Teethmarks on My Tongue by Eileen Battersby

Eileen Battersby (1958-2018) was a renowned literary critic and reviewer, my favourite, probably the only one I knew by name, reputation and avidly followed. It wasn’t just for her excellent reviews, it was because she read so much further outside of the English language and culture than any other, and because she might as easily refer back to ancient myths and classics as she would to contemporary translations in her far-reaching analysis and commentary on literature.

Sadly, tragically, two days before Christmas, at the age of 60, she died following a freak road accident in Ireland, a terrible loss to her family, friends and all those who’d come to respect and enjoy her thoughts on literature. As the author John Banville wrote,

“she was a champion of the overlooked and undervalued…a shining light in the world of letters”

Her last two reviews for The Guardian linked below, a testament to that diversity, were novels by writers from elsewhere, one of them also a translation; Tommy Wieringa’s (one of the most important Dutch literary writers of the last decade) novella, The Death of Murat Idrissi (translated by Sam Garrett) and rising literary star, Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma’s latest An Orchestra of Minorities.

Having so recently separated from the Irish Times she was at the beginning of a new era, she’d begun writing reviews for the FT, one of her last the English translation of Walter Kempowski’s Homeland and the LARB (Los Angeles Review of Books), and was working on a literary Western, a genre it is said she was fascinated by.

No doubt she was wary of putting her own writing out there to be judged, just as many authors she interviewed had been wary of her unforgiving yet erudite turn of phrase. When Teethmarks on My Tongue was first launched in Ireland in 2016, Prof. Jennny Williams praised Battersby’s literary criticism, which had an international impact, acknowledging:

It was a special author who could cross the “shark-infested waters” between being a literary critic and a novelist.

Battersby was awarded honorary membership of the Irish Translators and Interpreters (ITIA) group in 2016 for her work raising awareness of translated novels and of translation in general, which plays an essential role in ensuring access to the work of novelists in other languages.

Though Californian by birth she came to Ireland with her family as a teenager and stayed, studying English literature at University College Dublin, working many years for the Irish Times, living most of her adult life in Ireland. She was known for her love of animals, especially horses and dogs, a significant feature in her novel and her long, engaging telephone conversations, always delighted to share her literary thoughts to a willing listener.

Review

Teethmarks on My Tongue is a coming-of-age story about teenage Helen, the only child of a wealthy Southern family, who in the opening pages witnesses her mother’s death broadcast on television, shot by a mentally ill lover.  Living on an esteemed property in Richmond, Virginia, she passes her free time in the company of horses or immersing herself in her intellectual passion, the science of astronomy, the solar system.

Father and daughter though shocked, are relatively unmoved by this death, their lack of empathy makes for bizarre reading, they seem somewhat removed from reality, making me wonder if is it supposed to be satire, particularly as the story around the murderer quickly becomes farcical and the media’s indifferent treatment of the family seems almost pointed, given the author’s years of proximity to that profession, I do wonder.

I imagine the reporters busy at their desks, yanking and pulling at the stuff of people’s lives. Making up stories that exaggerated the wrung-out facts and then just ruthlessly leaving the truth for dead, along with the raw and tender feelings of those who had been left behind.

In Part 2, now 18, she departs for Europe alone. Her father, a vet and breeder, sold the horse she called Galileo to a French buyer, reminding her it had never been hers. He denied she was a scientist, saying her interest was the history of science not quite the same as being a physicist. She lived among them, had access to everything, but the valuable animal was denied her and so too it seemed her association with science. Galileo was sent to France, and so she sends herself there too, depriving her father of them both.

I wanted to show Father that I was not content with simply taking whatever I wanted as it had apparently seemed to him. No, it was vital to prove, to him and to me, that I was capable of rational thought and had revised my old notion of who I was, now that Father had destroyed all of that for me.

In Paris she indulges her love of art, spending hours observing paintings, has a ghastly experience with an older man and is catapulted into the next experience by her foolish, misguided courage. Rescuing a stray dog she names Hector sets her on a mission to find a job in the countryside. Finally, an animal she can care for and own, despite the complications he brings to her uncertain future.

Mother always maintained that my “gray matter” as she called it would compensate for my physical shortcomings, my peculiar eyes … I am sure she had never meant to hurt my feelings and instead had given me a kind of confidence; no a resilience. That is what I had in abundance, resilience, very useful when balancing my standard issue face and ill-matched eyes, and, hopefully the dreams Father had belittled but which I would salvage.

In Part 3 she is working on a horse farm in the Loire valley with Hector in tow, riding horses to earn her keep, trying to figure out the characters who live there, blind to the relationships between people, somewhat aloof. We too are blind and slow to realise these connections, limited to seeing through her dual-coloured eyes that discover too late the reality.

It’s a voyage through late youth, and through the unknown countries and cultures of France and Germany (with the exception of their art, of which she has significant intellectual knowledge and insight), the novel and its main character observe well, comfortable analysing experiences yet it lacks emotional depth, things happen which surprise the reader because Helen doesn’t exhibit much emotion except in relation to Hector; human connections are stilted, surprising; she figures things out rather than feels them.

On realising she may be loved, or in love with one of the employees, Mathieu:

Delightful as it all was, a part of me still felt wary. It’s in my nature, always was; the doubts along with my stupid habit of putting everything said or done of any significance under the imaginary microscope in my mind.

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

The cryptic title finally appears near the end and I wonder if it might be a metaphor for the author writing a book, since she was more renowned for her criticism than her creativity.

In the novel it is ‘Wanderer above the sea of Fog’, a painting by Caspar David Friedrich she seeks, the German Romantic painter of loneliness; she follows a trail of his works from Paris to Hamburg to Berlin.

“Had I missed out on seeing the picture I would have sobbed, bitten down hard, teethmarks on my tongue, and then would have devised an alternative plan.”

While reminiscing on the paintings she views, we see how well informed and sensitive she is to finding solace and understanding through art, even if lacking it in life, it is here she seems able to reach inside and feel. When she finally locates the painting, she wonders:

What was going through the mind of the wanderer as he gazed out over the abyss? His life, his future … eternity, or was he just realising how far he had climbed?

A quintessential Romantic artwork, it was a reaction against pre-revolutionary European values of logic, rationality and order, as writers, artists and musicians turned towards emotion, imagination, and the sublime for inspiration. To nature. Battersby’s protagonist ponders her own life’s meaning as she hovers between those two perspectives and leads us towards the novel’s shocking denouement.

It’s a novel that makes you think because of that aspect of her character that is missing, still evolving, nowhere is that more alarming than with its surprising ending, as she reaches the end of another phase of her journey, as much in her head, if not more, than when she began.

In this respect, it’s almost the anti-thesis of the hero’s journey, an anti-myth, suggesting that sometimes humans don’t learn from their experiences, don’t evolve, they become more entrenched in their own way of being, of perceiving and then life comes along and slaps them.

Further Reading

Remembering Eileen Battersby by Neil Belton, Editor in chief, Head of Zeus

Remembering Eileen Battersby, by Susan Curtis, LARB (Los Angeles Review of Books)

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa – review

An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma review – a stunning leap forwards

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How Sister Outsider Lead to a Chat Between Eloquent Rage and Good and Mad

Sister Outsider is something of a classic collection of essays that I first heard about some years ago, a collection that if you have any interest in issues of gender, feminism, or equality should be near the top of the list.

Audre Lordre was a poet, academic, speaker, feminist activist, sister and mother of two, who grew up in 1930’s Harlem. She wrote 12 books and tragically passed away at the age of 58 from cancer in 1992.

I have long wished to read it and was reminded of that recently, when a Goodreads Group I was invited to join and now belong to, Our Shared Shelf, a Feminist Book club created by Emma Watson, inspired by work with UN Women (dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women) posted a link to a video (linked below) of a conversation between two writers who have recently published books that reference Audre Lorde’s work, in particular pertaining to women, anger, and race.

Here was an invitation to listen to and participate in a dialogue about the power and consequence of women’s rage, both personal and political, a conversation across race, across cultural contexts, across the things that make us both different and the same

The conversation was in response to the three books chosen for the Book club’s Nov/Dec 2018 reads and online discussion, they’d chosen Sister Outsider and two recent publications Dr. Brittany Cooper’s Eloquent Rage, A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower and Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger.

Audre Lorde was one of the foremost thinkers on the importance of understanding anger, suggesting that most women had not developed tools for facing anger constructively, except to avoid, deflect or flee from it. She wrote about women’s anger transforming difference through insight into power, how it could birth change, that the discomfort and sense of loss it often caused was not fatal, but a sign of growth.

“every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.”

With the rise of hard right authoritarian regimes around the world, many determined to roll back human rights – the very freedoms previous generations of angry women worked to achieve – women today are again being called to embrace their rage – its force, its potential, its messy complications.

