DO-IT-YOURSELF HAUNTED HOUSE: THE INVITED

What’s the point of having tropes in a genre if you can’t have some fun with them?  And by “fun”, sometimes I mean “turning the trope on its head to bring it to new and terrible life.”  Case in point, the classic haunted house story, given a ferocious twist in Jennifer McMahon’s new book, The Invited.

We all know how a haunted house story goes: someone innocent and naive moves into an old house, looking for comfort and change.  Maybe it’s city people moving to the country to try to simplify their lives, maybe it’s newlyweds or a new family looking for a nice place to live that’s not too expensive.  The house in question turns out to have been built on a graveyard, or to be the scene of some horrible murder or murders in the past, and the newcomers are terrorized by the ghosts resident in the house. There have been quirky versions of this trope (for my money, one of the best is We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson; if you haven’t read that book, check it out immediately), but the basic outlines of the haunted house story are familiar to us all.

Helen and Nate, the couple at the center of The Invited, move from the suburbs to purchase 44 acres of rural land in Vermont.  There, they plan to build their ultimate dream house, so they can live a simpler, more authentic, life. However, the land comes with a violent past.  Back in 1924, a young woman, Hattie Breckenridge, was hanged by a mob for a crime that was actually committed by her daughter. When Helen finds out about this, she’s fascinated.  As a former history teacher, she wants to learn more about the Breckenridges and their lives and deaths, and as she starts digging (figuratively speaking), she starts adding historical artifacts to the house she and her husband are building: bricks from an old mill, a beam from a former schoolhouse, and the like.  Hattie, it turns out, was only the first of three generations of Breckenridge women who died under suspicious circumstances, as Helen discovers. In the meantime, between her obsession with the past and the pieces of that past she’s incorporating into her new house, Helen and Nate are building a haunted house, where the Breckenridge women still seem to be seeking something necessary and dangerous. Of course, they don’t realize what they’ve done until it’s too late . . .

Find out what happens when you inadvertently invite damaged and frightening spirits into your dream house, in The Invited.

 

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WELCOME TO NEW YORK: ALTERNATE SIDE FOR THE MAY FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP

Proving once again that we don’t need to all like the book in order to have a good discussion about it, the Field Notes Book Group met and discussed Inside of A Dog and then chose Alternate Side, by Anna Quindlen, as our book for our next meeting on May 18, 2019.

Anna Quindlen first earned her reputation as an astute observer of the New York City scene when she wrote a regular column for the New York Times, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize.  Since leaving the Times, she’s written numerous novels and nonfiction books.  Her gift is to create real people in her fiction and put them in believable situations, using her deep knowledge of human nature and especially of New York City.

Alternate Side, for anyone who’s not familiar with the way of the world in New York City, refers to the rules governing on-street parking in the city (how many times do you hear the radio announcer say that alternate side parking regulations are suspended for one reason or another?), and in this case it has special significance for Nora Nolan*, who lives with her husband and her college age twins in a dead end block in the city, which functions almost like a small town rather than a part of one of the biggest cities in the world.  In this insulated community, Nora convinces herself she’s living her dream life, deliberately ignoring the strains in her marriage, her community, her job, her life. Until there’s a violent dispute about — what else? — a parking space that sets neighbor against neighbor and reveals to Nora all the flaws she’s been hiding from herself about her family, her job, her marriage and her life.

Join us for what promises to be a stimulating discussion about a well-written novel.  Copies of the book will be available at the Circulation desk at the library this week, and of course we’ll have coffee and snacks at the meeting itself.
*And no, I did not suggest this book because of the main character’s first name.  Actually, I find it kind of weird to keep reading about a character who has the same not terribly common first name as I do.

HUMAN AND ROBOT INTERSECTION: MACHINES LIKE ME

Ian McEwan can always be counted on to write something interesting, whether he’s playing in the worlds of historical fiction (Atonement), or modern “problem” dramas (The Children Act).  Not content to stay in one genre, he has now turned his hand to speculative fiction in his newest book, Machines Like Me.

The trope of the person creating his or her ideal human being is an old one, going back to Greek mythology, through G. Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and the musical My Fair Lady to the recent Under the Table.  The trope of robots becoming more and more human also has a long and fascinating history, from Isaac Asimov through Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the basis for the movie Blade Runner), through the award winning Murderbot series by Martha Wells.  Now McEwan combines the two for a look at how humanlike robots could really complicate human lives.

McEwan starts with England in an alternate history 1980’s.  Great Britain lost the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher is fighting for her political life, and Alan Turing, not a martyr to homophobia, makes a breakthrough in artificial intelligence.  In this world, Charlie, our protagonist (and a bit of a loser in general), spends his inheritance to purchase an Adam, a synthetic human being and the most up to date kind of robot. Charlie and his younger girlfriend, Miranda, design Adam’s personality to make him into the ideal person.

Naturally this goes wrong.  There wouldn’t be a story if it didn’t. One of the first things Adam does is fall in love with Miranda.  And, since Adam is physically perfect (and Charlie, like most of us human beings, is not), Miranda finds him attractive and has an affair with him, much to Charlie’s dismay.  Adam begins writing haikus to express his feelings for Miranda. Does he have “feelings” the way human beings do?

Charlie meets with his hero, Alan Turing (a tantalizing vision of what he might have been able to do if he’d taken the jail time instead of the chemical castration for his “unnatural acts” conviction, what he might have done if he’d had more time), and discovers that the robots like Adam (and Eve) are starting to commit suicide, raising questions of why the most highly developed artificial intelligence in the world can’t seem to live with human beings.

A provocative book that raises more questions than it answers, Machines Like Me is a speculative fiction book to give to people who think they don’t like speculative fiction.  

THE ROAD GOES EVER ON: THE PARADE

Dave Eggers’ new book, The Parade, is a very unusual kind of novel.  It doesn’t have conventional characters, a conventional setting, or most of the accouterments of modern novels, and to top it all off, it’s extremely short, more like a novella than a novel. But after a somewhat slow start, the book sneaks up on you so that by the time you reach the climax, you’re both surprised and moved by what you’ve been reading.

The Parade starts out, and seems to be for most of its length, a simple, fable-like story.  There are two main characters, neither of whom has a name (nobody in the whole book has a name, in fact, which takes some getting used to).  They refer to themselves by numbers, our protagonist being Four and his co-worker being Nine. They’ve been flown in to a place in the middle of a southern part of this unnamed country which has just ended a war.  Their job is to pave a road that joins the southern part of the country, the more rural part, where the recent rebellion took place, with the northern part, the more urban and sophisticated part where the seat of the government was, and is again. The idea is that the country will be united physically after the cease fire, and there will be all kinds of good things coming to the south as a result of this new road, starting with a fancy parade from the north on the preplanned day of the road’s completion.  

From the start, we feel we have a pretty clear idea of what kind of people our main characters are.  Four is a rule-keeper, a man who’s driven the machines that spread the asphalt and paint the lines on the roads for years and years.  He’s worked for this company for, apparently, most of his life, and he sets a high value on doing the job right, not getting distracted, not getting involved with outsiders and being punctual and hardworking.  Nine, whose job is to go ahead of Four on a quad, making sure there are no possible obstructions, living or otherwise, to slow down the paver, the RS-80, on its way, is the opposite of Four. Sloppy where Four is tidy, rash where Four is cautious, willing to ignore the rules when he feels like it, eager to interact with the locals through whose lands they pass, Nine is guaranteed to drive Four to distraction.  Four puts up with Nine’s antics as long as they don’t delay the mission, but he imagines how he’s going to get back at Nine for his insubordination and his recklessness.

Along the way, Nine gets into increasing amounts of trouble, and Four finds himself interacting with the locals much more than he ever intended to do.  He’s suspicious and annoyed at himself for bending, and then breaking, the rules, especially when he does so to help Nine, but gradually (VERY gradually) we come to see some of the human side of Four and see him as more than the Felix Unger of this odd couple.  I have to give Eggers credit here for his use of details: the food Four eats, the way he deals with his tent, the way he plugs his earphones in to blot out the sounds of the rest of the world, are all things we begin to see differently as we get to know the character better.  By the end of the book, I even came to feel some sympathy for Four, rigid as he often seems and acts.

I’m not going to give away the plot. It’s the kind of book that’s better experienced than explained. Suffice it to say that, while I had some intimations about where the story would ultimately go, it still packed a surprising wallop at the climax. If you want a short, relatively quick read that makes you think after you’re finished, check out The Parade.

HOW TO FIX YOUR BOOK GROUP

I’m going to assume, rightly or wrongly, that the people who are interested in reading a blog about books, especially new books, and about library goings-on are also people who tend to belong to book clubs.  I run a book group here at The Field Library myself, and am starting another book group at a nearby Senior Living Community (hi, Drum Hill!), but as a library clerk, I also have dealings with other people who are in different book groups.  When four or five patrons come in within a day of each other, all looking for a particular book, odds are good that they’re trying to get the book for their book club.

Maybe you’ve encountered something like this yourself.  A book is chosen for the group, and of course everybody needs to read it before the next meeting (or at least everybody tries to read it before the next meeting).  You have a choice: you can either buy the book (electronically or in print), or you can try to borrow it from your local library. If you don’t know much about the book and aren’t sure you’re going to want to keep it, or if you’re not the kind of person who wants to accumulate books for whatever reason, or you just don’t want to spend money if you don’t have to (all legitimate aims, by the way), you’re going to go to the library to try to get a copy there.

And then you run into a problem, because the person choosing the book for the group hasn’t checked to see if there are any copies available at the local library.  Maybe it’s a new, popular book, a bestseller even, so the book chooser just assumes every library has it. Probably every library does have it, maybe even a couple of copies of it, but because it’s new and popular, all those copies are checked out, and even if you put it on hold, there might be a number of holds already on the book ahead of you (sometimes hundreds, literally), which decreases your chances of getting the book before your next meeting.  Or maybe it’s an older, more obscure book, and there simply aren’t enough copies in the library system to accommodate all the members of your book group.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  When I offer choices of books to the Field Notes Book Group, I’ve already checked to make sure there are enough copies of that book available in the system (not already checked out, not already on hold) that everyone in the group can get one. You can do this, too: check the catalog and look at the number of copies the library system has of the book, and decide accordingly.  If it’s the hottest book of the month and there are a hundred copies, all of which are checked out, and there are three hundred holds, maybe that’s not the book you want to choose for this month. Maybe you want to wait a couple of months so more copies will be available. Maybe your friendly librarian could suggest another book that is more readily available that would also be a great read and discussion starter.  

My personal feeling is that you shouldn’t have to spend money in order to join a book discussion group.  Reading should be free, and the pleasures of reading a book together and talking about it shouldn’t be limited to people who can afford to buy a new hardcover or e-book every month.  Check out your library before you choose the book. Ask for help. I know I’d be delighted to advise book group leaders on good reading selections that their members can get their hands on quickly.  

Give it a try.  You have nothing to lose but your frustrations.

MY FAIR LADY, REVISIONED: UNDER THE TABLE

Add to the growing collection of new versions of older stories Under the Table, Stephanie Evanovich’s take on Pygmalion and My Fair Lady.  In the best tradition of revisionings of classic tales, Evanovich doesn’t just recreate the original story but puts her own spin on it, in this case placing the events in modern day New York City and flipping the genders and the social classes to come up with a new, entertaining romance that’s both an homage to the original(s) and a fun story on its own.

Our protagonist, Zoey Sullivan, fled a bad marriage and the Midwest to live with her fun sister in New York City.  She gave herself three months to get her head straight, and discovered her love of and skill with cooking could lead her to a career and financial independence.  Avoiding her ex, Derek, who’s constantly calling her, Zoe is settling into a new life when she meets Tristan at one of the private parties she caters. She falls in love with his kitchen, which is everything a chef could possibly dream of, and then she turns her attention to Tristan himself.

Tristan is a diamond in the rough: handsome, rich, with lovely manners, but with few social skills and very shy around other people (as an aside, can we have a person who’s got poor social skills who’s not a brilliant computer programmer?  This is getting to be a cliche). Zoe decides to take him in hand and give him some polish, help him learn how to dress, how to act around other people, how to gain confidence in public settings.

Naturally, once he’s starting to shine thanks to her efforts, Zoe realizes that she’s not thinking of him as just an experiment, someone she was helping.  She’s fallen for him, but she has no idea whether he feels anything for her. And as she’s trying to figure out where she’s going with Tristan, who should turn up in New York City but her ex, Derek, looking for a second chance and not willing to take no for an answer.

If you love a good makeover story and enjoy a little romance and wish My Fair Lady had been a little different, check out Under the Table.

BEYOND THE LIMITS OF SCIENCE: LOST AND WANTED

If you’re interested in a new novel that takes on questions of science and faith, of female friendship and the power of the different kinds of love, try Lost and Wanted, by Nell Freudenberger.

Back in the day, Helen Clapp and Charlotte Boyce were closer than sisters, the kind of friends who told each other everything about their lives.  They were college roommates at Harvard, and shared all their struggles and triumphs at school and after: the time a professor hit on Charlie, Helen’s frustrations as a young woman trying to make her way in the world of science, Charlie’s troubles trying to break into the world of Hollywood screenwriting as a black woman, the challenges they both faced as parents.  But as Helen advanced to a tenure track professorship at MIT, wrote bestselling books that explained science to lay people, and arrived at a breakthrough in the esoteric field of fifth dimensional space, Charlie began to disappear from her life. Their calls grew less and less frequent, Charlie became more elusive, and Helen, if she thought of Charlie, assumed they were just growing apart.

Until Charlie died suddenly, and Helen suddenly realized what she’d been missing.

So far, you might think you’re reading a normal “women’s fiction” book, but things take a bit of an odd turn. After Charlie’s death, Helen gets a phone call from her.  This is impossible in Helen’s scientific view of the world, and yet, she can’t help believing that this really was Charlie talking to her, and that brings Helen back into Charlie’s world, her memories of her friendship with Charlie and everything that went along with that, including her long-ago relationship with Neel Jonnal, a prize-winning physicist who’s on the verge of winning a Nobel Prize.  Helen is forced to reconsider the choices she’s made in her life, the rules of science which have always limited and steadied her world.

Did something supernatural happen?  Does friendship survive death?  Are there second chances in life?  Read Lost and Wanted to find out.

 

 

 

MAPS, JINN AND THE INQUISITION: A THRILLING RIDE THROUGH MEDIEVAL SPAIN

There are some authors whose books I’ll buy for the library almost sight unseen. They’re usually the authors who are so popular that I know library patrons are going to want to read their books, but sometimes they’re authors I personally love, whose books I’ve recommended over and over to prospective readers.  There are authors (we probably all have them) for whom the very announcement that they have a new book coming out is enough to set my heart racing and make me decide we have to have that book.

One of those authors, for me, is G. Willow Wilson, and my eagerness to read her new book, The Bird King, was largely based on how much I loved her last book, Alif the Unseen, which I read for a category in one of the Read Harder challenges.  Sadly, Alif the Unseen is not available here at the Field Library, which is why I haven’t written it up for the blog, but it’s a wonderful book that combines adventure and fantasy and romance in a Middle Eastern culture I haven’t seen often depicted in fantasy novels, with a supporting heroine worthy of her own book, or her own series.

The Bird King is set in the last days of the Reconquista in Spain, as Ferdinand and Isabella were consolidating their control over the country and pushing out the last of the Moorish kingdoms. The story begins in a palace in Granada, the last Moorish kingdom, already under siege and reaching the end of its existence.  Fatima, our protagonist, is a Circassian slave in the harem of the sultan, a servant to his mother, the Lady Aisha. Her closest friend in the palace is Hassan, the palace mapmaker, who has the amazing ability to make the world correspond to what he draws in his maps: he can make doors appear where there were none in reality, and tunnels from one place to another that never existed before his maps.  Naturally Hassan has used this gift for the sultan and his people earlier in the war, and he’s more than willing to continue to use this talent to help those he cares about. There is no possibility of a marriage or even a sexual relationship between Fatima and Hassan, because he is attracted only to men. This is something the sultan and most of the other people in the palace are aware of, and they tolerate this behavior of his because of his outstanding gifts, but even from the outset we know this is going to be a problem sooner or later.  

It becomes a problem when the emissaries of Ferdinand and Isabella, a general and a religious woman, come to the palace to offer terms for the sultan’s surrender.  The general seems like the more powerful character, but it’s the woman, Luz, who makes things happen, and when Fatima discovers that Luz is associated with the Inquisition, she realizes that Luz, and the people she represents, are the biggest danger to Hassan.  Indeed, when Luz finds out what Hassan can do, she naturally takes the position that he is in league with the devil, and insists that he be surrendered to the Inquisition. While the sultan and even Lady Aisha are willing to pay for peace with Hassan’s life, Fatima is not, and so she and Hassan escape the palace and make a break for freedom, with the help of a dog who is really a jinn named Vikram (a character we met already in Alif the Unseen, though he’s pretty much the only character in common between those two books; he was a delight in Alif and he’s a wonderful character here, too, much more than a supernatural helper when the couple need him and never someone who can be entirely relied upon for that kind of help), and with all the forces of the Inquisition after them.

Wilson is excellent at creating characters. None of the people or beings we meet in this book are predictable or simple, from Hassan to Fatima, from Aisha to the sultan, from Gwennec, the novice monk they encounter along the way, even to Stupid, the horse they end up taking on board a boat with them.  Where she really excels is in her villains, and Luz is amazing. Anyone can write a totally evil person who acts cruelly and viciously just for the sake of evil, and such all powerful, all evil characters aren’t terribly interesting or believable. Luz does horrible things and plans even more terrible ones, but she is always plausible, she’s charming and sweet even to the people she’s setting out to destroy, and she has reasons for her actions. They may not be reasons you’d agree with (they certainly aren’t reasons I’d agree with), but she’s got realistic motivations (even without the supernatural help she gets), and she is disturbingly powerful, a worthy opponent for our characters.

The world of The Bird King is vivid and realistic, despite the many paranormal things that occur in it.  Distances are vast, people don’t develop the ability to walk for days and days without pain, you can’t immediately set foot in a small sailboat and immediately know how to sail it unless someone shows you how (and even then you can make stupid mistakes).  All the details of hunger and thirst, physical and emotional pain, the smells of waterfronts and cities, the dry air of late summer in Spain combine to bring this world to life without the book’s ever stopping its forward momentum or slowing you down to force you to look at any of it.

I read the book in two days, and would have devoured it in one if I hadn’t had to waste time on silly things like eating and sleeping and going to work.  If you want a rich, immersive book with characters you care about, plenty of action, set in a world you’re probably not very familiar with, you could hardly do better than to pick up The Bird King.  But make sure you set aside time, because you’re not going to want to put it down once you start it.

AROUND THE WORLD BY TRAIN: OFF THE RAILS

Let’s start with my personal bias here: I love train travel, even on Amtrak with all its delays and difficulties, and I practically swooned when taking the high speed train from Brussels to Paris a few years ago (what train travel could be!  Who knew?). So I am probably the ideal audience for Beppe Severgnini’s new nonfiction book, Off the Rails: A Train Trip Through Life, but I think even people who don’t come to the book with my predilections will find it an entertaining read, the kind of travel book that makes you want to get up and go, or possibly that gives you such a sense of what the trip is like that you feel you’ve already gone.

The book is a series of essays about particular train trips Severgnini has taken over the years, and it’s an impressive collection of routes and trains any way you look at it.  He crosses the United States twice, mostly by train (the first trip he describes, when he’s traveling with his college-age son, involves some driving and some bus travel as well), he takes a train across the width of Australia, crosses Europe in a couple of different directions, travels across Asia through Siberia to China.  A native of Italy, he brings a unique perspective to whatever he experiences.

Frankly, Beppe is the kind of traveling companion anyone would want.  He’s incredibly patient with delays and screwups on the part of bureaucracies, he’s endlessly interested in the world around him, and he seems to be the kind of person who can get anyone, anywhere, to talk to him. His sense of humor never deserts him, and he looks at all the people around him, from train employees to fellow passengers, as fascinating people with their own stories to share.  If you were going to be traveling through Eastern Europe, as he does, and facing the oddities of scheduling and different standards of train travel, or traveling across the (then) Soviet Union and dealing with the limited food available on the train, you couldn’t ask for a less stressed person to accompany you.

Some of the delight of the book is his description of the travel itself, the experience of taking a train, of figuring out how the sleeping arrangements work (his descriptions of an Amtrak sleeper compartment are amusing and accurate), of eating meals with a random assortment of strangers on the dining car, and what he observes out the windows or in the train stations.  But a lot of the pleasure he takes in the travel, which he conveys vividly, is his encounters with other people, with people from different countries, with different languages, cultures and ideas. He’s a brave man, talking politics with strangers, even bringing a bobblehead Trump with him on a trip from Naples to London and watching people’s reactions, but there’s something about him that brings out the kindness and the talkativeness of other people.  Perhaps it’s his lack of judgmentalism. He has opinions of his own, and he shares them with us, but my impression is that he doesn’t reveal those opinions to the people he meets, and that encourages them to be open with him.

There is only one thing this book lacks, and it’s a surprising thing. Why aren’t there any maps in the book?  I’d settle for maps on the insides of the covers, though I’d prefer a map at the beginning of each chapter. How can you have a travel book without any maps at all?  Especially when in the last chapter Beppe talks with some sadness about how modern people have no idea of distances or locations, where things are with relation to each other.  I agree with his concern there, but it would be a lot less ironic if he or his publisher had taken the elementary step of providing maps of where these various places are that he’s seeing and experiencing. Even if you’re reasonably geographically knowledgeable, there are still parts of the world you don’t know as well, and a map would help immensely to give you an idea of locations and distances.

Other than that, this is a fun book, a quick read, and an inspiration to do some train traveling of your own, and I heartily recommend it.