Book reviews: new non-fiction from Jeremy Gavron, Andrea Wulf and Julie Barton
The unending consequences of suicide, a life of polymath and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, and an ode to the healing power of (wo)man’s best friend
A Woman on the Edge of Time
by Jeremy Gavron
Audible Studios (audiobook)
Three and a half stars
“The suicide doesn’t go alone, he takes everybody with him.” That quote, by William Maxwell, closes Jeremy Gavron’s touching book about his mother, who killed herself when he was just four years old. Only once did his father speak of her to Gavron during the years the author lived at home. Later, he was to learn his mother had taken her life after having fallen for a homosexual man who rejected her. But still the urge to know more was kept in check. It was only after the death of his brother of a heart attack, and an article about the suicides of poet Sylvia Plath and her 47-year-old son, that Gavron was prompted, almost uncontrollably, to write a newspaper piece about his mother. Soon after, people who knew her got in touch and his personal investigation began into why his mother, a sociologist who wrote The Captive Wife, chose to end her life. Read by Joe Jameson, the book will keep you enthralled by the mystery and force that was Hannah Gavron. Especially moving is her father’s diary chronicling the torment caused by his daughter’s death. This is a volume listeners will not forget easily.
The Invention of Nature
by Andrea Wulf
After this book you will understand why polymath Alexander von Humboldt’s name can still be found around the world – apart from the Humboldt Current along the coast of Chile and Peru, the hero of Andrea Wulf’s fascinating book has lent his name to mountain ranges in northern China, a glacier and hundreds of plants and animals. A German visionary (1769-1859) whose holistic view of the world is behind our acceptance of the web of life and concept of nature, he is also the man behind the idea of vegetation and climate zones; who invented “isotherms”; and who warned of our “meddling with the climate” and its impact on future generations. Not only that but his scientific writing gave birth to a new genre because of its lyricism, which is why poets including Wordsworth and Coleridge found his work stimulating. As Wulf shows, the journey that cast Humboldt as a legend was a five-year exploration of South America, during which he mapped the upper Orinoco. Readers will come away with an appreciation for Humboldt’s achievement in making science popular and also for the way in which he influenced great thinkers, scientists and artists.
by Julie Barton
Think Piece Publishing (e-book)
Doglit should be what we call the genre of books being written about (wo)man’s best friend. Like the many before it, this book, by Julie Barton, is personal, sometimes indulgently so. Dog Medicine tells how Bunker, a golden retriever, pulled its owner out of a depression that brought black moods and a little voice saying, “End it all”. Barton begins by painting a picture of her weakness concerning men: she preferred bad boys who loved and left to kind souls who cared for her. She was also a chain-boyfriender, never giving herself much time between relationships. The realisation deepens her crisis and comes at a time when she needs to be strong for the other male in her life. Her dog is diagnosed with severe hip dysplasia and the recommendation is that he be euthanised. Readers won’t learn anything new from this book, although it is a good reminder of how pets can be a great distraction and help order one’s perspective. Dog Medicine improves chapter by chapter, beginning as a young adult’s book of lovelorn agonising and ending with deeper considerations. Still, this is a book only for dog lovers.