Reading with the seasons, I’ve picked up a few books with “summer” or sunshine in their titles. I’ll have more to write up later in August, including novels set during the summer months.
A Summer Bird-Cage by Margaret Drabble (1963)
Sarah Bennett, who went straight from university in Oxford to Paris for want of a better idea of what to do with her life, is called home to Warwickshire to be a bridesmaid in the wedding of her older sister, Louise, to Stephen Halifax, a wealthy novelist. Afterwards, Sarah decides to move to London and share a flat with a friend whose marriage has recently ended. As the months pass, she figures out life as a single girl in a big city and attends parties hosted by Louise – back from an extended European honeymoon – and others. Sarah eventually works out, from gossip and from confronting Louise herself, that her sister’s marriage isn’t as idyllic as it appeared. Both sisters find themselves at a loss as for what to do next.
Although Drabble’s debut novel is low on action, its characters are sharply drawn and she delights in placing them in situations and conversations where their true values will emerge. I could relate to Sarah for her bookishness, her observant nature, and her feeling that her best days of being a student are behind her. Drabble was only 24 when this was published; though she was already married and a mother, her distinguished university career (a double first from Cambridge) wasn’t long behind her. Given that Drabble’s sister is novelist A.S. Byatt, it’s impossible not to speculate about the autobiographical inspiration for this picture of sisters who are subconscious rivals and don’t even seem to enjoy spending casual time together.
What with the sisters sharing the maiden name Bennett, you also can’t help but think of one of the classic sister novels, Pride and Prejudice. Drabble makes her debt obvious when Sarah goes over to Louise’s for dinner and comments on the “charming convention of the scene – sisters idling away an odd evening in happy companionship. It was like something out of Middlemarch or even Jane Austen.” I was also reminded of the sister pair in Deerbrook: one got all the beauty, but the other seems much more interesting.
The title comes from a John Webster quotation: “’Tis just like a summer bird-cage in a garden: / the birds that are without are desperate to get / in, and the birds that are within despair and / are in a consumption for fear that they will never / get out.” In other words, it’s easy to miss, and idealize, what you don’t have. Sarah still thinks she can have it all; Louise has realized the choices life forces on you. In modern parlance, this is about adulting and FOMO. It still feels relevant, in a way that seems to anticipate the work of Sally Rooney.
Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen (2006)
Another sisters novel, and the first book in my Journey through the Day with Books challenge. Meghan Fitzmaurice is a household name as the host of America’s most popular morning talk show, Rise and Shine, but her star fades rapidly when, her microphone still on after she thinks they’ve gone to a commercial break, she murmurs “f***ing a**hole” about a guest who is, admittedly, a creep. It turns out her outburst didn’t come out of nowhere: the night before, her husband, Evan, had announced he was leaving her. Meghan goes to Jamaica to regroup, leaving her younger sister, Bridget, a social worker in the Bronx, to figure out what happened and create a semblance of normalcy for her beloved nephew, Meghan’s college-age son Leo, who’s just back from an exchange program at a farm outside Barcelona.
I liked the New York City setting and the central sister relationship – “Sisters tend to get stuck in their roles and they don’t always know how to get out of them. The pretty one. The practical one,” their aunt Maureen, who raised them after their parents’ deaths, says – but the plot hereafter veers between thin and melodramatic. I didn’t warm to Bridget’s boyfriend Irving, a hardboiled older cop, and I get a little nervous about white ladies creating stereotypical African American characters and giving them names like Tequila (Bridget’s receptionist at the women’s shelter) and Princess Margaret (Tequila’s daughter).
In a nice bit of symmetry, though, the book’s end finds a subdued Meghan hosting a late-night show called Day’s End. I didn’t like this nearly as much as her nonfiction (I loved Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake), but I would read more by Quindlen: I also have a copy of One True Thing, and I have heard that her recent fiction is good.
And a skim from the library that ties in nicely with the cover image above:
The Butterfly Isles: A Summer in Search of Our Emperors and Admirals by Patrick Barkham (2010)
In 2009, Barkham set out to revive the childhood butterfly-watching hobby he’d shared with his father. The UK is home to 59 species, a manageable number to attempt to see in a season, although it does require a fair bit of travel and insider knowledge. I’ve read too much general history about the human relationship with butterflies (via Rainbow Dust by Peter Marren, which came out a few years later, and An Obsession with Butterflies by Sharman Apt Russell, which Barkham mentions in a Recommended Reading section at the end of the book) to engage with all the context he includes; I focused on the nitty-gritty of the quest running from mid-March to August. I’ll leave it to readers to discover whether he succeeds or not. Nice additions here are the color plates of all the species in question, and the line drawings by Helen Macdonald, yet to come to prominence in her own right – with H Is for Hawk in 2014.
A favorite passage: “Butterflies are symbols of freedom and happiness, sunshine and summer days. They are tokens of romance”
Have you been reading anything particularly fitting for summer this year?
Another day, another prize longlist! This year the Wainwright Prize has split into two awards for writing on 1) UK nature and 2) global conservation themes. Tomorrow (July 30th), they will be whittled down to shortlists. I happen to have read and reviewed 10 of the nominees already. I took the opportunity to experience a few more before the shortlist announcement. I give a paragraph on each below (forgive me for, in some cases, repeating the excerpts that appeared in my reviews roundups and best-of lists).
From the UK nature writing longlist:
Dark, Salt, Clear: Life in a Cornish Fishing Town by Lamorna Ash: In her early 20s, Ash made multiple trips from London to stay in Newlyn: walking to the cove that bears her name, going out on fishing trawlers, and getting accepted into the small community. Gruelling and lonely, the fishermen’s way of life is fading away. The book goes deeper into Cornish history than non-locals need, but I enjoyed the literary allusions – the title is from Elizabeth Bishop. I liked the writing, but this was requested after me at the library, so I could only skim it.
Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature by Patrick Barkham: Childhood has moved indoors over the course of three generations, the Guardian journalist observes. Highlighting activities that will engage budding naturalists in every season and accompanying his three children to outdoor nursery, he suggests how connection with nature can be part of everyday life. An engaging narrative not just for parents and educators but for anyone who has a stake in future generations’ resolve to conserve the natural world – which is to say, all of us. (Reviewed for Shiny New Books)
Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness: In 2013, Harkness was in such a bad place that he attempted suicide. Although he’s continued to struggle with OCD and depression in the years since then, birdwatching has given him a new lease on life. Avoiding the hobby’s more obsessive, competitive aspects (like listing and twitching), he focuses on the benefits of outdoor exercise and mindfulness. He can be lyrical when describing his Norfolk patch and some of his most magical sightings, but the writing is weak. (My husband helped crowdfund the book via Unbound.)
Dancing with Bees: A Journey Back to Nature by Brigit Strawbridge Howard: Bees were the author’s gateway into a general appreciation of nature, something she lost for a time in midlife because of the rat race and family complications. Allotment gardening gives her opportunities to observe bee behaviour and marvel at their various lookalikes (like hoverflies), identify plants, work on herbal remedies, and photograph her finds. She delights in discovery and is devoted to lifelong learning in a book characterized by curiosity and warmth. (On my runners-up of 2019 list)
Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie: Jamie has a particular interest in birds, islands, archaeology and the oddities of the human body. The bulk of the book is three long pieces set in Alaska, Orkney and Tibet. Neolithic sites lead her to think about deep time – a necessary corrective to short-term thinking that has gotten us into environmental crisis. I connected with the few-page pieces on experiencing a cave, spotting an eagle or getting lost in a forest. Beautiful nature writing and relatable words on the human condition. (My #9 nonfiction book of 2019)
Native: Life in a Vanishing Landscape by Patrick Laurie: Galloway may be the forgotten corner of Scotland, but this third-generation cattle farmer can’t imagine living anywhere else. In his year-long nature diary, each month brings rewards as well as challenges as he strives to manage the land in a manner beneficial to wildlife. I’m lucky to have visited Wigtown and the surrounding area. You needn’t have been in person, though, to appreciate this pensive account rich with the sense of place and balanced between solastalgia and practicality. (Reviewed for Shiny New Books)
Wintering by Katherine May: 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, mind and body. (Reviewed for TLS)
Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty: McAnulty is the UK’s answer to Greta Thunberg: a leader in the youth environmental movement and an impassioned speaker on the love of nature. This is a wonderfully observant and introspective account of his fifteenth year: of disruptions – moving house and school, of outrage at the state of the world and at individual and political indifference, of the complications of being autistic, but also of the joys of everyday encounters with wildlife. Impressive perspective and lyricism. (Reviewed for Shiny New Books; on my Best of 2020 so far list.)
Wanderland: A Search for Magic in the Landscape by Jini Reddy: Reddy has often felt like a nomad and an outsider. Through a year of travelling to holy sites, she seeks to be rooted in the country she has come to call home. The quest takes her all over the British Isles, creating an accessible introduction to its sacred spots. Recovering a sense of reverence for nature can only help in the long-term mission to preserve it. Reddy is the first person of colour nominated for the Wainwright Prize in its seven-year history. (Reviewed for Shiny New Books)
I think this year’s is an especially appealing longlist. It’s great to see small presses and debut authors getting recognition. I’ve now read 8 out of 13 (and skimmed one), and am interested in the rest, too, especially The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange. The final three, all combining nature and (auto)biographical writing, are On the Red Hill by Mike Parker, The Well-Gardened Mind by Sue Stuart-Smith, and Rootbound: Rewilding a Life by Alice Vincent.
From the writing on global conservation longlist:
Greenery: Journeys in Springtime by Tim Dee: From the Cape of Good Hope to the Arctic Circle, Dee tracks the spring as it travels north. From first glimpse to last gasp, moving between his homes in two hemispheres, he makes the season last nearly half the year. His main harbingers are migrating birds, starting with swallows. The book is steeped in allusions and profound thinking about deep time and what it means to be alive in an era when nature’s rhythms are becoming distorted. A fresh, masterful model of how to write about nature. (Review reprinted at Shiny New Books; on my Best of 2020 so far list.)
Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places by Julian Hoffman: Species and habitat loss are hard to comprehend even when we know the facts. This exquisitely written book is about taking stock, taking responsibility, and going beyond the numbers to tell the stories of front-line conservation work. Irreplaceable is an elegy of sorts, but, more importantly, it’s a call to arms. It places environmentalism in the hands of laypeople and offers hope that in working together in the spirit of defiance we can achieve great things. (Reviewed for Shiny New Books; my #1 nonfiction book of 2019)
Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild by Lucy Jones: While nature’s positive effect on human mental health is something we know intuitively and can explain anecdotally, Jones wanted to investigate the scientific mechanism behind it. She makes an empirical enquiry but also attests to the personal benefits nature has. Losing Eden is full of common sense and passion, cramming masses of information into 200 pages yet never losing sight of the big picture. Like Silent Spring, on which it is patterned, I can see this leading to real change. (Reviewed for Shiny New Books; on my Best of 2020 so far list.)
Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back by Mark O’Connell: The same satirical outlook that made O’Connell’s first book so funny is perfect for approaches to the end of the world, especially in the early chapter about preppers. Preparing = retreating, so he travels to South Dakota bunkers; a Mars Society Conference in Los Angeles; New Zealand, where billionaires plan to take refuge; and the wilderness of the Scottish Highlands. While pessimism strikes him as the only rational attitude, he decides constant anxiety is no way to live. (More extended thoughts here.)
The other book from this longlist that I’m interested in reading is Rebirding by Benedict Macdonald. I DNFed Bloom (all you ever wanted to know about algae!) last year; the other five seem too similar to other things I’ve read.
My predictions-cum-wish lists:
UK nature writing:
- The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange
- Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie*
- On the Red Hill by Mike Parker
- Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty
- Wanderland by Jini Reddy
- Rootbound: Rewilding a Life by Alice Vincent
Writing on global conservation:
- Greenery by Tim Dee
- What We Need to Do Now for a Zero Carbon Future by Chris Goodall
- Irreplaceable by Julian Hoffman*
- Losing Eden by Lucy Jones
- Bloom by Ruth Kassinger
- Harvest: The Hidden Histories of Seven Natural Objects by Edward Posnett
*Predicted overall winners.
Have you read anything from the Wainwright Prize longlists? Do any of these books interest you?
(A rare second post in a day from me, to make way for tomorrow’s list of the best books of the first half of the year.) My four new releases for June are a novel about the complications of race and sexuality in 1950s–80s America, a novella in translation about a seabird researcher struggling through a time of isolation, and two new poetry books from Carcanet Press. As a bonus just in time for Pride Month, I finish with a mini write-up of The Book of Queer Prophets, an anthology of autobiographical essays that was published late last month.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Like some lost mid-career gem from Toni Morrison, this novel is meaty with questions of racial and sexual identity and seems sure to follow in the footsteps of Ruby and An American Marriage with a spot in Oprah’s book club and on Barack Obama’s summer reading list.
It’s the story of light-skinned African American twins Stella and Desiree Vignes, and how their paths divide in 1954. Both are desperate to escape from Mallard, Louisiana, where their father was lynched and their mother cleans white people’s houses. Desiree works in fingerprinting for the FBI in Washington, D.C., but in 1968 leaves an abusive marriage to return to Mallard with her dark-skinned daughter, Jude Winston. Stella, on the other hand, has been passing as white for over a decade. She was a secretary for the man who became her husband, Blake Sanders, and now lives a life of comfort in a Los Angeles subdivision.
The twins’ decisions affect the next generation, too. Both have one daughter. Jude goes to college in L.A., where she meets and falls in love with photographer Reese (born Therese), who is, in a different sense, “passing” until he can afford the surgery that will align his body with his gender. In a coincidence that slightly strains belief, Jude runs into Stella’s daughter, Kennedy, and over the next seven years the cousins – one a medical student; the other an actress – continue to meet occasionally, marvelling at how two family lines that started in Mallard, a tiny town that doesn’t even exist anymore, could have diverged so dramatically.
This is Bennett’s second novel, after The Mothers, which I’m keen to read. It’s perceptive and beautifully written, with characters whose struggles feel genuine and pertinent. Though its story line ends in the late 1980s, it doesn’t feel passé at all. The themes of self-reinvention and running from one’s past resonate. I expected certain characters to be forced into moments of reckoning, but the plot is a little messier than that – and that’s more like real life. A shoo-in for next year’s Women’s Prize list.
My thanks to Dialogue Books for the free copy for review.
