Books in a Time of Quarantine

nurseAs I write this on March 27, 2020, the world is in the midst of a pandemic. The novel virus Covid-19 has to date, affected 584,110 people worldwide and caused 26,862 deaths. In my state of Kentucky, we are being asked to stay #HealthyatHome and restrict our socializing to on-line.

Seems like a GREAT time for some QUARANTINE reads. One can either go all in and read about other quarantines, or possibly escape the world altogether. I have a few suggestions for both types of reads.

51YCzUi5OJL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A Gentleman In Moscow. This treasure is number one on my list of quarantine reads. Count Rostov, the protagonist of Amor Towles’ fantastic novel, is himself quarantined, committed to the interior of the Hotel Metropol by the Bolsheviks during the revolution. There are worlds within the Count’s world, and he finds them with the help of a precocious young lady named Nina who has somehow procured a pass key to all the rooms of the Metropol and uses it to great effect. But the Count finds not only the Metropol’s wine vault, silver room, and lost and found, he also finds love, friendship, and a life far fuller than one would imagine could be found within the confines of one hotel, however luxurious, for more than thirty years.

Love in the Time of Cholera. While the choleric anger of petty rage inflames ego-driven love cholerawars to ravage the countryside and population of an unknown Central American nation, a doctor, his wife and the man who has loved her for decades spend their days involved in their own lives.  Sheltered from the country’s wars by wealth.  Suffused with longing.  Having an astounding amount of sex.  Love in the TIme of Cholera, published in 1985 by Pulitzer-Prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is at times a study of frustration, devotion, persistence, ambition, betrayal, forgiveness, obsession.  It is a novel of life and yet the author warned readers of Love, “not to fall into my trap.”  He also told the New Yorker that the book is based on the love story of his own parents.

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Station Eleven. One of the most haunting books I’ve ever read. This is the final line of the first chapter: “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.” Emily St. John Mandel’s apocalyptic vision of a post-worldwide flu epidemic did not let it go for the two days it took me to finish reading the novel, despite the near hopelessness of the narrative in Station Eleven. All I’ll say more is: that plane.

Room. In Emma Donoghue’s horrific novel, Room, five-year old Jake lives in a room withroom his mother, Ma.  He has games and toys; a television that he believes is a direct connection depicting reality on another planet; a wardrobe where he sleeps when “Old Nick” comes to make fearsome noises with Jake’s mother. When Jake and Ma are rescued due to Ma’s ingenuity in faking Jake’s death, Jake leaves the only world he has ever known and Ma return to the world she left more than seven years ago.  The departure is violent, disturbing, upheaval in lives previously confined to four walls and eleven by eleven foot space.

YearOfWonders-webYear of Wonders. It is 1666 and a bolt of cloth infested with the black plague is shipped from London to a small Derbyshire village. Geraldine Brooks’ best-selling novel from 2002 follows a housemaid named Anna Frith who becomes a healer and a hero. Inspired by the true story of Eyam, a village in the rugged hill country of England, Year of Wonders is a best-selling novel by the highly-acclaimed, 2006 Pulitzer-prize winning novelist and a richly detailed evocation of a singular moment in history.

 

The Little Prince. I suppose The Little Prince contemplates isolation as well as Littleprincecompanionship as the aviator at its center lands in the middle of a desert and must survive alone for a time. But I think of the novella as a contemplation of friendship between a fox, a prince, and other lonely souls who gather. It may be considered a children’s book but it is a profound work written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry after his experiences as a pilot in World War II.

 

JeanRhys_WideSargassoSea Wide Sargasso Sea. The lives of one of literature’s most famous shut-in is reimagined in Wide Sargasso Sea. Jean Rhys’ magnificent, sensual, masterpiece Wide Sargasso Sea, Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre is no romantic hero.  Rhys contemplates how Mr. Rochester may have obtained the wife who so infamously dashes the chaste Jane’s dreams of marriage by her nightmarish presence in the Rochester attic, placing him in Spanish Town, Jamaica to receive a bride and 30,000 pounds in dowry with no provision made for his bride:  Antoinette, the beautiful, mulatto daughter of a deceased mad woman.

