After a great discussion of the February book, No One Cares about Crazy People, the Field Notes book group chose our next book, which we will be discussing on March 17 (my birthday!): Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, by Jenny Lawson.  Copies are already available at the Field Library, and more will be coming in through the week, so if you’re interested, come on in and pick one up.

Furiously Happy is a hard book to describe. The author, Jenny Lawson, admits right up front that she has mental health problems.  She’s suffered from depression and anxiety disorders for most of her life.  However, this is not a sad book like No One Cares about Crazy People.  Quite the contrary.  Lawson has such a sense of humor, such a delightful writing style and so much life and energy that this is one of the funniest books I’ve read in years.  I don’t want to give away any of the particularly hysterical parts of the book (most of it is laugh out loud funny).  Let me just say that when I read it for the first time, I was riding on a Metro North train to New York City, and I was laughing so hard the woman sitting in the seat next to me actually moved to another seat.

There’s much to discuss about the book, including whether her husband should be considered for sainthood now or whether the church should wait for his death to do it (really, he puts up with a lot), whether Lawson’s approach to life is a good way to deal with horrible things even if you don’t have mental illnesses and why we don’t all have taxidermy raccoons with outstretched arms to give people a hug. I’m being facetious, a little, but the book inspires that kind of goofiness.

So come and join us on March 17, from 11 to 12:30 at the Field Library Gallery, for coffee, snacks (possibly including homemade Irish Soda Bread), and an entertaining discussion of Furiously Happy.



I don’t want to give anyone the impression that all Scandinavian novels are dark mysteries with horrible crimes and brooding protagonists, though obviously I’m a fan of that particular genre of Scandinavian novel (hello, Jo Nesbo!).  It’s not true, of course; Scandinavian authors write every kind of book, and many different kinds get translated into English. Case in point: the charming new book, Hotel Silence, by Audur Ava Olafsdottir.

Our protagonist, Jonas Ebeneser, is a man who feels he’s reached the end of his rope. He’s living in Iceland, he and his wife have just gotten divorced, and his now ex wife tells him that the person he thought was his biological daughter isn’t his. Not wanting his daughter to find his body, he decides that he will commit suicide, but in another country.  With that in mind, he heads out to an (unnamed) foreign country dealing with the aftermath of war, and checks himself, and his box of tools, into the Hotel Silence, a somewhat dilapidated place run by a brother and sister, with two other guests.  

Slowly he begins to fix things around the hotel, which is in desperate need of all kinds of TLC, and as he does, the people of the area, who have been suffering from the aftereffects of the war and who are trying to rebuild their own lives, learn about his skills with tools.  They begin coming to him for help, for repairs to their own broken objects. Jonas becomes involved, more or less voluntarily, in fixing what needs to be fixed, and begins to appreciate the dangers and traumas these people have been facing and their will to live and to make things better after the war.  As you can imagine (what would be the point of writing a book like this where this doesn’t happen?), Jonas is changed for the better by his experiences and ends up fixing himself as much as he’s fixing the things in his new neighbors’ lives.

If you’re a fan of A Man Called Ove (another Scandinavian non-thriller), you will enjoy Hotel Silence, so give yourself a chance at renewal and read it.



What would it be like to have lived for centuries and hobnobbed with all the great and famous (and the not-so-great and the ordinary)?  You wouldn’t even be able to brag about the time you were acting in plays with William Shakespeare, or tossing down cocktails with F. Scott Fitzgerald or the like, because people wouldn’t believe you, either figuring you’ve got a great imagination or that you’re delusional.  If you weren’t the only one who could live for centuries, it stands to reason that the other immortals (or near immortals) would find each other and work out some rules for their mutual preservation, and you’d end up having to follow those rules, too.  After a while, you’d probably just want to live an ordinary life, whether or not that would be possible for someone in your position.

That’s the premise of How to Stop Time, by Matt Haig.  Tom Hazard, the protagonist, who’s already lived more than 500 years and has had all kinds of adventures over the centuries, is now working as a history teacher in a local high school (and here I have to tip my metaphorical hat to the author for this idea: what could be easier for an immortal person than teaching history, of all things? He wouldn’t even have to look anything up!), and trying to follow the rules of the Albatross Society, which protects people like him.  The first rule of the society is not to fall in love, not to get attached, and you can see how sensible that would be if you were inevitably going to outlive your beloved and suffer through loss over and over again.  However, while Tom is immortal, he’s also human, and there’s a French teacher at his school who is captivated by him, and he by her.

Can he break the rules of a very long lifetime, and defy the rules of an increasingly arbitrary and erratic leader of the Albatross Society and actually allow himself to fall in love and to begin to live fully and without hesitation in the present, for all its flaws?  Even if you think you know the answers to these questions, it’s still worth spending some time with Tom and his colleagues to see how he manages to use the wisdom of a lifetime to learn how to be a happy person at last.


How do you follow up a bestselling book that spent twenty weeks on the New York Times list and has been fodder for book clubs for years?  Well, if you’re Kristin Hannah, you leave World War II and France behind and set your next book in 1970’s Alaska, and the result is The Great Alone.  If you enjoyed The Nightingale, you will definitely love The Great Alone, and if you’re one of the rare people who didn’t read The Nightingale, you’ll still love The Great Alone if you’re a fan of dramatic books with an incredible sense of place and time.

I have to warn you, the first chapter or so of the book feels cringingly cliche. We have Ernt, the Vietnam veteran husband and father who’s completely messed up by his time in the war, a volatile abusive man who can’t hold onto a job and who is angry at the world. We have his wife, Cora, who’s always making excuses for him and putting up with his behavior (and yes, I realize that I’m viewing a 1970’s character through a 2018 lens, but even in the 1970’s there was some awareness of domestic violence and Cora sometimes seems willfully blind to the obvious signs that Ernt is trouble), and we have the protagonist, the thirteen year old Leni who has been dragged around from one place to another by her somewhat feckless parents.  If you feel you’ve seen them all before, you have some basis for that.

However, once the characters move from the Seattle area to Kaneq, Alaska, painfully unprepared (the classic hippie “living off the land” notion mixed with an invitation from the father of one of Ernt’s Vietnam buddies to come to live near them), the book comes alive. I personally have never been to Alaska, and certainly never came to Alaska in the early 1970’s, but Hannah brings the frontier world to vivid life: the tiny town, the different kinds of homesteads out on the edge of the wilderness, the camaraderie of the locals (one of my favorite characters is Large Marge, a former attorney and a force to be reckoned with) and their eagerness to help these new people get settled and survive.  The weather becomes practically another character (which is one reason this would be a good book to read in the winter because no matter how bad things get around here, you can feel relieved that you’re not living in the Kaneq area in winter). The natural world, the turning of the seasons and the wildlife, both helpful and dangerous, fill the book with verisimilitude.

Leni begins to come into her own, living off the land with her parents, finding her place in the local society, and falling in love with one of the only other kids her age in the school.  There’s a bit of the Romeo and Juliet in her romance with Matthew, who’s the son of one of the most powerful people in the town, a man with whom Ernt is bitterly feuding.  

As the long Alaskan winters close in and Ernt becomes more and more violent and irrational, the book becomes more engrossing. You care about the characters even when they do foolish things, and you find yourself rooting for Leni (and Cora, to a lesser extent) to become the strong, independent woman she is developing into over the course of her time in Alaska. There’s a palpable sense of suspense, mostly involving Ernt.  I’m not going to give away the resolution of the plot, though it’s more complicated than you might imagine, but I will say that there is a happy ending of sorts and it’s worth waiting for.



A mystery set in the past is a difficult thing to pull off well, especially if the author chooses to use real events and real people as part of the story, though of course it’s the fun of seeing real life people and real life events we already know about being shown in a new light that makes historical mysteries work. For an example of how to do it right, we have Jessica Fellowes’ The Mitford Murders.

Jessica Fellowes has experience in writing historical fiction set in 1920’s England, since she’s been writing all the books set in the world of Downton Abbey.  Here she turns her attention to a real life unsolved mystery, involving some famous real life people, and creates a new Golden Age type mystery.

The protagonist is Louisa Cannon, desperate to escape a life of grinding poverty and difficulty with her widowed mother and obnoxious uncle in London, so when she hears of an opportunity to work as a nanny for a well to do family in Oxfordshire, she jumps at the chance.

At the same time Louisa is escaping from her uncle, a nurse, Florence Nightingale Shore, goddaughter to the famous Florence Nightingale, is murdered in broad daylight on the train on which Louisa is traveling.  There are no leads and the case seems likely to go cold, though one police officer is determined to make his reputation by solving it.

And so, it turns out, is one of Louisa’s new charges, the oldest daughter of the Mitford family, Nancy.  Nancy is 16 and dying for adventure, for a taste of the outside world. She’s bright and acerbic, a budding author, and she and Louisa find themselves drawn into the investigation of Shore’s death, even though it becomes more and more likely that they are running headlong into danger themselves.

The Mitfords actually existed (and were fascinating people in their own right), and the murder of Florence Nightingale Shore actually happened and was never solved in real life. Using real life people and real events adds just a little more verisimilitude to the vivid setting of 1920’s England, so if you’re a fan of Downton Abbey and the world of England between the World Wars, this should be just your cup of tea.


There’s nothing like a good historical novel to open your eyes and give you new insight into an era or a place you thought you knew, and there are two new historical novels this month which bring into focus fascinating characters and periods of the past, from a female perspective.

The first, chronologically at least, is Carnegie’s Maid, by Marie Benedict (who also wrote The Other Einstein).  Starting in the 1860’s in Pittsburgh, the book follows the life and times of Clara Kelley, a young Irish immigrant who finds herself working for the famous Andrew Carnegie and his family. Clara comes from a poor farming family in Ireland, with nowhere to go and nothing to her name when she decides, out of desperation, to impersonate the experienced Irish maid who disappeared after being hired to work at the Carnegie house.  It would be hard enough for Clara to work as a maid anywhere, since she has no skills or experience, but her ruse is made much more complicated by the demanding lady of the house, who rules the place with an iron fist and has no tolerance for error.  However, Clara is tough and desperate (a dangerous combination) and keeps her head, working her way into the affections of the patriarch of the household, Andrew Carnegie himself. It’s not that she’s trying to worm her way into his bed, but first her business instincts and then her personality win him over. Clara, however, never forgets that she’s a fraud, and that if anyone in this household were to find out who she really is, it would mean disaster for herself and for her family back home. Her disappearance spurs Carnegie to look at the world differently, and to see that there’s more than just the making of money for its own sake.  A vivid look at a vanished world and the development of a ruthless industrialist (look up the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 if you want to see how ruthless he could be) into a great philanthropist.

And if the Gilded Age isn’t your thing (though it should be — it’s a fascinating period of American history), how about a trip through the earliest days of movie making in Hollywood?  The Girls in the Picture, by Melanie Benjamin, brings to life the silent movie era, focusing on one of the earliest and most brilliant stars of the medium, Mary Pickford (known as “America’s Sweetheart”), and Frances Marion, a screenwriter who seized on the potential for “flickers” to become something huge and wonderful.  The two women were good friends, both working in the same industry, both ambitious and hardworking, and both running up against all the limitations that industry, and the society around it, placed on women in the teens and 1920’s. All the larger than life figures of the world of movies make their appearances in the book: from Douglas Fairbanks, who was romantically entangled with Mary, to Charlie Chaplin, to Rudolph Valentino and Lillian Gish and Louis B. Mayer.  It was a wild time and Mary and Frances reached the heights women could achieve, though not without heartbreak and trials.  If you’re a fan of silent movies or the 1920’s, check out The Girls in the Picture.


Every so often you just need a feel good book. Nothing deep, nothing profound, the equivalent of a Friday Night Movie where you don’t have to think a lot but can just relax and enjoy what you’re watching or reading.  If you’re ready for a feel good book, or if you’re a cat person (we already have established that I’m a cat person, of course), let me recommend Talk to the Paw, by Melinda Metz.

It starts with Jamie, a cat lady who only has one cat, MacGuyver.  Jamie has had it with the whole dating scene; she’s tired of dealing with men who don’t want to commit, men who are totally full of themselves, and men who forget to mention that they’re married. She’s ready to focus her attention on MacGuyver, who’s a charming cat who also happens to have the bad habit of wandering around in the neighborhood and stealing things from other people’s yards and the like.

MacGuyver has ideas of his own, and doesn’t want his human to be lonely, especially when he recognizes that another human in the neighborhood, a male human, seems also to be lonely and in need of companionship.  MacGuyver steals something from David and stashes it at Jamie’s house, and then does the reverse, and as the two people are brought together to try to find their missing items, they begin to discover other things they have in common.

A cat as a matchmaker?  A cute cat who does matchmaking by stealing things and hiding them? Yes, this is a feel good book, and yes, there is a happy ending, and if you’re in need of some feline charm and a happy ending, come and take out Talk to the Paw.


Of course we all know there was no internet during the time of the American Revolution. Nobody had computers then, let alone the connectedness we take for granted these days. The whole world was very different then.

And yet, what would have happened if there HAD been an internet two hundred years earlier? What would have happened to the American Revolution if our Founding Fathers had the use of social media and email and all the electronic paraphernalia of our modern age?

That’s the premise of a new and EXTREMELY quirky novel, Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America: a Novel of the Digital Revolution, by Damien Lincoln Ober.  In 1777, colonial America is fully digitized. There’s the internet, there’s social media, there are all the kinds of connections we use in the 21st century. Everything is going well until a secret Congressional committee uploads a draft Articles of Confederation to the cloud. Suddenly an internet plague breaks out and anyone who uses a networked device is killed. Three quarters of the population is dead, the internet is abandoned, and the British take advantage of the chaos to move in on New York and Philadelphia, apparently destroying the rebellion.

George Washington then emerges from off the grid and delivers a crushing and surprising blow to the British at Yorktown, winning American independence.  However, with the internet dead and the countryside in ruins, the new nation teeters on the edge of utter collapse. A secret group of the Founding Fathers get together to create a new operating system, immune to errors and internet plagues, designed to stabilize the cloud and ensure American prosperity.

Thomas Jefferson and his coterie of rebels sees the new operating system as a betrayal of the American Revolution, and sets out to fight the overreach of Washington’s Federalists.  Jefferson’s secret weapon is Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America, an open-source portal that will bring real democracy (rather than the representative kind) to the people and make Congress and the President utterly irrelevant.

How can you not be curious about this alternate history?  Just the thought of Benjamin Franklin messing around with the internet is enough to intrigue me, not to mention what other bizarre twists there might be to our commonly held ideas about how we won the war and what happened thereafter. For a wild ride through alternate history, check out Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America.


After a lively and interesting discussion about My Name is Lucy Barton this past Saturday, the Field Notes Book Group chose its next book for February 17, and it’s an excellent, heartbreaking and insightful nonfiction book, part memoir, part history: No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America by Ron Powers.

I’ve already written about this book (here), and I will warn you that it’s a sad and in some ways an infuriating book, sad in the true story of the author’s two schizophrenic sons and the effects of their mental illnesses (and the treatment of their illnesses) on their (and their parents’) lives, and infuriating in the depiction of how damaged our mental health system is and how it got to be that way. It’s a terrific read and will, I’m sure, lead to deep and fascinating discussions at our next meeting.

The books will be available at the Circulation Desk of the Field Library starting this week. Come in and get your copy, and then join us on Saturday, February 17, from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Field Library Gallery for coffee, goodies and rousing conversations about this enthralling book.



As you know from reading my past posts (and if you’ve ever talked to me at the Circulation Desk), I’m a big fan of time travel books.  And, while there are all kinds of interesting things that can occur in a book about time travel, I have to admit that there are a few tropes that most of the books have in common: someone goes back in time, through mechanical or other means, meets with historical figures (famous or not), and either tries to change the past or tries NOT to change the past.   Every now and then, though, a time travel book comes along that ignores all those conventions and makes its own rules.  Such a book is Ian Mortimer’s The Outcasts of Time, which just came out this month.

The premise is unique: in Great Britain in 1348, the Black Death is ravaging the country. Two brothers, John and William, are suffering from the Plague and know they’re about to die.  In fact, they have exactly six days to live when they are given a wonderful if dangerous choice: either they can go home and spend their last days waiting to die in their own time, OR they can spread out those last six days, living each one 99 years after the last one, hoping to find a cure before their last day ends.

Now, wouldn’t you want to read this book just on that description alone?  Aren’t you thinking about whether you would take that deal or not?  Consider: each day would take you farther and farther into the future, nearly a century at a time, so you would have more and more trouble understanding what’s going on, what people are doing and saying (consider how much language changes over the centuries), how to navigate the world.  And at the same time, consider how much medicine, for instance, has changed over the centuries, and what the odds are that something that might have been deadly and incurable in your time might well turn into something easily treated a few hundred years from now.

Of course the brothers take the jumping-through-time option, and their experiences as they jump farther and farther into the future are revelations to them, even as they find it more and more difficult just to understand what is happening around them.  Their basic assumptions about life and the universe are irrevocably challenged, and they become more and more outcast in the worlds in which they find themselves. The bigger question for them personally, though, is whether they will in fact find a cure before their last day runs out.

Whether or not you’re a fan of time travel books (and by the way, this would count as a time travel book for the Field Library Reading Challenge), the notion of seeing different eras through the eyes of people from an earlier time is intriguing, and the literal race against time in Outcasts of Time should make for a fascinating read.