Feminist Short Stories: Horror & Sci-Fi (Part 2)

Spotlight on Five Feminist-Minded Short Stories with Elements of Horror & Sci-Fi

Joyce Carol Oates once so perfectly wrote, “One criterion for horror fiction is that we are compelled to read it swiftly, with a rising sense of dread, and so total a suspension of ordinary skepticism, we inhabit the material without question and virtually as its protagonist: we can see no way out except to go forward.”  This quote perfectly encapsulates why so many love the horror genre; it transports its reader to another world where one can observe, and be an entirely new entity, whether person, monster, witch, or troll.  When you combine horror with the feminist short story, you enter a whole new realm that’s even more terrifying than any Pinhead from Hellraiser or Damien from the Omen.  The horror delves into reality, where much can be hidden beneath the facade of such vanities as a life of wealth, the perfect marriage, or an idyllic community.

The tales below are a sampling of five feminist short stories that do indeed leave us with a “rising sense of dread” because sometimes, the horror is too personal.

tananarivedueghostsummerThe Lake
Tananarive Due

The Lake is the introductory story in novel and non-fiction writer Tananarive Due’s first collection of short stories.  After reading a positive write-up in a library review journal, I immediately purchased Ghost Summer for the library in which I work.  After reading The Lake, I promptly returned the book and requested that my local feminist bookstore carry it and order a copy for me.  The entirety of the book is so excitingly engrossing that it’s a burden to have to choose one as “best,” but being the first story that I read by her, it hooked me.

The story opens with Abbie, a 36 year-old Bostonian who has opted for a fresh start by moving to a small town in Florida to begin teaching at a preparatory school following her divorce.  We are introduced to her bit by bit as she ruminates on her past and explores the new experiences of a life in Gracetown, making you both root for her and question her sometimes disconcerting internal monologue.  She is alone in a new town with her own 3,000 square foot colonial and private lake, though her solitude is anything but lonely as she opens herself to swimming, something foreign in her previous life.  Each time she wades through the water, the reader can identify with her burgeoning sense of freedom and tranquility, though we quickly become confounded.  As she begins teaching, you begin to ponder her motivations as she mentally dissects and analyzes her male students, whittling them down to find the exact specimen that will suit her needs.  Ostensibly, we are to believe those needs are to fix a home that has fallen into disrepair due to Florida humidity.  Yet as Abbie’s swims in the natural lake increase over the summer, she begins to undergo a physical metamorphosis prompted by the advice she hasn’t heeded: “…one must never, ever go swimming in Gracetown’s lakes during the summer.”  Her human calculations of the fresh young male student physique mirrors her growing appetite for raw flesh as she transforms into something of an aquatic predator.

Abbie is a compellingly tricky character because you don’t know whether you want to be her, or to steer clear while passing in the street once you know what goes on inside her head (but isn’t that true for all of us?).  The allure of transforming into a creature that can navigate other worlds,  the ability to leave a life of sameness and broken relationships and start anew would be tempting at the very least.  On the other hand, what comes with the freedom of anonymity and  solitude for some may be too tempting when one’s vices are able to flourish without scrutiny.

Pop Art20th Century Ghosts
Joe Hill

When I first read the short story Pop Art from the collection, 20th Century Ghosts, I was flooded by an intense feeling of sorrow, leaving me in complete awe that such a short story could completely knock my socks off.  Reading it again years later in June of 2016, I found myself sobbing on my lunch break, gazing up at a vast blue sky in the middle of a prickly field, which was eerily and beautifully appropriate given the ending of the story.

The plot is a seemingly common one that graces the pages of so much teen-centered fiction; new kid in school gets relentlessly pummeled because he’s different than the vast majority of the student body, new kid makes a friend.  In Hill’s design, the narrator saves Arthur (Art) from bullies who are literally kicking his ass, but into the air because Art is actually inflatable.  Throughout the story, Hill creates a simple yet so on-point description of the jungle that is a teen’s life in high school: abusive, mentally ill or deceased parents; disability; religion; forging friendships; bullies; and dealing with death before our minds can grasp it.  The boys, through the bond of their outsider status, explore these matters that are thrust upon by chance, strengthening the alliance to one another, especially as the narrator continually attempts to keep Art from being popped.  Much like the film Lars and the Real Girl, the storytellers create a world that transcends the one as we know it, enabling us to empathize by accessing those tricky, basic human emotions like love, empathy and loss that seem to so easily reel so many of us in.  Like Art’s best friend, we are also suspended in a state of flux–we delight in his insight, dread his future and mourn his fragility.

Though Pop Art may lean into the science fiction genre, Hill relates horrors of the mind–the unknown, loss, endings, and the mere terror of living on this planet without someone who understands you.  I don’t know about you, but I’d argue it’s enough to keep you up at night.

Secret Life, With Cats
Audrey Niffenegger

catsniffennegerTaking place in South Evanston (Illinois) and its closest bordering Chicago neighborhood, Rogers Park, we are introduced to Beatrice with her life of newly acquired wealth, her realtor husband and his metaphorical baby, their ever-evolving house.  Out of an antsy-ness springing from a void that’s bigger than the beautiful house she lives in, she volunteers at a local cat shelter where she meets Ruth, an older, no nonsense volunteer with whom she forms an instant, deep sisterly bond.

As the story unfolds, a subtle but palpable sense of loneliness lingers between the lines, only erased as Ruth and Beatrice’s friendship blossoms over cards and cats.  Author Niffenegger enables the reader to relate to Beatrice’s feelings of estrangement from others because of the universal plight of any of us humans–the rare occurrence of a true connection with another person during our adult lives.  The author may also be tapping into a fairly accepted universal truth, that people with a love of cats can typically be introverts, thereby making it difficult to forge friendships, and that lovers of cats are to be trusted.  Let’s be real, it takes a special person to understand their oftentimes aloof personalities, as seen in Joy Carol Oates’ short horror story, The White Cat.  While Beatrice ultimately receives spiritual fulfillment from her bond with Ruth, Ruth’s ultimate bond is to cats and connects in a mutually supernatural, or psychic fashion.  As the friendship between the two women deepens as time progresses, it morphs into one that defies life or death, with cats as the conduit.

In the preface to the story in the above collection, Niffenegger describes the impetus for the story, a sense of loss from that of a cat and a friend.  Feelings of loss, abandonment, “aloneness and loneliness” in marriage and relationships is felt felt from start to finish as expressed through these two disparate women’s lives and their relationships to each other, themselves, and bonds to animals.  First published in the Chicago Tribune in 2006 with its occasional reference to Northwestern University, this story will also nestle nicely in the heart of any northside Chicagoian with a fondness for the furry types.

*Illustration by Audrey Niffenegger

You Have Never Been HereMemoir of a Deer Woman
Mary Rickert

In one of the most heart-wrenching stories of the list, we glimpse into to a short period of time in the life of “she/her” and her husband from a third person point of view.  From the get-go, she has begun her physical transformation from woman into a deer, beginning with the protrusion of antlers, followed by hoofs, to full embodiment, though she says later in the story that she had always been wild.  Coinciding with her metamorphosis is her diagnosis of stage three cancer, though there is some allusion to her previously having some form of it, and knowing that it had returned in an extreme iteration.

Both she and her husband’s handling of her cancer diagnosis are explored; she in a state of acceptance, or maybe shocked coping, and he in denial and panic, though the process of grief remains fluid between the cancer and her animal transformation.  The imaginative ways in which Rickert likens of the experience of cancer to transforming into an amazing animal, including growing antlers to losing her hair; the loss of control over one’s body as it becomes something that works against you (Gilda Radner discusses this in her biography, It’s Always Something); the loneliness of experiencing something that you can’t explain to another, is a heartbreaking and ingenious comparison.  As her transformation comes to completion, a deer cannot live with a man, despite her husband’s agonized protests, she joins the animal kingdom.

The manner in which Rickert constructs the story closely mirrors the mood; set during winter in the woods, the writing is mournful, to the point, and resists flowery language.  Much like Tananarive Due’s book, every story is a powerful declaration and as a whole, creates a powerful collection that is hauntingly original.

