Here’s a random trio of short books I read earlier and haven’t managed to review until now. Novellas in November is a deliberately wide-ranging challenge, taking in almost any genre you care to read – here I have a retold fable, a bizarre children’s classic, and a self-help work celebrating our connection with trees. I’ll do a couple more of these miscellaneous round-ups before the end of the month.
Jungle Nama: A Story of the Sunderban by Amitav Ghosh (2021)
My first from Ghosh. It’s a retelling in verse of a local Indian legend about Dhona, a greedy merchant who arrives in the mangrove swamps to exploit their resources. To gain wealth he is willing to sacrifice his destitute cousin, Dhukey, to placate Dokkhin Rai, a jungle-dwelling demon that takes the form of a man-eating tiger.
However, Dhukey’s mother, distrustful of their cousin, prepared her son for trouble, telling him that if he calls on the goddess Bon Bibi in dwipodi-poyar (rhyming couplets of 24 syllables), she will rescue him. I loved this idea of poetry itself saving the day.
The legend is told, then, in that very Bengali verse style. The insistence on rhyme sometimes necessitates slightly silly word choices, but the text feels very musical. Beyond the fairly obvious messages of forgiveness—
But you must forgive him, rascal though he is;
to hate forever is to fall into an abyss.
—and not grasping for more than you need—
All you need do, is be content with what you’ve got;
to be always craving more, is a demon’s lot.
—I appreciated the idea of ordered verse replicating, or even creating, the order of nature:
Thus did Bon Bibi create a dispensation,
that brought peace to the beings of the Sundarban;
every creature had a place, every want was met,
all needs were balanced, like the lines of a couplet.
With illustrations by Salman Toor. (Public library) [79 pages]
The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay (1918)
This is one of the stranger books I’ve ever read. I happened to see it on Project Gutenberg and downloaded it pretty much for the title alone, without knowing anything about it. It’s an obscure Australian children’s chapter book peopled largely by talking animals. Bill Barnacle (a human), Bunyip Bluegum (a koala bear) and Sam Sawnoff (a penguin) come into possession of a magical pudding by the name of Albert. Cut into the puddin’ as often as you like for servings of steak and kidney pudding and apple dumpling – or your choice from a limited range of other comforting savoury and sweet dishes – and he simply regenerates.
Naturally, others want to get their hands on this handy source of bounteous food, and the characters have to fend off would-be puddin’-snatchers such as a possum and a wombat and even take their case before a judge. The four chapters are called “Slices,” there are lots of songs reminiscent of Edward Lear, and the dialogue often veers into the farcical:
“‘You can’t wear hats that high, without there’s puddin’s under them,’ said Bill. ‘That’s not puddin’s,’ said the Possum; ‘that’s ventilation. He wears his hat like that to keep his brain cool.’”
I did find it all amusing, but also inane, such that I don’t necessarily think it earns its place as a rediscovered classic. It didn’t help that I then borrowed a copy of the book from the library and found that it was a terribly reproduced “Alpha Editions” version in Comic Sans with distorted illustrations and no line breaks in the songs. (Public library) [169 pages]
Tree Glee: How and Why Trees Make Us Feel Better by Cheryl Rickman (2022)
This is a small-format coffee table self-help book for nature lovers. It affirms something that many of us know intuitively: being around trees improves our mood and our health. Rickman looks at this from a psychological and a cultural perspective, and talks about her own love of trees and how it helped her get through difficult times in life such as when she lost her mum when she was a teenager. She includes some practical ideas for how to spend more time in nature and how we can fight to preserve trees. Unfortunately, a lot of the information was very familiar to me from books such as Rooted by Lyanda Lynn Haupt and Losing Eden by Lucy Jones – for a long time, forest bathing was one of the themes that kept recurring across my reading – such that this felt like an unnecessary rehashing, illustrated with stock photographs that are nice enough to look at but don’t add anything. [182 pages]
With thanks to Welbeck for the free copy for review.
