Today’s book review of a non-fiction and fiction collection is brought to you by yours truly, Morgen Bailey. If you’d like your book reviewed or to send me a book review of another author’s book, see book-reviews for the guidelines. Other options listed on opportunities-on-this-blog.
Synopsis: Nowick Gray harks to the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau in portraying his “life in the woods” of interior British Columbia in the last two decades of the twentieth century. My Country, like Walden, presents a neglected world that appears as through a forgotten memory. The work is a triptych, painting three panels of approach to life in the context of nature. The narrative essays in “Forest Walks and Other Exercises” track forest paths that skirt our tribal past while offering sheltered glimpses of the encroaching industrialized world. Personal immersion shades to political consciousness, with a view of logging, in particular, from the forest perspective.
“Interior Rainforest” paints a personal journey navigating the landscape of home life and wildlife, love and loss. These excursions and sketches depict the challenges of physical and emotional survival in and beside wilderness.
The final section takes a further step inside the world of mountain and forest, to the imaginary realm where fiction and reality collide, dance, and mirror one another, bringing new forms of life to the ecosystem the narrator calls home. “Mountain Dreams” comprises fictional stories ranging in style from animism and fairy tale, to magical realism, to naturalistic dramas of human connection.
I read this book just a few days after moving my home office from my house’s back bedroom to the dining room which also looks out on to the back garden but at ground level so it feels more company than before. With Nowick’s description of his environment made me feel that my garden was an edge of the forest that surrounded him and not just a 20ft-square area on the edge of town.
After an introduction and biography in which Nowick explains how he came to live in the Canadian wilderness, and how things changed over the years, the collection starts with ‘Forest Walks and Other Exercises’. The essays begin with ‘The Curtain of Trees’ which describes an early morning walk and a recollection of a ‘war in the woods’. We’re still in the forest for ‘Entering the Tunnels’ which continues the battle between nature and the requirements of man. On the way to the post office, ‘No Mas’ keeps us in the woods and is a sad tale of the realisation of loss. The next pieces continue on a similar vein when they cover nature versus nature, the magnitude of nature and nature versus technology. The final two pieces of the first section are ‘White Rabbit’ which calms a man antagonised by life and ‘Beyond Politics – a review of Derrick Jensen’ some of which went over my head but looks at a man’s respect of the environment and is very thought-provoking.
The second section, ‘Interior Rainforest’ features nine pieces which stay in first person point of view and like their earlier counterparts, are immersed in nature and Nowick’s perception of it from a series of workshops he attended, his reflections thereafter, and then in ‘Climbing Mount Cooper’ he tells us of the challenges the expedition brought to him and his companions.
The next story, ‘The Meaning of Life: Animal Tracks’, is a third-person viewpoint about a couple on a walk. Like Nowick, the man is a writer – always a winner for me – but not one blessed with ideas or a sense of humour.
‘Remembering Winter’ goes back into first-person, or rather first-person plural, another couple exploring the scenery around them before the story takes a poignant turn.
‘Transitions’ is a series of conversations between an interviewer and a poet, Mr Now (interesting name) over a period of three days. Mr Now’s identity is slowly and very cleverly revealed for an ‘ah’ from the reader. What I also liked about this piece was that it was all dialogue – no description, not even a ‘he said’ / ‘she said’. This is hard to write (I enjoy doing that too and often set it as an exercise for my students).
‘Breathing Together’ comes back to first-person and is another touching and reflective piece, one of the shortest in this collection.
‘Marriage in a Cave’ (great title) starts in second-person (‘you’ – my favourite viewpoint) and continues the reflective feel.
‘Woman and Deer’ is an ‘ahh’ piece as it recounts man’s power over nature and I was pleased when the character didn’t come out unscathed.
Deep Summer’s first sentence explains that it’s a ‘true tale of sun and moon, three bears, paradise and the fall’ and again it feels very autobiographical. It’s clear from these stories that there’s so much inspiration from nature and it’s very descriptively portrayed. Mention of raspberries and cherries made me hungry! The story reminded me of reversed Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and it was interesting seeing it from Nowick’s point of view.
The third and final section of the book is ‘Mountain Dreams’, starting with ‘The Deserted Playground’, a back to boyhood story. I got a little confused as to who Judy and Jack were (siblings?) but it was a charming piece.
Being a fan of fiction rather than non-fiction, ‘Creation’ was where I felt I could settle into the collection. This story is split into seven small sections, each featuring aspects of artist Peter’s life and the triangle that his him, Zena and Frank.
‘Trinity’, as the name would suggest, is split into three and again features three characters, the first-person male, his partner Keira and an old drunk (in the first section), the protagonist, his child and the old man, and the finally our main character with another couple, with each story moving through the man’s life.
‘Just Coyotes’ features a family with bad dreams, chicken pox and a sad history before the main character, the father, goes off for a walk and reminisces to come home to a home-cooked dinner and coincidences.
‘New Moon’ is another piece split into sections, five this time, and tells of a religious couple’s life and their surreal exploration to an area intriguingly entitled ‘Lightning Ridge’. The wife, Maria is trying to help a woman called Jessie who Maria thinks is making a huge mistake. Though there’s plenty of sadness throughout the story, it ends on a hopeful note.
‘Guerilla Bears’ features some wonderfully-named characters, the guerilla bears in question: Horace Beamwood, Omar, Gertrude and Johnny the HeadBear (aka Johnny Burntoe the Elder) but the story soon takes on a serious tone.
‘The Boy, the Witch and the Princess’ is a modern-day fairy tale, a very curious one at that.
‘A Neighborly Visit’ has probably my favourite first line of the collection: ‘It wasn’t entirely his fault.’ and brings us a dwarf on Fred’s doorstep and ends as curiously as it begins. A quirky piece of flash fiction.
‘Running Wolf Canyon’, the final story, returns to first-person viewpoint and to being at one with nature and nature most definitely at one with him.
Although Nowick now lives in the city, it’s clear how passionate he is about the countryside. While it’s not my usual reading, it was well-written, although a little too detailed in places, and will be enjoyed, I’m sure by lovers of literary outdoor collections. Apart from a fair few missing commas, I only spotted two mistakes (Fred ‘s tipi and dwarf ‘s need in the penultimate story) – although I read most of the book as an audiobook (thank you Mrs Kindle) so there may be more punctuation errors, which in itself isn’t an issue, more just a distraction. The collection is either well-edited or well-written, or both.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
Based in Northamptonshire, England, Morgen Bailey (“Morgen with an E”) is a prolific blogger, podcaster, editor / critiquer, Chair of NWG (which runs the annual H.E. Bates Short Story Competition), Head Judge for the NLG Flash Fiction Competition and creative writing tutor for her local county council. She is also a freelance author of numerous ‘dark and light’ short stories, novels, articles, and very occasional dabbler of poetry. Like her, her blog, https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com, is consumed by all things literary. She is also active on Twitter, Facebook along with many others (listed on her blog’s Contact page). She also recently created five online writing groups and an interview-only blog.
Her debut novel is the chick lit eBook The Serial Dater’s Shopping List ($0.99 / £0.77) and she has six others (mostly crime) in the works. She also has eight collections of short stories available (also $0.99 / £0.77 each) – detailed on https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/books-mine/short-stories.
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If you would like to send me a book review of another author’s books or like your book reviewed (short stories, contemporary crime / women’s novels or writing guides), see book-reviews for the guidelines. Other options listed on opportunities-on-this-blog. And I post writing exercises every weekday on four online writing groups.