Reading Challenge month 1 – A book set in a different country

Book challenge - week 1

In 1956, Gavin Maxwell was traveling in southern Iraq when it occurred to him that he would like to own an otter (his beloved dog had recently died). Though he had a flat in London and traveled widely, he also had tenancy of a remote house in Sandaig, on the western coast of Scotland, and he thought an otter would live a happy life there, encircled by the ring of bright water.

He knew nothing of raising an otter, and the first one he adopted died after a short time in his care, before they even made it back to Scotland. And then he found Mijbil. The first encounters are delightful, with Mij curling up with Maxwell in a sleeping bag for the night. Maxwell describes Mij’s antics in the London flat, his affectionate and curious behavior, as well as his destructive tendancies. We see Mij in harness and leash, being walked on London streets, or playing with toys or in the bath.

Soon after, they travel up to Scotland and Mij is slowly given freedom to explore the land and water around the house: an otter’s paradise of streams, waterfalls, ocean, and fish. It’s all as sweet as a fairy tale.

But we know that all fairy tales have dark underpinnings, and so goes the story of Maxwell and his otters. Because, of course, otters are wild animals and, though darling and affectionate when young, they grow up to be adult wild animals, who have sharp teeth and claws, and unpredictable natures.

The first book in the trilogy, Ring of Bright Water, describes the best, most hopeful years of the endeavor. Other otters are adopted. And Greylag geese. Maxwell furnishes and renovates the previously empty house. He buys and renovates a boat. He marries (briefly). He has friends come to help care for the growing menagerie. He writes. And he writes beautifully.

One of my favorite passages is from early in the book, about the elver migration he witnesses at Sandaig, and another is his description of his neighbor’s children and their encounter with a rush of herring fry in the bay:

The sun was very low; the shadow of the house lay long and dark across the grass and the rushes, while the hillside above glowed golden as though seen through orange lenses. The bracken no longer looked green nor the heather purple; all that gave back their own colour to the sun were tge scarlet rowanberries, as vivid as venous blood. When I turned to the sea it was so pale and polished that the figures of the twins thigh-deep in the shadows showed in almost pure silhouette against it, bronze-coloured limbs and torsos edged with yellow light. They were shouting and laughing and dancing and scooping up the water with their hands, and all the time as they moved there shot up from the surface where they broke it a glittering spray of small gold and silver fish, so dense and brilliant as to blur the outline of the childish figures. It was as though the boys were the central decor of a strangely lit baroque fountain, and when they bent to the surface with cupped hands a new jet of sparks flew upward where their arms submerged, and fell back in brittle, dazzling cascade.

Alone, that passage is beautifully evocative, but it’s the next part that I can’t forget:

Then I saw that a hundred yards out on the surface was ruffled by flurries of mackerel whose darting shoals made a sputter of spray on the smooth swell of the incoming tide. The mackerel had driven the fry headlong before them into the narrow bay and held them there, but now the pursuers too were unable to go back. They were in turn harried from seaward by a school of porpoises who cruised the outermost limits of their shoal, driving them father and farther towards the shore. Hunter and hunted pushed the herring soil [fry] ever inward to the sand…Beyond them, black against the blanched sunset water, rose the towering sabre fin of a bull killer whale, the ultimate enemy of sea creatures great and small, the unattackable; his single terrible form controlling by its mere presence the billion of lives between himself and the shore.

The layers on layers, the way each each action has a reaction, the way one thing leads to an inevitable other. The story of “Ring of Bright Water” ends on a hopeful note. The next two books in the trilogy tell of sadness and disaster heaped on disaster, but I still can’t forget the golden early days when even a mad idea seemed like a good idea.


Our books for month 1:

We’d love to know what you read. Please leave a comment telling us about it!

The category for the coming month is:


We’ll see you back here on March 9!

This post is part of our multi-year reading challenge. We’d love to have you join us for the whole challenge or any portion. Take a look at the checklist to see the current category (in green). We’ll announce the next category on the 9th of each month.

Time passes. Listen.

Bees' first winter

Pedants will tell me that it’s not officially winter yet, but let’s not quibble. Zero degrees F on the thermometer this morning, snow and ice solidly gripping the ground, Elliot the blueberry bush up to his neck in snow, another nor’easter roaring up the coast tomorrow.

Let’s call a winter a winter.

Today I watched the shivery sun sprint for the western horizon as if, like me, he just couldn’t wait to be in bed, under the covers, with a pile of books laid by. I swear he was behind the hill by 3 pm. And I know tomorrow I’ll see even less of him, minute by minute.

Watching the light rise and fall this time of year, a person can’t help but be obsessed a bit by the ticking by of seconds, to become a hoarder of sunlit minutes, to think of time as something solid you can put in your pocket and rub your thumb over during the day, wearing it down grain by grain.

This time of year, the night is an ocean. You can’t see the other side. But you can sail its surface. A story is like a puff of wind in your sail. This weekend, we went to our local theater to hear a story: Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood.”

I can try to describe to you how the play mesmerized me, how the chewy-lyrical language lulled the audience, then made us laugh, then cracked our hearts. I could tell you how we watched the minutes of a day in the village of “Llareggub” slide by, night to dawn to noon to dusk to night. I could tell you how we lived a day through the night, then, outside, how the moon was hidden but the poem was a light reflected in the snow.

But I can’t tell it anywhere as well Dylan Thomas and Richard Burton can tell it. So why even try?


FIRST VOICE (_Very softly_)

To begin at the beginning:

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless
and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched,
courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the
sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.
The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night
in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat
there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock,
the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds.
And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are
sleeping now.

Hush, the babies are sleeping, the farmers, the fishers,
the tradesmen and pensioners, cobbler, schoolteacher,
postman and publican, the undertaker and the fancy woman,
drunkard, dressmaker, preacher, policeman, the webfoot
cocklewomen and the tidy wives. Young girls lie bedded soft
or glide in their dreams, with rings and trousseaux,
bridesmaided by glowworms down the aisles of the
organplaying wood. The boys are dreaming wicked or of the
bucking ranches of the night and the jollyrodgered sea. And
the anthracite statues of the horses sleep in the fields,
and the cows in the byres, and the dogs in the wetnosed
yards; and the cats nap in the slant corners or lope sly,
streaking and needling, on the one cloud of the roofs.

You can hear the dew falling, and the hushed town breathing.
Only _your_ eyes are unclosed to see the black and folded
town fast, and slow, asleep. And you alone can hear the
invisible starfall, the darkest-beforedawn minutely dewgrazed
stir of the black, dab-filled sea where the _Arethusa_, the
_Curlew_ and the _Skylark_, _Zanzibar_, _Rhiannon_, the _Rover_,
the _Cormorant_, and the _Star of Wales_ tilt and ride.

Listen. It is night moving in the streets, the processional
salt slow musical wind in Coronation Street and Cockle Row,
it is the grass growing on Llaregyb Hill, dewfall, starfall,
the sleep of birds in Milk Wood.

Listen. It is night in the chill, squat chapel, hymning in
bonnet and brooch and bombazine black, butterfly choker and
bootlace bow, coughing like nannygoats, sucking mintoes,
fortywinking hallelujah; night in the four-ale, quiet as a
domino; in Ocky Milkman’s lofts like a mouse with gloves;
in Dai Bread’s bakery flying like black flour. It is to-night
in Donkey Street, trotting silent, With seaweed on its
hooves, along the cockled cobbles, past curtained fernpot,
text and trinket, harmonium, holy dresser, watercolours
done by hand, china dog and rosy tin teacaddy. It is night
neddying among the snuggeries of babies.

Look. It is night, dumbly, royally winding through the
Coronation cherry trees; going through the graveyard of
Bethesda with winds gloved and folded, and dew doffed;
tumbling by the Sailors Arms.

Time passes. Listen. Time passes.

Come closer now.

Only you can hear the houses sleeping in the streets in the
slow deep salt and silent black, bandaged night. Only you
can see, in the blinded bedrooms, the coms. and petticoats
over the chairs, the jugs and basins, the glasses of teeth,
Thou Shalt Not on the wall, and the yellowing dickybird-watching
pictures of the dead. Only you can hear and see, behind the
eyes of the sleepers, the movements and countries and mazes
and colours and dismays and rainbows and tunes and wishes
and flight and fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams.

From where you are, you can hear their dreams.