It’s a tradition now in its third and last year: I spend one day at the New Networks for Nature conference with my husband, and then (to save money, and because I’ve usually had my fill of stimulating speakers by then) wander around Stamford and haunt the public library on the other day.
This past Saturday I browsed the charity shops and found a short story collection I’ve been interested in reading, but otherwise just spent hours in Stamford’s library looking through recent issues of the Times Literary Supplement and The Bookseller and reading from the stack of novellas I’d brought with me. I read four in one sitting because all were shorter than 50 pages long: two obscure classics and two nature books.
The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono (1953)
[Translated from the French by Barbara Bray; 46 pages]
Trees have been a surprise recurring theme in my 2018 reading. This spare allegory from a Provençal author is all about the difference one person can make. The narrator meets a shepherd and beekeeper named Elzéard Bouffier who plants as many acorns as he can; “it struck him that this part of the country was dying for lack of trees, and having nothing much else to do he decided to put things right.” Decades pass and two world wars do their worst, but very little changes in the countryside. Old Bouffier has led an unassuming but worthwhile life.
There’s not very much to this story, though I appreciated the message about doing good even if you won’t get any recognition or even live to see the fruits of your labor. What’s most interesting about it is the publication history: it was commissioned by Reader’s Digest for a series on “The Most Extraordinary Character I Ever Met,” and though the magazine accepted it with rapture, there was belated outrage when they realized it was fiction. It was later included in a German anthology of biography, too! No one recognized it as a fable; this became a sort of literary in-joke, as Giono’s daughter Aline reveals in a short afterword.
Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville (1853)
[40 pages from my Penguin Classics copy of Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories]
You probably know the basic plot even if you’ve never read the story. Hired as the fourth scrivener in a Wall Street office of law-copyists, Bartleby seems quietly efficient until one day he mildly refuses to do the work requested of him. “I prefer not to” becomes his refrain. First he stops proofreading his copies, and then he declines to do any writing at all. (More and more these days, I find I have the same can’t-be-bothered attitude as Bartleby!) As the employer/narrator writes, “a certain unconscious air … of pallid haughtiness … positively awed me into my tame compliance with his eccentricities.” Farce ensues as he finds himself incapable of getting rid of Bartleby, even after he goes to the extreme of changing the premises of his office. Three times he even denies knowing Bartleby, but still the man is a thorn in his flesh, a nuisance turned inescapable responsibility. A glance at the introduction by Harold Beaver tells me I’m not the first to make such Christian parallels. (This was the first Melville I’ve read since an aborted attempt on Moby-Dick during college.)
The Company of Swans by Jim Crumley (1997)
[Illustrated by Harry Brockway, who also did the wood engravings for the Giono; 39 pages]
Crumley is an underappreciated Scottish nature writer. Here he tells the tale of a pair of mute swans on a loch in Highland Perthshire. He followed their relationship with great interest over a matter of years. First he noticed that their nest had been robbed, twice within a few weeks, and realized otters must be to blame. Then, although it’s a truism that swans mate for life, he observed the cob (male) leaving the pen (female) for another! Crumley was overtaken with sympathy for the abandoned swan and got to feed her by hand and watch her fall asleep. “To suggest there was true communication between us would be outrageous, but I believe she regarded me as benevolent, which was all I ever asked of her,” he writes. Two years later he learns the end of her story. A pleasant ode to fleeting moments of communion with nature.
“Swans this wild let you into only a certain portion of their lives. They give you intimate glimpses. But you can never have any part in the business of being a swan. You can offer them no more than the flung tribute of your admiring gaze.”
“I think there is nothing in all nature that outshines that lustrous lacing of curves [of swan necks], nothing in all theatre that outperforms its pivotal tension.”
Holloway by Robert Macfarlane (2013)
[Illustrated by Stanley Donwood; 39 pages]
In 2011 Macfarlane set out to recreate a journey through South Dorset that he’d first undertaken with the late Roger Deakin in 2005, targeting the sunken paths of former roadways. This is not your average nature or travel book, though; it’s much more fragmentary and poetic than you’d expect from a straightforward account of a journey through the natural world. I thought the stream-of-consciousness style overdone, and got more out of the song about the book by singer-songwriter Anne-Marie Sanderson. (Her Book Songs, Volume 1 EP, which has been one of my great discoveries of the year, is available to listen to and purchase on her Bandcamp page. It also includes songs inspired by Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Sarah Hall’s Haweswater, and Doris Lessing’s Mara and Dann.) The black-and-white illustrations are nicely evocative, though.
