This installment: a harrowing birth (f); trouble in a swamp in Mississippi (f); does the happiness gene exist? (f); poetry in real life (nf); a contemporary take on Beowulf (f); and a fantasy based on Polish fairy tales.
Eleven Hours by Pamela Erans
Lore has a very detailed birth plan. Her primary labor nurse, Franckline, is very supportive but knows what can go wrong; she is newly pregnant but suffered a stillbirth. Lore’s lover Asa has been cast out because he reconnected carnally with Lore’s best friend Julia who introduced them. In the these intense 11 hours we follow Lore’s stop and start labor, get her and Franckline’s back stories, and witness a shocking denouement. Vivid and original.
Where the Line Bleeds by Jesmyn Ward
Her first book (2008) and we can sense trouble from the get-go. Twins Joshua and Christophe are poised to leap into their adult lives, literally, dangling from a bridge over the river for scary fun. Which is in short supply thereon out in Bois Sauvage, MS. Maw-me, who brought them up after their mother Cille decamped to Atlanta for work, is blind. Their absent father, known as the Sandman, is a junkie. Joshua gets a brutal job on the docks. Chris turns to selling dope. There’s a sweet girl Leila who braids their hair. Full of steamy atmosphere and sensory detail—a journey through a swamp you know won’t end well. Passionate, evocative writing.
Generosity by Richard Powers
Subtitled An Enhancement. Russell, a traumatized writer, gets a sub gig at Mesquakie College of Art in Chicago teaching creative nonfiction: Journals and Journeys. His trauma came about through his popular This American Life-type pieces based on real people. After publication, there were many ramifications, including a suicide. Also his girlfriend Grace decamped to Paris. In his small class is Thassabit Amzwar from war-torn Algeria. She lights up the room with her unflagging delight in everything. How is it possible, considering her history? In this time of gene manipulation, scientists theorize she possesses the happiness gene and a smooth operator jumps aboard—a cure for all the woes of mankind. Also Russell meets Candace, a psychologist at the college, to get help for increasingly beleaguered Thass; Candace looks like Grace but is much nicer. After exposure on an Oprah-like show, Thass’s world closes in and she must flee. Of course Russell helps. This is a clever romp. (Powers is so smart.)
Poetry Will Save Your Life by Jill Bialosky
A lovely memoir hinged on the poems that have spoken to the author throughout her life. Some are what I think of as war horses which she discovered early on, like Frost’s The Road Not Taken. But many other poets including favorites of mine appear, woven through her stories. No academic analysis here, thank god. Just illustrations of the power of words to comfort, illuminate, and connect. Grounded and soaring simultaneously, and very accessible.
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley
This is a mysterious, disturbing story based loosely on Beowulf in modern times. A war veteran, Dana, has hidden inside a mountain cave with her boy, Gren. His origins are murky and his appearance seems to change depending on who’s looking. Down the mountain is a snooty gated community but there a little boy wants a friend and somehow he and Gren connect. The action gets apocalyptic, lots of blood and gore and desperate fleeing. When the dust settled I wasn’t sure quite what transpired but I found the tale so gripping I didn’t care.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
A fantasy based on Polish fairytales, with a wizard who takes a village girl every 10 years. Agnieszka is sure her beautiful friend Kasia will be the one but instead the Dragon chooses her. Turns out she has magic in her, hard won, and the Dragon is a strict taskmaster. But something must stop the encroaching evil Wood and he needs her. Political power machinations don’t help. Agnieszka is a wonderfully unlikely heroine, kind of clumsy, but fierce and brilliant underneath. Novik delivers spells in a rich made-up language and provides breathtaking action as well as humor. (I loved the wardrobe spell that provides very impractical garments designed to wow the court but hamper Agnieszka’s ability to get around swiftly.)
Back next week.