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Author Archives: Holly Atterbury
When I was eighteen years old, I hiked with my freshman anthropology class from the Hudson-Meng dig site to Toadstool Geological Park, out in Nebraska’s Panhandle. It was one of the longest, hottest hikes I have ever trekked, the first where I’d ever heard the blood-freezing bone-shake tambourine of a rattlesnake and her tail, mere feet away from where I stood, and where I, with only my own two legs, traveled back in time. It is one of my favorite memories. Standing in a mostly-dry riverbank, after crossing over the pale limestone gashes in the the grasslands, eyes raised to the multicolored strata of the earthen walls around me, I was beneath and surrounded by different ages of the Earth, upon which feet so like mine might have tread. There is nothing that makes you feel smaller, more connected, more human.
Robert Macfarlane’s Underland swept me back to that moment in a breathtaking work of nonfiction. His writing is crisp, lyrical, and heart-cuttingly honest. The mark of an experienced storyteller traces through each paragraph and page like the webs of fungi beneath earth’s forests, connecting and communicating and enriching his experiences and ideas. Whether he is describing the way colors and sound return to the self after exiting a cave system, or forcing his body to crawl inch by claustrophobic inch through an unstable tunnel scarcely bigger than himself, there is a breath-robbing sense of adventure and awe throughout his journey.
There is also the sense of a great ache; we are, he writes, and circles back to, in the midst of the Anthropocene – the geological epoch of human impact, to be noted in the strata of our planet when we are long gone, “what will survive of us is plastic, swine bones and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain” (77). But this is not a book of pessimism, nor of misanthropy, even as it turns its gaze to The Hiding Place, in Olkiluoto, Finland, where we prepare to seal our nuclear waste. This is not a place of honour, the inscription for that chamber begins – a deterrent for the generations we hope that will come after us. And it is with the hope in the generations of whatever life that will come that the work is being done, Macfarlane realizes.
“The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful” (8). This is why we go down into the Earth, why it features so heavily in our mythologies across our cultures and ages — what we have buried is a part of us, a reflection of us, what we grieve and what we hope for and what we believe in, the unknown selves we wish to uncover. It is as much a part of our future as it is our past. Underland begins with analyzing our reflexive revulsion to the underlands, and then peels back the earth and uncovers beauty and an incredible, unfathomable stretch of time that goes far before us, and will carry on far after.
Macfarlane, Robert. Underland: A Deep Time Journey. W. W. Norton, 2019.
Frankissstein: A Love Story, by Jeanette Winterson, is just that: a love story.
What kind of love story, though, is the question. Love between whom? Love for what? That’s the question at the core of it.
The book is divided between two main intertwined narratives: the first set in history, that of young Mary Shelley, as she sparks with inspiration to pen the novel Frankenstein. The second narrative takes place in the near future, following Ry Shelley, a transgender doctor, and their journey alongside the mysterious man they have fallen in love with: Victor Stein. Victor, who is seeking to overcome death, not through stitching and reanimating a corpse, but with AI technology. Accompanying them are their parallels from both times: Lord Byron, the poet becomes Ron Lord, the sex-bot inventor/dealer (ha!); Dr. Polidori, Byron’s physician, becomes Polly D., a writer for Vanity Fair, and Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s stepsister and Byron’s mistress, who becomes just Claire, a religious woman.
It’s a novel that was, largely, more philosophy than plot. Winterson’s stories are usually such — literary fiction; my all-time favorite book is her The Stone Gods — but this read almost like a thesis on what makes us human, the future of humanity, death, what our souls might be (if we even have one), gender, a smidge of socialism, reality, the ethics of AI/robotics, feminism… it was a lot packed into 344 pages. The interwoven narratives kept the book flowing, as did Winterson’s clever writing, as usual; though I did wrestle with choices she made, especially where Ry was concerned, choices that felt like amateur, insensitive mistakes. Overall, I loved Mary Shelley’s story more than I loved the pseudo-sci-fi story, even (or maybe because) I knew what happened in her life, tragedies and all. It was just the telling that varied. For me, that was where the love story shone through the brightest. Mary’s love and grief and curiosity were so well threaded together that she came alive on the page better than all the others, I felt, and was (re)animated for a little time with nothing more than a spark of imagination.
Frankissstein certainly isn’t Winterson’s most successful work, by any means, in my opinion, and unfortunately ended up feeling more like something like a work in process than a final product. And it definitely is no stellar crash-course in Trans 101; Ry is not understood by the characters that surround them in the narrative, which makes it challenging to see if they are understood by their author (who could have – should have – used non-binary instead of hybrid to describe them in-text), and so you feel for them, seemingly as displaced in the world as Dr. Frankenstein’s creation; a parallel, too, that perhaps is not the most kind; however, there is a great wealth of history of the queer and the creation, the queer and the monster. But the analysis one can pull from the text doesn’t fully make up for the discomforting wade through transphobia, and so if you’re interested in Winterson’s LGBTQ works rather than her musings on the human condition, another one of her earlier novels or her autobiography might be a better place to begin.
Winterson, Jeanette. Frankissstein. Grove Press, 2019.
Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country by Chavisa Woods is a collection of short fiction. Weird Stories. Liminal Stories. Queer Stories.
In the first, “How to Stop Smoking in Nineteen Thousand Two Hundred and Eighty-Seven Seconds, Usama,” a young New York lesbian returns to her rural hometown and strange things start happening: eerie lights in the woods, and a terrifying sense that everything is connected. In “Revelations,” a grieving widow’s friends tip her world upside down in an attempt to save the church she founded. And in the titular story, the narrator provides a sample menu of what they recommend one ought to do when one is Goth and living in the country: including, but not limited to, “a nonconsensual, surprise Southern Baptist exorcism. There’s just nothing else that can compete” (215).
At their cores, these eight stories are about two things: Being, and Doing, and all the contradictions and complications and messes that comes with all of that. To be both stuck and free. To be Goth – to be Queer – to be Outsider – to be of a place, born and raised; simultaneously claimed and unclaimed, known and unknown, liminal and with one foot always lifted and pointed and stepping somewhere else. But the other foot – the other foot, the one we love and hate in equal measure – is still rooted down and planted in the homesoil from which we grew. Woods tells these stories not with melancholy, and not even really with nostalgia, but with a casual shrug of honesty, an unflinching bluntness, and a dry snap of humor. Importantly, her characters don’t just exist, they act — in human, sad, rough-edged, transgressive and get-by ways. And what unfolds is a commentary on the larger nowhere places and strange spaces between friends, strangers, lovers and enemies in the Middle of Nowhere; where the corn rustles in the haunting thick of dark and the bone-thin coyotes laugh as you double-guess the shiver-trick question of movement in your rearview and press the gas a littler harder.
“This is where you belong. There is much to be done” (221).
This book is for mature audiences.
Looking for other unsettling books like this in the chilly prelude to Halloween this season? Here is what this author recommends: https://electricliterature.com/10-books-for-country-goths/
Woods, Chavisa. Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country. Seven Stories Press, 2017.
In six months’ time, an asteroid is going to slam into the Earth, ending all life as everyone knows it, and Detective Hank Palace just wants to do his job.
Peter Zell – actuary, ordinary, quiet man, fellow-waiter-for-the-End – is found dead in a McDonald’s bathroom. Suicide, of course. It must be, because all over Concord, and all over the world, people are killing themselves in a preemptive epidemic – it’s the end of the world, and things are beginning to get bad, and they’re only going to get worse before – BAM! – so why not get it out of the way sooner rather than later?
Only Hank – who wanted to be a detective since he was a kid, now, finally, has the chance; all around him people are walking off their jobs, because who wants to clock in when death, confirmed in odds and orbit is hurtling on a direct and unstoppable path towards your species’ sole habitable planet? And those people happen to include detectives, which means rookie cops get promoted years early, making Hank the luckiest, unluckiest man in Concord, depending on your perspective; hey kid, you made it, sorry about the asteroid. Ain’t the just the old sting of existential dread that comes with being a Millennial? – Only Hank isn’t so sure Peter Zell killed himself. Hank, still mostly bright-eyed, still dedicated, with Farley and Leonard’s Criminal Investigation’s textbook memorized, is pretty sure that Peter Zell was murdered.
The Last Policeman is not your everyday detective novel. The elements of a typical mystery are there: the suspects, the clues, the red herrings and the twists, the suspense that moves quick enough to have your spine straightening and your eyes brightening with quickened interest; did we get ‘em, did we figure it out? Remove the asteroid and you have a standard detective story: was a man murdered, and for what? Depending on who the man was, maybe there’s less dragging of feet. Put back the asteroid. Now a man is dead. Maybe murdered, maybe not; does it matter?
To Hank, it matters. He wants to know the story (175). He wants to do his job; a man is dead and that matters, even though they’re all going to die.
I love a good detective story, and if there’s a good, solid human element mixed with a literary style, then I am sold. Winters crafted a doomed world but kept Hank’s chin up enough despite, as one character calls it, “the weight of all this unbearable immanence” (39). It’s a complicated, bittersweet novel that surprised me by having bright moments of humor. Since it is the first in its trilogy, it left some threads dangling, and I am curious to see how Winters develops those plotlines. It is interesting to start a series where the end is pretty much a given – and not a particularly, one must assume, happy end. There was an element of denial I found myself falling into as I read. Because I – like Hank, like everyone – don’t want it to end like that.
Which creates a fascinating connection between the characters and the reader: to hope, in that ever-irrational, ever-human way, for an impossible way out; that somehow, someone failed to carry a one somewhere and threw the entire model off course; that at the last moment the asteroid is going to veer away and the disaster will be averted and we will all go on living.
The Last Policeman is followed by Countdown City and World of Trouble.
Winters, Ben H. The Last Policeman. Quirk Books, 2012.
“I found a snail in the woods. I brought it back and it’s right here beneath the violets …”
“Is it alive?”
This is the first question Bailey asks of the snail in her book, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, in which she recounts her survival through a debilitating relapse of her chronic illness. Once a traveler and gardener, she is rendered bedbound and alone, save for the occasional visits of loved ones and her caregiver. And then she is gifted the company of a wild woodland snail, brought from its habitat with a friend’s potted offering of wild violets.
As it so happens, the snail is alive, and its motion and unique liveliness breathes purpose into Bailey’s stalled life.
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a small book. Its pages number at 170; 191 if you count the acknowledgements and bibliography. It’s a quick read that gets technical at times but never becomes wholly inaccessible. Its style, complete with pages dotted here and there with monochrome drawings of snails, is a tribute to the 19th century naturalists of whom Bailey seems fond, and she follows in their footsteps – or, rather, to borrow her imagery, she glides along the slime trail they left behind.
Bailey draws from scientific literature and poetry in rhythm with her observations, making the book one-part informative essay and one-part ode. Peppered in between discussions of the snail’s locomotion, diet, and evolution are the chronicles of her illness, told in an almost tangential fashion, secondary but parallel to the snail’s life, where she both wishes to be more like the snail and longs to feel human again. Is it alive, she asks of the snail and its stillness during their first introduction. Am I alive, she seems to ask; or, the darker question that lingers, one with an answer she couldn’t know, will I survive this?
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is best enjoyed in the perfect stillness that might allow oneself to overhear a snail at its dinner. Bailey asks the reader to slow down and ponder – and wonder – at nature and its small, unnoticed creatures and their tiny, significant lives. The reward for your patience is a quiet sort of jubilation and a feeling of hopeful resilience.
Bailey invites us to consider the snail and, in doing so, asks if we might also see ourselves.
Bailey, Elisabeth Tova. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010.
I recently ordered a copy of Good Omens, which arrived in my mailbox dingy, awkwardly sized, and with an atrocious “SOON TO BE A TV SERIES” sticker that turned out to not be a sticker at all, but rather a circle printed onto the cover itself like a mosquito trapped in amber — the point being, the book arrived not at all like I had hoped, but rather in a manner that oddly suited it. Like an old, eccentric friend skidding to a stop right at your front-door: slightly out of breath, bedraggled, and altogether entirely welcome.
Good Omens brings together an entire cast of Dramatis Personae to enjoy, but three of the central characters are Crowley (“an Angel who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards”), Aziraphale (“an Angel, and part-time rare book dealer”), and Adam (“an Antichrist”), all of whom are supposed to bring about the End of the World according to The Plan, but all of whom don’t really want to. Neither Crowley nor Aziraphale, having forged a strange friendship dawning back to the Fall of Man, fancy an eternity of The After run exclusively by either demons or angels. Plus, they’ve developed a sort of attachment to humanity and all of its wonderful imagination. And as for Adam, well… what eleven-year-old wants to do what he’s told?
This is a whirlwind delight of a book; though at times its snappy, quick-witted prose can create as much confusion as it does charm. It’s a book that you would be tempted to read quickly (and can), but you may find yourself (like me) having to go back and carefully reread certain passages. It took me a few attempts to comprehend the baby-swapping that occurs in the beginning. It doesn’t help that a collaboration between two prolific British authors tends to be quite…British, and although the authors’ inclusion of footnotes helps, eventually an untraveled American may need to give up on recognizing where anything is taking place.
It’s a rollicking, reverently irreverent mashup of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and The Holy Bible; a humorous high-energy (oc)cult classic that might end up making a profound point about Life and all that.
Gaiman, Neil, and Terry Pratchett. Good Omens. Harper Collins USA, 2006.