 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. My penultimate suggestion is a laugh-out loud novel of a Oliphantcommitted introvert. Since she moved into her solo apartment nearly a decade ago, Eleanor has had few guests. A total of two in fact. The meter reader and a social worker who checks on her about once a month. That is fine with Eleanor as well . . . until the night she encounters rock star-wannabe Johnnie Lomond who immediately impresses her as the type of man her mother would find acceptable because he buttons the lower button of his vest while performing in a local music venue. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is a debut novel by a post-40 year old author. Gail Honeyman worked in the British Civil Service and as a university administrator writing her debut novel during lunch and after work. She entered Eleanor in a fiction competition, didn’t win, but an agent signed her and the novel became the subject of a bidding war,  was named 2017 Book of the Year at the British Book Awards, and the film rights have been optioned by Reese Witherspoon.  Talk about a Cinderella story.

ATR COVERFinally: this novel has nothing to do at all with isolation! My debut novel, After the Race is now available. Alexandra was raised to be the next Jackie Kennedy. Just as her mother intended, Alexandra’s summer internship on Capitol Hill results in the perfect fiancé, a future job, and D.C. political savvy. But when Alex returns to college for her final year and falls in love with a handsome, blue-jeaned bike champion, she must choose between the two men and the lives they represent, and decide whether she can defy her mother’s designs to fulfill her own dreams. Ultimately, Alexandra must find within herself the power to confront the one unplanned event that could derail everything. After the Race is available from rabbithousepress.com, amazon.com and at Joseph-Beth booksellers.

Happy Reading and Stay Safe!

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson

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In 1935, the federal Works Progress Administration established a library outreach
project in the Appalachian mountain region to get more books into the hands of the people. Until 1943, librarians on horses traveled the mountains to take and retrieve books to patrons living in the remote areas not serviced by a library. Kentucky was home to one of the earliest pack horse library programs with the first established in 1934 in Leslie County and others coming shortly thereafter in Harlan, Clay, Whitley, Jackson, Owsley and Lee counties. Over the course of eight years, the Pack Horse Librarians project reached 1.5 million Kentuckians and enabled nearly 1,000 women to support themselves and their families in 48 Kentucky counties.

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Book Woman delivering to Appalachian children, courtesy Kentucky Department of Libraries

Cussy Mary Carter is “the” book woman of the title in native Kentuckian Kim Michele Richardson’s novel, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. The year is 1936, and Cussy Mary’s widowed father hopes it’s “the year his only daughter, nineteen-year-old Cussy Mary Carter, would get herself hitched and quit her job with the Pack Horse Library Project.” Cussy has other ideas.

“Pa, I have me a good job making us twenty-eight dollars a month delivering books to folks who’s needing the book learning in these hills. . . . It’s decent money — ”

“Where’s your decency? Some of the womenfolk are complaining you’re carrying dirty books up them rocks.”

“Weren’t true. It’s called literature and it’s proper enough.” I tried to explain like so many times before. “Robinson Crusoe, and Dickens, and the likes, and lots of Popular Mechanics and Women’s Home Companion even. Pamphlets with tips on fixing things busted. Patterns for sewing. Cooking and cleaning. Making a dollar stretch. Important things, Pa. Respectable — ”

Airish. It ain’t respectable for a female to be riding these rough hills, behaving like a man,” he said, a harshness rumbling his voice.

“It helps educate folks and their young’uns.”

