One of the best things about literature is that it can successfully achieve what seems like a paradox: It can be an escape that takes us away to fantastic places and scenarios, while at the same time feeling relevant to our own lives and reminding us of what makes us human. As we try to get through the dreary days of January, these characteristics are more vital than ever. Take a break with this week’s book club and recharge with these mythic tales of wonder that hit just the right emotional spots.
1. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden ($16): Arden’s debut effort gives us magical realism in medieval Russia, where the hardscrabble reality of a penurious existence co-exists with the feeling of a fairy tale. “It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow… the household of Pyotr Vladimirovich were all sniffling from the damp and this from six weeks’ fasting on black bread and fermented cabbage. But no one was thinking of chilblains or runny noses, or even, wistfully, of porridge and roast meats, for Dunya was to tell a story.” It’s a distant world with a familiar theme, dealing with the sustaining impact of storytelling and the power of ritual.
Vasilisa loves listening to her nurse’s stories, particularly the one about the winter demon named Frost, who will take your life if you’re not careful. A good household protects itself from these spirits. When Vasilisa’s mother dies, however, and a new stepmother comes home with her kindly father, she learns she can’t be protected from everything. Vasilisa’s stepmother puts a stop to the family’s rituals and belief in spirits, which makes the girl particularly nervous, as she’s learned she has magical qualities of her own, including the ability to communicate with animals and even the “second sight.”
As Vasilisa clashes with her stepmother’s wishes for her to marry or become a nun, the village starts to experience all kinds of misfortune, and an attractive young priest in exile comes to the household ready to grapple Vasilisa’s attachment to the old gods, personifications of our deepest fears and preoccupation with death. An Amazon Best Book of January 2017, The Bear and the Nightingale has received effusive advance praise; it’s a tale worth talking about.
2. Indelible by Adelia Saunders ($20): We’ve all heard the clichéd metaphor, “It was written all over your face,” but what if that were actually the case? In Adelia Saunders’ Indelible, Magdalena is an immigrant from Lithuania who has an unusual ability: She sees people’s personal information on their skin, the important and less-important names, dates and details tattooed like a dossier that would make a CIA agent salivate. The only person who doesn’t have these skin markings, in Magdalena’s eyes, is herself.
Magdalena soon learns that, not only do others not see the same way, but most people aren’t comfortable when you can read them like a book. She shies away from this curious gift when she fails to prevent a tragedy she could have foreseen. However, when Magdalena discovers her own name written above the cheekbone of Neil, an American studying in Paris, she’s intrigued. The plot thickens when we meet Neil’s father Richard, who is also in Paris trying to find out what happened to his mother, who abandoned Richard at birth.
Running through the book is the theme of pilgrimage; the medieval pilgrimage route Neil is studying connecting with Richard’s pilgrimage to his own ancestry, and the one Magdalena must eventually undertake. Secrets are revealed (not just on the skin) and magic reigns.
3. The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead by Chanelle Benz ($25): The mythic tales in Benz’s short story collection widely range in setting and genre, from Victorian-era gothic to a Western heist to the life of a monk in 16th century England. The plethora of voices and scenarios come together to deal with modern-day issues in inventive ways, showing us that much about the darker side of humanity (abuse connected to age, gender and race) has remained unchanged through time and place. “He refilled my glass, Look, it ain’t your fault this world is no place for women. But us women are in it, I said. Have another, he said. Don’t dwell.”
Just like the escape fiction provides, in many of the stories, characters try to run away from their circumstances. In one work, a brother and his fifteen-year-old sister are outlaws on the lam after the former coerces the latter to his nefarious ways: “I knew that right then I was good but would be bad in the days to come, which were forever early and there as soon as you closed your eyes.” In another story, a young boy attempts to circumvent his stepfather’s abuse, and in a third, a slave finds a way out by writing poetry.
Benz is definitely a writer to watch; the words most often used to describe her writing begin with “dazzling,” and go on to “amazing,” with a turn toward “thrilling.” If you’ve got the January blues, now would be a good time to let her carry you away.
What books take you away from the everyday? Tag us in your next escapist read @BritandCo.
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(Featured photo via Getty)