It’s cats and butterflies in the spotlight this time, adding in a gazelle as a metaphor for Freddie Mercury’s somebody to love.
Travelling Cat: A Journey round Britain with Pugwash by Frederick Harrison (1988)
If Tom Cox had been born 20 years earlier, this is the sort of book he might have written. In 1987, saddened more by his cat Podey being run over than by the end of his marriage, Harrison set out from South London in his Ford Transit van for a seven-month drive around the country. He decided to take Pugwash, one of his local (presumably ownerless) cats, along as a companion.
They encountered Morris dancers, gypsies, hippies at Stonehenge for the Summer Solstice, sisters having a double wedding, and magic mushroom collectors. They went to a county fair and beaches in Suffolk and East Yorkshire, and briefly to Hay-on-Wye. And on the way back they collected Podey, whom he’d had stuffed. Harrison muses on the English “vice” of nostalgia for a past that probably never existed; Pugwash does what cats do, and very well.
It’s all a bit silly and dated and lightweight, but enjoyable nonetheless. Plus there are tons of black-and-white photos of “Pugs” and other feline friends. This was a secondhand purchase from The Bookshop, Wigtown.
“Cats hate to make prats of themselves. But then, don’t we all?”
(last lines) “Warm, fed, contented, unemployable, and entirely at peace with the world. Yes indeed. Cats certainly know something we don’t.”
Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym (1950)
(An example of a book that just happens to have an animal in the title.) I’d only read one other Pym novel, Quartet in Autumn, a late and fairly melancholy story of four lonely older people. With her first novel I’m in more typical territory, I take it. The middle-aged Bede sisters are pillars of the church in their English village. Harriet takes each new curate under her wing, making of them a sort of collection, and fends off frequent marriage proposals from the likes of a celebrity librarian and an Italian count.
Belinda, on the other hand, only has eyes for one man: Archdeacon Hochleve, whom she’s known and loved for 30 years. They share a fondness for quoting poetry, the more obscure the better (like the title phrase, taken from “Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove: / Something to love, oh, something to love!” by Thomas Haynes Bayly). The only problem is that the archdeacon is happily married. So single-minded is Belinda that she barely notices her own marriage proposal when it comes: a scene that reminded me of Mr. Collins’s proposal to Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice. Indeed, Pym is widely recognized as an heir to Jane Austen, what with her arch studies of relationships in a closed community.
There were a handful of moments that made me laugh, like when the seamstress finds a caterpillar in her cauliflower cheese and has to wipe with a Church Times newspaper when the Bedes run out of toilet paper (such mild sacrilege!). This is enjoyable, if fluffy; it was probably a mistake to have read one of Pym’s more serious books first: I expected too much of this one. If you’re looking for a quick, gentle and escapist read in which nothing awful will happen, though, it would make a good choice. Knowing most of her books are of a piece, I wouldn’t read more than one of the remainder – it’ll most likely be Excellent Women.
An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect by Sharman Apt Russell (2003)
This compact and fairly rollicking book is a natural history of butterflies and of the scientists and collectors who have made them their life’s work. There are some 18,000 species and, unlike, say, beetles, they are generally pretty easy to tell apart because of their bold, colorful markings. Moth and butterfly diversity may well be a synecdoche for overall diversity, making them invaluable indicator species. Although the history of butterfly collecting was fairly familiar to me from Peter Marren’s Rainbow Dust, I still learned or was reminded of a lot, such as the ways you can tell moths and butterflies apart (and it’s not just about whether they fly in the night or the day). And who knew that butterfly rape is a thing?
The final third of the book was strongest for me, including a trip to London’s Natural History Museum; another to Costa Rica’s butterfly ranches, an example of successful ecotourism; and a nicely done case study of the El Segundo Blue butterfly, which was brought back from the brink of extinction by restoration of its southern California dunes habitat. Russell, a New Mexico-based author of novels and nonfiction, also writes about butterflies’ cultural importance: “No matter our religious beliefs, we accept the miracle of metamorphosis. One thing becomes another. … Butterflies wake us up.”
I also recently read the excellent title story from John Murray’s 2003 collection A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies. Married surgeons reflect on their losses, including the narrator’s sister in a childhood accident and his wife Maya’s father to brain cancer. In the late 1800s, the narrator’s grandfather, an amateur naturalist in the same vein as Darwin, travelled to Papua New Guinea to collect butterflies. The legends from his time, and from family trips to Cape May to count monarchs on migration in the 1930s, still resonate in the present day for these characters. The treatment of themes like science, grief and family inheritance, and the interweaving of past and present, reminded me of work by Andrea Barrett and A.S. Byatt.
(I’ve put the book aside for now but will go back to it in September as I focus on short stories.)
Other butterfly-themed books I have reviewed:
- Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly by Sue Halpern (one of last year’s 20 Books of Summer)
- Ruins by Peter Kuper (a graphic novel set in Mexico, this also picks up on monarch migration)
- Magdalena Mountain by Robert Michael Pyle (a novel about butterfly researchers in Colorado)
Reading about a particular topic, time period or type of character often leads me to want to read more about the same thing. This isn’t the same as what I call “book serendipity,” when such connections happen purely coincidentally; instead, it’s a deliberate way of following a thread of interest further. I keep meaning to read more about lighthouses, butterflies and Virginia Woolf, for instance. Some attempts are more successful than others, though.
Alas, I had to return the Peggy Seeger memoir to the library unread because it was requested after me, and I haven’t found the immediate spur to pick up Greatest Hits yet.
However, soon after I finished one novel about conjoined twins, Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, I launched straight into another one, Lori Lansens’ The Girls. I’m halfway through and it’s great so far. (Another I’d recommend is Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss, about the original “Siamese twins.”)
This spring I realized that I’d read four and a bit shepherds’ memoirs in 17 months, which is quite the concentration considering I’m not a countryside gal. Here’s how I’d rank the five:
#1: A Farmer’s Diary: A Year at High House Farm by Sally Urwin
Urwin is a charming guide to a year in the life of her working farm in Northumberland. Just don’t make the mistake of dismissing her as “the farmer’s wife.” She may only be 4 foot 10 (her Twitter handle is @pintsizedfarmer and her biography describes her as “(probably) the shortest farmer in England”), but her struggles to find attractive waterproofs don’t stop her from putting in hard labor to tend to the daily needs of a 200-strong flock of sheep.
From mating the ewes to preparing the next year’s lambs for market, we see the whole cycle once through and about to start again. Lambing is a fraught couple of months that form the heart of the book, but there are plenty of other challenges, including stolen sheep, fallen trees, and constant financial concerns that lead to a petition to the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution for help paying the gas bill and keeping food on the table for their two kids.
Despite the year’s setbacks, Urwin has an indomitable spirit and writes in a chatty, chin-up style that reflects the book’s origin in blog posts from 2017 to 2018. She gets a lot of comic mileage out of her yo-yo dieting, the many escapades of Candy the fat pony, and quirky English traditions like the village fete. I enjoy reading about people’s daily habits through a diary, and all the better when it’s a lifestyle that’s totally foreign to me.
#2: The Sheep Stell by Janet White
First published in 1991, The Sheep Stell taps into a widespread feeling that we have become cut off from the natural world and that existing in communion with animals is a healthier lifestyle. White’s pleasantly nostalgic memoir tells of finding contentment in the countryside, first on her own and later with a dearly loved family. It is both an evocative picture of a life adapted to seasonal rhythms and an arresting account of the casual sexism – and even violence – White experienced in a traditionally male vocation when she emigrated to New Zealand in 1953. From solitary youthful adventures that recall Gerald Durrell’s and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s to a more settled domestic life with animals reminiscent of the writings of James Herriot and Doreen Tovey, White’s story is unfailingly enjoyable. (I reviewed it for the Times Literary Supplement last year.)
#3: On Sheep: Diary of a Swedish Shepherd by Axel Lindén
(translated from the Swedish by Frank Perry)
Axel Lindén left his hipster Stockholm existence behind to take on his parents’ rural collective. On Sheep documents two years in his life as a shepherd aspiring to self-sufficiency and a small-scale model of food production. The diary entries range from a couple of words (“Silage; wet”) to several pages, and tend to cluster around busy times on the farm. The author expresses genuine concern for the sheep’s wellbeing. However, he cannily avoids anthropomorphism, insisting that his loyalty must be to the whole flock rather than to individual animals. The brevity and selectiveness of the diary keep the everyday tasks from becoming tiresome. Instead, the rural routines are comforting, even humbling.
#4: The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks
My husband valued this more as a memoir than as a cultural document; the opposite was true for me. As a memoir it’s fairly unexceptional, but it’s valuable as a picture of a rare and dwindling way of life in the British countryside.
#5: Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World by Steinunn Sigurðardóttir
(translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton)
DNF after 53 pages. I was offered a proof copy by the publisher on Twitter. I thought it would be interesting to hear about a female Icelandic shepherd who was a model before taking over her family farm and then reluctantly went into politics to try to block a hydroelectric power station on her land. Unfortunately, though, the book is scattered and barely competently written. It doesn’t help that the proof is error-strewn. [This mini-review has been corrected to reflect the fact that, unlike what is printed on the proof copy, the sole author is Steinunn Sigurðardóttir, who has written the book as if from Heiða Ásgeirsdóttir’s perspective.]
What’s the last major reading theme you’ve had?
Can I tempt you with a sheep-herding memoir?
We’re off to America tomorrow for two weeks for a holiday plus family time and a college friend’s wedding. While I won’t be particularly communicative on others’ blogs or social media, I’m scheduling a few blogs per week that we’re away. Back on June 3rd – just in time for the start of 20 Books of Summer!
Here’s the stack of books I’ve packed – with plenty more waiting for me over there and my Kindle providing some 400 backups.
“Wasn’t it Nabokov who said ‘It is astounding how little the ordinary person notices butterflies?’”
Butterflies, monks, students and teachers, prophets and saints: such is the cast of naturalist Robert Michael Pyle’s unusual and rewarding debut novel, Magdalena Mountain. It’s a golden autumn in the early 1970s as James Mead leaves Albuquerque on a Greyhound bus to travel to New Haven, Connecticut, where he will undertake a PhD in biology at Yale. He squats in a lab on campus to save money and, after some tension with his thesis advisor, decides to keep his head down, feeding the department’s giant cave roaches and becoming engrossed in the field journals written by one October Carson in 1969 during his travels out West.
Pyle presents nature as both beatific and harsh, a continuity of life that human events – like a car going over a cliff in the first chapter – barely disrupt. Occasional chapters check in on the woman who was in the car crash, Mary Glanville. Now suffering from amnesia, she believes she’s a famous figure from history. One day she escapes from her nursing home and hitchhikes into the Colorado mountains. In her weakened state she’s taken in by Attalus and Oberon, monks at a deconsecrated monastery devoted to the god Pan and the creeds of nature writers like John Burroughs, Aldo Leopold and John Muir. Attalus, a compassionless misogynist, vehemently protests Mary’s presence in their community, but Oberon soon falls in love with her.
When James, disobeying his supervisor, lights out for Colorado for a summer of research at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, the stage is set for these major characters to collide on Magdalena Mountain, home to the distinctive, all-black Magdalena Alpine butterfly (Erebia magdalena). “Flight may appear weak, but adults are able to sail up and over huge boulders with the greatest of ease, eluding humans who desire a closer look. Flies in summer,” reads the description in my (Kaufman) field guide to North American butterflies. Intermittent segments of pure nature writing about Erebia’s life cycle – seven short chapters in total – establish the seasons and encourage a long view of local history, but somewhat slow down the novel’s tempo.
Pyle successfully pulls in so many different themes: academic infighting and the impulses of scientific researchers versus amateur collectors; environmentalism, especially through the threats that infestations, pesticides and off-road vehicles pose to the mountain landscape; activism, by way of the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons protests; and even sacred femininity and the myths surrounding Mary Magdalene. Mary Glanville’s name is a nice nod to history – Elinor Glanville was a seventeenth-century English collector who gave her name to the Glanville Fritillary – while Vladimir Nabokov, who was a keen lepidopterist as well as an academic and author, is mentioned several times for his real-life connections to the area.
