The Best Thing

Remember when I wrote about middle grade books and (essentially) altruism, and how we don’t seem to be able to do things on behalf of others any more? Well guess what? A lovely bookstore is proving me so happily wrong!

They are offering the prize of a lifetime subscription of books—but you have to nominate someone else! I can’t quite convey how wonderful I find this. You can nominate anyone, and how gratifying would it be if they won? I find the whole thing a balm in these trying times.

Go ahead, do it, I wish I could do it every single day until the election.

Good Old World War II

I’m currently reading The Alice Network, and I’m finding it incredibly reassuring, despite its harrowing reality. I mean we’ve got war, betrayal, Nazis, inhumanity, poverty and famine. Trouble, no? But you know what we also have? A clear and agreed-upon enemy. Shades of gray, sure, but always with the awareness and omnipresence of Good and Evil. It made me think of Dory Previn’s Play It Again, Sam. It’s a record my parents had, and I loved it, the craziness of all her songs. But that one? That one is hitting me hard right now.

I mean, there are books like All the Light We Cannot See, which play out amid Nazism while trying to hold on to the humanity of all involved—even the Nazis. But generally, and rightly of course, books that even tangentially touch on Nazis, or Germany in WWII, do so with a clear understanding that Nazi ideology is the very essence of wrong, bad, evil. Of course that’s reassuring right now, when that same ideology is running rampant and we all seem to be in one of those dreams where you’re trying to scream and run, but your legs can’t move. Maybe, too, these WWII books are great because they remind us that there used to be things that we all agreed upon.

I haven’t finished The Alice Network yet. But it is offering my an oh-so-welcome respite these days. Play it, Sam/Play it for me/Take me where I want to be/Back to you, and good old World War Two/I just can’t face today.

Oily, Sweaty, Dirty

Taste is somehow both subjective and objective, forming a Venn diagram I need to understand better, something that looks at where “my cup of tea” overlaps with “this is really good” or “bad.”

For reasons I don’t fully understand, I often feel guilty about my taste in books—sorry when I like something (I shouldn’t like this so much!) and when I don’t (clearly this is good, I am just being unkind). I try to walk the line, but this guilt feels like a gravitational force warping my perception, sometimes to the point where I don’t even know what I like anymore. Except in one area.

The sweaty book (or movie!). This is something I know I do not like.

I should back up: definitions, please! A sweaty movie (or book!) is one that focuses intently on dirty, sweaty, smelly, grim, miserable crap. Think pores clogged with dirt, and miserably unhappy people speaking bitterly to one another, drinking (cheap, warm, bad-tasting) beer. No one enjoys anything. Everything is filthy. Everything smells. Sort of like instead of rose-colored glasses, shit-colored ones.

The problem, of course, is that much of life is not entirely rose-colored. And saying it’s “not your cup of tea” (as I am pretty much doing here) is saying that a whole swathe of life is something you don’t want to read about. Which I don’t feel great about. And yet…ugh. I have no answer for any of this.

But if you suffer from this affliction as I do, let me warn you off Mostly Dead Things. Truly the epitome of the sweaty book.

This Time It’s a Great Trilogy!

We are all (I think?) looking for a great book right about now, hoping to take our minds and hearts somewhere else entirely, even if it’s just for the 15 minutes before we fall asleep.

Note, this does not mean “escapism” exactly. Or maybe it does? I mean, if you want another reality, it’s hard to call it anything but escapism. And yet, that doesn’t necessarily mean something sweet and light will heal your aching soul. What might? This trilogy by Ben Winters: The Last Policeman.

There is something so comforting about the trappings of genre—the searching to solve a mystery, the creepy opening of a scary book. If I were going to go off on a half-baked theory (and why not?), genre is comforting because it gives the reader the sense that the universe is, in some small way, predictable. And my favorite thing is when a genre explodes outward from itself—think Kate Atkinson or Emily St. John Mandel—holding on to the skeleton of the form while also breaking inside the reader and surreptitiously reaching her heart. (Ooh, tortured metaphor, but I think you follow me.)

Anyway, this trilogy does exactly that: begins with the tropes of a mystery police procedural (sort of) and then ventures farther and wider and deeper.

Of course, if you are allergic (or even resistant) to police procedurals or mysteries or genre itself, move along. This won’t be your cup of tea.

But if you, like me, read the search for the missing person at the beginning of a book and just slide into it as into the proverbial warm bath? This is an incredibly humane group of books for you. And there are three of them! I only wish I hadn’t read them for the first time already—this is exactly the trilogy I would want for myself in these rough waters of time.

A Math Thing

You know that terrible feeling that you’re aware of a wide swath of problems but you can’t do anything about them? And that’s really difficult, because the problems in question are real and immediate and affect the health and well-being of people and, let’s say, the planet?

What if you could focus on problems that were, instead, interesting? That didn’t have life-or-death solutions? And how about if you could talk about these problems with your kids?

Which is a VERY long-winded way of saying that maybe you want to check out Mage Merlin’s Unsolved Mathematical Mysteries. Especially if you happen to have a person at home who is, perhaps, online learning for some reason. It’s got pictures! Stories! Something to take you away from all this!

I had a book like this as a kid and I still think about the puzzles in it (though, no, I didn’t break through and solve any of them, but maybe you or your kid will!).

This is like the reading version of the Lost Chord (did anyone else have to play this as a kid? Did anyone else spend an embarrassing amount of time trying to find it? Just me?).

PS: If you do solve any of these, or find the lost chord, let us know! We will be delighted.