Even before George Saunders won the Man Booker Prize for the truly astounding Lincoln in the Bardo, I wanted to read Tenth of December (2013), the short story collection that won him the inaugural Folio Prize. The 10 stories, set in a recognizable contemporary or near-future suburban America, feature a mixture of realist and science fiction scenarios and a gently satirical tone.
At times the narration seems to reflect a new form of human speech, almost like shorthand, with the characters only lapsing into old-fashioned garrulousness under the influence of specially designed pharmaceuticals. I found the language most amusing in “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” narrated by a lower-middle-class dad who’s trying to keep up with the Joneses and please his daughters. “Have to do better! Be kinder. Start now. Soon they will be grown and how sad, if only memory of you is testy stressed guy in bad car.”
However, notably absent from the entertaining definitions he drops in for posterity (Whac-a-Mole, in case future readers are unfamiliar: “Plastic mole emerges, you whack with hammer, he dies, falls, another emerges, you whack, kill?”) is one for the SGs. Only gradually do you realize, with some horror, that “Semplica girls,” who have left the developing world for a chance at a better life, are a trendy lawn ornament, strung along a wire through their brains. From this article, included as an introduction to the Bloomsbury paperback, I learned that this story arose from a dream Saunders had. That accounts for how matter-of-factly bizarre it is.
Although it runs a bit long, this story was one of my favorites, along with “Victory Lap,” about a geeky high schooler improbably saving a classmate from a sexual assault, and “Sticks,” which in under two pages captures a family’s entire decades-long dynamic. None of the rest were quite as memorable for me, so I’m not sure I’ll seek out more of Saunders’s stories. I just couldn’t resist the urge to read and review this book in time for the day in the title after I found it on clearance at my local Waterstones.
Thanks to the Lauras (Reading in Bed and Dr Laura Tisdall) for making me aware of this tag that is also going around on BookTube. Laura F. specifically tagged me. If you haven’t already taken part and think this looks like fun, why not give it a try? For my examples I’ve chosen books I read this year or last year.
- How do you define literary fiction?
My inclination is to adapt one of Italo Calvino’s definitions of a classic (recapped here): a book that will never finish saying all it has to say. In other words, a perennially relevant work that speaks to the human condition. Obviously, not all literary fiction can live up to that standard; some will inevitably feel dated due to its setting, slang, technology, and so on. But at its best, literary fiction voices, and makes an attempt at answering, one or more of life’s biggest questions. As Laura F. says, this generally means that it lends itself to discussion and (re)interpretation. I know I can be an awful snob about genre fiction, but I avoid crime, science fiction, etc. because I find these genres less ‘serious’ and thus less worthwhile than literary fiction.
- Name a literary fiction novel with a superb character study.
The first novel that comes to mind here is The Poisonwood Bible, which would be a suitable answer for several of these categories but on rereading struck me most for how well developed its five main characters are. Barbara Kingsolver does an impressive job of distinguishing these multiple narrators from each other based on how they speak/write.
- Name a literary fiction novel that has experimental or unique writing.
One of the fiction highlights of 2019 so far for me is Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler. It stands out from the autofiction field due to its placement of words. Some pages contain just a few lines, or a single short paragraph that reads like a prose poem. Even in the more conventional sections, a lack of punctuation creates a breathless, run-on pace.
- Name a literary fiction novel with an interesting structure.
In The Monsters of Templeton, Lauren Groff’s debut novel, Willie Upton is back in her hometown in upstate New York, partway through a PhD and pregnant by her married professor. We hear from various leading lights in the town’s history and/or Willie’s family tree through a series of first-person narratives, letters and other documents.
- Name a literary fiction novel that explores social themes.
Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly, which I reviewed for Nudge, is written entirely in verse and narrated in dialect by an unlearned servant from a cloth mill town in Gloucestershire. With unemployment rising amid the clamor for universal male suffrage, the scene is set for a climactic clash between the common people and the landowning class.
- Name a literary fiction novel that explores the human condition.
John Steinbeck’s East of Eden has an overarching theme of good and evil as it plays out in families and in individual souls. This weighty material – openly addressed in theological and philosophical terms in the course of the novel – is couched in something of a family saga that follows several generations of the Trasks and the Hamiltons.
- Name a brilliant literary-hybrid genre novel.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is a rare sci-fi novel that I loved wholeheartedly. Set on a near-future Jesuit mission to the two alien species on a distant planet, it is about the possibility of believing in God, and doing good works in His name, when suffering seems to be the only result. (See also: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber.)
