Phantom Gang by Ciarán O’Rourke: Dylan Thomas Prize Blog Tour
As part of the 2023 Dylan Thomas Prize blog celebration, I’m featuring the second collection by Irish poet Ciarán O’Rourke, Phantom Gang (2022).
There is an elegiac cast to much of this, with scenes that evoke historical warfare from the American West through the Second World War Resistance to Afghanistan. The title line references the discovery of the victims of an ancient raid. Even the love poems and descriptions of the natural world are more redolent of desperation and decline than they are celebratory. “Book of Salt,” in the tradition of Catullus, is the longest poem in the book and voices unrequited longing. Its short lines and end rhymes are in service of a passion mixed with hatred. There are lovely descriptions of curlew and starlings, but also mourning for the loss of the corncrake.
A favourite passage of mine was from “Portrait in Red and Black”:
Only the goldfinch
feels alive –
a skeet of colour,
stout as a cloud,
his knuckle and plunge
of plumage stark
against the slipping boughs.
I watch him thrum
and pluck terrifically,
marshalling the morning
with my heart in his mouth.
That excerpt is representative in that most of the poems are composed of two- or three-line stanzas, with assonance, alliteration and internal rhymes more common techniques than end rhymes. Although there are some mentions of recent figures – James Dyson, Elon Musk, Donald Trump – the collection as a whole feels inclined towards the past, with Bertolt Brecht and John Clare as stars. It’s austere, refined work, rooted yet ranging in both time and place.
More favourite lines:
Our one sick world spins on –
returningly, and slow
and with birds
the rising days begin,
the rage and ache
we call the spring,
a word for what
the carnage reckoned –
and still the birds returning.
~from “The Tree”
(My thanks to The Irish Pages Press and Midas PR for the free copy for review.)
I’ve reviewed Dylan Thomas Prize-longlisted poetry in several previous years as well:
- Eye Level by Jenny Xie
- If All the World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton
- Auguries of a Minor God by Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe
For a reminder of the full longlist, see my post from last month. I’ve read 3.5 books from it now and would be delighted to see Nell Stevens’ debut novel (my review) make the shortlist. This will be announced on 23 March, with the winner on 11 May.
Happy St Patrick’s Day – this is also my token contribution to Reading Ireland Month!
February Releases by Nick Acheson, Charlotte Eichler and Nona Fernández (#ReadIndies)
Three final selections for Read Indies. I’m pleased to have featured 16 books from independent publishers this month. And how’s this for neat symmetry? I started the month with Chase of the Wild Goose and finish with a literal wild goose chase as Nick Acheson tracks down Norfolk’s flocks in the lockdown winter of 2020–21. Also appearing today are nature- and travel-filled poems and a hybrid memoir about Chilean and family history.
The Meaning of Geese: A thousand miles in search of home by Nick Acheson
I saw Nick Acheson speak at New Networks for Nature 2021 as the ‘anti-’ voice in a debate on ecotourism. He was a wildlife guide in South America and Africa for more than a decade before, waking up to the enormity of the climate crisis, he vowed never to fly again. Now he mostly stays close to home in North Norfolk, where he grew up and where generations of his family have lived and farmed, working for Norfolk Wildlife Trust and appreciating the flora and fauna on his doorstep.
This was indeed to be a low-carbon initiative, undertaken on his mother’s 40-year-old red bicycle and spanning September 2021 to the start of the following spring. Whether on his own or with friends and experts, and in fair weather or foul, he became obsessed with spending as much time observing geese as he could – even six hours at a stretch. Pink-footed geese descend on the Holkham Estate in their thousands, but there were smaller flocks and rarer types as well: from Canada and greylag to white-fronted and snow geese. He also found perspective (historical, ethical and geographical) by way of Peter Scott’s conservation efforts, chats with hunters, and insight from the Icelandic researchers who watch the geese later in the year, after they leave the UK. The germane context is woven into a month-by-month diary.
The Covid-19 lockdowns spawned a number of nature books in the UK – for instance, I’ve also read Goshawk Summer by James Aldred, Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt, The Consolation of Nature by Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren, and Skylarks with Rosie by Stephen Moss – and although the pandemic is not a major element here, one does get a sense of how Acheson struggled with isolation as well as the normal winter blues and found comfort and purpose in birdwatching.
Tundra bean, taiga bean, brent … I don’t think I’ve seen any of these species – not even pinkfeet, to my recollection – so wished for black-and-white drawings or colour photographs in the book. That’s not to say that Acheson is not successful at painting word pictures of geese; his rich descriptions, full of food-related and sartorial metaphors, are proof of how much he revels in the company of birds. But I suspect this is a book more for birders than for casual nature-watchers like myself. I would have welcomed more autobiographical material, and Wintering by Stephen Rutt seems the more suitable geese book for laymen. Still, I admire Acheson’s fervour: “I watch birds not to add them to a list of species seen; nor to sneer at birds which are not truly wild. I watch them because they are magnificent”.
With thanks to Chelsea Green Publishing for the free copy for review.
