READING IN A TIME OF QUARANTINE, PART 2: OLD SCHOOL

If you’re someone who has no access to physical libraries right now because they’re closed (in New York, for some reason, libraries aren’t considered “essential”; go figure), and for whatever reasons you can’t access electronic resources or don’t feel reading on devices is the same as “really reading” and yet you’re dying for reading material while you’re staying at home, are you completely out of luck?

No, of course not.

This is the time to look around your house and check out all the books and other reading material you already have at home*.  If you’re like me, there are probably a lot of books in bookcases, on end tables, on nightstands and all over the place in your house.  Those books come in two different categories: the ones you’ve never read, and the ones you’ve read before. Both of those can come in handy in a crisis like this.

Let’s start with the ones you’ve never read.  You might be the kind of virtuous person who never buys books without reading them.  I’m not. There are all kinds of reasons why I have books I haven’t read: people gave them to me, I bought them used and they were really cheap, I bought them because they looked interesting but then I never got around to reading them, they were advance review copies I picked up at Book Expo or the equivalent.  Now is the time to start reading those books.

Maybe you didn’t read them before because you didn’t have time (I’m looking at you, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which has been sitting on a shelf on my computer table for YEARS).  Now you have time.

Maybe you did start reading them and then got distracted. If the distraction’s gone, why not give the book another try?

Maybe it’s a classic, one of those books you got because you always intended to read it, and then you were so intimidated by it that you couldn’t bring yourself to start it, or you started it and then were overwhelmed and couldn’t bring yourself to finish it.  Ulysses is that book for me; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started that book and never got farther than a hundred pages in or so.  Wouldn’t it feel great to check that one off my life list?

Maybe you started it, put it down for a bit and then lost it (don’t laugh, I’ve done that more often than I care to admit).  Now you can dig it up again and give it another try.

Maybe the reason you never finished it was because it wasn’t the right time for you.  There are just books that you’re not ready to read until you’ve experienced certain things.  For instance, I’ve long thought it was stupid of English teachers to assign Dickens’ Great Expectations to high school students, not because it’s by Dickens (whom I love), but because the themes of the book are much more likely to resonate with adults who’ve had a chance to see the distance between their youthful dreams and the realities they’ve made than with kids who haven’t been disillusioned that way yet. So if there’s a book you’ve kept on your shelves but never read because it didn’t seem to have anything to say to you, maybe your life has changed enough that the book will resonate with you now when it didn’t before.

Now let’s turn to the books you’ve already read. If you’ve read them and kept them around, you must have liked them (or else you just couldn’t figure out how to get rid of them or give them away, but even so, if they were books you really hated, even the person who’s most afraid of destroying books would find a way to get rid of them). There’s definitely something to be said for reacquainting yourself with old friends like that. If it’s been a long time since you read them, all the better.  You might not even remember the plot or the characters, so it will be like reading them for the first time.

And even if you remember the plot and the characters and bits of dialogue, so what? Sometimes you can read something a second (or third, or fourth . . . ) time and see things you didn’t see the first time, when you were reading for plot, or turning pages so quickly you didn’t notice details. Sometimes it’s cool to be able to see the nearly invisible structure that makes a book work, to notice the footwork that leads to the exciting and brilliant effects.

Besides, with the books you’ve already read, you know what you’re getting, so you can choose the book or books that gives you what you want or need right now.  When I’m feeling the need for funny short stories about British lawyers, I turn to my collection of Rumpole books by John Mortimer. When I want some American history, I can choose my era, reading Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson for a thrilling one volume history of the Civil War, or Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris about Theodore Roosevelt, or Passionate Sage by Joseph Ellis, about the later years of President John Adams (yes, I am a history nerd; is anyone surprised?).  Or I can go through my collection of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (I’m not sure I have all of them, but I have quite a few), for some wonderful characters and brilliant satire.  I can slant my reading to my mood and be sure of getting something I’ll enjoy, and how often can you say that about something new?

So if you’re a reader and you’re feeling anxious about this current shutdown of libraries, you can find ways to keep yourself happy and well-read.  And don’t worry, there will be plenty of new books to devour when the libraries open up again. Promise.

 

*If for some reason you don’t have any other reading material at home, then I’m sorry, you really are out of luck.  But if you’re a reader, I’m willing to bet you have reading material at home somewhere. Keep looking.

READING IN A TIME OF QUARANTINE, PART 1: ELECTRONIC WONDERS

So maybe you’re stuck at home in quarantine.  Maybe you’re not actually sick yourself, but your state’s governor has instituted a “For the love of God, stay home!” order, and maybe (as is the case in New York, where I live and work) the government in its great wisdom has failed to include libraries in the list of “essential businesses.”  I know, it’s terrible! Not being able to go to the library and check out the new book (or the old books, or all the books by that author of the book you just read and loved) makes everything harder, and of course everybody knows that reading is a great way to get through hard times.

You can’t go to the physical library, but at least here in Westchester County, you can go to the virtual library.  Take your library card for a spin (as I always tell people) and head over to www.westchesterlibraries.org and take a look at all the cool stuff under the tab “Listen, Read and Watch.”  You can check out ebooks and e-audiobooks (which you can listen to on your phone or any other device) from four different collections (Overdrive, Freading, RB Digital Audiobooks and Hoopla) with varying degrees of effort.

Don’t have a Westchester library card?  You still have ebook options that don’t require you to pay money to get reading material. If you live in the State of New York, you can get a New York Public Library card and access all kinds of digital resources (https://www.nypl.org/).

Wherever you are, you can check out Gutenberg (https://www.gutenberg.org/), and get THOUSANDS of ebooks.  Granted, you’re not going to get the latest bestsellers on Gutenberg, but think of all those classic books you always told yourself you wanted to read.  Now that you have the time, if you have the devices, you can get your (virtual) hands on them via Gutenberg. For instance, if you want something surprisingly timely, you could check out Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (about the bubonic plague in London; nonfiction), or The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio (sort of The Canterbury Tales in Italy, except that the storytellers are quarantined outside of the city due to plague), or, one of my personal favorites, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death (seriously, for a short story, it packs a wallop).  If you’re looking for something a little less on point (and I wouldn’t blame you), you could read Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (great witty dialogue), or Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (and if all you know about the book is the Lilliputians, you’re in for a treat when you read the whole thing), or The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce (one of the great misanthropes, but so funny as well as biting).  You could check out P. G. Wodehouse if you’re in the mood for something light and funny, or you could read Jane Austen or Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle and lose yourself in a different era. Or, if you really feel ambitious, there are the huge classics: Moby Dick, War and Peace, Les Miserables.  Nothing like a sweeping, epic novel to take you away from your current limitations.

Ah, you say, that’s all well and good, but I don’t know how to read books on my devices, or I don’t like reading e-books.  What should I do then? Keep watching this space. I’ll be talking about that next.

SHOPPING HERE CAN REALLY WRECK YOUR REALITY

It might seem too easy to make fun of a big store like IKEA, to suggest that it’s a soul-destroying place to work and/or to shop.  There have been novels using IKEA as a setting for horror (the excellent Horrorstor, by Grady Hendrix), and now we have a new speculative fiction novella mixing a store like IKEA and quantum entanglement and post breakup angst, and it is GREAT fun.

The book is Finna, by Nino Cipri.  Our protagonist, Ava, is having a bad day at the outset of the novel.  She’s hung over, she’s recently broken up with her lover, who worked in the same dreadful store she works in (so she has gone out of her way to schedule her shifts so she won’t come into contact with Jules, her former lover), and she’s been called in to cover the shift of a co-worker.  Naturally, that schedule change brings her face to face with Jules, the one person she doesn’t want to see.

As if that weren’t bad and complicated enough, Ava then learns that a customer’s grandmother just disappeared. When Ava and Jules go looking for the elderly woman, they find that one of the showrooms seems to be changing, as if a completely different room were joined to this one.

Now, if you stopped here and tried to imagine what would happen next, you would probably figure that there’s something strange going on in the store, that the (jerk) manager would deny that anything was out of the ordinary, and somehow our main characters would end up wandering through different dimensions or alternate realities which nobody knew anything about.

You would be wrong.

In this book, the manager brings all the staff into a room to talk to them about the store’s known wormhole problem, and shows them a badly made, old-fashioned training movie the company made about how to deal with the situation when a customer disappears into one of those wormholes.  There is a machine that has to be put together which will use quantum engagement to find the missing person in whichever of the millions of alternate realities the person entered, and the two staff people with the least seniority are “volunteered” to go looking for the customer.  In this case (you don’t need me to tell you this, do you?) the two people with the least seniority are Ava and Jules, so they get the Finna (the machine) and off they go.

I have to say, at that point, when the bored retail workers are watching this really awful training film on VHS about how to skip from one timeline to another, and the manager is treating this like finding something unmentionable in the public restrooms, I was sold. As far as I was concerned, the author could do anything in the plot from there on, and I would gleefully follow along.

It’s a wild ride, with everything from carnivorous furniture to weird clones of the company’s retail workers connected to each other via a sinister hive, and Jules and Ava bicker and deal with their relationship issues and save each other from the horrors that might destroy them in one reality or another.  The details are such fun: the finna gets built and rebuilt a couple of times (and come on, aren’t you tickled by the thought of trying to put together a quantum engagement device from the kinds of instructions you’d get with an IKEA sofa, complete with illustrations?), and each time you learn something else about it and begin to wonder more and more about where this came from and how this company got its hands on it.  The device provides a backup if you can’t find the actual person you’re looking for, in case that person got killed by some horrific monster or other, and that turns into an actual plot point.

My only quibble about the book is that I wish it were longer. I would love to see more adventures along the multiverse with these characters. The advantage of its being so short is that it’s the kind of book you can devour in one sitting, laughing all the way.

If you’re in the mood for a quick, fun read that mingles quantum physics with bad relationships, that takes you on a crazy trip through all kinds of human and inhuman possibilities, and that gives you an ending that will make you smile (while still leaving open the possibility of a sequel — please, Nino?), do yourself a favor and check out Finna.

 

AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, LONG AGO

One of the best things about good historical fiction is that it can bring to life particular historical moments and scenes which even history buffs like me weren’t previously aware of. Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s new book, The Mercies, is that kind of historical novel, taking us to early 17th century Norway and an isolated island community, first struck with a natural catastrophe and then by a more sinister man-made one.

The first tragedy is a natural one, so absolute it seems almost supernatural to the survivors.  The men of the small, isolated island of Vardo, near the Arctic Circle, set out on a fishing trip one night, and out of nowhere a huge wave flips over all the boats, drowning nearly all the male population of the island in a few moments as their wives, sisters and mothers watch from the shore.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the women of the island try to survive any way they can.  If this involves taking advantage of their Sami neighbors’ charms and runes despite the nominal Christianity of the island’s women, so be it.  If it involves the women taking to the sea and fishing for themselves, even though that’s supposed to be men’s work, they’ll do it. Grief and hard times cause the women to react differently, and rifts that probably already existed before the tragedy become accentuated and stronger over time.

This would be a difficult enough situation if there were no interference from the outside world, which usually has very little to do with Vardo.  However, there are new church leaders, heavily influenced by the work of King James of Scotland, and filled with the desire to straighten out these potentially heathen outlanders and bring them into the church’s fold again.  If you’re like me, when you hear King James’ name, you think of his writings against witches and the witch trials he sparked throughout his territories, and of course when you have women acting in non-traditional ways, and a huge tragedy that seems almost supernatural, accusations of witchcraft are pretty much guaranteed, with wrenching, heartbreaking results.

Our main characters are two women. One is Maren, a resident of the island, who lost her father, brother and fiancee in the storm, and who then tries to hold her family together afterwards.  This is made more complicated by the fact that Maren’s brother’s widow was a Sami woman, and mother and daughter-in-law are becoming more hostile toward each other.

The other woman is Ursa (short for Ursula), daughter of a formerly well-to-do merchant in Bergen, who’s married to the new Commissioner, Absalom Cornet.  Ursa is naive, lost, unsure of her position on the island and only gradually comes to realize what her husband is actually doing on the island, after she’s already begun to build relationships with various women, including Maren.

The author does a great job of recreating the environment.  If ever there was a book with a strong sense of place, this is it.  You can feel the cold, the meagerness of the houses. You can smell the slaughtered reindeer that hang in Ursa’s new home, you can see the isolation of the individual houses and the women who live inside them.  If you want to read a book that takes you out of your ordinary environment, you’ll definitely appreciate this.

The other strength of the book is the characters. It would be too easy for a modern author to turn all the characters, male and female, into stereotypes, spokespeople for various modern points of view. You’d have the staunchly feminist women coming into their own in the absence of men, you’d have the villainous male church officials, you’d have the Christian women being bigoted and narrow minded, you’d have the Sami characters as noble indigenous people being persecuted for no reasons.  It is to Hargrave’s credit that nobody, not even the most heinous person, comes across as a caricature. Even the people who infuriate you (and there are several) have foibles and weaknesses and are neither completely evil nor all-powerful, and our protagonists also have their moments of cowardice and denial. They’re all real people, and I’m sure I’m not the only reader who can see elements of these characters in modern men and women as well.

I’m not going to lie: this book is historically accurate (there’s a note at the end detailing the real life events that inspired it), and therefore it is not a fun, light read. People did terrible things during witch hysteria, and Hargrave doesn’t sugar coat any of it. However, despite the darkness and the violence of a lot of the book, there is a satisfying ending, not a happy one, but one that feels right for the characters and the time. 

If you’re interested in a historical novel that draws you in and won’t let you go, check out The Mercies.

THRILLER HOOKS TO GRAB YOU

How do you choose a thriller to read, especially if you aren’t familiar with the author already?  Well, the easiest way is to check out the hook. If the premise is something new and original, there’s a good chance that’s the book you’re going to want to read first.  Here are some new thrillers with (in my opinion) really intriguing premises, to spark your interest and send you to our shelves.

Amnesia is always fun, even though it’s almost a cliche by this point.  How’s this for a premise: woman wakes up in a hospital after having been struck by lightning (!!).  Her mother is dead. She was found down the street, unconscious. She can’t remember anything about her mother’s death. The police see her as a potential suspect.  How can she clear her name if she genuinely can’t remember, and someone else seems determined to keep her from remembering? That’s the premise of Behind Every Lie, by Christina McDonald.

Perfect Little Children, by Sophie Hannah, has a premise that’s practically guaranteed to make readers want to pick it up. Our protagonist has been estranged from her former best friend for 12 years.  Last time she saw her friend, the friend’s two kids were three and five years old. When she sees her friend and her friend’s two children now, the friend has aged. The children haven’t. How is that possible?

And while we’re on the subject of children, there’s The Only Child, by Mi-Ae Seo, in which a psychologist gets a chance to talk to a particularly horrible serial killer about his life, and at the same time her stepdaughter from her husband’s previous marriage appears in her life, showing some of the same behaviors and creepy approaches as the serial killer.  What actually happened to the child’s mother and grandparents? Why is the serial killer giving the psychologist advice about how to take care of this child?

Then there’s the question of what happens to someone who was kidnapped and rescued immediately, but still suffers the aftereffects of her abduction.  In the case of the protagonist of The Lucky One, by Lori Rader-Day, she spends her time trying to find clues to help families of other missing people find their loved ones.  Then one day she sees the face of her kidnapper on the website, and even though the picture is immediately removed, she’s on a mission to find him before he can get someone else.

Consider the case of a murder trial, which the prosecution considers an open and shut case, in which the defendant is acquitted because one juror believed in his innocence.  Then, ten years later, a documentary starts investigating that particular trial, with a focus on the one holdout juror who persuaded all the others not to convict. One of the jurors is found dead in suspicious circumstances, and the evidence seems to point to the holdout as the culprit.  Did she do it? Why would she? What really happened in that jury room a decade before? The Holdout, by Graham Moore, builds its suspense on that situation and those questions. 

If any or all of these sound like a fun read, head down to The Field Library and check out our new thrillers.  Who knows, maybe you’ll find a new author to follow as well.