Four February Releases: Napolitano, Offill, Smyth, Sprackland

Much as I’d like to review books in advance of their release dates, that doesn’t seem to be how things are going this year. I hope readers will find it useful to learn about recent releases they might have missed. This month I’m featuring a post-plane crash scenario, a reflection on modern anxieties, an essay about the human–birds relationship, and a meditation on graveyards.


Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

(Published by Penguin/Viking on the 20th; came out in USA from Dial Press last month)

June 2013: a plane leaves Newark Airport for Los Angeles, carrying 192 passengers. Five hours after takeoff, it crashes in the flatlands of northern Colorado, a victim to stormy weather and pilot error. Only 12-year-old Edward Adler is found alive in the wreckage. In alternating storylines, Napolitano follows a select set of passengers (the relocating Adler family, an ailing tycoon, a Wall Street playboy, an Afghanistan veteran, a Filipina clairvoyant, a pregnant woman visiting her boyfriend) in their final hours, probing their backstories to give their soon-to-end lives context (and meaning?), and traces the first six years of the crash’s aftermath for Edward.

While this is an expansive and compassionate novel that takes seriously the effects of trauma and the difficulty of accepting random suffering, I found that I dreaded returning to the plane every other chapter – I have to take regular long-haul flights to see my family, and while I don’t fear flying, I also don’t need anything that elicits catastrophist thinking. I would read something else by Napolitano (she’s written a novel about Flannery O’Connor, for instance), but I can’t imagine ever wanting to open this up again.

I picked up a proof copy at a Penguin Influencers event.


Weather by Jenny Offill

(Published by Knopf [USA] on the 11th and Granta [UK] on the 13th)

Could there be a more perfect book for 2020? A blunt, unromanticized but wickedly funny novel about how eco-anxiety permeates everyday life, Weather is written in the same aphoristic style as Offill’s Dept. of Speculation but has a more substantial story to tell. Lizzie Benson is married with a young son and works in a New York City university library. She takes on an informal second job as PA to Sylvia, her former professor, who runs a podcast on environmental issues and travels to speaking engagements.

Set either side of Trump’s election, the novel amplifies many voices prophesying doom, from environmentalists to Bible-thumpers (like Lizzie’s mother) to those who aren’t sure they’ll even make it past tomorrow (like her brother, a highly unstable ex-addict who’s having a baby with his girlfriend). It’s a wonder it doesn’t end up feeling depressing. Lizzie’s sardonic narration is an ideal way of capturing relatable feelings of anger and helplessness, cringing fear and desperate hope. Don’t expect to come away with your worries soothed, though there is some comfort to be found in the feeling that we’re all in this together.

Favorite lines:

“Young person worry: What if nothing I do matters? Old person worry: What if everything I do does?”

“Once sadness was considered one of the deadly sins, but this was later changed to sloth. (Two strikes then.)”

“My husband is reading the Stoics before breakfast. That can’t be good, can it?”

I read an e-ARC via Edelweiss.


An Indifference of Birds by Richard Smyth

(Published by Uniformbooks on the 14th)

Birds have witnessed the whole of human history, sometimes profiting from our behavior – our waste products provide them with food, our buildings can be handy nesting and hunting platforms, and our unintentional wastelands and demilitarized zones turn into nature reserves – but more often suffering incidental damage. That’s not even considering our misguided species introductions and the extinctions we’ve precipitated. Eighty percent of bird species are now endangered. For as minimal as the human fossil record will be, we have a lot to answer for.

From past to future, archaeology to reintroduction and de-extinction projects, this is a wide-ranging essay that still comes in at under 100 pages. It’s a valuable shift in perspective from human-centric to bird’s-eye view. The prose is not at all what I’ve come to expect from nature writing (earnest, deliberately lyrical); it’s more rhetorical and inventive, a bit arch but still passionate – David Foster Wallace meets Virginia Woolf? The last six paragraphs, especially, soar into sublimity. A niche book, but definitely recommended for bird-lovers.

Favorite lines:

“They must see us, watch us, from the same calculating perspective as they did two million years ago. We’re still galumphing heavy-footed through the edgelands, causing havoc, small life scattering wherever we tread.”

“Wild things lease these places from a capricious landlord. They’re yours, we say, until we need them back.”

I pre-ordered my copy directly from the publisher.


These Silent Mansions: A life in graveyards by Jean Sprackland

(Published by Jonathan Cape on the 6th)

I’m a big fan of Sprackland’s beachcombing memoir, Strands, and have also read some of her poetry. Familiarity with her previous work plus a love for graveyards induced me to request a copy of her new book. In it she returns to the towns and cities she has known, wanders through their graveyards, and researches and imagines her way into the stories of the dead. For instance, she finds the secret burial place of persecuted Catholics in Lancashire, learns about a wrecked slave ship in a Devon cove, and laments two dead children whose bodies were sold for dissections in 1890s Oxford. She also remarks on the shifts in her own life, including the fact that she now attends more funerals than weddings, and the displacement involved in cremation – there is no site she can visit to commune with her late mother.

I most enjoyed the book’s general observations: granite is the most prized headstone material, most graves go unvisited after 15 years, and a third of Britons believe in angels despite the country’s overall decline in religious belief. I also liked Sprackland’s list of graveyard charms she has seen. While I applaud any book that aims to get people thinking and talking about death, I got rather lost in the historical particulars of this one.

Favorite lines:

“This is the paradox at the heart of our human efforts to remember and memorialise: the wish to last forever, and the knowledge that we are doomed to fail.”

“Life, under such a conscious effort of remembering, sometimes resembles a series of clumsy jump-cuts rather than one continuous narrative.”

My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.



What recent releases can you recommend?

31 responses

  1. Interesting – I love set-piece disasters so I think I’d probably love the sections in the plane in Dear Edward!

    I still haven’t tried Jenny Offill and am not sure if her style is for me – I’ll pick this up if it gets longlisted for the Women’s Prize.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Happy to pass on my proof of Dear Edward to you — the stack keeps growing 🙂

      I was not a fan of Offill’s style in Dept. of Speculation, which was even more fragmentary and incorporated lots of quotes from other texts. There’s still that same strategy here, but with more of a narrative throughline, and I recognized a lot of myself in Lizzie despite some superficial differences.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you! Let’s assess the stack closer to the Anne Tyler event 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The premise of DEAR EDWARD and books like it is why I sometimes ignore the writing advice to: write what you fear. That can lead to both not wanting to write your own book–and people not wanting to read it.


    1. I didn’t have space to mention that Dear Edward was inspired by the true story of a 2010 crash. (A commercial airliner en route from South Africa to London crashed in Libya; one nine-year-old boy survived.) Napolitano was obsessed with this story and the public response to it, and spent eight years writing her own version. I imagine that any book that is hard to read was also at times hard to write! The last line of the Kirkus review is interesting and pretty much encapsulates my feelings: “Well-written and insightful but so heartbreaking that it raises the question of what a reader is looking for in fiction.”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I heard a very interesting interview with the author on NPR. Sounded brutal for her to live with such an obsession, and to write about it–maybe a sort of exercise in excising the obsession?

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m never that bothered about new releases unless it means I can be the first person to get my hands on a library book! I’ll be looking out for An Indifference of Birds.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tiny publisher, so I doubt it’ll make it into many libraries. Thus me ordering it!


      1. That’s OK. I’ve ordered A Sweet Wild Note instead!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I have that one on the shelf to read soon. We ‘know’ the author a bit from Twitter and New Networks for Nature.


  4. I loved Weather. It’s on my Women’s Prize for Fiction wishlist and, just for once, I think I’m in with a chance that the judges will plump for it, too. I’m tempted by An Indifference of Birds if only for that title. I’m not a fan of what I think of as overwritten nature writing (much prefer Kathleen Jamie’s spare prose) so it might suit me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do think Weather has a very good chance of being on various prize lists this year. It’s very zeitgeist-y, but in a good way.

      If the two camps there are represented by Robert Macfarlane and Kathleen Jamie, count me as being in the Jamie camp too!


  5. It’s sobering to think that most graves are unvisited after about 15 years. We truly do become only dust and the memory of us is no more. (The little emoticon thingy says I need to cheer up this comment.)

    I think I’ll add An Indifference of Birds to my reading list. Weather is currently working its way up my library holds list. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about them!


    1. I’m pleased everyone is interested in An Indifference of Birds! The little nature essay that could.

      Perhaps the grave-visiting statistic is connected to two things: 1) people moving around a lot and not living close to what was once a family home; and 2) people turning more to photographs, letters, etc. as ways to remember that person, rather than visiting a grave. I know my sister rarely visits her first husband’s grave (he died of cancer 5 years ago) — her memories aren’t associated with that place, but with the sons they had together and photos and videos.


  6. Loved Weather too, although I slightly prefer Dept of Speculation to it if pushed to decide. Not sure whether I want to read the Napolitano or not. The letter sections worry me more than the plane ones! 🙂


    1. Weather was a cut above for me.

      The letters hardly come into the book, and not until maybe 3/4 of the way through. It’s not a straight epistolary novel at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. | Reply

    I recommend Murder Bytes, a recent release by Gayle Carline. DISCLAIMER: This novel was edited by my daughter, Jennifer Silva Redmond. Her blog is Oh, heck. Did you say you don’t read crime novels?


    1. I try to read in a lot of different genres, but crime and sci fi are two that I almost never pick up — sorry!


  8. Dear Edward sounds good to me – I like catastrophe novels. And I never fly, so maybe it’ll be okay for me!
    I didn’t love Dept. Of Speculation, but the description of Weather sounds so good that I think I will have to try it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, good for you for not flying! The Atlantic Ocean is rather a barrier to me seeing my family 😉 My husband likes the idea of taking the QE2 across the seas instead, but it’s expensive, takes a long time, and may well be just as polluting as a plane. Plus I hate boats.

      Weather felt like a step up for me from DoS, and is more relatable in that we’re all affected by climate change versus not all of us have to deal with the fallout of an affair.


  9. Wow, these all sound really good to me! I’m nervous the bird book might be too depressing, but it’s an interesting premise and I enjoyed the prose in the excerpts you shared.

    I definitely find book reviews as helpful after publication as before. There are just so many books, chances are good I’ve still not read them yet!


    1. I wouldn’t say the Smyth was depressing, just realistic.

      That’s good to know — I rarely manage to read a book pre-release these days.


  10. […] and his journal appearing in jagged speech bubbles. This was a good follow-up to Jenny Offill’s Weather with its themes of climate-related angst and perceived helplessness. I enjoyed the story even […]


  11. […] psyche, contradictory and ultimately unknowable. Like a more melancholy version of Jenny Offill’s Weather or a more cosmic autofiction than Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s Stubborn Archivist, this is a timely, […]


  12. […] like a retread of familiar stories about eco-grief and -anxiety among the middle classes (such as Weather and Unsheltered). Emma Abram is an average suburban mother of two in the north of England, […]


  13. […] Weather by Jenny Offill: A blunt, unromanticized, wickedly funny novel about how eco-anxiety permeates everyday life, Weather is in the same aphoristic style as Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. Lizzie is married with a young son and works in a NYC university library. She takes on a second job as PA to her former professor, who runs a podcast on environmental issues. Set either side of Trump’s election, the novel amplifies many voices prophesying doom. Offill’s observations are spot on. Could there be a more perfect book for 2020? […]


  14. […] any of the other four taking the Prize. I’d love for it to go to Jenny Offill’s sharp, timely Weather; I’d be perfectly happy for it to go to Bernardine Evaristo’s stylish, multivocal Girl, Woman, […]


  15. […] of the most casual of readers. Towards the close I was also reminded of Richard Smyth’s An Indifference of Birds: “When Homo sapiens has gone there will be lots of ideal swift holes in the decaying buildings […]


  16. […] in translation sometimes, especially when it’s of novella length. This also reminded me a bit of Weather and […]


  17. […] know Richard Smyth for his writing on birds (I’ve reviewed both A Sweet, Wild Note and An Indifference of Birds) and his somewhat controversial commentary on modern nature writing. This represents a change in […]


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