No one’s a hero

What does it mean to believe in God? What does it mean to believe in another person?

Phoebe has gone missing, and her boyfriend (ex boyfriend? it’s unclear) is looking for her. They are both college students; he has recently lost his faith in God, she recently lost both her mother and her piano dreams. They’re both at a small New England college and they meet.

But then she gets involved with a group that’s a little intense. Phoebe is Korean-American and the group leader spent time in a North Korean gulag. The group (cult?) starts out being about helping the North Koreans but turns into something very different.

And then things happen. The Incendiaries is a slim little novel that felt much bigger. Definitely recommended.

Why are all detective stories based in the 1930s?

Murder at the Flamingo was a promising start to a murder mystery series. There’s enough set-up so that you understand who the protagonists are and where they’re coming from. (Maybe too much? It could have done with being slightly faster paced.) But the mystery is still intriguing. I stayed up too late one night because I just wanted to know who did it already.

DeLuca has chronic anxiety – not something you normally see in a dapper 1930s detective – and Van Buren is a lovely heiress who’s decided she wants something more from life than being a lady who lunches. She is definitely a bit stereotypical, but I still liked her.

I’ll look for the next one when it comes out.

Good vs evil makes a fun read

I totally read Vicious because I liked the Shades of Magic series. I liked Vicious, too – the idea behind the book is that superheroes exist and two college students (one of whom is named Victor Vale – an ideal comic book name) figure out how to turn themselves into superheroes. But something goes wrong and instead of becoming heroes, they become supervillains instead.

And that’s really all you need to know going into it. They’re friends and then they become supervillains and it’s a good story. It’s not intellectual, but it is fun and it invites you to think about the nature of good and evil, but only if you really want to.

It’s the Alaskan version of magical realism

I spent most of my last two weeks on vacation in Alaska. It was lovely: cold and wet and we spent lots of time outside and saw snow and wildlife and learned about native plants and animals.

In Ketchikan, I visited the local bookstore and bought a copy of To The Bright Edge of the World – what better thing to read than a book about the place you are?

We follow two stories in To The Bright Edge of the World: Colonel Allen Forrester and his initial explorations of Alaska for the United States government in the 1880s, and his new wife, Sophie Forrester, who was supposed to go with him until she found out she was pregnant. The book starts out with magical realism: Raven is the trickster god of Alaskan Native culture and features as a character, but the book is also very much grounded in reality.

I like how it captures both the struggle and romanticism of life in cold, barren Alaska. I also like how Sophie, stuck in Vancouver, Washington, changes as a person while her husband is gone.

Definitely recommended.

Don’t f*** with Circe

Madeline Miller collects the myths that mention Circe the nymph, gives her a backstory, and then puts it all into a very entertaining story.

If you remember Circe at all, it’s probably because you know her as one of the obstacles Odysseus had to face before he could get home (though, Calypso is the nymph with whom he dallies for seven years, not Circe). Circe is known for turning Odysseus’ men into pigs. In this telling, she still totally turns them into pigs – who knows what a bunch of hungry sailors are going to do to a woman living alone on an island. A woman has to defend herself, after all. But the story is more nuanced than that; she changes them back eventually and they use a hidden cove on her island to repair their ship over the winter, when it is usually too dangerous to sail anyway.

Overall, Circe is portrayed as a nymph who has been rather unjustly exiled to live on an island in the middle of the ocean, where she teaches herself magic from the herbs there. She makes friends with the animals – it’s very Cinderella in that way, now that I think about it. People and gods come to visit her over the years, and she’s even once allowed to leave the island for a particular task.

Circe is a woman who has been allowed to fully realize who she is and what she wants and figures out how to get it. It’s wonderful.

Recommended.

Unexpectedly relevant

I read The Secret History about a million times in college. To this day, I’m not sure why I was so obsessed with it.

When the weather turned, it seemed like a good time for a re-read. The characters were much the same: so obsessed with finding some ancient Greek definition of beauty that they’d lost all their morality. Donna Tartt’s description of   the New England fall and winter were still lovely and haunting and they made me want to spend all my time at a small college in some tiny Eastern state.

What I wasn’t expecting though, was the parallels between Bunny, the tragi-comic character who drives much of the plot, and Donald Trump. They are both bumbling, in over their heads, cruel in a way that doesn’t realize its full consequences, utterly insistent that the world is the way he sees it, and charming (according to Maggie Haberman, Trump is captivating in a one-on-one setting in a way Obama never was). It made it kind of hard to read in spots, honestly.

That parallel made The Secret History surprisingly relevant – I got insight into our current president and the people around him in a way I was not expecting from a book published in 1992.

Recommended, and not just for nostalgia’s sake.

Why add a romance when it’s not needed?

After I finished At the Water’s Edge, I found myself wondering what makes a book a romance novel? Because this book has a lot of the trappings of one, including:

  • a heroine seeing the world for the first time,
  • a neglectful (at best) husband,
  • a sexual awakening,
  • someone who turns out to be secret royalty (reader, I rolled my eyes).

But I wouldn’t call it a romance. Why? Because it’s not about the romance – it’s about the heroine, her crappy childhood, where it got her, and then her adventures (for lack of a better word) making her realize that people have just been using her her entire life. The romance feels tacked on at the end, as though her editor or publisher insisted that there be a romance to draw people in. It would have maybe been a better book for not squishing it in.

I found her journey from neglected wife along for the party to an actual friend with caring relationships compelling. A romance with an underdeveloped character didn’t need to be tacked on.

Different families get different kinds of stories

Different kinds of families get different kinds of stories in books. A family drama about a white family is probably upper-middle class, there’s probably someone who’s traveled overseas, and there’s probably lots of “finding yourself” type rhetoric. And there’s something to be said for that. Figuring out who you are and what you like is important.

But this is not that kind of book. This is a family drama about an African-American family. There are three generations and they are all poor. All the adult men in the story have been to prison. Racism weighs heavily on them. The father in the story is white; his father killed the man who would have been his brother-in-law. He has only met his children a handful of times; his parents haven’t met their half-black grandchildren. He is the one the mother and children travel to pick up from prison when his sentence is complete.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a heavy book. You can feel the weight of the generations of racism on everyone. The 13-year-old boy is definitely figuring out who he is, but it’s not in a fun lets-go-see-the-world kind of a way. That kind of privilege is absent here. Instead, it’s about learning to take care of your people and understanding who your people are.

Recommended, but schedule a party or something afterwards.

Responsibility and relationships

I picked this up because I thought it would be fun and gossipy about a family, both today and two generations ago. Alas. It wasn’t.

It’s not that The Necklace was terrible, per se. It just wasn’t for me.

It’s about a love and what it means to go find yourself and how your relationships may or may not make it through such a journey of self-discovery. And is it selfish to take time for yourself, to figure out who you are and what you want? I mean, now it’s not, what with our extended adolescences. But it definitely used to be kind of a problem. What if you didn’t want to get married at 18? There’s a dude in this book who travels around the world to find himself, but expects his lady friend to wait at home for him. (To be fair, he does offer to marry her and bring her with, and she’s the one who demurs.)

This one is going to end up in one of the local free little libraries.