I started writing about this last batch of my 2019 books at the end of February, just a week or so before we were all plunged into suspended animation. By March 15th my brain had definitely downshifted. It was incapable of normal speed and was only good for minor back road trips into focus. It’s now been over five weeks and I am determined to make the gearbox fully operational again. I know, however, that I have had a different approach to reading during this time – too many newspapers and online alerts from the Washington Post, too few new books with staying power. Still, I will share what I thought of those I read four to six months ago. This time it’s only seven books. Without my conscious intent, both the Fiction and Non-Fiction lists happen to be in the order of my reaction to the books: from “great” to “grating.” (That will give you a road map if you are in the mood for the positive reviews only.)
Olive, Again (2019) – Elizabeth Strout
Reasons to be Cheerful (2019) – Nina Stibbe
Normal People (2018) – Sally Rooney
Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss (2019) – Margaret Renkl
The Boys of My Youth (1998) – Jo Ann Beard
Human Relations & Other Difficulties (2018) – Mary-Kay Wilmers
The Best American Essays 2019 (2019) – Rebecca Solnit, Guest Editor
In Strout’s Olive, Again, that cranky, unsympathetic, oddly lovable Olive Kitteredge is back, ten years older and, miraculously, both unchanged and at the same time completely different. Strout has deftly given Olive in the next (and likely last) phase of her life what seems to be hard-won emotional growth without breaking character at all. Among other things, she has a late second marriage to an unlikely partner, she reaches out and gives comfort to an array of citizens young and old in Crosby, Maine, and she has a kind of reconciliation with her children. At the end, she moves into a “life-care” community and faces down the little (and big) humiliations of old age with equanimity and even humor. Along the way, Strout brings Olive in contact with Maine residents from other Strout novels, and I was so glad to see those characters again, from Amy and Isabelle to The Burgess Boys. This book was a joy to read, and I recommend it whether you’ve read all of Strout’s previous novels or not one of them before.
Nina Stibbe came to fame with her book Love, Nina, a memoir in the form of letters home during her time as a nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books. (More on her later.) The letters were clever and fun and featured some famous literary types who moved in Wilmers’ orbit, such as Stephen Frears (ex-husband) and Alan Bennett (neighbor). She then shifted into light, semi-autobiographical “comic fiction.” I read the first one (Man at the Helm) and found it too light. But I tried again with this third one, Reasons to be Cheerful. The protagonist is still Lizzie Vogel, now 18 and trying to figure herself out while living and working in a mid-sized English town in the East Midlands. And it is still a comic novel, but there is more depth. Lizzie’s voice and world outlook are both wildly naïve and sharply observant. If you’ve been avoiding serious reading but are still up for some social commentary slyly woven in among the pages, you might enjoy this.
I started reading Normal People, by the young Irish writer Sally Rooney, because the book was winning many awards, and Rooney was receiving much attention as one (and maybe the best) of the rising millennial writers, a group not well known by me. I finished reading the book, but only for the same reasons, not because I liked it. In fact, I found its story line a bit tiresome: girl (Marianne) and boy (Connell) from very different backgrounds get together as teenagers in school, break up, and over the next five years get together again and break up again several times. While their circumstances fluctuate, their only constant is their philosophical and sociological arguments, which didn’t interest me. (Although I am clearly in the minority in my reaction, I will share that Dwight Garner in the New York Times did not give it an unreserved rave. He noted that as multiple reconciliations piled up, he started to muse, “Okay. How are you going to screw it up this time?”) Then a month or so after finishing the novel I read that Rooney considers herself a Marxist and that Marianne was intended to be the embodiment of sound Marist principles. I think that explained my problem. I don’t really want characters to be stick figures for “principles,” Marxist or otherwise.
Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth (1998) and Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations (2019) are both memoirs written as a collection of essays. Both writers are keen observers of nature, especially (and coincidentally) of red tail hawks. Otherwise, it would be hard to find two more different books and writers. Beard’s well-known volume (which includes her awarding-winning and wrenching essay “The Fourth State of Matter”) is a collection of narratives, told out of chronological order, ranging from 6 pages to 56 pages. Beard’s childhood in Illinois and her later life in Iowa were rough, filled with difficult times, and she matches her diction to the circumstances. Renkl’s debut book is made up of three elements: family stories told in the voice of grandparents, written snap shots of her current life, and snippets of her own narratives from 1961 to the present, in strict chronological order. All only one to three pages each. Renkl’s childhood, though not one of wealth, was rich in family stability and order at a slower pace in Alabama and Nashville. Her text snapshots are gentle and elegant. Both memoirs are keepers for my bookshelves. You could sample each. Beard teaches at Sarah Lawrence and “The Fourth State of Matter” first appeared in The New Yorker. Renkl is a contributing opinion writer “who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South” at the New York Times, where “Cornbread. Now More Than Ever” appeared in March. Renkl will be the easier read during anxious times.
Mary-Kay Wilmers cofounded the London Review of Books and has been its editor since 1992. Human Relations & Other Difficulties is a collection of essays and reviews from 1972 to 2015. Except for the first four of the 20+ pieces, all appeared in the LRB. The book flap and the introduction by John Lanchester (which I didn’t read until after I had finished the book) point out that almost all the essays are “about women… and especially the effect on women of men’s expectations, men’s gaze, and men’s power.” I have to confess right up front that I didn’t notice that, which probably means I read them too fast and not too deeply! But I would like to think I didn’t notice because they weren’t at all polemical. In fact, one of the most entertaining pieces is about her delight in the obituaries for titled folks that appear in the (London) Times, the voice of “a benign, very English God, or school-master, not much interested in foreign fiddle-faddle but ingenious in drawing up end-of-term reports.” Obit example: Sir Hugh Knatchbull-Hugessen, who had been an ambassador, “played the piano more than adequately, though without any strong feeling for music.” To be sure, most of the essays are about more serious things such as books and authors, but all are written with a very, very dry English sense of humor. I acknowledge that that can be a bit of an acquired taste. And the essays are not to be read in bulk sittings. But I enjoyed each one.
As I have commented in earlier Month of Books posts, Rebecca Solnit makes me work too hard. Her stint as editor for The Best American Essays 2019 didn’t change my view. I’ll admit I learned a lot about a lot of things in the essays she chose that I never would have learned otherwise. All of it, however, was depressing. Essays about tribal languages disappearing, climate change, a crippled environment, missing family members, guns. One was titled, “Death of an English Major,” and I thought it was going to be another elegy on the Humanities (a subject I do know something about), but it was an essay about the actual murder of a student written by her English professor. In the table of contents I noted a piece called “Forever Gone” from Onion, and I thought, well, at least there will be one small bit of comic relief. But I had misread the journal’s name. It was Orion, and the piece was about the 1918 death in the Cincinnati Zoo of the last existing Carolina parakeet, “one of the most unique birds ever to sweep across the skies of the American psyche.” At first I was just annoyed at that sentence, with its sloppy “most unique” and its bent to hyperbole. The annoyance was soon erased by despondence as the author went through one story after another about the extinction of what he calls “Gone Birds.” If I had opened up this 2019 edition of Best American Essays this month, I would have promptly closed it and just added it to my collection of the set without reading it.