To that end, and just as crucial as the call to angry, eloquent expression, is the responsibility – instilled by Lorde – to listen and learn, with curiosity and respect to the rage of the women around us.

On Rebecca Traister’s book:

Rebecca’s book Good and Mad will give you a deep and engaging (and sometimes enraging) historical deep dive into the way that women’s anger has been used throughout history to drive social movements, as well as how rage at the inequalities replicated within those social movements has worked to both slow them and make them stronger.

The stories will make you mad but they’ll also inspire you.

 

On Dr. Brittany Cooper’s book:

Brittney’s book invites the question of what it takes to meet Audre Lorde’s challenge: how do we focus our anger with precision? Through a range of personal stories about becoming a feminist, navigating friendships and romance and the white-washed shoals of pop culture, as well as contending with the limits of white feminists and the legacy of white feminism, Brittney demonstrates what it means to harness anger as a superpower.

Eloquent rage keeps us all honest and accountable with her provocative, intelligent thinking.

Unlikely to be able to read all three in the time frame, I decided I’d slow read Lorde’s essays and read the other two when paperback versions came out. In the meantime, I entered a competition asking readers who’d watched the interview between these women discussing their books, to answer the following question:

QuestionWhat surprised you about this conversation around anger and how it’s perceived differently depending on who is expressing it?

My Response: First of all I was surprised to be given the opportunity to listen to such a high calibre conversation from within the comfort of one of my favourite online dwelling places – Goodreads!

The whole conversation around the perception of anger depending on who is expressing it surprised me as it articulated what so many of us have felt, experienced, witnessed and NOT been able to articulate, and I loved that they addressed that question of voice and gave kudos to listening and learning.

It just made me want to share this with all women and read both their books! Thank you so much for bringing this opportunity to those of us far, far away to listen, I hope there will be many more.

And since I now find that I am indeed one of the winners and will eventually be receiving copies of the two books mentioned above, I am doing what I said I would do and sharing this enlightening conversation between two eloquent writer’s voices and look forward to being able to share more when I’ve read their works.

Please do have a listen to the brief conversation below that inspired this post, and if you’re interested, join in with me to read their books over the coming months. My attempt to review Audre Lorde’s essays to follow.

Click Below to Buy a Copy:

Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider

Dr. Brittany Cooper’s Eloquent Rage

Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad

 

 

Nothing But Dust by Sandrine Collette (France) tr. Alison Anderson

As soon as I saw the cover of Sandrine Collette’s Nothing But Dust I wanted to read this book. I didn’t know what genre it was, but it was published by Europa Editions; all the books they choose to publish that I have read have been excellent.

From the description, a family of four boys working a farm after their father’s departure, ruled by a tyrannical mother, lived out on an arid, lonely Patagonian steppe, mounting family tensions…

And comparisons like these:

Reminiscent of Coetzee’s Disgrace, Chatwin’s In Patagonia, the Dust Bowl novels of Steinbeck, the writing of Cormac McCarthy, and the southern gothic of William Faulkner, Nothing But Dust is a gripping, unsentimental, ultimately majestic story about life in one the most inhospitable places on Earth.

Now I haven’t read Chatwin or Faulkner, and I don’t often agree with book comparisons, however reading this book did remind me of Cormac McCarthy’s excellent Border Trilogy, in particular his coming of age novel All the Pretty Horses, which I loved.

We know how tough and relentless life is, and is going to continue to be from the opening pages as the elder twin brothers carry out their favourite cruel tricks on the youngest brother Raphael; they’re fearful of the mother, but know she won’t intervene, her ideas on how to raise boys doesn’t include protecting or consoling them. Young Raphael becomes the son the reader will sympathise with and wish things for, throughout this thrilling novel.

Because he was the youngest, his brothers had gotten into the habit of chasing him around the house on horseback when their mother wasn’t watching. As soon as the twins had grown strong enough to grab him by the collar and lift him up at a gallop from astride their criollos, it became their favourite pastime.

It’s a novel of survival, not just the physical hard work, the long days but the need of the two younger brothers to always be on alert, Steban they call the half-wit, silenced by what he has seen, not trusting anyone, his allegiances drift knowing he is unable to stand up to any of them.

He realises that for as long as he can remember, he has always been flanked by anxiety. The apprehension of the next blow, the insults. And everything else.

We become immersed in this life on a sheep farm with The Mother, her four sons, a dog named Three and the Criollos they ride, on the arid, infertile steppe they live on in Patagonia. All they’ve known and grown up with is harsh and menacing, reliably so; all they know is work, for her.

