In the past couple of weeks, we’ve taken advantage of the last gasp of summer with some rare chances at socializing, outdoors and in. Our closest friends came to visit us last weekend and accompanied us to a beer festival held in a local field, and this weekend we’ve celebrated birthdays with a formal-wear party at a local arts venue and a low-key family meal.
After my first installment of summer reads, I’ve also finished Klara and the Sun (a bust with me, alas) and the three below: a wildlife photographer’s memoir of lockdown summer spent filming in the New Forest, a record of searching for the summer’s remnants of snow in the Highlands, and an obscure 1950s novel about the psychological connections between four characters in one Irish summer. I close with a summer-into-autumn children’s book.
Goshawk Summer: A New Forest Season Unlike Any Other by James Aldred (2021)
My second nature book about the New Forest this year (after The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell) has only sharpened my hankering to get back there and have a good wander after many years away. In March 2020, Aldred had recently returned from filming cheetahs in Kenya when the UK went into its first national lockdown. He had the good fortune to obtain authorization from Forestry England that allowed him to travel regularly from his home in Somerset to the New Forest to gather footage for a documentary for the Smithsonian channel.
Zooming up on empty roads and staying in local cottages so he can start at 4 each morning, he marvels at the peace of a place when humans are taken out of the equation. His diary chronicles a few months of extraordinary wildlife encounters – not only with the goshawks across from whose nest he built a special treetop platform, but also with dragonflies, fox cubs, and rare birds like cuckoo and Dartford warbler. The descriptions of animal behaviour are superb, and the tone is well balanced: alongside the delight of nature watching is anger at human exploitation of the area after the reopening and despair at seemingly intractable declines – of 46 curlew pairs in the Forest, only three chicks survived that summer.
Despite the woe at nest failures and needless roadkill, Aldred is optimistic – in a similar way to Ansell – that sites like the New Forest can be a model of how light-handed management might allow animals to flourish. “I believe that a little space goes a long way and sometimes all we really need to do is take a step back to let nature do its thing. … It is nature’s ability to help itself, to survive in spite of us in fact, that gives me tentative hope”. (Unsolicited review copy)
With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the free copy.
Among the Summer Snows by Christopher Nicholson (2017)
After the death from cancer of his wife Kitty, a botanical illustrator, Nicholson set off for Scotland’s Cairngorms and Ben Nevis in search of patches of snow that persist into summer. “Summer snow is a miracle, a piece of out-of-season magic: to see it is one thing, to make physical contact with it is another.” His account of his travels washed over me, leaving little impression. I appreciated the accompanying colour photographs, as the landscape is otherwise somewhat difficult to picture, but even in these it is often hard to get a sense of scale. I think I expected more philosophical reflection in the vein of The Snow Leopard, and, while Nicholson does express anxiety over what happens if one day the summer snows are no more, I found the books on snow by Charlie English and Marcus Sedgwick more varied and profound. (Secondhand, gifted)
A Shower of Summer Days by May Sarton (1952)
Although I’m more a fan of Sarton’s autobiographical material, especially her journals, I’ve also enjoyed exploring her fiction. This was my seventh of her novels. It’s set in Ireland at Dene’s Court, the grand house Violet inherited. She and her husband Charles have lived in Burma for two decades, but with the Empire on the wane they decide to settle in Violet’s childhood home. Gardening and dressing for dinner fill their languid days until word comes that Violet’s 20-year-old niece, Sally, is coming to stay.
The summer is meant to cure Sally of her infatuation with an actor named Ian. Violet reluctantly goes along with the plan because she feels so badly about the lasting rivalry with her sister, Barbara. Sally is a “bolt of life” shaking up Violet and Charles’s marriage, and when Ian, too, flies out from America, a curious love triangle is refashioned as a quadrilateral. The house remains the one constant as the characters wrestle with their emotional bonds (“the kaleidoscope of feelings was being rather violently shaken up”) and reflect on the transitory splendour of the season (“a kind of timelessness, the warm sun in the enclosed garden in the morning, the hum of bees, and the long slow twilights”). This isn’t one of my favourites from Sarton, but it has low-key charm. I saw it as being on a continuum from Virginia Woolf to Tessa Hadley (e.g. The Past) via Elizabeth Bowen. (Secondhand purchase from Awesomebooks.com)
And finally, one for the seasons’ transition:
Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn by Kenard Pak (2016)
A child and dog pair set out from home, through the woods, by a river, and into town, greeting other creatures and marking the signs of the season. “Hello!” the beavers reply. “We have no time to play because we’re making cozy nests and dens. It will be cold soon, and we want to get ready.” The quaint Americana setting and papercut-style illustrations reminded me of Vermont college towns and Jon Klassen’s work. I liked the focus on nature. (Free from a neighbour)
What books are accompanying you from summer into autumn this year?
Today’s entries in my colour-themed summer reading are a travelogue tracking the world’s endangered hummingbirds and a bizarre classic novel that blends nature writing and fantasy. Though very different books, they have in common lush South American forest settings.
The Glitter in the Green: In Search of Hummingbirds by Jon Dunn (2021)
As a wildlife writer and photographer, Jon Dunn has come to focus on small and secretive but indelible wonders. His previous book, which I still need to catch up on, was all about orchids, and in this new one he travels the length of the Americas, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, to see as many hummingbirds as he can. He provides a thorough survey of the history, science and cultural relevance (from a mini handgun to an indie pop band) of this most jewel-like of bird families. The ruby-throated hummingbirds I grew up seeing in suburban Maryland are gorgeous enough, but from there the names and corresponding colourful markings just get more magnificent: Glittering-throated Emeralds, Tourmaline Sunangels, Violet-capped woodnymphs, and so on. I’ll have to get a look at the photos in a finished copy of the book!
Dunn is equally good at describing birds and their habitats and at constructing a charming travelogue out of his sometimes fraught journeys. He has only a narrow weather of fog-free weather to get from Chile to Isla Robinson Crusoe and the plane has to turn back once before it successfully lands; a planned excursion in Bolivia is a non-starter after political protestors block some main routes. There are moments when the thrill of the chase is rewarded – as when he sees 24 hummingbird species in a day in Costa Rica – and many instances of lavish hospitality from locals who serve as guides or open their gardens to birdwatchers.
Like so many creatures, hummingbirds are in dire straits due to human activity: deforestation, invasive species, pesticide use and climate change are reducing the areas where they can live to pockets here and there; some species number in the hundreds and are considered critically endangered. Dunn juxtaposes the exploitative practices of (white, male) 19th- and 20th-century bird artists, collectors and hunters with indigenous birdwatching and environmental initiatives that are rising up to combat ecological damage in Latin America. Although society has moved past the use of hummingbird feathers in crafts and fashion, he learns that the troubling practice of dead hummingbirds being sold as love charms (chuparosas) persists in Mexico.
Whether you’re familiar with hummingbirds or not, if you have even a passing interest in nature and travel writing, I recommend The Glitter in the Green for how it invites readers into a personal passion, recreates an adventurous odyssey, and reinforces our collective responsibility for threatened wildlife. (Proof copy passed on by Paul of Halfman, Halfbook)
A lovely folk tale I’ll quote in full:
A hummingbird as a symbol of hope, strength and endurance is a recurrent one in South American folklore. An Ecuadorian folk tale tells of a forest on fire – a hummingbird picks up single droplets of water in its beak and lets them fall on the fire. The other animals in the forest laugh, and ask the hummingbird what difference this can possibly make. They say, ‘Don’t bother, it is too much, you are too little, your wings will burn, your beak is too tiny, it’s only a drop, you can’t put out this fire. What do you think you are doing?’ To which the hummingbird is said to reply, ‘I’m just doing what I can.’
Links between the books: Hudson is quoted in Dunn’s introduction. In Chapter 7 of the below, Hudson describes a hummingbird as “a living prismatic gem that changes its colour with every change of position … it catches the sunshine on its burnished neck and gorget plumes—green and gold and flame-coloured, the beams changing to visible flakes as they fall”
Green Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Forest by W.H. Hudson (1904)
Like Heart of Darkness, this is a long recounted tale about a journey among ‘savages’. After a prologue, the narrator soon cedes storytelling duties to Mr. Abel, whom he met in Georgetown, Guyana in 1887. Searching for gold and fighting off illness, the 23-year-old Abel took up the habit of wandering the Venezuelan forest. The indigenous people were superstitious and refused to hunt in that forest. Abel began to hear strange noises – magical bird calls or laughter – that, siren-like, drew him deeper in. His native friend warned him it was the daughter of an evil spirit.
One day, after being bitten by a snake, Abel woke up in the dwelling of an old man and his 17-year-old granddaughter, Rima – the very wood sprite he’d sensed all these times in the forest; she saved his life. Recovering in their home and helping Rima investigate her origins, he romanticizes this tree spirit in a way that struck me as smarmy. It’s possible this could be appreciated as a fable of connection with nature, but I found it vague and old-fashioned. (Not to mention Abel’s condescending attitude to the indigenous people and to women.) I ended up skimming the last three-quarters.
My husband has read nonfiction by Hudson; I think I was under the impression that this was a memoir, in fact. Perhaps I’d enjoy Hudson’s writing in another genre. But I was surprised to read high praise from John Galsworthy in the foreword (“For of all living authors—now that Tolstoi has gone—I could least dispense with W. H. Hudson”) and to note how many of my Goodreads friends have read this; I don’t see it as a classic that stands the test of time.
My 1944 hardback once belonged to one Mary Marcilliat of Louisville, Kentucky, and has strange abstract illustrations by E. McKnight Kauffer. (Free from the Book Thing of Baltimore)
Coming up next: One black and one gold on Wednesday; a Green author and a rainbow bonus (probably on the very last day).
Would you be interested in reading one of these?
Capsule reviews today, of four books I am inexcusably late in reviewing. I have a record of personal experience with species reintroductions, a memoir about living among reindeer herders in the far north of Norway, a set of elegiac poems, and a biography of a Victorian woman poet who struggled with poor health for most of her life.
Restoring the Wild: Sixty Years of Rewilding Our Skies, Woods and Waterways by Roy Dennis
Rewilding is a big buzz word in current nature and environmental writing. Few could be said to have played as major a role in the UK’s successful species reintroduction projects as Roy Dennis, who has been involved with the RSPB and other key organizations since the late 1950s. He trained as a warden at two of the country’s most famous bird observatories, Lundy Island and Fair Isle. Most of his later work was to focus on birds: white-tailed eagles, red kites, and ospreys. Some of these projects extended into continental Europe. He also writes about the special challenges posed by mammal reintroductions; beavers get a chapter of their own. Every initiative is described in exhaustive detail, full of names and dates, whereas I would have been okay with an overview. This feels like more of an insider’s history rather than a layman’s introduction. I have popped it on my husband’s bedside table in hopes that, with his degree in wildlife conservation, he’ll be more interested in the nitty-gritty.
“Tenacity and a long view to the future are important in wildlife conservation.”
“for every successful project that gets the go-ahead, there are others into which people put great effort but which then run up against problems.”
With thanks to William Collins for the free copy for review.
Dálvi: Six Years in the Arctic Tundra by Laura Galloway
The title is the word for winter in the Northern Sámi language. Galloway, a journalist, traded in New York City for Arctic Norway after a) a DNA test told her that she had Sámi blood and b) she met and fell for Áilu, a reindeer herder, at a wedding. She enrolled in an intensive language learning course at university level and got used to some major cultural changes: animals were co-workers here rather than pets (like the two cats she brought with her); communal meals and drawn-out goodbyes were not the done thing; and shamans were still active (one helped them find a key she lost). Footwear neatly sums up the difference. The Prada heels she brought “just in case” ended up serving as hammers; instead, she helped Áilu’s mother make reindeer skins into boots. Two factors undermined my enjoyment: Alternating chapters about her unhappy upbringing in Indiana don’t add much of interest, and, after her relationship with Áilu ends, the book feels aimless. However, I appreciated her words about DNA not defining you, and family being what you make it.
With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.
A Raga for George Harrison by Sharmagne Leland St.-John (2020)
Native American poet Sharmagne Leland St.-John’s fifth collection is a nostalgic and bittersweet look at people and places from one’s past. There are multiple elegies for public figures – everyone from Janis Joplin to Virginia Woolf – as well as for some who aren’t household names but have important stories that should be commemorated, like Hector Pieterson, a 12-year-old boy killed during the Soweto Uprising for protesting enforced teaching of Afrikaans in South Africa in 1976. Many of the elegies are presented as songs. Personal sources of sadness, such as a stillbirth, disagreements with a daughter, and ageing, weigh as heavily as tragic world events.
Rhyming and alliteration create inviting rhythms throughout the book, and details of colour and fashion animate poems like “La Kalima.” Leland St.-John remembers meeting street children in Mexico, while bamboo calls to mind time spent in Japan. “Promised Land” is an ironic account of land being seized from natives and people of colour. I especially liked “Things I Would Have Given to My Mother Had She Asked” (some literal and some more abstract), which opens “A piece of my liberal mind. 5 more minutes of my time”, and the sombre “Cat’s Cradle” (“Drenched starlings perch on a cat’s cradle of telephone wires”).
With thanks to the author for sending a free e-copy for review.
Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Fiona Sampson
Coming in at under 260 pages, this isn’t your standard comprehensive biography. Sampson instead describes it as a “portrait,” one that takes up the structure of EBB’s nine-book epic poem, Aurora Leigh, and is concerned with themes of identity and the framing of stories. Elizabeth, as she is cosily called throughout the book, wrote poems that lend themselves to autobiographical interpretation – “her body of work creates a kind of looking glass in which, dimly, we make out the person who wrote it,” Sampson asserts.
Nicknamed “Ba,” Elizabeth was born in 1806 and brought up with 11 younger siblings at a Herefordshire estate, Hope End. Her father, Edward, had been born in Jamaica and the family fortune was based on sugar – and slavery. Sampson makes much of this inherited guilt, and also places an emphasis on EBB’s lifelong ill health, which involved headaches, back and side pain, and depression. She also suffered from respiratory complaints. The modern medically minded reader tries to come up with a concrete diagnosis. Tardive dystonia? Post-viral syndrome? The author offers many potential explanations, and notes that her subject was the very type of the Victorian female invalid. She would also suffer from miscarriages, but had one son, Pen. The Brownings were in the unusual position of the wife being the more famous partner.
Sampson draws heavily on correspondence and earnestly interrogates scenes and remembrances, but her use of the present tense is a bit odd for a historical narrative, and I found my casual curiosity about the Brownings wasn’t enough to sustain my interest. However, this did make me eager to try more of EBB’s poetry. I wonder if I still have that copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese in a box in the States?
“Within the continual process of reputation-making and remaking that is literary history, Elizabeth Barrett Browning remains a bellwether for the rising and sinking stock of women writers. … Elizabeth dramatizes the two-way creation of every writing self, from without and from within. That the life of the body both enables and limits the life of the mind is the paradox of the thinking self.”
With thanks to Profile Books for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Today I have a book of poems about the Filipinx experience in the UK, a collection of short stories reflecting on racial injustice, a monograph on a bird that spells summer for many of us, and a biographical investigation into a little-understood medical condition.
Antiemetic for Homesickness by Romalyn Ante
I was drawn to this debut collection by the terrific title and cover, but also by the accolades it received: it was on the Dylan Thomas Prize longlist and the Jhalak Prize shortlist. I hope we’ll see it on the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist, too. Ante grew up in the Philippines but at age 16 joined her mother in the UK, where she had moved years before to work as a nurse in the NHS. She has since followed in her mother’s footsteps as a nurse – indeed, overseas Filipinx workers (Jamaicans, too) are a mainstay of the NHS.
Ante remembers the years when her mother was absent but promised to send for the rest of the family soon: “You said all I needed to do was to sleep and before I knew it, / you’d be back. But I woke to the rice that needed rinsing, / my siblings’ school uniforms that needed ironing.” The medical profession as a family legacy and noble calling is a strong element of these poems, especially in “Invisible Women,” an ode to the “goddesses of caring and tending” who walk the halls of any hospital. Hard work is a matter of survival, and family – whether physically present or not – bolsters weary souls. A series of short, untitled poems are presented as tape recordings made for her mother.
Food is inextricably entwined with memory (reminding me of Nina Mingya Powles’s approach in Tiny Moons) and provides some of the standout metaphors, especially in “Patis” and “Ode to a Pot Noodle.” Ante uses a lot of alliteration and adapts various forms. I especially liked “Tagay!”, a traditional drinking song, and “Mateo,” printed in the shape of a pound sign. The nuanced look at the immigrant experience reminded me of Jenny Xie’s Eye Level. Movement entails losses as well as benefits. The focus on the Filipinx experience also made me think of America Is Not the Heart. My favourite single poem was “The Making of a Smuggler,” which opens “Wherever we travel, we carry / the whole country with us – // our rice terraces are folded garments, / we have pillars of trees, a rainforest // on a hairbrush.”
