Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans — Ten-year-old Noel Bostock is an odd boy, smart, a reader, independent. He lives with his godmother until she goes senile and then dies. Left bereft, Noel is evacuated with other London children at the start of the Blitz, when Vee takes him in on impulse. Vee lives hand-to-mouth, always with some small scam going, always on the point of eviction; she has a shiftless son and a doddering mother. Together, Noel and Vee are an odd couple, but Noel begins to help Vee improve her scams and their relationship deepens as the bombing of London gets under way.
This is a sweet and charming book about how people need each other, quiet for the most part, and often humorous, which is a take on the Blitz I’ve not yet seen. (I particularly enjoyed Vee’s mother’s letters to the prime minister and the scenes in the crowded shelters during the air raids.) I’m not sure how well it will stick, but I found it a light-hearted and quick read, and an antidote for all the horrifying WWII books I’ve been getting burned out on.
Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand — Cass Neary was once a young photographer on the burgeoning punk scene who made a name for herself with a ground-breaking book, but a couple of decades later, she’s burnt out, damaged, and still working in the storeroom at the Strand bookstore. A friend gives her a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interview her idol, Aphrodite Kamestos, who lives like a hermit on a remote island in Maine, and Cass takes it. When she gets there, she finds several people as damaged as she is, and she stumbles onto a mystery.
This is a story with a strong, unusual voice and a memorable, compelling setting, which more than makes up for there not being a lot of actual story, at least not until last third or so. I liked Cass primarily because she is so hard to like, because she does seemingly odd things mainly just to screw with people, and because her narrative voice seems so genuine. She is a person I believe in, not quirky just to be quirky, but quirky because that’s what humans are. Pairing her with the island setting–remote, isolated, difficult both to get to and to get away from–works to take Cass out of her long-time comfort zone and yet situate herself in a place that might feel like home. Toward the end, the story is permeated by a wonderful neo-gothic atmosphere. All of this does make up for the rather breathless (and somewhat unbelievable) wrap-up to the plot, which almost felt beside the point anyway.
Lately, I have been turning to older novels for my reading, as a means of escape from the stresses of being alive, here, in 2017. Older books offer a unique form of immersion in another time and place, as actually lived by the writer, rather than as imagined by a writer conjuring up a historical time or a fantasy world.
I have been most attracted to mid-twentieth-century novels of suspense by women. There is no shortage of good writers to choose from, and burrowing into these books feels like sinking into a very long Hitchcock movie, where everyone was well dressed, and their madnesses were kept just simmering beneath the surface, rather than on display for all to see. These novels offer plenty to disturb and horrify, but the horror feels once removed, and therefore safer, I think, than trying to tackle a dystopia or apocalypse that might shade too close to real life right now.
Here is a short reading list, although anything you might pick up by these grandes dames is bound to satisfy you:
- Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca, The Scapegoat
- Patricia Highsmith: The Blunderer, Deep Water
- Dorothy B. Hughes: The Blackbirder, The Expendable Man
- Shirley Jackson: The Bird’s Nest, Hangsaman
- Margaret Millar: A Stranger in My Grave
In a small town somewhere in America, when the children reach adolescence, they breach. On the nights of the full moon, they give in fully to instinct and run wild and naked in the streets. Everyone else stays indoors. There is sex, there is violence; anything can happen, and almost everything is allowed. Lumen Fowler, who narrates the story looking back on her teenagehood as a suburban housewife, is a good girl who does not believe she will breach like the others. Is she wrong?
Clearly, When We Were Animals by Joshua Gaylord is a literalization of coming of age, of the wild, out-of-control feeling that most of us experience in adolescence. It is also a meditation on whether we are right to suppress our instinctive animal natures as we do. The teenage Lumen is a compelling character, who reads and reasons and struggles with herself. However, the scenes featuring the adult Lumen were the ones I found truly chilling, and those elevated this book for me above yet another coming-of-age story.
The Women’s March was truly inspiring. I took part in my own small way. Our small North Carolina town had 1,500 people turn out. I was gobsmacked, because we are just not that big a town. There were 17,000 people marching in Raleigh. Here are some wonderful photos of the marchers around the world. What I loved about this protest is how positive it was, to counteract the terrible negativity we’ve been seeing from elected officials; women and men from all backgrounds came together in solidarity, to support one another, and to start building a movement, rather than to tear down.
The news this week has not been so inspiring, I’m sorry to say, but in troubled times, people always turn to literature. Literature gives us a blueprint for how to deal with life, and that’s why telling stories is so important. One such story is George Orwell’s 1984, which is selling out this week in response to the newly coined phrase “alternative facts.” 1984 is a touchstone book for me; here’s what I wrote about it a few years ago, also in response to the political climate. Now, unfortunately, Orwell’s vision seems even more prescient.
For those of you who, like me, feel somewhat overwhelmed by current events, this article is a must-read: “How to #StayOutraged without Losing Your Mind.” There is some important advice here–follow it.
And now, a ray of sunshine–more great news in overdue filmed adaptations: Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens is being adapted as a limited series by Amazon, joining American Gods on Hulu.
I leave you with the inevitable reading list (always more to read!). If you have already gobbled up 1984 and are looking for more dystopias, here’s a short list of recommendations that seem particularly well-suited for the current political climate:
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- The Children of Men by P. D. James
- Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
- When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
- “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin
Hag-Seed is Margaret Atwood’s contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which are retellings of Shakespeare plays set in contemporary times. (Previously, I read The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterston, also in this series.) Atwood takes on one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, The Tempest, locating it in the world of small-time Canadian politics. Felix (Prospero), an avant-garde director at a local theatre festival, is betrayed and booted from his position by his partner Tony (Antonio). Felix exiles himself to a hovel in the middle of nowhere for twelve years, dreaming of revenge, but when he begins to see shades of his dead daughter Miranda (who grows older as time passes), he realizes he needs to get out of the house more. He takes a job teaching Shakespeare to medium-security prisoners, when the opportunity for revenge presents itself.
This was a mostly light-hearted retelling of The Tempest, and I like that Atwood managed to include a play within a play by staging The Tempest itself at the prison–how very Shakespearean of her. The prisoners themselves were affable and sympathetic, if somewhat indistinguishable, while the politicians were, of course, buffoons. Felix is a bit of a pathetic character, but Atwood deepens the story by adding the ghost of his daughter to the cast of characters. If you don’t know much about The Tempest before you begin, you will after you finish, as Atwood mixes in plenty of literary criticism. While somewhat gimmicky, and therefore feeling a trifle forced, this was overall an entertaining read.
The Women’s March on Washington is what is inspiring me right now. It started out as just an idea following on the surprising election results and has now grown, grassroots-style, into the largest protest and demonstration to take place in response to the inauguration. The march is for everyone, regardless of gender identity, who believes that women’s rights are human rights. The primary march will be held in Washington, DC, but there will be supporting marches in cities, large and small, around the world. Where I live, there are at least three supporting events within easy driving distance.
I was impressed with the Women’s March Global Mission for Equality, and I hope this signals the beginning of a powerful and effective worldwide movement. I only wish that education of girls and women was a plank in the mission statement, because I personally believe that education is the key to empowering women.
For those of us who enjoy self-education, I offer my favorite feminist reads to help you resist in the coming years:
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- A Room with a View by E. M. Forster
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
- Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
- The Awakening by Kate Chopin
- The Female Man by Joanna Russ
- The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
- Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker
- The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
- The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
- The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper
- The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall
- The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant
- Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
- Into the Forest by Jean Hegland
- When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
- Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
- The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue
- The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
- Persuasion by Jane Austen
- Ammonite by Nicola Griffith