SCANNING A CENTURY: NEW HISTORICAL FICTION AT THE FIELD FOR SEPTEMBER

When it comes to historical fiction, there are so many different periods you can experience, and three new books that just arrived at The Field Library will give you diverse and fascinating views into the past.

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, by Sarah Bird, shows us an aspect of African American history we don’t often see. Based on a true story, it starts in pre-Civil War Missouri, where Cathy Williams has been taught by her mother to never see herself as a slave, but as a prisoner, the daughter of a daughter of a queen in Africa, a warrior who is destined by her blood to escape her captivity. With that attitude, she joins the service of Union General Philip Sheridan, and, by the end of the war, makes the momentous decision that she’s not going back to servitude.  She disguises herself as a man and joins the U.S. Army’s Buffalo Soldiers. She knows what would be likely to happen to her if her deception is discovered by her fellow soldiers, so in addition to the dangers that come with being a soldier in general, and fighting Native Americans on the frontier in particular, she has to navigate the dangers of keeping her gender a secret, and at the same time, she’s looking for her mother and sister, from whom she was separated when she left the farm in Missouri. Cathy is a real heroine, a woman who won’t let anyone get in the way of her doing what she needs to do, and if you’re in the mood for a wild ride through late 19th century American history, then you should check out Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen.

Moving ahead in time, The Glass Ocean, written by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White, turns on the fatal last voyage of the RMS Lusitania.  The book twines the life of a woman in the present day with the lives of two women who were on the Lusitania in 1915.  Sarah Blake opens a locked chest belonging to her great grandfather, who died in the German attack on the Lusitania, and discovers a secret that might change history.  She travels to England to meet up with a disgraced Member of Parliament whose family archives might have a clue that will clear up the mystery. Back in 1915, two very different women are traveling on the ill-fated Lusitania.  One, Caroline Hochstetter, took the voyage to try to re-spark her marriage with her industrialist husband, only to meet up with an old friend (the ancestor of the Member of Parliament Sarah is meeting with in the present time) who’s causing her to re-evaluate her whole life and decide whether to change everything.  The other woman, Tennessee Schaff, is masquerading as an English lady returning home; she’s a con woman pulling what her partner claims is one last scam before they can retire, but she feels there’s something wrong with this scam, and with her partner, something he’s not telling her. The three lives intertwine, with the tragedy of the Lusitania looming large over all their fates.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris, takes us into the darkest days of World War II. Lale Sokolov is a Slovakian Jew transported to Auschwitz.  When the Nazis discover he speaks numerous languages, they put him to work as a tattooist for all the incoming prisoners. Imprisoned there for two and a half years, Lale is witness to the worst of human behavior, and some of its brightest moments.  He figures out ways to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews to get food to keep others from starving to death, risking his own life (and his privileged position in the camp) to do so. He meets a fellow prisoner, Gita, and while he’s tattooing her number, he falls in love with her and determines that he’s going to survive and make sure she survives so they can escape the camp and marry.  Based on a true story, The Tattooist of Auschwitz gives us a different view into the horrors of the Holocaust, and the human will to survive and love even in the darkest times.

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STEAMPUNK SLEEPING BEAUTY: KISS OF THE SPINDLE

There are all kinds of different ways of retelling a fairy tale, from the almost slavish copying of each element (The Mermaid, by Carolyn Turgeon, is an example of that), to the versions that wander quite a distance from the original (see any of the stories in The Merry Spinster, by Mallory Ortberg, for examples of that, or the stories in Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado).  We have fairy tales transposed to the western genre (Six Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente), or turned into science fiction (The Snow Queen, by Joan Vinge, which won a Hugo and a Locus award).  With Kiss of the Spindle, by Nancy Campbell Allen, we now have a steampunk version of Sleeping Beauty (and yes, obviously this new book qualifies as a fairy tale for adults if you’re doing the Reading Challenge this year).

Our heroine is Doctor Isla Cooper, an accomplished woman whose job is to hunt down shapeshifters who have gone bad and attacked human beings.  She just has one little problem, a curse put on her by the witch, Malette, a year before, which causes her to fall into a deathlike sleep every night from midnight to six a.m.  At the end of the year, she’s not going to be able to wake up at all from that sleep. She needs to find the witch and get her to undo the spell, and time is running out.

The fastest way to get to the witch is by airship, and when Isla isn’t able to buy a ticket on any of the commercial ships, she resorts to blackmailing Daniel Pickett to let her on his private airship.  Once on the ship, she discovers that he’s transporting three illegal shapeshifters whom he is desperately trying to hide. But they’re not the only people on the ship:Nigel Crowe, a governmental official who wants to get rid of all shapeshifters and an old enemy of Isla’s is also traveling with them, and Daniel and Isla have to work hard to protect the shapeshifters from discovery as well as finding the witch and saving Isla from the curse. And of course (if you’re thinking about the original Sleeping Beauty and seeing Daniel in the role of the prince), Isla and Daniel find themselves attracted to each other as well.

If you want a different kind of adult fairy tale, or if you’re curious about the whole steampunk genre and want a good book to see what it’s like, check out Kiss of the Spindle.

 

THE MONSTERS IN THE HILLS: THE MERE WIFE

This has been a banner year for new envisionings of classic works.  Back in April we had Jo Nesbo’s version of Macbeth (see here for my take on that), and now we have a new version of Beowulf, in the form of Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife.  But don’t worry if you haven’t read the original (or if, like me, you read the original a LONG time ago).  You can read The Mere Wife with no knowledge of the old English saga and still be blown away by this version, though if you do have some dim memory of Beowulf, you can read the book with a slightly different eye.

While Beowulf was a poem about a monster attacking a king’s hall, and the hero who kills the monster and the monster’s mother (who comes to avenge the monster’s death), The Mere Wife is set in modern times (one of the main characters is a veteran of the Iraq war).  That doesn’t mean there aren’t monsters; in fact, there are probably more monsters in The Mere Wife than in Beowulf, though these ones, for the most part, appear human.

Dana Mills should be dead, and maybe she was: there’s a video of her execution by enemy soldiers which circulated at the time of her capture on You Tube and on television. Somehow she found herself alive and pregnant, with no idea how she survived the execution and no idea how she got pregnant or who the father might be, but she returns to her hometown, officially dead.  Her hometown is officially dead, too, remade into a gated suburban estate, much too upper crust for the likes of her and her baby, Gren. So Dana goes to live inside the mountain beside the estates, in abandoned tunnels from a forgotten train, and she tries to keep her son safe from the people below.

Willa Herot is one of the people in the estate, married to a plastic surgeon, scion of the family that created the estate in the first place.  She, too, has a son: Dylan, a blond, perfect little boy, possibly a bit spoiled but carefully protected nonetheless from anything in the outside world that might harm him. At first glance, Willa seems like an ordinary, even dull, suburban wife, going through the motions of living up to the standards set by the other women of the development, who are the real powers in the neighborhood.  And yet, even at the beginning of the book, when Willa comes across as almost a cliche, from time to time we see the violent thoughts Willa keeps to herself and it’s clear she has hidden depths, just like Dana.

Despite the best efforts of their mothers, eventually Gren and Dylan are going to meet, and their meeting sets up a confrontation between the old and the new, the rich and the working class, the past and the present, from which nobody comes out unscathed.

The characters are what makes this book.  Dana is obviously damaged by her war experiences, and frequently it’s hard to tell whether she’s hallucinating things (the saint with the blown out abdomen with a candle in it is probably an illusion, but what about the old woman riding beside her in a bus to Herot who tells her about her future?), and Willa develops, slowly but inexorably, from someone you might feel sorry for to a woman of steel, hard-edged with ambition and anger, emotionally as dangerous as Willa and as willing to do whatever she feels she has to do in order to protect her son from the monster, Gren.

We never actually see Gren, but there are hints about what he looks like, what kind of creature he might be (considering the circumstances of his conception, he might be anything, and this is the kind of book where monsters are definitely possible), and for most of the book you don’t know what he is, just how people react to him when they see him (and not all of the narrators are reliable, which makes it even more complicated).  Dylan doesn’t have any problem with Gren, but he’s just about the only resident of Herot Estates who sees Gren as a normal boy, a potential friend.

Still, the scariest characters are the chorus of women, who narrate some of the chapters in the first person plural. From early on, we see that Willa’s mother is scarily controlling and judgmental, but she fits in perfectly well with her peers, who prove to be the real powers that govern the estates and, by extension, the outside world as well.  If there are monsters roaming through this book, I’d nominate these women as the worst and scariest of them, cold-blooded and extremely dangerous.

This is a book I devoured in a day, putting everything else aside to find out what happened next. Even knowing (as I did, dimly) that things were not going to end well for most of the characters, I still cared about their fates and whether any kind of justice would be done. It’s a dark, violent book, but enthralling as an exploration of how our world works, and what limits there might be on the love of mothers for their children.

LIVES SHARED BY LETTERS: MEET ME AT THE MUSEUM

Sometimes you don’t want a thriller or a book that explores all the depths to which human beings can sink.  Sometimes, especially in dark periods, what you’re looking for is a book that makes you feel better about your fellow human beings, a book that’s not all action and plot but is about connections between people, a book you read slowly to savor.  If that’s where you are right now, may I suggest Meet Me at the Museum, a debut novel by Anne Youngson?

The book is old fashioned in a couple of ways (not bad ways, either).  For one thing, it’s an epistolary novel, told entirely in the form of letters between the two main characters (and real letters, not emails, either!).  While there have been other popular books written in this format (think of 84 Charing Cross Road, for instance), and while some of the first novels were epistolary in format (including the source for Dangerous Liaisons), it’s not a popular format these days, though it’s perfectly suited to the two main characters, their situations and their relationship.

Another way in which the book is old-fashioned is that it’s slow paced, as befits a book composed of letters back and forth between two people who start out as complete strangers and gradually become close.  It’s not usual these days for an author to trust readers to relax into a book and let things develop slowly, but often that’s the way relationships develop, and it’s more realistic than the “instant intimacy” (as a dear friend of mine once put it) that’s more popular nowadays.

The two main characters, finally, are kind of old-fashioned themselves, both in their 60’s and looking at their lives with an eye toward their past decisions and what remains of their futures.  Tina is a farmer’s wife in East Anglia, England, who’s just lost her closest friend to cancer. She and her friend had always talked about going to see the Tollund Man, a mummified corpse of a man preserved for thousands of years in a bog, and now on display in a museum in Denmark. But life got in the way, and they never made the trip.  Now, after her friend’s death, Tina writes to the professor she and her friend met as children, ostensibly talking about the Tollund Man, but really trying to figure out where her own life went. The professor she writes to has already died, so the letter is passed on to Anders, a professor and expert in the Iron Age peoples. He has his own disappointments and sorrows, including the recent death of his wife, and he writes back to Tina in a businesslike way, giving her facts about the museum and the mummy.  That should be the end of it, but Tina doesn’t take that formal letter as the end, and writes back to him, and he writes back to her, and gradually, over time, the tone of their letters changes, as the two people, who never meet in person, start sharing things they never would have said to anyone else face to face.

This is probably not going to be one of those hot books that everybody has to read, but it’s the kind of book that warms your heart and makes you think about choices and the meaning of ordinary lives, which could be just the thing you need to read right now.

THE FEATHER THIEF: SEPTEMBER FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP SELECTION

After our stimulating discussion of the issues raised by August’s book, My Brilliant Friend, some members of the Field Notes Book Group actually wanted us to read the next three books in the series (something we’ve never done before), but instead we decided to go the nonfiction route this month and read The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, by Kirk Wallace Johnson.  Copies will be available at The Field Library circulation desk within the week.

The Feather Thief is the kind of true crime story* you would hardly believe if it were presented as fiction.  Edwin Rist, a 20 year old American flute player, sneaked into the British Natural History Museum in the dead of night and stole a number of priceless specimens of rare birds, including birds of paradise, some of which were irreplaceable.  That would be odd enough by itself (how often have you read about someone stealing natural history specimens, which are usually stuffed?), but then we discover he wanted the birds’ feathers to use to make flies for fly fishing. There are, apparently, people who collect flies made from rare and exotic feathers, not necessarily to fish with them, but just to collect, and those people are willing to pay serious money for those flies.  And why did Rist want that money? It turns out that a high quality flute, the kind he would need as a concert flautist, is extremely expensive, and he figured this was the best way for him to acquire such a thing.

The book is nonfiction, but reads like an exciting novel.  Come and pick up a copy at the circulation desk, and then join us on September 15, in the Field Library Gallery, from 11:00 to 12:30, for invigorating discussion and coffee and snacks.

*Yes, the book counts as a true crime book for the purposes of our Reading Challenge, for those of us who are participating in the challenge (and if you’re not, you should be!).

NEW MURDERBOT = NEW REASONS TO REJOICE

Why do I love the Murderbot Diaries so much?  I really do, you know, to the point where I make it a point to order them for the collection whenever they come out, put them on hold for myself immediately (even before they’re published), and devour each of them in more or less one sitting (they are novellas and not long, but still, there aren’t many books I’ll throw myself into like that, long or short).  What is it about a series of books about a former security robot who’s more interested in watching movies and television shows than acting like a tough robot, who’s painfully awkward when it comes to dealing with humans, and who claims not to care about human beings but whose actions always seem to contradict those statements?

I bring this up now because I just finished reading Rogue Protocol, Martha Wells’ newest addition to the series, and I loved it. While I have publicly said that I don’t want to start an unfinished series, I’ll make an exception for this one, because I was delighted to see that Wells has left open the possibility (likelihood) of another sequel, while at the same time giving this book a proper resolution (this is not something that’s easy to do when you’re talking about a series of books; often the middle books leave the reader hanging so they’ll want to pick up the next book).

Once again we have the inimitable Murderbot on a mission of its own, trying to keep its status as a free bot secret from other bots and from human beings.  Ever since it disabled its governor, before the first book, Murderbot has not been forced to use the same rules of ordinary Security Units, rules which require the unit to sacrifice everything to protect the humans under its care, but somehow, even without being forced, and even while claiming it has no particular interest in protecting any humans, it still ends up taking actions that seem self-sacrificing and protective of the humans under its care. Contrary to the popular notion that a Security Unit without its governor would go berserk and start killing everyone in sight, Murderbot just wants to be left alone to watch movies and television shows by itself.

In the last book, Murderbot ended up helping a group of humans by pretending to be an augmented human being, but it justified its involvement because it was getting paid for it.  In this book, Murderbot is pretending to be a human being AND a security unit (it’s complicated), and it’s not even getting paid, but it did make a promise to Miki (which Murderbot contemptuously refers to as a “pet bot”) that it would keep the humans safe in exchange for being able to use Miki’s sensory apparatus, and so it justifies the heroic efforts it makes to protect this group of humans by this.

Aside from Murderbot’s evolving attitudes toward humans, or rather, its changing understanding of its attitudes toward humans, we also get to watch Murderbot’s attitude toward other robots, from the mindless transports to the ART which played such an important part in the last book, to Miki, whose childlike friendliness and innocence initially drives Murderbot crazy until Miki shows sides of itself (and of its humans) which surprise Murderbot (and this reader).

The plot is intricate but clear, with plenty of action, characters you find yourself caring about, and, of course,  the wonderful voice of Murderbot itself. May there be many more books in the series!

 

EDITED TO ADD: I’m not the only one who loves Murderbot.  The first book in the series, All Systems Red, just won a Hugo award as Best Novella!  So if my word isn’t good enough for you (and if it isn’t, why are you reading this??), you can at least take the word of the Hugo voters that Murderbot is a terrific series.

FAVORITE BOOKS FROM THE FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP

I’ve already written about the general rules I’ve used in choosing which books are good for a book group, based on my years of leading the Field Notes group here at the library.  Now I have the fun of sharing some of what I consider to be the best books we’ve read in the group. I am NOT saying that everybody in the group loved all these books; as I mentioned in the last book group post, you are never going to find a book that everybody loves, or even that everybody likes (by the same token, you’re unlikely to find one that everybody dislikes).  These are the ones I personally enjoyed most, which provoked some of the most interesting discussions among our people, and I hope they’ll give ideas to other book groups looking for good reads.

The first book I chose for the group is still one of my favorites, Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann.  This book won the National Book Award in 2009, and this is one instance where I feel the award was absolutely earned. The thread around which all the different stories in the book spin is the 1974 walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center by Philip Petit (though he’s not named here), but don’t for a minute think it’s all about his daring acrobatics.  No, this is a book about people, and it’s a book about New York City at a particular time, and McCann brilliantly brings both his characters and his setting to life, as the stories interweave and connect in unexpected ways. What could an Irish monk living among prostitutes have in common with an upper class woman who lost her son in Vietnam? What could both those characters have in common with a Bohemian young woman who’s involved in a hit and run accident that results in death?  Not all the storylines tear at your heart, but several of them do, and the deep sympathy McCann shows for all his characters, the skill with which he brings them together and then separates them, the clear love he has for New York City in all its flaws and dangers, makes this a magical book and a great spark for discussion.

Not all the books we’ve read are novels, and one of my favorites is a nonfiction book, H Is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald.  I’m not a fan of memoirs in general, and I think a memoir is a particularly difficult kind of book to pull off well, but MacDonald seemingly effortlessly combines a memoir of her grief over her father’s sudden death, her efforts to train a goshawk, Mabel (it’s a quirk that the most dangerous and fearsome raptors are often given the most non-threatening names — really, can you imagine being scared by someone named Mabel?), and a reflection on the life and work of T. H. White (author of one of my favorite childhood books, The Once and Future King, but also the author of The Goshawk, which is MacDonald’s focus here) into a seamless, beautifully written reflection on nature and grief and our role in the natural world.  There’s a lot about falconry, and a lot about her father’s life and death, but none of it seems excessive or unnecessary, and one of the things a good book group book can do is illuminate subjects you might not have paid attention to otherwise.

One of the books that surprised me was The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce. On the surface, it looked like the kind of feel-good book that would become a best-seller just because it’s about personal growth, a man discovering how to feel again, etc. And if you just read the description of the plot, that’s what it sounds like: Harold Fry is a middle-aged man stuck in a job that’s meaningless to him, in a marriage that has turned dull and possibly dead, when he finds out that Queenie Hennessey, a woman who once meant a great deal to him, is dying in a hospice hundreds of miles away.  Instead of mailing the note he wrote to her, he finds himself walking from his home to her hospice, calling the hospice along the way to tell her not to die until he gets there. It is a tale of transformation, but not at all the way you expect it to be, and Harold is not the only one transformed.  His road trip is really a pilgrimage, and he suffers not only the obvious strains of someone who hasn’t done any real exercise for years suddenly trying to walk the spine of England but the spiritual pains of facing his life and all the things he didn’t do that he should have done, for Queenie, but also for other people.  The ending is earned and unexpected at the same time, and it’s the characters who make the book wonderful. One thing I applaud the author for is the map she helpfully provided at the beginning of the book, for those of us who are not English and/or only have the vaguest idea of English geography, so we can keep track of where Harold is and where he’s going.  This was a poignant read, full of heart and soul.

And, speaking of soul, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal is an incredible read, its subtitle, Medicine and What Matters in the End a very accurate description of what the book is about.  Gawande is a surgeon, but also a terrific writer, vivid and clear, expert at choosing just the right anecdote to illustrate the points he’s making, and what points they are!  Basically he talks about aging and death, how we deal with them in our culture (spoiler: not well at all), how they are treated in other cultures, and how we might be able to do better, how some people and institutions are already doing better and what we could learn from them. He talks about his patients and his family (most poignantly about his father’s decline and death), and about his own experiences as a young doctor and a more experienced doctor who’s learned from his past mistakes.  It’s a short book, but there’s so much in it, not just information (though there’s plenty of that, and eye-opening information for the most part) but insights and ideas and questions.

One of the pleasures I’ve had as leader of the book group is the opportunity to push books that I love, and sometimes I’ve been able to persuade the group to read one of my personal favorites (which has its potential downsides; when I love a book, it’s hard for me to hear other people disparaging it, but that’s part of the job).  A book I have been recommending to people for years, which our group read just last year, is The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  What a fun book that is! Set in Barcelona in 1945, when the scars of the Spanish Civil War are still fresh and people are just beginning to recover from the war, the story centers around a book, or rather a series of books, and their mysterious author, and someone who is apparently trying to destroy all the copies of all the books this author ever wrote.  Our protagonist, Daniel, is a young man, the son of a bookseller, who has fallen in love with this particular author’s book and determines to find out who’s trying to eliminate the author’s work so completely. He is surrounded by a cast of amazing, vivid characters, villains and heroes and heroines, and his quest takes him through all levels of Barcelona’s society, through some wonderfully described settings, and through murder, madness and doomed love.  It is everything you could want from an adventure novel, and while I try not to be judgmental in general, I have to say that I would wonder about someone who could read this book and not enjoy it. Just getting the group to discuss the various characters will lead to a fun and scintillating discussion, before you even get into the plot and the history and the rest of the wonders of this book.

Obviously these aren’t all the good books we’ve read over the years, just the ones that stand out in my memory as having been great reads and having produced great discussions. Here’s to the years we’ve already spent reading and discussing (and sometimes arguing) about books, and the years and books ahead of us!

 

WHO ARE YOUR PARENTS, REALLY?

A couple of new mysteries/thrillers explore the question of what we really know about the people closest to us, the people who, for better or worse, shaped us: our parents.  In Allison Brennan’s new book, Abandoned, as well as in Caz Frear’s Sweet Little Lies, adult children are brought face to face with the lies and deceptions of their parents (a mother in one case, a father in the other), and have to use their professional skills to get to the bottom of the biggest mysteries of their pasts.

Maxine Revere, the protagonist of Abandoned, has built a career for herself as an author and the host of a true crime television show involving investigations of cold cases.  She’s very successful, but there’s one mystery that’s haunted her all her life: what happened to her mother, Martha, who dropped her off with her grandmother when Max was 9 and then never returned?  For six years, her mother would keep in sporadic touch, mostly with a postcard around Max’s birthday, but then she stopped the postcards, stopped taking her allowance from her trust fund, and disappeared off the face of the earth. Seven years later, she was officially declared dead, but no body was found, and Max never felt any real closure.  So when she finds information about a car her mother was using that was found, abandoned, shortly after all communications from her mother ceased, Max sets out to investigate, using all the skills she’s honed in her professional career. She knew her mother had been involved with one Jimmy Truman, a con man, and that Martha had been joining in his grifts and cons with great pleasure.  Could one of those cons have turned deadly? Max starts asking questions and digging into the records of this town in the Chesapeake Bay area where the car had been found, and where Jimmy Truman’s brother is still living. The brother is a man of substance, married with children and a good reputation, and he is not interested at all in digging up anything about his disreputable brother or his brother’s girlfriend.  The F.B.I., however, seems interested in this very old case, and Max joins forces with the FBI agent to find out what, exactly, happened to Martha and why.

Cat Kinsella, the London policewoman who’s the protagonist of Sweet Little Lies, is estranged from her father, who’s running a pub in London.  She starts investigating the murder of a young housewife who was strangled not far from her father’s pub, and is deeply disturbed to receive an anonymous message linking this murder to the disappearance of a young woman in Ireland 18 years before.  That particular disappearance has haunted Cat for years. She met the victim, Maryanne, with her family just before Maryanne’s disappearance, and even though her father swore he’d never met the girl or knew anything about the disappearance, Cat knew he was lying at the time. Charming and dissolute, her father was not a man to be trusted, and Cat learned that when she was quite young.  But there’s a big difference between being a liar and a philanderer and being a murderer, and now that the old case has been brought back to her attention, Cat feels she has to find out, once and for all, whether her father might have murdered Maryanne, and might have murdered this victim as well. Digging into the past is always a dangerous endeavor, especially when you have some reason to suspect you’re going to find a buried crime in your digging, but it’s worse when you’re a police officer.  Cat throws ethics and rules to the wind in her eagerness, her desperation, to discover what really happened in both these cases, though she may not be happy with what she ends up discovering.

 

A COZY BROMANCE MYSTERY THAT GOES ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP

If you are a person who dislikes President Obama, then you can stop reading right here, because Hope Never Dies, a parody mystery by Andrew Shaffer, the author of the Fifty Shades of Grey parody, Fifty Shames of Earl Grey, could be described in one sentence as President Obama and Vice President Biden solve a mystery together.  If, however, the cover of the book makes you giggle, and if you’ve been enjoying the various internet memes with the two of them, then you should definitely put this one on hold (it’s very popular at this moment) and settle in for a fun read.

The premise is straightforward.  Joe Biden is feeling old and boring after the end of the administration, especially when he sees Barack Obama skiing and hobnobbing with famous people and leaving him out of all the fun.  But then he discovers that one of his favorite Amtrak conductors has just died in suspicious circumstances, leaving behind a widow and children. Biden doesn’t believe it was just an accident, and neither does Obama, who joins with Biden to investigate what really happened and whether the conductor was the real target or the accident was meant for someone else, someone higher up.

With a solid mystery and the Obama-Biden bromance that has ignited so many internet memes, Hope Never Dies is a lighthearted romp that’s just the thing to read if reading or listening to the news is too depressing.

BOOK CLUB BOOKS, PART 1

Let’s talk about book group books.  I’ve been leading the Field Notes Book Group for some years now, and I’d like to share some of my thoughts about the things you need for a good book group discussion.

You want books that people are going to want to read.  Obviously if you choose a book and most of the people in the group don’t want to read it, or are unable or unwilling to read the whole thing, you’re going to have trouble coming up with a good discussion of the book.  Sometimes a book that’s too long is a problem (though we solved that problem once by choosing a long book, Shantaram, in June and reading it over the summer, meeting in September to discuss it; clearly that’s not always an option, of course).  Sometimes a book is too dense, especially if it’s a nonfiction book, or sometimes the language of the book is too difficult for people to get into (to my surprise, that was a problem with Persuasion; the old-fashioned language Jane Austen uses wasn’t a barrier for me, but it was for a number of the readers).  

They don’t have to be books everybody’s going to like.  This is important, because you are NOT going to find books that everybody likes, not if you have a lively group (and that’s the goal, isn’t it?).  Some of the best discussions we’ve had were about books that at least some people disliked, and disliked vehemently (we even had one discussion where just about everybody in the group disliked the book, and that was a fun meeting).  What you don’t want are books that people are lukewarm about, because there’s nothing much to say about those books once you’ve said “Yeah, it was okay, I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it.”

They should be books at least some people in the group are really going to like.  You can have a meeting where everybody hates the book and everybody feels so strongly they want to explain exactly what they hated about the book (it’s better if they hate different things about the book), but unless that’s the kind of energy you want to deal with at every meeting, you’ll do better if those meetings are few and far between.

The book should have something worth discussing, beyond just the characters and the plot. Yes, these are good places to start.  A book where you dislike or disbelieve every character is not going to be one you enjoy reading, and I personally have little patience for novels which don’t have some semblance of a plot.  But if you want to have a discussion that’s longer than a few minutes, picking a book that’s all about the “twisty” plot isn’t going to work; once the people in the group have finished arguing about whether that twist made sense or whether they were or weren’t surprised by it, there’s not a lot more to say. A book that’s set in a place or time people weren’t familiar with before reading it can lead to great discussions; a book that turns on issues people in the group didn’t know about can be a revelation.  

On the other hand, it’s not a good idea to choose something controversial just for the sake of being edgy, unless you have the kind of group where most of the people have no problem reading in your face kind of books. This includes books where there’s a lot of cursing, or a lot of sex, or a lot of violence (so, no Jo Nesbo for my book group!), if you know some members of your group are going to be turned off by those things. Trust me, you will not be limited to children’s books or the blandest of novels if you’re being careful about language or violence, and your group will be long lasting if you’re not deliberately choosing books that will offend some of the members.

Along the same lines, when the group is selecting a book, if there’s a topic that is genuinely offensive to one member of the group, even if the rest of the group might want to read it, it’s respectful of the feelings of that member to take the book out of consideration for selection.  This came up once in our group: among the books I had suggested for the next month was Quicksand, a novel about a school shooting. It turned out to be a fascinating psychological study of a young woman who was being charged with murder in connection with the shooting, but two people in the group said they absolutely did not want to read anything involving a school shooting, so that was that. Could we have had an exciting and deep discussion of the issues in that book?  Sure. Would it have been appropriate if the book were triggering or unduly upsetting to one of the members? No.

The book you choose doesn’t have to be something you yourself have already read, either. Sometimes that makes it easier to sell a book to the group if it’s one I’m enthusiastic about and know is a great read because I’ve already read it (maybe multiple times), but a book group is about exploration and discovery, for the leader as well as for the members. Sometimes you just have to take a chance on something you haven’t read yet, putting yourself in the same position as the rest of the group. If nothing else, choosing a book you haven’t read means you don’t feel you have to justify the book to everybody else if it turns out other people aren’t as enthusiastic as you are about it.

It’s up to the people in the group whether you want to do nonfiction as well as fiction, or whether you want to limit yourselves to a particular category of books.  Some of the best books we’ve read in the group have been nonfiction (the question of which books I think have been the best will have to wait for another post), though not all the nonfiction books have been winners. If you’re going to read nonfiction, I think you have to be careful about finding books that will appeal to the whole group, books that aren’t too technical but at the same time aren’t too superficial, which can be more difficult than choosing novels for a group.

Finally, while you can use online listings of “the best books” of the year, or the “best nonfiction” or the like, I recommend that you don’t just rely on those lists, unless you’re very familiar with the reviewers and have a sense of what they think is good or not.  The one book I mentioned that just about everybody in the group hated was one chosen from a group of the “best books of the year,” which made all of us wonder about what the criteria were for calling something the “best.”

Still to come: my choices for the best books we’ve read so far in book group.  Stay tuned!