The Brilliance of Beth Revis’ Final “Across the Universe” Book

In Shades of Earth, a hundred-year interstellar mission finally comes to fruition––stranding its passengers on an unwieldy new planet with no way to reach home. Credits for the above collage are here.

What happens when a centuries long mission to an exoplanet finally arrives? In Shades of Earth, the final installment of Beth Revis’ sci-fi epic, for one thing, Earth has long since beat the colonists to it––and their prospects on this brave new world don’t look good.

The trilogy’s first two installments, Across the Universe (yes, after the song) and A Million Suns, explore a society formed on a generational ship, the Godspeed, over hundreds of years in isolation: various crises with no assistance from home have bred a tightly-regulated micro-dystopia, with drugs pumped into the populace to keep it docile and incendiary truths tightly guarded from view. The Godspeed has no captain, only a succession of absolute power through generations of clones who hold the title Eldest. Tensions come to a head, though, when the original members of the mission, scientists and military personnel who agreed to pass the centuries until arrival in cryogenic slumber, start mysteriously waking, and Amy, the daughter of a colonel, falls in love with Elder, a young leader-in-waiting who has yet to learn the worst of his regime’s secrets.

As it turns out, Godspeed has been parked at its destination, a habitable exoplanet dubbed “Centauri-Earth,” for some time, and as the ship falls into disrepair, disembarking emerges as the only path to survival. But Shades of Earth shows us a Centauri-Earth riddled with dangers––aside from the sharpening tensions between the ship-born inhabitants of Godspeed and the Earthlings just awakened from sleep.

Revis’ worldbuilding is a tightly-wound coil that never stops unfurling: personal drama is aplenty, but the past and its glaring omissions lend the trilogy most of its suspense. Every plot twist emerges from the ashes of history, in both earlier books and Shades of Earth, so it’s no surprise that Centauri-Earth is hardly what it seems. Layered under the struggle for survival in this volume is a deeper, sustaining mystery: the question of circumstance, and the truth of how it came to be. With both elements, the terror of an alien world and the whiffs of vague past catastrophe and possible conspiracy, Revis creates a stomping ground for her sci-fi that antagonizes the colonists in multiple ways, yielding a survival story that really uses its surroundings, not just as a force to struggle against, but as a source of revelation. It’s illuminating to dig in Revis’ sandbox and find the treasures she’s buried there––even more so that some of them take the whole book to uncover.

Those more stubborn details build to an even more powerful conclusion: when the real culprits, conspiracies, and causes are hidden, it is all the more compelling when the monster at the reader’s feet scurries away, and a deeper growl from above prompts them to look up, and meet the real one.

In Shades of Earth, power is cleverly nestled in its designs and machinations, sending the characters immediate threats and keeping them in the dark about its true nature. The structure Revis creates for this in her plot is layered, so rife with complete shifts in paradigm that the final reveals are a rousing breath of release. Though they may read as deus ex machina to some, these sudden, all-consuming realizations have a surprising thematic utility, one that can be found in the likes of Doctor Who. (It’s reasonable to infer that the show had a a direct influence on the work––the author’s notes in her short story anthology, The Future Collection, cite it directly.)

Doctor Who has boundless faith in human beings, so much so that its greatest heartbreaks happen when people fail to act as their best selves in situations of crisis that demand it, from paranoia in the episode “Midnight” to trigger-happy dealings with another species in “The Hungry Earth” and “In Cold Blood.” (All three of these are magnificent episodes, by the way.)

There are echoes of this in Shades of Earth, with devastatingly authentic depictions of peace gone awry. The book is defined by compassion when it comes to unpacking the unproductive tensions between ship-borns and Earth-borns: compassionate not only in understanding and forgiving their motives but also in terms of emphasizing how devastating this animosity is for everyone involved, and how it pulls attention away from the real source of harm. Here, Revis writes the ultimate tragedy: human beings too beholden to their nature to recognize the institutions and authorities that actually pose a threat. It has all the trappings of free will, with the tart smack of inevitability.

Revis does this especially well with Amy’s father, the Earth-born Colonel Martin, who reacts to the hostile environment and the ship-borns foolishly yet predictably. He has a compassionate side––it shows very obviously in his interactions with his daughter––but it isn’t enough to resist paranoia, and, in the tradition of tragic flaws, gets warped under pressure. It’s heartbreaking in him because it’s heartbreaking in everyone else. Shades of Earth genuinely believes its characters are better than this. It gets its gravity from the painful fact that they very often aren’t.

Deadly Bugs, Animal Hosts, and Disastrous Consequences in David Quammen’s “Spillover”

David Quammen’s Spillover gives us histories of several different diseases and their occurrences in the animal kingdom, from the Hendravirus that first emerged in Australia to the current COVID-19’s deadly predecessor, SARS.

David Quammen’s Spillover gives us histories of several different diseases and their occurrences in the animal kingdom, from the Hendravirus that first emerged in Australia to the current COVID-19’s deadly predecessor, SARS. Credits for these images here.

One of history’s most destructive forces, the zoonosis (a pathogen transmitted from an animal reservoir host, directly or indirectly, into a human) has caused epidemics for millennia and killed patients innumerable. Following the invention of microscopes, the bacterium came to light, but the elusive virus––too small to be caught in filters and solidly immune to antibiotics––has evaded us until relatively recently. In David Quammen’s extensive tome of zoonosis case studies, the history and struggle of isolating and retracing the steps of animal-human pathogens is as vital as the science itself. For better or worse, if you want to know why the original, early 2000s SARS didn’t wreak as much havoc as its ever-present, currently raging sequel, COVID-19 (or SARS-CoV-2), Spillover stipulates that you read the virologist’s life story and indulge a few historical excursions, too.

Spillover isn’t exclusively about the mechanisms of pathogens themselves, nor is it really a work of popular science, where a book attempts to make a complicated topic more manageable to the casual reader. It’s more an extended work of science reporting, where the news is the discovery and the journalist recounts the major figures and key choices in the history of how it happened. Quammen, as a National Geographic staff writer, structures the nine sections of his book like the unrestrained, elaborate features a reporter like him might whip up without page limits. Despite Quammen’s commitment to storytelling, and his careful attention to the ironic anecdote, the magazine features some of the sections previously were aren’t sufficiently tweaked to fit the structure of a long work of nonfiction. Some of the techniques that work on magazine readers––telling an interesting anecdote out of left field and holding off on revealing its larger importance, for instance––become almost tiresome when they require twenty pages of investment in a book, as opposed to a magazine’s, say, three.

The issue with this approach isn’t with Quammen’s handling of the material. The various connections between lives, research, and place really do bring a subject like epidemiology some relatability: Quammen’s commitment to showing us the monkeys in the temples, and explaining, historically, why they’re there, does more for our understanding than strictly discussing encephalitis and its inner workings. But truly accessible science writing is more than just the inclusion of non-science subjects. History and biography can be made too dense to read through as well, even by sheer virtue of volume.

Still, Quammen takes some admirable risks in wrapping science in storytelling (how one might hide a dog’s medication in peanut butter), and he manages to build in the basics gradually, instead of pounding them all in at the beginning like a pre-book crash course. He even gracefully introduces the S.I.R model, an exercise in blunt force calculus he jokes about having to translate (for good reason). This scientific discovery psychodrama also happens to work well when Quammen wants to track the rise and fall of misguided ideas, namely the informally dubbed “Don’t kill your host” principle, and how it fell out of favor after five strains of a virus that infects rabbits demonstrated that a lower virulence, or intensity, isn’t necessarily a virus’ best bet for continued survival.

In one of the most inspired passages of the book, after a brief history of how wild rabbits exploded across Australia, Quammen explores how a virus released into the population to keep it under control quickly evolved different strains of varying potency. By first establishing the idea that viruses killing their hosts was thought to be an unfortunate coincidence that ultimately detriments the virus, Quammen sets up something akin to suspense as each of the strains tear through the wild and are tested against their hosts. This specific sequence is one in which Spillover‘s broad focus works at its best, seeking out events that can be reported as opposed to science that can be broken down and explained in abstraction.

Not every excursion in the book is like this, but when the timing is right, and the important ideas are truly built into their context, Spillover can impart these big ideas with remarkable staying power.

The final lesson, even, is hardly final, ecosystems and shifting circumstances constantly changing as they do, but it really sticks. Quammen makes ample allowance for this, an attribute of value as it pertains to Spillover‘s resonance where the menacingly-inferred Next Big Pandemic has already arrived. Its ties to the current moment extend a little bit beyond the eerie details a contemporary reader might glean while reading the section in SARS and its family of coronaviruses. Some of Quammen’s stretches for meaning near the end are really pushing it (“humans are an outbreak” comes to mind), but his words on the impact of our acts in the course of a pandemic read like the attitudes we’re being urged to adopt today––reservoir hosts in the animal kingdom don’t generally realize they’re in the midst of an outbreak and adjust their behavior accordingly. We, crucially, can.

It seems like magical forecasting for a moment, until you remember that humanity is a tried-and-true survivor of plague, with the experience and the preventative measures to prove it. As Spillover can attest to, history has a lot to tell us about crisis and recovery––it’s simply a matter of paying attention.

A Dystopian Trek in Ally Condie’s “Crossed”

Ally Condie’s YA dystopia, Crossed, and how it works as a sequel to the sleek, sanitized, Giver-esque world of Matched, its predecessor. (With a touch of poetry!)

Crossed, the second book in the Matched trilogy, sees Cassia, a heroine who only until recently trusted the word of her overbearing government, in a journey through the wilderness, in search of love, freedom, and a rebellion. Credits for this illustration are here.

Ally Condie’s 2010 YA dystopian, Matched, takes place in a highly-regulated, warped paradise of job assignments, planned deaths, and compulsory conformity, the workings of a faceless, monolithic Society in the far future, Giver-style. The Matching ceremony, the day on which the government presents to each citizen their predestined partner, plays a key role in getting Cassia, a familiar subdued, brunette, mostly complicit dystopian heroine, to question the system that’s kept her life safe and predictable lo these seventeen years, but by the end, she’s taken a second look at everything. The Society’s destruction of previous cultures. Its zero-tolerance approach to dissent. And, most urgently, at the end of book one, its swift and hushed deployment of her boyfriend, Ky, as a prop of its vague and unspoken war.

Crossed, book two, is the fallout of the possibility of resistance. In Matched, we follow a relationship mutually acknowledged to be doomed. In Crossed, where both Ky and Cassia are on the run, they have to deal with disagreements about the future they only recently realized they could have. What’s more, Cassia hears word of a rebellion brewing on the edges of the Society, the very one in which Ky, jaded by his family’s past, long ago lost faith.

It’s subdued and rather uneventful as far as sequels go––the Society, in Crossed, is more of a looming presence than, as it is in Matched, a mounting threat. In Crossed, Ky and Cassia, along with a few incidental others, trek through the wilderness to find each other, and, eventually, to find the already gathering forces of a rebellion, the Rising. This setup forebodes a laggy, unimportant middle chapter, but Crossed has a utility in doing what a plot summary would cast as useless loitering. It holds all the themes of Matched while taking some time to let the immediate danger of being pursued by authority air out in the wilderness. The same stakes are ultimately at hand, but they are examined here in a deeply personal lens. What’s more, the monotony of the Society ripens with an example to pair it against. Where the Society does appear in Crossed, Condie inextricably associates it with the destruction of the natural world, further codifying its slick, sterilized aesthetic: just the foil for the naturalism, figurative language, and poetry that defines her main characters, and their deeply-held, almost unconscious, need to rebel.

As either consequence or catalyst of this, Condie’s prose style is of the earnest, flowery variety, sparse yet heavy with metaphor: so much “ash and nothing into flesh and blood,” so much “a thought flitters into my mind like one of the mourning cloaks, the butterflies that string their cocoons along the twigs,” so much “my mother painted with water, and my father played with fire,” as to render it trite, cliché, and unbearably cheesy, but her characters are so fervent and her argument for agency so entangled with poetry and passion that it registers with striking clarity. The key to Condie’s invoking such drastic lyricism is commitment.

It doesn’t hurt, though, that she chose to set Crossed in the dramatic landscape of a canyon, the Carving, where bright red cliffs exist in stark relief beside dark, rushing waters, and consequently where her lofty prose style feels most at home. Ky, the melancholy, poetry-reading love interest, also happens to harmonize with the landscape––Condie makes it the site of his childhood and the tenuous middle ground of the issue that comes to define his newfound tension with Cassia: to, or not to, join the Rising. What Crossed does with the debate is a cut above the expected. Yes, it’s a dystopian trilogy, and the rebellion is a given, but where Cassia’s all in, Ky is rather uneasy, and what’s more, the Rising is far from the “natural” side in Condie’s natural-unnatural dystopian lexicon, and she foreshadows some discord between the Rising as a restrictive institution and the beliefs of the people who turn to it for hope. Two salvaged poems, Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar,” play a key role in the series, Cassia and Ky reciting parts of them like mantras. The Rising, however, has co-opted the metaphorical figure of the Pilot from Tennyson’s poem for use in their own propaganda, and it is only Ky’s suspicions––with his symbolic ties to the natural, the expressive, and the artistic––that put dents in the Rising’s promises before the thing itself even appears.

Cassia, on the other hand, is earnest and hopeful about this matter, nursing wholehearted faith in the future––and meets heartache when Ky doesn’t share her vision. She isn’t fully realized as a novel or startling heroine, but she is a fully-realized reflection of her upbringing, the Society’s purported ideals of justice and equality activated when they meet their authentic counterparts. The point is that she embodies the average of her circumstances reacting to a chance encounter with freedom, just like Ky embodies his ostracism, and reflects the want of creative freedom once had, and lost. This doesn’t make them boring or flat; it makes them painstaking extensions of their worldbuilding.

Likewise, Crossed‘s muted and internal nature doesn’t make it a pointless victim of middle book syndrome; it makes it a refreshing departure from a genre that demands armed conflict as resolution, and very rarely shifts all or most of its focus into how its characters feel about the matter. It’s a volume of careful thought and sustained commitment to its role as a meditative interlude. High-octane expectations gave the book mixed reviews upon its reception in 2011, but after YA’s wave of dystopian popularity has crashed, it’s worth revisiting what Crossed does with setting, character, and art: it takes a long, introspective trek through a canyon, as opposed to the straight and narrow path.

Thank you for reading! My name is Pippin, and this blog is my passion project for all things bookish (and, to be frank, mostly young adult sci-fi). I’d love to chat about this book, or anything else, really, in the comments: am I blinded by my teenage nostalgia for this book? Am I missing a killer dystopia that more people should read? Is Ky Markham too angsty? Tell me below!

Scott Westerfeld’s “Specials” Ends With a Flashy, Unnecessary Bang

Westerfeld’s victories in this volume are largely conceptual, and all in the details. He skillfully invents a subculture for these Specials and uses the tools of previous volumes––the language, conformity, a strong sense of physicality––to make its allure convincing and illuminate the psychological factors that keep people in line where the influence of systems stops.

Young dissidents hide (and hoverboard) in the ruins of the 21st century throughout Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy. It becomes an especially important staging ground as the resistance gains momentum in the finale, Specials. Credits for this illustration are here.

This terminal volume in Scott Westerfeld’s foundational dystopia, the Uglies trilogy, follows a familiar tune.

The promise of earlier books, from the series opener, Uglies and its thought-provoking take on coming of age and its unfortunate implications, to the middle volume, Pretties, and its mind-bending complications, turn out to be too ambitious to sit comfortably in Specials‘ 350 pages, and too lofty to decisively resolve.

Tally, the teenage heroine who saw the cracks in the system in book one and suddenly found herself a part of it in book two, winds up yet again unwillingly modified by the government of her city, this time “enhanced” both physically and mentally into a man-hunting machine who can track dissidents like prey and do the government’s bidding with maximum efficiency.

The government in Westerfeld’s series doesn’t rule with an iron fist, exactly: it transforms its citizens into perfectly beautiful, perfectly brainwashed “Pretties” once they come of age. Constantly occupied with their cliques, parties, and thrills as a result of it, the policy of compulsory cosmetic surgery at 16 is the gift that keeps on giving––humanity is too infantilized to cause many problems or raise objections to the status quo. For the few that remain, the government has Special Circumstances, or “Specials,” on the opposite end of the surgical brainwashing spectrum, an agency with faces designed to elicit fear and its own distinct, government-implanted delusions.

Westerfeld’s victories in this volume are largely conceptual, and all in the details. He skillfully invents a subculture for these Specials and uses the tools of previous volumes––the language, conformity, a strong sense of physicality––to make its allure convincing and illuminate the psychological factors that keep people in line where the influence of systems stops. From Pretty-isms like “bubbly” and “happy-making” emerge Special-isms like “icy,” and new internal logic that capitalizes on our characters’ needs to feel superior to the “bubblehead” Pretties to match.

Tally, however, has been fed indoctrination, questioned it, and overcome it two times over now, once in Uglies and once in Pretties, and Specials has her do it yet again, from the ground up. In spite of this hurdle, or perhaps because of it, Specials is the speed round version. It’d be reductive to spend the same amount of pages in the same battle––one that frustrated many readers when they met a bubbly, brainwashed Tally in Pretties with the clock turned back on her character development. In Pretties, though, her starting point is alien enough to make the battle discernibly different. Specials doesn’t add anything new: the surgery has brainwashed Tally before and she has recovered from it before. It’s a nearly identical struggle, in a slightly different flavor.

This is a valid reason that might make the sidelining of Tally’s struggle with her new identity a wise move. But Westerfeld’s deconstruction of the Specials’ superiority complex is the subject of the book’s most memorable scenes––including one very devastating kiss––and it injects crucial friction into a romantic subplot that otherwise fades into a dull thrum. But the book doesn’t decide what to do with it either way, leaving a well-developed subplot that, when the action deems it necessary, just disappears.

The “Specials” issue expires too early in part because, this being Tally’s final volume, we have bigger fish to fry. As the romance has the happily ever after, the dystopian has the collapse of the corrupt regime.

Westerfeld’s take on this front, even though it can sometimes feel like an obligatory conclusion, has a real streak of realism to it. Rather than making Tally the absolute mastermind, he taps her to play a small role in an ongoing shift that began before she decided that her political situation was bogus: Specials sees her dealing with auxiliary consequences and hurrying the gradual change along until her own circumstances see a breaking point.

This decision allows the scope of the dystopian world order to come across, but doesn’t put armies at a 17-year-old’s command to do it. In keeping with this, Westerfeld’s choice of self-governing cities as opposed to a massive totalitarian state or empire makes some interesting strides towards progress in this fictional world possible within this final volume, but overall the pace of revolution is glacial. It is effected by clandestine systems of couriers, and in a refreshing turn, Tally is important, but not the center of the world.

With all this in place, the threat of war that emerges in the final third of the book feels trite and excessive, less like a decision that truly befits Westerfeld’s fictional world and more like bending to the explosive expectations of a YA sci-fi finale. But the Uglies series, action-heavy as it is, has always been internally-driven at its core. When it isn’t, it’s fueled by relationships, rather than weaponry. The doomed friendship between Tally and Shay, an electrifying supporting character, centered the tension between the devotees and the free-thinkers in the previous two books, and Specials only begs for this third-act war plot because Shay is so noticeably absent.

The series succeeded in the past because of its interior, reflective nature, even in the face of all the sci-fi bells and whistles. That is where its impact is strongest. It’s not a political thriller––though Specials tries to incorporate that quality with its villain, Dr. Cable. It’s not a revolution story, either, and even though war appears, it’s not a war story. This isn’t something to fix with hard sci-fi optics. It’s something that, like it ultimately concludes about people, is better left unchanged.

Space Pirates and Price-Gouging in “Starflight”

Melissa Landers’ 2016 follow-up to her extraterrestrial foreign exchange student trilogy, Alienated, tragically ditches the contemporary element to make a full dive into space-operatic adventure. Starflight is the work of someone with a deep affinity for Star Wars, no doubt, and conveys some of those warm and fuzzy forged-family feelings––but something is undeniably lacking.

Melissa Landers’ 2016 follow-up to her extraterrestrial foreign exchange student trilogy, Alienated, tragically ditches the contemporary element to make a full dive into space-operatic adventure. Starflight is the work of someone with a deep affinity for Star Wars, no doubt, and conveys some of those warm and fuzzy forged-family feelings––but something is undeniably lacking in the plot department as it concerns a rocket-fuel-laundering scheme and some questions of world-building. As a space romp, common wisdom holds that some intrigue should be in store, but Starflight is almost character-driven to a fault: when it does answer act one’s questions, it mostly does so with an emphasis on efficiency and action, leaving much to be desired in the rich details supplementary to character that define works of speculative fiction. And Landers, by swapping out the present-day high school backdrop of her previous series, may have sacrificed her means to a laid-back, high-spirited series opener in the process.

Starflight opens with a promising set of foils: Solara Brooks, whose record is so tarnished and her funds so low that she has to enter indentured servitude on an outgoing vessel, and Doran Spaulding, heir to a gobsmacking technologies fortune and beneficiary of Solara’s dire straits. The dynamic between these characters at curtain is unbridled hostility, pure and simple. It even has a class component, which Landers cleverly teases at when an unexpected conspiracy charge puts the authorities on Doran’s trail and a series of increasingly chaotic decisions on Solara’s part reverse their fortunes and land them both on a sketchy pirate ship en route to unregulated territory. Solara now plays the wealthy heiress and Doran is comically shuffled into the part of servant.

What follows is an elaborate chase across hangars and tourist planets, pursued by pirates, bounty hunters, the government, and all manner of trouble.

If you can lose yourself in it, Starflight is an adrenaline rush of the hyper-speed variety, with just enough ready to crash at the present moment to keep your eyes away from the framework. When it’s not a dangerous trade with ruthless pirates for a much-needed part, it’s the secret a crew member has been keeping that’s suddenly back and wants her dead. The happenings––hijinks, shenanigans, catastrophes––never stop. As high-powered and rip-roarin’ as this setup is, it pries time away from the central plot that really demands the work, and this short term gain ultimately creates an unsatisfying resolution for the ur-hijinks that initially set it all in motion.

Doran Spaulding, no matter how much the burgeoning enemies-to-lovers dynamic demands, is still not entirely off the hook by the time the book resolves his conspiracy charges. This stems from a combination of factors, chief among them the sustained sidelining of this plot until the very end (the ensuing discovery abruptly smacking the reader with no warning) and Landers’ lack of commitment to the lawless and conflict-ridden galaxy she’s created––like cyberpunk, but with an escape hatch. This particular symptom doesn’t make itself known everywhere––Landers is particularly good at emphasizing the daily toll of being on-the-run, from stark spaceship rations to constantly being ready to jolt out of a planet’s orbit at a moment’s notice. Her commitment wanes, though, on a much wider scope.

As the ship where Solara and Doran have taken refuge approaches the outer rim, fuel prices, the work of the Spaulding empire, skyrocket. In one particularly affecting scene, Landers paints a portrait of life in the outer rim that’s downright punishing, but reform, when Doran himself considers the idea, is easy, obvious, and doesn’t present any significant obstacle. The pages spent describing the desperate state of affairs wouldn’t be a waste if these disparities––not to mention the vast gulf in wealth and opportunity between Solara and Doran themselves––were entangled with the fuel fiasco. But as it stands, Starflight‘s backdrop of inequality and infighting fizzles out without being examined. The intrigue that serves as the story’s foundation suffers in the opposite corner besides. As a result, the book’s aftertaste is empty, to a degree. You can almost sense the effect it might have had with a few stronger ties.

But the book is bolstered by a tight-knit ensemble, and one that’s given comparable attention to that of the romance. The crew of the pirate ship doesn’t make for a fast and easy found family, but one that develops slowly and with care––and not without conflict. By all accounts, this gradual and largely auxiliary element accomplishes the book’s most impressive feats of character. It isn’t simply that Landers is generous with the downtime it takes to form a bond: she also puts these platonic relationships through the ringer in a way that only romantic relationships in YA generally earn (if that). Trust is broken, boundaries are breached, suspicions are had. Despite the fact that Starflight adopts the “gritty” space-outlaw aesthetic without ever really paying for it, it manages to be truly charming. This is due almost entirely to the cast: beautifully crafted, and the perfect companions for such a wild ride.

Life Science and Self-Discovery in “The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate”

Jacqueline Kelly’s historical middle grade novel follows a young protagonist who discovers her love of science, but there is little struggle or story to be found.

The 10-year old Calpurnia Tate discovers her love of biology and taxonomy in 1899, in Jacqueline Kelly’s historical middle-grade novel. I made this illustration, credits for the things I used are here.

On a rare and precious trip to the library, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate‘s determined and curious 10-year-old heroine is in search of a tightly-guarded treasure. In between tedious needlework lessons and the looming threat of housewifery, Calpurnia, in spite of the dictates of turn-of-the-century Texas, has developed a sapling of scientific inquiry, and she hopes against hope that she can get her hands on Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species.

The librarian, however, objects profoundly. The doors of opportunity are shrieking closed. In a moment that will set the tone for the rest of the novel, Jacqueline Kelly has used the opening chapter to remind us where we are.

Many more incidents like this are peppered through Kelly’s middle grade novel, among the many incidents that frame and define the brief, pivotal period of Calpurnia’s childhood that The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate covers. It’s not one continuous story––more episodic and memory based, Little Women-style. This approach certainly has its benefits: for one thing, it helps prevent the book from essentializing the misogyny of Calpurnia’s time, the way historicals strictly adhering to Freytag’s pyramid have a tendency to include whatever bias it addresses as one of the characters’ personal struggles, and show it heartily defeated in the end. The obstacles that stand in between a young girl and science in 1899 are very much still in place come the last page, and not magically vanquished by the power of story.

One thing Little Women‘s vignette style has on The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate‘s, however, is a more robust set of through-lines. Things are resolved rather tidily chapter-by-chapter in both books, but vignettes need to be tied together with resilient twine: a blend of character development, recurring themes, and an ambitious grasp at meaning. Evolution‘s through-lines, namely her interest in science, her relationships with her family, and the historical moment’s hope for the future, aren’t strong enough for the novel to progress cohesively. Instead, the reading experience is disjointed: dry, even––inching into the territory of a spotty adult memoir. The book has an adventurous, hopeful spirit, but in execution, its momentum often dries up. It’s barred from demonstrating competence in pacing, because, by virtue of Kelly’s stylistic choices, it isn’t paced.

Science and the pursuit of knowledge in a somewhat hostile age is the book’s most promising hint of consistency, but Calpurnia’s interest in biology, cultivated by a close bond with her grandfather, is more a consistent thrum than a relationship with true development, and what’s more, conflict. Kelly’s depiction of scientific observation is in itself authentic: we see Calpurnia reckon with a natural world that doesn’t reveal all its secrets to the casual viewer, angst over lost specimens and missed opportunities abounding. But science, for whatever reason (including perfectly legitimate ones like the fact of the protagonist’s age), lacks a big-picture meaning in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. Wonder, in its purest and most powerful form, is severely lacking in the novel, and so is pronounced struggle. In an age of scant science graduates and struggling math students, it may be very worth it to see a young protagonist go up against cloudy and difficult ideas, the specter of being wrong, and more related woes, and triumph. (Or fail, but gain by it.) Calpurnia mentions in passing the difficulty of getting through Darwin’s writing, but beyond that, science is easy for her, and only external factors bar her from the field: nothing she has to confront in her own thinking. As absent is the contest, so muted is the reward.

Another shortcoming in Kelly’s narrative of science reveals itself in a sustained focus on those very external factors, so much so that the heart of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is intent on defining itself primarily in opposition to what it’s not. The book is more concerned with how little Calpurnia wants to be a housewife than it is with how much she wants to be a scientist. Kelly’s glimpses of the heartbreak of being excluded is powerful, indeed––it may even be the strongest element in the book. But a historical must not merely be concerned with the tragedy of its circumstances, especially when it also happens to be careless about whom it leaves out.

The Tates’ servant, a Black woman named Viola, is very much on the periphery of Kelly’s attention. There are reasons for this: why would a ten-year-old notice the hardships of her family’s maid? It hurts the novel’s case, though, when Viola’s status is presented without objection, and only the backwards ideas that target a white girl are found to have fault. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate holds a powerful image of how it feels to be shut out, but when it only speaks of betterment for the main character, its case falls apart. There is a glaring example of another person forgotten right beside her.

On some level, as well, the book seems more interested in charming adult readers than connecting with younger ones. For a main character who loudly proclaims to have no interest in romance, Calpurnia’s narrative is rather fond of putting it her path, drawing out cutesy exchanges like this:

“You have to let your husband kiss you once you’re married. And you have to kiss him back.”

“No,” she said.

“Yes.” I nodded, as if I knew everything there was to know about husbands and wives kissing. “That’s what they do together.”

“Do you have to?”

“Oh, absolutely. It’s the law.”

“I never heard of that law,” she said dubiously.

“It’s true, it’s Texas law.”

The vignette style, ultimately, is more suited to seeing childhood through rose-tinted glasses, than it is to contending with it in real time. In this case, though, the same also goes for history.

Hello, and thank you for reading! I post new reviews & musings every Tuesday and Thursday. Let’s have a chat in the comments! What are your thoughts? Do childrens’ books need to do more to depict learning? Is this an irrelevant nitpick of mine? Tell me below.

“Uncanny Valley:” An Uneasy Dispatch from the World of Tech

Uncanny Valley, Wiener’s new memoir, tracks the years as Silicon Valley’s prospects soured, both in the public eye, and for Wiener herself, as venture capitalists and their cult-like philosophies emerged. The memoir reads quickly and juicily, like the Young Adult dystopian’s final form, where the rules of a warped society are described, mulled over, and most disquieting, remain.

Uncanny Valley, a memoir by Anna Wiener, chronicles her years working for tech startups in their golden age of money and hype. Glitch artwork by nesnad.

It’s 2014. The dread is a slow trickle, but eventually, it will arrive. Now, though, the promise of the tech industry still has Americans of all stripes enraptured, including a 25-year-old publishing assistant, one Anna Wiener.

She flees publishing for tech because her world lacks promise and security. “The truth,” she writes, “was that we were expendable.” A high turnover rate, paired with the contradictions inherent in the lives and salaries of higher-ups, makes a future in publishing look bleak. The tech industry has eerily similar attrition, eerily similar hypocrisies––but those revelations are a few years obscured.

Uncanny Valley, Wiener’s new memoir, tracks these years as Silicon Valley’s prospects soured, both in the public eye, and for Wiener herself, as venture capitalists and their cult-like philosophies emerged, the once friendly employer-provided dinner revealing its true nature: a carb-heavy nudge to keep working. The memoir reads quickly and juicily, like the Young Adult dystopian’s final form, where the rules of a warped society are described, mulled over, and most disquieting, remain. Its gradual build from the almost endearing camaraderie of a small startup to the frightening political implications only starting to take place, leaves quite the residual chill, fitting for a time of reeling––but not without the wry humor an affluent, insular community like Silicon Valley is due.

Wiener, indeed, is sharp on the subcultural subtleties––she never drops “pompous” or “elitist,” preferring instead to describe the ubiquity of those hiking shoes with toes, the simulacrum of its former subversiveness modern San Francisco has become, the company apparel, the endless ways in which an obsession with optimization manifests itself. Uncanny Valley doesn’t espouse any profound truths about Silicon Valley we didn’t already know, but it does capture the culture of a very specific moment, memorializing for future generations portentous incidents of negligence, and illuminates the circumstances that make it the norm.

The dots are all a matter of public record. The political targeting and resulting echo chambers on Facebook are a matter of public scandal. But Wiener’s memoir connects the dots on very human terms, helping us understand why such an excess of power was concentrated in such a vulnerable place so quickly. Why the CEOs of startups cast a spell over their employees. Why the magic is so tempting to a generation of precarious finances and cloistered, ruthless industries (re: publishing) that took the recession as a call to shut their gates to all but a privileged few.

Wiener describes with pungent self-awareness and careful understanding the way her CEO at an analytics startup captured her sympathy despite his tendency to make employees cry and to view his very human workforce as a machine in need of a few tweaks for efficiency’s sake. She saw a “yearning,” she writes later, in one of many devastating final hits in the last fifty pages of the book, where all the shrugged-of problems come back to bite. Uncanny Valley is as much about chasing money, security, and potential as it is about looking into the seat of power and seeing a vulnerable, relatable human being with simple wants––not the money and power they eventually amassed while no one was paying attention. That particular trap is second-nature to many of us; Wiener recounts it with unswerving clarity when she remembers her younger self “looking for stories” where she should’ve seen a system. In all the time she spent contemplating the motivations of the CEO (“or at least, my idea of him”), an algorithm with none of those considerations and a ruling class with its eye fixed on the ivory tower were taking shape. She describes her transfixed state with hindsight taking the lead, but her misplaced sensitivity is so compelling that you just can’t help but buy in, even for a moment, even when you’re reading this from the future, where you know what the cost will be.

Uncanny Valley really reckons with the more personal side of our tech fixation, amidst its time of startling changes, giving voice to the promise and hope we saw in the hustlers who were changing the world––and, more vitally, recalls the pain and humiliation of meeting with these idols and being looked straight through.

It’s the same Achilles’ heel that comes to a fatal blow when politics get involved, when tech billionaires come under fire and their followers in hustle culture rush to their defense, when the anxious scroll captivates us by telling us what is wrong with the world and urging us to tweet to fix it. The human brain is hardwired to see faces that aren’t there, but this memoir of disillusionment deals in the invented conscience: goals to better the world giant companies don’t have and sentimental characters that never sat in CEO’s offices, but that we all saw there anyway.

The slow descent at the end of Wiener’s memoir is one of the most sobering I’ve ever read. Its vision of the 2016 election, specifically, though more are beginning to trickle into the literary Spiritus Mundi, rings bleak and prescient, and fades the book into a heavy, lingering end. The author and a few San Francisco friends canvas in northern Nevada on election day. They bring their corporatized feminism from the attention economy in uterus apparel and “nasty woman” bling, completely in the dark about reality outside their gated citadel. As recent memory spoils, it falls on deaf ears. The machine doesn’t stop.

“Vengeance Road” and a Rocky Adventure Through the American West

Erin Bowman’s YA western Vengeance Road presents a secret gold mine, a dangerous gang of outlaws, and the dubious ethics of mining on stolen land.

Erin Bowman’s YA western Vengeance Road is about a secret gold mine, a dangerous gang of outlaws, and the dubious ethics of mining on stolen land. I made this collage; credits for the photos used here.

Kate Thompson, the brash, no-nonsense heroine of Vengeance Road is out for, well––vengeance.

Erin Bowman, whose first YA western tramps a rough and treacherous path through the not-yet-state of Arizona, must first be commended for how realistically exhausting she writes the journey to be. Present-day Arizona is known to well exceed pleasantness in degrees Fahrenheit, and Bowman mentions sweat in uncomfortable places and sunburn just often enough for realism’s sake: generously.

Kate braves these unfortunate conditions because a gang of outlaws, the Rose Riders, broke into her father’s homestead and killed him for information pertaining to a gold mine, hidden in the Superstition Mountains, in the southern part of the territory. This lode tip-off is news indeed to Kate, who’s lived in the shadow of this hushed secret all her life. With no other connections, and a mother fourteen years in the grave, Kate sets out to kill her father’s killers, and maybe to group up with an ensemble of lovable misfits on the way.

Bowman’s work on the setting in probably Vengeance Road‘s most notable quality. More than the revenge plot, more than its themes, more than its characters, the chase it depicts is just about as brutal as you’d expect, careful attention paid in full to the environment and its potential to be unyielding, all action stopped in its tracks for dust storms, injuries, unforeseen troubles. It isn’t imaginative in terms of pure originality, many of the tropes in Western being what they are: present. It is imaginative, though, in the sense that it has a wide capacity to imagine hardships, offering the very real perils of a vast trek through uninterrupted land in frank, un-flowery terms, conveying an uncommon experience that is as much lull and exertion as it is dramatic and decisive scenes of action.

True to its heroine, even the action in Vengeance Road is no-frills, the prose style sparse and peppered with dialect. It is committed to this, potentially even to a fault. The style doesn’t hamper the important emotional moments––in fact, it bolsters them and helps them register as genuine, the figurative and heavy-with-feeling sentiments rendered rare, and thus all the more powerful. Its pitfall is firmly in the action’s territory, the main attraction for westerns and a dire place for the novel to be lacking. This makes it so that when there is a plot-intensive reprieve from the walking, resting, and tiresome navigation that marks most of Kate’s story, it doesn’t read like one. The intrigue, conflict, and outlaws, barring their role in setting the plot in motion, aren’t really what the book is concerned with. Its heaviest focus is character. Its strongest scenes take place at a campfire, any and all gunfights and ambushes banished from the page. Sometimes, though, Vengeance Road still acts like the spotlight is on the mines, and the gold, and the life-threatening confrontations, which leaves the third act––and its strongest assets in character development, relationships, and theme––neglected. Not horribly, not irretrievably, but enough.

This has to do with the novel’s real zenith is and what its zenith was intended to be. First there’s a deeply moving sequence involving a supporting character, Liluye, and her tribe, the Apache. Without giving too much away, Bowman uses this sequence to interrogate, and, further, criticize some of the prejudices in her characters. The issue is further enveloped in an ethical quandary, about aid and to whom it is given, about gold and the moral bankruptcy it causes, about vengeance and whether or not it is worth it. This chapter in particular is reflective, and even spiritual, in a sense––the once firmly apathetic Kate begins to contemplate faith in a moment of desperation. The strongest writing in Vengeance Road is centered here, and is re-awakened in moments of contemplation elsewhere. By contrast, the big final confrontation is almost flimsy, perfectly acceptable at a less centered juncture, but wanting in terms of a climax. Here, where the mystery is revealed, we’re not nearly as invested in the intrigue as the book assumes we are. A late-stage villain reveal with some ties to the protagonist lands without enough buildup and is resolved away. Bowman does do clever things on the lives of subverting the “riding out with a death wish” formula, so the resolution survives, but doesn’t quite flourish.

