Inside Story: A Novel

A frequently asked question of authors in “The New York Times Book Review” goes something like this. “You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which authors do you invite?” From the answers, we are to glean literary leanings. To me, what’s also being revealed is authors’ idea of a dinner party.
I’m partial to lively dinner gatherings, so you, dear reader, will be seated next to Norman Mailer (the Mailer from the 1970s). Across from him will be the essayist Christopher Hitchens (the Hitchens from any decade). And it just so happens that Hitchens’ good friend is a fellow Oxford-educated writer, and one of my favorite novelists, Martin Amis. He’s the quintessential English wit to add a cool levity that will attenuate the other combustible personalities at the table. Let’s seat him across from you.
Amis is renowned for using his high style of prose to unveil modernity’s excesses and absurdities, often writing about characters you would never actually want to know (which, trust, works). He is in his seventh decade and has stated that his latest novel, Inside Story: A Novel, could very well be his last. It’s a work of autofiction, so some might be frustrated in delineating fact from fiction. It nonetheless certainly reads like an autobiography. (Amis doesn’t spare himself in the book. He quotes George Orwell: “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.”). Plus, those who like his work will not really care one way or the other. Amis knows how to turn a sentence, so we are willing to afford him a wide latitude. Example: In one of his earlier novels he placed himself as an actual character. This was too much for Amis’ father, the venerated novelist Kingsley Amis; for when he came across the portion of the novel that introduced the character “Martin Amis,” he threw the book across the room.
Here, Amis more/less oscillates among three individuals. Because Kingsley was a large presence in Martin’s excellent 2000 memoir, “Experience,” he’s not one of them. But, just you wait, one of these three will hand Martin some big news concerning Kingsley.
First is the novelist Saul Bellow, whom Amis revered. Conversations between the two came naturally, and Amis recounts many. We learn that Bellow, winner of the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and three National Book Awards, “despised with every neutrino of his being” what often passed as literary pedagogy. He did not abide attending literary conferences only to be told such things as what “Ahab’s harpoon symbolizes.”
We already know that novelists are users by nature. “Novelists are power-crazed usurpers,” cautions Amis. If you friend one, don’t be surprised to find yourself in a novel. Bellow, apparently, ran with this notion, ruining many of his marriages and driving some of his family members to cease speaking with him. Yet, according to Amis, Bellow’s last wife possessed an “atavistic fire” of devotion as Alzheimer’s plagued him.
“Writers die twice,” writes Amis. And it happened to Bellow. When Amis looked into his eyes one day, he knew that Bellow’s writing days were over. Gone was the prose that was a “force of nature.” Bellow was experiencing a “death of the mind: dissolution most foul.”
If Bellow’s prose was a force of nature, it could be said that Christopher Hitchens was a force of nature. To say he was a columnist and an orator understates Hitchens. He used the pen and the lectern about as fiercely and masterfully as one can, possessing “no ordinary powers of restiveness and mental orchestration.” And no institution or individual was safe. At times, especially in his later years, it almost seemed that Hitchens was becoming a contrarian for its own sake. But he remained consistent in challenging anything fascistic or nonsensical, which, to him, included religion.
Amis and Hitchens met in the early 1970s, their lives eventually following a similar pattern of marriage, children, divorce, and then remarriage. Amis has plenty of stories to share about his friend. And no recounting of Hitchens would be complete without mentioning his copious intake of alcohol and cigarettes. To wit: one night, Amis and Hitchens had an epic go with vodka, wine, and various other spirits. The next day, a severely hungover Amis found that not only had Hitchens made it to an early morning television appearance and debate, but he also wrote an article for publication. At noon, Hitchens let himself into Amis’ place, poured a whiskey for himself and inquired how Amis was feeling. In response to hearing of Amis’ dreadful state, Hitchens devilishly replied, “Mm. I don’t get hangovers. Can’t see the point of them.”
The point of them, of course, is to listen to your body’s distress moan: “Slow down, man.” This lack of communication caught up with Hichens in 2010 when he was diagnosed with stage four esophageal cancer. Amis says that Hitchens had a “compulsion to stride into his fears.” But still, there’s no small degree of poignancy to read that Hitchens quietly lamented the finality of it all: never seeing England again; missing his niece’s upcoming wedding. Hitchens’ two deaths were in proximity, and Amis was a dot-the-i friend to him through it all; he was by his side during treatment and at his death.
Then there is Phoebe Phelps, a girlfriend of Amis from the late 1970s, a woman he found “alluringly amoral.” When she went broke from gambling, Amis invited her to live with him. But cohabitating did not change the fact that she did not return love in kind. He knew he had made a mistake, that he was “out of his depth, and going under.” (You can find characters like her in Amis’ fiction. And you can see this version of Amis as well. In “The Information,” our protagonist awoke one morning “at six, as usual. He needed no alarm clock. He was already comprehensively alarmed.”)
Their relationship ended after five years. Decades later, Phelps reentered Amis’ life. On September 12, 2001, still shocked from the terrorist attacks the day prior, Amis was met with another jolt. Phelps rang him up to announce, “It’s been bothering me for twenty-four years and I don’t see why it shouldn’t start bothering you.” The bother: Phelps said that Kingsley had told her that he was not Martin’s father. The poet Philip Larkin was.
Martin’s wife tells him that this was just another contrived cruelty from Phelps. (And it certainly appeared that it was.) Martin can’t help but mull it about, however. Yes, Kingsley and Philip were friends. Yes, too, Martin appreciates Larkin’s poetry. But the thought of being “a Larkin” chills him. It’s clear that so much of Larkin repulses Martin: that Larkin skirted fighting the Nazis, that he was a sour and gloomy mess who hated children. (And Martin’s love life fell more on the Kingsley side of the ledger, meaning Kingsley had a staggering number of affairs. While Martin did not go to quite that extreme, he was more in line with Kingsley’s camp than with Larkin’s “irreducible church-mouse penury.” This clearly bothers Amis. Take from that what you will.) Phelps was jealous that it was Martin who went on to marry and have children. She couldn’t stand that it was she who became, in essence, “a Larkin.”
Amis also has plenty to impart on a range of topics, including writing. Here’s one: want to write a religious novel? Don’t, says Amis, “because fiction is essentially a temporal and rational form.” That’s why Amis can’t get on with Graham Greene. He likens reading Greene to riding a train. The prose moves along smoothly enough, but the tea trolley is rattling away. To Amis, that annoying rattle is religion.
As of this writing, I’ve left the last handful of the novel’s pages unread, for two reasons. 1) I don’t want good books to end. 2) I know that Amis is saying goodbye to his readers, so I’m trying to delay my bereavement. Over decades, he’s taken great care of his readers, his guests. If he had never written a word, Amis states that he would have been more than content with being just a reader. Because no other art form better reveals the depth of an inner life than literature. When we read of others doing, as Bellow writes, “the silent work of uneventful days,” we see in them derivatives of our own. Well, Mr. Amis, I’m pleased you wielded a pen and did the long work. And if this is it, and our visits have come to an end, then know this: Believe, the pleasure was all mine.

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We Came, We Saw, We Left: a Family Gap Year by Charles Wheelan

Charlie Wheelan is standing on a train platform in Medellin, Colombia and two of his children are missing. So begins Charles Wheelan’s account of his family’s gap year adventure. Charlie and Leah decided to take a year (or 9 months) and travel around the world with their children ages 13-18. We Came, We Saw, We Left: a Family Gap Year is an entertaining chronicle of seeing the world with and through evolving youth.

Charlie and Leah traveled the world the year after they graduated from college. Now, having turned fifty, they want to recreate that adventure with Katrina, Sophie, and CJ. Katrina just graduated from high school and can delay college for a year. High school junior Sophie (16) and 8th grader CJ will be home-schooled. Charlie, an author and a professor at Dartmouth College, and Leah, a math teacher, can take sabbaticals. Now how do they pay for the trip?

They decide to rent their house while they are gone and use the rent money for lodging. Only the things that are required to be were booked in advance such as flights and excursions. As for the rest they travel local buses, taxis, and trains and they do a lot of walking. They have a daily food allowance, a small amount of ‘free’ money per person and Leah is in charge of the budget.

The Wheelan family are seasoned travelers so with expenses figured out and a flexible itinerary of where they want to go, what could go wrong? Well, you can be at one train station, your wife at another, and Katrina and CJ missing somewhere in Medellin. Spotty Wi-Fi, no cell service, and vying for limited space on local transit are just some the challenges the family face and take in stride as they traverse the globe.

A world map entitled Nine Months, Six Continents, Three Teenagers is at the beginning of the book and shows the route from Hanover, New Hampshire to South America. Then on to New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Vietnam to Calcutta, Cape Town, back to India then Germany and other stops along the way before returning to New Hampshire nine months later.

No time line is given for the journey. They were in Colombia in September and New Zealand at Christmas but otherwise the telling is by place not day or month. Each chapter begins with a small map pinpointing the places for this part of the trip.

Wheelan is an amusing, self-deprecating writer. Traveling together for nine months is not all roses and he doesn’t avoid telling about some of the less savory aspects. The whole clan suffers from motion sickness and no matter where you are, you can’t avoid germs. Aside from the gastric distress and colds, a flesh eating parasite also makes an appearance on Katrina’s foot and leg.

As with any family there will be squabbles and some disagreements. The author keeps a record of the trip in his journal. At the halfway point he has written: Countries: 8, Bus trips: 28, Flights: 13, Boat rides: 6, Jeep rides: 7, Horse rides: 2, Incidents of motion sickness: 7, Search parties looking for us: 2, Family meltdowns: 5, and Books read (by me): 25.

Whether it is museums, hikes, or diving, the squabbles and discomforts are woven into the grand adventure as we follow the family around the world. Wheelan is good at evoking the sense of a place whether it is a hike in the Amazon or drinking coffee at an outdoor café.

Some excursions were exciting – diving at the Great Barrier Reef, exploring a 7-level cave in the Rain Forest, visiting the Tiger’s Nest, a monastery in Bhutan and hunting for kiwi in New Zealand. Others were sobering – deforestation in Laos, the Vietnam Hanoi Hilton, a slave museum in Zanzibar and the Airbnb apartment they rented in Vienna. A small plaque, Stolpersteine (stumbling stone), stood in front of the building with the names of the Hofling family and the date, June 15, 1942, that the Nazis took them from their home.

This was an enjoyable journey to places many of us will never go. The author described many of the places and creatures he saw through his camera lens. I would have loved to see some of that wonder and beauty included as color photos but perhaps that would require another book.

Speaking of another book, Wheelan spent some of his travel time working on a novel. Finished by the end of their gap year trek, “The Rationing”, was published and you’ll find it at the library.

This family had a wish, then a goal and finally a plan. As Wheelan says “We pulled it off. We made it around the world: nine months, six continents, three teenagers and one flesh-eating parasite.”

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We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry

With its brightly colored cover and its strange title, WE RIDE UPON STICKS by QUAN BARRY caught my attention immediately. If I had been more familiar with the plot, it is possible that I would have been more suspicious of the way it instantly grabbed me.

In the summer of 1989, the members of a high school field hockey team pledge themselves to the powers of darkness in order to make it to the state championships.

The novel is set in Danvers, Massachusetts, a small town outside of Salem. It is common knowledge in Danvers that much of the chaos of the Salem witch trials actually happened in their town – which was called Salem Village at the time.

During the previous school year, Mel Boucher found herself reading a reference book about the trials. The story of the teenage girls whose interest in witchcraft sparked the witch hunt inspires Mel to do some dabbling of her own.

The Danvers Falcons have been consistently terrible for years. Starting with Mel Boucher, the team decides to take matters into their own hands and, one-by-one, sign their names over to the darkness – represented by a notebook featuring Emilio Estevez.

Each member has their own reasons for signing the book. Everyone wants the team to win the state championship, but they each have their own personal goals that become clear over the course of the novel.

Julie Kaling, for example, lives in a restrictive, uber-religious household. When she signs her name, she asks the darkness to help her with a project. Her dreams revolve around a dress she wants to make for prom. With the boldness given to her by “Emilio” she begins spending her free period in the Home Ec room, working on her masterpiece.

Initially, signing their names seems to be enough. They obliterate the competition at their summer training camp, but once the regular season starts, they are only scraping by with narrow wins.

As the team soon finds out, the only way to appease the darkness (and secure their victories) is by doing dark things. Which the team takes to with a vengeance. They use their new power to affect change in the school and come into their own power as young adults.

AJ Johnson is upset about the racism in her English class curriculum. She uses this anger to start a rumor about a teacher, but then she decides to affect change more directly and run for student council president. Thanks to the darkness, she wins easily without ever putting up a poster.

The Falcons’ varsity team – Abby Putnam, Jen Fiorenza, Girl Cory, Little Smitty, Mel Boucher, AJ Johnson, Boy Cory, Julie Kaling, Sue Yoon, Becca Bjelica, and Heather Houston – are seniors. Like many high school students, they are trying to reconcile who they have always been with who they want to be.

Ultimately the book is about the internal power we all have, if we choose to harness it. Many of the team’s accomplishments were within their own power, they just needed the confidence to take action. On the other hand, I’m not completely sure that they weren’t also doing magic.

Reading WE RIDE UPON STICKS was a delight. It was a very unique novel, with only a small amount of actual field hockey – for which I am grateful.

Barry’s writing style is very visual. I was not surprised to find out that she is also a prize-winning poet. Jen Fiorenza has the iconic 80s teased bangs, which the team lovingly refers to as “the Claw.” Every time she mentions the Claw, Barry describes its subtle movements – which reflect the way Jen is feeling – from a tall, platinum railroad spike to a sad stack of pancakes.

She also perfectly captures the spirit of high school. Barry uses little details to accomplish the high school atmosphere, like the fact that the Danvers Falcons think about each other as either a first and last combo name, Abby Putnam, or exclusively by a nickname: Boy Cory.

The reader is given a glimpse into each character in turn, watching them go through their biggest moment of change.

By relying on each other – and using the powers of Emilio – each member of the team is able to accomplish something they never thought they could. As long as they don’t go too deep into the darkness.

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The Chicken Sisters by KJ Dell’Antonia

When I heard of this book — “THE CHICKEN SISTERS” by KJ DELL’ANTONIA — thanks to Pittsburg (Kansas) Public Library’s “Chickenstock” campaign, I was intrigued. I had eaten at both Kansas restaurants — Chicken Mary’s and Chicken Annie’s — and loved the idea of basing a book on a rivalry between two local restaurants, even if it was very loosely based.

Sisters Mimi and Frannie used to operate a restaurant together in Merinac, Kansas, but when Frannie met and married Frank, they split off and opened their own restaurant. Fast forward three generations, both restaurants are still in operation. Chicken Mimi’s and Chicken Frannie’s both claim they serve the best fried chicken in Kansas. Today, Chicken Mimi’s is operated by Barbara Moore, and Chicken Frannie’s is operated by Amanda Pogociello, Barbara’s daughter, and Amanda’s mother-in-law Nancy Pogociello.

Amanda has lived in Merinac her whole life. She grew up working for her mom at Chicken Mimi’s, but when she met, fell in love with and married Frank Pogociello, she was no longer welcome at her mother’s restaurant. She’s been part of the Chicken Frannie’s operation ever since. Her two teenage kids, Gus and Frankie, and her mother-in-law are her world. Though she has had dreams of going to art school, after her husband and father-in-law both died, she did not feel like she could follow her dreams.

It is this restlessness that inspires Amanda to reach out to “Food Wars,” a restaurant competition reality television show that awards the winner $100,000. Things get even more interesting after Barbara only agrees to participate if Amanda’s sister, Mae, comes to support her during the competition.

Mae Moore has been away in New York City, working to make a name for herself in television thanks to her skills as an organizing expert. She is ambitious, and few know she is from a tiny town in Kansas. She has even told her husband that Merinac is a suburb of Kansas City. But after her latest foray into television falls through, helping her mom with “Food Wars” seems like a good idea to keep her brand and name in the forefront. Soon she, her two kids and her nanny are on their way to Merinac.

The television cameras bring out the competitors on both sides. Amanda is soon doing and saying things that will place Chicken Frannie’s as the front-runner, and Mae is quick to respond with her own antics. Family friends are soon involved, and thanks to the scheming “Food Wars” host, the competition is shaping up to be a heated one. Soon, the families will have to decide what is more important: winning or their relationship.

Dell’Antonia’s book was a New York Times bestseller and a Reese Whiterspoon’s book club pick and it is no wonder. It is a fun story. Dell’Antonia crafts a beautiful tale of family rivalry, sprinkled with secrets, love and mystery.

The characters are well developed with everyone’s flaws and strengths on full display at different points in the tale. It is sure to leave readers wanting to take the short drive to Kansas to pick up some fried chicken from Chicken Mary’s and Chicken Annie’s for a taste-off of their own.

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Joplin High School Cartoonist Club titles

This was almost the shortest book review submitted here: “Read them!  They’re wonderful!”  Because that’s all you really need to know about the books published by the Joplin High School Cartoonist Club.

It’s easy to gush about the delightful results of local students’ creativity and hard work.  And, it’s loads of fun to see a new batch of artwork every year then watch audiences enjoy it, too.  Forgive my shameless fangirling, but these books are the most consistently fun, intriguing, surprising series I’ve read in a long time.

The JHS Cartoonist Club, helmed by sponsor Seth Wolfshorndl, is in its thirteenth year and has grown tenfold from a starting group of five students.  During the school year, club members meet to learn new drawing techniques, stretch their creativity, and explore storytelling through pictures as well as words–all while having fun in the process.  Each spring the Club publishes a new volume in its two ongoing series.

Clash of Champions, perhaps the more visible of the series because it plays out annually on the Club’s Facebook page, is the culmination of a lengthy comics tournament.  Beginning in the fall, club members create teams of characters who are matched against each other, bracket style, in weekly duels.  Members draw panels of “smack talk”, comics which are designed to show how and why a particular team would win a duel. Each duel’s outcome is voted on by club members.  The last team remaining at the end of the tournament wins.

Volume 8 of Clash of Champions showcases the 2019-20 school year’s tournament which was completed prior to the pandemic shutdown.  In it, 16 teams and 41 creators showcase their talents during a storytelling battle of epic proportions.  Introductions come first via the “Team Gallery” where characters’ poses hint at their personalities and where readers discover the artists behind the teams.  I love how the gallery pages are bordered in what looks like an embossed metal frame that lends a goth-steampunk vibe at the start.  The team names alone made me want to keep reading: Krankenhaus Hoodlums, Beam Battalion, Sparkle Sqawd, The Four Crustmen of the Apocalypse, and Why Not?   The battle panels reflect a wide range of aesthetic influences (from anime to He-Man to 1960s beach party movies) and a variety of media (inked-in pencil sketches to digital drawings).  After the winner is declared, the final chapter gathers fan art that club members have made of each others’ work.

There’s no playing favorites in the competition although I’m a fan of the smack talk segments.  For me, the best part of Clash is following the growth of the artists, watching their work develop over the semester, seeing who is on their game and who is challenged by the deadline in any given week.  A black-and-white format can sometimes lay bare too much when compared to the distraction of color, but here it’s an opportunity to learn and to appreciate the skill involved in creating new material quickly.

Scribbled Stories takes a different approach to self-expression and storytelling.  Club members submit tales with subjects and characters of their choice.  Although Scribbled Stories publishes an issue annually, every four years the issues are gathered in a single volume.  The students choose a theme for the bound volume and often reflect the theme in their submissions.

Also published in the 2019-20 school year, Volume 3 of Scribbled Stories collects works from 2016-20 under the theme of surrealism and shows off a new twist.  This time the Cartoonist Club collaborated on a story and main character.  Club artists made a cast of minor characters and brainstormed a plot which became a script written by Mr. Wolfshorndl.  Pages of the story were assigned to the students, and the result is a rollicking, action-packed spin through dreamland amid a host of artistic styles.

It’s the variety, ingenuity, and scope of the work that pulled me into Volume 3.  The “Character Sketches” section highlights a cast including a monocled soap bubble sporting a top hat (Mr. Fancy Bubbleman), a talking cup of coffee (Joey), and a rosy-cheeked doll who looks Rainbow Brite-meets-Chuckie (Surrealist Sophie) and is anything but boring.  Scripts of the student-submitted works are witty and poignant, thought-provoking and heart-breaking.  Although “Wake Up” uses only one word, it conveys the horror and pain and isolation of a person consumed by screen time.  “Just for One Day” explores memory and loss by arranging photographs comic-panel style with brief, superimposed text.  “Nightfall/Daybreak” spins a myth of the sun and moon with poetry in words and pictures.  There is so much to see and enjoy here!

I highly encourage you to try the fun, awesome comics by the Joplin High School Cartoonist Club.  Whether it’s Clash of Champions or Scribbled Stories or both, read them!  They’re wonderful!

Historic Missouri Roadsides by Bill Hart

This book review is a celebration of sorts of both the Missouri Bicentennial (2021) and National Preservation Month, also known as Historic Preservation Month (May). In Historic Missouri Roadsides, author, historian, and preservationist Bill Hart takes us on a two-lane highway trip through several of Missouri’s small-town destinations, introducing us to, or reacquainting us with, what they have to offer.

Before taking us on the road, Hart breaks down the “how to” of using his book, pointing out that how long each trip takes to complete is, in fact, up to the traveler. Each stop along two-lane Missouri includes basic historical information about the place, suggestions for where to eat and stay, as well as for where to visit and what to do. Hart reminds us that these trips are meant to be leisurely rather than a race from point A to point B: “Chill. You’re not traveling on two lanes to win any races […].”

These adventures are arranged neatly into six road trips: Missouri Highway 79 / The River Road; El Camino Real; Route 100 / Gottfried Duden & the Lewis and Clark Trail; Osage Hills and Prairies; Mostly Route 24; and The Platte Purchase. Each tour begins with a summary about the trip and information about where, exactly, to start, and each town visited within a given tour clearly directs us to the next town. Although it is possible to reach some of these points using freeways, I recommend following Hart’s directions, as exploring what’s along our byways (rather than the sameness of our freeways) is the beauty of venturing out in the first place.

I feel a special kinship with this book as I start to travel about again. It’s a fantastic resource for those of us who wish to start by seeing what the places close to home have to show us. One of my favorite things about this title is that the largest city we’re guided through is St. Joseph, with a current population of about 73,400, give or take, whereas the smallest cities are only in the double digits.

Don’t get me wrong – I love visiting Kansas City, St. Louis, and other larger Missouri cities – but Missouri has much outside of those cities to show us. For example, a 1910 Beaux Arts-style post office in Nevada; the historic Hall of Waters in Excelsior Springs; a theatre in Blackwater, where productions written and directed by a local playwright are featured and locals serve free punch and cake during intermission; and landmark bluffs and other natural sites in tiny towns like Arrow Rock. We may even opt for additional “side trips” that take us into more remote areas of the State, such as Lithium, which, once upon a time, was a Victorian resort town.

Hart touches on the prehistory of Missouri, mentioning which Indian tribes traversed which areas before European American settlement, as well as tells the story of town names and sites that take their name from Native American and early European American history. He also makes mention of conservation areas, national register listings and districts, state parks and historic sites, persons of note, and more.

Not to mention the wonderful photographs, which enhance the stories of these lesser-known Missouri places. Check out the magnificent 1884 Second Empire Federal Courthouse on page 20, the picturesque view from the Fourche à Duclos Roadside Park on page 43, or the Old Dutch Hotel and Tavern’s neon sign in Washington on page 86.

It’s worth mentioning that two editions of this book are published and that the second edition is expanded to include “Destinations,” which are meant as stand-alone places to visit rather than a guided road trip. These destinations include St. Joseph, Glasgow, The Boonslick area, Fulton, Sedalia, and the Arcadia Valley.

As noted in his foreword, this book is “a travel book, a history book, a photography book, and more.” Indeed, it is all that and more. It is an opposition to what Hart describes as “Generica,” or the commodification of place and product. The fast-food chains and big-box stores found along our freeways and in our commercial districts, for example, all of which look the same regardless of locale. Hart encourages us to turn away from Generica for the uniqueness of “what lies right beneath [our] noses here in the Show-Me State.” Not only does he encourage us in this direction, but he literally tells us how to get there.

Happy trails and, as always, happy reading.

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FRONT DESK by Kelly Yang

If you have seen the movie “Elf,” you are familiar with the scene where Will Ferrell’s character bursts into his father’s work meeting yelling, “I’m in love, I’m in love, and I don’t care who knows it!” That’s how I feel about KELLY YANG‘s award-winning 2018 novel, “FRONT DESK.”

This middle grade chapter book tells the story of 10-year-old Mia Tang and her parents as they take on the biggest endeavor of their nascent life in America: managing and living at the Calavista Motel in Anaheim, California.

The novel begins in the early 1990s, a few years after the Tang family emigrated from China. Mia’s parents, who had established careers in China, have worked labor-intensive jobs since coming to the United States, and Mia has never stayed at one school long enough to make a best friend. When her parents are hired as the live-in managers at the motel and Mia meets Lupe at school, things seem to be turning around. But Mia soon learns that nothing is what it seems.

Yang deftly introduces classism, racism, the struggles of new immigrants and the dangers of making assumptions through realistic characters and authentic relationships. When Mia first meets Lupe, she thinks Lupe’s life is perfect and much different than hers, but it turns out that the two girls have plenty in common.

The Tangs’ situation at the Calavista seems financially promising, but hotel owner Mr. Yao proves ruthless with his money. He is more concerned with its accumulation than fair treatment of his employees. The motel’s permanent residents (also known as the “weeklies”) include Hank, a kind, hard-working African American man who can’t seem to catch a break. Through her friendship with him and the others, Mia learns that, as with Lupe, she is not alone in her struggles. She also learns that everyone has a story to tell and that those stories are worth listening to.

One thing I loved about “Front Desk” and Yang’s writing more broadly is that every character does have a story to tell. The immigrants who are welcomed by the Tangs at the motel are not nameless, faceless visitors. They are husbands, wives, daughters, fathers and hard workers, all struggling to survive in a new country where they aren’t always welcomed. The weeklies aren’t just caricatures — they are individuals with talents to share and love to give, as well as friends turned family. Jason, Mr. Yao’s spoiled and sometimes mean son, isn’t just a stuck-up rich kid. He, too, has problems of his own, stories and struggles that give some insight into who he is.

I also love the development of Mia’s character. When the story begins, she is a bit unsure of her place in the world, especially as she endeavors to make new friends and help her parents at the motel. She also has dreams of becoming a writer, though her well-meaning mother encourages her to pursue math instead. As the story progresses, Mia becomes more confident in her talents. She also is encouraged to speak out, be bold, and pursue her passions after witnessing the injustices that her friends, neighbors and family experience.

Though the subject matter can be heavy, “Front Desk,” which is loosely based on Yang’s childhood, is also funny. By the end of the novel, I felt like I knew — and really liked — Mia Tang, and I couldn’t wait to dive into the 2020 sequel, “Three Keys.”

 

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The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes by Zachary D. Carter

If there’s one college course that seems to fall into the “liked it/hated it” dichotomy, it’s probably Macroeconomics. For every student who leans into studying the national economy, there’s another who will be just fine to never again read such phrases as “elasticity vs. inelasticity of demand.” There’s one man to credit (or blame) for this: John Maynard Keynes.

Keynesian economics (read: macroeconomics) has pulsed throughout our political economy since the New Deal. In short, some of its main tenets concern full employment, aggregate demand clearing supply, and inflation. Still, I knew very little about the British economist himself. “The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes” by Zachary Carter certainly took care of that knowledge gap.

Mathematics, not economics, was Keynes’ University of Cambridge degree. After a brief stint as a civil servant, he returned to academic life at Cambridge, which was where the Exchequer’s office found him just prior to World War I. A banking crisis afoot, Keynes’ keen mind was known and needed. So he crammed his 6’7″ frame into a motorcycle sidecar and made his way to London.

The Great War and the British economy would engulf his life. He wouldn’t fight in the war, as he applied for conscientious objector status, a position he came by honestly. Keynes was part of the Bloomsbury Set, which included such notables as Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, and Lytton Strachey. Of the many things that formed their bond, with the arts at the pinnacle, pacifism was certainly a part. For some in the group, that Keynes would work for the government during wartime went beyond the pale.

The frustration was returned in kind by Keynes. Someone, he argued, had to address the awful reality and manage a wartime economy. This wouldn’t be last time there was tension within the group. Years later, Keynes fell for, and subsequently married, a Russian ballerina. This was contrary to the Keynes they knew. Bloomsbury Keynes was a homosexual.

At war’s end, Keynes vehemently opposed the Treaty of Versailles. Forever an enemy of austerity measures, he believed the harsh economic terms would destabilize a defeated Germany and potentially lead to another world war. The treaty put Keynes at war with himself. As a young man, obtaining a post at the esteemed British Treasury was his singular goal. Now, having seen firsthand how important the roil of politics is, he could not sit quietly as a future disaster was being orchestrated.

He penned “The Economic Consequences of Peace” which became a sensation in both Europe and the U.S. His intellectual might was on full display, doubtless, but so, too, was his acid tongue. Sparring no one also effectively ended his government career (at least until World War II). Keynes is famous today for his economic theories. In the early 1920s, however, his fame was as a polemicist.

Had a pre-war work—finally published in 1921—augured more than just an acknowledgement that it “made a contribution to the field,” Keynes may have swiftly returned to university life, but, this time, in the philosophy department. His “A Treatise on Probability” was overshadowed by one of his friendly rivals. For when Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” was published, the gravity shifted and all of academia fell in with the Austrian philosopher.

Keynes continued to publish on economics and, in so doing, challenged conventional (classical) economics. At the macro level, the study of economics was firmly entrenched in laissez-faire thinking: You let the business cycles work and equilibrium will be achieved. Keynes certainly agreed that supply/demand was the driving force. But what of those moments of disequilibrium? Laissez-faire’s response: It will won’t last; the market will stabilize in the long run. “In the long run,” Keynes returned, “we are all dead.” This rejoinder has been bandied about ever since and in a myriad of contexts. But here’s the rest of the quote: “Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if, in tempestuous seasons, they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.”

Keynes advocated what economists now call “demand management.” Demand did not always clear supply, especially during times of war and depression. To Keynes, government expenditures via fiscal policies would shift the demand curve. Such movements would have a positive multiplier effect on other areas of the economy. His multiplier theory argued that laissez-faire’s inaction was actually actionable in that it allowed economic distress to reverberate.

While Keynes’ work would be seen as “revolutionary,” the man behind it was somewhat uncomfortable with that adjective. In many ways, his worldview was formed as a Burkean conservative. But he also valued some of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s egalitarianism. Merging the two philosophies to thwart authoritarianism was, to Keynes, a laudable enterprise. He loved his posh Bloomsbury life too much to see it end. Plus, he wanted the rest of us to have a chance to live such a life as well. So he was no Marxist. In fact, he believed that Marx’s argument that capitalism would inherently fail was inherently wrong. At the same time, he didn’t believe that there was any natural law that destined capitalism’s success either.

Keynes taught his theories at Cambridge, yet, initially, they were not winning the day among graduate students. (Marxism was.) This began to change. Not only were these students beginning to embrace Keynesianism, some would travel down to the London School of Economics and provoke impromptu debates with the students still fixed in laissez-faire. Eventually, American economics students embarked to Cambridge to study under Keynes.

Still, Keynesianism was at the periphery. Keynes knew he needed to codify it into an esoteric work meant for academics. (In the world of academia, “you need a theory to kill a theory.”) This was realized in the “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.”

The Great Depression resulted in Keynes becoming Churchill’s de facto chancellor of the exchequer. Particular attention was given to the fiscal policies put in place in the United States, as they were seen as test cases for Keynesianism. The result: American economists who initially resisted Keynes became Keynesians in the same decade of his death.

According to Carter, “No European mind since Newton had impressed himself so profoundly on both the political and intellectual development of the world.” The revolution had come. And as happens with so many revolutions, so comes the counter-revolution.

In the U.S., the aristocracy saw Franklin Roosevelt as a traitor to his class. Riled moneyed men were willing to fund academics and publications willing to challenge Keynesianism. William F. Buckley Jr.’s “National Review” used Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” as its intellectual base and went to work. Keynesians were up for the fight. What left them reeling, however, was McCarthyism.

Keynesianism would have many morphisms throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. American Keynesians, at turns, embraced more corporate-influenced policies the British Keynesians found abhorrent. Another famous quote concerning Keynes came from President Richard Nixon: “I am now Keynesian in economics.”

Enter Milton Friedman’s monetarism and decades of strident debate concerning the size and role of government in fiscal and monetary policy, and here we are. (Economists can be an acerbic lot, where things get really personal, really fast.) And you don’t have to go back too far to see Keynesian fiscal initiatives at work, as in the 2008 financial dilemma.

Regardless of the modern relevance of Keynes, here’s what Carter wants us to take away from his astute book: Keynesianism isn’t so much about economic theory as it is about radical optimism. Keynes lived in a time of dire economic crises that gave rise to authoritarians who then took their respective countries off the cliff. For him, economics was the light by which we could find our way out. For us, Keynes was every bit a philosopher of war and peace.

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Before She Was Helen by Caroline B. Cooney

Caroline B. Cooney is known for her young adult novels but she was intrigued with telling the story of someone who chose or was forced to live their life as a different person and managed to do it for almost 50 years. The resulting novel is her first for adults, Before She Was Helen.

Cooney’s effort is a well-done tale of surviving life’s challenges with a little murder and mayhem thrown in. NoveList (a reader’s advisory tool available through the catalog or the library website) describes the novel as compelling, funny, suspenseful, and intricately plotted with authentic characters. It’s the library’s pick for the Spring Book Discussion scheduled for April 26th from 6:00-7:00 p.m.

Helen is a semi-retired teacher living in the Sun City Retirement Village. The village is nice but bland. On a forgetful day a resident may need the garage door opener to identify their unit by which door goes up. You can be anyone you want to be and no one questions your past.

This suits Helen fine. She can have friends and participate in the lifestyle without too many awkward questions. Helen’s neighbor, Dom, may like the anonymity too but he doesn’t participate. He is an unpleasant man who doesn’t invite friendship. However, he and Helen have an arrangement. After a fall he gave her a key to his unit to be used only if he misses his daily check-in.

On the summer morning that begins this novel, Dom has not texted his usual message or responded to her text and phone call. Reluctant about what she might find, Helen uses the key. Dom is not inside the villa and in fact his golf cart (his transportation) is not in the garage. There is, however, a connecting door to next villa. This villa is largely unoccupied as the owners rarely come to stay and Helen knows of no other villas with a door between the units.

Doing her due diligence, she goes back through Dom’s place and over to the next villa. When there is no answer to the doorbell and repeated knocks Helen goes back to the connecting door. Could Dom be in the next villa? His missing golf cart says no but now she really wants to see the next villa.

Dom is not there and the villa appears so empty that Helen doubts anyone ever lives there. A rainbow of light catches her eye and she discovers a beautiful glass tree dragon sculpture. Unable to resist she snaps a picture with her cell phone and goes home.

Wanting to share her discovery with her great niece and nephew she sends the photo from Helen’s phone to her family phone, Clemmie’s phone, and texts the beautiful sculpture. For most of her adult life the world has known her as Helen. Clemmie only exists for her family and they know nothing of Helen.

The response Clemmie gets is surprising. The glass sculpture is actually a rig for smoking marijuana. The tree dragon was stolen from the maker, Borobasq, and Clemmie’s nephew has already contacted him about her discovery.

Clemmie’s fingerprints are in the villa with the stolen statue. Then her niece sends her news from her hometown, the decades old murder of the high school basketball coach is being reopened. The same coach who forced her transformation from Clemmie to Helen.

To add to her worry, Borobasq soon finds her. The glass maker is actually a drug dealer and whoever stole the rig took his cash, lots of cash. He has come to find his money and inflict a little pain. Before he can determine Helen’s involvement in the theft a body is found in Dom’s garage.

With the sheriff questioning her about what happened next door while a drug dealer hides in her bathroom, Helen has to think fast. Can she figure out what is going on before Clemmie is exposed and her two worlds collide?

Cooney takes us back and forth from Clemmie’s youth through young adulthood and Helen’s situation. We go from the culture of the 1950’s to navigating senior living and modern conveniences. “Her life didn’t turn out the way she expected—so she made herself a new one” is accurate and inadequate. There is so much more to Helen’s story which is why it’s a good pick for the library’s Spring Book Discussion.

The Spring Book Discussion for Before She Was Helen will be Monday, April 26th, from 6:00-7:00 p.m. via Zoom. You can find the link on handouts at the library and it will be posted on the Joplin Public Library Facebook page. We hope you’ll join us.

The library has this title in print and in the ebook format on both MoLib2Go.org (Overdrive) and Hoopla. If you find the print and MoLib2Go.org titles checked out, it is always available on Hoopla.

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18 Tiny Deaths by Bruce Goldfarb

18 TINY DEATHS: the Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics by BRUCE GOLDFARB tells the story of a woman whose impact on crime solving cannot be overstated.

Lee first learned about the importance of forensic investigation from her friend George Magrath, who was the country’s only medical examiner at the time.

Magrath was medical examiner for Suffolk County, Massachusetts – which includes Boston. He covered a number of famous and unique cases during his time as medical examiner. He was the first person on the scene following Boston’s molasses flood in 1919.

At the time of his death, Magrath was still the only full medical examiner in the United States, and his expertise were in danger of dying with him. Frances Glessner Lee used her political savvy and her family’s fortune to make sure that her friend’s work would continue.

She had already helped Harvard Medical School found a Department of Legal Medicine. Magrath had been teaching at the school for years, and it seemed an excellent place to launch a new field of study. Lee contributed much of the funding used to start the school, and single-handedly curated the special library used by its students.

As the Department of Legal Medicine continued to expand, they ran into a difficulty – the State police departments did not understand the need for legal medicine. It was imperative that Lee find a way to show them its importance.

Lee and the new head of the department began developing an intensive week-long seminar, which could be held twice a year, to teach police officers about the most important aspects of an investigation, including the keystone of the case: the crime scene.

In order to give her students hands-on training, Lee created dollhouse sized models of scenes, sourced from actual crimes. These models were crafted by Lee herself, made to scale, and accurate down to the last detail.

Lee called these dioramas the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, and used them as teaching tools in her lectures. Officers were asked to observe the diorama for ninety minutes, and then report on what they had observed.  Lee wanted them to focus on taking in as much information as they could, and urged them not to jump to conclusions during their examinations.

The Nutshell Studies are both eerie and beautiful. They have working light fixtures, worn places on the flooring, and even mail left under the mail slot in the front door of an unoccupied parsonage where one of the victims was murdered.

The Smithsonian had a number of Lee’s Nutshell Studies on exhibit in 2017, and the images are still available on their website. I recommend you seek them out, if you are interested in seeing the detail for yourself.

18 TINY DEATHS is a detailed account of Frances Glessner Lee’s life, from her upbringing as the only daughter of a wealthy family to the impact her work left on the world following her death in 1962.

According to Goldfarb, her Nutshell Studies are still being used in the annual seminars to this day.

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