The Heart Goes Last

the heart goes last by margaret atwood by Margaret Atwood
ISBN: 9780385540353

Margaret Atwood is a genius. Is this novel genius? I don’t know that I’d go that far, but it is entertaining, thought-provoking, and darkly funny, so well worth reading.

It’s satire, set in a could-be-all-too-soon future when America’s economy has collapsed (more so than in 2008) and options are even grimmer this go round. If you have a car to live in, you’d be considered luckier than many.

Even so, you might be willing to trade your “freedom” defending your car for the “freedom” of Positron where you have not one but two jobs: one outside prison, and one inside the prison where you spend half your time as an inmate. It makes creepy sense; and of course it is even worse than it sounds. Well, better and worse. Which means it’s ultimately much, much worse.

You’ve got some not entirely likable characters, trapped by circumstances they can’t really control. It reads a bit like a thought experiment: How far are people willing to go to trade liberty for safety and security? Is sex just one more thing to trade? Are there logical limits to greed and power? How do you value relationships or love?

It’s a good, not great novel.

Station Eleven

by Emily St. John Mandel
ISBN: 9780804172448

This is the best novel I’ve read this year. (I’m fine jinxing myself by saying this with three weeks left in the year. It would be amazing if I read another book as good in the next three weeks.)

I am torn about how much to say about the book… So I’ll start with reasons I didn’t originally pick it up. First, I’m not a Shakespeare fan. That may sound ridiculous, but it is true: with few exceptions, I don’t enjoy reading Shakespeare’s plays or seeing them or in most cases watching films based on them. So the idea of following a roving band putting on Shakespeare plays did not appeal to me. I share this because if you have a similar reaction to Shakespeare, you should know that isn’t a good reason not to read the book. (If you already love Shakespeare, well then, you’ll probably really like this idea.) Second, and this is less related to this particular book, I was wondering if I’ve just had too much apocalypse. Example: after last season, I decided I’d had enough Walking Dead. Enough grim, no hope, society has disappeared and won’t be coming back stories.

This book is different. (To be clear: no zombies.) It does a lot that in theory shouldn’t work, like jumping backwards and forwards in time, and weaving many disparate characters’s storylines into the same fabric. Only it works remarkably well.

Station Eleven is the kind of novel that when you aren’t reading it, you are thinking about it. The world of the book takes up space in your head, and you start planning the rest of your day around when you can start reading it again, and then before you know it you’ve finished it. And if you are me, you don’t want to pick up another book for at least few days because this one lingers.

The line that is so important in this book isn’t from Shakespeare, it’s from Star Trek. I loved that about it, too: survival is insufficient.

Whether or not you want to read apocalypse fiction, whether or not you want to read about a flu pandemic, or can imagine comics being a lifelong artistic pursuit, or like actors, this is still a good book. If that line — survival is insufficient — speaks to you in any way, you should read this. Highly recommended.

Dept. of Speculation

by Jenny Offill
ISBN: 9780385350815

I kept thinking Offill’s name sounded familiar, then I realized it was because she wrote Sparky! which is an illustrated children’s book about a pet sloth.

Department of Speculation may be as far away from illustrated children’s stories about sloths as you can get.

It’s a slim novel, not a kid’s book. It’s about marriage, and whether or not one is falling apart or surviving, and what does that even mean? It held my attention through a flight from Boston to Charleston, a major feat as I am a highly anxious and fearful flier. (Seriously, I’d rather have another root canal than take a cross country flight.) A line like “The reason to have a home is to keep certain people in and everyone else out” resonates at 30,000 feet when you are headed away from, rather than toward home.

Offill is the kind of writer whose lines will grab you. It’s isn’t just about will she leave will he leave what will happen, it’s how much truth can you pack into one sentence? How much truth can you pack into a paragraph and still bear it?

If you need to focus your attention somewhere other than where you are, this fits the bill. If you are interested in the stories of a marriage that aren’t he said/she said, this also fits the bill. If you want to find writing that tells you things you know, but may have forgotten, I recommend it.

Evolution designed us to cry out if we are being abandoned. To make as much noise as possible so the tribe will come back for us.

Isle of Youth

by Laura van den Berg
ISBN: 978-0374177232

I loved van den Berg’s previous story collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, so knew I’d want to read this one.

As in her previous collection, the stories are about things both important and strange. Parental loss and disappoint and petty thievery and magic acts, for example. Or an explosive fire in Antarctica, a missing sibling, and a crumbly marriage. It seems like anything could happen, or nothing could happen, and I’d still want to know what was coming next.

The First Bad Man

The First Bad Man
By Miranda July
ISBN: 9781439172569

When I heard Miranda July had a novel coming out, I was disappointed.

I loved No One Belongs Here More Than You. I was hoping for another collection of short stories. I know, I hear novels sell and stories don’t, but I belive that is more publishing industry bias than reality. Or, you know, a self-fulfulling prophecy.

The characters in July’s stories were quirky and strange and relatably human. I am not sure anyone is willing to admit to relating to the characters in her novel. I’d say that is probably not the point: you’ll recognize types and it isn’t hard to imagine this would be the behavior of those folks behind closed doors, with their internal editors off. They don’t know they are being outrageous, or they don’t care. For the most part, they aren’t very likeable. Again, not really the point.

What if people really did live that way? What if they were that driven by their obsessions? What if our better judgement rarely got in the way of trying to reach for what we think we wanted? Yeah, that probably would be messy and awkward and even violent.

Did I like the novel as well as the story collection? No. And it didn’t have the charm that It Chooses You held for me, either — though you could imagine some of those people being neighbors of the novel characters, or getting into a heated exchange with them in a grocery store aisle.

People are appalling. Sometimes more than others, sometimes even when they aren’t trying to be. July has a knack for recognizing how bizarre people can be.

When Mystical Creatures Attack!

When Mystical Creatures Attack! by Kathleen Founds
ISBN: 9781609382834

I came across this book because it was featured on the shelf of Boston’s newest independent bookstore, Papercuts JP. It is just the sort of thing I hope to find when I’m browsing in a good bookstore: an unexpected didn’t know I needed it until I saw it and probably wouldn’t have found it any other way title. Also: the cover features a cartoon squid wrestling with a unicorn and a blurb from George Saunders.

The interconnected stories follow the (mis)adventures of high school English teacher Laura Freedman and those in her orbit: students, roommates, parents dead and alive. It is possible the only thing more absurd than high school is Bridges Psychiatric Wellness Solutions, the setting for many of the stories. (Think Weight Watchers + money making cult, with more than a nod to George Saunders’s sensibility in Civilwarland.)

The stories take the form of email exchanges, Wellness Point exercises, journal entries, as well as what feels wrong to call the more typical short story format. Lines like, “Damp toads sleeping in the cave of my chest awaken. One by one, they hop away” are definitely not typical.

Ridiculous, bad things happen to people. Absurdity, poverty, intense awkwardness, and the tendency to fall in the love (or think one has fallen in love) with not so good for you people have, as you would expect, painful consequences. Laura’s dead mother haunts her in more than one way. But all is not without hope, even if one has negative Wellness Points. There is, in the end, a measure of mercy.

Isn’t that what we really want to be able to believe?

Alone With You

Alone With You by Marisa Silver
ISBN: 9781416590293

This was an easy book to read, but the stories aren’t easy.

After reading the first story yesterday while in the library, I planned to spend today reading the rest of the collection. There was something about the way Silver created relatable, if not terribly likable, characters and summed up moments of wisdom in a single line that grabbed my attention. (“…Vivian realized that she would always have to choose what to believe, and that chances were, more often than not she would be wrong.”)

This collection of eight short stories was an engrossing ‘it’s Sunday, it’s cold, and I don’t feel like going out’ read. I suppose some might describe her characters as cold, but I think it is more accurate to say that Silver shows us people who struggle with connection, are baffled by emotion, and surprised by the force of their own neediness.

Mother/daughter difficulties? Check. Relationships falling apart? Check. High drama? Well, here’s where it gets interesting: no, not really. The stakes are high (cancer, mental illness, pregnancy, infidelity, addiction) but they are also grounded in matter of factness, in the inescapability of pain being something you both inflict and feel, and live with.

Hot Pink

Hot Pink by Adam Levinby Adam Levin
ISBN: 9781936365210

The first story in this collection (“Frankenwittgenstein”) grabbed me, so I decided to check this out from the library and spend more time with Levin’s short stories.

I think most people make the David Foster Wallace comparison based on Levin’s novel (which I haven’t read) but I can see it in his stories, too. I can also see some Saunders (especially in that first story) though less so. Which isn’t to say Levin just sounds like other people — he has his own voice, and like so many other writers and artists you can sense a bit of where he comes from.

The stories feature the unexpected (bam, a character is hit and killed by a bus), the strange (gel keeps oozing from a crack in the wall in a new house), and the gritty (huffing teenagers, a girl who likes to get hit) but nothing is played for shock value. Levin clearly appreciates that any day or perhaps any one of us has inner freakshow elements. From precocious teen to earnest soon to be dad, Levin has a knack for creating the sane and the insane internal monologue.

If you like your short stories a little but not a lot on the edgy side, you’ll probably like this book. If, on the other hand, internal thought processes that might disturb you if you recognize them in any way are going to ruin your day, skip it.

Generosity: an enhancement

Generosity: an enhancementby Richard Powers
ISBN: 9780374161149

How much of our story lies in our genes? How much of a story needs to be true, in order for it not to be a lie?

Powers enjoys wrestling with big questions in his novels, and this time out he goes for issues that get to who we are and who we will be, and how science and the media shape the possibilities. (“Technology changes what we think is intolerable.”)

The writer — explicitly evoked here — presumably has God-like powers over his world, yet his control isn’t infinite. (Which is fair enough; the apple did get eaten in the original.) He’s a reluctant deity, too: “No one would write a word, if he remembered how much fiction eventually comes true.” His characters (the driven scientist-entrepreneur, the awkward writer-editor-adjunct, the tv personality, the college counselor, the art students, and the magnetic, possibly hyperthymic refugee) are believable enough even if they aren’t all that likeable. That isn’t a knock on Powers, as I find his books are more of an intellectual exercise in that I’m curious about the questions he poses but not in love with any of his people.

Powers doesn’t leave us with a neatly wrapped conclusion, but a running experiment. (“Information may travel at light speed. But meaning spreads at the speed of dark.”) I like stories that leave a tangle of “what if?” As for genetics, what if there is a happiness gene? With our science some day we will know more than we do now, though ethics and laws lag behind the possible until it is probable.

What if this spirit of generosity comes not so much from a place of happiness (which simplified, is what it looks like) but an unfathomably deep well of resilience? Who wouldn’t want that? People who believe there are prices we shouldn’t pay for the pursuit, for starters. And people who believe, as the title character nicknamed Generosity does, “We don’t need to get better. We’re already us.”

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day by Ben Loory
ISBN: 9780143119500

We have all been told we should not judge a book by its cover. This is good advice most of the time. Then there is the time you come across a book with both a flying saucer and a giant tentacle on the cover — and of course you are compelled to pick it up.

Truth in advertising is possible; flying saucers and tentacles do appear in Loory’s stories. It turn out that an octopus with an apartment and flying saucers visiting a town aren’t even the weirdest bits. The strangest and also most beguiling part is how Loory manages to write fairy tales that are not set once upon a time or in a land far away, but seem like they could be now or next door. Except for the impossible parts, like talking animals or Martians in the spare room or all that attention paid to the self-published poet.

Loory keeps in many ways to the conventions of fables: characters generally don’t have names, there are no lush descriptions, the focus is on the action. The storytelling is spare, delivering what is happening and what happens next. It’s all plot and consequences, though the moral doesn’t hit you over the head. Maybe there is no moral, maybe there’s a twist like the best Twilight Zone episodes had, maybe the impossible makes sense and what do you do with that?

Recommended, particularly for fans of the odd who prefer their enchantments in small doses with less external logic and more tell-me-a-story-ness to them.