Nonfiction Catch-Up: Long-Term Thinking, Finding a Home in Wales, Eels

Not long now until Nonfiction November. I’m highlighting three nonfiction books I’ve read over the last few months; any of them would be well worth your time if you’re still looking for some new books to add to the pile. I’ve got a practical introduction to the philosophy and politics of long-term/intergenerational planning, a group biography about the two gay couples who inhabited a house in the Welsh hills in turn, and a wide-ranging work on eels.

 

The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World by Roman Krznaric

I saw Krznaric introduce this via a digital Hay Festival session back in May. He is an excellent speaker and did an admirable job of conveying all the major ideas from his recent work within a half-hour presentation. Unfortunately, this meant that reading the book itself didn’t add much for me, although it goes deeper into his propositions and is illustrated with unique, helpful figures.

Without repeating from my write-up of the Festival talk, then, I’ll add in points and quotes that struck me:

  • some of the fundamental ways we organise society, from nation states and representative democracy to consumer culture and capitalism itself, are no longer appropriate for the age we live in.”
  • 100 years as the minimum timeframe to think about (i.e., a long human life) – “taking us beyond the ego boundary of our own mortality so we begin to imagine futures that we can influence yet not participate in ourselves.”
  • “The phones in our pockets have become the new factory clocks, capturing time that was once our own and offering in exchange a continuous electronic now full of infotainment, advertising and fake news. The distraction industry works by cleverly tapping into our ancient mammalian brains: our ears prick up at the ping of an arriving message … Facebook is Pavlov, and we’re the dogs.”
  • The Intergenerational Solidarity Index as a way of assessing governments’ future preparation: long-term democracies tend to perform better, though they aren’t perfect; Iceland scores the highest of all, followed by Sweden.
  • Further discussion of Doughnut Economics (a model developed by Krznaric’s wife, Kate Raworth), which pictures the sweet spot humans need to live in between a social foundation and the ecological ceiling; failures lead to overshoot or shortfall.
  • Four fundamental barriers to change: outdated institutional designs (our basic political systems), the power of vested interests (fossil fuel companies, Amazon, et al.), current insecurity (refugees), and “insufficient sense of crisis” – we’re like frogs in a gradually boiling pot, he says, and need to be jolted out of our complacency.

This is geared more towards economics and politics than much of what I usually read, yet fits in well with other radical visions of the future I’ve engaged with this year (some of them more environmentalist in approach), including Footprints by David Farrier, The Future Earth by Eric Holthaus, and Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell.

With thanks to WH Allen for the free copy for review.

 

On the Red Hill: Where Four Lives Fell into Place by Mike Parker (2019)

I ordered a copy from Blackwell’s after this made it through to the Wainwright Prize shortlist – it went on to be named the runner-up in the UK nature writing category. It’s primarily a memoir/group biography about Parker, his partner Peredur, and George and Reg, the couple who previously inhabited their home of Rhiw Goch in the Welsh Hills and left it to the younger pair in their wills. In structuring the book into four parts, each associated with an element, a season, a direction of the compass and a main character, Parker focuses on the rhythms of the natural year. The subtitle emphasizes the role Rhiw Goch played, providing all four with a sense of belonging in a rural setting not traditionally welcoming to homosexuals.

Were George and Reg the ‘only gays in the village,’ as the Little Britain sketch has it? Impossible to say, but when they had Powys’ first same-sex civil partnership ceremony in February 2006, they’d been together nearly 60 years. By the time Parker and his partner took over the former guesthouse, gay partnerships were more accepted. In delving back into his friends’ past, then, he conjures up another time: George fought in the Second World War, and for the first 18 years he was with Reg their relationship was technically illegal. But they never rubbed it in any faces, preferring to live quietly, traveling on the Continent and hosting guests at their series of Welsh B&Bs; their politics was conservative, and they were admired locally for their cooking and hospitality (Reg) and endurance cycling (George).

There are lots of in-text black-and-white photographs of Reg and George over the years and of Rhiw Goch through the seasons. Using captioned photos, journal entries, letters and other documents, Parker gives a clear impression of his late friends’ characters. There is something pitiable about both: George resisting ageing with nude weightlifting well into his sixties; Reg still essentially ashamed of his sexuality as well as his dyslexia. I felt I got to know the younger protagonists less well, but that may simply be because their stories are ongoing. It’s remarkable how Welsh Parker now seems: though he grew up in the English Midlands, he now speaks decent Welsh and has even stood for election for the Plaid Cymru party.

It’s rare to come across something in the life writing field that feels genuinely sui generis. There were moments when my attention waned (e.g., George’s feuds with the neighbors), but so strong is the overall sense of time, place and personality that this is a book to prize.

 

The Gospel of the Eels: A Father, a Son and the World’s Most Enigmatic Fish by Patrik Svensson

[Translated from the Swedish by Agnes Broomé]

“When it comes to eels, an otherwise knowledgeable humanity has always been forced to rely on faith to some extent.”

We know the basic facts of the European eel’s life cycle: born in the Sargasso Sea, it starts off as a larva and then passes through three stages that are almost like separate identities: glass eel, yellow eel, silver eel. After decades underwater, it makes its way back to the Sargasso to spawn and die. Yet so much about the eel remains a mystery: why the Sargasso? What do the creatures do for all the time in between? Eel reproduction still has not been observed, despite scientists’ best efforts. Among the famous names who have researched eels are Aristotle, Sigmund Freud and Rachel Carson, all of whom Svensson discusses at some length. He even suggests that, for Freud, the eel was a suitable early metaphor for the unconscious – “an initial insight into how deeply some truths are hidden.”

But there is a more personal reason for Svensson’s fascination with eels. As a boy he joined his father in eel fishing on Swedish summer nights. It was their only shared hobby; the only thing they ever talked about. His father was as much a mystery to him as eels are to science. And it was only as his father was dying of a cancer caused by his long road-paving career that Svensson came to understand secrets he’d kept hidden for decades.

Chapters alternate between this family story and the story of the eels. The book explores eels’ place in culture (e.g., Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum) and their critically endangered status due to factors such as a herpes virus, nematode infection, pollution, overfishing and climate change. A prior curiosity about marine life would be helpful to keep you going through this, but the prose is lovely enough to draw in even those with a milder interest in nature writing.

With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.

 

One of my recent borrows from the public library’s children’s section was the picture book Think of an Eel by Karen Wallace. Her unrhymed, alliterative poetry and the paintings by Mike Bostock beautifully illustrate the eel’s life cycle and journey.

You simply must hear folk singer Kitty Macfarlane’s gorgeous song Glass Eel – literally about eels, it’s also concerned with migration, borders and mystery.

  


Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

21 responses

  1. The Good Ancestor seems like useful and possibly optimistic reading for what promises to be a difficult winter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He emphasizes hope rather than optimism (which there often doesn’t seem to be much grounds for). Very important ideas — but how will there ever be the political will, especially in countries like the USA and UK, to put them into practice?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This may be optimism (and I am a Pollyanna) but my hope is that the current bout of populism is a spasm rather than a trend, in the USA, the UK and several other European countries.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I hope you’re right. I still have no idea who will win the U.S. election and it’s only a week and a bit away.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hm, I think I’d go for the half hour presentation with all the major points from The Good Ancestor. The other two sound lovely. I learned more about eels from your review than I had ever known before.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s true, some books are more for gathering information from than for enjoying for their own sake. Eels are truly fascinating!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Monika @ Lovely Bookshelf | Reply

    Gosh that cover of The Gospel of the Eels is so pretty. All of these titles sound fantastic to me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is gorgeous, isn’t it? I’m glad these books catch your eye.

      Like

  4. I thought that On The Red Hill was really well written. I liked the Gospel of the Eels, but it was lacking that extra something for me

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Parker didn’t really strike me as a nature book, more as a biography for the Costa Awards (though I think based on the eligibility period it missed out).

      I’m not sure Svensson’s personal story added as much to the popular science narrative as some other authors have managed.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Wainwright is nature and travel (or place) so that is why it qualified I think.

        Svensson’s book didn’t really add that much to it, I still have a copy of the Old Man and the sand eel to read at some point that I think will be better

        Liked by 1 person

    2. That makes sense — it is very place-based.

      Like

  5. Ode to the misunderstood eel! Love it–that one sounds fascinating to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Much respect for their enduring mystery!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Given this is set in my native land, I should really get around to reading On the Red Hill. I bought it in advance of an author event but then the evening got cancelled and I just forgot about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t think of another book I’ve read that’s quite like it. For me it was more about people than place, but there are some nice passages of nature writing.

      Like

  7. I have On the Red Hill and am really looking forward to reading it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You have a treat in store.

      Like

  8. Ohhh, I’d forgotten to add The Good Ancestor to my library list: thanks for the reminder! Also, that book on eels is very intriguing. It was featured on the NYT podcast a few weeks back (I can’t recall if it was the author or one of their critics speaking about it): what absolutely fascinating creatures. Thanks for suggesting Kitty Macfarlane, too; I’ve got a new playlist (such a lovely guitar line in the eel song).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Is The Good Ancestor available in North America? Great if so!

      The eels book has been getting lots of attention for such a niche subject. I’ve spotted it on a couple of best-of lists so far.

      Kitty Macfarlane is one of our best discoveries of the past year or so. I love how her songs are so carefully constructed lyrically: no filler and a complete story told. The last stanza of this one is killer.

      If you can listen to it somehow, my latest nature-themed folky obsession is The Spell Songs, based on Robert Macfarlane’s The Lost Words project.

      Like

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