It’s pure happenstance that I started reading Carol Shields’s work in 2006.
2005: When I first returned to England for my MA program at Leeds, I met a PhD student who was writing a dissertation on contemporary Canadian women writers. At that point I could literally name only one – Margaret Atwood – and I hadn’t even read anything by her yet.
2006: Back in the States after that second year abroad, living with my parents and killing time until my wedding, I got an evening job behind the circulation desk of the local community college library. A colleague passed on four books to me one day. By tying them up in a ribbon, she made a gift out of hand-me-downs: The Giant’s House, The Secret History, and two by Shields: Happenstance and The Stone Diaries. I’ve gone on to read most or all of the books by these authors, so I’m grateful to this acquaintance I’ve since lost touch with.
Starting in June this year, I joined Marcie of Buried in Print in reading or rereading six Shields novels. She’s been rereading Shields for many years, and I benefited from her insight and careful attention to connections between the works’ characters and themes during our buddy reads. I’d treated myself to a secondhand book binge in the first lockdown, including copies of three Shields novels I’d not read before. We started with these.
Small Ceremonies (1976)
Shields’s debut ended up being my surprise favorite. A flawless novella, it brings its many elements to a satisfying conclusion and previews the author’s enduring themes in 180 pages. Judith is working on a third biography, of Susanna Moodie, and remembering the recent sabbatical year that she and her husband, a Milton scholar, spent with their two children in Birmingham. High tea is a compensating ritual she imported from a dismal England. She also brought back an idea for a novel. Meanwhile family friend Furlong Eberhardt, author of a string of twee, triumphantly Canadian novels, is casting around for plots.
What ensues is something of a sly academic comedy à la David Lodge, laced with Shields’s quiet wisdom on marriage, parenting, the writer’s vocation, and the difficulty of ever fully understanding another life. Specific links to her later work include a wonderful dinner party scene with people talking over each other and a craft project.
The Box Garden (1977)
The companion novel to Small Ceremonies is narrated by Judith’s sister Charleen, a poet and single mother who lives in Vancouver and produces the National Botanical Journal. I imagined the sisters representing two facets of Shields, who had previously published poetry and a Moodie biography. Charleen is preparing to travel to Toronto for their 70-year-old mother’s wedding to Louis, an ex-priest. Via flashbacks and excruciating scenes at the family home, we learn how literally and emotionally stingy their mother has always been. If Charleen’s boyfriend Eugene’s motto is to always assume the best of people, her mother’s modus operandi is to assume she’s been hard done by.
The title comes from the time when a faithful Journal correspondent, the mysterious Brother Adam, sent Charleen some grass seed to grow in a window box – a symbol of thriving in spite of restrictive circumstances. I thought the plot went off in a silly direction, but loved the wedding reception. Specific links to Shields’s later work include a botanical hobby, a long train journey, and a final scene delivered entirely in dialogue.
A Celibate Season (1991)
“We’re suffering a communication gap, that’s obvious.”
This epistolary novel was a collaboration: Blanche Howard wrote the letters by Jocelyn (“Jock”), who’s gone to Ottawa to be the legal counsel for a commission looking into women’s poverty, while Shields wrote the replies from her husband Charles (“Chas”), an underemployed architect who’s keeping the home fire burning back in Vancouver. He faces challenges large and small: their daughter’s first period versus meal planning (“Found the lentils. Now what?”). The household starts comically expanding to include a housekeeper, Chas’s mother-in-law, a troubled neighbor, and so on.
Both partners see how the other half lives. The misunderstandings between them become worse during their separation. Howard and Shields started writing in 1983, and the book does feel dated; they later threw in a jokey reference to the unreliability of e-mail to explain why the couple are sending letters and faxes. Two unsent letters reveal secrets Jock and Chas are keeping from each other, which felt like cheating. I remained unconvinced that so much could change in 10 months, and the weird nicknames were an issue for me. Plus, arguing about a solarium building project? Talk about First World problems! All the same, the letters are amusing.
This was the first novel I read by Shields. My Penguin paperback gives the wife’s story first and then you flip it over to read the husband’s story. But the opposite reflects the actual publishing order: Happenstance is Jack’s story; two years later came Brenda’s story in A Fairly Conventional Woman. The obvious inheritor of the pair is A Celibate Season with the dual male/female narratives, and the setups are indeed similar: a man is left at home alone with his teenage kids, having to cope with chores and an unexpected houseguest.
What I remembered beforehand: The wife goes to a quilting conference; an image of a hotel corridor and elevator.
Jack, a museum curator in Chicago, is writing a book about “Indian” trading practices (this isn’t the word we’d use nowadays, but the terminology ends up being important to the plot). He and his best friend Bernie, who’s going through a separation, are obsessed with questions of history: what gets written down, and what it means to have a sense of the past (or not). I loved all the little threads, like Jack’s father’s obsession with self-help books, memories of Brenda’s vivacious single mother, and their neighbor’s failure as Hamlet in a local production. I also enjoyed an epic trek in the snow in a final section potentially modeled on Ulysses.
A Fairly Conventional Woman
“Aside from quiltmaking, pleasantness was her one talent. … She had come to this awkward age, forty, at an awkward time in history – too soon to be one of the new women, whatever that meant, and too late to be an old-style woman.”
Brenda is in Philadelphia for a quilting conference. Quilting, once just a hobby, is now part of a modern art movement and she earns prizes and hundreds of dollars for her pieces. The hotel is overbooked, overlapping with an International Society of Metallurgists gathering, and both she and Barry from Vancouver, an attractive metallurgist in a pinstriped suit whom she meets in the elevator, are driven from their shared rooms by roommates bringing back one-night stands. This doesn’t add anything to the picture of a marriage in Jack’s story and I only skimmed it this time. It’s a wonder I kept reading Shields after this, but I’m so glad I did!
I reviewed these last two earlier this year. They were previously my joint favorites of Shields’s work, linked by a gardening hobby, the role of chance, and the unreliability of history and (auto)biography. They remain in my top three.
