HOW TO FIX YOUR BOOK GROUP

I’m going to assume, rightly or wrongly, that the people who are interested in reading a blog about books, especially new books, and about library goings-on are also people who tend to belong to book clubs.  I run a book group here at The Field Library myself, and am starting another book group at a nearby Senior Living Community (hi, Drum Hill!), but as a library clerk, I also have dealings with other people who are in different book groups.  When four or five patrons come in within a day of each other, all looking for a particular book, odds are good that they’re trying to get the book for their book club.

Maybe you’ve encountered something like this yourself.  A book is chosen for the group, and of course everybody needs to read it before the next meeting (or at least everybody tries to read it before the next meeting).  You have a choice: you can either buy the book (electronically or in print), or you can try to borrow it from your local library. If you don’t know much about the book and aren’t sure you’re going to want to keep it, or if you’re not the kind of person who wants to accumulate books for whatever reason, or you just don’t want to spend money if you don’t have to (all legitimate aims, by the way), you’re going to go to the library to try to get a copy there.

And then you run into a problem, because the person choosing the book for the group hasn’t checked to see if there are any copies available at the local library.  Maybe it’s a new, popular book, a bestseller even, so the book chooser just assumes every library has it. Probably every library does have it, maybe even a couple of copies of it, but because it’s new and popular, all those copies are checked out, and even if you put it on hold, there might be a number of holds already on the book ahead of you (sometimes hundreds, literally), which decreases your chances of getting the book before your next meeting.  Or maybe it’s an older, more obscure book, and there simply aren’t enough copies in the library system to accommodate all the members of your book group.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  When I offer choices of books to the Field Notes Book Group, I’ve already checked to make sure there are enough copies of that book available in the system (not already checked out, not already on hold) that everyone in the group can get one. You can do this, too: check the catalog and look at the number of copies the library system has of the book, and decide accordingly.  If it’s the hottest book of the month and there are a hundred copies, all of which are checked out, and there are three hundred holds, maybe that’s not the book you want to choose for this month. Maybe you want to wait a couple of months so more copies will be available. Maybe your friendly librarian could suggest another book that is more readily available that would also be a great read and discussion starter.  

My personal feeling is that you shouldn’t have to spend money in order to join a book discussion group.  Reading should be free, and the pleasures of reading a book together and talking about it shouldn’t be limited to people who can afford to buy a new hardcover or e-book every month.  Check out your library before you choose the book. Ask for help. I know I’d be delighted to advise book group leaders on good reading selections that their members can get their hands on quickly.  

Give it a try.  You have nothing to lose but your frustrations.

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MY FAIR LADY, REVISIONED: UNDER THE TABLE

Add to the growing collection of new versions of older stories Under the Table, Stephanie Evanovich’s take on Pygmalion and My Fair Lady.  In the best tradition of revisionings of classic tales, Evanovich doesn’t just recreate the original story but puts her own spin on it, in this case placing the events in modern day New York City and flipping the genders and the social classes to come up with a new, entertaining romance that’s both an homage to the original(s) and a fun story on its own.

Our protagonist, Zoey Sullivan, fled a bad marriage and the Midwest to live with her fun sister in New York City.  She gave herself three months to get her head straight, and discovered her love of and skill with cooking could lead her to a career and financial independence.  Avoiding her ex, Derek, who’s constantly calling her, Zoe is settling into a new life when she meets Tristan at one of the private parties she caters. She falls in love with his kitchen, which is everything a chef could possibly dream of, and then she turns her attention to Tristan himself.

Tristan is a diamond in the rough: handsome, rich, with lovely manners, but with few social skills and very shy around other people (as an aside, can we have a person who’s got poor social skills who’s not a brilliant computer programmer?  This is getting to be a cliche). Zoe decides to take him in hand and give him some polish, help him learn how to dress, how to act around other people, how to gain confidence in public settings.

Naturally, once he’s starting to shine thanks to her efforts, Zoe realizes that she’s not thinking of him as just an experiment, someone she was helping.  She’s fallen for him, but she has no idea whether he feels anything for her. And as she’s trying to figure out where she’s going with Tristan, who should turn up in New York City but her ex, Derek, looking for a second chance and not willing to take no for an answer.

If you love a good makeover story and enjoy a little romance and wish My Fair Lady had been a little different, check out Under the Table.

BEYOND THE LIMITS OF SCIENCE: LOST AND WANTED

If you’re interested in a new novel that takes on questions of science and faith, of female friendship and the power of the different kinds of love, try Lost and Wanted, by Nell Freudenberger.

Back in the day, Helen Clapp and Charlotte Boyce were closer than sisters, the kind of friends who told each other everything about their lives.  They were college roommates at Harvard, and shared all their struggles and triumphs at school and after: the time a professor hit on Charlie, Helen’s frustrations as a young woman trying to make her way in the world of science, Charlie’s troubles trying to break into the world of Hollywood screenwriting as a black woman, the challenges they both faced as parents.  But as Helen advanced to a tenure track professorship at MIT, wrote bestselling books that explained science to lay people, and arrived at a breakthrough in the esoteric field of fifth dimensional space, Charlie began to disappear from her life. Their calls grew less and less frequent, Charlie became more elusive, and Helen, if she thought of Charlie, assumed they were just growing apart.

Until Charlie died suddenly, and Helen suddenly realized what she’d been missing.

So far, you might think you’re reading a normal “women’s fiction” book, but things take a bit of an odd turn. After Charlie’s death, Helen gets a phone call from her.  This is impossible in Helen’s scientific view of the world, and yet, she can’t help believing that this really was Charlie talking to her, and that brings Helen back into Charlie’s world, her memories of her friendship with Charlie and everything that went along with that, including her long-ago relationship with Neel Jonnal, a prize-winning physicist who’s on the verge of winning a Nobel Prize.  Helen is forced to reconsider the choices she’s made in her life, the rules of science which have always limited and steadied her world.

Did something supernatural happen?  Does friendship survive death?  Are there second chances in life?  Read Lost and Wanted to find out.

 

 

 

MAPS, JINN AND THE INQUISITION: A THRILLING RIDE THROUGH MEDIEVAL SPAIN

There are some authors whose books I’ll buy for the library almost sight unseen. They’re usually the authors who are so popular that I know library patrons are going to want to read their books, but sometimes they’re authors I personally love, whose books I’ve recommended over and over to prospective readers.  There are authors (we probably all have them) for whom the very announcement that they have a new book coming out is enough to set my heart racing and make me decide we have to have that book.

One of those authors, for me, is G. Willow Wilson, and my eagerness to read her new book, The Bird King, was largely based on how much I loved her last book, Alif the Unseen, which I read for a category in one of the Read Harder challenges.  Sadly, Alif the Unseen is not available here at the Field Library, which is why I haven’t written it up for the blog, but it’s a wonderful book that combines adventure and fantasy and romance in a Middle Eastern culture I haven’t seen often depicted in fantasy novels, with a supporting heroine worthy of her own book, or her own series.

The Bird King is set in the last days of the Reconquista in Spain, as Ferdinand and Isabella were consolidating their control over the country and pushing out the last of the Moorish kingdoms. The story begins in a palace in Granada, the last Moorish kingdom, already under siege and reaching the end of its existence.  Fatima, our protagonist, is a Circassian slave in the harem of the sultan, a servant to his mother, the Lady Aisha. Her closest friend in the palace is Hassan, the palace mapmaker, who has the amazing ability to make the world correspond to what he draws in his maps: he can make doors appear where there were none in reality, and tunnels from one place to another that never existed before his maps.  Naturally Hassan has used this gift for the sultan and his people earlier in the war, and he’s more than willing to continue to use this talent to help those he cares about. There is no possibility of a marriage or even a sexual relationship between Fatima and Hassan, because he is attracted only to men. This is something the sultan and most of the other people in the palace are aware of, and they tolerate this behavior of his because of his outstanding gifts, but even from the outset we know this is going to be a problem sooner or later.  

It becomes a problem when the emissaries of Ferdinand and Isabella, a general and a religious woman, come to the palace to offer terms for the sultan’s surrender.  The general seems like the more powerful character, but it’s the woman, Luz, who makes things happen, and when Fatima discovers that Luz is associated with the Inquisition, she realizes that Luz, and the people she represents, are the biggest danger to Hassan.  Indeed, when Luz finds out what Hassan can do, she naturally takes the position that he is in league with the devil, and insists that he be surrendered to the Inquisition. While the sultan and even Lady Aisha are willing to pay for peace with Hassan’s life, Fatima is not, and so she and Hassan escape the palace and make a break for freedom, with the help of a dog who is really a jinn named Vikram (a character we met already in Alif the Unseen, though he’s pretty much the only character in common between those two books; he was a delight in Alif and he’s a wonderful character here, too, much more than a supernatural helper when the couple need him and never someone who can be entirely relied upon for that kind of help), and with all the forces of the Inquisition after them.

Wilson is excellent at creating characters. None of the people or beings we meet in this book are predictable or simple, from Hassan to Fatima, from Aisha to the sultan, from Gwennec, the novice monk they encounter along the way, even to Stupid, the horse they end up taking on board a boat with them.  Where she really excels is in her villains, and Luz is amazing. Anyone can write a totally evil person who acts cruelly and viciously just for the sake of evil, and such all powerful, all evil characters aren’t terribly interesting or believable. Luz does horrible things and plans even more terrible ones, but she is always plausible, she’s charming and sweet even to the people she’s setting out to destroy, and she has reasons for her actions. They may not be reasons you’d agree with (they certainly aren’t reasons I’d agree with), but she’s got realistic motivations (even without the supernatural help she gets), and she is disturbingly powerful, a worthy opponent for our characters.

The world of The Bird King is vivid and realistic, despite the many paranormal things that occur in it.  Distances are vast, people don’t develop the ability to walk for days and days without pain, you can’t immediately set foot in a small sailboat and immediately know how to sail it unless someone shows you how (and even then you can make stupid mistakes).  All the details of hunger and thirst, physical and emotional pain, the smells of waterfronts and cities, the dry air of late summer in Spain combine to bring this world to life without the book’s ever stopping its forward momentum or slowing you down to force you to look at any of it.

I read the book in two days, and would have devoured it in one if I hadn’t had to waste time on silly things like eating and sleeping and going to work.  If you want a rich, immersive book with characters you care about, plenty of action, set in a world you’re probably not very familiar with, you could hardly do better than to pick up The Bird King.  But make sure you set aside time, because you’re not going to want to put it down once you start it.

AROUND THE WORLD BY TRAIN: OFF THE RAILS

Let’s start with my personal bias here: I love train travel, even on Amtrak with all its delays and difficulties, and I practically swooned when taking the high speed train from Brussels to Paris a few years ago (what train travel could be!  Who knew?). So I am probably the ideal audience for Beppe Severgnini’s new nonfiction book, Off the Rails: A Train Trip Through Life, but I think even people who don’t come to the book with my predilections will find it an entertaining read, the kind of travel book that makes you want to get up and go, or possibly that gives you such a sense of what the trip is like that you feel you’ve already gone.

The book is a series of essays about particular train trips Severgnini has taken over the years, and it’s an impressive collection of routes and trains any way you look at it.  He crosses the United States twice, mostly by train (the first trip he describes, when he’s traveling with his college-age son, involves some driving and some bus travel as well), he takes a train across the width of Australia, crosses Europe in a couple of different directions, travels across Asia through Siberia to China.  A native of Italy, he brings a unique perspective to whatever he experiences.

Frankly, Beppe is the kind of traveling companion anyone would want.  He’s incredibly patient with delays and screwups on the part of bureaucracies, he’s endlessly interested in the world around him, and he seems to be the kind of person who can get anyone, anywhere, to talk to him. His sense of humor never deserts him, and he looks at all the people around him, from train employees to fellow passengers, as fascinating people with their own stories to share.  If you were going to be traveling through Eastern Europe, as he does, and facing the oddities of scheduling and different standards of train travel, or traveling across the (then) Soviet Union and dealing with the limited food available on the train, you couldn’t ask for a less stressed person to accompany you.

Some of the delight of the book is his description of the travel itself, the experience of taking a train, of figuring out how the sleeping arrangements work (his descriptions of an Amtrak sleeper compartment are amusing and accurate), of eating meals with a random assortment of strangers on the dining car, and what he observes out the windows or in the train stations.  But a lot of the pleasure he takes in the travel, which he conveys vividly, is his encounters with other people, with people from different countries, with different languages, cultures and ideas. He’s a brave man, talking politics with strangers, even bringing a bobblehead Trump with him on a trip from Naples to London and watching people’s reactions, but there’s something about him that brings out the kindness and the talkativeness of other people.  Perhaps it’s his lack of judgmentalism. He has opinions of his own, and he shares them with us, but my impression is that he doesn’t reveal those opinions to the people he meets, and that encourages them to be open with him.

There is only one thing this book lacks, and it’s a surprising thing. Why aren’t there any maps in the book?  I’d settle for maps on the insides of the covers, though I’d prefer a map at the beginning of each chapter. How can you have a travel book without any maps at all?  Especially when in the last chapter Beppe talks with some sadness about how modern people have no idea of distances or locations, where things are with relation to each other.  I agree with his concern there, but it would be a lot less ironic if he or his publisher had taken the elementary step of providing maps of where these various places are that he’s seeing and experiencing. Even if you’re reasonably geographically knowledgeable, there are still parts of the world you don’t know as well, and a map would help immensely to give you an idea of locations and distances.

Other than that, this is a fun book, a quick read, and an inspiration to do some train traveling of your own, and I heartily recommend it.

 

SPRING INTO NEW THRILLERS

How about some thrilling reading to get you through the transitional days when Mother Nature can’t seem to make up her mind about whether it’s actually spring or still winter?  You can choose between domestic thrillers, classic dangers-from-the-past-coming-back-to-haunt-you thrillers and up to the minute this-could-bring-about-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it thrillers. We’ve got them all in the new fiction section of The Field Library.

Perhaps you’re turning your nose up at the idea of a “domestic” thriller, but if you’re talking about My Lovely Wife, by Samantha Downing, you’re making a mistake.  The tag line for this book is “Dexter meets Mr. and Mrs. Smith”, and admit it, you’re already intrigued (especially if you, like me, were a fan of Dexter in his early days).  Our protagonists are your ordinary seeming married couple. They met, fell in love, got married, had kids, bought a house together. They’ve been married 15 years, and maybe their relationship is getting a little stale.  Maybe they’re snapping at each other a little more than they used to do. Maybe they need something to spice their marriage up, something like, oh, I don’t know, perhaps figuring out creative ways to get away with murder?  If you have a twisted mind, this is probably the first book you should pick up and read.

Iris Johansen has been writing thrillers centering around Eve Duncan, the forensic sculptor, for more than twenty years now (the first one, The Face of Deception, was published in 1998), and yet there are still new facets to the character and her world to explore.  In the latest in the series, Dark Tribute, the focus is on Cara Delaney, Eve’s ward. Cara is finally getting settled in her life as a professional musician when she is kidnapped by someone who’s got a grudge against her grandfather and is willing to use her to get back at her family.  The past she thought was safely behind her is now a source of extreme danger to Cara and everyone she cares about, and the question is, can Cara save her own life and the lives of those close to her?

Catherine Coulter heightens the stakes in her newest book, The Last Second. What her main characters, Special Agents Nicholas Drummond and Michaela Caine, have to do is prevent someone from loosing an electromagnetic pulse over the earth’s atmosphere that would kill all earth’s electronic communications.  No biggie, right? France has launched its own communications satellite, and its second-in-command is a woman who believes her life was saved by aliens on a prior spacewalk, and who believes the aliens will allow her to join them and become immortal if she changes earth’s destiny by deploying the EMP.  With the clock running out and the destruction of what makes our modern world work imminent, this is one of those books you keep reading long past your bedtime, to find out what’s going to happen.

And isn’t that what thrillers are all about?

MAYBE SECOND CHANCES HAPPEN: GRACE AFTER HENRY

How do you move on after a tragedy?  What if life gives you a second chance?  What if you think it’s a second chance but it really isn’t?  These questions, and their surprising answers, are at the heart of the charming debut novel, Grace After Henry, by Eithne Shortall, new at The Field Library.

Grace and Henry were the perfect couple; he was the love of her life and the two of them were buying their dream house in Dublin, ready to move in.  Then tragedy struck: Henry was killed in a bicycle accident, leaving Grace alone and nearly destroyed by grief.

She struggles to move on, but it’s really difficult, living in the house they bought together,  returning to her job, her daily life, watching television with her neighbor. Everything reminds her of Henry, to the point where she’s starting to see him in other people.  She knows this is a problem, especially when the person she mistakes for Henry turns out to be someone altogether different who may not even look that much like him, objectively.

But then one day a plumber shows up at her house, looking exactly like Henry, for real.  And he has a good reason to look like Henry: he’s Andy, Henry’s long-lost twin brother. He’s come to Dublin to find out what happened to Henry, and he is both so like Henry and so unlike Henry that Grace isn’t sure whether she’s being given a second chance to be with Henry again or whether she’s losing her mind.  Does she really want to move on, or does she really want to cling relentlessly to the past which was so much happier for her?

It’s a book about grief and loss, but it’s also a book about resilience, about quirky ordinary people trying to make the best of difficult (and even strange) circumstances.  And it’s set in Dublin, the author’s hometown and a charming and fabulous city itself, which is another point in the book’s favor. So if you’re in the mood for a funny-sad charming book that will take you away from Peekskill, give Grace After Henry a try.

 

THE RIVER THAT RUNS THROUGH US: EVERYTHING UNDER

If you’re going to write a modern version of an ancient myth or story, one way you can do it is to be straightforward and take the elements of the original story and put them in a modern setting. This requires more imagination than you might think; look at The Mere Wife (one of my favorite reads for 2018 and a stunning re-imagining of Beowulf) for an example of how to do it right. Another way is to take the elements of the original and turn them into something completely different, while still retaining the heart of the myth, and that’s what Daisy Johnson does in Everything Under, a strange and beautiful book.

I could tell you that it’s based on the story of Oedipus, and it is, sort of, but you’d get two thirds of the way through the winding, elliptical narrative before you’d even begin to see the elements of the original myth, and in so doing, you’d miss out on half of what makes this book so compelling.

Gretel is our narrator, and one of the point of view characters. She’s in her thirties, living a quiet life as a lexicographer in England, having been abandoned by her mother when she was a teenager. As we begin to see, even when Gretel was living with her mother, Sarah, it was hardly a normal childhood: isolated on a boat moored in a river, having little contact with the outside world, even creating a language of their own that nobody else could understand, Gretel’s lucky she turned out as normal as she did. She hardly ever thinks about her missing mother until she receives an email supposedly from Sarah, telling Gretel she’s lost.

Gretel then begins a search for her mother, and the novel begins winding through past and present, through what Gretel discovers in the present and what she remembers, and what she’s able to recreate of the past, especially of one particular winter when she and her mother were joined on their boat by a young man named Marcus.

Sarah in the present is a force of nature, but one beginning to fall apart. Whether she’s suffering from Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia, she both recognizes Gretel and has no idea who this young woman is, and Gretel tries to take care of her mother and figure out what Sarah needs so desperately to tell her.

Gretel, interesting narrator as she is, isn’t the only point of view character in the book. Giving their own unique perspectives on the story are Fiona, a gender queer person who never met Gretel or Sarah but knows an awful lot about Marcus before he was Marcus, and Marcus himself, formerly Margot.

This is one of those books where the setting is almost a character in itself. The river on which they live is wild and scary, inhabited by people who don’t seem to belong anywhere else, and, possibly, by a monster Sarah and Gretel refer to as the Bonak, and the Canal Thief of the past, rumored and possibly seen by Marcus and some of the others. The river feels like a mythical place, where there could be monsters, where the past and present are as fluid and sometimes cryptic as the language Sarah and Gretel spoke to each other, as the relationships among the main characters.

Everything Under is an immersive book, literary and allusive, and finally, when all the secrets have been unearthed and justice done or not done, deeply emotional and haunting. Check it out.

THE FEELING ROBOT: TODAY I AM CAREY

If you’re the type of person who says, “I don’t like science fiction,” because you think it’s all space opera and high tech whiz bang science that you’re not going to understand, then boy, do I have a book for you!  Today I Am Carey, by Martin L. Shoemaker (a well respected speculative fiction short story writer) is a science fiction book that is NOT like the stereotype.  It is, instead, a deeply emotional and human book, asking some of the most profound questions of what makes someone human, through the prism of an empathic robot named Carey.

Carey is a robot designed to be a caretaker for people with Alzheimer’s.  It’s paired with Mildred, an elderly lady who’s losing her memories. Carey’s job is to make Mildred comfortable by taking the parts of the people she thinks she’s seeing and interacting with.  After she dies, Carey is left with the beginnings of its emotional education and nowhere official to use those abilities, so Carey, who cannot die or age, spends time with Mildred’s remaining family, dealing with the overworked scientist, Paul, the dedicated teacher, Susan, and their daughter, Millie, who grows up with Carey as her best friend.  And Carey, for its part, grows up as well.

Told as a series of electronic diary entries by Carey, the book is deceptively short, but emotionally deep, a shining example of the breadth of modern science fiction. Even if you think you don’t like science fiction, give Carey a try, and it might well change your mind.

GOING TO THE DOGS FOR THE APRIL BOOK GROUP

After a vigorous discussion of A Reliable Wife, which some members of the group considered “depraved” (doesn’t that make you want to read it?), the Field Notes Book Group chose the book for our April meeting, a nonfiction book, Inside of a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz.  On April 27, from 11:00 to 12:30, the Field Notes group will be discussing this book in the Teen section of the library, and, as usual, there will be coffee and snacks, including but possibly not limited to Dunkin Donuts Munchkins.

The subtitle of Inside of A Dog (and we know all nonfiction books have to have a subtitle, don’t we?) is What Dogs See, Smell, and Know.  While Horowitz is a dog owner herself, she’s also a scientist, and it’s the scientist’s eye she turns on the development of dogs and the intricacies of dog behavior, without being at all dry or dull.  For those of us who are dog lovers, this book will, I guarantee, show you aspects of man’s best friend that you hadn’t considered before, and even those of us who aren’t totally into dogs already will be fascinated by how much we don’t know, or think we know (wrongly) about what it’s like to be a dog, and how dogs fit into the human world.

Come and join us on April 27 for what promises to be a lively discussion of all things canine and Alexandra Horowitz’s approach to the world of dogs. Copies of the book are available at the Field Library circulation desk, as usual.