In the week before Christmas I reviewed a first batch of wintry reads. We’ve had hardly any snowfall here in southern England this season, so I gave up on it in real life and sought winter weather on the page. After we’ve seen the back of Storm Franklin (it’s already moved on from Eunice!), I hope it will feel appropriate to start right in on some spring reading. But for today I have a Tokyo-set novella, sombre poems, an OTT contemporary Gothic novel, historical fiction in translation from the Finnish, and – the cream of the crop – a real-life environmentalist adventure in Russia.
Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au (2022)
This slim work will be released in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions on the 23rd and came out elsewhere this month from New Directions and Giramondo. I actually read it in December during my travel back from the States. It’s a delicate work of autofiction – it reads most like a Chloe Aridjis or Rachel Cusk novel – about a woman and her Hong Kong-raised mother on a trip to Tokyo. You get a bit of a flavour of Japan through their tourism (a museum, a temple, handicrafts, trains, meals), but the real focus is internal as Au subtly probes the workings of memory and generational bonds.
The woman and her mother engage in surprisingly deep conversations about the soul and the meaning of life, but these are conveyed indirectly rather than through dialogue: “she said that she believed that we were all essentially nothing, just series of sensations and desires, none of it lasting. … The best we could do in this life was to pass through it, like smoke through the branches”. Though I highlighted a fair few passages, I find that no details have stuck with me. This is just the sort of spare book I can admire but not warm to. (NetGalley)
Winter Recipes from the Collective by Louise Glück (2021)
The only other poetry collection of Glück’s that I’d read was Vita Nova. This, her first release since her Nobel Prize win, was my final read of 2021 and my shortest, at 40-some pages; it’s composed of just 15 poems, a few of which stretch to five pages or more. “The Denial of Death,” a prose piece with more of the feel of an autobiographical travel essay, was a standout; the title poem, again in prose paragraphs, and the following one, “Winter Journey,” about farewells, bear a melancholy chill. Memories and dreams take pride of place, with the poet’s sister appearing frequently. “How heavy my mind is, filled with the past.” There are also multiple references to Chinese concepts and characters (as on the cover). The overall style is more aphoristic and reflective than expected. Few individual lines or images stood out to me.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the e-copy for review.
The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall (2020)
Henna is alone in the world since her parents and twin sister disappeared in a boating accident. She lives a solitary existence with her sister’s basset hound Rembrandt in a New England village, writing encyclopaedia entries on the Arctic, until she stumbles on a corpse and embarks on an amateur investigation involving scraps of 19th-century correspondence. The dead woman asked inconvenient questions about a historical cover-up; if she takes up the thread, Henna could be a target, too. Her collaboration with the police chief, Fletcher, turns into a flirtation. After her house burns down, she ends up living with him – and his mother and housekeeper – in a Gothic mansion stuffed with birds of prey and historical snow samples. She’s at the mercy of this quirky family and the weather, wearing ancient clothing from Fletcher’s great-aunts and tramping through blizzards looking for answers.
This is a kitchen-sink novel with loads going on, as if Hall couldn’t decide which of her interests to include so threw them all in. Yet at only 221 pages, it might actually have been expanded a little to flesh out the backstory and mystery plot. It gets more than a bit ridiculous in places, but its Victorian fan fiction vibe is charming escapism nonetheless. What with the historical fiction interludes about the Franklin expedition, this reminded me most of The Still Point, but also of The World Before Us and The Birth House. I’d happily read Hall’s 2010 short story collection, too. (Christmas gift)
Land of Snow and Ashes by Petra Rautiainen (2022)
[Translated from the Finnish by David Hackston]
In the middle years of World War II, Finland was allied with Nazi Germany against Russia, a mutual enemy. After the Moscow Armistice, the Germans retreated in disgrace, burning as many buildings and planting as many landmines as they could (“the Lapland War”). I gleaned this helpful background information from Hackston’s preface. The story that follows is in two strands: one is set in 1944 and told via diary entries from Väinö Remes, a Finnish soldier called up to interpret at a Nazi prison camp in Inari. The other, in third person, takes place between 1947 and 1950, the early years of postwar reconstruction. Inkeri, a journalist, has come to Enontekiö to find out what happened to her husband. An amateur photographer, she teaches art to the local Sámi children and takes on one girl, Bigga-Marja, as her protégée.
