Catching Up: Mini Reviews of Some Notable Reads from Last Year
I do all my composition on an ancient PC (unconnected to the Internet) in a corner of our lounge. On top of the CPU sit piles of books waiting to be reviewed. Some have been residing there for an embarrassingly long time since I finished reading them; others were only recently added to the stack but had previously languished on my set-aside shelf. I think the ‘oldest’ of the set below is the Olson, which I started reading in November 2019. In every case, the book earned a spot on the pile because I felt it was worth a review, but I’ll stick to a brief paragraph on why each was memorable. Bonus: I get my Post-its back, and can reshelve the books so they get packed sensibly for our upcoming move.
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti (2012): My second from Heti, after Motherhood; both landed with me because they nail aspects of my state of mind. Heti writes autofiction about writers dithering about their purpose in life. Here Sheila is working in a hair salon while trying to finish her play – some absurdist dialogue is set out in script form – and hanging out with artists like her best friend Margaux. The sex scenes are gratuitous and kinda gross. In general, I alternated between sniggering (especially at the ugly painting competition) and feeling seen: Sheila expects fate to decide things for her; God forbid she should ever have to make an actual choice. Heti is self-deprecating about an admittedly self-indulgent approach, and so funny on topics like mansplaining. This was longlisted for the Women’s Prize in 2013. (Little Free Library)
The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1990): The first volume of The Cazalet Chronicles, read for a book club meeting last January. I could hardly believe the publication date; it’s such a detailed, convincing picture of daily life in 1937–8 for a large, wealthy family in London and Sussex that it seems it must have been written in the 1940s. The retrospective angle, however, allows for subtle commentary on how limited women’s lives were, locked in by marriage and pregnancies. Sexual abuse is also calmly reported. One character is a lesbian, but everyone believes her partner is just a friend. The cousins’ childhood japes are especially enjoyable. And, of course, war is approaching. It’s all very Downton Abbey. I launched straight into the second book afterwards, but stalled 60 pages in. I’ll aim to get back into the series later this year. (Free mall bookshop)
Keeper: Living with Nancy—A journey into Alzheimer’s by Andrea Gillies (2009): The inaugural Wellcome Book Prize winner. The Prize expanded in focus over a decade; I don’t think a straightforward family memoir like this would have won later on. Gillies’ family relocated to remote northern Scotland and her elderly mother- and father-in-law, Nancy and Morris, moved in. Morris was passive, with limited mobility; Nancy was confused and cantankerous, often treating Gillies like a servant. (“There’s emptiness behind her eyes, something missing that used to be there. It’s sinister.”) She’d try to keep her cool but often got frustrated and contradicted her mother-in-law’s delusions. Gillies relays facts about Alzheimer’s that I knew from In Pursuit of Memory. What has remained with me is a sense of just how gruelling the caring life is. Gillies could barely get any writing done because if she turned her back Nancy might start walking to town, or – the single most horrific incident that has stuck in my mind – place faeces on the bookshelf. (Secondhand purchase)
Reflections from the North Country by Sigurd F. Olson (1976): Olson was a well-known environmental writer in his time, also serving as president of the National Parks Association. Somehow I hadn’t heard of him before my husband picked this out at random. Part of a Minnesota Heritage Book series, 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 and what is due to unfortunate later developments. His counsel includes simplicity and wonder rather than exploitation and waste. The chief worry that comes across is that people are now so cut off from nature they can’t see what they’re missing – and destroying. It can be depressing to read such profound 1970s works; had we heeded environmental prophets like Olson, we could have changed course before it was too late. (Free from The Book Thing of Baltimore)
Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman by Alice Steinbach (2004): I’d loved her earlier travel book Without Reservations. Here she sets off on a journey of discovery and lifelong learning. I included the first essay, about enrolling in cooking lessons in Paris, in my foodie 20 Books of Summer 2020. In other chapters she takes dance lessons in Kyoto, appreciates art in Florence and Havana, walks in Jane Austen’s footsteps in Winchester and environs, studies garden design in Provence, takes a creative writing workshop in Prague, and trains Border collies in Scotland. It’s clear she loves meeting new people and chatting – great qualities in a journalist. By this time she had quit her job with the Baltimore Sun so was free to explore and make her life what she wanted. She thinks back to childhood memories of her Scottish grandmother, and imagines how she’d describe her adventures to her gentleman friend, Naohiro. She recreates everything in a way that makes this as fluent as any novel, such that I’d even dare recommend it to fiction-only readers. (Free mall bookshop)
Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey by Adam Weymouth (2018): I didn’t get the chance to read this when it was shortlisted for, and then won, the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, but I received a copy from my wish list for Christmas that year. Alaska is a place that attracts outsiders and nonconformists. During the summer of 2016, Weymouth undertook a voyage by canoe down the nearly 2,000 miles of the Yukon River – the same epic journey made by king/Chinook salmon. He camps alongside the river bank in a tent, often with his partner, Ulli. He also visits a fish farm, meets reality TV stars and native Yup’ik people, and eats plenty of salmon. “I do occasionally consider the ethics of investigating a fish’s decline whilst stuffing my face with it.” Charting the effects of climate change without forcing the issue, he paints a somewhat bleak picture. But his descriptive writing is so lyrical, and his scenes and dialogue so natural, that he kept me eagerly riding along in the canoe with him. (Secondhand copy, gifted)
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Book Serendipity, Early 2021
I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once (usually 20‒30), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents.
Josh Cohen’s How to Live. What to Do, a therapist’s guide to literature, explains why this might happen:
More than one writer – the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges – has advanced the exhilarating idea that each book is an infinitesimally small piece of one single, endless Book. I’ve always felt that this idea, unlikely as it might sound, makes perfect sense if you read enough novels [also nonfiction, for me]. The incidents, descriptions, phrases and images in the book you’re reading will always recall the incidents in another, and those in turn will call up the incidents in another, so that even as you’re reading one book, you’re reading countless others.
The following are in roughly chronological order.
- Mother‒baby swimming sessions in Some Body to Love by Alexandra Heminsley and The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp.
- [I think it would be a spoiler to even name them, but two novels I read simultaneously in January featured 1) a marriage / close relationship between a man and a woman – even though the man is gay; and 2) a character who beat his wife and then died in a convenient ‘accident’. One was published in 1997 and the other in 2020.]
- Stomas appeared in Dazzling Darkness by Rachel Mann and First Time Ever by Peggy Seeger late in my 2020 reading, and then in early 2021 in Pain: The Science of the Feeling Brain by Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen and Love’s Work by Gillian Rose.
- An account of the author’s experience of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome in Hormonal by Eleanor Morgan and I Miss You when I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott.
- Salmon fishing takes place in Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson and Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth.
- The medical motto “see one, do one, teach one” appears in Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke and Complications by Atul Gawande.
- Filipino medical staff feature in America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo and Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke.
- Twin Peaks is mentioned in The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills and the anthology Trauma: Essays on Art and Mental Health; a different essay in the latter talks about Virginia Woolf’s mental health struggle, which is a strand in the former.
- St. Teresa of Ávila is mentioned in Heart by Gail Godwin and Sanatorium by Abi Palmer.
- The same Rachel Long poem appears in her debut collection, My Darling from the Lions, and The Emma Press Anthology of Love – but under different titles (“Portent” vs. “Delayed Gratification”).
- There’s a matriarch named Dot in Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller and The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett.
- There’s an Alaska setting in The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton and Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth.
- Becoming a mother is described as a baptism in Sanctuary by Emily Rapp Black and The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills.
- While reading America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo, I saw Castillo mentioned in the Acknowledgements of My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long.
- Polar explorers’ demise is discussed in Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman and The Still Point by Amy Sackville.
- “Butterfingers” / “butter-fingered” is used in America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo and The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler.
- There’s a mention of someone eating paper torn from books (the horror!) in Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman and The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler.
- I was reading three pre-releases at once, each of 288 pages: Milk Fed by Melissa Broder, Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller, and A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson.
- The Jewish golem myth is the overarching metaphor of Milk Fed by Melissa Broder and Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer.
- There’s a ceremony to pay respects to those who donated their bodies for medical school dissection in Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb and Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer.
- An old woman with dementia features in The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan, Keeper by Andrea Gillies, and The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler.
- A mother dies of cancer on Christmas Day in This Party’s Dead by Erica Buist and The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills.
- The main character does stand-up comedy in Milk Fed by Melissa Broder and This Party’s Dead by Erica Buist.
- Winning a goldfish at a carnival in The Air Year by Caroline Bird, A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez, and Anna Vaught’s essay in the Trauma anthology.
- ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) is mentioned in Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis and Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy.
- There’s a father who is non-medical hospital staff in The Push by Ashley Audrain (a cleaner) and A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez (a kitchen worker).
- There’s a character named Hart in The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes and The Birth House by Ami McKay.
- Cannibalism is a point of reference, a major metaphor, or a (surreal) reality in Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander, Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick, and Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford.
- Infertility and caring for animals were two big themes shared by Brood by Jackie Polzin and Catalogue Baby by Myriam Steinberg. This became clearer when I interviewed both authors in February. Also, both women have shocks of pink hair in their publicity photos!
- A young woman works at a hotel in The Distance between Us by Maggie O’Farrell and My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (and The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, which I read late last year).
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson
The Feather Thief is a delightful read that successfully combines many genres – biography, true crime, ornithology, history, travel and memoir – to tell the story of an audacious heist of rare bird skins from the Natural History Museum at Tring in 2009. Somehow I managed not to hear about it at the time, but it was huge news in terms of museum collections and endangered species crime. The tendrils of this thorny case wind around Victorian explorers, tycoons, and fashionistas through to modern obsessions with music, fly-fishing and refugees.
Author Kirk Wallace Johnson worked for USAID in Iraq, heading up the reconstruction of Fallujah, then founded a non-profit organization rehoming refugees in America. Plagued by PTSD, he turned to fly-fishing as therapy, and this was how he heard about the curious case of Edwin Rist, who stole the bird specimens from Tring to sell the bright feathers to fellow hobbyists who tie elaborate Victorian-style fishing flies.
Rist, from upstate New York, was a 20-year-old flautist studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Since age 11 he’d been fixated on fly-tying, especially old-fashioned salmon ties, which use exotic feathers or ordinary ones dyed to look like them. An online friend told him he should check out Tring – the museum Walter Rothschild’s financier father built for him as a twenty-first birthday present – when he got to London. In 2008 Rist scoped out the collection, pretending to be photographing the birds of paradise for a friend’s book.
A year later he took the train to Tring one summer night with an empty suitcase and a glass cutter, broke in through a window, stole 300 bird skins, and made it back to his flat without incident. The museum only discovered the crime a month later, by accident. Rist sold many feathers and whole birds via a fly-tying forum and on eBay. It was nearly another year and a half before the police knocked on his door, having been alerted by a former law enforcement officer who encountered a museum-grade bird skin at the Dutch Fly Fair and asked where it came from.
Here is where things get really interesting, at least for me. Rist confessed immediately, but a psychological evaluation diagnosed him with Asperger’s; on the strength of that mental health defense he was given a suspension and a large fine, but no jail time, so he graduated from the Royal Academy as normal and auditioned for jobs. The precedent was a case from 2000 in which a young man with Asperger’s who stole human remains from a Bristol graveyard was exonerated.
The book is in three parts: the first gives historical context about specimen collection and the early feather trade; the second is a blow-by-blow of Rist’s crime and the aftermath, including the trial; and the third goes into Wallace’s own investigation process. He started by attending a fly-tying symposium, where he felt like an outsider and even received vague threats: Rist was now a no-go subject for this community. But Wallace wasn’t going to be deterred. Sixty-four bird skins were still missing, and his quest was to track them down. He started by contacting Rist’s confirmed customers, then interviewed Rist himself in Germany and traveled to Norway to meet someone who might have been Rist’s accomplice – or fall guy.
I happened to be a bit too familiar with the related history – I’ve read a lot of books that touch on Alfred Russel Wallace, whose specimens formed the core of the Tring collection, as well as a whole book on the feather trade for women’s hats and the movement against the extermination, which led to the formation of the Audubon Society (Kris Radish’s The Year of Necessary Lies). This meant that I was a little impatient with the first few chapters, but if you are new to these subjects you shouldn’t have that problem. For me the highlights were the reconstruction of the crime itself and Wallace’s inquiry into whether the Asperger’s diagnosis was accurate and a fair excuse for Rist’s behavior.
This whole story is stranger than fiction, which would make it a great selection for readers who don’t often pick up nonfiction, perhaps expecting it to be dry or taxing. Far from it. This is the very best sort of nonfiction: wide-ranging, intelligent and gripping.
The Feather Thief was published in the UK by Hutchinson on April 26th. My thanks to Najma Finlay for the free copy for review.