Bruce Chatwin – In Patagonia (#1977Club)

I am currently most-way through Chatwin’s seminal work, In Patagonia, which I’m reading for Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at StuckInABook’s #1977Club, the biannual celebration of a particular year in literature. I hope you don’t think it’s too much of a cheat that I’m writing it up before it’s finished…

Travel writing is an interesting one for me because, with a few exceptions, I usually gravitate more to books about places I’ve already been rather than using it as inspiration for future travelling. Maybe it’s a little like wanting to read the book before you see the film, so as not to let someone else’s impressions influence your own too heavily. Although having said that, I love seeking out fictional characters in their ‘real’ locations, so I don’t know. Anyway, I’ve always felt I should read this particular Chatwin because of how important it is to the genre.

Patagonia was a place Chatwin had always wanted to visit and he ‘ran away to South America’ (to quote from his letter to Francis Wyndham) in November 1974, arriving in Patagonia a month later. In so doing, he left his role as staff writer for The Sunday Times to pursue a story that he had always wanted to write. This story eventually became In Patagonia and Chatwin himself described the book as ‘the narrative of an actual journey and a symbolic one’.

In Patagonia is definitely not a conventional travel narrative and I can see why it had the impact it did when it was published, as well as paving the way for some of the travel narratives it inspired. My copy includes an introduction by Chatwin’s biographer Nicholas Shakespeare, who says: ‘…it was in photographic terms that Chatwin preferred to describe his odyssey to his friend Colin Thubron. “I was determined to see myself as a sort of literary Cartier-Bresson going SNAP, like that. It was supposed to be a take each time.” Stay longer and the picture would fog.’

I can’t think of a better way to describe the book because it really is like a photo album in words not pictures. But somehow the words can’t be pinned down in quite the same way because the impression they create isn’t fixed. It’s more like a mood, which catches you in an instant but is also changeable over time. There aren’t lists of must sees; instead In Patagonia is a elaborate construction of story, impression and – occasionally, by Chatwin’s own admission – embellishment for effect. There are stories from sources Chatwin met along the way, as well as tales he purposely tracked down. It’s not always clear whether some of them are true or not, but that’s not the point. This is very definitely Chatwin’s Patagonia.

Most striking of all is that, despite the many wonderful descriptions of the landscape of Patagonia, this is primarily a book about the people Chatwin met on his travels. This is a land of exiles as well as people who have travelled from one country (sometimes generations before) and recreated it in another. Like Gaiman – a little patch of Wales transplanted to the other side of the world. There’s a sense that many of the characters in the book had their own reasons for coming to Patagonia, and that some are still searching for their promised land.

Not all the ‘snapshots’ land for me but when they do, they shine. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on Butch Cassidy, who settled in Patagonia with his share of the spoils from the Winnemucca First National Bank Robbery but refused to consider a quiet retirement. There are also lovely descriptive touches and many arresting images, like this one: ‘The ticket salesman had the face of a private drinker.’ I do struggle a little, however, with Chatwin’s reputation for entwining fact and fiction. Blurring the line in a work of non-fiction, about real people, seems less acceptable than, say, an openly fictionalised account of a real person or event. But then perhaps Chatwin wouldn’t have classed his writing as non-fiction in the conventional sense.

On the whole, I’d say I’m enjoying it, although I’d prefer to read some of his letters next to see how his ‘private’ voice compares to his public one.

If you want to see some more books reviewed for the #1977Club, do have a look at the home-page here.

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Geraldine McCaughrean – Where The World Ends

I’m very drawn to islands, particularly the smaller ones. I think a lot of people are. There’s something exciting about them but also reassuring, perhaps because with the really tiny ones you can see all of the land at once and there’s little chance of being snuck up on. Many of them are gloriously beautiful, some in a more remote and extreme kind of way. I realised a dream a few years back when my husband and I visited the Scilly Isles and it’s testament to their impact on me that I would willingly endure again the hellish, stomach-churning crossing (during which I would quite happily have ended it all) just to revisit them. That or fly…

But I’m yet to set foot on many islands that fascinate me, and chief amongst them is the super remote archipelago of St. Kilda, which can be found in the Atlantic, on the westernmost point of the Outer Hebrides, 64 kilometres from the Scottish mainland. The main island in the group, Hirta, was inhabited until 1930 when the remaining islanders voted unanimously to leave. Prior to that, there is evidence that people lived there for two millenia. That just takes my breath away.

