This historical novel set in Edinburgh in 1847 has one of the best opening paragraphs I’ve come across in a while:
That immediately sets the tone: realistic, sly, and somewhat seedy. If the title sounds familiar, it’s because it’s borrowed from Samuel Butler’s gloomy 1903 meditation on sin and salvation in several generations of a Victorian family. I remember trudging through it on a weekend break to Strasbourg during my year abroad.
Parry (a pseudonym for husband–wife duo Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman) uses the allusion to highlight the hidden sins of the Victorian period and hint at the fleshy concerns of their book, which contains somewhat gruesome scenes of childbirth and surgery. Ether and chloroform were recent introductions and many were still apprehensive about them or even opposed to their use on religious grounds, as Haetzman, a consultant anesthetist, learned while researching for her Master’s degree in the History of Medicine.
Into this milieu enters Will Raven, the new apprentice to Dr. Simpson, a professor of midwifery. Will is troubled by the recent loss of his friend Evie Lawson, the dead prostitute of the first paragraph, and wonders if she could have been poisoned by some bad moonshine. Only as he hears rumors about a local abortionist – no better than a serial killer – who’s been giving women quack pills and potions, followed by rudimentary operations that leave them to die of peritonitis, does he begin to wonder if Evie could have been pregnant when she died.
The novel peppers in lots of period slang and details about homeopathy, phrenology and early photography. Best of all, it has a surprise heroine: the Simpsons’ maid, Sarah Fisher, who keeps shaming Will with her practical medical know-how and ends up being something of a sidekick in his investigations. She wants to work as a druggist’s assistant, but the druggist insists that only a man can do the job. Dr. Simpson recognizes that the housemaid’s role is rather a waste of Sarah’s talents and expresses his hope that she’ll seek to be part of a widespread change for women.
The Way of All Flesh is sure to appeal to readers of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White and Steven Price’s By Gaslight. It’s not quite as rewarding as the former, but the length and style make it significantly more engaging than the latter. It also serves as a good fictional companion to Lindsey Fitzharris’s The Butchering Art; for that reason, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it appear on next year’s Wellcome Book Prize longlist.
“That was Edinburgh for you: public decorum and private sin, city of a thousand secret selves.”
“‘Simpson likes to think of medicine as more than pure science,’ [Raven] countered. ‘There must also be empathy, concern, a human connection.’ ‘I suggest that both elements are required,’ offered Henry. ‘Scientific principles married to creativity. Science and art.’ If it is an art, it is at times a dark one, Raven thought, though he chose to keep this observation to himself.”
The Way of All Flesh comes out today, August 30th, in the UK. It was published in the States by HarperCollins on the 28th. My thanks to Canongatefor sending a free copy for review.
Wigtown is tucked away in the southwest corner of Scotland in Galloway, a region that doesn’t draw too many tourists. It did remind us a lot of Hay-on-Wye, the Book Town in Wales, what with the dry-stone walls, rolling green hills with more imposing mountains behind, sheep in the fields, and goodly number of bookshops. Wigtown is a sleepier place – it’s really just one main street and square – and has fewer bookshops and eateries overall, but the shops it does have are mainly large and inviting, and several are lovely bookshops-cum-cafés where you can pause for tea/coffee and cake before continuing with your book browsing. It rained for much of our trip and even snowed on a couple of brief occasions, but we got one day of very good weather and made the best of all the rest.
Wigtown seen from the hill above
Hillcrest House B&B
Day 1, Monday the 2nd: Six-plus hours of driving, partially in the sleet and snow, saw us arriving to our spacious and comfortable B&B by 6 p.m., giving us an hour to freshen up before dinner in the dining room. Cullen skink (leek and potato soup with chunks of smoked haddock); pork chops in a mustard cream sauce with roast parsnips, boiled potatoes and carrots, and mashed swede (aka rutabaga); and chocolate cake with gingerbread sauce. All delicious!
Day 2, Tuesday the 3rd: Smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for breakfast, accompanied by plenteous tea and toast. Off in the drizzle to see some local sites: Torhouse stone circle and Crook of Baldoon RSPB bird reserve. Nice sightings of whooper swans, pink-footed geese and lapwings, and a panoramic view of Wigtown across the way. Back to the car in the steady rain to find that we had a flat tire. Thanks to our foot pump, we got back to the W. Barclay garage in town, where they ordered a new tire and fitted the spare wheel. In the afternoon we drove to the Isle of Whithorn to see the 13th-century St. Ninian’s Chapel ruins and St. Ninian’s Cave. In the evening we went to Craft for beer/cider and the weekly acoustic music night, which, alas, just ended up being two old guys playing Americana songs on guitars.
Torhouse stone circle
St. Ninian’s Chapel ruins
Isle of Whithorn, car with spare wheel
Today’s book shopping: Glaisnock Café, where we also stopped for coffee and a tasty slice of courgette and avocado cake; The Open Book (run by Airbnb customers – this week it was Maureen from Pennsylvania and her niece Rebecca from Switzerland; they’d booked the experience two years ago, and the wait is now up to three years); the Wigtown Community shop (a charity shop); and browsing at Old Bank Books and Byre Books.
First set of purchases
Shy B&B cat
Day 3, Wednesday the 4th: Vegetarian ‘full Scottish’ cooked breakfast to fuel us for a rainy day of bookshops and explorations further afield. 12 p.m.: return trip to the garage to have our tire fitted. All the staff were so friendly and pleasant. They seemed delighted to see tourists around, and were interested in where we came from and what we were finding to do in the area. Mr. Barclay himself had one of the thickest Scottish accents I’ve ever heard, but I managed to decipher that he thinks of Galloway as “the next best place to heaven,” despite the weather. We spotted a local ‘celebrity’, Ben of the Bookshop Band, in the Co-op, but didn’t say hello as he was trying to pay for his shopping and had the baby in tow.
In the afternoon we ventured to Newton Stewart, the nearest big town, to buy petrol, picnic supper food, and another secondhand book at the community shop there. We retreated from the sudden snow for a scrumptious dinner of smoked salmon, black pudding and haggis (all of them battered and fried, with chips!) at a diner-like smokehouse. Back in Wigtown, we got a mainly dry evening to do the Martyrs’ Walk. In 1685 two Covenanters (Scottish reformers who broke from Charles I’s Anglican Church), Margaret McLachlan, 63, and Margaret Wilson, 18, were tied to stakes on the mud flats and allowed to drown in the rising tide.
Super-friendly, super-fluffy B&B cat
Today’s book shopping: THE BOOKSHOP. I’ve meant to visit ever since I read Jessica Fox’s memoir, Three Things You Need to Know about Rockets, in February 2013. Previously based in California, Fox decided on a whim to visit a bookshop in Scotland and ended up here at the country’s largest. She promptly fell in love with the bookshop owner and with Wigtown itself; though she and Shaun Bythell are no longer an item, she has been a major mover and shaker in the town, playing a role in the annual festival and establishing The Open Book.
He collects postcards sent to the shop.
Badger, ladder up to Festival bed
The Bookshop is a wonderfully rambling place with lots of nooks and crannies housing all sorts of categories. Look out for the shot and mounted Kindle, the Festival bed, the stuffed badger, a scroll of bookseller’s rules, Captain the cat, and a display of Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller. Together we found £35 worth of books we wanted to buy – whew! – thanks to my husband’s niche nature books, and had a nice chat with the man himself at the till. He signed my book, commiserated with us about the weather and our trip to see “Willie” (Barclay), and gave us tips for what to see locally. You’d hardly believe he’s the same curmudgeon who wrote the book. Now that I’ve been to the town and the shop, it’s time for me to start rereading it.
Cozy fireplace room
The Scottish interest room
My purchases, plus a signature
We also perused the smallish but very nice selection at Beltie Books, where we made a welcome stop for a cappuccino and some cookies, and I bought a cut-price new book at the Festival Shop. (They stock books by festival speakers plus a curated selection of new releases.)
Day 4, Thursday the 5th: SUNSHINE, at last! After hearty omelettes, we headed to the hill that overlooks the town to get the best views of the week. On to Monreith for a charming coastal walk up to the Gavin Maxwell monument of a bronze otter. (He wrote Ring of Bright Water, which my husband brought along to read on our trip.) After a lunch stop back in town, it was out to the red kite feeding station about 40 minutes away – I came for the books; my husband came for the red kites. Though they’re common enough in our part of Berkshire, he was keen to see the site of another recent reintroduction. Wales also has a feeding station we visited some years ago, and on both occasions seeing dozens of birds swoop down for meat was quite the spectacle – though here you sit on an open porch, even closer to the action. We did a few other short walks in the area, finishing off with a sunset sit in Wigtown’s bird hide.
Main street, showing The Bookshop
Wigtown Town Hall
Maxwell Monument inscription
Red kite feeding
Today’s book shopping: ReadingLasses calls itself Britain’s only women’s bookshop. They stock Persephone Books direct from Bloomsbury, and they also have a large selection of secondhand books. This is the best place to go in town for a light meal and a snack. We had delicious homemade soup with soda bread for an early lunch, followed by coffee and tiffin. I bought a novel by Candia McWilliam, a Scottish author I’ve only read nonfiction by before.
Unfortunate find in biography section
At Curly Tale Books, the children’s bookshop next-door to The Bookshop, we bought a picture book about the local ‘belted’ Galloway cows for our niece. We didn’t realize the shop owner is also the author! She offered to sign the book for us, but we decided that a five-year-old wouldn’t appreciate it enough.
Day 5, Friday the 6th: Full Scottish breakfast to see us on our way, and a farewell to the two B&B cats, including the fluffiest cat on earth. To break up the rather arduous journey, we stopped early on at the Cairn Holy stone circle/tomb and the Cream o’ Galloway farm shop for cheese and ice cream. Home at 7:30 p.m. to find something from the freezer for dinner, unpack and shelve all these new books.
Total acquisitions: 13 books for me, 7 books for my husband, 3 books for gifts
Wigtown is more than twice as far away as Hay is for us, so we’re less likely to go back. (It’s also a tough place to find a decent evening meal.) However, I’d like to think that life will take me back to Wigtown someday, perhaps for the Festival, or for a stay at The Open Book – though I’d have to start planning ahead to 2021!
What I read:
Bits of lots of books I had on the go, but mostly a few vaguely appropriate titles:
Under the Skin by Michel Faber was the perfect book for reading on rainy Scottish highways. I’m so glad I decided at the last minute to bring it. Isserley drives along Highland roads picking up hitchhikers – but only the hunky males – to take back to her farm near the Moray Firth. It’s likely that you already know the setup of this even if you haven’t read it, perhaps from the buzz around the 2013 film version starring Scarlett Johansson. It must have been so difficult for the first reviewers and interviewers to discuss the book without spoilers back in 2000. David Mitchell, in his introduction to my Canons series reprint, does an admirable job of suggesting the eeriness of the contents without giving anything significant away.
Shelve this under science fiction, though it veers towards horror and then becomes a telling allegory. I knew the basic plot beforehand, but there were still some surprises awaiting me, and I was impressed with how Faber pulled it all off. Keep an eye open for how he uses the word “human.” This has a lot to say about compassion and dignity, and how despite our differences we are fundamentally the same “under the skin.”
An atmospheric line: “The fields all around her house were shrouded in snow, with patches of dark earth poking through here and there as if the world were a rich fruit cake under cream.”
Between Stone and Sky: Memoirs of a Waller by Whitney Brown: For a TLS review. Brown, from South Carolina, trained as a dry-stone waller in Wales (where she fell in love with a man who wouldn’t marry her), but we saw plenty such walls in Scotland too. As an expat I could relate to her feeling of being split between two countries. (Releases May 17th.)
In the Days of Rain: A daughter. A father. A cult. by Rebecca Stott: I read the first two-fifths or so, mostly in the car and over our leisurely B&B breakfasts. One branch of Stott’s Exclusive Brethren family came from Eyemouth, a Scottish fishing village. A family memoir, a bereavement memoir, a theological theme: this brings together a lot of my favorite things. And it won last year’s Costa Biography Award, so you know it’s got to be good.
I also started two books by Scottish novelists, The Orchard on Fire by Shena Mackay and The Accidental by Ali Smith – though I don’t know if I’ll make it through the latter.
April will be a busy month on the blog what with four Wellcome Book Prize shortlist reviews plus posts on our shadow panel decision and the awards ceremony, three blog tours within a week, and various other review books jostling for my attention.
April 5th seems to be a huge day for new releases. I own four print books that are all coming out on that day; alas, the only one I’ve been able to start is Elizabeth J. Church’s All the Beautiful Girls, for an upcoming Shiny New Books review. I’m approaching the one-quarter point. The others may well have to wait for a quieter time.
I started another April 5th release on my Kindle a couple of weeks ago, Things Bright and Beautiful by Anbara Salam. It’s about a missionary couple whose lives are disrupted by the return of an older missionary. I was thinking of abandoning it until I got to the last line of the prologue, which threw in a pretty great twist. So maybe I’ll go back to it.
For now, I can recommend the one April 5th release I actually managed to finish:
Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce
If you loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, I have just the book for you: another feel-good World War II-set novel with characters you’ll cheer for. December 1940, London: Twenty-two-year-old Emmeline Lake dreams of being a Lady War Correspondent, but for now she’ll start by typing up the letters submitted to Henrietta Bird’s advice column in Woman’s Friend. All too quickly, though, the job feels too small for Emmy. Mrs. Bird refuses to print letters on Unpleasant subjects, which could include anything from an inappropriate crush to anxiety. She thinks cowardly readers bring their troubles on themselves and need to buck up instead of looking to others for help. But Emmy can’t bear to throw hurting people’s missives away. Perhaps she could send some advice of her own?
Emmy shares a flat with her best friend Bunty, and they each have a fiancé who is part of the war effort. As a volunteer for the Fire Brigade, Emmy sees the effects of Luftwaffe bombings up close. But it’s only after heartache hits home for both of these young women that they really understand how much is at stake in the war. The novel got a little melodramatic for me in its last quarter, but it’s overall a charming “Keep Calm and Carry On” and Stick It to Hitler-style story that never strays far from jollity for too long.
Other readalikes:My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff and TheNight Watch by Sarah Waters
Some favorite lines:
“I told myself we could all get blown up by tomorrow so we might just as well enjoy ourselves.”
“Granny didn’t spend half her life chaining herself to railings for today’s woman to moon around waiting for some chap to look after her.”
On Monday we’re off to Wigtown, Scotland’s Book Town, for five days. Though we’ve been to Hay-on-Wye, Wales six times, we’ve never been to Wigtown despite meaning to for years. When I read Shaun Bythell’s Wigtown bookselling memoir last autumn, it felt like a sign that it was time. Did you see his The Diary of a Bookseller has been described in French as le quotidien d’un libraire misanthrope écossais (literally, “the daily life of a misanthropic Scottish bookseller”)?
That’s too good! If only it were the official French title. I will of course be visiting his shop, and asking for a signature on my proof copy if I can pluck up the nerve. We’ll strive to be model customers lest we become the subject of a grumpy Tweet or Facebook post.
Coals to Newcastle and all that, but here’s the pile I’ve packed for Wigtown.
This is mostly for the six-hour car rides there and back. During the days we’ll be busy with outings to the surrounding countryside plus book shopping and café visits, but I daresay there will be some time for reading at the B&B in the afternoons and evenings.
For once I haven’t scoured my shelves for place-appropriate books; I don’t think I own any particularly Scottish reads, unless Michel Faber’s Under the Skin counts (ah wait, I also have an Ali Smith novel on the shelf).
Anyway, this time I’ve really just put together a pile of books I’ve been wanting to read for ages. The only ‘work’-related one is Between Stone and Sky, for a TLS review; otherwise I’m giving myself from Easter through the 6th off. I’m not even sure I’ll take my Kindle, except as a backup – that kind of thing could get you (or, rather, your Kindle) shot in this town. If I do, I’ll be sure to leave it behind in the B&B room or the glove box when we go into town for the day!
My 2017 goal of reading one book of 500+ pages per month has been a mixed success. With the best doorstoppers the pages fly by and you enjoy every minute spent in a fictional world. From this past year Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle fits that bill, and a couple of novels I read years ago on holidays also come to mind: Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. But then there are the books that feel like they’ll never end and you have to drag yourself through page by page.
Unfortunately, Steven Price’s second novel, By Gaslight, a Victorian cat-and-mouse mystery, tended more towards the latter group for me. Like Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, it has the kernel of a fascinating story but piles up the words unnecessarily. Between July and August I read the first 300 pages and then skimmed the rest (in total the paperback has 731 small-type pages). This is the story of William Pinkerton, a 39-year-old Civil War veteran and private investigator from Chicago who comes to London in 1885 to chase up a name from his father’s files: Edward Shade. His best lead comes to nothing when Charlotte Reckitt evades him and turns up as a set of dismembered remains in the Thames. Keeping in mind the rudimentary state of forensics, though, there’s some uncertainty about the corpse’s identity.
The other central character in this drama is Adam Foole, a master thief. Half Indian and half English, he has violet eyes and travels in the company of Molly, a young pickpocket he passes off as his daughter, and Japheth Fludd, a vegetarian giant just out of prison. Foole was Charlotte’s lover ten years ago in South Africa, where they together pulled off a legendary diamond heist. Now he’s traveling back to England: she’s requested his help with a job as she knows she’s being tailed by a detective. The remaining cast is large and Dickensian: a medium and her lawyer brother, Charlotte’s imprisoned uncle, sewer dwellers, an opium dealer, and so on. Settings include a rare goods emporium, a Miss Havisham-type lonely manor house, the Record Office at Chancery Lane, and plenty of shabby garrets.
What I most enjoyed about the book was the restless, outlaw spirit of both main characters, but particularly Pinkerton. His troubled relationship with his father, in whose footsteps he’s following as a detective, is especially poignant: “William feared him and loved him and loathed him every day of his life yet too not a day passed that he did not want to be him.”
Price’s style is not what you’d generally expect of a Victorian pastiche. He uses no speech marks and his punctuation is non-standard, with lots of incomplete or run-in sentences like the one above. The critics’ blurbs liken By Gaslight to William Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy, apt comparisons that tell you just how unusual a hybrid it is.
I liked Price’s writing and starting around page 150 found the book truly gripping for a time, but extended flashbacks to Pinkerton and Foole’s earlier years really drag the story down, taking away from the suspense of the hunt. Meanwhile, the two major twists aren’t confirmed until over halfway through, but are hinted at so early that the watchful reader will know what’s going on long before the supposedly shrewd Pinkerton does. The salient facts about both characters’ past might have been conveyed in one short chapter each and the 1885 plot streamlined to make a taut novel of less than half the length.
There are many reasons to admire this Canadian novelist’s achievement, but whether it’s a reading experience you’d enjoy is something you’ll have to decide for yourself.
A favorite passage:
There is in every life a shadow of the possible, she said to him. The almost and the might have been. There are the histories that never were. We imagine we are keeping our accounts but what we are really saying is, I was here, I was real, this did happen once. It happened.
By Gaslight was first published in the UK by Oneworld in September 2016. My thanks to Margot Weale for sending a free paperback for review.
Fun trivia: Steven Price is married to Esi Edugyan, author of the Booker Prize shortlisted novel Half Blood Blues.
