I was slow to launch into my 20 Books of Summer reading, but have now finally managed to get through my first four books. These include two substitutes: a review copy I hadn’t realized fit in perfectly with my all-animals challenge, and a book I’d started earlier in the year but set aside and wanted to get back into. Three of the four were extremely rewarding; the last was somewhat insubstantial, though I always enjoy reading about cat antics. All have been illuminating about animal intelligence and behavior, and useful for thinking about our place in and duty towards the more-than-human world. Not all of my 20 Books of Summer will have such an explicit focus on nature – some just happen to have an animal in the title or pictured on the cover – but this first batch had a strong linking theme so was a great start.
Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis (2015)
In this modern folk tale with elements of the Book of Job, the gods Apollo and Hermes, drinking in a Toronto tavern, discuss the nature of human intelligence and ponder whether it’s inevitably bound up with suffering. They decide to try an experiment, and make a wager on it. They’ll bestow human intelligence on a set of animals and find out whether the creatures die unhappy. Apollo is willing to bet two years’ personal servitude that they will be even unhappier than humans. Their experimental subjects are the 15 dogs being boarded overnight at a nearby veterinary clinic.
The setup means we’re in for an And Then There Were None type of picking-off of the 15, and some of the deaths are distressing. But strangely – and this is what the gods couldn’t foresee – knowledge of their approaching mortality gives the dogs added dignity. It gives their lives and deaths the weight of Shakespearean tragedy. Although they still do doggy things like establishing dominance structures and eating poop, they also know the joys of language and love. A mutt called Prince composes poetry and jokes. Benjy the beagle learns English well enough to recite the first paragraph of Vanity Fair. A poodle named Majnoun forms a connection with his owner that lasts beyond the grave. The dogs work out who they can trust; they form and dissolve bonds; they have memories and a hope that lives on.
It’s a fascinating and inventive novella, and a fond treatment of the relationship between dogs and humans. When I read in the Author’s Note that the poems all included dogs’ names, I went right back to the beginning to scout them out. I’m intrigued by the fact that this Giller Prize winner is a middle book in a series, and keen to explore the rest of the Trinidanian-Canadian author’s oeuvre.
These next two have a lot in common. For both authors, paying close attention to the natural world – birds, in particular – is a way of coping with environmental and mental health crises.
Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt (2009)
Lyanda Lynn Haupt has worked in bird research and rehabilitation for the Audubon Society and other nature organizations. (I read her first book, Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds, quite a few years ago.) During a bout of depression, she decided to start paying more attention to the natural world right outside her suburban Seattle window. Crows were a natural place to start. From then on she took binoculars everywhere she went, even on walks to Target. She spent time watching crows’ behavior from a distance or examining them up close – devoting hours to studying a prepared crow skin. She even temporarily took in a broken-legged fledgling she named Charlotte and kept a close eye on the injured bird’s progress in the months after she released it.
Were this simply a charming and keenly observed record of bird behavior and one woman’s gradual reawakening to the joys of nature, I would still have loved it. Haupt is a forthright and gently witty writer. But what takes it well beyond your average nature memoir is the bold statement of human responsibility to the environment. I’ve sat through whole conference sessions that try to define what nature is, what the purpose of nature writing is, and so on. Haupt can do it in just a sentence, concisely and effortlessly explaining how to be a naturalist in a time of loss and how to hope even when in possession of all the facts.
A few favorite passages:
“an intimate awareness of the continuity between our lives and the rest of life is the only thing that will truly conserve the earth … When we allow ourselves to think of nature as something out there, we become prey to complacency. If nature is somewhere else, then what we do here doesn’t really matter.”
“I believe strongly that the modern naturalist’s calling includes an element of activism. Naturalists are witnesses to the wild, and necessary bridges between ecological and political ways of knowing. … We join the ‘cloud of witnesses’ who refuse to let the more-than-human world pass unnoticed.”
“here we are, intricate human animals capable of feeling despair over the state of the earth and, simultaneously, joy in its unfolding wildness, no matter how hampered. What are we to do with such a confounding vision? The choices appear to be few. We can deny it, ignore it, go insane with its weight, structure it into a stony ethos with which we beat our friends and ourselves to death—or we can live well in its light.”
The Seafarers: A Journey among Birds by Stephen Rutt (2019)
In 2016 Rutt left his anxiety-inducing life in London in a search for space and silence. He found plenty of both on the Orkney Islands, where he volunteered at the North Ronaldsay bird observatory for seven months. In the few years that followed, the young naturalist travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles – from Skomer to Shetland – courting encounters with seabirds. He’s surrounded by storm petrels one magical night at Mousa Broch; he runs from menacing skuas; he watches eider and terns and kittiwakes along the northeast coast; he returns to Orkney to marvel at gannets and fulmars. Whether it’s their beauty, majesty, resilience, or associations with freedom, such species are for him a particularly life-enhancing segment of nature to spend time around.