Surrounding Hirta and the three smaller islands Dun, Soay and Boreray, which were used for grazing, are a few rocky outcrops, jutting defiantly out of the roiling sea. They’re known as stacs and the communities of St. Kilda used them as hunting grounds for sea birds such as puffins, fulmars and petrels.

All of which lengthy intro is a way of setting you up to imagine spending roughly nine months on one of those stacs. Nine months, enduring the worst of the weather that sky and ocean can hurl at you; nine months of eating sea birds and drinking what rainwater you can collect. This is the subject of McCaughrean’s latest book and, unbelievably, it takes as its inspiration a true story, whereby a small group of men and boys from Hirta were taken out to the Warrior Stac (Stac an Armin) for a short hunting trip and ended up being marooned there from August 1727 to May 1728.

McCaughrean takes that event and imagines what it must have been like. What they must have thought had happened. How they were likely to have been affected not just by the physical privations of what they endured to survive but by the mental agony of wondering why they had been left out there. This book just tore me apart. It’s beautiful and clever, emotionally intelligent and compassionate. McCaughrean’s touch is gentle (it is after all a book for younger people) but somehow it pulls no punches; it’s such a masterclass in writing for children without patronising them. The ending reduced me to tears and left me with a residual heart ache for days afterwards.

I’ll likely be tracking down a few more books about St. Kilda when my current reads are done but if anyone can recommend any books on the history of the islands, I’d love to hear about them.

Some children’s books are GORgeous

The 2nd April was International Children’s Book Day. While every day in our house is currently Children’s Book Day (and LONG may that continue), I had planned to do a post to mark the date itself. Then I spent a couple of weeks around that time having to squeeze all my work into the evenings again and it got a little waylaid.

But there’s no reason not to celebrate children’s books at every opportunity so I thought I’d feature some that were just beautiful to look at and to read. We’ve done funny books, books connected to a certain date and now I present to you some utterly lovely objects.

Neither my phone camera, nor the grey day on which I took these pictures is doing justice to the vibrant colours. Bottom left is Oliver Jeffers’ A Child of Books, in the middle Laura Knowles’ and Jennie Webber’s It Starts with a Seed, and on the right Patricia Hegarty and Britta Teckentrup’s Moon. Across these three titles, are some of my favourite themes in children’s literature: the power of imagination and the wonder of the natural world. My daughter (who is 2 and a half) has been obsessed with each of these books in turn and regularly quotes them at random. The illustrations are magical, using a variety of different mediums and some impressive creativity.

They’re very simple stories, about simple, albeit fundamental, things. The best tales often are.

Imogen Hermes Gowar – The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

Sometimes when I’m reading historical fiction, I’m blown away by the amount of detail you’d have to research to write even one convincing sentence. Let’s say someone walks across a room and sits down. What room is it? Would a house like this have that kind of a room? Would they even go into this room at that time of day? What’s in the room? Is it appropriate to their station in life? What are they wearing? Could they afford it? How does it move? Does the fabric make a sound? What do they sit on? How do they sit? etc. etc. until I feel like I could do with a lie down.

All of which makes a really good historical novel a very impressive achievement indeed. I can’t verify the detail in Gowar’s book but it vibrates with life and authenticity in a way that makes it a lot of fun to read.

It’s 1785 in Georgian London and shipping merchant Jonah Hancock is disturbed by a violent knocking at his door. He’s about to discover one of his captains has sold his ship for what he claims is a mermaid. And the quiet, if lonely, existence he has been living since the death of his wife and unborn child some years before is about to be turned inside out.

Meanwhile, in an apartment in Soho, the famous courtesan Angelica Neal takes stock of her situation following the death of her benefactor, a middle-aged Duke who supported her in life but cruelly overlooked her in his will. Her options dwindling and the money running out, Angelica is under some pressure to find a new protector or accept the offer of the ‘abbess’ of King’s Place, Mrs Chappell, doyen of the most famous brothel in London.

The story that follows takes both of these lives and weaves them together in a tale of ambition, obsession and desperation. Written in the present tense, there’s a kind of bustling immediacy that immerses you in the action, rich in detail, and giving the impression of what an exhausting hubbub 19th century London must have been. Somehow Gowar manages to balance that detail with an absorbing and pacy plot, which isn’t always the case. What I loved most about this book though, was the way that it handles the mermaid, or really the idea of the mermaid and what it represents, pulling in aspects of its folklore to suggest clever parallels with both Angelica and Jonah, both of whom are often regarded as ‘unnatural creatures’ in their own lives.

