Tag Archives: Icon Books
Nature Book Catch-Up: Sally Huband, Richard Smyth & Anna Vaught
I’m catching up with a few nature- and travel-based 2023 releases that were sent to me for review. I’ve grouped them together because these British authors share some of the same interests and concerns. They celebrate beloved places that become ours through the time we spend in them and the attention we grant; they mourn the loss of biodiversity from rockpools and gardens and seabird cliffs. What kind of diminished world they’re raising their children into is a major worry for all three, and for Huband and Vaught the unease is exacerbated by chronic illness. Wild creatures, and the fellow authors who have hymned them, ease the hurt.
Sea Bean: A beachcomber’s search for a magical charm by Sally Huband
After more than a decade in her adopted home of Shetland, Sally Huband is still a newcomer. A tricky path to motherhood and ensuing chronic illness (the autoimmune disease palindromic rheumatism) limited her mobility and career. Beachcombing is at once her way of belonging to a specific place and feeling part of the wider world – what washes up on a Shetland beach might come from as far away as Atlantic Canada or the Caribbean. Sea glass, lobster pot tags, messages in bottles, driftwood … and a whole lot of plastic, of course. Early on, Huband sets her sights on a sea bean – also known as a drift-seed, from the tropics – which in centuries past was a talisman for ensuring safe childbirth. Possession of one was enough to condemn a 17th-century local woman to death for witchcraft, she learned.
Stories of motherhood, the quest to find effective treatment in a patriarchal medical system, volunteer citizen science projects (monitoring numbers of dead seabirds, returning beached cetaceans to the water, dissecting fulmar stomachs to assess their plastic content), and studying Shetland’s history and customs mingle in a fascinating way. Huband travels around the archipelago and further afield, finding a vibrant beachcombing culture on the Dutch island of Texel. As in Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn, one of my all-time favourite nonfiction books, there is delight at the randomness of what the ocean delivers.
I requested this book because Huband’s was my favourite essay in the Antlers of Water anthology. In it, she deplored the fact that women were still not allowed to participate in the Up Helly Aa fire festival in Lerwick. Good news: that is no longer the case, thanks to campaigning by Huband and others. In a late chapter, she also reports that blackface was recently banned from the festivals, and a Black Lives Matter demonstration drew 2000 people. Change does come, but slowly to a traditional island community. And sometimes it is not the right sort of change, as with an enormous wind farm, resisted vigorously by residents, that will primarily enrich a multinational company instead of serving the local people.
In many ways, this is a book about coming to terms with loss, and Huband presents the facts with sombre determination. Passages about the threats to birds and marine life had me near tears. But she writes with such poetic tenderness that the evocative specifics of island life point towards what’s true for all of us making the best of our constraints. I was lucky enough to visit several islands of Shetland in 2006; whether you have or not, this is a radiant memoir I would recommend to readers of Kathleen Jamie, Jean Sprackland and Malachy Tallack.
Some favourite lines:
No island can ever live up to the heightened expectations that we always seem to place on them; life catches up with us, sooner or later.
With each loss, emotional pain accretes for those who have paid attention.
If hope is a hierarchy of wishes then I am happy enough, each time that I beachcomb, to find fragments of the bark of paper birch
I’ve come to think of the ocean as an archive of sorts.
With thanks to Hutchinson Heinemann for the proof copy for review.
The Jay, the Beech and the Limpetshell: Finding Wild Things with My Kids by Richard Smyth
all around us
the stuff of spells. Our parents
let us go to scamper deeper,
leap from stumps lush with moss.
Everything aloof about me
fell into the soil once charged
with younger siblings
and freedoms of a wood.
I give you a damp valley floor,
this feather for your pocket.