Ankomst by Gøhril Gabrielsen (2017)
[Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin]
The unnamed narrator of Gabrielsen’s fifth novel is a 36-year-old researcher working towards a PhD on the climate’s effects on populations of seabirds, especially guillemots. During this seven-week winter spell in the far north of Norway, she’s left her three-year-old daughter behind with her ex, S, and hopes to receive a visit from her lover, Jo, even if it involves him leaving his daughter temporarily. In the meantime, they connect via Skype when signal allows. Apart from that and a sea captain bringing her supplies, she has no human contact.
Daily weather measurements and bird observations still leave too much time alone in a cramped cabin, and this starts to tell in the protagonist’s mental state: she’s tormented by sexual fantasies, by memories of her life with S, and by the thought of a local family, the Berthelsens, who experienced a disastrous house fire in 1870. More and more frequently, she finds herself imagining what happened to Olaf and Borghild Berthelsen. Solitude and this growing obsession with ghosts of the past make her start to lose her grip on reality.
I’d encountered an unreliable narrator and claustrophobic setting before from Gabrielsen with her second novel, The Looking-Glass Sisters. Extreme weather and isolation account for this being paired with Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini as the first two books in Peirene’s 2020 “Closed Universe” trilogy. I was also reminded of Sarah Moss’s Night Waking. However, I found this novella’s metaphorical links – how seabirds and humans care for their young; physical and emotional threats; lowering weather and existential doom – too obvious.
My thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.
Moving House by Theophilus Kwek
This is the first collection of the Chinese Singaporean poet’s work to be published in the UK. Infused with Asian history, his elegant verse ranges from elegiac to romantic in tone. Many of the poems are inspired by historical figures and real headlines. There are tributes to soldiers killed in peacetime training and accounts of high-profile car accidents; “The Passenger” is about the ghosts left behind after a tsunami. But there are also poems about the language and experience of love. I also enjoyed the touches of art and legend: “Monologues for Noh Masks” is about the Pitt-Rivers Museum collection, while “Notes on a Landscape” is about Iceland’s geology and folk tales. In most places alliteration and enjambment produce the sonic effects, but there are also a handful of rhymes and half-rhymes, some internal.
My individual favorite poems included “Prognosis,” “Sophia” (made up of two letters Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles writes home to his wife while surveying in Singapore), and “Operation Thunderstorm.” As an expat and something of a nomad, I especially loved the title poem, which comes last and explains the cover image: “every house has a skeleton – / while the body learns it must carry less / from place to place, a kind of tidiness / that builds, hardens. Some call it fear, // of change, or losing what we cannot keep. / Others, experience.” Recommended to fans of Mary Jean Chan, Nausheen Eusuf, Kei Miller and Ocean Vuong.
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the PDF copy for review.
Red Gloves by Rebecca Watts
I noted the recurring comparison of natural and manmade spaces; outdoors (flowers, blackbirds, birds of prey, the sea) versus indoors (corridors, office life, even Emily Dickinson’s house in Massachusetts). The style shifts from page to page, ranging from prose paragraphs to fragments strewn across the layout. Most of the poems are in recognizable stanzas, though these vary in terms of length and punctuation. Alliteration and repetition (see, as an example of the latter, her poem “The Studio” on the TLS website) take priority over rhymes. I was reminded of Elizabeth Bishop in places, while “Whereas” had me thinking of Stephen Dunn’s collection of that name (Layli Long Soldier also has a poetry book of the same title). A few of my individual favorite poems were “Surveillance,” “Building” and “Admission” (on a medical theme: “What am I afraid of? / The breaching of skin. / Violation of laws that / separate outside from in. / Liquidation of the thing / I call me.”).
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the PDF copy for review.
And a bonus for Pride Month:
The Book of Queer Prophets: 24 Writers on Sexuality and Religion, edited by Ruth Hunt
There isn’t, or needn’t be, a contradiction between faith and queerness, as the authors included in this anthology would agree. Many of them are stalwarts at Greenbelt, a progressive Christian summer festival – Church of Scotland minister John L. Bell even came out there, in his late sixties, in 2017. I’m a lapsed regular attendee, so a lot of the names were familiar to me, including those of poets Rachel Mann and Padraig O’Tuama.
Most of the contributors are Christian, then, including ordained priests like Desmond Tutu’s daughter, Mpho, and LGBT ally Kate Bottley, but we also hear from Michael Segalov, a gay Jewish man in London, and from Amrou Al-Kahdi (author of Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen), who describes the affirmation they found in the Sufi tradition. Dustin Lance Black tells of the exclusion LGBT Mormons still encounter.
Jarel Robinson-Brown addresses his lament on mistreatment to his nephew, as James Baldwin did in “My Dungeon Shook” (in The Fire Next Time). Tamsin Omond recounts getting married to Melissa on a London bridge in the middle of an Extinction Rebellion protest. Erin Clark, though bisexual, knows she can pass as straight because she’s marrying a man – so is she ‘gay enough?’ Two trans poets write of the way cathedrals drew them into faith. The only weaker pieces are by Jeanette Winterson (there’s nothing new if you’ve read her memoir) and Juno Dawson (entirely throwaway; ‘I’m an atheist, but it’s okay to be religious, too’).
Again and again, these writers voice the certainty that they are who God means them to be. A few of them engage with particular passages from the Bible, offering contextual critiques or new interpretations, but most turn to scripture for its overall message of love and justice. Self-knowledge is a key component of their search for truth. And the truth sets people free.
I read an e-copy via NetGalley.
What recent releases can you recommend?
For me, 2019 has been a more memorable year for nonfiction than for fiction. Like I did last year, I’ve happened to choose 12 favorite nonfiction books – though after some thematic grouping this has ended up as a top 10 list. Bodies, archaeology, and the environmental crisis are recurring topics, reflecting my own interests but also, I think, something of the zeitgeist.
Let the countdown begin!
- Because Internet: Understanding how language is changing by Gretchen McCulloch: Surprisingly fascinating stuff, even for a late adopter of technology. The Internet popularized informal writing and quickly incorporates changes in slang and cultural references. The book addresses things you may never have considered, like how we convey tone of voice through what we type and how emoji function as the gestures of the written word. Bursting with geeky enthusiasm.
- Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie: A fusion of autobiography with nature and travel writing – two genres that are too often dominated by men. Jamie has a particular interest in birds, islands, archaeology and the oddities of the human body, all subjects that intrigue me. There is beautiful nature writing to be found in this volume, as you might expect, but also relatable words on the human condition.
- Mother Ship by Francesca Segal: A visceral diary of the first eight weeks in the lives of the author’s daughters, who were born by Caesarean section at 29 weeks in October 2015 and spent the next two months in the NICU. Segal describes with tender precision the feeling of being torn between writing and motherhood, and crafts twinkly pen portraits of others she encountered in the NICU, including the staff but especially her fellow preemie mums.
- Surrender: Mid-Life in the American West by Joanna Pocock: Prompted by two years spent in Missoula, Montana and the disorientation felt upon a return to London, this memoir-in-essays varies in scale from the big skies of the American West to the smallness of one human life and the experience of loss and change. This is an elegantly introspective work that should engage anyone interested in women’s life writing and the environmental crisis.
- (A tie) Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson / The Undying by Anne Boyer / Notes Made while Falling by Jenn Ashworth: Trenchant autobiographical essays about female pain. All three feel timely and inventive in how they bring together disparate topics to explore the possibilities and limitations of women’s bodies. A huge theme in life writing in the last couple of years and a great step toward trauma and chronic pain being taken seriously. (See also Notes to Self by Emilie Pine and the forthcoming Pain Studies by Lisa Olstein.)
- Time Song: Searching for Doggerland by Julia Blackburn: Deep time is another key topic this year. Blackburn follows her curiosity wherever it leads as she does research into millions of years of history, including the much shorter story of human occupation. The writing is splendid, and the dashes of autobiographical information are just right, making her timely/timeless story personal. This would have been my Wainwright Prize winner.
- The Seafarers: A Journey among Birds by Stephen Rutt: The young naturalist travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles – from Skomer to Shetland – courting encounters with seabirds. Discussion of the environmental threats that hit these species hardest, such as plastic pollution, makes for a timely tie-in to wider issues. The prose is elegantly evocative, and especially enjoyable because I’ve been to a lot of the island locations.
- Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene: In 2015 the author’s two-year-old daughter, Greta, was fatally struck in the head by a brick that crumbled off an eighth-story Manhattan windowsill. Music journalist Greene explores all the ramifications of grief. I’ve read many a bereavement memoir and can’t remember a more searing account of the emotions and thoughts experienced moment to moment. The whole book has an aw(e)ful clarity to it.
- The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson: Bryson is back on form indulging his layman’s curiosity. Without ever being superficial or patronizing, he gives a comprehensive introduction to every organ and body system. He delights in our physical oddities, and his sense of wonder is contagious. Shelve this next to Being Mortal by Atul Gawande in a collection of books everyone should read – even if you don’t normally choose nonfiction.
- Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places by Julian Hoffman: Species and habitat loss are hard to comprehend even when we know the facts. This exquisitely written book is about taking stock, taking responsibility, and going beyond the numbers to tell the stories of front-line conservation work. Irreplaceable is an elegy of sorts, but, more importantly, it’s a call to arms. It places environmentalism in the hands of laypeople and offers hope that in working together in the spirit of defiance we can achieve great things. So, if you read one 2019 release, make it this one.
What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?
29th: Other superlatives and some statistics
30th: Best backlist reads
31st: The final figures on my 2019 reading
This past weekend was my fifth time attending Nature Matters, the annual New Networks for Nature conference. I’ve written about it on the blog a few times before: last year’s 10th anniversary meeting in Stamford, plus once when there was a particular focus on nature poetry and another time when it was held in Cambridge. This year the theme was “Time for Nature” and the conference was held at the very posh St Peter’s School in York, which dates back to 627 and resembles an Oxford college. We have close friends in York, but our timing was off in that they were in Italy this week. However, they sent us a key to their house and let us stay there while they were away, which saved us having to book an Airbnb or guest house.
What makes Nature Matters so special is its interdisciplinary nature: visual artists, poets, musicians, writers, activists, academics and conservationists alike attend and speak. So although the event might seem geared more towards my ecologist husband, there’s always plenty to interest me, too. In particular, I enjoyed the panel discussions on nature in children’s books and new directions for nature writing. This year the organizers were determined to make the speakers’ roster more diverse, so some panels were three-quarters or wholly female, and four people of color appeared on the stage. (That might not seem like a great record, but in a field so dominated by white males it’s at least a start.)
The Friday was a particularly brilliant day, the best day of sessions I can remember in any year. After a presentation by wildlife photographer and painter Robert Fuller, the first session was “Nature in Deep Time,” featuring three archaeologists from northern universities who talked about cave art, woodcraft, and evidence of rapid climate change. “Taking a long view, we get a very different perspective,” Professor Terry O’Connor of the University of York observed. The topic felt timely and tied in with a number of books that have come out this year, including Time Song by Julia Blackburn, Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie and Underland by Robert Macfarlane.
Next up was “Now or Never – Fighting for Nature,” featuring three female activists: Ruth Peacey, a filmmaker for BBC Wildlife whose subjects have included bird persecution in the Mediterranean; Sally Goldsmith, a campaigner who deployed poems and songs against the mass street tree-cutting campaign in Sheffield and helped save some 10,000 trees; and Hatti Owens, an environmental lawyer with ClientEarth who has partnered with Extinction Rebellion. The panel chair and one of this year’s organizers, writer Amy-Jane Beer, noted that activism is no longer radical, but an obligation.
Either side of lunch, Dr. Sara Goodacre of the University of Nottingham SpiderLab demonstrated how money spiders walk on water and “sail” using two raised legs to cope with wind; and Dr. Geoff Oxford of the University of York told the successful conservation story of the tansy beetle, which has recently been celebrated with a crowdfunded wall mural on the corner of York’s Queen Street and the Tansy Beetle Bar at the Rattle Owl restaurant on Micklegate. After the day’s proceedings, we joined a general movement over to see the mural and toast the bar’s grand opening.
The children’s books session featured Anneliese Emmans Dean, who gave very entertaining performances of her poems on insects and birds; Gill Lewis, who writes middle grade novels that introduce children to environmental issues; and Yuval Zommer, who writes and illustrates nonfiction guides with titles like The Big Book of Bugs and The Big Book of Blooms. Panel chair Ben Hoare, another of this year’s organizers and a former editor of BBC Wildlife magazine, concluded that children’s books should be joyous and not preachy.
There was still more to come on this jam-packed Friday! “The Funny Thing about Nature…” was essentially three stand-up comedy routines by Simon Watt, creator of the Ugly Animal Appreciation Society; Helen Pilcher, who has written a speculative book about the science of de-extinction; and Hugh Warwick, an author and hedgehog enthusiast. The language got a little crass in this session, but all three speakers were genuinely funny. As Watt put it, “Sincerity should not be our only weapon” in the fight for nature; he’s trying to reach the people who aren’t “already on our side.”
After free gin and tonics provided by local producers SloeMotion, we had the absolute treat of a performance by Kitty Macfarlane, whose folk songs are inspired by the natural world. The title track of her 2018 album Namer of Clouds is about Luke Howard, who created the naming system for clouds (cumulus, stratus, and so on) in 1802. Other songs are about eels, a starling murmuration and the Sardinian tradition of weaving sea silk. She often incorporates field recordings of birdsong, and writes about her native Somerset Levels. Her voice is gorgeously clear, reminding me of Emily Smith’s. We bought her album and EP at once.
Saturday was a slightly less memorable day, with sessions on insects and the uplands, an interview with clean rivers campaigner (and former pop star) Feargal Sharkey, and the short film Raising the Hare by Bevis Bowden. Most engaging for me was a four-person discussion on new directions for nature writing, chaired by author and academic Richard Kerridge. Katharine Norbury is editing the Women on Nature anthology, which I have supported via Unbound; it’s due out next year. She went all the way back to Julian of Norwich and has included novelists, poets, gardeners and farmers – lots of women who wouldn’t have called themselves ‘nature writers’.
Anita Sethi, a journalist from Manchester, speaks out about inequality of access to nature due to race, gender and class. She read part of her essay “On Class and the Countryside” from the Common People anthology edited by Kit de Waal. Zakiya McKenzie, a London-born Jamaican, was a Forest England writer in residence and founded the Green & Black project to give underprivileged children trips to the countryside. Richard Smyth, the author of A Sweet, Wild Note, spoke of the need for robust nature writing – and criticism. He stressed that it’s not good enough for nature writing to be “charming” or “lyrical”; it’s too important to be merely pleasant. I would have liked to hear him explore this more and for it to turn into more of a debate, but the discussion drifted into praise for experimental and speculative forms.
