I recently wrote about this little quarterly which I’ve become a dedicated subscriber to since around this time last year, and so far each issue continues to delight. I’m reading them out of order, since the back issues go back to 2004 and I am still busily collecting them, so going back and forth between the most recent issues as they arrive in the mail and going back to the oldest ones I have in between. Reading order matters not at all when it comes to this publication, since the books reviewed are never the newest and most talked about, but rather old favourites of the individual contributors who write always charming essays about why their particular chosen book (or series, or author) stands out in their memory. This issue starts with a book and author I’ve never heard about—and probably should have by now—, but have firmly placed on my wishlist: The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher by Lewis Thomas, which unprecedentedly won not one, but two National Book Awards, one in the Arts category, the other in Science, and has been described in The New Yorker as a ‘shimmering vision’. As the author of the article, Richard Mabey says: “Thomas was something of a vision himself, as improbable as a tortoise with wings. He was a scientist who was not only literate but also poetic. […] it was Thomas’s genius to conjure some thirty [essays] into a coherent treatise full of astonishing, reverberating knowledge and sublime prose. […] His own language was anything but dodgy. It was exact, idiosyncratic and often heart-stoppingly beautiful — never more so than in the book’s key passage, where he re-imagines that step-changing first photograph of earth from space:
“Viewed from the distance of the moon, the astonishing thing about the earth, catching the breath, is that it is alive. The photographs show the dry, pounded surface of the moon in the foreground, dead as an old bone. Aloft, floating free beneath the moist, gleaming membrane of bright blue sky, is the rising earth, the only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos… it has the organized, self-contained look of a live creature, full of information, marvellously skilled in handling the sun.”
One of many delightful features, along with articles about their latest Slightly Foxed Editions release; I Was a Stranger by John Hackett, who was a commander of the 4th Parachute Brigade during WWII (“I Was a Stranger is not so much a tale of derring-do (thought its descriptions of fighting are vivid) as a story of friendship. The heroism it celebrates is not that of soldiers, but of a household run by three women in a [Dutch] town under German occupation.”) and Captain of Foot by Ronald Welch, the latest in a beloved, long out of print series called the Carey Family Chronicles, which they are now publishing as limited editions (the first three Knight Crusader, The Galleon, For the King, are also available); an article about Queen Mary by James Pope-Henessy (now out of print); illustrator Pauline Baynes of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe fame; Flann O’Brien’s inspired alcoholic Irish prose; how Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels came about; one of Anthony Powell’s lesser-known, now out of print What’s Become of Waring; and finally, among several other riches, an article by Laura Freeman, a harried features desk editor at a British national newspaper, who describes how she fared in her self-appointed project of trying to tackle Charles Dickens’s complete works (minus Great Expectations, which she’d read in school) during his anniversary year.
*TBR: To Be Read (a pile, or an entire library, in my case)