So I'm going to let myself right off the hook, and simply list the titles here, maybe adding a few enthusiastic words, and perhaps even promising to come back later and add in some quotations I think I'd like to copy out (for you and for me). Our plane flies out next week, but I'm going to head to the city this weekend and stock up on family visits and grandkid snuggles. If I find time, I'll come back later to tell you what I've loaded up on my Kobo for reading on planes and trains and in hotels and rented houses. Meanwhile, though, with apologies, here are my recent reads, a very disparate bunch indeed:
Robert MacFarlane's The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot is a wonderfully satisfying book to savour, as I did, over many months. Dipping in and out, I marvelled at, and was delighted by, MacFarlane's easy erudition, which always enhances rather than obscures the landscapes he walks through. His descriptions are rich and precise and brilliantly evocative so that I want to set out with a pack myself. And he links words, shaped by tongues, collectively throughout a long cultural history, with paths over the earth, shaped by feet, collectively throughout a long cultural geo-history. Really magnificent, and I now want to read everything else he's written. The sections on poet Edward Thomas and the painter Eric Ravilious, the chapter on walking through Palestine, the tense description of walking across tidal sands under threat of obliterating fog . . . wonderful stuff. Highly, highly recommended.
Paths are the habits of a landscape. They are acts of consensual making. It's hard to make a footpath on your own.
Serendipitously, I read Robert MacFarlane's chapters (on my Kobo, which I deeply regret, and will have to remedy by picking up a hard copy) in between chapters from Sara Maitland's Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of our Forests and Fairytales. Maitland also gets us out into our old ways, hers taking us into the forests of Britain and linking these forests, the intersection they represent of nature and culture, with the fairytales of northern Europe. And the book is as magical as Maitland's subject matter. Particularly appealing are the rewritten fairy and/or folk tales she offers at the end of each forest's chapter, demonstrating brilliantly how alive these old stories still are, how connections can still be made between the oral culture that told those tales and our own culture, moving from print into the ether as we may be. . .
And the book also complements Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk in some ways, particularly the adventuring into contemporary forests which hold the old at their heart, a memory of use according to class, the question of ownership of the commons, and so on.
Are you sensing how much I'm holding back here? How much I want to tell you about these two? I hope you get a chance to pick up a copy, perhaps at your library. I wouldn't say that either of these is a quick read -- I've taken many months picking them up and putting them down, enjoying a chapter here and there. But I can say emphatically that they will stir your imagination and entertain and educate.
Much lighter fare: Nina George's The Little Paris Bookshop. I must admit I was skeptical for the first chapter or so, but this one won me over. It ties a grand love story together with an adventurous road trip from Paris to the south of France and a fascinating conceit which playfully posits bookseller as healer. A book you'll enjoy and then want to lend to friends!
Also light reading. The Absent One, the second novel in Jussi Adler-Olsen's Department Q mysteries featuring Detective Carl Moerk and his intriguing and often amusing sidekick, cleaner-turned-assistant Ahmad. Honestly, I found the plot in this stretched credulity, but I so much enjoyed meeting Moerk and Ahmad in the first novel (The Keeper of Lost Causes) that I'm willing to extend considerable latitude. Character development and some ongoing narrative connections from Keeper hold my interest, and I'll definitely be reading the rest of the series.
Now I realize that I also have to at least mention Atul Gawande's Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. I really want to come back to tell you more about this surgeon's important -- and, I hope, game-changing -- critique of North American medicine's approach to illness and death. I would try to connect what Paul and I have experienced as our parents moved, each of them, through cancer to death, two of them suffering cognitive decline along the way, my parents being fortunate in having significant autonomy, at home, right until their last week, his being not quite as fortunate but still managing to avoid getting caught up in the horrid cycles of surgery and intubation and chemical regimes that Gawande, a surgeon, comes to deplore. This book is sobering but also inspiring, realistic, honest, and, finally, hopeful, particularly in the many case studies Gawande offers, testifying to the good endings that are possible if we learn to admit and accept the inevitability of death. Honestly, I think this is must reading for anyone with an elderly or ill loved one -- or, say, anyone who thinks s/he might become ill or might someday die. So yes, I mean everyone!
And before I'm done, one last novel I must give short shrift to as well: A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson's tour de force companion to the splendid Life after Life. All I will say about this, for now, is that it has a deliciously sly narrator who will have you thumbing your way back to make connections between repeated images or words or phrases -- or between different characters' perceptions or memories of a scene. Atkinson delights me in the way she stretches the stylistic possibilities while never allowing story-telling or character development to lag. And she draws her setting so well -- England, across the 20th and into the 21st century, in a particular social class. Once elevated, drifting gently toward a muddling middle. . . .
Okay, that's it! I've not said anything about Karl Ove Knausgaard's A Death in the Family, but I'm currently reading his A Man in Love, and I suspect that I'll eventually write more about the overall series, My Struggle. Not that there isn't enough written about this staggeringly impressive work all over the Internet -- check out this review essay in The New Yorker if you're interested.