Category: Nonfiction Reviews

Some Accidental Thematic Overlaps in My Recent Reading

Five of the books I’ve read recently (most of them while traveling to and from the States) have shared an overarching theme of loss, with mental illness, alcoholism, suicide, and dogs as subsidiary topics running through two or more of them. I hadn’t deliberately chosen these books for their commonalities, so it was uncanny to see the same elements keep popping up. I wanted to come up with some kind of impressively complex Venn diagram to show off these unexpected connections but couldn’t quite manage it, so you’ll have to imagine it instead.


Mental Illness

 

The Archivist by Martha Cooley

Matthias Lane is the archivist of the Mason Room, a university collection of rare books and literary papers. One of its treasures is a set of letters that passed between T.S. Eliot and his friend Emily Hale (held at Princeton in real life). Matt is haunted by memories of his late wife, Judith, a poet incarcerated in a mental hospital for over five years. A reckoning comes for Matt when he’s approached by Roberta Spire, a graduate student determined to view the Eliot–Hale letters even though they’re legally sealed until 2020. The more time Matt spends with Roberta, the more similarities start to arise between her and Judith; and between his situation and Eliot’s when the latter also put his wife away in a mental hospital. The novel asks what we owe the dead: whether we conform to their wishes or make our own decisions. 

 

The Summer without Men by Siri Hustvedt

Thirty years on, poet Mia Fredricksen’s husband Boris asks her for a pause in their marriage so he can explore his feelings for his young French lab assistant. First things first: Mia goes crazy and ends up in a mental hospital for a short time. But then she sucks it up and goes back to her Minnesota hometown to teach poetry writing to teen girls for a summer, getting sucked into a bullying drama. This is a capable if not groundbreaking story of the shifts that occur in a long marriage and the strange things we all do as we face down the possibility of death. There are also wry comments about the unappreciated talents of the female artist. However, compared to the other two novels I’ve read from Hustvedt, this seemed feeble. Still, a quick and enjoyable enough read. 

 

The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst

A delicious debut novel intellectual enough to bypass labels like ‘women’s fiction’ and ‘mystery’. One thing that sets it apart is how successfully Parkhurst writes from the perspective of a male narrator, Paul Iverson, who’s been knocked for six by the sudden death of his wife Lexy, a mask designer. While he was at the university where he teaches linguistics, she climbed to the top of the apple tree in their backyard and – what? fell? or jumped? The only ‘witness’ was their Rhodesian Ridgeback, Lorelei; in his grief Paul uses his sabbatical to research efforts to teach dogs to communicate, hoping one day Lorelei might tell all. Woven through are scenes from Paul and Lexy’s courtship and marriage; though Lexy occasionally struggled with her mental health, their dialogue is fun and zippy, like you might hear on The Gilmore Girls.

 


Suicide

The Archivist by Martha Cooley & The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst


Alcoholism

 

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller

A classic memoir that conjures up all the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of Africa on the cusp of a colonial to postcolonial transition. Fuller’s family were struggling tobacco and cattle farmers in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Malawi and Zambia. She had absorbed the notion that white people were there to benevolently shepherd the natives, but came to question it when she met Africans for herself. While giving a sense of the continent’s political shifts, she mostly focuses on her own family: the four-person circus that was Bobo (that’s her), Van (older sister Vanessa), Dad, and Mum (an occasionally hospitalized manic-depressive alcoholic who lost three children) – not to mention an ever-changing menagerie of horses, dogs and other pets. This really takes you away to another place and time, as the best memoirs do, and the plentiful black-and-white photos are a great addition. 

 

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell

If you loved Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, pick this up immediately. It’s a similar story of best friends: one who dies and one who survives. Caldwell’s best friend was Caroline Knapp (author of Drinking: A Love Story, among other nonfiction), whom she met via puppy ownership in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They were both single and childless, full-time authors with a history of alcoholism. Besides long walks with their dogs, they loved swimming and rowing together. In 2002 Caroline was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer, inoperable and already metastasized. Despite all their proactive optimism, she was dead a matter of weeks later. In this moving and accessible short memoir, Caldwell drifts through her past, their friendship, Caroline’s illness, and the years of grief that followed the loss of Caroline and then her beloved Samoyed, Clementine, sharing what she learned about bereavement. 

 


Dogs

The Dogs of Babel, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight & Let’s Take the Long Way Home

Do you ever find coincidental thematic connections in your reading?

Am I a (Book) Hoarder?

When I was a kid my parents and sister deemed me a pack rat, and over the years I’ve been a collector of many different things: stamps, coins, figurines, tea sets, shells, fossils, feathers, anything featuring puffins or llamas, and so on. At this point my only active collection is of books, but the others are all still in evidence in my old closet. I had a few good reasons to contemplate my belongings recently: first, I read a book about decluttering; then, on my recent trip back to the States, I helped my sister pack as she prepares to move out of her home of 12 years, and co-hosted a yard sale at my parents’ house to get rid of some of ye olde stuff.


Year of No Clutter, Eve O. Schaub

Schaub faces the possibility that she has inherited a family tendency to hoarding and tackles her house’s clutter-filled “Hell Room.” From one February to the next she enlisted her daughters’ help sorting things into piles and came up with a regular route of consignment shops, thrift stores, and libraries where she could drop off carloads of donations. Bigger projects included a photo book of 100 of her daughter’s artworks and a rag rug incorporating many beloved articles of clothing.

I enjoyed the nitty-gritty details of how this family organized and got rid of things because I like big tidying projects and putting everything in its rightful place, whether that be the recycling bin, a crate in the attic, or a charity bag. But what I most appreciated was how sensitive Schaub is to all the issues that can be tied up with our stuff, especially OCD, nostalgia, and indecision. “Although Marie Kondo disapproves, I’m not about to stop collecting my own life,” she writes. “It has been a source of pleasure for me ever since I can remember; it helps define me.” 


Helping Out

My sister is very much of the Marie Kondo school of de-cluttering. She strives for minimalism in her décor, and is constantly going back through her sons’ clothes and toys to see what she can get rid of. All the same, 12 years of living in the same house has spelled a lot of accumulation. As she did her last-minute wedding preparations in early August, I was let loose on the packing and soon got all the easy stuff – like books and decorations – boxed up. But I quickly became overwhelmed by what remained, such as the boys’ toy room, DIY supplies, and stacks upon stacks of framed art and photographs plus photo albums.

Nephew #2 “helps” with packing.

As I was packing I couldn’t keep myself from peeking into the albums and tearfully marvelling that the whole life she built with her first husband – who died of brain cancer in January 2015 – is over. Death is so simple and final, right? Yet even these many months later I have a hard time getting my head around how the huge personality and web of connections that was my brother-in-law could be gone. And this even though I couldn’t be happier that my sister has found love again and gained two terrific step-kids.

When she and her husband move into their new-build home later in the year and get all this stuff back out of storage, she’s going to have quite the job sorting through everything and deciding what of her old life to keep on display, or keep at all. How to honor the years that are gone without having them intrude on the new family that she’s made?


Making It Personal

Mementoes, including travel souvenirs and special cards and letters I’ve received, are particularly hard for me to cull. There are four or five sizable boxes full of mementoes in my closet in the States, and another couple in our attic here. Getting rid of correspondence just feels wrong to me; I’ve probably rarely deleted a personal e-mail in the last 20 years. It’s like I need that physical proof of the relationships and events that have meant the most to me.

I’m much less sentimental when it comes to most other objects. The yard sale my mom and I had last weekend was a great opportunity to get rid of things that had been sitting around for a decade or more and were just never going to join me in the UK, including lamps, cushions, a clock, a CD player, a jewelry box, a formal dress, a shoe rack, and various figurines and framed prints. I only made $37, and a lot remained to be picked up the Salvation Army (including a whole box of VHS films I found at the bottom of the closet), but it was good to shed some stuff – and I at least earned enough to cover my book and maple syrup shopping on this trip!

Now, even though there are 25–30 (smallish) boxes of books remaining in that closet, I can definitively say that I’m not as much of a book hoarder as I once was – back in high school, say. On this trip I went back through all of the boxes to consolidate them and pulled out another 50+ books to give away or resell on a future visit. I looked back with fondness through three boxes of books from my childhood, but then promptly handed them over to my mom to share with my nephews or give away, as she chooses.

Back in the UK, I keep on top of my book collection by considering carefully every time I read a book whether I want to keep it: Is it a favorite? Will I read it again, refer to it or lend it to others? If not, I might give it away to a friend, check the resale prices on Amazon, WeBuyBooks or Ziffit, or donate it to a charity shop. This keeps the review copies from piling up, and means that my shelves are always full but generally not overfull.


Are you brutal or sentimental when it comes to books and other possessions? When’s the last time you had a big clear-out?

Books in Brief: Five I Loved Recently

Feminist social history, visits with the world’s bees, a novel about a peculiar child and his reclusive writer mother, witty notes on Englishness, and tips on surviving heartbreak: five very different books, but I hope one or more of them is something that you’d enjoy.


Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London

By Lauren Elkin

Raised in New York and now a Paris resident, Lauren Elkin has always felt at home in cities. Here she traces how women writers and artists have made the world’s great cities their own, blending memoir, social history and literary criticism. In a neat example of form flowing from content, the book meanders from city to city and figure to figure. My interest waned during later chapters on protesting (‘taking to the streets’) and the films of Agnès Varda. However, especially when she’s musing on Martha Gellhorn’s rootlessness, Elkin captures the angst of being a woman caught between places and purposes in a way that expatriates like myself will appreciate. It’s in making the history of the flâneuse personal that Elkin opens her book up to a wider swathe of readers than just the feminist social historians and literary critics who might seem like her natural audience. I would particularly recommend this to readers of Rebecca Solnit and Olivia Laing. (See my full review at The Bookbag.)

My rating:

 

Bee Quest: In Search of Rare Bees

By Dave Goulson

Goulson grows more like Bill Bryson and Gerald Durrell with each book. Although the topic of this, his third nature book (all of them are broadly about insects), is probably of least personal interest to me, there are plenty of wonderful asides and pieces of trivia that make it worth journeying along with him from Poland to Ecuador in the search for rare bees. For as close-up as his view often is, he also sees the big picture of environmental degradation and species loss. I learned some fairly dismaying facts: gold mining is extremely destructive to the environment, producing 20 tons of toxic material per ring; and it takes five liters of water to produce one almond in California. As for a more hopeful statistic: the billions of dollars it would take to set up conservation efforts for all the world’s species would still only equate to cutting world Coke consumption by 20%. It’s all a matter of priorities.

A favorite line:

“As is often the case in entomology, in the end it all comes down to the genitals.”

My rating:

 

Be Frank with Me

By Julia Claiborne Johnson

Alice, a young publishing assistant, is sent from New York City to Los Angeles to encourage one-hit wonder and Harper Lee type M.M. Banning to produce her long-delayed second novel. But when she arrives she discovers her most pressing duty is keeping an eye on Mimi’s oddball son, nine-year-old Frank. I doubt you’ve ever met a character quite like Frank. (I appreciated how, although he is clearly on what would be termed the autistic spectrum, Johnson avoids naming his condition.) Alice narrates the whole book in the first person. She finds herself caught in a four-person battle of wits – Alice, Mimi, Frank, and “itinerant male role model” Xander – inside Mimi’s big glass-fronted fishbowl of a house. There were a couple moments when I wondered where this madcap plot could be going. In particular, we have to wait a long time to find out whether Mimi is actually going to deliver another book. But the payout is worth waiting for. (See my full review at The Bookbag.)

My rating:

 

How to Be an Alien

By George Mikes

(The first volume in the How to Be a Brit omnibus; originally published in 1946.) You can draw a straight line from this through Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island to the “Very British Problems” phenomenon. Mikes (that’s “mee-cash” – he was a Hungarian journalist who accidentally moved to England permanently when he was sent to London as a correspondent just before World War II) made humorous observations that have, in general, aged well. The mini-essays on tea, weather, and queuing struck me as particularly apt. I’d heard this line before, though I can’t remember where: “An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.”

Another favorite passage:

“It is all right to have central heating in an English home, except the bath room, because that is the only place where you are naked and wet at the same time, and you must give British germs a fair chance.” [This reminds me of when my mother made her first trip to England in 2004 to visit me during my study abroad year; in her family newsletter reporting on the experience, one of her key observations was, “British bathrooms are antiquated.” My husband and I still quote this to each other regularly.]

 My rating:

 

A Manual for Heartache

By Cathy Rentzenbrink

This is a follow-up to Rentzenbrink’s memoir, The Last Act of Love, which was about the accident that left her brother in a vegetative state for eight years and the legal battle she and her parents fought to be able to end his life. The first quarter of this book contains fairly generic advice for people who have been through family tragedy, illness or some other hardship. It’s when Rentzenbrink makes things personal, talking about her own struggles with PTSD and depression and strategies that have helped her over the years, that the book improves, and it maintains a pretty high standard therafter. Although you wouldn’t really call anything in here groundbreaking, it’s a slim and accessible volume that I could see being helpful for anyone who’s grieving, even someone who’s not usually a reader or has a short attention span. (I won a copy in a Goodreads giveaway.)

A couple favorite passages:

“Experiencing grief for the first time is like the dark twin of falling in love. It feels a bit crazy, and we don’t think anyone has ever felt exactly as we do. But of course they have.”

“We don’t need to be unbroken. Our first step is simply to stop trying to hide our scars. Heartache is human.”

My rating:

 


Have you read any of these? Which one takes your fancy?

Doorstopper of the Month: Theft by Finding by David Sedaris

I’ve read six of David Sedaris’s humorous collections of personal essays. A college friend first recommended him to me in 2011, and I started with When You Are Engulfed in Flames – which I still think is his best book, though Me Talk Pretty One Day is also very good. Sedaris can be riotously funny, and witty and bittersweet the rest of the time. From Raleigh, North Carolina, he has lived in New York, London, Paris, Normandy and Tokyo. Many of his essays stem from minor incidents in his travels. His kooky Greek-American family members and longsuffering partner, Hugh Hamrick, are his stock characters, and his pieces delight in cultural and linguistic misunderstandings and human obstinacy versus openheartedness.

When I heard Sedaris was publishing his selected diaries, I wasn’t sure I’d read them. I knew many of his essays grow out of episodes recorded in the diary, so would the entries end up seeming redundant? I’d pretty much convinced myself that I was going to give Theft by Finding a miss – until I won a proof copy in a Goodreads giveaway. This is the first volume, covering 1977 to 2002; a second volume from 2003 onwards is planned.

What I most liked about this book is the sense you get of the sweep of the author’s life: from living in his North Carolina hometown and doing odd construction jobs, hitchhiking and taking drugs to producing plays, going on book tours and jetting between Paris and New York City, via an interlude in Chicago (where he attended art school and taught writing). Major world events occasionally make it in – the Three Mile Island disaster, Princess Diana’s death, the Bush/Gore election, 9/11 – but for the most part this is about daily nonevents. It’s a bit of a shock to come across a serious moment, like his mother’s sudden death in 1991.

One thing that remains constant is Sedaris’s fascination with people’s quirks. For instance, nearly every night for nine years he visited his local IHOP for coffee, cigarettes and people-watching. He seems to meet an inordinately large number of homeless, hard-up and crazy types; perhaps, thanks to his own years-long penury (October 6, 1981: “I’ve paid my rent and my phone bill, leaving me with 43 cents”) and addictions (he didn’t quit alcohol and marijuana until 1999), he feels a certain connection with down-and-outs.

By the last few years of the diary, though, he’s having dinners with Mavis Gallant, Susan Sontag, and Merchant & Ivory. This isn’t obnoxious name-dropping, though; I appreciated how Sedaris maintains a kind of bemused surprise about his success rather than developing a feeling of entitlement. He acts almost guilty about his wealth and multiple properties (“I’ve fallen deeper into the luxury pit”). Time spent abroad keeps him humble about his linguistic abilities and gives him a healthy measure of doubt about the American lifestyle; I especially liked his reaction to a Missouri Walmart.

The problem with the book, though, is that the early entries are really quite dull. Things picked up a bit by the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that I realized I was actually finding the entries laugh-out-loud funny like I expect from Sedaris. The book as a whole is too long and inclusive; Simon Cowell would surely call it indulgent. I tried to imagine what would have resulted if an outsider had reduced the complete diaries to a one-volume selection. A cast list and photographs of Sedaris and his family over the years would also be helpful; I’d be interested to know if any supplementary material was added to the final product that did not appear in my proof.

Ultimately I think this is only for the most die-hard of Sedaris fans. I will certainly read the second volume as I expect it to be funnier and better written overall. But if – as appears to be the case from the marketing slogans in my proof – the publishers are hoping this will introduce Sedaris to new readers, I think they’ll be let down. If you’ve not encountered him before, I suggest picking up Me Talk Pretty One Day or trying one of his radio programs.


Some favorite passages:

October 26, 1985; Chicago: In the park I bought dope. There was a bench nearby, so I sat down for a while and took in the perfect fall day. Then I came home and carved the word failure into a pumpkin.

October 5, 1992; New York: The new Pakistani cashier at the Grand Union is named Dollop.

October 5, 1997; New York: Making it worse, I had to sit through another endless preview for Titanic. Who do they think is going to see that movie?

June 18, 1999; Paris: Today I saw a one-armed dwarf carrying a skateboard. It’s been ninety days since I’ve had a drink.

October 3, 1999; Paris: I said to the clerk, in French, “Hello. Sometimes my clothes are wrinkled. I bought a machine anti-wrinkle, and now I search a table. Have you such a table?” The fellow said, “An ironing board?” “Exactly!”

My rating:


Have you read (or heard) anything by David Sedaris? Are you a fan?

A Recommendation for August

Each month I aim to preview two to four books to be released in the next month that I have already read and can recommend. It’s looking thin on the ground for August because two of my most anticipated reads of the year were disappointments, and another August release I left unfinished; I give mini write-ups of these below. However, I’ve very much enjoyed What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, the debut story collection by Lesley Nneka Arimah, which came out in America in April but releases on the 24th over here; I’ll be reviewing it for Shiny New Books shortly. Also, I’m 20% into The Education of a Coroner by John Bateson (releases August 15th), a fascinating set of sometimes gory true crime case studies.

As for the one August book I’m currently able to wholeheartedly recommend, that is…

 

The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading by Anne Gisleson

(Coming from Little, Brown and Company on the 22nd)

One for angsty, bookish types. In 2012 Anne Gisleson, a New Orleans-based creative writing teacher, her husband, sister and some friends formed an Existential Crisis Reading Group (which, for the record, I think would have been a better title). Each month they got together to discuss their lives and their set readings – both expected and off-beat selections, everything from Kafka and Tolstoy to Kingsley Amis and Clarice Lispector – over wine and snacks.

One of their texts, Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation, proposed the helpful notion of the Trivial and Tragic Planes. The Trivial is where we live everyday; the Tragic is where we’re transported when something awful happens. Gisleson had plenty of experience with the latter: not just the suicides of her younger twin sisters, a year and a half apart, and her father’s death from leukemia, but also the collective loss of Hurricane Katrina. She returns again and again to these sources of grief in her monthly chapters structured around the book group meetings, elegantly interweaving family stories and literary criticism.

I found the long quotes from the readings a little much – you probably shouldn’t pick this up if you haven’t the least interest in philosophy and aren’t much troubled by life’s big questions – but in general this is a fascinating, personal look at what makes life worth living when it might be shattered any second. I particularly loved the chapter in which the book club members creatively re-enact the Stations of the Cross for Easter and the sections about her father’s pro bono work as an attorney for death row inmates at Angola prison. Sometimes it really is a matter of life and death.

Favorite passage:

“Generations of parents have put their children to bed in this house and even if I haven’t quite figured out the why and the how of living, others have found reasons to keep moving things forward. In quiet moments I can feel the collective push of these ghost-hands on my back, nudging me on.”

My rating:

 


And now for the ones I’m closer to lukewarm on…

(Reviews in the order in which I read the books.)

 

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta

(Coming from Scribner on the 1st)

I enjoy Tom Perrotta’s novels: they’re funny, snappy, current and relatable; it’s no surprise they make great movies. I’ve somehow read seven of his nine books now, without even realizing it. Mrs. Fletcher is more of the same satire on suburban angst, but with an extra layer of raunchiness that struck me as unnecessary. It seemed something like a sexual box-ticking exercise. But for all the deliberately edgy content, this book isn’t really doing anything very groundbreaking; it’s the same old story of temptations and bad decisions, but with everything basically going back to a state of normality by the end. If you haven’t read any Perrotta before and are interested in giving his work a try, let me steer you towards Little Children instead. That’s his best book by far.

My rating:

 

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

(Coming from Lenny Books on the 1st [USA] and Bloomsbury Circus on the 10th [UK])

I read “We Love You Crispina” (13%), about the string of awful hovels a family of Chinese immigrants is forced to move between in early 1990s New York City. You’d think it would be unbearably sad reading about cockroaches and shared mattresses and her father’s mistress, but Zhang’s deadpan litanies are actually very funny: “After Woodside we moved to another floor, this time in my mom’s cousin’s friend’s sister’s apartment in Ocean Hill that would have been perfect except for the nights when rats ran over our faces while we were sleeping and even on the nights they didn’t, we were still being charged twice the cost of a shitty motel.” Perhaps I’m out of practice in reading short story collections, but after I finished this first story I felt absolutely no need to move on to the rest of the book.

