Redrum

I was going to write a blog about Stephen King’s book The Shining versus the Stanley Kubrick 1980 movie adaptation of the book, but time got away from me. Not because I’m busy. Because I rented the newest version of the movie IT and then I fell asleep (not because of the movie but because of who I am as a person) and then had to begin it again and this blog is already getting away from me and that usually doesn’t happen until the second paragraph.

Come along with me on another adventure of “What Did I Just Read?”

I’ve read The Shining 3 times. I’m not bragging. I just have a hard time remembering books I’ve read a long time ago. But I did reread it just for the pleasure of it. And because it’s one of my favorite King novels.

Picture it: Jack Torrance, recovering alcoholic (one of the scary ones with anger problems), is looking for a new start not only for himself but also for his wife Wendy and their 5-year-old son Danny. He thinks he’s found the perfect job at The Overlook Hotel in Colorado. During the brutal mountain winters (where the hotel, while mesmerizing, is pretty isolated) the place shuts down for a few months with just a caretaker to look after the enormous building. This is Jack’s chance to make up the past year of horrible behavior to both his wife and son and a chance to work on his play without distraction or interruption. He hears a story about a former caretaker years go who went stir crazy one winter in the hotel and killed his wife and children. The isolation, Jack is told, sometimes gets to people. But like with any new beginning, Jack Torrance believes he and his family can get through anything, even being cut off from civilization by enough snow to make you think it’s the apocalypse, the snowy version.

His 5-year-old son Danny has….special abilities. His parents don’t realize it because it’s 1977 and parents aren’t into hovering over their kid’s every move. Nowadays, they’d shove Danny on a reality show or have him hosting a version of Antiques Road Show where he describes the ghost hanging out with the ugly vase from someone’s attic. But in 1977 Danny’s parents think he’s a quietly imaginative kid with an imaginary friend named Tony. Sure, it’s great when a 5-year-old has an imaginary friend but when a 40-year-old woman has one they up her medication.

On The Overlook’s closing day Jack and his family get a tour of the place and meet Dick Hallorann, the chef. He takes one look at Danny and knows he has special abilities. He begins to talk to Danny telepathically. While Danny’s parents are busy looking around, Dick tells Danny that he’s one of the rare people who has a gift called the shining, he can see and sense things others can’t and will have visions of things to come. People hear the title The Shining and they forget it’s actually a good thing, the ability to shine. Dick is leaving for Florida but tells Danny that they have a special connection and he knows the hotel is one huge haunted place and Danny is going to see some seriously screwed up paranormal stuff. But if Danny needs him all he has to do is use the shine to call to him and Dick will rush back to the hotel.

So everybody leaves on closing day. Jack and Wendy and Danny spend the next few days exploring their new surroundings and everything is good. Until the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel find out just how special Danny is and are drawn to him. Thinking back, I don’t remember any nice ghosts that befriended Danny. The Overlook Hotel has a salacious past full of murder and mayhem and the dead have never moved on. Danny doesn’t say anything about what he’s seen because he knows the job is important to his parents and he hasn’t seen his father this happy in a long time.

But that happiness doesn’t stick around. The Overlook can’t get its possessive claws into Danny because of his gift but guess who it can possess? Yep. Jack Torrance. He’s having trouble writing his play (thanks to the hotel distracting him) and cabin fever is beginning to unravel him. After a fight with Wendy, Jack makes his way down to the bar where all the liquor had been removed on closing day (wouldn’t do to have a drunk caretaker stumbling about) but is now fully stocked with a bartender on duty named Lloyd.

The ghosts begin to spill out of the woodwork (Jack was warned not to go into room 237, never go into room 237 because horrible things happened there and damn it, there he is going into room 237) and drive Jack into an insanity there’s no coming back from. The ghosts of the hotel want Danny because of his shine. Lloyd urges a very drunk Jack to kill Danny and Wendy. Once you’re dead in the Overlook, you never really leave. Or is that the Hotel California? In any case, Jack is fully under the hotel’s powers and goes after Wendy. Danny, meanwhile, is giving his new buddy Dick Hallorann a telepathic SOS loud enough to almost make his head bleed.

And then…and then…well, if I tell you what happens you won’t need to read the book and I wouldn’t have done my job of getting you into the library, excited about being terrified to death by Stephen King’s writing. The Shining was King’s third novel and in my opinion one of his scariest, not just because of a hotel full of ghosts reliving their deaths but because of what isolation and inner demons can do to a person whose only goal was to start fresh. Read this book if you want to see the gradual unraveling of one man driven insane by an isolated hotel. Read about a mother trying not only to keep her child alive but also herself as her husband loses his mind. And then there’s Danny, who shines the brightest.

Excuse me, I have some other writing to take care of. All work and no play make Jennifer a dull girl.

Books to Love and Share

Even though we live nearly three thousand miles apart, I’m very close with my nieces and nephew. In my mind I’m the cool uncle who takes them on fun trips and gets them the most exciting presents. Of course when your uncle is a librarian the fun trips usually involve libraries or bookstores and those exciting presents are, well, books. Luckily for me, these kids are born readers so even if I’m not the cool uncle I am the uncle who gets asked for book recommendations and invited to class visits. I’ll take it.

Here are a few of the books that I’ve loved and shared with my young readers this past year.

methodetimesprodwebbin2146bf82-bd60-11e6-a53a-ca2ad7b229f9My youngest niece is almost two. She loves to laugh and is great at identifying animals, as long as it’s a dog or a bear, so I knew she would love Horrible Bear! by Ame Dyckman. Horrible Bear! follows a no-nonsense young girl who crashes her kite into a bear’s den. The sleeping bear rolls over, crushing the kite. The girl storms off furious at the bear, while the bear is filled with righteous indignation for being blamed. Behold, bitter enemies! Ultimately, the bear and the girl come to understand each other and this silly story delivers a meaningful yet subtle message about accidents and forgiveness. This is a great read-aloud with the girl and bear stomping around shouting HORRIBLE BEAR and HORRIBLE GIRL. It also features Dyckman’s signature humor and lively illustrations by Zachariah OHora.

A1CIvMxnmGL (1)I also read with my 3-year-old niece but of course a 3-year-old is sophisticated and requires more complex and devious narratives. This is why I recently sent her The Wolf, the Duck, & the Mouse by Mac Barnett. When a mouse is swallowed by a wolf, it seems like the end of the world – literally. But the mouse gets new perspective when it meets a duck who has made quite a lovely home in the wolf’s stomach. Their new haven is threatened when a hunter pursues the wolf and the mouse and duck must find a way to save their home. I love the sharp turn this story takes after its grim beginning and the way expectations are constantly subverted. This book also has the benefit of Jon Klassen’s illustrations, who could even make the phone book a twisted delight.

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Vera Brosgol’s Leave Me Alone! introduces a granny who feels straight out of a nursery rhyme. Living in a cramped house with her large family, she sets out to find a peaceful place to knit. She travels far and wide through harsh environments filled with terrible beasts, and even goes to space! This is another story that starts out with a slightly sardonic tone before settling into a heartwarming conclusion. Brosgol’s illustrations are pitch perfect, creating a story that feels like a loving and quirky tribute to Strega Nona.

9780545700580_mresRecently one of my cousins had her first child who is nicknamed Froggy. I’m using this as an excuse to give them Rain! By Linda Ashman. Rain! follows the parallel stories of an older man who is irritated to have to deal with wet weather and a young boy in a frog hat who is delighted to explore the rainy world. This is a sweet story with a wonderfully goofy conclusion. Rain! has the added bonus of featuring the brilliant illustrations of Christian Robinson. Robinson’s work has been on my radar for some time, but it was not until I saw him speak last year at a conference that I took the time to explore his work in-depth. He is a stunning artist who has quickly become a personal favorite.

