QUIRKY BOOKS FOR OCTOBER

This month, for those of you with, shall we say, quirky tastes in literature, we have a couple of new books you may find intriguing and worth a read.

secret-history-of-twin-peaks

Back in the day, the television show Twin Peaks, created by the very weird David Lynch (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, The Elephant Man, Mulholland Drive, among others), was a cult classic.  The story of an investigation of a murder in a bizarre town, with a somewhat quirky investigator in the lead, the series kept people asking questions and arguing about what was really going on.  Now, in preparation for the upcoming Showtime tv series that continues where the original series (and its one sequel) left off, we have a new novel in the world of Twin Peaks, called The Secret History of Twin Peaks, written by one of the two writers of the series, Mark Frost. The book is NOT for people who have no knowledge of the TV series, as it really does go into the history (all the way back to the Lewis and Clark expedition), complete with footnotes (there’s something I’ve always found charming about the inclusion of footnotes in novels), in an almost obsessive focus on all the minutia of the series. The book is presented as a report by an unnamed investigator, so it doesn’t read like a normal novel, but if you’re into the series and looking forward to the new season, this is a must-read.

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If you’re not into weird television shows but still like books that take you off the beaten track, you should check out Mister Monkey by Francine Prose. The characters are all associated, one way or another, with a long-running (maybe TOO long-running) off-off Broadway children’s musical about a larcenous but playful pet chimpanzee called Mister Monkey.  Margot, the main character, has been playing the humiliating role of the monkey’s lawyer for so long she’s convinced her acting career will never survive this musical, until one day she gets a letter from a mysterious anonymous admirer, and something happens between her and Adam, the 12 year old heading into adolescence who plays the monkey of the title, on stage that shakes her and everybody else up.  From actors on stage to the author of the books on which the musical is based to members of the audience to the Monkey God himself, everybody has a take on what the musical is really all about, and very few of them can be trusted as narrators. Francine Prose has a way with images: you can see and hear and even smell the theater where the musical is being held, and the characters come to vivid life as their prospects and present lives collide and fall apart around them.  

 

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FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP READS THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY

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Harold Fry is a very ordinary man. He’s retired and living in the southeast of England with his wife, from whom he’s somewhat estranged.  He’s a man of quiet routines, the sort of person who does the same thing at the same time every day.  His son has been alienated from him for a long time, though we don’t, at first, know why or how that happened. You would assume that he would go on in more or less the same way for the rest of his life, and Harold himself would probably agree with you.  

Until one day he gets a letter from Queenie Hennessey, someone he knew from his days as a sales rep for a brewery.  Her letter tells him she’s dying of cancer in a hospice in Berwick, in Scotland.  Moved by an impulse, he writes her a sort of sympathy note and sets out to mail it.  But as he starts on his way, he passes mailbox after mailbox, and finally decides a letter isn’t going to cut it.  He mails the letter and calls the hospice, leaving a message for Queenie, telling her he’s walking to see her and she should stay alive at least until he gets there.  And he begins walking.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, takes readers with Harold on his journey, and we at the Field Notes Book Group will be going along with him in November.  We’ll be reading the book and discussing it at the Field Library Gallery on November 19 from 11:00 to 12:30.  Come and join us!  As always, there will be copies of the book behind the circulation desk to be checked out, and we’ll have coffee and donuts at the meeting.  Hope to see you there!

CHRISTMAS IN OCTOBER

It’s October, the first frost has hit, the leaves are beginning to turn, everywhere you look people are decorating their houses for Halloween, so naturally here in the Field Library it’s time to come in and look for the newest Christmas books.

Yes, you can roll your eyes and gnash your teeth and talk about how nobody waits for the right holidays anymore, but the fact is, Christmas novels tend to come out in October (with a few laggards in November), and we’ve already got several and are due to get more, written by well-known and well-loved authors and ready to get you in the holiday mood.  

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Let’s start with Debbie Macomber, whose newest book is Twelve Days of Christmas.  In it, an openhearted, friendly woman, Julia, gets along with everybody around her, with one conspicuous exception: her standoffish neighbor, Cain, who rebuffs all her efforts to be friendly to him. She even catches him stealing her newspaper, which drives her to the ultimate reaction: she’s going to win him over, killing him with kindness.  She even starts keeping a blog, called “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” to keep track of her results, which are pretty discouraging.  She makes him homemade cookies and other goodies and he rejects her.  Her blog, however, becomes a sensation, gaining more and more followers.  When Cain begins to soften toward her and she begins to fall for him (come on, this is a Debbie Macomber book — you know what to expect!), she’s faced with a dilemma: should she tell him about the blog and risk destroying his feelings for her?  

winter-storms

Elin Hilderbrand, known for years for her summer books chronicling life on Nantucket Island, has branched out in recent years with a winter-based series, also set on Nantucket.  Her newest book, Winter Storms, is the third book in this trilogy and brings the series to a winning conclusion.  The Quinn family, preparing for a what they hope will be their best holiday season in ages, comes together on Nantucket.  There are reasons to be hopeful and even joyful: a wedding is on the way, and one member of the family who was missing in action in Afghanistan, may have been found.  There’s plenty of family drama, though, and a powerful blizzard is approaching the Eastern Seaboard, taking aim at Nantucket and the Quinns.  Holidays and drama and the beauties of Nantucket: what more can we ask?

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Lauren, the protagonist of The Christmas Town, by Donna Vanliere, has reason to dislike the whole Christmas season.  She spent most of her childhood as a foster child, longing for her mother to come back and give her the home she so desperately wanted. Now she’s 20, working as a cashier, and endlessly subjected to onslaughts of Christmas carols over the loudspeakers and an excess of Christmas decorations all around her. One night she leaves her shift and can’t bear to go directly home to her empty apartment.  Driving around, she finds herself witnessing an accident and then she’s drawn into the small town of Grandon, and its fundraiser for a home for single mothers and their children.  Is it possible she might have found the home she’s been looking for, and in the process, something of the true Christmas spirit?  

Get yourself in the seasonal spirit with our new Christmas books — even in October.

THE WANGS VS. THE WORLD: AN IMMIGRANT’S ROAD TRIP

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The debut novel by Jade Chang, The Wangs vs. the World, is a combination of two very popular and fun genres: the immigrant story (classically, immigrant comes to America, makes good, then his/her children struggle to reconcile their pasts with their present) and the road trip story, for an enjoyable, if somewhat bumpy, ride.

Charles Wang, the father of the clan in America, came from China and made his fortune building a cosmetics empire.  Then came the crash of 2008, and everything came falling down for him and his family: all the trappings of fortune were stripped away, his huge and fancy Bel Air home was being foreclosed, two of his children were in expensive private schools whose tuition he can no longer afford to pay, and as far as Charles was concerned, the bottom had dropped out and he was finished with America altogether.  He had a promise of some family land he could (maybe) claim back in China and so, ready to give the old country another try, he decided to make sure all his children were in good shape in America before heading back to China for a new start.

Which all sounds much simpler than it turns out to be, because Charles’ children are spread across the country, and not exactly in good shape.  His son is in school in New Mexico, and aspiring to be a stand-up comic.  One of his daughters is in a boarding school where she’s been trying to establish herself as a “style blogger.”  Together with his wife, they head across the country to the upstate New York home of his third daughter, who’s holing up there after an embarrassing rise and fall in the New York City art world. Naturally things go wrong all along the line, and this is where the humor of the book comes in.  The characters start out pretty self-absorbed and selfish, but over the course of their long trip together, they come to new understandings of who they are, what their pasts mean and what their futures can be.  And Charles finds himself having to choose between his future and keeping his family together, between the new world and the old.  

If you like charming novels about somewhat dysfunctional families, and you’re interested in the classic rise and fall of new Americans, The Wangs vs. the World should be just the book for you.  Come in and check it out.

MARGARET ATWOOD TAKES ON SHAKESPEARE: HAG-SEED

As you know if you’ve been reading this blog, lately there have been a number of famous writers writing their own versions of famous Shakespeare plays.  In June, Anne Tyler came out with her take on The Taming of the Shrew, called Vinegar Girl, and prior to that, in February, Howard Jacobson came up with a new take on The Merchant of Venice, which he called Shylock Is My Name, and last year A Winter’s Tale got a new look in Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time. It’s a sign of how relevant Shakespeare’s characters and plots are, hundreds of years after they were first performed in England, and it’s refreshing and intriguing to see what a modern writer, with her or his own sensibilities and preferences, will do with the timeless works of Shakespeare.  Now we have Margaret Atwood, famous for her dystopian works like The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Heart Goes Last, and a slew of others, giving us her version of The Tempest, which should be quite an eye-opener.

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The book is called Hag-Seed, and it plays with the themes of The Tempest in a modern setting. Instead of the wizard-king exiled from his kingdom by his brother, as in the original, the main character here is Felix, a former artistic director at a most prestigious theater festival, who was betrayed by his right-hand man, Tony, and lost his position, his reputation and just about everything that made his life worth living.  He’s not exiled to a deserted island, like Prospero in Tempest, but he might as well be: he’s living in a two room shack and working under an assumed name, teaching literature at a local prison and putting on an annual Shakespearean play with the prisoners as cast.  This year, though, he finally sees an opportunity to get revenge, as he puts on a production of none other than The Tempest itself in the prison.  So what we have, which Shakespeare himself would have enjoyed, is the concept of a play within a play within a novel, and characters playing other characters whose lives and actions reflect on their own and vice versa. There are some amusing touches: for instance, Felix only allows the prisoners to curse if they’re using the language from the play, which leads to some interesting exchanges, and some of the prisoners rebel at having to play Ariel, a fairy.  But there are also poignant touches: instead of having his daughter, Miranda, in exile with him, as Prospero did in The Tempest, Felix’s daughter Miranda died in childhood, but she is still with him in some ways.

Do you need to be familiar with The Tempest to enjoy Hag-Seed?  No.  As Felix teaches his students about the play, you’ll learn more than enough to understand what’s going on in the book.  Of course, if you are familiar with the source material, you’ll enjoy Hag-Seed even more for her insights into the characters of the original play as well as the characters she’s created here.  If you’re a Margaret Atwood fan (and why wouldn’t you be?), this promises to be a delight.

ESCAPE TO IRELAND: AN IRISH COUNTRY LOVE STORY

In the last legs of this Presidential election season, we’re all due for a break, something that will take our minds off all the ugliness of the nightly news.  If you can’t actually get away to the beautiful countryside of Ireland, perhaps you can get the next best thing: a (new) charming book (in a series of charming books) describing the life and times of a small town doctor in an Irish village in the 1960’s, called An Irish Country Love Story, by Patrick Taylor.

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It may be wintertime of 1967 in the small northern Irish town of Ballybucklebo, the setting for this series of novels, and there may be snow on the ground and a chill in the air, but the warmth of the characters and the plots of this book aren’t affected at all by the weather.  Our protagonist, Dr. Barry Laverty, having established his medical practice in the town, is now preparing to get married to Sue Nolan and start a new life together.  Other storylines include the potential loss of the great estate that’s been a part of the village forever, a missing dog who’s being searched for desperately by the aging man who loves him, the difficulties a new doctor in the practice is having adjusting to the way the world works around here, and a crisis that might drive Dr. Laverty’s predecessor, the beloved Dr. Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, from the home and office he’s had for most of his life, which has been the life’s blood of the community for decades. Will love conquer all, and if so, how?

If you’re a fan of the old All Creatures Great and Small series about the veterinarian in Yorkshire, England, and you’d like to spend time with an equally charming and quirky set of people and problems, you should definitely spend some time with Dr. Laverty and his peers in a small Irish town.

REVENGE IN A COLD RIVER: FORGETTING THE PAST CAN BE DEADLY

I’ve already written about my love of a good mystery series, and one of my favorites is the William Monk series written by Anne Perry.  While the author is prolific and has three adult series she’s been writing over the years (with an annual Christmas book and some young adult novels as well), I have a particular fondness for William Monk, the police detective in Victorian London who’s married to a former Crimean War nurse (trained by Florence Nightingale).  The latest William Monk book is Revenge in a Cold River, and while it’s not the best book to start the series with (that would be the first book, The Face of a Stranger), it’s a great fun read and crystallizes a lot of the issues that make the series work so well.

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One thing you need to know about William Monk is that there’s a part of his personal history that’s completely lost to him.  In the first book, he wakes up after a carriage accident with amnesia, and over the course of 22 books (so you know there’s plenty to read if you’re taken with these characters and this historical period), he has never been able to remember that missing part of his life.  He’s been able to piece together something of his past: he’s seen how people reacted to him based on his past reputation, and he has, over the years, confided in (very) few people about his missing memories.  In some respects, Monk has been given a great opportunity to change his life, to turn away from the arrogance and nastiness he realizes he was guilty of in the lost years; in other respects, though, that missing past contains threats to his current life and reputation, which brings us to the plot of this book.

At the outset, Monk is the head of the Thames River Police, still grieving the loss of his assistant in a battle not long before.  He suspects Officer McNab of the Customs Service set him up on that raid, though he can’t prove it, and he knows (it’s brutally clear) that for some reason McNab has a serious grudge against him.  What’s worse, McNab seems to have figured out that there’s a period in Monk’s life that Monk can’t remember, and he seems prepared to use that knowledge against Monk in some way.

The death of an escaped Customs prisoner brings Monk and McNab together.  The man’s body was found in the river, apparently drowned, but also shot.  Another prisoner apparently escapes, and Monk, attempting to capture the prisoner,  accidentally ends up drowning the Customs officer pursuing the man instead. Monk is sure McNab is attempting to snare him in some kind of trap, but since the secrets of the case are tangled in events that happened in the California Gold Rush of 1849, part of Monk’s forgotten past, he’s at a major disadvantage, meeting with people who knew him then but who don’t know he doesn’t remember them.   When Monk is charged with murder of the customs officer, he must rely on his wife, Hester, and his friend, the barrister Oliver Rathbone, to save him from a danger he can’t entirely understand.

Perry is excellent at atmosphere: the constraints of Victorian society (one character, the widow of a prominent judge, exemplifies the attitudes toward women and sex in the period), the physical world the characters move through (you can practically smell the Thames), the living, breathing sense of the past.  But she’s even better at characters: not only the main characters we’ve seen growing and developing over the course of 22 books (though it’s always a pleasure to renew my acquaintance with Hester, Rathbone and Scuff, among other vivid characters), but the characters who appear in only one or two books and then fleetingly, who are also given their stories and pasts and quirks, good and bad.  Perry’s female characters are especially good: they are invariably as complex and unpredictable and interesting as the male characters, major and minor, with whom they interact.

Revenge in a Cold River is a good read, with a fast-moving plot, believable characters and fascinating insights not only into the world of Victorian London but also of 1840’s Gold Rush California as well.  If you’ve been following the series, you’ll be delighted to see how issues from past books are resolved, and even if you haven’t read the series before, there’s enough background here to keep you from being confused, and then there are all those previous books to dive into when you’re finished.