Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Direct Sunlight by Christine Sneed

 Direct Sunlight: Stories
by Christine Sneed
Northwestern University Press
ISBN 9780810146167
Change is always with us, in big and small ways. Sometimes we get to direct it, sometimes it drops down shockingly upon us, and sometimes it sneaks up and surprises us. However it appears, the result is that we have to think again about who we are, who we want to be, what we will do next, and how we will go on with our lives. New relationships begin. Established relationships shift. Sometimes they, along with other parts of our everyday lives, end. We can feel adrift, unmoored, afraid, exhilarated, and more. We adapt and go on.

The 12 stories in this collection show us people navigating through changes in their everyday lives. Some of the stories are quietly devastating. Some are hopeful. Some are poignant. All are excellent. Usually in any short story collection there are stories I like better than others and at least one or two that I am not that keen on. Not so with this book! I loved every single story. I did not race through the book, but rather savored one story at a time, before setting the book aside for several hours or a day. Short story as a form can be tricky--there is a lot to do in a small space--and Christine Sneed skillfully and beautifully does it all. With these 12 stories, she has created 12 little worlds inhabited by people going about their daily lives and navigating changes they may or may not have wished for. I felt myself immediately immersed in each world and interested in what was happening to each of these people, sometimes feeling empathy for their situation, sometimes sadness, and sometimes hope. It's not easy for writers to evoke these kinds of feelings, even in long novels. To do so within the confines of the short story form is a particular kind of skill. I had never read any work by this author, but I will definitely seek out past work now.

Thanks to NetGalley, the publisher, and the author for a digital review copy.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Poirot Saves Christmas (Again)

 Hercule Poirot’s Silent Night
The New Hercule Poirot Mystery
by Sophie Hannah
ISBN 9780008380779

A new book in the Sophie Hannah Poirot continuation series--and one set at Christmas to boot? Yes, please! I was excited to see this book and I was not disappointed! I think it may just have been her best Poirot yet. Can you tell that I loved it? Hannah does a great job with these books, both in characterizing Poirot and in her plots, settings, and supporting characters. These books wouldn't be mistaken for a Christie, but they're well done nonetheless. In this book, Cynthia Catchpool in particular is a fabulous character. I like the way readers are given more insight into the friendship between Poirot and Edward Catchpool. The mystery is twisty enough to be enjoyable, but not so convoluted that it's hard to follow. Poirot is Poirot in all his persnickety glory. There are some surprising plot twists.
In this book, Poirot and Catchpool are finalizing their plans for the Christmas dinner they plan to share when they are interrupted by a breathless woman who insists that they must go with her at once to spend Christmas at the large home of a friend. The friend is in distress because her husband, who is quite ill and nearing the end of his days, plans to admit himself to a hospital right after the new year. He wants to spend the time he has left solving the mystery of who killed a patient there three months before. His wife is trying everything she can to convince him not to go because she is sure he will be killed next. The police have had no luck solving the three-month old murder, so Poirot is needed. Things go on from there as Poirot and Catchpool put up with horrible food, a freezing old house, and more.

The book is also funny. There were places where I laughed out loud at the descriptions she provides. For example, "He spoke in an inelegant manner, one had the sense that a struggle between words and teeth was taking place, with no clear winner emerging.' If you love Christmas mysteries, Hercule Poirot, and/or mystery stories with a collection of quirky characters--some of whom can't stand one another--thrown together in what is supposed to be a festive atmosphere, this would be a great one to pick up.

I thank NetGalley, the publisher, and the author for a digital review copy.

Friday, October 27, 2023

Do You Mind if I Ask Why?

 On January 1, 1996, I woke up feeling like crap. This wasn't unusual from either group or personal perspectives. Countless people woke up with hangovers on that day and for me, while it was less common than it had been over the previous 15 years or so, it still happened. Funnily enough, I hadn't consumed nearly as much alcohol as I had on so many other occasions, but I also hadn't eaten very much, so that probably had something to do with the sad state I was in. This time, though, something had shifted and I thought to myself, 'This is so stupid. I'm not doing this anymore.' And I didn't. I was lucky. Somehow I was able to really focus on how I was feeling and associate that with my behaviour around booze, so I actually felt repulsed by the idea of having a drink, instead of having to deal with cravings and the difficulties that come with recovery. Having just a drink or two was never going to be an option, because I knew myself well enough to know that if I started, I wasn't going to stop there, so I just never started--and never wanted to. I went on with my life. Then we moved to Ireland.

Shortly after we got here, we met up with a woman we'd been corresponding with online for a while. Her husband is also from the US. She invited us to spend a couple days at their house, staying overnight. Before dinner, she asked us what we wanted to drink--wine, beer, something else. I opted for coffee. She asked me why I didn't want a drink and then asked if I drank at all. I said I didn't. 'Do you mind if I ask why?' she replied. 'I don't mind at all. I used to drink way too much, so I stopped.' I answered. Then she explained how she doesn't drink that much and only sometimes, and that sort of thing. I was taken aback. I really didn't care what her drinking habits were--she was in her home and not driving anywhere, so none of my business. I nodded, smiled, and probably made some meaningless remark.

A couple months later, our lovely neighbour invited me to her women-only birthday party, telling me not to bring anything except whatever I wanted to drink. It was summer, so I got some sparkling water with lemon. At the party, I sat between two older women. One was telling me her history about how she went to Chicago for a while to live with an aunt and uncle, arriving at Christmastime and being awed by all the lights and decorations. The other one occasionally made some comments that I found amusing, including that she'd seen us walking around with our backpacks and was so happy that her friend had respectable people as new neighbours. Eventually, she said to me, 'I notice that you're drinking water. Don't you want a drink?' 'No, thank you,' I replied, 'The water is perfect.' Then she asked me if I ever drink. I said I didn't. 'Do you mind if I ask why?' she said. My reply was the same as above. I started getting really interested in why I was being interrogated for my choice to not drink. I was even more interested in the story she told me about her nephew, who stopped drinking and then felt unable to engage in any social activities whatsoever, so never left his house. Then she went on to say, with her slurred speech and while waving the glass that held her 6th or 7th gin and tonic around, 'I've had three and I wouldn't have another if ya shot me for it. I know when I've had enough.'

I came across a book at the library not long after that--a memoir written by an Irish guy who started drinking to excess when a young teenager and who was, at the time of writing, in recovery. He talked about how hard it was to hang out with friends after he stopped drinking because everyone else was and usually to the point where they were drunk. This was at a time when non-drinkers didn't really have too many options in pubs and other such places. As he described it, pubs were where social life happened. People didn't visit each other in their homes, they met at pubs. Celebrations happened at pubs. First communion? Pub. Birthday? Pub. A day ending in 'y'? Pub. Everything was at the pubs. I found that book very useful. As we've lived for the last year near the loud bar and in this village where there are a lot of drunk people wandering the streets yelling, I have started thinking about another reason not drinking would make socializing difficult. It must be a very different experience yelling along to Zombie, slurring through some songs you don't know the words to during karaoke, whooping at the same old bad covers of bad country western songs, or doing a call and response version of Sweet Caroline on opposite ends of Main St when you're drunk than it is when sober. And the whole thing must seem boring and embarrassing if you're not toasted. 

Thursday, October 26, 2023

The Dictionary People: The Unsung Heroes Who Created the Oxford English Dictionary by Sarah Ogilvie

 Bill saw this book and thought I'd love it, so he bought it for me. Love it I did! It's a fun romp through the alphabet with each letter characterizing certain people who were at the heart of the creation of the Oxford English dictionary.

What a cast of characters it was! Back in the day when the first edition of the dictionary was being created, the call went out for people to read books and periodicals, pick out words, provide a quote and a citation, and send the slips of paper to the editor. Some people sent in a few and some were more prolific, sending in thousands and even hundreds of thousands in some cases. People from all different walks of life and with wildly varying interests sent in slips, many from publications having to do with their own particular obsessions. This is such a great book, dealing as it does with words, but also brief life stories and even a bit about the culture in which the dictionary was being created. This is a wonderful addition to my book collection and I know I'll be picking it up from time to time to open at random and read some chapters again. 

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Not Perfect, Better

 It may appear to some readers from posts like yesterday's that I regret coming to Ireland. I understand why it could come across that way, but nothing could be further from the truth. I have never regretted moving here. Are there problems? Yup. Am I sometimes stressed, angry, frustrated, annoyed, etc? Of course. That's life. There were problems in every place in which I've lived and I felt all the things in every place I've lived--and will until I take my last breath. That's being human. Problems are almost always caused by people (including myself) and there are people everywhere. Long before we knew we were moving here, but during the time when it was a long-tern goal, people would ask me if I really thought it would be any different here than in the US. I said I was sure it would be. Once I moved here, people have commented that they sometimes think about moving but, 'since it's the same everywhere, there's no point.' I always reply to this kind of comment that it's not perfect here or anywhere, but it's better than the country I come from--at least for me. And that's the thing--we are all different and different places will suit different people in better and worse ways. I never was and was never going to be comfortable in the US for many reasons. I always felt misplaced. I'm always going to be an outsider here, too, but I am more comfortable. It's easier to live my simple life based on my own set of ethics here than it was there. It's fascinating to live in a country that's only a century old and that has the opposite founding myths to the US. The US myths are about exceptionalism and greatness. There are many problems with this, of course, not least because these blind people right the way across the political spectrum to the fact that the country is susceptible to the same kinds of movements and dangers as other countries. I used to be amazed at how people would genuinely think that certain sorts of political ideology could not possibly happen there because the country is somehow so special as to be immune. This fed into my understanding that leaving was a good idea, since it was glaringly obvious where things were going--and probably without the amount of resistance necessary to slow or halt the progress of such ideas. I think people are grappling with these issues now and it has been traumatic for many who believed their country was somehow something other than what it is. On the other hand, this was a colonized country until a century ago (and some would say that the colonization continues as long as the 6 counties of Northern Ireland remain a part of the UK). The history is close by. There are no delusions of grandeur here, although as things go in certain ways in the UK on one side and the US on another, you can see a bit of smugness start to show itself, which is fascinating. People are people. And yet, it is remarkable how much progress has been made in a short period of time--when Bill and I got married, divorce and birth control were illegal here. When we moved here, Bill voted in the election to legalize marriage equality. This was the first nation to do this by popular vote--and it was not even close. There is no far right political party here like Republicans in the US (the word 'republican' has a different meaning here in any case). There are some scattered hateful people who are trying to organize more with the help of social media and they sometimes pop up, but pushback is swift. And there is more willingness to look at the atrocities committed in the name of the church (which was the main driver of these things here) and to take ownership of them as a society, reminding people that the mistreatment of women and children was something that individuals/society participated in at the time and allowed to happen. Very different than current attempts to pretend that the US was not built on genocide and slavery. Here again, it's not perfect, just better. There is racism here as well as lingering religious division, which often is the veneer for other sorts of divisions. It's entirely likely that a person of colour would not see much difference between the racism here and that in the US and elsewhere, but my white privilege shields me from that kind of experience. I am aware that my experience as an immigrant is hugely different than that of others, partly because I am the spouse of a citizen, partly because of my skin colour, and partly because of where I come from. Will Ireland eventually go the way of other countries and have a large far-right extremist segment of the population and political party or two? Almost certainly. People are people. History cycles. Just as the US will cycle out of the current situation, Ireland will probably cycle back into some nasty stuff, although it'll look different than the old days. But I was there and am here at particular moments in the cycle. I could see where things were heading in the US and knew it was best to leave. It happened that where we landed is in a much different part of their cycle. We went from a country moving backwards to one moving forward, which has been a fascinating experience.

No matter how long I live here, I will never be Irish. It always used to make me laugh when, just after the 2016 US election, people would ask us where we're from and when we would tell them their face would fall and they would look sympathetically at us before saying, 'Well you're European now, so you're OK.' I'm not European, either. I know that to some degree, I will always be uncomfortably United Statesian, simply because that's where I was born and enculturated. But I also know that I never felt like I belonged there, either. I was enculturated there, but always was a little apart--always observing, analyzing, and figuring out what on earth was going on while understanding that the whole 'American dream,' suburban, upper middle class lifestyle I was supposed to be so grateful for just seemed weird and often baffling. I get it from an intellectual perspective, but I was always at a remove. I guess that's just easier and more comfortable for me here where I am in the proper role at last. I AM an outsider in every way and will be for as long as I'm here. And yet, societal infrastructure and attitudes are closer to my own ideas here than there. They recognize large issues here in a way that wasn't the case among people I knew in the US. The foundational understandings are different and more realistic here as are their attitudes towards themselves. They're not as insulated as people in the US, where the idea that they are the centre of the universe is sort of assumed. So for those reasons and more, I don't regret coming here and I'm grateful to have been able to do so. Who knows what will happen in the future. What I do know is that this experience of living in a different way--even though on the surface it doesn't look that different--has broadened and deepened my understanding of things both outside and inside myself, given me much to think about and consider, and made me a better person than I would have been without this experience. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Special Circumstances

 On Sunday afternoon, the local GAA men's football club won the Donegal championship. This meant an excuse for the locals to get drunk and yell for hours and hours. Not that excuses are needed--they do this anyway, albeit not quite to the same degree. Anyway, loud thumping music began at about 7:45 and went on until 3 am. This was accompanied by screaming and yelling and attempts to sing along. They played Queen's 'We Are the Champions' 5 times in a row. This was all quite near our home. Annoying.

Yesterday, Monday, the thumpy 'music' began at 2:30 in the afternoon, went on for a couple of hours, stopped for an hour, then went on for a couple more hours. At 1 am, I went to bed. It was quiet and I was tired from getting little sleep the night before. At 2:30 this morning, I was awakened by pounding music. The lights were on in the beer garden of a nearby bar, which had been dark when I went to bed. At 4:30, they were yelling along to the Cranberries song Zombie. At 5, the music stopped.

At 3 am, after being woken up but before the Zombie experience, I was standing in the living room emailing a guy (I'll call him Bob, although that's not his real name) I'd corresponded with a few months ago about the noise. He'd sent a warning letter and the music did end up stopping slightly earlier for a while. I also sent an email to the office of a TD (like a US senator, kind of) about this issue--I'd contacted his office a couple weeks ago to get an answer to a question that had not been answered by Bob, and that was: At what time does the noise have to stop or move inside? Interestingly, no one gave me an answer. I was told to call Gardai (police), when the noise was disruptive at late hours, but how can I do that if I don't know what hours they are allowed to be loud? So I asked both again and this time I got an answer. It's 11:30 Sunday-Thursday and 12:30 Friday and Saturday, according to Bob, but there are certain special circumstances that allow for later times. Winning the football match is one of them, apparently, although it is still unclear to me how long the 'special circumstance' lasts. I hope two days is enough. Bob said he would send another warning letter and call them as well. He has been helpful. He again said I should call the gardai every time there is a problem. I told him about what I was told by a garda spouse, which was that they won't touch this kind of thing because people will hate them and often they are in the pubs after hours themselves. In this case, the pub seems to cater to young males, which, as Bill has pointed out, is exactly the problem. We lived a few doors down from a pub in a different Irish town which had live music all the time--never heard a peep from the pub-goers. The music was trad music,which we never heard--we just knew from the signs announcing the music. There was no screaming in the pub or on the street. There were numerous pubs, but not the level of loud public drunkenness that exists here.

So anyone planning a trip to Ireland, beware. This kind of thing happens in rural and the few urban areas that exist here. Drunk people wander around yelling, pubs play loud music, and in some urban areas, homeowners have to clean up vomit and feces from their property. They like to blame tourists, but it's not just down to that. I'd say the problem is local, not from away. Some places we've lived don't have this issue, but this one does in a big way. So when planning accommodation, tourists should take care to not book a place near pubs just in case. And be mindful of any 'special circumstances' like GAA games and fairs and festivals when things get worse. This is an expensive place to travel to, from what I understand, and it would be a shame to have a trip ruined by this kind of crap!

Saturday, October 21, 2023

The Wisdom of Sheep

 The Wisdom of Sheep & Other Animals: Observations from a Family Farm
by Rosamund Young
ISBN 9780571368259
Rosamund Young grew up on a farm and has farmed her whole life. Now she runs a farm with her brother, Richard, and her partner, Gareth. This book is a collection of some of her stories about being a farmer, the animals on her farm, and her interactions with them. She anthropomorphizes throughout and is quite sure she knows what each animal is thinking and trying to communicate to her. That may or may not be off-putting for readers, but I just took this with a pinch of salt and enjoyed the stories for what they are. The title highlights sheep, and there are stories about sheep, but most are about the cows. That's fine--they are all entertaining stories and very enjoyable to read. A few of them did end quite abruptly and seemed like they weren't quite finished. I would have liked to have read more about these particular situations. Overall, however, the book was fun to read. I kept thinking that it's a pleasant book. It seems like it'd be a great book to have around so it could be picked up and opened at random whenever one wanted a pick-me-up or just had a few minutes in which to be entertained. It's that kind of book--it would make an already good day even better and would provide a few minutes of ease in a more difficult day. Or it can be enjoyably read in sequence from start to finish as I read it. .

Thanks toNetGalley, the publisher, and the author for a digital review copy.

Friday, October 20, 2023

Human Origins: A Short History

 Human Origins: A Short History
by Sarah Wild
ISBN 9781789295788

At the beginning of this book, the author states, "The aim of this book is to break the complex human story into bite-sized chunks, to highlight the broad trends and the major disagreements--and there are many disagreements...I have also tried to highlight how much our understanding of human origins has changed--and continues to change--and how, in some ways, palaeoanthropology showcases some of the best features of scientific inquiry..." (p6) Does she succeed at the task she has set for herself? Indeed she does! She skillfully weaves the many threads of the story of human origins into a very readable, informative, fascinating narrative. Along the way, some threads get dropped and new ones picked up as more evidence becomes available. The search for the definitive story of how we--Homo sapiens sapiens--became the last homo species left will probably never be completely understood. The clues are random and necessarily fragmentary. We only have what turns up in the archaeological record. Then there is the interpretation of what is found, which often leads to disagreement between scientists. There is broad agreement that anatomically modern humans have been around for about 300,000 years, but how we got to that point and what happened to the other human species is still being explored. One 'fun fact' in the book was that Homo sapiens is the only hominin species (the lineage of species that diverged from chimpanzees 6 to 7 million years ago and resulted in us) to have a chin, as far as scientists know, and they don't know why. This book is a great overview of the current state of thinking about human origins. It explains things without getting deep into jargon--general readers will find the book fascinating, highly readable, and informative. My one quibble was the explanatory boxes that were placed in the middle of the text. They provided important information, but the placement did interrupt the narrative flow for me, so I ended up just reading each chapter, then going back to read the text within the boxes. That's a minor issue, though, and about organization, not the excellent book itself. This is a small book, but there is much food for thought within it.

Thanks to NetGalley, the publisher, and the author for a digital review copy.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

The Winter Spirits: Ghostly Tales for Frosty Nights

The Winter Spirits:Ghostly Tales for Frosty Nights

by Bridget Collins; Imogen Hermes Gowar; Natasha Pulley; Jess Kidd; Andrew Michael Hurley; Elizabeth Macneal; Laura Purcell; Kiran Millwood Hargrave; Stuart Turton; Catriona Ward; Laura Shepherd-Robinson; Susan Stokes-Chapman

ISBN 9781408727584

Here is a collection of Christmas stories with a twist, solidly in the holiday ghost story tradition. And what a fabulous collection it is! Usually in any short story collection there is at least one story that I am not that thrilled about. Not so here. Each story was wonderful in its own chilling way. These are not holly jolly Christmas stories, There is a sense of menace and creepiness to all of them. One story was like Bluebeard with a twist and another reminded me in a vague way of The Lottery. Settings range from old country houses to remote island villas to a small house next to a church in a seaside village and more. The writing is superb. In her story, The Gargoyle, Bridget Collins describes 'window boxes foaming with lobelia.' What a perfect description! All the stories take place at Advent, Christmas, or New Year's Eve. This is my first time reading most of these authors, but I would happily read more of their work based on this collection. I was a little sorry when I got to the end--glad to have had the reading experience, but bummed that it was over. Definitely 5 stars! And isn't the cover image great?! I've just noticed they changed the cover from 'frosty nights' to 'festive nights.' My copy had the former.

Thanks to NetGalley, the publisher and the author for a digital ARC.