The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood’s latest, carries all the hallmarks of her recent excellent works, especially the Oryx and Crake trilogy. Dystopian situation? Check. Strange, surreal hybrid animals? Check. Sharp social feminist commentary? Check.
Stan and Charmaine are a married couple forced to live in their car after a nationwide economic collapse. One day, at the dive bar where she scrapes in a menial income, Charmaine sees a TV ad that promises a new life, complete with a desirable job, comfortable house, and stylish clothes, to anyone who signs up. The catch? Every other month must be spent in a prison facility. Even with this caveat, the deal is a no-brainer to Charmaine. Soon, she and Stan are beginning their new lives in the town of “Consilience,” next door to Positron prison. How bad could it be? Famous last words of a dystopia, right?
Actually, not that bad, as it turns out. To me, the book almost felt like Atwood-lite. Where were the unsettling implications? The tone starts changing halfway through the book, becoming both more farcical, and almost exclusively fixated on sex and desire. If the book had begun with a “chilling” premise, the reader becomes decidedly un-chilled as the book goes on and the narrative becomes amusing instead of troubling. It even ends relatively happily.
Still, Atwood’s imaginative and darkly humorous prose and aforementioned sharp social commentary make pretty much anything by her worth reading, in my opinion. Lovers of either dystopian books or dark comedy should check this one out. So should die-hard Atwood fans, even if it leaves a little something to be desired.
Pub Date: July 2015
The case of Go Set a Watchman is a unique one to be sure, and the controversy surrounding its publication is intriguing. Written before Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, but chronicling events set after the events of Mockingbird, Watchman re-introduces readers to Mockingbird‘s iconic characters, except with a decidedly bleaker, more cynical tone. In other words, the rose-colored glasses of childhood are gone.
That said, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Watchman. Then again, I had never connected with Mockingbird all that much, and do not have much use for hero worship. As a reader, I always like the characters in my novels to be realistic and flawed. Also, I listened to the audiobook which featured Reese Witherspoon’s superb narration. In Watchman, we meet a grown-up Scout as she travels home to Maycomb Alabama from New York City, where she has been living. It is the mid-1950s, and the Civil Rights Movement is starting to gain momentum. Scout’s –Jean Louise’s–visit home to Alabama occurs shortly after the Brown v. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954. During her visit home, Jean Louise encounters her father at a meeting of segregationists who are disturbed by the growing influence of the NAACP in Maycomb and the rest of the South. The notion that Atticus Finch could be racist comes as a shock to Jean Louise, much as it will to loyal fans Mockingbird’s Atticus, who famously promoted Thomas Jefferson’s slogan “Equal rights for all, special privileges for none!”
Watchman hinges on Jean Louise’s realization about and growing disillusionment with her father and conditions in the South, the North, and the country as a whole. Again, the chance to defend a black man arises, and Atticus wants to take the case – but his reasons in 1954 at age 72 are much more complicated than promotion of “equal rights.” Through many arguments with her father; her beau Henry, a local Maycomb boy; her aunt Alexandra and her uncle Jack, Jean Louise is forced to dismantle the idyllic vision of Atticus that she has kept close to her into adulthood, and replace him with the older, more complicated version who nonetheless is a piece of her own soul. She confronts what, at some point, every child must: realizing that her memory of Atticus is really a memory of her childhood self.
Watchman is a shorter, tauter book than Mockingbird, with more nuance and a better reflection of reality. It is a product of its time, and Scout herself is not without her own racial prejudices, of course. The bulk of the book is the aforementioned discussions, arguments and struggles Jean Louise has with her family and herself, but happily, readers will also find anecdotes of the childhood Scout, Jem, and Dill, alive and well in Jean Louise’s memory.
I would recommend Go Set a Watchman to readers who are open to another side of a beloved story.
Finding this title was a serendipitous surprise for me. I was at a workshop with other librarians, discussing how to help library patrons find fiction they want to read. A librarian plucked this book from the shelf and used it as an example of how to give a book talk: in other words, how to draw a potential reader in by conveying a sense of the book’s appeal, preferably using as few words as possible. Well, it worked on me. Her one-minute book talk intrigued me enough that I checked it out and took it home that day. So Far Away had three major appeal factors for me as a reader: a local setting (Newburyport!), a rich storyline involving three different women in different time periods and how their lives intersect, and a librarian as a main character. (Really, what’s not to like?)
Moore, a local author, interweaves the stories of thirteen-year-old Natalie Gallagher, living in present-day Newburyport; Kathleen Lynch, an archivist living in present-day Boston; and Bridget O’Connell, a housemaid living in in Natalie’s house in the 1920s. Natalie, dealing with her parents’ recent separation, unearths a dusty old diary in her ramshackle old house. The diary appears to have been written by a maid who lived in the Gallagher house almost a century ago. Intrigued by the diary, and eager to focus on something other than the cyber-bullying at the hands of the popular rich kids that she has been dealing with, she makes the arduous journey into South Boston (no small feat for a middle-schooler) to enlist the help of Kathleen at the State Archives. Kathleen, who has her own family secrets, comes to regard Natalie as a kind of surrogate daughter, and starts to become wrapped up in Bridget’s story herself.
Moore deftly handles a variety of issues including class, bullying, divorce, and the fierce love between parents and their children. The novel is geared toward adults but would have significant appeal for young adults as well, as Natalie is a very relatable character. If you enjoy novels about Massachusetts, the 1920s, or relationships, give this one a try.
The Boston Girl is the newest offering from local favorite Anita Diamant, author of the bestselling The Red Tent. Here, Diamant serves up another fascinating slice of historical fiction, her preferred genre.
In 1988, Addie Baum, born in 1900, has been asked by her granddaughter how she became the woman she is today. Through this simple and somewhat contrived but effective framing device, readers of The Boston Girl are treated to a tour of early-twentieth-century Boston through Addie’s eyes. Addie, spunky and intelligent, tells stories of growing up as a first-generation Jewish girl in Boston’s North End; of summer adventures at Rockport Lodge in Rockport, MA; of friendship, falling in love, and familial tribulations of her youth and young adulthood. The book is laid out in a straightforward fashion: Addie’s stories more than carry the narrative and are satisfying throughout.
We were lucky enough last month to welcome Ms. Diamant to speak here at the library. She addressed a crowd of 150 as she answered questions about the book and offered interesting facts about the history behind the fictional story, such as the background of the real Rockport Lodge, and of real conditions in the North End in the early 1900s. Diamant’s comments added more layers to Addie’s story. All in all, The Boston Girl is a mild, mostly sweet, yet still intriguing, inspiring and emotionally satisfying coming of age story that has massive appeal to many different kinds of readers.
Pub Date: October 1995
The Orchard is our 2015 A Book Grows in Topsfield title. A Book Grows in Topsfield is the name of the Topsfield Town Library’s Community Read, in which we encourage the entire community to read the same book at the same time, hosting book discussions and events related to the book along the way. A Book Grows in Topsfield kicked off on Friday, March 13th with a wonderful cabaret concert featuring music of the 30’s at the Gould Barn.
Tomorrow, March 26th is our first book discussion of The Orchard. Everyone is welcome!
A patron compared reading Robertson’s The Orchard to “running your hands over smooth velvet.” That was her assessment of Robertson’s writing style, and I thought that was beautifully put. Adele “Kitty” Crockett Robertson’s memoir about running her family’s apple orchard during the Great Depression is filled with straightforward but poetic prose, descriptions of hardship, monetary and otherwise, and anecdotes of the colorful characters she met along the way. Robertson is a natural storyteller and you get the sense that she lived a full life and must have been even more entertaining in person. Indeed, the Foreword and Epilogue–written by Kitty’s daughter, Betty Robertson Cramer, the one who discovered and published her mother’s manuscript posthumously–are just as interesting as the memoir itself. I wanted to know more about Kitty’s life, even after The Orchard.
The best part of choosing The Orchard as a Community Read title is that it truly is about our community, or at least, a very nearby community. Several patrons who have already finished this book have come in and remarked that they are familiar with the farm portrayed between the pages. Robertson, an Ipswich native, penned this memoir between 1932 and 1934, a couple of the worst years of the Depression. Not only do the themes of sacrifice, hard work, and general bleakness certainly resonate today, but being able to visit and look at the same landscapes as Kitty make this a special Community Read.
We hope you will be able to join in a book discussion or another event for A Book Grows in Topsfield!
In the midst of this bleak, gray winter wasteland, I decided to read…a novel set in the post-apocalypse. Am I a masochist? Possibly, but hear me out. Was this a relentlessly bleak and depressing reading experience? Actually, not at all.
Station Eleven, the debut novel by Emily St. John Mandel that was a National Book Award finalist, seemingly does the impossible: it’s a beautiful, plausibly-rendered and yes, uplifting novel about the end of life as we know it due to a flu pandemic. But this novel is also about relationships, acting and theater, celebrity and the specter of fame…you know, our everyday concerns in our mundane, pre-apocalyptic world.
In the novel’s opening scene, we meet Arthur, a famous actor currently appearing onstage in Toronto in a production of King Lear. Suddenly, Arthur collapses onstage, suffering a heart attack. An audience member hurries onstage to administer CPR, but it’s too late – Arthur has died. Coincidentally, that same night, a Russian plane carrying passengers infected with a deadly flu virus lands in North America. Soon, 99% of the theater-goers in Toronto and the rest of the world that night will have something in common with Arthur – they’ll be dead.
Station Eleven is about various people connected to Arthur in the years before and after the flu pandemic. The audience member who lept to Arthur’s rescue is Jeevan, an ex-paparazzo-turned-EMT who shares a history with Arthur. He manages to barricade himself in an apartment after being warned by a friend. Kirsten, a child actress onstage with Arthur in the King Lear production, also manages to survive. Twenty years later, Kirsten is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a nomadic theater troupe traveling landscape that has been drastically altered by the flu pandemic.
The novel jumps back and forth in time, and I appreciated this framing device. Large portions of the book focus on Arthur’s life, his prior marriages, how he became interested in acting. Woven in with those portions is the story of Kirsten’s life with the Traveling Symphony, and the challenges presented to them. It was almost like reading two different books, except that Mandel kept enough threads running between the two different worlds that it worked beautifully. And, I found it realistic – after all, if a flu were to befall us next month, that does not mean celebrity gossip, social media, and all the petty things that sustain us day-to-day never existed. Mandel does an excellent job bridging those two worlds.
One of the things that I found most refreshing about Station Eleven is its lack of judgement regarding the flu pandemic and the collapse of society. Mandel does not spend her time dwelling on what society may have done to cause the pandemic, how it may have been prevented, etc. The flu–and subsequent wipeout of 99% of humanity world-wide–simply happens, and the lives of a few people are examined decades after, and decades before, this event.
Fans of dystopian, post-apocalyptic and futuristic fiction will undoubtedly enjoy Mandel’s debut, but even if this type of fiction is not your usual thing, check this one out. Mandel has created a world that is at once chilling, hopeful, and above all, recognizable.
We Are Water was the TTL Thursday Night Book Club selection for January 2015. This book generated a great discussion!
The TTL Book Club is a library-sponsored book club that is open to all. We meet every other month and take a break for the summer. Our next meeting date is March 26, 2015.
We Are Water is an ambitious – and lengthy – novel by the acclaimed author of She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True. In it, Wally Lamb has created a saga focusing on the Oh family in Three Rivers, Connecticut, that spans several decades and deals with racism, divorce, gay marriage, the NYC art world, natural disasters, murder, and familial abuse, among other things.
The story opens with a somewhat confusing and tangential account from a venerable local artist. (This character is never heard from directly again – he is connected to the story, but it’s not immediately clear how.) It then unfolds from the point of view of all five Oh family members – Annie, a newly famous shock-artist about to marry her art-dealer girlfriend, Vivica; Orion, divorced from Annie and a psychologist at a turning point in his career; and their three grown children Andrew, Ariane, and Marissa, all with varying problems and prejudices of their own. Annie, Orion, and Andrew get the largest narratives, while Ariane, Marissa and a few other supporting characters round out the chapters.
Lamb’s take on the Oh family and the small town they call home is engaging, if a little too ambitious at times. It almost feels like he was trying to write three different novels: one about the dissolution of Annie and Orion’s marriage and Annie’s new-found discovery of herself; one about the long-term effects of various forms of domestic abuse; and one about the persistent culture of racism that exists even in the years immediately following the election of an African-American president.
Scattered focus notwithstanding, where We Are Water truly benefits is in Wally Lamb’s gift for character development. Lamb has worked with and taught writing to incarcerated women, and his empathy for the down-trodden shines through in his characters. His gift for characterization is especially evident in his portrayal of Orion Oh, a man who is coming to terms with many things in his life, not least his family’s deep emotional scars.
We Are Water is a thought-provoking book that encourages discussion on a variety of topics. It may be just the book to sink your teeth into during these long, cold winter days.