0

One From the Archive: ‘Denial: Holocaust History on Trial’ by Deborah E. Lipstadt ***

In 1993, Deborah E. Lipstadt published a book called Denying the Holocaust.  In this, she called British historian David Irving, a prolific author of books on World War Two, ‘one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial’.  She went on to say that he was a ‘Hitler partisan wearing blinkers’, and that ‘on some level Irving seems to conceive himself as carrying on Hitler’s legacy’.  In the entire book, she devoted no more than two hundred words to Irving.  Despite this, and as he had done on previous occasions, Irving decided to file a court case against both Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin, for the ‘accusations’ which she levelled upon him.  These cases, and the ‘provocative books’ which he himself wrote, gave Irving ‘a certain notoriety’.  Denial: Holocaust History on Trial follows the entire trial, in which Lipstadt was victorious, from beginning to end.

Denial is described as a ‘riveting, blow-by-blow account of this singular legal battle, which resulted in a formal denunciation of a Holocaust denier that crippled the movement for years to come.  Lipstadt’s victory was proclaimed on the front page of newspapers around the world, such as The Times (UK) which declared that “history has had its day in court and scored a crushing victory.”‘  Elie Wiesel declares that Lipstadt’s book is an ‘absorbing narrative of an event that has reverberated throughout the world [and which] will be read with interest and gratitude by future generations’.  The San Francisco Chronicle deems it ‘possibly the most important Holocaust-related trial since Adolf Eichmann was tried in Israel in 1961.’9780062659651

As the trial was to take place at the Royal Courts of Justice in the United Kingdom, American lecturer and author Lipstadt faced very different judicial proceedings to those which she would have endured in the United States; a ‘mirror image’, no less.  In the United Kingdom, she was the person who had to prove that what she said about Irving was true; in the United States, it would have been up to Irving to prove Lipstadt wrong.  She had to assemble a legal team in the United Kingdom, as well as a research assistant under her care at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where she worked as a lecturer in Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies, to work tirelessly on amassing an extensive body of evidence.  She essentially had to prove to the courts that the Holocaust happened.

Denial brings together Lipstadt’s extensive journal entries, as well as transcripts of the trial.  It has been split into three sections, which deal with ‘The Prelude’, ‘The Trial’, and ‘The Aftermath’.  Lipstadt begins by setting out her interest in, and personal reasoning for, studying Modern Jewish History and the Holocaust, and then the process of how she came to research deniers, something which posed a challenge for her from the very beginning.

At first, I found Lipstadt’s prose style rather accessible and easy to read, but it soon became bogged down with so much detail from the trial.  At times, when a lot of participants are present in conversations or briefings, it can tend to get a little confused.  This is not due to the way in which Lipstadt sets things out; rather, it has to do with the naming of characters, and the ways in which she refers to them.  There is little consistency in places here; for instance, she speaks to historian Chris Browning, referring to him as ‘Browning’ in one sentence and ‘Chris’ the next.  This is easy enough for the reader to work out, of course, but it does feel a little jarring at times.

The confusion which I felt in particular passages may have been expected; due to the nature of the book, a lot of intricate legal language is used, and is not always explained in context.  Lipstadt discusses of the personal impact which the trial has upon her, although not always in as much detail as seemed fitting.  The pacing felt a little off at times, too, and some sections tended to feel a little plodding in consequence.  At times, there is a curious sense of detachment in Denial, despite Lipstadt herself being such an important part of the case.  This may be because she is unable to speak during the trial upon the advice of her lawyers, who do so on her behalf.

I am still baffled as to how anyone can dispute the horrors of the Holocaust; there is so much firsthand evidence available to the modern historian, all of it heartbreaking.  I very much admire Lipstadt for bringing such despicable Holocaust deniers to the fore in her work.  As Lipstadt notes, ‘In a way, I found it harder to write about deniers than about the Holocaust itself.  The Nazis were defeated.  Deniers were alive and kicking and reveling in their efforts.’

Despite this, I did not get on that well with the way in which the trial was presented in Denial.  As I read, I was continually asking myself whether I was enjoying the book.  Of course, given its nature and content, Denial has a lot of merit.  I found that overall, however, my reading experience felt rather negative.  Whilst the material here is fascinating, I did not feel as though the reportage of the trial was as well executed as it could have been.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘As Green As Grass: Growing Up Before, During and After the Second World War’ by Emma Smith ***

I had read two of Emma Smith’s books – one written for adults (The Far Cry) and the other for children (No Way of Telling) – prior to picking up one of her memoirs.  Whilst As Green As Grass: Growing Up Before, During and After the Second World War (2013) is not chronologically the first of her autobiographical works, it highly interested me, and was also available in my local library.

9781408835630Elspeth Hallsmith, as Emma Smith was born, moves with her family from Newquay in Cornwall to a Devonshire village named Crapstone.  Soon afterwards, her father suffers a nervous breakdown, and the family are left to deal with the far-reaching consequences.  There is also the outbreak of the Second World War to contend with, and Smith’s crisis that she has no idea how to help the war effort.  Her elder sister joins the WAAF, and her brother enlists with the RAF after a period of flirting with pacifism.  At this point, Smith is only sixteen years old.  She goes to secretarial college, which ‘equips her for a job with MI5’, but which she finds stuffy and dull.  She ‘yearns for fresh air and joins the crew of a canal boat carrying much-needed cargoes on Britain’s waterways.’  After the war ends, and her freedom is returned to her, Smith travels to India, moves to Chelsea in London, falls in and out of love, and writes, of course.

Smith has used a structure of short vignettes, which follow particular episodes in her life – for instance, travelling to London to be a bridesmaid; making a best friend at school; horseriding; playing sports; dancing classes; being left behind when her sister grows up and begins to study at art college; her father’s bad temper and fits of rage; and the longing which she often has to be alone.  When her family move to Devon, Smith describes her delight at being able to attend a ‘proper school’ with her sister, which comes with a uniform requirement: ‘And the fictitious girls in such Angela Brazil novels as I succeeded in borrowing from Boots’ Lending Library – they too wore gymslips on the illustrations I pored over, and now I shall be able to feel I am the same as those heroines.’

Of her father’s breakdown, she reflects: ‘Almost the worst part of the anguish is the sense of there being nobody I can share it with.  I don’t know how much the Twins are troubled, or indeed if they are troubled at all, by the blight that has fallen on our family.  I don’t know what either of them is thinking.  Pam has become uncommunicative, barely exchanging a sentence with me; Jim has deserted to the group of his cheerful friends… and Harvey – Harvey is only six.  I put my arms around him, hugging him tightly for comfort – my comfort, not his.  He wriggles free.’

In Smith’s fiction, I have been struck by her narrative voice, and I imagined that I would be here too.  Whilst some of her writing is certainly lovely, and sometimes revealing, other parts are comparatively simplistic.  There was no real consistency here.  I did feel at times as though Smith was holding back somewhat.  There was a sense of unexpected detachment in As Green As Grass, and it did not always feel as though there was sufficient explanation as to the many characters which flit in and out of its pages.

I also found it a little strange that Smith had largely employed the present tense with which to set out her memories.  Whilst As Green As Grass is certainly readable, and Smith’s voice is warm and engaging, I must admit that I was a little put off by the use of present tense, which made the whole seem imagined and exaggerated rather than truthful.  Had Smith approached this memoir from the perspective of herself as an adult looking back, I’m almost certain that I would have enjoyed it more.

Smith’s work is highly praised, but does not appear to be widely read, which is a real shame.  Whilst there were elements of As Green As Grass that I wasn’t overly keen on, I found it interesting overall.  However, I must say that As Green As Grass was not quite the book which I had hoped it would be, and I was made to feel a little uncomfortable by some of the antiquated and racist language which she uses – ‘native-born Indians’, for example.

Whilst As Green As Grass is by no means amongst the best war memoirs which I have read, I did enjoy the recollections of Smith’s childhood and teenage years.  The parts on the canal boat, which I expected to really enjoy and get a lot out of, were quite repetitive.  To date, I have enjoyed her fiction more, but I’m still relatively keen to pick up another of her memoirs; I am particularly intrigued by her recollections of her Cornish childhood in Great Western Beach.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘Heart Berries’ by Terese Marie Mailhot ****

Roxane Gay has deemed Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir, Heart Berries, ‘astounding’, and it ranks amongst the favourite books of both Kate Tempest and Emma Watson.  The New York Times calls it a ‘sledgehammer’ of a book, and believes that Mailhot has produces ‘a new model for the memoir.’  I had heard only praise for the book, Mailhot’s debut, and was therefore keen to pick up a copy myself.

