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… More
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.
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.
I’m guessing I am not the only one who’s experienced a weird new inability to stay engrossed in a book. Or maybe I am? In any case, I can never quite tell if it’s me, the book, the situation. I know that the level of stress the whole pandemic is putting everyone under feels like it’s steadily eroding my higher functions, and I am not sure how to manage it. To me, falling deeply into a book is one of the best things there is, and I miss it.
Some things work: like with exercise, I guess, starting really light. I mean really light, a very frothy silliness. But that’s not foolproof. Going with something really good can help (thanks, The Glass Hotel!), but I don’t think that means it always works. Because I don’t really think it’s the book’s fault—it’s not you, Mexican Gothic, it’s me.
It’s a weird and scary feeling, how I imagine the beginning of losing any skill feels. Something like, Wait—I can’t throw a baseball anymore? (Note: I never could throw a baseball. Or football. Or anything.)
I’m wondering if something drastic is needed. A purge, a fast, a feast—something. Does anyone have any brilliant ideas?
So, I went out and bought…well OK, that’s not really true. Ahem. Let’s try that again.
So, since my beloved local bookstore allows curbside pickups but nothing more these days, given our collective Covid-19 trauma, I went online and bought a bunch of books, thinking that since my workload is generally lighter in August (no Faulkner jokes, please!), and we were going to try to vacation, a pile of books was the way to go. Here’s what I got:
I managed to hold off on reading ANY of them until we arrived at the appointed relaxation place (relaxation ended up something we had to really work for, given some unexpected cancellations of campus living, sharks, sudden illnesses and so on). I started with The Need, which was smart and creepy and clever, but not…profoundly engaging.
Even so, I still had the rest, which I splayed out on the couch with my accomplices. We deployed the old “page 101 technique”* and started with The Only Good Indians. Which was really, really strange and good and well-written, but it turns out I can’t go with the horror for real. I am, it seems, more of a “horror-lite,” person, which sounds terrible and probably is, but I wanted to give it to you straight. The book took one dark turn, and I went swimming and took a few deep breaths. And then I came back, and I was OK, until it took another dark turn and…that was it. It’s on the shelf in my house, waiting for me to become stronger. This may never happen.
But we knew, from our page 101 test, that the other book that passed the page 101 test, that flew along swiftly on the wings of powerful prose, was City of Girls. Which I did not read next. Why? I think, probably, it had to do with the title. And it’s by Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love. She wrote a smart and lovely novel called The Signature of All Things. Which I enjoyed! So why did not go ahead and read it? I think there is some deeply ingrained misogyny in me, telling me to read something that was not about girls.
All of which is to bring me to: I began reading City of Girls once I was back in my regular house, sweating unpleasantly in my living room while we tried to figure out how we were going to make everything work even though nothing works, and…it was wonderful. So much fun. Delightful! Fizzy and fast and knowing, just a pleasure. How long has it been since I read anything that was such a pleasure? I don’t even know, but I do know that I stayed up reading late late in bed, and I wish us all that kind of lovely distraction from all the ills and sorrows of this poor old world.
I know my former readers are scattered to the winds, and that the blog has changed its time and place and address. I hope to be here for a while, and for those of you still here, I hope you are all well.
And if you have ANY books that are a pleasure, let me know in the comments! We could all use them right about now.
* The page 101 technique, about which I once wrote a blog post that I can no longer locate, involves reading page 101 of a book as a test to see whether you will enjoy it. Skips the sometimes misleading polished prose of page 1 and the spoiler situation of the back cover. Try it! (And I will try to find that post.)
(Image courtesy Etsy BuyTheDress)
So. It’s been a summer, hasn’t it? Truly, I have felt moved to post a whole bunch of times. There’s something about that old Covid-19 that really connects to children’s literature for me. It feels invented out of A Wrinkle in Time, but slant: a dire threat, and the only way we can survive isn’t to fight for our own lives, but to try to save others from being sick—except humanity might not up to the task if it means thinking about other people.
I hope any and all of you reading this are relatively healthy, relatively sane. Here at blog HQ in Brooklyn, NY, it’s been a ride, and will continue to be one.
What else can can I tell you? It turns out that the level of stress is a magical way to figure out what kinds of books you truly love. Like a magical stone (that I, of course, can’t remember the name of right now) it will reveal all. Here’s how:
Try to read a book. If you keep putting it down, it cannot save you, and you must let it fly free. But! If you fall deeper and deeper in, until the ceiling hangs with vines and the walls become the world all around (thanks, Maurice), then it is the kind of book you must continue to seek out, because it is the only thing (as far as I can tell) that will save you. Quarantine reading must be without shame or showing off, only with the hope of sanctuary (or at least, you know, a bit of fun).
So, some books you might think about:
The Broken Earth Trilogy, by N. K. Jemisin (Chestnut, for you old-timers, LOVED it.) Crazy feminist sci-fi, apocalyptic but not our particular apocalypse.
The Last Widow by Karin Slaughter This was just the kind of silly hero action I needed—like a blockbuster movie but without the toxic masculinity.
The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman I thought I had read all the old guy mysteries. But I had not, and this was perfect and strange and wonderful.
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel Oh, so mournful and quiet and compelling. I wish I could unread it so as to read it again for the first time.
I hope you are all fine. I hope you are finding ways to support your bookstores and each other. I hope I write again soon with more books that are transporting.