Sunday, August 22, 2010

The End of the World As I Know It

I confess that I have a fondness for apocalyptic and dystopian fiction. The creepier the end-world scenario, the better--and what makes them creepy? The creepiest novels are the ones that seem eerily possible. Twenty years ago, Margaret Atwood predicted that a hyper-fundamentalist theocracy would begin to brainwash the country, subjugating women. And today, driving to Mississippi, I eavesdropped on a conversation at a convenience store that involved a woman telling a man that the reason a mutual acquaintance was still single was "'Cause she's lazy and she won't cook. How's she ever going to get a man if she can't cook?" I am pretty sure that religious cults insist that women know how to cook...writes the single woman who absolutely refuses to spend her free time in the kitchen. Pot? Kettle.

Anyway, there's a lot to fear in the near future, and here are a few of my favorite alternative, probably bleak, novels.

NEVER LET ME GO--Kazuo Ishiguro's terrific novel about exceptional teens raised in a "special" school will soon debut nationwide as the new film starrng Kiera Knightley. Ishiguro is a Booker Prize-winning writer, the story rivals all the great love sagas of literature, and then there's the creepy truth about these kids' lives and their special value to society. I can't wait for the movie.

CLOUD ATLAS--If you asked me what my favorite book of the decade was, it would be this experimental novel by the brilliant David Mitchell. CLOUD ATLAS ingeniously blends together six separate stories, from a Patrick O'Brien-esque naval tale to a "China Symdrome" nuclear threat to a dystopian future akin to Kevin Costner's "Waterworld," all centering on the theme of free will and independence. This book reaffirmed my desire to stay in the book business when I was considering graduate school. Books are just more fun.

THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD--No one manages to blend literary prestige with speculative fiction like Margaret Atwood, and THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD is her most recent stroll into the near future. The events of YEAR OF THE FLOOD are the same as those in ORYX & CRAKE, both book looking at what will happen if we continue to destroy the environment and tamper with potentially dangerous genetic engineering of the food supply. Killer viruses, a hippie gardening cult, and strippers make THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD highly entertaining as well as scary.

THE UNIT--Swedish authors are hot right now, with the Stieg Larsson trilogy dominating all of the top spots on the NYT Bestseller List, but don't think that Stieg is the only Swedish author out there. THE UNIT, by Ninni Holmqvist, is set in the near future and centers around Dorrit, a woman-of-a-certain-age who, upon turning 50, moves into a retirement community of sorts with other aging, childless singles. It's like a seniors mixer/party in a dorm facility, with classes and dances...and organ harvesting. THE UNIT questions a person's worth beyond one's ability to reproduce. Maybe if Dorrit had learned to cook and moved to Mississippi she'd have found a man....

THE ROAD--Cormac McCarthy's novel of a father and son trying to survive after global catastrophe, with cannibals roaming around and horrors around every corner, received a big push when Oprah picked it for her book group a few years ago. It's a bleak book to be sure, but also a moving portrait of love in the face of adversity.

THINGS WE DIDN'T SEE COMING--How could you not be curious about a book written by a guy who used to be a psychiatric nurse and then moved to Australia? These linked stories assume that the global shutdown foretold with Y2K does transpire and the world is thrown into chaos and famine. It could have happened.

THE RAPTURE--This creepy thriller centers around the daughter of religious fundamentalists who predicts the future...a future that involves 1,000 foot tidal waves destroying the earth. The cause of the waves? An offshore oil rig disturbs the dangerously volatile frozen methane at the bottom of the ocean, creating a massive explosion. You know, sort of like the recent gulf oil spill.

All of these books open lots of room for discussion, making them ideal for book groups.

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