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‘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.

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‘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.

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‘This Really Isn’t About You’ by Jean Hannah Edelstein ****

Olivia Laing calls Jean Hannah Edelstein, author of the memoir, This Really Isn’t About You, ‘one of the most brilliant writers of her generation.’  This, her second book, revolves around her father’s death from cancer, and discovering six months afterwards that she had inherited the gene for Lynch syndrome, which causes many different kinds of cancer to form.

9781509863785Edelstein, who was thirty-two at the time, moved back to the United States in 2014, when she was told her father was dying from lung cancer.  Up until this point, she had spent her entire adult life abroad, and was settled in London, where she worked as a freelance journalist, supplementing her passion for writing with temporary office jobs.  Six weeks after she arrives back at home, and almost simultaneous to her renting an apartment in New York City, her father passes away: ‘I was in Brooklyn looking for love on OKCupid when my father died.’

She goes on to reveal: ‘That night in February, I had a rare feeling of contentment, or something like it…  I was beginning to feel like it might be time to build my real life in America…  Maybe my life was almost under control.’  She reflects here on her father’s death in the family home in Baltimore: ‘My father tried to eat dinner, and then he told my mother that he was really not feeling well, and then he stood up from the easy chair where he had been spending most of his days for the last few weeks, and then he collapsed and died on the wooden floor in the space between the dining area and the family room.’

Edelstein begins her memoir by writing about her family history; she does this with humour and love.  She discusses, in part, her Jewish father’s relationship with his faith: ‘As far as I know, the ways in which my father was Jewish were mostly food ways: he ate briny fish and cold beet soup from jars.  Pumpernickel bagels, grainy dark breads.  My father drank little alcohol – Jews don’t really drink, he’d say, which was maybe less of a fact than a rumour – and he avoided pork products.  When pressed, he claimed it was less a fear of God than a fear of trichinosis.’  Amongst other elements, she talks of summer holidays spent with her Scottish grandmother in rainy Dumfries, moving to London for graduate school, and falling in and out of love.

Finding out that she had the gene for Lynch syndrome was, as one would expect, difficult to come to terms with. Her siblings and cousin, when they were tested, were found to be clear of the gene.  Edelstein is convinced, however, from the moment at which her father suggests that she goes to see her doctor, that she carries it: ‘… I had decided not to get tested while Dad was alive.  I couldn’t imagine telling him that I had the thing that was killing him.’  She goes on to explain: ‘My father had been dead for six months before I was brave enough to go and get the test.  I was no longer in a state of deepest grief.  I didn’t cry every day any more.  Just some of them.’

Lynch syndrome is a gene mutation, which around 1 in 400 people carry: ‘It’s found in all kinds of people, but in particular it’s found in people who can trace their origins to certain “founder populations”.  Folks who built families with people like them.  People from Finland.  People from Iceland.  French-Canadians.  The Amish.  Ashkenazi Jews.’   Following her own diagnosis, Edelstein was forced to confront some incredibly tough questions about both her present and her future: ‘How do we cope with grief?  How does living change when we realize we’re not invincible?’

This Really Isn’t About You has been variously described as heartbreaking, filled with hope, and ‘disarmingly funny’.  I found it to be all of these things; it is a rich memoir, full and quite revealing at times.  I enjoyed her brand of humour, which tends to be quite dry and sarcastic.  Edelstein’s authorial voice is consistently warm and candid, and a real pleasure to read, despite the more difficult scenes which she has described.  Her writing feels like a cathartic exercise; she has to come to terms with so much, and is open about it all to her audience.  Edelstein’s tone, and her intelligent and measured prose, coupled with the substance of the memoir, makes This Really Isn’t About You both an easy, and very difficult, book to read.

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Two Memoirs: ‘The Argonauts’ and ‘Love, Loss, and What I Wore’

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson ** 9780993414916
I really enjoyed Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, and was quite keen to get to another of her non-fiction books; thus, I borrowed The Argonauts from my local library. From the outset, the writing here is intense, far more so than I was expecting. Nelson gives a series of short reflections or memories, along with sections of philosophical musing on her part. These are interspersed with more critical work on feminists and gender; yes, there is a lot of Judith Butler here. Whilst some of these short paragraphs continue their threads for a while, others are quite fragmented, and seem almost to have been randomly pieced together.

One cannot argue that Nelson is not a highly intelligent writer, but I must admit that I did not find The Argonauts an overly approachable book. It felt more like a piece of criticism which I would read for my thesis, rather than one which I could relax with in the evening. It took me quite a while to get into, particularly as the narrative voice jumps around so much: parts of this are addressed to Nelson’s partner, artist Harry Dodge in a second person voice; other sections of it use a critical, omniscient voice; and others still use the first person perspective.

The Argonauts is certainly an important memoir, but overall, I feel as though it was not quite to my taste. What appears in the book is not at all what I expected; The Red Parts felt far better put together to me. Some parts of The Argonauts appealed to me far more than others.

 

9781565124752Love, Loss, and What I Wore by Ilene Beckerman ****
I came across Ilene Beckerman’s quirky autobiography, Love, Loss, and What I Wore, when browsing through my Goodreads homepage. I had never heard of the book, or of its author, before, but was immediately intrigued, and set off to find myself a copy. Here, Beckerman’s memories are woven in with her own illustrations of what she wore at a particular time of her life, or for a special occasion. We see her Brownie uniform, rag curls, a ballet outfit, her confirmation dress, a circle skirt which she made with a friend, ‘typical underwear’ which she often wore on dates, the bridesmaid’s dress for her best friend’s wedding, and a dress she wore during each of her six pregnancies, amongst many others.

I loved the approach which Beckerman makes here, with a short body of text and an accompanying illustration for each essay. I found it a really interesting, and quite unusual, way in which to present a memoir. Along with her own outfits at given points in time, she focuses upon the people who shaped her too – what her elder sister wore to a wedding, for example, and her grandmother’s chosen hairstyle. Love, Loss, and What I Wore is quite a quick read, but a very thoughtful one, and I appreciated the dry humour which Beckerman has sprinkled in.

 

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‘Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home’ by Malachy Tallack ****

Malachy Tallack’s Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home immediately appealed to me, and has been on my radar for such a long time.  In it, the author charts his own journey as close as he can get to the sixty degree line – or sixtieth parallel – beginning his journey in his home on Shetland, a place which the line also passes through.  This sixtieth parallel ‘marks a borderland between the northern and southern worlds.  Wrapping itself around the lower reaches of Finland, Sweden and Norway, it crosses the tip of Greenland and the southern coast of Alaska, and slices the great expanses of Russia and Canada in half.’

9781846973420Robert Macfarlane calls this ‘a brave book… and a beautiful book’.  The Scotsman believes it to be ‘so original, and so compelling’.  Kirkus Reviews writes: ‘A memoir remarkable for its intimacy, wisdom, and radiant prose…  an enthralling meditation on place.’  For me, the idea is quite an original one.  I have read rather a lot of travelogues and travel memoirs, but no author whom I have come across to date has approached their journey in quite the way that Tallack has.

In Sixty Degrees North, ‘Tallack travels westwards, exploring the differing landscapes to be found on the parallel, and the ways that different people have interacted with these landscapes, highlighting themes of wildness and community, isolation and engagement, exile and memory.’  On beginning his journey, Tallack ruminates thus: ‘Shetland lies at sixty degrees north of the equator, and the world map on our kitchen wall had taught me that, if I could see far enough, I could look out from that window across the North Sea to Norway, and to Sweden, then over the Baltic to Finland, to St Petersburg, then Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland.  If I could see far enough, my eyes would eventually bring me back, across the Atlantic Ocean, to where I was standing.’

Of his decision to travel around the sixty degree line, Tallack writes: ‘It was curiosity, first of all.  I wanted to explore the parallel, and to see those places to which my own place was tied.  I wanted to learn about where I was and what it meant to be there.  But finally, and perhaps most potently, it was homesickness that made me go.  It was a desire to return to somewhere I belonged.  My relationship with Shetland had always been fraught and undermined by my own past, and somehow I imagined that by going – by following the parallel around the world – that could change.’  Woven throughout his travels, and the conversations which he has with those who inhabit the sixtieth parallel, is a dialogue about what home means, and how one can define it.

Tallack’s writing throughout is rich and informative, and this is particularly so with regard to the descriptions which he weaves in to his narrative.  He has such an understanding of, and an appreciation for, the natural world around him, and this comes through strongly in Sixty Degrees North.  When beginning his journey in Shetland, he writes: ‘Soon, the lavish green that had fringed the shore gave way to this heather and dark, peaty ground.  The land flattened into a plateau of purple and olive, trenched and terraced where the turf had been cut.  White tufts of bog cotton lay strewn about the hill. Shallow pools of black water crowded below the banks of peat and in the narrow channels that lolled between.  I hopped from island to island of solid ground, trying to keep my coat dry…’.

Tallack also has an awareness of the history of each place which he visits, and the importance and impact which it still has.  ‘Shetland,’ for instance, ‘like other remote parts of Scotland, is scarred by the remnants of the past, by history made solid in the landscape.  Rocks, reordered and rearranged, carry shadows of the people that moved them.  They are the islands’ memory.  From the ancient field dykes and boundary lines, burnt mounds and forts, to the crumbling craft houses, abandoned by the thousands who emigrated at the end of the nineteenth century, the land is witness to every change, but it is loss that it remembers most clearly.’  He realises not only the positive aspects of the places in which he finds himself, but also the negatives; he does not sugarcoat anything.

There is such a purpose to Tallack’s travelogue, and he recognises just how unusual his choice of journey may seem to a lot of people.  He writes: ‘The journey north – in history, in literature, in the imagination – is a journey away from the centre of civilisation and culture, towards the unknown and the other.’  Indeed, suggests Tallack, the north is often at odds with the south: ‘The north is all that it contains.  It is a place capable of change and diversity, a place immeasurable.  It holds the preconceived, yes, but also the unimagined and the unimaginable.’

I have been lucky enough to travel to the majority of the countries which Tallack’s journey covers, and it was fascinating to compare his experiences of each place with my own.  I very much enjoyed Tallack’s reflective writing style, which is layered with the details of geographical and personal history.  He is insightful and fair as an author, and Sixty Degrees North is measured and immersive.

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‘Insomnia’ by Marina Benjamin ****

Marina Benjamin’s Insomnia, published by Scribe in November 2018, is described as an ‘intense, lyrical, witty, and humane exploration of a state we too often consider only superficially.’  In her memoir, Benjamin has ‘produced an unsettling account of an unsettling condition that treats our inability to sleep not as a disorder, but as an existential experience that can electrify our understanding of ourselves, and of creativity and love.’

9781911344926Its blurb points to the way in which Insomnia crosses genre boundaries: ‘At once philosophical and poetical, the book ranges widely over history and culture, literature and art, exploring a threshold experience that is intimately involved with trespass and contamination: the illicit importing of day into night.’  Lauded in several reviews on the book’s inside cover is the strength and beauty of Benjamin’s writing.  Olivia Laing compares it to Anne Carson’s, and says of the book: ‘Every insomniac knows how sleeplessness warps and deforms reality.  Marina Benjamin anatomises its endless nights and red-eyed mornings, finding a sublime language for this strange state of lack.’  Francis Spufford calls Benjamin ‘the Scheherazade of sleeplessness, spinning tale upon tale, insight upon insight, in frayed and astonishing and finally ecstatic leaps.’

Benjamin’s prose is raw and honest, and there is an impressive amount of polish given to the whole.  Insomnia has been pieced together using a fragmentary style.  Some of Benjamin’s entries span a long paragraph; others consist of a single sentence.  Each entry provides a rumination which is, in some way, related to sleeplessness.  The central thread which runs through the whole connects each of the fragments together, and it feels almost as though it comes full-circle.

Benjamin’s writing is both sensual and provocative.  At the beginning of Insomnia, whilst she is describing her own experiences with the inability to sleep, she talks of the voluptuous quality of being awake whilst everyone around her is sleeping.  She writes: ‘When I am up at night the world takes on a different hue.  It is quieter and closer and there are textures of the dark I have begun paying attention to.  I register the thickening, sense-dulling darkness that hangs velvety as a pall over deep night, and the green-black tincture you get when moisture charges the atmosphere with static.’  She goes on to describe one of the main effects which insomnia has upon her: ‘At the velvet end of my insomniac life I am a heavy-footed ghost, moving from one room to another, weary, leaden – there, but also not there.’

Benjamin is always aware of herself in time.  She is candid about her experiences with sleeplessness, and is able to give weight and importance to the very early morning, which many of us miss.  ‘These days,’ she tells us, ‘my prime time is 4.15 a.m., a betwixt and between time, neither day nor night.  At 4.15 a.m., birds chirrup, foxes scream, and sometimes, when the rotating schedule for landing and take-off from Heathrow Airport collides with my sleeplessness, planes rumble overhead.’  She gives thought, too, to the spaces we share when we sleep: ‘To share a bed with someone is to entertain a conversation played out in the language of movement and space.’

Benjamin’s ideas feel rather profound at times.  She asks, for instance, ‘If we insist on defining something in terms of what it annuls then how can we grasp the essence of what is lost when it shows itself?  And how can we tell if there is anything to be gained by its presence?  This is the trouble with insomnia.’

