Category Archives: Events

Another Birthday & An “Overhaul” of Previous Years’ Gifted Books

I thought a Wednesday would be a crummy day to have a birthday on, but actually it was great – the celebrations have extended from the weekend before to the weekend after, giving me a whole week of treats. Last Saturday we planned a last-minute trip to Oxford when I won a pair of free tickets to the Oxford Playhouse’s comedy club, their first live event since March. It featured three acts plus a compere and was headlined by Flo & Joan, a musical sister act we’d seen before at Greenbelt 2018. Beforehand, we had excellent pizzas at Franco Manca. Oxford felt busy, but we wore masks to queue at the restaurant and for the whole time in the Playhouse, where there were several seats left between parties plus every other row was empty.

My husband was able to work from home on the day itself, even though he’s been having a manically busy couple of weeks of in-person teaching and labs on campus, so we got to share a few meals: a leisurely pancake breakfast; fresh-baked maple, walnut and pear upside-down cake, a David Lebovitz recipe from Ready for Dessert (recreated here); and a French-influenced dinner at The Blackbird, a local pub we’d not tried before. In between I did some reading (of course), helped hunt in the garden for invertebrates for the labs, and did a video chat with my mom and sister in the States.

Today, since he had a bit more time free, he has made me Mexican food, one of my favorite cuisines and something I don’t get to have very often, plus a second cake from a Lebovitz recipe (luckily, the remnants of the last one had already gone in the freezer), this time a flourless chocolate cake topped with cacao nibs.

Just three books came in as gifts this year, though I might buy a few more with birthday money and vouchers. (A proof copy of Claire Fuller’s new novel, forthcoming in January, happened to arrive on my birthday, so I’ll call that four books as presents!) I also received chocolate, posh local drink, and the latest Alanis album.

An Overhaul of Previous Years’ Gifted Books

For a bit of fun, I thought I’d go back through the previous birthday book hauls I’ve posted about and see how many of the books I’ve read: 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Simon of Stuck in a Book runs a regular blog feature he calls “The Overhaul,” where he revisits a book haul from some time ago and takes stock of what he’s read, what he still owns, etc. (here’s the most recent one). With permission, I’ve borrowed the title and format.

Date of haul: October 2015

Number of books purchased: 7 [the bottom 3 pictured were bought for other people]

Had already read: 2 (the Byatt story collections, one of which I reread earlier this year)

Read since: 2 (reviews of the Jerome and Zola appeared on the blog)

Still to read: 3 – It’s high time I got around to the Byron and Dinesen books after five years sat on my shelves! I DNFed the first Gormenghast book, though, so may end up jettisoning the whole trilogy.

 

Date of haul: October 2016

Number of books purchased/received: 6

Read: ALL 6! I am so proud about this. Reviews of the Brown, Taylor, and Welch have appeared on the blog.

Still own: Just 2 – I resold the Brown and Holloway after reading them, gave the Mercer to a friend, and donated the Taylor proof.

 

Date of haul: October 2017

Number of books received: 11

Read: 4 (reviews of the Cox, Hay, and Hoffman appeared on the blog)

DNFed and resold: 2

Still to read: 5

 

Date of haul: October 2018

Number of books received: 10

Read: 8! Another fine showing; only the Giffels and Winner remain to be read. Reviews of the Groff, one L’Engle, and Manyika & Richardson appeared on the blog.

Still own: 8 – I resold the Hood and Petit after reading them.

 

Date of haul: October 2019

Number of books received: 14

Read: Only 2. Hmm. (I reviewed the Weiss, and the Houston appeared on my Best of 2019 runners-up list.)

Currently reading/skimming, or set aside temporarily: 4

DNFed and resold: 3. D’oh.

Still to read: 5

 

Are you good about reading gifted books quickly?

What catches your eye from my stacks?

Wigtown Book Festival 2020: The Bookshop Band, Bythell, O’Connell & Stuart

During the coronavirus pandemic, we have had to take small pleasures where we can. One of the highlights of lockdown for me has been the chance to participate in literary events like book-themed concerts, prize shortlist announcements, book club discussions, live literary award ceremonies and book festivals that time, distance and cost might otherwise have precluded.

In May I attended several digital Hay Festival events, and this September to early October I’ve been delighted to journey back to Wigtown, Scotland – even if only virtually.

 

The Bookshop Band

The Bookshop Band have been a constant for me this year. After watching their 21 Friday evening lockdown shows on Facebook, as well as a couple of one-off performances for other festivals, I have spent so much time with them in their living room that they feel more like family than a favorite band. Add to that four of the daily breakfast chat shows from the Wigtown Book Festival and I’ve seen them play over 25 times this year already!

(The still below shows them with, clockwise from bottom left, guests Emma Hooper, Stephen Rutt and Jason Webster.)

Ben and Beth’s conversations with featured authors and local movers and shakers, punctuated by one song per guest, were pleasant to have on in the background while working. The songs they performed were, ideally, written for those authors’ books, but other times just what seemed most relevant; at times this was a stretch! I especially liked seeing Donal Ryan, about whose The Spinning Heart they’ve recently written a terrific song; Kate Mosse, who has been unable to write during lockdown so (re)read 200 books instead, including all of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh et al.; and Ned Beauman, who is nearing the deadline for his next novel, a near-future story of two scientists looking for traces of the venomous lumpsucker (a made-up fish) in the Baltic Sea. Closer to science fiction than his previous work, it’s a funny take on extinctions, he said. I’ve read all of his published work, so I’m looking forward to this one.

