The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

The Sealed Letter Emma Donoghue

This story is set in Victorian London, but the characters are timeless. Donoghue read of a real-life scandalous divorce that happened at this time, just divorces were starting to become more common. The wife who was to be divorced had a strong witness who changed her testimony at the last minute due to a “sealed letter” written by the husband which was threatened as evidence. Donoghue imagined what might have led these people to this situation and also what could have been in that letter to frighten the witness so much that she basically switched sides.

I like a historical novel based on fact, this one made me think about what it was like to be a woman at the time when feminism was first becoming a cause. Donoghue ties in the two main characters’ lives to illustrate how the lives of women were changing at this time. One is the spurned adulteress divorcee with no income. The other is a single spinster with a business to run, and an interest in promoting women’s right to work.

The wife in question is a bit of a drama-queen. She is bored and selfish and reckless and does not really care who she affects in her pursuit of excitement and fun. Her poor friend, the witness in the divorce case, is good and nice and naïve and gets used. It is quite a sad story, but a classic tale.

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Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

This is a so-called “classic” which was written in 1818. I am more of a contemporary fiction kind of girl and this book certainly has not changed my mind. I read it for a book club, otherwise I would not have got through the first few chapters. But, admittedly, once I had begun this strange and meandering tale I did want to find out how it all ended.

The story begins with an unnecessary character who finds the protagonist in a right old state. We then switch to Frankenstein’s story, to the monster’s point of view, then back to Frankenstein’s point of view, then back to the first character. We get rather more back story than I feel we need on both the first bloke and on Frankenstein himself, and almost nothing at all on how he creates the monster.

The poor old monster goes on a killing spree then tries to blackmail Frankenstein in to making him a friend. Frankenstein cannot make his mind up what to do, but we certainly go through his anguish with him, pages and pages of anguish that I scanned over.

This book is all over the place and full of waffle. I have read some, if not very many, books from this period and I do not think it is a symptom of it’s age, but just poor writing. The gothic horror legend Mary Shelley is not very good, is my conclusion and humble opinion.

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Lamb by Christopher Moore

Lamb

The Bible famously tells the story of Jesus’ birth, then we hear nothing more about him until he is in his thirties. This story is an amusing, light-hearted speculation on what may have happened during those thirty-something years, told from the perspective of Biff, Jesus’ childhood pal and one of the considerably lesser-known disciples.

I was raised Church of England, not the most fanatical of churches, so I know a little of the Bible, but I am a bit of a heathen, so I cannot say for certain quite how much of this book is made up. Moore offers explanations for many of the more famous (but vague) parts of the Bible, though, and many of the references are clear enough even for me to get.

Biff and Jesus go off around the world, learning about all the existing religions that may have been prevalent at that time. This is a great explanation for how and why Christian philosophy so heavily builds on ancient religions. Moore also explains why the Christian diet allows pig, and why many Jewish Americans eat Chinese on Christmas Day. There are lots of great jokes in there, probably only offensive to the stubbornest of staunch Christians (who just should not read it). Moore cannot resist the obvious “were you born in a barn?” joke but all of them are subtle and clever, and will make you groan and then laugh.

Moore’s character of Biff is brilliant, and Jesus is (predictably) adorable. I loved the book, it was funny and I learnt something about history, my two favourite things in a book.

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Cooked by Michael Pollan

cooked

I have not enjoyed a book as much as I enjoyed this for a very long time. Possibly not since I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the second time around. This is absolutely fascinating from cover to cover.

Pollan discusses the science behind cooking, in four separate chapters; Fire (barbecue and roasting), Water (pot cooking), Air (baking), and Earth (fermenting and pickling). I have basic cooking skills, I am not a fan of TV cookery programs, but I cook most of my family’s meals from scratch (well, from scratch-ish, I used tinned tomatoes a lot).

Pollan had cooking lessons for this book, and tries pretty much all of the cooking techniques in the book himself in his own kitchen. The book has many asides about his own daily life and how his cooking experiments turned out. But you do not have to be a budding chef to enjoy this book, even if you are just interested in how you fuel your body this should be of use to you. The part about bread was revelatory for me. He does not just talk about how things are cooked a certain way, but also why and what chemical reactions take place. Then, how this food affects your body as you digest it. He also explains the mystery of why American cheeses do not have any flavour.

I have enjoyed everything Pollan has written, but some of his take-away messages have been more useful to me than others. I appreciate his thoughts on agribusiness and buying food locally but sometimes following his advice can be quite impractical, depending on where and how you live. I think this book will change the way I eat, just like The Omnivore’s Dilemma did.

In every chapter we get the strong feeling that he wants to get across the importance of the joys of cooking, and why some of us still choose to do it, despite the obvious economic reasons not to. Even if you do not cook (and what sort of crazy person does not cook at all?) then you very probably eat, in which case this book would still be interesting.

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Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

olive kitteridge

This novel has won the Pulitzer Prize, and it was a choice for one of my book groups. Otherwise I do not think that I would have picked it up. The Olive in question is a retired school teacher in a small town. So, the story could only be slow and a bit on the dull side.

The story is told from the perspectives of several other people. Some chapters are about people who know Olive well, in some chapters she just has a small appearance. It spans from her middle age through to her old age. She is not a particularly nice character and she is difficult to empathise with. Even from her family’s perspective she does not come out looking great.

There is no great story here; no beginning, middle or end. It is more of a character study of a grumpy old lady. Although she is more complex than just a grumpy person, I still would not say that I enjoyed this book a great deal. Olive has a lot of anger inside her, and I cannot understand why, even by the end of the book. She still lives a full life and has people who care for her and want to be with her despite this.

Olive is a school teacher so she has influenced many of the people in the town. The book is about relationships, close and distant. We have all affected so many people in our lives, whether we know it or not, and we should take care with how we interact with people. At least, I think that was what the book was about.

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The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert book club discussion questions

We will be reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert at the next Las Vegas Non-Fiction Book Group. These are the questions that I will use to keep discussion going.

1) Has reading this book changed your views about climate change in any way?
2) Did you find what you learned in this book alarming?
3) What do you think about the example of the ammonite – they were perfectly adapted to their environment, but the catastrophic effects of the asteroid still resulted in their extinction.
4) Do you see any way of slowing the acidification of the ocean? (pg118 tipping point is pH 7.8 – expected 2100)
5) Do you think the “islands on dry land” method of studying small ecosystems can help us to predict the effect of our actions our larger ecosystem?
6) In some parts of the world the number of species has dropped, in some parts of the world the number of species has increased. How does this add to the difficulty of predicting the future?
7) What percentage Neanderthal are you?
8) How far would you go to stop a species from becoming extinct? Give a rhino an internal ultrasound? Give a crow a handjob?
9) Do you think that Kolbert remains unbiased about the subject?
10) Do you think you will change the way you live as a result of reading this book?

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The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

sixth extinction

Since the first creatures existed on planet Earth there have apparently been five mass extinctions, some of which were caused by us humans, some by other environmental disasters, such as asteroid impact. This book is about some of those extinctions, and the massive changes the planet is going through due to our actions, and making some predictions about what could happen next.

Kolbert makes a pretty compelling case that the sixth extinction in question could be us, caused by us. Oh, but the Earth could be repopulated by giant rats. Just as the avian dinosaurs managed to withstand the asteroid impact, the rats may well withstand whatever ruination we bring on the planet.

Kolbert touches on biology, geology, botany and various other natural history related subjects and she manages to explain them all in terminology that I can understand. The situation certainly looks very alarming, but her style is not over dramatic. She tells stories of species that have gone extinct, and species that are well on their way due to our activities. She explains how the various species interact with others and speculates how each of their extinctions can affect the rest of the ecosystem of the planet.

The actions of previous humans has, as Kolbert points out, resulted in some humans desperate enough to put their arm up the bottom of a rhino to give her an ultrasound and to give rare crow species a handjob. It is not just doom and gloom, though. There are lots of fascinating natural history facts, about past and present species, including us humans and our fellow apes.

 

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