Tag Archives: Ben Smith

My Best Backlist Reads of 2019

Like many book bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the shiny new books released each year. However, I consistently find that many of my most memorable reads were published years or even decades ago.

These selections, in alphabetical order by author name, account for the rest of my 5-star ratings of the year, plus a handful of 4.5 and high 4 ones.

 

Fiction

 

Faces in the Water by Janet Frame: The best inside picture of mental illness I’ve read. Istina Mavet, in and out of New Zealand mental hospitals between ages 20 and 28, undergoes regular shock treatments. Occasional use of unpunctuated, stream-of-consciousness prose is an effective way of conveying the protagonist’s terror. Simply stunning writing.

 

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff: Groff wrote this in homage to Cooperstown, New York, where she grew up. We hear from leading lights in the town’s history and Willie’s family tree through a convincing series of first-person narratives, letters and other documents. A charming way to celebrate where you come from with all its magic and mundanity.

 

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver: What an amazing novel about the ways that right and wrong, truth and pain get muddied together. Some characters are able to acknowledge their mistakes and move on, while others never can. Christianity and colonialism have a lot to answer for. A masterpiece.

 

The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing: Begins with the words “MURDER MYSTERY”: a newspaper headline announcing that Mary, wife of Rhodesian farmer Dick Turner, has been found murdered by their houseboy. The breakdown of a marriage and the failure of a farm form a dual tragedy that Lessing explores in searing psychological detail.

 

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively: Seventy-six-year-old Claudia Hampton, on her deathbed in a nursing home, determines to write a history of the world as she’s known it. More impressive than the plot surprises is how Lively packs the whole sweep of a life into just 200 pages, all with such rich, wry commentary on how what we remember constructs our reality.

 

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez: The narrator is a writer and academic who has stepped up to care for her late friend’s aging Great Dane, Apollo. It feels like Nunez has encapsulated everything she’s ever known or thought about, all in just over 200 pages, and alongside a heartwarming little plot. (Animal lovers need not fear.)

 

There There by Tommy Orange: Orange’s dozen main characters are urban Native Americans converging on the annual Oakland Powwow. Their lives have been difficult, to say the least. The novel cycles through most of the characters multiple times, so gradually we work out the links between everyone. Hugely impressive.

 

In the Driver’s Seat by Helen Simpson: The best story collection I read this year. Themes include motherhood, death versus new beginnings, and how to be optimistic in a world in turmoil. Gentle humor and magic tempers the sadness. I especially liked “The Green Room,” a Christmas Carol riff, and “Constitutional,” set on a woman’s one-hour lunch break walk.

 

East of Eden by John Steinbeck: Look no further for the Great American Novel. Spanning from the Civil War to World War I and crossing the country from New England to California, this is just as wide-ranging in its subject matter, with an overarching theme of good and evil as it plays out in families and in individual souls.

 

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese: The saga of conjoined twins born of a union between an Indian nun and an English surgeon in 1954. Ethiopia’s postcolonial history is a colorful background. I thrilled to the accounts of medical procedures. I can’t get enough of sprawling Dickensian stories full of coincidences, minor characters, and humor and tragedy.

 

Extinctions by Josephine Wilson: The curmudgeonly antihero is widower Frederick Lothian, at age 69 a reluctant resident of St Sylvan’s Estate retirement village. It’s the middle of a blistering Australian summer and he has plenty of time to drift back over his life. He’s a retired engineering expert, but he’s been much less successful in his personal life.

 

 

Poetry

 

Windfall by Miriam Darlington: I’d had no idea that Darlington had written poetry before she turned to nature writing. The verse is rooted in the everyday. Multiple poems link food and erotic pleasure; others make nature the source of exaltation. Lots of allusions and delicious alliteration. Pick this up if you’re still mourning Mary Oliver.

 

Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods by Tishani Doshi: The third collection by the Welsh–Gujarati poet and dancer is vibrant and boldly feminist. The tone is simultaneously playful and visionary, toying with readers’ expectations. Several of the most arresting poems respond to the #MeToo movement. She also excels at crafting breath-taking few-word phrases.

 

Where the Road Runs Out by Gaia Holmes: A major thread of the book is caring for her father at home and in the hospital as he was dying on the Orkney Islands – a time of both wonder and horror. Other themes include pre-smartphone life and a marriage falling apart. There are no rhymes, just alliteration and plays on words, with a lot of seaside imagery.

 

Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice: MacNeice wrote this long verse narrative between August 1938 and the turn of the following year. Everyday life for the common worker muffles political rumblings that suggest all is not right in the world. He reflects on his disconnection from Ireland; on fear, apathy and the longing for purpose. Still utterly relevant.

 

Sky Burials by Ben Smith: I discovered Smith through the 2018 New Networks for Nature conference. He was part of a panel discussion on the role poetry might play in environmental activism. This collection shares that environmentalist focus. Many of the poems are about birds. There’s a sense of history but also of the future.

 

 

Nonfiction

 

Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt: During a bout of depression, Haupt decided to start paying more attention to the natural world right outside her suburban Seattle window. Crows were a natural place to start. A charming record of bird behavior and one woman’s reawakening, but also a bold statement of human responsibility to the environment.

 

All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir by Elizabeth Hay: Hay’s parents, Gordon and Jean, stumbled into their early nineties in an Ottawa retirement home. There are many harsh moments in this memoir, but almost as many wry ones, with Hay picking just the right anecdotes to illustrate her parents’ behavior and the shifting family dynamic.

 

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay: Jackie Kay was born out of the brief relationship between a Nigerian student and a Scottish nurse in Aberdeen in the early 1960s. This memoir of her search for her birth parents is a sensitive treatment of belonging and (racial) identity. Kay writes with warmth and a quiet wit. The nonlinear structure is like a family photo album.

 

Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp: An excellent addiction memoir that stands out for its smooth and candid writing. For nearly 20 years, Knapp was a high-functioning alcoholic who maintained jobs in Boston-area journalism. The rehab part is often least exciting, but I appreciated how Knapp characterized it as the tortured end of a love affair.

 

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein: I guarantee you’ve never read a biography quite like this one. It’s part journalistic exposé and part “love letter”; it’s part true crime and part ordinary life story. It considers gender, mental health, addiction, trauma and death. Simply a terrific read.

 

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood: A memoir of growing up in a highly conservative religious setting, but not Evangelical Christianity as you or I have known it. Her father, a married Catholic priest, is an unforgettable character. This is a poet’s mind sparking at high voltage and taking an ironically innocent delight in dirty and iconoclastic talk.

 

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen: For two months in 1973, Matthiessen joined a zoologist on a journey from the Nepalese Himalayas to the Tibetan Plateau in hopes of spotting the elusive snow leopard. Recently widowed, Matthiessen put his Buddhist training to work as he pondered impermanence and acceptance. The writing is remarkable.

 

This Sunrise of Wonder: Letters for the Journey by Michael Mayne: Mayne’s thesis is that experiencing wonder is what makes us human. He believes poets, musicians and painters, in particular, reawaken us to awe by encouraging us to pay close attention. Especially with the frequent quotations and epigraphs, this is like a rich compendium of wisdom from the ages.

 

Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab by Christine Montross: When she was training to become a doctor, Montross was assigned an older female cadaver, Eve, who taught her everything she knows about the human body. Montross is also a poet, as evident in this lyrical, compassionate exploration of working with the dead.

 

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell: An excellent first-hand account of the working and living conditions of the poor in two world cities. Orwell works as a dishwasher and waiter in Paris hotel restaurants for up to 80 hours a week. The matter-of-fact words about poverty and hunger are incisive, while the pen portraits are glistening.

 

A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter: In 1934, Ritter, an Austrian painter, joined her husband Hermann for a year in Spitsbergen. 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 travel classic worth rediscovering.

 

Autumn Across America by Edwin Way Teale: In the late 1940s Teale and his wife set out on a 20,000-mile road trip from Cape Cod on the Atlantic coast to Point Reyes on the Pacific to track the autumn. Teale was an early conservationist. His descriptions of nature are gorgeous, and the scientific explanations are at just the right level for the average reader.

 

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch: This blew me away. Reading this nonlinear memoir of trauma and addiction, you’re amazed the author is still alive, let alone a thriving writer. The writing is truly dazzling, veering between lyrical stream-of-consciousness and in-your-face informality. The watery metaphors are only part of what make it unforgettable.

 

(Books not pictured were read from the library or on Kindle.)

 

And if I really had to limit myself to just two favorites – my very best fiction and nonfiction reads of the year – they would be Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively and Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood.

 

What were your best backlist reads this year?

Too Male! (A Few Recent Reviews for Shiny New Books and TLS)

I tend to wear my feminism lightly; you won’t ever hear me railing about the patriarchy or the male gaze. But there have been five reads so far this year that had me shaking my head and muttering, “too male!” While aspects of these books were interesting, the macho attitude or near-complete dearth of women irked me. Two of them I’ve already written about here: Ernest Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden was a previous month’s classic and book club selection, while Chip Cheek’s Cape May was part of my reading in America. The other three I reviewed for Shiny New Books or the Times Literary Supplement; I give excerpts below, with links to visit the full reviews in two cases, plus ideas for a book or two by a woman that should help neutralize the bad taste these might leave.

