“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.”

On her website, Mary Reynolds refers to herself as a “reformed landscape designer”. This Irish gardener, whose first Chelsea Show Garden won a gold medal in 2002 and introduced the general public to wilderness gardens, incorporates lots of dry-stacked stone, wildflower plantings, and spiral walls into designs that wouldn’t look out of place in The Shire. Her gardens have a distinctively Celtic flair. They involve a bit of whimsy and witchcraft — and are frequented by old gods and faerie folk.

The Garden Awakening: Designs to Nurture Our Land and Ourselves, was not what I expected. Coming fresh off of Penelope Lively’s book of essays, Life In the Garden, I was looking for more of the same… but perhaps with a little more practical information thrown in. And I suppose, in a sense, that is exactly what I got. But Reynolds employs a holistic approach to gardening, often using spiritual language when writing about nature. I had a hard time connecting with statements like the following —

… we are losing what few wild places we have left; those patches where the spirits of the earth are flowing freely, where harmony and balance still exist, and we feel accepted for the truth of who we are. We have strayed off course and need to find our way again.

Reynolds goes on to explain we need to invite Nature (always with a capital N) back into the garden, and “allow her to express her true self in these spaces and then work to heal the land”. And though I’ve taken some of her quotes out of their original context to give a sense of the overall romantic flavor of the prose, let’s be clear — Reynolds isn’t writing this way for poetic effect. She insists her clients sit in their garden and connect with the “life force in nature” prior to planning. She is adamant a gardener’s first responsibility is to heal the land and, in order to do this, we need to form a bond with it.

Land creates a bond with people who work with it. If this bond is formed and then the land is ignored, damage is sure to follow — the same as it would for a child. Today, much of the land feels forgotten. It has retreated into itself because we don’t believe in it or don’t notice it anymore. We only seem to take notice of uncultivated places, which have no bond with us and no need for us. These are what I call lost opportunities. Your land is like a member of your family. It can form a bond with you but it won’t unless you develop the relationship together. The quality of the relationship will determine the strength and quality of the bond.

It all sounds a little hippie-dippy, I know. But as I delved deeper into the book I found myself agreeing more and more with what Reynolds had to say. I now count myself among the converted.

More than just philosophy, The Garden Awakening contains a wealth of practical information on topics like cultivating a forest garden, an idea/version of gardening which was entirely new to me. This is an old form of agriculture which incorporates tree canopies into the garden design. It’s a garden built in layers, — the tall-tree layer, low-tree layer, shrub layer, herb layer, etc. This type of system allows you to create and control the microclimate of your little ecosystem to a certain extent, as well as encouraging fertility in the soil. And if you have a small garden, like me, and are wondering if it will work for you — I can attest from my own small experiments that it’s surprisingly scalable.

From Mary Reynolds’ website.

Reynolds has other surprises. There are, of course, the obligatory charts of plants and where best to use them. But she also gives advice on reintroducing microorganisms into your soil, creating swales for drainage and water conservation, using seed balls to plant, and — my personal favorite — building Hugelkultur raised beds. Hugelkultur is another agricultural system that, like most of the ideas Reynold’s advocates, is centuries old. And surprisingly simple. It involves mounding woody branches, twigs, and logs, then covering the mound with soil. You plant directly into/onto the mound. The slow decomposition of the wood underneath keeps the soil layer fertile for years. It’s a reportedly excellent method for growing vegetables. I’m thinking of attempting one next year.

And that’s the beauty of this book. It is filled with ideas that are easy and interesting. And directs the reader to additional resources. Reynolds peppers her explanations with the titles of books which influenced her – like the Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Gardening. It’s a name I was already vaguely familiar with: Fukuoka’s seedballs have inspired a generation of Gorilla Gardeners.

In the end, and despite a rocky start, The Garden Awakening has genuinely transformed my relationship with my own front and back yards. Mary Reynolds knows her stuff. There’s also a film – Dare To Be Wild – about the Chelsea show garden I mentioned at the beginning of this review. It looks like a silly romance rather than a documentary… but based on my experience with The Garden Awakening, it too might just be filled with surprises.

Title: The Garden Awakening - Designs to Nurture Our Land & Ourselves
Author: Mary Reynolds
Publisher: Green Books/UIT Cambridge Ltd. (Cambridge, 2016)
ISBN: 978-0857843135

Mr. Fix-It by Richard Ali A Mutu, translated by Bienvu Sene Mongaba

Title: Mr. Fix-It
Author: Richard Ali A Mutu
Translator: Bienvu Sene Mongaba
Publisher: Phoneme Media, Los Angeles (2017)
ISBN: 978 1 944700 07 2

Mr. Fix-It by Richard Ali A Mutu, a Congolese writer from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is a book I’m really excited about. It was originally written and published in Lingala, a language spoken by roughly 10 million people and almost exclusively in the DRC  and the Republic of Congo*.  The U.S. publisher, Phoneme Media, explained in an email that Mr. Fix-It was “put out by a publishing house based between Kinshasa and Brussels, run by Ali A Mutu’s translators.”  The house, Editions Mabiki, “publish textbooks used throughout the DRC, as well as a small number of fiction titles in both Lingala and French.” 