Discussion of the environmental threats that hit seabirds hardest, such as plastic pollution, makes for a timely tie-in to wider conservation issues. Rutt also sees himself as part of a long line of bird-loving travellers, including James Fisher and especially R.M. Lockley, whose stories he weaves in. This is one of the best nature/travel books I’ve read in a long time, especially enjoyable because I’ve been to a lot of the island locations and the elegantly evocative writing, making particularly effective use of varied sentence lengths, brought back to me just what it’s like to be in the far north of Scotland in the midst of an endless summer twilight, a humbled observer as a whole whirlwind of bird life carries on above you.
A favorite passage:
“Gannets nest on the honeycombs of the cliff, in their thousands. They sit in pairs, pointing to the sky, swaying heads. They stir. The scent of the boat’s herring fills the air. They take off, tessellating in a sky that is suddenly as much bird as light. The great skuas lurk.”
My husband also reviewed this, from a birder’s perspective.
With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the proof copy for review.
The Coming of Saska by Doreen Tovey (1977)
I’ve read four of Tovey’s quaint Siamese cat books now; this was the least worthwhile. It’s partially a matter of false advertising: Saska only turns up for the last 15 pages, as a replacement of sorts for Seeley, who disappeared one morning a year earlier and was never seen again. Over half of the book, in fact, is about a trip Tovey and her husband Charles took to Edmonton, Canada. The Canadian government sponsored them to come over for the Klondike Days festivities, and they also rented a camper and went looking for bears and moose. Mildly amusing mishaps, close shaves, etc. ensue. They then come back and settle into everyday life with their pair of Siamese half-siblings; Saska had the same father as Shebalu. Entertaining enough, but slight, and with far too many ellipses.
The Bookshop Band played in an Oxfordshire village 35 minutes’ drive from us yesterday evening. I’ve now seen them four times; I don’t think that quite qualifies me as a groupie, though I do count them among my favorite artists and own their complete discography.
The small church provided great acoustics and an intimate setting, and the set list was a fun mixture of old and new. All of their songs are based on literature: When they were the house band at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, they would write two songs based on an author’s new book on the very day that s/he would be making an appearance at the shop in the evening. A combination of slow reading and procrastination, I suppose. You’d never believe it, though, because their songs are intricate and thoughtful, often pulling out moments and ideas from books (at least the ones I’ve read) that never would have occurred to me.
Here’s what they played last night, and which books the songs were based on:
- “Once Upon a Time” – For a radio commission they crafted this compilation of first lines from various books.
- “Cackling Farts” – A day-in-the-life song featuring archaic vocabulary words from Mark Forsyth’s The Horologicon.
- “You Make the Best Plans, Thomas” – Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (one of my absolute favorites of their songs).
- “Why I Travel This Way” – Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal (I have heard this live once before, but it’s never been recorded).
- “Petroc and the Lights” – Patrick Gale’s Notes from an Exhibition (which reminds me that I really need to read it soon!).
- “Dirty Word” – A brand-new song based on Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; it stemmed from their recent commission to write about banned books for the V&A.
- “How Not to Woo a Woman” – Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (it must be a band favorite as they’ve played it every time I’ve seen them).
- “Curious and Curiouser” – Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
- “Sanctuary” – A new song they wrote for the launch event at the Bodleian Library for Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, #1).
- “Room for Three” – The other song they wrote for the Pullman event
- “We Are the Foxes” – Ned Beauman’s Glow.
- “Edge of the World” – Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James.
- “Faith in Weather” – The only one not based on a book; this was inspired by a Central European folktale about seven ravens (another of my absolute favorites).
- “Thirteen Chairs” – Dave Shelton’s Thirteen Chairs (another one they’ve played every time I’ve seen them).
I’m always impressed by Ben and Beth’s musicianship (guitars, ukuleles, cello, harmonium and more), and I also admire how they’ve continued touring intensively despite being new parents. They’re currently on the road for two months, and one-year-old Molly simply comes along for the ride!
It’ll be a busy week on the blog. I have posts planned for every day through Saturday thanks to Library Checkout, the Iris Murdoch readalong, and various features reflecting on the first half of the year and looking ahead to the second half.
It turns out I’ll be in America for three weeks of July helping my parents pack and move, so I may have to slow down on the 20 Books of Summer challenge, and will almost certainly have to substitute in some books I have in storage over there. (I’m pondering fiction by Laurie Colwin, Hester Kaplan, Antonya Nelson and Julie Orringer; and nonfiction by Joan Anderson, Haven Kimmel and Sarah Vowell.) I have a few books lined up to review for their July release dates, but it’ll be a light month overall.