A Girl Goes Into The Forest by Peg Alford Pursell. A collection of brief, luminous stories; experimental explorations between daughters, wives, and husbands, that even when they didn’t land perfectly… affected me on a level of understanding that I think exists within me but has not been activated yet and might never be. Pursell evokes emotions that I can’t specifically relate to and yet don’t feel entirely remote or unfamiliar. I may have experienced them in another life. I think it takes a special sort of author to coax forth these sorts of understandings.
Ten Thousand Doors Of January by Alix E. Harrow. Stories about stories and worlds within worlds, and the doors, or rather Doors, with a capital “D,” that lead one there, sometimes whether one is seeking it or not–these themes keep showing up in my book stacks this year. There must be something in the current, collective psychosphere. We all want to slip through a magic door–those “dividing points between here and there, the magic and the mundane”– and wind up somewhere else entirely. Fleeing this world for a better one. Erin Morgentern’s The Starless Sea is another such book I have recently read concerning doors and worlds and words and stories. But please do not interpret the absence of its review here today in a negative light; I shared my thoughts about it last week, in my own weird little way.)
January Schaller is the ward of fabulously wealthy Mr. Locke. Her father works for Mr. Locke, traveling to procure obscure and enigmatic items from exotic places for Locke’s personal collection of antiques and oddities, securing his place in the New England Archaeological Society. A lonely, defiant girl who longs for her father, for stories, and for adventure, January one day finds a mysterious book in Locke’s sprawling mansion. Exploring sunsets on strange horizons, the precise geometry of absence, and those who have looked too long and found too late, Ten Thousand Doors Of January is a bibliophile’s dream and one of those tales that makes you feel like a child again, falling into the pages of an exceptional story… which I think are some of the first and most important Doors that us readers encounter.
A Cosmology Of Monsters by Shaun Hamill. It’s such a wonderful treat to read things written by people, ostensibly your age or so, who have taken ideas or concepts from stories that were formative for them–and for you–and built them into something else, maybe something better. Perhaps along the way fixing those things that bugged you about the original material, but you were too young to recognize the problems or put to words what those issues were. (Not naming any olde-timey authors of weird tales/creators of certain mythos, but I think we all know who I am talking about here.) Without giving too much away, A Cosmology Of Monsters is somewhat of a coming of age tale, rich with obsession and tragedy and loss, the result of real-life terrors intermingled with otherworldly horrors, and the family at the heart of it, who are living with (and loving) to varying degrees, a literal monster.
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. Sonya wrote about this book a few years ago and I have been intrigued ever since. I am not sure what to say about it though. Do you like stories about feminist folk horror? Bog bodies and existential dread? The menace of nature and nostalgia (and, as I read somewhere, “nostalgic nationalism”)? These thoughts that I’ve tossed out here, combined with dreamy, ominous prose, don’t really give a proper sense of what to expect with this restrained and unsettling–and sometimes brutal–little tale, but they may be enough to pique your interest.
The Institute by Stephen King. I’m undertaking a huge Stephen King Project this year (it’s a personal project, we’re not collaborating or anything, haha) and as part of it, I am attempting to read all of his books that I have not yet read. I didn’t realize how much of them there were at this point! I am also listening to audiobook versions of the titles I’ve read already, and watching the film and television series for all the adaptations I have not seen already. I’ve got a spreadsheet and everything!
I started by reading The Institute, which was published in the last year or two, I think, and in which a pre-teen boy is kidnapped and held against his will at a compound where other children with “special abilities” like his are being viciously experimented on and used for something terrible…but which is also for the greater good? The New York Times declares The Institute may be King’s scariest novel yet. I don’t know about that, but with the various character’s desensitization to the suffering of children and their appallingly inhumane behavior in general, it’s certainly Stephen King at his most heartbreaking, gutwrenching, and…unfair. Which seems like a childish take on it, but it’s a book about kids and the things that are done to them, under circumstances in which they have no control. What happens to them is tremendously unfair. And yeah, if you look at it that way, this book is scary as hell.
Goldmining The Shadows by Pixie Lighthorse. I originally read this book on my kindle, but I found myself highlighting so many of its wise, insightful, and beautifully poetic passages, I thought that it might be smarter to have a physical copy. I ended up buying seven copies… and still don’t have one for myself. I have given them all away to friends who I thought might be in need of healing from deep wounds and trauma of their own. // Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs by Caitlin Doughty had a charming premise that delivered in an accessible and informative way: Death Positive doyenne, Doughty, answers children’s questions about mortality in her signature darkly humorous style. I wish I knew a kid to share this with, but as it turns out, I know more dead people than I do children. // The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West. Not far into this book, I almost gave up on it. I’d hit a chapter about Adam Sandler, and it just wasn’t resonating with me. She lost me for a bit. But. I am glad I kept at it. This book of powerful, feminist essays and cultural critiques was freaking incredible. Maybe just skip Adam Sandler. I think that’s probably advice that’s good for outside the context of this book as well. I expected this book to be funny. It was not. More than anything, it was a book that made me angry. Furious. Furious at the people in power and the structures which support them, at how we live in a world that causes us to doubt that which we see in front of our own faces, and a world which we want to love with all our hearts but which “kills the parts of us that hope for more.”
I’m still reading most of the books I began reading last month, so I can’t write about them yet. But last month I also reread Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Borne and follow-up novella The Strange Bird in preparation for reading his latest novel, Dead Astronauts, which is set in the same wonderfully strange and perilous world. While I was not at all surprised to find that I loved both books every bit as much the second time through, I was amazed at how many details I had forgotten since my initial reading. Also, while Borne felt even more heartbreaking on the reread, The Strange Bird, though no less sad, ultimately felt more hopeful to me. As I write this I am currently a third of the way through Dead Astronauts and already very glad I decided to reread its predecessors. There are so many references to both books, some of which I might not have recognized as such were they not so fresh in my mind. So, in hopes that I might entice even just one more person to delve into the world of Borne, I’m sharing my original two reviews here:
Borne by Jeff VanderMeer – 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 by Jeff VanderMeer – 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.