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http://beta.dallasnews.com/arts/books/2016/07/29/chilling-thrilling-end-world-sunlight-pilgrims-last-one-fine-novels

By JOYCE SÁENZ HARRIS

Special Contributor

Post-apocalyptic literature may be as old as the Epic of Gilgamesh, but in the postwar years it became a midcentury-modern, atomic-era genre all its own. Where it once was considered the province of pop and pulp, this branch of fiction achieved considerable critical acclaim in 2006 with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. By late 2012, The New Yorker was calling the genre “postapocalit.”

Nuclear annihilations, climatic or ecological collapses, pandemics, technological failures, fascist dystopias, zombie plagues and alien invasions: Each disaster category has its subgenres and its enthusiasts. And, with more postapocalit novels now being written by women, readers are finally getting more end-of-days stories with principal characters who are female.

In Jenni Fagan’s second novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims, melting polar icecaps have cooled the Gulf Stream, and the world may be facing a new Ice Age. Coastlines are vanishing, and the British Isles are frozen over, with temperatures already below zero and falling week by week in the autumn of 2020.
Yet humanity shuffles doggedly along; after all, the internet works, and while ever-grimmer news is being reported on TV, electric power still exists and transportation has not yet come to a standstill. How bad could things really be? Surely this is just an unusually severe winter looming.

So orphaned misfit Dylan MacRae, with nothing left for him in London, travels to a small coastSunlight Pilgrimsal town in the far north of Scotland, lugging the ashes of his mother and grandmother. He settles into his mother’s shabby old caravan and makes fast friends with his neighbors, who dominate much of the narrative: free-spirited Constance Fairbairn and her trans daughter Stella, who is almost 13 and struggling for acceptance as a goth girl who likes boys.

Not a great deal happens in The Sunlight Pilgrims, but Fagan draws an unsentimental, bleakly realistic picture of ordinary people refusing to believe the worst actually is at hand. Instead, they persist in living their everyday lives, worrying more about sex than about planetary doom, as they wait for the springtime that has always come before.

This is, we understand, how many humans cope with death: by believing that it can’t really happen. Not to us. What, after all, is the world without people in it? A depopulated Earth is almost beyond our imagining.

As intimate secrets slowly are revealed, winter closes inexorably upon Dylan and his little surrogate family. The mercury drops and drops, snows become impassable, food becomes scarce, and finally a drifting iceberg the size of a mountain looms off the Scottish coast.

Fagan is good at capturing the delusions allowing her characters to fool themselves that everything will be just fine if only they can find ways to cope until the vernal equinox, until the spring thaw that surely must arrive. This numbing, killing cold can’t last forever … can it?

***

Alexandra Oliva’s debut novel, The Last One, is the perfect postapocalit novel for people who watch reality TV. But even if you don’t follow those shows, you’ll be able to appreciate Oliva’s cleverness in creating a fictional TV series called “In the Dark” that seems every bit as “real” — that is, just as fake, manipulative and shrewdly edited — as the network shows that actually appear on our flatscreensThe Last One.

A young woman, named Sam but nicknamed Zoo on the show, is one of a dozen contestants competing for a million dollars on “In the Dark,”the series that is part Survivor, part The Amazing Race and all cynicism. Oliva invents a diverse cast of competitors and a self-obsessed host for the reality show, as well as a Greek chorus of snarky viewers commenting online (including an apparent Firefly fan using the handle LongLiveCaptainTightPants).

The reader knows something is up from the opening sentence: “The first one on the production team to die will be the editor.” But Zoo and her fellow contestants don’t have a clue that while they are busy trekking for dollars through the countryside, cut off from everything familiar, something strange and scary is happening in the outside world.

The contestants know that many of their encounters in the forest will be set dressing: scenes realistically faked for maximum impact, designed to cause emotional upset and create alarmed reactions for the cameras. But the reader begins to suspect, long before Zoo and the others do, that some of these horrors are more real than others.

Hungry, thirsty, stressed by competitive challenges and worn down emotionally and physically, the contestants are slow to realize that they are walking through unplanned dangers. Their survival game now includes uncontrollable risks that were not mentioned on the legal releases they were required to sign.

The Last One is psychological suspense skillfully played out for modern electronic media, and it just might keep you glued to your e-reader all night.

Joyce Saenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

The Sunlight Pilgrims
Jenni Fagan
(Hogarth, $26)

The Last One
Alexandra Oliva
(Ballantine, $26)

http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20160102-memoir-dear-mr.-you-by-mary-louise-parker.ece

MARY-LOUISE PARKER - Bebeto Matthews - AP

I have seen Mary-Louise Parker act in three very different Broadway plays: Craig Lucas’ Prelude to a Kiss (1990), Alan Ayckbourn’s Communicating Doors (1998) and David Auburn’s Proof (2000), for which Parker won a Tony Award as Best Actress in a Play.

Witnessing those performances probably influenced my perception of Parker as a fiercely private person, a reluctant celebrity who is as elusive as a shapeshifter. She admits that she is strongly opinionated, and some who have worked with her might not call her particularly collegial. But her acting talent is undeniable — and so, it would appear, is her talent as a writer.

DEAR MR. YOU

Dear Mr. You is billed as a memoir, but it is different from virtually any other memoir I have read. Most are fairly straight-ahead narratives, moving from Point A to Point B and onward in chronological order, including or excluding juicy details as the teller prefers. Generally speaking, you will get names, dates, places and specific happenings in various degrees of candor.

Parker, 51, does not do any of this. Instead, Dear Mr. You is written as a series of letters or thank-you notes addressed to the various men who have influenced her life. She starts with Grandpa and Daddy and includes lovers, friends, acquaintances and strangers, but not her brothers.

Almost no names are given. Dates and places aren’t often specified. There’s a fair amount of mystery here, at least if you thought you were really going to get the skinny on Parker’s past. But this memoirist isn’t giving up the goods that easily.

“People are consistently curious about other people’s business,” Parker recently toldThe Washington Post. “They always have been. They probably always will be. … No one’s entitled to anyone’s information about anyone else.”

Nevertheless, Parker reveals a fair amount of herself, or at least of the self she wants us to see, and it feels real enough that one can believe she sincerely means it. Each chapter in Dear Mr. You is a prose poem of sorts, filled with emotional memories — though Parker says in her prologue that she loathes the word memories “for both its icky tone and wistful graveyard implications.”

She fondly recalls men who “can fix my screen door, my attitude, and open most jars … slam a puck, build a decent cabinet or the perfect sandwich.” This book, it seems, is her chance to say “thank you for the tour of the elevator cage, the sound booth, the alley; thank you for the kaleidoscope, the get-well tequila, the painting, the truth.”

Among them was “Man Out of Time,” an elegant guy she met at a party, with whom she struck up a necessarily short but lovely friendship because “I just liked you so much.” It’s an elegiac story that rings true for all of us who have lost special friends much too soon.

Then there was “Mr. Cabdriver,” whose egregiously wrong turns on a bad day threw a hugely pregnant Parker into an f-bomb-fueled panic (in her defense, she had just been dumped by her longtime beau, actor Billy Crudup) and prompted the cabdriver to make an abrupt stop for her unscheduled departure. When the cabbie shouted, “Go! I am not taking you to anywhere, you are very awful! I don’t want you anymore,” Parker replied, “No one does.” Then she wailed: “I am alone. Look, see? I am pregnant and alone.”

Her misery at that moment is palpable. But so is her later joy, in “Dear Orderly,” when she writes about her son, the one perfect thing that came out of that bad time: “Look at him there, would you? I mean, have you ever? I almost can’t believe it. He’s my only and my one. He’s my ever and after. … He is my job now, the best one I’ve ever had, by a zillion, and I will be doing this one until I drop.”

In a way, Parker’s writing reminds me a bit of Anne Lamott’s, even to its offbeat, unconventionally spiritual aspects. Her most affecting chapter is her last one, “Dear Oyster Picker,” which is about her beloved father’s death. Upon finishing it, not only did I understand the meaning of the oyster shell pictured on the book’s dust cover, but I also understood exactly why Parker felt compelled to become a writer.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a freelance writer in Dallas.

Plan your life

Mary-Louise Parker will appear with Mary Karr at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 11 at the Dallas Museum of Art as part of Arts & Letters Live. VIP tickets, which include priority seating and access to the signing line as well as a book, $75; general admission $35, with discounts for students and DMA members, at dma.org/tickets or 214-922-1818.

http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20150807-fiction-review-circling-the-sun-by-paula-mclain.ece

CirclingtheSun_McLain_FINAL+JACKET

Aviation pioneer Beryl Markham, who in 1936 became the first woman to fly the Atlantic Ocean from east to west, is sometimes called “the British Amelia Earhart.”

While she was, indeed, born in England, Markham moved to British East Africa, as Kenya then was known, with her parents when she was just 4 years old. She grew up in Kenya as an Anglo-African during the fading imperial age and lived almost all of her extraordinary life there.

In her new novel, Circling the Sun, Paula McLain takes Markham’s story, which the pilot herself first told in her acclaimed 1942 memoir, West With the Night, and turns it into a moving first-person chronicle of a woman born before her time.

Markham’s West With the Night was admired by Ernest Hemingway, who called it “a bloody wonderful book.” Hemingway, not coincidentally, was a central character in McLain’s previous novel, The Paris Wife, which became a best-seller.

As in The Paris Wife, virtually every main character in Circling the Sun is based on historical fact, and McLain does an excellent job of capturing their physical likenesses and moral centers. But while The Paris Wife told the tale of Hadley Richardson, a woman who is remembered because she was faithfully married to Hemingway, Circling the Sun is all about a restless woman who, despite being married three times, was never completely faithful to anyone but herself.

McLain does not attempt to channel Markham’s more mature voice as captured in her gorgeous West With the Night prose. This is the story of young Beryl Clutterbuck, an incorrigible tomboy who stayed in Kenya with her horse-trainer father after her mother abandoned them and returned to England, unable to bear the hardships of farming in Africa.

“Gradually it became harder to remember my mother’s face, things she had said to me, days we had shared,” Beryl says. “But there were many days ahead of me. They spread out as far as I could see or wish for, the way the plain did all the way to the broken bowl of Menengai, or to [Mount] Kenya’s hard blue peak. It was safer to keep looking forwards.”

Young Beryl’s playmates were native children, and she preferred throwing spears and riding horses to more traditional girls’ games. She resisted governesses and boarding schools until her father gave up on formally educating her. Instead, she followed in his footsteps and became a successful horse trainer, the first woman in Africa licensed to do so. Like her father, she reveled in horse racing: “I had always loved all of it — even what couldn’t be controlled or predicted.”

Beryl’s taste for unpredictability made her helpless to resist her famous lover, the aristocratic big-game hunter and aviator Denys Finch Hatton. When Beryl met him, he was already involved with Karen Blixen, the Danish-born baroness who would become known as Isak Dinesen, author of the memoir Out of Africa.

But Finch Hatton, who was 15 years older than Beryl, belonged to no woman. Charming and brilliant, he “was most himself in wild places,” Beryl says. “More than anyone I’d known, Denys understood how nothing ever holds still for us, or should. The trick is learning to take things as they come and fully, too, with no resistance or fear, not trying to grip them too tightly or make them bend.”

So until its tragic, inevitable end, the three of them were a love triangle: Beryl, Denys and Karen. “We had done a painful dance and lost a lot, we three, hurting one another and ourselves. But extraordinary things had happened, too. I would never forget any of them.”

Beryl Markham lived another 50 years after becoming world-famous, but Circling the Sunconcentrates only on the first part of her life, all the years leading up to her historic flight across the Atlantic in September 1936. McLain doesn’t even show Markham learning to fly until the final few chapters of her novel.

By then, the reader knows her very well, this tall, angular woman with the pale flyaway hair and the sharp profile. The mostly solitary life she led would not have been possible for most Englishwomen of her time, and even today it would be a difficult existence for a woman alone in Africa. McLain skillfully succeeds in portraying the inner life of a singular figure, painted vividly against a vast continent that was the only place Beryl Markham could ever belong.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

 

Circling the Sun

Paula McLain

(Ballantine, $28)

 

Plan your life

Paula McLain will appear at two events Wednesday:

At 1 p.m., she’ll have a short speaking engagement and book signing at the North Richland Hills Public Library, 9015 Grand Ave. Free. A noon reception, which includes a copy of the book, is $40. Details at library.nrhtx.com.

That evening, she’ll appear at Highland Park United Methodist Church, 3300 Mockingbird Lane, as part of Authors Live! The 7 p.m. lecture is free; a 6 p.m. reception, including a signed copy of the book, is $30 and must be reserved at least two days in advance by calling Highland Park United Methodist Church at 214-523-2240 or going to hpumc.org/authorslive.

Sarai Walker’s novel Dietland is, not to put too fine a point on it, subversive and even shocking. It is discomforting to read, exploring as it does unsettling themes of body shaming, misogyny and hypersexualized mores. This is an unflinching look at a society that is very much our own, although it feels as if the novel is set perhaps 15 minutes in the future.

Walker’s protagonist is Plum Kettle, who is 29, depressed and miserable. Plum has spent her whole life struggling with her weight and with the pain of being stared at, judged and bullied because she is fat.

No diet, not even “Waist Watchers,” works for Plum. She has never had a boyfriend; she has acquaintances but no real women friends; and she hates her job, working from home answering letters from despondent teenage girls for a glossy Manhattan-based teen magazine called Daisy Chain. Thanks to an absentee cousin, Plum does have a nice apartment in Brooklyn. But she lives for only one thing: the promise that someday, if she spends $20,000 on weight-loss surgery, she will be smaller.

“I wanted to become smaller so I wouldn’t be seen,” Plum confides. “If I was smaller, they wouldn’t stare. They wouldn’t be mean.”

One day, Plum notices that she is being observed by a young woman wearing bright-colored tights, combat boots and raccoon-like eye makeup. Instead of being mean to Plum, the young woman, whose name is Leeta, turns out to be an emissary from Julia, another employee of Daisy Chain’s huge, Conde Nast-like media conglomerate. Julia, in turn, introduces Plum to a women’s collective named after the Muse of eloquence — Calliope House, owned and run by Verena Baptist.

Verena is independently wealthy, having inherited millions from her mother, who made a fortune selling horrible diet meals and shakes to women and girls like Plum, who as a teenager bought into the Baptist Weight Loss Plan. When her parents died, Verena shut down the company and later wrote an exposé called “Adventures in Dietland,” detailing all the ways that her mother had damaged her daughter’s spirit and exploited the women who, like Plum, believed in her diet sales pitch.

Meeting Verena launches Plum’s journey through a series of difficult challenges that will forever change her. Verena is determined to help Plum reach self-acceptance, and that means not going through with her plan for weight-loss surgery. Verena’s “New Baptist Plan” includes a makeover mentored by a former TV star, meant to raise Plum’s consciousness about how difficult, expensive and painful it is for a woman to maintain the quality of attractiveness that we’ll politely call desirability.

At Calliope House, Plum finally finds friends, and she finds herself as well. “I was pleased that I no longer needed voluminous amounts of food to feel satisfied,” Plum realizes. “I was learning to listen to my body’s hunger cues and desires, which helped me know when I needed to eat, and what, and how much. … I would never restrict myself again or do math before eating.”

In the meantime, strange things are happening in the world. A guerrilla group calling itself Jennifer has begun targeting those who exploit and abuse women’s bodies.

The Sun, a British tabloid famous for its daily pictures of topless “Page Three girls,” gets blackmailed by Jennifer into printing photos of nude men instead. “Lad mags,” racy men’s magazines, likewise are pressured into acquiescence.

The world’s most famous porn star is murdered in broad daylight; more than a dozen rapists are kidnapped, tortured and killed. A famous European film director, clearly modeled after Roman Polanski, suddenly vanishes; so does a Super Bowl athlete accused of raping two women. Suddenly, there is a price to be paid for the exploitation of women, and the media world is on edge, half admiring and half fearful.

Jennifer is the world’s most-sought criminal, but who is this elusive ghost of a guerrilla leader? It turns out that Jennifer is someone not too far removed from Plum herself. “Jennifer had made up seem like down, had left us all spinning and dizzy, had set the world on fire, and she was still out there,” Plum says.

Jennifer hasn’t magically changed cruel jerks into gentlemen, of course. The difference is in Plum, now a wiser woman who, in the words of Maya Angelou, refuses to be anyone’s victim.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.