of these I have already featured on the blog in some way; links are provided. I’ve also included short excerpts from my reviews to show what makes each of these books so special.
How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza: There’s something gently magical about the way the perspective occasionally shifts to give a fox’s backstory and impressions as a neologism-rich stream. As much as this is about a summer of enchantment and literal brushes with urban wildlife, it’s also about a woman’s life: loneliness, the patterns we get stuck in, and those unlooked-for experiences that might just liberate us. Cocozza sets up such intriguing contradictions between the domestic and the savage, the humdrum and the unpredictable.
Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller: This isn’t a happy family story. It’s full of betrayals and sadness, of failures to connect and communicate. Yet it’s beautifully written, with all its scenes and dialogue just right, and it’s pulsing with emotion. One theme is how there can be different interpretations of the same events even within a small family. The novel is particularly strong on atmosphere, reminding me of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea and Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. Fuller also manages her complex structure very well.
In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist: Malmquist does an extraordinary job of depicting his protagonist’s bewilderment at the sudden loss of his partner and his new life as a single father. While it’s being marketed as a novel, this reads more like a stylized memoir. Similar to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books, it features the author as the central character and narrator, and the story of grief it tells is a highly personal one. This is a book I fully expect to see on next year’s Wellcome Book Prize shortlist.
My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul: I’ve found a new favorite bibliomemoir. Whether she was hoarding castoffs from her bookstore job, obsessing about ticking off everything in the Norton Anthology, despairing that she’d run out of reading material in a remote yurt in China, or fretting that her new husband took a fundamentally different approach to the works of Thomas Mann, Paul (editor of the New York Times Book Review) always looks beyond the books themselves to ask what they say about her. Just the sort of book I wish I had written.
My Jewish Year by Abigail Pogrebin: This bighearted, open-minded book strikes me as a perfect model for how any person of faith should engage with their tradition: not just offering lip service and grudgingly showing up to a few services a year, but knowing what you believe and practice, and why. From September 2014 to September 2015, Pogrebin celebrated all the holidays in the Jewish calendar. I was consistently impressed by how she draws thematic connections and locates the resonance of religious ritual in her daily life.
The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs: Beautiful prose enhances this literary and philosophical approach to terminal cancer. Riggs was a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and she quotes from her ancestor’s essays as well as from Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy of life to put things in perspective. She’s an expert at capturing the moments that make life alternately euphoric and unbearable – sometimes both at once. A wonderful book, so wry and honest, with a voice that reminds me of Anne Lamott and Elizabeth McCracken.
Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby: This is a vivid, compassionate set of stories culled from the author’s long career in heart surgery. Westaby conveys a keen sense of the adrenaline rush a surgeon gets while operating with the Grim Reaper looking on. I am not a little envious of all that he has achieved: not just saving the occasional life despite his high-mortality field – as if that weren’t enough – but also pioneering various artificial heart solutions and a tracheal bypass tube that’s named after him.
The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker: Though it seems lighthearted on the surface, there’s a lot of meat to this story of the long friendship between two female animators. The cartooning world and the Kentucky–New York City dichotomy together feel like a brand new setting for a literary tragicomedy. I appreciated how Whitaker contrasts the women’s public and private personas and imagines their professional legacy. Plus I love a good road trip narrative, and this novel has two.
And here’s five more 4.5- or 5-star books that I read this year but were not published in 2017:
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?
What 2017 releases do I need to catch up on right away?
Four Recommended June Releases
Here are four enjoyable books due out next month that I was lucky enough to read in advance. The first is the sophomore novel from an author whose work I’ve enjoyed before, the second is a highly anticipated memoir from an author new to me, and the third and fourth – both among my favorite books of 2017 so far – strike me as 2018 Wellcome Book Prize hopefuls: one is a highly autobiographical novel about bereavement, and the other is a courageous memoir about facing terminal cancer. I’ve pulled 250-word extracts from my full reviews and hope you’ll be tempted by one or more of these.
The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro
(Coming from St. Martin’s Press on June 6th)
It’s the summer of 1992 and a plague of gypsy moth caterpillars has hit Avalon Island, a community built around Grudder Aviation. The creatures are just one of many threats to this would-be fairy tale world. For Maddie Pencott LaRosa, it’s no simple Sweet Sixteen time of testing out drugs and sex at parties. Her grandfather, Grudder’s president, is back in town with her grandmother, Veronica, and they’re eager to hide the fact that he’s losing his marbles. Also recently returned is Leslie Day Marshall, daughter of the previous Grudder president; she’s inherited “The Castle” and shocked everyone with the family she brought back: Jules, an African-American landscape architect, and their two mixed-race children.
Depending on when you were born, you might not think of the 1990s as “history,” but this novel does what the best historical fiction does: expertly evoke a time period. Moving between the perspectives of six major characters, the novel captures all the promise and peril of life, especially for those who love the ‘wrong’ people. I especially loved small meetings of worlds, like Maddie and Veronica getting together for tea and Oprah.
My main criticism would be that there is a lot going on here – racism, domestic violence, alcohol and prescription drug abuse, cancer, teen sex (a whole lotta sex in general) – and that can make things feel melodramatic. But in general I loved the atmosphere: a sultry summer of Gatsby-esque glittering parties and garden mazes, a time dripping with secrets, sex and caterpillar poop.
[It felt like I kept seeing references to gypsy moths in the run-up to reading this book, like a passage from Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, and a random secondhand book I spotted in Hay-on-Wye (though in that case it’s actually the name of a ship and is a record of a sea voyage).]
Read-alike: The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
(Coming from HarperCollins on June 13th [USA] and from Corsair on August 3rd [UK])
I’d never read anything by Roxane Gay before, but somehow already knew the basics of her story: the daughter of Haitian immigrants to the American Midwest, she was gang raped at age 12, and to some extent everything she’s done and become since then has been influenced by that one horrific experience. Not least her compulsive overeating: “I ate and ate and ate to build my body into a fortress,”she writes. At her heaviest Gay was super morbidly obese according to her BMI, a term that “frames fat people like we are the walking dead.”
Though presented as a memoir, this is more like a collection of short autobiographical essays (88 of them, in six sections). The portions that could together be dubbed her life story take up about a third of the book, and the rest is riffs around a cluster of related topics: weight, diet, exercise and body image. The writing style is matter-of-fact (e.g. “My body is a cage of my own making”), which means she never comes across as self-pitying. I appreciate how she holds opposing notions in tension: she doesn’t know how she developed such an “unruly” body; she knows exactly how it happened.
The structure of the book made it a little repetitive for me, but I think what Gay has written will be of tremendous value, not just to rape victims or those whose BMI is classed as obese, but to anyone who has struggled with body image – so pretty much everyone, especially women.
Read-alike: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist
(Coming on from Sceptre on June 1st [UK] and from Melville House on February 6, 2018 [USA])
In this autobiographical novel from a Swedish poet, Tom faces the loss of his partner and his father in quick succession. The novel opens in medias res at Söder hospital, where Tom’s long-time girlfriend, Karin, has been rushed for breathing problems. Doctors initially suspect pneumonia or a blood clot, but a huge increase in her white blood cells confirms leukemia. This might seem manageable if it weren’t for Karin, 33, being pregnant with their first child. The next morning she’s transferred to another hospital for a Cesarean section and, before he can catch his breath, Tom is effectively a single parent to Livia, delivered six weeks early.
Malmquist does an extraordinary job of depicting Tom’s bewilderment. He records word for word what busy doctors and jobsworth nurses have to say, but because there are no speech marks their monologues merge with Tom’s thoughts, conversations and descriptions of the disorienting hospital atmosphere to produce a seamless narrative of frightened confusion. There is an especially effective contrast set up between Karin’s frantic emergency room treatment and the peaceful neonatal ward where Livia is being cared for.
While it’s being marketed as a novel, this reads more like a stylized memoir. Similar to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books, it features the author as the central character and narrator, and the story of grief it tells is a highly personal one.With its frank look at medical crises, this is a book I fully expect to see on next year’s Wellcome Book Prize shortlist.
Read-alike: Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal
The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
(Coming on June 6th from Simon & Schuster [USA] and from Text Publishing on August 3rd [UK])
You’re going to hear a lot about this one. It’s been likened to When Breath Becomes Air, an apt comparison given the beauty of the prose and the literary and philosophical approach to terminal cancer. It’s a wonderful book, so wry and honest, with a voice that reminds me of Anne Lamott and Elizabeth McCracken.
It started with a tiny spot of cancer in the breast. “No one dies from one small spot,” Nina Riggs and her husband told themselves. Until it wasn’t just a spot but a larger tumor that required a mastectomy. And then there was the severe back pain that alerted them to metastases in her spine, and later in her lungs. Riggs was a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and she quotes from her ancestor’s essays as well as from Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy of life to put things in perspective.
Riggs started out as a poet, and you can tell. She’s an expert at capturing the moments that make life alternately euphoric and unbearable – sometimes both at once. Usually these moments are experienced with family: her tough mother, who died after nine years with multiple myeloma, providing her with a kind of “morbid test drive” for her own death; and her husband and their two precocious sons. Whether she’s choosing an expensive couch, bringing home a puppy, or surprising her sons with a trip to Universal Studios, she’s always engaged in life. You never get a sense of resignation or despair.
Some of my favorite lines:
“inside the MRI machine, where it sounded like hostile aliens had formed a punk band”
“my pubic hair all falls out at once in the shower and shows up like a drowned muskrat in the drain.”
“My wig smells toxic and makes me feel like a bank robber. But maybe it is just a cloak for riding out into suspicious country.”
“‘Merry Christmas,’ says a nurse who is measuring my urine into a jug in the bathroom. ‘Do you want some pain meds? Do you want another stool softener?’”
(Nina Riggs died at age 39 on February 23, 2017.)
Read-alike: A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles by Mary Elizabeth Williams