Heartwood 8:3 – Fancy by Jeremy M. Davies

Fancy, by Jeremy M. Davies, ostensibly presents us with nothing more than an older man interviewing a young couple in the foyer of his house for the job of house-sitting and caring for his twenty cats. But it may (or may not) give you a better understanding of this novel to say that it orbits around quantum mechanics, ontological doubt, repetition and minimalism, the instability of selfhood, and (as Davies himself has said in an interview) toxoplasmosis. Or it might be said that this is a novel in which Schrödinger’s cat attempts to open the lid of the box it may or may not be inside of. However you cut it, this is a compelling, fluent, disorienting, and audaciously inspired work.

But to start again, the book opens with an isolated older man, Rumrill, who lives in a decaying town on the mid-western plains sometime in the pre-Internet era, interviewing a young couple in the foyer of his house as potential cat-sitters – for cats who never put in an appearance over the book-length course of the interview.

In the interview – really a monologue – we hear about Rumrill and his work at the public library, where he had trysts in the stacks with his supervisor before she left the library and moved from town. His library work also brought him into contact with a Mr. Brocklebank, who enlisted him, initially, as a cat-sitter for his thirty cats, but soon enough employs Rumrill as factotum and caregiver – full-time work (performed with active disregard) that required Rumrill to bring his library work to an end.

There are reasons for the reader to doubt the reliability of the narrative from the very beginning, and all kinds of things overlap and repeat with minor variations that bring everything into question. One begins to wonder if Rumrill and Brocklebank are not the same person living in parallel universes: both required cat-sitters for a clowder of cats whose existence is uncertain; both provide book-length cat-sitting instructions; both appear to have had a green sofa; both (apparently) were involved with women who seemed interested in having other partners; and in both men something like tape-looped obsessions cut grooves in their tenuous hold on reality.

Various madnesses or eccentricities are on display. A postal worker, having once failed to deliver his load of mail, finds himself completely unmoored, merely driving around in his mail van but unable to resume his deliveries. Rumrill is concerned that his house will not maintain its materiality if he is not there to perceive it – a situation he tries to ameliorate by creating a mirror corridor that will let him keep his house in sight even from as far away as the train station. As Brocklebank’s house burns, toward the end of the book, firemen do not extinguish the fire but instead entertain half a dozen speculative theories regarding whether Brocklebank is inside or not.

Davies has restricted himself to a form in which every longer paragraph begins with the words “Rumrill said” followed by short paragraphs (a mere sentence or phrase, often witty) that begin “He added.” In time, additional paragraphs appear, culled from Brocklebank’s cat-sitting manual, all beginning with “Brocklebank writes.” These latter pronouncements appear to be modifications of statements from 20th-century composers ranging from minimalists to serialists to avant-garde jazzmen, based on a list of sources at the back of the book.

Rumrill’s oratory is rhythmical and complex and will draw in readers who gravitate toward such authors as NabokovGombrowicz, BernhardBeckett, and Pynchon. As with books by these authors, Fancy is well worth reading, rereading, pondering, and discussing, and I’ll even boldly assert that it deserves a spot on any self-respecting 21st-century American literature syllabus. Mostly, however, the book deserves to be read for the pleasure and weirdness with which it captures the routines, locutions, agoraphobia, and perceptions of its main character – and, indeed, for allowing Rumrillian to emerge as a descriptor for the voluble expression of this constellation of existential, perceptual, and singular uncertainty.

We are ALL Alice

Sometimes (okay, all the time) when I’m readying books for the public to check out, I go all Liam Neeson in Taken:

I don’t know when I’m going to read you or how you’ll make me feel but I can tell you I have a particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long life as a reader. Skills that make me a nightmare to play against in the literary portion of Jeopardy. I will look for you, I will find you, and I will read you.

Lil bit hardcore but books are my passion. I’ll read just about anything. Except computer books. Bless the people who can understand those because when I flip through a computer book all I hear in my head is a bunch of underwater bleeps and bloops.

