Reading the Rathbones Folio Prize Poetry Shortlist
I borrowed the whole of this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize poetry shortlist from my local library and have enjoyed reading through it to see what the judges felt was worthy of recognition from 2022’s releases. Of course, personal taste comes into the appreciation of poetry, perhaps more so than for fiction or nonfiction, so I liked some of these more than others and suspect the judges’ final decision may differ from mine. Still, it’s always a pleasure to discover new-to-me poets and/or debut authors.
Ephemeron by Fiona Benson
This is Benson’s third collection but my first time reading her. I was fully engaged with her exquisite poems about the ephemeral, whether that be insect lives, boarding school days, primal emotions or moments from her children’s early years. The book is in four discrete corresponding sections (“Insect Love Songs,” “Boarding-School Tales,” “Translations from the Pasiphaë” and “Daughter Mother”) but the themes and language bleed from one into another and the whole is shot through with astonishing corporeality and eroticism.
The form varies quite a lot – bitty lines, stanzas, blocky paragraph-like stories – and alliteration, slant rhymes and unexpected metaphors (a wasp’s nest as “a piñata of stings,” “this avant-garde chandelier” and an “electric hotel / of spit-balled papier mâché”) make each poem glisten. I’ll even let her off for the long section inspired by my pet hate, Greek mythology (so gruesome, so convoluted), because of how she uses these melodramatic situations to explore universal emotions. She does something interesting with the story of the Minotaur (Asterios), suggesting that instead of being born a literal bull he was born deformed or disabled and no one knew what to make of him, but even so he had a mother’s love.
Here’s one section of “Magicicadas” as an example:
summons them up
after seventeen years,
down their backs
like the wet head
of a baby,
of their tight old skin
like an orgasm,
like an ecstatic gymnast
on the high trapeze;
their damp wings lemon
before they stiffen
and straighten, lattice brown.
Quiet by Victoria Adukwei Bulley
Protest doesn’t have to be loud; sometimes it can even be silent. In her debut, Bulley, a British-born Ghanaian poet, makes that especially clear with the pair “[ ] noise” (= white noise, inescapable) and “black noise” (an erasure poem). She models how language might be decolonized (particularly in “revision”) and how Black femininity might be reimagined (“fabula”). Along with her acknowledged debts to Lucille Clifton, bell hooks, Mary Oliver et al., I spotted echoes of Kei Miller (her “there is dark that moves” sounds like his “there is an anger that moves”) and Toni Morrison (Bulley includes the line “Quiet as it’s kept,” which is the opening of The Bluest Eye).
The collection is bold but never heavy-handed, and the seriousness of its topics (also including an early miscarriage) is lightened by poems about cats and snails. My two favourites were “not quiet as in quiet but,” which juxtaposes peacefulness and the comfortable life with the perils of not speaking out about injustice; and “Epigenetic,” about generations of traumatized bodies (“if your pain is alive in me / so too must be your joy.”).
Cane, Corn & Gully by Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa
Kinshasa is also a dancer, and in her debut the British-born Barbadian intersperses poems with choreographed dances, transcribed via hand-drawn symbols explained in a key at the end. I confess I couldn’t picture them at all, though they make attractive patterns on the page – you can see one in purple on the cover. This and the Caribbean patois in which she voices narratives of historical atrocities and contemporary microaggressions against Black people (particularly women) are the collection’s claims to novelty and probably impressed the judges. Yet I found both strategies to be affected and looked forward to those poems in standard language. Some of the events are given specific dates and places in Barbados while others are more generic. Female victims of sexual oppression seek revenge, as in the gruesome “Miss Barbados Is No Longer Vegan.” This probably works best aloud, to allow one to appreciate the musicality of the voice and the alliterative lines.
Some lines I liked:
we gambled all our wishes on dandelions,
now we celebrate de little tings
every unburnt rice grain & regrown eyelash
vaulting between lemon vines and dog friendly cafés.
just because we do what needs to be done,
it doan mean we nah ready, we just aware
there are too many of us to be martyrs
(from “Sometimes Death Is a Child Who Plays With Rubber Bands”)
The work is dangerous; writing into history is like feeding unknown seeds while attempting to control the rate of their growth. Sometimes when I danced, I inhaled the language of my ancestors’ captors, and they became mine.