Lines I liked:
“paths run through people as surely as they run through places.”
“The holloway is absence; a wood-way worn away by buried feet.”
Have you read any of these super-short novellas? Which one takes your fancy?
I’ve let months pass between receiving these books from the kindly publishers and following through with a review, so in an attempt to clear the decks I’m putting up just a short response to each, along with some favorite quotes.
All that Remains: A Life in Death by Sue Black
Black, a world-leading forensic anthropologist, was part of the war crimes investigation in Kosovo and the recovery effort in Thailand after the 2004 tsunami. She is frequently called into trials to give evidence, has advised the U.K. government on disaster preparedness, and is a co-author of the textbook Developmental Juvenile Osteology (2000). Whether working in a butcher’s shop as a teenager or exploring a cadaver for an anatomy class at the University of Aberdeen, she’s always been comfortable with death. “I never had any desire to work with the living,” she confesses; “The dead are much more predictable and co-operative.”
The book considers death in its clinical and personal aspects: the seven stages of postmortem alteration and the challenges of identifying the sex and age of remains; versus her own experiences with losing her grandmother, uncle and parents. Black wants her skeleton to go to Dundee University’s teaching collection. It doesn’t creep her out to think of that, no more than it did to meet her future cadaver, a matter-of-fact, curious elderly gentleman named Arthur. My favorite chapter was on Kosovo; elsewhere I found the mixture of science and memoir slightly off, and the voice never fully drew me in.
Favorite line: “Perhaps forensic anthropologists are the sin-eaters of our day, addressing the unpleasant and unimaginable so that others don’t have to.”
All that Remains was published by Doubleday on April 19th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Places I Stopped on the Way Home: A Memoir of Chaos and Grace by Meg Fee
Fee came to New York City to study drama at Julliard. Her short essays, most of them titled after New York locations (plus a few set further afield), are about the uncertainty of her twenties: falling in and out of love, having an eating disorder, and searching for her purpose. She calls herself “a mess of disparate wants, a small universe in bloom.” New York is where she has an awful job she hates, can’t get the man she’s in love with to really notice her, and hops between terrible apartments – including one with bedbugs, the subject of my favorite essay – and yet the City continues to lure her with its endless opportunities.
I think this book could mean a lot to women who are younger than me or have had experiences similar to the author’s. I found the essays slightly repetitive, and rather unkindly wondered what this privileged young woman had to whine about. It’s got the same American, generically spiritual self-help vibe that you get from authors like Brené Brown and Elizabeth Gilbert. Despite her loneliness, Fee retains a romantic view of things, and the way she writes about her crushes and boyfriends never truly connected with me.
Some favorite lines:
“Writing felt like wrangling storm clouds, which is to say, impossible. But so did life. Writing became a way to make peace with that which was flawed.”
“I have let go of the idea of permanency and roots and What Comes Next.”
Places I Stopped on the Way Home was published by Icon Books on May 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
The Pull of the River: A journey into the wild and watery heart of Britain by Matt Gaw
A watery travelogue in the same vein as works by Roger Deakin and Alys Fowler, this jolly yet reflective book traces Gaw’s canoe trips down Britain’s rivers. His vessel was “the Pipe,” a red canoe built by his friend James Treadaway, who also served as his companion for many of the jaunts. Starting with his local river, the Waveney in East Anglia, and finishing with Scotland’s Great Glen Way, the quest was a way of (re)discovering his country by sensing the currents of history and escaping to the edge of danger.
Access issues, outdoor toileting, getting stuck on mudflats, and going under in the winter – it wasn’t always a comfortable method of travel. But Gaw’s expressive writing renders even rubbish- and sewage-strewn landscapes beautiful in their own way: “grim bunting made from discarded bags of dog poo,” “a savannah of quivering, moussey mud” and “cormorants hunched together like sinister penguins, some holding ragged wings to the wind in taxidermic poses.”
My favorite chapters were about pollution and invasive species, as seen at the Lark, and about the beaver reintroduction project in Devon (we have friends who live near it). I’m rooting for this to make next year’s Wainwright Prize longlist.
A favorite passage:
“I feel like I’ve shed the rust gathered from being landlocked and lazy. The habits and responsibilities of modern life can be hard to shake off, the white noise difficult to muffle. But the water has returned me to my senses. I’ve been reborn in a baptism of the Waveney [et al.]”
The Pull of the River was published by Elliott & Thompson on April 5th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Have you read any stand-out nonfiction recently?
In the first four months of this year, I got my hands on no fewer than four swimming memoirs. For the upcoming July/August issue of Foreword Reviews magazine I’ve reviewed Floating: A Life Regained by Joe Minihane, in which the author recreates the late nature writer Roger Deakin’s wild swimming journeys from Waterlog (1999) in an attempt to overcome anxiety; I have Leap In by Alexandra Heminsley on my Kindle; and I read roughly the first 60 pages of a library copy of Al Álvarez’s 2013 Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal.
For now, I’m featuring Turning by Jessica J. Lee, which has strong similarities to these other memoirs – especially Minihane’s – but is its own beautifully reflective personal story. The book arose from Lee’s resolution, when she was 28 and in Berlin on a research placement for her dissertation in environmental history, to swim in 52 local lakes – a year’s worth – no matter the weather. At the time she blogged about her “52 Lakes Project” for Slow Travel Berlin, and kept friends and family up to date through social media as well. Her focus would be on the former East German region of Brandenburg, which has Berlin at its center and was first popularized by Theodor Fontane’s 1862 travel book.
Lee traveled to the lakes under her own steam, using trains and her bicycle; occasionally she took friends with her, but most often she was alone, which became a chance to cultivate solitude – not the same as loneliness. The challenge entailed all kinds of practical difficulties like bike trouble, getting lost, and a dead phone battery, but gradually it became routine and held less fear for her. On summer days she could manage multiple lakes in a day, and even small encounters with Germans gave her a newfound sense of belonging.
Within chapters, the memoir gracefully alternates pieces of the author’s past with her lake travels. With a father from Wales and a mother from Taiwan, Lee grew up in Ontario and spent summers in Florida. She remembers taking YMCA swimming lessons alongside her mother, and swimming in Canadian lakes. Back then the water usually intimidated her, but over the years her feelings have changed:
Water feels different in each place. The water I grew up with was hard, cutting, and when I go back to visit it now, I feel it in my ears when I dive in. something different, more like rock. The lake a whetted blade. The water in Berlin has a softness to it. Maybe it’s the sand, buffing the edges off the water like splinters from a beam. It slips over you like a blanket. There’s a safety in this feeling. In the lakes here, there is a feeling of enclosure and security that Canada can’t replicate. And it shouldn’t – the pelagic vastness there is entirely its own, and I’ve learned to love that too.
Swimming fulfills many functions for Lee. It served variously as necessary discipline after going mildly off the rails in young adulthood (drinking, smoking pot and having an abortion during college; a short-lived marriage in her early twenties); as a way of bouncing back from depression when her planned life in London didn’t pan out and a budding relationship failed; and as a way of being in touch with the turning seasons and coming to know the German landscape intimately. Symbolically, of course, it’s also a baptism into a new life.
Yet I had to wonder if there was also something masochistic about this pursuit, especially in the winter months. On the back cover there’s a photograph of Lee using a hammer to chip out a path through the ice so she can do her minimum of 45 strokes. (No wetsuit!) As spring came, ironically, the water felt almost too warm to her. She had learned to master the timing of a winter swim: “Between pain and numbness there’s a brightness, a crisp, heightened sensation in the cold: that’s the place to swim through. When it ends, when numbness arrives, it’s time to get out.”
The end of Lee’s year-long project is bittersweet, but she’s consoled by the fact that she didn’t have to leave her ordinary life in order to complete it. It was a companion alongside the frantic last-minute work on her dissertation and it never got in the way of her relationships; on the contrary, it strengthened certain friendships. And with Berlin looking like her home for the foreseeable future, she’s committed to seeking out more lakes, too.
