Off the Shelf: Random acts of kindness

There are several staffers here who drift toward World War II historical fiction and love that time period. I usually go for something more obscure, but then I fell into “Dear Mrs. Bird.” Emmy has dreams of being a war correspondent, so when a job opens at The London Evening Chronicle she jumps at it. She finds the interview strange when she is asked questions such as: Does she scare easily? Surprised when she is offered the job, she arrives to learn she won’t be a writer; rather, she actually will be opening mail for a domineering, daunting woman named Mrs. Bird who answers the help letters that the magazine gets. However, Mrs. Bird does not deign to answer any letter dealing with unpleasantness such as kissing or being amorous.

Her coworker Kathleen tries to explain it to Emmy. “It says Relations. Mrs. Bird doesn’t like Relations.” Emmy argues back: “But they’re married.” “That’s not the point.”“You aren’t supposed to read anything Mrs. Bird has put on the list.” Opening the mail, Emmy cannot help but feel compassion for these women with their real-life problems and only wants to help, which is why she secretly takes Mrs. Bird’s stationery and answers some of the letters that have gone into the bin. I began this thinking it would be a hilarious book, akin to an “I Love Lucy” episode. And it was humorous. But because of the shadow of war, this was not just a light-hearted comedy of errors; there was also heartbreak and sorrow. Finding inspiration from a 1939 woman’s magazine, AJ Pearce has created a charming new heroine in her fiction debut. I enjoyed following Emmy through it all.

So moving toward the more obscure, I will admit here that I sort of fell in love with Murderbot. In 2017, Martha Wells won a Nebula Award for Best Novella for “All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries,” and my TBR stack being what it is, I just hadn’t found time to work it in all my other “to be read” books. So imagine in the future that corporations send exploratory teams into space to conduct tests. The Company approves these missions and supplies security androids (SecUnits) for safety. Of course when contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, sometimes safety isn’t what it could be. Meet Murderbot, a SecUnit who has become self-aware, has hacked his governing module, and basically just wants to be alone to watch entertainment programs. Murderbot’s inner snippy, snide monologues are so much fun to read, even as it makes decisions that might surprise. Although humans make it uncomfortable, Murderbot can show unexpected humanity. There is plenty of action in 160 pages, with sequels coming to flesh out what else happens to Murderbot.

Moving back into the real world, Cynthia Grady’s picture book “Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind” tells its story in the title but doesn’t capture the emotion I felt when I read it. In the 1940s, Clara Breed was a librarian and served many Japanese American families in a San Diego County Library. After Pearl Harbor approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast and Hawaii were imprisoned. Many lost their property and their belongings even though they had broken no laws. More than half of the number were children. Some of these children corresponded with their librarian, who sent them letters and books to give them something beyond internment: hope. In 1991, Clara was honored at a Japanese American reunion where more than 700 people gave her a standing ovation to thank her for her friendship, courage and kindness. That’s what I came away with, how amazing it is that one person can make a difference.

I was happy after closing each of these books having read about someone exhibiting kindness, whether a fictional character or a real person. I’d like to leave you with something Aesop wrote: “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” But, uhm, also keep in mind that Murderbot came by its name for a reason.

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