An excerpt from the novel (at 102 pages it’s really  more of a novella) was originally published in the anthology Africa39 in 2014. For those not familiar with the Africa39 project or its significance, it was “a partnership with Rainbow Book Club, celebrating Port Harcourt: UNESCO World Book Capital 2014 by identifying 39 of the most promising writers under the age of 40 with the potential and talent to define trends in the development of literature from Sub-Saharan Africa and the diaspora”.  For context: Chimamanda Ngoza Adichie is also a contributor to the Africa39 anthology.

The title Mr. Fix-It is a play on the hero’s name, Ebamba, which  means “Mender” in Lingala. A misnomer, as this young man is anything but. His is a story about love, betrayal and loss. Ebamba is a sad-sack protagonist in the style of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, and while much of what happens to him is beyond his control, if there is a bad decision to be made it seems likely he will be the one to make it.

The book opens with a dowry negotiation during which the bride’s mercenary family recites an ever-growing and ever more expensive list of demands. When Ebamba’s uncle (who is negotiating on behalf of his nephew) attempts to interject he is immediately cut off.

“But…”

“But, but… What are you arguing for? Are we going to haggle over this? Is this the market?”

“No, but…”

“What do you mean, ‘no but’? You have a problem with this? We aren’t even finished yet. The girl’s uncles haven’t spoken, or her mom. Her older brothers and sisters have yet to state their demands…”

Eyenga, the fiance, also attempts to protest the mercantile treatment of her potential marriage. But to no avail. Her mother explains that when she was young “they only asked for salt and some kola nut. It was the good old days when we lived according to the traditions of old. Now things have changed. When you have a daughter, you have a readymade treasure…” 

As bad as the situation is for the couple, it’s hard not to laugh at the machinations of their friends, relatives and neighbors. Ali A Mutu balances humor against hard truths about the economic situation for young people like Ebamba and Eyenga, caught in a world transitioning from tradition to Capitalism. Jobs in Kinshasa are hard to come by and so, despite being intelligent and well-educated, Ebamba is unemployed.  There is no hope of his fulfilling Eyenga’s family’s list of goods. He is past due on his rent and avoids homelessness only because his landlady has decided he will make the perfect husband for her daughter, Maguy. Maguy wholeheartedly agrees with her mother and initiates a campaign of seduction Ebamba is too weak to resist for long. It all ends in tragedy, to absolutely no one’s surprise.

Ali A Mutu has a gift for writing funny, back-and-forth banter and takes full advantage of that talent. Mr. Fix-It reads like a genre novel, though it’s a genre I’ve never encountered. A rom-tragi-com, perhaps? Whatever it is, it’s entertaining as hell and goes by much too fast.
Mid-way through the most wonderful thing happens. Ebamba and Eyenga go on a date, and while sitting at a bar begin to sing to each other. For nine pages, Ali A Mutu transcribes the lyrics to Cheval by the Congolese Soukus (a type of dance music) singer Koffi olomide.  A little digging turned up this video on YouTube. It’s a duet, and the singers have beautiful voices… I recommend giving it a listen.  

 

 

Cheval is just one example of the many ways which Mr. Fix-It feels like it’s been written for a local audience. In some ways it reminds me of Alain Mabanckou’s work, though less cosmopolitan in scope. Ebamba’s trials and travails call to mind the journey of the hero of Black Bazaarin particular, perhaps because both men write with humor and empathy about their characters’ attempts at navigating relationships. But, despite some similarities of spirit, Richard Ali A Mutu’s prose remains distinctly and uniquely his own. Uncluttered by preoccupations with style and concerned only with serving the story, it’s easy to imagine Mr. Fix-It as a graphic novel.

These are exciting times for readers interested in contemporary African fiction. Writers like Fiston Mwanza Mujila (Democratic Republic of Congo), Wilfried N’Sondé (Republic of Congo), Naivo (Madagascar), Ondjaki (Angola), Amir Taj Al-Sir (Sudan) and the aforementioned Alain Mabanckou (Republic of Congo) are all available in English and can be easily found online. All thanks to the work and dedication of small university and independent presses.

 

 

*For context: There currently 570 million Spanish speakers, 300-400 million English speakers, and 1.2 billion native Chinese speakers. The population of North Carolina is estimated at 10,273,419 people.

 

 

 

Book Criticism: The Great Migration?

I’ve been thinking about book reviews and criticism. Back in May I was in the audience for a panel held during Book Expo of America (BEA) called The Crisis In Reviewing, Disappearing Space and Disappearing Pay.  Whenever a panel is listed at a conference or festival I’m attending on this general topic I always make an effort to sit in… because I love books, I love book criticism and I love panels. But, as a whole, these tend to be rather depressing affairs which focus on the past and bemoan the present.

Regardless of the name they almost always touch upon the same key points:

  • The newspapers which traditionally ran book reviews no longer have book sections due to lack of public interest, advertising, etc.
  • Many of the book review outlets which still exist, particularly those that exist online, do not pay. Or pay very little.
  • The general reading public sees book critics and reviewers as gatekeepers – an over-intellectual (and possibly out-of-touch) elite.
  • Reader reviews on Amazon, Goodreads and on blogs (though blogging, itself, is considered in decline) have replaced/assumed the role of traditional book reviews.

Personally, I think time would be better spent looking towards the future.  And with that in mind Fran Bigman and I have started a series on the National Book Critics Circle website called The Craft of Criticism. Because I believe that book criticism is a very niche area of interest, one I like to equate to people who buy/collect vinyl records. There is still a demand, still an interest, but perhaps not as large an audience as – say – 20 years ago. And, yes, the internet changed everything. As did streaming. But I don’t believe that the internet was an extinction level event for readers and reviewers. And if I am correct about that, then the question we need to be asking (and the more exciting topic of conversation) is how will the form adapt and evolve going forward?

We already have some of the answers. Community building is happening online at sites like Goodreads, Litsy, Book Riot and The Washington Post’s Book Party. And offline, in the form of book clubs, author readings and festivals. Libraries and independent bookstores still play a huge role. In-depth criticism and reviews, formerly the purview of newspapers, still exists at online magazines like 3:AM Magazine, Asymptote, Necessary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and The Millions. There are also more than a few print journals and sections that have survived (and thrived) in this brave new world – The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, The Paris Review, Tin House, The Sewanee Review, Book Forum, TLS, A Public Space, The LA Times Book Review and The Wall Street Journal book section. I want to stress that these are incomplete lists. And I haven’t even mentioned book blogs, vlogs, podcasts and Instagram (#bookstagram) – all fascinating and full of possibilities for the future and a subject for another post.

Good book criticism today isn’t a pronouncement, but the opening line of a conversation. The goal remains to place literature in a cultural context, but the way of doing that has changed drastically. There are enormous benefits to this. The rise of the book community (versus the academic community) as a critical force has occurred in tandem with demands for diversity in adult and children’s fiction. Self-published romance novels on Amazon have shown that there is a market for romance novels featuring characters of color, LGBTQ romance and polyamorous relationships. Ask yourself, would the VIDA count and the demand for gender parity have been possible without the connective tissue of the internet? And I sincerely believe that the increased attention to translated literature is due to, not the traditional media outlets but, the dedication of a relatively small group of independent publishers and bloggers. One of the most interesting new literary prizes launched this year – The Staunch Prize for thrillers written and plotted without any physical violence against women – and I don’t think it would have been possible if the guards were still fixedly positioned on either side of the gates (in fact, the Guardian article and follow-up articles announcing the prize contain far more negative responses than positive from critics and authors).

As a rule, it is no longer realistic to make enough money to live on by reviewing books (of course there are always exceptions to the rule), but that is not the same thing as the end of book criticism. Rather than the extinction level event I mentioned earlier, I like to think that we are in the midst of a great migration.

What do you think? I’d love to know.

Ode to the NYRB

In 2002 I received a subscription to the New York Review of Books (NYRB) as a Christmas gift.  I’d never read it before. In fact, when my first issue arrived I was expecting the New York Times Book Review.  I was surprised with what actually showed up in my mailbox.  But it was a pleasant surprise.  In the years since I’ve religiously renewed.  Not that I’ve always agreed with what I’ve read.

For example:  J.M. Coetzee’s review of Philip Roth’s Nemesis in the most recent issue;  Coetzee’s interpretation that the main character *spoiler alert* is actually a healthy polio carrier in my opinion gives waaay too much credence to the character’s interpretation of events. (I’ve been DYING to get that out!)

Anyway… my obsessive and argumentative nature aside… the NYRB always leaves me with something to think about.  Years ago it was a great article on patents and pharmaceutical companies that I forwarded to all my friends.  Or there was John Banville’s lacerating (and awesome) review of  Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday.  Recently I read a surprisingly unbiased look at the Tea Party Movement by Jonathan Raban (3/25/2010 issue) which, while not changing my vote, definitely opened my eyes.  The NYRB political coverage isn’t always even-handed (they definitely lean towards the Left), but its writers are thorough.

At this year’s Book Bloggers Convention one of the speakers joked that the war between book Reviewers and the book Bloggers was over.  The Bloggers had won.  I’m not sure how much of a victory that is.  Too many newspapers are dropping their book review sections.  The one’s that remain are even more important than they were before.   Not only for readers, but as a resource for Bloggers.

Individual issues of The NYRB can be pricey, so I recommend visiting the website.  (OH! and of course they have a BLOG).

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Beware the Ides of March

Every month I try to group the books I read & review around a theme.  Sometimes the theme is obvious, sometimes  it’s a bit esoteric.  March, in the end, was an easy one –  mysteries. Here is a re-cap of the books featured:

Just because you’re wonderful  –  below is the  link back to another mystery novel I loved and reviewed all the way back in 2008:

And here’s the New York Times review of the book I didn’t finish in time.