GOING BIZARRE FOR SEPTEMBER: SKINNY DIP

Though we had a smaller than usual group at the Field Notes meeting on Saturday, we still managed to have an interesting discussion about our August book, A Thousand Ships.  The advantage of having a smaller than usual group is that everybody’s vote for the next book counts much more than it would in a larger group.  We had no trouble choosing our selection for September, Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip.  

If you want a humorous take on Florida in all its weirdness, Carl Hiaasen is obviously your go-to author.  If you enjoy quirky, bizarre, plot heavy humor, look no further. Hiaasen has long been one of my favorite authors, and Skinny Dip has long struck me as one of his best.

Just consider the starting point of the plot: a shady Florida scientist is helping some even shadier operators figure out how to dump chemicals in the Everglades without getting caught.  The scientist suspects his wife, Joey, has caught on to what he’s doing and is likely to turn him in, so, in the classic manner of a Hiaasen character, he decides to kill her by pushing her off a cruise liner in the middle of the night, hoping she drowns.  She doesn’t drown because she lands on a bale of marijuana which was thrown overboard by drug dealers being chased by the Coast Guard.  Reaching the shore and being helped by a former police officer turned bitter loner, Joey decides not to turn her husband in for the attempted murder, but to mess with his head, since he thinks she’s dead,  and Mick, her new friend, is more than happy to help her with that.  

It just goes on from there, with a full cast of memorable characters and the usual twisted Hiaasen plot. 

We’ll be meeting to discuss this book on September 24 at 11 in the Field Library program room, and of course there will be refreshments.  It should be a great time for all.  Join if you can.

FIELD NOTES GOES BACK TO THE TROJAN WAR: A THOUSAND SHIPS

After a really amazing and invigorating discussion this Saturday on Small Things Like These (so much depth for such a short book!), the Field Notes Book Group chose our book for August.  It was a tough choice, and I had to be the tie-breaker, but ultimately we went with A Thousand Ships, by Natalie Haynes.

A Thousand Ships is about the Trojan War, sort of.  It’s also about The Iliad, The Odyssey and a number of famous Greek tragedies about the lead up to and the aftermath of the Trojan War.  It differs from those classics because this book focuses exclusively on the female characters involved in the war, on the Greek side, on the Trojan side, even on the Olympian side, giving them a voice they’ve been denied through the centuries.  

Because it’s about a war and the aftermath of a war, there are dark and sad moments in it, but there’s also a certain vein of humor, especially in Penelope’s increasingly annoyed letters to Odysseus while he’s off having his adventures.  The book is structured as a series of interrelated short stories, and it’s a terrific read.

Do you in fact need to be an expert on Greek mythology to enjoy this?  No.  You don’t even need to have read The Iliad or The Odyssey.  Trust me, it will all become clear to you as you read.  Of course if you are familiar with the stories in a general way, the book will be all that much more fun to read.

Copies of the book will be available at the Circulation Desk.  Join us on August 20 for what promises to be an excellent discussion of a fascinating book.

SMALL THINGS LIKE THESE FOR JULY

The Field Notes Book Group met on Saturday to discuss our June book, South to America, and while few members were really crazy about the style of the book, our discussion was wide ranging and interesting, and we were almost reluctant to turn to the question of choosing our book for July.  Still, when we did, the voting was overwhelmingly in favor of one selection: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, and not just because it was the shortest book of the bunch (though, after a fairly long and dense book like our June selection, length did have an effect).

Small Things Like These is a deceptively simple story, which packs an emotional and moral punch.  Bill Furlong is an ordinary man who owns a small business in a small town in rural Ireland in 1985.  It’s Christmas time and he’s focused on the holiday festivities and his two daughters and their preparations for the holiday, but in the course of his work, he comes across something that upends his sense of how the world works, what’s good and what’s evil. He begins to consider his own past as a bastard brought up in the household of a relatively wealthy woman as he realizes that most of the people he knows and cares about are complicit in something morally wrong, and he needs to make a decision about where he stands, a decision shaped by his knowledge of his past and shadowed by the potential consequences to him and his family of deciding in one direction rather than the other.

We’ll be meeting on July 16 at the library, and copies of the book will be available at the circulation desk in advance.  Please come and join us for coffee, refreshments and what promises to be a deep and interesting discussion of this beautifully written book.

JUNE FIELD NOTES: SOUTH TO AMERICA

What an excellent discussion we had at this Saturday’s meeting of the Field Notes Book Group!  Klara and the Sun certainly gave us food for thought and for discussion, and we took full advantage of it, talking about the soul, about genetic modification, about characters and what makes people human, as well as discussing the plot of this book.

It was a hard choice, but we ended up selecting our book for the month of June, for our meeting on June 18: South to America: a Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation, by Imani Perry.  It’s a nonfiction book that’s part history, part current events, part travelog.  Perry, an African-American woman who came from Alabama, takes the position that the rest of America has conveniently demonized the South, placing all our racial sins on the shoulders of the southerners (who, to be fair, do deserve a certain amount of blame) to avoid facing the extent to which the entire country profited by slavery and white supremacy.   She argues that we cannot understand United States history and culture without really understanding the South.  And, to help in that endeavor, she travels through the South, starting in West Virginia (at Harper’s Ferry, in fact), and visiting all the Southern states, meeting people, looking at the area’s past and its present racial dealings.  She’s an excellent writer, a professor at Princeton University and a frequent contributor to the Atlantic magazine, and her insights are interesting, especially to people (like me) who have never spent much time below the Mason-Dixon line and get all their information about the South, especially the Deep South, from popular culture.

Copies of the book are available at the Field Library circulation desk.  Get one and then join us for what promises to be an interesting discussion.

MAY FIELD NOTES SELECTION: KLARA AND THE SUN

After a more contentious discussion than we usually have in the Field Notes Book Group on Saturday (only peripherally connected to our book this month, The Confidence Men), the group chose our book for the month of May, Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017, and one can hardly argue with the award.  Anyone who’s read his The Remains of the Day or his heartbreaking Never Let Me Go knows the breadth of his writing, his ability to create entirely different worlds and fill them with characters for whom we feel great compassion. From a World War II butler in England to a young woman living in a future startlingly like our present but with one significant difference, Ishiguro knows no limits.

Klara and the Sun, his latest book and the first since the Nobel Prize, is set in a somewhat dystopian future.  Our main character, Klara, is an Artificial Friend, waiting, at the outset of the book, in a store for someone to purchase her.  She’s extremely observant and a gifted mimic, and lives in hope that she will be bought and become a friend to some young person.  She’s purchased for a sickly teenager, but she’s been warned not to trust too much to the promises of human beings. The book, like so many of Ishiguro’s, asks deep questions about who we are, what makes us human, what is love.

Copies of the book will be available at the Circulation Desk in advance of our May 21st meeting. Come and pick one up and join us for what promises to be an interesting discussion, complete with coffee and donuts.

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.

FIELD NOTES GOES TO THE WOLVES FOR MARCH

Not only was the Field Notes’ February selection, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory, good for sparking discussion about funerary practices and what we do NOT want done to our bodies after our deaths, but it also inspired the Field Notes Book Group to talk about death in general and about memorials and funerals we’ve experienced personally.  It was a great discussion (and made me think about the time we read and discussed Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, which touched on some of the same subjects from a different perspective), and we all enjoyed it.  We then had a slightly difficult time choosing our next book, but we ended up deciding on Once There Were Wolves, by Charlotte McConaghy, which we’ll be discussing on March 19.

Once There Were Wolves is a novel about the rewilding of the Scottish Highlands, and about relationships between predators and prey – of all different types.  Inti Finn is a biologist leading a group of biologists attempting to reintroduce wolves into the Highlands.  The idea is that wolves, which were originally the top predator in that ecosystem, would restore the balance of nature there as it did in Yellowstone in America.  However, the people in the area are sheep herders and are understandably concerned that the wolves will go after their sheep (and their children) rather than the deer.  In addition to this pressure, Inti is also concerned about her twin sister, Aggie, whom she brought with her from their last posting in Alaska.  Something very bad happened to Aggie in Alaska, and Aggie is now mute as a result.  When a local man is killed, Inti believes that the wolves will be blamed, whether they had anything to do with the death or not, and so she takes steps to protect the wolves, steps which will come back to haunt her in the long run.

It should be a fascinating book, and I’m sure it will inspire some deep and passionate discussions, so if you can join us on March 19, please do.

A DANCE WITH DEATH: SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES, FEBRUARY’S FIELD NOTES SELECTION

With COVID and especially the Omicron variant raging around us, we had a small group for the January (live) meeting of the Field Notes Book Group, and we spent a lot of the meeting scratching our heads in confusion about our selection for January, No Gods, No Monsters, which none of us present at the meeting could figure out (we had some general ideas but had trouble keeping the characters and the plotlines straight, let alone figuring out what it all meant).

However, we had no difficulty whatsoever deciding what our book for February will be.  It’s Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory, and, while it might seem a bit morbid to focus on a book about crematoria and other aspects of the funeral business, Caitlin Doughty is the best possible guide through this strange world.  She’s funny and bright and observant, and even though there’s a lot of gross stuff she describes in the book (details, for instance, about what a person’s face looks like after their bodies have been autopsied, the smell of decomposition, and the like), she has such a great attitude and a great way of describing things, even the grossest things, that you stay with her throughout. 

Did I mention that she has a You Tube channel?  It’s called “Ask a Mortician” and it’s a hoot. She also wrote a book for young people called (I swear, I am not making this up) Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death.

We’re looking forward to a fascinating (and relatively short) book about something we tend not to think about in our culture, and we’re hoping we’ll be able to have this meeting hybrid style, both live and over zoom, on February 19 from 11 to 12:30.  Hope you can join us for what should be a fun discussion.

FIELD NOTES TO START 2022: NO GODS, NO MONSTERS

Thanks so much, Omicron variant of COVID.  Because of concerns and uncertainties brought about by this lovely new variant (you can hear the sarcasm, can’t you?), we had the last Field Notes Book Group meeting of 2021 over zoom.

It’s not just that we’re all tired of zoom and virtual meetings.  It’s not just that we had been meeting in person for several months and had just gotten used to it.  It’s really that virtual meetings aren’t as good as live ones.

If everyone had perfect wifi in their houses, if everybody’s computers never glitched, if zoom itself were without glitches, then maybe you could relax with a virtual meeting.  However, in the real world, people have unstable internet connections, people have trouble hearing each other or speaking in a meeting, and people freeze up or get bounced out of meetings, and it’s just not the same as (and by that I mean inferior to) an in person meeting.

End of rant.

We managed, despite the difficult circumstances, to discuss The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue and our book selections over the course of the year, and we managed to choose the book for next month, so it was, ultimately, a successful book group meeting, if flawed by circumstances beyond our control.

Our selection for January of 2022 is No Gods, No Monsters, by Cadwell Turnbull. This is the kind of quirky book that appeals to me and I hope will appeal to the rest of the group as well.  It starts out as the sort of story you think you know: an African American woman, Laina, gets the news that her brother has been shot and killed by police.  But her assumptions and ours are turned upside down when a video from the police officers’ body cams shows that her brother, while technically unarmed at the time of the shooting, was in fact in werewolf form, and only turned human again after his death.  Thus begins a series of revelations of other so-called monsters emerging from the shadows to claim safety through visibility.  But not all the monsters want to be known, and all kinds of other strange things are happening: disappearances, suicides, hate crimes increase.  And the underlying question that’s most disturbing of all is: why now?  What’s brought these creatures into the light in the first place?

This should lead to a fun discussion, and one I hope we’ll be able to have live and in person on January 15.  Copies of the book have been put on hold and will be available soon, so if you’re interested, come and pick up a copy and join us for what promises to be a wild ride.

DECEMBER FIELD NOTES SELECTION: THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF ADDIE LARUE

You know, sometimes it’s difficult to come up with a book that’s “uplifting” for book group, but that’s what we tried to do for the November selection for the Field Notes Book Group, when we read The Keeper of Lost Things.  While some of the group members really liked the book, others found it too predictable, too saccharine, not interesting enough.  There were bits everybody enjoyed, so we were able to have a good discussion anyway.  And of course, as we noted, you don’t need to like the book we choose in order to participate, and I would hate to have anyone in any of my book groups feel inhibited from expressing their opinions because they aren’t the same as those of the majority of the group.  Half the fun, after all, is hearing what other people see, or don’t see, in a book.

We did, with a little difficulty, decide on our book for December: V. E. Schwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, a fantasy book with an interesting premise: what if you could actually live forever, but the cost of immortality would be that nobody who sees you or interacts with you could remember you?  Eternal life without any lasting human connections might not be the sort of thing you’d actually want, however little you might want to die.  Addie LaRue makes a deal with — maybe the devil, maybe someone else, an attractive and odd creature named Luc — in 18th century France with exactly those terms.  She lives on through the centuries, slipping through other people’s lives without leaving so much as a fingerprint, let alone an impression, until finally in modern times she meets someone who actually remembers her, someone who sees her and knows her and could, in principle, have a relationship with her.  How is that possible?  Will she change her immortality at last?

We are also, at the December meeting, going to go through the books we’ve read over the course of the year.  It’s not just a nostalgia trip (though it’s definitely that), but an opportunity for us to think about what we’ve liked the most and what we’ve liked the least, which is helpful as we start the new year and choose our next reading adventures.

Copies of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue will be available at the circulation desk shortly.  Join us on December 18 at 11 to talk about immortality, and to talk about the year we’ve had in 2021.