This year the Be/Ask/Become the Expert week of the month-long Nonfiction November challenge is hosted by Veronica of The Thousand Book Project. (In previous years I’ve contributed lists of women’s religious memoirs (twice), accounts of postpartum depression, and books on “care”.)
I’ve been devouring nonfiction responses to COVID-19 for over a year now. Even memoirs that are not specifically structured as diaries take pains to give a sense of what life was like from day to day during the early months of the pandemic, including the fear of infection and the experience of lockdown. Covid is mentioned in lots of new releases these days, fiction or nonfiction, even if just via an introduction or epilogue, but I’ve focused on books where it’s a major element. At the end of the post I list others I’ve read on the theme, but first I feature four recent releases that I was sent for review.
Year of Plagues: A Memoir of 2020 by Fred D’Aguiar
The plague for D’Aguiar was dual: not just Covid, but cancer. Specifically, stage 4 prostate cancer. A hospital was the last place he wanted to spend time during a pandemic, yet his treatment required frequent visits. Current events, including a curfew in his adopted home of Los Angeles and the protests following George Floyd’s murder, form a distant background to an allegorized medical struggle. D’Aguiar personifies his illness as a force intent on harming him; his hope is that he can be like Anansi and outwit the Brer Rabbit of cancer. He imagines dialogues between himself and his illness as they spar through a turbulent year.
Cancer needs a song: tambourine and cymbals and a choir, not to raise it from the dead but [to] lay it to rest finally.
Tracing the effects of his cancer on his wife and children as well as on his own body, he wonders if the treatment will disrupt his sense of his own masculinity. I thought the narrative would hit home given that I have a family member going through the same thing, but it struck me as a jumble, full of repetition and TMI moments. Expecting concision from a poet, I wanted the highlights reel instead of 323 rambling pages.
(Carcanet Press, August 26.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
100 Days by Gabriel Josipovici
Beginning in March 2020, Josipovici challenged himself to write a diary entry and mini-essay each day for 100 days – which happened to correspond almost exactly to the length of the UK’s first lockdown. Approaching age 80, he felt the virus had offered “the unexpected gift of a bracket round life” that he “mustn’t fritter away.” He chose an alphabetical framework, stretching from Aachen to Zoos and covering everything from his upbringing in Egypt to his love of walking in the Sussex Downs. I had the feeling that I should have read some of his fiction first so that I could spot how his ideas and experiences had infiltrated it; I’m now rectifying this by reading his novella The Cemetery in Barnes, in which I recognize a late-life remarriage and London versus countryside settings.
Still, I appreciated Josipovici’s thoughts on literature and his own aims for his work (more so than the rehashing of Covid statistics and official briefings from Boris Johnson et al., almost unbearable to encounter again):
In my writing I have always eschewed visual descriptions, perhaps because I don’t have a strong visual memory myself, but actually it is because reading such descriptions in other people’s novels I am instantly bored and feel it is so much dead wood.
nearly all my books and stories try to force the reader (and, I suppose, as I wrote, to force me) to face the strange phenomenon that everything does indeed pass, and that one day, perhaps sooner than most people think, humanity will pass and, eventually, the universe, but that most of the time we live as though all was permanent, including ourselves. What rich soil for the artist!
Why have I always had such an aversion to first person narratives? I think precisely because of their dishonesty – they start from a falsehood and can never recover. The falsehood that ‘I’ can talk in such detail and so smoothly about what has ‘happened’ to ‘me’, or even, sometimes, what is actually happening as ‘I’ write.
You never know till you’ve plunged in just what it is you really want to write. When I started writing The Inventory I had no idea repetition would play such an important role in it. And so it has been all through, right up to The Cemetery in Barnes. If I was a poet I would no doubt use refrains – I love the way the same thing becomes different the second time round
To write a novel in which nothing happens and yet everything happens: a secret dream of mine ever since I began to write
I did sense some misogyny, though, as it’s generally female writers he singles out for criticism: Iris Murdoch is his prime example of the overuse of adjectives and adverbs, he mentions a “dreadful novel” he’s reading by Elizabeth Bowen, and he describes Jean Rhys and Dorothy Whipple as women “who, raised on a diet of the classic English novel, howled with anguish when life did not, for them, turn out as they felt it should.”
While this was enjoyable to flip through, it’s probably more for existing fans than for readers new to the author’s work, and the Covid connection isn’t integral to the writing experiment.
(Carcanet Press, October 28.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
A stanza from the below collection to link the first two books to this next one:
Have they found him yet, I wonder,
whoever it is strolling
about as a plague doctor, outlandish
beak and all?
The Crash Wake and Other Poems by Owen Lowery
Lowery was a tetraplegic poet – wheelchair-bound and on a ventilator – who also survived a serious car crash in February 2020 before his death in May 2021. It’s astonishing how much his body withstood, leaving his mind not just intact but capable of generating dozens of seemingly effortless poems. Most of the first half of this posthumous collection, his third overall, is taken up by a long, multipart poem entitled “The Crash Wake” (it’s composed of 104 12-line poems, to be precise), in which his complicated recovery gets bound up with wider anxiety about the pandemic: “It will take time and / more to find our way / back to who we were before the shimmer / and promise of our snapped day.”
