One long, one short: ‘The Book of Candlelight’ and ‘Human Smoke’
Some men pick up a copy of Ellery Adams’ “The Book of Candlelight: A Secret, Book, and Scone Society Novel” (Kensington Publishing Corp., 2020, 320 pages) might read the blurb, flip through a few pages, and return the novel to its shelf, judging it a chick-lit book and unworthy of their attention.
They’d be right on one level. Most of the central characters are women, and the sensibilities of “The Book of Candlelight” are definitely female. The members of A Secret, Book, and Scone Society are Nora Pennington, Hester Winthrop, Estella Sadler, and June Dixon. Respectively, they operate a bookshop, a bakery, a salon and spa, and a thermal pools operation, and they drive this story.
But those guys would also be wrong.
There are any number of good reasons why men might take delight in “The Book of Candlelight.”
First up is the plot. Set in the fictious town of Miracle Springs in Western North Carolina, this story centers on Nora and Miracle Books, the shop where she sells an array of books, antique and vintage items, and coffee and treats. She’s also gained a reputation for what she calls bibliotherapy, matching troubled readers with books that give them insights into their difficulties. Business is brisk, and she’s made some close friends in town. With the exception of the heavy rains that have flooded part of Miracle Springs, all’s reasonably well in Nora’s world.
And then she finds the body of the young potter she has just befriended in the flooded river.
At first, Danny is presumed to have died from drowning, only the evidence doesn’t stack up. He left his house in the middle of the night without telling his wife where he was going, and his truck is found miles from the river. Nora begins to suspect foul play, but she’s missing a motive.
Soon the four women of the Society become involved with what increasingly seems a crime, working with Nora’s friend, Sheriff Grant McCabe. When a second body turns up, the townspeople know they have a murderer in their midst, and the Society cranks up its investigation.
So the story is intriguing and well-told.
Then there’s Sheldon Vega, an older Cuban-American newly arrived in town who begins helping Nora in the bookstore. He’s sharp, witty, and full of good ideas for the shop. He keeps both Nora and the reader smiling. When Nora gently asks him about his love life, this dialogue ensues:
“I don’t have romantic partners,” Sheldon said. “I’m a starfish. Have been my whole life.”
“Someone who isn’t interested in sex. If None of the Above were added to the LBGTQ acronym, that would be me. I’d be the N.”
In addition to being amused by Sheldon, I’m a sucker for quotations, and every chapter starts with one. In the Reader’s Guide at the end of the novel, Ellery Adams asks of these quotations, “Which was your favorite?” I liked several, but these words by the Impressionist painter Edgar Degas would top my list: “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
Finally, reading novels like “The Book of Candlelight” gives us men insights into women. Here, for instance, we learn a bit about female friendships. The women in the Society are bound together in part because they’ve all shared certain personal secrets with one another, with the key word being shared. That circumstance alone binds them tightly together. As Nora says of the Society, “If I didn’t have June, Estella, and Hester, I wouldn’t be able to handle everything that’s happened over the past year.”
We also see female empathy in play. After Danny’s murder, it’s the women of the town who visit his beloved Marie, taking her small gifts, offering hugs and words of encouragement, and even helping her start fresh in business.
If you like a good mystery with solid characters, some bits of wisdom, and lots of literary talk, you’ll enjoy “The Book of Candlelight.”
Even you guys.
Recently, I reread parts of Nicholson Baker’s “Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.” (I would have bestowed that subtitle on World War I as well.)
Here Baker gives readers hundreds of examples, some taken from the headlines of the day, some from diaries and reminiscences, of the events leading up to the Second World War and the first two years of that conflict: the decisions, right and wrong, that brought on this terrible war with its lies and propaganda, its countless brutal killings, and the suffering it inflicted on so many millions of people.
On a smaller scale, at least for now, the war between Russia and Ukraine provides us with a similar stage built on deceits and horrors, with the added possibility of the use of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, some of our leaders, Republicans and Democrats, throw more money into this conflict, raising the stakes and risking deeper American involvement rather than seeking every route possible to stop the fighting.
This month Americans celebrate two major holidays: Mother’s Day and Memorial Day. No mother wants her children coming home in body bags. Nor do our memorials need more names added to the lists of the dead.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” the Old Book says, “for they will be called children of God.”
Our country and the world need those peacemakers right now.