The Significant, Sad Case Of Alice Mitchell, Told By Alexis Coe in Alice + Freda Forever

alice and freda forever bigger!

In the 1890s, the United States was cementing its national identity, and it was predicated upon maintaining the white home on a national level. Same-sex love and African American men and women were cogent threats to the rigid hierarchy of race and gender, and the reactions on a local level from the judge, jail, sheriff, and newspapers speak to the national construction of American modernity.
–Alexis Coe, Alice + Freda Forever

Alice Mitchell met Freda Ward at a school for young ladies in Memphis, where the two young women fell in love in a way referred to as “chumming” in the 1890’s, considered practice for marriage to a young man. Their love was anything but practice, however, and once they left school and were forced to live apart in their respective homes, they sent intense love letters. Once their families realized the intensity of their love, they were forbidden from seeing each other. A heartbroken Alice decided if she couldn’t marry Freda, no one could. After several failed murder attempts, nineteen-year-old Alice slit her love Freda’s throat with a razor. Freda attempted to leave on a steamer, and Alice stopped her for good, turning a cold winter day into a desperate scene on the docks.

I promise I haven’t spoiled Alexis Coe‘s Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis for you, as the murder itself takes place in Chapter One, called “I Don’t Care if I’m Hung!” as this is what Alice defiantly yells after the killing her true love. The murder itself is the beginning of a strange story–from the consideration of Alice as insane due to her belief that she could live with another woman, to the reporters traveling from all over the United States to cover the case, to the judge building a larger courtroom to hold the onlookers–the murder was public spectacle, and a private tragedy.

newspaperheadlinesThis is historian Alexis Coe’s first book, and it is a true crime novel unlike any other. Truman Capote and Joseph Wambaugh, masters of the true crime genre, referred to their style as the “non-fiction novel,” where the author by necessity uses imagination to rebuild captivating scenes of a crime. Coe, in staying true to her field, explains in the Introduction to Alice + Freda Forever that she “imagined a book that was both written and curated.” Scenes and snippets are illustrated in an innocent style by Sally Klann, whose drawings render Alice and others into innocent cherubs stuck in history, victims of time and circumstance.

Rather than building the facts into a single story line for the reader, Coe takes the reader on a historical journey, examining the implications of race, sex, and class in 1892 Memphis. This works well as the artifacts from the case are plentiful, and love letters, news headlines, and trial excerpts intertwine with Coe’s telling of the story, which feels dedicated to telling the story without sacrificing truth. In this way, the book reminds me a bit of Laurent Binet’s HHhH, as he wasn’t afraid to tell his reader what he could and couldn’t know, and where the limits of historical storytelling lie.

I saw Alexis Coe and Mallory Ortberg discuss this book at The Booksmith in San Francisco a bit ago, and it was a great combination of smart and funny discussion. Ortberg pointed out how much she loved the chapter titles (“Erotomania,” “Vicarious Menstruation”), which Coe explained came from actual statements made by doctors or the press about the case. They talked about how this may be a book with no heroes, or Ida B. Wells may be its hero. Ortberg urged the audience not to murder anyone, many times. Since I hadn’t read the book yet, I asked if it was difficult to stick to the facts when telling the story, but now that I’ve read the book I realize Coe isn’t someone who struggles with sticking to the facts, she’s right at home amongst them.

Alice + Freda Forever on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Further Reading:

2014: My Year in Reading

I’m sad to say I haven’t yet reached my goal of reading all the books in the world, and I haven’t yet taught my cats how to read. I most certainly didn’t come close to reading all the books published in 2014. But I read a lot of great books this year. And others talked about the ones I haven’t yet gotten to, or passed over.

This year I bought a book stand, which may bring me to a new level of book nerdiness. It sounds extreme, until I checked my Goodreads and realized I’ve read 132 books this year. I spend a lot of time reading. Some of those books were listened to as audiobooks, some of them were kindled, some were checked out from the library, and others were added to my ever-growing library, overflowing off shelves.