There are a lot of year quest books out there, but this one never feels formulaic because there’s such a fluid intermingling of past and present. As memoirs go, it is somewhat like Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun – but much better. It’s also comparable to Angela Palm’s Riverine, with a watery metaphor at the heart to reflect the author’s conception of life as a meandering route. Unlike the other swimming memoirs I’ve sampled, I can recommend this one to a general reader with no particular interest in wild swimming or any other sport. It’s for you if you enjoy reading about the ebb and flow of women’s lives.
In the stillness of the lakes, the border between nature and culture is thinned. Swimming takes place at this border, as if constantly searching for home. Water is a place in which I don’t belong, but where I find myself nonetheless. Out of my culture, out of my depth.
There is more space inside than I can imagine, more hope and possibility than I’d known. Feeling as clear as the day, as deep as the lake.
Turning: A Swimming Memoir was published in the UK by Virago on May 4th. My thanks to the publisher for sending a free copy for review.
Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
~Ted Hughes, “The Thought-Fox” (1957)
Foxes Unearthed, freelance journalist Lucy Jones’s first book, won a Society of Authors’ Roger Deakin Award for nature writing. If you’re familiar with Patrick Barkham’s Badgerlands, you’ll recognize this as a book with a comparable breadth and a similar aim: clearing the reputation of an often unfairly reviled British mammal. Jones ranges from history to science and from mythology to children’s literature in her search for the truth about foxes. Given the media’s obsession with fox attacks, this is a noble and worthwhile undertaking.
The book proper opens with a visit to Roald Dahl’s house, now a Buckinghamshire museum, where he wrote Fantastic Mr. Fox. Still one of the best-known representations of foxes in British literature, Dahl’s Mr. Fox is a Robin Hood-like hero, outsmarting a trio of mean-spirited farmers to provide a feast for his family. Foxes’ seemingly innate wiliness prompts ambivalent reactions, though; we admire it, but we also view it as a threat or an annoyance. As Jones puts it, the fox of fables and traditional stories is “a villain we cheer for.”
Not everyone cheers, of course. Under Henry VIII, the Vermin Acts of 1532 (not repealed until the 1750s) promised a reward to anyone who killed foxes, then considered a nuisance animal. Fox hunting and the cruel sport of “tossing” have a long history that eventually came up against the movement towards animal welfare, starting with Jeremy Bentham in the 1740s and codified by the 1911 Protection of Animals Act. Meanwhile, Jones notes, children’s books advocating compassion for animals, such as Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877), ensured that the message made it out of the legislative chamber and into everyday life.
The second chapter is a useful survey of fox behavior. Foxes are omnivores, and in recent decades have started to move into Britain’s cities, where they find plenty of food to scavenge. In rural settings, foxes are still the subject of farmers’ loathing even though they rarely take lambs and actually help keep rabbit numbers in check. Still, the stereotype of foxes killing for fun instead of for hunger persists, whereas they in fact cache their surplus food. Chapter 3 asks whether fox numbers have reached pest status and considers various control strategies, from straightforward culling to the non-lethal methods supported by conservationists.
I enjoyed Jones’s meetings with figures from both sides of the debate. She goes along on a fox hunt, but also meets or quotes animal rights activists, academics, and high-profile nature promoters like Chris Packham. All told, though, I felt the book could have been closer to 200 pages than 300. Most chapters are very long, and some could easily be combined and/or shortened. For instance, Chapter 1 relays the amount of information about fox hunting that most readers will be prepared to absorb, yet it’s then the subject of two more chapters.
This is an important book for correcting misconceptions, but your enjoyment of it may be in proportion to your personal interest in the subject. In terms of fonts and cover design, though, you’re unlikely to come across a more gorgeous book this year.
Foxes Unearthed was published in paperback by Elliott & Thompson on March 16th. Thanks to Alison Menzies for arranging my free copy for review.
To encounter foxes in fiction, try the following:
- Glow by Ned Beauman
- The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Geen
- Midwinter by Fiona Melrose
- The Soho Leopard by Ruth Padel (a poetry book with a sequence on urban foxes)
& the forthcoming How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza (April 6th).