DOES ANYONE KNOW ANYONE ELSE? THE AUTHENTICITY PROJECT

The premise of The Authenticity Project, by Clare Pooley, is very simple: we all lead lives where we’re playing different parts, and we never show people our real selves.  What would happen if we told some of those deepest secrets?  What if we could do it more or less anonymously?

When you start reading The Authenticity Project, you think you know who these stereotypical people are: there’s Monica, who owns the local coffee shop and is kind of uptight, there’s Julian, the dissipated once famous artist who’s all by himself now, there’s Hazard, the prototypical high rolling finance guy who spends his days and nights drinking and snorting cocaine and sleeping with anyone who’ll have him, there’s Riley, the sweet Australian surfer, there’s Alice, the young mother who’s created an idealized version of her life on Instagram but is having a lot of trouble dealing with actual parenthood. 

Julian leaves a notebook in the coffee shop he frequents, in which he wrote an introduction, asking what would happen if people told the truth about their lives, the one unknown truth that would make sense of what they’re really all about, and then demonstrated what kind of truth that would be by writing about his own life, leaving plenty of room for other people to write their truths as well.  Everybody does, one at a time, finding the book and adding their truths to it.

One of the cool things the author does is to show you the character writing in the book, but not showing you what they’re writing until you’re in the point of view of another character reading the book, so you not only get the one character’s secret, you get to see how the next character reacts to that secret.

At first, the secrets written in the book seem pretty obvious: the workaholic wants a family, the artist is lonely after the death of his unappreciated wife, the addict realizes he’s an addict, etc.  The book works because, just as the original stereotypes don’t give you the whole person, the secrets they write about themselves don’t give you the whole person either.  Each character is more than they originally seem, and more than they think they are, and we get to watch them in action and see them in full.  

This is not a book that works by surprising the reader. There are one or two slight plot twists, but you can guess most of the major developments long in advance.  And that’s all right. It’s not a book about plot as much as it is about characters, about ordinary seeming people finding and creating a community, revealing to themselves and each other what kind of people they really are.  I found them all ultimately lovable, and cared about what happened to them and whether they would get their happy endings they deserved.

If you want a good-hearted read, with humor and charm, definitely check out The Authenticity Project.

SEPTEMBER FIELD NOTES SELECTION: THE BOOK OF LONGINGS

Is it true that the books a book group members don’t particularly like lead to the best discussions?  Sometimes it seems that way.  A book everybody, or even most members, loves lends itself to gushing about how wonderful it is, and which particular aspects people loved, but even that can only go so far.  A book people weren’t thrilled with, however, can inspire discussions of exactly what the author did wrong, what could have made the book better, why it didn’t work for this particular reader.  The Field Notes Book Group had that kind of discussion of the August book, Ask Again, Yes, and then chose the book for September, which is Sue Monk Kidd’s The Book of Longings.

This isn’t the first Sue Monk Kidd book we’ve read in the book, and, given our enthusiastic response to The Invention of Wings, odds are good we will find material for discussion in this one as well. 

Like The Invention of Wings, The Book of Longings is historical fiction centered around a female character, but this is a much more audacious novel, creating the character of Ana, a young woman with brains and spirit in first century Israel who marries Jesus of Nazareth.  Based on meticulous research and a strong sense of the time and culture, The Book of Longings follows Ana’s tempestuous life and gives us new insights into the world of the New Testament, with a feminist slant.

The book will be on hold at The Field Library, and the meeting will (sadly) once again be conducted over Zoom, on September 19 at 11:00.  If you are interested in joining us and aren’t a member of the group per se, send me a request at nmulligan@wlsmail.org, and I’ll send you the link.

Looking forward to another fascinating read with our open minded and interesting group!

HOW MANY BOOKS SHOULD YOU READ AT ONCE?

I know there are people who will blanch at the very notion of reading more than one book at a time, and that’s all right. You have to be true to yourself.  However, I have always had a few books in progress at the same time, and it’s worked for me, though of course there are rules to follow here.

One reason people are afraid to have more than one book going at a time is because they’re afraid you’ll forget what’s in the first book when you go to the second and vice versa. I solve this problem by making sure the two books I’m reading are very different from each other: one’s a novel, the other’s nonfiction, for instance, or one’s contemporary and the other is historical, or if they’re both mysteries, they’re set in very different places.  

This doesn’t just make it easier to remember which book is which, either.  I find I have different reading moods, and if I’m reading too many of the same kind of book, I get restless and bored.  Sometimes you want the deep historical tome with tons of footnotes (well, at least I do), and sometimes you want the lighthearted bit of froth that requires little brainpower.  Sometimes you want the thriller that keeps you turning pages and turns off the part of your brain that thinks about credibility, and sometimes you want the mystery that keeps you thinking hard about red herrings and whether this person had motive and opportunity or just motive.  Sometimes you want something heavy that will make you cry, sometimes you just want to laugh.  Having different books available makes it easier to fill those different needs.

I tend to have books in different locations, so I don’t need to be carrying books around with me all the time. So there’s the upstairs book and the downstairs book, for instance.  The upstairs book is the one I read before bed (which dictates a particular kind of book, of course), while the downstairs book is the one I’m reading while I’m cooking dinner or hanging out.  Having separate homes for different books also helps with any possible confusion about which book I’m reading at the moment.

There’s always the possibility that one of the books you’ve taken from the library turns out to be a dud. Or it’s just not the right book for this particular time (I have always said that timing is really important in reading, and a book that doesn’t work for you now might be a better fit later on), for whatever reason.  Having a backup book means you won’t have to go without reading material if one book doesn’t work for you.

Of course, there are books that don’t want to share your time.  A novel with convoluted storylines and multiple characters is one you have to focus on or else you’ll get lost (The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, for instance, was a book I plowed through without interruptions). A thriller picking up steam as you get closer to the conclusion (Jo Nesbo’s books always do that) is not one you’re going to put down if you have a choice.  And sometimes you’re up against a deadline (you have an express book, which you can’t renew, for instance, or your book club is the day after tomorrow and you need to finish that book), in which case you get flexible and focus on one book rather than splitting your attention. 

Obviously I’m not telling you how many books to read at once. You know your attention span and your memory better than I do. I’m just suggesting that if you try reading more than one book at a time, you might find you like it, and you might find yourself reading more books overall.  And that’s a win-win all around.

 

TWISTED MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM: SHAKESPEARE FOR SQUIRRELS

Christopher Moore, the author of Shakespeare for Squirrels, can be really funny.  His earlier books, especially Lamb and The Stupidest Angel, are the kinds of books that just keep you giggling throughout.  He can also be a little weird, as in Noir, which combines your classic noir detective storyline with aliens, but that’s part of his charm.  Sometimes his ideas don’t completely work; in Fool, he tried to do a funny take on King Lear, and frankly, that’s a really hard sell.  Even if your main character, Pocket, is a wise guy fool who’s always on the lookout for trouble and who finds himself in the most ridiculous situations, putting him in a major tragedy like Lear really reduces your chances for laughs. 

In this outing, however, the Shakespeare play Moore takes on is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and that works a lot better.  Starting out with a comedy gives Pocket more room for ridiculous behavior and doesn’t require quite so much messing around with the plot, although Moore manages a twist that turns the original around a bit: for complicated reasons, Pocket has to find out who killed Puck, the fairy who’s responsible for most of the plot of Midsummer Night’s Dream.  In the original, of course, Puck is very much alive and well, but in this version he’s been killed and many of the different characters have an interest in finding out who was responsible, or keeping Pocket from finding out. 

Along the way, he encounters the lovers who are hiding out in the forest, Hermia and Helena, Demetrius and Lysander, a number of very charming fairies, the Rude Mechanicals (including Bottom who’s got a donkey’s head instead of his own) practicing their own play (which Pocket manipulates for his own purposes).  The Shakespearean characters are all recognizable if you’re familiar with the original, but they’re all a little twisted and altered here.  The story comes to a riotous conclusion (in more ways than one) as Pocket, running out of time, manages to reveal exactly what happened to Puck and why, along the way illuminating the relationships of many of the other characters as well.

The book is fast paced and funny.  Pocket is an entertaining narrator, with a 21st century cynicism and attitude that stands him in good stead with all the ridiculous characters around him.  The relationships among the various characters in their subplots are a little confusing (there are several storylines going on at the same time), but eventually they all come together and make sense (trust me, they will all make sense by the end).  Moore does his best job with characters who aren’t really developed in Shakespeare: the individual fairies, for instance, who are basically just walk-ons in the original, come to life as real characters here, and Moore actually makes it easy to tell the difference between Helena and Hermia (which in my experience is almost impossible to do when reading Shakespeare’s version).  Drool, Pocket’s giant apprentice, and his monkey, Jeff, make their appearances, but for the most part this is Pocket’s show and he does a great job.

Do you need to be familiar with A Midsummer Night’s Dream to enjoy this book?  You could probably follow it even if you’d never read or seen the play, but it would undoubtedly be easier to keep track of what’s going on if you have some familiarity with the original (fortunately it’s one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, so odds are you’ve seen it somewhere at some time).

If you’re wondering about the title, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it.  Suffice it to say it does make sense in the context of the book.

If you’re in the mood for a lighthearted and even slightly raunchy take on a classic, let Christopher Moore take you to Shakespeare for Squirrels.

A CROSS BETWEEN AGATHA CHRISTIE AND GROUNDHOG DAY: THE 7 1/2 DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE

Are you a reader who likes mysteries but wishes they were a little less formulaic?  Are you a reader who enjoys books that make you use your mind and force you to pay attention to every detail?  Are you a reader who wants to try something new and different, but not so different that you can’t figure out what’s going on?  If so, then I have a book for you:  The 7 ½  Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton.  When I proposed it for the Field of Mystery Book Group, I described it as “Agatha Christie meets Groundhog Day,” and called it a wild card.  Well, obviously the book group chose something else for July (the excellent book The Dry), but I couldn’t resist reading it myself.  That elevator pitch description doesn’t even come close to telling you what kind of a wild read this is.

The book is set in a crumbling mansion, Blackheath, where, twenty years before the story begins, Thomas Hardcastle, the son of the family that owned the mansion, was murdered.  A man was tried and convicted of the murder and executed for it, but the family has never recovered.  The daughter, Evelyn, was supposed to be watching her little brother at the time of his death but went off for a horse ride instead, and she’s been alienated from the family for most of her life, living in Paris.  Now, twenty years later, the parents have invited a slew of questionable people to the house for a party, the purpose of which isn’t entirely clear at first (and even later, as we learn more about what’s going on, the purpose of that party, like a lot of other things going on in the book, shifts and changes).

A man wakes up with no memory of who he is or how he got here.  He’s our point of view character, and he’s gradually introduced to the house, the other people, and the somewhat sinister atmosphere.  He’s hearing voices in his head, which makes him worry that he’s going mad.  And then when a person wearing a Plague Doctor costume shows up in his room and starts giving him advice, he becomes even more confused.

It’s brilliant to start us off that way, because the author puts us in the position of Aiden Bishop, the protagonist: we know as little as he does, and we find things out as he finds them out, putting the crooked and strange pieces together.

It turns out that Aiden is in a strange situation: he has eight days to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle.  Not to save her life; every repetition of the cycle will have her killed.  His job is to find out who’s responsible.  Each day he wakes up in the body of a different person who’s staying at Blackheath, with that person’s knowledge and memories and skills, but also that person’s handicaps (one person is a real sociopath, one is immensely overweight, one has the attention span of a goldfish, etc.).  If he can’t solve the mystery by the time he’s been through the eighth person, he will be sent back to the beginning and go through the whole thing over again, and again and again.  It’s hinted this has already happened, and we never find out exactly how many times Aiden has done this.

While that would seem to make the book complicated enough, there’s more.  It turns out there are two other people who are doing the same thing, albeit not necessarily living in different bodies.  Whoever solves the mystery first will be freed, and the others will return to the cycle forever.  Aiden doesn’t know who these people are, at least not for a while, but he keeps running into other iterations of himself as he sees the other people whose consciousnesses he’s shared.  At one point he believes he’s making plans with a future incarnation of himself.

And did I mention the oh so sinister Footman, whose purpose seems to be to destroy Aiden at every turn?  After a while, the mere mention of the Footman sends a chill through you, and as you watch the horrible things he does to people in the book (killing Aiden a number of times in different ways), you begin to wonder if he’s even human.

This is the kind of novel that makes you work, in a good way.  It’s enthralling and mind-boggling in the way the best time travel stories are (it’s not exactly time travel but there are elements it has in common with time travel).  You keep seeing the same characters over and over, but every time you see them, you see different aspects of them and what they’re doing.  The author is profligate with twists and turns, but you never feel he’s throwing curves at you just to throw a curve. Nothing is extraneous, and each partial explanation of what’s going on adds to the tension and the delight of the book.

The ending, which I couldn’t have predicted, feels very satisfying.  It’s not just a trick (though it’s all very cleverly done).  Ultimately, like all really good mysteries, it addresses the big questions of crime and punishment, guilt and forgiveness, and who we really are.

If you’re not ready right now to match wits with a master, to work hard at solving an intricate and fascinating puzzle, this is not for you right now.  But keep it in mind for later.  The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle really is an excellent  read.

WHAT’S A LITTLE POISON AMONG FRIENDS? SEPTEMBER FIELD OF MYSTERY: THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE

The Field of Mystery Book Group had a fascinating and far-ranging discussion of our August selection, The DryWe talked about how environments shaped the people who lived there (such vivid descriptions of the drought stricken small town in Australia!), how people’s traumatic pasts make people who they are, and about the cleverness of the author’s red herrings and the way she played fair by giving you everything you needed to know in order to figure out both mysteries at the heart of the book.

Then we chose our book for September, which is Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. The first book in the Flavia de Luce series, Sweetness introduces us to Flavia, an 11 year old genius in 1950’s England, her fascination with chemistry in general and poisons in particular.  She gets the chance to use her knowledge and her curiosity when a couple of strange events catch her attention: the appearance of a dead bird on the family’s doorstep with a postage stamp stuck to its beak, and the death of a man in the family’s cucumber patch, which brings Flavia’s father under suspicion of murder.

Because of factors beyond my control (quarantine is a pain in the butt), everybody is going to put their own copies of the book on hold individually, and we will all get together again  on September 12 for a zoom discussion.  If you’re interested in joining in, please email me at nmulligan@wlsmail.org for the zoom invitation.  Should be lots of fun!