The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
The Age of Miracles is about the end of the world, both in a macro and micro sense. The Earth’s rotation begins to slow, stretching the length of days and nights and warping the planet’s gravity. But the potential of astronomical apocalypse mostly sets the stage for a personal one. For 11-year-old Julia, the familiarity of her world is dissolving with the sudden arrival of adolescence, the complications of middle school friendships, and the decaying of her parents’ marriage. These things are exacerbated by the novel’s science fiction, but the conflicts remain grounded in a very human reality.
Debut author Karen Walker Thompson carefully balances metaphors between the two story lines with the finesse of a more seasoned author. She also has a gift for poetic language (“We were living under a new gravity, too subtle for our minds to register, but our bodies were already subject to its sway”). And while young narrators are often problematic — often the central criticism of authors like Jonathan Safran Foer, who use youth to justify extreme sentimentality — Walker Thompson avoids taking advantage of Julia’s naïveté by distancing the perspective. Basically, the heartbreak here feels earned and more genuine.
As a plot device, Thompson Walker uses the apocalypse as a clever way to frame a classic struggle between a universe governed by determinism or free will. But why can’t it be both? At one point, Julia’s neighbor declares that “the only thing you have to do in this life is die … everything else is a choice.”
One of the most interesting parts of the book — one that I wish received more attention — is a cult of “real-timers” that abides by daylight rather than the obsolete standard of the 24-hour clock upheld by the government. Real-timers are treated as outcasts, self-segregated to a colony in Utah, hundreds of miles away from Julia’s California suburb. But in a way, they accept the world for what it is. For those who have seen the film Melancholia, it’s a bit like the second act when Kirsten Dunst’s nihilism suddenly becomes more viable than Charlotte Gainsbourg’s pragmatism.
But unlike Melancholia, which delights in director Lars von Trier’s cynicism, Walker Thompson is a surprisingly optimistic about the apocalypse. The slowing of the Earth’s rotation becomes an accepted thing, and though the threat of doom never goes away, it gradually becomes a part of everyday life. Julia declares, “Every morning officials announced the minutes gained overnight, like raindrops collected in pans.” At the end of the day, the world does keep turning, even if it’s turning a little slower.
TLDR: The only great coming-of-age story that shares a plot line with The Core.
Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges & Joe Sacco
Over two years, Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco visited the poorest cities in America, including a Native American reservation in South Dakota, a coal-mining town in West Virginia, and Immokalee, Florida, home of some of the world’s worst abuses of immigrant labor. The common thread throughout these locales (besides being really shitty places to live) is that they are all “sacrifice zones,” areas where the people and environment suffer as a consequence of unchecked capitalism. Hedges says, “Corporate capitalism will, quite literally, kill us, as it has killed Native Americans, African Americans trapped in our internal colonies in the inner cities, those left behind in the devastated coalfields, and those who live as serfs in our nations’ produce fields.”
Hedges writes with an undeniable sense of urgency. But the most interesting part of Days of Destruction is its format, each chapter paired with the illustrative work of cartoonist Sacco. Add their CVs together and you have an impressive duo — Hedges a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and Sacco an Eisner Award winner (the Pulitzer of comics) — but I was surprised just how well the written and illustrated mediums worked together. Each chapter focuses on a different city, relying heavily on oral history and first-person accounts of what people have endured in those communities. The stories shift seamlessly from Hedges’s passionate, on-the-ground reporting to Sacco’s intricate landscapes and humanizing portraits, penned with the kind of fine, stark detail that is often lost in a photograph.
Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt is a gripping and thoroughly researched polemic about the devastation wreaked by unfettered greed, but it also ends on a hopeful note with Hedges and Sacco’s coverage of the Occupy movement. In Liberty Square, Hedges sees power in the spirit of rebellion. He writes: “We may feel powerless in the face of the ruthless corporate destruction of our nation, our culture, and our ecosystem. But we are not.”
TLDR: Your libertarian-hating college roommate who studied political science, illustrated.
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend some young adult fantasy for the beach. There’s a lot of it out there — much of it good, much more of it terrible — but Shadow and Bone is the best page-turner I’ve come across this year.
The war-torn nation of Ravka is divided by a swath of mythical darkness called The Fold, which is full of horrible, clawed monsters that like to attack humans (think Pitch Black). Alina is a young girl in the army fighting in the war against the creatures of The Fold. After unintentionally summoning dormant magical powers to save her lifelong friend (and love) Mal, Alina is whisked off to train as an elite mage under the instruction of a powerful, handsome sorcerer called the Darkling, whose motivations gradually become more dubious as he reveals just how special Alina’s gifts are.
Leigh Bardugo doesn’t do much with her characters, who are likable and unremarkable, but she does work magic with the world they inhabit, drawing on Russian folklore and tradition to imbue the land of Ravka with a sense of wonder. Shadow and Bone is also tightly plotted and paced. Bardugo doesn’t dwell too long on Alina’s childhood at the orphanage, and within the first three chapters, Alina is already on her way to understanding her strange powers and their implications.
Even though it ends with a pretty good twist, Shadow and Bone follows the young-adult formula pretty closely — conflicts of identity, belonging, the heart — but the most predictable part is how little gets resolved by the last page. It’s a young-adult trilogy after all, and the final thrill Bardugo leaves the reader with is the promise of two more books.
TLDR: Your new Hunger Games.
Also Notable in Fiction
Mission to Paris by Alan Furst
Also Notable in Nonfiction
Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum
What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses by Daniel Chamovitz