In Insomnia, she probes what insomnia really means, and traces such things as the word’s origins, and its interpretations throughout history.  She examines different ‘cures’ given to those suffering with insomnia, and draws connections between women sufferers, thought to be mad, being sent to live in asylums.  Benjamin moves fluidly between such subjects as religion, mindfulness, nightmares, and ancient folktales, to alchemy, psychology, and representations of the night.

Of the collective experience of insomnia, which she points out is little discussed, she writes: ‘Like travel, insomnia is an uprooting experience.  You are torn out of sleep like a plant from its native soil, then shaken down so that any clinging vestige of slumber falls away, naked confusion exposed like nerve endings.  Sleep, in its turn, is a matter of gravity.  It pulls you down, beds you in the earth,  burrows you in.  In sleep you connect back to the bedrock that provides nourishment and restorative rest.’

Benjamin’s book is rich and layered.  Despite covering only 122 pages, she has managed to create a measured and well-structured approach to a condition which needs more attention drawn toward it.  Her ruminations are always of interest, and feel rather thought-provoking, particularly when they draw together feelings which those of us who are not insomniacs are so aware of, and can connect with: ‘Insomnia makes an island of you.  It is, bottom line, a condition of profound loneliness.  And not even a dignified loneliness, because in insomnia you are cannibalised by your own gnawing thoughts.’

I have never, thankfully, suffered with insomnia, but Benjamin’s memoir has given me a real insight into what the experience involves.  I had never before thought that losing sleep would have any positive qualities, but Benjamin’s musings have made me reconsider this.  I found Insomnia surprisingly moving at times.

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Penguin Moderns: Georges Simenon and William Carlos Williams

Letter to My Mother by Georges Simenon (#39) ****9780241339664

I love reading correspondence, and was looking forward to the extended Letter to My Mother, written by Georges Simenon, most famous for his Maigret series of detective novels.  This is a ‘stark, confessional letter to his dead mother [which] explores the complexity of parent-child relationships and the bitterness of things unsaid.’  First published in 1974, and translated from its original French by Ralph Manhem, Letter to My Mother is filled with sadness from its beginning.  Simenon writes, very early on, ‘As you are well aware, we never loved each other in your lifetime  Both of us pretended.’

Simenon grew up in the Belgian city of Liege, and wished to revisit his pained childhood here.  A period of three and a half years elapsed between the death of Simenon’s mother and the writing of this letter, and he is almost seventy years old when he puts pen to paper.  He tells her about this, stating: ‘perhaps it’s only now that I’m beginning to understand you.  Throughout my childhood and adolescence I lived under one roof with you, I lived with you, but when I left for Paris at the age of nineteen, you were still a stranger to me.’  Even when he was young, Simenon was aware of his mother’s problems: ‘You endured life.  You didn’t live it.’  He then muses, after speaking of the favour his mother showed his younger brother: ‘It seems to me now that perhaps you needed a villain in the family, and that villain was me.’

The relationship between Simenon and his mother was fraught and complicated.  This tender and honest letter details their troubled interactions, and his mother’s lack of warmth toward him.  He speaks throughout about the unknown events of his mother’s own childhood, which may have caused her to behave in the disconcerting way which she often did.  Writing such a letter is a brave act; it seems a shame that his mother was never able to see it.

 

Death the Barber by William Carlos Williams (#40) ****

9780241339824The fortieth Penguin Modern publication is a collection of poetry by William Carlos Williams, entitled Death the Barber.  The poems here are ‘filled with bright, unforgettable images… [which] revolutionised American verse, and made him one of the greatest twentieth-century poets.’  I do not recall having read any of Williams’ work prior to this, and was expecting something akin to e.e. cummings.  Whilst I was able to draw some similarities between the work of both poets, their work is certainly distinctive and quite vastly different from one another’s.

The poems in Death the Barber are taken from various collections published between 1917 and 1962.  Whilst I recognised ‘This Is Just to Say’, the rest of the poems here were new to me, and have certainly sparked an interest within me to read more of Williams’ work.  There is so much of interest here, and the varied themes and imagery made it really enjoyable.  Whilst some of the poems seem simplistic at first, there is a lot of depth to them.  I shall end this review with two of my favourite extracts from this brief collection.

From ‘Pastoral’:
The little sparrows
hop vigorously
about the pavement
quarrelling
with sharp voices
over those things
that interest them.
But we who are wiser
shut ourselves in
on either hand
and no one knows
whether we think good
or evil.’

From ‘To Waken an Old Lady’:
Old age is
a flight of small
cheeping birds
skimming
bare trees
above a snow glaze.

 

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