Author brings ‘Beowulf’ to the suburbs in spot-on retelling


Maria Dahvana Headley, a writer of juvenile fiction and fantasy, steps into the adult world with “The Mere Wife,” a spot-on reimagining of a classic of Old English literature.

Think “mere” as sea, as in the Old English, and not just as some dismissive term. Think of the world as the author of “Beowulf” did, where sea caves shelter monsters and great mead halls harbor mighty warriors who melt away when the monsters make their way inland. Headley recasts the geography of a place that’s most contemporary, a suburb of cul-de-sacs and playgrounds, meant to be a community but full of people who live their own isolated lives, while up on the bordering mountain of which the brochures boast, strange things are afoot. Willa has her doubts about the planned community of Herot Hall — “I always thought it might be a mistake to leave the back of the houses unfenced,” she frets — and for good reason, for within a cave on the mountain live Dana, a PTSD–scarred returned soldier, and her son, Gren, who are definitive outsiders. Unsocialized, wild, brown-skinned Gren has learned from Dana that Herot Hall is a place of monsters that “tear people from limb to limb,” but Gren is infatuated with Willa’s son, Dylan, who dares play outside and shows no fear. The fraught friendship of the two throws the carefully constructed worlds of Willa, who keeps weekly menus taped to her refrigerator, and Dana, who is never far away from military-grade weapons, into a spin; Herot Hall may be a “toddler empire,” but it is now a place of amber alerts and armed patrols, all courtesy of a combat-ready cop named Ben Woolf. Things do not end well in Herot Hall or on the mountain either: “There are sirens,” writes Headley with lyrical assuredness, “and then more sirens, like God has come down from heaven and called out for every church to lay tribute.”

There’s not a false note in this retelling, which does the “Beowulf” poet and his spear-Danes proud.

(Headley will speak and sign copies of her book starting at 7 p.m. Aug. 14 at BookPeople. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: bookpeople.com.)

What it takes to make a champion

Ibtihaj Muhammad, Olympic medalist for the U.S. fencing team, presents “Proud,” a memoir emphasizing the role of sports in her life.

Muhammad, a black, Muslim American who grew up in New Jersey, was raised by loving, supportive parents in a stable home. Her parents had many expectations of her and her siblings, one of which was that they would always participate in a sport. Some readers know the general story of how Muhammad finally picked and stayed with fencing — a sport in which she could wear the team uniform without compromising the modest attire required of her faith — but there are surprises in the details. Muhammad’s experiences in schools, in sports, in social situations, and in national and international competitions include moments of joy and exhilaration as well as many periods of isolation and self-doubt. The honesty in her writing makes it easy to connect with her journey, so that even readers who are not interested in the details of fencing will want to keep going to see how she made it all the way. Her dedication is impressive, and the many other people populating the pages of her memoir create a portrait of what it takes to make a champion. Readers who are already fans of Muhammad will love her even more, and all readers will gain much inspiration from this heartfelt memoir of a true American hero.

Like Muhammad herself, this book is a timely gift to us all.



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