9780545403306_mresFor the older readers in my life (ages 7 and 9) I like to introduce series that they can fall in love with. The challenge, of course, is getting these books in their hands before they hear about them from friends. This year these series included Whatever After by Sarah Mlynowski and The Ranger’s Apprentice by John A. Flanagan. The Whatever After series follows a young sister and brother, Abby and Jonah, who are swept away into the lands of various fairy tales such as Cinderella and the Frog Prince. This might be a delightful adventure for the young siblings if they didn’t accidentally intervene in these classic stories and jeopardize their traditional plots. Abby and Jonah must frantically save the day, delivering the fairy tale endings we all know so well. Some middle grade series do not hold up for adult readers. These do. Abby’s narration is laced with gentle sarcasm and the two siblings repeatedly delight by finding new and ridiculous ways to disrupt these established stories. Book one in this series is Fairest of All.

The_Ruins_of_Gorlan_(Au)The Ranger’s Apprentice is a slightly older series perfect for lovers of world building or medieval fantasy. These books follow a young man named Will who becomes (wait for it) a ranger’s apprentice helping to protect a kingdom from a multitude of dastardly threats both internal and external. I was nervous to suggest these books to my nephew as I had not actually read them myself, but my nephew has fallen deep into their world. I asked him to tell me what he likes about the series and he explained that he is enjoying the way that the story is told from different perspectives, not just one narrator. He’s also relishing all of the action and appreciates the details that go into the development of different characters. Book one in this series is The Ruins of Gorlan.

New (Enough) Series to Dive into

This winter will be my fifth in Washington, which I am pretty sure makes me an expert by Malcom Gladwell’s standards. But I don’t think I am breaking any news when I say that winter in the PNW is long, grey, and wet. It’s not my favorite weather but it makes for a great excuse to do some of my favorite reading: multi-book series.

I have a method when I jump into these series: Start too early and I can’t deal with the wait between books. Suddenly I have the patience of a two-year-old, without the charm or the excuse of actually being two. But if I wait too long I feel woefully behind the times AND I miss out on the sweet agony that comes with waiting for the final book or two in a series. If I start reading when the series is 2 to 3 books deep, I am golden. I find that this is when a lot of series really start to open up; the world-building has gotten some attention, characters gain complexity, and that one guy who got on your nerves has probably been killed off.

Do you agree? Want to prove that I’m terribly mistaken? Here are a couple of great series that are right at my sweet spot:

coverfullSabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes would have hooked me as a well written YA fantasy series. But throw in the fact that it is loosely based on the Roman Empire? I never had a chance. The Martial Empire is the only clear power in this world. Like the Romans, the Martials wield great power through overwhelming force and ruthless cruelty. Their most fearsome tool is their squad of elite soldiers, the Masks, who possess near-superhuman strength and cunning and execute the will of the Emperor with dispassionate and merciless efficiency. The greatest victim of the Empire’s excesses and greed are the Scholars, once a flourishing tribe that has been largely reduced to an oppressed lower class. Those who have not been slaughtered or enslaved exist in the margins, living in relative squalor and clinging to their traditions the best they can.

An Ember in the Ashes follows Laia, a young woman who finds herself working for Scholar resistance, and Elias, a Mask determined to flee the Martials and reject the dehumanizing and unjust duties that await him as an agent of the Empire. They find themselves thrust together, two players in a dark and dastardly plot that threatens the Martial Empire, the remaining Scholars, and quite possibly the order of the entire known world.

Needless to say there is a ton of great historical fantasy out there. What sets this series apart is the skill with which Tahir patiently develops her world. It is masterfully crafted, with fantasy elements that slowly expand over time and unexpected plot developments that upend genre conventions. There are currently two books published in this series with a third due out in spring of 2018. Considering that the second, A Torch Against the Night, was even better than the first, I’m dying to get my hands on the next book.