That being said, I’ve found myself gravitating towards kid books lately. You might already know I have a slightly embarrassing love of YA novels (still couldn’t pay me enough to ever be a teenager again though) so it makes sense that my eyes landed on Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s series of books about a young girl named Alice. I’m opening up myself to a long commitment because these books span Alice’s life from an 8-year-old all the way through high school. But I don’t think of it as a commitment. It’s meeting a new friend and becoming comfortable enough to steal food from their refrigerator.

The first book in the series is Starting With Alice. Alice McKinley is a lot like other 8-year-old girls. She wants pierced ears, gloriously long hair, a pet, and she wants a mother. Hers died a few years ago and it’s been her, her brother Lester, and their father ever since. What Alice would REALLY like is some friends. Her family moves to Maryland and she doesn’t know a soul except for her neighbor Donald and she’s having a hard time figuring out if he’s really smart or so smart he’s stupid: he’s the kind of boy who asks you if you can lick your elbow.

Starting third grade at a new school isn’t as easy as Alice thinks. She sees a trio of girls she names ‘The Terrible Triplets’ after they go all Mean Girls on her and don’t bother to get to know her. Lonely, facing the world as an 8-year-old without her mother, and living with two males, Alice begins to think she’ll never make friends and never quite get it right. But friends pop up when Alice least expects them, along with weird adventures, a lost cat, and her brother’s awful basement band.

Fans of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series will dive into the Alice saga and surface wanting to find their own Alice to be best friends with.

The Best Book I’ll Read This Year

I talk a lot about books written for children and teens. They are the core group I serve at the library; I spend a lot of time with books intended for this audience. It helps ensure that I am prepared for any questions that come my way and that I can always hold my own and suggest new titles when I chat with our young readers in the library. None of this is a complaint – I greatly enjoy my time with children’s books, and firmly believe that some of the strongest, most important, and empathy-building literature today comes from the world of YA.

On occasion, however, I like to treat myself to a book actually intended for an adult audience. Usually these are books by authors I enjoy or novels belonging to genres I can’t resist, but every once in a while buzz builds around an author and I can’t resist the hype. It was mounting excitement for Tommy Orange’s writing that led me to his debut novel, There There. To say this novel blew me away is a massive understatement. By the second page of the prologue, I was hooked. By the beginning of chapter one, I was picking my jaw up off the floor.

OAFHYIS7MYI6RMVYBCSTRWO32YThere There centers on the city of Oakland, California in the days, weeks, and months leading up to a major powwow. It follows twelve different characters, all of whom identify as Native or come from Native descent and have had different experiences as Urban Indians in a gentrifying city. There’s a young boy who has learned traditional dances from YouTube and is determined to dance at the Powwow and a teenager whose life has been framed by violence and seems to be hurtling towards the Powwow at devastating speed. There are characters who have suffered from addiction and fought their way back, some who have fought for a country that has always sought to erase them, some raised around tribal tradition and others who are just beginning to discover their roots. Orange slowly but brilliantly weaves spider-webbed connections between these characters, masterfully uncovering how these disparate lives will come together.

Beyond the compelling narrative, there is so much to praise about this novel. Orange considers identity with a deft touch, making a difficult concept accessible without diminishing its complexity. Through his character’s experiences, he dissects the ways that Native people are made to feel too Indian or not Indian enough. He explores self-discovery and self-loathing, kindness and cruelty, abuse and tender love, all side-by-side but without condemnation. Orange is able to touch on traumas that many groups experience like bigotry, cultural appropriation, and gentrification, and make them feel simultaneously universal to oppressed populations and specifically and undeniably Indian. And he manages to weave together the history of Native activism in America, the many abuses that Native people have suffered, and the ever-evolving effects that generations of systematic and cultural genocide have had on a people.

Then there is the writing itself. I’m not sure I can do justice to Orange’s skill, his ability to write a paragraph that leaves me staggered without being ostentatious. There are writers who are praised for their terse, spare prose and others for their elegant and complex language. I’m not sure quite where Orange falls on this spectrum, but I know it is exactly where I want to be. As I previously mentioned, I knew I was reading something special early in the prologue. I can actually pinpoint the exact moment. While talking about migration to cities, Orange writes:

We did not move to cities to die. The sidewalks and streets, the concrete, absorbed our heaviness. The glass, metal, rubber, and wires, the speed, the hurtling masses—the city took us in. We were not Urban Indians then. This was part of the Indian Relocation Act, which was part of the Indian Termination Policy, which was and is exactly what it sounds like. Make them look and act like us. Become us. And so disappear. But it wasn’t just like that. Plenty of us came by choice, to start over, to make money, or for a new experience. Some of us came to cities to escape the reservation. We stayed after fighting in the Second World War. After Vietnam too. We stayed because the city sounds like a war, and you can’t leave a war once you’ve been, you can only keep it at bay—which is easier when you can see and hear it near you, that fast metal, that constant firing around you, cars up and down the streets and freeways like bullets. The quiet of the reservation, the side-of-the-highway towns, rural communities, that kind of silence just makes the sound of your brain on fire that much more pronounced.

I recently heard Glen Weldon, a writer and critic for NPR, draw a distinction when talking about stories that represent diverse experiences. To paraphrase, he said that we shouldn’t talk about stories that haven’t been told before – even if they did not reach our ears, they’ve likely been told. Instead, we should talk about these as stories that we haven’t heard yet. There There tells a kind of story I hadn’t read before, and Orange tells it with intelligence, heart, dexterity, and a swagger that makes it feel absolutely essential.    

Chariot on the Mountain by Jack Ford

I very much enjoyed Chariot on the Mountain by Jack Ford! Based on the true story of Kitty who was the daughter of a slave woman and Samuel Maddox, the “Master” in Virginia. Samuel’s dying wish was that Kitty and her children be set free. The entire estate is left to his wife Mary, with his nephew and namesake Samuel Maddox named to inherit upon Mary’s death.

Mary helps Kitty and her children escape on the Underground Railroad to Pennsylvania and freedom. A few months later, nephew Samuel kidnaps Kitty and her children from Pennsylvania claiming that because the estate will eventually go to him, he has a say in its operation and that they are his property.

Mary and her friend rescue Kitty and her kids from Samuel and a groundbreaking lawsuit ensues. I was not able to read fast enough to get to the end and find out how it all ended! The book is a touching story of forgiveness, as Mary comes to terms with her husband’s betrayal. It is also about deep friendships that both endure politics and overcome racism.

The Nerdiest Murder Mystery Ever

What do you think of when you read the words Comic Con? Do you think of ECCC, the Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle? Do you think of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, or Star Wars? Indie comics artists, fandom cosplay, and merch galore? How about murder? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

A result of a power partnership between two veteran comics geniuses (writer Fred Van Lente and illustrator Tom FowlerThe Con Artist is more than just a hilarious mystery where a slightly washed-up comics artist is blamed for the death of his bitter rival. The whole book is set up to mimic a written police statement, recounting day by day and hour by hour what exactly happened at Comic Con. Here’s the opening note:

Due to ongoing litigation, many names of the companies, trademarked characters, and real people in the statement of Michael “Mike M” Mason have been changed upon the advice of the publisher’s counsel. However, none of the artwork has been altered in any way; it has been reproduced exactly as it was found in the sketchbook confiscated by the San Diego Police Department.

So let me tell you more about Mike. He had some limited success years ago as a comics illustrator, but is mostly known for his run on Mister Mystery, a popular long-running comics series owned by one of the industry’s most lucrative publishers. In the last few years, he’s become essentially homeless. He flies from convention to convention often giving up some or all of his appearance fee in exchange for a longer hotel stay. He’s running away from permanence, from the possibility that he’s now a has-been and he doesn’t know how to enter the next phase of his life. He’s also running away from a breakup and betrayal that did a tap dance on his confidence and smashed his heart into a tiny million pieces.

But back to the con! After arriving at the airport in San Diego, Mike is immediately swept into the madness that is the world’s biggest and most well-known comic convention: SDCC. It’s not long before he eases back into the norm of con life, the signings and parties, only to be slapped with the news that his comics mentor has died. Everyone thinks it was natural causes, but Mike starts to wonder if maybe someone got to his mentor before he could secure the intellectual property rights to one of his biggest creations.

To make matters worse, Mike’s mortal enemy is also at Comic Con. And who’s on his arm? None other than the ex-love of his life, the one who betrayed him and tossed his life into chaos. Mike tries to keep his cool, but after a well-publicized fight at an after hours Comic Con party, his rival winds up dead and Mike’s the San Diego PD’s prime suspect.

Mike knows he didn’t murder anyone, but he has to convince the police that he’s innocent. He starts his own investigation knowing that serving up the real killer on a silver platter is the only way to completely remove suspicion from himself. But then other people start turning up dead and it becomes a race the clock for Mike. Not only does this need to be wrapped up before the end of the con, but the killer just might decide to kill Mike next.

It’s important to note that both the author and illustrator are seasoned comics veterans and that really shines through the pages. I’ve only been to one big comic con (ECCC, big but not nearly as big as SDCC I know) but I relived some of my experiences (lines! getting to meet rad artists in Artists’ Alley! awesome cosplayers!) while reading this book.

In getting the con experience right, and in highlighting the details that only the people on the other side of the table (comics professionals) would experience, the author holds up con culture, nerd culture, and the entire comics industry for scrutiny. Pay attention to the social commentary, especially surrounding the darker side of comics where artists’ original intellectual properties often become absorbed by mega publishers and where no health care is to be found for these artists and writers who brought so much joy to children and adults through their staple-bound pages.

The text is lightly peppered with sketches from the main character’s notebook and I figured there would probably be clues in them that the reader should try to interpret to determine whodunit. Mike occasionally recalls a clue from one of his sketches, but once or twice he recalled details I could not discern from the sketches I saw. It helped prolong the unmasking of the killer’s identity for me, which added to the suspense.

Thanks to our book vendor for sending us an early copy from the publisher, I was reading this book while in line at Everett Comics for Free Comic Book Day back in May. If that’s not meta I don’t know what is. Nerds, read this book and rejoice!

I Don’t Want the Drama, Just Tell Me 110% of What’s Going On

A thirty year old unsolved murder.

A mother frozen in time.

A wife discovers a devastating secret.

A woman revisits her past.

Sounds like a Lifetime movie, doesn’t it? Except Valerie Bertinelli isn’t in this one and what happens is oh so more interesting than a movie of the week.

In Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret, three seemingly unconnected lives collide head on.

30 years ago, Rachel’s daughter Janie was found murdered in a park and Rachel hasn’t moved on. What mother could? She works at a private school and has a grandson she absolutely adores; the one bright spot in a life that has seemed empty after the loss of her daughter. But now her son and daughter-in-law are going to move to New York for a couple of years and she’ll be empty again.

She’s had a suspect in mind for her daughter’s murder, a man named Connor who was madly in love with Janie when they were teenagers. Connor works at her school as a gym teacher. Over the years Rachel has hounded the police with her suspicions and knows they tend to humor her with sympathy while brushing her off at the same time.

Tess runs a successful business with her husband and her cousin Felicity who has been her best friend since birth. They’ve been inseparable. Just one thing: the two sit Tess down one evening and tell her they’ve fallen in love with one another. Oops. Sorry.

Tess packs a bag and takes their 7-year-old son Liam far away to her mother’s place to regroup, maybe start fresh. She registers her son at the private school Rachel works at and sees that her old boyfriend Connor is a teacher there. Tess begins to think about staying, getting a new job, and rekindling things with him.

Cecilia is a mother, a wife in a comfortable (if not much of a physical) marriage, and a businesswoman with a formidable Tupperware empire. She’s still in love with her husband even though they’ve been married roughly 500 years and he’s away on business most of the time. Cecilia’s life is supremely organized, everything in the right place. Life is good. It is frustrating at times with three daughters and an AWOL husband but she thanks her stars for everything good in her life.

But one day she needs to find something in the attic. She knocks down a box belonging to her husband and a letter settles to the floor. It has her name on it and it’s sealed.  She respects his privacy and doesn’t snoop, but the sealed letter is on her mind throughout the following days. She mentions it to her away on business husband and he makes her promise not to read it, to put it back where she found it.

Well, now she just wants to read it even more. One day she opens it and begins reading. What happens next will bring the three women together in a harrowing disaster that makes each of them wonder if they’ll come out whole on the other side.

By the author of Little Big Lies, The Husband’s Secret draws the reader in with fine honed characters and a twisting plot, leaving anyone to wonder: what would they do after discovering a life altering secret?

Who is Vera Kelly?

Student, activist…spy? Who is Vera Kelly? is a spy novel by Rosalie Knecht published earlier this week by Tin House Books. It’s also a question I asked myself many times while reading this engrossing novel of intrigue and identity. What Vera Kelly is not is your typical school girl, and she’s definitely not your typical spy.

1966 is a dangerous time to be living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. For those of you who may have forgotten your world history, events in the summer of 1966 sparked the Argentine Revolution that overthrew the government and began a long period of dictatorship. Up until 1966 Vera was supplementing her low-wage radio station job doing occasional weekend surveillance jobs for the CIA, but the Buenos Aires job would be quite different. I’ll let Vera explain herself:

My handler pitched it to me in January 1966, in a diner where he liked to meet on East Fifty-Second Street. The Argentine president was weak, there could be a coup anytime, and KGB activity had picked up in Buenos Aires. I would have to do infiltration work as well as surveillance. I would be gone indefinitely, months or a year, and I would have to quit my job. For this they would pay me thirty-five thousand dollars.

You math nerds and currency freaks will realize how much thirty-five thousand dollars was in 1966, but I’ll spell it out so the rest of us can understand. According to one inflation calculator I consulted, that would be over $270,000 in today’s dollars. For someone scraping by at $38/per week at her day job (about $259 in today’s dollars) it was kind of a no-brainer financially for Vera to accept the job.

But even more than the money, Vera has found a sense of accomplishment in her work with the CIA. The satisfaction of a job well done in service to her country is what helps make the rest of her lonely existence worth getting up for every morning. I say lonely because Vera is a closeted lesbian and in the 1960s it wasn’t impossible to find female companionship in New York City, but doing so could possibly jeopardize her security clearance. This is a sad way of telling you that Vera suppressed a lot of her identity in service to her country, but she wasn’t always so noble.

The chapters alternate between Vera’s present-day espionage and her formative years growing up in Chevy Chase, MD. Vera’s battles with undiagnosed depression eventually led to a suicide attempt. This is revealed in the very first paragraphs of the book (you’ll get no spoilers from me, but do consider this a trigger warning for a suicide attempt right at the top of the story). Vera’s recovery shut her off even more from a world that didn’t understand her, and would eventually lead to heartbreak and a brush with the law. That sounds very depressing, and it is! But it does steer her down a winding path to the CIA and her life of adventure.

Vera spends much of her time surrounded by other people, and though it’s the nature of the job as a spy to lie to people and not trust what she’s told in return, Vera is essentially a woman alone. It’s hard to make friends when you’re a spy and it’s even harder to find romance or even simple physical companionship when you don’t fit into society’s prescribed heteronormative expectations and ideals.

I would be remiss if I didn’t give more of a taste of the espionage portion of the plot because if this book’s plot were a pepperoni pizza, the spy parts are the cheese and the character development is the pepperoni. It’s got a good sprinkling of character development, but every bite is covered in the cheese of espionage.

The best books make me scattered in my retellings. Just take my awkward pizza metaphor as the gold star this book deserves!

Once the coup in Argentina begins, Vera’s plans go up in smoke and she’s forced to improvise in order to escape the police state and survive. This is where Vera surprises both the reader and herself as she depends entirely on her instincts and cunning to get herself home.

There are secrets, betrayals, weapons, and kisses. This is a book that really does have it all.

I’m not usually a fan of character-driven literature, but apparently if you throw in an engrossing spy plot and some witty dialogue I will fall at your feet in worship. My girl Amy Stewart blurbed this book as “The twisty, literary, woman-driven spy novel you’ve always wanted to read. Dazzling.” And of course she’s right. Vera Kelly is 100% the spy I’ve always wanted. Thank you, Rosalie Knecht, for bringing her into my life.

Now please, please, PLEASE tell me this will be a series?! Because like all great literary characters, after meeting Vera Kelly I’m not ready to say goodbye.