Six Degrees of Separation: from Passages to Night Crawling

On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.

Kate W: Books are my favourite and best

The full title of Passages, this month’s starter book, describes it as being about ‘predictable crises of adult life’  Gail Sheehy’s road map of adult life shows the inevitable personality and sexual changes we go through in our 20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond.  And I haven’t read it. 

But I have read a book whose female heroine is forced into adapting to a life for which she had been totally unprepared, and for which there was no self-help manual: A room made of leaves, by Kate Grenville.  This is an involving story based on the lives of John Macarthur, who has a bit part in Australian history, and his wife Elizabeth, who hasn’t, but who, through her amanuensis Kate Grenville, wrote this book. It’s 1788. After an unwise liaison with a hot-headed and unbalanced soldier, John Macarthur which results in her pregnancy, she is forced to make a new life in Australia where her husband has duties guarding the penal colony in New South Wales. Isolated in this unfamiliar terrain, she has to develop strategies and find strength to navigate her new life and her impetuous and unpredictable husband. This book beautifully evokes the landscape of this part of Australia, and the tough life shared by army personnel, prisoners, and the original Aboriginal population, for whom, unlike most of her fellow countrymen, she develops respect and sympathy. An evocative and poignant story.

Another book had me reading about a woman who also couldn’t have read Passages:  Free Love by Tessa Hadley. We are in the 1960s, and are introduced to Phyl, a middle class housewife with a husband in the Foreign Office and two children. The family is prosperous and content. Then Nick, the son of old friends comes for a meal, and everything changes as Phyl makes choices which up-end this happy and conventional family.  I was immediately immersed in this story, where first one twist, then another interposed itself in the narrative. Extraordinary as these twists were, the sixties setting gave them the ring of authenticity, and I had little difficulty in being totally sucked into the worlds which Phyl and her various connections inhabited. I found it a real page-turner.

The next two women also had little control over how their lives unfolded:, as told in The Lace Weaver by Lauren Chater. Estonia, 1941. The country is in the grip of a savage conquest and occupation by Russia. Increasingly deprived of a means of scrabbling a livelihood together, for the women of the town where young Kati lives, hanging on to their heritage tradition of shawl-weaving in delicate lacy patterns becomes a way of asserting their commitment to their country.  Moscow, 1941. Lydia, a privileged young woman of Kati’s age discovers some unwelcome facts about her parentage and resolves to escape. After several heart-stopping adventures, she finds herself in the same refugee camp as Kati.The two young women tell their stories in alternating chapters, with the leitmotif of the shawl being the device that threads their stories together: stories of danger, love, brutal deaths and the importance of all the women’s support of one another as their men fight the Russian occupiers in under-the-radar resistance groups. Although I found that difficulties were sometimes too slickly resolved, nevertheless the story emphasised the fragility of life, the strength of the human spirit.

We’ll go back to the 12th century now, to read about a woman who at first had little control over her life- until she learnt how to assume it:  Lauren Groff’s Matrix.  I expected to enjoy this book far more than I actually did. The hero, Marie de France, is someone known to have existed, but very little of her history is known. Which pretty much gave Lauren Groff carte blanche to write her story as she chose. In short, Marie, a bastard of noble birth, is big and ungainly. Sent as a prioress to an impoverished and unimportant abbey, she successfully devotes her whole life to making it large, beautiful, and extraordinarily wealthy. Groff’s research is impressive: she clearly understands the mediaeval religious life well. Her writing is striking, luminous. But I was entirely uninvested in the life of Marie de France and in the lives of her fellow-nuns. Dramas were quickly resolved: whole years, or even a decade or so passed in a single sentence. I didn’t care for Marie a great deal – for her visions and her acquisitiveness – apparently for the glory of God. And really, it was a matter of some indifference to me whether I finished the book: I did – for the quality of the prose, rather than the uninvolving narrative.

Another woman – in fact The hero of this book is the subject of Elizabeth McCracken’s story.  Apparently it’s her mother, but actually it’s auto-fiction, which is fictionalised autobiography. A book that is curiously hard to describe or pigeon hole. The author – American – is playing the tourist in London, re-exploring the haunts she and her recently deceased mother enjoyed together. She moves seamlessly, but never inappropriately between her London adventures, her mother’s life as a woman with life-affecting health issues, and the need to sell the unwieldy and neglected house that was her parents’ last home. Her father also died not too long ago, but he plays no more than a bit part in this story.  McCracken’s mother was wilful and opinionated, witty and optimistic – and great fun, despite her very real mobility difficulties. McCracken herself vacillates between protecting her mother’s privacy and wanting to cherish her memories. She wants to write a book that’s like ‘David Copperfield except Jewish, and disabled, and female, and an American wiseacre, but there’s too much I don’t know and I can’t bear to make up.’  This is a funny, unsentimental and vivid book which is impossible to characterise – or to put down.

I seem to have a chain which is all about women, so here’s my last one, and so different from any previous choices. Night crawling by Leila Mottley.  17 year old Kiara’s father, always in and out of jail, is dead, her mother is in a halfway house, and her older brother chases unrealistic dreams of becoming the next big name in the music industry. She’s in charge of their home, and de-facto of her friend and neighbour’s 9 year old child, whom she loves unconditionally. Under-educated and with no training, she has no means of paying the rent and eviction looms. Sex-working provides an answer, but soon she falls into the clutches of a ring of sex-seeking cops from whose grip she has little chance of escape. This is her story: that of a feisty young woman making the best of the rotten hand that life has dealt her. Told in her own words, Kiara paints a picture of a world where racism and poverty and lack of choice are normal and where the choices she must make are impossible. It’s inspired by a true story of corruption in the police department. Kiara is bold, witty and tough, and Mottley gives her a rhythmic, new and exciting langage. An energising read.

Six women, roughly fashioned into this month’s chain. Where will next month’s take us? It’s Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography Born to Run.

PS. Away from home, I am finishing this post off on my phone. Getting the link to Kate’s post to display in the usual way has turned out to be above my pay-grade.

Eating to extinction

I have just finished reading Eating to Extinction, by Dan Saladino. It’s an ambitious, immersive and important book. Saladino has made a tour of the world’s vanishing foods – its animals, vegetables, crops, and shown us why retaining diversity in the food chain matters so much.

This engaging and readable book takes us with Dan Saladino as he visits Hadza hunter-gatherers in Tanzania in quest of wild honeys – they’re the very last people to be constantly on the move, with no settled place to call home – they have lived successfully with no possessions, no money and no leaders. In Australia, he’s shown murnong, a radish like root once prized by the aboriginal people, and all but obliterated by introduced over-grazing sheep. Bere is an ancient barley adapted to the harsh conditions in Orkneyn Orkney. There are Swabian lentil growers; apple growers in Kazakhstan; Skerpikjøt, the wind-dried mutton of the Faroes …. and so many more. Each adventure, to areas where local custom and traditional ways of life remain strong is full of interest, and leaves me with a desire to try the foods and drink he sampled. It also leaves me with a determination to do what I can to support the remaining foods being saved by passionate and committed producers.

Disease can rampage through a single variety at horrifying speed, and if that variety is all we have, the consequences are obvious. Too many of our foodstuffs are in too few hands. The cultures that are injected into our cheeses worldwide to make them what they are are in the hands of some 5 suppliers. The cattle we breed are – worldwide – largely a single breed. Seeds in every continent are in the hands of just four corporations,. Thousands upon thousands of local varieties, bred over the centuries to suit local conditions have been lost forever. So many of the foods we rely on – animal and vegetable – once developed to suit particular soils and climate have been wiped out or, if lucky, painstakingly recovered from a vanishingly small stock pile by some single-minded enthusiast. Now, most foods are grown as a one-size-fits-all.

Whereas foodstuffs used to be so different and varied from one country and region to the next, now the entire world derives 50 % of its calorie-intake from just three foods: wheat, corn and rice. The fast-food burger is becoming a world-wide phenomenon. Saladino shows us that besides this being so dangerous – an epidemic could wipe away a foodstuff completely – it’s also impoverishing our diets, and the rich variety of local foods. He discusses globalisation, the crippling effects of war and climate change. The good news is: with a lot of hard work and good will, it’s not quite too late to stop the rot.

The most important book I’ll read this year. And one of the most interesting.

For Gumtrees and Galaxies: Gaia Nature Reading Challenge

Alone Time

I don’t have a problem being alone. As an only child who was often uprooted while growing up, I was used to my own company. Nowadays, though I value family and friends, time to myself is important too. My happiest memories of lockdown are of the Daily Exercise we were permitted, when I’d take myself off to enjoy the differences each day made on familiar daily walks, and discover new tracks and pathways.

Here’s a rather random gallery of landscapes that may meet the needs of the solitary walker. Put on your hiking boots and yes, why not? We’ll go and enjoy them together.

…. and then you could just go off by yourself if you wanted …

For Ann-Christine AKA Leya’s Lens-Artists Challenge #238 Alone Time

The header image is from l’Albufera, near Valencia, Spain, where I had a wonderfully solitary afternoon and evening one November about four years ago.

Nature Photo Challenge: Patterns

Another day, another challenge. This one is from Denzil, of Denzil Nature. He invites us to find and photograph patterns in nature. Nature provides such a rich variety that it’s hard to know where to start. In the end, I thought I’d stick with – birds.

There are understated patterns. Look how the curlew blends in with the rough grasses of its moorland habitat:

The patterned curlew blends in so well with the less-than patterned grasses

There are ones that are slightly less understated. These sparrows in a Berlin café planned on stealing a few crumbs.

Then there’s this female mallard. Understated too, but with a soupçon of energising colour.

Here’s a puffin. That assertively-painted beak begs to be noticed too.

We’re getting gaudier now: this mandarin duck appeared – just once – on a local pond.

Even the pond water has rippling patterns.

Showiest of all, the peacock. From respondent tail feathers to elegant headdress, this bird is a symphony of pattern.

The header photo shows a murmuration of starlings. Here, at this time of year, just before nightfall, the birds regularly fill the skies with a constant swirl and swoop of pattern-making . You can read about it here, and – especially – here, when thousands of birds chose our garden for their evening display.

Fog and mist, cloud and sun revisited

This week’s Lens-Artists Challenge #137 invites us to bring softness to our shots. What Bren – who set the challenge – means, is that she’d like us to enjoy playing with effects – available in various software packages – to enhance our photos. The trouble is, I don’t really enjoy doing this. I often crop my shots, I may adjust the light, then I’m done. I admire the results that other people get, but I don’t hanker after doing it for myself. I rely on the weather or light conditions to do the job for me .

So as it’s Flashback Friday, I’ve dug out a walk from 2020 which began, unexpectedly, in thick fog. It didn’t end in thick fog. so if that’s what you’re looking for, stop reading when you get to the lunch stop. But then go straight to the end, because I couldn’t resist adding another 2020 photo, taking during Lockdown, when I’d sometimes get up at about 5.30 to enjoy the sunrise.

If you’re reading because, like Jo of Jo’s Monday Walk fame, you enjoy a good walk, feel free to carry on till you get to the end.

Fog and mist, cloud and sun

Weather forecast.  Cold, but bright and sunny.  That sounded perfect for a walk in Wharfedale.  Starting and finishing at the forbiddingly-named Grimwith Reservoir, and taking a fine circular route to and from Burnsall would give us extensive panoramas over the hills of the Yorkshire Dales.

Except that on the way there, an impenetrable curtain of fog descended.  To walk?  Or not to walk? My friend and I had both made the effort to get there.  So we’d walk.

And for nearly an hour, this was our landscape.  No hills, no dales, but just the occasional gate, or tussocky grass, or – sometimes – sheep.

Then – suddenly it seemed – this.

The sky lightened and brightened, and the countryside we’d come to see developed before our eyes like those Polaroid photos that once seemed so exciting.

