Are books contagious? Could the virus now circling the globe be hiding in the pages of a library book? Librarians strongly advise not trying to wash down the pages of your library books with Purell, but the Library of Congress has closed and Ron Charles of the Washington Post notes books returned to the library may have to be quarantined. He writes about the Great Books Scare in the eighteenth century when books were sterilized by fire, and advises us to “…stay alert to what might ignite such paranoia again.”
When customers are fighting over the last ream of toilet paper, and breathing seems optional or even dangerous, a book can be as comforting as chocolate. Fiction can take you somewhere else for a while. I have a friend who does not check out books from the library, preferring to order audible or ebooks, sometimes buying one new. I do have two books from the library:
- All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg
- A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende
It is somewhat reassuring that I am the first to check them out.
But my savior may be Eric Larson’s new nonfiction book, The Splendid and the Vile, which I pre-ordered and received in the mail in its spanking new condition. There’s a different aroma from a new book, and it’s comforting to turn crisp clean pages, but despite Larson’s subject matter, his story may be reassuring. As Larson describes Churchill’s calm leadership dealing with the escalation of World War II in Britain in the year before America joined the fray, the story evolves like fiction. Yet it is not. It’s a good reminder; the worst happens again and again, and somehow we manage.
What are you reading?
I found Rosamund Lupton in Heathrow airport during a long layover, and devoured her debut novel Sister before I boarded the plane. Since then I have anxiously waited for her novels to travel across the pond; but Three Hours was too long to wait. I still have not seen it in stores here but I found it through the Book Depository and escaped into its world, reading through it in one day. I love it when a book captures me; it’s been a while since a story has been so compelling.
Three Hours reminded me of the first of Ann Patchett’s novels, Bel Canto, with its theme of hostages, terror, lives intersecting and morphing into positive and negative influences, with a well constructed plot leading to surprises at the end. Lupton updates her characters to students in a liberal British school, unknowingly infiltrated by a psychopath who has connected with a hate filled group. Students tweet and send messages through all the current social media and learn how to make bombs and adapt machine guns on the internet; they are more adept than their teachers and parents, of course. Two Syrian refugees, one who proves to be a hero, provide the fulcrum as the story unravels through three hours of terror in the school.
So much happens, the three hours could have been weeks, as the reader watches students, teachers, parents, and the attackers through the lens of innocence and bias. Macbeth plays a pivotal role on the story, and as someone who has read and taught the play, I was impressed by how Lupton integrates Shakespeare’s universal themes into today’s world. As their fellow students are held hostage in the library, barricaded by books, and in a small pottery shed, making clay animals, the seniors rehearse the play in the seemingly foolproof theater. The play’s murders and the infamous witches are suddenly relevant to the horror around them, and Birnam Wood will never be the same.
A fast paced thriller with not so subtle implications for today’s world, Three Hours is another of Lupton’s amazing rides.
I was inclined to not like this book with so much going against it – Oprah picked it for her book club and several literary reviewers were critical of the author’s credentials to write about the topic. From the moment I started reading American Dirt, I could not put it down. Jeanine Cummins does not have the easy style of Isabel Allende or Sandra Cisneros nor the entrancing wording of Zafon or the magic of Marquez, but she knows how to tell a story.
American Dirt is the tale of a mother and her son trying to escape from a Mexican drug cartel after they witnessed the brutal murder of everyone they loved, including their grandmother, at a family barbecue. Luca is the brave intelligent eight year old with a penchant for memorizing geographical details; his mother, Lydia, is the college educated book store owner. Her husband Sebastian was the investigative journalist whose inflammatory articles precipitated the slaughter.
Following Lydia and Luca as they narrowly escape through roadblocks, walk miles in the scorching heat, and hoist themselves onto the tops of cargo trains, creates a thrilling and breathless image of migrants trying to escape. Their flight to the North, as they leave behind their home, their language and culture, and their lifetime friends is depicted as their the only choice to be able to survive.
Cummins sometimes reverts to flowery descriptions, perhaps trying to balance the horrors, and sprinkles Spanish idioms and words into conversations, perhaps to offer authenticity. Both can be annoying distractions. As the story develops, the journey is harrowing and fearful, with the tenseness of a thriller and the expectation and hope that all will be well in the end. Cummins’ characters reveal the best and worst of themselves and of humanity.
The book ends on a hopeful note, with room for speculation about what new challenges the future will bring, but Cummins adds fifteen pages in her notes and acknowledgements at the end, explaining the purpose of the book, how she wrote it, and why she hopes reading it will change readers’ view of migrants and border policy – perhaps stirring the controversy she now finds in some of the reactions to the book.
The story is a thrilling page-turner. Although the characters and scenes may be stereotypical, the historical notes are disturbing and timely. As far as whether or not Cummins had the right to write the book, Leon Krauze noted in Slate:
“There is no reason, literary or otherwise, to challenge an author’s legitimacy to tackle any topic, much less based on her ethnicity or nationality. In both literature and journalism, examples abound of brilliant authors who have illuminated countries and themes that were, initially, outside their familiar milieu…”
However, he goes on to say Cummins’ main characters are frauds. Migrants fleeing to the North ” are escaping poverty, not financially stable family lives. They do not run bookshops with a hidden section of favorite authors, but work in the fields, often struggling to feed their families. They are often fleeing drunk, abusive, or absent husbands, not an awkward love triangle with a smitten narco dandy.” And, he notes, leaders of drug cartels could never be Bill Gates in this or any life, as the author suggests in describing her villain, Javier, the handsome aspiring poet who loves to read “Love in the Time of Cholera” (another Oprah pick).
Right, this is fiction, isn’t it? Not a documentary. Is the danger that some readers will forget? Maybe…
After reading Ann Napolitano’s essay ” Dear Me ” in the Sunday New York Times, I was intrigued by her idea to write letters to her future self. Since her new novel has the salutation Dear Edward, I expected one of the characters in the novel to do the same – write letters to himself to be read in the future. i was wrong; letters do play a prominent role in the novel but from others to the main character, Edward.
In her novel, now on the bestseller list, Napolitano examines the coming of age of a twelve year old boy who is the lone survivor of an airplane crash. All other passengers (191) including his parents and older brother die. In her afterward, the author explains how she was inspired by a real story of a commercial flight from South Africa to London crashing in Libya in 2010 with only a nine year old boy surviving. Her survivor is Edward who is relocating with his parents from New York City to Los Angeles. Jane, his mother, is sitting in first class to finish the script of a movie she has been hired to edit, while Eddie is with his father and teenage brother in the back of the plane; Eddie has the window seat.
The reader knows early in the story about the crash and the author deftly maneuvers between the countdown to the inevitable in the plane cabin and Eddie’s new life with his aunt and uncle. Watching Eddie through his physical recovery, his metal anguish and survivor’s guilt, and his adjustment to his new life is not always easy but getting to know the passengers in first class with Eddie’s mother and in coach with his family has its merits, as long as you can forget they are all about to die. Eddie’s interaction with them is superfluous and fleeting yet their lives have a significant impact later when he receives letters from their relatives and friends.
Napolitano notes her writing is about “how we can make a meaningful life in the face of a devastating loss.” Her scenario is extreme but we probably all can relate to someone who has managed to survive the unexpected and carry on successfully with the new normal in their lives.
I still like Napolitano’s idea of writing to herself in the future; letters can be powerful in a world where they have been replaced by faster electronic communication. I may write a letter to my future self; I just hope I can remember where it is in five years.