9781526604408Heart Berries is described as ‘a powerful and poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on an Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest.  Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalised and facing a dual diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder, Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma.’  It sounded incredibly hard-hitting, and indeed, that is the overarching feeling which I have of the memoir.

As well as a form of therapy, Heart Berries was written as a ‘memorial’ for the author’s mother, as a way of reconciling with her estranged father, ‘and an elegy of how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.’  In the book, Mailhot finds herself able to discover ‘her own true voice, [and] seizes control of her story, and, in so doing, re-establishes her connection to her family, to her people and to her place in the world.’

Mailhot married for the first time when she was a teenager, and living on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in British Columbia, Canada.  Her husband was violent, and took their young son away from her.  She writes of the way in which this led to her entire life collapsing: ‘We mined each other, and then my mother died.  I had to leave the reservation.’  Mailhot goes on to declare, ‘It’s too ugly – to speak this story…’, and then to ask, ‘How could misfortune follow me so well, and why did I chase it every time?’

From the outset, Mailhot’s voice is authoritative and firm.  She begins by writing: ‘My story was maltreated.  The words were too wrong and ugly to speak.  I tried to tell someone my story, but he thought it was a hustle…  I was silenced by charity – like so many Indians.  I kept my hand out…  The thing about women from the river is that our currents are endless.  We sometimes outrun ourselves.’  Some of the imagery which she goes on to create is nothing short of startling: ‘That’s when my nightmares came.  A spinning wheel, a white porcelain tooth, a snarling mouth, and lightning haunted me.  My mother told me they were visions.’

I found the memoir insightful, particularly when it came to explaining the place in the world of the First Nations community, and the author’s comparisons drawn between her people and the whites who live around them.  She also considers how the First Nations people have had to adapt to the modern world: ‘Our culture is based in the profundity things carry.  We’re always trying to see the world the way our ancestors did – we feel less of a relationship to the natural world.  There was a time when we dictated our beliefs and told ourselves what was real, or what was wrong or right.  There weren’t any abstractions.  We knew that our language came before the world.’  Her wider culture helped her to overcome, or at least to work through, some of the abuse which she suffered: ‘The only thing, the right thing – the thing that brought about my immunity – was the knowledge that something instinctual would carry us back.  The awareness that our ancestors were watching was vital.  I don’t feel the eyes of my grandmother anymore.’

So many things form an integral part of Mailhot’s story: poverty, anger, being viewed as ‘Other’, objectification, vulnerability, self-perception, motherhood, heartbreak, loss, and mental health, to name but a handful.  The structure which she has used throughout Heart Berries, which is made up of a series of loosely connecting essays, works well; it demonstrates that one’s memory is never exact, but can be warped and moulded.  The almost stream-of-consciousness prose, and turns of phrase, allow the reader to keep in mind just how troubled Mailhot was when writing.  She shows this in harsh, heartbreaking phrases, such as ‘I feel like my body is being drawn through a syringe.  Sometimes walking is hard.’  She comes across as brusque yet sincere, laying her grief bare upon the page: ‘I fit the criteria of an adult child of an alcoholic and the victim of sexual abuse.  I reiterate to the therapist several stories about my eldest brother’s abuse and my sister’s.  I often have felt, in proximity to their violations, that I mimic their chaos.’

Heart Berries is a slim memoir, filling just 130 pages.  There is so much to be found within its pages, however, and I feel that I got more from it than I have in memoirs three or four times its size.  Heart Berries presents a searing and honest portrait of a troubled life.  It is both brutal and bitter in what it portrays.  What is included here is presented as the prose which she wrote whilst receiving help for her diagnosed disorders, and is addressed to her husband, Casey: ‘I’m writing you from a behavioral health service building.  I agreed to commit myself under the condition they would let me write.’  There are many trigger warnings throughout Mailhot’s memoir, but she never goes into detail about the kinds of abuse which she suffered; rather, she has kept this part of her story hidden.  Heart Berries is a dark yet admirable book, which has a real sense of poignancy.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

‘The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irene Nemirovsky by Her Daughter’ by Elisabeth Gille ****

Elisabeth Gille’s imagined memoir of her mother, Russian-Ukrainian novelist Irene Nemirovsky, has been translated from its original French by Marina Harss.  Of Gille’s curious mixture of fact and fiction, The Nation comments that she is ‘not interested in defending her mother’s reputation.  Instead, she sets out to live in her mother’s head.’

