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“… The obligation to remember” @FitzcarraldoEds #rombo #estherkinsky

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In May and September 1976, two earthquakes ripped through north-eastern Italy, causing severe damage to the landscape and its population. About a thousand people died under the rubble, tens of thousands were left without shelter, and many ended up leaving their homes in Friuli forever.
The displacement of material as a result of the earthquakes was enormous. New terrain was formed that reflects the force of the catastrophe and captures the fundamentals of natural history. But it is far more difficult to find expression for the human trauma, the experience of an abruptly shattered existence.

Those are the opening sentences on the reverse cover of “Rombo” by Esther Kinsky, translated by Caroline Schmidt, which was issued by Fitzcarraldo Editions on 5th October; and if that doesn’t hook you into wanting to read it, I don’t know what would!

The final cover in its nice blue fiction livery

Kinsky is an author who’s featured on the Ramblings before, when I reviewed her book “Grove” back in 2020; also released by Fitzcarraldo, that book was rooted in landscape and also an exploration of personal grief. “Rombo”, by contrast, examines a more general suffering, although once again landscape is to the fore. Kinsky takes seven characters who live through the earthquakes and gives them a voice, as they relate their stories, delve into their past, and contemplate the long-term effect the quakes had on them. This gives the book an almost documentary feel, and as Kinsky intersperses their narratives with observations on the mountains, nature and general landscape of the area in which they live, these add to the non-fiction feeling.

However, the book is no dry relating of facts; although Kinsky writes in some ways from a distance, her prose is beautiful and evocative. Like the subject matter of “Grove”, this is a bleak work dealing with trauma and loss; yet despite that melancholy, the book conjures vivid land and characters and ends up being quite unforgettable. The valley, full of little villages affected by the earthquakes, seems lost in the past, set in its ways with farmers and goatherds; so it’s a shock when the narrative suddely moves forward, with motorbikes, and trips to modern hotels by the seaside. The quakes are a pivotal event in the lives of both villagers and villages, and you sense that a certain way of life is driven to its natural end by the effects of the earth’s violence.

What is memory? It comes and goes as it pleases. It disappears and intrudes, and we can’t do anything about it… yes, what is memory? We ourselves are memory.

Central to the story is memory, and the part it playes in our lives; all of the characters, as they look back on their past and the dramatic occurrences through which they lived, recall things differently. They may filter out parts of their memories; time will blur certain events; although running through each individual narrative is the understanding that the earthquakes changed their lives forever. And those lives are intertwined so that we get the chance to see each character through the eyes of the others – which is often a powerful reminder about how subjective our view of ourselves is, and that we never really know who others view us!

“Rombo” is an intriguing book in that it reads like non-fiction yet it is billed as a novel; and as my ARC had a plain white cover, I approached it with an open mind and felt it could very much be taken as either form of writing. But of course I’ve often found that Fitzcarraldo books tend to blur the line between fact and fiction, and what matters is the writing and the story, both of which are singular and memorable here. As I said, it’s a work which is much about the nature and the landscape of the region as the effect of the earthquakes, and the portrait she paints of both is vivid and haunting.

This rumbling inflicted a wound on all who live through this earthquake. A scar has remained that will never go away. For some of us it is small and hidden, while for others it is out in the open, like a white raised lip from my hand slipped while hacking wood.

As for the title? Well, rombo means roar, or rumble, or thunder, and it’s here applied to the noise heard just before an earthquake. That sort of noise strikes a chill into the hearts of the villagers after the first tremor and indeed some seem to be permanently affected by it; a kind of PTSD, which is understandable.

My ARC with white cover blurring the lines….

Kinsky has written five novels including this one, three of which are published by Fitzcarraldo, and its clear that she’s a distintive and lyrical author. The narrative in “Rombo” cleverly builds up a picture of a lost world and its people, the trauma they suffered and the long term effects; and it reminds us that nature can never be tamed and we are all subject to its vagaries. A powerful and striking read, and highly recommended.

