On Immunity: An Inoculation, by Eula Biss (Graywolf Press)

onimmunityOn Immunity: An Inoculation was one of the two nonfiction books at this year’s BEA Editors’ Buzz. At just about 200 pages, including the notes and acknowledgements, it is undaunting in length, which I hope will encourage even more people to pick it up.

Disease is defined as “any deviation from or interruption of the normal structure or function of any body part, organ, or system that is manifested by a characteristic set of symptoms and signs and whose etiology, pathology, and prognosis may be known or unknown.” But an obsolete use of the word disease is “lack of ease; trouble,” more like today’s unease. And disease certainly does make people uncomfortable: the idea of it causes mental and emotional discomfort, while its physical effects can range from undetected to uncomfortable to fatal.

Eula Biss wades into this uneasy territory, and finds companions in other writers, historians, philosophers, anthropologists, and doctors. During the writing of On Immunity, Biss – already a published author and essayist – became a mother, and she approaches the topic of immunity and vaccination from a mother’s point of view as well as a “citizen thinker’s” perspective. She acknowledges that all parents’ decisions – to vaccinate or not to vaccinate their children – come from the same desire: to keep their children safe. But it is better to make these decisions from a place of knowledge than from a place of fear, and knowledge is what Biss strives for, and shares, in this book.

Fears of vaccines do not seem easily quieted by an abundance of expert risk-benefit analyses assuring us that the good they do is far greater than the harm.

One of the first steps in the process of deciding whether or not to vaccinate is risk assessment, and yet humans are not as good at this as we would like to think. Biss quotes the historian Michael Willrich, who says, “Perceptions of risk…can be stubbornly resistant to the evidence of experts.” People engage in dangerous activities (e.g. driving, riding in, or walking near cars) every day, but the familiarity we develop with these activities dulls our fear of the associated risks. “The disregard for statistical risk,” Biss writes, “may be at least partly due to an unwillingness to live lives dictated by danger.”

Risk perception may not be about quantifiable risk so much as it is about immeasurable fear….When we encounter information that contradicts our beliefs…we tend to doubt the information, not ourselves.

Safe and dangerous aren’t as binary as we’d like to think, either; as toxicologists say, “the dose makes the poison.” But, Biss notes, “most people prefer to think of substances as either safe or dangerous, regardless of the dose.” I caught myself in this exact thought pattern a single day after I finished reading On Immunity, while I was reading about the ingredients in a multivitamin; it’s difficult to remember, but any substance, even water, can be toxic in large enough doses, and small doses of “dangerous” substances may be harmless.

If vaccination is a choice people make at the individual level (“allowing oneself to remain vulnerable to disease remains a legal privilege today”), it is also a choice individuals are making on behalf of the larger community in which they live. The author’s father Roger Biss, a doctor, explains, “Vaccination works by enlisting a majority in the protection of a minority.” The more people who are vaccinated and carry immunity, the safer everyone is from disease. Achieving a 100% vaccination rate in any given population is unlikely, but by aiming for that rate, we have a better chance of attaining “herd immunity.” Unfortunately, Biss discovers, “We know the threshold [at which herd immunity is lost], in many cases, only after we’ve exceeded it.”

Faced with too much information, or misinformation, some people choose not to vaccinate, threatening the protection that herd immunity confers. Yet refusing to vaccinate “undermines a system…in which both the burdens and the benefits are shared across the entire population.” Or, as the author’s sister notes, “The health of our bodies always depends on choices other people are making.”

Biss includes a wealth of references, both in the text and in the notes; she draws upon such various sources as Susan Sontag, Bram Stoker (Dracula), Rachel Carson (Silent Spring), and Jean-Paul Sartre, among others. While I read On Immunity, however, I was often reminded of a book she didn’t mention: Leah Hager Cohen’s I don’t know: in praise of admitting ignorance and doubt (except when you shouldn’t). In this slim, wise volume, Cohen – also a mother, and also a Hampshire College graduate – explores the question, “How should we make decisions when we can’t know what’s right?”

We have to make the best decision we can, based on the best information we can gather. After a careful examination of research an opinion from many sources, Biss concludes, reasonably, that vaccination is the choice that is best for the individual, and for society at large – of which we are all a part. This works to everyone’s advantage; after all, “No single person…has the genetic material to respond to all diseases, but collectively humans have enough genetic diversity for humankind to survive any disease.”

I received a galley of this book from the publisher at BookExpo America 2014. Quotes in the review above are from the galley, and may differ from the final copy. On Immunity: An Inoculation will be published on September 30, 2014.

 

Reading Roundup: spring, summer, and fall books

Between BEA, Edelweiss, NetGalley, and the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, I’ve gotten a chance to read several books ahead of their official publication dates this year, and they’ve all been excellent. This list is fairly fiction-heavy, but I have a few nonfiction titles coming up as well, so if that’s your thing, stay tuned.

stuckinthemiddleStuck in the Middle with You by Jennifer Finney Boylan (paperback: April 22, 2014)

Sometimes, the simplest, most innocent questions that people ask me can demand that I either lie or else have a conversation that’s much more intimate than I want to have, simply in order to tell the truth.

