The best nature writing [1]

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 A N Wilson might sneer at the genre of nature writing, saying, “Thanks to Wordsworth, we all have the idea that ‘poets’ ought to be country dwellers, ought to live up lanes and use a bucket for a lavatory.” Nature writing of this sort, he says in an interview with the Telegraph, “appeals to all that is gentlest and best in us, the lovers of unwrecked England” but recently there have been signs of vigour, of writings taking a new form and addressing the changing relationship we have with the world around us. These changes may be as a result of us increasingly living away from our rural beginnings, either literally because we migrate to cities or metaphorically as we focus inwardly upon the domestic- a result of economic hardship. Or it might be because nature itself is shrinking, further influencing how we interact with it: our garden birds are disappearing and we are less likely to productively coexist with a wide variety of creatures or meet them in an everyday sense. Nature has become commodified too, partly in order to protect it; we ‘buy’ experiences and visit nature reserves; we go to ‘see’ nature instead of perceiving our lives as part of it. We seem to lack affinity with and self-assurance of our sense of place. Indeed we may lack that sense of place in itself.

The best nature writing is not rooted in conservatism or nostalgia. It possesses political agenda because the personal is the political, wrought from our everyday lives. Driving change yet retaining the ability to cast an experienced eye back to the past, it respects history but does not fetishise it, locating humans firmly at the heart of the natural order whilst identifying our disruptive influence upon it. We cannot separate ourselves from this, no matter how much we mistakenly try to and a wise person recognises nature as a greater life force which nonetheless can be vanquished by human misadventure and downright maleficience. We would do well to re-acquaint ourselves with the Pagan folklore which reminds us of our temporary status, as guests and housekeepers for future generations.

Step into the shoes of other living creatures: the peregrine and the wood louse; a skein of flies above a slow moving river; the badger, fat in his binary colours. As Winter settles into our bones, what better way to spend an evening in front of the fire than by travelling with some of our most evocative writers as they challenge us to think afresh about our surroundings. Here then is our guide to the best of the new nature writing, some recommendations for older, classic texts that have stood the test of time and authors writing about other countries too.

