Book Serendipity, Mid-December 2022 to Mid-February 2023
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. This is a regular feature of mine every few months. Because I usually have 20–30 books on the go at once, I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. The following are in roughly chronological order.
My biggest overall coincidence set this time was around Korean culture, especially food:
- A demanding Korean/American mother (“Umma”) in Sea Change by Gina Chung, Camp Zero by Michelle Min Sterling, and Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner.
- In the Chung and Zauner, she has eyebrows tattooed on.
- In the Chung and Sterling, there’s also a mall setting.
- Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin was set in South Korea and mentioned a lot of the same cultural factors and foods. KIMCHI (which I’ve never had) was inescapable in these four books.
And the rest…
- The concept of Satan as “the enemy” in God’s Ex-Girlfriend by Gloria Beth Amodeo and All of Us Together in the End by Matthew Vollmer, two 2023 memoirs I reviewed for Foreword Reviews.
- A mention of the Newsboys (my favourite Christian rock band when I was a teenager) in God’s Ex-Girlfriend by Gloria Beth Amodeo and, of all places, Animal Life by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (the context: a list of songs with “Born” in the title; theirs is called – you guessed it! – “Born Again”).
- Two Moores in my stack at once: Birds of America by Lorrie Moore and The Distance from Slaughter County by Steven Moore.
- A chapter in The Distance from Slaughter County by Steven Moore is called “Fight Night” and I was reading the early pages of Fight Night by Miriam Toews at the same time.
- A story in Birds of America by Lorrie Moore is called “Real Estate” and I was reading Real Estate by Deborah Levy at the same time.
- The Virgil quote “there are tears at the heart of things” and the theme of melancholy link Bittersweet by Susan Cain and The Heart of Things by Richard Holloway.
- A character who stutters in Bournville by Jonathan Coe and A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale.
- (Werther’s) butterscotch candies are mentioned in Leila and the Blue Fox by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng, What Napoleon Could Not Do by DK Nnuro, and How to Be Sad by Helen Russell.
- A mother who loves going to church in Bournville by Jonathan Coe and Born a Crime by Trevor Noah.
- The metaphor of a girl trapped in a block of marble ready to have her identity carved out in Sea Change by Gina Chung and Everything’s Changing by Chelsea Stickle.
- When I read a short story about a landmine-detecting rat in Everything’s Changing by Chelsea Stickle, I knew it wasn’t the first time I’d encountered that very specific setup. It took some digging, but I found out the other was in Attrib. by Eley Williams.
- Shane McCrae, whose forthcoming memoir Pulling the Chariot of the Sun I was also reading, is a named poetic influence/source in More Sky by Joe Varrick-Carty.
- I’m sure that after the one in Margaret Atwood’s The Door I encountered another poem about a frozen cat … but can’t now find it for the life of me.
- A character named Marnie in Martha Quest by Doris Lessing and City of Friends by Joanna Trollope.
- Cape Verdean immigrants in the Boston area, then and now, in Daughters of Nantucket by Julie Gerstenblatt and The War for Gloria by Atticus Lish.
- Someone swaps green tea for coffee in Bittersweet by Susan Cain and City of Friends by Joanna Trollope.
- A half-French, half-Asian protagonist in a novella translated from the French: A Single Rose by Muriel Barbery and Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin.
- A (semi-)historical lesbian couple as a subject of historical fiction in Daughters of Nantucket by Julie Gerstenblatt and Chase of the Wild Goose by Mary Gordon.
- A lesbian couple with a ten-year age gap breaks up because the one partner wants a baby and the other does not in My Mother Says by Stine Pilgaard and City of Friends by Joanna Trollope.
- After I specifically read three Frost Fairs books … 18th-century frolics on the frozen Thames were mentioned in The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph.
- As I was reading The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph, I saw him briefly mentioned in How to Be Sad by Helen Russell.
- From one 139-page book about a foreigner’s wanderings in Kyoto (often taking in temples) to another: I followed up A Single Rose by Muriel Barbery with How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart by Florentyna Leow.
- Persimmon jam is mentioned in Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin and How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart by Florentyna Leow.
- A brave post-tragedy trip to a mothers and babies group ends abruptly when people are awkward or rude in All My Wild Mothers by Victoria Bennett and How to Be Sad by Helen Russell.
- As I was reading What We Talk about when We Talk about Love by Raymond Carver, I encountered a snippet from his poetry as a chapter epigraph in Bittersweet by Susan Cain.
- Sexologist Havelock Ellis inspired one of the main characters in The New Life by Tom Crewe and is mentioned in passing in Martha Quest by Doris Lessing.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
Winter Reads, Part I: Patrick Gale & Tove Jansson (#NordicFINDS23)
This winter has been a disappointment: it’s bloody cold, but with no snow. It’s impossible to keep our house warm, even with extra loft insulation and new double-glazed windows (home ownership is boring and overrated), so I’m ready for signs of spring. Maybe by the time I review a second batch of seasonal reads in February, winter will truly be on its way out.
A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale (2015)
This was our January book club read. We’d had good luck with Gale before: his Notes from an Exhibition received our joint highest rating ever. As he’s often done in his fiction, he took inspiration from family history: here, the story of his great-grandfather Harry Cane, who emigrated to the Canadian prairies to farm in the most challenging of conditions. Because there is some uncertainty as to what precipitated his ancestor’s resettlement, Gale has chosen to imagine that Harry, though married and the father of a daughter, was in fact gay and left England to escape blackmailing and disgrace after his affair with a man was discovered.
There are very evocative descriptions of the pioneer life, lightened for Harry by his relationship with his closest neighbours, siblings Petra and Paul. The novel covers the First World War and the start of the Spanish flu epidemic, which provide much fodder for melodrama, but somehow I don’t mind it from Gale. Harry himself is so diffident as to seem blank, but that means he is free to become someone else in a new land. My other main criticism would be that the villain is implausibly evil. Some of our book club members also thought there were too many coincidences. Gale really makes you feel for these characters and their suffering, though. Sexuality and mental health, both so misunderstood at that time, are the two main themes and he explores them beautifully. In that both are historical fiction where homosexuality is simply a fact of life, not a titillating novelty, this reminded me a lot of Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. (Free from mall bookshop)
A Winter Book: Selected Stories by Tove Jansson (2006)
[Translated from the Swedish by Silvester Mazzarella, David McDuff and Kingsley Hart]
A brief second review for Nordic FINDS. It’s the third time I’ve encountered some of these autofiction stories: this was a reread for me, and 13 of the pieces are also in Sculptor’s Daughter, which I skimmed from the library a few years ago. And yet I remembered nothing; not a single one was memorable. Most of the pieces are impressionistic first-person fragments of childhood, with family photographs interspersed. In later sections, the protagonist is an older woman, Jansson herself or a stand-in. I most enjoyed “Messages” and “Correspondence,” round-ups of bizarre comments and requests she received from readers. Of the proper stories, “The Iceberg” was the best. It’s a literal object the speaker alternately covets and fears, and no doubt a metaphor for much else. This one had the kind of profound lines Jansson slips into her children’s fiction: “Now I had to make up my mind. And that’s an awful thing to have to do” and “if one doesn’t dare to do something immediately, then one never does it.” A shame this wasn’t a patch on The Summer Book. (Free from a neighbour)
Original rating in 2012:
And a DNF:
Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin (1983)
Laila (Big Reading Life) and I attempted this as a buddy read, but we both gave up on it. I got as far as page 53 (in the 600+-page pocket paperback). The premise was alluring, with a magical white horse swooping in to rescue Peter Lake from a violent gang. I also appreciated the NYC immigration backstory, but not the adjective-heavy wordiness, the anachronistic exclamations (“Crap!” and “Outta my way, you crazy midget” – this is presumably set some time between the 1900s and 1920s) or the meandering plot. It was also disturbing to hear about Peter’s sex life when he was 12. From a Little Free Library (at Philadelphia airport) it came, and to a LFL (at the Bar Convent in York) it returned. Laila read a little further than me, enough to tell the library patron who recommended it to her that she’d given it a fair try.
Any snowy or icy reading (or weather) for you lately?
11 Days, 11 Books: 2023’s Reading So Far
I realized that, as in 2020, I happen to have finished 11 books so far this year (including a Patrick Gale again). Some of the below I’ll be reviewing in full for other themes or challenges coming up, and others have paid reviews pending that I can’t share yet, but I’ve written a little bit about each of the others. Here’s how my reading year has started off…
A children’s book
Leila and the Blue Fox by Kiran Millwood Hargrave – Similar in strategy to Hargrave’s previous book (also illustrated by her husband Tom de Freston), Julia and the Shark, one of my favourite reads of last year – both focus on the adventures of a girl who has trouble relating to her mother, a scientific researcher obsessed with a particular species. Leila, a Syrian refugee, lives with family in London and is visiting her mother in the far north of Norway. She joins her in tracking an Arctic fox on an epic journey, and helps the expedition out with social media. Migration for survival is the obvious link. There’s a lovely teal and black colour scheme, but I found this unsubtle. It crams too much together that doesn’t fit.
A genre that pretty much never makes it onto my stacks, but I read these two despite knowing little to nothing about the authors; instead, I was drawn in by their particular stories.
