In the first four months of this year, I got my hands on no fewer than four swimming memoirs. For the upcoming July/August issue of Foreword Reviews magazine I’ve reviewed Floating: A Life Regained by Joe Minihane, in which the author recreates the late nature writer Roger Deakin’s wild swimming journeys from Waterlog (1999) in an attempt to overcome anxiety; I have Leap In by Alexandra Heminsley on my Kindle; and I read roughly the first 60 pages of a library copy of Al Álvarez’s 2013 Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal.
For now, I’m featuring Turning by Jessica J. Lee, which has strong similarities to these other memoirs – especially Minihane’s – but is its own beautifully reflective personal story. The book arose from Lee’s resolution, when she was 28 and in Berlin on a research placement for her dissertation in environmental history, to swim in 52 local lakes – a year’s worth – no matter the weather. At the time she blogged about her “52 Lakes Project” for Slow Travel Berlin, and kept friends and family up to date through social media as well. Her focus would be on the former East German region of Brandenburg, which has Berlin at its center and was first popularized by Theodor Fontane’s 1862 travel book.
Lee traveled to the lakes under her own steam, using trains and her bicycle; occasionally she took friends with her, but most often she was alone, which became a chance to cultivate solitude – not the same as loneliness. The challenge entailed all kinds of practical difficulties like bike trouble, getting lost, and a dead phone battery, but gradually it became routine and held less fear for her. On summer days she could manage multiple lakes in a day, and even small encounters with Germans gave her a newfound sense of belonging.
Within chapters, the memoir gracefully alternates pieces of the author’s past with her lake travels. With a father from Wales and a mother from Taiwan, Lee grew up in Ontario and spent summers in Florida. She remembers taking YMCA swimming lessons alongside her mother, and swimming in Canadian lakes. Back then the water usually intimidated her, but over the years her feelings have changed:
Water feels different in each place. The water I grew up with was hard, cutting, and when I go back to visit it now, I feel it in my ears when I dive in. something different, more like rock. The lake a whetted blade. The water in Berlin has a softness to it. Maybe it’s the sand, buffing the edges off the water like splinters from a beam. It slips over you like a blanket. There’s a safety in this feeling. In the lakes here, there is a feeling of enclosure and security that Canada can’t replicate. And it shouldn’t – the pelagic vastness there is entirely its own, and I’ve learned to love that too.
Swimming fulfills many functions for Lee. It served variously as necessary discipline after going mildly off the rails in young adulthood (drinking, smoking pot and having an abortion during college; a short-lived marriage in her early twenties); as a way of bouncing back from depression when her planned life in London didn’t pan out and a budding relationship failed; and as a way of being in touch with the turning seasons and coming to know the German landscape intimately. Symbolically, of course, it’s also a baptism into a new life.
Yet I had to wonder if there was also something masochistic about this pursuit, especially in the winter months. On the back cover there’s a photograph of Lee using a hammer to chip out a path through the ice so she can do her minimum of 45 strokes. (No wetsuit!) As spring came, ironically, the water felt almost too warm to her. She had learned to master the timing of a winter swim: “Between pain and numbness there’s a brightness, a crisp, heightened sensation in the cold: that’s the place to swim through. When it ends, when numbness arrives, it’s time to get out.”
The end of Lee’s year-long project is bittersweet, but she’s consoled by the fact that she didn’t have to leave her ordinary life in order to complete it. It was a companion alongside the frantic last-minute work on her dissertation and it never got in the way of her relationships; on the contrary, it strengthened certain friendships. And with Berlin looking like her home for the foreseeable future, she’s committed to seeking out more lakes, too.
There are a lot of year quest books out there, but this one never feels formulaic because there’s such a fluid intermingling of past and present. As memoirs go, it is somewhat like Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun – but much better. It’s also comparable to Angela Palm’s Riverine, with a watery metaphor at the heart to reflect the author’s conception of life as a meandering route. Unlike the other swimming memoirs I’ve sampled, I can recommend this one to a general reader with no particular interest in wild swimming or any other sport. It’s for you if you enjoy reading about the ebb and flow of women’s lives.
In the stillness of the lakes, the border between nature and culture is thinned. Swimming takes place at this border, as if constantly searching for home. Water is a place in which I don’t belong, but where I find myself nonetheless. Out of my culture, out of my depth.
There is more space inside than I can imagine, more hope and possibility than I’d known. Feeling as clear as the day, as deep as the lake.
Turning: A Swimming Memoir was published in the UK by Virago on May 4th. My thanks to the publisher for sending a free copy for review.
