As per usual, I’m squeezing in my final 20 Books of Summer reviews late on the very last day of the challenge. I’ll call it a throwback to the all-star procrastination of my high school and college years. This was a strong quartet to finish on: two novels, the one about (felling) trees and the other about communicating via flowers; and two nonfiction books about identifying trees and finding harmony with nature.
Tree-Spotting: A Simple Guide to Britain’s Trees by Ros Bennett; illus. Nell Bennett (2022)
Botanist Ros Bennett has designed this as a user-friendly guide that can be taken into the field to identify 52 of Britain’s most common trees. Most of these are native species, plus a few naturalized ones. “Walks in the countryside … take on a new dimension when you find yourself on familiar, first-name terms with the trees around you,” she encourages. She introduces tree families, basics of plant anatomy and chemistry, and the history of the country’s forests before moving into identification. Summer leaves make ID relatively easy with a three-step set of keys, explained in words as well as with impressively detailed black-and-white illustrations of representative species’ leaves (by her daughter, Nell Bennett).
Seasonality makes things trickier: “Identifying plants is not rocket science, though occasionally it does require lots of patience and a good hand lens. Identifying trees in winter is one of those occasions.” This involves a close look at details of the twigs and buds – a challenge I’ll be excited to take up on canalside walks later this year. The third section of the book gives individual profiles of each featured species, with additional drawings. I learned things I never realized I didn’t know (like how to pronounce family names, e.g., Rosaceae is “Rose-A-C”), and formalized other knowledge. For instance, I can recognize an ash tree by sight, but now I know you identify an ash by its 9–13 compound, opposite, serrated leaflets.
Some of the information was more academic than I needed (as with one of my earlier summer reads, The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham), but it’s easy to skip any sections that don’t feel vital and come back to them another time. I most valued the approachable keys and their accompanying text, and will enjoy taking this compact naked hardback on autumn excursions. Bennett never dumbs anything down, and invites readers to delight in discovery. “So – go out, introduce yourself to your neighbouring trees and wonder at their beauty, ingenuity and variety.”
With thanks to publicist Claire Morrison and Welbeck for the free copy for review.
Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson (2021)
When this would-be Great American Novel* arrived unsolicited through my letterbox last summer, I was surprised I’d not encountered the pre-publication buzz. The cover blurb is from Nickolas Butler, which gives you a pretty good sense of what you’re getting into: a gritty, working-class story set in what threatens to be an overwhelmingly male milieu. For generations, Rich Gundersen’s family has been involved in logging California’s redwoods. Davidson is from Arcata, California, and clearly did a lot of research to recreate an insider perspective and a late 1970s setting. There is some specialist vocabulary and slang (the loggers call the largest trees “big pumpkins”), but it’s easy enough to understand in context.
What saves the novel from going too niche is the double billing of Rich and his wife, Colleen, who is an informal community midwife and has been trying to get pregnant again almost ever since their son Chub’s birth. She’s had multiple miscarriages, and their family and acquaintances have experienced alarming rates of infant loss and severe birth defects. Conservationists, including an old high school friend of Colleen’s, are attempting to stop the felling of redwoods and the spraying of toxic herbicides.
A major element, then, is people gradually waking up to the damage chemicals are doing to their waterways and, thereby, their bodies. The problem, for me, was that I realized this much earlier than any of the characters, and it felt like Davidson laid it on too thick with the many examples of human and animal deaths and deformities. This made the book feel longer and less subtle than, e.g., The Overstory. I started it as a buddy read with Marcie (Buried in Print) 11 months ago and quickly bailed, trying several more times to get back into the book before finally resorting to skimming to the end. Still, especially for a debut author, Davidson’s writing chops are impressive; I’ll look out for what she does next.
*I just spotted that it’s been shortlisted for the $25,000 Mark Twain American Voice in Literature Award.
With thanks to Tinder Press for the proof copy for review.
The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (2011)
The cycle would continue. Promises and failures, mothers and daughters, indefinitely.
The various covers make this look more like chick lit than it is. Basically, it’s solidly readable issues- and character-driven literary fiction, on the lighter side but of the caliber of any Oprah’s Book Club selection. It reminded me most of White Oleander by Janet Fitch, one of my 20 Books selections in 2018, because of the focus on the foster care system and a rebellious girl’s development in California, and the floral metaphors.
In Diffenbaugh’s debut, Victoria Jones ages out of foster care at 18 and leaves her group home for an uncertain future. She spends time homeless in San Francisco but her love of flowers, and particularly the Victorian meanings assigned to them, lands her work in a florist’s shop and reconnects her with figures from her past. Chapters alternate between her present day and the time she came closest to being adopted – by Elizabeth, who owned a vineyard and loved flowers, when she was nine. We see how estrangements and worries over adequate mothering recur, with Victoria almost a proto-‘Disaster Woman’ who keeps sabotaging herself. Throughout, flowers broker reconciliations.
I won’t say more about a plot that would be easy to spoil, but this was a delight and reminded me of a mini flower dictionary with a lilac cover and elaborate cursive script that I owned when I was a child. I loved the thought that flowers might have secret messages, as they do for the characters here. Whatever happened to that book?! (Charity shop)
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013)
I’d heard Kimmerer recommended by just about every nature writer around, North American or British, and knew I needed this on my shelf. Before I ever managed to read it, I saw her interviewed over Zoom by Lucy Jones in July 2021 about her other popular science book, Gathering Moss, which was first published 18 years ago but only made it to the UK last year. So I knew what a kind and peaceful person she is: she just emanates warmth and wisdom, even over a computer screen.
And I did love Braiding Sweetgrass nearly as much as I expected to, with the caveat that the tiny-print 400 pages of my paperback edition make the essays feel very dense. I could only read a handful of pages in a sitting. Also, after about halfway, it started to feel a bit much, like maybe she had given enough examples from her life, Native American legend and botany. The same points about gratitude for the gifts of the Earth, kinship with other creatures, responsibility and reciprocity are made over and over.
However, I feel like this is the spirituality the planet needs now, so I’ll excuse any repetition (and the basket-weaving essay I thought would never end). “In a world of scarcity, interconnection and mutual aid become critical for survival. So say the lichens.” (She’s funny, too, so you don’t have to worry about the contents getting worthy.) She effectively wields the myth of the Windigo as a metaphor for human greed, essential to a capitalist economy based on “emptiness” and “unmet desires.”
I most enjoyed the shorter essays that draw on her fieldwork or her experience of motherhood. “The Gift of Strawberries” – “An Offering” – “Asters and Goldenrod” make a stellar three-in-a-row, and “Collateral Damage” is an excellent later one about rescuing salamanders from the road, i.e. doing the small thing that we can do rather than being overwhelmed by the big picture of nature in crisis. “The Sound of Silverbells” is one of the most well-crafted individual pieces, about taking a group of students camping when she lived in the South. At first their religiosity (creationism and so on) grated, but when she heard them sing “Amazing Grace” she knew that they sensed the holiness of the Great Smoky Mountains.
But the pair I’d recommend most highly, the essays that made me weep, are “A Mother’s Work,” about her time restoring an algae-choked pond at her home in upstate New York, and its follow-up, “The Consolation of Water Lilies,” about finding herself with an empty nest. Her loving attention to the time-consuming task of bringing the pond back to life is in parallel to the challenges of single parenting, with a vision of the passing of time being something good rather than something to resist.
Here are just a few of the many profound lines:
For all of us, becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it.
I’m a plant scientist and I want to be clear, but I am also a poet and the world speaks to me in metaphor.
Ponds grow old, and though I will too, I like the ecological idea of aging as progressive enrichment, rather than progressive loss.
This will be a book to return to time and again. (Gift from my wish list several years ago)
I also had one DNF from this summer’s list:
Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson: This reminded me of a cross between The Crow Road by Iain Banks and The Heavens by Sandra Newman, what with the teenage narrator and a vague time travel plot with some Shakespearean references. I put it on the pile for this challenge because I’d read it had a forest setting. I haven’t had much luck with Atkinson in the past and this didn’t keep me reading past page 60. (Little Free Library)
A Look Back at My 20 Books of Summer 2022
Half of my reads are pictured here. The rest were e-books (represented by the Kindle) or have already had to go back to the library.
My fiction standout was The Language of Flowers, reviewed above. Nonfiction highlights included Forget Me Not and Braiding Sweetgrass, with Tree-Spotting the single most useful book overall. I also enjoyed reading a couple of my selections on location in the Outer Hebrides. The hands-down loser (my only 1-star rating of the year so far, I think?) was Bonsai. As always, there are many books I could have included and wished I’d found the time for, like (on my Kindle) A House among the Trees by Julia Glass, This Is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan and Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard.
At the start, I was really excited about my flora theme and had lots of tempting options lined up, some of them literally about trees/flowers and others more tangentially related. As the summer went on, though, I wasn’t seeing enough progress so scrambled to substitute in other things I was reading from the library or for paid reviews. This isn’t a problem, per se, but my aim with this challenge has generally been to clear TBR reads from my own shelves. Maybe I didn’t come up with enough short and light options (just two novella-length works and a poetry collection; only the Diffenbaugh was what I’d call a page-turner); also, even with the variety I’d built in, having a few plant quest memoirs got a bit samey.
I’m going to skip having a theme and set myself just one simple rule: any 20 print books from my shelves (NOT review copies). There will then be plenty of freedom to choose and substitute as I go along.
I’m all about flowers today: American wildflowers in poetry and prose, a year of hunting down the flora of the British Isles, and a discursive account of a famous English author’s life and times through the prism of his rose garden.
American Wildflowers: A Literary Field Guide, ed. Susan Barba; illus. Leanne Shapton (2022)
This comes out from Abrams Press in the USA on 8 November and I’ll be reviewing it for Shelf Awareness, so I’ll just give a few brief thoughts for now. Barba is a poet and senior editor for New York Review Books. She has collected pieces from a wide range of American literature, including essays, letters and early travel writings as well as poetry, which dominates.