~an extract from “Arger Fen,” from Latch by Rebecca Goss
I know Richard Smyth for his writing on birds (I’ve reviewed both A Sweet, Wild Note and An Indifference of Birds) and his somewhat controversial commentary on modern nature writing. This represents a change in direction for him toward more personal reflection, and with its focus on the phenomena of childhood and parenthood it recalls Wild Child by Patrick Barkham and The Nature Seed by Lucy Jones and Kenneth Greenway. But, as I knew to expect from previous works, he has such talent for reeling in the tangential and extrapolating from the concrete to the abstract that this lively read ends up being about everything: what it is to be human on this fading planet.
And this despite the fact that four of five chapter headings suggest pandemic-specific encounters with nature. Lockdown walks with his two children, and the totems they found in different habitats – also including a chaffinch nest and an owl pellet – are indeed jumping-off points, punctuating a wide-ranging account of life with nature. Smyth surveys the gateway experiences, whether books or television shows or a school tree-planting programme or collecting, that get young people interested; and talks about the people who beckon us into greater communion – sometimes authors and celebrities; other times friends and family. He also engages with questions of how to live in awareness of climate crisis. He acknowledges that he should be vegetarian, but isn’t; who does not harbour such everyday hypocrisies?
It’s still, unfortunately, rare for men to write about parenthood (and especially pregnancy loss – I only think of Native by Patrick Laurie and William Henry Searle’s books), so it’s great to see that represented, and it’s a charming idea that we create “downfamily” because the “upfamily” doesn’t last forever. Although there’s nostalgia for his childhood here, and anxiety about his kids’ chances of seeing wildlife in abundance, Smyth doesn’t get mired in the past or in existential dread. He has a humanist belief that people are essentially good and can do positive things like build offshore wind farms, and in the meantime he will take Genevieve and Daniel into the woods to play so they will develop a sense of wonder at all that lives on. Even for someone like me who doesn’t have children, this was a captivating, thought-provoking read: We’re all invested in the future of life on this planet.
With thanks to Icon Press for the free copy for review.
These Envoys of Beauty: A Memoir by Anna Vaught
Anna Vaught is a versatile author: I have a copy of her mental health-themed novel Saving Lucia, longlisted for the inaugural Barbellion Prize, on the shelf; she’s written a spooky set of stories, Famished (see Susan’s review); and I gave some early reader feedback on the opening pages of her forthcoming work of quirky historical fiction, The Zebra and Lord Jones. She’s also publishing a book on writing, and editing a collection of pieces submitted for the first Curae Prize for writers who are also carers. I was drawn to her first nonfiction release by reviews by fellow bloggers – it’s always good when a blog tour achieves its aim!
These dozen short essays are about how nature doesn’t necessarily heal, but is a most valued companion in a life marked by chronic illness and depression. The evocative title and epigraphs are from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Nature” (1836). The pieces loop through Vaught’s past and present, focussing on favourite places in Wiltshire, where she lives, and at the Pembrokeshire coast. It’s the second memoir about complex PTSD that I’ve read this year (see also What My Bones Know). Both at the time and now, when flashbacks of her parents’ verbal and physical abuse haunt her, lying down in a grassy field, exploring a sea cave or sucking on a gorse flower could be a salve. “Nature offered stability and satisfying detail; pattern, form and things that made sense.”
Vaught has a particular love for trees, flowers and moss – even just reciting their Latin names gives her a thrill, and she adds additional information about some species in footnotes. Although her childhood was painful, she retains gratitude for its wide-eyed wonder, and in the exuberance of her prose you can sense a willed childlike perspective (“But back to the list of clouds and writing about clouds!”). I found the frequent self-referential nature of the essays and direct reader address a little precious, but appreciated the thoughts about how nature holds us: “I have always felt a generosity around me, and that I was less lonely outside; at the very least, I could find something to comfort me”. She’s a bookish kindred spirit as well. I’ll be sure to try her work in other genres.
With thanks to Reflex Press for the free copy for review.
September Poetry & Nonfiction: Antrobus, Benning, Carey; Bowler, Lister
September is a major month for new releases. I’ve already reviewed two fiction titles that came out this month: Blank Pages and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty and Bewilderment by Richard Powers. I’m still working through the 500+ pages of Ruth Ozeki’s new novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness, and hope to report back on it before too long.
