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Midge Raymond – My Last Continent

Book Cover

Some have check-lists. Others just a particular passion.

Publisher: Text Publishing
Pages: 306
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-925-35548-2
First Published: 21st June 2016
Date Reviewed: 4th July 2016
Rating: 4/5

Deb works as a naturalist. She’s rarely at home, instead spending most of her time studying penguins and teaching tourists, travelling to Antarctica and spending nights there. On one such trip she met Keller, an ex-lawyer who had signed up as a dishwasher in a bid to get to the coldest continent; he had persuaded her to let him tag along on explorations. Speaking now of the past, Deb interweaves these stories with the one in which a cruise ship has veered too close to the ice – a ship Keller happened to be on at the time.

My Last Continent is an oft-epic tale of Antarctic exploration, the damage of tourism to that environment and the effects of very real dangers, complimented by an at times very moving love story.

Dealing with the storytelling first, the story jumps this way and that way in time – the only constant is that you know you’ll be heading back to the story of the ship wreck and that that story will command the end section of the book. The structure means you know a disaster will happen – the ‘present day’ chapters, for want of a better term, are labelled in terms of days before the tragedy and the rest of the chapters move about on a very flexible time scale, any when from ‘six months until shipwreck’ to ‘twenty years before shipwreck’. This means that it’s difficult to get a sense of where exactly you are in time because the structure is so jumpy, but it’s not a loss overall. Yes, you may be confused by, for example, Deb mentioning Dennis in a particular chapter when you’d thought he’d not arrived in her life by that time, but as the main event is that shipwreck, it’s not much to worry about.

As you know how the book will end (you know what’s happened to Deb and Keller before Keller is introduced in person) this book’s romantic element is focused more on the journey than any result. This works in Raymond’s favour; whilst you as the reader may feel you can pull back somewhat from being enveloped, knowing how it will end and that you’re reading of Keller in the past also means that Raymond can throw caution to the wind. Would Deb and Keller’s story sound, yes, sad, but also too… mushy… in another book? Perhaps. But here it works. That’s not to say we’ve Titanic – Jack and Rose – levels of romance, because we haven’t. Raymond’s dedication to the research element of her story, and her non-tourist characters’ dedication to their work, has a very grounding affect on the romance.

Let’s look at Raymond’s dedication to the facts – in My Last Continent we have a book that sports a lot of info-dumping, but in this case the result can be considered a unicorn, that word now used as much to describe things that are miraculously unique as much as it describes a mythical animal. When you consider fiction normally, info-dumping is bad because it tells us things we could work out on our own – just tell us the basic details, we can add the dining room and picket fence all on our own. We know how people eat, sleep, bathe. But as Raymond is talking about Antarctica all bets are off – how many readers have been to Antarctica? It’s a case of knowing Raymond has info-dumped but truly being able to gloss over it because it’s interesting. We need the world building. (This said there are a couple of conversations that push it a bit too far, conversations that are obvious devices, that could have done with a rewrite.)

The information serves a second purpose. Beyond helping you form a not-so-stereotypical image in your head, Raymond is concerned about conservation and the impact human exploration has on the wildlife and climate of Antarctica. She doesn’t preach – what she does most is to show the effects. Her story, which effectively casts you, the reader, as a passenger on the journey along with the fictional tourists who will come to be aware of the problems. Sometimes you’ll know about the problems because Deb’s talked about them, other times your ever-expanding knowledge will clue you in itself. So this means that you are reading a work that sits on the fence between fact and fiction and is obviously heavily tuned towards teaching, but this lesson doesn’t over-burden. And that’s all down to Raymond’s crafting of the romance.

Raymond doesn’t draw too many lines. Whilst she points out that tourism is a problem, her tourist characters are mostly people who want to help, through their discovery of the problems en route. Many characters are there to show how dangerous the continent can be. As much as tourism is a problem, she says in subtext, these explorers are here and whilst they’re studying they aren’t immune from that label themselves.

In reading My Last Continent you’re signing up for a romance in snow that’s anything but a winter wonderland. You’re signing up to a book that’s not quite fiction. You’re signing up for a book that’s not a relaxing read. You’re here to learn. But for all that you get an excellent introduction to Antarctica, a fast-paced story, a good romance, and knowledge you can take with you beyond the last pages.

I received this book for review from FMCM Associates.

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Reading Cause And Effect: Orkney, Neolithic History, And Faroese Literature

A photograph of Skara Brae

Reading Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, I went on one of those rabbit hole reading sprees, so far that when I clicked back from a tab to one of the other many tabs I’d opened, I couldn’t remember how it was related. Then I did remember; I’m recording some of those tentatively-related findings here, too.

