FORGOTTEN HISTORY: THE IMPEACHERS

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I have a degree in history and consider myself a history buff, especially when it comes to American history, so it was kind of shocking to me to realize how little I knew about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868. I knew he’d come within one vote of being convicted by the Senate, but I hadn’t known exactly what he was charged with or whether it was a good thing he didn’t get convicted.  If you, like me, have only the vaguest notion of what happened the first time a president was impeached, may I recommend an excellent nonfiction book, The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson, by Brenda Wineapple.  And if you think a book about an impeachment that happened in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War couldn’t possibly be interesting, again, I recommend this book, which brings the era, and the questions surrounding the impeachment, to vivid life.

Wineapple is an excellent author, who makes the world of the immediate aftermath of the Civil War come alive and provides quick portraits of all the important characters involved in the impeachment (and what characters they were!  If you think modern politicians are quirky, you haven’t met their 19th century counterparts), illuminating the issues that brought Andrew Johnson to his date with history. While most of the actual articles of impeachment turned on Johnson’s efforts to fire Edwin Stanton in violation of an act of Congress basically designed to protect Stanton from being fired, the last article of impeachment was more general and talked about Johnson’s continuing efforts to defy Congress and refuse to obey the laws.  The book makes it clear that Johnson did in fact have contempt for Congress and felt he was the only person who could make the right decisions about the course of the country. 

As it turns out, the real issues that brought the impeachment to a head were deep questions about what kind of country America would be after the end of the Civil War, specifically what would happen to the former slaves in the South. The Ku Klux Klan was already rising to terrorize African Americans and anyone who was trying to help them be educated or own property or vote.  There were debates in Congress about the extent to which African Americans needed to have the right to vote protected by Constitutional amendment rather than law, there were debates about whether the former officials and officers of the Confederacy should be allowed to reassume power in their state governments. The book describes the debates and the events that led to the debates and informed the reactions of prominent people to the constitutional issues involved.  This is fascinating stuff with obvious parallels to the present, and a keen sense of how decisions made in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War led directly to the era of Jim Crow and current issues of racial relations. Would it have been possible to have charted a different century of relations between blacks and whites in America if the Radical Republicans had won the day? 

If questions like this intrigue you, then by all means check out The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson, for a fascinating look at a critical period of American history. 

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NEW HORROR AT THE FIELD

It’s that time of year again, even though the thermometer is not cooperating and is determined to pretend it’s still high summer: October, when leaves change and all the Halloween decorations begin to appear and the candy shows up in the supermarkets (if they don’t already have their Christmas decorations up, which is another matter which we will not discuss here).  What better time is there to find a new horror book and dive into the darkest parts of the season? Fortunately, we have two new horror books (if you haven’t already read Stephen King’s newest, The Institute, or if you’ve already finished it) here at The Field for your chills and thrills.

Perhaps you don’t feel you have the time or the stomach for a full novel’s worth of nightmares and creepy stuff.  Perhaps you’re more of a short story fan in general. If so, you’re going to want to check out Full Throttle, a collection of short stories by Joe Hill.  Hill, the author of Heart Shaped Box, Horns and NOS482, would be well known in the horror world even if he didn’t happen to be the son of Stephen King (and just imagine what bedtime stories would have been like in that household!).  In this collection of 13 (of course) short stories, two of which were co-written with King, Hill shows his mastery of the short form and the conventions of horror.  How about an opening to a beautiful, fairy world that leads to an orgy of blood when a group of hunters find their way through? Or what about some kids finding a plesiosaur corpse on the banks of a lake and discovering that isn’t the worst thing lurking there?  Or (the one that appeals most to me) a grief-stricken librarian driving a bookmobile to deliver new reads to the dead? Full Throttle is a must if you’re already a Joe Hill fan, and it might make you one if you aren’t already.

Stephen Chbosky, the author of Imaginary Friend, is known for his young adult books, especially The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but here he proves he can turn up the suspense and the creepiness as well.  The setup is pure horror trope: a single mother with a young child is on the run from an abusive relationship.  She finds her way to what seems to be the perfect hiding place, Mill Grove, Pennsylvania, a small, close-knit town so isolated there’s only one road in or out.  Nobody could possibly find them here, she believes, and the pair begin to settle in, until one day when the little boy, Christopher, disappears. He’s missing for six days, and then emerges from the woods on the edge of town, physically unharmed, but clearly changed.  Now he’s hearing voices in his head, and the voices are telling him he has to build a tree house before Christmas or else. There’s obviously more to this small town (and the woods outside it) than meets the eye. This book clocks in at over 700 pages, so you need to set aside some time to dive into it and really absorb the battle of good vs. evil that takes place in it.

Prepare for the season with our newest horror offerings here at The Field.

 

EDITING THE TIMELINE, REMAKING THE PAST: THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE

When one is an aficionado of time travel books, as I am (no one is surprised to read this, if you’ve been reading my blog at all), the appearance of a new one is cause for celebration, and The Future of Another Timeline, by Annalee Newitz, is definitely worth celebrating.  Naturally, there are some features that most time travel books share (a chronology that you need to pay close attention to, people meeting themselves in the past, the question of how you deal with paradoxes and whether the past can actually be changed), but each book has its own unique features that make it particularly worthwhile.

In The Future of Another Timeline, the actual mechanism of time travel is one I’ve never seen before, and the author handles it with audacious confidence. There are what are called Machines in various spots on earth, but no human being invented them, and no one knows, at least as of 2022 (one of the time periods involved in the book), where the Machines came from, who or what created them, or exactly how they work, other than that they use wormholes to deposit someone in another spot in time, and they will not transport weapons.  There are other rules that people have intuited about how the Machines work, whether they can send people into the future or not, whether more than one person can travel to the same place at the same time, and so forth, but these are subject to change over the course of the book. One of the cool things about the Machines is that they appear to be natural phenomena and they have been around since at least the Ordovician period (the characters make a few jaunts into that period as well), and are accepted by humanity as a part of the world (this is what I mean about being audacious).  

There are lots of things going on in this book, but there are two main storylines you have to keep track of.  One of them takes place in 1992, where a teenage girl named Beth is trying to survive the summer between high school and her starting college at UCLA.  Her family situation is extremely tense (her father has mental health issues), she’s getting involved in a romantic relationship that leads to trouble, and, worst of all, her best friend, Lizzie, killed the abusive boyfriend of one of their friends and Beth finds herself lying and otherwise becoming an accomplice to Lizzie’s escalating vengeance.

The other storyline follows Tess, a time traveler working in 2022, who, with a somewhat secret group of women known as the Daughters of Harriet (Harriet being Senator Harriet Tubman in this timeline), has been trying to change history (or “edit” it, as they put it) to make things better for women in her timeline.  She’s been tracking some of the worst aspects of the modern world back to the world of 1893, where Anthony Comstock and his followers have appointed themselves guardians of morality and are influencing governments, state and federal, to restrict birth control and female freedoms. But the Comstockites are doing more than just changing the laws in the present; Tess is finding evidence that some of Comstock’s followers are trying to change history so that women never got the vote, and then destroy the Machines so no one can undo their edits.

Naturally, these two people are connected, and they run into each other frequently as Tess travels from the 1890’s to 2022, meeting a woman from the far future and going back to prehistory.  Part of the fun of the book is trying to figure out who Tess really is, whether she’s a grown up version of Beth or someone else. She’s certainly familiar with Beth’s life in 1992, and she’s determined to save Beth from wherever her path with Lizzie is leading her, but her motives are somewhat clouded for most of the book.

The author is great on historical details, to the point where, when you’re in the 1992 with Beth and she’s raving about this punk group, Grape Ape, you feel you should know about this group, and you almost want to look them up on the internet.  When Tess is working at the Expo in Chicago in 1893, similarly, people act and talk the way they would have in that time and place, and the sights and sounds and smells of the era come alive. Using real life characters in historical fiction (or time travel fiction) isn’t new, but she gets a good sense of the real life Anthony Comstock (and good for her in choosing such a great real life character as the ultimate villain!) and the real life anarchists and the Four Hundred of New York City.  Putting them in Tess’ milieu adds more verisimilitude to that whole world (though I really do wish she’d referred to suffragists as such and not as suffragettes). 

The author also shows the immediate effect of edits in a particularly vivid way: a character is killed in the past, and her lover in the present doesn’t remember that she ever existed; laws are changed in the past and an event which we witnessed with Beth turns into something she remembers completely differently later in the book. 

The plot is propulsive, with both storylines suspenseful in different ways.  Because this is so clearly a different timeline from our own (the early mention of Senator Harriet Tubman is a good clue to that), you can’t use any of your own knowledge of history to guess how things are going to turn out, and that’s a good thing. 

 

It’s a wild ride and an entertaining one, and if you’re a fan of time travel, it’s a book you won’t want to miss.

THE BESTSELLERS ARE COMING, OCTOBER EDITION

Here we are at the end of September, and on the horizon are all the books that are going to be big bestsellers in October.  Put your holds on them now so you’ll get your hands on them as soon as they come out.

In order of publication, the first biggie is John Sandford’s Bloody Genius, the latest in his Virgil Flowers series.  In this installment, Virgil is brought in to investigate the murder of a controversial professor, and he finds himself in the middle of an ideological bloodbath between two departments of the local state university.  He would have thought, prior to this experience, that intelligent, well-educated people of good will could find ways to resolve their intellectual differences without things going to hell, but this case convinces him otherwise.  Dealing with the brilliant, but obsessed, zealots at the college, he has to figure out which of the people is an actual murderer, and which are merely maniacs pursuing their own extreme views.

Naturally James Patterson has a new book coming out as well, this one, The 19th Christmas, in his Women’s Murder Club series.  In a season where everything in San Francisco seems almost too calm and quiet, a criminal mastermind known as Loman shakes things up by threatening some horrible crime for Christmas morning, and enlisting a bunch of his criminal colleagues to provide some chaff to hide his actual plans, in the form of other crimes that need to be investigated and solved. As the crimes and the tension mounts, the members of the Women’s Murder Club have to put aside any hopes they might have had of a pleasant holiday season and devote themselves to trying to deter tragedy instead.

Danielle Steel is becoming almost as prolific as James Patterson.  Her newest book, Child’s Play, turns to a subject dear to her heart and the hearts of her fans: the relationship between a mother and her adult children, the secrets families keep from each other, and the way parents’ expectations and dreams for their children sometimes blind them to the realities of their children’s lives. Single mother Kate seems to have it all: a high paying, high powered job as a partner in a prestigious law firm, three adult children who seem to be doing great with their lives, but there are cracks in the facade, and there are things she doesn’t know but is about to find out about her children that will shake her whole sense of what her life is all about.  

The Giver of Stars, by Jo Jo Moyes, is something of a departure for this bestselling author, a historical novel rather than a contemporary one. Starting with the little-known Depression era program in rural Kentucky, a traveling library run by women on horseback who brought books to the isolated people of the area, Moyes creates a rich and vivid novel.  Alice Wright, an Englishwoman, marries a handsome American man in an attempt to escape her life in England, only to discover that things aren’t much better for her in Kentucky, especially around her obnoxious and overbearing father in law. Naturally she leaps at the prospect of joining the traveling librarians and getting away from her personal issues, and she discovers a purpose for her life in the friendships she builds among the other librarians and the people they serve.  

Not to be left out, John Grisham also releases a new book in October, this one, The Guardians, about a miscarriage of justice (of course) and a man dedicated to fighting for innocent people wrongfully convicted by the criminal justice system.  Two decades ago, a lawyer was murdered in his office in a small town in Florida. There were no witnesses, very little evidence and no one with an obvious motive for the killing, but the police, eager to solve the case, focused their attention on Quincy Miller, a young black man the victim had once represented.  Though Quincy maintained his utter innocence of the crime, he was nonetheless convicted of murder and sent to prison for life. For 22 years, Quincy tried everything he could to have his case reopened, but in vain. Finally when he sends a letter to the Guardian Ministries, a nonprofit run by a lawyer who’s also a minister, someone finally listens to his story and takes on his case.  However, this particular case of an innocent man railroaded becomes something more, because the powerful interests who had the first lawyer killed are more than willing to keep their secrets, even if it means killing another lawyer 22 years later.

Jack Reacher, the iconic main character of Lee Child’s thrillers, is back in the latest book in this series, Blue Moon, and once again he is drawn into a complicated and messy situation through his effort to do a good deed.  In this case, he’s helping an elderly couple he meets more or less by accident. Turns out they’ve gotten in debt to some really nasty and dangerous people, and when Jack tries to help them get out from under their debt, he ends up in the middle of a terrible war between rival gangs, dodging thugs, assassins and loan sharks.  Fortunately for him, that’s the kind of thing he happens to be good at, but it’s going to take some extraordinary efforts and the kind of luck you only come across once in a blue moon.

If any or all of these strike you as something you want to read, hurry to the library (in person or online) and put them on hold.  October’s going to be a boom month for bestsellers, for sure.

LARGER THAN LIFE: THE WOMEN OF THE COPPER COUNTRY

Might as well get my biases right out in the open here: I not only have a degree in history, but my senior thesis in college was about four American strikes that took place between 1892 and 1914, so The Women of the Copper Country, by Mary Doria Russell, which involves a wildcat copper strike in Michigan in 1913, is right up my alley. My familiarity with labor issues in that period is a two-edged sword, though: on one hand, of course I want to read about these strikes, but at the same time, if there’s something anachronistic or out of keeping with what I know about how these things worked, I’ll be the first to jump on the error, and it’ll destroy my enjoyment of the book.

Well, good news: The Women of the Copper Country is superb.  There was one tiny little error that caught my attention*, but otherwise the setting, the attitudes and the behaviors of the characters were spot on, and even my historian’s critical eye was satisfied. What made this book even more of a pleasure for me was that it described a strike I hadn’t been familiar with, though it referenced others I knew well (including one of the ones in my thesis!), so it was a learning experience even for me.  For someone who is less well-versed in the era and the stakes, the book will be an eye-opener. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a historian or knowledgeable about 1913 Michigan or copper mining to be able to dive right into the story and enjoy it (but, as always, a little extra background gives you a little extra pleasure).

The protagonist is Big Annie Clements, a leader among women and among men in Calumet, Michigan.  Taller than almost everyone around her and filled with indefatigable energy and a deep sense of right and wrong, Annie starts the Women’s Auxiliary to the miners’ union, organizing a group of women of different backgrounds, languages and religions, who all have in common men — husbands, fathers, sons, brothers — who are working in the dangerous copper mines.  Her own husband, Joe Clements, doesn’t support the union and isn’t thrilled that his wife is so powerful; he goes out of his way to cut her down to size, and, while she’s not afraid of him, she’s aware that he could be dangerous to her and that he is, to some extent, standing in her way. Annie is a wonderful character (based on a real life woman): strong, intelligent, hardworking and charismatic, but also quite human, ready to take on forces so much bigger than she is that they could crush her and everyone she cares about.  

The United Mine Workers sends an organizer to the mines to try to build up the union.  Charlie Miller, the organizer, appreciates Annie as a force of nature, but he’s also a little afraid that she’s not willing to take his, or the union’s, advice about how to proceed against the Calumet and Hecla company which owns not only the mines in which the people work, but also the homes in which they live, and which controls whatever it doesn’t own outright.  The union leadership wants to wait for this particular local to grow in strength before it takes on a company as powerful as C&H, especially since the union as a whole is currently financing a major strike in the west.  

However, when C&H introduces a one man drill, which will make the work more dangerous and also make half the workers redundant, Annie seizes the moment and persuades the union to start a wildcat strike against the company, and the battle is joined.  People in the town react to the strike, people outside the town and the company respond, and the whole machinery of law and force is brought to bear. Outside agitators like Mother Jones (vividly portrayed here) come to help the miners, journalists arrive to see where the action is, and in the process make Annie the face of the miners (she helps, with some outsized and brilliant gestures of her own), and over the course of less than a year the strike takes on a life of its own, affecting the lives of everybody involved on all sides.

If you’re hoping for a happy ending, you haven’t read enough history. Labor unrest in the early 20th century was brutal, and people like James MacNaughton, the local head of C&H, were not afraid to use any means, legal or illegal, to break strikes and break strikers, and there is plenty of violence and death throughout the book.  This is accurate, and Russell provides notes at the end of the book to indicate where she diverged from the actual events (she didn’t diverge much) in case you’re interested in reading more about the strike. 

But in the end you’re left with a vivid picture of life and death in the early industrial era, a side of American history you might not have been exposed to before, and some terrific and powerful characters you’ll come to care about.  Check out this excellent read.

 

*The governor of Michigan is described as a Unitarian Universalist, and the two religions didn’t join together as one until the 1960’s.

OCTOBER FIELD NOTES SELECTION: FATES AND FURIES

Thanks to everybody who came out and discussed the September book for the Field Notes Book Group.  We had an interesting discussion about poverty and bad choices, about equality and culture in connection with Heartland, and we chose Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies for our October selection.

This book, which was a bestseller and a critics’ darling, nominated for the National Book Award and for numerous best of the year lists, is the story of the marriage between Lotto and Mathilde.  Lotto, a golden boy who is certain he’s destined for greatness, sees his marriage to Mathilde as a wonderful roller coaster ride from relative poverty and failure through the heights of fame and fortune, and that would be interesting enough if it were the whole book, but it isn’t.  At the halfway point, the book changes perspectives to Mathilde’s, and we get to see the whole story through her very different, and much darker, vision, and we come to see who really makes things happen in the marriage and who thinks they’re making things happen.

This should be grist for some really fascinating insights about marriages, about perception, about men and women in general.  Copies of the book will be available at the circulation desk, so come in and pick one up and then join us at our next meeting on Saturday, October 26, from 11:00 to 12:30 in the Teen Zone at The Field Library.

THRILLERS THAT GIVE YOU NIGHTMARES

While there’s something to be said for the thriller where the fate of the world hangs on the actions of the main character, for my money the scariest thrillers are the ones that hit a little closer to home, playing on the fears we already have and asking, “What if ?” Two examples of this kind of really scary thriller are new at The Field Library, to give you something to keep you up at night.

Elevator Pitch, by Linwood Barclay, takes a common enough situation, taking an elevator to a higher or lower floor, and turns it into a nightmare.  One Monday morning, four ordinary people get into an ordinary elevator in a Manhattan high rise. They press the button for their floor, as they do every day, but instead of the elevator’s taking them to their respective floors, it rockets to the top of the building, holds there for a minute, and then plummets to the bottom of the elevator shaft. All right, that’s horrible enough and would make anyone jittery, but it isn’t until the NEXT elevator, at another building in another part of the city, on the following day, does the same thing that people start really freaking out (as they should). A third “accident” on Wednesday brings the vertical city to a virtual standstill.  Someone’s behind these horrific acts, and the city’s tallest high rise is going to be open for business on Thursday. Two detectives and a journalist have to race against time to find out who’s responsible and to stop that person (or persons) before the worst disaster of all takes place. Read this book and you’ll take the stairs for the rest of your life.

On a more personal level, there’s What Rose Forgot, by Nevada Barr.  This is a standalone book, not a part of Barr’s Anna Pigeon series, but Barr brings her long experience in mystery and suspense to a different kind of situation.  Rose, our protagonist, wakes up in a hospital gown, her brain foggy, with no knowledge of where she is or how she got there. She discovers to her horror that she’s in an Alzheimer’s Care unit in a nursing home, and that at least someone there thinks she doesn’t have long to live.  This, even without the ominous warning of death, is my own personal nightmare for lots of reasons, and these days, with fears of contracting Alzheimer’s growing, I bet I’m not alone in that fear. Rose pretends to take her meds and escapes the unit, but her troubles are far from over.  How can she persuade people she isn’t actually demented? The papers are in order, her family committed her (so she probably can’t turn to them for help), and she’s beginning to wonder herself about her own grasp on reality. When a would-be killer shows up in her house in the middle of the night, she gets at least a little reassurance that something really is up, but that doesn’t make things a lot better. Can she figure out who’s after her, why they set her up in this position, and stop the person from succeeding before it’s too late?

 

Want nightmare fuel that’s not conventional horror? Check out these two books and say goodbye to sleep for a while.

HISTORICAL NOVELS WHERE WOMEN SHINE

One of my favorite categories of historical fiction is the kind that shows how ordinary people lived in extraordinary times, showcasing what it was really like (as far as fiction can) to face conditions and circumstances very different from our own.  Three new historical novels here at The Field Library bring unique perspectives on the past, for those who want to escape or just learn more about a particular time period.

Where the Light Enters, by Sara Donati, presents us with an unusual protagonist, especially for 1884 Manhattan, where the book is set. Dr. Sophie Savard is an African American woman who’s also an obstetrician.  Sophie is mourning the recent death of her husband and returning to Manhattan to rebuild her life alone. Joining her cousin, Anna, who’s also a doctor, Sophie intends to continue their previous work among the least fortunate women whom society has forgotten.  However, Anna’s husband, a police officer, asks for the women’s help in the case of a society woman who has seemingly disappeared into thin air, and the case of a dead woman whose wounds suggest murder. Neither Sophie nor Anna underestimates the difficulties of what they’re taking on, but neither one of them is willing to turn aside from people in desperate need of their help. 

Moving ahead in time, we turn to another unusual pair of women, the Kopp Sisters, as they face America’s preparation for entry into World War I, in Amy Stewart’s fifth book in the series, The Kopp Sisters on the March.  Constance Kopp (a real person whose adventures form the basis of the series) and her sister are drawn to the military style training camps that are being set up for women who want to serve in World War I (aside: did you know there were such camps? I didn’t), specifically Camp Chevy Chase. After an accident to the matron who was running the camp, Constance reluctantly takes over the position, and has to deal with the skepticism of the War Department, the double standards and scorn of polite society toward women, scandal, betrayal, and the real perils of war, which she does with her usual courage and indomitable will.

Tracy Chevalier needs no introduction to fans of historical fiction; she’s written Girl with a Pearl Earring, Burning Bright, Heavenly Creatures and many other books set in different historical periods.  Her newest book, A Single Thread, takes place in England between the wars, and follows Violet Speedwell, a young woman who is, in the somewhat cruel language of the time, a “surplus woman.”  Her brother and her fiance were both killed in the Great War and she faces a life of sad and lonely spinsterhood, taking care of her grieving, embittered mother, until Violet takes matters into her own hands and moves to Winchester.  There she joins a group of broiderers: women who embroider the kneelers for the worshippers at the cathedral. She finds a place there, friends, and work that feels fulfilling, but when the shadows of the next war start encroaching, Violet has to fight to keep the life she’s built for herself.  

 

BACK TO SCHOOL NUTTINESS: YOU’VE BEEN VOLUNTEERED

As a new school year begins, parents of young children often find themselves roped into various kinds of “volunteer” duties at their children’s school.  While I’m past that stage of life myself, I remember what that was like and so does Laurie Gelman, whose latest book, You’ve Been Volunteered, takes us once again to the Kansas City school district where Jen Dixon, star of the earlier book, Class Mom, finds herself sucked into the maw of being a class mother again. If you want to look on your issues, present or remembered, of those “volunteer” efforts with a sense of humor, Jen Dixon is a great guide.

She’s been to this rodeo before, having two adult daughters in addition to 8 year old Max.  She’s lived kind of a wild life in her youth (she alludes to it here and there in her dealings with her 20-something daughter who’s wandering through Europe with her boyfriend’s rock group), so she’s not exactly like the (mostly younger) mothers of Max’s contemporaries.  This comes out vividly in the emails she sends out to the other mothers, which are frankly pretty funny and the sort of things I would write if I had no filters and didn’t care what people thought of me.

During the school year, Jen finds herself caught up in running the school safety patrol (and you have to admire the head of the PTA who finagles her into this; it’s very deftly done) in addition to the usual class mother duties (calling the other parents at 4 a.m. when there’s a snow day, for instance, or making sure there are sufficient chaperones for various school outings).  Her husband has buried himself in work in an effort to create and franchise a new set of yoga studios, her son is falling in with a bad crowd (for third grade, at least), her daughters are giving her a hard time, her parents are getting older and more in need of her help, and the rest of her life is filled with incident and accidents of various sorts. She’s very funny when she’s trying for a girls’ night out and her husband is left alone with their sick son (the series of texts between her and her husband, who apparently has no idea where anything is in the house he’s lived in for years is made even funnier when she intersperses them with her private commentary), and the drunken email she sends to everybody in the class list when she and her husband are out in Vegas is cringe-worthy but funny at the same time. 

This isn’t a deep book or one that forces you to confront serious social issues.  This is a lighthearted funny book with a flawed but believable protagonist, surrounded by realistic (if maybe slightly exaggerated) family, friends and fellow third grade parents (and third grade kids, too).  It’s a quick read, and if you need a break from all your life stresses, spend some time with Jen and her cast of characters in You’ve Been Volunteered.  

A TASTE OF SPACE TRAVEL: TO BE TAUGHT, IF FORTUNATE

Novellas are experiencing a bit of a renaissance these days, especially in the area of speculative fiction.  Writers like Martha Wells (the Murderbot series) and Seanan McGuire (the Wayward Children series) and Nnedi Okorafor (the Binti series) have been creating wonderful works, short but satisfying, with all the worldbuilding and characters and plots you’d expect from full scale speculative novels.  Add to the list Becky Chambers’ new novella, To Be Taught, If Fortunate.

The novella is written in the form of a communication from Ariadne, a future astronaut, to the people she left behind on earth, describing the adventures she’s had in space since she and her four companions were sent from earth as part of a citizen funded space exploration program.  Ariadne, an engineer by trade but a jack of all trades along with her companion astronauts, is very matter of fact about her life in space exploration, explaining somaforming, a process which changes humans’ bodies to enable them to live in environments that would otherwise kill them (giving people greater strength, for instance, to handle situations with greater gravity than that of earth, or giving people’s skins glitter to make them visible to each other in a world without much ambient light)(the glitter thing was especially charming to me), explaining what it’s like to wake up after having been in torpor for years at a time.  The four exoplanets she and her companions explore could hardly be more different from each other, but each one adds to the mission’s knowledge of how life works on other worlds. Unfortunately, the trips take decades, and while the crew ages very slowly thanks to their time asleep with their bodily systems slowed, time flies by on earth, and the sporadic communications the crew receive from their home planet show them how very different things are back “home”, if earth really is still home for them.

The planets are a delight.  Clearly Chambers has done her research and used her imagination to create plausible worlds with plausible ecosystems, and she conveys the real delights and terrors of human exploration of other worlds in a way that classic space opera sometimes neglects. All four of the characters face major emotional shocks and react to them, with the help of their companions, over the course of the mission, culminating in the reason Ariadne is sending this message in the first place.  

It’s not a novel, so don’t expect multiple subplots or in depth exploration of character, but you will be satisfied by the trip Ariadne takes and shares with you here. To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a perfect small meal, a taste of space travel.