FIELD NOTES SELECTION FOR MAY: MAYBE YOU SHOULD TALK TO SOMEONE

After a wide ranging discussion of our April book, Claire of the Sea Light, the Field Notes Book Group voted on our selection for our May meeting (on May 22 rather than the more usual May 15), and that is Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone:  A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed. Copies of the book will be available at the Field Library Circulation Desk shortly.

It may be cheating on my part to offer this book as a selection (though I didn’t force people to vote for it), since I already read it, but the book is an excellent read, and will provide lots of material for discussion, considering the issues it raises, not only about therapy and mental health, but also about the lives and problems of Lori Gottlieb and the people she’s treating.  Following her story and the stories of her patients through the book is like reading a particularly insightful novel focused on the inner lives of people in pain and in crisis.  If you, like me, have a soft spot for the kinds of nonfiction that talk about therapists and patients, this is a great read and an excellent choice. My own review of the book is here.

Join us for our discussion from 11 to 12:30 via zoom on May 22.  If you’re not already a member of the group but want to be a part of this, send me a note at nmulligan@wlsmail.org, and I’ll be glad to send you an invitation to the zoom meeting. 

MAGIC AND MYSTERY IN ALTERNATE RECONSTRUCTION PHILADELPHIA: THE CONDUCTORS

Nicole Glover’s debut novel, The Conductors, is a little hard to characterize. It involves magic, so it’s sort of fantasy; it’s set in an alternate version of Philadelphia during the era of Reconstruction, so it’s alternate history; it involves a murder that needs to be solved by a pair of investigators, so it’s a mystery; its main characters are all African Americans, which makes it unusual in all those categories.  It transcends all its categories and becomes something unique, and uniquely interesting.

Henrietta and Benjamin Rhodes, husband and wife, known as Hetty and Benjy, were conductors on the Underground Railroad during the period before the Civil War, using a unique kind of magic that relies on the constellations as part of their repertoire. Now, in the postwar period, they live in the Free Black community in Philadelphia, using their talents to investigate crimes and issues which the white police force ignores, and they’re especially sought after when there’s a hint of the supernatural in a crime in their ward.

When a person they’d helped rescue from slavery is found dead in an alley, Hetty and Benjy have to figure out whether this was murder, and whether this, and later kilings, are parts of a pattern or an isolated cases.  As they investigate, Hetty begins to discover that she doesn’t know some of the people closest to her as well as she thought she did, including her husband (and as an aside, if this isn’t a classic mystery trope, I don’t know what is). 

The realities of our version of Reconstruction and the book’s version of the era extend all the way into the different kinds of magic that are used.  There’s one kind that only white people can use, one kind (based on African, West Indian and Native American beliefs) that Hetty and Benjy use, and another kind that uses potions, based on herbs. It makes a kind of ugly sense that even the world of magic would be segregated by race, and the relationship between the black community of the Seventh Ward and the white establishment, especially the police, is also all too likely.

Don’t let the use of magic keep you from reading this if you’re a mystery fan. Likewise, if you’re a historical fiction reader, The Conductors will appeal to your knowledge of this era in American history, despite its mystery and magic (or perhaps because of them).  Check out The Conductors and give yourself a unique treat.

BOY, AM I GLAD I’M NOT A HUGO VOTER, PART 1

I have nothing but respect for the people who will be attending this year’s World Science Fiction Convention, because they’re going to be the ones who get to choose the winners of this year’s Hugo Awards, the most prestigious awards in the world of speculative fiction.  I don’t envy them their task, because, in the categories in which I’ve read a number of the nominees this year, the choices are so difficult, the books all being of such high quality.  How do you choose the best when you love all of them?

For instance, four of the six finalists for Best Novella are here at The Field Library, and I’ve personally read three of them (this is better than I usually do with ANY awards; don’t even ask me about the Oscars because the odds of my having seen more than one of the movies featured are slim to none).  

Come Tumbling Down, by Seanan McGuire, is a part of her Wayward Children series, which I love in all its variety.  I’ve already written about this particular book, which is the third in a sub-series involving two recurring characters.  Of course I enjoyed the book, and I’m delighted to see its being nominated for a Hugo here.

Another nominee, Finna, by Nino Cipri, is also one of my favorites of the year, which I reviewed here.  It’s a very different kind of book from Come Tumbling Down, much odder and wilder, so how could you put it next to that book and say one is objectively “better” than the other?  (And, just to add to the fun, Cipri’s coming out with another novella, Defekt, next week, and you can be sure I’ll be reading that one!)

And then we have Upright Women Wanted, by Sarah Gulley, an alternative history with feminism and queer representation, turning the classic Western on its head and also showing great love for libraries.  What’s not to love about this book?  And, as you can see from my review here, I did love it.  More than Finna?  More than Come Tumbling Down?  I am SO glad I don’t have to make that decision.

I have not personally read Ring Shout, by P. Djeli Clark, which is also nominated for Best Novella, and which is also here at The Field Library, but it looks tremendous also.  Set in 1920’s Georgia, it combines the real life horrors of the KKK in the South with a supernatural twist, in which some of the Klansmen are white supremacists, and some of them are actual demons from another dimension, inhabiting the bodies of white people.  There are black women who have the power to destroy those demons, and they’ve been busy, but now they’re seeing signs that something much bigger is about to happen, something almost apocalyptic, which they have to use all their powers to face.  

I can just imagine looking at the ballot for Best Novella and being completely frozen with inability to choose among such wonderful options. Whatever wins Best Novella this year is sure to be top notch, and has an excellent chance of being something you can read right here at The Field Library.  Get a jump on the awards and check them all out now.

VERY ATTRACTIVE, VERY IMMINENT COMING ATTRACTION: FUGITIVE TELEMETRY

The new Murderbot book, Fugitive Telemetry, by Martha Wells, is due to be released on April 25. If you are a fan of the Murderbot series as I am (and for “fan”, read “madly obsessed lover of the series who will drop nearly everything to read the next book as soon as possible”), this really is all you need to know.  You can already put it on hold in the Westchester Library System (I did), to have a good chance of getting one of the first copies.  

For those who don’t know, the series is science fiction, classified as action/adventure, and it stars the wonderful former security robot that calls itself Murderbot.  In the first book, Murderbot had disabled its overdrive and became more or less independent.  While professing disdain for humans and their silly emotions, Murderbot has, over the course of the last five books, shown a willingness to go to extreme lengths to help and protect certain humans who are important to it.  Murderbot is sarcastic, funny, smart and a great companion in any adventure.  If you haven’t already started the series, what’s keeping you?  All Systems Red, the first book in the series, is available at The Field Library and throughout the system: it’s a quick read and a fine introduction to our favorite secbot.

As for me, I’m counting off the days till Fugitive Telemetry arrives.  I can’t wait to reacquaint myself with Murderbot in all its infinite sarcastic glory.

FIELD OF MYSTERY SELECTION FOR MAY: MURDER IN OLD BOMBAY

After an interesting and entertaining discussion of Ruth Rendell (a/k/a Barbara Vine) and her book, The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy,  the Field of Mystery Book Group chose our book for May, and it wasn’t even a close vote.  We overwhelmingly chose Murder in Old Bombay, by Nev March, to read for our May 1 meeting.

Murder in Old Bombay is a debut novel, possibly the start of a series (don’t all mystery writers secretly want to be starting a series that lasts for years and years?), which won an award for First Novel by the Mystery Writers of America.  The book is set in Bombay, India, in 1892.  Our protagonist, Captain Jim Agnihoti, is a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, and gets a chance, when he leaves the army and goes into journalism as his next career, to follow in his idol’s footsteps.  Two young women seemingly leap to their deaths together from a university clock tower, but their families don’t believe either one of them committed suicide, and end up engaging Jim’s services to investigate what really happened.  As Jim finds himself a Watson surrogate and even, possibly, a romantic partner, he begins asking questions.  Unfortunately for him, there are people who don’t want questions asked in this particular place and time.  Will Jim be able to find out what actually happened, or is he going to be forced to admit failure on his very first case?

Copies of the book will be available at The Field Library Circulation Desk within the week.  If you’re interested in joining the discussion, but you’re not already a member of the group (and why aren’t you?  We’re a good group), send me an email at nmulligan@wlsmail.org the week of the meeting and I’ll send you a link.  Join us for intelligent discussion and new insights into what promises to be a fascinating book.

NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE CHOOSES THE BEST OF 2020

We all know that sometimes critics can get things wrong, and there have been many times I’ve scratched my head at the things some critics praise to the skies (the book we’ve hated most in the Field Notes Book Group was widely praised as “one of the best of the year”, which gives us reason to be skeptical).  However, seeing what top critics consider to be the best in various genres often gives us a starting point when we’re looking for something new that’s also something good.  With that in mind, let’s take a look at the books the National Book Critics Circle considered the best of 2020.  There are more than 800 members of the Circle, all professional critics, so their choices are worth looking into, and many of those winners are available right here at The Field Library for you to take out.

The best novel of the year, according to the National Book Critics Circle, was Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell, a historical novel about the little-known life of William Shakespeare’s wife and his young son, Hamnet, who died of the plague when he was 11 years old.  It’s a vivid imagining of Shakespeare’s early life, his relationship with his wife and children, and the possible inspiration of one of his greatest works.  If you want to read this one, you’ll have to put it on hold, I’m afraid, because it’s still so popular it’s hardly on the shelves anywhere in the Westchester Library System.

The National Book Critics Circle’s choice for the best biography of the year is Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World, by Amy Stanley.  Tsuneno, the focus of the biography, was born in rural 19th century Japan before the country opened up to the West, and she left a wealth of primary sources about her life and her world.  Married four times (the first one at age 12), she took off for Edo (now Tokyo), the capital of the country and a dizzyingly different world for her, where she struggled to find a place.  Tsuneno wasn’t an extraordinary woman, a geisha or a highborn person, but it’s her ordinariness that makes this portrait of her life and her world so extraordinary.

The best autobiography of the year is very apropos in a time when anti-Asian violence is a focus of our national discourse.  It’s Minor Feelings: an Asian American Reckoning, by Cathy Park Hong, a poet and essayist.  She writes about her own experiences as a child of Korean immigrants and uses her experiences as a portal to look at Asian American history, Asian invisibility, racism and depression, to give us a portrait of what it’s like to be a member of a “model minority”, and how devastating that can be.

The National Book Critics Circle has a special prize, the John Leonard Prize, for the best first book by an author, and this year it was awarded to Luster, by Raven Leilani.  Edie, the protagonist of this novel, is a young black woman who finds herself getting involved in interesting and complicated ways with a white couple and their black adopted child, trying to find herself in her relationships, her work, and her art. 

Finally, the National Book Critics Circle chose the best work of criticism of the year, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, by Nicole R. Fleetwood. The book explores the art made by incarcerated people in the United States, made from ordinary objects in the most limited and harshest circumstances (including solitary confinement) by the author’s interviews with presently and formerly incarcerated people, visits to prisons and the author’s own experiences with the criminal justice system. Many of the artworks shown in this book have never been published anywhere before, and the author turns a scholarly eye onto the art itself and the conditions in which it was created.

NONFICTION FOR FANTASY

Recently I took out the most gorgeous book, The Home Edit: A Guide to Organizing and Realizing Your House Goals, by Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin.  As is often the case with me, I had seen this book pass through my hands a number of times before I finally took it out (an advantage of working on the circulation desk is that you get to see everything at least once), but finally I just couldn’t resist it. It really is a wonderful book, and the pictures alone are sufficient to dazzle anyone, especially someone like me who loves colors (the more vivid the better).  I read through it with interest, oohed and aahed at the pictures and the concepts, and imagined what my house would look like if I did the things the authors recommend.

