Next Book Buzz
This summer we’re exploring heroes, from crime-fighting superheroes to everyday folks just making a difference in their communities. Heroes can also be found within the pages of great literature. Historical fiction, which often chronicles the imagined experiences of real-life events, is a genre that is especially filled with heroes. I will admit I’m partial to stories of women in these historical settings. I know my own life is very different than those of the women who came before me. In fact, the life I lead has been very much shaped by those brave women from earlier centuries. The heroic women of historical fiction provide a glimpse into the challenges women of the past faced and how their bravery shaped today’s world. Here are a few of my favorite historical novels featuring strong women.
The years before the Civil War were tumultuous, especially in the Kansas Territory where abolitionists struggled to gain a stronghold and help the state enter the Union as a free state. Jane Smiley’s “The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton,” features a Midwestern young woman who finds herself thrust into the upheaval of “Bleeding Kansas.” Lidie heads out to the territory with her abolitionist husband and (to be frank) completely unrealistic expectations of what the Kansas prairie will be like. The story, filled with Lidie’s dry wit, is at times laugh-out-loud funny, and at others is quite sobering in its portrayal of the horror of slavery and violence of those years. I think Missouri residents will find this read especially interesting given all the Missouri locales that Lidie visits during her travels.
The experience of Chinese immigrants in WWII-era Los Angeles features in Lisa See’s “Shanghai Girls.” Pearl and May are sisters living exciting lives as models in glamorous Shanghai. When WWII breaks out, they find themselves in arranged marriages to sons of a Chinese-American merchant. Pearl and May are forced to leave China for the United States, landing first in the Angel Island Chinese immigration station and then in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. The sisters, bearing the weight of their own painful secrets, struggle to adjust to life under a domineering father-in-law and a society that is highly prejudicial against Asian-Americans. See’s novel, based in part on her own family’s experiences, provides a captivating look at the immigrant experience in this country.
A small town’s struggle to survive during the Plague is chronicled in Geraldine Brooks’ “Year of Wonders.” The story is based on actual events — a small Derbyshire town called the village of Eyam quarantined itself in 1666 in order to prevent the plague from spreading further. Anna, a young maid, finds herself tasked with learning herbal remedies and midwifery when her village is overcome by the devastating disease. She becomes an important healer but faces many challenges, including the superstitions of the very people she is working to save. The novel is a beautifully written journey of self-discovery as Anna realizes strength and determination she did not know she possessed.
The superhero. The origin story, the nemesis, the team up, the world-saving, etc. Oh, and the reboot. Never forget the reboot. We’ve seen it before, and we’ll see it again. The superhero is an enduring trope that has permeated pop-culture. Inevitably, writers and artists started creating comics that critique, satirize and subvert the idea of the superhero. What might have started as efforts to tell a new story in a well-worn genre morphed into creative examinations of the concept of the superhero. Despite any high-minded genre dissections, the basic thrill of superhero stories is in these titles. These creators work in the genre because they ultimately love it, warts and all.
In 1986 two series premiered which are now touchstones for the re-imagining of the superhero story: Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns. The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller tells the story of a 55-year-old Bruce Wayne who must return from retirement (spoiler alert!) as Batman. Gotham has turned into a bit of a dystopian nightmare in the 10 years since Batman retired. Batman is not so nice and not very stable. His reemergence brings some of his arch rivals out of retirement as well, which adds to the chaos in Gotham. In addition to being a different take on an iconic character, “The Dark Knight Returns” satirizes the media and political atmosphere of the 1980s.
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons also offers a critique of the 1980s, specifically the Cold War hysteria of the time. It examines political themes buried in comics, such as the line between vigilantism and fascism, and what a government might really do with superpowered beings. Moore’s original idea started as a murder mystery involving characters from Charlton Comics, which DC Comics had just purchased. Although Moore was persuaded to create original characters for the story, it maintained it’s very meta take on comics, what Gibbons referred to as “a comic about comics.”
An unfortunate trend followed the success of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Many comics appeared that tried to replicate their success with darker, more violent superhero stories, but they lacked the substance that made those comics lasting works. However, some darker comics followed whose quality is comparable.
The series Marshal Law by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill first appeared in October 1987, when the final issue of Watchmen was published. It’s a darkly satirical story where the superheros are misguided government experiments and shell-shocked war vets wreaking havoc in a crumbling San Francisco, now called “San Futuro.” Marshal Law is a legally sanctioned superhero hunter (“I’m a hero hunter. I hunt heroes. Haven’t found any yet,” is his tag line). He’s trying to round up all the rogue heroes to make the city safer. From superheros.
The Boys by Garth Ennis also deals with out-of-control superheros with a dark, satirical tone. In this case the superheros are an amoral and entitled variety that play a public role as “heroes” while in reality show a complete disregard for others. The Boys are a CIA-backed group who have lost loved ones, or otherwise had their lives ruined, by the negligence and misbehavior of superheroes. They are given injections of the same compound that creates superheroes and tasked with holding the “‘supes” accountable. They do so with a vengeance.
The series Irredeemable and Incorruptible by Mark Waid tell two sides to the same story. Irredeemable is the story of Plutonian, a god-like superhero from another world (like Superman) who loses it. He lays waste to much of the world, and the survivors live in terror of him. The story traces the cause of his meltdown, while also following the uphill battle surviving superheros have in their attempt to stop the most powerful being on Earth.
Incorruptible follows super villain Max Damage after Plutonian’s meltdown. The horror inflicted by Plutonian and the state the world is in give Max a crisis of conscience. The series follows him as he tries to change his ways and do right in this broken world.