Soon we were at Burnsall, our half-way mark.  A hearty yomp up hill brought us to a bench, where we saw in turn black skies, grey skies, blue skies: and views, always with the village below us.

Our lunch time views of Wharfedale, the River Wharfe glinting below, a few curious sheep, and Burnsall.

After lunch, a further climb, and then level walking back to where we’d begun our day.  But this time we had the views we’d come to see, and at the end, the quiet tints of the reservoir.

It hard turned out that this walk, so unpromising to begin with, had become memorable, as the heavy mist added another dimension to familiar territory, and gave a special beauty to the landscape.

And here is my Optional Extra …

Taken in June 2020, as the mist from the river sweeps over the fields at sunrise.

Otto the tree-feller

Last Thursday night, Storm Otto raged furiously across the northern part of the kingdom. He spent much of his anger in Scotland, and in the far north of England. By the time he reached here, he was wearying, but rallied sufficiently to squall and blast at 65 miles an hour. Trees fell. Branches toppled, ripped away from the fabric of the parent trunk.

When we walked through the deer park at Studley Royal on Monday, we found casualties . Despite the destruction, I found beauty in the ravaged branches.

Click on an image to see it full size.

Here’s another:

This ancient tree however, hasn’t suffered at all.

It’ll take more than Storm Otto to fell most of these sturdy residents of the Deer Park.

Monday Portrait of a Hardly Visible Sheep

We’ve had a lot of misty-moisty mornings lately, and I turned this photo up when looking for soft-focus shots for this week’s Lens-Artists Photo Challenge. This isn’t for that challenge: I just thought this hardy creature deserved her five minutes of fame as a Monday Portrait.

Give us this day our daily bread revisited

I often used to make our own bread. These days, with the cost of fuel, and because we have a fabulous two-person-band bakery in town, not so much. And back when we lived in France, we certainly never bothered. Here’s a post from our days when we lived there which may explain why.

Give us this day our daily bread

February 25th 2010

Mme. Fonquernie, Mater Familias

How could they?  I mean, what ARE they playing at?  All last week, and most of this, the baker’s shop down the road has been closed.  Instead of rising at 2.00 a.m. to get busy making baguettes, flutes, ficelles, baguettes a l’ancienne, flutes tradition, pain noir, chocolatines, croissants and so on and so on, our bakers have chosen to lie in till – ooh, 7 o’clock perhaps – and then spend the day catching up with their families – the children are on half term.

It’s a family business, our baker’s shop.  M & Mme Fonquernie owned it, and now, although officially they’ve retired, they help out all the time .M. Fonquernie is the one who drives his little white van round the local villages which have no shops, selling bread. Their two sons have now taken over the day-to-day baking.  One is responsible for all those loaves, while the other specialises in patisserie.  Their wives divide the work of running the shop between them with Mme Fonquernie Senior’s help.

So our morning routine has been disrupted.  First thing each day, one of us usually walks down the road to get our favourite pain noir, hot and crisp still from the oven.  The other day, the baker forgot the salt.  The bread wasn’t half so nice, but I rather liked this very human error.  It proved that our loaves are still ‘artisanale’, rather than being churned out by some computer-assisted machine.  There’s usually someone in the shop to chat to, or to walk back along the street with, and so neither of us looks on getting the bread in as a chore.

We’re lucky, I suppose, that there are three bakers in town.  Last week, we went to the shops at Castellanes to the baker there.  No pain noir at this shop, so we chose their unbleached white.  The small one’s a slender baguette shape – an Ariegeoise – but buy the larger butch version, and you must ask for an Ariegeois.

But then what happened?  A notice appeared in the shop: from Sunday, they too would be closed for a holiday. So for a few days this week, we have to patronise shop number three. Everybody moans ‘C’est pain industriel ça’.  It’s true. It comes all the way from Lavelanet, from a bakery which has three shops.  That’s mass production, and it shows.  Roll on Thursday, when the Fonquernie family re-opens its shop doors.

Sergio Arze, Unsplash. The featured photo is also courtesy of Unsplash, Tomasso Urli

For Fandango’s Flashback Friday