(from “Preface: And if by Some Miracle”)
if you want something to become extinct
doan give it attention.
(from “Choreography: She, My Nation”)
England’s Green by Zaffar Kunial
A collection in praise of the country’s natural and cultural heritage, with poems about hedgerows and butterflies; cricket and the writings of the Brontë sisters. There are autobiographical reminiscences as well, most notably “The Crucible,” which describes the meeting between his Kashmiri father and his English mother’s father, who had refused to acknowledge the relationship for its first three years.
Kunial clearly delights in language, with wordplay and differing pronunciations fuelling “Foregrounds” et al. I particularly liked “Foxgloves” (“Sometimes I like to hide in the word / foxgloves – in the middle of foxgloves. The xgl is hard to say”) and “The Wind in the Willows,” where he wonders if the book title appeals to him just for its sound. This wasn’t as immediately cohesive and impressive as his first book, Us, but still well worth reading.
Some favourite lines:
“Prayer is not the words / but having none and staying” (from “Empty Words”)
“Life // is wider than its page. And days are a cut field, clipped and made to run on” (from “The Groundsman”)
Manorism by Yomi Sode
Like Surge or Poor (or what little I read of Citizen), this is driven by outrage and a longing for justice for Black people. I suspect that, like those precursors, it is a book best heard in performance, given that Sode honed his skills on London’s open mic circuit.
The first third of the book is under the heading “Aneephya,” a word Sode coined and defines as “the stress toxin of inherited trauma” – from slave ships to police checks. My two favourites were from this section: “L’Appel du Vide,” in which he ponders microaggressions while cooking a traditional West African mackerel and okra stew; and “A Plate of Artichokes,” about the time a waiter made him pre-pay for his meal and he went along with it even though he suspected other customers weren’t being asked to do the same.
Nigerian culture, rap music, being a father, and Black brotherhood are other themes, with recurring allusions to the work of Caravaggio. I also liked the long section on the decline and death of his great-aunt (“Big Mummy”) from cancer.
This was a book that made me feel super-white, but that’s not a problem: I can recognize its importance and appeal while also accepting that it’s not necessarily supposed to be for me.
Which of these poetry collections interest you?
Remainders of the Day by Shaun Bythell & What Remains? by Rupert Callender
I raced to finish all the September releases on my stack by the 30th, thinking I’d review them in one go, but that ended up being far too unwieldy. There was way too much to say about each of these excellent books (the first two pairs are here and here; Blurb Your Enthusiasm by Louise Willder is still to come, probably on Wednesday). I’ve mentioned before that the month’s crop of nonfiction was about either books or death. Here’s one of each, linked by their ‘remain’ titles. Both:
Remainders of the Day: More Diaries from The Bookshop, Wigtown by Shaun Bythell
It’s just over five years since many of us were introduced to Wigtown and the ups and downs of running a bookshop there through Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller. (I’ve also reviewed the follow-up, Confessions of a Bookseller, which was an enjoyable read for me during a 2019 trip to Milan, and 2020’s Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops.)
This third volume opens in February 2016. As in its predecessors, each monthly section is prefaced by an epigraph from a historical work on bookselling – this time R. M. Williamson’s 1904 Bits from an Old Bookshop. It’s the same winning formula as ever: the nearly daily entries start with the number of online orders received and filled, and end with the number of customers and the till takings for the day. (The average spend seems to be £10 per customer, which is fine in high tourist season but not so great in November and December when hardly anyone walks through the door.) In between, Bythell details notable customer encounters, interactions with shop helpers or local friends, trips out to buy book collections or go fishing, Wigtown events including the book festival, and the occasional snafu like the boiler breaking during a frigid November or his mum being hospitalized with a burst ulcer.
Reading May Sarton’s Encore recently, I came across a passage where she is reading a fellow writer’s journal (Doris Grumbach’s Coming into the End Zone):
I find hers extremely good reading, so I cannot bear to stop. I am reading it much too fast and I think I shall have to read it again. I know that I must not swallow it whole. There is something about a journal, I think, that does this to readers. So many readers tell me that they cannot put my journals down.