 

“Humanity is occupied by a darkness…” #JeanCocteau # LetterToTheAmericans @NewDirections

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As I’ve mentioned before on the Ramblings, French author and polymath Jean Cocteau is a long-term favourite of mine. As I said in an earlier post, “I first encountered his works back in the mid-1980s, when friends dragged me off to a screening in London of two of his films, “Orphee” and “La Belle et La Bete”. If I recall correctly, it was at the Electric Cinema in Portobello Road, on a dreary afternoon, and I emerged afterwards stunned, into a dark rainy night, filled with a sense of wonder at the filmic visions I’d just seen. I’ve loved Cocteau and his work ever since, and as well as his films, I have quite a number of his written works…” That was when I read his “Journals” for the 1956 Club and re-encountering him through a book I hadn’t read before was a real treat. So when I stumbled across mention of his “Letter to the Americans” online recently, it was a no brainer that I would have to send off for a copy!

“Letter…” is an essay, translated here by Alex Wermer-Colan, which was written In 1949 after Cocteau had made a short transatlantic visit, spending 20 days in New York. On the plane home, over the ocean, he turns his mind to his experiences in the New World and muses on the differences between it, and the Old World from whence he comes, giving a revealing look at how a European felt about America in the immediately postwar period. Cocteau is a European through and through, and although he has been seduced by many elements of America, in many ways he’s not convinced…

You won’t be saved by guns or by fortune. You will be saved by the minority of those who think.

Although short, the essay allows Cocteau to explore the differing views the two worlds have of art, literature, dreams and psychology; and their divergent lifestyles, with both cultures placing importance on different things. During his visit, which was to promote his new film “The Eagle with Two Heads”, Cocteau was feted and as he points out, everything was laid on for him. He appreciates this, but is well aware of how different is the American view of the arts. His film was cut; it was not necessarily that appreciated; and this does set the reader wondering on how a French art-house film would have appeared to a verging on 1950s American audience.

One of Cocteau’s distinctive drawings

Interestingly, his take on the differences between the nations focuses on order vs disorder; the rigidity and control of a city standing tall and straight full of skyscrapers, as compared with disorderly France which can produce a Picasso, is pronounced. Both cultures could do with a little more exchange, allowing elements from each to blend and bring the best of both together. He urges Americans to steer away from the influence of radio and telephone, to embrace the future and develop as a nation. As he puts it:

Your role is to save the old world that is so tough, so tender, that loves you and that you love. Your role is to save the dignity of humanity.

“Letter…” is a fascinating and thought-provoking read which left me with an image of the great artist aloft in a plane, staring out at the stars while his fellow passengers sleep and gathering his thoughts about his visit. Modern America was still developing at the time and could have gone in many different directions; the rather rigidly controlled 1950s, with their consumer society, Cold War, Atomic bomb, fixed gender roles and desire for affluence, were perhaps not what Cocteau was generously hoping would happen. Looking back, though, it’s a wonderful snapshot of the man and his world and his thoughts, and I’m so glad it’s finally been published and I have had the chance to read it; maybe this could be the autumn of my re-engaging more deeply with Jean Cocteau and his work! 😀

September endings and October plans! #1929Club #TDiRS22

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September has kind of whooshed past in a bit of a haze – and although I have been reading, the pile this month is not particularly big in numbers, although it is in page count! As you can see from the picture, there were some chunky ones…

All, thankfully, were very enjoyable reads, and of course the Basil Bunting letters were a particular highlight. I also made two visits to Paris, swung by Odesa and had fun with classic crime and an old favourite author. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to read a Virago title for the monthly themed reads (there just wasn’t enough time); but I did keep up with my re-read of The Dark is Rising sequence, and found the book quite unputdownable!

So October looms, and I’m going to keep my general plans light because of course I will be co-hosting another one of our Club Reading Weeks with Simon at Stuck in a Book – and this time we’re going to be focusing on 1929! It looks like a heck of a year for books, and a quick online search reveals a wealth of titles to choose from!!

I’ve already had a dig in the shelves and pulled out a very big pile of possible reads from 1929 and it’s going to be very hard to make choices.

There are several titles I would love to re-read, and also some which are new to me, and so I’m going to have to be guided I think by the emotional pull of the book.

I’ve read most of the books in the above pile, but am really tempted to re-read some of these…

The same applies to this pile, although a couple of titles are unread – which to choose??

This pile is more unread than read, and there is a chunkster there I would love to take on but I’m not sure if I have the time…

Anyway, those are the ones I have to hand at first glance – are there any which take your fancy, and do you plan to join in? It’s a low pressure event, where you read as much or as little as you like for the week and share on whatever platform you have, or even in our comments. Anyone can take part and all are welcome; and I will have a dedicated page where I will link reviews (you can see pages for previous ones on the site). Looking forward very much to seeing what people read!

Apart from the club, and the next book in the Dark is Rising sequence (“Greenwitch”) I intend to keep it simple and follow the reading mojo. Real Life continues to be challenging and so I’m not always having as much time with my books as I’d like, but here’s a mountain of options I have for the coming month:

Again, plenty of interesting-looking titles to choose from! Do any take your fancy? And will be you be joining us for the #1929Club? 😊

Wartime observations from a German outsider – over @ShinyNewBooks :D

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I’m returning to Paris today, for another review over at Shiny New Books! Having explored the subterranean world of the Parisian waiter, this book sees me travelling back to occupied wartime France, where a young German historian has been posted to Paris to work in the archives. The book is Clouds over Paris by Felix Hartlaub, translated by Simon Beattie.

Hartlaub is a fascinating writer, and the book contains his jottings in notebooks whilst observing the city and its people. He’s something of an outsider, attached to neither occupier or occupied, and that gives his thoughts a detachment which makes the book most interesting. You can read my full review here!

“…all times coexist…” #TDiRS22

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Last month, Annabel kicked off her monthly readalong of Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” sequence of five books, and I found my re-encounter with the first volume “Over Sea, Under Stone” to be such a joy: wonderful writing, very vividly drawn locations and a real sense of danger. This month’s book is the second in the sequence, “The Dark is Rising” (from which the series takes its title) and in it the excitement, tension and sheer menace take a step up!

The story opens on Midwinter’s Eve; it is nearly the eleventh birthday of Will Stanton, who lives with his parents and large family in a rambling house in the south of England. Will seems an ordinary boy, wishing for snow on his birthday and looking forward to opening his presents in the morning. However, what happens to him over the course of this story is anything but ordinary, and it’s not long before we’re having hints that there is much more to Will than meets the eye. The two family dogs, and indeed other animals, are wary of him; the radio lets out alarming screeches when he goes near; and he and one of his brothers witness a shocking attack on a tramp by a group of rooks. Onto the scene comes Merriman Lyon, that pivotal figure from the first book in the series, and it is revealed that Will is not only the seventh son of a seventh son (a fact he was unaware of up until that moment, as he didn’t know he had a brother who died in infancy); he’s also an Old One, beings who must protect the world from the powers of evil.

That’s a lot to grasp for an 11-year-old boy, but he’ll soon have to step up to the mark and fight the forces of Dark which are massing for an attack on Will and his fellow Old Ones, representing the Light in the world. Over Christmas, and on to Twelfth Night, the battle will range over different times and places, drawing in myths and legends, old friends and new enemies, and the moumental figure of Merriman will be a constant throughout. Will is the ‘Sign Seeker’; his quest is to bring together six signs of power which will help defeat the Dark, but it’s a race against time to see if he can find them all. Can Will and his fellows defeat the Darkness? Or is it too strong for them this time?

The rhythms of his voice, which had been rising and falling in an increasingly formal pattern, changed subtly into a kind of chanted battle cry; a call, Will thought suddenly, with a chill tightening his skin, to things beyond the great hall and beyond the time of the calling. “For the Dark, the Dark is rising. The Walker is abroad, the Rider is riding; they have woken, the Dark is rising. And the last of the Circle is come to claim his own, and the circles must now all be joined. The white horse must go to the Hunter, and the river take the valley; there must be fire on the mountain, fire under the stone, fire over the sea. Fire to burn away the Dark, for the Dark, the Dark is rising!”

“The Dark is Rising” is a stunning piece of writing, it has to be said; although ostensibly written for children, it packs a strong narrative punch and is gripping from start to finish. I commented in my post on “Over Sea…” how well Cooper conveys a real sense of danger and menace, and that’s well to the fore here. I read the opening chapter of the book at night in bed and totally spooked myself; and there were many moments like that throughout the narrative where the force of the Dark was almost tangible. Cooper’s inventiveness has to be praised, too – drawing on folklore, particularly that of the Thames Valley and Herne the Hunter, she builds a believable world in peril which is of course recognisably ours, yet populated with Old Ones who have been protecting it during the centuries. Good and bad in our world do seem to be like yin and yang, needing to be balanced and so often out of alignment…

There are so many elements of this book I could comment on; the brilliance of her storytelling is remarkable, for example the slipping in and out of different times, and at points in the book the Old Ones seem to inhabit two times at once which is cleverly done. Additionally, the balancing of Will’s ‘real’ life alongside those times when he’s fighting the Dark is done so well, as Cooper never lets us forget this is an 11-year-old boy who’s suddenly found he has great power but has to weigh that against the fact he needs to live his ordinary life. He develops as the book goes on, yet never loses sight of his everyday existence.

The wind rose. It whipped screeching at the window. There was a tremendous thump of a knock at the door. Across the room, the Walker jumped up, his face twisted again, tight with waiting. Paul played, unhearing. The crashing knock came again. None of them could hear, Will realised suddenly; though the wind was near to deafening him, it was not for their ears, nor would they know what was happening now. The crash came a third time, and he knew that he was bound to answer. He walked alone through unheeding people to the door, took hold of the big iron circle that was the handle, muttered some words under his breath in the Old Speech, and flung open the door.

Merriman, of course, is a joy all the way through; a solid and reliable Old One, ready to support Will but also willing to leave Will to find his own way when he must, he is also fallible and has his own griefs to bear. And the other characters are vivid and alive, from Will’s family through the local people who turn out to be allies to Hawkin, Merriman’s foster-son. The forces of Dark are well-drawn, and at points we’re reminded that Will is regarded by his family as just a child and it’s hard for him to convey the peril to adults without giving too much away, a situation which came up in “Over Sea…” too.

The book does, of course, draw on many mythologies, whether Arthurian, Celtic or from further afield; however, I can’t help feeling that Cooper created her own modern mythology by so cleverly blending all of these elements. It’s quite some time since I read the books, and most of my memories centre around the cold and the threat from snow and nature. However, I was interested to pick up this time round that Cooper is not altogether parochial with her mythology, as there are Old Ones all around the world who not only appear in group gatherings, but also have an important part to play in the climax of the story (which is really very exciting and had me glued to the book). I have to say, though, that I had forgotten the part Hawkin plays in the narrative and found this to be particularly moving.

Well, I could go on and on, but you get the picture – this really is a quite magical book and deserves all the praise it gets. One of the things I’ve loved about the books so far is how they give you a sense of the oldness of the country, its history and its legends, and make you look at the old paths, ways and names in a new light – no wonder Robert Macfarlane loves the series! There are no doubt all manner of references to myth and legend built in which I’ve missed but which other more erudite commentators than I will explore; but you don’t need to know all of those to enjoy “The Dark is Rising”. All you need to do is give yourself up to the story and be transported to other places and times, following Will on his quest for the signs – it’s a journey you won’t forget!

