I’m all about flowers today: American wildflowers in poetry and prose, a year of hunting down the flora of the British Isles, and a discursive account of a famous English author’s life and times through the prism of his rose garden.
American Wildflowers: A Literary Field Guide, ed. Susan Barba; illus. Leanne Shapton (2022)
This comes out from Abrams Press in the USA on 8 November and I’ll be reviewing it for Shelf Awareness, so I’ll just give a few brief thoughts for now. Barba is a poet and senior editor for New York Review Books. She has collected pieces from a wide range of American literature, including essays, letters and early travel writings as well as poetry, which dominates.
Apart from a closing section on various/anonymous wildflowers, where particular species are named they are grouped into families, which are arranged alphabetically. The Asteraceae section is particularly strong, with poems on dandelions and sunflowers, a typically prophetic Aldo Leopold fragment about the decline of native flora, and “Asters and Goldenrod,” an extract from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass (itself one of my 20 Books of Summer – review to come in the week) that I think was also excerpted in This Book Is a Plant.
In general, I engaged more with the poetry than with the prose. Barba has ensured a real variety of styles, with good representation for BIPOC. What draws it all together into a beautiful whole I wish I could see as a physical object is Leanne Shapton’s watercolor illustrations, painted from pressed flowers. “What a gift to stare at flowers—these ephemeral miracles of color and synthesis and botany,” she writes in an opening note. This would be a perfect coffee table book for any gardener or nature lover. (E-review copy)
Where the Wildflowers Grow: My Botanical Journey through Britain and Ireland by Leif Bersweden (2022)
A good case of nominative determinism – the author’s name is pronounced “leaf” – and fun connections abound: during the course of his year-long odyssey, he spends time plant-hunting with Jon Dunn and Sophie Pavelle, whose books featured earlier in my flora-themed summer reading: Orchid Summer and Forget Me Not. With Dunn on Unst, Shetland, he sees not only rare flowers but close-up orcas. Like Pavelle, who he meets up with in Cornwall, he has an eye to how species will be affected by climate change and commits to doing his hunting by train and bike; there’s only so much you can see when zooming by in a car. Bersweden makes a case for spending time with plants – after all, they don’t move, so once you’ve found them you can commune in a way you can’t during, say, a fleeting mammal encounter.
He starts 2021 with a New Year Plant Hunt in central London with his mother – more is in bloom in January than ever before, at least in part due to climate warming. Even when the weather is foul on his travels, there is plenty to be seen. Everywhere he goes, he meets up with fellow experts and plant enthusiasts to marvel at bluebell woodlands or ancient pine forests, alpine or bog species. The floral circuit (documented in full on the book’s website through chapter-by-chapter photographs; there are two small sections of colour plates in the hardback) is also a chance to tour the British Isles, from Kent to Cork, coast to mountaintop.
Bersweden has been in love with plants ever since childhood; he believes they have nostalgia value for many people, and can be an easy way into appreciation of nature. “A wildflower growing from a crack in the wall is an everyday miracle.” His casual writing style and clear zeal for his subject – his author photo is of him hugging a tree, and another has such a cute caption: “Being given the opportunity to hold a Greater Bladderwort (Utricularia vulgaris) was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me!” – make this a pleasure even though it’s a bit overlong at points. (Public library)
Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit (2021)
I was fascinated by the concept behind this one. “In the spring of 1936 a writer planted roses” is Solnit’s refrain; from there sprawls a book that’s somehow about everything: botany, geology, history, politics and war – as well as, of course, George Orwell’s life and works (with significant overlap with the graphic novel biography of him that I read last year). On a trip to England with a friend who is a documentary filmmaker, Solnit had the impulse to go find what might be left of Orwell’s garden. When she arrived in the Hertfordshire village of Wallington, the current owners of his home kindly showed her round. His fruit trees had long since been cut down, but the rosebushes were still going strong some 80 years later.
This goes down as a skim for me: though I read the first 30%, after that I just browsed to the end. Some side tracks lost me, e.g. Tina Modotti’s presentation of roses in her photographs; Orwell’s interest in mining, which leads Solnit to investigate how coal is formed; much history; and a week spent observing the rose-growing industry in Colombia. I most enjoyed the book when it stayed close to Orwell’s biography and writings, positing gardening as his way of grounding his ideas in the domestic and practical. “Pursuits like that can bring you back to earth from the ether and the abstractions.” I also liked – briefly, at least – thinking about the metaphorical associations of roses, and flowers in general.
If you’ve read Solnit before, you’ll know that her prose is exquisite, but I think this was the stuff of a long article rather than a full book. As it is, it’s a pretty indulgent project. (Kaggsy reviewed this recently and came to somewhat similar conclusions.) (NetGalley)
I’m still averaging four new releases per month: a nicely manageable number. In addition to Lily King’s Writers & Lovers, in May I’ve read a novel about eco-anxiety and marital conflict, a memoir of losing a mother to grief and dementia, and an account of a shift in sexuality. I had a somewhat mixed reaction to all three books, but see if one or more catches your eye anyway.
When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray
Perhaps if this had come out two or three years ago, it could have felt fresh. As it is, it felt like a retread of familiar stories about eco-grief and -anxiety among the middle classes (such as Weather and Unsheltered). Emma Abram is an average suburban mother of two in the north of England, upcycling fabrics and doing her best with other little green initiatives around the house since she got laid off from her job when the local library closed. She feels guilty a lot of the time, but what else can she do?
Nero fiddled while Rome burned; she will sew while the polar ice melts and the seas surge.
She couldn’t un-birth the children, un-earth the disposable nappies or un-plumb the white goods.
Such sentiments also reminded me of the relatable, but by no means ground-breaking, contents of Letters to the Earth.
Emma’s husband Chris, though, has taken things to an extreme: as zealous as he once was about his childhood faith, he now is about impending climate change. One day, a week or so before Christmas, she is embarrassed to spot him by the roadside in town, holding up a signboard prophesying environmental doom. “In those days, Chris had been spreading the Good News. Now he is spreading the Bad News.” He thinks cold-weather and survivalist gear makes appropriate gifts; he raises rabbits for meat; he makes Emma watch crackpot documentaries about pandemic preparation. (Oh, the irony! I was sent this book in December.)
Part of the problem was to do with my expectations: from the cover and publicity materials I thought this was going to be a near-future speculative novel about a family coping with flooding and other literal signs of environmental apocalypse. Instead, it is a story about a marriage in crisis. (I cringed at how unsubtly this line put it: “The climate of her marriage [has] been changing, and she has been in denial about it for a long time.”) It is also, like Unless, about how to relate to a family member who has, in your opinion, gone off the rails.
Nothing wrong with those themes, of course, but my false assumptions meant that I spent well over 200 pages waiting for something to happen, thinking that everything I had read thus far was backstory and character development that, in a more eventful novel, would have been dispatched within, say, the first 40 pages. I did enjoy the seasonal activity leading up to Christmas Eve, and the portrayal of Chris’s widowed, pious mother. But compared to A Song for Issy Bradley, one of my favorite books of 2014, this was a disappointment.
My thanks to Hutchinson for the proof copy for review. This came out in e-book and audio on May 7th but the print edition has been delayed until November 12th.
Mother: A Memoir by Nicholas Royle
“A memoir is about what survives. But it is also about what is enigmatic and irretrievable. Cryptic and unknown.”
A few years ago I read Royle’s An English Guide to Birdwatching, one of the stranger novels I’ve ever come across (it brings together a young literary critic’s pet peeves, a retired couple’s seaside torture by squawking gulls, the confusion between the two real-life English novelists named Nicholas Royle, and bird-themed vignettes). It was joyfully over-the-top, full of jokes and puns as well as trenchant observations about modern life.
I found that same delight in the vagaries of language and life in Mother: A Memoir. Royle’s mother, Kathleen, had Alzheimer’s and died in 2003. At least to start with, she was aware of what was happening to her: “I’m losing my marbles,” she pronounced one day in the kitchen of the family home in Devon. Yet Royle pinpoints the beginning of the end nearly two decades earlier, when his younger brother, Simon, died of a rare cancer. “From that death none of us recovered. But my mother it did for. She it by degrees sent mad.”
In short, titled sections that function almost like essays, Royle traces his mother’s family history and nursing career, and brings to life her pastimes and mannerisms. She passed on to Royle, a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Sussex, a love of literature and of unusual words and sayings. She was often to be found with a crossword puzzle in front of her, she devoured books (devoting a whole summer to the complete works to date of Doris Lessing, for instance), and she gave advice on her son’s early stories.
The narrative moves back and forth in time and intersperses letters, lists and black-and-white photographs. Royle often eschews punctuation and indulges in wordplay. “These details matter. The matter of my mater. Matador killing metaphor.” I found that I remained at arm’s length from the book – admiring it rather than becoming as emotionally engaged with it as I wanted to be – but it’s certainly not your average memoir, and it’s always refreshing to find (auto)biographical work that does something different.
My thanks to Myriad Editions for the free copy for review.
The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenberg
Wizenberg is the author of two terrific food-themed memoirs. I particularly loved A Homemade Life, which chronicles the death of her father Burg from cancer, her time living in Paris, building a new life in Seattle, starting her famous food blog (Orangette), and meeting her husband, Brandon. Her follow-up, Delancey, was about the ups and downs of them opening a pizza restaurant and bar in Seattle while she was pregnant with June.
By contrast, The Fixed Stars was an uncomfortable read in more ways than one. For one thing, it unpicks the fairy tale of what had looked like a pretty ideal marriage and entrepreneurial partnership. It turns out Wizenberg wasn’t wholly on board with their little restaurant empire and found the work overwhelming. It was all Brandon’s dream, not hers. (She admits to these facts in Delancey, but it was the success, not the doubt, that I remembered.)
And then, in the summer of 2015, Wizenberg was summoned for jury duty and found herself fascinated by one of the defense attorneys, a woman named Nora who wore a man’s suit and a butch haircut. The author had always considered herself straight, had never been attracted to a woman before, but this crush wouldn’t go away. She and Brandon tried an open marriage so that she could date Nora and he could see other people, too, but it didn’t work out. Brandon didn’t want her to fall in love with anyone else, but that was just what was happening.
Wizenberg announced her coming-out and her separation from Brandon on her blog, so I was aware of all this for the last few years and via Instagram followed what came next. I knew her new spouse is a non-binary person named Ash who was born female but had top surgery to remove their breasts. (At first I was assumed Nora was an alias for Ash, but they are actually different characters. After things broke down with Nora, a mutual friend set her up with Ash.) The other source of discomfort for me here was the explicit descriptions of her lovemaking with Nora – her initiation into lesbian sex – though she draws a veil over this with Ash.
I’m not sure if the intimate details were strictly necessary, but I reminded myself that a memoir is a person’s impressions of what they’ve done and what has happened to them, molded into a meaningful shape. Wizenberg clearly felt a need to dig for the why of her transformation, and her answers range from her early knowledge of homosexuality (an uncle who died of AIDS) to her frustrations about her life with Brandon (theirs really was a happy enough marriage, and a markedly amicable divorce, but had its niggles, like any partnership).
I appreciated that, ultimately, Wizenberg leaves her experience unlabeled. She acknowledges that hers is a messy story, but an honest one. While she entertains several possibilities – Was she a closeted lesbian all along? Or was she bisexual? Can sexual orientation change? – she finds out that sexual fluidity is common in women, and that all queer families are unique. An obvious comparison is with Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which is a bit more profound and original. But the mourning for her marriage and the anguish over what she was doing to her daughter are strong elements alongside the examination of sexuality. The overarching metaphor of star maps is effective and reminded me of Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson.
There were points in the narrative where I was afraid the author would resort to pat answers about what was ‘meant to be’ or to depicting villains versus heroic actions, but instead she treats this all just as something that happened and that all involved coped with as best they could, hopefully making something better in the end. It’s sensitively told and, while inevitably different from her other work, well worth reading for anyone who’s been surprised where life has led.
I read an advanced e-copy from Abrams Press via Edelweiss. A Kindle edition came out on May 12th, but the hardback release has been pushed back to August 4th.