Today we have two books rooted in Place, two books set in very different locations, but hugely redolent and evocative of those places. One of them is by an author I really like but is a real departure for her in terms of moving from fiction to non-fiction / memoir. The other was put together by a friend of mine, and is a departure from her usual academic work and work as, like me, an “invisible” editor as, while she has put the book together, she is very much a visible and important part of it, too.

Annie Proulx – “Bird Cloud”

Proulx is the author of many fine novels, such as “The Shipping News” and stories including “Brokeback Mountain”, although some of hers, like “Accordion Crimes” are too violent for me to read! I spotted this memoir and story of a house and had to have it – I do like a story about a house and I knew she was a good and interesting writer.

So, this is a memoir briefly covering all of the houses Proulx has lived in (warning: some early pet death stuff which started to put me off but does not continue throughout), and then goes on to the planning, construction and all aspects of the house that she builds in Wyoming. It is so rooted in the place and her love for it, even though it’s a difficult place to live in fact, with snowdrifts until May and risk of getting cut off, and the howling winds that dictate the actual house design to a large extent. But it’s a place full of geography, geology, archaeology and natural history, and that’s why she loves it.

It’s honest but not whiny about the problems, though in a way it’s a little odd reading a respected and famous author reporting on how hard it is to get good workmen! On the nature side of things, she’s as amazing as you would hope, with beautiful descriptions of the landscape and the elks, mountain lions and particularly the birds, from eagles feasting on large prey to the sparrows around her bird feeder. A profound respect for nature is leavened by a deep joy in it. We are sad with Proulx when we all realise that this is not really a house you can spend all year in, even when you’ve recatalogued your library to match the space – although it’s frustratingly not clear on how she worked this situation out.

Richard Bates and Linda Bates – “Books, Bicycles and Banana Trucks”

(Kindle book)

RBI have already reviewed this book on Amazon but of course you have to be careful these days as Amazon picks up on any hints that you might know the author and removes reviews accordingly (I reviewed it from the heart, not just as a puff piece for a friend). So this is my more personal review. Because it is personal – Linda is a good friend, I knew about the book project (originally a surprise for her brother’s birthday) when few others did, I helped her with her Front Matter (so to speak!) and I distinctly recall sending lots of pencils to Richard when he was in Eritrea, plus surely I contributed some BookCrossing books. It was also personally affecting to read about the close relationship of brother and sister, and to read Linda’s sections, knowing something of what she was going through at the time.

That sounds a bit miserable. Even though there’s a sober section on the history and current status of Eritrea and really serious issues are highlighted throughout the book (one school has no walls, let alone blackboards; another has a resource centre but no reliable drinking water), it’s also a very funny and positive read. For a start, just reading about someone taking out almost two years from their comfortable life in the UK, full of Scouts and teaching, family, Weetabix and orange squash, to travel to a distant and poor country, live in a basic house with electricity available for a few hours a day, shower using a washing up bowl and a bucket, live in 50 degree heat and try to teach teachers who are often on a form of National Service how to teach – well, that’s heart-warming and inspiring in itself. Then add in the book drive that sent 50-odd boxes of books and teaching materials from the UK to Eritrea (including BookCrossing books) and Richard’s epic attempts to take delivery of same …

But don’t think Richard’s a dull do-gooder. He gets frustrated with bureaucracy and even shouts occasionally. He falls off his bike a few times, fails to pick out a tune on a casio organ, and memorably attempts to return complicated greetings in a manner which does not exactly work. He has to reconstitute chocolate in his freezer and works out how to cook with only a few ingredients, and is touchingly thrilled when he gets hold of his favourite breakfast cereal. He gets cross when he thinks he’s not helping, and even more cross when he can’t get Wolves match info on the World Service, but it’s a momentary crossness that he acknowledges and tries to work against, and the atmosphere as a whole is one of good humour, dedication to helping people and a real, solid attempt to fit in with the culture and people, even when being a “celebrity” who all the kids know gets in the way of that more than a little.

The brother-sister relationship is woven beautifully throughout the book (which is expertly put together out of letters home, blog posts and personal experiences). Richard and Linda maintain a full, rich correspondence via dusty letters from Eritrea and notes from Cambridge and Birmingham. I shed a tear early on when they are separated by so many thousands of miles, knowing that they won’t be able to communicate in real time for months, and Linda gets home from the airport and wraps herself up in Richard’s duvet. Linda sends over just the right things at just the right times, using all her ingenuity to insert chocolate into every package. And she is movingly honest about her struggles when she visits Richard near the end of his stay, addressing the issues of handling visits to people’s houses that revolve around the offering of food when fighting an eating disorder and, indeed, issues around crowding onto buses or using strange sanitary arrangements that would affect any of us.

We probably know by now that I like a travel book. This is more than that, of course – it’s testament to a personal victory over wanting to stay close to the things that you’re used to, of really going out of all of the comfort zones that it’s possible to have. It’s inspiring and funny and it’s about family and the family of man as a whole. It’s on ebook only at the moment but hopefully there will be a print version soon (if you don’t have a Kindle, read my article about reading ebooks without an e-reader).

You can see the photos from the book and sign up to be alerted when the print version comes out here.

Note: even though Linda is my friend, I paid for this book on Amazon.