Thursday, December 1, 2022

Pip Williams: The Dictionary of Lost Words

 Even though I keep a growing list of book recommendations from fellow readers and from the publications I trust, occasionally I happen upon one with no preconceived notions and it's a treasure. Most recently, I came across Pip Williams' novel The Dictionary of Lost Words. The story is set in Oxford across the time period of the publication of the first Oxford English Dictionary. The protagonist Esme has grown up in the Scriptorium, where her father words editing and compiling words, slowly from A to Z as slips pour in from across the English-speaking world. 

Anyone who read The Professor and the Madman already knows a little about the process. Williams' fiction, however, gives an inside look against a backdrop of the women's suffrage movement and World War I. Esme, raised by her father after losing her mother early enough that she never knew Lily, is tolerated as she hides beneath the table as her father works, inspecting the shoes of the meant who work there and gathering slips that fall unnoticed to the floor.

She begins to stow treasures in the trunk of Lizzie, the "bondmaid" (one of the almost-lost words) who is also her best friend and trusted confidante, despite their social differences. Esme, whom Lizzie calls Essie Mae, recognizes that "women's words" don't find their way into the dictionary, in part because they are not written--at least not in publications that matter. She starts her own collection.

Williams manages to address gender and class differences without becoming pedantic or preachy. The many secondary characters, including Esme's father and his fellow lexicographers, Edith Thompson (whom Esme calls Dieter), the family friend who writes her father and Esme from Scotland where she works on her own history books while contributing to the dictionary, Tilda, her actress-suffragette friend and her brother Bill who show her another side of the world, and finally, Gareth, the compositor who wins her heart before heading off to the battlefield.

Williams' novel achieves what historical fiction writers should hope for--a sense of time travel. She brings her readers into a time and place where her fictional characters interact with historical figures (the OED's Murray and Thompson) to shed light on the past.


Sunday, November 27, 2022

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson

 Whenever I finish a book by Kate Atkinson, I realize I need to read all of them. Shrines of Gaiety was no exception. I was first introduced to Atkinson with Life after Life (published the same year as Jill McCorkle's wonderful novel of the same title). In that book, Atkinson was able to pull off her stunning plot twists--or splits--without coming across as gimmicky at all. The sequel Gods in Ruins, with the brother of the protagonist of Life after Life in focus, was just as cleverly plotted but in a fresh way.

I also found Transcription worth reading. I realize that while some books I read don't take root, hers stick with me, even small details. Her latest, Shrines of Gaiety, is set in post-WWI London. It opens with the release of Nellie Coker from prison on liquor license charges, returning like a celebrity to continue running her businesses--bars and restaurants servingas fronts for her other illegal endeavors. No motherly figure, Coker nonetheless has produced a number of offspring--two sons and four daughters--whom she is putting into position to run her shady empire, to mixed results.

Into her world, Atkinson introduces two runaway girls from York--Freda, an aspiring but mediocre actress, and her best friend  Florence, who comes from a better family but lacks street smarts. Atkinson introduces two other important characters--Gwendolyn Kelling, a nurse during the war now working as a librarian, and Frobisher, the London detective to whom she turns to help find Freda, the half-sister of her friend. 

Some have compared Atkinson's development of the novel's setting as Dickensian. She weaves small historical details through the story in an intriguing way. After King Tut's tomb was disturbed, for example, all things Egyptian are the rage, while much of London fears the curse unleashed in the process. She depicts the debauchery of young revelers, regularly throwing costume parties as an excuse to disguise themselves as Pierrot or as adult-sized babies, the disappearance of disposable young women caught up in Nellie's seedy business, and the levels of corruption of law officers.

What I enjoyed most, though, was Atkinson's ability to write one great sentence after another. She makes me want to underline in my hardcovers or call someone to read aloud. She makes me want to read something else she has written. 


Friday, November 4, 2022

Emma Straub: This Time Tomorrow


Time travel books and movies fascinate me. They always have. I love the anachronisms--the modern coin in Christopher Reeve's pocket in Somewhere in Time that sends him back, the Exxon map in the Wild West that baffles the locals as much as the rider's motorcycle in a movie from the 70s or 80s whose title I have forgotten. Stephen King's November 22, 1963 made me anxious when knowledge from the present world came into contact or conflict with the past. 

Emma Straub's recent novel This Time Tomorrow sets up the best kind of time travel suspense. Her protagonist Alice Stern (an art major like the last novel character I met) is not living the life she anticipated. Just turning forty, she's single, but not eager for her younger boyfriend to pop the question. After her mother left to explore her own new age interests, Alice was raised by her father, famous for writing Time Brothers, a cult favorite time travel novel that went on to inspire a popular TV series. As the novel opens, Alice's father is hospitalized with a less-than-hopeful prognosis. 

She is working at Belvedere, the same exclusive Manhattan prep school she attended in high school and visiting her father in the hospital when she is off work. After a birthday celebration with her long-time best friend Samantha, cut short by an emergency in home with one of Sam's children, Alice stops for drinks--too many drinks--and heads to her childhood home instead of returning to her apartment. 

[Spoiler alert!] When she wakes in her childhood bedroom on her sixteenth birthday, she begins a cycle of return visits. Exploring what her father's friends refer to as the "Baby Hitler" paradox--if you go back in time and kill baby Hitler, how will the future be changed?--Alice finds that small things she does or says in her past have sometimes unanticipated changes in the future.

For me, the greatest suspense in these novels comes when the characters arrive in a life for which they are unprepared, sometimes with a different family or career, and they have to bluff their way through until putting the pieces together. Most recently, I'd read Oona out of Order, another book with a time-traveling birthday girl, always landing in a different year of her life, sometimes more aware of the future than the immediate past.

In This Time Tomorrow, Straub maintains the suspense and the threads of the story, creating a portrait of love and friendship. The novel may leave readers wondering what they would change if they had one chance--or many--for a do-over.


Saturday, October 22, 2022

Stephen King's Fairy Tale

I haven't read all of Stephen King's works, but the more I read, the more I wonder why not. Misery was the first of his novels I read--during my postpartum period after the birth of last born. At the time, it was a nice diversion to what was on television: the Iran Contra hearings.

In recent years, though, I've read Mr. Mercedes and its sequels, November 22, 1963Billy Summers, and King's On Writing, which I consider a valuable contribution to writing on writing. One perk, too, is that some of my students who would not otherwise consider reading a book about writing will read a book about writing by Stephen King. 

As I read his works, and as I read about his writing from Stephen King fans, I realize that having more of his books under my belt would be rewarding since he has so many subtle self-references throughout. I know Billy Summers was set in part within view of the ruins of the setting of The Shining, and I am told that he weaves references to his previous works throughout November 22, 1963.

King's novels, always heft, require an investment of time. In print, they are suitable for doorstops. On audio, they are easily twice the length of the average bestseller. I suspect true King fans never complain about the length any more than Harry Potter fans might have wished each successive novel were shorter. No! Give us more.

King's latest novel Fairy Tale begins as a deceptively realistic coming of age novel, as Charlie Reade, a high school junior has survived his mother's death in a freak accident and his father's alcoholism and return to sobriety. The anomaly in the small town setting is Howard Bowditch's house, the rural Illinois equivalent of Boo Radley's house. Overgrown and unkempt, the house is also guarded by Radar, Bowditch's fearsome German shepherd.

Charlie's first encounter with Bowditch occurs when he heard the dogs plaintive barks and the softer sound of the old man calling out in pain. Despite his wishes, Charlie is hailed as a local hero for saving the old man, and an odd friendship is born as he takes care of the aging dog while the old man is in the hospital to repair his badly broken leg. 

But Charlie hears a strange sound coming out of the padlocked shed. Yes, this is a Stephen King novel after all.

Through strange revelations from the old man, Charlie learns of a portal to another world, a fantasy world. As he descends the spiral stairs to a land he learns is called Empis, the story begins to feel more like a Harry Potter story for adults. King creates a believable other world, even as Charlie--Prince Charlie--feels the tension between the two world.

When all is said and done, however, this is a story of how far boy will go for the love of his dog.


Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Book a Day Challenge

 Disclaimer: While I refused to sacrifice reading for pleasure when I started my doctoral program, I have let it cut into my book updates here, which shames me. After all, one of the greatest pleasure of reading is sharing and discussing what I read with others. To that end, I plan to post a book note every day until I have posted about all the good books I've read since my last post. The posts will not be in order as I read the books but instead as the push their way to the front of my brain.

One of the books that caught my interest most recently was Margaret Verble's novel When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky. My interest was due impart to the setting of the novel, the early 20th century, when the Nashville Zoo was located in what is now the Green Hills area, near where I teach, in fact.

Two Feathers is a young Cherokee woman whose job at the Glendale Park Zoo is horse diving. The cast of characters includes Shackleford, whose company runs the zoom and whose family lives in Longview Mansion, right on Caldwell Lane near my campus. Two Feathers' closest friend at the zoo is Crawford, a Black employee who cares for her horse. Verble develops several secondary characters, such as Clive the zookeeper who is still haunted by his WWI experiences, a number of the young women who entertain crowds at the zoo, including two sisters two throw (and sometimes drop) plates. The antagonist Jack is obsessed with Two Feathers, spying on her from a tree near her window and even letting a monkey loose in the girls dormitory to tie him a chance to get into her room.

An interesting aspect of the novel is the way Verble weaves elements of magical realism into the narrative. Clive sees ghosts of his cousin who served in the war with him, and Little Elk, the spirit of a young Indian whose life was cut short, appears to several characters. The animals themselves are characters with personalities, and Two Feathers feels a particular link to them and empathizes with their suffering.

The peek into historical Nashville is a perk for those of us who live there. As I head north on Granny White Pike now, I think of the buffalo run that was once there. I'm planning to locate the old bear caves on Scenic Drive and Clive's stone house on Lealand Lane. 


Thursday, July 14, 2022

When the Fiction Reader Encounters Great Nonfiction


I may be losing my credibility as a reader who prefers fiction, but I keep finding memoirs and other clever nonfiction books landing on my stack and completely capturing my focus. Of course, I've been an Ann Patchett fan since I read Bel Canto. Since moving to Nashville where I can drop by Parnassus Books, which she co-owns with Karen Hayes, I find more reasons to admire her work and her advocacy for books and for authors. I bought her latest collection of essays These Precious Days (evoking "September Song") as soon as it came out, but for some reason delayed beginning. I know that when it's time, a book finds me. By sharing her own life, she opens up a world to readers. Asked which is my favorite, the answer would change on any given day.

She writes about her "three fathers," her home, books and authors she loves. One particularly tender story is the account of the time Tom Hanks' assistant moved into Patchett's house during COVID while undergoing a cancer trial. I also suspect that I am not the only person who finishes this book with a longer "to read next" list.

By no coincidence, I read Mary Laura Philpott's latest memoir Bomb Shelter, after hearing her speak at a Parnassus event. Rather than focusing on book sales, she took the time to raise awareness of the good work of Vanderbilt's Monroe Carrell Children's Hospital, where her son was treated after the sudden onset of epileptic seizures.

At the event, I also had the opportunity of meeting Dr. Jay Wellons, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Vanderbilt, whose first book All That Moves Us was released this month and merits a review all its own.

In a completely different vein, I have been recommending A. J. Jacobs' The Puzzler to anyone who, like me is obsessed with puzzles and word play. Jacobs, who may be best known for his earlier work of nonfiction The Year of Living Biblically, goes chapter-by-chapter through all types of puzzles. He starts with crossword puzzles, then discusses the New York Times' Spelling Bee, which has a surprising number of people waking in the wee hours and starting on the newest bee, published daily at 3 am EST. He also discusses the Rubik's cube, jigsaw puzzles, logic problems, and so much more. The writing is clever and the audiobook, which he reads himself, offers a pdf of the puzzles from the book that are difficult to translate into words. (He also includes some special puzzles at the end of each chapter specifically for audiobook listeners.) Since I blame crossword puzzles for slipping to third place in the 6th grade race for class rank and since I must admit that if I get up to use the restroom in the middle of the night, I check the spelling bee, this book spoke my language.

The End of Average by Todd Rose was recommended by a colleague who is ahead of me in our doctoral studies. For someone who is statistically challenged, this book was a reassuring consideration of how averages can be misused, to the detriment of students, work productivity, and even pilot error. 

Rose uses stories that are both interesting and true to draw attention to ways that an obsession with average has its drawbacks. This book served as a perfect companion to my favorite nonfiction book of the year Range by David Epstein. Rose, like Epstein, isn't ready to dismantle academic research, but her encourages readers to consider different perspectives. After all, he points out, no one is average.


Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel


One of the few disadvantages of reading voraciously is analogous to eating a many-course gourmet meal: it's difficult to savor one because of the conflicting details. That's a small lingering regret after finishing Emily St. John Mandel's latest novel Sea of Tranquility. With so many--and such varied--books I have read this summer, I feel the need to sit with this one a little longer.

Like Trust by Hernan Diaz, which I discussed in an earlier post, this novel makes me envious of the writer's sheer ability to weave and order a story like this. With the many characters over centuries, the author plays with historical fiction, time travel, and the impact of technology. From 1912 to the 23rd century, from Europe to the  New World to the second colony on the moon, Emily St. John Mandel pulls together a shared paranormal experience, plagues, book tours, and avant-garde film, without dropping a single stitch.

I confess that although I read (and loved) The Glass Hotel, I completely missed that the character Vincent in Sea of Tranquility was a character in the earlier novel. Perhaps this is good justification for literature tests asking students to remember names, dates, and places. When Jennifer Egan pulled a similar sleight of hand in Candy House and when Stephen King planted little details from The Shining in Billy Summers, (and should I mention David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks?) I was gratified to recognize the connection. Somehow, though, I want to re-read--or at least review--the original novel.

I've seen people ask on reading sites whether it's important to read The Glass Hotel first; I'd say, no. Honestly, it might be interesting to read it second to see if personal literary time travel works just as well. If only my list of what to read next weren't so long, I might do just that.