Best Books I read in 2020

Best Books I read in 2020

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. In no particular order, these are the ten best books I read in 2020. In general, this year I gravitated toward books that either comforted me or gave me courage. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. Horizon, by Barry Lopez
In this profound and generous book, Lopez looks back over some of the travels that have shaped his understanding and philosophy. We go from Oregon to Antarctica, from Nunavut to Tasmania, from Eastern Equatorial Africa to Xi’an in China. The horizon he explores is physically and metaphorically the line where our known world gives way to air, to the space we still know almost nothing about. That liminal space is where exciting things can happen. The quest for knowledge and understanding—along with compassion—are what I value most in human beings.

2. Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck
The main character of Erpenbeck’s novel is a plot of land by a lake in Brandenburg, and the homes built there, especially a fabulously detailed home built by an architect in the 1930s. The succession of people who live in this house and next door mirror the changes in East Germany during the ensuing decades. Though short, this novel is surprisingly intense. It made me think about what inheritances are passed on and what are lost, about the so-brief time that we inhabit this world that is our home, and how the earth itself, though changed, persists. Our cares and worries, even in this terrible time, will pass.

3. Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk
This unusual and fascinating novel explores the border between poetry and prose, story and fairy tale. The quirky voice of the narrator is firmly established with the first sentence and sustained throughout the book. Living alone in an isolated community in western Poland, Janina is an older woman who manages her vocation of astrology, the translations of William Blake’s poetry that she and a friend are doing, and the griefs that accumulate over the years. The story sometimes feels like a fable, sometimes a prose poem, sometimes a wrenching view of age and isolation, sometimes a paean to friendship.

4. A Woman of No Importance, by Sonia Purnell
Subtitled The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, this is a fascinating read. If you thought, as I initially did, that the subtitle is a bit hyperbolic, rest assured that it is not. Born in 1906 to a wealthy and prestigious family, Virginia Hall grew up in Baltimore but preferred adventure to marriage. During WWII, she became one of the first British spies—and the first female—in France where she organised Resistance units and provided critical intelligence to the Allies.

5. Abigail, by Magda Szabó
Originally published in 1970, it is the story of 15-year-old Gina who in 1943 is exiled from Budapest by her beloved father, sent to boarding school near Hungary’s eastern border. Headstrong, a little spoiled, Gina rebels, finding creative ways to break the rules at the strict academy. While having many characteristics of a traditional coming-of-age story, and echoes of books like Jane Eyre, Gina’s story is unusually perceptive and complex.

6. Blackberries, Blackberries, by Crystal Wilkinson
These stories feature Black women in rural Kentucky, young and old, each with her individual take on the world, her own idea of herself. In every story, Wilkinson demonstrates the writer’s mantra that the personal is universal. These may be Black women in Appalachia, but I saw myself in each of them. Reading their stories has been a gift, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

7. Gellhorn, by Caroline Moorehead
Moorehead’s biography brings the brilliant war correspondent to life, enhanced by the hundreds of letters Gellhorn wrote during her life, openly detailing personal and professional undertakings as well as her own thoughts and feelings. The biography is subtitled A Twentieth-Century Life. Indeed, although she was always out ahead of others, few things could be more emblematic of that turbulent century than the life of this remarkable woman who challenged customary women’s roles, stuck to her own moral code, and worked relentlessly at her chosen métier.

8. The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This first novel from Coates is the story of Hiram Walker, a young slave in Virginia whose been assigned to be the personal servant for his half-brother: the white, legitimate son of the plantation owner. The writing, as you would expect from Coates, is gorgeous. I loved the first part of the book, but after that, the story seemed to bog down. Still, this coming-of-age story of a man’s journey to freedom is one of the best books I’ve read recently. I loved the unusual and nuanced way the story embodies the themes of family and memory.

9. Grace Notes, by Brian Doyle
These days I’m turning to books not so much for escape as for courage and comfort, and welcome anything that might help replenish my stores of both. For me, that often means returning to one of my favorite authors. In addition to writing unforgettable stories and essays, Brian Doyle, who died much too young in 2017, was a teacher, magazine editor, husband, father. In this collection of short essays, while not shying away from the darkness, Doyle reminds us of what is good in the world.

10. Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout
A book by Strout is a balm just now, when we are so traumatised by grief and fear and anger. Yes, she takes us into the terrible crimes human beings, even those in quiet Midwestern towns, visit upon one another, yet she also shows us the complicated people that we are. Without dwelling on the ugliness, Strout evokes in us the emotions of these characters, their trials, their loneliness, and sometimes their quiet redemption.

What were the best books you read last year?

The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Lawson

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I hadn’t planned on reading more about WWII, having grown up in the shadow it cast, but I found A Woman of No Importance with its story of boundless courage and energy so inspiring that I couldn’t resist this book. Also, I knew I was in good hands with Larson, having enjoyed his previous books.

True to its subtitle A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, the story covers Churchill’s first year as prime minister. To say it was a tumultuous year is an understatement. When Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, then-Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appointed Churchill First Lord of the Admiralty. Then when Chamberlain resigned on 10 May 1940, Churchill became Prime Minister. That same day, Hitler invaded Belgium, Luxembourg, and The Netherlands. The Dunkirk evacuation was only a few weeks later.

While I was already pretty familiar with events and people, Larson’s dramatic scenes and fast-moving action kept me engrossed. I was surprised by how gripping the story was, given that I already knew what was going to happen.

One factor, besides Larson’s skill as a writer, is all the new information from recently declassified files and intelligence reports—the amount of research Larson must have done is astounding. We get insight, not just into the workings and discussions of Churchill and his cabinet, but also into Hitler’s inner circle. The motivations and misunderstandings on both sides helped me understand some key decisions. We learn about the negotiations between Roosevelt and Churchill, who understood that Britain would fall without aid from the U.S.

Memorable anecdotes abound, such as Churchill’s aside after his famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech. After he finished, Churchill said to someone near him, “‘And . . . we will fight them with the butt end of broken bottles, because that’s bloody well all we’ve got.’”

Also, Larson focuses on individuals, making extensive use of personal diaries and letters. We see Winston in private moments dancing at parties, wearing outlandish costumes. We hear his wife Clementine caution him to be less contemptuous and kinder to those around him. We follow their youngest daughter Mary and son Randolph’s wife Pamela as they navigate family and social life through this turbulent year. Churchill’s private secretary John Colville gives us unusual insight into the PM both in public and in private. We learn about the key roles played by newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook and Federick Lindemann, a physicist and Churchill’s science advisor.

While I was fascinated by these private moments, my main feeling while reading this book was admiration for the courage of this flawed man who held his country together, even as Hitler expected them to surrender every day—surely they can’t hold out any longer! And for the British people themselves, who patiently put out the fires and swept up the rubble, patrolled fields and put up with appalling conditions in some of the shelters.

I was inspired by this tremendous example of leadership, and saddened too, considering where both the U.S. and Britain are these days. Larson’s book is more than an enjoyable read, more than a fascinating look into history’s public and private lives; it’s a brilliant primer on how to be a leader.

What book have you read about an inspiring leader?

The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish

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Kadish’s fourth novel is a stunning story that braids the tale of a modern-day historian with that of a seventeenth-century woman who was brought to London by a rabbi when her parents died in Amsterdam after fleeing the Inquisition in Spain. It’s a brilliant fusion of genres: historical fiction, women’s fiction, thriller, mystery and romance.

Helen, a specialist in Hebrew history on the verge of mandatory retirement and in poor health, is contacted by a former student about a cache of documents found in the London house he and his wife are renovating. She enlists the aid of Aaron, a brash American graduate student who’s hit a roadblock with his PhD thesis.

This unlikely duo are startled to find that the books and papers do indeed date from the 1650s and 1660s, the library and letters of Rabbi HaCoen Mendes. But it is the identity of his scribe, signed merely as “Aleph” that captivates them. Helen finds evidence that Aleph may be a woman and the literary hunt is on as, vexed by conservators and rival historians, not to mention their own thorny relationship, the two try to learn more about Aleph.

These chapters are interspersed with the story of Ester Velasquez as she discovers the terrible beauty of learning. When the blind rabbi asks her to read to him and write letters for him, she becomes hungry for more, reading widely in philosophy and beginning herself to write her thoughts—things that were not allowed for women at that time.

This extraordinarily well-researched book brings to life the world of London just before and during the plague years and great fire. One detail stood out for me: that several kinds of ink were used, one of which—iron gall ink—disintegrates the paper so that hundred of years later the letters show up as empty space on a page.

This image fuels the title: the weight that ink—reading and writing—places on Ester’s life, making her question her religion and the constructs of society, making her unwilling to marry since that would mean giving up the world of the mind for the daily round of chores.

It also speaks to the silence of women in that time. As Virginia Woolf famously wrote in her essay “Shakespeare’s Sister”, where she imagines a sister with his genius, “any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at.”

There’s a story here for everyone. You’ve got a literary puzzle like A.S. Byatt’s Possession, a thriller as time runs out for Ester and for Helen and Aaron. There’s the social history of Jewish London at the time, fractured between upper-class Portuguese and working class Tudesco (German, meaning Ashkenazi) Jews. You’ve got insights into the different burdens placed on men and on women, both now and in the past. There’s fascinating information about conserving documents and philosophy and bountiful insight into the human heart.

For me, much as I enjoyed Ester’s chapters and the evocation of seventeenth-century London, curious as I was as to how she could possibly reconcile her warring nature with itself and society, it was Helen’s chapters that most captured my attention. We do not often enough read about a woman’s relationship with her work (or a man’s for that matter, outside of writing). Helen’s own history, her concern for not just the things but the lessons of the past, her education of this her last student: these combine to show what a woman’s life-work can be.

This is a long book, but it’s worth taking the time to sink into it. And as you get further in, you’ll find the story accelerating such that you will hardly bear to set it aside even for a moment.

Have you read a novel that effectively fuses literary genres?

The Souls of Black Folks, by W.E.B. Du Bois

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When my book club chose this book , I thought Really? Yes, I want to read more diverse books; yes I want to read classics. But would this 1903 book really have anything to teach me?

Yes.

First off, the writing is amazing. Although I’ve known of Du Bois forever, I’d never before read any of his books. His prose is both expressive and straight-forward. These chapters are lessons in how to write about outrageous conditions with your outrage controlled and contained to add power to your sentences without turning the reader away. He marshals facts and numbers to back up his statements, yet doesn’t hesitate to move into lyric prose to bring home to us the reality of what he’s describing.

Second, yes, as a Caucasian who has tried to pay attention, I still have much to learn. I thought the whole book would be about conditions in the past. If only that were true.

Each chapter begins with the score of a spiritual, which I found myself humming as I read, adding another layer to the text. The chapters lay out a program of what is needed to bring the American Negro, particularly those in the South, into full citizenship: the right to vote, a good education—not just vocational training—and to be treated fairly.

He describes conditions just after Emancipation, particularly the Freedman’s Bureau. Much of this was new to me: the way Negro colleges grew and the idea that we had to start with the colleges and work down to the grade schools. Yet the political shenanigans described in later chapters, intended to return Blacks to virtual slavery, made my heart ache.

He talks about the role of the Black church and how music—what he calls the Sorrow Songs—grew out of slaves’ longing for freedom, traveled through the influence of the church and out to influence and be influenced by the White American culture. Having just watched Ken Burns’s remarkable exploration of country music, I was primed to recognise this primary source of America’s folk music.

The chapter that moved me most was the chapter on Alexander Crummell, an Episcopal priest who, according to Du Bois, was subject to three temptations: Hate, Despair, and Doubt. In Crummell’s story we see in a single tragic life the effects of what Du Bois names the Veil: an invisible barrier that separates Black and White Americans. White people do not comprehend what life is like within the Veil, the “double-consciousness”: “a sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

I learned a lot from this book. And even those things I already knew I came to understand more deeply.

Have you read this book, or anything by Du Bois? What did you think of it?

Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser

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A friend recommended this book so vehemently that she actually sent me a copy. As I mentioned before, I’d never read the Little House books, so I’ve been catching up on them as I read this biography. Wilder always maintained that her stories were true, but questions arose even as the books were taking the world of children’s literature by storm. Now Fraser’s meticulously sourced account shows what is fact and what is fiction in those books.

That is not a criticism of Wilder. She was writing for children and wanted to spare them the most devastating details. She was also writing to memorialise her parents, her father in particular, so of course she managed the details to show them in a good light.

For example, one thing that was obvious to me reading the books as an adult, even without Fraser’s clarification, was that Wilder’s father was not above stealing, as when he knowingly tried to homestead on land that belonged to the Osage. He was also terribly reckless, constantly dragging the family away from security to chase a dream of a self-sufficient farm far from other people.

Fraser makes clear the near impossibility of achieving that dream, given the lack of federal programs at the time, the uncertain and often disastrous natural conditions—drought, storms, locusts—and the unsuitable land set aside for homesteaders. There is much here for us to consider looking at today’s situation: ongoing ecological damage that has put us on the edge of another Dust Bowl, the difficulty of making a small farm work even with boutique vegetables and the growth of farmers’ markets, and the near takeover of agriculture by enormous farms run by corporate agribusinesses with large federal handouts.

Yet, as the book’s subtitle, The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, asserts, that image of the self-sufficient pioneer pulling himself up by his bootstraps is a big part of the U.S.’s mythology. Much of the credit for that goes to Wilder’s books, as Fraser’s account shows.

As an adult, however, I could glean even from Wilder’s idealised stories that the family often depended on the help of others. The truth is even more substantial, not only during Wilder’s childhood, but even as an adult when she somehow didn’t see the hypocrisy of decrying government assistance while receiving federal money herself. Just as many of the people today who hate the government are the ones themselves receiving the most assistance.

Before reading Fraser’s book, I was unaware of the influence of Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, on the books and on her mother. It was Lane, already a journalist, although one who larded her stories with fictional elements, who pushed her mother to write the books. It was Lane who first edited them, with the two wrangling over changes. Lane also wrote her own books, appropriating some of her mother’s stories and penning a thinly-veiled Mommy Dearest novel.

Fraser treats Lane fairly, acknowledging her strengths while not hesitating to point out her weaknesses. She presents her as emotionally unstable, with several nervous breakdowns, and increasingly prone to paranoid conspiracy theories. Lane was part of the triumvirate of Founding Mothers of the Libertarian movement, along with Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson. She also pushed her mother to join her in her angry rants against the government, adding political screeds to some of her mother’s later books.

Of course, we are still struggling with the effects of Lane’s work. Many of today’s politicians criminalise the poor, condemning them for needing assistance. Many demand that the federal government be downsized, if not disbanded, while living high on the hog on federal money themselves, ignoring the hypocrisy. An egregious example is Maryland Republican Andy Harris who campaigned on doing away with the Affordable Health Care Act, which would take away heath care from up to 10 million citizens, complaining when elected that his taxpayer-funded health care wouldn’t take effect for a month.

It is no wonder that during the Great Depression and WWII people flocked to Wilder’s simple tales of a loving family, enduring hard times together, as embodied by a line from a hymn that recurs in the books: “We are all here.”

The Little House books are lovely fairy tales for children, but not something to base a nation on. However, even if we question the myth of a self-sufficient, rugged individual, many of us today embrace other values extolled in Wilder’s books: the importance of family, being happy with simple things, pulling together and being brave when things go wrong.

Even if you’ve never read the children’s books, this biography is essential to understand how we in the U.S. have gotten to where we are today.

What book have you read that illuminated an historical era and its effects on us today?

True North, by Jill Ker Conway

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This sequel to The Road from Coorain begins in September of 1960, as Conway travels from Australia to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she will be a graduate student. She says:

The future of a woman alone in the world and the 1950s was a blank page, because no one I knew had lived that way, and the rules of the culture were clear that they shouldn’t. So I experienced my leave-taking as a farewell to the known, a jump off the edge of the world into an unknowable future.

From the weather to the customs—such as dinner being served at 5:30 pm, the time for nursery tea back home—she has to find her bearings in this new world. I love her descriptions of Cambridge, such as:

It was old, by any standard, and sparer, in a fashion I could not quite comprehend, than any urban landscape I’d yet seen.

and

I’d never thought there could be beauty in a pallet of gray and white, but suddenly I could see in the low slanting light, the bare branches, and the gleaming snow of an early winter afternoon images I’d seen before in a Rembrandt drawing but never properly understood.

She is buoyed up by the “easy good manners and cordiality” of the people she meets. She quickly finds herself in a group of like-minded women, most of them a year ahead of her. Best of all are the courses she plunges into for this next phase of her scholarly career. She adeptly describes the excitement of the ideas in her seminars and the individuals teaching them.

As a teaching fellow in her second year, she finds herself working for John Conway, a war veteran from Canada. Although she comes to their first meeting “prepared to be very businesslike,” they quickly veer into discussing their “shared experience of a first encounter with the United States.”

Reader, she marries him. Then he gets an irresistible offer to be on the faculty and a master at one of the colleges at York University in Toronto. They agree to take turns: ten years for his career, ten for hers, and they move to Canada. It is a good move for her as well. She becomes involved in college administration and, at the end of this book, is invited to become president of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

I loved her descriptions of Toronto as well, where she has to adjust to a longer winter. Her insights into the Canadian view of the U.S. also intrigued me.

Unfortunately, she encounters some of the same prejudices she’d left behind in Australia. In fact, this last aspect became one of my greatest rewards in rereading this book. As she details her strategy for getting equal pay for herself; then all women faculty at the university, and then the other women working there—secretaries, lab technicians, cleaning women, career counselors—I remembered all those hard-fought battles, the ones we seem to be having to fight all over again.

She also talks about her work as a historian, writing about women’s roles, how they changed, and how the women themselves perceived their roles. Fascinating.

I’m eager to move on to A Woman’s Education, Conway’s third memoir, this one about her time at Smith College and one I’ve not read before. These books not only bring to life specific times and places, they chronicle the inspiring life of one woman on the cusp of major changes in our culture. Even better, they encourage the reader to consider and reconsider ideas and, perhaps, memories that speak to the issues we are struggling with today.

Have you read a memoir or biography that seems extraordinarily relevant today?

The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake

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We don’t often reflect on just how amazing it is that we can put a letter in the post and know that it will arrive at its destination in a timely way. Iris James is the sole employee of the post office in Franklin, Massachusetts, a small town on the tip of Cape Cod. It is the fall of 1940, and the U.S. is holding off from entering the war. Meanwhile, Iris and her neighbors listen to the news coming out of London where the Blitz is flattening buildings and posters urging Londoners to Keep Calm and Carry On abound.

Many of the newscasts come from Edward R. Murrow but some people in Franklin are being drawn in by the voice of Murrow’s protégé Frankie Bard. She talks about the little moments that bring to life the horrors happening in London for the inhabitants of Franklin.

One of those inhabitants is Emma, new wife of the town’s doctor, Will Fitch. Orphaned during the flu epidemic of 1918, Emma has grown up feeling invisible, untethered as she is by human bonds. Meeting Will has changed all that, but Will has his own demons.

Franklin seems far away from the war and the U.S., like Franklin’s mob of summer tourists, is too busy being entertained to pay much attention to what is happening in Europe. “How easily the face of the world turns away,” Frankie thinks at one point. Yet the war’s reach is long.

Blake’s evocation of wartime London is brilliant; equally vivid is her portrait of quiet Franklin, where Iris takes comfort in the routine and order and consistency she can bring to her work in the tiny post office, holding the secrets of the town in her hands, as one neighbor tells her. I found Iris fascinating, yet for once didn’t mind moving between protagonists as the story shifted between the three women, because Emma and Frankie are equally fascinating.

I didn’t expect to like this book, despite (or perhaps because of) the effusive praise on the cover. One Thanksgiving when I was eight or nine, my cousin Bobby piled a lot of sauerkraut on my plate, and my mother made me eat it all. I’ve never been able to eat sauerkraut since.

That’s how I feel about novels set in WWII. I find it hard to read yet another one. My perception of the outsized number of WWII novels may be a function of my age. As the central event in the lives of my parents’ generation (along with the Depression), it was obviously a subject that stirred many writers and readers during the decades when I was growing up. And then there’s the aftermath of the war that I experienced. After my mother’s sentimental stories of the boys she danced with before they shipped out, no tragic wartime romance could seem anything but old hat. After the Eichmann trial, no Holocaust novel could shock me.

Yet Blake has found what for me is a previously unexplored corner of that war—twelve months while London is being bombed and the U.S. is trying to stay neutral—and used it to pose important questions.

How do we cope with our world being destroyed? You don’t know where the next bomb is going to fall; if you put a loved one on a train or ship to safety it may itself be destroyed. Is it better to keep them near? What do you do when you lose your home? Your neighbor? Your mother?

More importantly, how do we live our ordinary lives knowing other people are suffering these horrors? Frankie’s colleague Harriet has been collecting the brief reports and hints coming out of Germany describing what is being done to the Jews, but no one wants to hear about it. Iris’s friend Harry keeps a lonely vigil every night, convinced that a German submarine may be headed for Cape Cod, but others in town make fun of him. As Frankie asks Murrow:

“What are we doing back home, Ed? What are people doing, for Christ’s sake?”

“Living their lives.”

“How can they be?”

Yet we do, even now.

Questions like these lurk in the background of this engrossing novel, while we follow the trajectories set in motion by the characters’ decisions and twisted by outside events, including an undelivered letter. Blake’s unsentimental yet compassionate tone makes us care about these characters even as she avoids the all-too-common pitfall of romaticising the war. I fell into the world of this novel and stayed there right to its satisfying conclusion.

Have you read a novel that you found both absorbing and thought-provoking?

All for Nothing, by Walter Kempowski

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To this last novel, published a year before his death in 2007, Kempowski brings all the experiences of his long life. Born in 1929 in Hamburg, he was caught up in WWII, at 15 witnessing the East Prussian refugees in Rostock, the coastal town where he grew up. Soon after, he learned that his father had been killed.

He escaped to the west at the end of the war, but on a 1948 visit back to Rostock, now occupied by the Russians, he and his mother and brother were arrested for espionage and sent to a Soviet prison. Released, he was deported to West Germany and became one of that country’s most famous authors.

Drawing on these experiences, Kempowski crafts a story of an East Prussian family continuing to live their normal, even banal, lives while the first Baltic refugees fleeing the approaching Russians begin to pass their estate. Eberhard van Globig is serving in Italy, leaving his beautiful, if vague, wife Katharina to drift around their manor house or visit her pregnant friend in the nearby town while his elderly aunt actually runs the household and his twelve-year-old son Peter is tutored by a schoolmaster too old to fight who comes out from the town every day.

