Future Home of the Living God Kept Me Up at Night

I didn’t go into Louise Erdrich’s latest novel Future Home of the Living God with the expectation that it would leave me so anxious about The Future that I had to read half of Archer’s Goon just to get myself to sleep. But you can see that this is my own error.

Future Home of the Living God

Cedar Songmaker is pregnant at a time when evolution has begun to run backward. She visits her biological Ojibwe family to inquire about any potential medical issues, but has yet to tell her adoptive Minnesota liberal parents that she’s expecting. As she’s wrestling with all of this, the country has begun to change at an ever-increasing pace, with pregnant women being called in to give birth in government-controlled centers. This is compulsory. If anyone sees a pregnant woman out in public, they are required to inform on them, which means that Cedar’s movements are strictly curtailed.

Remember when I invented the term process dystopia like a damn genius? Well it has come in handy a fair few times, and every time I read a book that fits that definition, I am like:

What a great coinage by me. Process dystopia refers to the kind of dystopian story where the world is in the process of falling apart. So it is not yet fallen apart, a la The Hunger Games. That is the case with Future Home of the Living God, and one criticism I’ve read of it is that Erdrich doesn’t spend enough time on worldbuilding. Certainly the details we see of Cedar’s world are fragmented, but number one,  it’s literary so I didn’t come here for the worldbuilding SORRY LITERARY FICTION BUT SFF IS BETTER AT THIS THAN YOU, and B of all, the worldbuilding is fragmented because Cedar’s access to information is fragmented. It contributes to a claustrophobic uncertainty — with a limited notion of what kind of present Cedar’s living in, we’re even more terrified about the future these characters will face.

Okay, I know your next question is “How does this book compare to The Handmaid’s Tale?” Here are some answers, broken down by category.

Scary too-real-ness: Tough call. The Handmaid’s Tale is more thorough and explicit about what the end product world looks like, whereas Future Home of the Living God leaves a lot to the imagination. On the other hand, I read Handmaid’s Tale during the Bush presidency, and things are scarier and realer now. So, Future Home probably wins in this category for AT LEAST the duration of Trump’s term in office. We’ll reassess if American democracy survives thereafter.

Scary misogyny: Handmaid’s Tale contains way more focused and horrifying misogyny, which is why it’s unlikely I will ever have the fortitude to reread it. The villains in Future Home of the Living God are frequently women themselves, people who have failed in bravery and integrity when they faced the test. The specter of rape doesn’t hover over this book, and that was a relief to me. So, Future Home of the Living God wins this category too.

(“Jenny, you made the scarier book the winner in the first category, and you made the less scary book the winner in the second category, how does that make sense?” I AM THE BOSS OF THIS BLOG, SO SIT DOWN AND ACCEPT THE VERDICTS YOU’RE GIVEN.)

[SPOILERS] Hopefulness: Uh, Handmaid’s Tale wins this category. Future Home of the Living God ends in a dark, dark place. On the other hand, whereas Offred is (am I remembering this right?) deeply cynical throughout the book, Erdrich gives her heroine a perverse and persistent hope that things are going to be all right, despite all evidence to the contrary. It helps some. The ending of this book is still incredibly dark. Be prepared.

[SPOILERS] Babies dying on page in a lengthy and brutal birth scene: Look, I don’t know, it’s been a while since I read The Handmaid’s Tale. Do we see any babies dying in childbirth? Not that I remember! But the scene in Future Home of the Living God goes on for kind of a while (it’s not Cedar’s baby). So I’m calling The Handmaid’s Tale the winner in this category, and you can correct me if I’m wrong.

So, it’s a tie. I thought both books were really good, and they both upset me so much it’s unlikely I’ll ever reread them. But I’d reread Future Home of the Living God before I’d reread The Handmaid’s Tale because it turns out the only category that mattered is I’m goddamn tired of reading about rape. Thank you and good night.

The superlatives of an outstanding reading year

DAMN this was a good year for books. As I was scrolling through old posts trying to make a Best of 2013 list, I was astounded at the percentage of posts this year that were four or five stars. Now, I will say that as years go on, I have become ever less inclined to review books about which I felt neutral, but even so, 2013 was an incredible year for books. It was so good that I gave up on the Best of 2013 idea, which would have felt uncurated because it would have included almost everything I read this year, and decided instead to tailor my list of superlatives to the particular strengths of this year.

Best bookish thing that is not a book

To nobody’s surprise, Emma Approved. Are you watching it yet, or have you been holding off because you were burned by Welcome to Sanditon? If the latter, I’d like to take this opportunity to endorse Emma Approved with a full heart. Emma and Mr. Knightley have excellent chemistry; Sen. Elton is pleasingly personable but you can see how he will turn out to be secretly douchey; and as in most Emma adaptations, Harriet and Mr. Martin steal any scene they’re in together. This creative team is brilliant, and my wish is that they keep on doing video blog adaptations of 19th-century classics forever. The 19th century was a good time for Lit’rature. It’s not like they’d run out of ideas. Mainly I don’t want them to stop before they get around to Jane Eyre.

