EVERYTHING IS TEMPORARY

Some books are hard to describe, let alone review, and Hilary Leighter’s novel, Temporary, is definitely one of those books.  I enjoyed it a great deal; it’s a fast read brimming with humor and ideas, but at the same time it is set in a world that is at such a tangent to ours that it’s difficult to figure out what’s going on, how much you should be taking seriously and where the book is going.  Ultimately it’s one of those books you just have to dive into and let it take you wherever it’s going, rather than trying to force it to make conventional sense.

Our first person narrator is unnamed, though she frequently takes on the names of people she’s replacing.  She comes from a long line of women who work from one temporary job to another, aspiring to some kind of permanence but never quite achieving it (maybe).  So far this sounds reasonably normal, until I start describing the kinds of temporary jobs she takes on in the course of the book.  She’s a CEO of a corporation where she’s never worked and where she only has the vaguest idea of what the corporation is doing.  She joins a pirate ship, apparently doing bookkeeping and filing as well as the more usual pirate activities like making people walk the plank and killing prisoners. She works for a woman who owns millions of shoes the woman never wears or uses, her job to take care of the shoes. She works for a witch, delivering pamphlets which don’t seem to have any particular purpose or to have been created by any particular organization (though terrible things will happen if the pamphlets are not all distributed and later returned).  She works as a barnacle, as a ghost (which actually was one of my favorite jobs she has, especially since she doesn’t realize, at first, that she’s subbing for a ghost), as an assistant to a murderer who takes up with the woman who should have been one of his victims. 

The rest of her life is equally bizarre: she has a number of boyfriends, none of whom has a name she uses, all of whom end up living together in her apartment and serially marrying the head of the agency (if it is an agency) which employs our protagonist. Characters from one temporary job reappear later, in connection with other jobs.  She sees her role as taking on the whole personality of the one she’s replacing, to the point where she quizzes her coworkers about what this other person would have done in a particular situation.  Occasionally she actually meets, later on, the person she’s replacing (or she’s already met that person before she replaces her).  Various people she runs into know of each other though there’s no reason they should.  The world is absurd in the extreme.  If you’re looking for a book where one thing logically follows another, choose something else.  You will be endlessly frustrated by this one.

However, if you’re ready to throw yourself into a different world and enjoy the main character’s adventures without trying to force them to make sense, the book is great fun.  Our narrator is totally deadpan, so you can enjoy the ridiculous things happening around her, and appreciate the humor she doesn’t highlight or even seem to notice.  For all its absurdity and all the bizarre things happening in the course of the book, ultimately it all pulls together into a meditation on what really is permanence, what really is temporary, and why it might be better to be temporary, in the long run.  

GOING WITH THE CLASSICS: FEBRUARY FIELD NOTES SELECTION IS MRS. DALLOWAY

Once again the Field Notes Book Group regulars met via zoom to discuss our monthly selection, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (which for some reason I always want to write as How generalists triumph), and once again we had an invigorating discussion about expertise and breadth, about why it’s not possible to generalize about human abilities and niches, and about our own experiences with the issues the author raised.  And then, at the end of the meeting, we chose our book for February: Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf.

For some time members of the group have asked if we could read some of the classics as well as more modern books, and Mrs. Dalloway is, in some respects, a crossover book: a classic, for sure, but also one of the books that changed novels into their modern form.  On the surface, it’s a simple enough book: Clarissa Dalloway, an upper class British woman between the World Wars, spends a day doing her errands in preparation for a dinner party she’s throwing that night. But this book isn’t about plot: it’s about stream of consciousness, about how Woolf gets deep into the heart and mind of Clarissa and brings her and her world to life for us.  This is the kind of book where you just sink into the gorgeous sentences and want to live there forever, a different sort of novel from what we usually read, but I have every confidence our group can enjoy this and come prepared for an open, fascinating discussion about it.

Copies of the book will be available, as usual, at The Field Library Circulation Desk, and we will meet, again by zoom, on February 20 from 11 to 12:30.  If you’re interested in joining, send me a note at nmulligan@wlsmail.org, and I’ll send you the link to our next meeting.  Looking forward to a wonderful experience!

WHEN YOU’RE WRONG, YOU’RE WRONG: NEW THRILLERS

For those times when you need a distraction from all the craziness going on around you, a good thriller can be just the ticket.  Dive into someone else’s (fictional) troubles, and when you return to your own life, sometimes everything looks better by comparison.  If you’re in that kind of mood, there are a couple of new thrillers at The Field Library that might be what you’re looking for.  They both turn on someone’s being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the consequences that follow.

The Wrong Family, by Tarryn Fisher, has been compared to the Academy Award winning movie, Parasite.  Both involve a seemingly normal family that’s being infiltrated by other people without their knowledge, but that’s where the similarities end.  Juno is a retired therapist, suffering from a fatal illness, her time limited, when she finds her way into the Crouch household without their knowledge.  She likes the Crouches.  From the outside, at least, they seem to have the ideal life, a great marriage, a wonderful child.  Of course, nothing is as it seems on the outside, and Juno discovers that there are serious cracks in that so-called perfect life, that perfect marriage. Her instinct is to leave well enough alone; it’s not her business how they live their lives and she has some secrets of her own she would prefer remain secret.  But then she overhears a conversation between Winnie and Nigel Crouch that strikes her as so dangerous she really has to intervene, maybe set some things right.  Told by both Juno and Winnie, this is one of those thrillers that keeps you guessing and rethinking your assumptions about what you’ve already seen and heard.

Christina Dodd’s book, Wrong Alibi, is set in Alaska, which already starts you with potential issues of isolation and dangerous weather.  Evelyn Jones, the protagonist, got a job in a small town for a man in an isolated house, and everything went well until one day her employer disappeared and she found herself charged with embezzlement, theft, and a horrible double murder.  Her protestations of innocence meant little, and she was convicted and faced life in prison, until she escaped.  Now, she’s changed her name, and gone into hiding from her family and the rest of the world,  working  in a wilderness camp, yearning for justice and for revenge.  And then finally the missing man returns to her life, and now at last she has her chance to make things right . . . maybe.  Her antagonist is more dangerous than she suspected and this time it’s her family who might pay the price.

Do two wrongs make a right?  Maybe, if they’re The Field Library’s new thrillers. Check them out.

MYSTERY ON THE RESERVATION FOR FEBRUARY: WINTER COUNTS

The Field of Mystery Book Group met on Saturday, January 9, 2021, and had an interesting and vigorous discussion about our January book, Long Bright River, which we agreed wasn’t really a murder mystery but which deserved our attention for the book’s characters, who were flawed and realistic and intriguing, as well as for the book’s depiction of the opioid crisis and its effects on whole neighborhoods.  After that, we chose our book for February, which is Winter Counts, by David Heska Wanbli Weiden.

Winter Counts is set on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Our protagonist, Virgil Wounded Horse, is a half-breed member of the Lakota tribe living on the reservation.  He’s hired by people to dish out “justice” to people who managed to evade the tribal justice system and the Federal criminal system (if you’re picturing a Native American version of Dexter Morgan, you’re in the right ballpark).  When heroin starts coming onto the res, touching his nephew who lives with him, Virgil joins up with a former girlfriend and sets out to find where the heroin is coming from and how to shut it down.  Naturally, this is much more complicated and dangerous than even Virgil (who gets beat up by one of his quarries in the first chapter of the book) anticipated, and ultimately leads him to the intersection of Native American politics and drugs, and painful questions about his own heritage and where he fits in.

The book has been consistently listed as one of the best mysteries of 2020, and it looks as if it will lead to some fascinating insights and another great discussion.  Copies will be available at The Field Library shortly, and, because the meeting will be conducted, once again, over zoom, if you’re interested in joining in, just send me a note at nmulligan@wlsmail.org, and I will be happy to give you the link.

GOODREADS TOP NONFICTION OF THE YEAR, AT THE FIELD

Last week I introduced you to the Goodreads winners of best books in various fiction categories for the year 2020 which are available here at The Field Library. Now it’s time to shine the spotlight on the nonfiction winners which you can check out from The Field Library as well.

The overall nonfiction winner is Stamped : Racism, Antiracism and You, by Ibram X Kendi, a young adult revision of Kendi’s bestselling and award-winning Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.  In a year which saw massive protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the beginning of a reckoning with racism in America, it’s not surprising that this was the most popular nonfiction book on Goodreads, beating out other worthy contenders.  The book retraces the history of racist ideas in America, demonstrating how they were created and enforced not because of ignorance but to reinforce discriminatory practices and racial inequalities.

The Goodreads winner in the category of Memoir and Biography is incredibly unsurprising:  A Promised Land by Barack Obama, which has topped the bestseller lists for weeks.  President Obama has always been an eloquent speaker and writer, and his memoir, which takes us from his childhood, his education and his early experiences as a community organizer and then Senator through his first term as a groundbreaking president.  He writes honestly about the challenges of the office and the frustrations of presidential power, but also about the things he and his supporters achieved.

Isabel Wilkerson, who won the Pulitzer prize for her last book, The Warmth of Other Suns, followed it up with the book Goodreads readers chose as the best book of history and biography for 2020: Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. The book is a bestseller and longlisted for the National Book Award for 2020.  Wilkerson’s special skill is illuminating a less-known aspect of culture or history, and here she undermines one of America’s most popular myths, that we don’t have a class system in this country.  She argues that, not only do we have a caste system, but our racial caste system was used as a model by Nazi Germany for their discrimination against and ultimate genocide of Jewish people.  She shows how the insidious caste system works, here and in other countries, and the price people pay for its ravages.

David Attenborough is known throughout the world for his documentaries about the natural world.  In his latest book, A Life on Our Planet, which won the Goodreads award for Science and Technology, he looks back over his life and his experiences with the natural world, discussing all the huge changes that have occurred to nature over the last century, which have often been so subtle and so ongoing that we’ve managed to miss their significance. It’s the story of how humanity has brought our world to the brink of disaster, and also how we can, even now, save it for future generations.  There are few people who have a better platform to raise these issues with such personal fervor and the chance of being heard and listened to; Attenborough might be one of them.

And finally, because the year 2020 has been such a nosebleed all around, in the area of food and cookbooks, the Goodreads winner is Ina Garten’s Modern Comfort Food: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook.  Just the words “comfort food” sound good after the year we’ve had, and Garten knows what she’s doing, choosing foods many of us remember from childhood and making them a little more complex (grilled cheese sandwiches with chutney, or smashed hamburgers with caramelized onions, for instance), or making them easier for modern, time-starved cooks to make on a regular basis. When people are in quarantine or anxious about health issues, a lot of people have turned to home cooking, and you can hardly get a friendlier guide than Garten.

So check them out.  See what your fellow readers believe are the best of the best for 2020.  They’re all here at The Field Library.