A Few Recommendations to End 2017

Dear Readers, I hope 2017 has ended on a high note for you, and that you have much to look forward to in 2018.

I’m popping in (I know I’ve been largely absent from this site, and I have no idea, really, if that will change in the new year) to share some lists. I read 150 books, this year—the most since I started keeping track—and I wish I had the time to tell you about them all.

You can find my baker’s dozen favorite fiction releases of 2017 here, on Bookish Beck’s blog. A few expected reads, I think, but maybe some that are new to you?

And here’s some of the poetry I read in 2017 (new releases are to the left of Anne Carson’s Float): 

Ten 2017 poetry releases I recommend:

Don’t Call Us Dead, Danez Smith
Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Kaveh Akbar
Good Bones, Maggie Smith
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, Morgan Parker
Whereas, Layli Long Soldier
Sycamore, Kathy Fagan
Afterland, Mai Der Vang
Lena, Cassie Pruyn
All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned, Erica Wright
Lessons on Expulsion, Erika L. Sánchez

And ten backlist titles I read this year that stood out:

Float, Anne Carson
Blue, George Elliott Clarke
Look, Solmaz Sharif
Miracle Fruit, Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Count the Waves, Sandra Beasley
Duende, Tracy K. Smith
Human Chain, Seamus Heaney
Loop of Jade, Sarah Howe
Bright Dead Things, Ada Limón
Thrall, Natasha Trethewey

One thing that’s kept me away from this site, besides reading: my own writing, which I’m chipping away at. If you’re interested, you can find links to some published work at carolynoliver.net.

Happy New Year, Dear Readers! Here’s hoping 2018 brings beloved new books and old favorites your way.


Last Month’s Reading: August 2017

Dear Readers, I hope your August was lovely.

We traveled: to Edinburgh (just for a few days; our first trip out of the country as a family), where I was delighted to find the Scottish Poetry Library, and later in the month spent a quick weekend at Niagara Falls (our son adored the Maid of the Mist, as did we), with a chance to visit a dear friend on the Canadian side.

Our garden is winding down, school is starting, and the blankets are on the beds at night. Wishing you all a happy fall (or spring, Australian readers), and happy reading.

I know many of you have probably already donated to the relief efforts in Texas. If you’re looking for more ways to help, Book Riot put together a list of book/library/publishing-related ways to do so. Texans, we’re thinking of you.

Last Month’s Reading: August 2017

Goodbye, Vitamin*, by Rachel Khong: A quietly beautiful novel about one year in the life of a woman who comes home to help care for her father, who suffers from dementia. Empathetic and funny without shying away from the terrible frailty the disease exposes in both patient and caregiver. Recommended.

The Art of Time in Fiction, by Joan Silber: My favorite entry (so far) in Graywolf’s “Art Of” series for writers. I’ll be coming back to this book.

Day, by A.L. Kennedy: I bought this novel in the Edinburgh airport and read it cover to cover on the flight home. Day is about Alfred Day, a young man from an unhappy home who volunteers to serve as a tail gunner in a Lancaster bomber during World War II. The book begins in 1949 as Day is working as an extra in a war movie that triggers memories of his experiences.  It’s absolutely stellar.

The Bonniest Companie, by Kathleen Jamie: One of my finds at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh. This is a collection about Scotland; Ms. Jamie wrote one poem a week in 2014, and those poems became this book. I love her engagement with the natural world (from “High Water”: “When the tide returns / from its other life / bearing its adulterer’s gifts”). Recommended.

Lessons on Expulsion*, by Erika L. Sánchez: Full review of this bold collection here.

The Mountain*, by Paul Yoon: Six gorgeous stories from a master of the form. Longer review coming soon.

The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin: The brilliant finale to Ms. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy (the first two installments of which I inhaled at the very end of 2016). Highly, highly recommended.

The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett: A little gem of a book; the uncommon reader is the queen, who discovers late in life a passion for reading. Spend an afternoon with this charming novella while you wait for the second season of The Crown.

The Rules Do Not Apply, by Ariel Levy: If you’ve read “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” Ms. Levy’s gut-wrenching New Yorker essay, you know how gifted a writer she is. This memoir builds toward the events of that essay in candid, clear prose. Unfortunately, the last few chapters fizzle, holding back in ways the rest of the book (which deals with infidelity, alcohol addiction, and infertility, among other difficult subjects) does not.

The Windfall, by Diksha Basu: In New Delhi, Mr. and Mrs. Jha decide to relocate from their small apartment complex to an upscale neighborhood after Mr. Jha sells his business for a significant sum . They know the move will be difficult, but they can’t foresee its effects—hilarious and otherwise—on their neighbors, new and old, and their son, struggling at an American business school. Ms. Basu skewers the rich with a smile, and I was delighted by her nuanced characterizations of long-time friends Mrs. Jha and Mrs. Ray; it was good to see middle-aged women given such close attention.

*I received copies of these books from their publishers for review consideration.

Last Month’s Reading: July 2017

August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts: I read this play about a hyper-dysfunctional, secret-keeping-and-spilling Oklahoma family with a semi-permanent cringing expression. It’s black comedy and melodrama with huge spikes of outrageous behavior; though I haven’t seen the film version, I can imagine Meryl Streep eating her role (as Violet, the vicious matriarch) for breakfast. However, I found the role of Johnna, the only Native American character, problematic, though perhaps that’s a misreading on my part (see Kimberly Guerrero’s piece on the play here).

Prairie Fever, by Mary Biddinger: Last month, I lucked into finding this collection at Loganberry Books (and if you’re in Cleveland, I highly recommend the bookstore for felicitous finds). Ms. Biddinger’s sharp focus on Midwest settings almost de-familiarizes them, making the ordinary new (I loved these lines from “Dirndl in a Tree”: “Yard flecked with trillium / like private school collars / spread open on green / and ochre.”) Some favorites from this collection: “Coyote,” “Velvet Season,” “The Flyers” (in which a tow truck’s “tail lights / are cherries pickled in gin and salt”), and “Red Sea.” Packed with gritty characters, hot days, bars and basements, and unexpected animals, it’s a dangerous-feeling collection. Recommended.

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay: A haunting memoir about trauma, its aftermath, and what it means to live in a body that contemporary American society has deemed unacceptable. Ms. Gay writes about her body—the kind of body that in person is usually read too quickly, without nuance, or even ignored—with directness and powerful vulnerability. This book is a gift.

How to Be a Tudor, by Ruth Goodman: Ruth Goodman is not only a social historian, but also a re-enactor who spends long stretches learning first-hand what it was like to live in another era (she was a consultant on Wolf Hall—so cool). That practical and professional experience is abundantly evident in How to Be a Tudor, in which she uses the structure of the Tudor day to show how people—commoners and aristocrats—lived five hundred years ago. It’s a treasure trove of detailed information (I often wished for diagrams) about everything from food (how to grow it and how to eat it) to ribbon-making to tooth-brushing (she prefers soot, of the available options). If you, like me, are a Tudor-era history/lit nerd, don’t miss this one.

Miracle Fruit, by Aimee Nezhukumatathil: Last year I read and mightily enjoyed the short book Lace & Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens, a correspondence in poems between Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Ross Gay.  Miracle Fruit, Ms. Nezhukumatathil’s 2003 collection, is simply glorious, a feast of language and exquisitely described scents and tastes. Some of my favorites: “In the Potatoes,” “Wrap” (the speaker’s grandmother wraps her sari, “coughs it up over her shoulder”), “The Woman Who Turned Down a Date with a Cherry Farmer,” “Speak,” and “My Name.” Highly recommended.

Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout: I loved last year’s My Name is Lucy Barton, and this set of interlinked stories is a companion piece to that novel, focusing on some of the characters Lucy and her mother recall. In these quiet, often grim, slow-building stories, Ms. Strout treats desperate, lonely, and overlooked characters with compassion and respect.

June Fourth Elegies, by Liu Xiaobo, translated by Jeffrey Yang: Chinese dissident, human rights activists, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo died earlier this month, still under guard by the Chinese government, which announced his illness only after it was essentially incurable.  His wife, artist and writer Liu Xia, is still under house arrest. June Fourth Elegies collects his yearly poems written as offerings for the victims of the Tiananmen Square protests, as well as a handful of poems written for his wife. His introduction is searing in its condemnation of the Chinese state. I found these elegies moving in their appearance as a group, witness of their author’s unstinting sorrow for the dead and decades-long struggle for justice.

