With bare trees leading down to the canal and frosty temperatures forecast for the weekend, it’s starting to feel more like winter here. I journeyed through a fine autumn with two obscure classics that ended up being gems.
Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice (1939)
MacNeice, a poet and man of letters from Northern Ireland, wrote this long verse narrative between August 1938 and the turn of the following year. It’s simultaneously about everything and nothing, about everyday life for the common worker and the political rumblings that suggest all is not right in the world. As summer fades and Christmas draws closer, he reflects on his disconnection from Ireland; and on fear, apathy and the longing for purpose.
Two in every four lines rhyme, but the rhyme scheme is so subtle that I was far into the book before I recognized it. I tend not to like prose poems, but this book offers a nice halfway house between complete sentences and a stanza form, and it voices the kinds of feelings we can all relate to. How can this possibly be 80 years old? It is so relevant to our situation now.
we think ‘This must be wrong, it has happened before,
Just like this before, we must be dreaming…’
now it seems futility, imbecility,
To be building shops when nobody can tell
What will happen next.
There are only too many who say ‘What difference does it make
One way or the other?
To turn the stream of history will take
More than a by-election.’
Still there are … the seeds of energy and choice
Still alive even if forbidden, hidden,
And while a man has voice
He may recover music.
The university library copy I borrowed smells faintly of incense, so reading it was rather like slipping into the back pew of an old church and pondering timelessness.
Autumn Across America by Edwin Way Teale (1950)
Teale is a lesser-known naturalist who specialized in insects and edited or introduced works by famous natural historians of a previous era like Thoreau, Fabre, Hudson and Muir. In the late 1940s he and his wife Nellie set out on a meandering 20,000-mile road trip from Cape Cod on the Atlantic coast to Point Reyes on the Pacific to track autumn from its first hints to its last gasp. It was the third of four seasonal journeys the Teales undertook in part to distract them from their grief over their son David, who was killed in Germany during WWII. Their route passes through about half the states and experiences nearly every landscape you can imagine, some that are familiar to me and others that would be totally new. They delve in rockpools; observe bird and monarch migration; cross desert, mountains and prairie; and watch sea otters at play.
Although there is a sense of abundance – they see a million ducks in one day, and pass dozens of roadkill jackrabbits – like Aldo Leopold, Teale was an early conservationist who sounded the alarm about flora and fauna becoming rarer: “So much was going even as we watched.” His descriptions of nature are simply gorgeous, while the scientific explanations of leaf color, “Indian summer” and animal communication are at just the right level for the average reader. This was a lucky find at the Book Thing of Baltimore this past spring, and if I ever get the chance, I will delight in reading the other three in the quartet.
Some favorite lines:
“The stars speak of man’s insignificance in the long eternity of time; the desert speaks of his insignificance right now.”
“Those to whom the trees, the birds, the wildflowers represent only ‘locked-up dollars’ have never known or really seen these things. They have never experienced an interest in nature for itself. Whoever stimulates a wider appreciation of nature, a wider understanding of nature, a wider love of nature for its own sake accomplishes no small thing.”
I’m also still reading Led by the Nose: A Garden of Smells by Jenny Joseph, a book about what you see and smell in the garden month by month. I only have the December chapter still to read, followed by some lists of plants set out by ‘when they smell’ and when you plant them. I’ve also been slowly working through A Country Year: Living the Questions by Sue Hubbell, another Book Thing find. After her divorce, Hubbell lived alone on her 90 acres in the Ozarks of Missouri, keeping bees and conscientiously rebuilding a life in communion with nature. I still have the final two sections, “Winter” and “Spring,” left to read.
How’s the weather where you are?
Have you read any “Autumn” books lately?
I recently participated in the one-week “My Life in Books” extravaganza hosted by Simon Thomas (Stuck in a Book), where he asks bloggers to choose five books that have been important to them at different points in their reading lives. The neat twist is that he puts the bloggers in pairs and asks them to comment anonymously on their partner’s reading choices and even come up with an apt book recommendation or two. A few of my selections will be familiar from the two Landmark Books posts I wrote in 2016 (here and here), but a couple are new, and it was fun to think about what’s changed versus what’s endured in my reading taste.
Shiny New Books
Irreplaceable by Julian Hoffman: If you read one 2019 release, make it this one. (It’s too important a book to dilute that statement with qualifiers.) Species and habitat loss are hard to comprehend even when we know the facts. This book is a way of taking stock, taking responsibility, and going beyond the numbers to tell the stories of front-line conservation work. From the Kent marshes to the Coral Triangle off Indonesia, Hoffman discovers the situation on the ground and talks to the people involved in protecting places at risk of destruction. Reassuringly, these aren’t usually genius scientists or well-funded heroes, but ordinary citizens who are concerned about preserving nearby sites that mean something to them. Irreplaceable is an elegy of sorts, but, more importantly, it’s a call to arms. It places environmentalism in the hands of laypeople and offers hope that in working together in the spirit of defiance we can achieve great things. It takes local concerns seriously, yet its scope is international. But what truly lifts Hoffman’s work above most recent nature books is the exquisite prose.
Times Literary Supplement
These three reviews are forthcoming.
The Heat of the Moment: Life and Death Decision-Making from a Firefighter by Sabrina Cohen-Hatton: Cohen-Hatton is one of the UK’s highest-ranking female firefighters. A few perilous situations inspired her to investigate how people make decisions under pressure. For a PhD in Psychology from Cardiff University, she delved into the neurology of decision-making. Although there is jargon in the book, she explains the terms well and uses relatable metaphors. However, the context about her research can be repetitive and basic, as if dumbed down for a general reader. The book shines when giving blow-by-blow accounts of real-life or composite incidents. Potential readers should bear in mind, though, that this is ultimately more of a management psychology book than a memoir.
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), a record of his two-year experiment living alone in a cabin near a Massachusetts pond, has inspired innumerable back-to-nature adventures, including these two books I discuss together in a longer article.
The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod by Henry Beston: Beston had a two-room wooden shack built at Cape Cod in 1925. Although he only intended to spend a fortnight of the following summer in the sixteen-by-twenty-foot dwelling, he stayed a year. The chronicle of that year, The Outermost House (originally published in 1928 and previously out of print in the UK), is a charming meditation on the turning of the seasons and the sometimes terrifying power of the sea. The writing is often poetic, with sibilance conjuring the sound of the ocean. Beston will be remembered for his statement of the proper relationship between humans and the natural world. “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” he declares; “they are not underlings; they are other nations.” One word stands out in The Outermost House: “elemental” appears a dozen times, evoking the grandeur of nature and the necessity of getting back to life’s basics.
(See also Susan’s review of this one.)
Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed by Catrina Davies: Davies crosses Thoreauvian language – many chapter titles and epigraphs are borrowed from Walden – with a Woolfian search for a room of her own. Penniless during an ongoing housing crisis and reeling from a series of precarious living situations, she moved into the shed near Land’s End that had served as her father’s architecture office until he went bankrupt. Like Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path, this intimate, engaging memoir is a sobering reminder that homelessness is not so remote, and education is no guarantee of success. There is, understandably, a sense of righteous indignation here against a land-owning class – including the lord who owns much of the area where she lives and works – and government policies that favour the wealthy.
I’ve been reading a feminist memoir set on Cape Cod, a subtle novel about the inner life and outward experiences of a writer, a soapy literary thriller about a troubled mother and teen daughter, and a slightly melancholy reminiscence of an aged mother succumbing to dementia.
A Walk on the Beach: Tales of Wisdom from an Unconventional Woman by Joan Anderson (2004)
This is the third volume in a loose autobiographical trilogy about Anderson’s experiment with taking a break from her marriage and living alone in a Cape Cod cottage to figure out what she really wanted from the rest of her life. Specifically, this book is about the inspirational relationship she formed with Joan Erikson, who moved to the area in her eighties when her husband, the famous psychologist Erik Erikson, was admitted to a care home. Joanie was a thinker and author in her own right, publishing books on life’s stages, especially those of older age. She encouraged Anderson to have the confidence to write her own story, and to take up challenges like a trip to Peru and learning to weave on a loom. Joanie’s aphoristic advice is valuable, but there’s a fair bit of overlap between this book and A Year by the Sea, which I would recommend over this.
