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