Raymond Carver, Cathedral (1983), Vintage Classics, 2009
Within the seeming mundanity of domestic life, Carver exposes the tragic, the lifechanging and the forging and loosening of friendships and family ties. Whilst revealing tensions between husband and wife the titular story describes the possibility for the awakening of empathy and the creation of common bonds which here are played out between a sighted and a blind man. Together, they draw a cathedral, the blind man feeling the movements of the sighted man’s hand as they trace an outline on paper, envisaging the cathedral the blind man will never see.
Ruth Ozeki, The Book of Form and Emptiness, Canongate Books, 2022.
This is the story of a boy, Benny Oh, his mother and his jazz musician father whose death at the beginning of the novel is the catalyst for the manifestation of Benny’s neurodivergency and the appearance of the book whose voice is the dominant narrator in this polyphonic novel. The book asserts that every boy has a story to tell which encompasses the stories of each thing in our material world, so that for a time, Benny is not able to distinguish between human consciousness and material matter. This is above all a story of the interdependence of things, the importance of books and language in a digital age and the multivalence of experience as opposed to a singular normative relationship with the world.
Magdalena Tulli, Stones and Dreams (1995), translated by Bill Johnstone, Archipelago Books, 2004.
Within tightly controlled order, the capacity remains for chaos. Possibilities exists within earthbound cycles of growth and decay, where the things that flourish eventually fall and rot, are excavated, are transmuted and re-materialised. Buildings are resurrected stone by stone; a palace of culture rises from the ruins dominating a city where imagination has become impoverished by regimentation. Worlds are created, destroyed, and rise again. The river is a constant that keeps on flowing.
Irmgard Keun, Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart (1950), translated by Michael Hofmann, Penguin Modern Classics, 2021.
In the year when Germany was divided into East and West, open-hearted cynic Ferdinand, mistaken for an illustrious writer is commissioned to write articles by the editor of the Red Dawn. As he moves through the bombed-out city of Cologne, seeking inspiration, he encounters a cast of chaotic characters: Joanna who swops a potential husband for a radio, the black-marketeer who treats his clients’ troubles with colour cards. Episodic encounters drift into each other, reflecting a society which is broken, mutable, resourceful, and where humour and celebration is wrung from the darkest of circumstances. A novel of and for extreme times.
Raymond Carver, Cathedral
Ruth Ozeki, The Book of Form and Emptiness
Magdalena Tulli, Stones and Dreams
Irmgard Keun, Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart
For younger readers
Siobhan Dowd, The Bog Child, David Fickling Books, 2015.
Set in the 1980’s during the time of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, this young adult novel opens with the discovery of a centuries-old body preserved in the sphagnum moss of a peat bog. As Fergus pieces together elements of their story he has to confront the domestic and political difficulties in his own life, coming to both a realisation and a reckoning.
Elmer Luke and David Karashima, Editors, March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown, Vintage Books, 2012.
Science fiction, manga, documentary and the tangential meet in this collection of short pieces which speak of the before and the after; the experience of the earthquake and tsunami; the small considerations for daily living in an irradiated zone; the transformations in people and landscapes brought about by natural and man-made disaster.
Karen Jennings, Away from the Dead, Holland Park Press, 2014.
Short stories set in South Africa in the mines and on farms and settlements tell of the bleak and hopeless lives of marginalised people in out of the way places. Rocks and heat, parched earth and dust, concrete shacks and the long road walked seeking work or a place to call home provide the framework for broken people in a broken country.
Joy Harjo, Stephen Strom, Secrets from the Center of the World, The University of Arizona Press, 1989.
Brief poetic texts coupled with Strom’s photographs of Navajo country describe a land where only the things that matter persist, enduring from one millennium to the next. Each tells stories the earth holds, in a place where all things merge: sky, time, creatures, rocks, the living and the dead.
