The Wainwright Prize is my favourite nonfiction prize and one I follow closely because I tend to read many of the nature books released in the UK in any given year, as well as some popular science. I was honoured to be part of an “academy” of bloggers, booksellers, previous year judges and previously shortlisted authors asked to comment on a very long list of publisher submissions. These votes were used to help arrive at the longlists. This year, the categories have been subtly adjusted to avoid the problem there has been the past two years of certain books falling between the cracks because they are set between the UK and overseas. Now there is a clearer thematic division between narrative nature writing and conservation, without the UK/global dichotomy. For the first year, there is also a prize for children’s books on nature (fiction and non-). Several of my picks made it through to each longlist.
I’m snatching a few moments between a bistro dinner and seal watching out our B&B window on the tiny island of Berneray to put this together. Below I give brief comments based on what I’ve read so far and would like to read.
The 2022 James Cropper Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing longlist:
- Otherlands: A World in the Making, Dr Thomas Halliday (Allen Lane)
- 12 Birds to Save Your Life: Nature’s Lessons in Happiness, Charlie Corbett (Penguin)
- Goshawk Summer: A New Forest Season Unlike Any Other, James Aldred (Elliott & Thompson)
- Much Ado About Mothing: A year intoxicated by Britain’s rare and remarkable moths, James Lowen (Bloomsbury Wildlife)
- On Gallows Down: Place, Protest and Belonging, Nicola Chester (Chelsea Green Publishing)
- Shadowlands: A Journey through Lost Britain, Matthew Green (Faber & Faber)
- The Heeding, Rob Cowen, illustrated by Nick Hayes (Elliott & Thompson)
- The Instant, Amy Liptrot (Canongate)
- The Sea Is Not Made of Water: Life Between the Tides, Adam Nicolson (William Collins)
- The Trespasser’s Companion, Nick Hayes (Bloomsbury)
- Time on Rock: A Climber’s Route into the Mountains, Anna Fleming (Canongate)
- Wild Green Wonders: A Life in Nature, Patrick Barkham (Guardian Faber Publishing)
My thoughts: I have read and loved Goshawk Summer and On Gallows Down—the latter would be my overall top recommendation for the prize for how it fuses place-based memoir and passion for protecting wildlife and landscapes. I’ve also read The Heeding and The Instant but had mixed feelings about both. I’ve had the Barkham, Halliday and Nicolson out from the library but realized I only wanted to skim them – they were too dense (or, in the case of Barkham’s collected columns, too disparate) to read right through. I have a review copy of Much Ado about Mothing and have been finding it a delightful nature quest. I don’t know much about the four other titles, but would gladly read them if I found copies.
The 2022 James Cropper Wainwright Prize for Writing on Conservation:
- Abundance: Nature in Recovery, Karen Lloyd (Bloomsbury Wildlife)
- Aurochs and Auks, John Burnside (Little Toller Books)
- Climate Change Is Racist, Jeremy Williams and Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu (Icon Books)
- Divide: The relationship crisis between town and country, Anna Jones (Kyle Books)
- Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them, Dan Saladino (Jonathan Cape)
- Our Biggest Experiment: A History of the Climate Crisis, Alice Bell (Bloomsbury Sigma)
- Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet, George Monbiot (Allen Lane)
- Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse, Dave Goulson (Vintage)
- Soundings: Journeys in the Company of Whales, Doreen Cunningham (Virago)
- The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires that Run the World, Oliver Milman (Atlantic Books)
- The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth, Ben Rawlence (Jonathan Cape)
- The Women Who Saved the English Countryside, Matthew Kelly (Yale University Press)
- Wild Fell: Fighting for nature on a Lake District hill farm, Lee Schofield (Doubleday)
My thoughts: I’ve only read Aurochs and Auks and Silent Earth (which I reviewed for Shelf Awareness and would gladly see win the prize for shedding light on an aspect of the biodiversity crisis that’s not talked about enough; curious to longlist a second book, the Milman, on the same topic, though). I’d happily read any of the others. I’m particularly interested in Soundings, which I already have on my e-reader from a review opportunity I passed up.
The 2022 James Cropper Wainwright Prize for Children’s Writing on Nature and Conservation longlist:
- A Bug’s World, Dr Erica McAlister, illustrated by Stephanie Fizer Coleman (Wren & Rook)
- Around the World in 80 Trees, Ben Lerwill, illustrated by Kaja Kajfež (Welbeck)
- By Rowan and Yew, Melissa Harrison (Chicken House)
- Julia and the Shark, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, illustrated by Tom de Freston (Orion Children’s Books)
- Nests, Susan Ogilvy (Particular Books)
- October, October, Katya Balen, illustrated by Angela Harding (Bloomsbury Children’s Books)
- One World: 24 Hours on Planet Earth, Nicola Davies, illustrated by Jenni Desmond (Walker Books)
- Spark, Mitch Johnson (Orion Children’s Books)
- The Biggest Footprint: Eight billion humans. One clumsy giant, Rob Sears, illustrated by Tom Sears (Canongate)
- The Summer We Turned Green, William Sutcliffe (Bloomsbury YA)
- Twitch, M.G. Leonard (Walker Books)
- Wild Child: A Journey Through Nature, Dara McAnulty, illustrated by Barry Falls (Macmillan Children’s Books)
My thoughts: To my surprise, I’d read two of these: October, October and Wild Child. I’ve also read the Harrison novel that preceded this one. I’ve read other novels by Hargrave so would read this one, too. I’m unlikely to seek out any of the rest, but I’m pleased this new prize exists. If children are our only hope for surviving the climate crisis as a species, then we have to get them on-side as early as possible.
Overall thoughts: Pretty good representation of women on the lists! Just one person of colour this year, I think. A good mix of subjects; not too much repetition. (My husband (an entomologist) was pleased to see four books about insects.) And a decent balance of veteran versus new writers. I look forward to following the process and seeing who makes it through to the shortlist (on 28 July, with the winners to be announced on 7 September).
Have you read anything from the Wainwright Prize longlists?
Which of these books take your fancy?
The next two entries in my flora-themed summer reading are books I read for paid reviews, so I only give extracts from my thoughts below. These are both UK-based environmentalist travel memoirs and counted because of their titles, but do also feature plants in the text. I have various relevant books of my own and from the library on the go toward this challenge. Despite the complications of a rail strike and two cancelled trains, we have persisted in finding workarounds and making new bookings, so our trip to the Outer Hebrides is going ahead – whew! I’ll schedule a few posts for while I’m away and hope to share all that was seen and done (and read) when I’m back in early July.
Mistletoe Winter: Essays of a Naturalist throughout the Year by Roy Dennis (2021)
Dennis is among the UK’s wildlife conservation pioneers, particularly active in reintroducing birds of prey such as ospreys and white-tailed eagles (see also my response to his Restoring the Wild). In this essay collection, his excitement about everyday encounters with the natural world matches his zeal for momentous rewilding projects. The book entices with the wonders that can be experienced through close attention, like the dozen species’ worth of tracks identified on a snowy morning’s walk. Dennis is sober about wildlife declines witnessed in his lifetime. Practical and plain-speaking, he does not shy away from bold proposals. However, some of the pieces feel slight or dated, and it’s unclear how relevant the specific case studies will prove elsewhere. (Full review forthcoming for Foreword Reviews.)
Forget Me Not: Finding the forgotten species of climate-change Britain by Sophie Pavelle (2022)
A late-twenties science communicator for Beaver Trust, Pavelle is enthusiastic and self-deprecating. Her nature quest takes in insects like the marsh fritillary and bilberry bumblebee and marine species such as seagrass and the Atlantic salmon. Travelling between lockdowns in 2020–1, she takes low-carbon transport wherever possible and bolsters her trip accounts with context, much of it gleaned from Zoom calls and e-mail correspondence with experts from museums and universities. Refreshingly, half the interviewees are women, and her animal subjects are never obvious choices. The snappy writing – full of extended sartorial or food-related metaphors, puns and cheeky humour (the dung beetle chapter is a scatological highlight) – is a delight. (Full review forthcoming for the Times Literary Supplement.)
With thanks to Bloomsbury Wildlife for the free copy for review.
The shortlist for the second annual Barbellion Prize was announced earlier this month. I had already read one of the books, and publishers have kindly sent me two of the others for review. Still in the running this year are two novels, a poetry collection and a memoir (you can read a bit more about the longlist here).
Ultimatum Orangutan by Khairani Barokka (2021)
Barokka is an Indonesian poet and performance artist based in London. The topics of her second collection include chronic pain, the oppression of women, and the environmental crisis. While she’s distressed at the exploitation of nature, she sprinkles in humanist reminders of Indigenous peoples whose needs should also be valued. For instance, in the title poem, whose points of reference range from King Kong to palm oil plantations, she acknowledges that orangutans must be saved, but that people are also suffering in her native Indonesia. It’s a subtle plea for balanced consideration.
An early sequence about a visit to a Natural History Museum exemplifies the blend of themes. From her wheelchair, the poet ponders “the event” that killed the dinosaurs and human bias towards fellow vertebrates. Why can’t we appreciate a tiger for its own sake rather than its cultural and metaphorical associations? she asks in the following poem.
Medical realities aren’t as prominent as in some nominees – nowhere is it made clear what condition Okka has – but illness haunts certain lines: “my pills lie as armor with so many / glasses of water, upright and tensile / to save life against terrors by way / of circulatory relief” (from “on lying down, apocalyptic”). Concern about the environment also tips over into the apocalyptic in “situation report” and below:
“Fence and Repetition” sets out a palindrome of lines, and later on there are a golden shovel and an abecedarian, with tips of the hat to other poets. This more formal verse is in contrast with looser poems lacking capitalization or articles; in places the language even reads like pidgin. I found the phrasing unusual, forcing close attention to what’s actually going on. This wasn’t generally my cup of tea, but makes a striking entry on this year’s shortlist, and was a good chance to add my first Indonesian writer to my internal library.
With thanks to Nine Arches Press for the free copy for review.
What Willow Says by Lynn Buckle (2021)
This is a delicate novella about the bond between a grandmother and her eight-year-old granddaughter, who is deaf. After the death of the girl’s mother, Grandmother has been her primary guardian. She raises her on Irish legends and a love of nature, especially their local trees. They mourn when they see hedgerows needlessly flailed, and the girl often asks what her grandmother hears the trees saying. Because Grandmother narrates in the form of journal entries, there is dramatic irony between what readers learn and what she is not telling the little girl; we ache to think about what might happen for her in the future.
Yet Buckle takes care not to let the mood get too sombre, even though there is disquiet aplenty: empty housing blocks from the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger, rage at the stereotypes and ableism that the granddaughter faces, and the darkness of the myths surrounding the peat bogs and those who drown. This is mostly thanks to the lyrical writing wrapped around the six months or so of the action. Focusing on the relationship between these two, a lot of what happens is quiet and seasonal, from a picnic in the park to preparations for Christmas, but there is also a sign language class that introduces some other characters.
At points I found the prose too thick – it’s rare for me to come across vocabulary I don’t know and, especially in such a short book, terms like “ombrogenous mires,” “chironomy” and “sestude” stood out, not necessarily in a good way. But, overall, I enjoyed this study of other forms of communication – with hands, in writing, between humans and more-than-human nature, and perhaps even beyond the grave.
A favourite passage:
We struggle to hear in our household. Age, degeneration, aural complications and congenital conditions. Ignorance. We have confusing discussions, mistaken arrangements, and fights over hearing aid batteries. Plus, the convenience of not hearing when it suits us. Now we are trying to listen, to each other, and to trees. There is so much that we have never heard, so little time to hear it.
With thanks to Époque Press for the free copy for review.
The other two books on the shortlist are:
A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George (Bloomsbury)
My TLS review excerpt: Chronic illness long ago reduced her territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto George’s quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons.
Duck Feet by Ely Percy (Monstrous Regiment)
From the synopsis: “A coming-of-age novel, set in the mid-noughties in Renfrew and Paisley, Scotland. … This book is a celebration of youth in an ever-changing world. It uses humour to tackle hard-hitting subjects such as drugs, bullying, sexuality, and teenage pregnancy.”
I haven’t had a chance to read Duck Feet, so it’s hard to make any predictions about the winner. Last year a memoir by a woman won, so I’m not sure A Still Life will win, even though it’s my clear favourite of the three I’ve read. Perhaps it will be a novel this year?
The Barbellion Prize, awarded “to an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability,” will be announced on 12 February.
Do any of the shortlisted books appeal to you?
Hard to believe, but this past weekend was my seventh time attending the New Networks for Nature conference. It was held in Bath on this occasion, after a number of years in Stamford plus once each in Cambridge, York, and online (last year, of course). I happen to have written about it in most other years (2015, 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2020), and this year’s programme was so brilliant it would be a shame not to commemorate it. The weekend in Bath started off in a wonderful way: I was finally able to meet Susan of A life in books in person. We talked blogs and book prizes (and Covid and cats) over hot drinks by the Abbey square, and I even got her to sign my copy of her book, the Bloomsbury Essential Guide for Reading Groups.
As I’ve mentioned before, what makes New Networks for Nature special is the interdisciplinary approach: artists, poets, musicians, activists, academics and conservationists attend and speak. The audience, let alone the speakers’ roster, is a who’s who of familiar names and faces from the UK nature writing world. So although the event might seem geared more towards my ecologist husband, there’s always plenty to interest me, too. The conference planners make ongoing efforts to diversify the programme: this year there were several all-female panels and seven BIPOC appeared on stage. It was a hybrid event in two senses: people could live-stream from home if not comfortable attending in person, and a few speakers appeared on the screen from locations as far-flung as India and New Zealand.
I hadn’t had much time to peruse the programme before the conference began. Without exception, the sessions surpassed my expectations. The opening event on the Friday evening was, fittingly, about the question of inclusivity. Nicola Chester, author of On Gallows Down; Anita Roy, part of the Transition Town Wellington movement and co-editor of Gifts of Gravity and Light; and David Lindo, known as “The Urban Birder,” had a discussion with Seb Choudhury about access to ‘the countryside’, which they agreed is perhaps an unhelpful term that discourages people from going out and experiencing the wildlife on their doorstep.
Saturday opened with a panel on art and environmental awareness. Harriet Mead welds sculptures out of found objects, Rachel Taylor is a scientist who makes birds out of glass, and Sarah Gillespie is a landscape painter whose prints of moths are so lifelike you’d swear they’re photographs. Gillespie spoke for all of them when she said that attention breaks down the dualism between self and other, creating an exchange of energies, with the artist serving as the watchman. These observations appeared to hold true for nature writing as well.
Scientists and writers alike commented on plastics in the environment and species migration. Did you know that 500,000 tons of plastic food packaging is created in the UK per year? Or that dolphins form allyships and have a culture? In the afternoon we met three teenage climate activists who have been involved in school strikes, COP26 protests, and volunteering to cultivate green spaces. Their public speaking ability was phenomenal. A final session of the day was with Julian Hector, head of the BBC Natural History Unit. He showed clips from some of the most famous nature documentaries made during his tenure and polled the room about how they feel about the use of music for emotional manipulation.
Speaking of music, the highlight of the conference came about due to the unlikely friendship between Mary Colwell, writer and curlew conservation activist, and singer/songwriter David Gray, who met her after he donated to one of her campaigns and has since gone along on one of her fundraising walks, narrated and scored a short documentary on curlews (you can watch it here), and contributed a song to a forthcoming RSPB-funded album inspired by curlews. We had the absolute treat of attending his first public performance in over two years on the Saturday evening at St Swithin’s Church, a venue that holds perhaps 200 people – versus next year he’ll be filling 20,000-seat stadiums for his White Ladder 20th anniversary tour.
This was carefully billed as an evening in conversation with David Gray rather than a gig, but in the end we got seven songs performed live at the church piano, as opposed to the three originally planned, so I call that a win! Other song excerpts were played over the sound system: “Let the Truth Sting” from his ‘angry young man’ phase, “Accumulates” as an anti-consumerism screed, and “Gulls” (based on an obscure Belgian poem) and “The Sapling” to illustrate how nature imagery enters into his lyrics.
Raised in Pembrokeshire, Gray loved going out on a fishing boat with his neighbours and seeing the seabirds massing around Skomer Island. He said he doesn’t think he’s ever gotten over those childhood experiences, and now he welcomes every sighting of a barn owl near his home in Norfolk (and encouraged us all to start gluing ourselves to roads). One of the songs he performed was indeed “The White Owl,” from Skellig, released early this year. Subtler than some of his albums, it was mostly recorded in a live setup and is built around simple, almost chant-like repeats and harmonies. That incantatory beauty was evident on another song he played live, “No False Gods,” which I didn’t realize has at its core a line from a Nan Shepherd poem: “We are love’s body or we are undone.”
Gray finished the official programme with his unreleased curlew song, “The Arc,” but came back for an encore of “Birds of the High Arctic,” “All that We Asked For” and “Sail Away” – this last to great cheers of recognition. He couldn’t figure out how to finish it after the whistling so just gave a few last plinks and then a hearty laugh as he returned to the stage to answer questions. We were impressed with his eloquence, sense of humour and BIG voice, especially on “Ain’t No Love” (from what has been our favourite of his albums, 2005’s Life in Slow Motion) – I got the feeling he barely needed a microphone to fill the whole church.
Sunday morning opened, appropriately, with a panel on nature and spirituality, featuring Satish Kumar, an octogenarian peace pilgrim to nuclear sites; Jini Reddy, author of Wanderland; and Nick Mayhew-Smith, who’s travelled to places of Celtic spirituality around the British Isles, such as hermits’ caves. Kumar led us in a meditation on gratitude and belonging, and suggested that we are all connected, and all spiritual, because we all share the same breath. He described the world’s religions as many tributaries of the same river.
Perhaps my favourite session of all was on the role of nature in weird and Gothic literature. Authors Maggie Gee and Laura Jean McKay (both appearing via video link), and Ruth Padel, a New Networks stalwart, conversed with Bath Spa professor Richard Kerridge. Gee has been writing about climate change in her novels for nearly 40 years; she said the challenge is to make the language fresh again and connect with readers subliminally and emotionally, without preaching or lecturing. She called The Red Children, coming out in March, a future fairy tale, comic and hopeful, and read from the beginning, including a raven’s speech.
This connected with McKay’s The Animals in That Country, from which she read the passage where Jean realizes she can hear the lab mice talking to her. McKay said speculative fiction has been edging ever closer to reality in recent years; she recently realized she was reading Ling Ma’s zombie novel Severance as a guide to surviving the pandemic. In her opinion, novels are to open doors and ask questions – the opposite of what politicians do. Padel added that attention can be an antidote to eco-grief, with art a framework for creating resolution.
Longer sessions were punctuated with readings (from On Gallows Down and Samantha Walton’s Everybody Needs Beauty), performances (Merlyn Driver, who grew up without electricity and not going to school on Orkney, proposed the curlew album to the RSPB and played his song “Simmer Dim”) or short films – one on the plastic pollution encountered by a stand-up paddle boarder travelling the length of the Severn river and another on the regenerative farming a young couple are doing in Spain at Wild Finca.
The closest we came to a debate over the weekend was with the final session on ecotourism. Representing the pro side was Ian Redmond, who works with mountain gorillas in Rwanda. The $1500 fee that each group of tourists pays to be taken into the reserve goes directly to conserving their habitat. But to get there people burn carbon flying long distances, and Nick Acheson finds that unconscionable. After 20 years as a wildlife guide to the amazing animals of Madagascar and South America, he’s vowed never to fly again. He stays close to home in Norfolk and travels by bike. His statistics were arresting and his argumentation hard to counter. Think hard about your motivation, he challenged. If you truly want to help local people and wildlife, donate money instead. The white saviour mentality is a danger here, too.
Much food for thought, then, though always in the back of the mind is the knowledge that (as some speakers did say aloud) this event preaches to the choir. How to reach those who haven’t fallen in love with the natural world, or haven’t woken up to the climate crisis? Those questions remain, but each year we have NNN to recharge the batteries.
Next time the conference will be back to York for the first weekend of November, with a tagline of “Survive, Thrive, Revive.” I’m looking forward to it already!
Would any of the conference’s themes or events have interested you?
#NovNov meets #NonfictionNovember as nonfiction week of Novellas in November continues!
Tomorrow I’ll post my review of our buddy read for the week, The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (free from Project Gutenberg, here).
Today I review four nature books that celebrate marvelous but threatened creatures and ponder our place in relation to them.
Aurochs and Auks: Essays on Mortality and Extinction by John Burnside (2021)
I’ve read a novel, a memoir, and several poetry collections by Burnside. He’s a multitalented author who’s written in many different genres. These four essays are rich with allusions and chewy with philosophical questions. “Aurochs” traces ancient bulls from the classical world onward and notes the impossibility of entering others’ subjectivity – true for other humans, so how much more so for extinct animals. Imagination and empathy are required. Burnside recounts an incident from when he went to visit his former partner’s family cattle farm in Gloucestershire and a poorly cow fell against his legs. Sad as he felt for her, he couldn’t help.
“Auks” tells the story of how we drove the Great Auk to extinction and likens it to whaling, two tragic cases of exploiting species for our own ends. The second and fourth essays stood out most to me. “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood” links literal species extinction with the loss of a sense of place. The notion of ‘property’ means that land becomes a space to be filled. Contrast this with places devoid of time and ownership, like Chernobyl. Although I appreciated the discussion of solastalgia and ecological grief, much of the material here felt a rehashing of my other reading, such as Footprints, Islands of Abandonment, Irreplaceable, Losing Eden and Notes from an Apocalypse. Some Covid references date this one in an unfortunate way, while the final essay, “Blossom Ruins,” has a good reason for mentioning Covid-19: Burnside was hospitalized for it in April 2020, his near-death experience a further spur to contemplate extinction and false hope.
The academic register and frequent long quotations from other thinkers may give other readers pause. Those less familiar with current environmental nonfiction will probably get more out of these essays than I did, though overall I found them worth engaging with.
With thanks to Little Toller Books for the proof copy for review.
Kingfisher and Otter by Jim Crumley (2018)
[59 pages each]
Part of Crumley’s “Encounters in the Wild” series for the publisher Saraband, these are attractive wee hardbacks with covers by Carry Akroyd. (I’ve previously reviewed his The Company of Swans.) Each is based on the Scottish nature writer’s observations and serendipitous meetings, while an afterword gives additional information on the animal and its appearances in legend and literature.
An unexpected link between these two volumes was beavers, now thriving in Scotland after a recent reintroduction. Crumley marvels that, 400 years after their kind could last have interacted with beavers, otters have quickly gotten used to sharing rivers – to him this “suggests that race memory is indestructible.” Likewise, kingfishers gravitate to where beaver dams have created fish-filled ponds.
Kingfisher was, marginally, my preferred title from the pair. It sticks close to one spot, a particular “bend in the river” where the author watches faithfully and is occasionally rewarded by the sight of one or two kingfishers. As the book opens, he sees what at first looks like a small brown bird flying straight at him, until the head-on view becomes a profile that reveals a flash of electric blue. As the Gerard Manley Hopkins line has it (borrowed for the title of Alex Preston’s book on birdwatching), kingfishers “catch fire.” Lyrical writing and self-deprecating honesty about the necessity of waiting (perhaps in the soaking rain) for moments of magic made this a lovely read. “Colour is to kingfishers what slipperiness is to eels. … Vanishing and theory-shattering are what kingfishers do best.”
In Otter, Crumley ranges a bit more widely, prioritizing outlying Scottish islands from Shetland to Skye. It’s on Mull that he has the best views, seeing four otters in one day, though “no encounter is less than unforgettable.” He watches them playing with objects and tries to talk back to them by repeating their “Haah?” sound. “Everything I gather from familiar landscapes is more precious as a beholder, as a nature writer, because my own constant presence in that landscape is also a part of the pattern, and I reclaim the ancient right of my own species to be part of nature myself.”
From time to time we see a kingfisher flying down the canal. Some of our neighbors have also seen an otter swimming across from the end of the gardens, but despite our dusk vigils we haven’t been so lucky as to see one yet. I’ve only seen a wild otter once, at Ham Wall Nature Reserve in Somerset. One day, maybe there will be one right here in my backyard. (Public library)
World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (2020)
Nezhukumatathil, a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Mississippi, published four poetry collections before she made a splash with this beautifully illustrated collection of brief musings on species and the self – this was shortlisted for the Kirkus Prize. Some of the 28 pieces spotlight an animal simply for how head-shakingly wondrous it is, like the dancing frog or the cassowary. More often, though, a creature or plant is a figurative vehicle for uncovering an aspect of her past. An example: “A catalpa can give two brown girls in western Kansas a green umbrella from the sun. Don’t get too dark … our mother would remind us as we ambled out into the relentless midwestern light.”
The author’s Indian/Filipina family moved frequently for her mother’s medical jobs, and sometimes they were the only brown people around. Loneliness, the search for belonging and a compulsion to blend in are thus recurrent themes. As an adult, traveling for poetry residencies and sabbaticals exposes her to new species like whale sharks. Childhood trips back to India allowed her to spend time among peacocks, her favorite animal. In the American melting pot, her elementary school drawing of a peacock was considered unacceptable, but when she featured a bald eagle and flag instead she won a prize.
These pinpricks of the BIPOC experience struck me more powerfully than the actual nature writing, which can be shallow and twee. Talking to birds, praising the axolotl’s “smile,” directly addressing the reader – it’s all very nice, but somewhat uninformed; while she does admit to sadness and worry about what we are losing, her sunny outlook seemed out of touch at times. On the one hand, it’s great that she wanted to structure her fragments of memoir around amazing animals; on the other, I suspect that it cheapens a species to only consider it as a metaphor for the self (a vampire squid or potoo = her desire to camouflage herself in high school; flamingos = herself and other fragile long-legged college students; a bird of paradise = the guests dancing the Macarena at her wedding reception).
My favorite pieces were one on the corpse flower and the bookend duo on fireflies – she hits just the right note of nostalgia and warning: “I know I will search for fireflies all the rest of my days, even though they dwindle a little bit more each year. I can’t help it. They blink on and off, a lime glow to the summer night air, as if to say, I am still here, you are still here.”
With thanks to Souvenir Press for the free copy for review.
Any nature books on your reading pile?
The final choice for my colour-themed 20 Books of Summer, a terrific essay collection about the best and worst of the modern human experience, also happened to be the only one where the colour was part of the author’s name rather than the book’s title. I also have a bonus rainbow-covered read and a look back at the highlights of my summer reading.
The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet by John Green (2021)
(20 Books of Summer, #20) How Have You Enjoyed the Anthropocene So Far? That’s the literal translation of the book’s German title, but also a tidy summary of its approach. John Green is not only a YA author but also a new media star – he and his brother Hank are popular vlogging co-hosts, and this book arose from a podcast of the same name. Some of the essays first appeared on his various video projects, too. In about 5–10 pages, he takes a phenomenon experienced in the modern age, whether miraculous (sunsets, the Lascaux cave paintings, favourite films or songs), regrettable (Staph infections, CNN, our obsession with grass lawns), or just plain weird, and riffs on it, exploring its backstory, cultural manifestations and personal resonance.
Indeed, the essays reveal a lot about Green himself. I didn’t know of his struggles with anxiety and depression. “Harvey,” one of the standout essays, is about a breakdown he had in his early twenties when living in Chicago and working for Booklist magazine. His boss told him to take as much time as he needed, and urged him to watch Harvey, the Jimmy Stewart film about a man with an imaginary friend that happens to be a six-foot rabbit. It was the perfect prescription. In “Auld Lang Syne,” Green toggles between the history of the song and a friendship from his own old times, with an author and mentor who has since died. “Googling Strangers” prides itself on a very 21st-century skill by which he discovers that a critically injured boy from his time as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital lived to adulthood.
Green is well aware of the state of things: “Humans are already an ecological catastrophe … for many forms of life, humanity is the apocalypse.” He plays up the contradictions in everyday objects: air-conditioning is an environmental disaster, yet makes everyday life tolerable in vast swathes of the USA; Canada geese are still, to many, a symbol of wildness, but are almost frighteningly ubiquitous – one of the winners in the species roulette we’ve initiated. And although he’s clued in, he knows that in many respects he’s still living as if the world isn’t falling apart. “In the daily grind of a human life, there’s a lawn to mow, soccer practices to drive to, a mortgage to pay. And so I go on living the way I feel like people always have.” A sentiment that rings true for many of us: despite the background dread about where everything is headed, we just have to get on with our day-to-day obligations, right?
Although he’s from Indianapolis, a not particularly well regarded city of the Midwest, Green is far from the conservative, insular stereotype of that region. There are pockets of liberal, hipster culture all across the Midwest, in fact, and while he does joke about Indy in the vein of “well, you’ve gotta live somewhere,” it’s clear that he’s come to love the place – enough to set climactic scenes from two of his novels there. However, he’s also cosmopolitan enough – he’s a Liverpool FC fan, and one essay is set on a trip to Iceland – to be able to see America’s faults (which, to an extent, are shared by many Western countries) of greed and militarism and gluttony and more.
In any book like this, one might quibble with the particular items selected. I mostly skipped over the handful of pieces on sports and video games, for instance. But even when the phenomena were completely unknown to me, I was still tickled by Green’s take. For example, here he is rhapsodizing on Diet Dr Pepper: “Look at what humans can do! They can make ice-cold, sugary-sweet, zero-calorie soda that tastes like everything and also like nothing.” He veers between the funny and the heartfelt: “I want to be earnest, even if it’s embarrassing.”
Each essay closes with a star rating. What value does a numerical assessment have when he’s making such apples-and-oranges comparisons (a sporting performance vs. sycamore trees vs. hot dog eating contests)? Not all that much. (Of course, some might make that very argument about rating books, but I persist!) At first I thought the setup was a silly gimmick, but since reviewing anything and everything on Amazon/TripAdvisor/wherever is as much a characteristic of our era as everything he’s writing about, why not? Calamities get 1–1.5 stars, things that seemed good but have turned out to be mixed blessings might get 2–3 stars, and whatever he unabashedly loves gets 4.5–5 stars.
As Green astutely remarks, “when people write reviews, they are really writing a kind of memoir—here’s what my experience was.” So, because I found a lot that resonated with me and a lot that made me laugh, and admired his openness on mental health à la Matt Haig, but also found the choices random such that a few essays didn’t interest me and the whole doesn’t necessarily build a cohesive argument, I give The Anthropocene Reviewed four stars. I’d only ever read The Fault in Our Stars, one of the first YA books I loved, so this was a good reminder to try more of Green’s fiction soon.
Initially, I thought I might struggle to find 20 appealing colour-associated books, so I gave myself latitude to include books with different coloured covers. As it happens, I didn’t have to resort to choosing by cover, but I’ve thrown in this rainbow cover as an extra.
Songs in Ursa Major by Emma Brodie (2021)
A Daisy Jones and the Six wannabe for sure, and a fun enough summer read even though the writing doesn’t nearly live up to Reid’s. Set largely between 1969 and 1971, the novel stars Jane Quinn, who lives on New England’s Bayleen Island with her aunt, grandmother and cousin – her aspiring singer mother having disappeared when Jane was nine. Nursing and bartending keep Jane going while she tries to make her name with her band, the Breakers. Aunt Grace, also a nurse, cares for local folk rocker Jesse Reid during his convalescence from a motorcycle accident. He then invites the Breakers to open for him on his tour and he and Jane embark on a turbulent affair. After Jane splits from both Jesse and the Breakers, she shrugs off her sexist producer and pours her soul into landmark album Songs in Ursa Major. (I got the Sufjan Stevens song “Ursa Major” in my head nearly every time I picked this up.)
There are some soap opera twists and turns to the plot, and I would say the novel is at least 100 pages too long, with an unnecessary interlude on a Greek island. Everyone loves a good sex, drugs and rock ’n roll tale, but here the sex scenes were kind of cringey, and the lyrics and descriptions of musical styles seemed laboured. Also, I thought from the beginning that the novel could use the intimacy of a first-person narrator, but late on realized it had to be in the third person to conceal a secret of Jane’s – which ended up feeling like a trick. There are also a few potential anachronisms (e.g. I found myself googling “how much did a pitcher of beer cost in 1969?”) that took me out of the period. Brodie is a debut novelist who has worked in book publishing in the USA for a decade. Her Instagram has a photo of her reading Daisy Jones and the Six in March 2019! That and the shout-out to Mandy Moore, of all the musical inspirations, in her acknowledgments, had me seriously doubting her bona fides to write this story. Maybe take it as a beach read if you aren’t too picky.
(Twitter giveaway win)
Looking back, my favourite read from this project was Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon, closely followed by the novels Under the Blue by Oana Aristide and Ruby by Ann Hood, the essay collection The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green (above), the travel book The Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn, and the memoirs Darkness Visible by William Styron and Direct Red by Gabriel Weston. A varied and mostly great selection, all told! I read six books from the library and the rest from my shelves. Maybe next year I’ll not pick a theme but allow myself completely free choice – so long as they’re all books I own.
What was the highlight of your summer reading?
There was a phenomenal program for this year’s digital Hay Festival. I signed up to a whopping eight events and enjoyed them all. If you missed watching live, it’s not too late to donate and catch up on the archived talks. For three of these, the host-cum-interviewer appeared in person on a studio stage, with the guest(s) joining, perhaps from thousands of miles away, on a large screen mounted on the wall behind them. I thought this was a neat hybrid approach. The rest of my sessions had interviewer and interviewee appearing remotely on a split screen. Let me know which, if any, events you attended and how you found them.
Flanagan’s The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is my novel of 2021 so far (my review), so it was a delight to hear him say more (and in that fantastic accent) about it in the course of a conversation with Stephanie Merritt. Tasmania, where he lives, had always seemed like an ark for species, but now they are vanishing. Ninety percent of the kelp forest has disappeared within the last 20 years because of warming oceans; there are only 300 swift parrots remaining; and the bushfires of 2018–19 were unprecedented in severity. Although he had already roughed out the novel by the time of the fires, Flanagan said he rewrote it in response to the sense of accelerating environmental collapse.
The novel’s twin themes are species extinction and personal extinction, with an elderly family matriarch being kept alive at all costs. Flanagan spoke of the “evasions of the soul” that make us ignore the environmental losses around us and refuse to die – “the final avoidance of life.” He thinks the pandemic has forced people to rethink these ideas and ponder the meaning of life. At age 21, he nearly drowned while kayaking, and ever since he has been frightened not of death, but of the pain of dying. He is not optimistic per se, but hopeful because the world is still so beautiful – on the island he goes to for writing, he is surrounded by wild creatures.
Merritt asked about the novel’s magic realist element and how stylistically different his novels have been from each other. He was glad she found the book funny, as “life is tragicomic.” In an effort not to get stuck in a rut, he deliberately ‘breaks the mould’ after each book and starts over. This has not made him popular with his publisher!
- The one obligation of a writer? “Not to be boring.”
- Novels are not about messages; “that’s what Twitter is for.”
- “To despair is rational, but to hope is the very essence of what it means to be human.”
Rachel Clarke interviewing Jim Down and Michael Rosen
All three authors have written books about the coronavirus pandemic (I have reviewed Clarke’s Breathtaking and Rosen’s Many Different Kinds of Love). Clarke said that the belief foundational to the NHS is that all lives have equal value, but as an ICU doctor Down found that the question of who would benefit most from the use of ventilation was creeping in as there was a risk that there would be more patients than there was equipment to treat them with. With decisions needing to be made very quickly, his hospital adopted the “three wise people” collaborative method. The element that often felt lost, however, was the patient’s wishes, since they might be unresponsive and no family or other visitors were around.
Rosen, who contracted Covid-19 in March 2020 and was in an induced coma for six weeks, included letters from his medical team in his book to give a 360° view of NHS treatment. He thinks of the NHS as being almost in the role of parents, giving altruistic care and support. “Tell the truth about herd immunity” was his pithy message to the government. He read the poem “These Are the Hands,” which he wrote for the 60th anniversary of the NHS, to close.
Bryan Washington and Raven Leilani
Last year’s Dylan Thomas Prize winner interviewed this year’s winner, and it was clear that the mutual admiration was strong. Though I had mixed feelings about Luster (my review), I was blown away by this high-level intellectual discussion. Both authors are invested in the debate around what it means to be a Black artist. Leilani said she did not want to make concessions in the form of Edie comporting herself better; this character is open about her wants, giving the novel a libidinal flavour. She said she almost envies her protagonist her autonomy, and thinks of the novel as a letter to her old self, granting permission and reassuring herself that “the mess has merit.”
- Writing offers Leilani a sanctuary or sense of control.
- While Washington sees works full of strife, grief, and malice as most likely to be considered the pinnacle of American literary fiction, he admires Luster for its theme of communion (especially via the character Akila).
- Leilani sees her novel as being in conversation with Queenie, Sula, The New Me, and Detransition, Baby.
Shipstead (also a Dylan Thomas Prize winner) echoed something Leilani had said: that she starts a novel with questions, not answers. Such humility is refreshing, and a sure way to avoid being preachy in fiction. Her new novel, Great Circle, is among my most anticipated books of the year and tells the stories of a fictional female pilot from the golden age of aviation and the actress playing her in a biopic. The book was long in the gestation: In 2012 Shipstead saw a sculpture commemorating a female pilot in Auckland, and in 2014 she started researching. She came to appreciate the miracle of flight and read many books by and about female pilots. The book is dedicated to her brother, recently retired from 20 years in the Air Force. She told Sameer Rahim that, although she used to say this is not a love story, she has since changed her mind.
- Shipstead was a competitive show jumper and applied to a creative writing program on a whim.
- She has made a name for herself as a travel writer, too, often combining magazine assignments with her research for the novel (e.g., various trips to Antarctica).
- While she has appreciated the year off from Covid, she is looking forward to getting back to travelling; her first booking is a women’s wilderness experience in Alaska.
Lockwood is the only novelist to be included on the Atlantic’s roster of best tweets. She and Nina Stibbe, who interviewed her, agreed that 1) things aren’t funny when they try too hard and 2) the Internet used to be a taboo subject for fiction – producing time-stamped references that editors used to remove. “I had so many observations and I didn’t know where to put them,” Lockwood said, and it seems to her perverse to not write about something that is such a major part of our daily lives. The title of her Women’s Prize-shortlisted novel, No One Is Talking About This (my review), refers to many things, including this reticence to grant the Internet a place in our discourse.
Lockwood said she has been delighted by the high-quality literary pieces coming out about her book, often in comparison with Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts. The timing of the publication meant that her initial (U.S.) media interviews ended up being more about Trump than she would have liked. “I think I’m not a natural fiction writer,” she said; it’s true that the novel is so autobiographical it can only be described as autofiction – the second half is all true and all sincere, she was careful to point out – but it’s a gem.
Like Lockwood, Pachico was part of the “10 @ 10” series featuring debut novelists (though her first book, the linked story collection The Lucky Ones, was marketed as a novel in the USA). Her new book, The Anthill, another of my most anticipated books of the year, is about a young woman returning to Medellín, Colombia, where Pachico spent her formative years. Although she is not a citizen and only goes back on a tourist visa, it feels like going home each time. For her, writing fiction has been a way of sorting out her feelings about the place. She wrote 50,000 words of the novel at her sister’s apartment in Medellín. Pachico told Rosie Goldsmith that, though she considers herself part of the Latin American literary tradition, she is conscious of presenting the country to English-speaking readers: a politically divided place that has gentrified in pockets, but is still plagued by extreme poverty and hardship. She described The Anthill as “a ghost story without ghosts.” I can’t wait to dive into my copy.
Speaking to Arifa Akbar about The Vanishing Half, Bennett admitted that she was worried a historical setting was a cop-out, but reassured herself that she was not writing out of nostalgia and that she did not allow readers a sense of distance – the characters are so ordinary that we know we’d do the same sorts of things. She thinks of passing as a distinctly American project of self-reinvention but acknowledged that we have no definitive statistics on it because, if someone succeeds, they disappear. Some of Stella’s psychology – a very interior character who makes decisions that are difficult to understand – came from her reading of Playing Dead by Elizabeth Greenwood. She loves writing about small towns because they force people to interact with each other. Akbar noted that passing is a double-edged sword, involving subterfuge but also offering liberation (e.g. for a trans character later in the book).
- “That’s the most exciting place to be, writing into a mystery.”
- “Race is a fiction, but racism is a reality.”
- An HBO adaptation is in the works, but Bennett doesn’t know if it will cast real twins, two actors, or meld separate people using CGI.
Rachel Cusk and Sheila Heti
I’ve read more of and gotten on better with Heti’s work than Cusk’s, so this was a rare case of being perhaps more interested in interviewer than interviewee. Heti said that, compared with the Outline trilogy, Cusk’s new novel Second Place feels wilder and more instinctual. Cusk, speaking from the Greek island of Tinos, where she is researching marble quarrying, described her book in often vague yet overall intriguing terms: it’s about exile and the illicit, she said; about femininity and entitlement to speak; about the domestic space and how things are legitimized; about the adoption of male values and the “rightness of the artist.”
Ironically, given that Cusk initially hesitated over revealing her debt to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir Lorenzo in Taos, much of the discussion ended up revolving around Luhan and D.H. Lawrence, about whom Cusk now considers herself an amateur scholar. In his personal writings he reserved special scorn for Luhan, with whom he stayed in New Mexico in the 1920s. This was something Cusk wanted to explore: misogyny and Luhan’s “voice of obscurity.” She hopes that her book will contribute to a better understanding of Luhan’s; not vice versa.
- A reviewer noted the use of exclamation points, counting 189 of them in the novel. Cusk equates an exclamation point to a laying down of arms – proof that someone (especially her protagonist, M) means to be nonthreatening.
- Cusk thinks of this book as being like a play: staged and in the moment.
- A woman observing but not being noticed is, like in the Outline trilogy, Cusk’s basic framework.
Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Crow Planet was the highlight of my 2019 animal-themed summer reading. I admired her determination to incorporate wildlife-watching into everyday life, and appreciated her words on the human connection to and responsibility towards the rest of nature. Rooted, one of my most anticipated books of this year, continues in that vein, yet surprised me with its mystical approach. No doubt some will be put off by the spiritual standpoint and dismiss the author as a barefoot, tree-hugging hippie. Well, sign me up to Haupt’s team, because nature needs all the help it can get, and we know that people won’t save what they don’t love. Start to think about trees and animals as brothers and sisters – or even as part of the self – and actions that passively doom them, not to mention wanton destruction of habitat, will hit closer to home.
I hadn’t realized that Haupt grew up Catholic, so the language of mysticism comes easily to her, but even as a child nature was where she truly sensed transcendence. Down by the creek, where she listened to birdsong and watched the frog lifecycle, was where she learned that everything is connected. She even confessed her other church, “Frog Church” (this book’s original title), to her priest one day. (He humored her by assigning an extra Our Father.) How to reclaim that childhood feeling of connectedness as a busy, tech-addicted adult?
The Seattle-based Haupt engages in, and encourages, solo camping, barefoot walking, purposeful wandering, spending time sitting under trees, mindfulness, and going out in the dark. This might look countercultural, or even eccentric. Some will also feel called to teach, to protest, and to support environmental causes financially. Others will contribute their talent for music, writing, or the visual arts. But there are subtler changes to be made too, in our attitudes and the way we speak. A simple one is to watch how we refer to other species. “It” has no place in a creature-directed vocabulary.
Haupt’s perspective chimes with the ethos of the New Networks for Nature conference I attend each year, as well as with the work of many UK nature writers like Robert Macfarlane (in particular, she mentions The Lost Words) and Jini Reddy (Wanderland). I also found a fair amount of overlap with Lucy Jones’s Losing Eden. There were points where Haupt got a little abstract and even woo-woo for me – and I say that as someone with a religious background. But her passion won me over, and her book helped me to understand why two things that happened earlier this year – a fox dying in our backyard and neighbors having a big willow tree taken down – wounded me so deeply. That I felt each death throe and chainsaw cut as if in my own body wasn’t just me being sentimental and oversensitive. It was a reminder that I’m a part of all of life, and I must do more to protect it.
“In this time of planetary crisis, overwhelm is common. What to do? There is so much. Too much. No single human can work to save the orcas and the Amazon and organize protests to stop fracking and write poetry that inspires others to act and pray in a hermit’s dwelling for transformation and get dinner on the table. How easy it is to feel paralyzed by obligations. How easy it is to feel lost and insignificant and unable to know what is best, to feel adrift while yearning for purpose. Rootedness is a way of being in concert with the wilderness—and wildness—that sustains humans and all of life.”
“No one can do all things. Yet we can hold all things as we trim and change our lives and choose our particular forms of rooted, creative action—those that call uniquely to us.”
With thanks to Little, Brown Spark for sending a proof copy all the way from Boston, USA.
I think I have another seven April releases on the go that kind publishers have sent my way, but I’m so slow at finishing books that these two are the only ones I’ve managed so far. (I see lots of review catch-up posts in my future!) For now I have a travel memoir musing on the wonders of the New Forest and the injustice of land ownership policies, and a casebook of medical mysteries that can all be classed as culturally determined psychosomatic illnesses.
The Circling Sky: On Nature and Belonging in an Ancient Forest by Neil Ansell
After The Last Wilderness and especially Deep Country, his account of five solitary years in a Welsh cabin, Ansell is among my most-admired British nature writers. I was delighted to learn that his new book would be about the New Forest as it’s a place my Hampshire-raised husband and I have visited often and feel fond of. It has personal significance for Ansell, too: he grew up a few miles from Portsmouth. On Remembrance Sunday 1966, though, his family home burned down when a spark from a central heating wire sent the insulation up in flames. He can see how his life was shaped by this incident, making him a nomad who doesn’t accumulate possessions.
Hoping to reclaim a sense of ancestral connection, he returned to the New Forest some 30 times between January 2019 and January 2020, observing the unfolding seasons and the many uncommon and endemic species its miles house. The Forest has more than 1000 trees of over 400 years old, mostly oak and beech. Much of the rest is rare heath habitat, and livestock grazing maintains open areas. There are some plants only found in the New Forest, as well as a (probably extinct) cicada. He has close encounters with butterflies, a muntjac, and less-seen birds like the Dartford warbler, firecrest, goshawk, honey buzzard, and nightjar.
But this is no mere ‘white man goes for a walk’ travelogue, as much of modern nature writing has been belittled. Ansell weaves many different themes into the work: his personal story (mostly relevant, though his mother’s illness and a trip to Rwanda seemed less necessary), the shocking history of forced Gypsy relocation into forest compounds starting in the 1920s, biomass decline, and especially the unfairness of land ownership in Britain. More than 99% of the country is in the hands of a very few, and hardly any is left as common land. There is also enduring inequality of access to what little there is, often along race and class lines. The have-nots have been taught to envy the haves: “We are all brought up to aspire to home ownership,” Ansell notes. As a long-term renter, it’s a goal I’ve come to question, even as I crave the security and self-determination that owning a house and piece of land could offer.
Ansell speaks of “environmental dread” as a “rational response to the way the world is turning,” but he doesn’t rest in that mindset of despair. He’s in favour of rewilding, which is not, as some might assume, about leaving land alone to revert to its original state, but about the reintroduction of native species and intentional restoration of habitat types. In extending these rewilded swathes, we would combat the tendency to think of nature as something kept ‘over there’ in small reserves while subjecting the rest of the land to intensive, pesticide-based farming and the exploitation of resources. The New Forest thus strikes him as an excellent model of both wildlife-friendly land management and freedom of human access.
I appreciated how Ansell concludes that it’s not enough to simply love nature and write about the joy of spending time in it. Instead, he accepts a mantle of responsibility: “nothing is more political than the way we engage with the world around us. … Nature writing may often be read for comfort and reassurance, but perhaps we need to allow a little room for anger, too, for the ability to rage at everything that has been taken from us, and taken by us.” The bibliography couldn’t be more representative of my ecologist husband’s and my reading interests and nature library. The title is from John Clare and the book is a poetic meditation as well as a forthright argument. It also got me hankering for my next trip to the New Forest.
With thanks to Tinder Press for the proof copy for review.
The Sleeping Beauties: And Other Stories of Mystery Illness by Suzanne O’Sullivan
O’Sullivan is a consultant at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery. She won the Wellcome Book Prize for It’s All in Your Head, and The Sleeping Beauties picks up on that earlier book’s theme of psychosomatic illness – with the key difference being that this one travels around the world to investigate outbreaks of mass hysteria or sickness that have arisen in particular cultural contexts. An important thing to bear in mind is that O’Sullivan and other doctors in her field are not dismissing these illnesses as “fake”; they acknowledge that they are real and meaningful, yet there is clear evidence that they are not physical in origin – brain tests come back normal – but psychological with bodily manifestations.
The case that gives the book its title appeared in Sweden in 2017. Child asylum seekers who had experienced trauma in their home country were falling into a catatonic state. O’Sullivan visited the home of sisters Nola and Helan, part of the Yazidi ethnic minority group from Iraq and Syria. The link between them and the other children affected was that they were all now threatened with deportation: Their hopelessness had taken on physical form, giving the illness the name resignation syndrome. “Predictive coding” meant their bodies did as they expected them to. She describes it as “a very effective culturally agreed means of expressing distress.”
In Texas, the author meets Miskito people from Nicaragua who combat the convulsions and hallucinations of “grisi siknis” in their community with herbs and prayers; shamans are of more use in this circumstance than antiepileptic drugs. A sleeping sickness tore through two neighbouring towns of Kazakhstan between 2010 and 2015, affecting nearly half of the population. As with the refugee children in Sweden, it was a stress response to being forced to move away – though people argued they were being poisoned by a local uranium mine. There is often a specific external factor that is blamed in these situations, as when mass hysteria and seizures among Colombian schoolgirls were attributed to the HPV vaccine.
This book was released on the 1st of April, and at times I felt I was the victim of an elaborate April Fool’s joke: the cases are just so bizarre, and we’re used to rooting out a physical cause. But she makes clear that, in a biopsychosocial understanding (as also discussed in Pain by Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen), these illnesses are serving “a vital purpose” – just psychological and cultural. The first three chapters are the strongest; the book feels repetitive and somewhat aimless thereafter, especially in Chapter 4, which hops between different historical outbreaks of psychosomatic illness, like among the Hmong (cf. Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down), and other patients she treated for functional disorders. The later example of “Havana syndrome” doesn’t add enough to warrant its inclusion.
Still, O’Sullivan does well to combine her interviews and travels into compelling mini-narratives. Her writing has really come on in leaps and bounds since her first book, which I found clunky. However, much my favourite of her three works is Brainstorm, about epilepsy and other seizure disorders of various origins.
With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.
What recent releases can you recommend?
It’s not November without a New Networks for Nature conference. Originally 2020’s was scheduled to take place in Norwich in July; it was then postponed to the usual November in hopes of an in-person meeting, but ultimately had to be online this year, like so much else. This was my sixth time taking part in this interdisciplinary gathering of authors, academics, and activists (I’ve also written about the 2015, 2016, 2018, and 2019 conferences). The UEA organizers, Jean McNeil and Jos Smith, with New Networks stalwart John Fanshawe, did an excellent job of creating three virtual events for people to engage with from home.
Two pre-recorded panels brought together writers from different fields to reflect on nature literature and the environmental crisis. First up was “New Perspectives on Nature Writing,” picking up on a perennial conference theme.
I was delighted to hear Jessica J. Lee speak – I’ve reviewed both of her nature-infused memoirs, Turning and Two Trees Make a Forest, and in last year’s feedback I suggested her as a future speaker (I’m sure I’m not solely responsible!). After a PhD in environmental history, she moved into more personal writing. Questions of home, place, language, and identity were natural for her as a third-generation migrant. She initially felt alone as a person of colour in nature writing, but when she founded the Willowherb Review she quickly learned that it wasn’t that POC weren’t out there; it was that they did not have opportunities to publish – she has had 300+ submissions per issue to the online literary magazine, which welcomes work from all genres by authors of colour.
Also on the panel were Mona Arshi, a Punjabi poet based in London, and McNeil, a creative writing professor. Arshi has been a human rights lawyer and is the current poet-in-residence at Cley Marshes, Norfolk, in association with the Wildlife Trusts and UEA. She has had to try to absorb the landscape via video and sound recordings since COVID-19 has limited her in-person visits. She read a sonnet she wrote about her last trip there in September. All three panellists spoke about land being in some ways beyond language, though.
Jean McNeil’s Ice Diaries is a memoir of a year in residence with the British Antarctic Survey, a very male, scientific world. Antarctica is “no one’s country,” she remarked, though it’s the fifth-largest continent; it’s as if the land has no memory of people. She observed that it’s impossible to write about Antarctica without giving a sense of the journey (so she includes travel writing) and mentioning death. Raised without technology by back-to-the-land parents in Canada, McNeil has been active in the environmental movement in Brazil, Central America, and Africa (as a safari guide). Ice Diaries was already on my TBR, but I’m impressed by her breadth of experience and want to explore her varied work.
The second panel, “States of Emergency,” included an academic, a playwright, the CEO of an environmental charity, and a philosopher and activist. I was intrigued by UEA’s Rebecca Tillett’s brief opening address about contemporary North American indigenous responses to climate change in fiction (her research speciality). Her primary example was the Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice, a postapocalyptic thriller in which the Wendigo, a figure from First Nations folklore, embodies capitalism as it consumes people with greed.
UEA-based playwright Steve Waters is planning outdoor theatre projects at nature reserves. James Thornton, the CEO of ClientEarth, spoke about starting with the science, the “grammar of the Earth.” His team has prevented new coal-fired stations in Europe and encouraged NGOs in China to sue polluting companies. Philosophy professor Rupert Reed was, until recently, an Extinction Rebellion spokesman. He noted that the climate emergency feels too slow and too long – a marathon, not a sprint; people don’t realize how profoundly our way of life and future are threatened. Alas, COVID-19 is not having the desired effect of turning people’s attention to the greater, ongoing emergency. He counselled acceptance and adaptation, stating that hope and action must go hand in hand. Thornton recalled the Dalai Lama telling him early in his career that he needed to get beyond anger because angry people don’t come up with viable solutions. The anger has to be turned into a positive vision.
There were live Q&A sessions for these two panels, but we weren’t able to watch. However, we did attend Saturday’s live keynote event featuring Tim Dee and Kathleen Jamie, two of the finest nature writers working today. Speaking from Cape Town, where he has been stranded since the start of the pandemic, Dee said that his current writing is about birds that are new to him but familiar to his neighbours. He explained that he admires and understands the world through birds, “who carry no bags or passports and are at home wherever they are.” In his work he explores how we are “made by places,” often returning to a place to reprocess his experiences there (e.g. Hungary in his latest book, Greenery). His notebooks, which are often just lists of birds seen, help him to “reinflate” a place when writing about it later.
Jamie agreed that her work also has this quality of “afterwardness” – finding the meaning of an experience long after the moment. She came across as down-to-earth, shrugging off McNeil’s question about transcendence and remarking that a sign above her desk reads “Nay narrative!” What is left for a lyric poet who loses faith in lyricism? For Jamie, the answer is prose poetry, as in “Tree on the Hill,” recently published in the LRB. Her poetry has always been local but her longform nonfiction has only ever come from other places, so while she’s been stuck in Fife she’s been unable to progress. But she never has any idea of what she’s writing, she said; she and her editor work out a theme once a whole book exists (for instance, the linking metaphor for Surfacing – unearthing archaeological evidence and memories).
Dee called himself a materialist – “no ideas but in things” – with language being what we clothe things in. He always double-checks his (sometimes elaborate) metaphors by putting them back onto a bird to ensure they fit. Jamie said she used to believe language was humans’ “fall” and would try to maintain a “pre-language state” for as long as possible every morning, but ultimately she changed her mind, accepting that language is what makes us human; it’s what we do. She acknowledges that nature writing like hers is not going to achieve things in the way that environmental activism can, but she hopes that bringing non-human creatures into the culture (as if it were an ark) can be a way of advocating for them all the same.
A brilliant programme, capped off with some visual and musical delights: “Where Song Began,” a one-hour cello and violin response/accompaniment to Australian birdsong created by Simone Slattery and Anthony Albrecht in January; and a brief virtual tour of the Nature Writing Collection in the British Archive for Contemporary Writing at UEA, which includes the papers of the late Roger Deakin and of (alive and kicking!) Mark Cocker, a UEA graduate. The archive contains Deakin’s drafts and pitches (Waterlog’s working title was “The Waters of the Wondrous Isle,” and he imagined it as an aquatic Rural Rides), photos, and even his Speedo bathing suit; along with Cocker’s field notebooks and fan mail.