December 6, 2016

November Reading Recap

What with one thing and another, I only read two books in November. Both were in part an excellent distraction from current events and in part painfully relevant, which I'm realizing is exactly the way I like my literature.

THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE by Meg Elison: A nurse midwife is working at a hospital in San Francisco when a mysterious fever starts bringing in more and more patients, who soon die. Every delivery the midwife attends ends in stillbirth, and the fever usually appears and kills the laboring mother, even if she wasn't sick before. Within the space of a few weeks, the epidemic reaches apocalyptic levels. Our protagonist becomes sick, and when she recovers, she finds very few people are left alive, and almost none of them are women.

An apocalypse in which women are rare is a particularly brutal apocalypse, and this novel is committed to exploring that reality. Pretty much the first thing that happens to the main character is that a man nearly rapes her, and she has to kill him to escape. She decides to disguise herself as a man, which provides some safety but adds the constant danger of discovery to all other dangers of a collapsed society. The story is always tense and often upsetting, and I loved it for that realness.

Elison made a lot of smart choices in writing this book. A frame narrative establishes that the midwife's tale was preserved in journals, and some of those entries are presented for the reader. Wisely, though, rather than staying in that limited mode, most of the story is told in standard prose. While the focus is on one character we can get fully invested in, as the midwife encounters other survivors on her journey, we learn about different ways people choose or are forced to live in this future. The worldbuilding is well-considered throughout, particularly the details related to gender and sex. THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE is one of my new favorite books, and one of the best among the many apocalyptic stories I've read.

A sequel is coming out in February that follows a different character through the devastated world (and I can't wait to read it!), but the midwife's story wraps up in this book, so it can be read alone.

THE CUTTING SEASON by Attica Locke: Caren manages a former plantation in Louisiana that now operates as a museum and event venue, complete with daily theatrical performances that don't present the most historically accurate depiction of slavery. Caren's ancestors were enslaved on this very plantation, but she also spent her childhood playing with the brothers who own the estate, so she has complicated feelings about the place and her job. When a migrant worker from the neighboring cane fields is found dead on the plantation grounds, the lives of Caren and her young daughter become a whole lot more complicated.

Caren is a well-developed character grappling with a lot of conflicts related to both her work and her family. Locke makes good use of Caren's many facets, as well as the intriguing plantation setting, in constructing the mystery plot. As the story moves through the steps of the investigation, it never strays too far from examining how race and the legacy of slavery contribute to everything that's happening.

I don't have a ton of experience reading mysteries, but that part of the book seemed fairly solid to me, with clues gradually coming together while many secrets and suspicions turned out to be unrelated to the murder. Though I enjoyed being pulled along by the mystery plot, what interested and satisfied me more was the story of Caren, her family, and their history with the plantation. If that's what I was supposed to care about most, than this novel definitely succeeded.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ If you're at all intimidated by making calls to legislators, this guide for how to call your reps when you have social anxiety will help: "It is okay if your voice shakes. It is okay if you feel awkward. They get a lot of calls, so they don't have time to judge you by how well you delivered your message."

→ I'm fascinated by Edan Lepucki's summaries for five novels she'll never write: "Without a long-term project to obsess over, I find myself channeling ideas all the time. A new premise will possess me for a few minutes or hours, my brain asking What if? or Why would that happen?, until, like a fly at a picnic, I alight on another, juicier narrative."

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