It was only during the last century or so that any outsider truly set out to record the culture and traditions of native Greenlanders. The person who gets (and deserves) most of the credit is Knud Rasmussen, who was determined to record as many oral histories, songs, and stories as he could; he and his polar exploration team set out during the early 1900s and, over the course of seven different expeditions, made their way across Greenland and over to Alaska. His notes and journals are now treasured sources that researchers utilize to this day.
From 1993 to 1999, Gretel Ehrlich traveled solo to Greenland, traveling paths few outsiders ever take, oftentimes traveling the same lonely paths that Rasmussen and his crew took. She was there so long that she got to experience the country during every season, from the sunless days to the sun-filled nights. She traveled by dogsled with experienced hunters, tagging along for hunts — everything from seals to polar bears — and experienced the same threats they did: falling through thin ice, snowblindess, hunger, blizzards. Like Rasmussen, she collected people’s stories and recorded their modern-day struggles.
Jake Whyte is an Australian woman who lives on an isolated sheep farm in England with her dog. She has few friends (if you can call them that), and mostly shuns all social interactions. Her immediate concern is that something keeps violently attacking her sheep, and she’s convinced that it’s not a fox but rather someone or something. It quickly becomes evident to the reader that that’s not all that’s bothering her: Jake is clearly haunted by something from her past. She has a mess of scars covering her back, and she often wakes up from nightmares in the middle of the night, convinced that someone is at her door.
As the book unfolds, we start to see more references to Jake’s past. All the Birds, Singing isn’t a linear book; the occasional flashback is thrown in. This sometimes makes for a disjointed reading experience because it isn’t always immediately clear that a flashback is taking place. New characters and scenes are introduced, only to once again be subsumed into the mystery of Jake’s past. It’s clear that something violent happened, and it’s clear that she wasn’t always the anti-social person she is now, but she’s not a reliable character; she lies to others about her past and, as such, frequently leaves the reader in the dark as well.
A few weeks ago, I posted a list of recommendations for people who like Aimee Bender, and Charles Yu’s Sorry Please Thank You was on that list. I’ve been eagerly waiting for today to arrive so that I can finally talk about the book in more detail, because fellow geeks and science fiction fans are sure to be pleased with this short story collection! Split into four sections — “Sorry,” “Please,” “Thank You,” and “All of the Above” — the quirky stories range from funny to downright melancholy.
I was immediately grabbed by the first story, “Standard Loneliness Package.” At a call center in Bangalore, employees are hired to feel their customers’ pain for them. Funerals are a popular source of income, though heartbreak, painful medical procedures, and even sitting in on a kid’s recital are all possibilities. It’s a love story with a futuristic twist, yet it feels very present day. It also brings a whole new dynamic to the ethics of outsourcing!
A more lighthearted (and very short) story that I enjoyed was “First Person Shooter.” A couple of employees are working the graveyard shift at WorldMart, and the guy is trying to work up the nerve to ask his coworker out on a date. She has other things on her mind, though, namely the zombie who has just shown up in cosmetics.
Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist utopia, is based on this premise. Written in 1915, the book is about a trio of young men who hear of an uncharted territory where only women are allowed to enter. Searching for an adventure, they fly a plane into the territory and discover a world where the men died out two thousand years ago; the women evolved and have been self-reproducing only females ever since. The men are held captive until they can learn the women’s language and gain their trust. Once trust is established, they are encouraged to observe the way of life in Herland.
The country, populated by three million women, is the antithesis of all that symbolizes “civilized” society. It is a world where a woman’s sole purpose in life is to be a mother. The country has had two thousand years to figure out what kind of quality of life it wants, and each generation throughout the two thousand years has made an effort to achieve that ideal.
The result is that each woman gives birth to only one child so that their small country does not become overpopulated. Plants and trees have been cultivated throughout the centuries to bear plentiful amounts of food. Crime is nonexistent, and methods to educate and entertain the children–whom everyone has a hand in raising–have been refined and tailored in ways that would best benefit them. Respect for all living things and a desire to create a better world for future generations is what drives the women. One of the characters explains to the men,
“Here we have Human Motherhood–in full working use…The children in this country are the one center and focus of all our thoughts. Every step of our advance is always considered in its effect on them–on the race. You see, we are Mothers,” she repeated, as if in that she had said it all.
Feminist utopias are always fun to read, but what struck me most about this one was how ahead of its time it was, and how relevant it remains today. The author’s commentary on the milk and meat industries could easily still be used in contemporary literature: