Category: Nonfiction Reviews

Advent Reading: In the Bleak Midwinter by Rachel Mann & More

Today marks 189 years since poet Christina Rossetti’s birth in 1830. You could hardly find better reading for Advent than poet–priest Rachel Mann’s new seasonal devotional, In the Bleak Midwinter, which journeys through Advent and the 12 days of Christmas via short essays on about 40 Rossetti poems.

If your mental picture of Rossetti’s work is, like mine was, limited to twee repetition (“Snow had fallen, snow on snow, / Snow on snow,” as the title carol from 1872 goes), you’ll gain a new appreciation after reading this. Yes, Rossetti’s poetry may strike today’s readers as sentimental, with a bit too much rhyming and overt religion, but it is important to understand it as a product of the Victorian era.

Mann gives equal focus to Rossetti’s techniques and themes. Repetition is indeed one of her main tools, used “to build intensity and rhythm,” and some of her poems are psalm-like in their diction and emotion. I had no idea that Rossetti had written so much – and so much that’s specific to the Christmas season. She has multiple poems entitled “Advent” and “A Christmas Carol” (the technical title of “In the Bleak Midwinter”) or variations thereon.

The book’s commentary spins out the many potential metaphorical connotations of Advent: anticipation, hope, suffering, beginnings versus endings. Mann notes that Rossetti often linked Advent and apocalypse as times of change and preparation. Even as Christians await the birth of Christ, the poet seems to say, they should keep the end of all things in mind. Thus, some of the poems include surprisingly dark or premonitory language:

The days are evil looking back,

The coming days are dim;

Yet count we not His promise slack,

But watch and wait for Him. (from “Advent,” 1858)

 

Death is better far than birth,

You shall turn again to earth. (from “For Advent”)

Along with that note of memento mori, Mann suggests other hidden elements of Rossetti’s poetry, like desire (as in the sensual vocabulary of “Goblin Market”) and teasing mystery (“Winter: My Secret,” which reminded me of Emily Dickinson). Not all of her work is devotional or sweet; those who feel overwhelmed or depressed at Christmastime will also find lines that resonate for them here.

Mann helped me to notice Rossetti’s sense of “divine time” that moves in cycles. She also makes a strong case for reading Rossetti to understand how we envision Christmas even now: “In some ways, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ offers the acme of our European cultural representations of this season.”

My rating:


With thanks to Canterbury Press for the free copy for review.

(I also reviewed Mann’s poetry collection, A Kingdom of Love, earlier in the year.)

 

For December I’m reading Do Nothing, the Advent booklet Stephen Cottrell (now the Bishop of Chelmsford; formerly Bishop of Reading) wrote in 2008 about a minimalist, low-stress approach to the holidays. I have to say, it’s inspiring me to cut way back on card-sending and gift-giving this year.

 

A few seasonal snippets spotted in my recent reading:

“December darkens and darkens, and the streets sprout forth their Christmas tinsel, and the Salvation Army brass band sings hymns and jingles its bells and stirs up its cauldron of money, and loneliness blows in the snowflurries”

(from The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood)

 

“Fine old Christmas, with the snowy hair and ruddy face, had done his duty that year in the noblest fashion, and had set off his rich gifts of warmth and colour with all the heightening contrast of frost and snow.”

(from The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot)

 

A week to Christmas, cards of snow and holly,

Gimcracks in the shops,

Wishes and memories wrapped in tissue paper,

Trinkets, gadgets and lollipops

And as if through coloured glasses

We remember our childhood’s thrill

… And the feeling that Christmas Day

Was a coral island in time where we land and eat our lotus

But where we can never stay.

(from Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice)

 

I’m always on the lookout for books that seem to fit the season. Here are the piles I’ve amassed for winter (Early Riser imagines a human hibernation system for the winters), Christmas and snow. I’ll dip into these over the next couple of months. I plan to get more “winter,” “snow” and “ice” titles out from the library. Plus I have this review book (at left), newly in paperback, to start soon.

 

Have you read any Advent or wintry books recently?

Novellas in November Wrap-Up and Mini-Reviews

Novellas in November is one of my favorite blogging challenges of the year. Earlier in the month I reviewed a first batch of five novellas. For this second and final installment I have 11 small books to feed back on: fiction, graphic novels, and miscellaneous nonfiction.

 

Classic of the Month

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956)

[150 pages]

This was my first taste of Baldwin’s fiction, and it was very good indeed. David, a penniless American, came to Paris to find himself. His second year there he meets Giovanni, an Italian barman. They fall in love and move in together. There’s a problem, though: David has a fiancée – Hella, who’s traveling in Spain. It seems that David had bisexual tendencies but went off women after Giovanni. “Much has been written of love turning to hatred, of the heart growing cold with the death of love.” We know from the first pages that David has fled to the south of France and Giovanni faces the guillotine in the morning, but all through Baldwin maintains the tension as we wait to hear why he is sentenced to death. Deeply sad, but also powerful and brave. I’ll make Go Tell It on the Mountain my next one by Baldwin.

 

Graphic Novels

Garfield, Why Do You Hate Mondays? by Jim Davis (1982)

[128 pages]

This was like a trip back to childhood, as “Garfield” was always the first thing I would turn to in the Sunday comics section of the Washington Post. The story of the tubby, lasagna-stealing, dog-outsmarting ginger cat even managed to feel relevant to my life now, since our furball is on a perpetual diet – and it’s working, he’s actually lost most of a kilo this year! Most of the three-pane pages are stand-alones in which Garfield gets into scrapes or plays pranks. Fat jokes abound. There is actually a narrative in the latter half, though: Garfield stows away in Jon’s suitcase on a vacation to Hawaii and gets locked up in the local pound. He and a couple of other cats have to team up to escape. [To my amusement, two photos of a bust-up Nissan were being used as bookmarks in the copy that came into the free bookshop where I volunteer.]

Reading Quirks: Weird Things that Bookish Nerds Do! by The Wild Detectives (2019)

[96 pages]

This is a collected comic strip that appeared on Instagram between 2016 and 2018 (you can view it in full here). The brainchild of bookstore/bar owners in Dallas, Texas, it highlights behaviors that many might find strange but that make total sense to a bibliophile: buying multiple copies of a book so that your less-careful partner doesn’t ruin yours or you don’t lose a friend when they fail to return a borrowed copy; being so glued to a book that you take it everywhere; buying a coat with an eye to whether the pockets accommodate a paperback; exulting at a broken leg for the extra reading time a temporary handicap could buy you; reading with a headtorch after a bedmate has gone to sleep; and so on. The simple four-pane comics usually contain just one or two colors. The captions add as much as the dialogue. Read this next if you enjoyed Book Love by Debbie Tung.

 

Other Fiction

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach (1972)

[93 pages]

I was curious about this bestselling fable, but wish I’d left it to its 1970s oblivion. The title seagull stands out from the flock for his desire to fly higher and faster than seen before. He’s not content to be like all the rest; once he arrives in birdie heaven he starts teaching other gulls how to live out their perfect freedom. “We can lift ourselves out of ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill.” Gradually comes the sinking realization that JLS is a Messiah figure. I repeat, the seagull is Jesus. (“They are saying in the Flock that if you are not the Son of the Great Gull Himself … then you are a thousand years ahead of your time.”) An obvious allegory, unlikely dialogue, dated metaphors (“like a streamlined feathered computer”), cringe-worthy New Age sentiments and loads of poor-quality soft-focus photographs: This was utterly atrocious.

 

Agatha by Anne Cathrine Bomann (2019)

[Trans. from the Danish by Caroline Waight; 147 pages]

In late-1940s Paris, a psychiatrist counts down the days and appointments until his retirement. He’s so jaded that he barely listens to his patients anymore. “Was I just lazy, or was I genuinely so arrogant that I’d become bored by other people’s misery?” he asks himself. A few experiences awaken him from his apathy: learning that his longtime secretary’s husband has terminal cancer and visiting the man for some straight talk about death; discovering that the neighbor he’s never met, but only known via piano playing through the wall, is deaf, and striking up a friendship with him; and meeting Agatha, a new German patient with a history of self-harm, and vowing to get to the bottom of her trauma. This debut novel by a psychologist (and table tennis champion) is a touching, subtle and gently funny story of rediscovering one’s purpose late in life.


Agatha will be released on 12th December. With thanks to Sceptre for the proof copy for review.

 

The Dig by Cynan Jones (2014)

[156 pages]

Daniel is a recently widowed farmer in rural Wales. On his own for the challenges of lambing, he hates who he’s become. “She would not have liked this anger in me. I was not an angry man.” In the meantime, a badger-baiter worries the police are getting wise to his nocturnal misdemeanors and looks for a new, remote locale to dig for badgers. I kept waiting for these two story lines to meet explosively, but instead they just fizzle out. I should have been prepared for the animal cruelty I’d encounter here, but it still bothered me. Even the descriptions of lambing, and of Daniel’s wife’s death, are brutal. Jones’s writing reminded me of Andrew Michael Hurley’s; while I did appreciate the observation that violence begets more violence in groups of men (“It was the gangness of it”), this was a tough read for me.

 

Nonfiction

Shelf Respect: A Book Lover’s Defence by Annie Austen (2019)

[183 pages, but with large type and not many words on a page]

This seems destined to be in many a bibliophile’s Christmas stocking this year. It’s a collection of mini-essays, quotations and listicles on topics such as DNFing, merging your book collection with a new partner’s, famous bibliophiles and bookshelves from history, and how you choose to organize your library. It’s full of fun trivia. Two of my favorite factoids: Bill Clinton keeps track of his books via a computerized database, and the original title of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms was “I Have Committed Fornication but that Was in Another Country” (really?!). It’s scattered and shallow, but fun in the same way that Book Riot articles generally are. (I almost always click through to 2–5 articles in my Book Riot e-newsletters, so that’s no problem in my book.) I couldn’t find a single piece of information on ‘Annie Austen’, not even a photo – I sincerely doubt she’s that Kansas City lifestyle blogger, for instance – so I suspect she’s actually a collective of interns.

An illustration of Barack Obama’s summer 2016 reads.

With thanks to Sphere for the free copy for review.

 

Intoxicated by My Illness: And Other Writings on Life and Death by Anatole Broyard (1992)

[135 pages]

This posthumous collection brings together essays Broyard wrote for the New York Times after being diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer in 1989, journal entries, a piece he’d written after his father’s death from bladder cancer in 1954, and essays from the early 1980s about “the literature of death.” He writes to impose a narrative on his illness, expatiating on what he expects of his doctor and how he plans to live with style even as he’s dying. “If you have to die, and I hope you don’t, I think you should try to die the most beautiful death you can,” he charmingly suggests. It’s ironic that he laments a dearth of literature (apart from Susan Sontag) about illness and dying – if only he could have seen the flourishing of cancer memoirs in the last two decades! [An interesting footnote: in 2007 Broyard’s daughter Bliss published a memoir, One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets, about finding out that her father was in fact black but had passed as white his whole life. I’ll be keen to read that.]

 

Sold for a Farthing by Clare Kipps (1953)

[72 pages]

This was a random 50p find at the Hay-on-Wye market on our last trip. In July 1940 Kipps adopted a house sparrow that had fallen out of the nest – or, perhaps, been thrown out for having a deformed wing and foot. Clarence became her beloved pet, living for just over 12 years until dying of old age. A former professional musician, Kipps served as an air-raid warden during the war; she and Clarence had a couple of close shaves and had to evacuate London at one point. Clarence sang more beautifully than the average sparrow and could do a card trick and play dead. He loved to nestle inside Kipps’s blouse and join her for naps under the duvet. At age 11 he had a stroke, but vet attention (and champagne) kept him going for another year, though with less vitality. This is sweet but not saccharine, and holds interest for its window onto domesticated birds’ behavior. With photos, and a foreword by Julian Huxley.

 

A Year Lost and Found by Michael Mayne (1987)

[82 pages]

Mayne was vicar at the university church in Cambridge when he came down with a mysterious, debilitating illness, only later diagnosed as myalgic encephalomyelitis or post-viral fatigue syndrome. During his illness he was offered the job of Dean of Westminster, and accepted the post even though he worried about his ability to carry out his duties. He writes of his frustration at not getting better and receiving no answers from doctors, but much of this short memoir is – unsurprisingly, I suppose – given over to theological musings on the nature of suffering, with lots of  quotations (too many) from theologians and poets. Curiously, he also uses Broyard’s word, speaking of the “intoxication of convalescence.”

 

Ordinary Sacred: The Simple Beauty of Everyday Life by Kent Nerburn (2006)

[120 pages]

The author has a PhD in religion and art and produced sculptures for a Benedictine abbey in British Columbia and the Peace Museum in Hiroshima. I worried this would be too New Agey for me, but at 20p from a closing-down charity shop, it was worth taking a chance on. Nerburn feels we are often too “busy with our daily obligations … to surround our hearts with the quiet that is necessary to hear life’s softer songs.” He tells pleasant stories of moments when he stopped to appreciate meaning and connection, like watching a man in a wheelchair fly a kite, setting aside his to-do list to have coffee with an ailing friend, and attending the funeral of a Native American man he once taught.

 

Total number of novellas read this month: 16 (compared to last year’s 26)

My overall favorite: Agatha by Anne Cathrine Bomann

Runners-up: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, Intoxicated by My Illness by Anatole Broyard, and Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit

 

What’s the best novella you’ve read recently? Do you like the sound of any of the ones I read?

Autumn Reading: Two Gems by MacNeice and Teale

With bare trees leading down to the canal and frosty temperatures forecast for the weekend, it’s starting to feel more like winter here. I journeyed through a fine autumn with two obscure classics that ended up being gems.

 

Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice (1939)

MacNeice, a poet and man of letters from Northern Ireland, wrote this long verse narrative between August 1938 and the turn of the following year. It’s simultaneously about everything and nothing, about everyday life for the common worker and the political rumblings that suggest all is not right in the world. As summer fades and Christmas draws closer, he reflects on his disconnection from Ireland; and on fear, apathy and the longing for purpose.

Two in every four lines rhyme, but the rhyme scheme is so subtle that I was far into the book before I recognized it. I tend not to like prose poems, but this book offers a nice halfway house between complete sentences and a stanza form, and it voices the kinds of feelings we can all relate to. How can this possibly be 80 years old? It is so relevant to our situation now.

we think ‘This must be wrong, it has happened before,

Just like this before, we must be dreaming…’

 

now it seems futility, imbecility,

To be building shops when nobody can tell

What will happen next.

 

There are only too many who say ‘What difference does it make

One way or the other?

To turn the stream of history will take

More than a by-election.’

 

Still there are … the seeds of energy and choice

Still alive even if forbidden, hidden,

And while a man has voice

He may recover music.

The university library copy I borrowed smells faintly of incense, so reading it was rather like slipping into the back pew of an old church and pondering timelessness.

 

Autumn Across America by Edwin Way Teale (1950)

Teale is a lesser-known naturalist who specialized in insects and edited or introduced works by famous natural historians of a previous era like Thoreau, Fabre, Hudson and Muir. In the late 1940s he and his wife Nellie set out on a meandering 20,000-mile road trip from Cape Cod on the Atlantic coast to Point Reyes on the Pacific to track autumn from its first hints to its last gasp. It was the third of four seasonal journeys the Teales undertook in part to distract them from their grief over their son David, who was killed in Germany during WWII. Their route passes through about half the states and experiences nearly every landscape you can imagine, some that are familiar to me and others that would be totally new. They delve in rockpools; observe bird and monarch migration; cross desert, mountains and prairie; and watch sea otters at play.

Although there is a sense of abundance – they see a million ducks in one day, and pass dozens of roadkill jackrabbits – like Aldo Leopold, Teale was an early conservationist who sounded the alarm about flora and fauna becoming rarer: “So much was going even as we watched.” His descriptions of nature are simply gorgeous, while the scientific explanations of leaf color, “Indian summer” and animal communication are at just the right level for the average reader. This was a lucky find at the Book Thing of Baltimore this past spring, and if I ever get the chance, I will delight in reading the other three in the quartet.

Some favorite lines:

“The stars speak of man’s insignificance in the long eternity of time; the desert speaks of his insignificance right now.”

“Those to whom the trees, the birds, the wildflowers represent only ‘locked-up dollars’ have never known or really seen these things. They have never experienced an interest in nature for itself. Whoever stimulates a wider appreciation of nature, a wider understanding of nature, a wider love of nature for its own sake accomplishes no small thing.”

 

I’m also still reading Led by the Nose: A Garden of Smells by Jenny Joseph, a book about what you see and smell in the garden month by month. I only have the December chapter still to read, followed by some lists of plants set out by ‘when they smell’ and when you plant them. I’ve also been slowly working through A Country Year: Living the Questions by Sue Hubbell, another Book Thing find. After her divorce, Hubbell lived alone on her 90 acres in the Ozarks of Missouri, keeping bees and conscientiously rebuilding a life in communion with nature. I still have the final two sections, “Winter” and “Spring,” left to read.

 

How’s the weather where you are?

Have you read any “Autumn” books lately?

Nonfiction Review Books Roundup: Hay, Hope et al., Lee, Long, McLaren, Zuckerman

I’m continuing with the Nonfiction November focus by catching up on six nonfiction review books I’ve been sent over the last half a year. We’ve got a record of elderly parents’ decline, letters and poems written about the climate crisis, a family memoir set between Taiwan and Canada, a widow’s mushroom-hunting quest, a work of ecotheology that reflects on travels in the Galápagos Islands, and a defense of an entirely secular basis for morality. You can’t say I don’t read a variety, even within nonfiction! See if one or more of these tempts you.

 

All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir by Elizabeth Hay

Gordon and Jean Hay stumbled into their early nineties in an Ottawa retirement home starting in 2009. Elizabeth Hay is one of four children, but caregiving fell to her for one reason and another, and it was a fraught task because of her parents’ prickly personalities: Jean was critical and thrifty to the point of absurdity, spooning thick mold off apple sauce before serving it and needling Elizabeth for dumping perfectly good chicken juice a year before; Gordon had a terrible temper and a history of corporal punishment of his children and of his students when he was a school principal. Jean’s knee surgery and subsequent infection finally put paid to their independence; her mind was never the same and she could no longer paint.

There are many harsh moments in this memoir, but almost as many wry ones, with Hay picking just the right anecdotes to illustrate her parents’ behavior and the shifting family dynamic. She never looks away, no matter how hard it all gets. Her father’s rage against the dying of the light contrasts with her mother’s fade into confusion – lightened by the surprisingly poetic turns of phrase she came out with despite her dementia and aphasia. The title phrase, for instance, was her attempt at “all things considered.” I would wholeheartedly recommend this to readers of Hay’s novels, but anyone can appreciate the picture of complicated love and grief. (See also Susan’s review.)


With thanks to MacLehose Press for the free copy for review.

 

Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis, edited by Anna Hope et al.

Culture Declares Emergency launched in April to bring the arts into the conversation about the climate emergency. Letters to the Earth compiles 100 short pieces by known and unknown names alike. Alongside published authors, songwriters, professors and politicians are lots of ordinary folk, including children as young as seven. The brief was broad: to write a letter in response to environmental crisis, whether to or from the Earth, to future generations (there are wrenching pieces written to children: “What can I say, now that it’s too late? … that I’m sorry, that I tried,” writes Stuart Capstick), to the government or to other species.

There are certainly relatable emotions here, especially the feeling of helplessness. “We take the train, go vegan, refuse plastic, buy less and less. But that is tiny. We are tiny,” novelist Jo Baker writes. I loved retired bishop Richard Holloway’s wry letter calling the author of Genesis to account for unhelpful language of dominion, Rob Cowen’s poem to a starling, and Anna Hope’s essay about parenting in a time of uncertainty. Unfortunately, much of the rest is twee or haranguing, e.g. “Forest fires are scorching INNOCENT wildlife. Plastic is strangling INNOCENT turtles and dolphins,” a 12-year-old writes. This was put together in a matter of months, and it shows. There is not enough tonal variety, a lot of overwriting has crept through, and errors, especially in the kids’ work, remain uncorrected. Perhaps six to 10 pieces stood out to me overall. I’d recommend the Extinction Rebellion handbook instead.


With thanks to Alison Menzies / William Collins for the free copy for review.

 

Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan by Jessica J. Lee

I loved Turning, Lee’s 2017 memoir about swimming in one of Berlin’s lakes per week for a year, so I jumped at the chance to read her follow-up, which delves into her maternal line’s history in Taiwan. She travels to Taipei for three months to brush up on her Chinese, write and hike. Interspersed with the lush descriptions of her walks are reflections on Taiwan’s history and on the hidden aspects of her grandfather Gong’s past that only came to light after Lee’s grandmother, Po, died and she and her mother discovered an autobiographical letter he’d written before he drifted into dementia. Nature, language, history and memory flow together in a delicate blend of genres – “I moved from the human timescale of my family’s story through green and unfurling dendrological time,” she writes.

This has got to be one of the most striking title and cover combinations of the year. Along with Chinese characters, the book includes some looping text and Nico Taylor’s maps and illustrations of Taiwanese flora and fauna. While you will likely get more out of this if you have a particular interest in Asian history, languages and culture, it’s impressive how Lee brings the different strands of her story together to form a hybrid nature memoir that I hope will be recognized by next year’s Wainwright Prize and Young Writer of the Year Award shortlists. She’d also be a perfect New Networks for Nature speaker.


With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.

 

The Way through the Woods: Of Mushrooms and Mourning by Long Lit Woon

[Trans. from the Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland]

I couldn’t resist the sound of a bereavement memoir crossed with a mushroom hunting guide. When Long met her husband, Eiolf Olsen, she was an 18-year-old Malaysian exchange student in Stavanger, Norway. Meeting Eiolf changed the whole course of her life, keeping her in Europe for good; decades later, her life changed forever once again when Eiolf dropped dead at work one morning. “If anyone had told me that mushrooms would be my lifeline, the thing that would help me back onto my feet and quite literally back onto life’s track, I would have rolled my eyes. What had mushrooms to do with mourning?” she writes.

The answer to that rhetorical question is nothing much, at least not inherently, so this ends up becoming a book of two parts, with the bereavement strand (printed in green and in a different font – green is for grief? I suppose) engaging me much more than the mushroom-hunting one, which takes her to Central Park and the annual Telluride, Colorado mushroom festival as well as to Norway’s woods again and again – “In Norway, outdoor life is tantamount to a religion.” But the quest for wonder and for meaning is a universal one. In addition, if you’re a mushroom fan you’ll find gathering advice, tasting notes, and even recipes. I fancy trying the “mushroom bacon” made out of oven-dried shiitakes.


With thanks to Scribe for the free copy for review.

 

God Unbound: Theology in the Wild by Brian McLaren

McLaren was commissioned to launch a series that was part travel guide, part spiritual memoir and part theological reflection. Specifically, he was asked to write about the Galápagos Islands because he’d been before and they were important to him. He joins a six-day eco-cruise that tours around the island chain off Ecuador, with little to do except observe the birds, tortoises and iguanas, and swim with fish and sea turtles. For him this is a peaceful, even sacred place that reminds him of the beauty that still exists in the world despite so much human desecration. Although he avoids using his phone except to quickly check in with his wife, modernity encroaches unhelpfully through a potential disaster with his laptop.

I was surprised to see that McLaren leaves the Galápagos at the midpoint – whatever could fill the rest of the book, I wondered? He starts by reassessing Darwin, so often painted as a villain by Evangelical Christianity but actually a model of close, loving attention to nature. He also recalls how some of his most intense spiritual experiences have arisen from time in nature. McLaren’s books have been pivotal to my spiritual journey as we’ve both gradually become more liberal and environmentalist. His definition of God might horrify traditionalists, but holds appeal for me: “a centering singularity whose gravity holds me in insistent orbit, pulling me deeper into mystery, pondering who I am and what my life means.” This is an unusual but gently entrancing book full of photos and quotes from other thinkers including John Muir, Pope Francis and Richard Rohr. It’s an ideal introduction to ecotheology.


With thanks to Canterbury Press for the free copy for review.

 

What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life by Phil Zuckerman

From one end of the spectrum (progressive Christianity) to the other (atheism). Here’s a different perspective from a sociology professor at California’s Pitzer College. Zuckerman’s central argument is that humanism and free choice can fuel ethical behavior; since there’s no proof of God’s existence and theists have such a wide range of beliefs, it’s absurd to slap a “because God says so” label on our subjective judgments. Morals maintain the small communities our primate ancestors evolved into, with specific views (such as on homosexuality) a result of our socialization. Alas, the in-group/out-group thinking from our evolutionary heritage is what can lead to genocide. Instead of thinking in terms of ‘evil’, though, Zuckerman prefers Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen’s term, “empathy erosion.”

To tackle violent crime, Zuckerman contends, we need a more equal society, with the Scandinavian countries a model of how to achieve that through higher taxes, social services and the rehabilitation of prisoners. He uses a lot of relatable examples from history and from his own experience, as well as theoretical situations, to think through practical morality. I found his indictment of American Christianity accurate – how does it make sense for people who say they follow the way of Jesus to fight against equality, tolerance and scientific advances and instead advocate guns, the death penalty and Trump? Well, indeed.

It might seem odd for me to recommend this alongside the McLaren, but there is much to be gained from both viewpoints. Zuckerman’s work overlaps a fair bit with another I’ve read on the topic, Richard Holloway’s Godless Morality – even a bishop agrees we needn’t take our societal ethics straight from the Bible! I can’t go along fully with Zuckerman because I think progressive religion has been and can continue to be a force for good, but I would agree that atheists can be just as moral as people of faith – and often more so.


With thanks to Counterpoint Press for sending a proof copy for review.

 

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

Women in the Polar Night: Christiane Ritter and Sigri Sandberg

I’m continuing a Nonfiction November focus with reviews of two recently (re-)released memoirs about women spending time in the Arctic north of Norway. I enjoy reading about survival in extreme situations – it’s the best kind of armchair traveling because you don’t have to experience the cold and privation for yourself.

 

A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter (1938; English text, 1954)

[Translated by Jane Degras]

In 1934, Ritter, an Austrian painter, joined her husband Hermann for a year in Spitsbergen. He’d participated in a scientific expedition and caught the Arctic bug, it seems, for he stayed on to fish and hunt. They shared a small, remote hut with a Norwegian trapper, Karl. Ritter was utterly unprepared for the daily struggle, having expected a year’s cozy retreat: “I could stay by the warm stove in the hut, knit socks, paint from the window, read thick books in the remote quiet and, not least, sleep to my heart’s content.” Before long she was disabused of her rosy vision. “It’s a ghastly country, I think to myself. Nothing but water, fog, and rain.” The stove failed. Dry goods ran out; they relied on fresh seal meat. Would they get enough vitamins? she worried. Every time Hermann and Karl set off hunting, leaving her alone in the hut, she feared they wouldn’t return. And soon the 132 straight days of darkness set in.

I was fascinated by the details of Ritter’s daily tasks, but also by how her perspective on the landscape changed. No longer a bleak wilderness, it became a tableau of grandeur. “A deep blue-green, the mountains rear up into a turquoise-coloured sky. From the mountaintops broad glaciers glittering in the sun flow down into the fjord.” She thought of the Arctic almost as a site of spiritual pilgrimage, where all that isn’t elemental falls away. “Forgotten are all externals; here everything is concerned with simple being.” The year is as if outside of time: she never reminisces about her life back home, and barely mentions their daughter. By the end you see that the experience has changed her: she’ll never fret over trivial things again. She lived to age 103 (only dying in 2000), so clearly the time in the Arctic did her no harm.

Ritter wrote only this one book. A travel classic, it has never been out of print in German but has been for 50 years in the UK. Pushkin Press is reissuing the English text on the 21st with a foreword by Sara Wheeler, a few period photographs and a hand-drawn map by Neil Gower.

My rating:


With thanks to Pushkin Press for the free copy for review.

Notes: Michelle Paver drew heavily on this book when creating the setting for Dark Matter. (There’s even a bear post outside the Ritters’ hut.)

I found some photos of the Ritters’ hut here.

(Although I did not plan it this way, this book also ties in with German Literature Month!)

 

An Ode to Darkness by Sigri Sandberg (2019)

[Translated by Siân Mackie]

Ritter’s book is a jumping-off point for Norwegian journalist Sandberg’s investigation of darkness as both a physical fact and a cultural construct. She travels alone from her home in Oslo to her cabin in the mountains at Finse, 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Ninety percent of Norway’s wildlife sleeps through the winter, and she often wishes she could hibernate as well. Although she only commits to five days in the far north compared to Ritter’s year, she experiences the same range of emotions, starting with a primitive fear of nature and the dark.

It is a fundamental truth that darkness does not exist from an astronomical standpoint. Happy fact. I’m willing to accept this. I try to find it comforting, helpful. But I still struggle to completely believe that darkness does not actually exist. Because what does it matter to a small, poorly designed human whether darkness is real or perceived? And what about the black holes in the universe, what about dark matter, what about the night sky and the threats against it, and … and now I’m exhausted. I’m done for the day. I feel so small, and I’m tired of being afraid.

Over the course of the book she talks to scientists about the human need for sleep and sunshine, discusses solitude and dark sky initiatives, and quotes from a number of poets, especially Jon Fosse, “Norway’s greatest writer,” who often employs metaphors of light and dark: “Deep inside me / … it was like the empty darkness was shining”.

In occasional passages labeled “Christiane” Sandberg also recounts fragments of Ritter’s experiences. I read Sandberg’s book first, so these served as a tantalizing introduction to A Woman in the Polar Night. “Is there anywhere as silent as a white winter plateau on a windless day? And how long can anyone spend alone before they start to feel, like Christiane did, as if their very being is disintegrating?”

This is just the sort of wide-ranging nonfiction I love; it intersperses biographical and autobiographical information with scientific and cultural observations.

[Another recent book, Dark Skies, tries to do a similar thing but is less successful – partially due to the author’s youthful optimism, but also due to the rambly, shallow nature of the writing. (My review will be in the November 29th issue of the Times Literary Supplement.)]

My rating:


With thanks to Sphere for the free copy for review.

 

Related reading: This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich

 

Spitsbergen glacier. Rob Oo [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D.


Do you like reading about polar exploration, or life’s extremes in general?

“Being the Expert” on Women’s Religious Memoirs Again: Unfollow & Leaving the Witness

I’ve fallen behind on the weekly prompts for Nonfiction November, but wanted to post a follow-up to my 2018 list of a baker’s dozen of memoirs I’ve read that explore women’s religious experiences. I’ve read a couple more this year that are worth adding to the list; in addition to their themes of doubt and making a new life outside the church, they also share an interesting detail: it’s an online friend that goads each author into questioning her beliefs. Even if you aren’t typically interested in this subgenre, you’ve likely heard of Unfollow because of the high-profile story behind it. (This week is hosted by Katie of Doing Dewey.)

 

Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper

“God hates fags.” If you know one thing about Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, it’s that this slogan plastered their signs and was part of their armory of in-your-face chants at nationwide protests.

Fred Phelps in 2002. (User Rudolf 1922 on sv.wikipedia.)

Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the Church, which was founded by her grandfather, Fred Phelps, and made up mostly of her extended family: Phelps had 13 children, and Phelps-Roper is one of 11. In 1989 Phelps learned that nearby Gage Park was a gay cruising spot and wrote in disgust to the mayor and other city officials. In a sense, he never got over it. The anti-homosexuality message would become Westboro’s trademark, at least until the church started its picketing of military funerals after the Iraq War – which, like 9/11, was interpreted as being God’s just punishment of American immorality.

By portraying it from the inside and recreating her shifting perspective from early childhood onwards, Phelps-Roper initially makes her extreme upbringing seem normal. After all, it’s the only thing she knew, and it never would have occurred to her that her family could be wrong. The Phelpses were fiercely intelligent and also ran a law firm, so it’s impossible to just dismiss them as redneck idiots. Frequent passages from the King James Bible appear in italics to echo the justifications the Church cited for its beliefs and actions.

Only gradually did doubts start to creep in for the author as various uncles and brothers left the church. Phelps-Roper was even the voice of Westboro on Twitter, but defending funeral protests became increasingly difficult for her. Two things brought her to a breaking point. First, in something of a coup, the Church appointed a new body of elders – all male, of course – who instituted ever more draconian rules, such as a dress code for women, and effectively removed her mother from leadership. (Ultimately, they would kick the dying Fred Phelps himself out of the church.) Secondly, the Church started to spread fake news via doctored photos. For example, they claimed to be protesting a royal wedding in London, when in fact Westboro members never go anywhere the First Amendment can’t protect them.

All along, Phelps-Roper had been corresponding with “C.G.,” an online acquaintance with whom she played Words with Friends. Chad gently encouraged her to ask why Westboro believed as it did, and to unpick rather than ignore any doctrines that didn’t make sense. “What if we’re wrong? What if this isn’t The Place led by God Himself? What if we’re just people?” she wondered. In November 2012, she and her sister Grace left the Church and the family home, where she’d lived until age 26, and retreated to a Deadwood, South Dakota Airbnb to hike, read and think about what they’d left behind and what came next. I’d had just about enough of Westboro and its infighting by that point in the book – the chapter about her leaving gets a little melodramatic – so, like the author, I was glad to move on to another setting, and this interlude ended up being my favorite section.

Westboro Baptist Church demonstration outside the Virginia Holocaust Museum, March 2010. (JCWilmore [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D.)
There’s much more I could say about this memoir, as the path out of fundamentalism is one I’ve taken, too, and the process of rebuilding a life outside it is ongoing for me, as it is for Phelps-Roper, who now lobbies for empathy across religious and political lines. The sense of a family divided is reminiscent of Tara Westover’s Educated, whose readership Unfollow is keen to secure. At points the book feels overlong (the chapters certainly are), but the good news for anyone who might feel reluctant to tackle it is that a film version is in the works, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby and Reese Witherspoon producing.

Note: Westboro was the subject of a Louis Theroux documentary in 2006, and in a nice full-circle moment, he’s now interviewing Phelps-Roper on some of her UK book tour spots. And, in another lovely aside, she married C.G.

My rating:


With thanks to riverrun for the free copy for review.

 

Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life by Amber Scorah

Like In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, this is the story of growing up in a cult and what happens when, as an adult, a woman has to build a new life free from the constraints – but also unmoored from the comforting framework – of a previously unquestioned belief system. Scorah grew up in Vancouver’s community of Jehovah’s Witnesses and, although she was temporarily disfellowshipped as a teenager for having premarital sex, the faith was her home and gave her a sense of purpose. Witnesses are discouraged from attending university or pursuing careers; without exception, they’re expected to preach and win converts – the only task worth engaging in given that the world is headed towards Armageddon.

Scorah and her husband went to China as clandestine JW missionaries. Her Mandarin skills were good enough that she could become friends with her English-language pupils and then start to talk to them about religion. In the meantime, she became an early podcast host with the program “Dear Amber,” which offered advice on the Chinese language and culture. She embarked on a flirtatious correspondence with one of her regular listeners, Jonathan from Los Angeles, who goaded her into rethinking everything she’d been taught to believe. “I was questioning with a mind that had been trained not to. It was highly uncomfortable.”

As her marriage and faith simultaneously crumbled, Scorah had to decide what was left to form the foundation of a new life on her own in New York City. “My eye-glazing peace, unquestioning contentment, and eternal life were gone, and the time ahead of me was filled with people I didn’t yet know, uncertainty about the future, and, one day, death.” I was absorbed in the bittersweet outworkings of this before and after: a process of losing faith and deciding what’s next.

The final chapter is a whirlwind tour through her first years in NYC, including the tragic death of her infant son, Karl. This makes for something of an abrupt end to the book; I might have liked to get as much detail on all this as we got about the time in China. But it was clearly a deliberate decision to present such life and death matters from a hard-won secular perspective, without the false balm of a religion that promises she’ll see her son again. There’s a lot of secrecy about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, so this is a rare insider’s view as well as a wrenching account of loss and starting over.

My rating:


Full disclosure: Amber Scorah offered me a copy through a Facebook group we are both a part of.

Thanks to her and Viking for sending a free copy for review.

 

Can you see yourself reading either of these books?

Novellas in November, Part 1: 3 Nonfiction, 2 Super-Short Fiction

Short books; short reviews.

 

Nonfiction:

The Measure of My Days by Florida Scott-Maxwell (1968)

[150 pages]

I learned about this from one of May Sarton’s journals, which shares its concern with ageing and selfhood. The author was an American suffragist, playwright, mother and analytical psychologist who trained under Jung and lived in England and Scotland with her Scottish husband. She kept this notebook while she was 82, partly while recovering from gallbladder surgery. It’s written in short, sometimes aphoristic paragraphs. While I appreciated her thoughts on suffering, developing “hardihood,” the simplicity that comes with giving up many cares and activities, and the impossibility of solving “one’s own incorrigibility,” I found this somewhat rambly and abstract, especially when she goes off on a dated tangent about the equality of the sexes. (Free from The Book Thing of Baltimore)

 

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit (2004)

[143 pages]

“Activism is not a journey to the corner store, it is a plunge into the unknown. The future is always dark.” This resonated with the Extinction Rebellion handbook I reviewed earlier in the year. Solnit believes in the power of purposeful individuals working towards social justice, even in the face of dispiriting evidence (the largest protests the world had seen didn’t stop the Iraq War). Instead of perfectionism, she advises flexibility and resilience; things could be even worse had we not acted. At first I thought it depressing that 15 years on we’re still dealing with many of the issues she mentions here, and the environmental crisis has only deepened. But her strong and stirring writing is a reminder that, though injustice is always with us, so is everyday heroism. (Free from The Book Thing of Baltimore)

 

Lama by Derek Tangye (1966)

[160 pages]

Tangye wrote a series of cozy animal books similar to Doreen Tovey’s. He and his wife Jean ran a flower farm in Cornwall and had a succession of cats, along with donkeys and a Muscovy duck named Boris. After the death of their beloved cat Monty, Jean wanted a kitten for Christmas but Tangye, who considered himself a one-cat man rather than a wholesale cat lover, hesitated. The matter was decided for them when a little black stray started coming round and soon made herself at home. (Her name is a tribute to the Dalai Lama’s safe flight from Tibet.) Mild adventures ensue, such as Lama going down a badger sett and Jeannie convincing herself that she’s identified another stray as Lama’s mother. Pleasant, if slight; I’ll read more by Tangye. (From Kennet Centre free bookshop)

 

Fiction:

The Small Miracle by Paul Gallico (1951)

[47 pages]

Like Tangye, Gallico is known for writing charming animal books, but fables rather than memoirs. Set in postwar Assisi, Italy, this stars Pepino, a 10-year-old orphan boy who runs errands with his donkey Violetta to earn his food and board. When Violetta falls ill, he dreads losing not just his livelihood but also his only friend in the world. But the powers that be won’t let him bring her into the local church so that he can pray to St. Francis for her healing. Pepino takes to heart the maxim an American corporal gave him – “don’t take no for an answer” – and takes his suit all the way to the pope. This story of what faith can achieve just manages to avoid being twee. (From Kennet Centre free bookshop)

 

Birthday Girl by Haruki Murakami (2002; English translation by Jay Rubin, 2003)

[42 pages]

Reprinted as a stand-alone pamphlet to celebrate the author’s 70th birthday, this is about a waitress who on her 20th birthday is given the unwonted task of taking dinner up to the restaurant owner, who lives above the establishment. He is taken with the young woman and offers to grant her one wish. We never hear exactly what that wish was. It’s now more than 10 years later and she’s recalling the occasion for a friend, who asks her if the wish came true and whether she regrets what she requested. She surveys her current life and says that it remains to be seen whether her wish will be fulfilled; I could only assume that she wished for happiness, which is shifting and subjective. Encountering this in a larger collection would be fine, but it wasn’t particularly worth reading on its own. (Public library)

 

I’ve also had a number of novella DNFs so far this month, alas: Atlantic Winds by William Prendiville (not engaging in the least), By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart (fascinating autobiographical backstory; pretentious prose) and The Dream Life of Balso Snell by Nathanael West (even more bizarre and crass than I’m used to from him).

Onwards!

 

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