81YaK2aYQkLThe Darktown series, by Thomas Mullen, might be a fairly standard police procedural but for one fact: it is set in Atlanta in the late 1940s and 1950s and the cops? They’re the first black police officers in the city. Unsurprisingly, these police officers are forced to negotiate a tenuous existence. They are the pride of their community, burdened with high expectations and a mandate to be model citizens and officers. Their victories will be everyone’s, but so will their failures. And yet they are hamstrung as law officers. They cannot carry guns or drive squad cars and they are forbidden from arresting white suspects. They are also, at best, despised by their white colleagues. At worst, they are cheated, beaten and framed by these officers who are disgusted to serve in an integrated police force.

Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith are two of the new officers facing these precarious circumstances. They make for a fun pair. Boggs is the dutiful son of a preacher while Smith likes a faster life, but they are both determined to do their duty and prove their place in the police force. When they begin to unravel the mystery of a young murdered woman and come to suspect a cover-up that involves white police officers and powerful politicians, they must find a way to pursue justice without jeopardizing the fragile and fledgling order that allows them to serve their city and protect their community.

I love the way that Mullen presents a classic detective story through racial and social historical lenses. I was reminded a lot of Richard Price’s police novels, but set in an earlier time where the lines between different communities were a little less blurred. Mullen clearly did his research, and brings a nuanced understanding of a fraught, divisive and transformative time in our history. Darktown’s sequel, Lightning Men, came out in September and I hope we will hear about a third book in the not-too-distant future.

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didn’t plan this, but the themes of otherness, power, and cruelty carry over into Southern Bastards, the third series I’ve been enjoying recently. Written by Jason Aaron, this comic is set in Craw County, Alabama where high school football is sacred and the local team’s legendary coach, Euless Boss, is somewhere between a god and king. The team’s unrivaled success has allowed Boss to run the county. The sheriff is his lap dog, he is widely feared, and he heads the local drug trade while using his players as goonish enforcers. Sometimes it is said that football coaches get away with murder. Euless Boss really does. Earl Tubb finds this arrangement unacceptable. Tubb, an aging, tough-as-nails veteran and former football star, returns to town with a haunted past and very little to lose. This sets the stage for a confrontation between two titans of Craw County, which truly is not big enough for the both of them.

This series is an over-the-top delight. Jason Latour’s illustrations perfectly capture a community rotting from the inside out, while Aaron tells a story that deftly snakes through the shared history of Craw County’s citizens. The focus of this series shifts several times, diving deep into characters’ lives to provide insight into their motivations and empathy for their actions. This is done with such careful precision that even a monster like Euless Boss might win you over. Southern Bastards currently has three published volumes, with a fourth due in February 2018.

Clearly I’ve had a hunger for dark tales of violence and corruption this fall. I promise I also read plenty of lighthearted and uplifting books. You know, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  Be sure to sound off in the comments and tell us what series you’re going to dig into this winter!

Heartwood 7:6 – Montauk by Max Frisch

Montauk is a short autofictional novel structured around a long-weekend tryst the narrator has with a woman, Lynn, some three decades his junior. The narrator has worked as an architect, and as a writer of plays and fiction, and the events recounted in Montauk very much resemble those in the life of the author. After meeting on business in New York City regarding a U.S. book tour, Max and Lynn drive to the book’s namesake town, on the eastern tip of Long Island, where they take lodgings, share a glancing intimacy along with strained discussions, cook meals, play ping-pong, go shopping, walk on the beach.

Something about this weekend trip causes Max to want to write about it in great detail. He’d like to be attentive to everything and to invent nothing, to step free of associations or reminiscences, to simply become so concentrated in a sort of raw presence that he might begin to speak to himself as he never has in his writing or life. Of course, to discover this desire to write it up while the weekend is still underway means he is already distancing himself, stepping outside of the moment so he can observe it. And it may well be that this weekend in a foreign town, on a short-term romantic fling he knows will not last beyond these few days, triggers in the Swiss narrator the need to reflect on his life and its many messy, often unresolved, relationships.

The book is composed of interwoven fragments that fluctuate between phenomenological attention to his immediate surroundings and longer recollections of important people and events in Max’s life. These include his friend W. (since estranged), who provided intellectual and financial support, his fledgling work as an architect, his successful work as a playwright and novelist, a couple of failed marriages, his strained domestic relationship with writer Ingeborg Bachmann, and his almost non-existent relationship with a distant daughter. (I read the Wikipedia entry on Frisch after finishing this novel and was interested to see that it corroborated or clarified particular details of the narrative.)

It bears mentioning that Frisch switches periodically between writing in first person and third person, and the storytelling can be a bit challenging to track at times, as he drops one subject to pick up or return to another. But not to worry, these shifts quickly sort themselves out as you get used to the writing style, and the momentum of the story carries you along

Max comes across as neither egotistical nor self-effacing, as capable of simple joy but also tortured by self-examination. Not least, he is aware of his various failings and that he is now entering the later stages of his life. The reader closes the book on this flawed but sympathetic character with an understanding of his moods, dreams, and frustrations, and just how essential the act of writing has been to him. And indeed Frisch has accomplished something very fine here (even if it’s not strictly delimited to the present, and we are unclear about how much of it is invented): this account of his long weekend, woven with his past as it is in his many flashbacks, observations, and reflections is beautifully and attentively done.

Lullaby and Goodnight, Please Don’t Torch Me While I Sleep Tonight

In the wake of the last month and a half of sexual assault and sexual harassment stories surfacing (and what a tsunami of a wake it’s been) Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and his son Owen King dovetails with these current scandals almost too well. The book itself is not a study in men vs. women but an unveiling of humanity’s war on each other. Does that make sense? Good. It did in my head anyway.

In the small town of Dooling, West Virginia (yeah, I was a little shocked that it wasn’t set in some quaint little Maine town where sewer clowns and rabid dogs reign supreme) an eerie, almost ageless beautiful woman (you ever notice it’s never some plain woman rolling into town to upend everyone’s lives?) arrives in town. Her name is Eve Black and she’s about to turn tiny Dooling inside out.

A strange plague has swept across the world. Women are falling asleep (sometimes in the middle of walking, driving, or eating dinner) and a peculiar gauzy cobweb of a cocoon spirals out from their skin to wrap them head to toe. These women aren’t dead but deeply asleep. Females in all corners of the world are succumbing. And the women of the Dooling Correctional Facility for Women begin to fall asleep one by one.

Sheriff Lila Norcross is running on fumes the first day that women begin to fall to the sleep disease. She’s been called out to a trailer meth lab where one of the dealer’s heads has been rammed through the side of the trailer, sticking out like some deer head mounted to a wall. A nude woman at the scene named Eve Black, a serenely beautiful (but non psychopath looking naked lady to be sure) takes credit for the deaths of two drug dealers and is handcuffed and peacefully gets into the back of Sheriff Norcross’s squad car. The woman unnerves Lila in a way that she doesn’t understand.

Dr. Clint Norcross, Lila’s husband, is the senior psychiatric officer at the Dooling women’s prison. Once Eve Black is settled into the prison (the labyrinth of the justice system is kinda skipped since everyone’s panicking about women falling asleep and men being left on their own to freak the floob out), Clint studies the strange woman. Now, reader, you know and I know that this Eve Black is a supernatural creature with designs of her own. But it takes the people of Dooling a little longer to catch on that she’s a part of the chaos that the sleep brings. Eve Black is able to fall asleep and wake up again without the cocoon growing from her face to wrap her body.

Frank Geary, the local animal control officer, has a volatile temper that frightens his estranged wife and his 11-year-old daughter. He’s not violent towards them but his anger is still terrifying. When the poop hits the fan and his wife and daughter fall asleep, Frank decides to take charge. By then almost all the women in town are asleep except for a handful who have access to meth and speed to keep themselves awake for a few hours longer. One of these women is Vanessa Lampley, Officer of Corrections at the women’s prison and the 2010 and 2011 Ohio Valley arm-wrestling champion. When she’s first introduced you don’t think she’s going to be a fairly major character but then the Kings surprise the heck out of you by giving her more air time, so to speak.

In the meantime, the women who fell asleep “wake up” in a Dooling that is deserted. There are no men, just the women who fell asleep. They begin to build a small but thriving society. None of the women know how it’s possible that they could fall asleep and wake up in a new Dooling to start their lives over again but they’re happier than they have been in a long while. Time passes much more quickly in this new place. But as New Dooling is getting settled some women start to disappear.

Back in old Dooling there are reports of men trying to wake loved ones in their cocoons. One news broadcast shows a man ripping away at the cocoon around his wife’s face only to have her rise up like a zombie berserker and tear into him. Men who had once been terrified of their female family members falling into a deep slumber (and many men who are blights upon society and don’t much care for women or will never admit they’re afraid of women) begin torch brigades. Yes, that’s exactly as it sounds: all over the world men are burning women in their cocoons. And Dooling is no different. People begin hiding the wrapped bodies of their loved ones in attics and basements to keep them safe.

The town of Dooling is falling into two different factions. One consists of Clint Norcross and a small band of men who want to protect the prison’s sleeping women and Eve Black because she is undoubtedly the catalyst for the slumbering women. The other group is made up of Frank Geary and a rag-tag bunch of idiots who shouldn’t be allowed scissors let alone guns. They make their way to the prison when they hear there’s a woman there by the name of Eve Black who may be the key to the disease. They’re not going there to have a friendly chat with her or sell her some Time Life books either.

Sleeping Beauties is not an anti-male or anti-female novel. In fact, it embraces humanity in all of its ugly and wonderful ways. Some of the characters, like Frank Geary, aren’t pure evil. Frank’s a father who will do anything to keep his little girl safe. Clint Norcross had a rough upbringing in foster homes where the adults would make the children fight for a milkshake. He’s not completely without shady machinations in this book but that’s exactly why it’s a fantastic read. There is no clear-cut good and evil. There is only human and slightly less human.

If you want to read a book that defies all your ideas about good and evil and makes you think about what you would do in a given situation, take a peek inside Sleeping Beauties. You may find yourself on both sides of the equation.

Except for those meth heads. Nobody’s on their side.

Hard Truths in a Brilliant Book

When it comes to books, movies, song lyrics, or pretty much anything else, I’m not exactly known for the power of my memory. It’s why I’ve never nailed a movie quote, why I can’t get to the grocery store without the maps app on my phone, and why I’m 90% sure the new Thor movie stars Chris Hemsworth and not Christopher Walken but I can’t say for sure without Google’s help. This might also explain why my favorite books at any given time are often the ones I’ve read most recently-they’re so clear in my mind!  

And yet this year the book that I’m still talking about, that is crystal clear in my mind, is one that I read waaaay back in March. The reason is simple and it has nothing to do with the Ginkgo Biloba I forget to take every morning. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas wasn’t just the best book I read this year, but was among the best I’ve read in a long time.

the-hate-u-giveThe narrator of this novel is a teenager named Starr Carter. Starr lives in a neighborhood that is majority black, under-served, and impoverished. Starr’s family has deep connections to their community; her mother is a nurse and her father owns the local convenience-style grocery store. Starr’s father also grew up there and made many mistakes as a younger man that continue to follow him. Rather than hide his past, however, he speaks honestly and uses his own experiences as a catalyst to help the young people around him. Although they embrace their community, Starr’s parents also want Starr and her brothers to have greater opportunities and send them to an expensive private school in the suburbs.

The Hate U Give opens with Starr attending a party where she encounters a childhood friend, Khalil. The party is interrupted when members of rival gangs come into conflict and gunshots are fired. Starr flees the party with Khalil who offers to drive her home. They are pulled over by the police seemingly for no reason other than the color of their skin. This traffic stop ends like many that have made headlines and provoked outrage in recent years. Khalil, an unarmed young black man, is shot dead by a white police officer. Starr witnesses all of this and finds herself with a gun in her own face during the incident leaving her deeply traumatized, enraged, and terrified.

This shooting occurs very early in The Hate U Give and the rest of the story traces its effect on Starr, her family, and her community. Starr’s parents are fearful for their daughter and encourage her to avoid the news crews and the activists who show up in the wake of this tragedy. At the same time, Starr sees her old friend Khalil get linked to drug dealers and local gangs and unjustly blamed for his own death. Her loyalties are further fractured by pressure from people in her neighborhood and her love for her uncle, who also happens to be a cop. As Starr’s life lurches forward she must figure out how to speak the truth about Khalil’s life and death without tearing apart her family and neighborhood or jeopardizing her own future.

Thomas’s skillful and thoughtful storytelling combined with the circumstances of the lethal shooting guarantee that The Hate U Give is both a topical and emotionally charged read. While I appreciate and value this story, the book is also a masterful consideration of Starr’s full life as a young black woman. Starr spends a considerable amount of emotional energy concerned with her own identity, worried about how she presents herself in her neighborhood and in the affluent school where she is surrounded by white classmates and friends. She is aware of the way that she code-switches, altering her speech, mannerisms, and appearance to adapt to these very different environments, and she is burdened by the guilt of hiding parts of herself at school while keeping secrets about her school life from her loved ones.

Thomas also explores the emotional weight of Starr being her community’s representative at her school and the unfair responsibility Starr feels to defend Khalil, as if his death is only unjust if he led a mistake-free life. It is this final point that ties back to the unconditional, unapologetic statement that black lives matter and that the onus to actualize this idea in our communities is on all of us, not just those facing oppression. This is a statement that can be difficult and uncomfortable to accept but through Starr’s eyes it feels essential and undeniable.

Heartwood 7:5 – One Out of Two by Daniel Sada

When their parents die suddenly in a highway accident, Gloria and Constitución, young identical twin sisters, vow to live their lives as a pair, sharing everything equally. They grow up with an aunt until the girls are ready to strike out on their own, which they eventually do, settling in Ocampo, a small town in northern Mexico, where they set up a tailoring business. They work hard, which seems to suit them and to offer its own rewards. They also find their work can shield them somewhat from participating in the town’s typical gossip and chatter, though they still have occasion to point a knitting needle to the sign they’ve posted: “We are busy professionals. Restrict your conversation to the business at hand. Please do not disturb us for no reason. Sincerely: the Gamal sisters.”

Of course, a vow to live inseparably is going to receive challenges, and the biggest one comes when their aunt invites them to the wedding of her son, Benigno. In her invitation she notes that this will be a great opportunity for them to meet men (she has been after them to find men and get married from the moment they moved out of her house). The twins flip a coin, having decided only one of them will go and the other will stay to keep on top of their many sewing orders.

Constitución wins the coin toss and prepares, among quite a bit of muted strife, to go to the wedding. Constitución does indeed meet a man there and he comes to see her in Ocampo one Sunday, the first of what turns out to be weekly visits. The twins eventually decide that they will take turns dating him, surreptitiously, on alternate Sundays. This weekly dating arrangement goes on for months and it introduces some jealousy and suspicion into the lives of the twins. I began to wonder how Oscar would not have discovered the fact that Constitución had a twin in a town noted for its busybodies and gossip, and he does indeed learn this near the end of this novella.

There are other things in this story that are clearly unrealistic, such as middle-aged twins who still choose to dress and wear their hair identically, and the deal-breaker their vow would place on individual development. So, I don’t know how I was so won over by this quirky and far-fetched story but there is something immensely satisfying about this little book. It’s partly due, I’m sure, to Sada’s warm and unusual style, which grew on me more and more as I read. But more than that, it’s the wonderful characters he has created in the twins, the sacrifice and impossible bond of their vow to be “one in two or two by now in one,” and the timeless quality of their small town life. Finally, the book is something of a paean to work: the duty of it, but also the shared, ongoing pleasure the seamstress twins seem to take in the restorative act of bringing together, of making whole and sound what had been (or could have been) torn or separate.