I’ve recently read a number of books that engage with topics of sunlight, darkness and the winter, exploring all the practical implications of the season and the night sky as well as their metaphorical associations. (See also: my review of An Ode to Darkness by Sigri Sandberg.)
Two of these are brand new as of this month; the other came out in paperback late last year and was one of my Christmas gifts.
Under the Stars: A Journey into Light by Matt Gaw (2020)
I very much enjoyed Matt Gaw’s The Pull of the River (2018), a jolly yet reflective travelogue of canoe trips down Britain’s rivers. His follow-up nature book is broader in focus but again rooted in on-the-ground knowledge, chiefly gained through a series of night walks. He travels everywhere from London to Isle of Coll, a Dark Sky Community in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, to compare the quality of darkness and to ponder the emotions these places elicit at night. Fear of darkness feels innate, while for him the stars are almost overwhelming.
In London and in Bury St Edmunds, where he lives, Gaw observes that cities seem removed from nature and that artificial illumination is causing light pollution that negatively affects flora and fauna. At the beach or in Dartmoor or Scotland, though, being outside at night allowed him to feel “part of the natural world in a way that I rarely have during the day. … To be open to the night, to welcome it, embrace it, rather than shut it out, does bring with it an extra richness. To walk at night has been a night twice lived.”
Whether making a jaunt to a 24-hour supermarket after hearing a tawny owl or awaking to a cow nibbling at his sleeping bag on Coll, Gaw is an entertaining and knowledgeable tour guide through the nature of night. I admire his writing and hope that with this second book he will continue to find the wider audience he deserves. Under the Stars covers a lot of ground in under 200 pages and would be a perfect primer for someone looking forward to the supermoon on March 9th.
A favorite passage:
“Over the horizon of the North Sea comes the moon. First a glow. Then a pale, pinkish cuticle that swells into a weakling light. It continues to rise, an ever-expanding, ever-brightening island, until after only a couple of minutes she tears away from the membrane of water, dripping light onto the earth, shining back at the sunken sun. The birth of the full moon.”
Under the Stars is published by Elliott & Thompson today, February 20th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Chasing the Sun: The new science of sunlight and how it shapes our bodies and minds by Linda Geddes (2019)
Circadian rhythms govern just about every bodily process, from blood pressure to digestion, so even minor changes in our sleep and sunlight exposure can have drastic effects. Like Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, this is a book chock-full of facts that should be common sense, yet are more like a body of knowledge we have lost as we have become disconnected from natural human behavioral patterns. We weren’t meant to work nights, or to stay awake for many hours in the glow of artificial light after the sun has gone down on a winter’s day.
Geddes experiments with making do with only candlelight after sunset for several weeks. She also investigates seasonal affective disorder and “circadian lighting,” surveys the history of sunlight as a medical treatment, gives practical advice for minimizing jet lag, and weighs the case for abolishing daylight savings time. Whether you’re a regular reader of popular science or not, you should pick up this concise and highly readable book by a science journalist; it delves into topics that affect us all. It’s one to keep on the shelf and refer to the next time you cross time zones or change your work schedule.
Wintering: How I learned to flourish when life became frozen by Katherine May (2020)
May’s sympathetic memoir considers winter not only as a literal season, but also as an emotional state. Although “depression” could be substituted for “wintering” in most instances, the book gets much metaphorical mileage out of the seasonal reference as she recounts how she attempted to embrace rather than resist the gloom and chill through rituals such as a candlelit St. Lucia service and an early morning solstice gathering at Stonehenge. Wintering alternates travel and research, and mind and body. Cold-water swimming becomes the author’s primary strategy for invigorating a winter-fogged brain and frozen limbs. (My full review will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Times Literary Supplement.)
Wintering was published by Rider Books on February 6th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Across my four best-of posts (Nonfiction was on Wednesday and Fiction on Thursday; Backlist reads are coming up tomorrow), I will have spotlighted roughly the top 20% of my year’s reading. The 15 runners-up below – 5 fiction and 10 nonfiction – are in alphabetical order by author. The ones marked with an asterisk are my Best 2018 Books You Probably Never Heard Of (Unless You Heard about Them from Me!).
*Frieda by Annabel Abbs: If you rely only on the words of D.H. Lawrence, you’d think Frieda was lucky to shed a dull family life and embark on an exciting set of bohemian travels with him as he built his name as a writer; Abbs adds nuance to that picture by revealing just how much Frieda was giving up, and the sorrow she left behind her. Frieda’s determination to live according to her own rules makes her a captivating character.
