“Things That Are: Encounters with Plants, Stars and Animals,” the debut work of author Amy Leach, available in the UK from Edinburgh independent publisher Canongate Books, collects essays, meditations, prose poems and occasional pieces from a new American nonfiction specialist whose excursions are as imaginative and inspired as any work of fancy.

“Come and miss the boat with me,” she invites, in the introductory epistle “Donkey Derby.” “Come and play some guessing games. We’ll read aloud the illegible electric green script of the northern lights; we’ll speculate about which star in the next ten thousand years is going to go supernova. Then we’ll listen to a recording of ‘Epistrophy.'”

That gives you a flavor of Leach’s prose, and her poise and pose. Yes, it’s certainly mannered at times, but its manners are very good. And if you want to see how this actually sounds, watch the full reading by her below, timed at 43 minutes and 47 seconds (minus seven minutes and 22 seconds of introduction).

If you happen to prefer the audio-only experience, here’s a four-minute and 42 second clip of Leach reading a selection from “Things That Are” titled “God”:

These are unashamed prose poems that sit well in that very American tradition pioneered by Edgar Allan Poe, enriched by slices of Borgesian outre erudition:

“In the seventeenth century, his Holiness the Pope adjudged beavers to be fish. In retrospect, that was a zoologically illogical decision; but beavers were not miffed at being changed into fish.”

British readers who recall Graham Swift’s “Waterland” will have some idea of how this goes.

Leach’s pen gets everywhere, and if anything, becomes more rococo and florid the more commonplace its subject. Take peas, for instance:

“like a dancer who cannot quite hear the music, pea tendrils are antic with inapprehension. Since there is no way for them to apprehend a lattice, the only direction to grow is yonder.”

But she does care about her subject as well as her style.

“Not many of an ostrich’s chicks hatch, and not many of those who hatch live long, and not many of the chicks who survive remain in their mother’s possession.”

There is more of an ethical, engaged flavor than you’d find in the intellectual or aesthetic finger-exercises of a writer like Borges. ”It was useless for anyone to try and sign us on with the ranks of the environmentally panicked, or the environmentally conscientious, or even the environmentally uneasy. We were resigned to losing Planet Earth,” she writes. “But while resigned people can be infuriatingly unresponsive to shrieks, they are, in some ways, very easy to enchant.”

Enchantment is everywhere, even in the glossary:

“VASTY (As differentiated from ‘vast’) Has approximately the same meaning as ‘biggy’, ‘hugey’, and ‘giganticky’. Do not let anyone tell you these words are not words; all words are words.”

The tight matrix of prose rhythm and nuggets of fact are irresistible. (Imagine a medieval illuminated bestiary or floregium penned with modern scientific knowledge.) You don’t want to lift your eyes from the text or skip-read for fear of missing some gem. This feels like the kind of book you go back to year after year to renew your acquaintance. I don’t know yet, but I certainly plan to put it to the test.

The e-book edition is a faithfully rendered reproduction of the print version, including some of the occasional typographical tricks and the lovely starry cover illustration of the Great Bear. But it suffers from some curious glitch, at least in EPUB format, that splits the text with the virtual spine when reading on a tablet in landscape orientation. Hopefully, file updates will fix this irritating bug.

Amy Leach’s essays have more poetry in them than most poets’ poems. Emerson and Thoreau would be proud, if a tad bemused. Recommended.

TeleRead Rating:

Buy “Things That Are” from Canongate Books ( e-book £10 | print hardcover £12 )
Buy the Milkweed Editions hardcover version of “Things That Are” ($18)

Publisher: Canongate Books
Availabilty: Published June 6, 2013


  1. Hi Paul,

    I’m writing on behalf of Canongate Books, the publisher of Things That Are. We are very keen to figure out the bug you describe in the review however we have been unable to replicate it in house. It’s not a bug I’ve ever seen before, and doesn’t seem to happen on the tablets we’ve tried here. We would be very grateful if you could tell us what tablet and e-reading software you used to view the book so we can try to get to the bottom of it.

    Many thanks,

    Laura Kincaid
    Digital Production Controller | Canongate Books

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