My rating:

 

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss

(Coming on the 24th from Harper [USA] and Bloomsbury [UK])

Impressive in scope and structure, but rather frustrating. If you’re hoping for another History of Love, you’re likely to come away disappointed: while that book touched the heart; this one is mostly cerebral. Metafiction, the Kabbalah, and some alternative history featuring Kafka are a few of the major elements, so think about whether those topics attract or repel you. Looking a bit deeper, this is a book about Jewish self-invention and reinvention. Now, when I read a novel with a dual narrative, especially when the two strands share a partial setting – here, the Tel Aviv Hilton – I fully expect them to meet up at some point. In Forest Dark that never happens. At least, I don’t think so.* I sometimes found “Nicole” (the author character) insufferably clever and inward-gazing. All told, there’s a lot to think about here: more questions than answers, really. Interesting, for sure, but not the return to form I’d hoped for.

*Hop over to my Goodreads review to read the marked spoilers and chip in with comments!

My rating:

 


What August books do you have on the docket?

Have you already read any that you can recommend?

Britain’s Bounty: Land of Plenty by Charlie Pye-Smith

Charlie Pye-Smith is a farming and environmental commentator with many previous titles to his name. To research this survey of modern food production, he spent a year traveling around the British countryside in a motor home, interviewing farmers and manufacturers and learning how things are likely to change when Brexit takes effect. In the face of surpluses and falling profits, he suggests that in the future farmers will need to diversify. Questioning received wisdom, he also proposes that animal welfare might be more achievable in larger-scale operations and that environmentally friendly techniques like crop rotation might actually lead to higher yields.

Many of the farms the author visits have survived due to their adaptability. For instance, the Belchers of Leicestershire found they could double their profits if they processed their cattle, pigs and lambs themselves and sold the meat at farmer’s markets. Likewise, the Blands, dairy farmers in Cumbria, branched out after they lost their whole herd to foot-and-mouth disease in 2001: Now they produce ice cream from their Jersey cows and run a successful tea room. On the other hand, specializing in a heritage product can also be an effective strategy. In Yorkshire, the author meets farmers who have been raising sheep locally for centuries. “It’s all about eating the view … linking Swaledale sheep to a beautiful upland landscape. Eat our lamb and you’re helping to protect the Dales,” is the message.

Pye-Smith also looks into pig welfare and plowing techniques for cereal crops. In a chapter on fruit, he tells the recent story of apples and strawberries through cider and jam production, respectively. A section on vegetables centers on potatoes. I learned a number of facts that surprised me:

  • Over half Britain’s potatoes are turned into crisps and chips
  • “Outdoor-reared” pork is not necessarily the ideal because cold, wet winters are tough on piglets and sows
  • Cider coming into fashion over the last 10–15 years is largely thanks to Magners’ advertising campaigns
  • Nowadays the average Briton spends just 10% of their income on food, as opposed to 33% in the 1950s.

The book strikes an appropriate balance between the cutting-edge and the traditional, and between caution and optimism. Although Brexit will lead to a total loss of farmers’ EU subsidies and a drop in the number of Eastern Europeans coming over to pick produce, there may be potential benefits too. As one large-scale vegetable farmer opines, “we should see Brexit as a great opportunity to promote home-grown food production.” I appreciated how open the author is to organic and conservation agriculture, but he also doesn’t present them as magical solutions. For the most part, I sensed no hidden agenda, though he is perhaps pro-grouse shooting and seems dismissive of city journalists like George Monbiot who claim to know better than the real countryside experts.

This is most like a condensed, British version of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Pye-Smith makes the same sort of investigations into food production methods, including tiny snippets from his own life along the way. Crucially, the book is readable throughout, never sinking into tedious statistics or jargon. The author’s black-and-white photographs, three to five per chapter, are a nice addition. In essence this is a collection of stories about a way of life that faces challenges but is not doomed. I was reassured to hear that people increasingly care about where their food comes from. Martin Thatcher of Thatchers cider says “People have become more discriminating. They are now much more interested in what they’re eating and drinking than they were in the past, and how it’s produced.” If you, too, are interested in how food gets to you in Britain, be sure to pick up this book.

My rating:


Land of Plenty is published today, July 27th, by Elliott & Thompson. Thanks to Alison Menzies for arranging my free copy for review.

Classic of the Month: Father and Son by Edmund Gosse

I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to get to this splendid evocation of 1850s–60s family life in an extreme religious sect. I’d known about Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907) for ages, and even owned a copy. Two of its early incidents – the son’s anticlimactic birth announcement in the father’s diary, and the throwing out of a forbidden Christmas pudding – were famously appropriated by Peter Carey for creating Oscar’s backstory in his Booker Prize-winning novel Oscar and Lucinda (1988), which I read in 2008 but didn’t much like. I was reminded of that literary debt when I worked for King’s College London’s library system and did a summer placement in the Special Collections department in 2011. For my “In the Spotlight” article about a book in particular need of conservation, I chose Philip Henry Gosse’s Omphalos, his well-meaning but half-baked contribution to the Victorian science versus religion debate, and did a lot of secondary reading about the Gosses and their milieu.

The book’s subtitle, “A Study of Two Temperaments,” gives an idea of the angle Gosse takes here: this is not a straightforward biography (after all, he’d already written his father’s life story in 1890) or a comprehensive memoir, but a snapshot of his early years and an emotional unpicking of the personality clash that results from fundamentally different approaches to life. While Gosse père (1810–88) was a devoted naturalist as well as a dogged believer in the literal truth of the Bible, even in adolescence his son (1849–1928) was a literature aficionado and troubled skeptic. Philip Gosse was a minister with the Plymouth Brethren and married late, at 38; his wife was 42, very late for contemplating motherhood in those days. Like Thomas Hardy, the infant Edmund was presumed dead at birth and set aside, so it’s thanks to keen-eyed nurses that we have these two late Victorians’ significant literary output today.

Although his first word was “book” and he could read by age four, Edmund was initially forbidden to read fiction. His mother quashed her own love of making up stories because she believed fiction was in some way sinful. It was always taken for granted that Edmund would follow his father into the ministry, and early on he had a sense of a split self: the external persona he put on to please his parents, and the deeper self that struggled to divine its purpose. He would cheekily test the limits of his familial faith by petitioning the Almighty for an expensive toy that he ‘needed’ and praying to a wooden chair to see if he’d be struck down for idolatry. The absurdity of such scenes is a welcome foil to the sadness of his mother’s death when Gosse was just seven. A year later the boy and his father moved from London to Devon, where both were captivated by the sea. (Indeed, if Philip Gosse is remembered as a natural historian today, it’s largely for his work on marine life – he discovered a new genus of sea anemones in 1859.) After Philip remarried, Edmund began attending a weekday boarding school and fell in love with literature, especially Shakespeare and the Romantic poets.

There’s a stretch of the book at about the two-thirds point that I found less compelling; much of it describes the other members of his father’s congregation (“the saints”) and the tedium of Sundays. It’s also a shame there isn’t a brief afterword that continues the story through to his father’s death. But for much of its length this is a riveting investigation of how the conflict between reason and religion plays out both within individual souls and between family members. The purpose here is to chart the course that led him out of religion and made the supernatural rift between him and his father permanent by the time he was 15 or so, and Gosse fulfills that aim admirably. In doing so he maintains a delicately balanced tone: Although he vividly recreates funny moments from his childhood, he also makes clear-eyed, scathing assessments of a religion that is ostensibly based on love but all too often veers towards judgment instead:

Here was perfect purity, perfect intrepidity, perfect abnegation; yet here was also narrowness, isolation, an absence of perspective, let it be boldly admitted, an absence of humanity. And there was a curious mixture of humbleness and arrogance; entire resignation to the will of God and not less entire disdain of the judgment and opinion of God.

[H]e allowed the turbid volume of superstition to drown the delicate stream of reason.

He who was so tender-hearted that he could not bear to witness the pain or distress of any person, however disagreeable or undeserving, was quite acquiescent in believing that God would punish human beings, in millions, for ever, for a purely intellectual error of comprehension.

Even so, this is a loving portrait, as well as a nuanced one, and a model of how to write family memoir. I enjoyed it immensely, and will no doubt read it again.

My rating:

 

Further reading:

  • Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810–1888 by Ann Thwaite
  • In the Days of Rain, Rebecca Stott’s memoir of growing up in the Plymouth Brethren in the 1960s