Review Book Catch-Up: Dennis, Galloway, Leland-St. John and Sampson

Capsule reviews today, of four books I am inexcusably late in reviewing. I have a record of personal experience with species reintroductions, a memoir about living among reindeer herders in the far north of Norway, a set of elegiac poems, and a biography of a Victorian woman poet who struggled with poor health for most of her life.

 

Restoring the Wild: Sixty Years of Rewilding Our Skies, Woods and Waterways by Roy Dennis

Rewilding is a big buzz word in current nature and environmental writing. Few could be said to have played as major a role in the UK’s successful species reintroduction projects as Roy Dennis, who has been involved with the RSPB and other key organizations since the late 1950s. He trained as a warden at two of the country’s most famous bird observatories, Lundy Island and Fair Isle. Most of his later work was to focus on birds: white-tailed eagles, red kites, and ospreys. Some of these projects extended into continental Europe. He also writes about the special challenges posed by mammal reintroductions; beavers get a chapter of their own. Every initiative is described in exhaustive detail, full of names and dates, whereas I would have been okay with an overview. This feels like more of an insider’s history rather than a layman’s introduction. I have popped it on my husband’s bedside table in hopes that, with his degree in wildlife conservation, he’ll be more interested in the nitty-gritty.

Favourite lines:

“Tenacity and a long view to the future are important in wildlife conservation.”

“for every successful project that gets the go-ahead, there are others into which people put great effort but which then run up against problems.”

With thanks to William Collins for the free copy for review.

 

Dálvi: Six Years in the Arctic Tundra by Laura Galloway

The title is the word for winter in the Northern Sámi language. Galloway, a journalist, traded in New York City for Arctic Norway after a) a DNA test told her that she had Sámi blood and b) she met and fell for Áilu, a reindeer herder, at a wedding. She enrolled in an intensive language learning course at university level and got used to some major cultural changes: animals were co-workers here rather than pets (like the two cats she brought with her); communal meals and drawn-out goodbyes were not the done thing; and shamans were still active (one helped them find a key she lost). Footwear neatly sums up the difference. The Prada heels she brought “just in case” ended up serving as hammers; instead, she helped Áilu’s mother make reindeer skins into boots. Two factors undermined my enjoyment: Alternating chapters about her unhappy upbringing in Indiana don’t add much of interest, and, after her relationship with Áilu ends, the book feels aimless. However, I appreciated her words about DNA not defining you, and family being what you make it.

With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.

 

A Raga for George Harrison by Sharmagne Leland St.-John (2020)

Native American poet Sharmagne Leland St.-John’s fifth collection is a nostalgic and bittersweet look at people and places from one’s past. There are multiple elegies for public figures – everyone from Janis Joplin to Virginia Woolf – as well as for some who aren’t household names but have important stories that should be commemorated, like Hector Pieterson, a 12-year-old boy killed during the Soweto Uprising for protesting enforced teaching of Afrikaans in South Africa in 1976. Many of the elegies are presented as songs. Personal sources of sadness, such as a stillbirth, disagreements with a daughter, and ageing, weigh as heavily as tragic world events.

Rhyming and alliteration create inviting rhythms throughout the book, and details of colour and fashion animate poems like “La Kalima.” Leland St.-John remembers meeting street children in Mexico, while bamboo calls to mind time spent in Japan. “Promised Land” is an ironic account of land being seized from natives and people of colour. I especially liked “Things I Would Have Given to My Mother Had She Asked” (some literal and some more abstract), which opens “A piece of my liberal mind. 5 more minutes of my time”, and the sombre “Cat’s Cradle” (“Drenched starlings perch on a cat’s cradle of telephone wires”).

You can read “I Said Coffee” and a few more of her poems online.

With thanks to the author for sending a free e-copy for review.

 

Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Fiona Sampson

Coming in at under 260 pages, this isn’t your standard comprehensive biography. Sampson instead describes it as a “portrait,” one that takes up the structure of EBB’s nine-book epic poem, Aurora Leigh, and is concerned with themes of identity and the framing of stories. Elizabeth, as she is cosily called throughout the book, wrote poems that lend themselves to autobiographical interpretation – “her body of work creates a kind of looking glass in which, dimly, we make out the person who wrote it,” Sampson asserts.

Nicknamed “Ba,” Elizabeth was born in 1806 and brought up with 11 younger siblings at a Herefordshire estate, Hope End. Her father, Edward, had been born in Jamaica and the family fortune was based on sugar – and slavery. Sampson makes much of this inherited guilt, and also places an emphasis on EBB’s lifelong ill health, which involved headaches, back and side pain, and depression. She also suffered from respiratory complaints. The modern medically minded reader tries to come up with a concrete diagnosis. Tardive dystonia? Post-viral syndrome? The author offers many potential explanations, and notes that her subject was the very type of the Victorian female invalid. She would also suffer from miscarriages, but had one son, Pen. The Brownings were in the unusual position of the wife being the more famous partner.

Sampson draws heavily on correspondence and earnestly interrogates scenes and remembrances, but her use of the present tense is a bit odd for a historical narrative, and I found my casual curiosity about the Brownings wasn’t enough to sustain my interest. However, this did make me eager to try more of EBB’s poetry. I wonder if I still have that copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese in a box in the States?

Favourite lines:

“Within the continual process of reputation-making and remaking that is literary history, Elizabeth Barrett Browning remains a bellwether for the rising and sinking stock of women writers. … Elizabeth dramatizes the two-way creation of every writing self, from without and from within. That the life of the body both enables and limits the life of the mind is the paradox of the thinking self.”

With thanks to Profile Books for the free copy for review.

 

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

10 responses

  1. There are now so manty nature books out there that anything newly written has perhaps to have something special, so I’m not sure any of these will become TBRs. In fact I don’t think you’ve really hooked me in with any of these. Thanks. This is quite a relief.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I fully understand that. Life is too short to bother with less than great books.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I was tempted by the Galloway when I read your introduction. I remember watching a documentary on reindeer migration as part of the BBC’s slow Christmas programme a few years back. No voiceover, just the reindeer and their herdsmen travelling across the landscape. We loved it! The book doesn’t sounds as if it would match that, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We enjoyed meeting reindeer up in the Cairngorms on a long-ago holiday. I more enjoyed the taste of Sámi customs in The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I would have been drawn to Dalvi and appreciate your thoughts on it as it doesn’t sound my kind of thing in the end. A shame about the wilding book being so technical, I hope your husband enjoys it more!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. With all the details and photographs, it felt like a rewilding book for experts and insiders. But there may be laypeople out there who enjoy it!

      Dálvi didn’t live up to my expectations — yet another case where I should have tried an excerpt before asking for a review copy.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. These all sound interesting to me, although I’m sure that the amount of detail in the rewilding story would soon overwhelm me as well. Nonetheless, it’s great that there is an audience for those who are working so hard in that sector that they can appreciate all this additional information. Hopeful!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For every person who’s on board with rewilding there’s five who are cutting down trees and covering their outdoor space in stones and Astroturf … it’s hard to feel positive sometimes.

      Like

      1. buriedinprint

        This morning we found a long worm in the middle of a paved alleyway (likely dropped by a hungry winged creature who had to find take-out elsewhere) and launched the rescue mission *laughs at self* only to find that we had to walk almost a full block just to find some dirt…in a residential neighbourhood (all yards either fenced right to the ground like they’re bathroom stalls…or, else, gravelled or astroturfed). Crazy.

        Like

      2. Sigh. I can’t say I’m surprised. The trend here is for a front space of full gravel coverage with some potted plants and a backyard of grass mown any time it grows past a millimeter. Our place stands out for having a tree plus big shrub in the front, and mostly unmown grass in the back. Lots of critters can find a home.

        Like

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