Four February–April releases: A quiet novel about the clash of religion and reason; a birdwatching odyssey in London; a folktale-inspired story of the undead descending on an Indian medical clinic; and a layman’s introduction to fetal development – you can’t say I don’t read a wide variety of books! See if any of these tempt you.
Little Faith by Nickolas Butler
Butler follows in Kent Haruf’s footsteps with this quiet story of ordinary Midwesterners facing a series of small crises. Lyle Hovde works at a local Wisconsin orchard but is more interested in spending time with Isaac, his five-year-old grandson. Lyle has been an atheist since he and Peg lost a child in infancy, making it all the more ironic that their adopted daughter, Shiloh, has recently turned extremely religious. She attends a large non-denominational church that meets in an old movie theatre and is engaged to Pastor Steven*, whose hardline opinions are at odds with his hipster persona.
Steven and Shiloh believe Isaac has a healing gift – perhaps he can even help Lyle’s old pal, Hoot, who’s just been diagnosed with advanced cancer? The main story line reminded me most of Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves (health and superstition collide) and Carolyn Parkhurst’s Harmony (the dangers of a charismatic leader). It’s all well and good to have faith in supernatural healing, but not if it means rejecting traditional medicine.
This is the epitome of a slow burner, though: things don’t really heat up until the final 35 pages, and there were a few chapters that could have been cut altogether. The female characters struck me as underdeveloped, but I did have a genuine warm feeling for Lyle. There are some memorable scenes, like Lyle’s heroic effort to save the orchard from an ice storm – a symbolic act that’s more about his desperation to save his grandson from toxic religion. But mostly this is a book to appreciate for the slow, predictable rhythms of a small-town life lived by the seasons.
[*So funny because that’s my brother-in-law’s name! I’ve also visited a Maryland church that meets in a former movie theatre. I was a part of somewhat extreme churches and youth groups in my growing-up years, but luckily nowhere that would have advocated foregoing traditional medicine in favor of faith healing. There were a few false notes here that told me Butler was writing about a world he wasn’t familiar with.]
A favorite passage:
“‘Silent Night’ in a darkened country chapel was, to Lyle, more powerful than any atomic bomb. He was incapable of singing it without feeling his eyes go misty, without feeling that his voice was but one link in a chain of voices connected over the generations and centuries, that line we sometimes call family. Or memory itself.”
With thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy for review.
The Parakeeting of London: An Adventure in Gonzo Ornithology by Nick Hunt
Rose-ringed parakeets were first recorded in London in the 1890s, but only in the last couple of decades have they started to seem ubiquitous. I remember seeing them clustered in treetops and flying overhead in various Surrey, Kent and Berkshire suburbs we’ve lived in. They’re even more noticeable in London’s parks and cemeteries. “When did they become as established as beards and artisan coffee?” Nick Hunt wonders about his home in Hackney. He and photographer Tim Mitchell set out to canvass public opinion about London’s parakeets and look into conspiracy theories about how they escaped (Henry VIII and Jimi Hendrix are rumored to have released them; the set of The African Queen is another purported origin) and became so successful an invasive species.
A surprising cross section of the population is aware of the birds, and opinionated about them. Language of “immigrants” versus “natives” comes up frequently in the interviews, providing an uncomfortable parallel to xenophobic reactions towards human movement – “people had a tendency to conflate the avian with the human, turning the ornithological into the political. Invading, colonizing, taking over.” This is a pleasant little book any Londoner or British birdwatcher in general would appreciate.
With thanks to Paradise Road for the free copy for review.
Night Theatre by Vikram Paralkar
This short novel has an irresistible (cover and) setup: late one evening a surgeon in a rural Indian clinic gets a visit from a family of three: a teacher, his pregnant wife and their eight-year-old son. But there’s something different about this trio: they’re dead. They each bear hideous stab wounds from being set upon by bandits while walking home late from a fair. In the afterlife, an angel reluctantly granted them a second chance at life. If the surgeon can repair their gashes before daybreak, and as long as they stay within the village boundaries, their bodies will be revivified at dawn.
Paralkar draws on dreams, folktales and superstition, and the descriptions of medical procedures are vivid, as you would expect given the author’s work as a research physician at the University of Pennsylvania. The double meaning of the word “theatre” in the title encompasses the operating theatre and the dramatic spectacle that is taking place in this clinic. But somehow I never got invested in any of these characters and what might happen to them; the précis is more exciting than the narrative as a whole.
A favorite passage:
“Apart from the whispering of the dead in the corridor, the silence was almost deliberate – as if the crickets had been bribed and the dogs strangled. The village at the base of the hillock was perfectly still, its houses like polyps erupting from the soil. The rising moon had dusted them all with white talc. They appeared to have receded in the hours after sunset, abandoning the clinic to its unnatural deeds.”
With thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the free copy for review.
The Making of You: A Journey from Cell to Human by Katharina Vestre
A sprightly layman’s guide to genetics and embryology, written by Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oslo Department of Biosciences. Addressed in the second person, as the title suggests, the book traces your development from the sperm Leeuwenhoek studied under a microscope up to labor and delivery. Vestre looks at all the major organs and the five senses and discusses what can go wrong along with the normal quirks of the body.
I learned all kinds of bizarre facts. For instance, did you know that sperm have a sense of smell? And that until the 1960s pregnancy tests involved the death of a mouse or rabbit? Who knew that babies can remember flavors and sounds experienced in utero?
Vestre compares human development with other creatures’, including fruit flies (with whom we share half of our DNA), fish and alligators (which have various ways of determining gender), and other primates (why is it that they stay covered in fur and we don’t?). The charming style is aimed at the curious reader; I rarely felt that things were being dumbed down. Most chapters open with a fetal illustration by the author’s sister. I’m passing this on to a pregnant friend who will enjoy marveling at everything that’s happening inside her.
A representative passage:
“This may not sound terribly impressive; I promised you dramatic changes, and all that’s happened is that a round plate has become a triple-decker cell sandwich. But you’re already infinitely more interesting than the raspberry you were a short while ago. These cells are no longer confused, needy newcomers with no idea where they are or what they’re supposed to do. They have completed a rough division of labour. The cells on the top layer will form, among other things, skin, hair, nails, eye lenses, nerves and your brain. From the bottom layer you’ll get intestines, liver, trachea and lungs. And the middle layer will become your bones, muscles, heart and blood vessels.”
With thanks to Wellcome Collection/Profile Books for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
I had a pleasant birthday weekend: a five-mile country walk with some foraging of sloes, reading in the armchair with the cat, catching up with Poldark on DVD, and a three-course Italian feast my husband made from a River Café cookbook (plus a homemade Sachertorte). And I got 11 secondhand books for my birthday, if you were wondering!
We also attended a couple of Hungerford Literary Festival events. This year the theme was “Journeys,” so all of the featured books and authors were broadly travel-related Alas, the talk we were meant to attend on Saturday by Sunday Times writer Jonathan Dean, based on I Must Belong Somewhere, his memoir about researching his family’s European history, was cancelled due to insufficient ticket sales – we felt so sorry for the poor author!
However, on Sunday my husband saw Nick Hunt speak about his recent travelogue on famous European winds such as the mistral, and I saw Simon Fenwick in conversation with journalist Elinor Goodman about his new biography of Joan Leigh Fermor, the wife of celebrated travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor (whom Fenwick and Goodman consistently called Paddy).
Fenwick considers Joan an enigmatic figure; although she could be quite a bitch, she also brought out the best in certain people, including Paddy. From a wealthy Yorkshire wool merchant family, she met golden writers like John Betjeman at bohemian parties. Although she was a fairly successful photographer – there will be a major exhibition of her work in London next year – she cast herself in a supporting role, as was traditional for the time: she would say that her career was all about helping Paddy in his, financially as well as morally. (I could just imagine what a novel about her would be called: The Travel Writer’s Wife.)
Although Fenwick believes Joan is a worthy biographical subject in her own right, her relationship with Paddy dominated the talk. When the couple met in Egypt in 1944, he was famous for having kidnapped a Nazi general, a stunt of debatable military benefit though it was certainly great for publicity. Women flocked to the handsome Paddy: he was carrying on two affairs at this time, and his one lover got pregnant and had an abortion.Though they didn’t marry until 1968, by which time they were settled in their home in Kardamyli, Greece, Joan and Paddy were an item for all the intervening years. Theirs was an open relationship, though; they even shared a lover, Alan Pryce-Jones. (Hoping I heard this correctly and am not just making a wild claim!) “NO GUILT” was one of Paddy’s mottoes. The travel writer’s life entailed long separations: Fenwick estimates that during the 1950s, Paddy didn’t stay put anywhere for more than two months at a time, but Joan served as “his psychological home.” Perhaps this practicality explains why the Fermors never had children: Paddy was simply hardly ever home. Or perhaps Joan was infertile, given that Paddy and Joan’s previous husband, John Rayner, both impregnated other women.
Joan was known as a wonderful cook and entertainer. In Greece they had a rotating cast of guests, and people would frequently just turn up uninvited. From afar the house looks like an ancient monastery, Fenwick said, though it’s now surrounded by modern buildings. Much of it is one huge room that serves as library, living room and dining room, with a corridor leading to the outside. In Joan’s time there were cats galore. Fenwick remembers the strong smell of jasmine the first time he walked through the archway into the courtyard.Fenwick’s route into this project was somewhat unusual: he’s an archivist by trade and has spent decades of his life reading other people’s letters. He was invited to archive the papers in Fermor’s writing studio after the author’s death in 2011. The material was in chaotic files, but eventually he organized some 19 boxes of records to send back to the UK; they are now held in the National Library of Scotland. He wrote an article for the Times Literary Supplement about the experience, and from there one thing led to another. He never met either Paddy or Joan, who died in 2003, while Fermor’s biographer, Artemis Cooper, did meet him.
Although Fenwick did not wish to comment on another biographer’s work, he noted that in comparison to Cooper’s his is perhaps a bit of a new view on Paddy, a “not wholly heroic but fascinating” figure, flawed “on a grand scale.” Fenwick was impressed by “his pure energy – in his writing and in everything he did.” While Paddy must have been exhausting to live with, Fenwick believes he and Joan recognized in each other a similar approach to life.
As a speaker Fenwick wasn’t particularly engaging: even with a microphone he seemed to mutter, and left awkward gaps before answering. Is it fair that his dull manner made me wonder whether his book would be worth reading? Not all authors can be charismatic in person, I’m sure; I would definitely struggle with public speaking if I ever had to go on a book tour. But I do wish he had perhaps read a section from his book so I could have gotten a sense of the style. I think Joan’s life is interesting enough that I will still read her biography someday, but perhaps only after I’ve read more of Paddy’s travel books and the Cooper biography, which I own in paperback.