I’ve heard Zadie Smith say the same about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: it’s just the stuff of prosaic, everyday life and yet she refers to his memoirs/autofiction as literary crack.
I often read a whole month’s worth of entries at a sitting. I can think of a few specific reasons why Bythell’s journals are such addictive reading:
- “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.” Small-town settings are irresistible for many readers, and by now the fairly small cast of characters in Bythell’s books feel like old friends. Especially having been to Wigtown myself, I can picture many of the locations he writes about, and you get the rhythm of the seasons and the natural world as well as the town’s ebb and flow of visitors.
- (A related point) You know what to expect, and that’s a comforting thing. Bythell makes effective use of running gags. You know that when Granny, an occasional shop helper from Italy, appears, she will complain about her aches and pains, curse at Bythell and give him the finger. Petra’s belly-dancing class (held above the shop) will inevitably be poorly attended. If Eliot is visiting, he is sure to leave his shoes right where everyone will trip over them. Captain the cat will be portly and infuriating.
- What I most love about the series is the picture of the life cycle of books, from when they first enter the shop, or get picked up in his van, to when rejects are dropped at a Glasgow recycling plant. What happens in the meantime varies, with once-popular authors falling out of fashion while certain topics remain perennial bestsellers in the shop (railways, ornithology). There’s many a serendipitous moment when he comes across a book and it’s just what a customer wants, or buys a book as part of a lot and then sells it online the very next day. New, unpriced stock is always quick to go.
Also of note in this volume are his break-up with Amazon, after his account falls victim to algorithms and is suspended, the meta moment where he signs his first book contract with Profile, and the increasing presence of the Bookshop Band, who moved to Wigtown later in 2017. Bythell doesn’t seem to get much time to read – it’s a misconception of the bookselling life that you do nothing but read all day; you’d be better off as a book reviewer if that’s what you want – but when he does, it’s generally an intense experience: E.M. Forster’s sci-fi novella The Machine Stops (who knew it existed?!), Barbara Comyns’s A Touch of Mistletoe, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, and Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis.
I’m torn as to whether I hope there will be more year by year volumes filling in to the present day. As Annabel noted, the ‘where they are now’ approach in the Epilogue rather suggests that he and his publisher will leave it here at a trilogy. This might be for the best, as a few more pre-Covid years of the same routines could get old, though nosey parkers like myself will want to know how a confirmed bachelor turned into a family man…
Some favourite lines:
“Quiet day in the shop; even the cat looked bored.” (31 October)
“The life of the secondhand bookseller mainly involves moving boxes from one place to another, and trying to make them fit into a small space, like some sort of awful game of Tetris.”
(10 February and 15 March are great stand-alone entries that give a sense of what the whole is like. There are a lot of black-and-white photos printed amid the text in the first month; it’s a shame these don’t carry on through.)
With thanks to Profile Books for the free copy for review.
What Remains?: Life, Death and the Human Art of Undertaking by Rupert Callender
Call me morbid or call me realistic; in the last decade and a half I have read a lot of books about death, including terminal illness and bereavements. I’ve even read several nonfiction works by American mortician Caitlin Doughty. But I’ve not read anything quite like punk undertaker Rupert Callender’s manifesto about modern death and how much we get wrong in our conceptualization and conversations. It was poignant to be reading this in the weeks surrounding Queen Elizabeth II’s death – a time when death got more discussion than usual, yes, but when there was also some ridiculous pomp that obscured the basic human facts of it.
Callender is not okay with death, and never has been. When he was seven, his father died of a heart attack at age 63. His 1970s Edinburgh upbringing was shattered and his mother, who he has no doubt was doing her best, made a few terrible mistakes. First, a year before, she’d reassured him that his father wasn’t going to die. Second, she didn’t make him attend the funeral. (I still wish my mother had made me go back to tour my late grandmother’s house one final time when I was seven; instead, I stayed behind and played on a Ouija board with my cousins.) Third, she soon sent Callender away to boarding school, which left him feeling alone and betrayed. And lastly, when she died of cancer when he was 25, she had planned every detail of her funeral – whereas he believes that is a task for the survivors.
