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The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter by Margareta Magnusson. Because I am a contrarian (and also because I had zero interest in organizing or de-cluttering) I have been ignoring Marie Kondo and her KonMari madness for years. I like my stuff, thank you very much, and I really have no wish to get rid of it. (“Likes her stuff, and does not like change”– I will give you one guess as to my sun sign!) I recall, though, when this book was released a few years back, I was vaguely intrigued …by the name, at the very least. If I had to choose between the two, which is a tad unfair because I haven’t read the KonMari one, I would point you instead to this 80-something year old woman’s infinitely practical and wonderfully charming thoughts on a sensible way to deal with your possessions as you approach your later years. Less about “sparking joy” than it is, “do I really want my family to have to take care of this shit while they are grieving after my passing?” I related to and internalized her ideas immediately. After having dealt with the deaths of my mother and my grandparents, I have more experience than I would like with cleaning up the messy remnants of someone’s life, while at the same time, having to reconcile myself to the fact that they are no longer around to ask, “hey, what do you want me to do with this stuff?” Knowing what I know know, having gone through that process myself–I would never do that to someone. It’s too much to ask, don’t you think? Read this book. Get your shit together. And then get rid of it.
Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach. I am super late to the writings and ruminations of Mary Roach and I am cursing myself for wasting so much time. She writes in that murky intersection of the disgusting, the taboo, and the intensely fascinating, and sheds her unique light on what she uncovers there. I’m just going to say it: Mary Roach is the kind of writer I aspire to be, or at least I would, if I wished to put any real effort into my writing and I wasn’t so afraid of failure. Her boundless curiosity, sly humor, shrewd understanding of her subject matter, along with the clever, cunning language she employs in conveying the information she has uprooted, has endeared her to me in a way that I am not certain that any other author ever has. If there is a question to be asked, no matter how weird, or gross, or unthinkable–she is going to dive in and get an answer for it. I have a keen admiration for journalists and writers, who, when interviewing a subject, can simultaneously digest the answers provided by the subjects of their queries, and race to make connections with these responses and from them to extrapolate parallel lines of intriguing query–and in doing so, suss out further explanations and implications and answers that you might not have even expected (or wanted!) For example, from Gulp, a book exploring our bodies’ mechanism of eating, digestion, and elimination, how can you not admire this exchange between Roach and Betty Corson? Corson is a Beano staff member who shared with Roach a few details on the kind of people who called the Beano Hotline– for various problems of a gassy and flatulent nature–and which led to the following exchange:
“Why not just avoid legumes? Some people can’t, said Corson. I challenged her to provide a single instance of a human being forced to eat beans. She came back with “refried-bean tasters.” They exist and they have called the hotline. Can you imagine?”
Refried bean tasters! They exist! Of the numerous tidbits of information contained in this book, like so many pieces of corn that pass through your digestive system to wind up…well…you know where…this bean info is actually one of the least disgusting you’ll learn about, but oh, man. Stick around for the rest of the journey. It’s a wild ride.
[EDIT: The feature photo for this month’s Stacked is Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach, and which I read immediately after Gulp…but obviously it was Gulp that left more of an impression on me. They’re both excellent, though!]
I Am Behind You by John Ajvide Lindqvist I am not sure if I should call this horror, or mystery, or what, but I Am Behind You is a surreal, thrilling story that begins on a perplexing and preposterous morning as campers in their caravans awaken to realize, with sinking stomachs and mounting terror, that where they awoke is not quite the same place as where they fell asleep. Packed with uncanny atmosphere, high tension, and characters haunted by more than just their current circumstances, I Am Behind You shows us a place where nightmares are real, events have no explanation, and places no longer exist. What does one do in such a disturbing situation? That’s where the idea gets interesting, while we inhabit each character’s perspective as they struggle with their eerie predicament. If you like a straight-forward, clear-cut ending, you may find this a frustrating read, but apparently this is the first in a trilogy, so perhaps more answers are forthcoming!
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi if you enjoy stories like Pachinko, an epic, sprawling saga about Korean immigrants living in Japan between 1910 and now, then I think it is safe to say you will enjoy Homegoing as well. A breathtaking, emotional, multi-generational tale of a family split between Africa and America, this is a story rich and throbbing with both compassion and misery, and characters who desperately, fiercely live and love in the fleeting glimpses we see of them, in these chapter-long vignettes where time and history, politics, history, and gender interplay. A tale that plays out over many lifetimes and is o doubt is inspired in part, by the question asked by one of the book’s 20th century descendants:
“You must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story, too.”
Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi Victim or villain? Truth or tall-tale? It is never completely one or the other. “Isn’t life a blend of things that are plausible and others that are hard to believe?” muses Mahmoud, a journalist caught up in a story he cannot reconcile in his wildest imaginings, and yet one in which he is living every day. Frankenstein in Baghdad, a modern, satirical adaptation of Mary Shelley’s gothic classic, is a novel of contradictions and gray areas and what it means to be human (or not-quite-human) living in this contradictory world and navigating these gray, uncertain spaces. One of the book blurbs mentions “the terrible logic of violence and vengeance” and this perfectly encapsulates the unrelenting everyday horrors of a rubble-strewn city in the midst of war, as well as the monstrous creation borne of that violence, now stalking its midnight streets and a exacting brutal revenge.
Washington Black by ; both Washington Black and Homegoing, above, were recommended by our dear friend Jo–who if you don’t know by now, always has the best suggestions and recommendations and advice for all things. Young George Washington Black, “Wash,” a slave on a Barbados sugar plantation, is taken somewhat under the wing of a new master’s eccentric brother, Christopher. A tragedy occurs, one for which Wash will surely be blamed, and both he and Christopher (or, “Titch”, as his family calls him), escape via Titch’s experimental hot-air balloon contraption. Thus begins a series of world-spanning journeys for a pair whose paths and fates would seem linked at this point, but for Wash, the endeavors are tinged with confusion, desolation, and despair, as he comes to realize that Titch, the only person he has left in this world, would appear to be trying to escape from him. Wash, sometimes doomed and despondent, sometimes emboldened and blazing with spirit, continues to endure, to strive, to propel himself forward–whether as part of forging a future life for himself, or to find Titch again, and demand the answers that plague him, from the past that shaped and formed him–maybe both. I couldn’t put this book down. It was agonizingly beautiful and soul-crushing and exhilarating. It was exhausting. I can’t recommend it enough.
Giant Days Volume 9 If you’re not already reading about the university adventures of chums Esther, Susan, and Daisy, then I envy you immensely the experience of discovering these delightful characters and their adventures as they navigate friendship and love and responsibility, while trying to pass their college courses, find housing and jobs, and figure how who they are and what they want their lives to be.
It’s difficult for me to talk about Giant Days without getting all choked up and emotional–these characters are the labor of love of John Allison, the artist who created Scary Go Round, the first web comic I was to ever discover, back in 2003 or so, and whose works as they grew and changed and evolved, are actually only web comics I still read. Described as “postmodern Brit horror”, Scary Go Round follows the hapless denizens of Tackleford, a fictional British town beset by all manner of supernatural activity including, but not limited to: zombies, space owls, the devil, and portals to other dimensions. Though Scary Go Round ended in 2009 [note: it periodically picks back up again!] a few of Allison’s beloved characters moved on to Bad Machinery, which picks up in Tackleford 3 years later. The focus is on an entirely new cast of sleuthing schoolchildren attending Griswald’s Grammar School, whose well-intentioned energies may cause more problems than the mysteries they solve – but they throw themselves into it all with much vigor and aplomb.
It is from these stories that Esther, Susan, and Daisy emerge, and I am only telling you all of this because you have so much to look forward to reading, between the ongoing Giant Days series, and the previous two web comics! Marked by clever, peculiar dialogue, absurdist humor, dotty characters (and delightful fashions), Giant Days is so much fun, and I want you to come back to me right here and tell me how much you love it, after you get started.
So, that’s what I’ve been reading over the course of this past month–what about you? And hey, are you involved in any sort of reading goal/challenge this year? If you peek at my Goodreads 2019 challenge, you might get the impression that I have completed my challenge and I am 420% done, having read 21 books out of 5. And while I did set for myself a goal of five books, what Goodreads does not account for is that I have designated five very specific books as my end goal for 2019. I set out to read five particular titles that have given me trouble in the past decade or so, books that for whatever reason, I never finished. And basically, so far, I have read just about every other book but those five–and technically, zero percent of my challenge is done. Wish me luck!