Helen Macdonald is that rare muse illuminating our lives amongst and relationships with nature. After her stunning H Is for Hawk, “Vesper Flights” collects forty eclectic essays, some short, some extended. All are stunningly wonderfully written. The range of topics reveals a questing mind. As a late-to-the-party birder, I adored “Field guides,” exploring their pleasures and how they have changed over the decades. She observes boars, ascends the Empire State Building to watch night-time migrations, follows a Mars-obsessed astrobiologist, muses about the pleasures and idiosyncrasies of bird hides. The title piece is magical, an investigation into why swifts ascend incredibly high twice a day, with amazing discoveries unveiled. I discover that “birdwatcher” is old-time British intelligence slang for “spy.” In the final lengthy essay, Macdonald reflects deeply on “What animals taught me,” dissecting why “none of us sees animals clearly,” and offering a nuanced conclusion. Turning over the final page of Vesper Flights, I found myself almost overcome with emotions and fresh insights. Brilliant.
A comprehensive, practical guide to food in the 2020s, “How to Eat: All Your Food and Diet Questions Answered” might be just what you need to cut through the noise of self-promotion, greed, and idiocy. Mark Bittman was a NYT columnist for years and has written a slew of books about cooking (his How to Cook Everything Vegetarian occupies a huge slab on my meagre cookbook shelf) and David Katz is a physician specializing in preventative medicine. Using an energetic Q&A format, with both the questions and answers written with verve and humor, the authors walk through all the various diets we know and love, then talk about eating dynamics, then cover the main food groups, before finally discussing more general nutrition issues. The approach is refreshingly science-based: what can be truthfully said based on proper research. And the authors make clear that the science of diet is generally very woolly, simply because it is so complex. From the start, they lay out their thesis, one that makes all the sense in the world: be relaxed about what you eat, aiming for that elusive “balance,” but, hey, actually that means mostly vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lentils, seeds, berries, and nuts. Some of the fashionable diets are seen as at least partially sensible, a couple get short shrift. I’m an inveterate reader of books like this and found this one to be the most coherent expression of sanity for a layperson that I’ve come across, a real boon. The Q&A format does sap How to Eat of narrative flow, but if you’re after the real skinny on how to stay skinny and healthy, this is it.
Neither traditional thriller nor standard police procedural, “Sheerwater,” the debut from Leah Swann, piles drama upon drama with calibrated evocation. The book kicks off powerfully: driving to a new life on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, escaping her fraught relationship with a volatile husband, a mother leaves her two young boys momentarily in the car while helping save the passengers of a crashed light plane, and when she returns to the car … the boys are gone. From there the book spirals in intensity, enmeshing the husband and a troubled local doctor. Each time a formulaic plot twist seems certain, author Swann subverts the genre and takes the story askew. The writing is as ferocious as the plot, bringing the coastline and the characters’ inner lives successively into the spotlight. If I caviled at some plotting confusion between the novel’s aims, I suspect that reflects more upon my faith in existing genre tropes than upon anything else, and the pages of “Sheerwater” turned in a blur of fascination. A fine read.
Ron Sexsmith, bard of the velvety, quasi-falsetto crooning voice, has been on my turntable for a decade and a half, but increasingly I’ve found his songs too minor key and saccharine. His trademark simple, evocative singer-songwriter style hovers between steely, melancholic brilliance and sappy pap, and even though every one of his albums contains at least one of the former, the latter had begun to dominate. Thankfully, “Hermitage,” his sixteenth, arrests that trend, and it’s the strongest Sexsmith since the early noughties. Known as a “songwriter’s songwriter,” Sexsmith ensures that each song is finely calibrated, with only a couple upbeat, the instrumentation mostly piano and strings, real music hall stuff. Channeling The Kinks like crazy, time and time again, the songs burrow into the brain after two or three listens. It’s hard to choose highlights but do listen to the unforgettable lilting melody of “Spring of the Following Year”; “Glow in the Dark Stars,” one of his most sublime songs ever, with earworm chorus and melody; and the short, piano-led, world weary “Whatever Shape Your Heart Is In.”
Jason Isbell and I haven’t crossed listening paths before and, based on “Reunions,” that’s my bad, for he is a terrific, earnest singer-songwriter in the vein of a Nashville-tilting Tom Petty or The Avett Brothers. His voice rings out true and high, his songs are impassioned slabs of honesty and narrative, and his band rocks hard and smoothly. Isbell’s soaring voice calling “What’ve I Done to Help” high in his register, on the haunting opening track (over six minutes long), is an immediate highlight but there is not a lowball track. Gentler songs, generally nostalgic, like “Dreamsicle” and “Only Children,” hold up the gaps between the stirring anthemic self-examinations such as “Be Afraid” (on which he roars: “Be afraid / be very afraid / but do it anyway / do it anyway”). Apparently Isbell is a recovered alcoholic and on “It Gets Easier,” he hollers the pain of the continuing call of the bottle. What a rousing treat discovering “Reunions” has been!
A concise examination of the carbon implications of a typical day’s meal, “Climate-Smart Food” is an easily entertaining ride through complex terrain. How does a cup of coffee impact my carbon footprint? My morning toast? How could my evening’s rice portion be better managed, across its lifecycle, to reduce emissions? How will global warming effect chocolate? How much more carbon intensive is chicken than my vegetarian meals? Dave Reay, a UK climate scientist, addresses such aspects of fourteen elements of a day’s three meals. Jammed with illuminations, it’s well worth a read, although some additional context would have helped a neophyte like me understand whether I should eat that banana (100-200g of carbon equivalent). And is “Climate-Smart Food” aiming to educate me about my food choices, or to educate policymakers about cutting food’s emissions, or to inform me about how a given food might suffer under global warming? I suspect the author intends all three but I longed for greater direction. Reay is a smooth, engaging stylist and this is a valuable resource.
“Three Dollars” made Australian author Elliot Perlman and it was one of my favorite books of that year, but since then I have felt that Perlman’s work has suffered under the weight of serious intentions. “Maybe the Horse Will Talk,” despite being a satire clearly intended to be comedic (and it does have some funny moments), labors over too many pages with a plot of overpowering complexity and characters that often perform roles. The basic story – a rookie lawyer, struggling to save marriage and finances, offers to make a loathsome client’s sexual harassment charges go away – is topical but the story’s machinations paled a bit for me. Perlman writes wonderful dialogue and the corporate world of Melbourne, if a tad over-parodied, rang true. Overall, an odd mixture of lad-lit and serious satire that makes for a slow read.
I’m as bedeviled by short-term horizons as most of us, so I turned to “The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World” with bated breath. With good reason: this book is a panoramic overview of a philosophy/mindset of far-seeking intergenerational morality. Philosopher Krznaric is a superb writer in charge of his material: wonderful, memorable structural organization of the book; comprehensive and fair-minded surveying of the terrain; and just the right amount of detail. He loves a pithy explanatory image and “The Good Ancestor” has a number of brilliant visual aids. I’ve always believed in responsibility towards younger and future humans, and recently I’d set myself a motivational timeframe of 2100, based on when my grandchildren might have grandchildren, but Krznaric has persuaded me to peer much, much further ahead, to expand my moral ambit. I encourage you to read “The Good Ancestor.” Its weighty subject is handled with such unassuming aplomb that I can guarantee at least one of his “six ways to think long” will strike a chord. And the second half of the book covers motivating examples of others acting rather than just thinking long-term. Scintillating.
Wildly inventive time travel always makes for fascinating sci-fi novels, and “Permafrost,” from the pen of renowned Alastair Reynolds, crackles with ingenious plotting. Set in the frigid wilderness of the Arctic in 2080 and 2028, a future Earth, poised on the precipice of doom, sends an elderly teacher back into the past to tweak their present. Valentina Lidova is an engaging heroine and the book’s early pages, chock full of character twists and explanatory time travel science, make for sprightly, intelligent reading. At 176 pages, novella length, I felt the the necessarily complex plot swamps any sense of story, and towards the end, when AIs are introduced, my involvement waned. So … intriguing ideas and a believable protagonist make “Permafrost” a short but perhaps uninspiring futuristic read.
“Years and Years,” a kinetic yet character-rich drama from the mind of Russell T. Davies, rockets through its six episodes spanning a decade and a half into Britain’s future from the present day. We follow the Manchester Lyons family, two sons and two daughters, together with their grandmother, plus a constellation of brilliant bit players surrounding them, as the United Kingdom decays in a surreal but oh-so-recognizable extension of the Brexit era. From the first minute, there is no let up; the tightly directed script sprints so fast that viewer attention cannot divert. Each of the core family characters plays a key role, and the acting is superb, especially from Russell Tovey (as Daniel Lyons), Ruth Madeley (sister Rosie), Rory Kinnear (brother Stephen), and Emma Thompson (rampaging across the screen as populist politician Vivienne Rook). The plot plunges England and indeed the world into turmoil, refugees flood borders, technological inventions spring up, the family loves and bickers … what a maelstrom. The cinematography is brilliant and the dialogue crackles. All up, an immersive character study of an absorbing family amidst chaos. Highly recommended.