Unsheltered: Everything is Broken; We are Doomed(?)

In two parallel narratives, one set in the very-present of Trump and climate catastrophe and the other in the 1870s-ish of  Darwin, Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered takes ‘unsheltered’ literally by narrating  the crumbling homes of the protagonists in each of  these periods. From the collapsing homes the narratives spiral out to explore all the many, many ways the lives and societies of these protagonists are similarly falling apart.

In our present day we witness Wila and Iano struggle to keep up with their (unintentionally comedically) diametrical opposed twenty-something children as all try to make sense of the middle class promise of a better life for your children. The daughter, Tig, a socialist and strident environmentalist stands in for the future-present, trying – ardently trying – to convince those around her of the absolute and irreversible  change instigated by, and demanded by, the global climate crisis  (cue the parallel to the Darwinian timeline where the evolutionary scientists are trying to persuade those backwards, stubborn deniers of the obvious-ness and logic of evolution. It’s a bit on the  nose, in my opinion, particularly the force with which  the narrative drives home this parallel – repeated themes aside, there are some explicit speeches designed to make sure  we get  – really get – that  those denying the existential threat of climate change are just as ridiculous as those denying evolution.) The son, Zeke, abandons his child in pursuit of profits. It’s theme made (so) literal. What would you give up for designer clothes? Your first born. Actually. Okay, so Zeke is meant to be the foolish optimist that thinks change can be achieved from within the system, Tig wants to blow the whole thing up, and Wila and Iano try to reconcile their life-long desire for the middle class dream of a solid home and retirement plan with the reality of bankruptcy, contract labour and paying for American healthcare.

19th century narrative is… so similar. Thatcher Greenwood, science teacher and supporter of reason in convincing others of the merits of the Darwinian argument, meets his neighbour Mary Treat, a historically forgotten but totally delightful scientist exploring flora and fauna and all in between. The two try to convince their town of Darwinian thinking in literal staged debates that end in murder and outrage. His house is also – literally and figuratively – falling apart.

With all that is collapsing around them – homes, families, marriages, belief systems – Kingsolver pitches the idea that it is community and connection that will, if not restore the  bonds and rebuild the homes, then will offer ‘shelter’ amid the chaos and wreckage. So you may not have a home, a planet, a reliable belief system, but you will have friends and relationships and that will be – could be – enough. It’s a compelling argument (particularly for a Unitarian) and one I would have enjoyed a lot  more if it hadn’t been made so…  forcefully. The extensive repetition of theme through character, plot, setting, dialogue… just got to be a bit much.

All the same, if you want a book to convince you not to have (more) children, then this is the one.


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The Power: Red Clocks is better, but everyone will tell you to read this one, so whatever. It’s fine.

Folks. I’m on a streak. Hahaha. You thought I meant sport. Okay, no you didn’t. It’s a book blog. I’m on a reading streak of great books and it is *so* good and owes to all of your wonderful suggestions, so thank you. Probably also a consequence of having for the first time in my life comfortable patio furniture and so there I am every night sipping red wine, reading a novel, out in the evening air like the spoiled middle class lady that you all know and love. Occasionally I think about higher aspirations and then… I return to reading.

So right, this one. Naomi Alderman’s The Power comes with a heap of comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (about Margaret Atwood, I will have more to say) in the way of some kind of instant dystopian classic. And I’ll grant you it is the kind of thing I can see appearing on a million reading lists, in part for its sheer simplicity of premise, and how incredibly powerful that premise is in helping rethink the present. Right, so the frame narrative situates the book itself as documenting the ancient human race and the time of the Cataclysm (or maybe the break? or the great change? I can’t remember) when girls began to develop electromagnetic powers that allowed them to – at the most basic level – use electricity to zap/kill people. Some more sophisticated ladies figure out how to use the power for mind control and wicked fun things like that. Once girls figure out they can share the power with women, the novel really takes off with the question: what if women had power? (I did warn you it was simple in premise. And title).

From this straightforward question Alderman takes wide range, unpacking domestic violence, sex work, religion, politics, the military, business and law. All in the shift from patriarchal to matriarchal control. In doing so the reader is offered (what really shouldn’t be, but is) a fresh view of how fucking bananas absurd the state of the world is in this real present for women. Where the novel sets up a state – and narrates the introduction of the laws – where men can’t leave their homes unescorted, can’t travel without a female guardian’s permission, the reader at once recognizes this law as utterly and entirely ridiculous. And then recalls that, of course, these same laws apply to women. Or if not in law, in societies where women are made, without the force of state violence, to feel, to be, controlled. At the same time, it is kind of a boring kind of feminism that just flips the tables and says okay now women are also rapists and murderers and anyone with power will exploit that power because absolute power corrupts etc etc. Or not boring, because it did give me occasional pause, but just not a particularly… revelatory set of ideas.

The shifting perspective of characters affords this wide ranging investigation into the branches of societal change a gendered power reversal might impact. I found the shifting a bit choppy in the earlier parts of the book and somewhat disorienting (and not in a purposeful dystopian sort of way, more in ‘who is that again’ kind of way). That said, once the character lines were more firmly established I appreciated the shifting perspectives and the scope they afforded. I would say that none of the characters on their own felt particularly well developed; rather they were stand-ins for their role in the society (the goddess, the military mom, the gangster capitalist). As a consequence, I found the moments of crisis and threat for these characters less riveting than I might if I was invested in their well-being. One notable exception is the male reporter, Tunde, whose motives shift throughout the novel in compelling ways, and whose introduction to the experience of fear is great.

I suppose where my complaint comes in – and this is hard to avoid, I guess – is that this is a book that wants to be be Big and Important and it reads with that sort of drive. Whereas Red Clocks explored the same themes, it did so subtly (and with better writing). I’m not sure whether that’s a legitimate complaint or not, so you can choose to ignore it or not, but when you do read it (or watch the inevitable movie/TV adaptation) you can recall this warning. You’ll feel on every page the sincerity of wanting you to get that this is a book about Ideas.

Oh right. Margaret Atwood. So Atwood selected Alderman to be her mentee. And Alderman dedicated the book to Margaret and Graeme, so I’m guessing they got on well. I’m a cynic, and I know I should just be happy for Alderman, and happy for Margaret that the partnership was so fruitful, but… a cynical part of me wonders if Atwood is so excited about the book because it will a) further drive up sales  in the Handmaid’s Tale  and b) might distract from the Bad Feminism hoopla of the past years. Or maybe I’m jealous. WHO CAN SAY.




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The Great Believers: The One Book You Should Read This Year

If made up statistics are to be believed, most Canadians will read one novel this year. For the love of all that is terrific in reading… let this be your one novel. Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers is extraordinary. Okay. I’m not actually sure this would be the one novel I’d make you read. Ack! That’s a question for another post. But it’s really, really, really good. Continue reading

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Filed under Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction, National Book Award, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner

My Sister, the Serial Killer: Better Beach Reads, 2019

So folks, ask yourself, when was the last time you read about a lady serial killer? Or, a non-white serial killer? (Making some assumptions about my readership here, but I have the data from WordPress and I know 95% of you are my friends and live in Canada/USA). Well wait no longer. Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer is here to remedy both.

What appears at first to be a tightly woven, compact gem of a novel is, on closer inspection, just that. We follow Korede as she (literally and figuratively) cleans up after her serial killer sister. That plot summary makes it sound like this will be a silly novel, and I want to emphasize that it is not. While there are intentional moments of dark humour, the entire work is layered genius exploring trauma, loyalty, love and inheritance.

It’s also a super fast read, making it an ideal pick for an afternoon at the beach (plus the requirement to read thrillers on the beach according to all magazines in 2019). Oh, and super well written. Take that Girl on the Train!

So enjoy!

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