There’s something for everyone at this conference; some of the elements that I didn’t get on with or found pretentious were others’ highlights, so it’s all a matter of taste. Spending time in York, one of my favorite cities, was an added bonus. We managed to fit in a trip to the National Railway Museum and lunch at Bettys on the Sunday before our train back.
Next year’s conference will be at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, 10–12 July. I’ve never been to Norwich so look forward to visiting it and attending the full conference once again. It’s always a fascinating, inspiring weekend with a wide range of speakers and ideas.
Would any of the conference’s themes or events have interested you?
For this second half of the year I chose just 15 of the new releases I was most excited about. Limiting myself in that way has been helpful for focusing the mind: I’ve already read six of my most anticipated books, I’m currently reading another, and I have several more awaiting me. Had I chosen 30 or more titles, I would likely be feeling overwhelmed by now, but as it is I have a good chance of actually getting to all these books before the end of the year. These five September releases, while very different – their topics range from cancer and dead bodies to archaeological digs and family inheritance – all lived up to my expectations:
The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care by Anne Boyer
(Coming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux [USA] on the 17th and Allen Lane [UK] on October 3rd)
In 2014, Boyer, then a 41-year-old poet and professor at the Kansas City Art Institute (and a single mother) was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. The book’s subtitle gives you clues to the sort of practical and emotional territory that’s covered here. Although she survived this highly aggressive cancer, she was not unscathed: the chemotherapy she had is so toxic it leads to lasting nerve damage and a brain fog that hasn’t completely lifted.
All the more impressive, then, that Boyer has been able to put together this ferociously intellectual response to American cancer culture. Her frame of reference ranges from ancient Greece – Aelius Aristides, who lived in a temple, hoping the gods would reveal the cure to his wasting illness via dreams, becomes an offbeat hero for her – to recent breast cancer vloggers. She is scathing on vapid pink-ribbon cheerleading that doesn’t substantially improve breast cancer patients’ lives, and on profit-making healthcare schemes that inevitably discriminate against poor women of color and send people home from the hospital within a day or two of a double mastectomy. Through her own experience, she reflects on the pressure women are under to be brave, to be optimistic, to go to work as normal, and to look as beautiful as ever when they are in excruciating pain and beyond exhaustion.
Impossible to avoid comparisons to Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, but this book has a personal power I don’t remember finding in Sontag’s more detached, academic-level work. Boyer sees herself as one in a long lineage of women writing about their cancer – from Fanny Burney to Audre Lorde – and probes the limits of language when describing pain. I was reminded of another terrific, adjacent book from this year, Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson, especially where Boyer describes her imagined 10-part pain scale (Gleeson has a set of 20 poems based on the McGill Pain Index).
I could quote excellent passages all day, but here are a few that stood out to me:
“People with breast cancer are supposed to be ourselves as we were before, but also better and stronger and at the same time heart-wrenchingly worse. We are supposed to keep our unhappiness to ourselves but donate our courage to everyone.”
“The moral failure of breast cancer is not in the people who die: it is in the world that makes them sick, bankrupts them for a cure that also makes them sick, then blames them for their own deaths.”
“If suffering is like a poem, I want mine to be lurid, righteous, and goth.”
My thanks to FSG for the proof copy for review.
Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals about Death by Caitlin Doughty
(Coming from W.W. Norton [USA] on the 10th and W&N [UK] on the 19th)
This is the third book by the millennial mortician, and I’ve taken perverse glee in reading them all. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes explains cremation and combats misconceptions about death; From Here to Eternity surveys death rituals from around the world. This new book seems to be aimed at (morbid) children, but for me it was more like one of those New Scientist books (Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze?) or Why Do Men Have Nipples?
Some of the questions are more serious than others, but with her usual punning wit and pop culture references Doughty gives biologically sound answers to them all. For instance, she explains what might happen to a corpse in space, why the hair and fingernails of a cadaver appear to keep growing, and why the quantity of ashes from a cremation is about the same no matter the dead person’s girth (all the fat burns away; what would make your ashes weigh more is being taller and thus having longer bones). I was most interested in the chapter on why conjoined twins generally die at roughly the same time.
Doughty also discusses laws relating to the dead, such as “abuse of corpse” regulations and whether or not deaths at a property have to be reported to potential buyers (it depends on what state or country you live in); and what happens in countries that are literally running out of space for burials. In highly population-dense places like Singapore, but also in countries such as Germany, one is considered to ‘rent’ grave space, which is then recycled after 15 years and the previous set of remains cremated. Or graves might get stacked vertically.
This is good fun, and features lots of cartoonishly gruesome black-and-white illustrations by Dianné Ruz. If you’ve got a particularly curious niece or nephew who might appreciate a dark sense of humor, this would make a good Christmas gift for one who is an older child or young teen.
My thanks to W&N for the free copy for review.
Bloomland by John Englehardt
(Coming from Dzanc Books [USA only] on the 10th)
“you wonder if the scariest thing about all this is not that life can’t return to normal, but that it already has”
Especially after Gilroy and El Paso, I wasn’t sure I’d have the heart to pick up Bloomland, a novel about a mass shooting at (fictional) Ozarka University, Arkansas. But I’m very glad I did. Crucially, Englehardt’s debut doesn’t a) make easy assignments of guilt, b) resort to lurid scenes for shock value, or c) employ the cut-and-dried language of cause and effect. It’s a subtle and finely crafted piece of literary fiction. The second-person narration is an effective means of drawing the reader into the action, and inviting ‘you’ to extend sympathy to three very different characters: Rose, an Ozarka student who becomes romantically involved with one of the injured; Eddie, a professor whose wife dies in the massacre; and Eli, the shooter.
Both Rose and Eli lost their mothers when they were 11 years old. Six years before starting a poultry science course at Ozarka, Rose was caught up in a tornado that killed her grandmother and fractured her skull. The fact that her upbringing was even more traumatic than Eli’s is, I think, meant to discredit the lazy argument that dysfunctional families produce killers. In his early days at university we see Eli befriending a drug dealer named Gordon, whose hunting rifle he soups up to use in the shooting at the campus library in finals week. Englehardt also tests out another couple of predictors of violence: cruelty towards animals (au contraire, Eli can’t stand more than one day of debeaking chickens at a poultry factory and even takes one home as a pet) and violent, video-game-fueled fantasies (the story he writes for creative writing class is average for a teenage male so doesn’t raise any alarm bells).
Gradually we learn that there is an “I” behind this triple-stranded narrative: Dr. Steven Bressinger, an Ozarka creative writing professor. Although Rose, Eddie and Eli are all fully realized characters, we are also left to wonder how this Bressinger is able to access their memories and emotions. To what extent can he really put himself into their situations? And how much of the rest is made up? But then, that’s what the novelist does anyway: imagine what it’s like to be inside a character’s experience, especially when they’ve made unimaginable decisions.
So this novel within a novel thoroughly convinced me, especially as it moves into the future to examine how the campus and the wider community address issues of guilt and vengeance. Its timeliness is obvious, and Englehardt writes a gorgeous sentence, even when it’s about the homogeneity of the American suburb: e.g., “You start driving down MLK, past the mass grave of dollar stores, under the even clouds converging like one stoic slab of ice.”
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie
(Coming from Sort Of Books [UK] on the 19th and Penguin Books [USA] on the 24th)
I’m a big fan of Kathleen Jamie’s work, prose and poetry. Like her two previous essay collections, Sightlines and Findings, both of which I read in 2012, this fuses autobiography with nature and travel writing – two genres that are too often dominated by males. Jamie has a particular interest in birds, islands, archaeology and the oddities of the human body, all subjects that intrigue me, too.
The bulk of Surfacing is given over to three long pieces set in Alaska, Orkney and Tibet. She was drawn to Quinhagak, Alaska, a village that’s about the farthest you can go before crossing the Bering Sea into Russia, by her fascination with the whaling artifacts found along the UK’s east coast. Here she helped out on a summer archaeological dig and learned about the language and culture of the Yup’ik people. Alarmingly, the ground here should have been frozen most of the way to the surface, forcing the crew to wear thermals; instead, the ice was a half-meter down, and Jamie found that she never needed her cold-weather gear.
On Westray, Orkney (hey, I’ve been there!), there was also evidence of environmental degradation in the form of rapid erosion. This Neolithic site, comparable to the better-known Skara Brae, leads Jamie to think about deep time and whether we’re actually much better off than people in the Bronze Age were. Prehistory fits the zeitgeist, as seen in two entries from the recent Wainwright Prize shortlist: Time Song by Julia Blackburn and Underland by Robert Macfarlane. It’s a necessary corrective to the kind of short-term thinking that has gotten us into environmental crisis.
A cancer biopsy coincides with a dream memory of being bitten by a Tibetan dog, prompting Jamie to get out her notebook from a trip to China/Tibet some 30 years ago. Xiahe was technically in China but ethnically and culturally Tibetan, and so the best they could manage at that time since Tibet was closed to foreigners. There’s an amazing amount of detail in this essay given how much time has passed, but her photos as well as her notebook must have helped with the reconstruction.
The depth and engagement of the long essays are admirable, yet I often connected more with the few-page pieces on experiencing a cave, spotting an eagle or getting lost in a forest. Jamie has made the interesting choice of delivering a lot of the memoir fragments in the second person. My favorite piece of all is “Elders,” which in just five pages charts her father’s decline and death and marks her own passage into unknown territory: grown children and no parents; what might her life look like now?
There is beautiful nature writing to be found in this volume, as you might expect, but also relatable words on the human condition:
What are you doing here anyway, in the woods? … You wanted to think about all the horror. The everyday news … No, not to think about it exactly but consider what to do with the weight of it all, the knowing … You are not lost, just melodramatic. The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on.
My thanks to Sort Of Books for the free copy for review.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
(Coming from Bloomsbury [UK] and Harper [USA] on the 24th)
Maeve and Danny Conroy are an inseparable brother-and-sister pair. Their mother left when Danny was little, so his older sister played a maternal role, too. And when their father dies, they become like Hansel and Gretel (or Cinderella and her little brother): cast out into the wilds by an evil stepmother who takes possession of the only home they’ve ever known, a suburban Philadelphia mansion built on the proceeds of the VanHoebeeks’ cigarette empire.
It’s interesting to see Patchett take on a male perspective in this novel; she does it utterly convincingly. I also loved the medical threads running through: Maeve is diagnosed with diabetes as a teenager, and Danny spends many years in medical training even though his only ambition is to follow in his father’s footsteps as a property developer. There was a stretch in the middle of the book – something like 46% to 58% – when I was really bored with Danny’s dithering (‘but I don’t want to be a doctor … but I don’t want to marry Celeste’), and the chronology is unnecessarily complicated by flashbacks, though this is, I think, meant to convey Danny’s desultory composition of his memoirs.
In the end I didn’t like this quite as much as Commonwealth, but it’s a memorable exploration of family secrets and memories. As the decades pass you see how what happened to Maeve and Danny has been turned into myth: a story they repeat to themselves about how they were usurped, until this narrative has more power than the reality. Readers, meanwhile, are invited to question the people and places we base our security on, and to imagine what it would mean to forgive and forget and start living in a different way.
Patchett is always so good on the psychology of complicated families, and her sharp prose never fails to hit the nail on the head. The Goldfinch comes to mind as a readalike – not least because of the significance of a piece of art: the cover depicts a painting made of Maeve when she was 10 – as well as Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good.
I read an electronic proof copy via Edelweiss.
Have you read any September releases that you would recommend? Which of these tempt you?
Benjamin Myers’s Under the Rock was my nonfiction book of 2018, so I’m delighted to be kicking off the blog tour for its paperback release on the 25th (with a new subtitle, “Stories Carved from the Land”). I’m reprinting my Shiny New Books review below, with permission, and on behalf of Elliott & Thompson I am also hosting a giveaway of a copy of the paperback. Leave a comment saying that you’d like to win and I will choose one entry at random at the end of the day on Tuesday the 30th. (Sorry, UK only.)
Benjamin Myers has been having a bit of a moment. In 2017 Bluemoose Books published his fifth novel, The Gallows Pole, which went on to win the Roger Deakin Award and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and is now on its fourth printing. This taste of fame has brought renewed attention to his earlier work, including Beastings (2014), recipient of the Northern Writers’ Award. I’ve been interested in Myers’s work ever since I read an extract from the then-unpublished The Gallows Pole in Autumn, the Wildlife Trusts anthology edited by Melissa Harrison, but this is the first of his books that I’ve managed to read.
“Unremarkable places are made remarkable by the minds that map them,” Myers writes, and that is certainly true of Scout Rock, a landmark overlooking Mytholmroyd, near where the author lives in the Calder Valley of West Yorkshire. When he moved up there from London over a decade ago, he and his wife lived in a rental cottage built in 1640. He approached his new patch with admirable curiosity, and supplemented the observations he made from his study window with frequent long walks with his dog, Heathcliff (“Walking is writing with your feet”), and research into the history of the area. The result is a divagating, lyrical book that ranges from geology to true crime but has an underlying autobiographical vein.
Ted Hughes was born nearby, the Brontës not that much further away, and Hebden Bridge, in particular, has become a bastion of avant-garde artists and musicians. Myers also gets plenty of mileage out of his eccentric neighbours and postman. It’s a town that seems to attract oddballs and renegades, from the vigilantes who poisoned the fishing hole to an overdose victim who turns up beneath a stand of Himalayan balsam. A strange preponderance of criminals has come from the region, too, including sexual offenders like Jimmy Savile and serial killers such as the Yorkshire Ripper and Harold Shipman (‘Doctor Death’).
On his walks Myers discovers the old town tip, still full of junk that won’t biodegrade for hundreds more years, and finds traces of the asbestos that was dumped by Acre Mill, creating a national scandal. This isn’t old-style nature writing in search of a few remaining unspoiled places. Instead, it’s part of a growing literary interest in the ‘edgelands’ between settlement and the wild – places where the human impact is undeniable but nature is creeping back in. (Other recent examples would be Common Ground by Rob Cowen, Landfill by Tim Dee, Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, and Outskirts by John Grindrod.)
Under the Rock gives a keen sense of the seasons’ change and the seemingly inevitable melancholy that accompanies bad weather. A winter of non-stop rain left Myers nigh on delirious with flu; Storm Eva caused the Calder River to flood. He was a part of the effort to rescue trapped pensioners. Heartening as it is to see how the disaster brought people together – Sikh and Muslim charities and Syrian refugees were among the first to help – looting also resulted. One of the most remarkable things about this book is how Myers takes in such extremes of behaviour, along with mundanities, and makes them all part of a tapestry of life.
The book’s recurring themes tangle through all of the sections, even though it has been given a somewhat arbitrary four-part structure (Wood – Earth – Water – Rock). Interludes between these major parts transcribe Myers’s field notes, which are more like impromptu poems that he wrote in a notebook kept in his coat pocket. The artistry of these snippets of poetry is incredible given that they were written in situ, and their alliteration bleeds into his prose as well. My favourite of the poems was “On Lighting the First Fire”:
death is everywhere
the golden cloak
the seeds of
dreaming still sing.
The Field Notes sections are illustrated with Myers’s own photographs, which, again, are of enviable quality. I came away from this feeling like Myers could write anything – a thank-you note, a shopping list – and make it read as profound literature. Every sentence is well-crafted and memorable. There is also a wonderful sense of rhythm to his pages, with a pithy sentence appearing every couple of paragraphs to jolt you to attention.
“Writing is a form of alchemy,” Myers declares. “It’s a spell, and the writer is the magician.” I certainly fell under the author’s spell here. While his eyes are open to the many distressing political and environmental changes of the last few years, the ancient perspective of the Rock reminds him that, though humans are ultimately insignificant and individual lives are short, we can still rejoice in our experiences of the world’s beauty while we’re here.
From the publisher:
“Benjamin Myers was born in Durham in 1976. He is a prize-winning author, journalist and poet. His recent novels are each set in a different county of northern England, and are heavily inspired by rural landscapes, mythology, marginalised characters, morality, class, nature, dialect and post-industrialisation. They include The Gallows Pole, winner of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, and recipient of the Roger Deakin Award; Turning Blue, 2016; Beastings, 2014 (Portico Prize for Literature & Northern Writers’ Award winner), Pig Iron, 2012 (Gordon Burn Prize winner & Guardian Not the Booker Prize runner-up); and Richard, a Sunday Times Book of the Year 2010. Bloomsbury will publish his new novel, The Offing, in August 2019.
As a journalist, he has written widely about music, arts and nature. He lives in the Upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire, the inspiration for Under the Rock.”
I love interspersing poetry with my other reading, and this year it seems like I’m getting to more of it than ever. Although I try to have a poetry collection on the go at all times, I still consider myself a novice and enjoy discovering new-to-me poets. However, I know many readers who totally avoid poetry because they assume they won’t understand it or it would feel too much like hard work.
Sinking into poems is certainly a very different experience from opening up a novel or a nonfiction narrative. Often I read parts of a poem two or three times – to make sure I’ve taken it in properly, or just to savor the language. I try to hear the lines aloud in my head so I can appreciate the sonic techniques at work, whether rhyming or alliteration. Reading or listening to poetry engages a different part of the brain, and it may be best to experience it in something of a dreamlike state.
I hope you’ll find a book or two that appeals from the selection below.
Thousandfold by Nina Bogin (2019)
This is a lovely collection whose poems devote equal time to interactions with nature and encounters with friends and family. Birds – along with their eggs and feathers – are a frequent presence. Often a particular object will serve as a totem as the poet remembers the most important people in her life: her father’s sheepskin coat, her grandmother’s pink bathrobe, and the slippers her late husband shuffled around in – a sign of how diminished he’d become due to dementia. Elsewhere Bogin greets a new granddaughter and gives thanks for the comforting presence of her cat. Gentle rhymes and half-rhymes lend a playful or incantatory nature. I’d recommend this to fans of Linda Pastan.
Thousandfold will be published by Carcanet Press on January 31st. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Sweet Shop by Amit Chaudhuri (2019)
I was previously unfamiliar with Chaudhuri’s work, and unfortunately this insubstantial book about his beloved Indian places and foods hasn’t lured me into trying any more. The one poem I liked best was “Creek Row,” about a Calcutta lane used as a shortcut: “you are a thin, short-lived, / decaying corridor” and an “oesophageal aperture”. I also liked, as stand-alone lines go, “Refugees are periodic / like daffodils.” Nothing else stood out for me in terms of language, sound or theme. Poetry is so subjective; all I can say is that some poets will click with you and others don’t. In any case, the atmosphere is similar to what I found in Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi by Pamela Timms.
My thanks to Salt Publishing for the free copy for review.
Windfall by Miriam Darlington (2008)
Before I picked this up from the bookstall at the New Networks for Nature conference in November, I had no idea that Darlington had written poetry before she turned to nature writing (Otter Country and Owl Sense). These poems are rooted in the everyday: flipping pancakes, sitting down to coffee, tending a garden, smiling at a dog. Multiple poems link food and erotic pleasure; others make nature the source of exaltation. I loved her descriptions of a heron (“a standing stone / perched in silt / a wrap of grey plumage”) and a blackbird (“the first bird / a glockenspiel in C / an improvisation on morning / a blue string of notes”), Lots of allusions and delicious alliteration. Pick this up if you’re missing Mary Oliver.
A Responsibility to Awe by Rebecca Elson (2018)
Elson, an astronomer who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, died of breast cancer; this is a reprint of her posthumous 2001 publication. Along with a set of completed poems, the volume includes an autobiographical essay and extracts from her notebooks. Her impending mortality has a subtle presence in the book. I focused on the finished poems, which take their metaphors from physics (“Dark Matter”), mathematics (“Inventing Zero”) and evolution (indeed, “Evolution” was my favorite). In the essay that closes the book, Elson remembers long summers of fieldwork and road trips across Canada with her geologist father (I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye), and traces her academic career as she bounced between the United States and Great Britain.
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.
These next two were on the Costa Prize for Poetry shortlist, along with Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems, which was one of my top poetry collections of 2018 and recently won the T. S. Eliot Prize. I first encountered the work of all three poets at last year’s Faber Spring Party.
Us by Zaffar Kunial (2018)
Many of these poems are about split loyalties and a composite identity – Kunial’s father was Kashmiri and his mother English – and what the languages we use say about us. He also writes about unexpectedly developing a love for literature, and devotes one poem to Jane Austen and another to Shakespeare. My favorites were “Self Portrait as Bottom,” about doing a DNA test (“O I am translated. / The speech of numbers. / Here’s me in them / and them in me. … What could be more prosaic? / I am split. 50% Europe. / 50% Asia.”), and the title poem, a plea for understanding and common ground.
Soho by Richard Scott (2018)
When I saw him live, Scott read two of the amazingly intimate poems from this upcoming collection. One, “cover-boys,” is about top-shelf gay porn and what became of the models; the other, “museum,” is, on the face of it, about mutilated sculptures of male bodies in the Athens archaeological museum, but also, more generally, about “the vulnerability of / queer bodies.” If you appreciate the erotic verse of Mark Doty and Andrew McMillan, you need to pick this one up immediately. Scott channels Verlaine in a central section of gritty love poems and Whitman in the final, multi-part “Oh My Soho!”
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (2017)
Like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, this is a book whose aims I can admire even though I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. It’s about being black and queer in an America where both those identifiers are dangerous, where guns and HIV are omnipresent threats. “reader, what does it / feel like to be safe? white?” Smith asks. “when i was born, i was born a bull’s-eye.” The narrator and many of the other characters are bruised and bloody, with blood used literally but also metaphorically for kinship and sexual encounters. By turns tender and biting, exultant and uncomfortable, these poems are undeniably striking, and a necessary wake-up call for readers who may never have considered the author’s perspective.
Up next: This Pulitzer-winning collection from the late Mary Oliver, whose work I’ve had mixed success with before (Dream Work is by far her best that I’ve read so far). We lost two great authors within a week! RIP Diana Athill, too, who was 101.
Any recent poetry reads you can recommend to me?
Here are excerpts from (and links to, where available) some of my recent reviews for other places. A few of these books will undoubtedly be showing up on my end-of-year best lists in a couple weeks’ time.
I was pleased to have three of the books I reviewed show up on BookBrowse’s list of the top 20 books of the year, as voted for by the site’s readers. What’s more, Educated was voted their top nonfiction book of the year and Where the Crawdads Sing (below) their #1 debut novel. (The third on the list was Unsheltered.)
Beauty in the Broken Places by Allison Pataki: Ernest Hemingway wrote that we are strong at the broken places, and Allison Pataki found that to be true when her husband, David Levy, a third-year orthopedic surgery resident in Chicago, had a near-fatal stroke at age 30. On June 9, 2015, Dave and five-months-pregnant Allison were on a flight from Chicago to Hawaii for their babymoon, planning to stop in Seattle to visit Dave’s brothers. But they never made it there. On the plane Dave told her he couldn’t see out of his right eye.The plane made an emergency landing in Fargo, North Dakota and Dave was rushed to a hospital for testing. Doctors found he had suffered a bithalamic midbrain ischemic stroke, even though he’d had no risk factors and this stroke type was virtually unknown in patients of his age. Pataki goes back and forth between the details of this health crisis and her past with Dave. Hers is a relatable story of surviving the worst life can throw at you and finding the beauty in it.
Sick by Porochista Khakpour: Khakpour can’t remember a time when she didn’t feel unwell and like she wanted to escape. “I had no idea what normal was. I never felt good,” she writes in her bracing memoir. Related to this sense of not being at home in her body was the feeling of not having a place where she fit in. Throughout Sick, she gives excellent descriptions of physical and mental symptoms. Her story is a powerful one of being mired in sickness and not getting the necessary help from medical professionals. Lyme disease has cost her $140,000 so far, and a lack of money and health insurance likely delayed her diagnosis by years. There is, unfortunately, some inherent repetition in a book of this nature. At times it feels like an endless cycle of doctors, appointments, and treatment strategies. However, the overall arc of struggling with one’s body and coming to terms with limitations will resonate widely.
Southernmost by Silas House: In Silas House’s sixth novel, a Tennessee preacher’s family life falls apart when he accepts a gay couple into his church. We go on a long journey in Southernmost: not just a literal road trip from Tennessee to Florida, but also a spiritual passage from judgment to grace. Reconciliation is a major theme, but so is facing up to the consequences of poor decisions. I found the plotting decisions rewarding but also realistic. The pattern of a narrow religious worldview ebbing away to no faith at all and eventually surging back as a broader and more universal spirituality truly resonates. I loved House’s characters and setups, as well as his gentle evocation of the South. His striking metaphors draw on the natural world, like “She had the coloring of a whip-poor-will” and “The sky is the pink of grapefruit meat.” It’s a beautiful, quietly moving novel of redemption and openness to what life might teach us.
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: Kingsolver’s bold eighth novel has a dual timeline that compares the America of the 1870s and the recent past, revealing how they are linked by distrust and displacement. The book’s themes and structure emphasize similarities between two time periods that might initially appear very different. Chapters alternate between the story lines, and the last words of one chapter form the title of the next. It’s a clever and elegant connecting strategy, as is the habit of using variations on the title word as frequently as possible – something Jonathan Franzen also does in his novels. (I counted 22 instances of “shelter” and its variants in the text; how many can you spot?) Kingsolver can be heavy-handed with her messages about science, American politics and healthcare, etc. All the same, Unsheltered is a rich, rewarding novel and an important one for our time, with many issues worth pondering and discussing.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens: It’s easy to see why so many have taken this debut novel into their hearts: it’s a gripping mystery but also a tender coming-of-age story about one woman’s desperately lonely upbringing and her rocky route to finding love and a vocation. Not only that, but its North Carolina marsh setting is described in lyrical language that evinces Delia Owens’s background in nature writing, tempered with folksy Southern dialect. The title refers to places where wild creatures do what comes naturally, and throughout the book we are invited to ponder how instinct and altruism interact and what impact human actions can have in the grand scheme of things. In Kya, Owens has created a truly outstanding character. The extremity of her situation makes her a sympathetic figure in spite of her oddities. Crawdads is a real treat.
Shiny New Books
Under the Rock by Benjamin Myers: When Myers moved to the Calder Valley of West Yorkshire from London over a decade ago, he approached his new patch with admirable curiosity, and supplemented the observations he made from his study window with frequent long walks with his dog (“Walking is writing with your feet”) and research into the history of the area. The result is a divagating, lyrical book that ranges from literature and geology to true crime but has an underlying autobiographical vein. This isn’t old-style nature writing in search of unspoiled places. Instead, it’s part of a growing interest in the ‘edgelands’ where human impact is undeniable but nature is creeping back in. Interludes transcribe his field notes, which are stunning impromptu poems. I came away from this feeling that Myers could write anything – a thank-you note, a shopping list – and make it profound literature. Every sentence is well-crafted and memorable. “Writing is a form of alchemy,” he declares. “It’s a spell, and the writer is the magician.” I certainly fell under his spell here.
Nine Pints by Rose George: Nine Pints dives deep into the science and cultural history of blood. George’s journalistic tenacity keeps her pushing through the statistics to find the human stories that animate the book. In the first chapter we track the journey of a pint of blood that she donates in her hometown of Leeds. I was particularly interested, if morbidly so, in the chapter on leeches and bloodletting. Other sections journey further afield, chiefly to South Africa and India, to explore AIDS and menstruation taboos. The style can be choppy and repetitive, given to short sentences and identical paragraph openers, and there are a couple of places where the nine-chapter structure shows its weaknesses. While Nine Pints is quite uneven, it does convey a lot of important information about the past, present and future of our relationship to blood.
Times Literary Supplement
Face to Face: True stories of life, death and transformation from my career as a facial surgeon by Jim McCaul: Eighty percent of a facial surgeon’s work is the removal of face, mouth and neck tumors in surgeries lasting eight hours or more. McCaul also restores patients’ appearance as much as possible after disfiguring accidents. Here he pulls back the curtain on the everyday details of his work life: everything from his footwear (white Crocs that soon become stained with blood and other fluids) to his musical choices (pop for the early phases; classical for the more challenging microsurgery stage). Like neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, he describes the awe of the first incision – “an almost overwhelming sense of entering into a sanctuary.” There’s a vicarious thrill to being let into this insider zone, and the book’s prose is perfectly clear and conversational, with unexpectedly apt metaphors such as “Sometimes the blood vessels can be of such poor quality that it is like trying to sew together two damp cornflakes.” This is a book that inspires wonder at all that modern medicine can achieve.
On Sheep: Diary of a Swedish Shepherd by Axel Lindén: Lindén left city life behind to take on his parents’ rural collective in southeast Sweden. This documents two years in his life as a shepherd aspiring to self-sufficiency and a small-scale model of food production. Published diaries can devolve into tedium, but the brevity and selectiveness of this one prevent its accounts of everyday tasks from becoming tiresome. Instead, the rural routines are comforting, even humbling, as the shepherd practices being present with these “quiet and unpretentious and stoical” creatures. The attention paid to slaughtering and sustainability issues – especially as the business starts scaling up and streamlining activities – lends the book a wider significance. It is thus more realistic and less twee than its stocking-stuffer dimensions and jolly title font seem to suggest.