Marshwood Vale-based author, Sophy Roberts, gives us her slim pickings for August.
Since the last issue, when we were just coming out of lockdown, I haven’t much changed my habit for slim reads. In these distracting times, I’m still attached to those short books which allow me to escape for an hour or two each day—something I can start and finish in the bath, or before I fell asleep at night—giving me a daily sense of achievement (and much-needed escape) in these otherwise bewildering times.
I have, however, found myself picking up more travel writing than usual, or at least books with a keen sense of place, which is perhaps a reflection of itchy feet. I’m also being drawn to food writing as I dream of eating oysters shucked on a Breton beach.
Here’s my shortlist of books for August—some short stories, a memoir and an ode to a mollusc (recipes included).
The Piano Tuner is an exceptional novel by the American contemporary author, Daniel Mason, about a nineteenth-century Englishman who travels to colonial Burma to fix up an instrument belonging to a Kurtz-like character in the jungle. Its themes, explored in this persuasive fiction, are not unlike Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I was therefore quick to jump on the author’s latest: a marvellous new book of his short stories, A Registry of My Passage Upon The Earth. In it you will find a particularly moving tale about survivor’s guilt, told through the experience of a man who enjoys army re-enactments, and my favourite: a short story about the Dorset-born genius, Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, whose work in biogeography led to Wallace simultaneously articulating the theory of evolution through natural selection. Mason’s writing is transporting, taking you deep into the thick of the Malay forests. Mason’s pen, so adept with fiction, gives spirit to the boundless curiosity of the scientist’s brain (Mason’s ‘other job’ is as a practising psychiatrist and a professor in the department of psychiatry at Stanford University, California). His Wallace story, entitled ‘The Ecstasy of Alfred Russel Wallace’ is also a prescient reminder to contemporary readers of the wonder of the natural world we are doing such a remarkable job of destroying.
Gift from the Sea is an essay written by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, a remarkably brave woman (despite her political muddles tarnishing her reputation) who ventured from Kamchatka to the Arctic with her husband, the aviator Charles Lindbergh. This 1955 instant bestseller records her solo retreat to a cottage by the sea on Florida’s Captiva Island. Using seashells as a means to anchor her meditative journeys, this book is a trove of insights about the necessity of both the near and the far in our lives, particularly among women. The far-flung can also be a difficult interior journey, she says: “We must relearn to be alone”. It is a phrase I have scribbled onto a note on my fridge, to remind myself about silver linings in the Age of Covid.
Optimism is a powerful emotion, especially in times like these. And if there is one thing that makes me salivate with appreciation for life it is the food writing of Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, another American who commanded huge post-war celebrity. Her style is pithy, sensuous, and witty. Her prose weaves like the storytelling of an amusing friend you want to keep plying with wine. “To Mary Frances food was a metaphor for life,” observes the contemporary critic, Ruth Reichl (it was she who flagged up M.F.K Fisher’s writing to me, in an article published by an exceptional blog, lithub.com, which I recommend to everyone). As a small taster of Fisher’s oeuvre, try Consider the Oyster. It reads like an orison for a mollusc, taking us from docks of Marseilles to the gumbo stews of the Deep South, with recipes gleaned from home kitchens, shifty Russians and many more besides. I finished it as this column went to press, her writing leading me straight out of my door to Mark Hix’s new venture, HIX Oyster & Fish Truck, at Felicity’s Farm Shop on the A35, to stock up on supplies.
Sophy Roberts is a freelance journalist who writes about travel and culture. She writes regularly for FT Weekend, among others. Her first book, The Lost Pianos of Siberia—one of The Sunday Times top five non-fiction books for summer 2020—was published in February by Doubleday.