Writers notice more. After initiating a lockdown blog in March, Marina Benjamin solicited more than forty essays, pieces, and poems from writers around the world, and “Garden Among Fires: A Lockdown Anthology” is the end result. Consider it a snapshot response, a mix of observation and insight. I was seeking perspective, so I was receptive, but even I was surprised how welcome this eclectic mix of intelligent missives proved to be. “Our worlds are convulsed,” writes Rebecca Abrams, “our daily lives horribly contracted, but I sense also – faintly as yet – the possibility for expansion.” For Sian Norris, “right now hope is the thing with feathers.” I shed a tear on reading Richard Zimler’s poetry: “If it were time to kiss your kids goodbye / Could you pin wings on them and let them fly?” And again with Samantha Ellis’s immersing tales of her three-year-old’s Covid-19 fears. Cherry Smyth’s image: “Rooks marshall the wires.” “In this hiatus,” muses Julia Bell, “I feel as if I’m being tasked with pausing to look at my life through the mediation of brain time.” Katherine May writes about “the fear that looks like heroism from a distance, and the fear that eats us whole.” Fittingly, proceeds go to charity. A Coronavirus-inspired minor gem.
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!