Flavors of Literature: Books to Satisfy your Literary Appetite by Gillian Perry

Friday, 2 October 2020

When the world went into hiding, and the coronavirus pandemic swept the nation, I found myself unemployed, planning a move across the country, and itching for human connection. All of a sudden there was entirely too much time and no bars, no restaurants, no movie theaters, no concerts or anything I had been looking forward to enjoying with my time off of work.  After I called all of my forgotten friends, and baked enough banana bread and cookies to gain ten pounds, I decided it was time to dive into something that really made me want to sink into the couch all day. What better to keep me indoors than my perpetually growing reading list?

Before the library closed its doors, I ordered a hefty stack of novels that I hoped would fill me up and keep me at least a little content to be indoors day in and day out. In order to keep myself satisfied, I noticed that I needed variety—a little bit of speculative fiction here, a sweeping narrative epic there, anything with interesting characters and plots that spoke to something I was missing in the outside world. As the stack of books on my nightstand piled up, I saw a lack of any true pattern, except that each book I read had scratched a certain itch, had satisfied a certain craving, and reminded me of the joy of being alive. This list of reads draws from those cravings, those things I found myself missing as the pandemic kept us all isolated from one another. Though they may all be for different tastes, these books all share the beauty of the human condition, and plots and characters that invite you in to their world (so maybe we can forget about ours for a little bit).

Dune by Frank Herbert

This book has been nagging me, begging to be read for years—with the movie adaptation on the horizon, the timing just felt right to read it now. As a hallmark of its genre, Dune surprised me with its tender characters and dramatic reckoning with identity. With a sweeping, epic plot and characters that demand attention, I was impressed with Herbert’s ability to offer such rich plots in an entirely alien universe. Arrakis and the planetary system that the Atredeis dynasty has traversed and struggled to dominate feels very genuine and real, despite its bleak, sandy, and seemingly un-liveable conditions.

Paul Aterdeis’s discovery of his destiny, and his exploration of the melange and the spice maps out an interesting rumination on human affairs, morality, politics, and the changing nature of human institutions. Despite its place among the best of science fiction, Dune does not tackle technological behemoths as other sci-fi texts do, it instead reckons with the dark influence of a shadow government, the potential of matriarchy, and the harm of climate change (in Arrakis’ ecology). All of this is wrapped in Paul’s messiah narrative, as he becomes an almighty, God-like force on Arrakis. I was most interested in Jessica, his Bene Gesserit mother who raises him to understand the human condition beyond its limits, and despite her telekinetic abilities, manages to remain human to the reader, while Paul becomes unreachable. In placing the Bene Gesserit at the center of the marriages and divorces of the great houses, Herbert allows women to hold ultimate power in this new world, despite the male appearance of such power. In reading this book, I was not only sucked into the tragedy and triumph of Paul rising from the ashes of his dynasty’s collapse, but also Jessica’s ability to remain crucial to Paul’s development. Girl power is so very relevant to sci-fi, and I love how Herbert does not shy away from it.

Transit by Rachel Cusk

Cusk’s second novel in her Outline trilogy, this novel also took me to places undiscovered, but rather than the dramatic sandy dunes of Arrakis, I was holed up in a London flat with horrible neighbors. This novel opens on a family’s demise, just as Dune, but here we have a writer and her two children dealing with a divorce, a new home, and the unreliability of being human. Cusk takes us through our narrator’s daily life where she elegantly pauses on moments that move her, conversations that make her consider her place in the world, and observations that help her to find the animation in the drudgery of convincing herself that life is worth something. The true joy of this novel is that every sentence feels important, it is as if Cusk has mastered the perfect formula for just how much detail a scene needs to leave an impact.

The cool voice of this novel withholds just enough to keep the reader’s attention—each conversation, each new relationship is understood to be revelatory, and though the “why” is often not spelled out for us, we understand the significance of these moments. Cusk’s skill in genuine dialogue keeps the reader grounded in her London, and we are able to really see the bravado in the ordinary. This novel left me profoundly moved, though I can’t say much more happens than a spattering of beautiful conversations, amid a foggy backdrop. There’s a beautiful moment where our narrator is talking to one of her students, and her student remarks,

“Loneliness…is when nothing will stick to you, when nothing will thrive around you, when you start to think you kill things just by being there” (Cusk 142).

This moment seems to ring true for our narrator, and for us, as we wonder what is thriving in this novel, what is keeping us reading—and the answer lies in the analytical narrator, searching for meaning in every instance. I remember when I finished this book, I took a walk, trying to find meaning in the cracks of the sidewalk, the half-waves from strangers.

The Wall by John Lanchester

Cold, lonely, a world post collapse—this is the setting for Lanchester’s The Wall, which was soothing to read in a “at least it’s not this bad” sort of way. The novel opens to a post climate change world where citizens of the new world have to spend two years holding a post as a Defender on The Wall which physically separates society from the others. Literally, the world beyond the wall is simply “other,” as sea levels have risen to such a degree that most of the world beyond this Wall is under water. I was fascinated by this novel’s treatment of immigration, of war, of the danger of a literal Brexit, where the UK is sealed off from the rest of the world. The strongest points of this novel are when we are experiencing protagonist Joseph Kavanagh’s experience beyond his monotonous and lonely days on the Wall, where the novel reckons with how biased histories are formed, and the risks of not understanding the world beyond one’s own experience. This speculative work spoke to my mind’s tendency to embrace hypothetical horrors, and I enjoyed playing with Lanchester and his cast of seemingly ordinary characters in exploring this dystopia.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

Adiche’s Americanah may be my favorite book from this last decade, and returning to it this summer was one of the best decisions I made. Protagonist Ifemelu is headstrong and sharp, and this novel follows her through her schooling in Nigeria, and then through her first Americanized experiences of race and education. Underscoring her story is her passionate and deep love for her childhood sweetheart Obinze, whose voice we hear in the last third in the novel. I love the way that this novel plays with destiny and fate, and Ifemelu’s very intellectual approach to race is revelatory in a time when many are seeking education about race relations and ethics.

There are beautiful scenes in this book that have stayed with me—Ifemelu dancing with Obinze under the stars, her unabashed joy as her blog surges in popularity, the tug of her hair as it is being braided and she is reflecting upon her American life. Adiche is skilled at creating empathy for her characters and allowing her readers into their minds at just the right moments. While reading, I felt as if I were growing with Ifemelu, experiencing heartbreak and success, calculating decisions based on real and true lived experiences that are as rich as the present moments. This sweeping chronicle reflects on the value of true love in a world which insists on rationality and good decisions, as well as how culture can shape one’s understanding of themselves and their place in the world. This novel is a true escape.

Call me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi

I saw Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi speak at the Bay Area Book Festival in 2017, and she was so eloquent and intelligent in the panel she was speaking on that I felt I had no choice but to purchase her novel. The panel was concerning the “value” of female protagonists—Oloomi made it clear that the fact that there needed to be a panel to confirm the value of female heroes was absolutely preposterous. Zebra, the protagonist of this epic of exile, would probably say something similar. She is a highly intelligent, critical, and wild narrator, insistent on the artistic values of all of her decisions, most of which are in an effort to retrace her family’s history which led to her exile from Iran. Thus, on the onset of her father’s death, Zebra sets off on a personal journey, hoping to write a literary manifesto by the end of her travels.

This is a novel that, like Americanah, speaks to the value of love. Zebra does not seem to understand love and prefers to intellectualize her world. However, grappling with her new surroundings and her father’s death is too rich an emotional experience to deal with alone. Zebra’s Italian lover and whip smart compatriot Ludo is a vital character in Zebra’s self-exploration. Her tendency to dive into theories of art and literature throughout the novel is interrupted nicely with scenes with tender Ludo, who is simply asking to be included and considered in her world. Zebra’s lyrical and eloquent experience of exile only serves to remind her of all the chapters in history in which she and her people have been erased—Ludo is there to remind her that she is very much alive to him, and to their world. Though frustrating at times, Zebra is hilarious and erudite, and her account of this literary journey was exhilarating and exhausting.  If Oloomi were to write again in Zebra’s voice, I wouldn’t be able to resist another journey with her at the mast.

So, with a dash of the chilly, lonely world of The Wall  and a spoonful of the warm romance of Americanah these novels have kept me full and satisfied. Though I am looking forward to sitting down to eat with friends I haven’t seen in a while, a meal with Dune or Transit open beside my plate is still an experience worth the red sauce stains.

Gillian Perry is an MFA candidate in Fiction at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Category: Creative Nonfiction, Essays, Uncategorized

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