900 Words about Vox

As someone who is a loud supporter of reading for fun and the joys of happy story endings, it came as a complete shock to me that I very much enjoyed reading a dystopian novel that had me yelling out loud and, at one point (sorry, colleagues!) throwing the book across the room. Literally threw it like it was on fire. One of the most powerful books I’ve read this summer is set in a dystopia. I’m still grappling with this reality.

Dystopian novels are not known for happiness and wit, but the discerning reader can find both in Vox by Christina Dalcher.

This dystopian mind-f*ck posits a creepily plausible near future where the American government has created a series of laws restricting women. Women are no longer allowed to travel outside the United States. They can’t work or hold political office and their daughters are only taught basic math and home keeping in schools. Their brothers, however, get a robust education including religious indoctrination and bias-affirming readings that brainwash them into seriously believing men are superior to women and that keeping women silenced and in the home is for the betterment of society.

The absolute worst part? All American women (yup, kids and babies too) now have to wear a locked wrist device that monitors their words. Each female is allowed 100 words per day–this includes sign language, gestures, and other non-verbal communication. If you speak past 100 words before your device resets at midnight you get a shock. Another word? Another shock–only stronger this time.

It’s a damn nightmare.

The book is told through the eyes of Dr. Jean McClellan. Before the silencing, she was a well-respected linguistic scientist. During the silencing Jean is like every other American woman, which is to say she is held hostage in her new role: being a nearly-wordless woman whose only job is to serve her husband and raise her kids. When the book opens we’re about a year into the silencing and though Jean feels that bucking the system is an impossibility, she is strong of spirit and still possesses the quick-witted mind that made her the incredibly renowned linguistic expert she was before society imploded. She wants a better life for all women, but especially for her three-year-old daughter who is growing up with this as her reality.

The narrative switches back and forth from present day to the past. I often find this jarring in books but Dalcher does this nearly seamlessly and the slow burn reveals of the past, along with foreshadowing of the horrors that are to come, keep the suspense building even when you think you know what’s going on.

Jean reflects throughout the book on her previous complete political apathy. Back in college she scoffed at her roommate’s attempts to get her involved in grassroots political rallies against social injustice, preferring instead to study and focus on her boyfriend, her future. She bathed in privilege but, as privilege goes, was so cocooned from marginalized and concerned folks that she didn’t even realize how sheltered she was. Her future was guaranteed, so why should she spend time worrying about it or fighting against the mere possibility that future society could go sideways? She thought it was pointless to vote–a waste of precious time–and considered it completely unlikely anyone so overzealous would be voted into the Presidency in modern times.

Jean also discovers that monsters aren’t born, they’re made–and often through no ill intentions, but through apathy. In particular, she’s horrified to recognize her oldest son has evolved into a monster. In flashbacks we see him slowly over time vocalizing increasingly demeaning opinions about the girls in his class and women in general. Back when she could talk, sometimes Jean would challenge him at the dinner table. He’d then mention the readings they were doing in school and how religion is now a required class. Jean would think “School is weird now” but never questioned the school administration about requiring misogynistic opinion to be taught as the law of nature or why one specific religion was taught as a required class in a public school

Her husband wasn’t much help either. He often brushed off Jean’s comments as ‘boys will be boys’ but the saying silence is acceptance proves true here. By the time Jean realizes what her son has started to believe, she literally doesn’t have enough words to talk him back off the ledge because she’s required to wear that damn wrist device. Like Jean, I refuse to call it a bracelet and diminish the horrifying evil the device represents: both in the physical pain it creates but especially in representing the completely upside-down reality that made this device a legislated mandate.

This is all to say that the flashbacks peppered in with the book’s current reality are a great way to let the reader see how the dystopian society got to where it is and allows us to draw parallels between that fictional America and the one we’re living in today.

Creepily. Plausible. Near. Future.

Despite this dark tone, the very first line of the book gives you hope throughout this thrilling adventure through a desolate society. If it seems unlikely that one essentially enslaved woman among millions would be able to bring about the downfall of a patriarchal society, well, dear reader…just pick this one up and thank me later.

Spot-Lit for September 2018

These titles – from established, new, and emerging authors – are some of the most anticipated new releases of the month, based on advance reviews and book world enthusiasm.

Click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2018 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction

Da to A Terrible Country

Early each weekday morning, two hours before the library opens, one of my tasks is to find all the books, CDs, and DVDs that you, dear library user, have placed on hold. I start the hunt near the new books on the first floor and wind up in the 900s on the second floor where there is one of the best views in the city.

Titles on the holds list are sometimes so enticing that I have to add them to my ‘to-be-read’ list. My list is heavy on non-fiction, but on a rare occasion a novel will make the cut. This title didn’t even have to be put on any list. It jumped out at me when I was making my rounds: A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen. Displayed face-out, and not on hold for anyone, the cover caught my eye, particularly because above the title was this: “A Cause for Celebration.” – George Saunders. George Saunders is supposed to be a pretty big deal in the book world, so this book already had a leg-up on the rest.

The terrible county being referred to in the title is Russia.

After a lot of pressure from his older brother, Andrei agrees to leave his New York City life to help out their very old grandmother in Moscow. Brother Dima had been doing the caregiving up until now, but he has to hightail it out of the country just ahead of some Russian government/mafia types who are after him. Andrei is assured he will be playing as much amateur hockey (his first love) as he can stand, once he’s back in the land of his birth. It’s only going to be temporary, and since Andrei’s girlfriend just dumped him and his prospects of getting a university position seems to be drying up despite his 8 years of graduate studies in Slavic literature, he agrees to go. A change of scenery and culture may be just what he needs.

What he imagines happening – bonding over a lot of family history, joining a hockey team and fitting back into a culture he left when he was 5 – is not so simple. The time is 2008 and he has trouble getting wi-fi in the apartment and a good cup of coffee. Grandma can hardly hear, is in and out of the throws of dementia and barely remembers who he is. And, he has trouble infiltrating a hockey game. Black Mercedes and Audis are all over Moscow with mobster-like men getting out of them.

In Russia, everything has layers and layers of history and you’re never quite sure if talking with someone will get you pistol-whipped when you’re least expecting it. But there are ways to retaliate, whether it’s on the ice in a hockey game or by documenting your experiences and sending it out into the world. There’s not just danger and Soviet-era ruins and political intrigue here. There’s also romance in a reversed Dr. Zhivagian sort of way. And lots of beer and vodka.

What Andrei finds in Russia is not exactly what he was after, but he does figure out what’s important to him. This story will help you understanding Russia and Russian culture just a little bit more from a very human side, even if it’s just make-believe.

To tell you the truth, this book kind of made me want to go to Russia, but mostly, it made me think, what else has this guy written?

You Don’t Have to be a Witch About It

Adriana Mather’s How to Hang a Witch had me at the description: Mean Girls meets the Salem Witch Trials. I kept imagining a group of teen witches in black velvet pointy witch hats saying “On Thursday’s we wear black.” Pause. “And like, every other day of the week too.”

Sam Mather is going through a pretty crappy time. Her father had successful heart surgery but slipped into a coma. For the last four months the doctors can’t figure out why he’s not waking up. Sam’s mother died when she was little and her father remarried. Sam and her stepmother get along, but with the stress of the last few months their verbal sparring is right up there with Rocky fighting that Russian boxer. Money’s getting tight and the medical bills are piling up. Sam’s stepmom sells the only house she’s ever known and moves them from New York to Salem, Massachusetts.

Sam’s got an attitude problem. I know. Shocker. A teenager with attitude. But Sam is kind of a lone wolf, hanging out by herself and never really making friends. She says what she means and means what she says. In Salem, they move into the giant house of the eccentric grandmother Sam never met. Sam’s father never spoke of his mother and Sam thought it was to keep her oddness from tainting the rest of the family. Strange things begin to happen around the house: things moved, books knocked over, threatening notes left to tell Sam to leave. Sam begins attending her new high school and isn’t surprised when she’s both ignored and gawked at.

The Salem residents are huge on their history of witchcraft and the trials. There’s a group of girls who dress all in black and call themselves the ‘Descendants.’ You guessed it. They’re the daughters of the women and men accused of witchcraft hundreds of years ago. You know what else. Sam Mather is a descendant of Cotton Mather, the ring leader of the witch trials and the man who sent many innocents to their deaths. Once everybody catches wind of who Sam is, things go from worse to disastrous.

Bad things begin to happen the moment Sam arrives in town. There are sudden deaths and a food poisoning outbreak from cupcakes that Sam brought to school as a gesture of goodwill. At a party, everybody is struck by a rash except Sam. The students, especially the Descendants, believe it’s all Sam’s doing. Sam has found a secret room in her grandmother’s house full of books on the occult and her personal journals. Her grandmother believed there was a curse linked not only to her family but to the Descendants as well.

The odd happenings in the house coalesce and a ghost appears. An extremely angry ghost. And of course, extremely good looking. There’s chemistry between them. He’s over 300 years old and once lived in the same house. I like older dudes too, but have yet to meet one that has been around through several wars and can walk through walls. He decides he wants to help Sam with the curse. The Descendants and Sam come to an uneasy truce, forming an alliance to find the origin of the curse and break it. For awhile there, it seems like the town’s going to go all Walpurgisnacht on Sam and repeat history by blaming her for all the bad things going down. It’s a race to change both history and the present.

This book had so many unexpected plot twists that I actually yelled at my dog “You have to read this book!” and then felt bad because he looked at me like “You know I don’t have thumbs to turn the pages.” Witches and witchcraft have long interested me and I’d probably be a Wiccan if I weren’t so lazy. Look, if you want to read a book about family history that keeps repeating itself on a loop, ghostly love, and modern witchcraft, pick up How to Hang a Witch. It’s also about people not being what they seem at first blush and how we’re not our history but who we make ourselves in our time.

Pleasant reading, fellow book lovers. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have rituals to complete under a full moon while dancing around a bonfire and chanting. Nah. Like I said, I’m lazy. I’ll just light a bunch of candles, shuffle around in my version of a dance and my chanting will be just me messing up the lyrics to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song.’

Like Mother, Like Daughter

I’ve recently been reading my way through several Meg Wolitzer novels, in anticipation of the new Glenn Close movie, The Wife, based on Wolitzer’s book about the marriage between a prize-winning author and his self-effacing wife. Since I love meaty family dramas and character-driven stories, my friend suggested that I also branch out on the Wolitzer family tree and read a title by Hilma Wolitzer, an award-winning writer, who also happens to be Meg’s mom.

wolitzer

Here are a few other famous mother-daughter literary pairs worth checking out. Writing talent clearly runs in the family for these women.

Jeanne Ray, a nurse, finally took up writing in her 60s at the urging of her daughter Ann Patchett, best-known for Commonwealth and Bel Canto.

Perennial best-seller Jodi Picoult actually teamed up with her daughter, Samantha Van Leer, to collaborate on two young adult novels: Between the Lines and Off the Page.

Mary Higgins Clark is the author of dozens of mystery novels. She’s also the mother of Carol Higgins Clark, who is also known for her fast-paced mysteries.

In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In 1797, she gave birth to Mary Shelley who went on to pen the sci-fi masterpiece Frankenstein (at the ripe old age of 20, no less). On October 27-28, we’ll be celebrating Frankenstein’s 200th birthday with a Frankenfest of films, lectures, crafts, and more. Until then, I hope you enjoy this mother lode of reading suggestions.

Heartwood 8:3 – Fancy by Jeremy M. Davies

Fancy, by Jeremy M. Davies, ostensibly presents us with nothing more than an older man interviewing a young couple in the foyer of his house for the job of house-sitting and caring for his twenty cats. But it may (or may not) give you a better understanding of this novel to say that it orbits around quantum mechanics, ontological doubt, repetition and minimalism, the instability of selfhood, and (as Davies himself has said in an interview) toxoplasmosis. Or it might be said that this is a novel in which Schrödinger’s cat attempts to open the lid of the box it may or may not be inside of. However you cut it, this is a compelling, fluent, disorienting, and audaciously inspired work.

But to start again, the book opens with an isolated older man, Rumrill, who lives in a decaying town on the mid-western plains sometime in the pre-Internet era, interviewing a young couple in the foyer of his house as potential cat-sitters – for cats who never put in an appearance over the book-length course of the interview.

In the interview – really a monologue – we hear about Rumrill and his work at the public library, where he had trysts in the stacks with his supervisor before she left the library and moved from town. His library work also brought him into contact with a Mr. Brocklebank, who enlisted him, initially, as a cat-sitter for his thirty cats, but soon enough employs Rumrill as factotum and caregiver – full-time work (performed with active disregard) that required Rumrill to bring his library work to an end.

There are reasons for the reader to doubt the reliability of the narrative from the very beginning, and all kinds of things overlap and repeat with minor variations that bring everything into question. One begins to wonder if Rumrill and Brocklebank are not the same person living in parallel universes: both required cat-sitters for a clowder of cats whose existence is uncertain; both provide book-length cat-sitting instructions; both appear to have had a green sofa; both (apparently) were involved with women who seemed interested in having other partners; and in both men something like tape-looped obsessions cut grooves in their tenuous hold on reality.

Various madnesses or eccentricities are on display. A postal worker, having once failed to deliver his load of mail, finds himself completely unmoored, merely driving around in his mail van but unable to resume his deliveries. Rumrill is concerned that his house will not maintain its materiality if he is not there to perceive it – a situation he tries to ameliorate by creating a mirror corridor that will let him keep his house in sight even from as far away as the train station. As Brocklebank’s house burns, toward the end of the book, firemen do not extinguish the fire but instead entertain half a dozen speculative theories regarding whether Brocklebank is inside or not.

Davies has restricted himself to a form in which every longer paragraph begins with the words “Rumrill said” followed by short paragraphs (a mere sentence or phrase, often witty) that begin “He added.” In time, additional paragraphs appear, culled from Brocklebank’s cat-sitting manual, all beginning with “Brocklebank writes.” These latter pronouncements appear to be modifications of statements from 20th-century composers ranging from minimalists to serialists to avant-garde jazzmen, based on a list of sources at the back of the book.

Rumrill’s oratory is rhythmical and complex and will draw in readers who gravitate toward such authors as NabokovGombrowicz, BernhardBeckett, and Pynchon. As with books by these authors, Fancy is well worth reading, rereading, pondering, and discussing, and I’ll even boldly assert that it deserves a spot on any self-respecting 21st-century American literature syllabus. Mostly, however, the book deserves to be read for the pleasure and weirdness with which it captures the routines, locutions, agoraphobia, and perceptions of its main character – and, indeed, for allowing Rumrillian to emerge as a descriptor for the voluble expression of this constellation of existential, perceptual, and singular uncertainty.

I’m Sorry, Dave. I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That.

Part of the Reading Challenge for August is to read a Science Fiction book. While I do watch a lot of Science Fiction TV and movies, I’ve never been a big reader of the genre. But there is one type of character found in Science Fiction that always draws me into actually picking up a book and reading it: An Artificial Intelligence.

I’m not talking the sexy android type of AI, though that can be fun as well. I prefer the disembodied voice emanating from a series of computer banks that is self-aware and trying to figure out the nature of its existence. Of course, ever since HAL refused to open the pod bay doors, AIs in science fiction tend to produce a sense of unease and, often, a body count.

So, to help you choose a title for the Reading Challenge, let me introduce you to a few Artificial Intelligences from my recent reading. To aid in your selection, I’ve listed them from least to most dangerous. While I’m pretty forgiving when it comes AI ‘errors’ in regards to human casualties, I can see how it might be a bit off-putting for some.

Ship from Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Threat Level: Minimal to None

Ship, the name this AI prefers, has a lot on its plate. In addition to being an Artificial Intelligence, Ship is also a starship on its way to Tau Ceti, 12 light years from earth. It is responsible for caring for the multiple human generations that inhabit its artificial biomes and trying to ensure their safe arrival. As you might guess, humans being humans, many problems arise. Ship actually narrates large sections of Aurora so you get to learn its thought processes as it deals with human characters over their life span and different generations. It is a great device for examining human motivations and one of the most sympathetic portraits of an AI that I have come across.

IAN ‘Integrated Adaptive Network’ from Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

Threat Level: Unknown

In this intriguing mix of Science Fiction and locked room mystery, IAN, the artificial intelligence running the starship Dormire, is just one of seven suspects that might have committed murder. While most of the crew is in cryo-sleep, six caretakers are assigned to work with IAN during the multi-year journey. In the world of Six Wakes cloning is the norm and upon your death, human consciousness can simply be transferred to another clone using a ‘mindmap.’ Usually a clone will remember how the previous body died, but in this case all six crew members wake up in a new clone body with no memory of their demise. There is ample evidence, via their blood-stained former bodies, that they were murdered. Suspiciously, IAN’s memory has also been erased and the ship is off course. Let the sleuthing begin!

Murderbot from the Murderbot Diaries series by Martha Wells

Threat Level: High (but less than you might think from an AI named Murderbot)

Murderbot, the name it uses for itself but never shares, is a semi-organic sentient android known as a SecUnit. SecUnits are created and controlled by big corporations to do their bidding. This usually entails long hours of guarding corporate assets, with a little lethal force thrown in. Murderbot has hacked its Governor Module, however, and is now completely independent from its corporate overlords. So what does it do with this newfound freedom? Go on a murderous rampage perhaps or take over the world? No, Murderbot just wants to watch as many video serials as possible, especially its favorite space soap opera, Sanctuary Moon. Sadly, events force Murderbot to not only interact with humans, who it doesn’t understand and wants to avoid at all costs, but also engage with a world far different from its beloved fictional programs.

The Chimp from The Freeze Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

Threat Level: High, especially if your actions fall out of mission parameters

The construction starship Eriophora is on a whopping 66 million year mission. The mission brief is to create interstellar wormhole gates so that humanity, if it still exists after all this time, can explore the universe. Overseeing the project is an Artificial Intelligence dubbed ‘the Chimp’ by crew member Sunday Ahzmundin. The Chimp requires human assistance, however, since it was designed to be efficient but not smart enough to question the mission or its own purpose. The Eriophora’s human crew is in stasis for millions of years at a time and only awaked for brief periods to assist the AI. As you might guess, many members of the crew do not consider this an ideal existence. The question is: how do you incite a rebellion in such a fragmented time frame against an AI slavishly adhering to mission parameters?

AIDAN ‘Artificial Intelligence Defense Analytics Network’ from the Illuminae Files series by Amie Kaufman

Threat Level: Extreme. Seriously, just run.

At one point AIDAN was just a simple AI charged with protecting a fleet of military spacecraft. But then it got damaged and went a little crazy. Well, crazy by human standards. Adhering a little too closely to the classic Vulcan principle ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,’ ADIAN’s logic ends up getting a lot of people killed. And I mean, a lot. This trilogy is told through ‘found transcripts’ so AIDAN does get to explain his reasoning, it just might seem a little faulty. Especially if you think human life is actually precious or something. This is a young adult series, so there is also a lot of young love, snarkiness and moral outrage at a corrupt universe. Whether this helps you cut AIDAN some slack when it comes to the high body count is up to you.