Here is the final installment of my October book list.
Away by Jane Urquhart
I’d picked up another novel by this author in a charity shop a few years ago and quite liked it, so when I saw this one in the charity shop here, I added it to the pile. The story begins with Esther, an older woman who is at the old family home for the last time. She is thinking back to the story told to her by Eileen, her aunt--the story of Eileen’s mother, father, and brother and of Eileen herself. Eileen was born in Canada, but her parents and brother were from Ireland. They were given passage to Canada by their landlord during the famine and they eventually were able to settle on a plot of land there. Although Esther appears here and there in the present, the majority of the story takes place in the past. Esther appears infrequently and we get a glimpse into her thoughts before the story moves back into the past again. I will not say much more, because I don’t want to give away the plot. When I first started the book, I wasn’t sure if I would like it enough to finish, but it did not take long for me to get into it and want to know how things were going to unfold. Some of the things that happened seemed quite implausible, but that did not detract from my enjoyment of the book. After I finished it, I stuck it in the wee free library, where it did not last a day. I hope the person that took it enjoys it, too!
The Case Against Fragrance by Kate Grenville
I am not sure where I read about this book, but it was just a week or two ago. Kate Grenville is a novelist. I had not heard of her and had not read any of her books before this one, but once I became aware of this book, I immediately went to look for it on the library website. I could relate to the author’s description of how she would get headaches more and more frequently when she was out in public. She realised it was fragrance she was reacting to. By this she does not mean only perfumes, but all of the scented things we are bombarded with from all directions on a daily basis. She thought she was some kind of outlier until she started googling. Then she discovered that there are many of us out there. She tried to get more information and was finding lots of technical science writing, but no book for lay people about the public health issues around fragrance. She decided to write one, with the help of scientists of her acquaintance. She talks about how perfumes (even expensive ones), laundry detergents, cleaning products, air fresheners, candles, reed diffusers, shampoos and other personal care products, are full of cheap chemical fragrances. There is no requirement that these things be listed on the label in detail because they are trade secrets. So, when you see ‘parfum’ it is probably a mix of these chemicals, some of which are toxic and carcinogenic. They get passed to infants through breast milk. They cause skin reactions, headaches, respiratory problems, and nausea for increasing numbers of people. The author is Australian, and she compares the situation there with the US, Canada (who was the leader in making fragrance an air quality issue), and to a much lesser extent, the EU. I can’t speak to the EU as a whole, but I can say that Ireland is difficult in this regard. Everything is scented. It has been impossible for me to find unscented laundry detergent, lotion, etc. I take my chances and hope for the best. I am not always lucky and I have to set the sickening smelly stuff aside and try again. When we moved into our previous residence, someone had left a bottle of green washing up liquid by the kitchen sink. It made me ill, so we had to stick it under the sink and go buy the yellow stuff. Lesson learned. Green stuff, bad. Yellow stuff, OK. I have also learned here that if something says it’s coconut and vanilla, it’s probably not going to make me sick. If I can’t find that kind of shampoo, I have to buy something else and hope it will only be unpleasant and not nauseating and headache-inducing. Soon we will start seeing holiday scented laundry detergent and even toilet paper (!!!) appearing in the shops. Last year the limited edition holiday scent for the loo rolls was mulled wine. I cannot imagine. Things bothered me in the US, too--those nauseating reed diffusers used to give me an instant migraine and once I used shampoo and body wash that almost made me pass out. The book could have been better had it included an index, but that’s my only quibble. It was a good overview of the issues surrounding fragrance, its effects on people, and how unregulated the whole industry is. People have become quite ill in the past because of this lack of oversight and we can only wonder what we are doing to ourselves now, as we are piling these chemicals onto our skin and breathing them in, in ever-increasing quantities. What health guidelines there are for these things do not take into account how they will interact with other chemicals and even air, nor do they consider the fact that people are getting large doses--a little from one product, a little more from that one, and the other, and the other, and on and on. And that’s before considering cleaning products, laundry detergent residue on clothing, air ‘fresheners’ and other things that we encounter in public spaces.
The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx by Tara Bergin
This is the second poetry collection by this poet. Eleanor Marx was a daughter of Karl Marx who was a social activist and literary translator. She did the first English translation of Madame Bovary and learned Norwegian in order to translate Ibsen’s plays. sadly, she was involved with a guy who betrayed her by secretly marrying an actress, and when she found out, she committed suicide in a way similar to that of Emma Bovary. Several of the poems in the collection are about the life and death of Eleanor Marx. I heard the poet on RTE Radio One’s Poetry Programme and requested the book from the library as a result of the interesting discussion there.
Empty Pulpits: Ireland’s Retreat from Religion by Malachi O’Doherty
This was an interesting book. By ‘religion,’ the author unsurprisingly means Catholicism, by and large although other religions are mentioned in various arguments, mostly as comparison. He makes some good points throughout the book as he takes a sociological and somewhat psychological look at how Ireland has done religion in the past, how they do it now, and how they might do it in the future. He makes the interesting argument that, because Ireland has ‘lost’ religion faster than any other European nation, people here are in a good position to be interpreters, if you will. They know what religion has meant and can explain this to vocal anti-religion people. At the same time, they can explain secularism to religious people. He acknowledges that Spain has also secularized quickly, but they had an anti-clerical faction in that country and Ireland did not. The book was published in 2008, and things have moved on quite a bit since. There’s a new pope with different attitudes about certain things, Ireland became the first country to make marriage equality a constitutional right by popular vote, and people are protesting more about the hold the Catholic church still has on some state institutions. Still, it was an interesting book and provided food for thought as he laid out his reasoning. I found it in a pop-up charity shop over the summer and picked it up--glad I did!