Tag: memoirs

Classic of the Month: Father and Son by Edmund Gosse

I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to get to this splendid evocation of 1850s–60s family life in an extreme religious sect. I’d known about Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907) for ages, and even owned a copy. Two of its early incidents – the son’s anticlimactic birth announcement in the father’s diary, and the throwing out of a forbidden Christmas pudding – were famously appropriated by Peter Carey for creating Oscar’s backstory in his Booker Prize-winning novel Oscar and Lucinda (1988), which I read in 2008 but didn’t much like. I was reminded of that literary debt when I worked for King’s College London’s library system and did a summer placement in the Special Collections department in 2011. For my “In the Spotlight” article about a book in particular need of conservation, I chose Philip Henry Gosse’s Omphalos, his well-meaning but half-baked contribution to the Victorian science versus religion debate, and did a lot of secondary reading about the Gosses and their milieu.

The book’s subtitle, “A Study of Two Temperaments,” gives an idea of the angle Gosse takes here: this is not a straightforward biography (after all, he’d already written his father’s life story in 1890) or a comprehensive memoir, but a snapshot of his early years and an emotional unpicking of the personality clash that results from fundamentally different approaches to life. While Gosse père (1810–88) was a devoted naturalist as well as a dogged believer in the literal truth of the Bible, even in adolescence his son (1849–1928) was a literature aficionado and troubled skeptic. Philip Gosse was a minister with the Plymouth Brethren and married late, at 38; his wife was 42, very late for contemplating motherhood in those days. Like Thomas Hardy, the infant Edmund was presumed dead at birth and set aside, so it’s thanks to keen-eyed nurses that we have these two late Victorians’ significant literary output today.

Although his first word was “book” and he could read by age four, Edmund was initially forbidden to read fiction. His mother quashed her own love of making up stories because she believed fiction was in some way sinful. It was always taken for granted that Edmund would follow his father into the ministry, and early on he had a sense of a split self: the external persona he put on to please his parents, and the deeper self that struggled to divine its purpose. He would cheekily test the limits of his familial faith by petitioning the Almighty for an expensive toy that he ‘needed’ and praying to a wooden chair to see if he’d be struck down for idolatry. The absurdity of such scenes is a welcome foil to the sadness of his mother’s death when Gosse was just seven. A year later the boy and his father moved from London to Devon, where both were captivated by the sea. (Indeed, if Philip Gosse is remembered as a natural historian today, it’s largely for his work on marine life – he discovered a new genus of sea anemones in 1859.) After Philip remarried, Edmund began attending a weekday boarding school and fell in love with literature, especially Shakespeare and the Romantic poets.

There’s a stretch of the book at about the two-thirds point that I found less compelling; much of it describes the other members of his father’s congregation (“the saints”) and the tedium of Sundays. It’s also a shame there isn’t a brief afterword that continues the story through to his father’s death. But for much of its length this is a riveting investigation of how the conflict between reason and religion plays out both within individual souls and between family members. The purpose here is to chart the course that led him out of religion and made the supernatural rift between him and his father permanent by the time he was 15 or so, and Gosse fulfills that aim admirably. In doing so he maintains a delicately balanced tone: Although he vividly recreates funny moments from his childhood, he also makes clear-eyed, scathing assessments of a religion that is ostensibly based on love but all too often veers towards judgment instead:

Here was perfect purity, perfect intrepidity, perfect abnegation; yet here was also narrowness, isolation, an absence of perspective, let it be boldly admitted, an absence of humanity. And there was a curious mixture of humbleness and arrogance; entire resignation to the will of God and not less entire disdain of the judgment and opinion of God.

[H]e allowed the turbid volume of superstition to drown the delicate stream of reason.

He who was so tender-hearted that he could not bear to witness the pain or distress of any person, however disagreeable or undeserving, was quite acquiescent in believing that God would punish human beings, in millions, for ever, for a purely intellectual error of comprehension.

