Benjamin Myers’s Under the Rock was my nonfiction book of 2018, so I’m delighted to be kicking off the blog tour for its paperback release on the 25th (with a new subtitle, “Stories Carved from the Land”). I’m reprinting my Shiny New Books review below, with permission, and on behalf of Elliott & Thompson I am also hosting a giveaway of a copy of the paperback. Leave a comment saying that you’d like to win and I will choose one entry at random at the end of the day on Tuesday the 30th. (Sorry, UK only.)
Benjamin Myers has been having a bit of a moment. In 2017 Bluemoose Books published his fifth novel, The Gallows Pole, which went on to win the Roger Deakin Award and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and is now on its fourth printing. This taste of fame has brought renewed attention to his earlier work, including Beastings (2014), recipient of the Northern Writers’ Award. I’ve been interested in Myers’s work ever since I read an extract from the then-unpublished The Gallows Pole in Autumn, the Wildlife Trusts anthology edited by Melissa Harrison, but this is the first of his books that I’ve managed to read.
“Unremarkable places are made remarkable by the minds that map them,” Myers writes, and that is certainly true of Scout Rock, a landmark overlooking Mytholmroyd, near where the author lives in the Calder Valley of West Yorkshire. When he moved up there from London over a decade ago, he and his wife lived in a rental cottage built in 1640. He approached his new patch with admirable curiosity, and supplemented the observations he made from his study window with frequent long walks with his dog, Heathcliff (“Walking is writing with your feet”), and research into the history of the area. The result is a divagating, lyrical book that ranges from geology to true crime but has an underlying autobiographical vein.
Ted Hughes was born nearby, the Brontës not that much further away, and Hebden Bridge, in particular, has become a bastion of avant-garde artists and musicians. Myers also gets plenty of mileage out of his eccentric neighbours and postman. It’s a town that seems to attract oddballs and renegades, from the vigilantes who poisoned the fishing hole to an overdose victim who turns up beneath a stand of Himalayan balsam. A strange preponderance of criminals has come from the region, too, including sexual offenders like Jimmy Savile and serial killers such as the Yorkshire Ripper and Harold Shipman (‘Doctor Death’).
On his walks Myers discovers the old town tip, still full of junk that won’t biodegrade for hundreds more years, and finds traces of the asbestos that was dumped by Acre Mill, creating a national scandal. This isn’t old-style nature writing in search of a few remaining unspoiled places. Instead, it’s part of a growing literary interest in the ‘edgelands’ between settlement and the wild – places where the human impact is undeniable but nature is creeping back in. (Other recent examples would be Common Ground by Rob Cowen, Landfill by Tim Dee, Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, and Outskirts by John Grindrod.)
Under the Rock gives a keen sense of the seasons’ change and the seemingly inevitable melancholy that accompanies bad weather. A winter of non-stop rain left Myers nigh on delirious with flu; Storm Eva caused the Calder River to flood. He was a part of the effort to rescue trapped pensioners. Heartening as it is to see how the disaster brought people together – Sikh and Muslim charities and Syrian refugees were among the first to help – looting also resulted. One of the most remarkable things about this book is how Myers takes in such extremes of behaviour, along with mundanities, and makes them all part of a tapestry of life.
The book’s recurring themes tangle through all of the sections, even though it has been given a somewhat arbitrary four-part structure (Wood – Earth – Water – Rock). Interludes between these major parts transcribe Myers’s field notes, which are more like impromptu poems that he wrote in a notebook kept in his coat pocket. The artistry of these snippets of poetry is incredible given that they were written in situ, and their alliteration bleeds into his prose as well. My favourite of the poems was “On Lighting the First Fire”:
death is everywhere
the golden cloak
the seeds of
dreaming still sing.
The Field Notes sections are illustrated with Myers’s own photographs, which, again, are of enviable quality. I came away from this feeling like Myers could write anything – a thank-you note, a shopping list – and make it read as profound literature. Every sentence is well-crafted and memorable. There is also a wonderful sense of rhythm to his pages, with a pithy sentence appearing every couple of paragraphs to jolt you to attention.
