The Power and Exit West

The end of 2017 and beginning of 2018 have been rough, y’all. Not good at all. And since comfort reading is one of my big coping strategies, I have spent the past few months reading mostly romance novels, Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries (still working my way through all those, Murder Must Advertise was loads of fun), and the occasional true crime story. But recently two well-reviewed literary books snuck in that both tell stories about a world much like our with just the slightest fantastical shift. They were also both beautifully written and slightly terrifying, which might be a good fit for all our feelings in this deepest, darkest winter?

The Power is also a good fit for our current #MeToo culture, since it is based on the idea that one day, women all over the world suddenly begin to manifest the ability to shock/attack people with electricity. If women have no reason to fear men physically, what could happen? In this story, piece by piece, place by place, this shift begins to upend society. The narration moves between characters, including women who are able to exercise this power in their lives, and men who begin to understand what it is like to live in fear. The premise is excellent, but what makes this book so genius is the subtlety with which the author approaches all the possible different ways that this change in the power balance affects politics, sex, school kids, the workplace, and every other bit of society.  The Power has gotten all sorts of accolades in the U.K., where it originally came out, which was honestly surprising to me because it feels so subversive I can’t believe it’s had such mainstream popularity. Also, the framing conceit of the book–letters between scholars talking about a draft manuscript that makes up the bulk of the book–is just absolutely genius and may raise some painful memories for any women who have spent much time with men in the workplace.

Exit West has also received rapturous press and was on a number of Best of 2017 lists, and it was all deserved. This story revolves around a couple in an unnamed Middle Eastern country who are falling in love and starting a tentative relationship right as their country is beginning to destabilize and eventually descend into war. (The parallels with Syria feel unavoidable.) At the same time, all around the world, an unexplained phenomenon is occurring where suddenly a normal door can begin to open to some random location in another part of the world. Now that people can move around the world without crossing borders, countries have lost control over immigration and the world is in upheaval. The book is clearly making statements about refugees and political states in the modern world, but for me the more haunting part of the story was the descriptions of the small, incremental changes in a society that can lead to one day waking up in a war zone. While the plot is heavy, the writing here is very light and poetic and the book is not overly long, so it doesn’t feel like a burden to read.

Neither of these is what I would call a comfort book, and neither of them made me feel particularly more hopeful about the future. But if you’re looking to be captivated by a story and slightly horrified about what the world could come to, one of these might be for you.

Antigonick

By Sophokles and Anne Carson

AntigonickBuilding off of Rebecca’s post, here’s another very interesting novella in verse. I was chatting with a friend about the new translation of The Odyssey, for the first time by a woman (which I had first heard about from Kinsey), and the friend asked if it was the same author that did this translation of Antigone. It’s not (The Odyssey, which I look forward to reading, is translated by Emily Wilson, in beautifully crafted plain prose), and I had never heard of Anne Carson, so my friend lent me her copy, and I have to say, it blew me away!

Antigonick is only 44 pages (including the introduction, which I highly recommend reading), and I read almost the whole thing on my commute, practically missing my stop in the process. It is not a straight-forward translation; my best description is that it is a post-modern study/satire of the play. The characters reference their own theater, anachronistically quoting Hegel, Beckett, and Brecht. It is also surprisingly snarky for a millennia-old Greek tragedy!

You also don’t need to be fully up on your classics to be able to follow along and enjoy it. I’d actually confused it with Medea, and had a couple of pages of confusion over the lack of dead children before I realized my mistake. While not a strict retelling, Carson quickly got me up to speed, and the humor and cleverness kept it from being a bummer.

Novels in Verse

Are novels in verse coming back into fashion? Because while I’m not a big poetry reader, I do think it would be kind of awesome, and I’m beginning to see some evidence of it. I just ran across this article about a new imprint that will be focused on YA books with a strong verse element:

I’ve also been following with interest the discussions of the newest translation of the Odyssey by Emily Wilson that is making waves in certain circles by it’s going back to the roots of the original language and retranslating it for meaning that speaks to current society rather than to Victorian society.

And I’m reminded of a Stargate Atlantis fanfic “Free Verse” by Dasha that includes the line: “They built their laboratories to look like temples. Of course they wrote their text books to read like poetry.” And references the poem “The story of Schroedinger’s cat (an epic poem)” from The Straight Dope.

So despite not being a great fan of poetry in general, I’d be really interested in modern epic poetry coming back into fashion and seeing what modern authors do with it.

Courage is Contagious, ed. by Nick Haramis

CourageCourage is Contagious: And Other Reasons to Be Grateful for Michelle Obama
edited by Nick Haramis
2017

This is a book of seventeen short essays about the impact First Lady Michelle Obama had on people.

I was first attracted to the title of the book, because it really is true: it is a lot easier to be courageous when you see other people being courageous. I’ve been getting worn down by the current political situation and I was hoping to get some inspiration.

It was less an inspiring call to action as a warm reassurance that great people inspire greatness in others. This book is a demonstration of the importance of representation. Many of the essayists had only fleeting direct contact with Michelle Obama, and their stories are not so much about those meetings themselves as the impact those meetings had on their lives and their perspectives. As much as they write about how genuine Michelle was, the book celebrates Michelle as an icon who’s inspired millions. Some of the essayists had name recognition, some of them do not, but they consist of authors, artists, actors, activists, a couple of students not yet settled into careers.

I like and respect Michelle Obama, though she’s never been a particular inspiration to me. It was still heartwarming to see how she’s inspired others.

Simpson Testimony and Steele Dossier

Oh, man! I’ve been on a kick of most excellent period-piece mysteries, but I had to interrupt it to focus on the latest, most crazy political controversy from the past couple weeks. After Senator Feinstein released the transcript of testimony from Fusion GPS CEO Glenn Simpson, I read two fascinating (and lengthy) twitter threads analyzing the transcript.

Elizabeth McLaughlin is a lawyer and CEO, and has a 60-tweet thread of her reading here: https://twitter.com/ECMcLaughlin/status/950884746082562048

Seth Abramson is a former criminal defense attorney and journalist, and his 200-tweet thread is here: https://twitter.com/SethAbramson/status/950800455797534720

The analyses are fascinating, and the quotes from both Simpson and Steele are completely bonkers! So, a quick rehash, which I’m going to put after a break, because it gets a bit involved. Continue reading

Blackmail in Belgravia

By Clara Benson

Blackmail_in_BelgraviaIf my previous review, Death Comes to the Village, didn’t quite live up to its comparisons to Georgette Heyer, Blackmail in Belgravia feels like it fits into her style completely, just without the overt racism and covert homophobia. If you have ever read any of Heyer’s novels, you will recognize Benson’s protagonist Freddy Pilkington-Soames from every Freddy that Heyer has ever written. It must be the go-to name for an affable but not super intelligent young man of leisure in the 20s.

Part of the upper-crust, but living beyond his means, this Freddy barely manages to hold down a job as a newspaper reporter, while spending most of his time out drinking with friends. When a friend of his mother’s dies while at a dinner party with her, Freddy is prodded into investigating by his delightfully manipulative mother.

The mystery itself is rather easily guessed, but the characters are just so entertaining that it didn’t bother me at all, watching them blunder around, overlooking the obvious culprit.

By contrast, the police are actually surprisingly competent, for this type of book, which was also refreshing. They stay just a step or two behind Freddy in the investigation throughout the book, and are clearly far more professional and skilled at this. Freddy is only able to solve it for them in the end because he has direct access to all the suspects, knowing them all socially.

I highly recommend this series (having read the first two novels), and the ebook is available on amazon for a dollar. I discovered later that the same author has another mystery series featuring a middle-aged female detective with a mysterious past, which I’d read previously and found mediocre. Apparently Freddy’s mother is a side character in some of the later books in that series.

Death Comes to the Village

By Catherine Lloyd

Death_Comes_to_the_VillageThe back cover of the book had blurbs comparing it to both Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, which makes sense because it features very similar characters and setting. Lucy, is the oldest daughter of a rural rector, who comes from a respectable family (her uncle is an Earl!), but without much money. She is responsible for most of the village duties of her late mother, including visiting the sick in the neighborhood.

This, of course, includes handsome, wealthy, but tormented Major Kurland, who has returned from the Napoleonic Wars broken in body and spirit. The murder mystery is introduced through a bit of a “rear window” premise, where the bed-bound major sees suspicious activity out of his bedroom window at night, and must recruit Lucy to be his eyes and ears in the village.

It doesn’t have quite the wit of Austen or the charm of Heyer; both Lucy and the major often tip over from feisty to downright cranky, and I could see myself easily losing patience with both of them. Peripheral characters are somewhat broadly written, as well. What really made the book stand out for me, though, was that Lloyd gives it just a touch a harsh reality among the genteel manners.

Lucy is intelligent and independent, and feels trapped by circumstances, both as a stand-in mother for her siblings and her religious responsibilities. Her father, in particular, is unpleasantly controlling and manipulative. The major is of course the romantic figure, but also battling very real PTSD and substance dependency. The novel manages to find a nice balance between the light-hearted and the gritty to create a very engaging read.