Anthropology in Fiction

IMG_8561I love literary fiction with an anthropological bent. I studied anthropology in graduate school, and I find it fascinating when authors can create an entirely new culture (here’s lookin’ at you, Tolkien), and, more importantly, include characters navigating that culture from an etic or emic perspective (observing from inside the social group or outside the social group). Here are some of my favorite anthropological novels:

 

dark eden
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In this post-apocalyptic novel, about 500 people live on Eden, a sunless planet. Eden was founded by an astronaut couple that was left behind when the three other astronauts they were travelling left them to go back to Earth to get help. This new colony on Eden, now generations away from the original ancestral couple, has a religion that is centered around this mythologized rescue ship, believing someday the astronauts will return, a common resurrection and salvation story. John Redlatern, a 15-year-old resident of Eden, speaks out at the “Anny Versry” celebration, encouraging everyone to move away from where they’ve always lived and explore the rest of the planet. He is exiled for his heresy, and he and a coterie of friends leave their home and set out to find the rescue astronauts and seek new resources. Beckett adroitly handles linguistic evolution to reveal the culture of the residents of Eden, and uses this culture to experiment with the anthropology of how religions are founded and what drives their inspiration. It’s a great book, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel. Highly recommended.

strange new things
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In Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, evangelical minister and former crackhead, Peter, is sent on assignment to the faraway planet of Oasis to be the new preacher to the natives, an alien species no one knows much about. The natives have requested a new minister to teach them about the bible. The whole story is essentially how Peter deals with being away from his wife, Bea, and how he interacts with the innocent and inquisitive Oasans. The message of this book is really one of misinterpretation and how ignoring depression and loneliness isn’t healthy. There is exquisite world-building in the Oasan settlement. Their culture, language, and interpretation of Christianity when they’ve never experienced life on Earth is fascinating.

 

euphoria
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This book. Wow. Set in 1930s New Guinea during the birth of cultural anthropology, Euphoria is loosely based on the lives of anthropologists Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson. This is the story of their love triangle, set against the backdrop of budding ethnography in a humid, primal setting. Euphoria raises the question of when you’re studying a culture, do you learn more about others, or about yourself? Euphoria is gritty and intimate, a book full of tastes, smells, and sounds. This book is full of passions: passion for inspiring work, for the euphoria of discovery, and overwhelming mania of obsession. It’s one of the best books I read in 2015.

 

 

speaker
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This is the next book in the Ender series, but you don’t need to have read Ender’s Game in order to understand Speaker for the Dead. In Speaker for the Dead, Ender is sent to a new planet, Lusitania, which was colonized and is now populated by “pequininos,” or more commonly, “piggies,” a curious, mysterious species. Scientists called “xenographers” and “xenobiologists” live on Lusitania to study the piggies to learn about them without influencing their culture or introducing them to new technology (very Boasian, right? See cultural relativism). The story really gets going when some xenographers are killed and disemboweled by piggies, and a well-respected piggie is subsequently disemboweled, on purpose, it seems. Several days later, a tree is found growing from the piggie corpse (you can ignore that link now for cultural relativism), and that’s when the xenographers realize that the piggies are more complex than they expected. Ender is summoned to Lusitania to “speak the deaths” of the dead xenographers and during his time there he studies the piggies and learns of their symbiotic relationship with the environment of Lusitania. There’s also a love story woven in. An imaginative book with an anthropological perspective.

mosquito coast
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The Mosquito Coast is one of my favorite books ever. Narrated by 14-year-old Charlie Fox, the story centers around Charlie’s father, Allie, who is disillusioned with the American Dream and believes that greed and consumerism are destroying the country. Inspired by the Honduran immigrants on the farm where he works, Allie uproots his family to the Honduran jungle, convinced they can live Swiss-Family-Robinson-style in a self-sustaining utopia. At first, Allie’s inventions and contraptions to create a livable environment in the jungle are wonderful, but soon  his delusions of resourcefulness devolve into madness. Charlie is torn between loyalty to his father and confronting the reality that their situation is quickly becoming dangerous. And please, don’t judge the book by the movie. I love Harrison Ford, but the book has so much more substance.

 

These are some of my favorite “anthropological novels”. If you’d like to recommend others, I welcome all comments!

 

Goodnight, Beautiful Women – Anna Noyes

Noyes, Goodnight Beautiful Women jacket art 9780802124845
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Goodnight, Beautiful Women is a debut collection of eleven interconnected short narratives all revolving around young girls and burgeoning women in coastal Maine. I would not call this a collection of short stories; rather, they are brief scenes that give an overall sense of the confusion of desires of young women on the verge of understanding the motives of men.

