A Catalog of Birds by Laura Harrington

A friend lent me this book and I recognised immediately that it was a Europa Editions book, but not one I had heard of Europa Editions are one of my favourite publishers, they always have something that will appeal to me in their annual catalog. Many of the books are of Italian origin, or translated from other European languages.

A Catalog of Birds however, is written by the American author Laura Harrington.

Some of the books Europa Editions have published that I’ve read and reviewed here are, that you might enjoy, are the Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, starting with My Brilliant Friend and Frantumaglia, A Writer’s Journey, also by her The Days of Abandonment, the novel that is like its twin, Ties by Domenico Starnone; the World Noir title The Bastards of Pizzofalcone by Maurizio de Giovanni, Eva Sleeps by Francesca Malendri, The Man Who Snapped His Fingers by Fariba Hachtroubi, Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng and a new one that I have to read, which I’m really looking forward to, the French translation of Disoriental by Negar Djvadi.

A Catalog of Birds centres around a small 1970’s community in the Finger Lakes region of New York state, an area known for its series of long, thin, deep glacial lakes, it’s high gorges and dramatic waterfalls (and today its wineries).

Despite its natural beauty, this community is affected, as every other is and has been, by the shadow of war, of young men returning from Vietnam, lost dreams, a lost innocence.

The Flynn family’s son Billy has just returned, his body covered in burns, his right arm mangled, his hearing disturbed, after surviving a helicopter crash. The day after his return, his girlfriend Megan disappears.

Megan

Megan hesitates before boarding the bus to a place she’s never been before, hesitates before accepting a ride with a stranger. Thinking of Billy, that horrible hospital, all those wrecked young men and boys. She’s in flight, in flight from it all.
Remembers Billy’s last leave. A year of training under his belt. Three days at home before shipping out to Vietnam. Both of them in the grip of something: anticipation, fear, the unknown.

Billy’s field journal

The early pages from Vietnam alternate between scenes on the base: insects, common birds, sketches of his crew; and pages where he was off the base: acres of green, rice paddies, water buffalo. There are birds Nell has never seen before, drawn as only Billy can; each of them so individual, so full of personality you expect them to sing.
Black crowned night heron
Glossy ibis
Pacific swift
There are fewer entries as the months drag on: a lone man crouched in tall burning grass, the shadow of a gunship passing over him, mountaintops ringed with clouds, ravines dark as the far side of the moon. These give way to drawings of the dead, downed helicopters, the last pages full of fire. Page after page: birds, trees, fields, burning.

Billy and his younger sister Nell have a close relationship, they know the surrounding lakes and forests like no other, they are connected to their natural environment in a way that even a highly educated academic specialising in the birds they know so well, had much to learn from.

Esme, 45 yr old ornithologist

Over the years Billy taught Esme a new way to listen, showed her how birds organise their communication, how to read body language between pairs, the meaning of their back-and-forth chat, how they check in on each other, the various warning sounds.

Nell

Billy’s journals are the thread of their childhood; his coming into his own as a naturalist, as an artist, developing his eye, his hand, his deepening identification with birds. From sketching in the field to detailed study, to painting the portraits he began to make the year before he shipped out.

Both Billy’s father Jack and his best friend Harlow, also bear and have borne the hardship of the return from war, they cope in their own way, as has Marion, Jack’s wife, waiting out the long semi-recovery, which in the early years, tests every man who dares survive war’s dark parasitic claim to their sanity. Now they must watch Billy go through the same test.

Harlow Murphy

On good days he fell right into a rhythm of forgetting, found a girl not quite so dedicated to her antiwar stance she’d forego sleeping with a vet, and then drank enough to numb his nightmares. On bad days he was rendered speechless by fury and confusion. He grew his hair long. Learned never to talk about the war.

Jack

“Did you have nightmares Dad?”
“Still do.”
The minutes tick long.
“You can’t leave it. You just end up carrying it.” He takes another swallow of Scotch. “I don’t know how to help him,” he admits. Shamed to hear the words out loud.
“Just love him.”
He looks at his daughter again, wishes it were enough, wishes he didn’t know the limits of love and hope, how little, really, can be covered over, hidden away, made whole.

Nell is too young to remember her father’s return from war, her memories are of the good times she had with her brother and his friend, of the strange feelings that engulf her, of the terrible knowledge of things she knows about Megan, of a desperation to protect her brother, to save his drawings, to bring him back to where he was, when they would go out on the lake, sit in among the trees, listen to birdsong, recognise their warnings, to just be.

Nell

Something lifts in Nell, hearing her brother laugh like that.
She looks at Harlow’s hands. They’re square and strong, the Coke bottle almost disappears in them. Thinks of picking apples in the Alsop orchard. The boys thought ladders were for sissies. Determined to keep up with them, she tried to find a handhold and a foothold to get into the tree. Harlow reached down, grabbed her forearm, pulled her up beside him.
That sudden wash of closeness as she found her footing and her balance. The smell of his skin, touching him. The sun low in the sky, the trees heavy with fruit. Hidden from the others. Light-headed. Vibrating with a feeling she didn’t know how to describe. Twelve years old. How she had wanted to kiss him.
Still does. But it doesn’t look like that’s ever gonna happen again.

Billy

He flirts with driving so fast she’ll be scared into telling him the truth, a truth he probably already knows. Feels her fear then, takes his foot off the gas.
How stupid they were; believing nothing could touch them, catch them, destroy what they had. Willfully blind to the facts, to the birds and the bees, for godsakes. Charmed, meant to be, summer of love, ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.
He looks at Nell, thinks of how he kept Harlow away from her, but still took what he wanted with Megan. With everything. Grabbed what he wanted with both hands. Flying. The war. Intoxicated in the air. Every time he walked across the tarmac, climbed into the bird. All he’d ever wanted. More awake, more alert, more alive than anytime before or since.

This is a thought-provoking novel about the effect of war on those who were involved in it, on those closest to them, who try to nurture them through the aftermath, about the inclination to not ever to want to speak about what happened, and how that and the changed behaviour trauma causes, affects everyone.

I hope the selection of quotes above provides something of the essence of the novel, it seemed to me that they resonate more than anything I could contribute by way of the review. It is a touching novel that captures the beauty of a shared childhood, the complicity of adolescent friendship and loyalty, the struggle of families, of how they split and come back together, of love, of loss, of the difficulty of practicing forgiveness.

Buy A Catalog of Birds Here

The Long Forgotten by David Whitehouse

I couldn’t help but be seduced by the stunning cover (by @saraharnett) of David Whitehouse’s The Long Forgotten. The cover shows a number of rare flower blooms and the embossed outline of a whale.

Apart from being a brilliant, unputdownable read, I continuously referred back to that image on the cover with total pleasure trying to deduce which flower it was we were tracking down next.

The Long Forgotten refers to a flight that disappeared 30 years ago, and it could also refer to the list of flowers Peter Manyweathers discovered in a love letter that fell out of a botany book he was reading that lead him on an obsessive quest to find six exotic flowers that bloom in unusual and rare circumstances.

I know you think I give botany short shrift in favour of my own more lively pursuits…but you’d be wrong! I’ve done my research (you can stop laughing now) and found six flowers so unique, so fantastic that when I think of them, they could only ever remind me of you. Here to prove it is a list.

The Gibraltar Campion
Sheep-eating plant
Kadupul flower
The living fossil
The Udumbara
The Death Flower

The story opens as a man in an underwater capsule has lost communication with his research station and he has 18 minutes of oxygen left, it’s an intense opening and provides a connection within the story that isn’t fully revealed until the end.

We then meet Dove, a young man living in London, a university dropout working in an ambulance call centre. Raised as a foster child, we learn of his relationship with his foster parents and an extreme fear of abandonment. He is plagued by headaches that precede the invasive memories of the rare flower-hunter, a man he never knew, leading him on his own quest to find out whose thoughts have invaded his own, and what they have to do with him.

The Kadupul Flower

Each time Dove gets a headache, we are plunged into the story of Peter Manyweather, a man who cleans houses for a living – houses of the dead. After finding the love letter, he joins a botanical etchings class, in the hope of meeting other enthusiasts and there meets and befriends a Danish academic, Dr Hens Berg, who suggests he get on a plane and go to find the flowers.

The old man snatches back his arm and presses his knuckles hard into the front of his skull, while at his feet Dove does the same. The pain is more intense than before, sharper, faster, a blade carving open the space inside him, splaying it out, and filling it with something new.

A memory of his mother.

Much of the novel occurs on these journeys, pursuing these rare blooms, and slowly uncovering the mystery of Dove’s true identity.

She pointed to a bright pink bloom, with so many petals it looked like a hundred camellias in one flower.

‘The Middlemist’s Red. They say there is just one in the world now, in an English country garden. There is not a single one left in China, even though it is Chinese. I think it is proof that we do not belong to a certain place, but that we belong to the world. It is a flower I cannot die until I have seen.’

Rafflesia arnoldii, the corpse flower

It’s both a mystery and an adventure story, though not in the usual sense, we’re not aware of the mystery until it begins to reveal itself to Dove, he’s not in search of himself consciously, he’s plagued by memories that are impacting his day-to-day life and by following clues to their origin, he’s hoping for relief.

Speaking about his inspiration for the story, the author shares how he came across the raffelsia – sometimes referred to as the corpse flower – fifteen years ago and how it intrigued him. This and other threads relating to the disappearance of  MH370 and an obsession with memory came together to create the novel.

It took me a long time to find a story where a corpse flower might be of use. I suppose it needed a mystery, but I didn’t have one until Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 went missing between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing, in March 2014. I wondered how long it would be before people who weren’t directly connected to MH370 forgot about it, even though it was out there, in the ocean, somewhere.

I loved the book and its many layers, the way they slowly unravel and at the same time, we are taken on a unique quest to hard to get to places, in search of these exotic flowers. It also puts an interesting spin on the idea of shared memories, of stolen memories, of things we may have heard that later we believe to be our own memories.

Middlemist Red

Click Here to Buy a Copy of

The Long Forgotten via BookDepository

Note: This book was provided as a review copy, thank you to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy.

Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2018 #WomensPrize

Today the short list was announced for the woman’s prize for fiction. From the longlist of 13 books, six books have been chosen.

The Chair of Judges Sarah Sands had this to say:

“The shortlist was chosen without fear or favour. We lost some big names, with regret, but narrowed down the list to the books which spoke most directly and truthfully to the judges. The themes of the shortlist have both contemporary and lasting resonance encompassing the birth of the internet, race, sexual violence, grief, oh and mermaids. Some of the authors are young, half by Brits and all are blazingly good and brave writers.”

I’ve actually read and reviewed three of the six chosen titles, all of which I really enjoyed, and I would like to read Sight and The Mermaid, so overall I think it’s an impressive list, even though the prize completely ignored the outstanding novel Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.

The shortlist is as follows, beginning with the three I’ve read, then the two I’d like to, all six revealed here in biscuit form, made by @BiscuiteersLtd :

Meena KandasamyWhen I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife  – my review here

  • a literary artwork, a portrait of a writer suffering in a four-month marriage, surviving through writing, her imagination and now looking back and turning what could have destroyed her into a blazing, unforgettable novel.

Kamila ShamsieHome Fire my review here

  • a heartbreaking tragic work, a modern retelling of Sophocles’ 5th century BC play Antigone, an exploration of the conflict between those who affirm the individual’s human rights and those who protect the state’s security, set in London, told through an immigrant family struggling to distance themselves from the patterns of their ancestral past.

Jesmyn WardSing, Unburied, Sing – my review here

  • narrated from three points of view, 13-year-old Jojo, his mother Leonie and the spectre of a young man Richie, it’s a coming-of-age story about surviving a dysfunctional family, haunted by the past, and spirits that won’t rest.

Imogen Hermes Gowar, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

  • Historical fiction with a splash of magic realism, a merchant and a celebrity courtesan brought together by the arrival of a mermaid in Georgian London, 1785 – a debut novel inspired by a “real mermaid” in the British Museum.

 

Jessie GreengrassSight

  • a woman recounts her progress to motherhood, remembering the death of her mother, and the childhood summers she spent with her psychoanalyst grandmother – alongside events in medical history – emerging into a realisation. 

Elif BatumanThe Idiot

  • a campus novel, reflecting on how culture and language shape who we are, how difficult it is to be a writer, and how baffling love is.

 

***

Of the three I’ve read, I think Meena Kandasamy’s stood out the most for me, in particular because I initially avoided it, and then was blown away by how the subject was so uniquely and adeptly handled. It’s a form of autobiographical fiction, some debating whether it is indeed a novel, being based in part on the author’s life.

So what do you think of the list, do you have a favourite, or one you really want to read?

Buy any of the books on the shortlist via Bookdepository

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

As soon as I read the premise for this historical novel, I knew I wanted to read it. A tale that travels from Iceland to Algiers, inspired by a true story, one that acknowledges the power of imagination and oral storytelling from within different cultures.

Described as The Turkish Raid or Tyrkjaránið, the inspiration for the novel is based on the invasion of Iceland in 1627 by pirates from Algeria and Morocco, also known as Barbary pirates (a reference to the Barbary coast, a term used by Europeans in the 16th century, referring to the coastal aspect of the collective lands of the Berber people of North Africa). They were lead by the ambitious and cunning Dutch captain Jan Janszoon van Haarlem, commonly known as Murat Reis the Younger, himself captured and “turned Turk”.

They were referred to as Turks, as Algeria was then part of the expansive Ottoman Empire. Icelandic villagers were abducted, and taken by ship to be sold as slaves in Algiers, a request for a ransom was made to the Danish King, and a few would make it back home.

Relative to its size, Iceland, the furthest north the corsairs reached, was hit particularly hard. To lose four hundred people out of a population of around forty thousand – including most of the island of Heimaey – is by any standards a stupendous national tragedy, particularly for what was at the time the poorest country in Europe. That may be one reason why Iceland has kept painfully in its collective psyche what has largely faded from the memory of other affected nations. It may also be down to the Icelandic compulsion to write. Voluminous historical narratives were written afterwards and copied by hand. It was felt important that the nation’s great trauma should be understood and never forgotten.

The Sealwoman’s Gift follows one family, Ólafur the local pastor, his relatively younger wife Asta and two of their children, all of whom are abducted, the mother due to give birth, which she does on the ship. Initially Ólafur is herded onto a different ship, perhaps due to his advanced age, however he manages to fight his way to his wife and children, allowed to do so while others are struck down for such defiance, when his ability to calm the captives is noted by the Captain.

They voyage across the sea to Algiers where their fate awaits them. While on the ship, one of the islanders Oddrún – affectionately referred to as the sealwoman, due to her insistent belief that she was a seal who came ashore and had her sealskin stolen, forcing her to remain human – has a dream, another shared prophecy, words that are usually ignored, but given their predicament and desire for escape, are this time listened to attentively.

‘I have seen Ólafur in a great palace. He is kneeling before the king.’

She also has words for Asta, referring to Gudrún, the female character in the Icelandic myth, the 13th century Laxdaela saga.

‘Do not do as Gudrún did’

It’s not possible to write too much about what happens without spoiling the discovery for the reader, suffice to say that poverty-stricken conservative Christian Icelanders arriving in the warm, lush climate of Algiers, where, although they are enslaved, many will live in ways less harsh than what they have experienced in freedom, and children will be both born and grow up within a culture and religion unlike their home country, one that some will embrace, others will defy, awaiting the response of their king to the request for a ransom.

Those that return, in turn, face the dilemma of reacclimatising to their culture and way of life, so different to what they have experienced, the memories of their time of enslavement never far from their thoughts and the judgments of those who were not caught felt in a wayward glance.

How could she have forgotten, how could she possibly not have remembered, what it is like to live for month after month with only a few watery hours of light a day,  with cold that seeps into your bones and feet that are always wet? Is it conceivable that she never noticed before how foul the habits are here?…

Can she not have noticed how the turf walls bend in on you and bear down on you until you are desperate to break out and breathe again? Only there is no roof to escape to here but just gabled grass, and the wind would toss you off it anyway if it did not freeze you first. To think she spent more than thirty winters in a house like this, yet only now is oppressed by the way the stinking fulmar oil in the lamp mingles with the stench of the animals and the meat smoking over the kitchen fire and the ripe sealskin jackets on their hook, making her sick with longing for the tang of mint and cumin and an atrium open to the sky.

While much of the Reverend Ólafur Egillson’s story is known from journals he kept, that have been transcribed and translated and kept his story and that of the islanders alive, not much is known of the fate of his wife Asta while she was captive, an interlude that the author immerses herself in through the imagination. A fragment of engraved stone is all that remains to commemorate the life of this woman who lived an extraordinary life, the details of which she took with her to the grave.

‘History can tell us no more than it does about any woman of the time in Iceland or anywhere else, unless she happened to be a queen.’

Overall, this story provides a thrilling depiction of the terror of a pirate invasion that changed the lives of 400 islanders from Iceland, their journey across seas to Algiers, the slave markets and fates of those who survived, their children and an imagining of how they may have coped as they watched their youth grow up and become part of another culture and way of life, while older Icelanders struggled with what they retained within them of their past and the changes that would envelope them in the years that followed, in a strange new land, one that despite their suffering, also offered opportunities they would never have encountered at home.

Buy a copy now via Book Depository

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Note: Thank you to the publisher Two Roads, for providing a review copy.

The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi tr. Darryl Sterk

The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-yi, is one of the long listed titles for the Man Booker International 2018.

He is one of Taiwan’s most well-known authors and this is his fifth novel, the second to be translated into English. It won rave reviews in Taiwan, and the Taiwan Literary Award, following its Chinese-language release in 2016.

The narrator is the second son of a family, who desperately wanted a boy and finally had one after 5 girls. When the first son was born, the father decided there were too many girls, and almost adopted one out to a family member, events that lead up to the theft of his first bicycle.

With an extra mouth to feed, the family could barely scrape a living, and my father, who now had the son he’d always wanted, decided that five girls in the house was one too many, one more than had been allotted by fate.

However, it was a later Taiwanese ‘Lucky’ branded bike that would send the narrator off on a mission to follow all leads and meet all kinds of people, discovering many aspects of his culture and some of its history in trying track it down, the bike that disappeared along with its rider, his father. This obsession with antique bicycles takes the narrator and readers alike on a voyage deep into aspects of Taiwan’s 20th-century history and culture.

And that was how it started: my obsession with antique bicycles flowed from my missing father.

Each new encounter takes us on a new journey, as that person reveals something of their past and their knowledge of these ‘iron horses’, in fact much of the book is written as Bike Notes 1, Bike Notes II, complete with illustrations of the different era bicycles, including the infamous Japanese war bike, the ‘Silverwheel’ and the notorious ‘Silverwheel Squad’.

The worst headache was the Silverwheel Squad. The Silverwheels traced the upper reaches of rivers and rode down into the jungle to launch one surprise attack after another.

In this way, the story meanders and diverges and then hooks into a subject and follows it a long way down its tributary, only to return and take another turn, meet another collector, owner, person, and even a long-lived elephant, who knows or might have known the owner, whom the narrator will meet and solicit their story patiently awaiting the moment they might reveal the connection to the bike, that might lead to his father.

The author uses conversation, flash backs of memory, war diaries, memoir and voice recordings to create a network of literary tributaries in bringing together this ambitious, far-reaching narrative that touches so many unique aspects of Taiwan’s history, culture, development and influences.

In the beginning these diversions are interesting and promising and somewhat intriguing, they are indeed historically significant as they reveal something of the life and influences of the era in which they occurred, especially around the time of the war, seeing it from the perspective of Taiwan and Japan, especially as war involved bicycle strategy and elephants, and we learn something about the work habits of a woman creating butterfly handcrafts and how her father learned to lure butterflies en masse to capture them.

However, I admit I became somewhat fatigued by the never-ending meandering, the prolonged encounters and diversions, to the point where I began to lose interest, despite avidly not wishing to. That could have been due to the length of the book, or perhaps that it is indeed a book of obsession, not quite to the same degree as Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, but with something of a similar feel, in the way the reader is pulled along on the journey, not quite sure of the destination. Or perhaps it is because of how ambitious a book it is, in covering so much that is unfamiliar, opening so many threads.

It’s clear that the author very much enjoyed putting this novel together, so much so he shares some of his writing philosophy at the end of the book, and I find myself somewhat forgiving him for having drawn out his story so, although I understand how he has lost less patient readers along the way.

Wu Ming Yi

For some, life experiences drive the writing process. But for me writing novels is a way of getting to know, and of thinking about, human existence. I’m just a regular guy who has, through writing, come to understand things I couldn’t have before, concerning human nature and emotion. I write because I don’t see the world clearly. I write out of my own unease and ignorance. The ancient Greek historian Polybius put it thus: ‘The most instructive thing is remembering other people’s calamities. To stoically accept the vagaries of fate, this is the only way.’ I write novels to know how to stoically accept the vagaries of fate.

And his final words, appreciated all the more by this reader, having made it to the end.

The only necessity is to keep pedalling – quietly, composedly, no matter how thirsty you are or how difficult it may be.

To buy a copy of The Stolen Bicycle, click on the image below, my affiliate link at BookWitty.

Note: Thank you to Text Publishing for providing a review copy of the e-book to read.