A Year of Themed Reviews – April: Earth Day: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Silent SpringSilent Spring by Rachel Carson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was terrifying. Even nearly sixty years later, Carson’s cry for caution as we drench our fragile world in powerful chemicals – though often for the best of reasons; stopping multitudinous deaths by insect-born diseases and preventing staggering crop losses to various herbaceous predators – cuts to the heart of an issue that still plagues us today: our powerful chemical helpers may be causing serious problems. Maybe. We don’t know.

Starting off with quick, easy to follow overviews of biology and chemistry, Silent Spring spends a chapter each on the pesticide-threatened areas: ground water, soil, plants, rivers, and animals. You would think that would be the end of it but it goes deeper. Cells. Bacteria. Cancer. Each page brings new layers of side effects and unintended consequences. After almost sixty years, you would hope that none of this would be relevant anymore. This is not necessarily the case.

Pro-tip: Don’t read the first few chapters while eating.

Terrifying.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – April: Earth Day: The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant

The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and GreedThe Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed by John Vaillant
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was not anticipating the range of emotions this book elicited. Anger, disappointment, delight, worry, and awe is a tall order for a book that, at first glance, is about one man, who cuts down one tree. It is when you start reading that you realize this book is so much more. A history of logging on the Northwest coast, a snapshot of white-native relations, both to each other and to the land around them, a gripping mystery and an unexpectedly heartbreaking story of loss, Vaillant’s book is much more than one man’s biography. I very highly recommend it.

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Wine Runs Deep by Patrick Ember

Wine Runs DeepWine Runs Deep by Patrick Ember
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Local Focus! Canadian author Patrick Ember
This wine-soaked thriller stars Beckett Jensen, the orphaned owner of a ritzy Paso Robles winery, whose pleasant but lonely and stagnant life is upended by the unexpected arrival of some bad-egg former school mates. They were trouble then and time has not improved them. At first Beckett hopes this is a social visit; an unwanted one but surely he can move them on after a couple of days of drunken hijinks. This is not the case. They want Beckett’s help to line their pockets, and they are not above blackmail and threats to get what they want. Beckett has no desire to help them rob anyone. But if he doesn’t help them pull off this scheme, he could lose his winery, the people he loves, and the new life he has built himself in California. Ember has crafted a solid story in Wine Runs Deep. He’s got a range of interesting characters, some racial and sexual diversity, beautiful women, handsome men, and just enough danger to keep the story humming. It’s a fast-paced page turner, a perfect choice for your summer vacation or any wine-loving thrill-readers in your life.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – April: Poetry Month: Anne Sexton: The Complete Poems

The Complete PoemsThe Complete Poems by Anne Sexton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Anne Sexton tackles some difficult and controversial topics in her poetry. She writes frankly about suicide, death, breasts, incest, the holocaust, abortion, pregnancy, god, and mental health issues. Hers is not work for the faint hearted reader, or the one longing for a straightforward composition with easily understandable imagery. It, and her choice of subjects, were ground-breaking when they were first published. Poets, and women poets in particular, did not write about suicide. Or abortions. Sexton was one of the group who opened that door for greater honesty in their work. Her style seems to be very consistent throughout her career; while poets naturally improve with practice the changes to Sexton’s capabilities don’t appear to be the kind easily detectable by the lay reader. Her first works are as surreal and evocative as her last. So if you enjoy her first book of poems, you will probably enjoy her last ones. If you don’t like her first book of poems…six hundred pages is a lot to get through on white-knuckled willpower. For readers who want a taste of her style but are uncertain about some of her subjects, I would recommend her Transformations. A collection of classic fairy tales retold as poems, they have all of Sexton’s creative chops with minimal need for content warnings. And minimal time commitment. Because we’re all busy people.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – April: Poetry: The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai edited by Robert Alter

The Poetry of Yehuda AmichaiThe Poetry of Yehuda Amichai by Yehuda Amichai
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Hebrew poet who wrote intimately about Judaism, Jerusalem, and the body, Amichai moved from Germany to Palestine with his parents in 1936, when he was 12. The area was wracked with wars throughout his life and they are a frequent topic of his poetry. As is his pubic hair. An evocative poem about grief and the passage of time might be followed by one talking about genitalia. Sex. Or childhood. Amichai plays with grammar and syntax as much as rhyme scheme, and my hat is off to the translators who have to massage these complicated images from one language to another. Overall, the poetry is very accessible and you can glean a reasonable amount of meaning from it in one or two readings. The only things I didn’t like was the incessant pubic hair and his representation of women; they often were presented as just extensions of the male viewer/narrators’s desires and not as separate, autonomous beings. A weirdly one-dimensional portrayal. Despite that, his work is a creative and interesting addition to the poetry pantheon, and worth taking a look at.

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Updates and Progress Report:

I have not forgotten you, o Jeruslaem. But April is Poetry month and although I’ve read about 800 pages of poetry so far this month, I haven’t actually finished a whole book yet. Here’s what I’m working on:
The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai by Yehuda Amichai, edited by Robert Alter
-I had to wait for this to come from another library so I got a late start on it, but I want to finish it ASAP so it can go back where it came from.
The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry
-I started reading this while waiting for my books to come in from various libraries, and to familiarize myself with the work of contemporary poets and have now realized this is a huge and almost unreasonable amount of poetry. Seriously. I’m only reading volume 2 and it alone is 1100 pages. It’s been put on hold since I got a few of the books I was waiting for in.
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
-Also finally came in from another library, didn’t want Earth Day to pass by without reviewing this classic. Although depending on how long Yehuda Amichai’s work takes, Earth Day may pass by before I even start reading this.
Plus a couple more books I’m saving…stay tuned!

A Year of Themed Reviews – March: Women’s History: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein, or The Modern PrometheusFrankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I remember reading this book in high school and one iconic scene has always stuck in my head: Frankenstein’s monster is wandering in the forest and comes across a little girl throwing flowers in a pond and watching them float around. He joins her and the two of them have a lovely time floating daisies until, sadly, the flowers are all gone. The monster is saddened that there are no more pretty things to float on the water until it occurs to him to throw the pretty little girl in the pond. Unfortunately, because she is not a flower she does not float. I looked forward to resituating this scene in the context of the novel when I finally re-read it. It’s not in there. I have no idea where I read it, but the scene I just related does not appear in Shelley’s Frankenstein.
What does happen in Frankenstein takes place on a ship captained by one Robert Walton, in search of fame and glory at the North pole. The ship has become mired in ice and is waiting for a break up when they are passed by a giant figure of a man ensconced in a sledge and being towed by a dog team; a mere half day later they meet another man and dog team in pursuit of the traveller they saw before, but trapped on an ice floe and on the brink of destruction. This man, it is revealed to Captain Walton, is Victor Frankenstein and here in this barren seascape he is pursuing his monster. Frankenstein relates his story to Walton, who shares it with his sister via letters, through which we are introduced to it. It is a tale of tragedy and vengeance, of murdered children and wrongful accusations. It’s also a brilliant expose of the hypocrisy of humanity. Victor and the monster are the same, but one of them is accepted and welcomed in society and the other is shunned. Frankenstein is as fascinating now as it was when it was published.

