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.

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.

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.

historical fiction · literary fiction · review

What’s Left Unsaid, by Deborah Stone

Trigger warning for child abuse and rape.

41941906Sympathy for fictional characters is often a matter of perspective; we tend to sympathize with characters whose past and point of view we know the most about. Because we understand them, we can forgive. How else could the Dexter series have been so popular? But in Deborah Stone’s unsettling family novel, What’s Left Unsaid, all the sympathy I felt for one character was weighed against the emotional damage she inflicted on all the other characters. Is it possible for someone to be so awful that it doesn’t matter how much they went through? Is there an amount of trauma that means someone gets a free pass to be horrible for the rest of their lives? These are callous questions, but something about the central figure in this book meant that I had to ask.

What’s Left Unsaid is narrated by three family members. Joe, the family patriarch and former broadcasting superstar, chimes in from the afterlife. He passed away 15 years before the book opens. Sasha, his daughter, is a frazzled mother trying to reconnect with her teenaged and newly moody son, Zac. Annie, Sasha’s mother and Joe’s wife, is fading into dementia and physical frailty. Sasha and Annie have reached a kind of detente since their most contentious years, but when Annie slips a family secret loose to her grandson, Zac, he starts stirring things up to find out what his parents and grandmother have been hiding from him.

Through Sasha’s point of view, we learn about a hot-and-cold childhood. Her father delights in her. Her mother insults her constantly and tries to push her aside at every opportunity. Because Sasha grew up in the 1960s and 70s, the adults in her life were more likely to downplay Annie’s corrosive effect on her daughter. Through Annie’s wandering memories, we slowly learn why she is so lacking in empathy and mothering skills: an abusive foster mother who “cared” for Annie after she’d been evacuated to the countryside for the duration of World War II, parents who didn’t know how to help a child with post-traumatic stress disorder, plus one more outrage before she became a mother.

It isn’t hard to see why Sasha is so anxious. Annie was a nightmare of a parent. Sasha doesn’t know what made Annie the way she is. But I have to wonder, even if Sasha did know, does that make up for the terrible things Annie has said and done to her? Now that Annie is losing her memories, reconciliation is impossible. And without the hope that Sasha and Annie might make peace, it’s left to us readers to answer that question on Sasha’s behalf. I’ll admit that I’m very torn. Annie had a horrible life before she married Joe. She suffered more than anyone should ever have to. But then, being abused as a child and a young adult can’t mean that Annie has carte blanche to behave the way she does for the rest of her life. I don’t have much to say about Joe’s story line. It didn’t add much to the novel for me other than a sense of futility as Joe fails his family repeatedly and briefly hogs the spotlight near the end of the book.

What’s Left Unsaid is a hard read. The occasionally clumsy, unnatural dialogue doesn’t help. I’m curious about what other readers will think about this book. Given that I’m a judgmental reader (in the sense that I so often read books like a judge, apportioning blame and guilt left and right), I suspect that my reaction to this book may be other than the author intended. That said, I will give What’s Left Unsaid credit for asking a question I had never considered before. I’m fascinated by the idea that sympathy and forgiveness might have limits and where those limits are. Readers who are similarly fascinated may find food for thought here. Readers looking for a psychological portrait of a family should probably look elsewhere unless they enjoy really troubled mother-daughter stories.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 28 October 2018.

literary fiction · review · science fiction

Friday Black, by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

37570595Reading Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s collection, Friday Black, was like sticking my finger in a light socket. The stories tackle so many hot-button issues—the murders of Black people by police officers and White people, abortion, neoliberalism, dangerously competitive consumerism—in such strong language that readers can’t hide from the truths they reveal about American society.

Some of the standouts from this collection include:

“The Finkelstein 5.” This story made me sit up and take notice. As the first story in the collection, “The Finkelstein 5” explores a possible response to the callous miscarriages of justice that allow White people to kill Black people with near impunity. The violence is dialed up to 11, to highlight the blatant racism that guides the process from seeing a Black person or group of Black people, to attacking the Black people, to trial, to acquittal. But this story adds a vengeful coda to the usual tale, in which Black people start killing White people while shouting the names of the Finkelstein 5, the five Black children murdered by a White man who was “frightened” and “trying to protect his children.”

