20 Books of Summer, 14–16: Barba, Bersweden and Solnit
I’m all about flowers today: American wildflowers in poetry and prose, a year of hunting down the flora of the British Isles, and a discursive account of a famous English author’s life and times through the prism of his rose garden.
American Wildflowers: A Literary Field Guide, ed. Susan Barba; illus. Leanne Shapton (2022)
This comes out from Abrams Press in the USA on 8 November and I’ll be reviewing it for Shelf Awareness, so I’ll just give a few brief thoughts for now. Barba is a poet and senior editor for New York Review Books. She has collected pieces from a wide range of American literature, including essays, letters and early travel writings as well as poetry, which dominates.
Apart from a closing section on various/anonymous wildflowers, where particular species are named they are grouped into families, which are arranged alphabetically. The Asteraceae section is particularly strong, with poems on dandelions and sunflowers, a typically prophetic Aldo Leopold fragment about the decline of native flora, and “Asters and Goldenrod,” an extract from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass (itself one of my 20 Books of Summer – review to come in the week) that I think was also excerpted in This Book Is a Plant.
In general, I engaged more with the poetry than with the prose. Barba has ensured a real variety of styles, with good representation for BIPOC. What draws it all together into a beautiful whole I wish I could see as a physical object is Leanne Shapton’s watercolor illustrations, painted from pressed flowers. “What a gift to stare at flowers—these ephemeral miracles of color and synthesis and botany,” she writes in an opening note. This would be a perfect coffee table book for any gardener or nature lover. (E-review copy)
Where the Wildflowers Grow: My Botanical Journey through Britain and Ireland by Leif Bersweden (2022)
A good case of nominative determinism – the author’s name is pronounced “leaf” – and fun connections abound: during the course of his year-long odyssey, he spends time plant-hunting with Jon Dunn and Sophie Pavelle, whose books featured earlier in my flora-themed summer reading: Orchid Summer and Forget Me Not. With Dunn on Unst, Shetland, he sees not only rare flowers but close-up orcas. Like Pavelle, who he meets up with in Cornwall, he has an eye to how species will be affected by climate change and commits to doing his hunting by train and bike; there’s only so much you can see when zooming by in a car. Bersweden makes a case for spending time with plants – after all, they don’t move, so once you’ve found them you can commune in a way you can’t during, say, a fleeting mammal encounter.
He starts 2021 with a New Year Plant Hunt in central London with his mother – more is in bloom in January than ever before, at least in part due to climate warming. Even when the weather is foul on his travels, there is plenty to be seen. Everywhere he goes, he meets up with fellow experts and plant enthusiasts to marvel at bluebell woodlands or ancient pine forests, alpine or bog species. The floral circuit (documented in full on the book’s website through chapter-by-chapter photographs; there are two small sections of colour plates in the hardback) is also a chance to tour the British Isles, from Kent to Cork, coast to mountaintop.
Bersweden has been in love with plants ever since childhood; he believes they have nostalgia value for many people, and can be an easy way into appreciation of nature. “A wildflower growing from a crack in the wall is an everyday miracle.” His casual writing style and clear zeal for his subject – his author photo is of him hugging a tree, and another has such a cute caption: “Being given the opportunity to hold a Greater Bladderwort (Utricularia vulgaris) was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me!” – make this a pleasure even though it’s a bit overlong at points. (Public library)
Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit (2021)
I was fascinated by the concept behind this one. “In the spring of 1936 a writer planted roses” is Solnit’s refrain; from there sprawls a book that’s somehow about everything: botany, geology, history, politics and war – as well as, of course, George Orwell’s life and works (with significant overlap with the graphic novel biography of him that I read last year). On a trip to England with a friend who is a documentary filmmaker, Solnit had the impulse to go find what might be left of Orwell’s garden. When she arrived in the Hertfordshire village of Wallington, the current owners of his home kindly showed her round. His fruit trees had long since been cut down, but the rosebushes were still going strong some 80 years later.
This goes down as a skim for me: though I read the first 30%, after that I just browsed to the end. Some side tracks lost me, e.g. Tina Modotti’s presentation of roses in her photographs; Orwell’s interest in mining, which leads Solnit to investigate how coal is formed; much history; and a week spent observing the rose-growing industry in Colombia. I most enjoyed the book when it stayed close to Orwell’s biography and writings, positing gardening as his way of grounding his ideas in the domestic and practical. “Pursuits like that can bring you back to earth from the ether and the abstractions.” I also liked – briefly, at least – thinking about the metaphorical associations of roses, and flowers in general.
If you’ve read Solnit before, you’ll know that her prose is exquisite, but I think this was the stuff of a long article rather than a full book. As it is, it’s a pretty indulgent project. (Kaggsy reviewed this recently and came to somewhat similar conclusions.) (NetGalley)
The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits
I keep a long list of books that I’d love to read but know are only currently available in the USA. Occasionally I manage to chip away at it through my public library borrowing during trips back to visit my family, but I’m adding more titles all the time. I was pleased, then, to learn that The Folded Clock, a book I’ve wanted to get hold of ever since it was first released in the States in 2015, was recently published in the UK.
Heidi Julavits is a founding editor of The Believer magazine as well as a novelist and an associate professor of writing at Columbia University. She lives in New York City during the academic year and spends the rest of the time in Maine, where she was born and raised. The Folded Clock is a diary of two fairly average years in her life, but its dated entries (month and day only) are not in order; they’ve been rearranged into what at times feels like an arbitrary sequence. Yet this is in keeping with the overall theme of time’s fluidity.
The title comes from her daughter’s mishearing of “folded cloth” but is apt in that it suggests time stretching and collapsing back on itself. Indeed, one reason for starting the journal was that Julavits felt time had started to pass differently from how it did in her childhood. Whereas she once thought in terms of days, she realized in her forties that she now worked in weeks and months. She was also inspired by digging out her adolescent diary – though it was not nearly as profound or revelatory about her future writing career as she might have hoped.
Every single entry begins with “Today,” reflecting a determination to live in the present. But of course, that format still offers a broad scope for memory, with certain activities and objects provoking flashbacks. For instance, she finds her ten-year-old marriage vows in the pocket of an old coat, and rereads a biography of Edie Sedgwick (from Andy Warhol’s circle, she died of a drug overdose at 28), as she periodically does to gauge how her response changes as she ages.
Julavits also situates her writing in the context of other famous diarists, such as the Goncourt brothers and Henry David Thoreau. As the latter did in Walden, she’s seeking to live deliberately, though within her regular life and without venturing into nature all that much; “I am an outdoorsman of the indoors,” she quips.
There’s a huge variety of topics here. She writes about being afraid of sharks, stealing names to use for characters in her novels, entering her small Maine town’s Fourth of July parade float competition, visiting E.B. White’s grave, mourning a tree half-lost to a hurricane, her insistence on dwelling in west-facing rooms, and regretting never telling her doctor how much she appreciated him before he died in a cycling accident. Travel features heavily, too, what with accompanying her husband to a fellowship in Germany and spending time at an art colony in Italy. Often it’s the tiny encounters and incidents that remain in her mind, though, like accidentally buying bitter apricot kernels instead of almonds at a German market and worrying that her husband might have given himself cyanide poisoning by eating 14 at once.
Some of these pieces would function well as stand-alone essays, like the one about her obsession with The Bachelor, an American reality television franchise, which leads into her belief that crushes are fostered by small spaces – she fell for her second husband (author Ben Marcus) at an arts colony even though they were both attached to other people at the time.
I was delighted to see Julavits quote the Julian Barnes passage on episodicism versus narrativism that inspired my post on that topic back in January. Unsurprisingly, Julavits sees herself as a narrativist, drawing connections between different points in her life. She’s always pondering what small incidents reveal about her character. We learn that she’s so averse to inconveniencing others that she continued a phone call while nursing a wasp sting and once planned to pee in an airsickness bag rather than wake the two sleepers between her and the aisle on a flight. She avoids yard sales because she’s so cutthroat, and she’s been known to romanticize her daily life when e-mailing a friend in London: “I probably didn’t tell the truthiest truths. I never made stuff up. But I did strive to be entertaining. Such embellishments do not constitute lies. They constitute your personality.”
In one of the pieces that stood out most for me, Julavits feels typecast as a woman of a certain age when she attends a Virginia Woolf reading. “I am of that age now where I am looking for the next age I will be. How will I dress? How will I act?” It’s a good example of how she uses these mini-essays to negotiate the stages of life and contemplate her changing roles. Elsewhere she sums up her composite identity and what she seeks from her writing:
I am a jack-of-all-trades. I edit and teach and at times desire to be a clothing designer or an artist … and I write everything but poetry and I am a mother and a social maniac and a misanthrope and a burgeoning self-help guru and a girl who wants to look pretty and a girl who wants to look sexy and a girl who wants to look girly and a woman in her middle forties who wishes not to look like anything at all, who wishes sometimes to vanish.
I sometimes think this is why I became a writer. Here was a way to regularly exercise my desire. I could desire to do this thing that no one does perfectly, and by doing it and doing it I could learn how to desire more, and better. Here was an activity that would always leave me wanting … not youth exactly, but the opposite of death. That to me is a way to always feel like I am nowhere near the end.
Inevitably, some entries are more interesting than others, and Julavits’ neuroticism may grate for some readers, but I found this book to be chock-full of quotable lines and insights into what it means to be a time-bound human being. Like one of May Sarton’s journals, I read it slowly, just a few pieces at a time over the course of weeks, and I’ll be keeping it on the shelf to flick through if I ever need an example of how to write a piercing, bite-sized fragment of autobiography. I highly recommend it.
(See also this brief Guardian interview with Julavits.)
The Folded Clock: A Diary was published by Bloomsbury Circus on March 9th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Six “Love” Books for Valentine’s Day
Starting in mid-January I began surveying my shelves, library stack and Kindle for books with “love” in the title. Here are the six I had time to try; I didn’t get to Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love on my Kindle, nor my paperback copies of Iris Murdoch’s The Sacred and Profane Love Machine and Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank.
You’ll notice that a number of the books I’ve read aren’t that optimistic about love; in several cases the use of the word in the title even seems to be ironic. As Lady Montdore exclaims in Love in a Cold Climate, “Love indeed – whoever invented love ought to be shot.” So I can’t offer them as particularly romantic choices. But let’s start positively, with some pleasantly out-of-the-ordinary love poems.
From Me to You: Love Poems, U.A. Fanthorpe and R.V. Bailey
Ursula Fanthorpe and Rosie Bailey met as English teachers at the same Cheltenham school in their late twenties and were partners for nearly 40 years. None of the poems in this short volume are attributed, though I recognized a few from Fanthorpe’s Collected Poems. They’re not particularly distinguished as poetry, but I appreciated the simple, unsentimental examples of what makes up everyday life with a partner: “There is a kind of love called maintenance, / Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it; // Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget / The milkman” (“Atlas”) and “I’m working on a meal you haven’t had to imagine, / A house cleaned to the rafters” (“Dear Valentine”). [Public library]
What I Loved, Siri Hustvedt
This 2003 novel could just as well have been titled “What I Lost,” which might be truer to its elegiac tone. Narrated by Professor Leo Hertzberg and set between the 1970s and 1990s, it’s about two New York City couples – academics and artists – and the losses they suffer over the years. With themes of modern art, perspective, memory, separation and varieties of mental illness, it asks to what extent we can ever know other people or use replacements to fill the gaps left by who and what is missing. Read it if you’ve enjoyed The Suicide of Claire Bishop by Carmiel Banasky, other books by Siri Hustvedt, or anything by Howard Norman. My favorite lines about love were “I often thought of our marriage as one long conversation” and “love thrives on a certain kind of distance … it requires an awed separateness to continue.” [Charity shop]
Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford
I didn’t realize this 1949 novel is a sequel to The Pursuit of Love, so it took a while to figure out who all the characters were. Fanny Logan is a cousin orbiting around Lord and Lady Montdore and their daughter Polly Hampton, all recently returned from some years in India. Fanny marries an Oxford don, while Polly shocks everyone by eloping with her uncle by marriage, “Boy” Dougdale, a recent widower once known as the “Lecherous Lecturer” for interfering with little girls. (This hint of pedophilia is carelessly tossed off in a way no writer would get away with today.) Meanwhile, the heir to the Hampton estate, an effeminate chap named Cedric, comes over from Canada for a visit and wins Lady Montdore over. This amusing picture of aristocratic life in the 1930s marvels at who we love and why. [Bookbarn International]
Enduring Love, Ian McEwan
Interesting to consider this as a precursor to Saturday: both have a scientist as the protagonist and get progressively darker through a slightly contrived stalker plot. Enduring Love opens, famously, with a ballooning accident that leaves its witnesses questioning whether they couldn’t have done more to prevent it. Freelance science journalist Joe Rose – on a picnic with his partner, Keats scholar Clarissa, at the time – was one of those who rushed to help, as was Jed Parry, a young Christian zealot who fixates on Joe. He seems to think that by loving Joe, a committed atheist, he can bring him to God. In turn, Joe’s obsession with Jed’s harassment campaign drives Clarissa away. It’s a deliciously creepy read that contrasts rationality with religion and inquires into what types of love are built to last. [Charity shop]
An Exclusive Love: A Memoir, Johanna Adorján
The author’s grandparents, Hungarian Holocaust survivors who moved to Denmark as refugees, committed suicide together on October 13, 1991. Her grandfather, an orthopedic surgeon who had been in an Austrian concentration camp, was terminally ill and his wife was determined not to live a day without him. This short, elegant memoir alternates Adorján’s imagined reconstruction of her grandparents’ last day with an account of their life together, drawn from family memories and interviews with those who knew them. She wonders whether, like Primo Levi and Arthur Koestler, theirs was a typically Jewish failure to fit in wherever they went, and/or a particularly Hungarian melancholy. “The answer is their great love,” the newspaper report of their death insisted. [Waterstones clearance]
Note: That striking cover is by Leanne Shapton.
And another nonfiction selection that I didn’t make it all the way through:
A Book about Love, Jonah Lehrer
(Abandoned at 31%.) Although I can see why he starts where he does, Lehrer’s early focus on attachment and attunement – two psychological theories of how babies learn to relate affectionately to others – means the book gets bogged down in studies performed on mice and/or children and feels more like a parenting book than anything else. (If that’s what you’re after, read All Joy and No Fun.) A glance at the table of contents suggests the rest of the book will go into marriage, divorce and how love changes over time, but I couldn’t be bothered to stick around. That said, Lehrer’s popular science writing is clear and engaging, and with the heartfelt mea culpa at the start of this book I couldn’t hold a grudge about his earlier plagiarism scandal. [Kindle book from NetGalley.]
No overtly heartwarming love stories in that selection, then, but are there any you fancy reading anyway? Have you read any “love” titles recently?
See also: The Guardian’s list of Top 10 Authentic Romances.