Next Book Buzz
As the old saying goes, “…judge a book by its cover.” The eye-catching cover of “A Hanging at Cinder Bottom” by Glenn Taylor caught my eyes, and the contents held them. If my team of editors, web developers, interns and chefs has done its job, the cover should be to the right. A keen eye will spot a monkey on a pedestal. Beware though: the monkey doesn’t show up until deep into the novel, and he doesn’t appear on a pedestal, but the wait and subterfuge about his standing gear is worth it. He’s a brave and loyal little rascal, and he wins his owner’s bets by being able to drink a bottle of beer and smoke a cigarette in under two minutes. Now, we’ve all seen our share of smoking, alcoholic monkeys, but this monkey is special. His owner, Tony Thumbs (he’s missing a thumb), loves him, and this gentleman reader was moved by the revelation that Tony, out of concern for the monkey’s health, only asked his little pal to pull the trick on occasion, when it might prove useful in making friends.
While it shouldn’t take more than a quality monkey to sell you on “A Hanging at Cinder Bottom,” it is a ripping yarn written with a poet’s dedication to word choice, and it is about much more than an awesome monkey. There is also a stage show featuring a man perfectly playing the tune “Yankee Doodle” with his farts.
The novel opens in 1910 with life-long loves Abe Baach, a card sharp and conman, and Goldie Toothman, a brothel madam capable of throwing a playing card with deadly precision, awaiting the gallows for murdering the mayor. With ropes around necks and Abe’s promise to “tell the truth before I die” or “walk out of hell in kerosene drawers and set the world on fire” ringing in the crowd’s ears, the evil sheriff collapses on the stage and lets loose some profound flatulence, and with that ringing in the crowd’s ears:
“The sun came free of the clouds then, and the people looked skyward, and there was only the north-born sound of the tardy noon train’s wheeze. The engine was not yet fully stopped at the station when men began to jump from inside the empty coal hoppers. They hit the hard dirt beside the railbed and rolled and got to their feet quick. They ran on wrenched ankles, headlong into the people staring at the heavens.”
And there, as we hope those men are injuring their ankles in an effort to save our charming heroes, the novel leaps back to 1877, and then to 1897, so that we might better understand why our protagonists would run afoul of the most powerful people in the county. Then the novel returns to 1910 and the months leading up to the hanging, where the bulk of our time is spent, and we get the story of the long con that puts them in the nooses we find them in at the beginning. While you might guess the general thrust of the ending, the specifics will delight you. Someone will eventually film the closing sequence, and while it will be impossible to improve on the novel and a reader’s imagination, it will be great fun to see someone try. Here’s hoping they cast the right monkey.
Kids these days, with their “Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” The millennial generation thinks they’re the first ones to discover futuristic dystopian literature? I’ll show them futuristic dystopian literature. Aldous Huxley was writing it before their grandparents were born.
His 1932 book, “Brave New World,” presents a society where lives are created by cloning and controlled through technology and drugs. Fulfillment is meant to be found in consumer goods, and Henry Ford is worshiped. A caste system is enforced through genetic engineering. There are no families, no personal attachments. Or at least there aren’t supposed to be.
Enter John, aka “the Savage.” Through happenstance, he has grown up removed from the World State, raised by a mother, even, albeit not a stable one. His development was largely influenced by an old volume of the works of William Shakespeare, and it provides his frame of reference as he tries to understand what passes for the civilized world, once he is dropped into its midst. He repeatedly speaks of the “brave new world,” a quote from Miranda in Shakespeare’s play, “The Tempest.” But each time he utters the phrase, it takes on a different meaning.
John’s three main companions in his new life are Bernard Marx, who oversees psychological sleep training at the (human) Hatchery and Conditioning Center, Bernard’s friend Helmholtz Watson, a university lecturer and Lenina Crowne, a giver of vaccines at the Hatchery. All three are, in their own ways, discontent with life in their supposed Utopia, though Lenina tries her best to find happiness, or failing that, at least numbness.
“Brave New World” tackles questions that are still relevant today, issues about the role of technology and medical ethics. To what extent should we meddle with nature? How much can we improve life and health by doing so, and what do we risk losing? Is complacency the same as happiness? How much social engineering is acceptable in order to maintain a stable society?
Kids these days. Do they think they’re the first one to ask those questions? They’re not. Every generation asks them. Aldous Huxley saw this.
I rarely make resolutions. I do like the notion of the coming year as a clean slate, a calendar full of possibilities, and I’m a proponent of self-improvement. However, I bristle at the typical resolution’s focus on weight loss or basis in dissatisfaction, what I don’t have or don’t do but should. And because they are so often abandoned, making resolutions feels like I’m setting myself up for failure.
This year I bucked my own trend and made some resolutions. Why? Maybe it’s because I’m in my 40s now and feel like I need to make some lifestyle adjustments for my future health. (Calcium supplements! Weight training!) Maybe it’s because I really like checking items off of to-do lists. (Session with personal trainer scheduled? Check! Best calcium supplements researched – I am a librarian, after all – and purchased? check!) Whatever the reason, I’ve started off 2016 as a goal-setter. If you want to join me and need some inspiration for shaking up your status quo, finding work-life balance or otherwise becoming a better version of yourself, pick up one of these books.
“10% Happier” by Dan Harris
Subtitled, “How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-help That Actually Works – a True Story,” this often funny narrative winds up a convincing argument for meditation and mindfulness. While I haven’t read it yet, a woman in my book club quietly asserted that this book changed her life. Endorsement enough for me.
“Year of Yes” by Shonda Rhimes
Chronicles of the year a writer spent conducting some sort of personal experiment – strictly living according to the bible, only eating food grown within 100 miles of home, etc. – are not new. However, Rhimes’ fresh and personal voice keeps her memoir from feeling like it’s something we’ve already heard. On her sister’s challenge, Rhimes embarks on a year of saying yes to things that scare her, from public speaking engagements to promotional opportunities. The outcomes are pretty dramatic, and Rhimes’ journey inspires.
“Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time” by Brigid Schulte
I often think that if I added up all of those little chunks of time I spend at the end of my day scrolling through Facebook posts, I could get a whole lot more novel reading done. Or at least some laundry. Schulte investigates why modern workers (particularly women with kids) have so little leisure time. She looks to European countries for alternative models and makes some practical suggestions for time-management and reclaiming time we waste attempting to multitask or spend on manufactured busyness.
Happy New Year!