I have such a weakness for books about how to declutter, how to organize, how to make your home a haven and not a pigsty.  I’ve read dozens, I’ve even bought some and kept them in my home library for years. I devour those books wholescale.

Is my home organized?  Does anything whatsoever in my house look the faintest bit like the gorgeous mudrooms and kitchen drawers and children’s rooms in The Home Edit?  Not in a million years. In fact, if you pictured any of the illustrations in that book and then tried to imagine the exact opposite, you’d have my house. Maybe. 

The thing that’s interesting to me is that I do this with certain kinds of nonfiction books.  It’s an actual pattern.  It’s not just organizing books, it’s also cookbooks, and writing books and even (to some extent) quilting books. I take them out. I read them. I love reading them. If they have great pictures, so much the better, but I don’t even need illustrations for the most part. I can just imagine myself doing the things in the books, and it’s pure pleasure. At this stage of the game, I know for a fact that I am not going to DO anything with those books, those ideas (in fact, if I make even one or two recipes from a book I take out of the library, that’s a sign I need to own the book, and I buy it). I am taking them out solely for the fantasy they allow me to indulge, that I could be a person whose house is organized and beautiful, a person who cooks these exotic dishes, a person who would use this particular method of writing or quilting. 

Even though books are nonfiction, even though they might be self-help books, the moral of the story is that you can still enjoy them without having the slightest intention of doing anything they tell you to do.  Nonfiction can be a source of fantasy, too.  

A DIFFERENT KIND OF WESTERN: OUTLAWED

I would not have called myself a fan of westerns, either books or movies, and yet, I was charmed and delighted by the new book, Outlawed, by Anna North, which is, at least in outward form, a western.  What made it so much fun to read was the way the author tilted and twisted the conventions of westerns, mixing them with some alternate history and some feminism, giving us some of the accouterments of the classic western (gangs of outlaws on the run from the sheriffs, people riding horses and stagecoaches, small farming and ranching communities, etc.) and some quirky additions.  What we end up with is a book that’s both oddly familiar in its trappings and at the same time unpredictable and surprising.

The alternate history is alluded to without turning into an info dump.  This book is set in 1894, in what would have been the western United States, if there were such a thing as the United States anymore.  In this world, though, there was a terrible flu epidemic in the 1830’s which wiped out vast swaths of the population, including much of the government.  The characters in this book live in the post-flu world, where the political structures we expect in westerns exist only in skeletal form, and the social changes that resulted from that pandemic are well-established. 

For instance, having children is very important for women. People marry young and women are expected to get pregnant in the first year of their marriage, and keep having children thereafter. Any woman who has difficulty conceiving or carrying a child to term is in trouble.  If it’s her “fault”, she’s considered barren and pretty much worthless. If it’s not really her “fault,” there has to be someone else to blame, and witchcraft is assumed to be the cause of miscarriages and failures to conceive.  This feels plausible: as one midwife explains, people really don’t understand much about human reproduction and why things go wrong, and if they can’t get a scientific explanation, then at least they need to blame someone, and there’s plenty of historical precedent for societies to turn on women as witches when things go wrong.

Ada, our protagonist and narrator, is the daughter of a midwife, and has some skills in that area as well, though she’s frustrated by the lack of information her society has about how to help women during pregnancy and childbirth.  She does what’s expected of her: she gets married to a local boy when she’s 17, she tries to start a family, and she doesn’t get pregnant.  Things start to go wrong then: there’s an outbreak of German measles that leads to other young women losing their babies, and, naturally, no antibiotics or vaccinations.  Such a tragedy needs a scapegoat and Ada fits the bill.

She runs away, first to a convent (but don’t expect it to be like the Catholic convents you know; though there is a form of Christianity in this America, what we see of it suggests it’s very different from the one prevalent in our America), and then, when that doesn’t work out, she sets out to find the legendary group of outlaws, the Hole in the Wall Gang, known for their outrageous robberies and their defiance of the law.  Ada figures she can find sanctuary with them, and she does, though it’s not as simple as you might think.

All the members of the gang are women.  They’ve all lived hard lives and escaped from the dangers of living as a barren woman, or a fallen woman, to join up with The Kid, a charismatic and enigmatic figure, formerly a preacher and still given to quoting from the Bible to support the Kid’s plans and ideas.  Ada does not fit in right away (and here I give props to North; it would have been easy, even cliche, for her to discover her true self among this group of outlaw women immediately, but it’s much more realistic in the circumstances for her to have to find her way and deal with the suspicions and doubts of her more experienced peers).  She doesn’t shoot well,  she doesn’t know how to ride when she first joins them, and she seems pretty out of place. The thing that saves her, and ultimately makes her one of the group, is her medical ability (such as it is; remember we don’t have a lot of technology or modern medicine here).

The Kid comes up with a complicated plan involving robbing a bank in town and using the bank’s resources to take over the town and make it into a haven for women who don’t fit in elsewhere.  It’s a lovely vision, but half the women in the group are against it: too dangerous, relying too much on chance, too big.  Ada finds herself on the Kid’s side, wanting to help create this utopian town,  and she joins in the preparations for the heist.

Naturally, things are more complicated than the Kid anticipated. Naturally things don’t work according to plan, and this is where the book turns into a quick paced adventure story, as the women try to bend events to suit their original plan and cope with the inevitable moments when things go wrong.   I won’t give any spoilers (though I did say I enjoyed the book, so you might guess that it’s not a total downer) because I don’t want to spoil the fun. 

Part of what makes this book such a great quick read is the characters. Ada, the Kid,  Lo, News, Elzy, Cassie, Lark: they’re all vivid people with different pasts shaping their personalities and their ways of reacting to their world. They’re all flawed, fallible people who make mistakes and then try to fix them, but they’re also all people you care about and want to see succeed, whatever “success” turns out to be.

Realistic enough to be believable, different enough to be unpredictable, lively and quick-paced, Outlawed is a great western for people who don’t think they like westerns.

APRIL FIELD NOTES SELECTION: CLAIRE OF THE SEA LIGHT

Thanks to everybody who came to our Field Notes Book Group meeting this past Saturday to discuss Perestroika in Paris, by Jane Smiley.  We had a good discussion about the book, most of us relieved to read something with a happy ending in these difficult times.  When the time came to pick our book for April, we chose Claire of the Sea Light, by Edwidge Danticat.  Copies of the book will be available at the Circulation Desk at The Field Library shortly.

Claire of the Sea Light is set in Ville Rose, Haiti, a small fishing village.  The title character is a young girl whose mother died of childbirth, and whose father has been having increasing difficulty taking care of her as he feels he should.  He has been considering for some time whether he should give Claire to the shopkeeper, who recently lost a child of her own and who would be better able to provide for Claire, but by the time he comes to his decision, something terrible has happened: Claire herself has disappeared.  As the village comes together to search for her, secrets are revealed, memories are unearthed, and the depths of the connections among the people of Ville Rose are brought to poetic life in Danticat’s luminous prose.

We’re looking forward to another interesting discussion on April 17 from 11 to 12:30 via zoom.  If you’re interested in joining the discussion but aren’t already a member of the group, send me an email the week of the meeting at nmulligan@wlsmail.org, and I’ll send you an invitation.  Come and join us!

HELL HATH NO FURY: THE ECHO WIFE

At first glance, Sarah Gailey’s new novel, The Echo Wife, seems to be telling an old, familiar story.  Evelyn, the protagonist, is a female scientist, dedicated to her work to the point where she doesn’t realize that her husband is cheating on her for some time.  And when she does discover his infidelity, it’s through the age-old tell of a hair that’s not hers on his clothing.  After he moves out, Evelyn meets with her replacement, and realizes that the other woman, Martine, is pregnant.  Evelyn’s refusal to have a child with her husband, Nathan, was one of the last straws in their marriage, and Evelyn lashes out at Martine.  Later that night, she gets a panicked call from Martine who has, it turns out, killed Nathan as a result of what Evelyn told her.*

However, the book is far from cliche, and there are a few details that make the situation absolutely unique.  For one thing, Evelyn’s work involves creating clones of human beings, designed to exist for a short time and then be destroyed.  Her former husband, Nathan, stole her work and some of her genetic information and used them to create Martine, who is Evelyn’s clone.  He modified her personality to some extent, making her more docile, less likely to challenge him, and he hid her away from the public.  What really horrifies Evelyn about Martine’s pregnancy is not that she’s giving Nathan what Evelyn refused to (though that’s clearly a factor), but that she’s pregnant at all.  Clones are supposed to be sterile.

When Evelyn helps Martine deal with Nathan’s body and the aftermath of his murder, she has purely selfish motives: if anyone finds out about Martine’s existence, Evelyn’s work will be fatally compromised.  She’ll never get funding again, and she’ll never be able to continue in the field at all.  Her feelings toward Nathan, the possibility that someone might think she was responsible for his death (after all, any fingerprints would be hers), don’t even come into her calculations.

Of course, in any murder story, there’s the question of dealing with the body, and with the inevitable questions when someone just disappears, and Evelyn and Martine handle that problem in a surprising, but totally logical, way.  I wouldn’t dream of giving away any of the details, but suffice it to say that each solution they come up with leads to different problems, and this is a real page turner of a plot.

It’s a page turner without any of the usual accouterments of a thriller.  This isn’t a book where there’s the equivalent of an Inspector Javert, hunting Evelyn or Martine down, trying to find out what happened to Nathan.  It isn’t a book where the police are involved at all.  The threats are more subtle, more internal, but nonetheless real.

Evelyn is quite a character.  Her work requires a certain level of what might seem like callousness: watch the way she describes autopsying a “specimen” or how she and her assistant “condition” a clone before waking it up.  It takes a special kind of mind to look at one’s dead ex husband and compare the amount of blood on the floor to how many pitchers of spilled beer would be the equivalent.  She’s not heartless, but she is calculating to an extent that might seem a bit off-putting.  Part of that is due to her job, but she chose her field, and she chose the constraints she works with there.  A large part of her basic approach to life is a result of her childhood, and here Gailey shows how skillful a writer she is. Evelyn gives us dribs and drabs of her past, subtly letting us know what the conditions in her family household were and how she ended up the way she is without ever saying anything outright, let alone bludgeoning us with melodrama.

This is the kind of book I would love to discuss with a book group.  The questions that arise are questions about consent and responsibility, among other things. Martine’s very existence, so different from what clones are usually created to be, raises serious moral questions about Evelyn and about Nathan, about free will and choice.  Watching Evelyn create a clone and condition it is an unsettling experience; having Martine watch the creation of a clone and consider her origins is even more so. Over the course of the book, Evelyn’s relationship with Martine changes gradually: she initially doesn’t feel Martine’s responsible for what she does because she’s just a thing, a programmed object, but by the end of the book she’s thinking of Martine as a person like herself (and that whole “like herself” issue forces Evelyn, and the reader, to consider what makes Evelyn Evelyn and whether anyone could ever really be an exact duplicate of someone else).  

My husband read this before I did, and when he gave it to me, he said, “It has a happy ending.” And it does, sort of, probably the only kind of happy ending a story like this could have.  It is a satisfying ending, certainly.  Evelyn is not the sort of person who is ever going to get a “happily ever after” kind of conclusion, but people get what they deserve, for the most part.  I’m sorry I can’t say more about it, but a lot of the fun of the book is the way it twists and turns, and I am not going to spoil that fun for anyone here. 

If you want a good read that will keep you guessing and make you think, you could hardly do better than The Echo Wife. Give it a try.

*What, you don’t read the kind of books where the other woman kills the cheating husband and calls on the first wife for help?  You’re not reading enough thrillers, obviously.  Just kidding.