MODERN DAY GOTHIC: THE TURN OF THE KEY

How can you write a good Gothic novel in the 21st century?  A classic Gothic novel requires elements of the supernatural, the strange, the terrifying.  A Gothic novel tends to have a naive female protagonist, placed in an isolated setting, surrounded by dread and unexplained but deeply worrisome, inexplicable, scary occurrences.  How can you have those things in an era with the internet and ubiquitous cell phones, where naive young women are much harder to find and believe?

The way you do it is the way Ruth Ware did in The Turn of the Key, a masterful modern Gothic novel: you create a hybrid of Victorian and modern, much like the setting for the book, an old Victorian mansion in the isolated highlands of Scotland, which has been upgraded with many computerized “smart” appliances, and you let the creepier aspects of the modern world reinforce the creepy, haunted aspects of the classic Victorian sensibility.

Rowan, our protagonist, is in jail awaiting trial for the murder of a child in her charge, at the outset of the book.  She’s writing to a barrister, begging him to represent her.  She knows she’s notorious, the crime is horrible and everybody believes she’s guilty, and even arguing that she’s not guilty doesn’t get her very far because everyone she meets in prison claims to be not guilty.  She writes the particulars of the events that led up to her arrest, in the hopes of persuading him to take her case, and that’s the structure of the book.  After the first chapter, you pretty much forget you’re reading what’s supposed to be a letter (though there are a couple of other letters at the very end of the book, bringing us back to the structure again), and become absorbed in Rowan’s world and her story.  The suspense is really well done.  Because of the way the book begins, you know that by the end, one of the three children (four if you count the teenager) is going to die, and that the death is going to be in circumstances that point to Rowan. So as you meet the characters, you keep wondering who the victim is going to be and how this is going to play out.  It’s a classic example of Alfred Hitchcock’s illustration of suspense as compared to shock.

Rowan answers an online ad for a nanny, even though she wasn’t looking for a new job, already having one at a day care center in London.  The ad seems too good to be true: the family needs a live-in nanny and will pay a truly outrageous salary for a nanny who will stay with them.  We don’t need to have Rowan, in hindsight, pointing out that a salary that good is a danger sign; just knowing how out of line it is makes the reader suspicious, as we should be.

When Rowan interviews with Sandra, the mother of the three young children, at Heatherbrae in Scotland (isolated from everybody she knows, an important element of a good Gothic), she discovers that there had been a few nannies in the recent past, but none of them stayed for very long.  There are rumors the house is haunted, and the behavior of Maddie, the older of the girls, suggests that something is very wrong around here.  Ellie, her little sister, seems to be under Maddie’s thumb, and joins her, at least initially, in making things hard for Rowan. There’s also a housekeeper who clearly resents Rowan and fills the role of every sinister housekeeper you’ve ever seen in books and movies (think Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, but with a Scottish accent).

The parents hire Rowan and then immediately leave on a business trip, before Rowan’s even gotten a chance to get familiar with the girls or the area.  But Sandra’s planned for that, not only leaving Rowan an instruction book any helicopter parent would admire, but having most of the house set up with recording devices and wireless communication.  Rowan gets the worst of both worlds: left almost entirely to her own devices in terms of figuring out what’s going on and how to take care of the girls, but feeling always under surveillance, with the possibility that Sandra might call her at any moment and check up on her.

There are all kinds of things to worry about, too: the inexplicable and terrifying sounds of someone walking around above Rowan’s room, when there is, as far as she knows, no one else in the house and no room above hers, the poison garden, the stories about murdered children connected to the house.  And that’s before Rhiannon, the spoiled and difficult teenage daughter, returns home from school to defy Rowan and make things more complicated for her.

This is a book filled with atmosphere and dread, as a good Gothic should be.  It’s a page-turner, and it seems just about everyone in it has secrets they’re keeping from you, even Rowan herself.  Ware does an excellent job, keeping you in Rowan’s head and making her sympathetic even as you know from the outset that she’s going to be charged with murdering one of the girls you’re also getting to know (who’s it going to be? The baby, Petra?  Ellie?  Maddie? Rhiannon?).

I wouldn’t dream of giving away the ending, except to say that the mystery is resolved, and that the author plays fair with you.

For a good, fun, creepy read, you could hardly do better than The Turn of the Key.

 

JUNE ZOOM BOOK GROUP PICK: THE WONDER

While I wouldn’t say we’ve gotten all the bugs out of having book group meetings via Zoom, the Field Notes Book Group did manage a lively discussion of The Importance of Being Earnest, our May selection, complete with sharing our favorite quotes from this very funny, lighter-than-air play and a more serious discussion of Wilde’s own circumstances and how they might have affected his choosing to write about people pretending to be people they weren’t, and hiding their true names and true selves.  With a plethora of choices from various online sources, the group managed to agree on the selection for June, which is The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue.

The Wonder, which we had considered for an earlier book group choice, is a historical novel about a possible miracle, or a possible fraud.  Lib, a veteran of Florence Nightingale’s nursing group in the Crimean War, and an English widow,  is sent to the very heart of poverty stricken Ireland to observe an 11 year old child, Anna, who, according to her parents and to other people in her community, has eaten nothing for the last four months and is living solely on water and “manna.” Lib, our point of view character, is skeptical about the supposed “miracle,” as Anna becomes more and more famous, but as a nurse and human being she becomes more concerned about Anna as a person.  Is this  really a miracle or is it something much more sinister?

The book is available online through Overdrive (and probably can be purchased through the usual outlets, though I  try not to ask people to buy books for book group — this is a library-run group, after all), and promises to be a good read, raising questions about faith and reason and giving a vivid picture of the contrasts between 19th century rural Ireland and its nearest neighbor, England.  Our next zoom meeting will be on June 20 at 11:00, and we look forward to another great discussion.

 

WHEN YOU’RE NOT FEELING PARTICULARLY KIND: PEOPLE I WANT TO PUNCH IN THE THROAT

Maybe it’s me.  Maybe it’s a side effect of a lengthy time in what New York calls PAUSE and everybody else calls quarantine, or maybe I’ve always had an evil streak (probably the latter), but when I was searching through the Westchester Library System’s Overdrive collection and I saw People I Want to Punch in the Throat, by Jen Mann, I immediately snapped it up, read it in one sitting, and loved it.

Jen Mann is a humorous essayist whose beat, if you want to call it that, is family life in the suburbs.  She basically says out loud the things you think but keep yourself from actually saying (because you, unlike Jen, have filters), and she’s extremely funny about it.  The kind of mind that could come up with pseudonyms for her two children like Gomer and Adolpha (is that even a name?) is the kind of mind that will come up with dark, even nasty, but very funny observations on life which will have you hooting at the ridiculousness of the situations she writes about (the time, for instance, she innocently went to a party of a co-worker which turned out to be a swingers’ party, which has never come close to happening to me or anyone I know) and at the accuracy of her reading of her fellow mothers (the essay about “room moms”, for instance, or the one about competitive birthday parties for kids).  She doesn’t write from a position of superiority, moral or otherwise, either.  One essay is about the cringe-inducing experience of going to pick up a child when she was so late she didn’t have time to change out of her pajamas and her efforts to stay in the car so none of the school staff or other mothers would see her (spoiler: it doesn’t work).  The essay about how she and her husband met also shows her, deliberately, in an unflattering (but very funny) light, and sets the tone for the rest of the book.

This is a fast read, nothing profound, nothing deep, but a lot of fun.  Jen Mann, as evidenced by this book, is probably the sort of person you’d want to go on a road trip with, or even on a women’s adventure to a shooting range (which actually happens and which she writes vividly about), and she’s certainly the sort of person you want to read when you’re not in a mood to be warm and kindly toward the world.

 

NOTE: While the library is closed, I’m going to be limiting my reviews to books that are available through the Westchester Library System’s online accounts.  This does not mean that all the books I review are going to be immediately available.  You might have to put a hold on a particular book, but at least the book will be there for you to place a hold on.  When things return to “normal”, or when we reopen (whichever comes first), I’ll return to writing about books that are not necessarily available online.

 

HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE GILEAD? THE TESTAMENTS

You have to have sympathy for Margaret Atwood.  The concept of writing a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, a book published in 1985 that has not only become a classic of feminist literature, but also an award-winning television series, has to be daunting. I read The Handmaid’s Tale when it first came out, and then again with the Field Notes Book Group, and, while the ending was left somewhat ambiguous (did Offred get away or didn’t she?), I never felt the book needed a sequel.  It created a complete world and characters who seemed very real in that horrible world, and I personally felt any attempt to add to it would suffer by comparison with the original.

However, clearly Margaret Atwood didn’t agree, or eventually didn’t agree, because in 2019 she published The Testaments, which, while not exactly a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, is still clearly related to it, commenting on it and the world and people in it.

I was resistant to reading the new book, but with quarantine you have to rethink a lot of your former prejudices, so now I have read it and have to say that my earlier misgivings and concerns were out of place.  Maybe because she took so long to come back to the world of Gilead and took her time thinking about what else she had to say about that world, Atwood has managed to create a companion book that is, in my opinion, as good as the original, albeit very different.

Do you need to have read The Handmaid’s Tale to understand The Testaments?  Not really.  It isn’t exactly a sequel, though one of the main characters in The Testaments played a large role in the earlier book (and, I understand, though I haven’t watched the television series, an even larger role in the series).  What you need to know about the Republic of Gilead is all here, even if you somehow hadn’t heard anything about the premise of the first book until now. There are, perhaps, a couple of moments in The Testaments that are more powerful if you are familiar with The Handmaid’s Tale, but you won’t feel you’ve missed anything if you miss the significance of those moments.

The Testaments is an interlocking series of stories from the points of view of three women involved in one way or another with the harrowing Republic of Gilead. One, Agnes, is a young woman who’s grown up in the home of one of the Commanders, with Marthas (servants) and even a Handmaid.  She goes to school and she expects to grow up to be just like her mother, Tabitha.  There are secrets Agnes doesn’t know about herself and about her past, and discovering those secrets will change the expected course of her life.  Another, Daisy, is a young woman growing up in Canada, aware of the existence and the wrongness of Gilead, the nation to the south, but otherwise living the sort of life middle class American women can relate to, until things happen and her life, too, changes dramatically and she infiltrates Gilead.  They’re both interesting characters, with Agnes’ story giving us a window into how the privileged daughters of Gilead are trained and shaped, and Daisy’s story giving us insight into how the rest of the world regarded Gilead and the people living there.

The most interesting character, as far as I’m concerned, is the third woman, Aunt Lydia. You  don’t need to have read Handmaid to know that the Aunts are the enforcers, the women the patriarchy of Gilead uses to keep other women in line.  Aunt Lydia makes her role very clear (and you’ve also seen how the Aunts act in training young women as part of Agnes’ story).  She, like the other founding Aunts, was a middle aged woman in a position of authority right before Gilead came into existence, and she relates how she decided to throw in with the patriarchy and take on the role of enforcer of other women’s roles.  Lydia is NOT a nice person; she reminds me of Livia, the mother of the Emperor Tiberius and one of the great villains of I, Claudius (and, for my money, one of the great villains of literature, period), a woman who knew the limitations of a woman’s role and was willing to do whatever she needed to in order to get what she wanted. Aunt Lydia, like Livia, plays a long game, and you only appreciate by the end of the book how long her game is and how she’s been manipulating everybody from the beginning.  Unlike Livia, though, Aunt Lydia knows there are alternatives to what she’s doing, and knows what the world could be like.

It’s through Aunt Lydia’s clear-eyed tellings of the story that you learn how Gilead works from the inside, how it developed, and how and why it ultimately fell (this isn’t a spoiler, because if you read Handmaid and especially the end, you know that Gilead is a thing of the past).  Aunt Lydia knows all the secrets; she’s responsible for a number of them herself.  While the two younger women (and the people around them) give you a vision of what this world is like for the people on the front lines, it’s Aunt Lydia who shows you the rottenness at the very core, the way human flaws were weaponized and used to warp the entire population (even those at the very top of the pyramid, the Commanders, are damaged by the system they’ve helped create).

The Testaments was a co-winner of the Man Booker prize last year, and while I wouldn’t necessarily say it was one of the best works written in English over the course of the year, I can certainly see how it earned its bestseller and best-of-the-year status.  It’s not as original as The Handmaid’s Tale, and it’s ultimately more hopeful, but along the way, it’s more appalling and more gripping, a companion that reveals more about the original, and about what’s happened in our world between 1985 and 2019.

 

A SCARY PAGE-TURNER FOR PLAGUE TIMES: THE RED LOTUS

Is it a good idea to be reading thrillers during the time of coronavirus?  Especially if the thriller in question turns on the potential release of an antibiotic-resistant plague?  This is a question you need to answer for yourself.  If you’ve reached the point (or started out at the point) where the only way you can get through this time is by a nonstop diet of P.G. Wodehouse, I’m certainly not going to judge.  Do what works for you (and if you do want the fun of P. G. Wodehouse, I just want to mention that many of his books are available, for free, from the Westchester Library System through Overdrive, and from Gutenberg.org).

If, on the other hand, you’re in the mood for a really good, gripping thriller that’s disturbing and gritty and keeps you compulsively turning pages, then may I suggest Chris Bohjalian’s latest, The Red Lotus?  If you’ve got a strong stomach (not Jo Nesbo level of strong stomach) enough to contemplate some truly horrible disease outcomes and some depictions of torture, then get your hands on this book, one of Bohjalian’s best, and settle in for a good read.

The whole book, minus a flashback or two, takes place over the course of ten days, a perfectly compressed timeline that keeps things moving very fast, but not unbelievably so.   The timeline, which you’re aware of throughout, gives you the Hitchcockian suspense of wanting to scream at the ordinary slowness of bureaucracies when you know their actions could lead to the prevention of a nightmarish pandemic.

What makes the book work, though, is one of Bohjalian’s great strengths: his characters.  Most notably, Alexis Remnick, our protagonist, who is an emergency room doctor, is the kind of person you want to have wading into the twists and turns of a plot like this.  She’s knowledgeable, she’s caring (but not overly so), she’s stubborn and she’s not prone to doing stupid things to make the plot go forward.  My other favorite character is the private investigator she ends up hiring, Ken Sarafian, an older man with ghosts of his own from Vietnam, but whose dogged determination and energy, and his deeply caring heart, make him not only an excellent helper for Alexis, but also a character you want to root for on his own.

The plot starts out straightforwardly: Alexis and her current boyfriend, Austin, are on a bicycling holiday in Vietnam, which was Austin’s idea.  One afternoon Austin heads out on his own, supposedly on a pilgrimage to a place where his father was wounded and his uncle killed in Vietnam.  Austin doesn’t return.  Alexis worries about him, and is told, later, that he was killed in a bicycling accident.  She’s shown his dead body.  She should be mourning and heading back to the States and that should be the end of it.

Of course, it’s not. Because she is who she is and knows what she knows, Alexis is suspicious (and rightly so) of the official explanation of what happened to Austin. There are anomalies only someone like Alexis would notice, anomalies that lead her into an investigation of who Austen really was (spoiler alert: not what she thinks he was), and what he was really doing in Vietnam. And that investigation leads her deeper and deeper into a terrifying misuse of medical research, a lot of rats (literally; if you’re a person who’s grossed out by the thought of rats, this is emphatically NOT the book for you), and a potential biological weapon which could bring down the whole world.

It’s a quick read, with twists and turns throughout, but good ones, ones that are set up earlier in the book, that make sense.  Nobody is completely who you think they were, and that adds to the suspense, but through it all, Alexis is a champion, and Ken is a worthy companion, and you turn pages feverishly, heart in throat, to find out what’s going to happen, hoping against hope that you’re going to get a happy ending.

I’m not going to spoil it.  If you have a strong stomach, no fear of rats, and a love of fast paced, believable suspense, jump in to The Red Lotus and prepare for a wild ride.

 

A FUNNY BOOK ABOUT PRACTICING MEDICINE? BRING IT ON

When I picked up this nonfiction book about a doctor in Great Britain’s National Health Service, which bills itself as the “secret diaries of a medical resident”, I was expecting the kind of insider book that I really enjoy because it gives me insight into a job I know I could never do in a million years (which is not exclusively medicine; I’m also a wild fan of nonfiction about heroic school teachers, too: P.S. Your Not Listening, by Eleanor Craig, or One Child by Torey Hayden are long time favorites).  I was NOT expecting what I got, which is a hilarious book.  I’m not talking the kind of funny where you smile wryly or chuckle here and there. I’m talking about the kind of book where you guffaw and hoot and start reading the funny parts aloud to your long suffering spouse until you realize you’re going to have to read the whole thing aloud.  The best, most ironic aspect of this book experience?  The book in question, by Adam Kay, is titled This Is Going to Hurt.

