June’s Book Reviews

Most of the time I am awake I am either studying, reading or watching boxsets at the moment. While I’ve always been a reader and this has developed into more of a lifeline. So I have decided the end of each month, the Thursday blog will be devoted to a review of the last month’s books.

As the start of this month was my birthday and many people gave me books as presents so I have read a more diverse range of books than normal. The first three were all given to me for my birthday and the last two I got with birthday money to help with my dissertation in the first case and just for fun in the latter.

Night Waking by Sarah Moss
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This was the first book I read this month. I actually ended up reading it cover to cover in one sitting because I could not put it down and had to find out what would happen next. If you are going to read it, I suggest preparing a flask of tea and packed lunch in advance! The story follows Anna and her family as they move to an island off the West coast of Scotland. This island, while fictitious, is based on St. Kilda (think middle of nowhere, stormy weather but plenty of wildlife). Anna is an academic, working on a book about the concept of childhood, while simultaneously disliking being a parent to her own two children and trying to get them to leave her alone long enough so she can write. Meanwhile, her husband is studying birds on the island and getting ready to invite tourists to stay in the holiday home that they have refurbished. In the midst of all of this, the skeleton of a baby is found in the garden and there are mysterious noises coming from the attic in the house. The novel switches between the past and the present. The sections set in the past (1870s) are a series of letters written by a midwife who has been sent to the island to work out why no babies being born are surviving longer than a few years at most. While she is there to assess child birth practices and living conditions she suspects her reports are not being sent back to the mainland…

This book is an easy read and while being light enough that you don’t need too much concentration to get through it, it does have enough plot twists and a strong enough story line that it is far from boring and you really have no idea what will come next. It also raises questions around is there always a right and wrong answer or can multiple people who make diametrically opposed decisions be equally correct at the same time? Furthermore, the book also looks at issues of equality and elitism without dragging the reader too much into these subjects they lose track of the story. From different social classes, landlords and tenants, to women trying to progress in academia it shows that there have always been barriers in the way of the many put there by a few which silence those at the bottom of societies hierarchies.

Gilead- Marilynne Robinson
I would never have picked this book off a shelf to read so was a bit apprehensive. However, it turned out to be an interesting book nevertheless. The Reverend Ames is dying and has decided to write his memoirs, family history and advice in a book for his seven-year-old son. He is aware that his son will not be told these things by him so the book is a collection of what he thinks his son should know and what would have information would have been passed on should he have lived to see his child grow up. It is a simple idea, but quite a powerful one as Ames reflects on his own life, prejudices, and decisions as well as those of family members before him.

There is no substantial plot line and nothing extremely shocking or exciting happens. However, if you are looking for a gentle read then this is perfect. However beware there are no chapters, the book runs straight through and is at times quite fragmented as a result. It is quite possible though that this fragmentation is deliberate and provides a tool to show that Ames brain is also switching from subjects and memories. The main frustration I found is I wanted to keep telling him to stop writing and go and spend actual time with his son and build memories while he still could.

Home- Marilynne Robinson
This novel is by the same author, set in the same town, at the same time as Gilead. However, it focuses on another characters perspective. I much preferred this novel to the first and understood the characters, their motives and actions far more than I did of Ames. Focusing on siblings Jack and Glory who have returned home as their own father is dying (Robinson likes to focus on death!) they look back at their childhood and what has happened to them since as well as the decisions they have made. It many ways the themes are very similar to that of Gilead, only the reflections are happening by younger characters who have more dramatic stories to tell and often cross what existed as social barriers then.

I really recommend reading the two books together as it shows that how one person may interpret an event can be polar opposites to someone else. Again the story is a bit disjointed but this time round it is much easier to follow. Prepare for plenty of unexpected twists!

The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and other Clinical Tales- Oliver Sachs
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Sachs wrote in the 1980s several books which all look at psychology and neurology but not simply from a medical lens. One of the first people to combine the medical and social model of illness and disability, Sachs presents case studies of patients that are not just a list of traits and conditions but also show the person behind all this and their personal experience. While this is more commonplace now, at the time of writing this was quite unusual and medical and social models did not mix as they do today. Consequently, this book is incredibly interesting to see how this has developed over time.

Furthermore, Sachs has a really easy to follow and humorous writing style that makes you forget you are simply reading medical cases and as a result, you wonder what happened to the patients. The version I read had postscripts after the cases where Sachs had added more information about the patient’s, correspondence he had with other medical professionals and discoveries that had been made since. Interesting fact from this book was that Parkinson’s Disease was not discovered in a hospital or clinic but by psychologists who were people watching on a street and observing that some people had very different movements. It had often been accepted before and had not received much medical attention! Consequently social and medical sciences really do need to work together!

Miranda’s Daily Dose of Such Fun- Miranda Hart
The best book of June goes to this gem! This book consists of 365 fun things you can do- one for every day of the year. They are all a bit silly but funny. Written to help people with anxiety, depression but very much suitable for everyone. This week has consisted of everything from singing Christmas carols, having an imaginary conversation with a shop mannequin to designing a toga and thanking a traffic warden or bank manager. Such fun!