The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planetvandana
Vandana Singh

The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet enables us to glimpse into the less than idyllic household politics of wife and mother Kamala Mishra, and much like in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, her plight is revealed through the eyes of a man, in this instance, her husband. Though the story is told from his perspective, we can suppose much of what her life has been like through his rigid and self-serving diatribes, leaving little to ponder as to the reasoning of why Kamala begins her transformation into a host body.

The story begins with patriarch Ramnath Mishra’s annoyance as his wife disrupts just one of his plethora of rituals, coffee on the veranda while reading his newspaper.  What he had envisioned as a relaxing future in his new retirement from government is soon “inconvenienced” by his wife’s seemingly mental breakdown as she tells him that she, amidst a lifetime of a shaky identity, is a planet.  As his wife begins to exhibit more unwieldy, unpredictable behaviors that baffle him, including trying to take off her sari (in their home), buying balloons for poor children (“…you are spoiling these good-for-nothings!”) , and welcoming a colony of small beings into her body (though not the most pressing of his concerns), Ramnath panics.  We learn that he is a rigid man, finding comfort in a life consisting of sterility, routine and a strong adherence to social honor codes that would prevent any modicum of disgrace upon him in the eyes of the community. As Kamala begins to shed concern of judgement, including addressing her husband by his first name, to him it is a threat to his value system, causing him to reveal through internal dialogue his self-absorption as he ruminates over the constant “irritations” his wife has thrust upon him, further exemplified by such further recitations: “What did I do to deserve this?”  “His day was completely ruined.” “Ramnath felt a surge of anger and self-pity.” When the issue of Kamala’s emotional well-being is seriously considered by her husband, it is in relation to how it inconveniences him.  His extreme rigidity can further be seen as he chides himself for becoming slightly aroused when seeing his wife naked after having ghettoized her to the role of strictly mother and housemate.

Kamala’s life of marital expectation and servitude can further be glimpsed as Ramnath reflects on their past, suggesting that she visit her ancestral village, commenting that he had “not permitted” her to visit her mother in over five years because of obligations he had put upon her, “the marriage of their sons, his retirement…somebody had to run the house and supervise the servants.”  The irony is that Kamala interprets his suggestion as kindness, but in actuality, being rid of her is preferable to any sort of personal growth on her part, even to the extent of murder, of which he easily justifies.

Singh’s writing is a profound examination into the couple’s intimate relationship, expressed through the inner thoughts of a truly selfish man.  Though his wife’s body begins to morph into not only uncharted territory, but also a home for otherworldly beings, Ramnath is unabashed, and has always been, about the extreme control he exerts over his wife and how they interact. It’s difficult as a reader to remain objective, identifying with Kamala’s urge to break free both mentally and physically from the constraints role as obedient wife.  Luckily for her, us, and the creatures which inhabit her, she does.

Part 1 can be viewed here.

A Prospective Presidential Candidate’s View on Sexual Harassment

Today Eric Trump, Donald Trump’s son shared he and his father’s stance on sexual harassment on CBS’s This Morning in reference to Donald’s view on sexual harassment and his daughter.  Eric stated: “I think what he’s saying is, Ivanka is a strong, powerful woman, she wouldn’t allow herself to be subjected to it [sexual harassment]. She definitely would (address it with HR) as a strong person. At the same time I don’t think she would be subjected to that,” he added. “I think that’s the point he was making…” (via USA Today).  Point taken.

In June of this year, I was groped and sexually harassed near my home by a young man while his female companion stood there and laughed.  I have been groped on the Red Line. While standing on the el platform on my way to work, I was once told by a man that he would, “like to rape me.”  It was 8:00 in the morning.  I’ve been sexually abused more than once in my life.  I’ve been propositioned for sex at least twice by cab drivers, asking for sex in lieu of payment.  I’ve stood there as a child while adult men of male family members have ogled me, only to be told, “oh, it’s nothing, he just hasn’t seen you in a while.”  And it goes on.  Have I subjected myself to repeat harassment because I’m not a strong woman?  Did I “allow myself to be subjected to it?”  If you’re reading this and you’re someone who’s had similar experiences, whether you’re a woman or man, or this has happened to someone you love, then your response is most likely no, this didn’t happen because you weren’t, “strong enough.”  The Trumps don’t think I was strong enough, and they don’t think that you’re strong enough either.

Eric Trump thinks that you and I are weak, and that his sister, a white woman of immense unearned privilege, is stronger than you, because a woman of her stature, her class, would never allow such a thing, as if she had a choice.  Did I allow harassment as I sat silently in a cab, minding my own business?  Did I not conjure my game face?  When I was groped at 2:00 in the afternoon in front of a grade school, did I look weak?  If memory serves, I was actually feeling pretty damn good walking down the block after an empowering therapy session.  I bet that right before you may have been harassed, you might have felt fairly on point yourself.

After reading Eric Trump’s feelings on sexual harassment, I feel angry and sick to my stomach. This isn’t about Democrat, Republican, Green, et al affiliation.  Eric Trump is a slut shamer and a victim blamer. He is the person who says: you drank too much, it’s your fault. Your skirt turns men on, you did this to yourself. It’s because of your choices that men abuse you. Boys will be boys. Men are born this way, it’s in their biology.  He believes that women have the executive power to prevent harassment and assault, and if it happens to you, then you’re culpable.

I actually agree with Eric, he’s damn right that his sister “wouldn’t be subjected to it.”  This is a family who has never known poverty or discrimination and therefore yes, would never be harassed because the Trumps have the money and the power, and no one is sexually harassing Donald Trump’s daughter.  Her father’s status buys her immunity.  The rest of us, not so much. The rest of us live in a Brock Turner world where the racially and financially privileged buy them the luxury of a carte blanche life.

Exorcising the 1980s in Grady Hendrix’s New Book, My Best Friend’s Exorcism

Flipping through Grady Hendrix’s (Horrorstör) new book, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, it’s difficult to not be instantly attracted to a book described as “Heathers my_best_friends_exorcism_72dpimeets the Exorcist.”  After finishing the book, it’s easy to see that like Heathers, its staying power and popularity will be anything but ephemeral.

Exploring Feminisms: I can’t think of beginning any other way besides asking you, what was the impetus for writing this book?!  What was the inspiration?  I found it refreshing, sweet, extremely suspenseful, fun and to say the least, an unconventional “page turner,” as we say in the library world.

Grady Hendrix: It was the title. One afternoon, the phrase, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, just popped into my head and everything flowed from there. Although saying “flow” makes it sound like writing this book was a blissful, uninterrupted stream of creative inspiration. That is not accurate. Imagine a flow of lava rolling through your living room and setting your hair on fire while you run around screaming and trying to rescue your favorite possessions as they burst into flame and give you hideous burns. More that kind of flow.

EF: Throughout the entire novel, I was struck by how well you interpreted the universal aspects of the lives of most young women, such as the intensely emotional friendships and going through your parents closet and finding their porn stash.  How were you able to reflect back on the intricacies of high school with such detail, and further, from the varied perspectives of different types of young women?  

GH: When I’d finished half of the first draft of this book I was really, really proud of it, so I showed it to my wife. She informed me that it was full of clichés, stereotypes, and lazy assumptions. It was, to use her words, hot garbage. After I spent some time crying, I realized she was right. So much of what I thought I remembered about high school in the 80s was other people’s memories, John Hughes movies, and an infinite supply of pop culture clichés. So I sat down with all of her letters and photos from high school, and I sat down with all my letters and diaries, and yearbooks from high school and I spent weeks reading them. I copied the letters again and again until my handwriting changed. I got lost in them. And then, one day, an actual real memory of exactly what it felt like to be 15 and in high school in 1988 bubbled to the surface. And then another one. And another. And I started to write.

EF: The book takes place in an upper class high school academy in Charleston, SC.  Did you grow up in the South?

GH: I grew up in Charleston, SC and went to a school that is very similar to Albemarle Academy. I also lived on Pierates Cruze. Everything else is total fiction.

EF: I was discussing the book with my spouse, who is from North Carolina, and we were continually comparing notes on how accurate your portrayal was for me, of the 1980s, and for him, the South in the 1980s.  The tight gym shorts, the tv shows, the (economic) class politics, the music, et al.  Can you tell me about writing for a specific time and location?

