I'm away with the fairies this week...

Arthur Rackham

Actually I'm away at a long-delayed-by-the-pandemic family gathering. I'll be back next week, and Myth & Moor will resume with a post on Monday, August 17th.

Tilly, meanwhile, is doing well. We're still waiting on one lab result, but the others have been encouraging. The hair on her tummy (where it was shaved for tests) is starting to grow in and she continues to be a little trooper. Alas, I'm the one under the weather now, but we're hoping this gentle week with family will bring my strength back too.

Arthur Rackham

In lieu of this week's posts, here's a bit of recommended reading gathered from hither and yon:

~Hope.docx by Sabrina Orah Mark, from her brilliant fairy tale column, Happily (Paris Review)

Pippi and the Moomins, as an antidote to fascism, by Richard W. Orange (Aeon)

Can Reading Make You Happier?, an essay on bibliotherapy by Ceridwen Dovey (The New Yorker)

Typos, tricks and misprints, an essay on the weirdness of English spelling by linguist Arika Okrent (Aeon)

True to Nature, nature authors on the children's books that inspired them, by Melissa Harrison (The Guardian)

Animal Agents by Amanda Rees (Aeon)

The Joy of Being Animal by Melanie Challenger (Aeon)

What the Animal World Can Teach Us About Human Nature, a conversation between Carl Safina and Nick McDonell (Literary Hub)

Six Questions for Charlotee McConaghy, author of Once There Were Wolves (Orion)

Plants Feel Pain and Might Even See, an excerpt from Peter Wohlleben's new book The Heartbeat of Trees (Nautilus)

An interview with Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass (The Guardian)

Laurie Lee's Loving Letters to a Secret Daughter by Vanessa Thorpe (The Guardian)

His Fair Lady, a fascinating piece on George Bernard Shaw's wife by Donna Ferguson (The Guardian)

The Wyrd Ones, in which Robert Macfarlane and Johnny Flynn discuss their collaborative album Lost in the Cedar Wood, inspired by The Epic of Gilgamesh (Literary Hub)

Fairies by Arthur Rackham

And to listen to:

Robert Macfarlane on Desert Island Disks (BBC Radio 4)

Kyle Whyte and Jay Griffiths in conversation, discussing indigenous cultures and climate change (Literary Hub)

Jeff VanderMeer and Lili Taylor in conversation, on books, birds, and beauty (Literary Hub)

An interview with Melissa Febos, author of the devastating new essay collection Girlhood (Literary Hub)

Katherine Langerish at the Glasgow Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, discussing her fine new book on C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia   

Honouring the Ancestors, an episode in the "Wise Women: The Vicar and the Witch" podcast (the witch here being my friend and Dartmoor neighbour Suzi Crockford)

An interview with Hedgespoken's Tom Hirons (another good Dartmoor friend), Episode 16 on Sharon Blackie's podcast This Mythic Life

Arthur Rackham

The classic fairy paintings above are by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).


Recommended reading

On the bench outside the studio

"The essayist's job," writes Rebecca Solnit "is to gather up the shards or map them where they are, to find the pattern out there or make one with words about the disconnections and mysteries. This reading of the word is a form of travel, questing and searching and gathering. Essays are restless literature, trying to find out how things fit together, how we can think about two things at once, how the personal and the public can inform each other, how two overtly dissimilar things share a secret kinship, how intuitive and scholarly knowledge can cook down together, how discovery can be a deep pleasure."

I couldn't agree more. We're living in a Golden Age of essays due to the number of online magazines and journals that publish them -- particularly personal essays, many of them incredibly moving. It's a shame that the word "essay" connotes something dry and scholarly to many readers. The essays I love are anything but, and prejudice against the form (like the old prejudice against fantasy fiction) causes too many people to miss out on a whole field that is incredibly vital and exciting right now.

Best American Essays

A friend of mine only recently stumbled upon the particular pleasure of essays, and in order to feed his growing addiction he wrote to ask for a list of my favorite collections published in last few years. 

"The best essays?" I answered. "That's easy. Start with Best American Essays, edited by Robert Atwan, along with a different guest editor every year. I read it religiously and always discover new writers there."

"I'll check them out," my friend replied. "But what I really want are your favourite writers. Over the last, oh, two-three years, which collections did you truly love? I'm making a reading list."

A stack of good reading

I duly compiled a list for my friend -- and, with his blessing, I'm also sharing it here: an extremely subjective handful of recent favorites. (By "recent," following my friend's guidelines, I stuck to books published from 2017 to the present.)

My bias runs to personal essays (of a memoirist nature) and those on the subjects of writing, nature, or living with illness...but there's not a lot that I won't at least try. Restricting my picks to a reasonable number was hard, so I made this my measure: Did I like the book enough to re-read it? Or, in the case of more recent publications, am I likely to re-read it? That whittled the list down to eight.

Tilly disapproves

In alphabetical order, so that I don't have to rank them:

1. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (Martiner Books, 2018)

In this stunning collection, Chee writes about his childhood in coastal Maine, his years as a gay activist in San Francisco, and his long, fraught process of becoming a novelist in New York City. Chee's childhood included abuse, so I ought to give a trigger warning here. He writes about the subject in manner that isn't dark and heavy but the opposite: compassionate and luminous. These are wonderful essays, beautifully rendered: honest, funny, searing, inspiring.  (Go here for my post on the book.)

2. Out of the Woods: Seeing Nature in the Everyday by Julia Corbett (University of Nevada Press, 2018)

The title says it all really. These are wide-ranging essays on nature in urban and other non-wilderness settings: informative, eloquent, and fascinating. I picked this one up when I saw it had won the 2018 Reading the West Award, thoroughly enjoyed it, and learned a thing or two about the natural world as well.

3. Hard to Love by Briallen Hopper (Bloomsbury, 2019)

I adore this book, full of smart, beautifully written, warm-hearted essays about family, community, and relationships in their many forms: relationships with siblings, housemates, friends, lovers, books. (The linked essays about the "friendship circle" around a fellow writer dealing with cancer are particularly wonderful.) Please read my post about it, and then please seek out a copy. I've re-read this one twice already, only to love it more each time.

Three excellent collections

4. Pain Woman Takes Your Keys & Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber (The University of Nebraska Press, 2017)

Here's another collection I still can't get off my mind -- a beautifully rendered inquiry into living with illness and disability. I know that sounds grim, but it's not -- and the quality of Huber's writing is not to be missed. (I wrote about it here: Spinning straw into gold, pain into art.)

4. Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie (Sort of Books, 2019)

Although I've admired the previous books by this Scottish poet and naturalist, nothing prepared for the power and beauty of Surfacing. With settings ranging from the Orkney islands to Alaska and China, these essays emerge from the liminal place where nature and culture meet, written in prose that invites comparison to Nan Shepard and Barry Lopez, which is no small praise. (I wrote about Surfacing here.)

5. The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy (Penguin, 2019)

I read an excerpt from Levy's slim, powerful collection, and immediately had to track down a copy -- which I then devoured in one long sitting. It was worth the lost sleep! Although written in the form of essays, each essay builds on the ones before it to create an incisive memoir covering the end of Levy's marriage, the death of her mother, and the raising of her teenage daughter, entwined with life as a working writer in London. So many of the other memoir-style essays I've enjoyed in the last few years have been by the younger generation of authors (Briallen Hooper, Emilie Pine, Jia Tolentino, etc.), whereas Levy is writing about the concerns of middle-age, with the insights that come only from years of hard experience. Her wit is sharp, her language exquisitely precise, and the book is unforgettable.

Hound

6. Notes to Self by Emilie Pine (Penguin, 2019)

This debut collection from a young Irish writer is incredibly assured and beautifully penned. Pine writes personal essays grounded in her own life, but wrests universal insights from her material -- whether she's discussing her deeply eccentric parents (one of whom was a celebrated Irish journalist), the female body (her essay on menstruation is a tour-de-force), the fertility industry, or emotional burnout among Irish academics. I loved this book, which deserved its place on so many Best of the Year lists last December. 

7. The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations by Toni Morrison (Pisces Books, 2019)

It's a bit of a grab-bag of material, this one -- but since I'd happily read Morrison's grocery lists, it is well worth seeking out nonetheless. The best of the work gathered here is smart, fierce, provocative, and inspiring, and even the minor pieces are good. What a giant of literature we have lost.

