Allie Brosh is a national treasure.  Oh, sure, she hasn’t gotten one of those MacArthur “genius” grants or anything, but if you’ve ever read her Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Methods, Mayhem and Other Things that Happened, you’ll agree that her weird drawings and slightly warped stories are wonderful, laugh out loud funny and poignant as well.  Her description of her experience of serious depression in Hyperbole and a Half brings it home and makes it real in a way I’ve never seen before in more “serious” books about depression.  You’re just rooting for her to survive it, and so relieved when she does.

So when her newest book, Solutions and Other Problems, came out, of course I had to put it on hold immediately and put everything else aside to read it (this is, by the way, another reason why you shouldn’t have a rule that you can only be reading one book at a time, because you might be in the middle of one book and something else comes along that you absolutely have to read that very minute).  While I am a little disappointed that her online comic about her childhood experience with a dinosaur costume isn’t included here, the book is so good I’m willing to overlook that little slight.

While Solutions and Other Problems is, in many places, laugh out loud funny (her stories about her bizarre young neighbor who wants her to see the kid’s room, about how she stalked her neighbor when she was a child, and especially about how she and her boyfriend fight — this latter one is so true to life, anyone who’s been in a long term relationship can entirely see themselves in it), there’s also a lot of sadness.  Some heartbreaking things happen to Allie and her family in the course of the book, and it becomes clear why there was such a long hiatus between the last book and this one.  Her talking about death and about the end of relationships, and how she tried to cope (spoiler: not terribly well) is as brave and wrenching as her depiction of her battle with serious depression in her last book.  Allie comes across as someone who’s kind of different from most people in her likes, dislikes, and behavior.  The way she depicts herself, you can understand why she might have trouble making friends or acting the way normal people do, but you can still see what a fascinating person she is, and you care about her despite (or perhaps because of) her many quirks.  Throughout the later part of the book (the sadder part), I really was rooting for her to come through it all intact.

It’s a graphic “novel”, so it’s a very quick read, but it’s the sort of quick read that stays with you for a long time. I wish Allie Brosh wrote a book every year, or every two years, instead of making us wait for seven years between them, but what she writes is worth waiting for.  


I have long been a sucker for books about psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists in general, especially the insider kinds of books where a therapist talks about what happens with patients, how people change or don’t change, how the process works in the real world.  From books like The Making of a Psychiatrist by David Viscott, which I read in high school, through Irving Yalom’s Love’s Executioner (a great book, by the way, which I highly recommend), I love reading about what’s going on from the other side of the couch (or the desk, in more modern settings).  Which is why I was so delighted to read, and am delighted to recommend, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb.  If you’re like me and you’re curious about what it’s like to actually be a therapist, this is a fascinating glimpse into Gottlieb’s life and journey through therapy, on both sides of the couch.

She’s working with a variety of patients herself, whom we see through their interactions with her, but at the same time she’s reeling from a recent and surprising breakup with a boyfriend she was considering marrying, so Gottlieb finds a therapist (not easy, when most therapists know each other and it would be really awkward to be seeing one of your colleagues when you’re falling apart emotionally).  Her therapist turns out to be exactly what she needs, as she’s exactly what her patients need: someone who’s able to listen to her and help her find out what’s really bothering her so she can move forward (spoiler alert: it’s not just her boyfriend).  

She’s an excellent writer and brings her patients to vivid, idiosyncratic life (not too surprising, since her journey toward becoming a therapist started with her being a writer on the television series E.R.), even when they’re being most frustrating and annoying (the one patient who spends half his sessions on his cell phone and describes everybody around him as idiots comes to mind), and makes us care about them, as we care about her and the way she’s struggling to come to grips with her own mortality and her expectations of her life.  And here I have to give her kudos for not giving us all the gruesome details of her breakup; she makes it clear she obsessed over her boyfriend after the breakup and discussed him at great length with Wendell, her therapist, but she just gives us a summary.

The stories she tells are all about change, about people seeing themselves in different ways, even the people you think are likely to be the most hopeless and impossible to change.  This is the kind of book where someone’s showing a picture of his son on his cell phone is enough to bring you to tears, where a person dying of cancer comes across not as a “warrior” but as a human being who’s alternately scared and accepting of her fate.  It’s a fast read because she draws you into each patient’s problems and histories, and you really want to find out how they manage to work things out, if they’re going to work things out.

You don’t have to be as fascinated with the workings of therapy as I am to appreciate this book. Really, all you need is to be interested in your fellow human beings and the varied ways they struggle with the kinds of problems we all have to face, one way or another.  Read Maybe You Should Talk to Someone if you want a good, life-affirming read.


This week I’d like to highlight some new novels that stand out because of their quirky and fascinating premises, from a peculiar kind of immortality to a library in hell to suffragist witches.

Would you want to live forever if the price was that nobody would ever remember you?  That’s the question at the heart of The Invisible Life of Addie Larue, by V. E. Schwab, which just came out this week.  Addie makes that bargain in early 18th century France, and lives for hundreds of years, cursed to be that person no one remembers having met or having interacted with.  What exactly is immortality worth if you can’t make long-term connections?  If you can’t do anything that will have a lasting impact that people will connect to you?  On one hand, you don’t have the Tuck Everlasting problem where you have to move on periodically before people realize you’ve been around for an awfully long time and haven’t changed in that time.  On the other hand, the thrill of being able to do things and not have anyone remember you did them would wear rather thin after a hundred years or so.  What happens to Addie, what it means, when she finally meets a man who does remember her, is the heart of this new fantasy novel.

Of course hell has a library.  As established in The Library of the Unwritten by A. J. Hackwith (NOT a new book), there’s a special wing of hell’s library called The Library of the Unwritten, where all the books their authors never finished reside (eek, I probably have several books there myself).  The librarian, Claire, mostly works to keep the books in order and make sure no books try to manifest as characters and escape from the library.  She has help, of course, in the form of a former muse named Brevity, when one book attempts an escape, leading to a search for the Devil’s Bible and the near destruction of the entire library.  The Archive of the Forgotten, the sequel which just came out, begins in the aftermath of that near destruction, when Claire notices that some of the books are leaking a particular kind of ink. And, because this is a library in hell, that ink has some strange powers, and Claire and Brevity are immediately at odds about how to handle the situation, while other demons and forces are drawn to the possibilities the ink represents for changes in hell and heaven and all the other realms as well.

The linking of witches and suffragists is such a perfect concept that I’m amazed it hasn’t been taken up before.  Alix E. Harrow fills that gap with the new The Once and Future Witches, an alternate history like no others.  At the outset of the book,set in 1893, there are no witches; they’ve all been burned over the years, and magic is just small time stuff, good luck charms and the like.  But that’s before the three Eastwood sisters get together with the local New Salem suffragists.  The sisters, James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna, start investigating the old forgotten words and the powers their ancestors may have wielded, and all the people who fought against witchcraft in the past, and who are opposed to letting any women (especially witches) vote, join together to try to stop them. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll be able to bring about both political and magical power for women.  I’m actually willing to forgive the publisher for repeatedly referring to “suffragettes” rather than suffragists (a particular bugbear of mine), just for the prospect of seeing how witchcraft and votes work together in an alternate America.

Of course we have the usual bestsellers available for you, but why not try something new, something a little different, a little quirky, a little fun?  We’re here for you.


After an excellent and wide-ranging discussion of our October book, The Lost Man, by Jane Harper, the Field Notes Book Group chose The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, by David Treuer, for our meeting on November 21, 2020.

A bestseller short-listed for the National Book Award, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee is a sort of counterpoint to Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, written by a Native American novelist and trained anthropologist to present a fuller picture of Native American history, both before the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890 and since then. With novelistic detail and a reporter’s keen eye, Treuer shows us how the government’s efforts to steal land from Native Americans taught them sophisticated legal and political maneuvering, how the boarding schools that were supposed to destroy the native languages and cultures instead gave rise to a cultural sense of Indianness, and how conscription, military service and the movement of Native Americans to cities led to a greater sense of resistance and self-rule. If you’re under the impression that Native American history more or less ended with the Wounded Knee massacre, this book will be a real eye-opener.

Copies of the book will be available at the library’s circulation desk. If you’re not a member of the group but would like to join the discussion, please email me at nmulligan@wlsmail.org the week before the meeting and I’ll send you a link to join us. While the book is long (no two ways about that), the subject is fascinating and the writing top-notch, and we should have a great discussion as we learn more of our American history.


It’s that time of year, when the air is getting a little cooler, the leaves are beginning to change, and people are putting up Halloween decorations.  Libraries and bookstores aren’t immune to this impulse.  It’s an easy display for this season: horror for Halloween.

And yet, a lot of times those displays are pretty lazy.  Pull out a few Stephen King books, maybe add a Joe Hill book or two, and if you’re a traditionalist, some H. P.  Lovecraft or Dracula or Frankenstein or another classic, maybe jazzing things up by choosing a modern graphic novel version of the classics.  Yes, of course Stephen King is the person you think of first when you think of horror in America, but he’s not the only one writing horror, and a little imagination and outreach can give you a much better set of horror reads for Halloween (or anytime, really).

Lovecraft looms over the season in the same way Stephen King does, but rather than rereading “The Colour Out of Space” (no denying it, one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read) for the umpteenth time, why not try some of the modern takes on Lovecraft’s legacy?  You could try Carter and Lovecraft by Jonathan L. Howard (an amazing writer in general, btw), which puts together a descendant of H. P. Lovecraft and a former police officer in a creepy version of Providence, Rhode Island, peopled (maybe) with some of the terrifying creatures H.P. Lovecraft specialized in.  Or you could look at The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle, which takes one of Lovecraft’s most unfortunate stories and makes it both better and more frightening by placing it in its racist context.  

Still in the Lovecraft realm but looking at another of our infamous American true crime stories, there’s Maplecroft, by Cherie Priest, whose protagonist is the famous Lizzie Borden.  In this version, Lizzie certainly did kill both her father and her stepmother, but she had good reason to do so, because neither of them was human anymore.  Years after her acquittal, Lizzie is still keeping an eye out for the monsters trying to take over her part of New England.  It’s a gruesome but fascinating take on two different horror icons.

Or, if you’d like another horror take on an infamous true story, try Alma Katsu’s The Hunger, which deals with the famous Donner party.  If the cannibalism of the actual story isn’t horrible enough for you, Katsu adds a supernatural twist, an evil force dogging the pioneers on their doomed journey, making things worse all down the line.

If your taste runs to vampires, Guillermo del Toro came up with a unique twist on them in The Strain (the first book of a trilogy; in my opinion, it’s the best of the three, but feel free to read them all).  Or you could get a different take on the classic Dracula story in Anno Dracula by Kim Newman; after I read that, I could never look at the main characters of the original story in the same way (especially Dr. John Seward and Wilhelmina Harker).  Fans of Dracula should also check out Renfield, Slave of Dracula by Barbara Hambly (an excellent writer, though this is not her usual genre).

Nothing is sacred in good horror fiction: Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero, takes the familiar characters of the Scooby Doo series and asks what if, instead of the scary monster’s turning out to be someone wearing a monster suit who’s unmasked in the end, the scary monster the teens fought was really something supernatural and evil?  Grown up and separated (in one case by death), living shattered and shaken lives, the adult versions of the teenage monster chasers are reunited to look into that one last case of theirs.  Whether you loved Scooby Doo or found it annoying, this is a fun and creepy take that will cause you to question whatever you thought about the characters.

There are other books which might not be labelled “horror” in the local bookstore or the library, but which are horror in the deepest, most powerful way, book that undercut your very sense of reality.  Two that come readily to mind are The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley, a modern take on Beowulf (yes, really), which was suspenseful and creepy and kept you guessing until the very end, with a cast of characters as evil as the worst Stephen King villains, and The Changeling by Victor Lavalle, which won the World Fantasy Award the year it was published, and which turns on the worst nightmares any parents could experience, a book that kept me on edge throughout.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, of course, but it should get you thinking about what kind of horror is out there other than the most obvious and easy choices.  Do yourself a favor this Halloween season and read something other than the classics or Stephen King.  There’s a world out there just waiting to unnerve you.


After an invigorating zoom discussion of October’s selection, American by Day, the Field of Mystery Book Group voted on our selection for our November meeting, which will take place on November 7, once again by zoom. The book we chose is The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey.

The Widows of Malabar Hill is set in 1920’s Bombay, India, where Perveen Mistry is the only female lawyer in the entire city. Trained in Oxford, with a passion for protecting her fellow women, Perveen is the perfect person to work on the execution of the estate on which her firm is working. It seems the deceased, a Muslim, left three widows, all of whom signed away all their interests in his estate, despite the fact that doing so would leave them without any means of support whatsoever. In fact, one of the women signed her renunciation document with a mark, indicating that she’s illiterate, making the possibility of undue influence or some other kind of fraud all the more likely. The widows are in strict purdah, which means they cannot leave the women’s quarters of their home, nor can they speak to an unrelated man. Perveen, a woman and a lawyer, is the only one who can gain their trust and get to the bottom of the matter, which turns out to involve murder.

The best kind of mysteries, in my opinion, give you not only fascinating characters and a tightly woven plot, but insights into different times and cultures as well. The Widows of Malabar Hill promises to give us some splendid topics for discussion.

Copies of the book will be available at the Field Library Circulation Desk. If you want to join the discussion but aren’t currently a member of the group, send me an email at nmulligan@wlsmail.org the week before the meeting and I’ll give you the zoom link.


Since I am reasonably sure that neither my daughter nor my daughter-in-law read my blog, I can safely write about Anna Quindlen’s Nanaville (subtitled, Adventures in Grandparenting), without worrying that they might see this as yet another in a series of attempts on my part to encourage them to provide me with a grandchild.  And while Nanaville isn’t really a substitute for being a grandmother, it’s a charming read that’s the next best thing to being there, as they say.

Let’s start right off the bat by saying what the book isn’t.  It’s not one of those cutesy books about how adorable grandchildren, or this particular grandchild, are.  It’s not the literary equivalent of someone running through all forty or fifty pictures of themselves and their grandchild on their phone, with a commentary about each picture. 

Anna Quindlen is an excellent writer, and even in this field, where the temptation to gush is obviously powerful, she manages to restrain herself. Yes, the book is interspersed with chapters entitled “Small Moments,” which are detailed descriptions of experiences she’s had with Arthur, her first grandchild, including observations about what a “conversation” with a toddler is really like (“you talking a lot about various subjects, stopping while the toddler repeats a few words, intelligibly or not, and then adds a few things that sound more or less like something”), what happens when a toddler suddenly jumps, fully clothed, into a pool and how the grandmother reacts (how do you think?), what it’s like to watch a sleeping baby when all the advice about how to let babies sleep has changed dramatically since the grandmother’s children were babies, and the like. 

But that’s not the whole book, and in the other parts, she digs into what it means to be a grandparent today, how different her experience as a grandmother is from what she remembers of her own grandparents, and what she remembers of her bringing up her own children.  She writes wisely about how parenthood changed her son to someone who seems born to be a father (and a very different kind of father than his own), how important it is that the relationship between grandparents and daughters-in-law remain warm and open, and even about the special challenges of having a mixed race grandchild.  She’s open about her own failings as a grandparent, the great difficulty of keeping her mouth shut when her son and daughter in law are doing something she believes is wrong for their child, and her chastened understanding of why it’s so important to let the next generation do parenting their own way without disapproval from their elders.  She gives time and consideration to those grandparents who are actually raising their grandchildren, for whatever reasons, and those people who would love to be grandparents but who will never be. She comes across as wise and loving, observant and witty, the ideal kind of nana, the kind of grandmother I would be happy to be myself.

The book is short and charming, sweet but not saccharine, and insightful as well as funny.  It’s a good read for those of us who are grandparents or who hope someday to be.