An orphan in his late twenties, Callender came across The Natural Death Handbook and it sealed his future. He’d been expelled from school and blown his inheritance; acid house culture had given him a sense of community. Now he had a vocation. The first funeral he coordinated was for a postman named Barry. The fourth was a suicide. Their first child burial was one of his partner’s daughter’s classmates.
Over the next two decades, he and his (now ex-)wife Claire based Totnes’ The Green Funeral Company on old-fashioned values and homespun ceremonies. They oppose the overmedicalization of death and the clinical detachment of places like crematoria. Callender is vehemently anti-embalming – an intrusive process that involves toxic substances. They encourage the bereaved to keep the body at home for the week before a funeral, if they feel able (ice packs like you’d use in a picnic cool bag will work a treat), and to be their own pallbearers to make the memory of the funeral day a physical one. He performs the eulogies himself, and they use cardboard coffins.
This is a slippery work for how it intersperses personal stories with polemic and poetic writing. Despite a roughly chronological throughline, it feels more like a thematic set of essays than a sequential narrative. Callender has turned death rituals into both performance art (including at festivals and in collaboration with The KLF) and political protests (e.g., a public funeral he conducted for a homeless man who died of exposure, the third such death in his town that year). While he doesn’t shy away from the gruesome realities of dealing with corpses, he always brings it back to fundamentals: matter is what we are, but who we were lives on in others’ loving memories. Death rituals plug us into a human lineage and proclaim meaning in the face of nothingness. Whether you’ve seen/read it all or never considered picking up a book about death, I recommend Callender’s sui generis approach.
Some favourite lines:
“[The practice of having official pallbearers] is all part of the emotional infantilising encouraged by the funeral industry, all part of being turned into an audience at one of the most significant moments in your family history, instead of being empowered as a family and a community.”
“each death we experience contains every death we have ever lived through, Russian dolls of bereavement waiting to be unpacked.”
“Only once you are dead can the full arc of your life be clearly seen, and telling that story out loud and truthfully to the people who shared it is a powerful social act that both binds us together and place us within our culture.”
With thanks to Chelsea Green for the proof copy for review.
And as a bonus, given that today is Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the USA, here’s an excerpt from my Shelf Awareness review of another book that came out last month:
No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies: A Lyric Essay by Julian Aguon
An indigenous human rights lawyer, Aguon is passionate about protecting his homeland of Guam, which is threatened by climate change and military expansion. His tender collage of autobiographical vignettes and public addresses inspires activism and celebrates beauty worth preserving. The U.S. Department of Defense’s plan to site more Marines and firing ranges on Guam will destroy more than 1,000 acres of limestone forest—home to endemic and endangered species, including the Mariana eight-spot butterfly. Aguon has been a lead litigator in appeals rising all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Rejecting fatalism, he endorses peaceful resistance. Two commencement speeches, poems, a eulogy and an interview round out the varied and heartfelt collection.
Summery Reads of 2020, Part I
Reading with the seasons, I’ve picked up a few books with “summer” or sunshine in their titles. I’ll have more to write up later in August, including novels set during the summer months.
A Summer Bird-Cage by Margaret Drabble (1963)
Sarah Bennett, who went straight from university in Oxford to Paris for want of a better idea of what to do with her life, is called home to Warwickshire to be a bridesmaid in the wedding of her older sister, Louise, to Stephen Halifax, a wealthy novelist. Afterwards, Sarah decides to move to London and share a flat with a friend whose marriage has recently ended. As the months pass, she figures out life as a single girl in a big city and attends parties hosted by Louise – back from an extended European honeymoon – and others. Sarah eventually works out, from gossip and from confronting Louise herself, that her sister’s marriage isn’t as idyllic as it appeared. Both sisters find themselves at a loss as for what to do next.