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez 51NLiXNCdcL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
American nature writers have a lot of material and it is hard to be parochial and small minded when you have so much wilderness to choose from and Lopez, is one of the true greats when it comes to capturing it on the page. Lopez doesn’t do cosy, tame and comforting nature. His world is a big one that can dazzle, lose, harm and kill. He wants to shatter your complacency and intrude into your contemplations. Listen to him on the Arctic; “It is precisely because the regimes of light and time in the Arctic are so different that this landscape is able to expose in startling ways the complacency of our thoughts about land in general.” He writes of the confusion being alone in the alone can produce.  His hunters muddle the scale of their prey and misunderstand threat, mistaking a marmot for a bear in the light, bright light that should make things clearer and cleaner, but actually does not. His prose is perfectly matched to the natural world he describes,  ramming it with information, zooming out over the ice blue yonder then homing in on a tiny detail that interrupts with its difference. He is a human lens.
H is for Hawk’ by Helen MacDonald-
download Winner of this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize and deservedly so, this moving and raw testimony to grief and mourning recounts the authors attempts to tame and train Mabel, a wild goshawk after the death of her father and took over seven years to write. A growing fascination with the writer T H White, author of the fantasy ‘The One and Future King’ acts as a tandem narrative. The chair of the panel judge, Claire Tomalin described the book as “an extraordinary book that displayed an originality and a poetic power. None of us on the panel were either naturalists or wildlife enthusiasts but this book just took hold of us.”
‘The Peregrine’ by J A Baker- 415OKFBgnGL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Finally getting its dues, The Peregrine is becoming recognised as the masterpiece it is- one of our finest examples of nature prose. Intricate, detailed and finely wrought, the intensity of the detail of this book contrasts greatly with the little we know about its author. All we know is that he was born in 1926, worked as a librarian and lived in Essex then wrote two books about the local wildlife. Baker appeared to perceive contact with wildlife as an antidote to humans, it “let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence” and the book goes on to recount his experiences following peregrines along a defined part of the Essex coast from Autumn to Spring. He is often compared to Ted Hughes with a similar muscular sensuality and ability to capture the sheer essence of a creature and landscape with just a few words and when the existing lexicon is inadequate, he is more than comfortable with using neologisms: “The north wind brittled icily in the pleached lattice of the hedgerows”.”  In doing so it reminds us of our own frequent awe struck lack of words and cocks a snook at those language pedants who cling unimaginately to some ‘official tenet’ that all too often denies us the joy and pleasure of addiing to the lexicon. Baker takes us straight to the place where he goes to observe his beloved peregrines and we stand alongside him, looking at what he looks at, through his eyes.
‘The Fly Trap’ by Fredrik Sjöberg- 51XKwWX4O-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ In which the author, a hoverfly obsessive spends seven years researching them on a picture perfect Swedish island called Runmarö and then pens a memoir about it after finding 202 species of hoverfly in seven years, 180 in his garden..This is a slim book about an obscure branch of entomology that is utterly captivating and brims over with the personalities of these little creatures. The prose tips a nod at Darwin, Shelley and Bruce Chatwin whilst musing on the problems with environmentalism and the meaning of life. As Sjoberg told the Guardian, ” I realised if I’m going to write this book I have to write it for readers who are not interested in flies. Then you have to tell stories about people. Quite a lot of people say they are interested in nature but all people are interested in people.”  I love how his own pleasure and bright eyed interest translates to the page– he believes that If you want to change the world, you have to build it on some kind of joy. The book has sold more than 30,000 copies in the Scandinavian market and thousands more in translation across mainland Europe and now, ten years after its publication, The Fly Trap has just come out in Britain. 
Landscapes and Englishness by David Matless-
79420265-abed-42d5-9d91-7e6d21a5f04f-480x720 A lot of writing about nature has a gentlemanliness about it, a sense that one needs time, formal education and learning to engage in it and be taken seriously- ie find an audience through publication and be aknowledged as an authority. Indeed this isn’t too wide of the mark as these things also require an income sufficient to fund wanderings and the space to filter ones thoughts and observations before committing them to paper. What is great about Matless is the way he highlights the value of rural knowledge acquired through an everyday working engagement with the land and lived experience, as opposed to a studied and detached eye, acquiline and situationally separate. We see how our national identity, the impressions and assumptions we form about our landscapes developed between the forties and late fifties- entities such as the Country Code, the YHA and Scouts all participated in the way nature was classified for our understanding and consumption. In the post war years we were encouraged to ‘go out to see’ the countryside and the new love of and access to, a family motor car eased us into doing so. And in one fell swoop, we started to detach ourselves from the idea that nature existed all around us in our towns and villages and cities;  we ceased to see the Buddleja pushing itself through the tumbled rubble of war ruins, the industry of woodlice under an upturned slate long blown off a roof. The countryside became a theme park and nature its exhibits, and in writing this book, Matless underpins the importance of class, politics and economics in shaping the way in which we are influenced to engage with it.
The Little Toller series of nature writings-
51UbgV6g10L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ The Little Toller publishing house have been putting out some exquisite redesigns of classic nature writing and monographs including gems from HE BatesAdrian Bell,Richard MabeyJoseph Conrad and Gavin Maxwell. Created in 2008 as an imprint of the Dovecote Press, a family-run publishing company that has specialised in books about rural life and local history since 1974. Little Toller was started with a singular purpose: to revive forgotten and classic books about nature and rural life in the British Isles and it has succeeded beautifully- these books are to be treasured forever and I dream of a bookcase filled with them. Some of my favourites? ‘Through the Woods’ by HE Bates with its soft cover illustration of Kentish Bluebell woods explores the woodlands that haunted his imagination and underpinned his writing. Bates reveals the changing character of a single woodland year and how precious they are to the English countryside. In ‘Men and the Fields’, local author Adrian Bell travels through East Anglia and lowland Britain, capturing the character of the countryside before modern agriculture altered the landscape and changed forever the way we eat and live. An introduction by his friend, Ronald Blythe enhances the literary desirability of this edition. Finally, Neil Ansell looks at what attaches us to a community in ‘Deer Island’ with his dual narrative of life in London and on a tiny isolated island near Jura. What do we mean when we call a place home? Are memories the only things we can ever truly own?
‘Wildwood’ ‘Waterlog’ and ‘Notes from Walnut Tree Farm’ by Roger Deakin-
deakin If you are looking to introduce somebody to good nature writing then I recommend purchasing the entire cannon of Roger Deakin, one of our best loved writers, a lifelong resident of Suffolk and sadly gone all too soon from this life. In his first book ‘Waterlog”, Deakin inspired a generation of swimmers to go ‘wild’ and get out among the rivers, lakes and seas of the United Kingdom, recording his experiences as he swam, combining dissent and observation perfectly in an often lament for our changing landscapes. His perfectly observed descriptions of swimming in the moat that surrounded his Mellis farmhouse and a view of life from a frogs perspective is utterly beguiling. ‘Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees” with its stunning jacket design takes us through a diverse yet connected series of essays; among them musings on driftwood artists and contemplations on the economic value of wood; classic pieces about his travels around great woods of the world and a study of the wooden beams of his home, whilst all the time establishing literary leylines to all the great nature writers and thinkers, from Thoreau to Blythe. Finally, published posthumously as an abridged collection of diary entries over the years in the form of one contiguous story of a year, we have ‘Notes From Walnut Tree Farm’ – full of relentless curiosity, sharp eyed in its observation and absolute poetry to read. I was, and remain, deeply sad that he has gone.
‘Doubling Back’ by Linds Cracknell-
Doubling_Back_Cover_final_270.270 Described by Sara Maitland as “probably the most physically present to the reader. These are real walks, walked by a real (and clever) writer; and the interesting things she tells us about feel real to the action of walking”, Doubling Back is a fascinating and moving account of walking in the footsteps of others. In 1952 Linda Cracknell’s father embarked on a hike through the Swiss Alps. Fifty years later Linda retraces that fateful journey, following the trail of the man she barely knew. This collection of walking tales takes its theme from that pilgrimage. The walks trace the contours of history, following writers, relations and retreading ways across mountains, valleys and coasts formerly trodden by drovers, saints and adventurers. Each walk is about the reaffirming of memories, beliefs and emotions, and especially of the connection that one can have with the past through particular places. Our favourite chapter? A walk from the tiny Speyside village of Newtonnmore up into the nearby Cairngorms along Minigaig Pass used by drovers to avoid the easier toll paying roads nearby. The other ancient route, Coymns Road, started from the bend near Ruthven Barracks also heading for Blair Atholl. Of these two, the Minigaig was the main route to the south, falling out of favour when a party of soldiers froze to death on the route during a winter storm but remained in use until well after Wades Military Road was built. Our own memories of a teenage skiing trip and a stay in a lodge at Newtonmore: the midges, burns, local Speyside distillery and an ill-fated crush on our ski instructor Denis melded perfectly with Cracknell’s narrative, neither detracting from each other.
‘The Wormingford Trilogy’ / Borderlands / A Year at Bottengoms Farm by Ronald Blythe-
download The well-known author of Akenfield, Ronald Blythe lives near where he was born and brought up, on the Suffolk-Essex border and remains the lay reader to the parishes of Wormingford, Mount Bures and Little Horkesley. More than a diary, not just nature writing and containing meditations and opinions on history, faith and the nature of man, these books are a set of beautifully observed evocations. They mark the changes wrought by time and man in the changing English countryside and collate his ‘Church Times’ columns in one place too. Blythe can be deliciously waspish one moment, warm and accepting the next and he is as rooted in place and Suffolk time as the river Stour that is so beloved to him. If you love the poetry of John Clare, then Blythe will suit- he is the president of the John Clare society and references the poet often.
‘My Year with Hares’ by Martin Hayward Smith-
mywh-spine Film maker and photographer, Hayward Smith has worked with the BBC and the Discovery Channel among many others and this lovely tome records, through words and stunning photography, his encounters with the hares that populate his part of the world in the middle of Norfolk. He was given access to thousands of acres of private land across the region -prime UK hare habitat, from Holkham, The Barshams to Burnham Market and the resulting animal behaviours, many of which were new to him, are told over chapters in the form of diary entries, categorised by season. As well as hares, Martin documents through text and photographs other wildlife encountered while out in the field. Complete with a foreword by Ray Mears, the amazing images were acquired through the employment of a camera carrying drone and remote camera placed inside a stuffed hare. Also documenting his experience of raising a young leveret he rescued from the jaws of his dog, this is an exquisite work and can be purchased via his website-
‘Four Fields’ by Tim Dee-
download (3) A meditation on land and the way humans live on it and live with it ranging from the Enclosures Act to the genocide visited upon Native Americans across the grasslands of their ancestral home, this book examines, in fine, meditative detail, plots of land from the grasslands of the Masai to the barren, poisoned fields surrounding Chernobyl, finally swinging back to the authors own stomping grounds- a small Cambridgeshire fenland field. The theme of birds runs through his musings- the healthy flocks pf larks that range over his own home contrast sadly with the genetic mutations caused to swallows by radiation as they flew over Chernobyl on that fateful day and afterwards. More than 20 per cent have been affected and of course if they had any sentient understanding, their return to the eerily quiet forests that surround the radiation blanketed city would not have happened. When Dee writes of the ‘jewelled toolkit of the Kingfisher’ this dazzling language contrasts all the more with his sombre grief at the damage wrought upon the creatures of the world.
‘The Barley Bird: Notes on the Suffolk Nightingale’ by Richard Mabey-
the-barley-bird-collectors Full Circle editions publishes beautifully designed and printed hardback books by writers and artists of the region, alongside new editions of classics, all with stunning artwork by some of the region’s best artists. This text by well-known writer Richard Mabey explores the nightingale’s links with Suffolk’s culture and landscape, tracing the bird’s course through lore, tradition and myth and packing the 80 pages with historical and literary tit bits. This is a book that is as much a pleasure to own and touch as it is to read with illustrations by Derrick Greaves- a bright green cover with elegant drawings of birds and oak leaves representing the woodland over which our local nightingales swoop. “Below me, Arger Fen arches like a whale-back across the southern horizon. Everywhere, dead elm stumps rear in silhouette amongst the scrub. The light is extraordinary – luminous, dusty, giving every pale surface the lustre of mother-of-pearl. Mounds of cow parsley and scythed grass glow in the moonbeams like suspended balls of mist.” Mabey writesHaving heard Nightingales sing at Arger Fen adds to the thrill of encountering such dreamy and magical descriptions of a woodland I first encountered as a child and now know so well. This book makes a perfect little gift to read on a plane or train journey or to take on a long walk.
‘Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay’ by George Ewart Evans-
ask-the-fellows-inside3 I was recently re-acquainted with this pioneering and classic work at Stowmarket’s Museum of East Anglian Life which devotes a whole room to this and other local classics of countryside and nature writing. As a result I went straight out and bought myself a new copy. Another book that is as much a pleasure to own, its detailed illustrations are by David Gentleman whose work can also be seen in the rescued Roundhouse, once a part of the Bury St Edmunds cattle market where it served as tea house, which now stands in the meadows at the museum. “If you want to find out about something you ask the people who know; the collier, the countryman, you ask the fellows who cut the hay.” said Ewart Evans and he was correct, this record of life in Blaxhall, a small Suffolk community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, stands alongside Ronald Blythe’s ‘Akenfield’ as an absolute classic of local oral testimony to a life that disappeared under the might of agricultural mechanisation.
A Blackbirds Year by Miles Richardson
download “My new year begins when the blackbird returns to song” says the author and bounded by its song, we find wilderness in places close to home, exploring how mind and nature inhabit one another. Guided by the philosophy of the Victorian naturalist and philosopher Richard Jefferies, Richardson looks at how our minds and emotions interact with, and are affected by, our surroundings through his writings which are in turn informed by his profession as an applied research psychologist. Packed with vivid imagery and a thoughtful, experimental freedom, this is a book to dip in and out of as you ponder the questions it asks of you.
Birds and People by Mark Cocker
202711 Mark Cocker makes it clear that the low priority we afford to nature and the environment and the manner by which we separate our human culture from the natural world is absolute folly and, in this book, seeks to reunite both. A compendium of ornitholology and anthropology, Cocker weaves in history, culture, mythology, language and lore alongside soci-politics in a detailed study whilst sumptuous photographs taken over ten years by award-winning wildlife photographer David Tipling show us the roles that birds play in our lives across every continent. Birds have haunted, obsessed and inspired humans, feeding and working for us, inspiring great art, offering companionship and an early warning system for danger. There are lyrical examples of how birds habits and traits are interpreted by different cultures- the hummingbird that represents rebirth to Peruvians because of its ability to enter a hibernation like torpid state closely mimicking death, interspersed with other more disturbing stories. Our British love of owls (in part down to Harry Potter) is not shared by other countries who regard them as terrifying omens of death, spitting at owls incarcerated in zoos and killing them, a sharp and necessary counterbalance to any tendency to anthropomorphise. It isn’t only Cockers voice either: the prose soars in and out of anecdotes and stories from more than 650 individuals all over the globe. From academics to hunters, their stories cannot be separated from the birds they live alongside.
Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks
download Better known for writing ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat’, Sacks has another passion alongside his well documented one for the human mind- ferns and the fern allies, horsetail and selaginella among them. He is fascinated by their ability to grow and survive the most hostile climates and terrains and their constitution, as the three main lineages of vascular plants, all presumably evolved from a Silurian common ancestor. Oaxaca Journal is the account of his trip with a group of fellow enthusiasts to a part of the world that is well populated with these tenacious little plants. Ferns filled Sack’s childhood too, from the awareness that the coal that warmed his house contained the remains of greatly compressed fossilised ferns, to the seemingly filmy, delicate plants that filled the conservatory.  Their apparent delicacy gives no clue to the reality- that ferns prevailed where the dinosaur has not and have outlived all manner of extinctions. We are reminded of the place of ferns in art and literature and of their mystery: their reproductive systems lined along the undersides of foliage, of underground furry rhizomatous runners and the hidden secret heart shaped sex contained deep within the plant. Their invisibility was believed to be conferable, inspiring Falstaff to say “we have receipt of fern-seed. We walk invisible.” A mere 152 pages long, this is a book for jacket pockets, for short journeys, for dipping into and out of.
Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie
Sightlines-215x300 Shifting our attention to make us re examine the landscape of our lives, Jamie telescopes us into the more intimate of perspectives: there’s the encounter between Jamie and a cluster of malignant cells under a miscroscope lens in a hospital path lab; the storm grey wink of a petrels corpse, found on a beach and now in a plastic bodybag on her desk; and then out it pans, taking us up to the heavens and the aurora borealis and back down into the depths of the sea, carved up by the binary sleekness of the killer whales as they range along the cliffs, hunting and travelling. As we travel with her, we find that the more isolated the place, the more effort it is to quieten a mind, “clamorous as a goose” but her writing slowly drills down and cancels out the superfluous row. She is highly attuned to noise, telling us of the mineral silence of an Arctic landscape and the days immediately following the death of her mother which have “a high glassy feel, as though a note was being sung just too high to hear.” Jamie felt compelled then, to reconnect the weird intimate and inner world of human nature and when it goes wrong (cancer), with the nature talked about at environmental conferences. “I’ve never thought of that as nature” says the pathologist and alongside him, we too accompany Jamie on a beautiful and challenging redefining of what we class as nature in fourteen, near perfect little essays.
Last Stand: America’s Virgin Lands by Barbara Kingsolver
download (3) Kingsolver’s nature writing sometimes gets overlooked because of her vast talent for fiction and this appreciation of America’s virgin lands, the remnants of the once vast wilderness that has survived man is one of them. Barbara Kingsolver and award-winning photographer Annie Griffiths Belt roam far and wide over the great untamed tracts of land that have somehow slipped through the net. From wetlands, woodlands, coasts, grasslands, and drylands—and the pioneering, often ornery environmentalists who worked to save them- Kingsolver adds her voice to the chorus calling for better protection and veneration of them. She writes. “Here, in these lost corners, are the reserves of species abundance and strength for a continent that once roared with wild grandeur; they are its swan song. This book is about them.”
Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of New York City by Robert Sullivan
download From Jimmy Hoffa to the myriad animals and plants that survive and thrive in close proximity to one of the worlds great concrete jungles, the Meadowlands, these man made and undervalued lowlands across the Hudson River from Manhattan are a revelation. This post glacial meltwater landscape extends nearly forty miles from Staten Island’s southern end to the southern end of New York’s Rockland County and is now a brackish, low lying saltwater breckland. Hoffa’s corpse may or may not be buried here alongside the granite corpse of Penn Station in the city after it was razed to the ground and transported here for interrment in this mingling of the disposable and the natural. Sounds not available on a CD emanate from the commingling of traffic on the New Jersey turnpike and the rustling reeds of Snake Hill, a marshy terrain through which he canoes. We accompany him to Waldens Swamp, a boggy festering morass of cigarette butts, rubbish and collapsed plastic bottles which, nonetheless, provides a home for carp, muskrat and wildfowl. The place is a paradox, reflected by the juxtaposition of an egret on a giant pylon and Victor, the mosquito inspector. Victor’s landing counts and detailed zoological knowledge are both used for the purposes of exterminating a creature which sticks two fingers up at all our attempts to control it.  In the epigraph, Hopkins says, ”And for all this, nature is never spent. There lives the dearest freshness deep down thing” and Sullivan ensures that we do not forget this, that nature exists in spite of man and not because of it. What we do about this is our call.
The Wild Trees by Richard Preston
The_wild_trees_coverpage When Steve Sillett was nineteen years old, he tree climbed (with no safety ropes) one of the worlds tallest trees, becoming one of only a handful of people who have climbed them and know of where they can be found. Thirty storeys above the ground, surrounded by the crowns of the giant redwoods all around him, Preston was privy to a hidden eco system that would change the way he viewed the world. Preston seeks to connect these trees and their suroundings with the people that yearn to climb them, weaving personal testimony into a narrative that guides us through the intricate ecology of the canopy and the forest. He explains how the climbers developed technique and how they cope when one of their own ‘takes a dive into a dirt nap’ aka falls off. We meet the bride who very nearly did after she made an error attaching a descender device. Had she not checked it before the ceremony, her lichen decorated gown, redwood wedding ring and geologist minister willing to conduct the ceremony harnessed, in mid air, would have all been in vain. They sound barking mad? Well before the end of this book, the author himself ‘goes native,’ joining the cast of characters in their oddness and ‘redwoodphilia’- a state that truly presents as an addiction to these huge titans of the forest.
The Snow Geese by William Fiennes
download Aged twenty five, Fiennes was convalescing from a serious illness in the middle of his postgraduate studies and, during that half life state as recovery approaches, passed his time by rekindling an interest in ornithology.This was inspired by his fathers own interest and Fiennes favourite book from childhood, Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose. Duly compelled to follow a related species, the lesser snow goose, as it migrates between its wintering areas in southern Texas to breeding grounds near Churchill on the shores of Canada’s Hudson Bay, Fiennes set off in pursuit with an ambition to write a book that would be part travelogue, part nature writing and part meditation upon the nature of home. Journey as metaphor is a long established theme and it suits Fiennes book perfectly, acting as bedrock for his musings on what homesickness is, why do we yearn for home and how does this relate to the long and tortuous migration of these beautiful creatures.  Full of intricate and finely observed descriptions of the geese, the land over which they pass and their manner as they settle each night at a fresh overnight site, set centuries ago as their compass point, and a transitory place that is, and yet is not, home.
A Study of Blackbirds by David Snow
download (3) This beautiful monograph on the birds he studied in the Botanic Garden in Oxford in the 1950s, remains one of the loveliest pieces of nature writing I possess. Snow may have spent a great part of his life in the study of tropical, fruit eating and nectar feeding birds, taking him all over central and south America, accompanied by his wife, but the humble blackbird is as enthralling a specimen as the most brilliantly hued hermit humming bird in his writerly hands. He tells of blackbirds returning to old nests, of older male birds singing lustily in the evenings as night approaches and how successful first time parenthood increases their chances of retaining their mate for a second brood in the same year. Here is Snow on their courtship behaviour: “The displaying bird has a curiously wild, staring appearance.[…] The whole time, with his beak held open, he usually utters a low ‘strangled’ song, made up of chattering alarm notes, rough warbles and subdued snatches of what sounds like true song.” Snow then goes on to tell us that during mating, other males will jump at the unfortunate male, barreling at him, aiming to knock him ignomiously off his perch and take his place themselves. The cover of this monograph is a linocut by artist Robert Gilmour whose first commercial use of the technique it was and his line drawings in the text offer a clear interpretation of Snows prose.
 Apple Acre by Adrian Bell
Apple Acre Cover-500x500 As a nation, we British are prone to parochialism and an associated sentimentality about the countryside and in some ways, Apple Acre illustrates this. Despite rationing, black outs and austerity during the Second World War, Adrian and his family lived their lives in the Suffolk farming community where they remained for decades, happily absorbed in the daily tasks of rearing their three children and struggling against those farming eternals, the weather and the land. The rhythms are ones that cannot be modified- the seasons that have dominion over planting, cropping, preserving and storing and the church festivals that mark the arrival of each. There is nostalgia for a life that would soon change and a little pomp and circumstance surrounding the reasons why the war was fought. Yet Bell is a realist and warns us that we risk becoming separated from the land and the origins of our food. He advocates recycling and reusing and of retaining a realistic grasp of what you are capable of managing farm wise. He is no idealist and he espouses many of the values that we are now sadly having to relearn.
 Gods of the Morning by John Lister-Kaye
cover58491-medium For over three decades, John Lister-Kaye has been cpativated by the spectacular seasonal metamorphosis at Aigas, the world-renowned Highlands field centre overlooking a loch and encircled by the untamed glens of Scotland. Gods of the Morning takes us through a year, following the turn of the seasons and their unpredictability which he fears may be due to global climate change. Birds are his Gods of the Morning and a particular passion: the book opens with a mournful tribute to the blackcap which crashes into his patio windows and subsequently dies. Reading this, we are immediately reminded that the rhythms of nature include death and subsequent regeneration- the corpse of the little bird is placed under a pyracantha bush to return to the earth. His descriptions are vital: the blackcap with its “cap as dark and glossy as liquorice”; the winter sun “power vanquished, enfeebled by the years reeling”; the wood mice with underbellies ” as white as the Rose of York” and tails flowing “with all the elegance and style of Elizabethan calligraphy.” Lister-Kaye reminds us to seek out that lost connection with the natural world and embrace its rhythms.

The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy


“I could smell it myself, honey sweet but with the faintest hint of a sour edge. Drawing them in, the wondrous visitants” writes McCarthy as he describes his first encounters with the winged jewels as they fed on the buddleja which populated every crack of post war Britain. Arguing that we cannot be fully human if we are separate from nature and the intense joy it can bring,  McCarthy proposes this joy as a defence of a natural world which is ever more threatened, and which, he argues, is inadequately served by the two defences put forward hitherto: sustainable development and the recognition of ecosystem services.Drawing on a wealth of memorable experiences from a lifetime of watching and thinking about wildlife and natural landscapes, The Moth Snowstorm not only presents a new way of looking at the world around us, but effortlessly blends with it a remarkable and moving memoir of childhood trauma from which love of the natural world emerged. It is a powerful, timely, and wholly original book which comes at a time when nature has never needed it more.

Common Ground by Rob Cowen


I’ve always been interested in the edges of things, whether that be a person, a landscape or a subject and in Common Ground, Cowen takes us to a scrap of land near Harrogate when he moves to the area from London, itself a rich source of scrubby edges and half crossed- out margins. The gift of a second-hand Ordnance Survey map helped him find his imperfect Valhalla: “strange, scrubby spaces in the shadow of a thousand houses where human and nature intermesh. Blurry collisions of meadow, pylon, wood, river and old railway, of industry and infrastructure”, or, as the Celts say, a ‘thin place’ whose history fans up and out. Thus follows a kind of lyrical portrait, similar to what AA Gill once said, of what might result if a place interviewed itself. It is beguiling and compelling and doesn’t depict the natural world as other and for that reason, I recommend it highly.

Fiction of the south west and western United States

Reading my way around the USA has always been a goal of mine but I do find myself drawn to particular regions more than others- the Deep South, the Southwest, West Coast and Hawaii being my current obsessions. To this end, here are some recommendations for books with a strong sense of place- a quality that is vital for me as a reader and something all these authors excel at. From the soon to be published to old favourites, I hope you will find something to transport you, wherever you may live.

‘The Never Open Desert Diner’ by James Anderson (Caravel books- to be published Feb 2015)


James Anderson divides his time between the Four Corners region of the American South West and the Pacific North West and is well placed to showcase Utah as a setting in his first novel, The Never Open Desert Diner, with its shades of Lit-Noir. Reminiscent of TC Boyle’s ‘The Tortilla Curtain’ (reviewed below) in its strong, sparse characters, Anderson uses place as character itself, from the sunbleached and parched desert that bursts into life after the rains, flash flooded arroyos that first appear safe and then kill with mud, stone and water and a spectrum of light not seen anywhere else. Anderson rewards the patience of his readers with a slowly unfurling insight into his characters and their lives and the ways in which they coexist with the might of their surroundings. This novel is haunting, well woven and accomplished.

The initial unfamiliarity of the desert is reflected in the taciturn nature of Ben, a trucker come delivery driver; a lone wolf operator in a nation of large transportation companies. His route is Highway 117 where he delivers goods to those who live along it, and for various reasons choose to live as off grid as possible. From farm machinery to butter brickle ice cream (never has ice cream sounded so tempting as Anderson makes it!), Ben barely makes a living but more lucrative work elsewhere incites guilt in a man all too aware of the service he provides and of his own need to live as semi detached a life as is possible. This part of Utah is sparsely populated, with miles of desert stretching out along both sides of the tracks, towns and settlements rising up out of the dust and then falling away again as do the telegraph poles that carry power to only the most accessible areas.

As he drives along, he notices an archway leading down into an abandoned housing development, goes to explore it and ends up spying on Claire who is playing her cello, alone in her home. His rule to give a wide berth to married women fleeing their husbands is put to the test. As the story unfolds we meet a cast of characters who all have their secrets- secrets they only give up when the choice to keep them is no longer there. Ben must wrestle with impending bankruptcy, a desert environment hostile to those who fail to respect its dangers and a forty year old crime with repercussions for all.

Encounters with the seventeen year old pregnant daughter of a past lover, a Christian traveller dragging his literal cross along the highway and the elderly, forbidding owner of the Never Open Diner show the softer side of Ben. Like the desert, you will break through his reserves if you persevere. By making Ben a trucker, Anderson dips into a powerful cultural image, that of the man without ties, maybe psychically wounded (there must be a reason for all that roaming), independent yet still following a well worn route and, in him, we find the modern day equivalent of the cowboy.This trucker sees a lot from his lofty position- he is an observer of the country he travels through and his transient nature means he can take on and shed responsibilities as he/she wishes. The essential tension then develops between his job and his human need to be known, be loved and to receive these back too.

‘The Tortilla Curtain’ by T C Boyle 


Tackling middle-class values, illegal immigration, xenophobia, poverty, the American Dream and entitlement, TC Boyle’s prose is as spiky, muscular and mysterious as the cacti that populate his corner of the world. The title refers to both the physical wall, or border, between Mexico and the United States and the cultural wall or division between the people of these two nations and between the classes in the United States, no matter their colour or race. Backdrop to this is the unforgiving west in all its sparse beauty. Boyle’s descriptions of the desert are poetic and realistic- once again we see the unforgiving nature that goes hand in hand with the sparse beauty of this landscape.

Two couples: Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher, a white upper-middle class liberal couple who live in a gated community on the outskirts of Los Angeles; and Cándido and America Rincón, two Mexican illegal immigrants in desperate search of work, food and shelter are brought into intimate contact after a car accident and their opposing worlds gradually intersect in what becomes a tragicomedy filled with error and misunderstanding. The contrasts between the poor and rich are stark: Delaney’s wife, Kyra, is so afraid that her dogs will be eaten by wild coyotes that she orders an 8-foot high fence to protect them, while America, destitute and living in the shelter of a canyon, has no money to seek the medical aid she needs during her pregnancy. As the story unfolds we are left to wonder what ‘wild animals’ the fencing and life of privilege is designed to keep out. The flight of the monied white classes from Los Angeles has led to an urban sprawl into the wilds of the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountains especially and the creation of a hybrid eco state where “wild” and “urban” butt heads- they do not meld. As we see in the behaviour of coyotes (and in our own British urban foxes) wildlife becomes more urban while humans become more feral.

The hollowness of the American Dream is painfully filleted- as Lou Reed once said “Give me your poor, your tired, your hungry. I’ll piss on ’em” and desperation is criminalized whilst the term ‘illegal alien’ is depicted in all its literalness and metaphor. The book may be over twenty years old but the recent release of statistics showing the huge increase in children attempting to cross the border from Mexico into the USA means this story, sadly, is still relevant.

  The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver


Human struggle, a resourceful and moral instant mother and against a backdrop of Native American culture, Taylor Greer, grew up in poor in rural Kentucky trying to avoid pregnancy and heads west with high hopes and a barely working car. By the time she arrives in Tucson, she has encountered and taken responsibility for a child, coming to terms with both motherhood and the need to put down roots both personally and culturally.

Taylor lives in a community of women who tend to live their lives independently of men yet nonetheless we see the shared burden of femaleness in Taylors first comments about Turtle. When she sees the little girl she says that the burden of being born a woman had already affected her.Turtle is both real child and symbol of women in general, all of whom face difficulties because of their gender.

Two of the greatest influences in The Bean Trees are the the Sanctuary movement, designed to help Central Americans flee oppressive governmental regimes and relocate — usually unlawfully and secretly— in the United States and the Cherokee Trail of Tears – the route the Cherokee Nation was forced to make when it was moved to the Oklahoma territory from the southeastern United States. Serving as backdrop to the book, the journey of baby Turtle and Tailor from Oklahoma to Arizona, many of the novel’s characters are members of the Sanctuary movement. Respect for the land is depicted as inherent within the Native American population and their vulnerability is equated with that of the environment- both will be hunted and destroyed if they fail to find quarter or sanctuary.

 The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar


Tobar is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist for the LA Times and has written extensively about the Latino experience in Los Angeles and the United States generally. Tobar knows Los Angeles, its nail bars, the hipsters in Silver Lake and high end sushi bars in generic roadside malls, the tract houses and sprawling estates on bluffs overlooking the Pacific.  In this second novel, he returns to the issues dividing Southern California- race, class, immigration and economics.

If you are a parent, you will have one of two reactions to this story: (1) I can see how this might happen or (2) these are terrible parents who don’t deserve children. Whichever it might be, this tale has at its heart a ruptured, strained marriage and the drudgery of paid domestic servitude by immigrant workers- Pepe who maintains the lushly designed garden whose installation catalyses the argument between the couple and Araceli who is then housekeeper of the lushly equipped house with its expensive toys and ornate decor. This garden with its banana palms and ferns and mini stream is an incongruous botanical anomaly in arid Southern California, dependent upon Pepe’s ministrations. Artifice in a city of artifice in a house on a street with an overwrought and inauthentic Spanish name- Paseo Linda Bonita means beautiful pretty street. Not so good they named it twice, either.

The Torres-Thompson family lives in a fabulous hilltop home with ocean views on Paseo Linda Bonita in Orange County. Middle class and seemingly affluent, Maureen and Scott are hit by the recession meaning they have to dispense with all their staff apart from Araceli who finds herself in charge when after an argument, Maureen and Scott leave the home. They both assume the other remains at home in charge of the children. After four days without hearing from either parent, Araceli takes the children in search of their grandfather in a distant LA suburb. When the parents return to an empty house they panic – police helicopters are dispatched and borders closed and we meet a wide and varied cast of characters as the mistake becomes public.

Misunderstandings both situational and linguistic lie at the heart of this black and bleak tragi comedy from the title which reflects both the nurture of plants and children (both chores often performed by paid immigrant staff) to the odd, bilingual concoction” of the Torres-Thompson surname. We have a Mexican grandfather who refuses to speak Spanish and an indocumentada who does not speak Spanish very well. We also have Spanish left untranslated so the reader is left to experience the frustration and helplessness experienced by people living far from their native lands trying to make the best of a difficult situation. 

Kudzu girl


I’m a bit of an Ameri-lit junkie, especially of writings set in the Deep South. If it has fireflies, mad as a fish Southern relatives and moccasin snakes, I’ll read it. If it has Spanish Moss, palmetto, piney woods and a drawl as thick as sorghum, I’ll probably read it more than once. I have been known to seek out online recordings of screeching insects (Cicadas no less) to accompany my readings for that authentic touch and my allotment shed even has a porch built onto it. All we need now is humidity levels saturated enough to send a dog mad and a red clay road dried to cracks so deep you could lose your aunt down them and I’ll die happy. I am aware that I am hopelessly outdated and a dinosaur, clinging onto a vision of the south that is trying really hard to disappear in a cloud of dust down an old track; I am also aware that it is not ‘my’ south to make demands upon. I am, at best, a fascinated onlooker.

The New South is a term that asks us to refashion these older constructions and explore the duality of the Old South. As people acknowledge and face the horrors of Jim Crow’s laws of segregation and the slavery and crop sharing that predated it, it is to be hoped that literature will both reflect this and also move forward in a more progressive and inclusive manner.

Fred Hobson in The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World has said that the problem for the new neo-gothic writers of the contemporary South is that southern social reality no longer so dramatically supports a writerly fiction. Read this excerpt from ‘Deep South: memory and observation‘  by Erskine Caldwell and see what I mean about an evocative portrayal of a South that may no longer exist except in our own imaginations:

“Along the trails and footpaths in the ravines, out of sight of paved roads and highways, shacks and cabins tilt and sag and rot on the verge of collapse in the shadow of the green summer thatch of white oaks and black walnuts. The faces of the old people are saying that all is lost and tomorrow will be like yesterday and today- unless it is worse”

The poetry in Caldwells writing is subdued but lucid, it doesn’t get between the reader and the story but instead offers a series of vignettes, scenes, that infuse our minds eye with vivid imagery whether we have been to this place or not- but it does feel ‘old’. It induces within me a nostalgia for the childhood I never had in a place I never grew up in and exists within me as a habit, an evocative Southern tic.

The inimitable Bailey White is author of what is perhaps my most favourite line ever. Her collection of short stories and family vignettes,Mama Makes up her Mind’ – is sublimely hilarious and creepy, saturated with left field weirdness which stays in your head, coming out to torment in the dark of night. Writing about her hardscrabble collection of gothic bizarre family members and the family home, slowly collapsing onto its own foundations, subsiding into a crawlspace literally and metaphorically invokes a terrible fear of creepy crawlies and what she describes as “The high knobbly kneed scrambling gait, a scuttling sound and then the worst thing of all…The watching silence of spiders”

More Carson McCullers than Steel Magnolias, White’s cast of characters inhabit a world of man eating clam shells, bellowing alligators that perform on command, sinkholes that bear resemblance to the Gardens of Eden and an Uncle called Jimbuddy who is slowly and accidentally chopping off bits of his body. The formidable Mama, customer of a North Florida jukejoint so intimidating it frightened Hemingway is the fulcrum of all the zaniness. The tales spill over into volume II ‘Sleeping at the Starlite Motel’ and ‘Nothing With Strings: NPR’s Beloved Holiday Stories‘ whilst her first novel ‘Quite A Year for Plums’ continues in a similar dialectic – about a peanut pathologist called Roger and the various small town women in hot pursuit of him.


The phrase ‘Woman of Letters’ (whilst originally referring to a more scholarly approach) could be applied to my next love, Julia Reed whose light hearted and throaty accounts of life down South belie her fierce intelligence and journalistic pedigree. Contributing editor at Newsweek, Vogue and The New York Times Magazine among others, Reed has a long and noble history as once political correspondent, flying around the South covering the three times Governor of New Orleans, Edwin Edwards’ final comeback, and managing to make it sound as if she gaily thrived on a diet of Galatoires oysters, chicory coffee and the fumes of chicanery when in fact it was a gruelling tour around the political stumps. Any woman who can survive three weeks with a politician who states “To fall out of favour with the voters of Louisiana, I’d have to be found in bed with a dead girl or a live boy” and not knock his smug block off, deserves the utmost respect.

Reed has an encyclopedic knowledge of the South and New Orleans in particular- the food, culture, music and politics and having spent many years travelling the world for work, is possessed of anecdotes extraordinary in their breadth and hilarity. This is the woman whose account of Hurricane Katrina and her response to the devastation and political mess was in turn moving, confusingly flippant and self centred. Anna Wintour (her editor at Vogue) even told her to cut some paragraphs out because they made her sound like Marie Antoinette (oh the irony of that). Yet the love she has for New Orleans shines out and she managed to evade the National Guard to re-enter the closed off city after the hurricane to rescue friends pets, empty out their stinking fridges and feed the hungry young men and women sent to enforce curfew and rescue citizens because she couldn’t bear to think of  them subsisting on MRE’s in a city known for its fine food. After peeling enough tomatoes to feed the thousands of  folks evacuated to her parents home in Greenford, Mississippi and transporting pounds of home fried chicken to troops, we see the blitz spirit is not solely the preserve of the British.

Her book ‘The House on First Street’ is an  autobiographical  love letter to a city and then to a house – the Greek revival home she made in the Garden District after decades of unsettled roaming from place to place. Alognside her love of art, architecture and interior design, Reed is healthily obsessed with food, a source of amazement to me considering the fact that she is a long time American Vogue editor- a place not known for eating heartily. Littered with accounts of restaurants and functioning as part travel and gustatory guide, the descriptions of her appetite evolution, times with the famous, the notorious and the notable provide enough anecdotes to keep a chat show host employed for a century. I have read and re-read all of Reed’s books – ‘Queen of The Turtle Derby’, ‘But Mama Always Puts Vodka in the Sangriaand ‘Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns & Other Southern Specialities‘ and I couldn’t choose one over the other -you’d best read them all.


Patrick Dunne, the owner of Lucillus, a culinary antiques shop is a close friend of Reed and in his book ‘The Epicurean Collector’ he distills a soupcon of the sumptuous and epic set like charm of his store into this wonderful and informative coffee table book. Originally a series of articles written for Southern Accents Magazine, he expands upon these combining primary historical sources with personal anecdotes and exquisite photographs to tell the story of the objet d’art he has discovered, sold and owned – salt safes and pigs, cooking irons and a pair of porcelain chocolate pots, the latter inspiring an historical tit bit- Madame De Pompadour employed staff to ‘warm her frigid blood before conjugal visits from Louis XV’. ‘Like all of History’ writes Dunne, ‘the story of how we eat is yet another part of our long tale about being human’

The central power of the biographical form is not set in stone. There is the grand impersonal narrative of history and then there is the life lived and few have lived as fully as fine southern gentleman and food writer James Villas. Born a Tarheel and fiercely proud of it with a mamma who makes the best biscuits and ‘pimmena cheese’ (Pimento Cheese) in the land, Villas has sailed the Queen Mary in the company of Dali, eaten at La Cote D’Or as a young penniless student (without realising where he was), sang with Elaine Strich, tried to keep Tennessee Williams from drinking restaurants dry and was nursed through a bad oyster by MK Fisher. In between all this grandness, detailed in his many books (‘Between Bites’, ‘Villas at Table’, ‘American Tastes‘ and ‘Stalking the Green Fairy’) Villas is also capable of rhapsodising about the treasures to be found in wholesale shopping clubs, Dukes mayonnaise, the low rent food loves of chefs and the best way to make a Brunswick stew. He is, by far, my favourite American food writer.



“Don’t try to out-Cracker me,” writes novelist and expert in Crackerdom Janice Owens. Those words headline a blog post on her website just below a recipe for Thanksgiving Potato Basil Chicken Soup and refer to her proud cultural identity as Queen of Florida crackerdom whose ancestors have been cooking cornbread in the state since 1767. The Florida Cracker has a complicated etymology with some claiming it as a racially and culturally charged slur (on a par with the British ‘Chav’ and ‘Pikey), however to a Floridian it has been redefined to encompass pride and cultural value. The historian Dana Ste. Claire describes a Cracker as “a self-reliant, independent, and tenacious settler,” often of Celtic stock, who “valued independence and a restraint-free life over material prosperity.” The Florida cracker heritage is valued and increasingly celebrated by writers such as Owens in her cookbook ‘The Cracker Kitchen’ and her novel ‘American Ghosts’. The latter addresses intergenerational Southern allegiances and the regions dark history in this tale of a relationship between local girl Jodie and her Jewish lover and its dangerous reach into the future of the people involved.

We don’t tend to think of the Jewish experience when we imagine life in the South and that is why I love Roy Hoffman’s ‘Chicken Dreaming Corn’. The title is derived from a term used by the authors Romanian Jewish grandmother to refer to the yearnings of ordinary folks for something special or extraordinary  and the book recounts the American dream of its protagonist Morris Kleinman as he runs his clothing shop in the southern port city of Mobile, Alabama. Praised by Harper Lee for its “lean and clean prose”, Hoffman was inspired by works like ‘Ragtime’ to blend both real and fictional names whilst retaining a storytelling ethos- 50% imagination and a blend of research and family stories.

It took a Hawaiian-Japanese friend to introduce me to the joys of Michael Lee West. Her early book ‘Consuming Passions’ was at there at the start of my love for southern writing when it arrived one day on my doormat via the USAF at Lakenheath. Anyone with a mamma whose leaving home gift to her daughter is a jar of Vaseline to rub on the fire escape to foil burglars (especially when her first home did not have a fire escape) and an Uncle called Bun who went to Brazil and married a South American nymphomaniac is destined to be a writer. It would be a crime against the literature loving masses to NOT commit these vignettes to paper. Each chapter is rounded off with an authentic family essay, predominately food driven (How to season a cast iron pan, ‘How to make perfect iced tea) although you do not have to be food obsessed to find them absolutely charming and riven with fun. Lee West has written quite a few fiction novels to but it is this food memoir that I love the most.


Now I know that West Virginia is not the ‘Deep South’- I was traumatised enough when I discovered that Walton’s Mountain in ‘Virginia’ was, in fact, part of the back lot of Warner Bros in Southern California so I am not going to tolerate any more southern geographical tall tales. Falling below the Mason Dixon Line is a southern qualifier and although he lives and teaches just outside of Chicago these days, Glenn Taylor is a West Virginia storyteller at heart. The author of the 2008 NBCC Award Finalist novel The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart and the recently published The Marrowbone Marble Company is one of the finest storytellers I am reading today in the true tradition of the term. Taylor clearly follows in the footsteps of his father who, dedicated to the preservation of the heritage and stories of the West Virginia hills, has spent years taping the oral histories of the older members of the community. In a Guardian feature, Taylor has this to say about the way Southern literature is categorised, after a conversation he had with a store manager at a recent signing:

“When I finished signing the stack of books, the store manager took them off to be shelved. I browsed. She called to me from two aisles over: ‘Do you want to be shelved in fiction or Southern fiction?’ I laughed. I thought of all the things I always think of when folks wonder about southern West Virginia’s regional designation. The civil war. Lincoln’s presidential decree. The creation of my home state in the year 1864. Violence. Blood. Cuisine, culture, storytelling. A slow ease to things. I answered her: ‘I’ll let you decide. I’m just happy to be here. West Virginia is not the South. Yet, as soon as I write that, I have to question what South we’re speaking of. Are we talking about maps or music? Are we talking about parts of speech, burial custom, family gatherings, cornbread, religion? Coal or cotton? Hill or field? In the end, I get tired of thinking about it. I get tired of labels on literature, of categorising fiction by region or race, of trying to figure what Southern voices New York likes and doesn’t like. Yet, at times, I freely embrace such cataloguing.”

The story of the south, its food and heritage cannot be told without acknowledging that it is also the story of the people forcibly immigrated there to work as slaves and their story needs to be told via their own mouths, not refocused through the lens of white writers although they, of course, also have their own experiences to tell. The south is not just the land of Mayberry despite my own cliched fantasies and I am aware that in part, some of my literary loves pander to the literature of bigotry by memorializing an old south which has little fond memories for a lot of those forced to live and raise their families there. There has been controversy surrounding the publication of books like ‘The Help’ which went on to become filmic best sellers and their representation of southern black vernacular. As columnist Clarence Page who is African American, said

“There is an old saying, ‘You can joke about your own crowd, but not about someone else’s. Whether you are writing for yourself or a poetic work of fiction, you take a risk; like if I tried to write a book with a Yiddish dialect.”

The books author Kathryn Stockett has gone on record as saying that ‘The Help’ addressed, in part, the lack of the female perspective in southern Civil Rights literature but in fact the book still fails to address the paucity of first person oral testimony from black women, whether fictionalized or not. We have the voice of Abileen, a black maid, heard through the narrative lens of the white author but what we also have is the noble white protagonist, there to navigate us through the troubled waters of the Civil Rights Movement. For me, that is the biggest flaw because it infantilises African Americans and re appropriates their Civil Rights struggle as one led by white people, or at the very least, guided and legitimised by them. When we have post war southern writers addressing the troubled relationship between whites and blacks and also drawing attention to the dehumanizing effects of the Jim Crow laws, is it (an albeit well meaning) extension of that dehumanisation to speak in dialect as a black character, apparently drawn from a real living person when you are a white writer?

There is a heritage of hatred and prejudice and fear but also one filled with enormous richness and beauty to draw from- southerners have been placed, as Camus said, “Halfway between the sun and misery’. Writers and commentators walk different pathways with respect to this- they can cope with dehumanization by straddling the two conflicting worlds with their ugly message of ‘separate but equal’ or they can instead, rehumanize their experiences by creating dazzling works of literature that focus solely upon their own lives, framed solely by it and independent of much of that from which they are excluded.  Zora Neale Hurston in ‘Dust Tracks’ chose not to focus solely on the inheritance of oppression (although it cannot be totally ignored) but instead draws upon a rich and complete black folk culture as the story of her move from the rural poverty of her youth to the intellectual jazz crowd of the Harlem Renaissance unfolds.


This in itself caused some disquiet and criticism because how can any child grow up alongside Jim Crowe and appear so beautifically unaware of it, especially when many other writers were using the zoom lens on racial oppression? Young Zora contends that she did not realise she was black until she was nine years old and having experienced the death of her mother, was sent to Jacksonville to live. Life away from the prism of her previously familiar surroundings precipitates a more outward looking existence. Hurston’s use of traditional black legend and black vernacular in the speech of her characters is uncompromising- ‘This is THE world because it is MY world’ and, in a reverse of the usual power structures, we, as readers, have to adapt. You didn’t know that death is referred to as the”Square-toed one that comes from the West?” Well, work it out by getting to know the folks that people the book.

The story of people is also the story of the land and its food and is there a place generating more orgiastic hyperbole when it comes to this? It is indisputable though, that the culinary history of the south is as richly nuanced and disputed as a bowl of gumbo and in the introduction to her book ‘The Welcome Table: African American Heritage Cooking’ Jessica Harris cites the ancestry of this as a perfect example of the southern culinary diaspora. Despite the exhaustive nature of Harris’s research, Sara Roahen is inspired to explore both it and the broader topic of the New Orleans culinary legacy taking us on a romp through the definitive NoLa cocktail- the Sazerac through Sno-Cones to Turducken, a roasted bird within a bird within a bird. Her book ‘Gumbo Tales: Finding my place at the New Orleans Table’ is a great read and introduction to this subject and a city that is one of the most mesmerising places on earth.


The story of the south is one of environmental damage and deprivation and after Hurricane Katrina laid bare the peril to South Louisiana in particular, author Ian McNulty embarked upon a series of trips to discover more about the regions diverse landscapes and culture in ‘Louisiana Rambles’. There is Zydeco and crawfish, Boudin eating and dark smokehouses, riverine pub crawls, Angola prison rodeos and the Turnoi, a local marriage between medieval jousting, jockeying and horsemanship. There is also the story of the disappearing Cajun way of life with its fishermen and furriers and trappers, all of them inextricably linked to the welfare of the watery bayou and the Delta which are, in turn being gobbled up by the Gulf of Mexico. Did you know that the southern end of Louisiana is being converted to open water at a rate estimated to be equal to one American football field every thirty eight minutes? No landmass is vanishing faster. The fragile brackish and fresh water habitats of Louisiana- home to the seafood and fish that form the majority of domestic seafood consumption are dying because the sediment carried along by the Mississippi, usually deposited along the land abutting its course is, instead, being carried far out into the Gulf and deposited there. Louisiana and the Delta are paying the price for Mississippi flood control further up its course. Only when that early bird special of all you can eat at the Red Lobster for $10 is under threat will the rest of America wake up to the environmental catastrophe unfolding ‘down below’. McNulty’s book is structured around chapters, each telling the story of a person, place of event in Louisiana. The advantages of this is that you can put the book down without losing the ‘story’ and take deep breaths to overcome the anger and frustration that will be engendered by descriptions of wanton destruction and lack of care over a place that is diverse and beautiful yet functional- a powerhouse of industry and work and activity.

You might prefer this format in fiction too which is where my next choice, ‘New Stories from the South’ comes in. Edited by Shannon Ravenel it was compiled in part in response to the ‘why is Southern literature populated with crazy old coots?’ argument yet, as the editor explains in the preface, ends up addressing ‘the temperature under the skins and inside the hearts of their characters’ for they relate universal motivations and emotions. Sixteen short stories encompassing traditional tales and more up to date stories from established writers like Lee Smith and newer voices deal with drug dealing (‘Black Cat Bone’) a politicians funeral (‘Cousin Aubrey’) and emigration from Vietnam (‘Relic’) offering a great dip in and dip out volume.

If you are looking for some true southern gothic, then Rick Bass’s short story ‘The History of Rodney‘ in the 1995 collection called ‘In the Loyal Mountains’ has a Mississippi ghost town, a young couple and a newly purchased house, romantic imagery, symbolism and beautiful prose. Or try Tim Gatreaux’s ‘Waiting for the Evening News’, an exploration of the strains of modern life through a farmer raising a baby grandchild, a man in love with his own radio voice and a train driver coping after causing a disaster, among many other voices. Set in his beloved Louisiana, they will not disappoint. Finally, Elizabeth Spencer’s ‘Starting Over’ appears to take its cue from the book’s many characters trying to find new homes or recuperate from the vicissitudes of life and reboot. Spencer is one of America’s best short story writers- her writing skewers the social niceties that underpinned racism and segregation, fed ‘The Old South’ and allowed for the maintenance of a politesse that belied the ugly, impolite truth.








The new nature writing- we review ‘Doubling Back’ by Linda Cracknell

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We love the evolving genre of British nature writing and the fact that new kids on the block are not throwing the baby out with the bathwater as they create fresh narratives. Robert MacFarlane. Richard Mabey, Roger Deakin and Katharine Harris- these are all references in spirit and style in this exquisitely written and designed book.

 ‘Of all the current crop of excellent “new Nature Writers” Linda Cracknell is probably the most physically present to the reader.  These are real walks, walked by a real (and clever) writer; and the interesting things she tells us about feel real to the action of walking.”Sara Maitland

Doubling Back is a fascinating and moving account of walking in the footsteps of others. In 1952 Linda Cracknell’s father embarked on a hike through the Swiss Alps. Fifty years later Linda retraces that fateful journey, following the trail of the man she barely knew. This collection of walking tales takes its theme from that pilgrimage. The walks trace the contours of history, following writers, relations and retreading ways across mountains, valleys and coasts formerly trodden by drovers, saints and adventurers. Each walk is about the reaffirming of memories, beliefs and emotions, and especially of the connection that one can have with the past through particular places. This book celebrates life, family, friendship and walking through landscapes richly textured with stories.

The river Spey near Newtonnmore

Our favourite? Linda’s walk from the tiny Speyside village of Newtonnmore up into the nearby Cairngorms along Minigaig Pass used by drovers to avoid the easier toll paying roads nearby. The other ancient route, Coymns Road, started from the bend near Ruthven Barracks also heading for Blair Atholl. Of these two, the Minigaig was the main route to the south, falling out of favour when a party of soldiers froze to death on the route during a winter storm but remained in use until well after Wades Military Road was built. Our own memories of a teenage skiing trip and a stay in a lodge at Newtonmore: the midges, burns, local Speyside distillery and an ill fated crush on our ski instructor Denis melded perfectly with Cracknell’s narrative, neither detracting from each other.

The deliberately accidental and surprise filled psychogeography of our youth has yielded to the path chosen for travel simply because it is is the path most travelled. What we value most about this exciting form of  nature/travel writing is its ability to transport us right back to that time when getting there was not the primary purpose of a journey. That’s not to say that the end point was or is not important; whether this be emotionally or practically, but somehow the ability to have still points on the way; to notice, see, hear and feel got lost.





Summer Reads 2014 – we review


Summer’s here and it’s time for some much needed escapism so we’ve compiled a diverse mix of fantastic reads to keep you busy through the summertide.

Immerse yourself in a psychological thriller, retrace memories from past worlds, be romanced by our literary classics or gasp at surprising plot twists.

Share your thoughts on these reads on the discussion boards or reviews and if you think we’ve missed a must-read off the list do let us know on this thread.


the_luminariesThe Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

Winner of the 2013 Booker Prize, Catton’s 800 page masterpiece is definitely one for (hopefully) uninterrupted immersion.

Set in the wild coast of New Zealand, during the 19th century goldrush, it is a medley of mystery, thriller, historical epic and pure inventiveness. The twelve characters move in and out of each other’s stories, and also tie up with the intricate zodiac structure that oversees the entire novel. It is about greed, money, temptation, fate and human nature.

Give it a shot, while you have the time.




The One Plus One – Jojo Moyes 

Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You was a phenomena with over 3 million copies sold worldwide. (Remember the summer of 2012 when every beach across Europe was awash with people reading this or 50 Shades?) Jojo fans are in for a treat this summer with her latest novel The One Plus One out in paperback just in time for the hols.

 Jojo will be joining us for a webchat at the end of September.

The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlene 


You wouldn’t think this was a debut novel, it is so accomplished and confident.

Ruth is an elderly lady living alone in a remote part of New South Wales. When a governement-funded carer, Frida, comes to look after her and slowly begins to infiltrate her life, a suspense story begins where what is real and what is imagined becomes blurred and unreliable.

A witty, menacing psychological thriller that is also a brilliant evocation of old age, forgetfulness and regret.

The Telling Room: Passion, Revenge and Life in a Spanish Village – Michael Paterniti


During a visit to the picturesque Spanish village of Guzman, Michael Paterniti heard an odd and compelling tale about a cheese made from an ancient family recipe that was reputed to be among the finest in the world. Hooked on the story, he relocated his family to the tiny hilltop village to find out more. Before long the village began to spill its long-held secrets and Paterniti was sucked into the heart of an unfolding mystery.

The Telling Room is as surprising, evocative and wildly entertaining as the world it portrays.

The Signature of All Things – Elizabeth Gilbert


Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel will come as a surprise to those who have defined her by the blockbuster Eat Pray Love.

Set in the 1800s, The Signature of All Things weaves an epic story of adventure, love and botany. The incredible authenticity of detail and Gilbert’s master story-telling make the journey across the continents, through the centuries, and throughout the 500-odd pages, joyful and swift – making this a perfect summer read and our bookclub choice for September.

The Lemon Grove – Helen Walsh


An electrifying and titillating read where we find seduction, desire and troubled passion in the heat of the sultry summer sun.

Each summer Jenn and her husband return religiously to Mallorca’s West Coast but this year the arrival of Jenn’s stepdaughter and her boyfriend Nathan brings with it a series of unexpected events. Nathan’s beauty and youth cannot escape Jenn who finds herself recklessly gambling away stability to feed this new sprung obsession.

Walsh’s novel is undoubtedly this summer’s steamy read; suspense-filled and just dripping with passion

A Year of Reading Dangerously – Andy Miller


‘I loved the writing and the characterisation, oh, and the plot – yeah, all really pithy. Really great’: sound familiar? How many books have you claimed to have read but never actually finished, or even started? Miller decides to rectify his twenty odd years of lies and to silence his nagging guilt to become the literate man he’s always claimed himself to be.

This book is Andy’s inspirational and very funny account of his expedition through literature: ‘classic, cult and everything in-between.’

Arctic Summer – Damon Galgut 


A fictionalised and fascinating account of E M Forster’s life around the time he was working on A Passage to India.

Using extensive research, Galgut has brought in the characters around Forster (a mad maharajah, the spoilt Bloomsbury set, an adored Egyptian lover) and created a moving novel that explores the interior life of a complex, conflicted yet brilliant man.

E M Forster – A Room with a View

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Love! Truth! Beauty! A chance encounter, an impulsive kiss and Lucy Honeychurch’s world is forever changed. Torn between settling for a life of acceptable convention or the calling of her true love, Lucy epitomizes the struggle for individuality.

Definitely EM Forster’s most romantic novel, with the easy flowing passion of the Italian culture set against the constrictions and repressed sexuality of English Edwardian society.

A classic ideally suited to summer, sunshine and freedom.

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys – Viv Albertine 


“Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke. I’m a bit of both” so begins Viv Albertine’s remarkably candid memoir.

In it she tells the story of what it was like to be a girl at the height of punk and of what happened post-punk, taking in a career in film, IVF, illness, divorce – and making music again, twenty-five years later.

From music and fashion to family and feminism, this is a truly remarkable memoir and the story of a life lived unscripted, told from the heart.

The Valley of Amazement – Amy Tan


Amy Tan has been writing high quality blockbusters for decades, ever since The Joy Luck Club became a huge besteller in 1989. Her latest is an intelligent saga about coutesans in China at the turn of the 20th century.

Violet, half American and half Chinese daughter of the owner of the courtsean house, is forced into this world, where (amongst the betrayal and sadness) she also discovers female friendship, loyalty and love.

A classic Tan page-turner for those who loved Memoirs of a Geisha.

Her – Harriet Lane


Perfectly reviewed onsite by EduardoBarcelona: “If you enjoyed Alys, Always I can heartily recommend HER.

“Written by an early Mumsnetter, this is the kind of book that you HAVE to read in a day. It speaks to all of us who have ever wrangled children – in fact I was late to work after spending an hour in the bath trying to get to the end. (Bad hair day ensued).

“I did chuckle afterwards that you can imagine the whole book as a long AIBU, from two people’s viewpoints… just BRILLIANT.”

Red Love: The Story of an East German Family – Maxim Leo


Maxim Leo was born into an East Berlin family whose story, like the GDR’s past, is one of hopes, lies, cruelties and betrayals – but also love.

Compassionate and unflinchingly honest, Red Love is a moving, absorbing and smart memoir of life in a country that no longer exists.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 


Our July Book of the Month is, as Alice Sebold brilliantly called it, ‘a dark cautionary tale hanging out, incognito-style, in what at first seems a traditional family narrative’.

Narrated by the jaunty, sharp and very amusing Rosemary, the novel centres around the disappearance of Rosemary’s siblings, and the impact on her and her scientist parents. It looks like a straightforwardly comic novel but underneath lies an enormous moral dilemma. Fowler sets radical experimentation against personal experience, science against compassion.

Winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award 2014, this book manages to be unusual and funny and sad and disturbing all at once.

All the Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld 


Like The Night Guest, this critically acclaimed novel centres on a woman living in a remote area, threatened by fears that are perhaps real or imagined.

Jake is a woman with a secret, having moved from Australia to a tiny island off the British coast. Her past and present dovetail in a beautifully crafted suspense story that is unsettling and mesmerising.

Often compared to early Ian McEwan and Iain Banks, Wyld is an absolutely exquisite writer and a highly talented young voice.

The Vogue Factor – Kirstie Clements


In May 2012 Kirstie Clements was unceremoniously sacked after thirteen years in the editor’s chair at Vogue Australia. Here she tells the eye-opening story of life in fashion’s fast lane.

From the glamour of photo shoots in exotic locations, fashion shows and of course outrageous fashion, to the ugly side: the infighting, back-stabbing, desperation of models to stay thin. All this sprinkled with an array of glitzy slebs make this a fascinating summer read.

Mom and Me and Mom – Maya Angelou


Having died in May this year, Maya Angelou has left behind an inspirational legacy of strength and perseverance which speaks out to many of us. We’ve selected Mom & Me & Mom as it unearths a deeper layer of Angelou’s compelling life story, revealing a more intimate and heartfelt insight into her relationship with mother Vivian Baxter Johnson.

The novel reveals why Maya was raised by her paternal grandmother and discloses the emotional turmoil Maya suffered as she began to perceive of her mother as a presence of absence.

Touchingly emotional, this story considers the bond between mother and daughter as it is at once torn apart and then reconciled

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon – Fatima Bhutto


Bhutto’s debut novel centres on a single day in the life of a single family living in the tribal areas of Pakistan close to the Afghan border.

A fascinating insight into both real lives and the true politics of the region, the three brothers represent different attitudes: ambition, caution, idealism.

Bhutto is a beautifully economical writer, with no waffle, and she has managed to open up the debate about this troubled area without giving any moral judgement.

A thought-provoking piece of fiction from this highly-regarded writer.

What A Carve Up! – Jonathan Coe 


We decided to include a trip back to the 80s in our summer round-up, after enjoying reading this recent thread.

What A Carve Up was unflinchingly the book of the decade and cited by many Mumsnetters as their favourite book of all time. Coe’s classic captures the political movements of Britain in the 1980s with true humour and reflects on the blurred boundaries between greed and madness through the microscope of Thatcher’s Britain.

What he illuminates is both hilariously acute and touchingly thought-provoking, or as one Mumsnetter says, ‘Ridiculous, but an absolute hoot!’


A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful – Gideon Lewis-Kraus


Frustrated with life in Berlin, author Gideon Lewis-Kraus undertakes three separate ancient pilgrimages. He recounts his travels over hundreds of miles: the thousand-year old Camino de Santiago in Spain with a friend, a solo circuit of eighty-eight Buddhist temples on the Japanese island of Shikoku, and finally, with his father and brother, a migration to the tomb of a famous Hassidic mystic in the Ukraine.

Both succinctly funny and movingly honest, Lewis-Kraus examines with piercing insight our search for purpose in life, and how we travel between past and present in search of hope for our future.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey


We recently interviewed Norwich resident and author Emma Healey here and were blown away by the insight this young woman has into the myriad of ways by which Dementia affects not only the person, but family, friends and the society around them. Crossing genres from family drama to crime, the story unfolds via what is forgotten, half forgotten and that which can never be forgotten- the long ago disappearance of Maud’s sister and the apparent disappearance of her close friend Elizabeth.

Unruly Places: lost spaces, secret cities and other inscrutable geographies by Alistair Bonnett.

 Explore the world’s secret and underground cities, diamond mines and erotic landscapes in this delightfully outlandish travelogue. You’ll never look at a map — or your own backyard — the same way again.

Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay

Everybody is talking about her in the UK but we have been in one the secret for quite some time now! One of the more practical and most accessible new culture critics plants her flag in topics ranging from trigger warnings to Orange Is the New Black in this timely collection of essays.  This is the text for those who constructed their feminism from the pages of teen chick lit such as Sweet Valley High and whose young daughters are currently doing feminist battle in the age of the Hunger Games. Roxane Gay is who Caitlin Moran would like to be and never will.

Check out Roxane Gay’s new suspense novel ‘ An Untamed State’ too. Described by Tayari Jones as “magical and suspenseful”, this is a harrowing novel about the connections between sexual violence and political rage, narrated in a voice at once traumatized and eerily controlled. Roxane Gay is an astute observer of Haitian society and a deeply sympathetic, unflinching chronicler of the compromises people make in order to survive under the most extreme conditions.

Summer Reads – Our recommendations

Our holidays are in sight and with a deliberately enforced policy of no WiFi, we will make the time to read. Pure bliss. Here’s some books we’ve enjoyed in the past and a few that we’ll be taking with us. There’s something for most of you here and we’ll be adding to it as time (and reading) moves on.

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

A wonderful and heartbreaking novel set in post-World War I rural Mississippi. It deals with issues of racial tension, love and betrayal .  Having been unable to put it down the first time I read it, I simply re-read it once again.

The Almond Picker By Simonetta Agnello Hornby

This novel is set in Sicily in 1963 and the author successfully evokes the mood of a small Sicilian town in the throes of a family crisis. It traces the history of one of the town’s most prominent families – unveiling all of their secrets and mysteries. The author is brilliant at describing all of the nuances of life in this town. You feel the heat, smell the air, crave the gossip and feel transported to Sicily. If you’ve been there you will appreciate the authenticity of the description, and if you haven’t you will want to go.

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The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

 The best journeys can be those you didn’t know you needed to take and this is one of those rare children’s novels that both delights the adult reader and returns them to a child’s perspective. Beloved since I first encountered it via my American primary school mistress aged eight, it wasn’t as popular in Britain as it was/is in the USA. Thankfully this parlous state of literary affairs has now been rectified and it has become much loved over here too.

Ruby by Cynthia Bond

This is not just the tale of a young woman clawing her way to survival in a world that seems hellbent on destroying her. It is also a story evolved from the author’s personal history.  When she was a girl, Bond heard the stories of how her aunt, a young black woman, was believed to have been murdered by Ku Klux Klansmen in the 1930s for her relationship with a white man. The crime went unpunished. And Bond herself was the victim of sexual abuse as a child. Hence, Ruby is born of the pain of women as unwilling and unwitting victims. Scenes of raw violence and pain are mitigated by the sheer beauty of the prose, but not an easy read all the same.

Pilgrimage to Dollywood by Helen Morales

How could we NOT want to take this as part balm and consolation for our lack of tickets to see Dolly do Glasto this summer of ’14.  Asides her colossally successful musical career, Dolly is also the only female star to have her own themed amusement park: Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Every year thousands of fans flock to Dollywood to celebrate the icon, and Helen Morales is one of those fans.

In Pilgrimage to Dollywood, Morales sets out to discover Parton’s Tennessee. Her travels begin at the top celebrity pilgrimage site of Elvis Presley’s Graceland and finally to Pigeon Forge, home of the “Dolly Homecoming Parade”. Morales’s adventure allows her to compare the imaginary Tennessee of Parton’s lyrics with the real Tennessee where the singer grew up, looking at essential connections between country music, the land, and a way of life. It’s also a personal pilgrimage for Morales. Accompanied by her partner, Tony, and their nine-year-old daughter, Athena (who respectively prefer Mozart and Miley Cyrus), Morales, a recent transplant from England, seeks to understand America and American values through the celebrity sites and attractions of Tennessee. This celebration of Dolly and Americana is for anyone with an old country soul who relies on music to help understand the world, and it is guaranteed to make a Dolly Parton fan of anyone who has not yet fallen for her music or charisma.

My Ideal Bookshelf by Jane Mount and Thessaly La Force

A good book for the bookshelf voyeurist whose first action upon going to a persons house is to nose through their book collection.. Find out what cool people like Patti Smith, Roseanne Cash, Alice Waters and Judd Apatow stock on their shelves, through interviews and Jane Mount’s book spine paintings.

The book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

“We’re the unknown Americans,” says a character in Cristina Henríquez’s second novel, “the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them.”

That declaration bluntly explains the theme of “The Book of Unknown Americans,” as does the novel’s choral structure — made up of first-person reminiscences from an array of characters from Latin American countries including Mexico, Panama, Guatemala, Paraguay, Nicaragua and Venezuela, all of whom talk to us directly about their reasons for coming to the United States.

Central to the book is the account of the lives of its two central characters: a beautiful Mexican teenager named Maribel Rivera and her admiring friend and neighbor, Mayor Toro. Maribel has learning difficulties as a result of an accident, the details of which slowly become apparent in much the same way as one learns about the back stories of new friends.

Homesickness, dislocution and displacement; a yearning to belong and a yearning to preserve that which makes them different characterises the immigrant experience, something that is enhanced by the stories being set in Delaware- a state that is not the first to come to mind when one thinks of a destination. Very clever. Reading this book on holiday at my brothers home in Germany, listening to his own account of his loneliness and linguistic alienation, watching how he is now assimilated to the point of forgetting some of his native English enhanced the reading, ramming home the brutal reality of being a stranger in a land that represents so much to them prior to their arrival whilst appearing confusingly familiar too.




We meet Emma Healey – author of ‘Elizabeth is Missing’

In her debut novel ‘Elizabeth is missing’, author Emma Healey subverts the commonly held tenet of writing – ‘Write about what you know’ because the central theme of her book, Dementia, is unknowable to all except the person living with it. The condition all too often renders a person unable to adequately express their lived experiences and the essential mystery that lies within the heart of every human becomes ever more so.

Beautiful, painful and rich, ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ defies easy categorisation based as it is on Maud, an older woman with a fading memory who is convinced that her friend has gone missing and whose concerns are not taken seriously. Echoes of the long unsolved disappearance of Maud’s sister seventy years ago soon merge with the present as Maud refuses to be thwarted in her search for answers and we move back and forth in time alongside her.

At just twenty nine years of age, Emma’s ability to capture the essence of dementia is haunting and masterful, even more so for this reader, having had experience of working with people affected by the disease and its patterns of thought and behaviour; the restless searching, dislocution and their polar opposites- a determined fixation upon things or places or events that are all vividly captured along with the awful awareness that something is wrong but the person knows not what.

“I loved writing from the point of view of an older person” says Emma. “I have been writing since I was young but I never finished any of it and it felt boring – writing about my age and experiences. Writing about Maud was freeing because it isn’t about my life or my experiences but I am exploring and seeing her life from my point of view alongside the reader” The original idea of the book grew from a car journey on an ordinary sort of day when Emma ‘s own grandmother expressed a fear that her friend had gone missing. Emma’s gran has Multi Infarct Dementia and at that point was able to be mollified by the reassurances of her granddaughter and retain the information that her friend was only staying with her daughter- “I thought about this over the next year as Gran deteriorated- what would happen if and when a person couldn’t retain an explanation and I looked for ways to explain this condition; it was an excuse to explore it and then my other Grandmother died. She had been the family story teller and before she died I wrote down all the stories of her life. And they went into Maud’s story.”

Initially the idea of writing about something as intimate and painful as this might appear to be a form of catharsis but the end results proved to be more complex than that- “I thought it would be cathartic, there is a lot of Dementia in my family but I have found it quite frightening;  ‘It will be my fate’ and it can be quite terrifying. The misconceptions about the illness upset me more than anything, the idea that you can be less than pleasant to somebody with Dementia ‘because they won’t remember’ whereas in fact the feelings evoked are residual. They know something is wrong, that something bad has happened and they don’t always forget that”

For Emma, part of the process of trying to understand her Grandmothers condition involved learning about it, reading textbooks, dry journals, going to visit her gran and the relative of another friend  in hospital and it was then that the dearth of variety in writing about it became obvious- “A lot of the textbooks were quite boring and didn’t really give any feeling for what it might be like to live with the condition. What it is like for family and for everyone around and this is where fiction is important. Giving the feeling that people with dementia, the elderly, are part of the community and books can reflect that”

The otherness of getting old, of confronting the changes and failings of the body, of having dementia is beautifully depicted. We see a variety of reactions to Maud from the cruel, dismissive mickey taking of the police officer who deals with Maud every time she comes to the station to try to report the disappearance of her friend (and forgets she has been there already) to the kindness of the receptionist at the local paper who tries to help Maud fill out a missing person notice, mistakenly believes a cat is missing, releases she has misunderstood and shows humanity in her attempts to normalise Maud’s forgetfulness and her own attempts to decipher what Maud wants. The scene is amusing at times through Mauds own bewilderment at the receptionists apparent confusion -“She asks if Elizabeth has a collar and it seems like an odd question” but they get there in the end.  The over riding impression is that we all need to be more patient, to be familiar with the small acts of kindness that help make the world less confusing and stressful for many of us, let alone a person with cognitive problems. “People blame the person for not being able to remember” Emma says ” although there is humour in life and I wanted to reflect that people with Dementia use that humour too. It mustn’t be left out but I didn’t want the humour to be related to Maud’s distress, about that distress. I didn’t want people laughing at her and i didn’t want it to be cruel.”

Much is left for the reader to surmise, often in retrospect too. Maud forgot that she had made multiple trips to the police station in her attempts to discover Elizabeth’s whereabouts, making this far more effective a surprise to us because the reader isn’t aware of these visits as they happen. We think ‘oh’ when the officer cruelly points out the truth and we see where his frustration comes from and then recoil from his scathing humour. It is NOT funny. We never lose our place on Maud’s side but we can also empathise with Maud’s daughter, Helen as she tries so hard to retain her patience as she retrieves her mother from yet another wandering off or muddled and failed mission to find Elizabeth. Rich with the imagery of ageing- events and things obscured, buried and obfuscated, becoming faded and dulled but then what was lost returning slowly to the surface.

From the discovery of her sisters buried compact to the memories in her own mind, Maud nonetheless lives a rich sensory life with senses still sharp and the ability to feel emotions connected to smell, feel and sounds. From the vividly tactile description of Maud trailing her fingers along a moss covered wall. peeling away clots of moss to the collections of objects Maud accumulates- seeds, discarded fingernail clippings, stones and feathers and the way the smell of nylon evokes memories of her younger days, we are given a real insight into the world of Maud and a great way in; a way of relating.

Responding to the underlying feelings as opposed to what is being said or done can help relatives and carers to cope with some of the more challenging aspects of the persons behaviour. Maud gets ‘grumpy’ as Emma describes it but we never lose sympathy for her. We see what has gone into building Maud throughout her life and as Maud loses the ability to explain herself and as her personality starts to shatter, we see Maud distilled through her senses. “I am a sensory person, I have always kept a diary of the senses, I suppose you could call it, rather than a day to day diary of what has happened in my life” said Emma. “You can add more meaning to a scene if you add sensory detail, the motives and character can be explained in this way. It is so easy to be pulled out of a book as a reader when much is going on around us. Adding this detail, these little descriptions helps to pull people back in again” Maud is anchored in the natural world and we are anchored too, especially when the reader feels distress and adrift in empathy with Maud. Emma herself is a bit of a gatherer too, describing her collection of ‘bits and bobs’ from her grandmothers’- seeds that are too old to germinate but she is loathe to throw away, bits of costume jewellery, pebbles from beaches and little photos slotted away of nothing in particular.

Realising how Emma shares some of these traits and her previous studies in book art (Emma read for a degree in book arts) we wondered how hard it was for her to hand over creative control to her publishers with regards to the books design and the editing process overall- ” I didn’t have a lot of input with the cover and design. Because of my book binding studies, I knew that a book has to be filled with good content and it is not enough to just produce something that looks beautiful. I couldn’t just adopt a ‘let’s get the plot done’ attitude, it had to be vivid and rich and I had that to get on with”

Publishers were justified in their attempts to win Emma’s heart (and signature on a book contract). From the would be publisher who filled a room with Forget- me -Nots, played Maud’s music and posted ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ posters all over their building to the eventual victor, Penguin who gave her hand-written notes from staff members who had read and loved her book, a fierce bidding war led to a good contract and a very bemused and modestly appreciative Emma who hadn’t quite factored in this level of interest.

What made her choose Penguin? “Karolina Sutton (my editor) had a vision of the book that lay closest to mine. I needed someone who would be strict with me especially during the final draft when I couldn’t see the book anymore. Karolina’s feelings about the book mirror my own” The television rights have already been sold and we predict no end of interest should it get made- Maud is a dream of a role for any actor and the other characters are as finely drawn as she is. As women and men choose to have their own families later in life, we will see more and more parents having to simultaneously cope with children still at home and the needs of ageing and maybe infirm parents. A book and programme that reflects this is of immense value.

What would be Emma’s dream cast and how does she think she will react to a dramatisation of her book? “That is SO difficult to answer when you have lived with the characters for so long. It is hard to imagine your characters embodied in another persons ideas about how they might look or be and even harder to imagine Maud on screen. So much of her is within her own head, showing her from the inside, whereas television is much more about the external, not the inner life and it shows that from the outside in”

Emma Healey -Photo by Tristan Conor Holden

Emma will be appearing at Jarrold’s book department in Norwich on Tuesday, June 17 at 6pm. Tickets are £3, including a glass of wine, with £3 redeemable off purchases of her book and at the Festival read at Literary Ipswich on Monday 30th June between 7-9 pm at Waterstones in Ipswich. Lesley Dolphin, the BBC Radio Suffolk presenter will be joining in the discussion and featuring ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ in her afternoon book club, BBC Radio Suffolk, 30 June  Thank you so much to Emma Healey for this interview and to Lija Kresowaty at Penguin for arranging it.  Find Emma’s Website here

The Tortilla Curtain by T C Boyle – reviewed by 2nd Air Division Memorial Library

The Library blog is maintained by scholars at the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library and each month their book group reviews one book within it. This month our book group, Reading Across the Pond, read T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, a novel that tackles middle-class values, illegal immigration, xenophobia, poverty, the American Dream and entitlement.

 What is the Tortilla Curtain? The Tortilla Curtain references both the physical wall, or border, between Mexico and the United States and the cultural wall or division between the people of these two nations. The novel follows two couples: Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher, a white upper-middle class liberal couple who live in a gated community on the outskirts of Los Angeles; and Cándido and America Rincón, two Mexican illegal immigrants in desperate search of work, food and shelter. A car accident brings Cándido and Delaney into intimate contact and their opposing worlds gradually intersect in what becomes a tragicomedy of error and misunderstanding.

With the narrative voice switching with each chapter, the novel forces its readers to engage with a variety—and sometimes conflicting—perspectives. This adds to the complexity of the book and the complexity of the issues within the book. As one member said, ‘the book forces you to see yourself from very different perspectives—sometimes painfully so.’

usa_mexico_border_03Published in 1994 at the height of the U.S.’s militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, Boyle’s book poignantly demonstrates the sometimes inconsistent demands for citizenship rights and human rights and the often emotional reactions towards immigration and immigrant communities. For many of our book group readers, Boyle’s novel unveils the ‘hypocrisy of the American Dream’, ‘the impossible immigrant experience’ and the criminalization of desperation: ‘Mexicans don’t get the chance to experience the American Dream.’

Though written in an American context, many of our  readers felt there were ‘many parallels with contemporary thinking in Britain’ vis-á-vis immigration. Truth be told the book–despite being twenty years old—continues to hold contemporary resonance within the United States as well.

For these reasons and many more, T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain sparked a very thoughtful and emotive discussion for our book group readers and as a result the book comes highly recommended; it has been one of the group’s favorite books this year and many have been encouraged to read more of Boyle’s work.

‘Tremendously written’

‘Absolutely brilliant book’

‘ Riveting’

‘Evidence of a great writer, strong character development and very tense’

You can borrow a copy of T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain from your local Norfolk Library. Check the catalog and put in your requests here.

T.C. Boyle is an American novelist and short story writerOther books by this author include:

“The Most Serious and Unaddressed Worldwide Challenge is the Deprivation and Abuse of Women and Girls” – Jimmy Carter

We review ‘A Call to Action – Women, religion, Violence and Power’ by Jimmy Carter


President Carter marches to the beat of third wave feminism and  intersectionality in this call to action. He believes that prostitution, the disparity in pay between the sexes, international human (and female) trafficking, oppression in the name of faith and female genital mutilation (FGM) are problems which affect us all, not just women and he does not differentiate between western, first world issues and those of the developing world either. All this, from what appears on paper to be the unlikeliest of sources- a peanut farming, Southern Baptist Nonegarian white man; a man of ninety who has visited over 145 countries as both politician and co- founder of the Carter Centre, set up with his wife Rosalyn to highlight and combat global poverty, inequality and ill-health.

In 2002, Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.” These travels inform his world view that when educational, political, social, economic and cultural structures are owned by men, then women can become trapped, along with their children, in cycles of poverty, war and violence. “There is a pretty good correlation between the overall economic well being of a country and how they treat their women with the right to education, for instance, or the right to jobs,” he stated.

In a A Call to Action, President Carter sets out 23 recommendations “that can help blaze the road to progress” and encourages people to visit The Carter Center web site and work alongside him and his wife to this end.

Yet Carter does not fall into the trap of defining Africa solely by images of disease, corruption and poverty, nor does he hold up the west (and the USA in particular) as shining beacons of How To Do Things. Rwanda has a parliament composed of nearly 2/3 women but in the West, the average is about 23%. We will let that comparison stand without further comment. The USA comes under severe criticism for the way in which the seriousness of rape and sexual assault are diminished by its military and educational establishments who are deemed to be lackadaisical in their efforts to tackle the rising tide of aggressive and overt misogyny that feeds and ‘permits’ such behaviours. The economic motives behind this, of not wanting to damage the reputation of their institutions in these times of aggressive educational marketing, are castigated and in his action plan Carter goes on to state that any right to obstruct the prosecution of an alleged rapist should be removed from commanding officers. Further highlighted is the US commitment to capital punishment and the Hawk like foreign policy which in his eyes, sets a moral example to everybody in the West. The example? That violence is the way to resolve problems.

Those of us who saw the way that AIDS rampaged through continents will also remember the inhumane way in which the christian right influenced foreign and domestic policy: they damaged initiatives aimed at tackling the HIV and AIDS crisis, hindering attempts to promote barrier contraception as a preventative measure and using a warped misinterpretation of the teachings of God to justify this. Countries such as Uganda were starting to make progress in reducing the rate of new infections until far-right American leaders influenced Nancy and Ronald Reagan to take a stand against condoms. These influential ‘Men of God’ (for they were usually men) obstructed further attempts to fund research- research that could have benefited people worldwide. These men who proselytised the love of God, bear direct responsibility for the deaths of many innocents, including children.

Carter is true to his strong faith but he is able to discriminate between it and a church that promulgates a hard-to-span gulf between the teachings of Christ and the interpretation thereof. His own resignation from the Southern Baptist Church as a result of its stricter reinterpretation of scripture which resulted in an edict that ‘wives should always be submissive and subjugated to their husbands’, denying them the right to seek out a chaplaincy, was the act of a courageous and unhypocritical man. Seen in the light of a childhood in the Bible Belt where life was permanently interpreted through that filter of faith, his decision is all the more admirable. He connects the rise in global violence and wilful, self-serving misinterpretation of religious scripture to justify the subjugation of women, to deeper issues of poverty and economic disparity. Where women serve and work at the highest levels, we see a corresponding rise in economic prosperity and social harmony.

It is not surprising that Carter has been seen by some of his countrymen and women as sanctimonious and reflective of the small town Southern Sunday School teacher and Pastor he was for many years. But there is nothing small town about President Jimmy Carter. His influence, thankfully, is global and his vision ahead of its time.