Weekend Reading for Everyone: An Environmental Whodunit, a Retold Myth, & Clubbing in the 1980’s

First things first.

I love my weekend reading. Really, I do. And I want you to love yours, too. We humans are not designed to curl up in a ball during infinite lockdown; and yet that is the way we live now. As an intermittent psychic, inspired by the coming of spring, I foresee that we all need a good genre read this weekend!

Here are three I’ve recently read: Jeff VanderMeer’s environmental SF novel, Hummingbird Salamander; Jennifer Saint’s retold myth, Ariadne; and Natalie Standiford’s Astrid Sees All, a female answer to Jay McInerney’s ’80’s clubbing novel, Bright Lights, Big City.

And please add your book recommendations!

  1. Jeff VanderMeer’s environmental whodunit, Hummingbird Salamander, is a hybrid of genre and literary fiction. It has everything I look for in environmental SF: a lucid style, quirky characters, speculations about climate change and the future of Earth, allusions to pandemics, and observations about the tragic extinction of birds and animals. The narrator, Jane, struggles to decipher the meaning of an extinct taxidermic hummingbird, which she finds in a storage unit after a barista hands her a note and key from a stranger.

This smart novel is almost insanely breathtaking, accentuated by Jane’s witty tough-gal musings. At six feet tall and 220 pounds, Jane is a former bodybuilder and wrestler, a force to be reckoned with, as well as a sympathetic wife and supportive mother. But home is not the center of her attention. As a cybersecurity expert, paranoid Jane knows the ins and outs of corporate culture and more than you want to know about how we are tracked on computers and phones. When she learns that the stranger, Silvina, is the daughter of a particularly dangerous CEO, that she was allegedly a bioterrorist, and is probably now dead, Jane embarks on amateur detective work and dangerous conversations with criminals. Things get dicey–Jane and her family are being watched–and pretty soon she’s on the road, running from danger and searching for answers.

Oh, and occasionally VanderMeer waxes poetic:

The internet was a colander. You were the water. The metaphor changed by the week. It didn’t always make sense.

2. In her feminist debut novel Ariadne, Jennifer Saint relates an empowering tale of two mythic sisters, Ariadne and Phaedra. In case you need a quick family tree (and who doesn’t?), here is a little background: their mother PasiphaĆ« fall sin love in love with a bull (a god’s cruel trick), and gives birth to the Minotaur, half human, half bull. Shut up in a maze, the savage Minotaur is paid tribute once a year by seven Athenian men and seven Athenian women, whom he devours. King Minos takes pleasure in terrorizing the subject Athenians and in embarrassing his own family. (He is the only one not related to the Minotaur.).

And then Theseus, the handsome prince of Athens, arrives with the other 13 Athenians who will be the tributes. He claims he will kill the Minotaur and save the Athenians. Ariadne and Phaedra are so mesmerized by his charisma they help him with the killing of their monstrous brother. In fact, without these two he could not have done it, but afterwards he boasts that he did it all himself and deserts both girls, leaving Ariadne on an uninhabited island, and having misdirected Phaedra. I don’t want to give away the plot, but I will tell you that the two sister’s lives are entwined with Theseus. Poor things!

I found the first part of Ariadne rather lacklustre, but it is intriguing by the time you reach Part II, when Saint begins to alternate the narrative of Ariadne with that of her fiery sister Phaedra. A little uneven, but lots of fun to read!

Natalie Standiford’s Astrid Sees All is a comical, poignant, compulsively readable novel about two fragile young women struggling to survive in New York City. Phoebe, the narrator, idolized her friend Carmen at Brown University, and still tries to get her attention now that she is in New York. The two eventually move into Carmen’s junkie boyfriend’s trashed apartment in the East Village; and he is so grotesque, constantly oozing with infection or overdosing, that Phoebe cannot imagine how Carmen can love him. The two young women are out every night clubbing, getting drunk, taking drugs, and getting laid, and keeping up the pace can be exhausting. The creative Carmen comes up with a way for Phoebe to make a living: telling fortunes at a club, using her collection of old movie ticket stubs to make prognostications. And with her new persona of Astrid (Carmen suggested the prophecies be made under the sign “Astrid sees all”), Phoebe finally becomes hip and popular. But both women are deeply self-destructive, and Phoebe/Astrid’s imitation of her friend’s loose behavior causes devastation. An entertaining, if uneven novel.

I am reminded of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City-which is a better novel –but his much preppier narrator also went clubbing every night and snorted too many drugs. Here’s what I want to know: was your 1980s like that? Mine was not. Coffee was my beverage and books my vice.

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