I’ll save you my really deep metaphor about how autumn brings in the harvest and how that harvest relates to the publishing industry and just tell you this, dear readers: there’s a veritable cornucopia of good new books this season. Here is just a small taste:
Stone Mattress: Nine Tales
By Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese, September 2014, 288 pgs
Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin) is on top of her writing game and this new short story collection will prove that to any naysayers. The stories as a whole are dark, funny, etched with social commentary and threaded through with feminism. The title story includes a self-prophesizing husband-killer named Verna who decides to take a cruise. On the trip, a former boyfriend who had wronged her appears. When I say “wronged her,” I mean truly betrayed her, by way of getting her pregnant and then humiliating her. We’re meant to feel Verna’s pain here, if not her proposed solution: the point is not so much to fear Verna as to wonder what keeps us on this side of that faint line. Verna’s murder weapon of choice is an ancient rock that’s on the boat as part of a scientific presentation. The rock, called a stromatolite, loosely translates to “stone mattress,” due to its layering of soft algae becoming rock over time. If we think of this as a metaphor for our Verna, someone who has been made hard over the years, it becomes easy to understand why a writer like Atwood has remained relevant for more than four decades.
The Bone Clocks: A Novel
By David Mitchell
Random House, September 2014, 640 pgs
David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet) brings us more of what he does so well: a genre-blending, mind-altering swirl of beautiful prose and rich character that never seems to take itself too seriously, even when dealing with serious subject matter. At the heart of the novel is the main character, Holly Sykes who we see through from teenage to her autumn years. Every tale is told from someone’s perspective who is involved with Holly, whether it’s her college-aged predatory boyfriend who breaks her heart, to two embattled groups of (wait for it) immortals, known as “atemporals,” who focus on living forever.
One group, the Horologists, focus on immortality through reincarnation. But the dastardly Anchorites sacrifice children to fuel their longevity. The book travels from 1980s England to the future where the whole world is on the brink of ecological collapse. Add to this the meta elements of writing (Holly grows up to be a successful writer; one chapter revolves around an author who can’t forgive a scathing review) and we start to get an idea of what (maybe, possibly) Mitchell was reaching for. He is simultaneously holding up a mirror to our current age while speculating about what the future could bring. Are we plummeting ahead with no plans to save ourselves? Does documenting the trajectory toward collapse make it any more meaningful? And what good is living forever going to be if there’s no world in which to exist? Or are well just bone clocks, worm food and does any of it matter?
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