As usual, I have a big backlog of 2021–22 releases I’m working my way through. I’ll get there eventually! Today I’m reporting on a poetry collection about English ancestry and wildlife, a vision of post-doubt Christian faith, and a set of essays on connection to nature, specifically flora. (I also take a brief look at some autofiction that didn’t work for me.)
Thorpeness by Alison Brackenbury (2022)
I’m familiar with Brackenbury from her appearance at New Networks for Nature in 2016 and her latest selected poems volume, Gallop. This, her tenth stand-alone collection, features abundant imagery of animals and the seasons, as in “Cucu” and “Postcard,” which marks the return of swifts. Alliteration is prominent, but there is also a handful of rhymes, like in “Fern.” Family history and the perhaps-idyllic rural underpin the verse set in Lincolnshire and Gloucestershire as Brackenbury searches for ancestral graves and delivers elegies.
I especially loved “Aunt Margaret’s Pudding,” a multipart poem about her grandmother’s life as a professional cook and then a mother of four, and “My Grandmother Waits for Christmas,” about a simple link between multiple generations’ Christmases: a sugar mouse. Caring for horses is another recurring theme; a 31-year-old blind pony receives a fond farewell.
There are also playful meetings between historical figures (“Purple Haze,” a dialogue between George Frideric Handel and Jimi Hendrix, who saw the composer’s ghost in their shared London home) and between past and contemporary, like “Thomas Hardy sends an email” (it opens “I need slide no confessions under doors”). “Charles Dickens at Home” was another favourite of mine. The title is the never-to-be-reached destination in the final poem, “Shingle.” A number of these poems were first broadcast on BBC Radio.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the e-copy for review.
Faith after Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do about It by Brian McLaren (2021)
I’ve explained before how McLaren’s books were pivotal to my spiritual journey, even before I attended the church he founded in Maryland. (I’ve also reviewed his previous book, God Unbound). His progressive, environmentalist theology is perfect for continuing searchers like me. At one of last year’s online Church Times Festival events, I saw him introduce the schema that underpins this book. He proposes that the spiritual life (not just Christian) has four stages that may overlap or repeat: simplicity, complexity, perplexity and harmony. The first stage is for new zealots who draw us–them divisions and are most concerned with orthodoxy. In the second, practitioners are more concerned with practicalities: what works, what makes life better. Perplexity is provoked by cynicism about injustice and hypocrisy, while harmony moves beyond dualism and into connection with other people and with nature.
McLaren suggest that honest doubting, far from being a problem, might present an opportunity for changing in the right direction, getting us closer to the “revolutionary love” at the heart of the gospel. He shares stories from his own life, in and out of ministry, and from readers who have contacted him remotely or come up to him after events, caught in dilemmas about what they believe and whether they want to raise their children into religion. Though he’s fully aware of the environmental crisis and doesn’t offer false hope that we as a species will survive it, he isn’t ready to give up on religion; he believes that a faith seasoned by doubt and matured into an understanding of the harmony of all things can be part of a solution.
It’s possible some would find McLaren’s ideas formulaic and his prose repetitive. His point of view always draws me in and gives me much to think about. I’ve been stuck in perplexity for, ooh, 20 years? I frequently ask myself why I persist in going to church when it’s so boring and so often feels like a social club for stick-in-the-mud white people instead of a force for change. But books like this and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, my current soul food, encourage me to keep pursuing spiritual connection as a worthwhile path. I’ll be seeking out his forthcoming book (due out in May), Do I Stay Christian?, too.
Some favourite lines:
“only doubt can save the world. Only doubt will open a doorway out of hostile orthodoxies – whether religious, cultural, economic or political. Only through the difficult passage of doubt can we emerge into a new stage of faith and a new regenerative way of life. Everything depends on making this passage.”
“Among all the other things doubt is – loss, loneliness, crisis, doorway, descent, dissent [these are each the subject of individual chapters early on in the book] – it is also this: a crossroads. At the crossroads of doubt, we either become better or bitter. We either break down or break through. We become cynics or sages, hollow or holy. We choose love or despair.”
“Blessed are the wonderers, for they shall find what is wonderful. … Blessed are the doubters, for they shall see through false gods. Blessed are the lovers, for they shall see God everywhere.”
With thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for the free copy for review.
This Book Is a Plant: How to Grow, Learn and Radically Engage with the Natural World (2022)
This collection of new essays and excerpts from previously published volumes accompanies the upcoming Wellcome Collection exhibition Rooted Beings (a collaboration with La Casa Encendida, Madrid, it’s curated by Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz and Emily Sargent and will run from 24 March to 29 August). The overarching theme is our connection with plants and fungi, and the ways in which they communicate. Some of the authors are known for their nature writing – there’s an excerpt from Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, Jessica J. Lee (author of Turning and Two Trees Make a Forest) contributes an essay on studying mosses, and a short section from Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass closes the book – while others are better known in other fields, like Susie Orbach and Abi Palmer (author of Sanatorium).
I especially enjoyed novelist Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s “Wilder Flowers,” which is about landscape painting, balcony gardening in pots, and what’s pretty versus what’s actually good for nature. (Wildflowers aren’t the panacea we are sometimes sold.) I was also interested to learn about quinine, which comes from the fever tree, in Kim Walker and Nataly Allasi Canales’ “Bitter Barks.” Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s essay on the Western influence on Inuit communities in northern Canada, reprinted from Granta, is one of the best individual pieces – forceful and with a unique voice, it advocates reframing the climate change debate in terms of human rights as opposed to the economy – but has nothing to do with plants specifically. There are also a couple of pieces that go strangely mystical, such as one on plant metaphors in the Kama Sutra. So, a mixed bag that jumbles science, paganism and postcolonial thought, but if you haven’t already encountered the Kimmerer and Sheldrake (or, e.g., Rooted by Lyanda Lynn Haupt and Losing Eden by Lucy Jones) you might find this a good primer.
With thanks to Profile Books / Wellcome Collection for the free copy for review.
And one that really didn’t work for me; my apologies to the author and publisher.
I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins (2021)
What a letdown after Gold Fame Citrus, one of my favourite novels of 2015. I’d also read Watkins’s debut short story collection, Battleborn, which won the Dylan Thomas Prize. Despite the amazing title and promising setup – autofiction that reflects on postpartum depression and her Mojave Desert upbringing as a daughter of one of the Manson Family cult members – this is indulgent, misguided, and largely unreadable.
A writer named Claire Vaye Watkins flies to Nevada to give a lecture and leaves her husband and baby daughter behind – for good? To commemorate her mother Martha, who died of an opiate overdose, she reprints Martha’s 1970s letters, which are unspeakably boring. I feel like Watkins wanted to write a memoir but didn’t give herself permission to choose nonfiction, so tried to turn her character Claire’s bad behaviour into a feminist odyssey of sexual freedom and ended up writing such atrocious lines as the below:
“I mostly boinked millennial preparers of beverages and schlepped to book festivals to hook up with whatever adequate rando lurked at the end of my signing line. This was what our open marriage looked like”
“‘Psychedelics tend to find me when I need them,’ she said, sending a rush of my blood to my vulva.”
Her vagina dentata (a myth, or a real condition?!) becomes a bizarre symbol of female power and rage. I could only bear to skim this.
Some lines I liked:
Listen: I am a messenger from the future. I am you in ten years. Pay attention! Don’t fetishize marriage and babies. Don’t succumb to the axial tilt of monogamy! I don’t pretend to know the details of your…situation, but I guarantee you, you’re as free as you’ll ever be. Have sex with anyone you want. Enjoy the fact that it might happen any minute. You could have sex with a man, a woman, both—tonight!
I went from being raised by a pack of coyotes to a fellowship at Princeton where I sat next to John McPhee at a dinner and we talked about rocks and he wasn’t at all afraid of me.
With thanks to riverrun for the proof copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
I’ve done a couple of other dual review posts this year (and I have another planned for Friday) where the books’ titles are so similar that I couldn’t resist discussing them together, even if the books themselves were extremely different. First I featured two books called Ex Libris; later I reviewed The Still Point with The Still Point of the Turning World. This time I have two 2021 releases: How Not to Be Afraid, Gareth Higgins’s self-help/theology book about resisting despair and living in faith; and Chinese American poet Jane Wong’s collection How to Not Be Afraid of Everything, which draws on her family history. Together the titles seemed like a perfect antidote to R.I.P. (more coming up for that on Halloween!).
How Not to Be Afraid: Seven Ways to Live When Everything Seems Terrifying by Gareth Higgins
I saw Higgins at the online Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature in April, after which I promptly ordered all the speakers’ books; I’m still reading the other three. He grew up in Northern Ireland in the waning days of the Troubles and has been involved in peacemaking projects as well as in artistic expressions of progressive Christianity such as Wild Goose Festival, which he co-founded, and The Porch, an online magazine he edits. Fear was ingrained in him from his upbringing and reinforced by the bullying he experienced over his sexuality. He writes that it took him decades to learn that fear is a story, one often based on false assumptions about our powerlessness, and that we can change the story.
There’s a psychological/self-help bent to the book as Higgins invites readers, through the exercises at the end of each chapter, to ponder what myths about the true self and its possibilities are limiting their lives. The “seven” of the subtitle actually refers to seven main types of fear, each addressed in turn, such as “fear of having done something that can’t be fixed,” “fear of not having enough,” and “fear of a meaningless life.” There’s a good mix of memoir, theory, anecdotes and therapy speak (though it’s never jargon-y), and while the perspective is Christian, the content is not so religious as to turn off anyone – unless they’re dead set against faith. Many passages hit me right in the solar plexus and made me long to work out how my life can be bigger and part of telling a better story. Particularly recommended to fans of Barbara Brown Taylor, Brian McLaren and Richard Rohr. (New purchase)
How to Not Be Afraid of Everything by Jane Wong
Wong is an assistant professor of creative writing at Western Washington University. The centerpiece of her second collection is “When You Died,” a 20-page epic about her grandparents’ experience during China’s “Great Leap Forward,” a 1950s–60s Maoist campaign of agricultural reform that led to severe famine. Her grandfather survived it and her mother was born at the tail end of it. Wong was born to immigrant parents in New Jersey and the atmosphere and imagery she uses to describe her living situation there reminded me of Qian Julie Wang’s in her memoir Beautiful Country.
Foodstuffs provide the figurative palette, with decay never far behind. I most enjoyed the multi-part poem “The Frontier” (“The frontier arranges itself / around me like a moat. / The frontier drops fruit / upon my head. I break open, / hot cantaloupe in winter. / I wobble around, spilling fruit / everywhere. All day, fruit flies / pay their respects.”) and “The Cactus,” about her spiky self-preservation instincts. This is the theme of the title poem as well:
How to not punch everyone in the face.
How to not protect everyone’s eyes from
my own punch. I have been practicing
my punch for years, loosening my limbs.
My jaw unhinged creates a felony I refuse
to go to court for.
There are many unusual metaphors and word choices, and a lot of the alliteration I love. Opening poem “Mad” is playfully set up like a Mad Libs game with all the key words as blanks. But at the same time, there are loads of prose poems – never my favourite thing to come across in a collection – and some long ones that I kept getting lost in.
Released by Alice James Books on the 12th. With thanks to Nectar Literary for the free e-copy for review.
I didn’t jump on the antiracist books bandwagon last year. Instead, my way into the topic was a work I became aware of through the online Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature. I was on the Church House website to buy books by several of the weekend’s contributors and a forthcoming release being advertised jumped out at me for its provocative title and fabulous cover: God Is Not a White Man. I promptly pre-ordered. It never fails to put this Gungor song in my head, and seemed an ideal way to engage with the issues from a perspective that makes sense to me. So for this latest batch of colour-themed summer reads I’m thinking about whiteness from the point of view of women of colour based in England and Ireland.
God Is Not a White Man (And Other Revelations) by Chine McDonald (2021)
Here’s where McDonald is coming from: she moved to England from Nigeria with her family as a small child, grew up on the Evangelical end of Anglicanism, works for Christian Aid, and is married to a white man. She’s used to being the only Black person in the room when she steps into a church or other Christian setting in the UK. “It is a sad fact that the Church often lags behind on racial justice, remaining intransigent on issues that the world has long since labelled oppressive and unjust [such as opposing interracial marriage].” Always in the background for her is the way Black people are being treated in other parts of the world: although she wrote the bulk of this book before George Floyd’s murder, she has updated it with details about Donald Trump’s late outrages and the Black Lives Matter movement. Her chief concern is for her young son, growing up as a male with brown skin.
The book is shaped around moments of revelation large and small. For instance, McDonald opens with the first time she saw a God who looked like her. It was through The Shack, a bestselling novel by William P. Young in which God the Father is portrayed as a big Black woman (played by Octavia Spencer in the film version). She notes how important such symbolism is: “When a Black woman only sees God reflected as a white man, then somewhere in her subconscious she believes that white men are better representations of God than she is, that she is made less in the image of God than they are.” Other topics are the importance of equal access and education (she went to Cambridge), and standards of beauty. Beyoncé helped her to love her body, curves and all, and feel a sense of Black sisterhood. I liked getting glimpses into her life, such as her big Nigerian wedding to Mark. (New purchase)
Links between the two books: The authors’ Nigerian heritage, plus McDonald mentions that she interviewed Dabiri at Greenbelt Festival in 2019 and has been trying to get up the courage to return to her natural hair, as Dabiri encouraged her (the Natural Hair Movement is the topic of Dabiri’s first book, Don’t Touch My Hair).
What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition by Emma Dabiri (2021)
Another terrific cover with a bold sans serif font. This is clearly in the mould of 2020’s antiracist books, but Dabiri wouldn’t thank you for considering her under the same umbrella. She doesn’t like the concept of allyship because it reinforces unhelpful roles: people of colour as victims and white people as the ones with power who can come and save the day.
Dabiri is Irish and Nigerian and grew up in the USA and Ireland. Her experience of racism was much more overt than McDonald’s, including verbal and physical abuse. She challenges white people to stop the denial: ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’, though artificial constructs, have been with us since at least the 1660s, so racism is a system we have all been born into. “We’ve been conditioned to see the world through that lens for centuries. … over that you have no control. What you do have control over is what you do next.”
Like McDonald, Dabiri emphasizes that monolithic categories like white and Black flatten a huge diversity of people and experiences (McDonald has a chapter entitled “Africa Is Not a Country”). But Dabiri has a more political (as well as, of course, a completely secular) approach: She wants readers to interrogate capitalism and think about how resources can be redistributed more fairly. Her notion of coalition is about identifying common ground and shared goals. “On the most basic level, we have to see our struggles as interconnected because they are, and because we are.”
Reading this was like encountering an extended TED talk. I wasn’t taken enough with Dabiri’s writing style to seek out her previous book, but if you have an interest in the subject matter you may as well pick up this 150-pager. It was small enough for me to pack in the back of our booze bag and read a bit of during a neighbour’s outdoor birthday party last weekend. I got a couple of “huh” looks, but that may have been just for reading during a party at all rather than for the specific content. (Public library)
Would I say that I enjoyed reading these two books? That’s a tough question. They were worthwhile, but also tedious in places, such that I did plenty of skimming. History, politics, sociology: these fields are not my reading comfort zone. The theological bent to McDonald’s work made it more to my taste than Dabiri’s contribution. Still, my whole reason for avoiding antiracist books was that I questioned my motivation. I didn’t want to read them because I felt I should; a sense of obligation is a recipe for resentment when it comes to books. I’m not sure to what extent readers should read things they feel they must. I look to books for learning opportunities, yes, but also for escape and pleasure. But maybe it’s valuable simply to show willing, to get outside your reading comfort zone and be open to hearing new ideas.
How about you? Would you pick up one of these for the educational value?
I have ALL of the rest of my 20 Books of Summer in progress at the moment. The only question is when I will next finish some!
It’s coming up on the one-year anniversary of the first UK lockdown and here we are still living our lives online. The first hint I had of how serious things were going to get was when a London event with Anne Tyler I was due to attend in March 2020 with Eric and Laura T. was cancelled, followed by … everything else. Oh well.
This February was a bountiful month for online literary conversations. I’m catching up now by writing up my notes from a few more events (after Saunders and Ishiguro) that helped to brighten my evenings and weekends.
Melanie Finn in Conversation with Claire Fuller
(Exile in Bookville American online bookstore event on Facebook, February 2nd)
I was a big fan of Melanie Finn’s 2015 novel Shame (retitled The Gloaming), which I reviewed for Third Way magazine. Her new book, The Hare, sounds appealing but isn’t yet available in the UK. Rosie and Bennett, a 20-years-older man, meet in New York City. Readers soon enough know that he is a scoundrel, but Rosie doesn’t, and they settle together in Vermont. A contemporary storyline looking back at how they met contrasts the romantic potential of their relationship with its current reality.
Fuller said The Hare is her favorite kind of novel: literary but also a page-turner. (Indeed, the same could be said of Fuller’s books.) She noted that Finn’s previous three novels are all partly set in Africa and have a seam of violence – perhaps justified – running through. Finn acknowledged that everyday life in a postcolonial country has been a recurring element in her fiction, arising from her own experience growing up in Kenya, but the new book marked a change of heart: there is so much coming out of Africa by Black writers that she feels she doesn’t have anything to add. The authors agreed you have to be cruel to your characters.
Finn believes descriptive writing is one of her strengths, perhaps due to her time as a journalist. She still takes inspiration from headlines. Now that she and her family (a wildlife filmmaker husband and twin daughters born in her forties) are rooted in Vermont, she sees more nature writing in her work. They recovered a clear-cut plot and grow their own food; they also forage in the woods, and a hunter shoots surplus deer and gives them the venison. Appropriately, she read a tense deer-hunting passage from The Hare. Finn also teaches skiing and offers much the same advice as about writing: repetition eventually leads to elegance.
I was especially interested to hear the two novelists compare their composition process. Finn races through a draft in two months, but rewriting takes her a year, and she always knows the ending in advance. Fuller’s work, on the other hand, is largely unplanned; she starts with a character and a place and then just writes, finding out what she’s created much later on. (If you’ve read her Women’s Prize-longlisted upcoming novel, Unsettled Ground, you, too, would have noted her mention of a derelict caravan in the woods that her son took her to see.) Both said they don’t really like writing! Finn said she likes the idea of being a writer, while Fuller that she likes having written – a direct echo of Dorothy Parker’s quip: “I hate writing. I love having written.” Their fiction makes a good pairing and the conversation flowed freely.
Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature, “Light in Darkness,” Part I
I’d attended once in person, in 2016 (see my write-up of Sarah Perry and more), when this was still known as Bloxham Festival and was held at Bloxham School in Oxfordshire. Starting next year, it will take place in central Oxford instead. I attended the three morning events of Part I; there’s another virtual program taking place on Saturday the 17th of April.
Rachel Mann on The Gospel of Eve
Mann opened with a long reading from Chapter 1 of her debut novel (I reviewed it here) and said it is about her “three favorite things: sex, death, and religion,” all of which involve a sort of self-emptying. Mark Oakley, dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, interviewed her. He noted that her book has been likened to “Dan Brown on steroids.” Mann laughed but recognizes that, though she’s a ‘serious poet’, her gift as a novelist is for pace. She’s a lover of thrillers and, like Brown, gets obsessed with secrets. Although she and her protagonist, Kitty, are outwardly similar (a rural, working-class background and theological training), she quoted Evelyn Waugh’s dictum that all characters should be based on at least three people. Mann argued that the Church has not dealt as well with desire as it has with friendship. She thinks the best priests, like novelists, are genuine and engage with other people’s stories.
Francis Spufford on Light Perpetual
Mann then interviewed Spufford about his second novel, which arose from his frequent walks to his teaching job at Goldsmiths College in London. A plaque on an Iceland commemorates a World War II bombing that killed 15 children in what was then a Woolworths. He decided to commit an act of “literary resurrection” – but through imaginary people in a made-up, working-class South London location. The idea was to mediate between time and eternity. “All lives are remarkable and exceptional if you look at them up close,” he said. The opening bombing scene is delivered in extreme slow motion and then the book jumps on in 15-year intervals, in a reminder of scale. He read a passage from the end of the book when Ben, a bus conductor who fell in love with a Nigerian woman who took him to her Pentecostal Church, is lying in a hospice bed. It was a beautiful litany of “Praise him” statements, a panorama of everyday life: “Praise him at food banks,” etc. It made for a very moving moment.
Mark Oakley on the books that got him through the pandemic
Oakley, in turn, was interviewed by Spufford – everyone did double duty as speaker and questioner! He mentioned six books that meant a lot to him during lockdown. Three of them I’d read myself and can also recommend: Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald (my nonfiction book of 2020), Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt (one of my top five poetry picks from 2020), and Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious by David Dark. His top read of all, though, is a book I haven’t read but would like to: Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour (see Susan’s review). Rounding out his six were The Act of Living by Frank Tallis, about the psychology of finding fulfillment, and The Hunted by Gabriel Bergmoser, a bleak thriller set in the Outback. He read a prepared sermon-like piece on the books rather than just having a chat about them, which made it a bit more difficult to engage.
Spufford asked him if his reading had been about catharsis. Perhaps for some of those choices, he conceded. Oakley spoke of two lessons learned from lockdown. One is “I am an incarnational Christian” in opposition to the way we’ve all now been reduced to screens, abstract and nonmobile. And secondly, “Don’t be prosaic.” He called literalism a curse and decried the thinness of binary views of the world. “Literature is always challenging your answers, asking who you are when you get beyond what you’re good at.” I thought that was an excellent point, as was his bottom line about books: “It’s not how many you get through, but how many get through to you.”
Gavin Francis in Conversation with Louise Welsh
(Wellcome Collection event, February 25th)
Francis, a medical doctor, wrote Intensive Care (I reviewed it here) month by month and sent chapters to his editor as he went along. Its narrative begins barely a year ago and yet it was published in January – a real feat given the usual time scale of book publishing. It was always meant to have the urgent feel of journalism, to be a “hot take,” as he put it, about COVID-19. He finds writing therapeutic; it helps him make sense of and process things as he looks back to the ‘before time’. He remembers first discussing this virus out of China with friends at a Burns Night supper in January 2020. Francis sees so many people using their “retrospecto-scopes” this year and asking what we might have done differently, if only we’d known.
He shook his head over the unnatural situations that Covid has forced us all into: “we’re gregarious mammals” and yet the virus is spread by voice and touch, so those are the very things we have to avoid. GP practices have had to fundamentally change how they operate, and he foresees telephone triage continuing even after the worst of this is over. He’s noted a rise in antidepressant use over the last year. So the vaccine, to him, is like “liquid hope”; even if not 100% protective, it does seem to prevent deaths and ventilation. Vaccination is like paying for the fire service, he said: it’s not a personal medical intervention but a community thing. This talk didn’t add a lot for me as I’d read the book, but for those who hadn’t, I’m sure it would have been an ideal introduction – and I enjoyed hearing the Scottish accents.
Bookish online events coming up soon: The Rathbones Folio Prize announcement on the 24th and Claire Fuller’s book launch for Unsettled Ground on the 25th.