As per usual, I’m squeezing in my final 20 Books of Summer reviews late on the very last day of the challenge. I’ll call it a throwback to the all-star procrastination of my high school and college years. This was a strong quartet to finish on: two novels, the one about (felling) trees and the other about communicating via flowers; and two nonfiction books about identifying trees and finding harmony with nature.
Tree-Spotting: A Simple Guide to Britain’s Trees by Ros Bennett; illus. Nell Bennett (2022)
Botanist Ros Bennett has designed this as a user-friendly guide that can be taken into the field to identify 52 of Britain’s most common trees. Most of these are native species, plus a few naturalized ones. “Walks in the countryside … take on a new dimension when you find yourself on familiar, first-name terms with the trees around you,” she encourages. She introduces tree families, basics of plant anatomy and chemistry, and the history of the country’s forests before moving into identification. Summer leaves make ID relatively easy with a three-step set of keys, explained in words as well as with impressively detailed black-and-white illustrations of representative species’ leaves (by her daughter, Nell Bennett).
Seasonality makes things trickier: “Identifying plants is not rocket science, though occasionally it does require lots of patience and a good hand lens. Identifying trees in winter is one of those occasions.” This involves a close look at details of the twigs and buds – a challenge I’ll be excited to take up on canalside walks later this year. The third section of the book gives individual profiles of each featured species, with additional drawings. I learned things I never realized I didn’t know (like how to pronounce family names, e.g., Rosaceae is “Rose-A-C”), and formalized other knowledge. For instance, I can recognize an ash tree by sight, but now I know you identify an ash by its 9–13 compound, opposite, serrated leaflets.
Some of the information was more academic than I needed (as with one of my earlier summer reads, The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham), but it’s easy to skip any sections that don’t feel vital and come back to them another time. I most valued the approachable keys and their accompanying text, and will enjoy taking this compact naked hardback on autumn excursions. Bennett never dumbs anything down, and invites readers to delight in discovery. “So – go out, introduce yourself to your neighbouring trees and wonder at their beauty, ingenuity and variety.”
With thanks to publicist Claire Morrison and Welbeck for the free copy for review.
Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson (2021)
When this would-be Great American Novel* arrived unsolicited through my letterbox last summer, I was surprised I’d not encountered the pre-publication buzz. The cover blurb is from Nickolas Butler, which gives you a pretty good sense of what you’re getting into: a gritty, working-class story set in what threatens to be an overwhelmingly male milieu. For generations, Rich Gundersen’s family has been involved in logging California’s redwoods. Davidson is from Arcata, California, and clearly did a lot of research to recreate an insider perspective and a late 1970s setting. There is some specialist vocabulary and slang (the loggers call the largest trees “big pumpkins”), but it’s easy enough to understand in context.
What saves the novel from going too niche is the double billing of Rich and his wife, Colleen, who is an informal community midwife and has been trying to get pregnant again almost ever since their son Chub’s birth. She’s had multiple miscarriages, and their family and acquaintances have experienced alarming rates of infant loss and severe birth defects. Conservationists, including an old high school friend of Colleen’s, are attempting to stop the felling of redwoods and the spraying of toxic herbicides.
A major element, then, is people gradually waking up to the damage chemicals are doing to their waterways and, thereby, their bodies. The problem, for me, was that I realized this much earlier than any of the characters, and it felt like Davidson laid it on too thick with the many examples of human and animal deaths and deformities. This made the book feel longer and less subtle than, e.g., The Overstory. I started it as a buddy read with Marcie (Buried in Print) 11 months ago and quickly bailed, trying several more times to get back into the book before finally resorting to skimming to the end. Still, especially for a debut author, Davidson’s writing chops are impressive; I’ll look out for what she does next.
*I just spotted that it’s been shortlisted for the $25,000 Mark Twain American Voice in Literature Award.
With thanks to Tinder Press for the proof copy for review.
The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (2011)
The cycle would continue. Promises and failures, mothers and daughters, indefinitely.
The various covers make this look more like chick lit than it is. Basically, it’s solidly readable issues- and character-driven literary fiction, on the lighter side but of the caliber of any Oprah’s Book Club selection. It reminded me most of White Oleander by Janet Fitch, one of my 20 Books selections in 2018, because of the focus on the foster care system and a rebellious girl’s development in California, and the floral metaphors.
In Diffenbaugh’s debut, Victoria Jones ages out of foster care at 18 and leaves her group home for an uncertain future. She spends time homeless in San Francisco but her love of flowers, and particularly the Victorian meanings assigned to them, lands her work in a florist’s shop and reconnects her with figures from her past. Chapters alternate between her present day and the time she came closest to being adopted – by Elizabeth, who owned a vineyard and loved flowers, when she was nine. We see how estrangements and worries over adequate mothering recur, with Victoria almost a proto-‘Disaster Woman’ who keeps sabotaging herself. Throughout, flowers broker reconciliations.
I won’t say more about a plot that would be easy to spoil, but this was a delight and reminded me of a mini flower dictionary with a lilac cover and elaborate cursive script that I owned when I was a child. I loved the thought that flowers might have secret messages, as they do for the characters here. Whatever happened to that book?! (Charity shop)
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013)
I’d heard Kimmerer recommended by just about every nature writer around, North American or British, and knew I needed this on my shelf. Before I ever managed to read it, I saw her interviewed over Zoom by Lucy Jones in July 2021 about her other popular science book, Gathering Moss, which was first published 18 years ago but only made it to the UK last year. So I knew what a kind and peaceful person she is: she just emanates warmth and wisdom, even over a computer screen.
And I did love Braiding Sweetgrass nearly as much as I expected to, with the caveat that the tiny-print 400 pages of my paperback edition make the essays feel very dense. I could only read a handful of pages in a sitting. Also, after about halfway, it started to feel a bit much, like maybe she had given enough examples from her life, Native American legend and botany. The same points about gratitude for the gifts of the Earth, kinship with other creatures, responsibility and reciprocity are made over and over.
However, I feel like this is the spirituality the planet needs now, so I’ll excuse any repetition (and the basket-weaving essay I thought would never end). “In a world of scarcity, interconnection and mutual aid become critical for survival. So say the lichens.” (She’s funny, too, so you don’t have to worry about the contents getting worthy.) She effectively wields the myth of the Windigo as a metaphor for human greed, essential to a capitalist economy based on “emptiness” and “unmet desires.”
I most enjoyed the shorter essays that draw on her fieldwork or her experience of motherhood. “The Gift of Strawberries” – “An Offering” – “Asters and Goldenrod” make a stellar three-in-a-row, and “Collateral Damage” is an excellent later one about rescuing salamanders from the road, i.e. doing the small thing that we can do rather than being overwhelmed by the big picture of nature in crisis. “The Sound of Silverbells” is one of the most well-crafted individual pieces, about taking a group of students camping when she lived in the South. At first their religiosity (creationism and so on) grated, but when she heard them sing “Amazing Grace” she knew that they sensed the holiness of the Great Smoky Mountains.
But the pair I’d recommend most highly, the essays that made me weep, are “A Mother’s Work,” about her time restoring an algae-choked pond at her home in upstate New York, and its follow-up, “The Consolation of Water Lilies,” about finding herself with an empty nest. Her loving attention to the time-consuming task of bringing the pond back to life is in parallel to the challenges of single parenting, with a vision of the passing of time being something good rather than something to resist.
Here are just a few of the many profound lines:
For all of us, becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it.
I’m a plant scientist and I want to be clear, but I am also a poet and the world speaks to me in metaphor.
Ponds grow old, and though I will too, I like the ecological idea of aging as progressive enrichment, rather than progressive loss.
This will be a book to return to time and again. (Gift from my wish list several years ago)
I also had one DNF from this summer’s list:
Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson: This reminded me of a cross between The Crow Road by Iain Banks and The Heavens by Sandra Newman, what with the teenage narrator and a vague time travel plot with some Shakespearean references. I put it on the pile for this challenge because I’d read it had a forest setting. I haven’t had much luck with Atkinson in the past and this didn’t keep me reading past page 60. (Little Free Library)
A Look Back at My 20 Books of Summer 2022
Half of my reads are pictured here. The rest were e-books (represented by the Kindle) or have already had to go back to the library.
My fiction standout was The Language of Flowers, reviewed above. Nonfiction highlights included Forget Me Not and Braiding Sweetgrass, with Tree-Spotting the single most useful book overall. I also enjoyed reading a couple of my selections on location in the Outer Hebrides. The hands-down loser (my only 1-star rating of the year so far, I think?) was Bonsai. As always, there are many books I could have included and wished I’d found the time for, like (on my Kindle) A House among the Trees by Julia Glass, This Is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan and Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard.
At the start, I was really excited about my flora theme and had lots of tempting options lined up, some of them literally about trees/flowers and others more tangentially related. As the summer went on, though, I wasn’t seeing enough progress so scrambled to substitute in other things I was reading from the library or for paid reviews. This isn’t a problem, per se, but my aim with this challenge has generally been to clear TBR reads from my own shelves. Maybe I didn’t come up with enough short and light options (just two novella-length works and a poetry collection; only the Diffenbaugh was what I’d call a page-turner); also, even with the variety I’d built in, having a few plant quest memoirs got a bit samey.
I’m going to skip having a theme and set myself just one simple rule: any 20 print books from my shelves (NOT review copies). There will then be plenty of freedom to choose and substitute as I go along.
Every season, I try to choose a few books that feel appropriate for their settings or titles. A few of these I’ve already mentioned briefly, as part of my heat wave reading suggestions. Much as I love autumn, the end of summer tends to coincide with gloomy musings for me. However, it’s farewell to August with four reasonably cheerful books: a poetry collection about England then and now, city and country; an escapist novel set on the Caribbean island of Mustique in the 1970s; the story of four gay friends going their separate ways for a high school summer of adventure; and a less-tragic-than-expected American classic.
The English Summer by Holly Hopkins (2022)
Colour, geology and history are major sources of imagery in this debut full-length collection. Churches and cemeteries, museums and manor houses, versus hospitals and rental flats: this is the stuff of a country that has swapped its illustrious past for the dismal reality of the everyday. The collection closes with “England, Where Did You Go?” which ends, “should I get out in search of you, … / I’d be left wandering down dual carriageways, / looking across bean fields and filthy ditches.” Hopkins imagines a government that decides to address climate change by assigning weekly community service hours – nearly twice as many for women, who always bear the greater burden for domestic work.
It’s mostly alliteration, repetition, and internal or slant rhymes here. I particularly liked the pair “Rows of Differently Coloured Houses,” which contrasts bright seaside facades with the “Lakes of postwar pebbledash / grey on grey on grey on grey” seen from a Megabus, and “Stratigraphy,” about the archaeologist’s work. Not many standouts otherwise, but it was still worth a try. (New purchase – the publisher, Penned in the Margins, lured me with a sale)
Mustique Island by Sarah McCoy (2022)
Mustique is a private island in the St. Vincent archipelago that became a playground of the rich and famous in the 1970s, with Princess Margaret and Mick Jagger regular visitors. In McCoy’s novel – inspired by real events and people, and featuring cameos from the aforementioned celebrities as well as the island’s owners at the time, the baron Colin Tennant and his wife, Lady Anne Glenconner (who, I was amused to spot at the library the other day, has written her own fictional tribute to the island, Murder on Mustique) – Willy May, a Texan with a small fortune at her disposal thanks to her divorce from an English brewing magnate, sails in on a private boat and decides to build her own villa on Mustique. She’s uncomfortable with the way locals, who only have service jobs, are sometimes paraded out for colonial displays of pomp. Her two young adult daughters, Hilly and Joanne, later join her. The one has been a model in Paris, where she became addicted to amphetamines.
Love is on the cards for all three main female characters, but there’s heartache along the way as well. Closer to women’s fiction than I generally choose, this was a frothy indulgence that was fun to read but could be shorter and needn’t have tried so hard to make serious points about motherhood and to evoke the time period, e.g., with a list of what’s on the radio. I have also reviewed McCoy’s Marilla of Green Gables. (Offered by publicist via NetGalley)
Golden Boys by Phil Stamper (2022)
Four gay high schoolers in small-town Ohio look forward to a summer of separate travels for jobs and internships and hope their friendships will stay the course. We have Gabriel, a nature lover off to volunteer for a Boston save-the-trees non-profit; Sal, his friend with benefits, who dreams of bypassing college for a career in politics so interns at his local senator’s office in Washington, DC; Reese, headed to Paris for a fashion design course; and Heath, escaping his parents’ divorce and moving chaos to stay with an aunt and cousin in Florida and work at their beach café. With alternating first-person passages from all four characters, plus transcriptions of their conversation threads, this moves quickly.
Reese has been secretly infatuated with Heath for ages, but three of the four will consider new dating opportunities this summer (the fourth just becomes a workaholic). Secondary characters are pansexual and nonbinary – it’s a whole new world from when I was in high school! Initially, I found the inner monologues too one-note, but I think Stamper’s aim was to recreate the teenage struggle for self-confidence and individuality and has captured that life stage’s inherent anxiety. I also would have trimmed the preparatory stuff; nearly 100 pages before the first of them leaves Ohio is a bit much. This YA novel was a sweet, fun page turner and the perfect replacement to the Heartstopper series as my summer crush. However, I don’t think I was taken enough with the characters to read next year’s projected sequel. (Public library)
Summer by Edith Wharton (1917)
Charity Royall was born into poverty but brought down the mountain and adopted by a kindly couple into respectable North Dormer society. Mrs. Royall has died before the action starts, but as a young woman Charity still lives with Lawyer Royall, her guardian, and works at the library. When a stranger, Mr. Harney, arrives in their New England town to survey the local architecture, it’s clear right away that he’ll be a romantic prospect for her. “She had always thought of love as something confused and furtive, and he made it as bright and open as the summer air.” However, shame over her lowly origins – she is so snobbish every time she comes into contact with someone from the mountain – continues to plague her.
Although Harney returns her affections and they set up a little love nest in an abandoned house in the woods, uncertainty lingers as to whether he’ll consider marriage to Charity beneath him. This skirts Tess of the d’Urbervilles territory but doesn’t turn nearly as tragic as Ethan Frome (apparently, Wharton called this a favourite among her works, and referred to it as “the Hot Ethan”). Charity isn’t as vain as another Hardy heroine, Bathsheba Everdene; she’s an endearing blend of innocent and worldly, and her realistic reaction to what fate seems to decree feels like about the best one can expect for her time. Melodrama aside, I truly enjoyed the descriptions of a quintessential American summer with picnics and Fourth of July fireworks. Ethan fan or not, you should definitely read this one. (University library)
I’m all about flowers today: American wildflowers in poetry and prose, a year of hunting down the flora of the British Isles, and a discursive account of a famous English author’s life and times through the prism of his rose garden.
American Wildflowers: A Literary Field Guide, ed. Susan Barba; illus. Leanne Shapton (2022)
This comes out from Abrams Press in the USA on 8 November and I’ll be reviewing it for Shelf Awareness, so I’ll just give a few brief thoughts for now. Barba is a poet and senior editor for New York Review Books. She has collected pieces from a wide range of American literature, including essays, letters and early travel writings as well as poetry, which dominates.
Apart from a closing section on various/anonymous wildflowers, where particular species are named they are grouped into families, which are arranged alphabetically. The Asteraceae section is particularly strong, with poems on dandelions and sunflowers, a typically prophetic Aldo Leopold fragment about the decline of native flora, and “Asters and Goldenrod,” an extract from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass (itself one of my 20 Books of Summer – review to come in the week) that I think was also excerpted in This Book Is a Plant.
In general, I engaged more with the poetry than with the prose. Barba has ensured a real variety of styles, with good representation for BIPOC. What draws it all together into a beautiful whole I wish I could see as a physical object is Leanne Shapton’s watercolor illustrations, painted from pressed flowers. “What a gift to stare at flowers—these ephemeral miracles of color and synthesis and botany,” she writes in an opening note. This would be a perfect coffee table book for any gardener or nature lover. (E-review copy)
Where the Wildflowers Grow: My Botanical Journey through Britain and Ireland by Leif Bersweden (2022)
A good case of nominative determinism – the author’s name is pronounced “leaf” – and fun connections abound: during the course of his year-long odyssey, he spends time plant-hunting with Jon Dunn and Sophie Pavelle, whose books featured earlier in my flora-themed summer reading: Orchid Summer and Forget Me Not. With Dunn on Unst, Shetland, he sees not only rare flowers but close-up orcas. Like Pavelle, who he meets up with in Cornwall, he has an eye to how species will be affected by climate change and commits to doing his hunting by train and bike; there’s only so much you can see when zooming by in a car. Bersweden makes a case for spending time with plants – after all, they don’t move, so once you’ve found them you can commune in a way you can’t during, say, a fleeting mammal encounter.
He starts 2021 with a New Year Plant Hunt in central London with his mother – more is in bloom in January than ever before, at least in part due to climate warming. Even when the weather is foul on his travels, there is plenty to be seen. Everywhere he goes, he meets up with fellow experts and plant enthusiasts to marvel at bluebell woodlands or ancient pine forests, alpine or bog species. The floral circuit (documented in full on the book’s website through chapter-by-chapter photographs; there are two small sections of colour plates in the hardback) is also a chance to tour the British Isles, from Kent to Cork, coast to mountaintop.
Bersweden has been in love with plants ever since childhood; he believes they have nostalgia value for many people, and can be an easy way into appreciation of nature. “A wildflower growing from a crack in the wall is an everyday miracle.” His casual writing style and clear zeal for his subject – his author photo is of him hugging a tree, and another has such a cute caption: “Being given the opportunity to hold a Greater Bladderwort (Utricularia vulgaris) was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me!” – make this a pleasure even though it’s a bit overlong at points. (Public library)
Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit (2021)
I was fascinated by the concept behind this one. “In the spring of 1936 a writer planted roses” is Solnit’s refrain; from there sprawls a book that’s somehow about everything: botany, geology, history, politics and war – as well as, of course, George Orwell’s life and works (with significant overlap with the graphic novel biography of him that I read last year). On a trip to England with a friend who is a documentary filmmaker, Solnit had the impulse to go find what might be left of Orwell’s garden. When she arrived in the Hertfordshire village of Wallington, the current owners of his home kindly showed her round. His fruit trees had long since been cut down, but the rosebushes were still going strong some 80 years later.
This goes down as a skim for me: though I read the first 30%, after that I just browsed to the end. Some side tracks lost me, e.g. Tina Modotti’s presentation of roses in her photographs; Orwell’s interest in mining, which leads Solnit to investigate how coal is formed; much history; and a week spent observing the rose-growing industry in Colombia. I most enjoyed the book when it stayed close to Orwell’s biography and writings, positing gardening as his way of grounding his ideas in the domestic and practical. “Pursuits like that can bring you back to earth from the ether and the abstractions.” I also liked – briefly, at least – thinking about the metaphorical associations of roses, and flowers in general.
If you’ve read Solnit before, you’ll know that her prose is exquisite, but I think this was the stuff of a long article rather than a full book. As it is, it’s a pretty indulgent project. (Kaggsy reviewed this recently and came to somewhat similar conclusions.) (NetGalley)
It’s felt like a BIG week for prize news. First we had the Booker Prize longlist, about which I’ve already shared some thoughts. My next selection from it is Trust by Hernan Diaz, which I started reading last night. The shortlist comes out on 6 September. We have our book club shadowing application nearly ready to send off – have your fingers crossed for us!
Then on Friday the three Wainwright Prize shortlists (I gave my reaction to the longlists last month) were announced: one for nature writing, one for conservation writing, and – new this year – one for children’s books on either.
I’m delighted that my top two overall picks, On Gallows Down by Nicola Chester and Silent Earth by Dave Goulson, are still in the running. I’ve read half of the nature list and still intend to read Shadowlands, which is awaiting me at the library. I’d happily read any of the remaining books on the conservation list and have requested the few that my library system owns. Of the children’s nominees, I’m currently a third of the way through Julia and the Shark and also have the Davies out from the library to read.
As if to make up for the recent demise of the Costa Awards, the Folio Prize has decided to split into three categories: fiction, nonfiction and poetry; the three finalists will then go head-to-head to compete for the overall prize. I’ve always wondered how the Folio judges pit such different books against each other. This makes theirs an easier job, I guess?
Speaking of prize judging, I’ve been asked to return as a manuscript judge for the 2023 McKitterick Prize administered by the Society of Authors, the UK trade union for writers. (Since 1990, the McKitterick Prize has been awarded to a debut novelist aged 40+. It’s unique in that it considers unpublished manuscripts as well as published novels – Political Quarterly editor Tom McKitterick, who endowed the Prize, had an unpublished novel at the time of his death.) Although I’d prefer to be assessing ‘real’ books, the fee is welcome. Submissions close in October, and I’ll spend much of November–December on the reading.
Somehow, it’s August. Which means:
- Less than a month left for the remaining 10 of my 20 Books of Summer. I’m actually partway through another 12 books that would be relevant to my flora theme, so I just have to make myself finish and review 10 of them.
- It’s Women in Translation month! I’m currently reading The Last Wild Horses by Maja Lunde and have The Summer Book by Tove Jansson out from the library. I also have review copies of two short novels from Héloïse Press, and have placed a library hold on The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun. We’ll see how many of these I get to.
Marcie (Buried in Print) and I have embarked on a buddy read of Cloudstreet by Tim Winton. I’ve never read any of his major works and I’m enjoying this so far.
Goodreads, ever so helpfully, tells me I’m currently 37 books behind schedule on my year’s reading challenge. What the website doesn’t know is that, across my shelves and e-readers, I am partway through – literally – about 90 books. So if I could just get my act together to sit down and finish things instead of constantly grabbing for something new, my numbers would look a lot better. Nonetheless, I’ve read loads by anyone’s standard, and will read lots more before the end of the year, so I’m not going to sweat it about the statistics.
A new home has meant fun tasks like unpacking my library (as well as not-so-fun ones like DIY). As a reward for successfully hosting a housewarming party and our first weekend guests, I let myself unbox and organize most of the rest of the books in my new study. My in-laws are bringing us a spare bookcase soon; it’s destined to hold biographies, poetry and short story collections. I thought I’d be able to house all the rest of my life writing and literary reference books on two Billy bookcases, but it’s required some clever horizontal stacks, special ‘displays’ on the top of each case, and, alas, some double-stacking – which I swore I wouldn’t do.
