Below I’ve chosen my top 15 nonfiction releases of 2021. This list plus yesterday’s post on fiction and poetry together represent about the top 10% of my year’s reading. In previous years I’ve assigned rankings within best-of lists, but this time I didn’t feel compelled to do so.
The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell: Hoping to reclaim an ancestral connection, Ansell visited 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. He weaves together his personal story, the shocking history of forced Gypsy relocation into forest compounds starting in the 1920s, and the unfairness of land ownership in Britain. The New Forest is a model of both wildlife-friendly land management and freedom of human access.
On Gallows Down: Place, Protest and Belonging by Nicola Chester: So many layers of history mingle here: from the English Civil War onward, Newbury has been a locus of resistance for centuries. A hymn-like memoir of place as much as of one person’s life, this posits that quiet moments of connection with nature and the rights of ordinary people are worth fighting for. I particularly loved a chapter about how she grounds herself via the literature of the area. She continues a hopeful activist, her lyrical writing a means of defiance.
The Glitter in the Green: In Search of Hummingbirds by Jon Dunn: A wildlife writer and photographer, Dunn travels the length of the Americas, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, to see as many hummingbirds as he can. He provides a thorough survey of the history, science and cultural relevance of this most jewel-like of bird families. He is equally good at describing birds and their habitats and at constructing a charming travelogue out of his sometimes fraught journeys. Passionate and adventurous.
The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart: Engelhart spends time with doctors and patients who are caught up in the assisted dying argument, chiefly in Western Europe and the United States. Each case is given its own long chapter, like an extended magazine profile. The stories are wrenching, but compassionately told. The author explores the nuances of each situation, crafting expert portraits of suffering people and the medical professionals who seek to help them, and adding much in the way of valuable context. A voice of reason and empathy.
Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn: Flyn travels to neglected and derelict places, looking for the traces of human impact and noting how landscapes restore themselves – how life goes on without us. Places like a wasteland where there was once mining, nuclear exclusion zones, the depopulated city of Detroit, and areas that have been altered by natural disasters and conflict. The writing is literary and evocative, at times reminiscent of Peter Matthiessen’s. It’s a nature/travel book with a difference, and the poetic eye helps you to see things anew.
The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster: A Renaissance man as well versed in law and theology as he is in natural history, Foster is obsessed with swifts and ashamed of his own species: for looking down at their feet when they could be watching the skies; for the “pathological tidiness” that leaves birds and other creatures no place to live. He delivers heaps of information on the birds but refuses to stick to a just-the-facts approach. The book quotes frequently from poetry and the prose is full of sharp turns of phrase and whimsy.
Intensive Care by Gavin Francis: Francis, an Edinburgh physician, reflects on “the most intense months I have known in my twenty-year career.” He journeys back through 2020, from the January day when he received a bulletin about a “novel Wuhan coronavirus” to November, when he learned of promising vaccine trials but also a rumored third wave and winter lockdown. An absorbing first-hand account of a medical crisis, it compassionately bridges the gap between experts and laymen. The best Covid chronicle so far.
A Still Life by Josie George: Over a year of lockdowns, many of us became accustomed to spending most of the time at home. But for Josie George, social isolation is nothing new. Chronic illness long ago reduced her territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto George’s quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons. (Reviewed for the TLS.)
The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a human-centered planet by John Green: In essays of about 5–10 pages, Green takes a phenomenon experienced in the modern age, whether miraculous (sunsets, the Lascaux cave paintings, favourite films or songs), regrettable (Staph infections, CNN, our obsession with grass lawns), or just plain weird, and riffs on it, exploring its backstory, cultural manifestations and personal resonance. I found a lot that rang true and a lot that made me laugh, and admired the openness on mental health.
The Book of Difficult Fruit: Arguments for the Tart, Tender, and Unruly by Kate Lebo: I have a soft spot for uncategorizable nonfiction. My expectation was for a food memoir, but while the essays incorporate shards of autobiography and, yes, recipes, they also dive into everything from botany and cultural history to medicinal uses. Occasionally the ‘recipes’ are for non-food items. Health is a recurring element that intersects with eating habits. The A-to-Z format required some creativity and occasions great trivia but also poignant stories.
A Braided Heart: Essays on Writing and Form by Brenda Miller: Miller, a professor of creati.ve writing, delivers a master class on the composition and appreciation of autobiographical essays. In 18 concise pieces, she tracks her development as a writer and discusses the “lyric essay”—a form as old as Seneca that prioritizes imagery over narrative. These innovative and introspective essays, ideal for fans of Anne Fadiman, showcase the interplay of structure and content. (Reviewed for Shelf Awareness.)
Flesh & Blood: Reflections on Infertility, Family, and Creating a Bountiful Life: A Memoir by N. West Moss: In her 50s, Moss needed an exploratory D&C, a cruel flashback to failed pregnancies of her 40s. Soon she faced a total hysterectomy. Here she tenderly traces the before and after of surgery and how she came to terms with childlessness. While she doesn’t shy away from medical details, Moss delves more into emotional effects. The few-page chapters are warm slices of life. She leavens her losses with a sense of humour. (Reviewed for Shelf Awareness.)