There’s a strong theme throughout of ownership and possession, which Gowar uses to illuminate the struggles of Georgian women who ultimately cannot own themselves or their own lives, and find themselves constantly vulnerable as a result. Angelica and the mermaid are the same creature – both there to be acquired, pored over, displayed and greedily consumed; worthy only in terms of the money they bring to their owner and at risk of being sold on when they become troublesome.

I feel like I’m still mulling over the final part of the novel (which I won’t say anything about here because…spoilers). There’s almost an aspect of magical realism to it; it certainly becomes harder to separate reality from, well, imagination? Psychosis? Depression? I’d love to know what other people thought. It’d be a good discussion at a book group, I suspect. The book definitely plumbed some hidden, murky depths (bad pun, just awful) that I’m still exploring and that would lend themselves well to re-readings. In many respects, it represents, through the mermaid, an exorcism of sorts for two people who have much to let go of in their pasts.

All of which means that I heartily recommend reading it, if only so you can come back here and talk to me about it…

Nickolas Butler – Shotgun Lovesongs

One of the things I love most about reading is that it can connect you to worlds that are very distant from your own, in far away places, via experiences you’re unlikely ever to have. And in doing so, it can teach you that we’re none of us really that different after all.

Shotgun Lovesongs is a story about four boys, now grown, who spent their childhoods together in rural Wisconsin before taking quite different paths as adults. There’s Lee, a successful touring musician; Kip, a former trader who has returned to his home town to attempt to renovate his past; Ronny, ex-rodeo star and recovering alcoholic; and, finally, Henry, a Wisconsin farmer, happily married with two children. Over the course of the story, the men reunite for a wedding and this begins a process of gentle unravelling as secrets from their shared pasts come back to rock the present. I have a tendency to gravitate to stories about and by women but this made it onto my radar because of countless glowing reviews. And I wasn’t disappointed at all. A lesson learned, I think: good writing can make anyone’s story accessible, interesting and emotionally involving.

Butler allows each of his central characters to narrate parts of the story in turn, so there are a number of ‘I’s in the book. Without going to heavy-handed lengths to distinguish their voices, Butler has employed just enough craft to allow us to quickly distinguish Henry’s calm, responsible voice from Lee’s slightly prickly, paranoid one; Kip’s bullish desperation from Ronny’s straight-talking poignancy. We also hear from Beth, Henry’s wife, whose relationship with all four men goes back many years.

Really, this is just a great story, convincingly told. I was hooked from the start and impressed at just how few pages it took Butler to create four vivid, present characters that I was invested in. It’s a book about the bonds between people and how they change over time, becoming stretched in many cases to near breaking point. It’s also a story about the power of shared experience and how we change while staying the same.

The writing is simple but skilful. Butler is very good at creating something beautiful from the everyday, in the way that we’ve all felt nostalgia tinting precious childhood memories so that the mundane turns into the unforgettable. His  descriptions of Wisconsin have an eye for detail and are filled with respect for the way of life and the connection to the land. By the end, I’d probably have needed reminding that I didn’t actually grow up in small-town America…

 

Bill Bryson – One Summer: America 1927

If you’ve ever had a passing interest in:

  1. The race to fly across the Atlantic
  2. Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St Louis
  3. President Calvin Coolidge
  4. Prohibition and the American gangster
  5. The Wall Street Crash
  6. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and the rise of baseball
  7. Henry Ford, the Model T and Fordlandia
  8. Heavyweight boxing
  9. The creation of television
  10. and an awesome sounding woman called Mabel Walker Willebrandt

then I’d recommend Bryson’s One Summer: America 1927. To be honest, even if you’re not terribly interested in those things you’d likely enjoy this book. Bryson could make the shipping forecast read like a gripping narrative.

His masterful ‘schtick’ is the fascinating aside, most of which are powerful scene setters or providers of context. Sometimes they’re just really long intros to a particular point. But they’re always interesting. Told chronologically, the book covers American events from May to September, a period in which a really surprisingly huge amount of significant things happened.

I thought he painted a vivid, memorable picture of a hectic and world-changing period in American history.

Jane Robinson – Hearts and Minds

Hello poor neglected blog. All my best-laid plans for March fell by the wayside when a succession of viral bugs and my childminder being on holiday for a week suddenly meant that work got shifted to evenings and weekends, and everything else just got shifted. It meant choosing between reading books or writing about them, and sometimes it meant not doing either for longer periods than I’d like.

So I have some books I still want to talk about from February and a couple of new ones from March to catch up on.

First up, Jane Robinson’s Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and how Women Won the Vote: required reading in the centenary anniversary year of some women getting the vote in the UK. There were two books out in the run-up to this particular historic milestone as Diane Atkinson’s Rise Up Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes was published late last year.

Although Robinson’s book does discuss the suffragette manifesto and some of the key events, both planned and unplanned, in their passionate commitment to the cause, the focus of her book is actually the parallel suffragist movement, including the Great Pilgrimage of 1913, in which large numbers of women set off from all over the UK to march on London, travelling along six major routes from all four compass points. Her descriptions of the women involved, the journey they undertook and some of the threats they faced along the way are gripping and I was shocked that it wasn’t an event I’d heard about before in my reading around this subject.

If you’re a bit hazy on the difference between the suffragettes and the suffragists then you’re in the position I was before I read Robinson’s book. Understandably, for a movement so associated with controversy, criminality and column inches, the suffragettes are the ones most people remember and can talk about. In contrast to the militant campaigns of the suffragettes, the suffragists, or ‘constitutional campaigners’, believed that they needed to win the ‘hearts and minds of the British people’, arguing that they couldn’t get the vote unless they proved themselves deserving of it.`

Now all of that is the worst and most oversimplified type of summarising (and I apologise to Jane Robinson for it). In reality, the line between suffragette and suffragist was blurry and indistinct, with some women members of both camps. Suffragists both benefited from the increased exposure their cause received as a result of suffragette action, while being harmed by it when it was assumed by police and public that their peaceful protests and demonstrations would turn violent. One of the things I liked most about Robinson’s book was that she didn’t try to pretend that there were easy answers to the problems of suffrage. Instead, she explores the contradictions and struggles of a huge group of individuals who ultimately all had the same goal in their hearts by focusing on a smaller group of truly remarkable women. Some of them you’ll likely have heard of and some you almost certainly won’t. Women like Millicent Fawcett, a tireless, committed and intelligent suffragist and leader of the NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies), and Elsie Inglis, who balanced her suffragist duties with her work as a surgeon.

I mention Inglis in particular because she’s a fantastic example of something else that Robinson’s book makes clear. Many of these women were incredible whether they were engaged in suffrage activities or not, putting their talents and passions to use in many other diverse fields. During the First World War, Inglis set up a female-staffed Red Cross hospital in Edinburgh before offering her services to the War Office to set up similar hospitals on the Western Front. When she was told to ‘go home and sit still’ she took her idea to the Scottish Federation of Suffrage Societies, who sponsored her, with support from French and Serbian ambassadors in London, to set up her first hospital (in just three weeks) at Royaumont, near Paris. By the end of the War, there were 14 hospitals like Royaumont.

There are so many other women I could mention and if all you read is the list of mini bios at the end of Robinson’s book you’ll come away feeling so uplifted and inspired. Which is helpful, given that some of the book made me so spitting angry that I’d happily have gone out, smashed a few windows and chained myself to some railings.  Asquith’s response to one of the suffrage petitions is breathtaking in its condescending, patronising tone. And then of course there’s the War Office response to Inglis…

Given the intense anger felt by many of these women and the prolonged injustices they fought against, it’s inevitable that the book prompts a lot of interesting questions. What would you do? Where do you stand? How far would you go? What do you believe in?

I think the most important lesson I got from Robinson’s book though was the scale of suffrage, whether it be suffragist or suffragette. The fight for the vote wasn’t a late uprising by a few particularly empassioned and eloquent women (as reporting on suffrage can sometimes suggest) but a huge massed force of stoic, courageous persistence over many many decades. Between John Stuart Mills’ failed 1868 petition to parliament, which was supported by 1500 names (when he had requested 100), and the turn of the century, parliament was deluged with further petitions (255 in 1869 alone) carrying anything from 15 to tens of thousands of names. Famous signatories included Florence Nightingale and Mary Somerville. The issue was debated 18 times between 1870 and 1904. It’s so hard to see how the suffrage movement was put off and put down for so long, particularly given the sort of weak, tired, demonstrably untrue arguments that had dragged on for centuries (women were weak minded, emotionally volatile, belonged at home, hadn’t the education/intellect to engage in politics, etc.). It really is injustice on a grand scale and speaks volumes about the battle for equality that women faced in every arena.

I’ve always voted – it feels almost criminal not to – but the next time I’m at the polling station, I will almost certainly pause and think about a few of the names from Robinson’s book and send out a heartfelt thank you.

If you’re interested in Diane Atkinson’s book, here are a few reviews to check out: