Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Future Home Of The Living God: Terrifying, All-Too-Realistic Dystopia

The most terrifying dystopias in fiction are scariest because of how closely they predict how the world could actually be. The resemblance to real life is one of the many reasons why National Book Award winner Louise Erdrich’s new novel, Future Home of the Living God, is so fantastic…and frightening. In this novel, babies are born as underdeveloped human-like creatures that can’t support themselves, and scientists don’t understand why. The leading theory is that evolution has reversed, or as Erdrich’s protagonist, 26-year-old Cedar Hawk Songmaker, explains on the first page: “Apparently – I mean, nobody knows – our world is running backward. Or forward. Or maybe sideways, in a way as yet ungrasped.”

Because of this crisis, reason and rationality have all but gone away and society itself is slowly devolving into authoritarianism. Streets are renamed after Bible verses. Neighbors turn on each other. Panic begets panic. Civility dies. Society has gone backwards, too.

But this novel is less about the “world” in which it takes place and more about the characters’ ability to navigate it. Erdrich deftly uses the “rules” of her world to explore how rapid change and fear can strip basic human empathy, dignity, and kindness. But it can also bring about instances of amazing courage and heroism.

This is also a novel about motherhood. Cedar, who is four months pregnant, writes this story as a diary to her unborn child. The novel unfolds in three distinct acts. In the first Cedar, who lives in Minneapolis and was raised by adoptive parents Glen and Sara, goes to visit her birth mother on the Ojibwe Reservation, ostensibly to learn if there are any hereditary diseases in her family. But also, as she sees the world crashing down around her, wants to find out why she was given up at birth.

As Cedar tells the story, she frequently reflects on her pregnancy, writing about each stage of her baby’s physical development — the baby has fingernails now, the baby’s synapses are forming and firing. Given the external circumstances – that other babies are being born underdeveloped, the effect of these reflections are poignant, and heart-breakingly hopeful.

As society continues to deteriorate, the authorities search for “normal” babies and begin rounding up women, both pregnant and not, fearing the human race is going extinct. Cedar, rightly so, is terrified and begins to formulate a plan. The novel really picks up thrilling speed in the second act. And even as Erdrich pumps the breaks a bit in the third act, returning to the introspective, poignant prose present in much of the first part, she’s still got several tricks up her sleeve — surprises and twists that shed whole new light on everything that’s come before.

The comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale here are inevitable, but apparently that’s a likeness with which both Erdrich and Atwood are comfortable. Like Atwood’s masterpiece, Erdrich’s novel is profound, subtly beautiful, and extremely bleak.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The New Dork Review 10 Best Books of 2017

This year, it was harder than ever to pare down my list of best books to 10. But it was very easy to pick my favorite: John Boyne's The Heart's Invisible Furies has been my no-hesitation answer to "What's your favorite book of the year?" since I finished it in August. It's just phenomenal — so good it may wind up as one of my favorites of all time.

And so the reading year was good for those reasons — many good books, one GREAT book. But there a number of other reasons, too. For one, this year is my highest volume reading year every — more than 77 books and 27,000 pages when it's all said and done. Secondly, I finally finished the Harry Potter series! I read some great genre fiction by Dan Brown and Nelson DeMille. I plowed through two giant tomes, each clocking in at over a thousand pages: Susanna Collins's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Kim Stanley Robinson's Green Earth, a huge terrifying cli-fi (that's science fiction about climate change) novel. And I read some great books by huge-name literary writers, which didn't even make this list, including Jennifer Egan ( Manhattan Beach), George Saunders ( Lincoln in the Bardo — a book I more admired than enjoyed), and Nicole Krauss ( Forest Dark).

'twas a great year, indeed. Here are the highlights:

10. Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance, by Bill McKibben — Full disclosure: Bill McKibben is a personal hero of mine, so there was a 100 percent chance I was going to love this book. But even if you've never heard of McKibben, you'll love this satire about a band of misfits who lead a charge to secede Vermont from the US. It's much-needed smart salve in this era of stupid.

9. Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward — My first thought when I finished reading this year's National Book Award winner: "That was a near-perfect novel." Ward is an amazingly evocative writer — you feel what she wants you to feel, see what she describes vividly, even smell what her characters are smelling. And this book has quite the message about injustice and racism, too. It's a brilliant novel.

8. Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie — This book is mesmerizing and intense, especially the last scene, which is among the pantheon of best last scenes ever. Though it's a retelling of the ancient Greek play Antigone, this novel about family loyalty is as modern and urgent as anything I've read this year.

7. Trajectory, by Richard Russo — Of course one of my favorite writers' new short story collection would be on this list. With these four stories, Russo departs a little from his tried-and-true ground of small down-and-out towns. Here, there are stories about a Hollywood screenwriter, a real estate agent, and college professors. But they're all infused with Russo's signature empathy.

6. Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk, by Kathleen Rooney — Often books you read early in the year get overlooked on year-end lists, but this book, which was one of the first I read this year, has stayed with me all year. That's mostly because the character — fierce, funny Lillian Boxfish — is incredible. We learn her life story as she strolls through New York City on New Year's Eve, and it's a fascinating story, to say the least.

5. Afterlife, by Marcus Sakey — A highlight of the reading year was an event at my neighborhood bar with Sakey, in which we all sat around a table and talked about books. But this novel, which Sakey describes as a myth, is one of the more inventive books I've read in a while. It's part crime novel, part love story, part epic battle of good vs evil played out on multiple planes of existence. If you're not familiar with Sakey, first read his amazing Brilliance Trilogy first, then read this.

4. The Hearts of Men, by Nickolas Butler — Another absolute highlight of this reading year was an event I organized at RoscoeBooks with Butler. Butler is as cool in person as he is on the page. But I loved this novel even before that event was a possibility. It's about what it means to be a good person, and like Russo, Butler's writing shows terrific care for his characters. If you liked Shotgun Lovesongs, you'll love this too.

3. The Leavers, by Lisa Ko — Another ripped-from-the-headlines novel that oozes with urgency, Ko's terrific novel is about our horrifically broken immigration system, and how it rips families apart. But like Lillian Boxfish above, I loved this novel for its character, Polly Guo, another courageous woman battling life uphill.

2. Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng — Ah, the dysfunctional family tale — there was no way I'd get through a whole year-end favorites list without at least one entry in my favorite subgenre. This novel moves along at breakneck speed and Ng is incredibly smooth, amazingly insightful writer.

1. The Heart's Invisible Furies, by John Boyne — Every great once in a while, you really need to read a book that reminds you why you love reading. This was that book. It's an absolute masterpiece — heartbreaking and hilarious, and as engrossing and immersive as anything I've read in a very long time.

Honorable Mentions: The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas; The Patriots, by Sana Krasikov; Dark at the Crossing, by Elliot Ackerman

Nonfiction favorites:

The Long Run, by Catriona Menzies-Pike — A funny, smart memoir about the Menzies-Pike's relationship with running, this book also is a great history of running, especially women's running.

Priestdaddy: A Memoir, by Patricia Lockwood — Holy Lord, is this memoir funny. Lockwood's Catholic priest father (he converted to Catholicism after starting his family) is as quirky and strange as any Vonnegut character. And Lockwood is a fantastically hilarious chronicler of the absurd.

Fantasyland How America Went Haywire A 500 Year History, by Kurt Andersen — This cultural history details how and why it's come to pass that a significant portion of the population chooses its own facts, and in many cases, reality. Science and fact-based journalism no longer matter, you get to pick what to believe. From the Pilgrims, through the "damn the man" 1960s, then the conspiracy-theory minded 1980s, and finally finishing with the "alternative facts" environment of today which got Trump elected, Andersen's writes his history with a barely controlled rage at how so much stupidity there is out there and how we ended up with that buffoon in the White House.