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.
Plants mirror minds,
Healing, harming powers
Growing green thoughts.
(First stanza of “Plants Mirror Minds” from The Facebook of the Dead by Valerie Laws)
Here are my first three selections for my flora-themed summer reading. I hope to get through more of my own books, as opposed to library books and review copies, as the months go on. Today I have one of each from fiction, nonfiction and poetry, with the settings ranging from 16th-century Alsace to late-20th-century Spain.
The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (2022)
Kiran Millwood Hargrave is one of my favourite new voices in historical fiction (she had written fiction for children and young adults before 2020’s The Mercies). Both novels hit the absolute sweet spot between the literary and women’s fiction camps, choosing a lesser-known time period and incident and filling in the background with sumptuous detail and language. Both also consider situations in which women, queer people and other cultural minorities were oppressed, and imagine characters pushing against those boundaries in affirming but authentic-feeling ways.
The setting is Strasbourg in the sweltering summer of 1518, when a dancing plague (choreomania) hit and hundreds of women engaged in frenzied public dancing, often until their feet bled or even, allegedly, until 15 per day dropped dead. Lisbet observes this all at close hand through her sister-in-law and best friend, who get caught up in the dancing. In the final trimester of pregnancy at last after the loss of many pregnancies and babies, Lisbet tends to the family beekeeping enterprise while her husband is away, but gets distracted when two musicians (brought in to accompany the dancers; an early strategy before the council cracked down), one a Turk, lodge with her and her mother-in-law. The dance tree, where she commemorates her lost children, is her refuge away from the chaos enveloping the city. She’s a naive point-of-view character who quickly has her eyes opened about different ways of living. “It takes courage, to love beyond what others deem the right boundaries.”
This is likely to attract readers of Hamnet; I was also reminded of The Sleeping Beauties, in that the author’s note discusses the possibility that the dancing plagues were an example of a mass hysteria that arose in response to religious restrictions. (Public library)
Magnolia by Nina Mingya Powles (2020)
(Powles also kicked off my 2020 food-themed summer reading.) This came out from Nine Arches Press and a small New Zealand press two years ago but is being published in the USA by Tin House in August. I’ll be reviewing it for Shelf Awareness in advance of that release. Those who are new to Powles’s work should enjoy her trademark blend of themes in this poetry collection. She’s mixed race and writes about crossing cultural and language boundaries – especially trying to express herself in Chinese and Hakka. Often, food is her way of embodying split loyalties and love for her heritage. I noted the alliteration in “Layers of silken tofu float in the shape of a lotus slowly opening under swirls of soy sauce.” Magnolia is the literal translation of “Mulan,” and that Disney movie and a few other films play a major role here, as do writers Eileen Chang and Robin Hyde. My issue with the book is that it doesn’t feel sufficiently different from her essay collections that I’ve read – the other is Small Bodies of Water – especially given that many of the poems are in prose paragraphs. [Update: I dug out my copy of Small Bodies of Water from a box and found that, indeed, one piece had felt awfully familiar for a reason: that book contains a revised version of “Falling City” (about Eileen Chang’s Shanghai apartment), which first appeared here.] (Read via Edelweiss)
A Parrot in the Pepper Tree by Chris Stewart (2002)
It’s at least 10 years ago, probably nearer 15, that I read Driving over Lemons, the first in Stewart’s eventual trilogy about buying a remote farm in Andalusia. His books are in the Peter Mayle vein, low-key and humorous: an Englishman finds the good life abroad and tells amusing anecdotes about the locals and his own mishaps.
This sequel stood out for me a little more than the previous book, if only because I mostly read it in Spain. It’s in discrete essays, some of which look back on his earlier life. He was a founding member of Genesis and very briefly the band’s drummer; and to make some cash for the farm he used to rent himself out as a sheep shearer, including during winters in Sweden.