Orkney has a lot of Neolithic history to it. There are tombs and homes and a big tourist attraction on the ‘mainland’, Skara Brae, a settlement under the earth made of stones. A lot still remains and there are even items of stone furniture. Coastal erosion in Britain means Skara Brase is now very close to the shore (one hopes it can somehow be saved) but at the time of use it would’ve been fairly inland.

Along with a bit more astronomy, which I won’t detail as I’ve already covered the subject in another post, was fata morgana. Named after the legendary witch, fata morgana is a sort of cloud phenomenon wherein reality is reflected wrongly on the horizon. It changes the look of boats, sometimes making them look airborne, other times making them longer than they are. The blurry mirage changes over a short period of time.

A photograph of a fata morgana

My rabbit hole discovery started with a lack of geographical knowledge – I knew the Orkneys were above Scotland but where were they exactly? Once I’d read enough of Liptrot’s book to have the location to pat (below the Shetlands, not to the west – that’s Skye), and to have learned some of the names (‘mainland’ – capital: Kirkwell – Papay Westray, Stronsay, North Ronaldsay), I started to wonder about the islands more… northerly. Beyond, or above, however it should be termed, the Shetlands, come the Faroe Islands.

The Islands are more populated than the Shetlands and are considered part of Denmark. I liked the photographs of the cities and towns but what interested me most was the article on Faroese literature. The islands have been populated for centuries so stories are not new. In medieval times stories were passed down orally; traditional songs were finally written down in the 1800s.

Faroese literature, in the way we use ‘literature’ now, has been around for the last 100-200 years, which Wikipedia says is down both to the isolation of the islands and to the local language not being standardised until 1890. As with many tales of history, the ruling country’s language was promoted more. The Wikipedia page is quite something, have a look at the chronology!

Of the Danish-language contingent, famous authors include one William Heinesen who wrote a book called The Black Cauldron – from what I’ve read it seems the most likely of his works to be recognised overseas. Looking at Heinesen, who was born at the turn of the nineteenth century and lived to 91, we have someone who wrote about the capital of Faroe, Tórshavn, and placed it at the heart of his work. He wrote about destruction and creativity, about contrasts. Britannica says, ‘he combined elements of tragedy, comedy, satire, allegory, and social criticism to explore such themes as the harshness of nature and the rights of the individual as opposed to the collective good’. He rejected his nomination for the Nobel Prize as he believed it would be better to give it to a Faroese writer who wrote in the language of the islands – “If it had been given to me, it would have gone to an author who writes in Danish, and in consequence Faroese efforts to create an independent culture would have been dealt a blow”. Considering he was restricted in his language choice at the time, having to write in Danish, I think it’s a particularly awesome gesture. (The Prize went to Elias Canetti, a Bulgarian Brit who wrote in German.) Heinesen’s house on Faroe has been turned into a museum; perhaps due to his relatively recent passing it remains largely unchanged.

Bárður Oskarsson, whose name has an accent in it I’ve never seen before but I hope I’ve rendered it correctly, is a children’s writer and illustrator from our present day. He started out as the illustrator for his grandfather’s children’s book which is pretty awesome, I reckon, and kept on illustrating for a while before starting to write himself. The New York Times called a recent release “a quietly profound new picture book… about the question of how to react to the death of a stranger”. From the image included and the dollar amount at the bottom, it would seem that contrary to the Wikipedia page, Oskarsson’s work is being translated into English. Of this book, The Flat Rabbit (or Flata Kaninin) Norden says “about ethics and responsibility in a sensitive and compelling way. The subject of the book is akin to Antigone and The Iliad and the challenge is to take care of the dead body of a loved one, even though there is great risk involved”.

Oskarsson’s most famous book is Ein Hundur, Ein Ketta Og Ein Mús, A Dog, A Cat, And A Mouse.

Heðin Brú is another writer with a fair backlist. Older that Oskarsson (Brú died in 1987), this writer is considered the most important of his generation. The Old Man And His Sons (Feðgar aacute; Ferð) is his most famous work, published in 1940 and translated into English in the 70s. Brú also worked as a translator, bringing to Faroe Shakespeare, Ibsen, Dostoevsky and Lindgren amongst others.

Teacher Marianna Debes Dahl has written novels and short stories but seems not to have released any work for some years now. Marjun Syderbø Kjelnæs has been pretty prolific, publishing 17 novels, short stories, and plays since 2000. She has collaborated with musician Eivør Pálsdóttir.

So of course after that I started reading about Faroese music; it was quite a lesson overall.

What have you learned lately because of reading?

Guest Post: Antarctica – Harsh Beauty in a Fragile Landscape

A photograph of a penguin in Antarctica

Midge Raymond’s book, The Last Continent, which I’ll be reviewing next week, is full of information about Antarctica that, reading her story as well as a couple of articles she had written (I like to research books when possible) led to questions. Chief of these is how Raymond came to know about Antarctica and why she chose to write about it. I’m happy to welcome her to talk on the subject today as an introduction before we get to the book itself. (Photographs courtesy of the author.)

My Last Continent was inspired by my own visit to Antarctica more than a decade ago, on a small expedition ship very much like the Cormorant in the novel. During the journey, two things stuck with me. One was the concern of the shipboard naturalists about the larger cruise ships, carrying thousands of passengers, that were venturing farther and farther south, which was troubling to them because if something were to happen to one of those ships, rescuers could be days away. Given the extreme weather conditions and the distance from hospitals, this is an incredible risk. So I began to wonder what a catastrophic shipwreck in this region would look like.

Penguin in Antarctica

The other thing that stuck with me was seeing a fellow passenger fall on the ice near a penguin colony. He got right up and was perfectly fine – but seeing this happen reinforced the notion that, at the bottom of the world, you are at the mercy of the conditions and of the few people who are with you.

And of course, the beauty of Antarctica and its wildlife affected me deeply, especially the penguins and their fight for survival as the climate warms. Due to warming oceans as well as over-fishing, penguins have to travel farther for food, which puts them at risk and also means that, during the breeding season, they may not make it back in time to feed their hungry chicks. The storms caused by climate change can also freeze eggs or drown young chicks who don’t have the insulation adult penguins do.

Among the many reasons I wrote My Last Continent was to show how much Antarctica needs our attention and protection. It’s an icy wonderland that is unlike any place else on the planet, and it needs humans to understand its importance and to ensure it doesn’t melt away.

Have you read any books set in/about Antarctica?

Midge Raymond

Midge Raymond’s previous work includes two books about becoming an author; she has also written short stories. Her twitter handle is @MidgeRaymond.

“Anyone Who Claims Not To Like Reading Just Hasn’t Found The Right Book Yet”

A photograph of a pile of books

I found this exact phrasing here, though of course it’s a well-known thought. Slightly controversial, too. I thought we could have a discussion.

(Speaking of the particular phrasing, the word ‘claims’ suggests the person can’t believe it. This is also the case with ‘just’ and ‘yet’ – it’ll happen eventually for the hypothetical non-reader; they’ll start reading at some point.)

My thought is that it’s easy for a reader to say such a thing because it’s their (and my, your) hobby. It can be hard to see why others dislike it. Personally, whilst I do see both sides I must admit that I once found it difficult to be friends with a person who said they had never read a book. Ever. Admittedly – again – this person and I just weren’t suited overall but the idea they’d never tried to read a book was hard for me to get my head around. I’m not sure I believed they’d truly never read a book, ever, but on that occasion, at least, it proved a deal breaker. At that point in my life, my teen years, I could be friends with someone who wasn’t a reader but a person who had never read a book at all and had no plans to change that was a bit too foreign.

But, this said, as said, I see both sides. The case for it not being true – that a person just hasn’t found the right book – is simple. Reading is an activity like any other. Some like it, some don’t. And I think in the majority of cases, when a person says they don’t like reading, it’s the physical act they’re referring to. The silence, the solitude, maybe the form of the written word itself. The person on the other end of this statement, the reader, is baffled because they’re thinking more of the escape and stories. Readers like the physical act but the most pervasive part is surely the story. And the most pervasive reason to not be a reader is surely dislike of the physical act. tories are like films. Many who don’t like reading do like films, or plays, or music, or games.

A person might not be good at reading, therefore they dislike it. To read would be to slog, a chore when they could be doing something fun. This brings us to the other side of the argument, that the statement is true – there’s such a range of books out there; genre, age, reading level. We could say a person who doesn’t like reading because they find it hard just hasn’t found a book at their level… but then if the person is dyslexic, for example, that might mean a book with a story too young for their age.

Audiobooks? Not all readers listen (I rarely do), so we couldn’t exactly give credence to that as an option; same with graphic novels.

It really depends. We can’t just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but we can’t discount the possibility that there’s a book out there for everyone. It’s one of those per person deals – it depends on personal situations.

I disagree with the statement myself because reading, whilst lauded and important, is a hobby – at least in the context of the statement. And the fact it’s deemed unnecessary (when placed against food, water, shelter) puts some people off.

Your thoughts?

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen – One Night, Markovitch

Book Cover

History, war… and humour?

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 365
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27163-5
First Published: 2012; 15th June 2015 in English
Date Reviewed: 27th May 2016
Rating: 5/5

Original language: Hebrew
Original title: לילה אחד, מרקוביץ (Markovitch, Layla Echad) (Markovitch, One Night)
Translated by: Sondra Silverston

Yaacov Markovitch has an unremarkable face. No one really notices him. His friend, Zeev Feinberg has an amazing moustache that everyone knows about. The friends enlist in a programme designed to rescue Jewish women from Germany, to bring them back to the homeland and whilst Zeev has no issues with the idea of divorcing a wife – he has a girlfriend who smells of oranges – Yaacov finds himself married to the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen, a woman who wants nothing to do with him and will ignore him in the years that follow.

One Night, Markovitch is a funny yet poignant book (‘poignant’ is on the cover; it’s perfect) about all sorts of things related to the self as well as war and the effects of it on people’s lives. It’s one of those books that is solid throughout and very special.

The humour is mostly laugh out loud and very well timed – never too much, never something you forget. The book is peppered yet it would be difficult to label it a complete comedy because it’s anything but stereotypical. I’m going to have to share a quote:

“Are you excited about the journey to Palestine?”
That she would be excited about their marriage was something he dared not expect, but he hoped that the excitement she felt at the proximity of the Holy Land would project a bit onto the means of her reaching it, that is, onto him.
“Definitely. I’ve read a great deal about the oranges.”
Here Bella Zeigerman stopped speaking, and Yaacov Markovitch decided happily that his wife, like him, was a fan of agricultural literature. On the narrow, crowded bookshelf in his house in the village, next to the writings of Jabotinsky, stood all sorts of guides – the mother of wheat and how to improve species, how to plough and plant grain, how to graft a tree without causing pain. Bella Zeigerman knew how to recite Gothe, but it is doubtful that she would be able to memorize, with the same degree of success, the list of insects that threaten to destroy grapevines. When she mentioned oranges, it was because she recalled a line from the Hebrew poet’s poem [she is in love with his work] that had been published in the newspaper.

Humour is found in Sonya’s eyes, which are a couple of millimetres too far apart to be pleasing. It’s found in the way she stands on the shore yelling curses at the long-gone Zeev Feinberg who will return in time. It’s found in Zeev Feinberg’s moustache. And it’s found in some of the ‘lad-ish’ humour – this is in no way a women’s fiction book.

For a while it’s simply history and humour and then there comes a point where the mood is more sombre, the humour sensitive, almost, and whilst it’s not quite that because the story turns ‘sensitive’ on its head, whilst the war trickles in from the beginning, there is a turning point wherein it becomes the focus.

Gundar-Goshen mixes in some politics. The book deals with the beginnings of WWII, its situation for German Jews, whilst also dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which the Jews, their people persecuted in Germany, are in turn persecuting Arabs. Yes, it’s quite a bold statement. German Jews are fleeing Berlin before the major onslaught and in Israel, their ancestral land, they are in a good place. Gundar-Goshen does not say anything directly about the issues, the conflict betweens these conflicts, but there’s a flicker of an opinion.

This isn’t to say the wars are particularly detailed, however. For the most part they are in the background – Zeev Feinberg held an Arab by the throat today but now we’re seeing him at home with his children. The subtext is key. It spills out of the text – this conflict is everyday, a regular happening, and it’s in the ‘minor’ details like Zeev’s day that we see the horror of it.

Amongst this is the shock. It hits a few characters, informs their lives, but one in particular is commented on – Rachel Mandelblum. When in Germany – which she left for Israel, promptly ceasing to speak German, adopting Hebrew instead – Rachel experienced the horror of a murder, a skull being cracked. She can not escape the sound, it haunts her every day. Gundar-Goshen blends this specific horror into the humour of Rachel’s present situation, her pretending not to understand German, being not unhappy but no more than content living with the random butcher who proposed marriage when he saw her in the street. (She had no reason not to agree so she followed him home and had his child.)

The naming, whether cultural or not I’m not sure, is in a first-name-surname form every time. Rather than simply filling pages, it adds to the humour, though I can’t say why exactly.

The translation bares a strong sense of being true to the original. It’s an American translation, definite western words that are most certainly the choices of the translator rather than a choice based on how the text reads, but it’s by no means a bad text. It flows, it translates jokes into a western context for English speakers to understand… you know you’ve got a good translation when it doesn’t stand out.

The ending’s an interesting one for the way Gundar-Goshen refers to the audience, breaking the fourth wall (though there is, throughout, a feeling of that anyway) saying that, hey, she’s about to jump in time, but this is what happened in the interim she’s skipping, and it isn’t much, and this is why she’s had to do it, and so on. There are many books that jump in time for no reason – Gundar-Goshen’s explanation is a blessing.

One Night, Markovitch is superb. It’s fun, it’s serious with good reason and to good effect – it’s just a solid book all round.

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