The Island of Missing Trees

Elif Shafak’s part-magical realism novel about family, ancestry, war and the inner thoughts of trees is a wonderful wintery read. The Island of Missing Trees crossed my path thanks to Emma’s review at Em with Pen. Emma’s thoughts on the novel made me want to read it, so I reserved it at the library.

The story starts with a history of an island divided by war. The island is Cyprus, its long history bound up with legend, its recent history one of violence. In a well lies a pocket watch and the chained together bodies of the joint owners of a tavern. The tavern is significant to the story in this novel.

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The Memory of the Air

The Memory of the Air is a novella in monologue form from the Belgian woman of letters, Caroline Lamarche. First published by Gallimard in 2014 as La mémoire de l’air, the English language edition is translated by Katherine Gregor for Héloïse Press.

The narrator of The Memory of the Air is unnamed. She begins by telling us about a dream she had. In it, the body of a dead woman is lying at the bottom of a ravine. Across the rest of the book, the narrator tries to reach that woman by recalling her past and how it has led her to where she is now as a woman.

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The Forager’s Calendar: A Seasonal Guide to Nature’s Wild Harvests

Happy New Year! (It’s not too late to say that yet, despite being almost halfway through the first month of the year.) My first read of the year is John Wright’s book The Forager’s Calendar, a Christmas present from Mr Hicks. Last autumn, I took Mr H on a walk along our local canal to see how many of the blackberries I’d seen in their pre-ripened state during my solo summer walks we could pick for a pie. Sadly, the extreme summer heat had shrivelled most of the berries I’d seen. We gathered just enough for a pie. The flip side, though, was that in peering into the canalside hedgerows, we saw other things, including mushrooms and blackthorn. We came home with more sloes than blackberries, which we froze until we could pass them on to our friends who like gin.

As we walked, we talked about how, as children, we’d both been on family trips to forage for berries. I remember gathering wimberries (vaccinium myrtillus, also known as bilberries, whortleberries and blaeberries) on moorland around the Snake Pass between Glossop and Sheffield, and staining my fingers with their juices until I learnt not to squeeze when taking them from the plant. I loved those wimberrying trips, and the crumbles that resulted from them.

Wright opens this guide to gathering wild food and the things you can make from it with his own childhood memory of blackberrying which is very similar to mine. He also talks about something that I think about a lot, and more now than I did before the pandemic: the way in which we are losing touch with our natural selves.

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Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain

Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain is a scholarly tome from the team at the Hepworth Wakefield. Written to accompany an exhibition there in 2018, which I didn’t see, it attempts to position the photographer Lee Miller at the heart of the British surrealist movement in the 1930s and 1940s.

I can’t remember where I first encountered Miller’s photography. It was in an exhibition many years ago. I recall seeing solarised images she had made in collaboration with Man Ray alongside the photographs she took as a war correspondent during and at the end of the Second World War. I bought a postcard of her image ‘Portrait of Space’, depicting a landscape seen through a torn piece of netting with an empty picture frame hovering over the sky, because it made me think of Magritte. I was drawn by the framing and lighting of her images, that borrowed from the world of fashion she had experienced as a model and that also had a theatrical feel to them.

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Christmas with Dull People

A quick Christmas read, courtesy of one of my Christmas gifts from Mr H. I’d never read any Saki until this collection of four festive short stories that document bad behaviour during an Edwardian holiday period.

I knew the name Saki, and that the author was a satirist and short story specialist. I’ve now learnt that his real name was Hector Hugh Munro, that he was influenced by Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll and Rudyard Kipling, and was an influence on A. A. Milne, Noël Coward and P. G. Wodehouse. Despite being officially too old for service, he enlisted during the First World War and was killed on the Western front in 1916.

The front fly leaf to this slim collection states, “These stories present Saki at his inimitable, satirical best as he addresses the most perilous aspects of the holiday period: visiting dull relatives, tolerating Christmas Eve merriment, receiving unwanted gifts, and writing ecstatic thank-you notes.”

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Birds: Paintings of 100 British Birds

I’ve been saving up Moir’s art book, Birds, for when I had time to sit and absorb his watercolours.

This is a restful book. In the foreword, Chris Packham captures in words what it is that I respond to in Jim Moir’s bird paintings.

… Jim doesn’t just see birds, he looks at them, so intensely that he understands them. Not just anatomically or behaviourally – he knows how they feel.

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And Away…

I love Bob Mortimer. I always have. In the Reeves and Mortimer partnership, he’s the unassumingly funny shy bloke to Vic’s bombastically funny shy bloke. Bob’s sound. I’m prepared to watch anything that Bob’s on, because he’s silly like Terry Jones was silly, and wriggles with the giggles of it all in the same way. The man’s a delight.

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Japanese Fairy Tales

Yei Theodora Ozaki’s translated compendium of Japanese fairy tales is a charming read. Published in 1903 and now out of copyright, I got mine from the Kindle store a while ago for free. It’s also available to download or read for free on Project Gutenberg.

In her introduction, Ozaki explains that she wanted to bring the world of Japanese fairy tales to a western audience and her selection of twenty-two stories is based on Sadanami Sanjin/Sazanami Iwaya’s Meiji era collection for children, with a few tales from other sources. Ozaki rewrote the stories into English with a younger audience in mind. While some are gentle in tone, the fact that they are for children is no guarantee that violence and brutality won’t make an appearance. Some of the stories are quite shocking and upsetting in their cruelty. I suppose an argument can be made that nature and the world are cruel and brutal things, and these stories are reflections of that. I don’t think it’s a collection that I would put in front of a child today, despite knowing what I was like as a child and how much I loved spooky stories.

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Saving Lucia

When I plucked Saving Lucia from my To Read pile, I wasn’t expecting another time travelling novel that takes imagination and rethinks reality. I also wasn’t expecting such a slim book to be so dense with ideas and feelings.

The Lucia of the title of Anna Vaught’s book is the daughter of James Joyce, incarcerated in St Andrew’s Hospital for Mental Diseases in Northampton in 1953. One of her fellow residents is the Honourable Violet Gibson, daughter of a Lord Chancellor of Ireland and famous for her attempted assassination attempt on Benito Mussolini. Violet makes it the work of her last few years to save Lucia from the pain of life in a psychiatric institution.

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This Time Tomorrow

I reserved This Time Tomorrow at the library back in August and it came up for collection last week. It crossed my radar thanks to Jeanne’s review at Necromancy Never Pays and how she described the character development and story arc.

It’s a time travel story, but a very specific form of time travel, where the traveller always goes back to the same moment in their past before returning to their present. A sort of revisiting the action embedded and refracted in memory to see it from a different angle and see if a change might be made. It made for a nice fit with the last book I read and the thoughts that presented on memory.

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