As the seventh anniversary of his wedding to Jayne nears, Lowery reflects on how love has kept him going despite flashbacks to the accident and feeling written off by his doctors. In the second section of the book, the subjects vary from the arts (Paula Rego’s photographs, Stanley Spencer’s paintings, R.S. Thomas’s theology) to sport. There is also a lovely “Remembrance Day Sequence” imagining what various soldiers, including Edward Thomas and his own grandfather, lived through. The final piece is a prose horror story about a magpie. Like a magpie, I found many sparkly gems in this wide-ranging collection.
(Carcanet Press, October 28.) With thanks to the publisher for the free e-copy for review.
Behind the Mask: Living Alone in the Epicenter by Kate Walter
[135 pages, so I’m counting this one towards #NovNov, too]
For Walter, a freelance journalist and longtime Manhattan resident, coronavirus turned life upside down. Retired from college teaching and living in Westbeth Artists Housing, she’d relied on activities outside the home for socializing. To a single extrovert, lockdown offered no benefits; she spent holidays alone instead of with her large Irish Catholic family. Even one of the world’s great cities could be a site of boredom and isolation. Still, she gamely moved her hobbies onto Zoom as much as possible, and welcomed an escape to Jersey Shore.
In short essays, she proceeds month by month through the pandemic: what changed, what kept her sane, and what she was missing. Walter considers herself a “gay elder” and was particularly sad the Pride March didn’t go ahead in 2020. She also found herself ‘coming out again’, at age 71, when she was asked by her alma mater to encapsulate the 50 years since graduation in 100 words.
There’s a lot here to relate to – being glued to the news, anxiety over Trump’s possible re-election, looking forward to vaccination appointments – and the book is also revealing on the special challenges for older people and those who don’t live with family. However, I found the whole fairly repetitive (perhaps as a result of some pieces originally appearing in The Village Sun and then being tweaked and inserted here).
Before an appendix of four short pre-Covid essays, there’s a section of pandemic writing prompts: 12 sets of questions to use to think through the last year and a half and what it’s meant. E.g. “Did living through this extraordinary experience change your outlook on life?” If you’ve been meaning to leave a written record of this time for posterity, this list would be a great place to start.
(Heliotrope Books, November 16.) With thanks to the publicist for the free e-copy for review.
Other Covid-themed nonfiction I have read:
- Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke
- Intensive Care by Gavin Francis
- Every Minute Is a Day by Robert Meyer and Dan Koeppel (reviewed for Shelf Awareness)
- Duty of Care by Dominic Pimenta
- Many Different Kinds of Love by Michael Rosen
+ I have a proof copy of Everything Is True: A Junior Doctor’s Story of Life, Death and Grief in a Time of Pandemic by Roopa Farooki, coming out in January.
- Goshawk Summer by James Aldred
- The Heeding by Rob Cowen (in poetry form)
- Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt
- The Consolation of Nature by Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren
- Skylarks with Rosie by Stephen Moss
- Hold Still (a National Portrait Gallery commission of 100 photographs taken in the UK in 2020)
- The Rome Plague Diaries by Matthew Kneale
- Quarantine Comix by Rachael Smith (in graphic novel form; reviewed for Foreword Reviews)
- UnPresidented by Jon Sopel
+ on my Kindle: Alone Together, an anthology of personal essays
+ on my TBR: What Just Happened: Notes on a Long Year by Charles Finch
If you read just one… Make it Intensive Care by Gavin Francis. (And, if you love nature books, follow that up with The Consolation of Nature.)
Can you see yourself reading any of these?
Two poetry offerings and a short memoir this month. A similar strategy is at work in both verse volumes: Jason Allen-Paisant contrasts Jamaica and England via the medium of trees, and Rob Cowen comments on current events through the prism of the natural world. In Kate Mosse’s first nonfiction book, she reflects on bereavement and caregiving.
Thinking with Trees by Jason Allen-Paisant
Allen-Paisant, from Jamaica and now based in Leeds, describes walking in the forest as an act of “reclamation.” For people of colour whose ancestors were perhaps sent on forced marches, hiking may seem strange, purposeless (the subject of “Black Walking”). Back in Jamaica, the forest was a place of utility rather than recreation:
In Porus life was un-
The woodland was there
not for living in going for walks
Trees were answers to our needs
not objects of desire
But “I give myself permission / to go outside,” he writes, to notice the turning of the seasons, to commune with trees and birds, even if “there is nobody else like me / around here”. Explicitly calling into question Wordsworth’s model of privileged wandering, he injects a hint of threat into his interactions with nature. Most often this is symbolized by the presence of dogs. Even the most idyllic of scenes harbours the possibility of danger.
beware of spring
believe you are
a sprout of grass
and love all you see
but come out of the woods
before the white boys
The poet cites George Floyd and Christian Cooper, the Central Park birder a white woman called the police on, as proof that being Black outdoors is inherently risky. There’s no denying this is an important topic, but I found the poems repetitive, especially the references to dogs. These felt like overkill. While there is some interesting enjambment, as in the first extended quote above, as well as internal and half-rhymes, I tend to prefer more formal poetry that uses more sonic techniques and punctuation. Still, I would be likely to direct fans of Kei Miller’s work to this collection.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.
The Heeding by Rob Cowen
This poetry and art collaboration arose out of a “pact to pay attention” during a year of lockdown in the UK and record observations of nature, current events, and everyday life. Cowen is drawn to the moors near his home in Yorkshire, but also yearns to spend time with his friends again. He watches hawks and blue tits, notices the insects that fill his garden, and celebrates the way that allotment gardening brings together all sorts of people.