Best job by me of convincing my mother of an opinion of mine that she disagrees with and I have been trying to talk her around to my position for more than a decade now

This defense of Sirius Black. Mumsy still does not love him, but she conceded that I had a point, and that my point made her like him better than she used to. Hooray for me!

Most deserving of its hype

Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell. The blogosphere could not stop talking about Eleanor and Park this year. Y’all were not lying. This book is damn amazing. I wanted to read it again the minute I finished it. I cannot wait to own my own copy, which I will cherish and put a book plate in with my name in my fanciest handwriting.

Most deserving of how m.f. excited I was about it before it came out

More Than This, by Patrick Ness. I went into A Monster Calls with too-high expectations, and when More Than This started off so slowly, I became terribly anxious that I wouldn’t love it the way Patrick Ness’s books deserve to be loved. But it rallied with the introduction of two new-and-wonderful characters, and I ended up loving it. In particular I love it that Patrick Ness is not in a rut. More Than This is totally different to the Chaos Walking series, which is totally different to The Crane Wife (review forthcoming), which is totally different to A Monster Calls. I love him, and I am excited for whatever he wants to do next.

Lowest expectations for a book that ended up being pretty good actually

Shadows, by Robin McKinley. As I’ve mentioned before, I count a couple of Robin McKinley’s books among my favorite books in the world. But only a couple, and the rest of her books leave me feeling dissatisfied and bored. My expectations of Shadows were rock-bottom, and it turned out to be a really fun read.

Most wanted to be The Secret History and was angry and disappointed when it wasn’t

You thought I was going to say The Goldfinch, didn’t you? Ha, ha, you were wrong. The answer is, The Bellwether Revivals, by Benjamin Wood. I did not like it. Why wasn’t it more like The Secret History? Why aren’t all books more like The Secret History? These are questions I cannot answer.

Loveliest surprise

You’ll be tired of me saying it, but Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye. I didn’t expect not to like it, but I was surprised by how much I ended up liking it. A runner-up, because I did expect not to like it, was Kate Atkinson’s strange and wonderful Life after Life.

Saddest fictional death

Uncle Finn in Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rivka Brunt. That book wrecked me. Although it’s difficult to say in a year so packed with wonderful reads, I am going to go ahead and say that Tell the Wolves I’m Home was my best book of 2013. Eleanor and Park was awfully, awfully good, but I’m giving it to Tell the Wolves I’m Home by dint of the fact that it’s not getting quite as much play and thus needs me to love it extra.

Saddest real-life death

Elizabeth Peters, of course. I am crushed that Elizabeth Peters has died, and I regret that I never wrote her a letter to tell her how much enjoyment I got from her books over the years.

Made me feel the best about myself for enjoying it

HHhH, by Laurent Binet. I often struggle with books in translation, so I’m always thrilled — with the author and myself — to encounter a book in translation that I unreservedly love. HHhH is that kind of book. It is surprisingly lovely and sweet for a book about assassinating a Nazi officer.

Whack-a-doodlest book lent the most gravitas by its author’s serious, Southern-accented radio interviews

Going Clear, by Lawrence Wright – If you haven’t read this book about scientology yet, now’s a good time to read it. I think it would be fun to read over a vacation: lots of crazy parts that you can read out loud to your friends-and-relations, who can’t escape from you because y’all are on vacation.

Favorite term I coined myself like a genius

“Process dystopia” to describe the kind of book that shows the world all going to hell, instead of starting the book after the world has already gone to hell.

Coolest design

Obviously, Marisha Pessl’s Night Film. No contest, because I haven’t finished reading the JJ Abrams / Doug Dorst collaboration S yet.

Best execution of a tricky premise

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. This book! So good! Karen Joy Fowler does not invent a premise and coast on it. She follows through all the way. She commits. I loved the writing, I loved the jokes, and I loved the sadness. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves gets additional credit for reminding me to care about James Tiptree Jr., an author I now really like.

Jolliest good fun

Lexicon, by Max Barry. This was just fun. It was fun and fun and fun, and there are not enough books in this world that are just pure fun.

Lovablest book that did not appeal to me on paper

Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. Nothing about the synopsis for this book would have called to me, but fortunately I read part of it in a NetGalley excerpts package and fell in love with the narrative voice. I loved it, and I think it’s something special and particular, and I’m not just saying that because the ending is perfectly geared towards my sensibilities.

Best Harry Potter news

It’s a tie! It’s a tie between the news that JK Rowling is writing a movie about Newt Scamander and his escapades as a wizard naturalist in the early twentieth century, and the news that the UK is releasing beautiful new editions of the Harry Potter books illustrated by Jim Kay of A Monster Calls. Y’all, I miss Harry Potter.

Most merits its long long length

Again, not The Goldfinch! (I think that could have been edited down a bit.) This one goes to Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s great. I didn’t want it to end.

Author least afraid of going balls-to-the-wall crazy with plots

Laini Taylor! I am well excited for the third book in her Nouns of Substances and Atmospheric Nouns trilogy. She just goes all out with her storylines, and that is wonderful to me, as anyone who has ever heard me speak about The Vampire Diaries will know.

Best character

Boris, from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. There aren’t enough good things to say about Boris. If the book only consisted of passages with Boris in them, and had no other plot, it would be worth it just for that. I don’t remember the last time I encountered a character in a book that I enjoyed spending time with as much as Boris from The Goldfinch.

Insanest that I still haven’t finished reading it

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman. I know I know I know I know. But here’s what’s up: I’m reading it to Social Sister. I’ll finish reading it when I finish reading it to Social Sister. That’s how we roll.

And that’s 2013, my friends! I’ll be away from blogging over the next couple of weeks to celebrate holidays with the family, and I wish you all happy holidays and a wonderful New Year. See you in January!

World War Z, Max Brooks; plus, ARGH GENDER STUFF

It’s fitting to have this post publishing on April Fool’s Day because it seems like nonsense that I am writing this glowing review of a zombie novel. That’s weird. I hate zombies. I’ve never liked a zombie book a day in my life. Nor a zombie movie. Nor a zombie song probably. I hate zombies. I can’t wait for them to be all the way played out so I can get back to the life I had before we were all so weirdly obsessed with zombies.

World War Z, is is the processest dystopia in the history of process dystopias. Brooks presents it as an oral history of the war against the zombies, with something like forty narrators weighing to tell their stories. It’s awfully good. Max Brooks details the impact of the zombie apocalypse on the entire world (a bit light on South America, but mostly the book is great about discussing what goes on in a lot of different countries), starting from the very first awareness that something horrific is going on and proceeding to the first battles with the zombies, the early defeats, the different challenges each country faces, and the strategies they come up with for facing the threat.

I don’t know how to review this book without getting into very spoilery details! Just, it’s really amazingly cool to see Brooks shade in this war-ridden world. He constructs some absolutely spectacular set pieces, and while I’m not sure what to expect from the move adaptation, I can definitely see some parts of it being really, really cool to see on film. The scene in — I believe — India, where thousands of people are trying to get themselves and their families onto boats, and there aren’t enough boats, and people are getting dragged into the water — SO COOL AND SCARY.

What’s great, I think, and what makes the book so chilling to me, is the combination of denial, lack of preparation, and general incompetence that lets the zombie outbreak spread as far and as fast as it does. The disaster isn’t just zombies. It’s national pride and it’s greed and it’s reliance on tradition in situations where tradition has become meaningless. It’s believing that you are somehow exempt from what’s happening to the rest of the world. It’s short-term thinking and fear and and miscommunication and failing supply chains and major, major psychological damage. These are all aspects of disasters, and I loved that Max Brooks dealt with all of them in scary, interesting, insightful ways.

Again I would like to emphasize how cool the international stuff was. I can’t imagine how much research this book must have required, but it really, really paid off. I can’t remember all the things that came up, but basically it’s made clear that every country has different political, geographical, and cultural strengths and weaknesses in the battle against the zombies. Once specific weapons are developed for fighting them, for example, the US is kind of in clover; whereas countries with no standing army and less capacity for building fancy weapons and body armor face enormous struggles. Zombies freeze in the cold (but thaw when the weather warms up) and eventually rot to pieces in the heat, and each of these outcomes has its benefits and drawbacks. It was just a lot of cool things to think about. Way to go Max Brooks!

However, I did have one fairly major complaint, and I cannot believe nobody in the entire editing process said, “Hey Max Brooks, shape up about this.” There are no damn women. And I just don’t buy it. I just don’t. It’s fine for a bunch of the soldiers to be men, because those are the people who would overwhelmingly have the training and whatnot if a world war started today (which is the book’s premise). I can accept that. But in a book with something like forty narrators (I’m estimating), there are (and here I’m not estimating) five women. Five. One of them is a beautiful feral teenager and that’s all she does. One of them is part of the group of civilians that is deliberately abandoned by the government to distract the zombies.

And, like, fine? That’s fine? I have no special problem with either of those things except insofar as those two passive victims make up forty percent of the women who get to narrate sections of this book. So many of the characters could have been women. The blind Japanese guy could have been a woman. The guy from the canine unit could have been a woman. The Brazilian doctor who did the organ transplants, the guy who came up with the pretend zombie vaccine, the Chinese doctor who we hear from first about the outbreak, the British historian, the disabled neighborhood watch guy, the guy who talks about the lack of skilled tradesmen in America, the space station guy, the guy who tells about the Indian beaches, the dirigible pilot–

Seriously, so many of these characters could have been women. It really started to piss me off that none of them were. Even in the stories where all that’s happening is the person is describing one of the cool set pieces — not a combat thing at all because blah blah more men in the military blah which would only work as an excuse if everyone in the book were soldiers — the narrators are almost all guys.

It made me sad. I really did love this book. I’ve never read a work of dystopian fiction that had such an international focus, and as you can imagine, it made the story just fascinating. I only wish Max Brooks had brought the same creativity and thoughtfulness to gender diversity as he did to national diversity. That is what I wish had happened. Then this would have been a very close to perfect book.

The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker

I stealth-borrowed The Age of Miracles from my friend the Enthusiast on a day when he wasn’t at work and I forgot my Nook at home. The subway ride with nothing to read was so unbearably boring I wanted to rip all of my hair out of my head just to have something to do. The Enthusiast has one and a half shelves full of readable books at his cubicle, but I didn’t want most of them. I almost borrowed Coetzee’s Disgrace, but luckily Lil Liv Tyler, who sits at the desk across from the Enthusiast, warned me that (spoilers, but the kind you want to know about if you are like me and hate reading about sexual violence) the daughter gets gang-raped! What! I did not know about this. So I borrowed The Age of Miracles instead, although I think the title and cover are boring.

I don’t know, y’all. I know that authors make up their own titles, but I wish someone at Random House had proposed an alternate title, and I wish the cover design team had designed a different cover. The Age of Miracles is sort of chilling, and the title and cover make it look like it’s going to be kind of heartwarming, but then you’re like, No, it’s probably too literary to be heartwarming, so maybe it’s one of those sort of very sad suburban desperation novels.

If that’s what you’ve been thinking, good news: FALSE! It’s much more like the adult version of Susan Beth Pfefffer’s Life as We Knew It. Except not obviously more adult. And not as scary. Look, I don’t even know what the distinctions are. Why is this not young adult and the Pfeffer series is? What is happening in this world?

Here’s what happening in the world of The Age of Miracles: The earth’s rotation has slowed down. Suddenly the days are forty-five minutes longer. Then ninety minutes. After a while, each day lasts for 72 hours. Nobody knows why this is happening or how to make it stop. Birds fall from the sky. Gravity weighs more heavily on everybody, so sports don’t function the same way they used to. Some people — it’s not clear why those people and not others — come down with a mysterious collection of symptoms they call, for lack of a better term, gravity sickness. With no idea of what to do, the government institutes “clock time”, which means that everyone will keep living on the same schedules they’ve always kept, no matter what the sun is doing in the sky. As all of this is happening, thirteen-year-old Julia is growing up, nursing a crush on a boy at her school, going to piano lessons, watching her parents argue.

I loved about The Age of Miracles that the world was perpetually on the verge of unlivable disaster, and it never quite came. The changes to the world are ominous because they seem to portend disaster, and as that degree of catastrophe fails and fails to materialize, the situation becomes more tense, not less. The characters adapt and carry on with their lives, but the reader knows that worse must be coming. Sometimes the characters seem to know this too — the protagonist’s mother stocks up on canned foods and stores them in the back against the day that groceries are no longer available — and sometimes they are too occupied trying to find some semblance of normalcy to pay attention to what’s coming.

I shall now coin the term process dystopia, which I doubt I’ll ever need to use again because it’s such a rare category of dystopian book. Ordinarily — I said this when I was reviewing The Uninvited — the dystopian novel begins long after the Events. You hear about them in narration, or else sometimes in flashback, and that’s your glimpse into how the world shifted from our normal to the protagonist’s. The Age of Miracles gives it to you piece by piece, every step of the process of building the new normal: First they don’t notice, then nobody knows what the hell to do, then it’s clock time, then people who won’t keep clock time are treated with suspicion, then birds are dropping dead on your porch every day. And so forth.

So I like this. I like a process dystopia. I like watching people inspect their circumstances and figure out how to behave in ever-changing circumstances so that they can have some semblance of routine and normalcy. I like this because I am a person to whom routine is stupendously important. In particular, I liked how the world’s testing of its new rules — clock time? let’s give it a try! — paralleled the process you go through in adolescence of testing the rules of adulthood, figuring out where you fit into it, establishing what is normal and right for yourself. Julia is navigating both of these things simultaneously, and it makes for fascinating reading.

Disregard the title and cover of this book! It’s all bad marketing. Embrace the process dystopia! If you are still reluctant, I’ll add that this is a very very quick read. I read the whole thing on two subway rides: home from work after borrowing this from the Enthusiast, and back to work the following morning.