Apart from a closing section on various/anonymous wildflowers, where particular species are named they are grouped into families, which are arranged alphabetically. The Asteraceae section is particularly strong, with poems on dandelions and sunflowers, a typically prophetic Aldo Leopold fragment about the decline of native flora, and “Asters and Goldenrod,” an extract from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass (itself one of my 20 Books of Summer – review to come in the week) that I think was also excerpted in This Book Is a Plant.
In general, I engaged more with the poetry than with the prose. Barba has ensured a real variety of styles, with good representation for BIPOC. What draws it all together into a beautiful whole I wish I could see as a physical object is Leanne Shapton’s watercolor illustrations, painted from pressed flowers. “What a gift to stare at flowers—these ephemeral miracles of color and synthesis and botany,” she writes in an opening note. This would be a perfect coffee table book for any gardener or nature lover. (E-review copy)
Where the Wildflowers Grow: My Botanical Journey through Britain and Ireland by Leif Bersweden (2022)
A good case of nominative determinism – the author’s name is pronounced “leaf” – and fun connections abound: during the course of his year-long odyssey, he spends time plant-hunting with Jon Dunn and Sophie Pavelle, whose books featured earlier in my flora-themed summer reading: Orchid Summer and Forget Me Not. With Dunn on Unst, Shetland, he sees not only rare flowers but close-up orcas. Like Pavelle, who he meets up with in Cornwall, he has an eye to how species will be affected by climate change and commits to doing his hunting by train and bike; there’s only so much you can see when zooming by in a car. Bersweden makes a case for spending time with plants – after all, they don’t move, so once you’ve found them you can commune in a way you can’t during, say, a fleeting mammal encounter.
He starts 2021 with a New Year Plant Hunt in central London with his mother – more is in bloom in January than ever before, at least in part due to climate warming. Even when the weather is foul on his travels, there is plenty to be seen. Everywhere he goes, he meets up with fellow experts and plant enthusiasts to marvel at bluebell woodlands or ancient pine forests, alpine or bog species. The floral circuit (documented in full on the book’s website through chapter-by-chapter photographs; there are two small sections of colour plates in the hardback) is also a chance to tour the British Isles, from Kent to Cork, coast to mountaintop.
Bersweden has been in love with plants ever since childhood; he believes they have nostalgia value for many people, and can be an easy way into appreciation of nature. “A wildflower growing from a crack in the wall is an everyday miracle.” His casual writing style and clear zeal for his subject – his author photo is of him hugging a tree, and another has such a cute caption: “Being given the opportunity to hold a Greater Bladderwort (Utricularia vulgaris) was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me!” – make this a pleasure even though it’s a bit overlong at points. (Public library)
Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit (2021)
I was fascinated by the concept behind this one. “In the spring of 1936 a writer planted roses” is Solnit’s refrain; from there sprawls a book that’s somehow about everything: botany, geology, history, politics and war – as well as, of course, George Orwell’s life and works (with significant overlap with the graphic novel biography of him that I read last year). On a trip to England with a friend who is a documentary filmmaker, Solnit had the impulse to go find what might be left of Orwell’s garden. When she arrived in the Hertfordshire village of Wallington, the current owners of his home kindly showed her round. His fruit trees had long since been cut down, but the rosebushes were still going strong some 80 years later.
This goes down as a skim for me: though I read the first 30%, after that I just browsed to the end. Some side tracks lost me, e.g. Tina Modotti’s presentation of roses in her photographs; Orwell’s interest in mining, which leads Solnit to investigate how coal is formed; much history; and a week spent observing the rose-growing industry in Colombia. I most enjoyed the book when it stayed close to Orwell’s biography and writings, positing gardening as his way of grounding his ideas in the domestic and practical. “Pursuits like that can bring you back to earth from the ether and the abstractions.” I also liked – briefly, at least – thinking about the metaphorical associations of roses, and flowers in general.
If you’ve read Solnit before, you’ll know that her prose is exquisite, but I think this was the stuff of a long article rather than a full book. As it is, it’s a pretty indulgent project. (Kaggsy reviewed this recently and came to somewhat similar conclusions.) (NetGalley)
It’s my fifth year participating in Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer challenge, which starts tomorrow. Each year I choose a theme. Thus far I’ve done books by women; animals; food and drink; and colours. This year will be all about flora; mostly trees, I reckon. As always, I’ll interpret the theme loosely and include titles, authors and covers that seem apt for whatever reason.
I have lots to choose from. Here’s the stacks from my shelves, divided into fiction and non-:
And a relevant recent haul from the library:
There will be other options on my Kindle too, such as Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit.
I’m eyeing these up as my first four:
(Nina Mingya Powles also kicked off my 2020 foodie reading!)
Are you joining in the summer reading challenge? What’s the first book on the docket?
As usual, I have a big backlog of 2021–22 releases I’m working my way through. I’ll get there eventually! Today I’m reporting on a poetry collection about English ancestry and wildlife, a vision of post-doubt Christian faith, and a set of essays on connection to nature, specifically flora. (I also take a brief look at some autofiction that didn’t work for me.)
