RETURN TO THE CLASSICS: LITTLE WOMEN THE NOVEMBER BOOK GROUP SELECTION

After a stimulating discussion of the effects of war on people, good and evil and other deep topics in our review of The Nightingale, the Field Notes Book Group voted for the book we’re going to be reading and discussing in November: the ever classic Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  Right before we voted for the book, I asked for a show of hands for everyone who has read the book in the past, and all of us raised our hands, though many people hadn’t read it in years (myself included; the last time I read it was when I was 12, which was a LONG time ago).

It’s not a book that needs much introduction, since not only has it been read for over 200 years but it’s been made into movies numerous times and (just to show that it’s still a big deal even in 2018) is currently both being made into a movie to come out in 2019 and the subject of a nonfiction book, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters by Anne Boyd Rioux.  Even if you’ve never read the book, you’ve almost certainly been exposed to one of the movies, whether with Katherine Hepburn or Elizabeth Taylor or Winona Ryder, and if you’ve read the book a long time ago, it’s always interesting to take another look, as an adult with different life experiences, at a book you read and loved as a child or teenager.  For instance, I want to see if I still, as an adult, think Amy is a totally annoying brat, or if I can find some way in which Jo’s marriage makes sense for her character.

The book group will be meeting on Saturday, November 17, from 11 to 12:30 in the Field Library Gallery, as usual, and we will have coffee and donuts to keep us going through our vigorous discussions.  Copies of the book will be available at The Field Library circulation desk probably later this week, so come in and pick up your copy and get ready for a blast from the past with the next Field Notes Book Group.

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THE 2018 MAN BOOKER PRIZE SHORTLIST BOOKS AT THE FIELD

Every year around this time, the Man Booker prize committee selects the shortlist for the prestigious award, considered to be THE prize for high quality literary fiction published in the English language.  The prize itself will be awarded on October 16, so watch this space for the winner. In the meantime, if you’d like to sample what the committee believes to be the best of the best, you’re in luck, because all of the shortlist nominees that are available in the United States are here at The Field Library (some of the books on the shortlist haven’t yet been published here).

The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner, is about Romy Hall, a woman starting the first of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in California, as a result of her killing a man who had been stalking her with increasing dangerousness.  Her lawyer was incompetent and she basically didn’t stand a chance of acquittal or even of a lesser sentence, so here she is, cut off from her former life and from her 7 year old child whom she probably will never see again. In the place of the world of San Francisco, her life of strip clubs and drugs, she’s now faced with a new society in prison, with the society and rules created and enforced by her fellow prisoners and her guards, and she has to do whatever she can to survive.  The book is narrated by many different voices (including that of the unabomber, and that of Romy’s stalker), which, together with its subject matter, makes is anything but an easy read, but Romy’s bitter reality is a terrific perspective for examining our whole justice system, our sense of crime and punishment.

In some ways, The Overstory, by Richard Powers, is the opposite of The Mars Room.  This book focuses on the outdoor world, specifically the world of trees and the people who interact with trees, but in the breadth of its characters and scenes and the vastness of its interconnectedness, it’s a good match for the vividness of The Mars Room.  I’ve already written about this book here, and if you haven’t checked it out yet, this would be a good time to do so.

The newest book to reach the shortlist is Washington Black, by the Canadian author Esi Edugyan. It just came out in September (last week, in fact), and it is an audacious historical novel about a boy born in slavery in Barbados in 1820’s Barbados, who becomes the assistant to an eccentric naturalist and explorer, and, as a result, manages to escape his background and discover his own unique artistic talents. It’s partly an adventure story (Wash, as he’s known, flies in a hot air balloon, a thing nearly unimaginable to him, and finds his way across the United States and even to the Arctic), but it’s also partly and more seriously a look at slavery and racism, a coming of age for a young man with extraordinary abilities and talents who will always be restricted from getting credit for his achievements because of his race. If you steer away from literary fiction or Man Booker Prize winners because you’re reluctant to deal with the narrative tricks and techniques many of them display (like Lincoln in the Bardo, with its confusing multiple voices), you should definitely read Washington Black.

It’s possible that none of these three will be the winner; there are three other books on the shortlist which aren’t available anywhere in the U.S. yet (though if a book wins the prize, odds are it will be published here in the near future), and one of them might win the prize.  Even so, you can have the pleasure of checking out some of the books the Man Booker committee feels are the best ones written in English this year.

 

MYSTERIES INSIDE MYSTERIES: THE 7 1/2 DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE

Just when you think the classic mystery has been done so many times, with so many variations, that there can’t be anything new to say about it, or any new way to present a whodunit, a new book comes along to surprise you.  Consider The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton, a surprising and fascinating take on the basic whodunit.

You have the basic elements: a house party at a fairly isolated place, a person killed at the end of the night, 1920’s era with all the restrictions that implies (no internet, no cell phones, limited access to the outside world), a limited number of possible killers, all of them known to each other. You’ve seen this story dozens of times, only you’ve never seen it this way.

Aiden Bishop is repeating that day, that party, over and over again, each time in a different “host.” If he can solve the murder and find the murderer by the eighth repetition, he will be freed from the repeats. If not, he goes back to the first repetition and has to go through this again and again.  Each of the people he inhabits is a quirky individual, and not all of them are straightforward or truthful. What he finds out from one person is contradicted by another, and even though the events are the same every time he’s there, he sees things and understands things differently because of his different perspectives.

Oh, yes, and by the way, Aiden is not the only one being cycled through different hosts. There are two other people who are experiencing the same thing, and only one of the three of them can actually solve the murder and be freed, so there’s some competition going on among them.

There’s the murder mystery itself, there’s the bigger mystery of how this repetition is occurring, there’s a crazed footman who’s attacking the different hosts as well, and there’s all kinds of worlds within worlds, twists on top of twists.  If you’re the kind of person who loves a complex plot and a high concept, if you’re the type of person who wants a book you can’t put down, you owe it to yourself to read The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.

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

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

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

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

RETURN TO THE TROJAN WAR: THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS

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

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

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

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

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

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

A BIZARRE DETECTIVE, A BIZARRE CASE, LOTS OF FUN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A DIFFERENT KIND OF URBAN FANTASY: TRAIL OF LIGHTNING

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

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

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

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

STEAMPUNK SLEEPING BEAUTY: KISS OF THE SPINDLE

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

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

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

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

 

THE FEATHER THIEF: SEPTEMBER FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP SELECTION

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

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

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

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