 

Shaun Bythell

The opening event of the Festival was an in-person chat between Lee Randall and Shaun Bythell in Wigtown, rather than the split-screen virtual meet-ups that made up the rest of my viewing. Bythell, owner of The Book Shop, has become Wigtown’s literary celebrity through The Diary of a Bookseller and its sequel. In early November he has a new book coming out, Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops. I’m halfway through it and it has more substance than its stocking-stuffer dimensions would imply. Within his seven categories are multiple subcategories, all given tongue-in-cheek Latin names, as if he’s naming species.

The Book Shop closed for 116 days during COVID-19: the only time in more than 40 years that it has been closed for longer than just over the Christmas holidays. He said that it has been so nice to see customers again; they’ve been a ray of sunshine for him, something the curmudgeon would never usually say! Business has been booming since his reopening, with Agatha Christie his best seller – it’s not just Mosse who’s turning to cozy mysteries. He’s also been touched by the kindness of strangers, such as one from Monaco who sent him £300, having read an article by Margaret Atwood about how hard it is for small businesses just now and hoping it would help the shop survive until they could get there in person.

(Below: Bythell on his 50th birthday, with Captain the cat.)

Randall and Bythell discussed a few of the types of customers he regularly encounters. One is the autodidact, who knows more than you and intends for you to know it. This is not the same, though, as the expert who actually helps you by sharing their knowledge (of a rare cover version on an ordinary-looking crime paperback, for instance). There’s also the occultists, the erotica browsers, the local historians and the young families – now that he has one of his own, he’s become a bit more tolerant.

 

Mark O’Connell

Appearing from Dublin, Mark O’Connell was interviewed by Scottish writer and critic Stuart Kelly about his latest book, Notes from an Apocalypse (my review). He noted that, while all authors hope their books are timely, perhaps he overshot with this one! The book opens with climate change as the most immediate threat, yet now he feels that “has receded as the locus of anxiety.” O’Connell described the “flattened” experience of being alive at the moment and contrasted it with the existential awfulness of his research travels. For instance, he read a passage from the book about being at an airport Yo Sushi! chain and having a vision of horror at the rampant consumerism its conveyor belt seemed to represent.

Kelly characterized O’Connell’s personal, self-conscious approach to the end of the world as “brave,” while O’Connell said, “in terms of mental health, I should have chosen any other topic!” Having children creates both vulnerability and possibility, he contended, and “it doesn’t do you any good as a parent to indulge in those predilections [towards extreme pessimism].” They discussed preppers’ white male privilege, New Zealand and Mars as havens, and Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough as saints of the climate crisis.

O’Connell pinpointed Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax as the work he spends more time on in his book than any other; none of your classic nihilist literature here, and he deliberately avoided bringing up biblical references in his secular approach. In terms of the author he’s reached for most over the last few years, and especially during lockdown, it’s got to be Annie Dillard. Speaking of the human species, he opined, “it should not be unimaginable that we should cease to exist at some point.”

This talk didn’t add much to my experience of reading the book (vice versa would probably be true, too – I got the gist of Roman Krznaric’s recent thinking from his Hay Festival talk and so haven’t been engaging with his book as much as I’d like), but it was nice to see O’Connell ‘in person’ since he couldn’t make it to the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize ceremony.

 

Douglas Stuart

Glasgow-born Douglas Stuart is a fashion designer in New York City. Again the interviewer was Lee Randall, an American journalist based in Edinburgh – she joked that she and Stuart have swapped places. Stuart said he started writing his Booker-shortlisted novel, Shuggie Bain, 12 years ago, and kept it private for much of that time. Although he and Randall seemed keen to downplay how autobiographical the work is, like his title character, Stuart grew up in 1980s Glasgow with an alcoholic single mother. As a gay boy, he felt he didn’t have a voice in Thatcher’s Britain. He knew many strong women who were looked down on for being poor.

It’s impossible to write an apolitical book about poverty (or a Glasgow book without dialect), Stuart acknowledged, yet he insisted that the novel is primarily “a portrait of two souls moving through the world,” a love story about Shuggie and his mother, Agnes. The author read a passage from the start of Chapter 2, when readers first meet Agnes, the heart of the book. Randall asked about sex as currency and postulated that all Agnes – or any of these characters; or any of us, really – wants is someone whose face lights up when they see you.

The name “Shuggie” was borrowed from a small-town criminal in his housing scheme; it struck him as ironic that a thug had such a sweet nickname. Stuart said that writing the book was healing for him. He thinks that men who drink and can’t escape poverty are often seen as loveable rogues, while women are condemned for how they fail their children. Through Agnes, he wanted to add some nuance to that double standard.

The draft of Shuggie Bain was 900 pages, single-spaced, but his editor helped him cut it while simultaneously drawing out the important backstories of Agnes and some other characters. He had almost finished his second novel by the time Shuggie was published, so he hopes it will be with readers soon.

[I have reluctantly DNFed Shuggie Bain at p. 100, but I’ll keep my proof copy on the shelf in case one day I feel like trying it again – especially if, as seems likely, it wins the Booker Prize.]

Thinking about the Future with David Farrier & Roman Krznaric (Hay Festival)

My last of three digital Hay Festival* talks this year was by Roman Krznaric, a School of Life philosopher with a background in politics and gardening. I discovered him through Greenbelt Festival eight years ago and have since enjoyed several of his books on the topics of empathy, finding purposeful work, and models for living well. His talk on his upcoming book, The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short Term World, was an ideal follow-up to one of the top three 2020 nonfiction works I’ve read so far:

 

Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils by David Farrier

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

~from “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

In May 2013 a set of fossil human footprints was found at Happisburgh in Norfolk. At 850,000 years old, they were the oldest outside of Africa. In the same month, atmospheric CO2 passed 400 ppm for the first time. It’s via such juxtapositions of past and future, and longevity versus precariousness, that Farrier’s book – a sophisticated lattice of human and planetary history, environmental realism and literary echoes – tells the story of the human impact on the Earth.

Unusually, Farrier is not a historian or a climate scientist, but a senior lecturer in English literature at the University of Edinburgh specializing in nature and place writing, especially in relation to the Anthropocene. That humanities focus allowed him to craft a truly unique, interdisciplinary work in which the canon both foreshadows and responds to environmental collapse. On a sabbatical in Australia, he also gets to hold an ice core taken by an icebreaker, swim above coral reefs and visit a uranium mine exempted from protection in a national park.

He travels not just through space, but also through time, tracing a plastic bottle from algal bloom to oil to factory to river/landfill to ocean; he thinks about how cultural memory can preserve vanished landscapes; he imagines propitiatory rites arising around radioactive waste to explain poisoned lakes and zinc-lined coffins; and he wonders how to issue appropriate warnings to the future when we don’t even know if English, or language in general, will persist (a nuclear waste storage site in Carlsbad uses a combination of multilingual signs, symbols, monoliths and planned oral tradition, while one in Finland is unmarked).

Each chapter is an intricate blend of fact, experience and story. For example, “The Insatiable Road” is about cars and the concrete landscapes they zip through – all made possible by oil. Farrier wins a chance to be among the first to cross the new Forth Bridge on foot and finds himself awed by the human achievement. Yet he knows that, in a car, the bridge will be crossed in seconds and soon taken for granted. Whether as a driver or a passenger, we have become detached from the journey and from the places we are travelling through. The road trip, a standard element of twentieth-century art and literature, has lost its lustre. “Really, we have conceded so much,” he writes. “Most of us live and wander only where road networks permit us to, creeping along their edges and lulled into deafness by their constant roar.” Ben Okri’s legend provides the metaphor of a famished road that swallows all in its path.

What will the human species leave behind? “The entire atmosphere now bears the marks of our passage … Perhaps no one will be around to read our traces, but nonetheless we are, everywhere, constantly, and with the most astonishing profligacy, leaving a legacy that will endure for hundreds of thousands or even hundreds of millions of years to come.” That legacy includes the concrete foundations of massive road networks, the remnants of megacities on coastal plains, plastics that will endure for many centuries, carbon and methane locked up in permafrost, the 2300-km fossil of the dead Great Barrier Reef, nuclear waste in isolation plants, jellyfish-dominated oceans and decimated microbial life.

Thinking long term doesn’t come naturally. In the same way that multiple books of 2019 (Time Song, Surfacing, Underland) helped us think about the place of humanity in reference to deep time, Footprints offers an invaluable window onto the deep future. Its dichotomies of hubris and atonement, and culpability versus indifference, are essential to ponder. It was always going to be sobering to read about how we have damaged our only home, but I never found this to be a needlessly depressing book; it is clear-eyed and forthright, but also meditative and beautifully constructed. Life on the planet continues in spite of our alterations, but all the diminishment was unavoidable, and perhaps some of it is remediable still.

My rating:


Related reading: Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell. I’m only up to page 36 and at the moment it’s just him watching loads of crackpot preppers’ videos on YouTube, but already I think that Footprints should have had this book’s spot on the Wainwright Prize for Writing on Global Conservation longlist (a new prize run in addition to the standard UK nature writing one) for being more directly engaged with conservation issues rather than just humorously commenting on the end-of-the-world mindset.

 

Roman Krznaric at Hay Festival

Krznaric’s discussion of being a “good ancestor” resonated in connection with the long-term thinking of Farrier’s book. “This is the age of the tyranny of the now,” he began, but “humankind has colonized the future” as well, treating it as a tempus nullius where we can dump our ecological waste and tech failures. Yet long-termism is needed more than ever as a way of planning for environmental challenges (and pandemics and the like). Future generations have no say in the decisions we make now that will affect them. To put this in perspective, he showed an image of three spheres, proportionally sized: one represented the 100 billion dead, one was the 7.7 billion currently living, and one was the 6.75 trillion in unborn generations (if the current birth rate continues).

It was Jonas Salk, creator of the polio vaccine, who asked, “Are we being good ancestors?” Krznaric invited the audience to come up with examples (in the chat window on the sidebar) of long-term projects through which people are trying to help future generations, such as the Svalbard Seed Depository, the Green New Deal, the 10,000-Year Clock (inside a mountain in the Texas desert), the Long Play piece of music to last 1,000 years, rewilding, archives and libraries, and tree planting. He had also opened the talk with his own modest contribution: he and his partner ‘gave’ their 11-year-old twins their votes in the latest election.

Krznaric elaborated on four of his book’s six ways of thinking about the future: 1) Rethink human nature by using the “acorn brain” (long-term thinking) rather than the “marshmallow brain” (instant gratification). 2) Embark on projects with long time horizons (“cathedral thinking”). 3) Think in terms of legacies, whether familial or transcendent – leaving a gift to the citizens of the future (e.g. The Future Library of 100 books not published or read until 2114). 4) Create a politics for the future, e.g. the citizen assembly movement.

Roman Krznaric at the digital Hay Festival. Q&A led by John Mitchinson (right).

In the case of the UK, Krznaric advocates abolishing the House of Lords, replacing it with a citizens’ assembly and a Minister for the Future, and establishing legal rights for future generations. He noted that globally we’re at a “devil’s fork” where there’s a danger of authoritarian regulations continuing around the world after quarantine ends, endangering the future of social democracy. Instead, we need grassroots activism and “doughnut economics.” He pictures devolution of power away from central governments, with progressive cities becoming new loci of power. Individual actions like vowing not to fly and installing solar panels can inspire peers, but only collective action can tackle environmental breakdown.