A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne: A delicious piece of literary suspense with a Tom Ripley-like hero you’ll love to hate: Maurice Swift, who wants nothing more than to be a writer but doesn’t have any ideas of his own, so steals them from other people. I loved how we see this character from several outside points of view before getting Maurice’s own perspective; by this point we know enough to understand just how unreliable a narrator he is.
The Overstory by Richard Powers: A sprawling novel about regular people who through various unpredictable routes become so devoted to trees that they turn to acts, large and small, of civil disobedience to protest the clear-cutting of everything from suburban gardens to redwood forests. I admired pretty much every sentence, whether it’s expository or prophetic.
You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld: Sittenfeld describes families and romantic relationships expertly, in prose so deliciously smooth it slides right down. These 11 stories are about marriage, parenting, authenticity, celebrity and social media in Trump’s America. Overall, this is a whip-smart, current and relatable book, ideal for readers who don’t think they like short stories.
*Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson: A charming, bittersweet novel composed entirely of the letters that pass between Tina Hopgood, a 60-year-old farmer’s wife in East Anglia, and Anders Larsen, a curator at the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark. It’s a novel about second chances in the second half of life, and has an open but hopeful ending. I found it very touching and wish it hadn’t been given the women’s fiction treatment.
Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living by Karen Auvinen: An excellent memoir that will have broad appeal with its themes of domestic violence, illness, grief, travel, wilderness, solitude, pets, wildlife, and relationships. A great example of how unchronological autobiographical essays can together build a picture of a life.
*Heal Me: In Search of a Cure by Julia Buckley: Buckley takes readers along on a rollercoaster ride of new treatment ideas and periodically dashed hopes during four years of chronic pain. I was morbidly fascinated with this story, which is so bizarre and eventful that it reads like a great novel.
*This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein: A wry, bittersweet look at the unpredictability of life as an idealistic young woman in the world’s major cities. Another great example of life writing that’s not comprehensive or strictly chronological yet gives a clear sense of the self in the context of a family and in the face of an uncertain future.
*The Pull of the River: Tales of Escape and Adventure on Britain’s Waterways by Matt Gaw: This jolly yet reflective book traces canoe trips down Britain’s rivers, a quest to (re)discover the country by sensing the currents of history and escaping to the edge of danger. Gaw’s expressive writing renders even rubbish- and sewage-strewn landscapes beautiful.
The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson: A delightful read that successfully combines many genres – biography, true crime, ornithology, history, travel and memoir – to tell the story of an audacious heist of rare bird skins from the Natural History Museum at Tring in 2009. This is the very best sort of nonfiction: wide-ranging, intelligent and gripping.
*No One Tells You This by Glynnis MacNicol: There was a lot of appeal for me in how MacNicol sets out her 40th year as an adventure into the unknown. She is daring and candid in examining her preconceptions and asking what she really wants from her life. And she tells a darn good story: I read this much faster than I generally do with a memoir.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean: This is really two books in one. The first is a record of the devastating fire at the Los Angeles Central Library on April 29, 1986 and how the city and library service recovered. The second is a paean to libraries in general: what they offer to society, and how they work, in a digital age. Sure to appeal to any book-lover.
Help Me!: One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Her Life by Marianne Power: I have a particular weakness for year-challenge books, and Power’s is written in an easy, chatty style, as if Bridget Jones had given over her diary to testing self-help books for 16 months. Help Me! is self-deprecating and relatable, with some sweary Irish swagger thrown in. I can recommend it to self-help junkies and skeptics alike.
Mrs Gaskell & Me: Two Women, Two Love Stories, Two Centuries Apart by Nell Stevens: Stevens has a light touch, and flits between Gaskell’s story and her own in alternating chapters. This is a whimsical, sentimental, wry book that will ring true for anyone who’s ever been fixated on an idea or put too much stock in a relationship that failed to thrive.
The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story by Christie Watson: Watson presents her book as a roughly chronological tour through the stages of nursing – from pediatrics through to elderly care and the tending to dead bodies – but also through her own career. With its message of empathy for suffering and vulnerable humanity, it’s a book that anyone and everyone should read.
Coming tomorrow: My best backlist reads of the year.
I’ve let months pass between receiving these books from the kindly publishers and following through with a review, so in an attempt to clear the decks I’m putting up just a short response to each, along with some favorite quotes.
All that Remains: A Life in Death by Sue Black
Black, a world-leading forensic anthropologist, was part of the war crimes investigation in Kosovo and the recovery effort in Thailand after the 2004 tsunami. She is frequently called into trials to give evidence, has advised the U.K. government on disaster preparedness, and is a co-author of the textbook Developmental Juvenile Osteology (2000). Whether working in a butcher’s shop as a teenager or exploring a cadaver for an anatomy class at the University of Aberdeen, she’s always been comfortable with death. “I never had any desire to work with the living,” she confesses; “The dead are much more predictable and co-operative.”
The book considers death in its clinical and personal aspects: the seven stages of postmortem alteration and the challenges of identifying the sex and age of remains; versus her own experiences with losing her grandmother, uncle and parents. Black wants her skeleton to go to Dundee University’s teaching collection. It doesn’t creep her out to think of that, no more than it did to meet her future cadaver, a matter-of-fact, curious elderly gentleman named Arthur. My favorite chapter was on Kosovo; elsewhere I found the mixture of science and memoir slightly off, and the voice never fully drew me in.
Favorite line: “Perhaps forensic anthropologists are the sin-eaters of our day, addressing the unpleasant and unimaginable so that others don’t have to.”
All that Remains was published by Doubleday on April 19th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Places I Stopped on the Way Home: A Memoir of Chaos and Grace by Meg Fee
Fee came to New York City to study drama at Julliard. Her short essays, most of them titled after New York locations (plus a few set further afield), are about the uncertainty of her twenties: falling in and out of love, having an eating disorder, and searching for her purpose. She calls herself “a mess of disparate wants, a small universe in bloom.” New York is where she has an awful job she hates, can’t get the man she’s in love with to really notice her, and hops between terrible apartments – including one with bedbugs, the subject of my favorite essay – and yet the City continues to lure her with its endless opportunities.
I think this book could mean a lot to women who are younger than me or have had experiences similar to the author’s. I found the essays slightly repetitive, and rather unkindly wondered what this privileged young woman had to whine about. It’s got the same American, generically spiritual self-help vibe that you get from authors like Brené Brown and Elizabeth Gilbert. Despite her loneliness, Fee retains a romantic view of things, and the way she writes about her crushes and boyfriends never truly connected with me.
Some favorite lines:
“Writing felt like wrangling storm clouds, which is to say, impossible. But so did life. Writing became a way to make peace with that which was flawed.”
“I have let go of the idea of permanency and roots and What Comes Next.”
Places I Stopped on the Way Home was published by Icon Books on May 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
The Pull of the River: A journey into the wild and watery heart of Britain by Matt Gaw
A watery travelogue in the same vein as works by Roger Deakin and Alys Fowler, this jolly yet reflective book traces Gaw’s canoe trips down Britain’s rivers. His vessel was “the Pipe,” a red canoe built by his friend James Treadaway, who also served as his companion for many of the jaunts. Starting with his local river, the Waveney in East Anglia, and finishing with Scotland’s Great Glen Way, the quest was a way of (re)discovering his country by sensing the currents of history and escaping to the edge of danger.
Access issues, outdoor toileting, getting stuck on mudflats, and going under in the winter – it wasn’t always a comfortable method of travel. But Gaw’s expressive writing renders even rubbish- and sewage-strewn landscapes beautiful in their own way: “grim bunting made from discarded bags of dog poo,” “a savannah of quivering, moussey mud” and “cormorants hunched together like sinister penguins, some holding ragged wings to the wind in taxidermic poses.”
My favorite chapters were about pollution and invasive species, as seen at the Lark, and about the beaver reintroduction project in Devon (we have friends who live near it). I’m rooting for this to make next year’s Wainwright Prize longlist.
A favorite passage:
“I feel like I’ve shed the rust gathered from being landlocked and lazy. The habits and responsibilities of modern life can be hard to shake off, the white noise difficult to muffle. But the water has returned me to my senses. I’ve been reborn in a baptism of the Waveney [et al.]”
The Pull of the River was published by Elliott & Thompson on April 5th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Have you read any stand-out nonfiction recently?
“the short dark days of winter
dear to me
as a bully to his mother.”
~from “Skulking,” a poem from Helen Dunmore’s The Malarkey
After more than ten years here, I still struggle with English winters. It’s not that they’re colder than what I grew up experiencing on America’s east coast. In terms of temperatures, snowfall and ice buildup, there’s no real comparison. I keenly remember the winter of 2004, when the wind-chill was about 10° F and all the fountains in Washington, D.C. froze solid.
But English winters have particularly disheartening qualities: they’re overwhelmingly dark, bone-seepingly wet, and seemingly endless. I’ll never forget when, in my first-ever winter in England (during my study abroad year in 2003), I looked out a University of Reading library window around 3:00 in the afternoon and realized the sun was setting behind the trees.
All these years later, I still find that dim mid-afternoon light depressing, and the damp cold nearly intolerable. In our study abroad information packet we were warned that British interiors are kept 10 degrees cooler than American ones. But because we’re both thrifty and environmentally conscious, our house is significantly colder. Most of the time I’ll wear four to seven layers and huddle under blankets rather than turn on the heat – why warm a whole house for one person and one cat? I’m not entirely joking when I say to my husband that I wish I could hibernate from roughly November to April. Just wake me up for Christmas.
Ahhhhhh, Christmas, which the English do wonderfully – much better than Americans, in my opinion. Carol services, dense dried fruit desserts, booze in and with everything, a gentler tinge to the commercialism, plus maybe some nostalgic Dickensian tint I’m giving it all in my mind. I’ve had some wonderful Christmases here over the past 12 years.
So I’m ambivalent about winter, and was interested to see how the authors collected in Melissa Harrison’s final seasonal anthology would explore its inherent contradictions. I especially appreciated the views of outsiders. Jini Reddy, a Quebec native, calls British winters “a long, grey sigh or a drawn-out ache.” In two of my favorite pieces, Christina McLeish and Nakul Krishna – from Australia and India, respectively – compare the warm, sunny winters they experienced in their homelands with their early experiences in Britain. McLeish remembers finding a disembodied badger paw on a frosty day during one of her first winters in England, while Krishna tells of a time he spent dogsitting in Oxford when all the students were on break. His decorous, timeless prose reminded me of J.R. Ackerley’s.
The series is in support of the Wildlife Trusts, and a key message of this volume in particular is that nature is always there to be experienced – even in what feels like a dead time of year. Kate Blincoe observes an urban starling murmuration in an essay that nicely blends the lofty and the earthy; Nicola Chester takes a wintry beach walk and documents what she finds in the strandline, such as goose barnacles; Joseph Addison celebrates the pleasures of a winter garden; Patrick Barkham examines the ways butterfly life* continues through the winter, usually as eggs; and Richard Adams (author of Watership Down) insists, “Wild flowers are like pubs. There are generally one or two open somewhere, if only you look hard enough.”
As in the other volumes, Harrison has chosen a lovely mixture of older and contemporary pieces. Occasional passages from Gilbert White and Thomas Furly Forster on the timing of natural phenomena help create a sense of chronological progression, from November through to February. The contemporary nature writing scene is represented by previously published material from Robert Macfarlane and Kathleen Jamie. Classic literature is here in the opening of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House and the Great Frost passage from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. There are also excerpts from Coleridge’s diary and freed slave Olaudah Equiano’s account of seeing snow for the first time. In general, this volume is better at including diverse voices, like the final piece from Anita Sethi on her family’s unlikely garden in Manchester.
Christmas doesn’t really appear here; it’s a book about the natural year rather than the cultural year. But another event does, very powerfully: In another of my top few pieces, Jon Dunn (who authored my favorite piece in Autumn) tells how the overpowering darkness of a Shetland winter is broken by the defiant Up Helly Aa festival, in which the residents dress up as Vikings and ceremonially burn a longboat. Life goes on, no matter how bleak everything seems. That’s an important thing to keep in mind after all the troubling events of 2016.
*My husband’s piece, positioned between John Fowles’s and Richard Jeffries’s, is also about the surprising insect life that can be discovered in the winter.
My review of Summer.
My review of Autumn.
[I came late to the series so will be reading, but not reviewing, Spring next year.]
More beautiful lines to treasure:
- “Claws of grey rain break to rake through a gold half-light and the squall moves like a huge aerial jellyfish, obscuring then revealing this wreckers’ coast of muted blue headlands. Swirling white snowflakes move against a grey mass, turning Lundy Island into a Turner painting.” (Nicola Chester)
- “I am the garnet shock / of rosehip on frost / the robin’s titian flare.” (Julian Beach)
- “the tower blocks are advent calendars, / every curtain pulled to reveal a snow-blurred face.” (Liz Berry)
- “A whole year of concerns, worries and squabbles sloughed off in a bone-chilling baptism of copper water.” (Matt Gaw)
- “Two hundred jackdaws drape the skeleton of the winter beech like jet beads around the neck of a Victorian mourner.” (Jane Adams)
With thanks to Jennie Condell at Elliott & Thompson for the free copy for review.