This past weekend was my fifth time attending Nature Matters, the annual New Networks for Nature conference. I’ve written about it on the blog a few times before: last year’s 10th anniversary meeting in Stamford, plus once when there was a particular focus on nature poetry and another time when it was held in Cambridge. This year the theme was “Time for Nature” and the conference was held at the very posh St Peter’s School in York, which dates back to 627 and resembles an Oxford college. We have close friends in York, but our timing was off in that they were in Italy this week. However, they sent us a key to their house and let us stay there while they were away, which saved us having to book an Airbnb or guest house.
What makes Nature Matters so special is its interdisciplinary nature: visual artists, poets, musicians, writers, activists, academics and conservationists alike attend and speak. So although the event might seem geared more towards my ecologist husband, there’s always plenty to interest me, too. In particular, I enjoyed the panel discussions on nature in children’s books and new directions for nature writing. This year the organizers were determined to make the speakers’ roster more diverse, so some panels were three-quarters or wholly female, and four people of color appeared on the stage. (That might not seem like a great record, but in a field so dominated by white males it’s at least a start.)
The Friday was a particularly brilliant day, the best day of sessions I can remember in any year. After a presentation by wildlife photographer and painter Robert Fuller, the first session was “Nature in Deep Time,” featuring three archaeologists from northern universities who talked about cave art, woodcraft, and evidence of rapid climate change. “Taking a long view, we get a very different perspective,” Professor Terry O’Connor of the University of York observed. The topic felt timely and tied in with a number of books that have come out this year, including Time Song by Julia Blackburn, Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie and Underland by Robert Macfarlane.
Next up was “Now or Never – Fighting for Nature,” featuring three female activists: Ruth Peacey, a filmmaker for BBC Wildlife whose subjects have included bird persecution in the Mediterranean; Sally Goldsmith, a campaigner who deployed poems and songs against the mass street tree-cutting campaign in Sheffield and helped save some 10,000 trees; and Hatti Owens, an environmental lawyer with ClientEarth who has partnered with Extinction Rebellion. The panel chair and one of this year’s organizers, writer Amy-Jane Beer, noted that activism is no longer radical, but an obligation.
Either side of lunch, Dr. Sara Goodacre of the University of Nottingham SpiderLab demonstrated how money spiders walk on water and “sail” using two raised legs to cope with wind; and Dr. Geoff Oxford of the University of York told the successful conservation story of the tansy beetle, which has recently been celebrated with a crowdfunded wall mural on the corner of York’s Queen Street and the Tansy Beetle Bar at the Rattle Owl restaurant on Micklegate. After the day’s proceedings, we joined a general movement over to see the mural and toast the bar’s grand opening.
The children’s books session featured Anneliese Emmans Dean, who gave very entertaining performances of her poems on insects and birds; Gill Lewis, who writes middle grade novels that introduce children to environmental issues; and Yuval Zommer, who writes and illustrates nonfiction guides with titles like The Big Book of Bugs and The Big Book of Blooms. Panel chair Ben Hoare, another of this year’s organizers and a former editor of BBC Wildlife magazine, concluded that children’s books should be joyous and not preachy.
There was still more to come on this jam-packed Friday! “The Funny Thing about Nature…” was essentially three stand-up comedy routines by Simon Watt, creator of the Ugly Animal Appreciation Society; Helen Pilcher, who has written a speculative book about the science of de-extinction; and Hugh Warwick, an author and hedgehog enthusiast. The language got a little crass in this session, but all three speakers were genuinely funny. As Watt put it, “Sincerity should not be our only weapon” in the fight for nature; he’s trying to reach the people who aren’t “already on our side.”
After free gin and tonics provided by local producers SloeMotion, we had the absolute treat of a performance by Kitty Macfarlane, whose folk songs are inspired by the natural world. The title track of her 2018 album Namer of Clouds is about Luke Howard, who created the naming system for clouds (cumulus, stratus, and so on) in 1802. Other songs are about eels, a starling murmuration and the Sardinian tradition of weaving sea silk. She often incorporates field recordings of birdsong, and writes about her native Somerset Levels. Her voice is gorgeously clear, reminding me of Emily Smith’s. We bought her album and EP at once.