*****

It’s worth mentioning that when Cooper wrote her Grail story, “Over Sea, Under Stone”, she hadn’t conceived of a follow-up or the series as a whole. However, the end of “Dark…” states quite firmly that this second book gives the sequence its name and that there will be five of them. Thank goodness she decided to carry on with this series!

And as an aside, my poor fragile Puffin paperback struggled to cope with being re-read; it is, alas, over 40 years old and the paper and binding have become very brittle. It made it, and as it’s the longest of the books, I hope the others will survive too as I do want to re-read my original copies!

“…what’s my motivation?” #everytrickinthebook @RenardPress #blogtour

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Today is my spot on a blog tour for a new work of fiction – which is a bit of a rarity, as I tend to be quite choosy about the modern writing I read. However, I always make an exception for Renard Press as, whether it’s a reprinted classic or a shiny new work, I’ve found all their releases to be quality ones. I recently wrote about Beth Train-Brown’s wonderful “Salmacis” poetry volume, and earlier covered an excellent collection of short stories from Miriam Burke. Today’s book is a novel – “Every Trick in the Book” by Iain Hood – and it’s a fascinating work which explores all manner of issues in a very cleverly written way.

“Every Trick…” opens by introducing us to what seems the perfect family: Paul and Julia Dorion and their two daughters Olivia and Sophie. The family live in north London, and are an idealistic one, looking to improve the world via their involvement in the ORGAN:EYES group which supports all manner of good causes. As the narrative reminds us, their home appears to represent the perfect Sunday Supplement life; but as the story goes on, it soon becomes clear that all is not what is seems.

Despite having been together for a couple of decades, Paul and Julia don’t actually seem to know all there is to know about each other. An encounter in a pub between Paul and an attractive young woman, who turns out to be a freelance journalist, raises the reader’s suspicions; and when he starts to travel a circuitous route around London for a dubious meeting it becomes clear that he is certainly not who he appears to be. For that matter, is Julia keeping secrets? How do their young daughters feel about what’s happening? And just where does Captain Beefheart fit into things?? Well, the reader will just have to keep on reading to try to find out, but in this world where nothing is as it seems, it’s not certain if all will be revealed…

“Every Trick…” is such a clever and brilliantly written book, and one which really keeps you on your toes! Hood captures modern London and its masses in all their variety, and there are crowd scenes where you realise that real communion, truth and understanding between humans might be impossible. The book also uses all sorts of tricks to unsettle the reader, from redactions through lists, pages of unattributed dialogue and a section set in a mental hospital, which all serve to undermine the reader’s sense of confidence in knowing who is who and what is what – very clever! The redactions in particular are unsettling, as are the listings of the routes Paul takes through London and the cameras which are tracking him – chilling stuff…

Core to the books is its explorations of notions of identity: how much do we *really* know about anyone else, are they who and what we think they are, and even after decades is a person putting up a facade; and actually, do we always know who we are ourselves! Hood’s style is deliberately experimental, drawing in everything from literary and cultural references to stream-of-consciousness; and at times he cleverly pulls the reader back from direct involvement in the narrative by pointing out what the author is doing, reminding us that this is a construct, a fictional work, and that we are outside it – another indication that identities in this story are always entirely nebulous. He really does employ every trick in the book!

I’ve deliberately kept my discussion of the plot of the book limited here, as I do think it helps to go into reading it with little foreknowledge; and it’s a plot that undercuts your expectations so often, as just as you think you’ve got a handle on what’s happening, Hood shifts the goalposts and you find yourself rethinking everything that’s gone before as well as reading everything that comes after for a double meaning.

As you might have gathered, I loved “Every Trick…”; I’m fond of meta narratives and books that play with conventions anyway, so this was always likely to be up my street! It’s a clever, thought-provoking work which looks at identity, surveillance, the lies we tell each other and just how easy it is to fool people. I’m still thinking about it days after finishing it, and in particular the emotional effect of the parents’ lies on their young daughters. This comes to the fore towards the end of the book and is a very moving strand.

So – another winner from Renard, one of my favourite indie publishers. They’ve published two of Iain Hood’s books so far and are to be applauded for this as, on the strength of “Every Trick in the Book”, he’s most definitely an author to watch! 😀

About the Author:

Iain Hood was born in Glasgow and grew up in the seaside town of Ayr. He attended the University of Glasgow and Jordanhill College, and later worked in education in Glasgow and the west country. He attended the University of Manchester after moving to Cambridge, where he continues to live with his wife and daughter. His first novel, This Good Book, was published in 2021.

“Memory…is the enemy of every corrupt regime.” @VQ_Books #OdesaatDawn

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If you pop into the Ramblings on any kind of a regular basis, you’ll be well aware of my love of crime writing. Nowadays, it tends to be mainly geared towards Golden Age mysteries, but in the past I’ve read many more contemporary works as well as a good number of spy-type works. Today’s book, a recent release from V&Q Books, falls firmly into the latter category; it’s an entertaining yarn set in modern day Ukraine with a surreal twist! The title is “Odesa at Dawn” written by Sally McGrane, an American-born author based in Germany but who’s lived in Odesa – and it’s clear she knows and loves the city!

Set in a time before the current conflict, the story follows an ex-CIA man, Max Rushmore, who’s sent to Odesa on a routine assignment. Max is a somewhat hapless character, and things soon start to go awry for him; the severed hand of the local governor is found in a vat of sunflower oil; Max comes upon a detached toe with the same markings as the hand; and needless to say, he sets off to investigate.

The city of Odesa is in a volatile state, with conflict between the governor and the mayor; the local mafia and the criminal underbelly of the place are all out to get what they can via the many corrupt officials; and there are of course tensions with neighbouring Russia which threaten to bubble up to the surface (and, of course, we all know how that’s going…) Will Max get to the bottom of things without being damaged (at the very least…)? Will his wife accept that he won’t be back in the USA in time for an important meeting she has lined up to start on a very different, and much more respectable career, or will she throw her hat into the ring? What is going on beneath the city? And what on earth are all the cats of Odesa up to??? Well, you’ll have to read the book yourself to find out!

As you might have gathered, there’s a lot going on in “Odesa…” and it makes for gripping and entertaining reading. The plot is a complex one which weaves in the history of its setting, blending the past and future of the city beautifully. McGane uses her extensive knowledge of Odesa to draw in the influences of previous residents like Babel and Gogol, and the former’s fictional gangster, Benya Krik. The place seems to exert a magnetic influence on those who’ve lived there or were born there, and all manner of characters are involved in the action, from the local poet Fishman who blogs about life in the city, to Sima the beautiful pastry-chef, who is adored from afar by Mr. Smiley…

Ah yes – the cats! As well as the real life-criminal element, there is an underground mafia which exists in the world of cats, and Mr. Smiley is one of the bigshots! He and his feline team observe the action, unsuspected by humans, and shed an interesting light on the nefarious activities of the humans. They have an important role in the resolution of the plot, and I would have rather liked to see more of them!

Although the bumbling investigator Max is ostensibly the main character, the star of the book is, of course, Odesa itself. McGane paints a wonderful portrait of the city, one which, as Lizzy has noted in her review, is not always flattering. I personally find the book even more appealing because of that nuanced portrayal; although often humorous and entertaining, there are points where the narrative goes to darker places, exploring the horrors of the past; the Jewish characters in particular have suffered much. The are reflections on a kind of mortality that applies to cities as well as people, as it’s noted that Odesa is sinking into the sand in many places. No doubt the labyrinth of catacombs which exists under the city, and which provides thrilling and surreal escapades in the book, have something to do with this…

“Odesa at Dawn” was a wonderful read, from the opening pages where we first meet Mr. Smiley to the dramatic ending on stormy high seas. McGane’s love for Odesa shines through from start to finish, and as well as providing an entertaining and often dramatic read, she’s also painted a marvellous picture of the city. Babel’s translator, Boris Dralyuk, has advised readers to “come for the story, but don’t forget to take in the sights,” and he’s not wrong – highly recommended!

 

The dark underbelly of Parisian restaurants – over @ShinyNewBooks!

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A new review from me today, up at Shiny New Books, and it’s of a fascinating recent publication which explores the harsh life of a waiter in the world of Paris’s glittering haut cuisine restaurants. The book is “A Waiter in Paris: Adventures in the Dark Heart of the City” by Edward Chisholm, and it’s a sobering read in places.

The restaurant life in Paris did, of course, make up a large part of Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London”; and Chisholm channels that book in his work, finding that so much has not changed over the years. The glitzy appearance of high-end restaurants belies what’s going on behind the scenes, and reading “A Waiter…” will certainly change the way you think about eating out! You can read my full review here.

“For half a mile the memory tracked me like a shadow…” @nightjarpress @DJ_Bevan

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Back in July I shared my thoughts about a couple of unsettling little chapbooks from Nightjar Press; both were called “The Lake” but were by two different authors, John Foxx and Livi Michael. Today, however, I want to talk about another pair from the recent batch of releases which have different titles but the same author! David Bevan has provided two stories for the new issues, entitled “The Bull” and “The Golden Frog”; and each is a little gem of storytelling!

Bevan hails from Shropshire and having lived in London and Manchester, he’s now based in the West Riding of Yorkshire. The day job is as a freelance copywriter; these are his first published stories, and on the basis of the pair, I’m keen to read more. Fortunately, he’s apparently working on a collection of short stories inspired by the landscape and community of the north. But on to the specifics of the two chapbooks to hand!

The Bull by David Bevan

“The Bull” is an unsettling little story in which the narrator returns to her home and after attending a wake, take a walk through the nearby landscape. Memories of walking the same route with her father flood back, but these are not necessarily happy memories. The woman revisits her fragmented background, the family tensions and the recollections which might have been a dream or might have been real – but will retracing her steps reawaken whatever caused alarm in the past??

The Golden Frog by David Bevan

In contrast, the narrator of “The Golden Frog” is a young man who encounters a boy from his school days; known by the nickname Gollum, his real name is Andrew and he’s training for a swimming challenge, ‘The World Bog Snorkelling Championships’.

On his shoulders, he had a spray of pale, ginger freckles. Normally, his hair was a rook’s nest of dark copper whorls; wet and slicked back by the water, it looked like eels dipped in rust. When he took off his mask, he screwed up his small acorn-coloured eyes and wrinkled his nose at the same time.

Andrew is a loner; brought up by his grandmother, he now lives alone in her house, and our narrator Gaz visits – more out of curiosity than anything else. But his contact with Andrew reveals that the latter is taking unusual action to ensure he wins – which will have dramatic consequences…

*****

Both of these wonderful short works are riddled with ambiguity and so unsettling! Bevan manages to take a relatively normal setting and twist it, leaving you at the end of each story thinking that you know what’s just happened, but not quite sure. He captures also the strangeness of landscape, how disconcerting it can be to be out in the countryside on your own, and how the mind creates fear out of nothing. “The Bull” draws strongly on these fears; while “The Golden Frog” breaks down the wall between humans and other creatures in a most unnerving way.

As I said at the start of this post, I was so impressed with these stories; Bevan really does get under the skin with his writing, and these are welcome additions to Nightjar’s range of dark and rather disconcerting tales. Another two I highly recommend – if you need a little scary reading as the nights draw in, these Nightjar chapbooks would be just the thing! 😀

 

“Language deficit leads to attention deficit” @RobGMacfarlane #Landmarks

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Robert Macfarlane is an author who probably needs no introduction on the Ramblings; his books are much lauded, he’s well known for his concern about, and work for, the environment, and he’s made a number of appearances here. However there are still many I’ve not read, so I was happy to stumble on “Landmarks” in a charity shop, though it did take me a little while to get to it! However, timing is all, and the book made the perfect end of summer reading, polyread alongside Muriel Spark! “Landmarks” was perhaps not quite what I was expecting; despite that, however, it was a marvellous and thought-provoking read which threatens to send me off on a Macfarlane/environmental reading binge!!

First published in 2015, “Landmarks” followed Macfarlane’s trio of works on landscape: “Mountains of the Mind”, “The Wild Places” and “The Old Ways”. This book also explores the land and the world around us, but through the lens of the language we use, and in particular the words we use or lose. It’s described as “a field guide to the literature of nature, and a vast glossary collecting thousands of the remarkable terms used in dozens of the languages and dialects of Britain and Ireland to describe and denote aspects of terrain, weather, and nature”, and each individual chapter explores the landscape, or aspect of it, through different writers. Macfarlane focuses on mountains, woods and water, northlands, edgelands and other features of the land, exploring the ways different authors have engaged with those areas and the language they’ve used to describe it.

So, for example, the chapter “The Living Mountain” deals with Nan Shepherd and her wonderful book of that name, as Macfarlane follows in her footsteps, and relates his experiences in the Cairngorms while providing fascinating commentary on Shepherd’s writing. “The Woods and the Water” is concerned with Roger Deakin and what is known nowadays as ‘wild swimming’ (when I was younger it was just swimming…); “Stone-Books” was a particularly interesting chapter, covering as it does the writing of Jacquetta Hawkes and her epic work “The Land”. I kept coming across little synchronicities, like the chapter “North-Minded”; I am, of course, from the North and very fond of it, and I have a book by the author featured in this chapter, Peter Davidson, called “The Idea of North” – it’s been lurking unread on Mount TBR for far too long…

The stern curve of a mountain slope, a nest of wet stones on a beach, the bent trunk of a wind-blown tree: such forms can call out in us a goodness we might not have known we possessed.

Underpinning all this is, of course, the narrowing down of our linguistic richness. The opening sections of the book are triggered by the removal from the Oxford Junior Dictionary of a vast number of words which will be familiar to many of us of an older age about nature; children and young people no longer have that wide range of words in their vocabulary, which reflects the more restricted world so many of them live within, tethered to entertainment screens of many sorts. In fact, Macfarlane would later release a beautiful book called “The Lost Words” in conjunction with artist Jackie Morris, and a copy lives in my place of work; it’s a gorgeous item in its own right, and also records so many terms which are slipping out of use. And “Landmarks” operates in the same way, creating a ‘word hoard’ of those local or regional or obscure words and phrases that if not recorded will be lost to us. So in between each chapter, Macfarlane creates a glossary; words relating to flatlands, or wetlands, or woodlands and so on; fixing for all time, or as long as his work survives, some marvellous language which can be saved from oblivion. ‘Nab’ or ‘strob’; ‘clitter’ or ‘gryke’; all are evocative words, and thankfully preserved here.

Intriguingly, after the first publication of “Landmarks”, Macfarlane was flooded with correspondence from readers sharing other words with him for his hoard; obviously, only a fraction of what he collected is preserved in the book, so I can only hope that the rest of his collection is safely preserved in some kind of archive which will keep this language safe for the future. As George Orwell recognised, language gives a power; if we cannot describe something, how can we understand it, help it, fight the bad and promote the good. In a world where we are systematically damaging nature, hopefully something like “Landmarks” will help us to engage with our planet more, help its landscapes to survive and bring back lost language. As you might have guessed, I was totally absorbed in “Landmarks” and absolutely loved it; it’s a memorable and inspiring book, and will continue to make me look at the world around me anew. I really *am* tempted now to go on a Robert Macfarlane and related reading binge…

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