For BHM

While my belief is that black history is history and should be taught as such, calling it out for a month a year at least gets some attention, since our school curriculum is still not what it should be. Likewise, calling out some black authors, and some non-black authors who have written effectively about black history and culture, is always a good idea, but the prompt is helpful to remind one. So…

Science fiction is one genre that can definitely usher you through time. Octavia Butler‘s Kindred, which some say is the first science fiction written by an African American woman, is a combination of memoir and time travel that transports 26-year-old Dana from 1976 California to antebellum Maryland, where she arrives just in time to save a white boy from drowning, then jumps back just before the shotgun staring her in the face can go off. Like Henry in The Time Traveler’s Wife, Dana’s jumps are inadvertent, but they serve a purpose in her life history. Butler manages to provide both a conversation about serious issues—slavery, human rights, and racial prejudice—and an exciting and complex story about human nature, love, and loss.

For a glimpse into the future instead of the past, try Parable of the Sower, set in that familiar dystopia known as Los Angeles in the year 2025 (not so far off!), and following the fortunes of Lauren Olamina, an 18-year-old pioneer of a new philosophy known as Earthseed. Parable of the Talents is the sequel.

Since Butler died tragically young (in 2006, at age 58), there will be no more of her seminal works featuring female black heroines, but her contributions to the science fiction world won her both the Hugo and Nebula awards multiple times, and she was the first science fiction writer ever to win the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant.

Like a little mystery with your history? Try Barbara Hambly’s mystery series that begins with A Free Man of Color. Set in New Orleans in the 1830s (right after the Louisiana Territory was acquired by America), the characters are a rich mix of French, Spanish, and American, Creole, African slave, and “free people of color.” Benjamin January (or Janvier, depending on the language you’re speaking) is one of the latter, a Paris-trained surgeon who must earn his living in New Orleans as a piano player. Between his two professions he mingles with all levels of society, and inevitably someone turns to him for his appealing mix of compassion and good sense to help them solve a dilemma, a puzzle, or even a murder. There are 18 books, so if you’re hooked by the first one, you can relish Ben January’s world for a sumptuous long time.

Another book set in the same time period and also on the subject of the gens de couleur libre is Anne Rice’s second novel, The Feast of All Saints. If you thought Rice was only about vampires, think again: She researched this while in New Orleans planning out Interview with the Vampire, and in my opinion it’s the best thing she ever wrote (and I’m a fan of the vamps, and the witches too). Rich with the history of pre-Civil War New Orleans, with truly compelling characters, it is beautifully written, poignant, and emotionally overwhelming.

Some other books to which I’d like to draw your attention, that encompass the history of the present and the recent past:

The Rock and the River (about the Black Panther movement), by Kekla Magoon
How It Went Down (an account of a shooting, from 17 different viewpoints), also by Kekla Magoon
Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith, about a black girl pilot trying to participate in World War II
Tyrell, by Coe Booth, a young adult novel representative of all too many young black men with few alternatives. A compelling voice and an engaging story.
March, by John Lewis, a series of three graphic novels about the Civil Rights Movement, by the senator who was by the side of Martin Luther King

Please note that this is a short, random, partial list of books that in no way represent the richness of writing available out there, but simply reflects some books I read, enjoyed, and appreciated for their topic and their tone. I hope you find something to enjoy.

Impersonation

Impersonation, by Heidi Pitlor, is described as a book about a professional ghost writer, Allie Lang, who is hired to write a memoir. The subject (and supposed actual author) of the memoir is Lana Breban, a lawyer and women’s rights advocate with (it turns out, big surprise) aspirations to run for office. Her “people” have concluded that her tough image needs softening, and what could be better than a tell-all about her experiences as a feminist mother raising a son?

What this book is actually about is much less clear—in fact, it’s a bit muddy. First off, Allie, who has made a minor career working as a ghost writer for those who can’t write their own, is less memorable for her experiences in this arena and more as regards the perils of trying to live your life as a freelancer when you are a single mother. Given her status—sole support to herself and her boy, Cass—one would expect her to be tougher, feistier, more proactive about standing up for herself. This is a major disappointment of character development.

When she first gets the gig writing Lana Breban’s book, she’s excited—Lana is a sort of heroine to her—and she fantasizes about all the time they will spend together while Lana recounts her motherhood stories so Allie can craft them into a powerful narrative. The actual events, however, are far less satisfactory—Lana is too busy with the rest of her life to give Allie any time, and (oddly) refuses to divulge the details about her life as a wife or as Norman’s mother. Allie garners a few facts, but it’s like pulling teeth, and Lana basically tells Allie to do her research, put together some materials on feminism and boys, and cobble it all together with a thin strand of relevant detail.

Unfortunately, neither Allie’s editor nor her publishers are satisfied with the conscientious research approach, and Lana’s own people concur—they want the personal, not the educational. But Lana still won’t budge, and Allie is caught in the middle. This is where the book really begins to fall apart for me. Allie takes up her difficulties and reservations with both her agent and her contact at the publishing house, explains that she can’t do her job properly without more cooperation from Lana, and is basically told to get it done no matter what she has to do. They both essentially give her the brush-off. I found this part of the plot to be wholly unbelievable—surely at least one of them would be willing to take it up with Lana, or at least with her people, and give Allie some support.

The rest of the book talks unendingly about Allie’s problems—with the book and in life—but Allie never seems to figure out how to stand up for herself. Admittedly, people of Lana’s class and stature (the truth that begins to emerge is that her son has been raised by a nanny and never sees his mother) don’t understand or care about what people of Allie’s class go through when it comes to personal privations experienced in trying to make ends meet, no matter what lip service they pay. But there are so many points in the narrative at which the reader (or at least this reader) just wants to shake Allie and scream, Are you crazy? Do this! Don’t do that! SPEAK UP! When she finds herself in an unresolvable predicament, I felt like it was her just desserts.

The book explores such themes as class blindness, economic instability, how to raise empathetic sons, the MeToo movement, the distress of seeing Trump elected President, conflicts between mothers and daughters, and more. But all this “topicality” overpowers the story line and ensures a lack of connection with its main characters, who end up being both boring and unlikeable.

I have probably given too much away for a reviewer, but honestly, I kept reading waiting for a payoff that was so minor and with an ending so odd that I regretted not paying more attention to the fact that the majority of ratings on Goodreads were two or three stars. I feel like the title unintentionally gives away more about the book than was meant—it’s impersonating an important read, but really it’s just some sad people coping poorly with life. It is characterized in its publisher’s description and in author quotes as satirical, timely, insightful, and bitingly funny; of all of those, I could maybe agree with insightful. The satire, if such it was, was painful, the timeliness is contained in the context but not in the details, and I failed to find the humor.

Maybe I was just having a bad week…but I don’t think so.

American Marriage

I just finished reading An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones. I can’t remember how I came across it—I ordered it from Book Outlet, but whether I browsed it and decided on it or it was recommended by one of the readers on Facebook’s “What Should I Read Next?” group, I don’t remember. The plot, which speaks to contemporary situations, intrigued me, and there is much to like about this book.

The basic story is this: Roy and Celestial meet, then meet again, and eventually fall in love or decide they have found the right partner, or whatever people do who decide to marry. Roy is in business but has greater aspirations, and Celestial is a fabric artist, specializing in making eerily lifelike baby dolls. They are married for about 18 months and are celebrating the anniversary of their first date when a crime is committed nearby and the victim identifies Roy as her rapist. Although Celestial knows it’s impossible (he was with her at the time, and neither was asleep), she is the only witness and is apparently less convincing to his jury than is the victim; Roy is sentenced to 12 years in prison.

For the first three years of Roy’s incarceration, Celestial stays true to Roy, although her sense of him, herself, and their marriage suffers as time goes on with little reinforcement as to its reality. She continues to pursue a dream first articulated by Roy to open a shop to sell her “poupées” (dolls), and allows her work to consume her as she feels increasingly alienated from her marriage.

André has been Celestial’s neighbor and best friend since they were small children. Although she has always regarded him as a friend, he has loved her since he met her. He was also friends with Roy, and is actually the one who introduced them and watched while they made a match of it; he has been Celestial’s constant companion since, never crossing the line, until Celestial’s doubt in the viability of hers and Roy’s relationship after several years apart gives him hope for something different. They eventually drift together almost as if it’s inevitable, and have begun to form a solid relationship when Roy’s lawyer’s efforts to appeal his case surprisingly pay off and Roy is released at the end of a five-year stint.

Roy knows that he and Celestial have been estranged; but he expects she has been faithful and hopes to rekindle or restart life with her now that his time in jail is over. Celestial, meanwhile, looks at the time they have been separated versus the time they were actually together, and sees it as something of an uncrossable gulf.

The book has several things to recommend it: The format is intriguing, with the narration of the first few chapters before Ray’s arrest alternating between Roy and Celestial. After the arrest, the alternating narration continues but becomes epistolary, contained in letters from the prison to Atlanta and back again. Shortly before Roy’s release, André steps in with first-person narrative, and the rest of the book is mostly from his and Roy’s alternating points of view. I found all of it absorbing.

The language in which the story is written is engaging, with an extended vocabulary and unusual, evocative phrasing by the protagonists in both their conversations and their descriptions that constantly catches the ear.

The premise itself is what drew me to the book: The knowledge of how easily and how often mistakenly a man of color is arrested in this country is an issue in the forefront of many people’s minds right now, so the opportunity to read a book about that actual event was appealing.

There are, however, also some things that are lacking about this book. The first, for me, is the pivotal incident—the misunderstanding that led to accusations that led to conviction and incarceration. I understand that the author’s purpose was more about focusing on the outcomes of the wrongful conviction and that the conviction was in some ways a foregone conclusion, given our society’s blind spots; but I would have liked a little more attention paid to the mechanics of how Roy ended up in prison than the five scant pages it is given. It was, ultimately, a he-said-she-said situation, and although it was unlikely to conclude differently, I would have appreciated seeing that drama enacted on the page instead of being nearly incidental to the story.

The second is the treatment of the characters. Interestingly, the secondary characters (Roy’s daddy, Big Roy and his biological father, Walter; his mother, Olive, and Celestial’s father, Franklin) were beautifully drawn and seemed like real people from the neighborhood. But there was a disconnection for me from Celestial, which I found particularly strange considering that the author is a woman. There was a lot of noise made by Roy in the attempt to keep Celestial; but she was such a reticent, inarticulate figure that I never got a sense of exactly what it was that made her tick. Even though I understood, by the end, what was happening and had a sense of why, the words are never actually said by Celestial, and I was, along with Roy, so frustrated by that. It came to the point, during the pivotal decisions about their marriage, where he was speaking for both of them, almost holding a conversation with himself by claiming to know what she was thinking and how she felt, and although he may have been intuitive enough to guess those things, I actually found it rather offensive that the author wouldn’t just put the words that needed saying into Celestial’s mouth. She ended up such a passive, helpless, weepy creature when she started out as the strong and independent one, and it left me unsatisfied, particularly because we get to find out the conclusion to everything through one of those “six months later” epilogues that I hold in such disregard.

Still, despite all this I see the value of this book in explaining the crippling disconnection of a whole segment of society from their roots, their relationships, and their continuing lives by the mechanism of wrongful imprisonment, and the struggle it must be to reconnect with any of those once the separation is over. The total disruption of lives is unforgivable. There is much here that is profound and moving, and Roy is not a character I will soon forget.

Character

I haven’t made a post for a while now, for several reasons: I’m still finishing off Charlie Higson’s dystopian series for teens (I’m reading The End and hoping that all my many questions are answered); I started teaching my Readers’ Advisory class at UCLA this past Tuesday and have spent some of my time preparing for that (mostly cleaning up my combination office/art studio so it’s fit to be seen in the background of Zoom); and I’ve been rather caught up in the political events of the day (unhealthy obsession with Facebook posts). But I should be at the end of The End soon, and on to my next read.

In the meantime, the combination of contemplating “appeals” for readers’ advisory and doing a massive clear-out, clean-up, and re-shelving of my entire library of fiction in my four bedroom bookshelves caused me to think about the nature of “character” as a dominating force in fiction.

To explain a bit for those who are not up on librarian lingo, appeals are what we call the various reasons why people enjoy what they read. Some people are motivated by adrenalin and want something fast-paced and exciting; others love beautiful language and want to be wooed by unusual or lyrical phrasing; and one particularly powerful appeal is that of “character.” The ability to identify with or, alternatively, loathe a character or set of characters in a book is one aspect that draws people to read more. The success of the belabored Harry Potter franchise is largely due to the desire to find out what happens next to the maturing Harry and his friends, and all of us can probably think of a book or five whose characters were what kept us coming back to its pages. A few recent books in which character dominated include Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, A Man Called Ove, and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. (A major clue as to whether the book is character-driven is if the main character’s name appears in the title. Witness Harry Potter and the….)

As I have mentioned here several times, belonging to the Facebook group “What Should I Read Next?” is sometimes an exercise in patience, because most of the readers there have become caught up in the bestseller craze and all end up reading the same 12 books. So in the effort to find them—and you—other compelling reads, I thought I would spend a blog post examining some of my past favorites that are wholly about the character.

A compelling writer of character-driven works is the author Mary Renault, and although her entire oeuvre contains much to appreciate, there is not another that rivals The Persian Boy, her tale of a bed slave named Bagoas who was abducted, gelded, and sold as a courtesan to King Darius of Persia. When Alexander and his Macedonian army conquer the Persians, Bagoas finds himself in a rather untenable position and decides he will achieve safety only by ingratiating himself with the conqueror himself. Although Alexander is quick to see the appeal of this highly motivated slave, he is slow to take advantage of his utter dependency, and the courtship between the two of them is both touching and fiery.

The Persian Boy is actually the second in a series of three books Renault wrote about Alexander. The early years, when he rises from a beleaguered son of warring parents to become the master of all lands he surveys, are covered in Fire from Heaven, in which he experiences love and trust for the first time with his best friend and fellow warrior, Hephaistion. But that book is far more event-driven, whereas The Persian Boy, being narrated from the point of view of someone with whom Alexander had a solely personal connection, is limited in scope in terms of world events but much more specific about the relationships. It is, in fact, a love story, and I would regard it as one of the great ones, containing as it does not just attraction or romance but also loss and pain, desire and jealousy, joy, courage, and cowardice. It is an exceedingly intimate view of Alexander the man beside that of Alexander the great warrior, and is filtered through the emotions and psychology of a patient bystander.

At the beginning of the third book, Funeral Games, Alexander the Great lies dying, surrounded by his former generals, satraps, and wives, all competing like wolves for the prizes of power and land. Only the two loves of his life, Hephaistion and Bagoas, realize and truly mourn what has been lost. Funeral Games documents the disintegration of the mighty empire built in 20 years and brings Alexander’s saga from age 12 to 33 to its close.

There is a variability of voice in these tales that lets them be read as a series but also allows the reader to experience them as stand-alone novels. The first is told in the first person by Alexander; the second is the purview of Bagoas; and the third is written from a third-person observer stance. I discovered and read The Persian Boy first, only picking up the others afterwards, and felt no sense that anything was missing in that first reading. When people ask for an LGBTQ love story that goes beyond the contemporary meet-cute or the simultaneous struggle with coming out that invades so many of these stories, my thoughts immediately return to the yearning and transcendent happiness contained with the pages of Renault’s classic work.

Another protagonist with whom I have been in love since the first time I read the book is Shevek, the humble man and brilliant physicist at the heart of Ursula K. LeGuin’s book The Dispossessed. The book is a recounting of an existential thought experiment: The author posits what would happen to individuals in a social system that rewards conformity, although that social system in this case is based on a sort of group anarchy. Urras is a world much like our own, driven by commerce. Within its teeming millions is a group of individuals who wish to live their lives quite differently and, because Anarres, the moon of their planet, is suitable (though not ideal) for human life, they are allowed to colonize it. The two societies make a pact that neither will invade the other and, for more than 100 years, not one individual from either society has crossed the line between them except for shipments of supplies that arrive and leave the small port on Anarres.

A map I made to illustrate LeGuin’s masterpiece.

Shevek grows up in this ascetic society, a planned utopia where no one takes precedence over anyone else, where each is valued but all are expected to make their contribution to society in return for a place in it. He does his part, planting trees in the desert, drawing food service or waste management tasks for 10 days at a time, and through it all manages to find a great love, Takver, and have children; but while he goes through these tasks of daily life, his brain is operating on another plain—trying to understand temporal physics—that demands discussion, the exchange of ideas, and a close relationship with those on his mental level who are capable of understanding his brilliance. Ultimately, he makes the choice, despite the possibility of losing his home, his family, perhaps even his life, to go back to Urras to see what the scientists of that world have to offer him.

The fascinating part of the book is how the society on Anarres was originally founded as a profound act of nonconformity, and yet ends up suppressing originality and demanding obedience from a man chafing under its restrictions. LeGuin achieves her objective—the exploration of the concept of freedom—by letting the reader recognize the virtues of the system under which Shevek lives and
then realize how stifling it has become, without being either polemical or strident.

If it weren’t for the “stigma” of being categorized as science fiction, I believe this book would take its place amongst the most important of classic novels, and that Shevek would be a much more well-known protagonist in the reading world.

Some books you love for a protagonist, and some for an entire cast of characters. In the second category are the books by E. F. Benson that were latterly brought together in an Omnibus volume called Make Way for Lucia. There are six Mapp and Lucia novels in the series, and they must be read in order, for events take on importance in a specific sequence that must be appreciated.

At first glance, you might not think that a view into the social world of upper-middle class Edwardian village dwellers would be particularly compelling. But what you have to understand about the Mapp and Lucia books is the exaggerated degree of sheer triviality that guarantees a contrary fascination. Benson had a disdain for middle class people pretending to a rank to which they are not entitled, and his satires of these mushrooms trying to push their way into high society are brilliant and also funny as hell.

The books feature the feuding doyennes of Riseholme and Tilling, whose decidedly bourgeois residents get flustered in the presence of noble titles but king and queen it in the presence of everyone else. The main protagonists—or should we call them pugilists?—are Emmeline Lucas, designated “Lucia,” and Elizabeth Mapp. Though the stories begin with each of them ruling their respective roosts with total social supremacy in their separate villages, fate brings them together to hilarious effect. But the reader is not solely reliant on Lucia and Miss Mapp in these stories; Benson has created a whole cast of characters, including the dashing Georgie Pillson, aging bachelor, with his elbow-length cape and carefully trained piece of hair draped over his scalp; the drunken and slightly naughty Major Benjy; artist and naked sunbather Irene Coles; Mrs. Boucher with her daughters, Piggy and Goosie, in tow; and so many more. The tempests in the teapots that are the meat of these ’20s and ’30s comedies of manners are hilarious, witty, and slightly nasty. In other words, inspired. Auberon Waugh, eldest son of Evelyn, said,

“I might have gone to my grave
without ever knowing about
Lucia and Miss Mapp. It is not a risk
anyone should take lightly.”

It’s about time for me to read them for the third time.

I hope you have enjoyed this meander through some character-driven books, and that it will inspire you to look them up for yourself or to reflect on the characters that have come to life for you during your lifetime of reading. If any compelling ones occur to you, please share!

Guns and diversity

itendsWhile scrolling through the Los Angeles Public Library’s e-book offerings, I came across a young adult novel that had been hyped to me, and it was available so I checked it out and started reading. The book is This Is Where It Ends, by Marieke Nijkamp, and I was curious to see how it would explore the incendiary subject of school shootings.

One of the reasons that several people encouraged me to read this book is that it is written by a “We Need Diverse Books” member, and has two female lesbian protagonists (and one is also Latina), a prominent character who is Middle Eastern, and so on. But what I found was that this was more of a problem than an advantage, because the author gave their credentials as if she were cherry-picking specific examples of ethnicity and sexual identification to appear in her novel for the sake of that alone. I guess what I’m saying is, not only did their diversity make no significant difference to who they were in the context of the story, but it seemed to further accentuate “otherness.” She stereotyped them.

The basic plot of the book is that a boy, Tyler, who dropped out of school the year before, is scheduled to come back and try again, but instead, while the first student body assembly of the year is taking place in the auditorium with only a handful of students and a couple of teachers missing, he locks all the doors from the outside, enters through a stage door, and begins shooting people.

The story is told from four points of view, two of them in the auditorium and two of them outside trying to figure out what is happening and hoping to help their siblings and classmates to escape. There are also some other viewpoints represented via a few students’ texts to one another and one boy’s entries on his blog.

The narrative jumps back and forth between flashbacks and the present moment. The protagonists are all related in some way to the shooter—one is his sister, one is his ex-girlfriend, one is his sister’s girlfriend, and the last is that girlfriend’s brother. All have a history with Tyler, and each of these, as recounted, gives perspective on their interactions with him. You do gain some knowledge in this way about what may be some of Tyler’s issues, but because there is never any internal, first-person view given by Tyler, most of that is left unexplored, and this becomes a huge flaw. Tyler is largely painted as an evil guy, and since he isn’t allowed to speak for himself, we never find out the nuanced details that brought him to this place. I’m not an apologist—I realize that not every kid who is abused or friendless or bullied turns into a murderer. But this book had the opportunity to explore that, and instead Tyler is a smiling, vindictive, one-dimensional jerk with a gun. And the protagonists, despite the sharing of their back stories, are also one-dimensional to the point where the two female characters’ narratives sound so similar it’s easy to get confused about who is speaking.

The book initially confused me as to its power, because it is written on a breathless timetable in which minutes are literally counted down (one chapter being the action taking place between 10:00 and 10:06 a.m., etc.), and that gives the book a pace and a tension that builds on initial foreboding to boost the reader onto an emotional high. The countdown and the jumps between narrators keep you enthralled as you wait to see what’s happening inside the auditorium while you’re outside, and what’s happening outside when you’re inside. It took arriving at the end of the book and feeling strangely let down (and also emotionally manipulated) to make me realize that although the pacing pushed me to the end, once I got there I was devoid of answers, or even of much content. The book is so thoroughly focused on the events of 54 minutes that it fails to provide sufficient context to explain them.

The charitable interpretation of this book would be that the author was well intentioned but simply overwhelmed by the scope of the issue and therefore told it as best she could but without diving below the surface. This problem was accentuated by the time frame she set herself in the plot—I feel like the need to keep the tension at a certain pitch precluded her flashbacks from going into sufficient detail to satisfy. The less charitable would be that this topical subject was sensationalized for the sake of book sales.

hatelistMy recommendation would be that you read Jennifer Brown’s Hate List instead, a book that is successful at breaking down the barriers between victim and villain in its shooter, at explaining the survivor’s guilt of the people who knew him best, and in showcasing the dark thoughts that everyone has but most never act upon.

 

Light fare

In these very serious times, I’ve been doing some reading of not-so-serious books. I like to think of them as junk food, although I don’t want to seem like I am denigrating these books or the reading of them by me or anyone else. I’m just saying that, like the difference between eating a gourmet four-course dinner or grabbing some cookies to satisfy your sweet tooth, there is a difference, both in the writer’s skill and in the reader’s level of engagement. Even if you are eating cookies, you are getting some nutrition along with your treat,
whether it’s from oatmeal or nuts or dark chocolate. You just aren’t participating at the level of a good salade niçoise or some mushroom bourgignon! (In these self-isolating times, many of us are also participating to a greater degree in cooking and baking—
can you tell?)

Finfarran1Anyway, my latest foray into relationship fiction is a duo by Irish writer Felicity Hayes-McCoy that, predictably for me, have to do with books and librarianship. The Library at the Edge of the World (Finfarran Peninsula #1) is described by its publisher as “a warm, feel-good novel about the importance of finding a place where you belong, perfect for fans of Maeve Binchy.” I think that stretches its importance a bit; I would be inclined to call these “Binchy lite.” But it is a lovely look at a few key people and a bunch more peripheral ones in an interesting locale teetering between community and estrangement. It reminded me a bit more of Jenny Colgan’s books.

Hanna Casey works as the librarian in Lissbeg, one of the small towns along the Finfarran peninsula. Her family goes way back on Finfarran but, until a few years ago, Hanna had embraced a much more active, well-to-do, and interesting life in London with her lawyer husband, Malcolm, and her daughter, Jasmine. Then she was devastated to discover that her husband had been having a long-term relationship with a colleague at work, a woman who purported to be her good friend, and in her anger and hurt she decamped with Jazz back to Ireland, telling her husband she wanted nothing from him. A few years later she is beginning to regret that hasty decision, as living with her outspoken and idiosyncratic mother in a small cottage is definitely beginning to pall, particularly since their buffer, Jasmine, has finished school and is pursuing a career elsewhere.

This is not the typical librarian pictured in this kind of feel-good fiction: Hanna wanted to be an archivist, dealing with great works of art in the rarefied atmosphere of a city museum or gallery, and somewhat resents the “depths” to which she has fallen as a small-town public librarian. She is in her early 50s, yet acts like some of the crotchety old-school librarians we all dreaded in our youth, who shushed us or kicked us out of the library for every tiny noise infraction and weren’t interested in providing such heretical innovations as computer classes or toddler story times.

Hanna’s saving grace is that she has come, gradually over the years, to believe in the power of reading, and spends two days a week driving a bookmobile to the far-flung tiny farming communities that populate most of the peninsula, developing a feel for what books to bring the many characters she encounters.

She has recently rediscovered a legacy left to her by her aunt, a piece of property that she couldn’t imagine being of any use to her while she was raising her daughter and decorating her beautiful home in London; but it has suddenly occurred to her that it might be an “out” to her nigh-intolerable living situation, and she thinks if she is careful with her money and can also get a loan, she can renovate Maggie’s old cottage and live in splendid isolation on the bluffs above the sea.

Then, plans by the bureaucrats of Finfarran come to light, which will polarize the peninsula by centralizing services in a grand new center located in the most populous town, thus cutting off all the small businesses and tourist attractions everywhere else, and also closing Hanna’s library. Hanna wakes up from her dazed existence and suddenly discovers within herself the will to fight for what she wants, and seeks allies to preserve a lifestyle she didn’t realize she had come to love.

I enjoyed this story quite a bit. I liked getting a look at rural life in the Irish countryside; the quirky characters were well developed and fun; and the story line was a good message about inclusiveness and community being more important than short-sighted financial success. The ending was a little pat, but played nicely off of Hanna’s former aspirations as an archivist.

The sequel, Summer at the Garden Café, was good, but not quite up to the first one. It furthered some of the relationships established in that book, it gave some interesting insight into the relative who left Hanna her house, and it moved some pieces around on the chessboard between London and Ireland. Basically, it was pleasant and innocuous, connecting here and there with real emotions when it details the situation of Hanna’s daughter, Jasmine.

There is a third book, The Mistletoe Matchmaker, which pulls in a different family mentioned peripherally in the first books, and sets up a romance for the Canadian granddaughter visiting her Irish family. I placed a hold on the e-book at the library, and will eventually report on the last of the trilogy. (If it is the last…)

 

Little Fire

I just finished reading Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng. I have had the e-book on reserve at the library for two months, because I saw that there was going to be a television show based on it on Hulu, and I always like to read the book first. But there were so many people trying to do likewise that although I reserved it in March, I didn’t get the book until May 1st, and in the meantime I couldn’t resist watching the show.

I’m going to say something that I’m not sure I have ever said in my history of reading: I liked the show better. Much better. I expected to enjoy it, given that it stars Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, both of whom I admire and respect as actors and also as producers. But the changes they made to the script that differed from the book made the story come alive in a way that it just didn’t on the page.

LittleFiresmatches

Elena Richardson is a “legacy” citizen of Shaker Heights, Ohio. Her ancestors were among the people who dictated the layout, rules, and boundaries of what kind of town it would be, and despite an initial passion in her teens to make a name for herself as a journalist, Elena settled instead into the comfortable and expected lifestyle of an upper-class wife and mother by marrying a lawyer, having four children in five years, and working part-time as a reporter for the small daily newspaper.

Mia Warren is an itinerant artist, a single mother with a teenage daughter, who has spent the past 15 years moving from town to town as whim, art, or necessity bade her. She has come to Shaker Heights partly for the sake of her daughter, who yearns for a more settled lifestyle; Mia has heard good things about the educational system and thinks that perhaps they could stay for a while, maybe until Pearl graduates from high school. Mia and Pearl rent a duplex from Elena Richardson, and from this point the lives of the members of the two families become increasingly tangled, first by the children and later by the adults.

A story within the story, a custody battle over an abandoned Chinese baby, becomes at least partially the issue that tears the families (and to a certain extent the community) apart, but it’s only a catalyst for what’s really happening, which is all focused on the issue of motherhood: what it is and isn’t, what it should be, the despair in the face of the lack of it, and the kinds of love that exist between mothers and children.

The thing is, it’s a good book. The characterizations are interesting and thorough, the issues are targeted, there is a lot of nuance, and Ng has a beautiful command of language that ups this into literary territory. It is not a fast-paced, easy-to-read thriller with a suburban setting—it’s a deliberate piece of fiction focused on middle-class ethics that requires the reader’s attention to detail. But I titled this review “Little Fire” on purpose, because in comparison to the TV show, the passion is lacking.

Some might say that I’m showing my preference for soap opera over real content, but I don’t believe that is the case. The TV show, by specifying that Mia and Pearl are black, opens up a whole different atmosphere and theme not present in the extremely low-key and nonspecific text, and makes racism a huge topic of the story. When questioned about this change, Celeste Ng said that when she was writing she didn’t feel capable of adequately portraying black experience, since it wasn’t hers; but the effect of what she did instead, which was to leave you constantly wondering exactly what the differences were that came between these families, watered things down for me.

The relationships themselves are much more intense, because more personal, in the show than in the book, particularly that of Mia with her photographer mentor, of Elena and Pearl, of Mia and Izzy, and in the subplot involving Bebe, the natural mother of the abandoned infant, May Ling / Mirabelle. The argument could be made that the characters of Elena and Mia are more polarized and therefore more stereotypical in the show; but this decision also allows for three or four of the best moments on TV, as white privilege is skewered in a way I have seldom seen, and a few sharp lines decimate attitudes that have taken centuries to build. There is a lot of “calling out” in the show, but in the context of the story it doesn’t feel like a history lesson, it feels like some sharp, intelligent people seeing through some lazy, careless, unaware ones. And no, it’s not all about race by a long shot—there are so many other forms of privilege that are exposed here.

Celeste Ng is a producer on the series, but she is one of many, and the show is obviously the child of Witherspoon and Washington. I wonder, given that she has no writing credit on any of the episodes, whether she went along with the changes reluctantly or was enthusiastic about the expansion of her work into some new realms. The book is thoughtful, well written, descriptive, expressive, and worthy of your attention; but the show is something more.
Whoever’s vision held sway, the Hulu production is a masterful accomplishment as the melding of written and visual arts by some talented, insightful women.

 

2nd chance romance

I have to admit that I don’t know how I ended up with this book. I ordered a bunch from bookoutlet.com (you have to spend $35 to get free shipping, and since the books are mostly between $3.50 and $6 apiece, that’s quite a few books), and this was in the box. I’m sure something about the description appealed to me (probably the “second chance” aspect of the love story), or I liked the beautifully painted gouache cover, or maybe I was subconsciously influenced by the fact that the word “girl” was in the title? Ha! No. Or maybe I decided I needed to read more romance, since that is a weak spot in my readers’ advisory repertoire.

thegirlheAnyway, I just finished The Girl He Used to Know, by Tracey Garvis Graves. I have never heard of her, but she is apparently a fairly popular romance writer, although her name does not percolate to the top of the heap in the same way as do those of some of the other authors with whom her writing has been compared. This is where labeling gets a little sticky, because I can’t decide whether this belongs properly in the full-on romance category or should be shunted over to what I call “relationship fiction,” which is where the feel-good romances with more substantive stories, such as some of those by JoJo Moyes or Liane Moriarty, end up.

The thing that made this book memorable is that the protagonist, Annika, is not neurotypical. She is on the autism spectrum, although that fact isn’t clearly dealt with until midway through the book. Rather, she is initially represented as “weird”—fragile, difficult, obsessional, a misfit.

Because the book takes place in two time frames, 10 years apart, and begins from the latter time frame, the Annika we meet up front is calm, poised, fairly self-aware, and well established in her life as a librarian in Chicago. We rapidly realize that she has had issues in her past because of her regular consultations with her therapist on how best to handle certain events in her life, but she doesn’t seem so different from a lot of people. My first reaction to her was that perhaps there were incidents of abuse in her past, and this is what has caused her social ineptitude.

Then we meet the Annika of 10 years ago, who panics after a week at college, refuses to leave her room, and calls her parents to come get her. The Annika who looks at people’s noses because she can’t look them in the eye, who wears baggy clothes because they are comfortable and also don’t draw attention, who spends all her time with books and animals and has no friends, and we start to get the idea that there is a real difference between this girl and a simple introvert or someone who has been scarred by just one past incident.

The book is told from two perspectives as well as from two time-frames—it’s co-narrated by Annika and by Jonathan, her first real boyfriend in college and the man whose heart she apparently broke. Near the beginning of the novel, the two run into each other in the grocery store and discover that Jonathan moved back to Chicago after his divorce a couple of years back, and that they don’t live too far apart. Annika makes it obvious that she is interested in rekindling things, but Jonathan is more cautious after how thoroughly she let him down 10 years before. And from this point, the chapters flash back and forth between narrators and between past and present to give us an idea of both the personalities and the relationship, and how they have changed and not changed.

I found that the best bits of the novel were the unintentional faux-pas moments caused by Annika’s skewed socio-emotional IQ. She is literal, she is blunt, she is confused by the necessity to do such things as read faces and moods, adapt to the “games” played by most people, or be social when she is feeling anything but. There were a few exchanges in the book that I loved: At the library she has a co-worker who has been on the job three months longer than she has, and uses that as an opportunity to patronize Annika and question her use of her time. When Jonathan arrives at the library to pick Annika up for a date, the colleague steps up and introduces herself as “Annika’s superior,” and without taking a beat, Annika says to Jonathan, “She is not my superior, I don’t report to her. Where are we going for dinner?”

Sadly, I didn’t feel like Annika’s true plight in life was sufficiently exposed. There were moments that showed what traps a beautiful girl with no social cues is likely to encounter, as when a boy who purported to like her has invited her to his dorm room to make out while three of his friends watch. Her roommate Janice rescues her from this situation (and from others), but it didn’t feel like the incident registered at all with Annika. Likewise, when Annika innocently details for Jonathan her blow-up with another boyfriend, who takes her to her favorite restaurant and ends up publicly berating her because she’s so beautiful but “then you have to open your mouth,” Jonathan immediately grasps the full import of the moment, but Annika is simply happy to be back at a restaurant she always liked. These were telling scenes, but there weren’t enough of them, or of the smaller moments in life when autism comes up against the ignorance and/or bad behavior of so-called “regular” people.

I also found the character and personality of Jonathan rather bland. It was refreshing how he found Annika’s directness and naiveté endearing rather than irritating or off-putting, but Graves perhaps paints him as too much of a saint, without some of the more natural reactions to circumstances that the majority of people would have. I thought back to Graeme Simsion’s book, The Rosie Project, and the much more down-to-earth interaction between the precise, literal Don Tillman and the woman who finds him completely frustrating and yet engaging in his innocence and bewilderment about the social norms that escape him.

Despite some character deficits, however, I was completely into the relationship between these two…until the final events of the story. I’m not going to reveal them here, but my reaction was horrified exasperation with the author for using an outside drama to give her a conclusion instead of finding her own. For about 90 percent of this book, I would have given it at least 3.5 stars, but the ending dropped it down to 2.5! So I don’t know whether to recommend it for its merits as a refreshing look at the differently abled, or pan it for its clichéd ending. You will have to decide for yourself.

 

All about books

I accidentally found another book about books! It was also about a lot of other stuff, some credible, some fantastic, and most of it a little over the top. It is All About Evie, by Cathy Lamb.

I said, after my months-long dedication to Kate Atkinson’s convoluted mysteries interspersed with the literary but somewhat bleak novels of Jane Harper, that I wanted something fluffy; but fluff overwhelmed everything else in my first choice of 2020, and my second was a promising but ultimately disappointing one. This book definitely brought the fluff, along with some magical realism, but in this case it was fluff with which I closely identify, so the reading was a much more pleasurable experience.

EvieEvie lives on one of the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest, in a remodeled carriage house painted in my color schemes, stuffed with toppling towers of books and surrounded by a rose garden. She has many animal friends—the list includes dogs, cats, goats, sheep, horses, and alpacas—who live with her and keep her company. She has a bookstore in town, where she lectures people on expanding their minds by reading out of their chosen genre, and serves delectable pies and cakes and interesting kinds of tea while conducting book clubs for diverse demographics. She has a mother and several aunts who live nearby and who give her love and quirky advice and don’t smother her too much. In essence, it sounds like my idyllic lifestyle.

She also (here comes the magical realism) has premonitions. Some are good, some are horrifying. Some she can do something about, others she can’t fix no matter how hard she tries, and some she doesn’t want to alter because sometimes karma should be a bitch.

Cathy Lamb has definitely bought into the idea that the first line is everything in hooking her readers’ attention: Hers in this book is, “I knew she was going to be hit by a white truck.” (In the next book of hers that I decided to read, it is “I left my wedding dress hanging in a tree somewhere in North Dakota.”) In this way she introduces Evie’s premonitions. Evie sees a future for someone—you could rather refer to them as precipitating events—and feels compelled to act on her knowledge, and yet what do you do? Walk up to someone and say “Excuse me, please be late for work today so that scaffolding doesn’t fall on you and kill you”? Try that and see what happens. In Evie’s case, it taught her to be secretive, made her overly anxious most of the time (obsessively watching her surroundings for signs to determine when the premonition will manifest), and occasionally led to criminal acts such as locking her favorite librarian in her home so she wouldn’t get hit by a train, or risky behaviors like climbing up to the peak of a two-story house to fix some shingles so that her elderly neighbor wouldn’t try to do it himself and break both legs in the fall.

These premonitions are why Evie has buried herself in a small town, in a small bookstore, with mostly animals as friends—a lower incidence of premonitions than would hit her in the overcrowded press of the big city. These precautions have not eliminated her problems, but have certainly reduced them to be almost manageable.

Evie has only ever had one premonition about herself, and it’s about her death, in a car accident, when she meets another woman driver on a one-lane road on the edge of a cliff; but she never sees the ending. She feels like someone dies, but doesn’t know if it’s her or the other woman, and she has an odd feeling that she knows the other woman, although she’s never seen her before.

This leads us to an alternate narrator in the story, a pregnant teenager locked up for murder in Portland, Oregon in 1975, whose sole defense in her trial is that she “saw” her boyfriend’s father trying to kill her boyfriend, and the vision led her to a pre-emptive strike to prevent that act.

This alternate narrator also lets in a big dose of reality to this so-far quirky and not-so-serious story. The book turns out to have a darker vein of truth about misogyny and abuse of women and children, which is both powerfully handled and disconcerting as a contrast to the extremely lighthearted nature of most of the rest of the narrative. Setting these incidents against the backdrop of Evie’s aunts, who construct and wear fantastical hats on all occasions and do nude yoga on the beach, is sort of like when renowned magical realism author Alice Hoffman abruptly transitioned from 1995’s Practical Magic, with its witchy tequila-drinking women who could fly, to 1997’s Here on Earth, a tale of a twisted adolescent love that returns to poison the adults who participated in it. But Alice kept those in separate books. Lamb does not.

It didn’t make me dislike the book, exactly; but it did pull me up and make me wonder whether it was wise to try to pack it all into one volume.

There are some wonderful scenes, on both sides of the narrative. One that was a favorite was when a goth teenager came into the bookstore looking for yet another vampire novel, and Evie lost her patience and insisted that the girl read a memoir.

I pointed to the seats by the windows. “Sit. Open the book. Read it.”
“I have to meet my mother soon.”
“Text her. Tell her to come here when she’s done doing whatever. You have got to expand your closed mind and read about other people in this world who don’t bite necks and have long teeth.”

The other I particularly enjoyed was when the temporary police chief, who has decided that Evie should date him despite her patent dislike of him, attempts to intimidate her and gets owned by the townspeople, who all gather around him in the street to comment loudly and unflatteringly about his particular style of bullying and ask if he can’t get a date any other way. Both are wonderfully written; I just had trouble shoe-horning them into the same narrative.

I liked All About Evie well enough to try another, so I am on to Julia’s Chocolates (the one in which the wedding dress is abandoned in a tree in the first sentence). I’ll let you know my conclusions soon…

 

Big Library Read

From November 4th through November 18th, the e-book and audio book platform OverDrive, which supports digital formats in most library systems, sponsored what they called the Big Library Read. For this reading initiative, OverDrive selected a book and provided unlimited copies to all library customers to download for free, with no wait-list.

One thing I believe OverDrive is hoping to do with these kinds of initiatives is to get library users accustomed to the idea that if they check out a digital book, it returns itself to the library at the end of the lending period, so there are no late fees. Another incentive I have personally found appealing since I no longer work full-time and find myself increasingly reluctant to leave the house is that if you finish the book you are reading at bed-time and haven’t got another book lined up ready to go, you can hop on your library’s website at 2:00 in the morning, if need be, find an e-book you want to read, and 60 seconds later (unless it’s wait-listed) it’s on your Kindle or other device, ready to go. Even Amazon Prime can’t beat that.

notdyingThe book OverDrive selected for November’s Big Library Read was I’m Not Dying with You Tonight, by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal. The book looked intriguing to me, with its theme of race relations—I am always looking for new books with teen appeal to include in my Young Adult Literature class as examples of inclusivity and the outing of privilege. I liked the idea that the book was written from two separate perspectives, one black girl and one white, by two authors with diverse experiences dictated partially by race.

The book begins with newcomer Campbell reluctantly agreeing, under pressure from a teacher, to work the concessions stand at the Friday night football game. The teacher presents it idealistically as a chance to get to know others at the high school to which Cameron has just transferred—both the kids with whom she will work the stand, and the ones who come to buy—but Campbell has her doubts. She was sent to this school when her mom moved overseas for a job, leaving her to live with her dad, and it’s a different experience for her—the school is in a predominantly black neighborhood, whereas her last school had only a handful of black students. Since Campbell hardly knows anyone, the teacher assures her father—who is leaving that night to go out of town for the weekend—that she will drop Campbell at home after they wrap things up at the stand.

Unfortunately, things at this concession stand are neither planned out nor conducted in the same efficient way to which Campbell was accustomed at her old school, where she worked with a bunch of her friends. She is stuck with a couple of people who are patently not interested in being there (or helping), and the burden of the labor falls on her. As the line lengthens at the window and the increasingly desperate Campbell falls further behind, the people waiting begin to verbally abuse her.

Enter Lena. Campbell has seen Lena around school, but they know each other only well enough to say hi. Lena’s initial reaction to the milling crowd around the concessions stand is to tell Campbell to get her butt in gear, but she soon realizes that what’s going on isn’t Campbell’s fault. Then an altercation breaks out between a couple of people standing in line, and what begins as a minor food fight abruptly escalates. Lena jumps inside the stand with Campbell, and they decide to just ride things out in there…until shots are fired. Lena’s cell phone is dead, and Campbell’s is in her backpack in a classroom far from where they are, so they can’t call for help. This is the set-up for a night of escalating violence and chaos in which Lena and Campbell have to rely on and trust one another to get themselves out of this mess, which has turned into a town-wide race riot.

I liked this book, but…it felt like something was lacking. It will be a winner for sure with teen book clubs (and maybe some adult ones too), because there are so many things to discuss—the precon-ceptions, the white and black perspectives, the differing attitudes, the connectedness (or lack of) to the community, the whole boyfriend thing (to what lengths will I go to keep my man), etc. But I almost felt like it was written specifically with this purpose in mind—to provide lots of fodder for a discussion group—and not simply as a novel.

There’s no real story arc; it’s more of a slice of life-type thing, with documentation of two girls’ experiences of the same events over the course of one night. It’s intense and fast-paced, and keeps you reading, and it’s not bad…but I think I would have appreciated it a lot more had there been more development, more interplay between the girls, maybe even some continuity beyond this one night. There wasn’t enough “there” there. People have been citing this as the natural follow-up book to The Hate U Give, but while it focuses on some of the same issues, has great characterizations, and raises lots of questions, it’s not a STORY the way that book was, and that’s disappointing. While I wouldn’t turn you away from it, if you want a more comprehensive treatment of these issues I’d say to read The Hate U Give, On the Come Up, How It Went Down, or Lies We Tell Ourselves instead.