To start with, they were really very isolated, such that getting a telephone line put in revolutionized their lives. By this time, his first book had become something of a literary sensation, so he reflects on its composition and early reception, remembering when the Mail sent a clueless reporter out to find him. Spanish bureaucracy becomes a key element, especially when it looks like their land might be flooded by the building of a dam. Despite that vague sense of dread, this was good fun. (Public library)
This month we begin with Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason. (See also Kate’s opening post.) This is my personal favourite from the Women’s Prize shortlist and couldn’t be a better pick for the Six Degrees starter this month because I’ll be skimming back through the novel this weekend in advance of my book club’s discussion of it on Monday. (We’re one of this year’s six book groups shadowing the Women’s Prize through a Reading Agency initiative, so we then have to give semi-official feedback on our experience of the book by Wednesday.)
#1 Sorrow and Bliss is a terrific tragicomedy about sisterhood and mental health – as is All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, with which it shares a loaded title word as well.
#2 Toews grew up in a Canadian Mennonite community, which leads me to my second choice, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen, a set of droll autobiographical essays that I read on a USA trip in 2017.
#3 During the same trip, I read Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles, a witty novel about Bennie Ford’s rather miserable life, presented in the form of his longwinded complaint letter to the airline that has treated him to an unexpected overnight layover in Chicago.
#4 Another laugh-out-loud book in the form of unlikely letters: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher, in which Jason Fitger, an irascible middle-aged English professor in the Midwest, writes ambivalent letters of recommendation for students and colleagues.
#5 One more “Dear” book of letters – I just can’t get enough of the epistolary form: Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence. As the subtitle states, it’s a librarian’s love letters and breakup notes to books she’s adored and loathed. Casual and amusing, with good book recs.
#6 I’ll finish with Weather by Jenny Offill, one of my favourites from 2020, which is also voiced by a librarian. Through Lizzie, Offill captures modern anxiety about Trump-era politics, the climate crisis and making meaningful use of time.
I have read all the books in this month’s chain (the links above are to my Goodreads reviews), and in a time of relentless bad news have chosen to prioritize humour and keep my descriptions short and light. These are all books that made me laugh, sometimes despite their weighty content, and half of them are built around letters. I’ve also looped from one Women’s Prize-shortlisted title to another.
Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.) Next month’s starting point will be Wintering by Katherine May – though it’s summer here, it’s winter where Kate is in Australia!
Have you read any of my selections? Tempted by any you didn’t know before?
(From To Star the Dark by Doireann Ní Ghríofa)
Reading with the seasons is one way I mark time. This is the first of two, or maybe three, batches of spring reading for me this year. The daffodils have already gone over; bluebells and peonies are coming out; and all the trees, including the two wee apple trees we’ve planted at our new house, are sprouting hopeful buds.
The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (1988)
My fourth from Fitzgerald. One of her later novels, this was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Its pre-war Moscow setting seemed to take on extra significance as I read it during the early weeks of the Russian occupation of Ukraine. Its title is both literal, referring to the March days in 1913 when “there was the smell of green grass and leaves, inconceivable for the last five months” and the expatriate Reid family can go to their dacha once again, and metaphorical. For what seems to printer Frank Reid – whose wife Nellie has taken a train back to England and left him to raise their three children alone – like an ending may actually presage new possibilities when his accountant, Selwyn, hires a new nanny for the children.
I have previously found Fitzgerald’s work slight, subtle to the point of sailing over my consciousness without leaving a ripple. While her characters and scenes still underwhelm – I always want to go deeper – I liked this better than the others I’ve read (The Bookshop, Offshore, and The Blue Flower), perhaps simply because it’s not a novella so is that little bit more expansive. And though she’s not an author you’d turn to for plot, more does actually happen here, including a gunshot. Frank is a genial Everyman, fond of Russia yet exasperated with its bureaucracy and corruption – this “magnificent and ramshackle country.” He knows how things work and isn’t above giving a bribe when it’s expedient for his business:
He took an envelope out of his drawer, and, conscious of taking only a mild risk, since the whole unwieldy administration of All the Russias, which kept working, even if only just, depended on the passing of countless numbers of such envelopes, he slid it across the top of the desk. The inspector opened it without embarrassment, counted out the three hundred roubles it contained and transferred them to a leather container, half way between a wallet and a purse, which he kept for ‘innocent income’.
