Excerpts from and links to some of my recent online writing for other places:
Three O’Clock in the Morning by Gianrico Carofiglio
The quotation that gives Carofiglio’s tender novel its title is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up: “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” It lends an appropriate sense of time suspended, of earnest seeking and extreme circumstances: The main action of the book takes place over just a few days in June of 1983, when Italian teenager Antonio and his father are stranded in Marseilles while there for Antonio to be seen by an epilepsy specialist. The gift of this time outside of time allows them to get to know each other better, such that the memory of the trip will be precious to Antonio even decades later. I appreciated how the limited setting heightened this short novel’s emotions. Carofiglio invites readers to peer between the leisurely progression of events to see the bond that is being formed. (See my full review at BookBrowse. See also my related article on HarperVia, a new publishing imprint for international literature.)
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
Inspired by the composition of the Oxford English Dictionary, this Australian debut novel explores the lives of the women on its fringes through the words that were omitted. The suffrage movement and World War I loom large as the storyline enters the 1910s. I most appreciated the relationships Esme has with the various women in her life. The main action spans the 40 years of the original composition of the OED. That scope means there is a lot of skipping forward in time. Especially in the first half, I longed for the narrative to slow down so I could spend more time with this character. Despite the first-person narration, I never felt I knew Esme very well. Women’s bonds and women’s words are strong themes in this forthrightly feminist novel that, despite its flaws, would make a great book club selection. (See my full review at BookBrowse. See also my reading list of books about dictionaries and lost words.)
Shiny New Books
Notes from Deep Time: The Hidden Stories of the Earth Beneath Our Feet by Helen Gordon
To assess the place of humanity, we can look back to prehistory, but also forward to envision the “deep future.” (It was only in a late chapter on nuclear waste disposal sites and warning messages to the future that I found too much direct overlap with Footprints by David Farrier.) This engagingly blends both tactics, surveying the fields of geology and palaeontology and pondering the future traces of the Anthropocene. I most enjoyed the middle chapters, in which science meets wildlife and cultural studies. For instance, a chapter on ammonites leads into a profile of Mary Anning and the history of both fossil hunting and women in STEM careers. The prose is well pitched to the layman’s level. Interviews, travels, and snapshots from her own life generally keep the material from becoming too dry. An invigorating interdisciplinary tour. (See my full review at Shiny New Books.)
My book club has been meeting via Zoom since April 2020. This is a common state of affairs for book clubs around the world. Especially since we have 12 members (if everyone attends, which is rare), we haven’t been able to contemplate meeting in person as of yet. However, a subset of us meet midway between the monthly reads to discuss women’s classics like Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. For next week’s meeting on Mrs. Dalloway, we are going to attempt a six-person get-together in one member’s house.
Anyway, a neat thing we did last month was a Zoom chat with the author: a BBC correspondent who happens to be the brother of one of our members. If you’re a news junkie in the UK, you may know the name Jon Sopel, though since I don’t have a telly or ever listen to radio, I hadn’t encountered him until this “in-person” meet-up. He has been the BBC’s North America Editor since 2014.
UnPresidented is the third book he wrote over the course of the Trump presidency. It started off as a diary of the 2020 election campaign, beginning in July 2019, but of course soon morphed into something slightly different: a chronicle of life in D.C. and London during Covid-19 and a record of the Trump mishandling of the pandemic. But as well as a farcical election process and a public health crisis, 2020’s perfect storm also included economic collapse and social upheaval – thanks to the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests worldwide plus isolated rioting.
UnPresidented served as a good reminder for me of the timeline of events and the full catalogue of outrages committed by Trump and his cronies. You just have to shake your head over the litany of ridiculous things he said and did, and got away with – any one of which might have sunk another president or candidate. The style is breezy and off-the-cuff, so the book reads quickly. There’s a good balance between world events and personal ones, with his family split across the UK and Australia. I appreciated the insight into differences from the British system. I thought it would be depressing reading back through the events of 2020, but for the most part the knowledge that everything turned out “right” allowed me to see the humour in it. Still, I found it excruciating reading about the four days following the election.
Sopel kindly gave us an hour of his time one Wednesday evening before he had to go on air and answered our questions about Biden, Harris, journalistic ethics, and more. He was charming and eloquent, as befits his profession.
Would any of these books interest you?
Three new books with medical themes (no surprise there), including the first Covid wave in the UK; fertility and body issues in a new queer family; and pain management strategies.
Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic by Rachel Clarke
Clarke is a palliative care doctor based in Oxfordshire. She runs the Katharine House hospice but during the coronavirus pandemic has also been on active duty in the Oxford University Hospitals system. If you’re on social media you have likely come across some of her postings as she has been equally vocal in her praise of the NHS and her criticism of Boris Johnson’s faltering policies, which are often of the too little, too late variety. So I was eager to read her insider’s account of hospital treatment of the first wave of Covid in the UK, especially because her previous book, Dear Life, was one of my top two nonfiction releases of last year.
