Out of the Easy, by Ruta Sepetys

“My mother’s a prostitute.” Well, there’s an opening line for you! So begins 17-year-old Josie’s story set in 1950 New Orleans. This is a page-turner, a story of the southern gentility that covers over the decadent underbelly of “The Big Easy.” And a young girl’s desire to get out. There’s a murder mystery, dreams and dashed hopes, survival in tough circumstances. But this book is also about love and about family.

Josie’s family isn’t like yours or mine. Her father is unknown to her, but she fantasizes about who he might be. Her mother is well known to her, but is incapable of nurturing her, capable of great cruelty and actually betrays her time after time.  Her family is Willie, the madam of the brothel where her mother works; Cokie, the driver of Willie’s car and a devoted believer in Josie; Charlie, an author and bookstore owner who has suffered an assault that has left him diminished and in need of care; Patrick, Charlie’s son, who runs the bookstore where Josie works.  There are others, too, who surround this smart, worldly-wise teenager and keep watch over her, frequently without her knowledge.

The story centers on Josie’s chance meeting with Charlotte, in New Orleans to visit her cousin. Charlotte is a freshman at Smith College.  She and Josie form an immediate bond that leads to Josie’s determination to go to Smith and get “out of the Easy.” She’s smart enough, sure; she’s got the grades. But her “extra-curriculars” are not exactly what are featured on most college applications. She cleans at the brothel in the mornings and works at the bookstore, where her “family” has created an apartment for her where she has lived alone since she was eleven.

Josie’s relationship with Willie is charming, if not your normal “mother”-daughter one. Take this exchange, for instance. This is the morning routine, after Josie has cleaned up after the previous night. She takes Willie her morning coffee, made just so, along with a report:

“So what do you have,” she asked.

I picked up the pail. “Well, first, this huge thing.”  I pulled an enormous red shoe out of the bucket.

Willie nodded. “From Kansas City.  He paid two bills to dress up in stockings and dance with the girls.”

“And he left a shoe?” I asked.

“No the other one’s under the settee in the parlor.  I keep them up in the attic for guys like him.  Wipe them off and put them back up there.  What else?”

I pulled a twenty dollar bill out of the pail. “In Dora’s toilet tank.”

Willie rolled her eyes.

I produced a silver cigarette lighter from the pail.  “On Sweety’s bedside table.”

“Well done.  It belongs to an Uptown attorney.  What a horse’s ass.  Thinks he’s so smart.  Doesn’t know the difference between piss and perfume.  I’ll have fun returning that to him.  Maybe I’ll drop by his house at dinnertime.”

“And this,” I said.  “I found it in the upstairs hallway.”  I help up a bullet.

Willie put out her hand.

“Did you have one of the bankers here last night?” I asked.

“This isn’t from a banker’s gun,” said Willie.  “It’s for a .38.”

“How do you know?”

Willie reached under her pillow and pulled out a gun.  With a flick of her wrist she opened the cylinder, slid the bullet in the chamber, and snapped the cylinder back in place. “That’s how I know.”

Willie can be gruff, but she’s very well aware of the gem that Josie is and, as we learn, will do almost anything to protect her.

Josie’s growing desires to be admitted to Smith, to somehow find the money to pay the tuition, room and board, and to avoid Cincinnati, her mother’s murderous boyfriend, consume her and drive the plot. And a compelling plot it is. 

I’m not the only member of the book club who couldn’t put this book down. We’ll be reading more of Ruta Sepetys in coming months!

— Jeanie Smith

The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig

Nora Seed can no longer face the missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential that define her life, and she tries to kill herself. But rather than dying, she ends up in the Midnight Library, a zone between death and life, in a building full of books that contain her alternate lives. But first, she must read her own Book of Regrets, a thick volume of panic-inducing shoulda, coulda, wouldas. Her list consists of dropping out of a rock band just as it was about to sign a recording contract, calling off the wedding to the man of her dreams, backing out of competitive swimming, being a bad cat owner, and not becoming a glaciologist. The latter niggles on Nora’s consciousness after her beloved high school librarian, Mrs. Elm, suggested it decades ago as a possible career path.

Nora, who is 35 when we meet her, has more talent than the average human, but that means more chances to miss. At the Midnight Library, she meets Mrs. Elm again, who offers her a world of parallel universes in which she can embrace lives that erase her regrets. Mrs. Elm helps her decide which books she might open first, based on the mistakes she feels are her biggest. She opens a book and is off—to the remarkable success, happiness, and fulfillment her “root life” lacked. Or not, otherwise what kind of book would this be?

The chance to relive your life and overcome perceived failures is a popular theme in movies (It’s a Wonderful Life), television (Quantum Leap) and literature (Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life). It’s a means of offering the main character a way to redefine success, happiness, and fulfillment into digestible bites. Why did Nora pass up her chance to become an Olympian with such an obvious happy ending? As we learn, it’s for good reasons, but she’s forgotten them. In her backward glance, she sees only rosy promise, not the barriers that stood in her way. She thinks she had power and control that never existed.

As Nora experiments with one life after another, author Matt Haig shows that all decisions operate within a fluid environment, creating a context that we tend to simplify in our memories. We believe we could have done things we shouldn’t or couldn’t have. In Nora’s case, parents die, friends and family disappoint, people she loves mess with her head, and fate sometimes simply stinks.

But, as she learns, the winds that swirl around her also include real love and support, which she must first recognize and then accept. Basically, Nora has to recognize that perfection has never been in her grasp.

This is a book about shedding regret by gaining perspective. It’s full of quirky plot lines, with glimpses of opportunities and potential in unexpected places and people. Nora pays attention to the characters who populate her stories, who show up in multiple lives, and realizes that her life begins when she starts looking at her people and at the small details that create meaning and kicks the blame to the side. Is happiness defined by medals and albums and quaint English pubs? Or by simple, calm contentment?

It remains midnight in the library until Nora realizes that life in general is usually a mess and always uncertain and that humans, including her, are incurably flawed. This frees her to turn away from the dark and toward her own light.

— Pat Prijatel

West With Giraffes, by Lynda Rutledge

West With Giraffes is a charming novel based on historical fact. Lynda Rutledge has taken the 1938 acquisition by the San Diego Zoo of two giraffes from Africa and told us their story. Belle Benchley, aka The Zoo Lady, was the first female director of a zoo, although she was not accorded her rightful title until she had been running the zoo for many years. She purchased two young giraffes from Uganda and had them shipped to New York. During their voyage, a massive hurricane nearly killed the female and destroyed people and property all along the eastern seaboard.

Our story begins with the journey of the two giraffes across a United States countryside mired in Depression. The giraffes provided much-needed excitement and entertainment as they proceeded through cities and small towns on their cross-country trip. Imagine trying to truck two giraffes across the country without any interstate highways!

That’s the factual part. The rest, while based on these historical facts, is both conjecture and delightful flight of fancy by Rutledge. She introduces us to Woodrow Wilson Nickel, whom we first see at the advanced age of 105 in a nursing home, trying to write the story of his youth. He remembers himself at 17 years old, starving, penniless, orphaned, arriving in New York from Dust Bowl west Texas in search of the only relative he knows. “Cuz,” though, has died in the hurricane. Woody spies the giraffes at the dock in New York harbor and is mesmerized. He steals a motorcycle and follows them to their quarantine location where he hides, steals whatever food he can find, watches and waits. When they begin their trip west, with their handler Riley Jones and a driver he has hired, Woody does whatever it takes to follow along.  

But so does “Red,” a young woman with a camera, a “borrowed” green Packard and a passionate longing to become a famous photographer like Margaret Bourke White.  She is hell-bent on taking photos of the entire journey that she will sell to Life Magazine. Woody is pretty mesmerized by Red, too! Not too long into the story, Woody is hired by Riley when the truck driver shows up drunk one day.

Adventure follows adventure as they meet up with various challenges (like mountain roads) and unscrupulous folks along the way. 

This book is not just a fun read, a good story engagingly told. It’s also a pretty clear picture of the state of the people of this country during the Depression. The description of Dust Bowl Oklahoma and Texas is wrenching. And the snapshot of “Okies” being turned away at the California state line is heartbreaking. More often than not, however, the resilience and determination of the characters – and their love of the giraffes – give the book a hook into our hearts that leaves us smiling.

— Jeanie Smith