“The trees are undressing, and fling in many places –
On the gray road, the roof, the window-sill –
Their radiant robes and ribbons and yellow laces”
~from “Last Week in October,” Thomas Hardy (1928)
I recently learned that there are two different official start dates for autumn. The meteorological beginning of the season was on September 1st, while the astronomical opening is not until the 22nd. For the purposes of this review I’ll incline towards the former. I’ve been watching leaves fall since early last month, after all, but now – after a weekend spent taking a chilly boat ride down the canal, stocking the freezer with blackberries and elderberries, and setting hops to dry in the shed – it truly feels like autumn is here in southern England. Luckily, I had just the right book in hand to read over the last couple of weeks as I’ve been settling into our new place, Autumn: An anthology for the changing seasons.
This is the third of four seasonal volumes issued this year by the UK’s Wildlife Trusts, in partnership with London-based publisher Elliott & Thompson and edited by Melissa Harrison (see also my review of Summer). The format of all the books is roughly the same: pieces range from one to a few pages and run the gamut from recurring phenological records (Gilbert White and Thomas Furly Forster) and extracts from classic literature (poems by Shelley, Tennyson and Yeats) to recent nature writers (an excerpt from Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk; new work from Amy Liptrot and John Lewis-Stempel). Perhaps half the content has been contributed by talented amateurs, about 10 of them repeats from the first volumes.
This collection was slightly less memorable for me than Summer. A few pieces seem like school assignments, overly reliant on clichés of blackberry picking and crunching leaves underfoot. The best ones don’t attempt too much; they zero in on one species or experience and give a complete, self-contained story rather than general musings. A few stand-outs in this respect are Jo Cartnell chancing upon bank voles, Julian Jones on his obsession with eels, Laurence Arnold telling of his reptile surveying at London Wetland Center, and Lucy McRobert having a magic moment with dolphins off the Scilly Isles. I also enjoyed Kate Blincoe’s account of foraging for giant puffball mushrooms and Janet Willoner on pressing apples into juice – I’m looking forward to watching this at our town’s Apple Day in October.
I think all the contemporary writers would agree that you don’t have to live or go somewhere ‘special’ to commune with nature; there are marvels everywhere, even on your own tiny patch, if you will just go out and find them. For instance, South London seems an unlikely place for wildlife encounters, yet Will Harper-Penrose meets up with one of the country’s most strikingly exotic species (an introduced one), the ring-necked parakeet. Jane Adams comes across a persistent gang of wood mice in her very own attic, while Daphne Pleace spots red deer stags from the safety of her motorhome when on vacation in northwest Scotland.
Remarkably, the book’s disparate pieces together manage to convey a loose chronological progression, from the final days of lingering summer to the gradual onset of winter. Here’s Annie Worsley’s lovely portrayal of autumn’s approach: “In the woodlands the first trees to betray summer are silver birches: splashes of yellow dapple their fine, shimmering greenery. Here and there, long wavering larch tresses begin to change from deep green to orange and ochre.” At the other end of the autumnal continuum, David Gwilym Anthony’s somber climate change poem, “Warming,” provides a perfect close to the anthology: “These days I’ll take what Nature sends / to hoard for dour December: / a glow of warmth as autumn ends.”
A few more favorite lines:
- “Dusk, when the edges of all things blur. A time of mauve and moonlight, of shapeshiftings and stirrings, of magic.” (Alexi Francis)
- “Go down the village street on a late September afternoon and the warm burnt smell of jam-making oozes out of open cottage doors.” (Clare Leighton, 1933)
- “There are miniature Serengetis like this under most logs, if you take the time to look.” (Ryan Clark)
- “Ah, the full autumn Bisto bouquet comes powering to the nose: mouldering leaves, decaying mushrooms, rusting earth.” (John Lewis-Stempel)
My favorite essay of all, though, is by Jon Dunn: playful yet ultimately elegiac, it’s about returning to his croft on a remote Shetland island to find that an otter has been picking off his chickens.
Like Summer, this gives a good sense of autumn as a whole, including its metaphorical associations. As Harrison puts it in her introduction, autumn “makes tangible a suite of emotions – wistfulness, nostalgia, a comfortable kind of melancholy – that are, at other times of the year, just out of reach.” It’s been my favorite season since childhood, probably because it combines the start of the school year, my birthday, and American holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving. Whatever your own experience of autumn – whether it’s a much loved season or not; even if you call it “fall” instead – I can highly recommend this anthology’s chorus of voices old and new. There’s no better way for a book lover to usher in the season.
