Happy January, everyone. These four books have not much in common except for female authorship, but that’s something so I’ll hang my hat on it. I adored Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey, loved Louise Erdrich’s new novel, Future Home of the Living God. I’ve also got for you my take on The Velveteen Daughter and The Immortalists. I’d love to hear what you think if you’ve read these as well!
Future Home of the Living God, Louise Erdrich
I’ve loved Erdrich since college, and this is maybe one of her best. It certainly speaks to the present moment.
This is a dystopian/speculative work of fiction set in the near future, when something has gone awry with evolution. Cedar, the protagonist, is pregnant, and the government is trying to round up and imprison gravid women. Cedar spends the book on the run, and Erdrich is so masterful in her prose that I felt hunted myself while reading.
What separates this book from all of the other dystopian novels being written is firstly, the clarity and beauty of Erdrich’s prose. Secondly, the plot revolves around Cedar’s Ojibwe family and the reservation itself, where Erdrich sites resistance and resilience. As the structures of America crumble, the power and humanity of the tribe is allowed to blossom. It works as a reminder that sometimes, centuries of discrimination and abuse can lead to the strengthening of the folks who endure, a form of hard-won resilience. The Ojibwe are better able to adapt and flourish in the new, terrible world. Gorgeous, intricate, and fascinating. A truly lovely read, disturbing as it is right through the end.
The Velveteen Daughter, Laurel Davis Huber
I appreciate biographies and historical fiction around people (usually women) who are otherwise lost to time, and this is one of them. This novel is the story of Margery Williams Bianco, author of, among others, The Velveteen Rabbit, and her daughter Pamela. Pamela was an artistic child prodigy who later struggled with serious mental illness at a time when it was poorly understood. The book illuminates the art scene of the time (a cousin marries Eugene O’Neill, still remembered here in New London as just a real awful guy).
It also delves into the struggles universal and particular both to artists and to mothers and daughters. My one complaint is that, for historical fiction, I found it a bit unmoored temporaneously. This is perhaps partially due to the jumpy nature of the narrative, moving forwards and backwards in time. The events take place across the Depression and WWII, but these events are just barely mentioned. It is hard to believe they would not have had a greater impact on the characters.
The Odyssey, Homer, translated by Emily Wilson
This is the most brilliant translation of The Odyssey. Wilson, the first woman ever to translate it (!) reimagines the story in straightforward, carefully chosen language. She sets it in iambic pentameter and maintains the exact same length as the original. She takes the reading of this occasionally difficult ancient text and makes it enjoyable, while capturing the poetry, the rhythm, and the mystery. No small feat.
Really, a hundred times better than the translation I struggled through in high school. Something you might read, dare I say, for pleasure rather than torture. If you’ve ever (or never) wanted to read it, this is the only translation you should consider. With a long, very helpful introduction, a fascinating translator’s note, and plenty of help in the end notes if you want it, this is the only version worth reading. If you want to be even more impressed with Emily Wilson, check out the writeup in the New York Times Magazine. (Link here, I believe you can read a limited number of articles before you encounter the paywall.)
The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin
I don’t know about this one, really. It was a cool concept, I guess, how do you live your life if you know the date of your death? Not a brand new concept, but still a good hook. I took it out of the library, ready to be impressed, but perhaps my expectations were too high.
The writing was fine, but I felt it was all a bit predictable. As soon as you know the youngest character is gay and moving to California in the height of the AIDS epidemic, his death becomes… inevitable. The emotions, especially the traumatic loss of siblings, didn’t really ring true for me for whatever reason. It felt like more of a gesture towards the pain than a true reckoning. The writing itself was not enough to make up for what seemed a lack of passion. It darted, for me, into that shady area that feels more like emotional manipulation. I’ve heard other people have loved it, so perhaps it was just a subject mismatch for me. I’d be curious to read her other books. Sometimes, after all, the fault lies in the reader.