Vonda McIntyre, Dreamsnake (1978)

Cover of the book Dreamsnake. It features an image of a face surrounded by coiling green snakes.

Dreamsnake sat on my bookshelf for years. I just never seemed to get around to reading it. Then Vonda McIntyre died last year and I thought I should make the effort in her honour.

The novel won the 1979 Hugo, 1978 Nebula and 1979 Locus awards and is still regarded as a classic work of feminist science fiction.

Set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, Dreamsnake is the story of a young healer named Snake. While travelling through the desert with her medicinal snakes, Grass, Mist and Sand, Snake is asked to try and heal the sick child of a group of desert dwellers. In a tragic misunderstanding, the dreamsnake, Grass, is killed by the frightened family of the child.

Snake is devastated. Not only has she lost her beloved Grass, she is no longer able to carry out her work effectively. Worse still, she has little chance of getting another Dreamsnake because they are alien creatures, brought to Earth by mysterious ‘Other Worlders’ and are very difficult to breed. But then a chance encounter with a dying woman provides an opportunity to visit the Central City, a closed society of humans who have access to advanced technology and still communicate with the Other Worlders. They may be able to give her another dreamsnake.

Snake begins her journey towards Central City, stopping on the way to help the people of a town, where she adopts an abused and scarred young girl who she hopes to train as a healer. But Snake is also being followed by two people, Arevin, one of the desert dwellers who has fallen in love with her, and a more threatening presence, someone who destroys her camp in the night.

Turned away empty-handed from Central City, Snake discovers there is another possibility when she hears of a dangerous man who may have possession of dreamsnakes. Should she risk everything to try and take some from him, for herself and her people?

And will she ever meet Arvein again?

I loved Dreamsnake. It was one of my favourite books last year. It’s a beautifully written story with an engaging heroine and an interesting world to explore. Snake is perhaps an overly perfect protagonist (everyone loves her; she’s the BEST healer etc.), which is usually a narrative bugbear for me, but I think that by taking away her dream snake, McIntyre gives the character enough internal conflict to make her relatable.

Dreamsnake is committed to anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist values. The “good” people are the ones who live outside the supposedly civilised city. They are mostly kind and generous, live in tune with nature and are generally non-monogamous in their relationships. The people inside the city are isolationist, selfish and small-minded.  They aren’t worth McIntyre’s time. She doesn’t bother to take us into the city, or to meet the Other Worlders. Dreamsnake is a book about people building a new society and leaving the past behind.

A lovely read, which I’m sure I’ll revisit again. Recommended if you’re interested in women’s writing and science fiction.

CN: While not graphic, there are references to child sexual abuse and rape in relation to one character.

Theodora Goss, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (2018) #20BooksOfSummer

I really enjoyed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, so I was looking forward to reading the sequel. Overall, it did not disappoint.

Our heroines, the gang of monstrous “daughters” from the first novel, also known as the Athena Club, continue their investigations into the nefarious activities of certain rogue members of the Societe des Alchemistes. Mary, Beatrice, Cat, Diana and Justine find themselves in peril again as they travel across Europe to try and rescue Lucinda Van Helsing who has been infected with a strange disease.  Oh, and they have to prevent Van Helsing and Dr Seward from taking over the Societe.

That’s basically the plot which unfolds slowly over 700 pages while our heroines eat a lot cake and make a lot of new friends, including Irene Adler, Mina Murray, Laura and Carmilla, not to mention Count Dracula himself. They also have to face some old foes, some of whom could be considered family, before finally confronting the President of the Societe, the mysterious Ayesha.

If, like me, you grew up reading the Victorian Gothic, this series is especially enjoyable. It’s like returning to a familiar world, but this time with women taking centre stage. It was great to meet Irene Adler and Mina Murray again and I thought they were very well done. It was also nice to see that things are working out for Laura and Carmilla.

If I have any criticism. I thought it was a bit too long and rambly and that there were too many characters. The final third dragged a bit, especially with Bea and Cat’s story. I felt that the author wanted to give all the main characters equal attention, but maybe that wasn’t entirely necessary.

At a whopping great 708 pages, this was not the best choice for a time-limited reading challenge, but I really liked it and will read the final book in the trilogy.

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman is the kind of huge, cosy, fun fantasy novel you can just sink into. Perfect for curling up with on a cold rainy afternoon with a nice cup of tea.

Mary Dorcey, ‘Kindling’ (1982) #20BooksOfSummer

Kindling is the first collection of poetry published by Irish feminist poet, Mary Dorcey. It’s a short book which you can easily read in an afternoon.

Some of the poems do feel very much of their time, rooted in second wave lesbian feminist politics and culture. They fall into two (linked) groups, poems that challenge the oppression of women under patriarchy (‘the vicious bigotry of all the Pope’s boys’), and poems that explore relationships between women, especially as lovers, friends and mothers and daughters.

There are poems about the position of women in Ireland (‘coming Home’, pornography (‘Photographs’), women’s incarceration in prison (‘Night Protest’) and mental institutions (‘Rope’), and conflicts within feminism (‘Colonised Minds’). ‘In a Dublin Nursing Home’ a lesbian couple have to pretend to be relatives, an experience I’ve heard older lesbians and gay men describe.

They are ambitious, powerful poems, but overall, I preferred reading the more ambivalent, and perhaps messier poems about relationships between women, such as ‘Full Circle’, ‘The Quarrel’, ‘Night’ and ‘Friendship’. These are poems about the unruliness of desire and it’s rather consoling to see that ‘lesbian drama’ hasn’t changed that much in thirty years.

I will definitely look up more of Dorcey’s poetry and will be interested to see how she’s developed since 1982.  

You stretch your hand
to mine
and some ember of the me
that I was to you,
rekindles
and and in silence,
recovers the power
of speech.

‘After Long Silence’

Mary Oliver, Red Bird (2008) #20BooksofSummer

Red bird came all winter …

I read Mary Oliver’s collection, Red Bird, in one evening. Then I got up the next day and read it again on my commute to work. This is not her greatest work, but something about the poems really resonated with me. I rarely read a book twice in forty eight hours.

The poems in Red Bird are set in winter, which it soon becomes apparent is a metaphor for living through a time of grief and loss. The many birds, and other animals, that appear are metaphors for psychological and emotional states. The ‘big’ connecting theme in this collection is the inevitability and relentlessness of death: ‘Death waits for me, I know it, around one corner or another’ (p.38). The speaker is an older person, confronting loss and their own mortality, reflecting on the past, and fearful for the future. But, as ever in Oliver’s poetry, the poems convey a luminous quality of hope and resilience in the face of suffering, that has made her poetry so beloved. Oliver’s dog Percy makes a few appearances too.

I love bird poems and there are so many here. Goldfinches, night herons, hummingbirds, mockingbirds, crows, nuthatches, meadowlarks, teals and the ‘Red Bird’ of the title, who reappears in various guises, firing up the winter landscape with ‘the music of your heart that you wanted and needed’ (‘Red Bird Explains Himself’ p. 78).

There are some overtly political poems that address the destruction of the natural world by human civilization and the horrors of war (‘the terrible debris of progress’) in poems like’Red’, ‘Showing the Birds’, ‘From the River’, and ‘We Should be well Prepared’.

The collection includes Oliver’s famous ‘Instructions for living a life’:

Pay attention

Be astonished

Tell about it

‘Sometimes’, (4.) p. 37

Taken out of context (the poem is about death), it’s the kind of thing that gets her accused of being a bit ‘live, love, laugh’, but I don’t think there’s anything ‘live, love, laugh’, about Oliver’s poetry. She understands and fully acknowledges the pain and suffering of life, and wrote to try and help us deal with it.

As someone who has been living through their own ‘winter’ for the last two years, the collection had a special resonance for me at this time in my life. A reminder that the red bird is out there.

Sarah Schulman, The Cosmopolitans (2016) #20BooksofSummer

A copy of The Cosmopolitans resting on a brown wood table. The cover features a black and white photograph of a diner from the 1950s.

Set in Greenwich Village in 1958, The Cosmopolitans centres on the relationship between Bette, a white secretary, and her neighbour, Earl, a black, gay actor.

Earl and Bette have developed a close friendship over the course of thirty years, a friendship based in their shared experiences of being ejected, unjustly, from their families and having to make their own way in a hostile world. They have created a family of choice, eating dinner together, providing sympathy, celebrating birthdays and Christmas. But, Earl and Bette are also people who have, in a sense, become “stuck”, remaining in the same patterns as the world changes around them.

At this historical turning point, just before the beginning of the 1960s, Bette and Earl’s lives are invaded by Bette’s young cousin, Hortense, an aspiring actress whose disruptive presence will explode all the pain this relationship has been designed to contain.

The encounter with Hortense creates a crucible, revealing the truth that despite their long friendship, Bette and Earl have never really understood each other’s pain. They haven’t truly seen each other. Bette simply doesn’t fully understand the extent of Earl’s anguish and loneliness, as a middle-aged, failed actor, who’s life is heavily curtailed by homophobia and racism. Earl, meanwhile, does not truly understand the way that Bette’s family’s betrayal has frozen her in a kind of emotional limbo, endlessly waiting for her opportunity to make the people who hurt her tell the truth.

The Cosmopolitans beautifully evokes the world of 1950’s New York and the emotional lives of its characters. It’s one of the most insightful novels about human relationships that I’ve ever read. This story, which has just a handful of characters, delves deeply and uncompromisingly into the nature of love and friendship. It is about cruelty and lies; it is about truth and accountability. It is very much a novel about ethics and picks up the theme of “shunning” that recurs in Sarah Schulman’s fiction and non-fiction. It asks a lot of difficult questions: why do we tell lies and destroy each other’s lives? What does it mean to love another person? What does it mean to really see another person? Without trying to reduce The Cosmopolitans to a “message”, I took away these thoughts: trying to annihilate another person in response to our own pain is never a good strategy; we have to talk to make things better, and healing can only happen when something is made right.

The Cosmopolitans is an intertextual work that engages with Honore de Balzac’s 1846 novel, Cousin Bette, which sadly I haven’t read. It also speaks to the work of James Baldwin and, at the end, even becomes a little meta in relation to the author herself.

Recommended.

Jane Hirshfield, ‘After’ (2006)

A photograph of the collection 'After'. The cover of the book is a painting of a window opening onto a landscape with trees and sky.

But thought is hinge and swerve, is winch, is folding.

Jane Hirschfield, ‘Articulation: An Assay;

I’d read a few poems by Jane Hirshfield over the years and thought that I should explore her work, but I didn’t buy a collection until I came across the poem ‘One Sand Grain Among the Others in Winter Wind‘.

This poem articulated something about loss that I was feeling at the time, but was unable to express. When I read it, I realised that what I was experiencing was a kind of pleading with the universe, “No, not this too, don’t I get to keep even this one small, precious thing?” That’s the power of poetry, that “yes, this is what I mean”.

After is quite an eclectic collection, both in terms of form and content. The poems range across topics such as philosophy, language, nature, the self, grief and death, and are thematically linked by a deep interest in the human condition. Many of the poems are concerned with the relationship between thought, speech and action. There is also a sense that language is often an inadequate tool to express human experience, but we must try because it is all we have.

Hirshfield has elaborated a sensuously philosophical art that imposes a pause in our fast-forward habits of mind. Her poems appear simple, and are not. Her language, in its cleanliness and transparency, poses riddles of a quietly metaphysical nature. Clause by clause, image by image, in language at once mysterious and commonplace, Hirshfield’s poems clear a space for reflection and change. They invite ethical awareness, and establish a delicate balance.

David Baker, quoted on Wikipedia

I find it difficult to write about the individual poems, possibly because they are so eclectic. As the blurb says, these poems are “an extended investigation into incarnation, transience and interconnection”. Some of my favourites include ‘Theology’, a poem about our desire to believe in miracles, and ‘After Long Silence’, which addresses the relationship between words and thoughts. I love ‘I Imagine Myself in Time’ a poem about that sense of multiple selves which develops as you get older and the realisation that a future self will one day be looking back at the person you are now, “And that other self, who watches me from the distance of decades, what will she say?” ‘Letter to C.’ is a moving poem for a dead friend and fellow poet. There are the ‘Assays’ dotted throughout the collection, examinations/investigations into words and what language does. There are beautiful encounters with nature. There are seventeen tiny “pebble” poems. After concludes with ‘It Was Like This: You Were Happy‘, a blunt study of mortality which strips the entirety of human life down to a sentence:

Your story was this: you were happy, then you were sad,
you slept, you awakened.
Sometimes you ate roasted chestnuts, sometimes persimmons.

This is an enriching collection which I’ll be keeping and revisiting again and again.