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It could always be worse

2020 has been one for the books -- specifically Lauren Tarshis’ I Survived series. And while there’s been a seemingly endless deluge of bad news this year, there’s plenty of dystopian novels to show us that things could always be worse. Probably.

In 1984 George Orwell imagined a world where Big Brother, a fascist, authoritarian dictator uses constant surveillance and rewrites history in order to present a narrative that fits with the government sanctioned world-view. The people are encouraged to turn in their neighbors and even their own family members if they are suspected of “thoughtcrimes” or subversive behaviors. On the double-plus-good side, a couple of times a day everyone gets to scream at a screen to let out their fear and rage-- think Twitter but with a time limit.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World portrays a world where social class is determined purely by genetics and the people are kept placated by “soma,” a true opiate for the masses. Industrialization is seen as the ultimate good and humans are merely cogs in the assembly line of society. 

Of course we cannot overlook the dystopian nightmare of all librarians that is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In a world where literature is criminal and books are burned rather than read, how can culture be preserved? 

In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale we are shown a world where women are little more than baby-making machines owned by men. Though Handmaid was originally published in 1985, it’s sequel The Testaments which came out just last year proves that the themes are as relevant today as they were decades ago.

If you liked The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments you might enjoy Christina Dalcher’s VOX or Jennie Melamed’s Gather the Daughters. In VOX the American government decrees that women can only speak 100 words a day, rendering them virtually silent and potentially powerless -- and that’s just the start of it. Gather the Daughters tells the story of young women fighting to take control of their lives in a post-apocalyptic, ancestor-worshipping patriarchal society.  

Wondering what a post-pandemic world might look like? Check out Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel to see what remains of society after a deadly, fast-acting plague tears through the human population.  

The master of “worst case scenario,” Cormac McCarthy brings us into a world in his novel The Road that makes 2020 look like a walk in the park. If you like bleak, nobody does bleak better than McCarthy. At least we haven’t had to resort to cannibalism.

And speaking of eating people, there’s one thing that 2020 hasn’t thrown at us yet: zombies. If you like The Walking Dead TV series you’ll love The Walking Dead comic series which just recently came to a conclusion. Or, if you’re looking for a slightly different approach to undead people-eaters, you can check out Laura Bickle’s The Hallowed Ones. The Hallowed Ones stars a young Amish girl whose rumspringa involves way more zombies than usual.  

Looking for good dystopian teen literature? There’s plenty to pick from including The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, the Divergent series by Veronica Roth, The Maze Runner series by James Dashner, The 5th Wave series by Richard Yancey, His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman and the Arc of a Scythe series by Neal Shusterman (which hasn’t been made into a movie or television series yet!).

If you're curled up the fetal position dreading whatever 2020 has to throw at us next, just remember: curled up in the fetal position is a great posture to read in. And, of course, it can always get worse.

"Once were brothers": a new documentary

Long ago, sometime around 1984, when I was home for the summer and staying with my parents in rural Michigan, I picked up, at a yard sale, for a mere quarter, a slightly worn copy of the album “Music From Big Pink” by The Band. (It was their first album, released in 1968.) I was somewhat familiar with their music, having already started to work my way through many of Bob Dylan’s albums from the sixties and seventies, and knew of The Band’s work with him.  I took the LP home, listened to it once or twice, and put it away. It was several years before I rediscovered this seminal work by one of the great rock groups of all time.

I was reminded of all this while watching the new documentary “Once were brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band”, which explores the history of the group and is mostly narrated through the reminiscences of Band member Robertson, who played a significant role in writing many of The Band’s greatest songs. Combining archival film clips, photographs, and contemporary interviews, and lots of music, “Once were brothers” is both an elegy to a group broken by death—three of its original five members have died since 1986—and a celebration of a rock group loved by so many for the way they mined the deep veins of American music without ever seeming to fall into the trap of nostalgia.

With hits such as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “The Weight”, The Band is also fondly remembered for the way they wrote, worked and sang together, with every member playing a crucial role in his own way.  Still—and this is my only real complaint against what is otherwise a wonderful film—it’s obvious that “Once were brothers” is not only narrated by Robertson but is also to some degree presided over by him, which is ironic given the beautifully collaborative way the group made music. While Levon Helm—who played drums and sang in the group—is justly celebrated by the film for his contributions—Garth Hudson, who played organ, speaks briefly only once (that I recall), which is a shame, given his incredible keyboard work. (It may be that Hudson, who has always seemed to me the most retiring of the Band’s members, was reluctant to talk more.)

With that caveat, I still found “Once were brothers” a highly worthwhile journey, especially for fans of The Band, but also anyone interested in the history of American popular music.

--Dave Shaw

Back to school

As August winds down, many students switch gears from summer vacation fun to focusing on starting college. Going off to college is a rite of passage as young adults experience the new sense of freedom that comes along with it - for better or worse. College is often the bridge from adolescence to adulthood and sets the stage for the rest of one’s life.

In fiction, many authors explore the college experience and all of the transformations that occur during those long and short four years. Whether it’s falling in love, finding your true identity or accidentally getting caught up in a murderous secret society (oops!), many interesting stories are found on campus.

In The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta, a mixed-race gay teen named Michael always struggled to find exactly where he fit in the world. That is until he goes off to university and discovers The Drag Society, a welcoming group that helps Michael forge his true identity. However, the story isn’t so rosy for Wallace in the book Real Life by Brandon Taylor. Gay and Black, Wallace hopes to find acceptance by moving from the South to his new Midwestern university. What he finds under the veneer of his liberal grad school campus are microaggressions, confusing relationships and the fact that he can no longer outrun his past traumas.

College friendships can also take you down a dark path, as Richard finds in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. With a flair for the Greek language, Richard does everything he can to join the elite Classics cohort led by enigmatic professor Jim Morrow. Once inside the group, Richard uncovers the truth about his new friends and secrets that permanently alter the course of his life.

While discovering your identity and group of friends shape the college experience, so does finding true love. In The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, English major Madeleine Hanna finds herself in a love triangle, as she must choose between her devoted best friend and a mysterious and moody loner. In Normal People by Sally Rooney, Connell and Marianne attempt to navigate their complex relationship under the blurring lenses of class and power dynamics.

These titles are just a few examples of the types of college narratives you can find in the Fiction section here at KDL. Whether you’re looking for literary fiction, a love story or a thriller set on an atmospheric college campus, you’re bound to find something to suit your mood.

– Angela, Alpine Township Branch