Scotland and Victoriana displays, unread memoirs and literary reference books at left; medical reads display and read memoirs at right.
I need to acquire one more bookcase, a bit narrower than a Billy, to hold the rest of my read fiction plus some overflow travel and humour on the landing.
I get a bit neurotic about how my library is organized, so questions that others wouldn’t give much thought to plague me:
- Should I divide read from unread books?
- Do I hide the less sightly proof copies in a stack behind the rest?
- Is it better to have hardbacks and paperbacks all in one sequence, or separate them to maximize space?
(I’ve employed all of these options for various categories.)
I also have some feature shelves to match particular challenges, like novellas, future seasonal reads, upcoming releases and review books to catch up on, as well as signed copies and recent acquisitions to prioritize. Inevitably, once I’ve arranged everything, I find one or two strays that then don’t fit on the shelves I’ve allotted. Argh! #BibliophileProblems, eh?
I’ve been skimming through The Bookman’s Tale by Ronald Blythe, and this passage from the diary entry “The Bookshelf Cull” stood out to me:
“Should you carry a dozen volumes from one shelf to another, you will most likely be carrying hundreds before you finish. Sequences will be thrown out; titles will have to be regrouped; subjects will demand respect.”
What are your August reading plans? Following any literary prizes?
How are your shelves looking? Are they as regimented as mine, or more random?
The short answer is whatever you want. A longer answer: you could get stuck into heat-themed and summer-set books; escape by reading about a holiday destination, whether you can get there or not; will yourself cool by reading about icy places; and/or sink into a stack of lighter reading material.
I’ll be employing some or all of these strategies as the mercury climbs. I keep thinking I’ll just give up on work one of these days – my new study has a big window that traps the midday sun, but it remains bearable as long as I use blackout curtains and a desk fan – and read on a couch all afternoon. That hasn’t happened yet, but on Tuesday peak temperatures (of 36 °C) are expected here in the UK, so I may well carry out my threat.
Here’s what I’m reading now in each of those categories, along with some earlier reads I can recommend (with excerpts from my reviews and a link to the full text):
Embrace the Heat
My current reads:
Golden Boys by Phil Stamper: Four gay high school students in small-town Ohio look forward to a summer of separate travels for jobs and internships and hope their friendships will stay the course. With alternating first-person passages and conversation threads, this YA novel is proving to be a sweet, fun page turner and the perfect follow-up to the Heartstopper series (my summer crush from last year).
Summer by Edith Wharton: An adopted young woman (and half-hearted librarian) named Charity Royall gets a shot at romance when a stranger arrives in her New England town. I’m only 30 pages in so far, but this promises to be a great read – but please not as tragic as Ethan Frome? (Apparently, Wharton called it a favourite among her works, and referred to it as “the Hot Ethan,” which I’m going to guess she meant thermally.)
My top recommendations:
Heatstroke by Hazel Barkworth: From the first word (“Languid”) on, this drips with hot summer atmosphere, with connotations of discomfort and sweaty sexuality. Rachel is a teacher of adolescents as well as the mother of a 15-year-old, Mia. When Lily, a pupil who also happens to be one of Mia’s best friends, goes missing, Rachel is put in a tough spot…
A Crime in the Neighbourhood by Suzanne Berne: Marsha remembers the summer of 1972, when her father left her mother for Aunt Ada and news came of a young boy’s sexual assault and murder in the woods behind a mall. “If you hadn’t known what had happened in our neighborhood, the street would have looked like any other suburban street in America.”
Heat by Bill Buford: You know what they say: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen (eat some cold salads instead!). Buford traces TV chef Mario Batali’s culinary pedigree through Italy and London, and later spends stretches of several months in Italy as an apprentice to a pasta-maker and a Tuscan butcher. Exactly what I want from food writing.
Heat Wave by Penelope Lively: Pauline, a freelance copyeditor in her fifties, has escaped from London to spend a hot summer at World’s End, the Midlands holiday cottage complex she shares with her daughter and her family. The increasing atmospheric threats (drought or storms; combine harvesters coming ever nearer) match the tensions in the household.
Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell: Another spot-on tale of family and romantic relationships. The language is unfailingly elegant. It opens with the heat as the most notable character: “It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome: it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs.”
- This is set during the UK heatwave of 1976, which lives on in collective memory and legend in this country even though its temperature record has been topped (but not the length of the streak). I’ve since tried two other novels set during the summer of ’76 but neither took (maybe you’ll get on better with them?): Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucie McKnight Hardy and In the Place of Fallen Leaves by Tim Pears.
- Or try the American summer of 1975 instead, with Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau, a juicy coming-of-age novel set in Baltimore.
A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr: Tom Birkin, a First World War veteran whose wife has left him, arrives in Oxgodby to uncover the local church’s wall painting of the Judgment Day. “There was so much time that marvelous summer.” There is something achingly gorgeous about this Hardyesque tragicomic romance, as evanescent as ideal summer days.
The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley: Twelve-year-old Leo Colston is invited to spend the several July weeks leading up to his birthday at his school friend Marcus Maudsley’s home, Brandham Hall. The heat becomes a character in its own right, gloweringly presiding over the emotional tension caused by secrets, spells and betrayals.
In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor: The title is not only literal, when much of the action takes place, but a metaphor for the fleeting nature of happiness (as well as life itself). Kate remembers pleasant days spent with her best friend and their young children: “It was a long summer’s afternoon and it stood for all the others now. … Their friendship was as light and warming as the summer’s air.”
Escape on Holiday
I try to read on location whenever possible, but if it’s a staycation for you this year, you can still transport yourself somewhere exciting or tropical through fiction.
My current read:
Mustique Island by Sarah McCoy: “A sun-splashed romp with a rich divorcée and her two wayward daughters in 1970s Mustique, the world’s most exclusive private island [in the Caribbean], where Princess Margaret and Mick Jagger were regulars and scandals stayed hidden from the press.”
My top recommendations:
Siracusa by Delia Ephron: A snappy literary thriller about two American couples who holiday together on the Sicilian island of Siracusa. Shifting between the perspectives of the four main characters, it looks back to ask what went disastrously wrong on that trip. A delicious story ripe for a cinematic adaptation.
Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon: Set in Aiguaclara, a hidden gem on Spain’s Costa Brava where David and Mary Rose holidayed every summer for 20 years. Most of the book remembers their life together and their previous vacations here. Grief, memory, fate: some of my favourite themes, elegantly treated.
A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson: Set on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960, this zeroes in on several authors, including a young poet from Canada named Leonard Cohen. We see all of the real-life characters from the perspective of a starry-eyed 17-year-old narrator. You can feel the Mediterranean heat soaking up through your sandals.
The Vacationers by Emma Straub: Perfect summer reading; perfect vacation reading. Straub writes great dysfunctional family novels featuring characters so flawed and real you can’t help but love and laugh at them. Here, Franny and Jim Post borrow a friend’s home in Mallorca for two weeks, hoping sun and relaxation will temper the memory of Jim’s affair.
Read Yourself Cool
Will reading about snow and ice actually make you feel any cooler? It can’t hurt.
My current reads:
I had a vague Antarctica reading theme going for a while, but have yet to get back into two set-aside reads, Empire Antarctica by Gavin Francis and Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor (or pick up Snow Widows by Katherine MacInnes and South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby). Maybe next week!
My top recommendations:
Among the Summer Snows by Christopher Nicholson: After the death from cancer of his wife Kitty, a botanical illustrator, Nicholson set off for Scotland’s Cairngorms and Ben Nevis in search of patches of snow that persist into summer. “Summer snow is a miracle, a piece of out-of-season magic: to see it is one thing, to make physical contact with it is another.”
The Still Point by Amy Sackville: A sweltering summer versus an encasing of ice; an ordinary day versus decades of futile waiting. Sackville explores these contradictions only to deflate them, collapsing time such that a polar explorer’s wife and her great-great-niece can inhabit the same literal and emotional space despite being separated by more than a century.
Keep it Light
I’m more likely to read genre fiction (crime, especially) during the summer, it seems. I recently read The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey for book club, for instance – but it was so permeated in Plantagenet history that it wasn’t your standard detective drama at all.
I also like to pick up lighter reads that edge towards women’s fiction. I’ve been starting my days with passages from these two, though it might make more sense to read them later in the day as a reward for getting through parts of weightier books.
My current reads:
Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding: I’d never read this second sequel from 2013, so we’re doing it for our August book club – after some darker reads, people requested something light! Bridget is now a single mother in her early 50s, but some things never change, like constant yo-yo dieting and obsessive chronicling of the stats of her life.
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus: This year’s It book. I’m nearly halfway through and enjoying it, if not as rapturously as so many. Katherine Heiny meets John Irving is the vibe I’m getting. Elizabeth Zott is a scientist through and through, applying a chemist’s mindset to her every venture, including cooking, rowing and single motherhood in the 1950s.
My top recommendations:
Sunburn by Laura Lippman: While on a beach vacation in 1995, a woman walks away from her husband and daughter and into a new life as an unattached waitress. I liked that I recognized many Maryland/Delaware settings. Quick and enjoyable. (I’ve never been hotter than during the July week we spent in Milan in 2019. This is one of the books I read on that trip.)
Modern Lovers by Emma Straub: Short chapters flip between all the major characters’ perspectives, showing that she completely gets each one of them. The novel is about reassessing as one approaches adulthood or midlife, about reviving old dreams and shoring up flagging relationships. Nippy and funny and smart and sexy. So many lines ring true. (Yes, a second entry from Straub: she writes such accessible and addictive literary fiction.)
The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney: The four dysfunctional Plumb siblings must readjust their expectations when the truth comes out. This also affects their trust fund, “the nest.” A nest is, of course, also a home, so for as much as this seems to be about money, it is really more about family and how we reclaim our notion of home after a major upheaval.
This article on the Penguin website has a few more ideas, including To Kill a Mockingbird (you think we’ve got it bad? Try a summer in the American South!), Atonement, and poetry. I took up one of Alice Vincent’s recommendations right away: since I’m reading My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland, it made sense to get a copy of McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding out from the public library. Already on the first page you’re steeped in a sweltering Georgia summer (like McCullers, my dad is from Columbus):
It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. … The sidewalks of the town were grey in the early morning and at night, but the noon sun put a glaze on them, so that the cement burned and glittered like glass. The sidewalks finally became too hot for Frankie’s feet. … The world seemed to die each afternoon and nothing moved any longer. At last the summer was like a green sick dream, or like a silent crazy jungle under glass.
What are your current reading strategies?
Have you ever spent all day reading, just because you could?
“The island exerted a mesmeric pull. She had felt the magic of it all her life, but it was a magic that stayed on the island. You couldn’t take it with you.”
~MILD SPOILERS IN THIS ONE~
One of my reading selections for our recent trip to the Outer Hebrides was The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen, which is set on a lightly fictionalized version of North Uist. It’s the summer of 1979 and the recently bereaved Fleming family is on the way from London to the island for their usual summer holiday. This year everything looks different. The patriarch, Nicky, had a fatal fall from a roof in Bonn, where he was stationed as a diplomat. Whether it was an accident or suicide is yet to be determined.
Now it’s just Letitia and the three children. Georgie is awaiting exam results and university offers. Jamie is the youngest and has an earnest, innocent, literal mind (I believe I first came across the novel in connection to my interest in depictions of autism, and I assume he is meant to be on the spectrum). Alba, smack in the middle, acts out via snarky comments as well as shoplifting and tormenting her brother. The locals look out for each of the family members and make allowances for the strange things they do because of grief.
In the meantime, there’s an escaped grizzly bear on the loose in the islands. The chapters rotate through the main characters’ perspectives and include short imaginings of the bear’s journey. I found it hard to take these seriously – could an animal really be in awe of the Northern Lights? – especially when Pollen begins to suggest telepathic communication occurring between Jamie and the bear.
I was a third of the way into the novel before I learned that the bear subplot was based on a true story – my husband saw a sidebar about it in the guidebook. I’d had no idea! Hercules the trained bear starred in films and commercials. In 1980, while filming an ad for Andrex, he slipped his rope and remained on the run for several weeks despite a military search, straying 20 miles and losing half his body weight before he was tranquillized and returned to his owner. We made the pilgrimage to his burial site in Langass Woodland.
Pollen herself spent childhood summers in the Outer Hebrides and remembered the buzz about the hunt for Hercules. This plus the recent death of their father makes it a pivotal summer for all three children. Though in general I appreciated the descriptions of the island, and liked the character interactions and Jamie’s guilelessness and gumption, I felt uncomfortable with his portrayal. I didn’t think it realistic for an 11-year-old to not understand the fact of death; it seemed almost offensive to suggest that, because he’s on the autism spectrum, he wouldn’t understand euphemisms about loss. The sequence where he goes looking for “Heaven” is pretty excruciating.
Add that to the unlikelihood of Jamie’s participation in the bear’s discovery and an unnecessary conspiracy element about Nicky’s death and this novel didn’t live up to its potential for me. I’d read one other book by Pollen, the memoir Meet Me in the In-Between, but won’t venture further into her work. Still, this was an interesting curio. (Public library)
[I thought about including this (and Sarah Moss’s Night Waking) in my flora-themed 20 Books of Summer because of the author’s surname, but I think I’ll make my 20 without stretching that far!]
After two days in Inverness, our Western Isles adventure is ready to begin. I’m writing on the ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway (the main population centre on the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland), where we’ll pick up a rental car and head to our Airbnb before exploring standing stones and bird reserves well into the long evening.
On the bus this morning I started Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden, the next in my flora-themed reading. For today, I have brief responses to two books I finished before we left: a genial children’s fantasy novel and an in-depth guide to a tree. Ash is today’s linking word.
By Ash, Oak and Thorn by Melissa Harrison (2021)
Burnet, Cumulus and Moss are “Hidden Folk” (like Iceland’s elves), ancient, tiny beings who hibernate for winter in an ash tree. When they lose their home and Cumulus, the oldest, starts fading away, they set off on a journey to look for more of their kind and figure out what is happening. This eventually takes them to “the Hive” (London, presumably); they are helped along the way by creatures they might have been wary of: they hitch rides on deer and pigeons, and a starling, fox and rat are their allies in the city.
This reminded me of Watership Down with the classic quest feel, the many perils faced, and the way the species communicate with each other and are rendered as having different accents. The feasts and creative use of miniature objects recalled what I most love about the Brambly Hedge books. There is an important message about overcoming fear and prejudice, and a warning that Mortals have lost their connection to the Wild World. The hint is that the trio might play a role in helping humans reclaim it – perhaps in the sequel, recently longlisted for the Wainwright Prize (more on which anon).
Although there is a didactic element, with Harrison also commenting on emotions and pointing out natural phenomena for children to notice through the seasons, this didn’t bother me, and – in the Tove Jansson tradition – there are plenty of asides for grown-ups to appreciate, too. I’m unfamiliar with the series that inspired this, the 1930s The Little Grey Men books by “B.B.” (Denys Watkins-Pitchford), so can’t comment on it in comparison to the source material. I’ve read four other Harrison books, nonfiction and adult fiction, but this outstripped them all. (Public library)
A favourite passage:
“Going on an adventure might be exciting, but if you’re a home-loving person, it’s not long until you start wanting to feel safe and indoorsy again.”
The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham (2014)
A single-species monograph, this was more academic than I expected from Little Toller – it has statistics, tables and figures. So, it contains everything you ever wanted to know about ash trees, and then some. I actually bought it for my husband, who has found the late Rackham’s research on British landscapes useful, but thought I’d take a look as well. (The rental house we recently left had a self-seeded ash in the front garden that sprang up to almost the height of the house within the five years we lived there. Every time our landlords came round, we held our breath waiting for them to notice that the roots had started to push up the pavement and tell us it had to be cut down, but until now it has survived.)
Topics include the birds and insects the trees shelter, the lichen that grows on them, coppicing and pollarding techniques (“plashing” into hedges, the creation of horizontal seats), and the designation of ancient and veteran trees. Ash dieback disease, a major global issue, is another point for discussion. I found myself skimming through a lot of the detail, especially in later chapters. My favourite bits of trivia were that Yeats mentions the ash the most out of a handful of notable UK/Ireland poets, and that baseball bats are generally made out of ash wood. There are loads of colour photographs to help visualize tree features and locations. (New purchase)
The next two entries in my flora-themed summer reading are books I read for paid reviews, so I only give extracts from my thoughts below. These are both UK-based environmentalist travel memoirs and counted because of their titles, but do also feature plants in the text. I have various relevant books of my own and from the library on the go toward this challenge. Despite the complications of a rail strike and two cancelled trains, we have persisted in finding workarounds and making new bookings, so our trip to the Outer Hebrides is going ahead – whew! I’ll schedule a few posts for while I’m away and hope to share all that was seen and done (and read) when I’m back in early July.
Mistletoe Winter: Essays of a Naturalist throughout the Year by Roy Dennis (2021)
Dennis is among the UK’s wildlife conservation pioneers, particularly active in reintroducing birds of prey such as ospreys and white-tailed eagles (see also my response to his Restoring the Wild). In this essay collection, his excitement about everyday encounters with the natural world matches his zeal for momentous rewilding projects. The book entices with the wonders that can be experienced through close attention, like the dozen species’ worth of tracks identified on a snowy morning’s walk. Dennis is sober about wildlife declines witnessed in his lifetime. Practical and plain-speaking, he does not shy away from bold proposals. However, some of the pieces feel slight or dated, and it’s unclear how relevant the specific case studies will prove elsewhere. (Full review forthcoming for Foreword Reviews.)
Forget Me Not: Finding the forgotten species of climate-change Britain by Sophie Pavelle (2022)
A late-twenties science communicator for Beaver Trust, Pavelle is enthusiastic and self-deprecating. Her nature quest takes in insects like the marsh fritillary and bilberry bumblebee and marine species such as seagrass and the Atlantic salmon. Travelling between lockdowns in 2020–1, she takes low-carbon transport wherever possible and bolsters her trip accounts with context, much of it gleaned from Zoom calls and e-mail correspondence with experts from museums and universities. Refreshingly, half the interviewees are women, and her animal subjects are never obvious choices. The snappy writing – full of extended sartorial or food-related metaphors, puns and cheeky humour (the dung beetle chapter is a scatological highlight) – is a delight. (Full review forthcoming for the Times Literary Supplement.)
With thanks to Bloomsbury Wildlife for the free copy for review.
Plants mirror minds,
Healing, harming powers
Growing green thoughts.
(First stanza of “Plants Mirror Minds” from The Facebook of the Dead by Valerie Laws)
Here are my first three selections for my flora-themed summer reading. I hope to get through more of my own books, as opposed to library books and review copies, as the months go on. Today I have one of each from fiction, nonfiction and poetry, with the settings ranging from 16th-century Alsace to late-20th-century Spain.
The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (2022)
Kiran Millwood Hargrave is one of my favourite new voices in historical fiction (she had written fiction for children and young adults before 2020’s The Mercies). Both novels hit the absolute sweet spot between the literary and women’s fiction camps, choosing a lesser-known time period and incident and filling in the background with sumptuous detail and language. Both also consider situations in which women, queer people and other cultural minorities were oppressed, and imagine characters pushing against those boundaries in affirming but authentic-feeling ways.
The setting is Strasbourg in the sweltering summer of 1518, when a dancing plague (choreomania) hit and hundreds of women engaged in frenzied public dancing, often until their feet bled or even, allegedly, until 15 per day dropped dead. Lisbet observes this all at close hand through her sister-in-law and best friend, who get caught up in the dancing. In the final trimester of pregnancy at last after the loss of many pregnancies and babies, Lisbet tends to the family beekeeping enterprise while her husband is away, but gets distracted when two musicians (brought in to accompany the dancers; an early strategy before the council cracked down), one a Turk, lodge with her and her mother-in-law. The dance tree, where she commemorates her lost children, is her refuge away from the chaos enveloping the city. She’s a naive point-of-view character who quickly has her eyes opened about different ways of living. “It takes courage, to love beyond what others deem the right boundaries.”
This is likely to attract readers of Hamnet; I was also reminded of The Sleeping Beauties, in that the author’s note discusses the possibility that the dancing plagues were an example of a mass hysteria that arose in response to religious restrictions. (Public library)
Magnolia by Nina Mingya Powles (2020)
(Powles also kicked off my 2020 food-themed summer reading.) This came out from Nine Arches Press and a small New Zealand press two years ago but is being published in the USA by Tin House in August. I’ve reviewed it for Shelf Awareness in advance of that release. Those who are new to Powles’s work should enjoy her trademark blend of themes in this poetry collection. She’s mixed race and writes about crossing cultural and language boundaries – especially trying to express herself in Chinese and Hakka. Often, food is her way of embodying split loyalties and love for her heritage. I noted the alliteration in “Layers of silken tofu float in the shape of a lotus slowly opening under swirls of soy sauce.” Magnolia is the literal translation of “Mulan,” and that Disney movie and a few other films play a major role here, as do writers Eileen Chang and Robin Hyde. My issue with the book is that it doesn’t feel sufficiently different from her essay collections that I’ve read – the other is Small Bodies of Water – especially given that many of the poems are in prose paragraphs. [Update: I dug out my copy of Small Bodies of Water from a box and found that, indeed, one piece had felt awfully familiar for a reason: that book contains a revised version of “Falling City” (about Eileen Chang’s Shanghai apartment), which first appeared here.] (Read via Edelweiss)
A Parrot in the Pepper Tree by Chris Stewart (2002)
It’s at least 10 years ago, probably nearer 15, that I read Driving over Lemons, the first in Stewart’s eventual trilogy about buying a remote farm in Andalusia. His books are in the Peter Mayle vein, low-key and humorous: an Englishman finds the good life abroad and tells amusing anecdotes about the locals and his own mishaps.
This sequel stood out for me a little more than the previous book, if only because I mostly read it in Spain. It’s in discrete essays, some of which look back on his earlier life. He was a founding member of Genesis and very briefly the band’s drummer; and to make some cash for the farm he used to rent himself out as a sheep shearer, including during winters in Sweden.
To start with, they were really very isolated, such that getting a telephone line put in revolutionized their lives. By this time, his first book had become something of a literary sensation, so he reflects on its composition and early reception, remembering when the Mail sent a clueless reporter out to find him. Spanish bureaucracy becomes a key element, especially when it looks like their land might be flooded by the building of a dam. Despite that vague sense of dread, this was good fun. (Public library)