The Last Adventure of Constance Verity by A. Lee Martinez (Saga Press, 2016)
This light-hearted sci-fi novel concerns a young woman who had a spell placed on her at birth that resulted in her constantly having to use her superpowers to save the Earth and sometimes other galaxies. After a couple of decades she declares herself tired of the workload and ready to settle down and live like a normal person. So she tries to find the fairy godmother who gave her the spell, and get it removed (much like Ella in the children’s book/movie Ella Enchanted). It doesn’t go quite the way she expected. But the book is very funny and Constance does end up with some normalcy in the end.
Strangers in their own land: anger and mourning on the American right by Arlie Russell Hochschild (The New Press, 2016)
This nonfiction book written by a respected sociologist (her tenth book) is as readable as a novel. A resident of Berkeley, California, Dr. Hochschild spent the past six years visiting Louisiana, interviewing people on the political right and getting to know their culture. Her goal was to try to understand what she calls the Great Paradox. Red states that have the most industrial pollution and environmental damage consistently elect the most right wing Republican and Tea Party candidates. These politicians eliminate or fail to enforce environmental regulations, while offering incentives for fossil fuel companies to relocate to their states. Over the past twenty years states such as Louisiana have become havens for oil refineries, fracking operations, and all kinds of polluting industries. Hochschild takes a very personal approach in which she tries to “scale the empathy wall” and truly understand people whose political values are very different from her own. By visiting people’s homes, churches, and businesses, she gradually builds up a “deep story” about why people on the right end of the political spectrum prioritize jobs, their Christian faith, and their communities over the very real health impacts (such as cancer) that local environmental degradation is causing themselves and their families. Part of it is a deeply ingrained loyalty to the free market system and pride in being able to take care of themselves; part of it is a hatred of the federal government dating back to the Civil War. A key factor is that the South has an insular culture (most folks don’t ever travel far from home) with a heavy dependence on right-wing media sources like Fox News and talk radio. I recommend this book highly to liberal and progressive readers open-minded enough to want to understand people on the other end of the political spectrum.
The Revolution Where You Live by Sarah Van Gelder (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2017)
The co-founder of Yes! Magazine, Sarah Van Gelder, wrote this book to tell the story of her “12,000 mile journey through a new America.” Yes! Magazine (to which I subscribe) is an online and print outlet for articles by progressive “solutions journalists” who envision “positive futures” for our country. Van Gelder started from her home in the Seattle area in mid-August 2015 and drove all the way across the country and back home again, stopping along the way to learn and pass on inspiring stories of various communities. The unifying theme across these stories is the concept of “acting locally” to solve community problems. The problems that Van Gelder is concerned about involve poverty, inequality, racism, and climate change, and she encounters some great solutions like local food production, worker owned cooperatives, urban farms, time banks, and restorative justice circles. Because the author lives on land that belongs to an Indian reservation, indigenous peoples are featured in many of the book’s chapters, along with African-Americans and other people of color. Van Gelder didn’t talk to political leaders (with one exception) or CEOs of large think-tanks; her focus was on grassroots solutions being implemented by people in American communities, both rural and urban. This is an inspiring compilation about what must have been a wonderful journey.
The Comet Seekers: a novel by Helen Sedgwick (Harper-Collins, 2016)
Welcome to year 5 of my book blog! I will continue to post less often, but be patient and you will be rewarded.
There is more fiction about scientists than you might expect. Often in these novels, including this one, they are pulled one way by love and the other way by their passion to discover new knowledge about the universe, although I’m not sure that’s such a big problem in real life. This book is unusual in that ghosts play a major role in the plot, despite the scientific bent of the real characters. It takes place in France, Ireland, and (briefly) Antarctica; and comets are of course the plot device everything orbits around. Pay attention to the chapter titles, which indicate a year and a real comet that was visible that year. You’ll know this is a literary novel because of the way that the plot starts at the end and jumps around all over time before returning to the present. Nevertheless the story is told coherently, poetically, and with several hard blows to the gut of the reader before it ends.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (The New Press, 2012)
I have been meaning to read this book for several years, and I’m glad I finally did. Michelle Alexander is an accomplished civil rights lawyer, and she makes a solid case for the idea that the mass incarceration of black men in the U.S. is the latest way for powerful forces in our country to keep many black men in a state of second class citizenship. It’s hard for me to believe that it could be deliberate, but according to her, the War on Drugs was always meant to target black men, and continues to do so. Instead of focusing on violent crimes, the criminal justice system is incentivized by federal funding to target minor drug violations, but only for people of color – the same minor drug violations by whites are ignored. Laws impose huge penalties for possession of small quantities of drugs, and police round-ups in poor neighborhoods often force innocent people to plead guilty to felony misdemeanors in order to avoid years in jail. Racial profiling similarly targets black men for minor traffic violations so that their cars can be searched for drugs. Even when these men serve their jail sentence and are released, their felony records make it very difficult for them to find jobs and housing, and they are not allowed to vote. All in all, it’s a very disturbing book. It would be interesting to know what Alexander makes of all the police killings of black men in the past couple of years.
Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen (Random House, 2016)
Every so often I read one of Quindlen’s new books, and they’re always pretty good. My only complaint is that they describe the characters’ lives so realistically that they’re not very good as escapism. This one, for example takes place in rural Pennsylvania and features a girl who’s good at science and eventually becomes a doctor. The major side plot interwoven around her late 20th century life involves the dam that the federal government wants to expand, which will flood her family’s farm and force them to relocate. This aspect of the book is similar to another novel I read in which residents dealt with fracking in rural Pennsylvania. Although Quindlen does a good job of describing life in Pennsylvania, she can’t have spent much time there because she never mentions Wawa, the iconic convenience store.
The Handsome Man’s DeLuxe Cafe by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon Books, 2014)
Although the characters and setting of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series are familiar to most readers of McCall Smith’s novels, the various mysteries that Ms. Ramotswe and Ms. Makutski need to solve keep things unpredictable. I’m glad that solving mysteries really is their paid job – so many fictional women solve mysteries only as a hobby, which is kind of sexist. As always in his books, the author’s characters frequently find themselves wrestling with the ethical choices involved in everyday situations. Precious Ramotswe falls squarely on the side of kindness every time, and has no regrets. This is a well written story that will satisfy fans.