The Stone Diaries (1995)
What I remembered beforehand: a long train ride, a friend who by the feeling ‘down there’ thought that someone had had sex with her the night before, and something about the Orkney Islands.
Larry’s Party (1997)
What I remembered beforehand: a food poisoning incident (though I’d thought it was in one of Shields’s short stories), a climactic event involving a garden maze, a chapter entitled “Larry’s Penis,” and the closing dinner party scene.
Looking back: Fortunately, in the last 15 years I’ve done something to redress my ignorance, discovering Canadian women writers whom I admire greatly: Elizabeth Hay, Margaret Laurence, Mary Lawson and especially Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields.
Looking out: “I am watching. My own life will never be enough for me. It is a congenital condition, my only, only disease in an otherwise lucky life. I am a watcher, an outsider whether I like it or not, and I’m stuck with the dangers that go along with it. And the rewards.”
- That’s Judith on the last page of Small Ceremonies. It’s also probably Shields. And, to an extent, it seems like me. A writer, but mostly a reader, absorbing other lives.
Looking forward: I’m interested in rereading Shields’s short stories and Mary Swann (to be reissued by World Editions in 2021). And, though I’ve read 13 of her books now, there are still plenty of unread, lesser-known ones I’ll have to try to find secondhand one day. Her close attention to ordinary lives and relationships and the way we connect to the past makes her work essential.
According to the Sámi reindeer herders, there are actually eight seasons; we’d now be in “Spring-summer” (gidágiesse), which runs from May to June.
In recent weeks I’ve read some more books that engage with the spring and/or its metaphors of planting and resurrection. (The first installment was here.) Two fiction and two nonfiction selections this time.
The White Garden: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Stephanie Barron (2009)
Barron is best known for her Jane Austen Mysteries series. Here she takes up the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West and crafts a conspiracy theory / alternative history in which Virginia did not commit suicide upon her disappearance in March 1941 but hid with Vita at Sissinghurst, her Kent home with the famous gardens. Investigating this in the autumn of 2008 are Jo Bellamy, an American garden designer who has been tasked with recreating Sackville-West’s famous White Garden at her wealthy client’s upstate New York estate, and Peter Llewelyn, a Sotheby’s employee who helps Jo authenticate a journal she finds hidden in a gardener’s shed at Sissinghurst.
Jo has a secret connection: her grandfather, Jock, who recently committed suicide, was a gardener here at the time of Woolf’s visit, and she believes the notebook may shed light on Virginia’s true fate and what led Jock to kill himself. Romantic complications ensue. This is fun escapism for Americans after an armchair trip to England (including Oxford and Cambridge for research), but so obviously written by an outsider. I had to correct what felt like dozens of errors (e.g. the indoor smoking ban came into effect in July 2007, so the hotel dining room wouldn’t have been filled with cigarette smoke; “pulling a few” is not slang for having a few drinks – rather, “pulling” has the connotation of making a romantic conquest).
I’ve visited Sissinghurst and Knole and had enough of an interest in the historical figures involved to keep me going through a slightly silly, frothy novel.
Greenery: Journeys in Springtime by Tim Dee (2020)
From the Cape of Good Hope to the Arctic Circle, Dee tracks the spring as it travels north. From first glimpse to last gasp, moving between his homes in two hemispheres, he makes the season last nearly half the year. His harbingers are chiefly migrating birds – starting with swallows. Here’s how he states his aim:
Knowing those annually recurring gifts of nature, and registering them alongside our own one-way journey through life, why not try to travel with the season and be in springtime for as long as possible, why not try to start where the season starts, and then to keep up with it, in step, walking a moving green room, travelling under the sun, like swallows out of Africa?
Starting in February in the Sahara Desert, he sees an abundance of the songbirds and raptors he’s used to finding in Europe, as well as more exotic species endemic to Africa. Any fear that this will turn out to be some plodding ‘I went here and saw this, then there and saw that’ nature/travel narrative dissipates instantly; although the book has a strong geographical and chronological through line, it flits between times and places as effortlessly as any bird, with the poetic quality of Dee’s observations lifting mundane moments into sharp focus. For instance, at their Ethiopian hotel, a wedding photography mecca, “a waiting wedding dress collapsed on a black cane chair, like an ostrich suicide.” A nightjar startled in the New Forest is “a bandaged balsa-wood model: a great moth’s head with the wings of a dark dragonfly.”
Dee’s wanderings take him from Scandinavia to central Europe and back. Wherever he happens to be, he is fully present, alive to a place and to all its echoes in memory and literature. He recalls a lonely year spent in Budapest studying Hungarian poetry in the 1980s, and how the sight and sound of birds like black woodpeckers and eagle owls revived him. Visits to migration hotspots like Gibraltar and Heligoland alternate with everyday jaunts in Ireland or the Bristol and Cambridgeshire environs he knows best.
Each vignette is headed with a place name and latitude, but many are undated, recalling springs from decades past or from the work of admired writers. Some of his walking companions and mentioned friends are celebrated nature or travel writers in their own right (like Julia Blackburn, Mark Cocker, Patrick McGuinness and Adam Nicolson; there’s also his cousin, fiction writer Tessa Hadley), while Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Seamus Heaney, D. H. Lawrence and Gilbert White are some of the book’s presiding spirits.
Greenery is steeped in allusions and profound thinking about deep time and what it means to be alive in an era when nature’s rhythms are becoming distorted. It is so gorgeously literary, so far from nature and travel writing as usual, that it should attract readers who wouldn’t normally dip into those genres. While Dee’s writing reminds me somewhat of Barry Lopez’s, closer comparisons could be made with Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk and Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard: quest narratives that nestle their nature writing within a substrate of memoir and philosophy. The last few pages, in which Dee, now in his late fifties, loses a close friend (Greg Poole, who painted the book’s cover) and receives a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease but also learns he is to become a father again, are achingly beautiful.
I find I’ve written more about this book than I intended to in a reviews roundup, but it’s so extraordinary it deserves this much and more. It’s not just one of the few best nonfiction books of the year, but a fresh, masterful model of how to write about nature.
In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill (1975)
This is my favorite of the six books I’ve now read by Hill. Early one spring, Ruth Bryce’s husband, Ben, dies in a forestry accident. They had been only married a year and now here she is, aged 20 and a widow. Ben’s little brother, 14-year-old Jo, is a faithful visitor, but after the funeral many simply leave Ruth alone. Ben’s death is a “stone cast into still water,” whose ripples spread out beyond his immediate family.
There is little plot as such, yet this is a lovely, quiet meditation on grief and solitude amid the rhythms of country life. Ruth vacillates between suicidal despair and epiphanies of exaltation at how all of life is connected. Religious imagery coinciding with Easter describes a cycle of death and renewal. Very late on in the book, as winter comes round again, she has the chance to be of help to another local family that has suffered a loss, and to a member of Ben’s remaining family.
It took me two whole springs to read this. For those who think of Hill as a writer of crime novels (the Simon Serrailler series) and compact thrillers (The Woman in Black et al.), this may seem very low on action in comparison, but there is something hypnotic about the oddly punctuated prose and the ebb and flow of emotions.
Plant Dreaming Deep by May Sarton (1968)
This serves as a prelude to the eight journals for which Sarton would become famous. It’s a low-key memoir about setting up home in the tiny town of Nelson, New Hampshire, making a garden and meeting the salt-of-the-earth locals who provided her support system and are immortalized in fictional form in the novel she published two years later, Kinds of Love. At the time of publication, she’d been in Nelson for 10 years; she would live there for 15 years in all, and (after seeing out her days in a rented house by the coast in Maine) be buried there.
Sarton was nearing 50 by the time she bought this, her first home, and for her it represented many things: a retreat from the world; a place for silence and solitude; and somewhere she could bring together the many aspects of herself, even if just by displaying her parents’ furniture, long in storage, and the souvenirs from her travels – “all the threads I hold in my hands have at last been woven together into a whole—the threads of the English and Belgian families from which I spring … the threads of my own wanderings”.
Nelson feels like a place outside of time. It holds annual Town Meetings, as it has for nearly two centuries. Her man-of-all-work, Perley Cole, still cuts the meadow with a scythe. After years of drought, she has to have water-drillers come and find her a new source. An ancient maple tree has to be cut down, reminding her of other deaths close to home. Through it all, her beloved garden is a reminder that new life floods back every year and the routines of hard work will be rewarded.
Some favorite lines:
“Experience is the fuel; I would live my life burning it up as I go along, so that at the end nothing is left unused, so that every piece of it has been consumed in the work.”
“gardening is one of the late joys, for youth is too impatient, too self-absorbed, and usually not rooted deeply enough to create a garden. Gardening is one of the rewards of middle age, when one is ready for an impersonal passion, a passion that demands patience, acute awareness of a world outside oneself, and the power to keep on growing through all the times of drought, through the cold snows, toward those moments of pure joy when all failures are forgotten and the plum tree flowers.”
Note: I discovered I’ve always misunderstood this title, thinking it whimsically imagined a plant having dreams; instead, “plant” is an imperative verb, as in Sarton’s adaptation of Joachim du Bellay: “Happy the man who can long roaming reap, / Like old Ulysses when he shaped his course / Homeward at last toward the native source, / Seasoned and stretched to plant his dreaming deep.” It’s about a place where one can root one’s work and intentions.
Have you been reading anything springlike this year?
I haven’t done much dipping into 2020 releases yet, but I do have two that I would highly recommend to pretty much anyone, plus some more that are also worth highlighting.
My top recommendations (so far) for 2020:
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
[Coming on January 21st from Tinder Press (UK) / Flatiron Books (USA)]
You’ve most likely already heard of this novel about the plight of migrants crossing the U.S. border in search of a better life. What’s interesting is that the main characters are not your typical border crossers: Lydia was a middle-class Acapulco bookshop owner whose journalist husband was murdered for his pieces exposing the local drug cartel. She and her eight-year-old son, Luca, know that the cartel is after them, too, and its informers are everywhere. They join Central American migrants in hopping onto La Bestia, a dangerous freight train network running the length of Mexico. Their fellow travelers’ histories reveal the traumatic situations migrants leave and the hazards they face along the way. Cummins alternates between the compelling perspectives of Lydia and Luca, and the suspense is unrelenting. It feels current and crucial. (My full review will be in Issue 491 of Stylist magazine, so if you are in London or another city that hands it out and can pick up a copy, keep an eye out!)
The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland
[Coming on March 3rd from Abrams Press (USA)]
A terrific follow-up to one of my runners-up from last year, Inheritance by Dani Shapiro. I learned that “non-paternity events” such as Shapiro experienced are not as uncommon as you might think. Copeland spoke to scientists, DNA testing companies, and some 400 ordinary people who sent off saliva samples to get their DNA profile and, in many cases, received results they were never expecting. There are stories of secret second families, of people who didn’t find out they were adopted until midlife, and of babies switched at birth. We’ve come a long way since the days when people interested in family history had to trawl through reams of microfilm and wait months or years to learn anything new; nowadays a DNA test can turn up missing relatives within a matter of days. But there are a lot of troubling aspects to this new industry, including privacy concerns, notions of racial identity, and criminal databases. It’s a timely and thought-provoking book, written with all the verve and suspense of fiction.