The emotional scope of the poems is broad: the author fondly remembers his brick-making ancestors and his honeymoon; he sombrely imagines the last moments of an old man dying in a hospital; he expresses guilt over accidentally dismembering an ant, yet divulges that he then destroyed the ants’ nest deliberately. There are even a couple of cheeky, carnal poems, one about a couple of teenagers he caught copulating in the street and one, “The Hottest Day of the Year,” about a longing for touch. “Matter,” in ABAB stanzas, is on the theme of racial justice by way of the Black Lives Matter movement.
My two favourites were “Sunday School,” about the rules for life he’s lived by since leaving religion behind, and “The End of This (Drinking Poem),” which serves as a good-riddance farewell to 2020: “Let me shake off / this year the way the otter / slips out of fast, rising water / and makes the holt just in time … / Let me rid my days of caution and fear, / these protocols and tiers / and Zoom funerals for people I love / and will never see again.” The book is worth the price of admission for the latter alone, and Nick Hayes’s black-and-white woodcut-style engravings are a plus.
However, in general I felt that the balance of current events and nature was off, especially compared to books like The Consolation of Nature, and ultimately I was not convinced that this needed to be in verse at all. “Starling,” especially, feels like a straight knockoff of Robert Macfarlane’s The Lost Words (“We forget that you once shimmered through frozen air, ripple bird. / Shape-shifter, dusk-dancer. Murmurer, sky-writer”). Judging from Cowen’s Common Ground, this would have been more successful as a book of short prose diary entries with a few poems dotted through.
With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the proof copy for review.
An Extra Pair of Hands: A Story of Caring, Ageing and Everyday Acts of Love by Kate Mosse
Mosse’s parents and mother-in-law all moved in to live with her and her husband in their Chichester home when they reached old age. Her father had Parkinson’s and died in 2011, her mother survived him by a few years, and Granny Rosie is still going (reasonably) strong at the age of 90. This is a compact and relatable account of a daughter’s experiences of caregiving and grief, especially with the recent added complications of a pandemic.
What came through particularly clearly for me was the older generation’s determination to not be a burden: living through the Second World War gave them a sense of perspective, such that they mostly did not complain about their physical ailments and did not expect heroic measures to be made to help them. (Her father knew his condition was “becoming too much” to deal with, and Granny Rosie would sometimes say, “I’ve had enough of me.”) In her father’s case, this was because he held out hope of an afterlife. Although Mosse does not share his religious beliefs, she is glad that he had them as a comfort.
The author recognizes the ways in which she has been lucky: as a full-time writer, she works from home and has the time and energy to devote to caring for elderly parents, whereas for many – generally middle-aged women, who may still have children at home – it is a huge struggle to balance caregiving with the rest of life. What is more, money is no issue for her. Repeating some of the statistics from Madeleine Bunting’s Labours of Love, she acknowledges that the situation is much more challenging for the average person.
I can see how this could serve as a great introduction for someone who hasn’t previously read much about bereavement, caregiving or old age, and I imagine it will especially appeal to existing fans of Mosse’s writing, whereas I was new to her work. I’ve read so much around these topics, including most of the works included in the bibliography, that the book did not offer me anything new, though it was a perfectly pleasant read.
Readalikes I have reviewed:
Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Be With by Mike Barnes
All Things Consoled by Elizabeth Hay
The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills
With thanks to Profile Books/Wellcome Collection for the free copy for review.
What recent releases can you recommend?
I’m continuing with the Nonfiction November focus by catching up on six nonfiction review books I’ve been sent over the last half a year. We’ve got a record of elderly parents’ decline, letters and poems written about the climate crisis, a family memoir set between Taiwan and Canada, a widow’s mushroom-hunting quest, a work of ecotheology that reflects on travels in the Galápagos Islands, and a defense of an entirely secular basis for morality. You can’t say I don’t read a variety, even within nonfiction! See if one or more of these tempts you.
All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir by Elizabeth Hay
Gordon and Jean Hay stumbled into their early nineties in an Ottawa retirement home starting in 2009. Elizabeth Hay is one of four children, but caregiving fell to her for one reason and another, and it was a fraught task because of her parents’ prickly personalities: Jean was critical and thrifty to the point of absurdity, spooning thick mold off apple sauce before serving it and needling Elizabeth for dumping perfectly good chicken juice a year before; Gordon had a terrible temper and a history of corporal punishment of his children and of his students when he was a school principal. Jean’s knee surgery and subsequent infection finally put paid to their independence; her mind was never the same and she could no longer paint.
There are many harsh moments in this memoir, but almost as many wry ones, with Hay picking just the right anecdotes to illustrate her parents’ behavior and the shifting family dynamic. She never looks away, no matter how hard it all gets. Her father’s rage against the dying of the light contrasts with her mother’s fade into confusion – lightened by the surprisingly poetic turns of phrase she came out with despite her dementia and aphasia. The title phrase, for instance, was her attempt at “all things considered.” I would wholeheartedly recommend this to readers of Hay’s novels, but anyone can appreciate the picture of complicated love and grief. (See also Susan’s review.)
With thanks to MacLehose Press for the free copy for review.
Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis, edited by Anna Hope et al.
Culture Declares Emergency launched in April to bring the arts into the conversation about the climate emergency. Letters to the Earth compiles 100 short pieces by known and unknown names alike. Alongside published authors, songwriters, professors and politicians are lots of ordinary folk, including children as young as seven. The brief was broad: to write a letter in response to environmental crisis, whether to or from the Earth, to future generations (there are wrenching pieces written to children: “What can I say, now that it’s too late? … that I’m sorry, that I tried,” writes Stuart Capstick), to the government or to other species.
There are certainly relatable emotions here, especially the feeling of helplessness. “We take the train, go vegan, refuse plastic, buy less and less. But that is tiny. We are tiny,” novelist Jo Baker writes. I loved retired bishop Richard Holloway’s wry letter calling the author of Genesis to account for unhelpful language of dominion, Rob Cowen’s poem to a starling, and Anna Hope’s essay about parenting in a time of uncertainty. Unfortunately, much of the rest is twee or haranguing, e.g. “Forest fires are scorching INNOCENT wildlife. Plastic is strangling INNOCENT turtles and dolphins,” a 12-year-old writes. This was put together in a matter of months, and it shows. There is not enough tonal variety, a lot of overwriting has crept through, and errors, especially in the kids’ work, remain uncorrected. Perhaps six to 10 pieces stood out to me overall. I’d recommend the Extinction Rebellion handbook instead.
With thanks to Alison Menzies / William Collins for the free copy for review.
Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan by Jessica J. Lee
I loved Turning, Lee’s 2017 memoir about swimming in one of Berlin’s lakes per week for a year, so I jumped at the chance to read her follow-up, which delves into her maternal line’s history in Taiwan. She travels to Taipei for three months to brush up on her Chinese, write and hike. Interspersed with the lush descriptions of her walks are reflections on Taiwan’s history and on the hidden aspects of her grandfather Gong’s past that only came to light after Lee’s grandmother, Po, died and she and her mother discovered an autobiographical letter he’d written before he drifted into dementia. Nature, language, history and memory flow together in a delicate blend of genres – “I moved from the human timescale of my family’s story through green and unfurling dendrological time,” she writes.
This has got to be one of the most striking title and cover combinations of the year. Along with Chinese characters, the book includes some looping text and Nico Taylor’s maps and illustrations of Taiwanese flora and fauna. While you will likely get more out of this if you have a particular interest in Asian history, languages and culture, it’s impressive how Lee brings the different strands of her story together to form a hybrid nature memoir that I hope will be recognized by next year’s Wainwright Prize and Young Writer of the Year Award shortlists. She’d also be a perfect New Networks for Nature speaker.
With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.
The Way through the Woods: Of Mushrooms and Mourning by Long Lit Woon
[Trans. from the Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland]
I couldn’t resist the sound of a bereavement memoir crossed with a mushroom hunting guide. When Long met her husband, Eiolf Olsen, she was an 18-year-old Malaysian exchange student in Stavanger, Norway. Meeting Eiolf changed the whole course of her life, keeping her in Europe for good; decades later, her life changed forever once again when Eiolf dropped dead at work one morning. “If anyone had told me that mushrooms would be my lifeline, the thing that would help me back onto my feet and quite literally back onto life’s track, I would have rolled my eyes. What had mushrooms to do with mourning?” she writes.
The answer to that rhetorical question is nothing much, at least not inherently, so this ends up becoming a book of two parts, with the bereavement strand (printed in green and in a different font – green is for grief? I suppose) engaging me much more than the mushroom-hunting one, which takes her to Central Park and the annual Telluride, Colorado mushroom festival as well as to Norway’s woods again and again – “In Norway, outdoor life is tantamount to a religion.” But the quest for wonder and for meaning is a universal one. In addition, if you’re a mushroom fan you’ll find gathering advice, tasting notes, and even recipes. I fancy trying the “mushroom bacon” made out of oven-dried shiitakes.
With thanks to Scribe for the free copy for review.
God Unbound: Theology in the Wild by Brian McLaren
McLaren was commissioned to launch a series that was part travel guide, part spiritual memoir and part theological reflection. Specifically, he was asked to write about the Galápagos Islands because he’d been before and they were important to him. He joins a six-day eco-cruise that tours around the island chain off Ecuador, with little to do except observe the birds, tortoises and iguanas, and swim with fish and sea turtles. For him this is a peaceful, even sacred place that reminds him of the beauty that still exists in the world despite so much human desecration. Although he avoids using his phone except to quickly check in with his wife, modernity encroaches unhelpfully through a potential disaster with his laptop.
I was surprised to see that McLaren leaves the Galápagos at the midpoint – whatever could fill the rest of the book, I wondered? He starts by reassessing Darwin, so often painted as a villain by Evangelical Christianity but actually a model of close, loving attention to nature. He also recalls how some of his most intense spiritual experiences have arisen from time in nature. McLaren’s books have been pivotal to my spiritual journey as we’ve both gradually become more liberal and environmentalist. His definition of God might horrify traditionalists, but holds appeal for me: “a centering singularity whose gravity holds me in insistent orbit, pulling me deeper into mystery, pondering who I am and what my life means.” This is an unusual but gently entrancing book full of photos and quotes from other thinkers including John Muir, Pope Francis and Richard Rohr. It’s an ideal introduction to ecotheology.
With thanks to Canterbury Press for the free copy for review.
