The Girl with All the Gifts

The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey

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This zombie story is unusual for its genre for a few reasons. Its child heroine is a zombie herself, but a thinking, feeling one–the full explanation would be a spoiler. A main character is a single-minded scientist studying the zombie pathogen and hoping to cure it. In this case the pathogen is a fungus similar to one that afflicts ants in the Amazon, driving them to climb trees and hurl themselves from them. The particular details of how this fungus works make the story unique among zombie stories. After the research facility where they live is overrun by zombies, the girl, her teacher, the scientist, an army captain and a private escape together and try to make it to another settlement. It’s an engrossing read, with lots of action, an eerie setting, and a scientific mystery that creates moral questions. The ending was very unexpected for me, bleak and twisted. I wonder if the movie adaptation will change it or not.

The Darkest Part of the Forest

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

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This fairy story begins with a vision of a horned boy asleep in a glass coffin, and a small town’s troubled relationship with the fairy world at its border. The sleeping fairy prince in his unbreakable box is a tourist attraction and a site of illicit high school revels. The action gets started when one morning the horned boy is gone, his coffin shattered.

The main characters are brave Hazel and Ben, her gay brother who has an amazing musical talent, gifted from a fairy. As children they made a game of protecting the town from dangerous fairies and hags. Years ago, Hazel made a bargain with a fairy, the results of which are revealed slowly and dramatically. Their friend, Jack, a changeling, also becomes involved as the fairy court intrigues are uncovered.

This is just the kind of YA fantasy I love. A mystery. Two love stories. A dangerous but enchanting fairy world hovering just below the surface of reality. Complex relationships and moral questions and issues of guilt and complicity and unintended consequences. Nontraditional gender roles. A story that works on a metaphorical level as well as literally. Startling, strange, and fantastic descriptions. Sparkling sentences. Highly recommended to anyone who likes this genre.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

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This funny, voice-driven novel is a mystery buried in an imploding family wrapped in a ranting email. The main narrator is 15-year-old Bee, a precocious, sassy girl whose mom, Bernadette Fox, disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Bernadette is brilliant but incredibly eccentric, an architect who had won a MacArthur grant, but who stopped practicing when her daughter was born. Her unexpressed creativity turns inward, making her anxious and self-destructive. I really found the obsessive way she worked, her creative self-immolation and her journey back to the art she loved, fascinating, inspiring, and hopeful. The setting is Seattle, where the culture of software companies and progressive private schools provide plenty of fodder for jokes and ridiculous situations. There are also interesting questions about the burdens and obligations of contributing to a community and being neighbors. This book features the best, most introspective and unexpected villain about-face I can recall. I really had fun reading this one.

How I’m Dealing with This Terrible Election

I don’t usually write about politics, but writing is how I process events, and this is something I have to do now. I know I’m not alone in feeling that this election has shaken me to my core and changed my world for the worse, perhaps irreparably. The last time I remember feeling this upset about a news event was September 11, 2001. At a time like this, pausing for self-care and mourning is important. I’ve taken some time to talk to people I love who feel similarly, to meet new people who feel similarly, and grieve with them. I’m probably not really done with that stage of grief, but I am also feeling restless and unsettled and need to channel some energy into planning next steps.

I feel tremendous guilt that I didn’t do more to change the outcome of this election. I did vote, and voting is crucial, but apparently not enough. I have lots of excuses: this was the year I had a baby, I was complacent because the media and my carefully curated facebook echo chamber told me that Hillary would easily win, it’s really hard to change people’s opinions and confrontation is hard. But those are just excuses. Taking action starting now to turn the tide back is so important that I can’t content myself with excuses anymore. I’m hoping that in addition to helping to change the horrible situation we find our country in, making a plan and following through will also help me to cope and keep me from despair.

These are the concrete things I’m going to do to deal with the next 4 years. I’m making this plan public to keep myself accountable. Some of these actions you might be able to do too.

  1. Get involved locally. I’ve put a meeting of the local neighborhood association on my calendar. I know these groups are very small, and the changes they enact are small too, but they’re also the place where city council members get their start, and city council members become mayors, who become representatives and congressmen and governors. Meetings like this are where I can meet my neighbors and get to know them and maybe eventually influence them.
  2. Pick an issue, learn about it, and intensify your activism there. My issue is education. I’ve started going to meetings for a local group of education activists, who are getting involved at the state and district level. I’ve blogged sometimes about education as well.
  3. Join a union. I’m in Metropolitan Nashville Education Association, a local chapter of NEA. I’m not just paying dues, but going to meetings and talking about the union with the other teachers in my building. I know not all professions have unions, sadly, but some professional organizations do similar advocacy. Another alternative might be just joining a mailing list or facebook group for a general union like the AFL-CIO. Robert Reich is another person I follow on facebook for info and opinions. That way you can pay attention to labor issues and see what these groups say about different candidates at election time.
  4. Every time Trump says something or does something that upsets me and makes me scared, I will donate a small amount of money to an organization related to that particular outrage. The amounts have to be small because I’m not rich and because I anticipate having to do this frequently. Online giving is quick and easy. When he says something sexist or misogynist or objectifying, I will donate to RAINN. When he does something that makes me scared about the environment, I will donate to the Sierra Club. When he says something racist, I will donate to the Movement for Black Lives. When he attacks immigrants, I will donate to the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. When he does something that makes people in other countries less safe, I will donate to UNICEF. When he attacks journalists, free speech rights, or freedom of religion, I will donate to the ACLU. When he or Pence does something to hurt LGBTQIA people, I will donate to Lamda Legal. When he insults people with disabilities, I will donate to Easterseals. When a fresh outrage I haven’t anticipated here comes up, I will research it then and find a relevant organization to donate to. I’m hoping that taking an immediate action like this will assuage my fear and anger, as well as helping the causes that need so much more support now than ever.
  5. I will write my senator, congressman, state representative, and state congressman. Frequently. Whether or not I voted for them, whether or not I can promise to vote for them next time. Whenever an issue comes up and I have a minute. Emails are not that hard. Sometimes I might call. I’ll keep track of my contacts with them so that I can make sure I’m keeping my commitment and that they keep theirs.
  6. Before the 2018 elections, I will phone bank and canvass for Democratic candidates to the House, Senate, and Tennessee Assembly. I will write letters to right-leaning family members in other states to try to influence them to vote Democratic. I will text friends with reminders to vote. I will offer to give people rides to the polls. I will try to organize voter registration and/or a speaker at my school to talk to students about the election. Taking a branch of government away from the Republicans is so important. It is the best damage control measure we have available.
  7. I will push back when friends and loved ones make political statements I disagree with. My challenge might be to do this without losing my cool or making extreme statements that alienate them. I think in these cases it helps to avoid strong language and make it personal and specific if possible.  It also helps to ask questions and be genuinely curious about the answer, rather than using the question to make a point. Here are some things I’ve thought of to say that are not overly confrontational:
  • Yes, I’m glad the election is over, but I’m not happy with the outcome.
  • Actually, I’m disappointed in the election. That Access Hollywood video really bothered me.
  • He didn’t win the popular vote, you know.
  • Did you know that third party voters in swing states could have changed the outcome of this election?
  • Some of the students I have taught are immigrants or the kids of immigrants. They’re worried about their families being separated.
  • I’m nervous about Trump’s reactive personality and the unpredictable things he might do, especially in foreign policy.
  • I’m worried about the fact that Trump is going to make a climate change denier head of the EPA.
  • I looked at Hillary and Trump’s plans for maternity leave and child care, and Hillary’s plan would have helped my family a lot more. It might be the difference between whether or not I can have any more children.
  • You said you don’t like the things he said about Mexicans, but I’m wondering why party loyalty outweighs that?
  • We might have to agree to disagree, but when you’re open to having a real conversation about it, I’m here.

I’m certainly not the first one to write about steps we can take to get involved in politics. Here’s another really good list of ideas: How to Channel Your Post-Election Anger, Sadness, and Fear Into Action.

Please comment if you have other ideas for concrete things we can all do to oppose Trump, minimize the damage he will do, and help those that he will hurt. If you have other strategies for these hard conversations with relatives and friends, please share! If there are other charities or organizations that are doing this work that I haven’t thought of, I’d love to hear about it!

Eligible

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

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I had so much fun reading this modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. I met Curtis Sittenfeld at the Southern Festival of Books and got excited about reading this book when she read an excerpt of Liz and Darcy’s smoldering banter. There was plenty more sexual tension, and the two proposal scenes did not disappoint. Sittenfeld turns the classic into contemporary “chick lit,” while maintaining much more faithfulness to the original than Bridget Jones’s Diary, or any other retelling I can recall. The title comes from a reality TV show in the book that’s inspired by The Bachelor. I enjoyed the Cincinnati setting, and the discussions of the meaning of growing up in, leaving, and returning to a place like Cincinnati.

Sittenfeld’s Liz is considerably less likeable than the sparkling Elizabeth Bennet, about whom Austen said, “I must confess that I think her as delightful a character as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.” Liz is a judgmental busybody, pushing her family members to make more responsible choices when they don’t want to. She puts her parents’ house on the market for them and makes her younger sisters move out and get jobs. She’s right, but she crosses some boundaries to get her way. However, the issue of likeable female characters is fraught. It is not necessary that a character be likeable, only interesting, and Sittenfeld’s Liz qualifies. Her Darcy is perhaps more likeable than Austen’s, merely reserved rather than frequently rude.

Sittenfeld’s changes are not necessarily the ones I would have chosen, but they work well within the universe she has created. Mr. Collins is less obsequious and less objectionable for Charlotte Lucas to pair with. There is no entail, obviously, and Collins is just a tech-rich cousin. Lady Catherine de Bourgh becomes a stand-in for Gloria Stienem, and she has no connection to Darcy or action in the final chapters. Sittenfeld’s answer to Wickham the cad is more pathetic than despicable, and he also disappears early in the action and doesn’t come up in the story’s resolution. Mrs. Bennet’s silliness becomes shopaholicism and moderate racism and transphobia. She may be the character most true to her roots in Austen, which may be why her mania for getting her daughters paired off seems so anachronistic, although she surely has her counterparts in today’s reality. The biggest stretch may be the big deal made over Lydia’s elopement. I heartily recommend it to any romance fan and especially to fans of Austen.

The Alchemist

The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho

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I had heard a lot of good things about this short little book, and was happy to finally pick it up. A lot of people, including Brene Brown, whose work I find persuasive and inspiring, call it wonderful. I was sorry to be disappointed with it.

The story works well if you think of it as a fairy tale and don’t try to derive any deeper significance from it. It’s a simple quest narrative about a boy who goes looking for a treasure. But what bothers me about the book is that it clearly seems to be trying to teach a life philosophy, and many of its readers like it for precisely that reason. I guess my problem is just that I don’t particularly like its philosophy. Here’s a quote that sums it up:

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

I guess I just don’t believe the world works like that. It would be nice if it did. This philosophy seems to say that if you don’t achieve your dreams it’s your own fault because you didn’t follow “your Personal Legend” with enough faithfulness and tenacity, regardless of circumstances. It’s a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” philosophy, exemplified by the boy’s quick success in the crystal shop, starting with nothing and earning back double the money he’d lost to a thief in less than a year. The boy is always reading omens to help him make decisions, and I don’t think omens happen in this world. Again, if you think of it as a fantasy world where the wind and desert talk to him through magic, it’s fine. But if it’s supposed to be a metaphor for real life (and I think it very clearly is), I don’t find it persuasive because I don’t think life is that easy. There are definitely nuggets of wisdom, like the part where the boy talks to his heart and finds that it is too scared to go forward, but he chooses to go forward anyway. This particular idea about fear is said better or at least equally well by Elizabeth Gilbert in the opening of Big Magic.

I also had a problem with the way the book treated love and the boy’s relationship with Fatima, a “woman of the desert” who is content to wait for him while he searches for his treasure. What about her “Personal Legend”? Apparently her role is just to sit at the oasis and wait for him to return. It seems pretty convenient for the boy that “love never keeps a man from pursuing his Personal Legend.” Exactly. He’s a man. For women in our unequal society, it is a common experience that love and family get in the way of, or, at best, delay the realization of professional and personal aspirations. Fatima is one of two female characters, and both are just love interests with no real personality. The story would have been about the same without either one of them in it. It seemed they were only there to give the boy something to sacrifice or a way to prove he can delay gratification, on his way to finding his treasure.

Longbourn

Longbourn by Jo Baker

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This is the behind-the-scenes story of Pride and Prejudice, from the point of view of the servants of the Bennet household. The drama of the Bennet daughters with Bingley, Darcy, Collins, and Wickham happens in the background, as this action centers on Sarah, Elizabeth’s maid. This focus really shows how privileged Austen’s heroines are, despite the novel’s handwringing about their relative poverty. Instead of hiding it behind kitchen doors, this book foregrounds the back-breaking physical labor that enabled comfortable upper class life in Austen’s day. This quick quote summing it up nicely: “If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats,’ Sarah thought, ‘she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields.” One interesting twist is that the Bennet family’s cook had had a long-ago affair with Mr. Bennet, resulting in a son who could have saved the family all that trouble, if only Mr. Bennet had condescended to marrying a servant. That long-lost son turns out to be quite a romantic figure, with a Darcy-esque temperament and a checkered past, when he returns and falls in love with Sarah.