“Zimmer Land.” In this story, Isaiah works at a twisted theme park that purports to help people pursue exploration of race and justice. What that means, no matter how Isaiah’s bosses dress it up in academic-sounding language, is that people of color are hired to be “murdered” by guests. The employees suit up in protective gear and blood squibs, where they are confronted over and over again by the White guests who pay to play out their fantasies of killing “terrorists” and “thugs.” Isaiah is asked over repeatedly why he still works there. The money is good, just good enough to stay invested in the system. Not far underneath the plot is a biting satire about how everyone plays into the violent status quo.

“Light Spitter.” I found this story the most puzzling of the collection. After one character murders another and kills himself, they become ghostly presences haunting the library where they died and the room of a boy who is contemplating becoming a mass murderer. Dierdra, the murder victim, will become an angel if she can do good deeds. Neither of them is sure why William, known as “Fuckton,” is there. He killed two people before he committed suicide. Both of them argue about how to help the potential mass murderer. Dierdra messes up at first with her gentle, do-gooder approach. In the end, murderer and victim have to work together to stop more deaths. The story tackles the question of how to stop mass murderers, but I’m not sure I can agree with its conclusions about how to do that. Also, it just seems cruel to trap Dierdra together with the boy who killed her.

“Lark Street.” While I was interested in the other stories in this collection, I did not like this story because of its treatment of abortion. The story raises a good point about the consequences of abortion, but I am staunchly pro-Choice. It’s a conflict of politics rather than the quality of the story.

For me, a White reader, reading these stories was like being invited to witness an experience of American and Black life that I only knew about academically or tangentially. Friday Black gave be a front-row seat to the profound, righteous fury felt by people of color for centuries. Even the stories set in the future reflects a deep frustration with the American status quo. Every story packs a emotional punch that angers, depresses, and illuminates. These stories feel like the shout that has been welling up for a long time and needs to be heard.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley and Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 23 October 2018.

contemporary fantasy · literary fiction · review

Melmoth, by Sarah Perry

36628420Sarah Perry’s haunting novel, Melmoth, revolves around two ideas: loneliness and bearing witness. Throughout history, humans have done terrible things to each other. Many of them were never punished for their deeds. Their victims are left to recover as best they can, if they survive at all. But in the world that Perry created for her characters, there is one being who sees all: Melmoth the Wanderer. She is believed to be a woman who denied what she had see at Christ’s tomb and was cursed to seek out all those terrible things that people do to each other. In her loneliness, she may offer a way out to the tormenters or their victims, to escape with her to bear witness while wandering the earth with bare feet. Melmoth presents us with testimony from throughout history about what people did when they were given the choice to stay or flee.

Not only did Perry take inspiration from Melmoth the Wanderer, a nineteenth-century Gothic novel by Charles Maturin, she also adopted some of the structure and tone of those early, sensational novel. From the very first page, where we meet protagonist Helen Franklin in Prague, every moment is weighted with heightened emotion and foreshadowing. The narrator tells us that Helen is not remarkable until she first learned of Melmoth. After that moment, nothing in Helen’s circumscribed world is the same.

Through Helen, we get rapidly up to speed on the story of Melmoth. This wandering woman haunts people who feel guilty, whether or not a court would find them guilty of a crime. Helen, like many of the people she reads about who have encountered Melmoth through time, feels terribly guilty about a bad thing she did when she was a young adult. We don’t learn what that thing is until late in the book. By the time we do learn, I was more inclined to be sympathetic to Helen. I was not so sympathetic towards the other people whose secrets are revealed later in the book.

What fascinated me most about Melmoth was the question of bearing witness. On the one hand, a witness is important for justice. A witness can testify that a crime happened. Because Melmoth can be any where, she can see crimes against humanity that no one survived: the Armenian Genocide, the burning of Protestants under Queen Mary, the denunciation of a family of Jews during the German occupation of Prague. But when there is no possibility of justice later, what is a witness for? Does it comfort the suffering to know that they are not alone or dreaming? Or would they rather suffer in secret, so that no one will see their humiliation? Melmoth comes down on the side of comfort, for victims and criminals alike.

Melmoth is a dark, uncomfortable read. But it’s the kind of book I love for its ethical complexity. Even though characters do bad things, criminal things, there are sometimes extenuating circumstances or convoluted rationalizing. We as readers are witnesses, but also judges. Unlike Melmoth the Witness, we can’t help but think about how much guilt the characters should bear, whether or not they should be punished, and how. We have to decide whether Melmoth’s offer to wander the earth is a way to escape justice or just a different kind of punishment. Readers who also like to watch Justice’s scales tilt will find a lot to enjoy in Melmoth, especially if they also enjoy rich, Gothic prose.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 16 October 2018.

historical fiction · literary fiction · review

Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver

38236861The more historical fiction I read—especially when it’s paired with a contemporary narrative, like a strong underline—the more I realize that society is always in crisis. The old guard hold on fiercely to what they believe is the right way of doing things. Their children may buck the system a little, but they were raised to see the world the way their parents do. The grandchildren, at least as presented in Barbara Kingsolver’s wrenching novel Unsheltered, offer a bit of hope that we might learn from the mistakes of the past and live better than their forbearers.

In the present (plus or minus a few years), Willa is approaching the end of her rope. The house she and her family have inherited in Vineland, New Jersey, she is informed, will soon start to collapse around them. Her husband, having lost his well-paid position at a closed university, scrapes by as an adjunct. Her son just lost his partner to suicide a short time after the birth of their son. Her father-in-law is dying of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Her daughter, Tig, has mysteriously returned from Cuba, carrying an emotional burden she won’t talk about. Perhaps worst of all, Willa seems to be the only one who can see that the family is hovering at the edge of penury.

In the 1870s, Thatcher Greenwood has just taken up a position as science teacher at a school in the Landis Township (now Vineland). He, his wife, sister-in-law, and mother-in-law have moved into a house owned by the mother-in-law, a house that is suffering structural integrity problems similar to the ones Willa’s house has. Thatcher also has similar problems with money. (Teachers don’t make enough money in any century.) But what angers him the most is the way that the principal of the school refuses to let Thatcher teach anything that might challenge a fundamentalist Christian view of the world. No chemistry experiments or microscopes. Certainly no Darwin. Not even a field trip to the nearby Pine Barrens.

Unsheltered is both a slow burn of a book and a pointed examination of the logical dead ends American society keeps hitting. Reading about Willa and Thatcher’s months in Vineland/Landis Township felt like I became an invisible member of the families. I witnessed little moments of tenderness and love as well as bitter arguments about the right way of things. Both Willa and Thatcher are peacemakers. They keep calm and carry on as much as possible. After all, they believe that they are the ones keeping the families together and sheltered. It takes an other character to make them realize how much they themselves have contributed to their untenable positions. In the end, both Willa and Thatcher are asked if it’s worth it to keep working towards their original goals of big house, keeping up appearances, and working with the system—or if it’s time to break ties and start over with a new plan.

Unsheltered fits with Kingsolver’s other novels, though it has less to do with nature than Flight Behavior or Prodigal Summer. This book once again shows us the ways we can tangle ourselves up in when we have to juggle the expectations of others with one’s own desires or curiosity. Even though it takes a while to get off the ground and contains blatant references to American politics around 2016 that could get dated, Unsheltered offers so many questions to think about that desperately needed to be asked. I think this book would be terrific for book groups, as well as for readers who look around and wonder if there’s a better way to live. After all, the materially comfortable and politically apathetic (or impotently furious) way we live now can’t last forever.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 16 October 2016.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who feel stuck and those who feel depressed when they turn on the news.