Even so, this is a loving portrait, as well as a nuanced one, and a model of how to write family memoir. I enjoyed it immensely, and will no doubt read it again.

My rating:

 

Further reading:

  • Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810–1888 by Ann Thwaite
  • In the Days of Rain, Rebecca Stott’s memoir of growing up in the Plymouth Brethren in the 1960s

Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

“Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.”

This is one of those books I’d heard high praise about from America but never thought I’d be able to get hold of in the UK. I looked into borrowing it from the public library on my last trip to the States, but even nearly a year after its publication the reservation list was still a mile long. So I was delighted to hear that Hillbilly Elegy was being released in paperback in the UK last month. For British readers, it will provide a welcome window onto a working-class world that is easily caricatured but harder to understand in a nuanced way.

J.D. Vance knows hillbilly America from the inside but also has the necessary distance to be able to draw helpful conclusions about it: born in the “Rust Belt” of Ohio to parents who didn’t complete high school, he served in the Marine Corps in Iraq, attended Ohio State University and Yale Law School, and became a successful investor with a venture capital firm. He was one of the lucky ones who didn’t give into lower-middle-class despair and widespread vices like alcoholism and hard drugs, even though his mother was an addict and installed a “revolving door of father figures” in his life after his father abandoned them.

Vance attributes his success to the stability provided by his grandparents, his beloved Mamaw and Papaw. They were part of a large wave of migration from Kentucky to Ohio, where they moved so Papaw could work in the Armco Steel mill. Prejudice assaulted the couple from both sides: Kentucky folk thought they’d grown too big for their britches, while in Ohio they were maligned as dirty hillbillies. Mamaw, in particular, is a wonderful character so eccentric you couldn’t make her up, with her fierce love backed up by a pistol.

The book is powerful because it gives concrete, personal examples of social movements: it’s no dry history of how the Scots-Irish residents of Appalachia switched allegiance from the Democratic Party to the Republican after Richard Nixon, though Vance does fill in these broad brushstrokes, but a family memoir that situates Mamaw and Papaw’s experience, and later his own, in the context of the history of the region and the whole country.

I most appreciated the author’s determined use of the first-person plural, especially later in the book: he includes himself in the hillbilly “we” such that he’s not some newly gentrified snob denouncing welfare queens: he knows these people and this lifestyle and recognizes its contradictions; he also knows that but for the grace of God he could have slipped into the same bad habits.

Jackson [Kentucky] is undoubtedly full of the nicest people in the world; it is also full of drug addicts and at least one man who can find the time to make eight children but can’t find the time to support them. It is unquestionably beautiful, but its beauty is obscured by the environmental waste and loose trash that scatters the countryside. Its people are hardworking, except of course for the many food stamp recipients who show little interest in honest work.

At Yale Law School Vance felt out of place for the first time in his life. One of the most important things he learned from professors like Amy Chua was the value of social capital: in his new world of lawyers, senators and judges it really was all about who you know. At law firm interviews, he had no idea what cutlery to use in restaurants and had to text his girlfriend for help. For as much as he’s adapted to non-hillbilly life in the intervening years, he still notices in himself the hallmarks of a stressful, impoverished upbringing: a fight or flight approach to conflict and an honor culture that makes him prone to nurturing feuds.

Although I enjoyed it simply as a memoir, I can see this book especially appealing to people who are interested in the politics and psychology of the lower middle class (perhaps an American equivalent to Owen Jones’s Chavs, a book I never got through). British readers will, I think, be surprised to learn that Vance is on the conservative end of the spectrum and has political aspirations. Essentially, he doesn’t think the government can fix things for struggling country folk, though certain social policies might help. He seems to think it’s more a question of personal responsibility – and also that churches have a major role to play.

There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.

Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.

(These strike me as alien ideas in the UK, apart from short-lived strategies like David Cameron’s “Big Society” – except, perhaps, if one goes all the way back to Thatcherism.)

