Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture edited by Roxane Gay — Not That Bad offers a harrowing, haunting gathering of essays from a diverse range of contributors; the title, a reference to the widespread minimization of sexual abuse and rape culture in a world that is shamefully warped. “I taught myself to be grateful I survived even if survival did not look like much,” writes Gay in the introduction, with regard to her gang rape at age 12. I’ve read almost everything Roxane Gay has written, and yet this anthology she has edited, which contains only an introduction with her own writing, seems like the penultimate Roxane Gay book. The violence and trauma she sustained as a girl threads its way into everything she writes, and this volume of essays from women and men who have experienced sexual assaults, seems like the moment that her career has been leading up from the beginning: the collecting and sharing of these stories by those who have endured a similar trauma. This was an inexpressibly painful read–each and every story, whether or not you can relate to the author’s specific experience, or if a particular writer’s voice or writing style appeals to you, or not–is a gut-wrenching expression of grief and betrayal and survival. I can’t say this is a “good” book, in the common parlance of what might constitute such a thing. But I do know that it is a necessary book. And even if Roxane Gay compiled hundreds more stories, thousands, there still wouldn’t be enough books to collect the pain and rage that those of us who have survived these experiences feel, every day of our lives. But this book is a good start.
My Year Of Rest And Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh –It sounds trite, but I haven’t quite been the same after reading My Year Of Rest and Relaxation…and not in a good way. The main character, a thin, pretty, privileged white woman, has decided that life is just too much–she doesn’t want to do anything, feel anything, be anything–and she comes to the conclusion that the best way to deal with things is to medicate herself into a year long nap. With the help of a hilariously awful psychiatrist and a crazy amount of prescription drugs, she more or less manages to do just this. Moshfegh’s characters are terrifically gross and awful (but sometimes in ways that you shamefacedly identify with–if you have ever wiped a booger on a wall or worn crusty underwear for a week, you know what I mean.) They don’t treat themselves well and they don’t treat the people around them very well, either. After finishing this book I found myself feeling lethargic and apathetic and thinking of hibernation with a great deal of yearning. That could be the nasty appeal of this book, or end-of-summer ennui, or maybe a little bit of both.
The People In The Castle: Selected Strange Stories by Joan Aiken –I have been meaning to read this Joan Aiken collection since June of 2016, when I had allotted it, among others, for my summer reading stack. Of course in 2016 I was still catching up on my 2014 reading, so it stands to reason that I’m just now getting around to inhaling this marvelous book of tales. It’s got an intro from Kelly Link, whose brilliant, peculiar writings I love all too well, and if that doesn’t sell you right off the bat, I will tell you that when I read the first story in The People In The Castle, I thought, “ah, so then, this is sort of a cross between Roald Dahl and Leonora Carrington!” In further exploration, however, I found that Aiken’s imaginings are not the sometimes frustratingly surreal flights of fancy that Carrington composed, but rather earthier, more practical things. More realistic? No, I would not say that at all, and thank goodness! There are ghost puppies and exotic magics and infernal orchestras galore–but they are experienced by people very much like you and I, living out their lives–people with families, with work situations, people with hopes and dreams and minute, daily dramas. There’s a subtle, but really wonderful humor present in these stories, which prompted the Roald Dahl comparison, but where I think his stories sometimes have awful and unhappy (but kinda funny) things happening to people (and granted, they are sometimes awful and unhappy people) there is a tinge of something sly and dark in his narratives that I don’t find at all in the selections I have read by Aiken. Instead, the tone seems to me one of bright, lively, benevolence, and coupled with that enchanting thread of dream logic which runs throughout these stories, sometimes glinting brightly, sometimes so faint that it’s but a winking phantom gleam–it is likely these are gentle, magical romps that you could read to children. Except, in several of these vignettes, I will admit, I felt that there was something going on that I didn’t quite understand…something, of some importance, that lay just beyond my grasp. That, too, is part of their charm, and who better than a child to perceive this and yet still be totally okay with it? Sometimes not everything makes sense. And most times, that’s where the magic lies.
Dead Girls: Essays On Surviving An American Obsession by Alice Bolin –This book was much more, and much less than I thought it was going to be. Probably because I bought it as soon I saw Carmen Maria Machado (Her Body and Other Parties) tweet about it, and I hadn’t even read the blurbs or description for the book before I Amazon-Primed it. I really thought it was going to be a whole book dissecting and analyzing television shows like True Detective and Twin Peaks ; the dead girl trope and how it is a tableau for predominately men to work out their own issues. And while that was only one chapter in Dead Girls, this book of personal essays tying moments from the author’s own life and experiences into savvy, insightful examinations of books, movies, and songs where women are both troubled and troubling presences was surprisingly more than I bargained for. I could be saying that because in every chapter Bolin references at least four to five books that struck me as “need to reads”; it could be the much-broader-than-expected range of pop cultural criticism it offered; and it very well could be that I am more appreciative than ever when authors write from a place of personal experience, and which Bolin does adeptly, with intelligence, humor, and heart. Also: Ginger Snaps gets a mention, and as we all know, that is the greatest werewolf movie ever made, so I probably would have given this 5 stars for this reason alone.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn –I read this book in the span of three hours. I don’t think I need to tell you about it. If you’re not reading the book or have already read it, you are probably watching the show. (As am I. I am not enjoying it, but I can’t stop.) I find Gillian Flynn’s work awfully compelling and I hate myself for it. I hate myself for hating myself for it. Flynn writes about complicated women—women who have feelings of anger, aggression, and desire. She addresses this in an interview I read recently, how people suggest that she is not a feminist if she writes about women doing bad things. If she writes about unlikable, villainous women. She pushes back at this notion. Why are women writers obligated to have all their female characters be virtuous? Why can’t women be villains, too?
Toil & Trouble by Mairghread Scott and illustrated by Kelly Matthews and Nichole Matthews –After having attended Sleep No More I opined that perhaps I should have made revisiting the story of Macbeth more of a priority before the experience. My friend suggested to me that I should read Toil & Trouble, an exquisitely illustrated re-telling of the tragedy from the witches point of view, instead. We learn of the three weird sisters–Riata, Cait, and Smertae– former mortals who have accepted enormous power and responsibility to protect and defend their Scottish homeland through the ages, and the desperate, diabolical measures they’ll take to ensure this. The notion that the witches are actually the ones working behind the scenes to actively influence the events of the narrative was a perspective that I appreciated the opportunity to have read, and oddly enough, had never given any thought to, until now.
Despite the fact that I have lists of both things I’ve started writing and things I plan to write, I just can’t with the writing right now. Because reasons, including anxiety at an all-time high. But the reading never stops, thank goodness, at least I can share a list of my recent reads with a sentence or three about each of them.
We Are Never Meeting in Real Life.: Essays by Samantha Irby – I’m late to the cathartic writing of Samantha Irby. While I’d rather have her in my life now than never at all, I desperately wish I’d found her years ago. Unflinchingly (more like daring-you-to-flinch) honest, equal parts heart and gut-wrenching, and – somehow even in moments of profound sadness – breathtakingly funny. It was all I could not not to dive right into her first book, Meaty, because, despite appearances, I swear I really am trying to make some progress in my stacks. In the meantime, however, I’m binging on Irby’s blog, bitches gotta eat and eyeing Meaty as it sits patiently in my Amazon shopping cart. Sigh.
EDIT: I am such a fibber. Since submitting my Stacked contributions to our fearless editor, I have, in fact, gone ahead and ordered a copy of Meaty. I regret nothing. Well, nothing to do with marvelous Samantha Irby, anyway.
Gossamer Days: Spiders, Humans and Their Threads by Eleanor Morgan – Do you love spooders as much as I love spooders? Probably not, but possibly yes! If you’re at all interested in our arachnid friends, the silk they spin, the webs they weave, and what humans have done or simply attempted to do with that singular silken substance over the centuries, I highly recommend this fascinating book.
The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett – I’ve been meaning to read Dashiell Hammett for ages, thinking it would scratch the same combination of literary and thematic itches that the works of Raymond Chandler do so well. Unfortunately this didn’t do the trick, perhaps in part because it turned out to be more murder mystery than hard-boiled crime novel. Dated though they might be, I found the racism and sexism throughout completely distracting and the writing paled in comparison to Chandler’s. Though I was amazed and amused by the constant drinking that Nick and Nora Charles manage to accomplish throughout the story. At one point Nick declines his wife’s offer of breakfast, complaining that it’s too early, and requests a drink instead. It’s no wonder one of my favorite bar tenders in Portland named his dog Asta after the Charles’ pup. I’ve not given up on Hammett just yet. I’m going to read The Maltese Falcon and see if Sam Spade, Hammett’s solitary private eye, and his moody milieu are anything like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and his hard-boiled environs.
The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell – Easily the creepiest, most unsettling, absolutely riveting haunted-house/ghost story I’ve read since The Haunting of Hill House (which I’m currently rereading). The tale moves back and forth between intertwined Victorian and 17th century doings in the same doomed house, a house where no one is safe. I was impressed by how difficult it was to put this book down and how it never flinched from its mystery and menace, not a single character too precious to emerge unscathed, right up to the nerve-racking end.
The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley – Here’s the thing, call me myco-squeamish, but, by the end of this book, I was so nauseated by the seemingly endless and intensely vivid descriptions of men fucking spongy yellow faceless-fungus-woman-flesh, which is later accompanied by equally graphic and distressing descriptions of a whole new form of birth, that I just wanted it all to be over. Except, I also felt like this story – which had its fascinating moments – ended completely unfinished. So… I sort of regret reading it altogether? I guess? Finishing a book feeling both thoroughly grossed out and unfulfilled is not what I consider a satisfying reading experience.
Descender Vol. 1: Tin Stars and Descender Vol. 2: Machine Moon by Jeff Lemire (Writer) and Dustin Nguyen (Artist) – I’m always reading comics, but more often in single issues form than trade collections so they seldom get a mention here on Stacked. I’m now two books into Descender, a beautifully rendered sci-fi epic about the struggle of a young humanoid robot (and his delightfully boxy, barky robot doggo) to survive in a universe where androids have been outlawed in reaction of a mysterious catastrophic multi-planet event.
Not pictured above because they were read as audio books:
Calypso by David Sedaris : Worth it for any fan of Sedaris’ essays. If anything, I find his essays just grow richer, more poignant, and even funnier as he (and his family) ages. And if you’re not already a fan, this book is still worth it simply for Sedaris’ essay about his wild fox friend. Oh, Carol…
How Not to Be a Boy by Robert Webb – A perfect nexus of my fondness for memoirs in audio book form, British comedy/comedians, and queer coming-of-age stories. Not to mention some wonderfully thoughtful and honest observations about grief.
Featured image: “Birth of a bookworm” by Elizabeth Sagan