GH: It was so hard, but so much fun. I love research, and digging into a time and place I actually lived through was a blast. I’ve got a calendar for 1988 next to me on my office wall with every incident in the book mapped out, I’ve got TV schedules for every day of the week, I’ve got clippings from magazines that came out in those months (Seventeen, 16, TIME, Sports Illustrated), and I think I’ve read almost every issue of my hometown paper, The News and Courier, that came out between June and November, 1988. It makes me sound like a serial killer stalking 1988, but I love this kind deep nerdery.

EF: When Abby tries to tell the adults that her best friend Gretchen may have been sexually assaulted, resulting in the adults turning on Abby instead, I couldn’t help but absorb her feelings of incredulity and alienation.  How were you able to create and express such a sense of betrayal?

GH: It’s how I felt every day I was in high school. Adults were the enemy and they could not be trusted. Even now, if someone asks me what advice I’d give a teenager, I’d tell them that teenagers shouldn’t be taking advice from anyone over 30. We all look back and we minimize our teenaged experiences, or attribute what we felt to “adolescent angst” but I look at the way my friends and I were treated by the adults we knew and I’m still angry about it. I knew girls who had awful things happen to them, and couldn’t get anyone to believe them. I knew guys who were targeted by teachers for humiliation and mockery. When you tried to get help it was dismissed as “drama.” Let’s face it, teenagers are still treated as being less than human, and it hurts.

EF: I was stuck by how easy it was for me to envision each of the characters because you really gave them all distinct, believable personalities, even if they were only in a few  paragraphs.  No one was made into a caricature, and though the book has been compared to the movie Heathers, all of the lines were believable within the context of an actual conversation between two people.  Tell me about how you were able to construct these characters.

GH: Thanks so much for saying that. I love these characters and spent so much time with them that when bad stuff happened I felt like a jerk. I mean, anything that went wrong with their lives was actually 100% my fault. Everyone in this book started with a seed of someone I saw or someone I knew in the real world, whether it was a person I watched on the subway or someone I went to high school with. Then I wrote their biography and they grew past that seed and became someone different and fully created. Also, I felt a real responsibility to my friends from high school to make sure everyone felt real. My friends are the people who got me through that place alive and I felt like I had to write a book that was worthy of them.

EF: I loved the doctor at the Gross Anatomy Lab and his goofy personality.  My father’s an undertaker and pretty much everyone I’ve met in the field of dealing with dead bodies has a very good sense of humor, so you hit that nail on the head.  Was he modeled after someone you actually knew?

GH: Actually, he was modeled after the doctor at the Gross Anatomy Lab where my class took a tour! He was a blast! I grew up in a medical family, so I’m pretty familiar with the sort of casual goofiness people in that field have around death, like they’re whistling past the graveyard.

EF: When Gretchen begins acting strange–not showering, cut marks on her arms, becoming anti-social–it sounds like pretty angsty teenage stuff and could be interpreted as such, as opposed to her being possessed by a demon.  Could one argue that her possession is an allegory for teenage angst; the divide between the teenage world of confusion, discovery and burgeoning individuality juxtaposed with the pressures that parents put on their children and the stories they tell themselves to save face in front of other adults?

GH: I hate to say anything’s an allegory because it makes me sound pretentious, but I will say that I watched friends go crazy in high school. They never got diagnosed or anything, but I watched them change so radically I didn’t recognize them anymore. Overnight, they’d go from being my close friend to being someone dangerous and scary. And I wasn’t immune. For me, 10th grade was so hard. I felt like everything I did was going wrong. I felt possessed. I’d try to do something good, and it would turn out bad. I’d be proud of doing the right thing, only to discover it was absolutely 100% the wrong thing. I felt completely out of control and, even worse, no one seemed interested in stopping me.

And, while My Best Friend’s Exorcism is told from Abby and Gretchen’s points-of-view, there’s another, equally valid, version of this story told from the POV of Gretchen’s parents. That’s a story about having a daughter who seems to be losing her mind. It’s a story about loving this kid for years and years and then overnight she becomes dirty, and loud, and angry, and, to be honest, even a little bit scary. And you don’t know what to do, and she’s hurting herself, and every time her best friend comes around she only gets worse. That’s not the story I set out to tell, but it’s another version of this book that I think is just as true as the one I wrote.

