Book Review: The White Heron Beneath the Reactor

Gary Budden, co-founder of Influx Press and author of Hollow Shores (published by Dead Ink), is also an an avid bird watcher. He admits that his love of birds may at times appear incompatible with his other interests.

“heavy and brutal music, clanking beeps and drones, obscure ghost stories, crumbling Saxon ruins, SHARP culture, experimental folk.”

In The White Heron Beneath the Reactor he writes of a visit to RSPB Dungeness to observe a white heron. It is off-peak season, mid-week and the weather is dismal. This pleases Budden as it keeps away tourists, but not him. The few hardy folk he observes are distant. He is free to examine his surroundings uninterrupted.

“Far away, a yellow digger deposits or removes shingle, I can’t tell, surrounded by a whirring halo of screeching gulls. Landscape maintenance; nothing is natural.”

Dungeness is described as scoured by salt winds – a flat, bleak coastline in the shadow of a nuclear power station. Nevertheless, it is here that the great white egret has begun to migrate from across the channel where its population is expanding. Budden suppresses the urge to come up with some sort of contemporary allegory.

“My white heron is not an immigrant, nor an expat, nor a citizen of the world. I will not let it support a political agenda, not even the one I wish to push. […] its world doesn’t have borders.”

The author considers and details the place as he finds it in evocative but never bucolic prose. He has an eye for the surreal – the impact of man’s behaviour.

He takes photographs knowing that the writing he will produce is to be illustrated by the landscape artist, Maxim Griffin. These colourful interpretations, included liberally alongside the text, are wonderful.

In some ways this is a paean to the tenacity of the natural world. Elegiac descriptions are tempered by dry humour. There is much irony but also an undercurrent of hope. Budden’s quick wit and percipient scrutiny are expressed in pared back yet resonant form. The sighting of the heron, in this place, unlocks something for the author.

The writing is reflective and absorbing. The book is a work of art. I recommend you read it. It is a tale for our times.

The White Heron Beneath the Reactor was published using funding raised via Kickstarter.

Book Review: Fibonacci’s Rabbits

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”

Fibonacci’s Rabbits, by Adam Hart-Davis, explains in accessible language fifty significant mathematical discoveries, from ancient times through to the present day. It is divided into seven ages and demonstrates how each featured mathematician built their propositions and then proofs informed by all who had gone before. To enjoy the book fully it may be necessary to have some interest in, if not understanding of, mathematical concepts and principles.

“In mathematics, proof is everything, whereas science cannot prove anything. Scientists can disprove ideas, but they can never prove them.”

The first section outlines the long history and need for simple tallying and recording. Standardised numerals evolved from primitive marks made when counting. The reasons for and timing of the initial move from such practical applications to more complex and abstract ideas has been lost to time but ancient civilisations throughout the world are known to have used various number systems and calculations to: produce calendars, build pyramids, and study intriguing problems such as squaring the circle. Some of the questions these early mathematicians asked have still to be answered. Others led to proofs that proved useful in practical applications far in their future.

“it is easy to get trapped by habitual ways of thinking, and different approaches can lead to new insights”

Mathematics is required to be logical and rigorous. Although many of its problems appear theoretical, discoveries are often mirrored in the real world. Key patterns, sequences and shapes turn up in: plants, animals, and their natural habitats. The intrigue of the Fibonacci sequence and associated spiral enabled many new mathematical discoveries yet it is clear that Fibonacci numbers are a reflection of the way things grow – including the reproduction of rabbits.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on zero and the mathematical problem of defining concepts. Having accepted the usefulness of ‘nothing’ whole new fields opened up.

Looking at the importance of imaginary numbers it is clear that sometimes all that is needed is a new way of simply notating a complex idea.

“In Euclid’s system, the workings of the world are not just the whims of the gods, but follow natural rules. It showed how we can find our way to the truth through logic and deductive reasoning, evidence and proof – not just intuition.”

Mathematical problems are only regarded as solved when a verified proof is discovered and written down.

“If even a single exception is found, the conjecture fails”

“for mathematicians, ‘highly likely’ is not proof”

Being unable to find an exception does not constitute a proof, however long the search has taken. There are problems that have finally been solved after hundreds of years, and others that remain outstanding.

Chaos theory and how it developed intrigued me – how one tiny event creates ripples that can radically change outcomes.

“A very small cause, which escapes our notice determines a considerable effect that we cannot fail to see, and then we say that the effect is due to chance.”

“Really, he argues, the weather is equally as rigidly determined as the eclipse. It is just that the operation of chance with the weather is so major that we just do not have enough knowledge to predict it. Such systems seem to be chaotic, but the normal laws of the universe are still operating entirely regularly.”

Today’s intellectually challenging, high level mathematics may have no apparent practical value. And yet, as has been shown time and again over the centuries, it may offer real world insights as future applications are developed.

Mathematics is logical but logic can be mind bending.

“This statement is false”

So many of the chapters were fascinating to read, even those whose concepts I couldn’t fully comprehend.

It was fun trying to work out why certain, apparently random objects are included in the many colourful illustrations that accompany the text. This was just one entertaining puzzle in a book that provides insights into works of genius that have laid the foundations of so many discoveries and inventions.

Mathematics is an ever evolving discipline and it is exciting to know there is still so much remaining to learn.

The congenial structure and explanations provided in this book allow the reader to appreciate how important mathematics is to a wider understanding of our world and the developments we now rely on. Readers will value the tenacity of mathematicians through the ages when they realise the impact their work has had.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Modern Books.

Book Review: Beautiful Place

“Luck didn’t make you feel lucky. Being saved didn’t make you feel safe.”

This book just didn’t do it for me. It happens. No reader is going to enjoy every title they pick up. Beautiful Place is big – well over five hundred pages – so it was disappointing that my personal reading experience was largely one of frustration. I will try to explain.

The story opens by introducing the protagonist, Padma, a young woman who has returned to the luxurious villa she grew up in with her adoptive father, Gerhardt. In many ways Padma’s upbringing has been typical of the children of wealthy Sri Lankans. She is well educated, although repeatedly failed her university exams. Where Padma differs from her peers is her beginnings. Her birth father, Sunny, sold her to Gerhardt when she was nine years old, fully expecting him to use her in heinous ways. Instead, Gerhardt legally adopted the frightened young girl and treated her as a good father should. He bribed Sunny to stay away.

Gerhardt is an Austrian architect who has built a solid and respected international reputation for his work over many years. He designed the villa in rural Sri Lanka that became Padma’s haven. When she returned from Columbo – where she had been living with Ruth, a long time friend of Gerhardt’s, while attending university – she asked Gerhardt, now living in a nearby property, if she could open rooms within their villa to up-market paying guests. Ever eager to support his beloved daughter, Gerhardt arranged for two small bungalows to be built in the grounds of the villa and offered them to Padma as the basis for her fledgling hospitality business.

Padma’s first guest is a young man named Rohan who is escaping the fallout from a distressing court case. He arrives with a heavy suitcase and an air of guilt and suspicion. From this inauspicious start the pair are drawn together. The villa’s chef, Soma, is unimpressed by Rohan but remains loyal to Gerhardt’s wish that Padma be protected and supported in her venture.

Sunny remains a local hoodlum. His success and influence appear to have increased over the years. He wishes to continue to profit from Padma. Despite her knowledge of his twisted hatred and ingrained greed, she believes herself strong and clever enough to resist his machinations. She agrees to visit her birth parents when told her mother, Leela, is ill.

The setting, Sri Lanka, is key. There are many rich descriptions of its natural beauty. The people, however, are largely grasping and resentful. Parents remain determined to control their offspring and arrange marriages that will not just be socially acceptable but also lucrative for the family. Small business owners take every opportunity to fleece tourists and damage competitors. The lane leading from Padma’s villa is lined by bars and brothels – and the pay by the hour guest houses their clientele frequent. All residents must buy protection in cash or favours. Connections to powerful leaders bring with them impunity.

“Sri Lankans had always fought each other, she argued; peace was not in the Sri Lankan’s nature and the social inclusion he strove for was a Western liberal fantasy.”

Padma brings down trouble on herself by acting foolishly. She is described as attractive in looks and demeanour. Her behaviour too often made little sense. The device of her guest house allows for a rolling cast of characters whose actions and reactions demonstrate the malignancy of control – the desire for power over others – both within families and throughout the country. Parents sow seeds of mistrust and hatred in the younger generation who have been raised to cede to demands made of them – thus secrecy is endemic. The parents, even loving ones, are wary of any signs of independent thinking.

This beautiful country is populated by natives who are riven by their history but joined in their desire to make money from the visiting foreigners whose habits they service yet bitterly resent. Women in particular are depicted as powerless – although they find ways to exert influence amongst family and friends. Each of the characters desires what they regard as others’ freedoms. Love is portrayed as restricting.

I struggled through the first half of the book before momentum finally picked up and the story became more compelling. The final hundred or so pages again lost my interest. For supposedly clever people, the main characters appear to court obvious and avoidable dangers. The denouement was tidy and without schmaltz but felt a long time getting there.

The narrative is lecturing in style as opinions are dissected. Plot threads felt thin and lacking depth – there to enable discourse rather than provide entertainment. As well as frustrating I found the story depressing and will now add Sri Lanka to the list of countries I have no wish to ever visit.

I am perplexed as to why those with the means to leave would choose to stay in such a place. Of course, controlling families who try to guilt trip their offspring exist the world over – while their wishes are tolerated this will not change. Beautiful Place is not a novel that engenders feelings of hope in human attitude or behaviour. My hope is that other readers glean more from this book than I managed.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Book Review: A Woman in the Polar Night

A Woman in the Polar Night, by Christiane Ritter (translated by Jane Degras), is a memoir of the author’s year spent living with her husband, Hermann, and another hunter, Karl Nicholaisen, in a small hut on the coast of Grey Hook. This is a barren, stony flatland sticking out into the Arctic Ocean between Woodfjord and Wijdefjord on the north coast of Spitsbergen. Hermann often spent months in this part of the world where he would trap foxes and bears for food and the animal’s valuable pelts. Christiane joined him in the summer of 1934, just as Hitler was consolidating his power in Germany. Experiencing life in the Arctic changed her views on European values and concerns. The daily struggle to stay alive and the need to work with nature had a profound impact on the wealthy Austrian housewife who had left her teenage daughter behind to partake in this adventure.

The story opens with some background. Hermann had previously spent three winters in the Arctic as a trapper, gathering scientific information on the region. In letters and other written correspondence he encouraged his wife to join him, promising her a boudoir in the hut he would take in Spitsbergen. Eventually Hermann’s diaries persuaded Christiane that she could spend a comfortable and interesting winter relaxing, reading books and admiring the landscape. She set out on a ship from Hamburg with more luggage than Hermann had advised.

Arriving in the Arctic Christianne is met by her husband and they continue their journey on a small steamer. Also on board is Karl. The author learns for the first time that he will be living with them.

“We shake hands and smile at each other. We cannot do any more because Karl does not speak German and I do not speak Norwegian.”

Twenty-four hours later they arrive at Grey Hook and disembark. The hut they will be staying in is tiny but Karl and Hermann are delighted with it. A small ante-room leads to the interior containing bunks, a table and a damaged, smoky stove. The promised boudoir has not yet been built.

“I had imagined Spitsbergen otherwise.”

“I have to put it to myself as a hard geographical fact, how alone we are up here. Nobody as far as the north pole, nobody across the sea until Novaya Zemlya, and nobody for three hundred miles southward…”

The following year is covered in journal style, written mainly in the present tense. Thus the reader experiences the evolving situation as events occur. With no choice but to accept what she has taken on, Christiane observes her husband’s behaviour – so different to how he acts when at his family estate in Austria.

“I am amazed at my husband who seems to have quite forgotten how a European woman is accustomed to live. He seems to take it completely for granted that I will feel quite at home in this wretched hut, with beasts of prey for company. Anyhow, his way of introducing me to the wilderness does not seem very considerate.”

As well as contending with the beast of a smoky stove, Christiane must spend periods alone while the men go off to hunt. It is on one such occasion that she experiences her first Arctic storm and the hut is buried under snow. The elemental dangers and severely limited food supplies are recurring challenges. Added to these is the need to cope psychologically. The men have developed a stoicism that Christiane must cultivate. She has heard tales of women who have lost their minds in such circumstances and Karl fully expects her to be similarly afflicted.

As the never ending summer daylight leaves them, and the constant darkness of the winter months descends, Christiane must find routines to keep her from despair. Gradually she comes to appreciate the attraction of the region – its terrible beauty and man’s insignificance. Anxieties revolve around basic survival. It is only the essentials for life that have true value.

“Humanity has lost itself in the unnatural and in speculation. Only now do I grasp the real meaning and the world-transforming element in the saying: “Become as the peasants, understand the sacredness of the earth.”

The author writes of the cold, the soot from the stove, the lack of meat and other food supplies. She must learn to deal with damp sleeping bags, mildewed bedding and the necessary mending of worn out clothes. Christiane’s day to day role is as housewife, although she writes movingly of the bleak landscape that she eventually comes to appreciate. This is fine travel writing and nature writing as well as memoir.

As an explanation of why anyone would choose to live in the Arctic I remain perplexed. If man’s place in nature is understood by the author and the hunters then why can’t they leave the native creatures they encounter alone in their environment? Why stay?

Occasional artistic pencil sketches add to the imagery of the prose, although the polar bear depiction is distressing if evocative. The book is concluded with photographs taken of Hermann and Christiane and the hut at Grey Hook that brings home how basic it was.

 

An interesting and well written memoir that vividly portrays life in an extreme and inhospitable place. Despite being baffled as to why anyone would choose such a risky and invasive lifestyle, the tale enables the reader to appreciate how beautiful and balanced anywhere could be – if left to nature.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: The Faculty of Indifference

The Faculty of Indifference, by Guy Ware, drew me in from the start but couldn’t always hold my full attention. The story has various strands, as stories do, and some were more compelling than others. I persevered and was glad I did despite particular sections failing to engage.

The protagonist of the story, Robert Exley, does not work for an insurance company, although this is what his employer instructs him to say if asked by outsiders. Instead he jokes that if he answered the question he would have to kill the inquirer. He has also been known to say this to his seventeen year old son, Stephen, who asks him each evening, “How was it today?” This started as a joke because Stephen felt he had taken on the role of wife in their household of two, cooking dinner and deciding what shopping would be needed. Robert’s wife – Stephen’s mother – died when the boy was a toddler. Robert has never sought to replace her.

People die, this is inevitable. When Robert was twenty his father killed himself, although by then the older man had been living away from his wife and son for many years. Like Robert, his father worked for the Faculty – Robert’s wife, Mary, had worked there as well. Robert had recruited her and she had become a rising star despite her frowned upon choice to have children.

Mary had spoken to Robert about the importance of cultivating indifference. On a bad day at work – as a result, perhaps, of failing to instigate action – many people could be killed. Such incidents must be lived with.

Robert’s role is to ensure that nothing happens. He is given files on suspects and may order surveillance and intervention. In a city the size of London it is not possible to watch every potential terrorist. Those working for the Faculty must make choices based on disparate facts and occasional observation. They must never talk about what they do.

The story covers the years just before and after Stephen attends university. Like his mother, he is interested in philosophy. He keeps a journal that he writes in code and that his father takes to work to be deciphered. They never mention this strange form of communication. They rarely talk about anything of import.

As well as the events that make up Robert’s days, chapters detail the contents of Stephen’s journal. Working for the government intelligence services brings with it suspicion and a need for secrecy. The interlinked webs of truth and fiction can be a challenge to differentiate.

Stephen is interested in his paternal grandfather and writes about the man’s life, even though the details he has been told are limited. I found these sections of the story slow to read although they prove notable later.

Robert’s days are of more interest until he is assigned a task dealing with a prisoner and a game of Go commences. The convoluted threads then slowly come together. The reader must decide which moves have been feints.

Key elements in the story are the importance of past and future to the present. Death hovers in the background and Robert appears to almost look forward to his. Stephen has also shown an interest yet Robert refuses to confront how his son is feeling.

“His argument concerned only the prolongation of an intolerable present for fear of – in the certainty of – an even more intolerable future. When you reduced life to that dilemma, was it possible to remain indifferent? Was one forced to live as if life might not be intolerable, forced to hope that it might even be improved?”

The denouement is something of a monkey puzzle with plenty to chew over but an undercurrent of melancholy. Stephen and Robert’s story may finish but the work of the intelligence services remains.

A story of grief and its many facets, of abandonment and strategies for self-preservation. This was a complex and not always comfortable read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Book Review: The Lighthouse

“He turns, gazing back at the path of trampled grass along which he has come. Considering retracing his steps, he wonders about all the points along the way at which he might have made a mistake, missed a turning, lost in thought.”

The protagonist of The Lighthouse is a middle aged man named Futh who has recently separated from his wife, Angela. It is set over the course of a week during which he is taking what he hopes will be a restorative walking holiday in Germany. Opening on the ferry in which he travels from his home in England, the reader is quickly appraised of events that have shaped Futh’s life to date. His mother left him and his father when he was a child and he has not heard from her since. His father has always been bad tempered and Futh learned to tread carefully or keep his distance. After his mother left, Futh turned for comfort to a neighbour, Gloria, whose marriage had also broken down. Gloria’s son, Kenny, did not appreciate the attention his mother offered his classmate. The boys had little in common other than proximity and age.

Futh has booked into a different hotel each night along his planned walking route, arranging for his luggage to be transported ahead of him during each day. The first hotel is in the town of Hellhaus, run by a married couple, Ester and Bernard. Ester is a faded beauty who seeks attention through infidelity with guests. She accepts the punishments Bernard metes out for this behaviour.

As Futh travels he recalls the days just prior to his mother’s departure. He remembers the evenings spent with Gloria and his failed friendship with Kenny. Futh had a schoolboy crush on Angela but only later managed to attract her attention. She would grow irritated when he mentioned any aspect of her behaviour that reminded him of his mother. She berated Futh for what she regarded as his failings, wanting him to be more practical, like Kenny.

Futh works for a company that produces the chemical scents added to products to make them smell of the more natural essence they claim to contain – coffee bean scent added to instant coffee or flower scent added to perfume. He is attuned to smells and the memories they evoke, the people he has wanted to matter to. His mother smelled of violets, her clothes of camphor. Baked goods remind him of food she would make – of the time when she paid him attention.

The story winds itself around Futh as he stoically walks from hotel to hotel, the journey not always progressing as planned and anticipated. There are also threads exploring Ester’s background and her behaviour back at Hellhaus, where Futh will spend his final night. The reader knows that a crisis is brewing.

The author writes in taut, understated prose that is impressive in how much it conveys through brief scenes and fragmented memory. There are cracks in Futh’s life through which glimpses are offered of events he suppresses. There is a yearning for something lost that may never have existed.

I am impressed that such depth of plot and character development can be achieved in a novel of less than two hundred pages. This is a fantastic read and one that lingers well beyond the final page.

The Lighthouse is published by Salt.

Book Review: Mud

Mud, by Chris McCabe, is billed as a re-imagining of the Ancient Greek myth of Orpheus & Eurydice, set in contemporary London. Its protagonists are Borak, a failed wizard, and his girlfriend Karissa. When the tale opens they are breaking up having tried living together. To mark their separation Borak asks Karissa to go down with him into the mud, of which he tells her there are twenty-four kinds. They must seek a cube of air and let it out, then they may leave each other forever.

Obviously this is a weird request. To add to the strangeness, Borak wishes to make a film of their journey and has funding for the small crew needed. Karissa agrees to take part and tells her friend Brisa, who may have been more concerned had she not been worrying about a potential date. Watching Borak and Karissa’s love fall apart has made Brisa feel lonely.

The team set out to find the different types of mud. They film on Hampstead Heath and in Wales. They follow tracks that sink into the earth with mud rising to either side. Eventually they go underground and disappear within caves and tunnels that exist beneath tree roots and collapsing graves.

Brisa grows worried about her missing friend. She starts digging for clues, seeking her whereabouts, following voices she hears. She is pleased when her new boyfriend offers to help.

The story plays out in various forms: dialogue, emails, cutouts, and narrative sections. There are descriptions of mud in its various guises. There are strange similes.

“Leaves blew back down the heath like live-fried fish.”

“Brisa’s mind filled up on anxiety like a cat carrier thrown out to sea.”

Recurring items and characters appear in disparate scenes. The Postlude (The Head of Orpheus, Still Singing) is a quick fire rap type dialogue filled with pop culture references.

This playing around with sense and composition can be disorientating to read. The language and flow are not difficult and the story remains somehow compelling but the threads wander at will in directions it can be a challenge to comprehend. For example, a mole appears dressed in a suit and acts as compère for one of Borak’s magic tricks. I remain unclear how this should be interpreted.

As long time followers will know, I enjoy reading literature that pushes boundaries. Mud feels playful and is undoubtedly witty but I wonder if it is perhaps a tad esoteric.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Henningham Family Press.