I had a pleasant birthday weekend: a five-mile country walk with some foraging of sloes, reading in the armchair with the cat, catching up with Poldark on DVD, and a three-course Italian feast my husband made from a River Café cookbook (plus a homemade Sachertorte). And I got 11 secondhand books for my birthday, if you were wondering!
We also attended a couple of Hungerford Literary Festival events. This year the theme was “Journeys,” so all of the featured books and authors were broadly travel-related Alas, the talk we were meant to attend on Saturday by Sunday Times writer Jonathan Dean, based on I Must Belong Somewhere, his memoir about researching his family’s European history, was cancelled due to insufficient ticket sales – we felt so sorry for the poor author!
However, on Sunday my husband saw Nick Hunt speak about his recent travelogue on famous European winds such as the mistral, and I saw Simon Fenwick in conversation with journalist Elinor Goodman about his new biography of Joan Leigh Fermor, the wife of celebrated travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor (whom Fenwick and Goodman consistently called Paddy).
Fenwick considers Joan an enigmatic figure; although she could be quite a bitch, she also brought out the best in certain people, including Paddy. From a wealthy Yorkshire wool merchant family, she met golden writers like John Betjeman at bohemian parties. Although she was a fairly successful photographer – there will be a major exhibition of her work in London next year – she cast herself in a supporting role, as was traditional for the time: she would say that her career was all about helping Paddy in his, financially as well as morally. (I could just imagine what a novel about her would be called: The Travel Writer’s Wife.)
Although Fenwick believes Joan is a worthy biographical subject in her own right, her relationship with Paddy dominated the talk. When the couple met in Egypt in 1944, he was famous for having kidnapped a Nazi general, a stunt of debatable military benefit though it was certainly great for publicity. Women flocked to the handsome Paddy: he was carrying on two affairs at this time, and his one lover got pregnant and had an abortion.Though they didn’t marry until 1968, by which time they were settled in their home in Kardamyli, Greece, Joan and Paddy were an item for all the intervening years. Theirs was an open relationship, though; they even shared a lover, Alan Pryce-Jones. (Hoping I heard this correctly and am not just making a wild claim!) “NO GUILT” was one of Paddy’s mottoes. The travel writer’s life entailed long separations: Fenwick estimates that during the 1950s, Paddy didn’t stay put anywhere for more than two months at a time, but Joan served as “his psychological home.” Perhaps this practicality explains why the Fermors never had children: Paddy was simply hardly ever home. Or perhaps Joan was infertile, given that Paddy and Joan’s previous husband, John Rayner, both impregnated other women.
Joan was known as a wonderful cook and entertainer. In Greece they had a rotating cast of guests, and people would frequently just turn up uninvited. From afar the house looks like an ancient monastery, Fenwick said, though it’s now surrounded by modern buildings. Much of it is one huge room that serves as library, living room and dining room, with a corridor leading to the outside. In Joan’s time there were cats galore. Fenwick remembers the strong smell of jasmine the first time he walked through the archway into the courtyard.Fenwick’s route into this project was somewhat unusual: he’s an archivist by trade and has spent decades of his life reading other people’s letters. He was invited to archive the papers in Fermor’s writing studio after the author’s death in 2011. The material was in chaotic files, but eventually he organized some 19 boxes of records to send back to the UK; they are now held in the National Library of Scotland. He wrote an article for the Times Literary Supplement about the experience, and from there one thing led to another. He never met either Paddy or Joan, who died in 2003, while Fermor’s biographer, Artemis Cooper, did meet him.
Although Fenwick did not wish to comment on another biographer’s work, he noted that in comparison to Cooper’s his is perhaps a bit of a new view on Paddy, a “not wholly heroic but fascinating” figure, flawed “on a grand scale.” Fenwick was impressed by “his pure energy – in his writing and in everything he did.” While Paddy must have been exhausting to live with, Fenwick believes he and Joan recognized in each other a similar approach to life.
As a speaker Fenwick wasn’t particularly engaging: even with a microphone he seemed to mutter, and left awkward gaps before answering. Is it fair that his dull manner made me wonder whether his book would be worth reading? Not all authors can be charismatic in person, I’m sure; I would definitely struggle with public speaking if I ever had to go on a book tour. But I do wish he had perhaps read a section from his book so I could have gotten a sense of the style. I think Joan’s life is interesting enough that I will still read her biography someday, but perhaps only after I’ve read more of Paddy’s travel books and the Cooper biography, which I own in paperback.
Have you attended any literary events recently? Does an author’s personality influence your opinion of their books?
Below I’ve chosen my 10 favorite nonfiction books published in 2016, followed by five older nonfiction reads that I only discovered this year. I find it nigh on impossible to compare different genres of nonfiction, so I’m not ranking these but simply listing them alphabetically by author (interestingly, all but one of the 2016 books are by women).
As with yesterday’s fiction choices, many of these books have already featured on the blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
The Best of 2016
This Is Cancer by Laura Holmes Haddad: A stage IV inflammatory breast cancer survivor, the author wrote the “What to Expect” guide she wishes she could have found at the time of her diagnosis in 2012. Throughout this comprehensive, well-structured book, she uses her own experience to set out practical advice for dealing with the everyday medical and emotional realities of cancer.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren: With witty anecdotes and recreated dialogue, Jahren tells about her Minnesota upbringing, her long years in education, her ultimate specialization in geobiology/botany, crossing the country to take up academic posts in Atlanta, Baltimore and Hawaii, her long-time platonic relationship with eccentric lab partner Bill, and zany road trips across America for conferences and field work. What I think she does best is convey what it’s like to have true passion for your work, a rare thing.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: Kalanithi was 36 and just completing his neurosurgery residency in Stanford, California when he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer that did not respond well to treatment; he devoted his last year to writing this. I would recommend this cancer memoir to anyone for the beauty of its prose – a fine blend of literature and medicine – and the simple yet wholehearted picture of a life cut short.
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing: A remarkable piece of work fusing social history, commentary on modern art, biographical observation and self-knowledge. It’s a testament to Laing’s skill when I say that I knew next to nothing about any of these artists to start with and have little fondness for modern art but still found her book completely absorbing.
Squirrel Pie (and Other Stories): Adventures in Food across the Globe by Elisabeth Luard: Broadly speaking, this is about indigenous and peasant cooking traditions, a remit that allows Luard to include and adapt travel pieces she’s written over the past 20 years. It’s a cozy and conversational book for anyone who enjoys cooking or eating food from different cuisines (from Maui and Romania to Gujarat and Ethiopia); Luard’s own sketches and line drawings provide a lovely accompaniment.
Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body by Jo Marchant: Marchant, a journalist with a PhD in genetics and medical microbiology, investigates instances where the mind seems to contribute to medical improvement: the use of placebos in transplant recipients, hypnosis for IBS patients, virtual reality to help burn victims manage pain, and the remarkable differences that social connection, a sense of purpose, meditation and empathic conversation all make. I finished the book feeling intrigued and hopeful about what this might all mean for the future of medicine.
Poor Your Soul by Mira Ptacin: Ptacin’s wonderful memoir is based around two losses: her brother in a collision with a drunk driver, and a pregnancy in 2008; she skips back and forth in time to examine the numb aftermath of trauma as well as the fresh pain of actually going through it. I loved so much about this book, especially her memories of growing up in the cereal capital of America in Michigan and the account of her mother coming to America from Poland and setting up a fine-dining restaurant.
The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End by Katie Roiphe: An erudite, elegiac work of literary biography that takes in Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak and James Salter. What Roiphe observes of Sendak’s habit of drawing the dead and dying could equally be applied to The Violet Hour: it’s about seeing the beauty in what terrifies you.
Beyond the High Blue Air: A Memoir by Lu Spinney: In March 2006 Lu Spinney’s twenty-nine-year-old son, Miles King, was on a snowboarding holiday in Austria; on the final morning of the trip he took a fall that would leave this athlete, intellectual, and entrepreneur with a traumatic brain injury. Spinney tells her sad tale remarkably well, in a consciously literary style: with no speech marks and present-tense narration, thought and action flow lucidly into dialogue and daydream; she always chooses just the right metaphors, too.
The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World by Abigail Tucker: From the earliest domestication of animals to the cat meme-dominated Internet, Tucker marvels at how cats have succeeded by endearing themselves to humans and adapting as if effortlessly to any habitat in which they find themselves. This is the amazing cat book I’d been looking for, but I don’t think you even have to be a pet person to find this wide-ranging book enthralling.
If I had to list an overall favorite nonfiction book of the year, it would be The Violet Hour.
The Best of the Rest
Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home by Jessica Fechtor (2015): At age 28 Fechtor, then a graduate student in history and Yiddish, collapsed on a treadmill with a brain bleed; a subsequent surgery to clip the aneurysm left her blind in one eye. She gives a glimpse into an ordinary existence turned upside down and the foods that helped her regain a zest for life by reconnecting her with her family and her Jewish heritage.
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1977): Over the course of three years in the 1930s, starting when he was just 18, Fermor walked from Holland to Constantinople; this first of three volumes covers up until his entry into Hungary. His descriptions of the landscape and the people he interacted with are as fresh as if they happened yesterday; the precious glimpse of pre-war history and the damn fine writing make this a true masterwork of travel writing.
The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris (1996): Norris draws lessons from the time she spent as a lay Benedictine oblate but also simply reflects on her own life: the blessings and challenges of being a freelance poet and theologian; the daily discipline involved in marriage, keeping a house and gardening; and childhood memories from Virginia, Illinois and Hawaii. This is an impressively all-encompassing and eloquent set of essays on how faith intersects with everyday life.
One of Us: The Story of a Massacre and Its Aftermath by Åsne Seierstad (2015): An utterly engrossing account of Anders Behring Breivik’s July 22, 2011 attacks on an Oslo government building (8 dead) and the political youth camp on the island of Utøya (69 killed). This is a book about love and empathy – what they can achieve and what happens when they are absent; it shows how wide the ripples of one person’s actions can be, and how deep individual motivation goes.
The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman (1986): Spiegelman drew these allegorical tableaux to illustrate what, from a distance of decades, his Polish father Vladek told him about his almost unbelievable series of escapes, including time in Auschwitz. The only graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize, this brings the Holocaust home in a fresh way and paved the way for comic artists like Roz Chast and Alison Bechdel.
What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll list some runners-up for the year, and award a few more superlatives.
For much much of the summer I was sunk deep into several very good but not particularly page-turning works of nonfiction from my shelves. I spent months reading some of them, which is very unusual for me and often a sign that I’m not enjoying something, but this time that wasn’t the case. One of these nonfiction reads – the Fermor – ended up being among my favorite books of the year so far. Below I give quick write-ups of what I’ve finished lately and recall how these books came to be in my collection.
Lincoln: A Foreigner’s Quest by Jan Morris: Like grape jelly, the obsession with Abraham Lincoln was something about American life that world traveler Jan Morris could never understand. Here she sets out to discover the melange of history and myth that composes the 16th president. She succeeds in giving not only the salient facts of Lincoln’s life but also a fair assessment of his character, in a lighthearted and accessible book that has neither the heft nor the heavygoing tone of a standard biography. Her discussion of his rhetorical style is especially good, and in a few passages she imagines the reader into scenes. Here’s one of the best pithy observations: “Academic historians cannot allow themselves such flip idiomatic judgments, but to an outsider like me that seems about the truth of it. He was a nice man. He could be scheming, irritable, disingenuous, but he was never pompous or overbearing.” [Remainder copy bought for $3.99 at Wonder Book and Video, Frederick, Maryland.]
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan: I made the mistake of reading this a decade after its publication, which means I already knew most of its facts about industrialized farming and the insidiousness of processed foods. I found Part I to be overly detailed and one-note, constantly harping on about corn. The book gets better as it goes on, though, with Pollan doing field research at Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia to compare large-scale organic agriculture with more sustainable grassroots operations. Pollan’s assessment of the ethics of eating meat is not quite as thorough as Jonathan Safran Foer’s (in Eating Animals), but he does a good job of showing all sides of the issue. This would make an excellent, comprehensive introduction to where food comes from for people who have never given it much thought. But then again, the people who need it most would never pick up a dense 400+-page book by a liberal journalist. [Bought in one of the Hay-on-Wye shops for £2.]
The Naming of the Shrew by John Wright: Wright is known in the UK as TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s go-to expert on foraging, especially fungi. His enthusiasm for the arcane details of Latin naming comes through clearly in this thorough history of taxonomy. At first I thought it would be a groaningly pun-filled book of arbitrarily arranged trivia, but by Chapter 2 Wright won me over. You’ll learn all about Carl Linnaeus and the taxonomists who preceded and followed him; rules for species naming and the meaning of common Latin prefixes and suffixes; the wildly divergent sources of names, from discoverers’ names to mythology; and the endless complications of a field where species are always being lumped, split, or re-evaluated. One of my favorite facts was that aloe vera and the boa constrictor are among the few species whose English names are the same as their Latin ones. [A birthday gift from my brother-in-law last year.]
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor: A true masterwork of travel writing. Over the course of three years, starting when he was just 18, Fermor walked from Holland to Constantinople. I was particularly eager to read this because he passes through a lot of places I went on my travels this past summer, including Germany, Austria and Bratislava. This first of three volumes covers up until his entry into Hungary. His descriptions of the landscape and the people he interacted with are as fresh as if they happened yesterday, and yet he was reconstructing this journey nearly 40 years after the fact. Although he was basically traveling rough, he managed to wangle invitations into castles and aristocrats’ homes. This gives him a broad base of observation such that you feel you’re getting a complete picture of European life in the early 1930s. It’s a precious glimpse of pre-war history, but Fermor doesn’t use too heavy a hand when recalling signs of rising Nazism. Lastly, this is simply damn fine writing:
Beer, caraway seed, beeswax, coffee, pine-logs and melting snow combined with the smoke of thick, short cigars in a benign aroma across which every so often the ghost of sauerkraut would float.
The Romanesque nave was packed and an anthem of great choral splendour rose from the gothic choir stalls, while the cauliflowering incense followed the plainsong across the slopes of the sunbeams.
When no buildings were in sight, I was back in the Dark Ages. But the moment a farmhouse or a village impinged, I was in the world of Peter Brueghel.
[Bought for £1 from a secondhand bookstore in Henley-on-Thames.]
The House by the Sea by May Sarton: This is the sixth of Sarton’s journals I’ve read. It covers 1975–6, when she was 63–4 and in her second year in Maine. Her health is not yet a worry, at least as compared to later journals, but there is a faint sense of diminished abilities and an awareness of death’s approach. Poetry has run dry for her, but in the course of writing this journal she publishes a series of biographical reflections and prepares to begin a new novel. Tamas the dog and Bramble the cat are faithful companions. Her former lover, Judy, suffers from dementia and visits with her are mostly painful reminders of what has been lost. These journals are not the place to turn if you want momentous events. Rather, read them for deep insight into a writer’s psyche, meditations on the benefits of solitude, and affirmation of the quiet joys of gardening and an ocean view. [Bought from a library book sale in America for 50 cents.]
What are some of the best nonfiction books you’ve read recently?
We spent a few days last week in Cambridge, England for New Networks for Nature’s interdisciplinary “Nature Matters” conference, this year on the theme of “In Touch with the Wild.” This is the fourth year my husband (a biologist with the University of Reading) has participated, and the third year in a row that I’ve attended for a day. While other years the gathering has been in the small town of Stamford, this year’s temporary move to Cambridge gave us the impetus to finally explore this world-famous city for the first time.
Arriving later than we meant to on a Thursday evening, checking into our noisy hostel and then having to dash out in time for my husband to make the first event (and making a futile attempt to find an open coffee shop where I could while away a couple hours)…this all meant our first impression of the city was not great. However, cheap, terrific Chinese street food on Friday after the conference, followed by a delicious glass of cider in a pub and a sunny day for exploring the bustling city center on Saturday created a more favorable overall feeling.
Last year’s conference highlights for me were a debate about nature’s economic value and a panel on the purpose of nature poetry. This year’s sessions tackled personal connection with nature, rewilding (setting aside tracts of land for wilderness and reintroducing native species that have been driven out or gone locally extinct, such as wolves and wild boar), and coping with a sense of loss. With everyone from geographers to a singer and a painter involved on the day I attended, the conference succeeded in drawing in different fields from the sciences and the arts to provide commentary on ways we might reconnect with nature.
The day’s first event brought together author William Fiennes, poet Alison Brackenbury, and Cambridge psychologist Laurie Parma. Fiennes spoke about writing an introduction to John Fowles’s long, curmudgeonly essay The Tree. Whereas Fowles denigrates Linnaeus, Fiennes thinks of him as a hero; like Adam in the Bible, Linnaeus knew the value of naming things. “In order to care about something, we first have to notice it,” Fiennes insisted; for him the noticing began when he was a child going round the garden with his father and learning plant names. Rather than thinking of names as a control mechanism, he suggested they can be a first step in “granting [a species] a place in your sensorium.”
Brackenbury, who comes from four generations of Lincolnshire shepherds, recited from memory seven poems from her latest collection, Skies, several of which reflect on species’ extinctions or comebacks. “Look at them well before they go” is the broadly applicable piece of advice that closes “The Elms.” I especially liked one poem about a starling’s many songs.
Parma relayed the scientific evidence for green spaces mitigating stress and promoting happiness. At an event like this there’s an inevitable feeling that the speakers are preaching to the choir: we already know the personal value of time in nature, as well as the scale of environmental degradation. Still, this came home afresh in the following session as Dr. Stuart Butchart of BirdLife International spoke about the situation in Hawaii, where deforestation, non-native mosquitoes and other invasive animals are rapidly driving native birds to extinction. Photojournalist Toby Smith then questioned whether the nature photographer’s role should be to chronicle nature’s degradation or to celebrate what’s left. Many speakers acknowledged the difficult balance between mourning losses and applauding successes.
I spent most of Saturday scouring Cambridge’s charity shops and made out like a bandit, coming away with 15 books for £15.39. If you happen to find yourself in Cambridge and have seen all you need to of the colleges and the river (it doesn’t take very long), I can recommend Burleigh Street for charity shops but also Mill Road, a slightly more off-the-beaten-path student area of ethnic eateries and cheap stores. Books for Amnesty has an incredible selection; I took advantage of a couple James Lasdun books from their £1 poetry shelf. Best of all was the Salvation Army store, where all books were either 40 or 70 pence. I amassed a huge pile and then put half of it back when I remembered I would have to carry these books the mile or so back into town and then haul them around the whole rest of the day. I also did well at RSPCA’s two shops, one a dedicated bookshop on Mill Road.
Cambridge is certainly rich in secondhand book buying opportunities. Other shops I browsed but didn’t buy from included G. David Books and the tiny Sarah Key Books (also known as “The Haunted Bookshop” – I’d love to know why! – and included on a Guardian list of 10 of the best secondhand bookstores), both on St. Edward’s Passage, and the multi-floored emporium Heffers on St. John’s Street, which has a great selection of board games and gift items as well as new and used books.
As a literary destination, Cambridge left a bit to be desired, though. There weren’t any literary graves for me to find, nor any notable houses or statues. Many of the college’s famous alumni are known for work in other fields. There’s Newton, Darwin and Hawking in the sciences, for instance – they all appear in this mural in the hostel dining room. Plenty of political figures attended, as well as lots of living authors (Wikipedia has an extensive list; the hostel wall featured Zadie Smith as a fairly recent example of a literary alumna).
So, overall, a nice enough city for a day trip but not somewhere you need to stay much longer. Granted, it was outside of term time so King’s College wasn’t running its usual chapel services, and I never did make it out to the Fitzwilliam Museum. Still, I reckon you’ll find much more to see and do in Oxford, a city I’ve visited again and again ever since my undergraduate study abroad days took me there for weekly theology tutorials.