Some of Joan Erikson’s words of wisdom:
“Doing something with your hands, rather than your head, is often the best route to clarity.”
“wisdom comes from life’s experiences well digested. Stop relying so much on your mind and get in touch with experience.”
“The struggle is to try and obtain a sense of participation in your life the whole way through. We must treasure old age, but not wallow in nostalgia.”
Transit by Rachel Cusk (2016)
I finally made it through a Rachel Cusk book! (This was my third attempt; I made it just a few pages into Aftermath and 60 pages through Outline.) I suspected this would make a good plane read, and thankfully I was right. Each chapter is a perfectly formed short story, a snapshot of one aspect of Faye’s life and the relationships that have shaped her: a former lover she bumps into in London, a builder who tells her the flat she’s bought is a lost cause, the awful downstairs neighbors who hate her with a passion, the fellow writers (based on Edmund White and Karl Ove Knausgaard?) at a literary festival event who hog most of the time, the jolly Eastern European construction workers who undertake her renovations, a childless friend who works in fashion design, and a country cousin who’s struggling with his new blended family.
Like in Outline, the novel is based largely on the conversations Faye overhears or participates in (“I had found out more, I said, by listening than I had ever thought possible”), but I sensed more of her personality this time, and could relate to her questioning: Why do her neighbors hate her so? How much of her life is fated, and how much has she chosen? I doubt I’ll read another book by Cusk, but I ended up surprisingly grateful to have gotten hold of this one as a free proof copy of the new paperback edition from the Faber Spring Party.
Some favorite lines:
“we examine least what has formed us the most, and instead find ourselves driven blindly to re-enact it.”
“Without children or partner, without meaningful family or a home, a day can last an eternity: a life without those things is a life without a story, a life in which there is nothing – no narrative flights, no plot developments, no immersive human dramas – to alleviate the cruelly meticulous passing of time.”
White Oleander by Janet Fitch (1999)
Man, that Oprah knows how to pick ’em! This was a terrific read; I’m not sure why I’d never gotten to it before. I read huge chunks during my travel to the States and then slowed down quite a bit, which was a shame because it meant I felt less connected to Astrid’s later struggles in the foster care system. It’s an atmospheric novel full of oppressive Los Angeles heat and a classic noir flavor that shades into gritty realism as it goes on, taking us from when Astrid is 12 to when she’s a young woman out in the world on her own.
Astrid’s mother Ingrid, an elitist poet, becomes obsessed with a lover who spurned her and goes to jail for his murder. Bouncing between foster homes and children’s institutions, Astrid is plunged into a world of sex, drugs, violence and short-lived piety. “Like a limpet I attached to anything, anyone who showed me the least attention,” she writes. Her role models change over the years, but always in the background is the icy influence of her mother, through letters and visits.
Fitch’s writing is sumptuous, as in a house “the color of a tropical lagoon on a postcard thirty years out of date, a Gauguin syphilitic nightmare.” I might have liked a tiny bit more of Ingrid in the book, but I can still recommend this one wholeheartedly as summer reading.
Some favorite lines:
The knock-out opening two lines: “The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blossoms, their dagger green leaves.”
“I couldn’t imagine my mother in prison. She didn’t smoke or chew on toothpicks. She didn’t say ‘bitch’ or ‘fuck.’ She spoke four languages, quoted T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas, drank Lapsang souchong out of a porcelain cup. She had never been inside a McDonald’s. She had lived in Paris and Amsterdam. Freiburg and Martinique. How could she be in prison?”
The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle (1974)
L’Engle is better known for children’s books, but wrote tons for adults, too. In this second volume of The Crosswicks Journal, she recounts her family history as a way of remembering on behalf of her mother, who at age 90 was slipping into dementia in her final summer. “I talked awhile, earlier this summer, about wanting my mother to have a dignified death. But there is nothing dignified about incontinence and senility.” L’Engle found herself in the unwanted position of being like her mother’s mother, and had to accept that she had no control over the situation. “This summer is practice in dying for me as well as for my mother.”
One of the reasons L’Engle was driven to write science fiction was because she couldn’t reconcile the idea of permanent human extinction with her Christian faith, but nor could she honestly affirm every word of the Creed. Hers is a more broad-minded, mystical spirituality that really appeals to me. (Her early life reminds me of May Sarton’s, as recounted in I Knew a Phoenix: both were born right around World War I, raised partially in Europe and sent to boarding school; a frequent theme in their nonfiction is the regenerative power of solitude and of the writing process itself.)
Some favorite lines:
“I said [in a lecture] that the artist’s response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, not to impose restrictive rules but to rejoice in pattern and meaning, for there is something in all artists which rejects coincidence and accident. And I went on to say that we must meet the precariousness of the universe without self-pity, and with dignity and courage.”
“Our lives are given a certain dignity by their very evanescence. If there were never to be an end to my quiet moments at the brook, if I could sit on the rock forever, I would not treasure these minutes so much. If our associations with the people we love were to have no termination, we would not value them as much as we do.”
Every month I compile the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to click on the link to read more.
The Good Guy by Susan Beale: You might think there’s nothing new to add to the suburban-angst-and-adultery storyline. What Beale does so beautifully in this debut novel is to put you right into the minds of the three main characters. This is a story about the differences between what’s easy and what’s right, and the quest to make amends wherever possible. It’s also a cautionary tale: be careful what you wish for, because that boring life you were so eager to escape may just be what you wanted after all. I also love the range of settings, from the dazzling Shoppers’ World mall to a beach house on Cape Cod. This is a delicious, slightly gossipy summer read with a Mad Men feel to it. I’d especially recommend this to fans of The Longest Night and Tigers in Red Weather. Releases June 16th.
Invincible Summer by Alice Adams: Four Bristol University friends navigate the highs and lows of life in the 20 years following graduation. Like in One Day, the narrative checks in on the characters nearly every summer. As happens in real life, even the closest friends gradually drift apart. Job situations and relationships change, and external events like the financial collapse of 2008 take a toll. Compared to some other similar recent novels (e.g. Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma), this debut somewhat lacks sparkle. Releases June 2nd in the UK and June 28th in the USA.
This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell: O’Farrell’s globe-trotting seventh novel opens in 2010 with Daniel Sullivan, an American linguistics professor in Donegal. Spreading outward from Ireland and reaching into every character’s past and future, this has all O’Farrell’s trademark insight into family and romantic relationships, as well as her gorgeous prose and precise imagery. The disparate locations and the title suggest our nomadic modern condition. It’s the widest scope she has attempted yet; that’s both a good and a bad thing. I did wonder if there were a few too many characters and plot threads.
(A subscriber service, so I can only make excerpts available.)
The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church: In Church’s debut, an amateur ornithologist learns about love and sacrifice through marriage to a Los Alamos physicist and a relationship with a Vietnam veteran. Torn between two men who mean so much to her, Meri has to consider what her true duties are. “There was no good solution. No clear way out, no approach that would earn the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” she wryly observes. I instantly warmed to Meri as a narrator and loved following her unpredictable life story. Church reveals the difficulty a woman of that time had in choosing her own path and making it fit into men’s plans, and shows how love, as the title suggests, can be a burden but also a thing of reassuring substance. Meri longs, like one of her beloved birds, to take flight into her dreams. Whether she gets there, and how, is a bittersweet trip but one you’ll be glad you went along for.
The North Water by Ian McGuire: A gritty tale of adventure and murder set aboard a mid-nineteenth-century whaling ship. Archaic adjectives pile up in a clever recreation of Victorian prose: “The men, empurpled, reeking, drenched in the fish’s steaming, expectorated gore.” Much of the novel is bleak and brutal like that. There are a lot of “F” and “C” words, too; this is so impeccably researched that I don’t doubt the language is accurate. McGuire never shies away from gory detail, whether that’s putrid smells, bodily fluids, animal slaughter, or human cruelty. I thought the novel’s villain was perhaps too evil, with no redeeming features. Still, this is a powerful inquiry into human nature and the making of ethical choices in extreme circumstances. From the open seas to the forbidding polar regions, this is a journey worth taking.
Rediscovering the Immune System as an Integrated Organ by Peter Bretscher: A rigorous introduction to current immunological thought. Vocabulary terms are given in bold italics and defined in context on first use, and each chapter ends with a helpful synopsis. However, these summaries are almost as dense as the text itself, and the many acronyms are difficult to keep straight. Unlike a textbook, though, the book also contains welcome snippets of autobiography. Bretscher traces not just the evolution of immunological knowledge, but also the development of his own thinking. This will be an invaluable resource for students in search of a nonstandard immunology primer. With research under way into vaccinations against AIDS, tuberculosis, and cancer, the field has a bright future.
Crowning Glory: An experiment in self-discovery through disguise by Stacy Harshman: In 2005, Harshman decided to embark on a sociological experiment-cum-personal challenge: each week for six weeks she donned a different wig, and with the help of her assistant, Bonnie, she carefully recorded the reactions she received from onlookers and potential partners. Each day she chose three New York City locales, taking in events like lunch, happy hour, and late night socializing. Recalling the time she was hospitalized for a psychotic break in 2000, she marvels at how changing hairstyles could help her feel self-assured and sexy. The book is an appealing cross between a scientific study and a spy story.
All at Sea by Decca Aitkenhead: In May 2014, Aitkenhead, a Guardian writer, was on vacation with her partner Tony Wilkinson and their two young sons in Jamaica. A beautiful sunny morning turned disastrous when Tony swam out to rescue their son Jake and drowned. After the tragic events of the first chapter, this wrenching memoir retreats to consider the 10 years she and Tony (a former criminal and crack addict) spent as “the most implausible couple I have ever known.” More than half the book is devoted to the aftermath of Tony’s death, described in a matter-of-fact style that still manages to convey the depth of Aitkenhead’s pain. This is a unique combination of a journalist’s forthright storytelling and the ‘magical thinking’ Joan Didion introduced. Releases in the States on August 16th.
Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent by Mircea Eliade: This rediscovered Romanian classic is what you might get if a teenage Adrian Mole was studying for a philosophy degree. Before picking this up I knew of Eliade as a commentator on world religions. I didn’t realize he also wrote novels. This is particularly special in that it’s a lost manuscript he wrote as a teenager; it was only discovered in a Bucharest attic after his death in the 1980s. The novel’s chief detriments – the repetitive nature of the sections about his schooling, and his obsessive introspection – are also, ironically, what make it most true to the adolescent experience. I’d recommend it to fans of My Brilliant Friend and Melanie Sumner’s How to Write a Novel.
Quiet Flows the Una by Faruk Šehić: This autobiographical novel by a Bosnian poet and former soldier is full of poetic language and nature imagery. The narrator transcends his sordid war memories through his magical approach to life. Actual war scenes only come much later in the book; even then they are conveyed in such an abstract style that they seem more like hallucinations than remembered events. The lyrical writing about his beloved river provides a perfect counterpoint to the horror and absurdity of war. “We made this town, Bosanska Krupa, of black mire, yellow sand and green water borrowed from the Una. The tall towers of our town tickle God’s feet.” What most impressed me about passages like that one is the alliteration that shines through even after translation. I would highly recommend this to readers of Anthony Marra and Daniel Kehlmann.
Shelter by Jung Yun: A Korean-American family faces up to violence past and present in this strong debut. Finances and relationships just keep going from bad to worse, as the novel’s tripartite structure suggests: “Dawn” cedes to “Dusk,” which descends into “Night.” You wonder just how terrible things can get – will this really reach the Thomas Hardy levels of tragedy it seems to portend? – until, in the incredible last 10 pages, Yun pulls back from violence and offers the hope of redemption. I did wonder if there were a few too many secondary characters. However, the Korean-American culture of honor and shame makes a perfect setting. I would recommend this to fans of David Vann and Richard Ford.
The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang: Mental illness haunts an Asian-American family in this offbeat multi-generational saga. Wang’s debut novel opens in 1968 with David Nowak reporting from the motel room where he plans to kill himself. Succeeding portions of the novel are narrated from other perspectives: David’s wife Jia-Hui, aka Daisy, whom he met in Taiwan; then their son William and his half-sister Gillian. Jia-Hui’s narrative is the most entrancing. Presented as a translation, it includes occasional foreign characters or blank spaces where she couldn’t quite catch what someone was saying in English. Her sections are full of foreboding about the family legacy of madness. I was reminded most of A Reunion of Ghosts and All My Puny Sorrows. Something about this book left a slightly bitter aftertaste for me, but there’s no doubt Wang has fine plotting, character building, and prose skills.
The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught Her to Fly by Luis Sepúlveda: Zorba, a fat black cat, will be alone this summer while his boy’s family go on holiday – convenient given the adventure that’s about to befall him. Kengah, an exhausted and oil-drenched seagull, lands on his balcony and lays a final, precious egg. She makes Zorba promise he will not eat the egg but will look after her baby and teach it to fly. He enlists his motley group of fellow cats at the port of Hamburg to help him figure out how to raise a chick. Sepúlveda, a Chilean author, was jailed under the Pinochet regime and was later on the crew of a Greenpeace ship. The environmental message here is noticeable but not overpowering. Geared towards confident nine- to eleven-year-olds, this might also be read aloud with younger children.
Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu by Yi Shun Lai: Marty Wu is an advertising account executive for a NYC retirees’ magazine but dreams of opening her own costume shop. This debut novel is her Bridget Jones-esque diary, often written in a kind of shorthand style contrasting her goals with her seemingly inevitably failures, as in: “Crap. Is 4:00 a.m. Have breakfast meeting. Must sleep.” She’s constantly quoting to herself the advice and wisdom she’s gleaned from various motivational books she picked up in hopes of self-improvement. Lai writes engagingly about the contrasts between Taiwan and the States, especially the complexities of family roles. This is a lighthearted, summery read. Watch Marty ditch self-help books and start living the life she wants anyway.
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue: A nurse investigates the case of an Irish girl surviving without food for months: miracle or hoax? The novel draws on about 50 historical cases of “Fasting Girls” that occurred in Europe and North America in the 16th to 20th centuries. It sets up a particularly effective contrast between medicine and superstition. Donoghue writes convincing, vivid historical fiction, peppering the text with small details about everything from literature to technology. This is the fifth book I’ve read by her, and it’s by far my favorite. With the two-week time limit and the fact that most scenes take place in the cabin – with just a handful set in other village locales like the bog and the pub where Lib stays – this has something of the flavor of a locked-room mystery. Releases September 20th.
Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint: A nostalgic tour through a soccer fan’s highlights. Over the years Toussaint has realized what he loves about the sport: its seasonality (the World Cup “comes round every four years with the regularity of a leap-year seasonal fruit”) and the rituals of attending a match. On the other hand, he recognizes downsides, such as temporary permission given to chauvinism and the fact that it doesn’t age well – it’s an instant thing; one doesn’t tend to watch repeats. My favorite chapter, set in 2014, is less about sports and more about a hard time in the author’s personal life: he had recently lost his father and finished a ten-year novel sequence, leaving him unsure what to do next. I enjoyed his introspective passages about the writing life and the sense of purpose it gives his struggles. I was not the ideal reader, given my general antipathy to sports and my unfamiliarity with the author. All the same, I can see how this would appeal to fans of Fever Pitch.