The focus is on the first four full months of 2020, and the book originated in Clarke’s insomniac diaries and notes made when, even after manically busy shifts, she couldn’t rest her thoughts. Her pilot husband was flying to China even as increasingly alarming reports started coming in from Wuhan. She weaves in the latest news from China and Italy as well as what she hears from colleagues and disease experts in London. But the priority is given to stories: of the first doctor to die in China; of a Yorkshire ICU nurse’s father, who comes down with Covid and is on a ventilator in an Oxford hospital; and of her patients there and in the hospice. She is touched that so many are making great sacrifices, such as by deciding not to visit loved ones at the end of their lives so as not to risk spreading infection.
A shortage of PPE remained a major issue, though Dominic Pimenta (whose Duty of Care was my first COVID-19 book) pulled through for her with an emergency shipment for the hospice – without which it would have had to close. Clarke marvels at the NHS’s ability to create an extra 33,000 beds within a month, but knows that this comes at a cost of other services, including cancer care, being stripped back or cancelled, meaning that many are not receiving the necessary treatment or are pushing inescapable problems further down the road.
A comparison with Gavin Francis’s Intensive Care, published earlier in the month, is inevitable. Both doctors bounce between headlines and everyday stories, government advice and the situation on the ground. Both had their own Covid scare – Clarke didn’t meet the criteria to be tested so simply went back to work two weeks later, when she felt well enough – and had connections to regions that foreshadowed what would soon happen in the UK. Both give a sense of the scope of the crisis and both lament that, just when patients need compassion most, full PPE leads to their doctors feeling more detached from them than ever.
However, within the same page count, Francis manages to convey more of the science behind the virus and its transmission, and helpfully explores the range of effects Covid is having for different groups. He also brings the story more up to the minute with a look back from November, whereas Clarke ends in April and follows up with an epilogue set in August. A book has to end somewhere, yes, but with this crisis ongoing, the later and more relevant its contents can be, the better. And in any book that involves a lot of death, mawkishness is a risk; Clarke so carefully avoided this in Dear Life, but sometimes succumbs here, with an insistence on how the pandemic has brought out the best in people (clapping and rainbows and all that). Her writing is as strong as ever, but I would have appreciated a sharper, more sombre look at the situation a few months later. Perhaps there will be a sequel.
With thanks to Little, Brown UK for the free copy for review.
Some Body to Love: A Family Story by Alexandra Heminsley
From Heminsley’s previous book, Leap In, I knew about her getting married and undergoing IVF. It was also a book about outdoor swimming; I appreciated her words on acquiring a new skill as an adult and overcoming body issues. This memoir continues the story: in 2017, after a gruelling journey through infertility treatment, Heminsley finally got the baby she wanted. But not before a couple more heart-wrenching moments: the lab made an error and notified her that she shared no DNA with this last embryo, and while heavily pregnant she was assaulted by a drunk man on a train. Both incidents left her feeling a loss of agency. “Why was I consistently being deemed the least reliable witness of my own reality?” she asks.
As they adjusted to new life with a baby, Heminsley started to notice that she wasn’t connecting with her husband, D, like she used to. She felt emotionally unsupported and, in fact, jealous of D’s relationship with their son, L. And while they’d never been the most conventional couple, D’s changes of appearance and wardrobe seemed like a sign of something bigger. Indeed, when L was six months old, D told Heminsley, “this body doesn’t represent who I am” and announced a decision to begin transitioning.
As D moved towards having a body that fit their identity, Heminsley, too, needed to get back in touch with her body. After books like Running Like a Girl, she was considered an exercise guru, but she didn’t see herself in the new obsession with Instagram-ready images of fitness perfection. This is not, then, primarily a memoir of queer family-making, because D’s transitioning was not Heminsley’s story to tell and mostly occurs in the background. Instead she focuses on what she does know and can control: her relationship to her own body.
However, this entails what can feel like irrelevant flashbacks to her teenage years of undergoing rehab at a military clinic in Germany for hypermobility, trips to Trinidad and Italy, and the genesis of her two sporting memoirs. Much as I applaud the sensitivity to trans and body issues, the book ends up feeling scattered. Still, the writing is so candid and the narrative so eventful that you’ll race through this even if you don’t normally pick up nonfiction. (For a bit more information, see my short write-up of the virtual book launch.)
With thanks to Chatto & Windus for the free copy for review.
Pain: The Science of the Feeling Brain by Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen
Originally from South Africa, Dr Lalkhen is an anaesthesiology and pain specialist based in Manchester. In a nutshell, his approach is “biopsychosocial,” meaning that he seeks to understand pain not just as a physical phenomenon resulting from acute injury or damage but as an ongoing process that is affected by emotional and psychological factors. Particularly in the context of chronic syndromes, he acknowledges that pain can continue even when its immediate cause has been repaired. Mental preparation can come into the equation: if a patient assumes they’ll wake up from surgery healed, they may be alarmed if pain persists. Lalkhen talks about managing patient expectations, perhaps with something as simple as the promise, “we’ll aim to get your pain down to a 4 after surgery.” In part, he blames Western society’s Cartesian philosophy for treating mind and body as separate rather than a system.
There are genetic and psychological reasons people might be predisposed to chronic pain. Pain itself can then change the brain chemistry, making the body more alert to pain signals. People can choose one of three paths, Lalkhen observes: “You can spend your time agitating about the alarm going off, you can try to ignore it (but the ignoring of it actually takes up more energy), or the final alternative is to learn to live with this deeply unpleasant situation.” Those who opt for pharmacological solutions can become addicted to opiates, which are less effective over time. Non-drug-related therapies involve the desensitization of nerves, the injection of anaesthetics or steroids, or the implanting of spinal cord stimulators. But all of these strategies have their limitations, and can diminish in efficacy. The patients he sees in his pain clinics may be disappointed that, rather than offering a panacea, he wants to wean them off their current pain relief and help them develop a new way of thinking about pain.
I felt I learned a lot from reading this. Lalkhen is careful to state that he is only referring to non-cancer pain (cancer pain in terminal patients will take all the morphine you can throw at it). Like many physicians, he worries about the modern epidemic of overtreatment and our obsession with wellness. I especially enjoyed the discussion of the understanding of pain and its treatment from the ancient world onward, and in particular the history of opiates. The prose is not literary, but this is an accessible and informational read if the subject matter draws you.
With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.
What recent nonfiction releases can you recommend?
Not long now until Nonfiction November. I’m highlighting three nonfiction books I’ve read over the last few months; any of them would be well worth your time if you’re still looking for some new books to add to the pile. I’ve got a practical introduction to the philosophy and politics of long-term/intergenerational planning, a group biography about the two gay couples who inhabited a house in the Welsh hills in turn, and a wide-ranging work on eels.
The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World by Roman Krznaric
I saw Krznaric introduce this via a digital Hay Festival session back in May. He is an excellent speaker and did an admirable job of conveying all the major ideas from his recent work within a half-hour presentation. Unfortunately, this meant that reading the book itself didn’t add much for me, although it goes deeper into his propositions and is illustrated with unique, helpful figures.
Without repeating from my write-up of the Festival talk, then, I’ll add in points and quotes that struck me:
- “some of the fundamental ways we organise society, from nation states and representative democracy to consumer culture and capitalism itself, are no longer appropriate for the age we live in.”
- 100 years as the minimum timeframe to think about (i.e., a long human life) – “taking us beyond the ego boundary of our own mortality so we begin to imagine futures that we can influence yet not participate in ourselves.”
- “The phones in our pockets have become the new factory clocks, capturing time that was once our own and offering in exchange a continuous electronic now full of infotainment, advertising and fake news. The distraction industry works by cleverly tapping into our ancient mammalian brains: our ears prick up at the ping of an arriving message … Facebook is Pavlov, and we’re the dogs.”
- The Intergenerational Solidarity Index as a way of assessing governments’ future preparation: long-term democracies tend to perform better, though they aren’t perfect; Iceland scores the highest of all, followed by Sweden.
- Further discussion of Doughnut Economics (a model developed by Krznaric’s wife, Kate Raworth), which pictures the sweet spot humans need to live in between a social foundation and the ecological ceiling; failures lead to overshoot or shortfall.
- Four fundamental barriers to change: outdated institutional designs (our basic political systems), the power of vested interests (fossil fuel companies, Amazon, et al.), current insecurity (refugees), and “insufficient sense of crisis” – we’re like frogs in a gradually boiling pot, he says, and need to be jolted out of our complacency.
This is geared more towards economics and politics than much of what I usually read, yet fits in well with other radical visions of the future I’ve engaged with this year (some of them more environmentalist in approach), including Footprints by David Farrier, The Future Earth by Eric Holthaus, and Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell.
With thanks to WH Allen for the free copy for review.
On the Red Hill: Where Four Lives Fell into Place by Mike Parker (2019)
I ordered a copy from Blackwell’s after this made it through to the Wainwright Prize shortlist – it went on to be named the runner-up in the UK nature writing category. It’s primarily a memoir/group biography about Parker, his partner Peredur, and George and Reg, the couple who previously inhabited their home of Rhiw Goch in the Welsh Hills and left it to the younger pair in their wills. In structuring the book into four parts, each associated with an element, a season, a direction of the compass and a main character, Parker focuses on the rhythms of the natural year. The subtitle emphasizes the role Rhiw Goch played, providing all four with a sense of belonging in a rural setting not traditionally welcoming to homosexuals.
Were George and Reg the ‘only gays in the village,’ as the Little Britain sketch has it? Impossible to say, but when they had Powys’ first same-sex civil partnership ceremony in February 2006, they’d been together nearly 60 years. By the time Parker and his partner took over the former guesthouse, gay partnerships were more accepted. In delving back into his friends’ past, then, he conjures up another time: George fought in the Second World War, and for the first 18 years he was with Reg their relationship was technically illegal. But they never rubbed it in any faces, preferring to live quietly, traveling on the Continent and hosting guests at their series of Welsh B&Bs; their politics was conservative, and they were admired locally for their cooking and hospitality (Reg) and endurance cycling (George).
There are lots of in-text black-and-white photographs of Reg and George over the years and of Rhiw Goch through the seasons. Using captioned photos, journal entries, letters and other documents, Parker gives a clear impression of his late friends’ characters. There is something pitiable about both: George resisting ageing with nude weightlifting well into his sixties; Reg still essentially ashamed of his sexuality as well as his dyslexia. I felt I got to know the younger protagonists less well, but that may simply be because their stories are ongoing. It’s remarkable how Welsh Parker now seems: though he grew up in the English Midlands, he now speaks decent Welsh and has even stood for election for the Plaid Cymru party.
It’s rare to come across something in the life writing field that feels genuinely sui generis. There were moments when my attention waned (e.g., George’s feuds with the neighbors), but so strong is the overall sense of time, place and personality that this is a book to prize.
The Gospel of the Eels: A Father, a Son and the World’s Most Enigmatic Fish by Patrik Svensson
[Translated from the Swedish by Agnes Broomé]
“When it comes to eels, an otherwise knowledgeable humanity has always been forced to rely on faith to some extent.”
We know the basic facts of the European eel’s life cycle: born in the Sargasso Sea, it starts off as a larva and then passes through three stages that are almost like separate identities: glass eel, yellow eel, silver eel. After decades underwater, it makes its way back to the Sargasso to spawn and die. Yet so much about the eel remains a mystery: why the Sargasso? What do the creatures do for all the time in between? Eel reproduction still has not been observed, despite scientists’ best efforts. Among the famous names who have researched eels are Aristotle, Sigmund Freud and Rachel Carson, all of whom Svensson discusses at some length. He even suggests that, for Freud, the eel was a suitable early metaphor for the unconscious – “an initial insight into how deeply some truths are hidden.”
But there is a more personal reason for Svensson’s fascination with eels. As a boy he joined his father in eel fishing on Swedish summer nights. It was their only shared hobby; the only thing they ever talked about. His father was as much a mystery to him as eels are to science. And it was only as his father was dying of a cancer caused by his long road-paving career that Svensson came to understand secrets he’d kept hidden for decades.
Chapters alternate between this family story and the story of the eels. The book explores eels’ place in culture (e.g., Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum) and their critically endangered status due to factors such as a herpes virus, nematode infection, pollution, overfishing and climate change. A prior curiosity about marine life would be helpful to keep you going through this, but the prose is lovely enough to draw in even those with a milder interest in nature writing.
With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.
One of my recent borrows from the public library’s children’s section was the picture book Think of an Eel by Karen Wallace. Her unrhymed, alliterative poetry and the paintings by Mike Bostock beautifully illustrate the eel’s life cycle and journey.
You simply must hear folk singer Kitty Macfarlane’s gorgeous song “Glass Eel” – literally about eels, it’s also concerned with migration, borders and mystery.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Early on in Curtis Sittenfeld’s sixth novel, a work of alternative history narrated entirely by Hillary Rodham and covering the years between 1970 and the recent past, the character describes the method of decision-making she’s used since the third grade:
I thought of it as the Rule of Two: If I was unsure of a course of action but could think of two reasons for it, I’d do it. If I could think of two reasons against it, I wouldn’t.
Here’s the Rule of Two as applied to Rodham:
- You are likely to enjoy this novel if:
- You (if American) voted for Hillary Clinton or (if not) admire her and think she should have won the 2016 presidential race.
- You are a devoted fan of Curtis Sittenfeld’s writing and, in particular, loved American Wife (her 2008 masterpiece from the perspective of a fictionalized Laura Bush) and/or “The Nominee,” a short story voiced by HRC that appeared in the UK edition of You Think It, I’ll Say It.
- You will probably want to avoid this novel if:
- The idea of spending hours in Hillary’s head – hearing about everything from how Bill Clinton makes her feel in bed to her pre-debate nervous diarrhea – causes you to recoil.
- You’re not particularly interested in “What if?” questions, or would prefer that they were answered in one sentence rather than 400 pages.
Sittenfeld is one of my favorite authors and I’ve read everything she’s published, so I was predisposed to like Rodham and jumped at the chance to read it early. She has a preternatural ability to get inside other minds and experiences, channeling a first-person voice with intense detail and intimacy. It’s almost like she’s a medium instead of a novelist. As in “The Nominee,” the narration here is perfectly authentic based on what I’d read from HRC’s memoirs. However, a problem I had was that the first third of the novel sticks very closely to the plodding account of her early years in Living History, which I’d read in 2018. I liked coming across instances when she was told she was too strong-willed and outspoken for a girl, but felt the need for a layer of fiction as in American Wife.
So I was looking forward to the speculative material, which begins in 1974 when evidence of Bill Clinton’s chronic infidelity and sex addiction comes to light. He warns Hillary that he’ll never get over his issues and will only hold her back in the future, so she’s better off without him. She takes him at his word and leaves Arkansas a single woman. I’m going to leave it there for plot summary. IF you want the juicy specifics and don’t mind spoilers, or you don’t think you’ll read the novel itself but are still curious to learn what Sittenfeld does with her what-if future scenario, you can continue reading in the marked section below. There’s a lot to think about, so I would welcome comments from others who have read the book.
As to my own general reaction, though: I was fully engaged in the blend of historical and fictional material and read the novel in big chunks of 50+ pages at a time. The made-up characters are as convincing as the real-life ones, and there are a few relationships I found particularly touching. To my relief, there’s a satisfying ending and a couple of central figures get a pleasing comeuppance. But the chronology has an abrupt start and stop pattern, going deep into one time period or scene and then rushing forward, and I was left wondering what happened next, even if it would require another 400 pages. This would almost be better suited to some kind of serial format – it’s like the best kind of summer binge reading/watching.
Rodham will be published in the UK on July 9th by Doubleday. I read an advanced e-copy via NetGalley. My thanks to the publisher and publicists for arranging my early access.
I was delighted to be invited to help kick off the blog tour for Rodham. See below for details of where other reviews will be appearing soon.
SPOILERS ENSUE; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
The alternative history section of the novel picks up in 1991, when Hillary Rodham is on the law faculty at Northwestern University in Illinois, not far from where she grew up. She and James, a married colleague with whom she flirts harmlessly, are glued to the TV as news of Thurgood Marshall’s retirement from the Supreme Court and replacement by conservative African-American judge Clarence Thomas is complicated by a sexual harassment claim brought by Anita Hill. (It’s impossible not to see history repeating itself with Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony at Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing.) In the wake of this scandal, Rodham’s gay friend Greg Rheinfrank, a Democratic strategist and all-round great character, suggests that she run for the U.S. Senate – Washington, D.C. could clearly use more of a progressive female presence. Even though it eventually involves running against a (real-life) Black female, she agrees and wins in 1992, becoming a multi-term senator and running for president three times, starting with the 2004 race and culminating with 2016.
Meanwhile, Bill Clinton has married and divorced twice and is now a tech billionaire living in California and rumored to attend sex parties. A sex scandal quickly derailed his first presidential campaign in 1992, but in 2015 he decides to run again, thereby competing with his own ex-girlfriend for the Democratic nomination (at his rallies, “Shut her up!” becomes a popular chant that he tolerates from the crowd). Rodham makes it clear to her staff that he should not become president because he is a sexual predator.
But here a curious compromise comes into play: Donald Trump has a bone to pick with Clinton, so after some rigorous courting from Rodham and her staffers, he agrees to endorse her. In the novel, then, Clinton and Trump are like villainous twins: wealthy narcissists who devalue women. Trump is only differentiated by his lack of class and intelligence. He still tweets, spouts odious opinions and comes across as a buffoon, but – crucially – doesn’t run on the Republican ticket. Instead, it’s Jeb Bush, and Rodham beats him by 2.9 million votes.
So, whew! – a satisfying ending. At points I feared that Sittenfeld would conclude that, despite all that was different after Rodham rejecting Clinton, she still would have lost to Donald Trump. Instead, the novel envisions defeat for Clinton and comeuppance for Trump when he’s indicted for tax fraud in New York. It’s, of course, a vision of “what should have happened” (versus Hillary’s own account in What Happened). But in the back of my mind was the thought that, really, you could have just printed one sentence, “What if the USA didn’t still use that stupid electoral college system?” and you would have gotten the same outcome, because in 2016 HRC won the popular vote by that same 2.9 million.
Specific scenes and elements that I loved:
- Through her (fictional) childhood best friend, Maureen Gurski, we get an alternative vision of what life could have been like had Rodham married and had children; Maureen’s daughter Meredith becomes like a surrogate daughter for her.
- In 2015 Rodham becomes close to Misty, a supporter who’s battling breast cancer, and has her speak to open a rally for her.
- She goes on a stoned bonehead’s radio show and storms out in protest at his sexism – I totally got vibes of Leslie Knope on Crazy Ira and The Douche’s radio show (that’s a Parks and Recreation reference, in case you’re not familiar with it).
- Rodham gets a late chance at romance: there’s a “First Boyfriend” who seems just right for her.
- This isn’t a hagiography: Sittenfeld includes instances when Rodham is tone-deaf about race and chooses pragmatism over the moral high road (e.g. campaign funding).
- Sittenfeld found ways to incorporate real speech from press conferences, campaign announcements, etc. I also recognized two verbatim lines from the infamous “baking cookies” remarks HRC gave to reporters in 1992 (in the novel this happens in 2004).
Ultimately, I think Rodham doesn’t work as well as American Wife because we already know too much about Hillary, from her three published (ghostwritten) memoirs and from her being so much in the public eye since 1992. Whereas Laura Bush was something of a mystery, and American Wife introduced a comfortable cushion of fiction, Rodham is a little too in-your-face with its contemporary history and its message. But it’s a lot of fun nonetheless.
If you have made it all the way to the end of this extended review, give yourself a pat on the back!
My last of three digital Hay Festival* talks this year was by Roman Krznaric, a School of Life philosopher with a background in politics and gardening. I discovered him through Greenbelt Festival eight years ago and have since enjoyed several of his books on the topics of empathy, finding purposeful work, and models for living well. His talk on his upcoming book, The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short Term World, was an ideal follow-up to one of the top three 2020 nonfiction works I’ve read so far:
Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils by David Farrier
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
~from “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
In May 2013 a set of fossil human footprints was found at Happisburgh in Norfolk. At 850,000 years old, they were the oldest outside of Africa. In the same month, atmospheric CO2 passed 400 ppm for the first time. It’s via such juxtapositions of past and future, and longevity versus precariousness, that Farrier’s book – a sophisticated lattice of human and planetary history, environmental realism and literary echoes – tells the story of the human impact on the Earth.
Unusually, Farrier is not a historian or a climate scientist, but a senior lecturer in English literature at the University of Edinburgh specializing in nature and place writing, especially in relation to the Anthropocene. That humanities focus allowed him to craft a truly unique, interdisciplinary work in which the canon both foreshadows and responds to environmental collapse. On a sabbatical in Australia, he also gets to hold an ice core taken by an icebreaker, swim above coral reefs and visit a uranium mine exempted from protection in a national park.
He travels not just through space, but also through time, tracing a plastic bottle from algal bloom to oil to factory to river/landfill to ocean; he thinks about how cultural memory can preserve vanished landscapes; he imagines propitiatory rites arising around radioactive waste to explain poisoned lakes and zinc-lined coffins; and he wonders how to issue appropriate warnings to the future when we don’t even know if English, or language in general, will persist (a nuclear waste storage site in Carlsbad uses a combination of multilingual signs, symbols, monoliths and planned oral tradition, while one in Finland is unmarked).
Each chapter is an intricate blend of fact, experience and story. For example, “The Insatiable Road” is about cars and the concrete landscapes they zip through – all made possible by oil. Farrier wins a chance to be among the first to cross the new Forth Bridge on foot and finds himself awed by the human achievement. Yet he knows that, in a car, the bridge will be crossed in seconds and soon taken for granted. Whether as a driver or a passenger, we have become detached from the journey and from the places we are travelling through. The road trip, a standard element of twentieth-century art and literature, has lost its lustre. “Really, we have conceded so much,” he writes. “Most of us live and wander only where road networks permit us to, creeping along their edges and lulled into deafness by their constant roar.” Ben Okri’s legend provides the metaphor of a famished road that swallows all in its path.
What will the human species leave behind? “The entire atmosphere now bears the marks of our passage … Perhaps no one will be around to read our traces, but nonetheless we are, everywhere, constantly, and with the most astonishing profligacy, leaving a legacy that will endure for hundreds of thousands or even hundreds of millions of years to come.” That legacy includes the concrete foundations of massive road networks, the remnants of megacities on coastal plains, plastics that will endure for many centuries, carbon and methane locked up in permafrost, the 2300-km fossil of the dead Great Barrier Reef, nuclear waste in isolation plants, jellyfish-dominated oceans and decimated microbial life.
Thinking long term doesn’t come naturally. In the same way that multiple books of 2019 (Time Song, Surfacing, Underland) helped us think about the place of humanity in reference to deep time, Footprints offers an invaluable window onto the deep future. Its dichotomies of hubris and atonement, and culpability versus indifference, are essential to ponder. It was always going to be sobering to read about how we have damaged our only home, but I never found this to be a needlessly depressing book; it is clear-eyed and forthright, but also meditative and beautifully constructed. Life on the planet continues in spite of our alterations, but all the diminishment was unavoidable, and perhaps some of it is remediable still.
Related reading: Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell. I’m only up to page 36 and at the moment it’s just him watching loads of crackpot preppers’ videos on YouTube, but already I think that Footprints should have had this book’s spot on the Wainwright Prize for Writing on Global Conservation longlist (a new prize run in addition to the standard UK nature writing one) for being more directly engaged with conservation issues rather than just humorously commenting on the end-of-the-world mindset.
Roman Krznaric at Hay Festival
Krznaric’s discussion of being a “good ancestor” resonated in connection with the long-term thinking of Farrier’s book. “This is the age of the tyranny of the now,” he began, but “humankind has colonized the future” as well, treating it as a tempus nullius where we can dump our ecological waste and tech failures. Yet long-termism is needed more than ever as a way of planning for environmental challenges (and pandemics and the like). Future generations have no say in the decisions we make now that will affect them. To put this in perspective, he showed an image of three spheres, proportionally sized: one represented the 100 billion dead, one was the 7.7 billion currently living, and one was the 6.75 trillion in unborn generations (if the current birth rate continues).
It was Jonas Salk, creator of the polio vaccine, who asked, “Are we being good ancestors?” Krznaric invited the audience to come up with examples (in the chat window on the sidebar) of long-term projects through which people are trying to help future generations, such as the Svalbard Seed Depository, the Green New Deal, the 10,000-Year Clock (inside a mountain in the Texas desert), the Long Play piece of music to last 1,000 years, rewilding, archives and libraries, and tree planting. He had also opened the talk with his own modest contribution: he and his partner ‘gave’ their 11-year-old twins their votes in the latest election.
Krznaric elaborated on four of his book’s six ways of thinking about the future: 1) Rethink human nature by using the “acorn brain” (long-term thinking) rather than the “marshmallow brain” (instant gratification). 2) Embark on projects with long time horizons (“cathedral thinking”). 3) Think in terms of legacies, whether familial or transcendent – leaving a gift to the citizens of the future (e.g. The Future Library of 100 books not published or read until 2114). 4) Create a politics for the future, e.g. the citizen assembly movement.
In the case of the UK, Krznaric advocates abolishing the House of Lords, replacing it with a citizens’ assembly and a Minister for the Future, and establishing legal rights for future generations. He noted that globally we’re at a “devil’s fork” where there’s a danger of authoritarian regulations continuing around the world after quarantine ends, endangering the future of social democracy. Instead, we need grassroots activism and “doughnut economics.” He pictures devolution of power away from central governments, with progressive cities becoming new loci of power. Individual actions like vowing not to fly and installing solar panels can inspire peers, but only collective action can tackle environmental breakdown.
Related reading: I’ll be reviewing Eric Holthaus’s forthcoming book The Future Earth: A Radical Vision for What’s Possible in the Age of Warming for BookBrowse later this month. The meteorologist and science journalist fleshes out some of Krznaric’s ideas, such as a citizen assembly and the cyclical economy, in his proposal for the drastic changes needed over the next three decades.
*You can access the recorded Hay Festival talks by paying a £10 annual subscription here.
Have you read anything about the deep future?
“The fallen Congo came to haunt even our little family, we messengers of goodwill adrift on a sea of mistaken intentions.”
You may have gathered by now that I struggle with rereading. Often I find that on a second reading a book doesn’t live up to my memory of it – last year I reread just four books, and I rated each one a star lower than I had the first time. But that wasn’t the case with my September book club book, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which I’ve just flown through in 11 days. I first read it in the spring of 2002 or 2003, so maybe it’s that I’d allowed enough time to pass for it to be almost completely fresh – or that I was in a better frame of mind to appreciate its picture of harmful ideologies in a postcolonial setting. In any case, this time it struck me as a masterpiece, and has instantly leapt onto my favorites list.
Here’s what I’d remembered about The Poisonwood Bible after the passage of 16–17 years:
- It’s about a missionary family in Africa, and narrated by the daughters.
- One of the sisters marries an African.
- The line “Nathan was made frantic by sex” (except I had it fixed incorrectly in my mind; it’s actually “Nathan was made feverish by sex”).
Everything else I’d forgotten. Here’s what stood out on my second reading:
- Surely one of the best opening lines ever? (Though technically there’s a prologue that comes before it.) “We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle.”
- The book is actually narrated in turns by the wife and four daughters of Southern Baptist missionary Nathan Price, who arrives in the Congo with his family in 1959. These five voices are a triumph of first-person narration, so distinct and arising organically from the characters’ personalities and experiences. The mother, Orleanna, writes from the future in despondent isolation – a hint right from the beginning that this venture is not going to end well. Fifteen-year-old Rachel is a selfish, ditzy blonde who speaks in malapropisms and period slang and misses everything about American culture. Leah, one of the 13-year-olds, is whip-smart and earnest; she idolizes their father and echoes his religious language. Her twin, Adah, who was born with partial paralysis, rarely speaks but has an intricate inner life she expresses through palindromes, cynical poetry and plays on words. And Ruth May, just five years old, sees more than she understands and sets it all across plainly but wittily.
- Nathan’s arrogant response to the ‘native customs’ is excruciating. His first prayer, spoken to bless the meal the people of Kilanga give in welcome, quickly becomes a diatribe against nakedness, and he later rails against polygamy and witch doctors and tries to enforce child baptism. When he refuses to take their housekeeper Mama Tataba’s advice on planting, all of the seeds he brought from home wash away in the first rainstorm. On a second attempt he meekly makes the raised beds she recommended, and keeps away from the poisonwood that made him break out in a nasty rash. This garden he plants is a metaphor for control versus adaptation.
- Brother Fowles, Nathan’s predecessor at the mission, is proof that Christianity doesn’t have to be a haughty rampage. He respects Africans enough to have married one, and his religion is a playful, elastic one built around love and working alongside creation.
- The King James Bible (plus Apocrypha, for which Nathan harbors a strange fondness) provides much of the book’s language and imagery, as well as the section headings. Many of these references come to have (sometimes mocking) relevance. Kingsolver also makes reference to classics of Africa-set fiction, like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
- Africa is a place of many threats – malaria and dysentery, snakes in the chicken house, swarms of ants that eat everything in their path, corruption, political coups and assassinations – not least the risk of inadvertently causing grave cultural offense.
- The backdrop of the Congo’s history, especially the declaration of independence in 1960 and the U.S.-led “replacement” (by assassination) of its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, with the dictator Mobutu, is thorough but subtle, such that minimal to no Googling is required to understand the context. (Only in one place, when Leah and Rachel are arguing as adults, does Kingsolver resort to lecturing on politics through dialogue, as she does so noticeably in Unsheltered.)
- Names are significant, as are their changes. With the end of colonialism Congo becomes Zaire and all its cities and landmarks are renamed, but the change seems purely symbolic. The characters take on different names in the course of the book, too, through nicknames, marriage or education. Many African words are so similar to each other that a minor mispronunciation by a Westerner changes the meaning entirely, making for jokes or irony. And the family’s surname is surely no coincidence: we are invited to question the price they have paid by coming to Africa.
- We follow the sisters decades into the future. “Africa has a thousand ways to get under your skin,” Leah writes; “we’ve all ended up giving up body and soul to Africa, one way or another.” Three of the four end up staying there permanently, but disperse into different destinies that seem to fit their characters. Even those Prices who return to the USA will never outrun the shadow the Congo has left on their lives.
What an amazing novel about the ways that right and wrong, truth and pain get muddied together. Some characters are able to acknowledge their mistakes and move on, while others never can. As Adah concludes, “We are the balance of our damage and our transgressions.”
I worried it would be a challenge to reread this in time to hand it over for my husband to take on his week-long field course in Devon, but it turned out to be a cinch. That’s the mark of success of a doorstopper for me: it’s so engrossing you hardly notice how long the book is. I think this will make for our best book club discussion yet. I can already think of a few questions to ask – Is it fair that Nathan never gets to tell his side of the story? Which of the five voices is your favorite? Who changes and who stays the same over the course of the book? – and I’m sure I’ll find many more resources online since this was an Oprah’s Book Club pick too.
English singer-songwriter Anne-Marie Sanderson’s excellent Book Songs, Volume 1 EP includes the song “Poisonwood.” The excerpted lyrics are below, with direct quotes from the text in bold.
Our Father speaks for all of us
Our Father knows what’s best for us as well
He planted a garden where poisonwood grew
He cut down the orchids cos none of us knew
that the seeds that filled his pockets
would grow and grow without stopping
his beans, his Kentucky Wonders
played their part in tearing us asunder.
Our mother suffered through all of this
Our mother carried the guilt
Carry us, marry us, ferry us, bury us
Carry us, bury us with the poisonwood.
Page count: 615
“There is no planet B. This is where we will live, or go extinct as a species.”
I’m periodically prone to melancholy musings on the impending end of the world (like here). Reading this punchy collection of 35 essays was a way of taking those feelings seriously and putting them to constructive use. You’ve likely heard of Extinction Rebellion: a peaceful environmental activism movement that began in the UK and has now spread worldwide, it demands that governments face the facts about the climate crisis and do something about it, now. Fittingly, the book is divided into two sections: “Tell the Truth” plainly sets out the basics of climate breakdown and the effects we expect to see, including the disproportionate toll it will have on the poor and marginalized, and on island nations like the Maldives; “Act Now” is a practical call to arms with pieces by politicians, economists and protest organizers.
Not surprisingly, experts are calling for radical societal change: we must move away from the car culture; we cannot continue to equate success with economic growth; we must reorganize how cities function. “We are not looking at adjustments any more. It’s a complete overhaul,” Leeds University’s Professor of Urban Futures, Paul Chatterton, writes. But what did surprise me about reading This Is Not a Drill is that it’s not depressing. It’s actually rather exciting to see how many great minds and ordinary folk are aware of the climate crisis and working to mitigate it. We might not have political will at the highest levels, but grassroots movements involving just 3% of the citizenry have been shown to effect social change. I want to be part of that 3%. After I finished reading I signed up to ER’s mailing list, and though it’s not at all in my comfort zone, I’m going to consider taking part in their next public disruption.
I came away from this book with a feeling of camaraderie: we’re all in this together, and so we can only tackle it together. Post-apocalyptic fiction envisions violent, everyone-for-themselves scenarios, but it doesn’t have to be that way. ER demonstrations are said to be characterized by energy, music, laughter and good food. One word keeps appearing throughout the essays: “love.” There is righteous anger here, yes, but that’s outweighed by love – love of our planet, our only home, and the creatures it nurtures; love of the human race, the family that encompasses us all. While the authors are not unanimously optimistic, there is a sense that there is dignity in working towards positive change, whether or not we ultimately succeed. Plus, “It might just work,” former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams concludes in his afterword.
If you feel hopeless when you think about the state of the environment, I encourage you to pick this up, even if you only skim through and read a handful of the essays. The handbook achieves a fine balance between academics and laypeople; forthright assertions and creative ideas; grief and enthusiasm. It’s also strikingly designed, with the pink cover matching the ER boat and heavy use of the sorts of recurring icons and slogans you might recognize from their banners: skulls and hourglasses share space with bees, birds, butterflies and a Tree of Life. My only real quibble is that I would have liked a short bio of each contributor, either at the close of each essay or in an appendix, because while a few of these authors are household names, many are not, and it would be useful to know their bona fides.
Don’t miss these pieces: “Climate Sorrow” by psychotherapist Susie Orbach, “A Political View” by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, “A New Economics” by Oxbridge economist Kate Raworth, and “The Civil Resistance Model” by Roger Hallam of Extinction Rebellion.
Some favorite lines:
“Being human is not about individual survival or escape. It’s a team sport. Whatever future humans have, it will be together.” (from “Survival of the Fittest,” by American media theorist Douglas Rushkoff)
“It’s interesting and important to note that the people who are most effective are often the least attached to the effectiveness of their actions. Being detached from the outcome, and in love with the principles and the process, can help mitigate against burn-out.” (from “The Civil Resistance Model” by Roger Hallam)
“We may or may not escape a breakdown. But we can escape the toxicity of the mindset that has brought us here. And in so doing we can recover a humanity that is capable of real resilience.” (from the Afterword by Rowan Williams)
“if you are alive at this moment in history, it is because you are here to do a job. So what is your place in these times?” (from “What Is Your Place in These Times?” by Gail Bradbrook, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion)
This Is Not a Drill was published on June 13th. My thanks to Penguin Random House for the free copy for review.