BEFORE THE VOLCANO: THE WOLF DEN

Let’s start by saying it’s a pleasure to see a new historical novel that is NOT about World War II.  It’s not that I have anything against that period of history, and there are a lot of excellent novels about the war and its effects on different groups of people, but really, there is more to history than just World War II.

For instance, you could have the first book in a trilogy about ancient Pompeii. Yes, THAT Pompeii, the place that was destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD, one of the most famous volcanic eruptions in history.  The Wolf Den, by Elodie Harper, is not about the volcano (though it is the first in a trilogy, so who knows whether we’ll get to the eruption by the end of the series?), but about the people who lived in Pompeii when it was still a functioning city, and specifically about Amara, once the beloved daughter of a well-respected Greek doctor, who was forced into slavery and prostitution after her father’s death left the family destitute.  She finds herself in one of the brothels of the city, but she isn’t defeated and she doesn’t intend to remain a slave or a prostitute forever.  She manages to find sisterhood with the other women in the house, and to find other opportunities on the streets of Pompeii, a vibrant and exciting city in the Roman Empire.

Anyone who, like me, read Four Lost Cities, which showed a fascinating and different view of Pompeii, will be interested to see a novel that looks at the vacation city of Pompeii in its glory with an eye toward the people at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, that sees the city and its people through the eyes of a prostitute, a sharp witted woman who uses her looks and her brains to rise above her situation.  If that sounds like you, come and take out The Wolf Den and settle in for a vivid and engrossing historical read.

NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE CHOOSE THE BEST

I love awards season.  It’s always interesting to find out what experts think of as the best in a particular field, whether it’s the Grammys or the Emmys or the Oscars, or, in this case, the National Book Critics Circle Awards.  The latter are given out every March by an organization of book critics throughout the country, voting on the best books in a variety of categories published in the past year.  If you’d like to see what critics believe were the best novels, nonfiction, biographies and works of criticism for 2021, you can easily find the winners here at The Field Library. 

The Love Songs of W.E. B. Du Bois, by Honoree Fannon Jeffers, won the award for fiction this year, and it’s not surprising, considering all the Best of the Year lists it featured in, and all the longlists for other awards it’s been on this year.  The debut novel of a well-respected poet, this epic novel is about a young African American woman who finds her own identity and resilience by going deeply into her family’s past, slavery and oppression, resistance and independence, cruelty and courage, a uniquely American story.

The winner for nonfiction also turns on African American lives: How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith.  The author takes the unusual angle of looking at monuments throughout America, the ones that are honest about our past and the ones that aren’t, to illustrate how deeply slavery impacted our history, and how some of the most important stories of American history are hiding in plain sight, in monuments, in institutions, in neighborhoods where you would least expect to see them.  The book is a study of how historical memory can be distorted and how it can be reclaimed to be more honest and inclusive.

The best biography, according to the National Book Critics Circle, is one that focuses on World War II. All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: the True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler, by Rebecca Donner, tells the extraordinary story of Mildred Harnack, an ordinary young American woman from Milwaukee who happened to be studying for her PhD in Germany when the Nazis rose to power, and who became a leader in the resistance to Hitler, helping Jews escape, creating and circulating anti-Nazi literature in Berlin, and couriering special intelligence to the Allies.  Her exploits and adventures would be the stuff of great historical fiction, but they’re even more amazing because they’re true, and Harnack was, until this book, almost unknown.

While the Field Library categorizes Girlhood, by Melissa Febos, as biography (that’s where you’re going to find it in this library), the National Book Critics Circle chose it as the best book of criticism, rather than seeing it in the biography field.  It’s the sort of book that’s hard to categorize, as Febos (an excellent writer, by the way; I’m reading Body Work, another book of hers, and it’s terrific) talks about her own experiences growing up female in America, the stories she was given about what it means to be female and how those stories shaped her sense of herself, as well as the work she had to do in order to see herself and other women in ways not limited by the social conventions of femininity. 

So if you like to know what other people think are the best of the best books, check out these winners of the National Book Critics Circle Awards here at The Field Library.

ALL AMERICAN FAMILY NIGHTMARE: HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD

The Galvins were the all-American family, from the outside, possibly a little larger than most families, even in the 1950’s and 1960’s, with their 12 children (!!), but at least in the early stages, they seemed to have it all: a husband and father who was intelligent and handsome, a go-getter who worked for the military, a wife and mother who devoted herself to her family and her home, ten sons and finally two daughters, all living just outside Colorado Springs, Colorado.  And yet, as the harrowing Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, by Robert Kolker, makes clear, this family was extraordinary in a terrible way.  Six of the ten sons suffered from schizophrenia.  What made the family ideal material for studies of schizophrenia and especially the possibility of a genetic component to schizophrenia made life inside the family a living hell.

This was a hard book to read, not because it was badly written (it’s well written and very clear), but because the subject matter is so heartbreaking, especially since it’s nonfiction and the author doesn’t exaggerate any of the details of the sons’ breakdowns, the treatments they received, and the effects on the non-sick members of the family.  Along the way, the book also looks at the history of schizophrenia and follows the careers of some of the more important researchers into the disease and their interactions with the Galvin family.

There are obvious comparisons to another book I read and – well, I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I was definitely moved by it – No One Cares About Crazy People: the Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America, by Ron Powers, which was also a depiction of real life brothers who both suffered from schizophrenia and what happened to them and their parents, interspersed with the history of the “treatment” of mental illness in America.  While No One Cares About Crazy People told the story from the inside (the author was the father of the two brothers), Hidden Valley Ranch tells the story from the outside, the author focusing on different members of the family in different chapters (helpfully listing all the family members at the beginning of each chapter involving them and highlighting the ones being followed in this chapter).  This is probably why I felt more of an emotional connection to the pain in Crazy People than I did with that of  the people in this book, but it’s still a gripping read and well worth your time.

If you’re looking for a book with a happy ending, this isn’t it. One of the sons is involved in a murder-suicide.  One of the sons is a sexual predator, abusing his much younger sisters (their mother sends the girls to him and his wife to get them out of the drama and trouble going on with the other sick brothers at home).  The disease seems to strike at random, sometimes building up over time, unnoticed at first, and then becoming clear and violent, and other times seemingly appearing out of the blue in someone who seemed to have it together until he has a total breakdown.  At one point, one of the girls is taken out of the house and sent to a private school with the children of a family friend, leaving the other girl behind (actually, this was one of the most painful moments in the book; it was hard to imagine how an outsider could see this situation and not try to rescue both girls).  Even the siblings who didn’t suffer directly from mental illness suffered as a result of their brothers’ schizophrenia, while they were living at home and even afterwards. 

It’s a book that makes you angry frequently.  So little was (and still is – more about that in a minute) known about the origins of schizophrenia that all kinds of theories were put forth and taken as fact, including the concept of the schizophrenogenic mother, who was supposedly responsible for her children’s suffering this disease.  When the older boys are first treated for their disease, the psychiatrists turn on Mimi, the mother, claiming she’s responsible, which would be a terrible thing to tell someone even if it were true, and more horrible since, as far as we know now, it isn’t.  And just from the point of view of getting parents to help their sick children, blaming the mother seems like a counterproductive idea. 

I was also angry at the whole cultural bias against even admitting to mental illness.  Much of the book takes place over the 1960’s and 1970’s, and the parents, especially the mother, are struggling so hard to pretend that nothing is wrong, because having children who are mentally ill was such a stigma, and of course having to deny the reality right in front of you can’t be healthy for anyone, the sick members of the family or the healthy ones.  

You have to wonder about the child protective system in place during this period, that never seemed to offer any help to the family even if that help might have required the daughters (at least) to be removed from that household. 

The response of drug companies also made me angry. Once drugs like Thorazine were patented, there was little incentive, financially speaking, for companies to research and create new and different kinds of drugs to attack schizophrenia.  While the author never says this in so many words, he does imply that if it were possible to cure schizophrenia with a drug, that wouldn’t be in the drug companies’ financial interests, because Thorazine and the like are still profitable.

The most frustrating thing about the book is that it can’t give clear answers about why this happened, why this particular family seemed to be cursed in this way.  It’s not the author’s fault. He makes it clear that we still don’t really understand how schizophrenia works, though we’re learning more all the time about the mechanics and the genetics of it, and some of that knowledge was gained through study of this family.  The author leaves us with a little hope that perhaps schizophrenia can be detected early, and the worst psychotic episodes avoided, and even that it might be possible to prevent schizophrenia altogether with supplements given to pregnant women, but none of that is certain yet.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in mental illness, especially in schizophrenia, or you’re interested in learning what it’s like to live in a family that’s devastated by mental illness, or you just want an enthralling and appalling read that was named one of the best books of 2020 (as well as an Oprah Book Club selection), check out Hidden Valley Road, but brace yourself. It’s not an easy ride.

APRIL’S GREAT ESCAPE FOR FIELD NOTES: THE CONFIDENCE MEN

At our meeting on Saturday, the Field Notes Book Group had a great discussion of our March selection, Once There Were Wolves, whether people saw it as a flawed realistic novel or a king of fable, whether people wanted to shake some sense into the main character (I certainly did, on at least a couple of occasions) or saw her relationship with her twin sister as problematic.  We all enjoyed the nature writing, especially the descriptions of the wolves and their lives (and the author’s choice not to anthropomorphize the wolves), and eventually we got around to voting for the book for April.  Actually, it wasn’t that hard a choice.  The group voted overwhelmingly for The Confidence Men: How Two Prisoners of War Engineered the Most Remarkable Escape in History by Margalit Fox.

If you’ve read my blog, you’ve already heard of this book, which has been nominated for an Edgar this year for Best Crime Writing.  It’s nonfiction, set in the First World War (so already it’s something out of the ordinary, given how many books lately seem to focus on World War II), and tells the story of two British prisoners of war, one from upper class English society and the other from an Australian sheep farm, who team up, using (of all things) a ouija board to con the guards at their prisoner of war camp in Turkey, setting up their ultimate escape. This is one of those nonfiction books that reads like a particularly gripping novel, and even though you know (from the subtitle if nothing else) that they succeeded, the book is still a page-turner.

Copies of the book will be available at the Circulation Desk at the library, and we’ll be meeting on April 30 (a week later than usual) in the STEM room downstairs, complete with coffee and refreshments.  Join us for what promises to be an entertaining discussion.

HOW MUCH MISERY IS TOO MUCH? ONE PLUS ONE

Reading Jojo Moyes One Plus One is not exactly like reading a rom com, though there are things it has in common with that genre, including a couple who (kind of) meet cute, a relationship that develops between them despite the obstacles that block them from each other, and a series of misadventures.  There is even, though I really doubted this was going to happen in One Plus One, a happy ending.  I take happy endings for granted in rom coms, no matter how dreadful things may seem in the course of the story, which is one reason I read them avidly.  One Plus One does not give you that assurance (though I just did as a spoiler, because this is the kind of book where you need that kind of spoiler), and it’s possible that if this weren’t one of the selections for my senior citizens’ book group, I wouldn’t have read it, and I would have missed out.

Jess, our main character, starts out under a major cloud, mostly financial.  She’s raising two children by herself (only her daughter, Tanzie, is actually her biological child; her other child, Nicky, is the child of her ex-husband by another woman).  Her ex hasn’t lifted a finger to help support the children, claiming to be too depressed to get a job or get himself together, and Jess is kindhearted enough not to push him.  She also has a dog, Norman, whose main skill seems to be flatulence.  Jess works two jobs, as a housecleaner and as a barmaid, and barely scrapes by. Nicky is constantly getting beat up by the local family of thugs.  Tanzie, younger than Nicky, is brilliant in math but isn’t really able to do anything about her intelligence in the school she goes to.  When her teacher proposes that Tanzie start in a private school for math geniuses, with a potential scholarship, Jess obviously wants that for Tanzie but knows in her bones that she can’t afford it by any stretch.  However, there’s a math olympiad in Scotland which Tanzie could qualify for, and if she can win that competition, she could have enough money to cover her school fees for a year or two, and Jess is sure they’d be able to work something out by the time the moneys would wear out.  There’s one problem, though: they have no way of getting to the competition.

Enter our second main character, Ed, a tech millionaire who’s lousy at human relationships (is that a cliche or what?), who is in major trouble for insider trading.  If you could imagine the most innocent way a person could accidentally give away insider information, you’d probably be close to imagining what Ed did.  Blocked from his workplace, in imminent danger of being arrested, tried and sent to jail, Ed is in a bad place when he gets drunk at the bar where Jess works.  As she gets him in a taxi and sends him home, she discovers that he dropped his wallet in the cab, with enough money to get Tanzie’s time-limited application for the private school.  

Though Jess is a goody-goody’s goody-goody, she can’t resist that temptation, and she takes the money and uses it, without telling Ed, of course. So when her effort to drive herself and the kids to the competition ends in abject failure (and police involvement, which doesn’t bother Jess as much as the fines and associated costs she’s going to be stuck with when she’s already in over her head), and Ed drives by and, for no reason he can articulate to himself, volunteers to drive them to the competition, the whole time they’re together, Jess is aware that she’s done something wrong, that she’s unworthy of Ed’s reluctantly given help.

This is a road trip book to a large extent, and there are various adventures and misadventures along the way, and yes, as you would expect, the characters begin to bond in the confines of Ed’s car, which he’s forced to drive at no more than 40 miles per hour because of Tanzie’s serious motion sickness (which, of course, extends the time the group is stuck together).  Think of an English version of Little Miss Sunshine, with a budding romance happening between the two main characters, and you have some idea of how the book goes.

My biggest problem with One Plus One, which may be more of a reflection on me and where I am at this point in my life than on the book itself, is the sheer amount of bad luck and misery the author throws at the characters.  It’s not enough that Ed’s in danger of going to jail for his insider training; he also has a father who’s dying of cancer whom he’s been avoiding out of shame.  It’s not enough that Jess has a useless ex husband and no end of money troubles; she has a stepson who’s being badly beaten by neighborhood thugs the local police won’t touch, and she loses one of her jobs and discovers that her ex is even worse than she suspected, and things go wrong (and badly wrong) for Tanzie as well.  

As you’re reading along, every time you think things might take a turn for the better, they go in the opposite direction.  Ed shows Nicky how to fight back against the local thugs, and they retaliate in a terrible way.  Tanzie makes it to the competition, only her glasses which she needs to read are smashed right before she gets there, so she can barely see the papers for part of the timed competition.  Jess is relentlessly upbeat and optimistic but the author has to beat her down to the point where she’s practically collapsed in depression (and what rouses her out of her bed isn’t something that’s fun or happy, either). That kind of thing happens again and again

The characters are real and flawed and you care about them.  Ed becomes less of a cliche as you get to know him, and Nicky, for all his sullen exterior, has a great heart.  Tanzie is a math genius, but she’s also crazy about her dog and caring about her mother and their situation.  Jess is clear sighted and warmhearted and struggles mightily to make things work. You want good things to happen to them, and every time the author tightens the screws, it’s harder to keep reading.  How much misery is too much?

There are some great redeeming moments, which I will not spoil here, unless telling you that something good happens counts as spoiling (and if it does, too bad), and there is the aforementioned happy ending. Because it comes after so much unhappiness and so much struggle, it definitely feels earned and realistic.  These characters absolutely deserve the good stuff they get by the end of the book, and, while the ride there was a bit darker and more miserable than I would have liked (I would have been much nicer to these characters as an author), I’m glad I read it.

Whether you’ll like it or not sort of depends on how much you’re willing to go through to get to the happy ending.  If you’re of the “one tragedy per book” school (no judgments there – whatever works for you), you’ll want to give this one a miss.  But if you’re made of sterner stuff and you’re willing to see characters suffer a lot before good things happen to them, give this book a try, and you’ll enjoy it.

ANOTHER REASON TO LOVE MARTHA WELLS (AND MURDERBOT)

As you know if you’re a fan of Murderbot and its author, Martha Wells, that series has been winning accolades and awards of all kinds for years, well-deserved accolades and awards, in my fangirl opinion (though it’s nice to have my opinion confirmed by other people).  In case you were wondering whether it was possible for Martha Wells to be a cooler person, here’s your answer.  

Fugitive Telemetry, the most recent Murderbot installment, was due to be nominated for a Nebula Award this year, but Martha Wells “graciously” declined the nomination.  Her reason was that the Murderbot series had already received a great deal of attention and praise from her peers in the speculative fiction community, and she wanted to open the floor to the many other wonderful works in the field.

Talk about class.  Thanks, Martha.  Murderbot would approve.

JUST WHAT I NEEDED: I HATE YOU MORE

A week ago I was talking about how much I needed to change up my reading, give myself a palate cleanser of sorts, after a series of really dark and violent books I’d been reading. I had a mental picture of what kind of book I wanted: something with characters I liked, something that made me laugh (if it made me laugh out loud that would definitely be a bonus), something that ended up leaving me feeling better about the world than I had when I started reading it.  I went through one book that, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, didn’t quite give me what I wanted, but then I got lucky and read I Hate You More, by Lucy Gilmore, and I have to say, it was EXACTLY what I’d been looking for, and might be what you’re looking for, too.

I Hate You More is a rom com, so there are a few things you know at the outset before even looking at the plot description: there are going to be two people who are going to each have issues that keep them apart even as they’re finding each other attractive; there are going to be misadventures and misunderstandings that build on each other until you reach the point where, almost inevitably, the characters are apart and it seems as if the relationship is doomed, and then you have the happily ever after, earned by both characters growing as people and as partners. 

This one has all of that and, to quote Shakespeare in Love, “a bit with a dog.”  Actually, there’s a lot of bits with a dog.  Our protagonist, Rudy, is a nurse’s aide working in a nursing home, and she is inveigled by one of the residents into taking the resident’s not-very-prepossessing dog, Wheezy (the name is perfect) to a local dog show and making him win best in show.  It happens that Ruby has considerable experience with shows and competing on looks and the like, since in her youth she was a contestant in any number of beauty contests, pushed into competition by her mother.  Wheezy, however, is a much longer shot in this contest than Ruby ever was in any of hers, being grossly overweight, possibly not a purebred Golden Retriever (the dog’s owner swears he is, but that doesn’t mean anything), and only inclined to obey commands if Wheezy feels like it (which doesn’t happen often).

To make matters more complicated, there’s Spencer, one of the judges in the contest and someone who lives by the rules, and his identical twin brother, Caleb, who moonlights as a dog trainer and has a very different attitude toward rules.  Both brothers are immediately smitten by Ruby (though she only has eyes for Spencer), and Caleb agrees to take on the immensely difficult task of turning Wheezy into a show dog.  Since Caleb lives with Spencer for reasons both of them would prefer to keep quiet, that means that when Ruby takes the dog to be trained by Caleb, she finds herself frequently in the company of Spencer.

Their attraction is hot and believable.  I’m not one who’s into a lot of explicit detail when it comes to characters having sex.  I want to know that they’re having a good time, I want to make sure the sex is realistic (as compared to books in which a woman practically orgasms at the slightest touch from her crush), and I want to see enthusiastic consent on both sides.  Dirty talk can be fun, up to a point (read this book and you will never think of the word “porcupine” in quite the same way), and playfulness carries a lot of weight with me, but I don’t need or particularly want anatomical descriptions or soft core porn stuff.  This book hit just the right balance for me.

It’s funny how a well-written book can overcome some of my personal prejudices.  For instance, I’m not thrilled with the cliche where the male character is always talking about how beautiful the female character is, as if nobody who’s not spectacularly beautiful in a conventional way could be attractive or sexy.  However, here Ruby was a former beauty queen, so Spencer’s (and other characters’) noticing that she’s a knockout feels perfectly natural.  I’m also less than a fan of the character’s having a long term problem that gets cleared up with just a conversation with someone else, but when the brothers in this book reconcile, it really is that simple and I was okay with it (though I do think Caleb should have had to work a little harder).  The cliche of one character deceiving the other and then worrying about being caught in that deception is another thing I’m not thrilled with, but in this case Ruby’s deception (that she’s a doctor instead of a nurse’s aide) isn’t the real reason she and Spencer have their biggest fight.  They fight because she thinks he’s offering her the easy way out because of her looks, and she wants to earn whatever she gets and not coast by on her looks, and that is not only totally believable in context, but also a realistic problem for the two of them, one that could be a deal breaker for someone like Ruby.

My favorite aspect of the book, I have to admit, is the humor.  It is in fact laugh out loud funny. I was reading it in the local coffee shop and complete strangers asked me what I was reading because I was laughing so hard (of course I told them). The characters are witty, the situations in which they sometimes find themselves (the senior citizens erotica book group, which leads to the aforementioned porcupine reference, and no, I’m not going to give that away here, or the circumstances in which Wheezy inadvertently ingests a large quantity of cannabis, for examples) are ridiculous enough to be funny without being so absurd you can’t imagine them happening.  The supporting cast is full of life and personality, from Wheezy’s owner to Ruby’s mother to Spencer’s parents to Spencer’s friends, and their observations of what’s going on between our two main characters are on point and funny.

And yes, there is a happy ending, and I was pleased to see that the author didn’t strain credulity and make Wheezy a transformed dog who might possibly win best of show in any but the most charitable dog show.  Wheezy does develop a bit over the course of the book, but there is no way in the world he would ever get to be a champion show dog from where he’s started (this isn’t really a spoiler, by the way; if Wheezy did win the show at the end, you might be tempted to chuck the book at the wall for cheating so outrageously).  Both Spencer and Ruby deal with their personal issues and of course end up together, exactly the way I wanted them to.

So if you’re looking for a palate cleanser of your own, something charming and funny and also kind of sexy, look no farther.  I Hate You More will hit your sweet spot, the way it hit mine.

APRIL FIELD OF MYSTERY: THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES

The Field of Mystery Book Group met on Saturday (our largest attendance to date!), and discussed our March book, No One Will Miss Her.  It was a great discussion since we were almost perfectly divided between those who enjoyed the book as a fairly light entertaining read and those who really disliked the book and found it repetitive and/or unbelievable.  One thing I love about this group is that we can and do disagree about literature without becoming argumentative or nasty to each other.   

We had a tough time deciding on our next book, but ended up choosing The Keeper of Lost Causes, by Jussi Adler Olsen.  Copies of the book are available at the Circulation Desk and will be ready for us to meet and discuss on April 23, 2022 (later than our usual date because I’ll be out of town on our usual date).

The Keeper of Lost Causes is the first book in the Department Q series.  Anyone who has read my blog knows about my love of Nordic Noir (for want of a better term), so I’m delighted we’re going to read a book by one of the best selling Nordic mystery writers, set in Copenhagen, if for no other reason than to give us a taste of the sub-genre.

Carl Mork, the protagonist of the book, used to be a great detective, but that was before the nearly-career-ending injury that left him physically and emotionally damaged and killed some of his colleagues. He’s been “promoted” to Department Q, which he discovers is a cold case department where he’s virtually the only officer.  The higher ups are hoping he can finish out his time on the force there, without causing himself or anyone else any trouble.

However, Carl finds himself getting interested in one of the cold cases, the disappearance five years earlier of a female politician.  There were no leads, the case was more or less given up on, everyone assuming that the politician is dead.  Carl doesn’t believe that, and it turns out he’s right: the politician is alive.  How long she’s going to continue to be alive, and where she’s been all this time is another question, and one Carl has to solve quickly.

It should be a good read, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the other members of the group respond to it, and what kind of good discussion we’re going to have about this one.  Come and join us if you can.

WHEN YOU NEED A CHANGE

I recently finished reading a couple of really dark novels, and was in the middle of reading a third, and I just felt so emotionally drained that I knew I needed to read something completely different.  I needed a reading palate cleanser.

Don’t get me wrong: the books I’m talking about (one of which is Once There Were Wolves, which I was reading for the Field Notes Book Group) are well-written and engrossing; for the most part, they’ve been page-turners.  And as anyone who’s read this blog knows, I’m never afraid of a book that goes to scary dark places (no one who’s as big a fan of Jo Nesbo as I am could be sensitive to violence and gore).  Most of the time, I can zoom from one serial killer book to another, from one book in which horrific violence is done to the characters to the next without hesitation.  It’s just that sometimes (like now), it’s just a bit too much.

Possibly it would make more sense to switch my reading around a little, alternating more (and more frequently) than I have been.  It’s easy to fall into a routine, and pick the same kinds of books over and over, and let’s face it, there are a lot of cool thrillers out there (and my running a mystery book group as well as a regular book group makes it more likely that I’m going to find myself reading books in that genre) just begging me to read them. The problem is that too much of a dark thing can make the whole world seem depressing and miserable, and it’s hard to get yourself psyched to keep reading when you know the next thing that happens is going to be terrible and upsetting (and even if you’re wrong and this time the next thing isn’t terrible and upsetting, you still know that terrible and upsetting things are lurking in the near future).  Not to mention that reading some of these books right before bed isn’t really conducive to a good night’s sleep.

Today I headed for the library shelves and chose a couple of rom coms, which I’m going to dive into as soon as I get them home. I might go through one right after the other, as a matter of fact, giving myself completely to the delights of ordinary people doing silly things around each other, making mistakes, opening themselves up and ultimately getting to that happily ever after. 

It doesn’t have to be a romantic comedy, either. That’s just what occurred to me first. I could have also gone for a book of poetry, or essays, or an engrossing nonfiction book. I could even have gone back to an old favorite, just to remind myself that there’s more to read out there than what I’ve been — should I say wallowing? — in recently.

So there’s nothing wrong with switching gears now and then.  You should never feel defensive about what you’re reading, and if you need something that’s going to make you cry, that’s fine.  If you need something that’s not going to make you feel as if everything is just a meaningless nightmare, that’s also fine.  It’s a big literary world out there, and there’s something that will work for whatever mood you’re in, give you whatever you need.  All you have to do is look.

MEDIEVAL HISTORICAL FICTION WITH VERVE: THE GOOD WIFE OF BATH

I hope this isn’t going to ruin my credibility as a reader and recommender of books, but the fact is that I never read the whole The Canterbury Tales, not even in translation from the Middle to modern English. It was years (decades) ago that I read the Prologues and Tales that I did manage to read (it might have been in side by side translation from Middle English to modern English, but I couldn’t even swear to that).  

However, the one character I remember most vividly, the character I loved from her prologue to her story, was the Wife of Bath. It’s possible Chaucer meant her to be a caricature of a scheming, bawdy woman, but she always came across to me as a vivid female character, full of life and energy, the kind of woman I would love to encounter in the modern world (or would love to grow up to be).  So it was with great pleasure that I picked up The Good Wife of Bath, by Karen Brooks, which is the story of Eleanor, who started out life as a servant in a lord’s household and ended up (through many marriages and misfortunes) as the model for Chaucer’s Wife of Bath.  It is with even greater pleasure that I recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in medieval England, feminist retellings of famous stories, excellent historical novels, or just plain good reads. 

Just like her famous namesake, Eleanor marries repeatedly and is frequently widowed, but for the most part, her marriages are caused by her need for security rather than lust (and the one marriage she does make based on lust is the one that turns out the worst, though there’s no moralizing in that).  She tells her own story, looking back from her old age with a sense of humor and a sense of irony.  She knows Chaucer and knows the story he wrote about her. Indeed, her relationship with Chaucer (whom she often refers to as the Poet) is the thread that runs through the novel, as she consults with him in connection with several of her marriages and writes to him about her many pilgrimages.

It’s clear the author did her research into the period.  I wish there were a term for “sense of time” as well as “sense of place,” because Bath in the late 14th century is so vividly portrayed that you can practically smell it, as well as hear it and see it. Eleanor’s world is usually limited to Bath and its environs, or, later, London and its neighborhoods, but she periodically goes on pilgrimages both within England and abroad, and comments with sharp wit on whatever she experiences.  The larger political events of England during the period – the Lollards’ challenge to Catholic orthodoxy, the peasants’ uprising and Richard II’s response to it, among others – appear in the background of Eleanor’s life as they would in any normal person’s.  She’s not caught up in the great events, because she’s too busy trying to keep her own life in order.

And what a life it is! From the time she’s caught fornicating with a local priest when she was 12 through her first marriage to a man much older than herself, through marriages to men both kind and boorish (and one even abusive), through her independent years under a false identity, Eleanor lives life to the full.  Her adventures reminded me of Moll Flanders (there, did I get a little of my literary cred back?), another woman who didn’t let the restrictive roles of women get in the way of her being herself.  Eleanor doesn’t always do the right thing; she makes countless mistakes along the way, and is frequently too stubborn for her own good.  But whatever she does, whether it’s creating a thriving weaving business with her first and second husbands, or cheating on her third husband with a rakish married man, or fighting for her family or standing up to the local criminals, she does it with gusto and verve, and even when you want to shake her (as some of the people who care about her do) because you can tell she’s making a huge mistake, you can’t help rooting for her.

One of the reasons you root for her is because she’s got such a good heart.  She endears herself to all kinds of people, from her stepdaughter, Alison (who’s a wonderful character in her own right and who sticks with Eleanor through thick and thin), through her various servants through the prostitutes and their children she takes care of when she moves to London as an older woman.  She does it through her loyalty and her ability to see potential where other people don’t.  

Two things that make this an especially good historical novel are things the author DOESN’T do.  First, she doesn’t make Eleanor a 21st century woman living in the middle ages. There’s nothing about Eleanor that doesn’t fit with her time and place.  She thinks like a medieval woman, and acts like one (albeit one who’s smart and has a good business sense).  She understands the restrictions her culture puts on her as a woman (and a woman who didn’t start out with wealth or status) and works within them.  

Second, there’s no framing story.  Even the presence of Chaucer as a character (with all the quirks of Chaucer’s life made a part of the book) doesn’t pull us as readers out of the story and into a modern world. We start in the 1300’s and end up toward the end of Eleanor’s life.  There’s no future person discovering Eleanor’s words and finding a connection to her own life, a device that I am starting to find really annoying in historical fiction.

Even using the real Chaucer and his real Wife of Bath’s tale as a framework doesn’t fall into the “and this is the story you just read” trope; instead, Eleanor is furious about the way Chaucer portrayed her, and the relationship between the two of them almost breaks over the Canterbury Tales, though ultimately Eleanor (like Chaucer) is too bighearted to hold a grudge, especially when Chaucer makes amends to her.  The ending of the book is deeply satisfying.

Take a break from the modern world for a while, and submerge yourself into the world of Eleanor, the Good Wife of Bath.  You’ll be glad you did.