NOT ALL HISTORICAL FICTION . . .

Look, I’m as interested in World War II as the next person, even as much as the next history buff, but lately it feels as if nearly every historical novel has to be about World War II in some way, shape or form.  I understand that WWII is a big deal (its being a “world war” would suggest that), and there are all kinds of stories to be told about it, from stories of battles to stories of the home fronts, from stories of the Holocaust to stories of resistance.  It’s just that if you’re talking about history, WWII covers a mere 6 years, and there’s so much more history to read and learn about than this one relatively small period.  I won’t speculate about why there’s so much fiction focusing on this, but if you’re like me and you’re looking for historical novels about something OTHER than WWII, here are some alternatives that might interest you, or at least prove a palate cleanser before you go back to the numerous WWII books.

The most modern of the bunch I’ll be talking about today is Kristin Hannah’s The Four Winds, which is set (unsurprisingly, given the title) during the Dust Bowl of the Depression (so, early 1930’s).  The protagonist is Elsa Woolcott, a young single mother trying to raise two children on a farm on a Texas farm when the land itself seems to turn against them.  Like the Joad family of The Grapes of Wrath, Elsa takes a chance on the promise of California, and, like the Joads, discovers that it’s not all it’s been promised to be, as she faces discrimination, poverty and the hardships of life as a migrant farmer.  

If that’s too recent for you (and maybe too depressing, though it’s a Kristin Hannah book and therefore there’s likely to be a reasonably happy ending), you could skip back to the 1920’s with Catherine Coulter in Blind Tiger, her latest.  Our main characters are a veteran of World War I, who, on coming into a town in Texas, finds himself, as a stranger, the obvious suspect in the abduction of a local woman, and a woman who becomes successful as the owner of a speakeasy and thereby earns herself a lot of enemies. Coulter doesn’t usually do historical fiction, but her suspense novels are well-known and she’s done her research into the time and place for this one.

Even Prohibition is a little overdone in historical fiction (not recent historical fiction, to be sure, but in general), so why not go a little farther back in time with The Lost Apothecary, by Sarah Penner.  While this has one of my less favorite tropes (the modern story paralleling the historical story — see here), the historical part of the story, set in the 1790’s in London, has an intriguing plot.  Nella is the apothecary of the title, and she sells potions to women who need to get rid of a dangerous man in their lives, husband, father, whoever.  Given the state of forensics in those days, it was quite possible for a person to get away with murder via poison, and Nella and her clients take advantage of that, until one of her clients makes a mistake that could jeopardize Nella and everyone associated with her.

And finally, you can go all the way back to the aftermath of the Trojan War in Pat Barker’s latest novel Women of Troy.  In the aftermath of the fall of Troy, the Greeks are stuck on the shores of Illium, quarreling among themselves, having killed off all the warriors of Troy, even the male children of some of them, while the women, formerly queens and ladies, now slaves and prizes of conquest, watch them and try to figure out what their fates will be.  The book jumps off from Euripides’ play, The Trojan Women, and looks unflinchingly at what the lives of the women in the Iliad were like in the face of war, and the timelessness of their fates and their emotions.

If you love World War II fiction, congratulations!  This is a golden time for you.  But if you’re looking for some different historical fiction, check out some of the other eras and worlds portrayed in these recent books at The Field Library.

REMEMBER: FIELD NOTES SEPTEMBER SELECTION

If you’re the kind of person who takes it personally when a book you’re crazy about is NOT a book your book group is crazy about, you probably shouldn’t be running a book group.  This Saturday the Field Notes Book Group discussed One Night Two Souls Went Walking, our August selection, and most of the people were pretty “meh” about the book, if not outright disliking it.  As you know from reading this blog, I loved that book, and reading it again for book group made it clear that I still love it.  However, we still had an excellent discussion, centering on souls and on lies and ethical behavior, and we almost didn’t have time to vote on our book for September.  Somehow we managed to come to a decision and the book we’ve chosen is Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting, by Lisa Genova.

Genova is mostly known for her novel, Still Alice, a heartrending book about a woman slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s Disease and losing everything she’s worked for in her life.  However, the author is not only a skilled novelist, but also a neuroscientist, and in this nonfiction book, she tackles the issues of memory from the scientific side.  How do we remember things in the first place?  What makes something a short term memory (like someone’s phone number you’re only going to call once) as opposed to a long term memory (like your wedding day)?  How much forgetting is “normal” as you age, and when should you start worrying about memory issues?  What can you do to improve your memory, your ability to form memories in the first place and your ability to retrieve a memory later?  

The joke is obvious, so of course I have to make it: don’t forget to join us on September 18 at the Field Library to discuss this fascinating book about memory and forgetting.  Copies of the book will be available at the Circulation Desk of the library, and there will be coffee and donuts (and other goodies, no doubt) the day of the meeting.  

ONCE AND FUTURE: SWORD STONE TABLE

There’s just something about the stories of King Arthur and the Round Table, the knights and the chivalry and the ideals, that just speaks to people.  I fell in love, personally, with the stories when I was between 8th and 9th grades and I discovered T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, and since then I have read I don’t know how many different versions of the stories, some set in modern times, some set in quasi-historical times, some set in the future. Some of them, like Marion Zimmer Bradley’sThe Mists of Avalon, have become almost canonical themselves, and some were more successful than others.  I am such a sucker for these stories that of course I devoured the new anthology Sword Stone Table, edited by Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington.  The short stories in the collection are more inclusive and more diverse than the originals, and shed new and interesting lights on the stories I’ve known for most of my life. 

Naturally, with a collection of short stories by different authors, there are going to be some that resonate with me more than others.  The ones that are good are excellent, and even the ones I wasn’t that crazy about were entertaining to read. 

Among the best was “The Once and Future Qadi”, by Ausma Zehenat Khan, which imagines that King Arthur consulted a famous Muslim jurist in Cordoba, Spain (in the middle ages known as Al Andalus and a center of Islamic culture) in the matter of Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot.  Having an outsider’s perspective on medieval Christianity and the whole Arthurian ideal is intriguing, and Yusuf, the jurist, is such an educated and intelligent person that it’s a pleasure to spend time in his company.

“I Being Young and Foolish” by Nisi Shawl is another outstanding story, which focuses on Merlin and Nimue, here Nia, an albino woman with magic of her own coming from Uganda to learn Merlin’s magic.  Again, we have an outsider with a completely different angle on Camelot and on the famous Merlin, and Nia is an excellent narrator, curious and confident.

In a more traditional vein, we have Elaine, Lancelot’s lover and the mother of Galahad, telling her story in “Passing Fair and Young” by Roshani Chokshi, and making what was always a difficult story into something charming and beautiful.  I’ve never been a big fan of Lancelot myself, but Chokshi makes him into a human being and much less of a jerk than he comes across in most versions of the story. 

And oh my God, I thought I loved Maria Dahvana Headley after reading The Mere Wife, but her story, “Mayday,” which sets the events of Camelot in turn of the century America and makes Arthur into a would-be presidential candidate and charismatic figure, is one of the best things in a book filled with excellent stories, and makes me love her all the more.  Structured as a list of things for sale at an auction, the story is fractured and beautiful, the description of each piece in the auction acting as another piece of the mosaic, making the reader do the work of putting it all together.  Knowing the original story and seeing how she rethinks it makes the story even more brilliant.  I am now going to look up the rest of her writing and read all of it.

“Jack and Brad and the Magician,” by Anthony Rapp is another more contemporary vision of Merlin and what he might have been up to in New York City during the AIDS epidemic.  The love and gentleness of this story is enough to break your heart, and this is a much more human Merlin than the traditional version.

Bringing in outsider perspectives, adding queer angles and more diverse insights into the Arthurian legend stories is a brilliant undertaking and if you have any interest in these old and beloved stories, and any curiosity in what could possibly be done to make them new again, you owe it to yourself to read Sword Stone Table.

MURDER AND MEMORY CARE: THE GRANDMOTHER PLOT

Caroline Cooney knows what she’s doing as a writer.  You may be familiar with her name from her young adult books, such as The Face on the Milk Carton and its sequels, but she’s started writing books for adults now, and her most recent, The Grandmother Plot, is pretty much pitch perfect. It’s got a compelling plot, vivid and complicated characters, and it basically picks you up and carries you along to the satisfying conclusion.

Freddy, our main protagonist, is a 26 year old young man whose life is a mess.  His older sisters think he’s irresponsible and something of a loser.  He doesn’t have a job, he’s living in his grandmother’s house and collecting his deceased mother’s Social Security because he never told the government she’s dead.  He’s driving his grandmother’s car, without insurance, and he has foolishly gotten himself involved with some very shady people.  When he tries to back out of a money laundering scheme he’d fallen into, he angers people who are not likely to be forgiving.

He’s terrible at planning ahead, he panics and does stupid things, and he’s aware that he’s doing stupid things even as he does them (at one point he compares his brains, unfavorably, with those of roadkill).

However, Freddy is lovable.  He’s lovable because he has taken on the responsibility of looking after his grandmother who has dementia and is living in a memory care facility.  He uprooted his life and moved across the country to take care of her, and when he could no longer do so, he got her settled in this facility and he visits her frequently, even though she doesn’t recognize him and forgets, from one day to the next, that he’s even been there.  In his whole life, his grandmother was the one person who loved him unconditionally, and nothing is going to stop him from taking care of her, even if he sometimes forgets to take care of himself. He’s kind to the staff at the place and to the other people visiting their memory-challenged relatives.

Freddy is an artist in glass.  He makes the most exquisite beads, which don’t make him much money (and which his sisters consider a waste of time).  He also makes pipes for smoking marijuana, which make him a lot more money but have also gotten him in trouble with the aforementioned money launderers.

The other main character in the book is Laura, an older woman who is visiting her aunt in the same facility as Freddy’s grandmother.  She has some secrets of her own, and some quirks: a substantial portion of her house is taken up with organs and pianos, shrink wrapped for their protection.  She plays the organ at various churches and is a member of one of the local choirs, but she is a woman who does not suffer fools lightly.  She likes Freddy because of his devotion to his grandmother, though when she finds out what else he’s doing, she’s a bit judgmental.

Everything’s moving along in the painful way of family members with Alzheimers or dementia when Maude, who shares a dinner table with Freddy’s grandmother, dies.  Old people dying isn’t much of a surprise in a facility like this, but in this case there’s evidence Maude was murdered.  By whom?  Her husband who’s visited her religiously?  One of the staff people?  Another visitor?

Freddy is torn between worry over his grandmother’s safety and worry that all the police descending on the memory care facility are going to find out about his other work and about his connections with the money laundering people.  An enforcer has already been lurking around the town where Freddy lives, and he’s terrified that this guy is going to catch up with him and either kill him or do something to his grandmother to get to him. He wants to find out what really happened to Maude, as does Laura, but at the same time, the very last thing Freddy wants is to get closely involved with the police.

I’m skimming over the plot here; there’s so much going on that it would be a shame to spoil it, and Cooney does such a good job of throwing out red herrings, twisting your understanding of who the different characters really are and what they’re really up to that you find yourself guessing and second-guessing yourself.

One thing I want to highlight is the way the people with dementia are depicted, and the way Freddy and Laura and the more compassionate people in the book act toward them. It’s clear the author knows about this firsthand, and if you’ve ever dealt with a family member or a loved one with serious memory loss, whether from strokes or Alzheimer’s or some other cause, you will recognize the people in this book.  Watching someone you love as they fade into someone completely different is agonizing, and the compassion Cooney shows to the caretakers and the family members as well as the victims is outstanding.

The book is a fast read because you can’t put it down, and there are many surprising moments in it, the best of which surprise you with the signs of goodness where you least expect it.  The mystery is solved, the characters you care about (and you do care about them,  especially the hapless Freddy) are brought to a satisfying resolution.  What more can you ask from a mystery?

A DIFFERENT KIND OF MONK, A DIFFERENT KIND OF ROBOT: A PSALM FOR THE WILD-BUILT

In A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Becky Chambers creates a world that is so intricate and beautiful and yet so plausible that I wasn’t halfway through the book before I wanted to live in this world. When you read the book, you’ll feel the same way.

Panga, the setting of this book, isn’t earth or necessarily a version of earth, but it does have characteristics in common with our world.  There was once a factory era, during which robots were built and used to do the menial and difficult work.  Then at some point, the robots gained self-awareness and all decided they were not going to work for humans that way again.

In another kind of book, this would have led to a war between the robots and the people (as in The Matrix), and there would have been all kinds of horrible stuff going on.  In this book, however, the people showed remarkable self-awareness and goodness, and let the robots go into the wilderness where the people didn’t venture.  The robots promised to come back at some point and check on people, but for a long time nobody has seen or heard of any robots, and robots have become a sort of myth for the humans of Panga. 

In the meantime, people have built a different kind of society, with various gods being worshipped by the people (each god having a particular area of interest).  Human organizations are small, more on the lines of villages than of cities, and things are powered by sustainable means, such as solar power and human power. It’s not a medieval-type society with serfs and lords, but an egalitarian one.  There are monks living together or living separately, but they’re not very much like the Christian variety.

Our protagonist, a non-binary monk named Dex (whose title, owing to their non-binary status, is Sibling Dex, rather than Sister or Brother) comes to the conclusion that their life with the other monks is lacking something (specifically, the sound of crickets chirping in the wild), and decides to become a tea monk, traveling from village to village, providing tea and a listening ear to anyone who needs it.

Pause here and relish the idea of a tea monk.  Reading this, I could immediately see how useful such a person would be in our society, especially if we built the society around those kinds of rituals. 

Anyway, after a somewhat difficult start, Dex becomes a good tea monk, developing relationships with the people and towns along their route, but still there’s something missing. Dex decides to set out for the Hermitage, an abandoned monastery in the wilderness, despite having little or no understanding of how to get there or how to survive in the wilderness.

While Dex is traveling on this somewhat half baked journey, a robot appears at their campsite. The robot, which calls itself Splendid Speckled Mosscap, is following up on the robots’ promise from long ago: it wants to find out what people need, and it hopes Dex will be able to answer that.

This is not a plot-heavy book.  If you’re interested in plot driven novellas starring robots, may I recommend (once again) Martha Wells’ Murderbot series. Mosscap is not like Murderbot in most respects, being a curious and gentle companion to the confused Dex, and falling in love with the world all around it.  The heart of the book is the relationship between Dex and Mosscap, and they are a wonderful combination.

The book is short enough to read in a sitting, and warmhearted enough that you’ll want to.  My hope is that this is the beginning of a series, because I would gladly read anything else that happens in this charming and beautiful world.

FIELD OF MYSTERY FOR SEPTEMBER: WHEN THE STARS GO DARK

Thanks to everybody who came to the August meeting of the Field of Mystery Book Group, despite its being held on a different day than usual (and at night, which is an even bigger change).  We had an excellent discussion of Jane Harper’s The Survivors (which is the second of her books the Field of Mystery group has read, and the Field Notes group has read The Lost Man, yet another of her books; we clearly like Jane Harper as an author). We talked about the mystery itself, about themes Harper likes (the small community where everybody knows everybody else; the issues of guilt and past secrets, etc.), about the role of coincidence and timing in the book (if one thing had happened fifteen minutes earlier or later, everything in the book would have changed).  And then, after a difficult series of votes, we decided on the book for our September reading: When the Stars Go Dark, by Paula McLain.

Paula McLain is better known for her historical novels (The Paris Wife, Circling the Sun), but this is her first foray into the world of mystery. The protagonist, Anna Hart, used to be a detective in the Missing Person division, until a personal tragedy sent her running away from her job, her city, her former life.  She returns to Mendocino, California, where she grew up as a foster child, and where she feels she can be relatively safe.  However, this being a mystery, almost as soon as she returns, a young girl goes missing, and Anna is caught up in the investigation to the point of near obsession.  It’s not just that this particular case is disturbing and requires her expertise.  It also reminds her of another missing girl from when Anna was living here before, and the way that case tore the town apart and affected the rest of Anna’s life.  

Copies of the book are available at the Field Library Circulation Desk for members to check out.  The meeting will be on September 14 from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.  Ordinarily we would have met on the first Tuesday night of the month (the 7th), but since that conflicts with Rosh Hashanah, we’ve moved it to the following Tuesday.  Join us for what should be an interesting discussion.