Swimming Between Islands by Charlotte Eichler
Eichler’s debut collection was inspired by various trips to cold and remote places, such as to Lofoten 10 years ago, as she explains in a blog post on the Carcanet website. (The cover image is her painting Nusfjord.) British and Scandinavian islands and their wildlife provide much of the imagery and atmosphere. You can sink into the moss and fog, lulled by alliteration. A glance at some of the poem titles reveals the breadth of her gaze: “Brimstones” – “A Pheasant” (a perfect description in just two lines) – “A Meditation of Small Frogs” – “Trapping Moths with My Father.” There are also historical vignettes and pen portraits. The scenes of childhood, as in the four-part “What Little Girls Are Made Of,” evoke the freedom of curiosity about the natural world and feel autobiographical yet universal.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.
Voyager: Constellations of Memory—A Memoir by Nona Fernández (2019; 2023)
[Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer]
Our archive of memories is the closest thing we have to a record of identity. … Disjointed fragments, a pile of mirror shards, a heap of the past. The accumulation is what we’re made of.
When Fernández’s elderly mother started fainting and struggling with recall, it prompted the Chilean actress and writer to embark on an inquiry into memory. Astronomy provides the symbolic language here, with memory a constellation and gaps as black holes. But the stars also play a literal role. Fernández was part of an Amnesty International campaign to rename a constellation in honour of the 26 people “disappeared” in Chile’s Atacama Desert in 1973. She meets the widow of one of the victims, wondering what he might have been like as an older man as she helps to plan the star ceremony. This oblique and imaginative narrative ties together brain evolution, a medieval astronomer executed for heresy, Pinochet administration collaborators, her son’s birth, and her mother’s surprise 80th birthday party. NASA’s Voyager probes, launched in 1977, were intended as time capsules capturing something of human life at the time. The author imagines her brief memoir doing the same: “A book is a space-time capsule. It freezes the present and launches it into tomorrow as a message.”
With thanks to Daunt Books for the free copy for review.
Three on a Theme: “Birds” Short Story Collections
I read these three collections one at a time over three and a half months of last year, initially intending to write them up as part of my short story focus in September but ultimately deciding to spend more time with the latter two (and then falling ill with Covid before I could write them all up in 2022). They topped my Best Backlist Reads.
The word from the title is incidental, really; the books do have a lot in common in terms of theme and tone, though. The environment, fidelity and motherhood are recurring elements. The warmth and psychological depth are palpable. Each story feels fleshed out enough that I could happily read an entire novel set in its realm, but also complete unto itself.
Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman (2012)
I knew Bergman from her second of three collections, Almost Famous Women; this was her debut. As is common for a first book, it incorporates autobiographical characteristics: North Carolina settings, a preponderance of animals (her husband is a vet), and pregnancy and early motherhood. Eleven of the 12 stories are in the first person, there are no speech marks, and the protagonists are generally women in their twenties or thirties coping with young children, crumbling households, ageing parents, and ethical dilemmas at work.
Creatures are companions or catalysts here. In “Housewifely Arts,” a single mother and her son embark on a road trip to rescue her late mother’s African gray parrot. In the title story, Mae accompanies her father and her new beau on a search for the ivory-billed woodpecker. Fear grapples with openness to change for many of these characters, as expressed in the final lines: “I wished for things to stay the same. I wished for stillness everywhere, but I opened up the rest of the bedroom windows and let the world in.”
Environmental threat blares in the background, but usually fades in comparison to everyday concerns; the 2050-set “The Artificial Heart” is more alarmed about her aged father’s bionic existence than about a dying planet. In “Yesterday’s Whales,” the overall standout for me, ambivalence about motherhood meets climate catastrophism. The narrator’s boyfriend, Malachi, founded a nonprofit called Enough with Us, which asks members to vow not to reproduce so the human race can die out and nature can take over. Embarrassing, then, that she finds herself pregnant and unwilling to tread the hard line he’s drawn. This one is funny and poignant, capturing so many of my own feelings, and seems 10 years ahead of its time.
When someone’s ideal is the absence of all human life, romance is kind of a joke.
I wanted, then, to become what I most admired, what now seemed most real to me. I wanted to be that exalted, complicated presence in someone’s life, the familiar body, the source of another’s existence. But I knew what I wanted was not always what I needed.
I envied my mother’s childhood, the awe with which she’d turned to her country and the world, the confidence she’d had in her right to exist and bear children. The world and mothers alike, I knew, had lost a little freshness.
(Secondhand, a gift from my wish list a couple of years ago)
Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff (2009)
What a clever decision to open with “Lucky Chow Fun,” a story set in Templeton, the location of Groff’s debut novel – it forms a thread of continuity between her first book and her second. Elizabeth, the only girl on the varsity swim team, comes to a number of realizations about her family and her community, including that the title Chinese restaurant is a front for a brothel that exploits trafficked women. The story becomes a wider parable about appearances and suspicion. “In these dark days, there is so much distrust in this town. … You never know quite what to think about people”. And what a brilliant last line: “I like to think it’s a happy ending, though it is the middle that haunts me.”
“L. DeBard and Aliette” recasts in the notorious Héloïse and Abelard romance an Olympic swimmer and a schoolgirl in Spanish flu-plagued New York City. The other seven stories alternate between historical fiction and contemporary, the USA and abroad, first person and third person, speech marks or none. Desire and boundaries, accomplishment and escape, fear and risk are contradictory pulls. While the details have faded for me, I remember that, while I was reading them, each of these stories enveloped me in a particular world – 30 pages seems like the ideal length here to fully explore a set of characters and a situation. If I had to choose a favourite, it would be “Blythe,” about a woman who feels responsible for her alcoholic best friend. (From my birthday book haul last year)
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore (1998)
Life: what an absurd little story it always made.
I’d read a few of Moore’s works before (A Gate at the Stairs, Bark, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?) and not grasped what the fuss is about; turns out I’d just chosen the wrong ones to read. This collection is every bit as good as everyone has been saying for the last 25 years. Amy Bloom, Carol Shields and Helen Simpson are a few other authors who struck me as having a similar tone and themes. Rich with psychological understanding of her characters – many of them women passing from youth to midlife, contemplating or being affected by adultery – and their relationships, the stories are sometimes wry and sometimes wrenching (that setup to “Terrific Mother”!). There were even two dysfunctional-family-at-the-holidays ones (“Charades” and “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens”) for me to read in December.
I’ll single out four of the 12 as favourites, though, really, any or all would be worthy of anthologizing in a volume epitomizing the art of the short story. “Which Is More than I Can Say about Some People” has a mother and daughter learning new things about each other on a vacation to Ireland. “What You Want to Do Fine,” another road trip narrative, stars an unlikely gay couple, one half of which is the flamboyant (and blind) Quilty. “People Like That Are the Only People Here” is so vivid on the plight of parents with a child in the paediatric oncology ward that I feel I should check whether Moore lived through that too. And the best of the best: “Real Estate” (not least because she dared to print two full pages of laughter: “Ha!”), which turns gently surreal as Ruth and her philandering husband move into a house that turns out to be a wreck, infested by both animal and human pests.
Moore is as great at the sentence level as she is at overarching plots. Here are a few out-of-context lines I saved to go back to:
She was starting to have two speeds: Coma and Hysteria.
In general, people were not road maps. People were not hieroglyphs or books. They were not stories. A person was a collection of accidents. A person was an infinite pile of rocks with things growing underneath.
Never a temple, her body had gone from being a home, to being a house, to being a phone booth, to being a kite. Nothing about it gave her proper shelter.
(From Oxfam Books, Hexham – a stop on our Northumberland trip last year)
Two of these writers are best known for their short stories; the third (Groff), to my mind, should be. Unusual for me to fall so wholeheartedly for short stories – these all earned my rarest rating:
Best Backlist Reads of the Year
Like many bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the new books released each year. However, I consistently find that many of my most memorable reads were published years or even decades ago. These 16 selections, in alphabetical order within genre, together with my Best of 2022 post (coming up tomorrow), make up the top 9.5% or so of my reading for the year. Three of the below were rereads.
First, a special mention for this trio:
Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman
Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
It’s unusual for me to fall so wholeheartedly for short stories. I intended to write up these three “Birds” collections as part of my short story focus in September but ultimately decided to spend more time with the latter two (and then fell ill with Covid before I could write them up, so look out for my full reviews early in the new year). The word from the title is incidental, really; the books do have a lot in common in terms of theme and tone, though. The environment, fidelity and motherhood are recurring elements. The warmth and psychological depth are palpable. Each story feels fleshed out enough that I would happily read an entire novel set in its world, but also such that it is complete unto itself. Two of these writers (Bergman and Moore) are best known for short stories; the third, to my mind, should be.
Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier: I’ve read all of Chevalier’s novels and always thought of this one as my favourite. A reread didn’t change that. I loved the neat structure that bookends the action between the death of Queen Victoria and the death of Edward VII, and the focus on funerary customs (with Highgate Cemetery a major setting) and women’s rights.
Julia and the Shark by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: Julia and her parents are on an island adventure to Unst, in the north of Shetland, where her father will keep the lighthouse for a summer and her mother, a marine biologist, will search for the Greenland shark. Hargrave treats the shark as both a real creature and a metaphor for all that lurks – all that we fear and don’t understand. Beautifully illustrated, too; a modern children’s classic in the making.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson: A brooding character study of two sisters isolated by their scandalous family history and the suspicion of the townspeople. I loved the offbeat voice and unreliable narration, and the way the Blackwood house is both a refuge and a prison for the sisters. Who is protecting whom, and from what? There are a lot of great scenes, all so discrete that I could see this working very well as a play
Foster by Claire Keegan: A delicate, heart-rending novella about a deprived young Irish girl sent to live with rural relatives for one pivotal summer. It bears all the hallmarks of a book several times its length: a convincing and original voice, rich character development, an evocative setting, just enough backstory, psychological depth, conflict and sensitive treatment of difficult themes like poverty and neglect. I finished the one-sitting read in a flood of tears.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan: One good man’s small act of rebellion is a way of standing up to the injustice of the Magdalen Laundries, a church-sanctioned system that must have seemed too big to tackle. Keegan fits so much into so few pages, including Bill working out who his father was and deciding what to make of the middle of his life. Like Foster, this is set in the 1980s but feels timeless. Absolutely beautiful.
The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius: Sally Jones is a ship’s engineer who journeys from Portugal to India to clear her captain’s name when he is accused of murder. She’s also a gorilla. This was the perfect rip-roaring adventure story to read at sea (on the ferry to Spain in May); the twisty plot and larger-than-life characters who aid or betray Sally Jones kept the nearly 600 pages turning quickly.
Honorifics by Cynthia Miller: Miller is a Malaysian American poet in Edinburgh. The themes of her debut include living between countries and feeling like an exile versus finding a sense of home. There’s much variety here, and so many beautiful lines and evocative images. Miller incorporates a lot of unusual structures, some of them traditional forms and others freer: a numbered list, columns, dictionary definitions or prose paragraphs. Flora and fauna references plus a consideration of the expat life meant this was custom made for me.
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown: The University of Washington rowing team in general, and Joe Rantz in particular, were unlikely champions. Boatbuilding and rowing both come across as admirable skills involving hard physical labour, scientific precision and an artist’s mind. All along, Brown subtly weaves in the historical background: Depression-era Seattle with its shantytowns, and the rise of Hitler in Germany. A classic underdog story.
My Life in Houses by Margaret Forster: Having become a homeowner for the first time earlier this year, I was interested in how an author would organize their life around the different places they’ve lived. The early chapters about being a child in Carlisle are compelling in terms of cultural history; later on she observes gentrification in London, and her home becomes a haven for her during her cancer treatment.
Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie: A reread started on our July trip to the Outer Hebrides. I’d forgotten how closely Jamie’s interests align with my own: Scotland and its islands, birds, the prehistoric, museums, archaeology. I particularly appreciated “Three Ways of Looking at St Kilda,” but everything she writes is profound: “if we are to be alive and available for joy and discovery, then it’s as an animal body, available for cancer and infection and pain.”
Reflections from the North Country by Sigurd F. Olson: Olson was a well-known environmental writer in his time (through 1970s), also serving as president of the National Parks Association. This collection of passionate, philosophically oriented essays about the state of nature places him in the vein of Aldo Leopold – before-their-time conservationists. He ponders solitude, wilderness and human nature, asking what is primal in us.
Smile by Sarah Ruhl: These warm and beautifully observed autobiographical essays stem from the birth of her twins and the slow-burning medical crises that followed. Shortly after delivery, Ruhl developed Bell’s palsy, a partial paralysis of the face. Having a lopsided face, grimacing and squinting when she tried to show expression – it was a minor problem in the grand scheme of things, yet provoked questions about whether the body equates to identity.
Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C. Slaght: Slaght has become an expert on the Blakiston’s fish owl during nearly two decades of fieldwork in the far east of Russia. Slaght thinks of Russia as his second home, and you can sense his passion for the fish owl and for conservation in general. Amid the science, this is a darn good story, full of bizarre characters. Top-notch nature and travel writing; a ride along on a consequential environmentalist quest.
Some of the best backlist reads I own and could lay my hands on.
What were your best backlist reads this year?
This Year’s Pre-Christmas Reading
My household has been struck down by
flu Covid this week, so we’ve had to cancel some all of our holiday plans and I haven’t had as much energy or festive good cheer as I would like. This is my favourite time of the blogging year what with everyone’s best-of lists appearing, so I hope that come Boxing Day I will be feeling up for starting my own countdown of superlatives and catching up on everything you all have posted recently.
Two of my recent reads were appropriate Yuletide choices:
Robin by Helen F. Wilson: The most recent release from the “Animal” series issued by the British indie publisher Reaktion. (I’d previously read Seal.) Wilson introduces the breadth of international bird species that are known by the name “robin.” (The European robin, the protagonist of this monograph, is the only bird in its genus and is not as closely related to the American robin (a thrush) as to the bluebird; the name simply referenced the red breast. There are also magpie-robins in Southeast Asia.) Like another strikingly red bird, the cardinal in North America, the robin has long been associated with a) death and b) Christmas. They might be a portent of death, or an embodiment of the soul of the departed. For instance, the legend has it that a robin spent days in Westminster Abbey while Queen Mary II lay in state. Robins are the UK’s official favourite bird because they look cute and act endearing and sing sweetly, but they are violently territorial. (The old nursery rhyme “Who Killed Cock Robin?” also set up a weird and false vendetta between sparrows and robins.) This was a pleasant wander through biological and cultural information. I particularly loved the photos and other illustrations.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan: I read this last year but reread it earlier this month for book club. A year ago, I called it a predictable narrative and thought the evil nuns were a stereotype. This time, Keegan really got me in the feels, just as she had with Foster a couple of months before. The Church-sanctioned abuse that was the Magdalen Laundries must have seemed like a system too big to tackle, but take a look at the title. One good man’s small act of rebellion was a way of standing up to the injustice and saying that these girls were of worth (indeed, this won the Orwell Prize for political fiction). This time around, I was especially impressed by how much Keegan fits into so few pages, including Bill working out who his father was. We also get a strong sense of a man in the middle of his life: privileged enough, happy enough, but wondering if this is all there is to it; if there is something more on offer. Like Foster, this is set in the 1980s but feels timeless, and seems to effortlessly encompass so much of what it means to be human. Absolutely beautiful.
Merry Christmas, all!
October Poetry Releases: Bergin, Draycott, Lopez, Rizwan, Skoulding
It was a prolific month for poetry. There is so much variety here in form and topic, from the tongue-in-cheek aphorisms of Tara Bergin’s Savage Tales to the maritime and ornithological portrait of Anglesey in Zoë Skoulding’s A Marginal Sea. Something for everyone, I’d like to think, and I hope these capsule reviews and sample poems give you a taste.
Savage Tales by Tara Bergin
This is the third collection by the Irish poet; I’d previously read her The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx. Grouped into nine thematic sections, these very short poems take the form of few-sentence aphorisms or riddles, with the titles, printed in the bottom corner, often acting as something of a punchline – especially because I had them on my e-reader and they only appeared after I’d turned the digital ‘page’. Some appear to be autobiographical, about life for a female academic. Others are political (I loved “Tenants and Landlords”), or about wolves or blackbirds. The verse in “Constructions” takes different shapes on the page. Here are “The Subject Field” and “The Actor”:
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.
The Kingdom by Jane Draycott
I love the Matisse cut-outs on the cover of Draycott’s fifth collection. The title poem’s archaic spelling (“hyther,” “releyf”) contrast with its picture of a modern woman seeking respite from “the men coming on to you / the taxi drivers saying here jump in no / no you don’t need no money.” Country vs. city, public vs. private, pastoral past and technological future are some of the dichotomies the verse plays with. I enjoyed the alliteration and references to an old English herbarium, Derek Jarman and polar regions. However, it was hard to find overall linking themes to latch onto.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.
We Borrowed Gentleness by J. Estanislao Lopez
Brimming with striking metaphors and theological echoes, the first poetry collection by the Houston-based writer is an elegant record of family life on both sides of the Mexican border. “Laredo Duplex” (below) explains how violence prompted the family’s migration. “The Contract” recalls acting as a go-between for a father who didn’t speak English; in “Diáspora” the speaker is dubious about assimilation: “I am losing my brother to whiteness.” The tone is elevated and philosophical (“You take the knife of epistemology and the elegiac fork”), with ample alliteration. Flora and fauna and the Bible are common sources of unexpected metaphors. Lopez tackles big issues of identity, loss and memory in delicate verse suited to readers of Kaveh Akbar. (My full review is on Shelf Awareness.)
With thanks to Alyson Sinclair PR for the free e-copy for review.
Europe, Love Me Back by Rakhshan Rizwan
This debut collection has Rizwan juxtaposing East and West, calling out European countries for the prejudice she has experienced as a Muslim Pakistani in academia. She has also lived in the UK and USA, but mostly reflects on time spent in Germany and the Netherlands, where her imperfect grasp of the language was an additional way of standing out. “Adjunct” is the source of the cover image: she knocks and knocks for admittance, but finds herself shut out still. Rizwan takes extended metaphors from marriage, motherhood and women’s health: in “My house is becoming like my country,” she imagines her husband instituting draconian laws; in “I have found in my breast,” a visit to a doctor about a lump only exposes her own exoticism (“Basically, the Muslims are metastasizing”). In “Paris Proper,” she experiences the city differently from a friend because of the colonial history of the art. (See also Liz’s review.)
Some favourite lines:
“my breasts harden / with milk, that peculiar ache of women’s bodies / which do only half the sin / but carry all the history” (from “Half the Sin”)
With thanks to The Emma Press for the proof copy for review.
A Marginal Sea by Zoë Skoulding
Skoulding’s collection is said to be all about Anglesey in Wales, but from that jumping-off point the poems disperse to consider maps, maritime vocabulary, seabirds, islands, tides and much more. There are also translations from the French, various commissions and collaborations, and pieces about the natural vs. the manmade. Some are in paragraph form and there’s a real variety to how lines and stanzas are laid out on the page. I especially liked “Red Squirrels in Coed Cyrnol.” I’ll read more by Skoulding.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.
Read any good poetry recently?
Three on a Theme: Raven Books for Halloween
It’s been a while since I’ve done a Three on a Theme post (over eight months, in fact). I thought it would be fun to round up a few nonfiction books about ravens that I’ve read over the last year or so – I just finished the Skaife last night.
I tend to associate ravens with Halloween because of Edgar Allan Poe’s eerie poem “The Raven.” In eighth grade English class we had the challenge of memorizing as much of this multi-stanza poem as possible. A friend and I took this very seriously and recited the whole thing, I think (or at least enough to be obnoxious), in front of the class. I can still conjure up big chunks of it in my memory: “Once upon a midnight dreary / while I pondered, weak and weary / over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore…” The rhymes and alliteration make it a real earworm.
The Book of the Raven: Corvids in Art and Legend by Angus Hyland and Caroline Roberts (2021)
I loved the art, which ranges from the well-known (Van Gogh) to the recent and obscure and includes etchings, paintings and photographs, and wood carvings. The text was less illuminating, relying on some very familiar points of reference like Aesop’s fables, Norse myths, Poe’s “The Raven,” and so on. It’s slightly confusing that the authors decided to lump all corvids together as it suits them, so they include legends and poems associated with crows and magpies as well as ravens.
