For much much of the summer I was sunk deep into several very good but not particularly page-turning works of nonfiction from my shelves. I spent months reading some of them, which is very unusual for me and often a sign that I’m not enjoying something, but this time that wasn’t the case. One of these nonfiction reads – the Fermor – ended up being among my favorite books of the year so far. Below I give quick write-ups of what I’ve finished lately and recall how these books came to be in my collection.
Lincoln: A Foreigner’s Quest by Jan Morris: Like grape jelly, the obsession with Abraham Lincoln was something about American life that world traveler Jan Morris could never understand. Here she sets out to discover the melange of history and myth that composes the 16th president. She succeeds in giving not only the salient facts of Lincoln’s life but also a fair assessment of his character, in a lighthearted and accessible book that has neither the heft nor the heavygoing tone of a standard biography. Her discussion of his rhetorical style is especially good, and in a few passages she imagines the reader into scenes. Here’s one of the best pithy observations: “Academic historians cannot allow themselves such flip idiomatic judgments, but to an outsider like me that seems about the truth of it. He was a nice man. He could be scheming, irritable, disingenuous, but he was never pompous or overbearing.” [Remainder copy bought for $3.99 at Wonder Book and Video, Frederick, Maryland.]
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan: I made the mistake of reading this a decade after its publication, which means I already knew most of its facts about industrialized farming and the insidiousness of processed foods. I found Part I to be overly detailed and one-note, constantly harping on about corn. The book gets better as it goes on, though, with Pollan doing field research at Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia to compare large-scale organic agriculture with more sustainable grassroots operations. Pollan’s assessment of the ethics of eating meat is not quite as thorough as Jonathan Safran Foer’s (in Eating Animals), but he does a good job of showing all sides of the issue. This would make an excellent, comprehensive introduction to where food comes from for people who have never given it much thought. But then again, the people who need it most would never pick up a dense 400+-page book by a liberal journalist. [Bought in one of the Hay-on-Wye shops for £2.]
The Naming of the Shrew by John Wright: Wright is known in the UK as TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s go-to expert on foraging, especially fungi. His enthusiasm for the arcane details of Latin naming comes through clearly in this thorough history of taxonomy. At first I thought it would be a groaningly pun-filled book of arbitrarily arranged trivia, but by Chapter 2 Wright won me over. You’ll learn all about Carl Linnaeus and the taxonomists who preceded and followed him; rules for species naming and the meaning of common Latin prefixes and suffixes; the wildly divergent sources of names, from discoverers’ names to mythology; and the endless complications of a field where species are always being lumped, split, or re-evaluated. One of my favorite facts was that aloe vera and the boa constrictor are among the few species whose English names are the same as their Latin ones. [A birthday gift from my brother-in-law last year.]
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor: A true masterwork of travel writing. Over the course of three years, starting when he was just 18, Fermor walked from Holland to Constantinople. I was particularly eager to read this because he passes through a lot of places I went on my travels this past summer, including Germany, Austria and Bratislava. This first of three volumes covers up until his entry into Hungary. His descriptions of the landscape and the people he interacted with are as fresh as if they happened yesterday, and yet he was reconstructing this journey nearly 40 years after the fact. Although he was basically traveling rough, he managed to wangle invitations into castles and aristocrats’ homes. This gives him a broad base of observation such that you feel you’re getting a complete picture of European life in the early 1930s. It’s a precious glimpse of pre-war history, but Fermor doesn’t use too heavy a hand when recalling signs of rising Nazism. Lastly, this is simply damn fine writing:
Beer, caraway seed, beeswax, coffee, pine-logs and melting snow combined with the smoke of thick, short cigars in a benign aroma across which every so often the ghost of sauerkraut would float.
The Romanesque nave was packed and an anthem of great choral splendour rose from the gothic choir stalls, while the cauliflowering incense followed the plainsong across the slopes of the sunbeams.
When no buildings were in sight, I was back in the Dark Ages. But the moment a farmhouse or a village impinged, I was in the world of Peter Brueghel.
[Bought for £1 from a secondhand bookstore in Henley-on-Thames.]
The House by the Sea by May Sarton: This is the sixth of Sarton’s journals I’ve read. It covers 1975–6, when she was 63–4 and in her second year in Maine. Her health is not yet a worry, at least as compared to later journals, but there is a faint sense of diminished abilities and an awareness of death’s approach. Poetry has run dry for her, but in the course of writing this journal she publishes a series of biographical reflections and prepares to begin a new novel. Tamas the dog and Bramble the cat are faithful companions. Her former lover, Judy, suffers from dementia and visits with her are mostly painful reminders of what has been lost. These journals are not the place to turn if you want momentous events. Rather, read them for deep insight into a writer’s psyche, meditations on the benefits of solitude, and affirmation of the quiet joys of gardening and an ocean view. [Bought from a library book sale in America for 50 cents.]