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The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

The ProphetThe Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the sermon on the mount if Jesus took subject requests. Almustafa has spent twelve years in the city of Orphalese before a ship arrives to bring him home to his people. In that time he has grown into a wise and beloved prophet. On his last day among the Orphalesians, with the ship waiting for him in the harbour, he gives a speech to the citizens on the nature of love, friendship, pain, work, death, all the things you can imagine people asking their departing spiritual adviser for advice on one last time. It’s very poetic, mystical, and short. If you love to meditate on the nature of life and ruminate deeply on metaphysical subjects, this book could be an excellent base for your meditations. If you are a black and white, no-nonsense kind of person this book could annoy the snot out of you. Or maybe expand your horizons, you never know. But even if you don’t like it, at least it’s short.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – March: Women’s History: The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

The Thorn BirdsThe Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It took three hundred pages before I started to enjoy this book, but I wound up being glad I persevered. The Thorn Birds follows the wool-farming Cleary family as they emigrate from beautiful, lush New Zealand to the dry, harsh climate of New South Wales when patriarch Paddy Cleary, his wife Fiona, and their six children – eight after twin boys are added – are invited by Paddy’s wealthy sister Mary Carson to live and work as head stockman on her massive sheep ranch, Drogheda. While their monetary woes mostly end with the steady paychecks from Mary and the stability of a well-planned, well-run ranch, their lives, especially the lives of Meggie and her mother Fiona, are filled with the endless private griefs and innumerable hardships of ranching life in the early 1900’s. The Thorn Birds also follows the life of Father Ralph de Bricassart, the Gillanbone district Catholic priest. From the moment they meet, Ralph and Meggie are bound to one another. But Ralph’s heart and ambition are sworn to the Church and to his God, and they allow no competition. The battles of pride, love, land, and faith are beautifully described in this powerful, sometimes crushing story that spans half a century and still resonates today.

However, it wasn’t perfect. Readers should be aware that this book has the racism and racial epithets and the sexism of its setting. While leaving out the sexism inherent in the structure of the society at the time the book is set would have been a mistake, I think the racism and especially the slurs could have been left out entirely. And should have. There are a few death scenes. Written from the point of view of the dying, they can be graphic and distressing, as can the very realistically portrayed grief of the survivors. There was also a chapter where I was concerned this was going to turn into an Australian Lolita. Fortunately, that does not happen, but readers sensitive to that may struggle with the undertones in the beginning of the book. This is why it took 300 pages before I started to enjoy it. McCullough seems to sexualize Meggie in her attempt to convey the power of Meggie’s unusual looks and while Ralph and Meggie’s relationship is meant to transcend the normal barriers of age and time, there are points where his adoration of a child, no matter how deep the dialogue between their souls, barely misses creepy and definitely isn’t helped by the revelation of decades of child sexual assault perpetrated by priests and covered up by the church. I would like to reiterate that nothing inappropriate happens and as Meggie enters adulthood that unease vanishes, but I felt it was worth mentioning. Last but not least, because the sexism of the time so heavily influenced sexual relationships there are some interactions which are clearly assault. They are varying shades of horrifying and cavalier and the difference is obviously down to what was considered assault in the 1970s. Our changing sexual mores put a different spin on them. As they do for any sex scene first conceived over forty years ago. I think The Thorn Birds continues to hold up well despite these issues. If you want to tackle an epic, it’s worth a look.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – March: Women’s History: Dreaming the Eagle: Boudica #1 by Manda Scott

Dreaming the Eagle (Boudica, #1)Dreaming the Eagle by Manda Scott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A triumph of imagination and dedication, Dreaming the Eagle is the first novel in a historical fiction quadrilogy on Boudica, warrior-leader of the Eceni tribe. Beginning at age twelve, we watch the young Breaca transform into Boudica, the warrior-queen, as she and her tribe weather the storms of the world they have known being reshaped under their very feet by Roman invaders. While keeping rituals, searching dreams for guidance, and honoring their gods of land and fauna these pre-British tribes struggle against challenges none of them could have predicted. Violent battles. Gruesome wounds. Treachery. Deaths. Torture for Roman captives. Bloodshed is regular and I would class it as mild to moderately graphic. Infrequently the violence is directed at children. If you are not troubled by that, then the writing is lyrical and descriptive, the characters richly complex and the whole story will have you flipping pages as fast as you can. The peoples of pre-Roman Britain live again in Scott’s words.

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