Today I have poetry volumes reckoning with race and disability and with modern farming on the Canadian prairie, as well as a centuries-spanning anthology; and, in nonfiction, memoirs of living with advanced cancer and adjusting to widowhood in one’s thirties.
All the Names Given by Raymond Antrobus
Antrobus, a British-Jamaican poet, won the Rathbones Folio Prize, the Ted Hughes Award, and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award for his first collection, The Perseverance. I reviewed it for the Folio Prize blog tour in 2019 and was in attendance at the Young Writer ceremony when he won. Its themes carry over into this second full-length work: again, he reflects on biracial identity, deafness, family divisions, and the loss of his father. Specifically, he is compelled to dive into the history of his English mother’s ancient surname, Antrobus: associated with baronets, owners of Stonehenge, painters – and slavers.
Tell me if I’m closer
to the white painter
with my name than I am
to the black preacher,
his hands wide to the sky,
the mahogany rot
of heaven. Sorry,
but you know by now
that I can’t mention trees
without every shade
of my family
appearing and disappearing. (from “Plantation Paint”)
Other poems explore police and prison violence against Black and deaf people, and arise from his experiences teaching poetry to students and inmates. Captions in square brackets are peppered throughout, inspired by the work of Deaf sound artist Christine Sun Kim. These serve as counterparts to the sign language illustrations in The Perseverance. There are also unsentimental love poems written for his wife, Tabitha. This didn’t captivate me in the same way as his first book, but I always enjoy experiencing the work of contemporary poets and would recommend this to readers of Jason Allen-Paisant, Caleb Femi and Kei Miller.
With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.
Field Requiem by Sheri Benning
Benning employs religious language to give structure to her solemn meditations on the degraded landscape of Saskatchewan, a place where the old ways have been replaced by impersonal, industrial-scale farming. Poems are titled “Plainsong,” “Minor Doxology,” “Intercession” and “Compline.” You can hear the rhythms of psalms and the echoes of the requiem mass in her verse.
There’s a prophetic tone behind poems about animal casualties due to pesticides, with “We were warned” used as a refrain in “1 Zephaniah”:
Everything swept away.
Everything consumed. Sky bled dry
of midges. Locusts, bees, neurons frayed.
Antiseptic silence of canola
fields at dusk, muted
Alliteration pops out from the lists of crops and the prairie species their cultivation has pushed to the edge of extinction. This is deeply place based writing, with the headings of multipart poems giving coordinates. Elegies tell the stories behind the names in a local graveyard, including Ukrainian immigrants. Many of these are tragic tales of failure: “neck in the noose of profit margins and farm credit” (from “NE 10 36 22 W2ND”). Benning and her sister, Heather, who took the Ansel Adams-like black-and-white photographs that illustrate the book, toured derelict farms and abandoned homes:
pull yourself through the kitchen window,
glass shot out decades ago. Breathe the charnel reek,
the cracked-open casket of the nation’s turn-of-the-century bullshit-
promises, adipose gleam of barley and wheat. (from “SW 26 36 22 W2ND”)
I attended the online launch event last night and enjoyed hearing Benning read from the book and converse with Karen Solie about its origins. Benning’s parents were farmers up until the late 1990s, then returned to diversified farming in the late 2000s. Solie aptly referred to the book as “incantatory.” With its ecological conscience, personal engagement and liturgical sound, this is just my kind of poetry. If you’ve been thinking about the issues with land use and food production raised by the likes of Wendell Berry and James Rebanks, you shouldn’t miss it.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.
100 Poets: A Little Anthology by John Carey
John Carey is among the UK’s most respected literary critics. I’ve read several of his books over the years, including his outstanding memoir, The Unexpected Professor. This anthology, a sort of follow-up to his A Little History of Poetry (2020), chooses 100 top poets and then opines on what he considers their best work. The book is organized chronologically, proceeding from Homer to Maya Angelou. Sticking mostly to English-language and American, British or Commonwealth poets (with just a handful of Continental selections, like Charles Baudelaire and Rainer Maria Rilke, in translation), Carey delivers mini-essays with biographical information and historical background.
There is some inconsistency in terms of the amount of context and interpretation given, however. For some poets, there may be just a line or two of text, followed by a reprinted poem (Richard Wilbur, Les Murray); for others, there are paragraphs’ worth of explanations, interspersed with excerpts (Andrew Marvell, Thomas Gray). Some choices are obvious; others are deliberately obscure (e.g., eschewing Robert Frost’s and Philip Larkin’s better-known poems in favour of “Out, Out” and “The Explosion”). The diversity is fairly low, and you can see Carey’s age in some of his introductions: “Edward Lear was gay, and felt a little sad when friends got married”; “Alfred Edward Housman was gay, and he thought it unjust that he should be made to feel guilty about something that was part of his nature.” There’s way too much First and Second World War poetry here. And can a poet really be one of the 100 greatest ever when I’ve never heard of them? (May Wedderburn Cannan, anyone?)
Unsurprisingly, I was most engaged with the pieces on Victorian and Modernist poets since those are the periods I studied at university and still love the most, but there were a few individual poems I was glad to discover, such as Ben Jonson’s “On My First Sonne,” written upon his death from bubonic plague, and Edward Thomas’s “Old Man,” as well as many I was happy to encounter again. This would be a good introduction for literature students as well as laypeople wanting to brush up on their poetry.
With thanks to Yale University Press, London for the proof copy for review.
No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear) by Kate Bowler
(Below is my Shelf Awareness review, reprinted with permission.)
In her bittersweet second memoir, a religion professor finds the joys and ironies in a life overshadowed by advanced cancer.
When Kate Bowler, an associate professor at Duke Divinity School, was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer at age 35, her chances of surviving two years were just 14%. In No Cure for Being Human, her wry, touching follow-up to her 2018 memoir Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved) and its associated podcast, she continues to combat unhelpful religious/self-help mantras as she ponders what to do with the extra time medical breakthroughs have given her.
After multiple surgeries, a promising immunotherapy drug trial gave Bowler hope that she would live to see her 40th birthday and her young son starting kindergarten. Working on her bucket list, she found that small moments outshined large events: on a trip to the Grand Canyon, what stood out was a chapel in the ponderosa pinewoods where she added a prayer to those plastering the walls. In the Church calendar, “Ordinary Time” is where most of life plays out, so she encourages readers to live in an “eternal present.”
The chapters function like stand-alone essays, some titled after particular truisms (like “You Only Live Once”). The book’s bittersweet tone finds the humor as well as the tragedy in a cancer diagnosis. Witty recreated dialogue and poignant scenes show the type-A author learning to let go: “I am probably replaceable,” she acknowledges, but here in the shadow of death “the mundane has begun to sparkle.” These dispatches from the “lumpy middle” of life and faith are especially recommended to fans of Anne Lamott.
(If you’ve read her previous book, Everything Happens for a Reason, you may find, as I did, that there is a little too much repetition about her diagnosis and early treatment. The essays could also probably be structured more successfully. But it’s still well worth reading.)
With thanks to Rider Books for the free copy for review.
The Elements: A Widowhood by Kat Lister
This story hit all too close to home to me: like Kat Lister, my sister was widowed in her thirties, her husband having endured gruelling years of treatment for brain cancer that caused seizures and memory loss. Lister’s husband, Pat Long, was a fellow journalist. Cancer was with them for the entire span of their short marriage, and infertility treatment didn’t succeed in giving them the children they longed for.
Although it moves back and forth in time, the memoir skims over the happy before and the torturous middle, mostly shining a light on the years after Pat died in 2018. Lister probes her emotional state and the ways in which she met or defied people’s expectations of a young widow. Even when mired in grief, she was able to pass as normal: to go to work, to attend social functions wearing leopard print. She writes of a return trip to Mexico, where she’d gone with Pat, and in some detail of the sexual reawakening she experienced after his death. But everyday demands could threaten to sink her even when life-or-death moments hadn’t.