The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe, Ally Condie’s dystopian with some western undertones, takes a similar route with a revenge setup, using themes that critique where it’s directed, and how it fails to blame who’s really at fault: Vengeance Road, instead of criticizing power structures the way Poe Blythe does, takes a much more personal route. Whenever someone patronizingly tells Kate that revenge is unhealthy, she scoffs, and rather than sic plot and character on her in an effort to reform her ways in a didactic and condescending tone, the novel essentially lets her have what she wants––only reframing it to make her wants ultimately more merciful in the end than sadistic. Even if the suspense pales in comparison to dialogue, this last word manages to make an impact, and to surprise.

Vengeance Road would probably benefit if more of its energy had been shifted into the wells of character––especially if the tension and introspection Liluye brings into the ensemble had been written into the earlier parts of the story, and some of the ethical issues more consistently present––this whole book is enveloped in a time period of rapid American expansion at the disastrous expense of the people already living here, after all. It makes an effort to tweak the Western in response to the genre’s more grievous sins in the past (re: sensationalized and prejudiced depictions of Native culture, glorification of violence, &c), but the formula proves particularly difficult to shake off, even in perfectly benign conventions like plot structure. Still, it’s an admirable effort, peopled by interesting and conflicted characters. But the revived Western won’t be returning to the canon anytime soon.

Jack London’s Collective Catastrophe Roils in “The Scarlet Plague”

London’s plague, killing its victims within hours, rips the world apart in a matter of months, but the damage, in a darkly familiar way, is a slow burn. It’s much more sorrowful than alarmist, more defeated than defiant. London’s work is more prescient in feeling than anything else. Reading The Scarlet Plague is like reading the headlines, only in a world where misfortune brought us a more effective killer.

Reading the Plague is a new monthly series, where I read and review literature and nonfiction about plagues, pandemics, and pathogens. Next month, I’ll be going for a bit of nonfiction with David Quammen’s Spillover. Feel free to tell me what you think, or suggest new books, in the comments.

A bacterial plague ravages the world in Jack London’s 1912 novel The Scarlet Plague, set in a future San Francisco. Images of Streptococcus pyogenes, the bacteria the causes, among other things, Scarlet Fever, from the CDC. Pictures from 1910’s San Francisco from Open SF History.

It took just over a century for Jack London’s major predictions, in his 1912 pandemic tale The Scarlet Plague, to expire.

By 2013, no new fever had come to mow down the masses, the United States hadn’t replaced its executive agencies with a board of magnates, and society as we knew it remained intact. On smaller details as it pertains to living in a world with SARS-CoV2, however, the novel is much closer to the mark, assessing the collective despair of a world-changing event with a steady, sober gaze. London’s plague, killing its victims within hours, rips the world apart in a matter of months, but the damage, in a darkly familiar way, is a slow burn. It’s much more sorrowful than alarmist, more defeated than defiant. London’s work is more prescient in feeling than anything else. Reading The Scarlet Plague is like reading the headlines, only in a world where misfortune brought us a more effective killer.

It’s important to note that we don’t absorb humanity’s downfall first-hand––Granser, formerly Professor James Smith, recounts it to other characters decades after the fact, clad in animal skin, looking out over the deserted remnants of the West Coast. By now, the few survivors are even fewer, their descendants clustered into traveling bands of hunter-gatherers that retain only the smallest remembrances of the California that used to be––calling themselves the “Santa Rosans,” the “Chauffeurs,” the “Carmelitos.” The world of Before, of universities, coffee, and the written word, is nothing more than a deep, nostalgic sigh in Granser’s chest.

Owing to this retrospective approach, London’s chronicling of institutions falling apart and survivors resorting to violence and cruelty takes on a mournful tone, the cataclysmic events transpiring like dominoes, inevitable––because, looking from the future, it is. Without careful attention, a work like this can read like it’s devoid of tension, the essential dramatic question, Will he survive? answered simply by way of Granser’s presence in the future. But London ditches the traditional suspense knowingly, substituting for it something akin to hypnotism. Halfway through the novel, James watches someone break the windows of a store and set it aflame following the destruction even as he knows how it ends and that it won’t be stopped. “I did not go to the grocery-man’s assistance,” he divulges. “The time for such acts had already passed. Civilization was crumbling, and it was each for himself.”

This angle is The Scarlet Plague‘s fatalist stock, forming the basis of its blunt and bitter flavor. There is no “fight” for survival in this story, not really: London approaches this narrative from the corner of a writer steeped in stories of survival, and how drawn-out and passive it can sometimes be, lending the novel a sense of being outmatched as a human against larger and more powerful natural forces, precisely how any outbreak is wont to make one feel.

The sensation is paired with a hearty portion of musing about how all man’s efforts were for nought––London writes that “the fleeting systems lapse like foam.” A bit melodramatic for readers looking for a pragmatic, hopeful attitude in times of crisis, but it’s humanity’s party and it can cry if it wants to, and also, what else is there to do?

The Scarlet Plague makes a frequent subject of the bigger, pitiable picture, often acting as more a collective story than one of James Smith alone. It features lots of “we,” whether it be the “we” of the human race, or the “we” of the stragglers James finds himself trying to wait out the plague with, until, of course, they die. This lens, though, comes with consequences, namely those affecting the composition and complexity of character.

Because London’s focus is so wide, and his aim so collective, he writes arguments, as opposed to people. James, for instance, is essentially history’s vehicle, with wants, and later, regrets, that make appearances in the story, but never back him into a corner to reveal the contents of his moral fabric. For the humans in The Scarlet Plague, a universal substance is revealed early on and never refuted: they are creatures who resort to base means to survive when there is nothing left. It is true, even and especially, for James himself.

