THE ABC’S OF A GOOD NURSE: HOW TO TREAT PEOPLE

I confess to being a sucker for books written by people in particular professions I am unlikely ever to engage in: books about valiant teachers working with students with serious disabilities or handicaps, brain surgeons (one of the best books in that genre I’ve ever read was When the Air Hits Your Brain, by Frank Vertosick), midwives, nurses.  So when I saw How to Treat People, subtitled A Nurse’s Notes, by Molly Case, how could I resist?

Case writes about her training, her work as a qualified nurse, and her family’s experiences with the medical profession.  She’s English, so there are some differences between the health care system she works in and our health care system, and it takes a little while to get used to some of her references (HDU for High Density Unit, which doesn’t seem to have an American equivalent, for instance), but some things about nursing are universal, and most of the stories she tells about her experiences and her patients could have happened anywhere.

From the evidence of her book, Molly Case is an excellent nurse, modest and competent, empathetic and generous of heart. She talks about her first experiences of the death of a patient, her experiences with patients who are suffering from various kinds of dementia, and the whole range of medical problems nurses deal with.  There’s one especially funny story about a patient being prepared for surgery who had interesting metal jewelry that had to be removed (I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the fun of it), and moving stories about Molly’s father’s medical issues and his surgery, which turns her from a nurse to a daughter (albeit one well informed about medical procedures) again. She’s the kind of nurse I would want to have attending me if I were in a hospital.

The book is not organized chronologically. Over the course of the book, you do learn about her childhood, her early training, her family background, but the information is spread out throughout the book, sprinkled among anecdotes about the various aspects of nursing care and her experiences with her patients and other medical professionals. I didn’t feel at all confused by her organization, which follows the order of things nurses check with a new patient: airway, breathing, circulation, disability, exposure.  For each category, she explains why it’s important, how a nurse checks it, a little background of how historically this particular aspect was checked, and then some anecdotes about her experiences with this part of a nurse’s assessment. 

Informative, charming, vivid and moving, How to Treat People is a fine look at what happens on the other side of the hospital bed.

MULTIPLE FUTURES, ALL STRANGE: DEAD ASTRONAUTS

If you’re the kind of reader who wants a straightforward narrative, with characters who remain more or less the same throughout the book, if you want all the questions the book raises to be answered by the end of the book, you should probably not read Dead Astronauts, by Jeff Vandermeer.  However, if you have ever read any other books by Vandermeer (such as the Southern Reach trilogy, which start with Annihilation, a wonderful — but definitely strange — book), you will not be expecting a linear narrative or ordinary characters.  You will be expecting experimental writing, fascinating ideas, plots that circle back on themselves and then turn in a completely different direction, and characters who may not be human in any sense, who could, in fact, be anything.  In that case, you are going to love Dead Astronauts.

It’s a hard book to describe. It’s dystopian, set in a world where, at least at one time, there was an all-powerful Company that, as far as we can tell, more or less destroyed the human population.  There are three characters, one of whom, Grayson, the lone astronaut survivor of a space disaster, is definitely human, the other two of whom can at least appear human. Chen, whose background is kind of opaque, has worked for the Company in the past, and has joined with the others to take down the Company in at least one timeline. Moss is a still more interesting character, a shapeshifter of extraordinary abilities, possibly created by the Company.  Moss has chosen to take on a human shape to be with Grayson, though Moss is willing to try different forms to destroy the Company.

The three of them have been fighting against the Company endlessly; they are always defeated, but they come back repeatedly in the hope of finding the right combination of circumstances, the right version, in which they can actually defeat the Company.  There are recurring creatures they encounter, the duck with the broken wing, the blue fox, the Leviathan, and over the course of the book we come to learn the backgrounds of those characters (sort of; there’s a certain stream of consciousness narration in some of the stories of the other characters), and get a sense of how all these creatures work together and why they do some of the things they do. 

Vandermeer has a terrifying imagination.  There are certain things in this book — the wall of globes, the dinner at the secret garden — that will haunt my dreams for some time (I’m not going to go into more detail; when you read the book, you’ll see what’s so appalling about those particular scenes).  While the book is set in the future, many of the terrible things happening in the book grow naturally out of things we are already seeing (only magnified and extended).  

The book can be challenging to read; there’s one chapter which consists of two sentences, repeated for pages (the sentences are : “They killed me. They brought me back.”), and another in which one paragraph about the joys foxes enjoy when there are no people is repeated for pages (with a variation stuck in the middle, so you do have to pay attention).  There are pages with one paragraph each, there are places where the typeface clues you in as to who’s telling the story (that’s another of the stories in the book that haunts my nightmares) and what it’s about. You have to pay attention. You have to be willing to let go of preconceived ideas about what a book looks like or reads like.

It’s worth it.  The ride is rocky and disturbing in places, but you come out of it with a sense of a vivid, terrible future, yet with some small sprinklings of hope.  

THE BEST BOOKS OF 2019, AS FAR AS I’M CONCERNED

This is the time of year when everybody’s putting together their “best of 2019” lists, so who am I to buck the trend?  Many of these lists run to 10 or even 20 books, but I’m only limiting my selections to (a) books I actually read during 2019, (b) books that were published during 2019, and (most important) ( c) books that stood out, that I really, really liked.  Most of the books I’ve written about this year are books I’ve enjoyed (I’m not one of those people who likes to write bad reviews of anything), but the ones I’m listing here went above and beyond and stick with me months later. Your mileage may vary, of course, but these are my top choices.

NONFICTION

Yes, I do read nonfiction, and even write about it sometimes. There were two nonfiction books this year that really stood out.  These are not listed in order of importance or quality; as far as I’m concerned, they’re equal.

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold, is the kind of book that turns accepted history on its head.  How many books are there about Jack the Ripper, speculating about his identity, luxuriating in the details of exactly what he did to his victims and when?  This is the first I’ve seen that focuses instead on the victims, the women who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the author does a terrific job of bringing them to life for us, challenging the standard story that he was killing prostitutes by showing us that most of them weren’t what we would call prostitutes.  What they had in common was poverty, and poverty in Victorian England was often a death sentence for women. One of the best things about this book, in my opinion, was the way the author brings you through the woman’s life up until the moment before she’s killed, skips the details of how she was killed, and then looks at the aftermath for her friends and family. If you were reluctant to read this book because you were afraid of violence and gore, don’t be. It’s not that kind of Jack the Ripper book; it’s much better.

Midnight in Chernobyl: the Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, by Adam Higginbotham, is another of those books that tells the story of something you think you already know, and illuminates it in ways you couldn’t imagine.  This is probably the most terrifying book I read all year, made all the more chilling because every detail of it is verified and documented. Reading this is like watching the kind of horror movie where you’re screaming at the screen for the characters not to do what you know they’re going to do.  There are descriptive passages that H. P. Lovecraft would have given his eye teeth to have written; there is suspense the likes of which the best thriller writers would envy. It is appalling and vivid and terrifying and one terrific read.

FICTION

Every year there’s at least one book I recommend to everybody I encounter at the library.  This year, that book was Hollow Kingdom, a debut novel (amazingly) by Kira Jane Buxton.  When I describe the book to people with one sentence, I tell them it’s the zombie apocalypse as seen through the eyes of a domesticated crow named S.T. (the initials stand for an obscene description of the crow by his human), and I can see people turning off at the thought. Trust me, though, it is not your typical zombie apocalypse.  For one thing, nobody uses the Z word. For another thing, our main narrator (there are multiple narrators for brief parts of the book, almost all of them animals, giving us different insights into what’s going on worldwide) is such a vivid character, funny and touching at the same time. For another thing, what’s going on with humans (called mofo’s in the book; this is what S.T.’s human, Big Jim, used to call people) is only a small part of the book. Human beings are being destroyed and destroying things, but the focus of the book is how the animals who survive are creating their own world without us.  I have to confess, there were times during my reading of this book that I had to stop because I was so moved, not just by the fate of the humans, but by S.T.’s sorrow and longing for human beings. The book has everything: humor, tears, adventure, thought-provoking reflections, characters you care about deeply, and even a satisfying ending (it’s not necessarily the ending I would have chosen, but it works and it’s satisfying). Keep an eye out for Kira Jane Buxton: judging by this book, she’s quite talented and packs quite a punch.

And yes, in any year in which Jo Nesbo publishes a Harry Hole novel (not frequent enough for my taste), you know I’m going to pick his book as one of the best of the year.  This year his book was Knife, and as one of my co-workers remarked, nobody has ever seen me get so excited about a knife before.  Jo Nesbo is a fiendish writer, and, despite his undue cruelty to his main character, his plotting is better than ever.  If you’re a fan of these dark and enthralling books, I don’t need to tell you anything other than that there’s a new Harry Hole book; if you’re not a fan but you’re interested in dark thrillers that take you by the throat and keep you frantically turning pages till you reach the end, you should start at the beginning of the series and check Nesbo out.

And here’s to all the good books we haven’t yet encountered in 2020!  Happy reading to us all!

THE OTHER SIDE OF A CHRISTMAS CAROL: MARLEY

At this festive time of year, it is of course a good idea to revisit the classics, and of course Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of those classics, which I personally reread every year (for my money, none of the movie adaptations manages to capture the depths of the original).  This year, in addition to reading A Christmas Carol, I also read a new book, Marley, by John Clinch, which (as you might guess from the title) is a prequel to A Christmas Carol, and gives us, among other things, a look at what Jacob Marley was like when he was alive, and what his relationship with Ebeneezer Scrooge was like when they worked together at Scrooge & Marley’s. 

This seems to be my year to read different versions of famous books, whether that’s because there are more of them around or whether that’s just saying something about my taste.  One of the things I look for is a sense of the author’s knowledge of (and love for) the source material. The writer of the new book is constrained to greater or lesser extent by the original, and that’s especially so in the case of Marley.  We know how the story ends, after all: Marley is dead before the book begins, and Scrooge is set in his ways as a miserly curmudgeon, and the ghost of Jacob Marley comes on Christmas Eve to save Scrooge from Marley’s fate. We also know something of Scrooge’s past from his encounters with the Ghost of Christmas Past, and any prequel to A Christmas Carol has to not only create a Jacob Marley who could believably be both the partner of the bad Scrooge and someone who could come back from the grave to save Scrooge, but also to create a past Scrooge who lives up to what we see with the Ghost of Christmas Past.  

It’s a tall order, but Clinch manages it brilliantly. Jacob Marley meets Scrooge when the pair of them are in that terrible boarding school, and immediately demonstrates what he’s going to be for most of the rest of his life by taking advantage of Scrooge’s ignorance.  Marley is a charming, reprehensible person: a cheat, a fraud, a forger, a libertine and a man who will step on anyone to get his way. As you watch him create not just shell organizations but fraudulent documents purportedly signed by people in these fraudulent organizations, and you watch his incredible imagination at work, you can’t help but almost admire him, all the while being aware that his ends are dreadful and he has no morals to speak of.  You dislike him because you know what he’s really doing, but at the same time he exerts an almost Dexter-like antihero fascination. At one point a young Scrooge describes Marley as “protean”, and that is really an excellent encapsulation of Marley.

One of the more interesting things in this book, a major plot point in fact, is that Scrooge and Marley’s fortune is made through the slave trade.  You will notice in the original that at no point does anyone talk about where their money came from, so it makes perfect sense that it would be vaguely illegal (or absolutely illegal). Scrooge, who comes across in most of this book as a calculating machine, someone who cares only about the figures on the page and not about what they represent in the real world, becomes aware that the slave trade is part of his bread and butter only when Belle’s father refuses to allow her to marry him because of where his money comes from.  Scrooge sees the light and attempts to divest the company’s funds from slave ships, but Marley isn’t willing to give up such a lucrative trade, even when slavery is made illegal in Great Britain. The way Scrooge and Marley plot against each other in secret over this makes for tension in the book, and the involvement of other parties, including Scrooge’s brother in law (his sister’s husband), creates twists and turns worthy of Dickens himself (and I can’t give higher praise than that).

I always say that you don’t need to read the original to appreciate one of these books, and that’s true for Marley, but I would be remiss not to mention the cleverness with which Clinch seeds the narrative with other Dickens characters.  Many of the names of the fake lawyers, businessmen and other characters Marley creates are in fact names familiar to any Dickens fan, but occasionally one of Dickens’ characters makes a brief appearance, not even big enough to be a cameo, and that’s just delightful (I’m thinking particularly here of a mention of a young lawyer by the name of Tulkinghorn, who is a major character in Bleak House, my favorite Dickens novel).  Even better is Marley’s alias, used when he’s doing something especially sleazy (shaking down whorehouses, for instance, or hiring murderers), of Inspector Bucket of the Metropolitan Police.  The name becomes a joke of sorts, insulating Marley from the consequences of his actions, but there is in fact an Inspector Bucket (a very good detective, too) in Bleak House.  If you’re a fan of Dickens, you will especially appreciate the author’s love for the master.

Marley is a satisfying read, a book that stands on its own but also illuminates its predecessor.  The characters and plot are worthy of Dickens while being modern at the same time. In this festive season, augment your enjoyment of A Christmas Carol by reading Marley as well. 

FAITH IN OUTER SPACE: SISTERS OF THE VAST BLACK

If you’re the type of person who doesn’t like to read science fiction because you feel it doesn’t have enough to say about the world we actually live in, have I got a book for you!  Lina Rather’s Sisters of the Vast Black is set on a living spaceship that serves as a convent for a group of nuns who travel the outer reaches of human civilization to bring the sacraments and medical care to far flung colonists. It is also a book about faith and faithlessness and the possibility of redemption, about colonialism and humanity and what binds people together.  Only a novella in length, the book packs quite an emotional punch and is one of the best books I’ve read all year.

We get to know the Sisters of the Order of Saint Rita and their ship, Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, as they face ethical dilemmas from the outset of the book, when they discover their ship has bonded with another ship and wants to mate.  Should they leave their path to accommodate their ship’s desire? Does the ship have a soul and the right to self-determination? That, as it turns out, is only the first and ultimately the simplest of their dilemmas as the Vatican back on earth and the former earth government start reaching out to regain control over the far flung reaches of human settlement, with questionable motives.

The characters, distinct and very human (with the exception of the ship, of course), have their secrets, their crises of faith, their conflicts with each other and with the requirements of their order and the distant government.  One of the things I liked most about the book was its treatment of the women’s faith as something real and valid; we don’t have the stereotype nuns who are vicious or hypocritical or credulous. They have varying depths of faith, some of them deeply committed to their Catholic religion, some of them questioning the doctrines, some of them nuns because that was the profession that would get them out of bad situations, and all of those positions are seen sympathetically and with empathy. The one character who leaves the order to join with her lover is presented as someone caught between her heart and her vows, and her fellow nuns accept (with a little tension) her decision.  

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. Suffice it to say there is a plot, and all things we see early in the book come into play again by the end, and that the end, while leaving room for other stories set in this universe, is emotionally satisfying, resolving the characters and all the plotlines set up in the book. I cared so much about the characters, including the ship, that I was moved by their behavior and their fates. This is a beautifully written, touching book that wrestles with the big questions with grace and power.  Don’t miss it.

A QUIET BOOK, FULL OF HEART: THE CLERGYMAN’S DAUGHTER

I confess it: I fell in love with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice the first time I read it, when I was in college, and every time I reread it, I’m still in love: the writing! The characters! The great dialogue!  I’ve long contended that two of the basic romance tropes were invented by Jane Austen, the enemies to lovers in Pride and Prejudice and the second chance at love in Persuasion.  Obviously I’m not alone in my love of Pride and Prejudice, considering how many movie/television versions of the story have been made and how many adaptations and spinoffs have been written.  As with Sherlock Holmes (another of my favorites), I’ve learned to be careful about reading the spin offs. I’m picky, and I admit it: a book about one of the characters in a favorite book needs to be true to that character in the original and not just use the character as a jumping off place for something completely different.  Even the great P.D. James had trouble getting the characters from Jane Austen’s books right in her Death Comes to Pemberly, and don’t get me started on the many lesser authors who have attempted to take some of the lesser characters in Pride and Prejudice and take them in new directions.  For some reason, Mary Bennett is often the character of choice, turned into a bluestocking or a brilliant writer or heaven knows what else.  However, Molly Greeley’s book, A Clergyman’s Wife, manages the incredibly difficult feat of imagining an afterlife for Charlotte Collins, nee Lucas, being true to the character of Charlotte in the original and at the same time giving us a new insight into Charlotte and her world and her behavior.

When the book opens, Charlotte has been married to Mr. Collins for three years.  She has a young daughter, she has her house and her role as a clergyman’s wife, with responsibilities to visit and look after the people in the parish.  She has to deal with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, her husband’s patron and a bullying arrogant woman. She has to deal with her husband’s many limitations of taste and sense, her isolation from friends and family, and her knowledge that this is the life she has chosen and all she has to look forward to is more of the same (until Mr. Bennett dies and Mr. Collins takes over his property).  She is more or less reconciled to all of this.

And then something changes.  Lady Catherine decides the Collinses should have rose bushes in their yard, and donates some cuttings for their use, and one of Lady Catherine’s tenants, Mr. Travis, is called upon to plant the bushes for them. Mr. Travis is a young man, the son of Lady Catherine’s former gardener, a diamond in the rough, but to Charlotte, he is a breath of fresh air.  She starts to feel an interest in Mr. Travis she’s never felt for her husband or anyone else. For the first time in her life, she realizes that she may have missed out in reaching for the security of marriage to Mr. Collins, that there might be more to life than she’d experienced before, or than she’s likely to experience in her marriage to Mr. Collins.

This is where Greeley shows what kind of a writer she is.  The temptation must be strong to give Charlotte other options, maybe killing off Mr. Collins so Charlotte could marry the (single) Mr. Travis, or giving Charlotte a romance with Mr. Travis while she’s married to Mr. Collins.  This is not that kind of book. It’s not the kind of book where Mr. Collins suddenly and miraculously becomes a sensible, loving person, or where Lady Catherine turns into a kinder, more empathetic (quieter) person. People are who they are, and that includes Charlotte herself.  She’s the person who married someone she knew was kind of a boor because she was desperate to get married and achieve some measure of independence. She did it with her eyes open, and she’s a woman who keeps her word even when it’s difficult, as it is here.

This isn’t a book full of twists and turns, a book where plot is everything.  This is a character study more than anything else, and Charlotte turns out to be a lovable character and a relatable one: not beautiful like her younger sister, not clever and witty like her friend, Elizabeth, not rich like Anne de Bourgh, Lady Catherine’s daughter.  Her father lifted the family out of the merchant class when he sold his business, but the family didn’t have the money to attract young men of a higher class, and Charlotte learned not only how to make a little money go far but how important it was to relieve the financial burdens of her family, even at the cost of her own potential happiness. She’s devoted to her daughter, and mourns her baby son who died at birth, and she’s resolved to make a better life for Louisa, her daughter, than she had herself. This is a quiet book, full of heart, and even if you are a fan of Jane Austen and a jealous guard of her works (as I am), you will find this warm and moving.  Give yourself a treat and check out The Clergyman’s Wife

LITTLE WOMEN, BROUGHT UP TO DATE: MEG & JO

It may seem, this year, as if I am obsessed with Little Women, and it’s true, I have written a fair amount about the book this year, but that’s partly because the Field Notes Book Group read it one month.  In any event, my rereading of the classic book put me in good shape to read the new Meg & Jo, by Virginia Kantra, which is an entertaining update of Louisa May Alcott’s original.

When you’re modernizing a book from the 19th century, it’s always a delicate balancing act to figure out how much to change, to bring a character into the 21st century, and how much to leave the same, so it’s still at heart the same character.  Kantra strikes a good balance here. Meg is still married young, with boy and girl twins, living in the same town in which she grew up. Meg’s being a stay-at home mother is a bigger deal in 2019, and she and her husband, John, negotiated whether she would leave her accounting job and John would change from his low-paying teaching job (which he loved) for a job selling cars (which made more money but wasn’t as satisfying).  No such negotiations were necessary for Meg March in Little Women; the idea that someone would continue working after she married and had children was far from common. 

Jo is a little more complicated.  Of course she still wants to write, and of course she has to work to find herself a way to become a real writer. That’s essential to Jo’s character, and changing that part of her story would radically change the book.  In this version of Jo, she went to New York to get an MFA, and then worked in a newspaper until she was downsized. All she had left of her writing “career” was a blog, Hungry, she wrote about the restaurant business, and since that didn’t pay any amount of real money, she took a job at a high powered restaurant as a line cook, which is where she met Eric Baer, the chef and (this is not giving anything away if you read Little Women) the man with whom she falls in love. 

As you know if you’ve read any of my earlier pieces about Little Women, I had a hard time seeing Dr. Bhaer as a worthy spouse for Jo, and only as an adult could I see him as the anti-Laurie and a better match for her than Laurie would have been (my mother, who told me this when I was 12, would have said “I told you so” if she were still around).  I have absolutely NO problem seeing Eric Baer, the romantic lead in this version, as well-suited for Jo, and that’s because he’s very different from Dr. Bhaer. Yes, they’re both German, they’re both older than Jo, and they’re both loving and good-hearted people, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.  Eric is black, an extremely successful chef, divorced with two sons, and quite hot. Jo and Eric have a wonderful physical relationship (not too explicit, don’t worry) before they’ve worked out all the more problematic personal aspects of their relationship.

The plot of the book turns on Meg and Jo’s parents, who are three dimensional and far from perfect and idealized in this version.  In fact, their father comes across as one of those people who’s so good at taking care of people outside of his family that he has no time or energy left to be a loving husband or father to his family.  I have long had my doubts about Mr. March in the original Little Women, since he seemed to do very little to merit all the adoration he got from his daughters, so this take on him feels emotionally right.  Abby, their mother, is like Marmee in the original in her tendency to take care of everybody else until she collapses from lack of self-care.  In this case, she is hospitalized with back problems and ultimately needs surgery to correct them, but didn’t want to worry any of her daughters or ask them to help her. 

Meg, as the daughter on the spot, immediately sets out to take care of her mother’s health problems and her business, along with taking care of Meg’s adorable toddlers, even when the additional load of responsibilities proves almost too much to cope with alone.  Jo, working at a demanding job in New York City, is torn between her work (and her burgeoning relationship with Eric) and her eagerness to help Meg and her mother. The other two girls, Beth and Amy, are living farther away and don’t play as much of a role in this book (they’re going to get one of their own later), so much of the plot turns on how Meg and Jo deal with their parents’ issues and their own.  Any adult who’s had to take responsibility for an aging parent with health issues will appreciate the realism of their reactions and their behavior, toward their parents and each other, and I’m impressed at the way the author uses this fairly common adult problem to give us a way to focus on the adult lives of Meg and Jo.

The book is charming and well-written, the characters draw you in, whether you’re a fan of Little Women or not, and it’s a fun read overall, especially in the holiday season.  Re-acquaint yourself with the March sisters in the modern world, and settle in for a good read.

STORIES OF THE TRANSFORMED: WAKE, SIREN

If you read a lot of Greek myths, or if you read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, you might start to notice a number of similar things going on, specifically mortals having various kinds of interactions with gods and ending up getting changed into something else either to escape the god’s attention or to be punished for the way they responded to the gods. The stories are always told from the point of view of the gods, so it was only a matter of time before someone flipped the narratives to tell these stories from the point of view of the mortals.  We are very lucky that this someone was Nina Maclaughlin, whose new book, Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung is a terrific read, chilling and moving, eye-opening and poetic, true to the spirit of the original myths and still infused with a modern sensibility.

I have to confess that I hadn’t encountered all the characters in this book before; there are a few whose stories were unfamiliar to me, despite early exposure to D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths and Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, but that didn’t make those stories any less fascinating (and when you get the general sense of how gods and mortals interact in these myths, you can guess how things are going to turn out even if you’re not familiar with these particular characters).  There are also many of the more familiar characters, such as Arachne and Daphne and Eurydice. If you’re wondering whether you could “get” the stories without knowing all the myths, the answer (as usual with retellings) is yes. Of course, you get more out of the story if you’re familiar with the underlying myth, but trust me, you’ll be able to follow what’s going on in most of the stories even if you’ve never heard of these characters before.

You should be warned, though: these are not fun stories to read.  Rape is a frequent element, as the gods (usually Zeus and Apollo) tend not to take “no” for an answer, and Maclaughlin doesn’t downplay the pain and trauma of rape just because it’s a god doing it. You are always in the point of view, usually first person, of the mortal character, and the characters’ reactions vary as any human being’s reactions would, from terror to rage. The transformations from human to animal or from human to plant or inanimate object are depicted vividly and there is graphic violence in some of the stories, including frequent f-bombs.

If you’re strong enough to face so much pain and anger, though, you’re in for a revelatory experience, and not all of the stories end sadly (spoiler alert: most of them do). One of the most surprising was the story of Eurydice (whose story with Orpheus is one of the backbones of the Broadway musical, Hadestown), one of the last stories in the book, and one I highly recommend, even if you don’t read all the stories (though of course you should).  The protagonists differ from each other and from the characters on whom they’re based, but they’re all fascinating, their voices vivid and their predicaments painfully real. 

Whether or not you’re familiar with the original myths, you should definitely check out Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung for an enthralling and somewhat terrifying view of relations between gods and mortals. 

MORE THAN A MEMOIR: WORKING

Why should someone read a book about the process of writing biographies, especially if you’ve never read the biographies the author has written?  When the book is Working: Researching, Interviewing and Writing, by Robert Caro, the answer to that question is simple: the book is utterly fascinating, whether you’re a writer or not, whether you’ve ever read his Pulitzer Prize winning biographies of Robert Moses or of Lyndon B. Johnson or not, whether you know anything about him or about his subjects.  As a matter of fact, Working is so well-written, filled with so many fascinating details, that I’m seriously considering actually tackling his massive biographies (the very lengths of which have daunted me in the past).

Caro started out as a reporter on a local New Jersey newspaper and then on Newsweek, and he writes about how those jobs sparked his interest in biography, and how each biography he wrote led to the next.  Winning the respect of his editor on Newsweek, who was originally suspicious of a young reporter who’d graduated from Princeton, by his willingness to dig deep into a political story, Caro learned a principle that would serve him well throughout his career: turn every page. Look at everything, dig deeper, don’t settle for the obvious story or the obvious angle. His nearly obsessive adherence to that rule is the reason his books take so long to write, because his research takes him everywhere, not just through all the archives of famous and less famous people (the Lyndon B. Johnson archives, which he describes vividly, contain millions of documents), but to the places where the subject lived and worked. In the case of Robert Moses, for instance, Caro dug deeply into the reasons why he chose to take certain famers’ lands and skip around the edges of certain rich and connected people’s properties, going to the scene of the expressway and talking to the people who lost their land as a result; he traced down the people who were displaced from one Bronx neighborhood so Moses could build one of his expressways, and he describes those encounters in this book vividly enough that you want to see how he handles these situations in The Power Broker.  When writing his first book about LBJ, Caro and his wife moved into the Hill Country where Johnson was born and raised, to get a sense of what that world was like, to find out how Johnson changed his people’s lives for the better even as a young congressman. 

You can learn, from this book, not only how Caro would work his interviews with various people who were significant in the lives of his subjects, but some tricks of the trade of interviewing in general (you will, for instance, learn the importance of SU in interviewing), how to get people to talk to you, how to nudge them into remembering more details than they might have believed they remembered, how to persuade people to tell the truth, rather than the public story.  I am sure, from reading this, that Caro is an expert interviewer, because he seems to have an infinite capacity for listening and very little ego. 

The book gives a vivid picture of the life of a serious nonfiction writer, from the poverty in which he and his wife lived when he was first researching The Power Broker, to life in the New York Public Library’s research room, to his actual methods of writing the books (longhand? In pencil? Who does that??).

The advantage of reading Working: Researching, Interviewing and Writing is that it’s much shorter than Caro’s prizewinning books, but be warned: it will make you want to dig deeper and maybe even tackle the books themselves.

 

FORGOTTEN HISTORY: THE IMPEACHERS

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I have a degree in history and consider myself a history buff, especially when it comes to American history, so it was kind of shocking to me to realize how little I knew about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868. I knew he’d come within one vote of being convicted by the Senate, but I hadn’t known exactly what he was charged with or whether it was a good thing he didn’t get convicted.  If you, like me, have only the vaguest notion of what happened the first time a president was impeached, may I recommend an excellent nonfiction book, The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson, by Brenda Wineapple.  And if you think a book about an impeachment that happened in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War couldn’t possibly be interesting, again, I recommend this book, which brings the era, and the questions surrounding the impeachment, to vivid life.

Wineapple is an excellent author, who makes the world of the immediate aftermath of the Civil War come alive and provides quick portraits of all the important characters involved in the impeachment (and what characters they were!  If you think modern politicians are quirky, you haven’t met their 19th century counterparts), illuminating the issues that brought Andrew Johnson to his date with history. While most of the actual articles of impeachment turned on Johnson’s efforts to fire Edwin Stanton in violation of an act of Congress basically designed to protect Stanton from being fired, the last article of impeachment was more general and talked about Johnson’s continuing efforts to defy Congress and refuse to obey the laws.  The book makes it clear that Johnson did in fact have contempt for Congress and felt he was the only person who could make the right decisions about the course of the country. 

As it turns out, the real issues that brought the impeachment to a head were deep questions about what kind of country America would be after the end of the Civil War, specifically what would happen to the former slaves in the South. The Ku Klux Klan was already rising to terrorize African Americans and anyone who was trying to help them be educated or own property or vote.  There were debates in Congress about the extent to which African Americans needed to have the right to vote protected by Constitutional amendment rather than law, there were debates about whether the former officials and officers of the Confederacy should be allowed to reassume power in their state governments. The book describes the debates and the events that led to the debates and informed the reactions of prominent people to the constitutional issues involved.  This is fascinating stuff with obvious parallels to the present, and a keen sense of how decisions made in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War led directly to the era of Jim Crow and current issues of racial relations. Would it have been possible to have charted a different century of relations between blacks and whites in America if the Radical Republicans had won the day? 

If questions like this intrigue you, then by all means check out The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson, for a fascinating look at a critical period of American history.