Wednesday, May 31, 2017

May Books

Perception of time can be such a weird thing. Here we are, with just a few hours left in May, and it feels like it's been a long month in some ways, while in others, it seems like it sped by. I have a book about time that I picked up at the Buncrana library last week. I think I'll read that next.

In the meantime, these are the books I read in May. Thinking back to Evicted, it seems like a long time ago since the month began!

Evicted by Matthew Desmond
   An ethnographic study of eviction and how it impacts tenants and landlords. The study was undertaken in Milwaukee, but the author informs us that the city works well as a microcosm of the US as a whole. He points out that to fully understand poverty in the US, you have to know about eviction, and yet it is not often spoken about. Statistics are very misleading, because so many of these things take place under the radar and so are not quantified. For that reason, he decided to take an ethnographic approach and lived in the city with the people he writes about. It is a book well worth reading. Here is a link to an interview in which the author talks about various aspects of the book, including how his research helped move a change in policy.

Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan
   It’s 2020 and people in Scotland and globally are preparing for the worst winter most have ever experienced. Dylan’s mother and grandmother have died recently and he finds out his mother has left him the title to a caravan in a park in rural Scotland. He goes there, meets and connects with his neighbours. They are Constance and Stella, her transgender daughter. All of them, and the other ‘misfits’ in the caravan park know what it’s like to feel the judgement of others, but they also stick together and form a community. Together, they face the coming disaster.

1Q84 Book 1 by Haruki Murakami
   I requested this as a result of reading a blurb about it in an Off the Shelf email. In spite of the fact that it is not the sort of thing I’d usually read, I thought it sounded a bit intriguing, so I looked it up. It started well enough--I whipped through the first 200 pages in an afternoon. I was into it. I read another couple hundred pages the following afternoon, but by then I was getting annoyed at the repetition of a few things. The chapters alternated between a focus on a woman named Aomame, who had some body image issues and a guy named Tengo who kept reliving a traumatic memory. Over and over and over again I read about these things in far too much detail in slightly different language. It got extremely tiresome. I started to think that I really did not care enough to read two more books and 900+ more pages in order to see how it all ended. I put the book in the return pile, googled, and read a plot summary online.

Lines of Vision: Irish Writers on Art--Janet McLean, ed
  This book came about as a project celebrating the 150th anniversary of the National Gallery of Ireland. Writers were asked to choose a piece of art in the gallery that spoke to them in some way, and then write about it. Some knew right away what artwork they wanted to write about. Some took a bit more time. Some accepted suggestions. The writing takes many different forms--poetry, essays, short stories. The book contains a photo of the artwork next to each piece of writing. A few authors chose the same art as another an it was interesting to see how the one piece of art spoke to those people in different ways.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
  This is the second book in a trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake, which I read last month. That book was told from the point of view of Snowman, formerly known as Jimmy. It took place after a catastrophe had struck, but also used flashbacks to tell the story of how that catastrophe came about. This book covers the same time frame, but from different points of view. It alternates between the story of Ren and that of Toby, both women who are in the God’s Gardeners group. Ren appeared in Oryx and Crake and God’s Gardeners were mentioned in passing. That book ended with a cliffhanger and the end of this book meets up with the end of the previous book.

The Yellow Houses by Stella Gibbons
   Stella Gibbons is best known for her book, Cold Comfort Farm, which, along with her other published work, is enjoying something of a resurgence now. A few years ago, her family announced that they were in possession of two previously unknown works by the author. The Yellow Houses is one of these. I came across it at the library e-book website and downloaded it, but had not heard of the book before then. It is an odd book and at first I was picking up the tablet and reading a chapter or two at a time and not returning to it for days at a time. In fact, I’d left it so long that I got a notice that it was almost due and decided to renew it in case I decided to finish it. When I picked it up again something clicked and I finished the last 2/3 of it in one sitting. Wilfred Davis is the character we meet first. He lives in Torford, a smallish British town. His wife has recently died; he has retired from his civil service job; and his 17-year-old daughter, Mary, has ‘run away’ to make it in London. He does not know what to do with himself and is despondent. As he sits weeping on a park bench, he is offered a handkerchief by a mysterious stranger. Later we learn that the stranger’s name is Lafcadio Taverner and he lives in the big yellow house that Wilfred and his late wife had admired. They become friends, but there is something a little bit strange about the yellow house and its occupants. Along with that thread of the story, there are the adventures of Mary and the people she meets in her new home in London. Everyone comes together at various times in the novel, which is full of characters from all sorts of backgrounds, and is sometimes quite amusing as such different sorts of people try to interact with one another.

Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver
   I think Mary Oliver is more well-known as a poet than an essayist--at least it’s her poetry that I’ve read before. The essays in this collection revolve around some of the same themes as in her poetry--nature in particular. She also has a section with essays about books and nature in her childhood. The middle section consists of essays about Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, and William Wordsworth. She writes in one essay about stealing turtle eggs and scrambling them and observing a spider and her egg sacs in a web in a rented house in another essay. I like Oliver’s poetry well enough, which is why I requested this book from the library, but I was not really taken with this book. I could not connect with it and found myself bored and wanting her to just get on with whatever she was trying to say in many cases. I don’t think I’d read a book of her essays again.

The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories by Penelope Lively
    I am a big short story fan and I liked this collection a lot. After I read it, I went to the library website and requested a couple more books by her. I read her book, Moon Tiger last year and quite liked that, too, so I suppose it’s safe to say that Penelope Lively is an author I will continue reading. The stories in this collection are varied--a couple had a sort of ghost story vibe, some were more about interpersonal relationships, one or two were sort of fantastical.

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
  Laura (Lolly) Willowes grows up in the English countryside. Her mother dies and Lolly continues to live in the family home with her father and brother (and eventually his wife and son). Another brother studies law, marries, and makes a home in London. When Lolly is a young woman, her father dies and it is decided for her that she will move to London and live with brother Henry and his family. Twenty years later, she suddenly becomes aware that she must move back to the country, specifically to the village of Great Mop. She has ideas about how she wants to live there, but quickly has to revise them, as she learns that Henry has invested her money unwisely and she does not have as much as she thought. She moves to Great Mop nonetheless, where things play out rather differently than she’d expected. This was an odd, but pleasant, little book.

Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time by Penelope Lively
  ‘This is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is the view from old age.’ This is how Penelope Lively begins this book. She goes on to muse about a few topics in general and as they relate to her life. There are five chapters: Old Age, Life and Times, Memory, Readinga dn Writing, and Six Things. I liked her approach to this book, and the way she applied ideas that are important to her to her own life. She says she is an observer and that is evident. It’s also something I can relate to. Perhaps one reason I liked the book is that I tend to do the same things myself--think a lot about various things and then think about how my own life fits in.

Daughters of Ireland:Pioneering Irish Women by Debbie Blake
    This is a book of short biographies of 15 Irish women, organised in chronological order of their dates of birth. The first biography is of Dr James Miranda Barry, who was born in about 1799 as Margaret Ann Bulkley. She lived as a man in order to receive medical training and then practice as a doctor. The last biography in the book is Dame Kathleen Lonsdale, a crystallographer who lived from 1903 to 1971. In addition to these and other scientists, there are stories of women who were aviators, artists, philanthropists and more. It was quite an enjoyable and informative book.

Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood
   This is the final book in the trilogy, which began with Oryx and Crake and continued with Year of the Flood. It can be read on its own, though--there was a brief summary of the story so far in the befginning of the book and she was good about weaving necessary explanatory details into the story for those who had not read the first two books. This one was the fnniest of the three--you would not think that a post-apocalyptic dystopia would have such humour in it, but I found myself laughing at several points. Not to give away plot details, but this one continues to have Toby, from YotF as a central character, along with other people from the previous two books, but the story is told mostly through the voice of Zeb as he tells Toby the story of his past. One of the themes that I found interesting in all the books, was the way myths are created and passed on. I wasn’t sure about this trilogy when I requested Oryx and Crake, but I decided to give it a try and see how I liked it. I loved these books and devoured each one once I started it.

Beyond the Blue Mountains by Penelope Lively
  This is one of the books I requested after reading The Purple Swamp Hen. It’s an earlier collection of short stories. Like all the Penelope Lively books I’ve read, I liked this a lot. She exhibits a kind of dry wit in her writing which I enjoy. These stories are all about personal relationships in one form or another.

Here's hoping you had some good books to read this month, too. Away we go into June--my book piles are ready.

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