Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

We all remember the “March of Progress” poster from grade school science class, used to illustrate the  straight-line evolution of Homo sapiens from our ancient ancestors. From Australopithecus  to Homo habilius and then to the assumed apex of human evolution – us. But what if evolution wasn’t a straight line? What if suddenly, somehow, it doubled-back on itself, returning our species to our most ancient origins?

It is in this speculative world that Louise Erdrich’s latest novel Future Home of the Living God is set. Taking place in an unspecified time in the near future, the novel is presented as the journal of 26 year-old Cedar Hawk Songmaker, written to her unborn child. Cedar, the adopted daughter of liberal Minnesota parents, finding herself pregnant, is compelled to seek out her Ojibwe birth parents, ostensibly to discover any genetic problems that might affect her baby, and in a larger sense, to find her own identity. This familiar journey of personal discovery is set against a tumultuous time in which the future of the earth is gravely in doubt as evolution appears to be running backward. Plants and animals are born “wrong,” throwbacks to their genetic ancestors. Human babies and their mothers are dying at an alarming rate, and those infants that do survive are abnormal, with characteristics more similar to our genetic ancestors. The planet is heating up, with harsh Minnesota winters a fond, distant memory, and political chaos is rampant. Soon, pregnant women are encouraged, then forced, into “unborn protective centers” – prisons, really – and a “womb draft” is instated. As Cedar’s pregnancy progresses, she confesses to her baby that she isn’t sure if he (and she is sure it is a he) will have the ability to read the journal that she is writing, if he survives at all. Cedar soon becomes a fugitive, then a prisoner, then fugitive again, seeking sanctuary with her birth family with the help of her adoptive parents.

If this all sounds strikingly familiar to The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, you would be correct. In her author’s notes, Erdrich writes that she began the novel in 2002, then set it aside,  picking it up again after the most recent election. Future Home of the Living God is Erdrich’s first speculative fiction book, but still closely shares the Native American culture she has explored in her past works. The premise of backwards evolution and how it might bring the end of civilization is compelling – it’s what interested me in the book in the first place – and it reads like a thriller (I read it all in one sitting). But at a slim 267 pages, it reads almost too fast, with not nearly enough time spent exploring the circumstances of the world it is set in, the stories of Cedar’s families, or her baby’s father. Since the story is told in the form of a journal, which does lend an intimacy to the narrative, many things go unsaid, or dropped entirely. Even the mystery of Cedar’s birth and adoption – the revelation of which is emotionally catastrophic for her – is quickly dropped to move onto the next crisis. At a few points, I thought that the plot was going in one direction, and then, disappointingly, found it dropped. Perhaps my expectations were overly influenced by my usual science fiction preferences. Some the misdirections reminded me of the short story “Before” by Carolyn Dunn (contained in the excellent collection After edited by Ellen Datlow) an end-of-the-world tale of a plague that leaves only those with Native American ancestors alive. But, that is not the case here.

Which isn’t to say the novel isn’t an exciting and interesting read. There are thoughtful explorations of faith (Cedar is a recent convert to Catholicism), the origin and evolution of our species, how and why we became human, and the consequences of ignoring and abusing our environment and each other, all alongside Cedar’s journey into motherhood and her birth family. The ending might come abruptly, but it is well worth the journey.

Mother, Can You Not? by Kate Siegel

mother can you notIntroducing your parents or grandparents or even cousins or siblings to any new form of social media means that there is going to be a learning curve where mistakes are made and ridiculous things said. We’ve all been there. Before you bridge the social media gap however, there is one important step that needs to happen: text messaging. Author Kate Siegel’s mother is the queen of off-the-wall text messages, so much so that Kate decided to broadcast their most ridiculous conversations all over Instagram for everyone to see. (Want to follow their antics? Check out @crazyjewishmom on Instagram!)

Mother, Can you NOT? : And you thought your mother was crazy… follows Kate’s Siegel’s decision to broadcast her and her mother’s text messages online and the crazy journey it proved to be for her. This book is chock full of anecdotes featuring Kate’s mom and the conversation that she has with her on a daily basis.

Kate’s mother is the classic helicopter parent and you can even go as far as to call her a drone parent, which Kate certainly does. Kate’s mom is a hovering Jewish mother who only wants the best for her daughter and the best just happens to be married to a wealthy Jewish doctor and pregnant with his many children. Never mind the fact that for a long time, Kate was single and her boyfriends weren’t even Jewish. These are just unnecessary obstacles in Kate’s life that her mother knows all the solutions for: hanging out with the Princeton rabbi, going out even when you don’t want to, talking to a new doctor about sex when your mom is right in the room, etc. All perfectly normal things. This book is a very humorous and hilarious read chronicling the many adventures that Kate and her mother find themselves on and the many different ways all of our mother go on to help better their children’s lives even if their children’s don’t even ask for the help.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

the girl on the trainThe Girl on the Train is a messy intrigue of a book. If you’ve read Gone Girl, this book covers the same bases: suspense/psychological/mystery fiction, murder victims, witnesses, married people, and missing persons. This book is fast-paced and, at least for me, it was difficult to pin down who the killer actually was.

The Girl on the Train is the story of Rachel Watson’s life post-divorce. Every day she takes the same commuter train to London to work and passes the same houses and scenery. As one is apt to do on long train rides, Rachel creates stories about the people, places, and things that she sees along the way. One particular couple catches her eye on every trip. Rachel soon finds herself looking out for this married couple every time she speeds by, hoping to catch more of a glimpse into their daily lives. She gives them names, invents background stories for them, and even gives them careers. Everything is seemingly perfect until one day when she sees something out of the ordinary happen at the married couple’s home and soon after, the woman goes missing.

Rachel is forced to confront whether she should go to the police, contact the missing woman’s husband, or just lay low. Rachel is having a rough time dealing with her past, with her ex-husband, Tom, and his new wife, Anna. Her life is spiraling out of control and the peace that she found while watching the married couple has been shattered, leaving her in the lurch and without a solid place in the world. This novel shifts between three different narratives: Rachel, Anna, and the missing woman. Each narrative is packed full of action. Readers will be left wondering what happened and wondering about each characters’ motives.

The Girl on the Train will also be released as a movie on October 7th!


This book is also available in a wide variety of other formats.

 

Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen

lost lakeThe first time Eby Pim saw Lost Lake, it was on a picture postcard. Just an old photo and a few words on a small square of heavy stock, but when she saw it, she knew she was seeing her future. That was half a life ago. Now Lost Lake is about to slip into Eby’s past. Her husband George is long passed. Most of her demanding extended family are gone. All that’s left is a once-charming collection of lakeside cabins succumbing to the Southern Georgia heat and damp, and an assortment of faithful misfits drawn back to Lost Lake year after year by their own unspoken dreams and desires. It’s a lot, but not enough to keep Eby from relinquishing Lost Lake to a developer with cash in hand, and calling this her final summer at the lake. Until one last chance at family knocks on her door.

Lost Lake is where Kate Pheris spent her last best summer at the age of twelve, before she learned of loneliness, and heartbreak, and loss. Now she’s all too familiar with those things, but she knows about hope too, thanks to her resilient daughter Devin, and her own willingness to start moving forward. Perhaps at Lost Lake her little girl can cling to her own childhood for just a little longer… and maybe Kate herself can rediscover something that slipped through her fingers so long ago. One after another, people find their way to Lost Lake, looking for something that they weren’t sure they needed in the first place – love, closure, a second chance, peace, a mystery solved, a heart mended. Can they find what they need before it’s too late?

