wandering_star in 2021, part 2

É uma continuação do tópico wandering_star in 2021.

DiscussãoClub Read 2021

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wandering_star in 2021, part 2

Editado: Jun 17, 1:06am

63. Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake

A rather mind-boggling book about fungi. It’s pretty hard to summarise - each chapter has a book’s worth of information, and sometimes it’s the kind of information which makes you rethink things you thought you knew.

Plants are only able to grow on land because for tens of millions of years, fungi served as their root systems (until plants evolved their own roots) and even now fungi serve as extensions to many plants in a way which makes it hard to say where one entity ends and another begins.

Fungi are able to break down rock, crude oil, various plastics, TNT. A population of fungi at Chernobyl may be slowly cleaning up the site. The shaggy ink cap mushroom will dissolve into liquid if you leave it in a jar, but can grow through asphalt or lift a paving stone - producing enough force to lift an object weighing 130 kilograms.

Incidentally, the illustrations in the book are drawn with deliquesced ink cap mushroom - and Sheldrake is also planning to turn the book into food and drink with the aid of fungi - he writes that he will grow oyster mushrooms on it, and ferment a mashed up copy of the book into beer. This is perhaps indicative of the way that thinking too much about mushrooms can seriously change the way you view the world.

All pretty incredible - and brought to life by Sheldrake’s eye for a good story and ability to write pretty lyrically.

A heap of Piedmont white truffles, Tuber magnatum, sat on the scales on a check-patterned rag. They were scruffy, like unwashed stones; irregular, like potatoes; socketed, like skulls.

Incidentally this book reminded me a lot of I Contain Multitudes, which explained the profound role played by bacteria - like fungi, an unseen presence with major effects.

Jun 15, 7:13pm

64. The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz

Kristallnacht. Two men, old friends who fought beside each other in WWI, are discussing the sale of a business. The business owner is Jewish - his friend, former employee and prospective future owner of the business is not, and is driving a hard bargain. Then there comes a hammering on the door, and Otto slips out by the back way before the thugs outside can break into his flat. For the rest of the story, he goes from place to place looking for somewhere that he can feel safe. (The original title of the novel is ‘The Man Who Took Trains’).

This book was written at the end of 1938 by a German Jew who had managed to leave Germany three years earlier. It’s fantastic at conveying the sense of fear and threat - not just against Otto but anyone who doesn’t go along with the prevailing wind of the times (there is an excellent scene in a train carriage, where Otto for once is not the one under scrutiny, which highlights how quickly things could turn ugly).

It’s an incredibly uncomfortable read - it’s almost like reading a thriller in terms of the way that the story grips, except that you know that the horror is true. It’s not a long book, and it’s fast-paced, but quite gruelling to get through.

Newsboys were hawking their papers, and Silbermann had the impression they were doing a brisk business. For a moment he considered buying one for himself but then decided against it, since he figured the news was bound to be bad, and almost certainly hostile, at least as far as he was concerned. He would undoubtedly be experiencing it all firsthand soon enough.

Jun 15, 7:39pm

65. Little Constructions by Anna Burns

This is the book that Anna Burns wrote before Milkman, her Booker-winning novel which was notable for the way that she used language to highlight the things that weren’t talked about - almost writing around the gaps caused by people not being able to talk frankly about the conflict in Northern Ireland and the people who fight it. It’s really interesting to read Little Constructions after reading that, as it’s an earlier and I think less successful version of the same thing - so you can see how her skill developed.

In Little Constructions the people that can’t be scrutinised are not paramilitaries but a gang of local hard men, the Doe family - but the underlying theme is the same, the impact on a society of ignoring the violence within it. This book also has a much more madcap tone, an absurd dark humour which reminded me a bit of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.

In Milkman, the violence that everyone is working so hard to ignore is so suppressed that it changes the language around it. Here, the violence is visible and explicit, juxtaposed with the response of the people trying not to see it: such as the elderly women at a bus stop talking animatedly about completely invented gossip so they don’t have to acknowledge the fact that one of the thuggish Does is assaulting a woman who had been waiting for a bus and failed to respond to his chat up lines; or the teenage girl, daughter of the same Doe family, who comes home to find the body of someone who’s been beaten to death, and her only deviation from her normal routine is that after she’s had a cup of tea in her bedroom, she washes up in the bathroom sink instead of going back downstairs.