Although Drabble’s debut novel is low on action, its characters are sharply drawn and she delights in placing them in situations and conversations where their true values will emerge. I could relate to Sarah for her bookishness, her observant nature, and her feeling that her best days of being a student are behind her. Drabble was only 24 when this was published; though she was already married and a mother, her distinguished university career (a double first from Cambridge) wasn’t long behind her. Given that Drabble’s sister is novelist A.S. Byatt, it’s impossible not to speculate about the autobiographical inspiration for this picture of sisters who are subconscious rivals and don’t even seem to enjoy spending casual time together.
What with the sisters sharing the maiden name Bennett, you also can’t help but think of one of the classic sister novels, Pride and Prejudice. Drabble makes her debt obvious when Sarah goes over to Louise’s for dinner and comments on the “charming convention of the scene – sisters idling away an odd evening in happy companionship. It was like something out of Middlemarch or even Jane Austen.” I was also reminded of the sister pair in Deerbrook: one got all the beauty, but the other seems much more interesting.
The title comes from a John Webster quotation: “’Tis just like a summer bird-cage in a garden: / the birds that are without are desperate to get / in, and the birds that are within despair and / are in a consumption for fear that they will never / get out.” In other words, it’s easy to miss, and idealize, what you don’t have. Sarah still thinks she can have it all; Louise has realized the choices life forces on you. In modern parlance, this is about adulting and FOMO. It still feels relevant, in a way that seems to anticipate the work of Sally Rooney.
Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen (2006)
Another sisters novel, and the first book in my Journey through the Day with Books challenge. Meghan Fitzmaurice is a household name as the host of America’s most popular morning talk show, Rise and Shine, but her star fades rapidly when, her microphone still on after she thinks they’ve gone to a commercial break, she murmurs “f***ing a**hole” about a guest who is, admittedly, a creep. It turns out her outburst didn’t come out of nowhere: the night before, her husband, Evan, had announced he was leaving her. Meghan goes to Jamaica to regroup, leaving her younger sister, Bridget, a social worker in the Bronx, to figure out what happened and create a semblance of normalcy for her beloved nephew, Meghan’s college-age son Leo, who’s just back from an exchange program at a farm outside Barcelona.
I liked the New York City setting and the central sister relationship – “Sisters tend to get stuck in their roles and they don’t always know how to get out of them. The pretty one. The practical one,” their aunt Maureen, who raised them after their parents’ deaths, says – but the plot hereafter veers between thin and melodramatic. I didn’t warm to Bridget’s boyfriend Irving, a hardboiled older cop, and I get a little nervous about white ladies creating stereotypical African American characters and giving them names like Tequila (Bridget’s receptionist at the women’s shelter) and Princess Margaret (Tequila’s daughter).
In a nice bit of symmetry, though, the book’s end finds a subdued Meghan hosting a late-night show called Day’s End. I didn’t like this nearly as much as her nonfiction (I loved Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake), but I would read more by Quindlen: I also have a copy of One True Thing, and I have heard that her recent fiction is good.
And a skim from the library that ties in nicely with the cover image above:
The Butterfly Isles: A Summer in Search of Our Emperors and Admirals by Patrick Barkham (2010)
In 2009, Barkham set out to revive the childhood butterfly-watching hobby he’d shared with his father. The UK is home to 59 species, a manageable number to attempt to see in a season, although it does require a fair bit of travel and insider knowledge. I’ve read too much general history about the human relationship with butterflies (via Rainbow Dust by Peter Marren, which came out a few years later, and An Obsession with Butterflies by Sharman Apt Russell, which Barkham mentions in a Recommended Reading section at the end of the book) to engage with all the context he includes; I focused on the nitty-gritty of the quest running from mid-March to August. I’ll leave it to readers to discover whether he succeeds or not. Nice additions here are the color plates of all the species in question, and the line drawings by Helen Macdonald, yet to come to prominence in her own right – with H Is for Hawk in 2014.
A favorite passage: “Butterflies are symbols of freedom and happiness, sunshine and summer days. They are tokens of romance”
Have you been reading anything particularly fitting for summer this year?
20 Books of Summer, #11–13: Harrison, Pym, Russell
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)
One Book Leads to Another (Including Shepherds’ Memoirs)
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.
Magdalena Mountain by Robert Michael Pyle
“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.
Review: Ruins by Peter Kuper
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.