Book Review: Barefoot at the Lake, by Bruce Fogle

Barefoot at the lake front coverBarefoot at the Lake: A memoir of summer people and water creatures, by Bruce Fogle (September Publishing)

Along with other city families, the Fogles spent the months from June to August at their Lake Chemong cabin, involved in the local community and wasting days on Swallows-and-Amazons-type summer activities, while father, Morris, commuted to work in his Toronto florist shop. Life followed a familiar pattern: fathers were for day trips, “mothers were for everything else”.

In Barefoot at the Lake Bruce Fogle recalls the events of one summer, aged ten, which sparked his lifelong interest in animal welfare. It is 1954, fields are being cleared for new homes, destroying garter snake habitats, polio is still a worry, a rabid raccoon destroys a milk herd, and the vet discusses promising surgery trials that replace devastating cataracts. Uncle Reub has come to stay. He has abandoned his medical practice and sits outside in his city trousers and shoes, looking across the lake, a large unread book on his lap and tears in his eyes; sometimes he wears his pyjama top all day. Eventually, he leaves his look-out post and joins Bruce. They meander through meadows and sweetgrass, and visit the fort in the woods surrounded by snake skulls, and frogs hanging from the trees. Uncle Reub spins enthralling adventure tales; his probing questions encourage Bruce to wonder whether wildlife is more than a plaything for boyish pranks and experiments.

Everything is coloured through Uncle Reub: ‘It rained that afternoon, the kind of rain that came and went faster than my uncle’s moods.’ Over the summer, Bruce recognises his uncle’s shortcomings, and it stimulates a reconsideration of his silent father.

Nuanced, restrained prose delivers an unsentimental memoir. ‘A single strand of lake weed was as soft and as fragile as a strand of cooked spaghetti but when it was torn by storms from the bed of the lake and twisted and tied by the lake’s waves it became stronger than my father.’ The childlike sensibility and mature storytelling are finely balanced, punctuated with the kind of gentle humour and keen insight that comes with time and distance.

Reviewed in the TLS, 4th November 2015

Book Review: Did You Ever Have a Family, by Bill Clegg

Clegg cover

Did You Ever Have a Family, by Bill Clegg (Jonathan Cape), £12.99

First-time novelists are often advised to stick to one protagonist and one antagonist; sketch minor characters lightly; use a three-act structure, either first person or omniscient (never both); show don’t tell. Bill Clegg’s impressive, Man Booker long-listed first novel breaks all such writing “rules”. It is a simple story: a few hours before her daughter’s wedding is due to take place in her garden in the fictional town of Wells, Connecticut, fire destroys June Reid’s house, killing everyone inside. Another writer could tip the story into sentimental schmaltz, but Clegg relies on understatement to deliver an effective counterbalance to the drama.

I found much to admire in Bill Clegg’s debut novel. You can read the full review in the Independent on Sunday

It isn’t surprising that Clegg’s imagination is an agreeable companion – we share a favourite book. Earlier this year he revealed A Scots Quair as one of his ‘books of a lifetime’.  Readers of Bookrambler will know that Sunset Song, first in the trilogy, is a longtime favourite of mine – Chris Guthrie all time heroine, Long Rob of the Mill, favourite minor character. It’s a super trilogy.

Scots QuairSunset Song cover

Book Review: Tony Angell, The House of Owls

house ofowls

For a quarter of a century Tony Angell observed the different pairs of western screech owls that nested in a box he’d nailed to a tree outside his bedroom window, but The House of Owls (Yale UP) is more than just a record of watching owls in a family setting. Angell is an artist, birder, and naturalist; The House of Owls is the apotheosis of a life-time’s engagement with owls. Steeped in the tradition of Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon, it blends taxonomy, ornithology, biogeography and autobiography illustrated with seventy-five ink drawings of owls in their natural habitat, and reinforced with range maps from The Birds of North America project at Cornell Lab. of Ornithology.

