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?
19 Claws and a Black Bird by Agustina Bazterrica (Blog Tour)
A couple of years ago, I reviewed Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender Is the Flesh for the R.I.P. challenge. It’s a dystopian horror novel in which cannibalism becomes commonplace. “Brutal but brilliant,” I called it. That’s what I was hoping for from this collection of 20 of the Argentinian author’s speculative short stories. Unfortunately, I found the death-drenched work uneven, but there were a few individual stories and recurring elements that I appreciated.
In “Unamuno’s Boxes,” a woman becomes convinced that her taxi driver is a serial killer; in “Anita and Happiness,” Pablo suspects his lover is an alien. In both of these, the imagined identity is so strongly rooted that it reflects, or even alters, the reality. My favourite line of the book came from the latter: “human beings are a mere parenthesis between two unknowns.”
There are a few cases of poetic justice here, such as when a football obsessive decides to take out his feelings on a cat and instead gets his comeuppance. Two other stories, “Roberto” and “Earth,” include revenge for child sexual abuse – they have mighty satisfying conclusions. Along with those two, the stand-out of the collection for me was the final story, “The Solitary Ones,” which is the closest to straight-up horror and features a young woman riding the subway alone when the electricity goes out. It’s one of four second-person narratives; that’s always an interesting point-of-view. (The rest are roughly equally split between first and third person.)
My qualms were about a couple of unpleasant repeated topics and the vague or generic nature of many of the remaining stories. Several involve suicide, which is not problematic in and of itself – “A Light, Swift and Monstrous Sound” is a strong opener in which a woman finds her elderly neighbour dead on her patio – but in two places it’s a too-convenient way of concluding a story about someone with mental illness. Two late stories apply menacing imagery about religion. Perhaps I’m overly sensitive about such things, but I prefer a more balanced depiction.
The title makes intriguing reference to other creatures, particularly birds, but apart from a couple of sinister appearances and one stereotyping page about the threat of a wolf, it doesn’t live up to that promise. Although I cannot wholeheartedly recommend Bazterrica’s short fiction, you might want to seek out select stories. Meanwhile, I would urge you all to read Tender Is the Flesh, which also engages with the question of the ethical treatment of animals.
[Translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses]
With thanks to Pushkin Press for the free copy for review.
I was happy to participate in the blog tour for 19 Claws and a Black Bird. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon.
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.
Phantom Gang by Ciarán O’Rourke: Dylan Thomas Prize Blog Tour
As part of the 2023 Dylan Thomas Prize blog celebration, I’m featuring the second collection by Irish poet Ciarán O’Rourke, Phantom Gang (2022).
There is an elegiac cast to much of this, with scenes that evoke historical warfare from the American West through the Second World War Resistance to Afghanistan. The title line references the discovery of the victims of an ancient raid. Even the love poems and descriptions of the natural world are more redolent of desperation and decline than they are celebratory. “Book of Salt,” in the tradition of Catullus, is the longest poem in the book and voices unrequited longing. Its short lines and end rhymes are in service of a passion mixed with hatred. There are lovely descriptions of curlew and starlings, but also mourning for the loss of the corncrake.
A favourite passage of mine was from “Portrait in Red and Black”:
Only the goldfinch
feels alive –
a skeet of colour,
stout as a cloud,
his knuckle and plunge
of plumage stark
against the slipping boughs.
I watch him thrum
and pluck terrifically,
marshalling the morning
with my heart in his mouth.
That excerpt is representative in that most of the poems are composed of two- or three-line stanzas, with assonance, alliteration and internal rhymes more common techniques than end rhymes. Although there are some mentions of recent figures – James Dyson, Elon Musk, Donald Trump – the collection as a whole feels inclined towards the past, with Bertolt Brecht and John Clare as stars. It’s austere, refined work, rooted yet ranging in both time and place.
