Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island: Reread and Stage Production
Bill Bryson, an American author of humorous travel and popular history or science books, is considered a national treasure in his adopted Great Britain. He is a particular favourite of my husband and in-laws, who got me into his work back in the early to mid-2000s. As I, too, was falling in love with the country, I found much to relate to in his travel-based memoirs of expatriate life and temporary returns to the USA. Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to see things clearly.
When we heard that Notes from a Small Island (1995), his account of a valedictory tour around Britain before returning to live in the States for the first time in 20 years, had been adapted into a play by Tim Whitnall and would be performed at our local theatre, the Watermill, we thought, huh, it never would have occurred to us to put this particular book on stage. Would it work? we wondered. The answer is yes and no, but it was entertaining and we were glad that we went. We presented tickets as my in-laws’ Christmas present and accompanied them to a mid-February matinee before supper at ours.
A few members of my book club decided to see the show later in the run and suggested we read – or reread, as was the case for several of us – the book in March. I started my reread before attending the play and had gotten through the first 50 pages, which is mostly about his first visit to England in 1973 (including a stay in a Dover boarding-house presided over by the infamously officious “Mrs Smegma”). This was ideal as the first bit contains the funniest stuff and, with the addition of some autobiographical material from later in the book plus his 2006 memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, made up the entirety of the first act.
Bryson traveled almost exclusively by public transport, so the set had the brick and steel walls of a generic terminal, and a bus shelter and benches were brought into service as the furnishing for most scenes. The problem with frontloading the play with hilarious scenes is that the second act, like the book itself on this reread, became rather a slog of random stops, acerbic observations, finding somewhere to stay and something to eat (often curry), and then doing it all over again.
Mark Hadfield, in the starring role, had the unenviable role of carrying the action and remembering great swathes of text lifted directly from the book. That’s all well and good as a strategy for giving a flavour of the writing style, but the language needed to be simplified; the poor man couldn’t cope and kept fluffing his lines. There were attempts to ease the burden: sections were read out by other characters in the form of announcements, letters or postcards; some reflections were played as if from Bryson’s Dictaphone. It was best, though, when there were scenes rather than monologues against a projected map, because there was an excellent ensemble cast of six who took on the various bit parts and these were often key occasions for humour: hotel-keepers, train-spotters, unintelligible accents in a Glasgow pub.
The trajectory was vaguely southeast to northwest – as far as John O’Groats, then back home to the Yorkshire Dales – but the actual route was erratic, based on whimsy as much as the availability of trains and buses. Bryson sings the praises of places like Salisbury and Durham and the pinnacles of coastal walks, and slates others, including some cities, seaside resorts and tourist traps. Places of personal significance make it onto his itinerary, such as the former mental asylum at Virginia Water, Surrey where he worked and met his wife in the 1970s. (My husband and I lived across the street from it for a year and a half.) He’s grumpy about having to pay admission fees that in today’s money sound minimal – £2.80 for Stonehenge!
The main interest for me in both book and play was the layers of recent history: the nostalgia for the old-fashioned country he discovered at a pivotal time in his own young life in the 1970s; the disappointments but still overall optimism of the 1990s; and the hindsight the reader or viewer brings to the material today. At a time when workers of every type seem to be on strike, it was poignant to read about the protests against Margaret Thatcher and the protracted printers’ strike of the 1980s.
The central message of the book, that Britain has an amazing heritage that it doesn’t adequately appreciate and is rapidly losing to homogenization, still holds. Yet I’m not sure the points about the at-heart goodness and politeness of the happy-with-their-lot British remain true. Is it just me or have general entitlement, frustration, rage and nastiness taken over? Not as notable as in the USA, but social divisions and the polarization of opinions are getting worse here, too. One can’t help but wonder what the picture would have been post-Brexit as well. Bryson wrote a sort-of sequel in 2015, The Road to Little Dribbling, in which the sarcasm and curmudgeonly persona override the warmth and affection of the earlier book.
Indeed, my book club noted that a lot of the jokes were things he couldn’t get away with saying today, and the theatre issued a content warning: “This production includes the use of very strong language, language reflective of historical attitudes around Mental Health, reference to drug use, sexual references, mention of suicide, flashing lights, pyrotechnics, loud sound effect explosions, and haze. This production is most suitable for those aged 12+.”
