Something big happened at the end of last year: I got a Kindle. I’d been debating between two different models for a long time when the new upgraded Paperwhite came out and made the choice an easy one.
Well, ”easy” was relative: I was still kind of worried that I wouldn’t enjoy the experience of reading e-books as much as I enjoyed the idea. It’s not that I had a choice – we don’t really have libraries or friends to borrow English books from here in Vilnius and we can’t keep buying and accumulating physical ones either – but I think the former book hoarder in me was afraid that I’d never actually pick up my reader once I got it.
Luckily, the exact opposite happened. I was so excited about finally being able to buy books without adding more clutter to our lives (and downloading samples before buying!) that I began to read more than I had for a very long time. Sure, it was still less than in my younger years, but I didn’t exactly have a full-time job and kid back then. Small victories etc.
So here are some thoughts on a few books that I read. They’re all roughly classifiable as dystopian fiction, but don’t let that deter you from picking them up even if that isn’t usually your thing. If anything, they’re proof that this genre can be so much more than zombies and explosions.
Maria Dahvana Headley: The Mere Wife
The one that became an instant all-time favorite. I’m not exaggerating: I haven’t been this moved by a book since I read The Instructions by Adam Levin like seven years ago. Like The Instructions, The Mere Wife contains no explicit supernatural elements, but it reads like a modern myth thanks to its use of non-standard language and magical realist elements.
The narration make sense given that the book is a modern retelling of the Old English epic poem Beowulf, set in the American suburbs. It follows Grendel’s mother, reimagined as a homeless and traumatized veteran of an unnamed war in the Middle East, and her young son, who may or may not be an actual monster. Their arrival at the gates of Herot Hall, an exclusive community for the rich in upstate New York, sets about a terrible chain of events neither of them anticipated. On the other side of the white picket fence is Willa Herot, the bored housewife of a plastic surgeon, who would do anything to save her own family and estate from the perceived threat.
Like the original Beowulf, The Mere Wife is a story about war. Despite all their differences — you don’t have to read between the lines to see the class and racial tensions between the two sides — Dana and Willa share the kind of feral and imperfect love for their sons that will inevitably have a body count. There are beautiful moments, yes, and they are so breathtakingly beautiful that you want them to go on forever, but you know that’s not how this is going to play out. I read it, I adored it, but I don’t think my heart can take re-reading it anytime soon.
Interesting fact: Headley has also published a new translation of Beowulf and maintains that Grendel’s mother has been wrongly construed as a monster by earlier translations, when the original Old English text actually portrays her as a noble warrior and apt swordswoman. Dead translators twisting sources to suit their own ideological agenda, who woulda thunk?
Ling Ma: Severance
A wildly successful zombie novel for people who normally don’t like zombies, Severance is about a young Chinese-American woman who chooses to stay in New York at the outbreak of a mysterious global fever. She soon finds herself one of the very last people left, going to work for a corporation she’s not sure exists anymore and documenting the city’s demise for her dwindling photography blog.
Other things happen, too, but they mostly serve as a backdrop for the quiet meditation on place, belonging, capitalism and the second generation immigrant experience that forms the book’s real core. The other main character is New York itself, stripped of everything that once made it New York, more of a concept than a real place — but then wasn’t it always?
“Gentle” and “calming” are not words I usually associate with zombie fiction, but somehow this is what Severance manages to be. Its world is bleak, but there is a glimmering undercurrent of optimism to the protagonist’s journey as she finally fights her way out of the dying city. After the shock ofThe Mere Wife, it was exactly the respite I needed.
Naomi Alderman: The Power
The other book about about the end of the world that everyone, including Barack Obama, was talking about last year. If Severance puts a fresh twist to the genre, The Power delivers a convincing execution of a classic post-apocalyptic action thriller.
The book begins when women all over the world discover an ability to send lethal electric jolts through their hands. Suddenly they are the dominant sex, and all of humanity enters a new uncharted territory. A new female-centric consciousness emerges in both the public sphere of politics and religion and the most private lives and relationships of people. Men and boys soon begin to feel very afraid, and not without a reason.
The cast of The Power is wide and international. We follow the events through the eyes of the daughter of a British mob boss, an American local politician and her probably non-binary child (this is addressed but not fully explored or named), a mixed-race teenage runaway and would-be religious leader from the Midwest, the wife of a Moldovan dictator and a young Nigerian male journalist. Their stories intertwine on the eve of a global event dubbed as the Cataclysm.
The Power has been both hailed as a 21st century feminist masterpiece and criticized for not being feminist enough, or being the wrong kind of feminist. I think some of the critiques (looking at you, Goodreads ppl) are missing the fact that in the end it is a dystopian thriller, not a book on gender theory, and its female characters are not written to be “inspirational” or “likable”. It never sets out to offer a recipe for real-world liberation either. The always-great fantasy author Amal El-Mohtar wrote one critical review I can get behind.
The only message The Power appears to put forth is that people do not wield systemic power; in the end systemic power will always end up wielding people. Beyond that it’s a Rorschach test in the form of a book and you would be right to see whatever it is that you saw in it.
Aino Kallas: Sudenmorsian (Wolf’s Bride)
The one I actually didn’t read on Kindle because it was released in 1928 and I’ve owned a paper copy for as long as I can remember, re-reading it every few years. Also: still the best-ever story about female werewolves in rural Estonia written in the form of a 17th century folk tale. The Mere Wife of the days of yore, if you will.
I’ve often lamented the fact that it’s virtually impossible to find English copies of this anywhere, even though Kallas was a tremendously international writer in her time. I’d love my non-Finnish and Estonian fantasy-loving friends to be able to read it! Perhaps I should just realize my long-time semi-serious idea of paying a visit to the UK and one of the few libraries that have it to take copies? Food for thought.