Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for July, 2022

I’ve been reading All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis for a book discussion with a climate advocacy group I’m involved with. It’s taken me a long time; I think I started reading it in May. First of all it’s not bedtime reading. Too serious, and in some cases too alarming. Also it’s a collection of dozens of essays and poems, each of which merits digesting on its own, so it’s not a page turner. I think there are 41 different essayists and 17 poets represented if I counted correctly. That’s a lot of different writing styles and perspectives.

The writers in this collection are from many backgrounds, cultures, ages, and life experiences. They are all women. And they share a common hope for solutions that can mitigate the impacts of climate change and help bring about a more just and sustainable world. These are folks working in all kinds of places on all kinds of projects, from activists to organizers to academics, policymakers, nonprofit founders — writers, thinkers, and doers. Some, like Sarah Stillman, shine a light on aspects of climate change that are hard or heartbreaking, like climate refugees and the inequity that follows climate disasters like hurricanes. Others are working to scale up individual dreams into collective action, like Emily Stengel who is helping people farm at sea via the nonprofit Greenwave.

It’s a helpful book for contextualizing how much progress is being made all over the country (the writers reference international efforts here and there, but are mostly working themselves in the U.S.), community by community, activist by activist. There are some common themes, such as:

— while individual action matters, especially actions that can lead to large scale change (voting for example, is a key individual action), collective, systemic action is needed at this point, as soon as possible

— that doesn’t mean you should keep living as if there is no climate crisis or throw up your hands and say what you do doesn’t matter. We can all contribute to a fossil-fuel free future.

— there are people who are already figuring out what can be done, so you aren’t alone and you don’t have to come up with a plan. Just connect with those who are already in the struggle.

— listening to those most impacted by climate change already is a good place to start.

— understanding how climate change intersects with other justice issues, like racism, gender inequality, poverty, etc. is important.

There is so much to learn from in this collection. Even if you don’t read it straight through, check it out.

Read Full Post »

I bought this novel for myself last fall, intending it as a a between-jobs treat, and then put it in the to-read pile next to my favorite chair where it stayed until recently. The only other book I’ve read by Francis Spufford is Unapologetic, a nonfiction book about his experience of Christian belief, a vacation read many summers ago. I loved that book. Spufford made his name as a writer of nonfiction, and Light Perpetual is his second novel. To have your second novel longlisted for the Booker, after winning a Costa prize for your first (which I’m eyeing for this year’s vacation reading) must be very affirming.

Light Perpetual is about five kids killed by a V-2 rocket that hits a Woolworths on a Saturday in 1944 in the fictional south London neighborhood of Bexford. They die in the opening pages of the book: sisters Jo and Valerie, and their classmates and neighbors Alec, Ben, and Vernon. Spufford describes in exquisitely observed detail the moment of the bombing with prose like this: “The moving thread of combustion, all combustion done, becomes a blast wave pushing on and out in the same directions, driven by the pressure of the livid gas behind. And what it touches, it breaks. A spasm of deformation, of dislocation, passes through every solid thing, shattering it to fragments that then accelerate outward themselves at the forefront of the wave.” That’s only a snippet of the carefully described moments that set off the story. You can see why Spufford’s nonfiction has won such praise.

Throughout the rest of the novel, Spufford imagines “all the futures they won’t get” and asks, “How can that loss be measured, how can that loss be known, except by laying this absence, now and onwards, against some other version of the reel of time, where might-be and could-be and would-be still may be?” The book goes on to image these might, could, and would be’s for each of the five children, through the decades. If this sounds sentimental, it’s far from it.

Each of their stories through the decades includes moments of happiness and grief. The only one who seems like he causes irreparable harm without much desire to atone is Vern. But each of the others to one extent or another also experiences or even causes some grief or another, mostly inadvertently. Ben may be my favorite. As a young man he’s haunted by fears he can’t explain, and (mis)treated for mental illness, but he ends up the most contented of any of them. And in the end, he has a vision of sorts:

“But if the different bits and pieces of his life, rising, lofted as if by a bubble of force from below, are arranged in a messy spiral of hours and years, then mightn’t there be a place, mightn’t there be an angle, from which you could see the whole accidental mass composing, just from that angle, into some momentary order you never could have noticed at the time? Mightn’t there be a line of sight, not ours, from which the seeming cloud of debris of our days, no more in order than (say) the shredded particles riding the wavefront of an explosion, prove to align? Into a clockface of transparencies. This whole mess a rose, a window.”

The book begins and ends with particles of life, shattering at the start from the bomb, coalescing in the end in the musings of an old man. It’s a lovely structure within which to hold these lives, and a gentle pulling together of the two ideas that drive the book: that the zillions of moments that together make up our millions of lives come together into a composite whole that looks different from different viewpoints, and that we only have so much time in this world to be what we are to each other. While he gives these children more time in the novel, Spufford reminds us in the end that they had none of it.

A lovely book that affords some empathy to even its darkest characters, Light Perpetual is a good read.

Read Full Post »

I’ve read and enjoyed four other books by Sarah Moss so when I browsed Europa Editions books available on my library’s eBook app, I was excited to see Signs for Lost Children. As with her previous books, Moss examines women’s lives from the inside, exploring how her characters’ interior lives impact the sides of themselves seen by their family, friends, and neighbors. Apparently this is the second in a two book tale about the main character, Alethea (Ally) Moberly — the first, Bodies of Light, is set in her childhood; I’m not sure how I’d enjoy that given the glimpses of her childhood in this book. Ally’s sister May is also referenced in Night Waking, as a nurse Anna reads about as she researches the history of childhood. It’s interesting that Moss has traced different aspects of these characters’ lives through several books.

In Signs for Lost Children, Ally is finishing medical school in the late 1800s, a still unusual path for women at the time. She meets a lighthouse engineer, Tom Cavendish, after her cousin hears him speak at a lecture series. Tom is intrigued by this thoughtful woman and she by a man who seems to appreciate her work. Despite the fact that he has committed to a months-long expedition to Japan to consult on a lighthouse, the pair marry and move to Cornwall, where Tom works, and where Ally takes a position at an asylum.

Moss works into the story information about mental healthcare (such as it was at the time) and attitudes towards the “mad” as asylum inmates were called. The details about how Ally feels about asylum “treatment” and what she believes a better approach would be are interesting. It’s clear that much about Ally’s own upbringing causes her pain and impacts her own mental wellbeing. As the book develops, Moss shows us Ally’s growing awareness of how her own experiences have prepared her to be a good doctor, and yet also expose her to the possibility of reopening old wounds as she empathizes with her patients.

The second major thread of the book is about Tom’s experience in Japan, which is also fascinating. Japan at the time — the Meiji period — was opening up to the West and within its own society after casting off feudalism. On his journey home Tom reflects that the time when Japanese experts will be sought out in the West rather than vice versa is not far off. In his time in Japan he comes to appreciate the simplicity of homes, attire, and cooking. But it doesn’t escape his notice that women silently make all that happen and men enjoy the fruits of their labor.

The final piece of the book is a lovely examination of marriage and the strangeness of forming a new life as a couple. As in her other books Moss writes with great sensitivity about marriage, although Ally and Tom are mutually kind and supportive which is different than the marriages portrayed in some of the other books Moss has written. The night before the wedding, Tom asks if she’s looking forward to it and Ally thinks:

“Her mind stretches towards the words he asks to hear, towards the speaking of affection and desire. If she did not know better, she would say that there was a physical change in her, that her heart rests more comfortably under her breastbone for his faith. She would like to tell him that she sleeps more easily and wakes without the life-long start of dread at another day. That his importance to her is frightening. Without looking at him, she nods.”

Ally and Tom face added hurdles to establishing a life together as his prolonged absence and her professional challenges impact their early marriage. And interestingly, it’s his return that is the most challenging thing. She’s published a paper and is directing a new convalescence home, Rose Tree House, a kind of halfway house where women from the asylum who have not passed their discharge interviews but are considered potentially capable of doing so in the future live together, tending a garden and chickens, keeping the house, preparing and sharing meals, and engaging in small projects like sewing. Tom is unsettled by the change in her and in himself upon his return, and she has lost confidence in being at all loveable. They have to try more than once to start over.

It all feels very realistic, the struggle to find themselves, he a man who feels outside of things because of his life, circumstances, his solitary work, and his travels, she, who shares his sense, as her friend Annie says,of being “strangers in a strange land” because of her work and gender and because “she has always known that she doesn’t know which fork to use or what should not be said in mixed company or among ladies with their gloves on.” For Ally, Rose Tree House is the new beginning she wants, making a real difference in the lives of women no one has understood. It’s inspiring, and it’s good to read a novel where a woman’s wellbeing hinges on claiming her own space as well as making space for others.

As always, Sarah Moss provides much food for thought, wrapped up in a lovely story with many interesting threads.

I should add that I read the seventeenth Maisie Dobbs book — A Sunlit Weapon — and loved it. I don’t like to review books that are part of a series because I know as a reader I like to begin at the beginning. If you haven’t read this series, take the link and read my view of the first book in the series and go for it. It’s a delight.

Read Full Post »