“Precious and Grace” by Alexander McCall Smith

Precious and GraceNote: This review contains a mild spoiler.

A couple days after Sept. 11, 2001, having immersed myself in the tragic news, I reached the point where I needed a little bit of an escape. This was in the days before Netflix and Amazon Prime, but I had recorded some movies and shows on my trusty old VCR, and for some reason decided to watch a TV movie called “Mazes and Monsters.” It was based on a Rona Jaffe novel that came out during the height of the satanic panic over Dungeons & Dragons, and starred a young Tom Hanks in his first major role. I assumed it would be campy fun.

Hanks’ character Robbie begins suffering from psychotic delusions that he truly is the cleric he portrays in his fantasy role-playing game. All these years later, I have forgotten the plot details, but here’s Wikipedia: Robbie “start[s] drawing maps that will lead him to a sacred person he has seen in his dreams called the Great Hall. In his dream, the Great Hall tells him to go to the Two Towers, which is in fact the World Trade Center, and he believes that by jumping off one of them and casting a spell, he will finally join the Great Hall.” I remember sitting in front of the TV with my jaw dropped, feeling shocked that the silly film I had planned to watch in order to get a break from the news actually featured a big climax starring the Twin Towers. I mean, what are the odds?

I found myself thinking about that situation a few days ago after finishing Precious and Grace, the newest novel in one of my favorite series: Alexander McCall Smith’s gentle, lyrical non-murder mysteries about Botswana’s number-one lady detective, Mma Ramotswe, and her secretary-turned-co-detective Mma Makutsi. I had turned to Precious and Grace hoping for a respite from the election madness. In most respects the book did not disappoint, but one of the subplots… well, let’s just say that it also involved an election. There were two candidates, one of them so narcissistic and irresponsible that there’s simply no way the person could ever emerge victorious. Of course, that is exactly what happens.

“I have no appetite,” said Mma Makutsi upon hearing the news. “I could not touch food. Not tonight. Not for some days, I fear… My heart is broken, broken, broken.”

“Mma Makutsi shook her head in disbelief… Did people not realize? Were people such poor judges of character as to be unable to see [winning candidate] for what she was?”

Mma Ramotswe responded: “There are many things in the world that are not right. You only have to look about you and you see them.”

All in all, it wasn’t quite as on the nose as the “Mazes and Monsters” coincidence, but it still brought me back to reality. In fiction, just like in real life, the people you root against don’t always get their comeuppance.

“Hungry Heart” by Jennifer Weiner

Hungry HeartI don’t remember how I first became aware of Jennifer Weiner and her debut novel, Good in Bed, but I attended what must have been one of her earliest bookstore events, at the now-defunct Black Oak Books in North Berkeley. Weiner was funny and engaging, and I wish I’d had the means to purchase a signed copy. But at that point in my life I was pretty broke and couldn’t afford to buy hardcovers. I did check it out of the library, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

Her novels have frequently featured autobiographical elements—just for starters, the heroine of Good in Bed has a mom who came out as gay following her divorce, which is also true of Weiner’s own mom, Fran—and Weiner is a regular presence on social media, but Hungry Heart is such a revealing memoir that even her most ardent followers may be shocked at what they learn. Some of the chapters are absolutely heartbreaking, especially one about the death of her mentally ill, frequently-absent father, and one describing her fairly recent miscarriage.

The info about her socially awkward early years will come as no surprise to those who have read her novels. I will admit that I identified strongly with a lot of it. Weiner was a smart kid who skipped third grade (I skipped second). “The trend of skipping grades stopped once educators realized that they were creating a generation of social cripples. By then it was too late for me.” Amen, sister.

Weiner writes about her experience working to open up Princeton’s all-male eating clubs to women; her college writing classes with teachers like Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison; her early, unglamorous journalism jobs before she finally lands at the Philadelphia Inquirer; the fight to publish a novel with a plus-sized heroine; and her own weight loss surgery, which brought her back down to a size 16 after a significant weight gain following the birth of her first child. The only thing she’s pretty circumspect about is her divorce from her first husband (she’s since remarried), but considering that they have two kids together who may one day read this book, it’s probably for the best that she didn’t air too much dirty laundry about that event. It seems like they are amicable co-parents.

Hungry Heart is a brave book, and I really admire the strength it must have taken to write so openly about the lowest points of your life. It’s a fine book for readers of any age, but I hope it finds its way into the hands of her fans in their teens and 20s who will no doubt be reassured that this now-successful woman had to fight very hard and overcome some tremendous obstacles in order to write her own happy ending.

“My Holiday in North Korea” by Wendy E. Simmons

holidayinnkI’ve found that people who are (like me) fascinated by Scientology are often also very interested in reading about North Korea. There’s a sense that if Scientology and its leader, David Miscavige, were ever able to take over an entire country, it would function a lot like North Korea. Luckily, reliable sources tell us that there are only around 30,000 active Scientologists, but around 25 million people live in the atrociously repressive nation of the DPRK. Travel writer and photographer Wendy E. Simmons spent 10 days there, and returned with this utterly fascinating, as well as heartbreaking, chronicle.

The most important thing you need to know about traveling to North Korea is that it’s not something you just do on a lark. If you screw up, there can be serious ramifications. Look at hapless American frat boy Otto Warmbier, who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in January 2016 for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster. (He’s still there, suffering under God knows what horrible circumstances.) When Simmons writes about mouthing off to her guides, it’s reassuring to keep in mind that we know she made it out OK.

A tourist in North Korea is never left alone to explore; she is always accompanied by official state guides. Wendy refers to her two guides as “Fresh Handler” (a newbie) and “Older Handler” (who is younger than Wendy, but this ain’t her first rodeo). They take her on a breathless tour of monuments, temples, factories, schools, hospitals and amusement parks (“A Wonderland for the People!”). Every stop is choreographed; when Wendy’s handlers bring her to a Monday morning football match at Kim Il-sung Stadium, a “swarm of several hundred people… all dressed in military or other uniforms or matching outfits” suddenly appears during the second half of the game. (There were only about 40 people in attendance at the 50,000-seat stadium during the first half.)

It all sounds creepy as hell, and it made me never want to visit North Korea. However, I’m very glad that Wendy did, and that she wrote such an engaging book about it, filled with fascinating and revealing photos.

Toward the end of her stay, Wendy tells Fresh Handler about her neighborhood in Brooklyn. “She soaked it all in like a child listening to a favorite story. Then I told her I thought she would love New York City and that if she ever wanted to visit, or live there, she was welcome to stay with me anytime. She looked at me and wistfully said, ‘Oh yes, I really want to!’ And I managed to forget for a minute that would never happen.” While North Koreans are taught to hate the “American imperialists,” at least the few tourists from the the West who spend time there manage to build human connections. How wonderful it would be if someday North Koreans had the opportunity to experience other nations firsthand as well.

“Gunpowder Girls” by Tanya Anderson

Gunpowder GirlsAs an election junkie, I have to restrain myself from constantly refreshing prediction sites like FiveThirtyEight.com. So when Tanya Anderson’s Gunpowder Girls: The True Stories of Three Civil War Tragedies showed up in my mailbox (thanks to my support of Quindaro Press‘s Kickstarter campaign), I figured, “Hey, here’s a chance to read about a time when this country was really divided!”

If you want to feel pretty good about the state of America in 2016, Gunpowder Girls is a fine choice. While it’s a young-adult book aimed at teenage readers, this is a story that will no doubt be new to older history buffs as well.

During the Civil War, girls as young as 10 toiled in arsenals, filling paper cartridges with gunpowder and lead to produce rounds of ammunition. The workers, mostly poor immigrants, did their best to fill the unending demand for percussion caps and rifle cartridges: “twelve hours a day, six days a week… Shoulders and backs ached, but the work had to be done, and quotas had to be met if the girls were going to keep these jobs.” Needless to say, working with dangerous, combustible material sometimes led to disaster, and three of the worst are detailed in this book: the Allegheny Arsenal near Pittsburgh, where an explosion killed 78 people, most of them young women in their teens and 20s; the Confederate States Laboratory in Richmond, Virginia, where 45 perished; and the Washington Arsenal in D.C., an 1864 tragedy that culminated in a funeral attended by President Lincoln.

Anderson draws on primary sources to fill out her narrative, leading to some pretty grisly descriptions (The Washington, D.C. Evening Star, on the scene of its local tragedy, detailed how “many of the bodies seemed to have been crisped quite bloodless, the flesh, where exposed, being perfectly white…”). If this seems too horrific for young readers, well, I don’t know that a book like this one would have been published 10 or 15 years ago, before novels like The Hunger Games attracted a wide teenage fan base. I think I’d rather see kids reading about real-life tragedies instead of stories about teens killing each other for entertainment purposes.

Plus, it’s important to show how far we’ve come in terms of child labor laws, workplace safety, etc. Anderson provides a reading list in the back for people who want to learn more about those issues.

There were times when the book left me wanting a bit more: Anderson often describes specific women, like 25-year-old mother of four Kate Horan (a victim of the Washington Arsenal disaster), and I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the family she left behind. There may not be a way to find out, but I was haunted by the reverberations of the accidents that surely affected hundreds, if not thousands, of people for decades to come.

The three tragedies described in Gunpowder Girls collectively killed more young women than died in the far better-known Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster, and yet they are all but forgotten. With this book, Anderson has ensured that a new generation will hear their stories.