The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch, takes place in a dystopian future, where the wealthy, who have devolved into colorless, sexless human-like creaThe Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch, takes place in a dystopian future, where the wealthy, who have devolved into colorless, sexless human-like creatures, live in CIEL, a society of isolated pods floating above the earth. Most of life on Earth has been obliterated, though there appear to be groups of surviving humans living in subterranean colonies. The hero (deity?) of the novel is Joan, a human crusader who has the energy of the Earth coursing through her body and holds on to her humanity as she struggles to live on the barren landscape that remains after a battle between her forces and those of the elite Jean de Men. Joan has a mysterious power that pulses through her body. She is one with the earth and is capable of harnessing the energy of matter, making her capable of miraculous features of destruction and regeneration. The beings on CIEL are no longer capable of reproduction. They have lost their hair and their skin has faded to a ghostly white. They live in sterile pods, that resemble (are?) prisons and they cover their bodies in grafts, words that are branded into their skin so that their sexless, grub-like bodies are covered in stories and poetry. They stretch their skin out to give them more room for grafts so that their forms are indistinct and floppy. Joan and Jean de Men are mortal enemies. He orders her burned at the stake. The Book of Joan feels very important. It feels loaded with meaty ideas about the insignificance of humanity and our hubristic tendency to tell ourselves stories to inflate our egos and imbue our meaningless lives with purpose. It feels like a book whose grave warnings about the short-sightedness of fighting over resources and dismissing the planet that nurtures us should be heeded. It is filled with brutally beautiful language and graphically savage imagery that drips with symbolism and prophecy. It is a book that yearns to be taken seriously. The Book of Joan is so earnestly stern (with a dash of viciousness) about itself and it’s message that if made me doubt my instincts when I found myself dutifully reading and re-reading dense passages and finding myself ultimately unmoved. I was sure that I wasn’t reading deeply enough or I would be falling in love with it, or that I wasn’t smart enough to appreciate this incredible warning of a book. Clearly a truly intelligent person wouldn’t feel so ambivalent. Oddly, it kept bringing to mind a seemingly trivial book I read recently, All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders. Ander’s book is vastly different, but it also has a theme of a battle over earth between factions either favoring either a technologic elite or a more egalitarian faith in the power of nature. Ander’s book, despite the weighty end-of-the-world theme, feels flippant. The tone is a bit YA, the main characters are "magicians" and there are bits of pop cultureish comic relief. As I read along and found myself genuinely enjoying the story, I was a little ashamed at my susceptibility to it’s insubstantial charms. Upon reflection, I concluded that there were a lot of interesting ideas embedded Ander’s story, which were easily missed if you didn’t look behind it's appealing breeziness. Reading The Book of Joan was the opposite experience. I was sure that within these savage, gorgeous words there were important ideas to be found and that I wasn’t totally understanding them. I was certain that if I were a little deeper, I would be captivated by the narrative and drawn to the characters.. Maybe, I thought, if I just knew more about medieval history and Joan of Arc or science or evolution, I would LOVE this book. If I were a sharper reader (or maybe if I read it again?) it would all come clear. In the end, I shrug my shoulders. Yuknavitch is a great writer. Maybe I am a vacuous dolt. Maybe there is less to this book than there appears to be? Or maybe this book just wasn’t for me....more
While walking my two young sons to school, I gave them a basic plot outline of The Power by Naomi Alderman, which I had begun to read the night beforeWhile walking my two young sons to school, I gave them a basic plot outline of The Power by Naomi Alderman, which I had begun to read the night before. They both seemed as captivated as I was by the idea of young women waking up one day with electricity coursing through their bodies and and a power that allowed them to walk through the world with confidence, and to leave their fear and anxiety behind. As I went on, describing the few chapters I’d read, my 8 year old started to look concerned. “But Mom” he said, “if that happened, nothing would change. There would still be violence and bullies. It would just be the gender that was different.” I was only a few chapters into the book and still exhilarated by the burgeoning power in the women and by the triumphant scenes of the newly powerful given the strength to settle scores with the harassers and the attackers and the abusers and finally and make things right. As I continued reading, however, I was reminded again and again of my young son’s words and saw that he could anticipate where Alderman was going with this concept. The power is intoxicating. Women use it to escape oppression, to throw off their chains, and claim power from those who held them down. As the book progresses, however, it becomes clear that this revenge, though initially satisfying, is just perpetuating a dark cycle of power and abuse of power. Women being in power does not change things for the better. It just gives them the power to be oppressors. People who have every confidence that women would be better leaders because they would rule with kindness and compassion, are proven wrong as power corrupts them and mutes their empathy. There is one beautiful relationship in the book, between a woman from a powerful British crime family who has been violently violated and stripped of her power and a male reporter from Africa who has been the victim of torture and abuse at the hands of many angry women. Equally powerless, they are able to exist together in a relationship of trust, compassion, and love.
The book feels particularly relevant to this moment. (Woman are marching across the country as I type this.) It depicts horrific scenes of police brutality, rape, and sexual harassment in a way that separates them from the context of race or gender and reveals the exercise of cruel and corrupt power that seems to feed so much of human interaction. The Power is a moving thought experiment that I think reveals a lot about human nature and about how short-sighted we can be when we imagine the limits of how things might change. It made me want to talk to people and I think that is always a hallmark of book that is worth reading....more