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Mindful Reader: Despairing lives, an epic journey and #YesAllWomen



Last modified: Sunday, November 09, 2014
Concord native Michael Fournier’s new novel Swing State is set in the fictional mill town of Armbrister, N.H. Swing State is about three tragic characters: Roy Eggleton, an injured Afghanistan War vet with no family and nearly no friends; Dixon Dove, a thief, vandal and high school bully; and Zach Tietz, one of her regular targets. All three are victims of abuse and neglect. Fornier takes readers inside their heads to experience their misery firsthand as they struggle to get out of their unfortunate situations and away from Armbrister.

These three characters are vivid, as is the complete impotence of their community. The few people who are meant to help Roy, Dixon and Zach – with veterans’ benefits, guidance at school, etc. – are completely ineffective. Readers don’t even see these helping professionals long enough to know if they are hapless or part of a faulty system. Even at the end of the book, when the grim tension is broken by an over-the-top event that melds Roy’s, Dixon’s and Zach’s suffering, I felt there was little resolution and no hope. In describing Zach’s despair over one of Dixon’s attacks on him, Fournier writes, “He knew he was unable to act. No matter the brand of humiliation inflicted on him, he could not stand up for himself. He could not fight back. He was only able to be acted upon. Not to act. Always a defenseman, never a striker.”

If that is Fournier’s point – and it may very well be, the kind of suffering he’s portraying here is practically impossible to escape – he makes it very well. But to paraphrase Neil Gaiman, fiction can provide people the tools to break out of their prisons. Swing State succeeds in taking readers into the prison of despairing lives, but it doesn’t show the way out or even hint that there may be one.

Kicking off a series

Canterbury author James Marino’s debut fantasy novel, The Keepers of Mercia, is filled with the classical elements of the genre. Binette, a teenager who just wants to get off her parents’ farm and spend more time with her boyfriend, is the heroine, who at the outset of the book has no idea of the powers she will inherit or the journey that will ensue. Enjoyable as it is to find strong female characters in a fantasy novel – one of the Keepers’ guards is a woman as well – Binette seemed a little unformed. But she is quite young, so maybe that is by design. The story unfolds with plenty of intrigue, an epic journey and battles galore. Binette doesn’t appear to be influenced by happily-ever-after once she realizes what’s in store. The book ends with a teaser for the next installment, so there will be more adventure to come for Binette and her friends. Occasional verbal flourishes: “Her future with Jarrod had been washed away by the sudden gust of immutable destiny, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t celebrate their bond,” are distracting, but most of the writing is not so flowery.

Women speaking out

Northern New Hampshire author Leah Carey noticed a burst of hashtag activism on Twitter in the wake of the Isla Vista shooting last spring; the shooter “blamed his misery . . . on the fact that women refused to be intimate with him.” In two days, 1.2 million tweets included #YesAllWomen, as people around the world responded with stories of women’s “harassment, discrimination, assault, sexism, and violence.” A seasoned workshop leader (she worked with Jodi Picoult on Bosom Buddies, a breast cancer survivor theater workshop), Carey decided to invite a number of women who were participating in the Twitter conversation to join her in an online writing workshop to share their experiences. You Are Not Alone: Stories from the Front Lines of Womanhood is the result. It’s a book in 10 voices, plus Twitter posts, covering an array of issues and challenges from sexual and emotional freedom to women’s own role in perpetuating gender bias. The stories are powerful and moving, even if it’s somewhat astonishing that they still need to be told today. In the last chapter, Carey provides readers with a blueprint for starting a similar writing group, with suggestions and writing prompts.