“Writing is a form of alchemy,” Myers declares. “It’s a spell, and the writer is the magician.” I certainly fell under the author’s spell here. While his eyes are open to the many distressing political and environmental changes of the last few years, the ancient perspective of the Rock reminds him that, though humans are ultimately insignificant and individual lives are short, we can still rejoice in our experiences of the world’s beauty while we’re here.
From the publisher:
“Benjamin Myers was born in Durham in 1976. He is a prize-winning author, journalist and poet. His recent novels are each set in a different county of northern England, and are heavily inspired by rural landscapes, mythology, marginalised characters, morality, class, nature, dialect and post-industrialisation. They include The Gallows Pole, winner of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, and recipient of the Roger Deakin Award; Turning Blue, 2016; Beastings, 2014 (Portico Prize for Literature & Northern Writers’ Award winner), Pig Iron, 2012 (Gordon Burn Prize winner & Guardian Not the Booker Prize runner-up); and Richard, a Sunday Times Book of the Year 2010. Bloomsbury will publish his new novel, The Offing, in August 2019.
As a journalist, he has written widely about music, arts and nature. He lives in the Upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire, the inspiration for Under the Rock.”
Today is apparently what’s known as “Blue Monday,” the saddest day of the year. It can be hard to find reasons to be cheerful in mid-January, especially given the state of Anglo-American politics. All too often I give in to melancholy on these dark mornings. However, I aim to do better. Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project was one of the most memorable books I read in the second half of last year. What I appreciated most about it was that her approach is not about undertaking extreme actions to try to achieve happiness, but about finding contentment with the life you already have by adding or tweaking small habits.
I was keen to see what additional tips I could glean from Live Happy: 100 Simple Ways to Fill Your Life with Joy by positive psychologists Bridget Grenville-Cleave and Ilona Boniwell. They explain that about 50% of the capacity for happiness is genetic, while 10% is related to your current situation. That means that individuals are able to boost their happiness by up to 40% through their attitude and choices.
The key is to focus on what you can influence for the better. The book includes in this category things like luck, health and confidence. I found it difficult to accept the idea that I could choose to have good luck and high energy. It’s just such a foreign concept to me. But according to Grenville-Cleave and Boniwell, perceived control of one’s life course is extremely important.
Live Happy contains good generic advice on diet, use of time, relationships and forming positive habits, though the 100-item format leads to some repetition. In a few cases examples of practical application are necessary; otherwise what we have is just sound bites. For instance, “Try adopting extrovert behaviours such as assertiveness and engaging with others” and “you can also try to face problems head on, rather than simply giving up; you’ll find it easier to bounce back after misfortune.”
On the other hand, I did find specific suggestions that I plan to put into practice. A tip for being more optimistic is to wear a rubber band around your wrist and snap yourself every time you experience an Automatic Negative Thought. I also appreciated these words about making choices: “For unimportant decisions try to be satisfied with an option that is merely good enough, rather than trying to make absolutely the best choice. Lower your expectations – do not expect perfection.”
This is an attractive book, with each page containing pull quotes or whimsical drawings that tie into the blue-yellow-green palette. I would recommend it to readers of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, A Manual for Heartache by Cathy Rentzenbrink and Option B by Sheryl Sandberg. It could also make an ideal bedside book for people who aren’t big readers but are interested in injecting a little more happiness into their everyday life.
Live Happy was published by Modern Books on January 17th. My thanks to Alison Menzies for arranging my free copy for review.
If you would be interested in winning a copy of Live Happy, please comment to that effect below and I will choose one winner at random on Monday the 28th (UK only, sorry!).
I’m delighted to be kicking off the blog tour for The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words by Paul Anthony Jones, which will be published in the UK by Elliott & Thompson on Thursday, October 19th.
I started reading these delightful daily doses of etymology last week, and plan to keep the book at my bedside for the whole of the year to come. By happy coincidence, today is also my birthday, so (if I may so flatter myself) in joint honor of the occasion plus the book’s impending publication, Elliott & Thompson have kindly offered a giveaway copy to one UK-based reader.
Enjoy today’s entry, and leave a comment if you’d like to be in the running for the giveaway. I will choose the winner at random at the end of Saturday the 21st and notify them via e-mail.
