Ever notice how apocalyptic movies are always about world domination, but the only city worth saving seems to be New York? Do we hold onto movies like “Good Will Hunting” and “The Departed” because of Matt Damon’s cute, locally brewed looks, or are we just tired of seeing the NYC skyline on every movie screen?
What about contemporary literature? Somerville’s pick of the summer was B.A. Shapiro’s “The Art Forger,” and the novel has been doing well critically. However, that’s just one small component of the Boston literary canon, which ranges from revolutionary-era texts to modern playwrights.
Luckily for casual, voracious readers, contemporary literature has set some of its most engaging stories in the Greater Boston area. Check these out!
A Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel shows us a world without reproductive rights for women, where female bodies are farmed for sex and pregnancies they cannot choose to avoid. Set in a militarized Cambridge, Mass, the book ties Puritanical ideals which in part founded the Boston area to restrictive politics that hurt women. Harvard University has been turned into a medical center treating, impregnating and de-socializing women who aren’t able to marry themselves into freedom.
Controversial, shocking and endlessly engrossing, “The Handmaid’s Tale” makes a fantastic introduction to feminist ideals, a fascinating example of dystopian fiction, and it’s a “bad romance” to boot.
Margaret Atwood, author of our first listed novel, would probably enjoy the daylights out of Michelle Tea’s graphic (and we mean graphic) novel. The salacious comic book brings to life, through illustrations by Laurenn McCubbin, the true and unadultered story of author Michelle Tea making it as a sex worker in the Greater Boston area.
Born and raised in Chelsea, Mass, Tea grew up in a blue collar, divorced family, earning great grades in public school and yearning to move into the city. Tea and her illustrating counterpart McCubbin are regulars at San Francisco’s Comic Con, where they say male convention-goers are excited about graphic novels which deal outright with sex, but are “disgusted” by the male behaviors in Tea’s memoir.
Stephen King’s “Cell” is a return to the author’s early style; it’s a paperback, bloody punch to the gut, full of gore and human emotion. By the time you rip through the book’s relentless plot, the novel’s terrifying conclusion leaves you feeling like you’ve been hit by a train.
Fans of good ol’ fashioned zombie attacks will love King’s quickly paced dialogue. The opening scene alone, in which an out-of-work illustrator waits for ice cream in Boston, is violent enough to set your teeth on edge. A deathly signal, which survivors eventually call “The Pulse,” emanates from every cell phone in the city, wiping any cell user’s empathy clear out of their brains. Those who were texting or calling someone at the time of “The Pulse” become raging, bloodthirsty animals, spewing black bile, and it’s up to King’s protagonist to get himself and his son out of the city.
The Saint of Incipient Insanities
Critics weren’t entirely sure what to make of Turkish author Elif Shafak’s recent novel, her first in English. “The Saint of Incipient Insanities” is a post-9/11 study in the American melting pot, showcasing Greater Boston’s specific population of youth who come from around the globe to pursue higher education in America.
Set in Somerville, Shafak’s novel tells the story of three multi-cultural roommates as they complete graduate work and step on each others’ toes. The novel is more of a study in character and language than a page-turner, and it’s definitely thought-provoking.
In A Single Bound
Leave it to the psyched-up Boston comix community to put together an anthology like this one! “In a Single Bound” collects the original superhero stories set in Boston and its surrounding neighborhoods in one fantastic volume, written and illustrated entirely by local artists. Some stories are funny, and others will depress you for days.
The stories are available online here, and at local signings in comic stores around the Boston area. Because of the series’ local ties, authors are encouraged to meet up and discuss their work before submitting it for inclusion in the collection. Excitingly, a call was sent out recently for female comic book artists and writers. Read the series, and submit your own work!
Contemporary literature’s “wonder boy” Franzen is most well known for his books set in suburbia. Before he wrote tales of sad professors obsessed with their students, though, Franzen had his sights in the metropolitan, water-logged city of Boston.
Louis Holland arrives in Boston only to experience a series of earthquakes which rock the North Shore, one of which kills his grandmother. When he meets a Harvard-educated seismologist, things become complicated.
Fans of Franzen’s characteristic melancholy and wit will enjoy this early project, and readers unfamiliar with Franzen will find themselves immersed in the novel’s social commentary on abortion, corporate greed and social justice.
Lahiri has written a lifetime’s worth of gorgeous, intimate short fiction, but this was the novel that won her the Pulitzer. “The Namesake” is a touching story of a Bengali couple who moves to Cambridge, Mass and finds themselves trapped in a prison of cultural and language barriers. They experience strife together, and eventually have a baby whom they nickname “Gogol” after the famous Russian author.
The boy’s life unfurls into a tragedy fitting of his namesake, though the end of the novel wraps up the plot in such a succinct, bittersweet way that it leaves the reader feeling drunk on the power of family. This one will move you, and the film adaptation, starring Kal Penn, is worth checking out as well.
There’s something inherently intriguing about a British woman writing a novel set in academic Greater Boston. Even more stunning than Zadie Smith’s gift for language and observation is the fact that she got so many local tropes right!
The novel is loosely based on the post-modern novel “Howard’s End,” but its exploration of sex and race relations complicate the plot beyond simple recognition. A father teaches at a fictional university outside of Boston, lusting after younger women and worrying about his quirky, complicated kids. Read carefully to spot Zadie Smith’s cheeky insertion of herself into the novel, a la Alfred Hitchcock!
This one is it, the definitive Boston intellectual text, the lit-snob’s dream, the local pride, the tome. If you’re between the ages of 20 and 40 and currently live in Boston, Cambridge or Somerville, you’ve either drawn the mathematical map of “Infinite Jest”‘s setting on a white-board, or you’ve had the phenomenon explained to you.
It’s not a simple book to get through, but the fanatical fan following is worth the effort alone. David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus is a vastly reaching dark comedy about American happiness, and it is one of the most analyzed and enjoyed novel of the last few decades. It’s a contemporary, not-science-fiction, comedic novel with it’s own wiki page and discussion boards. Read it before you’re behind!