Books for Women
- January 2007 -
Volume 3 Number 1
To start off the new year, we've asked our reviewers to list their favorite
books of 2006. Some are titles they've mentioned before and others are not.
Enjoy the variety they share with you!
We're also happy to introduce a new reviewer to you: Jill Roberts, managing
editor at Tachyon Publications. She'll be predominantly covering science fiction
and fantasy titles and starts her tenure with BTWOF by sharing her favorites
Wishing you many good reads this new year,
The Light of Evening, about two generations of mother-daughter
relationships is deeply resonant and nuanced: one feels the keenest sense
of the love, dependency, pain, and irresolution that so many women feel, whichever
side of the relationship they occupy. Dilly, the main character, is an elderly
and very resilient woman who, at the beginning of the novel, is suffering
from a potentially terminal illness. She is also suffering the painful - both
physical and emotional - distance her daughter, Eleanor, has imposed on their
relationship. In the course of the narrative, we hear of Dilly's early adulthood
as an Irish immigrant to the United States and her return home at her mother's
request after the death of Dilly's brother. Many of the features of her relationship
with her mother parallel to some extent the powerful but difficult connection
she has with her own daughter. The artfulness of The Light of Evening
is simply stunning and is what gives the story its tremendous power. Houghton
Mifflin, $25, 9780618718672.
The Inheritance of Loss, recent winner of the Man Booker
Prize, is another of my favorites this year. It is set in - and just above
- a town at the foot of one of the major Himalayan peaks. There are many harsh
realities in this novel (class hostilities, injustice, colonialism), the complexities
of which the author handles deftly to make them intellectually and emotionally
available to the reader. There are also great moments of humor, charm, and
resolution that offset the pain of understanding some of the grim realities
presented. And the novel's setting - a town in the Himalayan foothills - is
an extraordinarily beautiful place that Desai describes in such detail of
sight, sound, and smell that it is constantly present. Overall it's a wonderfully
crafted novel - read my complete review in
Grove/Atlantic, $14, 9780802142818.
A backlist title I read for the first time this year, Lorrie Moore's poetically
spare, generous, insightful novel
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital reminded
me at once of Alice McDermott. Their styles differ in some respects, but their
attention to craft, precision of language, respect for their characters' complexity,
and ability to hold a reader absolutely still and attentive in their artistic
grasp are comparable. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital begins with the
narrator vacationing in Paris with her husband and goes on to explore her
memories of her 15-year-old self and that girl's relationship with her best
friend, Sils. The subtle ways in which the strength of her devotion to Sils
can never be replicated and how the relationship between the two friends comments
on the adult marriage form the heart of the matter for me. (My full review
of this backlist title can be found in
Random House/Vintage, $12.95, 9781400033829.
Others novels I enjoyed this year include
After This by Alice McDermott
(Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $24, 9780374168094), Jane Hamilton's
Madeleine Was Young (Random House/Doubleday, $22.95, 9780385516716), and
Runaway by Alice Munro (Random House/Knopf, $14.95, 9781400077915).
Ann Christophersen is a founder and co-owner of
Women & Children First
Bookstore, a 27-year-old feminist and children's bookstore in Chicago. She
is also a past-president of the American Booksellers Association and a former
judge of The Story Prize. She currently works as Director of Marketing and
Communications at ComputerWorks of Chicago as well as continuing her involvement
with Women & Children First.
This past year I especially enjoyed three novels: Sara Gruen's Water for
Elephants, Jane Hamilton's When Madeline Was Young, and After
This by Alice McDermott. All three were pleasurable reading experiences.
They were all carefully edited, no over writing. Every scene seemed important
- I wouldn't have cut anything from them.
Water for Elephants is a great historical novel as well as a great
love story. I learned all about circus trains during the depression; it was
eye-opening to think about people jumping aboard the trains and wanting to
join the circus, primarily because the circus could feed people. It was a tough
life, and hierarchical, but everyone got fat, which was significant - they
would work for the circus just to have a regular meal, in spite of the poor
living conditions. It's about a community of people, and it's a book that
could be recommended to anyone, from 16-year-olds to 80-year-olds. The narrator
is in his 90's, though he's not sure how old he is. Many seniors would identify
with him: his current life in a nursing home and his memories of the depression.
Others will enjoy the love story which was so engaging and romantic. Anyone
who loves animals will like this book - it features an elephant named Rosie
as one of the characters. The author lives in a planned ecological community;
you can tell she really cares for animals by how she writes about them. Algonquin
Books, $23.95, 9781565124998.
Although the stories in
When Madeline was Young and After This are different,
there are strong similarities. One is that they're both intimate
family portraits of distinctive families - more character driven
than plot driven - set across the broad canvas of the last half
of the 20th century. Characters in each of the books get involved
in some way with the significant social movements of the 50s,
60s, and 70s. Although intimate books, they're also big books,
they have a scope. For both Jane Hamilton and Alice McDermott,
the way they use the history of the last fifty-sixty years made
these bigger books than their previous books were. Madeline
was very funny, though it begins with a tragedy: a beautiful young
has an accident and is left with the mental age of a 7-year-old.
Her husband's sister's best friend is a nurse; she is brought
into the family to nurse his wife back to health. In the process,
the nurse falls in love with the husband, and they eventually
marry. They decide to raise Madeline as their child and later
have two more children, one of whom, Mac, narrates the novel.
At first Madeline is his big sister, and then later becomes his
perpetually younger sister. By the time Mac and his sister, Lu,
become young teenagers, they understand that Madeline's an adult
who is disabled, but she's included in the family. This sense
of inclusivity - not casting out, not putting her in an institution,
including her in the family - gives the novel such tenderness
and compassion, and yet it's not soupy, saintly, or sentimental.
There are very funny scenes throughout.
The family is upper middle class; dad
works at the Field Museum as an ornithologist. They share an African-American
maid with his sister. It's interesting how this is treated, how
the maid is shown to be part of the family and then along comes
the Civil Rights movement. The mother is aware of the political
incorrectness of their having a black maid, since they are white,
but they wouldn't dream of firing her, since she's part of the
family - she's treated with an enormous amount of respect and
has an honored place in their family.
There's other political stuff, too, like
the Vietnam War. The mother is rabidly against the war; her best
friend (sister-in-law) married someone working in the Kennedy
Administration who is behind the war, and thus there are dinner
table conversations about the politics of the war. Their son,
Mac's cousin, Buddy, goes to war. Mac is against the war like
his mother. At the end of novel, Buddy's son goes off to
the Iraq war. There's so much here, and the book is under 300
pages. It's a warm, funny, interesting look at one family - not
an epic. Random House/Doubleday, $22.95, 9780385516716.
After This is about one family. The main character
is Mary, a woman nearing 30. After WWII she falls in love with John, a vet
who has a limp from a war injury; they marry and have four kids. Her best
friend, Pauline, remains single and becomes aunty to her kids. When Pauline
has an accident and needs to be cared for, she's brought in to their home.
After This is set in the Long Island suburbs like McDermott's other
fiction. John and Mary's kids go to Catholic School, and there is much anti-abortion
and anti-birth control talk. Two of their daughters become pregnant unexpectedly
and each makes a different choice. War is also a factor, when one of the sons
goes to Vietnam. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $24, 9780374168094.
In terms of nonfiction, Eve Ensler's book,
Insecure at Last: Losing It
in Our Security-Obsessed World, is must reading for feminists. It's a
little book, size-wise, but she takes you all around the world where horrible
things are happening to women: Bosnia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ciudad Juarez.
As difficult as those chapters were to read, Ensler put herself in these places
- the least I can do is read about it. I had to push myself to read Insecure
at Last, but I'm so glad I did. She also includes chapters about Vagina
Warriors, women who are making a difference where life is hard. It's a great
book for learning about the changes that women make around the world. Random
House, $21.95, 9781400063345.
I just loved
Lessons in Becoming Myself, a great autobiography by
Ellen Burstyn. She started work on this book fifteen years ago and had also
kept journals for many years. She's had an interesting life. She has never
been someone who sought a lot of publicity or was always in tabloids. Every
few years she turned in a phenomenal performance that did get recognized,
but she wasn't a flashy star. I knew nothing about her personal life. She
had a tough childhood, one marriage to a sweet man with whom she adopted a
child, but he was an alcoholic, and she decided she had to leave the marriage.
Then she married a man who, it became evident, was paranoid schizophrenic.
There were many episodes when he was violent with her; he also thought he
was Jesus. After their divorce, he stalked her for years, showing up at rehearsals
and at her home. The book also describes her seeking a greater truth. She
became a Sufi, initiated into Sufism, traveled all over the world and learned
from the many spiritual masters she met. Her spiritual journey is fascinating,
too, especially in light of her being a creative person dealing with the challenges
of her personal life. To find a spiritual truth to help her heal from tough
life situations and keep her creativity growing makes for a fascinating story.
Very well-written. Penguin, $25.95, 9781594489297.
The two best-selling books in our store during the holidays were Barack Obama's
Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (Random
House/Crown, $25, 9780307237699) and Amy Sedaris's book
I Like You: Hospitality
Under the Influence (Warner, $27.99, 9780446578844). We kept ordering
them in large quantities and sold about one hundred of each since October.
Also Annie Leibovitz's book,
A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005, did
nicely. This book is so revealing - I can't get over people criticizing Leibovitz
for not saying she's a lesbian. It's so beside the point when someone publishes
these incredibly revealing photos of herself, her family, her children, her
partner Susan Sontag... Susan let herself be photographed as her illness progressed
- in the bathtub, in a hospital bed, on her deathbed. The book is arranged
chronologically, and their love relationship is there in the photographs.
Many of Leibovitz's iconic celebrity photographs are in there, too. Her art
is so much about self-revelation, which is fascinating, when she's best known
for her celebrity photos over the years. Her insights into celebrities are
evident as well. Random House, $75, 9780375505096.
Linda Bubon has been the co-owner of
Women & Children First Bookstore
with Ann Christophersen since it opened in 1979. She is also a professional
story performer and the mother of a 20-year-old son. She loves sports and
competes as a runner, volleyball player, and bowler. This summer she took
The book I couldn't put down - and was sad when it ended - was
Watch by Sarah Waters. It was accessible in a way that her Victorian novels
weren't to me. The relationships were all interesting. The reverse chronological
time structure had me interested in going back to the beginning to re-read
it, filling in the start of the story with the new information I'd gleaned
over the course of the book. Penguin, $15, 9781594482304.
Kate DiCamillo (Because of Winn-Dixie) is known best as a young adult
author, but I say
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is going
to be her breakout book for grownups. It's the sweetest book. A little
china rabbit who doesn't love anyone or anything goes through various disasters
and is passed among various owners. He learns to love, pushes through a
heartbreak, and learns that each love has its own value, that he'll love again.
I had to leave a public place because I was crying while I read it. It's even
sweeter than her last book, The Tale of Despereaux, which was also
great. I think Kate is the best new intermediate/YA writer. I have especially
been recommending The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane to anyone
going through a breakup, since it's a good story of love and loss and love
again. Candlewick Press, $18.99 hardcover, 9780763625894.
I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence by Amy Sedaris was my
Christmas present to myself. She's the funniest person ever. Not only is I
Like You hilarious and laugh-out-loud funny, it's also a really good book
with helpful hints for entertainment. By the end of the book, you actually
realize you have valuable tools for being a good hostess. It also comes with
a poster. I haven't tried the recipes yet, but Amy's known for her cheeseballs.
I Like You has many troubleshooting tips: how to figure out who to
invite, what to do if someone shows up who's not invited, how to deal with
hard-to-please guests. It's an attractive book which will look great on a
coffee table - or a kitchen table. Warner, $27.99, 9780446578844.
I also loved
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, Alison Bechdel's
The Girls by Lori Lansens - the relationship between
the twins and their adoptive parents was the most moving part of the book
When Megan Bayles is not working at
Women & Children First, she's
a glorified babysitter, does yoga, and reads novels in the fake sun in her
Rose of No Man's Land by Michelle Tea was one of my favorites. I really
like her writing; it's fun and easy to read, great before bed or on the train,
and it's full of social commentary. In Rose, her first novel, the protagonist's
big sister is trying to get on Real World, which was a great way to
put social commentary in. All of Tea's previous books are memoirs, and you get
her life story from age five to the present day. Reading Rose, you
can tell that her life has influenced her novel, but it's not her life - it's
a good, creative work of fiction. MacAdam Cage, $22, 9781596921603.
I was surprised that I liked
The Girls by Lori Lansens - I was afraid
that the disability of the characters would be sensationalized. But Lansens
gave these conjoined twins full lives - the novel was about how they lived
their lives, not how they overcame anything. It was beautifully written, with
flowing language. The author clearly did lots of homework on the subject and
presented it with an honest perspective. Little, Brown, $23.95, 9780316069038.
What stuck out for me about Alison Bechdel's
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
was that the story couldn't have been in any other medium - the fact that
she drew her life out and wrote the accompanying text made it more of an enriching
read. The graphic memoir format was a very smart way to show what's she's
trying to communicate. Houghton Mifflin, $19.95, 9780618477944.
Chelsey Clammer recently moved to Chicago from Austin (where she
used to work at BookWoman) to attend Loyola graduate school in women's studies.
Chelsey also works at
Women & Children First, is interested in disability studies, and writes lesbian fiction.
In 1976, Yale student Terri Jentz and her best friend and
classmate, Shayna, flew to Oregon with their bikes in preparation
for an eighty-day cross-country trip.
Strange Piece of Paradise
is Terri Jentz's telling of their relationship, how she and Shayna
were brutally attacked in Oregon, and the aftermath of that experience.
The book starts with the story of the intense
friendship between these two very different girls, and it becomes
apparent that Terri has a crush on Shayna. While camping in Oregon
at the start of their trip, a man deliberately drives over their
tent and attacks them both with an axe. It was a miracle they both
lived. Shayna was primarily injured around her head and face, and
as a result, doesn't recall anything about the attack and doesn't
want to talk about it. Terri, on the other hand, suffered injuries
on other parts of her body and remembers everything. Their friendship
did not survive the experience.
Terri Jentz works now as a screenwriter,
and indeed her writing is very visual. In Strange Piece of Paradise,
she tells her story three times:
just simply relating the facts, secondly a more in-depth look, and
lastly, a heart-wrenching telling of what happened to her and the
best friend she was in love with. The author's examination of both
the nature of violence and the rise of violent crime in this society
is quite astute, as is her look at how our legal system fails us.
After being haunted by what happened to her, Terri set off to find
the man who attacked them. She visits the town where it happened
and discovers that the people in the town were very affected by
this attack, too - and she found out that many people knew who did
it. She ends up meeting the guy face to face and went to one of
his trials for another violent assault. He kept getting let off
on technicalities, though was finally jailed for bashing a person
with AIDS outside of a gay bar. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $27,
The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After
the Taliban by Sarah Chayes is about her experiences in Afghanistan.
She went there initially as a reporter with NPR and ended up staying
there as a civilian to work with the Afghan people. Her passion
was Middle Eastern history, and she has an intimate understanding
of how that culture is so different from western culture - and
how westerners don't get it. She was fearless and has the humility
to admit when her assumptions were based on her western education
and when she was wrong. Chayes discusses how the approach of U.S.
intervention was so off the mark for Afghanistan and how the U.S.
doesn't recognize and understand the centuries-old relationship
between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The author also writes about her experience
as a woman in Afghanistan - and the privilege she has as a western
woman - and her choice to nonchalantly dress as a man, since that
helps her get her job done. She started a coop in Afghanistan
in which farmers plant certain crops and the coop pays them after
the harvest. Because of the relationship between warlordism and
the drug trade, the Afghan people can't build an economy without
drugs. So Chayes and her coop are trying to bring about a specific
social reform that allows non-opiate crops to be grown for profit.
She's also addressing gender and equity in Afghanistan - their
coop has men and women working together. Chayes describes how
it was difficult at first, but they didn't want to exclude either
gender. There's been lots of adjustment necessary to do it, but
ultimately it upholds the culture (i.e. women do different work
than the men by choice).
Chayes is very careful not to pass judgment
but just report what she sees, explains it as best she can based
on what she knows, and corrects herself when she learns differently.
Her story is both valuable and hopeful. She read at our store
in October, and she's one of the most heroic women I've met. It's
not a surprise to me that she and Eve Ensler (whose Insecure
at Last I also enjoyed) are friends, what with their work
for women. Penguin, $25.95, 9781594200960.
I just read Rebecca Solnit's
A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which
is new in paperback this year, and it's just great. She's often compared to
Joan Didion and Susan Sontag, but I think she's better: she's more accessible,
she's not a snob, and her cultural examinations start with a simpler, more
relatable premise. Think of her as the punk rock little sister of Didion and
Sontag. Solnit's writing is personal and specific to California, and there's
a great sense of adventure that permeates her writing. She has a truly inquisitive
mind, like a friend you can go anywhere with. It's hard to describe this book,
but I highly recommend it. Penguin, $15, 9780143037248.
Angelique Grandone has been at
Women & Children First for 6 1/2 years;
when not there, she's a healthworker in training at Chicago Womens' Health
Center, which has been around for 31 years.
Here are my favorites for 2006, in no particular order:
The Accidental, a brilliant and inventive novel about
the havoc wreaked on a "perfect" English family by an unknown visitor
who shows up at their vacation home, was hands down the best book I read all
last year. Brilliantly conceived and written, it's Smith at the height of
her craft. All lovers of edgy literary fiction should put this great novel
at the top of their reading list. Random House/Knopf, $22.95, 9780375422256.
I'm sure I number among the many who put
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,
Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir at the top of her list. This genre-exploding
book is funny, poignant, heartbreaking, thoughtful, and so very beautifully,
breathtakingly rendered. I often describe it to people as "major literary
award" good. Houghton Mifflin, $19.95, 9780618477944.
A bit of a departure from the well-plotted Victorian bodice busters Waters
made her name with,
The Night Watch is a more serious novel that takes
place in reverse chronology after, during, and just before the London Blitz
of WW2. Despite the era-jump, The Night Watch is rich in the type of compelling
period details that Waters is so adept at, and the nighttime scene during
a bombing raid left me breathless. Penguin, $15, 9781594482304.
Feminism is dead? Obviously not, if Bitch magazine has been going
strong for a solid ten years. The
Bitchfest anthology, edited by Lisa
Jervis and Andi Zeisler, collects the best of the feminist pop cultural criticism
from the first ten years of the magazine's publication, chosen to represent
the depth and diversity of issues tackled within its pages. Feminist discourse
is alive and well, thank you very much! Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $16, 9780374113438.
As if to underscore my previous point,
We Don't Need Another Wave: Dispatches
from the Next Generation of Feminists, edited by Melody Berger, is a collection
of writings by young feminists which builds on the continuity and evolution
of women's issues, rejecting labels of difference to reinforce the fact that
young or old, of the seventies or now, we are all part of one continuing movement
for social justice. Seal Press, $15.95, 9781580051828.
As more and more of the great lesbian feminist books of the eighties and
nineties go out of print, what a gift Carroll and Graf gave us by issuing
Days of Good Looks: The Prose and Poetry of Cheryl Clarke, 1980-2005,
a collection by the author of the ground-breaking lesbian feminist titles
Living as a Lesbian, Humid Pitch, and Experimental Love.
I thoroughly enjoyed being reintroduced to Clarke's amazing, bluesy poetic
voice and her insightful essays about politics and difference. Carroll &
Graf, $16.95, 9780786716753.
A book about pregnancy written from a teacher to a student might seem like
a weird favorite choice for a woman who has no children, nor any on the foreseeable
horizon, but author Beth Ann Fennelly is also a gifted poet, and much of that
poetic sensibility comes through in
Great With Child: Letters to a Young
Mother. It is practical, honest, touching, and often laugh-out-loud funny.
Really, I have bought this book for at least six friends who are new mothers
this year. It's a beautiful look at the emotional and spiritual significance
of new motherhood that is a lovely companion to more practical books such
as What to Expect When You're Expecting. Great With Child: W.W.
Norton, $22.95, 9780393061826.
Kathie Bergquist is a staffer at
Women & Children First Bookstore
and co-author of A Field Guide to Gay and Lesbian Chicago (Lake Claremont
Mary Ellen Kavanaugh
Zadie Smith's Orange Prize-winning
On Beauty was one I read early-on
in the year and still think about. Her spot-on portrait of academics was compelling.
It is such a relief to read fiction which deals with issues that people around
me deal with - race, class, sex. I may reread this soon just because I enjoyed
it so much. Penguin, $15, 9780143037743.
And She Was by Cindy Dyson is a stunning debut novel which I read
twice in a row. It features a strong protagonist who travels far to come home
to herself. I wrote about this in
HarperCollins, $13.95, 9780060597719.
Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping by Judith Levine contains
interesting sociological observations by a well-schooled yet accessible feminist
journalist. My original review was in
Free Press, $25, 9780743269353.
Mary Ellen Kavanaugh is a talented and charming (and, um, humble, really,
I am) unemployed bookseller/English teacher looking for work in the Twin Cities.
Sara Luce Look
My favorite novels from 2006 all felt spiritual to me - they made me think,
and all were beautifully written:
My number one pick is definitely
Birth House by Ami McKay, which I
gushed about in MBW #11.
This is the one where I was so impressed, I emailed the author. She and her
family moved into a "birth house," a place where women went to give
birth before it was common for births to happen in hospitals. From this inspiration,
McKay's excellent novel was born. William Morrow, $24.95, 9780061135859.
Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta was, deservedly, a National Book
Award finalist. It takes place in the seventies and the nineties, with the
story told in different voices. In the seventies, Mary Whittaker and Bobby
DeSoto were involved in radical anti-war protests; one of them killed someone,
and they both went underground. What's interesting about it is its portrayal
of activism, both in the 70s and in the 90s (one of them runs an anarchist
bookstore in the 90s.) Eat the Document explores what it means to completely
recreate yourself - several times - and become anyone you want to be.
Scribner, $15, 9780743273008.
And then there's
The Ghost at the Table by Suzanne Berne, who also
wrote A Crime in the Neighborhood, Orange Prize winner in 1999. The
Ghost at the Table is about the Fiske sisters, estranged for years, who
will be getting together for a Thanksgiving reunion at the family home in
New England. One of them, Cynthia, writes historical novels for girls about
famous sisters in history. The one she's currently writing is about Mark Twain's
daughters, who have a similar story to her own; for instance, both sets of
sisters lost their mother at an early age. The Fiske family house is also
near Mark Twain's house. I liked how this novel looked at how memories can
be different for people in the same family, how someone can have such a clear
idea about something in their past, and once they start talking to others
about it, they learn their version is not necessarily how it happened. Algonquin
Books, $23.95, 9781565123342.
I also loved
We Don't Need Another Wave: Dispatches From the Next
Generation of Feminists, edited by Melody Berger, heir apparent to Listen
Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation. See my review in
for more details.
Seal Press, $15.95, 9781580051828.
Sara Luce Look is co-owner and book buyer at
Charis Books in Atlanta.
She is also mother to Zelda Jane and a femme dyke who loves to read.
Science Fiction and Fantasy
By Jill Roberts
Do you think that you've outgrown fiction about spaceships and elves? Did
you stop reading science fiction and fantasy a long, long time ago? Well,
I'll wager you this: I'll bet that you've read at least one novel by Isabel
Allende, Alice Sebold, or Margaret Atwood. These authors write eloquently
about magic, the supernatural, and the future. In other words, they are science
fiction and fantasy writers.
Science fiction and fantasy is the literature of possibility. It crosses
boundaries to break rules. Whether you call it literary fabulism, magical
realism, or slipstream, sf/f contains some of the most exciting (and subversive)
books being published.
My favorite sf/f books of 2006 are indicative of the diversity of genre fiction
and include a biography, a children's book, and a novel. Here are three excellent
books that will greatly appeal to any woman who reads quality fiction.
With an urgent immediacy, the biography
James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double
Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips introduces a six-year-old Alice
Sheldon trekking through the dangerous and uncharted Congo with her socialite
parents. Sheldon becomes a debutante, a painter, a CIA operative, an experimental
psychologist, and one of the most influential science fiction writers of her
time. Her pseudonym, James Tiptree, Jr., gave her license to make brilliant
fictional forays into gender, biology, and identity, while avoiding the labeling
that stymied most first-wave feminist science fiction writers. Featured on
the front page of the New York Times Book Review, this is an incredible
book that has been repeatedly mentioned as one of the best biographies of
2006. St. Martin's Press, $27.95, 9780312203856.
The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages is not exactly a children's book,
though it initially appears so. Two misfit girls - a reluctant bully and a
science geek - overcome their differences to form a solid friendship. It's
sweet and straightforward, until you realize that the girls are sequestered
in Los Alamos, as their well-intentioned parents work diligently along with
Robert Oppenheimer to create the atomic bomb. Klages provides a note-perfect
portrayal of the melancholy sweetness of childhood as it is slowly underlaid
with an inevitable menace. A recent BookSense top pick, this is a beautifully
told and haunting exploration of the ultimate loss of innocence. Penguin/Viking
Juvenile, $16.99 cloth, 9780670061341.
Note: The Green Glass Sea defies categories so thoroughly that it
may be shelved in the children's, genre, or fiction/literature section of
your local bookstore - and quite possibly in all three sections. Definitely
make sure you find it.
Living Next Door to the God of Love by Justina Robson is one of the
most challenging - and riveting - books I read in 2006. Jalaeka is a dangerous
accident, an unpredictable body-shifting deity splintered off from the all-powerful
Unity. Unity is gradually absorbing the universe into itself, and has sent
its avatar, Theo, to destroy Jalaeka. Along with his/her genetically-engineered
human lover, Francine, a Unity-focused academic, a metallic guardian-angel,
and an untrustworthy elf, Jalaeka is inexorably drawn toward a showdown with
Unity. Robson tackles desire, consumerism, and epistemological infighting
with great prose, unexpected humor, and ambitious complexity. Though it occasionally
spins out of control, Living Next Door to the God of Love is an absorbing
cyberpunk thriller unlike any I've previously encountered. Spectra, $13, 9780553587425.
Jill Roberts is the Managing Editor at Tachyon Publications,
sf/f press and publisher of the Tiptree Award anthology series. Her literary
heroines are Ursula K. Le Guin and James Tiptree, Jr. (a.k.a. Alice Sheldon).
She wants to read more fiction that messes around with gender.