I particularly liked Uncle Charlie’s visit, the glimpses of Orthodox Easter rituals, and a strangely mystical moment of communion with some birch trees. A part of me did wonder if the setting was neither here nor there, if a few plastered-on descriptions of Moscow were truly enough to constitute convincing historical fiction. That’s a question for those more familiar with Russia and its literature to answer, but I enjoyed the seasonal awakening. (Secondhand, charity shop in Bath)
Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard (2016; 2018)
[Translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey; illustrated by Anna Bjerger]
Knausgaard is a repeat presence in my seasonal posts: I’ve also reviewed Autumn, Winter and Summer. I read his quartet out of order, finishing with the one that was published third. The project was conceived as a way to welcome his fourth child, Anna, into the world. Whereas the other books prioritize didactic essays on seasonal experiences, this is closer in format to Knausgaard’s granular autofiction: the throughline is a journey through an average day with his baby girl, from when she wakes him before 6 a.m. to a Walpurgis night celebration (“the evening when spring is welcomed in with song in Sweden”). They see the other kids off to school, then make a disastrous visit to a mental hospital – he forgets his bank card and ID, the baby’s bottle, everything, and has to beg cash from his bank to buy petrol to get home.
Looming over the circadian narrative is his wife’s mental health crisis the summer before (his ex-wife Linda Boström Knausgård, a writer in her own right, has bipolar disorder), while she was pregnant with Anna, and the repercussions it has had for their family. Other elements echo those of the previous books: the formation of memories, to what extent his personality is fixed, whether he’s fated to turn into his father, minor health concerns, and so on. Although this volume is less aphoristic than the previous books, there are still moments when he muses on life and gives general advice:
Self-deception is perhaps the most human thing of all. … And perhaps the following is nothing but self-deception: the easy life is nothing to aspire to, the easy choice is never the worthiest solution, only the difficult life is a life worth living. I don’t know. But I think that’s how it is. What would seem to contradict this, is that I wish you and your siblings simple, easy, long and happy lives. … The advantage of having siblings is that it is a lifelong attachment, and that nothing can break it.
All in all, this was the highlight of the series for me. Each of the four is illustrated by a different contemporary artist. Bjerger is less abstract than some of the others, which I count as a plus. (New bargain/remainder copy, Minster Gate Bookshop, York)
A favourite random moment: A creeper coming through the tile roof of his office pushes a book off the shelf. It’s American Psycho. “I still found it incredible. And a little frightening, the blind force of growth”.
Speaking of meaningful, or perhaps ironic, timing: He records a conversation with his neighbour, who was mansplaining about Russian aggression and the place of Ukraine: “Kiev was the first great city in what became the Russian empire. … The Ukraine and Russia are like twins. … They belong together. At least the Russians see it that way. … The very idea of Russia is imperialistic.”
Any spring reads on your plate?
Reading Ireland Month is hosted each year by Cathy of 746 Books. I’m sneaking in on the final day of March (there’s a surprise snow squall out the window as I write this) with four short reviews and feeling rather smug that my post covers lots of bases: short stories, a novel, a book of autobiographical pieces, and a poetry collection.
Dance Move by Wendy Erskine (2022)
The 11 stories in Erskine’s second collection do just what short fiction needs to: dramatize an encounter, or moment, that changes life forever. Her characters are ordinary, moving through the dead-end work and family friction that constitute daily existence, until something happens, or rises up in the memory, that disrupts the tedium.
Erskine being from Belfast, evidence of the Troubles is never far away. In “Nostalgie,” a washed-up rocker is asked to perform his hit song at a battalion’s party. A woman and her lodger are welded together by a violent secret in “Bildungsroman,” which reminded me of a tale from Bernard MacLaverty’s Blank Pages and Other Stories. “Gloria and Max” struck me most of all: a drive to a film festival becomes a traumatic flashback when they’re first on the scene of an accident.
Erskine’s writing is blunt and edgy, the kind that might be stereotyped as male but nowadays is also, inevitably for Irish authors, associated with Sally Rooney: matter-of-fact; no speech marks, flat dialogue and slang. A couple of other favourites: “Mathematics,” in which a cleaner finds an abandoned child in a hotel room and tries to do right by her; and “Memento Mori,” about two deaths, one drawn out and one sudden; both equally unexpected; and only enough compassion to cope with one. (Public library)
After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell (2000)
In form this is similar to O’Farrell’s The Distance Between Us, one of my Reading Ireland selections from last year: short sections of a few pages flit between times and perspectives. (There’s also an impulsive trip from London to Scotland in both.) But whereas in her third novel I found the jump cuts confusing and unnecessary, here they just work, and elegantly, to build a portrait of Alice Raikes, in a coma after what may have been a suicide attempt. That day she’d taken a train from London to Edinburgh at the last minute, met her sisters at the station, seen something that threw her, and gotten right on a return train. Back in London and on the way to the shop for cat food, she stepped off the kerb and into the path of a car.
Scenes from Alice’s childhood in Scotland are interspersed with her love affairs; her parents’ disappointing marriage serves as a counterpoint to her great passion for John. The setup of three female generations in North Berwick and the question of sexual autonomy reminded me strongly of Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock.
This is a bold debut novel, refusing to hold readers’ hands through shifts from now to near past to further ago, from third to second to first person (even Alice from her coma: “my body still clings to life, and I find myself suspended like Persephone between two states … I am somewhere. Drifting. Hiding.”). Loss, secrets and family inheritance may be familiar themes, but when this was published at the millennium it must have seemed thrillingly fresh; it still does now.
I only have one unread O’Farrell novel awaiting me now, My Lover’s Lover. I’ll be saving that up, maybe for this time next year. Having not much enjoyed Hamnet, I’m disappointed that her forthcoming novel will also be historical and will probably skip it; I miss her stylish contemporary commentary. (Secondhand from a charity shop)
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, ed. John Quinn (1986)
These autobiographical essays were compiled by Quinn based on interviews he conducted with nine women writers for an RTE Radio series in 1985. I’d read bits of Dervla Murphy’s and Edna O’Brien’s work before, but the other authors were new to me (Maeve Binchy, Clare Boylan, Polly Devlin, Jennifer Johnston, Molly Keane, Mary Lavin and Joan Lingard). The focus is on childhood: what their family was like, what drove these women to write, and what fragments of real life have made it into their books.
I read the first couple of pieces but then started to find the format repetitive and didn’t want to read out-of-context illustrative passages from novels I’d never heard of, so only skimmed through the rest. You can work out what Quinn’s questions were based on how the essays spin out: What is your earliest memory? What was your relationship with your parents? What was your schooling? Were you lonely? What part did books and writing play in your childhood? Distant fathers, a strict Catholic upbringing, solitude/boredom and escaping into novels are common elements. Some had happier childhoods than others, but all are grateful for the life of the mind: A solid base of familial love and the freedom to explore were vital.
The best passage comes from Seamus Heaney’s foreword: “The woman writer, like everybody else, is in pursuit of coherence, attempting to bring into significant alignment the creature she was and the being she is striving to become.” (Secondhand from Bookbarn International)
Vinegar Hill by Colm Tóibín (2022)
I didn’t realize when I started it that this was Tóibín’s debut collection; so confident is his verse that I assumed he’s been publishing poetry for decades. He’s one of those polymaths who’s written in many genres – contemporary fiction, literary criticism, travel memoir, historical fiction – and impresses in all. I’ve been finding his recent Folio Prize winner, The Magician, a little too dry and biography-by-rote for someone with no particular interest in Thomas Mann (I’ve only ever read Death in Venice), so I will likely just skim it before returning it to the library, but I can highly recommend his poems as an alternative.
There’s such a range of tone, structures and topics here. Bereavements and chemotherapy are part of a relatable current events background, as in “Lines Written After the Second Moderna Vaccine at Dodgers’ Stadium Los Angeles, 27 February 2021.” Irish-Catholic nostalgia animates the very witty sequence from “The Nun” to “Vatican II.” You can come along on some armchair travels: “In Washington DC,” “In San Clemente,” “Canal Water” (Venice), “Jericho,” and so on. The poems are based around anecdotes or painterly observations; there are both short phrases and prose paragraphs. The line breaks are unfailingly fascinating (any other enjambment geeks out there?). I particularly loved “Kennedy in Wexford,” “In the White House,” “Eccles Street” and “Eve.”
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the e-copy for review.
Have you read any Irish literature this month?
As busy as I am with house stuff, I’m endeavouring to keep up with the new releases publishers have been kind enough to send. Today I have a collection of essays on the seasons and mental health, a novella inhabiting a homeless girl’s situation, and a memoir about how skills of observation have been invaluable to a neurologist’s career. (I also mention a few other March releases that I have written about elsewhere or will be reviewing soon.)
You Tell the Stories You Need to Believe: On the four seasons, time and love, death and growing up by Rebecca Brown
Brown has shown up twice now in my November novella reading (Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary in 2016 and the excellent The Gifts of the Body in 2018). I was delighted to learn from a recent Shelf Awareness newsletter that she had a new book, and its Didion-esque title intrigued me. These four essays, which were originally commissioned for The Stranger, Seattle’s alternative weekly, and appeared in print between 2014 and 2016, move methodically through the four seasons and through the weather of the heart, which doesn’t always follow nature’s cues. Depression can linger and mock by contrast the external signs of growth and happiness; it’s no wonder that spring is dubbed the “suicide season.”
The relaxed collages of experience and research blend stories from childhood and later life with references to etymology, literature, music, mythology and poetry. Spring brings to mind the Persephone legend and Vivaldi’s compositions. Summer makes her think of riding bikes on dusty roads and a pregnant dog that turned up just before a storm. Autumn has always been for falling in or out of love. Winter is hard to trudge through, but offers compensatory blessings: “You stand inside the house of your friends and feel and see and everyone is in love and alive and you get to be here, grateful, too, however long, this time, the winter lasts.”
A danger with seasonal books is that, with nostalgia tingeing everything, you end up with twee, obvious reflections. Here, the presence of grief and mental health struggles creates a balanced tone, and while the book as a whole feels a little evanescent, it’s a lovely read.
Another favorite passage:
Maybe like how in the winter it’s hard to imagine spring, I forgot there was anything else besides despair. I needed—I need—to remember the seasons change. I need to remember the dark abates, that light and life return. This is a story I need to believe.
With thanks to Chatwin Books for the e-copy for review.
Ghosts of Spring by Luis Carrasco
Carrasco’s second novella (after 2018’s El Hacho) takes an intimate journey with a young woman who sleeps rough on the streets of a city in the west of England (Cheltenham? Gloucester?). Elemental concerns guide her existence: where can she shelter for the night? Where can she store her meagre belongings during the day? Does she have enough coins to buy a cup of tea from a café, and how long can she stretch out one drink so she can stay in the warm? The creeping advance of the winter (and the holiday season) sets up an updated Christmas Carol type of scenario where the have-nots are mostly invisible to the haves but rely on their charity:
Hidden in plain sight amongst them, in nooks and doorways and sitting with heads hanging against cold stone walls are huddled shapes, blanketed and inert, with faces of indifferent boredom. Too cold to fish for cash and pity[,] they sit with their faces wrapped in dirty scarves and stolen hats, working the empty corners of tobacco pouches and sucking cold coffee from yesterday’s cups. Ghosts of flesh, they are here and everywhere and nobody sees a thing.
With no speech marks, the narrative flows easily between dialogue and a third-person limited point of view. The protagonist, generally just called “the girl,” is friends with a group of prostitutes and tries out a night in a homeless hostel and sleeping in an allotment shed when she takes a bus to the suburbs. Carrasco is attentive to the everyday challenges she faces, such as while menstruating. We get hints of the family issues that drove her away, but also follow her into a new opportunity.
The book has an eye to her promising future but also bears in mind the worst that can happen to those who don’t escape poverty and abuse. At times underpowered, at others overwritten (as I found for my only other époque press read, What Willow Says), this succeeds as a compassionate portrait of extreme circumstances, something I always appreciate in fiction, and would make a good pairing with another story of homelessness, Kerstin Hensel’s Dance by the Canal from Peirene Press.
With thanks to époque press for the proof copy for review.
Brainspotting: Adventures in Neurology by A.J. Lees
Dr Andrew Lees is a professor of neurology at the National Hospital in London and a world-renowned Parkinson’s disease researcher. The essays in this short autobiographical volume emphasize the importance of listening and noticing. The opening piece, in fact, is about birdwatching, a boyhood hobby that first helped him develop this observational ability. In further chapters he looks back to his medical education and early practice in London’s East End and in Paris in the 1960s and 1970s. He profiles the hospitals he has known over the last five decades, and the neurologists who paved the way for the modern science, such as Jean-Martin Charcot and François Lhermitte.
The professors whose lessons have most stuck with him are those who insisted on weaving patient histories and symptoms into a story. Lees likens the neurologist’s work to Sherlock Holmes’s deductions – even the smallest signs can mean so much. Indeed, Arthur Conan Doyle, himself a doctor, is known to have modelled Holmes on Joseph Bell, a Scottish surgeon. I particularly liked the essay “The Lost Soul of Neurology,” about science versus spirituality. As a whole, this didn’t particularly stand out for me compared to many of my other medical reads, but I’d still liken it to the works of Gavin Francis and Henry Marsh.
With thanks to Notting Hill Editions for the free copy for review.
Plus a few more March releases I’ve read recently:
Reviewed for BookBrowse:
Booth by Karen Joy Fowler
In an epic fictional sweep from 1822 to nearly the close of the century, Fowler surveys the Booth family’s triumphs and tragedies. Short asides chronicle Lincoln’s rise in parallel. The foreshadowing is sometimes heavy-handed, and the extended timeline means there is also some skating over of long periods. Booth is low on scenes and dialogue, with Fowler conveying a lot of information through exposition. Luckily, the present-tense narration goes a long way toward making this less of a dull group biography and more of an unfolding story. I also appreciated that the Booth sisters are given major roles as point-of-view characters. The issues considered, like racial equality, political divisions and mistrust of the government, are just as important in our own day. Recommended to fans of March and Hamnet. (I also wrote a related article on the Booth family actors and Shakespeare in performance in the 19th-century USA.)
With thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the proof copy for review.
To review for BookBrowse soon: Groundskeeping by Lee Cole, one of my favourite 2022 releases so far; just the sort of incisive contemporary American novel I love. Big questions of class, family, fate and politics are bound up in a campus-set love story between a drifting manual labourer with literary ambitions and a visiting writer. (Faber)
And coming up tomorrow in my Reading Ireland Month roundup: Vinegar Hill, Colm Tóibín’s terrific debut collection of poems about current events, religion and travels. (Carcanet Press)
Do any of these books appeal to you?
These days, I watch no television. At all. I haven’t owned a set in over eight years. But as a kid, teen and young adult, I loved TV. I devoured cartoons and reruns every day after school (Pinky and the Brain, I Love Lucy, Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, etc.); I was a devoted watcher of the TGIF line-up, and petitioned my parents to let me stay up late to watch Murphy Brown. We subscribed to the TV Guide magazine, and each September I would eagerly read through the pilot descriptions with a highlighter, planning which new shows I was going to try. It’s how I found ones like Alias, Felicity, Scrubs and 24 that I followed religiously. Starting in my freshman year of college, I was a mega-fan of American Idol for its first 12 seasons. And so on. Versus now I know nothing about what’s on telly and all the Netflix and box set hits have passed me by.
Ahem. On to the point.
Freaks and Geeks was my favourite show in high school (it aired in 1999–2000, when I was a junior) and the first DVD series I ever owned – a gift from my sister’s boyfriend, who became her first husband. It’s now considered a cult classic, but I can smugly say that I recognized its brilliance from the start. So did critics, but viewers? Not so much, or at least not enough; it was cancelled after just one season. I’ve vaguely followed the main actors’ careers since then, and though I normally don’t read celebrity autobiographies I’ve picked up two by former cast members in the last year. Both:
Yearbook by Seth Rogen (2021)
I have seen a few of Rogen’s (generally really dumb) movies. The fun thing about this autobiographical essay collection is that you can hear his deadpan voice in your head on every line. That there are three F-words within the first three paragraphs of the book tells you what to expect; if you have a problem with a potty mouth, you probably won’t get very far.
Rogen grew up Jewish in Vancouver in the 1980s and did his first stand-up performance at a lesbian bar at age 13. During his teens he developed an ardent fondness for drugs (mostly pot, but also mushrooms, pills or whatever was going), and a lot of these stories recreate the ridiculous escapades he and his friends went on in search of drugs or while high. My favourite single essay was about a trip to Amsterdam. He also writes about weird encounters with celebrities like George Lucas and Steve Wozniak. A disproportionately long section is devoted to the making of the North Korea farce The Interview, which I haven’t seen.
Individually, these are all pretty entertaining pieces. But by the end I felt that Rogen had told some funny stories with great dialogue but not actually given readers any insight into his own character; it’s all so much posturing. (Also, I wanted more of the how he got from A to B; like, how does a kid in Canada get cast in a new U.S. TV series?) True, I knew not to expect a sensitive baring of the soul, but when I read a memoir I like to feel I’ve been let in. Instead, the seasoned comedian through and through, Rogen keeps us laughing but at arm’s length.
This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps (2018)
I hadn’t kept up with Philipps’s acting, but knew from her Instagram account that she’d gathered a cult following that she spun into modelling and paid promotions, and then a short-lived talk show hosting gig. Although she keeps up a flippant, sarcastic façade for much of the book, there is welcome introspection as she thinks about how women get treated differently in Hollywood. I also got what I wanted from the Rogen but didn’t get: insight into the how of her career, and behind-the-scenes gossip about F&G.
Philipps grew up first in the Chicago outskirts and then mostly in Arizona. She was a headstrong child and her struggle with anxiety started early. When she lost her virginity at age 14, it was actually rape, though she didn’t realize it at the time. At 15, she got pregnant and had an abortion. She developed a habit of seeking validation from men, even if it meant stringing along and cheating on nice guys.
I enjoyed reading about her middle and high school years because she’s just a few years older than me, so the cultural references were familiar (each chapter is named after a different pop song) and I could imagine the scenes – like one at a junior high dance where she got trapped in a mosh pit and dislocated her knee, the first of three times that specific injury happens in the book – taking place in my own middle school auditorium and locker hallway.
She never quite made it to the performing arts summer camp she was supposed to attend in upstate New York, but did act in school productions and got an agent and headshots, so that when Mattel came to Scottsdale looking for actresses to play Barbie dolls in her junior year, she was perfectly placed to be cast as a live-action Cher from Clueless. She enrolled in college in Los Angeles (at LMU) but focused more on acting than on classes. After F&G, Dawson’s Creek was her biggest role. It involved moving to Wilmington, North Carolina and introduced her to her best friend, Michelle Williams, but she never felt she fit with the rest of the cast; her impression is that it was very much a star vehicle for Katie Holmes.
Other projects that get a lot of discussion here are the Will Ferrell ice-skating movie Blades of Glory, which was her joint idea with her high school boyfriend Craig, and had a script written with him and his brother Jeff – there was big drama when they tried to take away her writing credit; and Cougar Town (with Courteney Cox), for which she won the inaugural Television Critics’ Choice Award. She auditioned a lot, including for TV pilots each year, but roles were few and far between, and she got rejected based on her size (when carrying baby weight after her daughters’ births, or once being cast as “the overweight friend”).
Anyway, I was here for the dish on Freaks and Geeks, and it’s juicy, especially about James Franco, who was her character Kim Kelly’s love interest on the show. Kim and Daniel had an on-again, off-again relationship, and the tension between them on camera reflected real life.
“Franco had come back from our few months off and was clearly set on being a VERY SERIOUS ACTOR … [he] had decided that the only way to be taken seriously was to be a fucking prick. Once we started shooting the series, he was not cool to me, at all. Everything was about him, always. His character’s motivation, his choices, his props, his hair, his wardrobe. Basically, he fucking bullied me. Which is what happens a lot on sets. Most of the time, the men who do this get away with it, and most of the time they’re rewarded.”
At one point, he pushed her over on the set; the directors slapped him on the wrist and made him apologize, but she knew nothing was going to come of it. Still, it was her big break:
what we were doing was totally different from the unrealistic teen shows every other network was putting out.
I didn’t know it then, but getting the call about was the first of many you-got-it calls I would get over the course of my career.
when [her daughter] Birdie turns thirteen, I’m going to watch the entire series with her.
And as a P.S., “Seth Rogen was cast as a guest star on [Dawson’s Creek] and he came out and did an episode with me, which was fun. He and Judd had brought me back to L.A. to do two episodes of Undeclared” & she was cast on one season of ER with Linda Cardellini.
The reason I don’t generally read celebrity autobiographies is that the writing simply isn’t strong enough. While Philipps conveys her voice and personality through her style (cursing, capital letters, cynical jokes), some of the storytelling is thin. I mean, there’s not really a chapter’s worth of material in an anecdote about her wandering off when she was two years old. And I think she overeggs it when she insists she’s always gone out and gotten what she wants; the number of rejections she’s racked up says otherwise. I did appreciate the #MeToo feminist perspective, though, looking back to her upbringing and the Harvey Weinsteins of the Hollywood world and forward to how she hopes things will be different for her daughters. I also admired her honesty about her mental health. But I wouldn’t really recommend this unless you are a devoted fan.
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?
“Ten years ago, my smile walked off my face, and wandered out in the world. This is the story of my asking it to come back.”
Sarah Ruhl is a lauded New York City playwright (Eurydice et al.). These warm and beautifully observed autobiographical essays stem from the birth of her twins and the slow-burning medical crises that followed. Shortly after the delivery, she developed Bell’s palsy, a partial paralysis of the face that usually resolves itself within six months but in rare cases doesn’t go away, and later discovered that she had celiac disease and Hashimoto’s disease, two autoimmune disorders. Having a lopsided face, grimacing and squinting when she tried to show expression on her paralyzed side – she knew this was a minor problem in the grand scheme of things, yet it provoked thorny questions about to what extent the body equates to our identity:
Can one experience joy when one cannot express joy on one’s face? Does the smile itself create the happiness? Or does happiness create the smile?
Women are accustomed to men cajoling them into a smile, but now she couldn’t comply even had she wanted to. Ruhl looks into the psychology and neurology of facial expressions, such as the Duchenne smile, but keeps coming back to her own experience: marriage to Tony, a child psychiatrist; mothering Anna and twins William and Hope; teaching and writing and putting on plays; and seeking alternative as well as traditional treatments (acupuncture and Buddhist meditation versus physical therapy; she rejected Botox and experimental surgery) for the Bell’s palsy. By the end of the book she’s achieved about a 70% recovery, but it did take a decade. “A woman slowly gets better. What kind of story is that?” she wryly asks. The answer is: a realistic one. We’re all too cynical these days to believe in miracle cures. But a story of graceful persistence, of setbacks alternating with advances? That’s relatable.
The playwright’s skills are abundantly evident here: strong dialogue and scenes; a clear sense of time, such that flashbacks to earlier life, including childhood, are interlaced naturally; a mixture of exposition and forceful one-liners. She is also brave to include lots of black-and-white family photographs that illustrate the before and after. While reading I often thought of Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face and Terri Tate’s A Crooked Smile, which are both about life with facial deformity after cancer surgery. I’d also recommend this to readers of Flesh & Blood by N. West Moss, one of my 2021 favourites, and Anne Lamott’s essays on facing everyday life with wit and spiritual wisdom.
More lines I loved:
imperfection is a portal. Whereas perfection and symmetry create distance. Our culture values perfect pictures of ourselves, mirage, over and above authentic connection. But we meet one another through the imperfect particular of our bodies.
Lucky the laugh lines and the smile lines especially: they signify mobility, duration, and joy.
With thanks to Bodley Head for the free copy for review.