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29 June 2022

Reviewed in short: New books from Sophie Pavelle, Brendan Simms and Steven McGregor, Ana Kinsella and Gerald Murnane

Forget Me Not by Pavelle, The Silver Waterfall by Simms and McGregor, Look Here by Kinsella and Last Letter to a Reader by Murnane.

By India Bourke, Michael Prodger, Ellen Peirson-Hagger and Lola Seaton

Forget Me Not: Finding the Forgotten Species of Climate Change Britain by Sophie Pavelle
Bloomsbury Wildlife, 352pp, £16.99

If the canon of British nature writing has a reputation for being male and overly earnest, then Sophie Pavelle’s Forget Me Not is a one-book rebalancing act. In 2017, as part of a science communication master’s, the then 22-year-old partnered with the Wildlife Trusts and the BBC’s Countryfile to promote her 300-mile trek along the Cornish coast. She has since begun a career advising conservation groups on social media, and written this book: a low-carbon odyssey across Britain in search of species that could disappear within the next 30 years.

Marsh fritillary butterflies (“Victoria’s Secret Angel[s] on the runway”), harbour porpoises (which “weigh about the same as a human teenager”), mountain hares and dung-beetles all get a millennial update from Pavelle. Her writing has the casual intimacy of social media: whether via a revelation that she would at times “rather watch Love Island than a nature documentary”, or an anecdote about changing shorts mid-journey. The result is a lively introduction to the nature crisis in the British Isles – and a natural history of the greater-spotted Sophie Pavelle.
By India Bourke

The Silver Waterfall: How America Won the War in the Pacific at Midway by Brendan Simms and Steven McGregor
PublicAffairs, 304pp, £25

The course of America’s war in the Pacific against the Japanese turned in just under six minutes on 4 June 1942. That was the time it took for a wave of 39 American Douglas Dauntless dive-bombers to drop their “silver waterfall” of explosives on to three of the four Japanese aircraft carriers gathered near Midway Atoll, north-west of Hawaii, and destroy them. The historians Brendan Simms and Steven McGregor show in their visceral account of the battle that behind those few minutes lay years of preparation. Industrial innovation and careful planning were decisive, while some of the key figures, such as the Dauntless’s designer Ed Heinemann, the naval strategist Chester Nimitz and the pilot Dusty Kleiss, came, ironically, from German immigrant stock.

This is, however, no dry account of materiel but a minute-by-minute account, told from both sides, of the battle as it unfolded. There is plenty of bravery on show but even more horror as sailors on stricken ships laden with fuel and explosives find themselves trapped in floating bombs.
By Michael Prodger

Look Here: On the Pleasures of Observing the City by Ana Kinsella
Daunt Books, 224pp, £9.99

What do you see as you stroll around your city? In London, Ana Kinsella puts on her raincoat and steps out to two girls skateboarding in baggy jeans, a man affixing Big Ben-shaped fridge magnets to his kiosk, a statuesque woman wearing “concoctions of black tulle”. Kinsella’s first book is a prose map of the capital that takes as its subject matter everyone the author spots in its streets, buses and pubs. She is an inquisitive narrator who evokes great affection for the people she glimpses and the pavements she stomps.

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Kinsella, who grew up in Dublin, is also wise to London’s inequalities, predominantly caused by gentrification. Her observations on the “fake little piazza” in Coal Drops Yard, a “privately owned public space” that opened just north of King’s Cross station in 2018, are astute: “For all its pleasantness, it still rings false.” She watches the security guards who, she knows, aren’t bothered by a white, middle-class woman like her, but whose presence still makes her feel uneasy. The area’s shops and bars mean many Londoners find it desirable, but today that is too often a byword for a place “readied for the generation of profit”.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Last Letter to a Reader by Gerald Murnane
And Other Stories, 144pp, £11.99

Described by the New York Times as “the greatest living English-language writer most people have never heard of”, the Australian author Gerald Murnane, now 83, cuts an eccentric figure. He has never been on a plane or worn sunglasses and types “using the index finger of my right hand alone”. On the brink of retiring at the turn of the millennium – all his books were out of print in 1999 when he was awarded a prize for “under-recognised Australian writers” – Murnane has since experienced a renaissance, capped by this collection of reports on rereading all his books in order of publication.

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This quirky, sometimes fussy valedictory text features enjoyably grouchy dealings with past critics – an interviewer is “dim-witted”, an unfavourable reviewer is “a fool” – unabashed self-evaluation (The Plains, his best-known book, is an “extraordinary work”), and idiosyncratic, mysterious ideas about writing fiction. Murnane, who says he knows nothing about “human nature” and can’t create “believable characters”, is – or rather was, if this is really farewell – in the business of “reporting” from the infinite, variegated “place I call, for want of a better term, my mind”.
By Lola Seaton

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books from Victor Sebestyen, Susan Jonusas, Howard Jacobson and Keiran Goddard]

This article appears in the 29 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, American Darkness