Marie’s Reading: “New Boy” by Tracy Chevalier

new boyNew Boy: Or, Much Ado About a Pencil Case.

I kid.  Kind of.

New Boy is Chevalier’s entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare Project. Hogarth has commissioned novelists to retell selected works of Shakespeare.   This is a retelling of the story of Othello, and while knowing that adds a fun layer to the story, you can also enjoy it all on its own, on its own merits.

Here’s the set-up: Osei, a diplomat’s son from Ghana, relocates to Washington D.C. in the early 1970’s. He makes an immediate connection with Dee, a white girl from a strict household.  Ian, the class bully, takes immediate offense at this newcomer for a lot of different reasons, and decides he’s going to bring him down.  Mimi, Ian’s girlfriend and Dee’s friend, finds herself in the middle as an unknowing pawn in Ian’s scheme.

The action takes place over the course of one school day, from playground to lunchroom and back.  The stakes seem a lot higher when all of the events play out over a single day.  It’s also a nice choice given the age of the characters–for a sixth-grader, school is your life, and the schooldays really are packed with drama.

I love how immediately engaging the writing is.  There’s a simple clarity to the prose, one that allows the characters to shine.  It’s also nice that the adults are all on the periphery, so that the young characters can exist on their own terms, with their own concerns and issues.

This isn’t just a retelling of Othello.  It’s also a commentary on the themes of the story.  Here, the racial climate of 1970’s America hits home for a reader in a way that a Moorish Venetian general in Cyprus might not.  And since the characters are pre-teens, the raw emotions and overreactions play a lot better than they might otherwise.  It’s awfully hard to map such a tragedy onto a bunch of kids, and some moments work better than others, but it’s still a good effort. The ending, though different, offers a suitable shock and a feeling of nothing really being resolved.

Chevalier has interpreted the characters in her own believable way.  Their motivations and desires all ring true, both in the context of this new story and as interpretations of the characters presented in Shakespeare.  Definitely worth a look!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman

EleanorEleanor Oliphant is fine.  Completely fine.  Or at least, that’s what she tells herself, when the loneliness starts to be too much or when she has yet another awkward encounter with another person.  As quickly becomes clear in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Eleanor Oliphant is not completely fine.

Eleanor is in her early thirties and she lives a solitary life.  She’s held the same office job for almost a decade.  She gets a weekly phone call from her volatile mother.  She’s socially inept, with real difficulty reading cues and interacting with other people.  She keeps to a strict daily routine and her weekends are a blur of vodka-haze.  Day after day, week after week, this is Eleanor’s life.

Until one day when she and a co-worker happen upon an elderly stranger who needs assistance.  From there, Eleanor’s routines are upended, and she suddenly has plans for the future and more human contact than she’s used to.

There’s a dark layer in this book that I wasn’t expecting.  Eleanor’s got a terrible, sad secret in her past, one that is uncovered as the book goes on.  She’s solitary and disconnected for a good reason.  However, this darkness makes the light at the story’s end that much brighter–there’s real weight and import in Eleanor’s growth as a person.  She’s not quirky.  She’s struggling to cope and to heal.

Which does not mean that she isn’t fun to read about.  This is a very amusing book, and extremely heartwarming, too.  There’s catharsis and change, but there’s also always a sturdy friend and hope for the future.  Her voice is original and perfectly individual.

Eleanor’s relationship with Ray, the scruffy IT guy from her office, is gold.  Ray is a kind, affable guy, and his patience with and affection for Eleanor is great to read about.   Their friendship shows how much kindness can make a huge difference.

If you liked The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, or A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, give this one a try!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Burntown” by Jennifer McMahon

BurntownJennifer McMahon’s latest, Burntown, feels like a return to her classic form after The Winter People  and The Night Sister.  It’s an intricate mystery with just the hint of the supernatural around the edges, filled with well-drawn characters and well-crafted scenes.  And the writing is compelling as ever.

This time, the supernatural comes in the form of speaking to the dead and having visions.  The reality of both, in the narrative, is taken as a matter of course–but the reader can decide how much the characters themselves inform what they believe they see and hear.

The story is this:  Eva’s father is professor named Miles, who as a child witnessed his mother’s murder.  He is an inventor who builds a machine which can supposedly allow people to talk to the dead, based on plans smuggled out of Thomas Edison’s laboratory.  One night there’s a terrible storm and flood, and only Eva and her mother escape alive.  But from there the two of them live on the streets.  Eva doesn’t remember anything about what happened to her father and her brother, Errol.  After her mother’s apparent suicide, Eva is left alone.  And then, in a series of violent ways, her mysterious past starts to catch up with her.

Two other characters’ paths cross with Eva’s eventually.  There’s Theo, a high school senior who has been selling drugs to please her girlfriend.  There’s also Pru, the overweight cafeteria worker at Theo’s school who has dreams of the circus.  Those are the primary players, but there’s a web of relationships in this Vermont town.  The intricacies of their relationships and the unexpected ways they all connect and influence each other is nicely done.

The setting, a down-on-its-heels mill town in Vermont (those on the street call it “Burntown”), feels very realistic if you’re familiar with broken-down mill towns in northern New England.  McMahon sets many of her novels in Vermont, and she’s got a gift for painting a picture of the landscapes and people, both good and bad.  There’s a very strong atmosphere and sense of place in her books.  In Burntown, you always have the feel of being in a ruin, in the underbelly.  Sometimes literally, as when the story focuses on a group of women who live under a bridge and claim to have visions.

I always enjoy the people in McMahon’s books, particularly their motivations.  She can craft characters who seem very real, whose desires and impulses and secrets ring true.  In this story I particularly enjoyed Pru, with her outsize fantasies and her happy ending.

The ending to Burntown, if not entirely happy, is at least hopeful.  It ends with a wonderful image that, to me, summed up the book very well.  The climax and reveal of the mystery wasn’t a huge twist or anything, but it rang true.  But then, this is more a story of the strange than it is a thriller, so it works.

If you’ve read and enjoyed McMahon’s books in the past, definitely check this out.   And I’m always reminded of Sarah Waters when I read McMahon’s work.  If you like Burntown, you might enjoy The Night Watch, for the intricate relationships between characters and the setting, London during the Blitz, as well as the compelling writing and great characters.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The Shadow Land” by Elizabeth Kostova

shadow landKostova’s latest, The Shadow Land, is about an American woman named Alexandra who travels to Bulgaria to teach English.  On her first day there, she accidentally comes into possession of an urn filled with human ashes.  Inscribed on the urn is a name: Stoyan Lazarov.

Alexandra befriends a taxi driver named Bobby, and the two of them set off to return the ashes to Lazarov’s family.  From there they learn more and more about Lazarov, who was a violinist who spent some time in a prison camp in 1949, as well as his family.   They also find themselves embroiled in the current political scene in Bulgaria–and all the possible threat that could entail.

The narrative goes back and forth from focusing on Alexandra, who is still dealing with the death of her brother, to the stories of the people they meet, finally to Lazarov’s time in the labor camp.  It’s an extremely rich and layered book, one that gives you time to absorb the characters and their stories.  The examination of the prison camps and the dark background of Bulgarian politicians after the fall of communism is particularly heartbreaking.  Kostova’s author’s note at the end is worth a read for the background she gives.

Kostova’s writing is elegant and immersive, but never gets bogged down, even with all of the storylines going on.  Her word choice is perfect and each sentence is extremely well-crafted.  The scene she sets is the next best thing to a trip to Bulgaria.

The Shadow Land is an engrossing, absorbing story with a rich sense of place.  Give it a try if you’re in the mood for an enthralling read with lots of layers and a cast of fascinating characters.

–Marie

 

 

Marie’s Reading: “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries” by Kory Stamper

WordByWord_BSRbooks_040417Absolutely hilarious and endlessly informative, Word by Word is a pleasure to read–particularly if you love words!

Stamper, a lexicographer who works at Merriam Webster, talks about the nature of her job, the history and usage of dictionaries, and shares great anecdotes.  It’s witty, nerdy fun, and written with a whole lot of passion for words and language.  The behind-the-scenes tour of a dictionary definition is a fun peep behind the curtain of dictionary-making.

What I especially love about this book is how Stamper emphasizes that the role of the dictionary is to show us how language is actually used (with citations to prove it!).  The dictionary is always evolving and being updated, reflecting the culture and the actual usage of phrases and words out in the world.

And English is a super-unruly language to wrangle with, as Stamper notes.  The image of the English language as an incorrigible kid toddling home wearing someone else’s socks and its undies on its head is the best example of her vivid imagery, by the by.

On a personal level it was fun to see how many similarities there are between what a lexicographer does and what a library cataloger does.  This quote, from the epilogue, really spoke to me:

Lexicography is as much a creative process as a scientific one, which means that good lexicography relies on the craft of the drudges at their desks.  Lexicographers will frame their work as “an art and a science,” though we only throw that tired old coat over the bones of our work because it’s recognizable shorthand for saying that this thing–the act of creating a definition, sifting through pronunciations, conjuring Proto-Indo-European roots, ferreting out dates of first written use, rassling with language–isn’t just a matter of following a set of rules.

Stamper goes on to note that writing a dictionary entry is invisible work.  No one ever considers that a person, an educated, experienced person, must sit down and craft a dictionary definition.  She might as well be talking about a library catalog record. Or perhaps I flatter myself.

If you enjoy A.J. Jacobs’ books, you will probably find a lot to like in Stamper’s work.  Her style is accessible yet deeply intelligent, and her love for her work comes through on every page.  Language is a living, breathing, ever evolving thing, and lexicographers are there to keep track of it.

–Marie

P.S.
This is dumb, but I’m scared that Stamper will find this post and will judge my style and usage and word choice. 😦

 

 

Marie’s Reading: “All Our Wrong Todays” by Elan Mastai

274050062016 wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Tom knows.  He’s from the way the future is supposed to be: a techno-utopia free of want and war, where all material needs are provided for and the only industry left is entertainment.  However, his life kind of stinks.  His mother is dead and his father is a jerk, and Tom himself is a hopeless schmuck.  It’s down to his really, really stupid decision to go back to the past that history changed, the technology never materialized, and the world is what we’re used to.

And wouldn’t you know: Tom’s life in the wrong 2016 is awesome.  Much better than what he left behind.  Swiftly his dilemma becomes whether his wonderful family and life are worth the countless billions who were erased and the society that never was.

Like the best science fiction, All Our Wrong Todays has plenty of social commentary and ethical questions. But it’s such a refreshing change from dystopian fiction.  Particularly since, in this book, the reality that we know is the dystopia.  We have to kill plants and animals for food.  There’s pollution everywhere and we just keep making more.  Every technology we invent seems to do more harm than good, despite our best efforts.  Tom is shocked when he sees the conditions of our 2016.  Even though his world had problems, they were not on so grand a scale.

Tom is a great narrator, a totally directionless screw-up who seems incapable of changing.  Endlessly self-involved and self-deprecating, Tom’s emotional and personal arc over the course of the story is a rewarding one.  He finds himself cast in the role of hero by the end of the story, commenting on the fact that he suddenly  has a purpose and a duty.  Besides, he’s pretty funny, so that helps the narrative along.

I also really appreciated the optimistic ending.  The future (and the present) is what we make it.  It can be whatever we choose.  We should make sure we choose well.

All Our Wrong Todays is funny and smart, action-packed and cinematic.  It’s also a slightly mind-bending romp through alternate realities and the fabric of time and space.

The Martian by Andy Weir would be a great readalike for this, as would Dark Matter by Blake Crouch.  If you like the humor and cinematic writing style, you could try The Intern’s Handbook by Shane Kuhn.  You could also try The Man In the Empty Suit by Sean Ferrell, about a selfish time-traveler who has to solve his own murder.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Girl Waits With Gun” by Amy Stewart

cover_girl_waits_with_gun_amy_stewartI’m a little late to the party on this one.  But I’m so glad I finally arrived!

Girl Waits With Gun is based on real people, and tells the story of one of the first female deputy sheriffs in the United States.  Her name was Constance Kopp, and she lived in Wyckoff, New Jersey.  One day when out in town with her sisters, Norma and Fleurette, a wealthy silk factory owner ran into their buggy with his car.  Constance’s attempts to get the silk man to pay a $50 repair bill swiftly snowball into a dangerous situation when the man refuses to pay up.  Throw in a gang, some gunplay, and a missing child, and then let Constance Kopp save the day.

This is the first in a series, and I’ve also just finished the second installment, Lady Cop Makes Trouble.  The second one builds on the first for sure, but it’s a great outing all on its own–Constance finds her job in jeopardy after a criminal escapes on her watch.  These mysteries are amusing and filled with great characters.  As mysteries both of these books are a nice blend of police work and the more amateur sleuth style, given how Constance is kind of in-between those two worlds.

The pace is quick and the writing is evocative. Stewart does a lot with just a few lines to bring a scene or setting to life.  These books are set in the 1910’s, and there’s just enough historical detail to add color and interest.  And the characters are very well-realized through the dialogue-driven stories.  Their relationships, particularly those between the Kopp sisters, are very well-drawn.  In Girl Waits With Gun we get Constance’s backstory, and that of her family, and learn how these sisters ended up on an isolated rural farm.

Constance is presented as no-nonsense and incredibly driven, and I like how matter-of-fact she is about her unorthodox (for her time) profession.  This real-life quote from Constance says it all:

“Some women prefer to stay at home and take care of the house. Let them. There are plenty who like that kind of work enough to do it. Others want something to do that will take them out among people and affairs. A woman should have the right to do any sort of work she wants to, provided she can do it.”

She’s good at what she does and she wants the opportunity to do her job.  That’s pretty much all there is to it.  I appreciate how Constance just gets on with things, and the story never gets bogged down with the social issues that it touches on.  These books are about Constance Kopp taking down criminals, and keeping you delightfully entertained while she does so.

If you want to learn more, Stewart’s website has some great background on the characters and on New Jersey/New York City in the 1910’s.  Check it out here.

And the third installment is due in September, so keep your eyes peeled this fall for Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions!

–Marie