So, yes, an amusing journey, but a bittersweet one to revisit, and an odd choice for the stage.
A favourite line I’ll leave you with: “To this day, I remain impressed by the ability of Britons of all ages and social backgrounds to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a hot beverage.”
Original rating (c. 2004):
My rating now:
Have you read anything by Bill Bryson? Are you a fan?
February Releases by Nick Acheson, Charlotte Eichler and Nona Fernández (#ReadIndies)
Three final selections for Read Indies. I’m pleased to have featured 16 books from independent publishers this month. And how’s this for neat symmetry? I started the month with Chase of the Wild Goose and finish with a literal wild goose chase as Nick Acheson tracks down Norfolk’s flocks in the lockdown winter of 2020–21. Also appearing today are nature- and travel-filled poems and a hybrid memoir about Chilean and family history.
The Meaning of Geese: A thousand miles in search of home by Nick Acheson
I saw Nick Acheson speak at New Networks for Nature 2021 as the ‘anti-’ voice in a debate on ecotourism. He was a wildlife guide in South America and Africa for more than a decade before, waking up to the enormity of the climate crisis, he vowed never to fly again. Now he mostly stays close to home in North Norfolk, where he grew up and where generations of his family have lived and farmed, working for Norfolk Wildlife Trust and appreciating the flora and fauna on his doorstep.
This was indeed to be a low-carbon initiative, undertaken on his mother’s 40-year-old red bicycle and spanning September 2021 to the start of the following spring. Whether on his own or with friends and experts, and in fair weather or foul, he became obsessed with spending as much time observing geese as he could – even six hours at a stretch. Pink-footed geese descend on the Holkham Estate in their thousands, but there were smaller flocks and rarer types as well: from Canada and greylag to white-fronted and snow geese. He also found perspective (historical, ethical and geographical) by way of Peter Scott’s conservation efforts, chats with hunters, and insight from the Icelandic researchers who watch the geese later in the year, after they leave the UK. The germane context is woven into a month-by-month diary.
The Covid-19 lockdowns spawned a number of nature books in the UK – for instance, I’ve also read Goshawk Summer by James Aldred, Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt, The Consolation of Nature by Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren, and Skylarks with Rosie by Stephen Moss – and although the pandemic is not a major element here, one does get a sense of how Acheson struggled with isolation as well as the normal winter blues and found comfort and purpose in birdwatching.
Tundra bean, taiga bean, brent … I don’t think I’ve seen any of these species – not even pinkfeet, to my recollection – so wished for black-and-white drawings or colour photographs in the book. That’s not to say that Acheson is not successful at painting word pictures of geese; his rich descriptions, full of food-related and sartorial metaphors, are proof of how much he revels in the company of birds. But I suspect this is a book more for birders than for casual nature-watchers like myself. I would have welcomed more autobiographical material, and Wintering by Stephen Rutt seems the more suitable geese book for laymen. Still, I admire Acheson’s fervour: “I watch birds not to add them to a list of species seen; nor to sneer at birds which are not truly wild. I watch them because they are magnificent”.
With thanks to Chelsea Green Publishing for the free copy for review.
Swimming Between Islands by Charlotte Eichler
Eichler’s debut collection was inspired by various trips to cold and remote places, such as to Lofoten 10 years ago, as she explains in a blog post on the Carcanet website. (The cover image is her painting Nusfjord.) British and Scandinavian islands and their wildlife provide much of the imagery and atmosphere. You can sink into the moss and fog, lulled by alliteration. A glance at some of the poem titles reveals the breadth of her gaze: “Brimstones” – “A Pheasant” (a perfect description in just two lines) – “A Meditation of Small Frogs” – “Trapping Moths with My Father.” There are also historical vignettes and pen portraits. The scenes of childhood, as in the four-part “What Little Girls Are Made Of,” evoke the freedom of curiosity about the natural world and feel autobiographical yet universal.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.
Voyager: Constellations of Memory—A Memoir by Nona Fernández (2019; 2023)
[Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer]
Our archive of memories is the closest thing we have to a record of identity. … Disjointed fragments, a pile of mirror shards, a heap of the past. The accumulation is what we’re made of.