8. Erosions: Essays of Undoing by Terry Tempest Williams (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019)

Williams is another writer whose work I can't get enough of, and her latest collection is no exception. Based in the Utah desert, she argues passionately for the land and its people, in prose that is achingly personal as well as political. Her work is endlessly inspiring to me, and this gorgeous new collection is one I'll return to many times. (But if you are new to Williams, don't start here; start with Refuge and work your way up.)

Erosion by Terry Tempest Williams

P1100386

And here are a few other good reads:

Jia Tolentino's Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion (HarperCollins, 2019) and Heather Havrilesky's What if This Were Enough? (Doubleday, 2018) are debut collections from two young American journalist, mixing personal essays with cultural pieces that are smart and insightful. (I wrote about the latter book here.) Late Migrations: A History of Love & Loss by Margaret Renkl (Milkweed Editions, 2019) is a lyrical volume of very short, bittersweet pieces on nature and family in the American south. Illustrated by the author's brother, it's a beautiful book and not quite like anything else. Forms of Enchantment: Writing on Art & Artists by British mythographer and scholar Marina Warner (Thames & Hudson, 2018) contains erudite essays on fine artists whose work has a magical bent -- and not necessarily artists you would expect, mixing the likes of Paula Rego and Kiki Smith with Louise Bourgeois, Tacita Dean, and Jumana Emil Abboud.

For feminist essays that really make you think, I loved The Mother of All Questions and Call Them by Their True Names by American cultural philosopher Rebecca Solnit (Granta, 2017 and 2018), and Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults (Bloomsbury, 2018) by the fearless young British writer Laurie Penny.

Forms of Enchantment by Marina Warner

Late Migrations

I am genuinely addicted to the Best American Essays series -- including the excellent backlist of older volumes. Each edition has a slightly different emphasis depending on the guest editor of the year. The 2009 edition, for example, was edited by Mary Oliver, and thus contains a larger-than-usual  number of nature essays; the most recent was edited by Rebecca Solnit, and is weighted toward political and cultural pieces.

P1080846

I also highly recommend Slightly Foxed, a quarterly magazine full of charming, informative essays about books and authors of an older vintage: favorite books, forgotten books, notorious books, and much more. The magazine is published here in England, but well worth the extra postage price if you subscribe from other parts of the world. It's simply delightful. (And very English.)

Online, I recommend Longreads, which links to essays and interesting works of journalism from a wide variety of sources, as well as commissioning original material themselves. For fantasy essays, I love The City of Lost Books, the wonderful blog produced by Rob Maslen, head of the Fantasy Literature masters programme at the University of Glasgow. And finally, for all who love fairy tales: if you aren't already following Sabrina Orah Mark's extraordinary essays on fairy tales and motherhood in Paris Review, head over to her "Happily" column and read them immediately.

Slightly Foxed

Are you an essay lover yourself? If so, what else would recommend (published between 2017 and the present)? Many of the authors I've listed above are female, white, and writing in English, so recommendations of recent essay collections by male and nonwhite authors would be especially welcome. 

Still no dogs.

The quote by Rebecca Solnit is from The Best American Essays, 2019, edited by Solnit and Robert Atwan (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin, 2019). All rights reserved by the author.


Recommended reading

Bedtime Story by Chris Dunn

Our rural Internet service has gone from bad to worse, and I'm going to have to start sending Myth & Moor posts by friendly mice at this rate. I'm working on getting this fixed, and in the meantime I have some recommended reading for you:

* Terry Tempest William's exquisite essay on land, ceremony, and the gods among us.

Morsel's Bath by Lauren Mills* Robert Macfarlane on the new animism.

* Emma Marris on myth and soil.

* Sharon Blackie on a hidden pilgrim trail
in the Scottish Highlands.

* Rachel Cusk on Celia Paul, Cecily Brown, and being a woman artist.

* Melissa Ashley with a short piece on French salon fairy tales. Ignore the claim that these writers "invented" fairy tales or the classic fairy tale heroine archetypes  -- that's simply incorrect. The archetypes are as old as the oral storytelling tradition, and there were other important literary fairy tale writers at least a century earlier. But on why the French stories were so radical for their time, the author is on stronger ground. (If you'd like to know more, I have an essay on the subject here.)

The Letter by Omar Rayyan title=

Autopirum by Omar Rayyan

Brian Floca (from the Poppy stories by Avi)

Art above: Bedtime Story by Chris Dunn, Morsel's Bath by Lauren Mills, The Letter and Autopirum by Omar Rayyan, and an illustration from Avi's Poppy stories by Brian Floca.


Writers and islands

Barnhill

Having lost my heart to the Hebridean islands off Scotland's west coast, I'm fascinated by the archipelago's natural and cultural history. If you are too, I recommend David Brown's essay "Orwell's Last Neighborhood": a discussion of George Orwell's time on the remote island of Jura, where he wrote his most famous book. "The conventional wisdom," says Brown, "is that Orwell’s years on Jura killed him, nearly robbing the world of 1984. None of his biographers or friends seemed to consider that Jura, despite or because of its harshness, might have extended his life and given him the psychic space to imagine a place utterly unlike it."

I also recommend "Island Mentality" by Madeleine Bunting, a short piece on Orwell and other writers drawn to the Hebrides -- along with her book-length survey of the islands: Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey.

And finally, I recommend three good novels set in the Hebrides: Anna Mazzola's darkly folkloric The Story Keeper, Sarah Moss' darkly comic Night Waking, and Andrew Miller's gripping early-19th-century saga Now We Shall Be Entirely Free.

What are some of your favorite novels set on islands, real or imaginary? Mine include Margot Lanagan's The Brides of Rollrock Island (a selkie novel), Elizabeth Knox's Billie's Kiss, Frances Hardinge's The Lie Tree, and the Earthsea books of Ursula K. Le Guin.

Isle of Skyle

Hebridean fiction


Recommended reading (and listening)

Tilly in the studio

The hound and I are back in the studio, with apologies for being away so long -- due to a combination of health issues (getting better now) and an over-full schedule that I'm just barely keeping up with.

Drawing by Arthur Rackham

Here are some articles, videos, and podcasts I'd like to recommend, a seasonal round-up of my magpie gleanings from hither and yon:

* Sharon Blackie follows Myrddin, Mis, and other wild folk into the woods (The Art of Enchantment)

* Rob Maslen goes deep into William Morris' Wood Beyond the World (City of Lost Books)

* Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk, pens a beautiful essay on the forbidden wonder of birds' nests and eggs (The Guardian)

* Jeremy Miller finds a new understanding of wilderness in an Irish bog (Orion)

Peter Pan in Kensington Garden by Arthur Rackham

* Naomi Shihab Nye discusses poetry and kindness (BrainPickings)

* David Grossman discusses the Holocaust, empathy, and the importance of literature (The Guardian)

* George Saunders discusses the art storytelling (Aeon video)

* Mary Hofffman discusses fairy tales with Katherine Langrish (Seven Miles of Steel Thistles)

* Kate Forsyth returns to Beauty & the Beast by way Anne Frank (Kate's blog)

* Meg Roscoff tells us why we still need fairy tales (The Guardian)

Alice in Wonderland by Arthur Rackham

* Robert Minto reviews No Time to Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin (New Republic)

* Cally Calloman reviews Folk Song in England by Steve Roud (Caught by the River)

* Jon Wilks interviews Steve Roud, asking: "What is folk music, exactly?" (Grizzly Folk)

* Yaoyao Ma Van As captures the over-looked joys of living alone (My Modern Met)

* John Bedell looks at Leonora Carrington's incredible sculptures (Bensozia)

* Skye Sherman looks at a new exhibition of Käthe Kollwitz’s powerful art (The Guardian)

May Colven by Arthur Rackham

And one more:

My erudite friend and up-the-road neighbor Earl Fontainelle has launched a fascinating podcast series on The Secret History of Western Esotericism, exploring "cutting-edge academic research in the study of Platonism, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, the Kabbalah, alchemy, occultism, magic, and related currents of thought."

The first four episodes of the series are online now, and I highly recommend it. 

The Fairies' Tiff with the Birds by Arthur Rackham

The art today is by the great English book illustrator Arthur Rackham, born on this day in south London in 1867. A new exhibition of his work has just opened at the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy.

Undine by Arthur Rackham