EF: What made this book a page turner for me was the high level of suspense; I had no idea what was going to happen next or how the story would end, or what was going to happen to Abby as she was constantly being put through the ringer.  Can you tell me about how you were able to create this feeling and extend it throughout most of the novel?

GH: I wasn’t sure it worked, so thank you for letting me know it did! Suspense is hard because there’s a thin line between creating suspense and jerking your reader around. I had to make sure that anything I set up, paid off, and any pay offs I wanted were properly set up. That makes it sound like I had some kind of master chart, but it’s a lot more organic than that. When you’re writing a long book you get to a place where you’re so buried in it that things get weird. But there comes a point when you need something and you reach out and there it is, already waiting for you as if you knew you’d need it down the road. Good Dog Max is a great example. I had no idea why he was in the book, until all of a sudden towards the end I needed him and there he was, waiting for me.

Suspense is all about setting up unsolvable situations for your characters, and then figuring out solutions. It’s really hard because it means you have to be honest about your characters, and sometimes smarter than them, and I’m not known for being smart. Fortunately, your subconscious mind seems to be working on your side.

EF: The horror in the book is intermittent but effective.  I also appreciated how you used restraint, especially in the part with the dog and the possessed character, Gretchen.  It seemed to me that you chose horror that was scary but not so much that you would completely alienate your audience, which would have happened if you went into detail during that scene.  I’d love to hear more about the process of devising horrific scenarios.    

GH: I have a notebook that I carry around and whenever something gross, weird, or disturbing occurs, I jot it down. Whether it’s the way a guy smells on the subway, or a dead animal I see on the street, or even just an idea about people hiding behind doors and watching you through the cracks — if it makes me uncomfortable, it goes in the notebook. When it’s time to write a book I hold it up over my desk and shake it really hard and the worst stuff falls out and that’s what I use. Writing horrific scenes is both hard and easy because all you have to do is be totally and completely honest about what makes you feel sick and then relay exactly why to the reader. Like I said: it sounds easy, and it is, but you’re also exposing your own weaknesses and that doesn’t come naturally. If I’m making myself feel ill (and for two scenes in this book, I really felt sick while writing them) then I know I’m doing a good job. I’m my own best lab rat.

EF: Overall and for so many reasons, the novel was a great “complete package” of a book that I recommend to both adults and teens, though I see the appeal towards adults as especially alluring because of how you were able to reflect on the 1980s, which is great nostalgia for anyone of that era.  Thanks so much, Grady!

My Best Friend’s Exorcism will be available on May 17, 2016.  You can pre-order the book from Women and Children First if you live in Chicago,  at Amazon.com, or of course, your local library.

You can also visit Grady’s website to see what else he’s up to.

Last Five Books

The Silence of the Sea
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (2016 in the U.S.)

Silence of the Sea

In her sixth installment of the Thóra Gudmundsdóttir Icelandic mystery series, lawyer and oftentimes sleuth Thóra Gudmundsdóttir investigates the disappearance of a family of four and the crew traveling on what becomes a ghost ship that docks into an Icelandic harbor.

Sigurðardóttir’s writing is rock solid; the way that she builds the story from slow burn to twisted finish, withholding enough details along the way to keep you in constant, blissful suspense.  As usual, she writes with steady characterization, giving us what’s essential to illuminate the personalities and lives of the characters without tending toward verbose details that sometimes mars the flow of the story.  Sigurðardóttir’s portrayal of Thóra and how she relates to the world around her is truly the heart of each novel as she constantly evolves as the series advances.

Whether or not you’ve visited Iceland, the descriptions take you on an armchair travel to another country, and a world where you just might believe in the supernatural and that the good guy, or rather gal, exists and has your back.

You can find my longer review here.

Furiously Happy
Jenny Lawson (2015)


Jenny Lawson is mentally ill. She wants to tell you about her mental illness, or rather, mental illnesses. Plural. And she wants to tell you about everything, ranging from depression to basically what bulks out WebMD. If you’re up for it, you’re in for a roller coaster of experiences and language that may make you say to yourself, “maybe my shit’s not all that bad…”

Lawson attempts to de-stigmatize the world of mental illness (can we take a shot for every time those two words are mentioned?) by revealing her own surplus of diagnosable disorders, including but not limited to sleep disorders, anxiety, depression, phobias, and their corresponding medications and treatments. In the genre of literature on serious topics, such as death, drug abuse and wait for it, mental illness, Lawson presents her case through humor, exposing-oftentimes in the most humiliating of ways-herself, her family and husband to relate to you that a.) she lives a life of strife of the mind, but that b.) it can be possible to find a silver lining and c.) you may not be so different than her, and that’s great.

This is what can be categorized as a truly divisive book. I’ve had library patrons who absolutely hate this book and some who absolutely love it. Broken up by chapters that seem more like short stories, her anecdotes are funny, goofy, silly, raw, dirty, and sometimes self-aggrandizing and annoying. But as she says early on, if you’re part of her “tribe,” then within these pages you’ll find a spokesperson and ally. If you’re one of the lucky ones where life is peachy keen, then chances are you’ll close the book with sympathetic feelings for a large percentage of the world who grapple with some tough stuff within their own mind.

When Breath Becomes Air
Paul Kalanithi (2015)

When Breath Becomes Air

When attempting to convince people that reading a book about a thirty-something man dying of Stage IV lung cancer wasn’t depressing, I was met with looks of disbelief. Because of the author’s introspective and candid reflections about his own life and then impending death, I can assure you that the result will be well worth the read.

Sudden terrible backaches plagued New York based neurosurgeon/scientist Paul Kalanithi while working his way through residency, only to reveal through his MRI results that terminal tumors inhabited his lungs.  He then takes us back through his life as a lover of literature and by way of the work of artists and scholars, he seeks the secrets of life, death, virtue and morality. Instead of becoming the predictable English professor or writer, the classics lead him to a more direct route to discovery: practicing medicine, thereby enabling him to experience life and death through a more empirical means.

At times this book breaks your heart (especially when Paul’s wife Lucy finishes the last chapter after his passing), encourages you to reflect on your own relationships, values, life, and how you, or if you, consider your death and if you will do that with grace. Paul makes a compelling case for grace, and though most of us may not so concretely meditate on our own passing, his call to action for a life well lived is what readers will most certainly take away.

Tall Tail
Rita Mae Brown (2016)

Tall Tail

I have a serious soft spot for Rita Mae Brown and her Mrs. Murphy cat mystery series.  I just cannot resist a talking animal, especially one inhabiting the brain of the most amazing, pragmatic, gutsy and no b.s., Rita Mae Brown.

Tall Tail is the 25th in the series where Mary Minor Haristeen, or “Harry,” investigates a murder in her hometown of Crozet, Virginia when a young woman suspiciously drives into a ditch who may or may not have been dead prior to the crash.  As typical to the series, she investigates with the help of her two cats, her dog and a gaggle of other barnyard animals, who all speak among themselves to help solve murders, unbeknownst to Harry.   What’s interesting about this cog in the series is that its chapters alternate between current day Crozet, and 1700s Virginia as the happenings begin to eventually intersect between time periods.  The cast of characters is lengthy, so much so that Brown gives us a who’s who as the novel begins broken up by century, but it’s simple to follow as you get into the swing of the story.  Harry’s method of investigation mirrors the mood of the town, unconcerned and casual by way of banter with neighbors, all which serve to unfurl the truth over the course of the book.

What makes Rita Mae Brown’s cat mysteries so addictive is the way she devises her characters and locale to create an atmosphere of warmth and community.  As the series progresses, you become so familiar with these personalities that you feel as if you are intimately acquainted, whether you love them or not.  The manner in which Brown creates Crozet, Virginia is where the cozy (in the cozy mystery) presents itself as you find yourself dreaming about warm days, the Blue Ridge Mountains and expansive landscapes.

The Vegetarian
Han Kang (2016 in the U.S.)


When I first read the description for this book, most reviews similarly described the novel as dark, brooding, violent, bloody, erotic, and about a vegetarian (naturally, right?).  While these elements are accurate, it’s amazing to me how easy it is to market popular appeal factors, when in all actuality the novel is so much more complex.

The novel begins with a man and his wife, told from his point of view so that we are privy to the inner dialogue concerning his banal view of life, himself and his wife.  To his astonishment, she becomes a vegetarian immediately after her first of many blood-filled dreams, and it’s only then when we hear his wife’s voice throughout the book’s entirety, when she describes her dreadful visions.  His lack of any attempt to understand his wife is troubling, and reflects the mood of their community at large throughout the novel; any non-conformity is met with hostility, thereby casting an air of extreme suspicion and ultimately ostracization.  Part two of the book focuses on the point of view of the first man’s brother-in-law, or the husband of the vegetarian’s sister, who feeds an obsessive, sexual fantasy about his sister-in-law.  Part three, the last part, is from the voice of the vegetarian’s all too responsible sister and delves into issues of obedience and freedom.

What’s so disturbing and thought provoking about this book, and thought it may sound slightly cliched, is that it keeps you in a constant state of wonder, shock and awe, and is subject to varied interpretations.  With the vegetarian woman staying central to the three main narrations, Kang makes visible the complex, sometimes perverse and obsessive nature of our own minds, and how that can be imposed upon another.  The three characters have fabricated scenarios in their owns minds about the vegetarian, whether it be ambivalence, lust, or control out of fear of societal constraints.

The Silence of the Sea by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (U.S. Pub. Date, 2016)

Silence of the SeaEver since visiting Iceland in 2013, I can’t help but read Icelandic mysteries as a means of teleporting back to the streets of downtown Reykjavik, walking down Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur, the immensely colorful houses, hilly roads and exceptionally hip young mothers. Reading the books of my favorite Icelandic author, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir has never left me in want of a better mystery and The Silence of the Sea is one of her best to date.

In the sixth installment of the Thóra Gudmundsdóttir Icelandic mystery series, the novel opens with a luxury yacht pulling into an Icelandic harbor as the relatives of a family with two small twin girls anxiously await, only to find the vessel completely deserted. We are then taken on a deft and suspenseful journey by way of alternating chapters from the points of view of the family whose fate we have yet to learn, and lawyer turned amateur sleuth, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir.  The details of the mystery unfold bit by bit as bankruptcy, an Icelandic socialite with an elderly husband, family secrets and several possible phantoms are thrown in the mix, leaving you guessing, and thankfully clueless, until the end. If you’ve followed the series, though it’s not necessary to enjoy the story, the same cast of characters that fleshes out Thora’s family and work life returns, including her now live-in love interest, German ex-pat Matthew, her barely out of high school son with girlfriend and new baby in tow, and of course, her assistant Bella who is annoyingly forced upon Thora through a contract snafu ensuring that she comes with the building in which Thora rents to practice law.

Sigurðardóttir’s writing is rock solid; the way that she builds the story from slow burn to twisted finish, withholding enough details along the way to keep you in constant, blissful suspense, and this latest in the Gudmundsdóttir series is no exception. She writes with steady characterization, giving us what’s essential to illuminate the personalities and lives of the characters without tending toward verbose details that sometimes mar the flow of the story.  Sigurðardóttir’s portrayal of Thóra and how she relates to the world around her is truly the heart of each novel as she constantly evolves as the series advances. Thóra is different than most mystery archetypes, there are no cliches, private dick personas, or brooding, misunderstood types.  She’s someone who you want to know, or probably already have in your life: she’s a single mom who’s attempting to juggle her career as a lawyer, her two children and new grandchild while trying to maintain a sense of levity about it all, as well as some semblance of a dating life.  Another appeal of Sigurðardóttir’s writing is how she uses Iceland to set the tone, which perfectly lends itself to the mystery genre with an oftentimes supernatural presence, with its grey, cold and desolate atmosphere.

Whether or not you’ve visited Iceland, the descriptions take you on an armchair travel to another country, and a world where you just might believe in the supernatural and that the good guy, or rather gal, exists and has your back.