When the need arose to update this website with material about my new book—and a recent photo of gray-haired me!—I thought it might be a good idea to offer a list of books I’ve read recently that resonate with my own work. But really, I mostly read novels—my reading life is all about long fiction and short nonfiction—so I thought I might as well put all my recent thoughts about books out there, beginning with the reading diary that I started in 2021. I won’t list the books I started but didn’t like. Many of these older mini-reviews are cryptic and idiosyncratic, because I just wrote them for myself and had no intention of publishing them.
Martin Marten, by Brian Doyle
A lovely book in Doyle’s rococo, discursive style about the residents of a tiny town called Zigzag on Mount Hood (called here Wy’east, which was the Native name). Dave is a just-teen boy swirling with questions about girls and duty and living the right life. He’s an avid runner; while out on a run, there is an encounter between him and Martin, a young marten who streaks through the canopy overhead. Doyle does a good job of making a character out of Martin—he doesn’t imbue him with too many human characteristics or what seem like thoughts, but he suggests nevertheless there is greater intelligence in this small mammal than we typically think. Doyle keeps querying the reader—how do we really know what they think or feel? They likely have more sophisticated thoughts and feelings and understandings than we possibly know. The story and human characters are fine, but it is that suggestion of sentience and curiosity among other living things that really wowed me.
Beloved Beasts, by Michelle Nijuis
An elegantly written book about the history of conservation, focusing on major figures like Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson as well as people I hadn’t heard of, like Julian Huxley and Rosalie Edge. So interesting that early conservation efforts for birds only focused on certain birds—especially game birds—but people found it perfectly acceptable to eliminate raptors, owls and “pest” creatures—living things not seen as useful to humans. Good discussion of the stain of colonialism on conservation in Africa, as well as efforts to work with local people as protectors and monitors of the wildlife they live with. Good debunking of the Tragedy of the Commons idea: Elinor Ostrom showed that humans can and do cooperate to save species/their environment, and that perspective drives the work in Africa. Great discussion of the importance of protecting common species instead of just focusing on emergency extinctions, and fascinating (especially for me) discussion of Virginia Tech scientist Emmanuel Frimpong and his studies of the common bluehead chub and the ways that it constructs pebble nests in the rivers that help many other fish species—fish cooperate! Best last line in a book ever: “We are not as gods but as frogs, and we had better get good at it.”
Rodham, by Curtis Sittenfield
A fascinating fictional speculation about where Hilary could have gone if she hadn’t tied herself to Bill. The author totally nails her voice and tone.
The End of Days, by Jenny Erpenbeck
Such a brilliant writer and translator. The book is structured in a series of sections centered around, or affected by, the character Lisa Fahrenwald Hoffman’s death, which occurs at different stages of her life. In infancy in a small provincial town, as a depressed and lovesick teen in Vienna, as a young woman caught up in the purges of Soviet Russia, as a successful middle-aged author in East Germany who trips on the stairs, as an old woman in a nursing home. The poverty of her early years is chilling—everyone is poor and desperate for food, especially in the section where she is a teen and she and members of her family take turns standing in line for food and fuel. But most chilling was the section set in Russia, where she—a young Austrian Communist—flees with her husband after the Nazis take over. She and her husband (whom we never directly meet) wind up falling under suspicion for anti-socialist tendencies; he is sent to prison and she keeps trying to save him, not realizing that a packet accusing her shifts from one bureaucrat’s pile to another. Damned for past connections, damned sometimes by her connection to the bureaucrat who fears she might reveal something that damns him; saved from one pile by one who recalls her lasciviously and from another by someone who’s sure she is not a Trotskyite; finally saved by the fact that she is not home when the police come to get her. She winds up getting a job as a translator, has an affair with a poet and has a son without his knowledge. Beautiful haunting last line: “Many mornings he will get up at this early hour that belongs only to him and go into the kitchen, and there he will weep bitterly as he never has before, and still, as his nose runs and he swallows his own tears, he will ask himself whether these strange sounds and spasms are really all that humankind has been given to mourn with.”
The Speckled Beauty, by Rick Bragg
Don’t know what led me to this book—maybe just because it was a dog book?-- and I thought it would just be something breezy, but it was more than that. Bragg has settled into a life he didn’t expect, living in his elderly mother’s basement and struggling with poor health. This dog turns up, a stray, who fights with the resident dogs and other strays, scatters the chickens, scares the cat, pisses off his mother and his hard-working taciturn farmer brother. But even though the dog is a mess, he is the kind of dog Bragg glimpsed in the past—a long haired beauty—and Bragg falls for him. Many doggy escapades, but not all slapstick as Bragg’s health dips, he struggles with depression, with the boneheadedness of his neighbors during Covid, and his brother’s cancer. Sweet, short, darker than I expected.
Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer
A poet-scientist and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. A lovely book in so many ways. The conviction that we humans can be healers, not just spoilers. The value of naming things in the world around us. (This is a lame review, possibly because it was a dark pandemic period when I was reading it. Still, I wanted to list it and hope everyone reads it.)
Free, by Lea Ypi
Memoir by a young Albanian woman and now a political scientist. Fascinating account of growing up in Albania, within a family that lost privilege during the Socialist regime. She was a true believer, molded by school to believe that her country was the best of all possible worlds and that people in the west were sadly deluded. She overhears perplexing conversations among the adults about people who are “going to college” or “have graduated;” about “professors” that can’t be trusted. She later learns that “college” meant political prison and that “professors” were jailors and torturers. Her parents reveal their true feelings after the country becomes a democracy—and she learns the flaws within that system, too. She is someone I want to follow politically in this confusing world.
Our Country Friends, by Gary Shteyngart
His big novel of the pandemic. Entertaining. More than that, because every other sentence is so brilliant or apt that I had to read it out loud to T. A successful but slightly has-been Russian writer invites his dearest childhood friends to join him and his wife at their country house at the beginning of the pandemic. The pressure cooker of isolation and worries about the world force changes – new links among them, old betrayals revealed. The echo of past Russian masters.
Reindeer Moon by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
How I loved this book when it came out in 1987, and how well it has held up! Yanan is the young woman—she still considers herself a child—when we first come across her but she has to mature quickly—both parents die and she has to deal with much of the world on her own. I had recalled that there is a fusing of two groups of people—one with whiter skin, light hair and light eyes and who speak the common language with an accent, and Yanan’s people. Cultural differences as well—the mammoth hunters seem more prone to brutality than Yanan’s people, who coerce good behavior by means of severe talkings-to by elders. Loved the details of the living Yanan; also loved the details of the dead Yanan, when she becomes a spirit controlled by the shaman Teal. And there is, of course, the fabulous thread of the wolf pup that is semi-domesticated, just as Yanan’s sister becomes a little more wolfy when the pup’s mother feeds her.
The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich
Fabulous book. Two main characters. Thomas, based on Erdrich’s own grandfather, an older man (but not exceptionally old, like his father) who is the night watchman at the new jewel-bearing plant near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota; as did Erdrich’s grandfather, he musters the research and community strength and tenacity to defeat a bill in Congress that would have “emancipated” his tribe—meaning, cut it loose without support after the government had already taken everything from it. Also Pixie Paranteau, who works in the factory and is beautiful and sought by many men; who saves her sister’s baby in Minneapolis and, less directly, saves her sister from sexual slavery there. Loved the interweaving of native and nonnative characters; loved the weight of the native characters’ way of life.
Small Pleasures, by Clare Chambers
Delicious little novel, although the ending was a shock because I didn’t read the beginning carefully enough. Pay attention to dates! Jean is a British newspaper writer in the 1950s who gets to write about recipes and home how-tos—of course she is the one who is handed the story of the woman who claims to have had a virgin birth and says she can prove it. Jean interviews the woman, Gretchen, and becomes intrigued by the idea that her claim might be true and hooks her up to the scientists who will test and probe. But Gretchen waves Jean into her life, and she becomes far from a dispassionate journalist and stranger.
Wild Souls, by Emma Marris
Great book about our obligations to other animals, given that we have so much power and dominate so many landscapes. Is it moral to do things that save the species but hurt individual animals? Other questions like that still trouble me and deepen my thinking about our connection to the “natural world.”
Late Migrations, by Margaret Renkl
Superb writing, much of it about loss. Loss of family, the losses around us in the rest of nature. Such a lucky girl she was—her father told her that if she ever married a bastard, she could always leave him and come home. The title chapter is about butterfly migrations, the perils they face at each end. She plants a pollinator garden, sees monarchs the following year! Sows clover in her garden. Neighbor sees that and wonders why on earth she would plant clover to draw the bees; she herself saw a hive in her tree and used a whole can of Raid to kill it. But such a gorgeous last paragraph about living with grief. “And that’s how I learned the world would go on. An irreplaceable life had winked out in an instant, but outside my window the world was flaring up in celebration. Someone was hearing, “It’s benign.” Someone was saying, “It’s a boy.” Someone was throwing out her arms and crying, “Thank you! Thank you! Oh, thank you!” Makes me teary every time I read it.
Matrix, by Lauren Groff
Mare de France is a large homely woman who is related to Eleanor of Aquitaine—Marie’s mother was raped by her father. She had a thrilling life as a girl in a household ruled by indecorous women—she even fought in the Crusades—but Eleanor (whom she adores) packs her off to a nunnery. After a few years, she’s running the place—turns it from an impoverishment, shabby shell to a thriving establishment of well-fed women. She has visions from the Virgin which direct her in expanding the nunnery—adding a huge hedge maze and house for visiting women; she hopes Eleanor will decide to retire there. Beautiful writing, rollicking.
Mrs. Palfrey Goes to the Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor
I had assumed this would be a frothy, kind of silly comedy, but it was exquisite. Published in 1971 and republished by NYRB recently, Mrs. Palfrey is a widow whose husband served the British empire in Burma; he died, she and her daughter don’t get along, so she settles into a hotel that has a few long-term residents. They are lonely and querulous; the biggest part of their day is when the daily menu is posted. All want visitors and most get none. Then Mrs. Palfrey falls on the sidewalk and Ludo, a young writer, picks her up and makes her tea. He becomes the one joy in her life; she becomes a somewhat awkward obligation, sometimes benefactress, really the one generous/kind person in his life but he has a hard time accepting it. And she us fodder for his novel! I grieved for the characters long after the book was closed.