Books We Loved, Mar. 2020
Life in the time of coronavirus is a scary spiral of ever-escalating commands and prohibitions. Work from home. No gatherings over 250 people. Avoid cinemas, sports arenas, arts venues, face-to-face meetings of all sorts. But one thing we can always do as we try to keep ourselves safe is read. And here are our recommendations for March. (Don't forget to check out earlier months' picks as well.)
Jen Beagin, Pretend I’m Dead
Pretend I’m Dead is full of characters that can’t seem to get any traction. Mona, the protagonist, cleans houses for a living and hands out clean needles to drug addicts in her free time. She falls hard for one of them, a flower thief she calls Mr. Disgusting (confirming she knows just what she’s getting herself into). Mr. Disgusting goes straight for a while, but it doesn’t last, and when he’s ready to stop trying—signaled by his disappearance and a suicide note—Mona, who started off in the Boston area, moves to Taos, New Mexico, because Mr. Disgusting suggested she would fit in there. What she finds in Taos is a clean slate—too clean. Now she has to start all over again acquiring cleaning clients, and, perhaps, a friend or two.
Jen Beagin is the Anne Tyler of the underworld. Her characters are quirky, and she is a whiz with dialogue. Mona herself is hilariously funny in her deadpan way, especially regarding her love of vacuuming and her unbridled curiosity about the people she cleans for—most of whom have her come in when they’re out, providing opportunities for her to snoop. As Mona says, “You learn a lot about a person by cleaning their house. What they eat, what they read on the toilet, what pills they swallow at night. What they hold on to, what they hide, what they throw away.” She is also prone to taking photos of herself at work. The humor in this book, however, moves along on a parallel track with the heartbreak, for of course there are good reasons why Mona is stuck in first gear and the other characters—besides Mr. Disgusting there are the hippy dippy spiritual neighbors, a psychic who can’t remember Mona’s name, Mona’s physically disadvantaged and emotional reprehensible father, and several more—are barely getting by. Life has not been fair to any of them.
Readers may not have hit bottom as often or as hard as Mona has, but most everyone has come close enough to appreciate the trust required for the bounce back. That, in addition to great housecleaning tips, is what this novel is about.—JS
Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer
(One World, 2019)
Ta-Nehisi Coates tells of a slave, Hiram Walker, born of rape to Rose whom Hiram barely remembers. Hiram’s father is a Virginia tobacco plantation owner who sold Rose for a horse. Noticing young Hiram’s eidetic memory, his father brings Hiram into the household to study with his white half-brother, Maynard, and to be Maynard’s slave. As the story opens, Hi loses control of a buggy while driving Maynard across a bridge over the Goose River. Maynard drowns, but Hiram, in a near-death hallucination, sees Rose dancing on the bridge in a haze of blue. Hiram’s relationship with his father increasingly splinters as Hiram hopes to leave his home and fellow slaves to escape to a free state via the Underground route.
Hiram owns another gift, that of conduction, a supernatural ability to move through space that is connected to the strength of his memory. The connection of movement and memory is a powerful metaphor for a people deprived of personal history and culture after generations of slavery. And if memory comes as dreams, story lore and fantasies of escape, so be it. Hiram’s most impossible memory is the recollection of Rose, his mother. This achingly sad motif contains a certain truth, for to know one’s parents is crucial to knowing oneself.
Conduction is also a gift ascribed to Harriet Tubman who will come to Hiram’s aid, along with white abolitionists in Virginia and in Philadelphia.
Many powerful themes course through this coming of age story, but particularly haunting is the theme of return--to place and to memory. Hiram returns to his father and to slavery and hones his memory powerfully enough to help his love, Sophia, escape. Hiram comes to understand that everyone is a slave to purpose, whether good or bad. This is an exquisitely written, immediate tale, vividly expressing the toll of slavery and how it underwrites the values we live with and the country we live in.—AA
Agatha Frost, Vanilla Bean Vengeance
(Pink Tree Publishing, 2020)
In a former life, I made my own candles. I loved choosing scents and filling pretty jars with colored wax. I even loved designing, printing and applying the labels. What I did not love was selling the end result, and then having to find a place to store everything I made but felt uncomfortable hawking to friends and family. So while my stint as a candlemaker ended a mere few years after it began, I did enjoy the creative process.
I also enjoy Agatha Frost's cozy mysteries, so when I saw she was starting a new series with a candlemaker as the sleuthing main character, I jumped right in. The first book in the Claire's Candles series, Vanilla Bean Vengeance, didn't disappoint. With the picturesque Cotswold village setting, population of eccentric characters, and last-minute twists, it was everything I've come to expect from Agatha Frost.
Claire Harris isn't your typical heroine - she's not beautiful, she has trouble controlling her appetite, and at 35 still lives at home with her judgmental mother and adoring father. But when the new owner of the candle factory at which Claire works is murdered right in front of her, she finds herself embroiled in the mystery whether she likes it or not. And as it turns out, she does.—CJH
Kayte Nunn, The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant (William Morrow, 2020)
In 2018, Rachel Parker, a young marine biologist, leaves New Zealand for a research project counting clams on the Scilly Isles, off England’s southwestern coast. When her boat goes down in a storm, she winds up on an almost deserted island where she discovers a cache of unsent letters written more than sixty years before. But who was the writer, and who the unknowing recipient?
The novel shifts back and forth between Rachel’s academic and romantic journey and the attempts by a young Londoner named Eve to record the memoirs of her grandmother, one of the first female mountaineers. But the heart of the story is Esther Durrant, first seen traveling with her husband to the Scilly Isles in 1951, where she wakes up the next morning and discovers that her husband has left her in the care of his friend, an innovative psychiatrist who treats a handful of patients—mostly male war veterans—in what is, to all intents and purposes, a mental institution on the island. Esther suffers from depression caused by the loss of her infant son to SIDS, a condition not yet named and recognized in 1951, and the doctor believes that life on the island may help her come to terms with her loss.
Esther, Rachel, and the people they encounter are richly imagined, complex characters, and the atmosphere of the isolated and largely depopulated islands that bring both Esther and Rachel, in a sense, back into the world is both pervasive and haunting. Also visible are the long-term effects of World War II, six years ended by the time the book opens, on the men who fought. The hidden secrets, where Eve and her grandmother fit in, and the identity of the letter writer you will have to find out for yourselves.—CPL