Pandemic fall

We picked out pumpkins on Sunday.

It was a simple thing — something entirely normal in 2019, and 2018, and every year prior. But in 2020, the pandemic year, it felt amazing. Rebellious, even.

I keep thinking about Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders. It was one of the first novels I read fresh out of college — back when the novelty of reading what I wanted to, whenever I wanted to was so exhilarating. Brooks’ historical novel — set in an English village during the time of the plague — is atmospheric, creepy, engrossing. It was deeply disturbing, too … enough that, though I’ve forgotten the exact language, I still remember the opening passages: how the fall of that year, the plague year, was redolent of rotting apples.

Man, I get it now.

Like just about everyone in 2020, I end most days exhausted. I fall asleep at 8 p.m. It’s not because I’ve had such a strenuous day … not physically, anyway. There’s the usual mental gymnastics of navigating full-time careers, the needs and desires of young children, the nurturing of relationships with family and friends. Then we spread on a layer of doubt and anxiety: the pandemic’s thick, unpredictable patina that seeps into and colors just about every aspect of daily life.

My 5-year-old son is in virtual kindergarten — “asynchronous kindergarten,” actually, given my husband and I are working outside the home full-time. So we try to keep up with the hours of daily recorded lessons from the school system at night, when I’m on my fourth cup of coffee. “Studying” is really just me scrubbing through the videos while the kids destroy the living room, or Spencer makes dinner, or I try to answer some emails.

I’m looking for any actual assignments … or some loose tidbit that could entice Oliver — a boy who barely pauses his activities long enough to eat, or use the restroom — to actually sit for a moment and watch. But he has no interest in observing his kindergarten teacher, a woman he’s never met or even seen in person, interact with 20 other kids on iPads who have no clue how to use the mute button. Because, you know … they’re five.

And can I blame him?

Of course not.

This is nuts.

Everyone is just muddling through as best they can. I trust that. But this sucks. He has zero interest in participating, and I have zero interest in forcing him. This is all weird and boring and unnatural for a naturally curious, busy kid. I don’t want to sour him on school before he’s ever actually stepped foot in a classroom. We also don’t have the wherewithal to attempt to develop a curriculum ourselves, and I’m barely hanging on as it is.

We’re not alone. I know this. The struggle bus is making all sorts of stops these days. Everything is weird and hard, and I want it to feel normal or find some sense of normal but I … can’t.

In the meantime, I’m in kindergarten again, jotting down sight words and studying math concepts. And it will be that way for the foreseeable future, at which time everything will change … again.

There are moments that I feel OK, though. Sunday afternoon was one of them. We weren’t out long, and didn’t do much … not even the morning on the local farm we’d planned, given the rain stuck around much longer than expected. But we made it to a tiny farm stand I’ve passed a thousand times along Route 5. Even in our masks, my fall-loving heart skipped a beat amongst the gourds and mums.

It isn’t a normal season. Not anything close to the fall we’d want.

But more than six months into this, the year of rotting apples …

Well, there’s still time to learn to make pie.

Books revisited: ‘Year Of Wonders’ by Geraldine Brooks

Back in my bookseller days, I would often wander the shelves as I straightened up the literature section and peek at the many paperbacks lined up under my care. It wasn’t hard to find a book that “spoke” to me, and I would often joke that I worked for free — especially since, by closing time every night, I’d have a stack of books I intended to purchase. Even with my discount, friends, that was a terrible habit to nurse!

Geraldine Brooks’ Year Of Wonders was one of those books I stumbled across at work, never having heard of it before nor read a review at all. Back in those days, “book blogs” were still a new concept — and I spent most of my time buying books simply because I thought I would like them. While I love getting recommendations from friends and spend a significant amount of time “researching” a book before I actually buy it, there was something freeing about just wandering into Borders, looking around and picking something. Not checking the reviews on LibraryThing. Not asking friends if they’ve seen it, or enjoyed it. Just . . . picking one. Taking a leap of faith.

In this case, that leap paid off. After buying Year Of Wonders, I read it quickly and absorbed every detail, shivering and panicking the entire time. Originally reviewed in 2008, it’s a novel I’ve thought of often: mostly because it was scary, moving and horrifying.

Recently we spoke about whether it was better to review books immediately after finishing them, when our thoughts are fresh, or waiting to let the book “simmer” — and then see how we felt about it. Almost two years since I first picked up Year Of Wonders, I can say unequivocally that it’s still on my mind. And worth the read.

As I wrote in September 2008Year of Wonders is the story of Anna Frith, a young widow coping with the spreading horror of a Plague infection penetrating her English village in 1665-66. Loosely based on the true story of Eyam, England — the “Plague Village” — the story revolves around the actions of a few in an attempt to save the many.

Led by the rector Michael Mompellion, the villagers opt to seal themselves off from the rest of the country in an attempt to isolate the disease and keep it from spreading. As many believe the illness is a blight sent from God, they try to become more pious and dedicated to serving the Lord — and eliminating “witchcraft” and other works of the devil among them. Unfortunately, this ultimately leads to suspicion, terror and murder as Plague spreads and begins to destroy them — physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Though the story takes place four centuries ago, it has a distinctly dystopian feel. For the population of Eyam, sealed off from the rest of the world, it was the end of the life they’d known forever — especially as their friends, neighbors and children succumbed to the gruesome illness. When I first read Year Of Wonders, though, I’m not even sure I knew what “dystopia” meant. Now? Well, I’m all over that genre.

What I remember most about the book was its visceral details — namely, the way Brooks related the horrors of England to tangible experiences we’ve all had. The book opens on Anna describing the smell of fermenting apples, that sweet, rotten scent that takes her right back to the autumn before everything in her world changed. Even before I re-read my older review, the apples came back to me. It’s just one of those details I’ve never forgotten.

The whole book, too, brings attention to the idea of religion as a form of tyranny — and how those in the Plague Village were eventually destroyed because they believed they were being “punished” by God, so shouldn’t try to break free. Selflessly, too, they opted to quarantine themselves — a terrifying decision. Now, of course, we’re talking about the year 1666 — not 2010. I know freedom of thought and religion weren’t exactly, um, acceptable. But it’s scary to think how closely folks were once ruled by superstition, if you want to see it that way, and unable to seek a way out. It was impossible in that time, I know, but crazy to think how far we’ve come.

I loved this book when I read it two years ago, and I definitely think I would still enjoy reading it today. Would my opinion have changed in the time since I first cracked the spine? Probably not, though I think I would view it with a different “dystopian” lens now after reading something like Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It. But probably in a good way.

Have you read anything by Brooks, whose other novels include the wonderful March and People Of The Book?

Book review: ‘March’ by Geraldine Brooks

march_brooks A wonderful, rich tapestry like Geraldine Brooks’s March is a little hard for me to review, but as I just finished it last night, the story is still fresh in my mind . . . so here we go!

March is a riveting work of historical fiction set in 1861, early days of the American Civil War. An addition to the world of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the novel follows Robert March, the girls’ absentee father, as he leaves Massachusetts for Virginia in order to minister and help educate the former slaves on the struggling plantation owned by Ethan Canning.

The book is so much more than that, though. March, a minister, leaves his beloved Marmee and “little women” in order to help “put his money where his mouth is,” if you’ll pardon the cliche. Marmee and Robert are abolitionists who speak and preach often about the evils of slavery and have opened their home up as a stop on the Underground Railroad, but Mr. March knows how strongly Marmee feels about the cause — and wants to do more, to please her and himself. When a group of frightened young men from his town join the Union forces and ask him for some words of comfort, March surprises all assembled — especially his wife — by stating he plans join them and enlist in the Army himself. And thus begins his harrowing journey toward education and redemption — and reconciling his painful past.

I’ll leave the intricacies of the plot uncovered, since reading the book was such an adventure for me. I didn’t know much of anything at all about it, and I’ve never read Little Women; I didn’t know if March would even survive the journey. Readers will clomp along in March’s boots through much of the story, which takes him from Massachusetts to Virginia to Washington, D.C. and around again. We travel through distance and time, but I was never bored or agitated as everything continued to shift. Stories of the past and the present are blended together so well, the book did feel a bit like a mystery to me — all of the clues eventually came together.

And at many moments, March left me breathless. After reading and loving Brooks’s Year of Wonders, I knew to expect a book deftly blending truth and fiction, but March felt less like a novel and more like a diary to me. The man himself is a study of how war changes a person — and I could see pieces of friends and boyfriends embodied in his character, noting that they return to me now from a very different war, but a brutal war just the same. Much of the emotion and turmoil expressed is universal — and probably universal to both sides fighting the battle. It’s just that I was placed so exquisitely inside his mind, it was hard for me to empathize with anyone else.

I loved reading Mr. March’s letters to Marmee at the beginnings of chapters, watching him carefully weighing each word to not be untruthful, but to spare his beloved the pain of knowing the true extent of perilous life in the South. When Mr. March arrives at the Virginian plantation to work with Canning and the freed slaves, I felt my entire body tensing — knowing that the precarious “castle” (or dilapidated estate house) in which they lived would eventually crumble. March developed quite the reputation as an abolitionist — of which he was proud, but still — and couldn’t find much peace over it. But nor could he find any peace over the vile institution of slavery in America. Or the measures in which he chooses to combat it . . .

In the end, did he find his peace? Read March. Lovers of historical fiction will devour this one quickly, and fans of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women will rejoice at this “backstage” take on a beloved classic. And I don’t think I’ll look at history quite the same way again.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0143036661 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy obtained through BookMooch

Book review: ‘Year of Wonders’ by Geraldine Brooks

I had to finish Geraldine Brooks’ puzzling Year of Wonders in the daylight — sitting in the living room with my dad and sister, curled up with all the lights on in the room and the television humming mindlessly in the background.

It’s a great novel — a very great novel — but it freaked me out.

Year of Wonders is the story of Anna Frith, a young widow coping with the spreading horror of a Plague infection penetrating her English village in 1665-66. Loosely based on the true story of Eyam, England — the “Plague Village” — the story revolves around the actions of a few in an attempt to save the many. Led by the rector Michael Mompellion, the villagers opt to seal themselves off from the rest of the country in an attempt to isolate the disease and keep it from spreading. As many believe the illness is a blight sent from God, they attempt to become more pious and dedicated to serving the Lord — and eliminating “witchcraft” and other works of the devil among them. Unfortunately, this ultimately leads to suspicion, terror and murder as Plague spreads and begins to destroy them — bit by bit.

The novel opens after the infection has already decimated much of the village’s population and Michael Mompellion has fallen into a blackness of despair. So basically, we know things have gotten pretty horrible around Eyam. This scene culminates in Michael’s eventual tossing of a Bible to the floor, essentially admitting that all of his choices made in an effort to quell the spread of death, hatred and infection were for naught. On top of so many other losses Eyam has already suffered, he’s now lost his faith.

One of the great strengths of Year of Wonders is Brooks’ preternatural ability to “set the scene” — without hesitation, we’re dropped right into the middle of Plague Village after the disease has already taken its toll. We follow Elinor Mompellion, the rector’s wife, as she and Anna tirelessly work to try and alleviate some of the suffering as parents bury their children, children bury their parents, and other villagers bury entire families in shallow graves cut in the hillsides. As Brooks is a journalist-turned-novelist, her attention to detail is impeccable, and we’re invited on these joyless tasks with care for all of our senses. Anna frequently mentions the smell of rotting apples as being akin to the smell of rotting Plague flesh — and that’s a hard imaginary smell to clean out of your brain. It reminded me instantly of a novel I once read where a room smelled of a dead woman mixed with vanilla and burnt hair. Vanilla and burnt hair! Another terrible imaginary smell to dismiss. (You’re welcome?)

The only reason I can’t give this a glowing, stellar and incredible book review is because I’m afraid of scary things. And let me be blunt — this book is scary. It’s graphic, it’s gruesome, terrible and excruciating things befall most (if not all) of the characters, and I thought over and over again that no light could possibly exist at the end of this dark, cavernous tunnel. On more than one occasion, I was forced to throw the book down in an attempt to get some of the terrible images out of my head. People die long, terrible and graphically detailed deaths — most of which I probably won’t be able to forget about for quite a long time.

And Brooks is a marvelously talented author (she won a Pulitzer for her later novel March). You don’t feel these deaths lightly. These deaths don’t breeze in and out of the novel on a gentle wind. Oh, no . . . These deaths kick you in the stomach, tear at your hair and gnaw on your chapped lips. These are horrible deaths.

I don’t know what I was really expecting, reading a “novel of the Plague.” Brooks was recommended to me by a good friend with excellent literary taste — and she was right again. But I guess I just really didn’t expect Year of Wonders to be quite so . . . disturbing. As in, I couldn’t read it before bed because I had nightmares until morning and just started shaking uncontrollably at parts sort of disturbing. I don’t like scary things. When it seemed like the disease was finally staunched, I literally felt my chest untightening.

If you can get past all the gore — and many people probably can — I would give my absolute highest recommendation for the novel. It takes quite an unexpected turn close to the end as more and more details emerge regarding Michael and Elinor Mompellion, Anna’s “place” within a home, and the illness eventually does come to subside . . . And more than anything, it’s a great, well-told story.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0142001430 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg