Heartwood 7:3 – The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

About a year ago, New Directions rereleased Helen DeWitt’s long out-of-print novel, The Last Samurai, which was accompanied by quite a bit of publicity, including this post on LitHub featuring glowing testimonials from various booksellers. But the buzz seemed to die down quickly in the months following, at least in the online spaces I haunt, so here’s my small effort to call attention once again to this remarkable book.

The cover of the reissue features an extreme-wide-angle, upside-down-and-tilted photo of subway cars in The Tube. It almost shouts challenging text ahead, which both increased my anticipation and made me a bit nervous, but I breathed a little easier as I flipped the pages of DeWitt’s Prologue which is immediately immersive, intelligent, and a bit snarky – it ends with a bang, promising great things ahead. I challenge anyone to read the Prologue and not be tempted to dive into the rest of the book.

At its most stripped-down, the story is about a single woman (Sibylla) who is raising and educating a genius child (Ludo) in London. She supports them by doing low-wage data entry work at home – work that is frequently interrupted to field the many questions from her precocious son. I don’t think there are many novels out there that could be considered page-turners which also, in the course of the narrative, explore the rudiments of Greek and Japanese, the educational ideas of John Stuart Mill, the artistry and deeper meanings beneath Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, or touch on such subjects as solid state physics, the principles of aerodynamics, or Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony.

But a page-turner it is. This is one of those books I could hardly wait to get back to every time I had to leave off reading. That’s not to say, however, that it won’t rub any number of readers the wrong way. I was put off at times by Ludo’s extreme braininess, and by Sibylla’s occasional pedantry and condescension. Others, I imagine, will be skimming the lessons in Greek, Kanji, and the “distributive principle of multiplication.” Stylistically, you should be prepared for paragraphs that simply trail off, a variable use of quotation marks to indicate dialogue, and the use of all caps when Sibylla gets worked up (especially against barbarism and the aesthetic excesses of certain writers and painters). And if you respond as I did, you may well come away from this regretting the quality of your own education and feeling that you wasted your youth (though also inspired, somehow, that maybe it’s not too late to catch up).

As Ludo grows up he becomes more obsessed with discovering who his father is, and though Sibylla will not help him with this, he corners her into dropping clues and making slips which he then pursues. With the film Seven Samurai always playing in the background, it may not surprise you to learn that Ludo has narrowed the field down to seven possible candidates. Much of the impetus for Ludo’s wide-ranging study comes from the specialized interests of these seven men, as he prepares himself to potentially encounter his father as a worthy opponent in the spirit of a samurai. The last half of the book includes Ludo hunting down these individuals, and these diverse tales should certainly please readers who enjoy following a character through various adventures and storylines.

I’m not sure how actively I’ll be attempting to teach myself Greek, but you can add my voice to those who found this an ambitious, inspired, unique, and totally successful piece of writing.

Spot-Lit for May 2017

Spot-Lit

This month’s list of fiction receiving the praise of reviewers, booksellers, and librarians from across the country includes quite a few titles with international settings or dealing with the subject of immigration.

Click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2017 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction.

The Race for the Roses

I’m not much for holidays and birthdays can kick it, but the first Saturday in May? That’s a day to celebrate.

I grew up in Saratoga Springs, a small city in upstate New York famous for it’s “Health, History and Horses.” Just outside of town lies Saratoga Battlefield, where the turning point of the American Revolution was fought. Throughout town there are natural springs with water famed for its restorative properties (if you can get over the rotten egg smell) that once brought celebrities, socialites and presidents to town. But Saratoga’s proudest reputation is as the Graveyard of Champions. Our racecourse, which first opened a month after the Battle of Gettysburg, is known for producing some of the most shocking upsets in racing history. This is where a horse fittingly named Upset beat the great Man o’ War, where Secretariat fell to Onion, and the latest Triple Crown Winner American Pharoah was defeated by Keen Ice. Like I said: health, history AND HORSES.

rawImage.jpg

My sweet Saratoga home

All of this is to say that I am very excited for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby when 20 spoiled three-year-olds will sprint a mile and a quarter vying for a blanket of roses, a spot in the record books, and a cool 1.425 million dollars. If you want to catch Derby fever, it’s not too late! We have plenty of great books to help you dive into the proud, storied, and often shady world of racing.

I can’t possibly start this list with anyone other than Dick Francis. Before becoming a prolific and celebrated mystery writer, Francis was a champion Steeplechase jockey in Britain. He even had the distinction of riding the Queen Mother’s horses for several years. After retiring, he brought his deep love and extensive knowledge of the sport to his writing, crafting clever mysteries with plots orbiting the world of racing. What truly sets Francis’ novels apart is his devotion to research. Whether his protagonist is a meteorologist, a lawyer, a veterinarian or a photographer, Francis clearly did his homework and I’ve always learned new and interesting facts from these fast-paced thrillers.

