20 Books of Summer, #11–13: Harrison, Pym, Russell
It’s cats and butterflies in the spotlight this time, adding in a gazelle as a metaphor for Freddie Mercury’s somebody to love.
Travelling Cat: A Journey round Britain with Pugwash by Frederick Harrison (1988)
If Tom Cox had been born 20 years earlier, this is the sort of book he might have written. In 1987, saddened more by his cat Podey being run over than by the end of his marriage, Harrison set out from South London in his Ford Transit van for a seven-month drive around the country. He decided to take Pugwash, one of his local (presumably ownerless) cats, along as a companion.
They encountered Morris dancers, gypsies, hippies at Stonehenge for the Summer Solstice, sisters having a double wedding, and magic mushroom collectors. They went to a county fair and beaches in Suffolk and East Yorkshire, and briefly to Hay-on-Wye. And on the way back they collected Podey, whom he’d had stuffed. Harrison muses on the English “vice” of nostalgia for a past that probably never existed; Pugwash does what cats do, and very well.
It’s all a bit silly and dated and lightweight, but enjoyable nonetheless. Plus there are tons of black-and-white photos of “Pugs” and other feline friends. This was a secondhand purchase from The Bookshop, Wigtown.
“Cats hate to make prats of themselves. But then, don’t we all?”
(last lines) “Warm, fed, contented, unemployable, and entirely at peace with the world. Yes indeed. Cats certainly know something we don’t.”
Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym (1950)
(An example of a book that just happens to have an animal in the title.) I’d only read one other Pym novel, Quartet in Autumn, a late and fairly melancholy story of four lonely older people. With her first novel I’m in more typical territory, I take it. The middle-aged Bede sisters are pillars of the church in their English village. Harriet takes each new curate under her wing, making of them a sort of collection, and fends off frequent marriage proposals from the likes of a celebrity librarian and an Italian count.
Belinda, on the other hand, only has eyes for one man: Archdeacon Hochleve, whom she’s known and loved for 30 years. They share a fondness for quoting poetry, the more obscure the better (like the title phrase, taken from “Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove: / Something to love, oh, something to love!” by Thomas Haynes Bayly). The only problem is that the archdeacon is happily married. So single-minded is Belinda that she barely notices her own marriage proposal when it comes: a scene that reminded me of Mr. Collins’s proposal to Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice. Indeed, Pym is widely recognized as an heir to Jane Austen, what with her arch studies of relationships in a closed community.
There were a handful of moments that made me laugh, like when the seamstress finds a caterpillar in her cauliflower cheese and has to wipe with a Church Times newspaper when the Bedes run out of toilet paper (such mild sacrilege!). This is enjoyable, if fluffy; it was probably a mistake to have read one of Pym’s more serious books first: I expected too much of this one. If you’re looking for a quick, gentle and escapist read in which nothing awful will happen, though, it would make a good choice. Knowing most of her books are of a piece, I wouldn’t read more than one of the remainder – it’ll most likely be Excellent Women.
An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect by Sharman Apt Russell (2003)
This compact and fairly rollicking book is a natural history of butterflies and of the scientists and collectors who have made them their life’s work. There are some 18,000 species and, unlike, say, beetles, they are generally pretty easy to tell apart because of their bold, colorful markings. Moth and butterfly diversity may well be a synecdoche for overall diversity, making them invaluable indicator species. Although the history of butterfly collecting was fairly familiar to me from Peter Marren’s Rainbow Dust, I still learned or was reminded of a lot, such as the ways you can tell moths and butterflies apart (and it’s not just about whether they fly in the night or the day). And who knew that butterfly rape is a thing?
The final third of the book was strongest for me, including a trip to London’s Natural History Museum; another to Costa Rica’s butterfly ranches, an example of successful ecotourism; and a nicely done case study of the El Segundo Blue butterfly, which was brought back from the brink of extinction by restoration of its southern California dunes habitat. Russell, a New Mexico-based author of novels and nonfiction, also writes about butterflies’ cultural importance: “No matter our religious beliefs, we accept the miracle of metamorphosis. One thing becomes another. … Butterflies wake us up.”
I also recently read the excellent title story from John Murray’s 2003 collection A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies. Married surgeons reflect on their losses, including the narrator’s sister in a childhood accident and his wife Maya’s father to brain cancer. In the late 1800s, the narrator’s grandfather, an amateur naturalist in the same vein as Darwin, travelled to Papua New Guinea to collect butterflies. The legends from his time, and from family trips to Cape May to count monarchs on migration in the 1930s, still resonate in the present day for these characters. The treatment of themes like science, grief and family inheritance, and the interweaving of past and present, reminded me of work by Andrea Barrett and A.S. Byatt.
(I’ve put the book aside for now but will go back to it in September as I focus on short stories.)
Other butterfly-themed books I have reviewed:
- Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly by Sue Halpern (one of last year’s 20 Books of Summer)
- Ruins by Peter Kuper (a graphic novel set in Mexico, this also picks up on monarch migration)
- Magdalena Mountain by Robert Michael Pyle (a novel about butterfly researchers in Colorado)
Novellas in November Wrap-Up, with Mini-Reviews
Novellas in November was a great success, helping me to finish more books in one month than I possibly ever have before. David Szalay’s Turbulence – a linked short story collection of tantalizing novella length – just arrived yesterday; I’ve started it but will be finishing it in December. The slim volume Fox 8 by George Saunders is also waiting for me at the library and I should be able to read it soon.
For this final installment I have 10 small books to feed back on: a mixture of fiction, graphic novels, nature books and memoirs.
West by Carys Davies (2018)
A gritty piece of historical fiction about a widowed mule breeder, Cyrus Bellman, who sets out from Pennsylvania to find traces of the giant creatures whose bones he hears have been discovered in Kentucky. He leaves his 10-year-old daughter, Bess, in the care of his sister, knowing he’ll be gone at least two years and may never return. Chapters cut between Cy’s harrowing journey in the company of a Native American guide, Old Woman From A Distance, and Bess’s home life, threatened by the unwanted attentions of their ranch hand neighbor and the town librarian. I don’t usually mind dark stories, but this was so bleak that I found it pretty unpleasant. The deus ex machina ending saved it somewhat.
Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika (2016)
Morayo Da Silva is an unlikely heroine: soon to turn 75, she’s a former English professor from Nigeria who hopped between countries with her ambassador husband but now lives alone in San Francisco. The first-person narration switches around to give the perspectives of peripheral figures like a shopkeeper, a homeless woman, and Sunshine, the young friend who helps Morayo get her affairs in order after she has a fall and goes into a care home temporarily. These shifts in point of view can be abrupt, even mid-chapter, and are a little confusing. However, Morayo is a wonderful character, inspiring in her determination to live flamboyantly. I also sympathized with her love of books. I would happily have read twice as many pages about her adventures.
Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds (2018)
Simmonds would be great for graphic novel newbies: she writes proper, full-length stories, often loosely based on a classic plot, with lots of narration and dialogue alongside the pictures. Cassandra Darke is a 71-year-old art dealer who’s laid low by fraud allegations and then blindsided by a case of mistaken identity that brings her into contact with a couple of criminal rings. To start with she’s a Scrooge-like curmudgeon who doesn’t understand the big fuss about Christmas, but she gradually grows compassionate, especially after her own brief brush with poverty. Luckily, Simmonds doesn’t overdo the Christmas Carol comparisons. Much of the book is in appropriately somber colors, with occasional brightness, including the yellow endpapers and built-in bookmark.
The Dave Walker Guide to the Church by Dave Walker (2006)
Most of these comics originally appeared in the Church Times, the official newspaper of the Church of England. No doubt you’ll get the most out of it if you’re familiar with Anglican churches or the like (Episcopalian or even Roman Catholic). My mother-in-law is a C of E vicar and we’ve attended a High Anglican church for the last two years, so I got many a good snort out of the book. Walker pokes fun at bureaucracy, silly traditions, closed-mindedness, and the oddities of church buildings and parishioners’ habits. My favorite spreads compare choirs and music groups on criteria like “ability to process in” and liken different church members to chess pieces to explain church politics.
Rain: Four Walks in English Weather by Melissa Harrison (2016)
In the course of a year Harrison took four rainy walks, in different seasons and different parts of England. She intersperses her observations with facts and legends about the rain, quotes from historical weather guides and poems. It has the occasional nice line, but is overall an understated nature/travel book. A noteworthy moment is when she remembers scattering her mother’s ashes on a Dartmoor tor. I most liked the argument that it’s important to not just go out in good weather, but to adapt to nature in all its moods: “I can choose now to overcome the impulse for comfort and convenience that insulates us not only from the bad in life but from much of the good. I think we need the weather, in all its forms, to feel fully human.”
The Beauties of a Cottage Garden by Gertrude Jekyll (2009)
This mini-volume from Penguin’s English Journeys series feels like a bit of a cheat because it’s extracted from Wood and Garden (1899). Oh well. In short chapters Jekyll praises the variety of colors, smells and designs you’ll find in the average country garden, no matter how modest its size. She speaks of gardening as a lifelong learning process, humbly acknowledging that she’s no expert. “I hold that the best purpose of a garden is to give delight and to give refreshment of mind, to soothe, to refine, and to lift up the heart in a spirit of praise and thankfulness. … a garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all, it teaches entire trust.”
The Glorious Life of the Oak by John Lewis-Stempel (2018)
I didn’t enjoy this as much as the other Lewis-Stempel book I read this month, The Secret Life of the Owl. There’s a lot here about the role the oak has played in British history, such as in warships and cathedral roofs. Other topics are the oak’s appearance and function in different seasons, the use of acorns and oak leaves in cooking, and the myths and legends associated with the trees. I felt there was too much minimally relevant material added in to make up the page count, such as a list of Britain’s famous named oaks and long poems from the likes of John Clare and William Cowper. While Lewis-Stempel always has a piercing eye, I wonder if he shouldn’t be saving up his energies to write more substantial books.
General Nonfiction / Memoirs:
My Year by Roald Dahl (1993)
I spotted a copy in our Stamford Airbnb bedroom and read it over our two nights there. These short month-by-month essays were composed in the last year of Dahl’s life. Writing with children in mind, he remarks on what schoolkids will experience, whether a vacation or a holiday like Guy Fawkes night. But mostly he’s led by the seasons: the birds, trees and other natural phenomena he observed year after year from his home in Buckinghamshire. Dahl points out that he never lived in a city, so he chose to mark the passing of time chiefly by changes in the countryside. This is only really for diehard fans, but it’s a nice little book to have at the bedside. (Illustrated, as always, with whimsical Quentin Blake sketches.)
Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot (2018)
Mailhot was raised on a First Nation reservation on an island off of British Columbia. She is wary of equating her family with Native stereotypes, but there’s no denying that her father was a drunk and ended up murdered. After a childhood of abuse and foster homes, Mailhot committed herself to a mental hospital for PTSD, bipolar II and an eating disorder. It was there that she started writing her story. Much of the book is addressed in the second person to her partner, who helped her move past a broken marriage and the loss of her older son to his father’s custody. Though I highlighted lots of aphoristic pronouncements, I had trouble connecting with the book as a whole: the way imprecise scenes blend into each other makes it hard to find a story line in the murk of miserable circumstances. A more accurate title would have been “Indian Condition” or “Indian Sick” (both used as chapter titles).
Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage by Jennifer Richardson (2013)
A memoir by an American woman married to a Brit and adjusting to English village life was always going to appeal to me. If you approach this as a set of comic essays on the annual rituals of rich toffs (summer fairs, auctions, horse racing, a hunt ball, a cattle market, etc.), it’s enjoyable enough. It’s when Richardson tries to be more serious, discussing her husband’s depression, their uncertainty over having children, and her possible MS, that the book falters. You can tell her editors kept badgering her to give the book a hook, and decided the maybe-baby theme was strongest. But I never sensed any real wrestling with the question. Not a bad book, but it lacks a clear enough idea of what it wants to be.
Total number of novellas read this month: 26
[not reviewed: In the Space between Moments: Finding Joy and Meaning in Medicine by Pranay Sinha – ]
A few that didn’t take: The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby, The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe
My overall favorite: The Gifts of the Body by Rebecca Brown
Runners-up: Surfacing by Margaret Atwood, How to See Nature by Paul Evans, Bodies of Water by V. H. Leslie, and Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
The ones that got away from me:
There’s always next year!
What’s the best novella you’ve read recently? Do you like the sound of any of the ones I read?
As a God Might Be by Neil Griffiths
[Note: A shortened, edited version of this review appeared in the June 15th, 2018 issue of the Church Times.]
Proctor McCullough isn’t a churchgoer. He’s not even particularly religious. Yet somehow he senses that God is calling him to build a chapel, with a little house beside it, on a cliff in the southwest of England. It’s a source of bewilderment for his partner, Holly, and their London friends. Is Mac mentally ill, or having a particularly acute midlife crisis? He’s handed off from a minister to a therapist to a neurologist, but no one knows what to make of him. This forty-four-year-old father of two, an otherwise entirely rational-seeming advisor to the government on disaster situations, won’t be deterred from his mission.
It’s important to get a sense of the way this character speaks:
I want a structure that will move people to contemplate something other than all the obvious stuff … to be confronted with a sense of something and only be able to define it as Other.
God is the transcendent Other for whom creation, what we know as life, is a gratuitous act of love, a dispossession of a portion of His infinite creativity given over to our thriving. It is a gift from His infinite excess. That we can know Him at all is because of the possibility of this excess within us, which we experience as love, art, great feats of the mind. Our bounty is Him.
Down at the project site, Mac acquires four young workers/disciples: Rebecca, Nathaniel, Terry and Rich. Rebecca is a sarcastic, voluptuous teenager who will be off to Cambridge in a few months. She perhaps represents vanity, temptation and judgment, while the other three are more difficult to slot into symbolic roles. Terry is a dreadlocked lager lout who takes care of a mother with early dementia; contrary to appearances, he’s also a thinker, and takes to carrying around a Bible along with a collection of other theological works. Nat and Rich are more sketch-like figures, just ciphers really, which became problematic for me later on.
With Mac we shuttle between the building site and his home in London for weeks at a time. The idea of incorporating Pascal’s mystical hexagon into the church design captivates him, and the costs – initially set at £100,000 – balloon. Meanwhile, his relationship with Holly is strained almost to the breaking point as they each turn to alternative confidants, and there’s a renegotiation process as they decide whether their actions have torn them apart for good.
Like Sarah Moss, Neil Griffiths realistically blends serious concepts with everyday domestic tasks: sure, there may be a God-ordained chapel to build, but Mac also has to do the shopping and get his six-year-old twins fed and in bed at a decent hour. If Mac is meant to be a Messiah figure here, he’s a deeply flawed one; he can even be insufferable, especially when delivering his monologues on religion. If you’re like me, you’ll occasionally get incensed with him – particularly when, at the midpoint, he concocts a Clintonian justification for his behavior.
All the same, the themes and central characters were strong enough to keep me powering through this 600-page novel of ideas. Mac’s violent encounters with God and with the nature of evil are compelling, and although some of the events of the last third push the boundaries of credibility, it’s worth sticking with it to see where Griffiths takes the plot. There’s no getting past the fact that this is a dense theological treatise, but overlaid on it is a very human story of incidental families and how love sustains us through the unbearable.
If I had to point to the novel’s forebears, I’d mention Hamlet, A.S. Byatt’s The Virgin in the Garden, Michael Arditti’s Easter, and even Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. If you’ve read any Dostoevsky (I haven’t, yet) or Iris Murdoch, you’ll likely spot philosophical echoes. The title itself is from Wallace Stevens. It’s all unabashedly highbrow, and a greater than average familiarity with the Christian tradition is probably key. For the wary, I’d suggest not trying too hard to read metaphorical significance into character names or chapter and section titles – I’m sure those meanings are in there, but better to let the story carry you along rather than waste time trying to work it all out.
While reading this novel I was bitterly regretting the demise of Third Way magazine; it would have been a perfect place for me to engage with Griffiths’ envelope-pushing theology. I was also wishing I was still involved with Greenbelt Festival’s literature programming, as this would make a perfect Big Read. (Though however would we get people to read 600 pages?! In my experience of book clubs, it’s hard enough to get them to read 200.)
I’m grateful to Dodo Ink (“an independent UK publisher publishing daring and difficult fiction”) for stepping into the breach and taking a chance on a book that will divide Christians and the nonreligious alike, and to publicist Nicci Praça for the surprise copy that turned up on my doorstep. This turned out to be just my sort of book: big and brazen, a deep well of thought that will only give up its deeper meanings upon discussion and repeat readings.
As a God Might Be was published in the UK by Dodo Ink on October 26th. This is Neil Griffiths’ third novel, after Betrayal in Naples (2004) and Saving Caravaggio (2006). He says that this most recent book took him seven years to write.