Angell’s interest in depicting owls as “an attractive and engaging species that deserved our interest and attention” was sparked by “intense exchanges over the fate of the birds” with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). Attracted by the twin challenges of conservation and capturing on paper an elusive bird that hides in plain sight, he learned that an “emphasis on aesthetics rather than debate […] contributed to a climate where emotions settled down and a reasoned discussion ensued”. As an artist/naturalist “motivated to shape my subject to a degree that does justice to their emotional state”, Angell has since enjoyed a long and distinguished career responding creatively to the symbiotic relationship of birds and humans. For example, he illustrated and co-authored, with scientist John Marzluff,  Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans, a groundbreaking investigation into bird behaviour based on innovative research into corvid brain activity (published in paperback in the UK in May 2015.) Through close observation, Angell believes “owls are inquisitive, playful, wrathful, determined, and even contemplative”, and through his meticulous drawings he attempts to communicate the “owlness that sets these birds apart from other avian species”.

You can read the full review in the Times Literary Supplement (12 August 2015)

Tony Angell’s website

Book Review: Few and Far Between, by Charlie Elder

Few and Far

A pair of blue tits nest in the table beneath a fir tree in my back garden every spring; a robin is a permanent resident; most evenings since May magpies have been fighting with crows for proprietorship of the back garden – they swoop over the roof and disappear into the denser woodland by the old railway that runs along the foot of the garden; a colony of rabbits live under the shed; four deer visit regularly every spring. This year, the garden has been busier with wildlife than last year, but not as busy as three years ago. In 2011, the year after the really bad winter, there were few wildlife visitors. I don’t keep a note of these visits, but after reading Charlie Elder’s book on nature conservation, I know I ought to.

Elder’s Few and Far Between: On the trail of Britain’s rarest animals (Bloomsbury) illuminates our understanding of what is lost, what we know we have now, and who is keeping watch on the state of our wildlife. Do we take it for granted that blue tits will always be there? What usefulness do they bring to the ecosystem of our gardens – what do they do for humans? Elder shows that such questions are the wrong way to think about wildlife and conservation. Some creatures exist just because they do – and that should be enough for our concerned watchfulness over their numbers.

I reviewed Few and Far Between in the Times Literary Supplement (29 July 2015)

Charlie Elder’s website is a good starting point for finding out about contemporary conservation issues.

TLS fronpage

Book Review: The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl

UK edition

The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl (Harvill Secker) £17.99

During the nineteenth century many publishers operated under gentlemen’s trade agreements and managed to synchronize publication in both countries, offering authors reasonable terms. From Samoa, Stevenson communicated publishing schedules and terms with Cassell in London and Scribner’s in New York. Nevertheless, some unscrupulous publishers cut authors out of the process entirely.

Pearl’s bookaneers are romantic spies; self-educated, they “helped control the chaos caused by the broken copyright laws and the maelstrom of greed that rumbles just beneath the surface world of books”. They democratize the publishing industry, holding “as much sway as rich publishers and esteemed authors, more so in some cases, in determining the public’s access to books”. Whiskey Bill and Kitten from The Last Dickens (2010), a search for Dickens’s unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, reappear in The Last Bookaneer. However, it is the enigmatic American, Pen Davenport, together with his sidekick, Edgar Fergins, an English bookseller he meets in London, who race against time and Belial, Pen’s shadowy nemesis, to infiltrate the Stevenson household and steal his final manuscript before the law of copyright overtakes them.

You can read my review in full in the Independent on Sunday

Book Review: Britannia Obscura, by Joanne Parker

Britannia Obscura

Britannia Obscura: Mapping Hidden Britain by Joanne Parker (Jonathan Cape)

Writing to his commander from Castle Stalker on Loch Laich, in Appin, a month before the Battle of Culloden, Captain Frederick Scott complained, “this Place is not marked on any of our maps”. William Roy’s subsequent maps included detailed surveys of important Roman sites, owing to Roy’s personal interest in antiquities, while swathes of land, settlements, islands, lochs, hills, and glens were unrecorded. When Roy’s surveyors were unable to access areas remote from Wade’s roads, he simply made “informed guesses” on location and topography. Britain’s national mapping agency has its origins in Roy’s 1747 commission to map the Scottish mainland. Nowadays, their slogan is “No-one Knows Great Britain Better”, nonetheless, pace Ordnance Survey, there are many ways of looking at a landscape: the personal as meaningful as social, historical, political or military significance.

Joanne Parker’s slim volume describes five very different maps: the cavers’ maps, the lost canal network, the megalith hunter’s map, ley hunter maps, and aeronautical maps; maps of the imagination and geographical maps. Parker situates each map within its relevant literary and historical context, but also moves away from text-based research and includes magazine-style snippets of interviews with contemporary cartographers in the field, together with references to websites and blogs in her inclusive approach to looking at the landscape through “a variety of lenses”.

For the review in full see this week’s Times Literary Supplement [subscription needed]

Book Review: The Old Straight Track by Alfred Watkins, Introduced by Robert MacFarlane

old straight track

I review the new edition of Alfred Watkins’ classic of landscape history, The Old Straight Track; Its mounds, beacons, moats, sites and mark stones, in this week’s Times Literary Supplement.

from TLS websiteIn his very full and wide-ranging introduction, Robert MacFarlane situates Watkins’ ideas and landscape photography within their literary, historical, cultural, and social contexts, and I found much to admire in his respectful approach to Watkins and his theory of the ley line system.

You can read my review on the TLS website

What I Talk About when I Talk About Books

anniversary-2x

This weekend is the sixth anniversary of the BookRambler blog; six years of blethering about books, events, authors, writing, and publishing. If you’ve followed from the beginning or just started – thanks for reading.

I’ve read some wonderful books I’d never have discovered, met intelligent, truthful, funny, witty, and wise writers, and listened to brilliant, entertaining writers speak with passion about writing and books.

And yet,

When I started blogging I wanted to read the books I wanted to read, and to say what I wanted to say about them. I wanted to be critical and analytical; hold writing to account.

another [six years] over, and what have you done?

This anniversary is a reminder and a call to action to the earlier me who wanted to write fearlessly.

I find the more I blog about books, the more reticent I am becoming about saying what I want to say. I’m holding onto the fear that I’m not saying the right thing; afraid of causing offence; holding back because of what people will think about me through what I say about books.

I realise that what I talk about when I talk about books is a barrier to breaking away from the fear.

So I’m putting us on notice. I’m on the look-out for writing that can stand up to critical scrutiny: books I want to keep on my shelf and re-read many times over. And I’m on the look-out for those times when I want to shy away from saying what I want to say.

Bold is the new black.

Book Review: The Faithful Couple, by A. D. Miller & The Winter War, by Philip Teir

A. D. Miller: The Faithful Couple (Little, Brown) £12.99

Philip Teir, trans. by Tiina Nunnally: The Winter War (Serpent’s Tail) £12.99

MillerThe setting of A. D. Miller’s second novel is a world away from the drug-fuelled, snow-bound streets of corruption-filled Moscow depicted in Snowdrops, his Man Booker shortlisted first novel. Opening in sunny, drug-free California in the summer of 1993, Miller’s story follows the decades-long friendship of two Englishmen, Adam Tayler and Neil Collins, who first meet at a beach hostel in San Diego.

Miller compares the shifting moods, one-upmanship, and petty jealousies to a courtship as they share an off-beat sense of humour, perform a karaoke duet of “Take it Easy”, and swim in the warm Pacific at midnight. Still in their early twenties, both are defined by their upbringing. At first, Neil is insecure. On a short break between jobs he is provoked by Adam’s mild questioning about his future plans (he thinks Adam is suffering from “the tyranny of vocation among well-bred graduates … the idealism that someone else was always paying for”), while Adam is oblivious and naïve, enjoying a gap after graduation before making a decision about his career.

They agree to deliver a “Driveaway” to San Francisco, but stop off on the way to take in the sights, and they join a disparate group of tourists to visit Yosemite National Park. It is here that they see the “Faithful Couple”, a natural phenomenon in the Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park: two giant sequoias fused together into a massive tree trunk at their base, separating into individual trees the higher they stretch toward sunlight: “they only existed together, in their rivalrous embrace”. Adam and Neil are photographed in front of it, posing in mock dispute. It is here too, that Miller’s “faithful couple” become fused through an event with far-reaching consequences for both of them when the edgy competitive streak fuelling their friendship weakens their moral compasses. “In California the lies they told felt almost true. Or, if not true, at least possible, as if Neil might plausibly be someone new if he and his new friend willed it.” Of course, there’s a girl at the core of this male-focused story. Her absence constitutes a presence in their shared secret history.

The faithful couple conceit is good but the idea doesn’t need to be repeated ten times. Miller is more effective when he zooms into particular details in order to represent upheaval. “Churches turning into flats, cinemas transforming into gyms, old boozers mutating into restaurants: the abracadabra of money, magicking everything into something else, a shape-shifting spell that was evidently too strong for megaterrorism or the imminent war to disrupt.”

However, he needlessly yokes Adam and Neil’s chosen careers to the economic and social climate of each decade, and it seems unlikely that they would keep in touch long after 1993. Adam joins the Civil Service and works on immigration cases for the Home Office, later moving into consultancy work on Neil’s (bad) advice, while Neil enters business with a dot.com enterprise called HappyFamilies, moves on to the London property market, and swiftly into hedge funds. The guilt they thought they’d left behind at Yosemite, though, resonates through their see-sawing fortunes, seeping out only as each begins to consider the moral consequences in light of subsequent experience.

If The Faithful Couple is Beaches for blokes, The Winter War, by Finnish-Swedish author Philip Teir, could be an ironic version of Neil’s HappyFamilies.com.

In Teir’s clever first novel, two things are certain from the outset: sociology professor Max Paul will Teirdivorce, and the hamster, crushed underfoot in the slapstick opening scene, will reappear at an inconvenient moment. Originally published in Swedish under the subtitle “A Novel About Marriage”, the story revolves around the Paul family of Helsinki: Max, nearing his sixtieth birthday, is working on his magnum opus, a revisionist biography of Edvard Westermarck; Katriina, his wife, is depressed in her HR job at a local hospital; eldest daughter Helen, a teacher, is struggling with control issues, and Eva, a 29 year-old eternal student, is in London deciding what she wants from life.

Katriina battles insomnia and Max spends his nights trawling internet forums looking for opportunities to link to his own articles now that his ideas are outmoded. He eagerly accepts an invitation from Laura Lampela, a former student-turned-journalist, to interview him for a feature about his work. At the ego-deflating suggestion of his editor, though, Laura reads his manuscript, and a number of comic misunderstandings ensue, enlivened with playful nods to Westermarck’s theories on marriage, happiness, and morality. Teir keeps tight control over the shifting family dynamics, exposing the messy interconnectedness of their individual lives: “life consisted of a series of disparate embarrassments and episodic intervals that didn’t necessarily add up to a coherent whole.”

Two historical wars frame the story’s chronology: the historical Winter War of 1939-40, when the small Finnish army held the Mannerheim Line against advancing Soviet Union troops, and the summer war of 1808, when the Czarist army captured territory from Sweden along Finland’s Österbotten province. It is no coincidence that Max is originally from Österbotten, and Katriina’s roots are in Czarist Russia. Helen is teaching Linna’s novel, The Unknown Soldier (the Finnish recaptured territory from the Soviets in the Continuation War of 1941-44), and Eva visits the front line of the Occupy movement outside St Paul’s cathedral.

While it’s a cliché that marriage is a battlefield, Teir’s slanted view of family dynamics is inventive, solidly crafted, and highly entertaining.

Reviewed in the Herald (Saturday 14th March 2015)

Book Review: The Lovers of Amherst, by William Nicholson

Amherst US edition  lovers of amherst frontcover UK edition

The Lovers of Amherst (Quercus) £16.99

[Amherst, US edition published by Simon and Schuster, $26]

Wild nights – wild nights!

Were I with thee

Wild nights should be

Our luxury!

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) only published a dozen or so poems in her lifetime, but even before Mabel Todd edited the posthumous slim collection of her poems in 1890, she was known locally as “the Myth”. The afterlife of the secretive recluse still ripples across academic circles and the popular imagination; it is surprising to learn that, as recently as 1984, the details about the illicit love affair between Emily Dickinson’s brother and their Amherst neighbour was first brought to public attention in Polly Longsworth’s sympathetic study, Austin and Mabel. More recently, Lyndall Gordon’s 2010 revisionist biography, Lives Like Loaded Guns, dug deeper into the known facts.

But fiction has a truthful purpose too. William Nicholson’s entertaining, respectful story throws fresh light onto the extraordinary love affair between 55-year-old Austin Dickinson and 24-year-old Mabel Todd. We cannot know for certain what the lovers shared in the privacy of Emily Dickinson’s dining room, where they often met, or what she saw and heard there, or the effect on her poetry. By interspersing his narrative with snippets of extant correspondence, diary entries, and secret notes, drawn, mostly, from Longsworth and his own research in the Sterling Memorial Archives at Yale, alongside some of Emily Dickinson’s passionate poems, Nicholson creates a solid historical foundation from which he imaginatively recreates the time period and personalities involved. Moreover, the physical act of researching “the very notes they sent each other with such secrecy” is an integral part of the story, adding an air of factual realism from which he speculates as plausible as a biographer does.

Mavis Loomis Todd (1856-1932) arrived in Amherst in 1881 with her husband, David, who had been appointed director of Amherst College Observatory. Entering into Amherst society, she first struck up a friendship with Susan, Austin’s wife, and thereafter entertained the Dickinson household next door. By then the “Homestead” was occupied by Austin’s sisters, Emily and Lavinia (Vinnie), and their invalid mother. Although Mabel never met Emily (she would listen at the top of the stairs while she played piano and sang), they communicated through notes and gifts.

Running in parallel with the story of Austin and Mabel, is the modern-day story of Alice Dickinson (no relation) who arrives in New England to undertake background research for her screenplay about their affair. Through her lover-turned-friend Jack Broad, Alice gets in touch with Nick Crocker, a visiting professor (with a reputation), and she accepts his offer of temporary accommodation. Alice, Jack, and Nick pull us back to previous books in Nicholson’s interconnected series: in The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life (2009) Nick has an affair with Laura Kinross (Broad), while in All the Hopeful Lovers (2010) Laura’s son Jack is put together with Alice through Facebook in much the same way that his response to her Facebook request for information about Emily Dickinson sends her to Nick’s door.

Rowing in Eden –

Ah, the sea!

Might I but moor tonight

In thee!

As she becomes caught up in an affair of her own, Alice reflects on romantic love and passion, and ponders the “I” in Dickinson’s poems and the poet’s relationship to Mabel. “Something true and powerful is at work here. What if it’s something bigger than love? What is there that’s bigger than love?” In New England for just two weeks, her emotional attachment to Nick is perhaps too quickly established, but is nevertheless a necessary part of the storyline.

Emily Dickinson intrudes into the narrative:

Stand at the top of the stairs. Look down into the dark hallway below. She’s there with him, the one he loves, the one I need. A door opens. The rustle of a dress as a half-glimpsed woman passes quickly down the passage, and out of the back door.

While it is but a step from fictional stage directions and camera angles to thinking about the screen version from the writer of Shadowlands lurking in the background, something deeper is going on. Alice’s problem (aside from the fear of tackling her first screenplay) is how to find a way into a story she doesn’t fully understand. “My story, Alice tells herself, is about Mabel, who chose life in all its mess and hurt, not Emily, who withdrew into the sepulchre of her own room. And yet in every picture she forms of Mabel, Emily is near, the listener behind the closed door.” With Nick, she discusses the process of storytelling; how to frame her fiction, and whether she needs to care about Mabel in order to write her story. The Lovers of Amherst is a rich resource for writers.

Without Mabel Todd, we may never have known about the extent of Dickinson’s creativity. It was Mabel who undertook the task of preserving many of the letters and poems that survive, bringing order to the mass of 1800 poems with painstaking transcription, and pushing forward with publication. Nicholson’s story continues on after the deaths of Emily and Austin to explore Mabel’s motivations. His great achievement, though, in The Lovers of Amherst – is to compel us to read Emily Dickinson’s poetry again, with fresh eyes.

This is my letter to the World

That never wrote to Me –

The simple News that Nature told –

With tender Majesty –

‘Parallel Passion & Poetry’: Independent on Sunday, 14 February 2015