11 Days, 11 Books: 2023’s Reading So Far
I realized that, as in 2020, I happen to have finished 11 books so far this year (including a Patrick Gale again). Some of the below I’ll be reviewing in full for other themes or challenges coming up, and others have paid reviews pending that I can’t share yet, but I’ve written a little bit about each of the others. Here’s how my reading year has started off…
A children’s book
Leila and the Blue Fox by Kiran Millwood Hargrave – Similar in strategy to Hargrave’s previous book (also illustrated by her husband Tom de Freston), Julia and the Shark, one of my favourite reads of last year – both focus on the adventures of a girl who has trouble relating to her mother, a scientific researcher obsessed with a particular species. Leila, a Syrian refugee, lives with family in London and is visiting her mother in the far north of Norway. She joins her in tracking an Arctic fox on an epic journey, and helps the expedition out with social media. Migration for survival is the obvious link. There’s a lovely teal and black colour scheme, but I found this unsubtle. It crams too much together that doesn’t fit.
A genre that pretty much never makes it onto my stacks, but I read these two despite knowing little to nothing about the authors; instead, I was drawn in by their particular stories.
A Heart that Works by Rob Delaney – Delaney is an American actor who was living in London for TV filming in 2016 when his third son, baby Henry, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He died before the age of three. The details of disabling illness and brutal treatment could not be other than wrenching, but the tone is a delicate balance between humour, rage, and tenderness. The tribute to his son may be short in terms of number of words, yet includes so much emotional range and a lot of before and after to create a vivid picture of the wider family. People who have never picked up a bereavement memoir will warm to this one.
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah – Again, I was not familiar with the author’s work in TV/comedy, but had heard good things so gave this a try. It reminded me of Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father what with the African connection, the absent father, the close relationship with his mother, and the reflections on race and politics. I especially loved his stories of being dragged to church multiple times every Sunday. He writes a lot about her tough love, and the difficulty of leaving hood life behind once you’ve been sucked into it. The final chapter is exceptional. Noah does a fine job of creating scenes and dialogue; I’d happily read another book of his.
Bournville by Jonathan Coe – Coe does a good line in witty state-of-the-nation novels. Patriotism versus xenophobia is the overarching dichotomy in this one, as captured through a family’s response to seven key events from English history over the last 75+ years, several of them connected with the royals. Mary Lamb, the matriarch, is an Everywoman whose happy life still harboured unfulfilled longings. Coe mixes things up by including monologues, diary entries, and so on. In some sections he cuts between the main action and a transcript of a speech, TV commentary, or set of regulations. Covid informs his prologue and the highly autobiographical final chapter, and it’s clear he’s furious with the government’s handling.
Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng – Disappointing compared to her two previous novels. I’d read too much about the premise while writing a synopsis for Bookmarks magazine, so there were no surprises remaining. The political commentary, though necessary, is fairly obvious. The structure, which recounts some events first from Bird’s perspective and then from his mother Margaret Miu’s, makes parts of the second half feel redundant. Still, impossible not to find the plight of children separated from their parents heart-rending, or to disagree with the importance of drawing attention to race-based violence. It’s also appealing to think about the power of individual stories and how literature and libraries might be part of an underground protest movement.
And a memoir in miniature
Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly – I love memoirs-in-essays. Fennelly goes for the same minimalist approach as Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping. Pieces range from one line to six pages and mostly pull out moments of note from the everyday of marriage, motherhood and house maintenance. I tended to get more out of the ones where she reinhabits earlier life, like “Goner” (growing up in the Catholic church); “Nine Months in Madison” (poetry fellowship in Wisconsin, running around the lake where Otis Redding died in a plane crash); and “Emulsionar,” (age 23 and in Barcelona: sexy encounter, immediately followed by scary scene). Two about grief, anticipatory for her mother (“I’ll be alone, curator of the archives”) and realized for her sister (“She threaded her arms into the sleeves of grief” – you can tell Fennelly started off as a poet), hit me hardest. Sassy and poignant.
The best so far? Probably Born a Crime, followed by Bournville.
Any of these you have read or would read?
Margaret Atwood Reading Month: The Door (#MARM)
It’s my fifth year participating in the annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month (#MARM), hosted by indomitable Canadian blogger Marcie of Buried in Print. In previous years for this challenge, I’ve read Surfacing and The Edible Woman, The Robber Bride and Moral Disorder, and Wilderness Tips; and reread The Blind Assassin. Today is Atwood’s 83rd birthday, so what better time to show her some love?
Like the Beatles, she’s worked in so many different genres and styles that I don’t see how anyone could say they don’t like her – you just haven’t explored her oeuvre deeply enough. Although she’s best known for her fiction, she started off as a poet, with a whole five collections published in the 1960s before her first novel appeared. I’d previously read her Eating Fire: Selected Poetry 1965–1995 and Dearly, my top poetry read of 2020.
The Door (2007) was at that point her first poetry release in 12 years and features a number of the same themes that permeate her novels and nonfiction: memory, writing, ageing, travel and politics. I particularly like the early poems where she reinhabits memories of childhood and early adulthood, often through objects. Such artifacts are “pocketed as pure mementoes / of some once indelible day,” she writes in “Year of the Hen.”
These are followed by a trilogy about the death of the family’s pet cat, Blackie. “We get too sentimental / over dead animals. / We turn maudlin,” she acknowledges in “Mourning for Cats,” yet “Blackie in Antarctica” injects some humour as she remembers how her sister kept the cat’s corpse in the freezer until she could come home to bury it. Also on the lighter side is a long “where are they now?” update for the Owl and the Pussycat.
There are also meta reflections on poetry, slightly menacing observations on the weather (an implacable, fate-like force) and the seasons (autumn = hunting), virtual visits to the Arctic, mild complaints about the elderly not being taken seriously, and thoughts on duty.
Four in a row muse about war – the Vietnam War in particular, I think? “The Last Rational Man” is a sinister standout, depicting a figure who is doomed under Caligula’s reign. Whoever she may have had in mind when she wrote this, it’s just as relevant 15 years later.
In the final, title poem, which appears to be modelled on the Seven Ages of Man, a door is a metaphor for life’s transitions and, ultimately, for death.
The door swings open:
O god of hinges,
god of long voyages,
you have kept faith.
It’s dark in there.
You confide yourself to the darkness.
You step in.
The door swings closed.
Apart from a few end rhymes, Atwood relies more on theme than on sonic technique or form. That, I think, makes her poetry accessible to those who are new to or suspicious of verse. Happy birthday, M.A., and thank you for your literary wisdom and innovation! (Little Free Library)
Review Catch-Up: Capildeo, Castillo, Nagamatsu & Wedlich
A second catch-up for April. Today I have a sprightly poetry collection about history, language and nature; a linked short story collection that imagines funerary rituals and human meaning in a post-pandemic future; and a wide-ranging popular science book about the diverse connotations and practical uses of slime. As a bonus, I have a preview essay from a forthcoming collection about how reading promotes empathy and social justice.
Like a Tree, Walking by Vahni Capildeo (2021)
Capildeo is a nonbinary Trinidadian Scottish poet and the current University of York writer in residence. Their fourth collection is richly studded with imagery of the natural world, especially birds and trees. “In Praise of Birds” makes a gorgeous start:
“In praise of high-contrast birds, purple bougainvillea thicketing the golden oriole. … In praise of grackles quarrelling on the lawn. / In praise of unbeautiful birds abounding in Old Norse, language of scavenging ravens, thought and memory, a treacherous duo”
and finds a late echo in “In Praise of Trees”: “If I could have translated piano practice into botany, the lichen is that Mozart phrase my left hand trialled endlessly.”
The title section (named after a moment from the book of Mark) draws on several numbered series – “Walk #2,” “Nocturne #1,” “Lullaby 4,” and so on – that appeared in a pamphlet they published last year. These are not uncomplicated idylls, though. Walks might involve dull scenery and asthma-inducing dust, as well as danger: “If nobody has abducted you, I’ll double back to meet you. … Before raper-man corner and the gingerbread house.” Lullabies wish for good sleep despite lawnmowers and a neighbour shooting his guns. There’s more bold defiance of expectations in phrases like “This is the circus for dead horses only”.
Language is a key theme, with translations from the French of Eugène Ionesco, and of Pierre de Ronsard into Trini patois. There are also dual-language erasure poems after Dame Julian of Norwich (Middle English) and Simone Weil (French). Much of the work is based on engagement with literature, or was written in collaboration with performers.
“Death is a thief in a stationery shop. He strolls out. The shopkeeper, a poor man, runs after, shouting. – I saw you! Give that back! – Give back what? Death says, strolling out. Hermes is a tram attendant who holds your coffee, helping you find the coin you dropped; it rolls underfoot.” (from “Odyssey Response”)
“Windrush Reflections” impresses for its research into the situation of Caribbean immigrants to Britain. It’s one of a number of long, multipart pieces, some of them prose poems. The verse relies mostly on alliteration and anaphora for its sonic qualities. Along with history, there is reflection on current events, as in “Plague Poems.” Experiences of casual racism fuel one of my favourite passages:
“the doorbell was ringing / the downstairs american oxford neighbours / wanted to check / by chatting on the intercom / if i was doing terrorism / i was doing transcriptions” (from “Violent Triage”)
Honorifics by Cynthia Miller, which I reviewed last week, had more personal resonance for me, but these are both powerful collections – alive to the present moment and revelling in language and in flora and fauna. However, only Capildeo progressed from the Jhalak Prize longlist onto the shortlist, which was announced yesterday.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.
How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu (2022)
“Things are bad in every generation. But we still have to live our life.”
This linked short story collection was one of my most anticipated books of the year. Like two of its fellow entries on that list, Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel and To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara, it’s just the right blend of literary fiction and science fiction – an Octavia E. Butler level of the latter that I can handle. Opening in 2031 and stretching another 70 years into the future, it imagines how a pandemic reshapes the world and how communication and connection might continue after death. In the first story, Cliff is on the ground at the start of the Arctic plague, which emerges from a thawing Siberia (the same setup as in Under the Blue!), where his late daughter, Clara, had been part of a research group that discovered a 30,000-year-old Neanderthal girl they named Annie.
The virus is highly transmissible and deadly, and later found to mostly affect children. In the following 13 stories (most about Asian Americans in California, plus a few set in Japan), the plague is a fact of life but has also prompted a new relationship to death – a major thread running through is the funerary rites that have arisen, everything from elegy hotels to “resomation.” In the stand-out story, the George Saunders-esque “City of Laughter,” Skip works at a euthanasia theme park whose roller coasters render ill children unconscious before stopping their hearts. He’s proud of his work, but can’t approach it objectively after he becomes emotionally involved with Dorrie and her son Fitch, who arrives in a bubble.
All but one of these stories are in the first person, so they feel like intimate testimonies of how a pandemic transforms existence. Almost all of the characters have experienced a bereavement, or are sick themselves. Relatives or acquaintances become protagonists in later stories. For instance, in “Pig Son,” Dorrie’s ex, David, is a scientist growing organs for transplantation. Bereavement coordinator Dennis and his doctor brother Bryan narrate #5 and #8, respectively. Six years on, Cliff’s wife Miki takes their granddaughter on a space mission. My other two favourites were “Through the Garden of Memory,” in which patients on a plague ward build a human pyramid and plot a sacrifice, and “Songs of Your Decay,” about a researcher at a forensic body farm who bonds with her one live donor over rock music.
Some stories are weaker or less original than others, but this is one case where the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. The focus on illness and death, but also on the love that survives, made this a winner for me. I’d be especially likely to recommend it to fans of Kazuo Ishiguro and Karen Russell.
With thanks to Bloomsbury for the free copy for review.
Slime: A Natural History by Susanne Wedlich (2021)
[Translated from the German by Ayça Türkoğlu]
This is just the sort of wide-ranging popular science book that draws me in. Like Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, a work I’ve had many opportunities to recommend even to those who don’t normally pick up nonfiction, it incorporates many weird and wonderful facts about life forms we tend to overlook. Wedlich, a freelance science journalist in Germany, starts off at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, where she seeks a sample of the “primordial slime” collected by the HMS Challenger in 1876. “It seems to be an unwritten rule of horror: slime sells!” she remarks – from H. P. Lovecraft to Ghostbusters, it has provoked disgust. Jellyfish, snails, frogs and carnivorous plants – you’re in for a sticky tour of the natural world.
The technical blanket term for slimy substances is “hydrogels,” which are 99% water and held together by polymers. Biological examples have been inspiring new technologies, like friction reducers (e.g. in fire hoses) modelled on fish mucus, novel adhesives to repair organs and seal wounds, and glue traps to remove microplastics. Looking to nature to aid our lives is nothing new, of course: Wedlich records that slugs were once used to lubricate cart wheels.
The book branches off in a lot of directions. You’ll hear about writers who were spellbound or terrified by marine life (Patricia Highsmith kept snails, while Jean-Paul Sartre was freaked out by sea creatures), the Victorian fascination with underwater life, the importance of the microbiome and the serious medical consequences of its dysfunction, and animals such as amphibians that live between land and water. At times it felt like the narrative jumped from one topic to another, especially between the biological and the cultural, without following a particular plan, but there are enough remarkable nuggets to hold the interest.
With thanks to Granta for the free copy for review.
And a bonus:
I was delighted to be sent a preview pamphlet containing the author’s note and title essay of How to Read Now by Elaine Castillo, coming from Atlantic in August. This guide to cultural criticism – how to read anything, not just a book – is alive to the biased undertones of everyday life. “Anyone who is perfectly comfortable with keeping the world just as it is now and reading it the way they’ve always read it … cannot be trusted”. Castillo writes that it is not the job of people of colour to enlighten white people (especially not through “the gooey heart-porn of the ethnographic” – war, genocide, tragedy, etc.); “if our stories primarily serve to educate, console and productively scold a comfortable white readership, then those stories will have failed their readers”. This is bold, provocative stuff. I’m sure to learn a lot.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Winter Reads, Part II: Au, Glück, Hall, Rautiainen, Slaght
In the week before Christmas I reviewed a first batch of wintry reads. We’ve had hardly any snowfall here in southern England this season, so I gave up on it in real life and sought winter weather on the page. After we’ve seen the back of Storm Franklin (it’s already moved on from Eunice!), I hope it will feel appropriate to start right in on some spring reading. But for today I have a Tokyo-set novella, sombre poems, an OTT contemporary Gothic novel, historical fiction in translation from the Finnish, and – the cream of the crop – a real-life environmentalist adventure in Russia.
Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au (2022)
This slim work will be released in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions on the 23rd and came out elsewhere this month from New Directions and Giramondo. I actually read it in December during my travel back from the States. It’s a delicate work of autofiction – it reads most like a Chloe Aridjis or Rachel Cusk novel – about a woman and her Hong Kong-raised mother on a trip to Tokyo. You get a bit of a flavour of Japan through their tourism (a museum, a temple, handicrafts, trains, meals), but the real focus is internal as Au subtly probes the workings of memory and generational bonds.
The woman and her mother engage in surprisingly deep conversations about the soul and the meaning of life, but these are conveyed indirectly rather than through dialogue: “she said that she believed that we were all essentially nothing, just series of sensations and desires, none of it lasting. … The best we could do in this life was to pass through it, like smoke through the branches”. Though I highlighted a fair few passages, I find that no details have stuck with me. This is just the sort of spare book I can admire but not warm to. (NetGalley)
Winter Recipes from the Collective by Louise Glück (2021)
The only other poetry collection of Glück’s that I’d read was Vita Nova. This, her first release since her Nobel Prize win, was my final read of 2021 and my shortest, at 40-some pages; it’s composed of just 15 poems, a few of which stretch to five pages or more. “The Denial of Death,” a prose piece with more of the feel of an autobiographical travel essay, was a standout; the title poem, again in prose paragraphs, and the following one, “Winter Journey,” about farewells, bear a melancholy chill. Memories and dreams take pride of place, with the poet’s sister appearing frequently. “How heavy my mind is, filled with the past.” There are also multiple references to Chinese concepts and characters (as on the cover). The overall style is more aphoristic and reflective than expected. Few individual lines or images stood out to me.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the e-copy for review.
The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall (2020)
Henna is alone in the world since her parents and twin sister disappeared in a boating accident. She lives a solitary existence with her sister’s basset hound Rembrandt in a New England village, writing encyclopaedia entries on the Arctic, until she stumbles on a corpse and embarks on an amateur investigation involving scraps of 19th-century correspondence. The dead woman asked inconvenient questions about a historical cover-up; if she takes up the thread, Henna could be a target, too. Her collaboration with the police chief, Fletcher, turns into a flirtation. After her house burns down, she ends up living with him – and his mother and housekeeper – in a Gothic mansion stuffed with birds of prey and historical snow samples. She’s at the mercy of this quirky family and the weather, wearing ancient clothing from Fletcher’s great-aunts and tramping through blizzards looking for answers.
This is a kitchen-sink novel with loads going on, as if Hall couldn’t decide which of her interests to include so threw them all in. Yet at only 221 pages, it might actually have been expanded a little to flesh out the backstory and mystery plot. It gets more than a bit ridiculous in places, but its Victorian fan fiction vibe is charming escapism nonetheless. What with the historical fiction interludes about the Franklin expedition, this reminded me most of The Still Point, but also of The World Before Us and The Birth House. I’d happily read Hall’s 2010 short story collection, too. (Christmas gift)
Land of Snow and Ashes by Petra Rautiainen (2022)
[Translated from the Finnish by David Hackston]
In the middle years of World War II, Finland was allied with Nazi Germany against Russia, a mutual enemy. After the Moscow Armistice, the Germans retreated in disgrace, burning as many buildings and planting as many landmines as they could (“the Lapland War”). I gleaned this helpful background information from Hackston’s preface. The story that follows is in two strands: one is set in 1944 and told via diary entries from Väinö Remes, a Finnish soldier called up to interpret at a Nazi prison camp in Inari. The other, in third person, takes place between 1947 and 1950, the early years of postwar reconstruction. Inkeri, a journalist, has come to Enontekiö to find out what happened to her husband. An amateur photographer, she teaches art to the local Sámi children and takes on one girl, Bigga-Marja, as her protégée.
Collusion and secrets; escaped prisoners and physical measurements being taken of the Sámi: there are a number of sinister hints that become clearer as the novel goes on. I felt a distance from the main characters that I could never quite overcome, such that the reveals didn’t land with as much power as I think was intended. Still, this has the kind of forthright storytelling and precise writing that fans of Hubert Mingarelli should appreciate. For another story of the complexities of being on the wrong side of history, see The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck.
With thanks to Pushkin Press for the proof copy for review.
“Fresh snow has fallen, forming drifts across the terrain. White. Grey. Undulating. The ice has cracked here and there, raising its head in the thawed sections of the river. There is only a thin layer of ice left.”
Owls of the Eastern Ice: The Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan C. Slaght (2020)
Slaght has become an expert on the Blakiston’s fish owl during nearly two decades of fieldwork in the far east of Russia – much closer to Korea and Japan than to Moscow, the region is also home to Amur tigers. For his Master’s and PhD research at the University of Minnesota, he plotted the territories of breeding pairs of owls and fit them with identifying bands and data loggers to track their movements over the years. He describes these winter field seasons as recurring frontier adventures. Now, I’ve accompanied my husband on fieldwork from time to time, and I can tell you it would be hard to make it sound exciting. Then again, gathering beetles from English fields is pretty staid compared to piloting snowmobiles over melting ice, running from fire, speeding to avoid blockaded logging roads, and being served cleaning-grade ethanol when the vodka runs out.
The sorts of towns Slaght works near are primitive places where adequate food and fuel is a matter of life and death. He and his assistants rely on the hospitality of Anatoliy the crazy hermit and also stay in huts and caravans. Tracking the owls is a rollercoaster experience, with expensive equipment failures and trial and error to narrow down the most effective trapping methods. His team develops a new low-tech technique involving a tray of live fish planted in the river shallows under a net. They come to know individuals and mourn their loss: the Sha-Mi female he’s holding in his author photo was hit by a car four years later.
Slaght thinks of Russia as his second home, and you can sense his passion for the fish owl and for conservation in general. He boils down complicated data and statistics into the simple requirements for this endangered species (fewer than 2000 in the wild): valleys containing old-growth forest with large trees and rivers that don’t fully freeze over. There are only limited areas with these characteristics. These specifications and his ongoing research – Slaght is now the Northeast Asia Coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society – inform the policy recommendations given to logging companies and other bodies.
Amid the science, this is just a darn good story, full of bizarre characters like Katkov, a garrulous assistant exiled for his snoring. (“He fueled his monologue with sausage and cheese, then belched zeppelins of aroma into that confined space.”) Slaght himself doesn’t play much of a role in the book, so don’t expect a soul-searching memoir. Instead, you get top-notch nature and travel writing, and a ride along on a consequential environmentalist quest. This is the kind of science book that, like Lab Girl and Entangled Life, I’d recommend even if you don’t normally pick up nonfiction. (Christmas gift)
And a bonus children’s book:
If Winter Comes, Tell It I’m Not Here by Simona Ciraolo (2020)
The little boy loves nothing more than to spend hours at the swimming pool and then have an ice cream cone. His big sister warns him the carefree days of summer will be over soon; it will turn cold and dark and he’ll be cooped up inside. Her words come to pass, yet the boy realizes that every season has its joys and he has to take advantage of them while they last. Cute and colourful, though the drawing style wasn’t my favourite. And a correction is in order: as President Biden would surely tell you, ice cream is a year-round treat! (Public library)
Any snowy or icy reading (or weather) for you lately?
The Still Point (of the Turning World & Sanctuary)
Amy Sackville’s debut novel, The Still Point, had been on my radar ever since I read her follow-up, Orkney. I finally put it on my wish list and got a copy for Christmas. In the meantime, I’d also acquired a copy of Emily Rapp’s memoir The Still Point of the Turning World as part of a big secondhand book haul at the start of the first lockdown.
Both books take their title from the eminently quotable T.S. Eliot*, specifically his poem “Burnt Norton.” I couldn’t resist the urge to review them together (along with Rapp’s recent sequel) – although, unlike with my dual review of two books titled Ex Libris, I won’t pit them against each other because they’re such different books.
That said, they do share a dreamlike quality and the search for people and places that might serve as refuges in a shattered life. All:
The Still Point by Amy Sackville (2010)
I am not heroic, I prefer
not to conquer
polar regions, my
gardens in July
serve for me.
~from “emperor’s walk” by G.F. Dutton
A sweltering summer versus an encasing of ice; an ordinary day versus decades of futile waiting. Sackville explores these contradictions only to deflate them, collapsing time such that a polar explorer’s wife and her great-great-niece can inhabit the same literal and emotional space despite being separated by more than a century. When Edward Mackley went off on his expedition in the early 1900s, he left behind Emily, his devoted, hopeful new bride. She was to live out the rest of her days in the Mackley family home with her brother-in-law and his growing family; Edward never returned. Now Julia and her husband Simon reside in that same Victorian house, serving as custodians of memories and artifacts from her ancestors’ travels and naturalist observations. From one early morning until the next, we peer into this average marriage with its sadness and silences. On this day, Julia discovers a family secret, and late on reveals another of her own, that subtly change how we see her and Emily.
This is a highly fluid and sensual novel, but somehow so sinuous as to be hard to grasp. I took in its interlocking story lines just a few pages at a time; floating on the gorgeous prose, basking in the alternating heat and chill. Sackville’s greatest stylistic debt must be to Virginia Woolf, but I was also reminded of Lucy Wood’s Weathering and Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock – two similarly beautiful books in which a house and its ghosts are major characters – and of how some of Sarah Moss’s work braids the past into the everyday. I suspect this won’t be for every reader, but if you can find the right moment and mood, you might just be entranced.
One of Sackville’s research sources was Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez, a work I recently skimmed for a winter post. Two passages that stood out to me apply equally well to Rapp’s books:
“The literature of nineteenth-century arctic exploration is full of coincidence and drama—last-minute rescues, a desperate rifle shot to secure food for starving men, secret letters written to painfully missed loved ones. There are moments of surreal stillness, as in Parry’s journal when he writes of the sound of the human voice in the land. And of tender ministration and quiet forbearance in the face of inevitable death.”
“The continuous work of the imagination, I thought, to bring what is actual together with what is dreamed is an expression of human evolution. The conscious desire is to achieve a state, even momentarily, that like light is unbounded, nurturing, suffused with wisdom and creation, a state in which one has absorbed that very darkness which before was the perpetual sign of defeat.”
The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp (2013)
In 2011 Rapp’s baby son Ronan was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease, a degenerative nerve condition that causes blindness, deafness, seizures, paralysis and, ultimately, death. Tay-Sachs is usually seen in Ashkenazi Jews, so it came as a surprise: Rapp and her husband Rick both had to be carriers, whereas only he was Jewish; they never thought to get tested.
This memoir was written while Ronan was still alive, and the rapid, in-the-thick-of-it composition is evident: it rides the same rollercoaster of feelings over and over again, even repeating some of the same facts. I put this down to the brain fog of anticipatory grief. “The constant push-pull: here but not for long. What will come next?” Rapp quotes extensively from other writers who have grappled with bereavement, especially poets, as if building an inner library to bolster herself against what is to come (“it wasn’t consolation I needed or desired, but the tools to walk through this fire without being consumed by it”).
Rapp puts her son’s life into context through memories of growing up disabled (she had a rare condition that necessitated the amputation of a leg as a child, and wore a prosthesis) in the conservative Midwest, contrasting the Christian theology she grew up in and studied at college with the Eastern and New Age spiritualities that prevail in Santa Fe, where she and Rick then lived with Ronan. She ponders the worth of a life that will be marked by no traditional achievements.
In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr advises seven years between the events and the writing about them, but Rapp explains her strategy of instant reaction thus:
grief, this extreme experience, forces a writer to draw on her deepest resources, and such a dive demands so much work that what comes up must be heaved onto the page almost immediately; otherwise it might eat the thinker alive, drown them … Or at least that’s how I felt. You can eat fire for only so long, and then you’ve got to spit it out in another form or risk the burn.
She felt that “rendering loss was a way of honoring life,” which even with this death sentence hanging over the family had its times of pure joy: “there existed inside this helpless, frantic sadness exquisite moments of pristine happiness and an almost-perfect peace.” The title perfectly captures the necessity of finding this calmness of soul amidst a tumultuous life.
Sanctuary by Emily Rapp Black (2021)
Things got worse before they got better. As is common for couples who lose a child, Rapp and her first husband separated, soon after she completed her book. In the six months leading up to Ronan’s death in February 2013, his condition deteriorated rapidly and he needed hospice caretakers. Rapp came close to suicide. But in those desperate months, she also threw herself into a new relationship with Kent, a 20-years-older man who was there for her as Ronan was dying and would become her second husband and the father of her daughter, Charlotte (“Charlie”). The acrimonious split from Rick and the astonishment of a new life with Kent – starting in the literal sanctuary of his converted New Mexico chapel, and then moving to California – were two sides of a coin. So were missing Ronan and loving Charlie.
Sanctuary is a similarly allusive text, with each chapter prefaced by a poem, and it is again full of flashbacks, threading all the seemingly disparate parts of a life into a chaotic tapestry. Rapp Black questions the sorts of words that she and her experience got branded with: “brave,” “tragic,” “resilient” – “I unwittingly became the poster child,” she wryly reports. In the same way that she’d been praised for “overcoming disability,” she saw that she was now being trotted out as an example of coping with unimaginable loss. But she didn’t want to be someone’s model; she just wanted the chance to live her life and be happy again. Her wisdom isn’t what makes it onto inspirational stickers, but it’s genuine and hard-won:
“It has little or nothing to do with bravery. Nobody is charging into warfare here. No gold stars are given because none are earned. I am no warrior of love or anything else.”
“Time doesn’t heal anything; it just changes things—reshapes and reorients them.”
“resilience is not always a function of the desire to survive. Either you survive, or you don’t. There’s no fault, no moral judgment, assigned to either outcome.”
“Isn’t it true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? No. What doesn’t kill you changes you, and those who chose to love you. That is what it means to bear witness, a unique and salvific form of resilience.”
Although I was glad to have read both, to have experienced both the in-the-moment and the after-the-fact, I think Sanctuary could easily function as a standalone memoir because of how much of Ronan’s illness it relives. For being that bit more measured and wrought, I think it’s the better book by a hair’s breadth. It tames the fire and just radiates the light and warmth.
I read an advanced e-copy via NetGalley. Thanks to John Murray Press for the approval.
*Other Eliot-sourced titles I have reviewed: Teach Us to Sit Still by Tim Parks and The Stillness The Dancing by Wendy Perriam.
Snow and Winter Reads, Part II
Since I wrote about my first batch of wintry reads in early February, it’s turned much more spring-like here in southern England, with blue skies and the daffodils blooming. Still, temperatures continue chilly and some nights I’ve had trouble falling asleep because of the wind tearing down the street and flapping the bin lids. With meteorological spring due to start tomorrow, I’m bidding farewell to winter with a few more snow-covered reads: a children’s classic, a modern classic from the 1990s, and an implausible but enjoyably rollicking thriller.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken (1962)
Aiken’s books were not part of my childhood, but I was vaguely aware of this first book in a long series when I plucked it from a neighbor’s giveaway pile. The snowy scene on the cover and described in the first two paragraphs drew me in and the story, a Victorian-set fantasy with notes of Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre, soon did, too. In this alternative version of the 1830s, Britain already had an extensive railway network and wolves regularly used the Channel Tunnel (which did not actually open until 1994) to escape the Continent’s brutal winters for somewhat milder climes.
One winter, the orphaned Sylvia travels by train from London to the north of England to live with her cousin Bonnie and her parents, Sir Willoughby and Lady Green. But dodgy things are afoot at Willoughby Chase: Miss Slighcarp, a distant cousin, has been hired as the girls’ governess but, just as soon as Bonnie’s parents leave on a long trip, she sets about taking over the house. Bonnie and Sylvia, exiled to a workhouse, rely on a secret network of friends and servants to keep them safe and get them home via an intrepid journey.
Miss Slighcarp is just one of the novel’s Dickensian villains – balanced out by some equally Dickensian urchins and helpful adults, all of them with hearts of gold. There’s something perversely cozy about the plight of an orphan in children’s books: the characters call to the lonely child in all of us, and we rejoice to see how ingenuity and luck come together to defeat wickedness. There are charming passages here in which familiar smells and favorite foods offer comfort. I especially loved their friend Simon’s cave and his little rituals. This would make a perfect stepping stone from Roald Dahl to one of the actual Victorian classics.
My only quibble with the book overall would be that the wolves seem unnecessary: they only truly appear once, for a climactic scene during the train ride, and the rest of the time are just a background menace. From fairy tales onwards, wolves have gotten a bad rap, and we don’t need to perpetuate myths about how dangerous they are to humans.
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson (1994)
My first 5-star read of the year! It certainly took a while, but I’m now on a roll with a bunch of 4.5- and 5-star ratings bunching together. I remember the buzz surrounding this novel, mostly because of the Ethan Hawke film version that came out when I was a teenager. Even though I didn’t see it, I was aware of it, as I was of other literary fiction that got turned into Oscar-worthy films at about that time, like The Shipping News and House of Sand and Fog.
The novel is set in 1954 on San Piedro, an island of 5,000 off the coast of Washington state. A decade on from the war, the community’s chickens come home to roost when a Japanese American man, Kabuo Miyamoto, is charged with murdering a fellow fisherman, Carl Heine. The men had been engaged in a dispute over some land – seven acres of strawberry fields that were seized from the Miyamoto family when, like the rest of the country’s Japanese population, they were rounded up in internment camps. Meanwhile, Ishmael Chambers, who runs the local newspaper and lost an arm in the war, stumbles on a piece of evidence that might turn the case around. Still in love with Hatsue, now Kabuo’s wife but once his teenage obsession, he is torn between winning her back and wanting to do what’s right.
Guterson alternates between trial scenes and flashbacks to war service or stolen afternoons Ishmael and Hatsue spent kissing in the shelter of massive cedar trees. The mystery element held me completely gripped – readers are just as in the dark as the jurors until very close to the end – but this is mostly a powerful picture of the lasting effects of racism. All the characters are well drawn, even minor ones like elderly defense attorney Nels Gudmundsson. Even though I only read 10 or 15 pages at a sitting over the course of a month, every time I picked up the book I was instantly immersed in the atmosphere, whether it was a warm courtroom with a snowstorm swirling outside or a troop ship entering the Pacific Theater. This has the epic feel of a doorstopper, though it’s only 400 pages. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton (2015)
Ten-year-old Ruby and her mother Yasmin have arrived in Alaska to visit Ruby’s dad, Matt, who makes nature documentaries. When they arrive, police inform them that the town where he was living has been destroyed by fire and he is presumed dead. But Yasmin won’t believe it and they set out on a 500-mile journey north to find her husband, first hitching a ride with a trucker and then going it alone in a stolen vehicle. All the time, with the weather increasingly brutal, they’re aware of someone following them – someone with malicious intent.
The narration is in short segments, alternating between Ruby’s first person and a third-person account from Yasmin’s point-of-view. There are many interesting elements here: Ruby is deaf so communicates via a combination of sign language, voice recognition software, blogs and social media, and describes things synesthetically; Yasmin is a physicist drawing metaphors to scientific concepts, but can’t explain her own mystical certainty that Matt is still alive; and there is an environmentalist message behind the fracking cover-up plot.
But starting with the first page, there are so many improbabilities in play, from a 10-year-old having a Twitter account to Yasmin managing to drive a big rig on ice roads in a foreign country. I knew from reviewing Three Hours last year that Lupton writes addictive thrillers. This one was perfectly readable, but not as good. It’s our book club read for early March, and I expect I won’t be the only one to find it hardly believable.
Plus a skim:
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez (1986)
This was my first time trying the late Lopez. It was supposed to be a buddy read with my husband because we ended up with two free copies, but he raced ahead while I limped along just a few pages at a time before admitting defeat and skimming to the end (it was the 20 pages on musk oxen that really did me in). For me, the reading experience was most akin to The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen in that both are about a literal journey in an extreme environment, yet what stands out are the philosophical musings. Where Matthiessen was animated by Buddhist ideas about selfhood and loss, Lopez takes the secular long view of human life and responsibility in light of potential extinction. The epilogue, in particular, is endlessly quotable. It’s depressing to encounter books like this now, though: 30+ years ago, literary nature writers were issuing clarion calls about climate disaster, and we didn’t listen.
Some favorite passages:
“Whenever I met a collared lemming on a summer day and took its stare I would think: Here is a tough animal. Here is a valuable life. … If it could tell me of its will to survive, would I think of biochemistry, or would I think of the analogous human desire? If it could speak of the time since the retreat of the ice, would I have the patience to listen?”
“The cold view to take of our future is that we are therefore headed for extinction in a universe of impersonal chemical, physical, and biological laws. A more productive, certainly more engaging view, is that we have the intelligence to grasp what is happening, the composure not to be intimidated by its complexity, and the courage to take steps that may bear no fruit in our lifetimes.”
“One of the oldest dreams of mankind is to find a dignity that might include all living things. And one of the greatest of human longings must be to bring such dignity to one’s own dreams, for each to find his or her own life exemplary in some way. The struggle to do this is a struggle because an adult sensibility must find some way to include all the dark threads of life. A way to do this is to pay attention to what occurs in a land not touched by human schemes, where an original order prevails.”
Did you read anything particularly wintry this year, or are you and your book stack moving on to spring already?
New Reading Projects! (Join Me?)
It’s only one week since we announced the Not the Wellcome Prize winner, the culmination of a month-long project that was months more in the planning. I don’t think I’ll be coordinating another blog tour anytime soon, as it was a lot of work finding participants, working out a schedule and keeping on top of the publicizing via social media. Still, it was a lot of fun, and already I’m missing the buzz and ready to get stuck into more projects.
I’d love it if you joined me for one or more of these. Some could be combined with your 20 Books of Summer or other challenges, too.
Ongoing buddy reads
It would have been Richard Adams’s 100th birthday on the 9th. That night I started rereading his classic tale of rabbits in peril, Watership Down, which was my favorite book from childhood even though I only read it the once at age nine. I’m 80 pages in and enjoying all the local place names. Who would ever have predicted that that mousy tomboy from Silver Spring, Maryland would one day live just 6.5 miles from the real Watership Down?!
My husband is joining me for the Watership Down read (he’s not sure he ever read it before), and we’re also doing a buddy read of Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. In that case, we ended up with two free copies, one from the bookshop where I volunteer and the other from The Book Thing of Baltimore, so we each have a copy on the go. Lopez’s style, like Peter Matthiessen’s, lends itself to slower, reflective reading, so I’m only two chapters in. It’s novel to journey to the Arctic, especially as we approach the summer.
I plan to take my time over these two, so tell me if you have a copy of either and feel like picking it up at any point over the next few months.
The other day I got out my copy of The Novel Cure by School of Life bibliotherapists Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin and browsed through the categories for some prescriptions that might feel relevant to the current situation. I found four books I own that fit the bill:
From the list of “The Ten Best Novels to Lower Your Blood Pressure”: Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto by Maile Chapman & The Waves by Virginia Woolf (and I’ve read another three of them, including, recently, Crossing to Safety).
One of several prescriptions for Loneliness: Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin.
The cure for Zestlessness: Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow.
If you have access to one of these, or have a copy of The Novel Cure and are keen on following up on another of the prescriptions, let me know.
And now for two memes that I (think I) have created. Although I’m sure something similar has been done in the past, I couldn’t find any specific blogs about them. I don’t know about you, but I always need encouragement to pick up books from my own shelves – even though libraries are currently closed, I’m still working my way through a library stack, and I’m tempted to make another order of new books from Hungerford Bookshop. It’s great to support libraries and independent bookstores, of course, but there could be no better time to mine your own bookshelves for treasures you bought ages ago but still have never read.
Journey through the Day with Books
I enjoyed picking out 18 books from my shelves that refer to particular times of day or meals or activities associated therewith. Four of these are books I’ve already read and four are ones I’m currently reading. You can piggyback on my selections if you wish, or find your own set.
Here’s my full list:
Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore
Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen
Up with the Larks by Tessa Hainsworth
Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer
Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell
The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński
Eventide by Kent Haruf
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
Talk before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg
When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray
Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb
Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys
Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay
Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Shaine Cunningham
The House of Sleep by Jonathan Coe
Bodies in Motion and at Rest by Thomas Lynch
Silence by Shūsaku Endō
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez
The Four in a Row Challenge
I’ve been contemplating this one for quite a while. It’s inspired by Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf –from LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading (one of Simon’s favourite books – see his review), for which she picked a shelf of the New York Society Library, eliminated duplicates and repeat entries from the same author, and read the remainder – whether she’d heard of them or not; whether they were awful or not. (“Hands down the worst book on the shelf is Le Queux’s Three Knots, a mystery that reads as if it were written by an eight-year-old on Percocet.”)
This is a variation in that you’re looking at your own TBR shelves and picking a set of four books in a row. For many, that will be four novels whose authors’ surnames all start with the same letter. But if you organize your books differently (especially within nonfiction), you may find that the set of four is more arbitrary. You never know what they might have in common, though (book serendipity!).
I’m no strict challenge host, so if you want to engineer your shelf order, or if you decide to swap a book in later on, that is no problem at all. My one firm rule is only one book per author.
I’ve picked out a few appealing sets, all from my fiction shelves. F, G, L and M had particularly rich pickings. I’ll report back as I finish each set, while the “Journey through a Day” may well take me the whole rest of the year.
Still ongoing (more here): Projects to read as many Bellwether Prize, Wellcome Book Prize and Women’s Prize winners as possible, as well as Wellcome long- and shortlistees.
Can I tempt you to take part in any of these reading projects?
[Journey through the Day: Sunrise in Pieniny, Poland (Pudelek / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)) / Sunset (Alvesgaspar / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0))
Four in a Row: Four pelicans in a row (Sheba_Also 43,000 photos / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)) / Phone boxes, Market Place, Ripon (Tim Green from Bradford / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0))]
Spring Reading 2020, Part II
According to the Sámi reindeer herders, there are actually eight seasons; we’d now be in “Spring-summer” (gidágiesse), which runs from May to June.
In recent weeks I’ve read some more books that engage with the spring and/or its metaphors of planting and resurrection. (The first installment was here.) Two fiction and two nonfiction selections this time.
The White Garden: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Stephanie Barron (2009)
Barron is best known for her Jane Austen Mysteries series. Here she takes up the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West and crafts a conspiracy theory / alternative history in which Virginia did not commit suicide upon her disappearance in March 1941 but hid with Vita at Sissinghurst, her Kent home with the famous gardens. Investigating this in the autumn of 2008 are Jo Bellamy, an American garden designer who has been tasked with recreating Sackville-West’s famous White Garden at her wealthy client’s upstate New York estate, and Peter Llewelyn, a Sotheby’s employee who helps Jo authenticate a journal she finds hidden in a gardener’s shed at Sissinghurst.
Jo has a secret connection: her grandfather, Jock, who recently committed suicide, was a gardener here at the time of Woolf’s visit, and she believes the notebook may shed light on Virginia’s true fate and what led Jock to kill himself. Romantic complications ensue. This is fun escapism for Americans after an armchair trip to England (including Oxford and Cambridge for research), but so obviously written by an outsider. I had to correct what felt like dozens of errors (e.g. the indoor smoking ban came into effect in July 2007, so the hotel dining room wouldn’t have been filled with cigarette smoke; “pulling a few” is not slang for having a few drinks – rather, “pulling” has the connotation of making a romantic conquest).
I’ve visited Sissinghurst and Knole and had enough of an interest in the historical figures involved to keep me going through a slightly silly, frothy novel.
Greenery: Journeys in Springtime by Tim Dee (2020)
From the Cape of Good Hope to the Arctic Circle, Dee tracks the spring as it travels north. From first glimpse to last gasp, moving between his homes in two hemispheres, he makes the season last nearly half the year. His harbingers are chiefly migrating birds – starting with swallows. Here’s how he states his aim:
Knowing those annually recurring gifts of nature, and registering them alongside our own one-way journey through life, why not try to travel with the season and be in springtime for as long as possible, why not try to start where the season starts, and then to keep up with it, in step, walking a moving green room, travelling under the sun, like swallows out of Africa?