The Night Ocean, by Paul La Farge: Horror isn’t my thing and I’ve never been particularly interested in H. P. Lovecraft, but Paul La Farge’s novel about a modern couple attempting to suss out some of the truth about the writer’s life and afterlife drew me in after the cover first hooked me; I found the book hard to put down. It’s about yarn -spinning and the stories we tell ourselves, unreliable narrators and texts, the slipperiness of perspective and multiplicity. To say more would, I think, ruin its many surprises.

James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl (not pictured): I’m pretty sure my mother read this to us when we were kids; it was delightful to be the one reading it aloud this time. Peals of laughter, over and over.

All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned, by Erica Wright: As you might guess from the title, in this collection you’re in the hands of a gifted storyteller (Ms. Wright is also the author of two crime novels, including The Granite Moth). Many of these poems are eerie (“Spontaneous Human Combustion” or “Abandoned Doll Factory,” for example), darkly funny, suggestive of lurking longer stories. Some of my favorite poems in this collection were “American Highways in Billboard Country” (“What if the exit we choose / isn’t the one we wanted?”), “Our Wilderness Period,” “Select. Start.” (It’s hard to love men who played video games / as boys. It’s hard when you can’t picture them / skinning their knees on gravel [. . . ]”), “American Ghosts,” and “Trespassing.”  Highly recommended.

Last Fortnight’s Reading: April 23-May 6

Looking for the Gulf Motel, by Richard Blanco: I read most of these poems out loud, in the car with my family on the way to my grandfather’s funeral, and was surprised to find myself tearing up a bit. Mr. Blanco (the 2013 inaugural poet) grew up in the Cuban exile community in Miami, and the poems in Looking for the Gulf Motel speak movingly of his family and childhood memories. If you’re looking for a smooth-reading collection with a strong sense of place, I highly recommend it.

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill: This very short, almost pointillist novel anatomizes a disintegrating marriage, and it’s particularly sharp on motherhood. Recommended.

Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill: This 1988 collection, Ms. Gaitskill’s first, could have been written yesterday; its themes of discontent, isolation, and desire still resonate. I’m not sure there’s a single likable character in the book, which makes it simultaneously fearless and disquieting. The writing is very, very good, but I can’t say I’ll come back to this one.

Loop of Jade, by Sarah Howe: One of the best collections I’ve read this year (and I’ve read some great ones). I loved Ms. Howe’s use of form, her facility with language, the sheer variety in Loop of Jade. Ms. Howe was born in Hong Kong and lives in the UK (her father is British, her mother Chinese), and Loop of Jade explores her heritage through narrative and lyric poems. Exquisite, and highly recommended.

Trajectory, by Richard Russo: After last year’s disappointing Everybody’s Fool, I was wary about this collection of four stories/novellas (three can be found elsewhere; one is brand new). However, Mr. Russo is back to form here. Particularly affecting are “Horseman” (a college professor confronts a cheating student and her own past) and “Milton and Marcus,” which features thinly-veiled portraits of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Recommended.

Last Week’s Reading: January 15-21


A dystopian classic, two collections by Poets Laureate, sci-fi shorts, a nonfiction juggernaut, and a powerful play.

Well, Dear Readers, here we are. And here’s what I read last week.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood: Even more frightening now than when I first read it ten years ago. If you haven’t read this classic yet, now might be a pretty good time.

On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by Rita Dove: I bought this collection in Denver last year, and finally read it on Martin Luther King Day. It’s excellent, particularly in the way the title sequence allows us to see the sweep of historical events through individual experience. The poems grouped in “Cameos” and “Black on a Saturday Night” reminded me of Natasha Trethewey’s Domestic Work; you might try reading the collections together. And bookish folk will love the poems “Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967” and  “The First Book.”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot: I finally got a library card for our new city’s system, and then proceeded (finally) to read this medical and social history that practically everyone else has read in the six or so year since it came out. I was impressed by the volume of research Ms. Skloot conducted and the sensitivity with which she handled the stories of Henrietta Lacks’s family, but I did wish for more background on cell science and advances made with HeLa cells. If you read the book when it came out, you might want to head over to this website to read updates about the project.

