Recent Books I’ve Clutched In My Hands With Joy: December 2019

I am disturbed by the number of current, popular books romanticizing the concept of royalty. Books imagining the U.S. as a monarchy. Books set in futures with monarchies—that aren’t dystopias. Though I’ve read some of them recently to understand the hype, I haven’t listed these particular books below because a) they’re not very good and b) I’m alarmed that these are bestsellers in a time when our federal government is becoming more authoritarian. When our democracy, as deeply imperfect as it has been, is intensely fragile; we’re hanging by a thread right now. So publishers: maybe look for those potential new bestsellers set in the time of the French Revolution? Or better yet, the Haitian Revolution. After all, the only royalty America needs is this kind.

This month, then: subversive fiction. My favorite kind.

The Water Dancer by Ta’Nehisi Coates

I’d like to read more stories like this one. Plain and simple. I’d like to see more stories like this one. I’d like to have been taught more stories like this one, even if it is fantasy. (Well, especially because it’s fantasy. Never met a portal I didn’t like!)

Coates’ story is about Hiram Walker, a boy and then man enslaved to his father in Virginia, who discovers an ancient power to create a magic portal to transport people out of bondage. It’s magical realism meets the Underground Railroad, which—sweet Jesus—is so much more worthy of a TV show than “what if the Confederacy won?” Coates is a careful writer and the melding of these two worlds is intricate and satisfying. Though, frankly, the language alone would be enough to keep me turning pages. The Quality, the muck, the agents. More, please!

Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

A friend recommended this book to me. She says she ended up not loving it a ton, but well, I still did. Nominally, it’s the story of Toby Fleishman, a recent divorcee trying to figure out his life when his crazy wife goes awol. If you mostly read women’s fiction, you’ll find the premise fundamentally unsettling, because, hello, there’s no way this guy can not be the real villain. And indeed, as the story progresses, and Brodesser-Akner masterfully peels back the layers of Toby’s self-image and narrative, you will find yourself vindicated, in part. It’s like a much darker, reverse Gone, Girl.

But gimmicks aside (one of which is online sex—brash and fun) the real value of this book is its unflinching look at marriage and divorce. It’s raw and honest in a way that would probably save a lot of newly forty-something married people thousands in counseling/divorce fees if they just read this book together (or alone with booze). Plus, there are a lot of very creative curses: May your children excel at video games, and nothing else. May you come alive at work. May your husband know you fully.*

*My pale imitations.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

I reserved this book from the library with a lot of trepidation. I read the first book, The Handmaid’s Tale, decades ago and never forgot its lessons; I still worry about the bank accounts (if you’re a woman, you know what I mean). Then I watched the first two seasons of the TV version of the book during the beginning of the Trump administration, and it was unbearable; I had to stop watching. So the prospect of diving back into Gilead had me pre-emptively hunched over in terror.

Atwood’s sequel, though, was not nearly as painful as I expected. She certainly doesn’t shy away from the horrors of the theocracy that has taken over parts of the U.S. in her story, but she also seems determined to give us hope and some redemption in lieu of yet more shocking scenes of violence favored by the TV show. In fact, in a twist that I’m still not sure I like, the book follows Aunt Lydia as she attempts to reconcile with her own choices and, maybe, bring down Gilead from within. She has help in the form of two younger women, but honestly, they seem fairly incidental. This book really is about Aunt Lydia.

So it’s not a chilling book. It’s also not a deeply emotional book. In fact, it gets pretty/too light and detached in the second half. But if you, like me, are reeling both from the realities of life on Earth today and the traumatizing TV take on Gilead (even years later), you’ll probably appreciate this story for the hope it offers. A nightmare tiger turned into a cat who can still be tamed.

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Recent Books I’ve Clutched In My Hands With Joy: November 2019