Bookish folks declared 2014 the year of women and the essay. Pamela Paul, New York Times Book Review’s editor in chief, told Salon, “This year, there were far fewer of those books that stood out. Instead, we found there was more experimental fiction of note, a great deal of humor (even if dark) and a wave of strong essay collections, particularly by women.”  Others argued against such a classification. A lot of these essays are still on my to-read list, but there does seem to be something of an essay revolution happening. Maybe we’re just running into memoir fatigue, and moving to essays is the next natural step. I am in the midst of Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, which is thus far amazing.

bad feministthe empathy examsnot that kind of girlloiteringthe fame lunches

Here’s my top five books of 2014, in order:

wolf in white van1. Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle – I just double-checked the New York Times notable list to ensure they overlooked this one. How could this have happened? Wolf in White Van visited tragedy and depression in such a muted way, reading it felt a bit like suffocating. When so many books are filled with flowery language, there was such a lack of affect here that the understatement itself became affect. Wolf in White Van was long-listed for the National Book Award.

fourth of july creek2. Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson – My regular readers may now know I have an appreciation for books about those living on the edge, in some way. Fourth of July Creek explores a man gone mad living in the woods, his family turned feral. The social worker who insists on helping the situation is just trying to keep it together himself. If country noir has become a new popular genre, then this is a great literary country noir. Henderson’s characters are tragic; the Montana country is a stark, huge playground for the heartbreak and strife explored here.

the secret place3. The Secret Place by Tana French – Another knockout from the best living mystery author writing today, The Secret Place was one of those rare highly anticipated mysteries to live up to its hype. French writes literary mysteries that go a notch above police procedural, and The Secret Place added a dash of schoolgirl hysteria peppered with magic to the well-crafted, analytic drilling of suspects in a schoolroom over the course of a single day.

your fathers4. Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers – Everyone who reads a bunch has that one book they are surprised no one is talking about. For me, this book with its crazy long title (from the bible, even), is that book. I read so much about The Circle last year, which I didn’t love, but this little 225 page novel, written entirely of dialogue, flew under the radar. Although often described as a book about a guy kidnapping an astronaut, this is a book about a guy so frustrated with American society (the fall of industry, pointless wars, police brutality) that he kidnaps people, asking desperate questions, seeking any sort of answer. This is a small, stern tragicomedy.

to rise again at a decent hour5. To Rise Again At A Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris – Read this to never look at your dentist the same way again. To ask yourself how much control you have over your online persona, or if that control even matters. Read this to wonder what religion means in modern times. Flossing and nihilism, lost tribes and the futility of the workday, it all accumulates here into a bizarre story that no one other than Ferris, with his dark wit, could manage to make readable. To Rise Again At A Decent Hour was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize this year.

And, because I wasn’t able to read everything, here’s a list of the other lists out there:

I’m already excited about 2015, as there are a bunch of epic releases next year (okay, there are epic releases every year!), including a sequel to Syndrome E by Franck Thiliez and a new novel by Daniel Handler (also known as Lemony Snicket).

One Life Is Lost So Another Can Be Found In Amy Rowland’s The Transcriptionist

Rowland_Transcriptionist_NEW LION.indd

There is basic equipment required: a headset, a Dictaphone to play the tapes that must be transcribed, and patience, a willingness to become a human conduit as the words of others enter through her ears, course through her veins, and drip out unseen through fast-moving fingertips.
–Amy Rowland, The Transcriptionist

I love books about the odd, the quiet, and the life made so strange by realization it suddenly feels unbearable. Books about the things often overlooked. Amy Rowland’s The Transcriptionist is one of those books. It’s about pigeons silently sitting on sills, framing windows where much bigger action takes place. It’s about old men holed up in tiny corporate closets, doing work so unnecessary they almost don’t exist, elderly ghosts haunting big business machines. And most of all, it’s about a transcriptionist at a big New York paper. By definition, she’s on the periphery.

This transcriptionist is a channel through which other people convey the world’s big tragedies. She transcribes lost limbs and babies drown in mud during slides. Reporters ring the row of telephones in the Recording Room on the Eleventh Floor, and by default her voice is muted as she listens, and they relay to her the desperate and wild happenings in the outside world.

Only two reporters bother to call her by name, as they request transcriptions of interviews or call in from the field. One of those reporters has been calling her Carol for years. This transcriptionist, her name is Lena. She is, anyway you look at it, primed for a mental breakdown, or a moment of self discovery, or some big, great combination of both.

And she finds one of those, I’m not sure which one, or maybe she finds both, in a soul mate of sorts. She meets an old woman on the bus. The old woman is blind, and she is a court reporter. They are alike, Lena and this woman, as they let the voices wash through them and come out their fingertips day after day. They have a brief encounter, these similar strangers on the bus. And then, Lena reads of the old woman’s death in her own paper. Business continues as usual, for everyone but Lena. For her, life will never be the same.

Amy Rowland, The Transcriptionist‘s author, was a transcriptionist at the New York Times, which makes this book all the more delightful. It quietly crept onto the Washington Post’s Top 50 Fiction List for 2014, and would certainly make my top list for the year as well.

The Transcriptionist on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Kalireads.com is on Facebook!

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I’ll be sharing posts from the blog as well as other book related musings and links, so show some love and like the page!

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Now, let’s get off the internet and read some books, eh?

Eva Hagberg’s It’s All In Your Head Takes A Hard Look At The Mindfuck Of Illness

it's all in your head

For five years, I have been sick and I have been trying to will myself to be better. To think harder about being better, to improve more. To become a better breather, reactor, meditator, hoping that if I just try hard enough, the symptoms will go away and I’ll feel like myself again, like a self I remember as if out of a rearview mirror except with this one, the objects are smaller than they appear. I have tried to force myself to be more clearheaded, energetic, grounded. Tried yoga, acupuncture, cognitive behavioral therapy, talk therapy, and long walks in the woods. And every few months, when I finally felt I’d reached a zenith of my abilities with yoga, CBT, or talk therapy, I would give it another shot: go to another doctor, a Western doctor, one with an M.D. and a white coat, and I would tell him or her my symptoms (for the gender of the doctor does not matter only, it would seem, my gender), and hope that once again, the doctor would pay attention, would take my case, would try to help me so that I didn’t have to so deeply and fervently try to help myself.

–Eva Hagberg, It’s All In Your Head

It’s All In Your Head, Eva Hagberg‘s thirty-six page Kindle Single, can be consumed in one sitting, like a tale told round a campfire, or a sad dinner with an old friend in which the conversation turns unexpectedly real. Her words have a desperate pace, a history of illness so short but so complicated that explanation of everything is necessary and almost compulsive. Because there’s so much to explain, when you’re sick and no one knows why. When you’re sick, and the doctors tell you you’re stressed. Or maybe you’re not stressed, maybe you have cancer. Or no, not cancer at all. How’s your stress?

As a young woman who has struggled with health issues myself, I think all young women who have seen doctors, or doubted their instincts to trust what their bodies are telling them, or been to see doctors who make them doubt their instincts to trust what their bodies are telling them, can identify with this book. There is such a fine line between trusting yourself and telling yourself to do better and push harder in our world. People who are sick live on this line. We make our homes there.

Eva has handled living on this tightrope masterfully, and I was so moved by her story, and her strength to share it, that I stalked her a bit. I think she’s okay with it (we can only hope). We have similar circles of friends, and after reading the book I reached out to her about how much it blew me away, how similar it was to my own although our illnesses are so wildly different. We’re now Facebook friends, and I’m thankful to have her as an inspirational ally in the often weary, sometimes triumphant world of the ill.

Simply being honest about being sick is much more challenging than it sounds, take it from me, and with director Jamison Wiggins Eva filmed seven days leading up to her heart surgery in February of 2014, a project entitled How to Heart. They also made a short film, How to Magnetically Resonate, about getting an MRI scan.

There are many solutions presented in It’s All In Your Head, but (spoiler alert) there isn’t any medical miracle revealed. This isn’t life written into a story arc, with a climax leading to a clear resolution. This is a memoir of life as it comes, in messy starts and stops, riddled with mistakes and maybes, with no promises or cures.

If you like this book, try reading:

In Cartwheel, Jennifer DuBois Builds An Amanda Knox Rorschach Test

I’ve taken a brief break from blogging this week. With all that’s going on, it didn’t feel right to continue business as usual. Also, I’ve been sick, and I started a new seasonal job. But, I’m back. Onwards, to Cartwheel:

cartwheel

‘Well, we spent enough on gymnastics.’
‘Christ, did we,’ said Maureen. ‘So many lessons.’
So many lessons, it was true: art and music and ice-skating; Lily’s every fleeting interest enthusiastically, abundantly indulged. Not to mention the many more practical investments–chemistry tutoring when she struggled, English enrichment when she excelled, SAT courses to propel her to the school and then, presumably, the career of her dreams. What costs had been sunk, what objections had been suppressed, to deliver their daughter into the open and waiting arms of her beautiful life.

–Jennifer DuBois, Cartwheel

Jennifer DuBois disclaims that her second novel Cartwheel is “loosely inspired by the story of Amanda Knox.” DuBois mirrors facts of the Knox case in her own plot: when the young, beautiful American Lily is accused of murdering her roommate in Buenos Aires, her DNA is on the knife and the bra strap, there’s a local boyfriend, and a recently lost waitressing job at a bar. And there is, of course, the cartwheel, which Lily does during a break between interviews just after her roommate’s death.

DuBois builds characters around these facts, using the bones of the Knox case to explore that dark and wild unchartered territory running through each character’s head, those little details never discussed aloud. The things we Google at night. The people who’ve left us. DuBois exposes private dialogues–internal or intimate, between despairing parents in a hotel room or confused ex-lovers in a prison visiting area. She sculpts fictional characters that remind us how little we know of a person through courtroom head shots, news articles, and security camera footage.

Each narrator of Lily’s story, from the prosecutor infuriated by the photos Lily feels entitled to snap of locals, to her father, who waffles between thinking he’s protected her too much from the world and wanting to protect her more, sees a wildly different young woman depending on their own belief systems. In this way, Lily isn’t her own character as much as she’s a chameleon, reflecting back the belief systems of those around her in the way they find most satisfying.

In an interview with Barnes and Noble, Dubois explained, “It was that notion of a character who serves as a blank slate, or perhaps a Rorschach test—somebody who we regard through the prism of our own lives and preoccupations, somebody in whom people see different things but everybody sees something—that made me want to write Cartwheel.” And it is that notion, of how much we project onto unknowable people involved in media spectacles, and how much the media projects onto them to fill air time, that moves Cartwheel from just another book about Amanda Knox to a book about all that isn’t Amanda Knox.

Cartwheel on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

In Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun, the Puzzle Proves a Point.

silence once begun

Of silence, I can say only what I heard, that all things are known by that which they make or leave–and so speech isn’t itself, but its effect, and silence is the same.

–Jesse Ball, Silence Once Begun

In Jesse Ball‘s most recent novel, Silence Once Begun, Ball goes bravely into the spaces between things, the quiet pauses between our conversations, the assumptions made in the absence of evidence, and our constant obsession with knowing and noise.

Narrator and reporter Jesse Ball investigates a unique criminal case which shook a Japanese town, the case of Oda Sotatsu. Eight older women and men, between the ages of 50-70, have disappeared from villages, under mysterious circumstances. In the place of each resident, a playing card is found.

Oda Sotatsu, a quiet, hard-working young man, a wearer of “simple, muted clothing,” loses a bet, and signs a confession. When he confesses his involvement in the disappearances, his community is shocked, and they beg for more information. Where are their beloved elders? Are they still alive?

silence once begun title page

Preface to Silence Once Begun.

The Jesse Ball of the book, the narrator and reporter Ball, discovers this story via silence. Sotatsu, after his arrest, falls silent. Ball, too, loved someone who one day stopped speaking, with no explanation. At one point, Ball realizes: “In searching for a way out of my own troubles, I had found my way into the trouble of others, some long gone, and now I was trying to find my way back out, through their troubles, as if we human beings can ever learn from one another.”

Ball reassembles the story of Oda Sotatsu through those who still have a voice, no matter how changed by the events surrounding the case that voice has been. The novel consists of interviews with Sotatsu’s family and his lover, transcripts of one-sided police interrogations, stories from the prison guards who knew Sotatsu in jail, and finally an explanation from the man with whom Sotatsu placed that fated bet.

Silence Once Begun is so minimalist at times it feels unsettling, and at times it feels perfect. Even the most unsettling moments are perfect. The story here needs no elaborate scene setting or frenetic, tense mood building. The absence of rhetoric, and the struggle of each character to explain such an unknowable, bizarre, and baffling situation in a clear way, is more interesting than any vivid imagery. How much isn’t said builds more mood than additional words ever could.

I can’t give too much away regarding plot here, although Ball does acknowledge in a (beautiful, concise) Paris Review interview that, “My books, some of them appear to verge on the political. This one certainly seems to be an indictment of a justice system.” In certain moments I hesitated, and wondered if I was reading a crime story at all, or just some sort of meditation on our ability to know the truth. If you have those moments yourself while reading Silence Once Begun, forge on, brave reader, as the ending is a totally unexpected answer to all your questions.

Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Want More Serial? Five Other True Crime Cases To Keep You Up At Night.

Can’t wait until the next episode of podcast Serial comes out? Here are five other true crime cases, where false convictions, unclear motives, and uncaught killers keep the rivers of justice flowing dark and murky. Hop on in, the water’s fine!

Ron Williamson's mugshot.

Ron Williamson’s mugshot.

1. The Conviction of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz – A great primer for those not familiar with true crime, John Grisham wrote about Ron Williamson’s death penalty conviction for the murder of Debbie Carter in his first nonfiction book, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town. This reads like a Grisham novel, and doesn’t leave readers floundering for truth.

2. The Staircase Murder – Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s mini-series The Staircase follows the trial of novelist Michael Peterson. Sarah Koenig, Serial host and executive producer, referenced The Staircase as an influence for its style of revealing information. Peterson stands accused of killing his wife, who he insists fell down the stairs. Clear some time before you begin watching this eight episode series, as it’s impossible to stop once begun. Here’s Chapter One:

3. The West Memphis Three – Although this case has received a ton of press, I mention it because the original conviction depended so strongly on narrative over evidence, as did Adnan Syed’s case (at least it seems at this point).

While Adnan Syed was presented as a controlling Muslim, Damien Echols, Jesse MissKelley, Jr, and Jason Baldwin were presented as satanic adolescent rock and rollers. Echols was sentenced to death, and Misskelley and Baldwin were sentenced to life imprisonment for the murders of Stevie Edward Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore. They were all innocent, and West of Memphis is a great documentary about the entire ordeal, including suggestive evidence of the true killer. Damien Echols has also written several books.

The West Memphis Three mugshots.

The West Memphis Three mugshots.

4. The Long Island Serial Killer – For those seeking their own unsolved crime to puzzle over, Robert Kolker’s book Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery explores the maddening details surrounding the Long Island Serial Killer.

In May 2010, a woman pounded on doors in the small community of Oak Beach, yelling for help. She ran from her driver, and wasn’t seen again. The woman was a sex worker, one of the most exploited groups of people in America. Where she went, why she was asking for help–all this is a mystery. In December 2010, four bodies in burlap sacks were discovered in the same area. Four months later, four more bodies.

Some of the mystery here comes from the location–the barrier islands of Long Island, and specifically Oak Beach, where the investigation takes place, are somehow tucked away from the modern world. Oak Beach is a marshy gated community, without grocery stores or gas stations. People who live here seek privacy, not the mass hysteria surrounding a police investigation.

Interactive Case Map from Lost Girls.

Case Map from Robert Kolker’sLost Girls.

5. The Jeffrey McDonald Trials – A true crime puzzle, I’ve found myself lost in this for months at a time. On February 17, 1970, Jeffrey McDonald, Special Forces Green Beret, physician, good looking and likable guy, makes a call for help. His two young daughters and his pregnant wife are dead, murdered in his home. What follows is a desperate and winding path towards an unknowable truth, as the army bungles and destroys evidence in his Fort Bragg home, McDonald himself insists a Manson-like hippie cult killed his family, and police set out from the start to prove McDonald guilty.

Fatal_Vision_bookThe murders and subsequent trials have spawned three major works of non-fiction, starting with Joe McGinniss’s notorious Fatal Vision. McGinniss embedded with McDonald’s defense team during his trial, befriended McDonald, and was given unfettered access to his home and his deepest thoughts. Although McGinniss reassured McDonald he viewed him as an innocent man, even after his conviction, he early on decided he was dealing with a psychopathic murderer. The journalist never revealed his dramatic change of heart to his close friend and subject. Ever. McDonald wasn’t given a copy of the book ahead of its release, and he learned of McGinniss’s true feelings during a 60 minutes interview.

the journalist and the murdererMcGinniss’s betrayal of MacDonald’s trust and the subsequent lawsuit were the subject of Janet Malcom’s The Journalist and the Murderer. It opens with the famous line, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” This book has been mentioned in reference to Serial, and it’s applicable to the complicated relationship between Adnan Syed and Sarah Koenig. At times Koenig sounds like an anxious lover, and there’s a huge amount of trust and delicacy surrounding their relationship and her choice to expose him at this level, as we all debate this young man’s life, freedom, like-ability and relationship to his faith.

a wilderness of errorFinally, Errol Morris goes through the evidence in A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald. Morris is, as I am, constantly captivated with how narrative affects truth building in our world. An interview once called Errol Morris a forensic epistemologist, and I think that is his intention with this book, to break down and study where the knowledge of the case came from and how thinking patterns were influenced.

Morris doesn’t shy away from questioning why we think the way we do, in patterns that most of us consider necessary and natural. Although he’s analyzed truth in everything from photography to politics, the way we currently create narratives surrounding crime is a big interest of his. His first really notable documentary, The Thin Blue Line, was intended as a documentary about a forensic psychologist but ended up being a documentary about a man in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, thanks in part to the testimony of that forensic psychologist. Morris unexpectedly gets the true criminal to confess, and the unjustly imprisoned man’s conviction is overturned.

Errol Morris didn’t go into The Thin Blue Line looking to make that sort of documentary—he just realized he was dealing with an innocent man, and the rest followed. In A Wilderness of Error, Jeffrey MacDonald’s guilt or innocence isn’t a focus as much as the narrative which surrounded Jeffrey MacDonald’s guilt. The police were fairly sure he did it, right from the start, and sought evidence to fit with their idea of the crime. This is applicable to Serial, as Koenig’s private investigator mentioned the concept of bad evidence, and the police’s intention of building a case. Morris argues that reality doesn’t work in this way, in which we can build a narrative which makes sense to us then pick and choose evidence to frame that narrative.

This attitude, a lack of narrative building surrounding the crime, is part of Serial‘s appeal thus far. There’s an appeal to a narrator who doesn’t know what sort of story she’s telling. In a world thick with story lines and plots, there’s a simplicity in going wherever the research takes you. It’s a refreshing change from our world today, where everything from sales pitches to crimes are wrapped fully formed like stories, bows tied and loose ends ignored.

Hopefully these true crime cases keep you busy until Thursday. Happy sleuthing!

Edan Lepucki Shakes Up California

Lepucki_California-660x1024

Edan Lepucki’s first novel, California, quakes and freezes our world into dystopia, adds a dash of refuge with dark undertones, throws in the nefarious older brother from Ender’s Game, and stirs.

Protagonists Cal and Frida flee a crime-infested and broken-down Los Angeles, making home out of a shed in the woods. As memories mix with their day-to-day struggle to survive and search for companionship in this new world, they stumble upon the causes of their civilization’s decline.

In this not-too-distant future, the wealthy live in Communities, with infrastructure and protection paid for by supporting corporations. Those who can’t afford to get into the Communities, like Cal and Frida, are left fending for themselves in the wilds of America. Outside a Community’s high walls of safety brace, they brace for raids from marauding pirates, plant vegetable gardens and fish, and wait for the horse-riding tradesman to arrive.

This book is probably on your radar as its hype machine has been running hard. It was featured on Ford’s Audiobook Club, and The Colbert Report. Currently, it is up for a Goodreads Choice Award for Best Sci-Fi.

I waffled quite a bit while reading California, not sure if I loved it or hated it. Main characters Cal and Frida, like most of us, seemed dull rather than dazzling, struggling in dystopia rather than building evil empires or falling apart into little pieces. They make dumb mistakes and don’t stand up for themselves. They have sex a lot because they’re bored, they hate eating vegetables every meal and miss their friends and families. Maybe this makes California authentic to a post-disaster life, and maybe this makes it a bit boring. They’re just trying to survive, scared and hungry and lonely. As other reviewers have mentioned, the language here isn’t doing any cartwheels, but I don’t think Lepucki intended her narrators, Cal and Frida, to speak eloquently or rhapsodize about their experience.

California scared me not because I live in it’s namesake state, home of earthquakes and the current drought, but because the concept of privatized Communities felt so plausible. I lived in Oakland, CA for many years, and there’s been much debate about private security cars roaming the nicer areas while the poorer areas are left to fend for themselves. Google is building an airport in Mountain View complete with a blimp hangar. I winced when I read about a world in which corporations keep the wealthy safe in compounds and forget about the rest of us, because it does seem so plausible based on some of the current struggles in the Bay Area.

What makes this book great is all that necessary societal evil brimming under the surface. In this California, you can’t have everything, and the sacrifices made for safety or its opposite, for comfort or control, are staggering. This isn’t just another dystopian novel, but (like the best speculative fiction/dystopia) it feels like an accurate criticism of life in our society today.

California on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Tom Rob Smith’s The Farm Morphs Mom and Dad Into Spy Vs. Spy

the farm

Tom Rob Smith’s The Farm follows his hit trilogy Child 44, and fans of Child 44’s tense and gristly tone won’t be disappointed.

The Farm begins with protagonist Daniel’s parents pitted against each other. Mild-manned, retired mom and dad seem to have gone totally mad, as Daniel’s dad calls complaining about his mom’s violent, erratic behavior. Hours later Daniel’s mom calls him from a pay phone, warning him to not trust his father. Daniel feels submersed in a familial spy novel, where he doesn’t know who to trust or what to think.

Daniel’s frazzled mother, Tilde, arrives on his doorstep and begins to weave a tale which is as indecipherable as it is irresistible. Daniel knew his parents retired to a farm in rural Sweden, but layers upon layers of what Daniel imagined to be the idyllic golden years of his parent’s life are revealed as untruths. Daniel is shocked, not only by what his mother is revealing about her own life but also by the treachery she senses in her new rural area. Is Tilde mentally unstable, paranoid and erratic? Or is she a strong, stubborn and observant woman, willing to speak up against those in power in a small community corrupted by evil?

From its opening sentences, The Farm wraps the reader into its vivid, suspicious world. Smith masters storytelling through Tilde, who comes across as brusque and a bit wild, but captivating. Smith drags the reader along on this journey of discovery with Daniel, like being dragged along the outside of a speeding car. Anyone with a remotely typical family life can imagine Daniel’s dismay at being presented with stories so wild they clearly belong in nightmares, not his parents’ retirement years. Although a twist near the end may leave some readers feeling cheated, fans of Smith’s previous work will expect nothing less.

The Farm on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

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