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One From the Archive: ‘Eat Up!: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want’ by Ruby Tandoh *****

First published in July 2018.

Anyone who knows me will know what a huge fan of food I am.  I adore cooking new recipes, playing around with flavours, and visiting new restaurants.  It comes as no surprise, then, that I have wanted to read Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up!: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want ever since it came out.  Many will remember Tandoh from The Great British Bake Off, of which she was a contestant in 2013.

In her insightful introduction, Tandoh gives her reasoning for writing such a positive 9781781259597book about food; it directly goes against the wealth of dieting and fitness crazes which have swept the United Kingdom over the last few years.  She begins by rubbishing the often contradictory dietary advice which we hear almost daily on the news: ‘We don’t want to go hungry, we don’t want to be too greedy, we don’t want to live too exuberantly, we don’t want to be a kill-joy.  We fret about our size and shape, and too often police the bodies of others.  We accept the lie that there’s a perfect way of eating that will save your soul and send you careering blithely through your eighties, into your nineties and beyond.  Do what you want, we’re told – but you’ll die if you get it wrong.’

The main exploration in Eat Up! is ‘everything that happens in the peripheries when we take a bite: the cultures that birth the foods we love, the people we nurture, the science of flavour and the ethics of eating.’  Tandoh recognises the splendour of all food, regardless of its preparation; she shows the myriad ways in which food is directly linked with how we feel, and what we need in our lives.  ‘Not every meal,’ she writes, ‘will be in some sunlight dappled orange grove; sometimes what you need is a pasty by the side of the M4, and there’s no harm in that.’  Food can also be used as a tool in order to bring people together; it ‘transgresses the “boundaries” between here and there, us and them, me and you, until we are all just bundles of matter, eating and being eaten.’

The celebration of food is linked in with Tandoh’s own memories: the blackberry bush near her grandmother’s Essex garden; eating a huge Indian takeaway with her girlfriend when both were suffering with influenza; the food which comforted her when her grandfather died.  She also touches upon her own relationship with food in the past, and the eating disorders which she has dealt with in the past.  Eat Up! is highly revealing in this manner.  Never does it feel preachy, or as though Tandoh is hard done by in any sense; rather, it feels like sitting down and having a conversation with the very best, and most intelligent, of friends.

The history of food, and the ways in which we eat, have both been touched upon here.  The research which Tandoh has done is impeccable; facts and statistics blend seamlessly into her narrative.  So many issues are explored which can be linked to food and eating: those around weight, how we eat in public, the joy of seasonal eating, the diet industry, culture, eating trends, food as power, comfort food, and the scientific processes of digestion, amongst others.  This varied content, all of which has food at its centre, is fascinating, and makes for an incredibly engaging and coherent book.

Eat Up! is, pardon the pun, a delicious book; it is warm and understanding, and filled with love and humour.  Such positivity abounds; throughout, Tandoh cheers for the existence of every body, no matter its size or shape.  We all need to be nourished, and we need to feel happy when we eat.  In this manner, Tandoh weaves together a fascinating narrative about food, peppered with recipes for every occasion, and body positivity.  ‘The way you feel about food,’ she points out, ‘sits hand in hand with the way you feel about yourself, and if you eat happily and wholeheartedly, food will make you strong.’  I thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience of Eat Up!, and know that it’s a tome I will dip into again and again.

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‘The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia’ by Laura Miller *****

I have never been a huge fan of the fantasy genre, but I could not get enough of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia when I was a child. I remember, on a couple of occasions, finishing the last paperback in the series – a gorgeous boxed edition which my mother was given when she was a child, and passed on to me – and going right back to the beginning. I have read the series in adulthood, and found it almost as magical.

I was therefore very keen to read Laura Miller’s memoir, The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, which charts her own experiences of reading the Chronicles, both in childhood and adulthood. She writes: ‘My relationship to Narnia would turn out to be as heady as any love affair, a story of enchantment, betrayal, estrangement, and reunion.’ Jonathan Lethem deems Miller’s book a ‘superb long essay’, ‘conversational, embracing and casually erudite’, and Karen Joy Fowler calls it ‘smart, meticulous, and altogether delightful’.

The Magician’s Book chronicles – pardon the pun – Miller’s ‘long, tumultuous relationship’ with C.S. Lewis’ books. Just as I did as a young teenager, Miller discovered the wealth of Christian material which suffused the books; these seem obvious to me as an older reader, but as a child, they went right over my head. Miller’s experience from this point veered in a different direction to mine; I was still keen to submerge myself within the books, but the ‘Christian themes left [Miller] feeling betrayed and alienated from the stories she had come to know and trust.’

