Tag Archives: Stephanie Foo

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.

Book Serendipity, Mid-February to Mid-April

I call it “Book Serendipity” when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something in common – the more bizarre, the better. This is a regular feature of mine every couple of months. Because I usually have 20–30 books on the go at once, I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. The following are in roughly chronological order.

Last time, my biggest set of coincidences was around books set in or about Korea or by Korean authors; this time it was Ghana and Ghanaian authors:

  • Reading two books set in Ghana at the same time: Fledgling by Hannah Bourne-Taylor and His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie. I had also read a third book set in Ghana, What Napoleon Could Not Do by DK Nnuro, early in the year and then found its title phrase (i.e., “you have done what Napoleon could not do,” an expression of praise) quoted in the Medie! It must be a popular saying there.
  • Reading two books by young Ghanaian British authors at the same time: Quiet by Victoria Adukwei Bulley and Maame by Jessica George.

And the rest:

  • An overweight male character with gout in Where the God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom and The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph.

 

  • I’d never heard of “shoegaze music” before I saw it in Michelle Zauner’s bio at the back of Crying in H Mart, but then I also saw it mentioned in Pulling the Chariot of the Sun by Shane McCrae.

 

  • Sheila Heti’s writing on motherhood is quoted in Without Children by Peggy O’Donnell Heffington and In Vitro by Isabel Zapata. Before long I got back into her novel Pure Colour. A quote from another of her books (How Should a Person Be?) is one of the epigraphs to Lorrie Moore’s I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home.
  • Reading two Mexican books about motherhood at the same time: Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel and In Vitro by Isabel Zapata.

 

  • Two coming-of-age novels set on the cusp of war in 1939: The Inner Circle by T.C. Boyle and Martha Quest by Doris Lessing.

 

  • A scene of looking at peculiar human behaviour and imagining how David Attenborough would narrate it in a documentary in Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson and I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai.

 

  • The painter Caravaggio is mentioned in a novel (The Things We Do to Our Friends by Heather Darwent) plus two poetry books (The Fourth Sister by Laura Scott and Manorism by Yomi Sode) I was reading at the same time.
  • Characters are plagued by mosquitoes in The Last Animal by Ramona Ausubel and Through the Groves by Anne Hull.

 

  • Edinburgh’s history of grave robbing is mentioned in The Things We Do to Our Friends by Heather Darwent and Womb by Leah Hazard.

 

  • I read a chapter about mayflies in Lev Parikian’s book Taking Flight and then a poem about mayflies later the same day in Ephemeron by Fiona Benson.

 

  • Childhood reminiscences about playing the board game Operation and wetting the bed appear in Homesick by Jennifer Croft and Through the Groves by Anne Hull.
  • Fiddler on the Roof songs are mentioned in Through the Groves by Anne Hull and We All Want Impossible Things by Catherine Newman.

 

  • There’s a minor character named Frith in Shadow Girls by Carol Birch and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

 

  • Scenes of a female couple snogging in a bar bathroom in Through the Groves by Anne Hull and The Garnett Girls by Georgina Moore.

  • The main character regrets not spending more time with her father before his sudden death in Maame by Jessica George and Pure Colour by Sheila Heti.

 

  • The main character is called Mira in Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton and Pure Colour by Sheila Heti, and a Mira is briefly mentioned in one of the stories in Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans.

 

  • Macbeth references in Shadow Girls by Carol Birch and Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton – my second Macbeth-sourced title in recent times, after Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin last year.
  • A ‘Goldilocks scenario’ is referred to in Womb by Leah Hazard (the ideal contraction strength) and Taking Flight by Lev Parikian (the ideal body weight for a bird).

 

  • Caribbean patois and mention of an ackee tree in the short story collection If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery and the poetry collection Cane, Corn & Gully by Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa.

 

  • The Japanese folktale “The Boy Who Drew Cats” appeared in Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng, which I read last year, and then also in Enchantment by Katherine May.
  • Chinese characters are mentioned to have taken part in the Tiananmen Square massacre/June 4th incident in Dear Chrysanthemums by Fiona Sze-Lorrain and Oh My Mother! by Connie Wang.

 

  • Endometriosis comes up in What My Bones Know by Stephanie Foo and Womb by Leah Hazard.

What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?

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.