Cover to Cover – with Brian Toal
Great reads for Summer whilst in the sun – or snuggled up on the sofa given our fabulous Glasgow weather!!!
The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki
Ruth Ozeki, Zen priest and novelist, is not afraid to tackle ambitious projects, and with her latest novel, she is at her most ambitious, choosing the book itself to narrate the story of Benny Oh and his mother Annabelle, both recently bereft after Kenji, the father and husband, dies an untimely and ridiculous death. His absence leaves Benny lost and angry and withdrawn. He is hounded mercilessly at school, his mother’s attempts to communicate with him are inept, if well intended, and her hoarding habits leaving him more and more isolated in his own home amidst a sea of possessions.
On the surface, this may seem like a book about loss, about mental health, about relationships, and it is. But it’s also a lot more. ‘The reader is not a passive receptacle for a book’s contents. One book, when read by different readers, becomes different books, becomes an ever-changing array of books that flows through human consciousness like a wave.’ This is the more ambitious side of Ozeki’s project – to explore meaning, what is real, how we attach meaning to things, how things affect us. Annabelle’s hoarding is problematic and causes her to fall foul of her landlord. Benny’s truancy from school causes the authorities to place sanctions on Annabelle, and finally Benny’s admission to a mental health facility provides the catalyst for change that both he and his mother so badly needed.
Ozeki encourages us to consider what is important in life. What do we really need? What makes us happy? In Buddhism, the three poisons of anger, greed and ignorance are all represented in this complex tale. However, she avoids the temptation to imbue one character with one poison: Benny is angry and deluded. Annabelle is angry, greedy and deluded. Many of the characters are on the fringes of society, rejecting the American trope that more stuff is the answer. ‘When everything you think you own – belongings, your life – can be swept away in an instant, you must ask yourself, What is real?’ So muses Aikon, the author of a Zen book about tidying. The book literally falls into Annabelle’s trolley whilst she is browsing for something else, and proceeds to turn up in unexpected places, slowly transforming her home and her life. The power of books!
Ozeki has been criticized by some for trying to include too much in this novel, but I disagree. The clutter is indicative of the issues she is dealing with, the book itself a synecdoche for the house, and by extension America. I really love it. I love the mess. And I love the attempt to create order from chaos. Embrace them both.
The Witches of Scotland by Steven P Aitchison
‘When Glasgow law student, David Hunter, learns he is a wizard, his life is turned upside down.’ So goes the blurb on the back of the book, inducing the inevitable sigh and cry of ‘Sounds very familiar.’ So, with a heavy heart I started reading just to indulge Suzanne. However, I was pleasantly surprised. Fighting in Ashton Lane. Sinking pints with your mates. Sponging off your generous aunt in Dowanside. All very familiar to anyone who’s studied in Glasgow. But that’s where the resemblance ends.
David is a ‘Dream Dancer’, able to move between astral planes,to transport himself using his mind, to harness his energy to cure and to harm. The battle for the consciousness of the human raceis fought between the dark forces of magick (yes, with a k) and the good witches. ‘Harry Potter’ this is not. Harry never visited Hermione in his dreams once Snape had turned off the light! He never swore like a trooper. And Harry was not from ‘The Golden Triangle’. Fans of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ are likely to enjoy this.
It’s not for kids – definitely not. It could have been edited better as the spelling and grammar mistakes grate on an English teacher, but if you’re in the flow, you don’t notice them so much. It’s also the first part of a trilogy, so there’s plenty more drama, danger, derring-do and dating witches to be enjoyed, if that’s your bag.
Avocado Anxiety by Louise Gray
We Westenders like to think we’re a bit more woke and ethical when it comes to food choices than the average cat – certainly more than Southsiders! Everything has to be organic and food provenance is important to us. Food miles are a constant worry, the water used to produce our food concerns us, and we wring our hands deciding between cheap and wonky or expensive and tasty. However, Louise Gray one by one dismantles these false dichotomies. Often, tomatoes from Spain have created fewer CO2 emissions than those grown in the UK, fava beans flown from Africa damage the planet less than us driving to an out-of-town supermarket in our gas-guzzling cars, and wonky loose carrots are better for the environment than ‘perfect’ wrapped ones which have survived the cull of their otherwise edible companions.
In her previous book ‘The Ethical Carnivore’, Gray argued that a little meat is perfectly ethical. She shot holes through the arguments of those vegans who simply won’t listen to reason – we all know one. Each chapter of ‘Avocado Anxiety’ focuses on a different food. The CO2 emitted in the production of each food is printed at the beginning of each chapter. Careful research and a wide range of interviews provide a convincing narrative about how to use fewer chemicals, protect biodiversity and avert the climate crisis. These food stories provide a useful counterpoint to the trend of posting glamorous pictures of food on social media. Food for thought indeed.
Books available at Waterstones Byers Road and all good bookstores
For more great reads for summer look at Brian’s other book reviews in our Culture and Art section –
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