As an adult, Miller – who was working as a literary critic at the time – came to the stories from a different perspective. She decided to investigate the Chronicles, alongside Lewis’ life, ‘to see what mysteries Narnia holds for adult eyes’. She was thankfully enraptured by the stories once more, and was able to recapture some of the childhood love which she felt for them. She muses at length upon the Christian symbolism in the novels, explaining why she initially felt let down by this element, and how cleverly Lewis drew parallels between the two. She examines, too, the role of women and race within the novels, and the lack of distinct politics in Narnia, amongst so many other elements.

I loved the mixing of Miller’s own memoir alongside a quite detailed biography of C.S. Lewis himself. She visits the places in which he lived, in both England and Ireland, and travels to the specific Irish landscapes which inspired portions of the books. Miller found Lewis to be a man ‘who stands in stark contrast to his whimsical creation’. In her research, she was particularly interested in his all-engulfing friendship with Lord of the Rings creator J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as the influence which he has had upon a slew of modern writers, including Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Franzen. Miller gives a fantastic commentary regarding mythology and Medieval romance, and its influences on both Lewis and Tolkien.

The Magician’s Book opens with a reflection of Miller’s childhood, when the greatest love which she felt was for the Narnia stories. She writes in especially touching prose here, telling us: ‘I’m wishing, with every bit of myself, for two things. First, I want a place I’ve read about in a book to really exist, and second, I want to be able to go there. I want this so much I’m pretty sure the misery of not getting it will kill me. For the rest of my life, I will never want anything quite so much again.’ Narnia showed the young Laura how she ‘could tumble through a hole in the world I knew and into another, better one, a world fresher, more brightly colored, more exhilarating, more fully felt than my own.’

Miller writes beautifully throughout about Narnia and its magic. She also details how formative reading the Chronicles were, and how they provided a sort of moral and educational primer for its child readers. She says, for instance: ‘To me, the best children’s books gave their child characters (and by extension, myself) the chance to be taken seriously. In Narnia, the boundary between childhood and adulthood – a vast tundra of tedious years – could be elided. The Pevensies not only get to topple the White Witch, fight in battles, participate in an earthshaking mystical event, and be crowned kings and queens; they do it all without having to grow up. Yet they become more than children, too. Above all, their decisions have moral gravity. In contrast to how most children experience their role in an adult world, what the child characters in these stories do, for better or worse, really matters…’.

I found The Magician’s Book fascinating. Miller offers a thorough, even intricate, work of literary criticism. I left with a renewed love for the Narnia books myself, as well as a list of a few other lists and authors to explore – something which I greatly appreciate. The Magician’s Book is, overall, a fantastic melding of a variety of genres and interests, and of themes and elements found within a children’s series which contains an awful lot of depth.

As Miller puts it so wonderfully herself, Narnia ‘mixed up classical and Northern mythologies, canonical fairy tales and slangy modern schoolchildren, myth and satire, all with such cheerful indiscrimination.’ This is a wonderful piece of literary criticism, and I can only hope that every fan of Narnia will have the chance to pick it up.

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‘Greenbanks’ by Dorothy Whipple *****

Like, I imagine, the vast majority of Persephone’s devoted readers, I number Dorothy Whipple amongst my all-time favourite authors. I have loved all of Whipple’s books which I have been privileged enough to read this far, and it is a great delight for me to settle down with one of her new-to-me books. I began Greenbanks with much anticipation and, as I jolly well expected to, I absolutely adored it.

As many of Whipple’s books do, Greenbanks centres around a family, and deals in particular with the relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter. Matriarch Louisa, the head of the household, is very close to spirited Rachel, her favourite of rather a large bunch of grandchildren, and just four years old when she is first introduced.

We first meet the Ashtons at the tail end of 1909, as they are gathering together at Greenbanks, the Lancashire family home, to celebrate Christmas. Here, Whipple has used the simple but effective prop of an old family photo album to show their considered backstories; the Ashton daughters, for instance, attended a convent school in Belgium, with ‘long skirts, ribbons from the back of their hats, crosses on their breasts and freckles on their noses.’

The opening paragraph of the novel demonstrates much of why I so adore Whipple’s work – beautifully constructed sentences, the level of intricate detail, and the interesting viewpoints from which she looks at a scene, or a character. It begins: ‘The house was called Greenbanks, but there was no green to be seen to-day; all the garden was deep in snow. Snow lay on the banks that sloped from the front of the house; snow lay on the lawn to the left, presided over by an old stone eagle who looked as if he had escaped from a church and ought to have a Bible on his back; snow lay on the lawn to the right, where a discoloured Flora bent gracefully but unaccountably near a piece of lead piping which had once been her arm.’

Time moves quickly in this novel; months pass quietly from one chapter to the next. In this way, we see the characters develop, and Rachel particularly grow up over the duration of the novel. We are also made aware that despite the large country house, the Ashtons have a far from idyllic life; almost every single character has their own personal tragedies to deal with, some of which are collective.

Whipple does so many things wonderfully in her fiction, but I particularly love the way in which she reveals her characters, and the perhaps more secretive elements of their personalities. She is a wonderful observer, who is always so aware of thoughts, feelings, reactions, and expectations. The conversations between characters are sharply observed, and their relationships are always shifting – often difficult, and sometimes even tumultuous.

Whipple has such knowledge of what it means to be young, and learning. When Rachel is sent to a school in close proximity to Greenbanks so that she can spend more time with her grandmother, for instance, Whipple writes: ‘When the bell rang at eleven o’clock and the little girls went out into the garden to play, Rachel found it possible to run into Greenbanks and get biscuits from the glass barrel on the dining-room sideboard. She climbed on a chair to do this, and if Auntie Laura came into the room she complained about the upset and the crumbs, but Grandma never minded.’

Another quite lovely, and rather amusing, section of the novel comes when Louisa takes Rachel with her on a trip to London. Rachel has never been before, and asks her father what she can expect. Whipple comments: ‘He gave her a great deal of information; so much, indeed, that she went to bed in a muddle, not sure whether London stood on the Tower or the Thames, or if Big Ben lived in the Houses of Parliament, or why the King sat on a scone to be crowned, or why London had a tube in its inside like Dennis Thompson when he had appendicitis; but sure, all the same, that London was a place full of strange and marvellous things.’

There are dark and serious scenes which unfold in Greenbanks, too. When the First World War begins, and her sons go off to enlist, Whipple observes: ‘Yes, thought Louisa, it’s different for women. They don’t do; they bear what others do; they watch them come and go, they are torn and healed and torn again…’. I cared deeply for all of the characters here, but especially for Louisa and Rachel. They are women living in a world which was firmly in the grasp of men; it takes Rachel months to convince her father that she wishes to continue her education, even with her excellent grades. The character arcs here are so realistic, and so true to their historical context.

Although first published in 1912, there is something marvellously modern about Greenbanks; at junctures, the modern seems to butt against the old. Whipple’s prose is highly nuanced, and as ever, there is a startling clarity to her work here. She has a marvellous wit, and is incredibly knowing. Reading a new Whipple novel is like being reunited with an old friend, and I thoroughly enjoyed the time which I spent with her, at lovely Greenbanks. This is an exceptional novel, and one which I would recommend to every reader.

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‘At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond’ *****

I visited Hampstead Heath for the first time on a blustery wet day in September. Here, I spent a few peaceful moments watching two women with glorious jewel-toned swimming hats gliding along in the Ladies’ Pond. It was cheering that they were undeterred by the weather, particularly as I battled to keep my umbrella up…

At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond collects together fourteen essays, each of which was written especially for this book. I already love the work of some of the contributors – Esther Freud, Margaret Drabble, Jessica J. Lee – but there were a handful whose writing I had not read before. I love thematic collections such as this; they bring together so many different views on one particular topic or location – in this case, a designated pond for women to swim in, in a patch of quiet in the heart of London.

In At the Pond, we are given the perspectives of fourteen different writers, all of whom have swum there. Some of these women are regulars; others have been just once or twice. The book combines ‘personal reminiscence with reflections on the history of the place over the years and through the changing seasons.’

The Pond was established in the late-seventeenth century as a freshwater reservoir, fed by the subterranean River Fleet. It was opened to the public for bathing in 1925, and joins around thirty freshwater ponds dotted across Hampstead Heath, only three of which can be swum in. One of these is solely for men, but there is also a ‘mixed Pond’ which women are able to visit.

‘On a hot day,’ says the book’s blurb, ‘thousands of swimmers from eight to eighty-plus can be found waiting to take a dip before sunbathing in the adjoining meadow. As summer turns to autumn and then winter, the Pond is still visited by a large number of hardy regulars in high-vis hats, many of whom have been swimming here for decades.’

Each of the authors mentions the nature of the place, and the connection which swimming in the pond brings with its surroundings. The pond teems with ‘abundant wildlife – from dragonflies, moorhens and kingfishers above the water’s surface, to swan mussels, roach and carp beneath’. Some of the contributors also touch upon its history, and its rich literary heritage. Rich descriptions pepper each of these essays.

In her essay entitled ‘Cold Shocks and Mud Beards’, Esther Freud writes: ‘No men, children, radios, dogs – the sign on the gate warned, and as I walked down the path beside the sloping meadow, and stood on the wooden deck above the mud brown pond, I had the unusual sense that I was exquisitely lucky to be female.’ She goes on to comment: ‘There is so much space here. So much peace. And above the birdsong the only sound is the hum of chat and laughter and the occasional scream of someone new braving the cold.’

