Category Archives: Nonfiction Reviews

20 Books of Summer, #1–4: Adichie, de Bernières, Egan, and Styron

The first four books for this summer’s colour theme took me from Australia to New York City to Nigeria, and into a mind plagued by depression.

 

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2003)

This was my last remaining unread book by Adichie, and that probably goes a long way toward explaining why I found it underwhelming. In comparison to her two later novels, and even her short stories (of which this reminded me the most), the canvas is small and the emotional scope limited. Kambili is a Nigerian teenager caught between belief systems: her grandfather’s traditional (“pagan”) ancestor worship versus the strict Catholicism that is the preserve of her abusive father, but also of the young priest on whom she has a crush. She and her brother try to stay out of their father’s way, but they are held to such an impossibly high standard of behaviour that it seems inevitable that they will disappoint him.

Adichie’s debt to her literary hero, Chinua Achebe, is evident from the first line onward: “Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère.” It also sets up, with a certain lack of subtlety, the way in which religion is wielded as a weapon in the novel. Meanwhile, the title suggests rarity, beauty, and fragile hope. Had this been my first taste of Adichie’s fiction, I probably would have stopped there, so in a way I’m glad that I read her first book last. Now I just have to wait with tapping fingers for the next one… (Free from a neighbour)

 

Blue Dog by Louis de Bernières (2016)

A sweet coming-of-age novella about a boy moving to the Australian Outback to live with his grandfather in the 1960s and adopting a stray dog – a red cloud kelpie, but named Blue. I didn’t realize that this is a prequel (to Red Dog), and based on a screenplay. It was my third book by de Bernières, and it was interesting to read in the afterword that he sees this one as being suited to 12-year-olds, yet most likely to be read by adults.

Mick’s father is dead and his mother has had a breakdown, so Granpa is the only one around to look after him, though out at the cattle station the boy mostly fends for himself, having adventures with stinging lizards and cyclones and bushfires and cursed caves. All along, Blue and his motorcycle are constant companions. Taylor Pete, a wry Aboriginal man, and Betty Marble, a pretty blonde hired as his teacher, are two amusing secondary characters.

This reminded me of Gerald Durrell’s writing about his childhood, and was pleasant airport and plane reading for me: light and fun, but not fluffy, and offering an armchair traveling opportunity. I especially liked the Australian lingo and the blue and black illustrations at the head and foot of each chapter, with a flipbook-style cartoon of a running dog in the upper right corner of each odd-numbered page. (Public library)

 

Emerald City by Jennifer Egan (1993)

Each of these 11 stories has a fantastic first line – my favorite, from “Sacred Heart,” being “In ninth grade I was a great admirer of Jesus Christ” – but often I felt that these stories of relationships on the brink did not live up to their openers. Most take place in a major city (Chicago, New York, San Francisco) or a holiday destination (Bora Bora, China, Mexico, Spain), but no matter the setting, the terrain is generally a teen girl flirting with danger or a marriage about to implode because the secret of a recent or long-ago affair has come out into the open.

Recurring elements include models/stylists/fashion photographers and people getting conned out of money. The title story is set in New York, described as “a place that glittered from a distance even when you reached it.”

To me the best story, for offering something a bit different, was “One Piece,” about a brother who seems to hurt everything he touches but comes through for his sister when it counts. Egan’s characters are caught between emotional states: remembering a golden age, regretting a moment that changed everything, or hoping that the best is yet to come. “The Stylist” was the one story that reminded me most of A Visit from the Goon Squad. As soon as I closed the book, I found that I had trouble remembering details of any of the stories. (Little Free Library in suburban Philadelphia, May 2019)

 

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron (1990)

(Visible darkness must have a colour, right?) I had long wanted to read this and finally came across a secondhand copy the other day. What I never realized was that, at 84 pages, it is essentially an extended essay: It started life as a lecture given at Johns Hopkins in 1989, was expanded into a Vanity Fair essay, and then further expanded into this short book.

Approaching age 60 and on his way to Paris to accept a prestigious award, Styron could feel his depression worsening. Rather than being proud or grateful, he could only doubt his own talent. The pills his doctor prescribed him for insomnia exacerbated his feelings of despair. When he threw away the journal he had been keeping, he knew it was a potential prelude to suicide. Hearing a piece by Brahms on a movie soundtrack was the one thing that reminded him of the beauty of the world and the richness of his life, enough for him to reach out and get seven weeks of treatment at a mental hospital, which was what saved him. These experiences, recounted in sections VI and VII, are the highlight of the book.

Styron also muses on the creative temperament and the ubiquity of suicide among writers, especially those who, like him, had an early trauma (his mother died when he was 13). The prose is forthright and intimate, ably evoking a psychic pain that is “quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it.” This made me want to try his fiction, too. (Secondhand purchase, June 2021)

Favourite lines:

“each day’s pattern of distress exhibits fairly predictable alternating periods of intensity and relief. The evening’s relief for me—an incomplete but noticeable letup, like the change from a torrential downpour to a steady shower—came in the hours after dinnertime and before midnight, when the pain lifted a little and my mind would become lucid enough to focus on matters beyond the immediate upheaval convulsing my system.”

“Alcohol was an invaluable senior partner of my intellect, besides being a friend whose ministrations I sought daily—sought also, I now see, as a means to calm the anxiety and incipient dread that I had hidden away for so long somewhere in the dungeons of my spirit.”

 

Next two in progress: A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy and Ruby by Ann Hood.

 

Read any of these? Interested?

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?

Review Book Catch-Up: Ante, Evans, Foster and White

Today I have a book of poems about the Filipinx experience in the UK, a collection of short stories reflecting on racial injustice, a monograph on a bird that spells summer for many of us, and a biographical investigation into a little-understood medical condition.

 

Antiemetic for Homesickness by Romalyn Ante

I was drawn to this debut collection by the terrific title and cover, but also by the accolades it received: it was on the Dylan Thomas Prize longlist and the Jhalak Prize shortlist. I hope we’ll see it on the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist, too. Ante grew up in the Philippines but at age 16 joined her mother in the UK, where she had moved years before to work as a nurse in the NHS. She has since followed in her mother’s footsteps as a nurse – indeed, overseas Filipinx workers (Jamaicans, too) are a mainstay of the NHS.

Ante remembers the years when her mother was absent but promised to send for the rest of the family soon: “You said all I needed to do was to sleep and before I knew it, / you’d be back. But I woke to the rice that needed rinsing, / my siblings’ school uniforms that needed ironing.” The medical profession as a family legacy and noble calling is a strong element of these poems, especially in “Invisible Women,” an ode to the “goddesses of caring and tending” who walk the halls of any hospital. Hard work is a matter of survival, and family – whether physically present or not – bolsters weary souls. A series of short, untitled poems are presented as tape recordings made for her mother.

Food is inextricably entwined with memory (reminding me of Nina Mingya Powles’s approach in Tiny Moons) and provides some of the standout metaphors, especially in “Patis” and “Ode to a Pot Noodle.” Ante uses a lot of alliteration and adapts various forms. I especially liked “Tagay!”, a traditional drinking song, and “Mateo,” printed in the shape of a pound sign. The nuanced look at the immigrant experience reminded me of Jenny Xie’s Eye Level. Movement entails losses as well as benefits. The focus on the Filipinx experience also made me think of America Is Not the Heart. My favourite single poem was “The Making of a Smuggler,” which opens “Wherever we travel, we carry / the whole country with us – // our rice terraces are folded garments, / we have pillars of trees, a rainforest // on a hairbrush.”

Favourite lines:

“Gone are the nights he steals / the moon with a mango picker / and swaps it for her pocket mirror”

“The yellow admission papers in my hands escaped / flustering at my face into a flight of orioles.”

“I am halved in order to be whole – / I rebuild by leaving / everything I love.”

With thanks to Chatto & Windus for the free copy for review.

 

The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans

To boil these six stories and a novella down to the topic of race in America risks painting them as solemn or strident – more concerned with meaning than with art – when the truth is that they are playful and propulsive even though they keep cycling back to bereavement and injustice. Several of the protagonists are young Black women coming to terms with a loss.

In “Happily Ever After,” Lyssa works in the gift shop of a Titanic replica and is cast as an extra in a pop star’s music video. Mythical sea monsters are contrasted with the real dangers of her life, like cancer and racism. “Anything Could Disappear” was a favourite of mine, though it begins with that unlikely scenario of a single woman acquiring a baby as if by magic. What starts off as a burden becomes a bond she can’t bear to let go. A family is determined to clear the name of their falsely imprisoned ancestor in “Alcatraz.” In “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain” (a mnemonic for the colours of the rainbow), photojournalist Rena is wary about attending the wedding of a friend she met when their plane was detained in Africa some years ago. The only wedding she’s been in is her sister’s, which ended badly.

Mistakes and deceit seem to follow these characters. In the title novella that closes the book, Cassie and her colleagues combat fake news, going around putting correction labels on plaques that whitewash history. When she and her former colleague meet up in Wisconsin to find the truth behind a complex correction case, a clash with a white supremacist group quickly turns pedantry into a matter of life and death. The story I’d heard the most about beforehand was “Boys Go to Jupiter,” about a college girl who dons a Confederate flag bikini, not caring what message it sends to others in her dorm. It turns out she has history with a Black family, but has chosen to airbrush this experience out of her life.

There was only one story I didn’t care for, “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” about a celebrity who turns apologizing into performance art. Overall, this is a very strong collection I would recommend to readers of Brit Bennett and Raven Leilani, with some stories also reminding me of recent work by Curtis Sittenfeld and Mary South. I’ll be sure to seek out Evans’s previous book (also short stories), too.

With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.

 

The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster

The other week I was volunteering at our local community garden and looked up to see a dozen common swifts wheeling over the Kennet & Avon canal and picking off insects among the treetops. I hope this fellow Foster (for whom my husband was once confused on a nature conference attendee list) would be proud of me for pausing to gaze at the birds for a while. My impression of the author is as a misanthropic eccentric. A Renaissance man as well versed in law and theology as he is in natural history, he’s obsessed with swifts and ashamed of his own species: for looking down at their feet when they could be watching the skies; for the “pathological tidiness” that leaves swifts and so many other creatures no place to live.

The obsession began when he was eight years old and someone brought him a dead swift fledgling for his taxidermy hobby. Ever since, he’s dated the summer by their arrival. “It is always summer for them,” though, as his opening line has it. This monograph is structured chronologically. Much like Tim Dee does in Greenery, Foster follows the birds for a year: from their winter territory in Africa to the edges of Europe in spring and then to his very own Oxford street in high summer. When they leave, he’s bereft and ready to book a flight back to Africa.

Along the way, Foster delivers heaps of information: the fossil evidence of swifts, how they know where to migrate (we have various theories but don’t really know), their nesting habits and lifespan, and the typical fates of those individuals that don’t survive. But, thumbing his nose at his “ex-friend” (a closed-minded biologist he repeatedly, and delightfully, rails against), he refuses to stick to a just-the-facts approach. Acknowledging the risks of anthropomorphizing, he speaks of swifts as symbols of aspiration, of life lived with intensity. He believes that we can understand animal emotions analogously through our own, so that, inappropriate as such words might seem, we can talk about what birds hope and plan for. He scorns reductive ecosystem services lingo that defines creatures by what we get out of them.

Also like Dee, Foster quotes frequently from poetry. His prose is full of sharp turns of phrase and moments of whimsy and made me eager to try more of his work (I know the most about but have not yet read Being a Beast).

Swifts know the roar of lions better than the roar of the M25, the piping of hornbills better than the Nunc Dimittis of parish Evensong … Are memories of our eaves spiralling high above the Gulf of Guinea? … They don’t seem to prevaricate. One moment they’re there, the next they’re off, diving straight into the journey. It’s the way we should run into cold water.

As I’ve found with a number of Little Toller releases now (On Silbury Hill, Snow, Landfill), knowledge meets passion to create a book that could make an aficionado of the most casual of readers. Towards the close I was also reminded of Richard Smyth’s An Indifference of Birds: “When Homo sapiens has gone there will be lots of ideal swift holes in the decaying buildings we’ll leave behind.” It’s comforting to think of natural cycles continuing after we’re gone … but let’s start making the space for them now. Jonathan Pomroy’s black-and-white illustrations of swift behaviour only add to this short book’s charms.

With thanks to Little Toller Books for the free copy for review.

 

Waiting for Superman: One Family’s Struggle to Survive – and Cure – Chronic Fatigue Syndrome by Tracie White

Like Suzanne O’Sullivan’s books (most recently, The Sleeping Beauties), this is presented as an investigation into a medical mystery. White, a Stanford Medicine journalist, focuses on one family that has been indelibly changed by chronic fatigue syndrome – now linked with myalgic encephalomyelitis and termed ME/CFS for short. Whitney Dafoe was a world traveller and promising photographer before, in 2010, a diagnosis of ME/CFS explained his exhaustion and gastrointestinal problems. By the time White first met the family in 2016, the thirtysomething was bedbound in his parents’ home with a feeding tube, only able to communicate via gestures and rearranging Scrabble tiles. He couldn’t bear loud noises, or to be touched. At times he was nearly comatose.

Whitney’s father, Ron Davis, is a Stanford geneticist whose research has contributed to the Human Genome Project. He has devoted himself to studying ME/CFS, which affects 20 million people worldwide yet receives little research funding; he calls it “the last major disease we know nothing about.” Testing his son’s blood, he found a problem with the citric acid cycle that produces ATP, essential fuel for the body’s cells – proof that there was a physiological reason for Whitney’s condition. Frustratingly, though, a Stanford colleague who examined Whitney prescribed a psychological intervention. This is in line with the current standard of care for ME/CFS: a graded exercise regime (nigh on impossible for someone who can’t get out of bed) and cognitive behavioural therapy.

White delves into Whitney’s past, looking for clues to what could have triggered his illness (having mono in high school? a parasite he picked up in India?). She also goes back to the mid-1980s to consider the Lake Tahoe outbreak of ME/CFS, whose victims “looked too healthy to be sick and were repeatedly disbelieved.” The media called it “yuppie flu,” downplaying the extreme fatigue involved. White also meets Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit, who suffers from ME/CFS and managed to write her bestselling books from bed. Like Whitney, she only has a certain allotment of energy and mustn’t use it up too fast.

  • A neat connection: Stephanie Land, author of Maid, was Whitney’s ex-girlfriend when he was 19 and living in Alaska; she wrote a Longreads article about their relationship.
  • The title is from a Flaming Lips lyric and expresses Whitney’s trust in his dad’s ability to cure him; the U.S. title is The Puzzle Solver and the working title was The Invisible Patient.

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

 

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

Recommended May Releases: Adichie, Pavey and Unsworth

Three very different works of women’s life writing: heartfelt remarks on bereavement, a seasonal diary of stewarding four wooded acres in Somerset, and a look back at postnatal depression.

 

Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This slim hardback is an expanded version of an essay Adichie published in the New Yorker in the wake of her father’s death in June 2020. With her large family split across three continents and coronavirus lockdown precluding in-person get-togethers, they had a habit of frequent video calls. She had seen her father the day before on Zoom and knew he was feeling unwell and in need of rest, but the news of his death still came as a complete shock.

Adichie anticipates all the unhelpful platitudes people could and did send her way: he lived to a ripe old age (he was 88), he had a full life and was well respected (he was Nigeria’s first statistics professor), he had a mercifully swift end (kidney failure). Her logical mind knows all of these facts, and her writer’s imagination has depicted grief many times. Still, this loss blindsided her.

She’d always been a daddy’s girl, but the anecdotes she tells confirm how special he was: wise and unassuming; a liberal Catholic suspicious of materialism and with a dry humour. I marvelled at one such story: in 2015 he was kidnapped and held in the boot of a car for three days, his captors demanding a ransom from his famous daughter. What did he do? Correct their pronunciation of her name, and contradict them when they said that clearly his children didn’t love him. “Grief has, as one of its many egregious components, the onset of doubt. No, I am not imagining it. Yes, my father truly was lovely.” With her love of fashion, one way she dealt with her grief was by designing T-shirts with her father’s initials and the Igbo words for “her father’s daughter” on them.

I’ve read many a full-length bereavement memoir, and one might think there’s nothing new to say, but Adichie writes with a novelist’s eye for telling details and individual personalities. She has rapidly become one of my favourite authors: I binged on most of her oeuvre last year and now have just one more to read, Purple Hibiscus, which will be one of my 20 Books of Summer. I love her richly evocative prose and compassionate outlook, no matter the subject. At £10, this 85-pager is pricey, but I was lucky to get it free with Waterstones loyalty points.

Favourite lines:

“In the face of this inferno that is sorrow, I am callow and unformed.”

“How is it that the world keeps going, breathing in and out unchanged, while in my soul there is a permanent scattering?”

 

Deeper Into the Wood by Ruth Pavey

In 1999 Ruth Pavey bought four acres of scrubland at auction, happy to be returning to her family’s roots in the Somerset Levels and hoping to work alongside nature to restore some of her land to orchard and maintain the rest in good health. Her account of the first two decades of this ongoing project, A Wood of One’s Own, was published in 2017.

In this sequel, she gives peaceful snapshots of the wood throughout 2019, from first snowdrops to final apple pressing, but also faces up to the environmental degradation that is visible even in this pocket of the countryside. “I am sure there has been a falling off in numbers of insects, smaller birds and rabbits on my patch,” she insists. Without baseline data, it is hard to support this intuition, but she has botanical and bird surveys done, and invites an expert in to do a moth-trapping evening. The resulting species lists are included as appendices. In addition, Pavey weaves a backstory for her land. She meets a daffodil breeder, investigates the source of her groundwater, and visits the head gardener at the Bishop’s Palace in Wells, where her American black walnut sapling came from. She also researches the Sugg family, associated with the land (“Sugg’s Orchard” on the deed) from the 1720s.

Pavey aims to treat this landscape holistically: using sheep to retain open areas instead of mowing the grass, and weighing up the benefits of the non-native species she has planted. She knows her efforts can only achieve so much; the pesticides standard to industrial-scale farming may still be reaching her trees on the wind, though she doesn’t apply them herself. “One sad aspect of worrying about the state of the natural world is that everything starts to look wrong,” she admits. Starting in that year’s abnormally warm January, it was easy for her to assume that the seasons can no longer be relied on.

Compared with her first memoir, this one is marked by its intellectual engagement with the principles and practicalities of rewilding. Clearly, her inner struggle is motivated less by the sense of ownership than by the call of stewardship. While this book is likely be of most interest to those with a local connection or a similar project underway, it offers a universal model of how to mitigate our environmental impact. Pavey’s black-and-white sketches of the flora and fauna on her patch, reminiscent of Quentin Blake, are a highlight.

With thanks to Duckworth for the proof copy for review. The book will be published tomorrow, the 27th of May.

 

After the Storm: Postnatal Depression and the Utter Weirdness of New Motherhood by Emma Jane Unsworth

The author’s son was born on the day Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election. Six months later, she realized that she was deep into postnatal depression and finally agreed to get help. The breaking point came when, with her husband* away at a conference, she got frustrated with her son’s constant fussing and pushed him over on the bed. He was absolutely fine, but the guilty what-ifs proliferated, making this a wake-up call for her.

In this succinct, wry and hard-hitting memoir, Unsworth exposes the conspiracies of silence that lead new mothers to lie and pretend that everything is fine. Since her son’s traumatic birth (which I first read about in Dodo Ink’s Trauma anthology), she hadn’t been able to write and was losing her sense of self. To add insult to injury, her baby had teeth at 16 weeks and bit her as he breastfed. She couldn’t even admit her struggles to her fellow mum friends. But “if a woman is in pain for long enough, and denied sleep for long enough, and at the same time feels as though she has to keep going and put a ‘brave’ face on, she’s going to crack.”

The book’s titled mini-essays give snapshots into the before and after, but particularly the agonizing middle of things. I especially liked the chapter “The Weirdest Thing I’ve Ever Done in a Hotel Room,” in which she writes about borrowing her American editor’s room to pump breastmilk. Therapy, antidepressants and hiring a baby nurse helped her to ease back into her old life and regain some part of the party girl persona she once exuded – enough so that she was willing to give it all another go (her daughter was born late last year).

While Unsworth mostly writes from experience, she also incorporates recent research and makes bold statements of how cultural norms need to change. “You are not monsters,” she writes to depressed mums. “You need more support. … Motherhood is seismic. It cracks open your life, your relationship, your identity, your body. It features the loss, grief and hardship of any big life change.” I can imagine this being hugely helpful to anyone going through PND (see also my Three on a Theme post on the topic), but I’m not a mother and still found plenty to appreciate (especially “We have to smash the dichotomy of mums/non-mums … being maternal has nothing to do with actually physically being a mother”).

I’m attending a Wellcome Collection online event with Unsworth and midwife Leah Hazard (author of Hard Pushed) this evening and look forward to hearing more from both authors.

*It took me no time at all to identify him from the bare facts: Brighton + doctor + graphic novelist = Ian Williams (author of The Lady Doctor)! I had no idea. What a fun connection.

With thanks to Profile Books/Wellcome Collection for the free copy for review.

 

What recent releases can you recommend?

Three May Graphic Novel Releases: Orwell, In, and Coma

These three terrific graphic novels all have one-word titles and were published on the 13th of May. Outwardly, they are very different: a biography of a famous English writer, the story of an artist looking for authentic connections, and a memoir of a medical crisis that had permanent consequences. The drawing styles are varied as well. But if the books share one thing, it’s an engagement with loneliness: It’s tempting to see the self as being pitted against the world, with illness an additional isolating force, but family, friends and compatriots are there to help us feel less alone and like we are a part of something constructive.

 

Orwell by Pierre Christin; illustrated by Sébastien Verdier

[Translated from the French by Edward Gauvin]

George Orwell was born Eric Blair in Bengal, where his father worked for the colonial government. As a boy, he loved science fiction and knew that he would become a writer. He had an unhappy time at prep school, where he was on reduced fees, and proceeded to Eton and then police training in Burma. Already he felt that “imperialism was an evil thing.” Among this book’s black-and-white panes, the splashes of colour – blood, a British flag – stand out, and guest artists contribute a two-page colour spread each, illustrating scenes from Orwell’s major works. His pen name commemorates a local river and England’s patron saint, marking his preoccupation with the essence of Englishness: something deeper than his hated militarism and capitalism. Even when he tried to ‘go native’ for embedded journalism (Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier), his accent marked him out as posh. He was opinionated and set out “rules” for clear writing and the proper making of tea.

The book’s settings range from Spain, where Orwell went to fight in the Civil War, via a bomb shelter in London’s Underground, to the island of Jura, where he retired after the war. I particularly loved the Scottish scenery. I also appreciated the notes on where his life story entered into his fiction (especially in A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying). During World War II he joined the Home Guard and contributed to BBC broadcasting alongside T.S. Eliot. He had married Eileen, adopted a baby boy, and set up a smallholding. Even when hospitalized for tuberculosis, he wouldn’t stop typing (or smoking).

Christin creates just enough scenes to give a sense of the sweep of Orwell’s life, and incorporates plenty of the author’s own words in a typewriter font. He recognizes all the many aspects, sometimes contradictory, of his subject’s life. And in an afterword, he makes a strong case for Orwell’s ideas being more important now than ever before. My knowledge of Orwell’s oeuvre, apart from the ones everyone has read – Animal Farm and 1984 – is limited; luckily this is suited not just to Orwell fans but to devotees of life stories of any kind.

With thanks to SelfMadeHero for the free copy for review.

 

In by Will McPhail

Nick never knows the right thing to say. The bachelor artist’s well-intentioned thoughts remain unvoiced, such that all he can manage is small talk. Whether he’s on a subway train, interacting with his mom and sister, or sitting in a bar with a tongue-in-cheek name (like “Your Friends Have Kids” or “Gentrificchiato”), he’s conscious of being the clichéd guy who’s too clueless or pathetic to make a real connection with another human being. That starts to change when he meets Wren, a Black doctor who instantly sees past all his pretence.

Like Orwell, In makes strategic use of colour spreads. “Say something that matters,” Nick scolds himself, and on the rare occasions when he does figure out what to say or ask – the magic words that elicit an honest response – it’s as if a new world opens up. These full-colour breakthrough scenes are like dream sequences, filled with symbols such as a waterfall, icy cliff, or half-submerged building with classical façade. Each is heralded by a close-up image on the other person’s eyes: being literally close enough to see their eye colour means being metaphorically close enough to be let in. Nick achieves these moments with everyone from the plumber to his four-year-old nephew.

Alternately laugh-out-loud funny and tender, McPhail’s debut novel is as hip as it is genuine. It’s a spot-on picture of modern life in a generic city. I especially loved the few pages when Nick is on a Zoom call with carefully ironed shirt but no trousers and the potential employers on the other end get so lost in their own jargon that they forget he’s there. His banter with Wren or with his sister reveals a lot about these characters, but there’s also an amazing 12-page wordless sequence late on that conveys so much. While I’d recommend this to readers of Alison Bechdel, Craig Thompson, and Chris Ware (and expect it to have a lot in common with Kristen Radtke’s forthcoming Seek You: A Journey through American Loneliness), it’s perfect for those brand new to graphic novels, too – a good old-fashioned story, with all the emotional range of Writers & Lovers. I hope it’ll be a wildcard entry on the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist.

With thanks to Sceptre for the free copy for review.