Daniel Clowes‘ The Death Ray examines the “with great power comes great responsibility” line from Spider-Man, asking “what might a misfit teenager really do if he had superpowers?” Andy is growing up in 1970s Chicago and suffering at the hands of bullies. He discovers that smoking cigarettes gives him super strength. Naturally, he arms himself with a ray gun and looks for revenge. Andy is neither good nor evil but a realistic portrait of a mixed-up kid given some unrealistic abilities. The story is told with the mix of melancholy, humor and cynicism that has made Clowes one of the most critically acclaimed cartoonists of our time.
Can we all just agree to take the month of July off to sit around in our hammocks sipping iced tea and reading until our eyeballs break? The LibraryReads list highlighting books publishing next month (and inspiring librarians across the country to entertain similar fantasies) includes not only the expected breezy romances but also a new historical fiction from Paula McClain (“The Paris Wife“) and a confident debut that will delight foodies with an appetite for character-driven novels. Bon appétit!
“Kitchens of the Great Midwest” by J. Ryan Stradal
“This novel is quirky and colorful. The story revolves around chef Eva Thorvald and the people who influence her life and her cooking. With well-drawn characters and mouthwatering descriptions of meals, ‘Kitchens of the Great Midwest’ will appeal to readers who like vivid storytelling. Foodies will also enjoy this delicious tale.” – Anbolyn Potter, Chandler Public Library, Chandler, AZ
“Circling the Sun” by Paula McLain
“I couldn’t stop reading this fascinating portrayal of Beryl Markham, a complex and strong-willed woman who fought to make her way in the world on her terms. McLain paints a captivating portrait of Africa in the 1920s and the life of expats making their home there. Highly, highly recommended.” – Halle Eisenman, Beaufort County Library, Hilton Head, SC
“Kiss Me” by Susan Mallery
“As always, Ms. Mallery has given us a fantastic read. As soon as I pick up her titles, I can’t put them down until I have finished them. They are feel-good, heartwarming — I need more synonyms. I love seeing all the previous characters, the friendships and families that have formed since ‘Chasing Perfect’ came out five years ago. Thanks, Ms. Mallery, for another amazing read.” – Jenelle Klavenga, Marshalltown Public Library, Marshalltown, IA
Here is the rest of the July list with links to the library’s catalog. Place your holds now!
“Second Chance Summer” by Jill Shalvis
“Speaking in Bones” by Kathy Reichs
“Those Girls” by Chevy Stevens
“Maybe in Another Life” by Taylor Jenkins Reid
“Crooked Heart” by Lissa Evans
“Love Lies Beneath” by Ellen Hopkins
“Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day” by Leanne Brown
I was excited to read “A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall” because the story of a brave giant is almost certain to be exciting. To my brief disappointment, the title isn’t literal. But my disappointment was curtailed because the story is riveting. We begin with water polo star Owen Burr, his days infused by one of four colors (obviously: peridot, gamboge, ultramarine and carmine) that correspond to the general feel of the day, and of course, a Greek god. Owen is to participate in the Olympics until a savage blow from from a decidely ungentlemanly opponent obliterates one of his peepers. While most people, after losing an eye, turn to a life of pillaging on the high seas, Owen’s plan is slightly less ambitious. Eyepatch donned, Owen bravely abandons college, steals his father’s prized copy of “The Odyssey” and leaves his goodbye on a post-it note. He journeys to Berlin to become an artist and discover which half of his life would be wasted.
Once there, he meets one tremendous scoundrel, several lesser scoundrels and some people that aren’t scoundrels. When the tremendous scoundrel, a famous artist whose work is often exploitative and disgusting, offers to collaborate with Owen, some dreadful things occur. I haven’t been this outraged by the actions taken against a character since watching any Game of Thrones episode. But Owen has no swords or dragons or lofty titles, only a dashing eye patch and a desire to create.
Meanwhile, Owen’s father, a professor at a fancy college, is distraught about his son. He begins searching for him and finds saying radical things leads to notoriety which might lead to Owen finally responding to an email or perhaps sending a telegram. Joseph Burr’s search leads him to Athens, where he makes a speech about Scarface and philosophy and whatnot. Someone rushes the stage and hands the professor a Molotov. Joseph is trying to spare the crowd a good burning when he lofts the explosive at the Parthenon. Alas, his toss isn’t widely viewed as the good deed it was. Fear of imprisonment ushers him out of Greece and onward on his trek to find his son.
Owen is also on the run now, having done a very bad thing to a man who very much deserved it. I’ll cease the plot talk here, as much of a delight as it is — I’ve already spoiled more than I consider gentlemanly, but sometimes an honorable man wants to write about a professor throwing Molotovs at the Parthenon.
Will Chancellor is a gifted writer, and there is a bounty of delightful sentences in store for anyone who takes this recommendation. Here are some words from the writer John Warner, who did a superior job of recommending this novel.
“…What I loved about the novel is the kitchen-sink quality of its ideas and obsessions. At one point or another Chancellor touches on: Plato’s allegory of the cave; remote-controlled boats; postmodern performance art; postmodern political theory;…Icelandic myth; the inevitable upselling of camping gear; campus politics; and the particular genius of Hungarian water polo.
…I fell in love with the book because it is one of a handful of books I will read in a given year that remind of the potential of literature to mine our obsessions and share them with others…A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall is the most “alive” book I’ve read this year. I don’t delude myself as to the size of this megaphone, but I hope someone’s listening.”