More favourite lines:
Our one sick world spins on –
returningly, and slow
and with birds
the rising days begin,
the rage and ache
we call the spring,
a word for what
the carnage reckoned –
and still the birds returning.
~from “The Tree”
(My thanks to The Irish Pages Press and Midas PR for the free copy for review.)
I’ve reviewed Dylan Thomas Prize-longlisted poetry in several previous years as well:
- Eye Level by Jenny Xie
- If All the World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton
- Auguries of a Minor God by Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe
For a reminder of the full longlist, see my post from last month. I’ve read 3.5 books from it now and would be delighted to see Nell Stevens’ debut novel (my review) make the shortlist. This will be announced on 23 March, with the winner on 11 May.
Happy St Patrick’s Day – this is also my token contribution to Reading Ireland Month!
February Releases by Nick Acheson, Charlotte Eichler and Nona Fernández (#ReadIndies)
Three final selections for Read Indies. I’m pleased to have featured 16 books from independent publishers this month. And how’s this for neat symmetry? I started the month with Chase of the Wild Goose and finish with a literal wild goose chase as Nick Acheson tracks down Norfolk’s flocks in the lockdown winter of 2020–21. Also appearing today are nature- and travel-filled poems and a hybrid memoir about Chilean and family history.
The Meaning of Geese: A thousand miles in search of home by Nick Acheson
I saw Nick Acheson speak at New Networks for Nature 2021 as the ‘anti-’ voice in a debate on ecotourism. He was a wildlife guide in South America and Africa for more than a decade before, waking up to the enormity of the climate crisis, he vowed never to fly again. Now he mostly stays close to home in North Norfolk, where he grew up and where generations of his family have lived and farmed, working for Norfolk Wildlife Trust and appreciating the flora and fauna on his doorstep.
This was indeed to be a low-carbon initiative, undertaken on his mother’s 40-year-old red bicycle and spanning September 2021 to the start of the following spring. Whether on his own or with friends and experts, and in fair weather or foul, he became obsessed with spending as much time observing geese as he could – even six hours at a stretch. Pink-footed geese descend on the Holkham Estate in their thousands, but there were smaller flocks and rarer types as well: from Canada and greylag to white-fronted and snow geese. He also found perspective (historical, ethical and geographical) by way of Peter Scott’s conservation efforts, chats with hunters, and insight from the Icelandic researchers who watch the geese later in the year, after they leave the UK. The germane context is woven into a month-by-month diary.
The Covid-19 lockdowns spawned a number of nature books in the UK – for instance, I’ve also read Goshawk Summer by James Aldred, Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt, The Consolation of Nature by Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren, and Skylarks with Rosie by Stephen Moss – and although the pandemic is not a major element here, one does get a sense of how Acheson struggled with isolation as well as the normal winter blues and found comfort and purpose in birdwatching.
Tundra bean, taiga bean, brent … I don’t think I’ve seen any of these species – not even pinkfeet, to my recollection – so wished for black-and-white drawings or colour photographs in the book. That’s not to say that Acheson is not successful at painting word pictures of geese; his rich descriptions, full of food-related and sartorial metaphors, are proof of how much he revels in the company of birds. But I suspect this is a book more for birders than for casual nature-watchers like myself. I would have welcomed more autobiographical material, and Wintering by Stephen Rutt seems the more suitable geese book for laymen. Still, I admire Acheson’s fervour: “I watch birds not to add them to a list of species seen; nor to sneer at birds which are not truly wild. I watch them because they are magnificent”.
With thanks to Chelsea Green Publishing for the free copy for review.
Swimming Between Islands by Charlotte Eichler
Eichler’s debut collection was inspired by various trips to cold and remote places, such as to Lofoten 10 years ago, as she explains in a blog post on the Carcanet website. (The cover image is her painting Nusfjord.) British and Scandinavian islands and their wildlife provide much of the imagery and atmosphere. You can sink into the moss and fog, lulled by alliteration. A glance at some of the poem titles reveals the breadth of her gaze: “Brimstones” – “A Pheasant” (a perfect description in just two lines) – “A Meditation of Small Frogs” – “Trapping Moths with My Father.” There are also historical vignettes and pen portraits. The scenes of childhood, as in the four-part “What Little Girls Are Made Of,” evoke the freedom of curiosity about the natural world and feel autobiographical yet universal.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.
Voyager: Constellations of Memory—A Memoir by Nona Fernández (2019; 2023)
[Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer]
Our archive of memories is the closest thing we have to a record of identity. … Disjointed fragments, a pile of mirror shards, a heap of the past. The accumulation is what we’re made of.
When Fernández’s elderly mother started fainting and struggling with recall, it prompted the Chilean actress and writer to embark on an inquiry into memory. Astronomy provides the symbolic language here, with memory a constellation and gaps as black holes. But the stars also play a literal role. Fernández was part of an Amnesty International campaign to rename a constellation in honour of the 26 people “disappeared” in Chile’s Atacama Desert in 1973. She meets the widow of one of the victims, wondering what he might have been like as an older man as she helps to plan the star ceremony. This oblique and imaginative narrative ties together brain evolution, a medieval astronomer executed for heresy, Pinochet administration collaborators, her son’s birth, and her mother’s surprise 80th birthday party. NASA’s Voyager probes, launched in 1977, were intended as time capsules capturing something of human life at the time. The author imagines her brief memoir doing the same: “A book is a space-time capsule. It freezes the present and launches it into tomorrow as a message.”
With thanks to Daunt Books for the free copy for review.
Three on a Theme: “Birds” Short Story Collections
I read these three collections one at a time over three and a half months of last year, initially intending to write them up as part of my short story focus in September but ultimately deciding to spend more time with the latter two (and then falling ill with Covid before I could write them all up in 2022). They topped my Best Backlist Reads.
The word from the title is incidental, really; the books do have a lot in common in terms of theme and tone, though. The environment, fidelity and motherhood are recurring elements. The warmth and psychological depth are palpable. Each story feels fleshed out enough that I could happily read an entire novel set in its realm, but also complete unto itself.
Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman (2012)
I knew Bergman from her second of three collections, Almost Famous Women; this was her debut. As is common for a first book, it incorporates autobiographical characteristics: North Carolina settings, a preponderance of animals (her husband is a vet), and pregnancy and early motherhood. Eleven of the 12 stories are in the first person, there are no speech marks, and the protagonists are generally women in their twenties or thirties coping with young children, crumbling households, ageing parents, and ethical dilemmas at work.
Creatures are companions or catalysts here. In “Housewifely Arts,” a single mother and her son embark on a road trip to rescue her late mother’s African gray parrot. In the title story, Mae accompanies her father and her new beau on a search for the ivory-billed woodpecker. Fear grapples with openness to change for many of these characters, as expressed in the final lines: “I wished for things to stay the same. I wished for stillness everywhere, but I opened up the rest of the bedroom windows and let the world in.”
Environmental threat blares in the background, but usually fades in comparison to everyday concerns; the 2050-set “The Artificial Heart” is more alarmed about her aged father’s bionic existence than about a dying planet. In “Yesterday’s Whales,” the overall standout for me, ambivalence about motherhood meets climate catastrophism. The narrator’s boyfriend, Malachi, founded a nonprofit called Enough with Us, which asks members to vow not to reproduce so the human race can die out and nature can take over. Embarrassing, then, that she finds herself pregnant and unwilling to tread the hard line he’s drawn. This one is funny and poignant, capturing so many of my own feelings, and seems 10 years ahead of its time.
When someone’s ideal is the absence of all human life, romance is kind of a joke.
I wanted, then, to become what I most admired, what now seemed most real to me. I wanted to be that exalted, complicated presence in someone’s life, the familiar body, the source of another’s existence. But I knew what I wanted was not always what I needed.
I envied my mother’s childhood, the awe with which she’d turned to her country and the world, the confidence she’d had in her right to exist and bear children. The world and mothers alike, I knew, had lost a little freshness.
(Secondhand, a gift from my wish list a couple of years ago)
Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff (2009)
What a clever decision to open with “Lucky Chow Fun,” a story set in Templeton, the location of Groff’s debut novel – it forms a thread of continuity between her first book and her second. Elizabeth, the only girl on the varsity swim team, comes to a number of realizations about her family and her community, including that the title Chinese restaurant is a front for a brothel that exploits trafficked women. The story becomes a wider parable about appearances and suspicion. “In these dark days, there is so much distrust in this town. … You never know quite what to think about people”. And what a brilliant last line: “I like to think it’s a happy ending, though it is the middle that haunts me.”
“L. DeBard and Aliette” recasts in the notorious Héloïse and Abelard romance an Olympic swimmer and a schoolgirl in Spanish flu-plagued New York City. The other seven stories alternate between historical fiction and contemporary, the USA and abroad, first person and third person, speech marks or none. Desire and boundaries, accomplishment and escape, fear and risk are contradictory pulls. While the details have faded for me, I remember that, while I was reading them, each of these stories enveloped me in a particular world – 30 pages seems like the ideal length here to fully explore a set of characters and a situation. If I had to choose a favourite, it would be “Blythe,” about a woman who feels responsible for her alcoholic best friend. (From my birthday book haul last year)
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore (1998)
Life: what an absurd little story it always made.
I’d read a few of Moore’s works before (A Gate at the Stairs, Bark, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?) and not grasped what the fuss is about; turns out I’d just chosen the wrong ones to read. This collection is every bit as good as everyone has been saying for the last 25 years. Amy Bloom, Carol Shields and Helen Simpson are a few other authors who struck me as having a similar tone and themes. Rich with psychological understanding of her characters – many of them women passing from youth to midlife, contemplating or being affected by adultery – and their relationships, the stories are sometimes wry and sometimes wrenching (that setup to “Terrific Mother”!). There were even two dysfunctional-family-at-the-holidays ones (“Charades” and “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens”) for me to read in December.
I’ll single out four of the 12 as favourites, though, really, any or all would be worthy of anthologizing in a volume epitomizing the art of the short story. “Which Is More than I Can Say about Some People” has a mother and daughter learning new things about each other on a vacation to Ireland. “What You Want to Do Fine,” another road trip narrative, stars an unlikely gay couple, one half of which is the flamboyant (and blind) Quilty. “People Like That Are the Only People Here” is so vivid on the plight of parents with a child in the paediatric oncology ward that I feel I should check whether Moore lived through that too. And the best of the best: “Real Estate” (not least because she dared to print two full pages of laughter: “Ha!”), which turns gently surreal as Ruth and her philandering husband move into a house that turns out to be a wreck, infested by both animal and human pests.
Moore is as great at the sentence level as she is at overarching plots. Here are a few out-of-context lines I saved to go back to:
She was starting to have two speeds: Coma and Hysteria.
In general, people were not road maps. People were not hieroglyphs or books. They were not stories. A person was a collection of accidents. A person was an infinite pile of rocks with things growing underneath.
Never a temple, her body had gone from being a home, to being a house, to being a phone booth, to being a kite. Nothing about it gave her proper shelter.
(From Oxfam Books, Hexham – a stop on our Northumberland trip last year)
Two of these writers are best known for their short stories; the third (Groff), to my mind, should be. Unusual for me to fall so wholeheartedly for short stories – these all earned my rarest rating:
Best Backlist Reads of the Year
Like many bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the new books released each year. However, I consistently find that many of my most memorable reads were published years or even decades ago. These 16 selections, in alphabetical order within genre, together with my Best of 2022 post (coming up tomorrow), make up the top 9.5% or so of my reading for the year. Three of the below were rereads.
First, a special mention for this trio:
Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman
Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
It’s unusual for me to fall so wholeheartedly for short stories. I intended to write up these three “Birds” collections as part of my short story focus in September but ultimately decided to spend more time with the latter two (and then fell ill with Covid before I could write them up, so look out for my full reviews early in the new year). The word from the title is incidental, really; the books do have a lot in common in terms of theme and tone, though. The environment, fidelity and motherhood are recurring elements. The warmth and psychological depth are palpable. Each story feels fleshed out enough that I would happily read an entire novel set in its world, but also such that it is complete unto itself. Two of these writers (Bergman and Moore) are best known for short stories; the third, to my mind, should be.
Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier: I’ve read all of Chevalier’s novels and always thought of this one as my favourite. A reread didn’t change that. I loved the neat structure that bookends the action between the death of Queen Victoria and the death of Edward VII, and the focus on funerary customs (with Highgate Cemetery a major setting) and women’s rights.
Julia and the Shark by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: Julia and her parents are on an island adventure to Unst, in the north of Shetland, where her father will keep the lighthouse for a summer and her mother, a marine biologist, will search for the Greenland shark. Hargrave treats the shark as both a real creature and a metaphor for all that lurks – all that we fear and don’t understand. Beautifully illustrated, too; a modern children’s classic in the making.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson: A brooding character study of two sisters isolated by their scandalous family history and the suspicion of the townspeople. I loved the offbeat voice and unreliable narration, and the way the Blackwood house is both a refuge and a prison for the sisters. Who is protecting whom, and from what? There are a lot of great scenes, all so discrete that I could see this working very well as a play
Foster by Claire Keegan: A delicate, heart-rending novella about a deprived young Irish girl sent to live with rural relatives for one pivotal summer. It bears all the hallmarks of a book several times its length: a convincing and original voice, rich character development, an evocative setting, just enough backstory, psychological depth, conflict and sensitive treatment of difficult themes like poverty and neglect. I finished the one-sitting read in a flood of tears.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan: One good man’s small act of rebellion is a way of standing up to the injustice of the Magdalen Laundries, a church-sanctioned system that must have seemed too big to tackle. Keegan fits so much into so few pages, including Bill working out who his father was and deciding what to make of the middle of his life. Like Foster, this is set in the 1980s but feels timeless. Absolutely beautiful.
The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius: Sally Jones is a ship’s engineer who journeys from Portugal to India to clear her captain’s name when he is accused of murder. She’s also a gorilla. This was the perfect rip-roaring adventure story to read at sea (on the ferry to Spain in May); the twisty plot and larger-than-life characters who aid or betray Sally Jones kept the nearly 600 pages turning quickly.
Honorifics by Cynthia Miller: Miller is a Malaysian American poet in Edinburgh. The themes of her debut include living between countries and feeling like an exile versus finding a sense of home. There’s much variety here, and so many beautiful lines and evocative images. Miller incorporates a lot of unusual structures, some of them traditional forms and others freer: a numbered list, columns, dictionary definitions or prose paragraphs. Flora and fauna references plus a consideration of the expat life meant this was custom made for me.
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown: The University of Washington rowing team in general, and Joe Rantz in particular, were unlikely champions. Boatbuilding and rowing both come across as admirable skills involving hard physical labour, scientific precision and an artist’s mind. All along, Brown subtly weaves in the historical background: Depression-era Seattle with its shantytowns, and the rise of Hitler in Germany. A classic underdog story.
My Life in Houses by Margaret Forster: Having become a homeowner for the first time earlier this year, I was interested in how an author would organize their life around the different places they’ve lived. The early chapters about being a child in Carlisle are compelling in terms of cultural history; later on she observes gentrification in London, and her home becomes a haven for her during her cancer treatment.
Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie: A reread started on our July trip to the Outer Hebrides. I’d forgotten how closely Jamie’s interests align with my own: Scotland and its islands, birds, the prehistoric, museums, archaeology. I particularly appreciated “Three Ways of Looking at St Kilda,” but everything she writes is profound: “if we are to be alive and available for joy and discovery, then it’s as an animal body, available for cancer and infection and pain.”
Reflections from the North Country by Sigurd F. Olson: Olson was a well-known environmental writer in his time (through 1970s), also serving as president of the National Parks Association. This collection of passionate, philosophically oriented essays about the state of nature places him in the vein of Aldo Leopold – before-their-time conservationists. He ponders solitude, wilderness and human nature, asking what is primal in us.
Smile by Sarah Ruhl: These warm and beautifully observed autobiographical essays stem from the birth of her twins and the slow-burning medical crises that followed. Shortly after delivery, Ruhl developed Bell’s palsy, a partial paralysis of the face. Having a lopsided face, grimacing and squinting when she tried to show expression – it was a minor problem in the grand scheme of things, yet provoked questions about whether the body equates to identity.
Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C. Slaght: Slaght has become an expert on the Blakiston’s fish owl during nearly two decades of fieldwork in the far east of Russia. Slaght thinks of Russia as his second home, and you can sense his passion for the fish owl and for conservation in general. Amid the science, this is a darn good story, full of bizarre characters. Top-notch nature and travel writing; a ride along on a consequential environmentalist quest.
Some of the best backlist reads I own and could lay my hands on.
What were your best backlist reads this year?
This Year’s Pre-Christmas Reading
My household has been struck down by
flu Covid this week, so we’ve had to cancel some all of our holiday plans and I haven’t had as much energy or festive good cheer as I would like. This is my favourite time of the blogging year what with everyone’s best-of lists appearing, so I hope that come Boxing Day I will be feeling up for starting my own countdown of superlatives and catching up on everything you all have posted recently.
Two of my recent reads were appropriate Yuletide choices:
Robin by Helen F. Wilson: The most recent release from the “Animal” series issued by the British indie publisher Reaktion. (I’d previously read Seal.) Wilson introduces the breadth of international bird species that are known by the name “robin.” (The European robin, the protagonist of this monograph, is the only bird in its genus and is not as closely related to the American robin (a thrush) as to the bluebird; the name simply referenced the red breast. There are also magpie-robins in Southeast Asia.) Like another strikingly red bird, the cardinal in North America, the robin has long been associated with a) death and b) Christmas. They might be a portent of death, or an embodiment of the soul of the departed. For instance, the legend has it that a robin spent days in Westminster Abbey while Queen Mary II lay in state. Robins are the UK’s official favourite bird because they look cute and act endearing and sing sweetly, but they are violently territorial. (The old nursery rhyme “Who Killed Cock Robin?” also set up a weird and false vendetta between sparrows and robins.) This was a pleasant wander through biological and cultural information. I particularly loved the photos and other illustrations.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan: I read this last year but reread it earlier this month for book club. A year ago, I called it a predictable narrative and thought the evil nuns were a stereotype. This time, Keegan really got me in the feels, just as she had with Foster a couple of months before. The Church-sanctioned abuse that was the Magdalen Laundries must have seemed like a system too big to tackle, but take a look at the title. One good man’s small act of rebellion was a way of standing up to the injustice and saying that these girls were of worth (indeed, this won the Orwell Prize for political fiction). This time around, I was especially impressed by how much Keegan fits into so few pages, including Bill working out who his father was. We also get a strong sense of a man in the middle of his life: privileged enough, happy enough, but wondering if this is all there is to it; if there is something more on offer. Like Foster, this is set in the 1980s but feels timeless, and seems to effortlessly encompass so much of what it means to be human. Absolutely beautiful.
Merry Christmas, all!
October Poetry Releases: Bergin, Draycott, Lopez, Rizwan, Skoulding
It was a prolific month for poetry. There is so much variety here in form and topic, from the tongue-in-cheek aphorisms of Tara Bergin’s Savage Tales to the maritime and ornithological portrait of Anglesey in Zoë Skoulding’s A Marginal Sea. Something for everyone, I’d like to think, and I hope these capsule reviews and sample poems give you a taste.
Savage Tales by Tara Bergin
This is the third collection by the Irish poet; I’d previously read her The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx. Grouped into nine thematic sections, these very short poems take the form of few-sentence aphorisms or riddles, with the titles, printed in the bottom corner, often acting as something of a punchline – especially because I had them on my e-reader and they only appeared after I’d turned the digital ‘page’. Some appear to be autobiographical, about life for a female academic. Others are political (I loved “Tenants and Landlords”), or about wolves or blackbirds. The verse in “Constructions” takes different shapes on the page. Here are “The Subject Field” and “The Actor”:
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.
The Kingdom by Jane Draycott
I love the Matisse cut-outs on the cover of Draycott’s fifth collection. The title poem’s archaic spelling (“hyther,” “releyf”) contrast with its picture of a modern woman seeking respite from “the men coming on to you / the taxi drivers saying here jump in no / no you don’t need no money.” Country vs. city, public vs. private, pastoral past and technological future are some of the dichotomies the verse plays with. I enjoyed the alliteration and references to an old English herbarium, Derek Jarman and polar regions. However, it was hard to find overall linking themes to latch onto.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.
We Borrowed Gentleness by J. Estanislao Lopez
Brimming with striking metaphors and theological echoes, the first poetry collection by the Houston-based writer is an elegant record of family life on both sides of the Mexican border. “Laredo Duplex” (below) explains how violence prompted the family’s migration. “The Contract” recalls acting as a go-between for a father who didn’t speak English; in “Diáspora” the speaker is dubious about assimilation: “I am losing my brother to whiteness.” The tone is elevated and philosophical (“You take the knife of epistemology and the elegiac fork”), with ample alliteration. Flora and fauna and the Bible are common sources of unexpected metaphors. Lopez tackles big issues of identity, loss and memory in delicate verse suited to readers of Kaveh Akbar. (My full review is on Shelf Awareness.)
With thanks to Alyson Sinclair PR for the free e-copy for review.
Europe, Love Me Back by Rakhshan Rizwan
This debut collection has Rizwan juxtaposing East and West, calling out European countries for the prejudice she has experienced as a Muslim Pakistani in academia. She has also lived in the UK and USA, but mostly reflects on time spent in Germany and the Netherlands, where her imperfect grasp of the language was an additional way of standing out. “Adjunct” is the source of the cover image: she knocks and knocks for admittance, but finds herself shut out still. Rizwan takes extended metaphors from marriage, motherhood and women’s health: in “My house is becoming like my country,” she imagines her husband instituting draconian laws; in “I have found in my breast,” a visit to a doctor about a lump only exposes her own exoticism (“Basically, the Muslims are metastasizing”). In “Paris Proper,” she experiences the city differently from a friend because of the colonial history of the art. (See also Liz’s review.)
Some favourite lines:
“my breasts harden / with milk, that peculiar ache of women’s bodies / which do only half the sin / but carry all the history” (from “Half the Sin”)
With thanks to The Emma Press for the proof copy for review.
A Marginal Sea by Zoë Skoulding
Skoulding’s collection is said to be all about Anglesey in Wales, but from that jumping-off point the poems disperse to consider maps, maritime vocabulary, seabirds, islands, tides and much more. There are also translations from the French, various commissions and collaborations, and pieces about the natural vs. the manmade. Some are in paragraph form and there’s a real variety to how lines and stanzas are laid out on the page. I especially liked “Red Squirrels in Coed Cyrnol.” I’ll read more by Skoulding.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.
Read any good poetry recently?