When Fernández’s elderly mother started fainting and struggling with recall, it prompted the Chilean actress and writer to embark on an inquiry into memory. Astronomy provides the symbolic language here, with memory a constellation and gaps as black holes. But the stars also play a literal role. Fernández was part of an Amnesty International campaign to rename a constellation in honour of the 26 people “disappeared” in Chile’s Atacama Desert in 1973. She meets the widow of one of the victims, wondering what he might have been like as an older man as she helps to plan the star ceremony. This oblique and imaginative narrative ties together brain evolution, a medieval astronomer executed for heresy, Pinochet administration collaborators, her son’s birth, and her mother’s surprise 80th birthday party. NASA’s Voyager probes, launched in 1977, were intended as time capsules capturing something of human life at the time. The author imagines her brief memoir doing the same: “A book is a space-time capsule. It freezes the present and launches it into tomorrow as a message.”
With thanks to Daunt Books for the free copy for review.
A Trip to Kyoto with Muriel Barbery and Florentyna Leow (#FrenchFebruary and #ReadIndies)
One of my most recent Book Serendipity incidents was reading these two 139-page books about a foreigner’s wanderings in Kyoto (often touring temples) at the same time. They’re also both from independent publishers, so I’m taking the opportunity to review them together for Read Indies month. The Barbery is also towards Marina Sofia’s casual French February challenge.
A Single Rose by Muriel Barbery (2020; 2021)
[Translated from the French by Alison Anderson]
That Barbery is a Japanophile was clear from her whimsical The Writer’s Cats, which I reviewed for Novellas in November in 2021. Here she takes inspiration from a Japanese aesthetic of minimalist prose, melancholy walks in rainy gardens, and a mixture of legends and stoic Buddhist philosophy. Rose, the half-French, half-Japanese protagonist, is in Kyoto to hear the reading of the will made by her late father, Haru, a contemporary art dealer.
A 40-year-old botanist, Rose is adrift, her father’s death just the latest in a string of losses that have caused her to close off her heart. Her time in Kyoto, while she waits to meet with the lawyer, is a low-key cycle of visits to gardens and Buddhist temples, sake-soused meals, going to bed sad and tipsy, and waking up to rain and preparing to do it all over again. Her minder is Paul, a Belgian who was her father’s assistant. They initially find each other irritating, but are gradually drawn together as two damaged souls.
There are lovely descriptive passages, and the theme of the inescapability of suffering cannot be refuted. The universality of loss comes across in key quotes from Issa and Rainer Maria Rilke, respectively: “in this world / we walk on the roof of hell / gazing at flowers” and “A single rose is every rose.” Still, I somehow found this work both too subtle (the only vaguely relevant chapter-opening snippets of history or legend) and too obvious (“Everybody hurts” is hardly a groundbreaking message). This was my third novella by Barbery. Shall I carry on and read The Elegance of the Hedgehog as well?
With thanks to Gallic Books for the free copy for review.
How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart by Florentyna Leow (2023)
On the face of it, this collection has quite a lot in common with Nina Mingya Powles’s Tiny Moons, from the same publisher: travel- and food-inspired essays that loop through some of the same experiences of loneliness and disorientation. The writers also have a similar background, with Leow a Malaysian Chinese woman living in Japan. She is able to pass for Japanese and so is experienced at code-switching as she moves from temple to jazz bar to teahouse and learns new dialects and accents.
For some years she made a living by leading tours she could never have afforded herself. Much as she loves Kyoto and its sights, she tired of the crowds and of seeing the same temples all the time. It took a stranger observing that she seemed unhappy in her work for her too realize it was time for a change.
This disillusionment and the end of her friendship with her female housemate are the main themes of this short book, especially in the six-part title essay. Interestingly, she describes the end of their relationship in the sort of terms that would generally be used for a romantic break-up, despondently querying what went wrong between them when they had been so happy picking and cooking the fruit from the persimmon tree outside their apartment window. Indeed, later on she cites the concept of a “romantic friendship.”
But I think what she was really mourning was the temporary nature of life. We’re nostalgic for golden times we can never get back. I think of parts of my early twenties like that. I wouldn’t necessarily trade my life now to go back in time (or maybe I would), but those periods will always glow in my memory.
My favourite essays were “Persimmons,” “A Bowl of Tea,” “A Rainy Day in Kyoto” and “Egg Love” – prove you care for someone by learning how they like their eggs. This wasn’t a particularly stand-out read for me, especially in comparison to the Powles, but I’d happily read more by Leow in the future.
A favourite passage:
REASONS FOR TEA
To celebrate. To thank someone. To enjoy the scent of different incense. To listen to the rain. To view an autumn moon reflected on a pond outside. To watch snow blanket the garden. To hear the texture of that silence. To walk through freshly fallen snow before dawn on the way to the teahouse. To drink tea by candlelight. To remember someone. To bask in the light, the cool of early summer mornings. Because it is spring. Because the leaves are changing colour. Because it is autumn. Because the plum blossoms are out. Because the world is beautiful. Because why not?
How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart will be published on 23 February. With thanks to The Emma Press for the proof copy for review.
Six Degrees of Separation: From Ruth Ozeki to Ruth Padel
This month we begin with The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki, which recently won the Women’s Prize for Fiction. It happens to be my least favourite of her books that I’ve read so far, but I was pleased to see her work recognised nonetheless. (See also Kate’s opening post.)
#1 One of the peripheral characters in Ozeki’s novel is an Eastern European philosopher who goes by “The Bottleman.” I had to wonder if he was based on avant-garde Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. Back in 2010, when I was working at a university library in London and had access to nearly any book I could think of – and was still committed to trying to read the sorts of books I thought I should enjoy rather than what I actually did – I skimmed a couple of Žižek’s works, including First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (2009), which arose from 9/11 and the global financial crisis and questions whether we can ever stop history repeating itself without undermining capitalism.
#2 In searching my archives for farces I’ve read, I came across one I took notes on but never wrote up back in 2013: Japanese by Spring by Ishmael Reed (1993), an academic comedy set at “Jack London College” in Oakland, California. The novel satirizes almost every ideology prevalent in the 1960s–80s: multiculturalism, racism, xenophobia, nationalism, feminism, affirmative action and various literary critical methods. Reed sets up exaggerated and polarized groups and opinions. (You know it’s not to be taken entirely seriously when you see character names like Chappie Puttbutt, President Stool and Professor Poop, short for Poopovich.) The college is sold off to the Japanese and Ishmael Reed himself becomes a character. There are some amusing lines but I ended up concluding that Reed wasn’t for me. If you’ve enjoyed work by Paul Beatty and Percival Everett, he might be up your street.
#3 “Call me Ishmael” – even if, like me, you have never gotten through Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851), you probably know that famous opening line. I took an entire course on Nathaniel Hawthorne and Melville as an undergraduate and still didn’t manage to read the whole thing! Even my professor acknowledged that Melville could have done with a really good editor to rein in his ideas and cut out some of his digressions.
#4 A favourite that I can recommend instead is Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn (2011). It’s just the kind of random, wide-ranging nonfiction I love: part memoir, part travelogue, part philosophical musing on human culture and our impact on the environment. In 1992 a pallet of “Friendly Floatees” bath toys fell off a container ship in a storm in the North Pacific. Over the next two decades those thousands of plastic animals made their way around the world, informing oceanographic theory and delighting children. Hohn’s obsessive quest for the origin of the bath toys and the details of their high seas journey takes on the momentousness of his literary antecedent. He visits a Chinese factory and sees plastics being made; he volunteers on a beach-cleaning mission in Alaska. (I’d not seen the Ozeki cover that appears in Kate’s post, but how pleasing to note that it also has a rubber duck on it!)
#5 Alongside Moby-Duck on my “uncategorizable” Goodreads shelf is The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen (1978), one of my Books of Summer from 2019. A nature/travel classic that turns into something more like a spiritual memoir, it’s about a trip to Nepal in 1973, with Matthiessen joining a zoologist to study Himalayan blue sheep – and hoping to spot the elusive snow leopard. He had recently lost his partner to cancer, and relied on his Buddhist training to remind himself of tenets of acceptance and transience.
#6 Ruth Padel is one of my favourite contemporary poets and a fixture at the New Networks for Nature conference I attend each year. She has a collection named The Soho Leopard (2004), whose title sequence is about urban foxes. The natural world and her travels are always a major element of her books. From one Ruth to another, then, by way of philosophy, farce, whaling, rubber ducks and mountain adventuring.
Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.) Next month’s starting point is a wildcard: use the book you finished with this month (or, if you haven’t done an August chain, the last book you’ve read).
Have you read any of my selections? Tempted by any you didn’t know before?
Six Degrees of Separation: From Wintering to The Summer of the Bear
This month we begin with Wintering by Katherine May. I reviewed this for the Times Literary Supplement back in early 2020 and enjoyed the blend of memoir, nature and travel writing. (See also Kate’s opening post.)
#1 May travels to Iceland, which is the location of Sarah Moss’s memoir Names for the Sea. I’ve read nine of Moss’s books and consider her one of my favourite contemporary authors. (I’m currently rereading Night Waking.)
#2 Nancy Campbell’s Fifty Words for Snow shares an interest in languages and naming. I noted that the Icelandic “hundslappadrifa” refers to snowflakes as large as a dog’s paw.
#3 In 2018–19, Campbell was the poet laureate for the Canal & River Trust. As part of her tour of the country’s waterways, she came to Newbury and wrote a poem on commission about the community gardening project I volunteer with. (Here’s her blog post about the experience.) Three Women and a Boat by Anne Youngson is about a canalboat journey.
#4 Youngson’s novel was inspired by the setup of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. Another book loosely based on a classic is The Decameron Project, a set of 29 short stories ranging from realist to dystopian in their response to pandemic times.
#5 Another project updating the classics was the Hogarth Shakespeare series. One of these books (though not my favourite) was The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson, her take on The Winter’s Tale.
#6 Even if you’ve not read it (it happened to be on my undergraduate curriculum), you probably know that The Winter’s Tale famously includes the stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear.” I’m finishing with The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen, one of the novels I read on my trip to the Outer Hebrides because it’s set on North Uist. I’ll review it in full soon, but for now will say that it does actually have a bear in it, and is based on a true story.
I’m pleased with myself for going from Wintering (via various other ice, snow and winter references) to a “Summer” title. We’ve crossed the hemispheres from Kate’s Australian winter to summertime here.
Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.) Next month’s starting point will be the recent winner of the Women’s Prize, The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki.
Have you read any of my selections? Tempted by any you didn’t know before?
20 Books of Summer, 4–5: Roy Dennis & Sophie Pavelle
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.
20 Books of Summer, 1–3: Hargrave, Powles & Stewart
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)
Six Degrees of Separation: From The End of the Affair to Nutshell
This month we begin with The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, a perfect excuse for me to review a novel I finished more than a year ago. This was only my second novel from Greene, after The Quiet American many a year ago. It’s subtle: low on action and majoring on recollection and regret. Mostly what we get are the bitter memories of Maurice Bendrix, a writer who had an affair with his clueless friend Henry’s wife Sarah during the last days of the Second World War. After she broke up with him, he remained obsessed with her and hired Parkis, a lower-class private detective, to figure out why. To his surprise, Sarah’s diaries revealed, not that she’d taken up with another man, but that she’d found religion. Maurice finds himself in the odd position of being jealous of … God? (More thoughts here.)
#1 I asked myself if I’d ever read another book where someone was jealous of a concept rather than a fellow human being, and finally came up with one. I enjoyed Cooking as Fast as I Can by Cat Cora even though I wasn’t aware of this Food Network celebrity and restaurateur. Her memoir focuses on her Mississippi upbringing in a half-Greek adoptive family and the challenges of being gay in the South. Separate obsessions plagued her marriage; I remember at one point she gave her wife an ultimatum: it’s either me or the hot yoga.
#2 Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It by Geoff Dyer is one of my favourite-ever book titles. The title is his proposed idea for a self-help book, but … wait for the punchline … he couldn’t be bothered to write it. It’s a book of disparate travel essays, with him as the bumbling antihero, sluggish and stoned. This wasn’t one of his better books, but his descriptions and one-liners are always amusing (my review).
