All our names by Dinaw Mengestu (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)
This is one of those novels with two parallel plot lines that eventually converge (like All the Light We Cannot See which I recently reviewed). One plot line involves the main character (an African man in his late twenties) and his friend during their involvement in Uganda’s civil wars in the 1970s. The other plot line follows the same man, slightly older, during the first year he spends in the United States, developing a romantic relationship with a woman social worker in the Midwest. This was a time when bi-racial couples were not completely accepted. Both stories are told simply, in the manner of a journalist or social worker who frequently witnesses tragic and horrific events: people who strive to stay calm while not suppressing their humanity entirely.
While writing this review I watched two neighborhood boys play soldier, running through my backyard wearing camouflage shirts and carrying plastic rifles. They have played this game before, and it bothers me every time. Yes, I know little boys have always loved to play war, and it’s better for them to run around outside than play video games. But I don’t think it’s harmless. I think they’re practicing for an all too real future, either as soldiers sent overseas by the U.S. Army to interfere in other nations’ civil wars, or as police officers or National Guardsmen in an increasingly militarized “land of the free.”
Bertie Plays the Blues by Alexander McCall Smith (Recorded Books, 2013).
It always makes me forget the stress of my long commute to listen to one of Alexander McCall Smith’s novels. This title in the “44 Scotland Street” series, published in 2011, took me away to Edinburgh with the voice of Scottish actor Robert Ian Mackenize. In this series Smith weaves together the day to day stories of some diverse residents of the city, several of whom live in flats at 44 Scotland Street. They have the normal problems of love, family, jobs and neighbors, but seem to live in an altogether more civilized world than we do in the United States. There are no shootings or accusations of police abuse. They walk or take buses or trains (rarely cars), work, go to school, have dinner parties, drink coffee or beer in coffee shops or pubs, and visit art galleries. They spend time with friends, walk dogs, read poetry, enjoy classical music. One of the signature phrases in Smith’s books is “(so-and-so) thought about it.” His characters spend an enormous amount of time reflecting on the moral and philosophical implications of their actions (and those of others). Sometimes this can go on too long, but in Bertie Plays the Blues at least, the balance of action and thought is just right.
In lieu of reviewing a book, I am recommending a blog post written by another science librarian on the subject of climate change fiction.
Written in my own heart’s blood by Diana Gabaldon (Delacorte Press, 2014)
If you’re a fan of Diana Gabaldon’s books, you probably already have this one on hold at the library. It’s hard to pin down her genre – let’s call it science fiction crossed with historical romance, and a strong dose of intelligent humor? I got my library’s copy two weeks ago, fortuitously in time to take on an airplane trip. It kept me occupied from Philadelphia to Minneapolis and back (including a long layover in Chicago), and I was not disappointed. This sequel to An Echo in the Bone reunites Roger and Briana (eventually) as well as Claire and Jamie (early on) and wraps up many story lines in a satisfying way, but leaves some options for future installments. I especially liked the clever titles for many of the chapters. I’ll definitely be asking for a copy of my own for Christmas. If you haven’t read any of Diana Gabaldon’s novels before, you absolutely should, but don’t start with this one. You need to start with the first book of this long series, Outlander, which will soon be adapted as a t.v. series on the Starz network. It’s going to be the next Games of Thrones.