Spring Reads, Part II: Swifts, a Cuckoo, and a British Road Trip
Despite ongoing worries about biodiversity loss after last year’s drought, I had the most idyllic late spring evening yesterday. On the way home from an evening with Alice Winn hosted by Hungerford Bookshop (more on which anon), I sat at the station awaiting my train. It was 8:30 p.m. and still fully light, warm enough to be comfortable in a jacket, and a cuckoo serenaded me as I watched swifts wheeling by overhead.
For my second instalment of spring-themed reading (see Part I here), I have books about those very birds, one a nonfiction study of a species that is a welcome sign of late spring and summer in Europe, and a novel that takes up the metaphors associated with another notable species; plus a narrative of a circuitous route driven through a British spring.
Swifts and Us by Sarah Gibson (2020)
We first noticed the swifts had returned to Newbury on 29 April. Best of all, we think ‘our’ birds that nested in the space between the roof and rear gutter last year (see footage here) are back. We’ve also installed one swift and two house martin boxes along the wall from the corner, just in case. Swifts are truly amazing for the distances they travel and the almost fully aerial life they lead. They only touch down to breed and otherwise do everything else – eat, sleep, mate – on the wing. I skimmed this book over the course of two springs and learned that the screaming parties you may, if you are lucky, see tearing down your street are likely to be made up of one- or two-year-old birds. Those tending to nestlings will be quieter. (They’ll be ruthless about displacing house sparrows who try to steal their space, so we hope the questing sparrows we saw at the gutter a few weeks before didn’t get as far as nest-building.)
Beaks agape, swifts catch thousands of insects a day and keep them in a bolus in their throat to regurgitate for chicks. The sharp decline in insect numbers is a major concern, as well as the intensification of agriculture, climate change, and new houses or renovations that block up holes birds traditionally nest in. There are multiple species of swift – in southern Spain one can see five types – and in general they are considered to be of least conservation concern, but these matters are all relative in these days of climate crisis. Evolved to nest in cliffs and trees, they now live alongside humans except in rare places like Abernethy Forest near Inverness in Scotland, where they still nest in trees, in holes abandoned by woodpeckers.
Gibson surveys swifts’ distribution and evolution, key figures in how we came to understand them (Gilbert White et al.), and early landmark studies (e.g. David Lack’s in Oxford). She also takes us through a typical summer swift schedule, and interviews some people who rehabilitate and advocate for swifts. Other chapters see her travelling to Italy, Switzerland and Ireland, the furthest west that swifts breed. If you find a grounded swift, she learns from bitter experience, keep it in a box with air holes and give it water on a cotton bud, but don’t feed or throw it up in the air. To release, take it to an open space and hold it on your hand above your head. If it’s ready to fly, it will. The current push to help swifts is requiring that nest blocks or boxes be incorporated in every new home design. (I signed this petition.)
This is a great source of basic information, though some of the background may be more detailed than the average reader needs. If you’re only going to read one book about swifts, I would be more likely to recommend Charles Foster’s The Screaming Sky, a literary monograph, but do follow up with this one. And soon we’ll also have Mark Cocker’s book about swifts, One Midsummer’s Day, which I hope to get hold of. (Public library)
“It is their otherness that makes them so fascinating. They touch our lives briefly and then vanish; this is part of their magic.”
“The brevity of their summer stays enhances their hold on our hearts. The season is short, their bold, wild chases over the roofs and high-pitched screams a fleeting experience: they are a metaphor for life itself. We need to act now to ensure these birds will scythe across our skies forever; to keep them in our streets, to keep them in abundance and common. All of us can do something within the compass of our lives to help tilt the balance back in their favour. If the will to do it is there, it can be done.”
Cuckoo by Wendy Perriam (1991)
(We started hearing cuckoos locally last week!) My second by Perriam, after The Stillness The Dancing, and I’ve amassed quite a pile for afterwards. Frances Parry Jones, in her early thirties, is desperate for a baby but her husband, Charles, doesn’t seem fussed. He goes along with fertility treatment but remains aloof like the posh snob Perriam depicts him to be – the opening line is “Typical of Charles to decant his sperm sample into a Fortnum and Mason’s jar.” Their comfortable home in Richmond is cut off from the messy reality of life, as represented by Frances’s friend Viv and her brood.
Frances soon learns why Charles is unenthusiastic about having children: he already has one, a sullen teenager named Magda who lived with her mother in Hungary but has just arrived in London, “a greedy little cuckoo, commandeering the nest.” Though tempted to accept Magda as a replacement child, Frances just can’t manage it. However, they do find common ground through their japes with Ned, a free spirit Frances meets during her brief time as a taxi driver, and Frances starts to imagine how her life could be different. The portraits and sex scenes alike were a little grotesque here. I had to skim a lot to get through it. Here’s hoping for a better experience with the next one. (Secondhand copy passed on by Liz – thank you!)
Springtime in Britain by Edwin Way Teale (1970)
I discovered Teale a few years ago through the exceptional Autumn Across America, the first volume of a quartet illuminating the nature of the four seasons in the USA; he won a Pulitzer for the final book. Here he applied the same pattern across the pond, taking an 11,000-mile road trip around Britain with his wife Nellie. It’s a delight to see the country through his eyes, particularly places I know well (Devon, the New Forest, Wiltshire/Berkshire) or have visited recently (Northumberland). They find the early spring alarmingly cold and wet, but before long are rewarded with swathes of daffodils and bluebells. Several stake-outs finally result in hearing a nightingale. For the most part, the bird life is completely new to them, but he remarks on what North American species the European birds remind him of. “We felt we would travel to Britain just to hear the song thrush and the blackbird,” he maintains.
Nellie develops pneumonia and has to convalesce in Kent, but otherwise personal matters hardly come into the narrative. Teale is well versed in English nature writing and often references classics by the likes of John Clare and Gilbert White that inspired destinations. (They spend an excessive number of days on their pilgrimage to White’s Selborne.) He also reports on perceived threats of the time, such as small animals getting stuck in littered milk bottles. While it was, inevitably, a little distressing to think of the abundance and diversity he was still experiencing in the late 1960s that has since been lost to development, I mostly found this a pleasant meander. Some things never change: the magic of prehistoric sites; the grossness of some cities (“we forgot the misadventure of Slough”). (Secondhand)
What signs of late spring are you seeing?
Daphne du Maurier Reading Week: Rebecca Reread & Forster Biography
It’s been a couple of years since I took part in HeavenAli’s annual Daphne du Maurier Reading Week (the last time was with a review of My Cousin Rachel; this year, links are being hosted by Liz here).
My last-minute and meagre contribution comprises an attempted reread (which ended up being a skim) of Rebecca for book club last month, and a partial, ongoing read of Margaret Forster’s cracking biography of DDM.
I must have first read this in my early twenties, and remembered it as spooky and atmospheric. I had completely forgotten that the action opens not at Manderley (despite the exceptionally famous first line, which forms part of a prologue-like first chapter depicting the place empty without its master and mistress to tend to it) but in Monte Carlo, where the unnamed narrator meets Maxim de Winter while she’s a lady’s companion to bossy Mrs. Van Hopper. This section functions to introduce Max and his tragic history via hearsay, but I found the first 60 pages so slow that I had trouble maintaining momentum thereafter, especially through the low-action and slightly repetitive scenes as the diffident second Mrs de Winter explores the house and tries to avoid Mrs Danvers, so I ended up skimming most of it.
However, it was satisfying to rediscover the Jane Eyre parallels and there are deliciously chilling scenes, like with Mrs Danvers at the window and the way she then sabotages her young mistress at the costume ball. This was one of four rereads for book club already this year, which has the benefit of reducing pressure and sometimes increasing the comfort-read factor. We have two Rebeccas in my book club, so it seemed an appropriate choice. Others found the book as gripping as ever, with one member reading it in a day thanks to long hospital waits. Would you believe, I hadn’t at all remembered the truth of what happened to Rebecca! So there was that surprise awaiting me. In our discussion we remarked that though this has the trappings of a romance novel or mystery (e.g. see my dreadful paperback cover above!), it also has enduring literary weight – it won the National Book Award, for instance.
Daphne du Maurier by Margaret Forster (1993)
I read my first work by Forster, My Life in Houses, last year, and adored it, so the fact that she was the author was all the more reason to read this when I found a copy in a library secondhand book sale. I started it immediately after our meeting about Rebecca, but I find biographies so dense and daunting that I’m still only a third of the way into it even though I’ve been liberally skimming.
So far I have noted: du Maurier’s artistic pedigree, including her grandfather’s authorship of Trilby and her parents meeting through stage acting; her frank engagement in sexual activity, and presumed bisexuality (so far only evident through a requited crush on a teacher at her French finishing school, though perhaps there will be more to come); her first publications of short stories (“inspired by her three favourite short story writers, Maugham, Mansfield and Maupassant”) and the early novels, including one from a male point of view; her close relationship with her father and the crushing blow of his death; her determination to escape London for Cornwall; and her marriage to a soldier and ambivalent motherhood.
The last chapter I got to was all about the success of Rebecca. Though the critical reaction was generally favourable, reviewers also deemed it melodramatic … fair?
A May Sarton Birthday Celebration
These days I consider May Sarton one of my favourite authors, but I’ve only been reading her for about nine years, since I picked up Journal of a Solitude on a whim. (Ten years prior, when I was a senior in college working in a used bookstore on evenings and weekends, a customer came up and asked me if we had anything by May Sarton. I had never heard of her so said no, only later discovering that we shelved her in with Classic literature. Huh. I can only apologize to that long-ago customer for my ignorance and negligence.)
A general-interest article I wrote on May Sarton’s life and work appears in the May/June 2023 issue of Bookmarks magazine, for which I am an associate editor. I submitted this feature back in August 2019, so it’s taken quite some time for it to see the light of day, but I’m pleased that the publication happened to coincide with the anniversary of her birth. In fact, today, May 3rd, would have been her 111th birthday. For the article, I covered a selection of Sarton’s fiction and nonfiction, and gave a brief discussion of her poetry (which the magazine doesn’t otherwise cover).
The two below, a journal and a novel, are works I’ve read more recently. Both were secondhand purchases, I think from Awesomebooks.com.
Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year (1993)
Sarton is one of those reasonably rare authors who published autobiography, fiction AND poetry. I know I’m not alone in thinking that the journals and memoirs are where she really shines. (She herself was proudest of her poetry, and resented the fact that publishers only seemed to be interested in novels because they were what sold.) I came to her through her journals, which she started writing in her sixties, and I love them for how frankly they come to terms with ageing and the ill health and loss it inevitably involves. They are also such good, gentle companions in that they celebrate seasonality and small joys: her beautiful New England homes, her gardening hobby, her pets, and her writing routines and correspondence.
Encore was the only journal I had left unread; soon it will be time to start rereading my top few. When Sarton wrote this in 1991–2, she was recovering from a spell of illness and assumed it would be her final journal. (In fact, At Eighty-Two would appear two years later.) Although she still struggles with pain and low energy, the overall tone is of gratitude and rediscovery of wonder. Whereas a few of the later journals can get a bit miserable because she’s so anxious about her health and the state of the world, here there is more looking back at life’s highlights. Perhaps because Margot Peters was in the process of researching her biography (which would not appear until after her death), she was nudged into the past more often. I especially appreciated a late entry where she lists “peak experiences,” ranging from her teen years to age 80. What a positive way of thinking about one’s life!
For many months I kept this as a bedside book and read just an entry or two a night. When I started reading it more quickly and straight through, I did note some repetition, which Sarton worried would result from her dictating into a recording device. But I don’t think this detracts significantly. In this volume, events of note include a trip to London and commemorative publications plus a conference all to mark her 80th birthday. She’s just as pleased with tiny signs of her success, though, such as a fan letter saying The House by the Sea inspired the reader to put up a bird feeder.
The Education of Harriet Hatfield (1988)
This is my eighth Sarton novel. In general, I’ve had less success with her fiction as it can be formulaic: characters exist to play stereotypical roles and/or serve as mouthpieces for the author’s opinions. That’s certainly true of Harriet Hatfield, who, like the protagonist of Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, is fairly similar to Sarton. After the death of her long-time partner, Vicky, who ran a small publishing house, sixty-year-old Harriet decides to open a women’s bookstore in a Boston suburb. She has no business acumen, just enthusiasm (and money, via the inheritance from Vicky). College girls, housewives, nuns and older feminists all become regulars, but Hatfield House also attracts unwanted attention in this dodgy neighbourhood, especially after a newspaper outs Harriet: graffiti, petty theft and worse. The police are little help, but Harriet’s brothers and a local gay couple promise to look out for her.
The central struggle for Harriet is whether she will remain a private lesbian – as one customer says to her, “you are old and respectable and no one would ever guess”; that is, she can pass as straight – or become part of a more audible, visible movement toward equal rights. It’s cringe-worthy how unsubtly Sarton has Harriet recognize (the “Education” the title speaks of) her privilege and accept her parity with other minorities through friendships with a Black mother, a battered wife who gets an abortion, and a man whose partner is dying of AIDS. Harriet’s brother, too, comes out to her as gay, and I was uneasy with the portrayal of him and the AIDS patient as promiscuous to the point of bringing any suffering on themselves.
Still, when I consider that Sarton was in her late seventies at the time she was writing this, and that public knowledge of AIDS would have been poor at best, I think this was admirably edgy. Harriet’s dilemma reflects Sarton’s own identity crisis, as expressed in Encore: “I do not wish to be labeled as a lesbian and do not wish to be labeled as a woman writer but consider myself a universal writer who is writing for human beings.” Nowadays, though, what Harriet deems discretion comes across as cowardice and priggishness.
While there are elements of Harriet Hatfield that have not aged well, if you focus on the Bythell-esque bookshop stuff (“I find that the people I love best are those who come in to browse, the silent shy ones, who are hungry for books rather than for conversation”) rather than the consciousness-raising or the mystery subplot, you might enjoy it as much as I did. Kudos for the first and last lines, anyway: “How rarely is it possible for anyone to begin a new life at sixty!” and “It’s the real world and I am fully alive in it.”
Womb: The Inside Story of Where We All Began by Leah Hazard
Back in 2019, I reviewed Hard Pushed, Leah Hazard’s memoir of being a midwife in a busy Glasgow hospital. Here she widens the view to create a wide-ranging and accessible study of the uterus. As magisterial in its field as Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies was for cancer, it might have shared that book’s ‘A Biography’ subtitle and casts a feminist eye over history and future alike. Blending medical knowledge and cultural commentary, it cannot fail to have both personal and political significance for readers of any gender.
The thematic structure of the chapters also functions as a roughly chronological tour of how life with a uterus might proceed: menstruation, conception, pregnancy, labour, caesarean section, ongoing health issues, menopause. With much of Hazard’s research taking place at the height of the pandemic, she had to conduct many of her interviews online. She consults mostly female experts and patients, meeting people with surprisingly different opinions. For instance, she encounters opposing views on menstruation from American professors: one who believes it is now optional, a handicap – for teenagers, especially – and that the body was never meant to endure 350–400 periods compared to the historical average of 100 (based on shorter lifespan plus more frequent pregnancy and breastfeeding); versus another who is concerned about the cognitive effects of constant hormonal intervention.
The book forcefully conveys how gynaecological wellness is threatened by a lack of knowledge, sexist stereotypes, and devaluation of certain wombs. Even today, little is known about the placenta, she reports, so research involves creating organoids from stem cells that act like it would. The use of emotionally damaging language like “irritable/hostile uterus,” “incompetent cervix” and “too posh to push” is a major problem. The sobering chapter on “Reprocide” elaborates on enduring threats to reproductive freedom, such as non-consensual sterilization of women in detention centres and the revoking of abortion rights. And even routine problems like endometriosis and fibroids disproportionately affect women of colour.
Hazard has taken pains to adopt an inclusive perspective, referring to “menstruators” or “people with a uterus” as often as to women and mentioning health concerns specific to transgender people. She is also careful to depict the sheer variety of experience: age at first menses, subjective reactions to labour or hysterectomy, severity of menopause symptoms, and so on. Where events have potentially traumatic effects, she presents alternatives, such as a “gentle” or “natural” Caesarean, which is less clinical and more empowering. The prose is pitched at a good level for laypeople: conversational, and never bombarding with information. That I have not had children myself was no obstruction to my enjoyment of the book. It is full of fascinating content that is relevant to all (as in the Harry and Chris solidarity-themed song “Womb with a View,” which has the repeated line “we’ve all been in a womb”).
Here are just some of the mind-blowing facts I learned:
- Infant girls bleed in what as known as pseudomenses.
- Research is underway to regularly test menstrual effluent for endometriosis, etc. and the uterine microbiome for signs of cancer.
- The cervix can store sperm and release it later for optimal fertilization.
- Caesarean section and induction with oxytocin now occur in one-third of pregnancies, despite the WHO recommendation of no more than 10% for the former and the danger of postpartum haemorrhage with the latter.
- After childbirth, a discharge called lochia continues for 4–6 weeks.
- There have been successful uterine transplants from living donors and cadavers.
- Artificial wombs (“biobags”) have been used for other mammals and are in development; Hazard cautions about possible misogynistic exploitation.
With thanks to Virago Press for the free copy for review.
March Paperback Releases: Fledgling, Theatre of Marvels, What My Bones Know
I’m catching up on three 2022 books I was sent for review and didn’t read at their initial publication. Today I have a memoir of living between Ghana and England and hand-raising two birds, a Victorian pastiche starring a mixed-race actress in London, and an account of being diagnosed with complex PTSD and working towards healing of childhood trauma.
Fledgling by Hannah Bourne-Taylor
Nature-lover Hannah Bourne-Taylor lived in Ghana for eight years for her husband’s job. As a dependent spouse, she was not permitted to work and, in their rural setting, she felt cut off from any expatriate community. From childhood she’d been an obsessive animal rescuer – fishing ants out of swimming pools, for instance – and when she found a swift that had been displaced from its nest, her protective instincts went into overdrive. Collecting hundreds of termites, she fed the bird to a demanding schedule for two weeks before releasing it. This went as disastrously as it could, but she soon got another chance when she found a grounded bronze-winged mannikin finch fledgling after a storm. Their bond was even closer: the bird climbed her body and nested in her hair (she wrote a Guardian article about the experience), and they developed a mutual language of chirps. The care routine sounds like it was not so different from having an infant. She even calls the finch her daemon.
There is something very insular about this narrative, such that I had trouble gauging the passage of time. Raising the two birds, adopting street dogs, going on a pangolin patrol with a conservation charity – was this a matter of a couple of months, or were events separated by years? Ghana is an intriguing setting, yet because there is no attempt to integrate, she can only give a white outsider’s perspective on the culture, and indigenous people barely feature. I was sympathetic to the author’s feelings of loneliness and being trapped between countries, not belonging in either, but she overstates the lessons of compassion and freedom the finch taught. The writing, while informed and passionate about nature, needs a good polish (many misplaced modifiers, wrong prepositions, errors in epigraph quotes, homonym slips – “sight” instead of “site”; “balled” in place of “bawled”; “base” where it should be “bass,” twice – and so on). Still, it’s a promising debut from a valuable nature advocate, and I share her annual delight in welcoming England’s swifts, as in the scenes that open and close the book.
With thanks to Aurum for the free copy for review. Fledgling came out in paperback on 9 March.
Theatre of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth
Lianne Dillsworth is a Black British author with MAs in creative writing and Victorian studies, interests she combines in this debut novel set in Victorian London. Zillah’s mother, a slave from Barbados, was forced to abandon her seven-year-old daughter. Zillah is mixed-race and grew up in St Giles slum. Too light-skinned to convince as a “savage” when she headlines Crillick’s Variety Theatre show as “Amazonia,” she has to coat herself with greasepaint and soot. As mistress to a viscount, she has access to a life of luxury, but instead chooses to try to free her fellow Black performers, including the “Leopard Lady,” who is exhibited for her skin condition and confined in conditions little better than slavery.
Through secondary characters, we glimpse other options for people of colour: one, Lucien Winters, is a shopkeeper (reminding me of the title character of The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho, a historical figure) but intends to move to Sierra Leone via a colonisation project; another passes as white to have a higher position in the theatre world. It felt odd, though, how different heritages were conflated, such that Zillah, of Caribbean descent, learns a few words of “Zulu” to speak to the Leopard Lady, and Lucien explains Africanness to her as if it is one culture. Perhaps this was an attempt to demonstrate solidarity among oppressed peoples.
There are rivalries with fellow actresses, and well-meaning Quakers who work toward a better society. Much of the characterisation is tissue-thin, however, and a few turns of phrase felt not of the time period (describing someone as being in a “pissy mood”; “If he was in this much of a funk there’d be no getting through to him. I might as well go to bed before he killed my mood completely.”). All told, this never lived up to its first paragraph –
Go to the theatre much? No, nor me. At least not before I became an actress. I know what you’re thinking. Actress, eh? But you can keep your dirty-minded thoughts to yourself. I trod the boards and no more. Doesn’t mean I don’t have a story or two to tell, mind. Would you be kind enough to indulge me if I talked about the old days? Hard as it was back then, I can’t say that if I had my time again I’d change it.
– which promised a much more original voice than we ever get from Zillah. It’s only worth writing in the first person if the narration is remarkable in some way, so this could easily have been in third person limited instead. This was a nicely undemanding selection to start on the ferry ride back from Spain last year, but took much effort to finish because of the 400+ page count and despite the jejune prose (some have labelled this YA for that reason). Fans of Stacey Halls may enjoy it. It’s certainly what I’d call an easy read.
Hutchinson Heinemann sent a proof copy. Theatre of Marvels came out in paperback on 2 March.
What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma by Stephanie Foo
It’s okay to have some things you never get over.
Radio producer Stephanie Foo was diagnosed with complex PTSD at age 30. Although she briefly delves into the parental abuse that accounts for her trauma, this is – thankfully – mostly about the four years she spent trying to get better. The Malaysian Chinese Foo family moved to San Francisco when she was two years old. Her mother nagged and beat her, and both parents made credible threats to kill her and/or themselves, such as by driving off the road. It’s hard to read this material, but by proportion it doesn’t take up much of the book. Foo’s mother left when she was 13; she later gave her father an ultimatum one day (while wielding an axe!) that also saw him move out. This left her, then a high school student, living alone and in squalor. Unsurprisingly, she engaged in disordered eating and self-harm.
A love of journalism kept Foo from committing suicide, got her into college and landed her podcast roles followed by her dream job with public radio programme This American Life in New York City. However, she struggled with a horrible, exacting boss and, when her therapist issued the diagnosis, she left to commit to the healing process, aided by her new partner, Joey. C-PTSD was named in the 1990s but is not recognised in the DSM; The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk is its alternative bible. Repeated childhood trauma, as opposed to a single event, rewires the brain to identify threats that might not seem rational, leading to self-destructive behaviour and difficulty maintaining healthy relationships.
All that Foo discovers in her research into C-PTSD feels damning, but she focuses on what she can control: sleep, diet, exercise, yoga, meditation, acupuncture, and seeing various therapists. She tries everything from hallucinogenic mushrooms and a gratitude journal to EMDR (like hypnosis but based on eye movement). Working with a therapist from the Center for Child Trauma and Resilience helped her to address the root cause rather than the symptoms. There came a point where I would have been okay with a condensed version of events instead of a blow-by-blow of every therapy attempted, but Foo writes with bravery and clarity, adroitly recreating scenes and dialogue and displaying impressive memory and self-knowledge. The detail and overall optimism should make this helpful to many.
With thanks to Allen & Unwin for the free copy for review. What My Bones Know came out in paperback on 3 March.
Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson
I’ve had mixed feelings about the online nature of life recently. On Sunday I avoided the Internet altogether so as not to be bombarded with (UK) Mother’s Day memes and notifications. Yesterday our home broadband dropped out completely, such that I couldn’t do any freelance work or post about the Folio Prize poetry shortlist as I’d meant to do on World Poetry Day. Too much connectivity or not enough. Today – just as a line engineer is due to arrive; that usual irony – all is normal and I’m back in the swing of working and blogging.
Using my husband’s phone as a hotspot, I was at least still able to watch yesterday evening’s free 5×15 event with the Rathbones Folio Prize, featuring Amy Bloom, NoViolet Bulawayo, Sheila Heti, Margo Jefferson and Elizabeth Strout and hosted by interviewer Alex Clark. Over the next couple of days I’ll review Heti and Strout’s novels and the entire poetry shortlist, but for now I’ll weave some of the insight I gained last night into a review of Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson (2022), the new-to-me book from the nonfiction shortlist that I was most interested in reading.
Although the subtitle is “A Memoir,” this experimental text does such novel things with the genre that it bears little resemblance to most memoirs I’ve read. For that reason alone, I can see why the judges shortlisted it. During the 5×15 event, Jefferson described her book as “an assemblage of ideas, memories, sensations, feelings, and other people’s words—not just my own.” It’s also a reckoning with culture – particularly jazz music and dance by African Americans, but also particular examples from the white literary canon.
Jefferson was a long-time theatre and book critic for Newsweek and The New York Times and won a Pulitzer Prize for her criticism in 1995; she now teaches writing at Columbia University. She has previously published another memoir, Negroland, and a biography of Michael Jackson. Here she blends her chosen genres of life writing and cultural criticism. Her aim, she said, was to craft “criticism with the intensities and intimacies of memoir” and “memoir with the range of criticism.”
Jefferson mentioned that the deaths of her mother and older sister (who was like her muse) left her an orphan and, strangely, “cleared the stage for me to step out and speak my lines.” Indeed, the book is loosely structured as a play, opening with the metaphor of an empty stage and ending with the direction “BLACKOUT.” In between there are many imagined dialogues with herself or between historical figures, such as the bizarre pairing of George Eliot and W.E.B. Du Bois. Some quotations and definitions appear in italics or bold face. Ella Fitzgerald and Josephine Baker play major roles, but there’s also a surprisingly long section devoted to Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, which Jefferson loves and has often taught, yet finds problematic for how it enshrines whiteness (“Confederate Southern mythmaking”).
I don’t feel that I got much of a sense of the sweep of Jefferson’s life from the book, just a vague impression of an upper-middle-class Black upbringing. (Perhaps Negroland is a more straightforward memoir?) To be sure, she was keen to avoid “slogging through chronology,” as she explained, instead welcoming onto the page “a repertory company of myself as I encounter all the materials of my life—the factual and historical as well as the creative.” And so I do feel I have met her as an industrious mind, drawing connections between disparate aspects of experience and cultural consumption. This is a model of how a critic (like myself) might incorporate a body of work into a record of life. Yet when so many of her touchstones do not overlap with mine, I could only observe and admire from afar, not be truly drawn in.
Some lines I loved:
“Remember: Memoir is your present negotiating with versions of your past for a future you’re willing to show up in.”
“Older women’s tales— ‘Une femme d’un certain âge’ tales—are hard to pull off. They risk being arch.”
(of Ella Fitzgerald) “You turned the maw of black female labor into the wonderland of black female art.”
“Women’s anger needs to be honored—celebrated and protected—the way virginity used to be! … I’ve spent my adult years working on an assemblage of black feminist anger modes.”
With thanks to FMcM Associates and Granta Books for the free copy for review.
I was very impressed with both Amy Bloom and Margo Jefferson ‘in person’ (on Zoom): elegant, intellectual, well-spoken; authors at the top of their game. I reviewed Amy Bloom’s affecting memoir In Love, about her husband Brian’s early-onset Alzheimer’s and the decision to end his life at Dignitas in Zurich, last year. She told Alex Clark that the book started as a caregiver’s notes, but Brian made it clear that he wanted her to write about the experience, to inform people about end-of-life options. She believes that ultimately the memoir is about what it means to be a person and the decisions that make up a life. Her children joke that her only four subjects – in fiction or otherwise – are love, sex, family and death. Well, what else is there, really?
I know only the barest facts about the other three books on the Folio nonfiction shortlist but none of them screams ‘must read’ to me:
- The Passengers by Will Ashon – oral narratives from contemporary Britain
- The Escape Artist by Jonathan Freedland – biography of an Auschwitz whistle-blower
- The Social Distance Between Us by Darren McGarvey – a rapper’s book about inequality and antisocial behaviour
Have you read, or would you read, anything from the Folio nonfiction shortlist?
Tomorrow: Five poetry shortlist reviews
Friday: Two fiction shortlist reviews; my predictions for the category winners and overall prize winner
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?