Books I read in May:
xo Orpheus — ed. Kate Bernheimer
The editor translates “xo” as Goodbye but I’ve always thought that “xo” means a kiss and a hug. Which I think is actually a better title for the collection it being not so much a farewell to the myths, folklore and fairy tales as a conversation with them. 50 “new myths” are arranged alphabetically by topic. Starting with A … Anthropogenesis and Norse Creation and ending with Z … Zeus and Europa after the D’Aulaires. By 50 different authors. An uneven collection but a few have stuck out enough to earn having the author’s name scribbled into a notebook for further investigation.
I dip in anf out of this and it might several more months of idle attention to finish.
* Not so much a goodbye as a love letter.
Best American Essays 2014 — ed. John Jeremiah Sullivan
Another collection of essays. These chosen by John Jeremiah Sullivan, whose introduction is a yawn inducing recitation of the history of the “essay”. I like Sullivan’s work as an essayist. I’m less enamored of his work as an editor. More uneven than most of the collections both in the highlights (better than many years, but no surprises) and the boredom quotient. This series is always worth while for those looking to study the state of the art in essays and perhaps find a new author or venue for reading.
* mixed quality, but what collection of bests isn’t?
Manual for Cleaning Women — Lucia Berlin
The stories in this collection need to read slowly. Three or four stories in a row is overwhelming. You’ll have to intersperse them with some other material, perhaps non‐fiction.
Very close to auto‐biography, Berlin’s stories follow a series of characters who walk through the author’s life beginning in the mining towns of the west, following her mining engineer father and broken‐hearted, alcoholic mother to Chile as a teenager, then moving back to the US. Followed by several marriages, four sons, and her own battle with alcoholism. With stops as a ward secretary in a hospital, doctor’s receptionist, cleaning woman, and artist’s muse among them. By turns harrowing and joyful and always sharply observed. Berlin’s language describes the everyday world’s particulars in fresh ways. For example her descriptions of people are dead on and utterly original. From the sweaty manatee of a man seen at a bus stop, to the albino dinosaur girl, with stops at all conditions and sorts in between. I can’t recommend this collection highly enough. For entertainment and study as an example for your own stories.
* a stylist to emulate and stories that will make you smile with a wink.
On the Move: A Life — Oliver Sacks
Straight up autobiography, is not a genre in which I generally read. If I’m going to spend time with someone’s real life, I prefer biography with its outsider’s perspective. However, Sacks spent years observing and writing about the lives of others, and this lends his account of his own life a distance and observer’s perspective. From his school days in England to his accounts of his first years in America and his slow realization that as a neurologist his strength lay in the observation and synthesis of material rather than the hard science research that he initially set out to do.
You get a very real sense of the man himself and his fascination with the things that the brain/mind can do. The grownup Sacks is an outsider to much of the medical profession and personally bit of a pill, which he seems to recognize. But the young Sacks, in his twenties, is a fabulous study in intellect vs hedonism. I loved his Venice Beach, motorbikes, hitchhiking, and amphetamine and LSD fueled self‐exploration.
An especially nice read for anyone who has enjoyed his other books.
* a charming young man grows up to one of the great observers of the human condition
What is Not Yours Is Not Yours — Helen Oyeyemi
Short stories by the author of Boy, Snow, Bird. I know that I enjoyed these stories but somehow none of them stuck with me. I think this is a reflection of my state of mind this month rather than any short comings of the stories. I will reread the book in June and provide a better report.
* sometimes I suck as a reviewer — ask again next month
Murder on the Orient Express — Agatha Christie
Classic Agatha Christie. These audio books are nicely done renditions of the stories with a good narrator. But they are too expensive for me to want to listen to too many of them. Besides if you want a Poirot fix you can watch the David Suchet/PBS versions on Netflix.
* classic material, nicely conveyed
Harry Potter and the Everything — JK Rowling
All of Harry Potter. Seriously 120 hours of JK Rowling. I seem to have needed a big chunk of the month to just go away. So I listened to HP and his friends battle the forces of evil and prevail. I also pieced three quilt tops.
I learned a good deal about the use of exposition in narrative and the difficulties and benefits of using a close, single person POV. You never leave Harry’s side and that adds to the immediacy of the books but makes some of the world building difficult. Rowling commonly employs two tactics to deliver the information that Harry doesn’t know. Several of the books end with a chapter or two of exposition that explains the antecedents of the events in the story, generally delivered as friendly chats between Harry and Dumbledore. The other dodge being the use of a magical item called the “Pensive,” a memory viewer that provides a way to present story elements that are not directly available to Harry. The seven book series provided a couple of weeks of immersion in unreality and easy story.
* because who doesn’t love being read a story