Lou Stoppard writes that ‘the water is silky. It’s thicker than other water. It sticks to the skin, laps your body and holds you, suspended. You cut through it, as if stirring cream.’ Jessica J. Lee – whose memoir on swimming, Turning, is a book which I very much enjoyed – comments: ‘Wet already, I slipped into the black and swam a small lap, my breath catching on the sharp edges of the cold.’ Lee worked on a doctoral dissertation about the Heath, ‘exploring ideas of beauty and history with the Pond’s winter swimmers.’ I can only hope that this is published, and soon!

Nina Mingya Powles’ essay is made up of a series of vignettes, beginning with the swimming she looked forward to as a child, whilst in Malaysia. She notes: ‘I am many bodies of water, strange and shifting’. Margaret Drabble writes about the heritage of the Ladies’ Pond: ‘The lifeguards tell me that the ponds are more valued now than ever, as London entertainments grow ever more expensive, and our need for some contact with the natural world more imperative. They are well protected by those who love them. It is a small miracle that they have survived so well for so long.’

One of my favourite elements of this collection was the way in which it spans every season; indeed, it is split into four sections, which denote each season. Swimming is something which I always love reading about – and doing, although I must admit that I am more of a fair weather woman – and to be able to view the same place in so many different weathers was wonderful. I shivered slightly when a couple of the authors wrote about the lifeguards having to break the surface ice during the winter, and the way in which around 150 hardy women still decide to swim regularly during the season.

At the Pond is a real delight. Almost every one of these essays is overwhelming positive, and each offers recollections of joy and warmth. The authors are united in the sense of community fostered at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, and in the deep sense of peace and wellbeing which they have found within its waters.

The essay collection is beautiful and evocative, and has such a charm about it. At the Pond is rather a moving tribute to a haven which can be found in one of the busiest cities in the world. The collection is lovely to dip in and out of – much like the Pond itself, I imagine.

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‘The Body: A Guide for Occupants’ by Bill Bryson *****

Like many readers, I very much enjoy Bill Bryson’s non-fiction work.  I picked up his newest publication, The Body: A Guide for Occupants having not read any of his writing for such a long time, and was so pleased that I did.  I was reminded once more of how warm his prose is, and how fascinating his subjects.

Many of Bryson’s books are essentially travel writing, in which he writes about countries and regions which he has lived or travelled within – the United States, United Kingdom, and Africa are just three examples.  The Body is something a little different to these personal geographies, though.  It is far more science-based than much of his work, and does not include many personal stories, something which his books tend to be built upon.  It looks inward, trying to decipher what really makes a human being. 43582376

The Body has been split into many chapters, each of which focuses upon a distinctive part of the human body.  These range from ‘The Immune System’ and ‘The Brain’ to ‘Into the Nether Regions’.  These chapters are incredibly thorough; there is not an element of the body which has not been explored in some way.  He moves seamlessly from one topic to another.  With his chapter on the skin, for instance, he moves from bacteria found on the skin to the phenomenon of itching, and then the reasons as to why we lose hair as we age, all in less than two pages.

Bryson writes about so many things here, including the beginning of forensic science; microbes and proteins, and their functions and uses within the body; viruses; advances in medicine; evolutionary changes within human anatomy; how different parts of us age, and the consequences felt; the myriad benefits of exercise; and the wonder found within the structure of our bones.  He writes about so many things that are known about the human body, and also the surprising number of elements which remain a mystery.  Bryson introduces several medical conundrums, interesting cases which cannot be solved.

Bryson has chosen to begin The Body with rather a fascinating chapter, entitled ‘How to Build a Human’, which calculates how expensive it would be to procure all of the elements which make up the human body – clue: a lot.  This memorable prologue, as it were, sets the tone for the book, and feels perfectly placed.

As ever, Bryson’s writing in The Body is both absorbing and accessible.  He grapples with complex ideas throughout the book, but presents everything in a way which can be read and understood by newcomers to this subject.  He introduces myriad facts in marvellous ways, which really make one think; for instance, ‘In the second or so since you started this sentence, your body has made a million red blood cells.’  One can see from the outset that Bryson clearly has quite a passion for this subject, and this shines throughout, as does his humour.  Throughout, Bryson consults experts in different fields, and also mentions a lot of books which focus upon biology along the way.

The Body is a book which one can learn, unsurprisingly, a great deal from.  I have always been fascinated by biology and the human body, and have read a few books on the subject before, but I found myself learning new facts throughout.  Although there is such a great deal packed into the pages of The Body, and a great deal of impeccable research has clearly been done, it never feels saturated with information, and can easily be read from cover to cover.  The Body is, all in all, a fact-lover’s dream, which demonstrates how wonderful the human body is, in all of its strangeness.

I will end this review with a passage which I, personally, found fascinating: ‘The most remarkable part of all is your DNA.  You have a metre of it packed into every cell, and so many cells that if you formed all the DNA in your body into a single fine strand it would stretch ten billion miles, to beyond Pluto.  Think of it: there is enough of you to leave the solar system.  You are in the most literal sense cosmic.’

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‘A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym’ by Hazel Holt *****

After Barbara Pym’s death, American author Anne Tyler wrote: ‘What do people turn to when they’ve finished Barbara Pym?  The answer is easy: they turn back to Barbara Pym.’  Although I have not quite completed her oeuvre, I very much appreciate this perspective; Pym’s novels have so much to offer, and her strength of place and character, as well as her delicious wit, are worth revisiting over and over again.

I realised some months ago that there are many authors whose work I have greatly enjoyed, but whom I know very little about as individuals.  Trying to remedy that, I requested a copy of Hazel Holt’s biography A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym from my local library, and settled down with it on a peaceful afternoon. 20590911

In this biography, says the blurb, ‘… we come to know a person whose humour and sharp observation were uniquely combined with a compassionate acceptance of human nature – qualities that made her such an outstanding novelist.’  It is promised that Pym ’emerges from these pages as an entertaining companion with an insatiable curiosity and an unquenchable delight in the eccentricities of her fellows.’

Holt was a good friend to Pym, and also acted as her literary executor, before passing away in 2015.  In her introduction, Holt writes: ‘It seemed right… to try to put Barbara into her own setting, to define the manners and mores of the social scene around her (one day her novels will be a rich source for social historians), to describe her friends and colleagues, and to show how her books were moulded by her life, as well as the other way around.’  The book includes many entries from Pym’s private papers, as well as a lot of her correspondence; this is particularly true in the case of the friendship between herself and poet Philip Larkin.  Even in the briefest correspondence, Pym writes beautifully and compassionately to her intended.

Rather than focus entirely on Pym, Holt gives some of the rather colourful history of her parents and grandparents.  Pym’s own childhood, in a small market town in Shropshire, was ‘comfortable and conventional’, quite by contrast to the life of her illegitimate father, and filled with ‘a great deal of quiet affection’.  When she moved to Oxford to study English Literature at University, however, Pym became somewhat more alive.  She kept a diary, which she regularly filled with ‘sightings’ of men whom she liked, and certainly had a great deal of adventures with them.  Whilst at University, Pym occasionally attended Labour Party meetings, but ‘more for the young men than for the politics’.

Holt continually asserts how important Pym’s imagination was to her; she often preferred her conjured fantasies and imagined relationships with others to whatever was happening in reality. Holt follows Pym through various love affairs; here, she observes, Pym often ‘made the mistake of expecting more than the other person was prepared to give, of building a great romantic castle on shifting sand.’

In some ways, Holt writes, Pym was rather naïve, and this was particularly true when it came to politics, or the problems of the wider world.  When she moved to Poland to work as a governess in the tumultuous days of 1938, she largely ignored the threat of war: ‘Although she notes without comment that the Germans had entered Prague she gives equal space in her diary to the fact that she had been served fried potatoes with yoghurt.’   Holt captures, quite vividly, Pym’s travels around Europe, which become extensive following the Second World War, as well as the war work which she completed in Naples, Italy.

In A Lot to Ask there is, as one might expect, a lot of commentary about Pym’s books and her writing practices, which I found rather enlightening. Holt quotes at length from many of Pym’s books, in order to further illustrate points.   It is clear that even as a teenager, Pym was already developing her signature prose style, capturing scenes and individuals in such vivid detail in just a sentence or two.

Pym wrote thirteen novels, four of which were published posthumously, after her untimely death from cancer in early 1980.  There was, however, a painful fourteen-year period in which Pym could not find a publisher for her books, and which impacted her greatly.  She is a novelist who has thankfully, and deservedly, risen to prominence once again in the twenty-first century, and I for one feel grateful that I still have several of her books yet to read.

First published in 1990, A Lot to Ask is a biography of the loveliest measure.  One can tell how fond Holt was of Pym, yet the biography still feels as considered and far-reaching as it would be had the pair never known one another at all.  Like her subject, Holt writes with a great deal of warmth and understanding.  So absorbing, and highly readable, A Lot to Ask has so much depth to it, and feels entirely harmonious.  Holt’s biography is a sheer delight, both charming and satisfying.  I would dearly like to read more of her work, as well as the remainder of Pym’s correspondence in the near future.

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‘The Twelve Birds of Christmas’ by Stephen Moss *****

I adored Stephen Moss’ The Wren: A Biography, which I read quite recently, and was keen to get my hands on a copy of The Twelve Birds of Christmas.  The idea behind it is rather charming; Moss tells ‘the enthralling story of twelve iconic British birds’ by ‘playing on one of our best-known carols’.  Like The Wren, this proved to be another firm favourite of mine, and it was the perfect tome to kick off my Christmas reading with.

In The Twelve Birds of Christmas, Moss has given an avian interpretation to the famous Christmas carol, ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, which first appeared in its written form around 1780.  He personally describes it as ‘endlessly parodied, highly memorable and occasionally infuriating’.  Together with his own commentary, ‘he weaves history, culture, bird behaviour and folklore into a compelling narrative for each species’, and traces their fortunes over the centuries since the carol first appeared.

To anyone who knows the carol already, birds feature heavily, but Moss asked himself whether the entire carol could really be about our avian friends.  He muses: ‘… I look beneath the surface of this familiar carol, and reveal what I believe is an alternative meaning to the verses.  For in my view, every single one of the carol’s dozen lines could plausibly be about a particular species of bird.’
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The birds which Moss focuses on here are both rare and common in the United Kingdom.  In turn, he writes about grey partridges, turtle doves, domestic chickens, blackbirds, yellowhammers, geese, mute swans, nightjars, cranes, black grouse, sandpipers, and woodpeckers.  In each separate chapter, he weaves in observations made throughout history about his chosen birds.  These largely come from naturalists who have influenced Moss’ own career.  He links each species rather cleverly to the original carol; the crane, for instance, has been selected to represent ‘nine ladies dancing’ because of its entrancing mating dance.

Focus has been placed upon the effects of individuals determined to reverse the decline of bird species, many of which have a current status which looks rather bleak.  Of the turtle dove, for instance, Moss writes: ‘Once so common that observers didn’t even bother to send in records of the species, by the turn of the millennium it had disappeared as a breeding bird from the county’ of Somerset, where Moss’ home is located.  Some of the birds featured in The Twelve Birds of Christmas have thankfully fared better; the blackbird, for example, is the fourth most numerous bird in Britain, and is ‘present in 96 per cent of all the 3,862 10 kilometre squares in Britain and Ireland, in both summer and winter.’

Throughout, Moss touches upon so many different elements of bird life: the domestication of birds by humans; the migratory patterns of different species; folklore; and the effects of climate change and the destruction of habitats on bird numbers.  The chapters are relatively short, but the book itself is undoubtedly thorough.

The Twelve Birds of Christmas is a darling book, even lovelier than it sounds.  Gloriously illustrated throughout, and impeccably researched, Moss gives such attention to detail.  His enthusiasm for nature shines through on every single page.  His prose is rich and captivating, and it is so easy to read.

The structure which Moss has fitted his twelve birds around works wonderfully, and he certainly makes an engaging argument.  The Twelve Birds of Christmas is a really great, and slightly alternative, book to pick up for Christmas, from a man who is fast becoming one of my favourite nature writers.

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One From the Archive: ‘Uncanny Stories’ by May Sinclair *****

First published in September 2018.

I have been coveting a copy of Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair for such a long time.  She is an author whom I was originally focusing upon in my current postgraduate thesis, and whilst my scope has changed since I began my project, I am still very keen to read her entire oeuvre.  This particular book proved rather difficult to find, but I struck gold by keeping my eye on Abebooks, and finding a copy which was around £20 cheaper than those which I have previously seen.

The Wordsworth Edition which, whilst out of print, seemed to be the only edition which I could find, has been edited and introduced in a thorough manner by the well-informed 9781840224924Paul March-Russell.  The stories were first published with this title in 1923, and throughout, Sinclair ‘combines the traditional ghost story with the discoveries of Freud and Einstein.’  March-Russell, who calls her a ‘pivotal writer in the development of the ghost story’, recognises the myriad elements which influenced Sinclair’s work, calling her ‘one of the most intellectually driven of writers, pursuing the “new” and the “modern” in philosophy, psychoanalysis, mysticism and the paranormal.’  These eight tales promise to ‘shock, enthral, delight and unsettle’.  March-Russell writes that due to the very nature of these stories, they are ‘disturbing’ both in their content and the Modernist form in which they have been written.

A recurring motif in Sinclair’s stories is the ‘horror of family life’, and the ‘theme of self-denial’; she explores both in each of these stories, weaving them cleverly in with mysterious circumstances and paranormal occurrences.  Her writing is what really shines here.  A contemporary critic of hers named Julian Thompson said that her writing was ‘pin-sharp, often harrowingly economic.’  Everything here feels almost effortless; there is such a sense of flow and control in Sinclair’s writing, which often feels like a mixture of the Victorian Gothic and the Modernist tradition.

Uncanny Stories has a curiosity about it; it is as though Sinclair has chosen to explore our world through things which cannot be proven to exist, but which a lot of people in the Victorian era, for instance, as well at the time of writing, were highly interested in.  The descriptions which Sinclair has crafted are vivid and mysterious at once.  ‘The Finding of the Absolute’, for example, deals with differing dimensions and the emergence of Kant conversing with the narrator in this particular space, and is the most unusual story in the collection.  Here, she writes: ‘He found himself alone in an immense grey space, in which there was no distinguishable object but himself.  He was aware of his body as occupying a portion of this space.  For he had a body; a curious, tenuous, whitish body.  The odd thing was that this empty space had a sort of solidity under him.  He was lying on it, stretched out on it, adrift.  It supported him with the buoyancy of deep water.  And yet his body was part of it, melted in.’

