Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things, by Amy Dickinson

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There are many reasons to write a memoir: to work through a personal trauma, to leave a record for your family, to try to understand how you’ve gotten to this place in your life, to name just a few. Not all such memoirs are appropriate for publication, or in fact written with publication in mind.

While it’s true that for a few years there were quite a few illness and grief memoirs published that were thought to be useful to others suffering similar calamities, that time has passed. With such a glut of what my friend calls “woe-is-me” memoirs, publishers and the reading public look for something more than a sad story.

To be commercially published today, memoirs must be well-written—always a priority!—and addressing some larger social issue, something that the general public will find interesting. Take, for example, Hillbilly Elegy which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. True, it had a bit too much woe-is-me for my taste, but it hit the mark commercially by telling the inside story of what it’s like to grow up in the white working class in an environment where there’s not much work anymore.

You’re probably already raising your hand and saying, “But what about . . .?” Yes, the exception to this rule is a memoir by a celebrity. Fame is a peculiar sort of intimacy, where we feel we know someone from their shows or books, but at the same time know that we don’t know them at all. I recently devoured The Memory of All That, a memoir by Betsy Blair’s memoir of her marriage to Gene Kelly. As a huge fan, I was relieved to find him portrayed as the truly decent man I’d thought him.

Dickinson’s memoir wins on all three counts. Roughly chronological, the story flows well, written in forthright prose sweetened by a generous dose of humor. While pulling no punches in telling her own story, Dickinson invites us to look at families and small-town life, how we are different and how we are the same. And as the author of the syndicated “Ask Amy” column and a regular on Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me . . . !, she has a legion of fans already.

And did I say it was funny? I actually laughed aloud, startling the cat into bolting from the room. Most of the humor is directed at herself and her own foibles, but she doesn’t hesitate to bring out the quirks in those around her. She says of her mother:

One of Jane’s primary modes of home decorating was to saw the legs off of things. You’d go upstairs to bed at night, and in the morning when you came back downstairs, the kitchen table had become a coffee table. Growing up, we got used to it.

People in my memoir classes often ask how to handle criticising family or friends. They want to tell their story honestly but avoid hurting or offending other people. I believe the key is to respect their privacy as much as possible and, when you have to show them in a bad light, do it with love. Try to understand why they behaved as they did. One factor in The Glass Castle’s success was the way Jeannette Walls told us all the horrible things her parents did, yet she always spoke of them with love and explained their reasoning.

In this book, Dickinson is generous and truly writes from love, even about her ne’er-do-well father who not only abandoned the family but sold off all their assets and absconded with the money.

When you need a laugh or reassurance that life can be crazy and good at the same time, pick up this book. It is an excellent read: honest, plain-spoken, and full of the humor found in daily life.

Can you recommend a warm and humorous book? Or share a joke?

Hélène, by Deborah Poe

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In this chapbook of poems, a young woman, Hélène, works in a factory-convent in 19c France weaving silk. As described in the epigraph from Foucault girls entered these factory-convents at thirteen and stayed for years, confined and watched over by nuns. Their wages were kept back and only given to them when they left at 21, after food and lodging were deducted.

Hélène’s factory is located in the village of Jujurieux in Ain, not that she knows the village; enclosed by the factory walls, her days consist of “nine hours weaving and three hours teaching” by which she means being taught. She speaks admiringly of “the benefactor” who has created this golden prison, who “offered something other than work on farms.”

The first poem is so dense with images, images without context, that the reader is overwhelmed. Only gradually do they begin to cohere and convey meaning. Thus we experience what Hélène, must have felt on first entering the enclosed world of the factory and her awe at seeing the glorious silk tapestries that she will have a hand in creating. The book’s beautiful cover gives us a taste of that glory.

Other poems are bare statements, stripped to the bone yet still carrying the weight of the story that emerges from these pages. It is Hélène’s story, of finding a friend among the “mummied” girls, of her own fall and its consequences. Poe gives us only the ghost outlines of a story, leave more than the usual space for the reader to fill in with her imagination.

Hélène’s story is much more than this simple outline. As her loneliness and restlessness grow, she escapes into a fantasy of living in China herself, feeding mulberry leaves to the worm, imagining how the secrets of silk “wandered via nomads along elongated slender grasslands.”