Arrival (original published as Stories of Your Life and Others), by Ted Chiang: I bought this collection because I very much want to see Arrival (unfortunately, I missed it in theaters), and I like to read source material first. “Story of Your Life,” which is the basis for the movie, is exceptionally good, one of the very best short stories—though it feels like a super-compressed novel—I’ve ever read. Stunning, and by that I mean I felt stunned after I read it. Also very impressive was “Tower of Babylon,” which leads off the collection. The other six stories (most of the stories in the book are very long for short stories, by the way) were interesting, but not quite my cup of tea, stylistically; they seemed, with exception of “Seventy-two Letters,” like sustained thought experiments. All the stories, however, reveal a deeply thoughtful mind at work, and offer more questions than answers; I’m glad I read them.

The Laramie Project, by Moisés Kaufman and the Members of Tectonic Theater Project: This play must have been (must be) incredibly powerful in performance. It’s an exploration of Laramie, Wyoming’s reaction to the brutal murder of Matthew Shepherd in 1998. The members of the theater group traveled to Wyoming six times in eighteen months to interview friends of Matthew, friends of the perpetrators, police officers, students, religious leaders, and other townspeople; the words gathered in the interviews were shaped into the work. The Laramie Project is an act of radical witness; it’s impossible not to be moved by it.

Notes on the Assemblage, by Juan Felipe Herrera (current United States Poet Laureate): The poems in this collection are political and personal, full of lamentation and exuberance. You’ll find calls to action, pleas for remembrance, elegies, riffs that feel like jazz, Spanish and English talking to each other and not speaking. “Borderbus” was for me the standout poem—heartbreaking and unforgettable.

P. S. Given the busy news cycle this weekend, you might not have focused on the destructive and deadly storms in the South this weekend. If you’d like to support disaster relief efforts, here’s a link to the Red Cross donations page.  You can also check out Pinebelt Relief.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, Dear Readers. See you next week.

Last Week’s Reading


January 8-14: A haunting novel in translation, debut fiction from a poet, a ghost story, a highly acclaimed play, and a poet I wish I’d read years ago.

Human Acts photo by Carolyn OliverSouth Korean writer Han Kang won the Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian (which I haven’t read); Human Acts*, which you can find at your local bookstore today, is the next of her novels to be translated into English by Deborah Smith. It is absolutely riveting, though quite hard to read, given the subject matter. The subject is the viciously quelled 1980 Gwanju Uprising, and the lens is the life and death of one boy, Dong-ho. In chapters that shift focus among different people who knew Dong-ho (well or tangentially), the author explores trauma, resilience, memory, witness, and questions of the soul. At what cost do survivors of torture bear witness to their sufferings? How do ordinary people find the strength to resist brutal injustice? How ought we to feel about being human when humans can be despicable creatures—or brave and kind? Human Acts is a devastating, brilliant book.

img_3538After reading Human Acts, I needed something a bit lighter to take the edge off, and Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, by Kathleen Rooney, was just the ticket. Eighty-something Lillian Boxfish decides to end 1984 by taking a walk around her beloved New York City, reflecting on a life lived to the very fullest—if not always happily. Lillian has verve, and her recollections of working in the advertising department at Macy’s in the 1930s are wonderful (especially if you’re missing Mad Men); the character is based on Margaret Fishback, the highest paid woman in advertising during her heyday. This novel is light but not fluffy; the emphasis on connection was sensitive rather than mawkish. I generally loved the company of Lillian’s sharp mind (with the exception of several instances of fat-shaming, which, please, dear authors, can we dispense with?).

Less delightful was Gillian Flynn’s The Grown Up. Originally included in a short story anthology, the tale would, I suspect, be better served in that format, rather than as a standalone book (it was included in this month’s Book of the Month mailing). It’s a ghost story with a twist; I found it more grotesque than thrilling, and the ending, alas, didn’t satisfy.

img_3496One of the last books I read in 2016 was John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt; I couldn’t resist the temptation to make the next play I read Proof, David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize winner (2001). Sometimes I forget how much I love reading drama (I used to teach it), though I’m happy when plays like these remind me. I suspect I don’t read drama often because it doesn’t get the hype in book-world (where, for good or ill, I spend much of my time) that fiction, nonfiction, and even poetry do. I wonder why that is. Anyway, Proof is about math, mental illness, and family. It’s very, very good.

fullsizerender-13Last week, I finally read Charlotte Mew’s Selected Poems (edited and introduced by Irish poet Eavan Boland). Mew came highly recommended by friend and poet Emily Mohn-Slate, and I am kicking myself, Dear Readers that I (a.) didn’t pick up this book ages ago and (b.) didn’t read it as soon as it arrived as a birthday present. Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) is an utterly tragic figure, but her poems are marvels—lines like none I’ve ever read before: part Victorian, part Georgian, part Modernist, and all deeply moving.  I cried twice reading this slim volume, and friends, I do not cry easily when it comes to poetry.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

I’m not sure this weekly reading wrap-up is going to be a regular feature, but I’m running with it for now!

Review: Where My Heart Used to Beat, by Sebastian Faulks

IMG_5830Where My Heart Used to Beat* is the first of Sebastian Faulks’s novels that I’ve read (his best known, Birdsong, is on my mental list of World War I novels to read); I found it both challenging and absorbing.

The novel is a deep dive into the character of Robert Hendricks, its narrator. A psychiatrist practicing in 1980 London, he receives an unexpected letter from older man, Dr. Pereira, who resides on a small island off the coast of France. Dr. Pereira, also a psychiatrist, realized after he came across Robert’s book that the younger man might be the son of a man he served with during World War I; he invites Robert to visit the island, offering both to share reminiscences of his father and an suggestion that Robert might like to be his literary executor.

Intrigued, Robert accepts the invitation, only to find that Pereira has no intention of revealing what he knows all at once; instead, he wants first to hear about Robert’s memories of his own war (World War II) and the different challenges of his life as part of an attempt to understand the depredations and despair of the twentieth century (Robert has, by this point, mostly given into despair). As the younger doctor faces the dark pieces of his life that he’s tried to shut away—sometimes narrating them to Pereira, sometimes to an imagined reader (an effect which is occasionally disconcerting)—we are drawn deeper into the recesses of his mind, with uncertain results.

While I’m glad that I stayed with the novel because its extended exploration of the protagonist was in the end rewarding, what I found challenging initially was the character himself. Much of Robert Hendrick’s background is unremarkable, given his generation; his father died during World War I; he worked hard in school and earned a scholarship to college; he went on to fight in his own war and then returned home to begin a successful career in a difficult specialty. But he has what some would term “intimacy issues”; high on my list of fictional tropes I’d be happy never to see again is the quasi-lonely middle-aged man who pays for sex and spends time remembering and judging the bodies of women he’s slept with. After one short-term affair implodes, Robert relates,

Unpleasant though it was, the sense of rupture and the vista of solitude it opened up didn’t feel traumatic; they felt more like a reversion to the norm. I had been here before: I was an habitué of loneliness, which was in any case the underlying condition of mankind from which the little alliances and dependencies we make are only a diversion.

Despite what was for me an inauspicious beginning to the novel, the quality of Mr. Faulks’s prose kept me reading. He pays special attention to Robert’s war experience; particularly well written and harrowing is the description of the British landing in Italy and subsequent trench battles at Anzio in 1944 (which I came to the book woefully untutored in). This is the setup for the great mystery and formative event of Robert’s life: the loss of his first and only love, an Italian woman he refers to as “L.”

Robert and Pereira share a humane view of mental illness, showing great respect for their patients and questioning what exactly the meaning of “madness” is. While I often found that their discussions lacked nuance, and that Robert’s further reflections, like his references to Eliot and the Aeneid, were too direct, the intricacies of this odd and yet ordinary character remained compelling.

If anything, I think Where My Heart Used to Beat is in part a modern, novelistic twist on Dante’s Inferno; Pereira is the Virgil leading Robert’s Dante into the hell (with some rather mundane circles, some indeed hellish) of his own mind, a mind obsessed with a lost Italian woman.

