Friday, February 22, 2013

Book Club Noir

Voice of the Mountain

by Shawn K. Inlow

It's six o'clock of a Thursday evening and the Osceola Mills Community Library is about to close.  Some are putting on their winter coats and getting outta Dodge while other more suspicious types drift in.

I'm middle aged and a bit flabby and I've taken refuge from the 18 degree temperatures outside in a ratty old brown winter coat and hood.  I've got holes in both knees of my unwashed jeans and a Uni-Ball vision pen clipped like a concealed weapon inside the collar of a t-shirt that is beginning to smell a bit too much like me.  A banged up pair of reading glasses clings there too by one of its stems as if my chest might be far-sighted.

Under one arm is a hard-bound edition big enough to require a wagon to carry it around.  Under the other is a green leather bound Kindle.  I roll in both worlds.

Another shifty character is over there in a brown parka trying to trade the cold for as much of the dry, musty heat of the dowdy little library as she can.  Underneath the massive coat she looks years younger than she might be.  She's carrying two volumes and tucked into a pocket are blank note cards and a cheap ball point.  She looks trustworthy.

A shorter, wise looking woman moves over to the entrance and locks us in.  She turns to us and looks at us through scheming, bespectacled eyes that hint of a liking of trouble.  Like she might be an informer or a double agent of some kind. And she cracks a half-smile and marches past me toward the reference room.

It's a dimly lit place but the walls are covered in this section by nicely bound books about and by the various Presidents of the United States.  We take up seats at a round table and take the measure of one another.

The woman across the table from me on the right is a tall drink of water of Polish descent and perfectly placed yellow hair framing bright red lipstick.  You wanna watch this one.  She's got a homespun looking bag that looks harmless as she pulls it onto her lap.  A hand drifts inside the lip and emerges with a bottle of Choco Vina.

"Its a good wine.  Flavored with chocolate," she says as her eyes dart around the table.  Some small plastic cups follow and the mood of the table warms.

The woman on my left claims to have been a school teacher.  I doubted her cover because she didn't have the crows' feet around the eyes or the worn down enamel of teeth grinding hard against each other like most teachers do.  I change my mind, though when she pulls a can of mace out of her bag and places it on the table to the left, a mystery novel which she places squarely before her atop three other paperbacks and a snub nose .38 which she places in easy reach on her right.  Obviously a teacher.

These are the dangerous types and thugs that you hang around with when you reach a certain dead end in life.  There are, to my knowledge, at least five book lovers in Osceola Mills, Pennsylvania.

A glass of the black wine is placed before me and I wave it off.  I'd been drinking Black & Tans earlier and a chocolate flavored wine would crash that party like a gorilla in a banana factory.  I couldn't risk it.  Too dangerous.

The Autobiography of Mark Twain
I screwed up my nerve and went first.  The thousand page tome I'd carried in was the Autobiography of Mark Twain.  The American humorist and author of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" dictated his autobiography extemporaneously in his waning years and had finally gotten the thing off his chest by the time he died in 1910 with the proviso that his story should not see the light of day until 100 years after his death.

Thus to save the feelings of friends and churls alike, I think.  What an odd and prescient thing to do, to free oneself and one's story from beyond the grave to better serve the truth.  The long view.  So to read the tome, which meanders around like the Mississippi of Twain's childhood, is akin to hearing the man, himself, talk.  First person.  About the world he was in just then from the time of the old south, through the odd newspaper coverage of western duels, through the civil war to the turn of the last century, it is as if the great talker transports you there to see for yourself what it is to step back 100 years and look around.

Next up was the trustworthy woman, who'd sat down to my right.  It was hard to pay strict attention to the books she brought to the table because I felt a need, probably rising from my many years as a G-Man, to keep an eye on the .38 to my left.

From the Mixed Up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler is a Newberry winning story by E.L. Konigsburg for young readers about a girl, Claudia, who feels she isn't appreciated at home.  In order to give her parents a dose of "Claudia appreciation" she runs away with her younger brother to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; a wholly interesting place to live.

She also brought a book, Every Day by David Levithan, which has a tremendous premise.  The N.Y. Times bestseller follows the love story of "A," who wakes up every day in the body of a different person living a different life.

Things were getting going now, and the tall Polish woman who'd proffered the black wine unleashed on us a powerful true story about the lives of 250 women who fought in the French Resistance during World War II and who were transported to Auschwitz.

Our presenter noted her personal roots in that area as her father's hometown was the place where the infamous concentration camp had been built.  She noted that she'd even visited the places in the book.

The book is A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead and it reminded me of recent books of immense power on the subject of prisoners of war during WWII like "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand and "First Into Nagasaki: The Censored Eyewitness Dispatches on Post-Atomic Japan and Its Prisoners of War" by George and Anthony Weller.

The double agent was next with a National Book Award Nominee, "Luna," by Julie Anne Peters.  This is the fictional story of a transgender teen, named Liam, who longs to be a girl.  And, with the help of his sister, he struggles for self-identity and acceptance.

The "school teacher" was next.  She fittingly presented us with a mystery in the Hitchcock vein.  "A kind of psychological thriller," she said without emotion.

"I'm an avid mystery reader," she said.  "And it irritates me when I know part way through."  She looked at the .38.

Sister is the first novel by Rosamund Lupton.  "I'm fond of debut novels," she deadpanned.  "The story is about a protective older sister who travels to London upon the disappearance of her younger sister and finds her dead, apparently by suicide."

"It kept me guessing right up 'till the end," said the teacher with the handgun.  I swear, I almost saw the corner of her mouth turn up ever so slightly into the hint of a precursor of a smile.

Osceola Mills Community Library
It had been a good night.  Spirits and stories had been shared and the chill of the long winter nights had been replaced by humor, mystery, tragedy and love.

We gathered our things.  Some books were left as donations so the library could lend these stories and more to a public hungry for danger or murder.  I'm told that at closing of the third Thursday of the month, these grim story-tellers convene at the library, which looks and feels haunted after sundown.  Bring your own protection.  Bring your own spirits.  And you'd better bring a tale worth telling.

I didn't see the teacher quietly pick up the gun and I got a chill.  One doesn't like to lose track of who's packing in tense situations like these.  In such close quarters.  We went up front and unlocked the front door and drifted off into the night.  Thinking.  Wondering.  About the stories we'd just shared.  About the dangerous types who'd shared them.  And who had wound up with the gun.

Shawn Inlow
Osceola Mills, Pa.

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