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One From the Archive: ‘The Long, Long Life of Trees’ by Fiona Stafford ****

Whilst it is a genre which I perhaps do not read much, I love nature writing, and Fiona Stafford’s The Long, Long Life of Trees felt to me like the perfect read.  Here, the Oxford University lecturer presents ‘a lyrical tribute to the diversity of trees, their physical beauty, their special characteristics and uses, and their ever-evolving meanings’.  I had never read a book which was purely about trees before I came to this one, aside from, I suppose, Sarah Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest.

9780300207330The book’s introduction is far-reaching, and Stafford’s passion for the natural world certainly shines through.  Each chapter focuses on one particular species of tree, from the yew and oak to the cherry and apple.  The historically rich pasts of the trees, and how they have been treated by humans throughout the ages, was striking.  I love her descriptions too; on describing the formation of the gardens at Cumbria’s Leven Hall in the 1690s, for instance, she writes that the topiary has ‘gradually grown into a looking-glass world of fantastic forms: giant top hats and helter-skelters, startled mushrooms and stacking rings, birds and beehives, pyramids and chess pieces, an evergreen tea party of cups, cones, dark doughnuts and irregular jellies’.

The breadth of Stafford’s research is breathtaking; she covers everything from the Renaissance to Sylvia Plath.  All of the photographs and illustrations which accompany each chapter were a lovely touch, and made for quite a delightful read.  The Long, Long Life of Trees is not a book which I absolutely adored and will find invaluable for the rest of my life, as I am sure others will, but I feel as though I have learnt a lot, and would definitely recommend it to green-fingered friends.

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The Book Trail: Asian Literature Edition

The first Book Trail of 2018 begins with a book I would very much like to read this year, and takes us through some rather interesting Asian literature picks which are going straight onto my to-read list (if they aren’t there already, of course!).  As ever, I am using the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads to come up with this list.

 

1. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie 4101648
Beginning on August 9, 1945, in Nagasaki, and ending in a prison cell in the US in 2002, as a man is waiting to be sent to Guantanamo Bay, Burnt Shadows is an epic narrative of love and betrayal.  Hiroko Tanaka is twenty-one and in love with the man she is to marry, Konrad Weiss. As she steps onto her veranda, wrapped in a kimono with three black cranes swooping across the back, her world is suddenly and irrevocably altered. In the numbing aftermath of the atomic bomb that obliterates everything she has known, all that remains are the bird-shaped burns on her back, an indelible reminder of the world she has lost. In search of new beginnings, two years later, Hiroko travels to Delhi. It is there that her life will become intertwined with that of Konrad’s half sister, Elizabeth, her husband, James Burton, and their employee Sajjad Ashraf, from whom she starts to learn Urdu.  With the partition of India, and the creation of Pakistan, Hiroko will find herself displaced once again, in a world where old wars are replaced by new conflicts. But the shadows of history–personal and political–are cast over the interrelated worlds of the Burtons, the Ashrafs, and the Tanakas as they are transported from Pakistan to New York and, in the novel’s astonishing climax, to Afghanistan in the immediate wake of 9/11. The ties that have bound these families together over decades and generations are tested to the extreme, with unforeseeable consequences.

 

117877522. Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif
The patients of the Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments are looking for a miracle, and Alice Bhatti is looking for a job.  Alice is a candidate for the position of junior nurse, grade 4. It is only a few weeks since her release from Borstal. She has returned to her childhood home in the French Colony, where her father, recently retired from his position as chief janitor, continues as part-time healer, and full-time headache for the local church. It seems she has inherited some of his gift.With guidance from the working nurse’s manual, and some tricks she picked up in prison, Alice brings succour to the thousands of patients littering the hospital’s corridors and concrete courtyard. In the process she attracts the attention of a lovesick patient, Teddy Bunt, apprentice to the nefarious ‘Gentleman Squad’ of the Karachi police. They fall in love; Teddy with sudden violence, Alice with cautious optimism.Their love is unexpected, but the consequences are not.  Alice soon finds that her new life is built on foundations as unstable as those of her home. A Catholic snubbed by other Catholics, who are in turn hated by everyone around them, she is also put at risk by her husband, who does two things that no member of the Gentlemen Squad has ever done – fall in love with a working girl, and allow a potentially dangerous suspect to get away. Can Teddy and Alice ever live in peace? Can two people make a life together without destroying the very thing that united them? It seems unlikely, but then Alice Bhatti is no ordinary nurse…  Filled with wit, colour and pathos, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is a glorious story of second chances, thwarted ambitions and love in unlikely places, set in the febrile streets of downtown Karachi. It is the remarkable new novel from the author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

 

3. The Scatter Here Is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer 18781341
A vivid and intricate novel-in-stories, The Scatter Here Is Too Great explores the complicated lives of ordinary people whose fates unexpectedly converge after a deadly bomb blast at the Karachi train station: an old communist poet; his wealthy, middle-aged son; a young man caught in an unpleasant, dead-end job; a girl who spins engaging tales to conceal her heartbreak; and a grief-stricken writer, who struggles to make sense of this devastating tragedy.  Bilal Tanweer reveals the pain, loneliness, and longing of these characters and celebrates the power of the written word to heal lives and communities plagued by violence. Elegantly weaving together different voices into a striking portrait of a city and its people, The Scatter Here Is Too Great is a tale as vibrant and varied in its characters, passions, and idiosyncrasies as the city itself.

 

212709474. The Smoke is Rising by Mahesh Rao
With India’s first rocket launch to the moon, the scenario is changing fast. It is this changing world of Mysore which Mahesh Rao’s novel speaks about. In this story, Mysore is gearing for an international remake with the construction of HeritageLand, Asia’s largest theme park. Citizens and government officials alike prepare themselves for a complete makeover, one that not everybody welcomes. An elderly widow finds herself forced into a secretive new life, and another woman is succumbing to the cancerous power of gossip as she tries to escape her past. Another woman must come to terms with reality as her husband’s troubling behaviour steeps out of hand. In Mysore, where the modern and the eclectic fuse to become something else entirely, everyone must hang on to their own escapes or find themselves swept under the carpet of the sublime change called development.

 

5. Salt and Sawdust by R.K. Narayan 2682894
A delightful new collection of stories and essays, some never published before, by India’s greatest living novelist  ‘Salt and Sawdust’, the title story, is a witty portrayal of a wife who cannot tell the difference between salt and sawdust (when it comes to seasoning food), leaving her husband with no option but to cook himself. The wife meanwhile is writing a novel, which takes up all her time and when it is finished she is, ironically, advised by her publishers to turn her novel into a cookery book!  In addition to short stories this book also has a section called Table Talk, which, according to R.K. Narayan, is a new form of writing, without the compulsion of an argument or conclusion, on any theme and without too definite a form. Writing in this vein then he gives us humorous pieces on, among others, language, personalities, travel, government—even parrots and a hangover.  Narayan’s stories and sketches are, as always, infused with wit, warmth and a wonderful timelessness making this book an essential read for all Narayan enthusiasts.

 

147603126. Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar
Sachin Kundalkar started on his first novel at 20 and finished it when he was 22. The novel was Cobalt Blue, the story of a brother and sister who fall in love with the same man, and how a traditional Marathi family is shattered by the ensuing events – a work that both shocked and spoke to Marathi readers.

 

7. The Music Room by Namita Devidayal 6240326
When Namita is ten years old, her mother takes her to Kennedy Bridge, a seamy neighborhood in Bombay, home to hookers and dance girls. There, in a cramped one-room apartment lives Dhondutai, the last living disciple of two of the finest Indian classical singers of the twentieth century: the legendary Alladiya Khan and the great songbird Kesarbai Kerkar. Namita begins to learn singing from Dhondutai, at first reluctantly and then, as the years pass, with growing passion. Dhondutai sees in her a second Kesarbai, but does Namita have the dedication to give herself up completely to the discipline like her teacher? Or will there always be too many late nights and cigarettes? And where do love and marriage fit into all of this?  A bestseller in India, where it was a literary sensation, The Music Room is a deeply moving meditation on how traditions and life lessons are passed along generations, on the sacrifices made by women through the ages, and on a largely unknown, but vital aspect of Indian life and culture that will utterly fascinate American readers.

 

225294018. She Will Build Him a City by Raj Kamal Jha
As night falls in Delhi, a mother spins tales from her past for her sleeping daughter. Now grown up, her child is a puzzle with a million pieces, whom she hopes, through her words and her love, to somehow make whole again.  Meanwhile, a young man rides the last train from Rajiv Chowk Station and dreams of murder.  In another corner of the city, a newborn wrapped in a blood-red towel lies on the steps of an orphanage as his mother walks away.  There are twenty million bodies in this city, but the stories of this woman, man, and child–of a secret love that blossoms in the shadows of grief, of a corrosive guilt that taints the soul, and of a boy who maps his own destiny–weave in and out of the lives of those around them to form a dazzling kaleidoscope of a novel.  Beautiful, beguiling, and audacious, this is the story of a city and its people, of love and horror, of belonging and forgiveness: a powerful and unforgettable tale of modern India.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which have piqued your interest?