Also of note (in release date order):
Half Broke: A Memoir by Ginger Gaffney: Horse trainer Gaffney has volunteered at the Delancey Street Foundation’s New Mexico ranch, an alternative prison for drug offenders, for six years. She chronicles how feral horses and humans can help each other heal. Great for fans of Cheryl Strayed. (February 4, W.W. Norton)
Survival Is a Style: Poems by Christian Wiman: Wiman examines Christian faith in the shadow of cancer. This is the third of his books that I’ve read; I’m consistently impressed by how he makes room for doubt, bitterness and irony, yet a flame of faith remains. Really interesting phrasing and vocabulary here. (February 4, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Pain Studies by Lisa Olstein: Another in a growing number of hard-hitting books about female pain. Specifically, Olstein has chronic migraines. In these essays she ranges from ancient philosophy to recent television in her references, and from lists of symptoms to poetic descriptions in her format. A little rambly, but stylish nonetheless. (March 4, Bellevue Literary Press)
My Wild Garden: Notes from a Writer’s Eden by Meir Shalev: The Israeli novelist tells of how he took a derelict garden in the Jezreel Valley and made it thrive. He blends botanical knowledge with Jewish folklore. I particularly enjoyed his good-natured feud against his local mole rats. Gentle and charming. (March 31, Shocken)
The Alekizou and His Terrible Library Plot! by Nancy Turgeon: The Alekizou can’t read! Jealous of the fun he sees children having at the library, he breaks in and steals all the vowels. Without them, books and speech don’t make sense. Luckily, the children know sign language and use it to create replacement letters. A fun picture book with rhymes reminiscent of Dr. Seuss, this also teaches children vowels and basic signing. (April 6, CrissCross AppleSauce)
With thanks to the publisher for the free PDF copy for review.
Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui: A personal history with swimming, but also a wide-ranging study of humans’ relationship with the water – as a source of food, exercise, healing, competition and enjoyment. Tsui meets scientists, coaches, Olympians and record holders, and recounts some hard-to-believe survival tales. (April 14, Algonquin Books)
Will you look out for one or more of these?
Any other 2020 reads you can recommend?
We’re relieved to be back in the balmy UK after a sweltering week in northern Italy. Though our sixth-floor Airbnb apartment in Milan suited our needs perfectly, it was a challenge to keep it minimally comfortable. Eventually we worked out that it was essential to get up by 6:30 a.m. to close the balcony doors and shutter. The bedroom happened to be shaded, so I could set up my laptop in there and work until noon, when it was time to close out the heat of the day on that side. In the afternoons I read and napped on the divan, and then sometime between 6 and 10 p.m., depending on how sunny it had been during the day, we could fling the windows and doors wide open again. Fans helped, but we still passed some horribly muggy nights.
My husband was at his conference for four of the days, so we only braved the city centre itself on Monday morning, touring the Duomo and climbing the steps to the roof. This was well worth doing for views over the city. Afterwards we walked through the associated museum (mostly underground, and blissfully cool with air conditioning) and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a luxurious nineteenth-century shopping arcade filled with designer fashions.
Two day trips by train got us out of the city and into slightly cooler temperatures: on Wednesday we explored Varenna and Bellagio on Lake Como, and on Saturday we took a bus and cable car from Lecco into the mountains at Piani d’Erna. We took full advantage of one-euro espressos and glasses of wine, and ate lots of pizza, pasta and gelato.
After much deliberation, this is the book stack I actually packed for our trip. I got through the first half of the Orwell, an excellent account of working as a dishwasher in Paris hotels and having to scrape together enough money to ward off starvation. I’ll be writing it up as my Classic of the Month in a couple of weeks. I also read Sunburn by Laura Lippman, which I’ll hold in reserve for a summer-themed post, and (on Kindle) So Many Rooms by Laura Scott, a debut poetry collection coming out in October that I’ll review here at a later date.
Two of my other Kindle reads ended up being perfect for the setting:
From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home by Tembi Locke: This was the perfect book for me to read during the week in Italy. Not only is it set largely in Sicily, but it ticks a lot of boxes in terms of my reading interests: food, travel, bereavement, and the challenges of being an American overseas. During a semester abroad in Florence, Locke (an actress I was previously unfamiliar with) met and fell in love with Saro Gullo, an Italian chef. His parents could hardly accept him marrying someone from outside of Sicily, let alone a black woman from Texas, and refused to attend their wedding. But as the years passed they softened towards Locke, who gradually became accepted in Saro’s hometown of Aliminusa.
In fact, after Saro’s death from bone cancer in 2012, she became like a second daughter to Saro’s mother. The book focuses on the three summers in a row when she and her adopted daughter Zoela traveled to the family home in Sicily to stay with Nonna. I particularly appreciated the exploration of what it’s like to live between countries and cultures. This is one of three Reese Witherspoon book club books I’ve read so far (along with Where the Crawdads Sing and Daisy Jones and the Six), and all have been great – Reese’s recommendations are proving as reliable as Oprah’s.
A mudslide blocked the route we should have taken back from Milan to Paris, so we rebooked onto trains via Switzerland. This plus the sub-Alpine setting for our next-to-last day made the perfect context for racing through Where the Hornbeam Grows: A Journey in Search of a Garden by Beth Lynch in just two days. Lynch moved from England to Switzerland when her husband took a job in Zurich. Suddenly she had to navigate daily life, including frosty locals and convoluted bureaucracy, in a second language. The sense of displacement was exacerbated by her lack of access to a garden. Gardening had always been a whole-family passion, and after her parents’ death their Sussex garden was lost to her. Two years later she and her husband moved to a cottage in western Switzerland and cultivated a garden idyll, but it wasn’t enough to neutralize their loneliness.
Much of what Lynch has to say about trying to find genuine connections as an expatriate rang true for me. Paradise Lost provides an unexpected frame of reference as Lynch asks what it means for a person or a plant to be transplanted somewhere new, and what it takes to thrive. Her elegant writing reminded me of Diana Athill’s and Penelope Lively’s, and the exploration of the self through gardens is reminiscent of Allan Jenkins’s Plot 29.
Other successful reads:
Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell: This picks up right where The Diary of a Bookseller left off and carries through the whole of 2015. Again it’s built on the daily routines of buying and selling books, including customers’ and colleagues’ quirks, and of being out and about in a small town. I wished I was in Wigtown instead of Milan! Because of where I was reading the book, I got particular enjoyment out of the characterization of Emanuela (soon known as “Granny” for her poor eyesight and myriad aches and gripes), who comes over from Italy to volunteer in the bookshop for the summer. Bythell’s break-up with “Anna” is a recurring theme in this volume, I suspect because his editor/publisher insisted on an injection of emotional drama.
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert: There’s a fun, saucy feel to this novel set mostly in 1940s New York City. Twenty-year-old Vivian Morris comes to sew costumes for her Aunt Peg’s rundown theatre and falls in with a disreputable lot of actors and showgirls. When she does something bad enough to get her in the tabloids and jeopardize her future, she retreats in disgrace to her parents’ – but soon the war starts and she’s called back to help with Peg’s lunchtime propaganda shows at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The quirky coming-of-age narrative reminded me a lot of classic John Irving, while the specifics of the setting made me think of Wise Children, All the Beautiful Girls and Manhattan Beach. The novel takes us to 2010, when Vivian is 90 and still brazenly independent. I was somewhat underwhelmed – while it’s a fairly touching story of how to absorb losses and make an unconventional family, I wondered if it had all meant much. I’ll be expanding this into a Shiny New Books review.
Judgment Day by Sandra M. Gilbert: English majors will know Gilbert best for her landmark work of criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic (co-written with Susan Gubar). I had no idea that she writes poetry. This latest collection has a lot of interesting reflections on religion, food and art, as well as elegies to those she’s lost. Raised Catholic, Gilbert married a Jew, and the traditions of Judaism still hold meaning for her after husband’s death even though she’s effectively an atheist. “Pompeii and After,” a series of poems describing food scenes in paintings, from da Vinci to Hopper, is particularly memorable.
Vintage 1954 by Antoine Laurain: Dreadful! I would say: avoid this sappy time-travel novel at all costs. I thought the setup promised a gentle dose of fantasy, and liked the fact that the characters could meet their ancestors and Paris celebrities during their temporary stay in 1954. But the characters are one-dimensional stereotypes, and the plot is far-fetched and silly. I know many others have found this delightful, so consider me in the minority…
As well as a few DNFs…
What Dementia Teaches Us about Love by Nicci Gerard: I’ve read a lot of books about dementia, both clinical and anecdotal, and this doesn’t add anything new. (11%)
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux: I read the first 32 pages, up to when Theroux arrives in northern Italy. He mostly describes his fellow passengers, as well as the details of meals and sleeping arrangements on trains. The writing struck me as old-fashioned, and I couldn’t imagine getting through another nearly 350 pages of it.
Out of the Woods by Luke Turner: Attempts to fuse nature and sexuality in a way that’s reminiscent of Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler. The writing didn’t draw me in at all. (5%)
In March through May I often try to read a few gardening-themed books and/or ones with “spring” in the title. Here are some of the ones that I have on the go as occasional reading:
Flowers and gardens
The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl: Her mother’s final illness led Hampl to reflect on her upbringing in St. Paul, Minnesota as the daughter of an Irish Catholic library clerk and a Czech florist. I love how she writes about small-town life and helping out in her father’s flower shop:
“These apparently ordinary people in our ordinary town, living faultlessly ordinary lives … why do I persist in thinking—knowing—they weren’t ordinary at all? … Nostalgia is really a kind of loyalty”
“it was my father’s domain, but it was also marvelously other, this place heavy with the drowsy scent of velvet-petaled roses and Provençal freesias in the middle of winter, the damp-earth spring fragrance of just-watered azaleas and cyclamen”
Led by the Nose: A Garden of Smells by Jenny Joseph: Joseph’s name might not sound familiar, but she was the author of the famous poem “Warning: When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple” and died early last year. This is a pleasant set of short pieces about what you might see and sense in your garden month by month. “Gardeners do indeed look before and after, at the same time living, as no one else, in the now of the nose,” she maintains. I’m particularly fascinated by the sense of smell and how a writer can describe odors, so I was delighted to find this in a charity shop in Edinburgh last year and have been reading it a few pages at a time as a bedside book. I especially like the wood engravings by Yvonne Skargon that head each chapter.
Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden by Eleanor Perényi: A somewhat dense collection of few-page essays, arranged in alphabetical order, on particular plants, tools and techniques. I tried reading it straight through last year and only made it as far as “Beans.” My new strategy is to keep it on my bedside shelves and dip into whichever pieces catch my attention. I don’t have particularly green fingers, so it’s not a surprise that my eye recently alighted on the essay “Failure,” which opens, “Sooner or later every gardener must face the fact that certain things are going to die on him. It is a temptation to be anthropomorphic about plants, to suspect that they do it to annoy.”
With One Lousy Free Packet of Seed by Lynne Truss (DNF at page 131 out of 210): A faltering gardening magazine is about to be closed down, but Osborne only finds out when he’s already down in Devon doing the research for his regular “Me and My Shed” column with a TV actress. Hijinks were promised as the rest of the put-out staff descend on Honiton, but by nearly the two-thirds point it all still felt like preamble, laying out the characters and their backstories, connections and motivations. My favorite minor character was Makepeace, a pugnacious book reviewer: “he used his great capacities as a professional know-all as a perfectly acceptable substitute for either insight or style.”
The Seasons, a Faber & Faber / BBC Radio 4 poetry anthology: From Chaucer and other Old English poets to Seamus Heaney (“Death of a Naturalist”) and Philip Larkin (“The Trees”), the spring section offers a good mixture of recent and traditional, familiar and new. A favorite passage was “May come up with fiddle-bows, / May come up with blossom, / May come up the same again, / The same again but different” (from “Nuts in May” by Louis MacNeice). Once we’re back from America I’ll pick up with the summer selections.
In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill: Early one spring, Ruth Bryce’s husband, Ben, dies in a forestry accident. They had only been married a year and here she is, aged twenty-one and a widow. Ben’s little brother, 14-year-old Jo, is a faithful visitor, but after the funeral many simply leave Ruth alone. I’m 100 pages in and still waiting for there to be a plot as such; so far it’s a lovely, quiet meditation on grief and solitude amid the rhythms of country life. Ben’s death is described as a “stone cast into still water,” and here at nearly the halfway point we’re seeing how some of the ripples spread out beyond his immediate family. I’m enjoying the writing more than in the three other Hill books I’ve read.
Absent in the Spring by Mary Westmacott: (The title doesn’t actually have anything to do with the season; it’s a quotation from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 98: “From you have I been absent in the spring.”) From 1944, this is the third of six novels Agatha Christie published under the alias Mary Westmacott. Joan Scudamore, traveling back to London from Baghdad after a visit to her adult daughter, encounters bad weather and misses her train, which leaves her stranded in the desert for days that feel more like weeks. We’re led back through scenes from Joan’s earlier life and realize that she’s utterly clueless about what those closest to her want and think. Rather like Olive Kitteridge, Joan is difficult in ways she doesn’t fully acknowledge. Like a desert mirage, the truth of who she’s been and what she’s done is hazy, and her realization feels a little drawn out and obvious. Once she gets back to London, will she act on what she’s discovered about herself and reform her life, or just slip back into her old habits? This is a short and immersive book, and a cautionary tale to boot. It examines the interplay between duty and happiness, and the temptation of living vicariously through one’s children.
Have you been reading anything particularly appropriate for spring this year?
Novellas in November was a great success, helping me to finish more books in one month than I possibly ever have before. David Szalay’s Turbulence – a linked short story collection of tantalizing novella length – just arrived yesterday; I’ve started it but will be finishing it in December. The slim volume Fox 8 by George Saunders is also waiting for me at the library and I should be able to read it soon.
For this final installment I have 10 small books to feed back on: a mixture of fiction, graphic novels, nature books and memoirs.
West by Carys Davies (2018)
A gritty piece of historical fiction about a widowed mule breeder, Cyrus Bellman, who sets out from Pennsylvania to find traces of the giant creatures whose bones he hears have been discovered in Kentucky. He leaves his 10-year-old daughter, Bess, in the care of his sister, knowing he’ll be gone at least two years and may never return. Chapters cut between Cy’s harrowing journey in the company of a Native American guide, Old Woman From A Distance, and Bess’s home life, threatened by the unwanted attentions of their ranch hand neighbor and the town librarian. I don’t usually mind dark stories, but this was so bleak that I found it pretty unpleasant. The deus ex machina ending saved it somewhat.
Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika (2016)
Morayo Da Silva is an unlikely heroine: soon to turn 75, she’s a former English professor from Nigeria who hopped between countries with her ambassador husband but now lives alone in San Francisco. The first-person narration switches around to give the perspectives of peripheral figures like a shopkeeper, a homeless woman, and Sunshine, the young friend who helps Morayo get her affairs in order after she has a fall and goes into a care home temporarily. These shifts in point of view can be abrupt, even mid-chapter, and are a little confusing. However, Morayo is a wonderful character, inspiring in her determination to live flamboyantly. I also sympathized with her love of books. I would happily have read twice as many pages about her adventures.
Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds (2018)
Simmonds would be great for graphic novel newbies: she writes proper, full-length stories, often loosely based on a classic plot, with lots of narration and dialogue alongside the pictures. Cassandra Darke is a 71-year-old art dealer who’s laid low by fraud allegations and then blindsided by a case of mistaken identity that brings her into contact with a couple of criminal rings. To start with she’s a Scrooge-like curmudgeon who doesn’t understand the big fuss about Christmas, but she gradually grows compassionate, especially after her own brief brush with poverty. Luckily, Simmonds doesn’t overdo the Christmas Carol comparisons. Much of the book is in appropriately somber colors, with occasional brightness, including the yellow endpapers and built-in bookmark.
The Dave Walker Guide to the Church by Dave Walker (2006)
Most of these comics originally appeared in the Church Times, the official newspaper of the Church of England. No doubt you’ll get the most out of it if you’re familiar with Anglican churches or the like (Episcopalian or even Roman Catholic). My mother-in-law is a C of E vicar and we’ve attended a High Anglican church for the last two years, so I got many a good snort out of the book. Walker pokes fun at bureaucracy, silly traditions, closed-mindedness, and the oddities of church buildings and parishioners’ habits. My favorite spreads compare choirs and music groups on criteria like “ability to process in” and liken different church members to chess pieces to explain church politics.
Rain: Four Walks in English Weather by Melissa Harrison (2016)
In the course of a year Harrison took four rainy walks, in different seasons and different parts of England. She intersperses her observations with facts and legends about the rain, quotes from historical weather guides and poems. It has the occasional nice line, but is overall an understated nature/travel book. A noteworthy moment is when she remembers scattering her mother’s ashes on a Dartmoor tor. I most liked the argument that it’s important to not just go out in good weather, but to adapt to nature in all its moods: “I can choose now to overcome the impulse for comfort and convenience that insulates us not only from the bad in life but from much of the good. I think we need the weather, in all its forms, to feel fully human.”
The Beauties of a Cottage Garden by Gertrude Jekyll (2009)
This mini-volume from Penguin’s English Journeys series feels like a bit of a cheat because it’s extracted from Wood and Garden (1899). Oh well. In short chapters Jekyll praises the variety of colors, smells and designs you’ll find in the average country garden, no matter how modest its size. She speaks of gardening as a lifelong learning process, humbly acknowledging that she’s no expert. “I hold that the best purpose of a garden is to give delight and to give refreshment of mind, to soothe, to refine, and to lift up the heart in a spirit of praise and thankfulness. … a garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all, it teaches entire trust.”
The Glorious Life of the Oak by John Lewis-Stempel (2018)
I didn’t enjoy this as much as the other Lewis-Stempel book I read this month, The Secret Life of the Owl. There’s a lot here about the role the oak has played in British history, such as in warships and cathedral roofs. Other topics are the oak’s appearance and function in different seasons, the use of acorns and oak leaves in cooking, and the myths and legends associated with the trees. I felt there was too much minimally relevant material added in to make up the page count, such as a list of Britain’s famous named oaks and long poems from the likes of John Clare and William Cowper. While Lewis-Stempel always has a piercing eye, I wonder if he shouldn’t be saving up his energies to write more substantial books.
General Nonfiction / Memoirs:
My Year by Roald Dahl (1993)
I spotted a copy in our Stamford Airbnb bedroom and read it over our two nights there. These short month-by-month essays were composed in the last year of Dahl’s life. Writing with children in mind, he remarks on what schoolkids will experience, whether a vacation or a holiday like Guy Fawkes night. But mostly he’s led by the seasons: the birds, trees and other natural phenomena he observed year after year from his home in Buckinghamshire. Dahl points out that he never lived in a city, so he chose to mark the passing of time chiefly by changes in the countryside. This is only really for diehard fans, but it’s a nice little book to have at the bedside. (Illustrated, as always, with whimsical Quentin Blake sketches.)
Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot (2018)
Mailhot was raised on a First Nation reservation on an island off of British Columbia. She is wary of equating her family with Native stereotypes, but there’s no denying that her father was a drunk and ended up murdered. After a childhood of abuse and foster homes, Mailhot committed herself to a mental hospital for PTSD, bipolar II and an eating disorder. It was there that she started writing her story. Much of the book is addressed in the second person to her partner, who helped her move past a broken marriage and the loss of her older son to his father’s custody. Though I highlighted lots of aphoristic pronouncements, I had trouble connecting with the book as a whole: the way imprecise scenes blend into each other makes it hard to find a story line in the murk of miserable circumstances. A more accurate title would have been “Indian Condition” or “Indian Sick” (both used as chapter titles).
Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage by Jennifer Richardson (2013)
A memoir by an American woman married to a Brit and adjusting to English village life was always going to appeal to me. If you approach this as a set of comic essays on the annual rituals of rich toffs (summer fairs, auctions, horse racing, a hunt ball, a cattle market, etc.), it’s enjoyable enough. It’s when Richardson tries to be more serious, discussing her husband’s depression, their uncertainty over having children, and her possible MS, that the book falters. You can tell her editors kept badgering her to give the book a hook, and decided the maybe-baby theme was strongest. But I never sensed any real wrestling with the question. Not a bad book, but it lacks a clear enough idea of what it wants to be.
Total number of novellas read this month: 26
[not reviewed: In the Space between Moments: Finding Joy and Meaning in Medicine by Pranay Sinha – ]
A few that didn’t take: The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby, The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe
My overall favorite: The Gifts of the Body by Rebecca Brown
Runners-up: Surfacing by Margaret Atwood, How to See Nature by Paul Evans, Bodies of Water by V. H. Leslie, and Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
The ones that got away from me:
There’s always next year!
What’s the best novella you’ve read recently? Do you like the sound of any of the ones I read?
I’m delighted to announce the other book bloggers on my Wellcome Book Prize 2018 shadow panel: Paul Cheney of Halfman, Halfbook, Annabel Gaskell of Annabookbel, Clare Rowland of A Little Blog of Books, and Dr. Laura Tisdall. Once the shortlist is announced on Tuesday the 20th, we’ll be reading through the six nominees and sharing our thoughts. Before the official winner is announced at the end of April we will choose our own shadow winner.
I’ve been working my way through some of the longlisted titles I was able to access via the public library and NetGalley. Here’s my latest two (both ):
Plot 29: A Memoir by Allan Jenkins
This is an unusual hybrid memoir: it’s a meditative tour through the gardening year, on a plot in London and at his second home in his wife’s native Denmark. But it’s also the story of how Jenkins, editor of the Observer Food Monthly, investigated his early life. Handed over to a Barnardo’s home at a few months of age, he was passed between various family members and a stepfather (with some degree of neglect: his notes show scabies, rickets and TB) and then raised by strict foster parents in Devon with his beloved older half-brother, Christopher. It’s interesting to read that initially Jenkins intended to write a simple gardening diary, with a bit of personal stuff thrown in. But as he got further into the project, it started to morph.
The book has a complicated chronology: though arranged by month, within chapters its fragments jump around in time, a year or a date at the start helping the reader to orient herself between flashbacks and the contemporary story line. Sections are often just a paragraph long; sometimes up to a page or two. I suspect some will find the structure difficult and distancing. It certainly made me read the book slowly, which I think was the right way. You take your time adjusting to the gradual personal unveiling just as you do to the slow turn of the seasons. When major things do happen – meeting his mother in his 30s; learning who his father was in his 60s – they’re almost anticlimactic, perhaps because of the rather flat style. It’s the process that has mattered, and gardening has granted solace along the way.
I’m grateful to the longlist for making me aware of a book I otherwise might never have heard about. I don’t think the book’s mental health theme is strong enough for it to make the shortlist, but I enjoyed reading it and I’ll also take a look at Jenkins’s upcoming book, Morning, about the joys of being an early riser. (Ironic after my recent revelations about my own sleep patterns!)
“Solitude plus community, the constant I search for, the same as the allotment”
“The last element to be released from Pandora’s box, they say, was hope. So I will mourn the children we once were and I will sow chicory for bitterness. I will plant spring beans and alliums. I’ll look after them.”
“As a journalist, I have learned the five Ws – who, what, where, when, why. They are all needed to tell a story, we are taught, but too many are missing in my tale.”
With the End in Mind: Dying, Death and Wisdom in an Age of Denial by Kathryn Mannix
This is an excellent all-round guide to preparation for death. It’s based around relatable stories of the patients Mannix met in her decades working in the fields of cancer treatment and hospice care. She has a particular interest in combining CBT with palliative care to help the dying approach their remaining time with realism rather than pessimism. In many cases this involves talking patients and their loved ones through the steps of dying and explaining the patterns – decreased energy, increased time spent asleep, a change in breathing just before the end – as well as being clear about how suffering can be eased.
I read the first 20% on my Kindle and then skimmed the rest in a library copy. This was not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because it was a two-week loan and I was conscious of needing to move on to other longlist books. It may also be because I have read quite a number of books with similar themes and scope – including Caitlin Doughty’s two books on death, Caring for the Dying by Henry Fersko-Weiss, Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, and Waiting for the Last Bus by Richard Holloway. Really this is the kind of book I would like to own a copy of and read steadily, just a chapter a week. Mannix’s introductions to each section and chapter, and the Pause for Thought pages at the end of each chapter, mean the book lends itself to being read as a handbook, perhaps in tandem with an ill relative.
The book is unique in giving a doctor’s perspective but telling the stories of patients and their families, so we see a whole range of emotions and attitudes: denial, anger, regret, fear and so on. Tears were never far from my eyes as I read about a head teacher with motor neurone disease; a pair of women with metastatic breast cancer who broke their hips and ended up as hospice roommates; a beautiful young woman who didn’t want to stop wearing her skinny jeans even though they were exacerbating her nerve pain, as then she’d feel like she’d given up; and a husband and wife who each thought the other didn’t know she was dying of cancer.
Mannix believes there’s something special about people who are approaching the end of their life. There’s wisdom, dignity, even holiness surrounding them. It’s clear she feels she’s been honored to work with the dying, and she’s helped to propagate a healthy approach to death. As her children told her when they visited her dying godmother, “you and Dad [a pathologist] have spent a lifetime preparing us for this. No one else at school ever talked about death. It was just a Thing in our house. And now look – it’s OK. We know what to expect. We don’t feel frightened. We can do it. This is what you wanted for us, not to be afraid.”
I would be happy to see this advance to the shortlist.
“‘So, how long has she got?’ I hate this question. It’s almost impossible to answer, yet people ask as though it’s a calculation of change from a pound. It’s not a number – it’s a direction of travel, a movement over time, a tiptoe journey towards a tipping point. I give my most honest, most direct answer: I don’t know exactly. But I can tell you how I estimate, and then we can guesstimate together.”
“we are privileged to accompany people through moments of enormous meaning and power; moments to be remembered and retold as family legends and, if we get the care right, to reassure and encourage future generations as they face these great events themselves.”
Currently reading: The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris: a history of early surgery and the fight against hospital infection, with a focus on the life and work of Joseph Lister.
Up next: I’ve requested review copies of The White Book by Han Kang and Mayhem by Sigrid Rausing, but if they don’t make it to the shortlist they’ll slip down the list of priorities.
In 1999 Ruth Pavey bought four acres of Somerset scrubland at a land auction. It wasn’t exactly what she’d set out to acquire: it wasn’t a “pretty” field, and traffic was audible from it. But she was pleased to return to her family’s roots in the Somerset Levels area – this “silted place of slow waters, eels, reeds, drainage engineers, buttercups, church towers, quiet” that her father came from, and where she was born – and she fancied planting some trees.
There never was a master plan […] I wanted to open up enough room for trees that might live for centuries […] I also wanted to keep areas of wilderness for the creatures […] And I wanted it to be beautiful. Not immaculate, that was too much to hope for, but, in its own ragged, benign way, beautiful.
This pleasantly meandering memoir, Pavey’s first book, is an account of nearly two decades spent working alongside nature to restore some of her land to orchard and maintain the rest in good health. The first steps were clear: she had to deal with some fallen willows, find a water source and plan a temporary shelter. Rather than a shed, which would be taken as evidence of permanent residency, she resorted to a “Rollalong,” a mobile metal cabin she could heat just enough to survive nights spent on site. Before long, though, she bought a nearby cottage to serve as her base when she left her London teaching job behind on weekends.
Then came the hard work: after buying trees from nurseries and ordering apple varieties that would fruit quickly, Pavey had to plant it all and pick up enough knowledge about pruning, grafting, squirrel management, canker and so on to keep everything alive. There was always something new to learn, and plenty of surprises – such as the stray llama that visited her neighbor’s orchard. Local history weaves through this story, too: everything from the English Civil War to Cecil Sharp’s collecting of folk songs.
Britain has seen a recent flourishing of hybrid memoirs–nature books by the likes of Helen Macdonald, Mallachy Tallack and Clover Stroud. By comparison, Pavey is not as confiding about her personal life as you might expect. She reveals precious little about herself: she tells us that her mother died when she was young and she was mostly raised by an aunt; she hints at some failed love affairs; in the acknowledgments she mentions a son; from the jacket copy I know she’s the gardening correspondent for the Hampstead & Highgate Express. But that’s it. This really is all about the wood, and apart from serving as an apt Woolf reference the use of “one” in the title is in deliberate opposition to the confessional connotations of “my”.
Still, I think this book will appeal to readers of modern nature writers like Paul Evans and Mark Cocker – these two are Guardian Country Diarists, and Pavey develops the same healthy habit of sticking to one patch and lovingly monitoring its every development. I was also reminded of Peri McQuay’s memoir of building a home in the woods of Canada.
What struck me most was how this undertaking encourages the long view: “being finished, in the sense of being brought to a satisfactory conclusion, is not something that happens in a garden, an orchard or a wood, however well planned or cultivated,” she writes. It’s an ongoing project, and she avoids nostalgia and melodrama in planning for its future after she’s gone; “I am only there for a while, a twinkling. But [the trees and creatures] … will remain.” This would make a good Christmas present for the dedicated gardener in your life, not least because of the inclusion of Pavey’s lovely black-and-white line drawings.
A Wood of One’s Own was published on September 21st by Duckworth Overlook. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.