These were terrific reads. A comic novel set on a Sussex farm and a look back at banner years in the friendship of two couples. Both:
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1932)
I’d heard so much about this over the years. It was one I had to be in just the right mood for, though – I’d picked up my secondhand copy and read the first few pages on four different occasions before it finally took. If you recognize the phrase “something nasty in the woodshed” or know of a fictional plant called sukebind, you’ll appreciate the extent to which the story has entered into popular culture.
When Flora Poste’s parents die of the “influenza or Spanish Plague” (oh dear), she’s left an orphan at age 20. Her best option seems to be moving in with relatives she’s never met: Aunt Ada Doom and the Starkadder cousins of Cold Comfort Farm in Howling, Sussex. They’re a delightful collection of eccentrics: mad Aunt Ada shut away in her room; her son Amos, a fire-and-brimstone preacher; cousin Seth, with his movie star looks and multiple children by the servant girl; cousin Elfine, a fey innocent in a secret relationship with the local landowner’s son, who’s dumb but rich; and so on.
Relying on her London sophistication and indomitable optimism, Flora sets out to improve everything and everyone at the crumbling farm. The blurb calls this a “parody of the melodramatic rural novels of the time,” but I thought of it more as a skewering of Victorian stereotypes, not least in that the farming folk speak like Thomas Hardy’s rustics (Reuben: “‘I ha’ scranleted two hundred furrows come five o’clock down i’ the bute.’ It was a difficult remark, Flora felt, to which to reply. Was it a complaint?”). Meanwhile, Mr. Mybug, with his obsession with sex, is a caricature of a D.H. Lawrence protagonist.
It may take a little while to adjust to the book’s sense of humor, which struck me as surprisingly edgy for its time. Gibbons expresses no great outrage about Seth’s illegitimate offspring, for instance; instead, the babies’ grandmother has the enterprising idea of training them up to be a jazz band. There is also plenty of pure silliness, like the cows being named Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless and one of them spontaneously losing legs. I especially liked that Flora’s London friend Mrs. Smiling collects brassieres and that Flora always samples novels to make sure they don’t contain a childbirth scene. This non sequitur also amused me at the same time as it puzzled me: Flora “liked Victorian novels. They were the only kind of novel you could read while you were eating an apple.”
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (1987)
(A buddy read with Laila of Big Reading Life for her Classics Club challenge.) Right from the start, I was thoroughly invested in this lovely, bittersweet story of two faculty couples, Larry and Sally Morgan and Sid and Charity Lang. Much of the action is split between Wisconsin in the 1930s and Vermont in the 1970s, the novel’s present day. Larry, the narrator, had a brief academic career in Madison but moved on to write novels. Sid longed to be a poet but didn’t have the skill, so remained in academia despite a tiny publication record.
Charity is the quartet’s stubborn mother hen, organizing everyone and tailoring everything to her own plans (don’t we all have a friend like that?). The Langs have wealth and class on their side, whereas the Morgans are described as having the intellect and talent. I found it odd that Stegner gave Charity such an obviously metaphorical name – starting with a big dinner party, the Langs lavish gifts and money on the Morgans in the name of friendship.
The novel sets up various counterparts and doubles, so Sally’s polio in the 1930s finds a parallel in the 1970s story line, when a terminally ill Charity is orchestrating her grand farewell. For all its challenges, Larry describes that first year in Madison as an idyllic time with “Two Adams and two Eves, an improvement on God’s plan.” Later on they all take a glorious sabbatical year together in Florence, too. New England, the Midwest and Italy make for an attractive trio of settings. There are also some great sequences that happen to reveal a lot about the friends’ dynamic, including an ill-fated sailboat outing and a hiking trip.
Nostalgic and psychologically rich, this is a quiet, beautifully written character study that would suit fans of Elizabeth Hay and May Sarton (though she was writing a decade and more earlier, this reminded me a lot of her small-town novel Kinds of Love and, eventually, A Reckoning). I’ll try more by Stegner.
“a chilly Octoberish smell of cured leaves rose from the ground, the indescribable smell of fall and football weather and the new term that is the same almost everywhere in America.”
Sid and Charity as “the people who above any other two on earth made us feel good, wanted, loved, important, and happy.”
“she was the same old Charity. She saw objectives, not obstacles, and she did not let her uncomplicated confidence get clouded by other people’s doubts, or other people’s facts, or even other people’s feelings.”
See also Susan’s review.
Novellas in November is one of my favorite blogging challenges of the year. Earlier in the month I reviewed a first batch of five novellas. For this second and final installment I have 11 small books to feed back on: fiction, graphic novels, and miscellaneous nonfiction.
Classic of the Month
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956)
This was my first taste of Baldwin’s fiction, and it was very good indeed. David, a penniless American, came to Paris to find himself. His second year there he meets Giovanni, an Italian barman. They fall in love and move in together. There’s a problem, though: David has a fiancée – Hella, who’s traveling in Spain. It seems that David had bisexual tendencies but went off women after Giovanni. “Much has been written of love turning to hatred, of the heart growing cold with the death of love.” We know from the first pages that David has fled to the south of France and Giovanni faces the guillotine in the morning, but all through Baldwin maintains the tension as we wait to hear why he is sentenced to death. Deeply sad, but also powerful and brave. I’ll make Go Tell It on the Mountain my next one by Baldwin.
Garfield, Why Do You Hate Mondays? by Jim Davis (1982)
This was like a trip back to childhood, as “Garfield” was always the first thing I would turn to in the Sunday comics section of the Washington Post. The story of the tubby, lasagna-stealing, dog-outsmarting ginger cat even managed to feel relevant to my life now, since our furball is on a perpetual diet – and it’s working, he’s actually lost most of a kilo this year! Most of the three-pane pages are stand-alones in which Garfield gets into scrapes or plays pranks. Fat jokes abound. There is actually a narrative in the latter half, though: Garfield stows away in Jon’s suitcase on a vacation to Hawaii and gets locked up in the local pound. He and a couple of other cats have to team up to escape. [To my amusement, two photos of a bust-up Nissan were being used as bookmarks in the copy that came into the free bookshop where I volunteer.]
Reading Quirks: Weird Things that Bookish Nerds Do! by The Wild Detectives (2019)
This is a collected comic strip that appeared on Instagram between 2016 and 2018 (you can view it in full here). The brainchild of bookstore/bar owners in Dallas, Texas, it highlights behaviors that many might find strange but that make total sense to a bibliophile: buying multiple copies of a book so that your less-careful partner doesn’t ruin yours or you don’t lose a friend when they fail to return a borrowed copy; being so glued to a book that you take it everywhere; buying a coat with an eye to whether the pockets accommodate a paperback; exulting at a broken leg for the extra reading time a temporary handicap could buy you; reading with a headtorch after a bedmate has gone to sleep; and so on. The simple four-pane comics usually contain just one or two colors. The captions add as much as the dialogue. Read this next if you enjoyed Book Love by Debbie Tung.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach (1972)
I was curious about this bestselling fable, but wish I’d left it to its 1970s oblivion. The title seagull stands out from the flock for his desire to fly higher and faster than seen before. He’s not content to be like all the rest; once he arrives in birdie heaven he starts teaching other gulls how to live out their perfect freedom. “We can lift ourselves out of ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill.” Gradually comes the sinking realization that JLS is a Messiah figure. I repeat, the seagull is Jesus. (“They are saying in the Flock that if you are not the Son of the Great Gull Himself … then you are a thousand years ahead of your time.”) An obvious allegory, unlikely dialogue, dated metaphors (“like a streamlined feathered computer”), cringe-worthy New Age sentiments and loads of poor-quality soft-focus photographs: This was utterly atrocious.
Agatha by Anne Cathrine Bomann (2019)
[Trans. from the Danish by Caroline Waight; 147 pages]
In late-1940s Paris, a psychiatrist counts down the days and appointments until his retirement. He’s so jaded that he barely listens to his patients anymore. “Was I just lazy, or was I genuinely so arrogant that I’d become bored by other people’s misery?” he asks himself. A few experiences awaken him from his apathy: learning that his longtime secretary’s husband has terminal cancer and visiting the man for some straight talk about death; discovering that the neighbor he’s never met, but only known via piano playing through the wall, is deaf, and striking up a friendship with him; and meeting Agatha, a new German patient with a history of self-harm, and vowing to get to the bottom of her trauma. This debut novel by a psychologist (and table tennis champion) is a touching, subtle and gently funny story of rediscovering one’s purpose late in life.
Agatha will be released on 12th December. With thanks to Sceptre for the proof copy for review.
The Dig by Cynan Jones (2014)
Daniel is a recently widowed farmer in rural Wales. On his own for the challenges of lambing, he hates who he’s become. “She would not have liked this anger in me. I was not an angry man.” In the meantime, a badger-baiter worries the police are getting wise to his nocturnal misdemeanors and looks for a new, remote locale to dig for badgers. I kept waiting for these two story lines to meet explosively, but instead they just fizzle out. I should have been prepared for the animal cruelty I’d encounter here, but it still bothered me. Even the descriptions of lambing, and of Daniel’s wife’s death, are brutal. Jones’s writing reminded me of Andrew Michael Hurley’s; while I did appreciate the observation that violence begets more violence in groups of men (“It was the gangness of it”), this was a tough read for me.
Shelf Respect: A Book Lover’s Defence by Annie Austen (2019)
[183 pages, but with large type and not many words on a page]
This seems destined to be in many a bibliophile’s Christmas stocking this year. It’s a collection of mini-essays, quotations and listicles on topics such as DNFing, merging your book collection with a new partner’s, famous bibliophiles and bookshelves from history, and how you choose to organize your library. It’s full of fun trivia. Two of my favorite factoids: Bill Clinton keeps track of his books via a computerized database, and the original title of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms was “I Have Committed Fornication but that Was in Another Country” (really?!). It’s scattered and shallow, but fun in the same way that Book Riot articles generally are. (I almost always click through to 2–5 articles in my Book Riot e-newsletters, so that’s no problem in my book.) I couldn’t find a single piece of information on ‘Annie Austen’, not even a photo – I sincerely doubt she’s that Kansas City lifestyle blogger, for instance – so I suspect she’s actually a collective of interns.
With thanks to Sphere for the free copy for review.
Intoxicated by My Illness: And Other Writings on Life and Death by Anatole Broyard (1992)
This posthumous collection brings together essays Broyard wrote for the New York Times after being diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer in 1989, journal entries, a piece he’d written after his father’s death from bladder cancer in 1954, and essays from the early 1980s about “the literature of death.” He writes to impose a narrative on his illness, expatiating on what he expects of his doctor and how he plans to live with style even as he’s dying. “If you have to die, and I hope you don’t, I think you should try to die the most beautiful death you can,” he charmingly suggests. It’s ironic that he laments a dearth of literature (apart from Susan Sontag) about illness and dying – if only he could have seen the flourishing of cancer memoirs in the last two decades! [An interesting footnote: in 2007 Broyard’s daughter Bliss published a memoir, One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets, about finding out that her father was in fact black but had passed as white his whole life. I’ll be keen to read that.]
Sold for a Farthing by Clare Kipps (1953)
This was a random 50p find at the Hay-on-Wye market on our last trip. In July 1940 Kipps adopted a house sparrow that had fallen out of the nest – or, perhaps, been thrown out for having a deformed wing and foot. Clarence became her beloved pet, living for just over 12 years until dying of old age. A former professional musician, Kipps served as an air-raid warden during the war; she and Clarence had a couple of close shaves and had to evacuate London at one point. Clarence sang more beautifully than the average sparrow and could do a card trick and play dead. He loved to nestle inside Kipps’s blouse and join her for naps under the duvet. At age 11 he had a stroke, but vet attention (and champagne) kept him going for another year, though with less vitality. This is sweet but not saccharine, and holds interest for its window onto domesticated birds’ behavior. With photos, and a foreword by Julian Huxley.
A Year Lost and Found by Michael Mayne (1987)
Mayne was vicar at the university church in Cambridge when he came down with a mysterious, debilitating illness, only later diagnosed as myalgic encephalomyelitis or post-viral fatigue syndrome. During his illness he was offered the job of Dean of Westminster, and accepted the post even though he worried about his ability to carry out his duties. He writes of his frustration at not getting better and receiving no answers from doctors, but much of this short memoir is – unsurprisingly, I suppose – given over to theological musings on the nature of suffering, with lots of quotations (too many) from theologians and poets. Curiously, he also uses Broyard’s word, speaking of the “intoxication of convalescence.”
Ordinary Sacred: The Simple Beauty of Everyday Life by Kent Nerburn (2006)
The author has a PhD in religion and art and produced sculptures for a Benedictine abbey in British Columbia and the Peace Museum in Hiroshima. I worried this would be too New Agey for me, but at 20p from a closing-down charity shop, it was worth taking a chance on. Nerburn feels we are often too “busy with our daily obligations … to surround our hearts with the quiet that is necessary to hear life’s softer songs.” He tells pleasant stories of moments when he stopped to appreciate meaning and connection, like watching a man in a wheelchair fly a kite, setting aside his to-do list to have coffee with an ailing friend, and attending the funeral of a Native American man he once taught.
Total number of novellas read this month: 16 (compared to last year’s 26)
My overall favorite: Agatha by Anne Cathrine Bomann
Runners-up: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, Intoxicated by My Illness by Anatole Broyard, and Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit
What’s the best novella you’ve read recently? Do you like the sound of any of the ones I read?
Reading about a particular topic, time period or type of character often leads me to want to read more about the same thing. This isn’t the same as what I call “book serendipity,” when such connections happen purely coincidentally; instead, it’s a deliberate way of following a thread of interest further. I keep meaning to read more about lighthouses, butterflies and Virginia Woolf, for instance. Some attempts are more successful than others, though.
Alas, I had to return the Peggy Seeger memoir to the library unread because it was requested after me, and I haven’t found the immediate spur to pick up Greatest Hits yet.
However, soon after I finished one novel about conjoined twins, Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, I launched straight into another one, Lori Lansens’ The Girls. I’m halfway through and it’s great so far. (Another I’d recommend is Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss, about the original “Siamese twins.”)
This spring I realized that I’d read four and a bit shepherds’ memoirs in 17 months, which is quite the concentration considering I’m not a countryside gal. Here’s how I’d rank the five:
#1: A Farmer’s Diary: A Year at High House Farm by Sally Urwin
Urwin is a charming guide to a year in the life of her working farm in Northumberland. Just don’t make the mistake of dismissing her as “the farmer’s wife.” She may only be 4 foot 10 (her Twitter handle is @pintsizedfarmer and her biography describes her as “(probably) the shortest farmer in England”), but her struggles to find attractive waterproofs don’t stop her from putting in hard labor to tend to the daily needs of a 200-strong flock of sheep.
From mating the ewes to preparing the next year’s lambs for market, we see the whole cycle once through and about to start again. Lambing is a fraught couple of months that form the heart of the book, but there are plenty of other challenges, including stolen sheep, fallen trees, and constant financial concerns that lead to a petition to the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution for help paying the gas bill and keeping food on the table for their two kids.
Despite the year’s setbacks, Urwin has an indomitable spirit and writes in a chatty, chin-up style that reflects the book’s origin in blog posts from 2017 to 2018. She gets a lot of comic mileage out of her yo-yo dieting, the many escapades of Candy the fat pony, and quirky English traditions like the village fete. I enjoy reading about people’s daily habits through a diary, and all the better when it’s a lifestyle that’s totally foreign to me.
#2: The Sheep Stell by Janet White
First published in 1991, The Sheep Stell taps into a widespread feeling that we have become cut off from the natural world and that existing in communion with animals is a healthier lifestyle. White’s pleasantly nostalgic memoir tells of finding contentment in the countryside, first on her own and later with a dearly loved family. It is both an evocative picture of a life adapted to seasonal rhythms and an arresting account of the casual sexism – and even violence – White experienced in a traditionally male vocation when she emigrated to New Zealand in 1953. From solitary youthful adventures that recall Gerald Durrell’s and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s to a more settled domestic life with animals reminiscent of the writings of James Herriot and Doreen Tovey, White’s story is unfailingly enjoyable. (I reviewed it for the Times Literary Supplement last year.)
#3: On Sheep: Diary of a Swedish Shepherd by Axel Lindén
(translated from the Swedish by Frank Perry)
Axel Lindén left his hipster Stockholm existence behind to take on his parents’ rural collective. On Sheep documents two years in his life as a shepherd aspiring to self-sufficiency and a small-scale model of food production. The diary entries range from a couple of words (“Silage; wet”) to several pages, and tend to cluster around busy times on the farm. The author expresses genuine concern for the sheep’s wellbeing. However, he cannily avoids anthropomorphism, insisting that his loyalty must be to the whole flock rather than to individual animals. The brevity and selectiveness of the diary keep the everyday tasks from becoming tiresome. Instead, the rural routines are comforting, even humbling.
#4: The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks
My husband valued this more as a memoir than as a cultural document; the opposite was true for me. As a memoir it’s fairly unexceptional, but it’s valuable as a picture of a rare and dwindling way of life in the British countryside.
#5: Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World by Steinunn Sigurðardóttir
(translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton)
DNF after 53 pages. I was offered a proof copy by the publisher on Twitter. I thought it would be interesting to hear about a female Icelandic shepherd who was a model before taking over her family farm and then reluctantly went into politics to try to block a hydroelectric power station on her land. Unfortunately, though, the book is scattered and barely competently written. It doesn’t help that the proof is error-strewn. [This mini-review has been corrected to reflect the fact that, unlike what is printed on the proof copy, the sole author is Steinunn Sigurðardóttir, who has written the book as if from Heiða Ásgeirsdóttir’s perspective.]
What’s the last major reading theme you’ve had?
Can I tempt you with a sheep-herding memoir?
We’re off to America tomorrow for two weeks for a holiday plus family time and a college friend’s wedding. While I won’t be particularly communicative on others’ blogs or social media, I’m scheduling a few blogs per week that we’re away. Back on June 3rd – just in time for the start of 20 Books of Summer!
Here’s the stack of books I’ve packed – with plenty more waiting for me over there and my Kindle providing some 400 backups.
These two memoirs may be very different in terms of the setting (Texas and Yale versus rural Lancashire) and particulars, but I’m reviewing them together because they are both about dysfunctional families and the extent to which external circumstances determine how others see us – and how we view ourselves.
There Will Be No Miracles Here: A Memoir from the Dark Side of the American Dream by Casey Gerald (2018)
The title comes from a seventeenth-century sign in a French village that was intended to get the God-dazzled peasants back to work. For Gerald it’s a somewhat tongue-in-cheek reminder that his life, even if he has made good after an unpromising beginning, is not some American dream or fairytale. It’s more complicated than that. Still, there’s no sugar-coating his family issues. His father missed his tenth birthday party because he was next door with dope fiends; his bipolar mother was in the psych ward while his father was in jail, and then disappeared for several years. Gerald and his older sister, a college dropout, got an apartment and set their own lax rules. In the meantime, he was coming to terms with the fact that he was gay and trying to reconcile his newfound sexual identity with his Christian faith.
In spite of it all, Gerald shone academically and athletically. He was his Texas high school’s valedictorian and followed his father into a thriving college football career – at Yale, where he accidentally fell into leadership via a Men of Color council across the Ivy League schools. It wasn’t until he got to Yale that it even occurred to him that he was poor. (I was reminded of the moment in Michelle Obama’s memoir when she got to Princeton and experienced being a minority for the first time.) As he neared graduation, he decided to go into investment banking “simply because I did not have any money and none of my people had any money.” Back in Texas after a year in a Washington, D.C. think tank, he even considered a run for Congress under the slogan “We can dream again.”
I loved the prologue, which has the 12-year-old Gerald cowering with his church congregation on the last night of 1999, in fear of being left behind at the end of the world. I think I expected religion to continue as a stronger theme throughout the book. The style wasn’t really what I imagined either: it’s a coy combination of reader address, stream-of-consciousness memories, and remembered speech in italics that often set me skimming. Whereas landmark events like his mother’s departure are left impressionistic, football games and the inner workings of Yale’s societies are described in great detail. Scenes in the classroom and with boyfriends, though still occasionally tedious, at least feel more relevant.
Gerald proudly calls himself a “faggot” and is going for a kind of sassy, folksy charm here. For me the tone only landed sometimes. Mostly I appreciated his alertness to how others (often wrongly) perceived him – a great instance of this is when he meets George W. Bush in 2007 and tells him the bare bones of his story, only for Dubya to later twist it into an example in a speech. The memoir tails off into a rather odd and sudden ending, and overall I wasn’t sure it had enough to say to fill close to 400 pages. Perhaps Gerald could have waited another 10 years? As a more successful take on similar themes, I’d recommend the memoir-in-essays Live Through This: Surviving the Intersections of Sexuality, God, and Race by Clay Cane.
There Will Be No Miracles Here was hand-picked by Colm Tóibín for publication by Tuskar Rock Press, a new imprint of Serpent’s Tail, on January 10th. It was published in the USA by Riverhead Books in October 2018. My thanks to the UK publisher for the free copy for review.
When I Had a Little Sister: The Story of a Farming Family that Never Spoke by Catherine Simpson (2019)
On December 7, 2013, Simpson’s younger sister, Tricia, was found dead by their 87-year-old father at the family farmhouse where she lived in Lancashire. She was 46 and had been receiving daily mental health visits for her bipolar disorder, but the family had never been notified about a previous suicide attempt just three weeks before. Simpson excavates her family history to ask how things could have gotten so bad that they didn’t realize that Tricia’s depression had reached suicidal levels.
Simpson’s grandparents – her grandfather a World War I veteran – moved into the property in 1925, so by this time there was literally generations’ worth of stuff to clear out. “I ask myself now: is it possible to dispose of a person’s effects with dignity?” Simpson frets. As she and her father sifted through antique furniture, gadgets and craft supplies, she recalls the previous death in the family: her mother’s from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma seven years before. Growing up on a cattle farm in the 1970s, the three daughters were expected to be practical and unsentimental; there was never any discussion of emotions, and they got the sense that their overworked, unfulfilled mother would rather they weren’t around at all. In this context, it was hard for Tricia to cope with everyday challenges like struggling with schoolwork and the death of a beloved cousin. She started smoking at 12 and went on antidepressants at 19.
Simpson started writing this family memoir on a fellowship at Hawthornden Castle in February 2016. The first step of her project was to read all of Tricia’s diaries, from age 14 on. There were happy experiences, like six months as a nanny in Vienna and a travel grant to a kibbutz in Israel. There were also unwelcome surprises, like a 1981 suicide note – from when Tricia was just 15. Simpson had never realized just how prone her little sister was to all-or-nothing thinking. She dove headlong into short-lived relationships and, when they failed, feared she would never find love again. Over the years Tricia grew increasingly paranoid, believing she was being watched on the farm and her sisters were plotting to sell the property and leave her with nothing. One time she even locked her parents in to keep them safe.
Although the subtitle is melodramatic, it conveys all that went unsaid in this family: not just sadness, but also love and tenderness. The cover image shows Simpson crying over a dead duckling; Tricia is at the left, her look of consternation startlingly intense for a three-year-old. “It’s only a duck. There’s plenty more where that came from” was their father’s hardhearted response. There are many other family photographs printed in black and white throughout the text; Tricia loved fashion, and is stunning in her glamour shots. While the book is probably overlong, I was absorbed in the family’s story, keen to see how Simpson would reconstruct events through objects, photographs and journals. (My sister is a Tricia, too.) Recommended to readers of Jill Bialosky’s History of a Suicide and Clover Stroud’s The Wild Other.
When I Had a Little Sister will be published by Fourth Estate on February 7th. My thanks to the publisher for an early proof copy for review.
In 2015 and 2017 I came up with some appropriately theological reading recommendations for Easter. This year I’m going for a more tongue-in-cheek approach, as befits the unfortunate conjunction of Easter with April Fools’ Day.
Currently reading or reviewing:
The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald
I bought this on a whim from a local charity shop, based on the title, cover and blurb. I’m about one-third of the way through so far. MacDonald and her husband started a chicken farm in a mountainous area of the Pacific Northwest in the 1940s. Her account of her failure to become the perfect farm wife is rather hilarious. My only hesitation is about her terrible snobbishness towards rednecks and “Indians.”
A representative passage: “Gathering eggs would be like one continual Easter morning if the hens would just be obliging and get off the nests. Co-operation, however, is not a chickenly characteristic and so at egg-gathering time every nest was overflowing with hen, feet planted, and a shoot-if-you-must-this-old-grey-head look in her eye.”
The Sheep Stell by Janet White
I’m reviewing this reissued memoir for the TLS. It’s a delightful story of finding contentment in the countryside, whether on her own or with family. White, now in her eighties, has been a shepherd for six decades in the British Isles and in New Zealand. While there’s some darker material here about being stalked by a spurned suitor, the tone is mostly lighthearted. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s enjoyed books by Gerald Durrell, James Herriot and Doreen Tovey.
Representative passages: “Shepherding is a strange mixture of tremendous physical work alternating with periods of calm, quiet indolence.” & “A dare, a dream and a challenge. I could have hunted the whole world over and never in a lifetime found anywhere so right: warm, high, pastoral and severed by the sea.”
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon
Mrs. Creasy disappears one Monday in June 1976, and ten-year-old Grace Bennett and her friend Tilly are determined to figure out what happened. I have a weakness for precocious child detectives (from Harriet the Spy to Flavia de Luce), so I enjoyed Grace’s first-person sections, but it always feels like cheating to me when an author realizes they can’t reveal everything from a child’s perspective so add in third-person narration and flashbacks. These fill in the various neighbors’ sad stories and tell of a rather shocking act of vigilante justice they together undertook nine years ago.
Sheep are a metaphor here for herd behavior and a sense of belonging, but also for good versus evil. Grace and Tilly become obsessed with a Bible passage the vicar reads about Jesus separating the sheep from the goats. But how can he, or they, know who’s truly righteous? As Grace says, “I think that’s the trouble, it’s not always that easy to tell the difference.” It’s a simplistic message about acknowledging the complexity of other lives and situations rather than being judgmental, and matches the undemanding prose.
Reminiscent of Rachel Joyce, but not as good.
Vita Nova by Louise Glück
My first collection from the prolific Pulitzer winner. Some of the poems are built around self-interrogation, with a question and answer format; several reflect on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The first and last poems are both entitled “Vita Nova,” while another in the middle is called “The New Life.” I enjoyed the language of spring in the first “Vita Nova” and in “The Nest,” but I was unconvinced by much of what Glück writes about love and self-knowledge, some of it very clichéd indeed, e.g. “I found the years of the climb upward / difficult, filled with anxiety” (from “Descent to the Valley”) and “My life took me many places, / many of them very dark” (from “The Mystery”).
Best lines about spring:
“The spring of the year; young men buying tickets for the ferryboats. / Laughter, because the air is full of apple blossoms.” (from “Vita Nova”)
“Spring / descended. Or should one say / rose? … yellow-green of forsythia, the Commons / planted with new grass— // the new / protected always” (from “Ellsworth Avenue”)
Plucked off the shelf for their dubious thematic significance!
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas
Happy Easter to all those who mark it, and have a good week. I have a few review-based posts scheduled for while we’re in Wigtown, a trip I hope to report on next Monday, when I will also attempt to catch up on blogs and comments.
Something tells me my readers are the sort of people who buy books for their family and friends at the holidays. Consider any rating of 3.5 or above on this blog a solid recommendation; 3 stars is still a qualified recommendation, and by my comments you should be able to tell whether the book would be right for you or a friend. I’ll make another plug for the books I’ve already mentioned here as gift ideas and highlight other books I think would be ideal for the right reader. I read all these books this year, and most were released in 2017, but I have a few backlist titles, too – in those cases I’ve specified the publication year. Since I recommend fiction all the time through my reviews, I’ve given significantly more space to nonfiction.
For the Shiny New Books Christmas special I chose two books I could see myself giving to lots of people. One was A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives by Lisa Congdon, my overall top gift idea. It’s a celebration of women’s attainments after age 40, especially second careers and late-life changes of course. There’s a lively mixture of interviews, first-person essays, inspirational quotes, and profiles of figures like Vera Wang, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Grandma Moses, with Congdon’s whimsical drawings dotted all through. This would make a perfect gift for any woman who’s feeling her age, even if that’s younger than 40. (An essay on gray hair particularly hit home for me.) It’s a reminder that great things can be achieved at any age, and that with the right attitude, we will only grow in confidence and courage over the years. (See my full Nudge review.)
One Year Wiser: An Illustrated Guide to Mindfulness by Mike Medaglia
Drawn like an adult coloring book, this mindfulness guide is divided into color-block sections according to the seasons and tackles themes like happiness, gratitude, fighting anxiety and developing a healthy thought life. The layout is varied and unexpected, with abstract ideas represented by bodies in everyday situations. It’s a fresh delivery of familiar concepts.
My thanks to SelfMadeHero for the free copy for review.
An Almost Perfect Christmas by Nina Stibbe
With its short chapters and stocking stuffer dimensions, this is a perfect book to dip into over the holidays. The autobiographical pieces involve Stibbe begrudgingly coming round to things she’s resisted, from Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” to a flaming Christmas pudding. The four short stories, whether nostalgic or macabre, share a wicked sense of humor. You’ll also find an acerbic shopping guide and – best of all – a tongue-in-cheek Christmas A-to-Z. Nearly as funny as Love, Nina. (I reviewed this for the Nov. 29th Stylist “Book Wars” column.)
For some reason book- and nature-themed books seem to particularly lend themselves to gifting. Do you find that too?
For the fellow book and word lovers in your life:
The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
It’s a pleasure to spend a vicarious year running The Book Shop in Wigtown, Scotland with the curmudgeonly Bythell. I enjoyed the nitty-gritty details about acquiring and pricing books, and the unfailingly quirky customer encounters. This would make a great one-year bedside book. (See my full review.)
The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words by Paul Anthony Jones
Another perfect bedside book: this is composed of daily one-page entries that link etymology with events from history. I’ve been reading it a page a day since mid-October. A favorite word so far: “vandemonianism” (rowdy, unmannerly behavior), named after the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), first sighted by Europeans on 24 November 1642.
“The Gifts of Reading” by Robert Macfarlane (2016)
This was my other Christmas recommendation for Shiny New Books. A love of literature shared with friends and the books he now gifts to students and a new generation of nature writers are the main themes of this perfect essay. First printed as a stand-alone pamphlet in aid of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, this is just right for slipping in a stocking.
A Girl Walks into a Book: What the Brontës Taught Me about Life, Love, and Women’s Work by Miranda K. Pennington
This charming bibliomemoir reflects on Pennington’s two-decade love affair with the work of the Brontë sisters, especially Charlotte. It cleverly gives side-by-side chronological tours through the Brontës’ biographies and careers and her own life, drawing parallels and noting where she might have been better off if she’d followed in Brontë heroines’ footsteps.
For the nature enthusiasts in your life:
A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold
Few know how much of our current philosophy of wilderness and the human impact on the world is indebted to Aldo Leopold. This was first published in 1949, but it still rings true. A month-by-month account of life in Wisconsin gives way to pieces set everywhere from Mexico to Manitoba. Beautiful, incisive prose; wonderful illustrations by Charles W. Schwartz.
The History of Bees by Maja Lunde
Blending historical, contemporary and future story lines, this inventive novel, originally published in Norway in 2015, is a hymn to the dying art of beekeeping and a wake-up call about the environmental disaster the disappearance of bees signals. The plot strands share the themes of troubled parenthood and the drive to fulfill one’s purpose. Like David Mitchell, Lunde juggles her divergent time periods and voices admirably. It’s also a beautifully produced book, with an embossed bee on the dust jacket and a black and gold honeycomb pattern across the spine and boards. (See my full Bookbag review.)
Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm by David Mas Masumoto (1995)
Masumoto is a third-generation Japanese-American peach and grape farmer in California. He takes readers on a quiet journey through the typical events of the farming calendar. It’s a lovely, meditative book about the challenges and joys of this way of life. I would highly recommend it to readers of Wendell Berry.
A Wood of One’s Own by Ruth Pavey
This pleasantly meandering memoir, an account of two decades spent restoring land to orchard in Somerset, will appeal to readers of modern nature writers. Local history weaves through this story, too: everything from the English Civil War to Cecil Sharp’s collecting of folk songs. Bonus: Pavey’s lovely black-and-white line drawings. (See my full review.)
It’s not just books…
With this year’s Christmas money from my mother I bought the five-disc back catalogue of albums from The Bookshop Band. I crowdfunded their nine-disc, 100+-track recording project last year; it was money extremely well spent. So much quality music, and all the songs are based on books. I listen to these albums all the time while I’m working. I look forward to catching up on older songs I don’t know. Check out their Bandcamp site and see if there’s a physical or digital album you’d like to own or give to a fellow book and music lover. They played two commissioned songs at the launch event for The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, so if you’re a Philip Pullman fan you might start by downloading those.
Would you like to give – or get – any of my recommendations for Christmas?
Charlie Pye-Smith is a farming and environmental commentator with many previous titles to his name. To research this survey of modern food production, he spent a year traveling around the British countryside in a motor home, interviewing farmers and manufacturers and learning how things are likely to change when Brexit takes effect. In the face of surpluses and falling profits, he suggests that in the future farmers will need to diversify. Questioning received wisdom, he also proposes that animal welfare might be more achievable in larger-scale operations and that environmentally friendly techniques like crop rotation might actually lead to higher yields.
Many of the farms the author visits have survived due to their adaptability. For instance, the Belchers of Leicestershire found they could double their profits if they processed their cattle, pigs and lambs themselves and sold the meat at farmer’s markets. Likewise, the Blands, dairy farmers in Cumbria, branched out after they lost their whole herd to foot-and-mouth disease in 2001: Now they produce ice cream from their Jersey cows and run a successful tea room. On the other hand, specializing in a heritage product can also be an effective strategy. In Yorkshire, the author meets farmers who have been raising sheep locally for centuries. “It’s all about eating the view … linking Swaledale sheep to a beautiful upland landscape. Eat our lamb and you’re helping to protect the Dales,” is the message.
Pye-Smith also looks into pig welfare and plowing techniques for cereal crops. In a chapter on fruit, he tells the recent story of apples and strawberries through cider and jam production, respectively. A section on vegetables centers on potatoes. I learned a number of facts that surprised me:
- Over half Britain’s potatoes are turned into crisps and chips
- “Outdoor-reared” pork is not necessarily the ideal because cold, wet winters are tough on piglets and sows
- Cider coming into fashion over the last 10–15 years is largely thanks to Magners’ advertising campaigns
- Nowadays the average Briton spends just 10% of their income on food, as opposed to 33% in the 1950s.
The book strikes an appropriate balance between the cutting-edge and the traditional, and between caution and optimism. Although Brexit will lead to a total loss of farmers’ EU subsidies and a drop in the number of Eastern Europeans coming over to pick produce, there may be potential benefits too. As one large-scale vegetable farmer opines, “we should see Brexit as a great opportunity to promote home-grown food production.” I appreciated how open the author is to organic and conservation agriculture, but he also doesn’t present them as magical solutions. For the most part, I sensed no hidden agenda, though he is perhaps pro-grouse shooting and seems dismissive of city journalists like George Monbiot who claim to know better than the real countryside experts.
This is most like a condensed, British version of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Pye-Smith makes the same sort of investigations into food production methods, including tiny snippets from his own life along the way. Crucially, the book is readable throughout, never sinking into tedious statistics or jargon. The author’s black-and-white photographs, three to five per chapter, are a nice addition. In essence this is a collection of stories about a way of life that faces challenges but is not doomed. I was reassured to hear that people increasingly care about where their food comes from. Martin Thatcher of Thatchers cider says “People have become more discriminating. They are now much more interested in what they’re eating and drinking than they were in the past, and how it’s produced.” If you, too, are interested in how food gets to you in Britain, be sure to pick up this book.
Land of Plenty is published today, July 27th, by Elliott & Thompson. Thanks to Alison Menzies for arranging my free copy for review.
I’d never heard of this 1935 Pulitzer Prize winner before I saw a large display of titles from publisher Head of Zeus’s new imprint, Apollo, at Foyles bookshop in London the night of the Diana Athill event. Apollo, which launched with eight titles in April, aims to bring lesser-known classics out of obscurity: by making “great forgotten works of fiction available to a new generation of readers,” it intends to “challenge the established canon and surprise readers.” I’ll be reviewing Howard Spring’s My Son, My Son for Shiny New Books soon, and I’m tempted by the Eudora Welty and Christina Stead titles. Rounding out the list are two novels set in Eastern Europe, a Sardinian novel in translation, and an underrated Western.
Missouri-born Johnson was just 24 years old when she published Now in November. The novel is narrated by the middle Haldmarne daughter, Marget, looking back at a grueling decade on the family farm. She recognizes how unsuited her father, Arnold, was to farming: “He hadn’t the resignation that a farmer has to have – that resignation which knows how little use to hope or hate.” The remaining members of this female-dominated household are mother Willa, older sister Kerrin and younger sister Merle. Half-feral Kerrin is a creature apart. She’s always doing something unpredictable, like demonstrating knife-throwing to disastrous effect or taking over as the local schoolteacher, a job she’s not at all right for.
The arrival of Grant Koven, a neighbor in his thirties hired to help Arnold with hard labor, seems like the only thing that might break the agricultural cycle of futile hope and disappointment. Marget quickly falls in love with him, but it takes her a while to realize that her sisters are smitten too. They all keep hoping their fortunes will change:
‘This year will have to be different,’ I thought. ‘We’ve scrabbled and prayed too long for it to end as the others have.’ The debt was still like a bottomless swamp unfilled, where we had gone year after year, throwing in hours of heat and the wrenching on stony land, only to see them swallowed up and then to creep back and begin again.
Yet as drought settles in, things only get worse. The fear of losing everything becomes a collective obsession; a sense of insecurity pervades the community. The Ramseys, black tenant farmers with nine children, are evicted. Milk producers go on strike and have to give the stuff away before it sours. Nature is indifferent and neither is there a benevolent God at work: when the Haldmarnes go to church, they are refused communion as non-members.
Marget skips around in time to pinpoint the central moments of their struggle, her often fragmentary thoughts joined by ellipses – a style that seemed to me ahead of its time:
if anything could fortify me against whatever was to come […] it would have to be the small and eternal things – the whip-poor-wills’ long liquid howling near the cave… the shape of young mules against the ridge, moving lighter than bucks across the pasture… things like the chorus of cicadas, and the ponds stained red in evenings.
Michael Schmidt, the critic who selected the first eight Apollo books, likens Now in November to the work of two very different female writers: Marilynne Robinson and Emily Brontë. What I think he is emphasizing with those comparisons is the sense of isolation and the feeling that struggle is writ large on the landscape. The Haldmarne sisters certainly wander the nearby hills like the Brontë sisters did the Yorkshire moors.
As points of reference I would also add Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia (resurrected by NYRB Classics in 2014), which also give timeless weight to the female experience of Midwest farming. Like the Smiley, Now in November stars a trio of sisters and makes conscious allusions to King Lear. Kerrin reads the play and thinks of their father as Lear, while Marget quotes it as a prophecy that the worst is yet to come: “I remembered the awful words in Lear: ‘The worst is not so long as we can say “This is the worst.”’ Already this year, I’d cried, This is enough! uncounted times, and the end had never come.”
Johnson lived to age 80 and published another 11 books, but nothing ever lived up to the success of her first. This is an atmospheric and strangely haunting novel. The plot is simple enough, but the writing elevates it into something special. The plaintive tone, the folksy metaphors, and the philosophical earnestness all kept me eagerly traveling along with Marget to see where this tragic story might lead. Apollo has done the literary world a great favor in bringing this lost classic to light.
With thanks to Blake Brooks at Head of Zeus for the free copy.