Writing helped her process her feelings, and the Wellcome Library was a refuge where she met her predecessors in bereavement literature. While some of the literary points of reference are familiar (Joan Didion, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, C.S. Lewis), others are unexpected, and the overall Fire–Water–Earth–Air structure creates thematic unity in a similar way as the constellations do in Molly Wizenberg’s The Fixed Stars. Giving shape and dignity to grief, this is a lovely, comforting read.
A favourite passage:
When I talk of my husband, I often speak of disparate worlds. Mine is inside time, his is supertemporal. I continue to age whilst my husband stays fixed in a past I am drifting further away from with every sentence that I type. And yet, like those luminous balls of plasma in the sky, we are still connected together, for all time is cyclical. I hold the elements within me.
With thanks to Icon Books for the free copy for review.
What recent releases can you recommend?
That Was When People Started to Worry by Nancy Tucker
Nancy Tucker’s first book, The Time in Between (2015), was a wrenching and utterly absorbing eating disorder memoir told in an original blend of forms: cinematic scenes of dialogue and stage directions, schedules, tongue-in-cheek dos and don’ts, imagined interrogations, and so on. She’s recreated that experimental/hybrid style here to capture the experiences of young women with mental health challenges.
At a time when she was still struggling with anorexia and suicidal thoughts, bouncing between her uni room and a psychiatric ward, Tucker felt the need to get beyond her own pain by engaging with others’ problems. She interviewed 70 women aged 16 to 25 for a total of more than 100 hours and chose to anonymize their stories by creating seven composite characters who represent various mental illnesses: depression, bipolar disorder, self-harm, anxiety, eating disorders, PTSD and borderline personality disorder.
Each chapter follows a similar format, focusing on a first-person narrative from the invented character but also interspersing other documents like e-mails, instant messages, conversations with a therapist, a video interview transcript or a self-interrogation. A different font then sets out a few-page section that, in a sardonic tone, suggests the problem really isn’t that serious and is easily solved with a handful of simple tips. After this point Tucker steps out of character to give statistics and commentary on the particular mental illness, as she heard it described by her interviewees. She returns to the character’s voice to close with a “What I wish I could tell you about my [depression, etc.]” section, a heartfelt plea for sympathy.
These stories overlap with each other – anxiety and depression commonly co-occur with other mental illness, for instance. Yasmine’s bipolar means that sometimes she feels like she could run a marathon or write a novel in a few days, while other times she’s plunged into the depths of depression. Neither Abby (depression) nor Freya (anxiety) can face going to work; Maya (BPD, also known as emotionally unstable personality disorder) exhibits many of the symptoms from other chapters, including self-harm and feelings of emptiness.
Tucker is keen to emphasize how complex these disorders are: it’s never just a matter of being sad, having mood swings or seeking attention. She is sensitive to the way that certain ones might be belittled, such as binge eating disorder, which, because it isn’t as clinically recognized as anorexia or bulimia, can be equated with poor self-control. Also, mental health conditions exist on a continuum, so it’s hard to definitively announce a cure. In any case, “A binary perception of mental illness benefits no one,” Tucker explains: “the ‘insane’ may find themselves held at arms’ length, but the ‘sane’ may be denied rapid treatment, or accused of melodrama.”
The details of these narratives can be painful to read, like Georgia and friends browsing Tumblr for ideas of how to cut themselves with razors and take not-quite-overdoses of paracetamol, and Holly’s post-traumatic stress after not-quite-consensual sex with her boyfriend. But the voices are so intimately rendered, and the chapters so perfectly balanced between the general and the fictionalized particulars, that they illuminate mental health crises in a uniquely powerful way.
Reading this has helped me to understand friends’ and acquaintances’ behavior. I’ll keep it on the shelf as an invaluable reference book in the years to come. Based on what I’ve read thus far, this is my frontrunner for next year’s Wellcome Book Prize, which “aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around [medical] topics.” That Was When People Started to Worry seems to me to be just what the prize is looking for, as “Books that find stories in those brushes with medicine are ones that add new meaning to what it means to be human.”
That Was When People Started to Worry: Windows into Unwell Minds was published by Icon Books in May. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
The Smell of Fresh Rain by Barney Shaw
Petrichor: that would be the alternative title for this book about the often-neglected human sense of smell. In avoiding that lovely but obscure word, Barney Shaw is making a specific point: we don’t have an everyday vocabulary for talking about smells; there are specialist terms and concepts, but try to depict an ordinary scent in words and you may struggle.
I had just such an experience myself the other week. We’d bought a jar of Sun-Pat peanut butter at Sainsbury’s that didn’t taste or smell right, but no longer had the receipt to return it to the store. When I contacted the company on Twitter, my attempts to describe the problem were decidedly feeble: we’d bought a “duff jar,” I wrote; it tasted and smelled “off.” If pressed I would perhaps have used the word “stale,” but I had no way of conveying how exactly it didn’t taste or smell right. (Sun-Pat very kindly took my word for it and sent £10 worth of vouchers. The new jars we bought as replacements tasted better but still not the same as before: chances are they’ve recently changed the recipe to be cheaper.)
I’m intrigued by the related senses of smell and taste in general, so I was delighted to find a whole book on the topic. Shaw, a retired civil servant who served as a private secretary to various government ministers, approaches the topic as an amateur enthusiast rather than a scientist, so his language is never overly technical and he ranges between history, anatomy, literature and even self-help.
Much of the book was researched “on location,” as it were. Shaw travels to Portsmouth to grasp the signature smells of the seaside; visits a hardware store to differentiate the odors of different metals (they release no smell on their own, only in contact with human skin/sweat); returns to his hometown to discover the smells associated with suburban gardens and different types of High Street shops; and sniffs at butcher stalls, pubs, and London Underground trains. With his son, blind from birth and autistic, he sets out to capture “the smell of 3 a.m.” as early-morning market sellers set out their mushrooms and cheeses.
Shaw also travels through time, imagining what it might have smelled like in the mid-nineteenth century or earlier: raw sewage, cooking smoke, animal dung, and laundries and tanneries with their reek of stale urine. Once many of those stinks were eliminated, bad smells became associated with the working classes (as in the work of Maugham and Orwell) or with foreigners, a continuing prejudice that fuels xenophobia. The book also traces the rise of the perfume industry and other artificial smells like scent diffusers and vaping. Shaw is uncomfortable with the idea of natural scents being replaced by synthetic ones, and notes the environmental consequences of our obsession with abolishing body odor: “The price we pay for hygiene and deodorants is in the pollution pumped out by a billion washing machines and … soap, toothpaste and washing powder flowing down to the seas.”
There are fascinating facts on pretty much every page of this book; I won’t bore you by listing them, but will just say that if you’re interested in exploring the connections between smell and memory in life and in literature, in discovering what makes the human sense of smell unique, and in learning some wine-tasting-style tips for describing odors, this is the perfect introduction. I noted a bit of repetition in the book, especially at chapter openings, but that didn’t keep me from being as enthralled with the subject matter as Shaw, a passionate tour guide to the olfactory world, so clearly is.
The Smell of Fresh Rain was released in the UK on November 14th. My thanks to Victoria Reed at Icon Books for the free copy for review.
Other books referencing smell/taste that I have read or at least sampled:
- Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way by Molly Birnbaum
- Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste by Bianca Bosker
- Parfums: A Catalogue of Remembered Smells by Philippe Claudel
- The Diary of a Nose by Jean-Claude Ellena
- A Smell of Burning: The Story of Epilepsy by Colin Grant
- Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind
Other smell-related titles on my TBR:
- Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent by Mandy Aftel
- Taste, Memory: Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors, and Why They Matter by David Buchanan
- The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York by Chandler Burr
- The Case against Fragrance by Kate Grenville
- A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain and Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler
- The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge
- The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
- The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro