OCTOBER FIELD NOTES SELECTION: THE LOST MAN

Thanks to everybody who participated in the Field Notes meeting in September, where we discussed Sue Monk Kidd’s book, The Book of Longings, with some disagreements about the characters and the book itself.  As usual, the discussions were wide-ranging and respectful, and while Zoom isn’t the perfect medium for a book group (I miss our snacks!), it’s still a great group.  

We also chose our book for our October meeting (set for October 17): The Lost Man, by Jane Harper.

Those of us in the Field of Mystery book group are already psyched for the book, having read and enjoyed The Dry, by the same author.  This one is also set in modern day Australia, where two brothers, living as neighbors in the outback, discover the dead body of their other brother on the line where their properties meet.  Neither one knows how he happened to be there, alone under the ferocious sun, or how he met his end, but as they start meeting with his wife and children, their mother and their brother’s employees, they begin to suspect that there was more going on than meets the eye, and if their dead brother met with foul play, the list of suspects is extremely short.

Harper’s excellent at bringing the atmosphere to life, giving a sense of place, and exploring the lives of characters in desperate situations.  If The Lost Man is half as good as The Dry, it should be a great read.

Copies of the book will be available at The Field Library circulation desk, and we will meet again on October 17 at 11 via zoom. As always, if you are interested in joining us, email me at nmulligan@wlsmail.org and I’ll share the link with you. 

WALKING BETWEEN REALITIES: THE SPACE BETWEEN WORLDS

Sometimes you come across a book with a great concept, something original and even unique. Sometimes you read that book and are disappointed because the author could have done so much more with that concept, and sometimes the author does a good job and the book is worthy of the concept.  But sometimes, not often enough, a book has a cool concept and the execution is better than you could have imagined.  A thrilling and wonderful example of the latter is The Space Between Worlds, by Micaiah Johnson.

Here’s the concept: there are a nearly infinite number of alternate realities, alternate earths, each one slightly different from the next.  A brilliant person discovers a way people can travel between those earths (which are numbered for ease in keeping track: the more like our earth — Earth Zero — it is, the lower the number; something like Earth 280 would be very different from our earth). The hitch is that you can’t travel to an earth in which you already exist.  If you’re dead on that other earth, you can become a traverser and go there and discover things about that world.

Johnson takes this a step farther, though: consider who would be likely to survive in most of the worlds.  The rich people, the privileged people who have access to the best nutrition, the best medical care, the safest environments, they’re likely to live long lives, and hence they’re not the ones who can traverse.  The ones who can traverse are people like our protagonist, Caralee, who live in the slums outside the great city, where life is cheap and dangerous.  So the rich people depend on people from a much lower class to get them the information they want from other worlds, which sets up an interesting dynamic.

Cara is well aware of the precariousness of her situation.  She’s one of the best traversers because her dopplegangers die off on most of the worlds Earth Zero has access to.  At one point, fairly early in the book, she rattles off the different ways she’s died on other earths, how she’s been killed, how she’s died of diseases or neglect.  It’s chilling, even though Cara doesn’t dwell on that too much.

There are all kinds of secrets hidden here, one of which Cara starts out with: she isn’t the person her coworkers and supervisors think she is.  I’m going to be careful with spoilers here in general, but this comes up pretty early in the book, and is a vital part of her character which shapes her relationships with almost everyone else.  She didn’t originate on Earth One but on the first alternate earth her doppleganger tried to travel to.  When Caramenta, the Earth One version, lies dying on Cara’s planet, Cara jumps at the opportunity to take her place and escape from her harsh life, telling no one (for a long time, anyway) that she isn’t Caramenta and trying her best to pick up the pieces and pretend she’s this other person.

Johnson does a wonderful job of worldbuilding on multiple worlds, and of following through on how a person would be affected by these kinds of jumps from one reality to another.  There are certain things that are common from one earth to another: the division between the city and Ashtown (the nearest slums), the Rurals (still poor but less desperate than Ashtown) and the bogs farther away.  The city is run by rich people, and the world outside the city is run by warlords.  In many of the versions, the warlord is Nik Nik, a person with whom Cara and her dopplegangers have had relationships ranging from abusive to really abusive; in other versions it’s another member of his family who’s the emperor, enforcing his decrees with various kinds of force.  Someone who is soft and gentle on one world turns out to be hard and tough on another; someone Cara knows in one guise in one world can be completely different in another, and she has a hard time in at least one case making the mental jump from the version of this character she knows well to the version standing in front of her and working with her (or against her) in this other world.

The characters are one of this book’s strengths.  Since you’re always seeing through Cara’s eyes, you’re limited by her perceptions of people, and in some cases she’s way off base (though you can understand why she would make these mistakes).  All of the characters have the power to surprise you, sometimes painfully, sometimes poignantly, though you never feel the author is cheating or changing a character just for the thrill of it.  Always when you see another side of a character, you’re brought to a deeper understanding of what you already saw of that character and what you thought you knew.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot, because the surprises are half the fun.  Suffice it to say that Cara travels to an earth where she only thinks her doppleganger is dead, and somehow both she and her doppleganger remain alive and in one piece, and her sojourn there changes everything about her understanding of her life on Earth Zero and on the other earths as well, and sets in motion events that will affect all the earths in one way or another. The ending is extremely satisfying (we all know how I feel about endings that let you down), believable and emotionally right.

The Space Between Worlds is the kind of book you want to savor. Give yourself time, let yourself get immersed in Cara’s worlds, and you’ll have a great time, a fabulous reading experience.

HOW TO PICK A BOOK FOR BOOK CLUB

Sometimes it just happens: you’re the one who has to choose what book your book group is going to read next.  How do you decide?  Well, as someone who’s running three book groups at the same time, let me offer a little advice.

One thing that’s worked so well in all three of my book groups is letting the group itself make the final decision on what we’re reading.  When I was new to the game, I would choose a book and hope the group wanted to read it, but I soon discovered that people like to have a little skin in the game. If they’ve had a hand in choosing the book, they’re more likely to read it (and to come to meetings, which was a problem I had in the beginning).  In my regular book group, my mystery book group and my senior citizen book group, the last part of the meeting will always be a vote on the possible books for the following month

Usually, I give the group members a choice of at least four and sometimes five possibilities.  Four is close to ideal, I believe: enough possibilities that people will feel they’ve been given a real choice, but not so many that people don’t know how to decide. 

Naturally, the first thing I make sure of is that the books are available in the library system, in sufficient numbers and in the right formats for the group.  For instance, for my senior citizens, I have to be sure there are enough large print copies of the books available. If a book for my regular book group has audiobook possibilities, that’s a bonus (there are a couple of members who like to listen to books), and also if there are large print versions, that’s also good, but neither one is necessary.  If there’s a good book that has enough copies available but it doesn’t have audio or large print versions, I may still offer it as a possibility. 

The second thing I look for is a book that will lead to discussion.  As far as I’m concerned, a book everybody loves but nobody can think of anything to say about it other than “I really liked it” is a bad book for a book group.  A book that half the group likes and half the group hates is more likely to be a good pick, because you can pretty much guarantee the differences of opinion will spark good discussions.  In this regard, my experience has been that for the most part, fiction is better tinder for discussion than nonfiction, though we’ve certainly had lively discussions about books like Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, and memoirs, too, have brought out vigorous debates.  Thrillers tend not to be good candidates unless there’s more going on than just a ticking time bomb and people trying to keep it from blowing up (figuratively speaking). 

At the same time, I want all the options to be the kind of books I would enjoy reading, since I can guarantee that I’ll be reading the book, even if nobody else does. It’s not a lot of fun to lead a group if the rest of the members all love a book and I hated it.  This isn’t that much of a limitation, though, because I have eclectic tastes and am willing to read all kinds of books. I tend to shy away from memoirs in general, because people are seldom as interesting as they think they are, and I tend to gravitate away from books where nothing happens, no matter how lovely the prose is or how deep the ideas.  Because they’re library-sponsored book groups, I steer clear of political books, no matter how lively the discussions between people of different political bents might be. 

Looking at “best of” lists can point you to books you might not have considered before, and if you’re looking at the “best of “ a prior year, you’re more likely to find enough copies in the library system to make it a good choice.  However, you shouldn’t assume that just because a book was listed by a group as  one of the “best of the year,” it’s a good read or a good choice for your group.  The book my regular book group hated the most was one that made several “best of the year” lists (which made us wonder exactly what book those critics were reading).  

Check book reviews, and Goodreads, to get a sense of what the book is really like.  Yes, it might have a Stephen King quote calling it outstanding (really, he praises a lot of books, so many you wonder when he has time to write his own), or it might have praises from other well known writers, but it still might not be the right fit for your group.  If you know the people in the group (one of the great pleasures of running a book group, in my opinion), you’ll have a sense of what kind of book they will like or not like, what kind of book they’re going to want to read.  If the reviews make it sound like the kind of book your group won’t like, it doesn’t matter how many other people think it’s wonderful.

But you don’t want to keep reading the same kinds of books all the time, either. That’s boring. So I like to throw in a wild card now and then, a book that’s different from what the people in the group ordinarily read, but that’s interesting and even unique for other reasons.  Sometimes people like to read outside their comfort zone, and sometimes a book group selection is the best way to give people a look at something they wouldn’t ordinarily read (sometimes people will thank you for giving them a different option).

If you’re fortunate enough to be picking books for a book group or two (or three!), good luck, have fun, and enjoy the process.

YOU ALWAYS FIGHT THE ONE YOU LOVE: YOU DESERVE EACH OTHER

What do you do if you’re a woman in your twenties, in the last few months of your engagement, and you realize you really don’t want to marry your fiancee, but if you break it off, you’ll get stuck with the costs of this (already much too expensive) wedding?  That’s the situation facing Naomi in You Deserve Each Other, by Sarah Hogle.  Her response, when she discovers that her fiance is having serious second thoughts as well, is to try to get HIM to break the engagement, so HE’LL be stuck with the expenses, and the book is about their efforts to outwit and out-annoy each other, and, of course, what happens along the way.

The sensible thing for Naomi and Nicholas, her fiance, to do when they realize that they’re both unhappy about what they’ve gotten themselves into would be to sit down and have a serious talk about their goals and their feelings and work something reasonable out.  Of course, if they did the sensible thing, there wouldn’t be a story, so both of them react in increasingly funny ways to their dilemma.

A book like this has to balance on a tightrope.  On one hand, you have to feel the parties’ dilemma, which means you have to believe that these two people are unsuited for each other.  On the other hand, you have to believe that there was a reason they fell in love with each other in the first place, so neither one of them can actually BE a total jerk, no matter how badly they’re acting right now.  You have to believe that the two main characters are both worthwhile at heart, or else you don’t want to root for their breakup efforts to fail.

I have to say, in the very beginning Naomi isn’t very promising.  She comes across as passive aggressive and whiny even, holding in her disappointments and annoyances about Nicholas and not doing anything about them.  Even though we see through Naomi’s eyes through the whole book (which is unusual for a romance), I felt she was  giving Nicholas a bad rap from the outset.  I saw his value long before she saw it for herself, and that was almost enough to make me stop reading the book at the end of the first chapter.

HOWEVER, when she realizes Nicholas is also dissatisfied and she turns her unhappiness into a game where the two of them are competing to see who can drive the other crazier (this is her take on what’s going on, though I’m not convinced it’s Nicholas’), she starts taking action, and she’s much more fun as a character and a narrator after that.  Even when she’s doing ridiculous things (trading in her car for a friend’s car that’s a manual transmission when she knows she can’t drive a manual transmission, for instance), you’re pulled along by her verve and her enthusiasm.  

The book is laugh out loud funny in many places.  When Naomi takes on Nicholas’ horrible and controlling mother, anyone who’s ever had to deal with a person like that can appreciate her delight in turning the tables on Deborah (the mother), and some of the pranks she and Nicholas play on each other along the line are both ridiculous and extremely funny.

You know, or at least you hope, from the outset that the two characters are going to end up together.  You can see from the outset that they’re both pretending to be people they aren’t in order to impress each other, and you root for them to reveal their true selves, even (especially) when those true selves are different from what you might expect.  Though it seems odd from Naomi’s point of view that Nicholas, the handsome dentist, really sees himself as a lumberjack kind of outdoorsman, when he starts living that persona, you can see how well it suits him and how happy it makes him.  As they get to know each other, and get to know themselves, they begin to build a real relationship, and the wedding his mother so meticulously and expensively planned for them turns into something else entirely.

The characters’ behavior teetered on the edge of credibility a couple of times (would someone really buy a house for himself and his fiancee without telling her about it beforehand?), but there was enough realism, and the characters were true enough that you’re willing to go along with even the more outlandish things they do.  

Of course there’s a happy ending.  Did I need to tell you that?  It’s a satisfying, earned happy ending, too, which makes it even better.

As a last thought, I would like to note that this is the second new novel I’ve read in the last few months in which a couple seemingly has fallen out of love, starts trying to trick each other, and finds themselves falling back in love (To Have and to Hoax being the other).  Now, it could be that this is a very common trope and I’d never run into it before, or it could be just a coincidence that these two books happened to come out in the same year.  Or it could mean something, and if I had to guess, I’d suggest it means that we readers want second chances. We want to believe that even when things look pretty dreadful, and people are behaving their worst, there’s still hope, and people can still claw their way to a happy ending.  Or maybe that’s just me.

GOING TO THE DOGS: NEW FICTION

If you’re a dog person, you’re in luck, because right now we have three very different books, all of which feature dogs as prime movers.  Whether you’re into romantic comedies or suspense or hard-to-characterize charming books, we’ve got something canine for you.

You might be tempted to take out Good Dogs Don’t Make it to the South Pole, by Hans-Olav Thybold, just on the basis of the title (and the front cover, which is adorable), and I wouldn’t blame you.  The point of view character and narrator of the book is an older dog by the name of Tassen, who describes himself as a one man dog.  Problem is, his man, Major Thorkildsen, dies at the beginning of the book, leaving Tassen with Mrs. Thorkildsen, the widow, neither of whom is all that attached to the other, at least at first. They both grieve the major’s death in unhealthy ways, Tassen by eating too many doggy treats and Mrs. Thorkildsen by drinking too much, but they begin to find a new interest in life by researching the South Pole expedition of Roald Amundsen and his pack of intrepid dogs.  When Mrs. Thorkildsen’s son and daughter-in-law, a grasping pair who want to get their hands on the family house, show up with plans to send Mrs. Thorkildsen to a nursing home (and to do heaven knows what with Tassen), the dog and widow find their inspiration and their own inner resources to stand up for themselves.

In the romantic comedy vein, we have You Lucky Dog, by Julia London.  Baxter is a basset hound rescue dog who’s gloomy and seriously lacking in energy.  If he were a person, he might be considered depressed.  He’s being fostered by Carly, whose life is in a complete uproar.  One day her dog walker drops off a completely different basset hound, Hazel, who’s pretty much Baxter’s opposite.  Meanwhile, Hazel’s owner, Max, is puzzled to have a sad male basset in place of his own lively Hazel.  When the two people meet to exchange their dogs, Baxter seems crazy about Hazel, and his own behavior starts improving.  And, well, you can guess what happens between the dogs’ people as well.  Yes, it’s a little corny to have pets bringing human beings together in romance, but when it’s done well, it can be a lot of fun.

And for those of you who are more interested in the dark side, we have Dean Koontz with his newest novel, Devoted.  Anyone who’s read Koontz (or just looked at his author pictures on the backs of his books) knows he’s crazy about dogs.  Look at Watchers, or The Darkest Evening of the Year, if you want proof.  Devoted starts with a child who’s mute.  Since his father’s death, Woody has been terrified that his father’s killer is after him and his mother, but unable to communicate that fear with anyone else, or so he thinks.  Kipp is a golden retriever of extraordinary gifts, and he picks up the boy’s unspoken communications, and sets out to find the boy and save him before the monstrous evil that is gathering around the boy and his mother destroys them.

There’s no better way to go to the dogs than by checking out our new books at The Field Library.