Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World and Spylaw Park in Edinburgh

November 21, 2020

I recently read Elif Shafak‘s intriguing novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (Review). The plot may sound unpromising to some readers – a prostitute – known to her friends as Tequila Leila – in Istanbul looks back on her life in the time that her brain is still active after her death – she has been murdered. No one should be put off by this as Shafak is a consummate story teller and an often poetic writer. The second chapter begins “In the first minute following her death, Tequila Leila’s consciousness began to ebb, slowly and steadily, like a tide receding from the shore”. The reader thus has to suspend reality and normally I might shy away from novels like this, but when I started to read the novel, I was gripped by this story of Leila and the four other characters whose stories are told in the book.

Leila remembers smells from her childhood, adolescence and adulthood in the novel and Shafak’s descriptions of food are an integral part of the story. In a chapter entitled Five Minutes, Leila remembers “.. spiced goat stew – cumin, fennel seeds, cloves, onions tomatoes, tail fat and goat’s meat”. In Nine Minutes, Leila recalls “.. the taste of chocolate bonbons with surprise fillings inside – caramel, cherry paste, hazelnut praline ……”. Later in the book, on what was to be her last last birthday, Leila’s memory is of her friends’ “.. rich menu – lamb stew with aubergine puree, börek [filled pastry] with spinach and feta cheese, kidney beans with spicy pastrami, stuffed green peppers and a little dish of caviar”. So this is a mouth-watering novel as well as a tale of the downtrodden, the despised and the exploited. You can see more examples relating to food in the novel here.

The novel ends with Leila’s friends, whose backstories are convincingly told throughout, seeking to move Leila from the Cemetery of the Companionless, a real place in Istanbul, as noted by Shafak in A Note to the Reader at the end of the book. This is where the bodies of the unidentified, as well as criminals and prostitutes were buried. Graves were unmarked except for a number. While the ending is neatly done, it is less convincing than the rest of the novel. I highly recommend that you read this exquisitely written novel as Shafak’s prose has a grace and elegance all of its own.

Elif Shafak’s gripping tale set in Istanbul (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

A new venture for us as we recently visited Spylaw Park in Colinton (good photos), on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The photo below (from my mobile) shows the view looking down the Water of Leith (good photos). This view will have changed now as when we were there, the trees were still holding on to their autumn leaves, but they will be gone now. It will still be a stunning view with the sunshine on the water which is quiet under the bridge and then goes into a mini spate. The sound of the water on that day was very calming. As you can see on the left of the photo, this is a very solid and impressive bridge, a large stone structure that shows the expertise of the masons who must have build it.

Under the bridge close to Spylaw Park

Once you get to the park itself, there is a path which goes along the side of the river and you can look down through the trees at the faster flowing part. The photo below – not the sharpest – shows one of the views you get in the gaps in between the trees. It was a sparklingly sunny day and the colours were outstanding. In the photo, the river is blue and white, there are apparently translucent yellow leaves on the deciduous trees and the ivy which is clinging to (and strangling) the trees to the left and right shows multiple shades of green. When you stopped and looked, you experienced the louder sound of the water as well as the colours, so a combined aural and visual delight.

Looking down to the Water of Leith

Near the park itself is Spylaw Tunnel (good photos and excellent videos). The tunnel itself used to be part of the railway that no longer exists. The tunnel has been decorated with a range of murals, many from local primary schools. The photo below shows one of the murals near one end of the tunnel. It features the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson , famous for novels such as Treasure Island and Kidnapped, whose grandfather lived in the nearby Colinton Manse. It is a stunning portrayal of the writer and was painted by a local artist. I like the imaginative use of a variety of colours – particularly the yellows – in the painting and the detailed portrayal of the writer’s desk.

R L Stevenson in the Spylaw Tunnel

Here is one of the Youtube videos of the tunnel.

The park itself is a wide expanse of green, with a children’s play area at the far end. Across the grassy area, you look toward the magnificent range of trees along the Water of Leith. I took a video of the park and it is shown below.

Sebastian Barry’s A Thousand Moons and pre-harvest Spott village

August 23, 2020

Three years ago, I posted a review of Sebastian Barry’s outstanding novel “Days without End”. I have now read the follow up to that book – A Thousand Moons (review) – and was not disappointed. The new book is much shorter than the previous one and focuses on one character from Days Without End – Winona Cole, the adopted daughter of Thomas McNulty and John Cole. Winona is a native American – referred to in the book as Indian – whose family was slaughtered by the American army in which McNulty and Cole served. At the start of the novel, Winona recalls that “In early times, I was Ojinjintka, which means rose”. Her family were “..souls of the Lakota that used to live on those old plains”. The teenager Winona, who may be 17 or 18 when the novel takes place in 1870s Tennessee, relates her story in the first person and is a realist. “Even when you come out of bloodshed and disaster, in the end you have got to learn to live”. We are only on page 2. Barry is an enviably graceful writer and the novel is full of memorable sentences e.g. “But the years went by fleet of foot. Like ponies running across endless grasses”. Winona often uses reference to her Indian background.

Winona lives with Cole and McNulty on Lige Mangan’s farm along with two former slaves. They are poor and live in a state dominated by racism where black or Indian people can be assaulted legally. The main plot revolves around Winona’s brutal rape and how she resolves to revenge it and identify her attacker. The background to this is how people’s lives intertwined in the state of Tennessee still haunted by the Civil War and where there is a struggle to combat lawlessness. Winona is an articulate girl and works for the lawyer Briscoe, who seeks to bring a shared sense of what is right amongst the people of the town of Paris. Barry deftly describes the wide differences between the affluent lawyer and the poor farmers to give a convincing portrait of the times.

The book is not at all dark despite the circumstances in which Winona and her “family” live. On a Whitsun holiday, there is merriment, with Lige Mangan taking out his fiddle “.. and shone it up with wax and tightened his strings and off he flew with his Tennessee jigs and reels”. Winona dances wildly – “I let my limbs be crazy and there was no civilised name for how I did”. Rosalee, the former slave also dances – “she threaded herself through the air like a lithesome swan”. Barry also writes poetically about the land and the air – “A high cold sky was speckled with stray blues and greys like a bird’s egg”.

There is drama – but not melodrama – in the book’s conclusion as the plot comes to a climax. A lesser writer than Barry would have over dramatised the ending but we are in the hands of a master writer here and what we read is convincing. I bought the hardback version of this book and it is well worth reading now or when it comes out in paperback. As always with Sebastian Barry, readers are treated with an excellent story, vivid characters and moral dilemmas which the reader must face and sometimes question his/her prejudices. You can listen to an interview with the author on Friday 28 August as he takes part in the online Edinburgh Book Festival.

A superb novel from one of today’s best writers (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

I was recently asked if I would give permission for one or two of my blog photos of Spott village to be used in a local calendar for 2021. My photos are resized and sometimes cropped for use in the blog and the two identified, from 2015, might not have a high enough resolution for the calendar, so I went back to Spott which is 2.6 miles/4.2K from Dunbar. Spott sits in the now lush East Lothian countryside, with swaying fields of barley and wheat, and green fields of potatoes and sprouts on view. The first photo below is taken in the graveyard of Spott Kirk/Church (good photos). I like the shadows from the trees and the gravestones, some of which appear to be leaning towards each other, like two Scottish country dancers preparing to start. In the enlarged photo, over the wall, you can see the fields of wheat and barley in front of Wester Broomhouse farm (photo). In the 1853/4 Name Books, Wester Broomhouse is described as “A farm house with offices, a thrashing Mill worked by steam, some Cottages, and a large farm attached; belonging to Mrs Ferguson of Beil”.

Spott Kirk graveyard and beyond

Crossing the road, I took this view of the kirk (Scots for church). The kirk, with its little bell tower, looks crowded out by the trees around it and in the foreground, there is a field of wheat, which will be harvested in the near future. The heads of grain are large, sharp and have taken on the colour of late summer. There is a variety of trees on view, with the tall, skinny looking pine tree taking centre stage and lofting it over the rest.

Spott Kirk beyond the wheat field

The photo above was taken at the side of the road up to Spott House (history) and the one below shows the driveway up to the house. The trees are in full leaf and displaying many shades of green. The dappled shadows across the road and on the grass make little patches of white. Compare this to the next photo – from a blog post in 2019 – where the trees are bare and their rather inelegant branches appear to be stretching out. On the other hand, the Spring photo shows the brilliant display of daffodils at that time of year. The shadows are also thinner in the 2nd photo. So there is always something different to see here no matter what time of year you come.

Driveway to Spott House
Driveway to Spott House in Spring

I left Spott and drove down the road to Wester Broomhouse to get a view of the village from the north. You need to enlarge the photo for best effect. The wee kirk is just to the right of centre and Spott House driveway can be seen to the left of the red roofs. This photo also gives a view of the pre-harvested fields of barley in the foreground and wheat above. This is a view that will not have changed much in a hundred years, with the sheep in ultra relaxed mode and the fecund fields of grain. The big difference would be that the fields would be much smaller in 1920.

Looking south towards Spott village

The Ultimate Good Luck and a small, beautiful orchid

February 21, 2018

In the past week, taking a break from my local history project, I’ve determined to spend more time reading the novels I’ve recently bought and I read Richard Ford’s The Ultimate Good Luck (1981 review). I’ve long been an admirer of Richard Ford and have read most of his novels, especially the series featuring the enigmatic Frank Bascombe (interview with Ford). This is a much earlier work, written in 1981 and a different kind of Ford novel. The book is set in Mexico and the protagonist is Harry Quinn, a Vietnam veteran who feels alienated from the world, and who goes to Mexico to try to get his wife’s brother Sonny – a drug dealer – out of prison. It’s a very tense tale and the normal laconic humour you find in Ford’s more recent novels is absent. Quinn gets involved with some very nasty people involved in the Mexican drug trade – lawyers, police, the army, strong-arm men and their rich bosses. There are action sequences which are quite violent but Quinn is a reflective kind of man, who looks at the world with suspicion. There also some passages which demonstrate that Ford would go on to be a leading American novelist. One of  the aspects of this book you will remember if you read it, is the ever-changing light in Mexico and Ford’s descriptions are superb e.g. “A mist had burned off the hills and been borne up, leaving the south end of the valley in a Levantine light… It was like a National Geographic ..” In another passage, the lawyer passes a truck repair yard and “Acetylene smacked in the thick air and made the night appealing”. Later, “Quinn could hear .. the low sibilance in the street, the soft ventral suspiration of any city..”. This fairly short book will keep you interested in the story and entranced by the enviable felicity of Ford’s writing, so get it if you can.


Richard Ford’s 1981 novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

A friend of my wife gave her an orchid last summer, as a present for my wife’s help and concern during her friend’s illness. It was put on to the kitchen window and remained static for most of the winter. Then a green shoot appeared but faded. Then another shoot appeared and this one continued to grow and in the past week or so, the buds which formed at the top of the shoot have opened. It’s a small plant but a miniature beauty. I came through one evening and noticed the orchid and its shadow against the drawn blind. So now we had the delicate flowers and their pale, but beautifully formed shadow behind, as in the photo below. I like the way the delicate flower, with its shapely petals and purple spots, contrasts with the rather menacing looking unopened buds, which appear to be ready to repel any attackers. The shadows of the flower on the left and of the buds are gentle, light grey reproductions, but the shadow of the flower on the right looks misshapen and ugly.


Small orchid and its shadow

The next photo is a close up of the flower on the left and, like all orchid centres, has a surreal look, with the petals appearing to be multiple bat-like ears of some weird creature with a protuberance at its centre. The splattering of reddish purple spots are more appealing. Sam Hamill’s poem “The Orchid Flower” begins “Just as I wonder/whether it’s going to die,/ the orchid blossoms/ and I can’t explain why it/moves my heart, why such pleasure/ comes from one small bud/ on a long spindly stem, one blood red gold flower/ opening at mid-summer, / tiny, perfect in its hour”. Hamill’s flower is different from this one and there are many varieties (good photos) of orchid, but I’d agree with him that our one is “perfect in its hour”.


Orchid on our window sill

Today, I saw that a third flower had appeared and taken in the daylight, the new orchid (on the right) appears to have a creamier colour to its petal than its older sisters. This is a plant that is giving us some joy on cold February days. Outside, in the garden, the daffodil and tulip bulbs are nervously emerging from the ground, ready to hold fire again if another cold snap comes (and one is coming next week). In the warmth of the kitchen window, where it’s not too warm, the orchid presents a show in instalments, with each new opening well worth waiting for.


Newly opened orchid flower on the right

Re-reading Thomas Hardy and walk to Seafield Pond and West Barns Bridge

December 17, 2017

Recently, I’d come to the end of the new books I’d bought and, looking along my bookshelves, I picked up a copy of Thomas Hardy short stories (cover below). I bought this book in the mid 1970s and opening the book and starting to read the first story The Three Strangers, I was immediately taken back to Hardy’s eloquent and flowing style. The story begins “Among the few features of agricultural England which retain an appearance little modified by the centuries, may be reckoned the long, grassy and furzy downs, coombes or ewe-leases, as they are called, according to their kind, that fill a large area of certain counties in the south and south west”. What struck me was the length of the sentence – typical of nineteenth century writers like Hardy – and the local words used by the writer. “Furzy downs” are stretches of rural land covered in what we might call gorse and a “coomb” is a deep valley. More explanations here. In his excellent introduction to the short stories, the novelist John Wain wrote that Hardy once said that a short story “must be unusual and the people interesting”. Wain also notes that Hardy’s short stories are unlike more modern versions, which tend have a single theme around which a tale is told. In Hardy’s stories, such as “The Withered Arm” or “The Distracted Preacher” the reader is presented with different characters, some of whom have their own intriguing tales to tell. It is the context of the stories – rural Dorset in the early to mid-nineteenth century – that distinguishes them from even contemporary short fiction. The isolated cottage in “The Three Strangers” or the village in “The Grave by the Handpost” where ” a lane crosses the lone straight highway dividing this from the next parish” and where “the whispers of this spot may claim to be preserved”. There are also echoes of Hardy’s novels in the stories such as the character William Dewy of Mellstock and the town of Casterbridge. Hardy is a superb story teller and in each story, the reader is given an early indication of what might be to follow. In “The Withered Arm”, the setting is “an eighty cow dairy” in the early evening and, with most of the cattle milked “there was opportunity for a little conversation. “He do bring home his bride tomorrow, I hear. They’ve come as far as Anglebury today”. Hardy continues “The voice seemed to come from the belly of the cow called Cherry, but the speaker was a milking-woman, whose face was buried in the flank of that motionless beast”. The reader knows the setting and is intrigued by the conversation. I have enjoyed reading these stories again after many years and I encourage you to try them.


Short stories by Thomas Hardy (Click on all photos to enlarge)

There’s a good 2 mile (3.2k) walk from our house to Seafield Pond (good photo)  and West Barns bridge. The most picturesque route is firstly to  Dunbar Harbour (historical photos), then along Winterfield Promenade and on round part of the picturesque Winterfield Golf Club. I was headed for Seafield Pond first, to try to get some more photos of the pond and its birds. A previous attempt can be seen here. When I got to the pond, it was frozen over and not a bird to be seen, just some bits of wood from the nearby trees stuck to the ice. There was however, a nice reflection (see below) from the adjacent caravan/mobile home park, where you can now hire a “Deluxe running water wigwam with WC” – what next?


Seafield Pond at Belhaven, near Dunbar

The birds were all on the beach over the wall but firstly I walked along to West Barns bridge, which spans the Biel Burn (small river). It was a very sunny day and the previous night’s sharp frost can be seen on the entrance to the bridge here.


West Barns bridge and the Biel Burn

Because of the position of the sun in the early afternoon, there was a superb reflection in the water below the bridge, with the brilliant blue water becoming paler and paler as the sun caught it fully on the bend of the river. This part of the Biel Burn is where the fresh water meets the incoming tide.


West Barns bridge

I know a few people – of a certain age – who spent quite a bit of their youth on the Biel Burn guddling for trout, and they each have their own secret method. This is a form of fishing in which the potential fish catcher does not use a rod or a net, but his/her fingers to catch the trout. I’m assured by two former poachers that it is an art and not a science, and that an expert guddler is born with a gift. There’s a PhD in there somewhere for a dedicated scholar e.g.  “Guddling: A phenomenological analysis”. Guddling was – and probably still is – carried out in shaded areas, such as at the tree line end of this photo.


Guddling spot near the trees on the Biel Burn

It was on my way back along what is known as the Dump Road as there used to be a council tip nearby, I tried to capture some of the birds on the beach and on the water on Belhaven Bay. I was using my zoom lens and it’s difficult to get very clear photos without a camera stand. The two best were firstly, a redshank on the move, with some nice reflections of the rocks and the vegetation.


Redshank amongst the rocks and grass at Belhaven Bay

I’m more pleased with the second photo, which is of a curlew flying off across the water. While the beak is not all that clear, I do like the light on one wing and the shadow on the other, plus the reflection in the water. I used my Sports setting for this one.


Curlew flying over Belhaven Bay with the tide in

So a very rewarding walk on a cold but bright day and on the way back I reflected how lucky I am to live in such an entrancing environment.

All that Man Is and Cliveden House, near Windsor

November 10, 2017

In most cases, when I buy a book in a bookshop – I try to do this mainly, although I do order online as well – and read the blurb and the recommendations from reviewers, I enjoy the book, and mostly agree with the positive reviews on the cover of the book. I have just finished David Szalay’s novel All that Man Is but I found myself not agreeing with most of the review quotes. In the book, there are 9 stories of men of different ages and nationalities telling the reader their woes – often related to romance or the lack of it. There are some quite humorous scenes and there is no doubt that Szalay writes very well for the most part. I agree with the Guardian reviewer that 9 stories do not a novel make, despite the fact that there is a common theme of men in some sort of trouble and doing a lot of soul searching. I imagine that many female readers – as well as male readers – might find that some of the men in the stories are pathetic and need a good shake, although some female reviewers praised the novel. There are some very good passages in the stories and in the last one, the man reflects on how, to him, the present often seems to be impossible to define, that indeed impermanence is the only permanent factor in  our lives. Szalay writes “How little we understand about life as it is actually happening. The moments fly past, like trackside pylons seen from a train window”. On the other hand, this guy thinks he is old  and not long for this world as he is 73. My cycling pal  John is 74 and he floats up hills on his bike. The book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and you can read a very positive review of the book here,  so don’t let me put you off trying it. If you’ve read it and enjoyed it – post a comment.


In mid-October, we went down to by train to Thames Ditton for my sister-in-law Hilary’s significant birthday celebrations. We had a charming walk along the Thames, going through part of the impressive Hampton Court. On the Thames, we passed numerous house boats which were reflected in the river, and enhanced by the  backdrop of autumnal trees, as shown here.


