The featured image for this post is a current shelfie from my reading parlor because a sizable percentage of the books I wrote about this year were library books, and as I wish to remain a library card-holder in good standing, they were all returned long ago and could not pose for a collective glamor shot today.
RE: my 2019 stacked favorites. In the following list, there are monsters and haunted houses, trauma and mental illness– and sometimes a combination of some or all of these things. Some of the stories were not what I thought they might be and some were much, much more than I bargained for. All held me spellbound until the very last page.
Honorable mentions include: Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough for sheer, dumb, suspenseful fun, and Coming To My Senses by Alyssa Harad because how could I leave out the loveliest memoir about fragrance that I’ve ever read? Lastly, Pam Grossman’s Waking The Witch, a powerful collection of meditations and celebrations focused on the evocative, influential archetype of the witch–which deserves quite a bit more than an honorable mention, but my thoughts on it, posted separately from our Stacked lists, are fairly lengthy, so I will just link you to the review instead.
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 Esi Edugyan; 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.
I devoured In The House In The Dark Of The Woods by Laird Hunt over the course of an afternoon from a flight back from NYC; this witchy woodland fever dream of a tale, set in colonial New England, is utterly immersive and twisty and strange, and I loved every moment of it. And if you like twisty and strange, When I Arrived At The Castle by Emily Carroll is a deliciously eerie, magnificently illustrated, Gothic horror fairy tale nightmare-poem with the twisty and strange dialed waaay up.
The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang is a book that I started earlier in the spring and finished in May and I’m still not certain how to even begin to tackle the material. I feel funny saying that I “enjoyed” a book that personally chronicles a woman’s exhausting experience with psychosis and a perpetually shifting reality, but in truth, I did tremendously enjoy it. Or, rather, it feels more human to say I enjoyed learning more about what it is to live with schizophrenia, a diagnosis that has always both intrigued and terrified me in equal measure, I suppose, because of the streak of mental illness that runs through my own family. Intimate, candid, and immediately compelling, these vivid, tangled essays provided perspectives into both chronic and mental illness and insights that were surprising, terrifying, but also wonderfully illuminating, sometimes even quite empowering.
I spent two weeks in the psych ward immediately following a suicide attempt when I was 28 years old; my memories of that time are a collection of amorphous moments of cloudy despair alternating with slices of razor-sharp fury and crystalline focus. I was not experiencing a psychotic break; I wasn’t hallucinating, my reality wasn’t (exactly) fracturing–my experience was not even close to that of the author’s, but I wasn’t myself while I was there. I had a very hard time finding my way back. In the course of these writings, the author shared some things that helped her when she felt herself starting to slip, and I feel that had I access to such ideas, they might also have helped me. When she starts to feel the onset of what she describes as a sort of psychic detachment, “episodes that preclude psychosis, or even mild psychosis–the episodes in which I must tread carefully to keep myself where I am,” she implements small, symbolic systems of defense or spiritual safeguards that have a connection to the “sacred arts”. The solace granted by these practices is not through the beliefs accompanying them, but rather the actions they recommend. “To say this prayer–burn this candle–perform this ritual–create this salt or honey jar–is to have something to do when it seems nothing can be done.” If the delusions come to call, she has a ribbon she will tie around her ankle: “If I must live with a slippery mind,” she muses as the last essay concludes, “I want to know how to tether it, too.”
Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones I feel like we offer a bunch of somewhat incestuous recommendations around here. Oftentimes I will find myself writing about a book that Maika or Sonya or Sam has already read and raved about or vice versa, and round and round it goes from month to month. I mean, that’s okay, though, right? If you’ve seen a book mentioned twice, let alone three or four times, by someone with similar tastes and whose opinion you halfway trust, you’ve got to reckon it’s pretty decent, you know? Anyway, I know Maika wrote about Mongrels just last month, but it is 100% worth mentioning again. I first read Stephen Graham Jones (Mapping The Interior) in September of 2017–again, during a hurricane! It’s become a bit of a tradition, I guess. I was under the impression at the time that he was a new author and that was his debut novel, but I couldn’t have been more wrong; he’s a very prolific writer and has been at it for quite a while now. Mongrels is a surreal werewolf coming-of-age tale; it’s violent and beautiful and brimming with odd moments of absurdity and heartbreaking tenderness and tragedy. It is one of my top ten…no, make that one of my top five favorite books of all time. Don’t wait for a third mention of Mongrels in a future installment of Stacked–just grab it and devour it now.
In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. In seeing initial reviews about the brilliant structuring of this vulnerable, spellbinding memoir of abuse, I grew wary, worrying that it might in some way be above my intellectual paygrade. And though it is framed through the analysis of popular horror tropes and footnoted with scholarly snippets regarding folk & fairytale motifs, I needn’t have worried–trauma transcends literary conventions.
