The Little Bookery Round-up: July


A little overdue, but here’s the July round-up. Only six this month, wholly because it included Barkskins and that book is as thick as a tree trunk.

Nearish-future thriller set in San Francisco. I didn’t enjoy as much as I should’ve, perhaps because it didn’t feel ambitious enough (and I guess thrillers will never be my favourite genre). Although I think there’s meant to be a sequel – so things had better ramp up in that one! Fantastically inventive though.

Pre and post WW1 novel by JRR Tolkien’s grandson. The war part was brilliantly written, but the rest really dragged it down. Long and heavy.

It’s difficult to make my mind up about this. On the one hand, books (fiction and memoir) about cancer feel ‘untouchable’ – their very essence is life and death entwined, burning bright, and you can’t not be moved, can’t not feel incredible admiration for those who have been on such a journey (whether they survived or not). The Iceberg is moving and, importantly, naked – peeling away the covers of what someone can think or feel, however ‘ugly’ or unsaintly, when a loved one is dying (in Coutts’ particular case, when her husband and the father of her young son is dying).

However, Coutts is also an artist and writer, and the memoir is heavily literary, sometimes to the point of incomprehension (on my unsophisticated part, at least) or frustration when Coutts uses far more words than she needs to convey something that should be so simple. The book also had an emotional hollow to it – I completely understand that this memoir is from Coutts’ perspective, as much about what her husband’s tumour does to her as well as what it does to him, but she never, ever mentions his siblings or parents until the very end, after his death. The book was ultimately too solipsistic to win a piece of my soul.

My mum passed this onto me just before I started working at the Marine Stewardship Council, so I couldn’t not read it! Although I was already familiar with a lot of the issues it covered, it was pretty interesting (read: DEPRESSING), exploring the histories shared between man and four particular species of fish: cod, bass, salmon and tuna. Trouble is, it was preaching to the choir. It’s obvious to me that we need to stop eating at the top of the fish food chain. It isn’t to most people.

An epic story over some three centuries that follows the (occasionally coinciding) family trees of two Frenchmen arriving in North America when the life-filled land and native people hang on the cusp of their fall.

It was an engrossing read, and an unusual one; Proulx takes the risk of flitting over some characters while settling down with others, and there were a few deaths that upset me very much (others happen cursorily – but then, so many people do die without a glance from the world). It was also fascinating, in almost a morbid way, to witness through words the inexorable changes sweeping across time and geography. That’s the beauty of a really long book like Barkskins. And Proulx occasionally did a wonderful thing, a thing that I have often seen castigated by editors and other writing ‘advisors’ as a waste of words: she paused the narrative to give life to a small and beautiful detail, a minor observance, something that made no difference at all to the story and perhaps even no difference to the character(s). But it made a difference for me. Because sometimes it happens in life. A moment catches you – perhaps a flower scent on the breeze, or a bird’s voice, or a glint of sunset.

To go back to Barkskins, the reason I didn’t rate it higher is that the ending was quite a let-down. The blurb promises to take us from the start of man’s global consumption of forests right up to 2013 and impending environmental apocalypse. But Proulx seemed to panic and lose all sense of pace once she reached the twentieth century, and the chapters covering the 1960s to 2013 are ridiculously rushed. The result is that the impending environmental apocalypse is conveyed to us in a single paragraph on the very last page or so when a character is recalling a trip to the Antarctic. This was not enough. This was unacceptable.

Lewis-Stempel is a green-hearted farmer doing his best to preach both the importance and the viability of farming that doesn’t kill off all the wildlife that share the land with us. Although he shares a love of literature and a habit of liberal quote-use of said literature in his books with other nature-writers of his generation, his prose is simpler, in a way that’s refreshing after other nature books I’ve read recently (as much as I love them!).

In The Running Hare, the author recounts a year spent farming a previously unloved and wildlife-scoured patch of land, working hard to entice birds and worms and hares and all other kinds of creatures back. It’s beautiful and enlightening, though Lewis-Stempel has no qualms about getting angry with modern intensive farming and his pesticide-loving neighbours.

A book that I wish everyone would read (although I had to knock off .5 from the rating because of the author’s abrupt and un-nuanced ridicule of rewilding).

See August’s book round-up for a review on Lewis-Stempel’s Meadowland (actually the predecessor to The Running Hare).




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