Jagannath by Karen Tidbeck

Book – A call center routes calls to the afterlife. A bereaved daughter writes to her recently deceased father about her missing mother. A girl puts on her great-grandmother’s wedding dress and disappears into the mountain. A society of symbiotes living and working inside their mother begins to crumble. Told in beautiful, spare prose, Jagannath is a remarkable collection of short stories from Swedish writer Karen Tidbeck.

Tidbeck translates her own work, and there’s a lovely essay in the back of the book about how the process of composition and translation differs between languages. But if you didn’t know these were translations, you’d never guess. The pictures these stories draw are so vivid, so crisp and clear, you feel you could walk right into them – even the strangest of stories, like those about the ever-increasing aunts who grow their successors inside their own hearts. If you’re only familiar with Nordic literature from the dark thrillers that have become so popular in recent years, give this collection a try.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Book – With the new Hulu show buzzing all over the internet (yes, it’s exactly as good, exactly as well-acted, exactly as gorgeous and exactly as wrenching as you’ve heard) and the book back on top of the bestseller lists, I thought it was high time for a re-read of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in the Republic of Gilead, the onetime United States, in a not-so-distant future.  In response to a precipitous drop in the birth rate and following a major terrorist attack, America’s freedoms have been subtly stripped away–first the suspension of the Constitution, then the freezing of women’s bank accounts and the passing of a law against women taking work outside the home, then the declaration that second marriages and homosexuality are illegal and an oppressive and extreme form of Protestantism is the only legal religion.  By the time our heroine attempts to flee for Canada with her husband and daughter, it’s too late to get away.  The family is seized and split up.

Because the character we know as Offred (her real name is taken from her) has proven her fertility by producing a healthy child, she is a valuable natural resource.  Instead of being labeled an ‘Unwoman’ and facing certain death on a crew cleaning toxic waste, she is trained as a ‘Handmaid’–part concubine, part surrogate mother, the property of one of Gilead’s powerful Commanders and designated to bear children which will then belong to him and his wife.  Powerless to prevent her own monthly ritualized rape and subject to hatred, jealousy and violence –mostly from other women whose domination over her is the one small power they themselves have left in a world where women cannot lead, read or work outside the house–Offred finds tiny methods of rebellion, tiny ways to keep her sanity and sense of self.  Over time, she builds the tools and connections to foster a more definite resistance.

As that description suggests, The Handmaid’s Tale is anything but a simple read.  It’s dark, painful and, above all, terrifying.  But it’s also starkly beautiful, a masterpiece of linguistic efficiency with not a syllable wasted, and unforgettably powerful.  Everyone should read it at least once in their lives.