Fall is here, and it’s the perfect season to curl up with a great thriller. Even more perfect if that thriller is written with a deep literary sensibility and an eagle eye on world events.
Such a book is Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton. Set in the seemingly idyllic environs of New Zealand, it is a tragic story of how idealism can be too easily coopted.
Birnam Wood is an agricultural collective of idealistic young activists who engage in light trespassing to plant crops on private property that is going unused. In the spirit of many radical movements of the 21st century, they are excruciatingly democratic and leaderless, at least in theory. All decisions are made by consensus, and the consensus rules. When we first meet the group, the dynamic is being shaken by the return of former member Tony, an aspiring journalist who left years ago after an awkward sexual encounter with Mira, one of the group’s de facto leaders. Tony storms out of a fiery meeting in which he berates the group for what he sees as their naivete and dogged insistence on intersectionalism.
On the opposite end of the social and political spectrum are the Darvishes, a social-climbing couple who have finagled their way into a position of nobility, sporting the unearned titles “Lord” and “Lady.” Their lack of sophistication makes them easy prey for enigmatic American billionaire Robert Lemoine, who offers to buy the Darvish’s property, ostensibly to build a survival bunker, but whose real intentions are far more sinister.
Mira is scouting for a gardening location on the Darvish’s property when she runs into Lemoine, who escorts her off the property, but not before offering to fund Birnam Woods’ projects. At Mira’s insistence, the group reluctantly agrees to take the money, but seeds of discord have been sown. Meanwhile Tony is digging into Lemoine and the Darvishes’ business dealings in the hopes of writing an expose that will bring them down and bring him fame and fortune as a journalist.
What follows is a tangled story of greed, paranoia, sexual politics, and deceit at the highest levels. Ironically, Catton’s writing has been called Austen-esque, and indeed she has a sharp ear for smart, bantering dialog and is a keen observer of the divisive nature of class and political leanings. If Jane Austen went dark and murderous, this would be her book. The tension in the narrative is a slow simmer that escalates to a screeching boil in the last few pages. Birnam Wood is an intelligently rendered page-turner, as relevant as today’s headlines.
October 1-7 is Banned Books Week. (I’m sorry we still have to keep talking about banned books, but here we are.) Ohio is pretty far down the list of states experiencing challenges to books. (Texas and Florida top that list, each with multiple outright bans.) However, challenges are happening in our state. We need to stay alert and aware and ready to defend school and public libraries fighting to maintain access to books for everyone. According to PEN America, the following titles were the most banned books in the 2022-2023 school year, in order of number of bans nationwide. As you can see, many of these books deal with difficult topics, topics which need to be discussed, and which will not go away by banning books about them.
Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe
Kobabe’s graphic memoir is a brave account of the struggle to become the person ey were born to be. It’s an eye-opener about the complexities of being nonbinary.
Flamer by Mike Curato
Middle-schooler Aiden struggles with his identity and with fitting in at summer camp in this poignant graphic novel.
Tricks by Ellen Hopkins
This coming-of-age novel follows the lives of five troubled teens who fall into prostitution in their search for freedom and autonomy.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Atwood’s dystopian classic still stands up as a cautionary tale against patriarchal theocracy.
Crank by Ellen Hopkins
Written in verse, this novel is the grueling story of a young girl’s descent into addiction.
Sold by Patricia McCormick
This National Book Award finalist is the story of Lakshmi, a thirteen-year-old who is unwitting sold into the sex slave trade in India.
Push by Sapphire
Precious Jones, a pregnant sixteen-year-old from an abusive family, finds redemption with the help of an empathetic teacher.
A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas
The second installment in Maas’ Court of Thorns and Roses series continues the story of Feyre, a woman who has endured unspeakable hardships and has been granted special powers.
This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson
Using clear, breezy language, Juno Dawson gives us a nuts-and-bolts primer on all things LGBTQ+. Informative and entertaining, It’s the perfect read for people of all ages coming to terms with their identity.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Morrison’s debut novel won a well-deserved Pulitzer. It’s an uncompromising look at the damages wrought by racism and colorism.
Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur
Kaur’s poetry collection has become a publishing and social media phenomenon. Her work addresses themes of violence, loss, abuse, and survival.
Coming in November -
How to Build a Boat by Elaine Feeney
Anyone who read Elaine Feeney’s revelatory debut novel, As You Were, knows her to be a writer with a keen insight into the human condition and a wry sense of humor. This sophomore novel delivers on the promise so beautifully laid down by the first. Thirteen-year-old Jamie is struggling with the loss of his mother, bullying by his schoolmates, and the normal throes of adolescence. Though Feeney never uses the word autistic, her sharp yet sensitive descriptions of Jamie’s reactions to the world around him suggest a teen with a distinctive response to his surroundings. He embarks on the goal of creating a perpetual motion machine in an attempt to reconnect with his mother. The endeavor morphs into the building of a boat, which he achieves with the help of an empathetic shop teacher. This quest has the effect of pulling the community of lonely adults in Jamie’s life together, united in their desire to help a troubled teen and to find connection in their own lives.
On Community by Casey Plett
This eighth installment in Biblioasis’ Field Notes series is novelist Plett’s first foray into a book-length essay. Plett has a unique set of lenses with which to view community. Her experiences as a trans woman, a Mennonite, and a Canadian writer inform her views. She avoids the sunny, sweeping generalizations espoused by other writers on the subject. Instead, she looks deeply into the complexities of not just beneficial communities such as those that formed during the height of Covid, but the toxic ones such as the radical-right truck caravan that protested across Canada. She explores communities on all scales, from the huge ones formed on social media to the tiny one in her own communal household, and cautions against the monolithic view engendered by labels such as “the black community” or “the trans community.” On Community is a thoughtful, thought-provoking essay that could serve as the starting point for many a meaningful discussion.
Poem of the month -
Yeats Claimed a Pome Should Come Together
with a click like a box shutting its lid, yet
given what’s for sale in the battlefield Vegas
giftshop, would it be better to choose
the shotgun shells glued together to form a cross
or the pink hoodie with the word LOVE spelled out
using a Glock, a hand grenade, a switch blade,
& the long dark shape of an AR-15 in order
to suggest something closing?
For further reading -
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