I’m specifying these acts of violence because I think otherwise talking about the madcap tone might undersell how grim some of the events in this book are. I can understand that Burns might have adopted this tone as an additional distancing measure from the events of the story - but it becomes increasingly discordant.

It also makes the story extremely confusing - the timeline hops back and forth, sometimes years, in the middle of an episode; the narrator tells you about something happening and then that this is not in fact how it happened; and every single member of the Doe family has a name beginning with J. An even bigger problem with the book is that it goes over the same message again and again, with little in the way of real plot - and the more often it repeats its theme the less impactful it is. It’s a pity really, because sometimes it’s brilliant. If the book was half the length it would have been more powerful. (I also thought Milkman could be shorter, for similar reasons).

Of course, the Ordinary Decent Folk were back outside amassing. Now the point was, were they amassing out of approbation or out of disapprobation? One can never tell with amassments, not until someone starts the applause off, or at least throws that first stone.

Jun 16, 1:36pm

stopping by your new thread. I enjoyed these three posts. I'm not sure I have heard of The Passenger, but it stands out as fascinating relic. Glad to read about it here. And enjoyed the insight into Anna Burns earlier novel. (And, not to neglect post 1, fungi are cool.)

Jun 16, 2:17pm

>3 wandering_star: Vivienne just put this book on my wishlist, and you would have done the same. I listened to Milkman, and loved it. I’m trying to decide if listening is the way to go for this one as well.

Editado: Jun 16, 3:59pm

>3 wandering_star: Really interesting. I was not planning to read Milkman but I might reconsider my position after reading your review.

>2 wandering_star: And The Passenger seems really interesting, and exactly the type of book I am likely to read. Thanks for putting this on my radar!

Jun 16, 4:08pm

>1 wandering_star: I have Entangled Life on my bookcase. Sounds fascinating!

Jun 16, 6:07pm

>1 wandering_star: I have this one not only on my theoretical pile, but on my desk as one of my summer/fall reads. Also because I LOVE the cover and it makes me happy to gaze on it.

Jun 16, 8:35pm

>1 wandering_star: Taking a book bullet for Sheldrake's Entangled life.

Jun 17, 11:56am

Noting all three books for various reasons. Excellent reviews!

Jun 17, 9:38pm

>1 wandering_star:
I'm looking forward to Entangled Life. I gave it to my daughter for Christmas and I need to remember to pull it off her shelf. I got super interested in mushrooms after reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Jun 18, 10:22am

Hello everyone and welcome to my new thread! It is lovely to see you here. And sorry/not sorry about the book bullets...

Editado: Jun 18, 10:44am

66. Dreamland by Rosa Rankin-Gee

There were so many edges, edges everywhere. It’s just you never know where exactly the edge is until you tip over it.

Chance is a girl growing up at the end of the line. Her out-of-work mother has been given some money to leave the city and go to Margate, where many other rootless people have also drifted. Anyone with any means left the town after the big floods started coming - so there are lots of empty houses, but little in the way of social services. And when, after an eye-catching local protest, the government cuts them off completely, things start getting even worse. Chance has to grow up quick to look after her family - a loving but self-destructive mother, and tiny baby brother - but she can still find adventure and occasional beauty in the streets - particularly after she rescues from violence a young woman who has come to the town from outside, and the two become close. At the same time, a rabble-rousing populist politician comes to Margate and his team ply the townsfolk with free drinks and talk about pride. Although Chance is suspicious of his politics, she's persuaded to become one of his advocates, encouraging her friends and neighbours to go along with his ideas - until things change and she feels terribly betrayed.

Dreamland builds this near-future dystopia out of trends which are actually happening - the fact that many people without resources wind up in former holiday resort towns around the edges of Britain; global warming and the sea level rise that will follow; and the most unattractive end of populist politics. Chance is a great character - credible and sympathetic as someone who is trying to do her best in unbelievably tough circumstances. The book is really, really good - and really, really bleak. So I don't know if this is a recommendation, exactly! What I do know is that I DEFINITELY need to read a cheerful book next, after these last three.

Jun 18, 12:12pm

Great reviews, here. I, too, am fascinated by The Passenger, given when it was written and by whom especially. Such eyewitness testimonies are ever more crucial as events recede in time.

My wife read Little Constructions and liked it well enough. She had read about Milkman and was keen to read that, but decided to read Burns' earlier novel first. So she read them both and had more or less the same reaction you did to Little Constructions, good but nowhere near as good as Milkman, which she insisted I read and which we both thought brilliant.

Entangled Life looks fascinating.

Jun 22, 6:45pm

>14 rocketjk: Thank you! I really do think Milkman is a remarkable work, I am glad you both thought it was good.

Jun 22, 7:09pm

67. The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart

It turns out I don't have much 'cheerful' reading in my library - most of my relaxing reading is crime novels, and I don't have much light-hearted stuff. However, this book hit the spot perfectly - an absorbing read which had nothing to do with any of the problems of modern life.

It's the third in a series of books reimagining the story of King Arthur, which tries to find a route through the myth which does not rely on magic (Merlin has second sight, but most of his legendary accomplishments are due to skill rather than magic). Book Two ended with Arthur being acclaimed king - this volume takes us through many years of his reign, achieving peace and security against the Saxons and imposing his power against the enemy within.

One of my favourite things about this series is the way that it portrays the country at a time of change - where the ruins and memories of Rome are still there, which is gradually moving towards Christianity.

My book has an afterword in which Stewart talks about coming to the end of her Arthur stories - although there are actually two more books in the series, which I imagine she must have decided to add later.

I went softly forward over the broken pavement. I knew what I would find; a shrine full of dust and cold air, like the abdicated temple of Mithras at Segontium. But it was possible, I told myself, as I trod up the steps and between the still massive doorposts of the central cella, that the old gods who had sprung, like the oak trees and the grass and the rivers themselves—it was possible that these beings made of the air and earth and water of our sweet land, were harder to dislodge than the visiting gods of Rome. Such a one, I had long believed, was mine. He might still be here, where the night air blew through the empty shrine, filling it with the sound of the trees.

Jun 22, 7:32pm

68. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

And… back to slightly traumatic reading, with this gripping novel set in 1950s Mexico. Sassy socialite Noemí is sent off by her father to check up on her cousin Catalina, who hasn’t been seen since she very suddenly married and moved to her new husband’s rural family home. Catalina has sent a couple of very strange letters to her uncle, but when he’s contacted her house, her husband insists that nothing is wrong. Noemí’s father tells her that if she can sort this out, he’ll finally agree to her wish to go to university. So off she sets, to a crumbling, mouldy mansion. The family who live there certainly have eccentric habits - but perhaps these can be explained away by the fact that the father of the family, who is slowly dying, is a tyrannical patriarch who wants to hang on to the customs the family brought with them from Britain. Or perhaps they can’t…

The house, so quiet, with its curtains drawn, was like a dress lined with lead. Everything was heavy, even the air, and a musty scent lingered along the hallways.

This was great. Gripping, atmospheric, and maintained a good balance quite far into the book of what might possibly be going on - there are a couple of possible supernatural options, a couple of options based on human nastiness, and even a potential option where nothing bad is happening at all. Also: so intense that I periodically had to have a break between chapters.

Editado: Jun 22, 8:20pm

>17 wandering_star: This sounds really good. I snapped it up when it went on sale this year, and I'm looking forward to it.

Jun 23, 10:09am

I read the Stewart Merlin books years ago and remember them fondly. I keep thinking I should reread them.

You have great comments about your books; they give me a clear picture of the book. I'm not sure about Mexican Gothic; I've heard wildly varying comments.

Jul 13, 10:13am

When I last posted on this thread it brought me right up to date with my reviews. I felt quite proud of myself... but have clearly slipped since then.

69. A Swim In A Pond In The Rain by George Saunders

This book is based on a course that George Saunders teaches to aspiring writers - close readings of seven Russian short stories. Saunders pauses the first short story a few times, to ask us the readers questions about how we are responding. After that, we read the story first, then Saunders offers his comments on it.

I got so much from reading this. The stories that Saunders has chosen are not plot-heavy, and I think that if I just read them on their own, I would feel that nothing had really happened in them. His commentary definitely helped me to see and appreciate new aspects of the stories. I also like the fact that his commentary is opinionated - it doesn't aim at being neutral. I certainly didn't agree with everything he said, but his thoughts are those of someone who has read and thought about the story many, many times, and it was interesting to test my responses against his.

In the first pulse of a story, the writer is like a juggler, throwing bowling pins into the air. The rest of the story is the catching of those pins. At any point in the story, certain pins are up there and we can feel them. We’d better feel them. If not, the story has nothing out of which to make its meaning.

Jul 13, 10:21am

70. Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud

This book follows the lives of three Trinidadians - Betty, a young widow, her lodger, Mr Chetan, and her son, Solo. Mr Chetan lodges with Betty for many years, until he is almost a member of the family - he certainly becomes a father figure for Solo. But both Mr Chetan and Betty have secrets, and eventually when the now-adult Solo learns one of them, he flees the island and winds up living with an uncle in New York.

I found this quite charming while I was reading it - Betty and Mr Chetan are great characters - but I only finished it a couple of weeks ago and find it has left less of an impression on my memory.

What you want? I’m doing homework.
Go in the garden and cut some seasoning, please.
Why you can’t get it?
I’m not asking you again. I want a dozen chadon beni leaves and two-three pimento peppers.
He rolled his eyes and turned to go. When did the devil switch my darling doux-doux for this rude man-child?
And bring a bunch of chive too, please. Oh, and some thyme. A good handful of thyme.
It’s a lucky thing I wasn’t in a hurry because Solo like he was waiting for the herbs them to grow.
He dumped a sweet-smelling bag on the counter. All from my garden. I love that.

Editado: Jul 13, 10:36am

71. Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

I have not read enough Alice Munro. These short stories were absolutely brilliant. Having just read the Saunders, I maybe paid a bit more attention than I normally would to what information was being shared, and where that made you think the story was going. I certainly concluded that these are all stories which start quite a long way away from where they end, build slowly, and end devastatingly, often with something at the end of the story which makes you question everything you thought you knew of where the story was taking you so far.

The stories are very hard to summarise, but my favourite, "Fiction", is available here (unfortunately in a rather annoying PDF format), and the most devastating one, "Wenlock Edge", is here.

Falling. That suggests some time span, a slipping under. But you can think of it as a speeding up, a moment or a second when you fall. Now Jon is not in love with Edie. Tick. Now he is. No way this could be seen as probable or possible, unless you think of a blow between the eyes, a sudden calamity. The stroke of fate that leaves a man a cripple, the wicked joke that turns clear eyes into blind stones.

Jul 13, 11:40am

72. Liquid by Mark Miodownik

I bought this because I loved the same writer's Stuff Matters. Miodownik is a materials scientist and in Stuff Matters he took a pop-science look at ten substances - glass, graphite and so on. In this book, he does the same for liquids. The structuring device for Stuff Matters was a photo of him sitting in a roof garden, having a cup of tea. In Liquid, he is on a plane, and the liquids include jet fuel, seawater, saliva and so on.

I did not enjoy this anywhere near as much as I liked the previous book - although it's possible this is because I had much higher expectations. Or maybe there is less variation between liquids? That seems unlikely. Anyway I found myself making much fewer notes on this one.

In a stormy ocean, it’s hard to determine length because all the waves are jumbled on top of each other; a rough, stormy sea looks like a moving morass of angry water. When the storm ends, though, the waves carry on their way, and because they all have different wavelengths, they also have different speeds. So, as the waves travel across hundreds of kilometres of ocean, they separate out into sets, based on which ones are moving at similar speeds. Within the sets, the waves align so that they run parallel. Eventually, each set will arrive at the coast in an ordered and regular pattern. Thus the crash of waves on to the beach is essentially the sound of a storm that’s come from very far away. That beautiful, hypnotic rhythm is all thanks to the complexities of ocean dynamics.

Jul 13, 2:36pm

Enjoyed these. Love the last quote from Liquid. I’m very interested in that Saunders book.