Last August, in the middle of the summer news doldrums, I wrote a quick story on an obscure U.S. Department of Agriculture dataset called the "natural amenities index," which ranked America's counties on a number of physical characteristics -- mild weather, ample sunshine, varied landscape -- that usually make a place desirable to live in.
The piece had a few hundred words, a map and some charts -- standard data journalism fare. Per usual, I called out the winners and the losers, according to the data. On that latter point, some far-flung place I'd never heard of called "Red Lake County" (pop. 4,057) in Minnesota scored dead last. I did a quick Google search, added a dash of snark about its claim to fame -- "the only landlocked county in the United States that is surrounded by just two neighboring counties" -- and called it a day.
That's when the trouble started.
But is it possible to write criticism—or even to write critically—while at the same time refusing the critic’s authority? Can a work be coherent, meaningful, and precise without its author dressing it as a piece of art criticism—or as an interview, a short story, a book of photos, a psychoanalytic case study, an autobiography?
Archangel — the debut science fiction novel by Marguerite Reed — powerfully invokes the wonder of myth: Reed draws on fairy tales, legends, holy works, and prayer to create the speech and personality of her protagonist. It’s often difficult for a sci-fi novel to create a myth that resonates with readers, for an alien world’s truths to echo our own. Even more difficult is the task of weaving our own myths into a world similar to ours in a way that feels fresh. Stunningly, Reed accomplishes both. Women’s roles in the novel, in particular, are archetypal: lover, maiden, fertility goddess, seductress, avenging angel. After reading, it is no surprise that both Gaia and Kali pulse at the heart of this story.
Most writers would give everything they own to have just one masterpiece to their name. British author Helen Oyeyemi is barely 31, and she already has at least three of them. That includes her last two novels, Mr. Fox and Boy, Snow, Bird, both of which received extensive critical acclaim in the U.S. and around the world.
It also includes her latest book, the short story collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. The book contains the same sly humor, gorgeous writing and magical characters as her previous efforts. It is, in a word, flawless.
The question “How much?” is of particular interest to me a year after leaving a well-paid newspaper job with prospects, pension and private medical insurance, for freelance writing. As I sat down to write this review, an email arrived from an editor on a woman’s glossy magazine apologising for the “genuinely pathetic amount of money” they were able to pay.