I’ve plowed through some great reads lately, and I’d like to pass along the titles and a brief summary of each. We’ve got to help each other get through this winter somehow. So cozy up with a good book and a hot cuppa tea. Maybe one of these will even work for your book group.
Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance
Author: Bill McKibben
Fiction, 240 pages
Blue Rider Press (2017)
In this political climate, who doesn’t love a good secede-from-the-union fantasy? 72-year old Vern Barclay, a long-time Vermont radio personality, is doing more than just dreaming about it as he uses his bully pulpit to preach the word of the great state of Vermont breaking free from the ties that bind. The host of Radio Free Vermont — “underground, underpowered, and underfoot” — finds that people are listening.
However, due to Barclay’s involvement in an unfortunate incident that left property damage and seeping raw sewage at the local Wal-Mart, Vern finds himself on the wrong side of the law, broadcasting from location to location as he stays one step ahead of those who want to shut him up and throw him behind bars.
What really makes the book is the whole host of crusty, Yankee characters, both young and old. The computer geek; the Olympic medal-winning biathlon athlete who Vern coached himself; the brewers who are all for dumping Coors Light in favor of their micro product; and more.
Loved the modern fairy-tale feel to this book, and the uncertainty Vern experiences when he realizes, hey, there are a lot of people out there who really want to do this thing. Gulp.
If you liked Christopher Kimball’s monthly editorials back when he was at the helm of the Cook’s Illustrated bi-monthly publication, you’ll like Radio Free Vermont.
Author: Emma Donoghue
Fiction, 352 pages
Publisher, Back Bay Books (2011)
When a carefree college girl, bopping down the street, earbuds in, music cranked up, is snatched off the street by a skeevy predator who has a special room all prepared for her, it signals the end of life as she’s known it. Once resistance proves futile, she learns fast how to survive all sorts of horrors — crushing boredom; the fear that everyone she loves thinks she’s dead; and a confinement almost worse than solitary, since at first her only human contact is with her kidnapper.
When she gives birth on her own to her son and the story’s narrator, Jack, Ma’s focus shifts from her immediate predicament to keeping her son safe, no matter the cost. Ma and Jack can’t stay there forever, though. If you think their confinement was harrowing, wait until you experience the inevitable forward motion of their story.
For the sensitive among us, the story’s ugly parts aren’t overly tough to get through. And they’re worth it to be allowed into the life of a beaten but not broken mother who is always thinking three steps ahead — even when the first two steps are into a metaphorical pitch dark and that third step could send her and her son into a chasm they might never be able to pull themselves out of.
Loved the movie, too. Brie Larson won the Academy Award for her role as Ma in the 2015 feature film. She also starred in The Glass Castle, a film adaptation of Jeanette Walls’ biography of her unconventional and somewhat dangerous upbringing. That book has been the choice of many Wellesley book groups. Walls gave a reading and Q & A session at the Wellesley Library several years back.
When the English Fall: A Novel
Author: David Williams
Fiction, 256 pages
Publisher: Algonquin Books, 2017
First off, let’s clear up the matter of “the English” of the title. The English are what the Amish refer to anyone who is not them — you’re English, I’m English, you get the idea. And there are so many ways that the English fall in David Williams’ debut novel. After a solar storm takes the entire world off the power grid, their planes fall out of the sky. Their communications systems grind to a halt. There is no longer any such thing as banking, television, or attending school. From there, it’s not long before decency falls and gangs go on the attack, desperate for the food they know the Amish have stored in their well-stocked larders.
Such was my enthusiasm for this book that I posted a full review on The Swellesley Report. Then I corresponded with (stalked?) the author, and all but begged for a sequel. He’s thinking about it.
Other great post-apocalyptic books:
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
Station Eleven, Emily St. John
The Life as We Knew It series, Susan Beth Pfeffer
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Author: J.D. Vance
Non-fiction, 272 pages
Publisher: Harper, 2016
I know a lot of people who read this one in an effort to try and understand Trump’s win. It didn’t help me in that regard, but I appreciated Vance’s look at growing up poor in a Rust Belt town. He grew up shuttling between the Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, and the Appalachian town of Jackson, Kentucky, a route he refers to as the “hillbilly highway” for the number of people who have family ties in both places and move back and forth, sometimes to visit, sometimes to stay a spell.
He spills a lot of poor-white trash secrets here, this local boy done good type. After enlisting in the Marines, a place he credits with teaching him discipline and confidence, he goes on to graduate from Yale Law School and works for and achieves the success that comes with those credentials. Meanwhile, his relatives have achieved different markers — abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and chaos swoop in quickly to claim all too many of those who perch on the edge of middle-class life.
Soon to be a major motion picture directed by Ron Howard.
Author: Patti Smith
Prose, 320 pages; photographs throughout
Publisher: Ecco (2010)
Rolling Stone magazine in 2012 named her 1975 debut album Horses as one of the Top 500 all-time albums ever (they placed it at number 44). Although I don’t dig her music, I love her story and the way she describes the beginning stages of her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe when they were two starving artists in 1970s New York City: “I was a bad girl trying to be good…and he was a good boy trying to be bad…we came to accept our dual natures.” Sounds like just your average Wellesley couple, right?
Author: David McCullough
Non-fiction, 400 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2005
Happy first birthday, America. It’s 1776 and your mom (England) has you in serious time-out for behaving like a teenager desperately trying to separate from its parents. Your troops are a rude, rag-tag bunch of ne’er-do-wells England considers itself well rid of, but whom General George Washington must whip into some sort of serviceable army.
Meanwhile, the King’s men are well-versed in the rules of engagement, disciplined, scornful of the rebels, and ready to wrap up all this nonsense and settle down with a nice cup of tea. It’s all riveting stuff, written by the dad of Wellesley High School’s own Mr. McCullough: English teacher, orator (you remember the You’re Not Special speech, right?), and author in his own right.
No one can research history like David McCullough, and he’s got two Pulitzers to show for it. Don’t be afraid of the weightiness of this tome. McCullough makes the reading riveting, and you’ll feel so smart after you’re done.
Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life of the Legendary Nurse
Author: Catherine Reef
Nonfiction, youth, ages 7 and up
192 pages, photograhphs throughout
Publisher: Clarion Books (2016)
Florence Nightingale was born in 1820 in England to a wealthy, Victorian family. When it came time to don the expected mantle of marriage, home, and children, no one could procrastinate better than Florence. She and her sister engaged in epic battles which included histrionics, swooning, and smelling salts. Turns out what they both needed was for Florence to push aside her family of origin, sister included, and listen to God’s call that she become a nurse. She was known as the “Lady with the Lamp” for the way she walked through darkened front-lines hospitals with a lamp to light her way. Part kind-hearted nurse, part battle-ax, part shrewd diplomat, she fought the expectations of family, society, and the military men she served under. All without drawing a salary, of course. That wouldn’t have been lady-like, dontcha know.
Code to Zero
Author: Ken Follett
Fiction, 480 pages
Publisher: Penguin Books, (2001)
A classic spy novel set in 1958 during the Cold War. It’s the United States vs. the Soviet Union, and the race to space is real. What’s more, the Soviets seem to have the upper hand.
My college student son and I listened to this one on audio on a long car trip, and it gripped us both. There are urbane, good-looking spies, cool blondes, an amnesia component, State secrets, treachery, and betrayal. Exactly what you want out of a spy novel. It had us going to the very end.
Hag-Seed: A Novel (Hogarth Shakespeare)
Author: Margaret Atwood
Fiction, 320 pages
Publisher: Hogarth, 2017
Recommended with reservations. It’s not a fast read, and although not strictly necessary, it helps to know Shakespeare’s The Tempest (I didn’t). Still, there’s something sympathetic about a guy who’s had his plum job as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Summer Festival snatched away from him by his scheming underling. Felix and his wounded pride limp off to a barely habitable cabin in the woods as he plans his next move (twelve years later), teaching a theater course at a minimum-security prison.
The prisoners who sign up for his course may not have had much exposure to Shakespeare, but they understand dirty dealings, treachery, and revenge. Turns out Felix is an inspired teacher and an even greater tactician who metes out punishment to the scurvy and duplicitous, and rewards to his brave accomplices.
You’ll like if if you are a drama person or someone who is interested in the inner workings of putting on a production, enjoy Shakespeare, and/or are just plain sick of the same old best-seller stuff. Atwood is also the author of the 1998 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which is currently enjoying popularity as a television series on the Hulu network.
Author: Guy Delisle
Graphic novel, 436 pages
Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly, 2017
A Doctors Without Borders administrator is kidnapped in the middle of the night near Chechnya and taken to parts unknown in the Caucasus region. There, he is held handcuffed to a radiator for almost a year. At first his kidnappers allow him to join them every now and then in the next room to watch a soccer match. But he’s not an especially fun hostage. He doesn’t cheer for either team. He follows orders, but doesn’t try to make nice with his captors. He eats the food provided without complaint, but without thanking them. He asks for nothing and is careful to observe everything but not seem to take an interest in his captors in any sort of individual way. He takes pains to convey to them that they are nothing more than the thugs who have caged him. Hey, he’s not there to make friends.
A guy gets worn down and depressed, however, and this is the story of how he keeps himself sane even when the temptation to lose hope grows strong. There’s a pretty intense part in the end when I can’t believe his bravery. This courage has nothing to do with beating up the bad guys or finally grabbing that AK-47 he didn’t touch out of fear, back when he had his chance. This courage is about an inner strength I’m not sure I could duplicate.
I got this graphic novel for my high-school aged son, but I may have been more into it than he.
Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good
Author: Chuck Collins
Non-fiction, 288 pages
Chelsea Green Publishing
Chuck Collins has redistributed his own, inherited wealth, and he’s eager to guilt you into doing the same. A busybody’s busybody, he is immersed in his Jamaica Plain community even deeper than Mr. and Mrs. Swellesley are in Wellesley, and he’s sick and tired of the rich taking their money and spending elsewhere. “Bring it home” is one of his mantras.
At times the book reads as an unintentional how-to on ways to stash your cash and/or retain access to your extensive land holdings for yourself and your progeny while avoiding those hefty property tax bills. (Can you say donate to a land trust, but include a codicil setting aside the most strategic acreage for yourself? Preferably surrounded by all that other land you donated but no longer have to pay taxes on.)
Collins spoke at the annual World of Wellesley’s MLK breakfast in 2017.
A Separation: A Novel
Author: Katie Kitamura
Fiction: 240 pages
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 2017
Recommended with reservations. A young married London couple has separated, but it’s all on the down low right now. When his mum inconveniently calls the wife, worried when she is unable to contact her son on his cell, the wife stalls for time. She figures she had better check with him to find out how he wants to proceed here. The thing is, the wife hasn’t seen or heard from him for months. His former travel habits — back when she cared where the lying, philandering so-and-so was keeping himself — often took him to a remote fishing village in Greece, she recalls. So off to Greece she goes. He’s not very hard to find. Later, the unfortunate truth isn’t as difficult for the wife to explain as she thought it might be.
Written with the incredible subtlety and perfectly crafted sentences you log on to The Swellesley Report to escape, this book reads like an extended New Yorker magazine fiction piece. Every raised eyebrow means something. Each human interaction is central to the climax. Pay attention, and you will be rewarded with a haunting feeling that will last at least a few days.