A couple of years ago I ordered a book by Jen Hadfield on the strength of a vividly disgusting couplet I came across somewhere or other: “Under the broiler / turned sausages ejaculate.” (That’s turned as in forgotten and rotting—Hadfield’s idiom is Scottish, as are her eye and ear.) The book was strong, but Byssus (Picador), her new collection, is even stronger.
Jes Baker’s Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls: A Handbook for Unapologetic Living (Seal Press), will be a handy book to have around in early January, when our culture’s annual rites of body shaming make big money for weight-loss companies.
Two months ago my wife and I walked downtown to see Mr. Holmes, with Sir Ian McKellen playing an aging version of the science-conquers-superstition Sherlock Holmes. I found myself crying in the dark as McKellen’s trembling, frail Sherlock struggled in his final years to solve one final mystery: why a woman he almost loved took her own life.
I recommend Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Mothers, Tell Your Daughters (Norton), a selection of short stories about mostly hardscrabble, down-market women in southwestern lower Michigan. Campbell makes fiction look easy.
My Christmas picks take you from the soil to the supper table. The essays in Dirt: A Love Story (ForeEdge Books) celebrate the mystery and meaning of soil. Artists, scientists, farmers, and writers take you from community gardens transforming the Bronx to the oldest soils in the world in Venezuela to the past and possible future of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl.
Novels that rattled and moved me in the last year or so include Anthony Doerr’s terrific World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner). It’s the best novel I’ve read since Gilead. Like Marilynne Robinson, Doerr achieves a shimmering consistency of tone; it’s one of those books that you finish and then shake your head in quiet awe.
I’ve been engrossed in The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (Europa Editions). The series follows the friendship of Elena (the narrator) and Lila (her fiery and fearless friend) from girlhood to old age.