Boylan is the author of two previous memoirs, She’s Not There (2003) and I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted (2008). Born James Boylan, she had a sex change but remained married to her wife Deedie, parent to their two sons, Zach and Sean. Stuck in the Middle With You gives enough background so that readers who are new to Boylan won’t be lost, but focuses mainly on parenthood and family; memoir material is interspersed with interviews with many other people on the topics of gender, family, and motherhood vs. fatherhood. (I was delighted to encounter Tim Kreider, author of We Learn Nothing, in one of the interviews.) In conversation with Christine McGinn, Boylan seems to conclude that “males and females really are two different beings…but motherhood and fatherhood are social constructs.” She also concludes that her family is more similar to other families than different – and, for what it’s worth, she and Deedie are still together while many couples who got together at the same time are now separated. A great read for anyone who’s part of a family…which is pretty much everyone.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub (May 29, 2014)vacationers

Families were nothing more than hope cast out in a wide net, everyone wanting only the best.

The term “beach read” connotes something frothy and light, indulgent and not necessarily “literary,” but just because a book is set during a family’s summer vacation doesn’t make it a “beach read.” Straub’s The Vacationers certainly isn’t fluff: it’s a two-week-long snapshot of a family (and friends) whose members are all believably flawed: the husband who had an affair and lost his job over it, the wife who isn’t sure she can forgive him, the gay couple in the midst of a nerve-wracking adoption process, the son with hidden financial troubles, the son’s responsible-but-looked-down-on older girlfriend, and finally the youngest daughter, whose goal for the summer is to get laid so she doesn’t arrive at college a virgin. Straub writes about her characters with empathy and wisdom. I didn’t read her previous novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, but I may add it to my list now.

oneplusoneOne Plus One by Jojo Moyes (July 1, 2014)

Sometimes, she told herself, life was a series of obstacles that just had to be negotiated, possibly through sheer act of will….she could survive this. She could survive most things.

Jess and Ed both live in England, but they come from two different worlds: Ed is fantastically rich, thanks to some software he built with his friend Ronan, and Jess is scraping by, cleaning houses – including Ed’s – and bartending. This setup could easily tip over into cliche, but it doesn’t: Moyes creates fully rounded characters who are lovable but flawed, trying to do their best and making mistakes. Jess is trying to protect her ex-husband’s son Nicky from being bullied, and trying to figure out a way to afford for her daughter Tanzie to go to a nicer school where she can do higher-level maths; Tanzie has won a scholarship but Jess still doesn’t have enough to cover the rest, unless Tanzie also wins a competition. In Aberdeen. And Jess can’t really drive – so Ed ends up chauffeuring the three of them, plus Norman the dog. One Plus One is a satisfying romance that addresses issues of socioeconomic status and inequality.

landlineLandline by Rainbow Rowell (July 8, 2014)

“Lately I’ve been thinking that it’s impossible to know.”
“To know what?” she pushed.
“Whether it’s enough. How does anyone ever know whether love is enough? It’s an idiotic question. Like, if you fall in love, if you’re that lucky, who are you to even ask whether it’s enough to make you happy?”
“But it happens all the time,” she said. “Love isn’t always enough.”

If you have already read something by Rainbow Rowell (Attachments, Eleanor & Park, Fangirl), then you’re already waiting to get your hands on Landline, in which Rowell returns from YA to adult fiction. As always, she writes with a wonderful sense of humor as well as wisdom about what it’s like to be a person. Review | Additional quotes

secretplaceThe Secret Place by Tana French (September 2, 2014)

Some people are like that: everything comes out like a lie. Not that they’re brilliant liars, just that they’re useless at telling the truth. You get left with no way to tell what’s the real fake and what’s the fake one.

The Secret Place differs from French’s four previous novels in that the narration is split in two, with one half – from the perspective of Detective Stephen Moran – taking place over the course of one long day, and the other half filling in most of the back story. This is largely effective, though there are many threads to keep track of; readers are never too far ahead of Moran and his partner-for-the-day, Antoinette Conway, and there are plenty of leads that lead to dead ends. The case centers around a murder that occurred on the grounds of a girls’ boarding school; the murder went unsolved for a year, but a new clue has surfaced, brought to Moran’s attention by Holly Mackey, a student at the school. Soon, Moran begins to wonder if Holly was involved. As always, French has crafted a psychologically gripping, beautifully written, hard-to-put-down literary mystery.

stationelevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (September 9, 2014)

The more you remember, the more you’ve lost.

The world as we know it: Arthur Leander has a heart attack onstage while playing King Lear. Audience member Jeevan, a paparazzo-turned-journalist-turned EMT, jumps onstage to help. Child actress Kirsten Raymonde watches as Jeevan tries to save Arthur, but Arthur dies. Later that evening, Jeevan receives a call from a doctor friend, telling him about a fast-moving, lethal flu that has arrived in Toronto. He stocks up on emergency supplies.

Time had been reset by catastrophe.

The world in Year Twenty: Twenty years after the Georgia Flu has killed 99.99% of the world’s population, Kirsten is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a band of Shakespearean actors and musicians always on the move between small settlements. She’s also on the lookout for anyone who might know anything about one of her few possessions, copies of the first two volumes of a graphic novel called Station Eleven. When Symphony members begin to go missing, it seems as though Station Eleven might be leaking from the page into real life.

There have been several notable post-apocalyptic novels for adults recently (The Road, The Age of Miracles, The Dog Stars), but in my opinion this is the best. The author pays attention to the logistics of the collapse, but the characters are of primary importance: the way they deal with the post-flu world, the way they are all connected in a looping way that is almost reminiscent of the best time-travel novels. I only finished reading it a few days ago, but I think it will linger with me.