Related reading: I’ll be reviewing Eric Holthaus’s forthcoming book The Future Earth: A Radical Vision for What’s Possible in the Age of Warming for BookBrowse later this month. The meteorologist and science journalist fleshes out some of Krznaric’s ideas, such as a citizen assembly and the cyclical economy, in his proposal for the drastic changes needed over the next three decades.

 

*You can access the recorded Hay Festival talks by paying a £10 annual subscription here.

 

Have you read anything about the deep future?

Thinking about Dead Bodies with John Troyer (Hay Festival)

My second of three digital Hay Festival talks this year was by John Troyer, director of the interdisciplinary Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath. Troyer is from Wisconsin (where he was speaking from, having been trapped there during a visit to his parents) and grew up with a father who owned a funeral home. This meant that he was aware of death from a young age: One of his earliest memories is of touching the hand of a dead woman when he went to visit his father at work.

That’s not the only personal experience that went into his new book, Technologies of the Human Corpse, which I’m now keen to read. In 2018 his younger sister, Julie, died of brain cancer at age 43, so her illness and death became a late addition to the preface and also fed into a series of prose poems interspersed between the narrative chapters. She lived in Italy and her doctors failed to tell her that she was dying – that job fell to Troyer. (Unfortunately, this seems to be a persistent problem in Italy. In Dottoressa, her memoir of being an American doctor in Rome, which I read for a TLS review, Susan Levenstein writes of a paternalistic attitude among medical professionals: they treat their patients as children and might not even tell them about a cancer diagnosis; they just inform their family.)

Troyer discussed key moments that changed how we treat corpses. For instance, during the American Civil War there was a huge market for the new embalming technology; it was a way of preserving the bodies of soldiers so they could be returned home for funerals. Frauds also arose, however, and those taken in might find their loved one’s body arrived in a state of advanced decay. At around the same time, early photography captured corpses looking serene and sleeping. We might still take such photos, but we don’t tend to display them any more.

In the 1970s the “happy death” movement advocated for things like “natural death” and “death with dignity.” This piggybacked on the environmental and women’s movements and envisioned death as a taboo that had to be overcome. In recent decades a “necro-economy” based on the global trafficking of body parts (not organs for regulated transplant, Troyer clarified, but other tissue types) has appeared. While whole bodies may be worth just £2,000, “disarticulated” ones divided into their parts can net more like £100,000. Donating one’s body to science is, of course, a noble decision. Many people are also happy to donate their organs, though there remains a particular wariness about donating the eyes.

Troyer and Florence on my screen.

One section of Troyer’s book has become “uncannily resonant” in recent days, he noted. This is Chapter 3, on the AIDS corpse, an object of stigma. The biggest changes to death in the time of COVID-19 have been that family members are not able to be with a dying person in the ICU and that funerals cannot proceed as normal. In a viral pandemic, countries are producing a huge number of corpses that they aren’t prepared to deal with. (Indeed, the Washington, D.C. area is so overwhelmed with dead bodies that ice skating rinks have been requisitioned as makeshift morgues. The suburban Maryland rink I visited as a child is one such. Grim.)

Troyer spoke of the need for an everyday-ness to the discussion of death: talking with one’s next of kin, and encountering death in the course of a traditional education – he finds that even his final-year university students, studying in a related field, are very new to talking about death. A good way in that he recommends is simply to ask your loved ones what music they want played at their funerals, and the conversation can go from there.

We may not be able to commemorate the dead as we would like to at this time, but Troyer reminded the audience that funerals are for the living, whereas “the dead are okay with it – they know we’re doing our best.” The event was sensitively chaired by Peter Florence, the co-founder and director of Hay Festival (also responsible for last year’s controversial Booker Prize tie); the fact that Troyer got emotional talking about his sister only gave it more relevance and impact.

 

I’ve read an abnormally large number of books about death, especially in the five years since my brother-in-law died of brain cancer (one reason why Troyer’s talk was so meaningful for me). Most recently, I read Bodies in Motion and at Rest (2000) by Thomas Lynch, a set of essays by the Irish-American undertaker and poet from Michigan. I saw him speak at Greenbelt Festival in 2012 and have read four of his books since then. His unusual dual career lends lyrical beauty to his writing about death. However, this collection was not memorable for me in comparison to his 1997 book The Undertaking, and I’d already encountered a shortened version of “Wombs” in the Wellcome Collection anthology Beneath the Skin. But this passage from “The Way We Are” stood out:

After years and years of directing funerals, I’ve come to the conclusion that seeing [the dead body] is the hardest and most helpful part. The truth, even when it hurts, has a healing in it, better than fiction or fantasy. When someone dies it is not them we fear seeing, it is them dead. It is the death. We fear that seeing will be believing. We fear not seeing too. We search the wreckage and the ruins, the battlefields and ocean floors. We must find our dead to let the loss be real.

 

Just for a bit of morbid fun, I decided to draw up my top 10 nonfiction books about death, dying and the dead. Many of these are personal accounts of facing death or losing a loved one. In contrast to the bereavement and cancer memoirs, the books by Doughty and Gawande are more like cultural studies, and Montross’s is about working with corpses. If you need a laugh, the Bechdel (a graphic memoir) and Doughty are best for black comedy.

Young Writer of the Year Award Ceremony

It was great to be back at the London Library for last night’s Young Writer of the Year Award prize-giving ceremony. I got to meet Anne Cater (Random Things through my Letterbox) from the shadow panel, who’s coordinated a few blog tours I’ve participated in, as well as Ova Ceren (Excuse My Reading). It was also good to see shadow panelist Linda (Linda’s Book Bag) again and hang out with Clare (A Little Blog of Books), also on the shadow panel in my year, and Eric (Lonesome Reader), who seems to get around to every London literary event.

In case you haven’t heard, the shadow panel chose Salt Slow by Julia Armfield as their very deserving winner, but the official winner was Raymond Antrobus for his poetry collection The Perseverance. In all honesty, I’d given no thought to the possibility of it winning, mostly because Antrobus has already won several major prizes for the book, including this year’s £30,000 Rathbones Folio Prize (I reviewed it for the Prize’s blog tour). Now, there’s no rule saying you can’t win multiple prizes for the same book, but what struck me strangely about this case is that Kate Clanchy was a judge for both the Folio Prize and the Young Writer Award.

Antrobus seemed genuinely taken aback by his win and gave a very gracious speech in which he said that he looked forward to all the shortlistees contributing to the canon of English literature. He was quickly whisked away for a photo shoot, so I didn’t get a chance to congratulate him or have my book signed, but I did get to meet Julia Armfield and Yara Rodrigues Fowler and get their autographs.

Some interesting statistics for you: in three of the past four years the shadow panel has chosen a short story collection as its winner (and they say no one likes short stories these days!). In none of those four years did the shadow panel correctly predict the official winner – so, gosh, is it the kiss of death to be the shadow panel winner?!

In the official press release, chair of judges and Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate writes that The Perseverance is “both very personal and immensely resonant. The result is a memoir in verse very, very affecting and fresh.” Poet Kate Clanchy adds, “we wanted to find a writer who both speaks for now and who we were confident would continue to produce valuable, central work. … it was the humanity of the book, its tempered kindness, and the commitment not just to recognising difference but to the difficult act of forgiveness that made us confident we had found a winner for this extraordinary year.”

Also present at the ceremony were Sarah Moss (who teaches at the University of Warwick, the Award’s new co-sponsor) and Katya Taylor. I could have sworn I spotted Deborah Levy, too, but after conferring with other book bloggers we decided it was just someone who looked a lot like her.

In any event, it was lovely to see London all lit up with Christmas lights and to spend a couple of hours celebrating up-and-coming writing talent. (And I just managed to catch the last train home and avoid a rail replacement bus nightmare.)

Looking forward to next year already!

New Networks for Nature 2019

This past weekend was my fifth time attending Nature Matters, the annual New Networks for Nature conference. I’ve written about it on the blog a few times before: last year’s 10th anniversary meeting in Stamford, plus once when there was a particular focus on nature poetry and another time when it was held in Cambridge. This year the theme was “Time for Nature” and the conference was held at the very posh St Peter’s School in York, which dates back to 627 and resembles an Oxford college. We have close friends in York, but our timing was off in that they were in Italy this week. However, they sent us a key to their house and let us stay there while they were away, which saved us having to book an Airbnb or guest house.

York street scene. Photo by Chris Foster.

What makes Nature Matters so special is its interdisciplinary nature: visual artists, poets, musicians, writers, activists, academics and conservationists alike attend and speak. So although the event might seem geared more towards my ecologist husband, there’s always plenty to interest me, too. In particular, I enjoyed the panel discussions on nature in children’s books and new directions for nature writing. This year the organizers were determined to make the speakers’ roster more diverse, so some panels were three-quarters or wholly female, and four people of color appeared on the stage. (That might not seem like a great record, but in a field so dominated by white males it’s at least a start.)

The Friday was a particularly brilliant day, the best day of sessions I can remember in any year. After a presentation by wildlife photographer and painter Robert Fuller, the first session was “Nature in Deep Time,” featuring three archaeologists from northern universities who talked about cave art, woodcraft, and evidence of rapid climate change. “Taking a long view, we get a very different perspective,” Professor Terry O’Connor of the University of York observed. The topic felt timely and tied in with a number of books that have come out this year, including Time Song by Julia Blackburn, Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie and Underland by Robert Macfarlane.

Next up was “Now or Never – Fighting for Nature,” featuring three female activists: Ruth Peacey, a filmmaker for BBC Wildlife whose subjects have included bird persecution in the Mediterranean; Sally Goldsmith, a campaigner who deployed poems and songs against the mass street tree-cutting campaign in Sheffield and helped save some 10,000 trees; and Hatti Owens, an environmental lawyer with ClientEarth who has partnered with Extinction Rebellion. The panel chair and one of this year’s organizers, writer Amy-Jane Beer, noted that activism is no longer radical, but an obligation.

Either side of lunch, Dr. Sara Goodacre of the University of Nottingham SpiderLab demonstrated how money spiders walk on water and “sail” using two raised legs to cope with wind; and Dr. Geoff Oxford of the University of York told the successful conservation story of the tansy beetle, which has recently been celebrated with a crowdfunded wall mural on the corner of York’s Queen Street and the Tansy Beetle Bar at the Rattle Owl restaurant on Micklegate. After the day’s proceedings, we joined a general movement over to see the mural and toast the bar’s grand opening.

Tansy beetle mural. Photo by Chris Foster.

The children’s books session featured Anneliese Emmans Dean, who gave very entertaining performances of her poems on insects and birds; Gill Lewis, who writes middle grade novels that introduce children to environmental issues; and Yuval Zommer, who writes and illustrates nonfiction guides with titles like The Big Book of Bugs and The Big Book of Blooms. Panel chair Ben Hoare, another of this year’s organizers and a former editor of BBC Wildlife magazine, concluded that children’s books should be joyous and not preachy.

There was still more to come on this jam-packed Friday! “The Funny Thing about Nature…” was essentially three stand-up comedy routines by Simon Watt, creator of the Ugly Animal Appreciation Society; Helen Pilcher, who has written a speculative book about the science of de-extinction; and Hugh Warwick, an author and hedgehog enthusiast. The language got a little crass in this session, but all three speakers were genuinely funny. As Watt put it, “Sincerity should not be our only weapon” in the fight for nature; he’s trying to reach the people who aren’t “already on our side.”

After free gin and tonics provided by local producers SloeMotion, we had the absolute treat of a performance by Kitty Macfarlane, whose folk songs are inspired by the natural world. The title track of her 2018 album Namer of Clouds is about Luke Howard, who created the naming system for clouds (cumulus, stratus, and so on) in 1802. Other songs are about eels, a starling murmuration and the Sardinian tradition of weaving sea silk. She often incorporates field recordings of birdsong, and writes about her native Somerset Levels. Her voice is gorgeously clear, reminding me of Emily Smith’s. We bought her album and EP at once.

Saturday was a slightly less memorable day, with sessions on insects and the uplands, an interview with clean rivers campaigner (and former pop star) Feargal Sharkey, and the short film Raising the Hare by Bevis Bowden. Most engaging for me was a four-person discussion on new directions for nature writing, chaired by author and academic Richard Kerridge. Katharine Norbury is editing the Women on Nature anthology, which I have supported via Unbound; it’s due out next year. She went all the way back to Julian of Norwich and has included novelists, poets, gardeners and farmers – lots of women who wouldn’t have called themselves ‘nature writers’.

L to R: Kerridge, Norbury, Sethi, McKenzie and Smyth. Photo by Chris Foster.

Anita Sethi, a journalist from Manchester, speaks out about inequality of access to nature due to race, gender and class. She read part of her essay “On Class and the Countryside” from the Common People anthology edited by Kit de Waal. Zakiya McKenzie, a London-born Jamaican, was a Forest England writer in residence and founded the Green & Black project to give underprivileged children trips to the countryside. Richard Smyth, the author of A Sweet, Wild Note, spoke of the need for robust nature writing – and criticism. He stressed that it’s not good enough for nature writing to be “charming” or “lyrical”; it’s too important to be merely pleasant. I would have liked to hear him explore this more and for it to turn into more of a debate, but the discussion drifted into praise for experimental and speculative forms.

Peregrine on York Minster. Photo by Chris Foster.

Finishing off a Bettys lunch with cake and a mocha. Photo by Chris Foster.

There’s something for everyone at this conference; some of the elements that I didn’t get on with or found pretentious were others’ highlights, so it’s all a matter of taste. Spending time in York, one of my favorite cities, was an added bonus. We managed to fit in a trip to the National Railway Museum and lunch at Bettys on the Sunday before our train back.

Next year’s conference will be at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, 10–12 July. I’ve never been to Norwich so look forward to visiting it and attending the full conference once again. It’s always a fascinating, inspiring weekend with a wide range of speakers and ideas.

 

Would any of the conference’s themes or events have interested you?

Jane Eyre at the Newbury Corn Exchange

This is the second theatre adaptation of Jane Eyre that I’ve reviewed since I started my blog (and my second trip to Newbury’s Corn Exchange within two weeks). The previous one was just over four years ago, of the celebrated touring production that I saw at London’s National Theatre (review here). In comparing my notes from last night with my write-up from four years ago, I’ve discovered that the two productions were fairly similar in approach, with a bare-bones collection of wooden structures and furniture creating the set, and a handful of actors covering all the parts. Last night’s was even more stripped-back, with just a few blackened planks and a partial staircase representing the ruin of Thornfield Hall and serving as the backdrop for all the other settings. And here there were only five cast members, as compared to the NT’s 10: three actresses and two actors, with all bar one (Jane) revolving through the roles via simple costume changes like donning a bonnet or a waistcoat.

Probably my favorite aspect of this production was the live music. An antique piano stood at stage left and all the actors took turns playing it for background music or as part of a specific scene. Other instruments were also taken up occasionally: fiddle, cello, guitar, harmonium and recorder. Whereas the NT production made anachronistic use of pop songs, this production stuck to folk music that seemed appropriate to the time period. St. John Rivers’s pompous piety was exaggerated for comic effect, with Mrs. Fairfax another particularly amusing character. As in the NT show, one actor even briefly played Pilot the dog.

There were a few decisions that were less than successful for me, though. An eight-year jump between Helen’s death at Lowood School and Jane’s arrival at Thornfield Hall feels like a jolt. Jane wears the same dress throughout and nothing indicates her aging. She narrates her story as if she is revisiting her life in her mind. At a few points these explanations from the front of the stage slow down the action. Meanwhile, the strong Yorkshire accent the actress used was so much like Daisy’s in Downton Abbey that I struggled to take her seriously – it’s too much of a contrast with the Queen’s English most of the other characters speak. Is what we think of as a Yorkshire accent now actually how people spoke at that time?

But the chief transgression was omitting the pivotal scene in which Jane hears Rochester calling out to her and knows she has to return to Thornfield. Instead, Jane just makes a rational decision to “go home” after St. John leaves for India. Did the director think that modern audiences would find the mild supernatural content too unbelievable? Or was it just a practical matter in that the actor portraying Rochester happened to be playing the piano at that point? Surely a way could have been found around that.

In any case, it was a pleasant way to pass a few hours on a squally October night.

My rating:

 

There is more information on the play, including photographs and a video trailer, on the Corn Exchange website.

 

What’s the last thing you saw at the theatre?

Bernardine Evaristo and Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi in Conversation

Through a giveaway on Eric’s blog, I won tickets to see Bernardine Evaristo and Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi speak about their latest books at the London Literature Festival (this year’s theme: “Once Upon Our Times”) at the Southbank Centre yesterday. It was great to meet up with fellow bloggers Eric and Eleanor to hear these two black women writers read from their recent work and discuss feminism, the political landscape for writers of African descent, and their experiments with form.

Frustrated by the lack of black women in British literature, Evaristo started writing Girl, Woman, Other in 2013. She began with Carole (Anglo-Nigerian, like herself), who has to change to fit in, first at Oxford and then as a City banker. Next she moved on to the stories of Carole’s mother and school friend, and the book grew from there. All told, there are four mother–daughter pairs. Evaristo believes her background as an actress (in her twenties) allowed her to almost become these characters and write them from the inside, so that even though the chapters are written in the third person they feel like first-person narratives. The 12 flawed, complex main characters are “equal protagonists,” she insisted. Her aim was “to explore multiplicity to address our invisibility.” She characterizes the book’s style as “fusion fiction”: an accessible take on the experimental novel, with unorthodox, free-flowing language that allows readers to move easily between the different characters’ storylines.

Both Evaristo and Makumbi admitted to having a complicated relationship with feminism, Evaristo because the feminism of the 1980s did not seem to include black women and Makumbi because the fight for equality is still ongoing in patriarchal African societies like her native Uganda’s. Evaristo feels that feminism is now more inclusive and, also thanks to the #MeToo movement, there has been a place for her book that may not have been there five or 10 years ago. (The same goes for Makumbi, who has only now found a publisher for her very feminist first novel, which was rejected in the 2000s.) Both authors spoke of the ways in which people are made to feel “Other”: through sex, race and class. Makumbi pointed out that Africans experience a specific racism separate from other blacks in Britain. “I’m not racist, but I draw the line at Africans” is how she caricatured this view.

Makumbi’s novel Kintu is a sprawling family saga that has been compared to Roots, but she has recently released a collection of short stories that focus on Ugandan immigration to Britain between the 1950s and today. She envisioned Manchester Happened as “a letter back home” to tell people what it’s really like to settle in a new country, as well as a chance to reflect on the underrepresented East African immigration experience. Much of the book is drawn from her life, such as working as an airport security officer to fund her creative writing degree. Her mentor recommended that she start writing stories as a way to counterbalance the intensity of Kintu – a chance to see the beginning, middle and end as a simple arc. She assumed short stories would be easier than a novel, yet her first story took her four years to write. It is as if she can only look into her past for brief moments, anyway, she explained, so the story form has been perfect. She has deliberately avoided the negativity of many migration narratives, she said: Things have in fact gone well for her, and we’ve heard about things going wrong many times before.

I’m over halfway through Girl, Woman, Other now, and enjoying it very much – but wondering if its breadth sacrifices some depth. Evaristo acknowledged that she felt a bit less attached to these characters than she has in novels where she followed just one or two characters all the way through. Still, she feels that she knows and understands these women, even if she doesn’t like or approve of all of them. She read excerpts from the sections about Yazz, a feisty and opinionated young woman waiting for her mother’s play to start, and Hattie, a strong-willed 93-year-old from a Northumberland farming family. Makumbi read from two stories, one about a Ugandan couple arriving in Manchester in 1950 and the other set in the airport security area. In the latter the protagonist confiscates a whip from a priest, a funny moment that seems to represent Makumbi’s style – moderator Irenosen Okojie, a Nigerian author, mentioned another notable story from the perspective of a Ugandan street dog newly pampered in Britain.

I hope to read Manchester Happened soon, and should be featuring an extract from it next week as part of the Ake Book Festival blog tour. I’ll also finish the Evaristo this week and expect it to be on my Best of 2019 fiction list.

Booker Prize and Birthday Goings-On

The Booker Prize was announced last night in a live feed I watched over a glass of wine between my yoga class and birthday dessert. As chair of judges Peter Florence recapped each book, he said the most, and most effusively, about Ducks, Newburyport, so I thought Ellmann had it in the bag. Then, when it became clear there would be joint winners, I thought maybe Ellmann and Evaristo would share the Prize. But that’s not how things panned out…

I don’t have much to add to the conversation after yesterday’s Twitter storm; I remain entirely uninterested in reading The Testaments, an unnecessary sequel and, by all accounts, subpar Atwood work that didn’t need more buzz than it’s already attracted. Atwood won the Booker in 2000 for a brilliant novel, The Blind Assassin, one of my absolute favorites, and while she’s enough of a legend to be among the few authors to have won the Prize twice (along with Peter Carey, J.M. Coetzee and Hilary Mantel), maybe not for this book?

I am, however, delighted for Evaristo. If you haven’t yet picked up Girl, Woman, Other, I’d urge you to give it a try. I’m 1/3 into it now. Through a giveaway on Eric’s blog I won a copy plus two tickets to see Evaristo in conversation with Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (author of Manchester Happened, which I’ll be covering for the Ake Book Festival blog tour later this month) at the London Literature Festival on the 20th, but I couldn’t wait until I pick up my copy from the Southbank Centre so have been reading a library copy in the meantime.

You probably know that Girl, Woman, Other is a linked short story collection about 12 characters (mostly Black women) navigating twentieth-century and contemporary Britain, balancing external and internal expectations and different interpretations of feminism to build lives of their own. I’ve been surprised by the structure and style, however. It’s in four long chapters, each divided between three characters. These are almost like musical suites, with the three stories interlocking (I’m not in far enough to know if there is overlap between the suites). The prose is mostly uncapitalized and unpunctuated, with only a handful of full stops closing sections. This makes it more like poetry: a wry, radical stream of consciousness. I’d compare it, content-wise, to Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer.

This is the third tie in Booker history – though after a 1992 tie the rules were changed so that it shouldn’t have happened again. As Gaby Wood, literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, puts it, “The thinking was it just doesn’t work—it sort of detracts attention from both, rather than drawing attention to either.” So while it’s wonderful that Evaristo is the first Black woman to win the Booker, there is something almost sinister about the fact that, due to the tie, she gets just £25,000 in prize money rather than the full £50,000. However, both she and Atwood were extremely graceful in their acceptance speeches (Atwood sheepish and apologetic at the same time), so I will try to be as well. It’s a turn-up for the books, anyway!

 


Yesterday was also my 36th birthday. A dismally wet Monday may not be ideal for a birthday, but I’d had the whole previous weekend for celebrating so can’t really complain. Saturday was a very Newbury day of volunteer gardening in the drizzle; an excellent lunch at Henry & Joe’s, a reasonably new restaurant with small plates of seasonal food, exquisitely presented – on the way to Michelin star quality; an early evening showing of Downton Abbey in the intimate upstairs theatre at the Corn Exchange; and a wander around the Fire Garden art installation, which features giant candles and automata. On Sunday I helped out at a fun and chaotic pet blessing service at church, followed by cake, presents and a homemade feast.

One of the best parts of preparing for my birthday is finding recipes for my husband to make for me. This year I picked a Chocolate Orange Truffle Cake from Perfect Chocolate Desserts (which includes photographs of every step), a veganized Chicken Jackfruit Mole with Red Cabbage Slaw and flatbreads from Pip & Nut: The Nut Butter Cookbook, and A Rum of One’s Own (aka hot buttered rum) from the Tequila Mockingbird literary cocktails book. All amazingly rich and delicious; by nightcap time, I could only manage a sip or two of the rum.

I gave myself the Monday off work (the nice thing about being a freelancer, even if I don’t get paid) and spent much of it reading in comfy spots around the house and looking out at the rain. I also picked out a pile of books I’ve been meaning to reread, but only got around to starting the Thomas. I hadn’t read it since it came out in 2006 yet I remember it so well, even particular phrasing. It was one of the first memoirs to make a really big impression on me.

It won’t surprise you that my wish list contained only books this year, so with the exception of a mug mat, puffin socks and notecards, a couple of CDs, some chocolate and the perfect pin badge (“Bookish”), I received 14 books as presents: two novels and the rest nonfiction, mostly memoirs. I get much of my fiction from the library or from NetGalley/Edelweiss (particularly the American releases I can’t find elsewhere), but there are lots of nonfiction authors whose work I can’t find other than secondhand. I know where I’ll start with this pile: the Houston and McCracken are 2019 releases, so I want to read them before the end of the year in case they make a Best Of list. After that, I’ll let whimsy be my guide. A great haul!

Any additional Booker thoughts?

What caught your eye from my birthday stacks?

Penguin Influencers Event & 2020 Releases to Look Out For

Just a quick one to report on an event I attended in London last night – thanks to Annabel for asking if she could invite me along. This Penguin Influencers evening was held at sofa.com, a furniture showroom nestled beneath a railway arch near Southwark station. It was a slightly odd venue, but at least there were lots of comfy places to sit. Displays of proof copies were arranged on coffee tables so we could go around and fill our free Tana French tote bags with what caught our eye. There were a few dozen of us there: just one bloke; and mostly women younger than me.

It was good to meet some bloggers I recognized from Twitter and Facebook groups, including Rachel Gilbey (one of whose blog tours I’ve participated in) and Linda Hill (one of whose blog competitions I’ve won); I also spotted a couple more familiar faces, even though I didn’t get to say hello: Ova from Excuse My Reading and Umut from Umut Reviews. It was especially nice to see Beth Bonini, the Bookstagram queen, again. She used to live near me, though we didn’t realize that until just as she was moving from Newbury to London; she gave me her gorgeous bookcase.

 

As to the book acquisitions…

The Wych Elm by Tana French is now out in paperback. I’ve not read anything by French, but have meant to for a long time because many trusted bloggers think she’s terrific, even if (like me) they don’t ordinarily read crime. This just exceeds 500 pages, so I think I’ll make it my doorstopper for next month, and it will also tie in with the R.I.P. challenge.

 

I’d already read Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout on my Kindle via a NetGalley download, but it’s great to now own one of my favorite releases of the year in print. (I found it difficult to go back through the e-book when writing my review because it didn’t have a proper table of contents and I’d forgotten all the chapter/story titles as I went along.)

 

Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton is coming out on January 9th. It’s a tense school shooting novel set in Somerset, and the publicist told us that if we don’t agree with her in all those clichés – ‘I couldn’t put it down; I stayed up all night reading it’ – we can sue her!

 

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano is coming out on February 27th. Edward is the only survivor after a plane bound from New York City to Los Angeles crashes in Colorado. The novel is about how he rebuilds his life afterwards; the publicist warned us to bring tissues.

 

Keeper by Jessica Moor is Penguin’s lead debut title of 2020, coming out on March 19th. When a young woman is found dead at a popular suicide site, the police dismiss it as an open-and-shut case of suicide. But the others at the women’s shelter where Katie Straw worked aren’t convinced. We meet five very different women from the refuge and hear their stories, in the process learning about some of the major threats that face women today. There are already words of praise in from Val McDermid and Jeanette Winterson.

 


It probably won’t be until later in December that I start reading 2020 titles and reporting back on what I’ve read, plus listing the other releases I’m most looking forward to.

Though I might have hoped for a few more free books to make the cost of my train ticket into London feel worthwhile, I enjoyed connecting with fellow bloggers, hearing about some 2020 releases, and briefly fooling myself that I’m an influencer in the book world. At the very least, I’m now on a Penguin mailing list so might be invited to some future events or sent some proofs.