At once atmospheric and enchanting, Lost Lake shows Sarah Addison Allen at her finest, illuminating the secret longings and the everyday magic that wait to be discovered in the unlikeliest of places. (description from publisher)

Hurricane Sisters by Dorthea Benton Frank

hurricane sistersFilled with her trademark wit, sassy, heartwarming characters, and the steamy Southern atmosphere and beauty of her beloved Carolina Lowcountry, The Hurricane Sisters is Dorothea Benton Frank’s enchanting tale of the ties and lies between generations.

Frank once again takes us deep in the heart of the magical Lowcountry – a sultry land of ancient magic, glorious sunsets, and soothing coastal breezes, where three generations of strong women wrestle with the expectations of family while struggling to understand their complicated relationships with each other. Best friends since the first day of classes at The College of Charleston, Ashley Anne Waters and Mary Beth Smythe, now 23 years old, live in Ashley’s parents’ beach house rent free. Ashley is a gallery assistant who aspires to become an artist. Mary Beth, a gifted cook from Tennessee, works for a caterer while searching for a good teaching job. Though they both know what they want out of life, their parents barely support their dreams and worry for their precarious finances. While they don’t make much money, the girls do have a million-dollar view that comes with living in that fabulous house on Sullivans Island.

Sipping wine on the porch and watching a blood-red sunset, Ashley and Mary Beth hit on a brilliant and lucrative idea. With a new coat of paint, the first floor would be a perfect place for soireés for paying guests. Knowing her parents would be horrified at the idea of common strangers trampling through their home, Ashley won’t tell them. Besides, Clayton and Liz Waters have enough problems of their own. A successful investment banker, Clayton is too often found in his pied-à-terre in Manhattan-which Liz is sure he uses to have an affair. And when will Ashley and her brother, Ivy, a gay man with a very wealthy and very Asian life partner-ever grow up? Then there is Maisie, Liz’s mother, the family matriarch who has just turned eighty, who never lets Liz forget that she’s not her perfect dead sister, Juliet.

For these Lowcountry women, an emotional hurricane is about to blow through their lives, wreaking havoc that will test them in unexpected ways, ultimately transforming the bonds they share. (description from publisher)

Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach

Inspired by her beloved blog, dinneralovestory.com, Jenny Rosenstrach’s story is many wonderful things: a memoir, a love story, a practical how-to guide for strengthening family bonds by making the most of dinnertime, and a compendium of palate-pleasing recipes.

Claiming that a committed family dinner every night helps strengthen the bonds of a family, Dinner: A Love Story provides recipes for easy-to-prepare family dinners including roast vegetables with polenta, spicy shrimp with yogurt, and homemade pizza. With simple strategies and common sense, Jenny figured out how to break down dinner—the food, the timing, the anxiety, from prep to cleanup—so that her family could enjoy good food, time to unwind, and simply be together.

Every meal is a real meal, one that has been cooked and eaten and enjoyed at least a half dozen times by someone in Jenny’s house. With inspiration and game plans for any home cook at any level, Dinner: A Love Story is as much for the novice who doesn’t know where to start as it is for the gourmand who doesn’t know how to start over when she finds herself feeding an intractable toddler or for the person who never thought about home-cooked meals until he or she became a parent. This book is, in fact, for anyone interested in learning how to make a meal to be shared with someone they love, and about how so many good, happy things happen when we do. (description from publisher)

All Iowa Reads – Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos

The Iowa Library Association has announced the All Iowa Reads title for 2011 – it’s  Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos. Be sure to watch the Davenport Public Library newsletter for the announcement of programs and discussions of this book throughout the year.

In 1978, Hope Jones, mother of three, is swept away during a tornado. Her body is never found. Twenty-five years later her children – Larkin, Gaelan and Bonnie – still struggle to understand their loss and to find their place in the world. The sudden death of their father brings them all home again, forcing them to come to terms with their history and each other.

Set on the open plains of southwest Nebraska, the writing and atmosphere evoke the rural Midwest effortlessly – open skies, violent weather, the restrictions and freedoms of small towns. This is a complex story of grief, love and healing with touches of magical realism and characters that you come to care about.