I’d recommend this book to readers interested in deep characterization, strong war writing, and English life in the interwar period (Mr. Faulks shows his excellent command of detail when writing about Robert’s boyhood); if you like a love story balanced with a heaping portion of non-romantic material, this is a novel for you.

Readers, what’s your favorite book about World War II?

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Writer to Watch: Diana Souhami

photo (19)Diana Souhami is a debut novelist, but her twelve previously published works of nonfiction arrived to critical acclaim (she has won both the Whitbread Biography Award and the Lambda Literary Award). Given the talent and ambition she shows in her first novel, Gwendolen*, I suspect we’ll be seeing more of Ms. Souhami’s fiction.

First, the ambition: Gwendolen is a re-telling and expansion of George Eliot’s final novel, Daniel Deronda (as you can see in the very clever cover design, the original nineteenth-century cover has been altered). It’s quite a task to take on the formidable Eliot, but Daniel Deronda is perhaps ripe for such interpretations; some critics of the novel thought it could do without Gwendolen Harleth, and some thought that Gwendolen was worthy of her own novel.

That’s what Ms. Souhami gives us. The first two-thirds of Gwendolen recount the events of Daniel Deronda from Gwendolen’s intimate perspective, in the form of a very long letter written to Deronda, but never sent. Gwendolen is beautiful, but self-centered and insensible to the ways of the world:

And so it began: life-changing decisions made by sudden inclinations, vanity, and rash daring. [ … ] I did not stop to consider what it meant truly to know another person or myself. I knew nothing of the world beyond the drawing rooms of Pennicote and the bewildering nowhere places of my childhood travels: nothing of the war in America, the struggles of the suffragists, the suffering of the workhouse, the customs and mores of other societies. And nothing whatsoever of the motivations of men or of the qualities that might matter, beyond chandeliers, paddocks, and diamonds, when choosing a husband. (50)

Gwendolen explains the dire financial straits and over-reliance on her considerable beauty  that led her to marry Grandcourt, a rich but cruel man whom she did not love and whom she knew to be involved with another woman (a longtime mistress with four children). The moral depredations of Grandcourt that Daniel Deronda hints at are fully revealed in Gwendolen.

The remaining chapters of the novel explore what Gwendolen’s life is like after the events of Daniel Deronda, and it is here that Ms. Souhami’s talents are put to best use. While the first two parts of the book are close in spirit to Eliot’s work, they are not satisfyingly different enough from the original. However, when exploring the changes in Gwendolen’s material circumstances and emotional states in her new life, I found myself eager to learn more about Ms. Souhami’s new characters, like the circus performer Julian/Juliette, the painter Paul LeRoy (based on a real person), and the group of suffragists Gwendolen befriends.

I was thrown off by the inclusion of Mrs. Lewes (George Eliot) as a character known to Gwendolen; it didn’t quite work, especially since Eliot’s uncanny knowledge about Gwendolen’s private affairs is never explained. And the notes about real people slipped into the tone of biography, instead of remaining in Gwendolen’s distinctive voice. I wanted the novel to explore Gwendolen’s relationship with her four stepsisters in greater depth instead.

Alas, this last section is far too brief, and doesn’t bloom as it could have, had the proportions of the plot been reversed. However, Ms. Souhami’s talent for sketching lively characters and period settings and her way of framing classic literature to allow readers to think about the social systems of the present ensures my willingness to read her next novel when it appears.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: Our Endless Numbered Days, by Claire Fuller

photo (20)I first learned of Claire Fuller’s debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days* from Naomi’s review on Consumed by Ink. Once I picked up the book, I couldn’t put it down.

In reading Our Endless Numbered Days, I stepped  outside of my comfort zone; my reading (and viewing, for that matter) bête noir is child endangerment, and Peggy Hillcoat is in danger for quite a lot of the novel.

In 1976, when Peggy is eight, her father, a survivalist, packs up supplies and Peggy and leads her deep into a German forest, to “die Hutte,” where the two will live for the next nine years. Peggy’s experiences in wild living are juxtaposed with chapters about her life after she rejoins her mother, Ute, a noted concert pianist, in London nine years later (and this was what allowed me to read the book: knowing that she would come home alive, if not unscathed).

Peggy’s father tells her that they are the only two people left in the world, and decides to stop keeping track of time:

“We’re not going to live by somebody else’s rules of hours and minutes any more,” he said. When to get up, when to go to church, when to go to work.”
I couldn’t remember my father ever going to church, or even to work.
“Dates only make us aware of how numbered our days are, how much closer to death we are for each one we cross off. From now on, Punzel, we’re going to live by the sun and the seasons.” He picked me up and spun me around, laughing. “Our days will be endless.”

So Peggy—or Punzel, as she takes to calling herself and being called—settles into a routine of hunting and gathering and playing one piece on a piano that doesn’t make a sound—until one day she sees a pair of boots in the woods and begins to understand that all is not as her father told her.

Given the lies that James and Ute tell themselves, their daughter, and each other, Peggy isn’t the most reliable narrator—except where matters of practical living are concerned. The details of Peggy and James’s survival strategies are fascinating, particularly considering just how much effort it takes to learn how to live primitively (I just read a NYT story on a woman who walked 10,000 miles in three years, so I guess I’m on a bit of a kick). Their struggles do not recommend the outdoor lifestyle (though maybe I’m biased, since my favorite magnet says “I love not camping.”)

Ms. Fuller’s writing is strong and assured, her words gliding gracefully; I finished the book in two sittings. She skillfully builds tension as the novel’s twin mysteries unravel: How (and why) did Peggy escape the wilderness? And why did her father leave with her in the first place?

Once you pick up Our Endless Numbered Days, these questions will draw you into Peggy’s world, and it’s difficult to leave.

*I received a review copy of this book from the publisher, which did not affect the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys

photo (17)The Evening Chorus*, by Helen Humphreys, is a quiet gem of a book. Ms. Humphreys is an accomplished Canadian poet and novelist, and I honestly can’t believe that this is the first book of hers I’m reading. It won’t be the last.

The Evening Chorus follows three people: James Hunter, a British pilot confined to a German prisoner-of-war camp when the book opens; his new and young wife Rose, living in their cottage at the edge of Ashdown Forest; and Enid, James’s sister, who comes to stay with Rose after her London flat is destroyed in the bombing of the city. James’s story is the frame and the touchstone (which honestly makes the book’s US cover annoying, too generic and too specific all at once; the Canadian cover is a better representation of the book).

The novel follows James, Rose, and Enid in turn, though of course they’re all connected, not only by their family ties, but by their appreciation of the natural world. James passes his days in the camp by taking up the study of a family of birds, while Rose learns to love her walks as an air raid warden with only the company of her dog. And Enid, brought low by loss, finds solace in undertaking a study of the heath and forest near Rose’s cottage.

Ms. Humphreys’s writing makes me want to use words like “limpid” and “spare” and “lyrical.” Her language is clear, building images and characters deftly and with a supreme sense of balance. When revelations appear, as they must in a story, they’re not shocking twists, but rather forks in a path that you haven’t noticed being built beneath your feet.

Here’s one passage that I particularly liked:

The minutiae of Ashdown Forest are more interesting than she first assumed. Every little flower has a history and cultural references , is a superstition or a cure for something. Everything in its own world, and if Enid stays there, in these worlds, she won’t have to break the surface of the large, terrifying world she actually lives in (150).

It’s the same impulse that leads her brother to study his family of redstarts, though the realities of imprisonment are naturally less avoidable than Enid’s realities are for her. I appreciated the details of  the POW camp that Ms. Humphreys provides, the portraits of the men passing time and fighting boredom, cold, and filth by finding their own projects: gardening, bird-watching, escaping. While life in a place governed by the Geneva Conventions—even marginally—is nothing at all like the horrors of the death camps, it is frightening, and the men deal with it in their own ways. James’s redstarts are a way for him to make sense of his new world, because he is there, as another prisoner puts it, “for the duration.”

And making sense of the world, in all its cruelty and its flashes of beauty, is the subject of The Evening Chorus. James, Rose, and Enid, with their different paths and personalities, live and grieve through the lens of the natural world, even when they feel removed from it, and from each other.

This is a beautiful, affecting novel, and I highly recommend it.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.