HARD LIFE IN THE HEARTLAND: SEPTEMBER FIELD NOTES SELECTION

Sometimes it’s great just to be able to laugh about a book club book, and the members of the Field Notes Book Group shared a lot of laughs over A Walk in the Woods on Saturday.  Thanks to everybody who came and discussed the book, and voted for our September selection, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country in the World, by Sarah Smarsh.  We will be meeting to discuss this book in the Teen Zone at The Field Library on Saturday, September 21, from 11 – 12:30, and as usual, refreshments will be provided.

For a variety of reasons, when Americans think about poor people, we tend to picture people living in the cities, usually on the coasts, but in fact the majority of poor in America are rural people living in the “heartland.”  Sarah Smarsh writes a vivid portrait of what it was like to grow up in Kansas farmland, facing abusive relationships, lack of medical care, unsafe working conditions and lack of resources and education that would have allowed people to escape their lives of grinding poverty. 

Come and pick up a copy of the book at the Circulation Desk and then join us on September 21 for what promises to be a lively discussion, complete with snacks.

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GET THE JUMP ON SEPTEMBER BESTSELLERS

Are you ready for what are sure to be bestsellers coming out in September? Are you aware of how close September actually is (hint: it’s a lot closer than you think)?  Get out your library card and get ready to put holds on these new books from bestselling authors, all of which are coming to The Field Library in a few weeks.

First up is James Patterson (of course) with his latest, Killer Instinct.  It starts with the murder of an Ivy League professor in New York City, which brings out Dr. Dylan Reinhart, an academic expert on the psychology of murder.  He’s reunited with his former partner, Detective Elizabeth Needham, as one of the worst terrorist attacks in New York history hits. Her courageous action brings her to the attention of the violent sociopath behind the attacks, basically putting a target on her back while at the same time Reinhart fears his secret past is going to rise up to haunt him.  Reinhart and Needham race against time to prevent a terrible disaster, facing a psychopath different from anyone they’ve ever encountered before.

When Stephen King publishes a new book, it’s bound to be a hot one, and in his latest, The Institute, King does what he does best: creates a dangerous world with ordinary seeming people capable of horrible things. The Institute of the title is a mysterious building which houses children with special psychic gifts, such as telekinesis and telepathy. The children, like our protagonist, Luke, were kidnapped from their former homes, their parents murdered, so they could be brought to the Institute, where the sinister staff (of course) uses almost inhuman means to extract every bit of the children’s supernatural abilities. The good children, the ones who cooperate and don’t cause trouble, are in Front Half.  The other kids, the bad kids, are sent to Back Half and never seen again. As more and more kids disappear into the Back Half, Luke is desperate to escape, but nobody escapes the Institute. Expect creepiness, nail-biting suspense and all the dark humor you want to find in a Stephen King novel.

A real rarity is a sequel to a book published more than thirty years before, especially when the original book in question is a classic with an ambiguous ending which was kind of the point of the book.  I’m talking, of course, about The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, which came out in 1985 (thirty four years ago, in case you’re counting).  I can’t say whether the extremely successful television series that’s now starting its fourth season had anything to do with this, or whether current political events were the impetus, but the fact is that this September Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, called The Testaments, will be coming out.  Having read the original many times (most recently with the Field Notes Book Group), I have trouble imagining how she could continue the story, and apparently she’s not continuing Offred’s story but providing testimonies from three other residents from GIlead fifteen years after the end of The Handmaid’s Tale.  It will be interesting to see where Atwood sees Gilead developing and what depths she can add to the world, probably different from the way the television series envisions it.  In any case, this is going to be a hot book, so if you want to be one of the early readers, you should put it on hold now.

Get ready for the bestsellers coming out in September: place holds and come on in.

POST HUMAN WORLD, AS TOLD BY A CROW: HOLLOW KINGDOM

If I start out by telling you that Hollow Kingdom, by Kira Jane Buxton, is the story of the zombie apocalypse, as narrated (mostly) by a domesticated crow named S. T.,you’re probably thinking it’s going to be told with a certain amount of attitude, that there will be a lot of action in it, and that it (or at least parts of it) will be funny in a Sean of the Dead kind of way.  You’d be correct. What would surprise you is how poignant and powerful the book is.  At least, that certainly surprised me. It’s a terrific book, moving and beautiful in places while also being dark and funny and obscene in others.

Let’s start out with S.T.’s language.  He’s the main narrator, and I won’t even tell you what S.T. stands for (don’t worry, he tells you right away); suffice it to say it’s two four letter words relating to his color and general shape. He has a foul mouth, there’s no question about it.  He comes by it naturally, of course. We don’t actually see much of the man who taught him to speak, but what we find out about Big Jim makes it clear he wasn’t the most refined of people, and the language he used is the language S. T. uses. If you’re a person who’s offended by multiple f-bombs, you probably won’t be able to get through this book.

Which would be a shame, because you’d be missing something really special.

S.T. is a wonderful character.  Raised by the crude and somewhat boorish Big Jim, he refers to human beings as “mofos” (think of Samuel L. Jackson whenever he uses that term), but affectionately.  At the outset of the book, and for quite a while, he thinks of himself as something other than a crow, maybe part human, maybe a human in the shape of a crow. He sneers at the rest of the crows in his neighborhood, and has endless admiration for the mofos, both the ones he’s actually met and lived with and near and the ones he’s heard about and seen on television. If it weren’t for the whole humans turning into zombies thing, he would probably spend his whole life living with Big Jim and Dennis, Big Jim’s hound dog, ignoring the rest of the world.

Of course, something happens, and people start changing in terrible ways. I keep using the word “zombie,” but that’s not what S.T. thinks, and it’s not entirely accurate. Humans devolve into mindless creatures, eating anything that they find (including, horribly, their own pets in some cases), chasing after cell phones and ipads whenever they see them.  Domestics like S.T. and Dennis have to find ways to survive without humans as all the human infrastructure is overwhelmed by a resurgent nature, including all the creatures that ordinarily live in human territories (crows, other birds, raccoons, squirrels, opossums, etc) and the inhabitants of the Seattle Zoo, now freed and making themselves at home.

The book is surprisingly poignant, partly because of some of the things that happen along the line (warning: some characters we care about are killed), but mostly, I think, because our guide through the bulk of  the story is S.T. We first see him in sarcastic and snarky mode, but very soon we discover the depth of his heart, his eagerness to find a cure for Big Jim (a funny and poignant scene in itself), his recognition that Dennis, the hound, is suffering from depression and his efforts to make Dennis happy again.  His relationship with Dennis, in particular, changes over the course of the book from his referring to the dog as having “weapon grade incompetence” to his referring to him as “my Dennis,” and trying to protect him from the outside world, seeing him as a part of S.T.’s “murder” (as crow groups are called).

Unlike the wild animals, S.T. misses us mofos.  He remembers his relationship with Big Jim, and wishes he could get that back.  He thinks with regret of all the wonderful things we mofos invented and did, which the animals now taking over the world will not be able to recreate. He sees the writings the last healthy humans wrote, saying “We did this to ourselves,” and “we deserve this,” and he doesn’t agree with them, though most of the other animals do.  S.T. wants to save what we did best, difficult as that might turn out to be.

Over the course of the book, S.T. changes.  He’s still a dual-natured creature, part crow and part domesticated animal.  There’s always going to be a part of him that’s shaped by Big Jim, by his experiences with humans, but he comes to accept his crow side, and to be accepted by the wild crows for the first time.

There’s plenty of action, plenty of danger, to keep you turning the pages, but ultimately it’s the animals, and especially S. T. (who’s not the only narrator, but the main one; the others, including especially the Mother Tree, add a lot to the book’s depth) who keep you caring, keep you feeling. We don’t need to know how the plague started, but we find out anyway (and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the surprise and the power of it), and as we watch it ravage the human world, and what happens to human beings who survive (spoiler: it’s not good), you might think this is a downer of a book, too sad to read in dark times.

Ultimately, though, it’s not a downer.  There’s hope in the book, hope for the future of the world, even if it’s a world that doesn’t include human beings. I confess I’m not sure about the end; it’s a satisfying end, but it’s not the end I thought we were leading up to, and I’m still not entirely sure it was the right way to end the book.

Set aside some time, because this is a book that sucks you right in and holds you until you’re finished, and drop in to Hollow Kingdom.  You’ll ultimately be glad you did.

 

HOT READS FOR THE DOG DAYS OF SUMMER

As we move into the dog days of summer when it’s too hot and humid to even want to think about anything, what could be more entertaining than a fast paced thriller that keeps you turning the pages and forgetting everything but what’s happening in the book?  If you’re in the mood for a hot read in hot times, check out the new thrillers available at The Field Library.

City of Windows, by Robert Pobi, has a visceral draw for the deep miseries of summer heat and humidity: it starts in a record-setting blizzard in New York City (there, don’t you feel cooler already?), where an FBI agent is assassinated by a single, seemingly impossible shot: the agent was in a moving SUV, the snow was blowing around enough to blind people, and all evidence is destroyed by the storm.  To solve this amazingly difficult case, the FBI turns to an extraordinary former agent, Lucas Page, a man who has already paid a terrible price for his work and who, with a new family and a new life, wouldn’t ordinarily want anything to do with even the most intriguing case, except that the dead man was Lucas’ partner. The murder Lucas starts investigating is only the first of a series of increasingly unlikely and skilled sniper killings, all targeting law enforcement officers.  Lucas must figure out the identity and motive of this extraordinary shooter before his own family is targeted, as seems more and more likely.

While we’re on the subject of killers who are incredibly difficult to track down, we have the killer in Outfox, by Sandra Brown. A series of wealthy women married men, and then disappeared without a trace, leaving no clues for police to follow and no closure for their friends and families.  The men they married also disappeared completely as if they’d never existed, Our protagonist, FBI agent Drex Easton, is convinced that the women were murdered by a conman sociopath he knows as Weston Graham (one of Graham’s many identities), but every time he comes close to finding Graham, the man slips away into another persona and another identity and Drex is left with nothing.  This time, though, Drex latches on to someone he’s convinced is his nemesis, now using the name of Jasper Fox, now married to a wealthy businesswoman many years younger than he. Drex insinuates himself into the couple’s lives, trying to get closer to Jasper before Jasper can pull his disappearing act with his wife, Talia. Complicating things is Drex’s growing attraction to Talia himself, which gives him yet another reason to want to stop Jasper before he goes too far.

Women in jeopardy and women who are unreliable narrators are common factors in thrillers these days, but The Perfect Wife, by J. P. Delaney, takes those tropes in a slightly different, and decidedly creepy, direction.  Abbie wakes up in a hospital room, groggy and without any memories of who she is or how she got where she is now.  There’s a man in her room claiming to be her husband, telling her all kinds of things about her life: that she had a terrible accident five years before, that she was on the verge of death and it was only a miracle of modern technology that brought her back to life.  He tells her she’s a brilliant artist, a loving mother to their young son and a perfect wife to him. She doesn’t remember any of this, which is scary enough in itself, and as she starts to remember bits and pieces here and there, a lot of what her husband is telling her begins to fall apart, and she finds herself questioning his motives, and even his facts.  What’s really going on? What really happened to her five years ago, and what could the past be that’s so terrible her husband would be spending that much effort to hide it from her?  

 

Give yourself a break from the heat and humidity and immerse yourself in these new thrillers here at the Field.

 

SEARCHING FOR JUSTICE IN FUTURE AMERICA: THE HOUND OF JUSTICE

In order to get the most out of the second book in the Janet Watson Chronicles, The Hound of Justice, by Claire O’Dell, you first have to read the first book, A Study in Honor.  This is not one of those series you can read out of order or start anywhere; if you haven’t read A Study in Honor, I highly recommend it on its own merits and also as a basis for reading this excellent new novel.

The other thing you have to let go of when you start this book is the notion that this is an African American Female version of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, set in a future and very damaged America.  Yes, you do have a Doctor Watson, in this case Janet rather than John, African American rather than English, who was injured in a war in which she served (and I have to give O’Dell credit for not screwing around with the nature of Janet Watson’s injury: she got part of her arm blown off and in addition to the post-traumatic stress, she has an artificial arm to get used to using; the original John Watson was injured either in his arm or his leg and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never quite seemed to have made up his mind which it was).  And yes, you do have a brilliant and eccentric Holmes, in this case Sara rather than Sherlock, who has connections inside and outside of government and who has musical ability (piano in Sara’s case, violin in Sherlock’s) and a habit of dragging her companion into complicated mysterious situations without sharing a lot of information about what they’re doing or what she knows about what’s going on. But if you come to this book looking for a twisty, complicated Sherlock Holmes type mystery where the genius detective sees and deduces from clues neither Watson nor the reader can see clearly or understand properly, you are going to be disappointed. And that would be too bad, because you’d be missing out on a very entertaining, suspenseful book just because you’re looking for the wrong thing.

The Hound of Justice picks up where A Study in Honor left off, with Watson set up in a really nice job she doesn’t feel she deserves in the Georgetown Medical Center in Washington D.C., with a new and very expensive artificial arm she’s learning how to use.  She’s sharing a room, again, with Sara Holmes, who is cooling her heels, having been placed on sabbatical by whatever government agency employs her (it’s never clear to Watson exactly who’s paying the bills here).  The book starts with a literal bang: on the day of the inauguration of a new president, bombs go off in D.C. and a number of people are killed. Watson happens to witness the bomb blast, and immediately goes to her hospital to help with the damaged survivors. This attack, it turns out, was set up and organized by a group of terrorists associated with the New Confederacy, who are trying to keep the United States from negotiating a peace with the New Confederacy (and this is why I told you you should really read the first book).  It seems Holmes’ and Watson’s adversary from the previous book, Irene Adler (a name that will be familiar to any fans of Sherlock Holmes), who seemed to be killed at the end of that book, is still alive and might be involved with this terrorist activity.

If this were a Sherlock Holmes type story, the next thing that would happen is that Holmes would be called upon by some representative of the government to investigate what’s going on, and Watson would be called upon to help.  While that’s sort of what happens, the focus here is on Watson and her life without Sara Holmes, her efforts to overcome the PTSD of her initial injury, her efforts to rehabilitate herself and work her new arm well enough to return to surgery, and the complications her relationship with Sara brings to her life in general.  Something is going wrong at the hospital: people are being treated for routine ailments and sent home, and then days later return to the hospital to die horribly.  

And then Sara disappears, after intimations that the government is watching Sara and Janet’s every move.  Micha, Sara’s mysterious cousin, reaches out to Janet in Sara’s name, saying Sara needs her to come behind enemy lines in the New Confederacy, without giving a lot of detail or explanation.  As an African American woman, and a veteran of the New Civil War, Janet wants nothing less than to sneak across the war zone, but she forces herself to go to Sara’s help anyway, and finds herself in an adventure of false identities, underground resistance cells and a massive and frightening conspiracy worthy of the best of John LeCarre.  Even in the movies which bore the least resemblance to the original Holmes stories, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson never faced anything as dangerous as this.

The worldbuilding here is excellent; without doing any info dumps, the author manages to give us a vivid picture of a future, and frighteningly plausible, America, an America where the North and South have once again gone to war, but this time with weapons of the 21st century, not the 19th.  She shows us how that war, that political situation, affects everything in the lives of her characters, and she’s especially good at showing how such a world would affect people of color (who comprise most of the characters in the book).

Janet Watson is a character you want to follow, a person you care about: damaged but working on it, proud but willing to admit mistakes, a person whose relationships with her family are complicated but healing (or at least capable of being healed), a person who’s dedicated to her work and the people she cares about. She’s a vivid narrator, even in situations where she herself isn’t sure of what’s going on or what’s going to happen.  

Is there going to be another book in the series?  Maybe. The author leaves an opening at the end, while still wrapping up this plot satisfyingly.  I would be delighted to read another book with these characters in this setting, but if there isn’t going to be another, I’m still glad I’ve read these two, and I definitely recommend them to anyone who wants a good, absorbing, suspenseful read with characters different from the run of the mill protagonists in suspense novels.

 

WHEN TO GIVE UP ON A BOOK

I know we were all taught to finish what we started, and that many of us still have that deep-rooted feeling that if we start a book, we MUST finish it.  But I’m going to advance a radical idea: sometimes a book just isn’t worth finishing at this time. It took me years to come to this conclusion (and to fight down a lifetime of education to the contrary), but I can safely say I am a better reader and a happier person for it.

The question, of course, is when you should give up on a book, and the answer depends on a number of factors.

The first factor is whether you HAVE to read the book.  If it’s a book for a course you’re taking (especially if the course is all about this particular book), then yes, you absolutely have to read it, no matter how difficult it may be.  If it’s a book you’re reading for book group, then yes, of course you have to read it, especially if it’s a book your whole group chose and ESPECIALLY if you were the person who proposed this book in the first place. As a book group leader, I try to be tolerant and accepting in general, but really, if you’re not going to read the book (the whole book), why are you coming to this meeting to discuss the book you didn’t read (or didn’t finish)?

If it’s not in one of these categories, is there another reason you feel you HAVE to read the book?  And thinking you have to finish every book you start doesn’t count as a reason here. For instance, if someone you love gave you the book or recommended it to the sky and insisted that you read it, you might feel an obligation to that person to force your way through the book. Only you can decide how to balance your affection for that person for the amount of trouble you’re having with the book.  If you have a good relationship, you might be able to tell the person honestly that you couldn’t get through the book (with or without an all-purpose excuse like, “I was just too busy”) without harming the relationship too much.

Once you’ve decided that you can stop reading the book (and this is a personal decision, of course), how much time should you give yourself before you give up.  There are some books in which you can tell in the first few pages that this is not for you, and in that case, there’s no point in forcing yourself to slog through any more.  But if you’re not actively repelled, or put to sleep every time you pick the book up, and the problem is just that it’s not catching your attention the way you’re like, a good rule of thumb is to get through 50 pages.  If it’s still not working for you, for whatever reasons, then you can say you gave it a fair shake and you can give up on it with a clear conscience. Think of it this way: if the book’s 200 pages long, you’ve read a quarter of it, and if it’s 400 pages long, you’ve read an eighth, and if you haven’t found anything you like in an eighth to a quarter of the book, odds are good you’re not going to find anything you like in the rest of it either.  Sometimes it takes more than 50 pages. For instance, I always tell people to give The Time Traveler’s Wife 75 pages before giving up in confusion; it takes that long to get the rhythm of the book. 

Don’t feel bad because you’re giving up on a book.  There are tons of great books out there, and just because one of them, this particular one, wasn’t right for you at this time, that doesn’t say anything bad about you. Maybe it wasn’t the right time for you to read this book, and maybe you’ll be ready to read it another time.  That was the case with me and Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel.  The first time I tried to read it, I found it utterly impenetrable, but then (being stubborn) I picked it up again six months later, and whizzed through it.  The book hadn’t changed, but my circumstances had, so I could focus better on the book. Or sometimes you’re not at the right point in your life for a particular book: when everything seems to be going wrong, probably reading a great but seriously depressing book like A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, would be too much for you, but when you’re feeling stronger you might be able to deal with all the pain and horror of that book (which is, I reiterate, a great book, even though it’s 700+ pages and made me cry several times).  

And even if you don’t come back and read that particular book at a later time, think of all the wonderful books you’ve made space in your life for by not forcing yourself to plow through some book that’s trying to destroy you.  

BEING SNARKY ABOUT THE MOVIES

Those of you participating in the 2019 Field Library Reading Challenge know the next category we’re promoting is “Read a Book About Movies.”  Really, this is one category that’s almost too easy. We have all kinds of books about movies, from novels to insider looks at the industry itself to books about the making of particular (usually classic) movies, to books about all the movies you haven’t seen yet but should (a sub-industry in itself), to collections of movie criticism to biographies and autobiographies about and by some of the big names in the industry.  If you can’t find something you want to read in all of that, you’re simply not trying.

Allow me here to suggest a particularly funny entry in this category, Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler, by Joe Queenan. This is not a new book (it was published in 2000), and some of the movies referenced in it might seem a little obscure (let’s face it, the real dogs from almost twenty years ago are mercifully forgotten), but the snarkiness is still as funny as ever, and most of his targets are movies and trends in movies that you will find familiar even 19 years later.

This is the kind of book you dip into when you need a good laugh.  Most of the essays in the book were written for Movieline magazine (now, sadly, no longer in business), and they tend to be kind of quirky.  For instance, in the first essay Queenan sets out to prove that many of the more ridiculous things people get away with in movies would never work in real life.  He does this by attempting them himself: trying to see whether you could be killed by having a bookcase fall on you as happens in Howard’s End, or whether someone who’s blind could actually walk across a New York City street without being killed, as in Scent of a Woman. In the title essay, he actually goes to different theaters and becomes that jerk who shouts out stupid and rude remarks about the movie, to see (a) if it’s fun and (b) if and when someone will stop him.  If you were in an audience where he was doing this trick, you would find him incredibly obnoxious, but when you read about it, it’s actually incredibly funny. He looks with great seriousness at movies about Irish people to determine which is the “biggest load of blarney” (I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the fun by telling you the answer to that one), comments on the trend of handsome actors getting beat up in movies, does a brief stint as the Bad Movie Angel, reimbursing people who have actually paid money to see really terrible movies, and discusses the unfortunate likelihood that if you send someone to a video store for a particular movie, you are likely to get any one of a number of similar sounding movies, owing to Hollywood’s lack of imagination (yes, I know there aren’t video stores anymore; look at that one as a historical document if you like).

I have to warn you in advance that if you like any movies from the late 90’s or earlier, odds are good Queenan hates them.  This is not a book that gives glowing reviews of anything, so prepare yourself. But even if he’s talking about a movie you have warm feelings for, you have to appreciate his wise-ass commentary, which is nothing if not vivid (and funny).  For instance, he describes Robert DeNiro’s hairstyle in the remake of Cape Fear as “creat[ing] the impression that a rat marinated in Vaseline has been surgically grafted onto his neck.”  Describing Cujo, Queenan remarks that it is “set in Maine, where people don’t get out often enough, and even when they do, they’re still in Maine.”  One of my favorite lines is when Queenan describes an actor as “Looking about as comfortable amidst his mountain of medical research textbooks as Keanu Reeves would look with the concordance to the Complete Works of Moliere” (a cheap shot, but a funny one).  

When you need a serious dose of snark, when you don’t want a book to give you more movies you feel you should see but to make you feel better about the movies you’ve managed to avoid, do yourself a favor and pick up Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler.  

TIME IS NOT ON HER SIDE: THE MARRIAGE CLOCK

Leila Abid, the protagonist of The Marriage Clock, by Zara Raheem, has a problem, and it’s her parents.  Not an unusual situation for a 26 year old woman who’s living with her parents after college, and certainly not an unusual situation for a first generation American daughter of immigrant parents.  Her Muslim Indian parents believe it’s past time she got married. At 26, she’s practically an old maid by old country standards, and her mother especially feels that she has failed as a parent (at one point she wails to her husband and Leila, “We are going to be old and without grandchildren! Our noses will be cut!”).  

It would be easier for Leila to deal with her parents’ pressure if she completely rebelled against their assumptions and didn’t see marriage as one of the main goals of her life.  But, though she grew up in America and went away to college, there’s a part of Leila that believes in Bollywood romance as if it’s something she’s likely to get for herself. In fact, though she won’t agree that marriage is half of her fate, she did, when she was in college, make up a list of all the qualities her ideal man should have (a list that her roommate wrote on seven napkins), all derived from her favorite Bollywood movies.  She wants romance as much as her parents want her married, but she wants it on her own terms, while they’re already starting to interfere in her life, setting her up with the sons of their extended circle of friends 

In desperation, and to keep her parents from forcing the issue, Leila agrees that she’ll do her own matchmaking and if she can’t find a prospective husband by the date of her parents’ thirtieth anniversary, three months away, she’ll let them find her a husband.  Her parents are big believers in arranged marriages. Theirs was arranged, and the two of them barely met before they were married to each other, and here they are, happily married for almost thirty years.

So that’s the setup: Leila has three months to find a man who meets all her criteria.  She gets matched up by her friends, by her mother (cheating a little, but her mother would claim it’s in a good cause).  She does speed dating and internet matchmaking, and, you will not be surprised to learn, none of these works out well. The varying kinds of disasters she encounters in her desperate chase to find Mr. Perfect are pretty funny (though at times you do wonder whether her author is being a little cruel to make sure she doesn’t find ANYONE appropriate), but she’s always aware of the rushing past of time and the imminence of her deadline. 

One of the more charming things about this book is the way the author plays with and then subverts the tropes of romantic comedies. Several times along the way, you think you know where things are going: when the man she meets through her mother and her mother’s friend actually calls her back to see her without chaperones, when she meets someone attractive in classic romantic comedy form. You start predicting the happily ever after, but then something unexpected happens and you realize, as Leila does, that life isn’t a Bollywood movie and maybe she needs to rethink her goals.

The characters who surround Leila are fun in their own right: her mother is more than just the Mrs. Bennett India style stereotype, her divorced Indian American friend (her difficulties are eye-opening and very different from Leila’s), even her perfect Indian cousin who does everything Leila’s parents wish she could do (naturally Leila ends up going to India for her cousin’s wedding, and naturally things are not what they seem in India, either) is revealed to be a full fledged person, worthy of love.  While a lot of the male characters come off pretty badly (the author explains in an afterword that these scenes were based on her own dating misadventures), a couple of them are charming and interesting as well.

All along the line, Raheem brings us the flavor of Leila’s Muslim Indian American world, the subtle ways her life is different from that of other American 26 year olds, things Leila takes for granted and things she’s as aware of as we are.  

It’s not your typical romantic comedy, deliberately so, but there is a satisfying ending, and Leila gets what she finally wants, and what she deserves.  If you’re in the mood for a different kind of romantic comedy, with a charming and lovable (if somewhat cursed by bad luck) protagonist, then check out The Marriage Clock.

TIME TRAVEL ENEMIES AND CORRESPONDENTS: THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE THE TIME WAR

The first thing you need to know about This Is How You Lose the TIme War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, is that it’s not an ordinary time travel book.

Not that there is or should be such a thing, of course. In my opinion, the very best, most fun and interesting time travel books take full advantage of all the possibilities that time travel offers to break up narratives, to play with the whole idea of cause and effect, of certainty and mortality, and imagine boldly what it would be like if time were more fluid than we can imagine.  Take a couple of my favorites, The Psychology of Time Travel, by Kate Mascarenhas, or The Map of Time, by Felix Palma, and luxuriate in what kind of fun you can have with the possibilities.

But to get back to This Is How You Lose the Time War, even for a book where the main characters can and do travel through the infinite possibilities of time, this is unusual, and kind of hard to describe.

There’s a war between two very different groups, the Garden and the Agency, each of them dedicating themselves and their agents to the creation and braiding of different strands of time to create the future each wants.  The organizations are nearly infinitely patient, willing to contemplate and work in multiple potential timelines, to have their works thwarted by agents of the other side and to thwart their enemies’ efforts. The agents, none of whom are human by any definition we’d accept, live immortally, diving in and out of possible pasts, possible futures, going “upthread” or “downthread” to create or undo whatever will make their preferred future happen.

One of our two main characters is Red, of the Agency. You might think of her as a robot, or a cyborg, but that’s not entirely accurate; she’s mechanized, she’s part of a post Singularity world of machines, but she’s not just a machine.  The other main character is Blue, of the Garden. She’s part of a consciousness that embraces all living things as one. She’s organic-based but not really a plant, though grown like one. 

They “meet” for the first time on a battlefield, where Blue leaves Red a taunting note which starts out “Burn before reading.”  Red feels the need to respond, and thus begins a correspondence between the erstwhile enemies which starts out as more or less trash talk, though delivered in unique and bizarre ways (inside the rings of a giant tree, under the skin of a living seal, just to name two), but gradually becomes a way for the two of them to reveal things about themselves that neither would ever tell anyone else. Over time (and what do they have but time?), the two of them develop a deeper relationship.  Because they’re “enemies”, the more they communicate with each other, the more they’re in danger from their respective leaders, and the more likely they are to get caught. They both know this, but still find themselves reaching out to each other, sharing their lives, their feelings, sometimes actually saving each other from destruction.

I don’t want to give away the plot of this book beyond that. It builds slowly; you need to be patient to get to know these characters as they get to know each other, so be patient.  They grow on you, the book grows on you, so that by the time you’re at the climax, you feel a part of both Red and Blue.

The chapters alternate between Red’s point of view and Blue’s, and the first part of each chapter explains where the character is (and when), and what she’s doing, and how she finds the communication from the other, and the last part of each chapter is the letter from the other character. While the letters are wonderful, growing more and more elaborate and playful, more meaningful and emotional, I have to say the narrative parts of the book are also engrossing, if you pause to think about what the characters are doing and how their actions would affect the timeline (instead of just hurrying through to get to the letter, which I could certainly understand). How would the world be different if the peoples of Mesoamerica had already been exposed to smallpox and other European diseases long before first contact between Europeans and Americans?  What would have happened if people from the Inca empire had made their way across the Pacific and reached the Philippines, or even China?  The notion of multiple strands of history in which Romeo and Juliet was performed, sometimes as a comedy, sometimes as a tragedy, is charming, too, and these are just the background details that create a vivid world (or worlds) against which the main story of Red and Blue is played out.

This isn’t as confusing as some time travel books (I always tell people to stick with The Time Traveler’s Wife for 75 pages before giving up, because it’s very confusing at the beginning and then you find your bearings), but it packs an emotional punch that’s very satisfying.  If you’re a fan of the genre (as I am), you’ll really enjoy This Is How You Lose the Time War.

A WALK IN THE WOODS: NEXT FIELD NOTES READ

Thanks to everybody who came to the Field Notes Book Group this July.  Our discussion of Everything I Never Told You was one of the best discussions we’d ever had (in my opinion): talk about parents’ expectations for children, the reasons people hide truths from even the people they love, cultural differences between Chinese Americans and non-Chinese Americans, discussion about the characters and how the book left us with hope for the future, even about whether Lydia committed suicide or not.  We barely had time to choose our book for August 17, but we managed to choose Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.

Now, I know they made a movie from this book (improbably starring Robert Redford as Bill Bryson — don’t take my word for it, look at Bryson’s author picture and decide for yourself whether the first actor you’d think of for him would be Redford), but you KNOW the book is better.  Bryson, a man in middle age, with virtually NO mountain climbing or hiking experience, decides, more or less on a whim, that he’s going to hike the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Maine through Georgia, and he even tells his publisher that he’s going to do this, and write about it, so he’s committed, or possibly stuck.  He describes his misadventures (and come on, you know they’re going to be disastrous) with verve and humor. Along the way, he and his friend Katz encounter all the usual perils of the hike, from physical issues through annoying fellow hikers through encounters with wild animals, bringing them all to life with self-deprecating humor.

Join us for a great read and what promises to be a fun discussion of the AT (as Appalachian Trail aficionados refer to it), our favorite humorous anecdotes from the book, and whatever else suggests itself.  Copies of the book will be available for hold at The Field Library, and we’ll be meeting in the Teen Zone at the library on August 17 from 11 to 12:30, complete with donuts and coffee.