Books of the Week:
- Parasite, Mira Grant
- Longbourn, Jo Baker
The two books I read this week ended up taking me quite a while. Parasite andLongbourn are both well worth reading, and I didn’t want to skip over anything important. The books couldn’t be more different.
As anyone who’s followed this column know, I’m a huge fan of Seanan McGuire, who is also Mira Grant. Under any name, she’s an excellent writer and a very, very smart woman. Parasite is a scientific thriller that also succeeds as a human story. Sally Mitchell is on life-support and is about to be unplugged when she wakens with no memory of her past or her character. You may not be very fond of Sally, or Sal as she prefers to be called, but her parents are somewhat relieved to find out that the old devil-may-care wild child has become a completely different person. Not that Sal’s not emotional – she is. She cries and screams her way through the book, but under circumstances that are totally understandable. The corporation that saved her life with their parasite transplant is Up To No Good, as any reader will expect; and there are secrets to uncover and villains to foil. I don’t want to ruin any of the surprises of this excellent novel.
After the recent flood of novels and books centered on Jane Austen’s world, Longbourn was a quiet pleasure. It’s the story of “Pride and Prejudice” told from the servants’ point of view. To the elderly couple, the young maid, and the child who helps out, the arrival of a new young manservant is a matter of wonder and upheaval – especially to the maid, Sarah, an orphan. The servants have to make the lovely surface of Austen’s heroines’ world happen: they’re working from before sunup to after sundown to draw the baths, iron the garments, launder the garments, curl the hair, cook the meals, polish the brass, curry the horses for the carriage, wait outside in the cold for the girls of the house to be ready to leave the ball . . . a never-ending round of drudgery. But Sarah won’t have it. Having finally found a little happiness, she will not let it slip from her grasp. Longbourn is set belowstairs, but it’s full of the commonality of the human spirit.
I went to see David Sedaris recently, and I had an excellent time. Those of you who are interested in modern essays will surely have read something of Sedaris’s, who writes often for The New Yorker and has published many bestselling books of essays and other pieces, mostly dealing with his (funny, painful, bitter, loving) upbringing as one of six children of a mother who became an alcoholic and father who was, to put it mildly, challenging. Sedaris himself cannot have been an easy child to raise, as he points out gleefully, since he had obsessive-compulsive disorder and gradually came to realize that he was gay.
“Me Talk Pretty One Day” is the first book of Sedaris’s I’d read, and it remains one of my favorites, while “When You are Engulfed in Flames” is perhaps even better. But I believe I’ve read almost everything he’s written, and even in his “off” books, there is something screamingly funny and screamingly painful.
Sedaris started signing before the event and he signed more after the event, so it must have been a very long evening for him – this was a tour with 40 events! – but he seemed to keep his balance throughout the whole hour “performance,” which consisted of reading a couple of essays and other pieces, plus tying them together with some reminiscences. It was as funny as you can possibly imagine. I laughed myself sick. His reading was followed by a brief Q &A segment. To my pleasure and relief, some of the questions he got asked are just as repetitive as the questions I get asked. It felt strange to be on the other side of the lights, but it was a real relief, too.Here’s my point – besides urging you, if you ever have a chance to see David Sedaris live, do it! – is that he spent a goodly portion of the evening touting someone else’s book. And this book was not at all humorous. It was “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea,” by Barbara Demick, which explores the extreme difficulty and stress of trying to live in modern North Korea, under a regime as totalitarian as any ever devised. With grace and admiration, Sedaris said it was better than any book he would ever write, and urged all of us to buy it. In fact, he had it with his books in the lobby, to sell. I didn’t buy a copy in the lobby, but I have purchased one since.I consider Sedaris a fine, fine writer, maybe a great one, though since his field is self-deprecating humor – sometimes so scathing that he seems to be flaying himself in front of us – he may never get as much respect as he deserves. And now I admire him for his ardent advocacy of someone else’s book. It’s really satisfying to like both the writer and the man.