PLAGUES AND PEOPLE: GET WELL SOON

While I don’t often write about nonfiction here, when I read a nonfiction book I really love, I just have to share the fun of it, and such a book is Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them, by Jennifer Wright.  Now, I realize that title makes it sound like a real downer, though for those of us (like me) who are fascinated by outbreaks of terrible diseases there’s nothing wrong with a book about history’s worst plagues.  This book, though, is far from a downer, even if you’re not one of us, because the author has a knack for describing even the most horrible things with wit and vividness.

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I confess, I put this book on hold by the title alone, but when I got it and realized who the author was, I was even more delighted to have it.  Jennifer Wright also wrote a very funny book called It Ended Badly, about famous breakups.  You might say that writing humorously about the horrible things people do to each other after a romantic breakup is easier than writing humorously about dreadful diseases, but I’d say it’s a close call, and Jennifer Wright’s ability to see the lighter side of even the most serious things is a real selling point for me.

This book starts with the decline of the Roman Empire, and specifically the Antonine Plague of C.E. 165 – 180, showing us how the ravages of that plague were responsible, at least partly, for the fall of the empire to the barbarians who’d been knocking at the gates of the empire for decades before that without effect (she’s very funny in describing the German efforts to defeat Roman legions).  She also starts with another theme of the book: the way a government responds to a plague can be as important as medical advances in limiting the worst effects of that plague.

Of course she hits all the famous plagues: the Black Death (one of my favorites) of the 14th century, the Great Influenza of 1918 (sometimes erroneously called the Spanish Flu, and you’ll learn from this book why it’s called the Spanish Flu and why that’s inaccurate), cholera, tuberculosis and smallpox.  She touches on some other diseases you might not think of as plagues, such as leprosy, syphilis and polio, and even (this is a little bit of a stretch, I admit, but she writes so well I’m willing to cut her some slack on this) lobotomies.  She even has a section toward the back where she keeps the pictures you might not otherwise want to see (they can be pretty gruesome), just to give everybody what they want. She goes into some detail, salacious and otherwise, about how the diseases were spread and what people did to stop them, and she is always fascinating and, yes, even funny.

If you’d like to read a slightly different perspective on western history, if you’re curious about different diseases of the past and the present and how people reacted to them (from the truly terrifying treatments for the Black Death to the compassionate treatment of the sufferers from St. Vitus’ dance), or if you’d just like a good read, check out Get Well Soon.  You won’t regret it.

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CLOSE TO HOME: THRILLERS AT THE FIELD LIBRARY

Sometimes the scariest things are the things closest to home, the things we encounter day by day and take for granted: the train we take to work, the troublesome sibling, your spouse and your relationship with him or her.  Some of these new thrillers at the Field Library build their thrills and scariness on those things we deal with on a regular basis.

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According to the statistics of the FBI, the most dangerous place for a woman in her 20’s is in a relationship with a man. In The Most Dangerous Place by James Grippando, that truism is about to be put to the test. Jack Swytek, the attorney protagonist of Grippando’s series, thinks he’s just meeting an old friend at the airport when his friend’s wife is arrested in front of the two of them, charged with conspiring to murder a man who raped her back in college. Of course Jack takes on Isabelle’s defense, for his friend’s sake as well as hers, but he soon discovers that the truth here is a lot more complicated than he thought it might be, and questions of guilt and innocence, victim and predator, revenge and self-defense, are nowhere near as clear as he hoped they would be in this twisty thriller.

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Dead Letters, by Caite Dolan-Leach, starts with a set of twins, alike in everything but the way they face the world. Ava, the protagonist, ran away from her family’s vineyard, her absent father, her mother sinking into dementia, her mercurial (to say the least) twin sister, and a romantic betrayal that broke her heart.  She started a whole new life in Paris, leaving upstate New York far behind, until she gets the news her twin sister, Zelda, died, burned to death in a fire.  Ava has to return to deal with the aftermath of Zelda’s death, which turns out not to be real at all, but another of the flamboyant Zelda’s games, a sort of hide and seek which forces Ava to think like her sister, follow her sister’s clues and wind her way into Zelda’s former life, and forces her to look again at their twisted history together and the things that drove her away in the first place.

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If you’re the type of person who lives by a routine, taking the same train to work every day at the same time, following a pretty predictable schedule, you might want to check out I See You by Clare Mackintosh.  Her protagonist, Zoe Walker, lives that kind of predictable life: she takes the same train every day, waits at the same place on the platform, takes the same seat in the car when she catches the train.  Then one night she’s disturbed to see her own picture in a classified ad in the local paper, with a phone number and a website, findtheone.com.  All right, that’s creepy enough, but as days go by and other women’s pictures appear in that ad, and those women become victims of terrible crimes including rape and murder, Zoe becomes more and more frightened, and when she finds out, with the help of a police officer, what the purpose of those ads is, it becomes clearer to her that someone who knows her well is setting her up for a terrible fate.  It could be the person sitting opposite her on the train every day, watching and waiting for his move. For anyone who’s ever felt a little paranoid about the people around you, this is just the book to convince you you’re not crazy after all.

NEW LOOKS AT THE BAD GUYS OF HISTORY, AT THE FIELD LIBRARY

Let’s just admit it: the good guys of history can be interesting enough, but the characters who really keep our interest, in historical fiction or actual history, are the villains, the bad guys, the people who lie and manipulate and affect history through their evil deeds.  I say this as someone with a degree in history: the horrible people are usually fascinating to read about.  Which is a good thing, because this week we have two new historical novels which are dedicated to some of the more infamous characters in western history.

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Starting in chronological order, we have the Roman Emperor Nero. He’s one of those people everybody has a vague knowledge of: the guy who fiddled while Rome burned, the one who threw the Christians to the lions, the man who had his own mother killed and also killed at least one of his wives, a true nephew of his uncle, the Emperor Caligula.  Of course there’s more to the story than that (as we fans of the books and television series I, Claudius know), and now Margaret George, an excellent historical novelist, brings us The Confessions of Young Nero, to fill in some of the blanks and correct, at least a little, the vague image of villainy the name Nero conjures up for most of us. As you can guess from the title, the book doesn’t follow Nero through his debauches and his bad behavior as emperor, but starts with Nero’s earliest childhood, and the forces that shaped him as a person, most especially his bizarre and twisted family.  In other circumstances, Nero might have been a cultured and even artistic person, a follower of Greek philosophy and literature, but since he was born into the Julio-Claudians, he never would have lasted if he’d given free rein to the better side of his nature. Between Caligula’s trying to drown Nero as a baby to Nero’s monstrous mother, Agrippina, scheming and poisoning her way to get Nero on the throne so she could rule through him, Nero learned the hard way that power is everything and whatever you have to do to get and keep that power is all right.  After reading this book, you probably won’t see Nero as a heroic figure, but at least you’ll have a better sense of where he came from and why he turned out the way he did.  And you’ll get to spend some time with some of the amazing and terrifying characters who populated the upper reaches of Imperial Rome.

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Moving much later in Italian history, we come to the Renaissance and the infamous Borgia family.  Sarah Dunant, another top-notch historical novelist, has written In the Name of the Family about this clan and the world they dominated, and if you enjoy intrigue and backstabbing and all the worst aspects of politics, you’re going to love the Borgias in this book. Rodrigo Borgia, now holding power as Pope Alexander VI, uses his illegitimate children as weapons to gain and keep power in Florence and beyond: Cesare, his son, could be the model for any number of super villains, with his arrogance, sadism, and the mercenary army he commands, and Lucrezia, the beautiful daughter who’s already been married off to create and cement alliances, and has already had one husband murdered by agents of her brother.  Add to this scheming family a young man who’s studying the ways of power, one Niccolo Machiavelli, who is especially interested in Cesare, and you have the makings of an explosive and thrilling look at one of the more fascinating periods of European history, with characters who are both larger than life and entirely based on real people.  Murder and manipulation, greed and ambition, conspiracy and betrayal: the stuff of a really exciting read.

VICTORIAN ERA CLASSICS — LET’S DISCUSS!

And now for something — not completely, but at least slightly — different.  

Are you, like me, a fan of Victorian novels?  Were you an English major in college?  Did you want to be? Do you collect book groups the way other people collect stamps or coins?  Does the prospect of reading some of the Victorian era classic novels and discussing them with a group of fascinating people, led by a college professor knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the books, strike you as a version of heaven?  Or at least as something worth trying out?

If so, you are so in luck.  Westchester Community College is having a Great Books Forum Series, held on the last Thursday of the months of March and April (they also had one on the last Thursday of February, but, regrettably, I didn’t find out about that in time).  The discussions take place at the Gateway Center, Room 131, on the Valhalla (main) campus of the college, from 6:00 to 8:15, they’re free and open to the public and no reservations are necessary.

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The next book up for discussion (which is, of course, available in the Westchester Library System) is Middlemarch by George Eliot, on March 30, 2017, and the last one in this semester’s series is a personal favorite of mine (and yes, I realize this says something about me), Thomas Hardy’s last novel, Jude the Obscure (which is available in the Field Library as well as other libraries in the system) on April 27.

I would be remiss if I didn’t make a real effort to bring this wonderful series to the attention of as many people as possible.  I’m certainly going to try to make it to the next two discussions, and I encourage anyone else who loves Victorian novels (the depth!  The length! The descriptions!  The intricate plots and acute social observation!) to come out as well.

 

THE HEAT IS ON: MYSTERIES SET IN THE SOUTHWEST AT THE FIELD LIBRARY

Yes, we’re confused about whether it’s winter or spring with the way the weather’s been the last few weeks, but if you’re ready and eager for the hot months to come, why not get yourself in the mood with some new mystery and suspense novels set in the hotter parts of the country?

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One of the classic setups for drama is the fish out of water story.  Think of things like Crocodile Dundee, or The Prince and the Pauper, or Witness (all right, I’m dating myself by my examples, but you can probably supply examples of your own), where a character is taken far away from his or her normal world and then has to adjust to a completely different culture and mores.  I won’t say it never fails, but when it’s done right, the setup can illuminate both the main character and his or her milieu. In the case of The Dime, a new mystery by Kathleen Kent, the protagonist is Betty Rhyzhk, a Brooklyn detective from a family of Brooklyn detectives, with all the New York attitude that goes with that background. Relocating to Dallas, Texas, is like moving to another planet, as far as she’s concerned, but move she does and she takes a job with the Dallas Police, where she is as exotic and out of place as a penguin in a desert. She has to cope with society wives, drug cartels, and cult leaders, and that’s just the beginning.  In the course of her first major investigation, Betty faces unruly subordinates, a persistent and disturbing stalker, an unsupportive girlfriend, and a major league criminal organization, testing her New York City smarts to their limit.

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Moving from Dallas to eastern Texas, Joe R. Lansdale’s new novel, Rusty Puppy, brings his series characters, Hap (self-proclaimed white trash and former hippie radical) and Leonard (black gay Vietnam veteran and Republican) into the middle of a murder investigation that rips open the racial divides of their small town.  Jamar Elton, a young black man, a straight A student ambitious for better things, is killed, supposedly by one of the local gangs. His mother, who hires Hap to investigate, doesn’t believe the official story, especially since Jamar never had any trouble with anyone until he started investigating the corrupt local police and especially one white officer who was harassing and stalking Jamar’s sister.  

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In the deserts of the Southwest and Mexico, Charlie Cates, the protagonist of The Shimmering Road, by Hester Young, must come to terms with her tangled and dark family history and the extent to which her family’s secrets led to the death of her mother and the half sister Charlie never even met.  While she’s pregnant, Charlie has prophetic dreams about harm coming to her unborn child, and visions of another child who speaks to her.  She finds out that the mother who abandoned her, and her mother’s other daughter, Jasmine, were murdered together in Arizona, leaving behind Jasmine’s daughter (Charlie’s niece), who’s the child Charlie’s been seeing in her visions.  Charlie heads to Arizona to help her orphaned niece, find out what actually happened, and what her niece really witnessed on the night of the murder.  She finds herself digging into her painful past and facing evil and the forces of nature itself to protect her niece and her unborn child, in the desert outside Tucson.

 

SHORT TAKES IN NEBULA LAND: THE NOVELLAS AT THE FIELD

In addition to the annual Nebula awards for best novel, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America also award Nebulas for best novella (defined as a work between 17,500 words and 40,000 words), and we have three of the nominees for best novella here at the Field Library as well, so if you’re interested in the best speculative fiction but aren’t ready to commit to a full length novel, give these nominees a look.

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Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire, starts with an intriguing premise: all those children from the books where children travel to magical worlds (think Narnia and Peter Pan and the like) eventually return to their own mundane world, but obviously they have been changed by their otherworldly experiences, and maybe they can’t deal with the normal world anymore.  There’s a place for them, Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, where there are no visitors, no solicitations, no guests, only other kids who have crossed over and crossed back, who understand what it’s like to lose your dream world, and how much you long to return.  When Nancy finds her way to Ms. West’s Home, she and the other children notice a change in the place, a new darkness, shadows behind the corners, and then tragedy strikes, and Nancy and the other inhabitants of the Home have to find out what happened, and why.  If you’ve ever wondered what Alice’s life was like after she returned from Wonderland, or how the Pevensie children dealt with life in England after Narnia, Every Heart a Doorway should give you an interesting insight.

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Victor Lavelle’s The Ballad of Black Tom is a different kind of dark fantasy novel, grounded in the realities of racism in America in the 1920’s and touching also on the weird stories of H. P. Lovecraft.  Black Tom is the nickname of Charles Thomas Tester, a young man living in Harlem in the 20’s who just wants to keep food on the table and a roof over his and his father’s heads.  He wants to keep out of trouble and out of the way of powerful white people, especially police officers, but when he delivers a strange book to a powerful and dangerous sorceress in the heart of Queens, he’s taken the first step down a path that leads to terrifying possibilities, involving the return of the sleeping gods from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, which could destroy reality.  Bringing Lovecraft’s nightmare world into closer contact with the dark and dangerous realities of life in the Jazz Age for African Americans is a brilliant concept, and Tom is an intriguing character to bring that world to life.

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Sometimes a really good book is a little more difficult to read than an average book. Kai Ashante Wilson’s Nebula nominee, A Taste of Honey, has a somewhat nonlinear structure that might be a little off-putting at first, and the world in which the story takes place is more based on Islam and Africa than on Christianity and Europe, not to mention the convoluted gender norms which are not like those of most fantasy books.  However, if you can look past these details, you’re in for a fantastic love story between two characters who are attracted to each other immediately and then have to fight their way to each other over obstacles of gods and intrigues, magic and science.  If you read his earlier work, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, you’ll be interested to take another trip in that world (albeit in a different period) and spend some time with his intriguing characters.