Much has been made in the British press about this book’s ability to explain the rise of Donald Trump. This is an overstatement, and perhaps even misleading, when you consider the author’s conservatism; he never mentions Trump, and never engages in any specific political discussions. But what it is helpful for is exposing a mindset of rugged, defiant individualism that often shades into hopelessness. I have my own share of redneck relatives, and though I feel far removed from the world Vance depicts, I can see its traces in my family tree. I’m glad he had the guts to draw on his experience and write this hard-hitting book.

My rating:


Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis was first published in the UK by William Collins in September 2016. My thanks to Katherine Patrick for sending a free paperback for review.

 Note: Ron Howard is to direct and produce a movie version of the book.

I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice

Ruth Fitzmaurice’s husband, a filmmaker named Simon, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2008. Like Stephen Hawking, he is wheelchair-bound and motionless, communicating only through the mechanical voice of an eye gaze computer.

My husband is a wonder to me but he is hard to find. I search for him in our home. He breathes through a pipe in his throat. He feels everything but cannot move a muscle. I lie on his chest counting mechanical breaths. I hold his hand but he doesn’t hold back. His darting eyes are the only windows left. I won’t stop searching.

Between their five children under the age of 10 (including twins conceived after Simon’s diagnosis), an aggressive basset hound, and Simon’s army of nurses coming and going 24 hours a day, this is one chaotic household. The recurring challenge is to find pockets of stillness – daydreaming, staring at trees outside her window – and to learn what things can bring her back from the brink of despair, again and again.

Often these are outdoor experiences: a last hurrah of a six-month holiday in Australia, running, and especially plunging into the Irish Sea with her “Tragic Wives’ Swimming Club” – a group that includes her friend Michelle, whose husband is also in a wheelchair after a motorbike crash, and her favorite of Simon’s nurses, Marian, who has a serious car accident.

Rather than a straight chronological narrative, this is a set of brief thematic essays with titles like “Dancing,” “Fear,” “Twins” and “Holidays.” Fitzmaurice’s story is one you piece together through vivid vignettes from her home life. Her prose is generally composed of short, simple phrases; as with Cathy Rentzenbrink’s The Last Act of Love, you can tell there is deep emotion pulsing under the measured sentences. With such huge questions in play – How much can one person take? What would losing one’s mind look like? – there’s no need for added drama, after all. Instead, the author turns to whimsy, toying with the superhero cliché for caregivers and wondering what magic might be at work in her situation.

I was particularly impressed by how Fitzmaurice holds the past and present in her mind, and by how she uses an outsider’s perspective to imagine herself out of her circumstances. At times she uses the third person for these visions of herself as a younger woman newly in love:

The young wife at her kitchen table knows about deep magic. But I know her future. Life is going to push and pull her like a wave. She doesn’t have a choice and neither do I. Come with me, dear girl, sit at my tablecloth. The journey is upon us and to survive it, you can’t just ride the wave, you have to become one. Can we do this? Let’s go. Becoming a wave just might be the deepest magic of them all.

There are so many poignant moments in this book: memories of their determinedly vegetarian wedding; pulling out all the stops for Simon’s fortieth birthday with customized art installations to brighten his view; leaving the marital bed – now a “hospital contraption” – after six years of MND being a part of their lives; a full moon swim with the Tragic Wives on her and Simon’s anniversary. But all the quiet, everyday stuff has power too, especially her interactions with her precocious children, who are confused about why Dadda is like this.

If I had one tiny complaint, it’s that Simon feels like something of a shadowy figure. In flashbacks we get a real sense of his forceful personality, but this new, silent Simon in the wheelchair is a mystery. Only once or twice does she record words he ‘says’ to her via his computer. Perhaps this is inevitable given how locked into himself he’s become. However, he was still capable of becoming the first person with MND to direct a feature film, on location in County Wicklow (My Name Is Emily). He has told his own story elsewhere; in his wife’s telling, their ventures now seem so separate that they rarely appear as equal partners.

It’s my tenth wedding anniversary tomorrow; as I was reading this I kept thinking that, for as much as I complain (to myself) about how hard marriage is, I’ve had it so easy. The stresses a couple face when caregiving of one partner is involved are immense. Fitzmaurice has found herself part of a tribe she probably never wanted to join: the walking wounded, with pain behind their eyes and worry never far from their minds. But in the midst of it she’s also found the band of family and friends who help her pull through each time. Her lovely book – wry, wise, and realistic – will strike a chord with anyone who has faced illness and family tragedy.

My rating:


I Found My Tribe is published in the UK today, July 6th, by Chatto & Windus. My thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

 Note: Fitzmaurice got her book deal on the strength of a series of pieces she wrote for the Irish Times. You can read an extract from the book here. Film rights to her story have been sold to Element Pictures; more details are here. A documentary about Simon’s life, It’s Not Yet Dark, based on his memoir of the same title, has recently been released. For more information see here (this article also showcases multiple family photos).

Brain vs. Heart Surgery: Admissions and Fragile Lives

It’s never too early to start thinking about which books might make it onto next year’s Wellcome Book Prize nominees list, open to any medical-themed books published in the UK in calendar year 2017. I’ve already read some cracking contenders, including these two memoirs from British surgeons.


Brain surgeon Henry Marsh’s first book, Do No Harm, was one of my favorite reads of 2015. In short, enthrallingly detailed chapters named after conditions he had treated or observed, he reflected on life as a surgeon, expressing sorrow over botched operations and marveling at the God-like power he wields over people’s quality of life. That first memoir saw him approaching retirement age and nearing the end of his tether with NHS bureaucracy.

Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery serves as a sort of sequel, recording Marsh’s last few weeks at his London hospital and the projects that have driven him during his first years of retirement: woodworking, renovating a derelict lock-keeper’s cottage by the canal in Oxford, and yet more neurosurgery on medical missions to Nepal and the Ukraine. But he also ranges widely over his past, recalling cases from his early years in medicine as well as from recent memory, and describing his schooling and his parents. If I were being unkind, I might say that this feels like a collection of leftover incidents from the previous book project.

However, the life of a brain surgeon is so undeniably exciting that, even if these stories are the scraps, they are delicious ones. The title has a double meaning, of course, referring not only to the patients who are admitted to the hospital but also to a surgeon’s confessions. And there are certainly many cases Marsh regrets, including operating on the wrong side in a trapped nerve patient, failing to spot that a patient was on the verge of a diabetic coma before surgery, and a young woman going blind after an operation in the Ukraine. Often there is no clear right decision, though; operating or not operating could lead to equal damage.

Once again I was struck by Marsh’s trenchant humor: he recognizes the absurdities as well as the injustices of life. In Houston he taught on a neurosurgery workshop in which students created and then treated aneurysms in live pigs. When asked “Professor, can you give us some surgical pearls?” he “thought a little apologetically of the swine in the nearby bay undergoing surgery.” A year or so later, discussing the case of a twenty-two-year-old with a fractured spine, he bitterly says, “Christopher Reeve was a millionaire and lived in America and he eventually died from complications, so what chance a poor peasant in Nepal?”

Although some slightly odd structural decisions have gone into this book – the narrative keeps jumping back to Nepal and the Ukraine, and a late chapter called “Memory” is particularly scattered in focus – I still thoroughly enjoyed reading more of Marsh’s anecdotes. The final chapter is suitably melancholy, with its sense of winding down capturing not just the somewhat slower pace of his retired life but also his awareness of the inevitable approach of death. Recalling two particularly hideous deaths he observed in his first years as a doctor, he lends theoretical approval for euthanasia as a way of maintaining dignity until the end.

What I most admire about Marsh’s writing is how he blends realism and wonder. “When my brain dies, ‘I’ will die. ‘I’ am a transient electrochemical dance, made of myriad bits of information,” he recognizes. But that doesn’t deter him from producing lyrical passages like this one: “The white corpus callosum came into view at the floor of the chasm, like a white beach between two cliffs. Running along it, like two rivers, were the anterior cerebral arteries, one on other side, bright red, pulsing gently with the heartbeat.” I highly recommend his work to readers of Atul Gawande and Paul Kalanithi.

My rating:

Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery was published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on May 4th. My thanks to the publisher for sending a free copy for review. It will be published in the USA by Thomas Dunne Books on October 3rd.

 

 

What Marsh does for brain surgery in his pair of memoirs, Professor Stephen Westaby does for heart surgery in Fragile Lives, a vivid, compassionate set of stories culled from his long career. A working class lad from Scunthorpe who watched his grandfather die of heart failure, he made his way up from hospital porter to world-leading surgeon after training at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School.

Each of these case studies, from a young African mother and her sick child whom he met while working in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s to a university student who collapses not far from his hospital in Oxford, is told in impressive depth. Although the surgery details are not for the squeamish, I found them riveting. Westaby conveys a keen sense of the adrenaline rush a surgeon gets while operating with the Grim Reaper looking on. I am not a little envious of all that he has achieved: not just saving the occasional life despite his high-mortality field – as if that weren’t enough – but also pioneering various artificial heart solutions and a tracheal bypass tube that’s named after him.

Like Marsh, he tries not to get emotionally attached to his patients, but often fails in this respect. “Surgeons are meant to be objective, not human,” he shrugs. But, also like Marsh, at his retirement he feels that NHS bureaucracy has tied his hands, denying necessary funds and equipment. Both authors come across as mavericks who don’t play by the rules, but save lives anyway. This is a fascinating read for anyone who enjoys books on a medical theme.

A few favorite lines:

 “We stop life and start it again, making things better, taking calculated risks.”

“We were adrenaline junkies living on a continuous high, craving action. From bleeding patients to cardiac arrests. From theatre to intensive care. From pub to party.”

My rating:


Fragile Lives: A Heart Surgeon’s Stories of Life and Death on the Operating Table was published in the UK by HarperCollins on February 9th. I read a public library copy. It will be published in the USA, by Basic Books, under the title Open Heart on June 20th.

The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits

I keep a long list of books that I’d love to read but know are only currently available in the USA. Occasionally I manage to chip away at it through my public library borrowing during trips back to visit my family, but I’m adding more titles all the time. I was pleased, then, to learn that The Folded Clock, a book I’ve wanted to get hold of ever since it was first released in the States in 2015, was recently published in the UK.

Heidi Julavits is a founding editor of The Believer magazine as well as a novelist and an associate professor of writing at Columbia University. She lives in New York City during the academic year and spends the rest of the time in Maine, where she was born and raised. The Folded Clock is a diary of two fairly average years in her life, but its dated entries (month and day only) are not in order; they’ve been rearranged into what at times feels like an arbitrary sequence. Yet this is in keeping with the overall theme of time’s fluidity.

The title comes from her daughter’s mishearing of “folded cloth” but is apt in that it suggests time stretching and collapsing back on itself. Indeed, one reason for starting the journal was that Julavits felt time had started to pass differently from how it did in her childhood. Whereas she once thought in terms of days, she realized in her forties that she now worked in weeks and months. She was also inspired by digging out her adolescent diary – though it was not nearly as profound or revelatory about her future writing career as she might have hoped.

Every single entry begins with “Today,” reflecting a determination to live in the present. But of course, that format still offers a broad scope for memory, with certain activities and objects provoking flashbacks. For instance, she finds her ten-year-old marriage vows in the pocket of an old coat, and rereads a biography of Edie Sedgwick (from Andy Warhol’s circle, she died of a drug overdose at 28), as she periodically does to gauge how her response changes as she ages.

Julavits also situates her writing in the context of other famous diarists, such as the Goncourt brothers and Henry David Thoreau. As the latter did in Walden, she’s seeking to live deliberately, though within her regular life and without venturing into nature all that much; “I am an outdoorsman of the indoors,” she quips.

The cover design is by Leanne Shapton.

There’s a huge variety of topics here. She writes about being afraid of sharks, stealing names to use for characters in her novels, entering her small Maine town’s Fourth of July parade float competition, visiting E.B. White’s grave, mourning a tree half-lost to a hurricane, her insistence on dwelling in west-facing rooms, and regretting never telling her doctor how much she appreciated him before he died in a cycling accident. Travel features heavily, too, what with accompanying her husband to a fellowship in Germany and spending time at an art colony in Italy. Often it’s the tiny encounters and incidents that remain in her mind, though, like accidentally buying bitter apricot kernels instead of almonds at a German market and worrying that her husband might have given himself cyanide poisoning by eating 14 at once.

Some of these pieces would function well as stand-alone essays, like the one about her obsession with The Bachelor, an American reality television franchise, which leads into her belief that crushes are fostered by small spaces – she fell for her second husband (author Ben Marcus) at an arts colony even though they were both attached to other people at the time.

I was delighted to see Julavits quote the Julian Barnes passage on episodicism versus narrativism that inspired my post on that topic back in January. Unsurprisingly, Julavits sees herself as a narrativist, drawing connections between different points in her life. She’s always pondering what small incidents reveal about her character. We learn that she’s so averse to inconveniencing others that she continued a phone call while nursing a wasp sting and once planned to pee in an airsickness bag rather than wake the two sleepers between her and the aisle on a flight. She avoids yard sales because she’s so cutthroat, and she’s been known to romanticize her daily life when e-mailing a friend in London: “I probably didn’t tell the truthiest truths. I never made stuff up. But I did strive to be entertaining. Such embellishments do not constitute lies. They constitute your personality.”

In one of the pieces that stood out most for me, Julavits feels typecast as a woman of a certain age when she attends a Virginia Woolf reading. “I am of that age now where I am looking for the next age I will be. How will I dress? How will I act?” It’s a good example of how she uses these mini-essays to negotiate the stages of life and contemplate her changing roles. Elsewhere she sums up her composite identity and what she seeks from her writing:

I am a jack-of-all-trades. I edit and teach and at times desire to be a clothing designer or an artist … and I write everything but poetry and I am a mother and a social maniac and a misanthrope and a burgeoning self-help guru and a girl who wants to look pretty and a girl who wants to look sexy and a girl who wants to look girly and a woman in her middle forties who wishes not to look like anything at all, who wishes sometimes to vanish.

I sometimes think this is why I became a writer. Here was a way to regularly exercise my desire. I could desire to do this thing that no one does perfectly, and by doing it and doing it I could learn how to desire more, and better. Here was an activity that would always leave me wanting … not youth exactly, but the opposite of death. That to me is a way to always feel like I am nowhere near the end.

Inevitably, some entries are more interesting than others, and Julavits’ neuroticism may grate for some readers, but I found this book to be chock-full of quotable lines and insights into what it means to be a time-bound human being. Like one of May Sarton’s journals, I read it slowly, just a few pieces at a time over the course of weeks, and I’ll be keeping it on the shelf to flick through if I ever need an example of how to write a piercing, bite-sized fragment of autobiography. I highly recommend it.

(See also this brief Guardian interview with Julavits.)


The Folded Clock: A Diary was published by Bloomsbury Circus on March 9th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

My rating:

A Spate of Swimming Memoirs

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.

My rating:

Finding a Home in Nature: Singing Meadow by Peri McQuay

For 30 years Peri McQuay and her family lived in the idyllic 700-strong village of Westport in Eastern Ontario. Her husband, Barry, was the park supervisor at Foley Mountain Conservation Area, the subject of her first nature-themed memoir, The View from Foley Mountain (1995), and they lived on site amid its 800 acres. The constant push to engage in fundraising gradually made it a less pleasant place to live and work, so as Barry’s retirement neared they knew it was time to find a new home of their own. That quest is the subject of her third book, Singing Meadow: The Adventure of Creating a Country Home.

McQuay fantasized about a farmhouse surrounded by 50–100 acres of their own land, but was aware that their limited finances might not stretch to match their dreams. Long before they found their home they were buying little items for it, like an acorn door knocker that functioned as a reassuring totem object during the long, discouraging process of looking at houses. Over the course of two years, McQuay and her husband viewed more than 80 properties! Two pieces of advice they received turned out to be prescient: their loquacious real estate agent opined that “the house you end up in won’t be the one you set out to find,” and a woman in the doctor’s office waiting room counseled her, “don’t try too hard. It’ll happen when it’s time.”

In the end, they fell in love with a plot of land with a water meadow that was home to herons and beavers. With no handyman skills, they never thought they’d embark on building a home of their own. And as it turned out, finding the land was the easy bit, as opposed to the nitty-gritty details of designing what they wanted and meeting with builders who could make it a reality. But as they planted trees and looked ahead to their move in a year’s time, they were already forming a relationship with this place before the house was ever built, learning “the hard lessons of patience and possibility.”

Woven through the book are short flashbacks to other challenging times in McQuay’s life: having chronic fatigue syndrome in her 40s, her mother’s death a few years earlier, and a terrible ice storm at the park that left them without power for 17 days and caused damage to the forest that it might take 30 years to recover from. What all of these situations, as well as looking for a home, have in common is that they forced the author to take the long view, recognizing the healing effects of time rather than the tantalizing option of quick fixes.

I’ve never owned a home, but I’ve lived in 10 properties in the last 10 years. A lot of that nomadism has been foisted upon us rather than chosen, so I could relate to McQuay’s frustration throughout the property search, as well as her feelings of being uprooted – that “the very stuff of my life was being dismantled.” I can also see the wisdom of choosing the place that feeds your soul rather than the one that seems most convenient. She remembers one of the first properties she and Barry rented as a married couple: it was an old place with an outhouse and no running hot water, but they filled it with laughter and music and felt at peace there. It was infinitely better than any soulless town apartment they might have resorted to.

The book ends with a bit of a shocker, one of two moments that brought a lump to my throat. It’s a surprisingly bittersweet turn after what’s gone before, but it’s realistic and serves as a reminder that life is an ongoing story with sad moments we can’t prepare for.

Overall, this memoir reminds me most of Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own (which appears in McQuay’s bibliography) and May Sarton’s journals, in which the search for a long-term home in Maine is a major element. Although this will appeal to people who like reading about women’s lives and transitions, I would particularly recommend it to readers of nature writing as the book is full of lovely passages like these:

It was bliss visiting the trees and caring for them. Each one was precious. Across the meadow I could see the black, white and yellow nesting bobolink plus an unidentifiable bird with a square seed-eating beak perched on a cattail. A crow flew by, checking to see what I was doing, then a blue jay. In the distance the newly returned yellow warbler was calling “witchetty witchetty.” Over and over, I needed to keep saying that I felt deep down, richly happy in the meadow. In the glassy eye of the pond, water was burbling up in such a powerful spilling-over that it chuckled musically. Indeed, while there was such a flow only the boldest, largest minnows could swim strongly enough to approach the rushing source.

Now I was walking slowly down to the water meadow, hearing the strange, quarrelsome-sounding talk of herons beginning another season here. I was teaching myself how to be aware every moment of every step so I could keep walking longer on this rough land. With any luck, this beloved place would be my last home. And, after the unignorable message of recent fierce summers, I was here to bear witness, to stand with the great maples, beeches, and oaks through whatever might come, to accompany with whatever grace I could for as long as I could sustain it. Living here, this was who I wanted to be—an old woman vanishing into the light.

I’m keen to get hold of McQuay’s other two books as well. Her work makes for very pleasant, meditative reading.

Note: The front cover is an oil painting of Peri’s childhood home by her artist father, Ken Phillips.


Singing Meadow: The Adventure of Creating a Country Home was published by Wintergreen Studios Press in 2016. My thanks to the author for sending a PDF copy for review.

My rating: