June Reading – Funny Weather by Olivia Laing and The Stubborn Light of Things by Melissa Harrison

I have two books to share with you today – both non-fiction, both highly recommended – the types of books that lend themselves very well to being read in short bursts, especially if time is tight.

Funny Weather by Olivia Laing

I loved this – a fascinating collection of essays, articles and mini-biographies which explore the importance of art in politically unsettled times.

This is the third book I’ve read by Olivia Laing, and it’s just as absorbing as the others despite the brevity of the individual pieces. (If it’s of interest, my mini-review of The Lonely City, Laing’s beautiful meditation on the experience of loneliness in a busy urban environment, is here.) As a writer, she is someone I’m happy to follow, just to see where the path takes me, such is the quality of her writing.

Several of the pieces included in the collection were initially published, often in different forms, in newspapers and journals such as The Guardian, frieze and the New Statesman. There are glimpses into the lives of leading artists – David Hockney, Joseph Cornell and Jean-Michel Basquiat, to name but a few; interviews with four highly talented women – Hilary Mantel, Sarah Lucas, Ali Smith and Chantal Joffe; and columns for frieze, a leading magazine of contemporary art and culture.

The frieze pieces are particularly interesting as they allow Laing free rein to cover a wide variety of subjects relating to art – from political protest (e.g. the practice of lip-sewing amongst migrants and refugees) to literary appreciation, with columns on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels and Anthony Powell’s Dance series. 

One or two of the essays revisit familiar areas of interest for Laing; Drink, drink, drink, for instance, on women writers and alcohol, a mini-sequel of sorts to The Trip to Echo Spring. Marguerite Duras features quite heavily here, as do Patricia Highsmith and Jean Rhys, two of my favourite female authors. Laing is incisive in her analysis of Rhys’ early novellas, viewing them as depictions of loneliness and depression. These stories feature impoverished women on the edge who struggle to get by and are often brushed off by ‘respectable’ society with its class-conscious snobbery.

In the unstable Good Morning, Midnight she makes a case for why such a woman might turn to drink, given limited options for work or love. At the same time, and like her near-contemporary [F. Scott] Fitzgerald, she uses drunkenness as a technique of modernism. The novel is written in a flexible first person, slip-sliding through Sasha’s shifting moods. ‘I’ve had enough of these streets that sweat a cold, yellow slime, of hostile people, of crying myself to sleep every night. I’ve had enough of thinking, enough of remembering. Now whiskey, rum, gin, sherry, vermouth, wine with the bottles labelled “Dum vivimus, vivamus…” Drink, drink, drink… As soon as I sober up I start again…’ (pp. 213–214)

In other pieces, Laing offers her reflections on specific books ranging from Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living and Sally Rooney’s Normal People. I love this observation on the latter, which feels absolutely spot on.


What’s remarkable is the pitch of Rooney’s writing, the way it shimmers and quivers with intelligence. Each sentence is measured and unobtrusive, and yet the cumulative effect is a near-unbearable attentiveness to the emotional dimension of human lives, the quick uneasy weather. (p.289)

Through the myriad of perspectives in this endlessly fascinating book, Laing makes a clear case for the power of art (and its creators) in a dynamic, politically turbulent world. While art can be a source of joy and beauty for many of us, Laing seems more interested in its potential as a form of resistance and stimulus – something with a sense of agency to protest and repair. And yet, despite the clear political overtones in some of these articles, they never feel overly forced or preachy. This is a beautiful collection of pieces characterised by this writer’s thoughtful, erudite style. Very highly recommended indeed.

The Stubborn Light of Things by Melissa Harrison

This is such a thoughtful, beautifully-written book that it’s going to be hard for me to do it justice in a few short paragraphs. Nevertheless, I shall endeavour to give you a sense of it, albeit in brief.

The Stubborn Light of Things is a collection of Harrison’s monthly columns for The Times ‘Nature Notebook’, which began in the summer of 2014. The articles are presented chronologically, with the first half of the book focusing on London, where Harrison lived until December 2017, and the second half Suffolk, where she resides today. Collectively, they chart the author’s passion for the natural world, the changing of the seasons and a growing sense of engagement with her surroundings – be they urban or rural.

Harrison extols the benefits of reconnecting with nature by overserving and ‘tuning in’ to what is happening in the environment – activities aided by her thoughtfulness and innate sense of curiosity. One of the most striking things about the London-based columns is just how much wildlife there is to observe on our doorsteps, irrespective of our location. In the ‘City’ section of the book, there are sightings of short-eared owls, migrating nightjars and red kites, alongside the more frequently observed squirrels and urban foxes.

There are pockets of South London that seem utterly rural; paths edged with cow parsley and dog roses and overhung by oaks through which the sunlight filters down, green-dappled and shifting. I can walk from one blackcap’s song to another’s, no buildings or roads in sight, breathing in the smell of spring and green growth. At this time of year everything seethes with life: the nettles are thick with aphids, pollen rides the warm June air, the undergrowth is busy with baby birds and cuckoo spit froths overnight. It feels intoxicating. (pp. 44– 45)

There are pieces too about various rewilding and conservation projects, many of which tap into Harrison’s interest in the fragility of the natural world. For instance, she rightly bemoans the trend towards over-tidiness whereby hedges are regularly ‘topped’, effectively rendering them unsuitable as ‘wildlife habitats and corridors’. If only we could tolerate a degree of messiness, then it would help nature to flourish, rewarding us with richer environments in which to live.  

As in Surrey, this mania for tidiness is eradicating wildflowers, butterflies, insect- and seed-eating birds, hedgehogs and a whole host of other creatures we profess to love. So why are we letting it happen? I think it’s crept up us slowly, so that we simply can’t see the harm we’re doing. Just as we believe the number of insects around us is normal, rather than terrifyingly depleted, it looks right to us now for verges to be razed rather than riotous, and for farmland hedges to look ugly and smashed. We’ve also been slow to wake up to how crucial these vestiges of habitat have become for wildlife, as pressures on the wider countryside have invisibly mounted up. To turn things around requires a paradigm shift: can we tolerate an untidier, bushier, scrubbier environment to help bring nature back? (pp. 174–175)

When Harrison moves to Suffolk, her connection with nature deepens, furthering her bond with the rhythms of the seasons – her home is an 18th-century cottage situated in a small village surrounded by arable land. Here, the nightingales come to breed each spring, when linnets and yellowhammers can also be found, singing from the shrubs and hedgerows. It feels like a natural evolution for the author, which mirrors her development as a writer with a growing body of nature writing to complement her novels.

A gorgeous, evocative book, full of level-headed reflections on the natural world.

Funny Weather is published by Picador and The Stubborn Light of Things by Faber; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing reading copies.

27 thoughts on “June Reading – Funny Weather by Olivia Laing and The Stubborn Light of Things by Melissa Harrison

  1. madamebibilophile

    These both sound excellent. I’ve never read Sally Rooney but now I feel I should ,that’s an astonishing quote from Olivia Laing about her work. Lovely to see Jean Rhys considered too.

    As a Londoner the older I get the more I appreciate just how much wildlife there is in the city, worryingly depleted but still there. It’s having the time to just sit and observe – that’s when you realise all that is happening around you. Having said that, like Harrison I’m very tempted to leave!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s a great quote about the Sally Rooney – so insightful and beautifully expressed. I think Normal People is a deceptively complex book. At first (or on the surface), it could be seen as a familiar ‘will they, won’t they’ kind of narrative as the relationship between Connell and Marianne ebbs and flows. But in reality, I think it’s a lot deeper (and darker) than that initial impression suggests, which might be what Laing is getting at when she talks about the cumulative effective. There is a kind snowballing or gradual accumulation of emotion over time which creeps up you as you’re reading it…

      And yes, I think lockdown has prompted many of us to take a greater interest in our surroundings, irrespective of where we live. As you say, it’s about having the time to switch off from other distractions, finding those moments in the days when we can get out and about to observe.

      Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    Love both of these writers, so these are definitely on my radar. I was just reading somewhere the 20 – 5 – 3 theory of how much minimum reconnection with nature we need to stay healthy and sane: 20 mins a day, 5 hours a month and 3 days a year (the latter two the wilder the better).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How interesting! I know I feel brighter (and hopefully less stressed) if I’m able to walk somewhere outside for 45 – 60 mins each day, preferably up to the duck pond and back if I’m staying local. It’s the winters I struggle with, especially when it’s wet!

      Reply
  3. Cosy Books

    Melissa Harrison’s podcast The Stubborn Light of Things was a very welcome bright spot during the early days of the pandemic….the complete opposite of listening to scary news reports. I wonder if she’ll continue the series at some point?
    Have you read Laing’s To the River? A book I came across in a bookshop and bought for its reference to Virginia Woolf. I loved that book and shudder to think how easily it could have passed me by!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’m completely with you on Melissa’s podcast. It was an absolute joy to listen to each week, and I think it made me more aware of what to look for while I was walking during lockdown. I’m not sure if she’ll do another series, I guess that depends on what else she has planned for the future. Interestingly though, some people have been listening to it again this year in line with the changing seasons, which I can completely understand.

      As for Laing – no, I haven’t read To the River, but it’s definitely on the list for the future. A couple of other readers have just recommended it on Twitter, so it seems to be a favourite!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ve a feeling that essay is available online as it seemed very familiar. Possibly a Guardian piece from a few years back? It’s probably worth a look.

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Both of these sound grand, Jacqui, and ideal for dipping into when life is getting in the way of reading. I’ve read Laing’s “To the River”, which I loved for its Woolf content, and I’d like to explore more of her work – though I imagine it might be quite different to that one. As for the Harrison, it sounds marvellous – I am *so* with her on the need for messiness. Even something as simple as our local council leaving areas of verge and wild land to grow without cutting for a while has allowed so many wild flowers to bloom which will help the bees. I’m not a fan of a manicured lawn at the best of times…. ;D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, they were ideal June reads for me as my reading time was pretty scant, especially midweek. The Harrison in particular was very easy to get back into, even when I only had the odd 10 mins here and there – so, definitely a book suited to busy periods when our focus might be elsewhere. On the messiness front, I think some local councils are getting better at leaving some of these areas to grow naturally, although there’s still quite a way to go. And yes, Laing’s To the River sounds wonderful. It’s been on the periphery of my radar for ages, probably ever since I read Echo Spring (which I think you would find very interesting, btw!), so I really ought to pick it up. Another for the TBR, there. ;-)

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    Both these collections of non fiction writing sound wonderful, and wonderfully wide ranging in the subjects they cover. I particularly like the sound of the Melissa Harrison and the focus on reconnecting with nature and conservation. I love the sound of where she lives, very idyllic.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I have to admit to experiencing a bit of a hankering for countryside living while reading the Suffolk section of Harrison’s book. She makes it sound very peaceful and grounded, the kind of community that feels in touch with some of the age-old traditions of rural life.

      Reply
  6. Julé Cunningham

    Now I’m looking forward to reading the Laing with even more anticipation and I do enjoy books that show the wildlife of local places. There have been some really wonderful ones for Seattle and other Pacific Northwest areas. I think the book that got me started was John Marzluff’s ‘In the Company of Crows and Ravens’ and hearing interviews with him about the research he and his students at the University of Washington did with the rather personable crows around here.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, that sounds really interesting, especially as you can identify with the geographical area being covered! Have you read Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, about the author’s experiences of training a goshawk (and coping with the emotions of grief). It’s a beautiful book, probably the best piece of nature writing I’ve read in recent years.

      Reply
  7. gertloveday

    Lovely reviews, as always, and two writers to add to my list. How lovely it is to read short pieces for a change sometimes. I already have Lonely City noted and now will add Funny Weather.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cool. I’ll be fascinated to hear what you think of the Laing, both the subject matter and the author’s style. And yes, it was a relief to be able to read something brief and ‘complete’ for once, especially as I had very little spare time to read in June due to various other commitments!

      Reply
  8. Jane

    The Laing sounds wonderful, I haven’t read anything by her before but this sounds right up my street and I’ll look out for The Lonely City as well. I’ve given this Melissa Harrison book as a gift because it’s so beautiful but don’t have a copy myself – I do enjoy her columns so maybe it’s time to treat myself! Lovely reviews Jacqui, thank you!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Jane! The hardback of The Stubborn Light of Things is so gorgeous, really beautifully produced, so it’s ideal for gifting to friends and family. If you’ve enjoyed these nature columns in the past, then it’s well worth investing in a copy for yourself – partly because it’s interesting to track Harrison’s development as a writer as the seasons come and go.

      Reply
  9. 1streading

    Although I found Olivia Lang’s novel a little disappointing, hearing her talk about it certainly makes me believe her essays will be worth reading – one to pick up in paperback!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Definitely. I think that’s her strength, non-fiction rather than novels. And this is a great collection, partly because her range of ‘artists’ is quite broad – musicians and novelists alongside contemporary artists such as Warhol.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome, Liz. it might fit well alongside some of the nature writing you’ve been reading recently — books on rewilding, for instance.

      Reply
  10. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  11. buriedinprint

    Each of those sounds so satisfying, the kind of books you could keep in a stack on a table next to a comfortable chair, ready to pick up for a few moments here and there. Did you read them straight through, or did you feel encouraged to dabble and flip around a little? (Something I think of doing in theory, but rarely actually practice.)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it can be hard to do in practice, but that’s exactly the best way to approach them. Luckily (from the POV of these books), I had quite a busy June with very little spare to read – mostly little snatches of time here and there, which suited them very well. The Harrison I read over three weeks, and the Laing over a slightly shorter period – maybe two weeks in total – with an overlap across the two. It’s definitely the way I’d like to read these types of books in the future, for sure – the practice of ‘spacing them out’ makes us appreciate each individual entry or essay all the more.

      Reply

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