Thorpeness by Alison Brackenbury (2022)
I’m familiar with Brackenbury from her appearance at New Networks for Nature in 2016 and her latest selected poems volume, Gallop. This, her tenth stand-alone collection, features abundant imagery of animals and the seasons, as in “Cucu” and “Postcard,” which marks the return of swifts. Alliteration is prominent, but there is also a handful of rhymes, like in “Fern.” Family history and the perhaps-idyllic rural underpin the verse set in Lincolnshire and Gloucestershire as Brackenbury searches for ancestral graves and delivers elegies.
I especially loved “Aunt Margaret’s Pudding,” a multipart poem about her grandmother’s life as a professional cook and then a mother of four, and “My Grandmother Waits for Christmas,” about a simple link between multiple generations’ Christmases: a sugar mouse. Caring for horses is another recurring theme; a 31-year-old blind pony receives a fond farewell.
There are also playful meetings between historical figures (“Purple Haze,” a dialogue between George Frideric Handel and Jimi Hendrix, who saw the composer’s ghost in their shared London home) and between past and contemporary, like “Thomas Hardy sends an email” (it opens “I need slide no confessions under doors”). “Charles Dickens at Home” was another favourite of mine. The title is the never-to-be-reached destination in the final poem, “Shingle.” A number of these poems were first broadcast on BBC Radio.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the e-copy for review.
Faith after Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do about It by Brian McLaren (2021)
I’ve explained before how McLaren’s books were pivotal to my spiritual journey, even before I attended the church he founded in Maryland. (I’ve also reviewed his previous book, God Unbound). His progressive, environmentalist theology is perfect for continuing searchers like me. At one of last year’s online Church Times Festival events, I saw him introduce the schema that underpins this book. He proposes that the spiritual life (not just Christian) has four stages that may overlap or repeat: simplicity, complexity, perplexity and harmony. The first stage is for new zealots who draw us–them divisions and are most concerned with orthodoxy. In the second, practitioners are more concerned with practicalities: what works, what makes life better. Perplexity is provoked by cynicism about injustice and hypocrisy, while harmony moves beyond dualism and into connection with other people and with nature.
McLaren suggest that honest doubting, far from being a problem, might present an opportunity for changing in the right direction, getting us closer to the “revolutionary love” at the heart of the gospel. He shares stories from his own life, in and out of ministry, and from readers who have contacted him remotely or come up to him after events, caught in dilemmas about what they believe and whether they want to raise their children into religion. Though he’s fully aware of the environmental crisis and doesn’t offer false hope that we as a species will survive it, he isn’t ready to give up on religion; he believes that a faith seasoned by doubt and matured into an understanding of the harmony of all things can be part of a solution.
It’s possible some would find McLaren’s ideas formulaic and his prose repetitive. His point of view always draws me in and gives me much to think about. I’ve been stuck in perplexity for, ooh, 20 years? I frequently ask myself why I persist in going to church when it’s so boring and so often feels like a social club for stick-in-the-mud white people instead of a force for change. But books like this and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, my current soul food, encourage me to keep pursuing spiritual connection as a worthwhile path. I’ll be seeking out his forthcoming book (due out in May), Do I Stay Christian?, too.
Some favourite lines:
“only doubt can save the world. Only doubt will open a doorway out of hostile orthodoxies – whether religious, cultural, economic or political. Only through the difficult passage of doubt can we emerge into a new stage of faith and a new regenerative way of life. Everything depends on making this passage.”
“Among all the other things doubt is – loss, loneliness, crisis, doorway, descent, dissent [these are each the subject of individual chapters early on in the book] – it is also this: a crossroads. At the crossroads of doubt, we either become better or bitter. We either break down or break through. We become cynics or sages, hollow or holy. We choose love or despair.”
“Blessed are the wonderers, for they shall find what is wonderful. … Blessed are the doubters, for they shall see through false gods. Blessed are the lovers, for they shall see God everywhere.”
With thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for the free copy for review.
This Book Is a Plant: How to Grow, Learn and Radically Engage with the Natural World (2022)
This collection of new essays and excerpts from previously published volumes accompanies the upcoming Wellcome Collection exhibition Rooted Beings (a collaboration with La Casa Encendida, Madrid, it’s curated by Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz and Emily Sargent and will run from 24 March to 29 August). The overarching theme is our connection with plants and fungi, and the ways in which they communicate. Some of the authors are known for their nature writing – there’s an excerpt from Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, Jessica J. Lee (author of Turning and Two Trees Make a Forest) contributes an essay on studying mosses, and a short section from Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass closes the book – while others are better known in other fields, like Susie Orbach and Abi Palmer (author of Sanatorium).
I especially enjoyed novelist Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s “Wilder Flowers,” which is about landscape painting, balcony gardening in pots, and what’s pretty versus what’s actually good for nature. (Wildflowers aren’t the panacea we are sometimes sold.) I was also interested to learn about quinine, which comes from the fever tree, in Kim Walker and Nataly Allasi Canales’ “Bitter Barks.” Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s essay on the Western influence on Inuit communities in northern Canada, reprinted from Granta, is one of the best individual pieces – forceful and with a unique voice, it advocates reframing the climate change debate in terms of human rights as opposed to the economy – but has nothing to do with plants specifically. There are also a couple of pieces that go strangely mystical, such as one on plant metaphors in the Kama Sutra. So, a mixed bag that jumbles science, paganism and postcolonial thought, but if you haven’t already encountered the Kimmerer and Sheldrake (or, e.g., Rooted by Lyanda Lynn Haupt and Losing Eden by Lucy Jones) you might find this a good primer.
With thanks to Profile Books / Wellcome Collection for the free copy for review.
And one that really didn’t work for me; my apologies to the author and publisher.
I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins (2021)
What a letdown after Gold Fame Citrus, one of my favourite novels of 2015. I’d also read Watkins’s debut short story collection, Battleborn, which won the Dylan Thomas Prize. Despite the amazing title and promising setup – autofiction that reflects on postpartum depression and her Mojave Desert upbringing as a daughter of one of the Manson Family cult members – this is indulgent, misguided, and largely unreadable.
A writer named Claire Vaye Watkins flies to Nevada to give a lecture and leaves her husband and baby daughter behind – for good? To commemorate her mother Martha, who died of an opiate overdose, she reprints Martha’s 1970s letters, which are unspeakably boring. I feel like Watkins wanted to write a memoir but didn’t give herself permission to choose nonfiction, so tried to turn her character Claire’s bad behaviour into a feminist odyssey of sexual freedom and ended up writing such atrocious lines as the below:
“I mostly boinked millennial preparers of beverages and schlepped to book festivals to hook up with whatever adequate rando lurked at the end of my signing line. This was what our open marriage looked like”
“‘Psychedelics tend to find me when I need them,’ she said, sending a rush of my blood to my vulva.”
Her vagina dentata (a myth, or a real condition?!) becomes a bizarre symbol of female power and rage. I could only bear to skim this.
Some lines I liked:
Listen: I am a messenger from the future. I am you in ten years. Pay attention! Don’t fetishize marriage and babies. Don’t succumb to the axial tilt of monogamy! I don’t pretend to know the details of your…situation, but I guarantee you, you’re as free as you’ll ever be. Have sex with anyone you want. Enjoy the fact that it might happen any minute. You could have sex with a man, a woman, both—tonight!
I went from being raised by a pack of coyotes to a fellowship at Princeton where I sat next to John McPhee at a dinner and we talked about rocks and he wasn’t at all afraid of me.
With thanks to riverrun for the proof copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
I have a soft spot for uncategorizable nonfiction like this. My expectation was for a food memoir, but while the essays incorporate shards of autobiography and, yes, recipes, they also dive into everything from botany and cultural history to medicinal uses. Kate Lebo has a finger in many pies – a figure of speech I use deliberately, as she is primarily a baker (but also a poet) and her three previous books are about pie.
You won’t find any ordinary apples or oranges here. Difficult fruit – “the Tart, Tender, and Unruly,” as the subtitle elaborates – is different: rarer to find, more challenging to process, perhaps harder to love. Instead of bananas and pears, then, you’ll read about the niche (aronia and thimbleberries), the rotten and malodorous (medlars and durian fruit), and the downright inedible (just one: the Osage orange, only suitable for repelling spiders or turning into decorations). These fruits might be foraged on hikes, sent by friends and relatives in other parts of the USA, or sold at Lebo’s local Spokane, Washington farmer’s market. Occasionally the ‘recipes’ are for non-food items, such as a pomegranate face mask or yuzu body oil.
The A-to-Z format required some creativity and occasions great trivia but also poignant stories. J is for juniper berry, a traditional abortifacient, and brings to mind for Lebo the time she went to Denver to accompany a friend to an abortion appointment. N is for the Norton grape, an American variety whose wine is looked down upon compared to European cultivars. Q is for quince, what Eve likely ate in the Garden of Eden; like the first humans in the biblical account, Lebo’s pair of adopted aunts were cast out for their badness. W is for wheat, a reminder of her doomed relationship with a man who strictly avoided gluten; X is for xylitol, whose structure links to her stepdaughter’s belief in the power of crystals.
Health is a recurring element that intersects with eating habits: Lebo has ulcerative colitis, depression and allergies; her grandfather was a pharmacist and her mother is a physical therapist who suffers from migraines and is always trying out different diets. The extent to which a fruit can genuinely promote wellness is a question that is pondered more than once. Whether the main focus is on the foodstuff or the family experience, each piece is carefully researched so as to be authoritative yet conversational. The author is particularly good at describing smells and tastes, which can be so difficult to translate into words:
My first taste of durian was as candy, a beige lozenge with a slight pink blush that my boss at the time dared me to try. … It tasted of strawberries and old garlic. I had to will myself to finish. … My second taste of durian was at dim sum in New York City, visiting a man who would never love me. The durian was stewed, sweetened, and crenellated with flaky dough. … [It] was like peaches laced with onions, and had a richness that made my chest tight. Each bite was a dare. Could I keep going?
A single medlar that has been bletted outdoors through early December can be eaten in three bites. The first taste will be of spiced applesauce. … The second taste, because the medlar has spent long cold weeks on the branch, is sparkling wine. Not a good sparkling wine, but pleasant enough. Slightly explosive-tasting, like certain manufactured candies. Ugly, but what a personality. The third taste is a cold mildew one usually only smells, and generally interprets as a warning not to eat any more. You have now finished the medlar.
Two essays in a row best exemplified the book’s approach for me. The chapter on gooseberries, the cover stars, captures everything I love about them (we have two bushes; this year we turned our haul into a couple of Nigel Slater’s crumble cakes and a batch of gingery jam) and gives tips on preparation plus recipes I could see myself making. “Gooseberries are sour like you’ve arrived before they were ready for company, like they wanted you to see them in a better dress,” Lebo writes. The piece on huckleberries then shares Indigenous (Salish) wisdom about the fruit and notes that in a Spokane McDonald’s you can buy a huckleberry shake.
Over the eight months I spent with this collection – picking it up once in a while to read an essay, or a portion of one – I absorbed a lot of information, as well as some ideas for dishes I might actually try. Most of all, I admired how this book manages to be about everything, which makes sense because food is not just central to our continued survival but also bound up with collective and personal identity, memory, and traditions. Though it started off slightly scattershot for me, it’s ended up being one of my favorite reading experiences of the year.
With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.
It’s pure happenstance that I started reading Carol Shields’s work in 2006.
2005: When I first returned to England for my MA program at Leeds, I met a PhD student who was writing a dissertation on contemporary Canadian women writers. At that point I could literally name only one – Margaret Atwood – and I hadn’t even read anything by her yet.
2006: Back in the States after that second year abroad, living with my parents and killing time until my wedding, I got an evening job behind the circulation desk of the local community college library. A colleague passed on four books to me one day. By tying them up in a ribbon, she made a gift out of hand-me-downs: The Giant’s House, The Secret History, and two by Shields: Happenstance and The Stone Diaries. I’ve gone on to read most or all of the books by these authors, so I’m grateful to this acquaintance I’ve since lost touch with.
Starting in June this year, I joined Marcie of Buried in Print in reading or rereading six Shields novels. She’s been rereading Shields for many years, and I benefited from her insight and careful attention to connections between the works’ characters and themes during our buddy reads. I’d treated myself to a secondhand book binge in the first lockdown, including copies of three Shields novels I’d not read before. We started with these.
Small Ceremonies (1976)
Shields’s debut ended up being my surprise favorite. A flawless novella, it brings its many elements to a satisfying conclusion and previews the author’s enduring themes in 180 pages. Judith is working on a third biography, of Susanna Moodie, and remembering the recent sabbatical year that she and her husband, a Milton scholar, spent with their two children in Birmingham. High tea is a compensating ritual she imported from a dismal England. She also brought back an idea for a novel. Meanwhile family friend Furlong Eberhardt, author of a string of twee, triumphantly Canadian novels, is casting around for plots.
What ensues is something of a sly academic comedy à la David Lodge, laced with Shields’s quiet wisdom on marriage, parenting, the writer’s vocation, and the difficulty of ever fully understanding another life. Specific links to her later work include a wonderful dinner party scene with people talking over each other and a craft project.
The Box Garden (1977)
The companion novel to Small Ceremonies is narrated by Judith’s sister Charleen, a poet and single mother who lives in Vancouver and produces the National Botanical Journal. I imagined the sisters representing two facets of Shields, who had previously published poetry and a Moodie biography. Charleen is preparing to travel to Toronto for their 70-year-old mother’s wedding to Louis, an ex-priest. Via flashbacks and excruciating scenes at the family home, we learn how literally and emotionally stingy their mother has always been. If Charleen’s boyfriend Eugene’s motto is to always assume the best of people, her mother’s modus operandi is to assume she’s been hard done by.
The title comes from the time when a faithful Journal correspondent, the mysterious Brother Adam, sent Charleen some grass seed to grow in a window box – a symbol of thriving in spite of restrictive circumstances. I thought the plot went off in a silly direction, but loved the wedding reception. Specific links to Shields’s later work include a botanical hobby, a long train journey, and a final scene delivered entirely in dialogue.
A Celibate Season (1991)
“We’re suffering a communication gap, that’s obvious.”
This epistolary novel was a collaboration: Blanche Howard wrote the letters by Jocelyn (“Jock”), who’s gone to Ottawa to be the legal counsel for a commission looking into women’s poverty, while Shields wrote the replies from her husband Charles (“Chas”), an underemployed architect who’s keeping the home fire burning back in Vancouver. He faces challenges large and small: their daughter’s first period versus meal planning (“Found the lentils. Now what?”). The household starts comically expanding to include a housekeeper, Chas’s mother-in-law, a troubled neighbor, and so on.
Both partners see how the other half lives. The misunderstandings between them become worse during their separation. Howard and Shields started writing in 1983, and the book does feel dated; they later threw in a jokey reference to the unreliability of e-mail to explain why the couple are sending letters and faxes. Two unsent letters reveal secrets Jock and Chas are keeping from each other, which felt like cheating. I remained unconvinced that so much could change in 10 months, and the weird nicknames were an issue for me. Plus, arguing about a solarium building project? Talk about First World problems! All the same, the letters are amusing.
This was the first novel I read by Shields. My Penguin paperback gives the wife’s story first and then you flip it over to read the husband’s story. But the opposite reflects the actual publishing order: Happenstance is Jack’s story; two years later came Brenda’s story in A Fairly Conventional Woman. The obvious inheritor of the pair is A Celibate Season with the dual male/female narratives, and the setups are indeed similar: a man is left at home alone with his teenage kids, having to cope with chores and an unexpected houseguest.
What I remembered beforehand: The wife goes to a quilting conference; an image of a hotel corridor and elevator.
Jack, a museum curator in Chicago, is writing a book about “Indian” trading practices (this isn’t the word we’d use nowadays, but the terminology ends up being important to the plot). He and his best friend Bernie, who’s going through a separation, are obsessed with questions of history: what gets written down, and what it means to have a sense of the past (or not). I loved all the little threads, like Jack’s father’s obsession with self-help books, memories of Brenda’s vivacious single mother, and their neighbor’s failure as Hamlet in a local production. I also enjoyed an epic trek in the snow in a final section potentially modeled on Ulysses.
A Fairly Conventional Woman
“Aside from quiltmaking, pleasantness was her one talent. … She had come to this awkward age, forty, at an awkward time in history – too soon to be one of the new women, whatever that meant, and too late to be an old-style woman.”
Brenda is in Philadelphia for a quilting conference. Quilting, once just a hobby, is now part of a modern art movement and she earns prizes and hundreds of dollars for her pieces. The hotel is overbooked, overlapping with an International Society of Metallurgists gathering, and both she and Barry from Vancouver, an attractive metallurgist in a pinstriped suit whom she meets in the elevator, are driven from their shared rooms by roommates bringing back one-night stands. This doesn’t add anything to the picture of a marriage in Jack’s story and I only skimmed it this time. It’s a wonder I kept reading Shields after this, but I’m so glad I did!
I reviewed these last two earlier this year. They were previously my joint favorites of Shields’s work, linked by a gardening hobby, the role of chance, and the unreliability of history and (auto)biography. They remain in my top three.
The Stone Diaries (1995)
What I remembered beforehand: a long train ride, a friend who by the feeling ‘down there’ thought that someone had had sex with her the night before, and something about the Orkney Islands.
Larry’s Party (1997)
What I remembered beforehand: a food poisoning incident (though I’d thought it was in one of Shields’s short stories), a climactic event involving a garden maze, a chapter entitled “Larry’s Penis,” and the closing dinner party scene.
Looking back: Fortunately, in the last 15 years I’ve done something to redress my ignorance, discovering Canadian women writers whom I admire greatly: Elizabeth Hay, Margaret Laurence, Mary Lawson and especially Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields.
Looking out: “I am watching. My own life will never be enough for me. It is a congenital condition, my only, only disease in an otherwise lucky life. I am a watcher, an outsider whether I like it or not, and I’m stuck with the dangers that go along with it. And the rewards.”
- That’s Judith on the last page of Small Ceremonies. It’s also probably Shields. And, to an extent, it seems like me. A writer, but mostly a reader, absorbing other lives.
Looking forward: I’m interested in rereading Shields’s short stories and Mary Swann (to be reissued by World Editions in 2021). And, though I’ve read 13 of her books now, there are still plenty of unread, lesser-known ones I’ll have to try to find secondhand one day. Her close attention to ordinary lives and relationships and the way we connect to the past makes her work essential.
I ‘met’ poet Carolyn Oliver through her much-missed blog, Rosemary & Reading Glasses. (She’s on Twitter as @CarolynROliver and Instagram as @carolynroliver.) Back in 2017 I asked for her top fiction picks; this year she’s contributed another guest blog listing the best nonfiction she’s read this year. It’s a fascinating selection of memoirs, essays, science and nature, and current events. I scurried to add the ones I hadn’t already heard of to my TBR. Which ones tempt you?
My favorite nonfiction reads from this year (though many are backlist):
The Butchering Art, Lindsey Fitzharris: Fascinating medical history of Lister’s antiseptic breakthrough.
Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer: Reflective ecology from the perspective of a Native botanist. Probably my favorite essay collection of the decade.
The Book of Delights, Ross Gay: Just as the title says. Mini-essays on myriad topics. When you’ve finished, pick up his Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (poems).
Atlas of Poetic Botany, Francis Halle: Bite-sized excursions into the worlds of unusual flora, with drawings. Meant for adults, I think, but a huge hit with my eight-year-old.
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi: Just as the title says. Incisive, eye-opening, necessary.
The Art Detective, Philip Mould: A romp through the art world with an enthusiastic, knowledgeable guide (Mould is the co-host of the BBC’s Fake or Fortune).
How We Fight for Our Lives, Saeed Jones: The bildungsroman America needs. Beautiful writing.
In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado: The most formally inventive memoir I’ve ever read. Brilliant and necessary.
Coventry, Rachel Cusk: I was entranced by Cusk’s voice, even when I didn’t share her conclusions; reading this collection (with the exception of the book reviews added at the end), I felt I was witnessing the writer’s mind in the act of thinking.
The year-end coverage continues!
So, how did I do with the 2018 reading goals I set for myself about this time last year? Rather poorly! is the short answer.
- I only read one book that might be considered a travel classic (by Patrick Leigh Fermor), though I did read some modern travel books.
- I only read Ali and the first half of a biography of May Sarton. What I’d envisioned being a monthly biography feature on the blog turned into a one-off.
- I need to work out my literature in translation percentage and compare it to last year’s to see if I’ve improved at all.
However, I do feel that I did well at reading my own books, as boosted by my 20 Books of Summer being chosen exclusively from my own shelves. Once I’m back from America I’ll have to do another full inventory and see how many unread books are still in the house, as compared to the 327 at this time last year.
Out of my 31 most anticipated reads of the second half of the year, I read 20 (of which 5 were at least somewhat disappointing), abandoned 2, still have 2 to read, lost interest in 1, have 1 in progress, and can’t find 5. For the whole year, the statistics are at 38/61 read (13 disappointments = more than 1/3 – that’s really bad and needs to be fixed!), 7 DNF, 4 still to read, 9 not found, 2 lost interest, and 1 in progress.
As for my non-reading-related goal … my accordion-playing fell by the wayside in July because I went away to America for three weeks unexpectedly, and after that never got back into the habit of daily practice and biweekly lessons the other side of Reading. I’d still like to pick it back up in the near future. I was at a point where I knew five notes and a few bass chords and could play both hands on a number of very simple tunes.
This Year’s Cover Trends
Mostly flora, which I noticed before 2018 had even begun.
The other one that kept jumping out at me was rubber gloves. Weird!
I’ll be back on the 26th to begin the countdown of my favorite books of the year, starting with nonfiction.
A whole book about fig trees? That’s right! If you’re a voracious nonfiction reader like me, you’ll find freelance journalist Mike Shanahan’s history of fig trees unexpectedly fascinating. It opens with him atop a series of ladders in a national park in Borneo, reaching past a venomous snake to pick some figs. He did many such exciting things in his research towards a PhD in rainforest ecology, but that 1998 encounter was significantly more intrepid than his earliest experience with the genus: he remembers a potted weeping fig in the hallway of his childhood home.
From that little tree to the largest banyans, Ficus encompasses 750+ species and has had a major place in human culture for millennia. Fig trees turn up in Greek origin myths and are sacred to Hindus. Romulus and Remus were rescued from drowning in the Tiber by fig tree roots. The tree the Buddha sat under to meditate? A fig. The fruit Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden? More likely a fig than an apple given the Middle Eastern climate and the fact that they then sew fig leaves together to cover their nakedness. (The confusion may have come about because in Latin malum means either “apple” or “evil”.)
Figs offer some biological surprises. For one thing, the plants have no apparent flowers. That’s because the flowers are internal: a fig is not technically a fruit but a hollow ball lined with tiny flowers that must be pollinated by two-millimeter-long fig-wasps. Strangler figs colonize a host tree, starting as a seed in the canopy and enveloping it in long tangled roots. Many tropical birds and mammals rely on figs, including monkeys and hornbills. Figs were, Shanahan writes, the “original superfood” for our primate ancestors.
The habitats where fig trees thrive face severe challenges, including drought, forest fires and poaching. However, history offers encouraging examples of how fig species can be key to tropical forest restoration. After a volcano erupted on Papua New Guinea in 1660, for example, the razed land was fairly quickly recolonized by Ficus species from seeds dropped by birds and bats – a prerequisite for wildlife returning. Similarly, fig trees were all that remained of the forest on Krakatoa after its famous volcanic eruption in 1883.
Building on this precedent, the Forest Restoration Research Unit, based in Thailand, now uses fig species to kickstart the restitution of tropical landscapes; one in every five of their plantings is a fig. Likewise, figs can be used to restore post-mining landscapes and lock up carbon. Researchers are looking into using drones to collect and deposit the seeds.
I’d never realized how often figs show up in the historical record, or how dependent on them we and other creatures have been. “Look after fig trees and they will look after you. It’s a lesson we have all but forgotten, but one we could learn again,” Shanahan concludes. Have a look at the bibliography and you’ll see just how much information is synthesized into this short, engaging book. It’s another gorgeous design from Unbound, too: the colorful cover was what first attracted me, and the author’s black-and-white pointillist illustrations adorn the text.
Nowadays I tend to think of figs as an exotic, luxury food. Every year we add some dried figs to our Christmas cake, creating caramel bursts of crunchy seeds. When my husband and I lived in Reading, we briefly had a LandShare arrangement to look after an established garden. Hidden behind a suburban fence, it was a secret paradise overflowing with fruit: plum, greengage and apple trees plus a fruit cage containing berries, currants, and – in one corner – a small fig. I remember one glorious late summer when we were inundated with more ripe figs than I’d ever seen before. We would heat them in the oven and serve them split open and oozing with goat’s cheese and runny honey. Our very own taste of Eden.
Ladders to Heaven was first published by Unbound in 2016 and releases in paperback today, September 6th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.