The Tuesday List: Winter of our Discontent

Winter is here! Sort of.  Mostly.  Snow has hit the ground and stuck in the Northeast U.S., so I’m calling it.  Here, then, are a few books that are set in winter, or remind me of winter in some way.

And don’t worry, there’s no GRRMartin in sight.

  1. The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb

Though the Six Duchies get seasons just like (I suppose) mid-to-northern Europe does, it always seems to be winter when Fitz is running around, killing raiders and whatnot, so this series always makes me think of winter.  It’s a good read, too, for people who like pseudo-medieval-Europe and epic fantasy.

2. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

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This novel begins on a snowy night at the beginning of winter in Toronto, when one man gasps his last on stage during a production of King Lear, and then civilization slowly collapses.  I remember well the vivid imagery of a young man pushing a shopping cart full of groceries through the slushy streets, hoping against hope to make it to his disabled brother’s high-rise apartment and somehow wait out the apocalypse.

3.  All the Windwracked Stars (Edda of Burdens book 1), by Elizabeth Bear

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This is the series I think of when I think of Norse mythology adaptations.  Ragnarok, snow and ice wrapped all around, and the Valkyries fighting for the light and their world.  Only one Valkyrie survives, along with a two-headed deer, the valraven, steed of the Valkyrie.  Millenia later, the fight takes new form in a world changed to almost unrecognizabilityfor Muire, the last Valkyrie.  But have others survived?  Where are the Gods of the north?  And what is she to do now?

4. Razorhurst, by Justine Larbalestier

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This  novel doesn’t take place during winter (as far as I can remember), or maybe it’s bright spring when the sun is shining but there’s still a coldness to the air.  Or maybe it’s the bleakness of the characters, the chilling fact that Kelpie can see ghosts and can’t help it, can’t get away from them, even as they beg her to avenge their deaths.  Or it might be the feeling of chill dampness that comes from Kelpie’s brief and mournful memories of growing up in Frog Hollow, before she found work and places to stay away from the horrible gully.  Despite the chills this novels brings, or perhaps because of them, it’s a stellar read and a great story of two girls sticking together to fight the gangs that have turned their neighborhood into a war zone.

5. Cold Magic (Spiritwalker trilogy book 1), by Kate Elliott

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Like many quality fantasy novels, Cold Magic begins in the winter with Cat, bound to marry a cold mage, one who can not only harness the power of ice, but who strips the heat from rooms kills fires with his very presence.  He is coldly arrogant, Cat hates him on sight, but must stay with him to protect her family.  What seems like the start of a cliched romance turns into anything but.

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The Infinite Now, by Mindy Tarquini

In Philadalphia of 1918, the Great War is winding down, but the flu epidemic is just getting started, ravaging the Italian quarter of the city that Fiora Vicente calls home.  Newly orphaned due to the new sickness which has swept in on the wings of war, the sheltered teen is brought to live with an older gentleman, a respected member of the community, for reasons that Fiora can’t fathom, but for which she is grateful, in her spoiled way, all the same.

One of the greatest successes of this novel is Tarquini’s creating an unlikeable and yet sympathetic young protagonist, whose horror at the world is visceral and real, and who yet lives in a sort of fantasy world, a bubble that could be pricked at any moment.  Like most sections of cities populated primarily by people of the same nationality–even the same small communities–the Italian quarter of Philadelphia is insular in its own way, with everyone knowing the business of everyone else.   But Fiora is the outsider, and it is her inability to become part of the wider community that Don Sebastiano oversees that leads to her drawing the bubble of time around herself and her small territory, afraid to let the outside world in lest more sickness arrive, more people die, or word of her brothers off fighting in Italy come through.

The Infinite Now is a poignant, and yet claustrophobic, story of emmigration, community, and bereavement; for every step forward that Fiora takes, life seems determined to push her backwards.  Tarquini does a good job of building palpable tension, symbolized by the brief, yet unchangeable glimpses into the future that Fiora gets through the fortuneteller’s curtain she inherits from her mother.  The warring feelings of isolation and smothering she feels, the ways in which she slips back and forth between forming meaningful relationships and being pushed away from people because of assumptions and prejudices, are both effective and well-constructed.

 

This is also a novel of a particular time, a window into a small portrait of European-American experience that can be hard to imagine, from this 100-year vantage, and The Infinite Now, apart from its pseudo-time travel elements, also live up to its name in terms of the ways it evokes an infinitely huge, and yet infinitely small world, where people who emigrate become irrevocably separated from their home communities through the vastness of oceans, and yet never seem to leave the tiny worlds they make for themselves in their new countries.

If there is any complaint to be made about the novel, it would be the ways in which it too neatly wraps up the story’s conclusion.  It takes an issue–non hetero sexual orientation, which was often a serious taboo in traditional and insular communities–and treats it, first of all, as no big deal, and then seems to forget it entirely in its attempts to bring the novel to a close as the story of an old woman looking back on her life long ago.  For those into period novels with a dash of fantasy, this novel will do nicely, but those for whom LGBT identity representation is important, this might be a small red flag.

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Corruption
crosses all borders, but so does beauty. 
Americanah spans the Atlantic
Ocean, crossing Nigeria, to the United Kingdom, to the United States, and back,
and across the miles, the bond between Ifemelu and Obinze, somehow,
remains.  In a novel that is
remarked upon for its lethal skewering of race in the United States and the way
American foreign policy affects nations the world over, a love story is created
that becomes a metaphor for so much more. 
            

Both
Obinze and Ifemelu leave their native Nigeria in search of something else—they
don’t really even know what, other than stories—in the west.  And both, eventually, return to Nigeria
and find a way to make a life for themselves there.  Along the way, the reader is introduced to a palette of
friends, relatives, and barest acquaintances who color every experience that
the pair have.  Adichie revels in
the good and the bad, every scene a delight of sight and sound, grounding the
novel as something lived-in and worn with all the experience of real life.

The
style of the novel is matter-of-fact, confident in its lines, accepting no
nonsense.  Adichie’s narrative
carries the reader along, as if in a trance, floating in that corner of
Ifemelu’s brain as if part of her. 
Adichie layers narrative through the use of Ifemelu’s blog, allowing her
characters to say what needs to be said, have experiences that go beyond the
reach of a story and out into the real world.  It’s a subtle and affecting novel, one that every reader in
the U.S. should pick up.

Readers
attuned to deeply personal narrative journeys will be spellbound by Ifemelu’s
journey and the experience of her inner consciousness.  Those looking for something deeper than
your average Sparks or Picoult will enjoy the depths Adichie is able to reach
with such a simple-seeming plot. 
Anyone interested in peeking outside the traditional realm of white
publishing should definitely get hold of this one.

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

            A Tale for the Time Being is proof that big things come in small packages.  Not the book itself—at just over 400 pages, it’s a commitment—but in the characters themselves.  Ozeki’s Man Booker-nominated novel contains no larger-than-life or overly dramatic characters.  No true villains, no celebrated heroes unseemly with their own goodness.  But it contains heroes nonetheless.  It’s the story of Nao, who begins to tell a story just to pass the time, or just in time, or before time runs out. 

            A Tale for the Time Being is a series of stories that get bound up in others, swirled around, and tucked inside until the characters—and the readers—are so thoroughly engrossed that there is no turning back.  In Ozeki’s novel characters are drawn to relive and remember the past, theirs and others’, to feel regret and loss over events and actions taken and not taken, and yet the novel conveys the heady knowledge that whatever they feel about the past, they wouldn’t change it, couldn’t change it—there is no other way it could have happened—and yet, what if it just… did?  Ozeki plays with time; her characters play with and experience time in a multitude of ways.

            Nao’s story itself is a time being—a thing lost in time, a singular moment—as it wouldn’t even be told to the reader if not for the fact that Ruth picked it up on a beach on the other side of the Pacific from where it was originally written.  It is Ruth’s fascination with Nao’s story, her reading of it that in effect makes it happen for us the readers.  And Nao’s story gives truth to other stories, stories which have happened in the past, stories which may or may not be entirely true or real.  Nao has experienced heartbreak and loss of her own, made all the more heartbreaking by her revelations of the pain and suffering of others in her family.  Ruth’s experience of Nao’s story adds a further layer when processed through the conditions of Ruth’s own past and present.

            Ozeki plays with point of view in her novel, wringing the most out of how her characters perceive each other to bring her stories alive.  She uses the twinned storylines of Ruth and Nao to show how sometimes it takes more than one perspective to really understand a person or their actions.  She makes tangible how regret and redemption can be some of the most powerful forces in people’s lives, bringing them closer to each other even over vast distances of time.  A Tale for the Time Being is a powerful piece of storytelling, highly recommended for readers looking for a good existential read, or interested in complicated storylines.  This novel will also be a delight for readers looking for a modern novel that analyzes current events, or even for readers who fancy a blending of the past and present.  A Tale for the Time Being breaks down the barrier between reader, writer, and the story itself, and will be enjoyed by readers looking to break out of a reading rut, a change of pace from the business of usual of most novels.