These Precious Days: Essays by Ann Patchett: This second collection of thoughtful, sincere autobiographical essays has a melancholy bent – the preoccupation with death and drive to simplify life seem appropriate for Covid times – but also looks back at her young adulthood and key relationships. The long title piece, first published in Harper’s, is about her stranger-than-fiction friendship with Tom Hanks’s assistant; “There Are No Children Here” says everything I’d ever like to say or hear about childlessness. (Full review to come.)
Sanctuary by Emily Rapp Black: A continuation of The Still Point of the Turning World, about the author’s son Ronan, who died of Tay-Sachs disease at age three. In the months surrounding his death, she split from her husband and raced into another relationship that led to her daughter, Charlie. Rapp Black questions the sorts of words she got branded with: “brave,” “resilient.” Sanctuary is full of allusions and flashbacks, threading life’s disparate parts into a chaotic tapestry. It’s measured and wrought, taming fire into light and warmth.
Forecast: A Diary of the Lost Seasons by Joe Shute: Shute probes how the seasons are bound up with memories, conceding the danger of giving in to nostalgia for a gloried past that may never have existed. He provides hard evidence in the form of long-term observations such as temperature data and photo archives. The book deftly recreates its many scenes and conversations, and inserts statistics naturally. It also delicately weaves in a storyline about infertility. Wide-ranging and so relevant.
Hard to believe, but this past weekend was my seventh time attending the New Networks for Nature conference. It was held in Bath on this occasion, after a number of years in Stamford plus once each in Cambridge, York, and online (last year, of course). I happen to have written about it in most other years (2015, 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2020), and this year’s programme was so brilliant it would be a shame not to commemorate it. The weekend in Bath started off in a wonderful way: I was finally able to meet Susan of A life in books in person. We talked blogs and book prizes (and Covid and cats) over hot drinks by the Abbey square, and I even got her to sign my copy of her book, the Bloomsbury Essential Guide for Reading Groups.
As I’ve mentioned before, what makes New Networks for Nature special is the interdisciplinary approach: artists, poets, musicians, activists, academics and conservationists attend and speak. The audience, let alone the speakers’ roster, is a who’s who of familiar names and faces from the UK nature writing world. So although the event might seem geared more towards my ecologist husband, there’s always plenty to interest me, too. The conference planners make ongoing efforts to diversify the programme: this year there were several all-female panels and seven BIPOC appeared on stage. It was a hybrid event in two senses: people could live-stream from home if not comfortable attending in person, and a few speakers appeared on the screen from locations as far-flung as India and New Zealand.
I hadn’t had much time to peruse the programme before the conference began. Without exception, the sessions surpassed my expectations. The opening event on the Friday evening was, fittingly, about the question of inclusivity. Nicola Chester, author of On Gallows Down; Anita Roy, part of the Transition Town Wellington movement and co-editor of Gifts of Gravity and Light; and David Lindo, known as “The Urban Birder,” had a discussion with Seb Choudhury about access to ‘the countryside’, which they agreed is perhaps an unhelpful term that discourages people from going out and experiencing the wildlife on their doorstep.
Saturday opened with a panel on art and environmental awareness. Harriet Mead welds sculptures out of found objects, Rachel Taylor is a scientist who makes birds out of glass, and Sarah Gillespie is a landscape painter whose prints of moths are so lifelike you’d swear they’re photographs. Gillespie spoke for all of them when she said that attention breaks down the dualism between self and other, creating an exchange of energies, with the artist serving as the watchman. These observations appeared to hold true for nature writing as well.
Scientists and writers alike commented on plastics in the environment and species migration. Did you know that 500,000 tons of plastic food packaging is created in the UK per year? Or that dolphins form allyships and have a culture? In the afternoon we met three teenage climate activists who have been involved in school strikes, COP26 protests, and volunteering to cultivate green spaces. Their public speaking ability was phenomenal. A final session of the day was with Julian Hector, head of the BBC Natural History Unit. He showed clips from some of the most famous nature documentaries made during his tenure and polled the room about how they feel about the use of music for emotional manipulation.
Speaking of music, the highlight of the conference came about due to the unlikely friendship between Mary Colwell, writer and curlew conservation activist, and singer/songwriter David Gray, who met her after he donated to one of her campaigns and has since gone along on one of her fundraising walks, narrated and scored a short documentary on curlews (you can watch it here), and contributed a song to a forthcoming RSPB-funded album inspired by curlews. We had the absolute treat of attending his first public performance in over two years on the Saturday evening at St Swithin’s Church, a venue that holds perhaps 200 people – versus next year he’ll be filling 20,000-seat stadiums for his White Ladder 20th anniversary tour.
This was carefully billed as an evening in conversation with David Gray rather than a gig, but in the end we got seven songs performed live at the church piano, as opposed to the three originally planned, so I call that a win! Other song excerpts were played over the sound system: “Let the Truth Sting” from his ‘angry young man’ phase, “Accumulates” as an anti-consumerism screed, and “Gulls” (based on an obscure Belgian poem) and “The Sapling” to illustrate how nature imagery enters into his lyrics.
Raised in Pembrokeshire, Gray loved going out on a fishing boat with his neighbours and seeing the seabirds massing around Skomer Island. He said he doesn’t think he’s ever gotten over those childhood experiences, and now he welcomes every sighting of a barn owl near his home in Norfolk (and encouraged us all to start gluing ourselves to roads). One of the songs he performed was indeed “The White Owl,” from Skellig, released early this year. Subtler than some of his albums, it was mostly recorded in a live setup and is built around simple, almost chant-like repeats and harmonies. That incantatory beauty was evident on another song he played live, “No False Gods,” which I didn’t realize has at its core a line from a Nan Shepherd poem: “We are love’s body or we are undone.”
Gray finished the official programme with his unreleased curlew song, “The Arc,” but came back for an encore of “Birds of the High Arctic,” “All that We Asked For” and “Sail Away” – this last to great cheers of recognition. He couldn’t figure out how to finish it after the whistling so just gave a few last plinks and then a hearty laugh as he returned to the stage to answer questions. We were impressed with his eloquence, sense of humour and BIG voice, especially on “Ain’t No Love” (from what has been our favourite of his albums, 2005’s Life in Slow Motion) – I got the feeling he barely needed a microphone to fill the whole church.
Sunday morning opened, appropriately, with a panel on nature and spirituality, featuring Satish Kumar, an octogenarian peace pilgrim to nuclear sites; Jini Reddy, author of Wanderland; and Nick Mayhew-Smith, who’s travelled to places of Celtic spirituality around the British Isles, such as hermits’ caves. Kumar led us in a meditation on gratitude and belonging, and suggested that we are all connected, and all spiritual, because we all share the same breath. He described the world’s religions as many tributaries of the same river.
Perhaps my favourite session of all was on the role of nature in weird and Gothic literature. Authors Maggie Gee and Laura Jean McKay (both appearing via video link), and Ruth Padel, a New Networks stalwart, conversed with Bath Spa professor Richard Kerridge. Gee has been writing about climate change in her novels for nearly 40 years; she said the challenge is to make the language fresh again and connect with readers subliminally and emotionally, without preaching or lecturing. She called The Red Children, coming out in March, a future fairy tale, comic and hopeful, and read from the beginning, including a raven’s speech.
This connected with McKay’s The Animals in That Country, from which she read the passage where Jean realizes she can hear the lab mice talking to her. McKay said speculative fiction has been edging ever closer to reality in recent years; she recently realized she was reading Ling Ma’s zombie novel Severance as a guide to surviving the pandemic. In her opinion, novels are to open doors and ask questions – the opposite of what politicians do. Padel added that attention can be an antidote to eco-grief, with art a framework for creating resolution.
Longer sessions were punctuated with readings (from On Gallows Down and Samantha Walton’s Everybody Needs Beauty), performances (Merlyn Driver, who grew up without electricity and not going to school on Orkney, proposed the curlew album to the RSPB and played his song “Simmer Dim”) or short films – one on the plastic pollution encountered by a stand-up paddle boarder travelling the length of the Severn river and another on the regenerative farming a young couple are doing in Spain at Wild Finca.
The closest we came to a debate over the weekend was with the final session on ecotourism. Representing the pro side was Ian Redmond, who works with mountain gorillas in Rwanda. The $1500 fee that each group of tourists pays to be taken into the reserve goes directly to conserving their habitat. But to get there people burn carbon flying long distances, and Nick Acheson finds that unconscionable. After 20 years as a wildlife guide to the amazing animals of Madagascar and South America, he’s vowed never to fly again. He stays close to home in Norfolk and travels by bike. His statistics were arresting and his argumentation hard to counter. Think hard about your motivation, he challenged. If you truly want to help local people and wildlife, donate money instead. The white saviour mentality is a danger here, too.
Much food for thought, then, though always in the back of the mind is the knowledge that (as some speakers did say aloud) this event preaches to the choir. How to reach those who haven’t fallen in love with the natural world, or haven’t woken up to the climate crisis? Those questions remain, but each year we have NNN to recharge the batteries.
Next time the conference will be back to York for the first weekend of November, with a tagline of “Survive, Thrive, Revive.” I’m looking forward to it already!
Would any of the conference’s themes or events have interested you?
I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once (usually 20–30), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. I’ve realized that, of course, synchronicity is really the more apt word, but this branding has stuck. This used to be a quarterly feature, but to keep the lists from getting too unwieldy I’ve shifted to bimonthly.
The following are in roughly chronological order.
- Young people studying An Inspector Calls in Somebody Loves You by Mona Arshi and Heartstoppers, Volume 4 by Alice Oseman.
- China Room (Sunjeev Sahota) was immediately followed by The China Factory (Mary Costello).
- A mention of acorn production being connected to the weather earlier in the year in Light Rains Sometimes Fall by Lev Parikian and Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler.
- The experience of being lost and disoriented in Amsterdam features in Flesh & Blood by N. West Moss and Yearbook by Seth Rogen.
- Reading a book about ravens (A Shadow Above by Joe Shute) and one by a Raven (Fox & I by Catherine Raven) at the same time.
- Speaking of ravens, they’re also mentioned in The Elements by Kat Lister, and the Edgar Allan Poe poem “The Raven” was referred to and/or quoted in both of those books plus 100 Poets by John Carey.
- A trip to Mexico as a way to come to terms with the death of a loved one in This Party’s Dead by Erica Buist (read back in February–March) and The Elements by Kat Lister.
- Reading from two Carcanet Press releases that are Covid-19 diaries and have plague masks on the cover at the same time: Year of Plagues by Fred D’Aguiar and 100 Days by Gabriel Josipovici. (Reviews of both coming up soon.)
- Descriptions of whaling and whale processing and a summary of the Jonah and the Whale story in Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs and The Woodcock by Richard Smyth.
- An Irish short story featuring an elderly mother with dementia AND a particular mention of her slippers in The China Factory by Mary Costello and Blank Pages and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty.
- After having read two whole nature memoirs set in England’s New Forest (Goshawk Summer by James Aldred and The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell), I encountered it again in one chapter of A Shadow Above by Joe Shute.
- Cranford is mentioned in Corduroy by Adrian Bell and Cut Out by Michèle Roberts.
- Kenneth Grahame’s life story and The Wind in the Willows are discussed in On Gallows Down by Nicola Chester and The Elements by Kat Lister.
- Reading two books by a Jenn at the same time: Ghosted by Jenn Ashworth and The Other Mothers by Jenn Berney.
- A metaphor of nature giving a V sign (that’s equivalent to the middle finger for you American readers) in On Gallows Down by Nicola Chester and Light Rains Sometimes Fall by Lev Parikian.
- Quince preserves are mentioned in The Book of Difficult Fruit by Kate Lebo and Light Rains Sometimes Fall by Lev Parikian.
- There’s a gooseberry pie in Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore and The Book of Difficult Fruit by Kate Lebo.
- The ominous taste of herbicide in the throat post-spraying shows up in On Gallows Down by Nicola Chester and Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson.
- People’s rude questioning about gay dads and surrogacy turns up in The Echo Chamber by John Boyne and the DAD anthology from Music.Football.Fatherhood.
- A young woman dresses in unattractive secondhand clothes in The Echo Chamber by John Boyne and Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney.
- A mention of the bounty placed on crop-eating birds in medieval England in Orchard by Benedict Macdonald and Nicholas Gates and A Shadow Above by Joe Shute.
- Hedgerows being decimated, and an account of how mistletoe is spread, in On Gallows Down by Nicola Chester and Orchard by Benedict Macdonald and Nicholas Gates.
- Ukrainian secondary characters in Ghosted by Jenn Ashworth and The Echo Chamber by John Boyne; minor characters named Aidan in the Boyne and Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney.
- Listening to a dual-language presentation and observing that the people who know the original language laugh before the rest of the audience in The Book of Difficult Fruit by Kate Lebo and Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney.
- A character imagines his heart being taken out of his chest in Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica and The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki.
- A younger sister named Nina in Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore and Sex Cult Nun by Faith Jones.
- Adulatory words about George H.W. Bush in The Echo Chamber by John Boyne and Thinking Again by Jan Morris.
- Reading three novels by Australian women at the same time (and it’s rare for me to read even one – availability in the UK can be an issue): Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, The Performance by Claire Thomas, and The Weekend by Charlotte Wood.
- There’s a couple who met as family friends as teenagers and are still (on again, off again) together in Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason and Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney.
- The Performance by Claire Thomas is set during a performance of the Samuel Beckett play Happy Days, which is mentioned in 100 Days by Gabriel Josipovici.
- Human ashes are dumped and a funerary urn refilled with dirt in Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica and Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith.
- Nicholas Royle (whose White Spines I was also reading at the time) turns up on a Zoom session in 100 Days by Gabriel Josipovici.
- Richard Brautigan is mentioned in both The Mystery of Henri Pick by David Foenkinos and White Spines by Nicholas Royle.
- The Wizard of Oz and The Railway Children are part of the plot in The Book Smugglers (Pages & Co., #4) by Anna James and mentioned in Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
It’s mostly by accident that we came to live in Newbury: five years ago, when a previous landlord served us notice, we viewed a couple of rental houses in the area to compare with what was available in Reading and discovered that our money got us more that little bit further out from London. We’ve come to love this part of West Berkshire and the community we’ve found. It may not be flashy or particularly famous, but it has natural wonders worth celebrating and a rich history of rebellion that Nicola Chester plumbs in On Gallows Down. A hymn-like memoir of place as much as of one person’s life, her book posits that the quiet moments of connection with nature and the rights of ordinary people are worth fighting for.
So many layers of history mingle here: from the English Civil War onward, Newbury has been a locus of resistance for centuries. Nicola* has personal memories of the long-running women’s peace camps at Greenham Common, once a U.S. military base and cruise missile storage site – to go with the Atomic Weapons Establishment down the road at Aldermaston. As a teenager and young woman, she took part in symbolic protests against the Twyford Down and Newbury Bypass road-building projects, which went ahead and destroyed much sensitive habitat and many thousands of trees. Today, through local and national newspaper and magazine columns on wildlife, and through her winsome nagging of the managers of the Estate she lives on, she bears witness to damaging countryside management and points to a better way.
While there is a loose chronological through line, the book is principally arranged by theme, with experiences linked back to historical or literary precedents. An account of John Clare and the history of enclosure undergirds her feeling of the precarity of rural working-class life: as an Estate tenant, she knows she doesn’t own anything, has no real say in how things are done, and couldn’t afford to move elsewhere. Nicola is a school librarian and has always turned to books and writing to understand the world. I particularly loved Chapter 6, about how she grounds herself via the literature of this area: Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton, and especially Richard Adams’s Watership Down.
Whatever life throws at her – her husband being called up to fight in Iraq, struggling to make ends meet with small children, a miscarriage, her father’s unexpected death – nature is her solace. She describes places and creatures with a rare intimacy borne out of deep knowledge. To research a book on otters for the RSPB, she seeks out every bridge over every stream. She goes out “lamping” with the local gamekeeper after dark and garners priceless nighttime sightings. Passing on her passion to her children, she gets them excited about badger watching, fossil collecting, and curating shelves of natural history treasures like skulls and feathers. She also serves as a voluntary wildlife advocate on her Estate. For every victory, like the re-establishment of the red kite population in Berkshire and regained public access to Greenham Common, there are multiple setbacks, but she continues to be a hopeful activist, her lyrical writing a means of defiance.
We are writing for our very lives and for those wild lives we share this one, lonely planet with. Writing was also a way to channel the wildness; to investigate and interpret it, to give it a voice and defend it. But it was also a connection between home and action; a plank bridge between a domestic and wild sense. A way both to home and resist.
You know that moment when you’re reading a book and spot a place you’ve been or a landmark you know well, and give a little cheer? Well, every site in this book was familiar to me from our daily lives and countryside wanderings – what a treat! As I was reading, I kept thinking how lucky we are to have such an accomplished nature writer to commemorate the uniqueness of this area. Even though I was born thousands of miles away and have moved more than a dozen times since I settled in England in 2007, I feel the same sense of belonging that Nicola attests to. She explicitly addresses this question of where we ‘come from’ versus where we fit in, and concludes that nature is always the key. There is no exclusion here. “Anyone could make a place their home by engaging with its nature.”
*I normally refer to the author by surname in a book review, but I’m friendly with Nicola from Twitter and have met her several times (and she’s one of the loveliest people you’ll ever meet), so somehow can’t bring myself to be that detached!
On Gallows Down was released by Chelsea Green Publishing on October 7th. My thanks to the author and publisher for arranging a proof copy for review.
My husband and I attended the book launch event for On Gallows Down in Hungerford on Saturday evening. Nicola was introduced by Hungerford Bookshop owner Emma Milne-White and interviewed by Claire Fuller, whose Women’s Prize-shortlisted novel Unsettled Ground is set in a fictional version of the village where Nicola lives.
Nicola dated the book’s genesis to the moment when, 25 years ago, she queued up to talk to a TV news reporter about Newbury Bypass and froze. She went home and cried, and realized she’d have to write her feelings down instead. Words generally come to her at the time of a sighting, as she thinks about how she would tell someone how amazing it was.
Her memories are tied up with seasons and language, especially poetry, she said, and she has recently tried her hand at poetry herself. Asked about her favourite season, she chose two, the in-between seasons – spring for its abundance and autumn for its nostalgia and distinctive smells like tar spot fungus on sycamore leaves and ivy flowers.
A bonus related read:
Anarchipelago by Jay Griffiths (2007)
This limited edition 57-page pamphlet from Glastonbury-based Wooden Books caught my eye from the library’s backroom rolling stacks. Griffiths wrote her impish story of Newbury Bypass resistance in response to her time among the protesters’ encampments and treehouses. Young Roddy finds a purpose for his rebellious attitude wider than his “McTypical McSuburb” by joining other oddballs in solidarity against aggressive policemen and detectives.
There are echoes of Ali Smith in the wordplay and rendering of accents.
“When I think of the road, I think of more and more monoculture of more and more suburbia. What I do, I do in defiance of the Louis Queasy Chintzy, the sickly stale air of suburban car culture. I want the fresh air of nature, the lifefull wind of the French revolution.”
In a nice spot of Book Serendipity, both this and On Gallows Down recount the moment when nature ‘fought back’ as a tree fell on a police cherry-picker. Plus Roddy is kin to the tree-sitting protesters in The Overstory by Richard Powers as well as another big novel I’m reading now, Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson.
My plans for this month’s reading include:
Autumn-appropriate titles & R.I.P. selections, pictured below.
October releases, including some poetry and the debut memoir by local nature writer Nicola Chester – some of us are going on a book club field trip to see her speak about it in Hungerford on Saturday.
A review book backlog dating back to July. Something like 18 books, I think? A number of them also fall into the set-aside category, below.
An alarming number of doorstoppers:
- Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson (a buddy read underway with Marcie of Buried in Print; technically it’s 442 pages, but the print is so danged small that I’m calling it a doorstopper even though my usual minimum is 500 pages)
- The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki (in progress for blog review)
- Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (a library hold on its way to me to try again now that it’s on the Booker Prize shortlist)
- The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles (in progress for BookBrowse review)
Also, I’m aware that we’re now into the last quarter of the year, and my “set aside temporarily” shelf – which is the literal top shelf of my dining room bookcase, as well as a virtual Goodreads shelf – is groaning with books that I started earlier in the year (or, in some cases, even late last year) and for whatever reason haven’t finished yet.
Setting books aside is a dangerous habit of mine, because new arrivals, such as from the library or from publishers, and more timely-seeming books always edge them out. The only way I have a hope of finishing these before the end of the year is to a) include them in challenges wherever possible (so a few long-languishing books have gone up to join my novella stacks in advance of November) and b) reintroduce a certain number to my current stacks at regular intervals. With just 13 weeks or so remaining, two per week seems like the necessary rate.
Do you have realistic reading goals for the final quarter of the year? (Or no goals at all?)
It’s been a gorgeously sunny spring here – how about where you are? Although there have still been some frosty nights troubling the gardeners among us, it’s been warm in the daytime and the flowers and blossom are coming on apace.
Recently I’ve read a couple of books reflecting on the spring of 2020, specifically the opportunities it offered to reconnect with local nature at a time when we were isolated and couldn’t travel.
I’ve also been feeling nostalgic for Washington, D.C. and the Maryland suburbs, where I grew up. It’s been two years since my last trip back, but I’m holding out hope that I can make it over in June for a family wedding.
Rounding out my selection of “Spring” titles is an offbeat Japanese novella.
Looking back to the coronavirus spring:
On Thursday evening I watched “The Act of Nature Watching,” a special Earth Day Zoom talk for West Berkshire Libraries by local nature writer Nicola Chester, whose memoir is coming out in the autumn. The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries, she lamented. We are hardwired to watch and love nature, she noted, yet have never been more alienated from it. Reading from her columns and anthology contributions (as well as the Lovatt, below) and giving tips on recognizing birdsong and mammal signs, she spoke of nature-watching as a form of mindfulness – an approach that chimed with the first three books I feature here.
Birdsong in a Time of Silence: An Awakening by Steven Lovatt (2021)
During the UK’s first lockdown, with planes grounded and cars stationary, many remarked on the quiet. All the better to hear birds going about their usual spring activities. For Lovatt, from Birmingham and now based in South Wales, it was the excuse he needed to return to his childhood birdwatching hobby. In between accounts of his spring walks, he tells lively stories of common birds’ anatomy, diet, lifecycle, migration routes, and vocalizations. (He even gives step-by-step instructions for sounding like a magpie.) Birdsong takes him back to childhood, but feels deeper than that: a cultural memory that enters into our poetry and will be lost forever if we allow our declining bird species to continue on the same trajectory.
Mentions of current events are sparse and subtle, so the spring feels timeless, as it should. I worried there might be too much overlap with A Sweet, Wild Note by Richard Smyth, but there’s room for both on your shelf. Lovatt’s writing is introspective and poetic, delighting in metaphors for sounds: “The song of a turtle dove is like the aural equivalent of a heat-haze, the gentlest corrugation of air, always just on the edge of your hearing.”
Skylarks with Rosie: A Somerset Spring by Stephen Moss (2021)
Lovatt must have been a pupil of Moss’s on the Bath Spa University MA degree in Travel and Nature Writing. The prolific Moss’s latest also reflects on the spring of 2020, but in a more overt diary format. Devoting one chapter to each of the 13 weeks of the first lockdown, he traces the season’s development alongside his family’s experiences and the national news. With four of his children at home, along with one of their partners and a convalescing friend, it’s a pleasingly full house. There are daily cycles or walks around “the loop,” a three-mile circuit from their front door, often with Rosie the Labrador; there are also jaunts to corners of the nearby Avalon Marshes. Nature also comes to him, with songbirds in the garden hedges and various birds of prey flying over during their 11:00 coffee breaks.
His speaking engagements and trips cancelled, Moss turns to online events instead. Twitter serves as a place for sharing outrage over UK politics and world events like George Floyd’s murder, but also as a welcoming community for sharing nature sightings. As the lockdown come to a close, he realizes that this time has had unexpected benefits: “Having to press the pause button … has made me rethink my life, in a good way.” He feels that, for once, he has truly appreciated the spring, “rediscovering the joys of wildlife-watching close to home”. This made for perfect reading in Somerset last week.
Also recommended: The Consolation of Nature by Marren, McCarthy and Mynott
Remembering springs back home:
Spring in Washington by Louis J. Halle (1947)
“The discovery of spring each year, after the winter’s hibernation, is like a rediscovery of the universe … knowledge of spring gives me the freedom of the world.”
For Halle, who worked in the State Department, nature was an antidote to hours spent shuffling papers behind a desk. In this spring of 1945, there was plenty of wildfowl to see in central D.C. itself, but he also took long early morning bike rides along the Potomac or the C&O Canal, or in Rock Creek Park. From first migrant in February to last in June, he traces the spring mostly through the birds that he sees. More so than the specific observations of familiar places, though, I valued the philosophical outlook that makes Halle a forerunner of writers like Barry Lopez and Peter Matthiessen. He notes that those caught up in the rat race adapt the world to their comfort and convenience, prizing technology and manmade tidiness over natural wonders. By contrast, he feels he sees more clearly – literally as well as metaphorically – when he takes the long view of a landscape.
I marked so many passages of beautiful description. Halle had mastered the art of noticing. But he also sounds a premonitory note, one that was ahead of its time in the 1940s and needs heeding now more than ever: “When I see men able to pass by such a shining and miraculous thing as this Cape May warbler, the very distillate of life, and then marvel at the internal-combustion engine, I think we had all better make ourselves ready for another Flood.”