There are evenings when she reminds herself that she came from a family of wretches with neither land nor fortune, and that everything seemed to point to a future of working herself to the bone in the service of others, and she grumbles and ruminates, finds a thousand things wrong with the steppe she’s been left with – well, that was the least she was owed, after all the misery she endured year after year. There is no room for gratitude in the mother’s life: what she has, she deserves.

When The Mother makes her first mistake, it opens a crack in her tight-fisted way of ruling the way they live, a slipway through which things might be different, we are lead out of the plateau towards the forest, towards the light with a deft, atmospheric thrill and underlying dread.

When Raphael must track down two missing horses, he is lead out of the steppe towards lands that are unfamiliar, encountering new terrain. While Sandrine Collette has demonstrated a talent for creating unforgettable characters, here she excels in depicting the landscape as it changes from the dry, dusty, harshness of the plateau to the lush, fertile, freedom of the forest.

The change of landscape leaves him stunned; all he has ever known is the treeless steppe. He looks up at the magnificent boughs, the changing hues of entire regions where the rain has ventured…

Goes and sits down.

If he was at the farm he would never do this, but solitude and freedom propel him.

As the mother exhibits weakness, loosening her indomitable control over the boys, the rage of the elder twin begins to rise. It is that Lord of the Flies moment, that human impulse towards savagery no longer contained by the mother’s warped rules supposed to keep it in check. The mother and the elder son embrace that savagery and as long as they are in unison, they rule. The younger sons represent civilisation, violence is not their instrument. They observe, learn, they seek a different way.

It’s a fantastic, compelling novel of the human condition, in an original setting and family dynamic. Thought provoking, atmospheric, charged with tension, it will stay with you long after reading.

Highly Recommended.

N.B. Thank you to Europa Editions for providing me with a review copy.

***

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Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

I came across this promising book on a Goodreads group called 500 Great Books by Women  a reference to a book published in 1994 that lists works by women considered notable and influential under different themes such as Art, Heritage, Identity, Ethics, Conflicting Cultures, Choices, Growing Old, Growing Up, Power and more.

The group also includes a list developed from a similar compilation called Daughters of Africa by Margaret Busby an anthology of words and writings by women of African descent, with titles from the 1830’s to 1990.

In an effort to read more widely, writers from different countries and cultures, and in particular the lesser known great books from women, it’s a fabulous resource and members of Goodreads, if they’ve read and reviewed any of these books provide links to their comments/thoughts on them, helpful in discerning whether a book is of interest.

Nervous Conditions was written by the Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga in 1988, it was the first book published by a black woman from Zimbabwe in English. It was awarded the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 1989 and has been translated into a number of languages. It is recognized as a major literary contribution to African feminism and postcolonial literature.

If that wasn’t enough of a promise of something rewarding, this quote in the excellent foreword by Kwame Anthony Appiah confirmed it.

“Each novel is a message in a bottle cast into the great ocean of literature from somewhere else (even if it was written and published last week in your home town); and what makes the novel available to its readers is not shared values or beliefs or experiences but the human capacity to conjure new worlds in the imagination.”

I thought it was absolutely brilliant, one of the most interesting characters I’ve come across in my cross cultural journey, portrayed with such raw honesty, I’m in awe and immensely relieved there is another book to follow, because I’m not ready to leave it there.

It’s a coming of age story of Tambu, a teenage girl, who in the beginning lives in a small village with her parents and siblings and their days are hard, especially the women, who work in the fields all day, do the laundry at the river, transport water to and fro and cook in a kitchen that lacks modern conveniences and requires skill and tenacity to manage. Despite the hard work Tambu loves her village and even the work and chores equally provide moments of pleasure and companionship.

Her Aunt and Uncle return from five years in England furthering their education so he can become headmaster of the mission school. Tambu is disappointed that her cousin isn’t as friendly towards her as she once was, the “Englishness” has changed her cousins. Her brother is offered the opportunity of an education where her Uncle is headmaster.

It had been my uncle’s idea that Nhamo should go to school at the mission. Nhamo, if given the chance, my uncle said, would distinguish himself academically, at least sufficiently to enter a decent profession. With the money earned this way, my uncle said, Nhamo would lift our branch of the family out of the squalor in which we were living.

Tambu forced to quit her education for financial reasons, sets about implementing a plan to earn her own school fees, determined that she shall rise up too. She appears to have the best of both worlds, the grounding, practical, connected upbringing of village life, a work ethic, practical skills in the kitchen and a tenacity that purchased her an extended education, growing her own crop and finding someone to help her sell it, despite efforts by her brother to sabotage her intention and her parents complete lack of faith in her ability to succeed.

Thus she too sets off on the path of an education informed by “English influences” though she retains deep family and village values. However, being around and observing her cousin and how her behaviour has changed, and becoming aware of the frustrated ambitions of her aunt, her world view begins to shift , despite dedicating herself to being the most diligent pupil and the most respectful niece possible.

The subtle way her character transitions to greater awareness is adeptly portrayed, her feelings of ambition and regret as she realises it may be impossible to achieve all that she aspires to without losing something of what she had. She observes her cousin rebel and then accept that middle ground, fall victim to it, unable to go back to who she was, becoming alienated from her own, entering into self-destructive territory.

All her characters are multi dimensional, portrayed in a way that even though they inflict suffering on one another, we are made to understand their point of view and realise the dilemmas and complexities they face. There are no villains, or heroes, just humans trying to improve their lot or that of others, sometimes making significant achievements, and at other times grave mistakes.

In an interview the author was asked why she was so generous to her characters, giving them this chance to explain or be explained, she responded:

I employ this strategy so that many different categories of people can find something to identify within the book – also because the situation of the characters is very complex.  One can hold a person responsible for reacting to a situation in a certain way, but the situation that exerted the pressure to behave in that way must also be addressed.

I’m so glad I’ve read this early on, so I can get to the next two books in the trilogy The Book of Not and This Mournable Body.Have you read this modern classic or any other books by Zimbabwean authors?

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Refuge, An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams

Terry Tempest Williams is a writer with a deep and active interest in environmental education and conservation, Refuge is both a memoir of a period in her life when she accompanied her mother through the illness that would claim her life, and shortly after her grandmother, leaving her the matriarch of the family at the age of thirty-four.

Although this is the book she is most well-known for, I first read and reviewed her writing and encountered her mother in a more recent, and equally extraordinary book, When Women Were Birds, Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, which was written twenty years later (when the author was 54) in 2012. It was also the age her mother was, when she succumbed to the illness written about in Refuge.  I recommend it equally, they are a unique pair, in their insights, their confusion, their ultimate compassion and understanding.

Throughout the memoir, she spends time with her mother, and equally has concerns for the Great Salt Lake, which sits on their doorstep, it is the place she grew up in, a landscape and wildlife she is obsessed with, one I knew nothing about, but became increasingly intrigued by, this enormous, terminal lake with no outlet to the sea.

Great Salt Lake: wilderness adjacent to a city; a shifting shoreline that plays havoc with highways; islands too stark, too remote to inhabit; water in the desert that no one can drink. It is the liquid lie of the West.

Natives of the area speak of the lake in the shorthand of lake levels, it’s not deep, but it is vast, so it doesn’t take much precipitation for significant rises to occur. In the mid 80’s when she was writing this book (it was first published in 1991) talk on the streets of Salt Lake City was of the lake’s rapid rising, everyone had concerns, the airport, the farms, the railroad, survival.

My interest lay at 4206′, the level which, according to my topographical map, meant the flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.

She writes about her family history, her genealogy with its deep roots in the American West her Mormon culture has preserved and their connection to the natural world, infused with spiritual values.

The birds and I share a natural history. It is a matter of rootedness, of living inside a place for so long that the mind and imagination fuse.

As the author shares the drama unfolding within her family of which she is the eldest child and only daughter, there is always the metaphor of the lake, the simultaneous restlessness of its birds, as if they too sense change coming; she wonders if they are better adapted to it than humans.

The thirty-six short chapters each carry the name of one of the bird species that inhabits the lake environment, they may only be mentioned in one sentence, but they are all listed, noted, observed over time, throughout the pages, they represent the life cycle of species, moving on, migrating, adapting to change, dying, making way for the young.

William’s both observes beauty and dissects suffering as she observes her mother’s and her own and tries to make sense of it, through nature and her current philosophical understanding.

Tonight I watched the sun sink behind the lake; The clouds looked like rainbow trout swimming in a lapis sky. I can honour its beauty or resent the smog in this valley which makes it possible. Either way, I am deceiving myself.

Birds are entwined with local folklore, the Californian gull rescuing the Mormons in 1848 from losing their crops to crickets. They still gather to tell this story.

How the white angels ate as many crickets as their bellies would hold, flew to the shore of Great Salt Lake and regurgitated them, then returned to the field for more. We honour them as Utah’s state bird.

It’s a book where you could highlight a passage on each page, one you can open on a random page and find some meaningful, reflective passage on life, an interesting bird fact or a brief history lesson.

The writing is at times poetic, sometimes scientific, passionate and honest. There’s a perfect balance between the personal and the environment that makes it a compelling read, but also one that you’ll want to savour.

The mother and daughter get their astrology charts done and read each other’s.

“I liked the part about Terry being neat and meticulous,” teased Mother. “I remember standing in the middle of your bedroom when you were about thirteen years old. Everything in your closet was on the floor, art and school papers were piled high on your desk. I remember thinking, I have two choices here – I can harp on her every day of her life, making certain her room is straight – or I can close the door and preserve our relationship.”

As the Great Salt Lake continues to rise, a deep sadness washes over her that all has been lost.

I am not adjusting. I keep dreaming the Refuge back to what I have known: rich, green bulrushes that border the wetlands, herons hiding behind cattails, concentric circles of ducks on ponds. I blow on these images like the last burning embers on a winter’s night.

There is no one to blame, nothing to fight…Only a simple natural phenomenon: the rise of the great Salt Lake.

There is also refuge in poetry, in other writers and the book is interspersed with memorable quotes from those whose words soothe her during this period of grief, as her mother goes into decline. And so I leave this sharing of thoughts on the book here with her reading her Mother a poem one afternoon by Wendell Berry:

T H E   P E A C E  O F   W  I L D   T H I N G S

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron

feeds.

I come into the peace of the wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Highly Recommended.

Top Reads of 2018

Top Reads of 2018

A Few Reading Statistics

Goodreads Statistics

In 2018 I read 47 books, just under one book a week. Three quarters of them were by women authors and 25% by men. 76% of the books were fiction and 24% non-fiction (poetry, essays, memoir, spiritual).

I like literature from around the world, I read authors from 18 different countries, including Argentina, Taiwan, Uganda, Senegal, India, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Germany, Sweden, Japan, Burundi, NZ, Australia and Ireland.

Despite this apparent diversity, half the books I read were by British or American authors, an imbalance I hope to address through more conscious reading in 2019.

It requires more of an effort to find books from other countries that fit my reading inclination, but I will continue to have that as my lead reading intention.  I read 12 books translated from other languages (23%) and I read one in the original French language. 80% of the books I read were physical books and 20% were e-books.

Although I read so many books from the US/UK, as I consider those stories that stood out for me, I find they are predominantly narratives from elsewhere recounting tales of experience and perspective other than the anglo-american one.

Outstanding Read of 2018

Again, my outstanding read of the year came early in the year, one of the most underrated novels of the year, that should have been given more attention, in my opinion.

The historical novel Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is set in 1700’s Buganda ( the largest of the traditional kingdoms in present-day Uganda, comprising all of Uganda’s Central Region, including the capital Kampala) and modern Uganda.

Kintu is a family name, the thread that runs through the six parts that make up the story, beginning with a curse put on the family name and following it throughout the years and generations. It is a combination of excellent storytelling and insight into a culture, its beliefs and traditions. Here’s an excerpt from my review:

It’s brilliant. We traverse through the lives of these families, witness their growth, development, sadness’s and joys, weaving threads of their connections together, that will eventually intersect and come to be understood and embraced by all as the clan is brought together to try to resolve the burden of the long-held curse that had cast its long shadow over this clan for so many generations.

Top Reads 2018

In no particular order here are the other books that made a significant impression and have stayed with me throughout the year, click on the title to read my review, or the book cover image to purchase a copy:

Petit Pays by Gaël Faye  was the one book I read in it’s original language (French) but which I classify as coming from the Republic of Burundi, where the story takes place. It’s a short novel with a significant impact, that has since been translated into English as Small Country’. It is the story told from the perspective of an 11 year old boy, the son of a French father and Rwandan mother in the year of his life when everything changed. It’s a novel of cultural differences, of being an outsider, of trying to belong, of understanding the motivations and fears of people, of life at the intersection of those things, of having to choose sides. From my review:

It is beautifully told, a simple story to follow, with many beautiful, descriptive passages, even though we know that this time will be short-lived. It opens our eyes to the tensions that escalate into hatred and violence with little sense, the many victims and the many wounded by loss, destroyed by it.

So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ, tr. Modupé Bodé-Thomas was the shortest novel I read, and the only epistolary novel, but it was one that had a significant impact, as timeless classics are warrant to do. It’s a brilliant and unforgettable story narrated through a letter by a middle age Senegalese widow writing to her friend who is about to visit. It contains more than she is able to say face to face, an uninterrupted discourse, as letters always must be, the recipient forced to read until the end, the narrator never interrupted, the message allowed to gain momentum and arrive at it’s intended conclusion.

Throughout the narrative she expresses shock, outrage, anger, resentment, pity until her thoughts turn with compassion towards those she must continue to aid, her children and to those who have supported her, including the friend due to arrive, who chose a different path when she was confronted with similar issues to that which the widow is now facing. It’s absolutely brilliant, highly recommended. From my review:

It is a testament to the plight of women everywhere, who live in sufferance to the old ways of patriarchy, whose articulate social conscience has little outlet except through their children, whose ability to contribute so much more is worn down by the age-old roles they  continue to play, which render other qualities less effective when under utilised.

Mend the Living or The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal, different titles and translators for the UK and US editions, I read the UK version translated from French by Jessica Moore. This is an extraordinary and original novel that follows a young man’s heart from its healthy teenage introduction through to its successful transplant into a patient waiting for a donor. Rather than focus on the medical procedure, it highlights all the characters involved and connected to the journey of this heart, from the parents of the boy, to the female intern, demonstrating the changing perspectives of all those touched by these sets of events.  From my review:

This is one of those novels that unleashes the mind and sends it off in all kinds of directions, thinking about the impact events have on so many lives, the different callings people have, the incredible developments in medical science, how little we really know and yet how some do seem to know intuitively and can act in ways that restores our faith in humanity.

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi tr. Tina Kover was another translated work of fiction I read in August during #WIT(Women in Translation) month. Translated from French where the author now lives, it is a dual narrative, set in present day France, where a woman sits in a fertility clinic thinking back over her life, both in the present (daughter of parents exiled from their native country and culture Iran) and the past, her own childhood, what she remembers of the circumstances that lead them away from their home and right back to her great-grandfather and his harem of 52 wives.

Spanning a changing, turbulent time in Iranian history, it travels the highs and lows, for while the passionate intellectual freely expresses their opinion and brings no harm, they can continue to live within their culture, family, an active part of society. But when freedom of expression endangers the individual, the sacrifices that must be made stifle and silence them and doesn’t necessarily ensure their safety. Life in exile, without connections to friends, family and like-minded neighbours, reduces them to shadows of their former existence, unable to truly be themselves, to be seen, in a foreign culture. From my review:

I absolutely loved it, I liked the slow drip revelation of what this young woman’s life had become, having been severed from her country and community of origin and the colourful, abundant richness of the family history and culture, which while separate from her life today, existed somewhere deep in her psyche, in her genes, and in those non-genetic aspects we inherit from previous generations even without knowledge of what has passed.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne is a book I bought for my brother last Christmas, so I decided to read it myself early in the New Year, so we could discuss it. It was on a lot of top reads lists for 2017, and deservedly so. It’s the story of the life of Cyril, from the circumstances of his birth and adoption in conservative Ireland through four periods of his life, including time in Amsterdam and New York before his return to Ireland. Cyril encounters many challenges in his life, many of them as a result of failing to live up to perceived societal expectations. From my review:

Boyne peels back the layers of Irish inclinations and attitudes in the 20th century and shows how destructive this closed mindedness is on the lives of anyone who crosses an imaginary line of acceptable ‘being’. This astonishing novel is a courageous, honest attempt to show how the way we conform to society and culture’s expectations, against our own nature’s can be so harmful to so many and it makes us wonder how life might be, if we lived in a more utopian world, where tolerance reigned supreme.

Little by Edward Carey is another outstanding and original work of historical fiction and a book that left a deep impression, not just for the excellent storytelling and illustrations, but because it tells the story of a woman everyone had heard of yet knew nothing about, she was a trailblazer extraordinaire. Her name as most of us know it today is an illusion, for it tells nothing of the full life she lived before she became Madame Tussaud.

It is the story of the incredible life and survival of a servant girl Anne Marie Grosholt who lost her parents at a very young age and through a series of serendipitious connections, came to be apprenticed to a Swiss medical wax sculptor, whose popularity lead him to flee to Paris, where he resided with the widow of a tailor, another set of skills the young servant girl would acquire, before a chance encounter resulted in her spending eleven years in the palace of Versailles as tutor (Maitresse de Cire) to the princess, until her confidence and boredom combined to get her in trouble, banished back to the widow and her master.

The novel tracks her life and beside it the growing unrest in Paris, as the people rebel against those who ‘have’, against those who ‘rule’, and a frenzy of imprisonments and executions pervade the city, where no one is safe from denunciation and possible death. These stories and the historical references bring the novel alive, in animated prose that explores the noble alongside the grim and ghoulish, for the public of the time desired to see and know it all.

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife    This is an incredible work of creativity, a writer working through the post-trauma of domestic violence, living through and escaping an abusive marriage, using her writing to narrate the story of her marriage, seeing it as if she is playing a role in a drama. I avoided this title for a while until it was nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 and started to receive enticing reviews. It is a ‘tour de force’ and well worth overcoming any inhibitions you might have about reading it.

And in some ways, that is how I think of it: it is easier to imagine this life in which I’m trapped as a film;  it is easier when I imagine myself as a character. It makes everything around me seem less frightening; my experiences at a remove. Less painful, less permanent. Here, long before I ever faced a camera, I became an actress.

The Four Insights – Wisdom, Power and Grace of the Earthkeepers by Alberto Villoldo I couldn’t write about my top reads without mentioning Alberto Villoldo, as I read three of his books this year and loved them all, but this one was the best and was the first I read, because it gives the background and explanations behind the philosophy of shamanic energy medicine in an accessible way.

I absolutely loved it and all its insights, I was familiar with the shamanic levels of perception, of serpent, jaguar, hummingbird, eagle, corresponding to body, mind, soul, spirit and their associated languages. The book expands on those themes and provides deeper explanations of how we perceive at each of these levels, what we need to understand about how we are responsible for creating the reality of each of those levels, and that we can only change our own inner perception and try to uplevel, we can never change another’s perception, except through being the role model that they might perceive and respond to without influence.

And that’s it for 2019, did you have an outstanding read for the year? Or a few? Let me know in the comments below what your favourite(s) were.

Thanks for reading and following and commenting and happy reading to you all for the year ahead.

A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver

I loved this slim collection of poems, many of which reminded me of something, or awakened something in me, it’s as if they don’t just exist on their own merit, but are pathways of invitation.

Just the title A Thousand Mornings suggests how many, many mornings Mary Oliver has passed in taking walks in nature observing creatures large and small, her shortest poem two lines about an ant; of watching the tides, there are at least three poems about the sea, the one mentioned on the back cover of the book, reminds me of a lesson whose symbol is “chop wood”, that sometimes we need to stop over thinking and tend to the ordinary and mundane.

Her title also reminds me of the benefit of writing morning pages, three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, ideally practiced first thing in the morning, advocated by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way, as a way of awakening one’s creativity, overcoming fear or blocks.

I GO DOWN TO THE SHORE

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall-
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

***

There is a poem called If I Were on ways to dance and the joy in life it brings, which can be read superficially, but which could be and most certainly is also about writing poetry, as I am reading another book of Mary Oliver’s called Rules for the Dance, A Handbook for Reading and Writing Metrical Verse, the title of which is clearly inspired by a stanza from Alexander Pope’s brilliant, poetic essay An Essay on Criticism a controversial work that discussed and compared styles of poetry and criticism, alluding to poets and critics past and present.

‘True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.’ Alexander Pope

IF I WERE

There are lots of ways to dance and
to spin, sometimes it just starts my
feet first then my entire body, I am
spinning no one can see it but it is
happening. I am so glad to be alive,
I am so glad to be loving and loved.
Even if I were close to the finish,
even if I were at my final breath, I
would be here to take a stand, bereft
of such astonishments, but for them.

If I were a Sufi for sure I would be
one of the spinning kind.

***

THREE THINGS TO REMEMBER

As long as you’re dancing, you can
break the rules.
Sometimes breaking the rules is just
extending the rules.

Sometimes there are no rules.

***

There are mornings in India hinted at in After I Fall Down the Stairs at the Golden Temple and the closing poem of the collection Varanasi, which is in itself something of a response, a balm to the cry nestled within her poem A Thousand Mornings.

And finally one of my favourites:

I HAVE DECIDED

I have decided to find myself a home
in the mountains, somewhere high up
where one learns to live peacefully in
the cold and the silence. It’s said that
in such a place certain revelations may
be discovered. That what the spirit
reaches for may be eventually felt, if not
exactly understood. Slowly, no doubt. I’m
not talking about a vacation.

Of course, at the same time I mean to
stay exactly where I am.

Are you following me?

***

Click Here to Buy a Copy of Mary Oliver’s A Thousand Mornings via Book Depository