Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Reading to the End

Here are the last few books on my June book list. It was a good reading month! Parts one and two can be found here and here.

How to Love a Country by Richard Blanco (audiobook read by the poet)
I downloaded this from the e-audiobook section of the library website. These are powerful poems, addressing important issues about life in the US today. As I listened, I had goosebumps at times. I think the poems had even more impact because I was listening to the poet read them, with the cadences he intended as he wrote them.

Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken
I requested this book when I saw it in a Lit Hub email. I’d recently read a collection of the author’s short stories and this book sounded quirky, revolving as it does around candlepin bowling (it’s a New England thing), so I requested it. When I started it, I had the uneasy feeling that it might be too quirky and I considered setting it aside, but I read on and soon, I was immersed in the story. The book opens in a cemetery in Salford, Massachusetts around 1900, where there is a body. This body stands out because it’s alive. Turns out it’s Bertha Truitt, who has mysteriously ended up there in her bicycle skirt and a bag containing a candlepin, a ball, and some gold bars. She opens a candlepin bowling alley, which is at the centre of the story and is really a main character in the novel as it moves through the century. McCracken’s writing style is interesting--the story moves in paragraphs that don’t really jump around in time too much, although at times we are brought into the past and briefly tossed into the future. But the story moves along in bits, in a way--a short scene here and another one to follow. Everything and everyone spins out from Bertha and the bowling alley. There is some historical fact woven into the story, most notably the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. I’m glad I decided to read a little more and didn’t set the book aside--it’s a really good read.

Cities: The First 6,000 Years by Monica L. Smith
This book, written by an archaeologist who does her fieldwork in India, does not attempt to provide a linear history of the rise and continuation of cities. Rather, she discusses the ways in which the existence of urban areas came about, what this entailed, and what it meant to human societies. She talks about social interactions, language, infrastructure, consumption, the rise of the middle class, slums, and cultural aspects of urban living, including the relationship between rural and urban communities. It was quite an interesting book, although there were a few times where I felt she was glossing over some serious issues and making comparisons that were superficially valid, but in other ways missed the mark. For example, one of the main arguments of her book is that many of the things that people are concerned about today are not new at all, but have been experienced for thousands of years. In general, I agree with this and have made much the same argument myself. With the exception of the climate emergency, much of what we see now is the same old stuff that has been going on for a long time. Once human groups settled, certain things started to happen and while we are experiencing these things in specific ways through the lens of consumer capitalism, the overaching phenomena have played out in various ways throughout this time. However, some of her specific examples seemed to be missing crucial points. For instance, when she is discussing consumption, she spends some time describing disposable items from various sites around the world. Cheaply made clay vessels, she tells us, were imported to urban areas, purchased and used with the intent to throw them away. She then compares this to today, when people are concerned about the amount of garbage generated in wealthier nations, seeming to imply that this concern is overblown. Of course, she is an archaeologist and rubbish is a very important tool in that field--much of what we know about groups of people from the past is due to the rubbish they left behind. But cheaply made, low quality, disposable clay pots is a very different set of objects than toxic plastic tossed everywhere to poison the ground, water, and animals. The environment is not threatened by buried clay potsherds, but plastics, microplastics, and other toxins are a grave threat to many species. There is also a matter of scale. There are so many more people on the planet today than there were and a lot more waste is being generated. In addition to this issue, I found some of her other arguments unconvincing, but I have always had a difficult relationship with archaeology and used to have robust discussions in my anthropology departments with the archaeologists. On the one hand, there is much we can learn, especially as technology makes dating and other measurements more precise or even possible. On the other hand, any attempt to reconstruct cultural thinking that is beyond the measurable, is always a best guess and seen through the lens of the archaeologists own worldview, which includes their own cultural biases as well as a desire for professional prestige (it's more impressive, for instance, to have excavated a shrine that one can make a lot of assumptions about than to talk about a pile of rocks as the result of children playing, but that pile of rocks could be either one or an infinite number of other things besides).

There were other parts of the book that I quite liked. At one point, she mentioned that ‘the archaeology of disenfranchised’ has not been done to the extent that it should be (again, the prestige issue). I wholeheartedly agree with this.

I found out about this book through a book related email, although I get so many and I don’t remember which one specifically. In spite of some of the misgivings I had about certain aspects of her arguments, it was still worth reading.

Wilderness Tips by Margaret Atwood
One day several months ago, while looking at the books in the local charity shop, I came across an omnibus volume containing this book and Cat’s Eye. I brought it home, stuck it on the shelf, and picked it up the other day when I was finished with my stack of library books. This book is a collection of short stories. Since I’m a big fan of short story collections, I was happy to find it and read it.

I hope your book pile is full of interesting and entertaining content!


Vicki said...

Interesting mix of books! I love short stories and poems but haven't read either in a while.

Lynne said...

I enjoy your reviews.
Audio books haven’t entered my being as of yet.
Friends of mine choose audio often.
The book of poems, by the author, sounds like a winner.

Did you design the piece at the bottom of your post?
One more TALENT of yours?