3

Ten Great Biographies and Memoirs

I read a lot of non-fiction, and although I sadly don’t have the time to review it all separately, I wanted to collect together ten recommendations in today’s post. These are all books which I have thoroughly enjoyed over the last year or so. They vary somewhat in their focus, but each delighted me, and kept me interested throughout.

  1. The Robin: A Biography by Stephen Moss

‘No other bird is quite so ever-present and familiar, so embedded in our culture, as the robin. With more than six million breeding pairs, the robin is second only to the wren as Britain’s most common bird. It seems to live its life alongside us, in every month and season of the year. But how much do we really know about this bird?

In The Robin Stephen Moss records a year of observing the robin both close to home and in the field to shed light on the hidden life of this apparently familiar bird. We follow its lifecycle from the time it enters the world as an egg, through its time as a nestling and juvenile, to the adult bird; via courtship, song, breeding, feeding, migration – and ultimately, death. At the same time we trace the robin’s relationship with us: how did this particular bird – one of more than 300 species in its huge and diverse family – find its way so deeply and permanently into our nation’s heart and its social and cultural history?

It’s a story that tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the robin itself.’

2. Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter

‘In 1934, the painter Christiane Ritter leaves her comfortable life in Austria and travels to the remote Arctic island of Spitsbergen, to spend a year there with her husband. She thinks it will be a relaxing trip, a chance to “read thick books in the remote quiet and, not least, sleep to my heart’s content”, but when Christiane arrives she is shocked to realize that they are to live in a tiny ramshackle hut on the shores of a lonely fjord, hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement, battling the elements every day, just to survive.

At first, Christiane is horrified by the freezing cold, the bleak landscape the lack of equipment and supplies… But as time passes, after encounters with bears and seals, long treks over the ice and months on end of perpetual night, she finds herself falling in love with the Arctic’s harsh, otherworldly beauty, gaining a great sense of inner peace and a new appreciation for the sanctity of life.

This rediscovered classic memoir tells the incredible tale of a woman defying society’s expectations to find freedom and peace in the adventure of a lifetime.’

3. A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Sweeney

‘Male literary friendships are the stuff of legend; think Byron and Shelley, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. But the world’s best-loved female authors are usually mythologized as solitary eccentrics or isolated geniuses. Coauthors and real-life friends Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney prove this wrong, thanks to their discovery of a wealth of surprising collaborations: the friendship between Jane Austen and one of the family servants, playwright Anne Sharp; the daring feminist author Mary Taylor, who shaped the work of Charlotte Brontë; the transatlantic friendship of the seemingly aloof George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe; and Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, most often portrayed as bitter foes, but who, in fact, enjoyed a complex friendship fired by an underlying erotic charge.

Through letters and diaries that have never been published before, A Secret Sisterhood resurrects these forgotten stories of female friendships. They were sometimes scandalous and volatile, sometimes supportive and inspiring, but always—until now—tantalizingly consigned to the shadows.’

4. Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson

‘Shirley Jackson, author of the classic short story The Lottery, was known for her terse, haunting prose. But the writer possessed another side, one which is delightfully exposed in this hilariously charming memoir of her family’s life in rural Vermont. Fans of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Cheaper by the Dozen, and anything Erma Bombeck ever wrote will find much to recognize in Shirley Jackson’s home and neighborhood: children who won’t behave, cars that won’t start, furnaces that break down, a pugnacious corner bully, household help that never stays, and a patient, capable husband who remains lovingly oblivious to the many thousands of things mothers and wives accomplish every single day.”Our house,” writes Jackson, “is old, noisy, and full. When we moved into it we had two children and about five thousand books; I expect that when we finally overflow and move out again we will have perhaps twenty children and easily half a million books.” Jackson’s literary talents are in evidence everywhere, as is her trenchant, unsentimental wit. Yet there is no mistaking the happiness and love in these pages, which are crowded with the raucous voices of an extraordinary family living a wonderfully ordinary life.’

5. Loved and Wanted: A Memoir of Choice, Children, and Womanhood by Christa Parravani

‘Christa Parravani was forty years old, in a troubled marriage, and in bad financial straits when she learned she was pregnant with her third child. She and her family were living in Morgantown, West Virginia, where she had taken a professorial position at the local university.

Haunted by a childhood steeped in poverty and violence and by young adult years rocked by the tragic death of her identical twin sister, Christa hoped her professor’s salary and health care might set her and her young family on a safe and steady path. Instead, one year after the birth of her second child, Christa found herself pregnant again. Six weeks into the pregnancy, she requested an abortion. And in the weeks, then months, that followed, nurses obfuscated and doctors refused outright or feared being found out to the point of, ultimately, becoming unavailable to provide Christa with reproductive choice.

By the time Christa understood that she would need to leave West Virginia to obtain a safe, legal abortion, she’d run out of time. She had failed to imagine that she might not have access to reproductive choice in the United States, until it was too late for her, her pregnancy too far along.

So she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy named Keats. And another frightening education began: available healthcare was dangerously inadequate to her newborn son’s needs; indeed, environmental degradations and poor healthcare endangered Christa’s older children as well.

Loved and Wanted is the passionate story of a woman’s love for her children, and a poignant and bracing look at the difficult choices women in America are forced to make every day, in a nation where policies and a cultural war on women leave them without sufficient agency over their bodies, their futures, and even their hopes for their children’s lives.’

6. A House in the Country by Ruth Adam

‘Six friends have spent the dark, deprived years of World War II fantasising-in air raid shelters and food queues-about an idyllic life in a massive country house. With the coming of peace, they seize on a seductive newspaper ad and take possession of a neglected 33-room manor in Kent, with acres of lavish gardens and an elderly gardener yearning to revive the estate’s glory days. But the realities of managing this behemoth soon dawn, including a knife-wielding maid, unruly pigs, and a paying guest who tells harrowing stories of her time in the French Resistance, not to mention the friends’ conscientious efforts to offer staff a fair 40-hour work week and paid overtime. And then there’s the ghost of an overworked scullery maid . . .

Based on the actual experiences of Ruth Adam, her husband, and their friends, A House in the Country is a witty and touching novel about the perils of dreams come true. But it’s also a constantly entertaining tale packed with fascinating details of post-war life-and about the realities of life in the kind of house most of us only experience via Downton Abbey.’

7. We’ll Always Have Paris: Trying and Failing to be French by Emma Beddington

‘As a bored, moody teenager, Emma Beddington came across a copy of French ELLE in the library of her austere Yorkshire school. As she turned the pages, full of philosophy, sex and lipstick, she realized that her life had one purpose and one purpose only: she needed to be French.

Instead of skulking in her bedroom listening to The Smiths or trudging to Betty’s Tea Room to buy fondant fancies, she would be free and solitary, sitting outside the Café de Flore with a Scottie dog at her feet, a Moleskine on the table and a Gauloise trembling on her lower lip.

And so she set about becoming French: she did a French exchange, albeit in Casablanca; she studied French history at university, and spent the holidays in France with her French boyfriend. Eventually, after a family tragedy, she found herself living in Paris, with the same French boyfriend and two half-French children. Her dream had come true, but how would reality match up? Gradually Emma realized that she might have found Paris, but what she really needed to find was home.

Written with enormous wit and warmth, this is a memoir for anyone who has ever worn a Breton T-shirt and wondered, however fleetingly, if they could pass for une vraie Parisienne.

8. Hungry by Grace Dent

‘From an early age, Grace Dent was hungry. As a little girl growing up in Currock, Carlisle, she yearned to be something bigger, to go somewhere better.

Hungry traces Grace’s story from growing up eating beige food to becoming one of the much-loved voices on the British food scene. It’s also everyone’s story – from treats with your nan, to cheese and pineapple hedgehogs, to the exquisite joy of cheaply-made apple crumble with custard. It’s the high-point of a chip butty covered in vinegar and too much salt in the school canteen, on an otherwise grey day of double-Maths and cross country running. It’s the real story of how we have all lived, laughed, and eaten over the past 40 years.’

9. Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man by Thomas Page McBee

‘From an award-winning writer whose work bristles with “hard-won strength, insight, agility, and love” (Maggie Nelson), an exquisite and troubling narrative of masculinity, violence, and society.

In this groundbreaking new book, the author, a trans man, trains to fight in a charity match at Madison Square Garden while struggling to untangle the vexed relationship between masculinity and violence. Through his experience boxing—learning to get hit, and to hit back; wrestling with the camaraderie of the gym; confronting the betrayals and strength of his own body—McBee examines the weight of male violence, the pervasiveness of gender stereotypes, and the limitations of conventional masculinity. A wide-ranging exploration of gender in our society, Amateur is ultimately a story of hope, as McBee traces a new way forward, a new kind of masculinity, inside the ring and outside of it.

In this graceful, stunning, and uncompromising exploration of living, fighting, and healing, we gain insight into the stereotypes and shifting realities of masculinity today through the eyes of a new man.’

10. Two Trees Make a Forest: Travels Among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts in Search of My Family’s Past by Jessica J. Lee

‘Combining an immersive exploration of nature with captivatingly beautiful prose, Jessica J. Lee embarks on a journey to discover her family’s forgotten history and to connect with the island they once called home.

Taiwan is an island of extremes: towering mountains, lush forests, and barren escarpment. Between shifting tectonic plates and a history rife with tension, the geographical and political landscape is forever evolving. After unearthing a hidden memoir of her grandfather’s life, Jessica J. Lee seeks to piece together the fragments of her family’s history as they moved from China to Taiwan, and then on to Canada. But as she navigates the tumultuous terrain of Taiwan, Lee finds herself having to traverse fissures in language, memory, and history, as she searches for the pieces of her family left behind.

Interlacing a personal narrative with Taiwan’s history and terrain, Two Trees Make a Forest is an intimate examination of the human relationship with geography and nature, and offers an exploration of one woman’s search for history and belonging amidst an ever-shifting landscape.’

Have you read any of these books? Which titles pique your interest? If you have any biographies or memoirs to recommend, please do!

7

Something a Little Different

I like to think that I read widely, and am always on the hunt for something a little bit different. I don’t tend to pick up very popular books that often, and prefer to look for under-the-radar gems when searching for my next reads. With that in mind, I thought I would put together a list of such books, for those of you who want to try something a little unusual, or pick up something which is perhaps out of your usual comfort zone.

1. The Death of Francis Bacon by Max Porter

The Death of Francis Bacon is very strange. I very much enjoyed Max Porter’s first two books, and will definitely pick up everything he publishes in future, but I don’t feel I was quite prepared for this one. It is a very short tome, which can easily be read in one sitting, but it can be a little complex to get one’s head around at first. It is not always entirely clear as to what is going on, and there is something unsettling about it. However, if you want to see Porter’s writing mastery at work, look no further. I found The Death of Francis Bacon incredibly memorable precisely for its layout, and Porter’s unusual choices.

2. The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis

Who knew that I would ever pick up a book centered around chess? I have never played before, despite my boyfriend having promised to teach me for years, and didn’t know all that much about it. However, seeing the amount of hype around for the Netflix adaptation, I thought I would give The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis a go. The novel was published in 1983, and I chose to listen to the audiobook version, as it was readily available on my library’s app during the height of the pandemic. I was fascinated at first, and certainly learnt a lot from the book. I do feel as though there were issues with the detachment I felt toward the main character, Beth, and some of the scenes felt a little flat. I still haven’t learnt how to play chess myself, but The Queens Gambit is a book which has stuck with me.

3. Here is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan

I really enjoy reading novels told in different narrative formats, and Sarah Crossan is quite a well-known author in this respect. She writes her books in prose, and manages to tell wide-ranging and effective stories through the medium. I picked up Here is the Beehive, her first book for adults, and found it both imaginative and inventive. It deals with a lot of serious topics, and the subject matter is sometimes difficult to read, but it is certainly worth pushing through. Here is the Beehive, like all of Crossan’s books, is memorable, and I very much look forward to seeing what she will come up with next.

4. The Case Against Fragrance by Kate Grenville

Several years ago, I read quite a few of Australian author Kate Grenville’s novels, but hadn’t picked anything else by her up in the interim. I came across a non-fiction audiobook, The Case Against Fragrance, when browsing my online library app, and was very intrigued by it. Here, Grenville provides an intelligent and thorough investigation about the dangers of using fragranced products, which a quarter of the population have adverse reactions to. It scares me somewhat that the ingredients in perfume do not have to be listed on labelling, as they are protected. I found The Case Against Fragrance to be incredibly eye-opening, and whilst it has not made me stop wearing perfume, I will be leaning towards natural fragrances when I need to replenish my stash.

5. A Note of Explanation by Vita Sackville-West

Vita Sackville-West is one of my favourite authors, but I hadn’t heard about the gorgeous A Note of Explanation until I stumbled across it online. It was unpublished during the author’s lifetime, and was discovered relatively recently in miniature form, in Queen Mary’s dollhouse in Windsor Castle. I am thrilled that this has been published – and not in miniature, as the Art Deco illustrations are an absolute joy. I don’t want to give too much about this away, as I knew nothing of it before ordering myself a copy. I think it is best to come to with little idea of the story, so that you can immerse yourself into it.

6. Urban Aviary: A Guide to City Birds by Stephen Moss

Stephen Moss is one of my absolute favourite nature writers, and I have loved everything of his which I have read so far. I spotted a lovely hardback copy of his Urban Aviary: A Guide to City Birds when browsing in my local library, and had to take it home with me. Here, rather than focusing on a single bird, as Moss often does in his writing, he takes into account bird species from all over the world, who have made their homes in urban areas. For each, there is a page of informative text about the species, and how it coexists with human populations. There are also stunning full-page watercolours included by Marc Martin for each entry, which are a real joy to look at.

7. Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri

In Don’t Touch My Hair, BBC correspondent Emma Dabiri has approached a topic of which I’ve read nothing about before – the ways in which ‘black hair has been appropriated and stigmatized throughout history, with ruminations on body politics, race, [and] pop culture’. Dabiri writes honestly, weaving her own experiences with the history of Black hair, and both the fashions and cultural expectations which have gone along with it. I learnt a great deal from this relatively short book, and it is definitely one which I would like to come back to in future.

8. The Rapture by Claire McGlasson

I include this on the unusual list because although I have read quite a few fictionalised books about cults, this one was a little closer to home. It is based upon the true story of the Panacea Society – a group set up in 1919, it was made up of mostly ‘virtuous single women’, all of whom obsessed with a prophecy – in the town of Bedford, England. I am quite familiar with the place, as several of my family members lived there when I was young. It’s not a town which I’ve read any other books set within, so it was really interesting to me to see what Claire McGlasson made of the place. I liked the use of her main protagonist, Dilys, and the LGBTQ+ segment was a really effective addition to the plot.

Have you read any of these books? Which of them pique your interest? Please recommend some of your more unusual book choices!

4

‘Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names’ by Stephen Moss ****

Stephen Moss is fast becoming one of my absolute favourite nature writers.  When I spotted an online copy of Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names on my library app, therefore, I borrowed it immediately.  I had only read a couple of his titles before this one, but find his largely bird-focused books fascinating and beautifully written.

The naming of species has always interested me, and as far as I am aware, I have only read books in the past which touch upon the process.  In Mrs Moreau’s Warbler, Moss has been far more thorough.  His narrative is split into several separate sections, which range from ‘History and Science’ to ‘Tomorrow Never Knows: The Future of Bird Names’. 35997821._sx318_

Moss makes his standpoint clear from the outset.  He writes: ‘I believe that by giving linguistic labels to the multifarious wonders of life around us – by watching, seeing, focusing on and separating one organism from another, closely related species – we are then better able to understand and appreciate the natural world in all its glorious variety and confusion.’  He then sets out the parameters of the history which he will take us as readers through in the remainder of the book; we span the period from the Anglo Saxon invaders, who began to give names to birds, to a glimpse into the possible future of naming practices.

Moss goes on to write about the people who lived before the Anglo Saxons, who called some of the bird species by names which we still use today.  Moss speculates that goose is ‘possibly the oldest of all the names we still use today, and may go all the way back to the language spoken on the steppes of eastern Europe and western Asia more than five thousand years ago.’  From this point onward, Moss delves deeply into the evolution of language, and how bird names have changed slightly over the centuries.  He looks at the onomatopoeic origins of some bird names – jackdaw, for instance.

Many bird names do not, comments Moss, ‘make perfect sense’.  This is primarily because ‘… they were coined by a whole range of different people, over many thousands of years, from the prehistoric era to the present day.’  The process of naming birds is a collective effort, if you will.  Throughout Mrs Moreau’s Warbler, Moss discusses the origins of the English language, before moving into the specificity of bird naming.  He discusses advances within the binomial system introduced by Swedish botanist Linnaeus, and later DNA-based changes in the classifications of birds.

In the introduction to this volume, Moss writes that the origin of some bird names ‘can seem obvious, but may not be quite as straightforward as first appears’.  He goes on to say that ‘broadly speaking, it is reasonable to assume that most common and familiar birds were named a long time ago, by ordinary people – hence the term “folk” names – while scarce and unfamiliar birds were named much more recently, by professional ornithologists.’  These ‘professionals’ began to name birds during the seventeenth century; these were largely based on the locality of the birds, and their distinguishing features – the black-tailed godwit, and the pink-footed goose, for instance.  During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there emerged a new category of bird names – those named after people.  We thus have the likes of Montagu’s harrier and Leach’s storm petrel as well as, of course, Mrs Moreau’s warbler.

As in Moss’ specific bird species biographies, he quotes other authors and experts throughout.  Their observations blend seamlessly with his own.  He also weaves in his own experiences of birdwatching with the more factual details.  One cannot help but get the sense that Mrs Moreau’s Warbler has been meticulously researched by someone so passionate about his subjects; indeed, the extensive notes at the end of the volume alone are proof of this.

Moss’ books are wonderful, both for those just getting into nature writing, and others who are well versed in all it has to offer.  Mrs Moreau’s Warbler is comprehensive in what it covers, and Moss’ writing is a joy to read.  This book is a beautiful piece of escapism, and it immediately absorbs one in its patient, peaceful prose.

Unlike his bird biographies, there is far more scientific information included here, so a little more concentration is required at times; however, this is well worth it.  Mrs Moreau’s Warbler is thorough and highly instructive, whilst still being accessible to the general reader.  I shall end this review with one of the resounding beliefs of the author: ‘To me, the diversity of bird names is not an inconvenience but a wonder.’

10

The Book Trail: Nature

I am beginning this edition of The Book Trail with an excellent book on the naming of birds, by Stephen Moss, of which I have a review coming on Monday.  As ever, I have compiled this list with the help of the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads.

35997821._sx318_1. Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names by Stephen Moss
‘The words we use to name birds are some of the most lyrical and evocative in the English language. They also tell incredible stories: of epic expeditions, fierce battles between rival ornithologists, momentous historical events and touching romantic gestures. Through fascinating encounters with birds, and the rich cast of characters who came up with their names, inMrs Moreau’s Warbler Stephen Moss takes us on a remarkable journey through time. From when humans and birds first shared the earth to our fraught present-day coexistence, Moss shows how these names reveal as much about ourselves and our relationship with the natural world as about the creatures they describe.’

2. Tamed: Ten Species That Changed Our World by Alice Roberts 33952842._sy475_
For hundreds of thousands of years, our ancestors depended on wild plants and animals for survival. They were hunter-gatherers, consummate foraging experts, but taking the world as they found it. Then a revolution occurred – our ancestors’ interaction with other species changed. They began to tame them. The human population boomed; civilization began.  In her new book, Tamed, Alice Roberts uncovers the amazing deep history of ten familiar species with incredible wild pasts: dogs, apples and wheat; cattle; potatoes and chickens; rice, maize, and horses – and, finally, humans. Alice Roberts not only reveals how becoming part of our world changed these animals and plants, but shows how they became our allies, essential to the survival and success of our own species – and to our future.  Enlightening, wide-ranging and endlessly fascinating, Tamed is an epic story, encompassing hundreds of thousands of years of history and archaeology alongside cutting-edge genetics and anthropology. Yet it is also a deeply personal journey that will change how we see ourselves and the species on which we have left our mark.’

39667681._sy475_3. The Glorious Life of the Oak by John Lewis-Stempel
‘The oak is our most beloved and most common tree. It has roots that stretch back to all the old European cultures but Britain has more ancient oaks than all the other European countries put together. More than half the ancient oaks in the world are in Britain.  Many of our ancestors – the Angles, the Saxons, the Norse – came to the British Isles in longships made of oak. For centuries the oak touched every part of a Briton’s life – from cradle to coffin It was oak that made the ‘wooden walls’ of Nelson’s navy, and the navy that allowed Britain to rule the world. Even in the digital Apple age, the real oak has resonance – the word speaks of fortitude, antiquity, pastoralism.  The Glorious Life of the Oak explores our long relationship with this iconic tree; it considers the life-cycle of the oak, the flora and fauna that depend on the oak, the oak as medicine, food and drink, where Britain’s mightiest oaks can be found, and it tells of oak stories from folklore, myth and legend.

4. The Peregrine by J.A. Baker 1071726
From autumn to spring, J.A. Baker set out to track the daily comings and goings of a pair of peregrine falcons across the flat fen lands of eastern England. He followed the birds obsessively, observing them in the air and on the ground, in pursuit of their prey, making a kill, eating, and at rest, activities he describes with an extraordinary fusion of precision and poetry. And as he continued his mysterious private quest, his sense of human self slowly dissolved, to be replaced with the alien and implacable consciousness of a hawk.  It is this extraordinary metamorphosis, magical and terrifying, that these beautifully written pages record.

1344371._sy475_5. Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin
‘In Deakin’s glorious meditation on wood, the “fifth element”as it exists in nature, in our culture, and in our souls the reader accompanies Deakin through the woods of Britain, Europe, Kazakhstan, and Australia in search of what lies behind man’s profound and enduring connection with trees.  Deakin lives in forest shacks, goes “coppicing” in Suffolk, swims beneath the walnut trees of the Haut-Languedoc, and hunts bushplums with Aboriginal women in the outback. Along the way, he ferrets out the mysteries of woods, detailing the life stories of the timber beams composing his Elizabethan house and searching for the origin of the apple.  As the world’s forests are whittled away, Deakin’s sparkling prose evokes woodlands anarchic with life, rendering each tree as an individual, living being. At once a traveler’s tale and a splendid work of natural history, Wildwood reveals, amid the world’s marvelous diversity, that which is universal in human experience.’

6. Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination by Robert Macfarlane 839157
‘Macfarlane is both a mountaineer and a scholar. Consequently we get more than just a chronicle of climbs. He interweaves accounts of his own adventurous ascents with those of pioneers such as George Mallory, and in with an erudite discussion of how mountains became such a preoccupation for the modern western imagination.  The book is organised around a series of features of mountaineering–glaciers, summits, unknown ranges–and each chapter explores the scientific, artistic and cultural discoveries and fashions that accompanied exploration. The contributions of assorted geologists, romantic poets, landscape artists, entrepreneurs, gallant amateurs and military cartographers are described with perceptive clarity. The book climaxes with an account of Mallory’s fateful ascent on Everest in 1924, one of the most famous instances of an obsessive pursuit. Macfarlane is well-placed to describe it since it is one he shares.’

8213557. The Pine Barrens by John McPhee
Most people think of New Jersey as a suburban-industrial corridor that runs between New York and Philadelphia. Yet in the low center of the state is a near wilderness, larger than most national parks, which has been known since the seventeenth century as the Pine Barrens.  The term refers to the predominant trees in the vast forests that cover the area and to the quality of the soils below, which are too sandy and acid to be good for farming. On all sides, however, developments of one kind or another have gradually moved in, so that now the central and integral forest is reduced to about a thousand square miles. Although New Jersey has the heaviest population density of any state, huge segments of the Pine Barrens remain uninhabited. The few people who dwell in the region, the “Pineys,” are little known and often misunderstood. Here McPhee uses his uncanny skills as a journalist to explore the history of the region and describe the people “and their distinctive folklore” who call it home.

8. The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell 11797368
In this wholly original book, biologist David Haskell uses a one-square-meter patch of old-growth Tennessee forest as a window onto the entire natural world. Visiting it almost daily for one year to trace nature’s path through the seasons, he brings the forest and its inhabitants to vivid life.  Each of this book’s short chapters begins with a simple observation: a salamander scuttling across the leaf litter; the first blossom of spring wildflowers. From these, Haskell spins a brilliant web of biology and ecology, explaining the science that binds together the tiniest microbes and the largest mammals and describing the ecosystems that have cycled for thousands—sometimes millions—of years. Each visit to the forest presents a nature story in miniature as Haskell elegantly teases out the intricate relationships that order the creatures and plants that call it home.  Written with remarkable grace and empathy, The Forest Unseen is a grand tour of nature in all its profundity. Haskell is a perfect guide into the world that exists beneath our feet and beyond our backyards.

Which of these have you read?  Which are your favourite books about the natural world?

3

‘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.’
9781529110104

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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‘The Wren: A Biography’ by Stephen Moss *****

I adore nature writing, and was therefore keen to pick up something by prolific author Stephen Moss, who writes almost exclusively about birds.  The blurb of the beautifully produced The Wren: A Biography says that this is a ‘captivating biography of Britain’s most common bird which lives – often unseen – right on our doorstep.’

With at least eight million breeding pairs in Britain, it seems curious that the majority of people – myself included – believe they have never seen one.  In his introduction, Moss alludes to the reasoning behind this: ‘Perhaps that’s because wrens are so tiny, weighing less than half an ounce; or that they’re constantly on the move, behaving more like a mouse than a bird.’
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The Wren is a year-in-the-life biography.  Moss moves through each month, noting, as the book’s subtitle suggests, ‘The Secret Life of Britain’s Most Common Bird’.  It begins on a ‘bright, cold winter’s day’, when Moss leans out of his kitchen window ‘soon after sunrise’.  Here, he observes a wren, describing it thus: ‘… quiet and unassuming, lurking deep in the shadows beneath the shrubbery, like a shy actor waiting in the wings, while others take centre stage.’  He then goes on to comment that he has seen wrens all over the United Kingdom, ‘from the heart of London to the remotest offshore island.’

The book features gorgeous illustrations throughout, and contains such charming details of wrens in popular culture and literature, from William Shakespeare to William Blake.  Moss writes of the different names bestowed upon the birds throughout history, from the Jenny wren to the tomtit.  He also explores the ‘fascinating folklore surrounding this species.’

In each chapter, Moss references others who have written extensively about the wren.  Revered ornithologist Max Nicholson, for instance, described the wren as ‘a bird of crevices and crannies, of woodpiles and fallen trees, of hedge-bottoms and banks, walls and boulders…  Wrens therefore can cut across, or rather scramble under, the imaginary boundaries which we are accustomed to draw between different types of country.’

Throughout The Wren, Moss writes at length of many aspects of the existence of the wren.  He looks at the historical migration of the wren, which has meant that different variations of the bird can be found around the world.  He talks of their song, their mating rituals, the distribution of the birds, their preferred habitats, the effects of climate change upon them, the nest building process, and the fledging of the chicks, amongst other fascinating details.

The Wren is the most darling nature book, and one of the most engaging about a single species which I have read to date.  It is informative and immersive from its very beginning, and the structure, which follows a single calendar year, works wonderfully.  Moss’ prose is beautifully descriptive, and he speaks authoritatively throughout.

The Wren is sure to appeal to anyone interested in the natural world, and I thoroughly enjoyed Moss’ take on the tiny birds.  I am so excited to read more of his books, and feel that he could easily become one of my very favourite nature writers.