The quirky set of hangers-on at the monastery reminded me of an Iris Murdoch setup (thinking mostly of The Bell), while the passion for science and activism brought to mind two other excellent environmentally minded novels published this year, The Overstory and Unsheltered. Indeed, Mary preaches at one point, “Seek your shelter in nature … In love lies the only real shelter there is.” If you’re interested in the Powers and/or Kingsolver, I would commend Pyle’s book to you as well: it’s offbeat, dreamy yet fervent, with intriguing characters and elegant nature-infused language. One of my favorite descriptive scraps, so simple but so apt, was “a peeled peach of a moon.” I’m grateful to have had a chance to read this, and I will be seeking out Pyle’s nature writing, too.
Magdalena Mountain was published in August 2018. My thanks to the good folk of Counterpoint Press (based in Berkeley, California) for sending a free copy for review.
In the past few years I’ve made a conscious effort to get more into graphic novels. In that time I’ve discovered some real gems – highlighted in a previous post entitled “Graphic Novels for Newbies” – and Peter Kuper’s latest book, Ruins, is among my favorites. Kuper is a comics legend: he’s a long-time MAD Magazine illustrator and the author of more than 20 books, as well as a teacher at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.
Ruins appealed to me because of its environmental theme, but I found so much more to love. I previewed it in my last post, “Books as Objects of Beauty,” because it’s a simply gorgeous physical book – what with the embossed title on the cover and spine, the red-edged pages, the built-in ribbon bookmark, and the entomological drawings on the endpapers. Luckily what’s inside is just as special as the packaging.
In essence, this is the bittersweet story of an American couple traveling from Manhattan to Oaxaca, Mexico for a sabbatical year. Samantha hopes to brush up on her Spanish, work on a book about Mexican history and legends, and finally get pregnant. George, recently laid off from his job as an entomologist at the Natural History Museum, is delighted with Oaxaca’s invertebrate life – leafcutter ants, edible grasshoppers, and a pesky scorpion – but not so convinced about having a baby; surely the world is too messed up to bring a new life into?
The novel’s small cast also includes Angelina, their housekeeper; another George, a British bookseller; and Al, a former photojournalist and heavy drinker who joins with our George to document the local teachers’ strike. We learn that Samantha has lived here before and has returned in part to exorcise tragic events from her past. The book’s title thus has many meanings in context: not only the ruined cities Samantha and George visit as tourists and the ruin corrupt Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz is currently making of the place, but also the decay of relationships old and new and the decline of the environment.
The environmental agenda comes through in the parallel story of one monarch’s migration. Sections set in Mexico alternate with short interludes showing the butterfly’s journey south from America to Michoacan, Mexico, where monarchs gather en masse in a pine forest. The limited palette of these spreads, in contrast with the vibrant colors of the Oaxaca scenes, is particularly effective: the monarch is generally the only speck of color against a monochrome blue-gray background showing rather dreary American scenes. Tagged in Pennsylvania, the monarch flies over polluted rivers, a nuclear power plant, an abandoned West Virginian mine, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Monsanto tomato pickers, a Texas border arrest, and a Mexican drug deal gone wrong – a symbol of precarious hope in spite of circumstance.
A Mexican folk belief has it that monarchs are the souls of dead children returning. At the end of the book a newly hatched butterfly starts its journey north – but what has become of our human heroes? That’s for readers lucky enough to get their hands on a copy of this wonderful book to find out.
Kuper and his family lived in Oaxaca from 2006 to 2008 and return annually for visits; you can see both familiarity and love in his terrific drawings of the city and its natural surroundings. Just as it tempers monochrome with color, Ruins carefully balances sadness and hope. If you think a graphic novel can’t sustain an involved and satisfying plot, think again. I’d especially recommend this to Barbara Kingsolver fans – the Mexican setting and monarch migration theme tie in with The Lacuna and Flight Behavior, respectively.
With thanks to the publisher, SelfMadeHero, for the free copy.