I’m always interested to find out how people who aren’t regular followers catch wind of my blog. The web searches documented in my WordPress statistics are often bizarre, but do point to what have been some of my most enduringly popular posts: reviews of The First Bad Man, The Girl Who Slept with God, and The Essex Serpent; and write-ups of events with Diana Athill and Michel Faber. I also get a fair number of searches for Ann Kidd Taylor, whose two books I’ve featured at different points.
Here are some of the more interesting results from the last six months or so. My favorite search of all may well be “underwhelmed by ferrante”! (Spelling and punctuation are unedited throughout.)
October 19: the undiscovered islands malachy tallack, the first bad man, ann kidd taylor wedding
October 21: prose/poetry about autumn
November 2: ann kidd taylor, irmina barbara yelin, the first bad man summary, diana athill on molly keane
November 6: michel faber poems, essex serpent as byatt, book summary of the girl who slept with gid byval brelinski
November 17: book cycle, james lasdun, novel the girl who slept with god
November 25: john bradshaw the lion in the living room, bibliotherapy open courses the school of life, barbara yelin irmina, 2016 best prose poem extracts
December 5: seal morning, paul evans field notes from the edge, at the existentialist café: freedom, being, and apricot cocktails with jean-paul sartre, simone de beauvoir, albert camus, marti, read how many books at once
December 23: midwinter novel melrose, underwhelmed by ferrante
January 6: charlotte bronte handwriting, hundred year old man and john irving
January 12: memorable prose on looking forward, felicity Trotman
January 24: patient memoirs, poirot graphic novel, first bad man review, he came beck why? love poems
January 26: reading discussion essex serpent, elena ferrante my brilliant friend dislike
February 3: what are chimamanda’s novels transkated to films, ann kidd taylor, shannon leone fowler, i read war and peace and liked it
February 15: “how to make a french family” “review”, book that literally changed my life, the essex serpent summary
March 13: my darling detective howard norman, the essex serpent book club questions, the first bad man summary
March 22: the doll’s alphabet, joslin linder genetic disorders
March 31: detor, louisa young michel faber
May 7: the essex serpent plot, rebecca foster writer, book about cats, gauguin the other world dori fabrizio
Here are three enjoyable novels due out next month that I was lucky enough to read early. The first two are debuts, while the third is by an author I’ve had good luck with before. I’ve pulled 250-word extracts from my full reviews and hope you’ll be tempted by one or more of these.
Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař
(Coming on March 7th from Little, Brown and Company [USA] and March 9th from Sceptre [UK])
Call this a cross between Everything Is Illuminated (Jonathan Safran Foer) and The Book of Strange New Things (Michel Faber). In April 2018 Czech astronaut Jakub Procházka is launched to investigate cosmic dust storm “Chopra,” but realizes he can never escape his family history or the hazards of his own mind. Amid the drudgery of daily life onboard the JanHus1 space shuttle, he makes a friend: a giant, alien spider he names Hanuš. Jakub has the sense that Hanuš is sifting through his memories, drawing out the central tragedies that form his motivation for going to space, including the shame and persecution that resulted from his father being a Party loyalist and member of the Secret Police prior to the Velvet Revolution.
This debut novel is a terrific blend of the past and the futuristic, Earth and space. There is much to enjoy: Jakub’s sometimes baroque narrative voice (“What good am I, a thin purse of brittle bones and spoiling meat?”) – all the more impressive because Jaroslav Kalfař is in his late twenties and has only spoken English for about 13 years; the mixture of countryside rituals and the bustle of Prague; and the uncertainty about whether Jakub has a viable future, with or without his wife Lenka. The book goes downhill in Part Two and doesn’t quite pull everything together before its end. However, it’s still one of the best debuts I’ve encountered in recent years, and I’ll be eager to see what Kalfař will come up with next.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
(Coming on March 14th from Penguin [USA] and June 1st from Jonathan Cape [UK])
An odd but very funny anti-Bildungsroman. This is Selin Hanim’s account of her freshman year at Harvard (circa 1995) and the summer of European travel that follows. A daughter of Turkish immigrants, she wants to become a writer, but even as she minutely records every happening and thought she doubts the point of it. In Russian and linguistics classes, in interactions with her roommates and her Serbian friend Svetlana, and in her growing obsession with Ivan, a senior math major from Hungary, she includes a Knausgaardian amount of mundane detail yet always remains at an emotional distance from events. The tone is so very deadpan that you may never warm to Selin. However, it feels appropriate for what the novel is attempting: a commentary on the difficulty of having real, meaningful conversations when language breakdown is rife.
Once again Batuman has borrowed a Dostoevsky title (her 2010 memoir was called The Possessed). I suspect her debut novel is generally indebted to Eastern European literature in the randomness of the incidents and the way they are bluntly recounted rather than explained. This can be problematic for the story line: it feels like things keep happening that serve no purpose in the grander scheme. It’s as if Batuman is subverting the whole idea of a simple coming-of-age trajectory. At the same time, she convincingly captures what it’s like to be young and confused. This reminded me of my college and study abroad experience; that familiarity plus the off-the-wall humor kept me reading.
(On a plane) “I opened the foil lid and looked at the American meal. I couldn’t tell what it was. The man in the seat ahead of me started tossing and turning. His pillow fell into my dessert. The pink whipped foam formed meaningful-looking patterns on the white fabric. I saw a bird—that meant travel.”
“Spiderwebs attached themselves, like long trails of agglutinative suffixes, onto our arms and faces.”
My Darling Detective by Howard Norman
(Coming on March 28th from Houghton Mifflin)
When Jacob Rigolet’s mother Nora, former head of Halifax Free Library, throws ink on a photograph during an art auction in 1977, it sparks an unusual quest into his past. Jacob’s fiancee Martha Crauchet, the detective of the title, learns two startling facts from Nora’s police file: Jacob was born in the Halifax library; and Bernard Rigolet had been serving overseas for more than a year before his birth in 1945, so can’t be his father. Three years ago Nora’s obsession with World War II led to a breakdown she calls her “fall from grace”; she’s been confined to a rest home ever since. As Jacob gives up being an art buyer to attend library school, Martha gets involved in a cold case that involves his real father. The film noir atmosphere is enhanced by a hardboiled detective radio program he and Martha are hooked on: set in the year of Jacob’s birth, Detective Levy Detects keeps overlapping with real life.
This offbeat mystery reminded me of The World According to Garp. I could see it working as a low-budget indie movie or TV special. I loved how climactic things kept happening at the library, and enjoyed glimpses of bad borrower behavior: selling the library’s art books to a secondhand bookstore and a 105-year overdue loan found in someone’s attic. I have a suspicion this novel won’t linger long in my mind, but it was a fun weekend read. (Historical note: one character’s mother was killed in the Halifax Explosion.)
Have you read any March releases you would recommend?
We spent a few days last week in Cambridge, England for New Networks for Nature’s interdisciplinary “Nature Matters” conference, this year on the theme of “In Touch with the Wild.” This is the fourth year my husband (a biologist with the University of Reading) has participated, and the third year in a row that I’ve attended for a day. While other years the gathering has been in the small town of Stamford, this year’s temporary move to Cambridge gave us the impetus to finally explore this world-famous city for the first time.
Arriving later than we meant to on a Thursday evening, checking into our noisy hostel and then having to dash out in time for my husband to make the first event (and making a futile attempt to find an open coffee shop where I could while away a couple hours)…this all meant our first impression of the city was not great. However, cheap, terrific Chinese street food on Friday after the conference, followed by a delicious glass of cider in a pub and a sunny day for exploring the bustling city center on Saturday created a more favorable overall feeling.
Last year’s conference highlights for me were a debate about nature’s economic value and a panel on the purpose of nature poetry. This year’s sessions tackled personal connection with nature, rewilding (setting aside tracts of land for wilderness and reintroducing native species that have been driven out or gone locally extinct, such as wolves and wild boar), and coping with a sense of loss. With everyone from geographers to a singer and a painter involved on the day I attended, the conference succeeded in drawing in different fields from the sciences and the arts to provide commentary on ways we might reconnect with nature.
The day’s first event brought together author William Fiennes (The Snow Geese), poet Alison Brackenbury, and Cambridge psychologist Laurie Parma. Fiennes spoke about writing an introduction to John Fowles’s long, curmudgeonly essay The Tree. Whereas Fowles denigrates Linnaeus, Fiennes thinks of him as a hero; like Adam in the Bible, Linnaeus knew the value of naming things. “In order to care about something, we first have to notice it,” Fiennes insisted; for him the noticing began when he was a child going round the garden with his father and learning plant names. Rather than thinking of names as a control mechanism, he suggested they can be a first step in “granting [a species] a place in your sensorium.”
Brackenbury, who comes from four generations of Lincolnshire shepherds, recited from memory seven poems from her latest collection, Skies, several of which reflect on species’ extinctions or comebacks. “Look at them well before they go” is the broadly applicable piece of advice that closes “The Elms.” I especially liked one poem about a starling’s many songs.
Parma relayed the scientific evidence for green spaces mitigating stress and promoting happiness. At an event like this there’s an inevitable feeling that the speakers are preaching to the choir: we already know the personal value of time in nature, as well as the scale of environmental degradation. Still, this came home afresh in the following session as Dr. Stuart Butchart of BirdLife International spoke about the situation in Hawaii, where deforestation, non-native mosquitoes and other invasive animals are rapidly driving native birds to extinction. Photojournalist Toby Smith then questioned whether the nature photographer’s role should be to chronicle nature’s degradation or to celebrate what’s left. Many speakers acknowledged the difficult balance between mourning losses and applauding successes.
I spent most of Saturday scouring Cambridge’s charity shops and made out like a bandit, coming away with 15 books for £15.39. If you happen to find yourself in Cambridge and have seen all you need to of the colleges and the river (it doesn’t take very long), I can recommend Burleigh Street for charity shops but also Mill Road, a slightly more off-the-beaten-path student area of ethnic eateries and cheap stores. Books for Amnesty has an incredible selection; I took advantage of a couple James Lasdun books from their £1 poetry shelf. Best of all was the Salvation Army store, where all books were either 40 or 70 pence. I amassed a huge pile and then put half of it back when I remembered I would have to carry these books the mile or so back into town and then haul them around the whole rest of the day. I also did well at RSPCA’s two shops, one a dedicated bookshop on Mill Road.
Here’s the day’s purchases, in detail:
Cambridge is certainly rich in secondhand book buying opportunities. Other shops I browsed but didn’t buy from included G. David Books and the tiny Sarah Key Books (also known as “The Haunted Bookshop” – I’d love to know why! – and included on a Guardian list of 10 of the best secondhand bookstores), both on St. Edward’s Passage, and the multi-floored emporium Heffers on St. John’s Street, which has a great selection of board games and gift items as well as new and used books.
As a literary destination, Cambridge left a bit to be desired, though. There weren’t any literary graves for me to find, nor any notable houses or statues. Many of the college’s famous alumni are known for work in other fields. There’s Newton, Darwin and Hawking in the sciences, for instance – they all appear in this mural in the hostel dining room. Plenty of political figures attended, as well as lots of living authors (Wikipedia has an extensive list; the hostel wall featured Zadie Smith as a fairly recent example of a literary alumna).
So, overall, a nice enough city for a day trip but not somewhere you need to stay much longer. Granted, it was outside of term time so King’s College wasn’t running its usual chapel services, and I never did make it out to the Fitzwilliam Museum. Still, I reckon you’ll find much more to see and do in Oxford, a city I’ve visited again and again ever since my undergraduate study abroad days took me there for weekly theology tutorials.
Your thoughts (on new cities, connecting with nature and secondhand book shopping) are always welcome!