RETURN TO WORLD WAR II IN FRANCE: THE NIGHTINGALE, THE FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP’S NEXT SELECTION

After a scintillating discussion of The Feather Thief this past Saturday, raising questions about privilege and justice and obsessions, both those of the characters and the obsession of the book’s author, the Field Notes Book Group chose the book for October, 2018: The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah.

This long term bestselling book, a big favorite of book groups throughout the library system, follows the lives of two sisters, Viann and Isabelle, during World War II era France.  Viann, who had been living in Paris before the war, is sent to live with her sister and her sister’s daughter in the quiet French countryside when Isabelle’s husband is called up to fight at the front.  While the two sisters are very different in personality, they pull together in the crisis, only to discover that their new life during the occupation will test both of them, their sense of right and wrong, and their relationship with each other, in ways neither one of them could have dreamed of beforehand. A vivid portrait of the other side of World War II, with the kind of fully realized characters Kristin Hannah is known for.

Copies of the book will be available at the Circulation Desk this week.  Our next meeting will be on Saturday, October 20, from 11:00 to 12:30 in The Field Library Gallery, and, as usual, we can promise snacks and coffee and lively discussion, so come in and join us.  

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RETURN TO THE TROJAN WAR: THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS

In the vein of Madeline Miller’s Circe, which looked at The Odyssey from the point of view of Circe, Pat Barker, a former winner of the Booker Prize, takes a different perspective on the Trojan War, and especially the events of The Iliad, in her newest book, The Silence of the Girls.

The protagonist of The Silence of the Girls is Briseis, who had been the queen of one of Troy’s neighboring cities before the Greeks attacked and sacked the city.  Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, not only led the destruction of the city but also murdered its king, Briseis’ husband, and all her brothers.  She herself was taken by Achilles as his concubine, to be a prize of war. The change in her life was radical, but Briseis had to adjust, as did so many of her fellow women in and around Troy, to the changing fortunes of war.  

Becoming Achilles’ concubine was difficult enough, but then Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces, demanded Briseis be turned over to him (to make up for his having to give back the daughter of a priestess of Apollo, which Agamemnon only did because Apollo sent a plague to the Greek camp as punishment) . The conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles over Briseis led to the events of The Iliad, in which Achilles stayed in his tent, refusing to lend his men or his prowess to the Greek efforts because of Agamemnon’s attack on his honor (as he saw it).  Briseis was in a unique position, able to observe the conflict from both sides, even as she’s seen as a prize, an object to be bartered back and forth, and not a human being with thoughts and desires of her own.

The book is unsparing; all the brutal stuff that’s left out of The Iliad or only referred to in passing is depicted in pitiless detail here.  This is war, and people are slaughtered before your eyes, as her family members were slaughtered before Briseis’ eyes. Women are raped, women are enslaved, women witness their children being murdered.  You should be aware, going in, that this book is not going to whitewash any of that.

But you get to see Achilles and Agamemnon and all the other “heroes” of the Greek story as the complex and often brutal people they were.  It’s a version of the story that makes it clear there are no “good guys” and no “villains,” because the men on both sides of the war were both.

Whether or not you’ve read The Iliad recently (like in the last decade) or your only familiarity with the story is through the Brad Pitt movie Troy, you’ll be able to follow the plot of this book and feel with Briseis the tragedy of war from the point of view of the people who are not making the decisions but suffering their consequences.

A BIZARRE DETECTIVE, A BIZARRE CASE, LOTS OF FUN

I knew I liked Edgar Cantero ever since I read his Meddling Kids, but I also knew, from that book, that (a) for him, nothing is sacred, and (b) what he writes is going to be a little off the wall (or a lot off the wall).  So I was eager, but prepared, for his latest book, This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us.

This is apparently a good year for parodies of the hard boiled detective novel; earlier we had Noir, by Christopher Moore, and a funny, warped book that was, and now we have Cantero’s contribution.  As a strict parody, using all or most of the elements of the genre, Noir is a better bet, but for sheer wackiness and a willingness to really go off the wall, the edge goes to This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us, if only because of the absolutely unique private detective who’s the protagonist of the book.  Or should I say, private detectives who are the protagonists of the book, because AZ Kimrean, our private eye, is actually two people in the same body, a left-brained male named Adrian, and a right brained female named Zoe.  

The explanation for how these two beings exist in one body is kind of sketchy, but you have to just suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride.  Adrian is the Sherlock Holmes type character, all intellect, no heart, brilliant but limited in his dealings with human beings. Zoe, by contrast, drinks and chases men and women, is intuitive and good with people though a bit disorganized. They’ve spent a certain amount of time in various mental institutions (it took a while before someone finally figured out that Adrian wasn’t just arguing with hallucinations, for instance), and they don’t really work together all that well, but half the fun of the book is watching the two of them apply their own unique abilities and perspectives to the case before them.

The plot is complicated, but basically it involves a California crime family whose members are being killed off, possibly by members of another cartel or possibly by someone else.  There’s an undercover FBI officer who calls in Kimrean for help, and there are all kinds of twists and turns and oddities, including Ursula, the young daughter of the leader of the crime family (one of my favorite characters, actually; at one point I seriously thought she might be the murderer, too), a ninja assassin, the question of whether a particular flower is a rose or a chrysanthemum and the like.

From time to time, Adrian knocks out Zoe so he can manage to concentrate on the issues before him without her distracting presence, and I have to say I was pleased when she finally turned the tables on him, though her method of solving the case was hair-raising and incredibly dangerous to all concerned.

This is not the sort of mystery where you can see all the clues and try to outsmart the private eyes, because while Cantero plays fair (mostly), the focus isn’t on the actual way the mystery is solved but on how the characters interact (or don’t).  That said, I was surprised (but not annoyed, as I would be if the solution came completely out of left field) at the identity of the assassin and the reason for the murders, and the ending was quite satisfying, too (a hard thing to achieve these days, as far as I can see).

So if you don’t mind a certain amount of weirdness and violence (not Jo Nesbo level, but there are murders and attempted murders and a lot of people getting punched and knocked out and the like), and you have a taste for a very different take on the classic private eye novel, check out This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us.

MERCHANTS, COURTESANS AND 18TH CENTURY ENGLAND: THE MERMAID AND MRS. HANCOCK

If you’re in the mood for an intriguing historical novel that peers into all the shadowy places of England in the early stages of the British Empire, and that brings to life characters you don’t ordinarily encounter in historical fiction, then take a look at The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowen, a debut novel that will take you to a different world.

Jonah Hancock is a prosperous merchant in 1780’s London.  One night he’s startled to learn that one of his ship’s captains has sold the entire ship (without Hancock’s knowledge or consent, of course) in order to buy something unique: a mermaid.  When the captain shows Jonah the “mermaid” in question, it’s not what he expects (nor what we expect): instead of a beautiful woman with the tail of a fish, it’s a dead creature, the size of a baby, brown, with scary teeth and claws and a fish tail.  Since he can’t get back his ship, Jonah makes the best of what he’s got, and decides to charge people to come and look at his mermaid.

His mermaid becomes a sensation, and he is invited to display it at a very exclusive house run by one Mrs. Chappell. What he doesn’t realize until after he’s brought his mermaid there is that this is a house of prostitution (one of many things he’s never had any experiences with before).

Angelica Neal is a beautiful and desirable woman, sophisticated in the ways of a certain segment of London society.  She is in fact a courtesan who, until very recently, was the mistress of a rich man who died and made no provision for her after his death.  That’s not an unusual situation for someone in Angelica’s position, but it does put her in a position where she needs to make a change and take care of herself when she meets Jonah and his mermaid.

While Jonah is a fairly traditional and strait laced sort of man, ultimately he ends up marrying Angelica, and even hunting for a real mermaid for her, as the book takes a slight turn into magical realism (from the realism that fills the rest of the book).

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock has been compared to the works of Charles Dickens, and, for a more recent example, of Sarah Waters, for its large cast of fascinating characters and its  immersive rendering of the world of late 18th century England.  Take a vacation from the 21st century in the very capable hands of Imogen 

A DIFFERENT KIND OF URBAN FANTASY: TRAIL OF LIGHTNING

There are certain kinds of things that come to mind when you hear the term “urban fantasy”: usually a heroine who’s kind of kick-ass strong, a world beneath and/or alongside our accepted reality, various kinds of supernatural beings, often fae or werewolves (or other kinds of were’s) or vampires. The protagonist gets involved with these supernatural beings, sometimes antagonistically and sometimes in a friendlier way, and that turns the plot.  Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse, is a different kind of urban fantasy (though it does share the strong heroine archetype), because it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world in which the survivors are the Navajo people of the Southwest.

Intrigued already?  It gets better. The backstory is that there was a terrific flood, caused by massive global climate change, and one of the only places left is Dinetah, formerly the Navajo reservation. Gods and heroes walk the earth, but there are also monsters from the oldest Navajo legends.  People inherit great powers depending on the clans into which they were born, and technology is fading quickly.

Our protagonist,  Maggie Hoskie, is one of those gifted people.  She’s a supernaturally talented monster hunter and killer, so when a girl goes missing and other methods fail, the people of the girl’s home town call upon Maggie to find her.  Of course, it turns out that there’s more going on than one missing person, and the forces arrayed against Maggie are sufficiently serious that she finds herself working with Kai Arviso, a young medicine man, and the two of them start digging into old legends for clues, exchanging favors with trickster gods, and running into old friends and enemies from Maggie’s past, just to make things more complicated.

If you’re one of those people who’s interested in more diverse reading, or if you’re getting bored of the same old monsters and vampires and creatures of northern European folklore, check out Trail of Lightning, and get a taste of a very different, unique and fascinating world of fantasy.  

SCANNING A CENTURY: NEW HISTORICAL FICTION AT THE FIELD FOR SEPTEMBER

When it comes to historical fiction, there are so many different periods you can experience, and three new books that just arrived at The Field Library will give you diverse and fascinating views into the past.

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, by Sarah Bird, shows us an aspect of African American history we don’t often see. Based on a true story, it starts in pre-Civil War Missouri, where Cathy Williams has been taught by her mother to never see herself as a slave, but as a prisoner, the daughter of a daughter of a queen in Africa, a warrior who is destined by her blood to escape her captivity. With that attitude, she joins the service of Union General Philip Sheridan, and, by the end of the war, makes the momentous decision that she’s not going back to servitude.  She disguises herself as a man and joins the U.S. Army’s Buffalo Soldiers. She knows what would be likely to happen to her if her deception is discovered by her fellow soldiers, so in addition to the dangers that come with being a soldier in general, and fighting Native Americans on the frontier in particular, she has to navigate the dangers of keeping her gender a secret, and at the same time, she’s looking for her mother and sister, from whom she was separated when she left the farm in Missouri. Cathy is a real heroine, a woman who won’t let anyone get in the way of her doing what she needs to do, and if you’re in the mood for a wild ride through late 19th century American history, then you should check out Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen.

Moving ahead in time, The Glass Ocean, written by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White, turns on the fatal last voyage of the RMS Lusitania.  The book twines the life of a woman in the present day with the lives of two women who were on the Lusitania in 1915.  Sarah Blake opens a locked chest belonging to her great grandfather, who died in the German attack on the Lusitania, and discovers a secret that might change history.  She travels to England to meet up with a disgraced Member of Parliament whose family archives might have a clue that will clear up the mystery. Back in 1915, two very different women are traveling on the ill-fated Lusitania.  One, Caroline Hochstetter, took the voyage to try to re-spark her marriage with her industrialist husband, only to meet up with an old friend (the ancestor of the Member of Parliament Sarah is meeting with in the present time) who’s causing her to re-evaluate her whole life and decide whether to change everything.  The other woman, Tennessee Schaff, is masquerading as an English lady returning home; she’s a con woman pulling what her partner claims is one last scam before they can retire, but she feels there’s something wrong with this scam, and with her partner, something he’s not telling her. The three lives intertwine, with the tragedy of the Lusitania looming large over all their fates.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris, takes us into the darkest days of World War II. Lale Sokolov is a Slovakian Jew transported to Auschwitz.  When the Nazis discover he speaks numerous languages, they put him to work as a tattooist for all the incoming prisoners. Imprisoned there for two and a half years, Lale is witness to the worst of human behavior, and some of its brightest moments.  He figures out ways to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews to get food to keep others from starving to death, risking his own life (and his privileged position in the camp) to do so. He meets a fellow prisoner, Gita, and while he’s tattooing her number, he falls in love with her and determines that he’s going to survive and make sure she survives so they can escape the camp and marry.  Based on a true story, The Tattooist of Auschwitz gives us a different view into the horrors of the Holocaust, and the human will to survive and love even in the darkest times.

STEAMPUNK SLEEPING BEAUTY: KISS OF THE SPINDLE

There are all kinds of different ways of retelling a fairy tale, from the almost slavish copying of each element (The Mermaid, by Carolyn Turgeon, is an example of that), to the versions that wander quite a distance from the original (see any of the stories in The Merry Spinster, by Mallory Ortberg, for examples of that, or the stories in Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado).  We have fairy tales transposed to the western genre (Six Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente), or turned into science fiction (The Snow Queen, by Joan Vinge, which won a Hugo and a Locus award).  With Kiss of the Spindle, by Nancy Campbell Allen, we now have a steampunk version of Sleeping Beauty (and yes, obviously this new book qualifies as a fairy tale for adults if you’re doing the Reading Challenge this year).

Our heroine is Doctor Isla Cooper, an accomplished woman whose job is to hunt down shapeshifters who have gone bad and attacked human beings.  She just has one little problem, a curse put on her by the witch, Malette, a year before, which causes her to fall into a deathlike sleep every night from midnight to six a.m.  At the end of the year, she’s not going to be able to wake up at all from that sleep. She needs to find the witch and get her to undo the spell, and time is running out.

The fastest way to get to the witch is by airship, and when Isla isn’t able to buy a ticket on any of the commercial ships, she resorts to blackmailing Daniel Pickett to let her on his private airship.  Once on the ship, she discovers that he’s transporting three illegal shapeshifters whom he is desperately trying to hide. But they’re not the only people on the ship:Nigel Crowe, a governmental official who wants to get rid of all shapeshifters and an old enemy of Isla’s is also traveling with them, and Daniel and Isla have to work hard to protect the shapeshifters from discovery as well as finding the witch and saving Isla from the curse. And of course (if you’re thinking about the original Sleeping Beauty and seeing Daniel in the role of the prince), Isla and Daniel find themselves attracted to each other as well.

If you want a different kind of adult fairy tale, or if you’re curious about the whole steampunk genre and want a good book to see what it’s like, check out Kiss of the Spindle.

 

THE MONSTERS IN THE HILLS: THE MERE WIFE

This has been a banner year for new envisionings of classic works.  Back in April we had Jo Nesbo’s version of Macbeth (see here for my take on that), and now we have a new version of Beowulf, in the form of Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife.  But don’t worry if you haven’t read the original (or if, like me, you read the original a LONG time ago).  You can read The Mere Wife with no knowledge of the old English saga and still be blown away by this version, though if you do have some dim memory of Beowulf, you can read the book with a slightly different eye.

While Beowulf was a poem about a monster attacking a king’s hall, and the hero who kills the monster and the monster’s mother (who comes to avenge the monster’s death), The Mere Wife is set in modern times (one of the main characters is a veteran of the Iraq war).  That doesn’t mean there aren’t monsters; in fact, there are probably more monsters in The Mere Wife than in Beowulf, though these ones, for the most part, appear human.

Dana Mills should be dead, and maybe she was: there’s a video of her execution by enemy soldiers which circulated at the time of her capture on You Tube and on television. Somehow she found herself alive and pregnant, with no idea how she survived the execution and no idea how she got pregnant or who the father might be, but she returns to her hometown, officially dead.  Her hometown is officially dead, too, remade into a gated suburban estate, much too upper crust for the likes of her and her baby, Gren. So Dana goes to live inside the mountain beside the estates, in abandoned tunnels from a forgotten train, and she tries to keep her son safe from the people below.

Willa Herot is one of the people in the estate, married to a plastic surgeon, scion of the family that created the estate in the first place.  She, too, has a son: Dylan, a blond, perfect little boy, possibly a bit spoiled but carefully protected nonetheless from anything in the outside world that might harm him. At first glance, Willa seems like an ordinary, even dull, suburban wife, going through the motions of living up to the standards set by the other women of the development, who are the real powers in the neighborhood.  And yet, even at the beginning of the book, when Willa comes across as almost a cliche, from time to time we see the violent thoughts Willa keeps to herself and it’s clear she has hidden depths, just like Dana.

Despite the best efforts of their mothers, eventually Gren and Dylan are going to meet, and their meeting sets up a confrontation between the old and the new, the rich and the working class, the past and the present, from which nobody comes out unscathed.

The characters are what makes this book.  Dana is obviously damaged by her war experiences, and frequently it’s hard to tell whether she’s hallucinating things (the saint with the blown out abdomen with a candle in it is probably an illusion, but what about the old woman riding beside her in a bus to Herot who tells her about her future?), and Willa develops, slowly but inexorably, from someone you might feel sorry for to a woman of steel, hard-edged with ambition and anger, emotionally as dangerous as Willa and as willing to do whatever she feels she has to do in order to protect her son from the monster, Gren.

We never actually see Gren, but there are hints about what he looks like, what kind of creature he might be (considering the circumstances of his conception, he might be anything, and this is the kind of book where monsters are definitely possible), and for most of the book you don’t know what he is, just how people react to him when they see him (and not all of the narrators are reliable, which makes it even more complicated).  Dylan doesn’t have any problem with Gren, but he’s just about the only resident of Herot Estates who sees Gren as a normal boy, a potential friend.

Still, the scariest characters are the chorus of women, who narrate some of the chapters in the first person plural. From early on, we see that Willa’s mother is scarily controlling and judgmental, but she fits in perfectly well with her peers, who prove to be the real powers that govern the estates and, by extension, the outside world as well.  If there are monsters roaming through this book, I’d nominate these women as the worst and scariest of them, cold-blooded and extremely dangerous.

This is a book I devoured in a day, putting everything else aside to find out what happened next. Even knowing (as I did, dimly) that things were not going to end well for most of the characters, I still cared about their fates and whether any kind of justice would be done. It’s a dark, violent book, but enthralling as an exploration of how our world works, and what limits there might be on the love of mothers for their children.

LIVES SHARED BY LETTERS: MEET ME AT THE MUSEUM

Sometimes you don’t want a thriller or a book that explores all the depths to which human beings can sink.  Sometimes, especially in dark periods, what you’re looking for is a book that makes you feel better about your fellow human beings, a book that’s not all action and plot but is about connections between people, a book you read slowly to savor.  If that’s where you are right now, may I suggest Meet Me at the Museum, a debut novel by Anne Youngson?

The book is old fashioned in a couple of ways (not bad ways, either).  For one thing, it’s an epistolary novel, told entirely in the form of letters between the two main characters (and real letters, not emails, either!).  While there have been other popular books written in this format (think of 84 Charing Cross Road, for instance), and while some of the first novels were epistolary in format (including the source for Dangerous Liaisons), it’s not a popular format these days, though it’s perfectly suited to the two main characters, their situations and their relationship.

Another way in which the book is old-fashioned is that it’s slow paced, as befits a book composed of letters back and forth between two people who start out as complete strangers and gradually become close.  It’s not usual these days for an author to trust readers to relax into a book and let things develop slowly, but often that’s the way relationships develop, and it’s more realistic than the “instant intimacy” (as a dear friend of mine once put it) that’s more popular nowadays.

The two main characters, finally, are kind of old-fashioned themselves, both in their 60’s and looking at their lives with an eye toward their past decisions and what remains of their futures.  Tina is a farmer’s wife in East Anglia, England, who’s just lost her closest friend to cancer. She and her friend had always talked about going to see the Tollund Man, a mummified corpse of a man preserved for thousands of years in a bog, and now on display in a museum in Denmark. But life got in the way, and they never made the trip.  Now, after her friend’s death, Tina writes to the professor she and her friend met as children, ostensibly talking about the Tollund Man, but really trying to figure out where her own life went. The professor she writes to has already died, so the letter is passed on to Anders, a professor and expert in the Iron Age peoples. He has his own disappointments and sorrows, including the recent death of his wife, and he writes back to Tina in a businesslike way, giving her facts about the museum and the mummy.  That should be the end of it, but Tina doesn’t take that formal letter as the end, and writes back to him, and he writes back to her, and gradually, over time, the tone of their letters changes, as the two people, who never meet in person, start sharing things they never would have said to anyone else face to face.

This is probably not going to be one of those hot books that everybody has to read, but it’s the kind of book that warms your heart and makes you think about choices and the meaning of ordinary lives, which could be just the thing you need to read right now.

THE FEATHER THIEF: SEPTEMBER FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP SELECTION

After our stimulating discussion of the issues raised by August’s book, My Brilliant Friend, some members of the Field Notes Book Group actually wanted us to read the next three books in the series (something we’ve never done before), but instead we decided to go the nonfiction route this month and read The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, by Kirk Wallace Johnson.  Copies will be available at The Field Library circulation desk within the week.

The Feather Thief is the kind of true crime story* you would hardly believe if it were presented as fiction.  Edwin Rist, a 20 year old American flute player, sneaked into the British Natural History Museum in the dead of night and stole a number of priceless specimens of rare birds, including birds of paradise, some of which were irreplaceable.  That would be odd enough by itself (how often have you read about someone stealing natural history specimens, which are usually stuffed?), but then we discover he wanted the birds’ feathers to use to make flies for fly fishing. There are, apparently, people who collect flies made from rare and exotic feathers, not necessarily to fish with them, but just to collect, and those people are willing to pay serious money for those flies.  And why did Rist want that money? It turns out that a high quality flute, the kind he would need as a concert flautist, is extremely expensive, and he figured this was the best way for him to acquire such a thing.

The book is nonfiction, but reads like an exciting novel.  Come and pick up a copy at the circulation desk, and then join us on September 15, in the Field Library Gallery, from 11:00 to 12:30, for invigorating discussion and coffee and snacks.

*Yes, the book counts as a true crime book for the purposes of our Reading Challenge, for those of us who are participating in the challenge (and if you’re not, you should be!).