Cal Flyn, Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape, William Collins, 2021
What happens to land which has been abandoned by humans and left to nature? Abandoned because of war, disaster, post-industrial legacy contamination, and changes in land use and economies, the author travels widely in search of places which humans have had to leave. Some are so deeply impacted by human activity, they can no longer support life, but others have thrived from the lack of human interference. From self-seeded ecosystems which have emerged on the spoil heaps of West Lothian, to Killifish of the dioxin-contaminated waters of Newark Bay, New Jersey, which have adapted to be 8,000 times more resistant to industrial pollutants, the stories of these sites show the remarkable ways in which nature has been able to adapt and reclaim in our absence, while also underscoring the devastating and lasting impact we have made on the land.
Leonard Cottrell, The Bull of Minos: The Great Discoveries of Ancient Greece (1953), Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2009.
Beginning with Cottrell’s own visit to Mycanae as he follows in the footsteps of the pioneering Victorian archaeologists, he traces the history of their discoveries and the shift from the inspiration of the Homeric myths to the early science of excavation. Beginning with Heinrich Schliemann’s dig at Troy and ending in the palace of King Minos in Crete, the stories piece together the exposure of artefacts and buildings preserved for centuries in the earth. Written in 1953, this is as revealing about the time of its writing as it is about the siege of Troy and the labyrinth of the minotaur.
Francis Ponge and Beverley Bie Brahic, Unfinished Ode to Mud, (1942, 1971), CB Editions, 2008
Each poem is an examination of the overlooked things in our material world: mud, a jug, the rain, an eiderdown, a pebble, a door. Minutely analysed the ‘mute world’ of things reveals as much about the writer as it does about the object, following Ponge’s train of thought, his play with sound and poetic rhythms, his own idiosyncratic perspective.
Italo Calvino, Collection of Sand: Essays (1984), translated by Martin McLaughlin, Penguin Modern Classics, 2013.
An ‘anthology of sands’ displayed in an exhibition comprising assemblages of the seemingly mundane and the extraordinary, is a fitting opening for these essays which collectively show Calvino’s interest in ‘“the sphere of relations” between men and things’. Written as succinct brief pieces, Calvino’s subjects range from Trajan’s column crumbling to dust and the Mexican temple returning to jungle, to imaginary worlds, maps and ancient graffiti.
Anne Michaels, The Winter Vault, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010.
The earth holds history and memories, it entombs the dead and gives succour to the living, it signals the fragility of life and our profound need to belong, to belong to a place and to those with whom we find affinity. ‘Nothing exists independently’, Michaels writes as she traces a story of love and loss, of absence and seeking, of building and dismantling, of stone and desert sand and the good black marsh soil in which Jean finds sanctuary and makes a garden.
Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red (1998), translated by Erdag Goknar, Faber & Faber, 2011.
It is the 1590s and the miniaturist Black has returned to Constantinople to help his uncle compile a sumptuous book for the Sultan to be illustrated in the European style, but following a murder, he finds himself an unwitting detective. Told from multiple perspectives including a dog, a tree, a coin, three other miniaturists, one of whom is the murderer, the corpse and the colour red, Pamuk creates a beguiling world of light and shade, of sumptuousness, intrigue, love, heresy, inflation, blinding and seeing; the world encapsulated as if in an illuminated painting which as the colour red announces ‘As I bring my colour to the page, it’s as if I command the world to ‘Be!’
George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, 1936.
Orwell lived in Wigan for three weeks and then in Leeds, Barnsley and Sheffield whilst researching for the book that would become The Road to Wigan Pier. He was commissioned by The Left Book Club to write about social and economic conditions amongst working class communities in the industrial north before WWII. With guidance from author Jack Hilton, Orwell made his way to Wigan, where he stayed in lodgings amongst miners and factory workers, ‘four squalid beds’ to a room. He then moved on to Yorkshire, keeping a diary of his time. The first part of the book he would eventually write chronicles the mining communities that he spent time in, describing dire housing and working conditions, and memorably detailing in Chapter Two Orwell’s own descent into one of the mines: ‘In the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil.’