 

BEA 2014, Part One: When we love a book, we can’t stop talking about it

Thanks to Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes (perhaps better known as “the Unshelved guys“), I got to go to BookExpo America (BEA) for free this year. I built a schedule in advance with the BEA show planner, and ended up following the schedule pretty closely.

BEA14WedThe keynote on Wednesday afternoon, “The Future of Bricks and Mortar Retailers,” was focused on booksellers, but much of it could apply to libraries as well. Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, noted that there was a “real resurgence in indie bookselling,” and that “localism” was becoming a powerful movement (“Small Business Saturday” being one example). However, it’s still a challenge to convince customers to think of bookstores as places to buy e-books.

Michael Tamblyn, president of Kobo, acknowledged that the virtual browsing experience doesn’t (yet) match the physical, but that booksellers could be strategic about what books they stock in print. Romance novels, for example, sell better in e-book format, so it’s less important to have them on the shelves – just point customers toward the e-bookstore. Cookbooks, gift books, and picture books, however, are much more popular in print.

John Ingram, CEO of Ingram, said of digital and print, “it’s not either/or, it’s either/and.” Many readers buy both print books and e-books; this is supported by research from Library Journal. On the limited (thus far) success of bundling a digital book with the purchase of a print book, Ingram said, “Somewhere in there, there are economics that work for everybody.” Ingram also proposed that “each [bookstore] could be a publisher.”

Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover bookstore, had great advice about connecting to the community and attracting customers. Tattered Cover has 500-600 events annually, including storytime, author events, and “Book Happy Hour.” She recommended using media, including public radio and podcasts, to “be part of the story.”

BEA14_tatteredcoverOf course, the keynote wouldn’t have been complete without a dig at the ongoing Amazon/Hachette issue; indie booksellers “make ALL publishers’ books available all the time.”

BEA14buzz

Next was the BEA Editors’ Buzz. Robert Sindelar from Third Place Books in Seattle moderated a panel of seven editors, each of whom raved about one book from their list. Sindelar said he initially had a negative reaction to the word “buzz,” but said it connotes activity; “When we really love a book we can’t stop talking about it.” The best editors and salespeople, he said, are “cool, have good taste, and know how to talk about books.” All editors on the panel fit this description, and after the event there was a mob around the tables of galleys that resembled hyenas feasting on a carcass. (Note to the organizers: Spread the galleys out. Use more than two tables for a room of a few hundred people. Have an exit plan. Have signs. Encourage people to form lines. Etc.) Though the print galleys disappeared in a flash, e-galleys should be available through Edelweiss. Here are the titles and authors:

  • Jenny Jackson from Knopf called Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel “a requiem for the world as we know it.” This “plausible and terrifying” book, which she compared to Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, is about art and fame, and has already garnered positive word-of-mouth buzz.
  • Marysue Rucci from S&S described Matthew Thomas‘ ten-years-in-the-making We Are Not Ourselves as an “epic” of three generations of an Irish family in New York, a novel that describes “the great unwinding of the middle class” and “resilience in the face of disappointment.”
  • Lee Boudreaux from Ecco mentioned a slew of comp titles for The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, including Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, The Song of Achilles, Slammerkin, and The Signature of All Things. Suspense builds in this “dollhouse mystery” set in 1700s Amsterdam.
  • Jeff Shotts from Graywolf Press was aware of the irony of his last name when introducing On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss. This slim work of nonfiction addresses parents’ impulse to protect themselves and their children, as well as issues of race, class, and government, and the “far-reaching ramifications” of the “implications of vaccination.”
  • Amy Einhorn touted My Sunshine Away by M.O. Wilson from her eponymous imprint. Like The Help, My Sunshine Away is set in the South, and the story is inseparable from the setting. A debut novel and a literary mystery, My Sunshine Away is about adolescence, family, memory, and forgiveness.
  • Josh Kendall from Little, Brown admitted that author Laird Hunt was “not the new guy,” but that Neverhome was going to be his breakout novel. Hunt discovered a trove of letters in a family barn in Indiana, and those letters inspired this tale of a woman who goes to war in place of her husband.
  • Colin Harrison from Scribner closed the session with The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League But Did Not Survive by Jeff Hobbs, Peace’s roommate for two years at Yale. This is a true tale of poverty, race, education, drugs, murder, discrimination, and fate.

And that was just the first day. Stay tuned for more.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Some novels take place over the course of a day; some cover several decades. How much story is an author able to fit into 350 pages or 500 pages or 750 pages? How much they can develop their characters so the reader feels like they are real people? These questions point to the magic and the mystery of writing. A reader might pause on page twelve and wonder, How do I already know so much about these people? How did the author do that? Or the reader might be fifty pages in, thinking, Nothing has happened yet, but I sure do know a lot about nineteenth-century London. Some writers are economical; some are expansive. Either kind of book can be powerful.

storiedlifeajfikryGabrielle Zevin does a lot with a little. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is 272 pages, and it covers about sixteen years. A.J. is a widower and a bookshop owner on Alice Island; he has just told off a new sales rep, Amelia Loman, and is proceeding with his plan to drink himself to death when he discovers two-year-old Maya in his shop, accompanied by a note. Soon afterward, Maya’s mother’s body washes up on the shore, and instead of handing the baby over to social services, A.J. decides to keep her.

A.J. does the paperwork and jumps through the necessary hoops off-screen, as it were, leaving the reader to enjoy Maya’s non-christening christening party in the bookstore. Because of Maya, A.J. becomes involved in the life of the town in a way he never did before; though his wife Nic was an islander, A.J. himself was perceived as an outsider. He emerges from his shell, becoming friends with the remarkably kind and sensible police chief, Lambiase, and forging a relationship with Amelia. (Again, they surmount some practical obstacles – i.e., the inconvenience of her living on an island when her job involves so much travel – off the page.)

“Shelf-talkers” for short stories serve as section dividers. These are addressed not to the reading public, but to Maya; the reason A.J. is writing these becomes clear late in the book. Maya’s history is also revealed: Lambiase discovers it (along with the valuable copy of Tamerlane that went missing from A.J.’s apartment just before Maya’s arrival) not through detective work but when he begins to date A.J.’s ex-sister-in-law, Ismay, after the death of her husband.

The characters in The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry are at once easy to slot into roles, and more complicated than they appear. Books and stories play a powerful role in all of their lives, and there is a good deal of book-related wisdom throughout this novel, delivered with a light touch. “We are what we love,” A.J. finally concludes. Most people who love books (and especially those who have ever dreamed of living in a bookstore) will like this one.

 

Problem Novels or Resilience Literature?

speakLast month there was a snippet in EarlyWord that caught my eye; librarian Nancy Pearl interviewed YA author Laurie Halse Anderson. Anderson’s books, which tackle difficult but real topics such as rape (Speak) and eating disorders (Wintergirls), are occasionally targeted by those who wish to censor them. Pearl asked her about the “problem novel” label that is “often applied to books about teens dealing with real-life situations.” Anderson reframed the issue by calling these books “resilience literature” instead, “because the goal of the books is to help strengthen kids facing difficult situations.” I think that’s a beautiful and apt way to put it.

As my co-worker Rebecca wrote during Banned Books Week last year, “Books are safe spaces to experience new things. New thoughts. New ideas. Different points of view….Books teach us how to empathize with each other, how to stand up for the little guy, and how to recognize the bad guys in our lives….We experience strong emotion alongside our favorite characters – joy, catharsis, loss, excitement. Books are a safe way to learn about life, without all the painful bumps and bruises.”

There is a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.” Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Words are important, and labels are especially so. Anderson’s renaming “problem novels” to “resilience literature” is not only a more accurate term, it also casts these books, and the discussion surrounding them, into a more positive and constructive light.

Speak: Have you read books that fall into this category? What did you think of them?

“A letter always feels to me like immortality”: on letters and epistolary novels

Cross-posted at the Robbins Library blog, with minor modifications.

“A letter always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.” -Emily Dickinson, quoted in To The Letter by Simon Garfield

An epistle, from the Latin epistulais a letter: a composition in prose sent from one person to another, or from one person to a group of people. An epistolary novel is a novel in letters, a unique style of narration. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the first novel written in this way was Pamela by Samuel Richardson in 1740; Richardson employed the form again with Clarissa in 1748. Other authors began to write epistolary novels as well, including Goethe, who published The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774. And one of the most well-known epistolary novels is Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Acquaintances), which has been adapted into film more than once (Dangerous Liaisons in 1988Cruel Intentions in 1999).

Why are epistolary novels so compelling? One reason may be that they feel intimate. There’s the illegal thrill of reading someone else’s mail, but there’s also a first person voice, usually one character writing to another that they know well, or come to know well. The pace of the correspondence may heighten the suspense as characters – and readers – wait for a reply.

griffinandsabineMost epistolary novels are printed in the same way as regular books, but some go as far as to include actual envelopes and letters. Nick Bantock’s beautiful, mysterious Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence is one of these: Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem correspond in handmade postcards at first, then move on to longer letters, which the reader pulls out from an envelope and unfolds to read. (A word to the wise: there are six of these books. You may want to get them all at once and set aside a day or two to read them. You will want to know what happens next.)

guernseyOne deservedly popular novel in letters is The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, published in 2008. This book has had lasting appeal, and at least some of that appeal must come from the style in which it is written. The characters’ letters are direct, honest, funny, sorrowful, angry, heartbreaking, and romantic in turn. The reader feels as though she has direct access to the characters, without the authors as intermediaries.

attachmentsOther authors use a more traditional style of narration, but employ letters, journal entries, or – more recently – e-mails, text messages, and chats. A significant chunk of Rainbow Rowell’s first novel, Attachments, is told through two characters’ e-mail exchange – an exchange read by a third person, their company’s IT manager. Kimberly McCreight’s Reconstructing Amelia includes text messages and facebook status updates. The young adult favorite The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky is written as a series of letters from Charlie to an unknown recipient; Roomies by popular YA authors Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando also includes lengthy e-mails between the two main characters, high school graduates who are to be roommates in the fall.

lettersfromskyeOther recent epistolary or semi-epistolary novels are Letters From Skye by Jessica Brockmole, set in Scotland and America, and The Confidant by Helene Gremillon, set in France. These two novels don’t just use the contents of the letters to tell the reader a story; the letters’ discovery by other people becomes part of the plot. Letters are physical: they can be lost, delayed, delivered to the wrong address, or received, read, and tucked away in a drawer and forgotten until someone else comes along and finds them.

Letters often become a part of history, like journals, newspapers, books, and other documents. Simon Garfield’s book To The Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing provides dozens of examples of historical letters, from Cicero to Kerouac. Many biographies include a subject’s letters and journals (e.g. Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in LettersThe Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, and Jane Austen’s Letters). There is even a website, Letters of Note, that gathers fascinating letters from a variety of letter-writers, such as this one from Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) to his wife.

There are far more epistolary novels and excellent collections of letters than I have mentioned above. What’s your favorite? What are your thoughts on this manner of telling a story? And when was the last time you wrote (or received) a pen-and-paper letter?

“Men and women have been collecting letters since letters began. Unlike other collecting hobbies, philately say, or beautiful antique cars, the collecting of letters has always been a wholly natural endeavor. If you treasured what was said in a letter you kept it, and once you have three, you had a correspondence, and no one would accuse you of being a nerd or obsessive.” -Simon Garfield, To The Letter

Swash_ornament_zeimusu

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

landline

She had to call. You can’t just ignore a phone that calls into the past. You can’t know it’s there and not call.

In her three previous books, Attachments, Eleanor & Park, and Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell has demonstrated an ability to create characters that are as recognizable as real people. She has proven herself adept at writing all kinds of relationships – romantic and otherwise – for characters in high school, college, and early adulthood. In Landline, Rowell leaves the YA realm and returns to the adult world, delving into the marriage of Georgie McCool and Neal Grafton.

Georgie and Neal meet in college, marry at twenty-three, and have two children. Georgie works as a TV writer with her friend Seth, who has been her writing partner for longer than Georgie and Neal have been together. Georgie and Seth are on the verge of achieving their longtime dream of getting their own show, but there’s a catch: they have to have material ready in a matter of days. But it’s almost Christmas, and Georgie is supposed to go with her family to Omaha for the holiday.

Instead, Georgie stays in California to work on scripts with Seth while Neal takes their daughters to Omaha. Georgie’s mother and sister treat her as though Neal has left her, which is not what Georgie thinks has happened at all…or has it? Georgie begins to fall apart. She can’t get in touch with Neal on the phone, until she tries calling from the old landline phone at her mom’s house. Talking to Neal on the phone brings back old memories of their time in college, and the terrible week when they were broken up, before he drove twenty-seven hours back from Omaha to California and proposed to her on Christmas morning. Georgie can’t remember that week very well, but as she talks to Neal, pieces she didn’t know were missing begin to fall into place.

The plot hinges on two phones: Georgie’s dead cell phone, and the landline (a.k.a. the magicfuckingphone). I found the landline, where present-day Georgie talks to past Neal, much easier to go along with than the idea that a responsible adult with children would let her cell phone die as often as Georgie did. But that’s my one complaint.

Rowell has an incredible depth of understanding of her characters, and of marriage generally, but she also has a lovely light touch: there are plenty of funny, witty moments alongside (and sometimes during) the darker, bleaker ones. At one point, Georgie realizes that even though Neal is perfect for her, she might not be perfect for him; that “she wanted him more than she wanted him to be happy.” Throughout the novel, Georgie wrestles with big questions like these. She has always known what she wanted: a career in TV, Neal, and her kids. Neal has never really known what he wanted, except for Georgie. Seth adds another layer of tension to Georgie and Neal’s relationship: there’s no love lost between Seth and Neal, but they’ve maintained a tense truce all these years, for Georgie’s sake. Is Seth ready to break that truce? 

Readers may occasionally pause to dwell on issues of feminism. (Georgie wanted to take Neal’s last name, but he wouldn’t let her, because “You don’t come into this world with a name like Georgie McCool and throw it away on the first pretty face.”) In the McCool-Grafton marriage, Georgie is the careerist, the breadwinner, the busy one, while Neal is the stay-at-home dad; Georgie’s own sister points out that Neal would get custody in a divorce. But the novel doesn’t read like a book with an agenda; it only presents a scenario that is the reverse of the traditional one.

Rowell is as magical as her landline phone. Georgie and Neal’s marriage, with all its history and weight, comes through clearly: their good moments and bad moments, the joys and stresses, the selfishness and compromises. Georgie and Neal recognize that they may not be perfect for each other, that their lives might not “fit together,” but, as Neal says, “Nobody’s lives fit together. Fitting together is something you work at. It’s something you make happen – because you love each other.” Stranded half a country away from Neal and her kids, Georgie has to figure out how to make it happen.

I had incredibly high expectations for this book, and though high expectations often lead to disappointment, that wasn’t the case here at all. Instead, I was wholly delighted, and I think Rowell’s fans will be too. In fact, moving seamlessly between YA and adult, she’s likely to bring her old fans with her and attract some new ones as well.

I received an e-galley of LANDLINE from publisher Macmillan via Edelweiss. The expected publication date is July 8, 2014. Quotes in the review above are from the galley, not the final copy.

Intro to Historical Fiction

Cross-posted, with a few changes, on the Robbins Library blog. Links go to past blog posts or LibraryThing reviews. 

Recently, a friend asked me for some recommendations of historical fiction books. She said she had read a lot of historical fiction when she was younger (think A Break With Charity by Ann Rinaldi and Number the Stars by Lois Lowry), and had recently enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. She has also enjoyed historical fiction by Geraldine Brooks (March, People of the Book) and Colm Toibin. She expressed a preference for books about wholly fictional characters rather than fictionalized real people from history.

Using the above information as a starting point, here’s what I came up with:

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein: CodeNameVerityMarketed as a young adult novel, this book has earned rave reviews almost universally. I loved it for its journal-style narration; the friendship of its two main characters, captured spy “Verity” and downed pilot Maddie; and the fantastic plot twist. It is WWII fiction, but unlike much of WWII fiction, it doesn’t take place in Germany and doesn’t center around Jewish characters: Verity was captured on a mission from England into France, with Maddie as the pilot. The narrators on the audiobook are absolutely wonderful; there’s a lot of added value there, but the voices come through in the text as well. A wrenching, incredible book.

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly: anorthernlightThis is another young adult book, a classic coming-of-age story set in the Adirondacks in 1906. I find it difficult to imagine the reader who could resist sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey, who loves school and dreams of being a writer, but may end up sacrificing that dream to take care of her family, as she promised her mother on her deathbed. As an additional complication, there is a murder at the hotel where Mattie works – the same murder that inspired Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.

Astray by Emma Donoghue: astray_donoghueDonoghue has written historical novels and short stories before, but Astray is a standout collection. Each story is based on some fragment of historical truth, and Donoghue builds on these facts to create fully realized characters. Each story is preceded by its setting (time and place) and followed by a note about its inspiration. The audio production is stellar; I highly recommend listening to this book, because it makes the stories last longer. My favorite in the collection is “The Gift.”

Honolulu by Alan BrennerthonoluluHonolulu is excellent historical fiction: it sheds light on a little-known time and place in history, it has a compelling main character, and it covers several years without ever dragging in pace. The Library Journal review sums it up perfectly: “This sweeping, epic novel follows Jin from her homeland of Korea to a new life on the blossoming Hawaiian Islands. The year is 1914, and Jin is a “picture bride,” a sort of mail-order bride to a Korean man living in Hawaii whom she has never met. Not the wealthy husband she was promised, he is a poor laborer who treats her cruelly. Escaping her abusive husband, Jin must make her way in Honolulu, eventually finding love and stability…Seeing life through Jin’s eyes is a pleasure as she changes from a farm-bound, repressed immigrant girl to an outgoing, educated member of Hawaiian society…” There are also strong female friendships in this book, which is nice to see.

Losing Julia by Jonathan Hull: losingjuliaHonestly, it’s been over a decade since I’ve read this, but I remember really liking it; partly I found it refreshing (if that’s the word) to read a war book that wasn’t about WWII, though nowadays with the Downton Abbey craze we’re seeing more WWI fiction. Patrick Delaney narrates, focusing on three time periods in his life: his time as a soldier in WWI, ten years post-war, and his present situation in an old folks’ home. Hull’s description of war is graphic and immediate, and the love story is poignant and romantic without being sappy. I may have just talked myself into re-reading this.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. StedmanlightbetweenoceansSet in Australia after the Great War (WWI), The Light Between Oceans has few characters but a big impact. Soldier Tom Sherbourne takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on a lonely island. On a trip back to the mainland, he meets and then marries Isabel Graysmark; they live together on the island, alone and happy, until Isabel has a miscarriage, then another, then another. At the center of this beautiful book is a moral dilemma, and a love story. It’s thought-provoking, discussion-worthy, and its setting in a remote part of Australia is unique.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles:rulesofcivility I love this book for two reasons: narrator Katey Kontent, and the way 1937-1938 New York comes to life. I find it hard to believe this (first!) novel was written by an investment banker (with an M.A. in English from Stanford, but still), but obviously I shouldn’t judge; Rules of Civility (the title is from a pamphlet by the young George Washington) is a remarkable book. Katey is independent, well-read, serious, fun, and moral without being prissy. New York in the late thirties is a character all its own; if ever you were going to read a book for the setting alone, it could be this one.

Cascade by Maryanne O’Hara:cascade If Mattie Gokey was ten years older and was an artist instead of a writer, she’d be Desdemona Spaulding, nee Hart. Set primarily in Massachusetts in the 1930s, with a few scenes in New York, this is the perfect book for fans of A Northern Light. Dez faces the family-or-career choice that many women still face today. In O’Hara’s own words, “life is full of tough choices between less-than-perfect alternatives.” Readers may sympathize or disagree with Dez’s decisions, but no one could say they were easy ones to make.

Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum: thosewhosaveusThis is another WWII novel, one that alternates between WWII-era Germany and present-day Minnesota. I enjoy split narratives, and this one is easy to follow, but some readers prefer chronological narratives. The character in the present is Trudy, a history professor, and the character in the past is her mother Anna, who had an affair with a Nazi officer during the war. Anna has never talked to her daughter about her past, but Trudy is determined to find out what happened. This compelling book stands out among the glut of WWII fiction.

Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres: corellismandolinIt is rare to find a book that has moments of such humor (it begins with a doctor curing a man’s deafness by removing a pea from his ear) and scenes of such overwhelming horror, cruelty, and sadness; in fact, one of the most powerful scenes I have ever read is in this book, which takes place on the Greek island of Cephallonia before, during, and after WWII. Captain Corelli is a member of the occupying Italian army who falls in love with the daughter of the deafness-curing doctor. Yes, Corelli’s Mandolin is also a movie, but – as is nearly always the case – the book is better.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky: suitefrancaiseAs if we did not already have enough reasons to hate Nazis, here’s another: they have deprived us of volumes 3-5 of this book. Suite Francaise contains two parts, “Storm in June” and “Dolce,” but the author intended to write five parts; unfortunately, she was arrested, deported to Auschwitz, and killed before she completed them. However, Nemirovsky – who was born in Russia, but moved to France with her family when she was a teenager – accomplished a great deal in the first two parts of Suite Francaise. She captures the atmosphere of France during the early part of WWII: in “Storm in June,” people flee Paris as the Germans invade, and in “Dolce” German officers are quartered in French homes in a small village. Moral complexities abound, as difficulties bring out the best and worst in people.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society guernseyby Annie Barrows and Mary Anne Shaffer: Don’t let this long, tongue-twister title put you off; Guernsey is a delightful epistolary novel (a novel in letters), and at its center is Juliet Ashton, an English author looking for a subject for a new book. Set in England in 1946, Guernsey has a WWII story embedded in it, but primarily the reader sees the aftereffects of the war, both in London and on the island of Guernsey. If I were forced to muster up a complaint about this book, it would be that the characters, especially Elizabeth, are too perfect; but I’ve read it three times now (once on audio, which I recommend) so it’s not really a complaint at all.

And here are some historical fiction novels that do take real historical figures as their main characters:

Fever by Mary Beth Keane (“Typhoid” Mary Mallon)

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (Zelda Fitzgerald)

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin (Anne Morrow Lindbergh)

The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields (Edith Wharton)

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Thomas Cromwell)

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (Hadley Hemingway)

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan (Mamah Borthwick and Frank Lloyd Wright)

Above All Things by Tanis Rideout (George Mallory)

Best of 2011: Fiction (continued)

“I’ll be posting more soon,” I wrote (February 28, 2012). If we are going by geological time, I suppose nearly two years later qualifies as “soon,” but by normal human calendar time, I missed the mark a bit. Here is the final batch of read-in-2011 favorites, a continuation of this “best of 2011″ post.

Many of these books have gotten a fair amount of attention in the last couple years (Cloud Atlas was made into a movie), and some authors have published additional books since these: Hilary Mantel followed up Wolf Hall with Bring Up the Bodies, Patrick Somerville published This Bright River in 2012, Emma Donoghue published Astray the same year, and Simon Van Booy came out with the slender and luminous The Illusion of Separateness last year. Here, though, are my brief and belated roundups of some favorite novels I read in 2011.

everythingbeautifulEverything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy (2011): Having read Simon Van Booy’s short stories (The Secret Lives of People in Love; Love Begins in Winter), I was looking forward to his first novel, and it didn’t disappoint, although I think his style is best suited to short stories and novellas. Characters take precedence over plot in this story (except for one main event): the relationships between Rebecca, Henry, and George are the central aspect of the story. The setting – Athens, Greece – is also a character of sorts. Van Booy’s writing is poetic, and creates a mood that lingers even when you’ve put the book down.

goonsquadA Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010): This novel spans a few decades, stretching into the near future; sections are linked through loosely connected characters. Each section serves as a snapshot or cross-section of a time in a life, and the character’s interaction with others during that time. I enjoyed these sections on their own (many parts appeared in The New Yorker in advance of the novel’s publication) and would have gladly spent more time with the characters. However, I remember not liking the sections set in the future as much as the ones set in the past or present, and now that it has been a few years, I don’t remember the overall arc of the book.

cloud_atlasCloud Atlas by David Mitchell (1999): As impressed as I was with Goon SquadCloud Atlas blew me away. Structurally, the book is unlike any other I’ve ever read: like the eponymous “sextet for overlapping soloists” described in the novel (“In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order”), the book is made up of six sections, five of which are divided in half, with the sixth in its entirety in the middle of the book. The six narratives are so wildly different in setting, character, voice, and style that they could have been written by different authors, but a single theme emerges. Most readers will prefer certain narratives over others, but overall, the book is masterful, and David Mitchell’s genius is apparent.

wolfhallWolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009): Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII are two of the most popular characters for historical fiction authors, but Thomas Cromwell, who lurks in the shadows in most books, takes center stage (center page?) in Mantel’s. She describes his miserable childhood, his travels as a young man, and his rise to power with superb and engaging thoroughness, so the reader empathizes with the character completely. Wolf Hall has a strange grammatical quirk – every “he” or “him” refers to Cromwell, regardless of subject/object conventions – but this quirk was ironed out in the subsequent Bring Up the Bodies. I can’t wait for the third and final book, The Mirror and the Light, expected sometime in 2015. (Will it, too, win the Booker Prize?)

widowerstaleThe Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass (2010): Set in the Boston area, The Widower’s Tale may be Glass’ saddest book to date, but it is also one of her best. She weaves a web of interconnected characters, creates a beautiful and believable setting, and writes with emotional truth about the people she has brought to life – in this case, the Darling family, including retired librarian and grandfather Percy; his daughters, high-achieving Trudy and floundering Clover; and his grandson, Harvard student Robert.

room_donoghueRoom by Emma Donoghue (2010): A distinctive departure for Donoghue (Slammerkin, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits: Stories, The Sealed Letter), Room centers closely on two characters, mother and child, in a tightly circumscribed environment – the single, eponymous room. The reader gleans that the mother has been kidnapped, imprisoned, and raped, but her five-year-old son Jack knows none of this; the room is his whole world. When they manage to escape, the real world is a shock to both of them, for different reasons and in different ways. A novel premise, thoughtfully carried out.

cradle_somervilleThe Cradle by Patrick Somerville (2009): For better or worse, there wasn’t a tremendous amount of buzz about this book when it came out, so reading it felt like a wonderful and secret discovery. It is about the marriage of Matt and Marissa, who, facing impending parenthood, are reflecting on their own family histories. On the back of the book, Benjamin Percy wrote, “Like a magic trick, The Cradle will make you blink, chew your lip, try to figure out how he did it, how in the world Patrick Somerville managed to sneak this big, beautiful story of familial love into such a slender novel – a saga writ small, swiftly paced, intricately structured, precisely told.” Well put.

chroniclesharrisburdickThe Chronicles of Harris Burdick: fourteen amazing authors tell the tales (2011): I have long been entranced by Chris Van Allsburg’s illustrations, especially The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. Each illustration in this collection has a title and a caption that tantalizes the imagination. As the subtitle of this edition suggests, fourteen authors have taken on the challenge here, with one story per illustration (how did they decide who got which?). Each tale is magical and inventive; some are funny, some are dark. My favorites are “Oscar and Alphonse,” written by Van Allsburg himself, and “The House on Maple Street” by Stephen King. Great for most ages (10 and up?).

 

Best of 2011, Part the Third: Nonfiction

Some might say it’s too late to revisit favorite nonfiction books read in 2011, but I disagree, partly because I am intent on cleaning out my drafts folder, and partly because plenty of good nonfiction stands the test of time. Especially when that test is only three years. (Those who are interested in my other “best of 2011″ reading posts can catch up with the “prequel,” favorite young adult books, humor and baking books – separate categories, same post – and fiction).

As I’m now writing about books I read about three years ago and my memories of them are not comprehensive, my notes will be correspondingly brief, but I still remember and recommend the following biographies, histories, and memoirs:

Under the Banner of Heaven: a story of violent faith by Jon Krakauer (2003): Booklist calls this a “true-crime/religious expose, which delves deep into the heart of Mormon fundamentalism,” which sums it up neatly. Krakauer alternates between a history of Mormonism and contemporary Mormon fundamentalism. As always, he chooses a gripping topic and writes in a clear, compelling way.

unbrokenUnbroken: a World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (2010): Incredibly, for a book that came out four years ago, there are still holds on the library copies. This is an enduring work: an incredible piece of scholarship and research, written in an accessible and gripping way, with some truly stomach-churning scenes. Technically it’s a biography of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner in the 1930s and an airman in WWII who was shot down, spent over a month at sea, only to be held as a Japanese POW for the remainder of the war, but the story seems too big to belong to just one person.

The Devil in the White City: murder, magic, and madness at the fair that changed America by Erik Larson (2003): Larson’s book, too, remains popular more than a decade after its initial publication. He tells twin narratives: that of the Chicago World’s Fair architects, and that of the serial killer Henry Holmes. The year 1893 comes alive, both the “white city” and the “black city.” I had thought that the two narratives would eventually weave together and converge, and that doesn’t happen, but it’s still an excellent read – sometimes terrifying, filled with interesting details (did you know the Ferris Wheel premiered at the Chicago World’s Fair?), and never boring.

professorandmadmanThe Professor and the Madman: a tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (1998): The subtitle really sums it all up. The eponymous professor, James Murray, was the editor of the first edition of the OED, and the eponymous madman was one Dr. William Minor, an American doctor incarcerated in an asylum in England, and a significant contributor to the OED. Fascinating on a number of levels, and refreshingly brief at under 300 pages.

Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl (1998) and My Life In France by Julia Child (2006): Those who like memoirs and who are interested in food couldn’t choose a better book than Tender at the Bone. Reichl is a funnier writer than I expected, and I still intend to read her other books (Garlic and Sapphires, Comfort Me With Apples). Having said that, for those who like history and travel as well as memoirs and cooking, My Life in France is the book for you. Child is funny, observant, brave, and unselfconscious; I adored this book.

Life by Keith Richards (2010) and John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman (2008): If you are planning to read both of these books, read Lennon first; Norman’s book is packed with detail, thanks to his thorough research, but it is less lively and immediate than Richards’ Life. Partly the difference stems from the voice; Lennon is a biography, while Life is an autobiography, and Richards’ account has the benefit of being in his own words. He remembers far more than anyone could expect him to, and in addition to plenty of anecdotes, Life contains memorable lines like “I imagined everything. I never thought it would happen.” (The audiobook is great too.) The Norman is a bit drier, but it does contain plenty of early Beatles history, who-wrote-what-and-why bits, and perspective on the later years; while one can’t help thinking John was a bit of a jerk, Yoko Ono is presented in a way that even I can’t hate her (as I was brought up to do). On balance, though, Keith’s book is just more fun.

charlesandemmaCharles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman (2008): Biographies written for adults – especially biographies of such major historical figures as Charles Darwin – tend to be doorstops, which can deter those of us who want to learn about someone without, perhaps, learning every single thing about them that a biographer can unearth. Charles and Emma is written for a young adult audience, but it’s a wonderful book for older readers too. Heiligman chooses to view Darwin’s life through the lens of his marriage to his cousin Emma Wedgwood; she is a faithful Christian, and he is a scientist whose theory still sends modern Christians into fits (see: evolution vs. “intelligent design” in science textbooks). Their marriage is a microcosm of this debate that is still ongoing, but it is a thoughtful and respectful one.