Some books are hard to describe, let alone review, and Hilary Leighter’s novel, Temporary, is definitely one of those books.  I enjoyed it a great deal; it’s a fast read brimming with humor and ideas, but at the same time it is set in a world that is at such a tangent to ours that it’s difficult to figure out what’s going on, how much you should be taking seriously and where the book is going.  Ultimately it’s one of those books you just have to dive into and let it take you wherever it’s going, rather than trying to force it to make conventional sense.

Our first person narrator is unnamed, though she frequently takes on the names of people she’s replacing.  She comes from a long line of women who work from one temporary job to another, aspiring to some kind of permanence but never quite achieving it (maybe).  So far this sounds reasonably normal, until I start describing the kinds of temporary jobs she takes on in the course of the book.  She’s a CEO of a corporation where she’s never worked and where she only has the vaguest idea of what the corporation is doing.  She joins a pirate ship, apparently doing bookkeeping and filing as well as the more usual pirate activities like making people walk the plank and killing prisoners. She works for a woman who owns millions of shoes the woman never wears or uses, her job to take care of the shoes. She works for a witch, delivering pamphlets which don’t seem to have any particular purpose or to have been created by any particular organization (though terrible things will happen if the pamphlets are not all distributed and later returned).  She works as a barnacle, as a ghost (which actually was one of my favorite jobs she has, especially since she doesn’t realize, at first, that she’s subbing for a ghost), as an assistant to a murderer who takes up with the woman who should have been one of his victims. 

The rest of her life is equally bizarre: she has a number of boyfriends, none of whom has a name she uses, all of whom end up living together in her apartment and serially marrying the head of the agency (if it is an agency) which employs our protagonist. Characters from one temporary job reappear later, in connection with other jobs.  She sees her role as taking on the whole personality of the one she’s replacing, to the point where she quizzes her coworkers about what this other person would have done in a particular situation.  Occasionally she actually meets, later on, the person she’s replacing (or she’s already met that person before she replaces her).  Various people she runs into know of each other though there’s no reason they should.  The world is absurd in the extreme.  If you’re looking for a book where one thing logically follows another, choose something else.  You will be endlessly frustrated by this one.

However, if you’re ready to throw yourself into a different world and enjoy the main character’s adventures without trying to force them to make sense, the book is great fun.  Our narrator is totally deadpan, so you can enjoy the ridiculous things happening around her, and appreciate the humor she doesn’t highlight or even seem to notice.  For all its absurdity and all the bizarre things happening in the course of the book, ultimately it all pulls together into a meditation on what really is permanence, what really is temporary, and why it might be better to be temporary, in the long run.  


Once again the Field Notes Book Group regulars met via zoom to discuss our monthly selection, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (which for some reason I always want to write as How generalists triumph), and once again we had an invigorating discussion about expertise and breadth, about why it’s not possible to generalize about human abilities and niches, and about our own experiences with the issues the author raised.  And then, at the end of the meeting, we chose our book for February: Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf.

For some time members of the group have asked if we could read some of the classics as well as more modern books, and Mrs. Dalloway is, in some respects, a crossover book: a classic, for sure, but also one of the books that changed novels into their modern form.  On the surface, it’s a simple enough book: Clarissa Dalloway, an upper class British woman between the World Wars, spends a day doing her errands in preparation for a dinner party she’s throwing that night. But this book isn’t about plot: it’s about stream of consciousness, about how Woolf gets deep into the heart and mind of Clarissa and brings her and her world to life for us.  This is the kind of book where you just sink into the gorgeous sentences and want to live there forever, a different sort of novel from what we usually read, but I have every confidence our group can enjoy this and come prepared for an open, fascinating discussion about it.

Copies of the book will be available, as usual, at The Field Library Circulation Desk, and we will meet, again by zoom, on February 20 from 11 to 12:30.  If you’re interested in joining, send me a note at nmulligan@wlsmail.org, and I’ll send you the link to our next meeting.  Looking forward to a wonderful experience!


For those times when you need a distraction from all the craziness going on around you, a good thriller can be just the ticket.  Dive into someone else’s (fictional) troubles, and when you return to your own life, sometimes everything looks better by comparison.  If you’re in that kind of mood, there are a couple of new thrillers at The Field Library that might be what you’re looking for.  They both turn on someone’s being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the consequences that follow.

The Wrong Family, by Tarryn Fisher, has been compared to the Academy Award winning movie, Parasite.  Both involve a seemingly normal family that’s being infiltrated by other people without their knowledge, but that’s where the similarities end.  Juno is a retired therapist, suffering from a fatal illness, her time limited, when she finds her way into the Crouch household without their knowledge.  She likes the Crouches.  From the outside, at least, they seem to have the ideal life, a great marriage, a wonderful child.  Of course, nothing is as it seems on the outside, and Juno discovers that there are serious cracks in that so-called perfect life, that perfect marriage. Her instinct is to leave well enough alone; it’s not her business how they live their lives and she has some secrets of her own she would prefer remain secret.  But then she overhears a conversation between Winnie and Nigel Crouch that strikes her as so dangerous she really has to intervene, maybe set some things right.  Told by both Juno and Winnie, this is one of those thrillers that keeps you guessing and rethinking your assumptions about what you’ve already seen and heard.

Christina Dodd’s book, Wrong Alibi, is set in Alaska, which already starts you with potential issues of isolation and dangerous weather.  Evelyn Jones, the protagonist, got a job in a small town for a man in an isolated house, and everything went well until one day her employer disappeared and she found herself charged with embezzlement, theft, and a horrible double murder.  Her protestations of innocence meant little, and she was convicted and faced life in prison, until she escaped.  Now, she’s changed her name, and gone into hiding from her family and the rest of the world,  working  in a wilderness camp, yearning for justice and for revenge.  And then finally the missing man returns to her life, and now at last she has her chance to make things right . . . maybe.  Her antagonist is more dangerous than she suspected and this time it’s her family who might pay the price.

Do two wrongs make a right?  Maybe, if they’re The Field Library’s new thrillers. Check them out.


The Field of Mystery Book Group met on Saturday, January 9, 2021, and had an interesting and vigorous discussion about our January book, Long Bright River, which we agreed wasn’t really a murder mystery but which deserved our attention for the book’s characters, who were flawed and realistic and intriguing, as well as for the book’s depiction of the opioid crisis and its effects on whole neighborhoods.  After that, we chose our book for February, which is Winter Counts, by David Heska Wanbli Weiden.

Winter Counts is set on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Our protagonist, Virgil Wounded Horse, is a half-breed member of the Lakota tribe living on the reservation.  He’s hired by people to dish out “justice” to people who managed to evade the tribal justice system and the Federal criminal system (if you’re picturing a Native American version of Dexter Morgan, you’re in the right ballpark).  When heroin starts coming onto the res, touching his nephew who lives with him, Virgil joins up with a former girlfriend and sets out to find where the heroin is coming from and how to shut it down.  Naturally, this is much more complicated and dangerous than even Virgil (who gets beat up by one of his quarries in the first chapter of the book) anticipated, and ultimately leads him to the intersection of Native American politics and drugs, and painful questions about his own heritage and where he fits in.

The book has been consistently listed as one of the best mysteries of 2020, and it looks as if it will lead to some fascinating insights and another great discussion.  Copies will be available at The Field Library shortly, and, because the meeting will be conducted, once again, over zoom, if you’re interested in joining in, just send me a note at nmulligan@wlsmail.org, and I will be happy to give you the link.


Last week I introduced you to the Goodreads winners of best books in various fiction categories for the year 2020 which are available here at The Field Library. Now it’s time to shine the spotlight on the nonfiction winners which you can check out from The Field Library as well.

The overall nonfiction winner is Stamped : Racism, Antiracism and You, by Ibram X Kendi, a young adult revision of Kendi’s bestselling and award-winning Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.  In a year which saw massive protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the beginning of a reckoning with racism in America, it’s not surprising that this was the most popular nonfiction book on Goodreads, beating out other worthy contenders.  The book retraces the history of racist ideas in America, demonstrating how they were created and enforced not because of ignorance but to reinforce discriminatory practices and racial inequalities.

The Goodreads winner in the category of Memoir and Biography is incredibly unsurprising:  A Promised Land by Barack Obama, which has topped the bestseller lists for weeks.  President Obama has always been an eloquent speaker and writer, and his memoir, which takes us from his childhood, his education and his early experiences as a community organizer and then Senator through his first term as a groundbreaking president.  He writes honestly about the challenges of the office and the frustrations of presidential power, but also about the things he and his supporters achieved.

Isabel Wilkerson, who won the Pulitzer prize for her last book, The Warmth of Other Suns, followed it up with the book Goodreads readers chose as the best book of history and biography for 2020: Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. The book is a bestseller and longlisted for the National Book Award for 2020.  Wilkerson’s special skill is illuminating a less-known aspect of culture or history, and here she undermines one of America’s most popular myths, that we don’t have a class system in this country.  She argues that, not only do we have a caste system, but our racial caste system was used as a model by Nazi Germany for their discrimination against and ultimate genocide of Jewish people.  She shows how the insidious caste system works, here and in other countries, and the price people pay for its ravages.

David Attenborough is known throughout the world for his documentaries about the natural world.  In his latest book, A Life on Our Planet, which won the Goodreads award for Science and Technology, he looks back over his life and his experiences with the natural world, discussing all the huge changes that have occurred to nature over the last century, which have often been so subtle and so ongoing that we’ve managed to miss their significance. It’s the story of how humanity has brought our world to the brink of disaster, and also how we can, even now, save it for future generations.  There are few people who have a better platform to raise these issues with such personal fervor and the chance of being heard and listened to; Attenborough might be one of them.

And finally, because the year 2020 has been such a nosebleed all around, in the area of food and cookbooks, the Goodreads winner is Ina Garten’s Modern Comfort Food: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook.  Just the words “comfort food” sound good after the year we’ve had, and Garten knows what she’s doing, choosing foods many of us remember from childhood and making them a little more complex (grilled cheese sandwiches with chutney, or smashed hamburgers with caramelized onions, for instance), or making them easier for modern, time-starved cooks to make on a regular basis. When people are in quarantine or anxious about health issues, a lot of people have turned to home cooking, and you can hardly get a friendlier guide than Garten.

So check them out.  See what your fellow readers believe are the best of the best for 2020.  They’re all here at The Field Library.


Every year, the millions of active readers at Goodreads get to vote on the best books of the year in various categories.  If you’re interested in which books a majority of your fellow readers thought were the best in their respective classes, you’re in luck, because many of the Goodreads winners are here for you at The Field Library.  In this post, I’ll be talking about the fiction categories.  I’ll talk about the nonfiction winners in a subsequent post.

In the category of Mystery and Thrillers, the winner was The Guest List, by Lucy Foley.  This book was a bestseller and also a selection of Reese Witherspoon’s book group, as well as being on several other “best of 2020” lists.  This is another of the “group stuck in a remote place and one of them is a killer” kind of books, like One by One.  The group in this case is a wedding party, but not just any wedding party: the groom is a big television star, the bride a magazine publisher, each a celebrity in his or her own right. The setting is an island off the coast of Ireland, with the problems of spotty cell phone reception (you have to have that in an isolated place with a killer kind of book these days) and the unpredictable sea separating it from the mainland. Throw in the usual kinds of petty jealousies and spite, the craziness of a celebrity wedding in general, and then add murder to the mix.  The question isn’t just whodunnit, but why, set amidst the exaggerated emotions of a wedding and reception.

The bestselling book The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett, was the winner in the category of Historical Fiction.  It tells the story of African American twin sisters in the 1950’s, growing up in a small Southern town until they run away.  But once they get out of that town, their lives diverge dramatically.  One sister ends up returning to her hometown with her black daughter. The other has passed for white so successfully her white husband doesn’t know anything of her past. The thing about the past is that it doesn’t just disappear; it shapes your life whether you want it to or not.  The sisters’ lives intertwine, as do the lives of their children, and the book follows the two families for forty years, not only as a family drama (and who doesn’t love a good family drama?) but as an examination of  the whole concept of “passing,” and the history of black and white relations.

The winner in the category of Fantasy is the first book in the Crescent City series, House of Earth and Blood, by Sarah Maas.  In the world of Crescent City, a half-human, half-fae woman, Bryce, lives a wild life, working and partying hard, until a demon kills her friends.  Angry, bereft and alone, she dives into the investigation, and finds herself working along with Hunt, a fallen angel whose freedom depends on his ability to help her in this investigation.  Naturally, their investigation leads to the dark underside of the city in which they live, and deeper and more dangerous forces putting their whole world at risk.  

In the area of Science Fiction, the top vote getter was To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, by Christopher Paolini, the author of the Eragon series.  The protagonist is Kira Navarez, a space voyager who happens upon an alien artifact on an uncolonized planet.  She’s delighted at first (because she’s obviously never seen any first contact movies, especially any in the Alien series), and then the dust around her starts moving on its own, which is disturbing and even scary.  Interplanetary war erupts, the earth and its colonies are on the brink of destruction, and Kira may be the only hope for humanity’s future. 

The best debut novel, according to Goodreads readers, is a book that’s been a bestseller for months, Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid (though, technically, it came out in 2019).  The plot seems relatively simple and extremely relevant to 2020: Alix, a white woman who’s busy teaching other women how to make the most of their lives, hires Emira, a young black woman, to take care of her young daughter.  One night Emira is at a store with little Briar when a store security officer accuses Emira of kidnapping the child.  The incident is filmed (of course), and goes viral (of course), and Emira is humiliated and upset.  Alix is shocked and decides to fix things for her employee, whether or not Emira wants them “fixed.”  And then someone from Alix’ past shows up and things become much more complicated for both women.  The story we thought we were reading turns out to be much more nuanced and much less predictable.

Of course I’m not suggesting that popular opinion is always right, and there are criticisms of the Goodreads lists every year, but if you’re interested in seeing what some of your fellow avid readers think is the cream of the cream, check these novels out from The Field Library.


Ruth Ware has a talent for taking classic mystery scenarios and adapting them to the modern world without making them any less suspenseful and engrossing.  Her book, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, took the situation of a person who knows herself to be an imposter in a fraught situation and made it new.  Her Turn of the Key took the general shape of Henry James’ classic The Turn of the Screw and added modern paranoia and spying technology.  And now, in One by One, she’s taken the classic Agatha Christie setup for And Then There Were None and gave it her own special twist, making a book that keeps you guessing and turning the pages to the satisfying conclusion.

The basic shape of the plot is that a group of people is brought together in one place, they are then isolated there and unable to leave, and one person among them is busy murdering the others.  No one knows who the murderer is, or what the motive is, or who’s going to be next.  Agatha Christie might not have invented this plot, but she’s famous for her version of it.

Enter Ruth Ware.  In One by One, a group of the most important people in a tech startup are meeting in an Alpine chateau for skiing and a company meeting.  They all come across as pretty shallow, greedy and entitled people, all except Liz, who’s one of our two narrators (the other narrator is Erin, who works at the chateau).  Liz used to work for Snoop (the startup), but left under what seem to be unfortunate circumstances (though we don’t learn till late in the book exactly what happened and why she left as she did), and she controls a couple of shares of stock which could tip the balance in the decision the company is making about whether to sell the company or not. An offer is on the table which could make the shareholders, even Liz, rich.  The company is in desperate financial straits and might not survive in its current state. There are two definite factions in the company, one led by Eva, who wants to sell, and the other by Topher, the founder of the company who wants to keep it from being sold.  

So we start out with tension, observed by Erin, the chateau’s housekeeper, and agonized over by Liz, who is courted by both sides, none too subtly.  Then there’s a skiing trip from which Eva doesn’t return, and an avalanche cuts the chateau off from the outside world.  There’s no power, there’s no WiFi, there’s no landline, all of which adds stress to the already tightly wound characters. And then another member of the group dies in what might have been a suicide except for the way his computer was also destroyed.  Clearly someone in the group is a murderer, but who could it be?  Who’s next?  As people turn on each other, the outside conditions get worse and worse, and there’s a real question whether the police will get to the chateau and rescue these people before it’s too late.  

Ware tells you at the outset that there were four deaths in connection with this outing. We don’t know, from the clipping she gives us at the start, who the victims were, but we know something terrible is going to happen even before we meet the characters, and on some level you’re keeping count of the deaths, knowing how many there are going to be and wondering which of these rather terrible people will be the next victim (there was one point when a character made a statement to Liz, and as soon as she did, I said aloud, “She’s a dead woman”, and I was right, so it’s not completely surprising).

There are a lot of characters, at least at first, and you might feel you’re never going to be able to keep track of them, but don’t worry about that.  Fairly quickly you get a sense of who the major characters are and what they’re like and how they relate to each other.  Most of the people from Snoop are not nice people; that doesn’t make you root for anyone to die, and you may be surprised at who does get killed and who doesn’t (if you’re basing your guesses on who seems to be the worst person, you might be disappointed), but you do have the somewhat morally ambiguous feeling that maybe this person deserved to be killed.  I like a good morally ambiguous situation in a thriller or a mystery; that adds to the complexity.

I don’t want to give away the twists and turns of the plot.  Suffice it to say that this, like Ware’s other books, grabs you by the throat and pulls you along until you can’t put it down without finishing it.  Discovering who the murderer is doesn’t end the tension, because then there’s the question of whether the murderer will kill the last person who knows their identity.

This might not be the best book to read in the middle of a snowstorm, or in the chilliest part of winter; the descriptions of the weather and the conditions inside the chateau are vivid enough to freeze you by themselves.  On the other hand, if you want to get away from it all, I highly recommend you dive into this thriller, as you’ll forget everything around you as long as you’re stuck in the chateau with these characters. 


For our last meeting of the Field Notes Book Group for 2020 (may this year end quickly and mercifully!), we had a lively and very funny discussion of Good Omens, picking our favorite characters and our favorite bits from the book, and then went on to choose the first book we’re going to be reading and discussing in 2021, specifically on January 16: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein.

The basic premise of this nonfiction book is that we as a culture have been sold a bill of goods when it comes to excellence in any given field.  Yes, there are the Mozarts and the Tiger Woods types, who knew practically from birth what they wanted to do with their lives and who spent nearly every waking moment practicing and developing their talents in their particular fields.  And we’ve all heard the 10,000 hour rule, where you need to spend 10,000 hours in an area to become really good at it.  The rest of us, those who didn’t know what we wanted to do when we were young, or even when we got older, who moved from one job to another, from one field to another, we were basically out of luck and never going to become really good at anything.  

This, Epstein says, isn’t true.  In fact, the people who have a broader background, who have done things beyond their particular specialty, who are the most likely to be successful.  He presents counter examples and stories of how generalists have often outshone the most specialized people. 

We didn’t just choose this book to make us feel better for not being child prodigies (though I’m sure that was something in the back of our minds), but because it looks like a good read and likely to produce some great discussions.  We’ll be having copies at the Circulation Desk (probably next week), and we’ll be meeting (virtually, again, I’m afraid) on January 16, 2021, from 11 to 12:30.  If you’re not a member but want to join us, let me know at nmulligan@wlsmail.org, and I’ll send you a link.  Looking forward to it!


I don’t have to tell anyone reading this blog that 2020 has been a very strange year.  It’s been a hard year in a lot of respects, and a hard year for reading as well, with the library closed down for months and everybody’s attention spans (including, very definitely, mine) damaged by the stress of the pandemic. 

I have just finished reading what I think is the best book I’ve read all year, a book that is uniquely right for 2020.  It’s called One Night Two Souls Went Walking (and come on, isn’t that the best title for a book you’ve ever heard? Wouldn’t you want to read a book with that title even if you didn’t know anything else about the book), it’s by Ellen Cooney, and it is gorgeously written, deeply moving, spiritual and filled with sorrow but also with hope.

Our unnamed protagonist and narrator is a woman in her thirties who’s an Episcopalian priest, working as a hospital chaplain.  She is no longer, as she calls it, a baby chaplain who doesn’t know what she’s doing.  She’s been working in this hospital for years, but recently, in the wake of budget cuts and the laying off of a number of the other chaplains, she’s just started working the night shift.  Perhaps she’s been working too long.  Perhaps she’s just exhausted, physically and emotionally.  The strain of meeting with people in their most vulnerable moments is starting to get to her, and while she isn’t seriously thinking of quitting this hospital, she does find herself wondering if this is really what she should be doing.  She has doubts, and a hospital at night is a dark place to wrestle with doubts.

Despite her not having a name, our protagonist tells us a lot about herself, what she looks like, what her family is like, how she decided to become an Episcopalian priest when her family was, at least nominally, Catholic (she remembers meeting a Catholic priest at a party when she was a child, and how cruelly he destroyed her hopes of becoming a priest herself; I could feel echoes of similar scenes in my own childhood).  She thinks a lot about souls, what they’re like, where they are, how they might communicate with each other.

She also thinks about death, which makes perfect sense in context: much of what she does, on this night and other nights, is comforting either the person who’s dying or the family of someone who just died. You would think this would make for a depressing read. It doesn’t at all. She is almost always present for the dying people, even when they can’t communicate with her in words (there is one person who basically throws her out of his room, and she doesn’t go back to him, but he’s probably the only one in the book she doesn’t help).  She’s incredibly loving and deeply empathetic, and through her kind (and tired) eyes we see death in a different way.

This is not a book that’s about plot, or about things happening and leading to other things happening.  It’s a very quiet, gentle book, like its protagonist, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to have tissues close by when you read it.  Though it’s not exciting in a thriller-like way, it’s incredibly absorbing.  I couldn’t put it down, myself.  For such a short and simple book, it packs a great deal of emotion, just the kind of emotion I personally need in a year like this.  Don’t take my word for it.  Read this book yourself and be comforted.


Before the Coffee Gets Cold, by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, is a time travel novel, sort of. Yes, in this world you can travel in time from this little obscure coffee shop in Tokyo, but there are a lot of rules which make this different from the ordinary sort of time travel (to the extent there is such a thing). The first and most important rule is that, in this scenario, you can’t change the present.  There go all your hopes of killing Hitler, or preventing someone’s parents from meeting.  That particular rule is enough to dissuade most of the people who might otherwise try to travel in time at this particular coffee shop, but that’s not the only rule.  You have to sit in a particular seat, which is occupied most of the time by a ghost who only gets up now and then to go to the bathroom (don’t ask).  You can only meet with someone else who has been in this particular cafe.  You get a cup of coffee and you have to drink it all before it gets cold.  You can only travel in time while you’re drinking this cup of coffee.   When the coffee cup is empty, you return to the present.

As the first time traveler in this book, Fumiko, angrily says, what exactly is the point of having time travel at all if you can’t change the present and you have to obey all these rules?  And she’s right: the kind of exciting changing the world time travel you see in many other books is not going to happen here. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile to take this little trip, as the characters in the book discover.

It’s a short book, a simple one, and a charming one, and you would be surprised (as I was) at how much this weird sort of time travel can affect people’s lives. Four different characters take advantage of the coffee shop’s powers, three of them going into the past, and one going into the future (which, as you might imagine, is more complicated than going back in time), and the experience is life-changing for all of them, though not in the way any of them expects. A woman wants to relive her last meeting with her boyfriend, when he told her he was leaving the country, with the idea that this time she could tell him how she really felt about him, even though she knows he’s still going to leave the country (you can’t change the present, remember?). A woman wants to see her husband, who’s now suffering from Alzheimer’s, before he came down with the disease, when he still remembers who she is and what she is to him.  A woman who had been avoiding her sister for years (we see her avoiding her sister in the present) goes back to meet with her sister the last time her sister came to the cafe.  And another woman goes forward in time to meet her child, whom she knows she will never see grow up.  In each case, being able to be in this other time, knowing what you know now, doesn’t change the other person’s behavior in the present, but it changes your own understanding of the other person and of who and what you are to that person in the present. 

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m a big fan of time travel in all its variations, and this book is utterly unique in the field. If you’re a fan of time travel, check this variation out. If you’re not interested in time travel because of the whole paradox-avoiding stuff that bends your brain, try this book.  You don’t have to worry about the fabric of space-time.  You just have to suspend your disbelief a little and enter into the warm and friendly world of Before the Coffee Gets Cold.