#3 Another book with a fantastic title that has nothing to do with the contents: Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris. Again, not my favourite of his essay collections (try Me Talk Pretty One Day or When You Are Engulfed in Flames instead), but he’s reliable for laughs.
#4 No more about owls than the previous one; Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame is an autobiographical novel that tells the same story as her An Angel at My Table trilogy (but less compellingly): a hardscrabble upbringing in New Zealand and mental illness that led to incarceration in psychiatric hospitals. The title phrase is from Ariel’s song in The Tempest, which the Withers siblings learn at school. I’ve been ‘reading’ this for nearly a year and a half; really, it’s mostly been on the set-aside shelf for that time.
#5 Another title drawn from Shakespeare: there are more things by Yara Rodrigues Fowler is one of my Most Anticipated Books of 2022. It’s about a female friendship that links Brazil and London. I’m holding out hope for a review copy.
#6 Fowler’s title comes from Hamlet, which provides the plot for Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, one of his strongest novels of recent years. Within a few pages, I was captivated and utterly convinced by the voice of this contemporary, in utero Hamlet. Not even born and already a snob with an advanced vocabulary and a taste for fine wine, this foetus is a delight to spend time with. His captive state pairs perfectly with Hamlet’s existential despair, but also makes him (and us as readers) part of the conspiracy: even as he wants justice for his father, he has to hope his mother and uncle will get away with their crime; his future depends on it.
Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.)
Have you read any of my selections? Tempted by any you didn’t know before?
Three on a Theme (and #ReadIndies): Nonfiction I Sponsored Last Year
Here in the UK we’re hunkering down against the high winds of Storm Eunice. We’ve already watched two trees come down in a neighbour’s garden (and they’re currently out there trying to shore up the fence!), and had news on the community Facebook page of a huge conifer down by the canal. Very sad. I hope you’re all safe and well and tucked up at home.
Today I’m looking back at several 2021 nonfiction releases I helped come into existence. The first and third I sponsored via Unbound, and the second through Dodo Ink. Supporting small publishers also ties this post into Karen and Lizzy’s February Read Indies initiative. All:
This Party’s Dead: Grief, Joy and Spilled Rum at the World’s Death Festivals by Erica Buist
A death tourism book? I’m there! This is actually the third I’ve read in recent years, after From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty and Near the Exit by Lori Erickson. Buist’s journey was sparked off by the sudden death of her fiancé Dion’s father, Chris – he was dead for a week before his cleaner raised the alarm – and her burden of guilt. It’s an act of atonement for what happened to Chris and the fact that she and Dion, who used to lodge with him, weren’t there when he really needed it. It’s also her way of discovering a sense of the sacred around death, instead of simply fearing and hiding from it.
This takes place in roughly 2018. The author travelled to eight festivals in seven countries, starting with Mexico for the Day of the Dead and later for an exploration of Santa Muerte, a hero of the working class. Other destinations included Nepal, Sicily (“bones of the dead” biscotti), Madagascar (the “turning of the bones” ceremony – a days-long, extravagant party for a whole village), Thailand and Kyoto. The New Orleans chapter was a standout for me. It’s a city where the dead outnumber the living 10 to 1 (and did so even before Katrina), and graveyard and ghost tours are a common tourist activity.
Buist is an entertaining writer, snappy and upbeat without ever seeming flippant as she discusses heavy topics. The mix of experience and research, the everyday and the momentous, is spot on and she recreates dialogue very well. I appreciated the earnest seeking here, and would happily read a book of hers on pretty much any subject. (New purchase from Unbound)
Trauma: Essays on Art and Mental Health, ed. Thom Cuell & Sam Mills
I’ll never learn: I left it nearly 10 months between finishing this and writing it up. And took no notes. So it’s nearly impossible to recreate the reading experience. What I do recall, however, is how wide-ranging and surprising I found this book. At first I had my doubts, thinking it was overkill to describe sad events like a break-up or loss as “traumatic”. But an essay midway through (which intriguingly trades off autobiographical text by Kirsty Logan and Freudian interpretation by Paul McQuade) set me straight: trauma cannot be quantified or compared; it’s all about the “unpreparedness of the subject. A traumatic event overwhelms all the defences laid out in advance against the encroachment of negative experience.”
The pieces can be straightforward memoir fragments or playful, experimental narratives more like autofiction. (Alex Pheby’s is in the second person, for instance.) Within those broad branches, though, the topics vary widely. James Miller writes about the collective horror at the Trump presidency. Emma Jane Unsworth recounts a traumatic delivery – I loved getting this taste of her autobiographical writing but, unfortunately, it outshone her full-length memoir, After the Storm, which I read later in the year. Susanna Crossman tells of dressing up as a clown for her clinical therapy work. Naomi Frisby (the much-admired blogger behind The Writes of Womxn) uses food metaphors to describe how she coped with the end of a bad relationship with a narcissist.
As is inevitable with a collection this long, there are some essays that quickly fade in the memory and could have been omitted without weakening the book as a whole. But it’s not gracious to name names, and, anyway, it’s likely that different pieces will stand out for other readers based on their own experiences. (New purchase from Dodo Ink)
- “Inheritance” by Christiana Spens (about investigating her grandparents’ lives through screen prints and writing after her father’s death and her son’s birth)
- “Blank Spaces” by Yvonna Conza (about the lure of suicide)
- “The Fish Bowl” by Monique Roffey (about everyday sexual harassment and an assault she underwent as a teenager; I enjoyed this so much more than her latest novel)
- “Thanks, I’ll Take the Chair” by Jude Cook, about being in therapy.
Women on Nature: 100+ Voices on Place, Landscape & the Natural World, ed. Katharine Norbury
It was over three years between when I pledged support and held the finished book in my hands; I can only imagine what a mammoth job compiling it was for Katharine Norbury (author of The Fish Ladder). The subtitle on the title page explains the limits she set: “An anthology of women’s writing about the natural world in the east Atlantic archipelago.” So, broadly, British and Irish writers, but within that there’s a lot of scope for variety: fragments of fiction (e.g., a passage from Jane Eyre), plenty of poetry, but mostly nonfiction narratives – some work in autobiographical reflection; others are straightforward nature or travel writing. Excerpts from previously published works trade off with essays produced specifically for this volume. So I encountered snippets of works I’d read by the likes of Miriam Darlington, Melissa Harrison, Sara Maitland, Polly Samson and Nan Shepherd. The timeline stretches from medieval mystics to today’s Guardian Country Diarists and BIPOC nature writers.
For most of the last seven months of 2021, I kept this as a bedside book, reading one or two pieces on most nights. It wasn’t until early this year that I brought it downstairs and started working it into my regular daily stacks so that I would see more progress. At first I quibbled (internally) with the decision to structure the book alphabetically by author. I wondered if more might have been done to group the pieces by region or theme. But besides being an unwieldy task, that might have made the contents seem overly determined. Instead, you get the serendipity of different works conversing with each other. So, for example, Katrina Porteous’s dialect poem about a Northumberland fisherman is followed immediately by Jini Reddy’s account of a trip to Lindisfarne; Margaret Cavendish’s 1653 dialogue in verse between an oak tree and the man cutting him down leads perfectly into an excerpt from Nicola Chester’s On Gallows Down describing a confrontation with tree fellers.
I’d highly recommend this for those who are fairly new to the UK nature writing scene and/or would like to read more by women. Keep it as a coffee table book or a bedside read and pick it up between other things. You’ll soon find your own favourites. (New purchase from Unbound)
- “Caravan” by Sally Goldsmith (a Sheffield tree defender)
- “Enlli: The Living Island” by Pippa Marland (about the small Welsh island of Bardsey)
- “An Affinity with Bees” by Elizabeth Rose Murray (about beekeeping, and her difficult mother, who called herself “the queen bee”)
- “An Island Ecology” by Sarah Thomas (about witnessing a whale hunt on the Faroe Islands)
- My overall favourite: “Arboreal” by Jean McNeil (about living in Antarctica for a winter and the contrast between that treeless continent and Canada, where she grew up, and England, where she lives now)
“It occurred to me that trees were part of the grammar of one’s life, as much as any spoken language. … To see trees every day and to be seen by them is a privilege.”
Stay strong, trees!