Kay writes about his experiences going through the British medical educational process, and from the beginning, when he explains that would-be doctors set on their course when they’re still in what we would call high school, and says, “holding anyone to his word at that age seems a bit unfair, on par with declaring the ‘I want to be an astronaut’ painting you did at age five a legally binding document.”  He then proceeds to take us along on the many steps on the road to becoming a Consultant (the British equivalent of an attending physician), complete with helpful and not so helpful footnotes along the way (the helpful ones are where he explains medical terminology, but sometimes he also adds wisecracks as well).  Throughout his experiences as a doctor, he keeps a sense of humor, not only about his patients and the (sometimes horrific) things they do to themselves, but also about his own poverty, overwork and complete lack of anything resembling a social life.  He becomes an OB-GYN specialist, and so there’s tons of stories about pregnancy and birth and all the weird things people do to themselves and each other in the name of sex.  There’s the story of the younger doctor who asks our author for a consult on an ultrasound of a fetus he believes is dead, and it turns out the younger doctor did such a bad job of reading the ultrasound that not only was that baby not dead, but he completely missed seeing the twin baby who was also there.  There are stories about the author’s being called into duty with friends and family members, a hilarious story about a fellow doctor’s MGB (in the context of the author’s losing a valuable pen), his observations of his fellow doctors, both competent and incompetent, and his patients, from the wonderful ones to the truly annoying (but productive of a good story) ones.  I’m not sure I would necessarily want to have him as my doctor (I would be a little worried about the stories he’d tell about me), but his sense of humor makes this book an absolute delight, a real hoot.

The author is no longer practicing medicine, and the last two chapters, where he explains why, are the only parts of the book that aren’t funny, but by that time you’ve gotten to know and like him, and you’re sorry for the way things ended for him.

Up until then, though, you’re in for a great ride, insights into what it’s like on the other side of the examining table (or the labor and delivery room), and more laughs than you would ever expect from a book that claims This Is Going to Hurt.

WHEN AUTHORS CHEAT

I don’t usually write here about books I don’t like, so possibly readers get the impression that I love everything I read, which is absolutely not true.  I generally feel that there are so many terrific books out there it makes little sense to waste time talking about not terrific books, let alone loathsome books that make me seriously consider tossing them at a wall at high speeds.   But still, it’s helpful to consider what makes a book so throw-able.  There are many factors, and they vary from bad and lazy writing to ridiculous plots to paper thin characters to nasty ideas being propagated.  One of the worst, in my opinion, is when the author is so eager to give readers a twist that the author cheats.

There have long been books that used twists in the plot to keep the readers’ attention: the revelation about Milady’s background in The Three Musketeers  was a big surprise, for instance, and Agatha Christie was skilled at playing with readers’ expectations.  It seems to me, though, that the success of Gone Girl and its ilk led to an expectation, especially among thriller readers, that a good thriller needs an unexpected twist or it’s not worth reading.  For what it’s worth, I personally found the repeated twists in Gone Girl to be less and less interesting as the book went on, and the only reason I read through the whole book was because I wanted to see both the main characters die in a fire at the end (spoiler: they don’t).  Twists of plot for the sake of having a twist, or surprising the reader, become just a trick if they’re not done well, and they’re surprisingly hard to do well.

If a twist in the plot is done right, it’s a revelation to the reader. It causes the reader to rethink the basic premise of the book, or the basic nature of the characters or everything that’s gone before. That’s the fun of it, having the rug pulled out from under you when you thought you knew where things were going.

However, it’s only fun if you can look through the book again and see how the twist makes sense in light of the earlier part of the story. Here’s where a lot of writers screw up. To be a revelation, the twist has to be surprising, but to be meaningful, the twist has to be set up much earlier, and the reader’s attention diverted away from the clues that are there in the narrative.  Leaving out those clues is cheating. It’s like playing a game for the first time with someone who keeps changing the rules whenever you think you’re winning.

For instance, a thriller I read recently, a bestseller which was touted on the front cover as “the perfect thriller” by an author who should have known better, turned on a surprising twist about the nature of the relationship between the two main characters. Unfortunately, when you look back to the earlier parts of the book, there is no way you could possibly have seen any hints about that twist, because the author treated events which had happened in the deep past as if they were happening in the present of the narrative. Yes, that makes it harder for you to guess what the relationship between the two main characters was, but it also makes the revelation feel bogus. And when the big surprise feels bogus, the whole book, as you look back on it, feels the same.

You don’t need a massive big surprise for a thriller to work. I’ve enjoyed many thrillers which didn’t have those kinds of twists.  I realize it’s the fashion now, and I’m sure lots of writers feel they have to include shocking revelations in order to sell a book.  Sure, have the big surprise, the unexpected twist in the plot, but for heaven’s sake, make sure it’s justified by the rest of the book, or I guarantee you, that book is going to slam into the nearest wall at great speed.

Your mileage may vary, of course.

A THRILLER WITH CHILLS AND HUMOR

What do you call a thriller that has a unique, unthinking but utterly frightening antagonist, an interesting, unusual and well-developed location, protagonists and secondary characters who are all out of the ordinary for thrillers, and a surprisingly funny sense of humor?  You call it Cold Storage, by David Koepp, and when you pick it up, you don’t want to put it down.

You would not think a fungus is a particularly scary thing prior to reading this book, but trust me, when you encounter this particular fungus, which makes its debut in a small town in western Australia, after having hitched a ride on a fallen spacecraft, you will find it incredibly creepy and threatening.  This is no ordinary fungus (the interstellar origins might give you the first clue, but what it does to the inhabitants of that aforementioned small town is what will really give you nightmares).

Our opening chapters give us the standard sort of thriller protagonists: Roberto Diaz, a Pentagon bioterror operative, his superior, Trini Romano, a no-nonsense tough woman, and Dr. Hero Martins, a brilliant and beautiful microbiologist and epidemiologist.  They travel to the place where the fungus made its landing, encounter it in its full horror and manage to destroy most of it. The rest they send to a top secret storage facility deep underground where it will be kept in ultra cold and super secure surroundings.

You know where this is going, or you think you do.  Years later, the government sells the facility to a private developer, keeping the lowest, most highly sensitive levels buried under layers and layers of rock.  The developer turns the cave complex into a self storage facility, and no one storing his or her stuff there, or working there, has any idea of what’s lurking underneath, until (of course), one day it all goes wrong.

But here’s where the author throws us a curve, in the person of Teacake Meacham, a former convict and ne’er do well who’s working in the storage facility, his only goals to keep from getting roped into his supervisor’s plans to fence stolen goods in the facility and to meet and impress one of his co-workers, Naomi Williams, a single mother.  Neither Teacake nor Naomi is your typical thriller protagonist. Teacake talks too much and is easily persuaded to do things he knows better than to do, Naomi is only working at the storage place so she can make money to take care of her daughter and study to get herself through college and into veterinary school, and they do not fall in love with each other at first sight.

They do, however, hear some strange beeping coming from inside the walls of the facility, and their curiosity makes them two of the only three people who can save the world from the escaping fungus.

At the same time, Naomi’s ex husband ends up in the facility as well, and Teacake’s boss and his partners in crime head in there to buy and sell some televisions sets whose provenance isn’t to be trusted.  Diaz is called out of retirement, though that takes some doing on Naomi’s part, and a race against time and against human stupidity ensues.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a ticking time bomb of a thriller, and you are always aware of the stakes for these characters and the larger world.  But at the same time, the characters are so well drawn, and all so slightly off balance, that you can’t help laughing aloud a number of times in the book, even as you’re turning the pages faster and faster to find out what happens and how they’re going to pull it off (if they’re going to pull it off).

It’s not often you find a combination of great tension, really disturbing stakes, and goofy humor like this, but if you’re in the mood for a somewhat off the wall thriller that delivers, check out Cold Storage.

BOOK GROUPS IN A TIME OF CORONA VIRUS

Since it now appears the library will be closed till May 15 at the earliest, two months after the last time we were open (sob!), and since the Field Notes Book Group already put off its March meeting, we decided to attempt a meeting via zoom (what else?).  As one member noted, there was something ironic in the concept of discussing Because Internet exclusively online.

This was, I freely admit, a bad choice for the book club. Most of the members didn’t read it, and only one person liked it.  The kinder remarks were that it didn’t hold people’s interest. I will not mention some of the less kind remarks. Lesson learned!

But the hard part of running a book club during Shelter in Place is the question of how to choose the next book.  Other book groups probably don’t have this problem, as they just assume people will buy whatever book is chosen, but this is a library sponsored book group, and, aside from my scruples about expecting people to run out and buy books they may not like, I generally want people to use library resources for book group.  Unfortunately, this isn’t possible at the moment. And while there are all kinds of ebooks and e-audiobooks available through the Westchester Library System, the problem is that there might not be enough copies for everyone in the book group to get one.

So we went with a fallback: you may recall my earlier discussion of Gutenberg.org, where there are tens of thousands of different e-books available.  Yes, these are older books out of copyright, but so what? The Field Notes group has talked about reading classics anyway, and here’s our opportunity.

Our next choice, therefore, is Oscar Wilde’s immortal play, The Importance of Being Earnest, full of his trademark wit and bon mots, short enough that nobody should feel burdened reading it on screens instead of in paper form, and funny enough that we should be able to laugh a lot when we discuss it.

We’ll be meeting again virtually via zoom on Saturday, May 16, at 11:00.

 

If you are not a member of the book group (due to distance or other factors), this is one meeting you could still join.  If you’re interested, send me an email (my contact information is nmulligan at wlsmail dot org, with @ and . substituted for the words) and I’ll send you an invite.

WE COULD BE HEROES: WHEN WE WERE VIKINGS

Now, I realize the library is still closed, and maybe it seems a little cruel to be posting reviews of books when nobody can get them out of the library yet, but it’s still possible to put things on hold, even if the holds won’t be filled until the system reopens.  Besides, isn’t it better to think about something other than the current circumstances, especially when we can’t do anything to change the current circumstances but wait and muddle through?

With that in mind, let me introduce you to a wonderful book with a truly lovable protagonist: When We Were Vikings, by Andrew David MacDonald.  You might be put off by the title, which does, I agree, suggest some kind of role playing or possibly time travel (though I personally wouldn’t be put off at all by the suggestion of time travel), but actually the title fits the book really well, though not in the way you’re expecting.

The protagonist is Zelda, a 20 year old woman dealing with the effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.  She has some issues, and she’s going to a special program with other young adults with disabilities, but Zelda doesn’t let any of those limitations bother her.  She’s a Viking enthusiast, and lives as much as she can in the spirit of the Vikings, about whom she is extremely knowledgeable. She even corresponds with the author of an authoritative book on Vikings, though “corresponds” is a bit of an exaggeration.  She sends him emails and he doesn’t respond.

Zelda lives with her older brother, Gert, who’s had some hard times of his own.  She looks up to him not only as a member of her tribe but as a person who embodies the virtues of the Vikings she so admires.  Prior to their living alone, after their father died, the siblings lived with an uncle who was abusive to both of them, and Gert got them out of that situation. He had an indifferent high school experience and now is going to community college on a scholarship he received on the strength of an essay he wrote.  Zelda has never seen the essay, but she understands it has to do with her in some way.

Obviously, the Viking expert and the college application essay, set up from the beginning of the book, are two things that are going to be important by the end of the book, but I won’t spoil either of them for you here.

It turns out, however, that Gert is not what Zelda thinks he is.  He’s flunking out of school, he’s involved with a local drug dealer as a pusher, and he owes the dealer a substantial amount of money.

With the help of other members of her tribe, and with her own indomitable spirit, Zelda sets out to save her brother from the villains he’s associated with, and to make her own legend, following and adapting to the present the themes of the old Norse sagas.

Zelda is a full fledged human being, with quirks and flaws and limitations.  There are things she doesn’t understand that we, the readers, do, but at no point do we feel superior to her.  She loves deeply, she makes mistakes (serious ones of trusting the wrong people), but they’re mistakes that grow out of who she is and what her life experiences have been. She has incredible courage, especially considering her circumstances, and she has a deep rooted sense of what’s right and what’s wrong.  She is a person I would love to hang out with in real life.

And that goes for the other members of her tribe as well.  Gert has his problems and can be pretty annoying a lot of the time (though he’s solid when he really needs to be), but you can understand what Zelda sees in him.  His former girlfriend, AK47 (real name, Annie; nickname given because of the speed with which she talks), is the kind of friend you want in dangerous times, someone who knows who and what she is and who takes no crap from anyone, not even a boyfriend.  Zelda’s therapist, Dr. Laird, whom Zelda considers the wise man of her tribe, is obviously caring and empathic and very good at what he does. Even the minor characters in the book are fleshed out with foibles and charms. Nobody is one-dimensional, not even Toucan, the major bad guy of the book.

At a time when things seem really dark and it’s hard to see a way forward, what a pleasure it is to spend time with Zelda and her tribe!  This is one of those books you don’t want to put down, and when you finish, you feel you’ve been through something special. .