Friday, November 15, 2019

These Shallow Graves

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly (2015)

Jo Montfort is the daughter of a wealthy family in late 19th-century New York and her life is totally planned out. When she graduates from finishing school she'll marry Bram Aldrich, a plan that's been in place since they were children. But when Jo's father is killed, allegedly while cleaning his revolver, she suspects there is more to the story. So she starts digging, enlisting the help of reporter Eddie Gallagher, medical student and morgue employee Oscar Rubin, and a pickpocket called Fairy Fay. Following the long and winding trail of clues, Jo learns that there are more secrets in her family's business than she could ever have imagined and people who will go to any lengths to keep that information hidden.

As is the case with most heroines in novels, Jo is different from many other girls of her age and class. She wants to be a reporter like Nellie Bly, but her future has no room to pursue her own interests. The idea of marrying Bram isn't awful - they've been friends their whole lives and he's a genuinely good guy - but it doesn't excite her. Now, Eddie Gallagher excites her. She knows they can't have a future together unless she is willing to dash the hopes and dreams of both her family and Bram's, who have been long looking forward to uniting. She is trapped between what she wants and what is planned for her future, but right now she can't think about anything else except uncovering the web of lies and murder she has discovered. No matter how many warnings she gets from her uncle Phillip or from Eddie, she is compelled to keep looking.

Along the way she meets a young ruffian named Tumbler and a picketpocket her own age named Fay, both of whom Eddie knew growing up, and who work for a guy named The Tailor who provides them with food and shelter as long as they steal for him. He's compared to Fagan in Oliver Twist, but it hardly needs to be pointed out, the similarities are so glaring. There's even a scene in which Fay gives Jo a lesson in picking pockets that is almost straight out of the Dickens novel. I can't decide if it's a charming homage or a rip-off.

This isn't the only unoriginal part of this story, and I found some aspects of it completely predictable. For the intended audience of teenagers, though, I don't know if it would be. Presumably they haven't read lots of other stories yet that follow some of the paths this one does. Still, it was enjoyable and fun. I loved how Jo and Fay's friendship developed, and especially the conversation they had one night about their lives and freedom while walking over the Brooklyn Bridge and smoking. Their lives were so different it was difficult to understand each other in some ways, yet they both yearned for the same things and were both trapped in different ways. I liked Jo's ambitions to be a reporter, and how her knowledge of Nellie Bly helped her later in the book, and the way she struggled with the idea of marrying Bram, which wouldn't be terrible, but still not what she wanted. How hard was she willing to fight against a fate that was not bad, but only ok? This was a much better story than those in which young women are set to marry mean men they hate. Jo's life with Bram would be a comfortable one, and possibly even happy.

I've read a number of books by Jennifer Donnelly including the Tea Rose series and, most recently, Stepsister. While this book was maybe not as good as the others, I am happy to read anything she writes. She brings her historical settings alive, creates compelling characters, and always keeps me immersed in her stories.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (2008)

I'm really pretty late to this party. This novel came out years ago and was very popular and I don't know why I never read it but it was probably because the title is so twee? But something made me add it to my To Read list recently and I ended up grabbing a copy when I was looking for something historical and cozy.

Just after WWII ends, an author named Juliet is casting about for a book idea when she receives a letter from a man named Dawsey Adams on the island of Guernsey. He came across a used copy of a book that used to belong to Juliet (and had her name and address inside the cover) and wrote to her to ask if she knew what else the author had written. He also mentioned a literary group on Guernsey that started up during the war, which intrigues Juliet so much that she asks for letters and stories from other members of the group and, eventually, goes to Guernsey to meet them all. The novel is told through letters between Juliet and the inhabitants of Guernsey, her friend Sophie, her editor, and various other people.

It was all very charming, though also filled with pain as so many of the characters were at the beginning of recovering from the war. Notably absent was Elizabeth McKenna, a member of the Literary society and mother to a young girl named Kit whose father was a German soldier. Elisabeth was caught harboring a prisoner and taken away and nobody yet knows what happened to her.

The characters were all quite delightful and Juliet quickly came to love them and their home. During the course of the book, before she leaves London for Guernsey, she is courted by a publisher whose name I've already forgotten, but it's clear from the beginning that he's not right for her. He's all about fancy dinners and flowers and parties and is completely uninterested in her newfound interest in the people of Guernsey and their stories. You can guess early on who she's actually going to end up with, which isn't a criticism, but my real criticism is that it came about so abruptly. They pined for each other in silence and then in the course of one page they declared their undying love with no buildup whatsoever.

But the romance wasn't the important part of the book, and I did quite enjoy getting to know all the characters and hoping that Elizabeth would stay there after completing her book research. There were a lot of funny moments and some very sweet ones, and all in all it was satisfying. I don't think I loved it as much as most people (it was a bit twee) but it was fun and a good choice of reading during a weekend when I was sick.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Life's Work

Life's Work by Dr. Willie Parker (2017)

A fundamentalist Christian from the South, Willie Parker became an ob/gyn doctor. For a while he didn't perform abortions, but after being inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s interpretation of the Good Samaritan, he focused his career entirely on providing abortions. His philosophy is that he should be helping women who need it without judging them, and given how few doctors there are in the South who will perform abortions he now spends all his time there, traveling from clinic to clinic.

I was struck by a number of things while reading Dr. Parker's story. One was his complete and utter devotion to his work. Despite being legal and upheld by the Constitution, abortion remains controversial and a target, which means that Dr. Parker is also a target. He has had colleagues who perform abortion and have been murdered for it, or whose families have been threatened. This is one reason, he says, why he has not married or had children. I do wish he had talked a bit more about that because I didn't get a sense of how much of a sacrifice that was. Was he even interested in marriage? Did he avoid dating because of his job? It honestly sounds like he's so busy in his career that he doesn't have time for anything else.

Also, I was struck by his respect for women. He talks about how they know their own lives better than anyone else, and how by the time they get to the clinic (which is not easy, given how far some have to travel, and how hard it can be to scrape together the money) they've spent a lot of time thinking about their choice and he is confident that they're making the best decisions they can for themselves and their families. He doesn't question or judge those decisions.

There are situations, however, in which he will not perform an abortion. He won't do them after 25 weeks, but will refer the woman to someone who will. He won't do one if he thinks the woman doesn't actually want it, if he thinks she's being pressured by her partner or by a parent. Interestingly, he also won't do it if the choice is based on the gender or race of the fetus.

Another surprising thing about this book that I appreciated was that he explained the whole process of an abortion, which is something that nobody ever really talks about specifically. Although something like one third of women have had abortions, I imagine a lot of them go into it not knowing what to expect and for everyone else the whole process remains a mystery. It was good to see it all explained and know what is actually involved.

The book is about more than just his experiences; he also talks about political and societal issues. For instance, he is disappointed that the left has adopted the idea that abortion is always a sad, tragic choice. He feels like it doesn't do the pro-choice movement any good to assign such moral weight to a medical, practical procedure. He also talks about the fetishization of motherhood and children in our culture, and how we so often view birth as a miracle, when in fact it's just an ordinary biological process. This also only serves to fuel the anti-abortion movement. He feels that there's no intrinsic moral value to becoming a mother, or not becoming a mother. I totally agree with all of these views.

I found this whole book very enlightening and thoughtful and thought-provoking. I'm not very interested in religion, but I even found his religious evolution interesting. I can't help but admire Dr. Parker for his respect for women and commitment to justice. Many of us talk the talk about abortion rights, but he is really walking the walk. This is a great complement to another book I read not long ago, Pro by Katha Pollitt.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Heartbreaker

Heartbreaker by Claudia Dey (2018)

So it's 1985 and Pony Darlene Fontaine is the first of three narrators of this novel, the second two being a dog and a teenage boy. Pony lives in a place known as The Territory and nobody there has ever been outside except for Pony's mother, Billie Jean Fontaine, who arrived under mysterious circumstances. The book takes places over just a couple of days when Billie Jean goes missing, but it includes much more story than just two days worth.

The timeline can be hard to follow and it also gets a little difficult to keep everyone's relationships straight because they're all having affairs with each other and are also related to others in unexpected ways because of the affairs and the resulting secrets regarding who is who else's parents. I kept thinking something was happening in the present, but it turns out it was happening during some past event, or vice versa, which definitely affected my understanding of the story.

A lot about this book was confusing. This town was originally settled by a cult, but we don't know much about that cult. The people have some odd traditions and ways of speaking, which I assume is related to that cult that we know very little about. Also...ok, it's kind of a spoiler but it needs to be said: it doesn't actually take place in 1985, which I suspected from the beginning because nobody has contact with the outside world so how would they know about 80s trends and music? But it doesn't explain why they all have failed to keep track of what year it is. I mean, is it ALWAYS 1985? Or did they just restart their calendars in some weird year at some point? This is not explained and it bothers me.

At the same time, it's such a unique, unusual book that I can't help but admire this author's imagination. The traditions of the community are odd and mundane at the same time. The men all have nicknames given to them when they're teenagers or a little older, and those are the names they are always called afterward. Pony's father is known as The Heavy, and some of the other guys are Traps, Supernatural, Neon Dean, and Sexeteria. The girls wear necklaces with their names on it, and they are expected to own two tracksuits: one for inside and one for outside, but even the outside one is just for at home like if you're working in the yard. They always refer to coats as their "outerwear" and pajamas as "nightpants," both of which contribute to how stilted their language sounds sometimes. The teenagers all have to donate blood regularly, which is sold to the outside world and this is how the Territory survives financially. But they don't have any especially colorful beliefs about life, their origins, or the world.

There's tragedy though, so much tragedy. From The Heavy, who was burned badly when he tried in vain to save his parents and sister from their burning house, to the suicide of Pony's best friend's mom, to the death of a baby that is alluded to all through the book and about which we finally learn the truth near the end. Imagine living in a small, insular community where there are (almost) no newcomers and nobody ever leaves. You'll never meet anyone who you haven't always known.

In summary, I don't even know how to summarize my thoughts about this very odd book. I definitely enjoyed reading it, even though I didn't always quite understand what was going on, and it is certainly pretty different from any other book I've read. It's flawed, or maybe the flaws have more to do with my understanding than the book itself. It's hard to say. I'm sure this book is not for everyone, but if you want something really different, you might give this one a try.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Far From the Tree

Far From the Tree by Robin Benway (2017), narrated by Julia Whelan

Robin Benway has really outdone herself and I have no idea why it took me so long to check out this book, given all the enthusiastic reviews I've read of it in the last couple of years.

It begins with Grace, who accidentally became pregnant and gave her baby up for adoption, spurring her to seek out her own birth mother. Instead, her parents put her in touch with her biological sister, Maya, and the two of them find their older biological brother, Joaquin. Grace and Maya were adopted as babies, but Joaquin, now 17, has been in foster care the whole time. His current foster parents want to adopt him, but he's afraid of what might happen based on past experiences. Maya is also having kind of a rough time, dealing with her mother's secret alcoholism and her parents' unhappy marriage. But all three are stronger now that they have the support of their newfound siblings.

I loved everything about this book. All of it. The characters were amazing and imperfect and different from each other, and I loved how the siblings are in totally different family situations but understand one another fundamentally because they were given up by the same mother. It was believable how they all hesitated to share their deepest secrets with each other for fear of rejection. Most of all I loved how they were there for each other when it really mattered.

We started with Grace and I found her story the most painful of all, I think. She was viewed by Maya and Joaquin as a total good girl, and she probably was. She had supportive parents, did well in school, and never got into trouble. But when she became pregnant by her boyfriend Max, his parents made it clear that they wouldn't let her pregnancy - which they viewed as totally Grace's fault - get in the way of his future success. While Grace labored to have their baby, Max was being crowned homecoming king. He had a new girlfriend and everything was perfect for him. Meanwhile, Grace no longer had friends, the other kids called her "baby mama" and a slut. She knew that giving her baby (who she thought of as "Peach") to a more adult, stable couple was the right thing to do, but she also felt guilty and worried so much about what would happen to her. Her desperate need to find her birth mother was partly just so she could let her know that she is ok.

Each one of these kids had a great story, made up of bad luck and misguided decisions, and it was really fantastic to see how they came together and helped each other, and to see their joined story unfold. Julia Whelan is an excellent narrator and I was glad to see her name on this book. If you like teen books or books about sibling relationships I highly recommend this one, and I also suggest you check out Robin Benway's other books because they're all great!

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

To Be Taught, If Fortunate

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers (2019)

My excitement when I learned that Becky Chambers had a new book out quickly turned to disappointment when I saw that it was a novella. After reading the three thick books that make up the Wayfarers series I was hoping for another big story, and as someone who tends to enjoy short books I don't know why I was afraid it wouldn't be good. Spoiler alert: it was very good.

It opens with a plea to read it to the end. It's from an astronaut, Ariadne O'Neill, who left Earth fifty years ago with her crew. The other three are Elena Quesada-Cruz, Jack Vo, and Chikondi Daka. Their mission was to visit four habitable worlds called Aecor, Mirabilis, Opera, and Votum, and their communique is coming from the last one. What follows is the story of their flight and their experiences on all of those planets, and then at the end you get the explanation for why they are sending this missive, which of course I won't spoil for you but it is not disappointing. It is kind of open-ended, if you care about that kind of thing, and I am already sorta dying to know if there will be a sequel but mostly I just care that Becky Chambers writes more books about something.

I love reading books that contain alien life because it's so fascinating to see what comes of writers' imaginations. There was life of some sort on all the planets they visited, as they suspected, and I loved seeing them described. (Oh, if only there were illustrations!) The characters were great too, which is one of this author's strengths. They are pretty diverse in terms of sexual orientation and race, though it's not actually spelled out and is kind of irrelevant to the plot. Which I like because diversity should just be a thing that exists and not there for the sake of being diverse, if you know what I mean. If you want specifics, there was bi/poly/ace representation, and the racial diversity is obvious from (and only identified by) their names.

Throughout the book I kept wondering what the crisis would be. Like, they were just visiting these planets and making amazing discoveries and as much as I loved reading about this, it's not a story. I kept wondering when the actual plot would start. The conflict comes very late, and it's great!

I hope we don't have to wait very long for another book by Becky Chambers because her books are so imaginative and fun to read. Anyone who likes science fiction in the style of The Martian would probably enjoy Becky Chambers. If you haven't read anything by her, please consider it!

Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Way Home

The Way Home: Tales from a life without technology by Mark Boyle (2019)

It feels strange to be writing a blog post about a book that is all about stepping away from technology and getting in touch with the actual world, but it's one I want to recommend and if I had to tell everyone in person, it just wouldn't happen.

Mark Boyle moved to a smallholding in Ireland to make a life for himself in a way that was not damaging to the earth or to himself. Rather than working for someone else all day to earn money to buy things for himself, he spends his days working for himself. Gardening, foraging, hunting, chopping firewood, whittling, doing laundry by hand, making everything he needs himself. He's not alone - his girlfriend Kristy lives with him in his cabin and there's also a farmhouse on the property. They have a free hostel where people can come and stay to experience the same sort of life.

The book isn't a straight-up memoir; there are vignettes about the way he lives interspersed with his thoughts about technology, nature, and people. A third element, set apart by italics, is the story of Great Blasket Island, inhabited by people living the old ways until it was evacuated in 1953. He spends a lot of time thinking about how he lives and how he used to live, how everything he does affects the natural world, and how technology affects us. It's very thoughtful and introspective. When I began reading and realized there wasn't really a story, just fragments of story mixed in with thoughts, I thought I might not like it. But it turns out that his thoughts are so compelling and well-expressed, and his life so interesting, that I had no trouble at all. The bits about Great Blasket Island didn't hold my interest quite as well, but even that was fairly interesting.

Doing everything the hard way means that Boyle has thought a lot about the easy way and its cost. There's also a cost for him to do things slowly and painstakingly, but one of the results is that you make time for the things that are really important and don't bother with the rest, a lesson we could all probably stand to take to heart. When he was using social media he was, of course, in touch with people he never saw otherwise, but in his new life he relied on the mail. At first, his mailbox was stuffed and keeping up with it was overwhelming, but over time it dwindled, which was a relief. He says "Inconvenience is a great filter." In terms of producing food and making things that he needs, it also filters out those things which are unnecessary but which we wouldn't think twice about acquiring when it's easy or cheap. But those things have a large cost to the environment and to the people getting paid pennies to produce them.

Sometimes it can sound like he's pining for the "good old days" but he has very good points about where our attention is these days, the number of distractions, and how removed from the natural world we are. This would be a good place to mention the value of some of our modern developments like antibiotics, but we have misused and overused them irresponsibly and I'm allergic to most of them anyway so they don't do me any good. In Boyle's case, he says he hasn't been to a doctor in ten years which I think he's trying to attribute to his healthy lifestyle and I'm sure that helps, but not having health issues is also a privilege that allows him to take on this strenuous self-reliant lifestyle. He also complains a lot about government regulations, some of which I'm sure are ridiculous, but at other times he comes across a bit like he's criticizing something just because he doesn't understand it. This isn't a complaint about the book, just a way of pointing out that although I feel pretty convinced that he's on the right track, he's imperfect like the rest of us.

Surprisingly, my favorite thing about his life is that he doesn't have any clocks and never knows what time it is. I'm a total clock-watcher because, like everyone else in our society, my life is ruled by having to be at work at a certain time which means having to get up a certain time, which means needing to be in bed at a certain time. It's a kind of prison and I have often wondered what my days would be like if I could just go to sleep and get up and eat when I feel like it rather than when my clock dictates. I was so jealous of this part of his life, but I'll probably have to wait until retirement to experience it for myself.

Look, I could probably talk about this book and its related ideas all day. I haven't even touched on the meditative aspects of picking nettles, the way advertising invades our privacy by constantly forcing its way into our heads, or many of the valid criticisms he has about capitalism. There's just too much here. I've always been a little obsessed with old-timey ways of life and people who live off the land, so this is very much up my alley. He's got a nice bibliography at the end of the book and although I'm unlikely to pick up a copy of Deerskins into Buckskins: How to Tan with Natural Materials,  I'd probably be interested in Helen and Scott Nearing's Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World, especially since I've already read their memoir The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing's Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living and found it quite inspiring. I'm unlikely to go live in the woods and start making my own soap and whittling my own spoons, but I do hope to be more thoughtful about the way I live my life.