This was a lucky find at Hay Cinema Bookshop back in September. For me it was the ideal combination of thoughtful prose and vicarious travel, though I imagine it might not mean as much to those without a local connection. The black-and-white in-text illustrations by Francis L. Jaques are a particularly nice addition.
Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been? I’ve been to Washington, and guess what I’ve seen… by Russell Punter and Dan Taylor (2019)
More cherry blossoms over tourist landmarks! This is part of a children’s series inspired by the 1805 English rhyme about London; other volumes visit New York City, Paris, and Rome. In rhyming couplets, he takes us from the White House to the Lincoln Memorial via all the other key sights of the Mall and further afield: museums and monuments, the Library of Congress, the National Cathedral, Arlington Cemetery, even somewhere I’ve never been – Theodore Roosevelt Island. Realism and whimsy (a kid-sized cat) together; lots of diversity in the crowd scenes. What’s not to like? (Titled Kitty cat, kitty cat… in the USA.)
And, as a bonus, some fiction in translation:
Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki (2014; 2017)
[Translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton]
Like a Murakami protagonist, Taro is a divorced man in his thirties, mildly interested in the sometimes peculiar goings-on in his vicinity. Rumor has it that his Tokyo apartment complex will be torn down soon, but for now the PR manager is happy enough here. “Avoiding bother was Taro’s governing principle.” But bother comes to find him in the form of a neighbor, Nishi, who is obsessed with a nearby house that was the backdrop for the art book Spring Garden, a collection of photographs of a married couple’s life. Her enthusiasm gradually draws Taro into the depicted existence of the TV commercial director and actress who lived there 25 years ago, as well as the young family who live there now. This Akutagawa Prize winner failed to hold my interest – like The Guest Cat, it’s oddly preoccupied with architectural detail, a Japanese fascination that doesn’t translate so well.
Have you been reading anything particularly appropriate for spring this year?
“the short dark days of winter
dear to me
as a bully to his mother.”
~from “Skulking,” a poem from Helen Dunmore’s The Malarkey
After more than ten years here, I still struggle with English winters. It’s not that they’re colder than what I grew up experiencing on America’s east coast. In terms of temperatures, snowfall and ice buildup, there’s no real comparison. I keenly remember the winter of 2004, when the wind-chill was about 10° F and all the fountains in Washington, D.C. froze solid.
But English winters have particularly disheartening qualities: they’re overwhelmingly dark, bone-seepingly wet, and seemingly endless. I’ll never forget when, in my first-ever winter in England (during my study abroad year in 2003), I looked out a University of Reading library window around 3:00 in the afternoon and realized the sun was setting behind the trees.
All these years later, I still find that dim mid-afternoon light depressing, and the damp cold nearly intolerable. In our study abroad information packet we were warned that British interiors are kept 10 degrees cooler than American ones. But because we’re both thrifty and environmentally conscious, our house is significantly colder. Most of the time I’ll wear four to seven layers and huddle under blankets rather than turn on the heat – why warm a whole house for one person and one cat? I’m not entirely joking when I say to my husband that I wish I could hibernate from roughly November to April. Just wake me up for Christmas.
Ahhhhhh, Christmas, which the English do wonderfully – much better than Americans, in my opinion. Carol services, dense dried fruit desserts, booze in and with everything, a gentler tinge to the commercialism, plus maybe some nostalgic Dickensian tint I’m giving it all in my mind. I’ve had some wonderful Christmases here over the past 12 years.
So I’m ambivalent about winter, and was interested to see how the authors collected in Melissa Harrison’s final seasonal anthology would explore its inherent contradictions. I especially appreciated the views of outsiders. Jini Reddy, a Quebec native, calls British winters “a long, grey sigh or a drawn-out ache.” In two of my favorite pieces, Christina McLeish and Nakul Krishna – from Australia and India, respectively – compare the warm, sunny winters they experienced in their homelands with their early experiences in Britain. McLeish remembers finding a disembodied badger paw on a frosty day during one of her first winters in England, while Krishna tells of a time he spent dogsitting in Oxford when all the students were on break. His decorous, timeless prose reminded me of J.R. Ackerley’s.
The series is in support of the Wildlife Trusts, and a key message of this volume in particular is that nature is always there to be experienced – even in what feels like a dead time of year. Kate Blincoe observes an urban starling murmuration in an essay that nicely blends the lofty and the earthy; Nicola Chester takes a wintry beach walk and documents what she finds in the strandline, such as goose barnacles; Joseph Addison celebrates the pleasures of a winter garden; Patrick Barkham examines the ways butterfly life* continues through the winter, usually as eggs; and Richard Adams (author of Watership Down) insists, “Wild flowers are like pubs. There are generally one or two open somewhere, if only you look hard enough.”
As in the other volumes, Harrison has chosen a lovely mixture of older and contemporary pieces. Occasional passages from Gilbert White and Thomas Furly Forster on the timing of natural phenomena help create a sense of chronological progression, from November through to February. The contemporary nature writing scene is represented by previously published material from Robert Macfarlane and Kathleen Jamie. Classic literature is here in the opening of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House and the Great Frost passage from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. There are also excerpts from Coleridge’s diary and freed slave Olaudah Equiano’s account of seeing snow for the first time. In general, this volume is better at including diverse voices, like the final piece from Anita Sethi on her family’s unlikely garden in Manchester.
Christmas doesn’t really appear here; it’s a book about the natural year rather than the cultural year. But another event does, very powerfully: In another of my top few pieces, Jon Dunn (who authored my favorite piece in Autumn) tells how the overpowering darkness of a Shetland winter is broken by the defiant Up Helly Aa festival, in which the residents dress up as Vikings and ceremonially burn a longboat. Life goes on, no matter how bleak everything seems. That’s an important thing to keep in mind after all the troubling events of 2016.
*My husband’s piece, positioned between John Fowles’s and Richard Jeffries’s, is also about the surprising insect life that can be discovered in the winter.
My review of Summer.
My review of Autumn.
[I came late to the series so will be reading, but not reviewing, Spring next year.]
More beautiful lines to treasure:
- “Claws of grey rain break to rake through a gold half-light and the squall moves like a huge aerial jellyfish, obscuring then revealing this wreckers’ coast of muted blue headlands. Swirling white snowflakes move against a grey mass, turning Lundy Island into a Turner painting.” (Nicola Chester)
- “I am the garnet shock / of rosehip on frost / the robin’s titian flare.” (Julian Beach)
- “the tower blocks are advent calendars, / every curtain pulled to reveal a snow-blurred face.” (Liz Berry)
- “A whole year of concerns, worries and squabbles sloughed off in a bone-chilling baptism of copper water.” (Matt Gaw)
- “Two hundred jackdaws drape the skeleton of the winter beech like jet beads around the neck of a Victorian mourner.” (Jane Adams)
With thanks to Jennie Condell at Elliott & Thompson for the free copy for review.
In partnership with the UK’s Wildlife Trusts, London-based publisher Elliott & Thompson is celebrating the seasons with a series of anthologies edited by novelist and nature writer Melissa Harrison. My husband had a short piece published in the first volume (Spring), so I was eager to get my hands on a copy of Summer.
The format in all the books is roughly the same: they’re composed of short pieces that range from one to a few pages and run the gamut from recurring phenological records (Gilbert White and Thomas Furly Forster) and extracts from classic literature (Adam Bede and Far from the Madding Crowd) to recent nature books (Mark Cocker’s Claxton and Paul Evans’s Field Notes from the Edge). In addition, there are new contributions from established writers or talented amateurs, one as young as twelve – heartening proof that young people are still enthused about nature.
With the exception of the poems, none of these entries have titles, and the attribution and date of composition are not given until the very end. The idea behind this pseudo-anonymity, I think, is that if – as I sometimes was – you are patient enough to not skip ahead to discover who wrote it when, you will judge all of the pieces by the same standards. You approach each without expectations, and in many cases may be stumped as to whether the writing is historical or modern. I found W.H. Hudson’s and Mary Webb’s extracts particularly readable, for instance; you wouldn’t guess they’re from the early decades of the twentieth century.
There are 70-some pieces here on a wide variety of subjects, but a few of the ones that struck me were on badger-watching (Caroline Greville, who is writing a memoir on the topic), looking for orchids (environmental journalist Michael McCarthy), moth trapping, and night-time wildlife like glow-worms and bats. I especially appreciated Alexandra Pearce’s essay on the brief life of mayflies and Nicola Chester’s on searching for owls. Of the previously published pieces, Paul Evans’s on ant swarms is a stand-out. My two favorites, though, are from celebrated nature columnist Simon Barnes, who writes about paddling a canoe in Norfolk with his son in search of adventure, and Esther Woolfson, who, as she does in her book Field Notes from a Hidden City, illuminates the unnoticed wildlife of Aberdeen.
Again and again this message comes through: take the time to look closely and you will find great wonders. “Perhaps as adults our lives are so filled with bills, chores, jobs and other things that we often forget to stop and look at the world around us,” Jan Freedman, curator of natural history at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, astutely notes. Whether it’s lichens or weevils, all you generally have to pay to experience nature’s delights is attention. I loved Alexi Francis’s description of a hare: “Haunches down, nose cross-stitched, it closes its eyes to the sun in a moment of blissful slumber.” Having that moment of communion with nature and then choosing just the right words to capture it is what this book is all about.
Taken together, these pieces truly give the feeling of an English summer. The older writing is remarkably undated, which contributes to a sense of continuity across the centuries. However, the book also evokes more universal notions of summer: those drowsy, leisurely days we gild with nostalgia. As Harrison puts it in her introduction, the longing for summer is really a wish to return to childhood: “Those elysian summers, polished to dazzling brightness by the flow of years, can never be recaptured; but we have this summer, however imperfect we as adults might deem it, and we can go out and seek it at every opportunity we find.”
As the relatively frequent typos – three in the Barnes piece alone, for example – suggest, the series has been somewhat hastily put together. Nonetheless, these are really rather lovely books. Summer is a perfect bedside companion to dip into as the days warm up. Impossible not to covet the whole four-season set.
With thanks to Marianne Thorndahl at Elliott & Thompson for the free copy for review.