71pytdpctqlGille was only five years old when her mother was arrested by the Gestapo for being Jewish.  Nemirovsky had spent over half of her life in France after moving around Europe a lot with her parents, trying to escape the fallout from the Russian revolution.  Gille, understandably, ‘grew up remembering next to nothing’ about her mother, who was ‘a figure, a name, Irene Nemirovsky, a once popular novelist, a Russian emigre from an immensely rich family, a Jew who didn’t consider herself one and who even contributed to collaborationist periodicals, and a woman who died in Auschwitz because she was a Jew.  To her daughter she was a tragic enigma and a stranger.’  Both of Gille’s parents were killed in Auschwitz; she and her sister Denise only survived because they were taken into hiding.

In her acknowledgment at the start of the book, Gille writes that her work ‘was imagined on the basis of other books’ – namely those which her mother wrote.  She goes on to say that all of the letters and citations which have been included throughout The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irene Nemirovsky by Her Daughter are authentic, and have been taken from unpublished notes. Gille has attempted, throughout, to capture her mother’s own writing style, and consequently the entire book is written from the imagined perspective of Nemirovsky.  The volume, published in English by NYRB, also includes an interview with Gille, and an afterword written by Rene de Ceccatty.

The Mirador has been split into two sections – November 1929 and June 1942.  The first part takes place in Kiev and St Petersburg.  Here, during Nemirovsky’s childhood, there were ‘pogroms and riots, parties and excursions, then revolution’.  At this point, Gille writes: ‘For me, if Finland is winter and St. Petersburg, with its yellow mists shrouding the shores of the Neva is autumn, then Kiev is summer.  We were not yet rich when we lived there, just well-to-do.’  The family eventually settled in Paris, the place where Nemirovsky felt most content.  In these imaginings, particularly of Nemirovsky’s early life, her own mother appears to be a floating figure, flitting around to give orders, and giving much of her attention to clothes and ‘the season’, rather than to Irene.

The imagined memories of Nemirovsky are interspersed with brief snapshots of the author’s life when she was small.  In May 1920, for example, she ‘pulls at her mother’s sleeve; her mother is standing in the middle of the courtyard, reading.  The young woman shifts the book, pushes back her glasses, and smiles.  Her tender, myopic gaze caresses the child distractedly.  The child wrinkles her brow, releases the sleeve, and moves away.’

Gille’s echoing of her mother’s prose style has been lovingly handled, and feels relatively authentic throughout.  I had to keep reminding myself that I was essentially reading a work of fiction.  Like her mother’s, Gille’s writing is poetic and layered, filled with gorgeous and striking imagery.  Every sentence is in some way evocative, and her sentences are beautifully crafted.  A real sense of place and time have been deftly assembled.  When on a cruise down the River Dnieper, undertaken when Nemirovsky was quite young, for instance, Gille composes the following: ‘In the immensity of the Russian sky, the moon looked green, touched by the dying rays of the setting sun and crisscrossed by spectral clouds that slid over its white surface, leaving behind a trail of dark shadows.  The silver domes of the church of Saint Andrew, which we had just passed, still glimmered faintly among the trees.  The immense branches of the forest, which descended to the very edge of the river, draped the shoreline in darkness, but the middle of the current was dappled with metallic-coloured spots as far as the eye could see.’  The historical and social contexts have been well set out too, and unfolds alongside Nemirovsky’s own life.

The Mirador was not quite what I was expecting, and it is certainly unlike the majority of memoirs and biographies which I have read to date.  It was unusual, and I enjoyed the way in which Gille has approached her work.  There are some problems with the narrative, however.  It tends to jump around in place and time with no warning, and can be a little jarring in consequence.  The Mirador does, however, really come together.  It is both mesmerising and memorable, and I very much admire what Gille set out to do here.  The Mirador is vivid and sometimes quite surprising, and highlights a highly tumultuous period of history, and its effects upon one rather remarkable woman.

0

‘The Bookshop That Floated Away’ by Sarah Henshaw ***

In 2009, Sarah Henshaw approached a ‘pinstriped bank manager’, asking for a loan of £30,000 to buy ‘a black-and-cream narrowboat and a small hoard of books.’  The manager said no, scorning her creative business proposal which was made to look like a book.  However, her family and then-boyfriend Stu soon lent her the money to purchase ‘Joseph’ from the Internet, and get her idea off the ground (or onto the water, so to speak).  Six months later, Henshaw and Stu opened The Book Barge.

The Bookshop That Floated Away begins with a hand drawn map, which includes the route that the Book Barge took on its 2011 voyage.  The key which accompanies it reads: ‘1,079 miles, 707 locks, 1,395 books bought/bartered.’  In her introduction which follows, Henshaw sets out just how often she was asked why she owned a bookshop on a boat – almost daily, it turned out.  ‘Usually,’ she writes, this curiosity was exercised to ‘preface a pun they actually believe to be original – about it being a “novel” idea.  Or one “hull” of an idea.  Or, when the American tourists are in, a “swell” idea.’  Her response was generally to point out the cost effectiveness of taking a bookshop onto the water rather than to pay extortionate rates for high street premises, ‘or how the quirkiness attracts greater footfall, [and] the advantages of being able to move on when business is slack.’

9781472108050Although this may sound like an idyllic life, Henshaw’s is rather a frank memoir.  At first, she is moored in Burton-on-Trent, where her family live, but business proved to be rather slow.  Despite starting off relatively well, she recognised the way in which the book industry was ‘changing fast’, particularly with the advent of the eReader.  She took to the water, deciding to spend six months ‘chugging the length and breadth of the country.  Books were bartered for food, accommodation, bathroom facilities, and cake.  Along the way, the barge suffered a flooded engine, went out to sea, got banned from Bristol and, on several occasions, floated away altogether.’

Henshaw speaks plainly of her lack of toilet and shower facilities on the boat, and the problems which the business – and her lack of expertise in running it – had with Stu, leading to their breakup, and then to her largely solo journey.  There were also a few days when she just wanted to pack it all in and go home.  Overall, however, the experience is largely a positive one; she reflects: ‘… I felt complete confidence and satisfaction in what I was doing.  It made me indescribably happy.’

I found the first section of The Bookshop That Floated Away to be highly readable, and although some of the jokes which Henshaw makes were a little cheesy, it had a great tone to it.  My enjoyment changed, however, when I got to the second section, which is narrated from the (obviously fictional) perspective of the Book Barge.  It is relatively brief, but I did not feel as though it added anything particularly to the memoir.  Rather, it reads like an experiment in creative writing, included ‘just because’.  Reading it felt rather cringeworthy, and it did lessen my enjoyment of the whole.  There are also some rather strange imagined conversations which she has with various wildlife throughout; again, these added nothing to the whole for me, and felt a little jarring.

Henshaw does have a flair for the (melo)dramatic, and I did find that this became rather tiresome as the book went on.  There was also only a loose structure at work, and the memoir jumped back and forth in time at odd intervals.  There are some nice moments here, though – for instance, when she takes a detour by bicycle to the bookish town of Hay-on-Wye, in order to help a writer friend sell his own memoir, and when she recounts some of the odd experiences which she has with the general public.  I found some parts of The Bookshop That Floated Away far more engaging than others, and overall it did feel as though there was a kind of inconsistency to the book.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘Owl Sense’ by Miriam Darlington ****

Esteemed nature writer Robert Macfarlane calls Miriam Darlington’s Owl Sense ‘a beautiful book; wise and sharp-eared as its subject.’  Darlington, who has a PhD in Nature Writing and teaches Creative Writing at Plymouth University, has honed in on the owl as her focus in this part-memoir, part-historical musing, and part-nature book.

9781783350742The book’s blurb sets out our fascination with the often elusive creatures, who have roamed the earth for over 60 million years: ‘Owls have captivated the human imagination for millennia.  We have fixated on this night hunter as predator, messenger, emblem of wisdom or portent of doom.’  Here, Darlington ‘sets out to tell a new story’, by going on ‘wild encounters’ throughout the British Isles, actively looking for different native owl species.  In her prologue, she further explores this enchantment which owls have had upon humans; they have ‘been part of our landscape, psychological context and emotional ecology from the moment Homo sapiens became self-aware.’  She then sets out the differing ways in which owls have been viewed in different cultures and historical periods, from the ‘guardianship of the underworld’ in Egyptian, Celtic, and Hindu cultures, to the wisdom and courage imbued upon the owl by the Ancient Greeks.

Darlington takes the decision to extend her project, seeking to ‘identify every European species of this charismatic’ bird, and travelling to Spain, France, Serbia, and Finland to see them in the wild.  In order to undertake her research, Darlington set out to ‘scour the twilit woods, fields and valleys of my home archipelago and then reach further afield, learning about the ecology and conservation of these night-roaming raptors, about their presence as well as their absence.  What was their place in our ecosystem; how and why have we made them into stories, given them meanings, wrapped them with all the folklore and superstition that we could muster?’

Early on, Darlington explains her reasoning for this particular project, writing: ‘So what can a writer do, faced with a world whose wildness appears to be unravelling?…  This is the story of my journey to explore those ecological details, paying attention to the incremental shift owls have experienced, and still are experiencing, from wildness to a kind of enforced domesticity.  I wanted to immerse myself in their world, from the wild owls to the captives that are kept in aviaries and sanctuaries and beyond, to look into the mythology, kinship, otherness and mystery that wild owls offer.’

Woven in with her research about owls, and the adventures which she goes on, is the fact that her autistic teenage son, Benji, ‘succumbs to a mysterious and disabling illness.’  In the book’s prologue, she reflects on her decision to continue with her project: ‘If I had known my year of owls was to be so difficult I might have faltered.  The illness stretched out into one, then two, then three years.  Benji did not get better.  Alongside the fears and challenges my owl research slowed and expanded.’  However, she does recognise a real positive of still continuing her research, despite her son’s predicament: ‘… far from distracting me from my family and my roots, my journeys deepened my sense of home and my ability to listen to what was near.’

Darlington opens Owl Sense by describing an encounter which she has with a young Great Grey Owl in Devon, whose handler has taken her to a public place to ensure that she gets used to people.  When she touches the owl, Darlington writes: ‘Her softness took my breath away.  Deadly beauty.  She turned her face towards me and I noticed its astounding circumference.  There is a narrow area that falls between pleasing and preposterous, I thought, and this owl’s circular face and bright yellow eyes fitted into it with perfect grace.’

I very much enjoyed the way in which Darlington sets out her memoir.  Its structure is simple; eight different sections correspond to eight species of owl: Barn, Tawny, Little, Long-eared, Short-eared, Eurasian Eagle, Pygmy, and Snowy.  These chapters are both separate and interconnected, and allow her to weave in her own journeys across the continent.  Her fixation upon these species allows her to take part in some fascinating, and important, research: she works on a barn owl population survey in Devon; finds fledged Tawny owlets close to her friend’s secluded house; travels on an ecological trip to Serbia, the best place in the world to see Long-eared owls; and spots the smallest owl in the world, the Pygmy, in southeastern France, with a highly enthusiastic guide.

As well as the efforts which are being made to help different owl species around Europe, Darlington also draws attention to the problems which they face in the wild, from the wide use of rodenticide which poisons the owls’ food supply, and then the owls themselves, to the loss of habitat.

Owl Sense is as deeply personal as it is a wider treatise on why owls are so important, and the ways that we can protect them.  I found Darlington’s authorial voice to be warm, honest, and filled with moments of beauty.  Her prose is so informative, but suffused with a light and engaging touch.  She notices the tiniest things, and draws our attention to their importance accordingly; for instance, the power which she weaves into a description of the calls of barn owls near her home: ‘… a screech, then a reply, as if they were throwing lightning bolts to one another, as if each was catching the other’s cry in its craw and lobbing it back.’

Reading about Darlington’s devotion to such a magnificent creature was a real treat, and I am very much looking forward to picking up her earlier work about otters as soon as I possibly can.  Owl Sense is a lovely, and thought-provoking book, which is sure to appeal to any lover of nature writing.  I did find some of the comparisons which Darlington drew between the owls and her own family a little cheesy, but for me, this was the only downside, and I thoroughly enjoyed the rest.

Purchase from The Book Depository

3

‘Lab Girl’ by Hope Jahren ***

My interest in Lab Girl: A Story of Trees, Science and Love piqued when I seemed to see it everywhere at the start of the year.  I am currently on a huge non-fiction kick, and am really getting into nature writing of late too, more reasons which pushed me to borrow Hope Jahren’s memoir from my local library.  Lab Girl, states its blurb, is ‘a book about work and about love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together.’  It is described as a memoir at once ‘visceral, intimate, gloriously candid and sometimes extremely funny’.

9780349006208Lab Girl has been split into three separate sections – ‘Roots and Leaves’, ‘Wood and Knots’, and ‘Flowers and Fruit’ – which are sandwiched by a prologue and epilogue.  In the rather brief prologue, Jahren asserts: ‘Plant numbers are staggering: there are eighty billion trees just within the protest forests of the Western United States.  The ratio of trees to people in America is well over two hundred.  As a rule, people live among plants but they don’t really see them.  Since I’ve discovered these numbers, I can see little else.’

In ‘Roots and Leaves’, Jahren begins her discussion proper by letting her readers know that she grew up in her father’s physics laboratory, ‘nestled within a community college in rural Minnesota’, where he taught for over forty years.  She then goes on to set out a concise family history, which she admits she knows little about.  Her great-grandparents travelled to Minnesota from Norway, as part of a mass-immigration that began in the 1880s: ‘The vast emotional distances between the individual members of a Scandinavian family are forged early and reinforced daily.  Can you imagine growing up in a culture where you can never ask anyone anything about themselves?  Where “How are you?” is considered a personal question that one is not obligated to answer?’

As the youngest of four children, she barely noticed when her three considerably older brothers moved away, as they often went days without speaking to one another.  As a child, Jahren recognised an absence in her life, but cannot quite articulate what it is, or why it exists: ‘Back at home, while my mother and I gardened and read together, I vaguely sensed that there was something we weren’t doing, something affectionate that normal mothers and daughters naturally do, but I couldn’t figure out what it was, and I suppose she couldn’t either.  We probably do love each other, each in our own stubborn way, but I’m not entirely sure, probably because we have never openly talked about it.  Being mother and daughter has always felt like an experiment that we just can’t get right.’

When she moved away to University, Jahren chose to study science, ‘because it gave me what I needed – a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be.’  She talks with love about the numerous labs which she has personally created over the years, and discusses at length the ways in which she prefers them to be run: ‘In my lab, whatever I need is greatly outbalanced by what I have.  The drawers are packed full with items that might come in handy.  Every object in my lab – no matter how small or misshapen – exists for a reason, even if its purpose has not yet been found.’  She also notes the challenges which have befallen her during her career: the struggles for applying for a government grant to enable her to hire staff, buy equipment, and go on research trips, and the lack of money which the US assigns to ‘curiosity-driven research’.

Chapters which focus on her personal memories, and what her life as a scientist entails, are interspersed with shorter chapters regarding trees, seeds, and facts about the natural world.  I found these pieces on the musings of the power of nature lovely in their approach, and came to prefer them far more to Jahren’s personal story.  I must admit that I did find some of the conclusions which she drew between nature and her own life a little preachy, and too sentimental, however; for instance, when she writes: ‘Each beginning is the end of a waiting.  We are each given exactly one chance to be.  Each of us is both impossible and inevitable.  Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.’  I tended to find certain parts of her writing a little jarring, and others patronising in their tone.  It is as though, at times, Jahren forgets her target audience, and starts writing to young children about what their lives could hold if they just take care of themselves.  In this manner, and in others, Lab Girl was not quite what I was expecting.

Lab Girl seemed to be randomly pieced together in places.  There were also elements which were not fully explained.  In a couple of instances, Jahren would mention a particular field trip which she took students on following the completion of her PhD, in which she assumed that the reader already had knowledge of the participants when they had not previously even been referred to.  I found this lack of explanation a little confusing, and it could have been so easily remedied.  The narrative arc is also only loosely chronological at times, so I had the sense that the book jumps around too much.

Whilst I feel as though I have learnt a lot with regard to the scientific data and facts which make up the interim chapters, I found that Jahren’s narrative voice became rather grating quite quickly.  Whilst it is well written, there were certainly repetitions which I felt could have been cut to benefit the book, and there were other points at which it felt as though Jahren was trying too hard to write flowing, poetic prose.  I did not personally find this a humorous read; whilst quips and asides have been inserted, Jahren and myself clearly have a very different sense of humour.

There was not the consistency within Lab Girl which I would have liked, and with regard to the reviews which I have seen of the book, I expected to like it far more than I did.  I gave Lab Girl a three-star rating because I so enjoyed the pieces about nature.  Had this been a straightforward memoir which omitted the natural world, however, I doubt I would have been so generous.

Purchase from The Book Depository