ALMOST TOO LATE: HOW NOT TO DIE ALONE

When I first saw the description of the book, How Not to Die Alone, by Richard Roper, I have to admit I had ambivalent feelings. The bare bones of the plot are that our protagonist, Andrew, works for a branch of the English government, taking care of the burials and funerals of people who have died without heirs or friends or family, and while everyone at his workplace believes he goes home to a wife and family, the truth is that he’s living by himself in a miserable flat, but all this changes when he meets Peggy, a woman who starts working with him and who sets him on the path to a new life.

What I hoped this book would be: a warm, touching book, kind of like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, in which a lonely person steps out of his self-imposed isolation and begins to find a place in the world.

What I feared this book would be: a manic pixie dream girl comes and, through her loving but deeply unconventional ways, helps some obnoxious guy who’s never put any effort into being a good person live life to the fullest.

Having read the book, I’m happy to report that it was much closer to my hopes than my fears. Andrew comes across, at the beginning of the book, as something of a loser, someone who’s boxed himself into a narrow life because he doesn’t want anything more, but we see early on that he has a good heart.  He attends the funerals of the unfortunate souls who’ve died alone and without any friends or family, and he approaches the difficult part of his job, entering the homes of those people to look for any signs that there might be money for a funeral or any other human beings who might want to know this person has died, and who might mourn the person’s death, with grace and kindness. Frankly, it’s not a job I think I could do, and that Andrew (and the rest of the people in his department) manages to do it at all, and stay sane in the process, is pretty impressive to me.

Peggy, the woman who changes his life, might seem at first like a candidate for manic pixie dream girl: she’s lively, she curses, she approaches Andrew and the job with warmth and enthusiasm, she drinks and she’s not shy about telling people where to go. However, she’s got a complicated life of her own, including a husband who’s got a drinking problem, and two daughters who mean the world to her.  She cares about Andrew, and he comes to care about her, but she’s not here to fix his world. And in fact, at a critical point in the story, she tells him he can’t expect someone else to save him; he has to do it for himself.

Andrew didn’t originally create a wife and children, and a household, out of thin air for the fun of it (Andrew does very few things for the fun of it).  He was in an interview, and he made up a story on the spot, never dreaming he was going to have to live with that story for the rest of his time on the job, inventing increasingly elaborate stories about how he met his wife, what his children are like, and why nobody in the office has ever met them. He knows throughout that this isn’t sustainable; sooner or later people are going to find out the truth, but the longer he manages to keep the story going, the harder it’s going to be, in the end, to admit to reality. And when his supervisor, as a team building effort, institutes a program where people give dinner parties in their homes, Andrew knows his days are numbered.

His brother-in-law is blackmailing him about an inheritance, there are rumors of upcoming layoffs in the department, Peggy’s having difficulties with her marriage, and floating in the background are questions about how Andrew got to be this person in the first place and why he reacts so painfully to the sound of his beloved Ella Fitzgerald singing “Blue Moon,” which is explained late in the book (and when you find out and realize what his brother-in-law is referring to throughout his nasty attacks on Andrew, it’s a painful, poignant moment).  Even in the job itself, which could seem really depressing, there are moments of joy, including Andrew and Peggy tracking down a former lover of one of the deceaseds, and one funeral at least that feels like a real celebration of a life and not merely a routine between the vicar and Andrew as the sole mourner.

In the end, How Not to Die Alone is a warm, goodhearted book, a reminder that it’s almost never too late to start living.

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REAL LIFE HORROR STORY: MIDNIGHT IN CHERNOBYL

Imagine a Venn diagram where one circle is “This nonfiction book is written like a thriller, so full of exciting detail that even though I know what’s going to happen, I still can’t put it down” and the other circle is “This nonfiction book is so terrifying, the things it depicts are so nightmarish that I have to force myself to pick it up and read it, no matter how well-written it is.”  The very small intersection between those two circles would be where Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, by Adam Higginbotham, would fit. It is a terrific read, a real page turner.  At the same time, it is one of the most frightening books I have ever read, especially since it’s all true and accurately reported.

This is one of those books, like Columbine, where you think you know what happened, but as you dive with the author down into the details of what actually happened and why, you discover that what you think you knew bears little resemblance to reality.  This can be a mind-blowing experience even if the events you’re learning more about aren’t horrific; it’s still mind-blowing but much more disturbing if the events are dark and bloody.

You don’t have to be a nuclear physicist or a historian of the former Soviet Union to follow what’s going on in this book; I’m neither, and Higginbotham is so clear, so detailed and so human, in his telling that I could understand (as much as anyone can) what was happening throughout.  He explains the science and gives background to everything you need to know while still keeping the narrative racing forward.

The book doesn’t read like a science or history text.  The closest thing I can compare it to is a horror novel, especially in the beginning, as we meet the people who will play roles in the disaster, from the director of the Chernobyl plant who was responsible for designing the plant and the town that went around it to the individual firefighters who tried, in valiant ignorance, to put out the insanely radioactive and dangerous fires in Reactor Number Four.  I appreciate the author’s ability to bring these distinct people to life, but the whole time I was reading the beginning, I kept wondering which of these people was going to die in the course of the book and how horrible the deaths would be. When things start cascading from disaster to mega-disaster, and the officials are dragging their heels, mired in denial and utterly unprepared for anything of this magnitude, refusing to order the evacuation of the town even as plumes of radiation are exploding out of the plant, the urge to scream at the participants, urging them to “Get those people out of there!” (a la Ellen Ripley in Aliens), was almost irresistible.  

There’s so much going on in this book, and while the officials of the Soviet Union chose their scapegoats to punish for the disaster, Higginbotham is much more measured and makes it quite clear there’s plenty of blame to go around, from the design of the reactor itself to the almost unbelievable arrogance of the scientists running the program who didn’t even try to imagine the worst possible accidents, let alone plan for them, to the people who actually took the steps that led to the meltdown and then tried to fix it without knowing what they were doing or whether anything they did would work. Spoiler alert: most of the things the people did in the beginning either didn’t work at all or made things worse.

There are nightmarish descriptions of the plant and its people in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and gruesome descriptions of how people die from acute radiation poisoning, but really the worst things in the book are the official reactions of the government to this unprecedented accident, the way the Soviet Union’s reflexive secrecy and refusal to admit error made everything worse than it might otherwise have been (though, obviously, things would have been pretty bad even if the various governmental entities had been much more open).

It’s hard to recommend a book that’s this terrifying, even though it’s meticulously researched and incredibly well written, but if you have a strong stomach and the willingness to look at one of the worst disasters in modern times, this is definitely a book you should read.

CONTROLLING THE UNIVERSE: MIDDLEGAME

Sometimes the mere description of a book isn’t enough to encourage you to read it.  And sometimes you’re right to avoid a particular book based on its description, but sometimes you’d be missing out.  Case in point: Seanan McGuire’s newest book, Middlegame.  If I weren’t familiar with the author (more about her later, if you didn’t already recognize her name from my other reviews), I’d be looking askance at the concept of the book.  Twin characters named Roger and Dodger? Isn’t that a little cutesy? One of them, Roger, is all about the power of words and is a genius with words, and the other, Dodger, is a brilliant mathematician who can do anything with numbers?  Doesn’t that ring familiarity bells with King Azaz and the Mathemagician of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, respectively, in Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth?*  And the tagline, “Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained” just makes me think of any number of annoying books about would be masters of the universe.  If this book weren’t written by Seanan McGuire, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up at all.

I’ve already written about McGuire’s brilliant Wayward Children series, including Every Heart a Doorway (winner of a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award), Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Beneath the Sugar Sky, and In an Absent Dream. I know from that series (and the Incryptid series which mixes humor with suspense and supernatural beasties) that Seanan McGuire does not write cliches, and does not write cutesy, and so I took a chance on this book despite its description.

Not surprisingly, given the author, the book is much better than you would think.  In fact, it’s a terrific read, one that surprises you at almost every turn, with characters you care about and an outcome that’s far from obvious and yet ends up being very satisfying indeed.

Roger and Dodger are creations of a rogue alchemist, designed to embody the forces of language and mathematics so that ultimately, when they’re brought together (under specially controlled circumstances), they will embody the forces that control the universe (the Doctrine), and if they themselves are being commanded by James Reed, the alchemist in question, he will be able to control the universe.  Classic mad scientist (or in this case, mad alchemist) stuff.

It’s necessary for the purposes of the experiment that the two be raised apart, so Roger is adopted and brought up by parents in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Dodger is raised in Palo Alto, California.  Almost from the outset, however, the two of them break the rules of the experiment, becoming “quantum entangled” with each other from across the country, being able to see through each other’s eyes and communicate without talking. This starts when they’re very young, and starts again when they’re seven.  Reed uses his creation, Leigh (who’s the most terrifying creature in the book, completely without ethics or morals and delighting in some pretty horrible destruction), to break the two of them apart, but since they’re the most promising pair of “cuckoos” he’s created, he’s not willing to have them destroyed, yet.  

Roger and Dodger are both fully realized characters, similar to each other and yet different. Roger’s the more socialized of the two, as befits his skills with words and language, and Dodger is a little more the eccentric mathematician and chess prodigy who doesn’t deal well with other human beings, but neither one of them is a cliche and the bond between them is strong enough to withstand even the efforts of Leigh and her minions to keep them apart and keep them from realizing their potential too soon. Of course, sooner or later they do find each other, they do work together, and they do set out to embody the Doctrine, as time ticks down and disaster chases after them.

One of the fun aspects of the book is the use of quotations from a famous (in the world of this universe) children’s book (think The Wizard of Oz) which turns out to have been written by the alchemist’s creator and is actually a guidebook, if you understand it, to what Roger and Dodger are ultimately doing.  There are parallels between the fantastic characters in those excerpts and the people (and almost-people) our protagonists encounter themselves.

I don’t want to tell too much of the plot, because there are many surprises along the way (and even though the book appears to begin at the climax, things are not what they seem, so you have to keep reading even if you think you know where things are going).  Suffice it to say that things work out the way they should, the ending is very satisfying (I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read that were ruined by an ending that felt tacked on or that felt like a cheat), and it’s a thrilling and fun read.

So don’t choose the book on its description or its tag line.  Choose it based on Seanan McGuire’s great talent for storytelling, and you will not be disappointed, I guarantee it.

 

*Not that I have anything against The Phantom Tollbooth, which is one of the few children’s books I own in hardcover, and which both my daughter and I can quote from prolifically.  Seriously, if you haven’t read it, do. You’re in for a treat. This, however, has nothing to do with the review at hand.

THE BEST OF THE LAW: MEET HORACE RUMPOLE

The most recent category in The Field Library’s Reading Challenge for 2019 is “Read a Book About Law,” and frankly, that’s probably the easiest category of the lot.  If you want fiction, there’s the usual Grisham and Turow, Grippando and Scottoline, just to name the most obvious and popular choices. If you’re more a nonfiction person, there are books about famous trials, famous Supreme Court cases, about the operation of the District Attorney’s office, the U.S. Department of Justice, criminal and civil law practitioners.  Nobody should have any trouble finding a book he or she wants to read in this category, but I just want to recommend what I consider to be the best series of books about law and lawyers around: the Rumpole books by John Mortimer. We have a couple of them here at The Field Library, including The First Rumpole Omnibus, which contains Rumpole of the Bailey, The Trials of Rumpole and Rumpole’s Return, a fabulous introduction to this wonderful character and his world.

Horace Rumpole, if you’ve never encountered him in print or on television (Leo McKern portrayed him, brilliantly, on the old Mystery! Series on PBS), is definitely a character.  A British barrister who’s been around the block many times, senior to most of the other barristers in his chambers (don’t worry, you’ll learn all the British terms for the practice of law by reading Rumpole), forever an ordinary barrister and not Queen’s Counsel (which Rumpole refers to as “Queer Customer”), the kind of barrister who gets the high paying, high prestige cases.  While barristers can choose to prosecute or defend accused criminals (and some do both), Rumpole is resolute: he never prosecutes (his argument is that he doesn’t want to be responsible for putting some poor unfortunate in jail), but only does defense. He loves trying cases, and while (as is almost always the case in criminal defense) he loses a lot of his cases, he has more tricks up his sleeve, a greater ability to draw out the truth in cross examination and a greater ability to size up and persuade a jury than almost all of the other barristers around him.  He drinks too much (his favorite cheap drink is a vintage he refers to as “Chateau Thames Embankment” or “Chateau Fleet Street”; in one of my favorite stories he’s involved with wine connoisseurs, where he’s hilariously out of his league), he smokes cigars incessantly, he eats badly and refuses to follow any trends. He’s sarcastic and well-read, and he is riotously funny.

Rumpole is such a great character I would read his escapades even if he were the only person in the stories, but half the enjoyment of the stories lies in the supporting cast, from his long-suffering wife, Hilda (“She Who Must Be Obeyed”, as Rumpole calls her behind her back), to the Timson family which seems to consist of thieves, burglars, fences and general fodder for Rumpole’s work, to the (shifting) population of Rumpole’s chambers, all of whom are individualized and given their own nicknames by Rumpole.  He appears before some judges more than once, so you get to recognize them by their names and their behaviors, but even those we only see once are memorable characters in their own right.

Through the many stories (only Rumpole’s Return is a full length novel), we get to see the English justice system in action, we learn the difference between barristers and solicitors, and we get to know an extraordinary collection of characters on all sides of the law.  Honestly, if you want the best possible introduction to the glories and tribulations of the law, you could hardly do better than starting with Horace Rumpole.

LIGHTING UP MOTHERHOOD: LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE

So here we are in the shadow of Mother’s Day, and I’m about to recommend to you a book about mothers and children that starts with a teenage child burning the family home to the ground.  You’ve probably guessed what the book is if you’ve read the bestselling Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng, but if you haven’t read it, go and check it out.  It’s the kind of book that could start a lot of interesting conversations (and I hope it will for the people in the Drum Hill Book Group, who are reading it for June) about a number of topics, from what makes a good mother to which secrets are worth keeping and from whom, to the biggest of all: what makes a good life?

Modern writing courses always tell you to start with a bang, with some exciting scene to draw the readers in, and Ng certainly does that, opening with Elena Richardson running out of her house as it’s engulfed in flames.  We’re told from the outset that Izzy, the one offspring we don’t meet in the first chapter, is assumed to be the one responsible for lighting the fires in all the bedrooms that led to the conflagration, though her brother, Moody (yes, the names are all like that), is skeptical from the beginning.  Spoiler: Moody’s wrong, and Izzy did in fact set the house on fire, deliberately (“a small crackling fire set directly in the middle of each bed, as if a demented Girl Scout had been camping there”, to quote from the book). Why she did it, and what led up to that scene, is the plot of the book, but even that’s just a small part of the universe of Little Fires Everywhere.

The plot begins when Mia Warren, with her teenage daughter, Pearl,  moves into the rental house owned by Elena Richardson in beautiful, carefully planned and regulated Shaker Heights, Ohio.  Mia is an artist and something of a gypsy, staying in any one place only long enough to finish one project and then moving along to the next place.  Now, after a health scare, Mia’s promised Pearl they’ll put down roots here and stay for good, and the two of them begin to entangle themselves with the lives of Elena Richardson and her four children, Lexie, Trip, Moody and Izzy.  Moody befriends Pearl, who goes to his school and starts spending more and more time in the classic suburban type home of the family, so different from the nomadic and impermanent living situations she’s had with her beloved mother. Mia, working a couple of jobs to keep herself and Pearl going while she works on the photography she really cares about, finds herself working as a sort of cook and housekeeper for the family.

At first you think Mia is going to be the Manic Pixie Dream Girl who changes the lives of the staid suburban family and causes them all to look at the world differently and see the value of art and so forth, but that’s not what’s going on at all, and kudos to Ng for not falling into that trap. Nor is it a story about the child of a wandering, bohemian parent discovering how much she likes the settled life or the people who live that kind of life. Mia and Pearl are agents of change for the Richardsons and the other people of the city, but they are changed as well by their relationships with the people of Shaker Heights.

Because of Mia’s having one foot in the Richardsons’ world and one in the world of low wage jobs, she realizes that the Chinese baby found at the local fire station and given to the McCulloughs, a childless couple who are friends of the Richardsons, is the baby her coworker left at that fire station, and once she tells Bebe, the mother of the baby, where the child is, Bebe demands her baby back.  Now we have a court case pitting a poor immigrant biological mother against a well-to-do middle class couple who have been taking care of the child for a year, in the process of adopting her.

The family court case divides the town, and Elena Richardson’s loyalty to her friend, Linda, turns her against Mia, with dramatic results.

Throughout the book, there are mothers and would-be mothers: Mia and Elena, Bebe and Linda, and other characters (I’m not going to spoil the plot by giving more details in that regard), raising uncomfortable questions about what makes a person a mother: biology? Care?  Choice? Izzy attaches herself to Mia, seeing her as a better mother than Elena, and Elena and Izzy spend much of the book at odds with each other, and only in the end of the book does Elena actually begin to understand why she’s had so much trouble with Izzy (a revelation that feels earned, not as if the author felt Elena had to learn a lesson and imposed it on her).  

There are no characters who are idealized, no lifestyles that are presented as being better in an absolute sense than others.  Everybody makes mistakes, sometimes terrible ones, and people have to live with the consequences of their actions. It would be easy, in a book like this, to choose sides and paint everything black and white, but this is a book of greys, and at different points everyone in it is lovable and infuriating at the same time.

It’s an excellent book to spark discussions and make you think; it’s also an enthralling read that’s hard to put down. Check out Little Fires Everywhere and settle in for a reading adventure.

 

THE ROAD GOES EVER ON: THE PARADE

Dave Eggers’ new book, The Parade, is a very unusual kind of novel.  It doesn’t have conventional characters, a conventional setting, or most of the accouterments of modern novels, and to top it all off, it’s extremely short, more like a novella than a novel. But after a somewhat slow start, the book sneaks up on you so that by the time you reach the climax, you’re both surprised and moved by what you’ve been reading.

The Parade starts out, and seems to be for most of its length, a simple, fable-like story.  There are two main characters, neither of whom has a name (nobody in the whole book has a name, in fact, which takes some getting used to).  They refer to themselves by numbers, our protagonist being Four and his co-worker being Nine. They’ve been flown in to a place in the middle of a southern part of this unnamed country which has just ended a war.  Their job is to pave a road that joins the southern part of the country, the more rural part, where the recent rebellion took place, with the northern part, the more urban and sophisticated part where the seat of the government was, and is again. The idea is that the country will be united physically after the cease fire, and there will be all kinds of good things coming to the south as a result of this new road, starting with a fancy parade from the north on the preplanned day of the road’s completion.  

From the start, we feel we have a pretty clear idea of what kind of people our main characters are.  Four is a rule-keeper, a man who’s driven the machines that spread the asphalt and paint the lines on the roads for years and years.  He’s worked for this company for, apparently, most of his life, and he sets a high value on doing the job right, not getting distracted, not getting involved with outsiders and being punctual and hardworking.  Nine, whose job is to go ahead of Four on a quad, making sure there are no possible obstructions, living or otherwise, to slow down the paver, the RS-80, on its way, is the opposite of Four. Sloppy where Four is tidy, rash where Four is cautious, willing to ignore the rules when he feels like it, eager to interact with the locals through whose lands they pass, Nine is guaranteed to drive Four to distraction.  Four puts up with Nine’s antics as long as they don’t delay the mission, but he imagines how he’s going to get back at Nine for his insubordination and his recklessness.

Along the way, Nine gets into increasing amounts of trouble, and Four finds himself interacting with the locals much more than he ever intended to do.  He’s suspicious and annoyed at himself for bending, and then breaking, the rules, especially when he does so to help Nine, but gradually (VERY gradually) we come to see some of the human side of Four and see him as more than the Felix Unger of this odd couple.  I have to give Eggers credit here for his use of details: the food Four eats, the way he deals with his tent, the way he plugs his earphones in to blot out the sounds of the rest of the world, are all things we begin to see differently as we get to know the character better.  By the end of the book, I even came to feel some sympathy for Four, rigid as he often seems and acts.

I’m not going to give away the plot. It’s the kind of book that’s better experienced than explained. Suffice it to say that, while I had some intimations about where the story would ultimately go, it still packed a surprising wallop at the climax. If you want a short, relatively quick read that makes you think after you’re finished, check out The Parade.

MAPS, JINN AND THE INQUISITION: A THRILLING RIDE THROUGH MEDIEVAL SPAIN

There are some authors whose books I’ll buy for the library almost sight unseen. They’re usually the authors who are so popular that I know library patrons are going to want to read their books, but sometimes they’re authors I personally love, whose books I’ve recommended over and over to prospective readers.  There are authors (we probably all have them) for whom the very announcement that they have a new book coming out is enough to set my heart racing and make me decide we have to have that book.

One of those authors, for me, is G. Willow Wilson, and my eagerness to read her new book, The Bird King, was largely based on how much I loved her last book, Alif the Unseen, which I read for a category in one of the Read Harder challenges.  Sadly, Alif the Unseen is not available here at the Field Library, which is why I haven’t written it up for the blog, but it’s a wonderful book that combines adventure and fantasy and romance in a Middle Eastern culture I haven’t seen often depicted in fantasy novels, with a supporting heroine worthy of her own book, or her own series.

The Bird King is set in the last days of the Reconquista in Spain, as Ferdinand and Isabella were consolidating their control over the country and pushing out the last of the Moorish kingdoms. The story begins in a palace in Granada, the last Moorish kingdom, already under siege and reaching the end of its existence.  Fatima, our protagonist, is a Circassian slave in the harem of the sultan, a servant to his mother, the Lady Aisha. Her closest friend in the palace is Hassan, the palace mapmaker, who has the amazing ability to make the world correspond to what he draws in his maps: he can make doors appear where there were none in reality, and tunnels from one place to another that never existed before his maps.  Naturally Hassan has used this gift for the sultan and his people earlier in the war, and he’s more than willing to continue to use this talent to help those he cares about. There is no possibility of a marriage or even a sexual relationship between Fatima and Hassan, because he is attracted only to men. This is something the sultan and most of the other people in the palace are aware of, and they tolerate this behavior of his because of his outstanding gifts, but even from the outset we know this is going to be a problem sooner or later.  

It becomes a problem when the emissaries of Ferdinand and Isabella, a general and a religious woman, come to the palace to offer terms for the sultan’s surrender.  The general seems like the more powerful character, but it’s the woman, Luz, who makes things happen, and when Fatima discovers that Luz is associated with the Inquisition, she realizes that Luz, and the people she represents, are the biggest danger to Hassan.  Indeed, when Luz finds out what Hassan can do, she naturally takes the position that he is in league with the devil, and insists that he be surrendered to the Inquisition. While the sultan and even Lady Aisha are willing to pay for peace with Hassan’s life, Fatima is not, and so she and Hassan escape the palace and make a break for freedom, with the help of a dog who is really a jinn named Vikram (a character we met already in Alif the Unseen, though he’s pretty much the only character in common between those two books; he was a delight in Alif and he’s a wonderful character here, too, much more than a supernatural helper when the couple need him and never someone who can be entirely relied upon for that kind of help), and with all the forces of the Inquisition after them.

Wilson is excellent at creating characters. None of the people or beings we meet in this book are predictable or simple, from Hassan to Fatima, from Aisha to the sultan, from Gwennec, the novice monk they encounter along the way, even to Stupid, the horse they end up taking on board a boat with them.  Where she really excels is in her villains, and Luz is amazing. Anyone can write a totally evil person who acts cruelly and viciously just for the sake of evil, and such all powerful, all evil characters aren’t terribly interesting or believable. Luz does horrible things and plans even more terrible ones, but she is always plausible, she’s charming and sweet even to the people she’s setting out to destroy, and she has reasons for her actions. They may not be reasons you’d agree with (they certainly aren’t reasons I’d agree with), but she’s got realistic motivations (even without the supernatural help she gets), and she is disturbingly powerful, a worthy opponent for our characters.

The world of The Bird King is vivid and realistic, despite the many paranormal things that occur in it.  Distances are vast, people don’t develop the ability to walk for days and days without pain, you can’t immediately set foot in a small sailboat and immediately know how to sail it unless someone shows you how (and even then you can make stupid mistakes).  All the details of hunger and thirst, physical and emotional pain, the smells of waterfronts and cities, the dry air of late summer in Spain combine to bring this world to life without the book’s ever stopping its forward momentum or slowing you down to force you to look at any of it.

I read the book in two days, and would have devoured it in one if I hadn’t had to waste time on silly things like eating and sleeping and going to work.  If you want a rich, immersive book with characters you care about, plenty of action, set in a world you’re probably not very familiar with, you could hardly do better than to pick up The Bird King.  But make sure you set aside time, because you’re not going to want to put it down once you start it.

AROUND THE WORLD BY TRAIN: OFF THE RAILS

Let’s start with my personal bias here: I love train travel, even on Amtrak with all its delays and difficulties, and I practically swooned when taking the high speed train from Brussels to Paris a few years ago (what train travel could be!  Who knew?). So I am probably the ideal audience for Beppe Severgnini’s new nonfiction book, Off the Rails: A Train Trip Through Life, but I think even people who don’t come to the book with my predilections will find it an entertaining read, the kind of travel book that makes you want to get up and go, or possibly that gives you such a sense of what the trip is like that you feel you’ve already gone.

The book is a series of essays about particular train trips Severgnini has taken over the years, and it’s an impressive collection of routes and trains any way you look at it.  He crosses the United States twice, mostly by train (the first trip he describes, when he’s traveling with his college-age son, involves some driving and some bus travel as well), he takes a train across the width of Australia, crosses Europe in a couple of different directions, travels across Asia through Siberia to China.  A native of Italy, he brings a unique perspective to whatever he experiences.

Frankly, Beppe is the kind of traveling companion anyone would want.  He’s incredibly patient with delays and screwups on the part of bureaucracies, he’s endlessly interested in the world around him, and he seems to be the kind of person who can get anyone, anywhere, to talk to him. His sense of humor never deserts him, and he looks at all the people around him, from train employees to fellow passengers, as fascinating people with their own stories to share.  If you were going to be traveling through Eastern Europe, as he does, and facing the oddities of scheduling and different standards of train travel, or traveling across the (then) Soviet Union and dealing with the limited food available on the train, you couldn’t ask for a less stressed person to accompany you.

Some of the delight of the book is his description of the travel itself, the experience of taking a train, of figuring out how the sleeping arrangements work (his descriptions of an Amtrak sleeper compartment are amusing and accurate), of eating meals with a random assortment of strangers on the dining car, and what he observes out the windows or in the train stations.  But a lot of the pleasure he takes in the travel, which he conveys vividly, is his encounters with other people, with people from different countries, with different languages, cultures and ideas. He’s a brave man, talking politics with strangers, even bringing a bobblehead Trump with him on a trip from Naples to London and watching people’s reactions, but there’s something about him that brings out the kindness and the talkativeness of other people.  Perhaps it’s his lack of judgmentalism. He has opinions of his own, and he shares them with us, but my impression is that he doesn’t reveal those opinions to the people he meets, and that encourages them to be open with him.

There is only one thing this book lacks, and it’s a surprising thing. Why aren’t there any maps in the book?  I’d settle for maps on the insides of the covers, though I’d prefer a map at the beginning of each chapter. How can you have a travel book without any maps at all?  Especially when in the last chapter Beppe talks with some sadness about how modern people have no idea of distances or locations, where things are with relation to each other.  I agree with his concern there, but it would be a lot less ironic if he or his publisher had taken the elementary step of providing maps of where these various places are that he’s seeing and experiencing. Even if you’re reasonably geographically knowledgeable, there are still parts of the world you don’t know as well, and a map would help immensely to give you an idea of locations and distances.

Other than that, this is a fun book, a quick read, and an inspiration to do some train traveling of your own, and I heartily recommend it.

 

THE RIVER THAT RUNS THROUGH US: EVERYTHING UNDER

If you’re going to write a modern version of an ancient myth or story, one way you can do it is to be straightforward and take the elements of the original story and put them in a modern setting. This requires more imagination than you might think; look at The Mere Wife (one of my favorite reads for 2018 and a stunning re-imagining of Beowulf) for an example of how to do it right. Another way is to take the elements of the original and turn them into something completely different, while still retaining the heart of the myth, and that’s what Daisy Johnson does in Everything Under, a strange and beautiful book.

I could tell you that it’s based on the story of Oedipus, and it is, sort of, but you’d get two thirds of the way through the winding, elliptical narrative before you’d even begin to see the elements of the original myth, and in so doing, you’d miss out on half of what makes this book so compelling.

Gretel is our narrator, and one of the point of view characters. She’s in her thirties, living a quiet life as a lexicographer in England, having been abandoned by her mother when she was a teenager. As we begin to see, even when Gretel was living with her mother, Sarah, it was hardly a normal childhood: isolated on a boat moored in a river, having little contact with the outside world, even creating a language of their own that nobody else could understand, Gretel’s lucky she turned out as normal as she did. She hardly ever thinks about her missing mother until she receives an email supposedly from Sarah, telling Gretel she’s lost.

Gretel then begins a search for her mother, and the novel begins winding through past and present, through what Gretel discovers in the present and what she remembers, and what she’s able to recreate of the past, especially of one particular winter when she and her mother were joined on their boat by a young man named Marcus.

Sarah in the present is a force of nature, but one beginning to fall apart. Whether she’s suffering from Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia, she both recognizes Gretel and has no idea who this young woman is, and Gretel tries to take care of her mother and figure out what Sarah needs so desperately to tell her.

Gretel, interesting narrator as she is, isn’t the only point of view character in the book. Giving their own unique perspectives on the story are Fiona, a gender queer person who never met Gretel or Sarah but knows an awful lot about Marcus before he was Marcus, and Marcus himself, formerly Margot.

This is one of those books where the setting is almost a character in itself. The river on which they live is wild and scary, inhabited by people who don’t seem to belong anywhere else, and, possibly, by a monster Sarah and Gretel refer to as the Bonak, and the Canal Thief of the past, rumored and possibly seen by Marcus and some of the others. The river feels like a mythical place, where there could be monsters, where the past and present are as fluid and sometimes cryptic as the language Sarah and Gretel spoke to each other, as the relationships among the main characters.

Everything Under is an immersive book, literary and allusive, and finally, when all the secrets have been unearthed and justice done or not done, deeply emotional and haunting. Check it out.

HOW TO KEEP CHILL ABOUT YOUR SYMPTOMS: AM I DYING?

Modern medicine is really amazing.  There are any number of diseases and conditions that can be diagnosed early and treated or even cured, which wouldn’t have been possible a decade or more ago, and this is terrific.  However, with this great technology and all these improvements in diagnosis and other medical procedures, we now have more anxiety about various physical symptoms, wondering what our response should be to, say, abdominal pain, or a racing heart, or a rash.  Here to help is a wonderful new book, Am I Dying?! by Christopher Kelly and Marc Eisenberg, two doctors who want people to know when to worry, when to chill out, and when to get to the emergency room as soon as possible.

It’s the kind of book you don’t have to read through (though if you’re a hypochondriac you might want to read from cover to cover), but can peruse for particular problems, particular issues and get the answers you’re looking for. It’s well organized: each section pertains to a different part of the body (head and neck, chest and back, belly, “lady parts”, “gentleman parts”, bathroom trouble, arms and legs, skin and hair), and each chapter describes a different set of symptoms (headaches, dizziness, chest pain, sore throat, etc.).  When you find the symptom you’re concerned about, there’s a description of the symptom and then tells you when you should “take a chill pill” (i.e., there’s nothing to worry about, it’s normal or it will take care of itself without medical intervention), when you should make an appointment (the symptom might be a sign of something more serious that needs medication or other medical care), and when you should go to the emergency room (self explanatory). The descriptions and explanations are written in clear, layperson language, and even the sections that tell you to go to the emergency room are presented in a non-scary way.  Imagine having a doctor on call (who doesn’t charge you for the calls!) who will listen to you explain what you’re feeling and then explain what’s likely to be happening and what you should do next, and that’s this book.

You don’t have to be a hypochondriac to think Am I Dying?! is a fascinating and worthwhile book.  All you have to be is someone who’s concerned about his or her health and who wants to know what to do next.