Saturday was a slightly less memorable day, with sessions on insects and the uplands, an interview with clean rivers campaigner (and former pop star) Feargal Sharkey, and the short film Raising the Hare by Bevis Bowden. Most engaging for me was a four-person discussion on new directions for nature writing, chaired by author and academic Richard Kerridge. Katharine Norbury is editing the Women on Nature anthology, which I have supported via Unbound; it’s due out next year. She went all the way back to Julian of Norwich and has included novelists, poets, gardeners and farmers – lots of women who wouldn’t have called themselves ‘nature writers’.
Anita Sethi, a journalist from Manchester, speaks out about inequality of access to nature due to race, gender and class. She read part of her essay “On Class and the Countryside” from the Common People anthology edited by Kit de Waal. Zakiya McKenzie, a London-born Jamaican, was a Forest England writer in residence and founded the Green & Black project to give underprivileged children trips to the countryside. Richard Smyth, the author of A Sweet, Wild Note, spoke of the need for robust nature writing – and criticism. He stressed that it’s not good enough for nature writing to be “charming” or “lyrical”; it’s too important to be merely pleasant. I would have liked to hear him explore this more and for it to turn into more of a debate, but the discussion drifted into praise for experimental and speculative forms.
There’s something for everyone at this conference; some of the elements that I didn’t get on with or found pretentious were others’ highlights, so it’s all a matter of taste. Spending time in York, one of my favorite cities, was an added bonus. We managed to fit in a trip to the National Railway Museum and lunch at Bettys on the Sunday before our train back.
Next year’s conference will be at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, 10–12 July. I’ve never been to Norwich so look forward to visiting it and attending the full conference once again. It’s always a fascinating, inspiring weekend with a wide range of speakers and ideas.
Would any of the conference’s themes or events have interested you?
Annabel and I did a buddy read of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon; at 636 pages, it worked out to roughly 21 pages a day for the whole month of May. As I went along I summarized each day’s reading on Twitter, so to make things super-easy for myself, especially while I’m away in the States, I’ve put this post together as a collection of tweets.
There’s a lot of plot summary here, and perhaps some spoilers, so if you plan to read the novel you might not want to read too closely. I’ve set out my more general reactions in bold.
6:12 am – 1 May 2019
Kavalier & Clay, #1: Oct. 1939. Teen cousins Sam (American) and Josef (Czech) meet up in Brooklyn. Both dream of fame and fortune, Josef through drawing; Sam through any old scheme. Lots of ref’s to illusionists. Great adjectives and metaphors. Reminds me of The Invisible Bridge.
(Coincidentally, while I was at the Wellcome Collection yesterday I browsed their current exhibit on magic and illusions and there was a vintage Houdini poster advertising one of his famous escapes.)
K&C, #2: Flashback to Josef’s illusionist training under Bernard Kornblum c. 1935. Goaded by his little brother, Thomas, Josef practiced a Houdini-style underwater escape after jumping off a bridge tied up in a laundry bag. Disaster nearly ensued. Madcap and sobering all at once.
K&C, #3: Josef escapes Prague in a coffin housing a golem [animated humanoid figure made of clay]. He has a premonition of the horror to come for the Jews. Close shaves, but he makes it to Brooklyn — as we already know. Looking forward to getting back to NYC and Sam in Part II.
K&C, #4: Brief history of comics in America. Superman was a watershed in 1938. Sam pitches an idea to half-dressed boss Sheldon Anapol and shows Joe’s quick sketch of a golem-like hero. Though skeptical, he decides to give them the weekend to come up with a complete 12-page comic.
K&C, #5: Sam enlists the Glovsky brothers to work for him. We get the story of his late father, a vaudeville strong man named ‘The Mighty Molecule’. Joe breaks into locked premises with a flourish, inspiring The Escapist. Over 1/6 through! Hankering for a proper female character.
K&C, #6: Well, we got a female, Rosa Luxembourg Saks, but so far she hasn’t said a word and is only an object of the male gaze. J draws her nude for $3. My interest waned in Ch. 8 as S and J develop a backstory for The Escapist. He is to free the oppressed with his Golden Key.
K&C, #7: With 5 helpers, S&J pull all-nighters to piece together a 1st issue of Masked Men with mult. 12-pp stories. J draws the Escapist punching Hitler for the cover. Anapol makes them a good offer but wants a new cover. It’s a deal breaker; S&J walk out. Great period dialogue.
K&C, #8: Part III, Oct. 1940. Empire Comics is a phenomenon. Anapol is now so rich he bought a house in FL. Joe toils away at his violent, audacious scenes and pesters the German consulate re: his family. After some bad news, he decides to move to Montreal so he can join the RAF.
K&C, #9: Joe has 2nd thoughts re: RAF. He now seems to cross paths with every pugilistic German in the city. He stumbles on the offices of the “Aryan-American League,” breaks in and learns that he has in Carl Ebling a fan in spite of himself. Sure I’ve heard that name before…
K&C, #10: Joe is so confident a ‘bomb’ on 25th fl. of Empire State Bldg is a bluff by his nemesis, Ebling, that he chains himself to his desk to keep working. S&J realize how foolish it was to sell rights to the Escapist: they won’t make a penny on the upcoming radio adaptation.
K&C, #11: S&J attend a party at which Salvador Dali is in a breathing apparatus. Rosa reappears, saying the F word. She’s empathetic re: J’s family. J plays the hero and saves Dali when he runs out of oxygen. Rosa invites him up to see her paintings (not a euphemism — I think!).
K&C, #12 (catch-up): Rosa paints still lifes and has a room full of moths, a sort of family plague. She sets Joe’s dislocated finger and, via her work for the Transatlantic Rescue Agency, may be able to help him save his brother. They share a kiss before Sam interrupts them.
K&C, #13: Rosa’s boss agrees to help Joe if he pays 3x the regular fare for Thomas … and is the magician for his son’s bar mitzvah. Joe’s new idea for a sexy female superhero is inspired by a Luna moth. He and Sam try to bargain for a greater share of the rights to their work.
K&C, #14-15 (somehow got ahead!): 1941. S&J so rich they don’t know what to do with the $. Sharing apt. with Rosa, who keeps trying to find S a girlfriend. J is performing magic at parties; S is writing a novel, takes a radio actor auditioning for Escapist home to Shabbos dinner.
Some general thoughts at the halfway point, while I’m ahead: delighted to have a solid female character in Rosa, and more interiority with Sam in Part IV. (There are also intriguing hints about his sexuality.) Chabon is an exuberant writer; the novel could definitely be shorter.
K&C, #16: Joe is carrying around an unopened letter from his mother. At one of his bar mitzvah magician gigs, Ebling attacks him with an explosive and both incur minor injuries. The letter mysteriously disappears…
K&C, #17: Sam is a volunteer plane spotter for the war effort, giving him a vantage point high above NYC. Actor Tracy Bacon surprises him by joining him up there at 1 a.m. one day. Literal sparks fly.
K&C, #18: Sam meets Orson Welles, whose “Citizen Kane” is a huge influence on the lads’ work — they want to write for adults more than kids now. Tracy accompanies Sam to his favorite place in NYC: the site of the former World’s Fair. (Traveling tomorrow but will catch up soon.)
Sigh. I hugely lost momentum after we arrived in the States on Sunday. I’ve caught up, but (confession time) have had to do a lot of skimming. I find the dialogue a lot more engaging than the expository prose, unfortunately.
K&C #19-25: Awful news about the ship bearing Joe’s brother. Both Joe and Rosa decide to take drastic action. Carl Ebling is imprisoned for 12 years for the bar mitzvah bombing. J is stationed near the Antarctic as a radioman. JUMP to 1954, with S raising a 12yo kid named Tommy.
K&C, #26: We realize Sam and Rosa have formed an unusual family with her child Tommy, who’s learning magic tricks from Joe, who makes a failed jump…
K&C wrap-up: Joe’s living in the Empire State Building, writing a novel about a golem. Anapol kills off the Escapist. In ’54, Sam appears at a televised hearing about whether comic books create delinquents. He decides to start over in CA, leaving Joe, Rosa and Tommy a family of 3
K&C wrap-up (cont.): I did occasional skimming starting at ~p. 120 and mostly skimmed from p. 400 onwards, so I’ve marked the whole thing as ‘skimmed’ rather than ‘read’. Slightly disappointed with myself for lacking staying power, but I do think the book overlong.
The action should have been condensed, rather than sprawling over 15 years. I often lost patience with the expository prose and wanted more scenes and dialogue. It took too long for Rosa to appear, and too long to get initiated into Sam’s private life.
However, Chabon does have some wonderful turns of phrase. Here’s a few faves. “The view out the windows was pure cloud bank, a gray woolen sock pulled down over the top of the building.”
“Orderly or chaotic, well inventoried and civil or jumbled and squabbling, the Jews of Prague were dust on the boots of the Germans, to be whisked off with an indiscriminate broom.”