House boats on the River Thames

On Hilary’s birthday, we all went to Cliveden House (pronounced Cliv-den) with its magnificent grounds and luxury hotel. The property was built by the famous American millionaire William Waldorf Astor, who passed it on to his son Waldorf. The grounds are extensive and on a sunny day, you can enjoy a peaceful, rural walk past the modern sculptures, seen here in the context of the grounds and then, closer up, looking back to Cliveden House.


Sculptures and maze at Cliveden House


Sculptures with the back of Cliveden House

Cliveden House is historically best known for the infamous Profumo Affair, the repercussions of which brought down the Conservative government in the early 1960s. When you walk down to the river, you pass the cottage where the affair took place. It was a lovely autumn day when we visited and we saw some startlingly beautiful trees by the river, such as the one below. You can also walk by the pond which has a pagoda, a range of trees and on this day, a very calm heron, seen below. Cliveden House and its gardens are well worth a visit if you are in the area.


Autumnal splendour at Cliveden House gardens


Heron at the pond near Cliveden House


The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Galore paddocks and gum trees

June 17, 2015

There’s a distinctly Australian theme to this week’s post. I’ve just finished reading Richard Flanagan’s superb, Booker Prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The novel’s protagonist is Dorrigo Evans, a boy from rural Tasmania who becomes a doctor and later a surgeon in the army. The book is both a love story featuring Evan’s prolonged affair with his uncle’s wife and a harrowing tale of Australian POWs who are captured by the Japanese and forced to work on the building of a railway, in horrendous conditions. Flanagan tells his stories in an undramatic fashion. A lesser writer would fill this book with sentimentality and melodrama but Flanagan expertly avoids this. The sections on the POW camp focus not only on the terrible treatment of the prisoners – one scene of the beating of Darky Gardiner, which all the soldiers are forced to watch, will remain with the reader for a long time – but also on the Japanese commander Nakamura, who is forced to speed up the building of the railway by his superiors. We meet Nakamura after the war also. Flanagan takes us very cleverly into the mind of his hero, who sees himself as a weak man, despite his leadership abilities and his fame after the war. This is one of the best book I’ve read in a long time – don’t miss it.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

My very good friend Paul whom I first met when I lived in Wagga Wagga 10 years ago, emailed me this week with a vivid description of helping his brother with marking lambs. Paul wrote “They were monstrous, and there were 310 of them. We laboured in the winter sunshine for almost 3 hours” and he followed this by felling, cutting, splitting and loading a ton of wood from the gum trees on his brother’s farm. Paul’s photo below shows the split red gum logs in the late sunshine. The setting is Old Man Creek.

Red gum logs near Old Man Creek, NSW

Red gum logs near Old Man Creek, NSW

The farm is in the Galore district of New South Wales and there are stunning views – of seemingly endless landscape – from Galore Hill, where my wife and I were once accosted by a sudden swarm of large flies, and had to take cover. The Australian term for fields is paddocks and Paul told me that the paddocks on his brother’s farm had been given names by his father and grandfather and included “the triangle, the pump paddock, middle creek, Big L and Little L” as well as The Piper’s Paddock, named after an ancient settler, presumably from Scotland. There’s a PhD waiting to be done on the naming of paddocks. One of my former colleagues at Charles Sturt University referred to paddocks in discussions and would say that the thought that a particular idea “should be taken out into the paddock and shot”.

One of my best memories of living in Australia is of the gum trees at the Murrumbidgee River in Wagga Wagga. Gum trees or eucalypts are impressive trees but can also be dangerous as they can discard large branches. One of the surprises you get when first going to Australia is that gum trees do not shed leaves but bark. There are many types of gum trees and the silvery bark is a most attractive feature. The photos below were taken at the Murrumbidgee in Wagga Wagga.

Gum trees at the Murrumbidgee

Gum trees at the Murrumbidgee

Gum trees at the Murrumbidgee

Gum trees at the Murrumbidgee