THE OTHER SIDE OF A CHRISTMAS CAROL: MARLEY

At this festive time of year, it is of course a good idea to revisit the classics, and of course Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of those classics, which I personally reread every year (for my money, none of the movie adaptations manages to capture the depths of the original).  This year, in addition to reading A Christmas Carol, I also read a new book, Marley, by John Clinch, which (as you might guess from the title) is a prequel to A Christmas Carol, and gives us, among other things, a look at what Jacob Marley was like when he was alive, and what his relationship with Ebeneezer Scrooge was like when they worked together at Scrooge & Marley’s. 

This seems to be my year to read different versions of famous books, whether that’s because there are more of them around or whether that’s just saying something about my taste.  One of the things I look for is a sense of the author’s knowledge of (and love for) the source material. The writer of the new book is constrained to greater or lesser extent by the original, and that’s especially so in the case of Marley.  We know how the story ends, after all: Marley is dead before the book begins, and Scrooge is set in his ways as a miserly curmudgeon, and the ghost of Jacob Marley comes on Christmas Eve to save Scrooge from Marley’s fate. We also know something of Scrooge’s past from his encounters with the Ghost of Christmas Past, and any prequel to A Christmas Carol has to not only create a Jacob Marley who could believably be both the partner of the bad Scrooge and someone who could come back from the grave to save Scrooge, but also to create a past Scrooge who lives up to what we see with the Ghost of Christmas Past.  

It’s a tall order, but Clinch manages it brilliantly. Jacob Marley meets Scrooge when the pair of them are in that terrible boarding school, and immediately demonstrates what he’s going to be for most of the rest of his life by taking advantage of Scrooge’s ignorance.  Marley is a charming, reprehensible person: a cheat, a fraud, a forger, a libertine and a man who will step on anyone to get his way. As you watch him create not just shell organizations but fraudulent documents purportedly signed by people in these fraudulent organizations, and you watch his incredible imagination at work, you can’t help but almost admire him, all the while being aware that his ends are dreadful and he has no morals to speak of.  You dislike him because you know what he’s really doing, but at the same time he exerts an almost Dexter-like antihero fascination. At one point a young Scrooge describes Marley as “protean”, and that is really an excellent encapsulation of Marley.

One of the more interesting things in this book, a major plot point in fact, is that Scrooge and Marley’s fortune is made through the slave trade.  You will notice in the original that at no point does anyone talk about where their money came from, so it makes perfect sense that it would be vaguely illegal (or absolutely illegal). Scrooge, who comes across in most of this book as a calculating machine, someone who cares only about the figures on the page and not about what they represent in the real world, becomes aware that the slave trade is part of his bread and butter only when Belle’s father refuses to allow her to marry him because of where his money comes from.  Scrooge sees the light and attempts to divest the company’s funds from slave ships, but Marley isn’t willing to give up such a lucrative trade, even when slavery is made illegal in Great Britain. The way Scrooge and Marley plot against each other in secret over this makes for tension in the book, and the involvement of other parties, including Scrooge’s brother in law (his sister’s husband), creates twists and turns worthy of Dickens himself (and I can’t give higher praise than that).

I always say that you don’t need to read the original to appreciate one of these books, and that’s true for Marley, but I would be remiss not to mention the cleverness with which Clinch seeds the narrative with other Dickens characters.  Many of the names of the fake lawyers, businessmen and other characters Marley creates are in fact names familiar to any Dickens fan, but occasionally one of Dickens’ characters makes a brief appearance, not even big enough to be a cameo, and that’s just delightful (I’m thinking particularly here of a mention of a young lawyer by the name of Tulkinghorn, who is a major character in Bleak House, my favorite Dickens novel).  Even better is Marley’s alias, used when he’s doing something especially sleazy (shaking down whorehouses, for instance, or hiring murderers), of Inspector Bucket of the Metropolitan Police.  The name becomes a joke of sorts, insulating Marley from the consequences of his actions, but there is in fact an Inspector Bucket (a very good detective, too) in Bleak House.  If you’re a fan of Dickens, you will especially appreciate the author’s love for the master.

Marley is a satisfying read, a book that stands on its own but also illuminates its predecessor.  The characters and plot are worthy of Dickens while being modern at the same time. In this festive season, augment your enjoyment of A Christmas Carol by reading Marley as well. 

JANUARY 2020 FIELD NOTES SELECTION: BRITT-MARIE WAS HERE

Thanks to everybody who showed up at our last Field Notes Book Group meeting of the year and provided such a lively discussion of families and serial killers and how far, really, we would be willing to go to take care of younger siblings.  We also chose the next book, which the group will discuss on January 25, 2020: Britt-Marie Was Here, by Fredrik Backman.

Britt-Marie, the protagonist of the book, is a very particular person, as you discover from the very first chapter.  She has exacting standards which she expects everyone else to live up to, not that she is judging anyone else (as far as she can tell), but when her husband takes up with another woman, she’s thrown for a loop.  The whole question of what she’s going to do for the rest of her life is something she’s never had to consider before, and now, when the job she’s “qualified” for happens to be taking care of a building in Borg, a town in the middle of nowhere, Sweden, she finds herself in completely foreign circumstances.  Except that maybe, this is just what Britt-Marie needs to find out who she really is and to share that with other people.

Come and pick up a copy of the book at the Circulation Desk and then join us on January 25 from 11:00 to 12:30 at the Field Library to share refreshments and coffee and talk about Britt-Marie and how she reinvents herself.

 

FAITH IN OUTER SPACE: SISTERS OF THE VAST BLACK

If you’re the type of person who doesn’t like to read science fiction because you feel it doesn’t have enough to say about the world we actually live in, have I got a book for you!  Lina Rather’s Sisters of the Vast Black is set on a living spaceship that serves as a convent for a group of nuns who travel the outer reaches of human civilization to bring the sacraments and medical care to far flung colonists. It is also a book about faith and faithlessness and the possibility of redemption, about colonialism and humanity and what binds people together.  Only a novella in length, the book packs quite an emotional punch and is one of the best books I’ve read all year.

We get to know the Sisters of the Order of Saint Rita and their ship, Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, as they face ethical dilemmas from the outset of the book, when they discover their ship has bonded with another ship and wants to mate.  Should they leave their path to accommodate their ship’s desire? Does the ship have a soul and the right to self-determination? That, as it turns out, is only the first and ultimately the simplest of their dilemmas as the Vatican back on earth and the former earth government start reaching out to regain control over the far flung reaches of human settlement, with questionable motives.

The characters, distinct and very human (with the exception of the ship, of course), have their secrets, their crises of faith, their conflicts with each other and with the requirements of their order and the distant government.  One of the things I liked most about the book was its treatment of the women’s faith as something real and valid; we don’t have the stereotype nuns who are vicious or hypocritical or credulous. They have varying depths of faith, some of them deeply committed to their Catholic religion, some of them questioning the doctrines, some of them nuns because that was the profession that would get them out of bad situations, and all of those positions are seen sympathetically and with empathy. The one character who leaves the order to join with her lover is presented as someone caught between her heart and her vows, and her fellow nuns accept (with a little tension) her decision.  

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. Suffice it to say there is a plot, and all things we see early in the book come into play again by the end, and that the end, while leaving room for other stories set in this universe, is emotionally satisfying, resolving the characters and all the plotlines set up in the book. I cared so much about the characters, including the ship, that I was moved by their behavior and their fates. This is a beautifully written, touching book that wrestles with the big questions with grace and power.  Don’t miss it.

WHAT READERS THINK THE BEST BOOKS OF 2019 ARE

Every year, Goodreads readers get to choose what books they believe were the best of the year in various categories ( see here), and this year, all of the winners in the various fiction categories are available for you to read right here at The Field Library.

The overall winner in fiction should come as no surprise, as it’s one of the most anticipated books of the last two decades and has also won the Man Booker prize for 2019 and will probably win more awards before the year is through.  Margaret Atwood’s sort-of sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, entitled The Testaments, is one of those books that’s so popular we can’t keep it on the shelves, even with an express copy and a regular copy.  While The Handmaid’s Tale dropped readers into the midst of the Republic of Gilead and left us, along with the protagonist Offred, trying to figure out how that horrible world worked, The Testaments takes the story much later and shows readers how the Republic of Gilead eventually fell (this is not a spoiler, since the end of Handmaid made it clear the Republic was something in the past, studied by historians), by taking three different characters, one of whom we will all recognize from Handmaid, and following their interactions with the system.  Put it on hold (your best chance of getting your hands on it in the near future) and settle in to read the next phase of Gilead.

The top Mystery and Thriller is The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. It starts with Alicia Berenson, a woman who seems to have it all: a booming career as an artist, a loving husband who’s a noted photographer, a gorgeous house in a great location in London. But apparently things aren’t as perfect as they seem, because one night her husband comes home from a photo shoot and Alicia shoots him five times in the face. Which would be awful enough and cause enough notoriety, but then Alicia refuses to speak another word, to anyone, about anything.  Now it’s not just a celebrity murder, it’s a mystery, and one that catches the attention of the whole world. Alicia is locked away from the press and the curious in a forensic hospital, until one day Theo Faber, a famous criminal psychotherapist, shows up, determined to get Alicia to talk. But even if he succeeds, and that’s by no means assured no matter how skilled he is and how determined he is, he may find that he’s not just investigating her truth, but his own, which could be more dangerous to his sanity than anything Alicia might tell him.

The winner in the historical fiction category is Daisy Jones and the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid, which I’ve already written about here, a book set in the very recent past and the wild world of rock music.

The winner in fantasy is an interesting choice: Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo. The protagonist, Alex Stern, is, apparently, a loser, a young woman who’s thrown her life away.  Raised by hippie parents in the Los Angeles area, she dropped out of high school, got involved with criminal boyfriends and dead end jobs, she finds herself the only survivor of a horrific and unsolved multiple homicide.  Her life then changes in a dramatic way when she’s offered a free ride to Yale University by mysterious benefactors. The only thing she has to do in return is keep an eye on the secret societies at Yale, where the offspring of the rich and powerful gather for some pretty disturbing occult activities which should horrify the university and their parents if any of them knew what the young people were doing.  Alex digs deeper into the groups’ forbidden magic, their raising of the dead, and their preying on the living, putting her own life and soul in danger.

On a lighter note, the winner in the romance category is also one I’ve already written about Red, White and Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston, here , in which the son of the United States President finds himself involved in a romantic relationship with a prince of the royal family of England.

The readers at Goodreads apparently like twisted science fiction, because the winner in the science fiction category is Recursion, by Blake Crouch, a book I wrote about here, in which people’s memories are being changed and reality is changing along with them, and two people have to try to find out what’s happening and stop it while there’s still a consensual reality to save.

And it practically goes without saying that in a year when Stephen King publishes a horror novel, that’s going to be voted the best horror novel of the year, and so The Institute takes top honors. Of course we’ve already talked about it here , and of course we have some great Stephen King themes: children with psychic powers, evil adults trying to control those powers, horrible things happening all around.  If you’re a Stephen King fan, you’ve already read this, but if you were on the fence, well, now you have justification for checking it out.

If you’re a person who doesn’t want to follow the crowd, by all means ignore these recommendations and go your own way (I’ll help!), but if you’re interested in what your peers think are the best books of the year, you could hardly find a better place to start than here, at the Field Library.

A QUIET BOOK, FULL OF HEART: THE CLERGYMAN’S DAUGHTER

I confess it: I fell in love with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice the first time I read it, when I was in college, and every time I reread it, I’m still in love: the writing! The characters! The great dialogue!  I’ve long contended that two of the basic romance tropes were invented by Jane Austen, the enemies to lovers in Pride and Prejudice and the second chance at love in Persuasion.  Obviously I’m not alone in my love of Pride and Prejudice, considering how many movie/television versions of the story have been made and how many adaptations and spinoffs have been written.  As with Sherlock Holmes (another of my favorites), I’ve learned to be careful about reading the spin offs. I’m picky, and I admit it: a book about one of the characters in a favorite book needs to be true to that character in the original and not just use the character as a jumping off place for something completely different.  Even the great P.D. James had trouble getting the characters from Jane Austen’s books right in her Death Comes to Pemberly, and don’t get me started on the many lesser authors who have attempted to take some of the lesser characters in Pride and Prejudice and take them in new directions.  For some reason, Mary Bennett is often the character of choice, turned into a bluestocking or a brilliant writer or heaven knows what else.  However, Molly Greeley’s book, A Clergyman’s Wife, manages the incredibly difficult feat of imagining an afterlife for Charlotte Collins, nee Lucas, being true to the character of Charlotte in the original and at the same time giving us a new insight into Charlotte and her world and her behavior.

When the book opens, Charlotte has been married to Mr. Collins for three years.  She has a young daughter, she has her house and her role as a clergyman’s wife, with responsibilities to visit and look after the people in the parish.  She has to deal with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, her husband’s patron and a bullying arrogant woman. She has to deal with her husband’s many limitations of taste and sense, her isolation from friends and family, and her knowledge that this is the life she has chosen and all she has to look forward to is more of the same (until Mr. Bennett dies and Mr. Collins takes over his property).  She is more or less reconciled to all of this.

And then something changes.  Lady Catherine decides the Collinses should have rose bushes in their yard, and donates some cuttings for their use, and one of Lady Catherine’s tenants, Mr. Travis, is called upon to plant the bushes for them. Mr. Travis is a young man, the son of Lady Catherine’s former gardener, a diamond in the rough, but to Charlotte, he is a breath of fresh air.  She starts to feel an interest in Mr. Travis she’s never felt for her husband or anyone else. For the first time in her life, she realizes that she may have missed out in reaching for the security of marriage to Mr. Collins, that there might be more to life than she’d experienced before, or than she’s likely to experience in her marriage to Mr. Collins.

This is where Greeley shows what kind of a writer she is.  The temptation must be strong to give Charlotte other options, maybe killing off Mr. Collins so Charlotte could marry the (single) Mr. Travis, or giving Charlotte a romance with Mr. Travis while she’s married to Mr. Collins.  This is not that kind of book. It’s not the kind of book where Mr. Collins suddenly and miraculously becomes a sensible, loving person, or where Lady Catherine turns into a kinder, more empathetic (quieter) person. People are who they are, and that includes Charlotte herself.  She’s the person who married someone she knew was kind of a boor because she was desperate to get married and achieve some measure of independence. She did it with her eyes open, and she’s a woman who keeps her word even when it’s difficult, as it is here.

This isn’t a book full of twists and turns, a book where plot is everything.  This is a character study more than anything else, and Charlotte turns out to be a lovable character and a relatable one: not beautiful like her younger sister, not clever and witty like her friend, Elizabeth, not rich like Anne de Bourgh, Lady Catherine’s daughter.  Her father lifted the family out of the merchant class when he sold his business, but the family didn’t have the money to attract young men of a higher class, and Charlotte learned not only how to make a little money go far but how important it was to relieve the financial burdens of her family, even at the cost of her own potential happiness. She’s devoted to her daughter, and mourns her baby son who died at birth, and she’s resolved to make a better life for Louisa, her daughter, than she had herself. This is a quiet book, full of heart, and even if you are a fan of Jane Austen and a jealous guard of her works (as I am), you will find this warm and moving.  Give yourself a treat and check out The Clergyman’s Wife

HOT THRILLERS FOR A COLD DECEMBER

When the weather turns bad and you don’t really want to face the snow and ice outside, what’s better than curling up with a good thriller that will take your mind off the bad weather and everything else?  Luckily for you, we have a group of new thrillers here at The Field Library that will carry you away and keep you feverishly turning those pages. Some are by authors you’ll recognize from earlier thrillers, one you might recognize from another genre, but all of them are experts at creating suspense and keeping readers on the edge of their seats.

Does anyone need to be told who Robin Cook is?  He made his name with his first medical thriller, Coma, back in 1977, and has been writing thrillers (usually bestsellers) ever since.  One of Cook’s strengths is his ability to keep up with new developments in medicine and science and consider how they affect people’s lives.  In his newest book, Genesis, the new development is DNA ancestry testing, which becomes a key point in a murder investigation. A twenty eight year old pregnant woman dies, apparently of a routine drug overdose.  There are, however, some oddities that make the medical examiner and her pathology resident wonder if this is as routine as it seems. The dead woman’s family insists she never used drugs, and the medical establishment is going out of its way to keep the whole matter secret.  And why doesn’t anyone seem interested in the question of who the father of the fetus was and whether he might have known something about the woman’s death? Then one of the dead woman’s friends is murdered, and the medical examiner uses DNA testing to try to find out who the fetus’ male relatives might be.  However, there could well be people who would be willing to kill to keep this information secret, and the more the medical examiner and her resident find out, the more danger they could be putting themselves in.

While Val McDermid might not be as much of a household name as Robin Cook, among mystery fans she’s a rock star. Her newest book, How the Dead Speak, starts in a place where many other series would end, with one of the series characters in jail and the other more or less retired from the police force.  Tony Hill is finding outlets for his talents in jail, and Carol Jordan is working with an informal group investigating past miscarriages of justice. And then the process of construction on a former orphanage stops when a number of small skeletons are unearthed, probably dating from the period when the orphanage was in full swing.  Bad enough, but still more disturbingly, more skeletons turn up in another part of the property, dating from much more recently, one of them identified as the body of someone who’s alive and well and in prison, and involved in Carol’s innocence project. The two characters are brought together as the plot twists and turns in the hands of a master.

For those like me who have ambivalent feelings about Dexter, both the books and the television series, the sight of Jeff Lindsay’s name as author on a new book brings anticipation, tinged with a touch of dread.  I adored Linsday’s first two Dexter novels, and some of the middle ones were well-written, but I felt deeply disappointed by the way he ended the series (to the point where I didn’t even read the last book, Dexter Is Dead, and you know, if you’ve read me at all, that I like to finish series).  He has a lot of talent, and Dexter always had a vivid, entertaining voice (not to mention being a character you felt bad about liking and rooting for, based on the things you saw him doing), so I’m probably more intrigued than worried about his newest book, Just Watch Me. Riley Wolfe, the protagonist of Just Watch Me, isn’t a serial killer, but he is a bad person, a thief, a master of disguise and someone who will resort to violence if he thinks it necessary. He ameliorates some of this antisocial aspects by focusing all his efforts on the top .1%, stealing from the ultra-rich whom he despises.  In this book, he chooses to steal the Crown Jewels of Iran, which are not only (obviously) incredibly valuable, but legendarily impossible to steal, with up to the minute (and beyond) electronic security. He likes a challenge, but in addition to the known difficulties of dealing with the security system, he has a brilliant police officer (a modern day Inspector Javert) who’s chasing him down and is way too close behind him all the way.  If you’re into heist stories, this should be all but irresistible.

Nalini Singh may not be a name we associate with mysteries or thrillers; she’s much better known for her paranormal romance series and her other romances, but all the skills she’s honed in decades of romantic suspense come to the fore in her new thriller, A Madness of Sunshine.  Set in New Zealand (Singh’s home but pretty exotic in the world of mysteries and thrillers), in a particular town where people were, or thought they were, more than just neighbors and schoolmates, until an incident involving several vanished bodies shattered the community. In the aftermath, the people of the town resolved never to talk about what happened, and to pretend, as much as possible, that nothing happened.  You don’t have to be a reader of thrillers to know that pretending something never happened isn’t going to work; thriller readers are rubbing their hands together at the notion, sure that sooner or later that “nothing” is going to resurface with devastating results. Eight years after that first incident, a young woman vanishes in Golden Cove, and the past begins to collide with the present, and ignored dangers return to wreak havoc.  

 

 

 

LITTLE WOMEN, BROUGHT UP TO DATE: MEG & JO

It may seem, this year, as if I am obsessed with Little Women, and it’s true, I have written a fair amount about the book this year, but that’s partly because the Field Notes Book Group read it one month.  In any event, my rereading of the classic book put me in good shape to read the new Meg & Jo, by Virginia Kantra, which is an entertaining update of Louisa May Alcott’s original.

When you’re modernizing a book from the 19th century, it’s always a delicate balancing act to figure out how much to change, to bring a character into the 21st century, and how much to leave the same, so it’s still at heart the same character.  Kantra strikes a good balance here. Meg is still married young, with boy and girl twins, living in the same town in which she grew up. Meg’s being a stay-at home mother is a bigger deal in 2019, and she and her husband, John, negotiated whether she would leave her accounting job and John would change from his low-paying teaching job (which he loved) for a job selling cars (which made more money but wasn’t as satisfying).  No such negotiations were necessary for Meg March in Little Women; the idea that someone would continue working after she married and had children was far from common. 

Jo is a little more complicated.  Of course she still wants to write, and of course she has to work to find herself a way to become a real writer. That’s essential to Jo’s character, and changing that part of her story would radically change the book.  In this version of Jo, she went to New York to get an MFA, and then worked in a newspaper until she was downsized. All she had left of her writing “career” was a blog, Hungry, she wrote about the restaurant business, and since that didn’t pay any amount of real money, she took a job at a high powered restaurant as a line cook, which is where she met Eric Baer, the chef and (this is not giving anything away if you read Little Women) the man with whom she falls in love. 

As you know if you’ve read any of my earlier pieces about Little Women, I had a hard time seeing Dr. Bhaer as a worthy spouse for Jo, and only as an adult could I see him as the anti-Laurie and a better match for her than Laurie would have been (my mother, who told me this when I was 12, would have said “I told you so” if she were still around).  I have absolutely NO problem seeing Eric Baer, the romantic lead in this version, as well-suited for Jo, and that’s because he’s very different from Dr. Bhaer. Yes, they’re both German, they’re both older than Jo, and they’re both loving and good-hearted people, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.  Eric is black, an extremely successful chef, divorced with two sons, and quite hot. Jo and Eric have a wonderful physical relationship (not too explicit, don’t worry) before they’ve worked out all the more problematic personal aspects of their relationship.

The plot of the book turns on Meg and Jo’s parents, who are three dimensional and far from perfect and idealized in this version.  In fact, their father comes across as one of those people who’s so good at taking care of people outside of his family that he has no time or energy left to be a loving husband or father to his family.  I have long had my doubts about Mr. March in the original Little Women, since he seemed to do very little to merit all the adoration he got from his daughters, so this take on him feels emotionally right.  Abby, their mother, is like Marmee in the original in her tendency to take care of everybody else until she collapses from lack of self-care.  In this case, she is hospitalized with back problems and ultimately needs surgery to correct them, but didn’t want to worry any of her daughters or ask them to help her. 

Meg, as the daughter on the spot, immediately sets out to take care of her mother’s health problems and her business, along with taking care of Meg’s adorable toddlers, even when the additional load of responsibilities proves almost too much to cope with alone.  Jo, working at a demanding job in New York City, is torn between her work (and her burgeoning relationship with Eric) and her eagerness to help Meg and her mother. The other two girls, Beth and Amy, are living farther away and don’t play as much of a role in this book (they’re going to get one of their own later), so much of the plot turns on how Meg and Jo deal with their parents’ issues and their own.  Any adult who’s had to take responsibility for an aging parent with health issues will appreciate the realism of their reactions and their behavior, toward their parents and each other, and I’m impressed at the way the author uses this fairly common adult problem to give us a way to focus on the adult lives of Meg and Jo.

The book is charming and well-written, the characters draw you in, whether you’re a fan of Little Women or not, and it’s a fun read overall, especially in the holiday season.  Re-acquaint yourself with the March sisters in the modern world, and settle in for a good read.