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

Walk in a Relaxed Manner, by Joyce Rupp

I know Joyce Rupp a little because we’re both part of casual, ever-changing local writers’ group. She is a keen world traveler; I’m a stubbornly reluctant traveler. Once at a writer’s gathering, she took me aside to give me quiet advice about packing for a trip to Italy. I would describe her as elegant, yet sturdy. Reserved, yet kind and willing to share.

The fact that she did not plan to share her experience of walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, but meant it to be a very private pilgrimage for her own spiritual growth, is perhaps what makes the book feel so authentic and accessible. If she had walked all of September and most of October over five hundred miles of northern Spain knowing she was going to write a book at the end, surely she would have been shaping and filtering as she went. She would have been taking photos and making notes. Documenting. Planning. Instead, she kept a small, private, journal.

In her introduction she shares how her determination to keep her Camino experience private changed. In a moment of synchronicity after her return, right after she had expressed once again her determination not to write about it, she was confronted with Joseph Campbell’s—whom she admires—conviction that the returning pilgrim (hero) has an obligation to gift the community with an account of the journey.

And so she did.

In the Contents, she lists 25 life lessons she learned from the Camino: Go Prepared, Live in the Now, Experience Homelessness, etc. These lessons are learned from the cacophony of snores of fellow pilgrims, the beauty of the Pyrenees, and vineyards heavy with purple and green grapes. From blisters wrapped in duct tape, bathroom noises, poetry, and puddles of vomit. From a fox running through the chestnut trees and a cockroach swimming in the hot chocolate. From sharing scarce food, taking the time to watch ants, and finding fellow pilgrims who also love Barbara Kingsolver books.

From her privations and blessings, she feels what it means to be food insecure, to be suspected of being a shoplifter, to live without being clean as the homeless sometimes must do. From her exhaustion comes clarity. From a September 15 journal entry: Today I realized it has taken me many days of walking to finally reach a clearness inside that is allowing me to contemplate all I see. It was gradual—beginning with the magnificent grapes in the vineyards. Now I can look at this old bench I sit on, rusted green, bird poop, highway noise nearby, and I can be still inside. I can look at the shape of the bench, the holes, the patches of corrosion and “see” it with my “special eyes.” I need to “see” people’s faces more, to read the sacredness there, too.

Over the years, I’ve recommended and/or loaned this book to several people who are neither particularly spiritual nor adventurous, and it has been valued by all as a good and important read. As a reluctant traveler, I will never walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. But echoing Thoreau 😄 : I have travelled much in West Des Moines because of wonderful books like this. I’ve come to know we are all pilgrims, every day. And it is good to Embrace Beauty, Live in the Now, and Walk in a Relaxed Manner.

— Sharelle Moranville

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