Archive for February, 2021

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

February 25, 2021


I have to admit that I was a bit reluctant to read this book, because it seemed as though it would be unbearably sad. I was thankfully convinced to read it by a member of the Library Book Group (thanks Liz!). What I found is a book that is almost unbearably beautiful. The story is based on the fact that Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet (or Hamlet, as the names were used interchangably back then) died at age 11, and that four years later he wrote the play Hamlet. From this fact, and the few other known facts surrounding Shakespeare’s life, O’Farrell has woven a lyrical, mesmerizing, story of this family, and their life in Stratford. One thing I really appreciated in the book is that it is the story of a family in a particular place and time, and the fact that we still know about one member of that family today is not really the point. Shakespeare himself is the only main character never named in the book, he is only known in terms of his relationship with other people – he is alternately referred to as the husband, the father, the Latin tutor, the brother. He has a much smaller role in the novel than I had expected, as he spends most of his time in London building a separate life in the theatre. The focus is on more on his family, and the impact that his career and his art had on them, although there is a powerful exploration towards the end of the impact that the death of his son might have had on his art. Agnes, his wife, is more of the central character, and she is fascinating – magical, a healer, an unusual person struggling to make a life for herself and her children in the claustrophobic household of her in-laws, and trying to understand her husband’s need to pursue his dreams in London. I was particularly taken with details such as the way the author makes you feel the day to day impact of the lack of education on women– how frustrating it can be to not be able to read, especially when letters are such a valuable mode of communication. You also witness how these people manage to live their day to day lives while navigating the painful mortality rate of children, the fear of dying in childbirth, and the ever present threat of the plague. You come to know Hamnet as a sweet, regular kid who shares a deep and beautiful bond with his twin sister Judith. And you see how the different members of the family deal with the loss of Hamnet. This is a haunting, beautiful book. Yes it is sad, and it is beautiful and well deserving of all the accolades it received. Hamnet is available at the Library and on Libby/Overdrive.

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

February 16, 2021


Are you looking for a rich, exciting fantasy book to take you out of the dreary February weather? For me, The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty was just that book. The City of Brass is the first book in the Daevabad trilogy, a fantasy series immersed in Middle Eastern folklore. The protagonist, Nahri, is a smart and savvy con-woman who grew up alone in the streets of 18th Century Cairo, making money by using her unusual ability to spot illness in others to con the rich into buying unnecessary treatments. During one of her cons, Nahri uses a language that she knows in her head but has never heard anyone else speak, and accidentally conjures Dara, a Djinn. Realizing her life is in danger, and recognizing her abilities, Dara takes her to Daevabad, a magical city invisible to humans. Nahri is thrust into the position of becoming the City’s Nahid, or Healer, taken in by the Royal Family. It is hard to know who to trust in this world, unlike in Cairo, where Nahri had the lay of the land and was able to read people easily. Dara is her friend, yet she comes to learn he has a very dark and frightening past. Ali, the second son of the Royal Family, becomes a friend, but has his own secret motivations for doing so. Ali is conflicted about his role, and is himself trying to figure out who to trust, and where he stands. There is a lot going on in this book, and the politics and dynamics of Daevabad got a little confusing for me at times, but I really found myself swept away in this magical world, and I loved the Middle Eastern setting and folklore. I have not yet read the other two books in the trilogy, but I am very much looking forward to it. Fans of Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse, the Orisha series by Tomi Adeyemi and Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik might enjoy this series.

The entire Daevabad trilogy is available at the Library and on Libby/Overdrive.

Title details for The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty - Wait list

Henry, Himself and Emily, Alone by Stewart O’Nan

February 6, 2021

Once again making the ordinary and overlooked not merely visible but vital to understanding our own lives.

book description for Emily, Alone

[Lesley] Sometimes, it’s wonderful to just meet a character. Not go on an adventure with them, not go through a trauma with them, not follow them through a thrilling and edge-of-your-seat mystery. Just get to know them in all of their humanity, relationships, and individual point of view. Welcome to the world of the Maxwells.

I found Henry, Himself while I was “shelf reading,” a piece of library jargon that means scanning along all the books in one area, making sure each one is in the right order. Often, when doing this, I discover titles that look interesting, that I’d like to read. Perfect serendipity.

Henry, Himself attracted me with its unusual title and its lovely cover (forget that whole “don’t judge a book by…”).

The book takes place inside Henry’s head mostly. His life is quiet, routine, and ordinary. We go along for his trips to The Home Depot or down to his workshop where he fixes this and that and listens to the Pirates’ games on the radio. His world is so knowable, so comfortable that I felt comforted. A perfect book for uncomfortable times.

We get to know his family: Emily, his wife, their two adult children, and his sister. He knows them inside and out and also knows that he can’t understand all of their decisions or the way they think and react. He’s ok with that. Henry is an observer which can make him seem distant or irritatingly unflappable (Emily gets irritated easily but in an agreeable way) but it is rooted in his deep connection to family, memory, and community. Henry lives in the moment even as he muses on how he has lived his life. He questions whether he has been a good father, a good husband, not in a crisis of the soul – more curiosity about what makes a life well lived.

I read Henry, Himself before Emily, Alone even though it is the last of the three Maxwell books published. It is a prequel to Emily, Alone (the 2nd book published) so it worked out fine to read them in this order. I haven’t read Wish You Were Here (the 1st) but I’m looking forward to it. Emily, Alone picks up after Henry has died and Emily is muddling through early widowhood. She is still so different from Henry: more excitable, less satisfied, and with higher expectations of their children. But, it is clear how much of Henry and their life together continue to color her perspectives. She’ll have her own first reaction and then quickly her mind turns to what Henry would have said or done or thought. There is sadness and loneliness here, but also the beauty of such a relationship and a world built with another person. Their dear dog connects the two books with so much love and tenderness.

These two books were really just what I needed. The opposite of flashy, they are simply well-told character studies. I just loved them both.

Other books you might like:
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
A Man Called Ove
The Story of Arthur Truluv

Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted On Equality For All by Martha S. Jones

February 3, 2021


There has been a great deal written about the historic fight for women’s suffrage, particularly last year during the Centennial celebration of the 19th Amendment, however the role that Black women played in this fight has often been overlooked. This compelling, fascinating book by Professor Martha Jones explores the rich history of African American women’s political lives, focusing on the intersections of racism and sexism that have always informed that history. While Black women played a much bigger role than is often recognized in the fight for the 19th Amendment, the passing of that Amendment was not the end of the fight for voting rights for Black women. The book traces the many ways in which Black women fought to gain political power and make their voices heard – in churches, in clubs, as orators, as authors. While you may recognize some of the names of the women talked about in the book, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks, Shirley Chisholm, and Stacey Abrams, you may come to understand their stories in the context of so many other Black women throughout history whose names are just beginning to be known, thanks to books like this. Vanguard is available at the Library.