 

Shiny New Books

 

The Way Home: Tales from a Life without Technology by Mark Boyle

Boyle lives without electricity in a wooden cabin on a smallholding in County Galway, Ireland. He speaks of technology as an addiction and letting go of it as a detoxification process. For him it was a gradual shift that took place at the same time as he was moving away from modern conveniences. The Way Home is split into seasonal sections in which the author’s past and present intermingle. The writing consciously echoes Henry David Thoreau’s. Without even considering the privilege that got Boyle to the point where he could undertake this experiment, though, there are a couple of problems with this particular back-to-nature model. One is that it is a very male enterprise. Another is that Boyle doesn’t really have the literary chops to add much to the canon. Few of us could do what he has done, whether because of medical challenges, a lack of hands-on skills or family commitments. Still, the book is worth engaging with. It forces you to question your reliance on technology and ask whether making life easier is really a valuable goal.

  • The Remedy: Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed by Catrina Davies, which I’m currently reading for a TLS review. Davies crosses Boyle’s Thoreauvian language about solitude and a place in nature with a Woolfian search for a room of her own. Penniless during the ongoing housing crisis, she moves into the shed near Land’s End that once served as her father’s architecture office and embarks on turning it into a home.

 

Doggerland by Ben Smith

This debut novel has just two main characters: ‘the old man’ and ‘the boy’ (who’s not really a boy anymore), who are stationed on an enormous offshore wind farm. The distance from the present day is indicated in slyly throwaway comments like “The boy didn’t know what potatoes were.” Smith poses questions about responsibility and sacrifice, and comments on modern addictions and a culture of disposability. He has certainly captured something of the British literary zeitgeist. From page to page, though, Doggerland grew tiresome for me. There is a lot of maritime vocabulary and technical detail about supplies and maintenance. The location is vague and claustrophobic, the pace is usually slow, and there are repetitive scenes and few conversations. To an extent, this comes with the territory. But it cannot be ignored that this is an entirely male world. Fans of the themes and style of The Old Man and the Sea and The Road will get on best with Smith’s writing. I most appreciated the moments of Beckettian humor in the dialogue and the poetic interludes that represent human history as a blip in the grand scheme of things.

  • The Remedy: I’m not a big fan of dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction in general, but a couple of the best such novels that I’ve read by women are Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins.

 

 

Times Literary Supplement

 

The Knife’s Edge: The Heart and Mind of a Cardiac Surgeon by Stephen Westaby

In this somewhat tepid follow-up to Fragile Lives, Westaby’s bravado leaves a bad taste and dilutes the work’s ostensibly confessional nature. He has a good excuse, he argues: a head injury incurred while playing rugby in medical school transformed him into a risk taker. It’s widely accepted that such boldness may be a boon in a discipline that requires quick thinking and decisive action. So perhaps it’s no great problem to have a psychopath as your surgeon. But how about a sexist? Westaby’s persistent references to women staff as “lady GP” and “registrar lady” don’t mitigate surgeons’ macho reputation. It’s a shame to observe such casual sexism, because it’s clear Westaby felt deeply for his patients of any gender. And yet any talk of empathy earns his derision. It seems the specific language of compassion is a roadblock for him. The book is strongest when the author recreates dramatic sequences based on several risky surgeries. Alas, at its close he sounds bitter, and the NHS bears the brunt of his anger. Compared to Fragile Lives, one of my favorite books of 2017, this gives the superhero surgeon feet of clay. But it’s a lot less pleasing to read. (Forthcoming in TLS.)

  • The Remedy: I’m keen to read Direct Red by Gabriel Weston, a memoir by a female surgeon.

 

(Crikey! This was my 600th blog post.)

New Networks for Nature 2018

This past weekend was my fourth time attending part of Nature Matters, the annual New Networks for Nature conference. I’ve written about it here a couple of times, once when there was a particular focus on nature poetry and another time when it was held in Cambridge. This year it was back in Stamford for a last time for the 10th anniversary. Next year: York.

What’s so special about the conference is its interdisciplinary nature: visual artists, poets, musicians, writers, politicians, academics and conservationists alike attend and present. So although the event might seem geared more towards my biologist husband, there’s always plenty to interest me, too. The roster is a who’s who of British nature writing: Mark Avery, Tim Birkhead, Mark Cocker, Mary Colwell, Miriam Darlington, Richard Kerridge, Peter Marren, Michael McCarthy, Stephen Moss, Adam Nicolson, Katharine Norbury, Ruth Padel, Laurence Rose and Mike Toms were all there this year. I also appreciate the atmosphere of friendly disagreement about what nature is and how best to go about conserving it.

I attended on Friday, a jam-packed day of sessions that began with Bob Gibbons presenting on the flowers and wildlife of Transylvania, a landscape and culture that are still almost medieval in character. Then Jeremy Mynott interviewed Mark Cocker about his latest book, Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife before It Is Too Late? I’ve read other Cocker books, but not this one yet. Its main point seems to be that the country’s environmental organizations need to work together. Individuals and NGOs are doing passionate and wonderful things towards nature conservation, Cocker said, but overall “we ain’t getting there.” Bad news doesn’t sell, though, he noted: his book has sold just 6,000 copies compared to 30,000 for Wilding, Isabella Tree’s story of the rewilding success at Knepp.

Mark Cocker

Cocker refused to define nature in a one-sentence soundbite, but argued that we have to consider ourselves a part of it rather than thinking about it as a victim ‘out there’ (the closest he came to a definition was “the totality of the system we are a part of”). “Our responsibility, terrifyingly, is unending,” he said – every time you open a new plastic toothbrush, you can’t forget that the old one you throw away will effectively be around forever. Our Place isn’t just composed of polemic, though: it’s structured around six beloved landscapes and finds moments of transcendence in being out in nature. You find hope by walking out the door, feeling the wind on your face and hearing the starling singing, Cocker remarked. He closed by reading a description from the book of the north Norfolk coast.

Either side of lunch were panels on how social media (mostly Twitter, plus smartphone apps) can serve nature and the role that poetry might play in environmental activism, with a brief interlude from visual artist Derek Robertson, who responded to the refugee crisis by traveling to Calais and Jordan and painting human figures alongside migratory birds. In the poetry session I especially enjoyed hearing from Ben Smith, a University of Plymouth lecturer and poet with a debut novel coming out in April 2019 (Doggerland, from Fourth Estate). He recently collaborated with Dr. Lee de Mora on a set of poems inspired by the Earth System Model, which provides the data for the International Panel on Climate Change. Climate modeling might seem an odd subject for poetry, but it provides excellent metaphors for failure and hope in “Spinning Up,” “Data Sets” and “Alternate Histories.”

P1050517

Ben Smith’s poem links unlikely subjects: surfing and climate modeling. Photo by Chris Foster.

Birmingham lecturer Isabel Galleymore, whose debut collection Significant Other is coming out from Carcanet Press in March, talked about how she uses the tropes of love poetry (praise, intimacy, pursuit and loss) when writing about environmental crisis. This shift in her focus began at university when she studied Wordsworth through an ecocritical lens, she said. Jos Smith and Luke Thompson were the other two poets on a panel chaired by Matt Howard. Howard quoted Keats – “We hate poetry that has a design on us” – and asked the poets for reactions. Smith agreed that polemic and poetry don’t mix well, yet said it’s good to have a reason for writing. He thinks it’s best when you can hold two or more ideas in play at a time.

After tea and a marvelous cake spread, it was time for a marathon of three sessions in a row, starting with three short presentations on seabirds: one by a researcher, one by a nature reserve manager, and one by a young artist who produced Chinese-style scroll paintings of the guillemot breeding colonies on Skomer and exhibited them in Sheffield Cathedral.

Next up was a highlight of the weekend: Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and Labour peer Baroness Barbara Young conversed with Michael McCarthy on the topic “Can Conventional Politics Save the Environment?” Both decried short-term thinking, the influence of corporations and the media, and government departments not working together. No one was ever elected on the promise of “less,” McCarthy suggested, but in reply Lucas talked about redefining terms: less of what? more of what? If we think in terms of quality of life, things like green energy and the sharing economy will become more appealing. She also believes that more people care about green issues than we think, but, e.g., a London mum might speak out about air quality without ever using the word “environment.” Baroness Young concluded that “adversarial politics, flip-flopping between parties, isn’t working” and we must get beyond it, at the local level if nothing else. That rang true for me for American politics, too.

Young, McCarthy and Lucas. Photo by Chris Foster.

Before the day ended with a drinks reception, we were treated to a completely different presentation by Lloyd Buck, who raises and trains birds, mostly for television footage. So, for instance, the greylag geese flying in formation alongside the boat in David Attenborough’s 2012 Sixty Years in the Wild TV special had imprinted on Lloyd’s wife, Rose. Buck spoke about bonding with birds of very different personalities, and introduced the audience to five starlings (who appeared in Poldark), a peregrine, a gyrfalcon, a golden eagle, and Bran the raven, who showed his intelligence by solving several puzzles to find hidden chunks of meat.

I purchased two books of poetry from the bookstall – I had no idea Darlington had written poetry before her nature books – and the conference brochure itself is a wonderful 75-page collection of recent artwork and short nature writing pieces, including most of the presenters but also Patrick Barkham, Tim Dee, Paul Evans, Philip Hoare, Richard Mabey, Helen Macdonald and Chris Packham – a keynote speaker announced for next year. I’ve been skipping through the booklet and have most enjoyed the pieces by Melissa Harrison and Helen Scales so far. Altogether, an inspiring and worthwhile weekend.

Would any of the conference’s themes or events have interested you?