But trouble arrives in later chapters when London tries to introduce some interpersonal conflict, after society has collapsed, when James encounters some other survivors, and is subject to their cruelty after years wandering rural California alone––one in particular, who takes the name “Chauffeur” as a symbol to assert his pride over the fallen elite he once served. It is there that his complexity stops. An argument and not a person, Chauffeur’s exaggerated and ceaseless brutality is used to contest that violence and selfishness win out in a world with no structure. He’s also a former member of the working class, which London uses to argue that the poor and overworked, long pushed to the margins of society, will take up Rousseau’s promise and eat the rich, if pushed far enough. These points are intriguing, but the apparatus that’s used to make them isn’t. Even more distilled is Chauffeur’s wife-prisoner, the once wealthy, once ruling class Vesta, who is perfectly beautiful, perfectly pitiable, and little more than a walking symbol of grandeur brought low.

It makes sense, though, however ruthlessly it strips the characters, because London makes clear that in this circumstance, the makings of character have no bearing: “Everybody died anyway, the good and the bad, the efficients, and the weaklings, those that loved to live and those that scorned to live. They passed. Everything passed.”

Teen Angst and Economic Woes in “Little Women”

Little Women is a book wholly concerned with not just growing up, but growing up without malice, without want, and without insecurity. If a little simplistic in its moralizing, it never shies away from how continuous and painful that process can be, especially for two characters who are often misunderstood, arguably even under-served by the source material itself: the ambitious yet domestic Meg, and the young, aspirant, and headstrong Amy.

The four sisters in Little Women, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, each have two warring sides: the subdued, docile creatures society expects them to be, and the creative sides they all, one way or another, have to give up. Collage by Pippin Hart. Credits in this post.

In its eventful century and a half, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has proven infinitely adaptable. It’s spanned plays, a musical, graphic novels, and buckets of films and miniseries, an acclaimed 2019 adaptation by “Lady Bird” director Greta Gerwig among the most recent and notable entries. It doesn’t just keep getting read; it keeps getting retold, often with drastic changes at hand. Generations of directors have sensed the tension in store if only certain conflicts lasted longer than chapters’ end, how powerful the books’ ideas might be had they been allowed to speak for themselves, how much louder a few relationships might have been with a little more attention. In short, the phenomenon seems to perpetuate itself like this: there’s just enough necessary tweaking to be done to present a challenge, but too promising a journey for four wholly charismatic main characters––artistic, romantic, familial, societal––to pass up.

At curtain, it’s the middle of the Civil War. Four sisters, while their father is away serving as a chaplain, are prevailed upon to spend Christmas alone with their mother and not much money, and to not feel to bitter about it, thankyouverymuch. Meg, the oldest, is the moral mentor of the bunch, though not without her own quandaries. Jo, the rebel, resents the feminine expectations she’s saddled with, and “hates to think I’ve got to grow up and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a Chinaaster.” Beth, shy and an avid pianist, quietly and humbly takes her lot while the others yearn. Amy, the youngest, is the one who cries out at the injustice. (“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all.”)

These four, the ur-Hogwarts houses of personality quizzes, each represent a different art form, a different moral struggle to overcome, and a different life path, in an era of strikingly few options for young women. Choose your affiliation carefully, for it will drastically affect the choices you make in your adapted screenplay.

But take heed––Little Women is not lengthy without reason: Alcott’s saga of the March sisters is rich with detail. It gives its characters downtime that any tale heavy on plot could hardly imagine spending. No childish trifle is left un-learned from or un-ruminated over. It is a book wholly concerned with not just growing up, but growing up without malice, without want, and without insecurity. If a little simplistic in its moralizing, it never shies away from how continuous and painful that process can be, especially for two characters who are often misunderstood, arguably even under-served by the source material itself: the ambitious yet domestic Meg, and the young, aspirant, and headstrong Amy.

Jo, the second-oldest, has a vibrant and exciting character arc as a writer, which, coupled with her early rejection of her time’s gender roles, tends to make her the star of the show. Alcott’s depiction of creative life is thrilling indeed, the trials of a young writer made devastating when seen through Jo’s eyes, straining to keep up with her pen in the late hours of the night. But Amy and Meg’s moral struggles––many tied to being ashamed of their family’s poverty, valuing wealth above character, striving for means at emotional expense––are what really illuminate the book and its ideas after all this time.

Meg, at one point, goes to stay with the Moffats, rich family friends of the Marches in a chapter titled “Meg Goes To Vanity Fair,” a standout in the novel for its keen observations of class disparity, particularly in the way Meg feels compelled to belong in the well-off world. As powerful as Little Women believes wise words to be, it also acknowledges that they don’t quite cut it, the unspoken pangs of shame in the heart of an insecure teenage girl holding even more sway. The chapter also makes good use of Laurie, the neighbor boy who befriends the family (and also happens to have a substantial fortune). The objections he raises to Meg’s uncharacteristic adoption of the Moffats’ “fuss and feathers” don’t ring as faultless judgement in this situation (like much of what male characters say to female characters in Little Women), but as a lens on his oblivion in turn. Meg’s efforts to grow past a desire for affluence are some of the chief achievements of the first part of the book, and they come to a defiant triumph when she falls, in spite of circumstance, for a lowly tutor. Her character fades most regretfully from the spotlight come part 2, where, instead, Amy’s comes to grapple with materialism and resolves, with an answer that isn’t quite as compelling, but suggests the possibility for adaptations (or critics) willing to come to her defense.

Amy’s is a more prickly spirit to root for in the first place––she’s almost the quintessential unlikable female character. When we meet her, she’s 12 and loudly committed to sophistication, peppering as many multi-syllabic words into her “vocabilary” as will make her sound cultured, and disdaining Jo’s sloppy and unfeminine habits, railing against, among other things, whistling and slang. But upon closer inspection, Amy and Jo, as, respectively, artist and writer, have very similar tragedies, devoted to their art forms in a society that would never allow them to do it in full.

Amy’s, however, is entangled with a contested love story, and can get lost in the will-they-won’t-they. (To be fair, it’s a great will-they won’t-they.) The fact that she doesn’t fully step back from wealth the way Meg does, though, can make way for a nuanced look into her situation, especially as it pertains to marriage, in a way that doesn’t instantly and unequivocally condemn her for being mercenary. Ultimately, her arc is plenty satisfying food for thought. But it also leaves just enough to be desired to incite arguments in perpetuity.

Hello! Thanks for reading. I make new posts (usually book reviews) every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. But enough about me––I want to hear from you! What do you think of Little Women? Which adaptation is the best? (Overall, I like the 2019 version; what it does with the timelines is whip-smart and it captures all my favorite parts beautifully, but my favorite take on Beth is in the 2017 PBS mini-series. That version’s Amy is really well-drawn as well, but you just can’t beat Florence Pugh.)