A WORLD OF INTERLOCKING STORIES: THE STARLESS SEA

As I’ve said before, no judgment on how your reading life is going in this time of uncertainty and pandemic.  If you barely have the mental capacity to read board books, that’s okay.  If you want to lose yourself in intricate worlds that have very little to do with this one (a little escapism), that’s also okay.  If you’re in that latter category, boy, do I have a book for you!  It’s a novel about books and lovers of books and stories and guardians of stories.  It’s intricately plotted, one ongoing story interspersed with a multitude of other stories, all of which turn out to have something to do with the main story, which also has something to do with those stories.  It’s The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern, and it is utterly engrossing, like stepping into a different world that sometimes connects in startling ways with our world.

Erin Morgenstern previously wrote The Night Circus, and if you haven’t read that, stop reading this  review immediately and rush to read it, a Romeo and Juliet story with competing wizards, a magical circus that appears in places only at night and with no warning, and gorgeous, lush language and images. When a book is that good, I’m even more excited to find something else written by the author, in hopes the author’s magic extends to more than one book.  In this case, Morgenstern’s magic certainly goes beyond just the wonders of The Night Circus.

The central character is Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a graduate student at a university in Vermont, who’s working on his thesis about games.  His mother is a fortune teller (a fact that becomes important at various points in the book).  One day he takes a strange book out of the university library, one that has no barcode and doesn’t seem to belong to any library, and as he starts reading it, he finds a story about a particular incident in his life when he was much younger and saw a door drawn on a wall but wasn’t brave enough to try to open it.  He has never told anyone about that incident and wasn’t sure he remembered it himself, so finding it described so perfectly in a book that was written before he was born freaks him out, as it would just about anyone with an imagination.

He starts trying to find out more about the book, how it came to the library, how it came to him in particular, and one thing leads mysteriously to another.  His path takes him first to a costume party in Manhattan where he meets various strange people who will prove very important in his ongoing quest,  and from there to a strange and beautiful underworld inhabited by cats and bees and strange, possibly immortal, beings.  He reads stories and then meets characters in those stories; he’s pursued by a secret society with sinister intentions toward him and toward the underworld, he meets and loses people he cares about,  all in pursuit of the Starless Sea which seems to be the heart of the world.

His story, mysterious and appealing as it is, is only one of the many interspersed in the book, some of which are supposedly in books other people are reading and carrying around with them (and may I just say here that the love the characters have for particular books warms my heart? These people are not just devoted readers, but true bibliophiles).  They read like fairy tales, or fragments of fairy tales, where the sun and moon meet together at a particular inn every so often, where owl kings rule and are killed by magic swords, where people meet in a room outside time and because they’re on different timelines they often go years between seeing and talking to each other, and the like.  There’s a series of entries from a notebook kept by one of the characters, describing her attempts to find Zachary after he disappears (we know what happened to him, in the underworld, but she doesn’t, though she finds some pretty strange stuff in her search). There isn’t a missing piece, or an extraneous detail, though you have to pay attention to remember who some of the characters from the early stories are, especially when those characters show up in the flesh in Zachary’s story.

The language is lush and delightful, the descriptions inventive and beautiful, and throughout it all I couldn’t help admiring Morgenstern’s wild and generous imagination.  If you’ve read The Night Circus, you know what to expect.  If not, well, it’s quite a ride.

This is not a book to read if you can’t concentrate, if you can’t keep track of a number of plotlines and timelines, but if you’re ready to read something that creates and pulls you into a whole world of danger and wonder, you owe it to yourself to check out The Starless Sea.

A BOOK FOR ALL AGES AND THEN SOME: THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH

In the course of wandering through the wilds of Overdrive at the Westchester Library System (which I was doing to find books for book groups, not just to find more stuff for me to read, I might add), I was overjoyed to discover one of my all time favorite books in the world available on Overdrive.  In keeping with my current policy of only reviewing books that are available to people through our online services, I am delighted to be able to recommend The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, as a terrific book to read, or even to read aloud.

Lots of books purport to be for all ages, but the ones that make good on the claim are ones that are entertaining enough for young readers but have some extra depth or attractions that keep older readers interested as well, and The Phantom Tollbooth, with its terrific puns, entertaining characters and sly use of language, is a great example of how it’s done. I fell in love with the book when I was young, and then read it frequently to my daughter,  to the point where both of us can use phrases and concepts from the book as touchstones even today.

The story is simple enough: Milo is a boy who’s bored with everything and doesn’t seem to take an interest in anything until one day a toy car and a do-it-yourself tollbooth appear in his house, together with a map to the Lands Beyond, none of which he’s ever heard of.  He drives the little car past the toy tollbooth and finds himself in a different world altogether, and that’s where the fun begins. After joining up with a couple of boon companions (Tock, a watchdog who ticks instead of tocking, and — my favorite character — the Humbug), Milo finds himself traveling through the Kingdom of Wisdom, from Dictionopolis (the land of words) to Digitopolis (the land of numbers) to rescue the Princesses Rhyme and Reason and restore sense to the kingdom.  Sounds like any other generic quest book?  It most certainly isn’t.

Half the fun of the book is meeting the various characters along the way, from the Whether Man in the area of Expectations (which you have to get beyond), to the various Ministers in Dictionopolis (The Duke of Definition, the Minister of Meaning, the Earl of Essence, the Count of Connotation and the Undersecretary of Understanding), to Alec Bings, who sees through things, to Officer Short Shrift, to (another of my favorite characters) Dr. Kakofonous A. Dischord and his assistant, the Awful Dynne, to the Everpresent Wordsnatcher, the Terrible Trivium and the Gelatinous Giant.  You can get a hint of what kind of characters they are from their names alone, and they either help or try to stop Milo and his companions along the way.

The puns are great, too, and they’re all over the place without being obtrusive, because the whole point of the book (one of the points of the book) is to turn ordinary phrases and concepts into something much more vivid and funny.  For instance, there’s a wagon the characters get into that doesn’t have any engine: “‘Be very quiet,’ advised the duke, ‘for it goes without saying.’”  There’s Conclusions, an island you can only reach by jumping to it (and you can only get back to the mainland by swimming through the Sea of Knowledge, but don’t worry, because “you can swim all day in the Sea of Knowledge and still come out completely dry.  Most people do.”).

Over the course of his journey, and over the course of the book, Milo comes alive, discovering all the fascinating things that have been around him all the time, which is, I suppose, the moral of the book, but it is one of the least heavy handed morals you’ll find in literature. You could call The Phantom Tollbooth a book about how to take interest in the world, or you could call it what it is: a playful classic that’s funny and memorable, that really is a great book for all ages.

MODERN DAY GOTHIC: THE TURN OF THE KEY

How can you write a good Gothic novel in the 21st century?  A classic Gothic novel requires elements of the supernatural, the strange, the terrifying.  A Gothic novel tends to have a naive female protagonist, placed in an isolated setting, surrounded by dread and unexplained but deeply worrisome, inexplicable, scary occurrences.  How can you have those things in an era with the internet and ubiquitous cell phones, where naive young women are much harder to find and believe?

The way you do it is the way Ruth Ware did in The Turn of the Key, a masterful modern Gothic novel: you create a hybrid of Victorian and modern, much like the setting for the book, an old Victorian mansion in the isolated highlands of Scotland, which has been upgraded with many computerized “smart” appliances, and you let the creepier aspects of the modern world reinforce the creepy, haunted aspects of the classic Victorian sensibility.

Rowan, our protagonist, is in jail awaiting trial for the murder of a child in her charge, at the outset of the book.  She’s writing to a barrister, begging him to represent her.  She knows she’s notorious, the crime is horrible and everybody believes she’s guilty, and even arguing that she’s not guilty doesn’t get her very far because everyone she meets in prison claims to be not guilty.  She writes the particulars of the events that led up to her arrest, in the hopes of persuading him to take her case, and that’s the structure of the book.  After the first chapter, you pretty much forget you’re reading what’s supposed to be a letter (though there are a couple of other letters at the very end of the book, bringing us back to the structure again), and become absorbed in Rowan’s world and her story.  The suspense is really well done.  Because of the way the book begins, you know that by the end, one of the three children (four if you count the teenager) is going to die, and that the death is going to be in circumstances that point to Rowan. So as you meet the characters, you keep wondering who the victim is going to be and how this is going to play out.  It’s a classic example of Alfred Hitchcock’s illustration of suspense as compared to shock.

Rowan answers an online ad for a nanny, even though she wasn’t looking for a new job, already having one at a day care center in London.  The ad seems too good to be true: the family needs a live-in nanny and will pay a truly outrageous salary for a nanny who will stay with them.  We don’t need to have Rowan, in hindsight, pointing out that a salary that good is a danger sign; just knowing how out of line it is makes the reader suspicious, as we should be.

When Rowan interviews with Sandra, the mother of the three young children, at Heatherbrae in Scotland (isolated from everybody she knows, an important element of a good Gothic), she discovers that there had been a few nannies in the recent past, but none of them stayed for very long.  There are rumors the house is haunted, and the behavior of Maddie, the older of the girls, suggests that something is very wrong around here.  Ellie, her little sister, seems to be under Maddie’s thumb, and joins her, at least initially, in making things hard for Rowan. There’s also a housekeeper who clearly resents Rowan and fills the role of every sinister housekeeper you’ve ever seen in books and movies (think Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, but with a Scottish accent).

The parents hire Rowan and then immediately leave on a business trip, before Rowan’s even gotten a chance to get familiar with the girls or the area.  But Sandra’s planned for that, not only leaving Rowan an instruction book any helicopter parent would admire, but having most of the house set up with recording devices and wireless communication.  Rowan gets the worst of both worlds: left almost entirely to her own devices in terms of figuring out what’s going on and how to take care of the girls, but feeling always under surveillance, with the possibility that Sandra might call her at any moment and check up on her.

There are all kinds of things to worry about, too: the inexplicable and terrifying sounds of someone walking around above Rowan’s room, when there is, as far as she knows, no one else in the house and no room above hers, the poison garden, the stories about murdered children connected to the house.  And that’s before Rhiannon, the spoiled and difficult teenage daughter, returns home from school to defy Rowan and make things more complicated for her.

This is a book filled with atmosphere and dread, as a good Gothic should be.  It’s a page-turner, and it seems just about everyone in it has secrets they’re keeping from you, even Rowan herself.  Ware does an excellent job, keeping you in Rowan’s head and making her sympathetic even as you know from the outset that she’s going to be charged with murdering one of the girls you’re also getting to know (who’s it going to be? The baby, Petra?  Ellie?  Maddie? Rhiannon?).

I wouldn’t dream of giving away the ending, except to say that the mystery is resolved, and that the author plays fair with you.

For a good, fun, creepy read, you could hardly do better than The Turn of the Key.

 

JUNE ZOOM BOOK GROUP PICK: THE WONDER

While I wouldn’t say we’ve gotten all the bugs out of having book group meetings via Zoom, the Field Notes Book Group did manage a lively discussion of The Importance of Being Earnest, our May selection, complete with sharing our favorite quotes from this very funny, lighter-than-air play and a more serious discussion of Wilde’s own circumstances and how they might have affected his choosing to write about people pretending to be people they weren’t, and hiding their true names and true selves.  With a plethora of choices from various online sources, the group managed to agree on the selection for June, which is The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue.

The Wonder, which we had considered for an earlier book group choice, is a historical novel about a possible miracle, or a possible fraud.  Lib, a veteran of Florence Nightingale’s nursing group in the Crimean War, and an English widow,  is sent to the very heart of poverty stricken Ireland to observe an 11 year old child, Anna, who, according to her parents and to other people in her community, has eaten nothing for the last four months and is living solely on water and “manna.” Lib, our point of view character, is skeptical about the supposed “miracle,” as Anna becomes more and more famous, but as a nurse and human being she becomes more concerned about Anna as a person.  Is this  really a miracle or is it something much more sinister?

The book is available online through Overdrive (and probably can be purchased through the usual outlets, though I  try not to ask people to buy books for book group — this is a library-run group, after all), and promises to be a good read, raising questions about faith and reason and giving a vivid picture of the contrasts between 19th century rural Ireland and its nearest neighbor, England.  Our next zoom meeting will be on June 20 at 11:00, and we look forward to another great discussion.

 

WHEN YOU’RE NOT FEELING PARTICULARLY KIND: PEOPLE I WANT TO PUNCH IN THE THROAT

Maybe it’s me.  Maybe it’s a side effect of a lengthy time in what New York calls PAUSE and everybody else calls quarantine, or maybe I’ve always had an evil streak (probably the latter), but when I was searching through the Westchester Library System’s Overdrive collection and I saw People I Want to Punch in the Throat, by Jen Mann, I immediately snapped it up, read it in one sitting, and loved it.

Jen Mann is a humorous essayist whose beat, if you want to call it that, is family life in the suburbs.  She basically says out loud the things you think but keep yourself from actually saying (because you, unlike Jen, have filters), and she’s extremely funny about it.  The kind of mind that could come up with pseudonyms for her two children like Gomer and Adolpha (is that even a name?) is the kind of mind that will come up with dark, even nasty, but very funny observations on life which will have you hooting at the ridiculousness of the situations she writes about (the time, for instance, she innocently went to a party of a co-worker which turned out to be a swingers’ party, which has never come close to happening to me or anyone I know) and at the accuracy of her reading of her fellow mothers (the essay about “room moms”, for instance, or the one about competitive birthday parties for kids).  She doesn’t write from a position of superiority, moral or otherwise, either.  One essay is about the cringe-inducing experience of going to pick up a child when she was so late she didn’t have time to change out of her pajamas and her efforts to stay in the car so none of the school staff or other mothers would see her (spoiler: it doesn’t work).  The essay about how she and her husband met also shows her, deliberately, in an unflattering (but very funny) light, and sets the tone for the rest of the book.

This is a fast read, nothing profound, nothing deep, but a lot of fun.  Jen Mann, as evidenced by this book, is probably the sort of person you’d want to go on a road trip with, or even on a women’s adventure to a shooting range (which actually happens and which she writes vividly about), and she’s certainly the sort of person you want to read when you’re not in a mood to be warm and kindly toward the world.

 

NOTE: While the library is closed, I’m going to be limiting my reviews to books that are available through the Westchester Library System’s online accounts.  This does not mean that all the books I review are going to be immediately available.  You might have to put a hold on a particular book, but at least the book will be there for you to place a hold on.  When things return to “normal”, or when we reopen (whichever comes first), I’ll return to writing about books that are not necessarily available online.

 

HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE GILEAD? THE TESTAMENTS

You have to have sympathy for Margaret Atwood.  The concept of writing a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, a book published in 1985 that has not only become a classic of feminist literature, but also an award-winning television series, has to be daunting. I read The Handmaid’s Tale when it first came out, and then again with the Field Notes Book Group, and, while the ending was left somewhat ambiguous (did Offred get away or didn’t she?), I never felt the book needed a sequel.  It created a complete world and characters who seemed very real in that horrible world, and I personally felt any attempt to add to it would suffer by comparison with the original.

However, clearly Margaret Atwood didn’t agree, or eventually didn’t agree, because in 2019 she published The Testaments, which, while not exactly a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, is still clearly related to it, commenting on it and the world and people in it.

I was resistant to reading the new book, but with quarantine you have to rethink a lot of your former prejudices, so now I have read it and have to say that my earlier misgivings and concerns were out of place.  Maybe because she took so long to come back to the world of Gilead and took her time thinking about what else she had to say about that world, Atwood has managed to create a companion book that is, in my opinion, as good as the original, albeit very different.

Do you need to have read The Handmaid’s Tale to understand The Testaments?  Not really.  It isn’t exactly a sequel, though one of the main characters in The Testaments played a large role in the earlier book (and, I understand, though I haven’t watched the television series, an even larger role in the series).  What you need to know about the Republic of Gilead is all here, even if you somehow hadn’t heard anything about the premise of the first book until now. There are, perhaps, a couple of moments in The Testaments that are more powerful if you are familiar with The Handmaid’s Tale, but you won’t feel you’ve missed anything if you miss the significance of those moments.

The Testaments is an interlocking series of stories from the points of view of three women involved in one way or another with the harrowing Republic of Gilead. One, Agnes, is a young woman who’s grown up in the home of one of the Commanders, with Marthas (servants) and even a Handmaid.  She goes to school and she expects to grow up to be just like her mother, Tabitha.  There are secrets Agnes doesn’t know about herself and about her past, and discovering those secrets will change the expected course of her life.  Another, Daisy, is a young woman growing up in Canada, aware of the existence and the wrongness of Gilead, the nation to the south, but otherwise living the sort of life middle class American women can relate to, until things happen and her life, too, changes dramatically and she infiltrates Gilead.  They’re both interesting characters, with Agnes’ story giving us a window into how the privileged daughters of Gilead are trained and shaped, and Daisy’s story giving us insight into how the rest of the world regarded Gilead and the people living there.

The most interesting character, as far as I’m concerned, is the third woman, Aunt Lydia. You  don’t need to have read Handmaid to know that the Aunts are the enforcers, the women the patriarchy of Gilead uses to keep other women in line.  Aunt Lydia makes her role very clear (and you’ve also seen how the Aunts act in training young women as part of Agnes’ story).  She, like the other founding Aunts, was a middle aged woman in a position of authority right before Gilead came into existence, and she relates how she decided to throw in with the patriarchy and take on the role of enforcer of other women’s roles.  Lydia is NOT a nice person; she reminds me of Livia, the mother of the Emperor Tiberius and one of the great villains of I, Claudius (and, for my money, one of the great villains of literature, period), a woman who knew the limitations of a woman’s role and was willing to do whatever she needed to in order to get what she wanted. Aunt Lydia, like Livia, plays a long game, and you only appreciate by the end of the book how long her game is and how she’s been manipulating everybody from the beginning.  Unlike Livia, though, Aunt Lydia knows there are alternatives to what she’s doing, and knows what the world could be like.

It’s through Aunt Lydia’s clear-eyed tellings of the story that you learn how Gilead works from the inside, how it developed, and how and why it ultimately fell (this isn’t a spoiler, because if you read Handmaid and especially the end, you know that Gilead is a thing of the past).  Aunt Lydia knows all the secrets; she’s responsible for a number of them herself.  While the two younger women (and the people around them) give you a vision of what this world is like for the people on the front lines, it’s Aunt Lydia who shows you the rottenness at the very core, the way human flaws were weaponized and used to warp the entire population (even those at the very top of the pyramid, the Commanders, are damaged by the system they’ve helped create).

The Testaments was a co-winner of the Man Booker prize last year, and while I wouldn’t necessarily say it was one of the best works written in English over the course of the year, I can certainly see how it earned its bestseller and best-of-the-year status.  It’s not as original as The Handmaid’s Tale, and it’s ultimately more hopeful, but along the way, it’s more appalling and more gripping, a companion that reveals more about the original, and about what’s happened in our world between 1985 and 2019.

 

A SCARY PAGE-TURNER FOR PLAGUE TIMES: THE RED LOTUS

Is it a good idea to be reading thrillers during the time of coronavirus?  Especially if the thriller in question turns on the potential release of an antibiotic-resistant plague?  This is a question you need to answer for yourself.  If you’ve reached the point (or started out at the point) where the only way you can get through this time is by a nonstop diet of P.G. Wodehouse, I’m certainly not going to judge.  Do what works for you (and if you do want the fun of P. G. Wodehouse, I just want to mention that many of his books are available, for free, from the Westchester Library System through Overdrive, and from Gutenberg.org).

If, on the other hand, you’re in the mood for a really good, gripping thriller that’s disturbing and gritty and keeps you compulsively turning pages, then may I suggest Chris Bohjalian’s latest, The Red Lotus?  If you’ve got a strong stomach (not Jo Nesbo level of strong stomach) enough to contemplate some truly horrible disease outcomes and some depictions of torture, then get your hands on this book, one of Bohjalian’s best, and settle in for a good read.

The whole book, minus a flashback or two, takes place over the course of ten days, a perfectly compressed timeline that keeps things moving very fast, but not unbelievably so.   The timeline, which you’re aware of throughout, gives you the Hitchcockian suspense of wanting to scream at the ordinary slowness of bureaucracies when you know their actions could lead to the prevention of a nightmarish pandemic.

What makes the book work, though, is one of Bohjalian’s great strengths: his characters.  Most notably, Alexis Remnick, our protagonist, who is an emergency room doctor, is the kind of person you want to have wading into the twists and turns of a plot like this.  She’s knowledgeable, she’s caring (but not overly so), she’s stubborn and she’s not prone to doing stupid things to make the plot go forward.  My other favorite character is the private investigator she ends up hiring, Ken Sarafian, an older man with ghosts of his own from Vietnam, but whose dogged determination and energy, and his deeply caring heart, make him not only an excellent helper for Alexis, but also a character you want to root for on his own.

The plot starts out straightforwardly: Alexis and her current boyfriend, Austin, are on a bicycling holiday in Vietnam, which was Austin’s idea.  One afternoon Austin heads out on his own, supposedly on a pilgrimage to a place where his father was wounded and his uncle killed in Vietnam.  Austin doesn’t return.  Alexis worries about him, and is told, later, that he was killed in a bicycling accident.  She’s shown his dead body.  She should be mourning and heading back to the States and that should be the end of it.

Of course, it’s not. Because she is who she is and knows what she knows, Alexis is suspicious (and rightly so) of the official explanation of what happened to Austin. There are anomalies only someone like Alexis would notice, anomalies that lead her into an investigation of who Austen really was (spoiler alert: not what she thinks he was), and what he was really doing in Vietnam. And that investigation leads her deeper and deeper into a terrifying misuse of medical research, a lot of rats (literally; if you’re a person who’s grossed out by the thought of rats, this is emphatically NOT the book for you), and a potential biological weapon which could bring down the whole world.

It’s a quick read, with twists and turns throughout, but good ones, ones that are set up earlier in the book, that make sense.  Nobody is completely who you think they were, and that adds to the suspense, but through it all, Alexis is a champion, and Ken is a worthy companion, and you turn pages feverishly, heart in throat, to find out what’s going to happen, hoping against hope that you’re going to get a happy ending.

I’m not going to spoil it.  If you have a strong stomach, no fear of rats, and a love of fast paced, believable suspense, jump in to The Red Lotus and prepare for a wild ride.