- What genre do you wish was mixed with literary fiction more?
I’ve always felt that Maggie O’Farrell expertly straddles the line between literary and women’s fiction; her books are addictively readable but also hold up to critical scrutiny. Her best is The Hand that First Held Mine, but everything I’ve read by her is wonderful. I’d happily read more books like hers. (Expectation by Anna Hope was slightly less successful.)
Most of the time, if I learn that a book has a sequel or is the first in a series, my automatic reaction is to groan. Why can’t a story just have a tidy ending? Why does it need to sprawl further, creating a sense of obligation in its readers? Further adventures with The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window? Returning to the world of The Handmaid’s Tale? No, thank you.
It was different when I was a kid. I couldn’t get enough of series: the Little House on the Prairie books, Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, the Saddle Club, Redwall, the Baby-Sitters Club, various dragon series, Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who mysteries, the Anne of Green Gables books… You name it, I read it. I think children, especially, gravitate towards series because they’re guaranteed more of what they know they like. It’s a dependable mold. These days, though, I’m famous for trying one or two books from a series and leaving the rest unfinished (Harry Potter: 1.5 books; Discworld: 2 books at random; Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files: 1 book; the first book of crime series by M.J. Carter, Judith Flanders and William Shaw).
But, like any reader, I break my own rules all the time – even if I sometimes come to regret it. I recently finished reading a sequel and I’m now halfway through another. I’ve even read a few high-profile sci fi/fantasy trilogies over the last eight years, even though with all of them I liked each sequel less than the book that went before (Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam books, Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden series and Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy).
A later book in a series can go either way for me – surpass the original, or fail to live up to it. Nonfiction sequels seem more reliable than fiction ones, though: if I discover that a memoirist has written a follow-up volume, I will generally rush to read it.
So, what would induce me to pick up a sequel?
I want to know what happens next.
After reading Ruth Picardie’s Before I Say Goodbye, I was eager to hear from her bereaved sister, Justine Picardie. Ruth died of breast cancer in 1997; Justine writes a journal covering 2000 to 2001, asking herself whether death is really the end and if there is any possibility of communicating with her sister and other loved ones she’s recently lost. If the Spirit Moves You: Life and Love after Death is desperately sad, but also compelling.
Graeme Simsion’s Rosie series has a wonderfully quirky narrator. When we first meet him, Don Tillman is a 39-year-old Melbourne genetics professor who’s decided it’s time to find a wife. Book 2 has him and Rosie expecting a baby in New York City. I’m halfway through Book 3, in which in their son is 11 and they’re back in Australia. Though not as enjoyable as the first, it’s still a funny look through the eyes of someone on the autistic spectrum.
Edward St. Aubyn’s Never Mind, the first Patrick Melrose book, left a nasty aftertaste, but I was glad I tried again with Bad News, a blackly comic two days in the life of a drug addict.
Joan Anderson’s two sequels to A Year by the Sea are less engaging, and her books have too much overlap with each other.
Perhaps inevitably, Bill Clegg’s Ninety Days, about getting clean, feels subdued compared to his flashy account of the heights of his drug addiction, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.
Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water was an awfully wordy slog compared to A Time of Gifts.
Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow was one of my favorite backlist reads last year. I only read the first 60 pages of Children of God, though. It was a recent DNF after leaving it languishing on my pile for many months. While I was, of course, intrigued to learn that (SPOILER) a character we thought had died is still alive, and it was nice to see broken priest Emilio Sandoz getting a chance at happiness back on Earth, I couldn’t get interested in the political machinations of the alien races. Without the quest setup and terrific ensemble cast of the first book, this didn’t grab me.
I want to spend more time with these characters.
Simon Armitage’s travel narrative Walking Away is even funnier than Walking Home.
I’m as leery of child narrators as I am of sequels, yet I read all 10 Flavia de Luce novels by Alan Bradley: quaint mysteries set in 1950s England and starring an eleven-year-old who performs madcap chemistry experiments and solves small-town murders. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (#6) was the best, followed by Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (#8).
Roald Dahl’s Going Solo is almost as good as Boy.
Alexandra Fuller’s Leaving Before the Rains Come is even better than Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.
Likewise, Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children, about a female doctor in the 1880s, is even better than Bodies of Light.