Different narrative techniques and perspectives can be found from one story to another so, despite the often recurring themes, there is a freshness and variety to the collection.  Given its main theme, Uncanny Stories could so easily have been melodramatic, but not a single story can be categorised as such.  Sinclair has a way of making obscene and otherworldly things seem entirely reasonable; she provides ghosts and hauntings almost with a sense of normalcy.  The tension is built masterfully, and the theme of obsessive love has been explored in such depth in many differing situations.  Whilst there is a trope in these stories in which many young wives come back to haunt their husbands, the ways in which they do so vary, as does the reasoning.  The only thing here which I felt was a little overdone were the accents, some of which felt almost impenetrable.

The stories collected here were originally presented with illustrations; they have since been removed, which seems a shame.  Of this collection, I had only read one of the stories before, ‘The Flaw in the Crystal’; this, I enjoyed even more the second time around. The influence of psychology particularly here is fascinating; there are so many layers to each story, and psychological elements can be picked out in every single tale.

Uncanny Stories is highly engaging, and whilst I read it during a heatwave in France, it would definitely better suit a dark evening with a crackling fire.  The stories here should be better known and more widely read, as, indeed, should the rest of Sinclair’s books.  She is a wonderful and unjustly neglected author, and this collection demonstrates just how versatile she was.

1

Three Reviews: Donal Ryan, Penelope Lively, and Angela Huth

9780857525345From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan ****
Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award in 2018. The novel follows three men, and is focused on a small town in Ireland, in which all three characters find themselves.

Our first protagonist is a Syrian refugee named Farouk, who has to leave his home and his career in medicine, and ends up losing far more before he reaches the safety of Ireland. We then meet twenty three-year-old Laurence, known as Lampy, who has reached something of a crisis in his life. He dreamed of a career, but now works in a care home, a job which he feels he is barely qualified for, and is nursing a broken heart. The third main character is an Irishman named John, who is reflecting upon his life, and the awful things which he has done. His narrative is the only one told from the first person perspective, and it is written as a confession to a priest.

Throughout, I was so interested in each of the characters, and their motivations. The prose in the first section, which follows Farouk, is exquisite, rich and textured. The section which follows Lampy has more matter-of-fact prose, and John’s falls somewhere inbetween. Taken together, these three men show rather a diverse picture of what it means to be a man in the twenty-first century, and the trials and tribulations which we could all face, if the circumstances were different.

 

Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively ***** 0241319625
Penelope Lively is an author whose work I always gravitate back to. I was enraptured when I picked up her novel, Consequences in a seconds bookshop some years ago, and absolutely loved the reading experience.  I have read quite a few of her novels since, as well as her excellent memoir, Oleander, Jacaranda, which focuses upon her childhood spent living in Egypt.

Although I do not have my own garden at present, gardening is an enduring love of mine.  I was therefore most excited to find Lively’s Life in the Garden on my library’s online borrowing service, and it proved to be just what I was in the mood for.  It is partly memoir of her own gardening escapades, and draws together a lot of other writers and their real and fictional gardens.

Lively’s exploration of gardens is very thorough, and she writes about so many different books which feature them.  She discusses at length the gardens of authors like Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, as well as the gardens which she herself has tended during her life.

Lively writes wonderfully, and I wished that this book had been twice as long so that I had a lot more time to savour her words.  Life in the Garden is a tender, lovely, and gentle read; just the thing to relax with in this busy world of ours.  I was pulled in immediately, and can only hope that Lively writes another tome like this one in the near future.

 

s-l640Collected Stories by Angela Huth ****
When I visit my local library, I’m like a magpie, borrowing anything which I fancy, even if I’ve not heard of it before.  I have decided to try and be more comprehensive about going through the many to-read notebooks which I have kept since I was a teenager, deliberately selecting tomes from them to read.  I therefore came across a collection of Angela Huth’s short stories, which I had written down about ten years ago, and decided to try them out.  I requested her Collected Stories through my local library, and the book was sent to me from the Country Store, where I believe it had been languishing for some years (the last date stamp reads 2007).

I had not read any of Huth’s work before picking up her Collected Stories, and must admit that I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  I do not recall ever seeing her work reviewed, and I do not remember where I found the recommendation.  Regardless, I settled down with the book during a storm, and read a huge chunk of it all in one go.

From the first couple of stories, I wasn’t entirely sure whether I would like Huth’s work; they seemed a little bitty and incomplete.  However, once I reached the fourth and fifth tales, I was hooked.  Some of the better stories are found towards the back of the collection.

Huth’s tales are well written – sometimes beautifully so – and very easy to read.  Huth’s work feels quite old-fashioned on the whole, and these were lovely to settle down with; I was reminded at points of work by Carol Shields and Penelope Lively.   I feel as though her style really suits this short form, and I’m currently unsure as to whether I will read any of her longer work at any time soon.

Collected Stories only had 8 ratings on Goodreads before I added my review, and I feel that it – and, too, Huth as an author – has been quite unfairly overlooked.  There is so much here to admire; the characters have depth and realness to them, and the situations in which they find themselves, whilst generally quite commonplace, are rendered memorable due to the reactions which Huth relates.

The focus upon female characters, particularly those in their middle- or old-age, made the whole feel cohesive.  There are commonalities threaded throughout Collected Stories, but each story is different enough to read one after the other.  I would highly recommend this collection, and believe that ‘Laughter in the Willows’, one of the later stories, is something akin to a masterpiece.

7

‘An Impossible Marriage’ by Pamela Hansford Johnson *****

I picked up my first Pamela Hansford Johnson novel, An Impossible Marriage, during a pre-Christmas trip to the Oxfam bookshop in St Albans.  The author has been on my radar for ages but, probably because this once incredibly popular author has unfairly been forgotten, I had never been able to find any of her books.  Thankfully, Hodder has begun to reprint her work in physical editions, and quite a few more are available for a small fee from the Kindle store.

41mj54eztcl._sy291_bo1204203200_ql40_ml2_Antiquated magazine Britannia and Eve: A Monthly Journal for Men & Women wrote that this novel, first published in 1954, contains ‘a story so vivid it might be the memoir of a real person.’  Set between the wars, An Impossible Marriage focuses upon young protagonist Christine, known as Christie.  She is ‘tired of London, her job in a travel agency, her friends, and the young men she’s being set up with.’  By chance, Christie meets an older man named Ned Skelton, who ‘seems sophisticated and experienced’, and she ‘quickly becomes besotted’.  ‘But,’ the question at the heart of this novel asks, ‘will marriage to a man she doesn’t know well truly offer this young woman an escape?  Or is she walking into another prison of her own making?’

We first meet the elusive Ned, fourteen years her senior, at a dance which Christie attends with her friends.  In retrospect, Christie writes: ‘But this love of my eighteenth year was heedless, irrational and storming.  I would not believe in it; it seemed not part of myself, like bone, flesh and fibre, but a hard and alien thing which had lodged itself within me.’  Their later engagement comes as an enormous shock to Christie, whose ‘inner critic’ warns her against this decision: ‘The critic within me had something to say; but I would not listen.  Not at that time.’  When Ned gives her an engagement ring, Christie is horrified: ‘But though the ring might be little, it seemed to weigh heavily upon my finger.  I was almost painfully aware of it.  And it seemed to me strange and alarming, the thought that I must wear it until I died.’

An Impossible Marriage is profound and considered from the outset.  In the first paragraph, for instance, Christie narrates: ‘I do not like looking back down the chasm of the past and seeing, in a moment of vertigo, some terror that looks like a joy, some joy crouched like a terror.  It is better to keep one’s eyes on the rock-face of the present, for that is real; what is under your nose is actual, but the past is full of lies, and the only accurate memories are those we refuse to admit to our consciousness.’ She is a wise character.  Later in the novel, she comments: ‘The most dangerous of all our plans are the ones we formulate right at the backs of our minds and leave to grow there, like water-cultures.  They are the plans we never examine until we put them into practice.  The moment they are exposed we realise our hideous recklessness.  We realise the damage we have done.’

I immediately connected with Hansford Johnson’s prose style.  Throughout, I found myself admiring Christie’s wry narrative and amusing asides, as well as the way in which the novel has been so skilfully crafted.  Christie’s interactions with others have been well considered, particularly in those instances where she is feeling anguished, or anxious.

I was completely entranced by this coming-of-age story.  I loved the tone of the book and its tight, taut writing.  Hansford Johnson is sharp and perceptive, with regard to both characters and scenes.  At one point in the book, she writes of winter in London: ‘Sunday was a day of snow.  It lay in a crusting of black and silver beads along the privets in the front garden, clung in lichen patches to the rooftops, and was stacked, hard as steel, in the gutters.  The sky looked white and hard; there was sun behind it, but it would remain invisible, would not break through.’  Christine feels entirely realistic throughout, and even the secondary characters hum with life.  Tension builds wonderfully under Hansford Johnson’s pen.  Had this novel been twice the length, I still would have delighted in it.

Upon her death in 1981, Hansford Johnson was described by the New York Times as ‘one of Britain’s best-known novelists’.  I can only hope that hundreds of other readers discover her, and soon.  Her writing is such a treat to read.  I for one am so excited that she has a vast oeuvre of twenty-seven novels, plus countless other publications; I imagine that there are a lot of gems in store for me to discover.