An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Available for purchase here.

So much of who we are as people is based on the social contract. We give non-committal answers to questions like “How was your day?”, we close the door when we relieve ourselves, then spray Febreze when we’re through. Even concerning the people with whom we are most intimate, there are some niceties that we all observe, a surface level veneer of politeness.

There are brief epochs of time when we suspend our superficiality and expose our most raw, primal selves. Extreme youth and advanced age, extreme illness and grief, childbirth. Know someone in those circumstances, and you truly know them.

Stealing that kind of intimacy is the cruelest act one can perpetuate, which is the circumstance Mirielle, the protagonist of Gay’s An Untamed State, finds herself. Mirielle is an American woman visiting her re-patriated parents in Port-au-Prince when she’s kidnapped in a smoothly orchestrated event outside the gates of her parents’ palatial home. She manages to remain calm at first–kidnapping is a common problem for wealthy families in an impoverished country. Mirielle can offhandedly think of five friends and family members who’ve experienced it.
Mirielle’s father is a man unmoved by sentiment and designed to play hardball. He refuses to meet the ransom demands, and the gang of kidnappers vent their frustrations and cruelties on Mirielle. She is beaten, raped, and starved. They withhold the bathroom, and her breasts, from which she’s still nursing her toddler son, run painfully dry.

In the aftermath of Mirielle’s kidnapping and eventual return, the true complexities of her trauma emerge. Her body has been destroyed, her brain is racked with PTSD, and upon her return to the United States, her casually racist mother-in-law becomes her port in the storm of her ordeal.

Mirielle is used as a pawn so frequently in her story–ignored by her father, abused by the ringleader of the kidnappers, beset by a husband who ignorantly tries to compare his fears to her trauma–but always she, and her native Haiti, are the crown jewels of the novel. Exposed at their ugliest, most primitive selves, Mirielle and Haiti could easily be dismissed as a tragedy, but both are so much more.

Neither Mirielle nor Haiti can be healed in one fell swoop. Only by peeling back the layers of what they’ve survived and exploring the root causes of their pain can anyone hope to be the port in the storm. But both woman and country have so much more to unveil to a world willing to offer support.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Available for purchase here.

When the leader of your country seems hell bent on a personal mission to antagonize the rest of the world leaders, spend every dime at his disposal and then some on policies that marginalize the already at risk while bankrupting the nation, and generally behaving like a coked out gorilla, literature can offer a respite, a sanctuary of black letters on white pages that can buoy the reader only to the limits of imagination.

Or, it can shine a light on the swift devolution of civility and the eruption of chaos that can break out instantaneously in a country with an ever widening gap between the privileged and the working class and a strident adherence to us vs. them mentality.

Exquisitely written as it is, Half of a Yellow Sun is unmistakably the latter of the two. The story is told from three perspectives: Ugwu, an Igbo houseboy to Nsukka professor Odenigbo, Odenigbo’s fellow professor and mistress Olanna, and Richard, British expat and lover to Olanna’s twin sister Kainene. In the early sixties, the characters interact with each other through the prisms of race, class, and gender. Ugwu receives an education thanks to his employer’s socialist ideals, Olanna is a daughter of privilege and enjoys the benefits of both beauty and education, but has to live with accusations of witchcraft from Odenibo’s old-fashioned mother. Richard is a perennial outsider who views Nigeria–all of Africa, in fact–as a wonderland peppered with self-fulfillment.

Following the military coups that lead to the persecution of the Igbo, the characters become caught in the civil war follows the attempted secession of an Igbo state called Biafra. Olanna witnesses the slaughter of her beloved aunt and favorite cousin at the hands of Hausa militants. Ugwu gets conscripted and perpetuates the same war crimes that leave Olanna traumatized. Richard uses his privilege as a white man to report the atrocities of war to the wider world. In real life, the Nigerian-Biafran War saw the birth of NGOs across the world.

Adichie knows well that a million is a statistic. By weaving the story of a country in turmoil around her characters, the readers see firsthand the horrors of war, rape, starvation, and the casual brutality of indifference. Of course, the war in Nigeria was the result of American and European imperialism, the need to stake out multiple recognized territories as a singular country, currying the favor of one tribe while systemically forcing down the others, and absconding when the consequences of our actions come raining in. We’ve shifted the geographic location, but not learned from the tragedy. See the rise of Daesh in Syria, or Al-Quaeda in Afghanistan.

Reading Adichie now is like gazing into a crystal ball, and we are running out of time to curtail the effects of monumental greed combined with political power. It’s easy to absorb the story in a mantle of fear, but better to heed the warnings, pinpoint the failings, and resolve to improve both our approach and our attitudes.

Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle by Katie Coyle

Available for purchase here.

I promised myself I wouldn’t read any more books by the same author, since I’m two weeks from my deadline and still trying to eke out a solid 100 books that I was hoping to make as diverse as possible, but I was tempted by a friend who dangled the sequel to Katie Coyle’s excellent YA debut Vivian Apple at the End of the World in front of my face, and…I’m weak.

To be clear, this is not literary escapism. Vivian Apple living in an America that seems to be fairly gunning for an apocalyptic event (see: all of 2016), and she has, due to her own tenacity and ill luck, become a lynchpin to unleash the revolution. She and her friend Harp, the teenage girl we all pretended we were but few of us had the chops to pull off, are the victims of a smear campaign by the still powerful Church of America. They’ve lost their most precious asset in anonymity, and are now pursued by law enforcement, as well as the Church’s own lethal forces.

Vivian and Harp are taken in by Vivian’s sister Winnie, previously long-lost and currently one of the driving forces of the revolution. Both girls are pulled in over their heads, being symbols for what proves to be a militia almost as extreme as the Church they so vehemently oppose.

Reading this with the election looming is the equivalent of watching a horror movie alone on a dark stormy night in a cabin in the middle of the woods. I know whom I support in this election, and truthfully, the name of this blog should be a giveaway, but eruptions of ugly behavior coming from both groups of supporters indicate that the results of the election will not cool the ardor of hate in this country, where we are so deeply concerned with being right we are losing sight of what is actually right.

Vivian and her allies seek a third option as they try to ease the tension and terror that has gripped the society, and without giving away too much of the plot, the adage that violence only begets more violence bears out. This is not me being a bleeding heart who advocates for handholding during wartime, this is the reality that war does not buy peace, and hopefully more people will realize that before we reach a breaking point.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Available for purchase here.

A family patriarch who made his wealth in the private sector, hated by his employees and subordinates, notorious for his vicious temper, an unabashed rapist and known abuser, who turns to Conservative politics in his later years. Oh, and his last name starts with T-R-U.

I’m fully convinced in light of reading this in 2016 that Isabel Allende had psychic powers. Or, more likely, the tendency of history to repeat itself and the archetypical personalities associated with those who have an unbridled lust for power are as unchanging as the path of the Earth around the sun.

Allende’s story is a saga of the rise and fall of the Trueba family in a country that’s totally not Chile, chronicling the trends, movements, and mores of the ever-changing culture of the twentieth century. All the points are hit: two World Wars, the spread of first-wave feminism, communist ideology, a peaceful revolution, the underpinning of the accomplishments of the masses by the wealthy one percent, a military coup, the brutality of the regime. The House of the Spirits would be a grim read if its primary focus weren’t the rich lives of its women characters, both their magical prowess and the more earthly matters which concern them. They are rich in their passions, diverse in their characters, and blissfully faulty, real despite the fantasy that blurs the edges of their world.

The House of the Spirits was born in a letter from Allende to her aged grandfather, and inspired by her own life, twinned with political exile and her friendship with such key figures as Pablo Neruda, of whom the unnamed Poet is a clear expy.

Ideology ebbs and flows, but extremism is a fundamental human flaw, and in the United States is reaching its own tipping point. Every four years our presidential elections are deeply divisive, building on the excess of the preceding one, and here we are, less than a month away from casting our votes, the entire country adhering almost blindly to one candidate or another, turning neighbors into enemies and putting ugly words out into the public where they cannot be shirked or removed in a moment of clarity.

We all like to believe that the events that occupy the final third of Allende’s debut novel cannot happen here, that they do not happen in places like this or countries like ours, but this thought process is shared by everyone who lived before bloody coups and drowned in the aftermath. We ignore precedents set by history at our own peril, and now seems the most prescient time to pick up a copy of The House of the Spirits and learn the lesson crafted so beautifully within its pages.

Everyday Monsters by Ellie Robbins

Available for purchase here.

The fantastic racism of X-Men is perhaps the most famous modern example of superpowers-as-allegory regarding the way we exploit the marginalized members of our society while still relegating them to the sidelines. Everyday Monsters clearly draws inspiration from X-Men: the isolated school for the young and gifted, the murky and mythical explanations for “talent”. But there are roots of another story of a seemingly mundane child being thrust into a world of magic flexing its influence as well.

Assume that Harry Potter, instead of being a famous hero who had been bequeathed a fortune, was instead an ordinary orphan, without so much as a Dursley standing between him and homelessness. Imagine if instead of being resigned and snarky he was aloof and resourceful, because he’d had to parent himself on the streets. Imagine if he had to navigate Hogwarts without the benefit of his name, trying to suss out friend and foe without a guide. Imagine him as a 15 year old girl from Austin and you’ll have something approaching Taylor Brock, the protagonist of Everyday Monsters.

Taylor is a street kid earning cash from impromptu fight clubs to keep herself afloat when she’s hunted down, both by a recruiter for the school that can help her harness the powers she didn’t know she had and by creatures who see her as prey. She finds education and allies, if not actual safety, in the mountains of Colorado, where she learns how deep her talents run and discovers the cross section of dimensions, and the magic creatures that live in the hidden corners of the world.

Unfortunately, though, Taylor’s ultimate discovery is that even though she is sequestered away from the troubles that plagued her in Austin–uncertainty of shelter, the violence of the streets, being profiled for crimes because she’s young and dirty and transient, authorities doing more harm than good, all the other problems faced by real life American homeless people–human nature is what it is and her greatest tribulations come in the form of bullies and blowhards.

It’s twisty enough to keep readers engaged, but the best part of Everyday Monsters is how well it lives up to both its roots and its title. Power aside, the problems faced by Taylor are ones real young girls and teens in general face every day.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

 

Available for purchase here.

There’s really not a bad time, per se, to read Shirley Jackson (although when you take four different literature classes in college and they all insist on reading The Lottery one really must wonder if the English department is involved in some mass conspiracy, but I digress). However, October is the perfect time to read Ms. Jackson, notable for her running theme of humanity as the real monsters.

It’s easy, now that every book, movie, and mid-level TV show has co-opted the plot twist as a storytelling gimmick, to forget that a twist was once the hallmark of a master storyteller. Even if you manage to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle completely unspoiled, a seasoned fan of psychological thrillers can pick out the true villain of the piece. I won’t be the one to point out the wizard behind the curtain, except to point out that all the really important key players are women, wherever they fall on the spectrum between “good” and “bad”.

One of the fascinating (and demoralizing) tropes in storytelling is the frequency with which a female antagonist’s villainy is tied to her sexuality–she’s either the whore to the heroine’s Madonna or she’s aging past the point of fuckability, possibly both. See the stepmothers of the Disney villain catalogue, the femme fatales who imperiled James Bond, Batman, and other enigmatic heros, the hags who manipulate the the events of Macbeth. And those are only the ones that popped up in my mind as I was typing. Small wonder Washington is trying to police the sex lives of women–they’ve been raised to associate sexuality with sadism.

Shirley Jackson is a revolution, not only for her talent, but for peeling back the layers of women’s complex emotional histories. Her villains and victims are grandiose, petty, vengeful, sociopathic, meek, a full, glorious gamut of motivations and perspectives that aren’t tied to their hormones. In short, she treated her female characters like men.

Now that we are at the most glorious time of year, where everything is just a little bit spooky and every corner holds the promise of another worldly thrill, Jackson’s very human villains is a reminder that the darkness in all our myths and legends originated in our own minds. It’s a darkly delicious meditation on our own psyches AND an exploration of the feminist narrative.

The Recital by Kyle V. Hiller

Available for purchase here.

Witchcraft, whether the clear dichotomy between Glinda and the named-by-another-author-a-century-later Elphaba, the rich spectacle of Harry Potter, or the cheesy lightness of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, has been one of fantasy fiction’s primary go-to’s to illustrate not only female power, but how it is perceived by society (Both the “good witch” and the “bad witch” are outranked by a fraudulent balloon man, the most impressive witch of her generation is the sidekick to the famous main character, and the pretty, bubbly blonde is somehow a social outcast).

Small surprise then, that the dawn of witchcraft in the life of a previously perceived “muggle” girl, so often coincides with puberty. For all I love YA, I would never relive my teenage years. Teens have the bodies of adults and are pressured to have their same wisdom, but are constantly told to occupy the same roles they held as children. It’s just like witches–all the power, minus the free will.

Kyle Hiller writes a stunning first person narrative of a girl caught in the worlds of young adolescence and witchcraft, with incredible insight. In The Recital, Edith Solstice is an ordinary girl, with a father who is revealed to be less and less extraordinary through her eyes as the story unfolds. She’s a middle child living a life so typical of Philadelphia Catholic girlhood I could’ve been reading about my own family. Hiller nails how even in a city as large and diverse as Philly, neighborhoods function, for both good and ill, as small towns. Edith is sheltered and occasionally innocently insensitive, and her problems are the problems of typical kids: an unrequited crush, a dramatic falling out between her parents, the gawkiness of being torn between childish needs and adult desires. And she’s a witch.

Edith has two mentors on her path to mastering magic: her best friend Lenore, and Lenore’s mother, Miss Karen. The crux of the conflict in Edith’s story is both magical and mundane–she hurt a classmate with her powers during an argument, and seeks to make amends. It’s a telling theme for the story–we are responsible for cleaning up our own messes, even the ones we didn’t intend to make. Edith relays a microaggression she once showed this classmate early on, by the end of the novel recognizing it as such and owing up to the fact that she was a bully, whether or not she intended to be.

There are many intriguing subplots to The Recital: what qualifies as “good”, what grief does to our mindset, especially when left unprocessed, the agony of first romance, the double agony of a first romance being a recognition of one’s own queerness. There’s a sequel hook, perhaps even a series hook, towards the end, and I am eager to delve deeper into Edith’s powers.

Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle

Available for purchase here.

Imagine for a moment that the Westboro Baptist Church had major political power. That the “divine fusion” of spirituality and capitalism that fuels the megachurches of men like Joel Osteen were the majority. Children are actively kept out of school for fear of exposing them to secular teachings, girls marry young and get pregnant within seconds of the vows. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are considered virtuous.

It’s not hard to imagine, because between rampant police shootings, permissive sentences for convicted rapists, and bigoted, bullying laws that prohibit people from using almost any service, up to and including public bathrooms, because of their sexuality or gender identity, Katie Coyle’s novel Vivian Apple at the End of the World feels like nothing so much as the extreme logical endpoint for where our society is headed.

There’s a lot to like about Vivian Apple. The title protagonist is partying away on “Rapture Eve” with her fellow skeptics, dancing with other teenagers and toasting the strike of midnight, assuming that when the new day dawns and the world remains as it was, her parents and the rest of the world will disavow their cultlike fanaticism with the fictional Church of America and she can slip back into a semblance of normalcy.

When she gets home, Vivian discovers that her parents are gone and there are holes in her ceiling. News begins to pour in–the Rapture has apparently happenedon a significantly smaller scale than the Church’s devotees had planned, and the rest of the country is left to pick up the pieces. Some hunker down with renewed zealotry, some philosophize, some plunge into a second coming of Caligula’s court, while a final few continue a strong strain of denial and disavowal that the world has changed.

Vivian, lifelong meek girl defined by her good grades and 10 star rating on the parental likability scale, is tired of the world gone mad. She pairs up with her recently acquired best friend, Harp, a character that smashes about a thousand and a half stereotypes, and a boy with the most beautiful blue eyes (this is a YA novel, after all) who has insider information about the upper echelon of the Church.

The ensuing road trip takes the trio on a literal quest through the US, and a philosophical one on the nature of love, mortality, morality, motherhood, and our place in the world. It sets up a real stunner of a sequel hook while being a fully contained story in and of itself. But in a world where a 70 year old toddler brags about not paying his billionaire business taxes to thunderous applause from working class supporters, a man who opposes the very existence of most Americans and pushes for the continued and extreme marginalization of the already marginalized, who could become our president, it reads a lot like horror.

 

The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff

Available for purchase here.

There’s a thought experiment involving monkeys, a banana, and a ladder that highlights the absurdity of following tradition for tradition’s sake. Taking it literally would be a mistake, but the moral is that we often go through life without examining our behavior, and end up going against our own best interests in the process.

Enter Deshi, a thoroughly unremarkable young man living in northern China whose equally unremarkable older brother (though the jewel of their parents’ eyes) is killed, and in a convoluted way, Deshi is held responsible. His mother sends him to acquire a “ghost bride” for the dearly departed, an old custom wherein a recently deceased young woman is symbolically wed to a late groom so that they will be spiritually whole in the next world.

In his journey south to find an appropriate bride, Deshi fails to find a woman who meets the standards that will exonerate his guilt and redeem him in the eyes of his parents. He finally finds the perfect woman in the form of Lily Chen, who is problematically very much alive.

Lily is the only child of a man who would stifle his daughter under the weight of traditional gender roles, and seizes the opportunity to take the reins of her life by taking the reins of Deshi’s mule and fleeing the oppression of her father’s house. It should be noted that Lily has no idea that Deshi’s idea for her future are even worse than what’s in her past.

Lily is irrepressible and freewheeling. She could easily be interpreted as a manic pixie dream girl, but instead, she represents the possibilities of a society unimpeded by irrelevant conventions, while the parents are the dogmatic adherence to the current social mores. Deshi, poor soul, is strung between them, besotted by Lily and stayed by his own morality, but tempted by the rewards inherent in playing the role of dutiful son. The end isn’t happy, it’s just the best of what can be expected.

As a side note, I am someone moderately obsessed with skull imagery and the art for The Undertaking of Lily Chen is achingly gorgeous.

“Embers” by K.B. Carle

Can be read here.

I’ve made the point before that my favorite storytelling medium is the short story. When well done, they have all the narrative strength of a novel, but their brevity packs a greater emotional punch. If that’s true, flash fiction is a bullet wound. And “Embers” is a powerful example of just that, detailing the rage, fear, dissociation, and hopelessness of a victim in the midst of an assault.

Carle’s victim is nameless, just as so many of real life victims are unknown, even as their attackers find themselves under the scrutiny of the spotlight. Brock Turner may be facing the righteous wrath of the social media masses, but where in all the public screes against his all-too-soon freedom, in the ring of protestors outside his house, is consideration for his victim? Out of both sight and mind.

What “Embers” does, in a story of few words but relentless image, is give a glimpse to the point of view of those who are glossed over and easily forgotten in pursuit of what we call justice. It serves as a reminder of what really matters in the face of violence.