STORIES OF THE TRANSFORMED: WAKE, SIREN

If you read a lot of Greek myths, or if you read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, you might start to notice a number of similar things going on, specifically mortals having various kinds of interactions with gods and ending up getting changed into something else either to escape the god’s attention or to be punished for the way they responded to the gods. The stories are always told from the point of view of the gods, so it was only a matter of time before someone flipped the narratives to tell these stories from the point of view of the mortals.  We are very lucky that this someone was Nina Maclaughlin, whose new book, Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung is a terrific read, chilling and moving, eye-opening and poetic, true to the spirit of the original myths and still infused with a modern sensibility.

I have to confess that I hadn’t encountered all the characters in this book before; there are a few whose stories were unfamiliar to me, despite early exposure to D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths and Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, but that didn’t make those stories any less fascinating (and when you get the general sense of how gods and mortals interact in these myths, you can guess how things are going to turn out even if you’re not familiar with these particular characters).  There are also many of the more familiar characters, such as Arachne and Daphne and Eurydice. If you’re wondering whether you could “get” the stories without knowing all the myths, the answer (as usual with retellings) is yes. Of course, you get more out of the story if you’re familiar with the underlying myth, but trust me, you’ll be able to follow what’s going on in most of the stories even if you’ve never heard of these characters before.

You should be warned, though: these are not fun stories to read.  Rape is a frequent element, as the gods (usually Zeus and Apollo) tend not to take “no” for an answer, and Maclaughlin doesn’t downplay the pain and trauma of rape just because it’s a god doing it. You are always in the point of view, usually first person, of the mortal character, and the characters’ reactions vary as any human being’s reactions would, from terror to rage. The transformations from human to animal or from human to plant or inanimate object are depicted vividly and there is graphic violence in some of the stories, including frequent f-bombs.

If you’re strong enough to face so much pain and anger, though, you’re in for a revelatory experience, and not all of the stories end sadly (spoiler alert: most of them do). One of the most surprising was the story of Eurydice (whose story with Orpheus is one of the backbones of the Broadway musical, Hadestown), one of the last stories in the book, and one I highly recommend, even if you don’t read all the stories (though of course you should).  The protagonists differ from each other and from the characters on whom they’re based, but they’re all fascinating, their voices vivid and their predicaments painfully real. 

Whether or not you’re familiar with the original myths, you should definitely check out Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung for an enthralling and somewhat terrifying view of relations between gods and mortals. 

DECEMBER 2019 FIELD NOTES BOOK: MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER

It’s that time of the month again: this past Saturday the Field Notes Book Group met for a lively discussion of our November book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, covering such issues as the reputations of Winston Churchill and Woodrow Wilson, scapegoating in war, the way history repeats falsehoods as if they were truths.  Then we chose the book for our December meeting, and if you’re thinking it would be something light and cheerful, maybe holiday themed, you’re way off. Our next book is My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Brathwaite.

This is one case where the title is quite accurate and quite obvious.  This very short novel (I read it in a weekend) is set in Nigeria, where two sisters, Korede and Ayoola, live with their mother.  Korede is a nurse, soon to be a head nurse in her hospital; she’s not particularly pretty and she hasn’t had many (any?) suitors, but she’s reliable and hardworking.  Her younger sister, Ayoola, is beautiful and thoughtless, and possibly a sociopath. She has, before the book begins, killed two boyfriends, and the book opens with her calling Korede to tell her another boyfriend is dead.  Korede has taken it on herself to clean up after her sister, to keep Ayoola from getting caught and possibly sent to jail (Ayoola claims she is always killing men in self-defense, but Korede is starting to doubt this). In addition to using various cleaning products to remove all signs of blood, and getting rid of bodies, Korede also makes a point of keeping her sister from doing stupid things like posting lighthearted things on Instagram when she’s supposed to be worried about her missing boyfriend.  There’s some tension between them at the outset, but when Ayoola sets her sights on Tade, the handsome doctor on whom Korede’s long had a crush, Korede’s confused loyalties come into sharper focus, and she has to make some serious decisions about what she’s going to do with her sister and her life.

Copies of the book are available at the Circulation Desk, so come in and pick one up, and then join us on December 21 at 11:00 a.m. in The Field Library for coffee and refreshments and what promises to be a fascinating discussion.

HAPPY ENDING BOOKS FOR STRESSFUL TIMES

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by life, if the holiday season is stressing you out, and you want something to read to escape, something that will take you away from all this and put a smile on your face, then you’re in luck.  We have a couple of new books at The Field Library which are just the ticket for cheering you up and taking you away from the stresses of everyday life.

How’s this for a premise: a man discovers that his wife of many years has been faking it in bed all that time, and asks for a divorce.  Reeling with shock and hurt pride, the man turns to a group of alpha men who are all part of a secret book group, in which they’re reading romance novels to learn how to be better to the women in their lives.  Sounds like fun? Check out The Bromance Book Club, a new book by Lyssa Kay Adams, and find out whether the hero, Gavin, manages to save his marriage with the help of a Regency romance entitled Courting the Countess.

Or perhaps if you’re feeling your life in general is kind of blah and not going anywhere, you might enjoy taking a look at Get a Life, Chloe Brown, by Talia Hibbert.  Our protagonist, Chloe, is chronically ill and, after a near death experience, looks at her life and realizes she has to change a lot of things.  She makes a list of things she needs to do to get a life, starting with moving out of her family’s house. She’s going to need some help with the other things on her list, and, fortunately for her, the handyman (and secret artist) next door is available to teach her how to loosen up, stop being such a goody goody (gee, I can relate there), and really live her life.

Take a brief break from it all and give yourself a happy escape with these new books at The Field. 

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNERS HERE AT THE FIELD LIBRARY

This is the time of year when all the Best Of lists come out, and also a number of the most prestigious awards in the book world, and, lucky you, you can take out the National Book Award Winners in both Nonfiction and Fiction categories right here at The Field Library!

You might not think a novel about a young couple falling in love while they’re both attending a prestigious performing arts high school would be the kind of book to win top awards, but Trust Exercise, by Susan Choi, is the National Book Award winner for 2019, and that’s where the book starts, if not where it ends up. Two freshmen, David and Sarah, both attending a highly competitive performing arts school in 1980’s suburbs, fall passionately in love, their relationship noticed and sometimes interfered with by their friends and their charismatic teacher, Mr. Kingsley.  Things happen, the real world breaks into the rarefied atmosphere of the school, and then we are abruptly dropped into a different situation, years later, with some of the same characters still dealing with the fallout from their time at the school. The perspective shifts in a way that reminds many reviewers of Fates and Furies, and then, just when you think you have an idea of what’s going on, there’s a coda that whiplashes you into yet a third way of looking at events you’ve already seen. The book is about memory, about perspective, about consent and relationships, and power imbalances, and it’s probably the audacious structure of the book that most impressed the National Book Foundation this year.  It’s a bestseller and quite popular, so if it’s not on the shelf when you come in, put it on hold.

The National Book Award for Nonfiction this year goes to The Yellow House, a memoir by Sarah M. Broom of her family and her family’s home in New Orleans. Sarah’s mother bought a shotgun house in New Orleans East in 1961, as the space race was building up and optimism about the future seemed a reasonable response.  Instead, as the family grew to twelve children, the house became more and more dilapidated and the neighborhood around it fell into neglect. While Sarah considered herself the prodigal daughter and left New Orleans, she’d reckoned without the pull of home and family, and even the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, which wiped the Yellow House off the map altogether, couldn’t quench Sarah’s connection to her family’s home.  The book is more than just a story of Sarah’s life and times. It’s also a biography of a hundred years of her family’s history, of one neighborhood in one of America’s most famous cities, and of the effects of class, race and inequality on people trying to get by and survive.  

Check out the National Book Foundation’s choices for the best of the year here at The Field Library. 

2019 FANTASY AWARD WINNER AT THE FIELD LIBRARY

The World Fantasy Awards have just been given for books published in 2018 (well, they couldn’t give awards for books in 2019 yet, could they?  The year isn’t over and there might be a true masterpiece still to be published in the next two months), and The Field Library is proud to have the winner of Best Novel on its shelves, ready for you to take out and enjoy.

Witchmark, by C. L. Polk, attracted a lot of attention when it came out last summer, finding its way to “best of” lists, becoming a finalist for the Locus Best First Novel Prize, being a finalist for the Nebula award for best novel, so its elevation as best fantasy novel of the year comes as little surprise (though I confess I’m a little disappointed that The Mere Wife didn’t win — what a book that is!).  

Aeeland, the setting of the book, is sort of like Edwardian England, but with magic. Our protagonist, Miles SInger, was born into an aristocratic magical family, but his fate was to be a sort of magical battery for his more talented sister, enslaved to her use, or else to be locked away in an asylum for the rest of his life.  Miles rebelled, ran off to join the war between Aeeland and its neighbor, Laneer, and, when the war was over, returned to Aeeland under a different name and a different identity, hoping to hide all connection with his powerful family and all evidence of his own magical abilities. However, when one of his patients was murdered, and others of his patients began showing supernatural signs of post traumatic stress disorder, Miles found himself drawn into a far-ranging conspiracy that implicated even the most powerful members of society, and even brought him back to face his dangerous family again.  

The book is a fantasy (people have raved about the world building), a mystery, and even, in a subdued way, a romance, and now it’s been named the best fantasy novel of the year, so you have even more reason to check it out here at the Field.

 

MYSTERIOUS WORLDS JUST BESIDE OUR OWN

There’s something tempting about the idea of an alternate world, a place just a short way from our own where everything is different and you can escape from your identity and your ordinary cares. It’s a trope that’s been around for a long time. Think of Alice in Wonderland, or The Chroncles of Narnia, or the Wayward Children series (a personal favorite, as readers of this blog will recognize).  Two new fantasy novels here at The Field Library bring us to very different ideas of the other world lurking just on the other side of a gate, or a book, or the surface of the ocean.

The Starless Sea is the new book by Erin Morgenstern, the author of the wonderful book, The Night Circus (and if you haven’t read that book, by all means hurry to get your hands on a copy and devour it; not that you’ll need it to read this one, since they’re not related at all, but simply because it’s such an absorbing, excellent read).  It’s the kind of book I would want to read not just because it’s written by Morgenstern (one good book and I’m at least going to read your next one, though I may or may not become your fan for life if the next book isn’t as good as the first), but because a library, and books, feature heavily in the plot. A graduate student in Vermont is perusing the shelves of his library when he finds a mysterious book. He starts reading it, enchanted by the stories of prisoners and key keepers and strange acolytes, and then he’s startled to discover a very different story in it: a story from his own childhood, which he’s certainly never shared with the author of this book.  Through clues in this book, he travels to a masquerade in New York, a secret club and then into a very special library beneath the surface of the earth, where there are guardians of the mysterious books and others who are intent on the destruction of the archives altogether. He meets up with companions, the pink-haired protector of the library and its world and a good looking man whose alliances seem to change without warning, and together they explore this weird, alluring and dangerous world as our protagonist uncovers his purpose in the book and in his life.  

A very different world comes to life in The Deep, by Rivers Solomon, author of The Unkindness of Ghosts. The Wajinru are underwater living people, descendants of pregnant African slave women thrown overboard by slavers. There’s only one among the Wajinru who remembers anything of the people’s past, because it is too brutal and terrible for the rest of them to bear.  The rest have no long term memories at all, and live in the present except once a year, when the historian shares all the rememberings with them and they are able, for a short time, to get a sense of where they came from and why they are here. Yelu is the historian, but she’s too sensitive, too fragile, to be able to hold all the terrible memories, to share them with her people. She hasn’t even been able to find someone who could follow her in the role after she dies, so if something were to happen to her, all those memories she carries would be lost forever.  She breaks, fleeing to the surface and discovering a whole different world that connects to the world her ancestors remember. And now she has to return to her people and somehow make them reclaim their past, their pain, so they can have a future. The novella is short but powerfully written, a take on the whole idea of mer-people that you have probably never considered before.

Get away from this world and find yourself in another.  Check out these new fantasy books here at The Field.