Parthian (adj.) describing or akin to a shot fired while in retreat
The Battle of Hastings was fought on 14 October 1066. Exhausted and depleted from fighting the Battle of Stamford Bridge just nineteen days earlier, the English King Harold’s forces were eventually overcome by those of the invading Norman King William when they began to implement an ingenious and effective tactic. Reportedly, William’s troops pretended to flee from the battle in panic, and as their English attackers pursued them, the Normans suddenly turned back and resumed fighting.
The Normans and their allies, observing that they could not overcome an enemy which was so numerous and so solidly drawn up, without severe losses, retreated, simulating flight as a trick . . . Suddenly the Normans reined in their horses, intercepted and surrounded [the English] and killed them to the last man.
William of Poitiers, Gesta Guillelmi (c.1071)
The Normans weren’t the first to use such a tactic; fighters in ancient Parthia, a region of northeast Iran, were known to continue firing arrows at their enemies while retreating from the battlefield. The ploy proved so effective that the adjective Parthian ultimately came to be used of any shot or attack employed while in retreat, or in the dying moments of an engagement. In that sense, the word first appeared in English in the mid seventeenth century, but while the technique they employed remained familiar, the Parthians themselves did not. Ultimately, the word Parthian became corrupted, and steadily drifted closer to a much more familiar term – so that today this kind of last-minute attack or sally is typically known as a parting shot.
Tomorrow Elliott & Thompson are releasing the paperback edition of Hitler’s Forgotten Children by Ingrid von Oelhafen and Tim Tate, a powerful first-person account from a child of the Lebensborn: the Nazis’ program to create an Aryan master race.
The publisher has kindly offered a free copy to one of my readers.
Here’s a bit more information about the book, adapted from the press release:
Forcibly adopted into a Nazi family as part of the Lebensborn program, Ingrid’s heartbreaking story is a quest for identity and an important historical document touching on the untold stories of thousands like her.
By the 1940s, Himmler’s breeding program had failed to provide adequate numbers of ‘racially pure and healthy’ children, so Lebensborn sought to boost the flagging German population by sinister means. Children in the occupied territories were examined and any exhibiting ‘Aryan’ qualities were forcibly taken from their parents to be raised by the regime.
In 1942 Erika, a baby girl from Yugoslavia, was examined by the Nazi occupiers, declared an ‘Aryan’ and removed from her mother. Her true identity erased, she became Ingrid von Oelhafen. Later, as Ingrid began to uncover her true identity, the full scale of the Lebensborn scheme became clear – including the kidnapping of up to half a million babies like her, and the deliberate murder of children born into the program who were deemed ‘substandard’.
We learn of Ingrid’s subsequent troubled childhood in Germany; first during the war, then a harrowing escape from the GDR, time in children’s homes and the shock of discovering as a teenager that she was adopted. Later, the search for the truth took her to Nuremberg Trials records and, ultimately, back to Yugoslavia, where she discovered the full story: the Nazis substituted ‘Ingrid’ with another child who was raised as ‘Erika’ by her family.
And here’s an exclusive extract:
Cilli, German-occupied Yugoslavia, 3–7 August 1942
The schoolyard was crowded. Hundreds of women – young and old – clutched the hands of their children and found what space they could in the packed courtyard. Nearby, Wehrmacht soldiers, rifles slung over their shoulders, looked on as the families slowly drifted in from towns and villages across the area. These women had been summoned by their new German masters, ordered to bring their children to the school for ‘medical tests’. Upon arrival they were arrested and told to wait. Otto Lurker, commander of the police and security services for the region, watched relaxed and impassive – his hands resting comfortably in his pockets – as the yard filled with families. Once, Lurker had been Hitler’s gaoler: now he was the Führer’s leading henchman in Lower Styria. He held the rank of SS-Standartenführer – the paramilitary equivalent of a full colonel in the army – but that summer’s morning he was casually dressed in a two-piece civilian suit.
Among them was a family from the nearby village of Sauerbrunn. Johann Matko came from a family of known partisans: his brother, Ignaz, had been one of those lined up and shot against the wall of Cilli prison in July. Johann had been dragged off to Mauthausen concentration camp. After seven months in the camp he was allowed to return home to his wife, Helena, and their three children: eight-year-old Tanja, her brother Ludvig – then six – and nine-month-old baby Erika. When all the families were accounted for, an order was given to separate them into three groups – one each for the children, the women, and the men.
Under Lurker’s direction the soldiers moved in and pulled children from the grasp of their mothers; a local photographer, Josip Pelikan, recorded the harrowing scene for the Reich’s obsessive archivists. His rolls of film captured the fear and alarm of women and children alike: his shots included scores of toddlers held in low pens of straw inside the school buildings. As the mothers waited outside, Nazi officials began a cursory examination of the children.
Working with charts and clipboards, they painstakingly noted each child’s facial and physical characteristics. These, though, were not ‘medical tests’ as any doctor would know them: instead they were crude assessments of ‘racial value’ which assigned each youngster to one of four categories. Those who met Himmler’s strict criteria for what a child of true German blood should look like were placed in Category 1 or 2: this formally registered them as potentially useful additions to the Reich population.
By contrast, any hint or trace of Slavic features – and certainly any sign of ‘Jewish heritage’– consigned a child to the lowest racial status of Categories 3 and 4. Thus branded as Untermensch, their value was no more than future slave labour for the Nazi state. By the following day this rudimentary sifting had finished. Those children deemed racially worthless were handed back to their families. But 430 other youngsters, from young babies to twelve-year-old boys and girls, were taken away by their captors. Marshalled by nurses from the German Red Cross, they were packed into trains and transported across the Yugoslavian border to an Umsiedlungslager – or transit camp – at Frohnleiten, near the Austrian town of Graz.
They did not stay long in this holding centre. By September 1942, a further selection had been made – this time by trained ‘race assessors’ from one of the myriad organisations established by Himmler to preserve and strengthen the pool of ‘good blood’. Noses were measured and compared to the official ideal length and shape; lips, teeth, hips and genitals were likewise prodded, poked and photographed to sort the genetically precious human wheat from the less-valuable chaff.
This finer, more rigorous sieving re-assigned the captives within the four racial categories. Older children newly listed in Categories 3 or 4 were shipped off to re-education camps across Bavaria in the heartland of Nazi Germany. The best of the younger ones in the top two categories would – in time – be handed over to a secretive project run by the Reichsführer himself. Its name was Lebensborn and among the infants assigned to its care was nine-month-old Erika Matko.
If you’re interested in winning a paperback copy of Hitler’s Forgotten Children, simply leave a comment to that effect below. The competition will be open through the end of Friday the 12th and I will choose a winner at random on Saturday the 13th (announced via the comments and a personal e-mail). Sorry, U.K. entries only. Good luck!
I was delighted to be asked to participate in the paperback release blog tour. See below for details of where other reviews and features will be appearing soon.
As I mentioned on Tuesday, I previously knew of Annalena McAfee only as Mrs. Ian McEwan, though she has a distinguished literary background: she founded the Guardian Review and edited it for six years, was Arts and Literary Editor of the Financial Times, and is the author of multiple children’s books and one previous novel for adults, The Spoiler (2011).
Well, anyone who reads Hame will be saying “Ian who?” as this is on such a grand scale compared to anything McEwan has ever attempted. The subtitle, “The Fascaray Archives,” gives an idea of how thorough McAfee means to be: the life of fictional poet Grigor McWatt is her way into everything that forms the Scottish identity. Her invented island of Fascaray is a carefully constructed microcosm of Scotland from ancient times to today. I loved the little glimpses of recent history, like the referendum on independence and a Donald Trump figure, billionaire “Archie Tupper,” bulldozing an environmentally sensitive area to build his new golf course (this really happened, in Aberdeenshire in 2012).
Narrator Mhairi McPhail arrives on Fascaray in August 2014, her nine-year-old daughter Agnes in tow. She’s here to oversee the opening of a new museum, edit a seven-volume edition of McWatt’s magnum opus, The Fascaray Compendium (a 70-year journal detailing the island’s history, language, flora, fauna and customs), and complete a critical biography of the poet. Over the next four months she often questions the feasibility of her multi-strand project. She also frets about her split from Marco, whom she left back in New York City after their separate infidelities. And her rootlessness – she’s Canadian via Scotland but has spent a lot of time in the States, giving her a mixed-up heritage and accent – is a constant niggle.
Mhairi’s narrative sections share space with excerpts from her biography of McWatt and extracts from McWatt’s own writing: The Fascaray Compendium, newspaper columns, letters to on-again, off-again lover Lilias Hogg, and Scots translations of famous poets from Blake to Yeats. We learn of key events from the island’s history through Mhairi’s biography and McWatt’s prose, including ongoing tension between lairds and crofters, Finnverinnity House being used as a Special Ops training school during World War II, a lifeboat lost in a gale in the 1970s, and the way the fishing industry is now ceding to hydroelectric power.
The balance between the alternating elements isn’t quite right – sections from Mhairi’s contemporary diary seem to get shorter as the novel goes along, such that it feels like there’s not enough narrative to anchor the book. Faced with yet more Scots poetry and vocabulary lists, or passages from Mhairi’s dry biography, it’s mighty tempting to skim.
That’s a shame, as the novel contains some truly lovely writing, particularly in McWatt’s nature observations:
In July and August, on rare days of startling and sustained heat, dragonflies as blue as the cloudless skies shimmer over cushions of moss by the burn while the midges, who abhor direct sunlight, are nowhere to be seen. Out to sea, somnolent groups of whales pass like cortèges of cruise ships and around them dolphins and porpoises joyously arc and dip as if stitching the ocean’s silken canopy of turquoise, gentian and cobalt.
For centuries male Fascaradians have sailed in the autumn, at the time of the ripe barley and the fruiting buckthorn, to hunt the plump young solan geese or gannets – the guga – near their nesting sites on the uninhabited rock pinnacles of Plodda and Grodda. No true Fascaradian can suffer vertigo since the scaling of these granite towers is done without the aid of mountaineers’ crampons or picks.
“Hame” means home in Scots – like in McWatt’s claim to fame, the folk-pop song “Hame tae Fascaray” – and themes of home and identity are strong here. The novel asks to what extent identity is bound up with a particular country and language, and whether we can craft our own selves. Must the place you come from always be the same as the home you choose? I could relate to Mhairi’s feeling that there’s nowhere she belongs, whether she’s in the bustle of New York or “marooned on a patch of damp peat floating in the North Sea.”
Although the blend of elements initially made me think that this would resemble A.S. Byatt’s Possession, it’s actually more like Rachel Cantor’s Good on Paper, which similarly stars a scholar who’s a single parent to a precocious daughter. In places I was also reminded of the work of Scarlett Thomas, Sara Maitland and Sarah Moss, and there’s even an echo of Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks in the inventories of dialect words.
If you’ve done much traveling in Scotland, an added pleasure of the novel is trying to spot places you’ve been. (I thought I could see traces of Stromness, Orkney; indeed, McWatt reminded me most of Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown.) The comprehensive, archival approach didn’t completely win me over, but I was impressed by the book’s scope and its affectionate portrait of a beloved country. McAfee is of Scots-Irish parentage herself, and you can tell this is a true labor of love, and a cogent tribute.
Hame was published by Harvill Secker on February 9th. With thanks to Anna Redman for sending a free copy for review.
I was accidentally sent two copies of Hame, so I am giving one away to a reader. Alas, this giveaway will have to be UK-only – the book is a hardback of nearly 600 pages, so would be prohibitively expensive to send abroad.
If you’re interested in winning a copy, simply leave a comment to that effect below. The competition will be open through the end of Friday the 17th and I will choose a winner at random on Saturday the 18th, to be announced via the comments and a personal e-mail.
This giveaway is now closed. Congratulations to Lisa Lieberman and Maureen Cean, winners of the two audiobook copies!
I’m excited to announce my first-ever blog giveaway! Jessamyn Hope is kindly offering copies of the audiobook of her debut novel, Safekeeping, to two of my blog readers. This was one of my favorite books of the summer; check out my full review here. The audiobook is narrated by Kristen Potter, who also recently voiced Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
For your chance to win one of the two available copies, simply leave a comment below. The giveaway will stay open for just over one week, until 10 pm GMT / 5 pm ET on Monday, August 17th. After that point I will number the comments and choose the winners through a random number generator.
This giveaway is open to readers in any country. Good luck!