Guernica‘s editors and staff weigh in on the last, best thing they read. This month, our picks have a special focus on female writers, from Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic science fiction to a new biography of Emily Dickinson.
Earthsea trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin
The original Harry Potter, Earthsea‘s heroine leaves her mundane home town to attend an elite school for learning magic. And while the plot is satisfyingly familiar to fantasy fans (not just Harry Potter but the X-Men and many others attend schools for ultra-talented, if outcast, kids), LeGuinn’s satisfyingly moral tale has more in common with the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman. Like Pullman, LeGuinn’s writing seems to spring from the desire to dramatize alternate worlds as a coda to our own. And like Pullman, and Rowling, Le Guin’s Earthsea books are populated by lively characters, transporting adventures and driven both by plot twists and the twists and turns of its’ characters’ coming of age.
—Tana Wojczuk, Nonfiction Editor
Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis
Here’s the short version: Lamar Jimmerson buys a book, the Codex Pappus, from a con man. With the Codex comes membership in the Gnomons, a secret society fond of pointy hats and centered around the wild arithmetic principles of the lost civilization of Atlantis. Unable to track down the leaders of the society, Lamar returns to the U.S. to begin building an American branch of Gnomons in Gary, Indiana. Here’s the shorter version: Masters of Atlantis is hilarious.
—Ed Winstead, Editorial Assistant
Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins
Set in the brothels, ghost towns, mining claims and nuclear test sites of the windswept American West, Claire Vaye Watkins’ debut short story collection Battleborn glitters with life like gold flake in a pan. Her characters all strain away from their circumstances. There is the teenager who tries to wash herself of her “shit town” by giving herself over to the sparklingly seedy Las Vegas strip; the widowed and reclusive rock collector who dares try to shelter (and find shelter in) a troubled young girl; the new mother who, suffocating beneath her sudden domesticity, knowingly takes a risk with her baby; and, most wrenching of all, the daughter of Paul Watkins, the foremost recruiter of women into the Manson Family, who struggles to make sense of her own sordid history. This character’s name is Claire. Claire Watkins. It’s this exciting blend of fiction and non, along with Vaye Watkins startling prose all writhing with insight that makes hers the best book I’ve read in ages.
—Katherine Dykstra, Senior Editor
Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell
I highly recommend Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. Adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film in 2010, the novel is excellent for its hard-bitten, beautiful prose (a particularly intense confrontation is described as such: ‘He ran his eyes into her like a serpent down a hole, made her feel his slither in her heart and guts, made her tremble.’), references to mythology both classical and self-created, a brilliant depiction of rural patriarchy, and one of the best heroines to grace fiction in recent years. Trigger warning: there is a fairly graphic rape scene in the novel, but it is handled sensitively, and well, as are all the threads of this novel, in Woodrell’s deft hands.
—Li Sian Goh, Intern
Dora: A Headcase by Lidia Yuknavitch
In Dora, Lidia takes Freud’s infamous case-study and gives it the firecracker-smart, defiantly feminist re-telling that was so long overdue. Ida (Lidia’s re-imagined teenage Dora) is funny, observant, brave, fierce–the perfect heroine for taking on Freud, or “Siggy” as she calls him, and carving out a new “girl myth” for herself, one all her own.
—Michelle Koufopoulos, Editorial Assistant
Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess (upcoming from Europa Editions, December, 2012)
I’ve been feeling sluggish all year. Inert. When I tried to read a novel, it was from duty. I thought perhaps that was my fate: after years of reading for pleasure and for work, I was jaded. All year, glittering sentences left me cold. The unread books piled high. Books were a bore.
That is, until Anthony Burgess. Of all his writings, I’d only read A Clockwork Orange. I loved it and remembered in its introduction a notation that the author hated Clockwork; he thought it inferior. So I picked up Earthly Powers, his masterpiece. This sweeping, doorstop of novel is an attempt by Burgess to write something grand, in the Russian style. It’s about a gay writer, religion, the church, and a pope marked for sainthood. The dialogue is cutting. The observations sharp. The pages fly, as if on their own.
My review copy had a tetchy note: the publisher is aware that the type is a tad small. I am to point out that an ebook (with resizable type) is available. Done. An ebook is available, but this blunt-instrument of a large book with too-small type flies well past its physical boundaries because it’s genius. And perhaps that’s all I needed this year: a straight shot of genius.
—Meakin Armstrong, Senior Editor / Fiction Editor
Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
A few weeks ago I picked up Erica Jong’s 1973 novel Fear of Flying in an English book shop in Stockholm. I’d forgotten all of my books in New York and only wanted to buy female authors. With an arm already full of the OGs Anais Nin and Dorothy Parker, I was drawn to a bright yellow cover (good reason to pick a book), identical to the first edition of Phillip Roth’s famous work of psychosexual exploits, boasting such gendered qualifiers as “the female answer to Portnoy’s Complaint” and the Wall Street Journal’s claim that the novel “transcends being a woman’s book and becomes a latter-day Ulysses...”
I am not convinced that the novel, which had a finger in the second wave and offers a sprawling sexual narrative of a 29-year-old neurotic poet’s many fears and disappointing lovers, answers to anything but its own need to be written. It also gave us the phrase “zipless fuck” and deserves to be reread in the year 2012.
As Jong’s determined writer of erotic poetry moves from her frustrated ex-artist’s mother’s house to her first husband’s nervous breakdown to her second husband’s analyst’s conference in Vienna where she’s swept by another analyst to dingy, partner-swapping campsites along the autobahn, I sometimes wanted to slap her for a few reasons. One is her extremely honest and childish dependency on her husbands and lovers, and her endless indecision about whether to stay with her husband or go with her lover (her only choices being between two keepers). I often tired of her neuroses and her impenetrable… whiteness? But then again, I could crush her, and Jong herself, in an embrace for precisely not living-with-her-cat-and-husband-in-Brooklyn, but rather like a funnier and somehow less inhibited Sheila Heti, is just out to feel the world with a hungry cunt and to write, fuck, live, write.
—Kaye Cain-Nielsen, Managing Editor
White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson by Brenda Wineapple
Brenda Wineapple’s White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson offers a fascinating look at the interaction between the Amherst poet and her cosmopolitan editor. Wineapple wends the two biographies together in clear prose, making ample use of both authors’ many letters to lend their authentic voices to the telling of their own stories. Higginson has been slightly been lost in the annals of history as the man who told Dickinson that she shouldn’t publish her poems, but in all fairness she didn’t want to anyway. Wineapple presents the man in all his complexities: he was a scholar and an abolitionist, a prolific writer and a radical mind who was all too aware he fell short of the genius that graced someone like Ralph Walso Emerson, his hero, or Emily Dickinson, his new discovery. He frequently lamented the fact that no matter if he made a successful living as a writer (and he certainly did), he would never change the world. But he was chosen by Dickinson as the mind who would recieve her poems, and for good reason. This book lets us know why.
—Cate Mahoney, Publishing Assistant
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
I know that complimenting great narrative nonfiction by saying “it reads like a novel” has become a commonplace, but all through Katherine Boo‘s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I couldn’t help but think this. The story follows several families in a slum in Mumbai that is slated for demolition to make way for an airport expansion. The content is high-drama: it begins with a young man fleeing the police because he’s been accused of setting a neighbor on fire, and continues on to cover mother-daughter tension, a stint in juvie, a suicide, the details of garbage sorting and Mumbai politics. But it’s Boo’s tone that makes the book so striking. She narrates a world that is about as “other” as it gets, but never for a moment exoticizes, romanticizes, or condescends to her characters. Her narration is so close that at times I thought she must have been embellishing (she is not)—we know these characters’ private thoughts, details of their homes and pasts. I found the author’s note where she explains her reporting to be as moving as the story itself because the level of attention she gives the people in her book is so profound and respectful.
—Rachel Riederer, Guernica Daily Editor