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

The Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse, by Louise Erdrich

Biblical in nature and scope, The Last Report is replete with floods, snakes, sin, and forgiveness. Father Damien Modeste has lovingly served the Ojibwe settlement of Little No Horse for eight decades, forming his life around their needs. He may well be a saint. But he’s also a woman. Behind his priestly garb he’s actually Agnes, who transformed herself into a Catholic priest after living a full life as a Catholic nun, farm wife, and general adventurer, with random interactions with outlaws, floods, dead cows, and Chopin.

The epic tale of Agnes’s early life requires a total suspension of disbelief as she faces one passion after another, often losing herself in Chopin to such a degree that she ends up ecstatic and naked on the piano bench. This, not surprisingly, gets her kicked out of the convent. She finds love with a German farmer who dies defending her but leaves her his prosperous farm. Then Agnes gets caught in a disastrous flood, which sends her down the river in her wispy white nightdress, hanging on to her grand piano. When she lands, she finds a dead priest hanging in a tree, so she takes his dry clothes and his identity.

As one does.

This novel follows Agnes until she is over 100 and deeply entrenched in being Father Damien, while maintaining vestiges of her real, feminine self. She wraps her breasts tightly to hide her feminine identity and learns the rules of being a man, as she defines early in the book:

1.Make requests in the form of orders.
2. Give compliments in the form of concessions.
3. Ask questions in the form of statements.
4. Exercise to enhance the muscles of the neck?
5. Admire women’s handiwork with copious amazement.
6. Stride, swing arms, stop abruptly, stroke chin.
7. Sharpen razor daily.
8. Advance no explanations.
9. Accept no explanations.
10. Hum an occasional resolute march. 

Despite her subterfuge, the Ojibwe know she’s a woman and are just fine with her pretending to be a man, although they don’t understand the necessity.

In one delightful section, Nanapush, an elder Agnes has learned to admire and love, questions her during a game of chess. He knows Agnes wants to keep her femininity a secret, so Nanapush chooses to address her during an especially tricky move because, quite simply, he wants to win the game:

“What are you?” he said to Damien, who was deep in a meditation over his bishop’s trajectory.
“A priest,” said Father Damien.
“A man priest or a woman priest?”

Agnes panics until she realizes Nanapush is really only curious.

“I am a priest,” she whispered, hoarsely, fierce.
“Why,” said Nanapush kindly, as though Father Damien hadn’t answered, to put the question to rest, “Are you pretending to be a man priest?”

Why, indeed? Because the Catholic church doesn’t allow women to be priests and, throughout the book, when asked who she really is, Agnes consistently answers: “I am a priest.” A lover asks it, a papal investigator asks it, Agnes asks it of herself. Why: Because I am a priest.

The book encourages comparisons with other classics, from Death Comes for the Archibishop, by Willa Cather,to Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, with a little Faulker and Shakespeare thrown in, plus a bit of the Bible.

Erdrich’s reprises her most memorable Ojibwa characters—Fleur and her daughter Lulu, plus the Nanapushes, Kashpaws and the Puyats—which she introduced in previous novels (Love Medicine, Four Souls, Tracks). The book stands on its own, although it makes you want to read more to get the backstory on these people working hard to live a life of truth.

Chapter 18, La Mooz, Or the Death of Nanapush, is a classic, worth reading by itself. Perhaps more than once. And the sections on Mary Kashpaw, from the very beginning (her aggressively terrible coffee) to the end and her final, silent care for Agnes/Damien, are heart-rending yet beautiful, a picture of true love.

What’s the miracle? There are many: the people, the land, the priest.

Who Ate the First Oyster? By Cody Cassidy

How did humans get the way we are? Pants-wearing, horseback-riding, disease-fighting jokesters, some of whom eat oysters? Cody Cassidy has a few answers, in a book that’s far more well-researched and thoughtful than its quirky cover suggests. Who Ate the First Oyster? The Extraordinary People Behind the Greatest Firsts in History is inventive and clever, which makes it appeal to a mass audience and to those of us who yearn for a little light, but not dumb, reading. It is supported by substantial research in evolutionary biology, archaeology and anthropology, and makes innovative connections that stitch together three million years of human development. Cassidy starts at our pre-human stage, but places the most emphases on the past 300,000 years, since the arrival of the first anatomically modern Homo sapiens.

When did we begin wearing pants? As far as scientists can tell, that happened 164,000 years ago—a date that is measurable because it matches the arrival of the body louse, which evolved from the head louse. Why? What? Huh?  Apparently the louse jumped from the head of one of our ancestors and onto his clothing, which means he had clothing. Probably not pants, more likely some sort of adornment, but duds nevertheless. Cassidy calls this person Ralph, after Mr. Lauren.

We can trace horseback riding to 5,600 years ago, when anthropologists date the first known bridle, which allowed a rider to control a horse. Before that, horses were used as meat and milk (kudos to people who have the guts to milk a horse) but were too wild to consider riding. No doubt many broken bodies preceded the first successful ride, which, Cassidy notes, changed history and became the dominant from of transportation until the 20th century. It also changed economics, because those without horses could not compete for resources with those who had the beasts and could control them. Cassidy names the first rider Napoleon “in honor of Napoleon Cybulski, the Polish physiologist who first isolated adrenaline, a molecule that played no small role in this moment of inspiration.” 

The first oyster? That came because Oyster Gal—not one of Cassidy’s best choices of names—figured out how the moon affects the tides, so she could know when it was safe to go to the sea for her oysterfest. Why eat them in the first place? Because she saw other animals doing it, and surviving. Also, she was probably hungry and darn tired of eating roots.  

In a sobering and eye-opening section, Cassidy explains how the tools of warfare typically evolved from toys, and how the bow and arrow was the first weapon not to mimic nature. It was invented by a man he calls Archie, for obvious reasons. 

Cassidy personalizes his characters throughout, explaining that most early Homo sapiens could have handled a contemporary discussion or task just fine, given preparation, although they might have been shorter, with larger brows.  His names, while often witty, show an understanding of history and culture. The woman who invented fire is called Martine after a French geologist who was “jailed for witchcraft, which you can imagine is an accusation our Martine, after striking the first fire, would almost certainly have risked as well.” The first person whose name we know is Kushim, a bookkeeper who lived along the Euphrates River and signed his name on his tallies.  

Noting that Columbus was the last person to discover the Americas, he introduces us to the first, whom he calls Dersu, after the Siberian explorer Dersu Uzala. Why? You’ll have to read the book. I’ve probably told you too much already.

This is an easy read, but it offers much to think about. Chapters are digestible and short, and you can read one at a sitting, never worrying about losing the storyline. The book comes with maps and a timeline that help illustrate what is essentially a highly accessible history of the development of human civilization. Sometimes Cassidy’s conclusions feel like a stretch, but they make you think of what might have been and how it might have happened.

Pat Prijatel