Most pieces are only one page and have an image facing, as well as at least two pages of wordless spreads between them. There are also shorter quotations embedded in some of the illustrations. Gothic font abounds and there is an overall black, white and red colour scheme. I was glad to be reminded that Charles Dickens’s pet raven, Grip III, was stuffed and is now in display in the Free Library of Philadelphia – that will be a sight to seek out on my next trip there. I also enjoyed learning about Jimmy, a Hollywood raven who appeared in over 1,000 films between 1938 and 1954, including It’s a Wonderful Life. This was a surprise Christmas gift, and a fun enough coffee table read.
A Shadow Above: The Fall and Rise of the Raven by Joe Shute (2018)
Ravens are freighted with such symbolism that people attribute special significance to their presence or absence. In parts of Britain, they were persecuted to the point of extirpation, but in recent years they have been finding new strongholds everywhere from sea cliffs and abandoned quarries to the New Forest and city centres. Travelling around the country, Shute learns how mythology reflects humans’ historical relationships with the birds and meets with those who hate and shoot ravens (farmers whose lambs and piglets they gang up to kill) as well as those who rehabilitate them or live with them as companions. It’s a balanced and well informed book, if a little by-the-numbers in its approach.
A terrific final paragraph: “Watching the birds dive under the fizzing pylon wires, I also realise just how much we need them close by. To provide us with a glimpse of wildness in a world hell-bent on civilising its furthest reaches, while at the same time inching closer towards the abyss. The raven will always continue to represent our own projections. This modern omen remains as yet ill-defined; our shared futures unresolved.” (Public library)
The Ravenmaster by Christopher Skaife (2018)
A newspaper/magazine feature I enjoy is when a journalist interviews someone with a really random job – you know, like a cat food taste tester or the guy who cleans the Tube tunnels in London or empties the loos after Glastonbury Festival. This memoir was moderately interesting in the same sort of way.
How does one get to be raven keeper at the Tower of London? In Skaife’s case, via the military. He was an indifferent student so joined the Army young and served for 24 years, including as a Drum Major and in Northern Ireland, before becoming a Yeoman Warder. He’s the sixth Ravenmaster (a new title after 1946), in post since 2011. He was always interested in history and as a mature student took a degree in archaeology, so he’s well suited to introducing the Tower to visitors. I appreciated his description of the challenge of making the experience fresh each time even though for him it’s become daily drudgery: “Doing a really great tour is like being a jazz musician: a moment’s improvisation based on a lifetime’s experience.”
Seeing to seven resident ravens’ needs is also repetitive and has to be done in the same way, on time, every day if he doesn’t want revolt – when he once tried to put them to bed in their cages in a different order, Merlina (who also plays dead and engages in hide-and-seek) led him a merry dance and he ended up falling into the moat. He’s sometimes learned the hard way, as when a raven died when it hid in scaffolding and then plunged to the ground – he realized he’d clipped its wings too severely. Other birds have been lost to foxes, so he’s gotten in the habit of feeding foxes in one spot so they’ll stay away from the raven enclosure.
It’s a good-natured, anecdotal book, but didn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know about ravens from various other books; it reports pretty entry-level information on bird intelligence, communication, and representations in popular culture. I most liked hearing about the ravens’ individual personalities and the little mishaps and surprises he’s experienced in dealing with them. But many chapters feel thrown together in an arbitrary order, and Skaife’s writing about his life before the Tower doesn’t add anything. So while I envy him living in such a history-saturated place and would probably like to tour the Tower one day, the book wasn’t the intriguing insider’s account I was looking for. A ghostwriter or extra helping editorial hand wouldn’t have gone amiss, honestly. (A gift from my wish list a couple of Christmases ago)
If you read just one … A Shadow Above by Joe Shute was the stand-out for me.
My next raven-themed read will be: Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich.
Adventuring (and Reading) in the Outer Hebrides
Islands are irresistible for the unique identities they develop through isolation, and the extra effort that it often takes to reach them. Over the years, my husband and I have developed a special fondness for Britain’s islands – the smaller and more remote the better. After exploring the Inner Hebrides in 2005 and Orkney and Shetland in 2006, we always intended to see more of Scotland’s islands; why ever did we leave it this long?
Rail strikes and cancelled trains threatened our itinerary more than once, so it was a relief that we were able to go, even at extra cost. Our back-up plan left us with a spare day in Inverness, which we filled with coffee and pastries outside the cathedral, browsing at Leakey’s bookshop, walking along the River Ness and in the botanical gardens, and a meal overlooking the 19th-century castle.
Then it was on to the Outer Hebrides at last, via a bus ride and then a ferry to Stornoway in Lewis, the largest settlement in the Western Isles. Here we rented a car for a week to allow us to explore the islands at will. We were surprised at how major a town Stornoway is, with a big supermarket and slight suburban sprawl – yet it was dead on the Saturday morning we went in to walk around; not until 11:30 was there anything like the bustle we expected.
We’d booked three nights in a tiny Airbnb house 15 minutes from the capital. First up on our tourist agenda was Callanish stone circle, which we had to ourselves (once the German coach party left). Unlike at Stonehenge, you can walk in among the standing stones. The rest of our time on Lewis went to futile whale watching, the castle grounds, and beach walks.
This post threatens to become a boring rundown, so I’ll organize the rest thematically, introduced by songs by Scottish artists.
“I’ll Always Leave the Light On” by Kris Drever
Long days: The daylight lasts longer so far north, so each day we could plan activities not just for the morning and afternoon but late into the evening. At our second stop – three nights in another Airbnb on North Uist – we took walks after dinner, often not coming back until 10 p.m., at which point there was still another half-hour until sunset.
“Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” by Travis
Weather: We got a mixture of sun and clouds. It rained at least a bit on most days, and we got drenched twice, walking out to an eagle observatory on Harris (where we saw no eagles, as they are too sensible to fly in the rain) and dashing back to the car from a coastal excursion. I was doomed to wearing plastic bags around my feet inside my disintegrating hiking boots for the rest of the trip. There was also a strong wind much of the time, which made it feel colder than the temperature suggested – I often wore my fleece and winter hat.
“St Kilda Wren” by Julie Fowlis
Music and language: Julie Fowlis is a singer from North Uist who records in English and Gaelic. (This particular song is in Gaelic, but the whole Spell Songs album was perfect listening on our drives because of the several Scottish artists involved and the British plants and animals sung about.) There is a strong Gaelic-speaking tradition in the Western Isles. We heard a handful of people speaking it, all road signs give place names in Gaelic before the English translation, and there were several Gaelic pages in the free newspaper we picked up.
Wildlife: The Outer Hebrides is a bastion for some rare birds: the corncrake, the red-necked phalarope, and both golden and white-tailed eagles. Thanks to intel gleaned from Twitter, my husband easily found a phalarope swimming in a small roadside loch. Corncrakes hide so well they are virtually impossible to see, but you will surely hear their rasping calls from the long grass. Balranald is the westernmost RSPB reserve and a wonderful place to hear corncrakes and see seabirds flying above the machair (wildflower-rich coastal grassland). No golden eagles, but we did see a white-tailed eagle flying over our accommodation on our last day, and short-eared owls were seemingly a dime a dozen. We were worried we might see lots of dead birds on our trip due to the avian flu raging, but there were only five – four gannets and an eider – and a couple looked long dead. Still, it’s a distressing situation.
We also attended an RSPB guided walk to look for otters and did indeed spot one on a sea loch. It happened to be the Outer Hebrides Wildlife Festival week. Our guide was knowledgeable about the geography and history of the islands as well.
St. Kilda: This uninhabited island really takes hold of the imagination. It can still be visited, but only via a small boat through famously rough seas. We didn’t chance it this time. I might never get there, but I enjoy reading about it. There’s a viewing point on North Uist where one can see out to St. Kilda, but it was only the vaguest of outlines on the hazy day we stopped.
“Traiveller’s Joy” by Emily Smith
- An extended late afternoon tea at Mollans rainbow takeaway shed on Lewis. Many of the other eateries we’d eyed up in the guidebook were closed, either temporarily or for good – perhaps an effect of Covid, which hit just after the latest edition was published.
- A long reading session with a view by the Butt of Lewis, which has a Stevenson lighthouse.
- Watching mum and baby seals playing by the spit outside our B&B window on Berneray.
- Peat smoked salmon. As much of it as I could get.
- A G&T with Harris gin (made with kelp).
“Dear Prudence” (Beatles cover) by Lau
- Gorgeous, deserted beaches. This is Luskentyre on Harris.
- No midges to speak of. The Highlands are notorious for these biting insects, but the wind kept them away most of the time we were on the islands. We only noticed them in the air on one still evening, but they weren’t even bad enough to deploy the Avon Skin So Soft we borrowed from a neighbour.
- People still cut and burn peats for fuel. Indeed, when we stepped into the Harris gin distillery for a look around, I was so cold and wet that I warmed my hands by a peat fire! Even into the 1960s, people lived in primitive blackhouses, some of which have now been restored as holiday rentals. The one below is run as a museum.
- Not far outside Stornoway is the tiny town of Tong. We passed through it each day. Here Mary Anne MacLeod was born in 1912. If only she’d stayed on Lewis instead of emigrating to New York City, where she met Fred Trump and had, among other children, a son named Donald…
- Lord Leverhulme, founder of Unilever, bought Lewis in 1918 and part of Harris the next year. He tried to get crofters to work in his businesses, but all his plans met with resistance and his time there was a failure, as symbolized by this “bridge to nowhere” (Garry Bridge). His legacy is portrayed very differently here compared to in Port Sunlight, the factory workers’ town he set up in Merseyside.
- The most far-flung Little Free Library I’ve ever visited (on Lewis).
- Visits from Lulu the cat at our North Uist Airbnb.
“Wrapped Up in Books” by Belle and Sebastian
What I read: I aimed for lots of relevant on-location reads. I can’t claim Book Serendipity: reading multiple novels set on Scottish islands, it’s no surprise if isolation, the history of the Clearances, boat rides, selkies and seabirds recur. However, the coincidences were notable for one pair, Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford and Night Waking by Sarah Moss, a reread for me. I’ll review these two together, as well as The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen (inspired by a real incident that occurred on North Uist in 1980), in full later this week.
I also read about half of Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, a reread for me; its essays on gannets and St. Kilda chimed with the rest of my reading. Marram, Leonie Charlton’s memoir of pony trekking through the Outer Hebrides, will form part of a later 20 Books of Summer post thanks to the flora connection, as will Jon Dunn’s Orchid Summer, one chapter of which involves a jaunt to North Uist to find a rare species.
Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart: My selection for the train journey up. I got Daphne du Maurier vibes from this short novel about a holiday Dr Rose Fenemore, an English tutor at Cambridge, takes to Moila, a (fictional) small island off of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. It’s a writing retreat for her: she’s working on a book of poetry, but also on the science fiction she publishes under a pseudonym. Waiting for her brother to join her, she gets caught up in mild intrigue when two mysterious men enter her holiday cottage late one stormy night. Each has a good excuse cooked up, but who can she trust? I enjoyed the details of the setting but found the plot thin, predictable and slightly silly (“I may be a dish, but I am also a don”). This feels like it’s from the 1950s, but was actually published in 1991. I might try another of Stewart’s.
I also acquired four books on the trip: one from the Little Free Library and three from Inverness charity shops.
I started reading all three in the bottom pile, and read a few more books on my Kindle, two of them for upcoming paid reviews. The third was:
Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta: A sequel to Election, which you might remember as a late-1990s Reese Witherspoon film even if you don’t know Perrotta’s fiction. Tracy Flick was the goody two-shoes student who ran for school president and had her campaign tampered with. Now in her forties, she’s an assistant principal at a high school and a single mother. Missing her late mother and wishing she’d completed law school, she fears she’ll be passed over for the top job when the principal retires. This is something of an attempt to update the author’s laddish style for the #MeToo era. Interspersed with the third-person narration are snappy first-person testimonials from Tracy, the principal, a couple of students, and the washed-up football star the school chooses to launch its new Hall of Fame. I can’t think of any specific objections, but nor can I think of any reason why you should read this.
On my recommendation, my husband read Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting and The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange, two excellent nonfiction books about Britain’s islands and coastline.
“Other Side of the World” by KT Tunstall
General impressions: We weren’t so taken with Lewis on the whole, but absolutely loved what we saw of Harris on our drive to the ferry to Berneray and wished we’d allotted it more time. While we only had one night on Berneray and mostly saw it in the rain, we thought it a lovely little place. It only has the one shop, which doubles as the bistro in the evenings – warned by the guidebook that this is the only place to eat on the island, we made our dinner reservation many weeks in advance. The following morning, as we ate our full Scottish cooked breakfast, I asked the B&B owner what led him to move from England to “the ends of the earth.” He took mild objection to my tossed-off remark and replied that the islands are more like “the heart of it all.” Thanks to fast Internet service, remote working is no issue.
We are more than half serious when we talk about moving to Scotland one day. We love Edinburgh, though the tourists might drive us mad, and enjoyed our time in Wigtown four years ago. I’d like to think we could even cope with island life in Orkney or the Hebrides. We imagine them having warm, tight-knit communities, but would newcomers feel welcome? With only one major supermarket in the whole Western Isles, would we find enough fresh fruit and veg? And however would one survive the bleakness of the winters?
North Uist captivated us right away, though. Within 15 minutes of driving onto the island via a causeway, we’d seen three short-eared owls and three red deer stags, and we got great views of hen harriers and other raptors. One evening we found ourselves under what seemed to be a raven highway. It felt unlike anywhere else we’d been: pleasingly empty of humans, and thus a wildlife haven.
The long journey home: The public transport nightmares of our return trip put something of a damper on the end of the holiday. We left the islands via a ferry to Skye, where we caught a bus. So far, so good. Our second bus, however, broke down in the middle of nowhere in the Highlands and the driver plus we five passengers were stuck for 3.5 hours awaiting a taxi we thought would never come. When it did, it drove the winding road at terrifying speed through the pitch black.
Grateful to be alive, we spent the following half-day in Edinburgh, bravely finding brunch, the botanic gardens and ice cream with our heavy luggage in tow. The final leg home, alas, was also disrupted when our overcrowded train to Reading was delayed and we missed the final connection to Newbury, necessitating another taxi – luckily, both were covered by the transport operators, and we’ll also reclaim for our tickets. Much as we believe in public transport and want to support it, this experience gave us pause. Getting to and around Spain by car was so much easier, and that trip ended up a lot cheaper, too. Ironic!
“Take Me Back to the Islands” by Idlewild
Next time: On this occasion we only got as far south as Benbecula (which, pleasingly, is pronounced Ben-BECK-you-luh). In the future we’d think about starting at the southern tip and seeing Barra, Eriskay and South Uist before travelling up to Harris. We’ve heard that these all have their own personalities. Now, will we get back before many more years pass?