The Long, Long Life of Trees by Fiona Stafford

Suffering from misleading blurb syndrome…

🙂 🙂 🙂

the-long-long-life-of-treesIn her short introduction Stafford tells us of her life-long love for trees, and discusses the place they have held through the generations in myth and art. She points to the ambivalence of our attitude towards trees: our love, occasionally even worship, of them contrasting with our continuing destruction of forests. Some of the language she uses is lovely – evocative, lyrical even…

The oak branch is my golden bough, offering immediate safe conduct from one world to another. It transports me to a particular day and tree, and then on to other oaks and their places, some of these known personally, others vicariously through things I have been told, or through poems and stories, photographs and paintings. Sometimes it will take me full circle, from heroes to local histories, tales of magic and metamorphosis, panegyrics and protests, fables of planting and felling, and on through forests of wood carvings, masts, musical instruments, and furniture, until I am back in the same room, surrounded by familiar things. They are never quite the same.

The book then takes the format of a short chapter per species of tree. While many of the trees discussed grow in various places around the world, Stafford sticks for the most part to trees that are native to Britain. Each chapter tells us some facts about the species – its lifespan, how it propagates, etc. There are snippets from poems and literature, showing how the tree has been seen symbolically over time – again, largely British literature. Stafford discusses how the trees have been used by humanity – what uses the wood of a particular species has been put to, whether the tree produces food or has been used for medicinal purposes and so on. She looks at the impact of our activities on the environment and discusses threats to the species’ survival where relevant.

Some of the factlets are interesting; for example, that holly trees were around in the age of the dinosaurs, or that “In medieval Europe, the demand for longbows led to the destruction of European yew forests, in an early version of the arms trade – with all its ironies. Yew wood imported from French forests might well return home to launch deadly arrows at the very people who had felled it.” Stafford also mentions superstitions relating to particular trees, such as rowan trees being seen as giving protection from witches. And where species have great longevity, such as the yew, she tells of specific trees that have found their own place in history – or perhaps legend would be more accurate – like the yew tree at Fortingall in Perthshire, still surviving today, under which, it is said, the young Pontius Pilate played when visiting Britain with his father.

The Fortingall Yew
The Fortingall Yew

So there is plenty of interest in this book. However, apart from the introduction, it is written in a workmanlike style, almost like reading entries from a well written and researched encyclopaedia. The first line of the blurb claims it is “a lyrical tribute to the diversity of trees, their physical beauty, their special characteristics and uses, and their ever-evolving meanings.” I’d have to argue with the word “lyrical” – the lyricism that flares up briefly when Stafford talks of her own relationship to trees in the introduction disappears entirely once she begins to discuss the species separately. It’s fact-filled and clearly well researched, but impersonal and with little or no emotional content. The blurb also claims it is “beautifully illustrated” and again I fear I must disagree. It has many pencil drawings, but rarely of the trees under discussion. So there can be an entire chapter, such as the holly, for example, where there is no picture of a holly tree at all, nor even a drawing of one.

Fiona Stafford
Fiona Stafford

Unfortunately it was the promise of lyricism and beautiful illustrations that drew me to the book, meaning that I found it disappointing. I feel it’s a victim of misleading blurb syndrome – had it been described more accurately, my expectations would have been quite different going in – in truth, I probably wouldn’t have been attracted enough to read it. And yet it does what it does very well indeed – it provides a lot of interesting facts about trees and man’s relationship to them over the centuries. But for me nature writing is more about the beauty of the language and the author’s personal, emotional relationship with her subject, and I didn’t find that here. Hence my rather low and possibly unfair three star rating for a book that probably deserves more – the blurb in this case having led to a mismatch between book and reader.

* * * * *

FF’s Second Law: Blurbs should accurately reflect the contents of the book to ensure they attract the right readers.

* * * * *

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

42 thoughts on “The Long, Long Life of Trees by Fiona Stafford

  1. Oh, FIctionFan, I couldn’t possibly agree one bit more with you about blurbs! The two things that blurb writers need to do: 1) Do not give away spoilers; and, 2) Accurately represent the book. I know that’s hard to do, but still…

    As to this particular book, I think I would really find the information interesting. But you’re right about the writing style issue. I would prefer that sort of writing for my ‘day job’ work, and not leisure reading, if that makes sense. Still, it sounds as though the book itself is both informative and interesting.

    • Yes, I know they’re written purely in order to sell the book, but in these days of everyone being a reviewer misleading blurbs lead to lots of negative reviews and must surely adversely affect sales. I know it’s a sad but true thing that my negative reviews on both Amazon and Goodreads tend to pick up more ‘votes’ than my positive ones, which is why I try to be clear about what I didn’t like, so as not to put off people who might like the book.

      This one reads more like a well written reference book than what I think of as nature writing. But it’ll work better for people who are looking for factual information. Shame really that they didn’t use lots of colour photos – that could have turned it into a lovely, informative ‘coffee-table’ book…

  2. Sorry to hear of the mismatch! I feel sorry for the author, too, to be honest, because she likely had no control over the blurb but inevitably will get some backlash because of it.

    • I do, too – I really don’t like giving a negative review in these circumstances without at least spelling out why. I can understand why publishers do it – to increase sales – but these days when everyone’s a reviewer it’s risky, I think. And I do feel it’s particularly daft to do it on NetGalley, where every single person who picks it is going to review it! You’d think there they would make the effort to try to ensure a good match between book and reader.

  3. Your Second Law is right on, FF! How did this blurb pass muster with the publisher, or didn’t they bother to read this book? That’s like advertising M&M’s as the finest of chocolate (and I like M&M’s, only they’re NOT the finest of chocolates!!)

    • I’m so cynical that I assume the publisher knows ‘lyrical writing’ and ‘beautiful illustrations’ will increase sales, but I think it’s short-sighted these days when everyone’s a reviewer. I’m sure mine won’t be the only review expressing disappointment, and it’s a shame because it is a good book – just not the book I was expecting.

  4. I so agree with you about blurbs. Cover art is another thing that gets my goat e.g. a thriller whose paperback cover is a very lightly- clad young woman to illustrate a story in which a) there is no girl, and b) no-one takes their clothes off – both of which improved the story for me, but must, I feel, have let down a considerable number of readers! 🙂

    • Yes, cover art is another thing that can be totally misleading! I can see why they used to do it because once they’d got the sale they wouldn’t care if the reader was disappointed or not. But in these days of amateur reviews, I think it’s short-sighted – the last thing any book needs is a series of reviewers saying they were disappointed…

  5. What a shame, it sounds like that was a very misleading blurb. And beautifully illustrated to me means at least one picture of each kind of tree, if it’s done by kind of tree.

    • Yes, me too – and that’s partly why I got it. I’m always ashamed of the fact that there are only two or three trees I can actually identify, and I thought all these beautiful illustrations would help. But now I know quite a bit about various trees but still wouldn’t recognise them!

  6. Hum, now it’s funny – call me a mean lipped grump, but I didn’t particularly find the quote from the most lyrical bit THAT lyrical. I somehow missed requesting this till too late, and can’t begin to say how glad I am. I really need some beauty in nature writing. Now I think Jane from Eden Rock should be persuaded to write a tree book, we would have poetry, art, excerpts from what wonderful writers had said, and perhaps a photo or two of some of her craft work in some way inspired by the tree.

    • I liked the bit about forests of masts and musical instruments, but otherwise I agree. The intro was more personal and emotional though – the chapters were more objective. Yes, I either want someone who can paint pictures with words, or alternatively lots of great pictures to ehance plainer words. Or both would be nice. Good idea! Jane could certainly do it – but I feel a certain Lady Fancifull could also take us all happily along on one of her walks if she so chose…

  7. Why are blurbs so often inaccurate – it sometimes feels the writer has not read the book. ( o was having a similar discussion with someone lately and she said that it is an offical job – blurb writer) I would have thought the author was the person best qualified to write this? I have actually had some pleasant surprises- when the book has not resembled the blurb at all. And should we mention covers- covers that get the basic description of the protagonist wrong??

    • I can see that they want to try to use the blurb to market the book, and probably don’t care much if the general purchaser ends up a bit disappointed. But it always surprises me when they don’t make it clearer on NetGalley since they know a disappointed reader will inevitably lead to a negative review. Covers too – I get so tired of all these domestic thrillers that all have the same basic cover – a woman wearing a red coat/jacket walking away… *sighs*

  8. That’s too bad. The people who blurbed the book are not doing the book or the writer any favours. I had hopes for this one…
    The whole time I was reading your review I was wondering if you were going to make this your second law – and you did. Love it! 🙂

    • I know, because it’s actually a good book – just not the kind of book I was expecting, nor that I would have chosen.

      Haha! I think you’ll like the third law too… 😉

  9. Well, at least it was about trees. I’ve just read a book called Landscapes with a painting on the cover of a landscape, but the book is not at all about landscapes – at least the blurb said ‘Landscapes offers a tour of the history of art, but not as you know it.’ Definitely not as I know it!

    • Hahaha! I don’t get why they do it – it’s all very well marketing a book, but in these days when everyone’s a reviewer they must realise it’ll just result in lots of disappointed reviews. The only problem with NetGalley is that you can’t open the book and have a browse before deciding whether to go for it…

    • Just looking at the sample and reviews on Amazon makes me think it would be a far superior book. The major disappointment with this one for me was the lack of great pictures of the trees under discussion, and the Pakenham book sounds as if it has plenty of those. Maybe one day…

  10. Your review made me think of Hope Jahren’s Nature Girl – have you read it? She writes most stirringly of trees but also is incredibly informed on the subject too. It’s a memoir so it’s not straight nature writing (there’s a lot of personal history,) but I found it to be really well done.

    • No, I haven’t come across that one – sounds much more like what I expected this book to be. I always prefer nature writing that’s as much about the writer as about nature. Otherwise I always feel I might as well be reading an encyclopedia. I’ll check that one out – thanks! 🙂

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