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image via Crystal lee Lucas
Hunger by Roxane Gay
I feel strange writing that I was “excited” to read this. It’s a rough read. It’s not just uncomfortable, it is intensely painful. It’s heart breaking and gut wrenching…and entirely relatable on some levels, though Roxane Gay’s experiences are very far from my own and it would be pretty disingenuous to pretend otherwise. I’m a cis white woman. I have not been a victim of terrible sexual violence…or at least not in the same way that Roxane Gay has, and that trauma has not shaped my story in the same way. Hunger is not my story. Except when sometimes it is.
Hunger is a profoundly personal and painfully private memoir, a collection of short autobiographical essays. Gay writes intimately, sensitively, and bravely about facing herself and living in her body and what it is to hunger for something. After a brutal assault, a gang rape committed by the boy she thought she loved and a gang of his friends, at 12 years of age Gay turned to food: “I ate and ate and ate to build my body into a fortress,” she writes, believing that the bigger, stronger, and more undesirable she made herself, the safer she would become. This trauma would define her relationship with food, desire, and denial for decades.
Gay exposes a culture that treats fat people with enormous cruelty and disrespect, and what it means, in such a culture, to be highly visible and yet feel unseen. And woven throughout, an unceasing, ferocious hunger: for hope, healing, acceptance, love. She lays bare her insecurities, her jealousies, her rage, her refusal to hate her “unruly” body, and the everyday challenges and manifold humiliations that make it impossible not to.
Hunger is not my story. But I recognized so many of my own behaviors and practices and coping mechanisms from Gay’s recounting of her experiences. My mother had me on diets from the time I was 7 years old, when a neighbor remarked that I was too chubby to wear the little red bikini that I loved so much. Ever since, for the past 35 years, I’ve been assessing who is the fattest person in the room–is it me? Am I allowed to put junky food in my shopping cart or will someone say something mean to me about it? I exercise after dark because I don’t want the neighbors to see me jiggling past their house. I developed an eating disorder in my 30’s (how lame is that?) after experiencing my own traumatic experiences at the hands of a monstrous abuser.
I wept throughout Hunger. For Gay’s experiences. For my own. For yours. For all of our hungers, and all of the ways that we may never be fed, or full.
My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris
Ten year old Karen Reyes is a weird, precocious kid living in Chicago in the turbulent late 60s. Compassionate and curious, innocent and insightful, monster-obsessed Karen is an unexpected delight and quickly became one of my all-time favorite characters. My Favorite Thing is Monsters is presented as a diary, penned and illustrated on lined, notebook pages by Karen as she navigates her sketchy neighborhood searching for clues relating to the death of her enigmatic upstairs neighbor, Anka–a beautiful, troubled Holocaust survivor. Emotional and expressive, and very, very messy (as the thought processes of weirdo kids are wont to be!) Karen’s journal chronicles her discoveries regarding the tragic Anka, as well as the truths she uncovers regarding both her family and herself. I found both the dense, beautiful cross-hatched illustrations, and the story’s format incredibly unique, though at the end of the book I was left feeling slightly unsatisfied….until I learned that we can expect a Volume Two later this Fall! I cannot wait to read more of this particular little monster’s tale.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
This extraordinary book is one of those gems, a raw and vivid piece of Lapis lazuli, that I’m inclined to say very little about so as to leave it all for you to discover. Told in numbered fragments, this biblio-bijou is many things. It’s a memoir, philosophical and emotional meditation, and a scientific study of Nelson’s lifelong love affair and obsession with the color blue, all of which are interwoven with her efforts to navigate intense heartbreak, ongoing longing and existential isolation, and the life-altering injury of a dear friend. This makes it the book sound like a very heavy read, and indeed it had me in tears throughout, but its format keeps it from ever feeling punishing. Perhaps it’s also part of the enigmatic magic of the color blue. Bluets is the current #bloodmilkbookclub pick and you’ve got until July 7th to enter to win a BloodMilk jewel of your choice by reading the book and then posting an image of your favorite passage from the book on Instagram along with an explanation, long or short, about why it resonated with you. Then be sure to tag your post with #bloodmilkbookclub in order to make your entry visible and to participate in the club.
Furnace by Livia Llewellyn
Lest anyone think I have nothing but ecstatically good things to say about every book I write about here at Haute Macabre, let me tell you that Furnace, a collection of horror short stories written by Livia Llewellyn, grew so challenging for me personally that I almost didn’t finish it. Although I love a good horror novel, short stories are my favorite way to read horror fiction, in part because I think it’s a lot more challenging to craft a really engaging, impactful, and scary story in short form. So it impresses the hell out of me when a writer can successfully do it repeatedly, creating collections such as this. I’m also always on the lookout for horror and weird fiction written by anyone other than white cismen. Furnace is very dark, very creative, and visceral horror with a heavy streak or erotica throughout. I’ve got no qualms about reading erotically charged fiction, but it eventually gave me pause that the sexual elements in this book were all depictions of hetero sex, and after a while there was just too much wang for my taste. In fact, one of the stories in this book – a story that doesn’t feature any actual sex, I might add – includes the most bewildering peen simile I’ve ever encountered. If you read Furnace, do tell me when you get to this moment (I’m not telling you where it is, believe me, you’ll know) and we’ll compare penile literary whiplash. While the copious dongles grew tiresome, they weren’t what caused me to struggle finishing the book. I have conflicting feelings about trigger/content warnings, but had this book come with one, I might not have read it at all. One of the stories, “The Last, Clean, Bright Summer”, is a sort of cosmic horror tale that includes a depiction of large-scale sexual violence that, while never glamorizing it or using it to titillate, left me feeling like I’d just be punched in the chest. As I wrestled with why this story upset me and whether it meant I should give up on the book, I found myself once again referring back to an essay by Roxane Gay, “Not Here to Make Friends”, in which she discusses the value of unlikable female protagonists and how people have come to judge stories based on whether or not they find its characters to be personally likable people. At one point Gay quotes novelist Claire Messud,
“If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?'”
Revisiting this essay led me to examine why I read horror fiction in the first place and to remember that I don’t read it to feel comfortable. I read it to be unsettled, frightened, surprised, and disturbed. Some readers might not be any more disturbed by “The Last, Clean, Bright Summer” than any other story in Furnace, but for me it was one of the most personally challenging things I’ve read in a long time. Ultimately I decided this was actually a good thing and that both this particular story and the book as a whole had enough of the qualities I want in horror fiction to merit the unpleasantness I endured reading some of it. It’s not often that horror makes me consider literature, literary merits, and myself as a reader much as this did. That being said, I would never loan or recommend this book to anyone without first offering a warning about its content. It’s one thing to discover a book on your own, but I feel personally responsible when I’m the reason you’re reading it.
Rachel Rising Vol. 6 Secrets Kept and Rachel Rising Vol. 7 Dust to Dust by Terry Moore
I was heavy-hearted to discover that reading these two volumes meant I’d finished reading the entire Rachel Rising series, which became a favorite before I’d even completed the first TPB. Written and drawn by Terry Moore, it’s the tale of a young woman named Rachel Beck who wakes up in a shallow grave in the woods outside her hometown of Manson, WI. She’s dead; the ligature marks on her neck and petechial hemorrhaging in her eyes indicate she was strangled, but she has no memory of her murder. As Rachel works to solve her own murder she discovers that she and her town are part of a much bigger story involving good and evil of epic proportions dating back first to colonial era witch hunts and then much much farther still. With a cast of strong female and queer characters and streak of dark wit and humor throughout that helps balance its increasingly dark and heavy plot, this wonderful series is a zombie story unlike any other and a comic that absolutely aces the Bechdel-Wallace test. I also loved the art, which was rendered entirely in black and white. If you’ve ever experienced winter in the Midwest, the artwork in Rachel Rising will make you feel that familiar bitter chill in your bones. I look forward to rereading this series again and again.
Consumed, Aaron Mahnke
“It’s always a fucking wendigo.” That’s become catch phrase around my house, but it also a pretty good tagline for ‘Lore’ podcast creator Aaron Mahnke’s novel Consumed. I suppose you could count that as spoilers, but I promise you would’ve figured it out by Page 10 anyhow. In fact, you will have figured out everything that happens in this book by Page 10, because it is every Stephen King novel you’ve ever read just sort of squished around a little, and not in some ironic nod-to-the-genre way. A writer struggling to finish a novel becomes trapped by circumstances beyond his control in a small New England town. Mayhem ensues. You know the rest of the story. Skip this one and go reread Tommyknockers or something.
Acceptance: A Novel (Southern Reach Trilogy III) by Jeff VanderMeer
You’ll remember that last month I read the first two books of the Southern Reach Trilogy and was summarily unimpressed, or rather was not so much unimpressed as unable to cope with the fact that I’d been promised Tanis and was given something else entirely and, if you know me, you know that I’m horrible with the kind of disappointments that happen entirely in my head and aren’t actually anyone’s fault. By the third book, I’d managed to let go of my hangups and enjoy the series for what it was: pretty damn brilliant. The second book is still my least favorite and its protagonist kind of a bore, but literally everything else, from prose to concepts, is delightful. Maika and Sarah, I see what you mean and I’m sorry I didn’t believe you. Recommend.
The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
I had this book described to me as a quasi-fantasy about librarians whose scary dad may or may not be God, so of course I immediately bought it. It’s a lot of fun: fantasy set in the real world with characters who can speak to animals or come back from the dead, but not both. Each resident of The Library is only allowed to study from a specific catalogue, lest they become too powerful. Then, Scary Dad goes missing and they’re locked out of the library and forced to live in the home of an American woman with a ‘heart coal,’ or a love for a lost son that sustains her through the making of casseroles. Also, the ending is fucking tragic. Recommend.
The King in the Golden Mask by Marcel Schwob
I got two stories into this book I’ve been seeing on everyone’s instagram before my cat took a shit on the floor and used the book to cover it, so I’m going to need another copy.