Three very different works of women’s life writing: heartfelt remarks on bereavement, a seasonal diary of stewarding four wooded acres in Somerset, and a look back at postnatal depression.
Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This slim hardback is an expanded version of an essay Adichie published in the New Yorker in the wake of her father’s death in June 2020. With her large family split across three continents and coronavirus lockdown precluding in-person get-togethers, they had a habit of frequent video calls. She had seen her father the day before on Zoom and knew he was feeling unwell and in need of rest, but the news of his death still came as a complete shock.
Adichie anticipates all the unhelpful platitudes people could and did send her way: he lived to a ripe old age (he was 88), he had a full life and was well respected (he was Nigeria’s first statistics professor), he had a mercifully swift end (kidney failure). Her logical mind knows all of these facts, and her writer’s imagination has depicted grief many times. Still, this loss blindsided her.
She’d always been a daddy’s girl, but the anecdotes she tells confirm how special he was: wise and unassuming; a liberal Catholic suspicious of materialism and with a dry humour. I marvelled at one such story: in 2015 he was kidnapped and held in the boot of a car for three days, his captors demanding a ransom from his famous daughter. What did he do? Correct their pronunciation of her name, and contradict them when they said that clearly his children didn’t love him. “Grief has, as one of its many egregious components, the onset of doubt. No, I am not imagining it. Yes, my father truly was lovely.” With her love of fashion, one way she dealt with her grief was by designing T-shirts with her father’s initials and the Igbo words for “her father’s daughter” on them.
I’ve read many a full-length bereavement memoir, and one might think there’s nothing new to say, but Adichie writes with a novelist’s eye for telling details and individual personalities. She has rapidly become one of my favourite authors: I binged on most of her oeuvre last year and now have just one more to read, Purple Hibiscus, which will be one of my 20 Books of Summer. I love her richly evocative prose and compassionate outlook, no matter the subject. At £10, this 85-pager is pricey, but I was lucky to get it free with Waterstones loyalty points.
“In the face of this inferno that is sorrow, I am callow and unformed.”
“How is it that the world keeps going, breathing in and out unchanged, while in my soul there is a permanent scattering?”
Deeper Into the Wood by Ruth Pavey
In 1999 Ruth Pavey bought four acres of scrubland at auction, happy to be returning to her family’s roots in the Somerset Levels and hoping to work alongside nature to restore some of her land to orchard and maintain the rest in good health. Her account of the first two decades of this ongoing project, A Wood of One’s Own, was published in 2017.
In this sequel, she gives peaceful snapshots of the wood throughout 2019, from first snowdrops to final apple pressing, but also faces up to the environmental degradation that is visible even in this pocket of the countryside. “I am sure there has been a falling off in numbers of insects, smaller birds and rabbits on my patch,” she insists. Without baseline data, it is hard to support this intuition, but she has botanical and bird surveys done, and invites an expert in to do a moth-trapping evening. The resulting species lists are included as appendices. In addition, Pavey weaves a backstory for her land. She meets a daffodil breeder, investigates the source of her groundwater, and visits the head gardener at the Bishop’s Palace in Wells, where her American black walnut sapling came from. She also researches the Sugg family, associated with the land (“Sugg’s Orchard” on the deed) from the 1720s.
Pavey aims to treat this landscape holistically: using sheep to retain open areas instead of mowing the grass, and weighing up the benefits of the non-native species she has planted. She knows her efforts can only achieve so much; the pesticides standard to industrial-scale farming may still be reaching her trees on the wind, though she doesn’t apply them herself. “One sad aspect of worrying about the state of the natural world is that everything starts to look wrong,” she admits. Starting in that year’s abnormally warm January, it was easy for her to assume that the seasons can no longer be relied on.
Compared with her first memoir, this one is marked by its intellectual engagement with the principles and practicalities of rewilding. Clearly, her inner struggle is motivated less by the sense of ownership than by the call of stewardship. While this book is likely be of most interest to those with a local connection or a similar project underway, it offers a universal model of how to mitigate our environmental impact. Pavey’s black-and-white sketches of the flora and fauna on her patch, reminiscent of Quentin Blake, are a highlight.
With thanks to Duckworth for the proof copy for review. The book will be published tomorrow, the 27th of May.
After the Storm: Postnatal Depression and the Utter Weirdness of New Motherhood by Emma Jane Unsworth
The author’s son was born on the day Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election. Six months later, she realized that she was deep into postnatal depression and finally agreed to get help. The breaking point came when, with her husband* away at a conference, she got frustrated with her son’s constant fussing and pushed him over on the bed. He was absolutely fine, but the guilty what-ifs proliferated, making this a wake-up call for her.
In this succinct, wry and hard-hitting memoir, Unsworth exposes the conspiracies of silence that lead new mothers to lie and pretend that everything is fine. Since her son’s traumatic birth (which I first read about in Dodo Ink’s Trauma anthology), she hadn’t been able to write and was losing her sense of self. To add insult to injury, her baby had teeth at 16 weeks and bit her as he breastfed. She couldn’t even admit her struggles to her fellow mum friends. But “if a woman is in pain for long enough, and denied sleep for long enough, and at the same time feels as though she has to keep going and put a ‘brave’ face on, she’s going to crack.”
The book’s titled mini-essays give snapshots into the before and after, but particularly the agonizing middle of things. I especially liked the chapter “The Weirdest Thing I’ve Ever Done in a Hotel Room,” in which she writes about borrowing her American editor’s room to pump breastmilk. Therapy, antidepressants and hiring a baby nurse helped her to ease back into her old life and regain some part of the party girl persona she once exuded – enough so that she was willing to give it all another go (her daughter was born late last year).
While Unsworth mostly writes from experience, she also incorporates recent research and makes bold statements of how cultural norms need to change. “You are not monsters,” she writes to depressed mums. “You need more support. … Motherhood is seismic. It cracks open your life, your relationship, your identity, your body. It features the loss, grief and hardship of any big life change.” I can imagine this being hugely helpful to anyone going through PND (see also my Three on a Theme post on the topic), but I’m not a mother and still found plenty to appreciate (especially “We have to smash the dichotomy of mums/non-mums … being maternal has nothing to do with actually physically being a mother”).
I’m attending a Wellcome Collection online event with Unsworth and midwife Leah Hazard (author of Hard Pushed) this evening and look forward to hearing more from both authors.
*It took me no time at all to identify him from the bare facts: Brighton + doctor + graphic novelist = Ian Williams (author of The Lady Doctor)! I had no idea. What a fun connection.
With thanks to Profile Books/Wellcome Collection for the free copy for review.
What recent releases can you recommend?
Something tells me my readers are the sort of people who buy books for their family and friends at the holidays. Consider any rating of 3.5 or above on this blog a solid recommendation; 3 stars is still a qualified recommendation, and by my comments you should be able to tell whether the book would be right for you or a friend. I’ll make another plug for the books I’ve already mentioned here as gift ideas and highlight other books I think would be ideal for the right reader. I read all these books this year, and most were released in 2017, but I have a few backlist titles, too – in those cases I’ve specified the publication year. Since I recommend fiction all the time through my reviews, I’ve given significantly more space to nonfiction.
For the Shiny New Books Christmas special I chose two books I could see myself giving to lots of people. One was A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives by Lisa Congdon, my overall top gift idea. It’s a celebration of women’s attainments after age 40, especially second careers and late-life changes of course. There’s a lively mixture of interviews, first-person essays, inspirational quotes, and profiles of figures like Vera Wang, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Grandma Moses, with Congdon’s whimsical drawings dotted all through. This would make a perfect gift for any woman who’s feeling her age, even if that’s younger than 40. (An essay on gray hair particularly hit home for me.) It’s a reminder that great things can be achieved at any age, and that with the right attitude, we will only grow in confidence and courage over the years. (See my full Nudge review.)
One Year Wiser: An Illustrated Guide to Mindfulness by Mike Medaglia
Drawn like an adult coloring book, this mindfulness guide is divided into color-block sections according to the seasons and tackles themes like happiness, gratitude, fighting anxiety and developing a healthy thought life. The layout is varied and unexpected, with abstract ideas represented by bodies in everyday situations. It’s a fresh delivery of familiar concepts.
My thanks to SelfMadeHero for the free copy for review.
An Almost Perfect Christmas by Nina Stibbe
With its short chapters and stocking stuffer dimensions, this is a perfect book to dip into over the holidays. The autobiographical pieces involve Stibbe begrudgingly coming round to things she’s resisted, from Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” to a flaming Christmas pudding. The four short stories, whether nostalgic or macabre, share a wicked sense of humor. You’ll also find an acerbic shopping guide and – best of all – a tongue-in-cheek Christmas A-to-Z. Nearly as funny as Love, Nina. (I reviewed this for the Nov. 29th Stylist “Book Wars” column.)
For some reason book- and nature-themed books seem to particularly lend themselves to gifting. Do you find that too?
For the fellow book and word lovers in your life:
The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
It’s a pleasure to spend a vicarious year running The Book Shop in Wigtown, Scotland with the curmudgeonly Bythell. I enjoyed the nitty-gritty details about acquiring and pricing books, and the unfailingly quirky customer encounters. This would make a great one-year bedside book. (See my full review.)
The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words by Paul Anthony Jones
Another perfect bedside book: this is composed of daily one-page entries that link etymology with events from history. I’ve been reading it a page a day since mid-October. A favorite word so far: “vandemonianism” (rowdy, unmannerly behavior), named after the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), first sighted by Europeans on 24 November 1642.
“The Gifts of Reading” by Robert Macfarlane (2016)
This was my other Christmas recommendation for Shiny New Books. A love of literature shared with friends and the books he now gifts to students and a new generation of nature writers are the main themes of this perfect essay. First printed as a stand-alone pamphlet in aid of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, this is just right for slipping in a stocking.
A Girl Walks into a Book: What the Brontës Taught Me about Life, Love, and Women’s Work by Miranda K. Pennington
This charming bibliomemoir reflects on Pennington’s two-decade love affair with the work of the Brontë sisters, especially Charlotte. It cleverly gives side-by-side chronological tours through the Brontës’ biographies and careers and her own life, drawing parallels and noting where she might have been better off if she’d followed in Brontë heroines’ footsteps.
For the nature enthusiasts in your life:
A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold
Few know how much of our current philosophy of wilderness and the human impact on the world is indebted to Aldo Leopold. This was first published in 1949, but it still rings true. A month-by-month account of life in Wisconsin gives way to pieces set everywhere from Mexico to Manitoba. Beautiful, incisive prose; wonderful illustrations by Charles W. Schwartz.
The History of Bees by Maja Lunde
Blending historical, contemporary and future story lines, this inventive novel, originally published in Norway in 2015, is a hymn to the dying art of beekeeping and a wake-up call about the environmental disaster the disappearance of bees signals. The plot strands share the themes of troubled parenthood and the drive to fulfill one’s purpose. Like David Mitchell, Lunde juggles her divergent time periods and voices admirably. It’s also a beautifully produced book, with an embossed bee on the dust jacket and a black and gold honeycomb pattern across the spine and boards. (See my full Bookbag review.)
Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm by David Mas Masumoto (1995)
Masumoto is a third-generation Japanese-American peach and grape farmer in California. He takes readers on a quiet journey through the typical events of the farming calendar. It’s a lovely, meditative book about the challenges and joys of this way of life. I would highly recommend it to readers of Wendell Berry.
A Wood of One’s Own by Ruth Pavey
This pleasantly meandering memoir, an account of two decades spent restoring land to orchard in Somerset, will appeal to readers of modern nature writers. Local history weaves through this story, too: everything from the English Civil War to Cecil Sharp’s collecting of folk songs. Bonus: Pavey’s lovely black-and-white line drawings. (See my full review.)
It’s not just books…
With this year’s Christmas money from my mother I bought the five-disc back catalogue of albums from The Bookshop Band. I crowdfunded their nine-disc, 100+-track recording project last year; it was money extremely well spent. So much quality music, and all the songs are based on books. I listen to these albums all the time while I’m working. I look forward to catching up on older songs I don’t know. Check out their Bandcamp site and see if there’s a physical or digital album you’d like to own or give to a fellow book and music lover. They played two commissioned songs at the launch event for The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, so if you’re a Philip Pullman fan you might start by downloading those.
Would you like to give – or get – any of my recommendations for Christmas?
In 1999 Ruth Pavey bought four acres of Somerset scrubland at a land auction. It wasn’t exactly what she’d set out to acquire: it wasn’t a “pretty” field, and traffic was audible from it. But she was pleased to return to her family’s roots in the Somerset Levels area – this “silted place of slow waters, eels, reeds, drainage engineers, buttercups, church towers, quiet” that her father came from, and where she was born – and she fancied planting some trees.
There never was a master plan […] I wanted to open up enough room for trees that might live for centuries […] I also wanted to keep areas of wilderness for the creatures […] And I wanted it to be beautiful. Not immaculate, that was too much to hope for, but, in its own ragged, benign way, beautiful.
This pleasantly meandering memoir, Pavey’s first book, is an account of nearly two decades spent working alongside nature to restore some of her land to orchard and maintain the rest in good health. The first steps were clear: she had to deal with some fallen willows, find a water source and plan a temporary shelter. Rather than a shed, which would be taken as evidence of permanent residency, she resorted to a “Rollalong,” a mobile metal cabin she could heat just enough to survive nights spent on site. Before long, though, she bought a nearby cottage to serve as her base when she left her London teaching job behind on weekends.
Then came the hard work: after buying trees from nurseries and ordering apple varieties that would fruit quickly, Pavey had to plant it all and pick up enough knowledge about pruning, grafting, squirrel management, canker and so on to keep everything alive. There was always something new to learn, and plenty of surprises – such as the stray llama that visited her neighbor’s orchard. Local history weaves through this story, too: everything from the English Civil War to Cecil Sharp’s collecting of folk songs.
Britain has seen a recent flourishing of hybrid memoirs–nature books by the likes of Helen Macdonald, Mallachy Tallack and Clover Stroud. By comparison, Pavey is not as confiding about her personal life as you might expect. She reveals precious little about herself: she tells us that her mother died when she was young and she was mostly raised by an aunt; she hints at some failed love affairs; in the acknowledgments she mentions a son; from the jacket copy I know she’s the gardening correspondent for the Hampstead & Highgate Express. But that’s it. This really is all about the wood, and apart from serving as an apt Woolf reference the use of “one” in the title is in deliberate opposition to the confessional connotations of “my”.
Still, I think this book will appeal to readers of modern nature writers like Paul Evans and Mark Cocker – these two are Guardian Country Diarists, and Pavey develops the same healthy habit of sticking to one patch and lovingly monitoring its every development. I was also reminded of Peri McQuay’s memoir of building a home in the woods of Canada.
What struck me most was how this undertaking encourages the long view: “being finished, in the sense of being brought to a satisfactory conclusion, is not something that happens in a garden, an orchard or a wood, however well planned or cultivated,” she writes. It’s an ongoing project, and she avoids nostalgia and melodrama in planning for its future after she’s gone; “I am only there for a while, a twinkling. But [the trees and creatures] … will remain.” This would make a good Christmas present for the dedicated gardener in your life, not least because of the inclusion of Pavey’s lovely black-and-white line drawings.
A Wood of One’s Own was published on September 21st by Duckworth Overlook. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.