The Essex Serpent

61U76uN5PHLI was in London earlier this summer and the book of the moment, the book piled up in store displays and advertised in posters around town, was The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. I was worried that this would be another of those Kinsey Tells You About an Already Wildly Popular thing entries, but I haven’t heard much about The Essex Serpent here in the U.S., which is a shame, because it’s really quite a good book.

I suppose you could call this a neo-Victorian novel–it’s set in England in late 1800s, and focuses on a woman named Cora. Her husband has just died–not a terribly sad occasion for her–and being a widow has allowed her the freedom to start walking the marshes and looking fossils and getting muddy and generally ignoring nice society. In the course of all this she meets the vicar of a small town on the English coast and they strike up a friendship, which is at least partly based on Cora’s interest in rumors of a sea monster (the Essex Serpent) that has been plaguing the town. What will this relationship bring? Will they ever find the serpent?

This description makes it sound like plot-driven, exciting tale! But it’s not, really–it’s not a romance, and it’s not a supernatural mystery/adventure. The basic plot description doesn’t account for how the story’s point of view moves from character to character, not only Cora and the vicar, but also their children, the vicar’s wife, and a doctor friend of Cora’s, among others. The book is really a character study, illuminating the inner lives of a variety of people that, for various reasons (gender, class, intelligence), are marginalized or limited within society.  Plus, the tiny villages and marshes of English seaside basically serve as one of the characters, giving the whole book a sort of damp, salty feeling to it. All this makes it seem odd, honestly that this is such a book of the moment in England–it’s about as far from The Girl on the Train as you could get, but it’s a lovely book and I’m glad it’s gotten so much attention. The cover is also just gorgeous.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Atmospheric Victorian tale

You might also like: The Historian or The Thirteenth Tale; or Kate Morton’s books, including The House at Riverton; or Sarah Waters’s books, especially Fingersmith.

Books for the New America

So, 2016, huh? It’s been quite a year. I feel like I’ve been just barely hanging on since the election. But while I needed some recovery time to mourn and come to terms with what had happened, it’s time to look up and move forward. (Although holidays cards have been a challenge, since I couldn’t find any that said “Merry Christmas, but I’m still really mad.” I should have waited to make my card purchase, since the genius Swistle just got on zazzle.com and made a bunch of cards with pretty lights and trees on the front that say things like, “Wishing you whatever scraps of peace and joy you can find this holiday season.”) Since this site is all about dealing with everything thought books, I thought I would offer two different kinds of book options for anyone else out there who might be desperately looking for their scraps of peace and joy.

Comfort Books

I spent a lot of the last month reading things that allowed me to slide into a calmer, more peaceful world. The best of them included:

  • L.M. Montgomery stand-alone books. As much as I love Anne of Green Gables, once I start rereading that I have to go through the whole series, which is a big time commitment. Plus, Rilla of Ingleside, the last book in the series, has too much heart-breaking World War I plot for me to handle right now. But some of Montgomery’s one-off books are completely charming. My favorites are Jane of Lantern Hill, about a little girl who gets to set up house with her father on Prince Edward Island, and the much more grown-up romance The Blue Castle.
  • Dorothy Sayers mystery novels. How did I miss Dorothy Sayers all my life? Somehow how I did, which is actually great, because now I have a whole series of arch British 20th century mysteries to catch up on. Whose Body? is the first in her series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, but Gaudy Night has been my favorite so far.
  • Books about makeup. The actual thing that has been soothing me to sleep each night? Pretty Iconic by Sali Hughes, her latest detailed hardback book about classic makeup/hair care/beauty items. Just page after page of gorgeous photos of a lipstick or a shampoo bottle, next to a little essay about each item. Even opening the book lowers my blood pressure.

I have also heard from friends that vampire books and Connie Willis comedies have been working for them, so this is clearly a category that expands to fit the needs of the individual.

Discomfort Books

But makeup and historical mysteries will only get us so far, and we also need to be prepared for the fight ahead. Since I assume that everyone has already been taking notes from The Handmaid’s Tale, here are a few other books to keep you sharp.

  • The Small Change series by Jo Walton. These are also British mystery novels, but they are worlds away from Dorothy Sayers. In this trilogy, which starts with Farthing, English elites overthrew Churchill and ceded Europe to Hitler, and fascism and intolerance are creeping over the island. While each book features a mystery and a principled Scotland Yard investigator, the power of the books in the chilling way they show what happens to regular people trying to live regular lives as their country slowly crushes them.
  • Anything by Octavia Butler. The Parable of the Sower is a completely amazing book that terrified me to the point where I can never read it again. As I recall, it was about a teenage girl living with her family in a California where law and order and government and society and general had broken down. Also, I think she was starting a new religion? But any Octavia Butler is going to provide a swift reminder about the oppression some Americans have experienced from the moment this country began and kind of how terrible humans can be, in general.
  • Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich. The author of this, I’m going to call it a literary oral history, won the Nobel prize in literature in 2015. This book is an amazing, enormous telling of the crumbling of the Soviet Union and the emergence of today’s Russia through a zillion individual stories. What came through most clearly to me was how many of the people she spoke with felt like not only their country, but the people that lived within it, became unrecognizable in the blink of an eye.

 

World War Z

RHWorldWarZ500World War Z
By Max Brooks
2007

So I “read” this as an audio book that was marked as unabridged, but does appear to have lacked a few sections from the original book written in 2006. I now need to go back and read that whole book, because this was AMAZING and there are still parts I haven’t read!

Just, wow! So, so good!

The audio book was particularly good for an audio book because it was read by a full cast of voice actors, not just a single reader, and it really highlighted the way that this book was presented as an oral history.

For the rare person who doesn’t recognize it, it’s a fictional book inspired by the nonfiction book The Good War: An Oral History of World War II. In World War Z, though, the war in question is the zombie war, but for all the fantasy element, it’s addressed in a serious manner. I love the world building that went into figuring out how a zombie war could start, how different people would react, and how it would eventually end. I also loved the characters, who were all faced with this impossible conflict and did the best that they could.

I may very well be the last person to have gotten around to reading this book, so it hardly needs me to recommend it, but if you happen to have been living under a rock for the last decade, you really should read this!

The only thing that could have made it better is if it were longer, and apparently that wish got granted since there’s more for me to read once I get a text copy to read. (I really want to know more about the blind Japanese mountain man! But I’ll also take anything else.)

As a side note: ignore the movie. They took a really unique book essentially consisting of dozens of epic interlinking short stories and tried to shoehorn it into a traditional movie plot.

How To Cook a Wolf

I can’t remember why I requested How to Cook a Wolf from the library. It must have been recommended online somewhere and I’m sure that the kick-ass title caught my eye, but by the time it came around on my library holds list all I could remember is that it was about cooking during World War II. And I guess you could describe it that way, but that summary really does a disservice to an entertaining, funny, and thoughtful book. No interest in cooking or history is required here–the writing is enough.

MFK Fisher was one of America’s premier food writers (and was also, based on the portrait on the front of the edition I read, a stone fox) was published in 1942, right as food rationing was kicking in, in order to offer readers advice about how to make the best of their meals during the war years. However, she never mentions the war directly, talking instead about how cooks can work to keep away the wolf of poverty, always sniffing at the door. As a result, the book has a timeless feel–she could be talking about about any hard times that stretch to the kitchen, and a lot of her suggestions fit remarkably well into out post-recession world. Especially since the book is not so much about the specific how-to-cook-things instructions, but is more about a philosophy or a way of approaching food that is frugal and reasonable, but also hopeful. So her chapters are called things like How to Rise Up Like New Bread, How to Be Cheerful Though Starving, and How to Comfort Sorrow.

There are recipes involved here and you could definitely cook from this book, although I suspect that the dishes Fisher describes are made for the palates of a previous generation (she wants you to add tomato juice to A LOT of things that I don’t think should have tomato juice anywhere near them). But even when she is talking about specific dishes, her writing reminds you that food is not just about the ingredients, but that it speaks to how we feel about ourselves and about life. For example, before offering her minestrone recipe, she says, “Probably the most satisfying soup in the world for people who are hungry, as well as for those who are tired or worried or cross or in debt or in a moderate amount of pain or in love or in robust health or in any kind of business huggermuggery, is minestrone.” And some of the recipes sounded pretty good–I was tempted by something she recalled from her childhood as War Cake, and at least one blogger out there made this with great success.

The other awesome thing about the edition of the book I read is that it was a re-release from the 1950s, and Fisher had gone back through and added notes throughout the book either agreeing with her original statements or offering an updated perspective. Here’s an example from the How Not To Boil an Egg chapter:

“Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken.

Until then you would think its secrets are its own, hidden behind the impassive beautiful curvings of its shell, white or brown or speckled. It emerges full-formed, almost painlessly {The egg may not be bothered, but nine years and two daughters after writing this I wonder somewhat more about the hen. I wrote, perhaps, too glibly.} from the hen.”

I think I would have liked having cocktails with her. Anyway, it’s a quick read and it’s quite funny, while also reminding the reader how different things were not all that long ago, and that there are likely still tough times to weather ahead. Also, if you would like the read a sexist but otherwise entertaining original 1942 review of How to Cook a Wolf from the New York Times, you can find that here.


Kinsey’s Three Word Review:
Wonderful historical snapshot.

You might also like:
For more great food writing, you can check out Julia Child (obviously and forever) or Ruth Reichl. But if you’d like to read some fiction of the era with a similar voice, try the Mitfords or Barbara Pym.

Longbourn

Pride and Prejudice is my very favorite book. It says so right in my bio for this site. I’ve read it dozens of times and love every bit. But I’m not overly precious about adaptations or modern takes–I really like seeing how someone takes such classic material and uses it to say something new, or just puts their own spin on a good story. Now, some re-purposings of the Bennet family have worked better than others. Bridget Jones’s Diary is another of my favorite books and I think it is absolute genius, and the Bollywood movie version Bride and Prejudice is completely delightful. And of course we are all big fans of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries here on Biblio-therapy. But I deeply, deeply disliked Austenland and I don’t even want to talk about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I tell you all this so you understand that I am a discerning consumer when it comes to the Jane Austen industry, as it were, and I am heartily recommending Longbourn by Jo Baker.

The one sentence summary sounds very Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton AbbeyLongbourn is about what the Bennet family servants were doing during the action in Pride and Prejudice–but Baker has taken what could have been just a cute idea and turned it into a really thoughtful story about complex, layered people.

Now the hook for the reader, of course, is how the story in this book will line up with the action we’re all familiar with, and how Baker writes about well-established and -loved characters like Jane and Lizzy. And don’t worry, the Pride and Prejudice fan will find plenty of things that mirror the classic. For example, when Mr. Collins comes to visit, the servants are all very concerned that they make the best impression possible, since when he takes over Longbourn he could chose to fire them all. And a few of the Bennets who don’t get the most sympathetic treatment in the book (including Mrs. Bennet and Mary) have an opportunity to show the reader a softer side. But what I found most impressive is that the heart of this story is the entirely new characters Baker creates from the ghostly background characters that Austen mentioned in only in passing and generally not even by name.

While the Bennet girls are sorting out their marital futures, the Longbourn servants are dealing with their own dreams and struggles. Sarah, the maid, dreams of life beyond the structured, never-changing Bennet house. Hill, the cook, has built her whole life at Longbourn, but struggles with what she has given up to create a peaceful space for thew family she’s assembled and how fragile a life spent serving others can be. And James, the mysterious new footman, wants to escape his past and fit into his new household. The beginning of the book describes a life so peaceful and prescribed that it cast a spell over me, lulling me into the quiet rhythms of an English country house. But as Lizzie’s story picks up speed, so does the action below stairs, and the fates of these characters ended up feeling as dramatic and important as anyone’s should be. While the plot of the book hangs on the structure of Pride and Prejudice, Baker’s story takes on its own life. I enjoyed her take on the behind-the-scenes in the Bennet household, but her characters stuck with me after the book was done and Longbourn is worth reading for their sake.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Contemplative modern take.

You might also like: Well, Pride and Prejudice obviously, if you haven’t read it. It really is lovely. But there was also something about Baker’s writing–the deliberate calmness, maybe–the reminded me of Ann Patchett, so you might want to try Bel Canto or State of Wonder.

The Secret Rooms

I have been in a reading rut since January–I haven’t been able to get into anything, the things I do read are so slow and dragging I don’t want to recommend them, it’s all been very meh. But I recently ran across The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, and a Family Secret by Catherine Bailey–it’s not a perfect book, but I enjoyed it and it gave my reading a kick start.

Bailey is a historian who was granted access to the extensive records maintained by one of England’s aristocratic families so she could write a book about the experience of British soldiers in World War I. But as she starts her research, she find strange gaps in the records, gaps that were clearly deliberately created. She gets drawn into researching these gaps and learning what one of the former Dukes was trying to conceal. The story is told chronologically from Bailey’s perspective, so the reader is discovering what’s missing and what it might mean right along with the author. Am I making this sound boring? It’s actually a page turner, and I found myself thinking things like, “It’s midnight and I have to work in the morning, but I have to read one more chapter to read what she found in the attic!” (Full disclosure: I was a history major, so I might have been predisposed to find a description of primary source research fascinating.)

The reason I’m not jumping up and down and telling everyone to go find this immediately is that I  found the actual solution to the mystery a bit of a let down. This was partly because I’m not sure the mystery could live up to all the hype (spoiler: when the subtitle talks about a haunted castle, it’s being metaphorical). But also, I’m not sure the book did enough to put the Duke’s secret into context for the modern reader. I had to draw on my own knowledge of 20th century British history to understand why the big reveal would have been so scandalous, and I wish the book had included one more chapter that could have better placed the whole situation in its time. (I’m trying not to give away the mystery, but I’ll be happy to discuss more spcific details in the comments.) Also, there were some very detailed descriptions of World War I battles, which really bogged things down and left me feeling like Bailey was determined that the initial research she did on WWI wouldn’t go to waste. But those are really small quibbles. I really enjoyed this and was impressed with Bailey’s ability to make a book about archival research read like a thriller. If you’re feeling a bit of Downton Abbey withdrawal, this might hit the spot.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review:
Intriguing, if anti-climatic.

You might also like: The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. This is one of my favorite books ever, and the real reason I wrote this post. Tey wrote a series of books set in the early 1950s about a Scotland Yard detective named Alan Grant. In most of them, he’s out solving mysteries as usual, but in this one, he’s stuck in a hospital bed recovering from a back injury. He’s wildly bored, so a friend decides to occupy him with historical mysteries, and he gets fixated on finding out whether Richard III really killed the two princes in the tower. The entire book is basically him, in traction, thinking, while the folks helping him describe the things they have found in the library. And it is SO GOOD. Really, go read this.

The Men Who Stare at Goats

men-who-stare-at-goatsThe Men Who Stare at Goats
by Jon Ronson
2004
read by Sean Mangan

This book is awesomely hilarious. Hilarious, if, you know, you can get past the very real horror that is mixed in with the craziness. Apparently, I can. In many ways, the book as a whole reminded me of Keller’s Catch-22, an awesomely hilarious comedy all about the inhumanity of war.

And unfortunately, I once more have to warn for animal harm. Given the intent (by the men who stare at goats) of doing harm, I shouldn’t be surprised, but given the proposed method (i.e., staring), I found I was surprised after all. (It hadn’t occurred to me to ask: where are these goats coming from?) Plus, once we’re past the animal harm, we then move on to torture of prisoners.

Somehow it still manages to be super funny.

Jon Stewart on the Daily Show called Jon Ronson’s writing “investigative satire” and that’s pretty much what it is. This book is also an illustration of the phrase: “Truth is stranger than fiction, (because fiction has to make sense.)” In the final chapter of this book, Ronson sums it up by explaining that this is the story of how, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the discouraged and demoralized U.S. army attempted to incorporate some of the “New Age” culture that was developing, but in true military style, rather than seeking new ways to find peace, they looked for new ways to make war.

Ronson himself is also quite the character: a soft-spoken, somewhat nebbish guy. He’s gone on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, twice, so you can see him for yourself. It’s worth seeing him for yourself, especially if you’re planning on listening to the audiobook version of this book, because, in stark contrast to Ronson, Sean Mangan reads the text with a deep intent and melodrama that just adds an extra layer of hilarity to it all.

There are a lot of conversations in which the various interviewees are saying something either crazy or horrifying or both, and Ronson is recounting the conversation:

So-and-so said: some crazy and/or horrifying thing

I said, “hmm.”

Now imagine that spoken in a deeply melodramatic fashion.

“I said,” Mangan intones, “hmm.”

I, the listener, can’t help but giggle.

To use Kinsey’s practice of a Three Word Review: funny, informative, disturbing