There’s an old saying that there are only seven types of stories out there. Well, that may in some ways be true, but we’re very lucky that there are so many great ways of telling them anew, and that we seem to be hard-wired to never get tired of them. This week’s book club is all about reinventions of old stories and reincarnations of self, as we try over and over again to get things right.
1. The Massacre of Mankind by Steven Baxter ($27): Baxter reinvents another one of H.G. Wells’ famous novels (his first, 1995’s The Time Ships, was an award-winning sequel to The Time Machine) with an authorized sequel to War of the Worlds, set 14 years after the Martians attacked. Walter Jenkins, the narrator of Wells’ book, has been replaced by his sister-in-law Julie Elphinstone, a reporter to whom Jenkins sends messages (in the midst of his therapy sessions from none other than Sigmund Freud) to warn about the newest alien conquest. (Julie’s ex, Frank, gave his own account in the original novel.) Elphinstone’s return to London from New York coincides with the return of the Martians, who are looking to take over and populate the planet.
The Martians gain a base in England and begin their methodical takeover of the rest of the world. Elphinstone helps to lead the resistance with Sergeant Ted Lane, nurse Verity Bliss, and Eric Eden, the only man to have been inside a Martian ship and survive. Even with a cameo from Thomas Edison, can they overcome seemingly insurmountable odds? For it seems that the invaders have adapted, and sneezing on them isn’t going to work this time.
The Massacre of Mankind is told in the form of a memoir by the no-nonsense and facts-oriented Elphinstone, who calls her brother-in-law’s writing “the lofty prose of a man who was once paid to scribble such stuff.” It presents a fascinating alternate history where, without a First World War, Germany is a superpower occupying France, and Britain falls to fascism (membership in the Suffragette Party is now illegal, and so is owning an unlicensed telescope). On the plus side, the Titanic’s fine, and there’s all sorts of fun new technology inspired by what the first invasion left behind. As a reinvention of War of the Worlds? Well, unlike Orson Welles’ famous radio prank, you’ll realize this one’s fiction, but it’ll be hard to stop the encroaching dread anyway.
2. Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin ($27): This novel is a reworking of the Monica Lewinsky story to become an anti-slut-shaming tale. Aviva Grossman has an affair with a congressman in Florida while working as his intern. Blogging about it turns out to be a major mistake, because while the congressman is still employed and maintains his approval ratings, Aviva is not only out of a job, but loses her entire identity. With only life as a punchline left to look forward to, Aviva tries to reinvent herself. She changes her name, moves to Maine, and years later has a pretty decent life with her daughter, Ruby (who has no idea about her mother’s past). But now Aviva wants to run for public office, which means her past has come up again; it’s a miracle she’s even managed to hide this long. What to do?
Zevin presents us with five perspectives on the same story, including one from Aviva’s mother, Rachel, and a “Choose” section even borrows from the Choose Your Own Adventure aesthetic. All the way through, we get slammed with the double standards faced by men in power versus the women they hold power over, like this monologue from a doomed date with Rachel: “He says, ‘I wish I could remember her last name. You really don’t remember her? Well, Rach, she was like Monica Lewinsky. The girl knew he was married and she seduced him. I guess she was drawn to the power of the limelight. Or maybe she was insecure. She was slutty and a bit zaftig – one of those such-a-pretty-face types – so it probably raised her self-esteem to attract a man live Levin. I can’t feel much sympathy for people like that. What the heck was her last name?’”
Young Jane Young combines a redemption story with scathing social satire, using a well-known scandal to turn our assumptions and prejudices against us.
3. Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore ($27): While the other two books reinvent familiar stories, this one’s all about a being reinventing itself. Currently Milo, he’s been 9,995 different things, including men, women, animals, and bugs. This is a world in which everyone reincarnates, and he’s done so more than anyone, coming back so many times in a bid for his soul to find perfection. If he does answer all the big questions about life and achieve true wisdom, he gets to go through the Sun Door to be a part of the Oversoul. If he doesn’t… well, there’s always another chance. Until there isn’t.
Milo finds out he has only five more chances to reach his goal and put it all together, before overseers Mama and Nan declare him the weakest link and simply take him out of the universal equation. No pressure. The problem is, you get to piece together all of this when you’re dead, and Milo has better things to do when he’s dead, namely Death herself — or, as Milo calls her, Suzie. If it were up to Milo, he’d stay with Suzie forever (and if it were up to Suzie, she’d run a shop instead of being Death), but he’s not sure that’s really an option.
“Milo had died during orgasm, died after rich dinners in fine company, died in moments of perfect love. Died, in a future life, in a starship crash at the speed of life, in a moment that resonated forever in the envelope of time, so it was always happening, like a guitar string that would never stop humming. He had fallen from trees and choked on waffles. He had been eaten by sharks and cancers. He died of bad habits and angry husbands and killer bees…” We follow Milo through his five final chances, along with looks at many past lives (and past deaths). For a person who’s lived almost ten thousand lives, Milo is perhaps surprisingly — or unsurprisingly — relatable to those of us who keep trying to get it right.
What books make you want to go around again? Tag us in your next reinvented read @BritandCo.
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