I read In The Dream House compulsively; that is to say I dreaded every single word of it, but I inhaled them heedlessly and headlong, not unlike watching a scary movie through the shadowed, in-between slants of our joined fingers as we hold our trembling hands before our eyes. In the story of someone else’s hindsight we re-experience our own humiliations and hurts, our own abuse and trauma, and that too I dreaded. But I craved it, as well. Sometimes I doubt what happened to me, and I seek out these types of memoirs. I want to see my trauma appear large as life in someone else’s story. In a painful grip, or a hateful word, a whispered threat. An unwanted touch, a violation of self that transcends the physical act to such an extent that you almost feel you need to scrub your very soul of it.
I don’t want these things to have happened to someone else. Never ever, not in a million years. But when confronted with someone else’s story, I encounter mine, and I am glad that I am not alone. I don’t want to look. I can’t look away. In the Dream House is a book you dare not look away from.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa. Is it possible to both fall in love with a book and want to pretend that you never read it? That it had never been written? That the idea never even existed in the author’s mind? That line of thought is somewhat in keeping, I suppose, with the premise of this quiet, surrealist dystopian drama: on an unnamed island, things and objects are disappearing. The characters wake up one day, and, for example, fruit has disappeared. I don’t think the fruit literally disappears, but rather the idea of fruit. When a disappearance happens and the villagers become aware of it, they just take all the fruit and dump it in the river. By the end of the day, fruit has ceased to be, even in their memory. The Memory Police ceaselessly monitor the inhabitants of the island and ensure that what has disappeared remains forgotten.
A feeling of dread is pervasive through the entirety of the novel, and yet it never seems tense–the islanders seem resigned to the disappearances in a frustratingly apathetic, good-natured, “oh well!” sort of way. There are those among them, though, who don’t forget. It is through their dismay and anxiety regarding the disappearances (what happens when, say, body parts start disappearing?) and fear of the Memory Police (who arrest non-compliant citizens in the middle of the night, and no one knows what happens to these friends and neighbors) that we experience these concerns. We can’t rely on the protagonist for this–she’s too passive for reflection or much in the way of active resistance, even as her career is brought to a close by the disappearance of books (she was a novelist), even as her own limbs begin to disappear. The Memory Police presents such an upsetting concept that I cannot contemplate it overlong. Not that of state control–which ok, that’s pretty bad, I get that– but of the absence of memory. Words like “terrifying”, or “haunting”, or “sad”, just don’t cut it. This book is upsetting. I wish I hadn’t read it. But oh my god, how glad I am that I can’t forget it.
Frankisstein by Jeanette Winterson was a wildly inventive, wonderfully clever, deeply philosophical gem that I am going to be pondering for a very long time, and though it’s a few weeks too early to make any “best-of” declarations (and I’ve got loads more reading to do before December 31st) I think it is safe to say that Frankisstein is going to be near the top of that list. The parallel, temporally fluid stories of both Mary Shelley, dreaming up and penning the tale of her infamous monster, and Ry, a young transgender doctor in modern Britain, who meets and falls in love with Victor Stein, a professor and professional TED talker on the future of AI–and I’ll say no more. I think this is a book you best dive into knowing little, forming your own musings and reflections. I will add, though, this: at some point in the story, Victor softly asks of Ry “…have we met before?” And with that, I experienced the most spendidly delicious shiver, the echoes of which I can still feel when I think on it now.
Body Horror: Capitalism, Fear, Misogyny, Jokesby Anne Elizabeth Moore. It sounds a little childish to call someone a “great thinker” (I used to call my grandmother a “good cooker,” for example. When I was five. ) but these essays on the “gore of contemporary American culture and politics” in relation to the female experience are surely written by someone of capable great–no, make that brilliant–thought. She draws fascinating parallels and somehow ends up connecting concepts such as Standard Time and the time that the unwell need as opposed to the healthy; the choice not to bear children, the cultural imperative to reproduce, and the gendered imbalance of intellectual property rights, and the plight of Cambodian garment workers, a heartrending piece of writing that requires no connection to anything else at all.
I loved how Moore’s writing lends to meandering ruminations–nothing so difficult to follow as “stream of consciousness,” but there’s also nothing at all resembling a rigid structure framing these words. They’re more a disciplined ramble, perhaps with some surprising jumps that she makes in terms of logic and connections, but they are not in the least unbelievable. Moore is an excellent guide through her thoughts, disparate as they may appear at first, and you can see how to got to where she went with each topic. Body Horror was full of uncomfortable, painful ideas and truths, but was it was also powerfully edifying and felt vital and fierce.