I think I have another seven April releases on the go that kind publishers have sent my way, but I’m so slow at finishing books that these two are the only ones I’ve managed so far. (I see lots of review catch-up posts in my future!) For now I have a travel memoir musing on the wonders of the New Forest and the injustice of land ownership policies, and a casebook of medical mysteries that can all be classed as culturally determined psychosomatic illnesses.
The Circling Sky: On Nature and Belonging in an Ancient Forest by Neil Ansell
After The Last Wilderness and especially Deep Country, his account of five solitary years in a Welsh cabin, Ansell is among my most-admired British nature writers. I was delighted to learn that his new book would be about the New Forest as it’s a place my Hampshire-raised husband and I have visited often and feel fond of. It has personal significance for Ansell, too: he grew up a few miles from Portsmouth. On Remembrance Sunday 1966, though, his family home burned down when a spark from a central heating wire sent the insulation up in flames. He can see how his life was shaped by this incident, making him a nomad who doesn’t accumulate possessions.
Hoping to reclaim a sense of ancestral connection, he returned to the New Forest some 30 times between January 2019 and January 2020, observing the unfolding seasons and the many uncommon and endemic species its miles house. The Forest has more than 1000 trees of over 400 years old, mostly oak and beech. Much of the rest is rare heath habitat, and livestock grazing maintains open areas. There are some plants only found in the New Forest, as well as a (probably extinct) cicada. He has close encounters with butterflies, a muntjac, and less-seen birds like the Dartford warbler, firecrest, goshawk, honey buzzard, and nightjar.
But this is no mere ‘white man goes for a walk’ travelogue, as much of modern nature writing has been belittled. Ansell weaves many different themes into the work: his personal story (mostly relevant, though his mother’s illness and a trip to Rwanda seemed less necessary), the shocking history of forced Gypsy relocation into forest compounds starting in the 1920s, biomass decline, and especially the unfairness of land ownership in Britain. More than 99% of the country is in the hands of a very few, and hardly any is left as common land. There is also enduring inequality of access to what little there is, often along race and class lines. The have-nots have been taught to envy the haves: “We are all brought up to aspire to home ownership,” Ansell notes. As a long-term renter, it’s a goal I’ve come to question, even as I crave the security and self-determination that owning a house and piece of land could offer.
Ansell speaks of “environmental dread” as a “rational response to the way the world is turning,” but he doesn’t rest in that mindset of despair. He’s in favour of rewilding, which is not, as some might assume, about leaving land alone to revert to its original state, but about the reintroduction of native species and intentional restoration of habitat types. In extending these rewilded swathes, we would combat the tendency to think of nature as something kept ‘over there’ in small reserves while subjecting the rest of the land to intensive, pesticide-based farming and the exploitation of resources. The New Forest thus strikes him as an excellent model of both wildlife-friendly land management and freedom of human access.
I appreciated how Ansell concludes that it’s not enough to simply love nature and write about the joy of spending time in it. Instead, he accepts a mantle of responsibility: “nothing is more political than the way we engage with the world around us. … Nature writing may often be read for comfort and reassurance, but perhaps we need to allow a little room for anger, too, for the ability to rage at everything that has been taken from us, and taken by us.” The bibliography couldn’t be more representative of my ecologist husband’s and my reading interests and nature library. The title is from John Clare and the book is a poetic meditation as well as a forthright argument. It also got me hankering for my next trip to the New Forest.
With thanks to Tinder Press for the proof copy for review.
The Sleeping Beauties: And Other Stories of Mystery Illness by Suzanne O’Sullivan
O’Sullivan is a consultant at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery. She won the Wellcome Book Prize for It’s All in Your Head, and The Sleeping Beauties picks up on that earlier book’s theme of psychosomatic illness – with the key difference being that this one travels around the world to investigate outbreaks of mass hysteria or sickness that have arisen in particular cultural contexts. An important thing to bear in mind is that O’Sullivan and other doctors in her field are not dismissing these illnesses as “fake”; they acknowledge that they are real and meaningful, yet there is clear evidence that they are not physical in origin – brain tests come back normal – but psychological with bodily manifestations.
The case that gives the book its title appeared in Sweden in 2017. Child asylum seekers who had experienced trauma in their home country were falling into a catatonic state. O’Sullivan visited the home of sisters Nola and Helan, part of the Yazidi ethnic minority group from Iraq and Syria. The link between them and the other children affected was that they were all now threatened with deportation: Their hopelessness had taken on physical form, giving the illness the name resignation syndrome. “Predictive coding” meant their bodies did as they expected them to. She describes it as “a very effective culturally agreed means of expressing distress.”
In Texas, the author meets Miskito people from Nicaragua who combat the convulsions and hallucinations of “grisi siknis” in their community with herbs and prayers; shamans are of more use in this circumstance than antiepileptic drugs. A sleeping sickness tore through two neighbouring towns of Kazakhstan between 2010 and 2015, affecting nearly half of the population. As with the refugee children in Sweden, it was a stress response to being forced to move away – though people argued they were being poisoned by a local uranium mine. There is often a specific external factor that is blamed in these situations, as when mass hysteria and seizures among Colombian schoolgirls were attributed to the HPV vaccine.
This book was released on the 1st of April, and at times I felt I was the victim of an elaborate April Fool’s joke: the cases are just so bizarre, and we’re used to rooting out a physical cause. But she makes clear that, in a biopsychosocial understanding (as also discussed in Pain by Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen), these illnesses are serving “a vital purpose” – just psychological and cultural. The first three chapters are the strongest; the book feels repetitive and somewhat aimless thereafter, especially in Chapter 4, which hops between different historical outbreaks of psychosomatic illness, like among the Hmong (cf. Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down), and other patients she treated for functional disorders. The later example of “Havana syndrome” doesn’t add enough to warrant its inclusion.
Still, O’Sullivan does well to combine her interviews and travels into compelling mini-narratives. Her writing has really come on in leaps and bounds since her first book, which I found clunky. However, much my favourite of her three works is Brainstorm, about epilepsy and other seizure disorders of various origins.
With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.
What recent releases can you recommend?
My Best Discoveries of the Year: Neil Ansell, James Baldwin, Janet Frame, Rohinton Mistry, Blake Morrison, Dani Shapiro, Sarah Vowell; Roald Dahl’s work for adults
The Author I Read the Most By: Anne Tyler (four novels)
My Proudest Reading Achievement: Getting through a whole Rachel Cusk book (it was my third attempt to read her).
The 2018 Books Everybody Else Loved but I Didn’t: Melmoth by Sarah Perry and Normal People by Sally Rooney
The Year’s Biggest Disappointments: The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa and Sabrina by Nick Drnaso
The Funniest Books I Read This Year: Fox 8 by George Saunders and Calypso by David Sedaris
Books that Made Me Cry: Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller and The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke
The Downright Strangest Books I Read This Year: The Bus on Thursday by Sheila Barrett, The Pisces by Melissa Broder and I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
The Debut Authors Whose Next Work I’m Most Looking Forward To: Julie Buntin, Lisa Ko and R.O. Kwon
The Best First Line of the Year: “Dust and ashes though I am, I sleep the sleep of angels.” (from The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey)
Some Early 2019 Recommendations
(in release date order)
Book Love by Debbie Tung: Bookworms will get a real kick out of these cartoons, which capture everyday moments in the life of a book-obsessed young woman (perpetually in hoodie and ponytail). She reads anything, anytime, anywhere. Even though she has piles of books staring her in the face everywhere she looks, she can never resist a trip to the bookstore or library. The very idea of culling her books or finding herself short of reading material makes her panic, and she makes a friend sign a written agreement before he can borrow one of her books. Her partner and friends think she’s batty, but she doesn’t care. I found the content a little bit repetitive and the drawing style not particularly distinguished, but Tung gets the bibliophile’s psyche just right. (Out January 1.)
When Death Becomes Life: Notes from a Transplant Surgeon by Joshua D. Mezrich: In this debut memoir a surgeon surveys the history of organ transplantation, recalling his own medical education and the special patients he’s met along the way. In the 1940s and 1950s patient after patient was lost to rejection of the transplanted organ, post-surgery infection, or hemorrhaging. Mezrich marvels at how few decades passed between transplantation seeming like something out of a science-fiction future and becoming a commonplace procedure. His aim is to never lose his sense of wonder at the life-saving possibilities of organ donation, and he conveys that awe to readers through his descriptions of a typical procedure. One day I will likely need a donated kidney to save my life. How grateful I am to live at a time when this is a possibility. (Out January 15.)
Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro: Shapiro was used to strangers’ comments about her blond hair and blue eyes. How could it be that she was an Orthodox Jew? people wondered. It never occurred to her that there was any truth to these hurtful jokes. On a whim, in her fifties, she joined her husband in sending off a DNA test kit. It came back with alarming results. Within 36 hours of starting research into her origins, Shapiro had found her biological father, a sperm donor whom she calls Dr. Ben Walden, and in the year that followed, their families carefully built up a relationship. The whole experience was memoirist’s gold, for sure. This is a moving account of her emotional state as she pondered her identity and what her sense of family would be in the future. (Out January 15.)
Constellations: Reflections from Life by Sinéad Gleeson: Perfect for fans of I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell, this is a set of trenchant autobiographical essays about being in a female body, especially one wracked by pain. As a child Gleeson had arthritis that weakened her hip bones, and eventually she had to have a total hip replacement. She ranges from the seemingly trivial to life-and-death matters as she writes about hairstyles, blood types, pregnancy, the abortion debate in Ireland and having a rare type of leukemia. In the tradition of Virginia Woolf, Frida Kahlo and Susan Sontag, Gleeson turns pain into art, particularly in a set of 20 poems based on the McGill Pain Index. The book feels timely and is inventive in how it brings together disparate topics to explore the possibilities and limitations of women’s bodies. (Out April 4.)
The Hot Young Widows Club: Lessons on Survival from the Front Lines of Grief by Nora McInerny: In June 2016 I read It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too), McInerny’s memoir about losing her father and her husband to cancer and her second child to a miscarriage – all within a few weeks – when she was 31. In this short book, an expansion of her TED talk, she argues that we are all incompetent when it comes to grief. There’s no rule book for how to do it well or how to help other people who are experiencing a bereavement, and comparing one loss to another doesn’t help anyone. I especially appreciated her rundown of the difference between pity and true empathy. “Pity keeps our hearts closed up, locked away. Empathy opens our heart up to the possibility that the pain of others could one day be our own pain.” (Out April 30.)
Coming tomorrow: Library Checkout & Final statistics for the year
Have you read any 2019 releases you can recommend?
These are in chronological order by my reading.
- borborygmi = stomach rumblings caused by the movement of fluid and gas in the intestines
- crapula = sickness caused by excessive eating and drinking
- olm = a cave-dwelling aquatic salamander
~The Year of the Hare, Arto Paasilinna
- befurbelowed = ornamented with frills (the use seems to be peculiar to this book, as it is the example in every online dictionary!)
~The Awakening, Kate Chopin
- roding = the sound produced during the mating display of snipe and woodcock, also known as drumming
- peat hag = eroded ground from which peat has been cut
~Deep Country, Neil Ansell
- rallentando = a gradual decrease in speed
~Sight, Jessie Greengrass
- piceous = resembling pitch
~March, Geraldine Brooks
- soffit = the underside of eaves or an arch, balcony, etc.
~The Only Story, Julian Barnes
- lemniscate = the infinity symbol, here used as a metaphor for the pattern of pipe smoke
~The Invisible Bridge, Julie Orringer
- purfling = a decorative border
- lamingtons = sponge cake squares coated in chocolate and desiccated coconut (sounds yummy!)
~The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, Tracy Farr
- ocellated = having eye-shaped markings
~Red Clocks, Leni Zumas
- balloonatic (WWI slang) = a ballooning enthusiast
- skinkling = sparkling
- preludial = introductory
- claustral = confining
- baccalà = salted cod
~The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon
(There were so many words I didn’t immediately recognize in this novel that I thought Kwon must have made them up; preludial and claustral, especially, are words I didn’t know existed but that one might have extrapolated from their noun forms.)
- bronies = middle-aged male fans of My Little Pony (wow, who knew this was a thing?! I feel like I’ve gone down a rabbit hole just by Googling it.)
- callipygian = having well-shaped buttocks
~Gross Anatomy, Mara Altman
- syce = someone who looks after horses; a groom (especially in India; though here it was Kenya)
- riem = a strip of rawhide or leather
- pastern = a horse’s ankle equivalent
~West with the Night, Beryl Markham
- blintering = flickering, glimmering (Scottish)
- sillion = shiny soil turned over by a plow
~The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal, Horatio Clare
- whiffet = a small, young or unimportant person
~Ladder of Years, Anne Tyler
- trilliant = a triangular gemstone cut
- cabochon = a gemstone that’s polished but not faceted
- blirt = a gust of wind and rain (but here used as a verb: “Coldness blirted over her”)
- contumacious = stubbornly disobedient
~Four Bare Legs in a Bed, Helen Simpson
- xeric = very dry (usually describes a habitat, but used here for a person’s manner)
~Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver
- twitten = a narrow passage between two walls or hedges (Sussex dialect – Marshall is based near Brighton)
~The Power of Dog, Andrew Marshall
- swither (Scottish) = to be uncertain as to which course of action to take
- strathspey = a dance tune, a slow reel
~Stargazing, Peter Hill
- citole = a medieval fiddle
- naker = a kettledrum
- amice = a liturgical vestment that resembles a cape
~The Western Wind, Samantha Harvey
- pareidolia = seeing faces in things, an evolutionary adaptation (check out @FacesPics on Twitter!)
~The Overstory, Richard Powers
Have you learned any new vocabulary words recently?
How likely am I to use any of these words in the next year?
Many travel books are about the quest for new, exotic places and the widest possible range of experiences; many nature books focus on the surprising quality and variety of life to be found by staying close to home. In that loose framework, Neil Ansell’s The Last Wilderness belongs on the nature shelf rather than the travel section: here he’s all about developing his knowledge of a particular place, the Northwest Highlands of Scotland, where he stays five times over the course of one year to give a panoramic view of the area in different non-touristy seasons.
Ansell’s visits have the flavor of a pilgrimage: his wonder at the region’s sights and sounds, and particularly at the creatures he encounters, is akin to what one would experience in the presence of the holy; he also writes about wildlife as if it is a relic of a fast-vanishing world. “It is that exploratory desire to possess the wilds for ourselves that has resulted in their disappearance,” he notes. A true wilderness is unvisited, and true solitude is hard to experience “if the world is only a click away.”
Depicted against this backdrop of environmental damage are the author’s personal losses: a heart problem and progressive hearing loss mean that the world is narrowing in for him. He mourns each sign of diminishment, such as the meadow pipits whose call he can no longer hear. Depth of experience is replacing breadth for him, though flashbacks to his intrepid world travels – an African safari, hitchhiking in Australia, time in Sweden and Costa Rica – show that he has tried both approaches. There’s a good balance here between adventuring and the comfort of an increasingly familiar place.
Like “a tale told round a campfire,” Ansell’s is a meandering and slightly melancholy story that draws you in. If The Last Wilderness suffers, it’s mostly in comparison with his Deep Country (2011), one of the most memorable nature/travel books I’ve ever read, a modern-day Walden about his five years living in a cottage in the Welsh hills. Solitude and survival are more powerful themes there, though they echo here too. Once again, he writes of magical encounters with wildlife and gives philosophical reflections on the nature of the self. I can highly recommend Neil Ansell’s books to anyone who enjoys nature and travel writing.
The Last Wilderness: A Journey into Silence will be published by Tinder Press on February 8th. My thanks to Becky Hunter for the review copy.