33a80220-c935-0132-4594-0ebc4eccb42fYou can’t really go wrong with any of Francis’ novels, but I’d suggest starting with his first. Dead Cert follows Alan York, a young jockey who witnesses the death of a fellow rider in a mid-race fall. York believes that this death was no accident, and he is determined to bring his friend’s killers to justice, no matter the cost. This cagey mystery in not only a wonderful introduction to Francis’ writing, it also features one of my all-time favorite chase scenes.

But enough with the Brits, you say, the Kentucky Derby is an American race! Fair enough. There are plenty of racing stories about desperation, cruelty and corruption at the racetrack. Jaimy Gordon’s National Book Award Winner, Lord of Misrule, is proof of that. Gordon brings you into the world of Indian Mound Downs, a run-down racetrack in 1970’s West Virginia. This novel follows a cast of hard-luck characters as they strive for their small slice of racing glory, be it through hard work, wisdom, deception, or methods far more sinister.

For even darker fare you can head to Kentucky, the heart of the American racing industry. The scope of C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings makes it difficult to summarize. This work spans the latter half of the 20th Century telling the story of a cruel and wealthy horseman determined to make racing history, his willful daughter, and a groom who helps tend to their horses. The picture Morgan paints is often ugly and does not flinch from confronting the lingering legacy of racism and bigotry in both the world of racing and America at large. This is a gut punch of a novel and goes far beyond the world of horses, but it’s also a fascinating look inside racing’s troubled world.

Scorpio-paperback-websiteIf you want your racing stories with a supernatural flare, try Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. On a small island surrounded by cruel stormy seas, lives revolve around a yearly race. But these races use no ordinary horses. Instead the jockeys ride on water horses, wild and unpredictable creatures that are herded from the sea and ridden by only the bravest, most reckless young men on the island. That is until Puck enters the race. Puck is the first female rider to ever enter the race, and many would love to see her fail. This is not an option for Puck, however; her family’s house and land depend on the outcome of the race. If this pressure is not enough for a young orphan trying to support her siblings, Puck must also fight to ignore her growing feelings for the race’s returning champion, a quiet young man with his own haunted past.

exterminator_cover_0Finally, I’ve got something for the history buffs. If you ask a casual racing fan about the winner of the 1918 Kentucky Derby, Exterminator, you are likely to get a blank stare. I’ll admit, I had never heard of him before reading Eliza McGraw’s Here Comes Exterminator!: The Long Shot Horse, the Great War, and the Making of an American Hero. Exterminator was a fascinating horse, a long-shot turned hero who raced an astounding 99 times in his career. McGraw expertly weaves Exterminator’s story into a larger saga that captures a snapshot of the United States in the years surrounding World War I, a traumatic time filled in equal measures with ebullient glamour and puritanical temperance.

Hopefully you are now feeling some small sliver of my excitement for Saturday’s race. And if you want to know who I like to win, you’ll have to find me in the Library.

To the Bright Edge of the World

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey is as picturesque as the title suggests. This novel will trigger a desire to witness firsthand the rugged wilds of Alaska. It is a mesmerizing story of adventure, mystery, historical fact, and folklore. I didn’t want the book to end! The epic journey begins at Fort Vancouver in Washington Territory and ends in the uncharted territory of the Yukon. Ivey’s book is rife with detail depicting Native American culture, the era of fur traders, and the pioneers.

The year is 1885 and Lieut. Col. Allen Forrester of the U.S. Calvary is commissioned to lead an expedition exploring the uncharted land beyond the Wolverine River. The journey will nearly cost him his life. He leaves behind his young wife Sophia. Sophia had planned to join the men but discovered she was pregnant shortly before the company was set to sail out of Portland harbor. Unwillingly, she takes the doctor’s advice and will not make the journey until many years later. Vibrant, curious, and not given to convention, Sophia discovers an inner strength and talent for wild life photography.

Through a series of letters written as a journal between husband and wife, the most intimate expressions of the heart are revealed: fear, frustration, loss, and the deep longing to see each other.

Set in the present, another series of letters giving an account of the historical expedition are exchanged between Walter Forrester, whose great-uncle was the colonel, and a young museum curator named Joshua living in the remote town of Alpine, Alaska. Through their correspondence a relationship is formed and the details of past and present come to life with actual photographs included.

Ivey’s reimagining of the Forrester’s story, which began over a hundred years ago and briefly describes their short time together, is followed by a beautiful story of courage, endurance, and the power of love. As for me, I thoroughly enjoyed being transported to a different time and an unforgettable place.

America Undone

It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel….a little itchy and anxious to be honest.

It is possible that I enjoyed myself an inappropriate amount while reading Omar El Akkad’s American War. The title probably betrays this fact, but this is not exactly a delightful romp. Set in the late 21st Century during the second Civil War, this novel 32283423presents an upsetting and eerily plausible portrayal of our near future. Ostensibly this war is fought over a national ban on fossil fuels, but the roots of the conflict creep far deeper into the national psyche, playing on centuries old resentments and cultural differences (but good news – “proud, pacifist Cascadia” is far from the front lines).

American War follows the life of a young woman named Sarat, born into a chaotic South devastated by flooding, famine, war, and the worst elements of humanity. Sarat spends her formative years in a refugee camp, witnessing both the fanatical partisanship of the Southern rebels and the cruel indifference of the Northern war machine. As Sarat grows older, she finds herself drawn into the war that has defined her existence, becoming an agent of death that will help shape history and bring about grave and devastating consequences.

So, yeah, I realize that doesn’t sound terribly cheery, but El Akkad’s deft narrative style sucked me deep into this novel. By mixing Sarat’s story with government dispatches, oral reports, written records and other “source material,” American War had the feel of an upsetting historical account. At the same time I found myself without context, unsure of how events would unfold and where bias existed in the presentation, but still burdened by the full knowledge of these events terrible impact.

Station_Eleven_CoverPerhaps I have a morbid streak as I have always enjoyed dark and disastrous accounts of imagined futures. For me, the immediate comparison for American War is Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Like American War, Station Eleven presents our future in stark and frightening terms – it follows a travelling Shakespearean troupe in the years after a viral pandemic devastates humanity, leaving only scattered pockets of survivors in its wake. It also shares American War’s storytelling technique, incorporating various source materials from before, during, and after the height of the catastrophe.

World_War_Z_book_coverI feel compelled to also mention World War Z, by Max Brooks. Please don’t judge this book because of the movie based on it. Designed to be read as an oral history, each section is narrated by a different survivor of a zombie apocalypse, describing responses and containment attempts by different groups across the globe. With this narrative Brooks crafts a book that is as much a consideration of international relations as it is a zombie novel. Rather than a work of horror, this is a novel of logistics and strategy in the face of terrible catastrophe. If you enjoy audiobooks, this title makes a particularly great listen as many talented and diverse voices were cast to portray the book’s narrators.

unwindNow, I’m a Youth Services Librarian and I just talked about three ADULT novels, so I have to plug some YA. The Unwind series by Neal Shusterman takes place after a second American civil war fought over reproductive rights. When partisan militias fight to a stalemate, a compromise is reached. Though abortion is outlawed, unwanted children between ages 13 and 18 can be “unwound,” a process through which they are physically dismantled and recycled for transplants. The justification for this macabre policy is that every part of the unwound teenagers is reused, and therefore the body lives on. I realize that this premise sounds as absurd as it is disgusting, but Shusterman is a masterful writer and takes the time to illustrate how this policy slowly developed at the hands of well-meaning policy makers. By the end of the series it feels a little too plausible for my comfort.

ashfallpb_hiresMike Mullin’s Ashfall also does a superb job portraying societal collapse. Ashfall follows a teen after the (very real) supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park erupts. Spoiler alert: things don’t go well unless you’re a fan of sunless days, endless winter, famine, and roving gangs of cannibals. Despite a whole lot of death and destruction, this is an enjoyable and ultimately hopeful series. Scientists confidently assert that this supervolcano won’t erupt anytime soon. Probably.

136471._SX1280_QL80_TTD_Finally, before I leave to ponder our impending ruin, I just want to mention one graphic novel. Y the Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra follows a twenty something slacker named Yorick and his pet monkey after a mysterious virus leaves them the only two living males of any species. Chaos quickly ensues and it is awesome.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this short walk from “great book” to “WE’RE ALL DOOMED.” If you need me, I’ll be taking deep breaths and either hiding under a desk or stockpiling canned goods.

Hard to Hide Crazy

I’m crazy. I can say that. I’ve been tested and found insane. I mean, it wasn’t an inkblot test where I see a cloudy black splotch and say it’s obviously Charles Manson teaching a fish how to fold fitted sheets. The test was more like a doctor asking me “How long have you felt this way (this way being medical talk for “depressed)?” I answered “All my life. And whatever lives I’ve lived before if reincarnation is actually a thing.” I know people will frown on me for equating depression with the term ‘crazy’ because when people hear the word ‘crazy’ they think of toothless people who smell like urine yelling at a wall while addressing it as Mr. Stalin.

I call myself crazy because it’s oddly more acceptable than admitting I’m in a decades long battle with mental illness and all I’m armed with is a spork and a smart mouth. And for a VERY long time I hid my anxiety/depression from a lot of people, even some members of my family not only because I was (am?) ashamed of it, but because I didn’t want to get the ‘look.’ You know the one I’m talking about. A couple people, friends or co-workers, find out you struggle with a mental illness and they raise an eyebrow in a way that says “That explains A LOT.”

Along with the look is the way some people will treat you, like you’re fragile: stumbling on the edge of something horrible and the next thing they say will send you right over the edge so they speak to you like you’re a freaked out cat hiding under the bed with a rubber band wrapped around its tail. I’m not fragile. Not outwardly. I’m funny and an extrovert while I’m at work. Well, at least I think I’m funny. I can sometimes hear my boss sigh like ‘Oh my God, dial it down a notch, Jennifer.’ I’m not totally out of the depression closet but I don’t go up to strangers and say “I get sad for reasons I will probably never understand.” I don’t let my crazy show too soon. You gotta dole that stuff out bit by bit.

When I started reading Eric Lindstrom’s A Tragic Kind of Wonderful, I recognized and fell in love with Mel Hannigan, a 16-year-old girl with bipolar depression. I’m not bipolar but I empathized with everything Mel was going through. She had an older brother named Nolan who was also bipolar. She never comes out and says he died, but I don’t think me writing that fact is a spoiler alert. She and her mother have moved to a house left to them by Mel’s grandma shortly after Nolan’s death.

Mel’s Aunt Joan has moved in with them. Mel calls her HJ (Hurricane Joan) because she suffers from bipolar depression as well. I’m no expert but here’s the low-down on bipolar depression: not all people experience it in the same way. Some people get bitchin’ highs, the manic side of bipolar, and they’re so full of energy they don’t sleep for days. They have all of these ideas and plans and they’re going going going. And then they crash into a deep depression. Mel keeps track of her moods in a clever way (that I think I might steal): She refers to her moods by referring to them as animals:

Hamster is Active

Hummingbird is Hovering

Hammerhead is Cruising

Hanniganimal is UP!

The Hamster is her head, her pattern and speed of thinking. The Hummingbird is her heart, how fast it’s beating or ‘speeding.’ The Hammerhead is her physical health: “Cruising when I’m fine, slogging or thrashing if I’m sick.”

Mel works in a retirement home and has a special knack with older people. There’s Dr. Jordan, a retired psychiatrist who is the only person outside her family who knows about her mental illness. He checks in on her without pressuring her and she’s comfortable talking with him. There’s a new resident who just moved in, Ms. Li, who has a grandson named David who seems like a jerk at first. But there’s a definite attraction between him and Mel.

That’s another thing that worries her: relationships and her mental illness. It’s not an exaggeration to say that some people will head for the hills as soon as they find out you have depression/or are bipolar. Or even if a relationship is working out, the fear is very real that your significant other will get bored or fed up with your brain and will leave. Mel’s not even sure a relationship would work with anyone.

And friendships are also a problem. Someone you thought of as your best friend can call you a bummer and say adios. It’s a risk. A year ago Mel had a group of friends she was joined at the hip with. Annie, Connor, and Zumi. Annie was the alpha of the group and I’ll go ahead and say it: she was a real manipulative bitch. If something didn’t interest her or had nothing to do with her, she’d ignore it, even if it’s something that mattered to a friend. Mel’s not really fond of her but Zumi is in love with Annie even though her love is egged on by Annie but unrequited. Zumi is Mel’s best friend along with Connor who seems to play the role of the only dude in a trio of girls.

Mel never tells them that she had a brother named Nolan. She also doesn’t tell them about her bipolar depression because she is a little ashamed of it and she doesn’t know how they would react. Then something happens that ends the friendships, leaving Mel out in the cold. A year later Mel makes two new friends, Declan and Holly. She doesn’t tell them either. I get it. When you keep something that big from friends or family members, you feel like you’re protecting them. And at the same time, you feel like you’re protecting yourself.

But Mel’s past makes an unwanted appearance when she thinks she’s coping pretty well and doing everything she can to deal with her mental illness. She begins to amp up, the illness taking over her mind, to the point of no return for her.

Eric Lindstrom’s beautifully written book about mental illness is a must read for anyone struggling with depression and for loved ones who want to help and understand the illness better. Not only is it a good story in itself, but it’s also a way to help others open up and ask for help.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for my medication.

My Raccoon is half asleep

Otter is swimming

Squirrel is snacking.

No seriously, there’s a damn squirrel in the bird feeder again.

Spot-Lit for April 2017

Spot-Lit

These titles – from established, new, and emerging authors (along with some previously unpublished stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald) – are some of the most anticipated new releases of the month, based on advance reviews and book world enthusiasm. Those of you on the lookout for new writers might want to consider the much-buzzed debuts Marlena and American War.

But don’t stop there, click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2017 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction.