shelfie via @samanthamacabre
Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
I’m interested by Roxane Gay’s choice of words with regard to the titular “difficult” women. These are stories of complex, complicated women, for sure. Traumatized women in most, cases, if not all. Violence, abuse, betrayal; agony, anger, helplessness, hopelessness–these themes weave throughout the stories, a rope thick at your throat, strangling. You literally cannot breathe when inhabiting the skins of Gay’s characters, you find yourself laying the book down frequently, harshly panting in rage and fury, your eyes wet with heartbreak. Perhaps to call them “difficult” then, gives breath and power back to the victim. To utter the phrase, “I’m difficult,” is, to me, an act of defiance. There is a streak of defiance, or a scintilla of unpredictability, or a spark (or even a raging fire) of wildness in each of these characters, and it’s both emboldening and utterly, terribly gut-wrenching. In “Break All the Way Down,” a mother grieving the accidental death of her son begs her husband to hit her; when he won’t, she finds a man at a bar who will. “You’re stronger than I thought,” her husband says at one point. “You have no idea,” she replies. Even as a massive fan of Roxane Gay, I had no idea what I was getting into with this collection; readings like these often trigger your own personal past traumas (which are generally not far on any given day, just simmering below the surface, on the verge of a boil, not far from a burn, awaiting a change in pressure, in temperature, the wrong hand jiggling the handle at just the right angle or degree for a spill, and upset, an explosion or total obliteration.) Difficult Woman reminded me how close to that explosion I am every day of my life, and to hold compassion for myself, as someone who reigns in my difficult feelings; to display even greater kindness and understanding for those whose difficulty has evolved into a shell, a shield, an armor for which to save themselves from a brutal, killing world.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
A rich, beautiful saga spanning four generations of a Korean immigrant family struggling to belong and striving to build a life for themselves in Japan. I have a soft spot in my heart with regard to reading about folks eking out a meager, hardscrabble existence; stretching meals, collecting crusts and crumbs for survival, eating roots and berries (see also The Road by Cormack McCarthy which I just read, but am still at a loss to talk about.) It recalls for me reading books like The Boxcar Children when I was younger, or maybe Island Of The Blue Dolphins. Young people in precarious living situations who had to learn how to fend for, and feed themselves. I guess it’s pretty awful that penniless, starving characters populate the plots of my comfort reading, but I suppose it’s the resource gathering that I enjoy (which is kind of funny, because I hate resource gathering board games. Don’t even get me started on Settlers of Catan, ugh.) Pachinko is brimming with sacrifices and suffering and tragedy, but it’s also beautiful, all of the small victories along the way of this life the family is building for itself. This book was recommended by Roxane Gay, who if you don’t know by now, I love with my whole heart and soul. And now I am recommending it to you.
We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nahesi Coates
For years and years I have read for entertainment as opposed to education or enlightenment, but since 2016 I’ve made diligent attempts to rectify that. In doing so, I’ve realized the well of my ignorance is so deep I can’t even see the bottom. I don’t even know what I don’t know, and that’s a daunting place to start. We Were Eight Years in Power is a dense, urgent book that’s left me with more questions than answers, but at the same time it’s illuminated a great deal of things for me. A collection of essays on race and our collective failure to confront the history and legacy of White Supremacy, Barack Obama’s presidency (the before, during, and after) and the author’s personal reflections and revelations regarding the election of our 45th president–there is nothing in this book that is not deeply thought-provoking and desperately troubling.
The Strange Case Of The Alchemist’s Daughter by Theresa Goss
This is a charming character mash-up novel that pays homage to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century works of speculative fiction; the story is a collaborative effort between “sisters”–Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein, the daughters of monstrous men who have been brought together by extraordinary circumstances and are investigating a murderous cabal of power-crazed mad scientists. I found the story’s structure a bit peculiar and a little annoying at first–one of the women is penning their adventure and the others are continuously chiming in and interrupting and talking over one another to ensure that both they–and their tale of danger and intrigue–are portrayed accurately, but as a woman with outspoken sisters of my own, I realize that this, too, is an uncanny accuracy. If you enjoy books along the line of Kim Newman’s Angels Of Music (which I reviewed in last January’s Stacked) wherein fictional and historical characters are thrown together in a name-dropping brew of supernatural mystery, then The Strange Case Of The Alchemist’s Daughter is definitely up your dark, grimy, gaslamp-lit murder alley-and if it is, there’s already a sequel slated for release in July, 2018! Bonus info: if you love the wonderful cover art and want to see more from this artist, it is illustrator and designer Kate Forrester, and you can find her here.
Burial Rites by Hanna Kent
Sonya wrote about Burial Rites in their 2017 staff favorites roundup, so this little review might be redundant, but that’s okay. I’m happy to simply emphasize how wonderful this book is. Not only is Burial Rites impressive as Kent’s first book and as a “speculative biography,” this tale of the final year in the 19th century life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman excuted in Iceland, is one of the most thoroughly haunting and atmospheric books I’ve ever read. As the readers, we go into this story completely aware of how it’s going to end, there’s no changing history with this sort of book. But by the time that ending arrives, the vivid journey we’ve undertaken with Agnes and the feeling of Iceland that now permeates our bones and feels tangible behind our eyes even if we’ve never set foot there, means we’re as unprepared, distraught, and full of disbelief as Agnes herself. It’s gut-wrenching. It’s heartbreaking. It’s also completely worth it. And now I want to travel to Iceland even more than I already did.
The Strange Bird: A Borne Story by Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Borne was one of my favorite books from 2017 and The Strange Bird is a novella set in the very same world. So allow me to begin by reminding you about my impressions of Borne:
“Some books read too quickly. Or is it that some books end too soon? One hopes that an author gives us only as much story as they need to tell their tale, simply because extra might detract from the quality of the plot. But with my favorite books I wish I could pause the tale to spend more time with the characters and explore their world like the sandbox of a video game. Such was the case with Jeff VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy. That spellbinding series was very much about an uncanny place and how the people who encountered it were affected by it. And now the same is true for me once again with VanderMeer’s latest novel, Borne, which is instead about people, animals, personhood, and how one’s identity is affected by trauma. It’s about survival in a post-apocalyptic world forever altered by advancements in biotechnology. Here all survivors have become scavengers among the ruins of a city now ruled by a tyrant in the form of a gigantic flying bear named Mord (which sounds incredibly silly but is actually anything but). Here technology masquerades as life and the line between technology and life increasingly blurs. Borne is a post-apocalyptic, weird, science fiction fable. It’s relentlessly creative, fascinating, and poignant. I kept trying to slow down while I read it, but the end arrived all the same. And just like it did for me, Borne will break your heart, as only the best books can: beautifully.”
The Strange Bird is no less heartbreaking and every bit as beautiful as Borne, but in its own unique way. This tale doesn’t simply drop us back into Borne’s world, it enable us to experience it anew through the eyes of a startlingly strange and beautiful character. If you’ve been reading my book reviews long enough, you might be wondering what my deal is with heartbreaking books. What can I say, there’s something wonderful about completely surrendering yourself to a well-written story and vicariously experiencing emotional highs and lows that have nothing to do with yourself, yet, because of the magic of reading, feel as though they’re part of your life too.
Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer
I’ve had an unusual amount of trouble lately finding a book that holds my attention. I’ve started at least 4 novels as well as collections of short stories and poetry in recent weeks and can’t seem to stick with any of them. Nothing feels like what I want to be reading. So, after watching the Annihilation movie and reading The Strange Bird I decided to delve into some of VanderMeer’s older work, which I’ve been meaning to catch up on for ages. Veniss Underground hearkens back to Orpheus & Eurydice and Danté’s Inferno as VanderMeer takes us on a harrowing journey through the eyes of three distinct yet powerfully connected characters in a vividly realized weird fiction world. Here “Living Artists,” with one in particular one venerated as a neo-god, treat human and animal bodies alike as their chosen medium for remaking existing beings or creating entirely new ones. This wasn’t my favorite VanderMeer novel, but it was thoroughly engaging from the start and is easily one of the strangest and most grotesque stories I’ve read in a long long time. It’s also very interesting to see how VanderMeer has grown as a writer, developing and refining his style since he published this debut novel in 2003.
I’m playing a little bit of catchup with my contributions here, as I realize it’s been months since I’ve participated.
The Grip of It by Jac Jemc
This was the first book I’ve read in one sitting in ages. Fast paced, immensely readable, and a perfect Sunday night bathtub companion. The basic synopsis is that a couple, trying to save their marriage, moved from the Big City to a Small Town into a House-of-Leaves-esque house (yes, the author’s influences are obvious throughout the story, but who cares?), and a haunting – for lack of better word – ensues. I’ve been having a difficult time the last few months finding fiction that holds my attention, but this kept me rapt for 2-3 hours.
Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics by Selah Saterstrom
This was the perfect balance to sitting in a jury pool waiting room: it removed me completely from the windowless, basement room I was awake much to early for, and for that I am exceptionally grateful. My attention at the time was too fragmented to have been able to absorb anything more than its poignant stand-alone sentences and paragraphs, each constructed perfectly.
The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville
In retrospect, I adored this novella. In practice while reading, I kept getting distracted and would forget about it for weeks at a time. I’m not entirely sure where the disconnect occurred, as this book read like a dream you don’t want to wake from: A surrealist historical fiction, where exquisite corpse composures come to life, the Nazis are working with the legions of Hell, set against a Parisian cityscape in the ruins of an occult war. It’s composed of everything I love in a story, and one day I’ll revisit it with the attention it deserves.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
I feel slightly left out for not falling in love with this collection of stories. Did I hate it? No, not at all, but I also didn’t feel compelled to finish it. One story that struck me was a tale of unfolding apocalypse told via the narrator’s sexual encounters & partners, and the 60 page ode to Law and Order SVU was a fun, supernatural fan-fic, but truthfully, I feel the collection had a better overall response than it was worth.
Sam’s Honorable (and other) Mentions :
• Karyn Crisis’s Italy’s Witches and Medicine Women : I’ve been slowly meandering through this the last few months, as it is incredibly interesting but also incredibly heavy material, something I’d rather slowly digest than swallow whole.
• The Chick and the Dead by Carla Valentine : Three chapters in, I completely abandoned this, finally acknowledging to myself that just because I start a book, doesn’t mean I’m obligated to finish it if I’m not enjoying it.
• Gilles & Jeanne by Michel Tournier : A fast (fictional) read primarily focusing on how the devotion of Joan of Arc impacted Gilles de Rais. I honestly don’t remember the book very well, even though I only read it a few weeks ago.
• Everyday Psychokillers : Sonya recommended this over the summer, and they are spot on with their description.
• Ravenous Zine Vol 1: Craft : I truthfully didn’t read this cover to cover, skipping some of the more Home-Ec articles, but especially enjoyed the interview with Kier-La Janisse, author of “House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films” (and promptly added that to my to-read list). The zine is basically a smarter Bust magazine, minus the celebs and Brooklyn.
• Many Moons Workbook : This lives on my nightstand for reference a few times a month. Read the in-depth interview with author Sarah Faith Gottesdienner that Sarah Elizabeth posted and you’ll see why.
• Cutting the Cord by Marcella Kroll : a zine describing “how to radically reset your whole psyche, using baseline magic”. Glad to pull this off the shelf right now, I need to add it to my bedside table for a revisit. I was introduced to Marcella Kroll via this publication, and love the message she puts forth into the world.
• RitualCravt School’s The Serpent & The Crow zine issue 1: Cave : a zine dedicated to the dark spaces within us all. Absolutely looking forward to issue 2.
• Delta of Venus by Anais Nin : I remember this being much more subversive when I read it at 16.
What have you been reading lately?