WOMEN’S SIDE OF AMERICAN HISTORY

There’s nothing like a good historical novel to open your eyes and give you new insight into an era or a place you thought you knew, and there are two new historical novels this month which bring into focus fascinating characters and periods of the past, from a female perspective.

The first, chronologically at least, is Carnegie’s Maid, by Marie Benedict (who also wrote The Other Einstein).  Starting in the 1860’s in Pittsburgh, the book follows the life and times of Clara Kelley, a young Irish immigrant who finds herself working for the famous Andrew Carnegie and his family. Clara comes from a poor farming family in Ireland, with nowhere to go and nothing to her name when she decides, out of desperation, to impersonate the experienced Irish maid who disappeared after being hired to work at the Carnegie house.  It would be hard enough for Clara to work as a maid anywhere, since she has no skills or experience, but her ruse is made much more complicated by the demanding lady of the house, who rules the place with an iron fist and has no tolerance for error.  However, Clara is tough and desperate (a dangerous combination) and keeps her head, working her way into the affections of the patriarch of the household, Andrew Carnegie himself. It’s not that she’s trying to worm her way into his bed, but first her business instincts and then her personality win him over. Clara, however, never forgets that she’s a fraud, and that if anyone in this household were to find out who she really is, it would mean disaster for herself and for her family back home. Her disappearance spurs Carnegie to look at the world differently, and to see that there’s more than just the making of money for its own sake.  A vivid look at a vanished world and the development of a ruthless industrialist (look up the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 if you want to see how ruthless he could be) into a great philanthropist.

And if the Gilded Age isn’t your thing (though it should be — it’s a fascinating period of American history), how about a trip through the earliest days of movie making in Hollywood?  The Girls in the Picture, by Melanie Benjamin, brings to life the silent movie era, focusing on one of the earliest and most brilliant stars of the medium, Mary Pickford (known as “America’s Sweetheart”), and Frances Marion, a screenwriter who seized on the potential for “flickers” to become something huge and wonderful.  The two women were good friends, both working in the same industry, both ambitious and hardworking, and both running up against all the limitations that industry, and the society around it, placed on women in the teens and 1920’s. All the larger than life figures of the world of movies make their appearances in the book: from Douglas Fairbanks, who was romantically entangled with Mary, to Charlie Chaplin, to Rudolph Valentino and Lillian Gish and Louis B. Mayer.  It was a wild time and Mary and Frances reached the heights women could achieve, though not without heartbreak and trials.  If you’re a fan of silent movies or the 1920’s, check out The Girls in the Picture.

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KITTY MATCHMAKING: TALK TO THE PAW

Every so often you just need a feel good book. Nothing deep, nothing profound, the equivalent of a Friday Night Movie where you don’t have to think a lot but can just relax and enjoy what you’re watching or reading.  If you’re ready for a feel good book, or if you’re a cat person (we already have established that I’m a cat person, of course), let me recommend Talk to the Paw, by Melinda Metz.

It starts with Jamie, a cat lady who only has one cat, MacGuyver.  Jamie has had it with the whole dating scene; she’s tired of dealing with men who don’t want to commit, men who are totally full of themselves, and men who forget to mention that they’re married. She’s ready to focus her attention on MacGuyver, who’s a charming cat who also happens to have the bad habit of wandering around in the neighborhood and stealing things from other people’s yards and the like.

MacGuyver has ideas of his own, and doesn’t want his human to be lonely, especially when he recognizes that another human in the neighborhood, a male human, seems also to be lonely and in need of companionship.  MacGuyver steals something from David and stashes it at Jamie’s house, and then does the reverse, and as the two people are brought together to try to find their missing items, they begin to discover other things they have in common.

A cat as a matchmaker?  A cute cat who does matchmaking by stealing things and hiding them? Yes, this is a feel good book, and yes, there is a happy ending, and if you’re in need of some feline charm and a happy ending, come and take out Talk to the Paw.

OUR DIGITAL FOUNDING FATHERS

Of course we all know there was no internet during the time of the American Revolution. Nobody had computers then, let alone the connectedness we take for granted these days. The whole world was very different then.

And yet, what would have happened if there HAD been an internet two hundred years earlier? What would have happened to the American Revolution if our Founding Fathers had the use of social media and email and all the electronic paraphernalia of our modern age?

That’s the premise of a new and EXTREMELY quirky novel, Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America: a Novel of the Digital Revolution, by Damien Lincoln Ober.  In 1777, colonial America is fully digitized. There’s the internet, there’s social media, there are all the kinds of connections we use in the 21st century. Everything is going well until a secret Congressional committee uploads a draft Articles of Confederation to the cloud. Suddenly an internet plague breaks out and anyone who uses a networked device is killed. Three quarters of the population is dead, the internet is abandoned, and the British take advantage of the chaos to move in on New York and Philadelphia, apparently destroying the rebellion.

George Washington then emerges from off the grid and delivers a crushing and surprising blow to the British at Yorktown, winning American independence.  However, with the internet dead and the countryside in ruins, the new nation teeters on the edge of utter collapse. A secret group of the Founding Fathers get together to create a new operating system, immune to errors and internet plagues, designed to stabilize the cloud and ensure American prosperity.

Thomas Jefferson and his coterie of rebels sees the new operating system as a betrayal of the American Revolution, and sets out to fight the overreach of Washington’s Federalists.  Jefferson’s secret weapon is Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America, an open-source portal that will bring real democracy (rather than the representative kind) to the people and make Congress and the President utterly irrelevant.

How can you not be curious about this alternate history?  Just the thought of Benjamin Franklin messing around with the internet is enough to intrigue me, not to mention what other bizarre twists there might be to our commonly held ideas about how we won the war and what happened thereafter. For a wild ride through alternate history, check out Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America.

FEBRUARY BOOK GROUP BOOK: NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE

After a lively and interesting discussion about My Name is Lucy Barton this past Saturday, the Field Notes Book Group chose its next book for February 17, and it’s an excellent, heartbreaking and insightful nonfiction book, part memoir, part history: No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America by Ron Powers.

I’ve already written about this book (here), and I will warn you that it’s a sad and in some ways an infuriating book, sad in the true story of the author’s two schizophrenic sons and the effects of their mental illnesses (and the treatment of their illnesses) on their (and their parents’) lives, and infuriating in the depiction of how damaged our mental health system is and how it got to be that way. It’s a terrific read and will, I’m sure, lead to deep and fascinating discussions at our next meeting.

The books will be available at the Circulation Desk of the Field Library starting this week. Come in and get your copy, and then join us on Saturday, February 17, from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Field Library Gallery for coffee, goodies and rousing conversations about this enthralling book.

 

LEAPING THROUGH THE CENTURIES: THE OUTCASTS OF TIME

As you know from reading my past posts (and if you’ve ever talked to me at the Circulation Desk), I’m a big fan of time travel books.  And, while there are all kinds of interesting things that can occur in a book about time travel, I have to admit that there are a few tropes that most of the books have in common: someone goes back in time, through mechanical or other means, meets with historical figures (famous or not), and either tries to change the past or tries NOT to change the past.   Every now and then, though, a time travel book comes along that ignores all those conventions and makes its own rules.  Such a book is Ian Mortimer’s The Outcasts of Time, which just came out this month.

The premise is unique: in Great Britain in 1348, the Black Death is ravaging the country. Two brothers, John and William, are suffering from the Plague and know they’re about to die.  In fact, they have exactly six days to live when they are given a wonderful if dangerous choice: either they can go home and spend their last days waiting to die in their own time, OR they can spread out those last six days, living each one 99 years after the last one, hoping to find a cure before their last day ends.

Now, wouldn’t you want to read this book just on that description alone?  Aren’t you thinking about whether you would take that deal or not?  Consider: each day would take you farther and farther into the future, nearly a century at a time, so you would have more and more trouble understanding what’s going on, what people are doing and saying (consider how much language changes over the centuries), how to navigate the world.  And at the same time, consider how much medicine, for instance, has changed over the centuries, and what the odds are that something that might have been deadly and incurable in your time might well turn into something easily treated a few hundred years from now.

Of course the brothers take the jumping-through-time option, and their experiences as they jump farther and farther into the future are revelations to them, even as they find it more and more difficult just to understand what is happening around them.  Their basic assumptions about life and the universe are irrevocably challenged, and they become more and more outcast in the worlds in which they find themselves. The bigger question for them personally, though, is whether they will in fact find a cure before their last day runs out.

Whether or not you’re a fan of time travel books (and by the way, this would count as a time travel book for the Field Library Reading Challenge), the notion of seeing different eras through the eyes of people from an earlier time is intriguing, and the literal race against time in Outcasts of Time should make for a fascinating read.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S INTRIGUE: FOOLS AND MORTALS

Bernard Cornwell is a well-known and well-respected author of historical fiction.  He specializes in English history, and has written series covering the Napoleonic Wars (the Sharpe series), the Arthurian legend (the Warlord Chronicles), the 14th century (the Grail Quest), and, most recently, the making of England from a group of warring countries (the Last Kingdom series).  Now he’s turned his keen eye and brilliant research skills to a different, but no less interesting period: Tudor England, and more specifically, the world of William Shakespeare, in his new book, Fools and Mortals.

While I have no doubt Cornwell could, if he wanted, make William Shakespeare himself the narrator and main character of a novel, he’s chosen instead to focus this book around Shakespeare’s younger brother, Richard, instead. Shakespeare did in fact have a younger brother named Richard, but as is often the case with people in this era, not much is known about his life, which gives Cornwell plenty of latitude to create the man’s life to suit his purposes.

This Richard Shakespeare, like his more famous older brother, is living in London and working in the theater.  He’s handsome (one of the things he chooses to emphasize to distinguish himself from William), and so far in his career he’s been playing female roles. He wants to move up in the world and start playing men, but William is not being very helpful, for a variety of reasons.

If the book were just about Richard’s travails in the brutal world of Elizabethan theater, it would probably be entertaining, but there’s more going on: a priceless manuscript written by William has gone missing, probably stolen, and suspicion falls on Richard as the possible culprit. To clear his name, he needs to find the manuscript and the real thief.  But this is, of course, easier said than done, and all Richard’s skills, both legitimate and less legitimate, are going to be necessary as he navigates the world of betrayals and duplicity of the theater and of London itself, and at the same time the world premiere of William’s most famous comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is in the works.

Cornwell writes the best kind of historical fiction: well-plotted, with realistic characters and so strong a sense of place and time that you feel you’re actually there.  If you have any interest in Shakespeare or Tudor England or just want to immerse yourself in another world and time, check out Fools and Mortals.

BENEATH A SUGAR SKY: MAKING SURE YOU’RE BORN

It shouldn’t be a secret that I love Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas; I’ve already written about the earlier books in the series.  I’m not alone in my love for these books, either: she won the Hugo and the Nebula for the first one, Every Heart a Doorway, and, while I didn’t read all the nominees in her categories, I can’t say she didn’t deserve to win.  

So naturally, when the latest book in the series, Beneath the Sugar Sky, came out this week, I had to read it immediately, and I’m delighted to report that it is every bit as good as the previous two.

The premise of the series is intriguing enough by itself.  So many children walk through doors or fall through rabbit holes or walk through wardrobes and find themselves in other worlds in literature, and many of them return to this world (though some don’t).  What happens to the returnees who can’t readjust to their former lives?  How hard would it be to turn back into an ordinary teenager when you’ve been a Goblin Prince, or a mermaid, or a Queen of Narnia?  So there’s a special place for children who’ve returned reluctantly to this world and who are hoping to find their way back to the worlds where they belong: Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.  There they are believed (something they don’t experience in the real world), taken seriously, and given the opportunity to seek out the gates or doors or other ways back to the worlds they found in the past.  

Do you have to read the books in order?  No. I didn’t. I read the second book, Down Among the Sticks and Bones before I read Every Heart a Doorway, and I had no problems following the plot or understanding the characters.  Nor do I think I would have had trouble understanding what was going on in this book if I hadn’t read the others. That said, if i’d read them in order, i would have appreciated some of the nuances of Down Among the Sticks and Bones better, so your mileage may vary.  Whichever one you start with, you’re almost certainly going to want to read the others anyway, so why not start at the beginning?

When Rini falls out of the sky and splashes into the pond at the school, her clothes melting in the water, that’s not too unusual for this school.  When she demands to see her mother, Sumi, that turns out to be a bit more of a problem, since Sumi is dead.  Worse, Sumi died here, at the school, before she ever got a chance to return to her world, get married and have a baby.  Even in the nonsense world of Confection, from which Rini came, you can’t actually exist if your mother died before you were born, and Rini is already starting to disappear, piece by piece, so her quest to get her mother back is quite urgent (her slow disappearance is much creepier than that of the main character in Back to the Future, if you’re thinking in those terms).

Fortunately for her, there are several students who are willing to help her: Christopher, who came from a world of the dead and who has the ability to pipe skeletons out of their graves, Kade, the assistant to Eleanor West and future head of the school, Nadya, an exile from an underwater world, and Cora, our protagonist, fat and unloved in this world but a mermaid and heroine in the world she’s trying to find.  Together they journey through graveyards and another world of the dead (where a character from Every Heart a Doorway managed to return), and finally to Confection itself, there to face the evil Queen of Cakes who was defeated by Sumi in the timeline where Sumi lived to return to Confection, but who is now taking over the world and reshaping it in her own image.  

One of the things Seanan McGuire does really well is worldbuilding; even though we don’t spend a lot of time in the World of the Dead, it’s vivid and real and entirely different from Confection, where we do spend a lot of time.  And Confection is both entirely logical, within its own nonsensical rules, and genuinely bizarre: seas of strawberry soda, cornfields of candy corn, buildings made of gingerbread, everything edible and everything made of sugar in one form or another, including some of the people.  The Queen of Cakes is truly disturbing and a worthy foe for Rini and the others.

You care about the characters and genuinely want to see them succeed.  Whenever someone finds his or her way back to the world he or she longs for, it’s emotionally satisfying.  Even if you’re not a fan of fantasy, give Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children a try, and I think you’ll be caught up in the world.  Or should I say worlds?

A WOMAN’S PLACE: A FEMALE SOLICITOR IN 1920’S BOMBAY

Sometimes what the mystery genre needs is a completely new slant to illuminate the things that are best and most fun about the genre. Mysteries have their tropes, the usual settings, the usual issues, the usual cast of shady characters, and after you’ve read a certain number of Sherlock Holmes imitations, or Dashiell Hammett imitators, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s all the same stuff.  Even the addition of women to the ranks of detectives, which has brought us the late Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone or Sara Paretsky’s V. I Warshawski, has led to more versions of the same or similar characters and situations.  Sometimes you just need to move the whole ball of wax to a different place and a different time to see things anew.

Enter The Widows of Malabar Hill, a new book by Sujata Massey. The story is set in 1920’s Bombay, India, and the protagonist, Perveen Mistry, is one of the first female attorneys in the whole country.  Admit it, you’re already kind of intrigued about the setting and the character, and the mystery she finds herself investigating isn’t the usual American murder story transferred to India, but a problem arising uniquely out of Perveen’s character and the setting she finds herself in.

Perveen is a Zoroastrian young woman, daughter of a respected attorney, who got her legal training in Oxford, England, and is now working in her father’s law firm, trying to prove herself. Because she’s a female solicitor, she’s only going to get paperwork, the kind of behind the scenes material that won’t attract much outside attention.

The firm is given the last will and testament of a prominent Muslim mill owner with three widows to probate, and Perveen notices some oddities about the widows’ situation.  All three of them have signed over their entire inheritances to the same charity, leaving them nothing to live on.  One of the widows signed with an x, indicating that she wasn’t even able to read or write her own name, and maybe not understand what exactly she was signing away.

Because these widows live in strict purdah, few outsiders are going to be able to investigate and figure out what might have happened and whether they are being taken advantage of. The women remain inside the zenana, women’s quarters, with their children, and do not have any contact with men who are not part of the household.  Here Perveen has an advantage over the men in her firm, and over the police: being a woman herself, she can enter the household and talk to the women and try to figure out what’s really going on.  She has another advantage as well, one not so obvious: Perveen has had her own encounters with the sexism of the Indian marriage system and as a result, she’s well aware of how women can be silenced, and determined to protect other women from the kind of abuse she is well aware is possible and even probable. The suspicious death of a man who’s the guardian of one of the widows, and the disappearance of a child, only make Perveen more devoted to finding justice, no matter what danger she might be putting herself into in the process.

Join Perveen in the multicultural, vividly rendered world of 1920’s Bombay, and settle in for the beginning of a new and different mystery series.

 

RETURNING TO YOUR ROOTS: WILD THINGS

Is there some unwritten law in publishing that all nonfiction books have to have subtitles, as if the ordinary title isn’t enough? It certainly seems to be a trend, and while sometimes the subtitle gives you a better clue about the contents of the book than you would have had from the title itself, sometimes the subtitle can be a little misleading.  Case in point: Wild Things : The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, by Bruce Handy.  It is an excellent book and an entertaining read, but it wasn’t exactly what I expected from the subtitle.

Consider it yourself.  Wouldn’t you think a book with that subtitle would talk about how as an adult rereading children’s books you see different things in them, things too subtle or too adult for you to have picked up when you were young? That’s not really what happens in this book, though.  For the most part, the author chooses a children’s book or series per chapter (sometimes he’ll put a couple together if they’re thematically linked), talks about the book, and then gives an often entertaining and enlightening history of the writer and the publication of the book in the first place.  Occasionally, very occasionally, he’ll talk about how his children reacted to the book when he read it to them and how their reactions differed from his when he experienced the book as a child, but that’s not the focus of the book.  So if you’re looking for a more personal experience of encountering children’s books as an adult, this is not the book you’re looking for.

However, it is a fun book to read, especially if you enjoy and are familiar with the classics of children’s literature.  You don’t have to agree with the author on all his evaluations of the books; I personally cannot understand how anyone couldn’t love Where the Wild Things Are, a book I not only read as a child and read to my child when she was young but also used to take with me when I babysat as a teenager, and, unlike Handy, I found Anne of Green Gables to be delightful and fun.  

That doesn’t matter, though. You can disagree with the weight he gives to different books, but you will still enjoy his enthusiasm for the books he likes, and the fascinating details he unearths about the authors (especially the lesser known ones, like Margaret Wise Brown, of Goodnight Moon fame.  Who would have guessed she was such a bohemian kind of flake, the kind of woman who would blow her whole first advance from one of her books on a room full of flowers?). He raises, but doesn’t always answer, some interesting questions about the books, too. For instance, why are the boys who are heroes of the classic boy books (Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and of course Peter Pan) allowed to remain boys throughout the books, while the girls in the classic girl books (the March girls in Little Women, Laura in the Little House series, Anne in the Anne of Green Gables books) have to grow up and get married and become adults?  

It’s a pleasure to be reintroduced to some of your favorite children’s books in the company of such a knowledgeable enthusiast, even when you disagree with him on the value of some of those books.  If you haven’t read all the books he writes about (I haven’t, I admit it), then he provides a good introduction and makes you want to read them for the first time, and he gives you a good excuse to dig up your old copies of your favorites and reread them in the light of his insights and his judgments.