A Heart that Works by Rob Delaney – Delaney is an American actor who was living in London for TV filming in 2016 when his third son, baby Henry, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He died before the age of three. The details of disabling illness and brutal treatment could not be other than wrenching, but the tone is a delicate balance between humour, rage, and tenderness. The tribute to his son may be short in terms of number of words, yet includes so much emotional range and a lot of before and after to create a vivid picture of the wider family. People who have never picked up a bereavement memoir will warm to this one.
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah – Again, I was not familiar with the author’s work in TV/comedy, but had heard good things so gave this a try. It reminded me of Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father what with the African connection, the absent father, the close relationship with his mother, and the reflections on race and politics. I especially loved his stories of being dragged to church multiple times every Sunday. He writes a lot about her tough love, and the difficulty of leaving hood life behind once you’ve been sucked into it. The final chapter is exceptional. Noah does a fine job of creating scenes and dialogue; I’d happily read another book of his.
Bournville by Jonathan Coe – Coe does a good line in witty state-of-the-nation novels. Patriotism versus xenophobia is the overarching dichotomy in this one, as captured through a family’s response to seven key events from English history over the last 75+ years, several of them connected with the royals. Mary Lamb, the matriarch, is an Everywoman whose happy life still harboured unfulfilled longings. Coe mixes things up by including monologues, diary entries, and so on. In some sections he cuts between the main action and a transcript of a speech, TV commentary, or set of regulations. Covid informs his prologue and the highly autobiographical final chapter, and it’s clear he’s furious with the government’s handling.
Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng – Disappointing compared to her two previous novels. I’d read too much about the premise while writing a synopsis for Bookmarks magazine, so there were no surprises remaining. The political commentary, though necessary, is fairly obvious. The structure, which recounts some events first from Bird’s perspective and then from his mother Margaret Miu’s, makes parts of the second half feel redundant. Still, impossible not to find the plight of children separated from their parents heart-rending, or to disagree with the importance of drawing attention to race-based violence. It’s also appealing to think about the power of individual stories and how literature and libraries might be part of an underground protest movement.
And a memoir in miniature
Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly – I love memoirs-in-essays. Fennelly goes for the same minimalist approach as Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping. Pieces range from one line to six pages and mostly pull out moments of note from the everyday of marriage, motherhood and house maintenance. I tended to get more out of the ones where she reinhabits earlier life, like “Goner” (growing up in the Catholic church); “Nine Months in Madison” (poetry fellowship in Wisconsin, running around the lake where Otis Redding died in a plane crash); and “Emulsionar,” (age 23 and in Barcelona: sexy encounter, immediately followed by scary scene). Two about grief, anticipatory for her mother (“I’ll be alone, curator of the archives”) and realized for her sister (“She threaded her arms into the sleeves of grief” – you can tell Fennelly started off as a poet), hit me hardest. Sassy and poignant.
The best so far? Probably Born a Crime, followed by Bournville.
Any of these you have read or would read?
Patrick Gale at Marlborough Literature Festival
It’s been a long time since I attended a literary festival in person rather than online. Four of us from my book club went along yesterday evening to the headline event of Marlborough Literature Festival. Marlborough is a pleasant market town in Wiltshire about 40 minutes from Newbury, and I’d like to get back to it sometime soon when things are open so I can explore its secondhand and plastic-free shops.
Patrick Gale closed the festival by speaking about his new novel (his 17th), Mother’s Boy. I knew it was a historical novel that covered the Second World War, but I had no idea that it was based on a real person, poet Charles Causley. With Andrew Motion, Gale is a patron of the Charles Causley Trust, which runs an annual poetry competition for children. I hadn’t heard of Causley, but Gale and some members of the audience recall memorizing his poems in school – like Roald Dahl’s, they can have a wicked sense of humour. Causley also wrote in the style of traditional ballads; my husband knows a version of one on a folk album.
Gale called Causley the “least sexy” of the war poets. He was from Launceston, Cornwall and left school at age 15, joining the Navy and later working as a schoolteacher for many years. He lived with his widowed mother and, if you believe the legend, died a virgin. However, Gale unearthed evidence that Causley was in fact a closeted homosexual and had sexual encounters with men during the war. He experienced survivor’s guilt because he escaped his ship’s explosion while he had an on-shore posting so that he could sit his exams.
Equally important to the novel is Causley’s mother, Laura, who grew up in extreme poverty and, after her husband’s death from TB, raised Charles in a slum on a laundress’ salary, even managing to buy him a piano. Launceston was decimated by the two world wars, and essentially colonized by the segregated U.S. Army. Gale made up a Black character named Amos, but gave him a horrific real-life story. Laura would have met Black soldiers and, later, German POWs through her working-class church.
Gale acknowledged that he had to make up more of Laura’s story, relying only on the information about her in Causley’s tiny appointment diaries. In response to an audience question, he said he thinks Causley would be “utterly appalled” at the existence of this novel because he was an intensely private person, but that he’s salved his conscience with the fact that the book is driving people back to Causley’s poems. He wrote this as a novel rather than a biography because he tends to “overempathize” with characters, and likes to go “behind the bedroom door,” as he put it – indeed, one (non-graphic) scene he read was of Charles’s conception, while the other was about Charles learning to read at age five and enjoying his father’s company though he knew he was ill.
Mother’s Boy is most like A Place Called Winter from his oeuvre, Gale remarked, in that it’s historical fiction based on real people – in that earlier case, his own relatives. Gale’s father was the governor of Wandsworth Prison and his mother the daughter of the governor of Liverpool Prison (where he oversaw many hangings). In fact, he’s now at work on a sequel to A Place Called Winter, about his grandparents and parents, and researching from letters.
I was impressed with Gale’s delivery: he spoke engagingly for 45 minutes about the book and its context, peppering in readings and recitations, with no interviewer to prompt him. It was clearly a practiced lecture, but he had no notes and spoke warmly and as if off the cuff.
Are any of these poem titles familiar to you? These were the ones mentioned during last night’s event. (You can listen to Causley reading some of them in his eighties – with his large cat purring in the background – on the Poetry Archive site I linked to above.)
- “Timothy Winters”
- “Rattler Morgan”
- “Eden Rock”
- “The Ballad of a Bread Man”
- “Angel Hill”
I have a copy of Mother’s Boy on hold at the library for me to pick up tomorrow, and we fancy reading A Place Called Winter for book club soon – his Notes from an Exhibition was one of our all-time favourites that we’ve read together.
Are you a Patrick Gale fan? Have you been able to attend any literary events recently?
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 Bookshop Band & The June–July Outlook
The Bookshop Band played in an Oxfordshire village 35 minutes’ drive from us yesterday evening. I’ve now seen them four times; I don’t think that quite qualifies me as a groupie, though I do count them among my favorite artists and own their complete discography.
The small church provided great acoustics and an intimate setting, and the set list was a fun mixture of old and new. All of their songs are based on literature: When they were the house band at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, they would write two songs based on an author’s new book on the very day that s/he would be making an appearance at the shop in the evening. A combination of slow reading and procrastination, I suppose. You’d never believe it, though, because their songs are intricate and thoughtful, often pulling out moments and ideas from books (at least the ones I’ve read) that never would have occurred to me.
Here’s what they played last night, and which books the songs were based on:
- “Once Upon a Time” – For a radio commission they crafted this compilation of first lines from various books.
- “Cackling Farts” – A day-in-the-life song featuring archaic vocabulary words from Mark Forsyth’s The Horologicon.
- “You Make the Best Plans, Thomas” – Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (one of my absolute favorites of their songs).
- “Why I Travel This Way” – Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal (I have heard this live once before, but it’s never been recorded).
- “Petroc and the Lights” – Patrick Gale’s Notes from an Exhibition (which reminds me that I really need to read it soon!).
- “Dirty Word” – A brand-new song based on Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; it stemmed from their recent commission to write about banned books for the V&A.
- “How Not to Woo a Woman” – Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (it must be a band favorite as they’ve played it every time I’ve seen them).
- “Curious and Curiouser” – Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
- “Sanctuary” – A new song they wrote for the launch event at the Bodleian Library for Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, #1).
- “Room for Three” – The other song they wrote for the Pullman event
- “We Are the Foxes” – Ned Beauman’s Glow.
- “Edge of the World” – Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James.
- “Faith in Weather” – The only one not based on a book; this was inspired by a Central European folktale about seven ravens (another of my absolute favorites).
- “Thirteen Chairs” – Dave Shelton’s Thirteen Chairs (another one they’ve played every time I’ve seen them).
I’m always impressed by Ben and Beth’s musicianship (guitars, ukuleles, cello, harmonium and more), and I also admire how they’ve continued touring intensively despite being new parents. They’re currently on the road for two months, and one-year-old Molly simply comes along for the ride!
It’ll be a busy week on the blog. I have posts planned for every day through Saturday thanks to Library Checkout, the Iris Murdoch readalong, and various features reflecting on the first half of the year and looking ahead to the second half.
It turns out I’ll be in America for three weeks of July helping my parents pack and move, so I may have to slow down on the 20 Books of Summer challenge, and will almost certainly have to substitute in some books I have in storage over there. (I’m pondering fiction by Laurie Colwin, Hester Kaplan, Antonya Nelson and Julie Orringer; and nonfiction by Joan Anderson, Haven Kimmel and Sarah Vowell.) I have a few books lined up to review for their July release dates, but it’ll be a light month overall.