The Books of May

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

Listened to:

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