NONFICTION FOR FANTASY

Recently I took out the most gorgeous book, The Home Edit: A Guide to Organizing and Realizing Your House Goals, by Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin.  As is often the case with me, I had seen this book pass through my hands a number of times before I finally took it out (an advantage of working on the circulation desk is that you get to see everything at least once), but finally I just couldn’t resist it. It really is a wonderful book, and the pictures alone are sufficient to dazzle anyone, especially someone like me who loves colors (the more vivid the better).  I read through it with interest, oohed and aahed at the pictures and the concepts, and imagined what my house would look like if I did the things the authors recommend.

I have such a weakness for books about how to declutter, how to organize, how to make your home a haven and not a pigsty.  I’ve read dozens, I’ve even bought some and kept them in my home library for years. I devour those books wholescale.

Is my home organized?  Does anything whatsoever in my house look the faintest bit like the gorgeous mudrooms and kitchen drawers and children’s rooms in The Home Edit?  Not in a million years. In fact, if you pictured any of the illustrations in that book and then tried to imagine the exact opposite, you’d have my house. Maybe. 

The thing that’s interesting to me is that I do this with certain kinds of nonfiction books.  It’s an actual pattern.  It’s not just organizing books, it’s also cookbooks, and writing books and even (to some extent) quilting books. I take them out. I read them. I love reading them. If they have great pictures, so much the better, but I don’t even need illustrations for the most part. I can just imagine myself doing the things in the books, and it’s pure pleasure. At this stage of the game, I know for a fact that I am not going to DO anything with those books, those ideas (in fact, if I make even one or two recipes from a book I take out of the library, that’s a sign I need to own the book, and I buy it). I am taking them out solely for the fantasy they allow me to indulge, that I could be a person whose house is organized and beautiful, a person who cooks these exotic dishes, a person who would use this particular method of writing or quilting. 

Even though books are nonfiction, even though they might be self-help books, the moral of the story is that you can still enjoy them without having the slightest intention of doing anything they tell you to do.  Nonfiction can be a source of fantasy, too.  

A DIFFERENT KIND OF WESTERN: OUTLAWED

I would not have called myself a fan of westerns, either books or movies, and yet, I was charmed and delighted by the new book, Outlawed, by Anna North, which is, at least in outward form, a western.  What made it so much fun to read was the way the author tilted and twisted the conventions of westerns, mixing them with some alternate history and some feminism, giving us some of the accouterments of the classic western (gangs of outlaws on the run from the sheriffs, people riding horses and stagecoaches, small farming and ranching communities, etc.) and some quirky additions.  What we end up with is a book that’s both oddly familiar in its trappings and at the same time unpredictable and surprising.

The alternate history is alluded to without turning into an info dump.  This book is set in 1894, in what would have been the western United States, if there were such a thing as the United States anymore.  In this world, though, there was a terrible flu epidemic in the 1830’s which wiped out vast swaths of the population, including much of the government.  The characters in this book live in the post-flu world, where the political structures we expect in westerns exist only in skeletal form, and the social changes that resulted from that pandemic are well-established. 

For instance, having children is very important for women. People marry young and women are expected to get pregnant in the first year of their marriage, and keep having children thereafter. Any woman who has difficulty conceiving or carrying a child to term is in trouble.  If it’s her “fault”, she’s considered barren and pretty much worthless. If it’s not really her “fault,” there has to be someone else to blame, and witchcraft is assumed to be the cause of miscarriages and failures to conceive.  This feels plausible: as one midwife explains, people really don’t understand much about human reproduction and why things go wrong, and if they can’t get a scientific explanation, then at least they need to blame someone, and there’s plenty of historical precedent for societies to turn on women as witches when things go wrong.

Ada, our protagonist and narrator, is the daughter of a midwife, and has some skills in that area as well, though she’s frustrated by the lack of information her society has about how to help women during pregnancy and childbirth.  She does what’s expected of her: she gets married to a local boy when she’s 17, she tries to start a family, and she doesn’t get pregnant.  Things start to go wrong then: there’s an outbreak of German measles that leads to other young women losing their babies, and, naturally, no antibiotics or vaccinations.  Such a tragedy needs a scapegoat and Ada fits the bill.

She runs away, first to a convent (but don’t expect it to be like the Catholic convents you know; though there is a form of Christianity in this America, what we see of it suggests it’s very different from the one prevalent in our America), and then, when that doesn’t work out, she sets out to find the legendary group of outlaws, the Hole in the Wall Gang, known for their outrageous robberies and their defiance of the law.  Ada figures she can find sanctuary with them, and she does, though it’s not as simple as you might think.

All the members of the gang are women.  They’ve all lived hard lives and escaped from the dangers of living as a barren woman, or a fallen woman, to join up with The Kid, a charismatic and enigmatic figure, formerly a preacher and still given to quoting from the Bible to support the Kid’s plans and ideas.  Ada does not fit in right away (and here I give props to North; it would have been easy, even cliche, for her to discover her true self among this group of outlaw women immediately, but it’s much more realistic in the circumstances for her to have to find her way and deal with the suspicions and doubts of her more experienced peers).  She doesn’t shoot well,  she doesn’t know how to ride when she first joins them, and she seems pretty out of place. The thing that saves her, and ultimately makes her one of the group, is her medical ability (such as it is; remember we don’t have a lot of technology or modern medicine here).

The Kid comes up with a complicated plan involving robbing a bank in town and using the bank’s resources to take over the town and make it into a haven for women who don’t fit in elsewhere.  It’s a lovely vision, but half the women in the group are against it: too dangerous, relying too much on chance, too big.  Ada finds herself on the Kid’s side, wanting to help create this utopian town,  and she joins in the preparations for the heist.

Naturally, things are more complicated than the Kid anticipated. Naturally things don’t work according to plan, and this is where the book turns into a quick paced adventure story, as the women try to bend events to suit their original plan and cope with the inevitable moments when things go wrong.   I won’t give any spoilers (though I did say I enjoyed the book, so you might guess that it’s not a total downer) because I don’t want to spoil the fun. 

Part of what makes this book such a great quick read is the characters. Ada, the Kid,  Lo, News, Elzy, Cassie, Lark: they’re all vivid people with different pasts shaping their personalities and their ways of reacting to their world. They’re all flawed, fallible people who make mistakes and then try to fix them, but they’re also all people you care about and want to see succeed, whatever “success” turns out to be.

Realistic enough to be believable, different enough to be unpredictable, lively and quick-paced, Outlawed is a great western for people who don’t think they like westerns.

APRIL FIELD NOTES SELECTION: CLAIRE OF THE SEA LIGHT

Thanks to everybody who came to our Field Notes Book Group meeting this past Saturday to discuss Perestroika in Paris, by Jane Smiley.  We had a good discussion about the book, most of us relieved to read something with a happy ending in these difficult times.  When the time came to pick our book for April, we chose Claire of the Sea Light, by Edwidge Danticat.  Copies of the book will be available at the Circulation Desk at The Field Library shortly.

Claire of the Sea Light is set in Ville Rose, Haiti, a small fishing village.  The title character is a young girl whose mother died of childbirth, and whose father has been having increasing difficulty taking care of her as he feels he should.  He has been considering for some time whether he should give Claire to the shopkeeper, who recently lost a child of her own and who would be better able to provide for Claire, but by the time he comes to his decision, something terrible has happened: Claire herself has disappeared.  As the village comes together to search for her, secrets are revealed, memories are unearthed, and the depths of the connections among the people of Ville Rose are brought to poetic life in Danticat’s luminous prose.

We’re looking forward to another interesting discussion on April 17 from 11 to 12:30 via zoom.  If you’re interested in joining the discussion but aren’t already a member of the group, send me an email the week of the meeting at nmulligan@wlsmail.org, and I’ll send you an invitation.  Come and join us!

HELL HATH NO FURY: THE ECHO WIFE

At first glance, Sarah Gailey’s new novel, The Echo Wife, seems to be telling an old, familiar story.  Evelyn, the protagonist, is a female scientist, dedicated to her work to the point where she doesn’t realize that her husband is cheating on her for some time.  And when she does discover his infidelity, it’s through the age-old tell of a hair that’s not hers on his clothing.  After he moves out, Evelyn meets with her replacement, and realizes that the other woman, Martine, is pregnant.  Evelyn’s refusal to have a child with her husband, Nathan, was one of the last straws in their marriage, and Evelyn lashes out at Martine.  Later that night, she gets a panicked call from Martine who has, it turns out, killed Nathan as a result of what Evelyn told her.*

However, the book is far from cliche, and there are a few details that make the situation absolutely unique.  For one thing, Evelyn’s work involves creating clones of human beings, designed to exist for a short time and then be destroyed.  Her former husband, Nathan, stole her work and some of her genetic information and used them to create Martine, who is Evelyn’s clone.  He modified her personality to some extent, making her more docile, less likely to challenge him, and he hid her away from the public.  What really horrifies Evelyn about Martine’s pregnancy is not that she’s giving Nathan what Evelyn refused to (though that’s clearly a factor), but that she’s pregnant at all.  Clones are supposed to be sterile.

When Evelyn helps Martine deal with Nathan’s body and the aftermath of his murder, she has purely selfish motives: if anyone finds out about Martine’s existence, Evelyn’s work will be fatally compromised.  She’ll never get funding again, and she’ll never be able to continue in the field at all.  Her feelings toward Nathan, the possibility that someone might think she was responsible for his death (after all, any fingerprints would be hers), don’t even come into her calculations.

Of course, in any murder story, there’s the question of dealing with the body, and with the inevitable questions when someone just disappears, and Evelyn and Martine handle that problem in a surprising, but totally logical, way.  I wouldn’t dream of giving away any of the details, but suffice it to say that each solution they come up with leads to different problems, and this is a real page turner of a plot.

It’s a page turner without any of the usual accouterments of a thriller.  This isn’t a book where there’s the equivalent of an Inspector Javert, hunting Evelyn or Martine down, trying to find out what happened to Nathan.  It isn’t a book where the police are involved at all.  The threats are more subtle, more internal, but nonetheless real.

Evelyn is quite a character.  Her work requires a certain level of what might seem like callousness: watch the way she describes autopsying a “specimen” or how she and her assistant “condition” a clone before waking it up.  It takes a special kind of mind to look at one’s dead ex husband and compare the amount of blood on the floor to how many pitchers of spilled beer would be the equivalent.  She’s not heartless, but she is calculating to an extent that might seem a bit off-putting.  Part of that is due to her job, but she chose her field, and she chose the constraints she works with there.  A large part of her basic approach to life is a result of her childhood, and here Gailey shows how skillful a writer she is. Evelyn gives us dribs and drabs of her past, subtly letting us know what the conditions in her family household were and how she ended up the way she is without ever saying anything outright, let alone bludgeoning us with melodrama.

This is the kind of book I would love to discuss with a book group.  The questions that arise are questions about consent and responsibility, among other things. Martine’s very existence, so different from what clones are usually created to be, raises serious moral questions about Evelyn and about Nathan, about free will and choice.  Watching Evelyn create a clone and condition it is an unsettling experience; having Martine watch the creation of a clone and consider her origins is even more so. Over the course of the book, Evelyn’s relationship with Martine changes gradually: she initially doesn’t feel Martine’s responsible for what she does because she’s just a thing, a programmed object, but by the end of the book she’s thinking of Martine as a person like herself (and that whole “like herself” issue forces Evelyn, and the reader, to consider what makes Evelyn Evelyn and whether anyone could ever really be an exact duplicate of someone else).  

My husband read this before I did, and when he gave it to me, he said, “It has a happy ending.” And it does, sort of, probably the only kind of happy ending a story like this could have.  It is a satisfying ending, certainly.  Evelyn is not the sort of person who is ever going to get a “happily ever after” kind of conclusion, but people get what they deserve, for the most part.  I’m sorry I can’t say more about it, but a lot of the fun of the book is the way it twists and turns, and I am not going to spoil that fun for anyone here. 

If you want a good read that will keep you guessing and make you think, you could hardly do better than The Echo Wife. Give it a try.

*What, you don’t read the kind of books where the other woman kills the cheating husband and calls on the first wife for help?  You’re not reading enough thrillers, obviously.  Just kidding.

COMING ATTRACTIONS: AFTER THE END OF HUMANITY: FERAL CREATURES

I don’t often do this.  I usually know several months in advance when certain books are coming out, and usually I keep my thoughts about those books to myself, at least until the books in question are imminent, because what’s the point of getting all excited about something you’re not even going to see for six months?  

However, upon discovering that one of my favorite books of 2019 — and maybe one of my favorite books of all time — is about to get a sequel published this year, I just can’t resist sharing the good news. 

The original book, Hollow Kingdom, by Kira Jane Buxton, was a different kind of post-apocalyptic book, funny and harrowing, heartbreaking and exciting at the same time, narrated by S.T., a formerly domesticated crow who has to cope with the plague that basically destroys humankind (or mofo’s, as he refers to them) and his own dual nature.  The sequel, which is called Feral Creatures, will be published in August, and I can already guarantee that I will be buying that book for the library.

I’m announcing this with somewhat mixed emotions. On one hand, I will be so delighted to see more of S.T. and his world, and I’m looking forward to the author’s vision of post-humanity. On the other hand (and this is a problem I often have with sequels in general), I’m a little afraid that the sequel won’t be as good as the original.  Hollow Kingdom ended in a very satisfying way.  It didn’t need a sequel; the issues it raised were all resolved. I would really hate to see a sequel undoing some of the wonderful aspects of the original book. I suppose we can trust the author, who did such an excellent job with Hollow Kingdom, to show the same kind of care in a sequel. The length of time between the original and the sequel gives me some reason for hope: it’s not rushed through to make a buck.

In any event, for anyone who, like me, loved S.T., and was moved by the end of humanity in Hollow Kingdom, all I can say is stay tuned, and prepare to put Feral Creatures on hold in August. 

FIELD OF MYSTERY CHECKS OUT A CLASSIC AUTHOR: THE CHIMNEY SWEEPER’S BOY

You know how I’ve said a book everybody likes doesn’t always lead to the best discussions in book group?  Well, the FIeld of Mystery Book Group’s discussion of The Word is Murder, by Anthony Horowitz, this past Saturday proved me wrong.  Everybody in the group enjoyed the book, but, instead of having a dull discussion where everybody said, “Yeah, I liked that,” or some variation on that, we had a really fun encounter in which everybody referred to a favorite detail of the book, something especially amusing or clever, and I (at least) laughed a great deal. Somehow we managed to find time to choose our next book for April, and this time we went with a classic mystery writer: Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine (one of her aliases).

The book in question, which has already been ordered and should be behind the circulation desk at The Field Library within a week, is The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy.  Not your typical mystery setup, this begins with the death of a bestselling, critically acclaimed author, quite unexpected, and the efforts of his widow and two surviving daughters to deal with their loss.  One of the daughters decides she’s going to write a biography of her father as a way to cope with her grief, which seems like a good idea until she actually starts the research.  Her own life falls to pieces as she finds out more and more about what her father was really like, why her mother acted so remote, why her father was driven to reinvent himself repeatedly, and, most disturbingly, some new details about an old, unsolved murder.

Because it’s Ruth Rendell, you can be sure the writing will be superb, the characterization detailed and psychologically in depth, and the plot impeccable.  I’m hoping for another great discussion, though perhaps without quite so much humor this time around. 

HAVE FUN BEING RUTHLESS: THE RUTHLESS LADY’S GUIDE TO WIZARDRY

Are you in the mood for a fantasy novel with excellent worldbuilding, a driving plot, terrific characters and a great sense of humor?  You’re in luck, because The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry, by C. M. Waggoner, is exactly that fantasy novel.

We’re introduced to the world of Dellaria Wells, known as Delly or Dell to her friends and intimates.  She’s a great character: down on her luck, living by her wits, a fire witch but not formally trained and not in a position to use those skills to make her life better.  She’s also a con artist and a grifter, living in what could charitably be called a dump of an apartment, whose rent she’s fallen behind on again.  Her mother is addicted to the drug known as Drip, and Delly feels exasperatedly responsible for her mother, yearning to send her to a treatment place somewhere out of the city where she can get herself together.  Considering Delly’s financial situation (dire), this dream seems impossible.

Until Delly gets recruited into a job acting as a sort of magical bodyguard for a rich woman who’s about to get married but whose life has been threatened by unknown people. Suddenly she has the prospect of paying back her rent and maybe making enough extra to take care of her mother.  Not only is there the prospect of earning some money honestly, but Delly immediately takes note of one of her fellow bodyguards, Winnifer Cynallumwynsurai, Winn for short.  Winn is tall, part troll and clearly from a very high class and probably rich family, and Delly sets her sights on Winn as a potential future lover, someone who can be conned into taking care of Delly and helping her live in the style to which she’d like to become accustomed, at least for a while.  

The magical and other talents of the rest of the party are soon tested, as some horrible artificial monsters attack the group on multiple occasions, and the plot thickens when one of the characters is killed to provide life force for the artificial monsters.  The mother of the deceased character vows revenge, a sizable reward is offered for the perpetrator, and Delly finds herself involved in creating drugs and attempting to infiltrate the gang of a very dangerous aristocrat, all the while attempting to seduce Winn (who is clearly sweet on Delly and doesn’t realize how mercenary Delly’s motives are — or are they?) and to keep from getting killed herself.  The plot is full of twists and turns, the world is vivid and alive, the magic makes sense and isn’t an easy out for any of the characters, and you’re carried along on Delly’s sharp observations and humorous appraisals of the other characters and the events around them.

The best part of the book, as far as I’m concerned, is the characters. Not only is Delly herself, our narrator and point of view character, a prize, but the people she’s dealing with are all vivid and entertaining in their own ways. Winn is stalwart and lovable, honest and straightforward, and I can’t help it if she reminds me so much of the character of Chummey in Call the Midwife that I hear all her dialogue in that actress’s voice (since I love that character, this is an added attraction).  She and Delly absolutely deserve each other and I mean that in the best possible way.  Another outstanding character is Mrs. Totham, an older woman who is, in her words, a “body scientist”, a nice way of saying “necromancer”; she’s absolutely charming despite her unusual magical skills, she’s very fond of birds in general, and she’s the sort of elderly eccentric aunt you would want to have around if you’re involved in a nefarious adventure. Even characters who only appear briefly are given real personality (Mittens, a would-be kidnapper, comes to mind, as does Rat, a pawnbroker and go-between).

The book doesn’t just have a happy ending, it has a satisfying happy ending, and while there is a hint that a sequel could perhaps happen, that would be fun (I would love to see more of these characters) but not necessary.

For an enjoyable romp of a book, you could hardly do better than The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry. Check it out!