What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life by Phil Zuckerman
From one end of the spectrum (progressive Christianity) to the other (atheism). Here’s a different perspective from a sociology professor at California’s Pitzer College. Zuckerman’s central argument is that humanism and free choice can fuel ethical behavior; since there’s no proof of God’s existence and theists have such a wide range of beliefs, it’s absurd to slap a “because God says so” label on our subjective judgments. Morals maintain the small communities our primate ancestors evolved into, with specific views (such as on homosexuality) a result of our socialization. Alas, the in-group/out-group thinking from our evolutionary heritage is what can lead to genocide. Instead of thinking in terms of ‘evil’, though, Zuckerman prefers Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen’s term, “empathy erosion.”
To tackle violent crime, Zuckerman contends, we need a more equal society, with the Scandinavian countries a model of how to achieve that through higher taxes, social services and the rehabilitation of prisoners. He uses a lot of relatable examples from history and from his own experience, as well as theoretical situations, to think through practical morality. I found his indictment of American Christianity accurate – how does it make sense for people who say they follow the way of Jesus to fight against equality, tolerance and scientific advances and instead advocate guns, the death penalty and Trump? Well, indeed.
It might seem odd for me to recommend this alongside the McLaren, but there is much to be gained from both viewpoints. Zuckerman’s work overlaps a fair bit with another I’ve read on the topic, Richard Holloway’s Godless Morality – even a bishop agrees we needn’t take our societal ethics straight from the Bible! I can’t go along fully with Zuckerman because I think progressive religion has been and can continue to be a force for good, but I would agree that atheists can be just as moral as people of faith – and often more so.
With thanks to Counterpoint Press for sending a proof copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Benjamin Myers’s Under the Rock was my nonfiction book of 2018, so I’m delighted to be kicking off the blog tour for its paperback release on the 25th (with a new subtitle, “Stories Carved from the Land”). I’m reprinting my Shiny New Books review below, with permission, and on behalf of Elliott & Thompson I am also hosting a giveaway of a copy of the paperback. Leave a comment saying that you’d like to win and I will choose one entry at random at the end of the day on Tuesday the 30th. (Sorry, UK only.)
Benjamin Myers has been having a bit of a moment. In 2017 Bluemoose Books published his fifth novel, The Gallows Pole, which went on to win the Roger Deakin Award and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and is now on its fourth printing. This taste of fame has brought renewed attention to his earlier work, including Beastings (2014), recipient of the Northern Writers’ Award. I’ve been interested in Myers’s work ever since I read an extract from the then-unpublished The Gallows Pole in Autumn, the Wildlife Trusts anthology edited by Melissa Harrison, but this is the first of his books that I’ve managed to read.
“Unremarkable places are made remarkable by the minds that map them,” Myers writes, and that is certainly true of Scout Rock, a landmark overlooking Mytholmroyd, near where the author lives in the Calder Valley of West Yorkshire. When he moved up there from London over a decade ago, he and his wife lived in a rental cottage built in 1640. He approached his new patch with admirable curiosity, and supplemented the observations he made from his study window with frequent long walks with his dog, Heathcliff (“Walking is writing with your feet”), and research into the history of the area. The result is a divagating, lyrical book that ranges from geology to true crime but has an underlying autobiographical vein.
Ted Hughes was born nearby, the Brontës not that much further away, and Hebden Bridge, in particular, has become a bastion of avant-garde artists and musicians. Myers also gets plenty of mileage out of his eccentric neighbours and postman. It’s a town that seems to attract oddballs and renegades, from the vigilantes who poisoned the fishing hole to an overdose victim who turns up beneath a stand of Himalayan balsam. A strange preponderance of criminals has come from the region, too, including sexual offenders like Jimmy Savile and serial killers such as the Yorkshire Ripper and Harold Shipman (‘Doctor Death’).
On his walks Myers discovers the old town tip, still full of junk that won’t biodegrade for hundreds more years, and finds traces of the asbestos that was dumped by Acre Mill, creating a national scandal. This isn’t old-style nature writing in search of a few remaining unspoiled places. Instead, it’s part of a growing literary interest in the ‘edgelands’ between settlement and the wild – places where the human impact is undeniable but nature is creeping back in. (Other recent examples would be Common Ground by Rob Cowen, Landfill by Tim Dee, Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, and Outskirts by John Grindrod.)
Under the Rock gives a keen sense of the seasons’ change and the seemingly inevitable melancholy that accompanies bad weather. A winter of non-stop rain left Myers nigh on delirious with flu; Storm Eva caused the Calder River to flood. He was a part of the effort to rescue trapped pensioners. Heartening as it is to see how the disaster brought people together – Sikh and Muslim charities and Syrian refugees were among the first to help – looting also resulted. One of the most remarkable things about this book is how Myers takes in such extremes of behaviour, along with mundanities, and makes them all part of a tapestry of life.
The book’s recurring themes tangle through all of the sections, even though it has been given a somewhat arbitrary four-part structure (Wood – Earth – Water – Rock). Interludes between these major parts transcribe Myers’s field notes, which are more like impromptu poems that he wrote in a notebook kept in his coat pocket. The artistry of these snippets of poetry is incredible given that they were written in situ, and their alliteration bleeds into his prose as well. My favourite of the poems was “On Lighting the First Fire”:
death is everywhere
the golden cloak
the seeds of
dreaming still sing.
The Field Notes sections are illustrated with Myers’s own photographs, which, again, are of enviable quality. I came away from this feeling like Myers could write anything – a thank-you note, a shopping list – and make it read as profound literature. Every sentence is well-crafted and memorable. There is also a wonderful sense of rhythm to his pages, with a pithy sentence appearing every couple of paragraphs to jolt you to attention.
“Writing is a form of alchemy,” Myers declares. “It’s a spell, and the writer is the magician.” I certainly fell under the author’s spell here. While his eyes are open to the many distressing political and environmental changes of the last few years, the ancient perspective of the Rock reminds him that, though humans are ultimately insignificant and individual lives are short, we can still rejoice in our experiences of the world’s beauty while we’re here.
From the publisher:
“Benjamin Myers was born in Durham in 1976. He is a prize-winning author, journalist and poet. His recent novels are each set in a different county of northern England, and are heavily inspired by rural landscapes, mythology, marginalised characters, morality, class, nature, dialect and post-industrialisation. They include The Gallows Pole, winner of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, and recipient of the Roger Deakin Award; Turning Blue, 2016; Beastings, 2014 (Portico Prize for Literature & Northern Writers’ Award winner), Pig Iron, 2012 (Gordon Burn Prize winner & Guardian Not the Booker Prize runner-up); and Richard, a Sunday Times Book of the Year 2010. Bloomsbury will publish his new novel, The Offing, in August 2019.
As a journalist, he has written widely about music, arts and nature. He lives in the Upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire, the inspiration for Under the Rock.”
I’ve marked the turn of the seasons by following a ‘Midwinter’ book with a ‘Spring’ one.
Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson
My third and favorite Moomins book (so far).
Moomins are supposed to sleep through the winter, but this year young Moomintroll awakens and finds himself in a “strange and dangerous” world transformed by snowdrifts. He can’t get his parents to wake up so is effectively a temporary orphan, surrounded by peculiar creatures from Jansson’s menagerie, this time including a dim-witted squirrel, invisible shrews, a glum little dog who wishes he could run with wolves, and the Dweller Under the Sink (with its exceptionally bushy eyebrows).
While Moomintroll searches for totems of familiarity—
He looked at the cupboard in the corner and thought of how nice it was to know that his own old bath-gown was hanging inside it. That something certain and cosy still remained in the middle of all the new and worrying things.
—Too-ticky has the opposite mindset: “All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.” She goes fishing under the ice, builds a life-size horse out of snow, and assembles tree trunks and old furniture for the midwinter ritual of a huge bonfire.
When they receive a visit from the Hemulen, who’s keen on skiing and declares the indoors too stuffy in winter, the creatures quickly tire of his energetic optimism. The truth is that they like sitting around being miserable. “I’m cold! I’m lonely! I want the sun back again!” Moomintroll pouts, but even he is too affable to make the Hemulen leave.
Of course the spring finally arrives, as it does every year, but it’s depressingly long in coming and for Moomintroll becomes a matter of faith. I love the strangeness of Jansson’s imagination, the balance of melancholy and comedy, and the little philosophical nuggets buried along the way – children and adult readers alike will get a lot out of this. It doesn’t talk down to children with a rosy message about everything being alright.
Spring: An anthology for the changing seasons, edited by Melissa Harrison
Although this was the first of the Wildlife Trusts anthologies published in 2016, I got a late start last year so am reading this as the final of four. In common with the other volumes, it’s a terrific mix of contemporary and historical writing, big names and newcomers, observation and reflection. Compared with the other books, it seems to have more about WT sites in particular, with a few pieces from current volunteers or former employees. I also noticed that there’s a bit more of a focus on birds – with essays on the chiffchaff, the birds encountered on the Cley Marshes, cuckoo festivals, young dippers, and a tawny owl chick.
That said, there’s still plenty of variety here, with everything from spring flora* to adders fueling the generally two- to three-page essays. I especially liked Kate Long’s piece on filming hedgehogs at night and Vijay Medtia’s on how people of color living in cities have little access to nature; he recalls spotting a magpie with a twig in its beak at a train station and having to ask someone what it was called. Of the previously published authors, I enjoyed hearing more from Rob Cowen and Miriam Darlington and laughed at Will Cohu’s ice cream and underwear metaphors applied to varieties of cherry trees.
You can’t beat George Orwell on toad sex, and it’s fun to encounter excerpts from classic novels in the context of a nature book: The Wind in the Willows, Lorna Doone, and Jane Eyre (which, shamefully, I didn’t recognize until Lowood was mentioned in the last paragraph). I think my favorite piece of all, though, was Jo Sinclair’s about watching spring’s arrival after a major operation and noting nature’s inscrutable jumble of beauty and brutality.
And my favorite passage:
Year after year all this loveliness for eye and ear recurs: in early days, in youth, it was anticipated with confidence; in later years, as the season approaches, experience and age qualify the confidence with apprehension lest clouds of war or civil strife, or some emergency of work, or declining health, or some other form of human ill may destroy the pleasure or even the sight of it: and when once again it has been enjoyed we have a sense of gratitude greater than in the days of confident and thoughtless youth. Perhaps the memory of those days, having become part of our being, helps us in later life to enjoy each passing season.
(from Sir Edward Grey’s The Charm of Birds, 1927)
This passage from Reverend Francis Kilvert’s diary (April 14, 1871) makes me look forward to our trip to nearby Hay-on-Wye next month: “The village is in a blaze of fruit blossom. Clyro is at its loveliest. What more can be said?” Simply that these anthologies are an essential companion to the seasons.
*Like my husband’s piece, positioned right before the R.D. Blackmore extract.
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I’ll provide links to all the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a short taster so you can decide whether to click to read more. A couple of exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie or BlueInk reviews since I don’t get a byline.
Dandelion Angel by C.B. Calico (& interview): This was inspired by a non-fiction work, Understanding the Borderline Mother by Christine Ann Lawson. The four mother/daughter relationships in this Germany-set novel – all marked to some extent by dysfunction, physical and/or verbal abuse, and borderline personality disorder – are based on Lawson’s metaphorical classifications: the hermit, the queen, the waif, and the witch. Looping back through her four storylines in three complete cycles, Calico shows how mental illness is rooted in childhood experiences and can go on to affect a whole family.
The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock: Cinematic descriptions of the California desert setting plus excellent characters and dialogue enliven this debut novel about a fictional test pilot and his family troubles during America’s Space Race. Johncock is British, but you can tell he’s taken inspiration from stories about the dawn of the astronaut age. If I allowed myself small points of criticism, I would say that it’s a challenge to accept the passage of time in the final 50 pages, and that a keen interest in astronauts is probably a boon to keep readers going through the test flight portions, which to me were less compelling than the domestic drama of Jim, Grace and Florence.
Home Is Burning by Dan Marshall: At age 25, Dan Marshall went home to Salt Lake City to care for a father with ALS and a mother with leukemia. He and his four hapless siblings (a Sedaris-like clan) approached caregiving with sarcasm and dirty humor. Gleefully foul-mouthed, his memoir lacks introspective depth. He hardly ventures deeper than initial descriptions like “My gay brother, Greg” and “My adopted Native American sister, Michelle.” And even when his sentiments about his father are sincere, they are conveyed via what sound like clichés: “I wanted my poor dad to get better, not worse.” But to my surprise, Marshall made me cry in the end.
Of Orcas and Men by David Neiwert: Inspired by personal sightings near his home in Seattle, Neiwert set out to learn everything he could about orcas. The result is a thorough study of whales’ behavior and interactions with humanity from native mythology through modern-day aquarium shows. Some specialist interest would probably be helpful to those attempting this book, although there are plenty of black-and-white photographs to keep even casual readers interested. “Recovering our humanity may be the real gift of the orcas, what they can teach us. It’s our choice whether to listen.”
This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison [a subscription service, but an excerpt is available for free]: A widow in her seventies relives the ups and downs of her life while on an Alaskan cruise to scatter her husband’s ashes. Chapters alternate between a third-person account of the cruise and a second-person survey of Harriet’s past, delivered in the format of TV’s This Is Your Life. The narration is fresh and effective because the gradual revelations undermine Harriet’s elderly persona in such surprising ways. She is an out-of-the-ordinary but believable protagonist who, like all of us, has a mixture of victories and disappointments behind her. This is a charming novel about learning to reckon with the past.
Speak by Louisa Hall [subscription service, but the full text of my review will be available for free during the week starting September 25th as part of Editor’s Choice]: Hall interweaves disparate time periods and voices to track the development of artificial intelligence. The fact that all six narratives are in different documentary formats – memoirs, letters, the transcript of a dialogue, a diary, and so on – means they are easy to distinguish. One might argue that two of them (Alan Turing’s letters and Mary’s shipboard diary) are unnecessary, and yet these are by far the most enjoyable. They prove Hall has an aptitude for historical fiction, a genre she might choose to pursue in the future. A remarkable book interrogating how the languages we converse in and the stories we tell make us human.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman: Think of Alexandra Kleeman as an heir to Dave Eggers and Douglas Coupland, with a hefty dollop of Margaret Atwood thrown in. Her first novel is a full-on postmodern satire bursting with biting commentary on consumerism and conformity. Television and shopping are the twin symbolic pillars of a book about the commodification of the body. In a culture of self-alienation where we buy things we don’t need, have no idea where food comes from and desperately keep up the façade of normalcy, Kleeman’s is a fresh voice advocating the true sanity of individuality. Don’t miss her incredible debut.
Conflict Communication by Rory Miller: Based on “ConCom,” the police verbal de-escalation program Miller developed with Marc MacYoung, this book aims to introduce readers to more conscious methods of verbal communication that will sidestep instinctive reactions and promote peaceful solutions. The advice is practical and intuitive, yet picks up on tiny details that most people would not notice. Concise, helpful, and well-organized, this is strongly recommended for readers interested in the psychology of violence and improving communication skills.
Detained by Brian Rees: Rees intersperses witty e-mail updates from his tours of Iraq and Afghanistan with clued-in commentary about war tactics, terrorism, Islam, and the benefits of transcendental meditation (TM) for soldiers with PTSD. The mixture of formats and topics generally works well, though the spiritual material deserves its own book. There’s no denying Rees’s expertise, and his fluid writing keeps the pages turning. This could make a fascinating companion volume for fans of recent war fiction such as The Yellow Birds, Redeployment, and War of the Encyclopaedists.
Talk to Me of Love by Julia Anne Bernhardt: The poems in Bernhardt’s first collection range from erotic to spiritual as they investigate love in all its forms. Repetition, rhyme, and mantras produce hypnotic sonic effects and support the central message of the epigraph: “God is in the detail.” The everyday and the eternal mix here. This well-structured collection celebrates different types of love through meditative verse. The themes’ strength is enough to recommend it to readers of Jo Shapcott and Julia Copus.
The Hidden Treasure of Dutch Buffalo Creek by Jackson Badgenoone: Otherworldly ghost writers (the “Neverborn”) compose biographies for ordinary people in this playfully metafictional novel. James is a strong central character whose memories from the 1950s through the present give a sense of history’s sweep, while vivid descriptive language enlivens the settings. Although well written, the book as a whole is an unusual amalgam of spiritualism, historical nostalgia, and technology. James’s story might have been better told as a simple coming-of-age novel with flashbacks.
Common Ground by Rob Cowen: An unassuming patch of edge-land outside Harrogate is Cowen’s nature paradise, providing him with wildlife encounters and imaginative scenarios. Essentially, what Cowen does is give profiles of the edge-land’s inhabitants: animal and human, himself included. For instance, he creates an account of the life and death of a fox; elsewhere, he crafts a first-person narrative by a deer being hunted in medieval times. These fictions emulating Watership Down or Tarka the Otter, though well written, are out of place. When the book avoids melodramatic anthropomorphizing, it is very beautiful indeed.
We Love This Book
Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks: In Faulks’s thirteenth novel, his trademark themes of war, love and memory coalesce through the story of a middle-aged psychiatrist discovering the truth about his father’s death. Reminiscent of Birdsong as well as John Fowles’s The Magus and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, this does not have the power of Faulks’s previous work but is a capable study of how war stories and love stories translate into personal history. [A few extra thoughts at Goodreads.]
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads.
How to Write a Novel by Melanie Sumner: Our would-be novelist is Aris (short for Aristotle) Thibodeau, 12.5 years old and as precocious as Flavia de Luce. Diane is her single mother, and Max her downright weird younger brother. Using Write a Novel in 30 Days!, Aris is turning her family’s life story into fiction. In some ways they are very out of place here in Kanuga, Georgia. The child’s wry look at family dysfunction reminded me of Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾. I would probably read something else from Sumner, so long as it wasn’t quite as silly and YA geared as this.
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr: I would recommend this to anyone who reads and/or secretly wants to write memoirs; for the latter group, there is a wealth of practical advice here, on topics such as choosing the right carnal details (not sexual – or not only sexual – but physicality generally), correcting your facts and misconceptions, figuring out a structure, and settling on your voice. Along the way Karr discusses a number of favorite memoirs in detail, sometimes even line by line: Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Stop-Time by Pat Conroy, A Childhood by Harry Crews, Maya Angelou’s books, Speak, Memory by Nabokov, and so on.
Emblems of the Passing World: Poems after Photographs by August Sander by Adam Kirsch: A charming mix of historical photographs (1910s–1950s Germany) and poems. Kirsch uses his poetry to bring these one-dimensional figures to life, imagining the stories behind their generic titles (“Office Worker” or “Farming Family”) and sometimes slyly questioning the political and status connotations of such designations. One of my favorites was “Student of Philosophy.” This book could draw people whose interests usually run more to nonfiction – especially social history – into giving poetry a try. Releases November 17th.
Browsings by Michael Dirda: Dirda wrote this pleasant set of bibliophilic essays for the American Scholar website in 2012–13. He’s the American equivalent of the UK’s John Sutherland: an extremely well-read doyen of the classics with a special love for Victorian and Edwardian genre fiction, often as revived by small presses and specialist societies. At times Dirda’s interests can be a bit obscure for the average reader, and some of the essays feel redundant. Still, it’s easy to relate to his addictive book purchasing and hoarding.
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: I read this on the train to Manchester, appropriate reading when approaching one of the UK’s biggest centers of Victorian industry and the place where Marx and Engels met to discuss ideas in the mid-1840s. Like Darwin’s Origin of Species, another seminal Victorian text, this has so many familiar lines and wonderful metaphors that have entered into common discourse that I simply assumed it was composed in English. My eyes glaze over at politics or economics, so I valued this more for its language than for its ideas. Part II, “Proletarians and Communists,” is the most focused part if you want to sample it.
Number 11 by Jonathan Coe: This is a funny and mildly disturbing state-of-England and coming-of-age novel. I’d only read one previous book by Coe, Expo 58; this is a better example of his usual pattern: multiple, loosely linked storylines. Here the theme is the absurdity of modern culture, encompassing many aspects: unjust wars, the excesses of the uber-rich, the obsession with celebrity, and suspicion and exclusion of those who are different from us. The number 11 keeps popping up, too. My favorite parts were a Survivor-type reality television show and a laughably over-the-top prize ceremony banquet. Releases November 11th.
My Family and Other Superheroes by Jonathan Edwards: Edwards displays his proud Welsh heritage with poems reflecting on his family tree and the country’s landscape. One of my favorites was “View of Valleys Village from a Hill,” in which the narrator, with a God’s-eye view of his family, envisions messing around with them. The witty “In John F. Kennedy International Airport” imagines that Wales has been abolished and recreated in miniature in a small Kansas museum (a bit like Julian Barnes’s England, England).
The Whole & Rain-domed Universe by Colette Bryce: Many of these poems are about the author’s Irish family inheritance, both literal and figurative, as in “Heritance”: “From her? Resilience. Generosity. / A teacher’s gravitas. / Irish stew. A sense / of the ridiculous. High ceilings.” I loved the first line of “Signature” – “When I finally gave up and became my mother.” It’s particularly nice how enjambment often makes the thought go just that one line beyond what you expect. I’d read more from Bryce.