“Sammy felt that he was standing on the border of something wonderful, a land where wild cataracts of money and the racing river of his own imagination would, at last, lift his makeshift little raft and carry it out to the boundless freedom of the open sea.”
My favorite passage of all: “Dinner was a fur muff, a dozen clothespins, and some old dish towels boiled up with carrots. The fact that the meal was served with a bottle of prepared horseradish enabled Sammy to conclude that it was intended to pass for braised short ribs of beef”
I also discovered that Chabon coined a word in the novel: “aetataureate,” meaning related to a golden age. It’s a good indication of the overall tone.
The other doorstopper I finished reading this month was Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly, which I reviewed for Nudge. I had heard about this Unbound release before, but my interest was redoubled by its shortlisting for the Rathbones Folio Prize and the RSL Ondaatje Prize. Although I was initially intimidated by the heft of the 600+-page hardback that came through my door for review, I found that I could easily settle into the rhythm and – provided I had no distractions – read 40 or 50 pages of it at a sitting.
As an elderly woman in Gloucestershire in the 1880s, Mary Ann Sate looks back at the events of the 1820s and 1830s, a time of social turmoil and upheaval in the family for whom she worked as a servant. Writing is a compulsion and a form of confession for her. The book has no punctuation, not even apostrophes, and biblical allusions, spelling errors, archaisms and local pronunciation (such as “winder” for window and “zummer” for summer) make it feel absolutely true to the time period and to the narrator’s semi-literate status.
There are no rhymes in this free verse epic, but occasionally Mary Ann comes out with some alliteration, perhaps incidental, or particularly poetic lines (“The road ahead unravel / Like a spool of canary thread / Taking me always away”) that testify to her gifts for storytelling and language, even though she made her living by manual labor for some seven decades.
The manner of the telling makes this a unique work of historical fiction, slightly challenging but very worthwhile. I would particularly recommend it to fans of Jane Harris’s The Observations.
Next month’s plan: The Stillness The Dancing by Wendy Perriam, passed on to me by Liz Dexter.
Lots of adults are afraid of poetry, Joe Nutt believes. As a Midlands lad he loved going to the public library and had a magical first encounter with poetry at secondary school – the last time many people will ever read it. A former English teacher and Times Educational Supplement columnist who has written books about Shakespeare, Donne and Milton, he also spent many years in the business world, where he sensed apprehension and even hostility towards poetry. This book is meant as a gentle introduction, or reintroduction, to the joys of reading a poem for yourself.
The 22 chapters each focus on a particular poem, ranging in period and style from the stately metaphysical verse of Andrew Marvell to the rapid-fire performance rhythms of Hollie McNish. The pattern in these essays is to provide background on the poet and his or her milieu or style before moving into more explicit interpretation of the poem’s themes and techniques; the poem is then generally printed at the end of the chapter.*
I most appreciated the essays on poems I already knew and loved but gained extra insight into (“Blackberry-Picking” by Seamus Heaney and “The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy) or had never read before, even if I knew other things by the same poets (“The Bistro Styx” by Rita Dove and “The Sea and the Skylark” by Gerard Manley Hopkins). The Dove poem echoes the Demeter and Persephone myth as it describes a meeting between a mother and daughter in a Paris café. The mother worries she’s lost her daughter to Paris – and, what’s worse, to a kitschy gift shop and an artist for whom she works as a model. Meanwhile, Heaney, Hardy and Hopkins all reflect – in their various, subtle ways – on environmental and societal collapse and ask what hope we might find in the midst of despair.
Other themes that come through in the chosen poems include Englishness and countryside knowledge (E. Nesbit and Edward Thomas), love, war and death. Nutt points out the things to look out for, such as doubling of words or sounds, punctuation, and line length. His commentary is especially useful in the chapters on Donne, Wordsworth and Hopkins. In other chapters, though, he can get sidetracked by personal anecdotes or hang-ups like people not knowing the difference between rifles and shotguns (his main reason for objecting to Vicki Feaver’s “The Gun,” to which he devotes a whole chapter) or Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize. These felt like unnecessary asides and detracted from the central goal of celebrating poetry. One can praise the good without denigrating what one thinks bad, yes?
*Except for a few confusing cases where it’s not. Where’s Ted Hughes’s “Tractor”? If reproduction rights couldn’t be obtained, a different poem should have been chosen. Why does a chapter on Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes” quote just a few fragments from it in the text but then end with a passage from Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (ditto with the excerpt from Donne that ends the chapter on Milton)? The particular Carol Ann Duffy and Robert Browning poems Nutt has chosen are TL; DR, while he errs to the other extreme by not quoting enough from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Paradise Lost, perhaps assuming too much audience familiarity. (I’ve never read either!)
So, overall, a bit of a mixed bag: probably better suited to those less familiar with poetry; and, oddly, often more successful for me in its generalizations than in its particulars:
if you once perceive that poetry operates on the edges of man’s knowledge and experience, that it represents in art a profoundly sincere attempt by individuals to grapple with the inexorable conditions of human life, then you are well on the way to becoming not just a reader of it but a fan.
The poet’s skill is in making us look at the world anew, through different, less tainted lenses.
A poem, however unique and strange, however pure and white the page it sits on, doesn’t enter your life unaccompanied. It comes surrounded by literary echoes and memories, loaded with the past. That’s why you get better at understanding [poems], why you enjoy them more, the more you read.
Poetry is so often parsimonious. It makes us work for our supper.
Rossetti deliberately avoids certainty throughout. I enjoy that in any poem. It makes you think.
There is really only one response to great poetry: an unqualified, appreciative ‘yes’.
- The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner
- 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem by Ruth Padel
- The Poem and the Journey and 60 Poems to Read Along the Way by Ruth Padel
- The Poetry Pharmacy by William Sieghart
- Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder
(I have read and can recommend all of these. Padel’s explication of poetry is top-notch.)
The Point of Poetry was published by Unbound on March 21st (World Poetry Day). My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
A whole book about fig trees? That’s right! If you’re a voracious nonfiction reader like me, you’ll find freelance journalist Mike Shanahan’s history of fig trees unexpectedly fascinating. It opens with him atop a series of ladders in a national park in Borneo, reaching past a venomous snake to pick some figs. He did many such exciting things in his research towards a PhD in rainforest ecology, but that 1998 encounter was significantly more intrepid than his earliest experience with the genus: he remembers a potted weeping fig in the hallway of his childhood home.
From that little tree to the largest banyans, Ficus encompasses 750+ species and has had a major place in human culture for millennia. Fig trees turn up in Greek origin myths and are sacred to Hindus. Romulus and Remus were rescued from drowning in the Tiber by fig tree roots. The tree the Buddha sat under to meditate? A fig. The fruit Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden? More likely a fig than an apple given the Middle Eastern climate and the fact that they then sew fig leaves together to cover their nakedness. (The confusion may have come about because in Latin malum means either “apple” or “evil”.)
Figs offer some biological surprises. For one thing, the plants have no apparent flowers. That’s because the flowers are internal: a fig is not technically a fruit but a hollow ball lined with tiny flowers that must be pollinated by two-millimeter-long fig-wasps. Strangler figs colonize a host tree, starting as a seed in the canopy and enveloping it in long tangled roots. Many tropical birds and mammals rely on figs, including monkeys and hornbills. Figs were, Shanahan writes, the “original superfood” for our primate ancestors.
The habitats where fig trees thrive face severe challenges, including drought, forest fires and poaching. However, history offers encouraging examples of how fig species can be key to tropical forest restoration. After a volcano erupted on Papua New Guinea in 1660, for example, the razed land was fairly quickly recolonized by Ficus species from seeds dropped by birds and bats – a prerequisite for wildlife returning. Similarly, fig trees were all that remained of the forest on Krakatoa after its famous volcanic eruption in 1883.
Building on this precedent, the Forest Restoration Research Unit, based in Thailand, now uses fig species to kickstart the restitution of tropical landscapes; one in every five of their plantings is a fig. Likewise, figs can be used to restore post-mining landscapes and lock up carbon. Researchers are looking into using drones to collect and deposit the seeds.
I’d never realized how often figs show up in the historical record, or how dependent on them we and other creatures have been. “Look after fig trees and they will look after you. It’s a lesson we have all but forgotten, but one we could learn again,” Shanahan concludes. Have a look at the bibliography and you’ll see just how much information is synthesized into this short, engaging book. It’s another gorgeous design from Unbound, too: the colorful cover was what first attracted me, and the author’s black-and-white pointillist illustrations adorn the text.
Nowadays I tend to think of figs as an exotic, luxury food. Every year we add some dried figs to our Christmas cake, creating caramel bursts of crunchy seeds. When my husband and I lived in Reading, we briefly had a LandShare arrangement to look after an established garden. Hidden behind a suburban fence, it was a secret paradise overflowing with fruit: plum, greengage and apple trees plus a fruit cage containing berries, currants, and – in one corner – a small fig. I remember one glorious late summer when we were inundated with more ripe figs than I’d ever seen before. We would heat them in the oven and serve them split open and oozing with goat’s cheese and runny honey. Our very own taste of Eden.
Ladders to Heaven was first published by Unbound in 2016 and releases in paperback today, September 6th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Song escapes the poverty and natural disasters of his hometown in China by sailing to Guiana. The village medicine man describes Guiana as a kind of paradise, and tells him he can earn free passage if he presents himself to the Englishmen in Guangzhou. What he doesn’t realize is that he will effectively be an indentured servant, working in the sugarcane fields for years just to pay for the voyage. From Singapore to India to Guiana, it’s a long and fraught journey, and though his new home does dazzle with its colors and wildlife, it’s not the idyll he expected. Still, Song is determined to make something of himself. “He would yet live a life that was a story worth telling.”
I have an extract from Chapter 1, about the flooding in China, to whet your appetite:
Lishui Village, China, 1878
At first they were glad the rains came early. They had already finished their planting and the seedlings were beginning to push through. The men and women of Lishui straightened their backs, buckled from years of labouring, led the buffalo away and waited for the fields to turn green. With such early rains there might be three rice harvests if the weather continued to be clement. But they quickly lost hope of that. The sun did not emerge to bronze the crop. Instead the clouds hung heavy. More rain beat down upon an already sodden earth and lakes were born where even the old people said they could not remember seeing standing water.
The Li rose higher and higher. Every morning the men of the village walked to the river to watch the water lap at its banks like flames. Sometimes they stood there for hours, their faces as grey as the flat slate light. Still the rain fell, yet no one cared about their clothes becoming wet or the nagging coughs the chill brought on. Occasionally a man lifted his arm to wipe his face. But mostly they stood still like figures in a painting, staring upstream, watching the water barrel down, bulging under its own mass.
Before the end of the week the Li had spilled over its banks. A few days later the water had covered the footpaths and cart tracks, spreading like a tide across the land and sweeping away all the fine shoots of newly planted rice. Further upstream the river broke up carts, bamboo bridges and outbuildings; it knocked over vats of clean water and seeped beneath the doors of homes. Carried on its swirling currents were splintered planks of wood, rotting food, and shreds of sacking and rattan.
Song awoke to feel the straw mat wet beneath him. He reached out his hand. The water was gently rising and ebbing as if it was breathing. His brother Xiao Bo was crying in his sleep. The little boy had rolled off his mat and was lying curled up in the water. He was hugging his knees as if to stop himself from floating away.
Song’s father was not home yet. He and the other men had been working through the night trying to raise walls of mud and rein back the river’s strength. But the earthen barriers washed away even as they built them; they could only watch, hunched over their shovels.
The men did not return that day. As the hours passed the women grew anxious. They stopped by each other’s homes, asking for news, but nobody had anything to say. Song’s mother Zhang Je was short with the children. The little ones whimpered, sensing something was wrong.
Song huddled low with his sisters and brothers around the smoking fire which sizzled and spat but gave off no heat. They had wedged among the firewood an iron bowl but the rice inside was not warming. That was all they had left to eat now. Xiao Wan curled up closer to Song. His little brother followed him everywhere nowadays. His sisters Xiao Mei and San San sat opposite him, adding wet wood to the fire and poking at the ash with a stick. His mother stood in the doorway, the silhouette of Xiao Bo strapped to her back and her large rounded stomach tight with child.
The children dipped their hands into the bowl, squeezing grains of rice together, careful not to take more than their share. Song was trying to feed Xiao Wan but he was too weak even to swallow. The little boy closed his eyes and rested his head in Song’s lap, wheezing with each breath. Their mother continued to look out towards the fields, waiting, with Xiao Bo’s head slumped unnaturally to the side as he slept.
‘I don’t think they’re coming back.’
Song could barely hear what his mother was saying.
‘They’re too late,’ she muttered.
Song wasn’t sure if she was talking to him. ‘Mama?’
Her voice was more brisk. ‘They’re not coming back, I said.’
Lev Parikian was a keen birdwatcher when he was 11, but as an adult he barely remembered most of what he used to know about birds. He’d confidently declare that he’d seen a nightingale and then be too embarrassed to later admit it was actually a skylark. Also, he had to acknowledge that he hadn’t been completely honest as a preteen birder: No way had he seen a black redstart, for instance. Probably about 30% of his childhood sightings could be dismissed as cheats or downright lies. As the birdwatching bug bit again at the start of 2016, he decided it was time to set the record straight. His aim? To see 200 birds in a year, with no twitching (driving many miles to see a reported rarity) and no cheating.
Most of the book is a chronological tour through 2016, with each month’s new sightings totaled up at the end of the chapter. Being based in London isn’t the handicap one might expect – there’s a huge population of parakeets there nowadays, and the London Wetland Centre in Barnes is great for water birds – but Parikian also fills in his list through various trips around the country. He picks up red kites while in Windsor for a family wedding, and his list balloons in April thanks to trips to Minsmere and Rainham Marshes, where he finds additions like bittern and marsh harrier. The Isle of Wight, Scotland, Lindsifarne, North Norfolk… The months pass and the numbers mount until it’s the middle of December and his total is hovering at 196. Will he make it? I wouldn’t dare spoil the result for you!
I’ve always enjoyed ‘year-challenge’ books, everything from Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia to Nina Sankovitch’s Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, so I liked this memoir’s air of self-imposed competition, and its sense of humor. Having accompanied my husband on plenty of birdwatching trips, I could relate to the alternating feelings of elation and frustration. I also enjoyed the mentions of Parikian’s family history and career as a freelance conductor – I’d like to read more about this in his first book, Waving, Not Drowning (2013). This is one for fans of Alexandra Heminsley’s Leap In and Kyo Maclear’s Birds Art Life, or for anyone who needs reassurance that it’s never too late to pick up a new skill or return to a beloved hobby.
Lastly, I must mention what a beautiful physical object this book is. The good folk of Unbound have done it again. The cover image and endpapers reproduce Alan Harris’s lovely sketch of a gradually disappearing goldcrest, and if you lift the dustjacket you’re rewarded with the sight of some cheeky bird footprints traipsing across the cover.
Some favorite passages:
“Birders love a list. Day lists, week lists, month lists, year lists, life lists, garden lists, county lists, walk-to-work lists, seen-from-the-train lists, glimpsed-out-of-the-bathroom-window-while-doing-a-poo lists.”
“It’s one thing sitting in your favourite armchair, musing on the plumage differences between first- and second-winter black-headed gulls, but that doesn’t help identify the scrubby little blighter that’s just jigged into that bush, never to be seen again. And it’s no use asking them politely to damn well sit still blast you while I jot down the distinguishing features of your plumage in this notebook dammit which pocket is it in now where did I put the pencil ah here it is oh bugger it’s gone. They just won’t. Most disobliging.”
“There is a word in Swedish, gökotta, for the act of getting up early to listen to birdsong, but the knowledge that this word exists, while heartwarming, doesn’t make it any easier. It’s a bitter pill, this early rising, but my enthusiasm propels me to acts of previously unimagined heroism, and I set the alarm for an optimistic 5 a.m., before reality prompts me to change it to 5.15, no 5.30, OK then 5.45.”
Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? was published by Unbound on May 17th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
I was delighted to be invited to participate in the blog tour for Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon (including on my hubby’s blog on Thursday!).
I recently sponsored my first book via Unbound, the UK’s crowdfunding publisher. You’re probably familiar with some Unbound titles even if that name doesn’t ring a bell. For instance, you might remember that The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, an Unbound title from 2014, became the first crowdfunded novel longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I’ve reviewed another previous Unbound title, Martine McDonagh’s Narcissism for Beginners, and will be participating in the blog tour for Lev Parikian’s Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? in May.
The forthcoming title I’ve chosen to support is Women on Nature by Katharine Norbury, which promises to be a wide-ranging and learned anthology celebrating the tradition of women’s writing about nature (both fiction and non-). I enjoyed Norbury’s first book, The Fish Ladder, which is a memoir in the vein of H Is for Hawk, and also saw her speak at the New Networks for Nature conference in 2016.
I’d only ever crowdfunded music before – albums by The Bookshop Band, Krista Detor, Duke Special and Marc Martel. Beaming internally at feeling like a patroness of the arts after funding my Women on Nature hardback, I kept the smug glow going by signing up to support The Bookshop Band via Patreon (where you can commit to a certain amount per creation, e.g. per music video, and have the option of setting a monthly cap) and to fund an album by their singer/cellist Beth Porter and her band The Availables via Indiegogo.
Have you ever gotten involved in a crowdfunding project? How about for the arts?
Don’t talk like we were stuck in a lift.
Why would I be missing you so violently?
We’re all the hero when directing the scene,
But therapy for liars is a giant ice cream.
(from “Montparnasse” by Elbow)
I broke one of my cardinal reviewing rules—write about the book while it’s still fresh in your mind—and waited two weeks after finishing Martine McDonagh’s Narcissism for Beginners before writing it up. Luckily the Elbow stanza above (Guy Garvey’s lyrics are like poetry, after all) brought back to me some of the themes I want to explore: how you can miss someone you barely know, the way that ties ebb and shift such that your blood kin are strangers and the unrelated become like family, and how a narcissistic personality can use coercion and deception to get his or her way. Plus there’s the ice cream metaphor of the last line, a link to the terrific cover on finished copies of the novel—not on my proof, alas.
The novel is presented as Sonny Anderson’s extended letter to the mother he doesn’t remember. He’s lived with his guardian, a Brit named Thomas Hardiker, in Redondo Beach, California for 11 years; before that they were in Brazil with Sonny’s father. A month ago, on his twenty-first birthday, Sonny received the astounding news that he’s a millionaire thanks to a trust fund from his late father, Robin Agelaste-Bim, better known as Guru Bim. His mother is Sarah Anderson: once a Scottish housewife, now untraceable. Despite his youth, Sonny has been a meth addict and kicked the habit through NA. This kid’s done a lot of living already, but sets out on a new adventure to learn about his parents from those who knew them. And while he’s in Britain, he’ll squeeze in some tourism related to his favorite movie, Shaun of the Dead.
Starting with Sonny’s plane ride to Heathrow, the book is in the present tense, which makes you feel you’re taking the journey right along with him. Although this isn’t being marketed as young adult fiction, it has the same vibe as some YA quest narratives I’ve read: John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, both of David Arnold’s books, and Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star. Sonny is more bitter and world-weary than those teen protagonists, but you still get the slang and the pop culture references along with the heartfelt emotions.
Sonny’s first visit is to Torquay octogenarian Doris Henry, who was the Agelaste-Bims’ servant and Robin’s wet nurse circa 1970. Next up: London and Ruth Williams, whom Sonny’s mother, then going by Suki, recruited into a LifeForce meditation group. Ruth remembers taking against Guru Bim immediately: “He was faking it to get in with Suki. I understood the attraction, though; those narcissistic types are always charming.” Bim and Suki formed a splinter group, Trembling Leaves and soon announced Suki’s pregnancy, but things went awry and Suki fled to Scotland with her ex-boyfriend, Andrew.
This slightly madcap biographical trip around Britain also takes in Brighton, Scotland and Keswick in the Lake District. At each stop Sonny’s able to fill in more about his past, but it’s the letters Thomas sent along for him that contain the real shockers. It’s an epistolary within an epistolary, really, with Thomas’s series of long, explanatory letters daubing in the details and anchoring Sonny’s sometimes-earnest, sometimes-angry missive to his mother.
I loved tagging along on this kooky hero’s quest. My one small criticism about an otherwise zippy novel is that there is a lot of backstory to absorb, from Sonny’s former drug use onwards. For an American expat, though, it was especially fun to watch Sonny trying to get used to some peculiarities of Britain: “apparently it’s compulsory to eat potato chips and on Brit trains” and “We argue about which floor she lives on. I say second and Ruth says first, until we realise we mean the same thing.”
In a year that opened with a narcissist being installed in the White House and will soon see the publication of a new book about cult leader Jim Jones (The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn, April 11th), McDonagh’s picture of Guru Bim is sure to strike a chord. As Ruth tells Sonny, in Ancient Greek an agelast was someone with no sense of humor; and she accused Bim of being “a manipulative charlatan.”
For Sonny, whose very name places him in relationship to others, coming to grips with who he came from means deciding to live differently and be content with his own piecemeal family, including Thomas, the Great Dudini (their dog), and maybe even a cool old lady like Ruth. You’ll love spending time with them all, and I imagine you’ll get a particular kick out of this if you like Shaun of the Dead. (Whisper it: I’ve never seen it.)
Narcissism for Beginners was published in the UK on March 9th. With thanks to Unbound for the review copy.
Martine McDonagh was an artist manager in the music industry for 30 years and now leads the Creative Writing & Publishing MA at West Dean College, Sussex. This is her third novel, following I Have Waited, and You Have Come and After Phoenix.