Dear Mrs. Bird

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I am an absolute sucker for books about the Blitz. Something about the combination of London, historical fiction, the drama of WWII–I will read just about anything the features the word “Blitz” in the blurb. And I’m clearly not the only person who feels this way, since these books continue to get published. The new Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce fits nicely into my favorite sub-category of this genre–women in the Blitz–while adding some layers I haven’t often seen.

Emmie is a young woman living in London in the early days of WWII. She works part-time as a fire dispatcher, but dreams of being a reporter and is thrilled to get a job at a magazine, sure she is on her way to be an intrepid war correspondent. However, it turns out that she is mostly doing typing at an old-fashioned ladies’ magazine whose editor won’t answer any sort of reader questions that deal with any “Unpleasantness.” Of course, there’s a war on and life is complicated, so Emmie ends up reading lots of letters from readers with serious problems, and can’t bear to think that they won’t get any response. She she starts responding and well, hijinks ensue.

Now, the basic plot here requires that Emmie spends a lot of time worried about being caught and worrying about what will happen when she does, and that is one of my least favorite things to read–I find that completely agonizing and by the end of the book was almost skimming scenes in her office for fear of what was going to happen. What saved the book for me were Emmie’s experiences outside work, where she and her best friend attempt to live their 20-something lives in the middle of a war. More than most Blitz books I’ve read, Dear Mrs. Bird gets across the feeling that yes, terrible things were happening, but that for those people living in the middle of the bombing, it became normalized. Emmie and her friends have to view the nightly bombings and tragedies as just another irritation to deal with, like bad traffic, in order to live their lives. And when you’re twenty-two, something like getting dumped is likely to feel like a much bigger deal than the war. And yet, at the same time, the book takes on the issue of how the internal and external pressure to keep the famous British “stiff upper lip” was hard on people, and how sometimes even the most patriotic Londoner needed to acknowledge the toll the constant bombing took on them.

There’s also just a bit of romance, although I couldn’t help but feel that Emmie might have landed in the wrong place there–I’m holding out hope that there might be a sequel featuring my favorite character, Emmie’s long-suffering boss at the magazine. He’s in his forties and spends most of the book rolling his eyes at Emmie’s adventures and the rest of the world, and I found him completely charming. And I’m sure that has nothing to do with the fact that this is the role I would most likely be playing in this story.

Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review:  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society meets Bridget Jones.

You might also like:  Well, obviously, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and the Bridget Jones books. But also a book I rave about a lot called The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets or another adorable one called Miss Buncle’s Book. And if you’re looking for a little period escapism with a lot of charming young British ladies falling in love, Mary Stewart basically perfected post-war romantic suspense and I read through all her work as a teenager–my favorites of hers were always Touch Not the Cat and Nine Coaches Waiting.

And if, like me, you’d just like to read some more books about the Blitz, Connie Willis’s Blackout and All Clear are epics that also involve time travel. I also love Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, and The Distant Hours by Kate Morton. And in other media, check out “The Stolen Child” and “The Doctor Dances” episodes of Doctor Who and the movie Hope and Glory.

Truly Devious

9780062338051Waaaay back in 2012, I wrote a review about the first book in a new YA fantasy/mystery trilogy by Maureen Johnson. I really liked The Name of the Star but at the time the rest of series wasn’t out yet. Books two and three are now available, and I recommend tracking those down for a good supernatural mystery. Johnson’s latest book is also a mystery, but it takes a slightly different, non-fantasy angle on things.  Truly Devious follows two different story threads–in the present day teenager Stevie, a true crime aficionado, is starting the year at an exclusive and unusual boarding school that was the site of a notorious crime in the early 1900s. She wants to solve the historical crime, but gets swept up into a present-day mystery. But while we watch Stevie try to figure out what is going on in her world, we are also following actors in the original mystery and slowly uncovering what actually happened when the wife and daughter of a wealthy industrialist were kidnapped.

The downside of Truly Devious is that it ends on a cliffhanger with basically no resolution, and there isn’t even a publication date for the next one. This is clearly going to be a single story told over several books, but who knows when it all might wrap up. But this was a quick read with an engaging story and it would be perfect to read on a dark and rainy evening, since it’s a little creepy but probably won’t keep you up at night.

Also, Maureen Johnson is super fun to follow on Twitter (@maureenjohnson), where she is very funny and also posts lots of cute pictures of her dog. Plus, she just edited a YA essay compilation called How I Resist that looks really inspiring, that I may have to go track down.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Creepy, on-going mystery

You might also like:  One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus is a fun teenagers-solve-a-crime story, and if you’re looking for a quirky boarding school book, Looking for Alaska by John Green is a classic. The recent TV show about the Getty kidnapping called Trust also gets at quite a few of the period-piece thriller aspects of this. But considering that this is the story of someone obsessed with true crime, my main recommendation is the podcast My Favorite Murder, in which two mystery-obsessed women tell the stories of famous crimes to each other. Just this morning I was listening to an episode this morning about the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, which feels like it was a bit of an inspiration for the historical crime in this book.

Novels in Verse

Are novels in verse coming back into fashion? Because while I’m not a big poetry reader, I do think it would be kind of awesome, and I’m beginning to see some evidence of it. I just ran across this article about a new imprint that will be focused on YA books with a strong verse element:

I’ve also been following with interest the discussions of the newest translation of the Odyssey by Emily Wilson that is making waves in certain circles by it’s going back to the roots of the original language and retranslating it for meaning that speaks to current society rather than to Victorian society.

And I’m reminded of a Stargate Atlantis fanfic “Free Verse” by Dasha that includes the line: “They built their laboratories to look like temples. Of course they wrote their text books to read like poetry.” And references the poem “The story of Schroedinger’s cat (an epic poem)” from The Straight Dope.

So despite not being a great fan of poetry in general, I’d be really interested in modern epic poetry coming back into fashion and seeing what modern authors do with it.

fail, fail again, fail better by Pema Chödrön

failcoverfail, fail again, fail better
by Pema Chödrön
2015

This was an elegant short book with two main sections: the first is a transcript of a commencement address that the author, an American-born Buddhist nun, delivered to the 2014 graduating class at Naropa University, and the second is a transcript of a follow-up interview that delves further into the topic.

Both sections were good, although I enjoyed the first part better. The commencement address was more elegantly written and more beautifully laid out and had a feeling of something in between poetry and prose. The interview delved more into Chödrön’s person life experiences and how they effected and were effected by her thoughts on failure.

The thoughts really come down to:

  • Failure is always possible but do not allow fear of failure to stop you.
  • It is important to acknowledge that a failure is a failure rather than pretending it isn’t, to either yourself or others.
  • Examine each failure to determine why it happened and allow it to be a learning experience without focusing on blame: either of yourself or others.
  • Failures range from minor to devastating but they are always external actions: you can fail, but you cannot be a failure.

None of these thoughts are particularly unique or anything I haven’t run across before, but they’re important and well worth being reminded of on a semi-regular basis.

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.

World Map of Literature

I do love seeing those lists of books that all sorts of publications put out:

They’re fun to browse and generally make me feel all snooty and superior either because I’ve read a lot or because I disagree with the selection. They tend to be heavily weighted towards western white male authors, with maybe a noticeable minority of western white female authors.

That tendency makes Literature of the World all the more awesome, because this one Reddit user, Backforward24, literally goes over a world map and identifies a piece of literature from each country that you should read:

Literature of the World

And the joys of social media crossover means that I actually discovered this Map via Tumblr, because I don’t generally browse Reddit. That’s where I went to copy down the list of books* that I am including below the tag for length purposes:

* note: I have read 7 of the 145 books.

Continue reading

The Bible: Psalms

I had actually been really looking forward to Psalms because I thought there would be some good poetry here. I’m not a big poetry reader, not because I dislike it but because I am incredibly picky about it. But I like John Donne’s poetry, and Rita Dove’s poetry, and Ramprasad Sen’s poetry, and I’ve been getting a kick out of the “I lik the bred” poetry meme. As it turns out, I’m not a big fan of King David’s, King Solomon’s, or various other poets’ poetry that wound up in Psalms.

The introduction on the audio book version also raised expectations because apparently a lot of these are lyrics, intended to be set to music, and the original text includes instructions on the music. Cool!* If nothing else, I was going to amuse myself by trying to find Christian rock bands who had put the Psalms to music in a modern fashion. But the results are pretty rough. I mean, the music is fine, less rock and more spiritual/celtic maybe, which is disappointing, but the lyrics…

Just, wow, the Pslams are whiney. Either whiney or really blatantly hypocritical. Often, they’re both whiney and hypocritical. Just oof. I was disappointed. There’s just a lot of “these people are being mean to me, you need to beat them up” along with “you hate people who do violent things but love people who obey you, so let’s all do violent things to the people who don’t obey you.”

So just, nope.

Now, keep in mind that Psalms is broken into 5 sections and 150 poems, from a variety of poets discussing a variety of issues, so while I didn’t like the vast majority of it, that isn’t to say there aren’t a few exceptions.

There are some individual verses that ring out with power and touch the heart… but there’s always another verse that pretty much delivers the opposite message.

A couple of verses that spoke to me particularly strongly given the current political situation in the US are:

Psalm 94:20-21:

But you are opposed to dishonest lawmakers
Who gang up to murder innocent victims

Psalm 101:6-7 (by King David):

I will find trustworthy people to serve as my advisors
And only an honest person will serve as an official
No one who cheats or lies
Will have a position in my royal court

So, for a moment, it was a salve to my soul, a bit like watching West Wing.

But then there’s Psalm 106:34-35:

Our Lord, they disobeyed you
By refusing to destroy the nations.
Instead they were friendly
With those foreigners and followed their customers

So there really is something for everyone in these psalms, including the pro-genocide bigots. That is not a good thing.

But if you ever want to have a bible verse to support your position on any given issue, Psalms probably has you covered. You just have to decide to ignore all the context and hypocrisy.

Summary: A book of poetry that varies between emo whining and questionable historical accounts.

Moral: If you alternate between flattering and whining to a powerful being, they might be willing to act on your behalf.

* Especially cool since I have recently run across a lot of interesting discussions of how versatile hip-hop is, and how versatile Shakespeare is in much the same vein as hip-hop, and I just had high expectations.

Next Up: Proverbs