Thursday 30 June 2022

The Draw of the Sea, Wyl Menmuir

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This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thanks to Random Things Tours and Aurum Press for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

In this meditative memoir Menmuir explores the appeal of the sea, its danger and healing powers. In short chapters he meets an eclectic host of characters, from those who spend hours searching beaches for washed up treasure to photographers, surfers, amateur marine biologists, and free divers. His focus is largely on the coast of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly but he also ventures as far as Svalbard. For many the sea provides a sense of peace, but its danger is never far from mind, nor the struggles of those trying to make their home in small coastal communities.

Menmuir enthusiastically (and occasionally tentatively) throws himself into the pursuits of those he meets. Beachcombing (or wrecking, as it’s known in Cornwall) becomes an absorbing pastime, but he comments on the conflict between the joy he feels at finding small pieces of plastic toys and the guilt at taking more pleasure in them than his natural finds. He is all too aware of the damage human activity is wreaking on the natural world. He meets a lobster fisherman, Jof Hicks, who goes about his work consciously and sustainably, handcrafting the lobster pots and fishing only in small quantities. When questioned on whether it’s worth the time he replies that it’s good exercise, peaceful, and time that millions of others fritter away staring at screens.

He introduces us city-dwellers to a different way of life, where families head straight to the beach for some surf time after school and where your plumber might vanish for weeks in the middle of a job on getting wind of some irresistible waves. Threats to the way of life are also highlighted with communities decimated in a wave of second homes that remain empty for the majority of the year. This, and other factors such as the profitability of short-term lets, means that many locals are being priced out of the areas they were born.

Despite the challenges and conflicts of coastal life it’s also clear that the connection to the water can be hugely beneficial for mental health. The peace and exhilaration of free-diving and the integral focus on controlling your breath turns it into an almost meditative exercise. I was also absolutely fascinated to learn about the mammalian dive reflex which allows humans to hold their breath for much longer under water than they would above the surface.

In the early days of the Covid pandemic photographers Mike Guest and Nick Pumphrey began the Dawn Days of May project, in which they took a wetsuit and camera into the sea at dawn every day of the month. It quickly became clear how grounding and calming the experience was. Enthralled by the changing nature of the waterscape and the beauty of the dawn, the project garnered a following on Instagram and inspired others to set out on similar adventures.

This is a fascinating, varied book that gives an insight into many lives and the central role the sea plays in them. You are able to easily dip in and out, never knowing quite what you’ll find in the next chapter. It certainly made me want to spend more time exploring our coastline. Special mention should also be given to the Holly Ovenden, designer of the physical book, for its entrancingly beautiful cover and endpapers that will give you a little taste of the sea wherever you’re reading.

Saturday 18 June 2022

(M)otherhood: On the choices of being a woman, Pragya Agarwal

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In this blend of memoir and essay, Agarwal takes a deep dive into reproductive health while exploring her own motherhood journey with great honesty. She lays out in her introduction that she is writing from personal experience and that the book will therefore not cover every scenario. Nonetheless, she reminds us of the intersectional nature of the subject throughout, detailing how various factors can lead to very different experiences and outcomes.

An overarching theme is that of stigma and control in the way female bodies are viewed and treated. She demonstrates how this is true from the first signs of menstruation through to problems with fertility and the lack of purpose ascribed to women once they are beyond their childbearing years. The discussion of control over women’s bodies and the right to access safe and legal abortion feels particularly pertinent at the moment.

A lot of research supports the writing of this book. I was especially interested to learn about the realities of ageing sperm and how the age of men impacts fertility. It is a widely held belief that for women there is a ticking clock for having a baby, but that for men it is possible to father a child at any age. Although this might technically be true, the quality decreases greatly, potentially causing health issues in the foetus and playing an important role in miscarriage. Another area I’d never thought much about is how pregnancy tests were carried out before the ones we’re so familiar with today. It turns out injecting mice and frogs with a woman’s urine was used well into the twentieth century!

Alongside these fascinating tidbits and thought-provoking discussions is the tale of Agarwal’s own journey with fertility. Her first pregnancy which almost killed her was later followed by secondary infertility, punishing rounds of IVF, and ultimately surrogacy. Amid her desperation to become a mother again she considers what it is that drives her. Looking into surrogacy opens a discussion about ethics, guilt, and the narrow definitions society uses for pregnancy and motherhood. She struggles against doubts that she’s not a real mother because she’s not able to carry her babies or breastfeed them. New motherhood also wracks her with guilt not just about her newborns but also her teenaged daughter who’s increasingly fending for herself. It is an emotional book, evoking the endless worries and conflicts of trying and becoming a parent. Her husband’s presence in the book is on the periphery, appearing to reassure her against her concerns and providing a supportive presence. We don’t see much of how the process affects him.

This is a moving, well-researched book that will make you angry at times and deeply moved at others. The focus is on the impact of a woman’s body, and society’s view of it, on her life choices, but Agarwal also touches on other subjects. Most notably, her feelings of displacement, having grown up in India but now living in the UK. Both countries simultaneously feel like home and don’t. Her feeling of otherness comes through gently to start but more forcefully as her story develops. An engrossing, informative read.

Friday 10 June 2022

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

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We first meet Charles Bovary as a schoolboy mocked for his outlandish fashion and an unfortunate mispronunciation of his name due to nerves. His mother dotes on him, focusing her attention on him and the running of their household instead of her increasing frustration with her husband. After one short marriage he finds himself enjoying the freedoms of single life, but then he meets Emma Rouault. He is completely besotted with her and she assents to marriage, imagining her life as a newlywed will meet all of her romantic dreams. Unsurprisingly, life doesn’t quite match up to her imagination, and she embarks on a series of affairs with tragic consequences.

Emma is immature, vain, and foolish. She abuses her husband’s naivety and love for her, thrusting them into grave financial difficulties. She tries only vaguely to conceal her misdemeanours and many of their friends suspect her indiscretions. Charles is loyal and blind to the reality of his marriage. Emma resents him for his happiness while she is so disappointed in her choice of spouse. Her expectations, however, were unlikely to be met, believing that he should know everything and excel in many fields. Charles is broadly mediocre, but in her distress she misses the value of his devotion. Despite her many flaws, Emma is not an unlikable character. Indeed, her belief that everyone else is living a far more exciting, lavish life is one that many can relate to. For those who have felt the depths of darkness descend, her despair at thinking about a future of misery will be familiar, the feeling of panic and helplessness at a future she does not want is claustrophobic and intensely upsetting.

This is a book of high drama and hoped-for passion. Emma does not do emotions by half, imagining herself in a great romantic story. It also deals with the more mundane aspects of married life, so despised by Emma. Charles feels the familiar conflict between pleasing his wife and obeying his mother’s wishes. He is stuck in a difficult situation with a demanding wife who doesn’t love him (a fact he remains blissfully unaware of for the most part) and a mother jealous of the affection he has for his wife, perceiving it to be a rejection of the love she has provided. He is no great romantic hero, but he is kind and loyal. Unfortunately, his story is never destined to end well. He is somewhat reminiscent of Emily Brontë’s Edgar Linton.

Flaubert is famous for having spent years writing and re-writing Madame Bovary, obsessing over every sentence. The result is a compelling read with a dramatic conclusion. 

Wednesday 1 June 2022

Tasting Sunlight, Ewald Arenz (trans. by Rachel Ward)

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This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thanks to Random Things Tours and Orenda Books for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

On a hot September morning Sally runs away from the clinic where she is being treated for anorexia. Liss is steadily going about her business in the fields when her tractor gets caught in a ditch. Sally stopping to help sets in motion a friendship that will change both of their lives. Liss invites Sally to stay the night and soon she’s been there for several weeks, eagerly absorbing information about the farm. Her parents are searching for her, and the new friends can’t stay in their little bubble forever - will the progress they’ve made be strong enough to survive the intrusion of the outside world?

When Sally arrives she is angry and distrustful, tired of the endless fake concern of those paid to look after her. She finds Liss refreshing - she doesn’t ask probing questions, and when she asks for assistance Sally knows she can say no if she wants to. Her life has so often felt out of her control and disjointed, as though she were born into the wrong family, that this new-found autonomy does her the world of good. She loves being around nature and learning how to use the produce to make food and drink. On the farm exercise feels purposeful, and it helps her begin to reframe her relationship with her body.

Liss harbours a lot of hurt - ghosts of her father make it hard for her to enjoy the land, and there’s an unspecified loss that sucks the meaning out of her life. Sally’s presence gives her company for the first time in many years, and her innocent wonder at her home offers her the opportunity to see her life through new eyes. She resists the temptation to intervene, but there are moments where she slips up and things become fraught between the two of them. Sally sometimes pushes too hard to get to the bottom of Liss’s secrets, seemingly unaware of the contradiction between her own desire for privacy and her actions.

In the latter parts of the book we learn more about Liss’s past and why she has ended up alone, living a life she never wanted. It is a sad tale, and when Sally learns snippets of it through third parties she is forced to confront how much she really knows about this woman who she lived with for a month.

Farm life is described vividly, and although the hard work and less desirable aspects of it are not hidden, it sounds quite idyllic. The changing of the seasons and the shifting landscape are brought to life. You can clearly picture the colours, the drops of rain on the plants, the smells and noises. Ultimately it feels peaceful and wholesome and it is this combined with friendship that helps both Liss and Sally see a little hope in the world.

This is a beautiful, evocative book that will transport you to another life. I didn’t want to leave.

Tasting Sunlight is out on 23rd June 2022, pre-order your copy: