Three Books that Originated on the Radio
As the end of the year approaches and I try to get through a final handful of review books, I’m looking for ways to combine posts. It may seem like a fairly arbitrary connection, but all three of these books originated as essays or short stories that were aired on British radio. I never listen to the radio so I miss out on these projects the first time around, but I’ve been interested to note how short forms and conversational styles lend themselves to oral performance.
Beneath the Skin: Great Writers on the Body
These 15 pieces were commissioned for the BBC Radio 3 series “A Body of Essays.” Thomas Lynch, a small-town American undertaker and wonderful, unjustly obscure writer, opens and closes the volume. In his introduction he remarks – appropriately as Christmas draws near – that “We are an incarnate species”: we experience the world only through our bodies, which are made of disparate parts that work together as a whole. This project considers single organs by turn “in hopes that by knowing the part we might better know the whole of our predicament and condition.”
Naomi Alderman, musing on the intestines, draws metaphorical connections between food, sex and death, and gives thanks that digestion and excretion are involuntary processes we don’t have to give any thought. Ned Beauman reports on misconceptions about the appendix as he frets about the odds of his bursting while he’s in America without health insurance. The late Philip Kerr describes the checkered history of the lobotomy, which used to reduce patients to a vegetative state but can now quite effectively treat epilepsy.
The pieces incorporate anatomical knowledge, medical history, current research, cultural connections, and sometimes observation of a hospital procedure. These threads are elegantly woven together, as in Patrick McGuinness’s essay on the ear, which skips between Hamlet’s father’s death, the secretive delight of mining for earwax, Beethoven’s ear trumpet, and what we know about in utero sounds.
Most authors chose a particular organ because of its importance to their own health. Christina Patterson’s acne was so bad she went to the UK’s top skin specialist for PUVA light treatments, Mark Ravenhill had his gallbladder removed in an emergency surgery, and Daljit Nagra’s asthma led his parents to engage Sikh faith healers for his lungs. Two of my favorite chapters were by William Fiennes, whose extreme Crohn’s disease caused him to have a colostomy bag for two years in his early twenties, and poet Kayo Chingonyi, who has always been ashamed to admit that his parents both died of complications of HIV in Zambia. Such personal connections add poignancy to what could have been information dumps.
As is usual for essay collections, my interest varied somewhat. I had my hopes too high so was disappointed with a scattered piece on the kidneys. But the overall quality is terrific. If you enjoy medical reads to any extent, I recommend this as a bedside book to read occasionally.
Some favorite lines:
“It’s a strange and shifting thing – this sense I have that I am my body, of which some bits are essential and some expendable.” (Mark Ravenhill)
“There are things we only think about when they go wrong: the fan belt, the combi boiler, the bowel.” (William Fiennes)
“Like most of us, I take my body for granted. I live in the most complex, intricate machine and as long as it wakes up in the morning, and goes to bed at night, I am uninterested in its inner workings.” (Chibundu Onuzo, “Thyroid”)
Beneath the Skin was published by the Wellcome Collection imprint of Profile Books on October 25th. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
In Mid-Air by Adam Gopnik
New Yorker writer Gopnik contributed to BBC Radio 4’s A Point of View for over a decade. These essays date from 2012 to 2017 and are grouped into three loosely thematic sections on family, culture and politics. Gopnik self-deprecatingly sees himself as “offering measured ambivalences on everything.” As an American who was raised in Canada and has lived in Paris and spent significant time in London, he has a refreshingly cosmopolitan outlook and can appreciate the nuances in different countries’ identities. At the same time, he brings out what’s universal: being annoying to one’s teenage children, gauging the passing of time by family members’ changes, the desire to die with dignity (remembering his father-in-law’s death at age 95), and lessons in a happy marriage from Charles and Emma Darwin – he boils it down to lust, laughter and loyalty.
During the weeks that I spent with these essays I was frequently reminded of Jan Morris’s In My Mind’s Eye, which casts a similarly twinkling eye over the absurdities of modern life and the aging body. Gopnik endures shingles and shrugs over his funny last name (“drunken lout” in Russian) and short stature. He mostly ignores Twitter and decries our dependence on smartphones. As he’s never learned to drive, he’s amused by the idea of self-driving cars.
My favorite pieces were on significantly more trivial matters, though: the irony of famous Christmas songs being written by Jews, and a satire on society’s addiction to DVD box sets. Other arts references vary from the Beatles and Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize to Cubism and literary festivals. It’s a quirky blend of high and low culture here. Bizarrely, Gopnik has recently written an oratorio on Alan Turing and a musical about a New York City restaurant.
The author is an unabashed liberal who prizes pluralism above all else but warns how fragile it is. In the final section he prophesies catastrophe under Trump and, afterwards, can only say that at least his election puts lesser issues into perspective. I valued the diagnosis of American insularity and British inwardness – this particular essay was written in 2013 but seems all the more relevant post-Brexit. This was my fifth book from Gopnik. While I didn’t engage with every essay and would have liked them to be chronological so there was a mix of topics all the way through, it was a pleasant and often thought-provoking read.
Some favorite lines:
“Watching the people we love die bit by bit is the hardest thing life demands until we recall that watching the people we love die bit by bit is in a certain sense what life simply is. It just usually takes more time for the bits to go by.”
“We should never believe that people who differ from us about how we ought to spend public money want to commit genocide or end democracy, and we should stop ourselves from saying so, even in the pixellated heat of internet argument. But when we see the three serpents of militarism, nationalism and hatred of difference we should never be afraid to call them out, loudly, by name”
In Mid-Air was published by riverrun, a new Quercus imprint, on October 18th. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
Turbulence by David Szalay
These 12 linked short stories, commissioned for BBC Radio 4, focus on travel and interconnectedness. Each is headed by a shorthand route from one airport to another, and at the destination we set out with a new main character who has crossed paths with the previous one. For instance, in “YYZ – SEA” the writer Marion Mackenzie has to cancel a scheduled interview when her daughter Annie goes into labor. There’s bad news about the baby, and when Marion steps away from the hospital to get Annie a few necessaries from a supermarket and is approached by a pair of kind fans, one of whom teaches Marion’s work back in Hong Kong, she’s overcome at the moment of grace-filled connection. In the next story we journey back to Hong Kong with the teacher, Jackie, and enter into her dilemma over whether to stay with her husband or leave him for the doctor she’s been having an affair with.
As he ushers readers around the world, Szalay invites us to marvel at how quickly life changes and how – improbable as it may seem – we can have a real impact on people we may only meet once. There’s a strong contrast between impersonal and intimate spaces: airplane cabins and hotel rooms versus the private places where relationships start or end. The title applies to the characters’ tumultuous lives as much as to the flight conditions. They experience illness, infidelity, domestic violence, homophobia and more, but they don’t stay mired in their situations; there’s always a sense of motion and possibility, that things will change one way or another.
My favorite story was “DOH – BUD,” in which Ursula goes to visit her daughter Miri and gains a new appreciation for Miri’s fiancé, Moussa, a Syrian refugee. I also liked how the book goes full circle, with the family from the final story overlapping with that of the first. Though a few of the individual stories are forgettable, I enjoyed this more than Szalay’s Booker-shortlisted All that Man Is, another globe-trotting set of linked stories.
Like Beneath the Skin, this acknowledges the many parts making up the whole of humanity; like In Mid-Air, it encourages a diversity of opinion and experience rather than narrow-mindedness. Maybe the three books had more in common than I first thought?
A favorite line:
“In fact it was hard to understand quite what an insignificant speck this aeroplane was, in terms of the size of the ocean it was flying over, in terms of the quantity of emptiness which surrounded it on all sides.”
Turbulence is published by Jonathan Cape today, December 6th. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
It’s been a frigid start to March here in Europe. Even though it only amounted to a few inches in total, this is still the most snow we’ve seen in years. We were without heating for 46 hours during the coldest couple of days due to an inaccessible frozen pipe, so I’m grateful that things have now thawed and spring is looking more likely. During winter’s last gasp, though, I’ve been dipping into a few appropriately snow-themed books. I had more success with some than with others. I’ll start with the one that stood out.
Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg (1992)
[trans. from the Danish by Felicity David]
Nordic noir avant la lettre? I bought this rather by accident; had I realized it was a murder mystery, I never would have taken a chance on this international bestseller. That would have been too bad, as it’s much more interesting than your average crime thriller. The narrator/detective is Smilla Jaspersen: a 37-year-old mathematician and former Arctic navigator with a Danish father and Greenlander mother, she’s a stylish dresser and a shrewd, bold questioner who makes herself unpopular by nosing about where she doesn’t belong.
Isaiah, a little Greenlander boy, has fallen to his death from the roof of the Copenhagen apartment complex where Smilla also lives, and she’s convinced foul play was involved. In Part I she enlists the help of a mechanic neighbor (and love interest), a translator, an Arctic medicine specialist, and a mining corporation secretary to investigate Isaiah’s father’s death on a 1991 Arctic expedition and how it might be connected to Isaiah’s murder. In Part II she tests her theories by setting sail on the Greenland-bound Kronos as a stewardess. At every turn her snooping puts her in danger – there are some pretty violent scenes.
I read this fairly slowly, over the course of a month (alongside lots of other books); it’s absorbing but in a literary style, so not as pacey or full of cliffhangers as you’d expect from a suspense novel. I got myself confused over all the minor characters and the revelations about the expeditions, so made pencil notes inside the front cover to keep things straight. Setting aside the plot, which gets a bit silly towards the end, I valued this most for Smilla’s self-knowledge and insights into what it’s like to be a Greenlander in Denmark. I read this straight after Gretel Ehrlich’s travel book about Greenland, This Cold Heaven – an excellent pairing I’d recommend to anyone who wants to spend time vicariously traveling in the far north.
Favorite wintry passage:
“I’m not perfect. I think more highly of snow and ice than of love. It’s easier for me to be interested in mathematics than to have affection for my fellow human beings.”
One that I left unfinished:
Snow by Orhan Pamuk (2002)
[trans. from the Turkish by Maureen Freely]
This novel seems to be based around an elaborate play on words: it’s set in Kars, a Turkish town where the protagonist, a poet known by the initials Ka, becomes stranded by the snow (Kar in Turkish). After 12 years in political exile in Germany, Ka is back in Turkey for his mother’s funeral. While he’s here, he decides to investigate a recent spate of female suicides, keep tabs on the upcoming election, and see if he can win the love of divorcée Ipek, daughter of the owner of the Snow Palace Hotel, where he’s staying. There’s a hint of magic realism to the novel: the newspaper covers Ka’s reading of a poem called “Snow” before he’s even written it. He and Ipek witness the shooting of the director of the Institute of Education. The attempted assassination is revenge for him banning girls who wear headscarves from schools.
As in Elif Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve, the emphasis is on Turkey’s split personality: a choice between fundamentalism (= East, poverty) and secularism (= West, wealth). Pamuk is pretty heavy-handed with these rival ideologies and with the symbolism of the snow. By the time I reached page 165, having skimmed maybe two chapters’ worth along the way, I couldn’t bear to keep going. However, if I get a recommendation of a shorter and subtler Pamuk novel I would give him another try. I did enjoy the various nice quotes about snow (reminiscent of Joyce’s “The Dead”) – it really was atmospheric for this time of year.
Favorite wintry passage:
“That’s why snow drew people together. It was as if snow cast a veil over hatreds, greed and wrath and made everyone feel close to one another.”
One that I only skimmed:
The Snow Geese by William Fiennes (2002)
Having recovered from an illness that hit at age 25 while he was studying for a doctorate, Fiennes set off to track the migration route of the snow goose, which starts in the Gulf of Mexico and goes to the Arctic territories of Canada. He was inspired by his father’s love of birdwatching and Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose (which I haven’t read). I thought this couldn’t fail to be great, what with its themes of travel, birds, illness and identity. However, Fiennes gets bogged down in details. When he stays with friendly Americans in Texas he gives you every detail of their home décor, meals and way of speaking; when he takes a Greyhound bus ride he recounts every conversation he had with his random seatmates. This is too much about the grind of travel and not enough about the natural spectacles he was searching for. And then when he gets up to the far north he eats snow goose. So I ended up just skimming this one for the birdwatching bits. I did like Fiennes’s writing, just not what he chose to focus on, so I’ll read his other memoir, The Music Room.
Considered but quickly abandoned: In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende
Would like to read soon: The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen – my husband recently rated this 5 stars and calls it a spiritual quest memoir, with elements of nature and travel writing.
What’s been your snowbound reading this year?
Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel
I’m delighted to announce that I’ve been invited to be on the official shadow panel for the Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick (to give it its full and proper title). Here’s a bit of background on the prize, from its website:
The prize “is awarded annually to the best work of published or self-published fiction, non-fiction or poetry by a British or Irish author aged between 18 and 35, and has gained attention and acclaim across the publishing industry and press. £5,000 is given to the overall winner and £500 to each of the three runners-up.
“Since it began in 1991, the award has had a striking impact, boasting a stellar list of alumni that have gone on to become leading lights of contemporary literature. The 2016 Award was presented to Max Porter for his extraordinary debut, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. Following a five-year break, the prestigious award returned with a bang in 2015, awarding debut poet Sarah Howe the top prize for her phenomenal first collection, Loop of Jade.”
Past winners include Ross Raisin, Adam Foulds, Naomi Alderman, Robert Macfarlane, William Fiennes, Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters, Francis Spufford, Simon Armitage and Helen Simpson.
This year’s official judging panel is made up of Andrew Holgate, literary editor of the Sunday Times, and writers Lucy Hughes-Hallett and Elif Shafak.
I’m joined on the shadow panel by four other book bloggers, several of whom you will recognize as long-time friends of this blog:
- Dane Cobain (SocialBookshelves)
- Eleanor Franzen (Elle Thinks)
- Annabel Gaskell (Annabookbel)
- Clare Rowland (A Little Blog of Books)
Here are some key upcoming dates:
- Sunday October 29th: shortlist announced in Sunday Times
- November 18th: book bloggers event with readings from the shortlisted authors (Groucho Club, London)
- November 27th: deadline for shadow panel winner decision
- November 29th: shadow panel winner announced on STPFD website
- December 3rd: shadow panel winner announced in Sunday Times
- December 7th: prize-giving ceremony and winner announcement (London Library)
I’m so looking forward to getting stuck into the shortlisted books and discussing them! I’ll be posting a review of each one in November.
In Cambridge for “Nature Matters”
We spent a few days last week in Cambridge, England for New Networks for Nature’s interdisciplinary “Nature Matters” conference, this year on the theme of “In Touch with the Wild.” This is the fourth year my husband (a biologist with the University of Reading) has participated, and the third year in a row that I’ve attended for a day. While other years the gathering has been in the small town of Stamford, this year’s temporary move to Cambridge gave us the impetus to finally explore this world-famous city for the first time.
Arriving later than we meant to on a Thursday evening, checking into our noisy hostel and then having to dash out in time for my husband to make the first event (and making a futile attempt to find an open coffee shop where I could while away a couple hours)…this all meant our first impression of the city was not great. However, cheap, terrific Chinese street food on Friday after the conference, followed by a delicious glass of cider in a pub and a sunny day for exploring the bustling city center on Saturday created a more favorable overall feeling.
Last year’s conference highlights for me were a debate about nature’s economic value and a panel on the purpose of nature poetry. This year’s sessions tackled personal connection with nature, rewilding (setting aside tracts of land for wilderness and reintroducing native species that have been driven out or gone locally extinct, such as wolves and wild boar), and coping with a sense of loss. With everyone from geographers to a singer and a painter involved on the day I attended, the conference succeeded in drawing in different fields from the sciences and the arts to provide commentary on ways we might reconnect with nature.
The day’s first event brought together author William Fiennes, poet Alison Brackenbury, and Cambridge psychologist Laurie Parma. Fiennes spoke about writing an introduction to John Fowles’s long, curmudgeonly essay The Tree. Whereas Fowles denigrates Linnaeus, Fiennes thinks of him as a hero; like Adam in the Bible, Linnaeus knew the value of naming things. “In order to care about something, we first have to notice it,” Fiennes insisted; for him the noticing began when he was a child going round the garden with his father and learning plant names. Rather than thinking of names as a control mechanism, he suggested they can be a first step in “granting [a species] a place in your sensorium.”
Brackenbury, who comes from four generations of Lincolnshire shepherds, recited from memory seven poems from her latest collection, Skies, several of which reflect on species’ extinctions or comebacks. “Look at them well before they go” is the broadly applicable piece of advice that closes “The Elms.” I especially liked one poem about a starling’s many songs.
Parma relayed the scientific evidence for green spaces mitigating stress and promoting happiness. At an event like this there’s an inevitable feeling that the speakers are preaching to the choir: we already know the personal value of time in nature, as well as the scale of environmental degradation. Still, this came home afresh in the following session as Dr. Stuart Butchart of BirdLife International spoke about the situation in Hawaii, where deforestation, non-native mosquitoes and other invasive animals are rapidly driving native birds to extinction. Photojournalist Toby Smith then questioned whether the nature photographer’s role should be to chronicle nature’s degradation or to celebrate what’s left. Many speakers acknowledged the difficult balance between mourning losses and applauding successes.
I spent most of Saturday scouring Cambridge’s charity shops and made out like a bandit, coming away with 15 books for £15.39. If you happen to find yourself in Cambridge and have seen all you need to of the colleges and the river (it doesn’t take very long), I can recommend Burleigh Street for charity shops but also Mill Road, a slightly more off-the-beaten-path student area of ethnic eateries and cheap stores. Books for Amnesty has an incredible selection; I took advantage of a couple James Lasdun books from their £1 poetry shelf. Best of all was the Salvation Army store, where all books were either 40 or 70 pence. I amassed a huge pile and then put half of it back when I remembered I would have to carry these books the mile or so back into town and then haul them around the whole rest of the day. I also did well at RSPCA’s two shops, one a dedicated bookshop on Mill Road.
Cambridge is certainly rich in secondhand book buying opportunities. Other shops I browsed but didn’t buy from included G. David Books and the tiny Sarah Key Books (also known as “The Haunted Bookshop” – I’d love to know why! – and included on a Guardian list of 10 of the best secondhand bookstores), both on St. Edward’s Passage, and the multi-floored emporium Heffers on St. John’s Street, which has a great selection of board games and gift items as well as new and used books.
As a literary destination, Cambridge left a bit to be desired, though. There weren’t any literary graves for me to find, nor any notable houses or statues. Many of the college’s famous alumni are known for work in other fields. There’s Newton, Darwin and Hawking in the sciences, for instance – they all appear in this mural in the hostel dining room. Plenty of political figures attended, as well as lots of living authors (Wikipedia has an extensive list; the hostel wall featured Zadie Smith as a fairly recent example of a literary alumna).
So, overall, a nice enough city for a day trip but not somewhere you need to stay much longer. Granted, it was outside of term time so King’s College wasn’t running its usual chapel services, and I never did make it out to the Fitzwilliam Museum. Still, I reckon you’ll find much more to see and do in Oxford, a city I’ve visited again and again ever since my undergraduate study abroad days took me there for weekly theology tutorials.