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’ve never had a Christmas Day without my immediate family or in-laws before, but when West Berkshire leapt into the Tier 4 (highest) COVID-19 risk category on Saturday it was clear that even our modest plans to spend 48 hours at my parents-in-law’s home by the coast would be dashed. How we’d looked forward to seeing other people and going somewhere else! Nothing dramatic; just a change of scene and an excuse to pack an overnight bag and a giant tote full of books. The bright side, if there is one, is that we can choose exactly how to spend the holidays, and my husband – a fantastic cook – will have total control over the feast.
To keep our spirits up, we’ve done more Christmas decorating than usual. Our lounge is dominated by the biggest tree we’ve had yet, there’s holly all over, and we strung colored fairy lights across one wall. After Saturday’s bad news, we brought forward our annual viewing of Elf. And of course, I have a stack of seasonally appropriate books at the ready.
Here’s the first two I managed to read for review:
Christmas Stories by George Mackay Brown
Many of these 30 short stories originally appeared in publications like the Scotsman, Tablet and Glasgow Herald between the 1940s and 1990s, with some also reprinted in previous Mackay Brown story volumes. This posthumous collection of seasonal tales by Orkney’s best-known writer runs the gamut from historical fiction to timeless fable, and travels from the Holy Land to Scotland’s islands. Often, Orkney is contrasted with Edinburgh, as in one of my favorites, “A Christmas Exile,” in which a boy is sent off to Granny’s house in Orkney one winter while his mother is in hospital and longs to make it home in time for Christmas.
Although the main characters are usually crofters, fishermen and lairds, they take on other roles in Nativity and Christmas Carol-like setups. For instance, a skipper, a miller, and a shepherd play the part of the Three Kings, while a greedy general merchant who won’t close his shop for Christmas Day is like Ebenezer Scrooge. Biblical and Dickensian figures merge in “An Epiphany Tale,” in which a deaf-blind-mute boy is visited by three strangers who give him back each of his senses, in turn, for one magical day. Characters get visions of the past or glimpses of how the other half live (“The Poor Man in His Castle”). Children are disabused of the idea of Santa Claus, but the unexplained still fuels a sense of wonder, as in Jeanette Winterson’s holiday stories. Even the poor have small gifts and pleasures to look forward to.
As editor William S. Peterson notes in his introduction, Calvinism had erased much of the joy from Christmas in Scotland, but in Mackay Brown’s lifetime he saw Yule traditions returning and was keen to emphasize that Christmas was not just about one day of celebration but was a whole season running from Advent through to Epiphany. The story “I Saw Three Ships…” remembers an oppressed past, though: set at the end of the Civil War, after King Charles I was beheaded, it is set at a time when the government declared “‘There will be no more Christmas. Christmas is abolished and forbid in the islands here, as it has been put down everywhere in this commonwealth. We will have no more of such ancient mummery.’ … Men reckoned that that was the longest coldest dreichest winter ever known in Orkney.” Those words might feel gloomily appropriate, but let’s celebrate all the more in defiance.
With thanks to Galileo Publishers for the free copy for review.
Fifty Words for Snow by Nancy Campbell
Words for snow exist in most of the world’s languages – even those spoken in countries where it rarely, if ever, snows. For instance, Thai has “hima” at the ready even though there were only once claims of a snow flurry in Thailand, in 1955. Campbell meanders through history, legend, and science in these one- to five-page essays. I was most taken by the pieces on German “kunstschnee” (the fake snow used on movie sets), Icelandic “hundslappadrifa” (snowflakes big as a dog’s paw, a phrase used as a track title on one of Jónsi’s albums – an excuse for discussing the amazing Sigur Rós), and Estonian “jäätee” (the terrifying ice road that runs between the mainland and the island of Hiiumaa – only when the ice is 22 cm thick, and with cars traveling 2 minutes apart and maintaining a speed of 25–40 km/hour).
The white and blue tendrils of the naked hardback’s cover creep over onto the endpapers, each essay is headed by a Wilson Bentley photograph of a snowflake, and the type is in a subtle dark blue ink rather than black. Too many of the essays are thin or dull, such that the contents don’t live up to the gorgeous physical object they fill. Still, I imagine you have a snow-loving relative who would appreciate a copy as a seasonal coffee table book.
With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the free copy for review.
And a bonus:
“The Burglar’s Christmas” by Willa Cather (1896)
This Renard Press pamphlet supporting the Three Peas charity (in aid of Europe’s refugees) was sent to me as a Christmas card alternative by Annabel/Shiny New Books. A young man wanders the slushy streets of Chicago one Christmas Eve. On this, his 24th birthday, he laments how low he has sunk that he has to rob the rich in order to get money to eat. But in this take on the Prodigal Son story, there is a second chance at forgiveness and a good life. I was reminded of the high society atmosphere of Edith Wharton’s work and the moral fables of O. Henry. The lovely little story has a William Morris design on the cover. I’ll keep it with my small collection of Christmas books and bring it out to reread in future years.
Are you reading any Christmas or wintry books?
What are your plans for the holidays?
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 around 20), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents than some. I also list these occasional reading coincidences on a Twitter thread.
- Reading two books whose covers feature Audubon bird paintings.
- A 19th-century female character inherits a house but knows it will pass instantly to her spouse in Property by Valerie Martin and Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain.
- A bag/sack of potatoes as a metaphor in Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes and Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler.
- Nipple rings get a mention in Addition by Toni Jordan and Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes.
- Taxidermy is an element (most major in the first one) in Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett, Wild Child by Patrick Barkham and Into the Tangled Bank by Lev Parikian.
- A discussion of bartenders’ habit of giving out free drinks to get big tips (a canny way of ‘stealing’ from the employer) in Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain and Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes.
- Characters named Seamus in Addition by Toni Jordan and Mother’s Milk by Edward St. Aubyn.
- Wild boar mentioned in Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett, Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes and My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss.
- A fastidious bachelor who’s always cleaning his living space in Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes and Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler.
- A character is a blogger in Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes and My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss.
- Norfolk settings in Wild Child by Patrick Barkham and Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness (and both were on the Wainwright Prize longlist).
- A close aunt‒niece relationship in Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett and Addition by Toni Jordan.
- A guy does dumb accents when talking about food, and specifically a French accent for “hamburger,” in Addition by Toni Jordan and Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler.
- Recipes for a potato salad that is dressed with oil and vinegar rather than mayonnaise in Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl and My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss.
- Mentions of the Watergate hearings in A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne and Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl.
- Twins in Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne and The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani.
- Characters nicknamed “Lefty” in Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Modern Lovers by Emma Straub.
- Characters named Abir/Abeer in A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne and Apeirogon by Colum McCann.
- Kayaking in Scotland in The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange and Summerwater by Sarah Moss.
- The military coup in Nigeria features in Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński.
- The song “White Christmas” is quoted in Mudbound by Hillary Jordan and Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin.
- The fact that fingerprints are formed by the fetus touching the uterine wall appears in Marrow by Elizabeth Lesser and You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South.
- Orkney as a setting in Close to Where the Heart Gives Out by Malcolm Alexander and The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange. I’m hankering to go back!
- Teresa of Ávila is mentioned in Marrow by Elizabeth Lesser and You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South.
- A dog named Bingo in Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Modern Lovers by Emma Straub. (B-I-N-G-O!)
- Four sisters are given a joint name in A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne (Fran-Claire-Lois-Ada) and Marrow by Elizabeth Lesser (KaLiMaJo).
- The same Lilla Watson quote (“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together”) appears in both The Gospel of Trees by Apricot Irving and Marrow by Elizabeth Lesser.
- An Irish author and Hong Kong setting for Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan and The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell.
- The Dorothy Parker quote “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” appears in both What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez and First Time Ever by Peggy Seeger.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
I’ve been asked to repost my review, and you get a bonus: I’m also posting part of the review my husband wrote for his blog last year, which opens with memories of seabird-rich trips he and I have taken. (Chris is a lecturer in animal ecology at the University of Reading, a Newbury Town councillor, and an off-and-on nature blogger.)
In 2016 Rutt left his anxiety-inducing life in London in a search for space and silence. He found plenty of both on the Orkney Islands, where he volunteered at the North Ronaldsay bird observatory for seven months. In the few years that followed, the young naturalist travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles – from Skomer to Shetland – courting encounters with seabirds. He’s surrounded by storm petrels one magical night at Mousa Broch; he runs from menacing skuas; he watches eider and terns and kittiwakes along the northeast coast; he returns to Orkney to marvel at gannets and fulmars. Whether it’s their beauty, majesty, resilience, or associations with freedom, such species are for him a particularly life-enhancing segment of nature to spend time around.
Discussion of the environmental threats that hit seabirds hardest, such as plastic pollution, make for a timely tie-in to wider conservation issues. Rutt also sees himself as part of a long line of bird-loving travellers, including James Fisher and especially R. M. Lockley, whose stories he weaves in. This is one of the best nature/travel books I’ve read in a long time, especially enjoyable because I’ve been to a lot of the island locations and the elegantly evocative writing, making particularly effective use of varied sentence lengths, brought back to me just what it’s like to be in the far north of Scotland in the midst of an endless summer twilight, a humbled observer as a whole whirlwind of bird life carries on above you.
A favorite passage:
“Gannets nest on the honeycombs of the cliff, in their thousands. They sit in pairs, pointing to the sky, swaying heads. They stir. The scent of the boat’s herring fills the air. They take off, tessellating in a sky that is suddenly as much bird as light. The great skuas lurk.”
Scotland, 2005. That’s the trip I always cite as my ‘conversion experience’ as a birder. Perhaps the most memorable element was a boat trip out to the seabird colonies of the Treshnish Isles. Puffins were the draw, but other memories are more vivid. The sudden appearance of a great skua, powering through at low level causing consternation among other birds and excitement among birdwatchers. A minke whale blowing spray near the boat. The dark eye of a shag up close, inscrutably ancient, a pterodactyl that somehow survived to the present.
Captivated by the peace and isolation of Scottish islands and the incredible sights, sounds and smells of seabirds we did it all again the following year, heading farther north. We started on mainland Orkney, travelling overland by train before catching the ferry from Thurso. During a few days on Westray we experienced a small island community, intriguing to a child of English suburbia, though mostly I remember the rain and superb traybakes in the village café. Finally on to Shetland, making our way up to Hermaness, the very northern end of Britain on the island of Unst. Towering skua-ruled cliffs with the most inquisitive, trusting puffins I have ever known, no land between us and the North Pole. Some four years later we visited Skomer in Pembrokeshire, another famed seabird destination, but since then our visits to Britain’s seabird islands have, alas, largely dried up. I’ve caught up with seabirds on and off since but perhaps let the full wonder of seabirds and the magic of islands drift out of my life.
In that respect The Seafarers was a timely read. It takes the reader, via a series of personal journeys, through the major groups of ocean-going birds that visit Britain while also introducing a significant seabird location in each chapter. It’s an appealing blend of travel, descriptive nature writing, popular science and biography. Author Stephen Rutt balances a highly personal account of what seabirds have meant for him with some solid seabird facts which are well explained, detailed but not at all dense. Rutt is a young birder, naturalist and writer. Since I too am a bearded, balding young (though not nearly so young as he) birder who is not fond of crowds I was probably predisposed to enjoy his voice, and I did, but I also admired its freshness. He successfully avoids the ‘lone white male’ cliché often accused of dominating nature writing. The writing is accomplished throughout and Rutt’s prose is distinctive, concise yet poetic. The life-affirming, simple joy of birding shines through.
The particularly well-crafted short chapter on vagrant birds may be one of those rare pieces of writing to actually change my mind. Where I have lately been inclined toward the view that twitching exotic vagrants is “a morbid act, a premature wake for a waif that won’t last out the day,” as Rutt puts it, I was won over by his “faith in the wondrous, sense-defying, thrilling capacity that birds have of being lost and making that seem … OK.”
The Seafarers follows just two years after Adam Nicolson’s The Seabird’s Cry. The latter is the more complete (and global) treatment of seabirds, what we know about them and why they matter, but that’s not really a criticism of Rutt’s book. The Seafarers is as much an autobiographical account of the transformative power of birding as it is a compilation of seabird lore. What they have in common is that both books are love letters to this extraordinary group of animals.
Rutt has added his own unique chapter to the shared history of people and seabirds on these islands, as well as establishing himself as a writer with real promise. I look forward to seeing what he turns his thoughts to next.
[The answer was geese; see my review of Rutt’s second 2019 publication, Wintering.]
Note: The Seafarers won the Saltire First Book of the Year award and was longlisted for the Highland Book Prize 2019.
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?
As I mentioned on Tuesday, I previously knew of Annalena McAfee only as Mrs. Ian McEwan, though she has a distinguished literary background: she founded the Guardian Review and edited it for six years, was Arts and Literary Editor of the Financial Times, and is the author of multiple children’s books and one previous novel for adults, The Spoiler (2011).
Well, anyone who reads Hame will be saying “Ian who?” as this is on such a grand scale compared to anything McEwan has ever attempted. The subtitle, “The Fascaray Archives,” gives an idea of how thorough McAfee means to be: the life of fictional poet Grigor McWatt is her way into everything that forms the Scottish identity. Her invented island of Fascaray is a carefully constructed microcosm of Scotland from ancient times to today. I loved the little glimpses of recent history, like the referendum on independence and a Donald Trump figure, billionaire “Archie Tupper,” bulldozing an environmentally sensitive area to build his new golf course (this really happened, in Aberdeenshire in 2012).
Narrator Mhairi McPhail arrives on Fascaray in August 2014, her nine-year-old daughter Agnes in tow. She’s here to oversee the opening of a new museum, edit a seven-volume edition of McWatt’s magnum opus, The Fascaray Compendium (a 70-year journal detailing the island’s history, language, flora, fauna and customs), and complete a critical biography of the poet. Over the next four months she often questions the feasibility of her multi-strand project. She also frets about her split from Marco, whom she left back in New York City after their separate infidelities. And her rootlessness – she’s Canadian via Scotland but has spent a lot of time in the States, giving her a mixed-up heritage and accent – is a constant niggle.
Mhairi’s narrative sections share space with excerpts from her biography of McWatt and extracts from McWatt’s own writing: The Fascaray Compendium, newspaper columns, letters to on-again, off-again lover Lilias Hogg, and Scots translations of famous poets from Blake to Yeats. We learn of key events from the island’s history through Mhairi’s biography and McWatt’s prose, including ongoing tension between lairds and crofters, Finnverinnity House being used as a Special Ops training school during World War II, a lifeboat lost in a gale in the 1970s, and the way the fishing industry is now ceding to hydroelectric power.
The balance between the alternating elements isn’t quite right – sections from Mhairi’s contemporary diary seem to get shorter as the novel goes along, such that it feels like there’s not enough narrative to anchor the book. Faced with yet more Scots poetry and vocabulary lists, or passages from Mhairi’s dry biography, it’s mighty tempting to skim.
That’s a shame, as the novel contains some truly lovely writing, particularly in McWatt’s nature observations:
In July and August, on rare days of startling and sustained heat, dragonflies as blue as the cloudless skies shimmer over cushions of moss by the burn while the midges, who abhor direct sunlight, are nowhere to be seen. Out to sea, somnolent groups of whales pass like cortèges of cruise ships and around them dolphins and porpoises joyously arc and dip as if stitching the ocean’s silken canopy of turquoise, gentian and cobalt.
For centuries male Fascaradians have sailed in the autumn, at the time of the ripe barley and the fruiting buckthorn, to hunt the plump young solan geese or gannets – the guga – near their nesting sites on the uninhabited rock pinnacles of Plodda and Grodda. No true Fascaradian can suffer vertigo since the scaling of these granite towers is done without the aid of mountaineers’ crampons or picks.
“Hame” means home in Scots – like in McWatt’s claim to fame, the folk-pop song “Hame tae Fascaray” – and themes of home and identity are strong here. The novel asks to what extent identity is bound up with a particular country and language, and whether we can craft our own selves. Must the place you come from always be the same as the home you choose? I could relate to Mhairi’s feeling that there’s nowhere she belongs, whether she’s in the bustle of New York or “marooned on a patch of damp peat floating in the North Sea.”
Although the blend of elements initially made me think that this would resemble A.S. Byatt’s Possession, it’s actually more like Rachel Cantor’s Good on Paper, which similarly stars a scholar who’s a single parent to a precocious daughter. In places I was also reminded of the work of Scarlett Thomas, Sara Maitland and Sarah Moss, and there’s even an echo of Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks in the inventories of dialect words.
If you’ve done much traveling in Scotland, an added pleasure of the novel is trying to spot places you’ve been. (I thought I could see traces of Stromness, Orkney; indeed, McWatt reminded me most of Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown.) The comprehensive, archival approach didn’t completely win me over, but I was impressed by the book’s scope and its affectionate portrait of a beloved country. McAfee is of Scots-Irish parentage herself, and you can tell this is a true labor of love, and a cogent tribute.
Hame was published by Harvill Secker on February 9th. With thanks to Anna Redman for sending a free copy for review.
I was accidentally sent two copies of Hame, so I am giving one away to a reader. Alas, this giveaway will have to be UK-only – the book is a hardback of nearly 600 pages, so would be prohibitively expensive to send abroad.
If you’re interested in winning a copy, simply leave a comment to that effect below. The competition will be open through the end of Friday the 17th and I will choose a winner at random on Saturday the 18th, to be announced via the comments and a personal e-mail.