Reader, I Married Him edited by Tracy Chevalier

Reader, I Married Him is a short story collection that borrows from the generalreader i married him premise of Jane Eyre.  The title phrase is in reference to the character of Jane Eyre addressing her reader from time to time within the narrative of the novel.

Even if you haven’t read Jane Eyre, but like the short story format, you’ll probably enjoy Reader, I Married Him.  Writers such as Tracy Chevalier, Lionel Shriver, Emma Donoghue, and others have crafted stories here that either stick closely to the theme of Jane Eyre, or contain elements of it but go off into their own universes.

In Joanna Briscoe’s “To Hold”, a twice-married woman falls for another, then marries still another, a union of fate as it were, or revenge; In Jane Gardam’s “It’s a Man’s Life, Ladies”, the narrator observes the relationship of her grandmother to her seafaring grandfather and the secrets of making that marriage work; in Lionel Shriver’s “The Self-Seeding Sycamore”, love, or satisfaction comes through the demise of a vexing tree; in Elizabeth McCracken’s “Robinson Crusoe at the Waterpark”, the older of two dads has a change of heart after their child comes into danger; and in the story that shares the collection’s title, Susan Hill retells the woes of a famous royal scandal.  And there are many more.

As with all short story collections, it’s doable to get in a story or two as time allows, and to skip around.  The only problem with this is making sure you have read them all – and you’ll want to read them all in this excellent collection.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

stranger in the woodsIn 1986, Christopher Knight drove his Subaru deep into the Maine woods, left it to rust, and disappeared for nearly thirty years.  He maintained his solitude until 2013, when the joint efforts of a game warden and the Maine State Police led to his arrest during a break in at a nearby summer camp.

During his long sojourn in the woods, Knight ceased to exist to his family and the outside world, but his existence was all too real for residents nearby.

Even though Knight kept to himself almost entirely, he did not live off wild game and foraging.  Rather, he developed a routine of breaking into local lake houses for food and necessities.

To his credit, Knight did little if any damage.  What was unnerving wasn’t what he stole (usually canned goods and batteries, but occasionally items of intrinsic value to their owners) but how he consistently bypassed the notice of alarm systems and residents.  Some owners were fairly blasé about his burglaries; others were livid and frightened by the repeated break ins.

Until his arrest, Knight was a local legend.  After his arrest, he was a lost soul, with no inkling of how to live in modern society.

The Stranger in the Woods explores the psychology of Christopher Knight – his motivations, his lack of need for human contact, and his sense of ethics when living his hermit-like existence.  Throughout the book, the author compares Knight’s time in the woods with other hermits in history and analyzes what a “true” hermit is.

After reading this book, I remembered at least two other titles about individuals who were at odds with society and largely embraced the solitary life.  Try The Man Who Quit Money by Mark Sundeen or Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer for alternative reads.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Signals by Tim Gautreaux

I have been aware of Tim Gautreaux for some time.  His novels The Clearing and The MissingSignals were both great reading; they showcase a time in the early 20th century when places in the Deep South and Mississippi River were frontiers in themselves.

Signals is a hefty collection of his short fiction (some new; some previously published).  Most take place in Gautreaux’s home state of Louisiana.  Others take on Minnesota and North Carolina, and most appear to take place in a latter-day time or recent past.

Gautreaux’s characters inhabit seemingly mundane lives but find themselves in a struggle to maintain the mundane.  In “Easy Pickings”, a small time crook holds an older lady hostage but has to reckon with her card-playing neighbors; in “What We Don’t See in the Light”, our main character moves far away from his family to repair his work-damaged lungs; in “The Piano Tuner”, a slightly deranged young lady has a gift for the keyboard but has to leave her crumbling house in order to prove it, and in “Wings”, a widow has to rediscover her dead husband through prompting from the neighbor across the street.

These are just a small sample – there’s plenty here for a short story junkie.  There’s lots of sadness here, some twisted humor, and several jaw-dropping endings.  And with endorsements from the likes of Ron Rash and Annie Proulx, you can’t go wrong with Signals.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

PachinkoPachinko chronicles a fictional Korean family’s life in Japan before World War II to the late 1980s.

Sunja is the lone surviving child of a couple who, in the early years of Japan’s colonization of Korea, manage to make a spare but decent living farming and taking in boarders.  While she is still a teenager, Sunja is smitten by a mysterious businessman and becomes pregnant.

Her situation as unwed mother would doom her to shame and poverty.  Her savior is a sickly minister who boards with them; when he recovers enough to travel, it’s his intent to move to Japan to help with a church there.  As he is kindly, Isak offers to marry Sunja and take her with him to Osaka to stay with his brother and sister-in-law.

So begins the family’s saga, in which their adopted country looks down on Koreans, and they are limited to the most menial and dangerous jobs.  Sunja and Isak’s sons, even though they are born in Japan, inhabit half-life identities and struggle to have successful lives in a system that is stacked against them.

Pachinko is a rambling story of struggle and perseverance, love and hate, discrimination and ignorance.  The main character Sunja thinks of herself as a plain country woman, but even she has amazing moments of clarity when survival is the main issue.  And survive she does, even when her family and circumstances cause her great heartbreak.

The novel offers outsiders’ perspectives of the societal upheavals that occurred in Japan from the post-war times through its economic boom years, and the harshness of never quite fitting in, even in the country of one’s birth.

The term pachinko refers an upright pinball type of machine that gained popularity in Japan in the 1940s, and is still popular.  Here’s an interesting article from the BBC about pachinko.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

It is to be expected that a graveyard comes alive with ghosts at night-time.  One wouldlincoln in the bardo imagine they congregate and converse in a social manner, and perhaps gossip about new arrivals.

This book expands on this idea, the setting being Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown in the year 1862.  It is the aftermath of  Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie’s death at the age of eleven.  Obviously, his parents were devastated.  The rumor was that President Lincoln would visit the crypt his son was interred in and actually remove the body from the coffin to mourn over.

The night time residents of Oak Hill take note of their human nocturnal visitor, as well as talk to the ghost of his son, who is bewildered as to why he can’t interact with his father.  And as Willie lingers here, in this purgatorial state or “bardo“, his soul is increasingly in peril, as the ectoplasmic denizens of Oak Hill experience in graphic detail, when they try to help Willie along the next leg of his journey – and find theirs as well.

A cast of dozens tell the tale here in Lincoln in the Bardo, a sad yet playful view of the afterlife.  The book alternates between events of the “real” world (White House parties, the Civil War, Willie’s sickness) and the drama of the spirit world, populated by dandies, preachers, slaves, miscreants, and others.  The narrative is fanciful and occasionally confusing, but let your mind go…well, back to the 1860s, put things in context, and the subject matter will make more sense.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

 

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman

genius of birdsMost of us don’t consider the term “bird brain” to be a compliment!  However, scientists who study the intelligence of birds, using experiments, collections of anecdotes about bird behavior, and brain imaging, find them far from stupid.  Many species have rather large brains, considering their size, and even those with small brains may have amazing abilities.

In addition to describing various scientific studies, The Genius of Birds includes many wonderful anecdotes about birds.  A New Caledonian crow worked an eight-step puzzle in two and a half minutes.  Observers in the jungle have heard parrots cursing, apparently having learned these words from escaped pets.  Chickadees use a sophisticated “language” to warn other birds about the size and actions of predators.  Sparrows in New Zealand have figured out how to open and close automatic glass doors.  Some birds make and use simple tools to retrieve food.  A crow held a sharp stick in his beak and, armed with this weapon, flew in hot pursuit of a jay.  Some birds hide as many as 33,000 seeds, scattered across dozens of square miles, and can remember, months later, where to find them.  A mockingbird can learn as many as two hundred different songs, including those of other birds and those sung by humans, by practicing them over and over.  Bowerbirds carefully assemble and decorate artistic bowers, which they use to attract their mates.  Although scientists cannot completely explain how birds find their way during their long migrations, they have determined many possibilities, including birds’ orienting themselves by the North Star, their detailed memory of landscapes, and their awareness of smells, sounds, and the magnetic field.  Birds can reorient themselves when blown off-course by a hurricane or taken miles out of their way by researchers.

Since most of us sometimes forget where we put our car keys and may get lost easily without a GPS, these stories may be humbling!

This well-researched, easy-to-understand book is a wonderful read for bird-lovers.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

The Kingmaker’s Daughter by Philippa Gregory

If you enjoy the TV series “Game of Thrones,” you may like The Kingmaker’s Daughter, set during kingmakers-daughterEngland’s War of the Roses, the historical period that’s most like the fantasy world of the series.  There are even online comparisons of the TV show’s Sansa Stark with the real-life woman who’s the main character of this book – Anne Neville, the wife of Richard III.

If you are familiar with Shakespeare’s play “Richard the Third,” you’ll find this portrayal of Richard much more favorable than Shakespeare’s.  Shakespeare followed the Tudor era’s view of Richard as a monster, blaming him for multiple murders, but Gregory’s Richard comes closer to the opinions of modern historians.

Anne was the daughter of the Earl of Warwick, a power behind the English throne in the 15th century.  During the War of the Roses, many people changed their allegiances from one royal line, the Yorks, to the other, the Lancasters, or vice versa.  This was true of Warwick, whose goal was to put in power the king of his choice and to become his major adviser.  He used his daughters as pawns in his ambitious schemes.  When Anne was only fourteen years old, Warwick arranged her marriage to the Lancastrian heir.  After her husband’s death in battle, Anne married Richard.  Part of the plot involves the tale of the young princes in the Tower of London – their fate is, to this very day, a cold case!  Elizabeth Woodville, wife of King Edward IV, is also a character in the novel; contemporaries believed her to be a witch capable of causing storms and bringing death to her enemies by supernatural means.

This dramatic tale is a fascinating glimpse into English history, seen through the eyes of a queen.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)