THE INTERESTINGS by Meg Wolitzer

InterestingsYeah, I know.  I’m a little late to the party.  This book that everybody seemed to be reading just hit my radar.  I’m practicing up for being a little old white-haired muzzy-headed lady, sweet but confused.  How am I doing so far?

The Interestings are a group of teens who meet at Spirit-In-the-Woods arts camp.  The slightly more predominant protagonist is Julie Jacobson, age 13, average middle class, whose father died in January, and who is fortunate enough to obtain a scholarship to the camp.  She is quiet,  and held back in the midst of the other kids, mostof whom are highly talented in the various arts, and all from well-to-do families.

The camp is owned and run by

Manny and Edie Wunderlich, two aging Socialists who were legendary in the small, diminishing world of aging Socialists.

A small group of teens forms, and decided they were the elite of the camp, for no reason other than they said so, and for some reason, one of the girls of the group invited Julie to join them in one of the teepees, where she quickly became one of them when they discovered she could be funny,  and amuse them.   They decided they needed a name, and chose The Interestings, so that everyone would know they were interesting.  Mostly what they were was ironic, in the 70s, long before hipster irony became de rigueur.

The group consisted of Ash Wolf, graceful, kind, and beautiful, and her handsome older brother Goodman, with a talent for design, and an even bigger talent for self-centered idleness,  Ethan Figman, truly a homey boy with an exceptional talent for animation,  long before anime and the adult nighttime cartoons became fashionable,  Jonah, a musician, whose mother was the extremely famous folk singer, Susannah Bay (think Joan Baez or Judy Collins), and Cathy Kiplinger, a strong dancer with the body of a Russian body builder, huge breasted, and totally unsuited for a career in dance.   They begin to call Julie ‘Jules’, and it fits so well, she becomes a somewhat different person, more confident and eager.

The story follows the lives of the the group members from the seventies when they were teens, into their fifties, as they continue connected as a group and remain friends.   Who marries who and who doesn’t marry who and who and who have a dreadful episode….. well, if you are like me and like gossip of the benign kind,  reading this book about the lives of these people whom we come to know quite well is just fascinating.  You want to go get a cup of coffee and a danish and sit down with your elbows on the table and say, “And then what happened?   She did what?”

Yep, it’s that kind of book.  The kind about which you say, “Well, I prefer something a bit deeper..” and then can’t put the darn thing down, and when it ends, you say, “Yeah, but THEN what happens?”

It’s all about loyalty – friends loyalty, family loyalty, marriage loyalty.  And the kind of drama that occurs in everyone’s life, and make for good coffee klatsch fodder.

I gotta go dig up some other stuff she wrote, see if it is as good as The Interestings, because, gol dern it, they WERE interesting!

 

 

 

 

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MAISIE DOBBS by Jacqueline Winspear

MaisiedobbsI have to admit that I selected this novel because it is set in England between 1910 and 1929, and I really like that era, but just between you, me, and the gatepost,  I chose it because I have a photograph of my mother (who was born in 1912) taken at the age of 16 with her BFF,  standing by the running board of a car of that era, wearing cloche hats and looking terribly stylish and VERY 1920ish.  And her BFF’s name was:   yep.  Maisie Dobbs!

So of course, given all those factors, I HAD to read it.

Maisie, a Londoner, is the daughter of a costermonger and his sweet wife, who died when Maisie was about 12 or so.  OK, in case you don’t know what a costermonger is but don’t want to admit it, I’ll tell you.  A costermonger is a street seller of fruit (such as apples) and vegetables, in London and other British towns.  Still a few around, and we even have them here in Sunny Mexico.  Monger means ‘seller’.   So anyway,  deep in debt from the wife’s illness, and unable to send his daughter to school,  her dad secures a position for her as an in-between maid at a big house, where she discovers the library, and sneaks down in the middle of the night to read the books. 

Gadzooks!  She is discovered one night, but when the Lady Rowen sees her notes, realizes that this kid could be a contender, calls in her friend who is a …. crumb, not sure exactly what he is, but is highly intelligent and is counsel to all kinds of highly placed people.  He assesses her abilities, decides she is university material, and proposes to teach her himself with a view to her eventually entering Cambridge.

She has one year in university, the war breaks out,  she goes to a houseparty with her wealthy roommate from college and meets a handsome doctor who is home on leave from the battlefields in France.  When the next school term finishes, she decides she must do something for the war effort, lies about her age to become a nursing assistant in a London hospital, from where she is then sent to a first aid station in France, where she again meets the nice young doctor.

After the war, she comes home to work with Maurice, the mentor, as a private investigator, and we first meet her as she has just opened her first little office as an independent investigator and begins a new case.

It is a wonderful story, weaving the mystery of her case into a larger mystery, all of which involves the war experiences of everyone concerned.  I have given you only the bones;  it is a beautifully written, complex story of not only our protagonist, but of England during the war and post war period.

It was written in 2003, and started off a series that now has nine volumes to its credit.  And I intend to read every one of them.

A side note:  I was always pissed that my mother named me Martha and not Maisie.  I always wanted to be Maisie.  Maybe in my next life.

 

 

THE MILLION DOLLAR SUITCASE by Alice MacGowan & Perry Newberry

MillionA nifty mystery from 1922.  I love reading books written during that time.  Gives you a bit of a window into the era.  You get to see just what politically incorrect looks like.  For instance, in this book, which is set in the San Francisco area,  there are a couple of wealthy families who have Chinese men as housemen, cooks, butlers.  They are constantly referred to by everyone as ‘the chink’  or ‘the Chinaman’.   [Rolling eyes].

Anyway, the basic story is told from the first-person view of a private detective who does a lot of work for a bank.  The bank directors come to him to report that one of their tellers, a nondescript kind of man about whom nobody can agree on a physical description, who had worked for the bank for 4 years, walked out at the end of the business day with a suitcase filled with a million buckeroos.

The son of one of the directors who had given up his activity with the bank, sat in on the meeting as they all decided on how to handle the investigation.  It was trying economic times and the directors didn’t want the police involved with all the adverse publicity that would bring — could result in a run on the bank.

The son, a war vet (WWI) proclaimed he would buy the suitcase for something like $800,000.  When he reclaimed it, the difference would be his.  He happened to be a friend of the detective, and after the meeting, in which the directors agreed to his proposal, told him that he didn’t need the money, he really wanted something exciting to do, the chase after the thief.

The  investigation immediately becomes much more involved than it had appeared from the onset, and the reader is led a merry chase among the throng of possibilities.  It gets even dicier when the father of the young man commits suicide.  And then it is determined that it was not suicide, but…. gasp! ….. murder.   The plot thickens!

Just a fun read.  And almost a hundred years old.

Oh, by the way, it’s free on Project Gutenberg.  You can grab it  here.

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THE AMBER SPYGLASS by Philip Pullman

pmamberspyglass This is the third and final volume of the His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy.  The first is The Golden Compass and the second is The Subtle Knife.   This series was written as a YA work, but it is somewhat dark and definitely has adult themes.  Perhaps these days we would call it a New Adult  work.

In this last of the series, Lyla has been abducted by her wicked mother, who somehow undergoes a sea change and is now a fully loving parent, trying to save her daughter from the clutches of the two vicious branches of the church, who want to kill the girl before she falls into temptation and changes the universe.

Lyla’s father Lord Asriel,  is gathering  forces to wage a total war on the Authority, whom everyone believes is the one who created the world.   He has invented a pretty terrific flying war machine with which to attack the Clouded Mountain, the citadel of the Authority.

Meanwhile, two angels, Balthamos and Baruch, tell Will, the bearer of the Subtle Knife, that they are taking him to Lord Asriel. Will refuses to go until Lyra is rescued, to which the two assent. However, they are attacked by a soldier of the archangel Metatron, and Will uses the knife to cut a window into another world to escape. Baruch flies to Lord Asriel to tell him what has happened and to get help.

And meanwhile meanwhile, Mary, the physicist from Volume II has found an open window into another world, and gone through, and has encountered some  elephantine creatures who call themselves mulefa and use large seedpods attached to their feet as wheels. These creatures have a complex culture, intricate language, and are quite welcoming to Mary.  The mulefa can see the ‘dust’ particles,  which are all blowing strongly away from their trees which produce the seedpods.  Without the seedpods, which need the mulefa’s rolling them to break them open, both the ancient tree groves and the mulefa civilization will disappear.  Mary cannot see the ‘dust’,  but concocts some sort of amber resin sheets which she puts together and through which she can now see the dust particles.  This is where the name of this volume comes from.

The most interesting part of this book is when Lyra and Will travel to the land of the dead to find her friend Roger who has died.  They must take a boat ride across a river, and leave behind their daemons, which is a terrible wrench.  This entire section is very symbolic, calling on the idea of the River Styxx and Charon the boatman, and in the land of the dead, harpies torment the deceased.

This is a complex story, hard to encapsulate in just a couple of paragraphs, so if you don’t want to read the series, or the book, I suggest you go to Wikipedia for the full plot.

Angels, daemons which are the physical representation of our souls, Greek mythology, strange sentient creatures, the many worlds theory of the universe, and a god who is simply an old ineffectual man — definitely a book for adults, and the entire series certainly worthy of the many awards and accolades it has received.

 

 

 

THE GO-BETWEEN by L. P. Hartley

go-between-l-p-hartleyL. P. Hartley was a literary critic and writer, working in the first half of the 20th century.  He wrote The Go-Between in 1951.  The story is about a young English schoolboy, and is set in 1900.  It expresses  concerns with class,  memory, and the idea of outsider-ness.  The novel starts with that famous line:

The past is a foreign country.  They do things differently there.

The story centers around Leo, whose father was a bank manager, and who didn’t approve of the schools, so taught our young man himself.  Unfortunately, he died when Leo was eleven, and his mother sent him to public school (which in England is a private boarding school), where he meets the upper class Marcus.      In spite of their class differences, they hit it off and Leo is invited to Marcus’ large manor house, Brandham Hall,  in Norfolk for the month of July, which turns out to be a record-breaker for heat.   He is thrilled that his hovering and frugal mother allows him to go.

There, this middle-class boy wearing unsuitable clothes and studiously watching his manners and actions so that he will not be ridiculed, comes up against the moires of the upper class with its extraordinary rules and snobberies, and an interesting cast of characters.   This includes Marcus’ mother, an eagle-eyed, but quiet woman, the father, self-effacing and dull;  Marcus’ older brother, somewhat disliked by the mother, his older sister Marion, whom it is revealed is having an affair with Ted Burgess, a farmer at the other end of the class system., and the 9th Viscount Hugh, disfigured by the war, but back otherwise healthy, in the village, proposing to Marion.

Leo, the outsider in all ways, becomes the bearer of messages between the lovers Marion and farmer Ted while Marcus is laid up with the Measles and Leo is left to his own devices.

This is a story about place and relationships  — one’s place in society, weather to landscape, servant to master, village to big house, even England to Empire (this was the time of the Boer War).  And here we have Leo, out of place, subject to gentle mockery, used specifically because he is out of place.

Just a wonderful book, with a story that pulls you into it more and more, and that whole underpinning of the class distinctions in England at the turn of that century.

And a final thought about happiness:

I liked existence to be simplified into terms of winning or losing.  I thought of happiness as following naturally on the attainment of some aim, like winning a cricket match.  You got what you wanted and were happy:  it was quite simple.

If only it were that simple.

 

 

LIBRARIANS IN THE BRANCH LIBRARY OF BABEL by Shaenon K. Garrity

The Tower of Babel as envisioned by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  What a fabulous rendering.

The Tower of Babel as envisioned by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. What a fabulous rendering.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote a  profoundly affecting short story in 1941 about an infinite library, titled The Library of Babel.

Borges’s narrator describes how his universe consists of an enormous expanse of adjacent hexagonal rooms, each of which contains the bare necessities for human survival—and four walls of bookshelves. Though the order and content of the books is random and apparently completely meaningless, the inhabitants believe that the books contain every possible ordering of just 25 basic characters (22 letters, the period, the comma, and the space). Though the vast majority of the books in this universe are pure gibberish, the library also must contain, somewhere, every coherent book ever written, or that might ever be written, and every possible permutation or slightly erroneous version of every one of those books. The narrator notes that the library must contain all useful information, including predictions of the future, biographies of any person, and translations of every book in all languages. Conversely, for many of the texts some language could be devised that would make it readable with any of a vast number of different contents.

Despite — indeed, because of — this glut of information, all books are totally useless to the reader, leaving the librarians in a state of suicidal despair. This leads some librarians to superstitions and cult-like behaviors, such as the “Purifiers”, who arbitrarily destroy books they deem nonsense as they scour through the library seeking the “Crimson Hexagon” and its illustrated, magical books. Others believe that since all books exist in the library, somewhere one of the books must be a perfect index of the library’s contents; some even believe that a messianic figure known as the “Man of the Book” has read it, and they travel through the library seeking him.

The concept of the library is also overtly analogous to the view of the universe as a sphere having its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere. [Plot description lifted shamelessly from Wikipedia.]

In addition to my attraction for any book with ‘bones’ or ‘ghosts’ in the title, I also have a great affinity for anything with ‘infinite’ and ‘library’ or ‘bookstore’ in the title.  Hence my reading of this wonderful short story by Shaenon K. Garrity about the Branch Library of Babel in Dublin, Ohio, and it’s librarians.

The Library of Babel is one of those extrusions of pure logic into our universe that you get sometimes, a library of infinite size containing all possible books.  Logically, (and so actually), almost all these books are full of nonsense — meaningless collections of letters or even just random markings.    The search for meaning in the Library’s honeycomb rooms is seldom rewarded, but really, most patrons just come in off the street to use the restroom.

This particular infinite library in Dublin, Ohio, is where roughly 72% of books are Moby-Dick.

Our library contains, within its stacks, every edition of Moby-Dick that ever has been or will be or could be published.

Every once in a while, our narrator and some co-workers mount an expedition into the farther honeycomb rooms in search of whatever new they can find.  They always find something, because of course,  the collection is infinite.  It usually takes about 6 weeks, and they supply themselves with food and bedding and off they go.

But a sorry thing has happened.  The city has decided to cut the funding for the Branch Library of Babel, and they are in danger of having to close, and the librarians will be out of work.

To learn more of just what this budget crisis means to our library, you can read the story here.  It is free.  And a most thought-provoking read.   And while you are at it,  why not read The Library of Babel,  the story that started it all?   It’s here, free.  I love free.   And I love fiction that makes you think.

And if you have a taste for short fiction,  Strange Horizons  has lots of it.  All free.

 

 

POMPOMBERRY HOUSE by Rosen Trevithick

pompomberry houseMy live-in IT guy, otherwise known as Mr. Wonderful, found a replacement screen for my non-working Kindle 3 for cheap, and bless his little gadget-y soul, replaced it successfully!  Whoot! Whoot!  I haven’t been able to use this – my very first Kindle (sigh) — for more than two years.   So what to my wondering eyes should appear but books I had downloaded way long ago.   It was like opening up a surprise box of goodies.

I had been reading some slightly heavier stuff lately, so thought I was ready for some cozy-type mystery, and chose Pomperberry House from my original Kindle.   Good thing, too, cause it was a hoot!

It is about indie writers of e-books, the competition, the struggles, the ambitions, the murders….. oh, pardon me, did I say murders?  One doesn’t associate murders with nice indie authors, does one.  Well, this will have you viewing the indie scene in a whole new light.

Our protagonist, Dee,  writer of a book which has sold something like 800 copies (and at a buck a book not exactly multimillionaire fodder but satisfying nonetheless,) is invited as a last minute fill-in to a 6 person writing retreat in order to create a small anthology to release on the unsuspecting public   market.   Each of the participants will contribute one short story.  They are all known to each other from a forum specifically for indie writers and reviewers.  They convene at a rented property off of the Cornwall coast, a one-house little island that when the tide is in and the causeway is covered,  people need to use a small boat to cross the water to the island.

Well, on the second day, when the only work on the anthology had been done was producing the story ideas, which were all really stupid and bizarre, the caretaker of the property is found dead, stabbed to death, in the kitchen.   Oh the horror!  The Humanity!   The retreat members, all but Dee, want to hide the body because since they were the only ones on the island, they would be the prime suspects.  Dee wants to call the police, but the others don’t.  She goes for her phone to find the battery inexplicably dead.  So she packs up, leaves the house at high tide, but the boat is not at the island side, for some reason it is on the mainland side.  So she wades across the now underwater causeway to find her car with four flat tires.  And no phone.  She remembers a housing development not awfully far from the area, and decides to walk there to call the police.  She gets herself thoroughly lost, walks for hours and finally sees an isolated farmhouse, where no one is home.  She climbs through a window and calls her almost-ex husband to come pick her up.

They get home, call the police, the police take a lot of convincing to go investigate, and when they get there, find the house vacant, no body, no blood, no nothing, except her car with all four tires fully inflated and ready to roll.

Then, weeks later,  events start happening that mimic the dopey stories in the now-released anthology. But one of the stories was about a murder.  And it happened.  And one of the stories is about cannibalism….. and now Dee is scared!

This is satire, and beautifully done.  Each writer is a ‘type’,  and all are obnoxious, egotistical, backbiting characters, and the reviewers on the forum are worse.  It is a great examination of the industry, funny and quirky.  With an ending you’ll just love.