The writing in this collection is intense. Noyes’ imagery in these short narratives creates piercing anticipation. The scenes she creates are gripping from the outset, with familiar but haunting characters. I loved the fullness of the stories she wove. One of my favorites, “Drawing Blood”, was reminiscent of Sarah Waters’ historical fiction. The stories are all about relationships, between husbands and wives, or between mothers and daughters, or first loves. The stories are dark, melancholy, and without redemption, usually leaving the main character hopeless.

The thing about literary short stories, however, is that often they’re just not stories. The stories in Goodnight, Beautiful Women were scenes, or paintings, or like the beginning-middle chapters of a powerful novel. These stories present an overall mysterious feeling of depression, but they weren’t stories as I’m used to stories. I’m expecting a beginning/middle/end story arc, an enticing story with a satisfying denouement, and that is not what you get here. With each of these stories Noyes easily grabbed my heart with riveting beginnings and then left me, wilted and abandoned, wondering what happened.

Noyes definitely has the skill and literary chutzpah to pull off a great collection here, but if you’re like me and like resolution, you may be disappointed. I’m looking forward to her next work. Many thanks to Netgalley, Grove Atlantic, and Anna Noyes for the advance copy.

I wish I had time to read like you

I actually hear this all time, from a co-worker, or a friend, or someone who sees me walking down the hall with my thumb in a paperback. I get the inevitable sigh, an exaggerated pout, then the querulous excuse, “I just don’t have time anymore.”

Before I start to sound agonizingly pretentious, let me offer the disclaimer that I don’t read to impress anyone. I just read. It’s my thing. If you’re reading this blog, you’re more than likely the same way. It took me most of my formidable years not to be embarrassed to be a “reader,” not to hide books that I was reading that might be considered highbrow or literary for fear of being labeled a snob. I found one of my best friends in college because we trusted each other to confess that we both had Walden in our respective dorm rooms and it wasn’t required reading. Now I can say that I like Dostoevsky and I’m not going to be ashamed of that anymore. Book empowerment.

This “I wish I had time to read (like you do)” complaint also implies that I have no responsibilities, no obligations, nothing else at all to tend to but my books. “Gee,” I think, fingertips drumming my lips, “I have absolutely nothing else to do in my empty, carefree life. Hmmm. I know! I’ll pick up a book!” Never mind that full-time job, two kids, piles of laundry and dishes, and the fact that the new season of “Orange is the New Black” just came out.

So, with all that going on, when exactly DO I have “time” to read? Well, you see, reading is really my main hobby . . .  dare I say, one of my reasons for loving life. Reading isn’t something I have to make time for. It’s just part of who I am.

I read about reading. I surf social media reading apps (I apologize for majorly over-promoting of Litsy (Litsy – a fun, new bookish app!), but it’s book nirvana, so, sorry. I read Websites about books (my favorite is bookriot.com). I get emails from publishing houses about upcoming releases. I click on Netgalley.com, holding my breath that I’m chosen to read an Advance Reader Copy of a new release from a favorite author. I read other bloggers’ book reviews. Like I said, books are what I do.

When I read:woman-girl-remote-watching

  • waiting at the daycare to drop off my son in the morning
  • waiting for meetings to start at work
  • during my commute to work or to pick up kids (that’s audiobooks, folks. I’m not reckless.)
  • when doing the aforementioned piles of laundry or dishes (more audiobooks)
  • waiting in line anywhere, really (CVS, bank, drycleaners . . . I could go on and on)
  • when other people would choose to do other things with their time       (i. e., watch “Big Brother” or “Dancing with the Stars”)
  • Any chance I get

“Wow,” you must be thinking. “This chick is so uppity.” Nah. I do other stuff, too. I watch TV. I listen to music in the car sometimes instead of listening to a book. I went through a huge “American Idol” phase before it started to go downhill. So, I get it. There are a lot of choices out there. Most of the time, I just choose reading over anything else. Just please, all the “I wish I had time” folks out there, don’t look at me like my choice is somehow inferior.

If you really are earnest in your grating “I wish I had time to read” complaint, try the following:

  • Serial Reader app for iphone – you can read classics for free sent to your phone in easy-to-digest installments. I’m reading Jane Eyre right now on Serial Reader.
  • DailyLit.com – the same as Serial Reader, but it’s via email.serialreader
  • Kindle app for iphone. Sorry, all you Samsung people. I’m sure there must be something for you, but I just don’t know what it is.
  • Overdrive – this app can be on your phone, desktop, laptop, garlic press, whatever. Download audiobooks and e-books for free from your local library.
  • Audiobooks – I can’t emphasize enough how great audiobooks are. If you haven’t tried one, I highly recommend them. You can get them for free from your local library, either in old-school CD format or via download on Overdrive.

I carry book devices with me. I can read on my Kindle, my phone, my laptop, my desktop, or good old-fashioned paper. Whenever I have a few minutes, I almost always have one of those materials with me, so I’m always well-stocked. Reading is in the forefront of my existence. So, when I hear, “I wish IIIII had time to reeeeeeead,” all sing-song and whiny, I just want to ask, “So what do you choose to do instead?”

 

 

 

New books to discover and explore!

adventure-1081166_1920Thanks to my new favorite social media app, Litsy (Litsy – a fun, new bookish app!), I’ve discovered a cache of new books that I never would have known about otherwise. Some of these discoveries of mine have just been published, while others have been out for a while. I thought I’d pass along some of the gems that have been highly recommended by other Litsy users:

ways-to-disappear_custom-88c23648caec048990f8710406866bd614b93f7e-s400-c85
Find it here on Goodreads

Ways to Disappear – Idra Novey

This is a debut novel by a poet, so, as expected, many reviewers say the writing is phenomenal. An American translator travels to Brazil in search of her lost author who was last seen sitting in a tree and smoking a cigar. She climbed the tree and was never seen again. Several reviewers said they read it more than once in order to pick up nuances and clues they missed the first time around. Sounds intriguing!

 

 

 

Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

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 Find it here on Goodreads

 

 

A book about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his son, Willie, just before the outbreak of the Civil War. Follows Lincoln in the cemetery at Willie’s grave over the course of a single night, with many inhabitants of the cemetery, those recently deceased and those long dead, playing a part in this exploration of the beauty of life and death. I can’t wait to get my hands on this one. It won’t be published until February 2017, so keep this one on your wait list.

 

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things – Bryn Greenwood

This book will be released in August, 2016, so there’s not too long to wait.

26114135
Find it here on Goodreads

The description may be off-putting to some: a forbidden “love story” between and adult man and a young girl, but from what I have heard from reviewers the story is riveting and not at all distasteful. Alternating points-of-view and first and third person, the story centers around a young girl called Wavy and her dark childhood. This powerful, shocking love story begins when she meets Kellen, a man driven more by loneliness and compassion than any sexual agenda. After reading reviews that call this book stunning and compelling, this book will definitely be on my TBR shelf as soon as possible. The topic is controversial, so I’ll just have to see which side I fall on with this one . . .

 

 

A Doubter’s Almanac – Ethan Canin

This book is about the journey from childhood to adulthood of Milo, a psychopathic math

doubters-almanac_custom-f4568bcab65f561098dd3046c2c1dfb8c175703a-s400-c85
Find it here on Goodreads

genius. Milo transitions from his rural Michigan boyhood to the academia at Berkeley. The second half of the book is narrated by Milo’s son, Hans. From what I gather from reviewers, this book focuses on the problems of genius, personality disorders, and the universal human quest for happiness.

 

I’ve tried one of Canin’s other books before, The Palace Thief, and I couldn’t get through it, so I’m kind of a hard sell for this one, but 92% of Litsy reviewers loved it and said they hated to see it end. We’ll see . . .

 

 

The Lightkeepers – Abby Geni

This one sounds gripping! Miranda, a nature photographer, travels to the Farrallon Islands

51rC+8fvkBL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_
Find it here on Goodreads

off the coast of California, to join other scientists and naturalists studying the islands. Once there, she is assaulted by a fellow inhabitant, and a few days later her assailant is found dead. Because the islands are only inhabited by scientists, there are limited characters, which makes everyone instantly untrustworthy and suspicious. Themes include discovery of the natural world commingled with the social dynamics in an isolated environment. It sounds like Lord of the Flies meets And Then There Were None. Count me in!

 

 

 

 

That’s it for now, my few loyal biblio-friends. Anything out there you’ve discovered recently that you’d like to share? I love book recommendations!

The Girls – Emma Cline

thegirls
Find it here on Goodreads

“That was part of being a girl – you were resigned to whatever feedback you’d get. If you got mad, you were crazy, and if you didn’t react, you were a bitch. The only thing you could do was smile from the corner they’d backed you into. Implicate yourself in the joke even if the joke was always on you.”

 

The Girls follows the ennui-filled life of 14-year-old Evie Boyd in the summer of 1969. Evie is neglected by her recently-divorced mother, and her father is too engrossed by his new mistress to devote any time to his daughter. Spending her days envying other girls and wandering around lost, she is completely enraptured by a new girl she meets, Suzanne, who is bohemian, care-free, and utterly unlike the Country Club boarding school set she’s known her entire life.

Suzanne practically kidnaps Evie while Evie is stranded on the side of the road with a broken bicycle. Evie is captivated with Suzanne’s lifestyle, and the other girls in the van, who speak of the god-like Russell and life at the Ranch, a compound in the middle of nowhere where they all live together and share each other’s clothes. Evie is blind to the brainwashing, oblivious to the dirt and starvation. All she sees is the wonderment of “love,” the friendships and acceptance, and the hypnotizing ways of Russell and those who only want to please him. The insecurities of adolescence make Evie susceptible to the seduction of the Ranch, and to Russell’s hold on everyone. At one point, Evie brings a new outsider to visit the Ranch, and doesn’t understand his revulsion at the poverty and complacency of the girls.

This story mirrors the cult of Charles Manson in the 1960s, but also presents the reader with an explanation as to how those who followed him could get sucked into the vortex of his control. The anguish of adolescence, the yearning for acceptance and desire to be desired, are what Evie wants above all else. She also falls prey to the fixation she has on Suzanne, a crushing obsession only teenagers experience. Murder is alluded to from the beginning, so no spoilers there. The reader knows it’s coming, but not to what extent.

Cline’s writing is adroit and spot-on. She doesn’t dwell on descriptions, but instead offers tiny glimpses of appearance that give the reader and overall picture quickly and specifically: the gravel ground into the knees of an unsupervised, dirty child at the Ranch; the shiny belt-buckle on the hippie, shirtless field hand; the split-ends and pitted fingernails of the cult girls. Evie is the girl on the outside, desperate to be on the inside, desperate to even be noticed.

This story was spellbinding. I highly recommend it.

Thanks to Netgalley, Emma Cline, and Random House for the advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

Litsy – a fun, new bookish app!

Must share this new app! Booknerd fun! Easy to use, and completely free. I’m not in any way compensated for this crazy endorsement; I just think it’s fun and want everyone to know about it. Also, please forgive overlook my use of second person POV. I don’t know why everyone gets so riled up about that. You know what I mean.

litsy

Most Litsy-users are describing Litsy as a mix of Instagram and Goodreads (don’t let the Instagram comparison scare you if you’re not into that sorta thing . . . like me).

  • For any book you like, you can post a blurb, a quote, or a review, with the option to also include a photo.IMG_8146.PNG
  • Book reviews are limited to 300 characters, so everything is short and sweet.
  • You can choose to “follow” people who post, so you can see their reviews, blurbs, and book quotes, and you can comment on their posts. One of my internet blogger-crushes, Liberty Hardy, is a follower of mine, and I fangirled all over the place about it. IMG_8145
  • You choose from 4 options when offering an opinion about a book: pick, so-so, pan, or bail, so there’s no “Is this a 3-star or a 4-star book?” dilemma.
  • Privacy settings are available, so that’s up to you.
  • The app is fairly new, so it’s easy to use, not complicated, and suggestions to the creators are welcomed.
  • Your “litfluence” is on your profile page. You start with 42 points, as a nod to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (impressive), and your litfluence builds by how many people like your posts, add your recommended books to their “to-read” list, etc.litsy2
  • It’s a great way to find book recommendations, free ARC giveaways, and like-minded bookish people like you.

Check it out!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Captain Flint was Still a Good Man -Nick Dybek

When Captain Flint was Still a Good Man will blow you away. I picked up the book based on the cover alone (I judged a book by its cover. For shame.)

All the men of Loyalty Island, a peninsula jutting into the Strait of Juan de Fuca that separates Canada and the United States, leave for the Bering Sea every season to catch crabs. While at sea, the men long for home; when home, they yearn to be back on the open ocean. This liminality pervades everyone’s life on Loyalty Island.

The story begins when John Gaunt, the patriarch and owner of the fleet, dies and leaves the crab industry in the hands of his college-educated, feckless son, Richard. Richard has never even been

captain flint
Find it here on Goodreads

to sea, and his misdirected rebellion against his father threatens the men of Loyalty Island. Richard plans to sell the fleet to the Japanese, and the fishermen take matters into their own hands. Teenage Cal is left picking up the pieces after his family’s way of life is shattered.The men of Loyalty Island find themselves going to immoral lengths they never thought possible to preserve their way of life, and Cal is left with a grave life-or-death secret.

When Captain Flint was Still a Good Man is salty, overcast, suspicious, brooding. The story takes place under the dark, roiling turmoil of moral dilemma and the question of how far one should go for filial duty. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Nick Dybek has writing chops, and it shows. Unlike many Workshoppers, Dybek’s writing is subtle and effective. I was drawn in and gave up every other book I was reading to devote all my eye-time to this. This story will haunt me for a long time.

Recommended for those readers who enjoyed The Shipping News, Sweetland, The Man in my Basement, and Mystic River.