The other epigraph is from Chuang-Tzu about the use and limitation of words. Together these epigraphs signal the twin concerns of this book: imprisonment and art.

The brevity of the poems reinforces the sense of confinement, the silencing of the girls. Hélène compares herself to the work in cocoon, saying “Feel but tell no one a way of being.” Even the accents of her name seem to enclose her.

Poe uses additional quotes from Chuang-Tzu to signal and suggest hinge moments in Hélène’s story. Poe also makes effective use of the Japanese poetic technique of the kakekotoba, or pivot word, one that carries two meanings, such as when she says of the factory’s architecture “it looms straight down.” Hélène becomes entranced with individual words and the world of meaning each can hold.

Gently, always leaving space for us to make Hélène’s story our own, Poe juxtaposes the beauty of the silk tapestries with the working conditions of the time. We cannot help asking ourselves what confines us and how we escape. As readers and writers, words are our tools and our drugs; they are the keys that open our memory and senses and imagination. Hélène’s story gives us room to ponder what we dream and how we are transformed.

What confines you? How do you escape?

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance

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As often happens when I get around to reading a much-hyped book, I was disappointed by this best-selling memoir. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio, a Rust Belt town whose once-robust steel industry attracted many folks from Kentucky. Now a Yale-educated lawyer, his childhood was one of poverty, violence, drugs, and chaos—which he says is common in what he calls his hillbilly culture.

While he acknowledges the effect of a failing economy, Vance also says these evils are embedded in his culture. This balanced look at what holds people in poverty–both society’s structural problems and personal failings–is why the book appeals to both liberals and conservatives. Vance is the first to deny that he “pulled himself up by his bootstraps”–the conservatives’ solution–and to assert that it won’t help to simply spend more money on programs (jobs, training, etc.)–the liberals’ solution.

The major claim admiring reviewers make for this book is that it is, as Jennifer Senior in The New York Times puts it, “a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion, particularly the ascent of Donald J. Trump.”

Yet Vance himself is careful to say in his introduction that he is writing about a specific “group of people I know—working-class whites with ties to Appalachia.” It’s dangerous to assign a singular character to all the members of a group, and there has been pushback against Vance’s characterisation of all hillbillies as violent, unwilling to work, patriotic and proud while succumbing to welfare dependency and/or drug addiction. As one commenter on Rod Dreher’s interview with Vance said:

I worked as an ER nurse for several years in a mountainous region of upstate NY with lots of white poor people. There was also a small (less than 5%) population of poor black people. I saw the same pathologies in both groups of people: alcoholism, joblessness, domestic violence, broken families, drug overdoses, etc. I also saw people busting their butts working 2-3 jobs, going to church, and doing their best in very difficult situations . . .

As she asserts, there are plenty of “working-class whites with ties to Appalachia” who don’t fit Vance’s stereotype. And like her, some reviewers noted that the problems Vance sees for whites are similar to those that have long been faced by poor people of color.

I was mostly interested in the relatively brief sections of analysis in Vance’s book. The rest of the book is his account of his childhood and becomes what one friend of mine calls “another woe-is-me story”. The physical and emotional abuse is tremendous and I certainly feel for the child, but the unrelenting focus on his own hardships turns the other people in his story into one-dimensional stereotypes. His sister is an angel who protects him. His mother, a violent drug addict, seems deranged. Although they can be violent as well, his grandparents are always fiercely loving toward him. There is no attempt to understand the nuances of these people or the forces acting on them. Of course, one expects a child to be self-centered and not understand much about others, but Vance is writing this as an adult looking back.

What Vance does do very well, though, is to open himself up. He shares his fears and failures and weaknesses, something that’s awfully hard to do, but necessary if you want a memoir to work.

While the superficiality of the characters and the “woe-is-me” preoccupation disappointed me, I was more disturbed by his double standard. He’s extremely critical of people who take welfare, but is himself grateful to go to college on taxpayers’ money and to law school on scholarship. It’s okay for him to take handouts but not for others.

He has bought the conservative fantasy that people on welfare and food stamps are living high on the hog. Having been on welfare, I find this laughable. Vance is certain that undeserving people on welfare are getting much more than he is, citing his jealous anger that people on welfare had cell phones while he didn’t. Apparently he is not aware of programs that provide cell phones to poor people. His anger would be better directed at his mother for taking drugs and cycling through boyfriends and husbands instead of providing for him and his sister. What welfare does do–in its meager and grudging way–is to provide a little stability for vulnerable families, something that would have benefited his family.

He also trots out the urban legend of seeing someone on food stamps buying a steak, a favorite story among conservatives many of whom claim to have seen this with their own eyes or know someone who has. If it really did happen—and as someone who was on food stamps for several years, I find it extremely unlikely—and if he took a moment to think about it, he would realise that with less than $23 for an entire week’s worth of food, anyone buying a steak is going to be starving the rest of the week.

I do agree with him about the mix of structural obstacles (e.g., failing economy, shortage of good jobs) and the lack of what he calls individual agency. I call it personal responsibility. However, his path is not a solution for every child suffering in poverty, as another commenter on the interview quoted from above says:

Whether the kids are black, Hispanic, white, or Asian, the same dictum applies: if your solution to get the next generation out of poverty is be extremely smart, work incredibly hard at school, ignore temptations to stop working hard at school, and to take on thousands in debt or owe years to the military in order to get a 4 year degree, then you have no solution. Solutions can’t require extraordinary people. They have to work for ordinary people.

Vance is right to be proud of his accomplishments. And I agree with his recommendations for helping others to succeed. They are similar to those I made in my own memoir of poverty: instead of segregating the poor in ghettos, give them the opportunity to mingle with all levels including the middle class; make sure there are mentors who will help them envision a different future, believe it is possible, and then achieve it. He adds that the definition of family alternatives to foster care should be expanded to include grandparents and aunts and uncles.

I love that Vance credits those who helped him on his way: his grandparents, the Marine Corps, his sister, his aunt and uncle, teachers, and friends. As he says, “There were many thumbs put on my scale. When I look back at my life, what jumps out is how many variables had to fall in place in order to give me a chance.”

The beauty of memoir is that it enables us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Many people have found this memoir a valuable look at what is to them an unfamiliar culture. It’s always a bit dangerous to assume that your experience can exemplify an entire culture. Nevertheless, this book adds to the discussion of poverty in the United States.

What memoirs have introduced you to another way of life?

Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse

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Another Middle Grade coming-of-age story told in verse—pure coincidence that this was next up on my TBR (to be read) pile when I stopped to read Brown Girl Dreaming. Hesse’s story is also a Newbery winner but is fiction rather than memoir. Thirteen-year-old Billie Jo loves playing the piano when she isn’t busy helping her father and pregnant mother try to keep body and soul together in Dust Bowl Oklahoma.

She is good enough to be asked to play in shows, often with handsome Mad Dog. If she gets well enough known with her music, she can leave the failing farm and the ubiquitous dust behind and go to California. Then a terrible accident throws all her plans into disarray.

Spanning a two-year period from January 1934 to December 1935, these poems paint a vivid picture of what life was like during that terrible time. She describes having to turn the glasses and plates upside down on the table until the last second before serving the meal, and still the food is saturated with dust. There is the heartbreak of a field of wheat, already decimated by drought and wind, be flattened by hail or devoured by grasshoppers.

In some aspects, Billie Jo’s life is similar to many teens: wanting more independence than her mother is willing to give her, feeling as though she’s stuck in the middle of nowhere. When her teacher is in a production of Madame Butterfly, and Mad Dog says that “most everyone’s” heard of that opera, Billie Jo is miffed.

How does that
singing plowboy know something I don’t?
And how much more is out there
most everyone else has heard of
except me?

And she has a best friend. But when Livie leaves for California with her family, Billie Jo says, “I couldn’t get the muscles in my throat relaxed enough / to tell her how much I’d miss her.”

Poetry works well as a form for this novel. The fractured narrative adds to the feeling that you are reading a diary. Also, the necessary compression distills each scene into its essence while retaining the emotional impact. Hesse makes effective use of symbols as well, such as the mother’s special cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving. Here is one complete poem, called “Broken Promise”:

It rained
a little
everywhere
but here.

Other poems are longer and tell a more complete narrative, such as “Blankets of Black” about going to Texhoma for Grandma Lucas’s funeral. Billie Jo’s detailed description of the ordeal is riveting.

While written for ages 11-14, Billie Jo’s story will certainly appeal to adults as well. For younger readers, it’s a good introduction to the terrible tragedy of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during the Depression.

Have you read a Young Adult or Middle Grade novel that brought an historical period to life for you?

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

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Woodson’s memoir in verse invites the reader into her childhood. Reading these poems felt as though Woodson and I were leafing through a photograph album while she told me about these people and places.

Her family’s story, like so many of ours, is a fractured one, with lots of moving around and relationships that fall apart due to death and divorce. Being people of color during the 1960s and 1970s adds further complications. Still, there is a strong current of love and security holding the family and their story together.

In “home” she writes of being taken as a newborn to meet her grandparents in South Carolina. She describes the porch, the azaleas, the red dust on her mother’s shoes. Then:

Welcome home, my grandparents say
    Their warm brown
arms around us. A white handkerchief,
    embroidered with blue
to wipe away my mother’s tears.
    And me,
the new baby, set deep
inside this love.

This book has won several awards, including the Newbery Honor, and was chosen as the 2017 book for Vermont Reads. While it falls in the children’s book category, it appeals to adults as well.

The title tells you all you need to know about the book to entice you into reading it. While being a perfectly straight-forward description of what the book is about, the title also gives you an idea of how the story will be told. The reversed syntax is intriguing, and the startling use of “brown” let’s you know that we are going to sidestep stereotypes about race and speak plainly .

Here’s the opening of “rivers”:

The Hocking River moves like a flowing arm away
from the Ohio River
runs through towns as though
it’s chasing its own freedom, the same way
the Ohio runs north from Virginia until
it’s safely away
from the South.

Most of all, the compression and music of these three words place you in the realm of poetry. It’s had to resist hearing the echo of the opening of Langston Hughes’s great poem “Dream Deferred”:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?

As I’ve mentioned before poetry works well for memoir because of its fragmentary nature. Gathering poems together in a collection such as this doesn’t create the same sort of linear narrative as a prose memoir.

For me, finding that narrative was the hardest part of writing my memoir. Life does follow a neat narrative arc. When we’re in the midst of it, our life seems chaotic and subject to chance; it’s only later that we try to impose some sort of coherent story out of it. Thus, capturing the past in individual poems And it actually reflects how memory works: it throws up a scene seemingly at random, and we are left to make sense of it.

Then the challenge for the poet is to find a way to make these fragments of memory, these separate scenes hang together without the usual transition tools. Woodson accomplishes this with deceptive ease. Arranged chronologically, the poems sometimes also reach back to tell stories of her parents and siblings and other family members.

This is a book that all ages will enjoy. One of the great benefits of reading is the opportunity to step into another person’s life and see the world through their eyes. I’m grateful to Woodson for her gift of her story, much of which reminded me of my own childhood and even more that helped me understand another kind of experience.

Does your state choose a book each year for everyone to read and discuss? If so, which book was chosen this year?

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, by Francine Prose

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Intrigued by a photograph of a lesbian couple in a nightclub by Hungarian-born French photographer Brassaï, Francine Prose investigated further and found a blockbuster story. She considered writing it as nonfiction, but chose instead to use it as the basis for a novel.

Like the tuxedo-clad Violette Morris in Brassaï’s photograph, Lou Villars is an Olympic-bound athlete and a race car driver in 1920s Paris. She’s also an habitué of the fictional Chameleon Club, a gaudy, anything-goes nightclub. As the next war looms, she is recruited to spy for Nazi Germany and goes on to become famous for rooting out and torturing members of the Resistance.

I felt immediately at home in the milieu of this book, which was a bit puzzling because I’ve never been to Paris, much less seen its streetlights gleaming on rainwet streets or enjoyed the burlesque shows—onstage and off—of its nightclubs. Then I realised my familiarity came from my obsessive reading forty-five years ago of Anais Nin’s diaries and novels, as well as books about Romaine Brooks, Natalie Barney, and their circle. I also spent some time a few years ago studying poet Hope Mirrlees, particularly her spectacular 1920 poem “Paris”.

Villars’s story is told by multiple narrators. There are letters to his parents from Gabor Tsenyi, a Hungarian photographer like Brassaï. We have memoirs from Tsenyi’s lover Suzanne, his wealthy patron Baroness Lily de Rossignol, and his best friend, the American writer Lionel Maine, seemly based on Henry Miller with his preoccupation with drinking and womanising. Finally, and providing much of the structure of the story, there are excerpts from a self-published biography of Villars by Nathalie Dunois, a relative of Tsenyi’s lover Suzanne.

Interestingly, we never hear directly from Lou herself, raising questions of identity and historicity. Given that we only learn about her through others, whose own reliability is dubious, we cannot help but consider the fallibility of memory and self-interested testimony. As readers, we are left to judge for ourselves how much to trust each of these sources.

I struggled with the first part of the book, as I tried to sort out the narrators, get a handle on the large cast of characters, and figure out where and in whom the story lay. I abandoned it for a while, but am glad I came back because it picked up about two-thirds of the way through. And I think the multiple narrators lift this book above the ordinary.

What fascinates me most in this story is the trajectory between good and evil. If we were only presented with Lou Villars in her later incarnation as traitor and torturer, we would think her a monster. But here we start with her as a child, devoted to her mentally ill brother. I don’t know who said it first, but a now-common piece of advice for writers is that even the villain thinks he is the hero of his story. What this means is that if we are to present them as fully realised characters, we must dig deep into our villain and try to understand why he or she thinks what they are doing is right.

In my recent review of Julian Barnes’s novel about Shostakovich’s life under Stalin, I said that these days I am absorbed by the question of how to live a good life, how to negotiate the inevitable choices and compromises we face. I think often of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead where the two courtiers wonder if there was a moment where they could have chosen differently and, if so, how could they have missed it? Is it ever too late to go back and choose differently?

Through her melange of voices, Prose helps us understand Villars’s choices and compromises. It is a story that never grows old for me. As the world seems more and more to be taken over by dishonest and greedy people who laugh at the harm they inflict on others, I look to stories such as this to help me understand how a good person turns to evil.

Have you read a novel with multiple narrators? What did you think of it?

Prayers for the Stolen, by Jennifer Clement

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This is a novel. We are reminded several times that it is fiction. But it tells the truth about what happens to women and girls in a Mexico ruled by drug cartels.

Ladydi Garcia Martínez is such a girl. She lives with her mother in the mountains of Guerrero, in a place where there are no men. They have all gone to the U.S. or nearby Acapulco to work or joined the narcos. The mothers pretend their girls are boys for as long as possible to protect them from being taken by the narcos.

Telling her story in an irresistible voice, Ladydi gives us the world as she sees it. Everything that happens is, of course, the most natural thing in the world to her, whether it’s her mother’s sorcery, her friend Maria confronting a snake or finding a poppy field hidden in the mountains. She’s smart yet credulous, caring yet cautious, loyal yet curious.

Her mother is a force of nature. Furious at her husband for deserting the family—like most of the men who have gone to the U.S. he no longer visits and has stopped sending money—she dreams up ever more elaborate revenges. Her maxims and predictions seem cockeyed at first but then make sense in their own way.

Ever since I was a child my mother had told me to say a prayer for some thing. We always did. I had prayed for the clouds and pajamas. I had prayed for light bulbs and bees.

Don’t ever pray for love and health, Mother said. Or money. If God hears what you really want, He will not give it to you. Guaranteed.

When my father left my mother said, Get down on your knees and pray for spoons.

The novel has one of the most shocking and fascinating first lines I’ve ever come across. The scene that it introduces sets the stage for the story to come. There’s humor as well as horror, but most of all a vivid evocation of what life is really like.

Clement grew up in Mexico City and from 2009 to 2012 was president of PEN Mexico. She spent ten years researching this story and the quality of her listening comes through in every nuance of the voices in this story, every detail of their lives. It’s a fascinating read, one that will engage and enrage you. The human costs of Nixon’s War on Drugs spread far beyond the prisons and streets of the U.S.

Writers often struggle with how to compose stories about social justice, hoping to rouse compassion and a will to change. It’s easy for our outrage to burst out in rants and prescriptive demands that overwhelm the reader. Here Clement shows us how to do it: just tell the story. Don’t tell the reader how to feel; just create a narrator with an original voice whose hopeful heart will touch ours. Add a dose of humor and a lot of specific detail to immerse the reader in the story.

This book’s sadness is outweighed by the strong social ties: between the girls, between the girls and their mothers, between all the women who have been stolen and sold and imprisoned. Their voices are rich and full of life even as they tell of horrors. Yes, I’m outraged, but the warmth and love, the intense community of women: these are what I’ve carried away from Ladydi’s story.

What novel have you read where the voice of the narrator pulled you in and wouldn’t let you go?

Traveling Mercies, by David Williams

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What’s the use of art or poetry when fools gamble with the future and destruction looms? Whether it’s fire or flood or Eliot’s whimper, words will not help us. Not then, but now perhaps there is still a chance to rouse those who are sedated and sleeping, to tear them from their flickering lights and make them look around and raise their voices.

These powerful poems do just that. Whether he’s writing about Tiwa children in New Mexico, murdered churchwomen in San Salvador, or his own family’s history in Lebanon, Williams gives us stories where compassion rides on controlled passion. Or, as he says in “Breath”: “The stunned drone of grief becomes the fierce,/tender undertone that bears up the world.”

It’s the tenderness that wins me over. Much of the power in these poems comes from the precise details and voices he summons to describe people, before releasing them into something larger. He describes a girl he taught who, before beginning to draw, closed her eyes and crossed her arms “and maybe went flying//to the mountain lake source of her river”.

Of his grandmother he says:

Half-blind seamstress, never learned
to read, except the Novena booklet,
holiday cards, supermarket ads,

she reads futures in coffee grounds,
and we gather round with our cups.

She’s afraid to look these days.
Too many deaths. Wait and see.
You’ll know when the time comes . . .

These poems are as relevant today as they were when this book was published almost twenty years ago. Williams shows us how the past lives on in us, writing about his grandfather on the mountain with his sheep listening to wolves. In another poem, he describes finding “. . . an apple tree/still bearing the fruit of the Levant” and says:

The body keeps faith with something
even stripping its own nerves.
A gesture, a glance, is passed on.
Blue shadows of Lebanese cedars

still move over us here . . .

He writes about old wrongs, tragedies that live on in us. I used to think that ridiculous until I found myself arguing about Glen Coe, surprised by my own passion over something that happened hundreds of years before I was born. True, it was my family, my ancestors, who were massacred. But then I remind myself that with the world grown so small, we must all be family now.

What would you say if right now you could, like Emily Dickinson, write a “Letter to the World”?

The Nutting Girl, by Fred DeVecca

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Alvin Toffler famously predicted in 1970’s Future Shock that coming generations would have many jobs in their lifetimes. Frank Raven can testify to that. A former monk, policeman, and private eye, these days he walks his dog, records bird songs, and runs a low-key movie theater in Shelburne Falls, a small town in Massachusetts, near the Vermont border.

His peace is disturbed by the arrival of a Hollywood film director and his crew, scouting locations for a new film featuring the mega-star Juliana Norcross. When the reckless Juliana goes missing, the film’s director Nick Mooney hires Raven to find her, which he does rather quickly, and then to protect her—primarily from herself. Then Juliana really disappears.

This debut mystery has a lot to recommend it. DeVecca takes these seemingly stock characters—a disillusioned, middle-aged detective; an arrogant, young director; and a wild, self-destructive actress—and brings them to life as unique individuals. He does this by bringing out emotions and aspects of them, contradictory and compelling. For example, Juliana instantaneously bonds with the Sarah, the teen-aged daughter of Raven’s new friend. Their friendship and mutual trust develops throughout the story.

Raven himself, in addition to listening to the birdsongs he’s recorded, is a morris dancer. Morris is a traditional performance dance from England whose popularity took off in the U.S. in last quarter of the 20th century when the handful of morris teams swelled to over a hundred. For me it was love at first sight that summer afternoon in 1975. I was taken by the simple elegance of the dance, the strength and grace it required. I went on to dance and perform morris for almost 40 years before retiring. (Full disclosure: I am slightly acquainted with the author through the morris community and have walked the streets of Shelburne Falls).

Morris dancers are mostly enthusiastic amateurs, for whom dancing is but one part of their lives. DeVecca’s description of Raven’s team practicing and then dancing the sun up on May Day adds distinctive color to the life of the town, as do his descriptions of the town itself, its famous Bridge of Flowers, and the Deerfield River.

After Juliana disappears and is given up for dead, Raven and Sarah continue to search for her and try to understand what happened on her last day. There are clues for the reader to untangle and ever-higher stakes to drive the story. As an editor, I would have made a few recommendations designed to tighten it up, but this is a very good first entry in what I hope will be a series of books about Raven and Shelburne Falls.

Have you read a mystery set in a place familiar to you? Did that make it more interesting?

The Martian, by Andy Weir

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This novel opens with a punch as astronaut Mark Watney faces his own imminent death. Thinking him lost in a dust storm, his crewmates have taken off to return to Earth, leaving Watney stranded on Mars. In the best Robinson Crusoe tradition, he has to figure out how to survive in the harsh Martian environment until the next mission arrives—which won’t be for another four years.

One thing that lifts this story above the usual marooned-on-a-desert-island tale is Watney’s voice which we hear almost entirely through the entries he makes in his log. He’s smart and funny and never gives up. Faced with a problem, he thinks about it and comes up with a possible solution, and if that doesn’t work he comes up with another. His MacGyver-esque repurposing of the things around him is fascinating. Watney is clear about his failures and limitations; sharing a name with a famous brand of beer, he makes no bones about his status.

Actually, I was the very lowest ranked member of the crew. I would only be ‘in command’ if I were the only remaining person. What do you know? I’m in command.

As well as being a survival story, this is also a rescue thriller. Once NASA realises Watney is alive, teams of people swing into action to find a way, amongst the strictly limited options, to bring him home. As the clock ticks away, the stakes couldn’t be higher for this high-profile rescue. NASA and the U.S.’s international reputations are at risk, not to mention Watney’s life. Of almost equal concern to Watney himself is the potential loss of the precious research he’s been able to conduct while marooned on Mars.

I found the switch to NASA and a third-person point of view a bit of a wrench since it didn’t occur till well into the story. By then I was deeply focused on Watney. I never completely regained that depth of focus, but introducing people and tensions back home provided some interesting contrasts and enabled us to follow the rescue efforts in a way we wouldn’t have been able to do if the point of view had stayed solely with Watney.

One of the best things about this novel is the science. Watney’s situation is so dire and his voice so entertaining that his explanations of the science behind his creative solutions are fun to read. The part that I’m familiar with was certainly accurate and the rest plausible. I love the idea of him being saved by science. And—mystery devotee that I am—I loved that so much of the story was about solving problems. It added to the realism and the tension that not all his solutions worked. The way he picked himself up after every failure was admirable.

My one complaint was the lack of insight into Watney as a person. We learn nothing of his family or his life back on Earth, whether he has a girlfriend, likes football, or whatever. There is a vague reference at the very end to a couple on Earth worrying and awaiting news, whom I assume to be his parents, but we aren’t told. We get a little insight indirectly through his need for human contact, which recurs throughout the story. He doesn’t paint a face on a volleyball, but he does think of his crewmates as he apologetically uses their belongings.

Generally in a novel, we want interior story arc as well as an exterior story arc. However, that is actually less common for the scifi/suspense/thriller genres. Also, since what we are hearing are his work logs, he’s less likely to share his inner feelings (except by swearing now and then). Still, for me it made the book feel a bit dry sometimes, and I’d have gladly traded a few bits of science for some personal information.

One theme that comes through in this story is how much a single life matters. What is the worth of one person? Call me cynical, but I didn’t quite believe that the U.S. government would come up with billions of dollars and cripple future space programs to bring home one astronaut. I know how hard it is for NASA and other such agencies to get funding.

Still, it is a good case study for ethics classes. It is one of those wicked problems for which there is no easy answer. Like most people, my heart is moved when a child falls down a well or a hiker is lost in the wilderness. Yet I also consider the human and financial costs of rescue missions. I respect the military’s “Leave no soldier behind” ethos, but would rescuing Watney really be the best use of resources? As a former welfare mother who watched people I knew starve and suffer and die for no other reason than poverty—poor nutrition, substandard housing, lack of medical care—I can’t help thinking how many lives could be saved by those dollars. It is much easier for our hearts to be moved by the plight of one person than that of thousands of people.

The breakneck pace of this story does not allow more than a passing glance at these issues, but it is enough to conjure a larger meaning, a more significant framework that gets us thinking. It is enough to make this story more than just an action tale, more than just a thrill ride. Even if you’ve seen the film, it’s worth reading the book.

What book do you recommend reading in addition to seeing the film on which it’s based?

Note #1: Thank you to my Book Dissection Group for much of the insight included in this blog post. Opinions are my own, of course.

Note #2: Originally I included more examples of the humor, but I’ve deleted them so as not to ruin the punchlines for you. Read the book!