According to The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, Cussy Mary made her own booklets for distribution by combining pages from newspapers and worn magazines. Joan Vannorsdale’s article, “The Pack Horse Librarians of Eastern Kentucky,” published in Blue Ridge Country adds historical perspective to the fictional account by Kim Michele Richardson. “The scrapbooks were compiled by pack horse librarians during weekly report gatherings at county library headquarters, and included many contributions from library patrons along their routes. In 1940, Vance writes, 2,653 scrapbooks were circulated among Pack Horse Library patrons. ‘They became important cultural artifacts that offer a window into the lives and interests of readers in the Depression-era Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky,’ Vance asserts.” https://blueridgecountry.com/newsstand/magazine/pack-horse-librarians-eastern-kentucky/

But Richardson’s book woman has more than her share of trouble. Her mother has died, her father’s sick from working in the coal mines, she rides the roughest roads in the state on a recalcitrant mule facing harassment and sexual assault in the process. Not only that, Cussy Mary is one of Kentucky’s famous “blue people.”

I could barely meet someone’s eyes for fear my color would betray my sensibilities. A mere blush, a burst of joy or anger, or sudden startle, would crawl across my skin, deepening, changing my softer appearance to a ripened blueberry hue, sending the other person scurrying. . . . A girl who could turn as blue as the familiar bluet damselfly skimming Kentucky creek bed, the old mountain doctor had once puzzled and then promptly nicknamed me Bluet.

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The Blue People of Troublesome Creek, painting by Walt Spitzmiller

“A rare but very noticeable condition of abnormal hemoglobin affects the “blue people of Troublesome Creek”. Seven generations ago, in 1820, a French orphan named Martin Fugate who settled in this area of Kentucky brought in an autosomal recessive gene that causes methemoglobinemia. Martin’s mutation was in the CYP5R3 gene, which encodes an enzyme (cytochrome b5 methemoglobin reductase) that normally catalyzes a reaction that converts a type of hemoglobin with poor oxygen affinity, methemoglobin, back into normal hemoglobin by adding an electron. Martin was a heterozygote but still slightly bluish. His wife, Elizabeth Smith, was also a carrier for this very rare disease, and four of their seven children were blue. After extensive inbreeding in the isolated community—their son married his aunt, for example—a large pedigree of “blue people” of both sexes arose. https://blogs.plos.org/dnascience/2016/09/22/finding-the-famous-painting-of-the-blue-people-of-kentucky/

So Cussy Mary is also blue. Alas, poor girl. She draws the attention, naturally, of the local doctor who wants to take her to Lexington to study and she agrees based on his promise of food. The doctor believes he has discovered the problem as well as the solution to the color and Cussy Mary sees hope for herself at last. She envisions a life where she can be accepted, maybe even married. With her newly-pale skin, Cussy Mary decides to attend the community’s Independence Day celebrations but finds that her father’s prediction is true: “Those that can’t see past a folk’s skin color have a hard difference in them. There’s a fire in that difference. And when they see you, they’ll still see a Blue.”

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is an outstanding work of historical fiction rooted in the reality of living in the hollers of Appalachia during the deepest days of the Depression. It’s also a meditation on the discrimination that unfortunately runs as rampant in our time as it did in the 1930s: discrimination on the basis of skin color and social class, lack of educational resources, and the scarcity of wholesome food.

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Kim Michele Richardson’s website has it’s own “scrapbook” which includes a reading group guide, recipes from the novel, recipes from actual book women, and household tips. One of the recipes is for the Scripture Cake that Cussy Mary takes to the Fourth of July celebration.

There’s also a book trailer and interview with Ms. Richardson.

https://www.kimmichelerichardson.com/the-book-woman-of-troublesome-creek

MUSIC

From some research, I’ve learned that “old-time music,” is the term for the Appalachian music of the 1920s and 1930s. It’s primarily the type of music performed by a string band and is Scotch-Irish influenced. Here’s a couple of videos of some performances: https://youtu.be/cVMi3MH0uRU, https://youtu.be/STzoTmbemvA.

MOVIE

I follow Ms. Richardson on twitter and noticed that she reported a conversation with a “big producer” in Hollywood. She told him she had to have Kaitlyn Dever for Cussy Mary. I don’t know whether the rights have been sold or not. I can see Kaitlyn Dever, but I can also see Julia Garner from Ozark. For fun, I’m going to populate this with only Kentucky-born actors.

Pa                             Michael Shannon

Jackson Lovett       Josh Hutcherson

Mr. Frazier             Johnny Depp — he’d have fun with this role

So enjoy reading The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek either with your book club or on your own!

After The RaceAnd don’t forget that my debut novel, After the Race, is available now! You can order from rabbithousepress.com or Amazon, or buy it from Joseph-Beth booksellers. If your local book store doesn’t have it in stock, ask them to carry After the Race!

Happy Reading!

 

 

 

 

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout’s first book of thirteen interconnected short stories revolving around the crusty resident of Crosby, Maine, was such a barn-burner it’s no Olive branch illustration vintage clip art isolate on white backwonder Ms. Strout has returned to Olive and Crosby in Olive, Again. Ten years ago, Strout won a Pulitzer for Olive Kitteridge and that book was turned into a mini-series starring Frances McDermond which is definitely worth the watch.

In Olive, Again, Strout uses the same format, thirteen interconnected short stories, that bring the fruition of several characters in previous books. Olive’s, Jack’s, the Brothers Burgess (from The Burgess Boys), Isabelle Daignault (Amy and Isabelle). It’s nice to revisit these characters even if my recollection needed refreshing.

Olive, Again picks up shortly after Olive Kitteridge ended with a chapter about Jack Kennison, the retired Harvard professor a recently-widowed Olive met at the end of the first book.

Now Jack allowed his mind to go to Olive Kitteridge. Tall, big: God, she was a strange woman. He had liked her quite a bit, she had an honesty — was it an honesty? — she had something about her. A widow, she had — it felt to him — practically saved his life. They’d gone to dinner a few times, a concert; he had kissed her on the mouth. He could laugh out loud to think about this now. Her mouth. Olive Kitteridge. Like kissing a barnacle-covered whale. She had a grandson born a couple of years ago, Jack hadn’t especially cared, but she had cared because the kid was called Henry after his grandfather, Olive’s dead husband. Jack had suggested she go see the little fellow Henry in New York City and she had said, Well, she didn’t think so. Who knows why? Things were not good with her son, he knew that much. But things weren’t good with his daughter either. They had that in common. He remembered how Olive had told him right away that her father had killed himself when she was thirty. Shot himself in his kitchen. Maybe this had something to do with how she was; it must have. And then she had come over one morning and unexpectedly lain down next to him on the bed in the guest room. Boy, had he been relieved. Relief had just flowed through him when she’d put her head on his chest. “Stay,” he said finally, but she rose and said she had to get home. “I’d like it if you stayed,” he said, but she did not. And she never returned. When he tried calling her, she did not answer the telephone.

Olive, we know from this passage in the first chapter, has retained her inimitable “Oliveness.” As prone to selfish, hard-headed, amusing behavior as ever. She is also something of a guardian angel for her fellow residents of Crosby, Maine. She attends a “stupid” baby shower, “she could not believe what a stupid baby shower that had been,” but while there delivers a baby in the back seat of her own car because the ambulance couldn’t make it there in time. It is this event that prompts Olive to reconnect with Jack. She wants to tell someone about it so she calls him.

Maine-Map-ItineraryOver the course of the book, Olive’s somewhat-estranged son Christoper visits; she sympathetically watches over a friend in a nursing home; Olive and Jack marry. Olive’s trademark exclamations — “Oh Godfrey,” “phooey to you,” “she’s gone all dopey-dope,” — as well as her defensiveness and vulnerability remain intact.

In one particularly poignant chapter, Jack and Olive drive to a nearby town for dinner at a new restaurant. As they are enjoying their meal, a woman and her date walk in and Jack becomes uncomfortable and Olive’s no-holds-barred frankness is on full display.

“She’s that woman who got you fired from Harvard.”

“I didn’t get fired,” Jack said; this made him really angry.

“She was the reason.” Olive said this, still quietly.  And then, turning her face toward him, she said, and it seemed her voice almost trembled, “I have to tell you, Jack. The only thing that upsets me about her is your taste in women, I think she is a dreadful, dreadful woman.” . . . “that snot-wot is a creep. That dreadful woman you bedded down all those years.”

In reviewing Olive, Again for the Washington Post, Joan Frank says, “Without room for the swaths of material I long to quote, I can only cite the marrow of “Olive’s” glory: wave upon wave of unflinching insight, delivered in language so clean it shines. Sentences flow in simplest words and clearest order — yet line after line hammers home some of the most complex human rawness you’ll ever read.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/the-cranky-bossy-sad-brave-beloved-olive-kitteridge-is-back-in-olive-again–and-better-than-ever/2019/10/03/ba1df290-e47f-11e9-a331-2df12d56a80b_story.html

Olive, Again is a wonderful book, full of character, humor, pathos, loss, joy, and sadness, as all truly great literature is. I highly recommend Olive, Again for your book club.

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Olive’s favorite delicacy appears to be a lobster roll, which from what I (a Kentuckian) can tell is lobster mixed with mayonnaise on a hot dog bun. Since I don’t like mayonnaise and lobster is not nearly as plentiful in Kentucky as in Maine, I’m not going to try to provide a recipe.

At the “stupid” baby shower, the menu included “little sandwiches, deviled eggs, tiny pieces of chocolate cake.” Here I can help.

You’d probably want to provide one sandwich with an olive theme. Olive nut maybe?

Kentucky caterer Jennie Carter Benedict created a famous tea sandwich in her catering days that is still a must-serve for spring and Derby in Kentucky. Benedictine can be used as a vegetable dip but for Olive, Again, I’d use is as a sandwich filling. My favorite benedictine sandwiches use one tiny slice of bread (cut in circles), topped by the spread and on top of that a very thin slice of cucumber.

JENNIE BENEDICT’S FAMOUS BENEDICTINE SPREAD2387498-cucumber-tea-sandwiches

INGREDIENTS
1 cucumber
1 onion
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 teaspoon salt
A few grains of cayenne pepper
2 drops green food coloring (optional, but a local favorite)
Directions
Peel and grate the cucumber, then wrap it in a clean dish towel and squeeze the juice into a dish. Discard the pulp. Peel and grate the onion, then wrap it in a clean dish towel and squeeze the juice into a dish. Discard the pulp. (Use a juicer if you prefer)

Combine three tablespoons of the cucumber juice, one tablespoon of the onion juice, cream cheese, salt, pepper and food coloring in a bowl. Mix with a fork until well blended. Serve as a dip or as a sandwich filling.

PLAYLIST

I don’t recall music playing much of a role in Olive, Again. But it does seem to be underscored by quirky, somber-then-snappy melodies. There are a couple of pieces from the miniseries on amazon to purchase. But I feel like George Winston’s albums Autumn and Forest would be just the ticket.

ATR COVER*** My novel, After the Race, is now available! Alexandra was raised to be the next Jackie Kennedy. Just as her mother intended, Alexandra’s summer internship on Capitol Hill results in the perfect fiancé, a future job, and D.C. political savvy. But when Alex returns to college for her final year and falls in love with a handsome, blue-jeaned bike champion, she must choose between the two men and the lives they represent, and decide whether she can defy her mother’s designs to fulfill her own dreams. Ultimately, Alexandra must find within herself the power to confront the one unplanned event that could derail everything.

Order from rabbithousepress.com, amazon.com, or buy at Joseph-Beth booksellers or your local bookstore. If they don’t have it, ask them to order!

 

Happy Reading!