Friday, February 17, 2023

Book Stack ~ January 2023

 A monthly post about what I've been reading.

While Christmas shopping with my kids, I pointed to Barbara Kingsolver's latest book, Demon Copperhead, and told them they could get me that for Christmas. M took the hint, and in January I read the retelling David Copperfield, situated in rural Appalachia the midst of the opioid crisis. Through the engagingly delightful voice of young Demon--which never resorts to dialect or other cheap tricks to convey regionality--the reader is taken on a journey through systemic poverty, a failed social services system, and drug addiction. Born in a trailer in western Virginia, raised by an unstable mother, subjected to a cruel stepfather, shunted through a series of foster homes, and put to work too young in dangerous jobs, Demon has the deck stacked against him from the beginning. As with Dickens's character, despite the many ways life goes wrong for Demon, his fortunes often rise, and though he's forced to confront multiple villains, he is also blessed with good people in his life who help to steer him in the right direction. As a narrator, Demon is both innocent and wise in the telling of his tale, and through his voice and his life history, Kingsolver manages to convey the ravages that centuries of institutionalized poverty and exploitation and abuse by the tobacco, coal, and drug industries have wreaked on the region, while neither romanticizing the people nor condescending to them. She also celebrates the natural beauty of the landscape and the values of hard work, strong family ties, and attachment to the land that characterize the area. This book gripped me more than anything I've read in a long time--I stayed up way too late several nights in a row because I couldn't stop reading--and before I was even done I went out and got a copy of David Copperfield. It was a delight to read the original and see the ways Kingsolver turned a Victorian lawyer into a Virginian football coach, an honest and determined old fisherman into a feisty young nurse, and, of course, the ghastly Uriah Heep into the equally ghastly U-Haul Pyles. The combined 1,400 pages of the two books flew by in a matter of weeks, despite Dickens's version sagging a bit between about page 200 and 500 (due to young Copperfield going through a relatively good spell at that stage in the book).

On the lighters side, I also read three delightfully gothic Barbara Michaels novels: The Walker in the Shadows; House of Many Shadows; Be Buried in the Rain; and Wait for What Will Come. When I realized in December that I didn't own a copy of Ammie Come Home, I went through my collection to see what else was missing and ordered them from a used book shop. Michaels is the pen name that Barbara Mertz aka Elizabeth Peters used for her books of suspense. These often, though not always, have a supernatural element and are generally more serious in tone than her Peters books, though not without humor, and they frequently have gothic elements--the big creepy house, the young ingenuous heroine who can't leave for some reason, mysterious goings-on, often a housekeeper who is either alarmingly grim in demeanor or unbelievably cheery. Occasionally they take place in the classic Victorian gothic setting. There's always at least one handsome love interest (and in one case four), who is sometimes a friend and sometimes a foe, and sometimes the heroine doesn't know which until too late. These four are all contemporary (as in they take place in the '70s and '80s, when they were written), and they're evenly split between those with supernatural causes of the mysterious happenings and those with human villains. House of Many Shadows is fun for being one of the few of Michaels's books with an older protagonist (although there is, as always, still a pair of "confounded young lovers," as Radcliffe Emerson--chief hero of the Amelia Peabody series by E. Peters--would say). So it's never too late to find yourself in a haunted house.

The novel I drafted in January was a takeoff on the Barbara Michaels contemporary gothic--an homage if you will--so it was fun to read these at the same time as writing my own. I even hid some Easter eggs in the text, including Michaels's books on the shelves of the creepy house.

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