I’m continuing with the Nonfiction November focus by catching up on six nonfiction review books I’ve been sent over the last half a year. We’ve got a record of elderly parents’ decline, letters and poems written about the climate crisis, a family memoir set between Taiwan and Canada, a widow’s mushroom-hunting quest, a work of ecotheology that reflects on travels in the Galápagos Islands, and a defense of an entirely secular basis for morality. You can’t say I don’t read a variety, even within nonfiction! See if one or more of these tempts you.
All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir by Elizabeth Hay
Gordon and Jean Hay stumbled into their early nineties in an Ottawa retirement home starting in 2009. Elizabeth Hay is one of four children, but caregiving fell to her for one reason and another, and it was a fraught task because of her parents’ prickly personalities: Jean was critical and thrifty to the point of absurdity, spooning thick mold off apple sauce before serving it and needling Elizabeth for dumping perfectly good chicken juice a year before; Gordon had a terrible temper and a history of corporal punishment of his children and of his students when he was a school principal. Jean’s knee surgery and subsequent infection finally put paid to their independence; her mind was never the same and she could no longer paint.
There are many harsh moments in this memoir, but almost as many wry ones, with Hay picking just the right anecdotes to illustrate her parents’ behavior and the shifting family dynamic. She never looks away, no matter how hard it all gets. Her father’s rage against the dying of the light contrasts with her mother’s fade into confusion – lightened by the surprisingly poetic turns of phrase she came out with despite her dementia and aphasia. The title phrase, for instance, was her attempt at “all things considered.” I would wholeheartedly recommend this to readers of Hay’s novels, but anyone can appreciate the picture of complicated love and grief. (See also Susan’s review.)
With thanks to MacLehose Press for the free copy for review.
Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis, edited by Anna Hope et al.
Culture Declares Emergency launched in April to bring the arts into the conversation about the climate emergency. Letters to the Earth compiles 100 short pieces by known and unknown names alike. Alongside published authors, songwriters, professors and politicians are lots of ordinary folk, including children as young as seven. The brief was broad: to write a letter in response to environmental crisis, whether to or from the Earth, to future generations (there are wrenching pieces written to children: “What can I say, now that it’s too late? … that I’m sorry, that I tried,” writes Stuart Capstick), to the government or to other species.
There are certainly relatable emotions here, especially the feeling of helplessness. “We take the train, go vegan, refuse plastic, buy less and less. But that is tiny. We are tiny,” novelist Jo Baker writes. I loved retired bishop Richard Holloway’s wry letter calling the author of Genesis to account for unhelpful language of dominion, Rob Cowen’s poem to a starling, and Anna Hope’s essay about parenting in a time of uncertainty. Unfortunately, much of the rest is twee or haranguing, e.g. “Forest fires are scorching INNOCENT wildlife. Plastic is strangling INNOCENT turtles and dolphins,” a 12-year-old writes. This was put together in a matter of months, and it shows. There is not enough tonal variety, a lot of overwriting has crept through, and errors, especially in the kids’ work, remain uncorrected. Perhaps six to 10 pieces stood out to me overall. I’d recommend the Extinction Rebellion handbook instead.
With thanks to Alison Menzies / William Collins for the free copy for review.
Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan by Jessica J. Lee
I loved Turning, Lee’s 2017 memoir about swimming in one of Berlin’s lakes per week for a year, so I jumped at the chance to read her follow-up, which delves into her maternal line’s history in Taiwan. She travels to Taipei for three months to brush up on her Chinese, write and hike. Interspersed with the lush descriptions of her walks are reflections on Taiwan’s history and on the hidden aspects of her grandfather Gong’s past that only came to light after Lee’s grandmother, Po, died and she and her mother discovered an autobiographical letter he’d written before he drifted into dementia. Nature, language, history and memory flow together in a delicate blend of genres – “I moved from the human timescale of my family’s story through green and unfurling dendrological time,” she writes.
This has got to be one of the most striking title and cover combinations of the year. Along with Chinese characters, the book includes some looping text and Nico Taylor’s maps and illustrations of Taiwanese flora and fauna. While you will likely get more out of this if you have a particular interest in Asian history, languages and culture, it’s impressive how Lee brings the different strands of her story together to form a hybrid nature memoir that I hope will be recognized by next year’s Wainwright Prize and Young Writer of the Year Award shortlists. She’d also be a perfect New Networks for Nature speaker.
With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.
The Way through the Woods: Of Mushrooms and Mourning by Long Lit Woon
[Trans. from the Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland]
I couldn’t resist the sound of a bereavement memoir crossed with a mushroom hunting guide. When Long met her husband, Eiolf Olsen, she was an 18-year-old Malaysian exchange student in Stavanger, Norway. Meeting Eiolf changed the whole course of her life, keeping her in Europe for good; decades later, her life changed forever once again when Eiolf dropped dead at work one morning. “If anyone had told me that mushrooms would be my lifeline, the thing that would help me back onto my feet and quite literally back onto life’s track, I would have rolled my eyes. What had mushrooms to do with mourning?” she writes.
The answer to that rhetorical question is nothing much, at least not inherently, so this ends up becoming a book of two parts, with the bereavement strand (printed in green and in a different font – green is for grief? I suppose) engaging me much more than the mushroom-hunting one, which takes her to Central Park and the annual Telluride, Colorado mushroom festival as well as to Norway’s woods again and again – “In Norway, outdoor life is tantamount to a religion.” But the quest for wonder and for meaning is a universal one. In addition, if you’re a mushroom fan you’ll find gathering advice, tasting notes, and even recipes. I fancy trying the “mushroom bacon” made out of oven-dried shiitakes.
With thanks to Scribe for the free copy for review.
God Unbound: Theology in the Wild by Brian McLaren
McLaren was commissioned to launch a series that was part travel guide, part spiritual memoir and part theological reflection. Specifically, he was asked to write about the Galápagos Islands because he’d been before and they were important to him. He joins a six-day eco-cruise that tours around the island chain off Ecuador, with little to do except observe the birds, tortoises and iguanas, and swim with fish and sea turtles. For him this is a peaceful, even sacred place that reminds him of the beauty that still exists in the world despite so much human desecration. Although he avoids using his phone except to quickly check in with his wife, modernity encroaches unhelpfully through a potential disaster with his laptop.
I was surprised to see that McLaren leaves the Galápagos at the midpoint – whatever could fill the rest of the book, I wondered? He starts by reassessing Darwin, so often painted as a villain by Evangelical Christianity but actually a model of close, loving attention to nature. He also recalls how some of his most intense spiritual experiences have arisen from time in nature. McLaren’s books have been pivotal to my spiritual journey as we’ve both gradually become more liberal and environmentalist. His definition of God might horrify traditionalists, but holds appeal for me: “a centering singularity whose gravity holds me in insistent orbit, pulling me deeper into mystery, pondering who I am and what my life means.” This is an unusual but gently entrancing book full of photos and quotes from other thinkers including John Muir, Pope Francis and Richard Rohr. It’s an ideal introduction to ecotheology.
With thanks to Canterbury Press for the free copy for review.
What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life by Phil Zuckerman
From one end of the spectrum (progressive Christianity) to the other (atheism). Here’s a different perspective from a sociology professor at California’s Pitzer College. Zuckerman’s central argument is that humanism and free choice can fuel ethical behavior; since there’s no proof of God’s existence and theists have such a wide range of beliefs, it’s absurd to slap a “because God says so” label on our subjective judgments. Morals maintain the small communities our primate ancestors evolved into, with specific views (such as on homosexuality) a result of our socialization. Alas, the in-group/out-group thinking from our evolutionary heritage is what can lead to genocide. Instead of thinking in terms of ‘evil’, though, Zuckerman prefers Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen’s term, “empathy erosion.”
To tackle violent crime, Zuckerman contends, we need a more equal society, with the Scandinavian countries a model of how to achieve that through higher taxes, social services and the rehabilitation of prisoners. He uses a lot of relatable examples from history and from his own experience, as well as theoretical situations, to think through practical morality. I found his indictment of American Christianity accurate – how does it make sense for people who say they follow the way of Jesus to fight against equality, tolerance and scientific advances and instead advocate guns, the death penalty and Trump? Well, indeed.
It might seem odd for me to recommend this alongside the McLaren, but there is much to be gained from both viewpoints. Zuckerman’s work overlaps a fair bit with another I’ve read on the topic, Richard Holloway’s Godless Morality – even a bishop agrees we needn’t take our societal ethics straight from the Bible! I can’t go along fully with Zuckerman because I think progressive religion has been and can continue to be a force for good, but I would agree that atheists can be just as moral as people of faith – and often more so.
With thanks to Counterpoint Press for sending a proof copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
In the first four months of this year, I got my hands on no fewer than four swimming memoirs. For the upcoming July/August issue of Foreword Reviews magazine I’ve reviewed Floating: A Life Regained by Joe Minihane, in which the author recreates the late nature writer Roger Deakin’s wild swimming journeys from Waterlog (1999) in an attempt to overcome anxiety; I have Leap In by Alexandra Heminsley on my Kindle; and I read roughly the first 60 pages of a library copy of Al Álvarez’s 2013 Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal.
For now, I’m featuring Turning by Jessica J. Lee, which has strong similarities to these other memoirs – especially Minihane’s – but is its own beautifully reflective personal story. The book arose from Lee’s resolution, when she was 28 and in Berlin on a research placement for her dissertation in environmental history, to swim in 52 local lakes – a year’s worth – no matter the weather. At the time she blogged about her “52 Lakes Project” for Slow Travel Berlin, and kept friends and family up to date through social media as well. Her focus would be on the former East German region of Brandenburg, which has Berlin at its center and was first popularized by Theodor Fontane’s 1862 travel book.
Lee traveled to the lakes under her own steam, using trains and her bicycle; occasionally she took friends with her, but most often she was alone, which became a chance to cultivate solitude – not the same as loneliness. The challenge entailed all kinds of practical difficulties like bike trouble, getting lost, and a dead phone battery, but gradually it became routine and held less fear for her. On summer days she could manage multiple lakes in a day, and even small encounters with Germans gave her a newfound sense of belonging.
Within chapters, the memoir gracefully alternates pieces of the author’s past with her lake travels. With a father from Wales and a mother from Taiwan, Lee grew up in Ontario and spent summers in Florida. She remembers taking YMCA swimming lessons alongside her mother, and swimming in Canadian lakes. Back then the water usually intimidated her, but over the years her feelings have changed:
Water feels different in each place. The water I grew up with was hard, cutting, and when I go back to visit it now, I feel it in my ears when I dive in. something different, more like rock. The lake a whetted blade. The water in Berlin has a softness to it. Maybe it’s the sand, buffing the edges off the water like splinters from a beam. It slips over you like a blanket. There’s a safety in this feeling. In the lakes here, there is a feeling of enclosure and security that Canada can’t replicate. And it shouldn’t – the pelagic vastness there is entirely its own, and I’ve learned to love that too.
Swimming fulfills many functions for Lee. It served variously as necessary discipline after going mildly off the rails in young adulthood (drinking, smoking pot and having an abortion during college; a short-lived marriage in her early twenties); as a way of bouncing back from depression when her planned life in London didn’t pan out and a budding relationship failed; and as a way of being in touch with the turning seasons and coming to know the German landscape intimately. Symbolically, of course, it’s also a baptism into a new life.
Yet I had to wonder if there was also something masochistic about this pursuit, especially in the winter months. On the back cover there’s a photograph of Lee using a hammer to chip out a path through the ice so she can do her minimum of 45 strokes. (No wetsuit!) As spring came, ironically, the water felt almost too warm to her. She had learned to master the timing of a winter swim: “Between pain and numbness there’s a brightness, a crisp, heightened sensation in the cold: that’s the place to swim through. When it ends, when numbness arrives, it’s time to get out.”
The end of Lee’s year-long project is bittersweet, but she’s consoled by the fact that she didn’t have to leave her ordinary life in order to complete it. It was a companion alongside the frantic last-minute work on her dissertation and it never got in the way of her relationships; on the contrary, it strengthened certain friendships. And with Berlin looking like her home for the foreseeable future, she’s committed to seeking out more lakes, too.
There are a lot of year quest books out there, but this one never feels formulaic because there’s such a fluid intermingling of past and present. As memoirs go, it is somewhat like Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun – but much better. It’s also comparable to Angela Palm’s Riverine, with a watery metaphor at the heart to reflect the author’s conception of life as a meandering route. Unlike the other swimming memoirs I’ve sampled, I can recommend this one to a general reader with no particular interest in wild swimming or any other sport. It’s for you if you enjoy reading about the ebb and flow of women’s lives.
In the stillness of the lakes, the border between nature and culture is thinned. Swimming takes place at this border, as if constantly searching for home. Water is a place in which I don’t belong, but where I find myself nonetheless. Out of my culture, out of my depth.
There is more space inside than I can imagine, more hope and possibility than I’d known. Feeling as clear as the day, as deep as the lake.
Turning: A Swimming Memoir was published in the UK by Virago on May 4th. My thanks to the publisher for sending a free copy for review.