Three on a Theme (and #ReadIndies): Nonfiction I Sponsored Last Year

Here in the UK we’re hunkering down against the high winds of Storm Eunice. We’ve already watched two trees come down in a neighbour’s garden (and they’re currently out there trying to shore up the fence!), and had news on the community Facebook page of a huge conifer down by the canal. Very sad. I hope you’re all safe and well and tucked up at home.

Today I’m looking back at several 2021 nonfiction releases I helped come into existence. The first and third I sponsored via Unbound, and the second through Dodo Ink. Supporting small publishers also ties this post into Karen and Lizzy’s February Read Indies initiative. All:

This Party’s Dead: Grief, Joy and Spilled Rum at the World’s Death Festivals by Erica Buist

A death tourism book? I’m there! This is actually the third I’ve read in recent years, after From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty and Near the Exit by Lori Erickson. Buist’s journey was sparked off by the sudden death of her fiancé Dion’s father, Chris – he was dead for a week before his cleaner raised the alarm – and her burden of guilt. It’s an act of atonement for what happened to Chris and the fact that she and Dion, who used to lodge with him, weren’t there when he really needed it. It’s also her way of discovering a sense of the sacred around death, instead of simply fearing and hiding from it.

This takes place in roughly 2018. The author travelled to eight festivals in seven countries, starting with Mexico for the Day of the Dead and later for an exploration of Santa Muerte, a hero of the working class. Other destinations included Nepal, Sicily (“bones of the dead” biscotti), Madagascar (the “turning of the bones” ceremony – a days-long, extravagant party for a whole village), Thailand and Kyoto. The New Orleans chapter was a standout for me. It’s a city where the dead outnumber the living 10 to 1 (and did so even before Katrina), and graveyard and ghost tours are a common tourist activity.

Buist is an entertaining writer, snappy and upbeat without ever seeming flippant as she discusses heavy topics. The mix of experience and research, the everyday and the momentous, is spot on and she recreates dialogue very well. I appreciated the earnest seeking here, and would happily read a book of hers on pretty much any subject. (New purchase from Unbound)

 

Trauma: Essays on Art and Mental Health, ed. Thom Cuell & Sam Mills

I’ll never learn: I left it nearly 10 months between finishing this and writing it up. And took no notes. So it’s nearly impossible to recreate the reading experience. What I do recall, however, is how wide-ranging and surprising I found this book. At first I had my doubts, thinking it was overkill to describe sad events like a break-up or loss as “traumatic”. But an essay midway through (which intriguingly trades off autobiographical text by Kirsty Logan and Freudian interpretation by Paul McQuade) set me straight: trauma cannot be quantified or compared; it’s all about the “unpreparedness of the subject. A traumatic event overwhelms all the defences laid out in advance against the encroachment of negative experience.”

The pieces can be straightforward memoir fragments or playful, experimental narratives more like autofiction. (Alex Pheby’s is in the second person, for instance.) Within those broad branches, though, the topics vary widely. James Miller writes about the collective horror at the Trump presidency. Emma Jane Unsworth recounts a traumatic delivery – I loved getting this taste of her autobiographical writing but, unfortunately, it outshone her full-length memoir, After the Storm, which I read later in the year. Susanna Crossman tells of dressing up as a clown for her clinical therapy work. Naomi Frisby (the much-admired blogger behind The Writes of Womxn) uses food metaphors to describe how she coped with the end of a bad relationship with a narcissist.

As is inevitable with a collection this long, there are some essays that quickly fade in the memory and could have been omitted without weakening the book as a whole. But it’s not gracious to name names, and, anyway, it’s likely that different pieces will stand out for other readers based on their own experiences. (New purchase from Dodo Ink)

Four favourites:

  • “Inheritance” by Christiana Spens (about investigating her grandparents’ lives through screen prints and writing after her father’s death and her son’s birth)
  • “Blank Spaces” by Yvonna Conza (about the lure of suicide)
  • “The Fish Bowl” by Monique Roffey (about everyday sexual harassment and an assault she underwent as a teenager; I enjoyed this so much more than her latest novel)
  • “Thanks, I’ll Take the Chair” by Jude Cook, about being in therapy.

 

Women on Nature: 100+ Voices on Place, Landscape & the Natural World, ed. Katharine Norbury

It was over three years between when I pledged support and held the finished book in my hands; I can only imagine what a mammoth job compiling it was for Katharine Norbury (author of The Fish Ladder). The subtitle on the title page explains the limits she set: “An anthology of women’s writing about the natural world in the east Atlantic archipelago.” So, broadly, British and Irish writers, but within that there’s a lot of scope for variety: fragments of fiction (e.g., a passage from Jane Eyre), plenty of poetry, but mostly nonfiction narratives – some work in autobiographical reflection; others are straightforward nature or travel writing. Excerpts from previously published works trade off with essays produced specifically for this volume. So I encountered snippets of works I’d read by the likes of Miriam Darlington, Melissa Harrison, Sara Maitland, Polly Samson and Nan Shepherd. The timeline stretches from medieval mystics to today’s Guardian Country Diarists and BIPOC nature writers.

For most of the last seven months of 2021, I kept this as a bedside book, reading one or two pieces on most nights. It wasn’t until early this year that I brought it downstairs and started working it into my regular daily stacks so that I would see more progress. At first I quibbled (internally) with the decision to structure the book alphabetically by author. I wondered if more might have been done to group the pieces by region or theme. But besides being an unwieldy task, that might have made the contents seem overly determined. Instead, you get the serendipity of different works conversing with each other. So, for example, Katrina Porteous’s dialect poem about a Northumberland fisherman is followed immediately by Jini Reddy’s account of a trip to Lindisfarne; Margaret Cavendish’s 1653 dialogue in verse between an oak tree and the man cutting him down leads perfectly into an excerpt from Nicola Chester’s On Gallows Down describing a confrontation with tree fellers.

I’d highly recommend this for those who are fairly new to the UK nature writing scene and/or would like to read more by women. Keep it as a coffee table book or a bedside read and pick it up between other things. You’ll soon find your own favourites. (New purchase from Unbound)

Five favourites:

  • “Caravan” by Sally Goldsmith (a Sheffield tree defender)
  • “Enlli: The Living Island” by Pippa Marland (about the small Welsh island of Bardsey)
  • “An Affinity with Bees” by Elizabeth Rose Murray (about beekeeping, and her difficult mother, who called herself “the queen bee”)
  • “An Island Ecology” by Sarah Thomas (about witnessing a whale hunt on the Faroe Islands)
  • My overall favourite: “Arboreal” by Jean McNeil (about living in Antarctica for a winter and the contrast between that treeless continent and Canada, where she grew up, and England, where she lives now)

“It occurred to me that trees were part of the grammar of one’s life, as much as any spoken language. … To see trees every day and to be seen by them is a privilege.”

Stay strong, trees!

 

Sponsored any books, or read any from indie publishers, recently?
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21 responses

  1. Keen to read This Party’s Dead, and what a brilliant cover! I remember going to see an exhibition based around the Mexican Day of the Dead and being fascinated by it. Much more akin to the Victorians who used to picnic at the cemetary around family graves than to our own queasy attitude to death.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We used to live close to the famous Brookwood Cemetery in Woking. I’ve always found cemeteries to be terrific places for walking, nature spotting, and imagining the stories behind the names and the birth and death dates. Since it’s the one thing (proverbially, along with taxes) that we can’t avoid, why not make it more of an accepted part of life?

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      1. Agreed on both points. We have some interesting cemeteries in Bath and you’re right about nature watching.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s so sad to see the trees come down. I like, though, how your ending ties into your beginning. That essay on Antarctica sounds good! All of these sound good… You know how to choose them!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know you’re a fellow tree lover! I think you’d really enjoy Women on Nature. I know it came out in the USA, so maybe you’d be able to find it through your library.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I will be watching for it then! 🙂

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  3. How interesting, your part in bringing Women in Nature to fruition. It’s on the TBR list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep, my name is in the back, along with 100s of others’, right after author Charles Foster (for whom my husband was once confused by a conference organizer!).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Haha! Did he hurry to put that right?

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  4. Wow, both Trauma and This Party’s Dead sound great! I’d also love to read the McNeil essay. I’m obsessed with both trees and Antarctica so it sounds tailor made for me. Have you read her Ice Diaries? I thought it was fantastic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’d enjoy both of those. I’m so keen to read Ice Diaries! I’m reading a different account of time at the British Antarctic Survey just now, Gavin Francis’s Empire Antarctica. I seem to be on an Antarctica kick!

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      1. I’m just re reading Empire Antarctica ATM for research!

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      2. Awesome! I haven’t been giving it as much attention as I would like since it doesn’t have any review or deadline attached, but I’ve liked all of Francis’s books that I’ve read so far. I’m also reading Lean, Fall, Stand — have you read that one?

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  5. Hope you all are staying safe in the storm and that no more trees come down!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So far, so good, but the high winds will continue through tomorrow so I won’t breathe a sigh of relief until after that.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Well done for supporting indie publishing ventures!
    And I share your sadness and concern for the trees.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Good old Unbound, I have so many of my own pledges sat on my shelf at the moment and I’ve also picked up ones from before I became an Unbound fan. I just read a Canongate book but for Shiny so not sure when it will come out (No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy) and have received a book from Michael Walmer that counts, plus have Richard King’s Wales book which is Faber … so if I get a move on I might get a few more in that count!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It would be fun to put them all together on a shelf like you’ve done! My sponsored books have been in pretty disparate genres, though, so aren’t likely to end up shelved nearby.

      I have No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy on request from the library.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This Party’s Dead sounds fascinating. I remember being intrigued to see in a calendar mention of “tomb sweeping day”in China. apparently families go to the grave, give it a clean, and make offerings. They then have a picnic.

    Cemetery visits and tours have become a lot more popular here in UK haven’t they? I’m involved with a theatre group that does performances in one of our very large cemeteries. They’re always very popular events.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How neat! We’ve been to a couple of roving performances in cemeteries ourselves. One was of A Christmas Carol in York one autumn.

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      1. Oh that would have been quite an atmospheric experience

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