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‘Blue Nights’ by Joan Didion ****

I very much enjoyed Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking when I read it a couple of years ago, but had strangely not sought out more of her work in the intervening months.  I finally requested a copy of the markedly poignant Blue Nights from the library, and ended up reading it in one sitting.

9780007432905The blurb of Blue Nights describes the way in which Didion has used writing as a tool to try and make sense of a traumatic event in her life; it is a work which displays ‘a stunning frankness about losing a daughter…  [It] examines her thoughts, fears, and doubts regarding loving children, illness, and growing old.’  Didion also uses Blue Nights in order to explore ‘her role as a parent… [and] asks the candid questions any parent might about how she feels she failed either because cues were not taken or perhaps displaced.’  The book proper begins in July 2010, on a date which would have marked her daughter’s wedding anniversary.

Quintana Roo, the adopted daughter of Didion and her husband, fell ill with a mysterious virus, and was soon in a coma.  Whilst very little – in fact, next to nothing – is written about this, or the process of Quintana’s death, Didion details, with an almost matter-of-factness, Quintana’s mental health as a young woman: ‘Of course they were eventually assigned names, a “diagnosis.”  The names kept changing.  Manic depression for example became OCD…  and obsessive-compulsive disorder became something else…’.  Eventually, it is pinpointed that Quintana suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder, its effects of which Didion captures in the most beautiful and startling way: ‘Her depths and shallows, her quicksilver changes.’

In her introductory chapter, Didion writes candidly about why she selected Blue Nights as the title of her memoir.  She says: ‘During the blue nights you think the end of the day will never come.  As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone.  This book is called Blue Nights because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness.’  Metaphorically, this fading of the summer is something upon which Didion is able to project feelings of her grief.  On a more base level, she feels blue without her daughter and husband, and the position of retrospect in which she is writing, as well as the death of two beloveds, unsurprisingly makes her mood drop all the more.

Throughout Blue Nights, Didion recalls a stream of memories from her life, of family and friends, and relates them to us using almost a stream-of-consciousness style.  For instance, she writes: ‘Time passes. / Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.’  She is tough upon herself and past decisions which she has made in places, particularly when thinking about her daughter’s childhood: ‘She was already a person.  I could never afford to see that.’

Blue Nights is both a wonderful work of love, and a showcase of the heartbreak which Didion has gone through, after first the death of her husband, and then of her only daughter.  To those who are grieving, comfort can be found within its pages.  The ‘incisive and electric honesty’ which the blurb details can be found throughout; it feels as though Didion is writing as a form of self-therapy, using her voice to expel her doubts, and keep her memories of Quintana alive.  Blue Nights is searingly honest, and its non-linear style really gives a feel for how jumbled a mind with grief in can become.  Touching and sad, Blue Nights feels like a moving tribute to a lost daughter.

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‘The Blind Owl’ by Sadegh Hedayat ***

I, perhaps shamefully, had never heard of Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl before spotting it in the Modern Classics section of the library.  Whilst originally banned in the author’s native Iran, it soon became a bestseller, and he is now heralded as one of the fathers of modern Iranian literature.  First published in 1937, and in English twenty years later, a 75th anniversary edition was published in 2011.  Hedayat’s masterpiece has been compared to the likes of Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Edgar Allan Poe, which may give you a feel for the kind of story which is going to unfold.

The Blind Owl, in less than 130 pages, feels masterful in the way in which it takes the reader into the ‘nightmarish exploration of the psyche of a madman’ after the loss of a mysterious lover.  It sounded stra9789186131449nge but intriguing, and I have read very little literature which discusses and examines madness from a male perspective.

This madness, or rather the process of spiralling into it, is captured wonderfully by the haunting and immediate voice of Hedayat’s narrator: ‘In the course of my life I have discovered that a fearful abyss lies between me and other people and have realized that my best course is to remain silent and keep my thoughts to myself for as long as I can.  If I have now made up my mind to write it is only in order to reveal myself to my shadow, that shadow which at this moment is stretched across the wall in the attitude of one denouncing with insatiable appetite each word I write.  It is for his sake that I wish to make the attempt.  Who knows?  We may perhaps come to know each other better.  Ever since I broke the last ties which held me to the rest of mankind, my one desire has been to attain a better knowledge of myself.’

The sense of the ‘Other’ which Hedayat is aware of from the very beginning of The Blind Owl is emphasised through repetitions of certain phrases and paragraphs, which form a kind of backbone within the novella.  There is little plot here really, but it is the way in which Hedayat handles his protagonist, and the changes which he goes through so suddenly, which is the real strength.  The reader is swept along, entirely adrift in the narrator’s mind; it feels as though we have no control, and are entering a world of manic thoughts along with him.  The urgency and confusion of the prose adds to this effect, and it soon begins to feel rather claustrophobic.

Dark and rather gruesome, The Blind Owl gives a real insight into an extremely troubled mind.  Whilst it does not demonstrate, or even really touch upon, its Iranian setting, which was a shame, the translation by Naveed Noori makes it feel fresh and contemporary.  Occasionally, The Blind Owl feels quite jarring to read, but perseverance makes it worth it.  The Blind Owl is a haunting novella, with a powerful voice, and rather a terrifying message buried beneath it.

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‘The Snow Tourist: A Search for the World’s Purest, Deepest Snowfall’ by Charlie English ****

I had been itching to read The Snow Tourist: A Search for the World’s Purest, Deepest Snowfall by Charlie English since I purchased it back in August 2017.  I felt that it would be best saved until late Autumn as a seasonal read, and it proved the perfect tome to settle down with in the fading afternoon light of November.

9781846270642Metro calls The Snow Tourist a ‘wonder and a delight’, and Joanna Kavenna deems it ‘an enchanting tale of one man’s search for snow, a report on the precarious state of our extreme climates, an evocative poem to lost childhood winters…’.  Robert Macfarlane says that The Snow Tourist is ‘a finely written and many-sided account of the fascination – both fearful and loving – that we have for snow.’  Wanderlust compares English’s ‘easy-going narrative style’ to Bill Bryson’s, which endeared me to it even further.

In The Snow Tourist, Charlie English has travelled all over the world, over a period of a few years, to find snow.  He begins in his home city of London, and journeys to such places as Vermont, Austria, and the Inuit-inhabited lands of northern Canada.  English certainly has part of an old-fashioned explorer within him; he seems fascinated with everything he sees, and everyone he meets, despite the odd wobbles he encounters due to the extreme cold.

Of his choice to undertake the journeys detailed in The Snow Tourist, he writes: ‘every autumn now my thoughts return to snow.  Snow is something I identify myself with.  Like my father, I am a snow person.’  This inheritance, passed down from his father, is all the more important to English, as his father committed suicide when he was just ten years old.  English goes on to detail his hopes for his travels: ‘The expedition I decided upon one grey day in London consisted of a series of journeys linked by a single natural form – snow.  I would travel to the best snow in the world, discover how people lived with snow, and what they did with it.  As on previous expeditions, the principal objective would be the journey itself, the knowledge and experiences I would gather, and the people I would meet along the way.’

The Snow Tourist is filled with startling facts and conjectures.  English writes, for instance, that ‘someone once estimated that a million billion snow crystals were created around the earth every second, in a jumble of shapes and sizes, from simple hexagonal prisms to flat plates and many-footed stars.’  English also explores such things as the history of skiing.

English intersperses his travels, and writing about those whom he encounters, with memories of snow from his own childhood.  He remembers the following, rather touching moment: ‘A Super-8 film shows me and my brother being towed on the back of a sledge to a famous local hill, Granny’s Bump.  My father is in his wellington boots, red weekend trousers and Norwegian fisherman’s jumper.  My mother is wrapped in a long padded coat, with a woollen hat.  My brother and I wobble about on the sledge and fall off as they haul us along by a rope.  Watching it again now, these three flickering minutes give me a sense of warmth and loss, of nostalgie de la neige.’  Throughout, there is a near-perfect balance struck between facts and personal experience.

The Snow Tourist is engaging and fascinating from the outset, and English’s chatty yet informative prose style makes his book accessible to all.  The travelogue is reflective yet up to the minute, detailing the effects which climate change has had upon some of the snowiest places on earth, and how rapidly the snowfall which some of us live with for many months of the year is beginning to melt way ahead of expected time.  There is an awareness throughout of ways in which snow is changing, and how this affects different cultures which rely upon it.  A lot of historical detail has also been included – for instance, the history of Western snow science.  The ‘Dictionary of Snow’ included as an appendix is a lovely touch, and provides a lot of interesting facts to retain, as well as a slew of different words for different kinds of snow.

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