alternate history · literary fiction · review · science fiction

Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich

34217599Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich, is part of a dialogue in fiction that goes back as far as The Handmaid’s TaleIn this particular type of women’s dystopia, something happens that drastically reduces fertility. The fertility crisis invariably results in women who can conceive having their freedoms curtailed so that the species can continue. In Future Home of the Living God, the catalyst is that evolution suddenly reverses. Plants and animals that have been domesticated for thousands of years suddenly revert to their original, wild state. We’re never told exactly what happens to the fetuses of pregnant women, but it’s speculated that their children will be more like earlier hominid species. We watch this crisis through the eyes of Cedar Hawk Songmaker, the adopted daughter of liberal parents, who may be one of the last women to bear a Homo sapiens child.

Cedar is pregnant by the time the book opens, though only a few months along. Her pregnancy spurs her to seek out her birth mother, an Ojibwe woman who lives on a reservation north of Minneapolis. Cedar’s quest gives us plenty of questions about motherhood. How can mothers give up their children? What do children owe their parents? What do parents owe their children? The novel does not shame Cedar’s birth mother for giving her up. Instead, I got the sense that this women could not adequately care for Cedar and that giving her up was the right decision, even though Cedar feels cut off from her Ojibwe heritage.

This beginning works in contrast to the rest of Future Home of the Living God. Cedar’s child is very much wanted. But with the fertility/evolution crisis, women in the United States have lost the right to not only to keep their children but also their physical freedom while they’re pregnant. Cedar is helped by her boyfriend (and the father of her child) to stay free in her home for a couple of months. Unfortunately, that boyfriend is captured and tortured into giving up her location. The rest of the novel contains a series of incarcerations and escapes. The ending of the novel broke my heart and made me incredibly angry.

Throughout the novel, Cedar thinks about or is reminded of her Catholic faith in ways that focus on the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception. These reminders pair with Cedar’s story to show us just how little autonomy pregnant women and mothers have sometimes. Pregnant women go through harrowing deliveries after enduring advice (welcome and unwelcome), only to be judged by society about how they chose to raise their children. Over and over, this book reminded me of how many people think they know better than a pregnant woman or a mother. Mothers are not infallible, but they shouldn’t be imprisoned in hospitals, subjected to medical tests or procedures like the “husband’s stitch” without consent, and not told about what’s happening with their bodies and their children. Also, women should be able to freely chose whether or not they will give up their children or to terminate their pregnancies. This book reinforced my belief that women do not give up their right to bodily autonomy because they get pregnant or can get pregnant.

The premise of Future Home of the Living God is one of my personal flash points, but readers should know that this book is extremely well written. The way that Catholicism flows through the book is deftly done and Cedar’s character is particularly well drawn. I was constantly surprised at the twists in this book, which came when I least expected them. Erdrich has a gift for raising our consciousness about bodily autonomy and reproductive justice in a way that makes us look at the issues from the perspective of an individual, rather than as big, untackleable social issues. It’s not all meant to make us want to storm the barricades—though I think that it would be an outstanding read for book groups because of its premise. Future Home of the Living God is an affective and very effective book that I hope is read as widely as it deserves.

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literary fiction · review · science fiction

How to Be Safe, by Tom McAllister

35167727Tom McAllister’s How to Be Safe tackles one of the biggest flash points in American politics: mass shootings and our repeated failure to stop them. This novel looks at a mass shooting through the viewpoint of a character who is caught up in the aftermath, even though she had nothing to do with the crime. Anna Crawford shows us how paralyzing fear can be and how helpless we feel to keep ourselves safe. The science fiction notes heighten the book’s angry commentary on the ridiculous ways that politicians come up with to “solve” the problem without actually tacking on America’s gun culture and industry.

The mass shooting occurs in the book’s prologue. A young teenaged boy, wracked with loneliness and twisted by the belief that killing a bunch of his classmates (and then himself) will somehow achieve something, eats a slice of pizza before going to the school. Paragraphs describing how his victims die are interspersed with the boy’s thoughts. After the prologue, we switch to Anna Crawford’s perspective for the rest of the book. Anna was a teacher at the school in this small Pennsylvania town before being suspended for posting online about how much she hates working there. The social media posts lead the police and FBI to her house (which they destroy looking for evidence), thinking she might have had something to do with the mass shooting. Even though she is quickly exonerated, Anna is shattered.

Unlike the rest of the town, Anna’s life has imploded in a different way. While the rest of the townspeople try to cope with having lost so many people in a terrible crime, Anna has her sense of safety ripped away by the way the police and everyone else viciously turn on her. The rest of the town “copes” with the shooting in the way a lot of other towns have unfortunately learned to deal. There are a lot of speeches. There is a memorial that everyone fights over. Gun sales go up. Anna retreats into her ex-boyfriend’s apartment, even sleeping in a couch fort for a long time. She tries religion, but the church she chooses is actually a cult. No one listens to her, but they are very willing to give her advice about how to get better. Anna’s depression and paranoia gave me a stark sense of her dislocation from the rest of her world.

How to Be Safe is not the angriest book I’ve ever read, but it’s certainly in the top five. The parts of this book that don’t mourn the boy’s victims or focus on Anna’s fear of the world around her are an incendiary indictment of American gun culture. In spite of ample evidence that Americans need to give up their guns, politicians and gun rights activists vehemently argue that guns are the only thing that can “keep us safe.” Parts of this book made me angry as well (and I will absolutely vote for politicians who are pro-gun control), it mostly made me despair. Gun control and gun rights in America are a bitter topic because both sides are so adamantly opposed to each other’s point of view that it seems like we will never find a way to be safe from mass shootings.

contemporary fantasy · horror · review

We Are All Completely Fine, by Daryl Gregory

20344877Most adventure stories, of any stripe, focus on the lead up to, the journey to, and the fight with the enemy. Very rarely to they focus on the aftermath. But in Daryl Gregory’s novella, We Are All Completely Fine, we see a group of survivors of supernatural crimes and horrors, meeting for group therapy. Dr. Jan Sayer has brought them all together to work through their issues. After all, they’re the only people who will believe each other.

The narrative shifts between the various members of the group. There’s Harrison Harrison, a former monster slayer with intractable insomnia. Martin is addicted to this world’s version of Google Glass, which help him see monsters, who’s roommates were killed by a mysterious homeless man. Stan survived a family of cannibals, but lost several appendages. Barbara was kidnapped by the Scrimshander, who carved up her bones. And then there’s Greta, who is covered in scars and is on the run from something. All of these survivors resist being called victims. More than that, the book resists this label, too. We see these characters in all their complicated prickliness as they struggle with the legacy of what they’ve seen and had done to them.

We Are All Completely Fine is not just a series of therapy meetings. In addition to this fascinating scenes, Harrison and Martin pick up on the fact that one of their member’s “adventures” are not over. Even though he’s a very damaged person, Harrison not-so-reluctantly takes up his mantle as monster hunter again. This time around, he has help, whether he wants it or not.

This book races along its horror plot, which I enjoyed for its originality and for the grit of the characters, but my favorite parts were the therapy sessions. Stan is the only one who’s willing to talk about what happened to him, even if he only tells a very polished, public version of his story. The others keep their memories tightly locked away until they finally learn to trust each other enough to share. The brief hints about this world’s Lovecraftian monsters and horrors made me want more—obviously from the safety of this side of the page. We Are All Completely Fine turned out to be a great read for October.

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historical fiction · review

Ex-Libris, by Ross King

480712Isaac Inchbold, the humble proprietor of Nonsuch books, is an unlikely hero for a novel that takes us into an international fight for possession of ancient and secret knowledge. Even at the beginning of Ross King’s Ex-Libris, Inchbold would have told you that nothing very interesting should have happened to him. But then a summons from a mysterious aristocratic Lady pulls him from his cozy shop and away from his pipe. Before long, Inchbold is dodging deadly men in black doublets, coughing his lungs out in shabbily organized archives, and following clues to try and find a previously unknown volume of the corpus Hermeticum.

There is far too much plot in Ex-Libris to try and sum up as briefly as I normally do. Suffice it to say, this novel has two narrators. Inchbold tells his story from years later, looking back at his bewildering and terrifying experiences in 1660. Emilia Molyneaux, a lady in waiting for Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia, takes us further back in history, to the winter of 1619-1620 when the Thirty Years’ War erupted. The lost book links the two narratives as they work their way towards each other in time. We learn how this missing book was originally found in Constantinople, brought to Prague, and was spirited away to a Dorsetshire mansion before it was probably stolen by Parliamentarian soldiers. What we don’t know is what happened to the book after it was stolen. The mere rumor that someone is looking for it reignites a contest to possess it between Inchbold’s employer and agents of Catholicism.

As Inchbold looks for his assigned MacGuffin manuscript and Emilia is chased across the Holy Roman Empire and part of England, the novel gives us a blend of fiction and history about Hermeticism, alchemy, the Counter-Reformation, diplomatic relations between England and France, Sir Walter Raleigh’s failed expedition up the Orinoco River, bookbinding and restoration, Rudolph II‘s book and esoterica collection, and much more. In the middle of all this history, the conflict over the missing book is a constant reminder that the fight to control information is not new. The Reformation, to grossly oversimplify it, was about the right to think for oneself rather than receiving carefully curated information from an established authority. Galileo and Copernicus‘ fight to publish and share their heretical (but correct) ideas about astronomy are a frequently cited example of how the Catholic Church fought to maintain its worldview against a scientific revolution and the Protestants, both “enemies” aided by the printing press.

Corpus_Hermeticum
A 1471 Latin edition of the Corpus Hermeticum, published by Marsilio Ficino, which is referenced frequently in Ex-Libris.
(Image via Wikicommons)

There are times in Ex-Libris where the plot is shoved to the back burner by King’s research. I’ll admit that there were some pages I skimmed because I couldn’t keep track of it all and didn’t see how it applied to Inchbold’s hunt. The best parts of this book are the nail-biting cliffhangers towards the end of the book, when our protagonists are almost captured by mysterious Catholic agents or when disasters threaten to destroy rare books. Being a librarian and confirmed bibliophile, I would be hard pressed to say which worried me more. That’s a lie. I was more worried about the books.

Readers who are looking for something more like The Da Vinci Code, with a quest for a MacGuffin that could change history forever, may chaff at the frequent detours into deep history. (The dialogue and gender politics are much better in Ex-Libris.) There are also some great twists near the end of the book that did a lot to make up for the slower passages. Readers who like historical fiction that can serve as a fairly accurate history tutorial may like Ex-Libris, especially if they’re interested in books and book history. This is definitely a book for bibliophiles. There’s more than enough to geek out about.

literary fiction · review

The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald

41015154In a depressed town on England’s eastern coast, Florence Green is determined to open a book store. She has the building. She has the stock. Unfortunately, she also has a very powerful woman as her enemy. In Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, we watch Florence experience the highs and lows of being a book peddler.

Old House, in the middle of Hardborough, has a reputation for being haunted. So of course this is the place Florence chooses for her shop. After she finagles a loan out of a patronizing bank manager, it seems like the bookshop is a go. But then Florence is invited to the Stead, the home of the local gentry. Violet Gamart informs her that she plans to turn the Old House into an arts center.

The Bookshop is full of Florence and Violet’s battle of wills, as well as the relationships Florence builds with the local curmudgeon, a hilariously capable but no nonsense 11-year-old assistant, and others. This book had the potential to be another tale of bookish warm fuzziness, but the fighting between Florence and Violet gets very serious when Violet calls in the lawyers. Violet refuses to cede ground to Florence, no matter how much good Florence’s books do for people.

This novella ended up being a lot sadder than I was expecting, even with the poltergeist. Perhaps it’s because I don’t know what to expect from Fitzgerald; perhaps this is what she does in her books. It’s certainly not as saccharine as The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (which I love anyway) or The Little Paris BookshopReaders who want a happy ending should look elsewhere. Readers who want a more realistic quirkily bookish novel may enjoy reading about Florence’s triumphs and travails.

opinions · reading life

Shut Up and Listen; Or, Having Bookish Guts

There are books that I describe as “deserve to be widely read.” I hate to do this. It just reminds me that these books will most likely be read by the people who are already kind on board with their message and ignored or denigrated by people who need to shut up and listen. That last bit of wisdom comes from a faculty member I was talking books with earlier today. This professor was talking about reading I Can’t Breathe, by Matt Taibbi, with her reading group, who focus on books about social issues.

(c) South Ayrshire Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
A.C.W. Duncan

I wish that my university would pick something like I Can’t Breathe as its freshman read. I think up until now, they’ve chosen books that cover important issues but that are about something that it’s possible for American readers to distance themselves from. These books, like Three Cups of Tea, end up reminding students that they’re lucky to be born in American. I would like to read gutsy books along with these students. I know it won’t be fun. It will be downright uncomfortable. We’ll get angry. We’ll get upset. But that’s what a great book about injustice should do. (And there’s a lot of injustice out there.)

I’m generally against required reading of books that aren’t enjoyable. And I understand why schools don’t pick uncomfortable. Three years ago, Duke University got in hot water when they picked Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. But I think the occasional uncomfortable, angering book is good for us. It’s even better when we have people to talk about it with. Reading books like I Can’t Breathe alone can make us feel helpless as well as angry. If we read it with a bunch of other angry people, after we all shut up and listen to people who aren’t being heard, we can make some changes. We can vote and make a difference.

And it can all start with an uncomfortable book we have to read. Someone just has to be brave enough to assign the book. After all, these books deserve it.