“Gone are the nights he steals / the moon with a mango picker / and swaps it for her pocket mirror”
“The yellow admission papers in my hands escaped / flustering at my face into a flight of orioles.”
“I am halved in order to be whole – / I rebuild by leaving / everything I love.”
With thanks to Chatto & Windus for the free copy for review.
The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans
To boil these six stories and a novella down to the topic of race in America risks painting them as solemn or strident – more concerned with meaning than with art – when the truth is that they are playful and propulsive even though they keep cycling back to bereavement and injustice. Several of the protagonists are young Black women coming to terms with a loss.
In “Happily Ever After,” Lyssa works in the gift shop of a Titanic replica and is cast as an extra in a pop star’s music video. Mythical sea monsters are contrasted with the real dangers of her life, like cancer and racism. “Anything Could Disappear” was a favourite of mine, though it begins with that unlikely scenario of a single woman acquiring a baby as if by magic. What starts off as a burden becomes a bond she can’t bear to let go. A family is determined to clear the name of their falsely imprisoned ancestor in “Alcatraz.” In “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain” (a mnemonic for the colours of the rainbow), photojournalist Rena is wary about attending the wedding of a friend she met when their plane was detained in Africa some years ago. The only wedding she’s been in is her sister’s, which ended badly.
Mistakes and deceit seem to follow these characters. In the title novella that closes the book, Cassie and her colleagues combat fake news, going around putting correction labels on plaques that whitewash history. When she and her former colleague meet up in Wisconsin to find the truth behind a complex correction case, a clash with a white supremacist group quickly turns pedantry into a matter of life and death. The story I’d heard the most about beforehand was “Boys Go to Jupiter,” about a college girl who dons a Confederate flag bikini, not caring what message it sends to others in her dorm. It turns out she has history with a Black family, but has chosen to airbrush this experience out of her life.
There was only one story I didn’t care for, “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” about a celebrity who turns apologizing into performance art. Overall, this is a very strong collection I would recommend to readers of Brit Bennett and Raven Leilani, with some stories also reminding me of recent work by Curtis Sittenfeld and Mary South. I’ll be sure to seek out Evans’s previous book (also short stories), too.
With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.
The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster
The other week I was volunteering at our local community garden and looked up to see a dozen common swifts wheeling over the Kennet & Avon canal and picking off insects among the treetops. I hope this fellow Foster (for whom my husband was once confused on a nature conference attendee list) would be proud of me for pausing to gaze at the birds for a while. My impression of the author is as a misanthropic eccentric. A Renaissance man as well versed in law and theology as he is in natural history, he’s obsessed with swifts and ashamed of his own species: for looking down at their feet when they could be watching the skies; for the “pathological tidiness” that leaves swifts and so many other creatures no place to live.
The obsession began when he was eight years old and someone brought him a dead swift fledgling for his taxidermy hobby. Ever since, he’s dated the summer by their arrival. “It is always summer for them,” though, as his opening line has it. This monograph is structured chronologically. Much like Tim Dee does in Greenery, Foster follows the birds for a year: from their winter territory in Africa to the edges of Europe in spring and then to his very own Oxford street in high summer. When they leave, he’s bereft and ready to book a flight back to Africa.
Along the way, Foster delivers heaps of information: the fossil evidence of swifts, how they know where to migrate (we have various theories but don’t really know), their nesting habits and lifespan, and the typical fates of those individuals that don’t survive. But, thumbing his nose at his “ex-friend” (a closed-minded biologist he repeatedly, and delightfully, rails against), he refuses to stick to a just-the-facts approach. Acknowledging the risks of anthropomorphizing, he speaks of swifts as symbols of aspiration, of life lived with intensity. He believes that we can understand animal emotions analogously through our own, so that, inappropriate as such words might seem, we can talk about what birds hope and plan for. He scorns reductive ecosystem services lingo that defines creatures by what we get out of them.
Also like Dee, Foster quotes frequently from poetry. His prose is full of sharp turns of phrase and moments of whimsy and made me eager to try more of his work (I know the most about but have not yet read Being a Beast).
Swifts know the roar of lions better than the roar of the M25, the piping of hornbills better than the Nunc Dimittis of parish Evensong … Are memories of our eaves spiralling high above the Gulf of Guinea? … They don’t seem to prevaricate. One moment they’re there, the next they’re off, diving straight into the journey. It’s the way we should run into cold water.
As I’ve found with a number of Little Toller releases now (On Silbury Hill, Snow, Landfill), knowledge meets passion to create a book that could make an aficionado of the most casual of readers. Towards the close I was also reminded of Richard Smyth’s An Indifference of Birds: “When Homo sapiens has gone there will be lots of ideal swift holes in the decaying buildings we’ll leave behind.” It’s comforting to think of natural cycles continuing after we’re gone … but let’s start making the space for them now. Jonathan Pomroy’s black-and-white illustrations of swift behaviour only add to this short book’s charms.
With thanks to Little Toller Books for the free copy for review.
Waiting for Superman: One Family’s Struggle to Survive – and Cure – Chronic Fatigue Syndrome by Tracie White
Like Suzanne O’Sullivan’s books (most recently, The Sleeping Beauties), this is presented as an investigation into a medical mystery. White, a Stanford Medicine journalist, focuses on one family that has been indelibly changed by chronic fatigue syndrome – now linked with myalgic encephalomyelitis and termed ME/CFS for short. Whitney Dafoe was a world traveller and promising photographer before, in 2010, a diagnosis of ME/CFS explained his exhaustion and gastrointestinal problems. By the time White first met the family in 2016, the thirtysomething was bedbound in his parents’ home with a feeding tube, only able to communicate via gestures and rearranging Scrabble tiles. He couldn’t bear loud noises, or to be touched. At times he was nearly comatose.
Whitney’s father, Ron Davis, is a Stanford geneticist whose research has contributed to the Human Genome Project. He has devoted himself to studying ME/CFS, which affects 20 million people worldwide yet receives little research funding; he calls it “the last major disease we know nothing about.” Testing his son’s blood, he found a problem with the citric acid cycle that produces ATP, essential fuel for the body’s cells – proof that there was a physiological reason for Whitney’s condition. Frustratingly, though, a Stanford colleague who examined Whitney prescribed a psychological intervention. This is in line with the current standard of care for ME/CFS: a graded exercise regime (nigh on impossible for someone who can’t get out of bed) and cognitive behavioural therapy.
White delves into Whitney’s past, looking for clues to what could have triggered his illness (having mono in high school? a parasite he picked up in India?). She also goes back to the mid-1980s to consider the Lake Tahoe outbreak of ME/CFS, whose victims “looked too healthy to be sick and were repeatedly disbelieved.” The media called it “yuppie flu,” downplaying the extreme fatigue involved. White also meets Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit, who suffers from ME/CFS and managed to write her bestselling books from bed. Like Whitney, she only has a certain allotment of energy and mustn’t use it up too fast.
- A neat connection: Stephanie Land, author of Maid, was Whitney’s ex-girlfriend when he was 19 and living in Alaska; she wrote a Longreads article about their relationship.
- The title is from a Flaming Lips lyric and expresses Whitney’s trust in his dad’s ability to cure him; the U.S. title is The Puzzle Solver and the working title was The Invisible Patient.
With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
I think I have another seven April releases on the go that kind publishers have sent my way, but I’m so slow at finishing books that these two are the only ones I’ve managed so far. (I see lots of review catch-up posts in my future!) For now I have a travel memoir musing on the wonders of the New Forest and the injustice of land ownership policies, and a casebook of medical mysteries that can all be classed as culturally determined psychosomatic illnesses.
The Circling Sky: On Nature and Belonging in an Ancient Forest by Neil Ansell
After The Last Wilderness and especially Deep Country, his account of five solitary years in a Welsh cabin, Ansell is among my most-admired British nature writers. I was delighted to learn that his new book would be about the New Forest as it’s a place my Hampshire-raised husband and I have visited often and feel fond of. It has personal significance for Ansell, too: he grew up a few miles from Portsmouth. On Remembrance Sunday 1966, though, his family home burned down when a spark from a central heating wire sent the insulation up in flames. He can see how his life was shaped by this incident, making him a nomad who doesn’t accumulate possessions.
Hoping to reclaim a sense of ancestral connection, he returned to the New Forest some 30 times between January 2019 and January 2020, observing the unfolding seasons and the many uncommon and endemic species its miles house. The Forest has more than 1000 trees of over 400 years old, mostly oak and beech. Much of the rest is rare heath habitat, and livestock grazing maintains open areas. There are some plants only found in the New Forest, as well as a (probably extinct) cicada. He has close encounters with butterflies, a muntjac, and less-seen birds like the Dartford warbler, firecrest, goshawk, honey buzzard, and nightjar.
But this is no mere ‘white man goes for a walk’ travelogue, as much of modern nature writing has been belittled. Ansell weaves many different themes into the work: his personal story (mostly relevant, though his mother’s illness and a trip to Rwanda seemed less necessary), the shocking history of forced Gypsy relocation into forest compounds starting in the 1920s, biomass decline, and especially the unfairness of land ownership in Britain. More than 99% of the country is in the hands of a very few, and hardly any is left as common land. There is also enduring inequality of access to what little there is, often along race and class lines. The have-nots have been taught to envy the haves: “We are all brought up to aspire to home ownership,” Ansell notes. As a long-term renter, it’s a goal I’ve come to question, even as I crave the security and self-determination that owning a house and piece of land could offer.
Ansell speaks of “environmental dread” as a “rational response to the way the world is turning,” but he doesn’t rest in that mindset of despair. He’s in favour of rewilding, which is not, as some might assume, about leaving land alone to revert to its original state, but about the reintroduction of native species and intentional restoration of habitat types. In extending these rewilded swathes, we would combat the tendency to think of nature as something kept ‘over there’ in small reserves while subjecting the rest of the land to intensive, pesticide-based farming and the exploitation of resources. The New Forest thus strikes him as an excellent model of both wildlife-friendly land management and freedom of human access.
I appreciated how Ansell concludes that it’s not enough to simply love nature and write about the joy of spending time in it. Instead, he accepts a mantle of responsibility: “nothing is more political than the way we engage with the world around us. … Nature writing may often be read for comfort and reassurance, but perhaps we need to allow a little room for anger, too, for the ability to rage at everything that has been taken from us, and taken by us.” The bibliography couldn’t be more representative of my ecologist husband’s and my reading interests and nature library. The title is from John Clare and the book is a poetic meditation as well as a forthright argument. It also got me hankering for my next trip to the New Forest.
With thanks to Tinder Press for the proof copy for review.
The Sleeping Beauties: And Other Stories of Mystery Illness by Suzanne O’Sullivan
O’Sullivan is a consultant at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery. She won the Wellcome Book Prize for It’s All in Your Head, and The Sleeping Beauties picks up on that earlier book’s theme of psychosomatic illness – with the key difference being that this one travels around the world to investigate outbreaks of mass hysteria or sickness that have arisen in particular cultural contexts. An important thing to bear in mind is that O’Sullivan and other doctors in her field are not dismissing these illnesses as “fake”; they acknowledge that they are real and meaningful, yet there is clear evidence that they are not physical in origin – brain tests come back normal – but psychological with bodily manifestations.
The case that gives the book its title appeared in Sweden in 2017. Child asylum seekers who had experienced trauma in their home country were falling into a catatonic state. O’Sullivan visited the home of sisters Nola and Helan, part of the Yazidi ethnic minority group from Iraq and Syria. The link between them and the other children affected was that they were all now threatened with deportation: Their hopelessness had taken on physical form, giving the illness the name resignation syndrome. “Predictive coding” meant their bodies did as they expected them to. She describes it as “a very effective culturally agreed means of expressing distress.”
In Texas, the author meets Miskito people from Nicaragua who combat the convulsions and hallucinations of “grisi siknis” in their community with herbs and prayers; shamans are of more use in this circumstance than antiepileptic drugs. A sleeping sickness tore through two neighbouring towns of Kazakhstan between 2010 and 2015, affecting nearly half of the population. As with the refugee children in Sweden, it was a stress response to being forced to move away – though people argued they were being poisoned by a local uranium mine. There is often a specific external factor that is blamed in these situations, as when mass hysteria and seizures among Colombian schoolgirls were attributed to the HPV vaccine.
This book was released on the 1st of April, and at times I felt I was the victim of an elaborate April Fool’s joke: the cases are just so bizarre, and we’re used to rooting out a physical cause. But she makes clear that, in a biopsychosocial understanding (as also discussed in Pain by Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen), these illnesses are serving “a vital purpose” – just psychological and cultural. The first three chapters are the strongest; the book feels repetitive and somewhat aimless thereafter, especially in Chapter 4, which hops between different historical outbreaks of psychosomatic illness, like among the Hmong (cf. Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down), and other patients she treated for functional disorders. The later example of “Havana syndrome” doesn’t add enough to warrant its inclusion.
Still, O’Sullivan does well to combine her interviews and travels into compelling mini-narratives. Her writing has really come on in leaps and bounds since her first book, which I found clunky. However, much my favourite of her three works is Brainstorm, about epilepsy and other seizure disorders of various origins.
With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.
What recent releases can you recommend?
It’s been a gorgeously sunny spring here – how about where you are? Although there have still been some frosty nights troubling the gardeners among us, it’s been warm in the daytime and the flowers and blossom are coming on apace.
Recently I’ve read a couple of books reflecting on the spring of 2020, specifically the opportunities it offered to reconnect with local nature at a time when we were isolated and couldn’t travel.
I’ve also been feeling nostalgic for Washington, D.C. and the Maryland suburbs, where I grew up. It’s been two years since my last trip back, but I’m holding out hope that I can make it over in June for a family wedding.
Rounding out my selection of “Spring” titles is an offbeat Japanese novella.
Looking back to the coronavirus spring:
On Thursday evening I watched “The Act of Nature Watching,” a special Earth Day Zoom talk for West Berkshire Libraries by local nature writer Nicola Chester, whose memoir is coming out in the autumn. The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries, she lamented. We are hardwired to watch and love nature, she noted, yet have never been more alienated from it. Reading from her columns and anthology contributions (as well as the Lovatt, below) and giving tips on recognizing birdsong and mammal signs, she spoke of nature-watching as a form of mindfulness – an approach that chimed with the first three books I feature here.
Birdsong in a Time of Silence: An Awakening by Steven Lovatt (2021)
During the UK’s first lockdown, with planes grounded and cars stationary, many remarked on the quiet. All the better to hear birds going about their usual spring activities. For Lovatt, from Birmingham and now based in South Wales, it was the excuse he needed to return to his childhood birdwatching hobby. In between accounts of his spring walks, he tells lively stories of common birds’ anatomy, diet, lifecycle, migration routes, and vocalizations. (He even gives step-by-step instructions for sounding like a magpie.) Birdsong takes him back to childhood, but feels deeper than that: a cultural memory that enters into our poetry and will be lost forever if we allow our declining bird species to continue on the same trajectory.
Mentions of current events are sparse and subtle, so the spring feels timeless, as it should. I worried there might be too much overlap with A Sweet, Wild Note by Richard Smyth, but there’s room for both on your shelf. Lovatt’s writing is introspective and poetic, delighting in metaphors for sounds: “The song of a turtle dove is like the aural equivalent of a heat-haze, the gentlest corrugation of air, always just on the edge of your hearing.”
Skylarks with Rosie: A Somerset Spring by Stephen Moss (2021)
Lovatt must have been a pupil of Moss’s on the Bath Spa University MA degree in Travel and Nature Writing. The prolific Moss’s latest also reflects on the spring of 2020, but in a more overt diary format. Devoting one chapter to each of the 13 weeks of the first lockdown, he traces the season’s development alongside his family’s experiences and the national news. With four of his children at home, along with one of their partners and a convalescing friend, it’s a pleasingly full house. There are daily cycles or walks around “the loop,” a three-mile circuit from their front door, often with Rosie the Labrador; there are also jaunts to corners of the nearby Avalon Marshes. Nature also comes to him, with songbirds in the garden hedges and various birds of prey flying over during their 11:00 coffee breaks.
His speaking engagements and trips cancelled, Moss turns to online events instead. Twitter serves as a place for sharing outrage over UK politics and world events like George Floyd’s murder, but also as a welcoming community for sharing nature sightings. As the lockdown come to a close, he realizes that this time has had unexpected benefits: “Having to press the pause button … has made me rethink my life, in a good way.” He feels that, for once, he has truly appreciated the spring, “rediscovering the joys of wildlife-watching close to home”. This made for perfect reading in Somerset last week.