Starting in February in the Sahara Desert, he sees an abundance of the songbirds and raptors he’s used to finding in Europe, as well as more exotic species endemic to Africa. Any fear that this will turn out to be some plodding ‘I went here and saw this, then there and saw that’ nature/travel narrative dissipates instantly; although the book has a strong geographical and chronological through line, it flits between times and places as effortlessly as any bird, with the poetic quality of Dee’s observations lifting mundane moments into sharp focus. For instance, at their Ethiopian hotel, a wedding photography mecca, “a waiting wedding dress collapsed on a black cane chair, like an ostrich suicide.” A nightjar startled in the New Forest is “a bandaged balsa-wood model: a great moth’s head with the wings of a dark dragonfly.”
Dee’s wanderings take him from Scandinavia to central Europe and back. Wherever he happens to be, he is fully present, alive to a place and to all its echoes in memory and literature. He recalls a lonely year spent in Budapest studying Hungarian poetry in the 1980s, and how the sight and sound of birds like black woodpeckers and eagle owls revived him. Visits to migration hotspots like Gibraltar and Heligoland alternate with everyday jaunts in Ireland or the Bristol and Cambridgeshire environs he knows best.
Each vignette is headed with a place name and latitude, but many are undated, recalling springs from decades past or from the work of admired writers. Some of his walking companions and mentioned friends are celebrated nature or travel writers in their own right (like Julia Blackburn, Mark Cocker, Patrick McGuinness and Adam Nicolson; there’s also his cousin, fiction writer Tessa Hadley), while Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Seamus Heaney, D. H. Lawrence and Gilbert White are some of the book’s presiding spirits.
Greenery is steeped in allusions and profound thinking about deep time and what it means to be alive in an era when nature’s rhythms are becoming distorted. It is so gorgeously literary, so far from nature and travel writing as usual, that it should attract readers who wouldn’t normally dip into those genres. While Dee’s writing reminds me somewhat of Barry Lopez’s, closer comparisons could be made with Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk and Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard: quest narratives that nestle their nature writing within a substrate of memoir and philosophy. The last few pages, in which Dee, now in his late fifties, loses a close friend (Greg Poole, who painted the book’s cover) and receives a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease but also learns he is to become a father again, are achingly beautiful.
I find I’ve written more about this book than I intended to in a reviews roundup, but it’s so extraordinary it deserves this much and more. It’s not just one of the few best nonfiction books of the year, but a fresh, masterful model of how to write about nature.
In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill (1975)
This is my favorite of the six books I’ve now read by Hill. Early one spring, Ruth Bryce’s husband, Ben, dies in a forestry accident. They had been only married a year and now here she is, aged 20 and a widow. Ben’s little brother, 14-year-old Jo, is a faithful visitor, but after the funeral many simply leave Ruth alone. Ben’s death is a “stone cast into still water,” whose ripples spread out beyond his immediate family.
There is little plot as such, yet this is a lovely, quiet meditation on grief and solitude amid the rhythms of country life. Ruth vacillates between suicidal despair and epiphanies of exaltation at how all of life is connected. Religious imagery coinciding with Easter describes a cycle of death and renewal. Very late on in the book, as winter comes round again, she has the chance to be of help to another local family that has suffered a loss, and to a member of Ben’s remaining family.
It took me two whole springs to read this. For those who think of Hill as a writer of crime novels (the Simon Serrailler series) and compact thrillers (The Woman in Black et al.), this may seem very low on action in comparison, but there is something hypnotic about the oddly punctuated prose and the ebb and flow of emotions.
Plant Dreaming Deep by May Sarton (1968)
This serves as a prelude to the eight journals for which Sarton would become famous. It’s a low-key memoir about setting up home in the tiny town of Nelson, New Hampshire, making a garden and meeting the salt-of-the-earth locals who provided her support system and are immortalized in fictional form in the novel she published two years later, Kinds of Love. At the time of publication, she’d been in Nelson for 10 years; she would live there for 15 years in all, and (after seeing out her days in a rented house by the coast in Maine) be buried there.
Sarton was nearing 50 by the time she bought this, her first home, and for her it represented many things: a retreat from the world; a place for silence and solitude; and somewhere she could bring together the many aspects of herself, even if just by displaying her parents’ furniture, long in storage, and the souvenirs from her travels – “all the threads I hold in my hands have at last been woven together into a whole—the threads of the English and Belgian families from which I spring … the threads of my own wanderings”.
Nelson feels like a place outside of time. It holds annual Town Meetings, as it has for nearly two centuries. Her man-of-all-work, Perley Cole, still cuts the meadow with a scythe. After years of drought, she has to have water-drillers come and find her a new source. An ancient maple tree has to be cut down, reminding her of other deaths close to home. Through it all, her beloved garden is a reminder that new life floods back every year and the routines of hard work will be rewarded.
Some favorite lines:
“Experience is the fuel; I would live my life burning it up as I go along, so that at the end nothing is left unused, so that every piece of it has been consumed in the work.”
“gardening is one of the late joys, for youth is too impatient, too self-absorbed, and usually not rooted deeply enough to create a garden. Gardening is one of the rewards of middle age, when one is ready for an impersonal passion, a passion that demands patience, acute awareness of a world outside oneself, and the power to keep on growing through all the times of drought, through the cold snows, toward those moments of pure joy when all failures are forgotten and the plum tree flowers.”
Note: I discovered I’ve always misunderstood this title, thinking it whimsically imagined a plant having dreams; instead, “plant” is an imperative verb, as in Sarton’s adaptation of Joachim du Bellay: “Happy the man who can long roaming reap, / Like old Ulysses when he shaped his course / Homeward at last toward the native source, / Seasoned and stretched to plant his dreaming deep.” It’s about a place where one can root one’s work and intentions.
Have you been reading anything springlike this year?
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.
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 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.)]
With thanks to Sphere for the free copy for review.
Related reading: This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich