BACK TO SCHOOL NUTTINESS: YOU’VE BEEN VOLUNTEERED

As a new school year begins, parents of young children often find themselves roped into various kinds of “volunteer” duties at their children’s school.  While I’m past that stage of life myself, I remember what that was like and so does Laurie Gelman, whose latest book, You’ve Been Volunteered, takes us once again to the Kansas City school district where Jen Dixon, star of the earlier book, Class Mom, finds herself sucked into the maw of being a class mother again. If you want to look on your issues, present or remembered, of those “volunteer” efforts with a sense of humor, Jen Dixon is a great guide.

She’s been to this rodeo before, having two adult daughters in addition to 8 year old Max.  She’s lived kind of a wild life in her youth (she alludes to it here and there in her dealings with her 20-something daughter who’s wandering through Europe with her boyfriend’s rock group), so she’s not exactly like the (mostly younger) mothers of Max’s contemporaries.  This comes out vividly in the emails she sends out to the other mothers, which are frankly pretty funny and the sort of things I would write if I had no filters and didn’t care what people thought of me.

During the school year, Jen finds herself caught up in running the school safety patrol (and you have to admire the head of the PTA who finagles her into this; it’s very deftly done) in addition to the usual class mother duties (calling the other parents at 4 a.m. when there’s a snow day, for instance, or making sure there are sufficient chaperones for various school outings).  Her husband has buried himself in work in an effort to create and franchise a new set of yoga studios, her son is falling in with a bad crowd (for third grade, at least), her daughters are giving her a hard time, her parents are getting older and more in need of her help, and the rest of her life is filled with incident and accidents of various sorts. She’s very funny when she’s trying for a girls’ night out and her husband is left alone with their sick son (the series of texts between her and her husband, who apparently has no idea where anything is in the house he’s lived in for years is made even funnier when she intersperses them with her private commentary), and the drunken email she sends to everybody in the class list when she and her husband are out in Vegas is cringe-worthy but funny at the same time. 

This isn’t a deep book or one that forces you to confront serious social issues.  This is a lighthearted funny book with a flawed but believable protagonist, surrounded by realistic (if maybe slightly exaggerated) family, friends and fellow third grade parents (and third grade kids, too).  It’s a quick read, and if you need a break from all your life stresses, spend some time with Jen and her cast of characters in You’ve Been Volunteered.  

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A TASTE OF SPACE TRAVEL: TO BE TAUGHT, IF FORTUNATE

Novellas are experiencing a bit of a renaissance these days, especially in the area of speculative fiction.  Writers like Martha Wells (the Murderbot series) and Seanan McGuire (the Wayward Children series) and Nnedi Okorafor (the Binti series) have been creating wonderful works, short but satisfying, with all the worldbuilding and characters and plots you’d expect from full scale speculative novels.  Add to the list Becky Chambers’ new novella, To Be Taught, If Fortunate.

The novella is written in the form of a communication from Ariadne, a future astronaut, to the people she left behind on earth, describing the adventures she’s had in space since she and her four companions were sent from earth as part of a citizen funded space exploration program.  Ariadne, an engineer by trade but a jack of all trades along with her companion astronauts, is very matter of fact about her life in space exploration, explaining somaforming, a process which changes humans’ bodies to enable them to live in environments that would otherwise kill them (giving people greater strength, for instance, to handle situations with greater gravity than that of earth, or giving people’s skins glitter to make them visible to each other in a world without much ambient light)(the glitter thing was especially charming to me), explaining what it’s like to wake up after having been in torpor for years at a time.  The four exoplanets she and her companions explore could hardly be more different from each other, but each one adds to the mission’s knowledge of how life works on other worlds. Unfortunately, the trips take decades, and while the crew ages very slowly thanks to their time asleep with their bodily systems slowed, time flies by on earth, and the sporadic communications the crew receive from their home planet show them how very different things are back “home”, if earth really is still home for them.

The planets are a delight.  Clearly Chambers has done her research and used her imagination to create plausible worlds with plausible ecosystems, and she conveys the real delights and terrors of human exploration of other worlds in a way that classic space opera sometimes neglects. All four of the characters face major emotional shocks and react to them, with the help of their companions, over the course of the mission, culminating in the reason Ariadne is sending this message in the first place.  

It’s not a novel, so don’t expect multiple subplots or in depth exploration of character, but you will be satisfied by the trip Ariadne takes and shares with you here. To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a perfect small meal, a taste of space travel.

HOW QUIXOTIC: QUICHOTTE

Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes, is probably one of those books everybody knows about without having actually read (like A Tale of Two Cities, or The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).  Here’s where I tell you to check out the original book (in translation unless you’re fluent in Spanish), which is surprisingly modern in its sensibility and also extremely funny, but even if you don’t do that, you probably know some of the important details: Don Quixote’s delusions of being a knight errant, his supposed squire, Sancho Panza, and — if you know no others of their adventures — his attack on a windmill which he mistook for an enchanter.  The story has been dramatized in many different forms, and has been adapted and re-adapted over the centuries since its publication (much like the works of Cervantes’ English contemporary, William Shakespeare).

Now the time has come for a new, modern take on Don Quixote, this time in a novel that’s been shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker award: Quichotte, by Salman Rushdie.

Rushdie takes the basic characters and takes them for a spin: the elderly Alonso Quijana who dreams himself into a knight errant named Don Quixote becomes, in this version, a salesman, Quichotte, who’s obsessed with television (as opposed to the knightly romances of the original), and who has convinced himself he’s in love with a tv star (as opposed to the neighboring peasant girl the original Quixote turned into the lady Dulcinea). The Sancho Panza in this version is Quichotte’s imaginary son, Sancho Panza, with whom he sets out on a cross-country adventure to prove himself worthy of her love.  The cross-country trip is set here in modern-day America, a place bizarre enough in reality, made stranger and more bizarre through Quichotte’s delusions.

But wait, there’s more!  In the same way Cervantes used the original Don Quixote to comment on the book which created him (I told you it was surprisingly modern), Rushdie uses Quichotte’s creator, a middle-aged writer of mediocre spy novels, Sam DuChamp, to act as a counterpoint to Quichotte, and you just know that eventually the fictitious Quichotte and the real life DuChamp are going to meet up and interact, as the lines between truth and fiction seem to blur in the real world these days.

Obviously you don’t have to have read Don Quixote to read or enjoy Quichotte; obviously you will have more fun with Rushdie’s version the more you know about the original.  But if you’re in the mood for a wild ride through modern America, presented by a master storyteller, by all means check out Quichotte.  And do yourself a favor and acquaint yourself with one of the great classics of world literature (Don Quixote) while you’re at it.

 

WHERE THE COMPANY RUNS EVERYTHING: THE WAREHOUSE

There isn’t exactly a category for speculative thrillers, as compared to psychological or military thrillers, but if there were, the new book, The Warehouse, by Rob Hart, would certainly fall into that category.

In the sort of alternate future world of The Warehouse, a giant technology company called Cloud, has pretty much taken over the whole American economy.  Everybody, it seems, either buys from Cloud or works for Cloud. Paxton, one of our protagonists, takes a job as a security guard at a Cloud facility, and ends up living and working on site. Cloud has ever so helpfully set up facilities where people can live and work, complete with entertainment halls, open plan offices, and vast warehouses (in an echo of historical examples like Pullman’s villages for their workers in the late nineteenth century).  The world outside Cloud’s doors is pretty bleak, so Paxton starts to feel he’s doing all right for himself, even if there are some hints that Cloud may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

Zinnia appears to be one of Paxton’s co-workers, another drone in the hive that is the Cloud. He would never imagine that she’s actually an outside agitator, infiltrating the world of Cloud to figure out what’s really going on inside this behemoth.  She befriends Paxton, or so he thinks. She begins to see him as the key who could open up the darkest truths inside the company, if she’s willing to sacrifice him to get what she wants.

Her plan risks their lives as Paxton begins to see the underside of the life he’s managed to construct inside Cloud and the ugly truths about what Cloud is willing to do to keep its power and its secrets.

Of course there’s no company like Cloud now; that’s what makes it speculative. And yet, with just a few little changes to our current society and the current tech giants operating in it, the world of The Warehouse could just be the image of our future, and a thrilling and terrifying future it could be, if Hart’s vision is close to accurate.  

So if ordinary conspiracies and dangerous corporations seem too ho-hum for you, why not take a look at an alternate future with even scarier conspiracies and corporations?  Give The Warehouse a try.

 

A WALK IN THE WOODS: NEXT FIELD NOTES READ

Thanks to everybody who came to the Field Notes Book Group this July.  Our discussion of Everything I Never Told You was one of the best discussions we’d ever had (in my opinion): talk about parents’ expectations for children, the reasons people hide truths from even the people they love, cultural differences between Chinese Americans and non-Chinese Americans, discussion about the characters and how the book left us with hope for the future, even about whether Lydia committed suicide or not.  We barely had time to choose our book for August 17, but we managed to choose Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.

Now, I know they made a movie from this book (improbably starring Robert Redford as Bill Bryson — don’t take my word for it, look at Bryson’s author picture and decide for yourself whether the first actor you’d think of for him would be Redford), but you KNOW the book is better.  Bryson, a man in middle age, with virtually NO mountain climbing or hiking experience, decides, more or less on a whim, that he’s going to hike the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Maine through Georgia, and he even tells his publisher that he’s going to do this, and write about it, so he’s committed, or possibly stuck.  He describes his misadventures (and come on, you know they’re going to be disastrous) with verve and humor. Along the way, he and his friend Katz encounter all the usual perils of the hike, from physical issues through annoying fellow hikers through encounters with wild animals, bringing them all to life with self-deprecating humor.

Join us for a great read and what promises to be a fun discussion of the AT (as Appalachian Trail aficionados refer to it), our favorite humorous anecdotes from the book, and whatever else suggests itself.  Copies of the book will be available for hold at The Field Library, and we’ll be meeting in the Teen Zone at the library on August 17 from 11 to 12:30, complete with donuts and coffee. 

 

THE BEST OF THE LAW: MEET HORACE RUMPOLE

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

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

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

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

THE ROAD GOES EVER ON: THE PARADE

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

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

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

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

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

HOW TO FIX YOUR BOOK GROUP

I’m going to assume, rightly or wrongly, that the people who are interested in reading a blog about books, especially new books, and about library goings-on are also people who tend to belong to book clubs.  I run a book group here at The Field Library myself, and am starting another book group at a nearby Senior Living Community (hi, Drum Hill!), but as a library clerk, I also have dealings with other people who are in different book groups.  When four or five patrons come in within a day of each other, all looking for a particular book, odds are good that they’re trying to get the book for their book club.

Maybe you’ve encountered something like this yourself.  A book is chosen for the group, and of course everybody needs to read it before the next meeting (or at least everybody tries to read it before the next meeting).  You have a choice: you can either buy the book (electronically or in print), or you can try to borrow it from your local library. If you don’t know much about the book and aren’t sure you’re going to want to keep it, or if you’re not the kind of person who wants to accumulate books for whatever reason, or you just don’t want to spend money if you don’t have to (all legitimate aims, by the way), you’re going to go to the library to try to get a copy there.

And then you run into a problem, because the person choosing the book for the group hasn’t checked to see if there are any copies available at the local library.  Maybe it’s a new, popular book, a bestseller even, so the book chooser just assumes every library has it. Probably every library does have it, maybe even a couple of copies of it, but because it’s new and popular, all those copies are checked out, and even if you put it on hold, there might be a number of holds already on the book ahead of you (sometimes hundreds, literally), which decreases your chances of getting the book before your next meeting.  Or maybe it’s an older, more obscure book, and there simply aren’t enough copies in the library system to accommodate all the members of your book group.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  When I offer choices of books to the Field Notes Book Group, I’ve already checked to make sure there are enough copies of that book available in the system (not already checked out, not already on hold) that everyone in the group can get one. You can do this, too: check the catalog and look at the number of copies the library system has of the book, and decide accordingly.  If it’s the hottest book of the month and there are a hundred copies, all of which are checked out, and there are three hundred holds, maybe that’s not the book you want to choose for this month. Maybe you want to wait a couple of months so more copies will be available. Maybe your friendly librarian could suggest another book that is more readily available that would also be a great read and discussion starter.  

My personal feeling is that you shouldn’t have to spend money in order to join a book discussion group.  Reading should be free, and the pleasures of reading a book together and talking about it shouldn’t be limited to people who can afford to buy a new hardcover or e-book every month.  Check out your library before you choose the book. Ask for help. I know I’d be delighted to advise book group leaders on good reading selections that their members can get their hands on quickly.  

Give it a try.  You have nothing to lose but your frustrations.

BEYOND THE LIMITS OF SCIENCE: LOST AND WANTED

If you’re interested in a new novel that takes on questions of science and faith, of female friendship and the power of the different kinds of love, try Lost and Wanted, by Nell Freudenberger.

Back in the day, Helen Clapp and Charlotte Boyce were closer than sisters, the kind of friends who told each other everything about their lives.  They were college roommates at Harvard, and shared all their struggles and triumphs at school and after: the time a professor hit on Charlie, Helen’s frustrations as a young woman trying to make her way in the world of science, Charlie’s troubles trying to break into the world of Hollywood screenwriting as a black woman, the challenges they both faced as parents.  But as Helen advanced to a tenure track professorship at MIT, wrote bestselling books that explained science to lay people, and arrived at a breakthrough in the esoteric field of fifth dimensional space, Charlie began to disappear from her life. Their calls grew less and less frequent, Charlie became more elusive, and Helen, if she thought of Charlie, assumed they were just growing apart.

Until Charlie died suddenly, and Helen suddenly realized what she’d been missing.

So far, you might think you’re reading a normal “women’s fiction” book, but things take a bit of an odd turn. After Charlie’s death, Helen gets a phone call from her.  This is impossible in Helen’s scientific view of the world, and yet, she can’t help believing that this really was Charlie talking to her, and that brings Helen back into Charlie’s world, her memories of her friendship with Charlie and everything that went along with that, including her long-ago relationship with Neel Jonnal, a prize-winning physicist who’s on the verge of winning a Nobel Prize.  Helen is forced to reconsider the choices she’s made in her life, the rules of science which have always limited and steadied her world.

Did something supernatural happen?  Does friendship survive death?  Are there second chances in life?  Read Lost and Wanted to find out.

 

 

 

NEW AND EXCITING HISTORICAL FICTION AT THE FIELD

While we’re waiting for the Westchester Library System to make the full transition to its new software, and all the books released after February 18 are finally available (and not just sitting on a table in the back of the library, waiting for cataloging!), let’s focus some attention on books released before the freeze.  In this particular case, I want to call your attention to some of the newest history books available here at the Field, ranging from England in the 1600’s to Revolutionary War era America, to Hawaii and California in the early part of the 20th century.

The Familiars, by Stacey Halls, takes us to the era of one of the most famous witch hunts in English history, the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612 (a good 80 years before our own famous Salem witch trials), through the persons of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a young wife trying to find a way to survive her latest pregnancy, and Alice Gray, a midwife promising to help her.  As the fear of witchcraft heightens in the countryside, Alice falls under suspicion, and Fleetwood is forced to wonder whether this woman is really just the healing woman she says she is or whether her skills come from a pact with the devil. And in either case, if Alice is in danger of being tried and executed as a witch, how will Fleetwood and her baby survive?  A different look at witch trials, The Familiars asks the question of how much witch scares were reflections of fears about women in general.

If I told you that Dear George, Dear Mary, by Mary Calvi, is about our first President, odds are that you’d be thinking “Mary? You mean Martha, don’t you?”  After all, we all know that Martha Washington was George Washington’s wife. However, before he was President, before he knew or married Martha Dandridge Custis, George Washington fell in love with another woman, Mary Philipse, a New York heiress and one of the richest women in North America (the name Philipse should sound familiar to people like me who live in Westchester County). The novel, based on hundreds of letters and journal entries and other primary sources, gives us a different portrait of the Founding Father, not only his private life but also the origins of his feelings about Great Britain and the sources of the greatness he would demonstrate in the American Revolution and later.  Why George didn’t marry Mary Philipse, what happened to Mary, and how the two of them lived their respective destinies is the heart of this fascinating historical novel.

Want to go a little farther afield in your historical fiction?  How about trying Alan Brennert’s sequel to his bestselling Moloka’i, the newly published Daughter of Moloka’i, which takes place in Hawaii and California in the early part of the 20th century.  The protagonist, Ruth, was born in the leper colony at Kalaupapa to a woman suffering from leprosy, and given up for adoption.  Adopted by a Japanese couple who raise her on a grape and stawberry farm in California (you have an idea where this is going, don’t you?), Ruth is sent to the internment camp at Manzanar.  After the war, however, she is contacted by Rachel, who claims to be her biological mother, and comes to discover the truth about her past, and about Rachel’s life in the leper colony. The two women, separated for most of Ruth’s life, find their similarities and their differences and the great love that binds them together despite everything.