Also recommended: The Consolation of Nature by Marren, McCarthy and Mynott
Remembering springs back home:
Spring in Washington by Louis J. Halle (1947)
“The discovery of spring each year, after the winter’s hibernation, is like a rediscovery of the universe … knowledge of spring gives me the freedom of the world.”
For Halle, who worked in the State Department, nature was an antidote to hours spent shuffling papers behind a desk. In this spring of 1945, there was plenty of wildfowl to see in central D.C. itself, but he also took long early morning bike rides along the Potomac or the C&O Canal, or in Rock Creek Park. From first migrant in February to last in June, he traces the spring mostly through the birds that he sees. More so than the specific observations of familiar places, though, I valued the philosophical outlook that makes Halle a forerunner of writers like Barry Lopez and Peter Matthiessen. He notes that those caught up in the rat race adapt the world to their comfort and convenience, prizing technology and manmade tidiness over natural wonders. By contrast, he feels he sees more clearly – literally as well as metaphorically – when he takes the long view of a landscape.
I marked so many passages of beautiful description. Halle had mastered the art of noticing. But he also sounds a premonitory note, one that was ahead of its time in the 1940s and needs heeding now more than ever: “When I see men able to pass by such a shining and miraculous thing as this Cape May warbler, the very distillate of life, and then marvel at the internal-combustion engine, I think we had all better make ourselves ready for another Flood.”
This was a lucky find at Hay Cinema Bookshop back in September. For me it was the ideal combination of thoughtful prose and vicarious travel, though I imagine it might not mean as much to those without a local connection. The black-and-white in-text illustrations by Francis L. Jaques are a particularly nice addition.
Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been? I’ve been to Washington, and guess what I’ve seen… by Russell Punter and Dan Taylor (2019)
More cherry blossoms over tourist landmarks! This is part of a children’s series inspired by the 1805 English rhyme about London; other volumes visit New York City, Paris, and Rome. In rhyming couplets, he takes us from the White House to the Lincoln Memorial via all the other key sights of the Mall and further afield: museums and monuments, the Library of Congress, the National Cathedral, Arlington Cemetery, even somewhere I’ve never been – Theodore Roosevelt Island. Realism and whimsy (a kid-sized cat) together; lots of diversity in the crowd scenes. What’s not to like? (Titled Kitty cat, kitty cat… in the USA.)
And, as a bonus, some fiction in translation:
Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki (2014; 2017)
[Translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton]
Like a Murakami protagonist, Taro is a divorced man in his thirties, mildly interested in the sometimes peculiar goings-on in his vicinity. Rumor has it that his Tokyo apartment complex will be torn down soon, but for now the PR manager is happy enough here. “Avoiding bother was Taro’s governing principle.” But bother comes to find him in the form of a neighbor, Nishi, who is obsessed with a nearby house that was the backdrop for the art book Spring Garden, a collection of photographs of a married couple’s life. Her enthusiasm gradually draws Taro into the depicted existence of the TV commercial director and actress who lived there 25 years ago, as well as the young family who live there now. This Akutagawa Prize winner failed to hold my interest – like The Guest Cat, it’s oddly preoccupied with architectural detail, a Japanese fascination that doesn’t translate so well.
Have you been reading anything particularly appropriate for spring this year?
Reading Ireland Month is hosted each March by Cathy of 746 Books. This year I read works by four Irish women: a meditation on birds and craft, hard-hitting poems about body issues, autofiction that incorporates biography and translation to consider the shape of women’s lives across the centuries, and a novel that jets between Hong Kong and Scotland. Two of these were sent to me as part of the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist. I have some Irish music lined up to listen to (Hallow by Duke Special, At Swim by Lisa Hannigan, Chop Chop by Bell X1, Magnetic North by Iain Archer) and I’m ready to tell you all about these four books.
handiwork by Sara Baume (2020)
Back in February 2016, I reviewed Baume’s debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, for Third Way magazine. A dark story of a middle-aged loner and his adopted dog setting off on a peculiar road trip, it was full of careful nature imagery. “I’ve always noticed the smallest, quietest things,” the narrator, Ray, states. The same might be said of Baume, who is a visual artist as well as an author and put together this gently illuminating book over the course of 2018, at the same time as she was working on several sculptural installations. In short sections of a paragraph or two, or sometimes no more than a line, she describes her daily routines in her home workspaces: in the morning she listens to barely audible talk radio as she writes, while the afternoons are for carving and painting.
Working with her hands is a family tradition passed down from her grandfather and father, who died in the recent past – of lung cancer from particles he was exposed to at the sandstone quarry where he worked. Baume has a sense of responsibility for how she spends her time and materials. Concern about waste is at odds with a drive for perfection: she discarded her first 100 plaster birds before she was happy with the series used to illustrate this volume. Snippets of craft theory, family memories, and trivia about bird migration and behaviour are interspersed with musings on what she makes. The joy of holding a physical object in the hand somehow outweighs that of having committed virtual words to a hard drive.
Despite the occasional lovely line, this scattered set of reflections doesn’t hang together. The bird facts, in particular, feel shoehorned in for symbolism, as in Colum McCann’s Apeirogon. It’s a shame, as from the blurb I thought this book couldn’t be better suited to my tastes. Ultimately, as with Spill, Baume’s prose doesn’t spark much for me.
“Most of the time spent making is spent, in fact, in the approach.”
“I must stop once the boredom becomes intolerable, knowing that if I plunge on past this point I will risk arriving at resentment”
“What we all shared – me, my dad, his dad – was a suspicion of modern life, a loathing of fashion, a disappointment with the new technologies and a preference for the ad hoc contraptions of the past”
“The glorious, crushing, ridiculous repetition of life.”
With thanks to Tramp Press and FMcM Associates for the free copy for review. handiwork is on the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist.
Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick (2021)
This audacious debut collection of fleshly poems is the best I’ve come across so far this year. The body is presented as a battleground: for the brain cancer that takes the poet’s father; for disordered eating that entwines with mummy issues; for the restructuring of pregnancy. Families break apart and fuse into new formations. Cannibalism and famine metaphors dredge up emotional states and religious doctrines.
Where did I start?
Yes, with the heart, enlarged,
its chambers stretched through caring.
Oh is it in defiance or defeat, I don’t know,
I eat it anyway, raw, still warm.
The size of my fist, I love it.
(from the opening poem, “Learning to Eat My Mother, where My Mother Is the Teacher”)
Meat avoidance goes beyond principled vegetarianism to become a phobia. Like the female saints, the speaker will deny herself until she achieves spiritual enlightenment.
The therapist taps my shoulders, my head, my knees,
tells me I was a nun once, very strict.
This makes sense; I know how cleanly I like
to punish myself.
(from “Alternative Medicine”)
The title phrase comes from “Open Your Mouth,” in which the god Krishna, as a toddler, nourishes his mother with clay. A child feeding its mother reverses the expected situation, which is described in one of the book’s most striking poems, “Researching the Irish Famine.” The site of an old workhouse divulges buried horrors: “Mothers exhausted their own bodies / to produce milk. […] The starving / human / literally / consumes / itself.”
Corpses and meals; body odour and graves. There’s a pleasingly morbid cast to this collection, but it also has its lighter moments: the sexy “Paris Syndrome,” the low-stakes anxiety over pleasing one’s mother in “Guest Room,” and the playful closer, “Prayer to Audrey Hepburn” (“O Blessed Audrey of the feline eye-flick, jutting / bones, slim-hipped androgyny of war-time rationing”). Rich with imagery and alliteration, this is just my kind of poetry. Verse readalikes would include The Air Year by Caroline Bird, Flèche by Mary Jean Chan, and Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt, while in prose I was also reminded of Milk Fed by Melissa Broder (review coming soon) and Sanatorium by Abi Palmer.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review. This comes out on the 25th.
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (2020)
“This is a female text.” In an elegant loop, Ní Ghríofa begins and ends with this line, and uses it as a refrain throughout. What is the text? It is this book, yes, as well as the 18th-century Irish-language poem that becomes an obsession for the author/narrator, “The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire” by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill; however, it is also the female body, its milk and blood just as significant for storytelling as any ink.
Because the protagonist’s name is the same as the author’s, I took her experiences at face value. As the narrative opens in 2012, Ní Ghríofa and her husband have three young sons and life for her is a list of repetitive household tasks that must be completed each day. She donates pumped breast milk for premature babies as a karmic contribution to the universe: something she can control when so much around her she feels she can’t, like frequent evictions and another pregnancy. Reading Eibhlín Dubh’s lament for her murdered husband, contemplating a new translation of it, and recreating her life from paltry archival fragments: these tasks broaden her life and give an intellectual component to complement the bodily one.
My weeks are decanted between the twin forces of milk and text, weeks that soon pour into months, and then into years. I make myself a life in which whenever I let myself sit, it is to emit pale syllables of milk, while sipping my own dark sustenance from ink. […] I skitter through chaotic mornings of laundry and lunchboxes and immunisations, always anticipating my next session at the breast-pump, because this is as close as I get to a rest. To sit and read while bound to my insatiable machine is to leave my lists behind and stroll instead through doors opened by Eibhlín Dubh.
Ní Ghríofa remembers other times in her life in an impressionistic stream: starting a premed course at university, bad behaviour that culminated in suicidal ideation, a near-collision on a highway, her daughter’s birth by emergency C-section, finally buying a house and making it a home by adopting a stray kitten and planting a bee-friendly garden. You can tell from the precision of her words that Ní Ghríofa started off as a poet, and I loved how she writes about her own life. I had little interest in Eibhlín Dubh’s story, but maybe it’s enough for her to be an example of women “cast once more in the periphery of men’s lives.” It’s a book about women’s labour – physical and emotional – and the traces of it that remain. I recommend it alongside I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell and Mother Ship by Francesca Segal.
With thanks to Tramp Press and FMcM Associates for the free copy for review. A Ghost in the Throat is on the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist.
The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell (2004)
This is the earliest work of O’Farrell’s that I’ve read – it was her third novel, following After You’d Gone and My Lover’s Lover (I finally found those two at a charity shop last year and I’m saving them for a rainy day). It took me a long time to get into this one. It’s delivered in bitty sections that race between characters and situations, not generally in chronological order. It’s not until nearly the halfway point that you get a sense of how it all fits together.
Although there are many secondary characters, the two main strands belong to Jake, a young white filmmaker raised in Hong Kong by a bohemian mother, and Stella, a Scottish-Italian radio broadcaster. When a Chinese New Year celebration turns into a stampede, Jake and his girlfriend narrowly escape disaster and rush into a commitment he’s not ready for. In the meantime, Stella gets spooked by a traumatic flash from her childhood and flees London for a remote Scottish hotel. She’s very close to her older sister, Nina, who was deathly ill as a child (O’Farrell inserts a scene I was familiar with from I Am, I Am, I Am, when she heard a nurse outside her room chiding a noisy visitor, “There’s a little girl dying in there”), but now it’s Nina who will have to convince Stella to take the chance at happiness that life is offering.
In the end, this felt like a rehearsal for This Must Be the Place; it has the myriad settings (e.g., here, Italy, Wales and New Zealand are also mentioned) but not the emotional heft. With a setup like this, you sort of know where things are going, don’t you? Despite Stella’s awful secret, she is as flat a character as Jake. Simple boy-meets-girl story lines don’t hold a lot of appeal for me now, if they ever did. Still, the second half was a great ride.
Also, I’ve tried twice over the past year, but couldn’t get further than page 80 in The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes (2020), a black comedy about two brothers whose farmer father goes bankrupt and gets a terminal diagnosis. It’s a strangely masculine book (though in some particulars very similar to Scenes of a Graphic Nature) and I found little to latch on to. This was a disappointment as I’d very much enjoyed Hughes’s debut, Orchid & the Wasp, and this second novel is now on the Dylan Thomas Prize longlist.
What have you been picking up for Reading Ireland Month?
Complementing yesterday’s list of my top fiction and poetry reads of 2020, I have chosen my six favorite nonfiction works of the year. Last year’s major themes were bodies, archaeology, and the environmental crisis; this year’s are adjacent: anatomy, nature, deep time, death, and questions of inheritance, both within families and more broadly. What will we leave behind? As usual, these topics reflect my own interests but also, I think, something of the zeitgeist.
Let the countdown begin!
- Kay’s Anatomy: A Complete (and Completely Disgusting) Guide to the Human Body by Adam Kay: Think of this as a juvenile, graphic novel version of Bill Bryson’s The Body; that’s exactly how thorough, accessible, and entertaining it is. Kay ditches his usual raunchiness and plumps for innocuous forms of humor: puns, dad jokes, toilet humor, running gags and so on. But where it counts – delivering vital information about not smoking, mental health, puberty, and facing the death of someone you love – Kay is completely serious, and always lets young readers know when it’s essential to tell an adult or ask a doctor. Henry Paker’s silly, grotesque illustrations are the perfect accompaniment.
- Sign Here If You Exist and Other Essays by Jill Sisson Quinn: The naturalist’s second essay collection considers themes of connection and change. Quinn regrets the afterlife prospect she lost along with her childhood Christian faith, while adopting a baby leads her to question notions of belonging and inheritance. Whether she’s studying wasps and reptiles or musing on family and faith, she knits her subjects together with meticulous attention. Putting self and nature under the microscope, she illuminates both. (Reviewed for Foreword.)
- Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils by David Farrier: Blending human and planetary history, environmental realism and literary echoes, Farrier, a lecturer in English literature, tells the story of the human impact on the Earth. Each chapter is an intricate blend of fact, experience, and story. We’ll leave behind massive road networks, remnants of coastal megacities, plastics, carbon and methane in the permafrost, the fossilized Great Barrier Reef, nuclear waste, and jellyfish-dominated oceans. An invaluable window onto the deep future.
- Greenery: Journeys in Springtime by Tim Dee: 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 main harbingers are migrating birds, starting with swallows. The book 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. A fresh, masterful model of how to write about nature.
- Dear Life: A Doctor’s Story of Love and Loss by Rachel Clarke: I’ve read so many doctors’ memoirs and books about death that it takes a truly special one to stand out. Clarke specializes in palliative medicine and alternates her patients’ stories with her own in a natural way. A major theme is her relationship with her doctor father and his lessons of empathy and dedication. She wrote in the wake of his death from cancer – an experience that forced her to practice what she preaches as a hospice doctor: focus on quality of life rather than number of days. This passionate and practical book encourages readers to be sure they and their relatives have formalized their wishes for end-of-life care and what will happen after their death.
- Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald: Any doubt that Macdonald could write a worthy follow-up to H Is for Hawk evaporates instantly. Though these essays were written for various periodicals and anthologies and range in topic from mushroom-hunting to deer–vehicle collisions and in scope from deeply researched travel pieces to one-page reminiscences, they form a coherent whole. Equally reliant on argument and epiphany, the book has more to say about human–animal interactions in one of its essays than some whole volumes manage. As you might expect, birds are a recurring theme. Her final lines are always breath-taking. I’d rather read her writing on any subject than almost any other author’s.
(Books not pictured were read digitally, or have already gone back to the library.)
What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?
28th: Library Checkout
29th: Runners-up from 2020 (all genres)
30th: Best backlist reads
31st: Random superlatives and some statistics
September is always a big month in the publishing world, but even more so this year because of all the titles delayed from the spring and summer – apparently 600 books were published in the first week of September in the UK alone.
Still, I only ended up with my usual, manageable five new releases (with a few more on the way from the library). I read a beautiful novel about addiction and religion in contemporary America, speculative fiction about communication with wildlife in mid-pandemic (!) Australia, everything you ever wanted to know about fungi, historical fiction about outsiders in England and Borneo, and a study of our broken relationship with other animals.
Two of these are from my most anticipated list for the second half of 2020. Four of the five can be linked by the tenet that humans are only one species among many others necessary to life on this Earth, and not in some way above and beyond.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
This follow-up to Gyasi’s dazzling, centuries-spanning linked story collection, Homegoing, won’t be out in the UK until March 2021, but I couldn’t resist reading an e-copy of the American edition (Knopf) from Edelweiss. It’s altogether a more subdued and subtle book, but its treatment of themes of addiction, grief, racism and religion is so spot on that it packs a punch. Gifty is a PhD student at Stanford, researching pleasure and reward circuits in the mouse brain. She gets mice hooked on a sugary drink and then performs experiments to see if she can turn off their compulsion to keep pressing a lever for more. Sometimes when they press the lever they get an electric shock. Certain mice give up; others never will. Why?
People who know Gifty well assume she chose her field because of a personal tragedy. When she was 10, her 16-year-old brother, Nana, a high school basketball star in this Ghanaian-American family’s Alabama town, died of an opiate overdose. He’d gotten addicted to prescription drugs after a sports injury. At one level, Gifty acknowledges she is trying to atone for her brother’s death, but she won’t see it in those terms. An intensely private person, she shoulders almost impossible burdens of grief and responsibility for her mother, who has plunged into depression and, when she comes to live with Gifty, spends all her time in bed.
The most compelling aspect of the novel for me was Gifty’s attitude towards the religion of her childhood. Though they were the only black family at their Pentecostal church, she was a model believer, writing prayers in her journal, memorizing scriptures, and never doubting that everything happens for a reason. Nana’s death shattered it all. Though she now looks to science for answers, she misses the certainty she once had: that she was saved, that humans are special, that someone was looking out for her and her family, that it all mattered. I highlighted dozens of passages, but it’s possible the book won’t mean quite as much to readers for whom there’s no personal resonance. The complex mother–daughter relationship is an asset, and musings on love and risk are tenderly expressed. I wanted a more climactic conclusion to take this into 5-star territory, but I’ve still added it to my Best of 2020 shelf.
the species Homo sapiens, the most complex animal, [is] the only animal who believed he had transcended his Kingdom, as one of my high school biology teachers used to say.
At times, my life now feels so at odds with the religious teachings of my childhood that I wonder what the little girl I once was would think of the woman I’ve become … I am looking for new names for old feelings. My soul is still my soul, even if I rarely call it that.
the more I do this work the more I believe in a kind of holiness in our connection to everything on Earth. Holy is the mouse.
I read an advanced e-copy via Edelweiss.
The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay
McKay has a PhD in literary animal studies and serves as an animal expert and presenter on Australia’s ABC radio show Animal Sound Safari. Pair her academic background with the fact that this shares a title with a Margaret Atwood poetry collection and you’ll have some idea of what to expect here: mysterious but mostly believable speculative fiction that hinges on human communication with animals.
Jean Bennett isn’t your average grandma: a wise-cracking alcoholic, she drives the tourist train through the Australian wildlife park her daughter-in-law manages but wishes she could be a fully fledged ranger. Her ex-husband, Graham, left her and went down south, and eventually their only son Lee did the same. Now all Jean has left is Kim, her six-year-old granddaughter. Jean entertains Kim by imagining voices for the park’s animals. This no longer seems like a game, though, when news filters through of the “zooflu,” which has hit epidemic levels and has as a main symptom the ability to understand what animals say.
When Kim is kidnapped, Jean steals a camper van and takes Sue the dingo along to help her find her granddaughter. “There’s a new normal now,” a bus driver tells her. “And around here, not wearing a mask means you’ve gone animal. I’d put on my protective if I was you. Put that mutt in a cage.” It was uncanny reading this in the midst of a pandemic, but the specifics of McKay’s novel are hard to grasp. The animal language isn’t audible, necessarily, but a combination of smells, noises and body language. For a long time, they seem like pure nonsense, but gradually they resemble a sort of rough poetry. Here’s one example from Sue:
My front end
takes the food
for the Queen
(Sue usually calls Jean “Queen” or “Mother,” showing that she respects her authority, and “Yesterday” is frequently used to suggest a primitive sense of the past or of an older person.)
As entertaining a protagonist as Jean is, I lost interest in her road trip. If you focus on the journey into the wilderness and don’t mind a sudden ending, you may find this a worthwhile heir to Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton and The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
I read a proof copy for a Nudge review, but it’s never shown up on their website.
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake
I first heard about Sheldrake through Robert Macfarlane’s Underland. He struck me as a mad genius – an impression that was only strengthened by reading his detailed, enthusiastic book about fungi. Sheldrake researches fungal life in the tropical forests of Panama, accompanies truffle hunters in Italy, takes part in a clinical study on the effects of LSD (derived from a fungus), observes lichens off the coast of British Columbia, and attends a conference in Oregon on Radical Mycology. But more than a travel memoir, this is a work of science – there are over 100 pages devoted to notes, bibliography and index.
Basic information you’ll soon learn: mushrooms are only the fruiting bodies of fungi; under the ground is the material bulk, the mycelium, a sprawling network of hyphae. In what’s sometimes called the “Wood Wide Web,” fungal networks link the trees in a forest, and join up with plants, such as in lichens. “I feel a … sense of vertigo when I think about the complexity of mycorrhizal relationships – kilometers of entangled life – jostling beneath my feet,” Sheldrake confesses. He gives examples of fungi navigating and solving problems – what of our concept of intelligence if a creature without a brain can do such things?
Fungi are very adaptable to extreme conditions. Research is underway to grow edible mushrooms on some of our most troublesome waste, such as used diapers (nappies) and cigarette butts. And, of course, for millennia we’ve relied on certain fungi – yeasts – to create products like bread and beer. Sheldrake is a very hands-on writer: When he wants to know something, he does it, whether that’s scrumping Isaac Newton’s apples in Cambridge and fermenting the juice into cider at home or growing mushrooms on a copy of this very book.
During the month I was reading this, I felt like I kept coming across references to fungi. (I even had a patch of ringworm!)
It’s a perspective-altering text, but one that requires solid concentration. I’ll confess that at times it went over my head and I wished for a glossary and diagrams. A greater than average interest in biology and/or botany would thus be a boon to a potential reader. But if you can keep up, the book will elicit many a cry of “wow!” and “what?!” I kept launching “did you know?” questions at my husband, especially about the zombie fungi that parasitize insects. What a strange and wonderful world.
Favorite lines: “Paying more attention to animals than plants contributes to humans’ plant-blindness. Paying more attention to plants than fungi makes us fungus-blind.”
My thanks to Bodley Head for the free copy for review.
Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain
I read this back in June to prepare for writing a profile of Tremain for a forthcoming issue of Bookmarks magazine. Here’s the summary I wrote: “In Bath, England in 1865, 24-year-old nurse Jane Adeane is nicknamed ‘The Angel of the Baths’ for her healing touch. If she marries Dr. Valentine Ross, a colleague of her surgeon father, she can earn respectability – but will have to hide her love for Julietta, a married woman. Meanwhile, Dr. Ross’s brother, Edmund, a naturalist following in the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace, has journeyed to Borneo. Ill with malaria, he is taken in by British eccentric Sir Ralph Savage, a lover of native men and benevolent local rajah who funds infrastructure projects like a paved road and a hospital. Exiled or inwardly tortured for loving the wrong people, Tremain’s characters search for moments of wonder and comfort – whether those come in a primitive hut in the Malay Archipelago or in a cozy tearoom in Bath.”
It’s a slightly odd title, but tells you a lot about what Tremain is doing in this 14th novel. Often at the mercy of forces internal and external, her outcast characters look for places where they can find rest and refuge after a time of suffering. Will they, in turn, extend mercy? The split perspective and the focus on people who have to hide their sexuality are most similar to Sacred Country. The Victorian tip of the hat is mostly directed, I think, to George Eliot; of recent work, I was reminded of The Doll Factory and The Essex Serpent. I especially liked Jane’s painter aunt, Emmeline, and Clorinda, the Irish woman whose opening of a tearoom sets the plot going. The settings are surprising and vivid, and if Tremain doesn’t quite bring them and their story lines together seamlessly, she is still to be applauded for her ambition. This is probably my joint favorite of her novels that I’ve read so far, with The Road Home.
We must be unconventional in our joys and find them wherever we can.
life, so often so cruel in the way it thrust the human soul into prisons from which there seemed to be no escape, could sometimes place it athwart an open door.
I read an advanced e-copy via NetGalley.
Between Light and Storm: How We Live with Other Species by Esther Woolfson
If you’ve read Woolfson’s Corvus, you’ve already met Chicken, an orphaned rook she raised. For over 31 years, Chicken was a constant presence in her home. The recently departed bird is the dedicatee of her new book, feted as “Colleague, companion, friend.” (No mere pet.) Relationships with these creatures with whom she shared her life led her to think differently about how we as humans conceive of the animal world in general. “If I had ever believed humans to be the only ones to live profound and interconnected lives, I couldn’t any more. … If we’re the gods now, shouldn’t we be better than we are?” From her introduction, it’s clear that her sympathy toward the more-than-human world extends even to spiders, and her language throughout – using words like “who” and “his” in reference to animals, rather than “that” or “its” – reinforces the view that all species are equally valuable.
Or, at least, should be. But our attitudes are fundamentally distorted, Woolfson believes, and have been since the days of Aristotle (whose Ladder of Nature is an origin of the ideas that nature is there for man to use) and the Old Testament writers (one of the two creation accounts in Genesis established the idea of “dominion”). From cave paintings to animal sacrifice, intensive farming to fur coats, taxidermy to whaling, she surveys what others have thought and said about how animals are, or should be, perceived. There was more of an academic tone to this book than I expected, and in early chapters I found too much overlap with other works I’ve read about deep time (Time Song, Surfacing, Underland again!).
I most appreciated the fragments of nature writing and memoir and would have liked more in the way of personal reflection. Woolfson’s perspective – as a Jewish woman in Scotland – is quite interesting. She is clearly troubled by how humans exploit animals, but mostly recounts others’ reasoning rather than coming to conclusions of her own. (Though there is a brilliant takedown of the gender politics of Watership Down.) It’s a book that demands more time and attention than I was able to give just now. As I only skimmed it, I’m going to refrain from assigning a rating and will pass this on to my husband and return to it one day. [I do wish the title, on its own (subtitle aside), was more indicative of the contents.]
My thanks to Granta for the free copy for review.
Which of those 600+ September releases can you recommend?
My five new releases for July include historical pandemic fiction, a fun contemporary story about a father-and-daughter burglar team, a new poetry collection from Carcanet Press, a lighthearted nature/travel book, and a poetic bereavement memoir about a violent death.
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
Donoghue’s last two novels, The Wonder and Akin, were big hits with me. Less than a year after the contemporary-set Akin, she’s back to a historical setting – and an uncannily pertinent pandemic theme – with her latest. In 1918, Julia Power is a nurse on a Dublin maternity ward. It’s Halloween and she is about to turn 30, making her a spinster for her day; she lives with her mute, shell-shocked veteran brother, Tim, and his pet magpie.
Because she’s already had “the grip” (influenza), she is considered immune and is one of a few staff members dealing with the flu-ridden expectant mothers in quarantine in her overcrowded hospital. Each patient serves as a type, and Donoghue whirls through all the possible complications of historical childbirth: stillbirth, obstructed labor, catheterization, forceps, blood loss, transfusion, maternal death, and so on.
It’s not for the squeamish, and despite my usual love of medical reads, I felt it was something of a box-ticking exercise, with too much telling about medical procedures and recent Irish history. Because of the limited time frame – just three days – the book is far too rushed. We simply don’t have enough time to get to know Julia through and through, despite her first-person narration; the final 20 pages, in particular, are so far-fetched and melodramatic it’s hard to believe in a romance you’d miss if you blinked. And the omission of speech marks just doesn’t work – it’s downright confusing with so many dialogue-driven scenes.
Donoghue must have been writing this well before Covid-19, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the publication was hurried forward to take advantage of the story’s newfound relevance. It shows: what I read in May and June felt like an unpolished draft, with threads prematurely tied up to meet a deadline. This was an extremely promising project that, for me, was let down by the execution, but it’s still a gripping read that I wouldn’t steer you away from if you find the synopsis appealing. (Some more spoiler-y thoughts here.)
Prescient words about pandemics:
“All over the globe … some flu patients are dropping like flies while others recover, and we can’t solve the puzzle, nor do a blasted thing about it. … There’s no rhyme or reason to who’s struck down.”
“Doctor Lynn went on, As for the authorities, I believe the epidemic will have run its course before they’ve agreed to any but the most feeble action. Recommending onions and eucalyptus oil! Like sending beetles to stop a steamroller.”
Why the title?
Flu comes from the phrase “influenza delle stelle” – medieval Italians thought that illness was fated by the stars. There’s also one baby born a “stargazer” (facing up) and some literal looking up at the stars in the book.
My thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.
Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes
This is Maizes’ debut novel, after her 2019 short story collection We Love Anderson Cooper. Louise “La La” Fine and her father, Zev, share an unusual profession: While outwardly they are a veterinary student and a locksmith, respectively, for many years they broke into homes and sold the stolen goods. Despite close shaves, they’ve always gotten away with it – until now. When Zev is arrested, La La decides to return to her criminal ways just long enough to raise the money to post bail for him. But she doesn’t reckon on a few complications, like her father getting fed up with house arrest, her fiancé finding out about her side hustle, and her animal empathy becoming so strong that when she goes into a house she not only pilfers valuables but also cares for the needs of ailing pets inside.
Flashbacks to La La’s growing-up years, especially her hurt over her mother leaving, take this deeper than your average humorous crime caper. The way the plot branches means that for quite a while Zev and La La are separated, and I grew a bit weary of extended time in Zev’s company, but this was a great summer read – especially for animal lovers – that never lost my attention. The magic realism of the human‒pet connection is believable and mild enough not to turn off readers who avoid fantasy. Think The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley meets Hollow Kingdom.
My thanks to the author and Celadon Books for the free e-copy for review.
The Long Beds by Kate Miller
Here and there; now and then: the poems in Miller’s second collection enlarge such dichotomies by showcasing the interplay of the familiar and the foreign. A scientist struggles to transcribe birdsong, and a poppy opens in slow motion. “Flag” evokes the electric blue air and water of a Greek island, while “The Quarters” is set in the middle of the night in a French village. A few commissions, including “Waterloo Sunrise,” stick close to home in London or other southern England locales.
Various poems, including the multi-part “Album Without Photographs,” are about ancestor Muriel Miller’s experiences in India and Britain in the 1910s-20s. “Keepers of the States of Sleep and Wakefulness, fragment from A Masque,” patterned after “The Second Masque” by Ben Jonson, is an up-to-the-minute one written in April that names eight nurses from the night staff at King’s College Hospital (and the short YouTube film based on it is dedicated to all NHS nurses).
My two favorites were “Outside the Mind Shop,” in which urban foxes tear into bags of donations outside a charity shop one night while the speaker lies awake, and “Knapsack of Parting Gifts” a lovely elegy to a lost loved one. I spotted a lot of alliteration and assonance in the former, especially. Thematically, the collection is a bit scattered, but there are a lot of individual high points.
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.
Into the Tangled Bank: In Which Our Author Ventures Outdoors to Consider the British in Nature by Lev Parikian
In the same way that kids sometimes write their address by going from the specific to the cosmic (street, city, country, continent, hemisphere, planet, galaxy), this book, a delightfully Bryson-esque tour, moves ever outwards, starting with the author’s own home and garden and proceeding to take in his South London patch and his journeys around the British Isles before closing with the wonders of the night sky. By slowing down to appreciate what is all around us, he proposes, we might enthuse others to engage with nature.
With the zeal of a recent convert, he guides readers through momentous sightings and everyday moments of connection. As they were his gateway, many of these memories involve birds: looking for the year’s first swifts, trying to sketch a heron and realizing he’s never looked at one properly before, avoiding angry terns on the Farne Islands, ringing a storm petrel on Skokholm, and seeing white-tailed eagles on the Isle of Skye. He brings unique places to life, and pays tribute to British naturalists who paved the way for today’s nature-lovers by visiting the homes of Charles Darwin, Gilbert White, Peter Scott, and more.
I was on the blog tour for Parikian’s previous book, Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear?, in 2018. While the books are alike in levity (pun intended!), being full of self-deprecation and witty asides along with the astute observations, I think I enjoyed this one that little bit more for its all-encompassing approach to the experience of nature. I fully expect to see it on next year’s Wainwright Prize longlist (speaking of the Wainwright Prize, in yesterday’s post I correctly predicted four on the UK nature shortlist and two on the global conservation list!).
My thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the free copy for review.
Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey
Trethewey grew up in 1960s Mississippi with a Black mother and a white Canadian father, at a time when interracial marriage remained illegal in parts of the South. After her parents’ divorce, she and her mother, Gwen, moved to Georgia to start a new life, but her stepfather Joel was physically and psychologically abusive. Gwen’s murder opens and closes the book. Trethewey only returned to that Atlanta apartment on Memorial Drive after 30 years had passed. The blend of the objective (official testimonies and transcripts) and the subjective (interpreting photographs, and rendering dream sequences in poetic language) makes this a striking memoir, as delicate as it is painful. I recommend it highly to readers of Elizabeth Alexander and Dani Shapiro. (Full review forthcoming at Shiny New Books.)
My thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.
I’m reading two more July releases, Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett (Corsair, 2 July; for Shiny New Books review), about a family taxidermy business in Florida, and The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams (William Heinemann, 2 July), about an unusual dictionary being compiled in the Victorian period and digitized in the present day.