The Darwin Affair
Submitted by David Maschwitz
Redhead by the Side of the Road
Submitted by Greta Michaels
of a conspiracy, possibly involving persons in very high places.
Charles Darwin has just published On the Origin of Species. It’s the talk of the town. Passionate differences of opinion, pro and con, spring up in the scientific and religious communities. Some are persuaded by Darwin’s evidence for natural selection and the evolution of species. Others think his theories are rubbish and even heretical. Particularly disturbing for them is the notion that humans descended from apes and the implication that all people have equal stature regardless of class.
As Inspector Field probes deeper into his perceived conspiracy, he meets resistance from his boss (no surprise there). He endures humiliation, physical injury, and repeated trials and tribulations in his search for the killer and his sponsors. It becomes clear to him that it is not the Queen they want to kill, but Prince Albert. Albert’s strong support for the natural sciences, including Darwin’s theories, not to mention his egalitarian political views, is seen as a threat to some in high places.
A butcher’s apprentice, Decimus Cobb, is a self-taught surgical genius who achieves extraordinary skills with a scalpel. He wins the respect and admiration of the formally trained surgeons at St. Thomas Hospital. Unfortunately, Mr. Cobb has a propensity for using his amazing skills to kill people and satisfy his fetishes. He brazenly leaves a calling card with each victim by removing their left ear, very expertly of course. He must be stopped before he gets to the Prince.
This is Tim Mason’s first novel, and he delivers a compelling, hard-to-put-down mystery. He seamlessly mixes real historical figures and events with fiction. The story is bloody, gruesome, and a little sad as people you come to care about are killed off. It is beautifully written in the language of nineteenth-century England with occasional bits of wry humor. I highly recommend it. - David Maschwitz
Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler
The latest of twenty-three novels published by Anne Tyler is a recent addition to our library. Like her earlier novels, Redhead by the Side of the Road focuses primarily on character and family relationships as they change. Realistic details make the reader feel present in the character’s life.
Micah Mortimer, the Tech Hermit, is a compulsively well-organized man of forty-three. He adheres to a daily schedule of run, shower, meals, evenings of spider solitaire and beer before the TV. He lives in the basement apartment of the building he manages on a weekly schedule of raking and emptying trash and consults about computers for clients who telephone.
Of course, the comfortable routine is upset: first a young man who thinks Micah may be his biological father appears; then Cass, Micah’s woman friend, a fourth-grade teacher, seems about to lose her apartment. Who the “redhead” is, is left for the reader.
Tyler has won many awards: She was awarded the National Book Critics Award for fiction in 1985. A Spool of Blue Thread was short-listed for the Mann Booker Prize in 2015. Redhead by the Side of the Road is on this year’s long list for the Mann Booker.
Our Library has eight Anne Tyler novels in addition to the prize winners. Some critics have declared her works too “cute” and her male characters too “wimpy.” I have always found her books absorbing and diverting. In these days of pandemic isolation, that’s a recommendation. - Greta Michaels
Originally published in the October 2020 issue of the 1666 Coffman Newsletter
Relevant certainly describes a handful of these books—important ones on climate, pandemics, and race—not necessarily cheery topics but valuable at a time when perspective and facts are essential.
Not all the books are on such serious topics. Three are visual treats. And if nothing but good fiction can transport you from the present reality, perhaps you’ll enjoy a new translation of a French classic.
We’re also introducing new mysteries set in India, Italy, and Scandinavia. If you think you’re not a fan of the mystery genre, maybe you should sample one just for the armchair travel possibilities.
Yes, I’m intentionally teasing you. Look for the entire list of books to be distributed to your door by mid-October. You can pick up an extra copy in the library, and it will be on the website.
Thanks to teams led by Katie Weiblen and Catherine Wengler and composed of Greta Michaels, Victoria Tirrel, Barbara Woshinsky, Veena Deo, Faye Herold, Jenny Rajput, and Helga Visscher for selecting these books and making the library’s collection better than ever.
Carol Van Why coordinated the project. Veena Deo, Ed Lotterman, Victoria Tirrel, Carol Van Why, and Richard Zeyen donated five of the books from the Committee’s wish list. As requested by the Board, the extra $300 was spent at a local, independent bookseller. Richard Zeyen placed orders for the rest via Amazon Prime.
Jim Crow era, and today’s systemic racism are rooted in an American caste system—one based on skin color. Wilkerson’s “Eight Pillars of Caste” provides readers with a framework for understanding current conversations around white privilege and systemic racism.
According to Robin DiAngelo, the persistence of the U.S. caste system has produced a white population with little stamina for frank discussions about race. In her book, White Fragility she explores the defensive behaviors that even well-intentioned whites exhibit when challenged racially. Ijeome Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race offers us concrete strategies for avoiding these defensive behaviors.
First look for these titles on the RECENT & RELEVANT shelves. If not there, check in the AFRICAN AMERICAN ISSUES section on the Library’s upper level. The books are very popular and may also be on loan to another resident.
Harvard professor of Russian culture—that summer he was learning his twelfth language—who suggested I would love it. I did.
In my thirties, I found The Uses of Enchantment, a novel by Heidi Julavits, titled eponymously from developmental psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s exploration of fairy tales from a Freudian angle, leading to hypotheses about the natural ferocity of adolescent girls’ sexuality. The topic of the novel: a high school student who seduces her teacher, stages her abduction, and weeks later reappears to condemn the teacher as her abuser. It’s only when she returns home ten years later, as her mother is dying, that she faces the consequences of the lie.
In every decade since my youth, our culture has slowly evolved to see young women who behave in immoral or wayward or out of control ways (all polite if not judgmental words), not as inherently deviant but as likely victims of early trauma, sometimes sexual but not always. It’s the disparity between, first, what are our culture knows today about the effects of sexual trauma on young people and, second, the culture of condemnation—against which Sheila O’Connor’s Evidence of V is set—that makes it such a challenging and revelatory read.
First, there’s the style of the book, which is explained so well by its subtitle: A Novel of Fragments, Facts, and Fictions. It is, indeed, all three of these things, focused on the fact of the author’s mother’s birth mother—only known in the book as V—and her imprisonment for the crime, at age fifteen, of immorality (evidenced by her impregnation by the nightclub owner in his mid-thirties who turned her out as a singer/stripper). You read that right… committed at fifteen until the age of twenty-one for what we’d call today statutory rape.
Fragments make up a fair part of this unusual novel, such as the 1936 fiscal year-end statistics for the Minnesota Home School for Girls at Sauk Centre quoted from Report to the Minnesota State Board of Control. In it we learn that girls as young as nine were committed that year for “offenses against society” such as disorderly conduct, incorrigibility, truancy, and immorality.
And around all is the fiction. O’Connor must imagine many things, which she does bravely but with a careful hand, restraining herself from sensationalism or the temptation to sooth the reader with the occasional, if not funny, clever insertion. The author is honest about the iota she learned from public records about V, and about the opposite of iota that will never be known—things her storyteller-self had to conceive in an unblinking way.
There’s also a present-day, personal angle to the book as the author writes about her own erratic childhood with her mother—V’s baby, June. A Hamline professor of creative writing, O’Connor tells of dysfunction, drug addiction, and distance among the children that June raised, wondering if a lack of motherliness in June may be due to trauma inherited— like you would blue eyes—from V, her victimized mother. (There is now evidence that cultural trauma is passed along from generation to generation, not just in behaviors but in our very DNA.)
So why read such a sad and unchangeable tale from the past? I think the answer is that the evidence of such abuse is still ingrained in our society. The things that happened to V in 1935 are called human trafficking, child sexual abuse, and rape today. But just because we have new words for them doesn’t mean they have gone away or become less brutal, less heartbreaking. Don’t be lulled. Read Evidence of V. Then contemplate your own past prejudices and judgments of young women we now know to be, not wayward but victims.
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