Book Review: The Book of Etta

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Image: Goodreads

Rating: 5 out of 5

Last year I dubbed Meg Elison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife as my favorite read of 2016, so it’s no surprise that I was super psyched to read its sequel. The second novel in The Road to Nowhere series takes place a century after the time of the original midwife, and it was a thrill to experience how this world has changed.

The book features Etta, who feels stifled by the glorification of women after the plague decimated most of the female population. In a dystopic world where women are scarce, the residents of the city called Nowhere have decided that the only roles worth valuing are mothers and midwives. After all, keeping the human race from going extinct is a top priority.

Etta prefers to contribute to society in a different way, by raiding nearby cities for much-needed supplies and saving women and children from sex slavery. This has always been a man’s job, but Etta has always felt more comfortable as Eddy, her identity on the road.

Initially, Etta considers Eddy as more of a means of survival, but as their journey merges, the gender binary fades away. Elison deftly portrays the struggle of a black trans man who has experienced sexual trauma and must balance his feminine and masculine natures within societies that define these natures differently.

It was so interesting to compare Eddy to the original midwife, because although their strengths are similar, they are derived from unique ideologies. Eddy has a great heart, but his rigid dichotomy of good vs. evil is often at odds in situations with plenty of grey area. These ethical dilemmas raise several thoughtful questions, like whether negotiating with sex slavers is a form of enablement or protection.

And if you’re like me who has little experience with trans literary characters (recommendations are welcome!), this novel is inclusive without being heavy-handed. In fact, it’s refreshing that Eddy himself does not have all the answers to gender identity and even has a poor knee-jerk reaction when a trans female love interest comes out to him. The reader’s mind widens as Eddy’s does, making him a wonderfully flawed, relatable protagonist.

I consider Meg Elison a good colleague and friend of mine, so I may be biased when I say that her novel has everything you could want in a post-apocalyptic tale: diverse, multi-dimensional characters, amazing world-building and a level of suspense that rises to an explosive climax.

When Eddy marches on Estiel (formerly St. Louis) to take on the Lion, the tyrannical leader of the sex slavers who keeps lions and tigers as pets, in order to save his loved ones, I couldn’t read fast enough. Those last 100 pages flew by, and I literally gasped at every twist and turn.

All in all, this is a phenomenal sequel that lives up to its predecessor, and I cannot wait for the next installment. I’m calling it now — get on this bandwagon immediately, because I imagine that The Road to Nowhere will lead to somewhere special.

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So You Want to Be a Writer? An Author Interview with Meg Elison

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Meg Elison, author of “The Book of the Unnamed Midwife”

About five months ago, I joined the marketing team at a startup company called Ripple, that’s making a huge splash in the financial services industry. I’m so lucky to work with such amazing colleagues — one of whom is Meg Elison, our social media goddess and an up-and-coming author!

I recently read her debut novel, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, and it’s so crazy good that it’s the only book I’ve completed so far this year to receive a 5-star rating.

The novel has been re-released today by publisher 47North, so to celebrate, I asked Meg a few questions over much-deserved cocktails. As an avid reader and aspiring author myself, I just had to know how Meg became the legend that she is now.

Book Club Babe (BCB): Did you study creative writing at all in school? If so, how effective was it in launching your career?

Meg Elison (ME): I didn’t study creative writing formally. I majored in English at UC Berkeley and I got a lot of my early experience by writing for newspapers, both in high school and college. I had very good teachers teach me critical reading, and later how to analyze and imitate style.

I would read books and essays and have reactions to them, typically very strong feelings one way or the other. I seem incapable of apathy. My best teachers were the ones who made me walk backwards and tell them why I hated something, and how to form an argument against what I had read. Learning to do that with both form and content is the most important bit, I think. Creative writing classes might have done it sooner, but I don’t think they would have done it better.

BCB: Who are your literary role models?

ME: I have many, but for a lot of different reasons. I’ve always looked up to Stephen King, because of his work ethic and his productivity. Margaret Atwood is a hero to me because she’s the one who helped me see how few books there are in my genre that treat women like people. Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde both make me jealous enough to cry with their prose; I am always trying to measure up to one of them. Sherman Alexie is an incredible inspiration to writers who are trying to write about poverty, so is John Scalzi. Amy Tan taught me to look at a line of women and see that any woman’s story starts long before she’s born. I could go on for pages and pages about this. Even the writers I hate have taught me valuable things.

BCB: What inspired you to write The Book of the Unnamed Midwife?

ME: I love the post-apocalypse genre. I got a lot of lectures about the END OF DAYS from a succession of creepy churches as a kid, and it went from my nightmares to my waking thoughts. I would try to figure out how it would work, how cities could crumble and a one-world government could possibly function. Once I moved past dubious prophecy, I started to read other apocalypses. I read good ones and bad ones and made my way through hundreds of books.

After a while, and after reading Atwood’s anomalous The Handmaid’s Tale, I realized that almost none of them had any real women in them. Women in these stories did not get pregnant, or need tampons, and many meekly submitted to a state of affairs that returned them to chattel status. I loved the women on “The Walking Dead.” They dealt with difficult birth on the show, but they all still waxed their eyebrows and shaved their armpits. Once I became aware of the gap, it obsessed me. I started thinking not only about gender in the apocalypse, but an apocalypse of gender. The idea came to me at a time when the War on Women was hot on TV, and it all fused into a feminist lightning bolt of rage. That was it.

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Book One in “The Road to Nowhere” series (Image: Amazon)

BCB: Describe the writing process: Any particular writing habits? How long did it take from draft to final? When did you start pitching? Any unexpected obstacles along the way?

ME: Midwife happened uncharacteristically quickly. I wrote 13,000 words on the first day, and that’s a record I haven’t broken since. After that, it was a sprint all the way through. It was written in a few months and pitched in less than a year. I expected pitching to be difficult, but I encountered absolute silence. It was beyond discouraging. When I got an offer from my very small first publisher, I leaped on it. At the time, I had to ask myself some pretty hard questions about whether I was settling, but it was the right thing. I got my work out there, and I have no regrets.

BCB: Your lead is an unabashed feminist who has no qualms discussing controversial topics, like casual sex and abortion. Was it difficult getting published because of this, and did you have to tone anything down in the rewrites?

ME: My first publishers were remarkably relaxed about the content of the book, and welcomed the frankness of it. My new publishers (I’m grateful to say) have been as well. I don’t know that 100% of the reading public is ready for my protagonist, but the publishing world certainly is. I know I was.

BCB: In the movie adaptation, who would you cast as the midwife and why?

ME: I love this question! My first choice is Kristen Stewart, who I think is capable of much more than she’s been given and has a good, hard edge to her work on gritty characters. My next would be Jena Malone, who really shocked me with the depth of her portrayal of Johanna Mason in “The Hunger Games.” She had a feral bloodlust and the look of a survivor to her, whether Johanna was flirting or stealing morphine, that I just adored.

BCB: Any hints on what to expect in the sequel?

ME: So, the sequel, The Book of Etta, picks up in the frame tale of Midwife. It’s the same town, a hundred years later. There’s been some cultural drift, and some of it would make the Midwife pretty unhappy, but that’s what cultures do. They drift and shift to stay alive. Etta is another very tough main character and has a struggle ahead. It’s the same kind of adventure, that same pace, with some new ideas in the mix. I’m excited for people to read it next year!

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Book Two in “The Road to Nowhere” series (Image: Amazon)

BCB: We work in marketing, so how does marketing affect your work?

ME: I don’t think about marketing at all when I write. I think that’s a terrible idea. I don’t care what’s trendy or what I think will sell, I want to write my story and let what will happen just happen. However, working in marketing has given me a lot of insight into the work of promoting a book once it’s done. I’ve gotten sharper about pitching, both the book and myself as a speaker or a guest at an event. I’ve gotten more succinct and distilled in my professional correspondence, which I think is very hard for many writers to do. I’ve been able to look at pitching angles objectively, without getting all tangled up in what it means for my artistic identity. Yeah, I’m an artist and I’m sensitive and shit. But also I’d like to make a living. Marketing makes books turn into pizza and rent checks and gas. It keeps me pragmatic.

BCB: What’s the best advice you can give to aspiring authors?

ME: The best advice I can give that I haven’t heard a million times is that all writers should hate-read. I read for pleasure and to keep myself in touch with the market, but I also hate-read like a motherfucker. Wanting to be like Chuck Palahniuk gives me a style to imitate and a leader to follow, but nothing more. Knowing exactly where Stephenie Meyer makes her worst mistakes, or why I cannot get through a whole book by Don DeLillo provides me with lessons I will never forget; concrete directives that tell me I’m headed in the wrong direction. That stuff is priceless.

BCB: What’s your favorite book of all time, and what are you currently reading?

ME: The killer question! I could have a different answer every day of the week. Today, let’s say my favorite book of all time is Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. And I’m currently reading The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemison, and I just finished Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. They’re both very, very good.

BCB: What are you working on now, and how can people learn more about you?

ME: I’m working on the third book in the Road to Nowhere series, as well as two other unrelated novels. This has been a very productive year for me. I’ve also published a handful of short stories and essays recently. The best place to track me down is on Twitter (@megelison), but I also have a Facebook author page and my own website. I’ve got events coming up around the launch of my book, so come see me in meat space!

Book Review: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife

Image via Goodreads

Rating: 5 out of 5

Happy Labor Day weekend everybody! I’m happy to announce that after eight whole months of nothing truly wowing me, 2016 has finally delivered an amazing, five-star read!

This book is extra special because I have the pleasure of knowing the author personally! By day, Meg Elison sits two desks down from me as our company’s social media guru/ninja/*insert nauseating Silicon Valley title here*, but off the clock, she managed to find the time to pen an award-winning novel…no big deal!

I’m super excited that I love this book too, since it would have been really awkward to face Meg at work if I thought her baby was ugly, so to speak. However, despite our close acquaintance, I promise to review her book as honestly as I would any other (it helps that she’s currently at Burning Man, so it’s not like she’s looking over my shoulder as I write this!)

First published in 2014, I received an ARC of The Book of the Unnamed Midwife from Meg for the re-release by publisher 47North on October 16. As the title suggests, this novel tells the story of an unnamed midwife living in San Francisco when a mysterious plague wipes out the vast majority of humanity. Even stranger, the disease affects women and children more so than men, creating a literal battle of the sexes as everyone tries to survive.

A word of warning: This book is unapologetically, heartbreakingly graphic. When the protagonist wakes from her bout of the sickness and discovers her husband missing in this post-apocalyptic world, she immediately realizes just how valuable she is when she’s forced to fight off and murder a rapist who breaks into her home.

As she travels northeast from the Bay Area, she must face the sick reality of predatory men enslaving, raping, and otherwise brutalizing what’s left of the female population. Disguising herself as a man, she uses her experience as a midwife and access to contraceptives to help other women navigate their horrific new normal.

Without giving too much away, which is so difficult since there are countless wonderful aspects to this story to discuss, I found The Book of the Unnamed Midwife so suspenseful and engaging that I gobbled it up in just a few days. From her standoff in the woods to her time spent in Utah with a Mormon sect, I had to know more about this character.

It helps that this book was clearly written for a reader like me. Although I can’t speak for her, it’s obvious that Meg’s feminist, pagan perspective permeates each page (sorry, the alliteration ran away from me!). Let’s just say that the story’s queer, secular protagonist leans far to the left, and if you can’t handle casual sex, cussing and frank conversation about abortion, then this book is definitely not for you.

But since Meg and I are on the same wavelength, I found the novel’s themes downright refreshing, especially in an America that seems to be reverting backward when it comes to women’s rights. Dare I say that The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is right up there with The Handmaid’s Tale as a game-changer in the feminist dystopia genre.

On a final note, the structure of The Book of the Unnamed Midwife as an epistolary works very well. The present day takes place a generation after the midwife, who has become a historical figure through her journaling of the plague’s aftermath. I’m looking forward to the sequel to learn how society rebuilds and whether a cause for the plague is ever revealed.

In the meantime, Meg has been gracious enough to allow me to interview her next week, so if you have any questions for a debut author, send them my way!