  

Coma by Zara Slattery

In May 2013, Zara Slattery’s life changed forever. What started as a nagging sore throat developed into a potentially deadly infection called necrotising fascitis. She spent 15 days in a medically induced coma and woke up to find that one of her legs had been amputated. As in Orwell and In, colour is used to differentiate different realms. Monochrome sketches in thick crayon illustrate her husband Dan’s diary of the everyday life that kept going while she was in hospital, yet it’s the coma/fantasy pages in vibrant blues, reds and gold that feel more real.

Slattery remembers, or perhaps imagines, being surrounded by nightmarish skulls and menacing animals. She feels accused and guilty, like she has to justify her continued existence. In one moment she’s a puppet; in another she’s in ancient China, her fate being decided for her. Some of the watery landscapes and specific images here happen to echo those in McPhail’s novel: a splash park, a sunken theatre; a statue on a plinth. There’s also a giant that reminded me a lot of one of the monsters in Spirited Away.

Meanwhile, Dan was holding down the fort, completing domestic tasks and reassuring their three children. Relatives came to stay; neighbours brought food, ran errands, and gave him lifts to the hospital. He addresses the diary directly to Zara as a record of the time she spent away from home and acknowledges that he doesn’t know if she’ll come back to them. A final letter from Zara’s nurse reveals how bad off she was, maybe more so than Dan was aware.

This must have been such a distressing time to revisit. In this interview, Slattery talks about the courage it took to read Dan’s diary even years after the fact. I admired how the book’s contrasting drawing styles recreate her locked-in mental state and her family’s weeks of waiting – both parties in limbo, wondering what will come next.

Brighton, where Slattery is based, is a hotspot of the Graphic Medicine movement spearheaded by Ian Williams (author of The Lady Doctor). Regular readers know how much I love health narratives, and with my keenness for graphic novels this series couldn’t be better suited to my interests.

With thanks to Myriad Editions for the free copy for review.

 

Read any graphic novels recently?

Recent BookBrowse & Shiny New Books Reviews, and Book Club Ado

Excerpts from and links to some of my recent online writing for other places:

BookBrowse

Three O’Clock in the Morning by Gianrico Carofiglio

The quotation that gives Carofiglio’s tender novel its title is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up: “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” It lends an appropriate sense of time suspended, of earnest seeking and extreme circumstances: The main action of the book takes place over just a few days in June of 1983, when Italian teenager Antonio and his father are stranded in Marseilles while there for Antonio to be seen by an epilepsy specialist. The gift of this time outside of time allows them to get to know each other better, such that the memory of the trip will be precious to Antonio even decades later. I appreciated how the limited setting heightened this short novel’s emotions. Carofiglio invites readers to peer between the leisurely progression of events to see the bond that is being formed. (See my full review at BookBrowse. See also my related article on HarperVia, a new publishing imprint for international literature.)

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Inspired by the composition of the Oxford English Dictionary, this Australian debut novel explores the lives of the women on its fringes through the words that were omitted. The suffrage movement and World War I loom large as the storyline enters the 1910s. I most appreciated the relationships Esme has with the various women in her life. The main action spans the 40 years of the original composition of the OED. That scope means there is a lot of skipping forward in time. Especially in the first half, I longed for the narrative to slow down so I could spend more time with this character. Despite the first-person narration, I never felt I knew Esme very well. Women’s bonds and women’s words are strong themes in this forthrightly feminist novel that, despite its flaws, would make a great book club selection. (See my full review at BookBrowse. See also my reading list of books about dictionaries and lost words.)

Shiny New Books

 

Notes from Deep Time: The Hidden Stories of the Earth Beneath Our Feet by Helen Gordon

To assess the place of humanity, we can look back to prehistory, but also forward to envision the “deep future.” (It was only in a late chapter on nuclear waste disposal sites and warning messages to the future that I found too much direct overlap with Footprints by David Farrier.) This engagingly blends both tactics, surveying the fields of geology and palaeontology and pondering the future traces of the Anthropocene. I most enjoyed the middle chapters, in which science meets wildlife and cultural studies. For instance, a chapter on ammonites leads into a profile of Mary Anning and the history of both fossil hunting and women in STEM careers. The prose is well pitched to the layman’s level. Interviews, travels, and snapshots from her own life generally keep the material from becoming too dry. An invigorating interdisciplinary tour. (See my full review at Shiny New Books.)


My book club has been meeting via Zoom since April 2020. This is a common state of affairs for book clubs around the world. Especially since we have 12 members (if everyone attends, which is rare), we haven’t been able to contemplate meeting in person as of yet. However, a subset of us meet midway between the monthly reads to discuss women’s classics like Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. For next week’s meeting on Mrs. Dalloway, we are going to attempt a six-person get-together in one member’s house.

Anyway, a neat thing we did last month was a Zoom chat with the author: a BBC correspondent who happens to be the brother of one of our members. If you’re a news junkie in the UK, you may know the name Jon Sopel, though since I don’t have a telly or ever listen to radio, I hadn’t encountered him until this “in-person” meet-up. He has been the BBC’s North America Editor since 2014.

UnPresidented is the third book he wrote over the course of the Trump presidency. It started off as a diary of the 2020 election campaign, beginning in July 2019, but of course soon morphed into something slightly different: a chronicle of life in D.C. and London during Covid-19 and a record of the Trump mishandling of the pandemic. But as well as a farcical election process and a public health crisis, 2020’s perfect storm also included economic collapse and social upheaval – thanks to the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests worldwide plus isolated rioting.

UnPresidented served as a good reminder for me of the timeline of events and the full catalogue of outrages committed by Trump and his cronies. You just have to shake your head over the litany of ridiculous things he said and did, and got away with – any one of which might have sunk another president or candidate. The style is breezy and off-the-cuff, so the book reads quickly. There’s a good balance between world events and personal ones, with his family split across the UK and Australia. I appreciated the insight into differences from the British system. I thought it would be depressing reading back through the events of 2020, but for the most part the knowledge that everything turned out “right” allowed me to see the humour in it. Still, I found it excruciating reading about the four days following the election.

Sopel kindly gave us an hour of his time one Wednesday evening before he had to go on air and answered our questions about Biden, Harris, journalistic ethics, and more. He was charming and eloquent, as befits his profession.

Would any of these books interest you?

Rooted by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Crow Planet was the highlight of my 2019 animal-themed summer reading. I admired her determination to incorporate wildlife-watching into everyday life, and appreciated her words on the human connection to and responsibility towards the rest of nature. Rooted, one of my most anticipated books of this year, continues in that vein, yet surprised me with its mystical approach. No doubt some will be put off by the spiritual standpoint and dismiss the author as a barefoot, tree-hugging hippie. Well, sign me up to Haupt’s team, because nature needs all the help it can get, and we know that people won’t save what they don’t love. Start to think about trees and animals as brothers and sisters – or even as part of the self – and actions that passively doom them, not to mention wanton destruction of habitat, will hit closer to home.

I hadn’t realized that Haupt grew up Catholic, so the language of mysticism comes easily to her, but even as a child nature was where she truly sensed transcendence. Down by the creek, where she listened to birdsong and watched the frog lifecycle, was where she learned that everything is connected. She even confessed her other church, “Frog Church” (this book’s original title), to her priest one day. (He humored her by assigning an extra Our Father.) How to reclaim that childhood feeling of connectedness as a busy, tech-addicted adult?

The Seattle-based Haupt engages in, and encourages, solo camping, barefoot walking, purposeful wandering, spending time sitting under trees, mindfulness, and going out in the dark. This might look countercultural, or even eccentric. Some will also feel called to teach, to protest, and to support environmental causes financially. Others will contribute their talent for music, writing, or the visual arts. But there are subtler changes to be made too, in our attitudes and the way we speak. A simple one is to watch how we refer to other species. “It” has no place in a creature-directed vocabulary.

Haupt’s perspective chimes with the ethos of the New Networks for Nature conference I attend each year, as well as with the work of many UK nature writers like Robert Macfarlane (in particular, she mentions The Lost Words) and Jini Reddy (Wanderland). I also found a fair amount of overlap with Lucy Jones’s Losing Eden. There were points where Haupt got a little abstract and even woo-woo for me – and I say that as someone with a religious background. But her passion won me over, and her book helped me to understand why two things that happened earlier this year – a fox dying in our backyard and neighbors having a big willow tree taken down – wounded me so deeply. That I felt each death throe and chainsaw cut as if in my own body wasn’t just me being sentimental and oversensitive. It was a reminder that I’m a part of all of life, and I must do more to protect it.

Favorite lines:

“In this time of planetary crisis, overwhelm is common. What to do? There is so much. Too much. No single human can work to save the orcas and the Amazon and organize protests to stop fracking and write poetry that inspires others to act and pray in a hermit’s dwelling for transformation and get dinner on the table. How easy it is to feel paralyzed by obligations. How easy it is to feel lost and insignificant and unable to know what is best, to feel adrift while yearning for purpose. Rootedness is a way of being in concert with the wilderness—and wildness—that sustains humans and all of life.”

“No one can do all things. Yet we can hold all things as we trim and change our lives and choose our particular forms of rooted, creative action—those that call uniquely to us.”

With thanks to Little, Brown Spark for sending a proof copy all the way from Boston, USA.

The Inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to Die by Katie Engelhart

Why, she wanted to know, was I so interested in the subject?

“Why isn’t everyone?” I asked.

The fact that I read a lot more books about death than the average person is something I attribute not to some morbid curiosity, but to pragmatism. As the title of Canadian reporter and documentary filmmaker Katie Engelhart’s book makes clear, this is the one subject none of us can avoid indefinitely, so why not learn about and understand it as much as possible? The Inevitable focuses on the controversial matter of assisted dying, also known as assisted suicide, euthanasia, or physician-assisted death. It’s a topic that’s already come up in my reading a couple of times this year: in the Dutch context of That One Patient by Ellen de Visser, and as a key part of the narrative in Darke Matter by Rick Gekoski.

Engelhart spends time with doctors and patients who are caught up in the assisted dying argument, chiefly in Western Europe and the United States. Ten states plus Washington, D.C. have assisted dying laws, sparked by Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act in 1994. In California, the author follows Dr. Lonny Shavelson for a month, observing all the meticulous regulations surrounded a physician-assisted death: patients with a terminal diagnosis and less than six months to live have to complete multiple forms, give many signatures, deliver oral testimony, and be able to drink the fatal concoction by themselves (whereas in other countries doctors can administer lethal injections). And if, when the time comes, a patient is too far gone to give spoken consent, the procedure is cancelled.

Other chapters consider specific cases that are not generally covered by current legislation but can drive people to seek assisted suicide: the ravages of old age, chronic degenerative illnesses, dementia, and severe mental illness. Each of these is given its own long chapter, like an extended magazine profile.

  • Meet Avril Henry, a former Exeter University professor in her eighties, now living alone with a failing body but no specific diagnosis that would qualify her for AD. Pain has long since outweighed pleasure in her life, so she illegally imports Nembutal from a veterinary supplier in Mexico and makes a careful plan for what will happen with her body, home, and possessions after she takes the drug in the bathtub.
  • Meet Maia Calloway, a 39-year-old former filmmaker confined to a wheelchair by multiple sclerosis. Her medicines cost $65,000 a year, not all covered by Medicare, and she can no longer rely on the patience of her boyfriend, who acts as her carer. She decides to raise the money to travel from Taos to a Swiss assisted dying clinic.
  • Meet Debra, a 65-year-old widow so rapidly declining with dementia that she knows she has to make her arrangements at once. She contacts the Final Exit Network, which gives advice and equipment (e.g. a nitrogen tank) that can make a death look unexplained or like a standard suicide.
  • Meet Adam, a 27-year-old in daily distress from OCD, anxiety, and depersonalization disorder. Though he’s lobbied for the inclusion of mental illness, he doesn’t qualify for AD under Canada’s laws. In 2017 he starts a Facebook livestream from a hotel room, intending to take poison off-screen. He loses his nerve this time, but is determined to try again.

These stories are so wrenching, but so compassionately told. Engelhart explores the nuances of each situation, crafting expert portraits of suffering people and the medical professionals who seek to help them, and adding much in the way of valuable context. Hers is a voice of reason and empathy. She mostly stays in the background, as befits a journalist, but occasionally emotional responses or skepticism come through – Exit International’s Philip Nitschke, vilified as a “Dr. Death” like Jack Kevorkian, is too much of a maverick for her.

And while her sympathy for the AD cause is evident, she also presents opposing arguments: from hospice doctors, from those afraid that the disabled will be pushed into assisted suicide to free up resources, from the family members of her subjects, and from those who have witnessed abuses of the system. There are those who frame this as a question of rights, and others who recognize a rare privilege; some who scorn the notion of escape, and others who speak of dignity and the kindness one would show a dying pet. The book is a vital contribution to an ongoing debate, with human stories at its heart.


With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review. The Inevitable was published in the UK on March 11th and is available from St. Martin’s Press in the USA.

The Circling Sky & The Sleeping Beauties

I think I have another seven April releases on the go that kind publishers have sent my way, but I’m so slow at finishing books that these two are the only ones I’ve managed so far. (I see lots of review catch-up posts in my future!) For now I have a travel memoir musing on the wonders of the New Forest and the injustice of land ownership policies, and a casebook of medical mysteries that can all be classed as culturally determined psychosomatic illnesses.

 

The Circling Sky: On Nature and Belonging in an Ancient Forest by Neil Ansell

After The Last Wilderness and especially Deep Country, his account of five solitary years in a Welsh cabin, Ansell is among my most-admired British nature writers. I was delighted to learn that his new book would be about the New Forest as it’s a place my Hampshire-raised husband and I have visited often and feel fond of. It has personal significance for Ansell, too: he grew up a few miles from Portsmouth. On Remembrance Sunday 1966, though, his family home burned down when a spark from a central heating wire sent the insulation up in flames. He can see how his life was shaped by this incident, making him a nomad who doesn’t accumulate possessions.

Hoping to reclaim a sense of ancestral connection, he returned to the New Forest some 30 times between January 2019 and January 2020, observing the unfolding seasons and the many uncommon and endemic species its miles house. The Forest has more than 1000 trees of over 400 years old, mostly oak and beech. Much of the rest is rare heath habitat, and livestock grazing maintains open areas. There are some plants only found in the New Forest, as well as a (probably extinct) cicada. He has close encounters with butterflies, a muntjac, and less-seen birds like the Dartford warbler, firecrest, goshawk, honey buzzard, and nightjar.

But this is no mere ‘white man goes for a walk’ travelogue, as much of modern nature writing has been belittled. Ansell weaves many different themes into the work: his personal story (mostly relevant, though his mother’s illness and a trip to Rwanda seemed less necessary), the shocking history of forced Gypsy relocation into forest compounds starting in the 1920s, biomass decline, and especially the unfairness of land ownership in Britain. More than 99% of the country is in the hands of a very few, and hardly any is left as common land. There is also enduring inequality of access to what little there is, often along race and class lines. The have-nots have been taught to envy the haves: “We are all brought up to aspire to home ownership,” Ansell notes. As a long-term renter, it’s a goal I’ve come to question, even as I crave the security and self-determination that owning a house and piece of land could offer.

Ansell speaks of “environmental dread” as a “rational response to the way the world is turning,” but he doesn’t rest in that mindset of despair. He’s in favour of rewilding, which is not, as some might assume, about leaving land alone to revert to its original state, but about the reintroduction of native species and intentional restoration of habitat types. In extending these rewilded swathes, we would combat the tendency to think of nature as something kept ‘over there’ in small reserves while subjecting the rest of the land to intensive, pesticide-based farming and the exploitation of resources. The New Forest thus strikes him as an excellent model of both wildlife-friendly land management and freedom of human access.

I appreciated how Ansell concludes that it’s not enough to simply love nature and write about the joy of spending time in it. Instead, he accepts a mantle of responsibility: “nothing is more political than the way we engage with the world around us. … Nature writing may often be read for comfort and reassurance, but perhaps we need to allow a little room for anger, too, for the ability to rage at everything that has been taken from us, and taken by us.” The bibliography couldn’t be more representative of my ecologist husband’s and my reading interests and nature library. The title is from John Clare and the book is a poetic meditation as well as a forthright argument. It also got me hankering for my next trip to the New Forest.

My rating:


With thanks to Tinder Press for the proof copy for review.

 

The Sleeping Beauties: And Other Stories of Mystery Illness by Suzanne O’Sullivan

O’Sullivan is a consultant at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery. She won the Wellcome Book Prize for It’s All in Your Head, and The Sleeping Beauties picks up on that earlier book’s theme of psychosomatic illness – with the key difference being that this one travels around the world to investigate outbreaks of mass hysteria or sickness that have arisen in particular cultural contexts. An important thing to bear in mind is that O’Sullivan and other doctors in her field are not dismissing these illnesses as “fake”; they acknowledge that they are real and meaningful, yet there is clear evidence that they are not physical in origin – brain tests come back normal – but psychological with bodily manifestations.

The case that gives the book its title appeared in Sweden in 2017. Child asylum seekers who had experienced trauma in their home country were falling into a catatonic state. O’Sullivan visited the home of sisters Nola and Helan, part of the Yazidi ethnic minority group from Iraq and Syria. The link between them and the other children affected was that they were all now threatened with deportation: Their hopelessness had taken on physical form, giving the illness the name resignation syndrome. “Predictive coding” meant their bodies did as they expected them to. She describes it as “a very effective culturally agreed means of expressing distress.”

In Texas, the author meets Miskito people from Nicaragua who combat the convulsions and hallucinations of “grisi siknis” in their community with herbs and prayers; shamans are of more use in this circumstance than antiepileptic drugs. A sleeping sickness tore through two neighbouring towns of Kazakhstan between 2010 and 2015, affecting nearly half of the population. As with the refugee children in Sweden, it was a stress response to being forced to move away – though people argued they were being poisoned by a local uranium mine. There is often a specific external factor that is blamed in these situations, as when mass hysteria and seizures among Colombian schoolgirls were attributed to the HPV vaccine.

This book was released on the 1st of April, and at times I felt I was the victim of an elaborate April Fool’s joke: the cases are just so bizarre, and we’re used to rooting out a physical cause. But she makes clear that, in a biopsychosocial understanding (as also discussed in Pain by Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen), these illnesses are serving “a vital purpose” – just psychological and cultural. The first three chapters are the strongest; the book feels repetitive and somewhat aimless thereafter, especially in Chapter 4, which hops between different historical outbreaks of psychosomatic illness, like among the Hmong (cf. Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down), and other patients she treated for functional disorders. The later example of “Havana syndrome” doesn’t add enough to warrant its inclusion.

Still, O’Sullivan does well to combine her interviews and travels into compelling mini-narratives. Her writing has really come on in leaps and bounds since her first book, which I found clunky. However, much my favourite of her three works is Brainstorm, about epilepsy and other seizure disorders of various origins.

My rating:


With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.

 

What recent releases can you recommend?

Spring Reading 2021: Birdsong, Cherry Blossom & More

It’s been a gorgeously sunny spring here – how about where you are? Although there have still been some frosty nights troubling the gardeners among us, it’s been warm in the daytime and the flowers and blossom are coming on apace.

Recently I’ve read a couple of books reflecting on the spring of 2020, specifically the opportunities it offered to reconnect with local nature at a time when we were isolated and couldn’t travel.

I’ve also been feeling nostalgic for Washington, D.C. and the Maryland suburbs, where I grew up. It’s been two years since my last trip back, but I’m holding out hope that I can make it over in June for a family wedding.

Rounding out my selection of “Spring” titles is an offbeat Japanese novella.

 

Looking back to the coronavirus spring:

On Thursday evening I watched “The Act of Nature Watching,” a special Earth Day Zoom talk for West Berkshire Libraries by local nature writer Nicola Chester, whose memoir is coming out in the autumn. The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries, she lamented. We are hardwired to watch and love nature, she noted, yet have never been more alienated from it. Reading from her columns and anthology contributions (as well as the Lovatt, below) and giving tips on recognizing birdsong and mammal signs, she spoke of nature-watching as a form of mindfulness – an approach that chimed with the first three books I feature here.

 

Birdsong in a Time of Silence: An Awakening by Steven Lovatt (2021)

During the UK’s first lockdown, with planes grounded and cars stationary, many remarked on the quiet. All the better to hear birds going about their usual spring activities. For Lovatt, from Birmingham and now based in South Wales, it was the excuse he needed to return to his childhood birdwatching hobby. In between accounts of his spring walks, he tells lively stories of common birds’ anatomy, diet, lifecycle, migration routes, and vocalizations. (He even gives step-by-step instructions for sounding like a magpie.) Birdsong takes him back to childhood, but feels deeper than that: a cultural memory that enters into our poetry and will be lost forever if we allow our declining bird species to continue on the same trajectory.

Mentions of current events are sparse and subtle, so the spring feels timeless, as it should. I worried there might be too much overlap with A Sweet, Wild Note by Richard Smyth, but there’s room for both on your shelf. Lovatt’s writing is introspective and poetic, delighting in metaphors for sounds: “The song of a turtle dove is like the aural equivalent of a heat-haze, the gentlest corrugation of air, always just on the edge of your hearing.”

 

Skylarks with Rosie: A Somerset Spring by Stephen Moss (2021)

Lovatt must have been a pupil of Moss’s on the Bath Spa University MA degree in Travel and Nature Writing. The prolific Moss’s latest also reflects on the spring of 2020, but in a more overt diary format. Devoting one chapter to each of the 13 weeks of the first lockdown, he traces the season’s development alongside his family’s experiences and the national news. With four of his children at home, along with one of their partners and a convalescing friend, it’s a pleasingly full house. There are daily cycles or walks around “the loop,” a three-mile circuit from their front door, often with Rosie the Labrador; there are also jaunts to corners of the nearby Avalon Marshes. Nature also comes to him, with songbirds in the garden hedges and various birds of prey flying over during their 11:00 coffee breaks.

His speaking engagements and trips cancelled, Moss turns to online events instead. Twitter serves as a place for sharing outrage over UK politics and world events like George Floyd’s murder, but also as a welcoming community for sharing nature sightings. As the lockdown come to a close, he realizes that this time has had unexpected benefits: “Having to press the pause button … has made me rethink my life, in a good way.” He feels that, for once, he has truly appreciated the spring, “rediscovering the joys of wildlife-watching close to home”. This made for perfect reading in Somerset last week.


Also recommended: The Consolation of Nature by Marren, McCarthy and Mynott

 

Remembering springs back home:

Spring in Washington by Louis J. Halle (1947)

“The discovery of spring each year, after the winter’s hibernation, is like a rediscovery of the universe … knowledge of spring gives me the freedom of the world.”

For Halle, who worked in the State Department, nature was an antidote to hours spent shuffling papers behind a desk. In this spring of 1945, there was plenty of wildfowl to see in central D.C. itself, but he also took long early morning bike rides along the Potomac or the C&O Canal, or in Rock Creek Park. From first migrant in February to last in June, he traces the spring mostly through the birds that he sees. More so than the specific observations of familiar places, though, I valued the philosophical outlook that makes Halle a forerunner of writers like Barry Lopez and Peter Matthiessen. He notes that those caught up in the rat race adapt the world to their comfort and convenience, prizing technology and manmade tidiness over natural wonders. By contrast, he feels he sees more clearly – literally as well as metaphorically – when he takes the long view of a landscape.

I marked so many passages of beautiful description. Halle had mastered the art of noticing. But he also sounds a premonitory note, one that was ahead of its time in the 1940s and needs heeding now more than ever: “When I see men able to pass by such a shining and miraculous thing as this Cape May warbler, the very distillate of life, and then marvel at the internal-combustion engine, I think we had all better make ourselves ready for another Flood.”

This was a lucky find at Hay Cinema Bookshop back in September. For me it was the ideal combination of thoughtful prose and vicarious travel, though I imagine it might not mean as much to those without a local connection. The black-and-white in-text illustrations by Francis L. Jaques are a particularly nice addition.

 

Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been? I’ve been to Washington, and guess what I’ve seen… by Russell Punter and Dan Taylor (2019)

More cherry blossoms over tourist landmarks! This is part of a children’s series inspired by the 1805 English rhyme about London; other volumes visit New York City, Paris, and Rome. In rhyming couplets, he takes us from the White House to the Lincoln Memorial via all the other key sights of the Mall and further afield: museums and monuments, the Library of Congress, the National Cathedral, Arlington Cemetery, even somewhere I’ve never been – Theodore Roosevelt Island. Realism and whimsy (a kid-sized cat) together; lots of diversity in the crowd scenes. What’s not to like? (Titled Kitty cat, kitty cat… in the USA.)

 

And, as a bonus, some fiction in translation:

Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki (2014; 2017)

[Translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton]

Like a Murakami protagonist, Taro is a divorced man in his thirties, mildly interested in the sometimes peculiar goings-on in his vicinity. Rumor has it that his Tokyo apartment complex will be torn down soon, but for now the PR manager is happy enough here. “Avoiding bother was Taro’s governing principle.” But bother comes to find him in the form of a neighbor, Nishi, who is obsessed with a nearby house that was the backdrop for the art book Spring Garden, a collection of photographs of a married couple’s life. Her enthusiasm gradually draws Taro into the depicted existence of the TV commercial director and actress who lived there 25 years ago, as well as the young family who live there now. This Akutagawa Prize winner failed to hold my interest – like The Guest Cat, it’s oddly preoccupied with architectural detail, a Japanese fascination that doesn’t translate so well.

 

Have you been reading anything particularly appropriate for spring this year?