They welcome refugees that come to the door, sharing their food with them and enjoying the songs or stories the travelers bring. It breaks up the monotony of their lives. However, we learn later that each refugee has filched something from the van Globigs before leaving. Then the self-important head trustee of the local Labor Front, who lives in the new settlement across the road and considers himself their pseudo-mayor, decides to start billeting more refugees in the manor.

Underneath the details of the days, calm, somewhat repetitive, sprinkled with quotes from poems and folksongs, there are questions being asked over and over. Should we leave now? How close are the Russians? Will our forces turn them back? If we leave, where should we go? Should we turn back or go forward?

The family exists in a pre-war bubble of serenity, Peter playing with his train set, adding to his treehouse, looking at things with his new microscope, even as the train of Baltic refugees swells and the sound of guns grows louder. The scenes grow more and more surreal.

What makes this story so remarkable is its unsentimental, objective tone. The author never even hints at what we should think about these people and their actions, letting us draw our own conclusions. The characters are given to us whole, with all their kindnesses and cruelty. Each is formed by the live they’ve lived; none are totally good or totally bad.

But always we have the title. Each of the characters—refugees, family, other locals—is obsessed with what to take when they go and mourns what they have left behind. Auntie insists on thoroughly cleaning the manor before they embark.

What do we leave behind? What use is all our learning, the poems we’ve memorised, the love we’ve given or deaths we’ve mourned? What sense can we make of life when fate so randomly bestows both favors and misfortunes? In wartime, we are constantly reminded of the capriciousness of fate. One family on a road packed with refugees is killed by a bomb while others are not. One son is killed in battle and another is not.

This quiet but intense book makes us consider all these ‘last questions’. It carries the weight of our not-so-long-ago history, which is always happening all over again. What could be more timely than a novel about refugees? It also has much to tell us about human nature. And then there’s the title.

What novel have you read that seems to carry an entire life’s worth of experience?

Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier

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Mary Anning lived for her whole short life in Lyme Regis on the south coast of England. Born into a working-class family—her father was a cabinet-maker—Mary started while still a small child helping with the family’s sideline of gathering fossils from the cliffs that stretched along the shore. These were sold to tourists for much-needed income.

As a child, Mary’s claim to local fame was that she had been struck by lightning while only a little over a year old and survived, unlike the woman holding her or the two other children nearby. Chevalier imaginatively uses this incident as a source of much that is different about Mary, such as her remarkable eye for spotting fossils.

Chevalier’s novel is historical fiction, but Anning was a real person who lived during the first half of the 19th century. So was Elizabeth Philpot, a lady of limited means who moved with her sisters to Lyme Regis. While looking for the pretty stones she did not yet realise were fossils, Elizabeth became friends with young Mary even though she was 20 years older.

The story is really about their friendship, a peculiar one not only because of the difference in their ages and circumstances, but because of their shared rejection of the customs of the day. Climbing around on the cliffs digging out fossils and reading scientific treatises about them were not approved activities for women of any class. Mary taught Elizabeth how to recognize fossils in the shale and limestone of the cliffs, while Elizabeth taught her how to read and write and also shared with her the scientific papers that she found.

Gathering fossils was dangerous work because the cliffs were unstable. As the ground crumbled during storms, new fossils were exposed, but the two women were always in danger of being buried by a landslide. It was also dangerous because at the time the very existence of fossils was disputed because they repudiated the prevalent literal understanding of the Bible by suggesting not only that the earth might not have been created in a handful of days, but also that God may have allowed some of his creatures to die out. At that time it was believed that God watched over his creatures and could not have made a mistake or allowed any of them to become extinct.

Completely self-taught, Anning became a significant figure in the history of science. We follow her footsteps as she discovers an ichthyosaur skeleton—she was the first to suggest that it was not a crocodile, but something that must have lived long ago—as well as two complete plesiosaur skeletons and a pterosaur skeleton. She and Elizabeth also find important fish fossils. Elizabeth’s significant contributions later led her nephew to build a museum originally named after who her that later became the Lyme Regis Museum. Part of her collection is in the Oxford Museum of Natural History.

Amateur fossil hunters and prominent geologists of the day not only consulted Anning, and but also asked her to lead them on fossil hunting expeditions on the cliffs. Some of the men whom she helped took credit for her, finds but towards the end of her life this misrepresentation was corrected and her accomplishments began to be recognized.

While I’m delighted to have these two foremothers’ stories brought out of obscurity and introduced to a popular audience, I do have some qualms about historical fiction in general. Because so little is known about the details of their lives, there is ample room for a novelist’s imagination.

However, when we are talking about two women who actually lived, I have reservations about taking the liberty of adding to their stories. We can guess at their likely motivations, but the author herself admits that she made up some events that I believe the women would not thank her for. Of course, after we’re dead and have no one to speak for us, we have no control over our own stories. At least Anning has not been featured in a commercial dancing with a vacuum cleaner like Fred Astaire.

Still, Chevalier has done a great deal of research and written an engaging book. She has also done a great service in bringing out the inspiring story of these two women.

Have you recently learned about an area of women’s history that was new to you, perhaps through a book or a film?

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

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This surprising bestseller is set in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown where Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie has been temporarily interred. A favorite in the household, 11-year-old Willie contracted typhoid fever and died the very night of a huge ball at the White House.

Saunders was intrigued and moved by accounts that Lincoln in his grief had actually visited the crypt in order to hold the boy’s body.

Bardo refers to an intermediate state between death and reincarnation. All the characters, besides Lincoln and the cemetery’s keeper, are those souls who have not moved on but remain in the cemetery. They do not understand that they are dead; they believe they are “sick”, that their coffins are “sick–boxes”, and that they will at some point return to their interrupted lives. They are shocked and saddened when joined by Willie, not only because he is a remarkable child, but because children usually move on right away.

I didn’t want to read this book. I had read a few reviews of it, so I knew a bit about it and didn’t think that it was a book that I would enjoy. Then my book club chose it.

There were two reasons why I didn’t think I would enjoy it. For one, I don’t like to read stories about the death of children.

Also, I understood that it was experimental fiction. Its format consists of brief quotes followed by the name of the speaker, almost like an inverted screenplay.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy experimental fiction, but I rarely find it as enjoyable as more traditional narratives. Of course, there are exceptions. I was delighted by A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. I knew that Saunders’s book is narrated by the dead, like Spoon River Anthology. I have always enjoyed these poems by Edgar Lee Masters; in fact, one of my favorite quotes comes from his Lucinda Matlock. She says, “It takes life to love life.”

Here, I feared that the cacophony of voices would be overwhelming. In fact, though, they flow together very well. The three main narrating souls have distinct voices in the beginning of the book, but soon their voices become quite similar. I assume this was a deliberate choice by the author to make the story read better and not feel jerky.

Other chapters are a collection of excerpts from historical sources, some real and some imaginary, which give us the facts about the ball at the White House, Willie’s death, and the war. Amusingly, many of these accounts conflict with each other. They also reveal a contemporaneous understanding of what was going on in Lincoln’s mind. The year is 1862. The Civil War has been going on for one year, and the casualties are mounting.

While there are a couple of intensely moving moments in this book, I found reading it more of a cerebral exercise. I appreciate the form that Saunders found in which to tell his story and how well he executed it. I also appreciate the subtle and surprisingly powerful ending.

Still, I was surprised that it became such a big bestseller. True, Saunders was already a popular author. And there is a good bit of humor as well as those few profound scenes. It is also surprisingly easy to read, though I wonder how confused I’d have been at the start had I not read those reviews first. If I expected a bit more substance in the novel, then that is my failing rather than the author’s.

Have you read any experimental fiction that you thought was especially successful?