Collusion and secrets; escaped prisoners and physical measurements being taken of the Sámi: there are a number of sinister hints that become clearer as the novel goes on. I felt a distance from the main characters that I could never quite overcome, such that the reveals didn’t land with as much power as I think was intended. Still, this has the kind of forthright storytelling and precise writing that fans of Hubert Mingarelli should appreciate. For another story of the complexities of being on the wrong side of history, see The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck.
With thanks to Pushkin Press for the proof copy for review.
“Fresh snow has fallen, forming drifts across the terrain. White. Grey. Undulating. The ice has cracked here and there, raising its head in the thawed sections of the river. There is only a thin layer of ice left.”
Owls of the Eastern Ice: The Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan C. Slaght (2020)
Slaght has become an expert on the Blakiston’s fish owl during nearly two decades of fieldwork in the far east of Russia – much closer to Korea and Japan than to Moscow, the region is also home to Amur tigers. For his Master’s and PhD research at the University of Minnesota, he plotted the territories of breeding pairs of owls and fit them with identifying bands and data loggers to track their movements over the years. He describes these winter field seasons as recurring frontier adventures. Now, I’ve accompanied my husband on fieldwork from time to time, and I can tell you it would be hard to make it sound exciting. Then again, gathering beetles from English fields is pretty staid compared to piloting snowmobiles over melting ice, running from fire, speeding to avoid blockaded logging roads, and being served cleaning-grade ethanol when the vodka runs out.
The sorts of towns Slaght works near are primitive places where adequate food and fuel is a matter of life and death. He and his assistants rely on the hospitality of Anatoliy the crazy hermit and also stay in huts and caravans. Tracking the owls is a rollercoaster experience, with expensive equipment failures and trial and error to narrow down the most effective trapping methods. His team develops a new low-tech technique involving a tray of live fish planted in the river shallows under a net. They come to know individuals and mourn their loss: the Sha-Mi female he’s holding in his author photo was hit by a car four years later.
Slaght thinks of Russia as his second home, and you can sense his passion for the fish owl and for conservation in general. He boils down complicated data and statistics into the simple requirements for this endangered species (fewer than 2000 in the wild): valleys containing old-growth forest with large trees and rivers that don’t fully freeze over. There are only limited areas with these characteristics. These specifications and his ongoing research – Slaght is now the Northeast Asia Coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society – inform the policy recommendations given to logging companies and other bodies.
Amid the science, this is just a darn good story, full of bizarre characters like Katkov, a garrulous assistant exiled for his snoring. (“He fueled his monologue with sausage and cheese, then belched zeppelins of aroma into that confined space.”) Slaght himself doesn’t play much of a role in the book, so don’t expect a soul-searching memoir. Instead, you get top-notch nature and travel writing, and a ride along on a consequential environmentalist quest. This is the kind of science book that, like Lab Girl and Entangled Life, I’d recommend even if you don’t normally pick up nonfiction. (Christmas gift)
And a bonus children’s book:
If Winter Comes, Tell It I’m Not Here by Simona Ciraolo (2020)
The little boy loves nothing more than to spend hours at the swimming pool and then have an ice cream cone. His big sister warns him the carefree days of summer will be over soon; it will turn cold and dark and he’ll be cooped up inside. Her words come to pass, yet the boy realizes that every season has its joys and he has to take advantage of them while they last. Cute and colourful, though the drawing style wasn’t my favourite. And a correction is in order: as President Biden would surely tell you, ice cream is a year-round treat! (Public library)