Doreen Tovey’s Cats in May is just as good as Cats in the Belfry.
H. E. Bates’s A Breath of French Air revisits the Larkins, the indomitably cheery hedonists introduced in The Darling Buds of May, as they spend a month abroad in the late 1950s. France shows off its worst weather and mostly inedible cuisine; even the booze is barely tolerable. Like a lot of comedy, this feels slightly dated, and maybe also a touch xenophobic.
The first Hendrik Groen diary, about an octogenarian and his Old-But-Not-Dead club of Amsterdam nursing home buddies, was a joy, but the sequel felt like it would never end.
I loved Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead; I didn’t need the two subsequent books.
The Shakespeare Requirement, Julie Schumacher’s sequel to Dear Committee Members, a hilarious epistolary novel about an English professor on a Midwest college campus, was only mildly amusing; I didn’t even get halfway through it.
I finished Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy because I felt invested in the central family, but as with the SFF series above, the later books, especially the third one, were a letdown.
What next? I’m still unsure about whether to try the other H. E. Bates and Edward St. Aubyn sequels. I’m thinking yes to Melrose but no to the Larkins. Olive Kitteridge, which I’ve been slowly working my way through, is so good that I might make yet another exception and seek out Olive, Again in the autumn.
Sequels: yea or nay?
I know that a number of you have long-term, faithful book clubs. Boy, am I envious! You might find it surprising that I’ve only ever been in one traditional book club, and it wasn’t a resounding success. Partway through my time working for King’s College, London, an acquaintance from another library branch started the club. A group of five to eight of us from Library Services aimed to meet after work one evening a month at a Southbank venue or a staff room to discuss our latest pick. By poring over old e-mails and my Goodreads library, I’ve managed to remember 10 of the books we read between November 2011 and June 2013:
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick [classic science fiction]
- The Little Shadows, Marina Endicott [Canadian historical fiction]
- A Spot of Bother, Mark Haddon [contemporary fiction]
- The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith [classic suspense]
- The Vintner’s Luck, Elizabeth Knox [bizarre historical fiction/magic realism]
- What Was Lost, Catherine O’Flynn [contemporary fiction]
- Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger [classic short fiction]
- The Rabbi’s Cat, Joann Sfar [graphic novel in translation]
- Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith [an update of Greek myth]
- Angel, Elizabeth Taylor [an obscure English classic]
That may well be the complete list. Although I was a member for 20 months until I quit to go freelance, we often only managed to meet every other month because we couldn’t find a mutually convenient free evening or no one had read the book in time. I was consistently frustrated that – even when our selections were only about 200 pages long – I was often one of the only people to have read the whole book.
Overall, the quality of books we chose struck me as mediocre: I rated half of these books 2 stars, and the rest 3 stars. (I think I was a harsher rater then, but it’s not a good sign, is it?) Perhaps this is part of the inevitable compromising that goes with book clubs, though: You humor other people in their choices and hope they’ll be kind about yours? My suggestion, for the record, was the pretty dismal Little Shadows, for which I got a free set of book club copies to review for Booktime magazine. But I also voted in favor of most of the above list.
Looking back, I am at least impressed by how varied our selections were. People were interested in trying out different genres, so we ranged from historical fiction to sci-fi, and even managed a graphic novel. But when we did get together for discussion there was far too much gossipy chat about work, and when we finally got around to the book itself the examination rarely went deeper than “I liked it” or “I hated all the characters.”
If it was profound analysis I was after, I got that during the years I volunteered at Greenbelt, an annual summer arts festival with a progressive Christian slant. I eagerly read the eclectic set of three books the literature coordinator chose for book club meetings in 2010 – Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope by Kirsten Ellis, The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder – and then as a literature volunteer for the next three years I read and prepared copious notes and questions about our festival “Big Read.” We did Exile by Richard North Patterson in 2011, Dark Eden by Chris Beckett in 2012 and So Many Ways to Begin by Chris Beckett in 2013, and each time I offered to chair the book club meetings.
Unfortunately, due at least in part to logistical considerations, these were run in the way many festival events are: a panel of two to five talking heads with microphones was at the front of the tent, sometimes on a raised dais, while the audience of whatever size sat towards the back. This created a disconnect between the “experts” and the participants, and with the exception of the McGregor meeting I don’t recall much audience input. I’ve mostly blanked out the events – as I tend to for anything that entails public speaking and nervous preparation for something you can’t control – but I was pleased to be involved and I should probably make more of this on my CV. It wasn’t your average book club setting, that’s for sure.
In recent years the closest thing I’ve had to a book club has been online buddy reading. The shadow panels for the Wellcome Book Prize and Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award fall into this category, as do online readalongs I’ve done for several Iris Murdoch novels and for C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity with various female family members. A few of us book bloggers chatted about Andrea Levy’s Small Island in an online document earlier this year, and my mom and I e-mailed back and forth while reading W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil in May. I’m also doing my last three of the #20BooksofSummer as online buddy reads, checking in occasionally on Twitter.
Of course, there are some inherent limitations to this kind of discussion – people read at different paces and don’t want to spoil the plot for others, and at some point the back-and-forth fizzles out – but it’s always been easier for me to organize my thoughts in writing, so I likely feel more comfortable contributing than I might in an in-person meeting.
This is all context for my decision to join my neighborhood book club next month. The club arose some months back out of our community’s Facebook group, a helpful resource run by a go-getting lady a few doors down from us. So far it’s turning out to be a small group of thirty- and fortysomething women who alternate meetings at each other’s houses, and the name they’ve chosen gives an idea of the tone: “Books, Booze and Banter.”
I made the mistake of not getting involved right at the start; I wanted to hang back and see what kind of books they’d choose. This means I wasn’t part of the early process of putting titles in a hat, so I’ve looked on snobbishly for several months as they lurched between crime and women’s fiction, genres I generally avoid. (Still, there were actually a couple books I might have joined them for had I not been in America and had they been readily available at the public library.) For many people a book club selection will be the only book they get through that month, so I can understand how they’d want it to be something ‘readable’ that they’d be happy to pick up anyway. Even though statistically I read 27 books a month, I’m still jealously protective of my reading time; I want everything I read to be worthwhile.
So for September I managed to steer the group away from a poorly received historical novel of over 400 pages and the new Joël Dicker and onto Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler, which the bookstore chain Waterstones has been promoting heavily as one of their books of the month. I already had a charity shop copy in hand and the others liked the sound of it, so we’re all set for September 12th! Future months’ literary fiction choices look promising, too, so provided I enjoy the discussion and the camaraderie I plan to stick with it: a backlist Pat Barker novel I’ve not read, and Kirsty Logan and Jonathan Coe novels I’ve read before and won’t reread but will remind myself about briefly before the meetings.
I’m out of practice with this book club thing. My mother tells me that I have a lot to contribute but that I must also be open to what I’ll learn from other people – even if I don’t expect to. So I don’t want to set myself up as some kind of expert. In fact, I probably won’t even mention that I’m a freelance book reviewer and book blogger. Mostly I’m hoping to find some friendly faces around the neighborhood, because even though we’ve lived here just over two years I still only know a handful of names and keep myself to myself as I work from home. Even if I have to read books I wouldn’t normally, it’ll be worth it to meet more people.
What has your experience with book clubs (in person and online) been?
The topic of this shortlisted book didn’t particularly appeal to me, so I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy it. Transhumanism is about using technology to help us overcome human limitations and radically extend our lifespan. Many of the strategies O’Connell, a Dublin-based freelance writer with a literature background, profiles are on the verge of science fiction. Are we looking at liberation from the rules of biology, or enslavement to technology? His travels take him to the heart of this very American, and very male, movement.
Cryogenic freezing: The first person was cryogenically frozen in 1966. Max More’s Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona offers whole-body or head-only (“neuro”) options for $200,000 or $80,000. More argues that the residents of Alcor are somewhere between living and dead. These entities are held in suspension in the belief that technology will one day allow us to upload the contents of the mind into a new vessel.
- This approach seems to conceive of the human mind/consciousness as pure information to be computed.
Cyborgs: Grindhouse Wetware, near Pittsburgh, aims to turn people into literal cyborgs. Tim Cannon had a Circadia device the size of a deck of cards implanted in his arm for three months to take biometric measurements. Other colleagues have implanted RFID chips. He intends to have his arms amputated and replaced by superior prostheses as soon as the technology is available.
- That may seem extreme, but think how bound people already are to machines: O’Connell calls his smartphone a “mnemonic prosthesis” during his research travels.
Mortality as the enemy: Many transhumanists O’Connell meets speak of aging and death as an affront to human dignity. We mustn’t be complacent, they argue, but must oppose these processes with all we’re worth. One of the key people involved in that fight is Aubrey de Grey of SENS (“Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence”), and Google has also gotten in on it with their “Calico” project.
- O’Connell recounts explaining aging and death to his three-year-old son; his wife chipped in that – according to “Dada’s book” – perhaps by the time the boy is grown up death will no longer be a problem.
The Singularity: Posited by Ray Kurzweil, the Singularity is the future point at which artificial intelligence will surpass humanity. O’Connell likens it to the Christian idea of the Rapture, itself a moment of transcendence. At a conference on transhumanism and religion in Piedmont, California, he encounters Terasem, a religion founded recently by a transhumanist and transgender person.
- To my surprise, To Be a Machine makes frequent reference to religious ideas: O’Connell thinks of transhumanism as an attempt to reverse the Fall and become godlike, and he often describes the people he meets as zealots or saints, driven by the extremity of their beliefs. Both religion and transhumanism could be seen as a way of combating nihilism and insisting on the meaning of human life.
O’Connell’s outsider position helped me to engage with the science; he’s at least as interested, if not more so, in the deeper philosophical questions that transhumanism raises. I would caution that a grounding in religion and philosophy could be useful, as the points of reference used here range from the Gnostic gospels and St. Augustine to materialism and Nietzsche. But anyone who’s preoccupied with human nature should find the book intriguing.
You could also enjoy this purely as a zany travelogue along the lines of Elif Batuman’s The Possessed and Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck. The slapstick antics of the robots at the DARPA Robotics Challenge and the road trip in Zoltan Istvan’s presidential campaign Immortality Bus are particularly amusing. O’Connell’s Dickensian/Wildean delight in language is evident, and I also appreciated his passing references to William Butler Yeats.
It could be argued, however, that O’Connell was not the ideal author of this book. He is not naturally sympathetic to transhumanism; he’s pessimistic and skeptical, often wondering whether the proponents he meets are literally insane (e.g., to think that they are in imminent danger of being killed by robots). Most of the relevant research, even when conducted by Europeans, is going on in the USA, particularly in the Bay Area. So why would an Irish literary critic choose transhumanism as the subject for his debut? It’s a question I asked myself more than once, though it never stopped me from enjoying the book.
The title (from an Andy Warhol quote) may reference machines, but really this is about what it means to be human. O’Connell even ends with a few pages on his own cancer scare, a reminder that our bodies are flawed machines. I encourage you to give this a try even if you think you have no particular interest in technology or science fiction. It could also give a book club a lot to discuss.
“We exist, we humans, in the wreckage of an imagined splendor. It was not supposed to be this way: we weren’t supposed to be weak, to be ashamed, to suffer, to die. We have always had higher notions of ourselves. … The frailty is the thing, the vulnerability. This infirmity, this doubtful convalescence we refer to, for want of a better term, as the human condition.”
See what the rest of the shadow panel has to say about this book:
Annabel’s review: “I loved this book from the front cover to the back, starting with its title. … He writes with empathy and a good deal of humour which makes the text always readable and entertaining, while provoking his readers to think deeply about their own beliefs.”
Clare’s review: “O’Connell’s prose style is wordy and ironic. He is pleasingly sceptical about many aspects of transhumanism. … It is an entertaining book which provides a lot of food for thought for a layperson like myself.”
Laura’s review: “Often, I found that his description of his own internal questions would mirror mine. This is a really fantastic book, and for me, a clear front runner for the Wellcome Book Prize.”
Paul’s review: “An interesting book that hopefully will provoke further discussion as we embrace technology and it envelops us.”
My gut feeling: Though they highlight opposite approaches to death – transcending it versus accepting it – this and Kathryn Mannix’s With the End in Mind seem to me the two shortlisted books of the most pressing importance. I’d be happy to see either of them win. To Be a Machine is an awful lot of fun to read, and it seems like a current favorite for our panel.
- I’m coming close to the end of my skim of The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman.
- I’m still awaiting a review copy of Mayhem by Sigrid Rausing, which I’ll be featuring as part of the official Wellcome Book Prize shortlist blog tour.
Now that the shortlist has been announced in the Sunday Times, I can also share it here:
For the first time ever, the judges have chosen five titles, having apparently found it just too difficult to decide on four!
- Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman, Minoo Dinshaw (biography)
- The End of the Day, Claire North (science fiction novel)
- The Lucky Ones, Julianne Pachico (linked short stories)
- Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney (contemporary novel)
- The Lauras, Sara Taylor (contemporary novel)
My initial thoughts: I only predicted Sally Rooney, and am surprised not to see Fiona Mozley here. My only other disappointment is that no poetry has been recognized this year.
There is great variety on this list, ranging as it does from sci fi lite to biography/history. I have only read part of one of the books: an unsuccessful attempt with The Lauras last December, though I am more than happy to try again because I loved The Shore so much. I am now halfway through.
I enjoyed the one book I read by Claire North very much (The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August) so look forward to trying another, and I have heard a lot about the Sally Rooney book and read various reviews (it seems to be a polarizing read, though).
I think we are all feeling a bit daunted by the 640-page biography about a historian I had never heard of. However, I have been getting more into biographies so will be interested to see how the author shapes this life story. I am a few chapters in so far, but have a feeling I will be reading it right up until our decision meeting.
I will be posting 1+ shortlist review per week in November, starting with The Lauras.
Like most fiction readers, I generally stick with what I’m pretty sure I’ll like. For me that means that, unless I’ve heard very good feedback that makes me think the book will stand out from its peers, I tend to avoid science fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels (or genre fiction in general). I’m also leery of magic realism and allegories, as these techniques can so often be cringe-inducing. But occasionally a book will come along that proves me wrong.
For instance, last week I finished To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. Time travel would normally be a turnoff for me, but Willis manages it perfectly in this uproarious blend of science fiction and pitch-perfect Victorian pastiche (boating, séances and sentimentality, oh my!). Once I got into it, I read it extremely quickly – finishing the final 230 pages on one Sunday afternoon and evening – and it provoked a continuous stream of snorts. I can hardly think of anyone I wouldn’t recommend it to.
This got me thinking about some other pleasantly surprising books that took me outside of my usual reading comfort zone in recent years:
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett: Six generations ago a pair of astronauts landed on the planet Eden and became matriarch and patriarch of a new race of eerily primitive humans. A young leader, John Redlantern, rises up within the group, determined to free his people from their limited worldview by demythologizing their foundational story. Through events that mirror many of the accounts in Genesis and Exodus, Beckett provides an intriguing counterpoint to the ways Jews and Christians relate to the biblical narrative. Page-turning science fiction with deep theological implications. I liked each of the two sequels less than the book that went before, but they’re still worth reading.
The Flavia de Luce mysteries by Alan Bradley: Normally I shy away from series and tire of child narrators – and yet I find the Flavia de Luce novels positively delightful. Why? Well, Canadian author Alan Bradley’s quaintly authentic mysteries are set at Buckshaw, a crumbling country manor house in 1950s England, where the titular eleven-year-old heroine, also the narrator, performs madcap chemistry experiments and solves small-town murders. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (#6) is the best yet. In this installment, Flavia finally learns of her unexpected inheritance from her mother. The most recent, Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (#8), is a close second.
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness: The thinking gal’s Twilight. Harkness, a historian of science, draws on her knowledge of everything from medieval alchemy to recent DNA mapping. The main character, reluctant witch Diana Bishop, is studying alchemical treatises at the Bodleian Library. She calls up an enchanted manuscript from Ashmole’s original collection, presumed missing since 1859. There are three excised pages, and the book instantly draws attention from the myriad “creatures” (non-humans) plaguing Oxford. Enter Matthew Clairmont, a mega-hot vampire with a conscience. From rural France to upstate New York, he and Diana fight off rival vampires and the witches who killed Diana’s parents. As with Beckett’s books, the two sequels are a bit of a letdown, but the first book is great fun.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman: A full-on postmodern satire bursting with biting commentary on body image, consumerism and conformity. The narrator, known only as A, lives in a shared suburban apartment. She and her roommate, B, are physically similar and emotionally dependent, egging each other on to paranoid anorexia. Television and shopping are the twin symbolic pillars of a book about the commodification of the body. In a culture of self-alienation where we compulsively buy things we don’t need, have no idea where our food comes from and worry about keeping up a facade of normalcy, Kleeman’s is a fresh voice advocating the true sanity of individuality.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North: The theme of a character reliving the same life over and over will no doubt have you thinking of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, but I liked this book so much better. Perhaps simply because of the first-person narration, I developed much more of a fondness for Harry August and his multiple life stories than I ever did for Ursula Todd. Harry, the illegitimate son of a servant girl, is born in the same manner each time – on New Year’s Day 1919, in the ladies’ restroom at Berwick-upon-Tweed rail station! – but becomes many people in his different lives.
What books were you surprised to love recently?
Last month an unsolicited e-copy of The Heart Goes Last landed in my inbox: a random Thursday afternoon present for this Margaret Atwood fan. I was meant to review it for one of the websites I write for, but a misunderstanding meant the book was also assigned to someone else. So while I won’t be getting paid for my review (Boooooo!), I was still grateful for the opportunity to read the book early.
Atwood’s last project before this was the Maddaddam dystopian trilogy, and while there are still some dystopian elements here, she is blending speculative elements with realist social commentary in a way that makes me hope she is leaving some of the overt absurdity of her science-fiction scenarios behind.
I didn’t dislike the Maddaddam books per se, but nor did I feel that it was necessary to turn Oryx and Crake into a trilogy, especially when the two following novels only re-examined events from different perspectives, filling in backstory rather than adding new present action (see my Maddaddam review on For Books’ Sake). It felt like a fairly indulgent ten-year project distracting Atwood from producing potential gems along the lines of The Blind Assassin, one of my favorites.
The Heart Goes Last began as four Positron short stories that appeared on the Byliner website between 2012 and 2013. We’re in a vague post-financial crisis, post-environmental apocalypse world, a little like California or The Road but not quite as drastic. Stan and Charmaine are a married couple reduced to living in their car. Charmaine works in a bar, but Stan has lost his job and won’t quite stoop to his brother Conor’s level of moving money around offshore. (It’s no coincidence his brother’s nickname is “Con.”)
One day Charmaine sees an ad for the Positron Project and convinces Stan to sign them up. Participants spend every other month working in the model community of Consilience…and every other month in prison. “DO TIME NOW, BUY TIME FOR OUR FUTURE!” one slogan reads. They share their home with another couple on an alternate schedule.
It’s a little like Pleasantville or The Truman Show: Consilience is stuck somewhere between the 1950s and a sustainable future. Doris Day and Bing Crosby play over the speakers (“The past is so much safer, because whatever’s in it has already happened”), but everyone rides scooters and cheerfully goes about their jobs – Stan as a poultry inspector, and Charmaine in hospital procurement.
Yet Positron has some sordid and even sinister side-projects. With an echo of Animal Farm, Atwood emphasizes how seductive this ultimately oppressive community can seem:
“Hey. Everyone’s different.” / “But some are more different than others.”
Things get weird as foul-mouthed Stan becomes obsessed with the sex lives of their alternates, Max and Jasmine. He imagines their lovemaking to be so much more passionate than his with Charmaine. Yet Charmaine, so seemingly bland and innocent (her worst curse is “Darn it to heck”), is up to something. What is she doing sneaking around derelict houses, and what is her top-secret job within the prison?
Gradually both Stan and Charmaine, separately, get caught up in a conspiracy to take Positron down from the inside. The wacky plot involves “prostibot” sex dolls (tagline: “Better than real”), Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe impersonators, and a Midsummer Night’s Dream-esque procedure that reprograms people so they fall in love with the first creature they see after they wake up.
This is all reasonably good fun, but, as with the Maddaddam books, the technology and naming tip over into pure silliness, and here there’s an added layer of raunchiness I’m not accustomed to seeing from Atwood. In distinguishing the fake from the real, the novel goes deep into unpleasant themes of fetishism and voyeurism.
I’m not as down on the book as the Kirkus reviewer (their hatchet job is quite amusing), but I did find it problematic. Charmaine is whiny and annoying throughout, as well as implausibly naïve. All the characters are similarly one-dimensional, even those with secrets. Moreover, the plot takes plenty of unexpected turns with some Shakespearean comedy reversals, but it’s downright ludicrous at times. There’s even a situation straight out of Ted, one of the worst movies I’ve had the bad luck to sample.
In short, a somewhat disappointing one-off from Atwood. Almost the best thing about it is the title, which refers to both biological death and the difficulty of faking true love. I long for the doyenne of Canadian fiction to return to contemporary realism or even historical fiction. There’s just as much scope in those genres for serious social commentary as there is in speculative fiction. Or maybe I should just delve into her extensive back catalogue instead.
Have you read Atwood’s recent books? What’s your take?