Book Club Bait – A Novel and a Nonfiction Study by the Same Author of Where the Crawdads Sing

What an opportunity – same author, two books – a fiction and a nonfiction book.  Read both but read Where the Crawdads Sing first.

Where the Crawdads Sing

51ZnaGuoiiL._AC_US218_How could a child survive alone in a North Carolina coastal marsh?  Why did the local townsfolk ostracize the child instead of helping her? What survival lessons are to be learned from the natural world of plants, insects, and animals in the wild?  Who killed Chase Andrews? What is a crawdad, anyway?

These are only a few possible questions to discuss after reading Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdad Sings, an amazing coming of age story intertwined with science and observation of nature  – with a compelling unsolved murder mystery thrown in to keep the pages turning.   A respected scientist and winner of the John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing, Owens successfully inserts scientific observation within this compelling fictional tale of a young girl who effectively raises herself after she is abandoned in a ramshackle shack in the Southern marshland.

Five year old Kya’s mother walks away one day and never comes back.  One by one her four older brothers and sisters leave too; only her abusive alcoholic father is left, and eventually he is gone.  Although she tries attending school for one day, the taunting she receives is unbearable to this sensitive and shy child; she never goes back, and lives in solitude for most of her young life.  Her social interactions are limited to the seagulls and the fish.

A born naturalist and observer, Kya becomes an expert in the natural life of the marsh, taking samples and creating precise drawings to document her findings. Owens cleverly connects Kya’s observations to lessons and secrets she adapts for survival.

“Kya honed her skills of harvesting mussels by watching the crows; she learned about dishonest signals from the fireflies; she learned about loyalty and friends from the seagulls.”

As she grows into a wild beauty, she attracts two young men from the town – Tate, who shares her love of nature and teaches her to read, and the former high school football captain resting on his laurels, who lies to her with promises of marriage to get her to sleep with him.

The story alternates years from Kya’s young life as the “Marsh Girl” and her present day (1969) trial for murder.  The storyline is easy to follow, and the ending is satisfying, but the story offers so much more.  Owens is painlessly educating the reader while teasing out a possible murder mystery.

I really wanted a book in my hands, so I bought the hard cover, but I did check the audible version first (sadly I had no credits available) and the sample had endearing Southern accents in the dialogue.  Either way – a good book with an unlikely combination of being both informative and suspenseful.

51DPKT-EQEL._AC_US218_Cry of the Kalahari

Owens has co-authored three non fiction nature books with her husband, Mark Owens: Cry of the Kalahari, The Eye of the Elephant, and Secrets of the Savannah, all  based on their research in Africa.  Where The Crawdads Sing is her first foray into fiction.  I found Cry of the Kalahari in my library system, and am now reading through this nonfiction account of two American zoology graduate students who embarked on their own research study in the Kalahari Desert in the 1970’s.

“After selling virtually everything they owned to fund their daring trip, they flew to Africa with only $6000 in their pocket, determined to live in the wild and study animals that had never encountered humans before. This is the tale of their seven years spent in the desolate wilderness of Botswana, with only the animals for company… camping out in the Kalahari Desert with lions, jackals and hyenas regularly wandering into their camp.”

The book has a conversational style almost like reading their diary – but also includes scientific observations and over thirty amazing close-up pictures of them with lions sleeping nearby, jackals investigating their tents, and other wild animals looking at home in their camp.

Quick Lit

Romance, murder, mystery, history…all happy endings – books fun and fast to read or listen to, but I will soon forget them – unless I write them down.   So here they are:

TheSummerWives   Summer Wives

Beatriz Williams’ Summer Wives has all these ingredients as she follows a wealthy family with influence on Long Island.  I found myself rereading the first few chapters to identify the characters as they aged – the story jumps a few decades back and forth, and the ending had me do a double take, but it is a happy one, despite all the waves crashing and beautiful people with issues.

The characters and setting reminded me of Julia Roberts’ early film, “Mystic Pizza” – the island has the wealthy 1 percent summer crowd, but the hard working year-round residents, mostly Portuguese Americans, catch the lobsters, work in the country club,  and keep the lighthouse glowing.  The summer of 1951 ends in death and the conviction of the island hottie, lobsterman Joseph Vargas.  When Miranda returns home after 18 years away, with Joseph escaped from prison, the plot reveals a motive for his confession, with twists and turns keeping you guessing until the end.

All We Ever Wanted

Emily Griffin’s All We Ever Wanted has the lies and scandal of a Lianne Moriarty novel (as in Big Little Lies).  The picture of a teenage girl’s backside gone viral is the catalyst for opposing reactions from families and community.  The ending here is also a little hard to believe – but it is happy.  Need to know more?  click here  

41pYhoGoKDL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Goodbye, Paris

This light romance has a “Room With A View” vibe, with young British Grace meeting her lover, David, for weekend trysts in Paris, but Anstey Harris’ Goodbye, Paris  has more about music and betrayal than Paris.  An immediate crisis is created when David rescues a pregnant woman who has fallen onto the subway train tracks; he suddenly becomes a reluctant hero.  Pictures of him and Grace immediately go viral, but, oh dear, Grace is not his wife.

Although Grace was a promising cellist, her confrontation with her slimy professor left her broken, so now she makes and repairs string instruments – violins, cellos – and sells them in her little music shop, waiting for her married lover to leave his wife and children.  David is clearly a smooth talker who will never leave his wife, and, at times, I wanted to smack Grace out of her dazed stupor, but, as I listened on Audible, I hoped for the catharsis that eventually happens.  Grace finally finds the courage to resist David’s charms and play her cello again.  Lots of romance with a plot worthy of A.J. Fikry.

51vkzW8KqZL._AC_US218_The Home for Unwanted Girls

Joanna Goodman’s story reminded me of Lisa Wingate’s  “Before We Were Yours,” but this time the historical note addresses the Duplessis Orphan Scandal in Canada, with over 20,000 orphans who were falsely labeled as mentally ill when their orphanages were turned into psychiatric hospitals by  the Canadian government in the 1950s.  Most of these children – who were not mentally ill – were left in the care of the nuns  by unwed mothers. The Catholic Church profited by the increase in government subsidies with the order for their “change of vocation” from orphanages into insane asylums – the government paid only $0.75/day for orphans, but $2.35/day for those who were mentally ill.

Goodman creates a fictional story about a fifteen year old girl forced to give up her newborn daughter by her parents.  By the time Elodie is five years old, the orphanage has changed to an insane asylum and she is forced into menial labor and caretaker duties for the older insane patients. Challenges to the nuns’ iron-fisted discipline result in horrible torture, isolation, lobotomies – reflecting the reality of those institutions.  Life is hell for these children.

The story has the mother Maggie searching for her daughter, and includes romance and intrigue to counter the misery of the historical context.  It still always amazes me how this happened not so long ago.

Something in the Water

Reese Witherspoon’s book club pick – Something in the Water – has me wondering when she will produce it for viewing. Catherine Steadman’s book has all the elements of a great series – exotic settings, unreliable characters, and plot twists favoring the female leads.

I listened to Steadman’s British tones reading the book for Audible and it was hard to not keep going into the night. The “something in the water” was not what I had expected and the hints of espionage and financial fraud added to the suspense.

Erin, a documentary producer, and Mark, an out of work hedge fund expert, go off on their honeymoon to Bora Bora. Mark, an expert diver, convinces Erin to overcome her fears to experience the beautiful underwater world. His cavalier comments about the sharks in the water had me suspicious, but what they find leads the adventure into murky waters as each plot twist combines danger and a new life for both.

Great fun to listen to.

Three Audible Notes from Old New Yorkers

My New Yorker pile may sit for months, even years, but I usually find something between the old covers.  Although I was looking for suggestions for audible books, I did not expect to get ideas from an article on Willa Cather or Adam Gopnik’s 2017 review of Ron Chernow’s historical biography, Grant.

Gopnik’s review of Chernow’s Grant did not inspire me to read the book; I’ll wait for the Broadway musical.  But his reference to “the funniest thing ever written about Grant…James Thurber’s “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox,” led me to the Thurber collection – The James Thurber Audio Collection, read by Keith Olbermann.  Thurber is one of my favorite humorists; I still have a copy of The Thurber Carnival from my college days.51X6jSZbZBL._SL500_

If laughter is healing, this is great medicine.  The first essay – “There’s No Place Like Home” – first published in the New Yorker in 1937 – had me laughing through Thurber’s interpretation of a French-English Dictionary for travelers.  Who knew how funny it could be to hear a translation for asking for directions.  For my adventure loving travelers, the next story is called “The Bear Who Let It Alone.”  I’m looking forward to all the other twenty-two stories.

51BroN3HRXL._SL500_  Touted as the book Cather considered her best, Death Comes to the Archbishop, was the focus of Mary Duenwald’s essay on a trip to New Mexico for a 2007 essay in the New York Times Travel section – Entering The world of Will Cather’s Archbishop.  The story follows

“Cather’s portrayal of Jean Marie Latour (her fictional name for the real-life bishop, John Baptist Lamy) paints a complicated but very romantic picture of New Mexico in the mid-19th century, just after its annexation to the United States…her book provides a realistic account of the bishop’s efforts to replace the lawless and profligate Spanish priests of the territory, his visits to a beloved Navajo chief, his friendship with the Old West explorer Kit Carson and his dream of building a cathedral in Santa Fe.”

51CXbQEFAXL._SL500_Dan Chiasson’s essay on Emaily Dickinson focused on a 2017 publication of the Envelope Poems, a small book similar to the handmade books the poet made as gifts.  Some of her poems, later found on backs of used envelopes, are included in the selection. Because the Envelope Poems include actual transcriptions of Dickinson’s handwriting, with facsimiles of her layout and her process (crossings-out, substitutions, etc.), the book is to seen more than heard.  However, reading the article – Emily Dickinson’s Singular Scrap Poetry – gave me a better understanding of the poet, and had me thinking how nice it would be to listen to some of her poetry.

Audible has several possibilities, one with a collection – Fifty Poems by Emily Dickinson read by Jill Eikenberry, Nancy Kwan, Melissa Manchester, Jean Smart, Sharon Stone, Meryl Streep, and Alfre Woodard – a 44 minute respite.

I’m listening…

 

You Think It, I’ll Say It

41DEW3Ka+yL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_A few good short stories in my old New Yorkers by Allegra Goodman (“FAQs”) in a September, 2017 issue and one by Curtis Sittenfeld  (“Show Don’t Tell”  in a June, 2017 issue, reminded me to download Sittenfeld’s new book of short stories – You Think It, I’ll Say it – a collection of short stories, to Audible.  So far the stories are racier than expected, but with quiet deadpan endings that don’t always register with this listener.  I have been halfway through the next story before realizing I missed the ending of the former.  I could use a gong or a bell to signal the next story starting, but each has a unique and identifiable perspective on the character’s condition – confusion, betrayal, rage, disappointment, regret…

Characters are judgmental, while believing others are secretly judging them.  “Gender Studies” is the  story of a newly single professor having the “anthropological experience” of a one-night stand with a Trump-supporting working-class bus driver.  In “A Regular Couple,”  two women meet again years after high school – one the ugly duckling growing into a successful beauty and the other the popular pretty girl turning into a drudge.  Both are on their honeymoon.  Resentments flair and the final, petty act of revenge horribly satisfying. Sittenfeld’s characters are not very nice but very real.

Susan Dominus in her review for the New York Times says

“In the lives of Sittenfeld’s characters, the lusts and disappointments of youth loom large well into middle age, as insistent as a gang of loud, showy teenagers taking up all the oxygen in the room…The women of “You Think It, I’ll Say It” are, as a group, a demanding breed. They often assume the worst in their imagined adversaries. Sometimes they are wrong, but they are right about just enough (and funny enough) that we forgive them. And, because they know they need absolution for their own worst motives, we forgive those, too.”

Reese Witherspoon has optioned the book for the screen, and Sittenfeld is busy finalizing her next novel, due out in 2019 – she will be imagining how Hillary Clinton’s life might have played out if she had turned down Bill’s marriage proposal and never married him.  I can’t wait.

 

Review of Sisterland