With thanks to Jennie Condell at Elliott & Thompson for the free copy for review.
I keep an ongoing Word file with details on my year’s reading: books finished with the date, number of pages, and source – similar information to what’s recorded on Goodreads – plus any quotations that particularly stood out to me. It occurred to me that by looking back through these annual book lists for the quotes that meant the most to me I could probably narrate my recent years. So here are the 2015–2016 quotes that tell my story.
“I’m learning that what’s important is not so much what I do to make a living as who I become in the process. … the heroine, when at a juncture, makes her own choice—the nonheroine lets others make it for her.”
(A Year by the Sea: Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman, Joan Anderson)
“The dishes. The dishes! The goddamn dishes! No wonder women don’t succeed.”
(The author’s mother’s explosion in The Year My Mother Came Back, Alice Eve Cohen)
“Success says, What more can I get?
Craft says, Can you believe I get to do this?”
(How to Be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living, Rob Bell)
“Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
(Everyman, Philip Roth)
Finding a Home
“In Orcadian, ‘flitting’ means ‘moving house’. I can hear it spoken with a tinge of disapproval or pity: the air-headed English couple who couldn’t settle.”
(The Outrun, Amy Liptrot)
“Where, after we have made the great decision to leave the security of childhood and move on into the vastness of maturity, does anybody ever feel completely at home?”
(A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle)
“there is no such thing / as the right route or a clear passage / no matter where you start, / or how you plan it.”
(from “Aneurysm,” Selected Poems, Kate Clanchy)
Life vs. Books
“He had accepted that if you were a bookish person the events in your life took place in your head.”
(Golden Age, Jane Smiley)
“my way of seeing has always been different, shyer. To see the world I’ve always opened a book.”
(The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End, Katie Roiphe)
“Other people’s lives, and the lives I read about in books, seem richer, mine seems so threadbare.”
(The Past, Tessa Hadley)
“She remembered finding her first white hair somewhere near her thirtieth birthday and it had sent her on a tailspin for half a day. It’s starting, she’d thought then. The follicle that produced that hair is dying. I’ve reached the tipping point and from now on it’s nothing but slow decline.”
(Dog Run Moon: Stories, Callan Wink)
“All the most terrifying Ifs involve people. All the good ones do as well.”
(A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara)
“I wished then, and still do, that there was something in me also that would march steadily in one road, instead of down here or there or somewhere else, the mind running a net of rabbit-paths that twisted and turned and doubled on themselves, pursued always by the hawk-shadow of doubt.”
(Now in November, Josephine Johnson – to be reviewed here within next couple weeks)
One of my goals with this blog was to have one convenient place where I could gather together all my writing that appears in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I provide links to all book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to read more. A few exceptions: I don’t point out my Kirkus Indie, BlueInk or Publishers Weekly reviews since I don’t get a byline.
The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild: From the Baileys Prize longlist, an enchanting debut novel that blends art and cooking, mystery and romance. Annie McDee, a heartbroken PA and amateur chef, pays £75 for a painting from a junk shop, not realizing it’s a lost Watteau that will spark bidding wars and uncover a sordid chapter of history. In a triumph of playful narration, we mostly learn about the artwork’s history from the painting ‘herself’. She recounts her turbulent 300-year-history and lists her many illustrious owners, including Marie Antoinette, Napoleon and Queen Victoria. These are the novel’s only first-person sections; you can just imagine a voiceover from Helen Mirren or Judi Dench.
Max Gate by Damien Wilkins: This is a novel of Thomas Hardy’s last days, but we get an unusual glimpse into his household at Max Gate, Dorchester through the point-of-view of his housemaid, twenty-six-year-old Nellie Titterington. Ultimately I suspect a third-person omniscient voice would have worked better. In fact, some passages – recounting scenes Nellie is not witness to – are in the third person, which felt a bit like cheating. Fans familiar with the excellent Claire Tomalin biography might not learn much about Hardy and his household dynamics, but it was fun to spend some imaginary time at a place I once visited. [First published in New Zealand in 2013; releases in the US and UK on June 6th.]
Dust by Michael Marder: A philosopher carries out an interdisciplinary study of dust: what it’s made of, what it means, and how it informs our metaphors. In itself, he points out, dust is neither positive nor negative, but we give it various cultural meanings. In the Bible, it is the very substance of mortality. Meanwhile “The war on dust, a hallmark of modern hygiene, reverberates with the political hygiene of the war on terror.” The contemporary profusion of allergies may, in fact, be an unintended consequence of our crusade against dust. The discussion is pleasingly wide-ranging, with some unexpected diversions – such as the metaphorical association between ‘stardust’ and celebrity – but also some impenetrable jargon. I’d be interested to try other titles from Bloomsbury’s “Object Lessons” series.
How to Cure Bedwetting by Lane Robson (Oh, the interesting topics my work with self-published books introduces me to!): Explaining the anatomical and behavioral reasons behind bedwetting, the Calgary-based physician gives practical tips for curing the problem within six to twelve months. Throughout, the text generally refers to “pee” and “poop,” which detracts slightly from the professionalism of the work. All the same, this compendium of knowledge, drawing as it does on the author’s forty years of experience, should answer every possible question on the subject. Highly recommended to parents of younger elementary school children, this book will be an invaluable reference in tackling bedwetting.
The Prophets of Eternal Fjord by Kim Leine: An epic novel about an unconventional priest, set in late-eighteenth-century Denmark and Greenland. This struck me as a cross between Carsten Jensen’s We, the Drowned, another historical saga from Denmark and one of my favorite novels of all time, and Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. Like the former, it features perilous sea voyages and ambivalent father–son relationships; like the latter, it’s edgy and sexualized, full of lechery and bodily fluids. No airbrushing the more unpleasant aspects of history here. The entire story is told in the present tense, with no speech marks. It took me nearly a month and a half to read; by the end I felt I’d been on an odyssey as long and winding as Morten’s.
Still the Animals Enter by Jane Hilberry: A rich, strange, and gently erotic collection featuring diverse styles and blurring the lines between child and adult, human and animal, life and death through the language of metamorphosis. Ambivalence about the moments of transition between childhood and adulthood infuses Part One. Early on, “A Hole in the Fence” finishes on a whispered offer: “You could be part of this.” The message in this resonant collection, though, is that we already are a part of it: part of a shared life that moves beyond the individual family or even the human species. We are all connected—to the children we once were, to lovers and family members lost and found, and to the animals we watch in wonder.
Relief Map by Rosalie Knecht: Lomath, Pennsylvania consists of a half-mile stretch between old textile mills and is home to just 150 people. During one unpredictable summer, blackouts and the arrival of an Eastern European fugitive draw the residents into a welter of paranoia and misguided choices. Our eyewitness to provincial commotion is 16-year-old Livy Marko, who considers herself plain and awkward – her childhood style was supplied by Anne of Green Gables and Goodwill. Knecht’s writing is marked by carefully chosen images and sounds. The novel maintains a languid yet subtly tense ambience. For Livy, coming of age means realizing actions always have consequences. Offbeat and atmospheric, this debut is probably too quiet to make a major splash, but has its gentle rewards.
Shiny New Books
The Outrun by Amy Liptrot: Put simply, this is a memoir about Amy Liptrot’s slide into alcoholism and her subsequent recovery. Liptrot grew up on mainland Orkney, a tight-knit Scottish community she was eager to leave as a teenager but found herself returning to a decade later, washed up after the dissolute living and heartbreak she left behind in London. A simple existence, close to nature and connected to other people, was just what she needed during her first two years of sobriety. Her atmospheric writing about the magical Orkney Islands and their wildlife, rather than the slightly clichéd ruminating on alcoholism, is what sets the book apart. (On the Wellcome Prize shortlist.)
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads:
Look We Have Coming to Dover! by Daljit Nagra: The dialect was a bit too heavy for me in some of these poems about the Sikh experience in Britain. By far my favorite was “In a White Town,” which opens: “She never looked like other boys’ mums. / No one ever looked without looking again / at the pink kameez and balloon’d bottoms, // mustard-oiled trail of hair, brocaded pink / sandals and the smell of curry. That’s why / I’d bin the letters about Parents’ Evenings …”
Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves: Between the blurb and the first paragraph, you already know everything that’s going to happen. I admire books that can keep you reading with interest even though you know exactly what’s coming, but this isn’t really one of those. Ultimately I would have preferred for the whole novel, rather than just alternating chapters, to be in Roscoe’s first-person voice, set wholly in prison (where he helps out in the library and with the guard dogs) but with brief flashbacks to his electricity siphoning and the circumstances of his manslaughter conviction. The writing is entirely capable, but the structure made it so I felt the story wasn’t worth my time.
We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge: The Freemans are raising Charlie, a chimpanzee, as part of their family for a Toneybee Institute experiment and teaching him to communicate via sign language. Flashbacks to the late 1920s bring an uncomfortable racial subtext to the surface, suggesting that the Toneybee has been involved in dodgy anthropological research over the decades. This is a deep and unsettling story of human–human interactions, even more so than human–animal interactions. I much preferred it to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.
Love Like Salt by Helen Stevenson: Stevenson’s daughter Clara has cystic fibrosis, so I approached and enjoyed this as an illness memoir. However, it’s very scattered, with lots of seemingly irrelevant material included simply because it happened to the author: her mother’s dementia, their life in France, her work as a translator and her hobby of playing the piano, her older husband’s love for Italy and Italian literature, etc. Really the central drama is their seemingly idyllic life in France, Clara being bullied there, and the decision to move back to England (near Bristol), where the girls would attend a Quaker school on scholarships and Clara was enrolled in a widespread clinical trial with modest success. Enjoyable enough if you share some of the author’s interests.
Springtime: A Ghost Story by Michelle de Kretser: Ghost story? Really? There’s very little in the way of suspense, and not too much plot either, in this Australia-set novella. I would expect tension to linger and questions to remain unanswered. Instead, the author exposes Frances’s ‘ghost’ as harmless. What I think de Kretser is trying to do here is show that ghosts can be people we have known and loved or, alternatively, places we have left behind. There is some nice descriptive writing (e.g. “three staked camellias stood as whitely upright as martyrs”), but not enough story to hold the interest.
Let the Empire Down by Alexandra Oliver: This debut collection is heavily inspired by history and travel, as well as Serbian poetry and personal anecdote. I enjoyed the earlier poems, especially the ones with ABAB or ABBA rhyme schemes. My favorite was “Plans,” about a twenty-something manicurist who abandoned her talent for science to get ready cash: “A girl’s future should be full and bright, a marble, / but (alas for her) there is a catch: / we take on the immediate. Hope flags: / wishing to be wise and come out shining, / we pop a beaker over our own flame. / We do it cheerfully. We do it coldly.” The last quarter is devoted to poems about films, especially Italian cinema.
Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler: This is the most fun I’ve had with the Hogarth Shakespeare series so far, as well as my favorite of the three Anne Tyler novels I’ve read. Yes, it’s set in Baltimore. Kate Battista, the utterly tactless preschool assistant, kept cracking me up. Her father, an autoimmune researcher, schemes for her to marry his lab assistant, Pyotr, so he can stay in the country after his visa expires. The plot twists of the final quarter felt a little predictable, but I was won over by the good-natured storytelling and prickly heroine. (I don’t know The Taming of the Shrew well enough to comment on how this functions as a remake.) Releases in June.
The Assistants by Camille Perri: At age 30, Tina Fontana has been a PA to media mogul Robert Barlow for six years. He’s worth millions; she lives in a tiny Brooklyn apartment. One day a mix-up in refunding expenses lands her with a check for $19,147. If she cashes it she can pay off her debts once and for all and no one at Titan Corporation will be any the wiser, right? This is a fun and undemanding read that will probably primarily appeal to young women. I would particularly recommend it to readers of Friendship by Emily Gould and A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan. Releases May 3rd.
Carnet de Voyage by Craig Thompson: A sketchbook Thompson kept on his combined European book tour for Blankets and research trip for Habibi in March–May 2004. It doesn’t really work as a stand-alone graphic memoir because there isn’t much of a narrative, just a series of book signings, random encounters with friends and strangers, and tourism. My favorite two-page spread is about a camel ride he took into the Moroccan desert. I could also sympathize with his crippling hand pain (from all that drawing) and his “chaos tolerance” overload from the stress of travel.
Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place by Philip Marsden: Some very nice writing indeed, but not much of a storyline. The book is something of a jumble of mythology, geology, prehistory, and more recent biographical information about some famous Cornish residents, overlaid on a gentle travel memoir. I enjoyed learning about the meanings of Cornish place names, in particular, and spotting locations I’ve visited.
And my highest recommendation goes to…
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: It all starts with an early 1960s christening party Los Angeles policeman Fix Keating is throwing for his younger daughter, Franny. DA Bert Cousins turns up, uninvited, with a bottle of gin the grateful guests quickly polish off in their fresh-squeezed orange juice. He also kisses the hostess, sparking a chain of events that will rearrange the Keating and Cousins families in the decades to come. The novel spends time with all six step-siblings, but Franny is definitely the main character – and likely an autobiographical stand-in for Patchett. As a waitress in Chicago, she meets a famous novelist who’s in a slump; the story of her childhood gives him his next bestseller but forces the siblings to revisit a tragic accident they never fully faced up to. Sophisticated and atmospheric; perfect for literary fiction fans in general and Patchett fans in particular. Releases September 13th.