LIFE AND DEATH, IRISH STYLE

If you take a look at My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die by Kevin Toolis, and you decide not to read it because you think it’s going to be very dark, somber, maybe even morbid, you are doing yourself and the book an injustice.  If you fixate on the notion of an Irish wake and you’re thinking of the stereotype of lots of noise and drunkenness, you’re also doing the book an injustice. This is a terrific, beautifully written book, the kind of book you want to read slowly so you can savor the gorgeous language, the music in the words that practically begs you to read it aloud, and the sense of place that comes across vividly.

It is a book that is suffused with death; Kevin’s father dies in the first chapter, and he also talks about his mother’s death, his brother’s premature death, and his own close brush with the Grim Reaper (his description of the ward where he stayed with elderly men suffering from tuberculosis is like something out of a creepy dream).  It is not, however, a morbid book, or even a depressing one.

Aside from bringing to life a life lived on the very western edge of Ireland, a place that seemed as remote to me as the far end of the world, but that becomes as real and alive to me as my own neighborhood (though a lot more beautiful and raw), Toolis’ book aims to bring his readers face to face with the fact of death, to force us to step away from the whole westernized way of denying death by embalming and funeral homes and all the distancing rituals of death.  The simple rituals of death in rural Irish communities seem very foreign to me — the people wandering in and out of the dying person’s cottage, the vigil that people keep in the room where the body is laid out for a day and a night after the death, the family and friends digging the grave themselves and carrying out the body to the grave themselves. But at the same time, there’s something really warm and inviting about these rituals, and Toolis makes me think about how valuable it would be to have that kind of community around you at such crucial moments.  He also made me think about what we’ve lost in moving away from that kind of intimacy with death.

It’s a gorgeous read, one you want to read aloud so you can taste the poetic language and breathe in the salt air of his home island.  It’s not a memoir, exactly, nor is it exactly a sociological or anthropological study of a culture that’s different from ours. It’s worth reading, however close or far you might be from your own encounter with a loved one’s death.

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A BIZARRE DETECTIVE, A BIZARRE CASE, LOTS OF FUN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE MONSTERS IN THE HILLS: THE MERE WIFE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEW MURDERBOT = NEW REASONS TO REJOICE

Why do I love the Murderbot Diaries so much?  I really do, you know, to the point where I make it a point to order them for the collection whenever they come out, put them on hold for myself immediately (even before they’re published), and devour each of them in more or less one sitting (they are novellas and not long, but still, there aren’t many books I’ll throw myself into like that, long or short).  What is it about a series of books about a former security robot who’s more interested in watching movies and television shows than acting like a tough robot, who’s painfully awkward when it comes to dealing with humans, and who claims not to care about human beings but whose actions always seem to contradict those statements?

I bring this up now because I just finished reading Rogue Protocol, Martha Wells’ newest addition to the series, and I loved it. While I have publicly said that I don’t want to start an unfinished series, I’ll make an exception for this one, because I was delighted to see that Wells has left open the possibility (likelihood) of another sequel, while at the same time giving this book a proper resolution (this is not something that’s easy to do when you’re talking about a series of books; often the middle books leave the reader hanging so they’ll want to pick up the next book).

Once again we have the inimitable Murderbot on a mission of its own, trying to keep its status as a free bot secret from other bots and from human beings.  Ever since it disabled its governor, before the first book, Murderbot has not been forced to use the same rules of ordinary Security Units, rules which require the unit to sacrifice everything to protect the humans under its care, but somehow, even without being forced, and even while claiming it has no particular interest in protecting any humans, it still ends up taking actions that seem self-sacrificing and protective of the humans under its care. Contrary to the popular notion that a Security Unit without its governor would go berserk and start killing everyone in sight, Murderbot just wants to be left alone to watch movies and television shows by itself.

In the last book, Murderbot ended up helping a group of humans by pretending to be an augmented human being, but it justified its involvement because it was getting paid for it.  In this book, Murderbot is pretending to be a human being AND a security unit (it’s complicated), and it’s not even getting paid, but it did make a promise to Miki (which Murderbot contemptuously refers to as a “pet bot”) that it would keep the humans safe in exchange for being able to use Miki’s sensory apparatus, and so it justifies the heroic efforts it makes to protect this group of humans by this.

Aside from Murderbot’s evolving attitudes toward humans, or rather, its changing understanding of its attitudes toward humans, we also get to watch Murderbot’s attitude toward other robots, from the mindless transports to the ART which played such an important part in the last book, to Miki, whose childlike friendliness and innocence initially drives Murderbot crazy until Miki shows sides of itself (and of its humans) which surprise Murderbot (and this reader).

The plot is intricate but clear, with plenty of action, characters you find yourself caring about, and, of course,  the wonderful voice of Murderbot itself. May there be many more books in the series!

 

EDITED TO ADD: I’m not the only one who loves Murderbot.  The first book in the series, All Systems Red, just won a Hugo award as Best Novella!  So if my word isn’t good enough for you (and if it isn’t, why are you reading this??), you can at least take the word of the Hugo voters that Murderbot is a terrific series.

FAVORITE BOOKS FROM THE FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP

I’ve already written about the general rules I’ve used in choosing which books are good for a book group, based on my years of leading the Field Notes group here at the library.  Now I have the fun of sharing some of what I consider to be the best books we’ve read in the group. I am NOT saying that everybody in the group loved all these books; as I mentioned in the last book group post, you are never going to find a book that everybody loves, or even that everybody likes (by the same token, you’re unlikely to find one that everybody dislikes).  These are the ones I personally enjoyed most, which provoked some of the most interesting discussions among our people, and I hope they’ll give ideas to other book groups looking for good reads.

The first book I chose for the group is still one of my favorites, Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann.  This book won the National Book Award in 2009, and this is one instance where I feel the award was absolutely earned. The thread around which all the different stories in the book spin is the 1974 walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center by Philip Petit (though he’s not named here), but don’t for a minute think it’s all about his daring acrobatics.  No, this is a book about people, and it’s a book about New York City at a particular time, and McCann brilliantly brings both his characters and his setting to life, as the stories interweave and connect in unexpected ways. What could an Irish monk living among prostitutes have in common with an upper class woman who lost her son in Vietnam? What could both those characters have in common with a Bohemian young woman who’s involved in a hit and run accident that results in death?  Not all the storylines tear at your heart, but several of them do, and the deep sympathy McCann shows for all his characters, the skill with which he brings them together and then separates them, the clear love he has for New York City in all its flaws and dangers, makes this a magical book and a great spark for discussion.

Not all the books we’ve read are novels, and one of my favorites is a nonfiction book, H Is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald.  I’m not a fan of memoirs in general, and I think a memoir is a particularly difficult kind of book to pull off well, but MacDonald seemingly effortlessly combines a memoir of her grief over her father’s sudden death, her efforts to train a goshawk, Mabel (it’s a quirk that the most dangerous and fearsome raptors are often given the most non-threatening names — really, can you imagine being scared by someone named Mabel?), and a reflection on the life and work of T. H. White (author of one of my favorite childhood books, The Once and Future King, but also the author of The Goshawk, which is MacDonald’s focus here) into a seamless, beautifully written reflection on nature and grief and our role in the natural world.  There’s a lot about falconry, and a lot about her father’s life and death, but none of it seems excessive or unnecessary, and one of the things a good book group book can do is illuminate subjects you might not have paid attention to otherwise.

One of the books that surprised me was The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce. On the surface, it looked like the kind of feel-good book that would become a best-seller just because it’s about personal growth, a man discovering how to feel again, etc. And if you just read the description of the plot, that’s what it sounds like: Harold Fry is a middle-aged man stuck in a job that’s meaningless to him, in a marriage that has turned dull and possibly dead, when he finds out that Queenie Hennessey, a woman who once meant a great deal to him, is dying in a hospice hundreds of miles away.  Instead of mailing the note he wrote to her, he finds himself walking from his home to her hospice, calling the hospice along the way to tell her not to die until he gets there. It is a tale of transformation, but not at all the way you expect it to be, and Harold is not the only one transformed.  His road trip is really a pilgrimage, and he suffers not only the obvious strains of someone who hasn’t done any real exercise for years suddenly trying to walk the spine of England but the spiritual pains of facing his life and all the things he didn’t do that he should have done, for Queenie, but also for other people.  The ending is earned and unexpected at the same time, and it’s the characters who make the book wonderful. One thing I applaud the author for is the map she helpfully provided at the beginning of the book, for those of us who are not English and/or only have the vaguest idea of English geography, so we can keep track of where Harold is and where he’s going.  This was a poignant read, full of heart and soul.

And, speaking of soul, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal is an incredible read, its subtitle, Medicine and What Matters in the End a very accurate description of what the book is about.  Gawande is a surgeon, but also a terrific writer, vivid and clear, expert at choosing just the right anecdote to illustrate the points he’s making, and what points they are!  Basically he talks about aging and death, how we deal with them in our culture (spoiler: not well at all), how they are treated in other cultures, and how we might be able to do better, how some people and institutions are already doing better and what we could learn from them. He talks about his patients and his family (most poignantly about his father’s decline and death), and about his own experiences as a young doctor and a more experienced doctor who’s learned from his past mistakes.  It’s a short book, but there’s so much in it, not just information (though there’s plenty of that, and eye-opening information for the most part) but insights and ideas and questions.

One of the pleasures I’ve had as leader of the book group is the opportunity to push books that I love, and sometimes I’ve been able to persuade the group to read one of my personal favorites (which has its potential downsides; when I love a book, it’s hard for me to hear other people disparaging it, but that’s part of the job).  A book I have been recommending to people for years, which our group read just last year, is The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  What a fun book that is! Set in Barcelona in 1945, when the scars of the Spanish Civil War are still fresh and people are just beginning to recover from the war, the story centers around a book, or rather a series of books, and their mysterious author, and someone who is apparently trying to destroy all the copies of all the books this author ever wrote.  Our protagonist, Daniel, is a young man, the son of a bookseller, who has fallen in love with this particular author’s book and determines to find out who’s trying to eliminate the author’s work so completely. He is surrounded by a cast of amazing, vivid characters, villains and heroes and heroines, and his quest takes him through all levels of Barcelona’s society, through some wonderfully described settings, and through murder, madness and doomed love.  It is everything you could want from an adventure novel, and while I try not to be judgmental in general, I have to say that I would wonder about someone who could read this book and not enjoy it. Just getting the group to discuss the various characters will lead to a fun and scintillating discussion, before you even get into the plot and the history and the rest of the wonders of this book.

Obviously these aren’t all the good books we’ve read over the years, just the ones that stand out in my memory as having been great reads and having produced great discussions. Here’s to the years we’ve already spent reading and discussing (and sometimes arguing) about books, and the years and books ahead of us!

 

MORE THAN JUST SHERLOCK HOLMES SET IN THE FUTURE

I am and have been a big Sherlock Holmes fan since college, when I devoured the complete Arthur Conan Doyle collection in more or less one gulp.  I’ve read many other versions of the stories, and have definite opinions about the various incarnations of Holmes and Watson in television and movies (don’t get me started about Sherlock, for instance, Benedict Cumberbatch to the contrary notwithstanding). So when I heard about A Study in Honor by Claire O’Dell, which is advertised as a Sherlock Holmes and John Watson novel set in the near future in which the main characters are African American women, of course I wanted to read it.

For anyone who is approaching it the way I did, a word of warning: you are underestimating the book if you’re just expecting a slightly different version of the canonical Holmes and Watson.  It’s better than that, much better.

In some ways, new versions of familiar stories, like the Holmes-Watson canon, are like new versions of fairy tales. You have expectations.  You have a general idea of how the story is likely to go, and while you’re appreciating the new slant or the new twists this author is bringing to the story, a part of you is still watching for the well-known plot elements, the things you know are going to be a necessary part of the story.  Often this adds to the enjoyment of the story, but sometimes, and this is one of those times, your waiting for the familiar elements to show up can distract you from all the good stuff that’s actually going on.

The book is set in the relatively near future of the United States, which is in the midst of another civil war, this one started by the New Confederacy, somewhere in Oklahoma, with battles taking place all over the midwest. Dr. Janet Watson turned down some very impressive job offers in the private sector when she got her medical degree in order to volunteer to become a doctor in the United States Army, to the utter confusion of her sister and her parents. But her selflessness, her sense of duty, is an essential part of Janet’s character, even after the battle that destroyed her arm and the government’s sloppiness that left her with an inadequate mechanical arm as a replacement.

When we first meet Dr. Watson, she is arriving in Washington, D.C., dealing with the Veterans Administration, now strained because of the ongoing war’s demands, and looking for a place to stay.  She’s looking for a job, and of course she can’t be a surgeon again because her artificial arm is not working the way it should, so she ends up being a medical technician at the V.A., someone who’s supervised by an R.N., doing intakes of veterans coming in to see medical personnel, inputting their vitals and requesting tests she believes necessary (subject to the okay of her supervisors).  It’s a come-down for a former surgeon, but she’s glad to have the job at all, living in D.C. being expensive.

And then comes the intervention of a friend who tells her about Sara Holmes, a somewhat eccentric woman of mysterious background and even more mysterious employment (something high level in the government, the friend assumes, and Janet has no way of guessing otherwise), who has some rooms she’s renting and needs, or possibly wants, a roommate.

Now, any Holmes fan will recognize this as the opening of A Study in Scarlet, the novella that introduces Holmes to Watson in the first place.  Any fan will be expecting the kind of show-offy observation from Holmes that establishes his knowledge, his skill at observing and deducing, and his difficulty in following accepted social norms.  You will, however, be disappointed if that’s what you’re looking for here, because Sara isn’t like Sherlock in a lot of ways, and that’s what makes the book especially interesting.

Sara is very intelligent and apparently comes from a moneyed background, unlike Janet.  She knows a lot more than she lets on, and while she occasionally says or does something that demonstrates an almost supernatural knowledge (for instance, before Janet is even offered a job, Sara advises her to take the V.A. job) of what’s going on around her, she doesn’t take one look at a person and describe everything about the person’s life, as Sherlock does constantly. She’s stubborn and willfully mysterious and, unlike the canonical Watson, Janet is not enthralled by her and doesn’t strike up a relationship with her easily. Quite the contrary, for most of the book Janet looks on Sara as someone who, if not maliciously messing with her life, is determined to make everything difficult for Janet.

There is, of course, a mystery (we’re not going to go that far from the canon), but it’s a mystery that Janet herself falls into when one of her patients dies mysteriously (and Janet being Janet, she feels responsible for not saving the woman), and Janet starts digging in the records, trying to find out what went wrong, why the patient died so suddenly.  It’s the digging that gets her into trouble and even ends up threatening her life, because it turns out that other veterans who were in the patient’s unit died suddenly and mysteriously and there’s something connecting all of them. Though neither Janet nor Sara is officially a detective, Sara also becomes involved in the investigation, as it ties in to some other things she was looking into in her more official, if more secretive, capacity (it’s never clear, by the way, exactly what Sara’s position with the government is, but it’s implied she’s working for the CIA or the equivalent), and the two of them travel together to get to the bottom of the mystery, which involves the highest levels of government and powerful corporations.

So this wasn’t really a Sherlock Holmes story in the classic sense; there were no leaps of brilliant logic, no far-fetched deductions from tiny clues that solve the mysteries.  Janet Watson is no John Watson, somewhat slow and always amazed by whatever drops of insight Holmes might deign to share. But in some ways the relationship between the two characters is so much fuller and more developed than the originals, as the characters themselves are fascinating and well-rounded.  The world in which they live is both recognizable as one that could develop from current conditions but also different (and the world building is unobtrusive but extensive), and the highest compliment I can pay this book is saying that I want more books with these two characters and their world, even if they really aren’t African American Sherlock Holmes and Watson as advertised (they’re better).

 

THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, PART 2: LOVE, LOVE, LOVE THESE BOOKS

I have already written about The Great American Read, the program set up by PBS to determine Americans’ favorite novel (here).  In my last post, I discussed the odd choices the selectors made with respect to some of the authors. This time, to balance things out a little, I’m going to talk about the books that were excellently chosen, some of which I wouldn’t have expected to see in a list chosen by the public like this.  I’m not saying which books I’m voting for (truth to tell, I haven’t decided yet, and may split my votes over several books and several days), but I do want to highlight some of the books that will probably get my votes.

Some of them are obvious.  I’ve only loved Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, since I was a child, and passed that love on to my daughter (one year I planned an Alice in Wonderland party for her, and we had a blast).  The absurdity of the whole book, the inside jokes, the bizarre characters, the poems (which of course I memorized; I can still rattle off “You Are Old, Father Williams” after many decades), all of it tickled my imagination as a child and still does (try The Annotated Alice, if you want to get all the inside jokes and the references).

I have long contended that The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is one of the Great American Novels (I realize there are people who disagree with me, but I believe they just haven’t read it in the right mood yet).  Such a short book, but so gorgeously written! You could just sit there and read and reread certain passages just to savor the beautiful language (one of the ways to tell, in my opinion, if a book is beautifully written, is to read the opening paragraphs and the closing ones, and if they sing, you know you’ve got something special in your hands), and the themes of rich and poor, of self-creation and the American Dream, are still powerful today (there are many people in public life, for instance, who could be described as the sort of “careless people” Daisy and Tom Buchanan were, and if you’ve read the book, you know what I’m talking about).

But I also confess to a deep love for Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, which I am gobsmacked to find on this list, not because it’s not a great book (it’s a wonderful book), but because I think most people haven’t read it and know nothing more of it than the opening section set in Lilliput.  Which is a shame, because the other worlds Gulliver finds himself shipwrecked in are at least as impressive as Lilliput and provide the same satirical thrusts within seeming fantasy, and the last portion of the book, where Gulliver visits the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos (horses and human beings, respectively), is heartbreaking as well as biting. This, like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is one of those books people think they know without ever having read it, and that’s a real shame.

For different reasons, I’m surprised and delighted to see The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, on this list. I don’t care if anyone wants to say it’s not great literature, because if you look at some of the other books on the list (which I will not go into now; that may be another post), it’s very clear that a book doesn’t need to be great literature to be included here.  The fact is, the book (the first of a trilogy — well, it’s technically more than a trilogy but that’s because Adams regrettably kept adding books to the group, when he really should have stopped with Life, The Universe, and Everything, the third book and a natural ending point) is brilliant and funny, science fiction meeting Monty Python, containing warped ideas about the nature of human intelligence and the purpose of the earth, with unforgettable characters and a plot that never goes where you expect it to.  A fast read and a funny one, The Hitchhiker’s Guide probably won’t win this contest, but if its inclusion on the list means more people read it, I can only cheer.  

Having The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan, on the list is a wonderful thing.  While her body of work since then has certainly been impressive, I confess I still have a special place in my heart for The Joy Luck Club. Not only is it an #OwnVoices book, and not only are the characters varied and vividly drawn, but the structure of the book, with the alternating stories from mothers in China and in America and daughters in America (and, at the very end, in China), works brilliantly with the book’s theme of mothers and daughters and the strains of being immigrants and first generation Americans.  If you haven’t read Joy Luck yet, let this be encouragement to get around to it.

In a way, the inclusion of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice seems an obvious choice (how many movie versions of this book have there been?  Not to mention all the spinoffs, including a murder mystery version by the late great P. D. James, and various books focusing on different characters who were given short shrift by Austen), though I would be hard-pressed to find an Austen book I didn’t like or want to vote for.  On the other hand, there’s something about the 19th century language and style of sentences Austen uses which take some getting used to for modern readers (as I discovered in a recent book group discussion of Persuasion, which is one of my all-time favorite Austen books), and I like the idea that people who might not otherwise actually READ Pride and Prejudice might pick the book up as a result of this publicity.  The more readers she gets, the better, as far as I’m concerned.

I’m sure Armistead Maupin, writing the first book in the Tales of the City series, never expected his books to be considered almost historical novels, but now, decades after they were written and first became popular, they are a vivid, detailed picture of a particular time and place which has changed a great deal since: San Francisco in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, as AIDS began to make itself felt in the gay community. The stories were originally serialized in newspapers before being collected into books, a la Charles DIckens, but they don’t feel disjointed. There’s an almost soap-opera quality to the way the characters interact with each other over the course of the series, but that doesn’t matter because the characters, straight, gay, bisexual and transgender, are all so real and alive that you care about their relationships and about them. It’s wonderful to see these books included on the Great American Reads list, whether or not they get enough votes to “win.”

 

DARK, BEAUTIFUL AND STRANGE: THE GIRL FROM THE OTHER SIDE

One of the categories in this year’s Field Library Reading Challenge is to read a manga. While our teenage patrons are very big into manga, it’s a category of book that many adults aren’t familiar with, unless they have teenagers who are manga readers. My own introduction into the genre was through my daughter, who helpfully explained to me that you don’t read these books the way you read other books (she explained this AFTER I tried to read left to right and got thoroughly confused), but I confess that since she hasn’t been living at home for the last several years, I got out of the habit and stopped reading manga.  I was glad to have an excuse to return to the genre, and my first choice out of the box is a wonderful, absolutely gorgeous book,  Siuil, a Run: The Girl from the Other Side, Vol. 1, by Nagabe, which I highly recommend even — perhaps especially — to people who think they don’t like manga.

The story is fairy-tale simple, until you start thinking about it.  There is the Inside and the Outside. On the Outside there are monsters.  If you touch one of them, or one of them touches you, you will be cursed and turn into a monster yourself.  The people on the Inside are terrified of the Outsiders, to the point where they will hunt down anyone who they think is cursed, and destroy that person.

We first meet Shiva, a pretty fair-haired little girl, who’s out in the woods, picking what look like flowers.  She’s concerned that she shouldn’t stay out there too long because “he” will be angry at her and scold her again. Almost immediately a tall, dark creature emerges from the shadows, beaked and with twisting horns coming out of its head, and we are surprised to discover that this is Shiva’s companion, whom she calls Teacher.  She shows no fear of him, even as he reminds her she is not to touch any of the Outsiders, even he himself.

The story unfolds slowly, and it’s not finished by the end of this volume (I’m obviously going to read the other two to find out how it ends), but it is a powerful and poignant story, conveyed in gorgeous inky tones.  It’s a story about the relationship between Teacher and Shiva, how Shiva first came to live with Teacher, and the danger they are both in from the people on the Inside. The depth of Teacher’s love for Shiva, even as he knows he could curse her with just a touch, even as he keeps secrets from her for her own good, is beautiful and real, and her innocence, which comes across as perfectly reasonable even as she starts to bump up against the real ugliness in her world, is a perfect foil to the darkness of Teacher and his world.  We see empty villages, we see the results of the Insiders’ efforts to protect themselves from the Outsiders, we even see the mythical story that “explains” how the Outsiders first came to be and why they curse the Insiders. The relationship between Shiva and Teacher, anchored in such details as Shiva’s tea parties and the Teacher’s efforts to keep her safe inside the house, upends the obvious good vs. evil, righteous vs. monsters narrative that the Insiders would propagate.

I can’t discuss this book without talking about the art and how amazing it is. Teacher has the head (and hands) of a monster, but the rest of him looks like a tall, slender man, dressed in formal clothes of a hundred years ago (including a cravat), which makes his elongated head and beak, his twisted horns, his white eyes, look all the more strange and disturbing, but his appearance reflects the difference between his personality (gentle and protective) and the way the people on the Inside look at him (as a monster).  The woods are fairy-tale dark, the trees tall and threatening, and the empty village hauntingly drawn. The house in which the two main characters live is detailed and lived-in, the Teacher’s study messy and cluttered, Shiva’s room comfortable and neat. The character who comes closest to looking like the stereotypical manga female is Shiva, but even she isn’t far from what a real young girl looks like, and her rounded face and bright hair heighten the contrast between her and her beloved Teacher and make her innocence visible.

If you think all manga are about violence and competition, if you think you don’t like manga in general, you owe it to yourself to read Siuil, a Run: The Girl from the Other Side.  It may very well change your mind.

 

SPACE: WHERE NO MAN HAS ROCKED BEFORE

As you know, sometimes when I write about a book that’s new to the library, I’m writing a preview and not a review.  Often when that happens, it’s a book that I want to read but haven’t had a chance to read yet. Which sometimes leads to a bit of a dilemma: when I do actually read the book, should I write about it again, because now I know more about it than the publisher’s description gave me, or are there so many other books I should be bringing to people’s attention that it’s wrong to write twice about the same book?  I usually resolve this by doing a review if the book in question is more amazing, more fun, or just wildly different from what it seemed to be when it first came out.

In the case of Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente, the description of the book pre-publication was accurate as far as it went, but it didn’t nearly go far enough, which is why I feel compelled to tell you what a fabulous, funny, inventive and just plain wonderful book it is, to encourage as many people with similar senses of humor to mine (and there must be some of you out there, right?) to check this book out and enjoy it.

I’m a big fan of Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, at least the first three books of the series (he lost some steam after Life, the Universe and Everything, in my opinion), and, having cut my teeth on that warped humor, I’m always looking for someone who can write with as much verve and wit as Adams had.  Space Opera, I’m pleased to announce, is a worthy successor to the Hitchhiker’s Guide, and I can hardly come up with higher praise than that.

The initial alien encounter is nothing like anything you’ve seen in the movies or in other books; as the author dryly observes, it’s much more like the work of Sir Looney of the Tunes than Sir Ridley of the Scott (quoting from Decibel’s beloved Nana).  It’s weird, it’s funny, and it sets the tone for the book quite nicely. I started laughing at that part and didn’t stop until the end, even reading some of the funnier lines out loud to anyone who would listen.

Humanity has to compete in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, but the aliens who first encounter us have a list of the potential performers who might, just possibly, if miracles occur, keep the human race from being destroyed.  Unfortunately for us, most of the performers on the list (including Yoko Ono — does that give you an idea of the aliens’ taste?) are dead, so they are left with Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, two thirds of whom are in fact still alive, even if they’re not performing together, or even performing at all, anymore.  

The aliens are varied and wonderful. They are far from humanoid, and Valente seems to delight in creating different kinds of aliens and imagining what their cultures might be like, what their ideas of musical performance might be like, even what their ideas of sex are like (my personal favorite is the alien race whose idea of sex is brushing hair and sharing feelings, which doesn’t exactly mean what you and I think it means). We get to see previous Grand Prix performances from various winners and near-winners, and, like Decibel himself, we can easily see that the chances of humans being able to keep from placing dead last in the competition are nearly nonexistent.

Of course, this being the kind of book it is, you’re pretty sure from the outset that humanity is not going to be destroyed by the aliens, which means that somehow there’s going to be a “victory”, which just means Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes don’t actually come in dead last.  The suspense in the book comes from not knowing exactly how this miracle is going to be pulled off, especially when we discover that cheating is not only allowed but encouraged, and one way some of the alien races manage to succeed in the competition is by hobbling other performers. Humans being both newcomers and ridiculously soft and easy to manipulate, there are all kinds of characters out to sabotage our protagonists before they even set foot on the stage.  

The book is light and hysterically funny. Valente bounces cheerfully back and forth, from tales of the Sentience Wars and their immediate aftermath to depictions of previous Grand Prixes to the background of Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes.  It’s a wild ride and a vastly entertaining one. If the world is getting you down and you desperately need a break, I highly recommend Space Opera.

TRAVELING AROUND ALASKA’S COAST: TIP OF THE ICEBERG

This is the time of year, especially when we’re dealing with temperatures of 90 + degrees F, when my thoughts turn to the idea of travel, especially travel to somewhere really cool, possibly even cold. It’s in the summer that I first read the book The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (and if you haven’t read that novel, this would be the perfect time of year to read it, as it’s an excellent book and set in Alaska, I’m just saying), and it’s in the summer that I just read one of the best travel books I’ve encountered in the last few years, Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000 Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier, by Mark Adams.  Whether you’ve always had a secret hankering for a trip to the 49th State (as I have), or whether you’re just in the mood for a well-written, vivid and entertaining book about a place most of us are fairly unfamiliar with, I highly recommend Tip of the Iceberg.

A travel book, for me, is something different from a guidebook. I’ll take a guidebook with me when I go somewhere, so I can find out what the cool places to eat are, where the museums are and what the other potential spots of interest are in the area. A travel book, though, is more like taking the trip without actually leaving home, exploring and experiencing a place with someone who shares his or her insights into this part of the world. I’m pretty demanding when it comes to travel books; the person taking me on this trip needs to be someone with a sense of humor, a willingness to seek out and ask questions of the people who live and/or work in the area, and someone who isn’t too full of him or herself.  The person shouldn’t get in the way of the place, essentially. And, for someone who’s a history buff as I am, if the writer of the travel book can give me a good look at the history of the area, that’s definitely a big selling point.

Which is why I love this book so much. Mark Adams is traveling around the coast of Alaska in the modern era, using the kinds of transports (by sea and air, for the most part) any one of us could use nowadays, but he’s also retracing (to the extent possible) an earlier trip by Edward H. Harriman, the railroad magnate and millionaire (back when being a millionaire was a much bigger deal), who brought some of the best scientists in the country with him to explore the Alaska territory in 1899. The story of Mark’s modern expedition is interspersed with the story of the Harriman expedition, and the combination is magical. The contrast between the conditions of Harriman’s floating university, which included such brilliant people as John Muir and Clinton Merriam, one of the founders of the National Geographic Society, and the conditions in which Mark Adams is traversing the same coast, with a lot less luxury and far fewer intellectual heavyweights, is pretty funny, and Mark makes the most of it. He also points out the changes wrought in the Alaska countryside and especially its glaciers (which were such powerful attractants to Muir) by global climate change in the century between the two trips, not in a polemical way, but matter-of-factly, describing what they saw and experienced and what he’s seeing and experiencing.  

And then there are the characters and situations he encounters.  While this isn’t really a humor book, there are certain parts, including his discussions of bear encounters and the sort of information visitors are given with respect to bears, that had me laughing out loud.  He had a knack for finding the most interesting characters in any of the places he went, however small or large, and getting those people to open up to him. There are certain aspects of the trip which I wouldn’t want to duplicate (an expedition where he and his guide just barely managed to get to base before their transportation left in a horrible storm was one of those nerve-wracking situations that was, undoubtedly, a lot more fun to read about than to experience in person), but on the whole, if I were going to Alaska to journey the inner passage, Mark Adams is just the kind of person I would want to have as my guide and companion. He’s funny and knowledgeable, he’s willing to let people teach him things, and willing to look with a clear eye at the world around him. He writes vividly, whether about the experiences of the members of the Harriman expedition or about the people sleeping on the decks of small ferries he’s taking from one point to another, and by the end of the book I certainly felt I’d been there with him.

The best kind of travel books, in my opinion, are the ones where you feel you’ve experienced the trip yourself, but you’re still filled (or newly filled) with the desire to check the place out for yourself.  The Tip of the Iceberg certainly qualifies.  Check it out for yourself.